Sorry for the length, but I didn't have time to write a short blog.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

X-Men: Days of Future Past Soars

I would be hard pressed to take all the comic book movies and put them in an order of like, but of late three in the Marvel world have truly seemed to hit their stride.  The first was the Iron Man 3, the next for me was Captain America: Winter Soldier and the third is X-Men: Days of Future Past.  What have these three movies in common? Is it their common use of spectacular special effects? Is it that their directors are finally understanding how to use 3-D technology? Is it their villains or the fantasy involved in comics?  Is it their story lines?  Yes but it something that too often other big budget films lose.  The movies should never be about special effects or villains.  The movie needs a strong central theme driven by characters.  These three movies have just that.

X-Men: Days of Future Past is one of the best of the X-Men movies to date.  Always a problem for the X-Men movies are the number of super hero characters.  Who gets what screen time? Who ends up on the editing room floor? Will the movie become too much about one character or another? The new movie handles this by simply concentrating not on all the extraneous characters but the central ones that are needed to tell the story. I've heard a few complain that the story is another Wolverine movie and it is probably because Wolverine sells that the poster for the movie looks the way it does, but if one stops and thinks about it, the character of Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) is really a vehicle for the plot.  Don't get me wrong. Wolverine is more than the plot vehicle, but it is not the theme that he carries. The primary plot line must be carried by the relationship between Professor Charles 'Professor X'  Xavier (Patrick Stewart and James McAvoy) and Erik 'Magneto' Lehnsherr (Ian McKellan and Michael Fassbender) as they must stop Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from killing the villain Boliver Trask (Peter Dinklage).

The plot is a complex one to say the least combining the endings of X-Men: Last Stand with X-Men: First Class.  Essentially because of the killing of Trask by Mystique humanity and mutants are nearly wiped out.  Using a mutant's power, Wolverine  returns to the past and convince the young Professor X and Magneto that they must work together to change these events and stop the rise of the Sentinels. It is a clever way to bring together both original cast members with the new ones.  It all boils down through twists and turns that we are who we must be and just one person can make a difference.  As always, the X-Men uses the theme of intolerance at its core to make its point.

 It is this character driven theme, and the skills of all the actors that makes the movie work.  It is action packed with great visual effects, for certain, but it is because we care for the characters and understand their motives that we become involved.  I don't think you will be displeased with X-Men: Days of Future Past.  Ignore the purists and fan boys who cannot let go of even the minutest detail of the canon and enjoy.  It is is well worth the extra cost of 3-D, as well.  I will buy the Blu-ray.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Killing Comments

So what do you think? Once, not long ago it was thought that allowing comments  on a website was a good idea. It would add to the dialog and join the community together bringing together diverse thought and opinion.  And then the trolls showed up.

Trolls are those ugly little creatures who once lived under bridges believing they were all alone.  Before long, however, the troll poked his head out, made a rude noise and discovered that another troll would answer his mating call.  In their anonymity, trolls would swear and call others names.  They would make up names for those with whom they disagree.  They leave the topic, make unfair comparisons and have spewed hate and lies and mistake satiric articles as fact.

Once they were the village idiot, but the world wide web has given them a community.  They don't have to even stir from their bomb shelter or go out in public and remove their tin foil hat.  No, they have discovered a voice that is vile and does not even have to attach a name to that voice.  They can lie.  They can spread rumors.  They are not bringers of new ideas.  They bring hate, and what is more, they seem to reproduce by infection.

The results are a simple one.  While a few websites have chose moderation and warnings to their trolls, some have neither the time nor the inclination to deal with the trolls and village idiots.  Sites are shutting down comment sections or making them less visible if they still have one.  Some do not accept anonymous posts opting for members with verifiable accounts.  Some sites just quietly quit offering a place to post comments.  I noticed it first on Comcast.  I know that Popular Science has shut them off, saying "Comments can be bad for science." They point to the political war on what should be a discussion about discovery and understanding.

So the question is, should we see comments go away because the village idiot has found a new corner to spew stupidity from?  Should Facebook and Twitter require actual verifiable names and sources for those stupid memes that have given my blog so much to work with?  Is the hope, which inspired things like the "Arab Spring" and made a few of the big voices of hate tremble in fear, now gone?

Are the trolls killing the new voices of generations yet to come?

Thursday, May 22, 2014

A Different Godzilla

The original Godzilla was intended as a serious film.  In its original cut (1954), it was a comment of the arrival of the nuclear age and a commentary on the nuclear attacks on Japan in World War II.  When it was dubbed and released for the US, Gojira became Godzilla and the  studio added new scenes using Raymond Burr as the American hook for the movie.  

Legend has it that Burr was contracted for one day of shooting and the film crew took it literally.  They had Burr film every scene at a small local studio for 24 hours.  The film was also re-cut so that all of the anti-nuclear and any negative American references were removed.  The original Japanese film took home the Japanese Movie Association Award (the Japanese Oscar) for special effects and was nominated as best picture.  

