Monday, November 27, 2006

Movie Review: The Ice Storm, 1997 by G. Adams

After viewing several Ang Lee films, and seeing him work in various settings, cultures, languages, and genres, I have to say, the man knows how to make a movie. Seriously, Lee knows what he’s doing.

Like most of Lee’s films, The Ice Storm isn’t going to cheer you up. The story follows a group of upper-middle class Connecticut families as their lives intersect along lines of sex, drugs, and reckless emotions. This is a complex film with several storylines that unfold each at their own pace then collide at unexpected and awkward moments. I haven’t read the Rick Moody novel the screenplay was based on, so I can’t say what characterizations or details might have been left out, but as always with Lee’s work I was impressed with how complete the characters seem to be—and this isn’t a ‘talky’ film. The believability, the solidity of each character—and there are many characters to keep track of in this film – is strong enough to stave of any confusion.

The actors of course deserve some credit for this, and The Ice Storm has a outstanding: Kevin Kline, Sigourney Weaver, Christa Ricci, Joan Allen, Elijah Wood, Toby Maguire—all turning in top notch performances. Summing this film up is beyond my abilities. It’s filled with people acting badly, or at least failing to behave graciously towards each other. There is more than enough selfishness, myopia and rampant egoism to go around. But it’s hard to judge people who seem so real or who suffer so much for their lapses—even if the cause of their suffering is accidental, and not, as some might suggest, a kind of reckoning. I guess the moral might be that leading better lives leaves us stronger for when tragedy does come, but then this isn’t the kind of movie that needs a moral. It’s the kind that asks more questions than it answers.

Me Vs. Roger Ebert: I’m in over my head reviewing an Ang Lee film. Roger sums his review up with ‘What we sense after the film is that the natural sources of pleasure have been replaced with higher-octane substitutes, which have burnt out the ability to feel joy. Going through the motions of what once gave them escape, they feel curiously trapped.’ I did sense that—I’m just unable to put it so succinctly.

Comic Review: 52

The idea of a weekly comic book is certainly an innovative and challenging one, but fortunately, an experiment pursued by one of the two biggest comic book companies in the world, DC Comics. Unfortunately, that’s just what it is - an experiment - and more often than not, the creative team has demanded far too much of the weekly comic “52”.

Immediately after DC’s massive crossover sequel “Infinite Crisis”, the major titles of the DCU shifted one year in advance, leaving many of our heroes in very different place. Its 52’s job to track that place, one week at a time, covering the gap between the end of “Infinite Crisis” and the beginning of “One Year Later”.

This sounds like a very important premise, and DC has gathered together a group of no less important, if not legendary, comic book writers to field the task. Grant Morrison, Mark Waid, Geoff Johns and Greg Rucka form the collective think-tank behind “52”. In addition, each issue also includes an origin re-telling written and drawn by the best creative teams in the biz.

The problem is the plot is too complex for its own good. We have easily at least four main plots fighting for attention on a four-week stage, plus countless other subplots which sporadically interrupt the main plots without a moment’s notice. The main storyline as such focuses on former cop Renee Montoya and faceless vigilante Question’s investigation of Intergang, of anti-hero-turned-benevolent dictator Black Adam’s union with war refugee-turned-superhero Isis, of superhero Steel’s conflict with Lex Luthor’s Everyman program, which turns ordinary people into superheroes, and of former superhero Ralph Dibny’s attempts to reconnect with his dead wife.

But there are also a huge amount of subplots which may or may not be main plots. The aforementioned plots have been consistently featured for virtually all 26 issues so far, while others have run for several months and then disappeared by the wayside. These include the Odyssey-like journey of star-stranded heroes Adam Strange, Starfire and Animal Man, the mystery regarding new Metropolis hero Supernova as well as the heroic death of the fame-and-fortune-seeking Booster Gold, whose robot Skeets has recently gone on a homicidal rampage. And there’s also a spree of mad scientist kidnapping troubling android builders Doc Magnus and T.O. Morrow.

As you can see, there is way too much going on here. And the problem is, none of these plots have a necessary amount of room to develop. Mainstay characters like Superman are written with affection and interest, but all too often the third-string cast of “52” aren’t so fortunate. For example, aside from a few one-liners, the Question is not nearly as interesting as he was in Greg Rucka’s “Huntress: Cry for Blood”. Also, new characters, probably destined for a bigger role on the world stage seem to suffer from poor timing. Take Black Adam’s brother-in-law Osiris, who has the most random introduction I’ve ever seen, and whose gleeful school boy attitude seems an insult to the more consistent writing of “52”.

