Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Passengers (2016)

Passengers (2016): written by Jon Spaihts; directed by Morgan Tyldum; starring Jennifer Lawrence (Aurora Lane), Chris Pratt (Jim Preston), Michael Sheen (Arthur the Android Bartender), and Laurence Fishburne (Gus Mancuso): There was a lot of (rhetorical) hand-wringing when Passengers hit theatres last winter over a particular decision made by Chris Pratt's character. And yes, it's a terrible decision. And the ultimate reaction of Jennifer Lawrence's character is going to be disturbing for a lot of people. But Passengers was still a lot more entertaining than I expected.

The film-makers even tried to go for a certain level of scientific accuracy, at least as we know it now. The Starship Avalon is a colony ship delivering 5000 passengers in some form of suspension to a colony world roughly 60 light years from Earth. The ship rotates those sections that require artificial gravity, as would we. And it's restricted to slower-than-light travel, as would we be. So kudos for that, though implausibilities creep in throughout as to how spin-generated AG would work.

The trip takes 120 years, so everyone onboard sleeps for most of it. Except something happens and Chris Pratt, a lovable mechanic, wakes up with 90 years to go. He's increasingly lonely. Then Jennifer Lawrence, a lovable writer, wakes up. Then some other stuff happens.

Passengers goes pretty much everywhere I expected it to go. But the set design and the CGI are actually interesting, and Lawrence and Pratt make for an engaging pair (along with lovable android bartender Arthur, played by Michael Sheen). There are a number of Idiot Plot moments, but not enough to destroy the viewing experience. And at least this is neither a superhero movie nor a giant epic. Jennifer Lawrence gets top billing, possibly because the plot requires her to strip down to her underwear or bathing suit every 20 minutes. Next time, make her the mechanic and Pratt the writer. Lightly recommended.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

More Movies About Androids and Food

Office Space (1999): written and directed by Mike Judge; starring Ron Livingston (Peter), Jennifer Aniston (Joanna), David Herman (Michael), Ajay Naidu (Samir), Diedrich Bader (Lawrence), Stephen Root (Milton), and Gary Cole (Bill Lumbergh): Mike Judge's cult favourite about the dehumanizing effects of office work remains a mostly masterpiece nearly 20 years later. Now as then, only the limp, comedy-killing dishrag that is Jennifer Aniston in romantic comedies strikes a sour note. Otherwise, the cast and writing are impeccable. Nearly highly recommended (Damn you, Aniston!).


Deli Man (2014): written and directed by Erik Anjou: Thoroughly enjoyable documentary about the rise and fall of the Jewish deli in North America (well, Canada and the United States, anyway). Extremely tasty and surprisingly nourishing, though Montreal is a no-show (but Toronto does show up). The story of present-day Deli Man Ziggy Gruber, who "co-owns a large deli in Houston and is also the grandson of the original owner of the Rialto Deli, the first Kosher deli to open on Broadway in New York City in the 1920s," (IMDB) unifies the documentary's narrative. He's an interesting fella. Highly recommended.


Becoming Cary Grant (2017): written and directed by Mark Kidel and Nick Ware: While this documentary gets a bit too arty at times (and could use a lot more captioning to explain who people are in photographs and home-movie clips), it's still a captivating look at the life and work of Cary Grant (born Archie Leach in England). While there are interviews with critics, historians, friends, and family members, most of the heavy lifting is done by Jonathan Pryce reading sections from Grant's never-published autobiography. It's fascinating stuff, augmented by the fact that Grant found success in LSD-aided therapy. Recommended.


Morgan (2016): written by Seth Owen; directed by Luke Scott; starring Kate Mara (Lee Weathers), Anya Taylor-Joy (Morgan), Rose Leslie (Amy), Toby Jones (Ziegler), Paul Giamatti (Shapiro), Michelle Yeoh (Dr. Cheng), and Boyd Holbrook (Skip): Or, Ex Machina for Dummies. Nothing in this 'AI seeks to escape its creators by any means necessary' film makes much sense if examined too closely, from the convenient;y breakable glass skylight in the AI's cell to the idea that a major corporation would have scientists developing super-dangerous, super-expensive super-soldiers without having lots of supervision and security on-site. Kate Mara elevates the material with her performance as a security wetwork specialist sent to clean things up at the rustic mansion of a lab, as does Anya Taylor-Joy (The Witch) as the eponymous Morgan. But it's pretty dumb, though it marks the directorial debut of Ridley Scott's son, Luke. Not recommended.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Scaramouche (1952)

Scaramouche (1952): adapted by Ronald Millar, George Froeschel, Talbot Jennings, and Carey Wilson from the Rafael Sabatini novel; directed by George Sidney; starring Stewart Granger (Andre Moreau), Eleanor Parker (Lenore), Janet Leigh (Aline), Mel Ferrer (Marquis de Maynes), and Richard Anderson (Philippe): My favourite swashbuckler of the Technicolour era features several dazzling sword fights that influenced the lightsabre battles in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi in much the same way that the aerial assault in The Dambusters influenced the Death Star assault in Star Wars.

