Thursday, May 30, 2013

From The Booth - Pulp Friction

This week's new podcast is up!  Ken and I talk about pulpy horror comics and why some of these should quit while they're ahead, we announce a major interview "get" for Philly Wizard World this weekend, we talk First State Comic Con coming up in late June, and, of course, we review and preview comics and give you our take on the latest pop culture news and events!

The From The Booth Podcast

Monday, May 20, 2013

Jim's Movie Reviews: Star Trek Into Darkness

Star Trek:  Into Darkeness is the second Star Trek feature film offering helmed by J.J. Abrams, and is the twelfth to share the Trek moniker.  While previous entries in the franchise worked from the established canon of the 1966 television show and previous films, Abrams's 2009 offering, Star Trek, replaced the the much-beloved original cast in favor of a younger set of actors and re-imagined the mythos from the beginning.  The back story was not all that was changed, however, as there was a definite shift in tone from considered, high-minded sci-fi themes to a focus on action, adventure, and pageantry. 

The first of Abrams's films in the franchise sailed on to box-office success, and a certain level of critical acclaim as a sci-fi action/adventure film.  Fans of the 2009 Star Trek may want to see Into Darkness, as it maintains the cast, back story, director, and sensibilities of the first of Abrams's efforts.  But there are those detractors who say Abrams has missed the point of Star Trek, and his focus on the more visceral aspects has cost the franchise its soul.

My hope, in providing this review, is to give perspective on the film, both as the action/adventure vehicle it is, and how well it "fits" with established notions of character and plot from previous productions in the franchise.  This review will assume some familiarity with the Star Trek universe, and although it may describe certain scenes and settings, an attempt will be made at doing so without major spoilers.  I saw the film in 3D IMAX opening weekend, at a newer theater (in great seats, btw).

This time around, I'm going to lay things out in a question/answer format.

Does the movie live up to the hype?  Most assuredly.  Hype being, of course, linked to those visceral elements we talked about previously.  If you were thrilled with the visuals afforded you in the previews, you'll get an amped version of this in the theater, especially if you enjoy 3D and opt to see it that way.  Unlike Iron Man 3, for example, the 3D in Trek is seamless, and in my opinion enhances the film experience greatly.   Space looks endless, chasms look deep, ships are imposing, debris is hurled with exciting depth and bombast.  The camera work on this film is simply stunning, and what the film-makers do with real-world sets and digital environments is nothing short of brilliant.  So far as settings are concerned, the term "epic" comes to mind early and often, as we get a more fully-realized vision of the various parts and pieces of the worlds of Trek than the 2009 film. The Enterprise herself is tossed,  turned, torn open and slammed in ways that previous feature films in the franchise could only dream of.  We've come a long, long way from the original series cast throwing themselves around the bridge consoles in mock distress, and Abrams never shies from letting the audience know that the lethal vacuum of space is just a bulkhead away.   The movie is filled with harrowing chase sequences, destructible environments, gripping hand-to-hand combat, and other action-movie essentials, and it's all paced and shot expertly to deliver an edge-of-your seat experience.

Is the movie true to the original Star Trek?   In what I see as the most essential way one can be "true" to a franchise having hundreds, perhaps thousands of creators attached to it over the past 45 years, yes it is.  The characters are all very well cared for here, the central figures of which (Kirk and Spock) each have a definite, relateable character arc.  These are characters with soul, and their interactions evoke the spirit of the original.

But make no mistake, Into Darkness maintains its hold on the action/adventure model at the expense of certain ethereal elements of the original series and movies. Character traits are still exaggerated to the nth degree, much as in the 2009 film.  Those looking for a predictably stoic Spock are bound to be disappointed, as there is an undercurrent of emotion evident in his character throughout the film.  Rather than the audience guessing through the subtleties of a vulcan/human hybrid's emotional spectrum, we get to witness the character instead try to negotiate a storm of feelings via oft-misplaced rationality.  Although fully lovable and expertly performed, Scotty and McCoy remain more comic relief and mcguffin-providers than fully realized characters.

There are changes and revisions of technical canon as well, especially where set-pieces are concerned.  The Enterprise's engineering section, for example, is still a converted brewery with a few tacked-on sci-fi-ish apparatus to convince the audience they're looking at the guts of a starship.  For better or worse, Abrams always opts for that which is visually appealing and most advantageous to story over that which is most true to the set-piece measurements and fictional technical elements of the original.  There will be much wailing and gnashing of teeth among die-hard "Trek tech" experts with their Enterprise blue-prints and warp core diagrams.

