Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Improve Your Mathematics with the Video Daily Double!

 Hello again, my favorite Educationeers! Cap'n Howdy is back with another week of learn-tastic short films from the days of yore in the Video Daily Double. Today we're going to take a look at something that the Cap'n was never especially good at, Mathematics. That's not to say that you can't succeed where I struggled, and the Cap'n takes it very seriously in brainwashing providing you with the best in vintage cinema.

 I'm also looking out for the teachers today with our second film, but the kiddos should check it out too!

 Learn on!


 Our first film, Donald in Mathmagic Land, is from our friends at the Walt Disney Corporation. I'm not sure if you've heard of them, but apparently this "Donald Duck" fellow is a bit of a cult hero. News to me. Anyway, this should help learn you in why math is so important:

 Our second film, Mathematics at Your Fingerprints, is designed to help teachers in designing a curriculum around adding, subtracting, multiplication, and division, and all that other stuff. Since students are big on self teaching, clearly this applies to how you can teach yourself!

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Retro Review: The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

 I'm sure there are bigger fans of Douglas Adams than the Cap'n. I don't claim to be anybody or anything's "biggest fan" but I was really looking forward to The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy: The Movie Adaptation of the Novel Based on the Radio Show Which was Also a BBC Series (also Part One of Five* in a Trilogy). After Adams sudden and unexpected death in 2001, the long-in-development film version seemed like it was destined never to be. Directors had been attached, casts came and went, writers had tinkered with the screenplay Adams completed before passing, but it looked like another science fiction film we wouldn't see.

 And then director Jay Roach dropped out, Spike Jonze was approached and turned it down, but recommended Hammer and Tongs (Garth Jennings and Nick Goldsmith), and the film suddenly went ahead. Using a script by Adams and Karey Kirkpatrick and a cast including Arthur Freeman (The Office), Sam Rockwell (Confessions of a Dangerous Mind), Mos Def (Bamboozled), Bill Nighy (Shaun of the Dead), Zooey Deschanel (All the Real Girls), and the duo of Warwick Davis (Return of the Jedi) and Alan Rickman (Die Hard) as Marvin the Paranoid Android. Oh, and Stephen Fry (Wilde) as the voice of the Guide.

 At that point, I'd already read all of the books, listened to the radio versions and had seen the television versions many times (it was one of the first Betamax recordings I remember Dad made, from a PBS airing). I was something of a Guide fanatic, and I remember reading The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and The Restaurant at the End of the Universe** again before the film came out. Whether or not that was the best decision or not is debatable: the series has a history of continually evolving as it moves from one medium to another.

 As April 29th, 2005 approached, I was optimistic. The trailers were promising, even if a series of negative reviews tore the film apart for misunderstanding the source material gave me trepidations. I went to see it with my at-the-time roommate (Professor Murder) and a friend of ours who had an affinity for The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Coincidentally - and I mean completely - the boyfriend of a friend who joined us brought a towel. I'd be tempted to pretend that his not knowing the significance of bringing one was a joke, but he was genuinely confused at why we thought it was funny he had one. We went to see The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy at... I think the Carousel. I have the ticket somewhere in storage, so I might update this if it was The Grande. We sat down, ready for anything, and the film began.

 And I hated it.

 To be fair, I didn't hate it at first: I really liked Fry as the voice of the Guide, and I got a kick out of "So Long and Thanks for All the Fish," the musical number that opens the film, complete with dolphin song and dance. I liked Arthur Dent (Freeman) and Ford Prefect (Mos Def), and the introduction of Trillian (Deschanel) and Zaphod Beeblebrox (Rockwell) seemed to go well enough. In fact, I'd say I was okay with the movie up through the Vogon ship, all the way until the Heart of Gold picks up Arthur and Ford. Then things got dicey.

 For the life of me, I don't understand why Rockwell decided to play Zaphod as George W. Bush, an acting choice that immediately pulled me out of the film. It's not just that it doesn't make sense for Zaphod (who isn't stupid so much as too cool to notice what he's doing), but that there was some strange, unexplained but implied political commentary about what Zaphod was doing vis a vis the current President.

 I had a myriad of problems with the movie from that point forward, from the "Improbability Drive" being used as a "random" button that meant everything would be uniformly the same strange things (couches, yarn, etc), something the series managed to carry off in a consistent way with the book. I thought that the script by Adams and Kirkpatrick (and I assumed, many "ghost rewrites" and notes from producers) made decisions that fundamentally misunderstood why they happen in the book, all the way down to the last line of the film. You know, the one that totally loses the point of the "Restaurant at the End of the Universe."

 Instead of going one-by-one down a laundry list of nitpicks, I thought it would be healthier to come back to the film (which I haven't seen in its entirety since 2006-ish) with a fresh perspective. So when I watched it again last weekend, I came in with the mind that Adams made some of the changes knowing that the film couldn't be the series or the book or the radio broadcast. I decided to take on good faith that the script represented what Adams wanted to see on the screen (including his edict that the nationality of any character was up for grabs EXCEPT for Arthur, who had to be English), and try to view it as a film, then as an adaptation.

 So how does The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy work in that context?

 To be honest, I was a lot kinder to the film this time. It might be age, it might be the distance between expectations and knowing what the movie was, or it might just be that I was more open to the experience than when I was a grouchy twenty-six year old. It's probably a lot of those things - you have to remember that a month later, I was extolling Revenge of the Sith as "the Star Wars movie I had been waiting for" out of the prequels. I mean, have you seen Revenge of the Sith lately? It's the least worst of the prequels, which makes it a wart on the nose of Return of the Jedi, another Star Wars movie I don't exactly love. Anyway, Hitchhiker's.

