Thursday, May 31, 2007

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End

I can safely say that Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End is the first Hollywood blockbuster this year that isn't a heaping pile of disappointment. In fact, it's actually quite entertaining, if you can get past the sometimes confusing ever-shifting allegiances of the main characters.

Don't get me wrong, I love twists and turns, especially those derived from characters as opposed to plot contrivances. But in AWE, there were a few times when the endless backstabbings resulted in my complete failure to understand what was going on. However, the too-familiar complaint that the Pirates sequels are "too confusing" is owed more to the average American filmgoer's complete lack of an attention span than the films themselves. AWE
actually requires the viewer to PAY ATTENTION. Yes, it's supposed to be confusing and, yes, you will be scratching your head at times wondering who's siding with who. You'll get over it.

I'm steering clear of spoilers for the sake of this review, but needless to say, this film ties up all of the lose ends left dangling at the conclusion of last summer's Dead Man's Chest. The crew of the Black Pearl sets off to Davy Jones' locker to fetch Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp). The East India Trading Company has possession of Davy Jones' heart and controls the Flying Dutchman, tightening their stranglehold of the oceans and putting pirates on the endangered species list. There's a call-to-arms, the pirates are assembling to fight back, and Disney executives are buying pants with bigger pockets.

What I really enjoyed about this film was the reintroduction of Captain Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), and his scenes with Jack Sparrow. These are guys that tried to kill each other two movies back, and now that they're on the same side, things get interesting. It's a constant power struggle between the two, and they provide some of the best scenes of the trilogy.

I also appreciated Gore Verbinski's take on Davy Jones' locker. It's trippy fun as we get a glimpse into Jack's dementia. He's a captain without a crew on a ship with no ocean. Depp brings the character of Jack Sparrow even further into the realm of the bizarre, and the payoff is huge.

You really can't write about a film like this without regarding the special effects. They're just incredible. Davy Jones and the crew of the Flying Dutchman never come off as digital creations: you completely buy the fact that they're on the set at all times. Kudos to Industrial Light and Magic for providing, in my humble opinion, some of the best computerized creations ever put to film. There's also the climactic whirlpool battle between the Pearl and the Dutchman that puts a proper cap on the trilogy. It's dizzying, it's exciting and it's exactly what you're looking for in a popcorn flick.

ends in fitting, yet near-tragic fashion, tying up the relationship between Will Turner (Orlando Bloom) and Elizabeth Swann (Keira Knightley). I applaud the filmmakers for not going for the sickeningly cheery route and opting for something bittersweet.

As for Jack, the film leaves things open for a fourth but it is not yet known if Depp will be donning the bandana and braids once again. However, I have a sinking suspicion that for the right price, be it dollars or dubloons, Jack Sparrow will sail again.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Does Frank Miller Hate Batman?

After reading through the fifth issue of All-Star Batman & Robin:The Boy Wonder it becomes readily apparent that Frank Miller, who reignited interest in the character in the mid-80s, really hates Batman. Despises him, even.

His past takes on the character, including The Dark Knight Returns and Batman: Year One were gritty and necessarily bleak: this is Batman after all. Miller's Batman was a far cry from that of the campy 1960s television version, and proved to the world that the Caped Crusader could be taken seriously when handled by the right people.

Here we are in 2007 and Miller is once again penning a Batman tale, with famed comic artist Jim Lee providing the visuals. With an unpredictable release schedule (it's been hitting stands sporadically for nearly two years now), Boy Wonder is an out-of-continuity retelling of Robin's origins.

From its beginnings, the characterization of Batman in this series has been a bit off. Batman refers to himself as "the goddamn Batman," kills cops and generally comes off as a psychopath (for a guy that dresses up like a bat). He's less a hero and more of a deviant that gets off from beating the snot out of purse-snatchers. It just doesn't add up.

In this issue, Miller gives us some insight into Wonder Woman's psyche. Namely, the fact that she despises men. "Men always lie about everything. Men always make a mess out of everything." She then makes out with Superman, only after he knocks her ass down with his superbreath. She's got issues. But then again, this is Frank Miller. Everyone's got 'em.

And that's the problem. Miller injects so much of this "gritty realism" into these iconic characters that they fail to be icons at this point. They're just whackos in costumes, wearing masks and harboring secret identities to conceal their inner torment.

Perhaps Miller needs to take a break from the superhero game and focus on his original material, such as Sin City. While his previous work succeeded at subverting the superhero genre and made it relevant again, his current Batman effort borders on self-parody.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

30 Years Ago...

30 years ago yesterday, the original Star Wars took America by storm, ushering in a new era of summer blockbusters and capturing the imagination of young and old alike. It has since spawned sequels, prequels and a media empire that is still going strong today.

