Monday, August 30, 2010

The Manliest Review of the Year

In May 2008, the Sex and the City movie was released to record audiences around the globe. I was there opening night with my then-girlfriend who had indoctrinated me into the television show, which I actually liked despite early reservations that it was simply a woman's show. What I had learned watching the HBO series was that it was not just about women; women were the main protagonists, of course, but the show was about friendship, inner strength and trust, which are themes that don't necessarily belong to either sex, and smart characters helped grow the show out of it's early emotional limitations. Of course, the show is also about Jimmy Choos, man-hunting, and Vogue, which means that about 90% of the people who went to see this movie opening night were women, most of them weaned on the TV show that had begun airing ten years earlier. Though not a very good movie overall (lacking much of the quality of it's source material), because of this fanatical female following, it was the most successful R-rated comedy ever, and also most successful for a movie starring all women.

The Expendables experience has been kind of like that.

Statham, Stallone and Couture take on bad men
The film stands as a tribute to the old-style action films of the '80's and early '90's, and much like Sex, The Expendables is not a very good movie. It fails to make into my Top 10 based on it's mindlessness alone. However, I still had a good time, much like I did during a similar opening night two years earlier.

The movie starts off quickly, with the Expendables, a team of elite mercenaries led by Sylvester Stallone's Barney Ross, conduct a messy hostage rescue mission on a boat in the Gulf of Adan. The team, consisting of blades specialist Lee Christmas (Jason Statham), martial artist Yin Yang (Jet Li), sniper Gunnar Jensen (Dolph Lundgren), weapons specialist Hale Caesar (Terry Crews) and demolitions expert Toll Road (Randy Couture), successfully rescue the hostages in dramatic fashion, but afterwards Ross is forced to kick Jensen out of the group for his growing psychological problems. It's a bad sign if your buddies think you're too crazy to be a good mercenary, but any good viewer would doubt this is the last we've seen of Jensen. Not long after, the Expendables' former teammate and mission coordinator Tool (Mickey Rourke) comes to them with a job offer, calling it "hell and back". On the island of Vilena, in the Gulf of Mexico, a dictator by the name of General Garza has taken over and practically enslaved his own people, with the might of the island's military behind him. The mission is to eliminate Garza, but upon performing a reconnaissance mission of the island, Ross and Christmas discover that Garza is backed by former C.I.A. spook James Munroe (Eric Roberts) and his goons Paine (Steve Austin) and The Brit (Gary Daniels), determining that Munroe is the true target.

Rourke also performs as the teams' Swiss masseuse
As you can see just from the last paragraph, Stallone (who co-wrote and directed the film) searched high and low for the biggest cast of action stars he could find for this movie. Besides those mentioned, Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger appeared in cameo roles, and efforts were made to recruit Jean-Claude Van Dam, Wesley Snipes, Forest Whitaker, Curtis "50 Cent" Jackson, Steven Seagal, and Kurt Russell, though either disinterest or conflicting schedules kept them from the sets. The ensemble cast is barely that, however, as the movie mostly revolves around Stallone and Statham, with a little Lee and Lundgren thrown in for good measure. Stallone is as good as he's ever been as an actor (take that for what you will), but Statham remains something special even as his chosen genre lessens in importance by the year. Li, meanwhile is dry and uninteresting, only watchable when he's kicking things. 53-year-old Lundgren is only interesting in that he hasn't been on the big screen in years, though his character does do through some interesting transformation that the actor's talent can barely keep up with.

Stallone demands only the best cameos
Thankfully, the supporting cast is mostly talented, though given little to do in their roles. Although Eric Roberts joins an ever-growing line of bad 2010 movie villains with stupid decision-making and silly goals, the actor is at least good enough to make the role more fun than say, Jason Patric in The Losers or Patrick Wilson in The A-Team. His lackeys, played by Austin and Daniels, are serviceable for little more than their athletic prowess, as Austin is not at all different than his "Stone Cold" persona he put on for so many years as a performer in the WWE. I've never seen Daniels in anything, but to say the least his character was quite... British. Crews is a talented actor with little to do in this movie, his talents wasted on the small role he does his best to be present in. And while I'm sure Randy Couture is an intelligent, friendly guy, he has no business acting in anything that requires him to go on a monologue about cauliflower ear. Really, Randy? That's interesting, I'm just going to rest my eyes, but you just keep on talking. The cameo of Willis and Schwarzenegger along with Stallone is hilarious, with all three actors looking like they're having a ball delivering their lines. The three of them after all could be considered the three top action stars of the 80's, with billions earned between them. But the best of the best is by far Rourke, who once again shows the talent almost wasted from years of psychological issue and substance abuse. He's not in on any of the big action sequences or for much of the movie at all, but in his role he manages to be the heart of the movie, no small feat considering the amount of testosterone and explosions flowing through it.

Roberts and Austin dodge an attack by movie critics
And when stuff blows up in The Expendables, it BLOWS UP, big time. It's no secret that the explosions, violence and macho posturing is meant as the main attraction of the movie, as it goes over the top in this. When you compare it to other, relatively bloodless, action films released in this and previous years, the film feels even more out of time, and the viewer knows what it was like to sit in a theater in the '80's and watch their first Rambo flick. These effects are top shelf quality, with a reason for almost every blast and ricochet. The action sequences are actually well put together, if a little difficult to follow, especially the last sequence which takes place in the middle of the night.