 Here are some thoughts from re-watching the film:

 - I understand now why they went the way they did with Zaphod's extra arm and head, even if the head doesn't really work in execution. The arm is fine, and I get that it was a problem in the series too, but it's evident that having Humma Kavula (John Malkovich) take them away as "collateral" in exchange for the location of Deep Thought was an easy way to write it out of the rest of the film. The fact that they're never mentioned again supports that. If it was such a headache, why not take them out entirely? Yes, it's a defining character trait of Beeblebrox, but creating a Guide entry about how Zaphod made that up to sound "cooler" or had them removed or something would have saved the futility of their presence in the film.

 - Speaking of Humma Kavula, the character invented by Adams for the purpose of the film, I still really like the idea. It's something you can attribute purely to Douglas Adams' fascination with the absurdity of religion, and the way he toys with the meaning of saying "Bless You" when someone sneezes was a clever touch. I wish Kavula figured more prominently into the story, but he was at least a welcome side trip in the story.

 -  The "Bush" thing is... I don't know. I'm aware that the film plays up the "dumb" side of Zaphod instead of how aloof he is, but I don't buy that Trillian would leave with someone that stupid, even if he promised her a trip to space. It's as though Zaphod is a different character in the "party" scene and then drops in IQ significantly by the next time we see him. That said, it didn't bother me as much this time. (To be fair, Rockwell was asked about it and indicated he based his voice on Bill Clinton, Elvis Presley, and Vince Vaughn, although I was not the only person who thought it sounded like George W. Bush).

 - As for the "Arthur / Trillian" love story, it still feels like something that came from studio "notes," but hey, why not? If it was going to be shoehorned into the film, the way it was is less obtrusive than it could have been.

 - For the life of me, I don't understand what Jennings and Goldsmith were thinking when they put the Marvin from the series in the Vogon waiting line. It's not THAT he's there - it provides a moment of laughter and recognition for fans - but the fact that the scene goes on for quite a while and you see him again and again from different angles, which ruins the enjoyment of an old friend. It's like seeing someone you haven't seen in a while when you go to get in line at the movies. You have a conversation catching up, but then you have to go to your place in line and look forward and see them all the way until you go inside. The thrill is momentary.

 - Compare that to the way they introduce the Guide, which is a clever homage to the series, complete with the music. It conveys how important The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is in the world of the story while also reminding you of the film's place in the larger context of adaptations.

 - I also still really like Bill Nighy as Slartibartfast. And Stephen Fry as the Guide. And the Vogons in general. That is all I have to add to that.

 - This really bothered me at the time I saw it in 2005, but I guess now it's not so "on the nose" casting that I noticed Alan Rickman as the voice of Marvin. Yes, it may be a little too perfect matching of vocal tone to sarcastic android, and I guess I didn't get my "Marvin was humming ironically because he hated humans so much" that seemed to me to sum up the character. I do still hate that it's Marvin, of all the characters, who delivers the line "Not that anyone cares what I say, but the restaurant is at the *other* end of the Universe." before the ship changes direction. If, for some reason, you haven't read The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, I guess that wouldn't bother you. It still bothers me, because the direction of the ship wouldn't really figure into where (and when) the Restaurant is.

 So the end verdict is that with some time, some tempered expectations, and a few years of listening to the audio book (also read by Stephen Fry), I don't hate The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. It wasn't made to live up to my expectations, to be sure. I appreciate it for what it is, even if I still have some problems with decisions made in the film. If it's meant to reflect what Adams intended (as most sources online stress), then I'll give the benefit of the doubt that a script with two writers didn't have more involvement over the next three and a half years. It's unlikely, but fair enough. All told, I might watch it again from time to time, as I have the series, even if it doesn't have the same appeal the novel does. I was perhaps too harsh back then, but it did allow me to grow and to change the way I saw something, which is one of the things about films I so enjoy.

 * Now's as good a time to mention And Another Thing, Eoin Colfer's "sixth" Guide novel, which I have read and feel conflicted about. I do like it, and it was nice to see the characters again after the way Mostly Harmless ended. On the other hand, there was the nagging sensation that while I was enjoying And Another Thing, it was, at best, an imitation of Douglas Adams' writing style. If you haven't read it, I do recommend checking it out - I think the Guide entry at the beginning sets expectations appropriately.

 ** Guide nerds are already aware of this, but the BBC series actually covers both The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, ending with Arthur and Ford among the cavemen of the "new" Earth.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Five Movies: Year End Recap Appendix

 At the end of 2011, I set out on an insurmountable task: to catch up with everything from the year I hadn't seen but wanted to. As many of you know, I posted a list of the movies I wanted to see before the end of the year. I managed to see a third of those by the time I threw my hands up in the air and said "it's halfway through January so I have to get this thing going."

 Since then, I've seen most of the films nominated for Best Picture and quite a few I wasn't expecting to see but am glad I did. They'll get proper reviews (if they haven't already), but I'm The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and The Skin I Live In away from hitting all of the major films from last year that I really wanted to see.

 Because I'm not sure quite when I'm going to watch those, I thought I'd take a look at some of the films I have caught up with from last year and see whether my Year End Recap Lists would have changed if I had seen them before writing it. As a rule, I don't amend the lists - where they are is where they stay, but I think it's a worthwhile exercise to consider the films I've seen since in the context of other movies from 2011.

