Monday, July 28, 2014

LUCY is Occasionally Badass, Mostly Brainless

 LUCY Review:

- I pretty much always enjoy films directed or produced by Luc Besson. The guy knows from badass B-grade cinema, and even when his movies aren't good, per se, they're almost always entertaining. That said, it's been twenty years since Besson directed his masterpiece, Leon: The Professional, and though he's had some bonafide recent successes as a writer and producer (District B13, Transporter, Taken), the man is overdue for a truly jaw-dropping directorial effort. Unfortunately, Lucy is not it. Oh, sure, the movie drips with Besson's trademark stylistic flourishes. But the film is quite simply weighed down by its sheer dumbness. Besson tries to give LUCY a high-concept sci-fi premise - about a woman who unlocks the ability to use 100% of her brain (premise alone should be a warning sign) - but what might have at least been dumb brainless fun instead is both achingly stupid and achingly pretentious. Besson seems to want to do more than just have Scarlett Johansson's Lucy kick ass and take names. He wants to make some statement about human potential, the origin of the species, and ... er, some other stuff that I couldn't quite discern. Basically, LUCY goes totally off the rails, but not in a good way.

Scarlett Johansson, perhaps best known now as the Black Widow of The Avengers and Captain America fame, is a great choice for Lucy. Scar-Jo has now added badass to her repertoire, but she also has that blue-collar, girl-next-door vibe that makes her seem relatable even as she's kicking ass. Johansson does a fine job in Lucy, and honestly, this could have been a fine action-thriller if it just avoided the high-concept stuff altogether. But no, this is a movie in which Lucy - an American ex-pat in Paris - gets caught up in a drug deal gone bad, and gets injected with a huge dosage of a concoction that begins expanding her mental capacity at an alarming rate. She uses that increased capacity - which eventually allows for telekinetic powers and whatnot - to pretty much hunt down and seek revenge on the traffickers responsible for her condition. Meanwhile, Lucy calls upon the reluctant Professor Norman - aka Morgan Freeman playing every Morgan Freeman role ever, except dumber - to help her understand what's happening to her brain.

There are a lot of lame brain-dead jokes I could make here, but I won't. What I will say is that LUCY is just flat-out frustrating in that it seems fascinated with the scientific concepts at its core, but also seems to have absolutely zero scientific credibility. I don't need my sci-fi movies to have the Neil DeGrasse Tyson seal of approval, but I do need for the supposedly-genius characters in a movie to sound at least halfway-smart. Morgan Freeman, in particular, is given some completely cringe-worthy dialogue here. He's supposed to be the world's leading expert on human cerebral capacity (or something), but he lectures a group of students in a manner that sounds less credible than if I were to jump on a stage right now and start rambling. All of the ways that the movie tries to show us how smart its characters are just seem dumb. Lucy is now a genius - thus she uses two, count 'em two, laptops at once! Freeman seems to realize this, and so he sort of phone it in here. It's funny though, as lame as some of the movie's dialogue sounds when Freeman says it, I can only imagine how exponentially worse it would have been if uttered by just about any other actor. But giving this stuff to Freeman is like a small band-aid on a gaping wound.

Besson is going for some sort of grand statement here. He splices several little National Geographic-style nature videos into the film. And there's a lot of talk that not-so-subtley compares this Lucy to Lucy: the missing link. The film keeps circling back to these themes in increasingly on-the-nose ways, but all of the film's ambitions of philosophical profundity fall flat, and are actually actively grating. None of it really adds up to anything of significance. Really, the entire sci-fi element of the film just doesn't work, and becomes increasingly silly as the movie goes on. I have a pretty high tolerance for sci-fi weirdness, but Lucy seems to get weirder and more out-there in a way that is less jaw-dropping and more eye-rolling.

What works is the more bread-and-butter action movie stuff. Lucy kicks ass in style, and Johansson - as directed with flair by Besson - owns the part. Really, the most enjoyable parts of the film involve the simple pleasures of Lucy turning the tables on various male scumbags who underestimate her. Initially, sweet justice is meted out by means of well-placed fists and feet. Later, it's through the always-satisfying method of telekinetic ownage - namely, Lucy raising her hands to the heavens and psychically nailing some poor sap's face to the ceiling. Besson, as always, has a knack for viscerally depicting scorned women finding their inner badass. And that's why Lucy's best pleasures are its simplest ones.

Ultimately though, those fun moments of Scar-Jo derived badassery are outweighed by all the other clunkiness in the film. A dumb movie that wants to be smart can be frustrating, and that's certainly true of LUCY. Also frustrating is that somewhere buried underneath is a pretty sweet, down n' dirty action flick in which Scarlett Johansson plays a La Femme Nikita for the modern age. Too bad all that "100% of your brain" nonsense had to get in the way of that.

My Grade: C

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Comics You Should Read - a BATMAN DAY Special: BATMAN By Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo

Comics You Should Read: BATMAN By Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo

BATMAN By Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo

- Hey, it's the 75th Anniversary of Batman, and today is BATMAN DAY. That's pretty awesome. Like many of you reading this, I'm a huge Batman fan. The character is now so omnipresent that it almost feels silly to say that. But really, my love for all things Bat really took root in a couple of ways. I was just a tad too young to really get into the Batman '89 movie. I saw it eventually on VHS, and saw Batman Returns in the theaters. But what really hooked me was a double-whammy of the early/mid-90's Batman comic books, and of course, the brilliant Dini/Burnett production Batman: The Animated Series. I could write many an essay just about the enduring legacy and sheer genius of the animated show, but since this is a comics column, let's focus on that.

Batman is sort of unique in comics in that, remarkably, the character has been consistently well-written for decades. Sure, Batman has seen his share of clunkers in the comics. But year-in, year-out, the character seems to inspire writers and artists to do some of their absolute best work. I first got hooked to the books back in the Knightfall era in the 90's. My mind was blown reading about Bruce Wayne's defeat at the hands of Bane - after running a gauntlet of Arkham escapees and being pushed to his mental and physical limits. The architects of that era - writers like Denny O'Neil, Chuck Dixon, and Alan Grant remain all-time favorite Bat-talent. Later, other writers like Greg Rucka, Ed Brubaker, Grant Morrison, and Gail Simone took up the mantle - writing the Bat-family characters with a depth and sweeping sense of dark drama that kept him at the top of the comic book must-read list. In addition to the current stuff, through the years I went back and read the classic stories that defined not just Batman, but comics in general, over the decades. Alan Moore's seminal The Killing Joke. Jeph Loeb's The Long Halloween. Frank Miller's Year One and The Dark Knight Returns. O'Neil and Adams' run from the 70's. And many more, too numerous to name here.