(l-r) Stallone, Li, Couture, Crews, Statham
If there's a real problem with The Expendables, it's in relation to it's gender roles. The only two prominent female parts belong to Latin actress Gisele Itie and former Buffy the Vampire Slayer hottie Charisma Carpenter. Both add up to little more than damsels in distress, as Carpenter plays the ex-girlfriend of Statham's character who ends up in an abusive relationship, and Itie plays a revolutionary who hires the mercenaries and then must be rescued by them, instigating in a light romance with Ross (Which is just a little creepy since Stallone is seven years older than my father and Itie is a year younger than ME). It wouldn't be so bad except for the fact that there have been major female action stars who don't even make cameo appearances, such as Michelle Yeoh and Cynthia Rothrock. There's no doubt this is a boy's club, but even the tiniest extension to this branch of the genre would have been appreciated by the audience.

Nevertheless, The Expendables is a fun, independent and mindless source of entertainment, able to be enjoyed by action novices or experts alike, it's a rarity to see this many big names on one screen, even if several of them are a little long in the tooth. It's a film about friendship, making a difference and brotherhood, but also one in which men are blown up, burnt to a crisp, and decapitated in the most violent ways possible. For some (many, it seems), that is enough. It most certainly isn't for everybody. It's no Eat, Pray, Love, but when it makes that much at the box office, it doesn't have to be.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Losers Weepers

Okay, here's the story.

Your special forces team is on a top-secret covert mission working with the C.I.A. to take down some bad guys. When the mission is complete, your C.I.A. handlers betray you for knowing too much, committing an atrocity and blaming it on your team, forcing you all to go underground and on the run to try and find out who framed you and clear your name.

Okay, now raise your hand if you thought I was talking about The A-Team.

It's easy to draw comparisons between the famous 1980's show that was recently adapted into a big-screen blockbuster and The Losers, the unfortunately-named adaptation of the Vertigo Comics (DC's mature label) series of the same name. Both feature special forces teams betrayed by forces in their government. Both teams go on the run to try and clear their names. Both movies blow up a lot of ordinance. Both have a smoking-hot lead actress that's not afraid to fire of a missile launcher if she so desir... oh, wait. No, The Losers gets a point for that. One has to wonder, though, whether original comic creator Andy Diggle knew he was creating something of an A-Team clone when he set the book in motion back in 2003.

Saldana's a lethal weapon
There's no doubting the movie's strengths, however. The Losers, the best of the best of special forces teams, are sent down to Bolivia in tandem with the C.I.A. in order to take down a suspected terrorist. Led by Lt. Colonel Clay (Henry Dean Morgan), the team consists of hand-to-hand expert Roque (Idris Elba), hacker Jensen (Chris Evans), vehicle specialist Pooch (Columbus Short) and sniper Cougar (Oscar Jaenada). All the team has to do is call in a target for an aerial strike, but after they do so, they notice a large number of children on site. Rebuffed in their attempts to call off the strike, the team carries off a very risky rescue mission that successfully gets the children off base and into the extraction helicopter that was meant for the team. When that helicopter gets destroyed in an apparent retaliatory strike by the C.I.A. for disobeying orders, the team is blamed for the deaths and forced to go underground and try to find who set them up to try and get their lives back. While hiding out, they're discovered by the mysterious Aisha (Zoe Saldana), who offers them a chance, a slim one, to get back at the operative who betrayed them and let them get back to their lives.

"Another van? Can't we ride in a helicopter like The A-Team?"
The film doesn't have as much mayhem as The A-Team, but while nothing can take the place of watching someone attempt to fly a tank, it surely doesn't lack for action. Explosions abound, but by taking a more realistic route, the movie still has dozens of gunfights, espionage missions and deception to keep the average action fan happy, and strong character development with interesting character interaction go a long way to the creation of a quality film.

One of the more explosive scenes in the film
Morgan, probably still known more for his tragic role on Grey's Anatomy as the heart patient Denny Duquette than for Watchmen's anti-hero the Comedian, smolders and shines, especially in scenes involving Saldana and Elba. It's a huge step forward for him to be the main man, and he handles the situation admirably and professionally. Saldana has simply exploded onto the scene, with Star Trek and Avatar officially announcing her career ascendancy, and here she commands your attention every time she's on the screen. Elba may have trouble living up to his work as Stringer Bell on The Wire, but here he does a good job of putting that behind him as Clay's friend and also a pretty good source of the team's tension. Unlike Clay, who wants revenge, Roque simply wants his life back, and Elba pulls it off. Jaenada doesn't get much to do but shoot things from a distance; He has few lines and no background is ever supplied for him. In the comic he supposedly quiet because of trauma experienced in combat, but that's never explored in the film. Short is pretty good as Pooch, the only married member of the squad who's wife is at home, pregnant and close to her due date. Pooch desperately wants to be there for when his child is born. Short gets some good scenes and plays them well, especially in the humor department. But the true standout of the crew might be the geeky Jensen, played by Evans. The best example might be this scene, where Jensen infiltrates an office building to extract a tool they need to fight back against the C.I.A. The scene, interspersed with action and laughs, is a great use of the character, and he's got the most charisma with the audience of any of the characters. Also I must say this is the movie that has allayed my fears about Evans being cast as the new Captain America, as he manages to bulk up considerably from the seemingly skinny Fantastic Four days.