 Very quickly, here is how I broke down the films from 2011:

 My Absolute Favorites (Drive, Midnight in Paris, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Tree of Life, Martha Marcy May Marlene, The Guard, Melancholia)

 Really, Really Great Movies That Didn't Make the Above List (Attack the Block, Bridesmaids, Super, Conan O'Brien Can't Stop)

 Movies That Were Pretty Good, Very Good, but Not Life Changing or Anything Like That (A Dangerous Method, Paul, Drive Angry, Hobo with a Shotgun)

 Garbage (The Thing, Blubberella, Sucker Punch, Scream 4)

 To put this in perspective, I'd put Moneyball in the Movies That Were Pretty Good category (it's a well-made movie that's inherently pointless because of how it ends), and Cowboys & Aliens in the Garbage category (not in the "Bottom Five" slot, but definitely with the likes of In Time, Killer Elite, and Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides section).

 There's probably only one movie that would cause me to reconsider the Absolute Favorites, and I'll get to that shortly, so most films not listed below fall right in the Pretty Good to Very Good (that would include Absentia, Some Guy Who Kills People, and My Week with Marilyn). Captain America is probably going into Cowboys and Aliens territory, and Your Highness? Well.... that I'd have to think about.

 The five films up for serious contention are:

 1. Hugo - I really do struggle with whether Hugo should leapfrog Attack the Block and go into the rarefied air of "Absolute Favorites." It's every bit as good, if not in many ways better, than Midnight in Paris (which it shares some tangential connections to) and certainly has more to say about film than Woody Allen's movie does about literature. Hugo is a film that caught me off guard; first I was concerned that by not seeing it in 3-D that I was missing one of the major reasons Scorsese made the film, and then second the initial burst of "kid crap" pratfalls had me worried.

 But this is a Martin Scorsese film, and I should have known better than to have doubted a master filmmaker to lure in the younger audience without pandering to them for the entire film. He hooks them with a tease of dumb kiddie humor and then draws everyone into a world indebted to cinema. I really think what's holding me back is that I didn't see it in 3-D, and even though you forget that it was filmed that way shortly after, I suspect that it would have made a difference. As it is, I look forward to watching Hugo again. And again. And again.
 2. The Descendants -So The Descendants is probably the least "typical" Alexander Payne film: to be sure, there are maladjusted adults behaving badly to each other in funny but also painful ways, but with a sense of warmth I wasn't prepared for. I've noticed a distinct critical dismissal of the film based on the fact the protagonists of The Descendants are all essentially products of privilege, and that their struggles are accordingly irrelevant because people who are well-to-do don't have problems. And okay, I get that some online critics don't want to watch movies where characters in better life positions than they deal with infidelity amidst the decision whether to make millions of dollars selling land that doesn't belong to them. Fair enough. I'm not sure why you liked Sideways if that's the case, but fair enough.

 The issue of class and rightful ownership was in the back of my mind during the film, but at no point did I think about Matt King (George Clooney) as a wealthy lawyer whose wife was cheating on him because he didn't spoil her. That was the argument that her father made (minus the infidelity - he blamed the accident on Matt's "miserly" behavior). I saw a guy who thought he was doing right by his family but knowing deep down that he was giving them a raw deal, one that he hoped he could compensate for some point "later." Then things fall apart and he finds himself unprepared to be a father, a son-in-law, a husband, or a mentor. Instead, he latches on the role of "victim" when he finds out about Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard), but he's not even sure how to do that the right way. It takes Speer's wife to give King some idea of how to move forward. The "I'm not going to sell the land" was a perfunctory plot line you could see coming a mile away, so when Payne cuts away from the "big speech" to return to the hospital, I was relieved.

 I don't know that I agree with the characterization of The Descendants as a "mom movie," but I can kind of understand the impetus for that. It would fall under the classification were it not for a film about dealing with the death of a cheating wife that exists in the movie for other characters to project on. It ends as well as it can, but I don't know that it's going to supplant The Help as "mom movie" material for last year. For me, it sits comfortably in the Really Really Good list.

 3. Young Adult - I was not expecting to like this movie. Hell, I wasn't expecting to WATCH this movie until several people I talked to mentioned that they liked it, even if it "went nowhere." When I get to my actual review, I'll address that point and try to reconcile my reaction to Young Adult with my feelings about My Week with Marilyn. In the mean time I wanted to let you know that Young Adult, despite my strong distaste for Juno and all things Diablo Cody related, stuck with me. Not in a "why did I watch this" way, but in a "well damn, that hit home in a lot of ways" way.

 I've noticed that this is a common reaction among online reviews, in part because Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron) is the misanthropic writer many of us relate to even though we probably shouldn't. The film is concerned with bad decisions, feeling like you "peaked" too soon, and most of all about how perceptions of others affect you at critical junctures in life. The dialogue is so removed from the "hip speak" of Juno that aside from one reference to a combo restaurant, I wouldn't have pegged the film as being from the writer of Jennifer's Body. Like Melancholia, Young Adult is a movie that I've come back to in the weeks since I watched it, and as a result deserves mention among 2011's best surprises.

 4. The Artist -The backlash against The Artist began almost immediately after the film won Best Picture (and Best Director and Best Actor) and has only increased since many of the competing films landed on home video. I'm not going to pile on the film, which was by no means the best film I saw of 2011 but was a perfectly enjoyable hybrid of Singin' in the Rain and Sunset Boulevard. It's a movie that makes you feel good, and it's fun to watch and is clever at times. It makes you smile, even if it doesn't make the longest lasting impression. That's fine, because the Academy Awards doesn't always reward the "best" film or whatever criteria you want to judge disparate films by. Like The Departed, The Artist is starting to get the "well it wasn't that good" chatter, so whether it deserves the top spot of 2011 or if it was just marketed to win awards is kind of irrelevant.

 I did want to say that while I did really enjoy The Artist, I'm not sure I'd put it in the Really Really Liked list. I thought long and hard about this, and will probably watch it again before I make up my mind, but in the wake of films I've seen since, The Artist continues to be bumped down by movies I was more surprised by, more engaged with, or ones that linger in my memory. I don't want to pile on The Artist, but I'm not sure where it would fit if I had the list(s) to do over again.