Which brings me to Scott Snyder ...

Before DC Comics rebooted their entire universe a few years back (long story), Scott Snyder - after making his mark with the creator-owned American Vampire series - took the reigns of the storied Detective Comics, writing some of the absolute best Batman stories we'd seen in years. During most of his run, Batman was actually Dick Grayson, who'd assumed the mantle of the Bat after Bruce Wayne went missing and was presumed dead (again, long story). Suffice it to say, Snyder's Bat-stories were fantastic - dark, noirish, ultra-intense mysteries. The highlight was a memorable arc, "The Black Mirror," in which James Gordon Jr - son of the commissioner and brother to Barbara - was re-introduced as a disturbing, psychotic villain - a serial killer who put his own family in danger. Very quickly, Snyder established himself as a definitive Batman writer for the 2010's.

Post-New 52 reboot, Snyder was given the reigns to write DC's flagship Batman book (self-titled as just "Batman"), and was paired with fan-favorite artist Greg Capullo, who had made his name working on X-Men books and Spawn in the 90's. It was clear from Day 1 that Snyder had huge ambitions for BATMAN, and planned a long reign as writer and chief architect of the character in this new era.

Snyder's run so far has been defined by a series of big, multipart arcs that each feel like a self-contained Batman movie. Sure, there are serialized elements that run from arc to arc, but Snyder's style has been to make each storyline feel like it's own thing, each a mini-epic, many already becoming instant, modern classics.

Snyder's first big arc is already legendary in its own time. In "Court of Owls", Batman encounters a centuries-old conspiracy of elite, immortal Gothamites who have long manipulated the city in secret. The members of the Court of Owls - rendered as insanely creepy by Capullo - with eerie owl-masks worn with formal attire - bring to mind the sorts of high-society-gone-wrong villains you might encounter in Bioshock's world of Rapture. The Court of Owls are the best addition to Batman's rogues gallery in years, and they've very quickly become a major part of Batman and Gotham lore. I'd love to see the next Batman film adapt Snyder's epic story here, because it truly is different from what we've seen before. With the Owls, Batman is pitted against an adversary that outnumbers him, and is even more prone to hiding in the shadows than he is.

Next, Snyder tackled the Big One, Batman's greatest villain, The Joker. In his "Death of the Family" arc, Snyder does a huge, crazy, epic Joker story - in which the insane and evil clown attempts to turn the extended members of the Bat-Family against one another by putting each through all manner of physical and mental torture. The story is incredibly and intense and disturbing, and really is a definitive modern take on the twisted Batman / Joker relationship.

Snyder's current major story is perhaps his most epic yet - "Zero Year." For this still-in-progress adventure, Snyder flashes back to Bruce Wayne's first year as Batman, showing a young Bruce still figuring out his technique and tactics, and forging his early alliances with the likes of James Gordon and Lucius Fox. Ultimately, the story takes a unique turn, as The Riddler makes a grand bid to take over Gotham, and turns the entire city into his own personal plaything. A defeated Batman is forced to leave the gone-to-hell city and regroup, eventually returning to wage all-out war to reclaim his city and free its people. Snyder makes the often lightweight Riddler into a truly dangerous villain in this story, and raises the stakes to enormous levels for Batman and Gotham. The whole thing plays out like a mega-summer-blockbuster, with huge-scale action aplenty.

Each of these stories is immensely aided by Greg Capullo's artwork, which is deceivingly simplistic but incredibly cinematic. The guy is simply a great storyteller, and his panels flow dynamically from one to another. Each issue of his Batman feels like a blockbuster movie in comics form. That said, the guy can also do moody intensity like no other - his Joker stories, for example, are indescribably creepy and disturbingly rendered.

To sum up: if you're into Batman, you would do well to celebrate his 75th by jumping aboard the Snyder and Capullo bandwagon. Their run began in 2011, and is so far collected in four volumes: Batman: The Court of Owls, Batman: The City of Owls, Batman: Death of the Family, and Batman: Zero Year - Secret City. The ongoing issues are, of course, available at your local comic book shop or digitally via the Comixology app. This is some of the best Batman I've read in years, and each new issue of Snyder and Capullo's BATMAN is always at or near the top of my must-read list.

READ IT IF YOU LIKE: Batman, duh.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

BOYHOOD is Richard Linklater's Must-See Magnum Opus

 BOYHOOD Review:

- It's the eternal paradox of storytelling: the most specific stories are also the most universal. Such is BOYHOOD, a stone-cold masterpiece of a film from Richard Linklater. This is the story of one boy and his family, but in this story is all of our stories. In this film is cut-to-the-core truth, the kind that only great art can give us. Throughout his storied career as a filmmaker, Linklater has always sought to capture the moments-between-moments, the small moments in life that, in truth, are the big moments. But rarely - if ever? - has a film so artfully and jaw-droppingly captured the journey from child to adult on-screen. And Linklater doesn't stop there. This is as much a story about the adult characters as it is its central protagonist. We see this boy, Mason, played over the course of twelve formative years by the same actor, as he slowly becomes a man. At the same time, we see those around him grow, mature, and find themselves. Mostly, this doesn't happen through any major revelation or melodramatic moment. It just happens, as it does to all of us. The evolution that we see onscreen here is almost hard to describe, because it's so naturalistic. BOYHOOD is a collection of small moments. But it's also an insanely ambitious, game-changing epic - a twelve-years-in-the-making odyssey that shows us how we become the people we grow up to be. This film is a flat-out stunning achievement from Linklater and his cast and crew. It's funny, inspiring, heartbreaking, awkward, and like no other film I've ever seen before. It is, no question, an early candidate for movie of the year.

