Tag: Reviews (page 2 of 36)

IT CAME FROM NETFLIX! Red Planet

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[audio:http://www.blueinkalchemy.com/uploads/red_planet.mp3]

Believe it or else, our planet has finite space and resources. One of these days we’re going to have to take measures to make the most of what we have left or, more ideally, look to the other planets in our solar system for expansion. Our moon is closest but doesn’t have much in the way of atmosphere. Mars is comparable in size but presents other challenges. Red Planet is a film that addresses those challenges… kind of… while being a character-driven tale of the unknown in space… sort of.

Courtesy Warner Bros Pictures

Heading to the crimson world of the title is a crew of six people: the no-nonsense female commander, the young and handsome co-pilot, a senior science officer who’s also a philosopher, two civilian scientists who cover the ‘agnostic’ and ‘naive’ portions of the crew and the ‘space janitor’, a mechanical maintenance expert. Together, they board the experimental craft Mars One and head to the distant sanguine rock to determine of human experiments with algae and habitation enclosures have succeeded. They don’t even get to the surface before things start going wrong.

In a cinematic environment where the likes of Greengrass and Bay have risen to superstardom despite shakey cameras and bewildering choices in special effects, I can’t help but praise a film like Red Planet for clean, sharp visuals. The construction of the vehicles and structures feels authentic, and it takes things into account like the time delay in communications and the low gravity on Mars. Little things like that endear me towards this movie, since there’s some science in the science fiction. It’s not like Pitch Black where the orientation of planets to stars makes no logical sense. So it earns points from me in that regard.

Courtesy Warner Bros Pictures
The wild space janitor in his natural habitat.

However, where Red Planet suffers is in the area of characters. We get… two, maybe three. Carrie-Anne Moss does a good job with her commander character, even if it feels a bit like Trinity with more emotion and snark. Tom Sizemore is always good, and I couldn’t help but like Val Kilmer’s space janitor even if he did pull the dull surprise face more often than he should. The big problem with the characters, other than Benjamin Bratt and Simon Baker being stock cardboard cutouts and Terence Stamp delivering all of his lines with the same amount of stoic gravitas, is that none of them have a sense of wonder about Mars. I mean, yeah, they’re in a bad situation there and they need to puzzle out what happened and why, but dammit, they’re on Mars. It’s pretty significant for them to be there. I mean, Bear Grylls can muster up wonder about the places he wanders around in Man vs. Wild, and that’s stuff here on Earth. These guys are on a different planet and very few eyelashes are batted.

This could be related to the other major problem with the movie, which is plotlines. There are simply too many of them. I’m all for complex stories built in layers with subplots tying into each other, but every plotline in Red Planet is given the full treatment. Every obstacle and mystery is given equal time which leads to too little character development and too much going on. Just one of the problems at hand – the damage to the ship, the destruction of the habitat module, the disappearance of the algae – could have dominated the plot with others being sub-plots. But Red Planet shoots itself in the foot in terms of pace and plotting by throwing all of this at us with a very minimal sense of timing and prudence. What begins as a plausible exploration of the first steps to colonizing Mars turns into a typical survival sci-fi/horror mix, and at points in the story when things look like they might become interesting, the writers go the lazy route every time.

Courtesy Warner Bros Pictures
The space suits and equipment feel mostly authentic, more Mass Effect than Star Trek.

After all of the big ideas that are part of its setup, Red Planet feels like its playing it safe. Instead of being challenging in its execution, developing complex characters or shining a light on the eventual need for humanity to do something about the state of the planet, it blows right past those interesting ideas to get our characters to an obstacle course about as interesting as one from an episode of Ninja Warrior or Wipeout! but without the hilarious commentary and trappings. It’s disheartening to start strong with an interesting premise and characters with potential only to see them dribble away one at a time as the movie lurches towards its false-tension climax and pat ending. Every time Red Planet should zig, it zags. It’s just kind of sad.

