Monday, August 31, 2009

The House of Mouse Acquires the House of Ideas: But What Does It Mean?

Geeks across the globe collectively gasped on the morning of August 31 when it was announced that Disney would be acquiring Marvel Entertainment—and its 5,000 characters—for approximately $4 billion. The Twitterverse and the blogosphere were soon set ablaze with speculation that with Marvel now under the Disney corporate umbrella, fan-favorite characters and comic book titles would be watered down in keeping with Disney’s kid-friendly image. Some fans even began worrying that the acquisition may result in outlandish character crossovers. Can we expect Deadpool/Mickey: Merc with a Mouse or Hannah Montana: Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. to be hitting comic book stands or movie theaters in the near future?

While the news is a shock, I don’t think there’s any reason for Marvel fans to worry. At least not yet, anyway. After all, it’s not like corporate ownership of comic book publishers is anything new. DC Comics has been a subsidiary of Warner Bros. Entertainment since 1969.

“This transaction combines Marvel’s strong global brand and world-renowned library of characters including Iron Man, Spider-Man, X-Men, Captain America, Fantastic Four and Thor with Disney’s creative skills, unparalleled global portfolio of entertainment properties and a business structure that maximizes the value of creative properties across multiple platforms and territories," Robert A. Iger, president and CEO of The Walt Disney Company, said in a statement. “[Marvel CEO] Ike Perlmutter and his team have done an impressive job of nurturing these properties and have created significant value. We are pleased to bring this talent and these great assets to Disney.”

On the surface, it doesn’t seem as though Disney has any intention of interfering in Marvel’s creative operations . On his Twitter page, Marvel editor-in-chief Joe Quesada assured fans that their “favorite comics remain unchanged.” He added in a later post, “If you're familiar with the Disney/Pixar relationship, then you'll understand why this is a new dawn for Marvel and the comics industry.”

He refers to Disney’s 2006 acquisition of Pixar Animation Studios. Under that deal, Pixar—the studio behind WALL-E, The Incredibles and the Toy Story films—remains a separate creative entity. It does, however, benefit from Disney’s marketing strength. Under the Disney/Marvel agreement, both parties could benefit in a similar way. Marvel will have the resources to cross-promote its characters through multiple channels—including Disney theme parks, retail outlets, films and television programs—while Disney will finally have a brand it can market to male teens and young adults.

As long as Disney maintains a hands-off approach to how Marvel comic books and films are made, this could be a long and fruitful relationship. If Disney tries to pacify the Punisher, declaw Wolverine or tell the Hulk to calm down, then fans have every right to get angry. And Disney, you wouldn’t like us when we’re angry.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Batman: Arkham Asylum Wins Guinness World Record

Okay, so Batman: Arkham Asylum is good. Really good. It’s so good, Guinness has proclaimed it the “Most Critically Acclaimed Superhero Game Ever,” Kotaku reports. As of this writing, the multiplatform title has earned an average review score of 91/100 on Metacritic. Congrats, Caped Crusader!

“We are so pleased to be awarding Batman: Arkham Asylum a Guinness World Record,” Guinness’ Gaz Deaves said in a statement. “It is a fantastic new game and due to the reaction of gaming experts we believe it has a well deserved place in the Guinness World Records book.”

While this is a cool and deserved honor, it seems more like a thinly veiled marketing effort than an actual award. With its gorgeous visuals, immersive gameplay and a solid story by acclaimed Batman scribe Paul Dini, Arkham Asylum doesn’t need weirdly specific world records to prove how awesome it is.

Monday, August 24, 2009

The BioShock Movie May Have a Director

While I think a movie based on Take-Two Interactive’s BioShock is a terrible idea, at least Universal Pictures hasn’t tapped Uwe Boll to direct it. Variety reports that Juan Carlos Fresnadillo (28 Weeks Later) is in talks to replace previous director Gore Verbinski (Pirates of the Caribbean), who abandoned the video game adaptation to direct an animated film called Rango, starring Johnny Depp.

As gamers already know, the primary appeal of BioShock is its atmosphere. Exploring the creepy, ruined underwater utopia of Rapture is incredibly rewarding, as is discovering bits and pieces of the narrative on your own. Being spoon-fed that experience in a feature film just doesn’t seem like it would work all that well.

