Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Great Power - Bye, Stan!

The Marvel Universe is one of the places that nerds like myself get lost in, just like Star Trek, Star Wars, Harry Potter Universe, Forgotten Realms etc. . . The Marvel universe is at its heart, a science fiction universe and what I think really sets it apart is it’s positive take on the human condition. Yes, Stan Lee’s creativity is preternatural but I certainly don’t want to be the one-millionth person to remind whoever might be reading this that we wouldn’t have Spider-man, the Hulk, Iron Man . . . Okay, I’m doing just that.
I love science fiction and what a lot of that has in common is that its dark and cynical. And rightfully so. If we look at our past to inform our future, our prospects don’t seem too promising. And yet, we have made progress scientifically and culturally. For all of the complaints about millenials, they (we?) are shaping up to be the most tolerant, educated and progressive generation to have ever lived, as should be the case for every new generation to arise as humanity advances. I hope I’m not overstating things if I say that I think people like Stan Lee play a huge role in asserting progressive culture. That world that he helped create is an example of art imitating life and vice versa. In many ways the Marvel Universe looks like us and at the same time we try to emulate it. It’s a world of diverse, intelligent, ambitious and moral people.
From time to time, someone like Stan Lee or Gene Roddenberry come along and show us that we’re not so bad after all. They show us that humanity can do better. We can be brave, we can be disciplined, we can be strong and we can be intelligent. But most importantly, we have the power to help others, assert our dignity and fight against bad ideas. As one example, in 1963 Stan Lee gave us the X-men, a cast of diverse super-heroes of various races facing the challenges of being feared and despised minorities. And for over 50 years these characters have been used to give us a progressive perspective on the civil rights movement, the gay rights movement and just being decent to your fellow man. He didn’t just create a universe to play in, he made a universe that we could all play in, that we could all identify with and he used his stories to challenge bigotry. I can think of nothing more appropriate than using an art form as uniquely American as comic books to tackle these very American problems.
Seeing these very old problems rear their head again makes me miss Stan Lee even more. Things have taken such a strange turn that any time a minority or woman of colour is cast in a movie, the far Right launches a hostile campaign to try to ruin everyone’s fun. And yet, in 1966 Stan Lee made Black Panther because there was a dearth of black super-heroes. And he made this super-hero by steering clear of offensive stereotypes and demeaning fallacies. He courageously acknowledges the damage that racism has done to America by using his stories as allegories for these problems.
So from now on, every time some simpleton complains about ‘politically correct casting’ or loses their mind at a race or gender change for a character, I wish they would have to listen to Stan Lee in this video at 1:11 on a loop for an entire day until they get the picture. The point is to be inclusive, the point of these heroes is to fight against bigotry and other wrongs.
Even from a purely creative point of view, the pantheon of super-heroes has become somewhat immutable. There aren’t a lot of new men in tights showing up in comic books or on the big screen. The latter part of the century was a virtual Cambrian explosion of creativity with an endless list of character popping onto the scene, many of them the brainchild of Stan Lee and his colleagues. And now that’s stopped. As far as comics and even movies go, creators dive into that well and have been mining it for decades. These characters, some half a century old are dominating the box office and have become a film genre unto themselves. And any tampering with these characters is met with naked hostility.
Gene’s gone. Now Stan’s gone. It makes me wonder who’s going to take up the mantle of making a universe for all of us to aspire to? Someone who’s going to show us the better parts of ourselves and confront the bad guys in our world with the open hostility they deserve? It's gone viral, you've seen it a million times already today, but to me, it's the most important thing that Stan Lee contributed to our world so I'll include it here (even though it might be illegible, you've seen it already).
Fiction has never just been about entertainment to me. It’s about taking a look at ourselves. Stan Lee did that with unique courage, childlike wonder and a loving heart. We need more like him, especially now.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Batman V Superman - Dawn of Justice Review

When my cousins and I get together we almost always talk about movies for hours. So, it should come as no surprise that after Easter dinner when I got a visit from my cousins (several of them wearing Superman logos on some article of clothing, except for the youngest who was wearing a Spiderman outfit), we got into Batman V. Superman : Dawn of Justice. To my younger cousins, it was like telling them there was no Santa Claus. To my older cousins, it was like telling them there was no God.
After the first 30-40 minutes my cousin, an intelligent young man of 7 observed, “Well, you keep saying it was a bad movie but you’re also mentioning a lot of things you liked about it!” I replied by asking him what his favourite food was. Favourite drink? What’s your favourite dessert? Now what if I took, spaghetti, apple pie and sprite, put it in a blender and then told you to drink it? Well, that’s what’s wrong with Batman V Superman. There’s a lot of stuff to enjoy in that slurry of favourites, but you only get to taste them as errant chunks that may brush incidentally against the right taste bud.