 5. Tucker and Dale vs. Evil - This is going to be a strange comparison, possibly the first time it's ever been made, but I kind of feel the same way about Tucker and Dale vs. Evil as I do The Muppets. I wasn't necessarily sure what I was going to see when I watched both films, but had high hopes. The buzz was generally good, but every now and then I'd run into a negative review that made one or two very salient points, and I'd be a little worried.

 Both films are a lot of fun, if not perfect, but set out to do what they intended: The Muppets exists to bring, well, the Muppets back, even if they don't really show up as we know them until more than halfway through the film. Tucker and Dale vs. Evil is a killbilly slasher movie that flips the protagonists and antagonists and pushes coincidences and "accidents" to extreme degrees to maintain that inversion. Both films are clever takes on expectations, with likable leads and slightly unexpected plot twists near the end. In keeping with that, I'd put the two films side by side on the list. That should give you some idea of whether Tucker and Dale vs. Evil is worth your time.

 Keep an eye out for an actual review of Young Adult sometime soon. I'll be back tomorrow with a look back at The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Trailer Sunday Presents the films of Martin Scorsese (Part One)

Who's That Knocking at My Door?

Boxcar Bertha

Mean Streets

Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore

Taxi Driver

New York, New York

The Last Waltz

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Running Your Business with the Video Daily Double!

 Greetings, young Entrepreneers! Cap'n Howdy is back with another learn-tastic edition of the Video Daily Double. Today I'm going to continue pushing forward in your brainwashing and help you learn how to manage your money and your future business in the best way possible. There's no time to think about the future than the present, and in the current economic mess we're in, it's a safe bet no jobs will be waiting for you once you're old enough to be shoved nudged out of the nest and forced encouraged to do it yourself. Let's assume you're smart enough from watching all of these amazing films to start your own business. What then, Cap'n?

 A fair question, so I bring the answers in the form of films of yesteryear!


 Our first film, Using the Bank, should give you some idea what to do with your money once you start raking it in. I know it's tempting to put under the bed in order to bribe gremlins who would otherwise eat your flesh, but even a gremlin respects the power of a crooked bank owner!

 Our second film, Bookkeeping & You, is designed to help you create convoluted charts of such cunning that no accountant or IRS Audit agent can possibly discern how much you've swindled Uncle Sam or, worse still, the U.S. Government.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Retro Review: Battle Royale

 Everybody is talking about The Hunger Games, a movie that I can feel comfortable reporting comes out this Friday. I can't confirm that, but I have a hunch. And when I say "everybody," I mean one person I know and every entertainment program on television, nearly every store that sells books, music (it has a soundtrack), and any website that wants to piggyback on this manufactured "phenomenon."

 Look, I'm sure that The Hunger Games will do very well (because its target audience was told it would do very well while they're waiting for the next Twilight movie which, by the way, is also now part of a fake "feud" designed to sell teen magazines) in the way that John Carter did not, largely for the same reasons: one movie has been announced as the next "must see" movie and the other was deemed a "failure" with the likes of Ishtar and Heaven's Gate before anyone had seen either film. It's how these things go, and to be honest, I'm not really interested in seeing John Carter or The Hunger Games. They might both be great movies or they might blow chunks and I'm not going to know. I also haven't read The Hunger Games trilogy or any of Edgar Rice Burroughs' Mars novels.

 To be fair, I haven't read Koushun Takami's Battle Royale, which Kinji Fukasaku adapted into a feature in 2000. I'm not sure that it falls into the "Young Adult" category of fiction or not, but it's certainly a "dystopian" novel, which I was told (on NPR) is "all the rage" and the "new 'vampire'" for teenagers. Fair enough, because when I found out what The Hunger Games was about, the first question I had was "so it's Battle Royale?" The answer, I learned, was "kind of."

 Despite the last few paragraphs, this is not going to be a comparison of The Hunger Games and Battle Royale. Today is probably the first time that a mass audience in America even knew that Battle Royale was a film. The DVD and Blu-Ray sets released by Anchor Bay represent the first official release of Battle Royale or its unfortunate sequel in the United States. For the last twelve years, the film has been available, usually through imports or suspicious looking copies, and I'm going to guess as the internet developed, probably online somewhere.

 In 2000, Battle Royale was a film of mythic proportions. I was in college, and the film was unofficially "banned" in the U.S. because of the subject matter: a dystopian future where high school students were forced to fight to the death on an abandoned island. There could be one survivor, or everybody died. It was too close to the Columbine massacre, and no American studio wanted to touch Fukasaku's film for fear of the backlash that would follow. As a result, Battle Royale was immediately taboo; it was a film we were not allowed to see, that was being withheld from audiences in the states. That's how it felt to us, in a world where it wasn't a click away, where Amazon and imported DVDs and region free players weren't as accessible as they are now.

 The premise had my attention. The "forbidden" nature increased my desire to see the film. Eventually I purchased a VHS copy of a copy of a dupe of a DVD from overseas. That was probably early 2001, and then I could see what the brouhaha was all about.

 If Battle Royale had been a lousy movie, or had simply been just about some cheap thrills for the sake of titillating gorehounds, it wouldn't mean anything that it took twelve years to be able to buy it in a "Big Box" retail store. The good news was - and is - that Battle Royale is an effective, dark, thrilling, and yes, gory, examination of human nature in extreme situations. It's an inversion of The Most Dangerous Game, where everyone is the hunter AND the hunted.

