Monday, February 24, 2014

On a Mt. Rushmore of Movies - Lesser Known (or Underrated) Super Hero / Comic Book Movies

m. brown over at Two Dollar Cinema is hosting a blog-a-thon.  In honor of President's Day, we have the Mt. Rushmore of Movies blog-a-thon.  The premise is pretty simple (I like simple!) - pick a top four of anything movie-related (if you want more details or want to participate, click here.  Otherwise, just roll with it).  Now to come up with a theme, which involves the old thinking cap as this blog has been a little book-heavy lately (not that there's anything wrong with that).  But now it's time to go back to the movies.

I sit here, trying to come up with a theme that calls out to me, but also something that would be slightly out of the ordinary.  Yes, I love comic-book movies.  But that seems too easy.  Batman, Iron Man, Spiderman, yeah-yeah-yeah.  We all know those and there's oddly quite a bit of agreement within the community on what has been good or not in the genre.  So, let's try to avoid those mainstream Marvel/DC flicks.  My theme...

Top Four Lesser Known (or Underrated) Super Hero / Comic Book Movies
(not in any particular order)

Defendor (2009) - Mt. Rushmore head goes to Woody Harrelson
Synopsis (per IMDB): 
A comedy centered around three characters: an everyday guy who comes to believe he's a super hero, his psychiatrist and, the teenager he befriends.  

I believe this would fall into the "lesser known" category.  That, by the way, is a rather terrible synopsis.  On the first hand, it should really use the word "comedy" lightly.  It has a few moments (yes, that is a jar of bees Defendor is using as a weapon in the picture), but the movie has a lot of pretty serious undertones to it.  It is not the fast-paced action/adventure a la the current comic book movie onslaught being released by Marvel and DC.  This is slow, thoughtful, and utilizes Harrelson's ability to play crazy.  

Unbreakable (2000) - Mt. Rushmore head goes to Samuel L. Jackson
Synopsis (per IMDB): 
A suspense thriller with supernatural overtones that revolves around a man who learns something extraordinary about himself after a devastating accident.

Underrated.  Before he was the head of S.H.I.E.L.D. and before he was a jedi knight, Samuel L. Jackson was Elijah Price in M. Night Shyamalan's Unbreakable.  Like Defendor, Unbreakable is a movie that plays off of comic book mythology in the real world.  It's another slower paced character study with an M. Night Shyamalan twist.  

The Crow (1994) - Mt. Rushmore head goes to Brandon Lee
Synopsis (per IMDB):
A man brutally murdered comes back to life as an undead avenger of his and his fiancee's murder.

This probably needs the least introduction of any I've mentioned so far.  However, with all the flashiness of modern comic-book movies, The Crow from 1994 still holds its ground as an exciting tale of supernatural revenge (I'm a sucker for revenge stories).  Just ignore the sequels and pray to the god of gothic stuff that the reboot is good.

Chronicle (2012) - Mt. Rushmore head goes to Dane DeHaan
Synopsis (per IMDB):
Whilst attending a party, three high school friends gain super powers after making an incredible discovery underground.  Soon, though, they find their lives spinning out of control and their bond tested as they embrace their darker side.

This is a movie that took me by surprise.  It was not what I was expecting at all.  The trailers had always shown it as a bunch of kids goofing off with newfound telekinesis powers.  It starts off rather slowly and seems to play into that goofy high school kids pulling pranks.  But this movie gets DARK.  It gets incredibly tense.  It's worth a watch (keep some Xanax handy).

Not everyone can win, and there are just so many movies I want to put up on that mountain.  Some runner-ups:  The Rocketeer, Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, Sin City...  

I'm sure there are plenty I'm missing.  What would be on your mountain?

Thursday, February 20, 2014

On The King of Thorns (The Broken Empire #2) by Mark Lawrence - REVIEW

This is book #2 in Mark Lawrence's The Broken Empire series.  If you haven't read book #1 (and you should), you will probably want to skip this review (and go buy book #1...  now).  My review for Prince of Thorns (The Broken Empire #1) can be found here.

Synopsis (per Goodreads):
The land burns with the fires of a hundred battles as lords and petty kings fight for the Broken Empire.  The long road to avenge the slaughter of his mother and brother has shown Prince Honorous Jorg Ancrath the hidden hands behind this endless war.  He saw the game and vowed to sweep the board.  First though he must gather his own pieces, learn the rules of play, and discover how to break them.  

A six nation army, twenty thousand strong, marches towards Jorg's gates, led by a champion beloved of the people.  Every decent man prays this shining hero will unite the empire and heal its wounds.  Every omen says he will.  Every good king knows to bend the knee in the face of overwhelming odds, if only to save their people and their lands.  But King Jorg is not a good king.  