There’s a good movie in Batman V Superman. Maybe there’s several good movies in Batman V Superman. There's a Batman movie. There's a Superman vs Lex movie. There's a Wonder Woman movie. They’re just blended together into a structureless mess that’s difficult to follow. You don’t get a chance to anchor yourself with any particular element of the movie, be it an emotional thread or just a plot point, before you’re jerked into a new scene with no establishing shot. One moment Superman is flying away. “Where is he going?” Then some stuff happens at night with Lex Luthor. Then we cut to Superman’s face but he’s in the mountains and it’s daytime and maybe he’s hallucinating the stuff that’s happening in that scene. Cut to more night time stuff. Cut to Superman rescuing Lois from peril and Lois declaring, “You came back!” What...? He came back? Wait, he left? Why? It’s disorienting. And the whole movie has a feeling of random events that are not well connected.

So what about the taste chunks that I enjoyed? I guess for starters I was excited that Batman and Superman were in the same movie. That may have been enough for me to enjoy this movie. Sue me! I like the main story which is simply that Batman and Lex Luthor are afraid of Superman so they devise plans to kill him. As the movie goes along their motivations become pretty muddled though.

Some of the action scenes were fun, especially the ones with Batman in them. Ben Affleck is a great Batman, maybe my favourite Batman but he’s given a clumsy, awkward script. Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman is not bad either. I always liked Henry Cavill as Superman. I find he plays the role with a kind of alien detachment that works for this interpretation of the character. Sure, he’s a bit of a drag. He’s kind of mopey all the time and he makes rescuing people seem like a burden. The movie could have afforded to make his rescues something to cheer at. Instead the audience is asked to contemplate Superman’s actions. “Do we want a Superman?”

And I think the common sense answer to that question is “yes”. It would be great to have an omnipotent being, flying around saving everyone. But it would be nice if he smiled while doing it. And I’m not saying that’s not a good question for a movie to ask. The movie tries to set you up for a speculative, science fiction outing where we’re supposed to wonder what it would be like if Superman/God were real. Would he be political? Would we want him to kill bad people? Would he defer to the judgement of humanity or would he act according to his own will and make his own judgements?

And the movie answers this question in the character of Lex Luthor, played by a twitchy, manic Jesse Eisenberg. His answer is, “God doesn’t exist because if he’s all powerful, then he’s obviously not all good and if he’s all good he’s obviously not all powerful.” Which is Superman? Batman has a theory, and he tests it by punching Superman in the face and shooting him with things. It’s also interesting to note that Batman actually does all of those things that we are scared an omnipotent God would do.

Look, you either like this stuff or you don’t. Is it too pretentious for a movie about men in tights? Maybe. And there’s no denying that whatever the thematic ambitions of this movie are, they are not well handled. Batman V Superman is a choppy, frenetic product spliced together with commercials for other movies that we’ll be getting in the DC universe. But, at this point, I’m kind of grateful that they made the effort to do something like this.  We get a lot of super-hero/sci-fi action movies these days and they mostly (with some exceptions) follow the same formula. Someone discovers they have powers or a suit. And then there’s a bad guy with similar powers or a suit and he wants to destroy a planet (or 5) for no other reason than he’s the bad guy for this movie. And I enjoy those kinds of movies too! But if Batman V Superman is like a slurry of many different foods that don’t go together, Disney sci-fi/action movies are like eating Cheerios for breakfast, lunch and supper every day. (Yes, I’m doing the Marvel vs DC thing. Sue me!)

I'm about to talk about some very important, dark, depressing stuff. That's what people like in comic book movies, right?

So BvS gets a pass from me just for being different, tonally, visually and thematically. Lots of people say the movie is too dark, too serious, too depressing and it’s a drag. You know what? I like that stuff! If you don’t, stay away! Early in the movie we’re treated to a guy screaming, “I can’t feel my legs!” When Batman asks a little girl where her mom is, the girl points a trembling finger to a ravaged skyscraper. Okay, all of that was a bummer, even for me. And I don’t think my little cousin would necessarily enjoy the darkness of it, though he assured me that he’s quite used to violent movies. I didn’t have the heart to tell him, “No, Batman V. Superman : Dawn of Justice is a movie for grown-ass men!” Then I’d have to snatch his Superman tuque off of his head, throw it on the floor and start stomping on it.

There are lots of elements you’ll either like or not based on your personal tastes. I found Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex fun enough. He’s not a version of Lex Luthor we’re familiar with. He would have made a great Riddler! And even if you do accept that this movie is just doing its own thing with the character, you may or may not just find him extremely annoying. Batman kills people. That may not be your thing, either. Superman has no real motivation in this movie. The movie is more about people reacting to him. Again, a cool idea, but not always fun to watch. We paid our dues in Man of Steel, now we want to see him being a hero!