"That's right bitches; I got a crossbow!"
It's too bad that The Losers continues this season's tradition of bone-headed villains who are really no danger to the heroes of the tale. One can only wonder what would have happened if Jason Patric hadn't turned down the lead role in The FirmThe A-Team, which arrived in theaters a week later. Saldana, for instance. While still being a serious sex symbol for the guys watching, Saldana is also something for the ladies: a strong, female character who plays by her own rules and does things her way, which is a huge leap over Jennifer Beals' role in The A-Team. Also, though A-Team may have more name recognition, The Losers does a great job of letting the audience connect with and sympathize with these soldiers, Clay and Roque too but especially Pooch and Jensen, whose family connections are minor plot threads in the story.

Pooch battles depth perception
So yeah, I loved The Losers and director Sylvan White's efforts on his biggest production to date. So why if I think it's superior in ways to The A-Team do I have it situated as the new #7 when A-Team comfortably sits at #4? Frankly, despite the attempt at more realistic ideas, the story itself  reeks of cheap knock-off, when The A-Team has boasted this storyline for a much longer lifespan. Though A-Team's plot devices have holes you could sail a ship through, it never lets you dwell on the problems with the story like The Losers does. The A-Team may boast sequences that make no sense (cutting out the engine of your helicopter right before the heat-seeking missiles hit probably won't work and shouldn't be recommended for real-life pilots), but they invariably make the movie more exciting and fantastical, easier for the viewer to become lost in the fabric of the film. And while The Losers boasts a strong ensemble cast that can do drama and comedy, nobody was better at leading than Liam Neeson, nobody better at doing the undercover than Bradley Cooper, and nobody with quite the natural comedic timing of Sharlto Copley. Honestly, while The Losers deserved more attention than it got and barely squeaked by, The A-Team was the film I had the more fun watching.

Just don't forget about this film. Losers need love too.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Scott Pilgrim's Precious Little Film

If you've seen me in person at all the past few months, I've probably mentioned Scott Pilgrim vs. the World to you. I first saw the trailer back when I saw The A-Team, and as you can imagine from the fact that I would constantly re-watch the trailers at home whenever I had a free moment, I've been looking forward to it ever since. What can I say? The trailers have been instant merriment, a quick pick-me-up during a dull moment. And so when I finally had the chance to see the whole damn thing this past Thursday, I was confident that it would easily stride atop of my movie rankings, or very close thereof. And having just completed the six-set graphic novel collection by Canadian cartoonist Bryan Lee O'Malley, I was even more excited, having already been drawn into the story of one young man's quest to defeat his new girlfriend's seven evil exes who are out to make her new boyfriend's life a living hell.

Of course, the movie wouldn't even be in existence if not for the pre-existing graphic novel. Published by Oni Press, the first volume of the Scott Pilgrim series, called Scott Pilgrim's Precious Little Life, was released in August of 2004 and immediately the idea of adapting it into a movie was begun, with director Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz) brought in almost immediately. Though most of the story had yet to be committed to paper, O'Malley was very involved in the creation of the script, with several of his dialogue lines and plot bits making their way to the movie, and in return, several of the scripts used had influence in volumes 3 and 4 of the graphic novel.

The Gorgeous Mary Elizabeth Winstead
You'll notice that I say "graphic novel" and not "manga" in referring to Scott Pilgrim, though one could be forgiven for confusing this title with the latter. The books are designed not unlike those one would see in section of your local bookstore consigned to the popular Japanese import titles. Black and white, with rare color pages, big eyes, and exaggerated animations, it's not unlike many eastern titles on the market. O'Malley was in fact influenced by manga, but his style is really closer to, say, Chynna Clugston's Blue Monday than Tite Kubo's Bleach. It's got tons of western influence as well, and it's setting in frigid Canada already sets itself apart from most titles in general.

The Scott Pilgrim series starts out great and gets better with every volume, eventually winning Harvey and Eisner awards for their strong character development, funny dialogue, crazy action, and possibly most important, a believably developing relationship between Scott and the love of his life, Ramona Flowers. With such high standards for storytelling and with excellent trailers paving the way for what we expect to see the most entertaining film this year, can the truth live up even close to the hype? In an answer, no.