 42 students from class 3-B in Japan, some time after a massive economic and cultural collapse, are headed out on a field trip. Normally they can't be bothered to go to class - they're openly hostile to teachers, show no respect for authority, and generally act like teenagers. But in this Japan, the government developed a system to keep this problem in check: The Battle Royale Act. After being gassed on the bus, the students wake up in an abandoned school with two strangers. They're wearing metal collars they can't remove, and before they can process what's happening, armed soldiers storm into the classroom, along with Mr. Kitano (Takeshi "Beat" Kitano), their old teacher.

 He explains to them they have been selected at random to participate in Battle Royale, belittles them for being insolent brats, and kills two of the students (one to demonstrate how the collar explodes by remote control and the other because she wouldn't stop talking). This is not a joke, despite the bubbly instructor on the video Kitano wants them to watch. The 40 remaining students (plus two "transfers") are given a bag with food, supplies, and one weapon (ranging anywhere from a machine gun to the lid of a pot), and sent out onto the abandoned island. If they don't kill each other off until one survivor remains in three days, they all die.

 That's a schlocky enough gimmick to keep most people engaged, but Battle Royale goes beyond simply satisfying our urge for carnage: the film becomes a microcosm of societal responses to traumatic situations. When forced to fight each other to the death, the students don't immediately go after each other in a free for all. Their schoolyard relationships are magnified: cliques band together with different strategies and old grudges and crushes are manipulated, sometimes to unexpected advantages. Not everyone wants to kill: a group of girls hole up in a lighthouse in the hope that they can wait it out, and the computer savvy, anarcho-leaning outsiders formulate a plan to disrupt the BR system and even construct a suicide bomb to drive into the school.

 Meanwhile, the transfer students arrived with very different agendas: one volunteered in the hope of killing as many people as possible (indicated on-screen by their student number and name, plus the remaining number of contestants). The other has a history with BR and a lingering question he needs answered, as well as a strategy to beat the system. All he has to do is avoid being killed and finding himself in the "danger zone," areas of the island that cause the collars to automatically explode.

 There are a few flashbacks scattered throughout Battle Royale, providing some depth to why some of the teenage boys and girls do what they do and who they target. It explains some of the jealousies and misunderstandings that lead to tragic results, and the atmosphere of mistrust also causes some of the students to act in ways they'll immediately regret. The film succeeds both in being violent escapism but also as a study of teenage behavior pushed to an extreme degree. The ending may be a little unbelievable, even when you factor in a surprise motivation for Kitano, a man whose own children hate him. If it stumbles a little at the end, I don't mind too much. That, and I do as much as I can to pretend Battle Royale II: Requiem doesn't exist. It's the sequel that continues the story, largely in the wrong ways, and that fails to add anything to the world hinted at in the first film.

 There is an interesting side note that comes from watching Battle Royale again: based on the opening of the film, BR is something covered breathlessly by this future Japanese media. Throngs of reporters and cameras crowd in on the truck carrying the winner of the previous Battle Royale, trying to get information about the survivor of this imposed massacre. What do they get? A smile. It's a potent and disturbing way to open the film, but the concept of media coverage never figures into Battle Royale again. There's no indication that the games are televised or that people are following along at home. Other than Mr. Kitano's daily briefings, there's virtually no communication between the people running the game and the "contestants," let alone the outside world.

 I had forgotten that incongruity, but watching the film again it's clear that the prologue is either abandoned or simply was not considered relevant to Fukasaku or his son (who adapted the screenplay). That element was developed further in the film Series 7: The Contenders, a satire of reality television released in 2001. Battle Royale is successful perhaps because it doesn't even attempt to comment on the rise of reality television or media coverage beyond that opening, but I had forgotten how minute of a factor it is in the actual movie. In the end, I don't think it matters all that much. Eleven years after seeing that washed out VHS copy, I was still enthralled watching Battle Royale on Blu-Ray*. It still holds up, and now hopefully everybody will see what they've been missing all this time.

 * I don't actually have the Anchor Bay release - the Blu-Ray I have is the Arrow Films UK release from 2010, which is region free. It has the first film in its theatrical and director's cut versions, plus a disc of extras. It's basically what was released in the U.S. recently, but without the sequel. I don't miss it.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Blogorium Review: Captain America - The First Avenger

 Pre-Review Nerd Stuff:

 I know that it's considered bad form to start a review with a tangent, but why is that subtitle on Captain America? Were Paramount and Marvel afraid that people wouldn't go see a Captain America movie if they didn't directly tie it to The Avengers movie that was still a year away? Were they concerned that people might think that, despite no evidence to support the theory, that it was somehow a live action sequel to Team America: World Police?

 Let's take a moment to just pontificate on this, because I'm guessing most of you didn't even think twice about it. Captain America was the last of the Marvel feature-length-prequels/trailers to Marvel's The Avengers Directed by Joss Whedon in IMAX and RealD 3-D Coming to Theaters May 4th*. We already know that every Marvel movie that doesn't involve spider-men, punishers, mutants and Nicolas Cage** are moving towards The Avengers. How do we know? Well, Iron Man, Iron Man 2, The Incredible Hulk, and Thor have included either Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury or Clark Gregg as Agent Coulson (sometimes both!) and they keep hinting at an "Avengers Initiative" that Tony Stark isn't allowed to be in.

 Sometimes they throw in characters that have nothing substantive to add to the movie but who also happen to be members of The Avengers not named Ant Man (Hawkeye and Ant Man / The Wasp stand-in Black Widow) that are also part of S.H.I.E.L.D. However, to this point, Universal and Paramount have trusted nerds to understand that they're planning an Avengers movie without subtitles like Iron Man: The Avengers Wouldn't Have Him or Thor: The God of Thunder and Also Member of The Avengers.