The supporting cast is great. I thought Holly Hunter and Lawrence Fishburne had a few nice scenes. Amy Adams as Lois is wasted once again. I almost forgot to mention Alfred. I love Jeremy Irons as Alfred. He was a nice addition. Can't wait to see some solo Battfleck movies.

*Spoiler* This is basically a plot point in the movie.
And then there’s the stupid stuff in the movie that is so bad, it's good. The resolution of the big fight between Batman and Superman puts the BS in BvS! It’s silly. Anything having to do with Doomsday is horrible. As if the movie isn't muddle enough, there are dreams, visions and scenes that serve as little more than mini-trailers for future movies in the DCU. One of them in particular (the infamous Knightmare Batman scene) looked great. It just had nothing to do with this movie.

I had too much fun to hate this movie, sometimes waiting for some setup to payoff (which it often didn’t), other times just laughing at some nonsensical scene. Definitely not for everyone and not something I can defend as a “good” movie. Just something I can say I enjoyed enough to want to see again. I think it’s safe to say if you didn’t like Man of Steel you almost certainly won’t like this. If you’re a nerd, watch it with a friend. Worst case scenario you’ll have fun making snide remarks for the challenging 2 hour 30 minute runtime.

6 bathroom sinks to the face out of 10.

Tuesday, December 08, 2015

Spectre Review

Well, it’s always fun to review a divisive movie so let’s begin. And I’ll begin by saying, I hate this movie. Daniel Craig is my favourite Bond and Casino Royale may be one of my favourite action movies of all time. And we all remember when Casino Royale came out people praised it for being time appropriate. It was gritty and realistic. It treated the character like he was a human being rather than a superhero. He got bloodied, emotionally scarred and from beginning to end you felt like you ‘got’ this James Bond. The romance in Casino Royale was, dare I say, kind of moving and Eva Green is easily my favourite Bond Girl. Even, the action, fantastic as it was, still seemed grounded in some kind of reality, enough that nothing made you groan or pulled you out of the movie.

So why is it that now, barely a decade later, people who defend Spectre defend it by saying we’re back to a more “classic” or “proper” bond. A decade ago we collectively said, we’ve outgrown the unrelatable superhero Bond with Casino Royale. Spectre says, “No we haven’t!” And as if Casino Royale never happened, we’re back to goofy action that defies logic. We’re back to ridiculous escape scenes that leave our hero unscathed both emotionally and physically. We’re back to the “run, shoot, drive, gadget, straighten tie, end scene” Bond. And though they enthusiastically inundate us with eye-rolling action goofiness, the one thing they somehow manage to omit from our “classic” bond, is a sense of humour. Bond used to be funny, right?

I don't know why I have this here. I just find the Archer turtleneck hilarious.
It’s like we’re getting the worst of both worlds. The careless camp of the corniest bond movies, and the often dour tone of the new. I’d say the action scenes here are almost reaching the ludicrous (no pun intended) levels of a Fast and Furious movies, but with none of the fun. At very least, a Bond movie should have that one game changing scene or stunt that makes people pay attention. The bungee jump in Goldeneye, the game changing parkour scene at the beginning of Casino Royale and yes, even the car chase on ice in Die Another Day. I found myself thinking of the last Fast and Furious movie. At least they dropped cars out of a plane! And the over the top scene where the car flies between buildings? One of the best things I’ve seen all year! Great fun. Then I thought, “God help me, I’m watching one of my favourite franchises ever and longing for a scene from the Fast and Furious!” and “I had more fun with this plot in the last Mission Impossible movie!”

Among the many things missing from Spectre is my beloved Judi Dench who provided the last three movies with heart, soul and in my opinion some legitimate laughs, especially when she manages to cut Bond down to size. Ralph Fiennes is a great actor but as the new M he has nothing to do except be the guy who lets us know, “Bond has gone rogue.” Yes, Bond goes rogue again. AGAIN! What was great about Dench’s M is that she is not just another woman to swoon over bond, but also, she is not just another Beta-male for Bond to have a testosterone match with. Moneypenny, Q and that bald guy are there to provide exposition when needed. I found Lea Sedoux quite dull and when she tells Bond, “I love you” my wife and I looked at each other, genuinely appalled. And we’ve seen all 5 Twilight movies in theatres!

"I think I'm winning."

Was Spectre all bad? There was a car chase where Bond has some interesting banter with Moneypenny. That was the closest thing to enjoyment I had for the entire outing. There are other ominous moments, like the scene from the trailer in the dark room where we see Christoph Waltz silhouette.

Some of you might be thinking, “Yeah! Christoph Waltz is in it! I love him!” Yes. He’s in it. I like him too. But, he’s underused and has very little to do. And I really don’t get this villain. I get Le Chiffre, from Casino Royale. He’s a greedy business man with a gambling problem. I get Raoul Silva from Skyfall, who was creepy and did a great job of convincing us that he was betrayed by M. Christoph Waltz’s character claims he has a vision for the world, and it has something to do with spying on everyone on the planet. Okay? His super-villain soliloquy is incoherent, having something to do with a meteorite and making something beautiful out of something ugly. The rant has nothing to do with anything, and like so many things in Spectre, just reminds you of the same scene done much better in another Bond movie.