Is there anything wrong with the movie?  Why yes, now that you ask, there are some things objectively wrong with the movie, in my opinion.  Although Abrams is a master at delivering an action sequence, for example, and creating engaging situations for characters, there is often some transparent McGuffin involved in moving the chess pieces into place.  A minuscule side-conflict or seemingly out-of-character moment will happen out of the blue, and one realizes later that it was only there to move character A to point B so they could do C.   A piece of technology is produced out of the blue, and one soon realizes that it is there only to perform some minor story function, whereupon it will be quickly laid aside. This is especially evident in ship-to-ship combat.  Although this is certainly not the first time we've seen this in Trek's long history (nearly all of the combat in Wrath Of Khan, for example, went against established original series "rules"), it happens so often and so overtly in this film that it detracted from my experience.  It wouldn't have been as bad, in my opinion, to simply break the rules sometimes, rather than point out the rule, point out the whiz-bang new device that allows one to break it, then break it.

The other problem, for me, is that so much homage is made to the original cast movies, that it borders on pantomime.  There is a scene in the movie (and a nearly unnecessary one, with a little wrangling) that is a complete re-make of a scene from a previous Trek film, with characters juxtaposed as if to say, "it's alike, and yet so different".  My take on this is that Abrams is trying to provide an homage to appease fans of the original crew, but it comes off as audience pandering that is just, well, hamfisted and totally unnecessary. I was moved to nostalgia during the scene, which may have been the intended purpose, but nostalgia just didn't fit with the tone, for me.

Is it a good movie?  An enthusiastic yes, from me, although there are some problems.  I don't mind at all Abrams's take on Trek; I think it stands as a worthy effort in almost every regard on its own, albeit not what others expect from the franchise.  Benedict Cumberbatch is a welcome addition as Kirk's main nemesis, and although the cast is spot-on in any of their given roles, he steals many a scene.  Although many of the features and takeaway of Abrams's films differ from things we've seen with the original cast and crew, I don't think this version can detract from what was already committed to film....if you're a fan of old Trek, and not a fan of new Trek, then rest assured no one's burning the old master reels or trying to censor you in any way...disregard these new entries as you see fit.  Laying aside comparisons for a moment, Into Darkness is a terrifically entertaining movie that uses familiar characters to tell a new and interesting story, while providing plenty of excitement.

Overall rating:  8.5 out of 10.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Jim's Movie Reviews - Iron Man 3

Iron Man 3 has officially had the second-largest opening box office in cinematic history. Some reviewers, especially those close to the comics community, are lauding it as the best of the three films, and I've even heard favorable comparisons to Avengers.  Does it live up to the hype?  Does it surpass previous takes in the franchise?  In some ways, I think so.  In other ways, not so much.  I saw the movie in non-Imax-3D last Friday with a crew of fans from Captain Blue Hen comics, and opinions varied slightly along a theme...

The review below, in case you're wondering, is written by a fan of Marvel Studios, a comics reader, comics pod-caster, and all-around superhero movie aficionado.  It's written by and for a person familiar with the first two entries in the series, and the larger Marvel Studios cinematic universe.  That doesn't mean I'm not looking for the same things from my movies as is your typical movie-goer, and it doesn't mean I'm not willing to forgive departures from the various written takes on the characters.  I watch movies to be entertained by good movies, and I read comics to be entertained by good comics, and unlike some more zealous comics fans, I'm willing to forgive when it comes to forgoing some of the finer details of the comics character when translating to film, so long as it's done in the name of quality.  There are some spoilers ahead, as an in-depth review is all but impossible to do without describing certain scenes and set-ups.

What it does right:  Iron Man 3 marks a return to, and a deeper exploration of, the introspective Tony Stark character that we saw in Iron Man.  Much of the movie is devoted to establishing Tony as a man of some maturity and sense of responsibility, the seeds for which were planted in the first film.  Tony is dealing with his role as de-facto head of Stark Industries (Potts's directorship notwithstanding) without the staple military contracts it used to subsist on, his committed relationship with Pepper Potts in place of the random one-night-stands he spent much of his youth cultivating, the remnants of his playboy image that continue to affect his everyday life, and the additional public role of superhero/savior added to an already insane level of public scrutiny.  The sheer weight of it all puts the character in a fantastic pressure cooker of roles and responsibilities, not the least of which is his fresh awareness of the gods, monsters, aliens and other fantastic threats he faces in the role he built for himself as penance for past foibles.   Tony Stark used to be a man who believed in his weapons, in his armor, as a means to free the world from war and worry.  Now, however, he's haunted by visions of threats from the great beyond he is powerless to explain or quantify.  He's a man who prides himself on his readiness, on his ability to engineer his way past every contingency, and the events of Avengers have more or less slapped this notion of the 'prepared man' down like a schoolyard bully.  Stark feels like he's just gone a few rounds with a late-80's Mike Tyson, and for good reason, and the film does a great job of illustrating this. His relationship to Pepper is clarified and continues to grow, his lieutenants, including Rhodey and Happy, are fleshed out and convincingly motivated. The main antagonist is a defined character that, although he has a very comic-bookish origin story, is ready to play the big screen, and he's sufficiently empowered and motivated to take on a solo Iron Man.

