All-Star Superman (2011)

all-star-superman-movie-image

Rating: ★★★★☆ 

I understand why the viewer response to this animated film seems to be rather polarized: it’s partially for the same reason that Grant Morrison, himself, seems to be somewhat polarizing as a comic book creator. It’s stuffed full of quirky details that even while interesting can sometimes be distracting, as though Morrison knows he’s a clever guy, and he kind of wants to rub it in your face. The overall narrative carries the viewer from one high concept to the next without ever dwelling too long upon anything, such that one never has the opportunity to question whether there’s anything there apart from a few neat story ideas.

Now take a 12-part Grant Morrison mini-series in which the individual installments were meant to more or less stand alone, and merge them into a 70 minute film that almost irrefutably feels disjointed and meandering, and see what happens.

And yet, I really enjoyed this film. Perhaps it’s because I recently saw Man of Steel in the theater, and there just wasn’t a lot to love about the Superman character in that film. But for whatever reason, I found this to be a charming and very fondly crafted portrayal of Superman and the sundry characters and notions that inhabit his universe. Yes, the plot feels more like a series of vignettes than an actual structured, conventional three-act narrative. The pacing is often oddly lackadaisical. But damn it–it just gets Superman right for me. And that counts for something.

Also, I would be remiss to not mention the original score by Christopher Drake. Surprisingly great for a film like this.

This film is, by the way, available to stream instantly through Netflix. Hence the reason I finally watched it, as I’m doing the 30-day trial.

American Idol Season 12, Devin Velez, Somos Novios, Elimination

Every once in a while I like to post something on this dead blog just to mess with people.

Anyway, here’s the parting song (“Somos Novios”/”It’s Impossible”) for American Idol Season 12 contestant Devin Velez. I’ve always liked Devin, though I do appreciate why he was eliminated. He is an amazing technical singer, and he has a lot of confidence on stage, but he does have a tendency to get so caught up in technique that it disconnects him from the song–as if maybe he’s inside his head a bit too much. As a result, I suppose he wasn’t the most exciting performer, and after a few weeks of being at the bottom of the pack, it wasn’t surprising that he was eliminated.

I do think, however, that if the judges were going to use a save, they should have used it for him. Because frankly, I think he was probably the best overall singer out of the male contestants (though I’ve usually liked Burnell more), and this season is getting pretty boring with the female dominance. If the judges are so confident that their female contestants are unmatched, then they should have had the guts to burn their save and give Devin another chance. Because, honestly, the boy can sing, and for me, this was one of the most memorable parting songs I’ve seen in a long time.

Anyway, watch this, and then…

Watch this performance by Angie Miller from the night before, and try to explain to me why Devin was eliminated and Angie wasn’t even in the bottom three. Because this was embarrassingly dreadful.

On a completely unrelated note, I just approved 26 comments on this blog about Heath Ledger vs. Jack Nicholson. I cannot believe this debate is still raging after all this time.

Reviews of some random stuff

No movie reviews today, so I’m going to do away with the customary star ratings that I usually attach to things, since I’m even worse at reviewing non-movie media than I am at reviewing movies.

The Hunter by Richard Stark (Donald Westlake)

The Hunter is the source material for a couple of films: Point Blank (1967), starring Lee Marvin, and Payback (1999), starring Mel Gibson. I haven’t seen the former, but signs point to it being perhaps closer in spirit to the novel by Westlake, which is written in brutally efficient prose that doesn’t waste a word.

In a way, Westlake, writing as Stark, employs a style that is sort of like the way a child would write a book if he were a professional author. It’s full of phrases in the vein of, “Parker thought about his stolen money and he got mad. Then he thought about how he was going to kill Resnick, and that made him happy.” For the record, that’s not an actual line in the book, but it’s the sensibility of the language.

Obviously, the book is written that way for effect, since that sort of vocabulary characterizes the main character, Parker, who is a singularly driven thug and not at all a nice guy. A pretty creepy persona, to be sure. Westlake doesn’t seem to want you to root for him, and in fact, you won’t be rooting for him. He’s an interesting protagonist in this way, despite being about as deep as a puddle of water.

Anyway, if you’ve seen either of those movies, you know the story, and I’m going to assume anybody reading this has seen at least one of those movies.