The original Gojira was released in the US but mainly for a Japanese=American audience. It was released again in its original cut in the US in 2004 to the acclaim of almost every critic.  The title of "King of All Monsters" was added for the 1956 American version. Since that time, there have been 28 movies, not including the number of spoofs, comic books, and a host of other items that have been inspired by perhaps Japan's most recognizable symbol. It has become a cultural phenomenon.

The movies became for a time a series of silly films with other monsters which began to portray Godzilla not as destroyer but as hero.  The vast majority of the movies have actors in a rubber suit portraying the various monsters.  This would eventually lead to an attempt to return him to his roots, and create a more realistic CGI version in movies like Godzilla 2000.  This also brings us to the 2014 release of the movie which brings us to the newest, movie 28, Godzilla.

The new Godzilla brings everything that CGI monsters have to offer.  He is the biggest to scale Godzilla ever created.  According to scale, the new Godzilla is 350 feet tall, quite a step up from the original scale of 150 feet.  Hopefully you understand that the original was actually a pretty good movie that has been over-shadowed by awful sequels. With that in mind, you'll understand then the following statement: The new Godzilla is the best Godzilla since the original.


The special effects of the movie are quite good.  Godzilla is the hero.  As I pointed out, Godzilla in later films became more and more the protector and less and less the destroyer.  The destruction is created because of Godzilla's size and the monsters he must fight.  That's right, I said monsters.  The new Godzilla is not created by nuclear testing, but was a result of a time when the Earth was more radioactive. This is also true of the monsters Godzilla must face.  He is the great equalizer.  He will bring balance back to nature.  It's his job.  All right, that's pretty hokey, but that's what he does.

Pacific Rim
The original Godzilla the destroyer was a comment on the use of nuclear weapons. He was a metaphor for devastation of nuclear weapons.  The new Godzilla the equalizer too is a metaphor.  He represents the need to for nature to be placed back into balance.  When this is accomplished, we have the classic point or view shots as the survivors watch the great monster returns to ocean until he is needed again.

The other monsters in the movie hearken back to the first monsters that Godzilla fought in his sequels.  I was reminded of perhaps Rodan although the new monsters which feed on nuclear energy also sort of resemble some of the monsters from Pacific Rim.  There is a male and female that like all good monsters must reproduce.  With the unwitting help of the humans and the one Japanese scientist who gets what Godzilla’s job is, Godzilla must set nature to right while the puny humans destroy the eggs laid by the female.  The movie, like most of the modern monster movies, destroys a Japanese town, Honolulu, and San Francisco with devastation that Zod and Superman would be proud of.

So the movie lays out pretty much the way movies of this nature do.  Scientist and the military, many years ago tried to destroy Godzilla.  They failed but didn't know it.  Many years later, mining operations accidentally awaken another monster.  This monster, in pupa form, goes to nearest nuclear source and begins to feed.  The source is a Japanese power plant.  The chief of operations played by Bryan Cranston doesn't know what destroyed the plant and killed his wife, but he knows it’s not a natural disaster.  Flash forward 15 years.  Surviving scientist and his estranged son (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) discover the reason for the destruction of the nuclear plant just as the monster is born.  Bryan Cranston dies in the process.  Monster, the male, calls to another pupa, the female in Nevada, and mayhem ensues as son tries to get home to San Francisco to save his own family in a loosely parallel plot.  Battles happen. Destruction happens. Finally, the military who have not listened to the only scientist who gets it are forced to listen and let Godzilla do his job and set nature in balance.  Happy ending occurs- meaning there is already a sequel in the works.

Godzilla is first and foremost a special effects movie.  It held my attention well enough but seemed a little disjointed in part where actors didn't really have much to do.  I didn't become particularly involved with the characters, but I don't feel I wasted my money.  I did see it in 3-D, but was not really impressed by its use.  Like more than a few 3-D movies, the director didn't really seem to know what to do with it, so there are a few scenes where it almost is like someone suddenly remembered, "Oh yeah, we have 3-D." It is kind of trap especially since the movie must also be cut for 2-D.  I think most folks will enjoy the movie.  I liked Godzilla well enough but I probably won't buy the DVD.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

A Word about Endings

++++++++++++++++++++++++++WARNING SPOILERS+++++++++++++++++++++++++++

So as this television season ends and I ponder the deep questions like, "Why doesn't Person of Interest not help people anymore" or "I remember when Grimm was a show about hunting bad monsters among us and not a soap opera" I have one complaint: I am really tired of cliffhangers.