Faced by an enemy many times his strength Jorg knows that he cannot win a fair fight.  But playing fair was never part of Jorg's game plan.  

Having to type "six nation army" only served to put the bass-line of Seven Nation Army in my head.

It feels good to root for the "bad guy." Or maybe it makes more sense to say it feels good to root for the guy who knows what he is.   A hero is full of doubt.  A hero concerns himself with the greater good.  An anti-hero; well, he could care less for the greater good, unless of course that greater good is in line with his own goals.  It's a different feeling than rooting for the guy that is "supposed" to win.  Who, just for a little bit, wouldn't want to see Vader take the Empire?  Mark Lawrence graces us with a homicidal @$$hole that you want to win.  Well played.

Once again, my review for Prince of Thorns can be found here (I'll be sort of referencing it).  I had some fears coming into the second book of the trilogy.  Book one set up an anti-hero you could get behind, but it also set up some explanation.  Explanations scare me.  It was the need for explanation that gave us Darth Frankenstein.  I was afraid they could give us a Jorg who is not the anti-hero we love, but rather some pawn of greater power that is an anti-hero because of design.  They could give us his recognition of that and the possibility of zero badness level (or at least an abated level).  It does and it doesn't.

A fantasy series is like breaking new ground on a construction site.  The first book is the basement.  It is the foundation that will hold up the rest of the series.  The flashiness and aesthetics are minimal here as a foundation is built to support the structure.  It is here you learn of character, you learn of setting.  But as the construction continues, as the building grows, and sequels release, more and more is added to the world.  Locations develop, magic is added in new ways and in greater volume.  King of Thorns is no different.  We learn more of the Broken Empire.  We see more magic (necromancy and others) and more of what the Builders left behind.  But that is all window dressing.  It's signage and lattice-work and trellises.  It is eye-catching, but not what holds everything together.  The bricks and mortar here is Jorg.  It's Makin and Gog and this band of miscreants.  It's emotion.  And for Jorg, it's knowing who you are and taking what you want - world be damned.

I understand I am years late in writing this.  Book three is long since released (and if not next will shortly end up on my "currently reading" spot), and a new series set in the Broken Empire will be released June of this year.  But maybe you haven't read any of this series.  Maybe you are tired of Frodo carrying the ring to Mordor and saving the realm.  Maybe you are looking for something different.  Something dark.  Something with teeth.  If that is what you want.  Mark Lawrence has a trilogy for you.  Recommended.

I give it...  Shrek.
"No, you dense, irritating, miniature beast of burden.  Ogres are like onions.  End of story."

Saturday, February 15, 2014

On Riddick

Dong Nguyen developed a little app for iOs called Flappy Bird.  The game was extraordinarily simple in design, and extraordinarily difficult in play.  The concept, tap the screen to get a bird through small gaps.  There is no end-game, no goals other than get through as many gaps as possible. The game took the world by storm.  The designer got more attention than he wanted and pulled the game from iOs.  But it was too late.  The world knew about Flappy Bird.  The world loved Flappy Bird.  And with it gone, it has been emulated to no end.  Type in Flappy in the app store and there will be no end to the games where one must get a flappy something through small gaps.  What happened?  Someone created a formula for a game.  It worked.  Designers trying to cash in on the success copied the formula to varying degrees of success.

In 2000, a low-budget movie was released, chronicling the story of a convict stranded on a remote planet with his would-be captors.  The story initially begins with the attempt to maintain capture of said convict, but quickly turns into survival against the environment as the world goes Pitch Black and chaos ensues.  A simple formula for a movie.  It worked.  It remains my favorite of the franchise. It is considered a "cult classic" (so says Wikipedia - this isn't rocket science, I can use Wikipedia for research if I want!).

Four years later a sequel was released.  The budget of said sequel was significantly higher, and the story strayed into the realm of convict versus bounty hunter versus necromongers (so over-the-top on the naming convention there), dropping the alien-esque aspects of Pitch Black altogether.  The movie was high in action, but with all its fanfare and pomp, it failed to live up to its predecessor.  

Ten years later a third movie was released; Riddick (the movie in question, and where my Flappy Bird story starts to make sense).  After the flopping of the sequel, someone in the production/writing department must have looked back at Pitch Black and said "why did this work where The Chronicles of Riddick failed?  Oh, we eliminated the survival from the environment aspect of the franchise from Chronicles.  Maybe that would help!).  And so Riddick returns to the formula that made Pitch Black so successful: Part B) Convict versus Bounty Hunter.  Part C) Everyone versus the planet.  You may have noticed that earlier I stated Pitch Black was my favorite still (even though Riddick follows a similar formula).  You may also have noticed that I broke the two parts similar in formula to Pitch Black as Part B and Part C.  The problem?  Part A.