Scott Pilgrim Kicks Ass
The film starts strong, following closely to the story of the first volume of the graphic novel, the only title in the series finished before scripts had begun to be written. In it, Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) is a slacker and part-time bassist for the band Sex Bob-Omb (Names after the explosive Super Mario villain) with his friends Stephen Stills on guitar (Mark Webber), Kim Pine on drums (Alison Pill), and "Young" Neil who's their biggest fan boy (Johnny Simmons). The 23-year old Pilgrim has just begun dating a high-schooler, 17-year-old Knives Chau (Ellen Wong), with whom he likes spending time because this kind of relationship is "easy" for him, one year after a particularly break-up. He shares an apartment (and bed) with his gay friend Wallace Wells (Kieran Culkin) and for the time being, life seems easy. That changes when he sees a mysterious stranger in a dream, who eventually turns out to be the very real Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), an American who just moved to Toronto to start over and get away from her past. That past manifests itself as the League of Evil Exes, made up of seven evil people who blame Ramona for ruining their lives and seeking that she should never be involved with be taken out of the picture, ensuring Ramona could never be happy in a relationship. The various fight scenes (and actually, many other parts of the movie) are very much inspired by video games and music, creating a unique, and outrageous, way of pushing the story forward in a way that has never been done on the big screen before. So from the point that Matthew Patel (Satya Bhabha) crashes a battle of the bands meet to fight Scott on, our hero is constantly on the defensive, worried about from where the next attack may arrive.
L-R: Cera, Winstead, Simmons, Wong, Pill, Webber

The acting in the film is quite good, with several of the supporting roles cast able to almost perfectly embody the graphic novel's unique conceptions, especially Wong as the Scott-crazy high-schooler Knives and Culkin as the scene-stealing Wallace. Both actors manage to perfectly personify their roles and expand upon what's known from the comic. Pill, Webber and Simmons are good as the band-mates, though little is done with them. Anna Kendrick had not yet been nominated for her Oscar for Up in the Air when shooting of this film had begun but provides much spunk for her relatively small role, and Winstead takes a great opportunity and does a fantastic job with the lead role she's been given. It's almost unfortunate that Cera is the weakest link in this ensemble cast. He plays the nerd card right, but I'm beginning to wonder if there's much range in his performances, as he's pretty much playing a slightly-older version of his character from Arrested Development, albeit with fighting prowess. He just lacks a small part of Scott's personality, his utter devotion to Ramona, that detracts from his performance. And that's why it's a shame that the ensemble cast isn't given more of a chance to shine, like they are in the comics. It's a minor quibble, but more of Kim Pine or Envy Adams (Brie Larsen) would not have hurt the story, especially since it had been pared down to a scant 112 minutes. That's a LOT of character development cut out.

The League of Evil Exes
The exes are a good variety, with the personas mostly consistent with the books. Matthew Patel is exactly the same as his print version, not surprising since the entire story to that point is a slightly truncated copy of the first book. But skateboarder/action star Lucas Lee (Chris Evans) is much different from his character in the book, who wasn't even evil, just a sellout. Parenthood's Mae Whitman is good-but-not-great as the fourth evil ex, the lesbian half-ninja Roxy Richter. But the true standout of the exes is Brandon "Superman" Routh as Todd Ingram, rock star bassist, third evil ex, and the current boyfriend of Envy Adams, Scott's ex-girlfriend. Routh manages to convey humor in silent delivery. Never mind that the lines aren't ad-libbed (they appear exactly the same in the third volume) his delivery is perfect and who knew Routh could actually ACT?? His was a pleasant surprise, easily the best part of the movie. Too bad it was squarely in the middle, as Jason Schwartzman, while seemingly cast as the penultimate evil ex-boyfriend, doesn't stack up as a main villain as he should. Even worse, the Katayanagi twins, evil exes 5 and 6, are turned from robot-building geniuses into a pair of anonymous pop stars, with not a single line of dialogue between them. The castration of their roles was not only a side-effect of the movie entering production before the comic was finished, but apparently the lack of interest the filmmakers had in new evil characters by this point and rushed through them to get to Schwartzman. In fact, from about halfway through the Roxy Richter story onward, the movie feels a little forced. A shame that such potentially interesting characters are tossed aside like garbage.

Brandon Routh shows off his vegan psychic powers
And this leads to my ultimate gripes about the movie. It would be folly to exactly convert a good story like that in the Scott Pilgrim books directly into a film, because then you'd have a six-hour film and no matter how good a performance is, it rarely will keep an audience in the spirit for that long. However, so much was cut out of the stories that it practically makes the story somewhat unbelievable (okay, as unbelievable as a story involving quick-travel dimensions, mystic Indian warriors, psychic vegan rockers, lesbian half-ninjas, and enemies that explode into currency can be) over the course of the film. Lack of minor character development is one problem. Scott's previous relationships before Ramona, including those with Kim and Envy (whose breakup had a heavy toll for Scott) are barely mentioned. Kim has been reduced to a useless wise-cracker for whom the story at large has no meaning, and Envy had a much bigger role in the books, but in the movie that ends with Todd's defeat. Those characters, as well as Scott's old high-school friend Lisa Miller (who's completely cut out of the film adaptation) are major factors in the continual degradation of the Scott/Ramona relationship over the course of the book's story, replaced in the film by Ramona simply being tired of her past catching up to her, and Scott's fear that he'll lose Ramona. These things DO have impact in the books, but on a much smaller scale. But the biggest issue the film has may be it's time line. In the books, more than a year passes between the events of volumes 1 and 6. That's a lot of time for character, relationship and plot development. In the movies, this time is scaled down to a couple of WEEKS at most. It's one thing to speed up the pattern of ex-attacks, another thing to speed up a story to fit more snugly into film-length entertainment, but the ups and downs of Scott and Ramona's relationship is believable BECAUSE it takes place over so long a period of time. The wear and tear that exists between them is a result of small things over a length of time, not big things over the short term. And cutting the film short means Scott doesn't even get to do any of the major steps forward he performs in volume 4, such as successfully getting a job and moving in with Ramona. In all, the comic featured a realistic relationship during unrealistic scenarios. With the movie, the realism of the relationship is gone. And to add insult to injury by the end, we're led to believe that he'd be better off back with Knives than Ramona.