 I could understand the need to bridge this with Captain America if say, Nick Fury wasn't in the film (SPOILER: He is. So are his "Howling Commandos," but sans their learder). If the film was actually just about Captain America's origin and role in World War II and didn't involve the prologue and epilogue in the present day, then yeah, I guess some rubes might say "hey, where's things I recognize? Why does that guy who isn't Robert Downey Jr. have the same last name? Why doesn't this movie explain things to me because I'm a drooling moron?" Okay, that last part was maybe a little mean, but we haven't needed our hands held to this point. The other films have done a reasonably good job of integrating elements for a later film without disrupting the experience of watching the film. Well, until Iron Man 2.

 Wait, what? Oh, the movie itself? Fine...

 Substantive Film Review Portion:

 Is there a missing "director's cut" of Captain America somewhere? Specifically a cut of Joe (The Rocketeer) Johnston's film that fills in the second half of the film, when things just happen without any connective tissue? Things were off to such a promising start...

 Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is a 90 pound weakling with a heart of gold who just wants to enlist and fight Nazis in World War II. His miniscule body (accomplished with some impressive digital trickery) and sickly medical record keep him from being mowed down by machine gun fire, which is what the Army officials who keep turning him down remind him. Defeated, he goes to the World's Fair in New York with his buddy "Bucky" Barnes (Sebastian Stan) and a few girls, and on a whim he decides to forge his papers and enlist (again). This time, Rogers catches the eye of Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci), a scientist who defected from Germany to help the Allied war effort. He's working with Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) to develop the "Super Soldier" serum, and after boot camp, Rogers is determined to be the ideal candidate. Despite the misgivings of Colonel Phillips (Tommy Lee Jones) and Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), Rogers receives the serum and becomes muscular, hunky Chris Evans, er "Captain America," and is promptly sent to do USO shows to help the war effort.

 Meanwhile, Erskine's first "Super Soldier" experiment, Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), is plotting to take over the world, first for Hitler and then just for Hydra, his own private army. He has the Cosmic Cube, left on Earth by Odin (Anthony Hopkins, not appearing in this film), and with the help of Dr. Arnim Zola (Toby Jones), is creating new weapons, ones that will help him rule the world. Oh, and he doesn't have a face any more - he has a Hugo Weaving mask that he wears for a while but is actually a Red Skull. Or, THE Red Skull.

 And this whole portion of the film, dedicated to Captain America's origin story, is a whole lot of fun. It's a throwback to throwbacks of old fashioned adventure films like Joe Johnston's The Rocketeer or Steven Spielberg's Raiders of the Lost Ark (visual effects art direction by Joe Johnston). There's a nice sense of momentum and wonder as this puny kid named Steve Rogers proves himself to have the heart to be a hero and then gets the "Super Soldier" serum and instead of getting to fight Nazis has to pitch war bonds to families and punch a fake Hitler over and over.

He never even gets to punch the real Hitler, because Captain America: The First Avenger doesn't actually feature Nazis to speak of - The Red Skull kills a few of Hitler's liaisons and then declares Hydra to be its own entity. That's okay, I guess, although it defeats the purpose of needing to have the film set in the 1940s, but I was still on board. Rogers ends up in Europe doing his goofy show to soldiers that really aren't interested - they lost a lot of good men to Hydra, including "Bucky" Barnes. Rogers decides that this "rah rah" patriotic song and dance isn't helping, so he asks Stark and Peggy to sneak him across enemy lines so he can save the captured allied soldiers.

 The first action scene, when Captain America improbably sneaks into the Hydra plant past a bunch of heavily armored soldiers and rescues Barnes, along with what will eventually be the aforementioned "Howling Commandos": "Dum Dum" Duggan (Neal McDonough), Gabe Jones (Derek Luke), Jim Morita (Kenneth Choi), James Montgomery Fallsworth (J.J. Feild), and Jacques Dernier (Bruno Ricci). The men band together to escape from Hydra, and Captain America ends up meeting Zola and The Red Skull as the plant begins exploding.

 And then Captain America: The First Avenger falls apart. There's still plenty of action and patriotism and fighting of Nazis Hydra, but none of it matters any more. All of the well designed narrative and breathless pacing designed to service Captain America's origin collapses and Johnston's film becomes a meaningless cacophony of scenes that seem to happen independently of what comes before and after them. The sense of wonder and adventure dissipates and instead we're subjected to a mish-mash of things that need to happen to service the epilogue of the film, when (SPOILER) Captain America wakes up in present day New York.

 I'm going to give you two examples of things that just happen without any explanation other than "well, it needs to happen for the movie to end the way we wrote it":

 1. Captain America goes from being a propaganda tool who went AWOL and saved some soldiers who returned fully expecting to be court-martialed to being AN ACTUAL soldier. How does this happen? Well, there's a scene where he's supposed to get a medal for bravery but he isn't there so that Stan Lee can make a joke in his standard issue cameo. He's not there because Captain America is now in London is certainly appears to be an actual Captain. Before someone goes into the comments to correct me on this, please instead consider explaining how, in the film (not the comic), receiving a medal of valour is in any way a logical substitute in the narrative for going from being s morale booster into being an actual soldier.

 2. Steve Rogers and Peggy Carter have a "will they or won't they" romance during the first half of the film, one that is loosely continued into the second half of the film, only in a lazier fashion. They sort of flirt, have conversations that indicate that they could fall in love, and then Rogers is seduced by another lady. Carter walks in on them kissing, makes a snide comment, and Rogers is embarrassed. He tries to apologize, but instead she shoots his new shield and Howard Stark makes a joke. Steve thought that Stark and Peggy were canoodling because he doesn't know what "fondue" is, so he doesn't understand why she's so mad! Oh, romantic comedy misunderstandings! Then the script drops all of the parts where he wins her back and instead pretends that because Captain America puts a picture of Peggy in his watch and that she sees it in a newsreel that they're in love. We know this because they see each other during the last Hydra showdown and kiss in a car, then have a sappy conversation as Rogers (SPOILER) crashes the Red Skull's plane into the Arctic, where he will be frozen for seventy years.