Riddick takes approximately 30 minutes to get to a point where there is ANY plot.  It is 30 minutes of Riddick finding himself on a planet and fighting one creature after another.  You would think this would be exciting, but after the third or fourth random monster, brief flashback to the necromonger stuff you hoped would be left behind (and thankfully is after said flashback), and extremely low volume self reflection, it just drags.  I have to wonder how many people the movie lost to walk-out due to the excruciatingly slow start.

If you find yourself willing to brave the 30 minute introduction, the movie then follows the Pitch Black formula and becomes a better/more exciting movie.  It has action, it has monsters, it has Katee Sackhoff (in the shower, no less).  It loses to Pitch Black due to that 30 minute snooze-fest, and due to its attempt to be more edgy through over-the-top action (did Riddick seriously need to dive head first in dramatic fashion to get down that three foot ledge?).  It also has some atrocious dialogue.

So why bother seeing this?  Aside from my griping, once you pass that 30 minute introduction, it is an entertaining survival film that simply fails in its attempt to one-up what made the first movie such a success.  Vin Diesel remains the likable tough-guy convict.  Katee Sackhoff is gorgeous and badass.  And apparently sales of the DVD have been high enough that the company is in discussion to continue the franchise for a fourth film (so some people must have been less critical of it than me).  I wouldn't care to own this (whereas I now wonder why I don't own a copy of Pitch Black), but I don't regret following up on the franchise.

I give it...  Ewoks.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

On Gun Machine by Warren Ellis - REVIEW

Synopsis (per Goodreads):
After a shootout claims the life of his partner in a condemned tenement building on Pearl Street, Detective John Tallow unwittingly stumbles across an apartment stacked high with guns.  When examined, each weapon leads to a different, previously unsolved murder.  Someone has been killing people for twenty years or more and storing the weapons together for some inexplicable purpose.  

Confronted with the sudden emergence of hundreds of unsolved homicides, Tallow soon discovers that he's walked into a veritable deal with the devil.  An unholy bargain that has made possible the of some of Manhattan's most prominent captain's of industry.  A hunter who performs his deadly acts as a sacrifice to the old gods of Manhattan, who may, quite simply, be the most prolific murderer in New York City's history.  

Warren Ellis' body of work has been championed by Wired for its "merciless action" and "incorruptible bravery," and steadily amassed legions of diehard fans.  His newest novel builds on his accomplishments like never before, announcing Ellis as one of today's most daring thriller writers.  This is twenty-first century suspense writ large.  This is Gun Machine.  

How I came about picking up Gun Machine by Warren Ellis is a mildly convoluted story of mistaken identity.  The book appeared on a recommendations page and immediately the name struck a chord of recognition.  Upon further inspection one finds out Ellis did significant amount of writing in the comic book industry.  I read comics!  I must know what he wrote!  Then, as I read the reviews for Gun Machine (and his earlier work) I see he tends to write somewhat over-the-top gore (I'll go into that in a minute) and it hits me.  Punisher Max!  I'm totally picking up this book.  And I did.  And then I realized that it was Garth Ennis that wrote Punisher.  Ennis.  Ellis.  Oops.  Ellis has written numerous things you would know whether you're a major comic book geek or not.  Look it up.  Regardless that it was mistaken identity that pushed me to move this to the top of the read list, I am glad I picked it up.  

Story time is over (ha!).  Review time.  

On to the gore!  Ms. Au Lait and I like our TV.  One of the shows we watched quite a bit of was Bones.  Bones is a sometimes humorous police procedural that utilizes forensic anthropology to solve crimes.  Though the show is generally light-hearted, the premise requiring an anthropologist to solve murders requires that the crimes exhibit a certain...  grotesqueness.  As such, the bodies on the show are generally characterized as some of the more "gross" things in police procedural TV these days.  However; this more a side-product of the show, not what the show is actually about, which is character and case driven.  I would make the same argument for Ellis' work.  Yes, there is gore.  Yes, it is a little over-the-top at times.  However, it is a side-product of a story of a downtrodden NYC detective who just lost his partner, who is having a complete change in his outlook on life, and who is also on a case for a prolific murderer.  

This is a police procedural.  Murders have been committed and the case must be solved.  But this has a flair that Ellis brings to his works.  His characters are witty and quirky (protagonist and antagonist alike).  The action is immediate and non-stop.  

My only complaint (and it's not a bad one I suppose) is that the ending comes too fast.  There is significant buildup to the climax, but the climax happens extremely quickly.  I would have liked to linger a little longer in heat of it.  

In conclusion.  This is a book with entertaining characters and an imaginative plot.  And if I've learned anything from books, TV and movies it's that you need to enjoy the little things.