Big Hammer
So does that mean I didn't like Scott Pilgrim vs. the World? Oh, no, I liked it. I liked it A LOT. I had serious issues with the movie, mostly due to the graphic novel series still being so fresh in my mind, though the film had enough foibles of it's own. No, the excellent use of video game imagery to tell the story, outrageous humor, and the amazing acting from the ensemble cast, still puts it high on my chart for the year, even if it fell far short on expectations. I may not have loved it quite so much as I had been sure I would, but Scott Pilgrim vs. the World still ends up ranked at #5 on my top 10 list for the year.

That's right. I have a top 10 movies list.


Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Aaarrrr, Matey!

When my parents bought the first home PC for me and my sister, I doubt they could have predicted quite how profound an effect it would have on me for years to come. Way back in what I want to say was the Christmas of '90 or '91, the first PC was ideal for of course working on our homework or checking out websites on it's state-of-the-art 56K modem (I'll hopefully never have to be without a cable modem from now on) but one of the coolest things about the new PC was that my parents had gotten a couple of games from a friend of the family loaded up for us to enjoy. One of them was Lucasarts' The Secret of Monkey Island. The irreverent, hilarious game from the mind of Ron Gilbert introduced me to the geeky but enthusiastic Guybrush Threepwood as he ventured to become a pirate, seduce the Governor of Melee Island, and defeat the evil Ghost Pirate LeChuck, in an adventure as cool and whimsical as it was challenging and hilarious. It's one of the games that influenced my gamer development, and certainly made me into one of the few dedicated adventure gamers out there, a medium that sadly few game companies take a serious stab at.

Not long after completing SMI, I was delighted to discover that a second game had been released in the series. Monkey Island 2, LeChuck's Revenge had been released a year after the first game. It would be the last Monkey Island game penned by Gilbert before he left Lucasarts (Though I wouldn't know that until years later) and it's still held today as not only the best Lucasarts adventure game, but one of the best adventure games EVER (and having played through pretty much the entire Lucasarts adventure game library, I can pretty much justify those assertions). So it was with great delight when I discovered that last month, about nineteen years after it was first released, Monkey Island 2 was getting the "Special Edition" treatment that SMI had gotten last summer when the latest addition to the series Tales of Monkey Island had been released. The game was completely remastered, with new graphics, new audio and voice-over work (voice technology for games didn't even exist when the game was first released) and a host of new features to attract new fans while pleasing those who had played long ago.

The game take place an unspecified amount of time after the end of the first game, with Guybrush landing himself on Scabb Island, home to pirates, sailors and rebels. Having amassed a large amount of wealth to his name, Guybrush is on a quest to find the legendary treasure of Big Whoop, located on some unnamed island in this fictional Caribbean. However, soon disaster strikes. The island's local thug, one pint-sized Largo Lagrande, robs Guybrush of all his money and riches. That's bad enough, but when Guybrush manages to build a voodoo doll of Largo to get back at the diminutive terror, he inadvertently sets plans in motion to resurrect the dread pirate LeChuck, who's reign of terror Guybrush had thought to have stopped for good in the last game. Apparently, the only thing Guybrush can do to stop it is to do what he had already been doing, find Big Whoop before LeChuck.

The game was well received at the time for a number of reasons, not the least of which were excellent artwork, streaming music that would alter to fit the specific scene seamlessly without pauses or breaks, and sharp, individual characters that don't feel like copy/paste jobs. A lot of work was put into the creation of this game, and it showed. Even now, though the graphics would look seriously pixellated on current machines, the art and music still feel cozy and attractive, all these years later.

Dialogue is funny and fresh, and it helps that the characters are well thought out, with motivations and reasons for the things they do. Interacting with characters using the dialogue trees was a delight, especially since there are no "wrong" answers that would prematurely end the game for you, so you can say the snarky thing just to be fun and still get the job done. Puzzles are also unique, with many of them involving you cheat (like in the game's spitting and drinking contests), others involving recipes (the voodoo doll), or sabotage (dumping a rat in a cold vichyssoise), meaning you don't have to do the same puzzle over and over again like you do in some games.

The Special Edition also comes with some great features, along with it's enhanced visuals and sound. The voice work is excellently done by the same team that voices the other games in the series, and the head trio of Dominic Armato (Guybrush), Alexandra Boyd (Elaine, the Governor) and Earn Boen (LeChuck) are all fantastic in their roles, and Phil Lamarr is also well cast in the small role of Captain Dread. The only disappointment in the voice casting was that of James Arnold Taylor as Largo, as instead of the vague piraty voice I was expecting, Largo sounded like he was hailing straight from Brooklyn, completely destroying the mood of the game when he was in the scene. It's a shame because Largo is a great character and to have him voiced so lessened that. He's not the only problem on audio, either. In a scene where Guybrush's parents come back from the dead to tell him an important message in song (yes, there was blunt force trauma involved, why do you ask?) the lyrics are sung off-tempo from the background music, the results of which are simply cringe-inducing.