For those unfamiliar, Linklater began filming Boyhood over a decade ago, and continually filmed new scenes each year thereafter. The unique process behind the film's creation has several interesting effects. The most obvious is seeing the actors change and age on-screen right before our eyes. This is especially dramatic when it comes to the movie's lead, actor Ellar Coltrane. Coltrane plays our protagonist, Mason, and we first meet him as a round-faced, big-eyed six-year-old. We follow Mason through the years - we see him as a young kid, as an awkward preteen, and, eventually, as an almost-fully-formed young adult. It's mesmerizing and jarring and captivating to to watch this metamorphosis take place. And the same goes for that of actress Lorelei Linklater - the director's own daughter - who, as Mason's sister Samantha, goes through a similar on-screen change. However, it's not only the kids growing up that proves mesmerizing. While the changes in the adult actors may be more subtle in increments, over time it's astonishing to watch actors like Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette grow older in front of us. No special effect can replicate the subtle, year-by-year changes that take place in these actors. Aside from the actors aging though, Linklater's process lends itself to the sort of loose, slice-of-life feel the movie strives to capture. Just as the director checked back in with these actors every year to film new material, so too does it feel like we're checking back in with these characters - repeatedly dropping in on their lives to see what's become of them. The film's structure lets us fill in on a lot of gaps. But the effect is that of watching life itself play out before us in miniature. All of these little vignettes - no matter how seemingly insignificant in and of themselves - are part of this incredible tapestry. 

So often, movies that follow one person's life over an extended period place all of their emphasis on traditional "big" moments. But Boyhood wisely eschews that tried-and-true tactic for glimpses at moments that are small, but also affecting, and in their own way crucial. The kinds of moments that may not be on one's personal greatest-hits list, but that comprise the sorts of seared-in-the-brain memories that resurface over and over. Conversations that stick with you. Childhood traumas. Parental wisdom. Parental stupidity. The kindnesses and cruelties of others. We see Mason go through these moments and we see him forming, being shaped, into the person he eventually becomes. Some are funny and small but capture some quintessential moment of childhood - like a young Mason innocently asking his dad if the sorts of magic characters he reads about in the Harry Potter books are real. Some are genuinely horrific and life-changing, as when Mason's latest step-dad - a drunk - lashes out at Mason in a violent incident that finally opens his mother's eyes to her husband's true nature.

What's so powerful about watching this unique journey play out is that over the course of the movie, we develop a sort of weirdly affectionate bond with Mason that's unlike anything I've really experienced in a film before. After all, we've "known" him since he was a six-year-old kid. And like anyone we've watched grow from that age, we really root for this kid. We see bad things happen and we cringe. We see good things happen and we feel pride. We want this kid to be okay. And so, every time Mason is exposed to one of life's horrible realities - whether it's an angry-drunk step-dad or a bunch of obnoxious teens who try to peer-pressure Mason into doing something stupid - we hope and pray that Mason will get through this, that he'll still be the good kid we've seen him be and know he can be. 

Of course, this isn't only Mason's story. This is the story of his parents, played in career-defining turns from Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette. When the movie opens, they are already separated. Arquette does her best to start again, to raise her two kids with a father figure, and to give herself the means to find a better career. Hawke is the absentee but beloved dad - a guy off finding himself, trying to start a band, who pops in every so often for a fun day with his adoring kids. Just as remarkable as Mason's journey is that of his mom and dad. It's amazing to see Hawke slowly begin to mature and settle down and accept his responsibilities, even as Arquette's life repeatedly implodes, leading to a vicious cycle of self-destructiveness. 

Both lead adult actors are phenomenal. Especially when you consider the span of time over which the movie was shot, the consistency of the characters (even as they grow and evolve) is amazing. Despite these two being established, recognizable actors, the characters they play here feel utterly real. They never devolve into cliche, and there's no one "good" parent or "bad" parent. Both have moments of ugliness, both have moments of warmth. Both, ultimately, are struggling to figure it all out alongside their son. They too are on a journey. I can only imagine that both Hawke and Arquette will be Oscar-nominated for their work here. It absolutely runs the gamut from low-key and funny to nakedly emotional. A scene towards the end of the film, in which Arquette breaks down in front of her off-to-college son, is so raw and powerful that it's a true punch to the gut. What floored me is how in that moment, we utterly relate to this soon-to-be-empty-nester mom. Over the course of the movie, all of us viewers have become like a surrogate parent to Mason, and in that instant, we share Arquette's emotion.

As for Coltrane's work as Mason, he's almost operating on a different level than most actors. It's hard to say how much of this is Coltrane, and how much is Linklater and his naturalistic filming style. But the veil separating Coltrane from Mason feels almost nonexistent in this film. We're watching both the actor and the character grow up, and it's difficult to separate the two. But what is easy to see is that Coltrane does indeed evolve into a genuine talent. He carries his later scenes with a real presence. In fact, by the time he's a teen, he feels like a classic Linklater protagonist - a modern-day version of the Linklater archetype. Like I said, it can be really jarring. I never would have expected the precocious young boy we saw at the film's beginning to become this artsy-cool punk-rock kid that Mason grows into. But there's also a real sort of awesomeness in this transformation. The kid's gonna be okay. He took the pain and turned it into something positive. He's going to do alright.

The movie operates on so many levels that it's almost daunting to write about. Essays will be written about Boyhood for many years to come. Putting aside the deeper-level stuff for a second though, there's just a weird sort of joy in seeing Mason go through all of the classic moments of modern-day boyhood. I couldn't help but smile as each new era of his life was, at least in small part, defined by whichever new videogame system Mason was playing at the time (what suburban boy's life doesn't have videogames as a marker of eras?). And man, for those watching this whose actual age parallels Mason, reliving their life through his is going to be a real trip. By that same token, this is a Linklater movie, so expect all sorts of political and pop-cultural ephemera to populate the dialogue - a lot of it really amusing. Hawke's liberal dad rants hilariously to his kids about George W. Bush and the Iraq War. There's a great, hindsight-is-20/20 conversation between a pre-teen Mason and his dad, post Star Wars Episode III, about whether or not they'll ever make more Star Wars movies. There's also a scene of kid Mason and his friends lining up for a midnight release of the final Harry Potter book that is pretty much cuteness overload. Towards the start of the film, Mason's sister annoys her younger brother with an endless rendition of Britney Spears' "Oops I Did It Again," in a way that will make anyone with siblings crack a knowing smile.