However, the good news is that while it disappoints in story and characters, the execution for the most part makes Red Planet relatively harmless. It’s not as brainy and full of itself as some other science fiction exploration films like 2001 or Mission to Mars, the characters we do get are decent enough, and there are a handful of moments that speak to the potential this movie, this story and these characters might have had. There’s a good time to be had with Red Planet, and you can probably develop a decent drinking game to go with it, so yeah, I’d put it in the recommendation column for at least one viewing if you’re a fan of sci-fi or any of the aforementioned actors. Just be aware that, about the time we see three men take the first piss on Mars, this movie’s also pissing away a lot of potential.

Courtesy Warner Bros Pictures
O HAI

But hey, at least with the clean visuals and straightforward, non-obscure plot, we can understand what the hell is going on. I just wish the goings-on were more interesting. I mean, come on, people… it’s Mars. I guess we’ll have to wait for the screen adaptation of John Carter for things to really pick up on the red planet.

Josh Loomis can’t always make it to the local megaplex, and thus must turn to alternative forms of cinematic entertainment. There might not be overpriced soda pop & over-buttered popcorn, and it’s unclear if this week’s film came in the mail or was delivered via the dark & mysterious tubes of the Internet. Only one thing is certain… IT CAME FROM NETFLIX.

IT CAME FROM NETFLIX! The Last Airbender

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[audio:http://www.blueinkalchemy.com/uploads/last_airbender.mp3]

I may have to turn in my nerd card. See, I’ve never watched the animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender. Never. Not one episode. And it’s something that’s right up my alley. I mean, people who can manipulate the elements of earth, air, fire and water through will alone set against one another in a cosmic balance rooted in a unique mythology heavily influenced by Buddhist-flavored mysticism? Hand me my chopsticks, I’d dig the hell out of that. I mean, I just got done reading the entire Dresden Files series and I use ‘alchemy’ in just about all of my branding. I should be a huge fan of Airbender.

But while I’ve never seen the series, I can understand why the M Night Shyamalan film from 2010 based on the franchise would both thrill fans of the series and whip them into a frothing rage-filled frenzy.

Courtesy Paramount Pictures

As I said in the intro, there are people in the world of The Last Airbender who through concentration and focused movements reminiscent of the martial arts can manipulate the basic elements of creation. Each of them belongs to their own nation, and the Fire Nation has gotten the idea that they should run the whole show. They’ve started a war and according to legend, the only force capable of maintaining the balance of the world and deciding the conclusion of the conflict is the Avatar, a ‘bender’ who has power over all four elements. The Avatar, however, has been reincarnated as a little kid, and it’s going to take some time for him to get a grip on water, earth and fire; his mastery of air, however, is damn near instinctive. This is good, as the Fire Nation kinda sorta wiped out the rest of his kin.

The movie concerns itself with the first season of the show, called “Book 1: Water” which spanned 20 episodes clocking in at around 30 minutes each. That’s 600 minutes. The film The Last Airbender plays out at just over 90. And yet we need to cover who the nations are, what the Fire Nation is after, who Aang the boy Avatar is, who his friends are, what motivates his enemies and how the various powers of the benders of each nation work. That’s a lot of narrative ground to cross, and if you want to both please the fans and introduce non-fans to the world, you can’t leave a shred of it out.

Courtesy Paramount Pictures
The fight scenes really are impressive.

The absolute wrong way to do this is layer the dialog of the characters with exposition. Instead of showing us who these people are, The Last Airbender tells us, through narration and conversation, everything that’s essential for us to know. It doesn’t trust us to pick things up through observation or draw our own conclusions. Even kids can pick up the Fire Nation being bad or Aang’s past being tragic without it needing to be spoon-fed to them. And this is the bulk of the movie. I understand that it was a daunting task to put this all together in a single film that had to appeal to as wide an audience as possible, not to mention being what amounts to a saving throw for M Night Shyamalan’s career. But when you need to slog through this stuff for over an hour it really starts to wear on you.

