Friday, April 16, 2010

Come quietly or there will be ... trouble. FRINGE goes Robo, Plus: Kick-Ass Hype

Whoo - it's Friday, and I am psyched for the weekend ahead. The big pop cultural event this weekend, clearly, is KICKASS, so let me talk about that for a second before I get into other stuff.

It's really interesting to me how there's already something of a debate over the movie's morals. I haven't seen it yet (will see it tonight!), but I've read the comic on which the movie is closely based, and so I have a pretty good idea of what to expect from the film. My early take as of now is this: I don't think Kickass is really any sort of deep satire or message film. It's much more squarely in the camp of a Kill Bill or other such B-movie, over-the-top action-fests. Basically, it's a story that subverts the conventions of superhero fiction in order to hit all the right buttons on fanboys' geek-out sensors. It's high-concept fantasy fulfillment, not the next Watchmen. That's what writer Mark Millar does - he creates these darkly funny, over-the-top, action-packed concepts and sees just how far he can push things. Sure, he's done some subtler work in his day, but books like The Authority, Wanted, Kickass, Ultimates, and Nemesis are all about getting someone's inner 13 year old boy to get wrapped up in a story's kewl-factor. Millar wants to push your fanboy buttons, not create classic literature.

The weird thing is is that the comic book market in 2010 consists of a lot of twenty and thirty something guys who eat this stuff up. Because Millar's works are original (not retreads with old characters), and because they come pre-packaged with a lot of hype around their irresistable high concepts, they generate a lot of interest. And even if I don't love all of Millar's work, I appreciate that he's out there trying new things. Kickass was so fun to read precisely because I had no clue where it was going. And also because Millar was clearly out to shock us, raising the bar for crazy violence and over-the-top action at every turn. That's what Kickass is - a movie for grown up guys to go watch and revel in the nihilism and craziness of it all. It's an R-rated, punk rock comic book flick. And yet, the marketing is selling it as a fun little movie with McLovin', a funny superhero movie that's more cute than crazy. I think that's part of what makes Kickass an interesting movie to monitor in terms of box office success - we know that the hardcore fanboys are able to embrace R-rated takes on superheroes - but is the mainstream? In comics, guys like Alan Moore, Frank Miller, Garth Ennis, and now Mark Millar have been deconstructing and pushing the limits of the genre for decades. Comic book fans barey bat an eyelash anymore when they see crazy stuff like Kickass or Nemesis or The Boys or The Authority. But the mainstream? They are finally catching up to the comic book world, and even after movies like 300 and Watchmen and such, I think this is all still something of a shock to the system. And oh boy, when critics expecting a family-friendly comedy see this one ... well, I can see how they were shocked. Roger Ebert is already making waves with his harsh review, which condemns the movie for its questionable morals. And traditionally, superheroes are all about morals - truth, justice, and all that. But that's what makes stories like Kickass so much fun for those of us who know the genre inside and out. The deliberate contradictions - a regular, wimpy guy trying to play the hero, a diminuitive little girl acting like The Punisher - those subversions make for one hell of an entertaining premise. I'm not saying yet if the movie is good or bad. But, I think you need to give guys like Millar and director Matthew Vaughn credit for creating characters that are so instantly memorable and amusingly novel. That's the fun of stories like Kickass.


- Good lord, did FRINGE rule it this week. I mean, wow. This one sort of came out of nowhere, too, because it was promoted as more of a standalone episode than a mythology-heavy ep, and, well, Fringe has yet to really have a truly great monster-of-the-week installment. BUT, this was no ordinary Fringe episode. For one thing, it, finally, nailed the perfect formula for a Fringe one-off episode - a compelling antagonist whose story was seamlessly interwoven with the ongoing conflicts and issues of our main characters. Having that mix of standalone and myth-arc is what sets Frings apart from predecessors like The X-Files, and this was the episode that finally got the formula right.

Moreso than that though, this ep was simply filled with amazing, intense, memorable scenes. In the past, one-off villains have been less than memorable. But here, we got PETER WELLER as a time-travelling tragic villain, and as expected, he rocked. Weller is one of those actors who just flat-out rules whenever he shows up. He's Robocop, he's Buckaroo Banzai, he's one of the best villains in 24's history, and he once again kicked ass and took names on Fringe. His character here was really intriguing - a mad scientist on an intellectual level with Walter, who creates a means of self-propelled time travel via a complex and grotesque series of cybernetic implants. Like Walter did years earlier, Weller's character was looking to bend the laws of the universe in order to correct a past tragedy. Just as Walter travelled to another dimension in order to replace his dying son, Weller wanted to travel back in time so that he could help his late fiance avoid a fatal car accident. Weller's time-travelling caused casualties each time, as those caught in his temporal field were instantly fried. But Weller justified his actions by arguing that, in the end, none of that will have ever even happened. It set up an absolutely fascinating moral debate between Weller and Walter Bishop, in which Walter used his own regrets to try to convince Weller that his actions would have reprecussions that would come back to haunt him.

The scenes between John Noble and Peter Weller absolutely crackled with intensity and gravitas. And man, they were SMART. Here were two brilliant scientists on primetime network TV, arguing about the nature of god, science, time travel, and destiny. Amazing. Who says all TV is dumb?

This episode had all sorts of smart science, brain-expanding ideas, and imagination. It felt like the best science fiction I loved as a kid - it made me think, but there was also a very human, very emotional undercurrent to it all. This episode was overflowing with sci-fi craziness, but, damn, it was also an absolute heartbreaker. The entire episode was framed around Walter's struggle over whether or not to tell Peter the truth about his origins. And once again, John Noble was freaking fantastic, exhibiting turmoil, sadness, and determination. Walter's angst was woven brilliantly into the time-travel storyline though, and it all came full-circle in a brilliant ending that was both a tragic end for Weller and a sign of hope and fate for Walter. The white tulip sent from Weller to Walter was a brilliant and way to wrap things up. At times, it was hard to tell where exactly this episode was going, but the fact that it all came together so well solidified it as truly great - one of the best-ever episodes of Fringe.

I didn't think we'd get such a masterful ep so soon after Peter's incredible origin story from the other week, but here we are. Fringe is absolutely kicking ass right now.

My Grade: A

- Okay, I still need to write up my review of HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON (short version: it's great), so may or may not get to that in the next day. But, for now, have a great weekend and kick some ass!

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