If a show is good, it doesn't need a cliffhanger.  I am still wondering what happened on Alphas since the series was cancelled following one of these cliffhangers.  This is also true for The Tomorrow People which ended on an unfinished plot and then was cancelled.  Honestly for any show that is only in its first of second season, cliffhangers are unfair to the fans especially if the show is clearly on the cancellation bubble.

On the bubble shows shouldn't end on a cliffhanger but then again good ones don't need the device.  It is trite, cheap and over-used.  And, yes, I know even Star Trek The Next Generation used this device, but it was hardly as common then and the Borg really did deserve two episodes, but it could have been the last two episodes of the season just as easily.

Let's face it.  Virtually no show needs to be set up like it's a remake of the Fugitive or with a catch phrase like "Who Shot JR?" Does it really make such a difference in ratings to hang the fans?  Why not just lie? I mean Criminal Minds did it. On their season finale the network advertised that "one would fall" making it sound as if they were going to NCIS a main character.  They didn't.  A relatively new team member left the series.

It seems common place for series to do this.  Anytime an actor decides it is time to leave the series, the network "Says, 'Goodbye'" as if they were dying.

Then there is the cliffhanger where a character may or may not be dead.  Is Detective Quentin Lance on CW's Arrow dead?  We know they killed Arrow's mom, but now another series regular may die too.  Oh no.  Whatever will we do?  Well, we could take solace in the fact that Paul Blackthorne who plays the detective has been at post season CW events.  Hmmmmm?

And what of NCIS: Los Angles? Will we lose Hetty? How many times have the producers used this ploy.  We may lose a favorite character.  I think, if memory serves, this is not the first time NCIS: LA has used this ploy with Hetty.  Now unless Linda Hunt wants out of the series, it would be a horrible idea.  They lose Hetty.  They lose viewers.  The simple truth is, unless an actor or actress wants to leave a series, they are seldom if ever killed or written off.  There are exceptions Zach on Bones, for example, was written off.

The season cliffhanger on Bones was so stupid I thought about not even discussing it. I cannot, however, in good conscious let it go past.  It was clearly set up in its advertising with the, "Will Seeley Booth die?" Apparently, the entire episode was set up that way but at some point, someone had a thought that everyone else was threatening to kill off characters.  We apparently avoided that particular canard.  So instead this super-secret organization has destroyed Booth's career and now an obviously corrupt FBI agent has him arrested in his hospital bed for killing the guys who were going to kill Booth. This is probably because Bones couldn't get away with one more cliffhanger using yet another super-smart, super-resourced serial killer.

Then there was the cliffhanger for Grimm.  Nick has lost his Grimm powers and, you guessed it, Captain Renard may die. Whaaaaat? Wait...Renard has a potion which can save Nick but the potion is destroyed. When did Renard suddenly get the ability to mix potions?  He certainly couldn't do it in the first two seasons.  There is also the slight problem that all the monsters in Grimm live in fear of Grimm powers.  Yet if the witch clan apparently had the ability to remove these powers. Why didn't they?  Problem solved.  No more Grimms.  This is really one of the dumber cliffhangers.

Person of Interest has not only left its original premise which is why people watched, but its cliffhanger was narrated by a character who has basically taken over the series, Root. Root is not only rapidly stealing the show, but also the psychotic character has, I think ruined the series.  The season finale: team is broken up and now hiding from another 'machine' and we seem to have forgotten that Person of Interest was once upon a time about trying to keep people from killing each other.

The true winner of stupid cliffhangers though is Castle.  We cannot just end on a happy note after the trials of Beckett and Castle trying to get married.  Not only did the episode use one of the most over-used tropes ever - Beckett, a NYC detective, suddenly becomes stupid and believes that a Vegas wedding is not a real thing - but the episode ends on the twist that just before the wedding, Castle is run off the road by a menacing black SUV and then Beckett sees Castle's car on the side of the road burning.  Oh no! Has the series killed off a main character?  Has the series killed off the TITLE character?  Will we have to rename the series Beckett?  Isn't Beckett a play?  The answer is we must wait and find out next season.

I suspect that Castle is still alive.  After all, the evil Senator is only in jail and the evil Triple Killer (3XK) who is one of those TV serial killers who seems to have unlimited resources despite having no way to support these resources are both still capable of mayhem. I mean, why would anyone at the network actually want to complete a plotline and have a nice wedding?
Proof cliffhangers are not needed.  NCIS, who has used their fair share of cliffhangers, ended with a simple tribute to actor Ralph Waite who play the father of Gibbs on the show.  It was exciting, awesome, and moving.  I look forward to NCIS next season, and what is more I don't have to try to remember what happened.  By far, a classy way to wrap up the season and what is more, such a rarity on TV, no cliffhanger endings seem original.