Was he moving his hand to straighten his tie and then realized he was wearing the wrong kind of tie?

For me, an action movie is all about the villain. The villain’s motivation gives the plot its momentum and often its thesis. They try to do that here and fail. It feels like to beef up the villain, they gave Waltz’s character a secret past with Bond and that’s where Spectre’s hollowness really shows. Here I’m going to have to go into some spoilers. Ready? Spoilers starting… Now!!!!

Maybe you saw the last Star Trek movie where it was teased that the main villain was Khan. Or was he? Well, it turns out he was. And no one cared. Why should they? I’ve heard of Khan but Captain Kirk hasn’t. When Benedict Cumberbatch says his name is “Khan” Kirk responded to this revelation with a furrowed brow and shrugged shoulders. Spock even had to ask old Spock. “Who the f**k’s Khan?”

They do that in this movie and it’s embarrassing. If you don’t see it coming from the trailers and one of the very early scenes in the movie, Christoph Waltz plays Bond’s stepbrother. He allegedly killed Bond’s stepfather and any woman Bond has had sex with, retroactively revealing that he was somehow behind the events of the previous three films. Why is this villain such a jerk? As best I can understand it’s because he was jealous of Bond’s relationship with his father, but they don’t go too much into detail there, possibly because they seem to realize how stupid, weak and contrived that motivation was for a villain who wants to take over the world. Bond, played by an emotionally bereft Daniel Craig, doesn’t react to any of this news either. But the astonishing revelations don’t end there! During a torture scene, Christoph Waltz, up until that point known as Obernhauser reveals that he changed his name to Blofeld! Blofeld? Wow! That’s the name of a character from other Bond movies! But in this continuity Bond doesn’t know that name. The name isn’t mentioned once before that scene and is not mentioned again afterward. I don’t even remember Bond raising an eyebrow at this before the torture scene resumes. And why should he? James Bond has never seen a James Bond movie, he doesn’t know or care who Blofeld is. And quite frankly in this movie, neither do I!

Previous Bond movies have been building to (or perhaps just hinting at) the discovery of “Spectre” a shadowy organization that rules the world, and when you actually get there, well, it’s difficult to care. It’s one of those movies that feels like it was written backward. They knew Bond had to discover Spectre. They knew they wanted Bond to discover that Blofeld was his brother, but they didn’t seem to know how to bring the story to that point. So, at different points in the movie someone will just tell Bond what he needs to know as a pander to the audience, to give this weak movie a feeling of scope that is entirely unearned. “I’m your brother Bond! I’m Blofeld Bond! All the other bad guys you fought in previous movies work for me, Bond!”  It’s also very telling and strange that each of these revelations is mentioned once and never brought up again. But what is totally unforgivable about these reveals is that they don't change the movie at all! They don't add anything to the characters, the plot or the franchise. I suppose one could argue that they don't take anything away from the movie either, but this insistence on meta, self-referential "plot points" felt like failed attempts to add substance or surprise to a movie that really needed some of both.

The heady success of Skyfall also seems to have convinced the producers that Bond movies now need to make over a billion dollars at the box office, making this the most expensive Bond movie ever made. What does that mean? Lots of safe decisions. If you were to pick Bond clichés out of a hat and pin them to a bulletin board, the result would be Spectre, which may not be a horrible thing for some fans, but was a huge disappointment for me who likes the plot driven movies that came before it.

Is it time for a reboot? I’ll miss you Craig but… Where do we go from here? Everything you got right in Casino Royale, Skyfall and God help me even Quantum of Solace you got wrong here. Worst Bond Girl, a villain with no intelligible motivations, unconvincing escapes, forgettable action, dull characters and an extremely bored looking Daniel Craig.

¸4 references to old Bond movies out of 10

Bonus Bitching!

Other things I hated: 1) Horrible unearned romance that makes the kiss between Lois and Clark in Man of Steel look like Romeo and Juliet. 2) At least three instances of Bond walking into a trap and the villain letting him off the hook because… movie. 3) They blow up the villain’s compound by shooting a gas valve. Like, the whole compound immediately explodes like the Death Star from a few bullets! 4) Tired, clicheed, “The bad guys want to spy on everyone” plot except, James Bond IS A SPY. His job is spying on people… I don’t… get…. 5) They were trying to shut down the double 0 program in the last movie. They’re STILL trying to shut it down here and I’ve stopped caring. 6) I know it’s a Bond movie and we have to suspend disbelief, but where the hell is he finding planes and boats with keys in the ignition ready to chase down bad guys?