Opening on a scant 32 screens, Star Wars introduced the world to a simple yet wholly unique tale of an ultimate good, an ultimate evil and a yearning for adventure. Much like protagonist Luke Skywalker, the audience was thrust into the film's galactic civil war with only the slightest exposition; an opening crawl of yellow text describing the key players in the film and where we were in the story. Referred to as "Episode IV" of the saga following its release, Star Wars gave audiences just a glimpse into a universe that was far larger than the film itself.

Creator George Lucas has revisited this beloved series five times since, filling us in on the rest of the story, but one may argue that it was the vague history that the film alludes to that was so fascinating. What were these Clone Wars, and and what was this "Old Republic" that aged hermit Obi-Wan Kenobi refers to? Of course now we know all of this, but 30 years ago, on May 25, 1977, the story flickering on those 32 screens needed no explanation, imaginations took over, and an entire generation was hooked.

While Star Wars appears on everything from bed sheets to video games to, yes, even postage stamps, it all began with Lucas, and his ambitious desire to infuse the sensibilities of movie serials of the 1930s and 40s with a grander sense of mythology, inspired by luminaries such as Akira Kurasawa and J.R.R. Tolkien. Millions of dollars later, it's safe to say that his ambition paid off.

With Memorial Day upon us, take the time to revisit this classic film and celebrate what it means to you, whether it be childhood nostalgia or a lifelong obsession. And introduce it to someone new, while you're at it. Oh, and may the Force be with you. You knew that was coming.

Friday, May 18, 2007

And Now for Something Completely Different...

It's not even June and I'm burnt out on summer movies. After Spider-Man 3's meh-fest, I've decided that the best way to deal with the upcoming summer of sequels is to lower expectations entirely and hope to be surprised. At least that's how I'm approaching Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End. Expect ample amounts of sucktitude and you'll always be impressed.

To tide me over, I've turned to my other geek passion: video games. And the timing's right too. The multiplayer beta for Halo 3 became available on Wednesday to industry folk and people with copies of Crackdown. After a lengthy download last night, I prepared for a high-def fragfest that would drag me kicking and screaming back into the Halo fold. After 30 seconds, my session froze up and I was kicked off Xbox Live. OMGWTF indeed.

I know, it's a beta and I'm sure there are bugs. I'm not gonna get my needlers in a twist. Instead I fired up Crackdown, which I had purchased this week in order to secure my beta invitation. And I have to say: It's fun. Really fun. It's the most fun I've had with one of these "sandbox games" since I played Grand Theft Auto III for the first time back in 2001. You're basically a genetically enhanced supercop taking down 21 crime bosses in a sprawling cityscape complete with crowds and traffic. You can take on the mobsters in any way you want and in whatever order you want. Want to run him down with a semi? Go for it. Want to shove a grenade down his throat? Be my guest. Want to beat him to death with one of his bodyguards? The world is your oyster. And that oyster is badass.

Friday, May 11, 2007

"Spider-Man 3" And the Box Office

Well, it's official: Spider-Man 3 is a bonafide hit. It scored the biggest opening weekend of all time and has banked over $400 million worldwide. That's a lot of people turning out for a movie that includes about 10 minutes of James Franco and Kirsten Dunst making an omelet. Scratch that. They don't even succeed at making said omelet. When Harry tries to show off his omelet flipping skills (which suck compared to his armblade skills, flying snowboarding skills and pumpkin-bomb throwing skills) it falls on the floor, which is exactly where my jaw was when director Sam Raimi decided that the best way to convey Peter Parker turning "evil" was to have him comb his hair forward and wear eyeliner. Let me repeat that: Spider-Man wears eyeliner. In short, he turns emo. I'm surprised he didn't go shopping at Hot Topic while listening to My Chemical Romance before updating his Myspace page with pictures of himself looking artsy and sad. Ugh. Emo kids.

You'll recall that I already talked a bit about this movie in an earlier post. In fact, it's the one directly below this one. The reason why it's still on my mind is that I really still don't know where to place this film. It's such a hodge podge of "wow, that scene was pretty cool" mixed with "is this the same movie?" It was like a roller coaster ride of suck. The movie brings you way up before plummeting headfirst into mediocrity. I know that I'm mixing up metaphors in ways that would make most English professors furrow their brows, but screw it, it's my blog and I'll rant if I want to.