It's time perhaps for TV productions recall that cheap writing tricks will never replace well written.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Once: A Slightly Fractured Fairy Tale

I recently was privileged to see the musical Once at the Temple Buell Theatre.  Once is the musical based on the 2006 movie of the same name.  It has all the same songs, or at least so says the info in the program.  I haven't seen the film which was loved by critics and audience.  I also have to admit, until seeing it presented at the Tony's, I had never heard of the musical, and until seeing it live, I didn't know there was a movie. 

 The plot is a simple one.  An Irish folksinger and vacuum cleaner repairman ((Stuart Ward) meets a Czech immigrant and piano playing flower girl (Dani de Waal).  She convinces the struggling singer that he must make demo album of his beautiful songs and then follow his dreams and former girlfriend to New York City from his native Dublin.  Through The Guy's and The Girl's (they have no names) music we learn about their individual loves and struggles and their growing love for each other.  He feels his music is going nowhere and that he has been abandoned by the women in his life.  She has been abandoned by her husband and father to her young daughter. The story is a fractured fairy tale and so the title, Once instead of the Once Upon a Time.  

The set for the musical is simple and astonishingly superb.  Having designed a set or two in my career, I now there are two things that you can say to your lighting person that will cause them to want to throttle you. The first is “I want to paint the set white” or worse still, “I want the floor to be white.”  The second is I want to place a couple of mirrors on the set. While there isn't much white on the set, it is covered in mirrors.  The goal of the design was that from every angle on stage some aspect of the instruments being played on stage can be seen.  All the instruments are played by the performers.  There is no pit orchestra.  Hidden in the set is a LED sign that lets the audience know when the Girl speaks with her Czech family.  They speak in English while the sign shows the dialog in Czechoslovakian. Only at one point, the reverse occurs.  It makes for a stunning set.  

 Once won 8 Tony Awards including best musical.  In addition the music has won not only a Tony, but the Academy Award, a Grammy Award and an Olivier award. It also contains strong language.  The music is powerful and moving. Once grabs its audience with its simple story. It is a modern story told through a currency of music, and what is more the story can only happen Once. 

Once is playing at the Temple Buell through May18.  

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Amazing Spider-Man 2: Villains Everywhere

Amazing Spider-Man 2 is visually stunning, at least it is in 3-D. Andrew Garfield as Spider-Man/Peter Parker is the funniest, wise-cracking Spider-Man to date.  The movie does hold your attention with its use of special effects.  Lines and characters are often over-the-top in just the right way.  And if you sense there is a "but" coming in my review, you're right...

The plot of Amazing Spider-Man 2 is kind of a mess.  The actual through story line is more about the romance between Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) and less about being driven by the villains, and there are more than a couple, villains.  For some inexplicable reason, Hollywood has decided that at some point, particularly in the Batman and Spider-Man franchises, the hero needs to face off against as many villains as they can shove into a movie.  Most of the time, it doesn't work.  

Take for example both of the more recent Batman series.  The best in both series have a single major villain, The Joker.  The least in both Batman series has two or three villains or more villains that make an appearance.  This combination of too many villains (Sandman, Goblin, Venom and the Venom/Spider-Man combo) in the first Spider-Man franchise probably contributed to its demise.  The problem with too many villains is they tend to get in the way of each other's plot lines.

The same is true for Amazing Spider-Man 2.  There are simply too many bad guys and too many minor story lines.  While the audience is dealing with the difficulties of Gwen and Peter, we don't really have enough screen time left for the other subplot lines that director Marc Webb tries to develop.  There is the story line of the sympathetic and somewhat psychotic, Max Dillon (Jamie Fox), who becomes Electro.  There is the story line of Harry Osborne (Dane DeHaan), the lost and badly treated son of Norman Osborne (Chris Cooper) who we barely meet.  There is the story line of Harry and Peter whose friendship is extremely important to the story line of the Green Goblin (DeHaan).  There are the story lines Peter's Parents, Mary and Richard Parker (Embeth Davidtz and Cambell Scott) and their tragic murders and subsequent character assassination by Oscorp.  There is the evil corporate executive, Donald Menken (Colm Feore).  There is the story of Peter's relationship with Aunt May (Sally Fields) There is the "man in the shadows" now identified as Gustav Fliers (Michael Massee) and his strange connection as the sinister voice at the end of Amazing Spider-Man 1 and again at the end of Amazing Spider-Man 2 and possibly as the assassin of Mary and Richard.  Finally there is the book end appearance of the villain Rhino/Aleksei Sytsevich (Paul Giamatti). Get the point? Too many plots and villains and so we don't really get time to feel for any of them.  

The central bad guy is Electro.  The effects and battles are spectacular as is the constant banter and crowd interaction by Spider-Man which is fun and humorous.  (Possible Spoiler) The love story, which for fans follows the same outcome as it did in the original comics, is damaged by the over-abundance of mini-story lines and villains.  

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is fun and worth the watch, but it is not as tightly knit as the first movie.  It suffers as many of the comic book movies do from that dreaded disease villainititus.