Monday, March 29, 2010

Fairly Topical Movie Review: “Shutter Island”

Going to the movies is more and more becoming a rare experience for me. So much so that every time I go, I’m still shocked by the ticket price. I actually overheard the couple in front of me in line say ‘Are we really going to pay $21 to see Hot Tub Time Machine?’ The answer is yes, they did. And though I feel a little better about my movie choice than theirs, it still stings a little. But, such is life.

I’ve been excited to see this movie since it first came out, for two reasons. The first is that it looked really good, scary in a weird kind of way that I like my scary movies to be. And second, because it’s actually a good movie. So many of the movies that I love to go see are action movies, summer blockbuster superhero movies or science fiction, nothing that’s really setting the critical world on fire. But here was a Martin Scorsese movie, getting good reviews, and I actually wanted to see it. For once my taste in movies wasn’t being belittled by the movie watching elite. And then I made the mistake of reading a review for the movie on the Onion A.V. Club (which was positive), and reading the comments section that went along with it (not so much). It seemed that the hipster douche community was determined to rain on my parade and piss all over this movie. But what irritated me even more was the fact that they spoiled the end of it for me. Undeterred, I set out to see the movie anyway.

Leonardo Dicaprio is Teddy Daniels, a US Marshall traveling to an asylum for the criminally insane on the titular Shutter Island in Boston harbor. He has a new partner and a dark past, and he’s been assigned to investigate the escape of one of the asylum’s most dangerous patients. Almost from the moment they arrive, the staff and the patients of Shutter Island start acting strangely. The escaped patient disappeared from a locked room, and nobody saw anything. Soon, Teddy reveals to his partner that he’s on the trail of something much bigger then just an escaped patient, and that the goings on at Shutter Island are much more sinister than then appear. A violent storm traps the Marshalls on the island, and Teddy begins to have strange dreams about his deceased wife and his experiences in the army during the war, liberating a Nazi concentration camp.

The most striking thing about the movie is the cinematography. It’s shot in such a way that you feel much like the protagonist, you can’t tell what’s real and what isn’t? Who’s sane and who’s insane? Who can you trust? You become almost as paranoid as Teddy, expecting trouble around every dark corner.

Amazing visuals with an intriguing story that keeps you guessing, even when you think you have it figured out you’re never quite sure. Ultimately, the experience is worth it, even if you do have an idea on how it’s going to end.

My Netflix Rating: Four out of Five Stars

Thursday, March 18, 2010

YouTube Theater: Fan Trailers

Know what I learned the other day? The theme song for the Thunder Cats was written by James Lipton, from "Inside the Actor's Studio". Isn't that weird? It reminded me of one of my favorite fan-made trailers.

And one more, just for shiggles. This one is for a Green Lantern movie starring Nathan Fillion. Try to pick our where all the clips are from, it's fun!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Comics Review: “The Question, Vol. 2: Poisoned Ground”

“Poisoned Ground” is the second trade paperback to collect the adventures of the Question from the critically acclaimed 80’s run. It starts off with a couple of stand alone issues. The first involves a crime boss who bears a resemblance to a certain mutant from a certain other comics company, with a certain healing factor and certain adamantium claws (subtle, right?). And the second involves a serial killer who takes inspiration from Gilbert and Sullivan. Both are good stories, but they end in cliff-hangers that aren’t resolved in the next issues. The art seems to be getting better, they’ve even managed to change Question’s hair color when he uses the bonding gas on his mask.

The middle three issues focus on the kidnapping of The Question’s friend and mentor, Dr. Aristotle “Tot” Rodor. Question mounts a rescue plan to find his friend. And along the way, his interactions with Myra, his old flame and the mayor’s wife, are becoming strained. They both still have feelings for each other, but Myra feels bound to her marriage vows, even though the marriage is a sham, and duty bound to Hub City as its defacto mayor.

Somewhere around issue 9, Question’s hair starts getting longer, until he’s sporting a mullet. There’s something vaguely disconcerting about this image change. It’s like my gritty pulp hero/detective/Eastern philosopher was suddenly replaced with Patrick Swayze from Roadhouse. Also, it seems like somewhere along the way, Question’s Zen philosophy became an excuse for lazy writing. The Question no longer chases down clues and makes connections, he just sort of goes with the flow and ends up where he needs to be purely by accident. In the end, he doesn’t rescue Tot so much as gets captured right before Tot was getting ready to escape himself. The two then end up on a plane back home without knowing much about how they got there.