I wanted to like this movie. I really did. But there really was something that was off. Really off. Like the studio told director Sam Raimi, who I've trusted for years, that his little story about forgiveness wasn't enough to sell action figures and video games so they added a third MAJOR comic book villain, fan-favorite Venom, in the third act. Blink and you'll miss him.

I'm not stupid, and I know that movies are a business. And I also know that these movies in particular are made for mass consumption and aren't necessarily directed at the obsessive comic book nerds, like myself. But for Spider-Man 3, I just couldn't figure out the audience they were going for. They threw in stuff to please the fans, yet did none of it justice due to time constraints, while certain plot aspects like the whole black costume nonsense (it needed its own film) totally alienate everyone in the audience that isn't up on 1970's comic book storylines. It's so tacked on, knowledge of how the story was SUPPOSED to be told is almost a prerequisite to begin to fathom this Cliff's Notes version we actually get.

But all in all, I'm blowing off steam. It's pretty entertaining if you approach it as a Sam Raimi movie first and a Spider-Man film second. For example, I love Evil Dead 2 and Army of Darkness, but high cinema they AIN'T. They're cheesy, on purpose of course, and that might be what Sam was doing here. But then again, that subverts all of the work he did in the first two movies getting us to care about these characters, doesn't it?

Whatever, you're gonna see it, or have seen it, no matter what I say. You might have some fun, and I honestly hope that you do. Because there is fun to be had during the film's 2+ hours. But you probably won't leave satisfied.

Wow, did I just write all that? Christ, I need a girlfriend.

Sunday, May 6, 2007

Spidey Vs. The Critics

I never thought that Spider-Man 3 would turn out to be such a divisive film. Since the first trailers started showing up, there was buzz. Huge buzz. Then, just a few days before the film's release, the critics seemed to have made it their goal to squash the bug before it became a blockbuster. A 59 million dollar opening day later (the biggest of all time), and the audiences have spoken. It was good, great at times, but not as good as Spider-Man 2. I tend to agree with them.

You see, there's lots to like in this film. Love even. It's just that director Sam Raimi tried to cram way too much into an already-bloated 2 hours and 20 minutes. The film picks up where the second one left off, with Peter/Spidey (Tobey Maguire) and Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) on their way to wedded bliss, but unfortunately, Harry Osborn (James Franco) seems intent on killing Spider-Man and avenging his father. Oh, then there's this business with Peter's uncle's murderer escaping from prison and becoming transformed into a sand monster. Sounds like more than enough plot elements to put together a pretty decent blockbuster, no? Well, someone saw fit to also include a meteorite (that just so happened to crash right near Peter) that contains a symbiotic creature that attaches itself to Peter, forms a black costume, and turns him into an arrogant prick.

That's the main problem I had with this movie. Why include so many plots in one film, ensuring from the get-go that not one of them will be fully developed? The black costume business was ham-fisted at best. It's already something from Spider-Man lore that's difficult to translate to the big screen, why not spend more than 45 minutes making it believable?

Here's a scenario that might've worked. J. Jonah Jameson's astronaut son is landing a shuttle, but it goes out of control. Spidey saves the day, only to learn that something attached itself to the shuttle, causing mechanical problems, etc. He takes the sample to Doc Connors, some of it attaches to him, forms a costume, etc. There's your setup. Then, instead of having Spidey deal with 3 villains, you have him actually become the villain for the first half of the movie, and have the whole Venom storyline the second half. Then you could actually spend time showing Spidey abuse his new powers before they get the best of them instead of treating us to more scenes of Tobey jazz dancing. Yes. Jazz dancing. Rant over. Oh, and Sony, since I just wrote a far superior plot compared to what we ended up with, I'll be looking out for that check. I'm available for the next installment.

While it may seem like I really didn't enjoy Spider-Man 3, I did. Sort of. I laughed when it was funny (Bruce Campbell is comedy gold), was on the edge of my seat during the action sequences (the best of the series), and I was pretty satisfied when it was over. But, as a fan of the character and a fan of the movies, I just couldn't wrap my head around some of the choices made. Venom, a MAJOR Spider-Man villain, deserves more than 20 minutes of screen-time. That and Topher Grace knocked the character out of the park. He, and the character, got short-changed. Also, what was with Harry's butler all of a sudden chiming in with exposition in the final act of the movie? Where the heck did he come from!?

Is it a reasonably entertaining film? Absolutely. Could it have been great? Absolutely. It just seemed like Raimi was being pressured by the studio to include as much as possible in what could be his final Spidey film, and it suffers a great deal because of it.

Despite my gripes, bring on number 4. I'll be there.