And I think that’s the reason why no video game adaptation—no matter how good—will ever stack up against the source material. These stories are meant to be interactive, and we’re supposed to be the protagonist. No film can replicate that level of immersion.

However, I enjoyed 28 Weeks Later, so I’ll give Fresnadillo the benefit of the doubt. For now.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Tarantino Is Back With a Vengeance

Wow. Not only is Inglourious Basterds one of the best movies of the year, but it’s easily Quentin Tarantino’s most satisfying film since Pulp Fiction. As expected, this is a gritty and often brutally violent revisionist take on World War II. But, fortunately, its poignancy isn’t just measured in buckets of blood.

The most common criticism of Tarantino’s work is that his characters are excessively talkative, often at the expense of narrative momentum. This pacing issue was most apparent in 2007’s Death Proof, the second half of Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez’s Grindhouse double feature. While the film was meant to pay homage to exploitation films of the Russ Meyer variety, far too much of its running time is spent lingering on the meandering conversations of its female protagonists. Brilliant writing in Tarantino’s previous work had cemented him as one of the top American filmmakers of the 1990s, but those chatty sequences are boring more often than not, and the film suffers as a result.

Flash forward two years and, yes, Inglourious Basterds—with an intentionally misspelled title paying homage to 1978 Italian war film, The Inglorious Bastards—is still loaded with long, protracted conversations. The film opens with a slimy German SS officer, Colonel Hans “Jew Hunter” Landa (Christoph Waltz), interrogating a French dairy farmer suspected of harboring a Jewish family. The scene is drawn out, and painfully so. But it’s through this lengthy interrogation that Tarantino ramps up the tension until the inevitable, violent payoff. There’s a ton of dialogue throughout this film—much of which is subtitled—but it’s seldom pointless.

Speaking of Landa, he’s easily one of the most memorable and despicable villains in screen history. This is a guy who truly enjoys watching people squirm, smiling all the while. Waltz’s unsettling performance is simply incredible throughout, and we’ll hopefully be hearing more about him once Oscar season rolls around.

But what of the film’s titular Basterds? Lieutenant Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) leads a band of Jewish-American soldiers assembled to spread fear among the Nazi ranks by brutally murdering and scalping German soldiers. Put simply, they’re in the business of killing Nazis and, as Aldo explains, “business is a-boomin’.” Watching these characters get sweet revenge is a lot of fun, particularly when the so-called “Bear Jew,” Sergeant Donnie Donowitz (Eli Roth), goes to town on one Nazi soldier with a baseball bat. The film could have been all about Aldo and the Basterds running around the French countryside slaughtering Nazis and most filmgoers would probably be satisfied at a base level.

However, in typical Tarantino fashion, Inglourious Basterds juggles storylines. The film also follows Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent), a young Jewish woman who survives her family’s execution at Landa’s hand. Years later, she runs a small theater in Paris. There, she catches the eye of a German war hero, Fredrick Zoller (Daniel Brühl), the subject of Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels’ (Sylvester Groth) latest film. He convinces Goebbels to hold the film premiere—which will assemble all the top brass in the Third Reich, including Adolf Hitler—at Shosanna’s theater.

Shosanna and her lover Marcel (Jacky Ido) have an idea: during the premiere, they’re going to lock the audience in the theater and burn it to the ground. Shosanna’s plan mirrors that of the Basterds, who team with a German actress and undercover agent Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger) to infiltrate the premiere, destroy the theater and end the war. These storylines converge in a visceral finale that will likely have you talking long after the credits roll.

While Waltz is the standout performance in Inglourious Basterds, Pitt delivers as well. Tarantino’s dark comedy really suits this leading man, and I’d love to see Aldo revisited in a future film. Watching the native Tennessean wrestle with an Italian accent in front of Landa is a lot funnier than it probably should have been. Bravo.

After carving a swastika into a Nazi officer’s forehead at the end of the film, Aldo admires his work, saying “I think this just might be my masterpiece.” That last line in the script is clearly Tarantino patting himself on the back for a job well done, but he may be right. Inglourious Basterds is a solid, entertaining and often gut-wrenching piece of cinema.