But then there is the way that Boyhood reflects universal truths through Mason's journey. Linklater's film could have just been a nostalgia trip, an amusing collection of scenes-in-the-life of a boy - but as great as each scene is as a standalone mini-story, the sum is even greater than the individual parts. BOYHOOD is a film with a lot to say about how we become who we are. It's about how we overcome adversity thanks to the resilience of childhood, and how we take from our parents and teachers and friends, but ultimately have to find our own way. It's about how the forces for good in one's life can overpower the forces that are destructive, and how in turn there can be an outwardly-spreading cycle of positivity. So many films show us how the sins of the father inevitably come back to haunt the son. In BOYHOOD, Linklater shows us how the boy marches on through adversity, finds his own unique identiy, and how he, ultimately, makes his parents into better people. Mason is no saint, and for all we know his life in college and beyond takes a downward tumble. He still has plenty of challenge and adversity and heartbreak in front of him. But he makes it through Phase 1. And man, that's pretty crazy and commendable and inspiring.

What Richard Linklater has achieved with BOYHOOD is something truly unique and special. He's always been one of the best directors around, but I think that Boyhood is his crowning achievement, and the sum total of what he's been working towards for years. This, I think, is Linklater's masterpiece - and that's saying a lot for a director who's got classics like Dazed & Confused, Before Sunrise, Slacker, Bernie, Waking Life, School of Rock, and many more to his name. The film could have been a mere novelty, but Linklater elevates it to something more - this is a work of art and a hell of a story. And it's presented to us in a hyper-real yet dreamlike vision that, as cheesy as it sounds, is like watching memories play out before our eyes. So yeah, go see it. This is one we'll be talking about for a long time to come.

My Grade: A

Saturday, July 19, 2014

SNOWPIERCER Is A Runaway Train of Awesome Sci-Fi Insanity


- Love insane / insanely-awesome movies? Then stop what you're doing and go see/rent/download SNOWPIECER asap. From Korean director Joon-ho Bong (The Host), this is gonzo sci-fi action - with a hefty helping of socio-political commentary - the likes of which you just don't see from big-studio Hollywood blockbusters. Basically, this movie is not content do do anything by-the-numbers. It operates on only one level, and that level is balls-to-the-wall extreme.

The film is a true international production. It's a Korean film that's (mostly) in English, based on a French comic book, adapted by American screenwriter Kelly Masterson (Before the Devil Knows You're Dead), shot in Prague, and starring a diverse cast that includes big-time talent like Chris Evans, John Hurt, Jamie Bell, Tilda Swinton, Alison Pill, Octavia Spencer, an acting icon whose presence I won't spoil because it's sort-of-a-big-reveal, and the Korean star of The Host and Thirst, Kang-ho Song. All of that globe-spanning talent gives the movie a truly eclectic, international feel. And that only enhances the whacked-out premise of the film ...

SNOWPIERCER takes place is a post-apocalyptic future-earth in which the scant remnants of humanity live aboard a perpetually-moving train, ever-circling the globe. Why a train? Seventeen years prior, the global warming crisis reached red-alert levels. In a last-ditch effort to change the tide of climate change, scientists released a cooling agent into the atmosphere. However, the tactic backfired: suddenly, the earth became deathly cold - an icy tundra; uninhabitable. Most died, but a lucky few found safe haven on the mega-sized train that had been created by a mysterious engineer named Wilford. Ridiculed as purposeless upon its invention, the train proved to be the last, best hope for the survival for the people of earth. To keep order on the train, Wilford imposed a class system that was both calculated and ruthless. In the front of the train lived an upper class - a privileged elite living as hedonists, removed from the other passengers. In the back of the train lived everyone else - castoffs living in cramped quarters, fed only gelatinous protein bars for sustenance. Beaten, abducted, malnourished - the back-of-the-train population had attempted revolt on a few occasions - all unsuccessful. Now though, under the leadership of Chris Evans' Curtis (helped by his mentor, the aged revolutionary Gilliam, played by John Hurt), there is one last, desperate attempt at revolution.

John Hurt's character is named Gilliam, and it's no coincidence. With its hyper-detailed, hyper-stylized, nightmarish aesthetic, the movie looks and feels like some alternate-universe take on the films of the legendary Terry Gilliam. In the back of the train, there's a grimy, pseudo-steampunk aesthetic that recalls the doomed world of 12 Monkeys. Other moments of the film echo the dreamlike, surrealist bent of Brazil. Like that film, SNOWPIERCER is about the concept of breaking through to the other side, of shattering reality, of finding freedom and new beginnings. In a similar fashion, many of the film's aesthetics and themes brought to mind the modern-classic videogame Bioshock. To be sure, Wilford is an enigmatic, Andrew Ryan-esque figure. And the utopia-gone-wrong vibe of the train's front cars shows shades of Bioshock's aquatic world of Rapture (there's even a scene in the film where drugged-up partygoers in the front of the train attack Curtis and his compatriots while wearing creepy, Bioshock-esque masquerade masks).

Pop-culture influences aside, it needs to be said that SNOWPIERCER is an absolutely, jaw-droppingly gorgeous film. The action in the film is glorious - with each major skirmish wholly unique in its aesthetic and structure. Evans' Curtis leads a ragtag group of revolutionaries from the back of the train to the front, car by car - and, along the way, they encounter all manner of opposition from Wilford's elite soldiers. There's a breathtaking lights-out firefight, with combatants visible only by torchlight. There's an epic Raid-style throwdown between Curtis' men and a squad of armed-to-the-tooth foot soldiers. Best of all is an absolutely insane confrontation that occurs within a brightly-decorated children's classroom, with even the seemingly mild-mannered teachers getting in on the action. I will say no more, suffice it to say: holy crap on a stick. It's not just the action that looks fantastic though. There are all sorts of quieter moments of strange beauty. Take for example the memorable scene in which Curtis and co. make their way into the train's glowing-blue aquarium car, with glass walls and ceilings, behind which swim all manner of sea creatures, and in front of which is stationed a lone sushi chef. The sheer level of artistry and imagination that went into crafting the train's elaborate, self-sustaining design - with each car a new mini-universe unto itself - is mind-melting.