These few gaffes are forgivable, though, compared to the wonder that is the rest of the game. The enhanced visuals are spectacular, and unlike the Special Edition for Secret, the character sprites actually look realistically within their environment, instead of looking like they were pasted in. The return of many favorite characters (Stan the Used Coffin salesman, the enigmatic Voodoo Lady) is supplemented by many new, cool ones (cartographer Wally B. Feed, Captain Kat Capsize), and one doesn't feel like any of these characters don't belong. The "Lite" mode that the original game shipped with, an easy mode for younger players, has been removed but has been replaced with a hint system to help stuck players along, and one of the coolest features that had been released in last year's special edition was being able to press one button to replace the new visuals and audio with the original 1991 graphics and music, for those nostalgic for the good old days.

Finally, the game has new features specifically for those of us who LOVE special features. Besides the unlockable concept art that can be opened up by solving puzzles and advancing through the game, there's also a "Commentary" mode, in which original creators Ron Gilbert, Dave Grossman and Tim Schafer run commentary on the game as you play it (optionally, of course, in case you don't want to miss your favorite part of the game) in MST3K style, with their silhouettes watching the action on screen. As far as I can tell, it's the first time all three have collaborated on anything having to do with the Monkey Island universe together since MI2's release way back in 1991, so it's a landmark event to say the least.

Having played the game on-and-off over and over since it's release so many moons ago, it was a no-brainer for me to pick the game up in S.E. form, but even if you haven't played the games before, I heartily recommend grabbing these Special Editions while they're available. At only $9.99 each, there's no reason not to give it a shot and see why so many people think Guybrush Threepwood is among the best video game characters of all time.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Zombies in the Mist

End of the world zombie comedy? No thanks, I already saw Shaun of the Dead.

That's what I thought last summer, anyway, when Zombieland took number one at the box office and went on to become the most successful zombie movie ever. Despite the success, and despite the stellar reviews it received, I was not very enthusiastic about seeing the movie in the theaters. When Shaun of the Dead came out back in 2004, it was the critic's darling. All the reviewers loved it, and it seemed like everyone I knew, whether fans of zombie movies or just movie fans in general, would shout from the rooftops about how great this movie was. So finally I relented, but instead of this fantastic film that would be worthy of such praise, my response? "Meh."

It wasn't that I thought the movie was bad. On the contrary, I thought it was very clever, with some outrageously funny moments. It seemed to carry a good balance between respecting the source material while at the same time parodying it's cultural commentaries. I simply thought that the film didn't live up to the hype put upon me by people who seemed to think it was the best movie that came out that year. It's the reason I still haven't seen Hot Fuzz despite actually wanting to see it at some point. And it's why I waited almost a year to see Zombieland, despite much interest I had in the Woody Harrelson-fronted film about surviving after the worst has come to be.

The narrative for Zombieland is told by Jesse Eisenberg's character, called Columbus. Columbus is a college student who has managed to survive the zombie apocalypse by following his thirty-three rules of life, many of which somehow translate perfectly into surviving zombie attacks or surviving in Zombieland altogether. Some, like Cardio (1), Wear Seatbelts (4), and the Buddy System (29) make sense in real life as well as the endtimes. Eisenberg is headed cross-country to his hometown of Columbus where he hopes to find his family and see if his home survived what has happened to the rest of the world, despite not having been very close to his family to begin with. On the way, he encounters Talahassee (Harrelson), a somewhat crazy survivor who has made a business out of killing the undead, and to hear him put it, "Business is good!" Not only is Talahassee two cans short of a six pack, but he's on a peculiar quest to find Twinkies: "not just any box of Twinkies, the last box of Twinkies that anyone will enjoy in the whole universe. Believe it or not, Twinkies have an expiration date. Some day very soon, Life's little Twinkie gauge is gonna go... empty." Despite each of their eccentricities, the two decide to team up, if at least for the short term, and their chemistry and scenes together often make for the most enjoyable parts of the movie, as each mocks the other with mutual respect as fellow survivors would.

Before too long, the duo meet up with the sister con-girls Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin), who manage to rob and abandon them multiple times over the course of the film. The sisters are on their way to Pacific Playland, a California amusement park, where it's rumored that there are no zombies. Wichita merely wants Little Rock to be able to have fun at least once in a world where zombies are pretty much the dominant species. And so the sisters team up with our heroes, if only so long as to reach the park.