And boy, they're great duels, especially the lengthy final battle between our hero Andre Moreau and his nemesis the Marquis de Maynes. Stewart Granger is a witty, surprisingly light piece of beefcake as Moreau, who ends up hiding out in a commedia dell'arte troupe in pre-Revolutionary France as the titular character. Eleanor Parker, lovely and funny, is his actress love interest while Janet Leigh is his noblewoman crush. As Moreau's best friend, Oscar Goldman from The Six Million Dollar Man, has been murdered in a one-sided duel by the evil Establishment swordsman Marquis, Moreau must seek instruction in fencing while avoiding the government's search for him.

It's all frothy and colourful as Hell, with the sword-fight choreography allowed to play out in surprisingly long takes that often actually involve the actual actors. No quick-cutting, modern action movie gibberish for this film! Both Granger and Oscar Goldman seem to be about ten years too old for their parts, but then that was often the case in the 1940's and 1950's. In all, Scaramouche is genuinely rousing and fun. Highly recommended.

Denzel, Denzel

The Magnificent Seven (2016): based by Nic Pizzolato and Richard Wenk on a screenplay by Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto, and Hideo Oguni; directed by Antoine Fuqua; starring Denzel Washington (Chisolm), Chris Pratt (Faraday), Ethan Hawke (Robicheaux), Vincent D'Onofrio (Horne), Byung-hun Lee (Rocks), Manuel Garcia-Rulfo (Vasquez), Martin Sensmeier (Red Harvest), Haley Bennett (Emma), and Peter Sarsgaard (Bogue): 

The film-makers wisely go on a much different track with this new adaptation of Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai rather than simply ape the classic, elegiac 1960 Western of the same name. Now, the villagers are American, the enemy is a land-grabbing businessman (putting this version more in line with Shane or Pale Rider than the 1960 film), and the Magnificent Seven of the title are a veritable United Nations of noble mercenaries.

The cast is pretty much uniformly terrific, from Denzel Washington in the steely eyed Yul Brynner role to Martin Sensmeier as a Ninja Comanche. Vincent D'Onofrio is also great as an 'Indian fighter' who looks like a disheveled grizzly bear. And Peter Sarsgaard is oily and nutty as the evil businessman whose speeches sound an awful lot like the Republican Party platform of the 21st century. He's hired his endless orc-army of mercenaries from a company whose name echoes that of infamous current-day military contracting firm Blackwater, though the company is also a nod to the Pinkertons of the 19th century.

The main problem with the film is that unlike Yul Brynner's cowboy, Denzel Washington's character requires personal motivation for his defense of the village. Oh, well. None of the other characters require such motivation. Hollywood 101! But it's nice to see a multi-ethnic, multi-racial band of heroes. Director Antoine Fuqua, who has worked with Denzel Washington before on Training Day and The Equalizer, stages a number of effective battle sequences and also does nice work with the characterization of the Seven. It's a fairly engaging and occasionally rousing bit of popular entertainment. Recommended.


The Bone Collector (1999): adapted by Jeremy Iacone from the Jeffrey Deaver novel; directed by Philip Noyce; starring Denzel Washington (Lincoln Rhyme), Angelina Jolie (Amelia), Queen Latifah (Thelma), and Michael Rooker (Cheney): Solid, atmospheric thriller features Denzel Washington as a quadriplegic forensics expert and Angelina Jolie as the beat cop who becomes his on-site eyes and ears. They track a serial killer who seems to be playing a game with them involving old New York homicides. Things go well until the ridiculous revelation of the identity of the serial killer and his motives at the end. Worth watching despite the letdown of the last ten minutes, as Washington and the young Jolie are both charismatic and believable in their roles. Lightly recommended.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Now I'm All Outta Elvis and Pike

Stalking the Angel (1989) (Elvis Cole/ Joe Pike #2) by Robert Crais: The theft of a priceless Japanese book from the Los Angeles home of an American businessman sends PI Elvis Cole and kick-ass pal Joe Pike up against dark family secrets and Japanese organized crime. Pike's character begins to come into focus in this, the second Cole/Pike novel, though the blurb on the back still refers to him as a sociopath (he isn't). 

The mystery is a bit thin. The climax is an inspired, epic shoot-em-up that seems to have been written with the movie screen in mind. And for foodies and lovers of brand names, Cole's obsessive recounting of the foods he eats and the brands of clothing people wear is at full-throttle. Recommended.


Lullaby Town (1992) (Elvis Cole/ Joe Pike #3) by Robert Crais: Elvis Cole and Joe Pike head to Connecticut in search of the son a famous Hollywood director abandoned years ago before he was famous. Well, his ex-wife took the son with her and disappeared, and the director didn't care then. Now, he wants to reconnect. 

The detective work leads Cole to the missing woman quite quickly... and into yet another big mess quickly after that. There's a certain amount of stereotypical fuzzy-mindedness about the Mafia along the way, along with another massive action climax. Crais, who's worked in TV and movies, seems to enjoy skewering Hollywood pretensions and pretenses here without turning the director into a completely unlikable cliche. Recommended.