However, the news is not all bad. The visual effects in The Last Airbender are pretty seamless in their mixing of the motions of the actors and the CG used for the elements they control. The music is fantastic and the costumes are great. When the script lets up on the exposition and lets the characters at least attempt some growth, you can see the potential peeking out from around the plot explanation. And as the film ramps up towards its climax the expository elements start falling away to let some stunning moments take place which come very, very close to redeeming the entire project.

Courtesy Paramount Pictures
One of the few characters actually given room to grow.

For what it’s worth, the film of The Last Airbender has underscored my need to get into this series and explore it more fully. Based on what I’ve been told by reliable sources like my little sister, the film is a success in that regard. The film looks great and it’s good to see fresh faces from all over the world on the big screen, even if I had trouble buying Aasif Mandvi as a bad guy at first. I’m torn on this one. There’s a part of me that wants to recommend it based on the visuals, the potential and the clear loyalty it has to its source material and the good intentions it has of staying as true as possible without mucking anything up.

But in the end, the plodding pace of the first hour and the way it tries to cram in every bit of exposition into the mouths of its characters it can undercuts all the goodwill and craftsmanship put into the film. I’m going to watch the series, and I recommend anybody interested in this story do the same. To quote many a disapproving parent: I’m not mad, Last Airbender. I’m just disappointed.

Josh Loomis can’t always make it to the local megaplex, and thus must turn to alternative forms of cinematic entertainment. There might not be overpriced soda pop & over-buttered popcorn, and it’s unclear if this week’s film came in the mail or was delivered via the dark & mysterious tubes of the Internet. Only one thing is certain… IT CAME FROM NETFLIX.

IT CAME FROM NETFLIX! Silent Hill

In my restless dreams, I see that town. Silent Hill…

Logo courtesy Netflix.  No logos were harmed in the creation of this banner.

[audio:http://www.blueinkalchemy.com/uploads/silent_hill.mp3]

There are certain experiences that are consigned to particular media for one reason or another. As well as HBO has adapted Game of Thrones, the full expansiveness of the world and characters created by George RR Martin is best experienced in its original doorstopper book form. Hearing a song by Lady Gaga doesn’t hold a candle to seeing her perform the song live on stage. And some video games are best left as video games, and not made into, say, movies. Nobody told this to director Christoph Gans, however, when he took the helm of 2006’s Silent Hill.

Courtesy Rogue Pictures

Chris and Rose Da Silva adopted a little girl named Sharon nine years ago. Sharon’s started having some really bad dreams and always screams the words ‘Silent Hill’. Convinced that the haunted town that bears the same name holds the answer to her daughter’s torment, Rose puts Sharon in her Jeep and drives to the town. When Chris follows, he’s stopped by a police cordon and the ladies are nowhere in sight. Rose, however, loses Sharon quickly after her Jeep crashes, and wanders the town pursued by a dedicated motorcycle cop, a fiendish cult of witch-burners and, for some reason, nurses with big tits. Because big boobs sell more tickets.

For those of you just coming out from under your rocks, Silent Hill is a video game series in which the town of the title is plagued by a singular problem. You can be walking through the town, which seems normal, only to turn a corner or emerge from an elevator and find yourself in another world entirely. It’s a dark reflection of our own, populated by creatures spawned from abysses beyond our ken and, in some cases, based heavily on our own fears, doubts and unrequited appetites. As the games progressed, the stillness and isolation that brought those fears out of us as we played petered out, replaced with the typical slavering bad guys to be bloodily dispatched with blunt objects seen in most horror games released in the West. But we’re here to talk about the movie, right? Right.

Courtesy Rogue Pictures
Remember, even if you don’t smoke, always have a lighter handy.

The problem with many adaptations, provided they aren’t coming from a studio dedicated solely to bridging the gap between two media (which Marvel appears to have done with fraking rainbows), is the committees assembled by the money-hungry executives are so busy patching together fan favorite characters and moments that they completely miss whatever point the original story might have had. The point of the Silent Hill games defended to this day in spite of their dated graphics, terrible voice acting and asinine plots is being alone in a cloying darkness with something that hates you, not simply disgusting monsters and fiends in human skin just waiting for you to put a hole in them with a bullet or a bludgeon. Instead of a story of self-exploration, the film Silent Hill pits Rose against the town with the town’s only motivation being the sort of generic evil force that chased Bruce Campbell through a forest and forced him to cut off his own hand with a chainsaw.