 That's important because the nonexistent third act romance is supposed to be the real tragedy of the film, because when Rogers wakes up in the future and Nick Fury stops him in the middle of Times Square, the only thing he can say is "Yeah. Yeah, I just... I had a date."

 I wish I shared the tragedy of Steve Rogers losing everything and everyone he knew, but I just didn't buy it. Just like I didn't really feel anything when (SPOILER) "Bucky" is killed during a seemingly arbitrary train sequence designed to capture Dr. Zola. We're off to the next scene so quickly that it doesn't really matter what just happened, which robs the second half of the film from having any meaning.

 Along those lines, the Red Skull and Captain America have no stakes in their rivalry: other than being the only "Super Soldier"'s and being on opposite sides of the war, there's nothing driving their specific animosity towards each other. They're enemies because the movie needs an antagonist who can fly to America so that Captain America can crash the plane, be frozen, and be rescued in present day. The Red Skull works because he's Captain America's enemy, so he's in the film. He has the Cosmic Cube because it figures into The Avengers, although for some reason they aren't calling it the Cosmic Cube in the film.

 Nothing happens organically after Rogers storms into the Hydra plant. It's somehow appropriate, because at that point the World War II setting becomes irrelevant anyway. The Red Skull has developed futuristic laser guns and laser tanks that evaporate Allied soldiers (gotta have a PG13 rating for this war movie, after all), so it ceases to be a throwback to adventure films anyway. Now it's a dumb CGI science fiction / comic / war hybrid where things like plot development don't matter. The film doesn't need a reason to get from A to B to C; it just skips forward and assumes you're too swept up in the special effects to notice.

 For a director who started in visual effects, Joe Johnston has been having a lot of trouble with effects heavy films lately. Jurassic Park III and  The Wolfman looked comically cheap when it came to digital effects, and despite the presence of actual physical stunts, Captain America starts to look like a long string of green screen sequences with people running, fighting, or driving. I'm almost positive that most of the plane interior where Captain America fights the Red Skull is an actual set, but it looks fake, and so does most of the movie after the first hour. To put it in perspective, I knew that most of Asgard was designed in a computer, but it seemed more palpable than 80% of Captain America's climax.

 Now, it is possible to watch Captain America and not think about any of this. You could just turn your brain off after an hour, try not to follow the story and just say "well, they need those 'splosions, after all" and be swept away to the end of the film. You're still going to feel underwhelmed by how quickly it ends, how little any of it registers, or the way that you don't feel anything that the writers, director, and actors wanted you to. But you might not mind. You'll think about Chris Evans and how he was a really good Captain America / Steve Rogers. You'll like Hayley Atwell and Tommy Lee Jones and be surprised that Neal McDonough wasn't playing a jerk for the first time you can remember. Toby Jones is a little bit like Ronald Lacey in Raiders of the Lost Ark and Hugo Weaving is chewing up scenery as the Red Skull. Dominic Cooper is fun as Howard Stark and you know, it was a fun adventure movie. It was a comic book, and really what did you expect?

 And if that's how you measure a movie, then the fact that half of an actual movie has been stitched together with a bunch of other scenes won't be an issue. Maybe there are a ton of deleted scenes that I need to watch or something, but they aren't in the movie I did see. The movie I did see started out with a lot of promise, and then used that good will to skip to the ending without earning it. Of course, the ending only exists to be the beginning of another movie, and not much else. At least Thor had something to do on Asgard, and Dr. Banner went back into hiding while he tried to cure himself. Tony Stark had to decide what good being Iron Man was really doing.

 Steve Rogers hangs out in S.H.I.E.L.D. until Nick Fury asks him to be an Avenger. The First Avenger, I guess.

 Subsequent Nerd Closing Component:

 So, where were we? Oh right, "The First Avenger" part. So if we're talking chronologically, wouldn't Thor be the "first" Avenger, predating Captain America by a few thousand years?

 I fully admit that I'm not an expert on Captain America or The Avengers. I was always more of a DC Comics fan, so I'm coming into these films with what little I do know about the characters. Some of them I know more about than others - I read more Spider-Man and X-Men and The Punisher than The Avengers, but I also read Secret Wars and am familiar with most of the major Marvel characters. The movies have their upsides and downsides, but Captain America has, to this point, been the one I was the most disappointed with.

 Sure, Iron Man 2's plot was too busy and Thor's story was more concerned with Asgard than the dutch-angle laden New Mexico portions, but there was a semblance of narrative in them that wasn't JUST in service of The Avengers film. Captain America doesn't feel like a movie so much as an obligatory set-up of one last character in the crossover film. It's like stretching the Hawkeye scene in Thor into a two hour movie that needs to hit certain beats in order for people to come into The Avengers knowing who everybody is. Worse still is that it tricks you into thinking there's an actual movie in the beginning and then just peters out halfway through.

 * Take that, George Lucas. May the 4th be with them!
 ** Or are those last two the same thing???

Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Films of Tim Burton Trailer Sunday (Part Two)

Sleepy Hollow

Planet of the Apes

Big Fish

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

Corpse Bride

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

Alice in Wonderland


Thursday, March 15, 2012

Blogorium Review: The Descendants

 No matter how many times I see an Alexander Payne film, I find myself caught off guard by something in the story. It happened with Election, About Schmidt, Sideways, and again with The Descendants, the film Payne, co-writers Nat Faxon and Jim Rash adapted from Kaui Hart Hemmings novel. I expected some variety of comedy with serious undertones, both of which originating from flawed characters that can't quite connect, so in that respect The Descendants is consistent with Payne's other films. What surprised me was the humanity behind the laughs, and the complications in the narrative that undercut the misanthropy he normally imbues his characters with.