Friday, August 21, 2009

PS3 Slims Down for Slimmer Wallets

It’s about time! At its GamesCom 2009 Press Conference, Sony announced a game-changing price cut for the PlayStation 3, reports. While the slimmer $299 PS3 model sacrifices backward compatibility (the ability to play PS1 and PS2 games), it boasts a 120 GB hard drive.

Now that the PS3 actually has some great games in its library, including LittleBigPlanet, Metal Gear Solid 4 and inFamous, there’s really no reason for me not to pick one up now that it’s $100 cheaper. I was thinking of buying a Blu-ray player anyway—I might as well get one that plays games.

The PS3 Slim hits retailers September 1.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Avatar Trailer Debuts Online

The first trailer for James Cameron’s Avatar has finally hit the Web, giving many fans their first real glimpse at the highly anticipated 3D sci-fi epic.

I watched the trailer (a few times) and, to be honest, I’m not 100 percent blown away at this point. Cameron certainly has an eye for detail, as the alien world of Pandora is very well realized. That said, the special effects still have a rubbery, artificial look to them. Avatar just doesn’t seem like the major step forward in visual storytelling that we’ve been promised.

However, I have faith in Cameron, and Avatar will probably make for a great theatrical experience. Having seen the trailer, I’m definitely excited. I’m just not geeking out. Yet.

Avatar opens worldwide December 18. Watch the trailer below.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

James Vanderbilt to Write Spider-Man 5 and 6

Are your writer senses tingling? If so, it’s probably because Sony Pictures has hired James Vanderbilt (Zodiac) to pen Spider-Man 5 and Spider-Man 6. Variety reports that the films will have an interconnected storyline.

Vanderbilt was first enlisted to write Spider-Man 4, but director Sam Raimi brought on David Lindsay-Abaire to rewrite the script. That version of the script is now being rewritten by Gary Ross. Spider-Man 4 will start production early in 2010 for a May 2011 release.

It’s unknown at this point whether Raimi and franchise stars Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst will be returning for the fifth and sixth installments, as they are not signed on for films beyond Spider-Man 4. If the stars don’t return, according to Variety, Vanderbilt’s two-part story could serve as the basis for a series reboot.

I’m getting a little tired of Hollywood’s obsession with reboots these days, but having a new director and some fresh faces in the cast might prompt Sony to work out a deal with Marvel Studios, getting Spider-Man involved in their continuing series of interconnected crossover films. Who wouldn’t want to see Spidey fight alongside Iron Man, Captain America or the Hulk onscreen?

White Chicks Sequel Signals the End of Days

Okay, I’m probably being a bit melodramatic, but with Marlon and Shawn Wayans readying a sequel to White Chicks, I’m looking over my shoulder for the other two Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

According to The Hollywood Reporter, the Wayans Brothers will once again play FBI agents posing as, you guessed it, white chicks. Older brother Keenen Ivory Wayans will direct. Offensive racial humor will abound.

I gave Marlon a pass for his role in G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra, since he actually did a pretty good job with what he had to work with. However, I can’t imagine why we would need another installment in the White Chicks saga. The only question left unanswered in the first one? Why is this funny?

Sunday, August 16, 2009

District 9 Beats G.I. Joe at the Box Office

Sci-fi thriller District 9 pummeled G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra at the box office this weekend, earning $37 million according to studio estimates, as reported by The Associated Press. Directed by first-time director Neill Blomkamp and produced by Peter Jackson of Lord of the Rings fame, District 9’s subversive story about aliens forced to live in a ghetto in South Africa has been receiving a lot of positive buzz despite its cast of unknown actors and an offbeat marketing effort that played up the prejudicial themes of the film, complete with anti-alien bus advertisements.

“Everybody was like, ‘What is this?’ There was a big question mark in people's minds,” said Rory Bruer, head of distribution for Sony. “It did really pique their interest and drove them to the Internet and elsewhere to discover what's going on.”

G.I. Joe fell to second place in its second week of release, earning $22.5 million, bringing its 10-day total to $98.8 million.

I haven’t had the chance to see District 9 just yet, but from what I hear, this is the type of non-franchise event film that we’ve been missing this summer amidst the retreads, reboots, and revivals. I can’t wait to check this one out, along with the critically acclaimed (500) Days of Summer, which is being hailed as the modern-day Annie Hall.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Video: Why Entourage Is Awful

I’ve been trying to figure out why I just can’t stand watching HBO’s Entourage these days. Perhaps it’s the inherent douchiness of the premise—which lost most of its self-aware satirical charm about three seasons ago—or maybe it’s because the show’s writers have given up trying to generate anything resembling conflict for these characters, as evidenced by the uneventful seventh season.