The interesting wrinkle in terms of story is that the cult isn’t motivated by drug deals for tourism or awakening eldritch abominations, they’re just good old-fashioned Bible-thumpers that know their Jesus, loving savior of all mankind that He is, cannot and will not suffer a witch to live even if said witch is a nine-year-old girl. The purity of purpose these people cling to is something actually frightening about this story, since I know people this simple-minded and blinded by unquestioning religious fervor exist. It’s one of the things about the movie that works.

Courtesy Rogue Pictures
Hey, kids! It’s Pyramid Head! *applause*

What doesn’t work is the transition between worlds. Silent Hill usually consists of our world and its dark reflection, but Silent Hill the movie ups the ante with a third world in between. There’s our world, a sort of parallel dimension covered in perpetual fog and ash and the signature dark hellish place populated with creatures from the franchise who pretty much showed up because representations of sexual repression and masculine aggression have bills to pay too. As mentioned before, switching between worlds in the games often happened without preamble, effectively blurring the lines of reality and causing the player to question what exactly was happening. The line between worlds in the movie is a very bold, clearly defined one, and there’s a nice loud air raid siren just in case you aren’t sure. To say nothing of all that nice creeping CGI on those environments! Boy, I bet those games from the PS2 era are just besides themselves with jealousy.

Despite having all its subtlety removed, its signature creatures reduced to generic horror baddies, the world structure unnecessarily complicated and the twist ending having no explanation whatsoever and all the impact of a wet noodle, Silent Hill is not without redeeming qualities. While the world of fog and ash is somewhat baffling, it and it alone brings on the feeling of stillness and isolation that made the games so memorable. It’s juxtaposed with our world once or twice to great effect, and if the movie had just been about that divide and Rose and Chris trying to reach each other across it, the film might have really worked. There’s some excellent sound design, some effective use of music and a scene in a bathroom that carries more tension in a few short moments than most of the exposition-laden second half holds. And then there’s the way the character of Cybil looks in those leather pants. … Sue me, I’m a straight male human.

Courtesy Rogue Pictures
The movie also passes the Bechdel Test like a champ.

Imagine, if you will, a cookie where the chocolate chips are actual chocolate, but the dough is actually made of insulation foam, and you don’t realize it until it was already in your mouth. That’s the film adaptation of Silent Hill put concisely. The few moments where some artistic choices overshadow the Frankensteinian construction of the movie and the fraying threads of plot used to stitch it together are simply not worth watching it fall to bloody pieces. I have to say this one is not worth your time. There are better horror films, better psychological ones and better video game adaptations.

Oh, I almost forgot. Sean Bean is in this, and he doesn’t die. It would have been nice to see his character do something useful, but I guess that he, like us, became trapped without recourse or pity in a lonely world not of our making. At least Pyramid Head didn’t show up out of nowhere to decapitate the poor guy.

Josh Loomis can’t always make it to the local megaplex, and thus must turn to alternative forms of cinematic entertainment. There might not be overpriced soda pop & over-buttered popcorn, and it’s unclear if this week’s film came in the mail or was delivered via the dark & mysterious tubes of the Internet. Only one thing is certain… IT CAME FROM NETFLIX.

Movie Review: X-Men First Class

Uncanny X-Men was one of the first comic books I read when I was growing up. It introduced me to the colorful world of super-heroic abnormal people fighting to protect a world that hates and fears them. Being a scrawny geeky kid, the appeal was obvious. The first two movie adaptations did an admirable service to the long-running title and its characters, even if it seemed to be somewhat ashamed of the ways in which the characters dressed themselves. Last Stand and X-Men Origins Wolverine are best left unmentioned, especially since one of the feats X-Men First Class pulls off is rendering both of those movies superfluous, if not wiping them out of existence entirely.