In the last issue, The Question gets a haircut, while Tot looks like Robinson Crusoe after 30 years on his island. Question tracks down one of the men who ‘killed’ him from the first issue, uncovering a environmental disaster and a murder for hire plot along the way. The last issue does seem to get back on track for me, but still, it’s clear that this is a very different character then the one I knew from JLU. Some of the elements that first attracted me to the character are here, but a lot of them aren’t. I’m sticking with it though, I’m not giving up on my favorite faceless vigilante just yet.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Book Review: “Star Trek: Destiny” Trilogy by David Mack

When I was younger I used to read Star Trek novels religiously. This was back when the shows were still on the air, the books were all numbered, they were all stand-alone stories, and none of them were canon. The books were pretty good, and some authors, like Peter David, even made them great. I stepped away from the books for a while when I discovered fan fiction, but when I rediscovered them again a couple years ago I found out that something wondrous had happened during my absence. With none of the series on the air anymore, the books became free to continue the story. No longer were they hindered by the giant reset button that had to set everything back the way it was by the end of the book. New characters were introduced, loose ends left hanging from the series were tied up, and new situations were introduced. There was continuity, all the books released took place in the same universe, even across the different series. Oddly enough, the books were numbered when they weren’t contiguous, and now that they are the numbers are gone. And while still not technically canon with the TV series or the movies, the novels became better because of their new freedom. The downside of this is that without any of the shows on the air, the public interest in the books is less. So even though the books are better now, the selection at your local bookstore is likely to be pretty sparse. And without numbering, it can be hard to figure out which books come before others. But if you take the time to do a little research and get the books through Amazon or some other online source, the reward is well worth it.

“Star Trek: Destiny” represents a major event in this new bookverse (yes, that’s what I’m calling it). It crosses between almost all of the series, primarily focusing on four Captains and their ships. Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the USS Enterprise, Captain William Riker of the USS Titan, Captain Ezri Dax of the USS Aventine, and Captain Erika Hernandez of the USS Columbia. (And for you DS9 fans who haven’t been reading the books, yes, you read that correctly. Ezri is a Captain now. In the DS9 books she’s still a lieutenant, but it’s still the same continuity, the DS9 books just take place earlier). The greatest threat that the galaxy has ever seen, the Borg, have returned. And this time, the outcome can be nothing short of total annihilation. Previous TNG novels had been building up the Borg threat for a while; “Resistance”, “Before Dishonor” and “Greater than the Sum” to name a few. The Borg once thought of humans and nothing more than a nuisance, but now that they’ve turned their full resources to destroying the Federation, not assimilating it, nothing can stop them.

Meanwhile, across the galaxy in the Gamma Quadrant, the USS Aventine is investigating the discovery of the centuries lost USS Columbia, crashed on a planet that it would seem impossible for them to ever have reached. And when an Aventine crewmember is mysteriously killed on Columbia, Captain Dax has a tough decision to make. Stay and investigate, or follow her orders to return to Federation space to join in the fight against the Borg. Ezri feels like she has a personal stake in the mystery of Columbia, something that started with her previous host, Jadzia. She’s a young Captain (sort of), but she’s determined to do right by her crew. I have to say that when I first came across these books and saw that Ezri was the Captain of a starship, I was skeptical. It didn’t seem like a logical fit to me. The Ezri that I remember from the series was a sweet woman, caring, dedicated, but nothing about her really said ‘command officer’. But reading the DS9 books, there is a natural progression there as Ezri gets more in touch with what it means to be a joined Trill. She no longer the flighty young woman we first met who was unprepared to be joined. For lack of a better term, she’s grown into her symbiont. And in these books, she shows that she has what it takes.

Flashbacks to the events of Columbia’s disappearance start filling in the back story, as they meet an enigmatic, isolationist race of aliens called the Caeliar. Erika Hernandez only made one or two appearances on Star Trek: Enterprise as an old friend of Jonathan Archer’s and Captain of the NX-02. The character is fleshed out here and given a story arc that provides the through line for the trilogy. One of the things that I liked about Enterprise (there’s a sentence I bet you never thought you’d read) was the feeling that these ships really were out there on their own. They didn’t have the Federation to support them, or a vast fleet of ships to back them up if needed. Here we see that first hand as Columbia faces an ordeal that will ultimately leave them lost to history. And Captain Hernandez is left to make some pretty hard decisions.