That's the plot in a nutshell, and though it's weak and nothing to write home about, it's fine because the movie is buoyed by it's characters and acting. Eisenberg (Who had a breakout year with this and his summer comedy Adventureland) is perfect as the neurotic Columbus, not only in his deadpan narration and comedy timing, but also in his body language, which manages to properly convey his fear and his incredulity to the situations in which he finds himself. But he's got nothing on Harrelson, who had some unique conditions for signing onto the project (including ecologically-friendly sets and director Ruben Fleischer not consuming dairy for a week) and proved he was worth it, putting together a kick-ass performance in which he owns every scene and makes this Twinkie-hunting, zombie-killing maniac believable and sympathetic. Who can say 2009 wasn't his year, as in addition to this film, he had a notable role in the action film 2012 and an Oscar-nominated one for The Messenger. Emma Stone may be known to most as Jonah Hill's romantic interest in the 2007 film Superbad, and while she is fine as older sister and con-woman Wichita, she's up at the same level as the other people in the cast. Abigail Breslin may be forever identified as Little Miss Sunshine, but she still does an amazing job here as the smart but still incredibly and impressionably young Little Rock. She outperforms everyone in her scenes, with the notable exception of Harrelson.

Although the movies does have problems, they are mostly trivial and don't overly affect the enjoyment of the film. Mostly, they are continuity errors, far too many to account for in print. Fortunately, IMDB maintains an extensive list of them, if you wanted to check them. Most of these could have been avoided, and can likely be attributed to the inexperience of director Ruben Fleischer and his crew, whether by haste or just plain error. . Obviously, if this movie had been made with a more experienced crew, perhaps these errors could have been avoided. Oh, well, woulda, coulda, shoulda.

I went into this film with no expectations and little idea as to the plot of the film, but even if I had, I'm not sure it would have altered the level of enjoyment I had during it's viewing. For a horror comedy, Zombieland doesn't skimp on the blood, gore and special effects, and manages that perfect balance of respecting the original source material while parodying it perfectly to fit the story. It's easily the best zombie film I've seen since Zack Snyder's 2004 Dawn of the Dead, and I'd heavily recommend to anyone interested in the genre as a humorous aside to the more serious Romero flicks. Toss in a hilarious cameo from one of the funniest actors alive, gut-wrenching laughs and more zombies than you can unload a shotgun at, and you've got one of the few movies from last year that I'd watch again and again without hesitation.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

To Catch a Predators

Note: This piece was originally intended to be published on the literary site Open Letters Monthly for their August issue. However, due to organizational chaos beyond anyone's control, edits could not be finished in time for publication. Despite the problems, I still consider Open Letters as a sister site and am already working on a piece for the September issue. Until then, and since I did promise you this review, here you go. Enjoy.

About thirty years ago, science fiction stories were becoming booming business, especially in movie theaters. In 1979, director Ridley Scott brought us a vision straight out of H.R. Giger’s nightmares with Alien. In 1984, it was James Cameron (who would also go on to make the first Alien sequel) who helped make “Ahnold” a true household name with the cyborg-from-the-future Terminator. Finally, in something of holy trifecta, John McTiernan released Predator in 1987 and in doing so introduced to moviegoers one of the most identifiably scary creatures of this or any era.

The creation of what we now associate to be the Predator can be traced back to Oscar-award winning special effects guru Stan Winston, who has worked on such films as Aliens, Jurassic Park, the first two Terminator films, and Edward Scissorhands. After an early prototype of the Predator creature featuring Jean-Claude Van Damme in a suit failed to impress, Winston was called in on actor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s recommendation. After eight months of brainstorming and creating, Winston then went on to unveil a creature that succeeded at being an imposing, frightening creature even when compared to hulking stars Schwarzeneggar, Carl Weathers and Jesse “The Body” Ventura. At over seven feet and with a alarming assortment of anti-personnel weaponry, not to mention brute strength, nothing like the Predator had been seen before, or seen since.

After making a name for itself by slaughtering an entire joint task force in the jungles of Guatemala, the Predator returned three years in a much different setting. With the release of 1990’s Predator 2, the hunters are introduced to a near-future Los Angeles, smack in the middle of a street war between Colombian and Jamaican gangs, with the LAPD trying to keep the violence under control. With the Predator on the loose, the gang violence goes down, just not the way the police wanted, as the gangs and eventually the police too are slaughtered before the Predator’s violence. What made Predator 2 different from it’s predecessor was not just the setting; it also meant that the monster that stalked the jungles of Guatemala was no aberration. No lone hunter, the Predators became a hunter race, one that had traveled to Earth (and other places) to game hunt. In fact, it was Predator 2 that introduced the idea of a crossover with the Alien franchise, although it would be many years before audiences would be ultimately disappointed by the fare offered in the theaters.

That disappointment did not extend to paper formats, thankfully. It  can be argued that the Predator’s most successful medium has to this point been in literary form, with countless books and comics pitting the Predator not only against human foes, but also famous enemies like Terminators and Aliens (which helped drum up more excitement for the then-upcoming movies). The Predator also successfully crossed-over with more famous comic book heroes such as Judge Dredd, Tarzan, Witchblade, Superman, Batman and once the entire Justice League. Every time it proved itself up to the challenge of facing off against some of the most famous names in the business. And it wasn’t just comics where the Predator reigned supreme: novels by notable sci-fi authors like S.D. Perry have shed even more character and history about this alien race than could be noted here.  And yet none of it has deviated from the brutal and terrifying hunter the Predator is known to be.