Some issues of the series are downright spectacular, like when a depowered Clark Kent, about to be fired from the Daily Planet, leaps out a window to be caught by Supernova in order to score an interview. But as with characters like Osiris and many others, the plot seems far too rushed. DC seems to have made a major miscalculation with “52”, overestimating the experimental weekly format by leaps and bounds.

Perhaps “52” would read better if all storylines were collected into their own separate formats. But at the moment, “52” is behaving like “24” on speed caught in the middle of a hurricane.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Movie Review: Dead and Breakfast, 2004, by G. Adams

When you choose to watch a straight-to-video, indie horror film starring David Carradine’s granddaughter and named called ‘Dead and Breakfast’ with the tag line ‘It’s like a bad horror movie… only worse’ that promises cameos by Carradine and, for some reason, Portia de Rossi, you have certain expectations. At least I did.

And I’m happy to say, Dead and Breakfast fulfilled nearly all of them. Cast of young actors who aren’t very good but are trying hard? Check. Swirling black-and-white comic book illustrations between major scenes? Check. Zombies? Check. Alt-country/rock Greek chorus/ narrator who is also a character in the film who becomes a zombie and leads the undead minions in a ‘Thriller’-inspired two-step hip-hop interlude? Check. And of course, plot, jokes, settings, characters, and chainsaw-fu all borrowed from Rami, Tarrentino, Scorcese, Landis, Rodriguez and more? Double-check.

Look, I won’t lie to you” Dead and Breakfast isn’t very good. It falls far short of the maniacal low-budget wonder of say, the original Evil Dead. The over-the-top horror/comedy/gorefest model has been recycled so many times that there’s precious little originality left and this film falls short of even making the best use of the new ideas it does bring to the table. But you’ll laugh. You’ll be entertained. Not everyone who faces horror in this film is an idiot, which puts it far above many mainstream horror/survival films. And the filmmakers used ten million gallons of fake blood (well, 34 gallons, but still).

Dead and Breakfast is best enjoyed if you are literate in horror but don’t take it too seriously. And you might want to be drunk or maybe even a little stoned. Dead and Breakfast wants to be scary and intense but succeeds best at being fun. It’s a failure, but a gentle, and a sincere one. And honestly, to build a film around a redneck alt-country Greek chorus/troubadour takes the kind of courage that we just don’t see in major studio releases these days.

Me vs. the Onion: Nathin Rabin, whom I look upon as a genius for his ‘Films that Time Forgot’ efforts, can’t seem to find the joke in ‘Dead and Breakfast.’ Or he does but doesn’t think it’s funny. All I can say is, if he’s wading through each year’s indie horror releases hoping for the next Sean of the Dead and dismissing all that fail to meet that very high mark, he’s got a long, lonely wait ahead of him.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Movie Review: Cars, 2006

First things first: Cars isn’t as good as The Incredibles. As Pixar’s follow-up to Brad Bird’s 2004 tour-de-force was doomed to comparison and doomed to suffer by it. We will never be fortunate enough to live in a world where every animated movie is as good as The Incredibles. But against other Pixar films, such as A Bug’s Life or even Toy Story, Cars holds up well. It certainly surpasses Dreamwork’s best efforts, including the much-touted Shrek (Sorry, I’m not a fan).

Cars once again demonstrates both Pixar’s incredible technical savvy as well as their knack for storytelling. To do this movie right, Pixar had to design a world where there are cars but no people. They had to make this world both natural and familiar. They also had to transpose emotions onto objects. They manage these challenges wonderfully, and viewers will quickly accept the reality the film offers. The casting is a big help in this. Paul Newman, Owen Wilson and Michael Keaton lend their distinctive voices to the main characters and that counts for a lot in an animated film.

The storyline is familiar enough, but that’s forgivable in a movie that primarily meant for children, and the animation is more than stunning enough to make up for any predictability. My message is, don’t go in expecting the depth, character or excitement of the Incredibles, but do go in expecting to be entertained and visually blown away. If I can help just on person skew their expectations correctly, I’ll have done my job.

Me vs. Roger Ebert: Roger enjoyed Cars every bit as much as I did, and added some thoughts about the sense of loss the film conveys beneath its sparkle (wish I’d thought to mention that). He agrees that it’s no Incredibles, but what could be?

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Movie Review: Ring Around the Rosie, 2006 by G. Adams

Every Halloween I paw through Netflix’s horror section and grab a few things that the recommendation ‘bot lobs out at me. This time, it cost me. My questions are, why would Netflix recommend such a terrible film to me, and secondly, is recommending something so awful an actionable offense?

Still, I watched the movie, which by my own rules, means I have to review it. And maybe when Netflix tosses this little turd your way, you’ll be wiser for having read this.