Monday, May 04, 2015

Avengers : Age of Ultron Review

Avengers: Age of Ultron! It was super entertaining and really funny. I love the actors, I love Joss Whedon’s witty dialogue but this time around I also got a sense of impending doom throughout that I don’t get from too many super-hero movies. This is done without getting too brooding and mopey which I’m sure general audiences will appreciate. The story was a little simple (the robot wants to destroy the world). I was hoping for something a little meatier from this 11th Marvel movie, but I guess they can’t afford too much narrative with all the characters they need to service.

Hawkeye fighting to be less lame.
And Joss Whedon does an incredible job with this gargantuan cast. It’s kind of awesome actually. He knows when to spend extra time with our favourites, like RDJ as Iron Man and Chris Evans as Cap, but he’s also able to give Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye some of the best moments in the movie. To my amazement, he really did run away with the ball in this outing, having the best character arc, the best scenes all while making fun of how comical it is for a guy to go into battle with a bow and arrow when his peers can level a city block in minutes. They did a good job developing Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) as well as newbies Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johson)  and Scarlett Witch (Elizabeth Olsen, sister of Mary Kate and Ashley from Full House!). And that’s to say nothing of the handful of cameos that manage to add some emotional weight to some scenes without coming off as awkward fan service. I found myself less likely to get bored of a scene with the characters sitting around and talking than I was watching a scene where everything was blowing up. Who would have thought?
Avengers being cool.
The plot about Tony Stark’s artificial intelligence program going rogue runs along at a brisk pace. The movie’s villain, Ultron, is a robot that wants to destroy mankind, believing the extinction of the human race is the only way to bring peace to earth. It’s simple, it’s even a bit of a cliché but it works well enough. There is a lot to be said for execution and I found the scene where Ultron decides humans are too evil to survive was rather striking. Ultron, voiced and motion captured by James Spader, gets to exercise his comedic muscle just like everyone else in the  movie, sometimes to mixed effect.  I did find the humour was overdone in some scenes for all the characters. You can be in the middle of an intense action scene and Whedon will insert a corny joke into it, sometimes diffusing the tension.

It goes without saying the action was great, but it’s hard to get excited about action these days, isn’t it? What CGI scene could a computer produce that we haven’t seen a million times already? And what peril could possibly be dreamed up for our heroes that would actually cause us to fret with concern? The climax came out of nowhere for me. I was never entirely sure what Ultron was up to and when we finally got to his end game with a floating city it kind of blind-sided me. It felt like one set-piece after another until : “Oh, we’re almost at the 2 hour mark. Time to wrap things up!” And then the movie ends with a handful of rushed sci-fi/fantasy contrivances.
Are you not entertained?
These criticisms are offset by the movie’s devotion to pure entertainment however. I was either laughing or gawking at the spectacle for 2 hours and 20 minutes. What more can you ask? It’s also kind of fascinating to see how much this movie is a product of its time. I found it very funny how the movie dealt with the now controversial issue of collateral damage. In these super-hero movies, buildings topple over like dominos and we’re often left to wonder how many people were killed in the rubble. We’re usually not explicitly shown human casualties but in movies like Man of Steel which strives to be a “realistic” take on the character we can only assume lots of people die in battles like this. It ended up being one of the biggest criticisms of Man of Steel and some people pointed out that the climax of the first Avengers movie was not much better.

Enter Age of Ultron! Every time there’s a battle in a city our heroes will preface the pending destruction with a half-ass disclaimer. “Hey, we have to keep the casualties low!” But they still want to destroy buildings. So before levelling a building our heroes will say something like, “That buildings is empty!” or, “There’s only one family in that building, so it won’t be too much trouble to get them out!” (I have in mind one jarring scene where Iron Man flies people out of a collapsing building in a bathtub). Too many convenient and easy rescues seem like cheating to me, but it's better than nothing (is it?), I guess from now on big battles in a city scenes will always need to include a line that lets us know the people are okay.

Other moments that brought me out of the movie, despite how funny these moments were, is when they take shots at the lamer heroes’ powers. “Vibranium. The most versatile substance on Earth, and humans use it to make a Frisbee.” Referring to Captain America’s shield. “We’re in a floating city, fighting an army of robots and I’m armed with a bow and arrows. It makes no sense.” Hawkeye taking a jab at how lame he is. Has it taken 11 movies to finally become insecure about how ridiculous the super-hero genre is? It’s interesting and probably wise that Age of Ultron chooses to embrace its cheesiness instead of trying to dampen it. People did not respond well to Man of Steel which really did take itself too seriously in an attempt to give credibility to its high stakes plot. I enjoyed Man of Steel, but I have to say, acknowledging the implausibility of these movies with some light humour does seem to be the way to go. I just wish the Marvel movies didn’t always go as far as they do with the comedy.