On Earth, Federation President Nanietta Bacco (with the help of her staff and advisors, including Seven of Nine) is gathering allies, trying to create a unified defense against the Borg. These scenes work very well I think, sort like The West Wing meets Star Trek. With most Trek, the focus is so much on life in Starfleet aboard a starship, it’s always nice I think to learn more about other aspects of the universe, like government and politics. I know on paper it looks like science fiction and political thrillers shouldn’t mix (just ask George Lucas), I think it works here to better give us the scope of these events.

Meanwhile halfway across the galaxy on the USS Titan, Riker and Troi are faced with tragedy of their own. Deanna is having a difficult pregnancy, and she’s informed that the baby will not survive. One of the things that I like most about the Titan books is the character drama. Titan is a ship crewed by many different alien species, some of them not even humanoid, and as they try to live and work together they face many personal difficulties. Captain Riker is faced with a distraught wife who is also a member of his senior staff, he has to be there for her while dealing with this tragedy himself, but he has to put his ship and his crew first. It’s a balancing act, and he isn’t always successful at it. Titan is investigating the transwarp conduits that the Borg use to travel to the Alpha Quadrant. What they discover are the Caeliar. And with them, looking as though she has not aged a day in 200 hundred years, is Erika Hernandez.

In the third book, the Borg come, laying waste to everything in their path. These three Captains have a chance to stop them, but the plan is risky. Everything is at stake. Along the way we learn the origins of the Borg, and we learn what happened to the Caeliar and the crew of the Columbia.

This trilogy is a must read for anyone who is interested in the modern Star Trek bookverse. When it’s over, nothing will ever be the same again. It’s a fast paced, energetic read filled with personal drama, political intrigue, and everything in between. But of course, you don’t have to take my word for it.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Stand-Up Comedy Review: “Bill Maher: The Decider”

Fewer things polarize people as much as politics and comedy. Put them together and every time you open your mouth you’re probably pissing off more people than you’re pleasing, whether you’re funny or not. Bill Maher has made a career out of pulling no punches with his political material, calling it like he sees it regardless of how unpopular his opinion may be, and of course, pissing people off. Apart from a few early stand-up specials, my introduction to Bill Maher was “Politically Incorrect” on Comedy Central. One of my fondest childhood memories in fact is having breakfast with my dad and watching the show on the weekends when they would replay the week’s episodes. It’s become almost cliché now for my generation to get our news and political commentary from comedic sources like “The Daily Show”, but for me without comedians like Bill Maher and Dennis Miller, I never would have become interested in politics. It’s a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down.

From Comedy Central to ABC, and then finally to HBO with “Real Time”, Maher continues to mix serious political discussion with his own biting satire, closing each show with a segment that he calls “New Rules”.

“The Decider” (2007) is Maher’s parting salvo at the Bush administration. He comments in the opening minutes how with all the scandals, blunders and missteps, the country has “fuck-up fatigue”, wherein the citizenry has so come to accept the incompetence of the presidency that they’ve lost their outrage. Well Bill is here to stoke that fire and make sure that we never forget what a nightmare the last eight years have been. He takes us through the highlights, applying his ever-sharp wit to all of the usual suspects.

But it isn’t just the Republicans that draw Bill’s ire. He takes shots at lobbyists, the pharmaceutical industry, organized religion, and the pussification of the American male. But no matter the topic, his perspective and his frank delivery does well to point out the ridiculousness of it and make it funny. Thanks to YouTube, the entire special is up for viewing. So as Levar Burton once said, you don’t have to take my word for it.

Monday, March 8, 2010

YouTube Theater: Batman Sings!

Here's a new feature that I've come up with to share some of my favorite YouTube videos.

My daughter Nikki loves superheroes, especially Batman and Spider-Man, and lately she's been obsessed with a certain episode of "Batman: Brave and the Bold", Mayhem of the Music Meister! Starring the voice talents of Neil Patrick Harris. Enjoy.