A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain

For my birthday, I got a Kindle knowing full well that it’s a luxury at best–but birthdays are good opportunities for indulging in luxuries. I love reading on it, and I knew I had access to a good selection of public domain titles, as well as e-books through the library, so I figured, why not? A Connecticut Yankee is one of those afore-mentioned public domain titles, and I had always been curious to read it if only because I’m a fan of time travel stories in any form.

To be sure, this isn’t speculative science fiction. I was going to make a joke about this being the novelization of the Martin Lawrence film Black Knight, but then I didn’t. But anyway, the mode of travel into the past is the same as in that film (which actually was inspired by Connecticut Yankee, I think)–a blow to the head and a character from the modern day finds himself body and soul in the England of King Arthur.

I wound up enjoying this novel quite a lot. It’s a burlesque, so the characters are not portrayed romantically. At all. Merlin, for example, is just some insane (if cunning) hermit who believes in his own mythology, the Knights of the Round Table are all just useless brutes, and King Arthur, himself, is a mental midget short on redeeming virtues. Nominally, the story follows the Yankee’s attempt to purge Arthur’s Britain of the false ideal of knight-errantry, but what I really enjoyed were the protagonist’s interactions with the sundry characters living in the kingdom, and how they all so thoroughly buy into their context, and how ridiculous it all looks to a free-thinking modern man from a democratic nation.

If I can get all political for a moment, this satire is still cutting even in the world today when you look at, for example, the recent riots in Egypt over this film that apparently nobody has even seen. The calls for the film’s director to be imprisoned, made an example of, the fact that Americans are being killed because of the freedom of expression allowed in our country.

The irony of this in the wake of the so-called Arab Spring is that it’s obvious these nations, which continue to lean heavily on theocracy as a basis for governance, will for a long time be plagued by prominent groups of people–either organized or disorganized–who just don’t get freedom. Their brains have essentially been hardwired to not even be able to comprehend how somebody can (a) have an opinion that isn’t the shared opinion of the realm and (b) that holding such an opinion shouldn’t doom them to death or imprisonment just because certain people don’t like what he has to say.

Twain’s view seems to have been that something like a fundamental human morality exists, but that it too easily gets perverted by the state, religion, superstition, or generally the will of flawed men. Some things never change.

It would be interesting to read a book like this written by a person living a thousand years from now. Moving on to music…

The Color Spectrum (2011) by The Dear Hunter

I recently downloaded Spotify, and I have no idea why I didn’t do this sooner. It’s pretty much the best thing ever. I’ve listened to more music in the past week than I have in the past five years previous. What I’ve been doing is just going down the list of well-reviewed albums at Metacritic.com. I’ll give almost anything a shot except for heavy metal.

On this topic, something I’ve discovered is that I trust user reviews a lot more than I trust the reviews of professional critics. It’s obvious to me that what paid reviewers look for in music is not necessarily what I look for. To be sure, the aggregate user ratings and the aggregate professional ratings are not often very far off, but if the critics give an album a combined score of 75 and the users give it a 95, it’s a sure thing I’m going to like it more than an album for which those scores are reversed. Anyway, this has nothing to do with the album I’m about to review.

The Color Spectrum is the sort of album I would have never in a million years have had the chance to hear if not for Spotify. And it’s a damn shame, because this is an amazing work of art. There are actually two versions of this album. One has a mere 11 tracks, and it’s the version I listened to first. Then there’s an expanded version that has 36 tracks, and I’m not even going to wager a guess at what that clocks in at for playtime, because the tracks are not trite little radio-friendly ditties that are over just as you’re getting into them. I’ve listened to the expanded album twice already.

What I love about it is that as the album proceeds through colors from black to red to orange to yellow, etc., the tone of the tracks just shifts organically from one end of the spectrum to the next. It’s a vastly diverse collection of music and you get it all in a single package. But more impressive to me is how well written the songs are. I’m not sure you’re going to find yourself necessarily singing them around the house, but any single track is catchy in its way, and nothing feels like a throwaway.

I mean, it’s not the sort of album I’d recommend to my mom, but it’s one of my favorite albums of the past few years.