Courtesy Marvel Studios

First Class takes us back to the very groovy 1960s where a young Charles Xavier has just received his doctorate from Oxford and Erik Lensherr has begun a private search for the man who destroyed his family. While Charles is a child of privilege, Erik is a Holocaust survivor, but the two men are bound by their nature as mutants. Both of them want mutants to be free from persecution by normal humans, but Charles wishes to do this peacefully while Erik is convinced that human nature, being what it is, will leave mutants no alternative but to fight. They agree, however, that the dangerous mutants in control of the clandestine Hellfire Club must be stopped, and to do this they ally with the United States government to train some of the young mutants who struggle to control their powers. They are the first X-Men.

The first thing that may strike you about First Class is a pair of tonal shifts that really work in the narrative’s favor. Moving away from the dark visuals of the first two movies towards a more bright, diverse pallate helps capture the atmosphere of an earlier time, and harkens more honestly to the comic book roots of the material, as well as evoking memories of the Connery-era James Bond. At the same time, the story has grown more dark and mature. I won’t go into details because I don’t want to spoil any major turning points, but believe me when I say that the composition of this story has less to do with Saturday morning cartoons and more with classic tragedies crafted by the Greeks and Shakespeare.

Courtesy Marvel Studios
As it turns out, we DO prefer yellow spandex.

This isn’t to say that the writing in First Class even approaches that calibre. This is still a comic book movie and it’s not going to win any Oscars based on that premise alone. However, what the film gets right is something the unmentionable sequels got wrong. X-Men and X2 were similar to First Class in that their focus was more on characters than on spectacle. Granted, they spent a lot of their time on Wolverine, but that’s to be expected when you get a man like Hugh Jackman who completely inhabits a beloved character. It almost went unnoticed that Patrick Stewart did a very similar service to Professor X and Ian McKellan to Magneto. Watching the first two films now, you can see that these two veterans were hinting at a deep, rough and complicated friendship that stretched back for years, and now James McEvoy and Michael Fassbender bring the details of that friendship’s origin to life.

Prequels are often met with trepidation and suspicion, and rightly so. George Lucas proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that it’s very easy to screw up an established universe by trying to expand on what has come before. Bryan Singer and Matthew Vaughn, however, wisely keep to the essence of the characters and the bits of information scattered throughout the movie and comic storylines to tell the story of Charles and Erik in a way that’s less bombastic special effects reel and more subtle romance. More than anything, it captures the deep respect and admiration they have for one another and underscores the tragedy of the events that drive the emotional and philosophical chasm between them.

Courtesy Marvel Studios
One of the best scenes in this film, and there’s zero action.

The downside to this powerful writing and these top-notch performances is that most of the rest of the events and players get overshadowed. Of the rest of the mutant cast, Jennifer Lawrence as a young Mystique and Nicholas Hoult as Beast are the only standouts while January Jones seems to have been told Emma Frost’s mutant powers are looking drool-worthy and a complete lack of ability to emote. The film also falls victim to some unfortunate tropes and is very concerned about driving home its civil rights message with lines like “Mutant and Proud!” and “They didn’t ask so I didn’t tell.” Now it might be the case that some anvils need to be dropped to make a point that might have been lost in the noise of those despicable sequels, but in contrast to the chemistry between the two leads it ends up feeling either unnecessary or just lazy. Tight storytelling does not belabor points like this. But it could be I’m just picking nits.

There’s more than enough good material, in spite of the shortcomings in story and some less dimensional characters, to make X-Men First Class worth recommending. It’s more than competent storytelling and while the characters take precedence over spectacle, I’m sure jaws will drop more than once over the course of the movie. It belongs on the same level as other recent Marvel movies such as Iron Man and Thor, the performances and chemistry of the leads comes close to that of the lead actors in The Dark Knight. It says a lot when a scene of two men in easychairs talking by a fireplace is every bit as electrifying as any of the action scenes in your movie. X-Men First Class is the X-Men movie fans have been waiting for every since the first sequel, and even if you’re not a fan, I think you’d enjoy it. Check it out and I doubt you’ll be disappointed. And yes, I know the comic book outfits looked silly, but First Class gives us a great compromise in the uniforms of the X-Men. It was really awesome, for me, to see an X-Men movie that looked like a damn X-Men movie and not some weird spin-off of Blade or the Matrix. Mutants are their own people, and they should be proud of that, even if it means wearing yellow and blue kevlar pressure suits instead of trendier black leather.