You haven’t heard about this movie. That’s not so bad as I believe Tom Sizemore hasn’t heard of this movie, even though he’s in it. That’s how drunk I think he was.

Ring Around the Rosie isn’t very good, and the reason for that is that it is terrible. That may seem like a simple witticism, but there’s more to my summary than just wit. The film is badly written, poorly shot, weakly performed. It’s nearly impossible to tell what’s going on, and anything that might be even the slightest bit frightening is so buried in a rush of edits, jump cuts and the absolutely most ridiculously overproduced sound effects you have ever experienced, that no coherence escapes.

I try to give 300 word reviews, but I don’t need 300 words to say don’t watch this needlessly mean-spirited exercise in muddled horror. I will say this: in the 1988 Chevy Chase film Funny Farm, Chevy plays a sportswriter who is trying to become a novelist. When his wife reads his manuscript, she exclaims that the book is incomprehensible, saying it has “…flashes back, flashes forward, and sometimes, even flashes sideways!”

I never understood what flash-sideways meant, or how incredibly disorientating the technique could be, until I watched Ring Around the Rosie. Now I know.

Me vs. Christopher Null of Regular readers of my own review blog know I like to square off my reviews against professional reviewers, Roger Ebert when I can and The Onion when Roger hasn’t bothered. But even the Onion overlooked Ring Around The Rosie and that leaves me with Chris, who, not surprisingly, hated this movie. Christopher went the extra mile and summed the film up, as well as detailing a few items about the production history and the careers the film has ruined.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Horror Webcomics - By Richard Pulfer

Halloween is past, & maybe there's no good scary movies on basic cable, or the ones playing on HBO and Showtime just aren't your thing. Whatever the reason, if your looking for horror you should try something quick, easy, and most importantly, free.

The solution is an emerging trend entitled webcomics. Separated from any techno or comic-jargon, web comics are simply comic book strips which are updated online instead of print. So what, you might say, what's so scary about an online Charlie Brown? But web comics have become largely a product of the digital generation, with influences in such things as manga and video games instead of office work and house cats.

My name is Richard Pulfer and I'm one of them - the writer of the twice-a-week mythical webcomic "Hector!". We've just started our own Halloween interlude, which finds the ever-ill-fated Ichabod Crane eluding the Headless Horseman only to find himself in the sights of the monster who hides beneath the bridge instead of beyond it.

But enough about me. Here are a few other hair-raising web comics to satisfy your thirst for shadows.

"No Rest For the Wicked": Don't let Andrea L. Peterson's manga stylings fool you, as her frightfully frantic fairy tale is certainly nothing like Terry Gilliam's "Brothers Grimm". Instead, her subtle use of color has an eerie spellbinding quality, which gives her a kind of Tim Burton-esque quality. Unlike Gilliam, Peterson isn't afraid to shy off the beaten path of well and known fairy tales. Instead, she uses altered renditions of fairy tales we know and love (Little Red Riding Hood, The Princess and the Pea, Puss and Boots) and launches them onto the path of ones we don't know so well (the Death of the Moon). The result is a bizarre collision of convention and originality. The webcomic just hit hiatus, so you can read Andrea's work before the next storyline starts.

"Flatwood" : Told in black and white, Zachary Parker uses the exaggerated features of traditional comic strip characters combined with the subtle possibilties of Flash animation to tell a tale which is as much Dante's "Inferno" as it is Stephen King and Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining". With a main character plagued by strange demonic characters outside and even stranger figures within his own dreams, "Flatwood" might be a bit hard to understand sometimes, but the result is always an intriguing one regardless. Parker uses Flash not necessarily to tell his story (although he occasionally will depict a strip through a sequence of Flash animation), but instead mainly uses Flash to enhance the reader's experience, showing blinking eyes and moving shapes to play against our own imagination. This is innovative web comic creation at its best. If you do decide to venture into Flatwood, take it a step further and turn off all the lights.

"This Is Gravity": Created by my good friend B.J. Ibeas, "This Is Gravity" tells the story of a girl's descent and return from Hell all in just one prologue. Where the story goes after that is still in question, but I can tell you this much: it involves a depressed young woman named Maggie, her best (and dead) friend Jenny, and Jenny's brother Dexter. Put in a weird-looking frog, an enigmatic goateed pet store owner and a couple demons for good measure, and . . . I have no idea what you have, but it sounds worth reading, right? The art in this strip is fantastic, and so are the characters. The reactions as well as the personalities of all the characters involved, on Earth, Hell, and everything in-between is truly astounding. This is one of the best "under-the-radar" web comics I've seen in a good long while.