Whereas the Alien or Terminator were scary within their own type - Aliens are instinctual hunters driven mostly by the need to reproduce, and the Terminators of course are guided by programming algorithms directing them to kill all humans or carry out certain missions – the Predator has no one type. Their slaughtering of humans has little to do with instinct and everything to do with culture. A hunter race, Predators kill for sport, entertainment, and honor. Besides their obvious physical advantage over the average human being, they also sport all kinds of futuristic technology such as plasma pistols, disc blades, electrified nets, and stealth fields, mixed in with more “primitive” weapons like spears and their famous wrist-mounted blades. In fact, there are many contradictions between the Predator being considered an “advanced” or “primitive race. Says Alec Gillis, the special effects artist who worked on Aliens, Alien 3 and both Alien Vs. Predator movies:

“The Predator society builds sophisticated spaceships, yet they should not look as sleek and hi-tech as a Star Wars stormtrooper. They are a tribal culture, yet their look should not be as primitive as the orcs from Lord of the Rings. They are also a warrior culture, so the ornate cannot conflict with the practical.”

 Combine all these things with their natural ability to see in infared and you have an intelligent, deadly opponent who will find you, will kill you, and will hoist your spine and skull over his head like a trophy. And yet the Predator is far from any amoral murderer. Unlike many hunters in the wild that we’re aware of, they don’t siphon out the weak from the strongest in the herd. In fact, in most cases a Predator will spare children or the sick (or in the case of Maria Conchita Alonso’s character in Predator 2, pregnant), willing rather as a point of honor to face off against the strongest a species has to offer, usually whoever’s the most heavily armed.  And they certainly have the edge over human so-called game hunters, who regularly only hunt in conditions where the prey cannot fight back. In fact, while the title of the new sequel Predators could easily be about that there’s more than one Predator on this game reserve planet, it’s more than just that. In becoming the best hunters they can be, the prey themselves are Predators. Soldiers, gang members, yakuza, psychopaths; in the end, they all pale in comparison to the galaxy’s most perfect hunter.

So while dread is to be expected when facing off against so potent a killer, it’s refreshing that the trademark creature does not make it’s first appearance until significantly into the story of Predators, with hero Adrian Brody’s character more immediately concerned with the fact that he’s falling from quite a significant height and can’t remember jumping from any plane. After a few gripping minutes, his parachute kicks in, and he finds himself in the middle of an unidentifiable jungle and soon surrounded by others confused about their whereabouts such as Alice Braga’s Black Ops sniper, Danny Trejo’s Mexican drug cartel enforcer, Walton Goggins’ death row inmate, and Topher Grace as a doctor who doesn’t seem to fit in with the rest of the rest of the people associated with mayhem as a profession. They don’t remember how they got there, only that they’re somewhere none of them have been before. Soon it becomes apparent they are not even on Earth anymore, and after they discover they are being hunted by some unknown person or persons, they find they must stick together and find some way to survive and escape the planet.

People might be forgiven for thinking that Robert Rodriguez (Sin City, From Dusk Til Dawn) was in fact the director of this film based on seeing the trailer – as well as the casting of Trejo, a Rodriguez favorite – but while Rodriguez produced the film it was actually directed by award-winner Nimrod Antal (for the Hungarian Control) and to his credit he retains everything that made the first two Predator films great while adding his own brand of unique ideas to the story. For instance, it’s actually an offshoot rival clan of Predators that have set up this preserve, while also holding a blood feud with the original “classic” Predators. Also added are hunting “dogs” and a robotic bird much like a spy drone used to search for the prey. At first I was put off by these additions as they had no place in any previous Predator storyline – movies or books – but with the realization that these creatures are true adaptors, constantly striving to be better hunters over generations, the idea actually made sense and these enhancements more acceptable.

The acting is surprisingly solid throughout, as well. Brody, who’s Oscar win for The Pianist unsettlingly set the stage for his rapid spiral career descent, shows he can still be a strong lead given half a chance, properly channeling an inner deadness gained from years in the military and as a mercenary. As his better half, Braga is perfect displaying the humanity Brody’s character seems to lack, and their interactions are among the best character interactions in the movie. Lawrence Fishburne appears about halfway through the film as a half-crazy survivor who’s been on the planet for ten seasons and although he out-acts everyone else in the room three times over he thankfully doesn’t take over, instead enjoying his quick cameo role and helping set up the final act. Goggins also deserves credit for his portrayal of the former death row inmate. Making such an unlikable character amusing to the audience is no small feat; Goggins does it almost unnoticeably and even though the other characters can’t stand him, he’s definitely amusing to us in the seats. Finally Topher Grace is perfectly cast as the seemingly out-of-his-element doctor who doesn’t seem to be useful or dangerous. He does help illicit some helpful plot points early on, but you just know he’s not what he seems and part of the fun of watching his performance is trying to determine if your instincts are on the money.

The best thing I can say about Predators is that when handling established licenses you should not
screw with what works (See Alien: Resurrection or the AVP series for proof) and thankfully that’s what we see here. Rodriguez, Antal, and their crew created a completely believable sequel for the Predator franchise to take, and didn’t change what made the creature so great. They even retained the music from the original Predator film to close out the credits, as an homage to the original. While there are references to the original film on more than one occasion, this is definitely it’s own movie, it’s own story, always respectful to the source material but not enslaved to it. Predators is suspenseful and shocking and you will sit on the edge of your seat wondering who will survive in the ultimate test of predators and prey.