Swing Lo Magellan (2012) by the Dirty Projectors

So inventive. I sort of see this as a quintessential Indie album in that it’s not attempting to be mainstream at all, but rather is pushing the boundaries of traditional sounds, melody, and musical phrasing, but building around a core of evident knowledge about song writing and structure.  I wish I knew enough about music to better explain why I think Swing Lo Magellan is so good. But it is. I think that if you’re a fan of the genre, you probably owe it to yourself to at least give it a listen.

Transference (2010) by Spoon

I guess I’m a little late to the party on this one. This is a truly great collection of songs that aren’t at all catchy. It’s almost as if Spoon set out to create an album that couldn’t be used on the radio at all. That’s not a criticism. I’ve listened to it twice in the past week. I simply couldn’t really tell you a single song that’s on it. Compared with something like their Gimme Fiction album, which was instantly memorable on almost every track, it feels a little like a departure. But then again, maybe Gimme Fiction was really the departure.

Sainthood (2009) by Tegan and Sara

Here’s one of those albums where there’s a divergence between the critical score (78) and the user score (9.0) on Metacritic. I’m more in line with the users. I’m not sure what it is about these two women, but over the course of three albums (The Con, So Jealous, Sainthood), they haven’t done wrong by me. They’re good song writers and there’s an interesting quality to their voices.

And I’ll end it there for today. I’ve wasted enough time writing about this stuff.

“On Steroids” revisited

In light of my recent post about hating the expression “on steroids”, I feel compelled to post this comment that I just read on CNN.

I well remember the Iranian revolution in 1979 & followed it closely at the time, as well as having read innumerable books about the over-throw of the Shah since then. Obama truly is Jimmy Carter on steroids!

What does that even mean? I don’t know…I found this one pretty funny. I think this guy is accusing Carter and Obama of being weak and ineffectual, so the reference to “steroids” just seems particularly misused. It’s literally impossible to know what he intended, though.

Fall Intense Purpose

Spotted in the wild:

“fall intense purpose”

I mention it because “for all intensive purposes” is, for whatever reason (probably because it’s so widespread), an especially irksome eggcorn to me, but this guy somehow managed to kick it up a notch: “Fall intense purpose” is utter nonsense–the worse kind of malapropism, since it’s not even particularly funny.

If you’re reading this, then I’m sure you already know that the actual expression is “for all intents and purposes”. I don’t understand why people even use expressions like this when they haven’t the first clue how they go, though at least the common mis-rendering of this expression makes a sort of sense.

Books Read Lately

A few random comments about some books I’ve read lately.

Revan by Drew Karpyshyn

I was just skimming a few of the user reviews for this book over on Amazon.com–boy, did Drew Karpyshyn have an unenviable task in writing this book.

First of all, I should say that I read this book because of my interest in the storyline of Star Wars: The Old Republic (SWTOR), which is the massively-multiplayer online roleplaying game from BioWare. Revan, however, was the protagonist of BioWare’s 2003 single-player game Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (KotOR).

So why do I feel a little sorry for Drew Karpyshyn? I guess because of the insanely fanatical devotion a lot of people seem to have to the KotOR characters, both from the original game and the sequel. This book, however, wasn’t meant to be the further adventures of Revan and the crew of the Ebon Hawk. It was meant to bridge the storylines of KotOR and SWTOR, as there’s something like a 300 year gap between them. As a result, Karpyshyn had to be pretty selective about which characters he was going to use, and as a result of that, a lot of people, apparently, felt as if they’d gotten the bait and switch.

I suppose I can understand that, but I’m not sure it’s a fair criticism of the book itself. To be sure, it does feel a bit as though Revan is almost the weak link in this story, as he’s far less interesting than the new characters introduced, like Lord Scourge and the Sith Emperor. But again, this is where Karpyshyn was in a bit of a tough spot, since Revan was the player character in KotOR, and owing to this, literally had no personality except for what the player decided it should be.

And on top of all of that, the book necessarily had to end with a sort of anti-climax, because the true culminations of these various plotlines were meant to play out in SWTOR. So I wasn’t surprised to discover that a lot of readers were unsatisfied.

Me, personally? I thought it was all right. I enjoyed reading it, but I wouldn’t recommend it to anybody who wasn’t planning to play SWTOR.

The Courtship of Princess Leia by Dave Wolverton

Wow, I’m a nerd. But you already knew that.