Free Fall (1993) (Elvis Cole/ Joe Pike #4) by Robert Crais: The estranged fiancee of an LA cop comes to PI Elvis Cole in search of answers as to why her high-school sweetheart has become furtive and distant. And of course it's not simply another woman. Soon, Cole and best friend Joe Pike are fighting both the police and LA gangs as they search for answers. Things lead to a tightly choreographed, bloody climax. Recommended.


Voodoo River (1995) (Elvis Cole/ Joe Pike #5) by Robert Crais: A Hollywood celebrity hires Elvis Cole to track down her birth mother back in Louisiana. Nothing is ever simple in an Elvis Cole adventure. 

Along the way to an explanation, Cole runs up against small-town crooks, the world's worst PI, a 200-pound napping turtle, a Lurch-like enforcer, and a whole lot of Louisiana cooking. This novel also introduces the series' one major drag, love-interest Lucy Chenier, who will spend the next few Cole novels boring the bejesus out of the reader even as she entrances Cole. Recommended.


Indigo Slam (1997) (Elvis Cole/ Joe Pike #7) by Robert Crais: Three kids aged 8 to 16 hire Elvis Cole to find their father, who's gone missing from their LA home. As Cole feels sorry for them, he takes on the case rather than calling Child Protective Services. But what seems simple isn't, leading Cole and hyper-competent partner Joe Pike into a Battle Royale between Viet Namese and Russian organized criminals. Recommended.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Secret Origins of Super DC Heroes

Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice: The Ultimate Edition (2016): written by David S. Goyer and Chris Terrio; directed by Zack Snyder; starring Ben Affleck (Batman), Henry Cavill (Superman), Gal Gadot (Wonder Woman), Amy Adams (Lois Lane), and Jesse Eisenberg (Lex Luthor): Much more satisfying than the theatrical version, the Ultimate Edition increases Batman's lunacy and develops Luthor's plot. It even adds scenes of Superman helping people and puts Jena Malone's scenes as STAR Labs' Jenet Klyburn back into the movie. Even at 3 hours, it moves better than the 2 1/2 hour theatrical version. Recommended.


Wonder Woman (2017): based on characters created by William Moulton Marston, H.G. Peter, George Perez, and others; written by Allan Heinberg, Jason Fuchs, and Zack Snyder; directed by Patty Jenkins; starring Gal Gadot (Diana), Chris Pine (Steve Trevor), Connie Nielsen (Hippolyta), Robin Wright (Antiope), Danny Huston (Ludendorff), David Thewlis (Sir Patrick), and Elena Anaya (Dr. Poison): Director Patty Jenkins and screenwriter Allan Heinberg go back to Richard Donner's first Superman movie for inspiration (among other sources). 

The result is a crowd-pleaser with a female superhero. It may go on just about one climax too many, but overall Wonder Woman is a delight, as is Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman. A relative unknown, she shows the star power and charm of that other relative unknown, Christopher Reeve. The film-makers even figured out how to make WW's boy-pal Steve Trevor interesting. Recommended.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Super Ambassador

I crush your head!
Wonder Woman by Greg Rucka Volume 1 (2002, 2004/ Collected 2016): written by Greg Rucka; illustrated by J.G. Jones, Drew Johnson, and others: Greg Rucka's first writing stint on Wonder Woman is both a high point in mainstream adult superhero comics and emblematic of the problems of mainstream superhero comics in the 21st century. It's all rendered pleasingly and straightforwardly by J.G. Jones on the graphic novel included here (Wonder Woman: The Hiketia) and mostly Drew Johnson on the regular series.

The good is that aside from the George Perez days, this is Wonder Woman's best writer you've got here. Actually, Rucka is a better writer than George Perez and his collaborators -- Perez has the edge in redefining Wonder Woman for the 1980's and beyond. Some of that flows directly to this. Wonder Woman, per: Perez, is now the Ambassador to Man's World from the island formerly known as Paradise. Princess Diana no longer has the civilian ties to the American military that persisted from her Golden-Age creation into the mid-1980's. 

However, being an ambassador makes the book way too adult for kids. There are probably more pages devoted to Diana's book tour than there are to fights. There's nothing wrong with that exactly, except I'll be damned if I know where new readers were supposed to come from. Maybe all the kids who enjoy Model U.N. Clubs.

In any case, Diana's personality is something of a delight. Rucka has also pushed certain attributes to their logical conclusions: Diana can talk to the animals, so she's a vegan. She protects the whole Earth in naturalistic terms, so she stops the Flash from putting out a forest fire because forest fires need to burn to preserve the natural order. There's more than a whiff of Alan Moore's Swamp Thing to Rucka's Diana. What a team-up that would be! What a movie!

The Hiketia graphic novel, ably rendered by J.G. Jones, sees mythic rituals necessitate Diana beating the bejesus out of Batman. It couldn't happen to a nicer guy. Recommended.