In the lead role, Chris Evans does some really good stuff. Between this and Captain America, the guy is really evolving into one of the best action leads in movies today. Here, he retains Cap's unwavering drive and nobility, but adds a tortured past and some gritty edge (translation: more brooding). But Evans' Curtis is a dynamic protagonist, and the performance is only enhanced by the delightfully oddball supporting cast that surrounds him. John Hurt is quite good as his wizened adviser, and Jamie Bell brings some comic relief as his puckish sidekick. Octavia Spencer, too, is a lot of fun (and surprisingly kick-ass) as a mother determined to find her missing son, taken away by Wilford's goons. But the real standouts in Curtis' band of freedom fighters are Kang-ho Song as drug-addicted security-specialist Namgoong, and Ah-sung Ko as Namgoong's teenage daughter Yona. Namgoong is just a badass character - Curtis frees him from imprisonment in a tiny cell, and finds that the man he needs to unlock the barriers between train cars is desperately addicted to a hallucinagenic drug made from industrial waste, commonly traded and smuggled throughout the train. Song brings an unstable, anarchic wildness to the character, and he also does a great job of giving depth to Namgoong's relationship with his daughter - an innocent who is forced to do some quick growin' up in order to stay alive over the course of the film.

Apart from the members of Curtis' group, the absolute standout here is Tilda Swinton. Between this and her darkly awesome turn in Only Lovers Left Alive, Swinton may be my pick for MVP of 2014 at the movies so far. She absolutely kills it in SNOWPIERCER as Mason, Wilfrod's sniveling second-in-command. Swinton goes 100% over-the-top here, delivering an insane performance that has to be seen to be believed. Mason is almost indescribably weird, a buck-toothed, nasally, tree-pole who is the ultimate lackey - a groveling lieutenant who enacts her master's orders with inhuman ruthlessness, clinging to whatever power she holds with quivering hands and desperate avarice. This is a weird, wild, rock n' roll performance for the ages, people.

I've also got to give a mention to Alison Pill - always great - but who also just kills it in a small but extremely memorable role as a school-teacher so full of saccharine sweetness that you just know it's only a matter of time before the other shoe drops, and we see that she's not quite what she seems. When it does, oh boy, watch out. Teacher ain't so sweet, kids. Alls I can say is that the "classroom" scene of SNOWPIERCER is an all-time classic.

Finally, I won't spoil the identity of Wilford, but seeing who plays him is a great little surprise. What I will say is: expect gravitas.

As crazy as this movie is, it's also pretty loaded with big ideas and very vital-feeling echoes of real-world class struggles. In many ways, the movie's proletariat uprising one-ups last year's Elysium in effectively telling a similar sort of sci-fi parable about haves vs. have-nots. What powers SNOWPIERCER is a runaway-train-like sense of righteous anger that gives the film's action an electric charge. The film has no wasted motion - similar to recent action milestones like The Raid, it propels forward at 100 mph, and rarely lets up. But amidst the action and visual splendor is an omnipresent undercurrent of rage-against-the-machine political commentary. Each element of the train can be seen as representing the elements of the machine that powers our society. There's a capitalist-critique, represented by Wilford's uncaring, order-keeping system, that shows how atrocities are buried and moral lines crossed in order to empower the elites and keep society's engine chugging along. Wilford's train is indeed self-sustaining, but at what cost? Ultimately, the train is a grotesque abomination. Even the elegant front cars exist as they do only because of the out-of-sight, out-of-mind exploitation of the back cars. The unwashed masses of the back cars subsist on the unwanted garbage of the front. And all - front and back - are brainwashed into thinking that this is all there is and can ever be. The train is the world, and no escape is possible. And so, as Curtis makes his way to the front of the train, eager to find and eliminate Wilford, the movie boldly asks if Curtis is simply on track to become the new Wilford. Is change in the system even possible from within? Is Curtis' revolution folly - just one more way to let the people let off steam, only to be squashed back into submission? SNOWPIERCER cleverly asks all these questions and more, and you've got to admire it for its politically-charged subversive streak. As out-there as it is, in many ways this is also thought-provoking sci-fi in its purest form.

My only complaint: the movie at times makes questionable narrative calls. One key scene, involving a startling confession from Curtis about his past, is legitimately shocking but also feels tonally off. It's *so* shocking that it just feels like too much, and is almost unintentionally chuckle-inducing in how crazy it sounds coming out of Chris Evans' mouth (to the actor's credit, he sells it as best as he possibly can - but still ...). There are also a few plot-points and characters that sort of pop-up, but don't really feel fully fleshed-out. The movie mostly benefits from its chaotic nature, but sometimes it does seem to be moving with such out-of-control ferocity that you're left with "huh?!" moments that break the narrative flow a bit.

But hey, listen up: if you like movies that dare to go a little nuts, that seek to challenge you, that present you with ideas, concepts, and aesthetics that are anything but typical - then yeah, add SNOWPIERCER to your must-watch-list now. It's insanely ambitious and, well, just plain insane. Over-the-top action, bursting-with-imagination, visionary sci-fi weirdness, instantly-iconic performances from Swinton and a loaded cast, and a fiery political streak that will leave you ready to start a revolution -- SNOWPIERCER has it all. Want to see a new cult-classic-in-the-making? See this film.

My Grade: A-

Monday, July 14, 2014

DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES a Stunning, Twilight Zone Reflection of Our World


- I recently watched through the old Planet of the Apes sequels from the 70's and early 80's, and though they are cheesy, campy fun, there's also a sort of heartbreaking element about them. Following in the tradition of the Rod Serling-penned original, the sequels contain elements of social commentary (as all the best sci-fi does) that, remarkably and semi-shockingly, is as relevant today as it was 30+ years ago. It leads you to wonder: are we as a species doomed to repeat the same mistakes over and over again? Can we resist the  temptation for war, discrimination, subjugation, greed, corruption, and violence? Or will our darker inclinations inevitably cause us to live out endless variations on the same tragic story? The original Apes franchise - with its gonzo time-travel logic, ruminates on this very question in a not-so-subtle fashion. Annihilation is coming for us all, and it will be of our own doing.

DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES continues with this theme, offering a starkly cynical view of humanity that feels all-too accurate at the moment. In fact, the events of the film so closely mirror the outbreak of the current wave of Israeli-Palestinian violence that you wonder if director Matt Reeves and his team of writers didn't create the movie with some sort of supernatural prescience. But then you realize: all of this has happened before, and all of this will likely happen again.