There is no denying it’s a good time at the movies. I am constantly wary that this era of super-hero movies probably comes with an expiry date. But Age of Ultron assures us that it’s not anytime soon. The biggest praise I can lavish on this movie is it didn’t feel as repetitive as many of the other Marvel movies. It’s one of the rare occasions in the Marvel Universe where I feel like I’m on track for some new and interesting stories with Civil War and the Infinity War right around the corner. Age of Ultron was satisfying on its own and still managed to hook me with its sequel bait. Maybe I should wait for a second viewing before giving it a rating but for now it stands at a solid

7.5 casual detours to a foreign (and sometimes fictional) country out of 10

Post review rant : Anyone notice that all the cameos in this movie are the Black sidekicks from the other movies? Wouldn't it have been a great opportunity for Black Panther to have shown up in Wakanda to say, "I am no one's sidekick! But my movie has been pushed back to 2018 :-( #AvengersAgeofAfricanAmericansidekicks." Also, isn't it weird that Ultron's lips move like they're made of flesh? I don't know how I feel about that. Also, how come Ultron doesn't back up his consciouness on a USB stick or something? Did RDJ seem kind of tired in some scenes to you? Also weird, when Black Widow says, "They sterilized me when I was very young. Do you (Hulk) still think you're the only monster on the team?" Being sterile makes her a monster? She kills people.

How would I rate other super hero movies? Here’s a quick list off the top of my head.

Dark Knight - 9/10
Man of Steel - 8.5/10
Winter Solider - 8.5/10
Watchmen - 8/10
Days of Future Past - 8/10
The Rocketeer - 8/10
Iron Man – 7.5/10
Darkman - 7/10
Avengers - 7/10
Spiderman 2 - 7/10
Blade - 7/10
Guardians of the Galaxy  - 6.5/10
The Incredible Hulk - 6/10
Thor 2 - 5/10
Superman Returns - 4/10
Amazing Spiderman 2 - 2/10

Monday, September 01, 2014

The Nice Bucket Challenge

It should come as no surprise that people are criticising the Ice Bucket Challenge. Criticising is easy and about as much fun as pouring a bucket of ice over your head! Heck, I criticize everything all of the time. “Why are you even reading this blog post? Don’t you have more important things to do with your time? People are out there trying to cure cancer and you’re here goofing off online!” And in making other people feel bad, my brain releases a neurotransmitter, sweet dopamine, that makes me feel good about myself! (I have not read anything that says we get a dopamine surge from criticizing people, but let's just roll with it). Do people criticize the Ice Bucket Challenge to get their dopamine fix WITHOUT pouring ice water over themselves? Or are there some legitimate concerns about how we give our money?

It’s been called slacktivism. People are having lots of fun doing the Ice Bucket Challenge but, according to some, it’s doing far more to cater to people’s narcissism than it is doing to advance any cause. Harsh! Let’s talk about narcissism and charity for a second. There’s this old-fashioned idea that if you’re giving to charity you shouldn’t tell anyone about it. It’s such an old fashioned idea that Jesus said it! “When you give to the needy don’t let your right hand know what your left hand is doing.” There is some wisdom to that. There’s nothing more obnoxious than someone bragging about how much they do for charity. Of course drawing attention to a cause doesn’t have to mean you’re showing off either. Obviously there is a fine line between the two but it's obvious that in the age of social media, drawing attention to a cause is simply a great way to raise money for it. More money has been raised for ALS than has ever been raised in the past, humility be damned! So the question is, do you want to raise money for a cause, or do you want to be polishing your halo in private? Okay, that sounds kind of gross but … you get my point! The ends probably justify the means.

Of course this leads to the next criticism of the ice bucket challenge. “So few people suffer from ALS, why should we be raising money for them when so many people are dying from Heart Disease, Cancer, diabetes, starvation, drought etc….? Isn’t there a greater need elsewhere?” Doesn’t this sound like the same kind of argument people make when they complain about the space program?  “Why are we sending folks to the moon? There’s no oil up there or anything!” I don’t think science works like that. Sometimes working towards something like a cure for cancer helps scientist learn a bunch of stuff along the way. ALS is a disease where cells in the brain start to die off for reasons that are not completely understood yet. Don’t people think we’ll benefit from a better understanding of the brain? Won’t we be better off with the knowledge acquired by scientists who happen to write the word “ALS” somewhere on their grants? Think of all the scientists and hungry grad students(so hungry…) that money will fund in a world where research is heinously underfunded. You might be saying, “Well, what about Multiple Sclerosis? Far more people suffer from that disease than from ALS.” To you I say, “Please donate to charities that fund Multiple Sclerosis research.” Or whatever cause makes you feel good.