And on a related note (hehe, note), here's one of my favorite moments from JLU.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Comics Review: “The Question, Vol. 1: Zen and Violence”

A while ago on this blog I listed my favorite characters from Justice League Unlimited, and at the top of that list was The Question. Jeffrey Combs’ portrayal of the faceless vigilante captured my attention from his first appearance on the show. The depiction of the character on JLU was that of a detail-oriented, conspiracy obsessed, seeker of truth. Dismissed by his colleagues as crazy or paranoid, The Question’s observations were almost always proven correct in the end. And when it came down to it, he was willing to put everything on the line for what he believed in. Visually speaking, the idea of a man without a face intrigued me. You couldn’t read his facial expressions, so you couldn’t tell what he was thinking. He was an enigma. I promised myself that I would go back to the comics to read about this character and learn more about him, and I’ve finally done exactly that.

The Question was created in 1967 by Steve Ditko for Charlton Comics. In 1983 Charlton was acquired by DC, The Question was then revamped by Dennis O’Neil (writer) and Denys Cowan (artist). “Zen and Violence” collects the first six issues of the acclaimed DC series that ran from 1986 to 1990.

The Question is Vic Sage, investigative reporter for KBEL in Hub City. When we’re first introduced to our hero, he’s taking apart a room full of thugs, looking for a video tape. He gets what he’s after and leaves, while the mysterious Lady Shiva stands by and watches, doing nothing. The tape contains evidence of corruption in the city government, leading all the way up to the mayor himself. He plays it on the evening news that night, where it catches the attention of Reverend Jeremiah Hatch, the mayor’s ‘pet sky pilot’ as Vic calls him. Hatch is the one who is really running the show, and his agenda is far more twisted then anyone knows.

Vic is a bulldog, fighting the tide of crime and corruption that has taken over Hub City with no regard for his own personal safety. As both Vic Sage and The Question, he’s searching for the same thing, the truth. He’s fearless and dogged in his pursuit of it. But his determination has made him over-confident, reckless. He shows up at a meeting that he knows is a trap, and he pays the ultimate price. He’s severely beaten by Lady Shiva, then shot in the head Hatch’s goons and dumped in the river, left for dead.

When Vic wakes up, he doesn’t remember much, but he knows that he should be dead. He learns that Lady Shiva pulled him out of the water and saved his life, but why? He receives a visit from Batman, who admonishes him for risking his life so foolishly. He tells him “You can’t half do what you were doing. It has to be full time. It has to be who you are.” Shiva leaves instructions for Vic, which lead him to the doorstep of Richard Dragon, who agrees to train him. Vic spends a year with Dragon, training his mind and body both. At the end of his training, Shiva shows up again. She tells Vic that he has a warrior’s passion, but her motives for saving his life are still a mystery.

Vic returns to Hub City as The Question and goes after Hatch. But things have become more complicated in his absence, and he finds an old flame involved with the mayor. Her and her daughter’s lives are at risk. Hub City is descending into chaos, and The Question is the only one who can stem the tide.

It’s hard to read The Question and not think about Rorschach from Watchmen. Alan Moore originally wanted to use the Charlton Comics characters for his book but was unable to, so he patterned the characters after them. Rorschach was based on Question, and subsequent portrayals of Question have been influenced by Rorschach, so the two characters have been intertwined. The Question even makes mention of his Watchmen equivalent in a later issue of this very series, and even attempts to emulate him. There’s a determination and a moral absolutism in the character, which Rorschach of course takes to the extreme, but it’s in this book as well. The Question comes to embrace a Zen philosophy from his training with Richard Dragon, and he seems to take Batman’s advice to heart. In the beginning of this book, The Question was just a mask that Vic Sage wore to further his own agenda. But by the end, The Question becomes who he is, and Vic Sage becomes the mask.

There is one small nit that I’d like to pick however. The gas that the Question uses to bond his mask to his face is also supposed to change the color of his clothes (and in some versions of the character, his hair as well) to further his disguise. The idea being that Vic Sage is a public figure and would be easily recognized on the street. But early in this book, his clothes don’t change at all. In the beginning of the story he goes right from beating up thugs to on the air wearing the exact same suit, with the exact same hair, and yet no one ever figures out that he’s The Question. Later in the book his clothes do change color slightly, so maybe this was just a coloring mistake in the early issues.