Let me first just state: the first in the relaunched Apes franchise, RISE, is one of my absolute favorite big blockbuster films of the last several years. It was jaw-droppingly good - a total stunner. And even more remarkably, its sequel is just as good. I was bummed to hear that Rupert Wyatt, who did such a bang-up job directing Rise, would not be returning for the sequel. But Matt Reeves totally steps up to the plate and knocks it out of the park. I was a fan of Reeves going into this: I thought Cloverfield showed a director with a lot of promise, and I thought that Let Me In was as good as an American remake of the original film could possibly have hoped to be. But DAWN shows us that Reeves has what it takes to do big, blockbuster filmmaking on par with the absolute best in the biz. In fact, I think with this movie, Reeves may have actually catapulted himself ahead of his buddy JJ Abrams on the list of exciting sci-fi directors (we'll see how Star Wars goes). Reeves builds on what Wyatt did with the first film, but also crafts a movie that looks absolutely stunning in each and every scene. Every moment feels big and weighty and iconic - even the quiet ones. And the entire film bristles with a moody, ominous intensity.

The film focuses on the apes much more so than Rise. Set ten years after the end of the first film, we learn that the virus hinted at in Rise has now wiped out much of humanity. Ceaser and his fellow intelligent apes live in the forest outside of San Francisco, and it's been two years since they've seen a human. For all they know, the humans are wiped out completely. The film opens with a group of apes on a hunt - a fascinating look at this strange new world in which Ceaser's apes live in a tribal culture away from humans. They have slowly learned speech and writing, and have a basic set of laws that they adhere to ("Ape does not kill ape."). The opening hunt scene, and subsequent scenes with the apes, show us a primitive society that is nonetheless quickly evolving in a way that mirrors the path of humans. To Reeve's credit though, he never shies away from the otherness of the apes - large portions of the movie are subtitled (the apes primarily still talk with sign language), and the movie does not portray the apes as the human-esque, upright-walking creatures of the original films.

Eventually, Ceaser's tribe faces upheaval in the form of a group of humans who come across the tribe as they search for an abandoned dam that could be the key to their community's survival. They come from a community that has formed in the ruins of San Francisco, that is on the verge of exhausting their power supply. Very quickly, we see the parallel, opposing attitudes that exist on both the human and ape side of the fence. Malcolm (Jason Clarke) and his wife Ellie (Keri Russell) try to peacefully explain their situation to Ceaser. They want to coexist. But the hothead of the group, Carver (Kirk Avecedo), nearly ruins everything, as his temper and hatred of the apes (he blames them for the virus outbreak) clouds his rational mind. Meanwhile, the community's leader, Dreyfus (Gary Oldman), sees the apes as a threat to his people and sees war as inevitable. Among the apes, Ceaser is willing to work with the humans and let them repair the dam. But most apes saw only the darker side of humans - not the friendlier side that Ceaser experienced in Rise. Chief among Ceaser's doubters is Koba (a motion-captured Toby Kebbell), a scarred ape who harbors deep resentment over his mistreatment as a lab monkey for many years, before having been freed by Ceaser's uprising.

Seeing how small events, misunderstandings, and agenda-laced manipulations bring on the inevitable escalation of violence between human and ape is a scary, legitimately disturbing mirror-image of our own reality. What's so striking is that no characters in the film are insane or completely wrong in their thinking. All have some real basis for their fears and hatreds. All feel justified in doing what they feel they have to in order to protect their own people, and it's not a huge stretch to see why they feel that way. In so many films, we see battles played out in a cartoonish way in which all the violence is okay, because we're so clearly rooting for a good guy to win out over an evil bad guy. But here, the violence - while spectacular and visceral - is also the kind that puts knots in your stomach. We don't actually want either side to win - we just want them to stop fighting and make peace. And yet, the peace that we root for seems hopelessly out of reach - and its proponents - like Ceaser and Malcolm - seem almost naive for pursuing it. There is simply too much fear, rage, and desperation for peace to win out. The drums of war are too loud, even if the fighting is clearly a zero sum game for all.

As Ceaser, Andy Serkis gives his most remarkable motion-captured performance yet. Even in a film filled to the brim with uber-talented live-action actors, Ceaser is, far and away, the star. What Serkis - in tandem with the film's CGI animators - does here is nothing short of astonishing. There is no uncanny valley. Ceaser is simply another character on screen, and a great one at that. He is an epic hero, a boy turned king, a father, husband, and champion. Serkis' movements, emotion, and personality are all captured and brought to life. If this isn't acting, I don't know what is. Hail Ceaser and hail Andy Serkis, says I.

I've also got to really single out the similarly amazing motion-capture work done by Toby Kebbell as Koba. Koba is simply a great character and a pretty epic villain. The best kind of villain, who truly believes that what he is doing is right and noble, even as he crosses line after line. There is a real unhinged, tragic quality to Koba, exemplified in some scenes both funny and disturbing, in which Koba realizes that the way to trick humans into thinking he's not a threat is to act in a stereotypical circus-monkey manner. To have a CGI motion-captured character in these scenes, acting outwardly silly, but with a real threat of barely-concealed danger and anger in his eyes - is truly incredible.

All of the movie's motion-capture work is phenomenal. In general, the apes looks remarkably real and are remarkably expressive, and they are seamlessly integrated into the film's various environments, and alongside its human actors. In fact, I think it's safe to say that DAWN has some of the flat-out best visual f/x ever seen, to this point, in a blockbuster film. I found myself continually wowed by the action on screen and the sophistication and scope of what we were seeing. But again, as much as I credit the CGI artists here, I also credit Reeves for making it all sing. The action in the film is incredibly shot. It can be brutal, and it can be elegant. We get chaotic large-scale battles and epic one-on-one fights. We get apes on horseback, apes in tanks, and apes majestically swinging from treetop to treetop. It's all filmed with sweeping grace and engrossing immersiveness (and sidenote: the 3D in the film is very, very good - a must-see in 3D if possible). I'll also mention the excellent score by composer Michael Giacchino. It mixes classic orchestral stuff with some appropriately retro bits of atmospheric, space-oddity weirdness that evoke the original Planet of the Apes.

Clarke, Russell, Oldman, and the rest of the human actors all do more-than-solid work. Clarke is a great presence, and Russell maximizes somewhat limited screentime by really bringing a lot of empathy to the character of Ellie. There's a subplot involving Ellie slowly being accepted as a surrogate mom by Malcom's son, Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee) that feels a little cut-short, but what is there gives the characters some nice dimensionality. Oldman's Dreyfus is also an interesting character in that he's fairly rational, just unable to see the bigger picture, the forest for the trees. From our god's-eye perspective as viewers, we can sense the futility of Dreyfus' desire for aggression. But we also have to wonder what we'd do were we in his shoes.