There have been claims made that people will actually give less to other charities if they do in fact decide to donate to ALS. You can almost see someone looking at their bank account, throwing their hands in the air and saying, “Well, looks like this year those orphans are plumb out of luck! ALS! WOOT!”  Are we over-estimating the effect of “funding cannibalism?” If this is an actual phenomenon, can we encourage people to give more generously or at least more carefully without turning a successful fundraiser into another reason to be cynical? People around the world have raised 100 million dollars to fund research toward one of the most horrible diseases on the planet. Good job people! What an accomplishment!

None of this is to say there aren’t some relevant points to be made about how we give (how much money and to whom). And I’m grateful to the critics who have opened the floor for discussion about charity. But let’s not harp on the negative without recognizing the positive. I love the idea that people can get turned on by compassion or motivated to do something compassionate if it’s attached to a fun meme. Let’s face it, at the end of the day, if we give to charity at all, we give to feel good and making a difference makes you feel good! (Sweet dopamine). Being goofy with your friends also makes you feel good! Can we give more intelligently? That’s a topic for discussion. Is ALS the best cause to give your money to? Well, I think that’s in the eye of the beholder. Just be generous and if your giving helps one person, or one million you’ve done something positive. And if you just like looking like an idiot on Facebook, that’s fine too. In a few weeks we’ll all be back to pictures of food, pets and selfies. No problem!  The best we can hope for is that the Ice Bucket Challenge will encourage us to be more generous in our day to day lives, even after this trend has melted into a cold puddle and evaporated.

Maybe it’s my imagination but the news has been utterly depressing these days. I’m not surprised at all that people have latched on so quickly to this fun, quirky little ritual.  Maybe you believe there are other charities that need more attention. Let your friends know about them. I've always been a bit of a cheerleader for bringing clean driniking water to developing countries and I'm far from the first person to see the irony in the fact that we have so much water to spare that we dump it over our heads for fun.

A few recommended charities.

Not to steal any thunder from those raising money for ALS. I’ll be donating to them as well.

One last point, there are probably a whole lot of people out there you don’t want to give your money to. Research your charities before giving your time and money supporting them. There are some nifty tools out there like Charity Navigator that will give you a rating for a lot of different charities, mainly based on how closely they meet their mission objectives.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Why the Transformers Movies Make Me Angry

What makes me angry is that Optimus Prime is such a memorable character that years ago, when one of our friends took another friend's Optimus Prime toy and made him stick up the middle finger, we all immediately said, "That's not right, he would NEVER do that. Optimus Prime is an honorable gentleman."

Then along comes Michael Bay and makes Optimus Prime some kind of degenerate psychopath. It makes me angry that the movies are based on a beloved cartoon made to sell toys to children, and that the cartoons are still far more intelligent than the movies. It makes me angry that these movies are so long. Why? Because longer movies can't be shown as many times in a day and therefore make less money. Which means that Michael Bay doesn't make the movies long for some financial reasons, he makes them long for... dare I suggest artistic reason?  Because he thinks we want to watch 3 hours of this???

A scene from Transformers 3.  What the hell are we looking at here???

It makes me angry that they try to be funny but they're not. It makes me angry that there are so many good movies, action movies even, that are soooo much better that no one bothers with.  It makes me angry that Transformer movies are racist, sexist, jingoist and stupid. But most of all, it makes me angry that the stories are so incoherent that you can only conclude that no one involved cares at all!!! And after all that, they still make billions of dollars, which means people actually like them!! So ultimately it makes me angry at the world.

Please stop watching these movies.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Man of Steel Review

If you're a super-hero nerd like myself, you have been anticipating Man of Steel for a long time and now that it's finally out you have either already seen it or you are wondering why the reviews for it seem to be so mediocre.  Having seen the movie I would have to say I'm slightly surprised by the stale response that critics had toward Man of Steel.  I was really into it.  Like all movies these days, it is impossible not to compare it to the slew of super-hero movies that have inundated cinemas for the past, let's say decade. Take this movie and release it 10 or even 5 years ago and it would have been one of the best things anyone has ever seen.  As such I can only conclude if you generally like super hero movies and don't like Man of Steel, it was for 1 of a few reasons.  Among them.

1) It wasn't Chris Nolan's Dark Knight Franchise.
2) It wasn't the Avengers.
3) Your standards for a movie about a guy who flies around in blue spandex are too high.

I'm not saying the movie was a flawless masterpiece, quite the contrary.  Just that it's a victim of it's own hubris and few movies could live up to the expectations that were placed on this Man of Steel movie.  I was never bored by it, except maybe during the last set-piece (more on that in a bit). The story was great and the action was for the most part fantastic.  Tonally, I would say it is somewhere between the brooding Dark Knight films and the action packed Avengers.  The movie was severely lacking humour though.  Don't get me wrong, I'm glad the movie wasn't the perpetual wise-cracking slapstick that was Iron Man 3. That wouldn't be consistent with the character.  But it didn't have to take itself as seriously as it did either.