Mutant and proud? Crap, now I’M doing it.

IT CAME FROM NETFLIX! Black Death

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[audio:http://www.blueinkalchemy.com/uploads/black_death.mp3]

I made a promise, some time ago, that I would avoid discussing religion overmuch, if at all, on this blog. Yet when Black Death won the poll it was clear that I’d have to sprain that promise. Since it’s in the context of a movie, I won’t consider it entirely broken. There’s also the fact that this film is unflinching, uncompromising and unbiased in its bleak view of religion… and how little it’s changed since the time period in which it’s set.

Courtesy Egoli Tossel Film

The time is 1348 AD, and the place is England. The bubonic plague ravages the countryside and small villages are especially susceptible to the pestilence. There is rumor of one, however, where not only is the plague not present, but the dead are coming back thanks to a demon or a witch. While some believe that God sent the plague to punish mankind, others think that demons like this one are the cause, and an envoy of the bishop has come with several hard men to root out the demon. He conscripts a young monk to guide him, but the monk has plans of his own.

True to the fire and brimstone of the period, a good descriptor for this movie is ‘grim’. The heroes are not shining examples of honor or virtue, even when compared to the worst amongst their opposing number. While the men we follow are servants of the church, they’re not paragons of Christianity, nor are the people of the village they finally arrive in kind and generous. Black Death calls into question the intelligence and decency of anyone who takes the world around them on faith alone without preamble or a moment’s thought, and while the setting is in a dark age of human history, the question remains if people today are any different.

Courtesy Egoli Tossel Film
At least we have slightly more sanitary infrastructure these days.

Thankfully, this isn’t a movie interested in beating you over the head with its message. It simply presents its perspective and lets you dwell on it. While the writing isn’t necessarily stellar material, the screenwriters have the decency to leave most of the heavier stuff as visuals and action rather than heavy-handed speeches. The direction clearly delights in the heavy mists, dour arms and armor and spattering gore of most medieval epics, and Black Death does a good job of conveying the dark atmosphere of the age. The best part of the film, though, is the extremely strong cast.

Considering Sean Bean dominates most of the cover art you’ll see, you might consider him to be the only actor of note in the piece, and that this flick tries to squeak by on his star power along. You’d be wrong. I was surprised to see David Warner turn up as the abbot in our starting location, while veteran actors like Eddie Redmayne, Tim McInnerny (of Black Adder fame) and a few guys from EastEnders join Sean’s ragtag band. And that striking blonde wearing red working opposite Sean is none other than Carice van Houten of Black Book and Repo Men fame. Watching them together makes me wish they’d share a couple scenes in the Game of Thrones series, considering Miss van Houten landed the role of Melisandre.

Courtesy Egoli Tossel Film
Serving R’hllor since 1348.

All in all, I’m glad I watched Black Death. It wasn’t the best movie I’ve ever seen set in this time period or tackling the subject of religion, but it certainly wasn’t as terrible as I was dreading it’d be. The mostly realistic bent of its production, the very solid acting and the way the whole thing slides in situation from bad to worse for the characters is actually somewhat gripping in a way I did not expect. I say, put this one on your Netflix Instant queue. You might be surprised.

Josh Loomis can’t always make it to the local megaplex, and thus must turn to alternative forms of cinematic entertainment. There might not be overpriced soda pop & over-buttered popcorn, and it’s unclear if this week’s film came in the mail or was delivered via the dark & mysterious tubes of the Internet. Only one thing is certain… IT CAME FROM NETFLIX.

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