That sort of creeping dread - the idea that we too, as individuals and as a society - might also succumb to the desperate cycle of violence that these characters give in to - is what makes DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES such profound, evocative, hard-hitting sci-fi. Every day on the news, we see competition for resources escalate into violence. We see misunderstandings and isolated acts of aggression escalate into full-scale war. We see deep-seated hatreds prevent us from seeing people as individuals, instead adopting an "us vs. them" mentality, in which we neatly divide people into faceless sides. "They" are bad. "They" are evil. "They" hate us, and therefore can't be trusted. It might sound silly, but in this film's conflict between species, we see a dark mirror held up to our own everyday existence. The magic trick of DAWN is that, without ever explicitly spelling it out, it hammers home the realization that the very concept of apes vs. humans is all one great lie. Once the apes gain intelligence, they are susceptible to all the same faults as the humans they take pains to differentiate themselves from. They are as seduced by the power of the gun. They are as prone to corruption. They are as likely to act in self-interest while claiming to act for the greater good. The one real difference, the one real advantage for the apes, is that they are still at a stage where they are not reliant on technology, and can therefore thrive in a world that had quickly descended into primitiveness. But it's only a matter of time - and evolution - until the apes have that same crutch.

A lot to think about for a summer sci-fi blockbuster. And that's why these new Apes films have, I think, transcended the genre to become something truly special. These are movies that have a lot to say, even as they dazzle with bar-raising visuals. DAWN not only raises the bar visually, but it raises the bar for the series, and paves the way for a third film that is now among my most-anticipated. DAWN masterfully follows in the grand tradition of the Planet of the Apes films (and in the tradition of original Apes writer Rod Serling) - for it is a profound, Twilight Zone reflection of our own world, and an absolute must-see movie.

My Grade: A

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Comics You Should Read: LAZARUS

Comics You Should Read: LAZARUS


Greg Rucka is one of those can't-miss comic book writers whose work I've followed for many years. Like many of my favorites, this is a guy who I first discovered through his work on more mainstream superhero books, but then followed as he branched out to more independent, creator-owned creations. Rucka made his mark with me as a Batman guy. In the late 90's and early 00's, he was one of the instrumental writers in the epic Batman saga "No Man's Land," and went on to have long runs on various Batman books, combining great, character-driven soap-operatics with a dark, grim, noirish tone. Later, he and another fave writer, Ed Brubaker, teamed to write a book called Gotham Central. Along with artist Michael Lark, the two created a gritty, sophisticated, and incredibly well-crafted look at the inner workings of the Gotham City Police Department. Basically, it felt like an HBO-style take on the GCPD, and it was one of the best books that DC Comics has ever put out.

Recently, Rucka brought his talents to Image (as many of the top comic book creators have, over the last few years), and re-teamed with Lark for a new book called LAZARUS. Very quickly, it's become one of the absolute must-reads in comics.

LAZARUS takes place in a ruinous near-future world in which the world economy has collapsed, and earth is now ruled by a handful of powerful families - each grasping power due to their corporate wealth, which prospered even as governments and other institutions fell. In this brave new world, you're either a member of one of the families, an elite lieutenant of the families, a soldier in one of their armies, or "waste." It's an extreme version of the whole "99%" thing. While the families live in lavish compounds, most of the population live in terrible conditions, in makeshift camps, in total poverty. As we enter the world of Lazarus, we arrive at a time of relative stability - the families co-exist in a tenuous peace with each other, and the waste has been utterly demoralized, and lacks the will or resources to revolt. However, as Rucka's story picks up, the seeds of change are being planted. Tensions begin to brew between the families. Sparks of revolution flare among the waste. And the biggest x-factor of all ... is the Lazarus.

The primary family that the book follows are the Carlyles. Who, by the way, have more issues than the Lannisters. But they also have a Lazarus - a genetically-engineered supersoldier who has been raised as a daughter of the Carlyle family, albeit a daughter who's learned to kill and fight since birth. Her name is Forever, and not only has she been physically enhanced, but mentally, she's been completely brainwashed into being the unquestioning lapdog of her family. That, of course, is on the cusp of changing, and that self-awakening is what, surely, will lead to a crack in the system that proves irreversible.

Rucka is doing some fine work here. There is *a lot* going on in this world, but part of the intrigue of the book is watching Rucka slowly peel back the layers, revealing to us all the ins and outs of this dystopian future, and how it got to be this way. Rucka has clearly thought though things in great detail, as evidenced by the detailed essays in the back of each issue - about current advances in science and other news items - that inform his writing and the world of Lazarus. There is some massive-scale world-building going on here, but what's cool is how much of it is informed by our current state of affairs. Ultimately though, what drives the storytelling is the character work, in particular the ongoing evolution of Forever. Watching this woman slowly awaken to the reality of her world is making for some really compelling reading. It's a slow build, at times, but I think the eventual payoffs will be worth it.

Meanwhile, Lark's artwork is fantastic, as always. The guy does very naturalistic, realistic drawing that still has a certain stylized quality to it. He makes Forever Carlyle into a real badass, but also shows that she can be vulnerable and in over her head, with his great knack for expressive and evocative art. Lark just gives the book an incredible sense of gritty atmosphere that perfectly complements that ominous tone that Rucka is going for.

Like a dystopian Game of Thrones that mixes a healthy dose of real-world politics with its war of ruling families, LAZARUS is quickly laying the foundation to become a true epic. The book is only 9 issues in (also available in two easily-digestible paperback collections), so it's pretty painless to get onboard at the moment. Check it out.

READ IT IF YOU LIKE: Game of Thrones, Orphan Black, The Hunger Games, Gotham Central, dystopian fiction, badass female protagonists, science-y stuff, socio-political commentary ...