It almost felt like 2 different movies. For the first 30 to 60 minutes, I was watching something spectacular.  The cinematography was gorgeous and it really drew me in.  It took its time telling a story.  This movie has Krypton like you have never seen it before, with eye-popping visuals, complex culture and politics.  They did a good job of giving us the Superman backstory without getting too bogged own in it.  It reminded me of Batman Begins.  They jump around in time so that you only get the information you need (though director Zack Snyder doesn't do it nearly as well as Chris Nolan).  By the time Clark Kent becomes Superman you're like, "Already?  Well, that was pretty cool."

And then, problems start to pop up.  The characters do and say things that don't make any sense.  Martha Kent's (Diane Lane) reaction to Superman saying, "I've found my people!" Was little more than a dry, "Good for you."  As if she couldn't care less.  Had I been Superman at that moment I would have been like, "Good for me...?  My people are aliens!  From outer space and I found them!  Our planet blew up, they're all dead!  Do you know what a planet is, Mom?  Also, I can freaking fly!  Mom?  Are you awake?"
Superman: "Mom, I'm from another planet that exploded and I'm the last of my kind."
Martha Kent: "Meh..."

You may have seen the scene in trailers where a young Superman, after rescuing a bunch of children from drowning in a bus, asks his father, "What was I supposed to do?  Let them die."  And a morally bankrupt Jonathan Kent played by Kevin Costner basically says, "Yes." Really??  The idea is supposed to be that Superman's adopted father is so worried that people will persecute Superman when they find out he's an alien, that he should keep his powers a secret, even if it means standing by and watching people die.  It gets a little strange.

"Clark... God clearly wanted those children to die. I know you have super powers but I don't want you going around saving people's lives!"
And then the ultimate sin of this movie comes in the last 45 minutes.  Non-stop, mind-numbing, senseless action.  There are times when the action is great.  But the final set-piece is way too long.  It was ALMOST as tedious to sit through as the ending of Transformers 2 and 3.  Buildings are crumbling to bits, Superman endlessly punches the villain, sending him flying through walls and even into outerspace.  At a certain point someone throws a train at Superman and then an orbital satellite which just made me laugh out loud.  It was overkill.  You'll hear this phrase in many reviews of Man of Steel.  "Less is more!"

Was the movie too melodramatic at some points?  Definitely.  But other times it was spot on.  Other times the action or the pacing just seemed off.  Other times it was perfect.  Henry Cavill's Superman didn't have great chemistry with anyone on screen from his parents to Amy Adams' Lois Lane.  I think he was trying too hard to be alien and otherworldly.  Sometimes it actually worked quite well in a scene, other times it was just creepy and weird. But there is no denying that he looks the part.

At the end of the day I would say, aside from a few misfires, it's a good movie.  After the origin story, which is as well known as the story of Jesus at this point, Man of Steel becomes an alien invasion story done sufficiently.  The invaders have history, and culture and motivation and are lead by a charismatic General Zod played by Michael Shannon who many critics feel was not in full form, but still very good.

The movie is inconsistent.  Its high points are incredibly high, and it's low points are jarring enough to take you out of the movie entirely.  But in many ways this is the Superman movie a lot of us have been waiting for.  Finally, he gets a worthy adversary!  The battle scenes in this movie are what has been missing from our Man of Steel all these years.
Time for an epic fight!  And by epic I mean long.
So, if you're a fan of Superman, comic books or the DC universe, I suggest you just roll with it.  Not all movies can be Dark Knight, or Avengers.  On the bright side the movie isn't Daredevil or Spider-man 3 either (yet).  Besides, we have tolerated all kinds of sub-par super hero movies.  When I think of Marvel's Thor, Captain America and Iron Man 2 as build ups to the Avengers, I would have to say that Man of Steel is at least as good or better than those, though it would have benefit from a little humour here and there. 

And, the good news is, with the success of this movie there is some hope that the DC Universe will finally find life at the cinema.  Justice League movie?  More Batman movies?  That's all us fanboys want.  So I choose to give Man of Steel a break and say it was enough that it wasn't terrible.  The plot held together relatively well, it was exciting and I was rarely ever bored by it..

3.75 choo-choo trains to the face out of 5

A few very minor spoilers.  If anyone has seen the documentary, "An Evening With Kevin Smith" you will probably remember his story about the brief time he was hired to write for the Man of Steel movie.  This was back in 2001 and he tells a great story about producer Jon Peters, who is in fact one of the producers of Man of Steel today. The story goes that Jon Peters insisted that Superman have a giant spider in it for no apparent reason and that polar bears guard the Fortress of Solitude.  Though Jon Peters eventually got to shoehorn a giant spider into the movie, Wild Wild West I think it's pretty clear that the World Engine is some kind of giant spider.  Also, there is a very odd shot of a polar bear early in the movie. Start watching at 5:18 for the Jon Peters story.