Whatever the reason, I don’t see myself tuning in to this show again any time soon, and this is coming from someone who’s seen every episode since it began airing in 2004.

Well, I’ve given up trying to figure out why Entourage has lost its appeal to me, since CollegeHumor has already done a great job summing it all up. Enjoy!

DC and Warner Bros. Lose Rights to Superman’s Origin

On Wednesday, August 12, Judge Stephen Larson ruled that the family of Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel now owns the rights to the character’s origins, Variety reports. The Siegels now control depictions of Superman’s home planet of Krypton, his parents Jor-El and Lara, Krypton’s destruction and baby Kal-El’s crash-landing on Earth. DC Comics retains the rights to Superman’s flying ability and other powers, the term kryptonite, Superman’s expanded origins and the characters Jimmy Olsen and Lex Luthor.

In addition, the estates of Siegel and Superman co-creator Joe Shuster will own the entire copyright to Action Comics #1 as of 2013, giving them the option of shopping Superman film and television ideas to a studio other than Warner Bros., of which DC is a subsidiary. In order to release a new film featuring the character, Warner Bros. would need to get it into production by 2011.

So, basically, we’re going to be getting a new Superman film in the near future that will need to sidestep the character’s origin. I think that’s doable. Superman’s such a well known character that I doubt anyone really needs to see where he came from and how he discovers his powers again, so this sticky legal business might actually result in a more entertaining film.

Personally, I think we need a more “out there” Superman movie, pitting him against space monsters and giant robots. Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns ultimately disappointed a lot of people in 2006 because it really didn’t do anything new with the character aside from saddling him with a child. We need to see Superman take on credible threats like Brainiac, Metallo, Darkseid, Bizarro or even Doomsday—hell, anyone besides Lex Luthor. Superman should be all about spectacle. Let’s see some more of that on screen.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Spider-Man Musical May Be Squashed

The New York Post’s Michael Riedel reports that the anticipated Broadway musical Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark is on “hiatus,” because its producers—Sony, Marvel Comics and Chicago lawyer David Garfinkle—have run out of money.

The $45 million production, directed by Julie Taymor (The Lion King) and featuring music written by U2’s Bono and The Edge, would have a weekly running cost of nearly $900,000 and would need five years of sell-out shows just to break even. Even if the production did open early next year as scheduled, it would essentially never turn a profit.

It’s kind of disappointing that Turn Off the Dark probably won’t be seeing the light of day (ha!), since the idea of an over-the-top Spider-Man rock opera is just crazy enough to work. I guess we’ll all have to hold out for Hugh Jackman’s forthcoming Wolverine musical, Logan and the Amazing Adamantium Death Blades.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Wolverine Sequel Gets Oscar-Winning Screenwriter

The sequel to X-Men Origins: Wolverine may not suck after all. According to The Hollywood Reporter, Christopher McQuarrie, the Oscar-winning screenwriter behind Bryan Singer’s The Usual Suspects, has signed on to write the next Wolverine flick. Hugh Jackman will return as the titular clawed Canuck in a story that will likely borrow heavily from Chris Claremont and Frank Miller’s 1982 Wolverine miniseries, which follows the popular mutant’s violent exploits in Japan. This is good news.

The Hollywood Reporter notes that McQuarrie is already familiar with this universe, as he was an uncredited writer on Singer’s original X-Men, released in 2000. This is also good news.

X-Men is a film series that deserves redeeming, so let’s hope that 20th Century Fox realizes what a massive cinematic misfire the first Wolverine was and moves the franchise in a completely different direction. But, then again, that movie earned $363 million worldwide despite poor critical reception, fan backlash and the fact that it leaked online a month before its release.

Damn. Maybe not.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

G.I. Joe Tops the Box Office with $56.2 Million Debut

Yo Joe! Despite a decidedly frosty critical reception, Paramount’s G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra earned $56.2 million domestically during its opening weekend, according to studio estimates. The Associated Press reports that the film earned $44.3 million overseas, bringing its worldwide total to $100.5 million.