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Comics You Should Read: SAGA

Comics You Should Read: SAGA


So here is my brief history with writer Brian K. Vaughan. When I was in high school and college, as many do, I got really into Alan Moore. I read everything by him I could get my hands on. My favorite was Watchmen (shocker), but my other favorite was his extended run on Swamp Thing. In fact, I may even give Swamp Thing the slight edge over Watchmen, if only because the run is so sprawling, epic, wonderfully trippy, lyrical, dark, romantic, and just plan awesome. I read Swamp Thing via the various collected editions of Moore's run, but all of that back-reading made me eager for new Swamp Thing stories. So I jumped at the chance to get onboard with the early 00's Swamp Thing series written by a guy who I'd never heard of before that point: Brian K. Vaughan.

Vaughan's Swamp Thing was controversial at the time. Instead of following the continued adventures of Alec Holland, the guy everyone knows as Swamp Thing from comics, movies, and TV, it instead chronicled the adventures of his now-teenaged daughter, Tefe, who was just now manifesting her supernatural abilities. Because Moore cast such a long shadow, and because there was perhaps less interest in a book about Tefe, Vaughan's Swamp Thing fell a bit under the radar. But, it quickly became one of my favorite comics at the time. Like Moore, Vaughan mixed big, mind-bending concepts with a knack for real-feeling dialogue that grounded his characters. Even more so than Moore - who mixed realism and naturalism with a very literary, often psychedelic vibe, Vaughan brought naturalism to sci-fi comics in a way that I'd never really seen before. In comics, where so much writing tends to be hyper-stylized, it was incredibly refreshing to read sharp, clever dialogue like Vaughan's. Looking back, I'd lump Vaughan in with the trend in pop-culture at the time towards genre-bending, progressive fiction that gave us smart twists on genre staples - from guys like Joss Whedon, JJ Abrams, and other comics writers who brought TV and film-style smarts and snappiness to comic books. It makes sense then that Vaughan would go on to write for Abrams' LOST, and then team with the godfather of this sort of stuff - Stephen King - on the TV adaptation of Under the Dome.

But before he moved to TV, Vaughan moved from Swamp Thing to other comics projects. He wrote a really good mini-run on Batman, which moved him up further on my ladder of favorite writers. But what cemented him on my (and many others') all-timers list was his seminal work on Y: THE LAST MAN. I could write about Y all day (and have, on other occasions). Suffice it to say, it's a modern fiction classic, and if you haven't read it, go do so right freakin' now. I really think Y is in many ways the defining comic book of the 00's, and I also think its influence went well beyond comics, influencing TV, film, and more with the way it placed a sort of geeky, quirky lead into an apocalyptic, globe-trotting adventure. With Y, Vaughan's writing style became more defined. He showed a knack for mixing wry, sardonic humor with jaw-dropping cliffhangers and can't-miss-an-issue serialized storytelling. And he showed a proclivity for inserting real-world facts and social commentary into even his most out-there stories. During and after Y's run, Vaughan produced some other great books. Most notably, a lengthy run on EX MACHINA, a sci-fi political thriller about a former superhero turned Mayor of New York City. There was also his run on Marvel's teen book Runaways, his superb graphic novel wartime parable Pride of Baghdad, and his spin-off companions to Michael Chabon's novel The Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, which looked at the present-day legacy of the novel's characters.

But once he went to work on Lost, Vaughan's comics output pretty much stopped - right when he was the on top of the comics world and widely considered the best in the biz. There was a major void in comics without Vaughan, and I'm not sure that any other book in the early 2010's supplanted Y as the next must-read, cross-genre, cross-demo mainstream breakout comic book hit. However, in 2012, Vaughan returned to comics, after an extended absence, with SAGA. And very quickly, things picked up where they left off - with Vaughan at the helm of the medium's most accessible yet challenging book, and its most must-read hit.

SAGA is sweeping, space-opera sci-fi, but not really. At its core, its a romance story and family drama about two soldiers on opposing sides of a never-ending war who meet, fall in love, and have a child - which makes them fugitives. As is typical of Vaughan, the characters in Saga are refreshingly three-dimensional, not at all conforming to typical gender or other stereotypes. Marko, a horned intellectual from the planet Wreath, is calm, contemplative, spiritual. His wife, Alanna, is a winged native of Wreath's enemy planet, Landfall. She's hot-headed, outspoken, and tough-as-nails (though also fond of reading trashy sci-fi novels).

The book is called Saga, and Vaughan has set up a sprawling saga indeed. He's populated this cosmic universe with all manner of strange races and creatures - from the TV's-for-heads race of alien Robots, to the ruthless-but-honor-bound bounty hunter called The Will and his feline companion, Lying Cat. Although the main story is actually very intimate - the world that it takes place in is incredibly vast. But that's what Vaughan does so well. Marko and Alanna talk, bicker, joke, and banter like any other young couple would - they are instantly familiar and accessible despite their horns and wings. At the same time, the world of Saga is filled with weirdness that continually wows me. A huge, huge part of that is the absolutely stunning artwork from Fiona Staples. Staple's unique style is completely unlike any other comic book art I've seen. It's simple and iconic and expressive, yet filled with oddball and surreal details, and rendered in lush, cosmic colors. I've never done this before, but I became such a fan of Staples' art that I bought a print of one of her Saga covers to put on my wall at home. It's just that cool.

The world of Saga is big, and I suspect that, ultimately, this story will be HUGE. Over twenty-something issues (or three easily bought/digested collected volumes), we've seen the adventures of Marko, Alanna, and their newborn baby Hazel as they flee from planet to planet, on the run from various parties out to hunt them down. But the narration, from a presumably grown-up Hazel, hints that we're still only in the very early stages of Saga's saga. Vaughan peppers Hazel's narrative captions with all sorts of tantalizing hints of what's to come. And it's clear that when all is said and done, this will be a cosmic story that spans multiple decades and generations. Vaughan is swinging for the fences with this one.

Even still, SAGA is, like Y: The Last Man, a near-perfect comic book for people who are just getting into comics. It's got great male and female characters. It's got weird sci-fi and plenty of shocking sex and violence, but also humor, romance, all-too-relatable characters - and a story that serves as a clear mirror-image of our own world and our own time. It's self-contained - and still at the start of its run - but it's also on its way to being a true epic.

If you're looking to get onboard with comics, or if you're a comics fan looking for the one must-read book that you've got to be keeping up with to be a part of the pop-cultural conversation, this is it.

READ IT IF YOU LIKE: Star Wars, Star Trek, Y: The Last Man, Lost, Chuck, Buffy, Firefly, sci-fi, romance, humor ... er, just read it!