Most of the elements that first attracted me to the character on JLU are here as well, this visual look of the character of course as well as his tenacity and determination. So I think I’ll be picking up volume two soon enough to see where this goes, so look for more reviews in the future. Same Question time, same Question channel!

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Stand-Up Comedy Review: “Louis CK: Chewed Up”

If I had to make a list of my favorite comedians working today (and believe me, I’ve tried), Louis CK would definitely be near the top. I first became aware of Louis years ago, from HBO and comedy central. His act then wasn’t as personal as it is today, but he still had a distinctive way of looking at things and an absurd rawness that was very funny. He’s written for David Letterman, Chris Rock, and of course his own show on HBO “Lucky Louie”, which was a much more honest and unique take on the sitcom format. Too unique perhaps, as it was canceled after only one season. Louis is also a regular guest on my favorite radio show, Opie and Anthony.

There’s an honesty in Louis’ comedy that you don’t see very often. It’s almost cliché these days to say that a comedian is ‘outrageous’ or ‘tells it like it is’. So much of that is false, forced shock that comics try to pass off as jokes. But when you look deeper, there really isn’t anything funny there (I’m looking at you, Carlos Mencia). Louis CK is the only comedian that I’ve seen that is so raw and honest about his own life and family. He’s middle-aged, married (now divorced) with two kids, and he talks candidly about how much his life sucks. As a parent, it’s surprising to hear someone give voice to those darker things that we sometimes think and feel and are embarrassed by. And more importantly, he makes it funny.

But family isn’t the only thing that Louis focuses his ire on. He talks about getting older, and how at a certain point in your life doctors stop trying to fix the things that go wrong with your body. Your ankle hurts? You didn’t twist it, it’s just old and shitty now and you have to live with it. He talks about language and about society, and with everything he touches on there’s a truth and a frankness that’s both refreshing and hilarious. You get the sense that he doesn’t talk the way he does for shock value, but because he’s just too tired and world weary to be tactful.

“Chewed Up” is available on DVD and to view instantly on Netflix. Check it out for yourself, you won’t be sorry.

Netflix Rating: Four out of Five Stars

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Monday, March 1, 2010

‘Movies I’d Never Heard Of’ Review – “Franklyn”

Every once in a while, cruising through my recommendations on Netflix, I’ll come across a movie that I’ve never heard of before, and yet seems to be right up my alley. Maybe it never had a theatrical release, maybe it’s a foreign movie, or maybe it was just so poorly promoted that it managed to sneak under my radar. Most of the time I say to myself ‘Hey, that looks good. I should see that.’ And then I almost immediately forget about it. But in an effort to expand my movie horizons and expose myself to better movie, I’ve decided to make more of an effort to watch these movies that I might normally pass by. In addition, I get to write about them and maybe turn some other people on to them, so that’s a plus.

“Franklyn” (2008) is a British film by writer/director Gerald McMorrow, so maybe that’s why I hadn’t heard of it until now. Ryan Phillippe is John Preest, a vigilante in the futuristic, steampunk Meanwhile City. Preest is on a mission to assassinate The Individual, the leader of a religious cult that is responsible for the death of a little girl that he was hired to find. Meanwhile City is a place where religion, any religion, is mandatory, and atheists are outlaws. John Preest is the only atheist left. Along with this story, three other plots begin to unwind, taking place in modern day London. Emilia is a suicidal art student, at odds with her mother. Milo is a young man trying to find himself after being jilted by his fiancé shortly before their wedding. And Peter is a man looking for his missing, mentally ill son. It’s the way that these four stories slowly begin to intersect that makes this movie so interesting and unique.

The most intriguing aspect of this movie, and what attracted me to it in the first place, are the striking visuals and symbolism of Meanwhile City. Imagine, the religious architecture of a thousand faiths, all climbing into the sky, dominating a single city. The citizens fill the streets, looking for religious enlightenment from any source they can find it, trying to make their dismal lives make some kind of sense. The city’s authorities, The Ministry, patrol the streets, a cross between clergymen and a police force. This film certainly has something to say about faith and organized religion, but in the end it’s up to the viewer to take away their own message. Who’s right and who’s wrong, who’s crazy and who’s sane, what’s real and what isn’t. And that’s what I loved the most about the movie; it didn’t just tell me what happened, it made me think about what happened and made me interpret it on my own.

My Netflix Rating: Four out of Five Stars