Despite, however, the fact that I’m a nerd for Star Wars, I really haven’t read much of the so-called Expanded Universe books. My enthusiasm hasn’t been helped by the fact that anytime I go browsing on Wookieepedia, I’m astounded by how much really stupid stuff is in the EU canon. But, because of some stuff I’m doing over in the previously-mentioned SWTOR, I was sort of curious about the Hapes Consortium introduced in this book, and the local library had a copy, so I picked it up.

I’m not going to lie. For the first couple of chapters, I kind of hated it. There seemed to be an assumption that I should have been reading the other books leading up to this one, and it all felt a bit like tuning in to a television show with an overarching storyline a few seasons late. Getting past that hump, however, I did find the story to be fairly rewarding.

The success of this book lies in the characterizations more than anything else, I think. In particular, the relationship between Han Solo and Leia is really given the complexity it deserves, and Wolverton is adept at writing their voices and even mannerisms. The plot, itself, is a little weird. It has Han kidnapping Leia in order to take her to visit a planet that he won in a card game, only to discover that the planet is being interdicted by the remnants of the Galactic Empire because it is inhabited by Force-sensitive witches.

Yeah, don’t even try to make sense of any of that. It works within the context of the character arcs, and there are a number of clever ideas and contributions to the Star Wars universe found herein. But my problem with, say, the Nightsisters of Dathomir or the Hapes Consortium is my problem with a lot of stuff in the Star Wars EU–many of the concepts seem only half-developed. I always want to know way more than what I’m given.

Still, pretty good book. I enjoyed reading it.

Quantum of Solace by Ian Fleming

Despite the title, this is not the novelization of the most-recently-released James Bond film starring Daniel Craig. This is merely a collection of James Bond short stories written by Ian Fleming, which includes a short story called Quantum of Solace (which has nothing at all to do with the plot of the movie). To be sure, Penguin actually just smooshed together a couple of previously released short story collections and cashed in on the title, so a few of these stories I had read already.

I went through a phase maybe ten years back of reading almost every Fleming-penned James Bond book, and I largely enjoyed them at the time, but in a way, I actually think some of these short stories are some of the most interesting works in the Bond library, if only because we get to see Bond in a number of different contexts.

For example, Quantum of Solace really has no espionage in it at all except for a couple of paragraphs near the start to explain why Bond is in Nassau. The majority of the narrative is concerned with a story Bond listens to at a dinner party, about a career bureaucrat who marries an unfaithful airline hostess. Somehow Fleming managed to make this work.

As another example, The Hildebrand Rarity again has Bond basically just on vacation somewhere in the Indian Ocean, and tagging along with a repugnant American millionaire who wants to capture a rare fish for the Smithsonian so he can claim his million dollar boat as a tax write-off.

James Bond is an interesting character the way Fleming writes him. Reading this, I was reminded of how Alan Moore chose to portray Bond in League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Black Dossier, as a mean, misogynistic buffoon. Here’s a quote I just found from Moore, talking to Wired magazine:

Sometimes we have characters who are greatly revered that we feel are perhaps too revered, and we would like to give a more accurate picture of them. As an example, there would be the character in The Black Dossier who bears a considerable resemblance to Ian Fleming’s James Bond. Well, it’s Ian Fleming’s James Bond, actually. But what we were trying to do is show the origins of this character, to show what a totally unpleasant character at its inception James Bond was—a nasty misogynist, some very suspect sexual inclinations, not at all the suave character the movies rounded him out into. We wanted the original James Bond, warts and all.

I’m mentioning it to say that I think he’s simplifying. For example, one of the traits you’ll spot here in a couple of stories is Bond’s utter resentment of his double-0 number–he hates assassinations, almost no matter the reason for them. And in From a View to a Kill, his decision to attempt not to kill another man almost gets him killed.

Does Bond have misanthropic tendencies? Probably. But he’s also the sort who makes fast friends with interesting people and honestly, he’s not as a rule terrible to women (though I suppose it is clear he doesn’t see them as equals to men, and he is quick to call them “bitches”). And he’s certainly not a buffoon, because he has an agile mind that allows him to make connections that others don’t, as shown in stories like The Property of a Lady, in which he roots out the head Russian spy in England by nothing more violent than observing an auction.