Based on overall harsh reviews for Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen—yet another Paramount film based on a Hasbro action figure line—the studio decided not to hold pre-release screenings of G.I. Joe for critics.

“The thing we saw from Transformers is that with these kind of movies, at times critics have a hard time getting their arms around them,” said Paramount vice chairman Rob Moore. “But the audience got exactly what it was. A fun summer movie, a great way to end your summer. You just relax and have a good time. You don't have to worry about global politics or global warming.”

While I’m not entirely in support of this “critics don’t matter” rationale, I will say that G.I. Joe is an exhilarating—albeit mindless—time at the movies and is a far better summer blockbuster than Revenge of the Fallen. It’s not necessarily a “good” film, but it’s a lot more entertaining than a lot of us thought it would be.

Look for my full review on Broken Frontier.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Funny People, Serious Movie

After seeing Funny People, the latest film by director Judd Apatow (The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up), I was sure I enjoyed it. But I was also convinced that the film was poorly marketed. This is a drama about comedy—it’s not a comedy. That distinction is important, as anyone expecting the usual raunchy comedic fair from the Apatow crew is going to walk out of the theater severely disappointed. Does it have dick jokes? Sure. But Funny People is a film about an aging comedian coming to terms with a terminal illness. Superbad it ain’t.

The film stars Adam Sandler as George Simmons, a comedian who has made a name for himself churning out dumb comedies (the seemingly self-aware premise should be familiar to anyone who’s suffered through Little Nicky or You Don’t Mess with the Zohan). Moments into the film, George is diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia, and is put on an experimental drug regimen with an 8 percent success rate. Are you laughing yet?

In the midst of a deep depression, realizing that he has no close friends or family, George becomes nostalgic. He does a set at a club where he used to perform and crosses paths with Ira (Seth Rogen), a struggling young comic who works at a deli. George is impressed by Ira’s routine and asks him to write some jokes for him, laying the groundwork for the friendship that is the heart of this film. With Ira’s help, George reconnects with his loved ones, including his ex-fiancé, Laura (Leslie Mann). Things get complicated, however, when George’s treatment appears to be working. What will he do with this new lease on life?

Because this is a film about comedy, there are plenty of funny moments, mostly evolving organically from the entertaining chemistry between Sandler and Rogen. Jonah Hill and Jason Schwartzman are also great as Ira’s ball-busting roommates Leo and Mark, the latter of which is the star of Yo Teach!, a cheesy network sitcom. However, while there’s plenty to laugh at in Funny People, the humor isn’t really the point. As a comedy, this summer’s The Hangover is a far better film. But Funny People does have a subdued, introspective and very mature appeal. It also showcases how much Sandler has improved as a legitimate actor since his stint on Saturday Night Live in the early 1990s.

That said, Funny People’s primary flaw is that it’s about 20 minutes too long. Once George and Ira decide to spend the weekend with Laura and her two children—played by Apatow’s daughters Iris and Maude—the film meanders and loses focus. The introduction of Laura’s husband Clarke (Eric Bana) creates some necessary tension toward the end of the film, but the third act pacing issues make the film’s resolution less satisfying than it could have been. Apatow’s grown tremendously as a filmmaker, but he needs a more discerning editor.

Funny People is not for everyone, and you should probably avoid it if you’re in the mood to laugh. But it’s a worthwhile and occasionally touching film. If it ends up flopping at the box office, blame Universal’s marketing department.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Original Cast Returns to Futurama for New Episodes

After extended (and allegedly heated) salary negotiations prompted 20th Century Fox to threaten replacing Futurama’s voice actors with sound-alikes, the original cast members will officially be reprising their roles when the show returns on Comedy Central in 2010, according to The Hollywood Reporter.

The principal voice cast—which includes John DiMaggio, Maurice LaMarche, Billy West, Tress MacNeille and Katey Sagal—had reportedly asked for several times what the studio was offering initially. While terms of the agreement have not been made public, the actors have apparently reached a financial compromise with Fox, surely to the delight of hardcore fans rallying against potential cast changes.

So not only are we getting more Futurama, but Fry, Bender, Leela, Dr. Zoidberg and the rest of the gang will sound as they should. As Professor Farnsworth might say, this is “good news, everyone!”