The film also treads new ground with its depiction of a Tony Stark who is capable and formidable outside the armor.  Much of the film is spent on an armor-less or de-powered Stark forced to use the tools at hand to defeat his enemies, and there are some cheer-worthy moments of triumph (in fact, they're the best moments of the film) that have little to do with a man in a tin suit.  If you're like me, you'll watch the film expecting at some point a musical montage where Tony builds an armor that is even more badass and goes forth to dispatch some hapless evil-doer with his top-secret falcon punch or some other such contrivance.  Spoiler Alert:  That moment never comes.  Kudos to the writers for understanding that the powers don't make the hero, and for finding ways to depict that while maintaining the action and excitement.

(Very minor spoilers ahead)  Halfway through the film, Tony encounters Harley Keener, a young boy who assists him in whatever way he can, and provides Tony with some much-needed grounding and perspective.  Everything about this sequence is good and right:  It holds true to the spirit of the super hero genre, taps into what makes these characters great in the eyes of young people, and provides several touchstones for the hopeful fan in all of us to identify with.  The movie is almost worth it for these scenes alone.

What It Doesn't Do Right:   The film suffers horribly from the creators' push to one-up previous entries in the Marvel Studios stable in the action department.  One of the action scenes (you likely saw hints of this in the previews) ends with a mid-air stunt sequence that is so laughably implausible that a collective groan from the audience is all but inevitable. "It's like, super-Point Break, man!  It's like Point Break times eleven!"  The film suffers in the third act from a dearth of settings and set-pieces, and getting the protagonist to the various settings in the desired condition becomes a mental mapping exercise that pulls you from the film.

The minions of Aldrich Killian, faceless ex-military types empowered with the Xtremis formula, don't amount to much.  Far from being convincingly motivated, the audience is to believe that once you drink the Killian Kool-Aid, you become his murderous thrall, willing to pillage and plunder at the risk of your life and the assured death of hundreds.  None has a back story worthy of note, nor is any one of them motivated beyond their listing in the credits.  Like other homage to the comics in this film, the organization they work for is more  trope than anything.

And why (spoilers ahead), oh why, did they do such a good job of showing Tony kick ass outside the armor, then end the movie with a protracted battle involving drone suits of armor controlled by the robotic Jarvis AI?  The point is not that the concept is bad, it's just executed in a way that is over-long and too involved.  What should have been a brief aside, a sort-of "look at the resources I can call upon when I'm up against the ropes" trope, is given too much screen time and eventually devolves into meaningless fireworks to punctuate the final confrontation.  The characters and set pieces are already there for a more personalized final battle between Stark and Killian, but the faceless denizens and cohorts of the antagonist and the drone armor take center stage, and the audience is emotionally invested in neither.  Worse, you know why it's there:  You can envision the board meeting where this conflagration was contrived; you can almost feel the slimy fingers of the suits and financial backers on the script, demanding the final sequence sell more toys.  It's a pity that, at the end of it all, a resourceful Tony outside his armor must bring not one, not two, but perhaps 15 versions of the armor to the battle, then suffer the indignity of a disembodied AI taking on the hero role.  Far from the masterfully executed, operatic camera ballet afforded us in the final scene of Avengers, involving characters we care about, we're subjected to a continuous barrage of non-character-on-non-character violence that quickly devolves into a mindless pyrotechnic display. A more personal Tony vs. Bad Guy (no pun intended) scene is called for here, but we don't get it.

The character of the Mandarin (minor spoilers ahead) is almost entirely squandered in this film.  This is more a comics fans' complaint, as he exists in the film without taking much away from it, and is performed by Kingsley in a convincing and comical fashion.  However, those of us familiar with the books know there was character to be mined here, and we're denied all but a Russel Brand-inspired piece of trype.  He was reasonably well-played with an eye for humor, but entirely wasted in comparison to what could have been.

 My Recommendation:  Although the movie gets a lot right (scenes involving "the mechanic" and his side-kick are pure gold), it also hosts enough wrongdoing and corporatized intrusion on the script that it doesn't belong, in my view, alongside the first in the series, nor does it invite favorable comparison to the seminal Avengers.  It invites, instead, comparisons to Iron Man 2 in terms of subject matter and quality.  A 6, perhaps aspiring to a 7 on a 10 scale, for me.