I don’t know…I just think that pigeonholing him into the role of the cruel misogynist is too trite. It’s not a full and proper reading of the character. But maybe that’s just me. Then again, Moore’s portrayal is pretty strange on the whole, and only really works as out-and-out parody, in my opinion. I think he was being a bit disingenuous when he said he was trying to portray the character as he was originally conceived.

Expressions I Hate: “On Steroids”

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with the expression “on steroids”. What’s wrong with it is how watered down it has become owing to overuse.

“This green tea is like hot water…on steroids!”

Every time I come across it, it just feels unbelievably trite to me–even when it’s employed in appropriate situations. I vote for just dumping this one into the linguistic pop culture waste basket. Enough already with the “on steroids”.

The Dictator

The Dictator (2012)

Rating: ★★★★☆ 

I’m never quite certain how to rate comedies, because what makes us laugh is so thoroughly subjective. I’m absolutely mystified, for example, by a user review that I just read on the IMDb that claimed there wasn’t a laugh to be found in The Dictator.

Reading something like that, an unflattering image of that reviewer immediately came to mind: I imagined him sitting in a darkened room in small apartment where he lives alone, the light from his computer monitor emphasizing the sneer curling his lip–a sneer that evinces a bile-filled hatred for all things whimsical and mirthful. His figurative stick is planted so far up his ass that he has totally forgotten it’s up there. If he had a lawn, he would surely be telling the neighborhood kids to get off of it.

Whatever your opinion is about The Dictator, if you didn’t laugh once, I’ve got to figure there’s something seriously wrong with you–you’ve had your sense of humor amputated or something. I don’t know. The following review is not for you.

Whatever else this movie is, I think there’s one thing at least to recommend about it–it’s damn funny. At least, in my subjective opinion.

On the surface, this is pretty obviously meant to be a satire of…well…almost everything, from oppressive dictatorial regimes, to oil companies, to ignorant stereotypes embraced by insular American white guys, to vegan feminists. The Dictator takes a sort of chaotic, shotgun approach to its targets, not sparing any sacred cows, but not exactly presenting anything meant to provoke deep thought, either. The satire exists purely in the interest of furthering the cause of the laughs in this film, and for no other reason. The moment the viewer takes this film seriously for even half a second is the point at which that viewer has clearly missed the point entirely.

This is not Borat, which attempted to reflect American society back at us through the eyes of its casually racist naif of a protagonist, and employed an hilarious (if often cringe-inducing) blend of scripted sequences and comedic improvisation with unwitting participants in order to do so. Yes, it’s true that Sasha Baron Cohen has fallen back on the trusty fish-out-of-water proposition that served him so well in Borat, and perhaps less well in Bruno (which I liked, to be sure), but what you have to understand going in is that this is a roundly different film from those others.

The primary, obvious difference is that it’s totally scripted, and to that end, is held together by some sort of conventional narrative, albeit a mockery of threadbare romcoms. But the other difference that seems apparent to me is that I honestly don’t believe Cohen has even the faintest trace of a message that he’s trying to convey here. All he and his collaborators have done is to see the funny in a world that is often overly serious.

The trappings suggest that he’s interested in lampooning the Arab Spring (and maybe to some extent, the Western lust for spreading its cultural values across the globe in the form of democracy–no matter how ludicrous an embodiment of democracy) but it’s really all just a springboard for this wonderful character that Cohen has invented, a sort of live-action cartoon caricature.

This is totally frivolous filmmaking (which isn’t to say it isn’t very smart at points–because it certainly is), and I wouldn’t say it’s essential viewing for anybody. But it is hella funny. I found myself gasping for air more than a few times. That was enough for me.

Edit: Nearly as funny as this movie are the comments by people who hated it. My god, there are some truly miserable people in this world. And the hilarious thing about it is that most of them are outraged about how mean-spirited the film allegedly is, blind to the irony that the comments they have for Sasha Baron Cohen (and typically by extension, anybody who liked the film) are totally douchey.

On a related note, I’ve got some advice for people who get accused of having no sense of humor. Don’t respond to that accusation with a blistering tirade, because you just proved the person’s point.

The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games (2012)

Rating: ★★½☆☆ 

Is it possible to be kind of okay with a movie even while finding the very premise and execution totally preposterous? I suppose that to some extent, it is, since I didn’t hate The Hunger Games. At the same time, it felt like pretty poor science fiction to me, full of half-developed ideas that won’t bear up to much scrutiny.

I haven’t read the book, but I would like to believe that the film’s shallow context was a result merely of attempting to compress the story’s events into a running time that wouldn’t overly strain a viewer’s attention span. But I’m not sure that forgives The Hunger Games for its cynical presumptions about a future in which a civilized society allows mere children (some of them roughly 10 years old) to fight to the death as a spectator sport for the masses.

To me, this just wasn’t sold. At all. It’s a rather radical notion that the film barely bothers to explore, choosing rather to simply take it for granted.

There are many pieces of this narrative, production design, character development, and acting that I could (and sort of want to) pick apart, but I won’t do that here. I’ll close with this thought: the best science fiction premises are the ones that–no matter how far out there–immediately appeal to some sense of the viewer’s personal logic.

The film version of The Hunger Games fails here because not for a second did I ever suspend my disbelief about the games and the society that imagined such a thing. We’re given no reason to, and as a result, I really didn’t care that much. This was a problem further aggravated by an ending that really wasn’t much of an ending at all, as much as it was a stopping place.

It sounds as though I objected to everything about the film, but that isn’t entirely true. Even at two and a half hours, I still felt reasonably entertained (at least while I watched it–somehow less so ever since). It all has a likeable sheen about it that should play to its target demographic, and on the whole, it isn’t boring. It’s just not a very good story, perhaps. I think my friend Donald may have nailed it when he called it science fiction for people who don’t like science fiction.

Get the Gringo

Get the Gringo (2012)

Rating: ★★★★☆ 

I’m talking about Get the Gringo if only because if I don’t talk about it, you will never hear about it.

It’s almost impossible to talk about Mel Gibson’s recent films without referencing his personal life, and to be sure, I think it’s particularly apropos in this case; in better days, not only would this film have received a theatrical release, but it might have made some bank. Perhaps not summer-blockbuster bank, but Get the Gringo is nevertheless a reminder of what a charismatic leading man Gibson once was and, honestly, continues to be.

I don’t know…maybe I’m a crummy person for not really caring about Gibson’s apparent antisemitism, but I’m not trying to invite him over to my house for the seder, so who really cares? In any case, it’s a bit disappointing that this film went straight to DVD in the US, because it ain’t bad.

The plot: Gibson’s nameless character steals a bunch of cash (from a psychopathic gangster  played by an underutilized Peter Stormare) and escapes into Mexico only to end up being tucked away by corrupt police officers into a black hole of a prison that is, to say the least, culturally unique and baffling even to the hardened, recidivist antihero. Called “El Pueblito”, the prison is really more like some sort of Twilight Zone border town–the inmates have been given the run of the place and it’s basically the law of the jungle–controlled chaos.

In narrative voice-over, Gibson’s character calls it the “world’s shittiest mall”; I saw another good description of it in a user review on the IMDb, which compared it to a third-world bazaar where anything can be bought except for freedom. It’s the sort of place in which children attend school in proximity of convicts lining up for heroine injections at the “smack shack”. The trick is not simply escaping (so that the protagonist can have his inevitable revenge and recover his stolen millions), but in simply figuring out the twisted internal logic that holds this system together.

The protagonist channels the laconic persona of Gibson’s character from Payback, though it’s played with more charm here as we’re led to feel–in contrast to the unsmiling (albeit likeable) sociopath he played there–that he might at least be an okay guy at heart. But what I think ultimately makes Get the Gringo worth watching is the prison, itself, which probably doesn’t remotely resemble anything found in reality, but is nevertheless somehow a believable image of government corruption gone totally off-the-rails. The prison almost resembles some sort of post-apocalyptic society in which the worst people not only somehow manage to band together but also somehow invent some sort of self-sustaining–if bizarrely unconventional (and dirty!)–society.

Get the Gringo is squarely in the genre of prison films like Shawshank Redemption, and it holds up pretty well amongst the cream of that crop. It brings something new to genre with regards to setting, but also delivers characters that carry depth and seem interesting, even when we don’t know much about them. And, of course, it features Mel Gibson killing a bunch of people.

Worth a look. Maybe even a close look.