 Matt King (George Clooney) is hardly someone you'd call a responsible father. He's far more interested in his law practice in Hawaii than in his family, and he leaves the task of raising daughters Alexandra (Shailene Woodley) and Scottie (Amara Miller) to his wife, thrill seeker Elizabeth King (Patricia Hastie). When Elizabeth is thrown from her water jet(?) during a race and ends up in a coma, Matt finds himself in charge of Scottie, middle school-aged and prone to acting out, without the slightest idea what he's supposed to do. Alexandra is in private school and probably drinking and acting out, so when Matt brings her home to take care of Scottie, the elder daughter brings along Sid (Nick Krause), an amiable stoner with a penchant for saying whatever is on his mind, regardless of its tactlessness. As Elizabeth's coma drifts into a permanent vegetative state, Matt accepts the provision in her will to unplug life support, and the foursome set out to prepare family and friends for the inevitable. But in the midst of this, Alexandra explains why she's so angry at her mother, and it's going to make Matt's preparations much more difficult...

 That's the simple way to explain The Descendants. It also only covers the first twenty minutes of the film, because the revelation that Elizabeth was having an affair with realtor Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard) and planned on leaving Matt before her accident is the catalyst for much of what happens in the story. Matt becomes obsessed with meeting Speer, to confront him and let him know that Elizabeth is lying in a hospital, dying, if for nothing else than to see the look on his face. With Scottie, Alexandra, and Sid in tow, he follows Brian on a business trip from one island to another, where he discovers that Speer is also married. Brian's wife Julie (Judy Greer) is also unaware of her husbands philandering ways, and Matt has to decide whether he's willing to destroy another family as his is in the process of crumbling.

 Brian also stands to benefit from Matt in a totally different way: King and his family are descendants of the last royalty of Hawaii, and they own 25,000 acres in Kauai. Their trust is going to be dissolved in seven years, so the family has been fielding offers to sell their inheritance to developers, and Matt is responsible for making the ultimate decision on if they sell it and to what interests. If he sells to the local developer his cousin Hugh (Beau Bridges) supports, then Brian is going to make a small fortune off of the deal.

 The film raises the larger question about whether the family, descended from the union of Hawaiian and European / American bloodlines, really has any right to control land they have only the slightest connection to. They treat the native land as property, something they can use to camp on but a financial asset; they'd rather profit from it than lose it altogether, and the decision to sell it upsets families around Matt's home in Honolulu. Most of the cousins want to sell it because they've burned through their financial inheritance; only the penny pinching Matt saved everything, even from his family, which is one reason Elizabeth's father Scott Thurson (Robert Forster) blames him for the accident.

 All of this is the backdrop for dealing with loss, with grief, betrayal, responsibility, and with being unsure that you can be the person expected of you by others. The Descendants is alternately very funny and deeply saddening, but avoids falling into the traps of trivializing the gravity of the King's predicament or reducing the comical nature of these seemingly unrelated, compounding coincidences in service of tear-jerking.

 At the core of this balancing act is George Clooney, who plays Matt King as kind of a spaz. He's somebody who prefers business to interpersonal relations, who is convinced he can make up for all of this later, and who is totally lost when it falls apart. He's also driven purely by impulse: when Alexandra tells him about the affair, his first reaction is to run down the street to Kai and Mark Mitchell (Mary Birdsong and Rob Huebel)'s house to ask Elizabeth's friends if it's true. In spite of everything Matt needs to do, that he tells his daughters needs to be done, he is insistent on finding Brian Speer, to settling the score even though it means nothing. It's more important to him than forgiving his wife, a blank slate he can only project onto at this point.

 Clooney is fantastic in a very un-Clooney role. The screen persona cultivated by Clooney and many of his collaborators is of a man who, delusional or otherwise, is wholly confident in his actions. As Matt King, Clooney is a man out of control, a vulnerable, petty man in way over his head with two daughters asserting themselves in very different ways. Speaking of which, Woodley and Miller are also excellent as Alexandra and Scottie, neither of whom are prepared for the situation they find themselves in. Nick Krause nearly steals the show as Sid, a character that seems at first only to be there for comic relief, but as Matt begins to (inexplicably) rely on his Zen approach to life, we learn more about why he and Alexandra are drawn to each other, and in keeping with the rest of the film, it's more complicated than it seems.

 I say almost steals the film because Judy Greer, in a small amount of screen time, gives The Descendants a heart. Lillard's Brian Speer has a moment or to that keep him from just being "the other man" in the film, but Julie Speer shows decency to Matt and to Elizabeth, even though she has every right to be as bitter as the protagonist of the film. I'm used to seeing Alexander Payne films with emotionally fragile leads who struggle to coexist with their mutual baggage, but Greer as Julie is something different. She's an innocent who chooses not to lash out, but to do right, and accordingly shapes how Matt comes to terms with his life. It's a minor epiphany, not telegraphed to the audience immediately.

 To be fair, when the one thing you expect to happen does happen, I was torn about whether Matt does it out of altruism or to be vindictive. It's not clear, and Payne wisely cuts away from the "big speech" moment and transitions back to the family drama, having wrapped up a more or less traditionally expected narrative thread. Like Sideways, The Descendants is to me a strange choice for the Academy Awards: it is by all means a fine film, but one that spends much of its time dwelling in the worst of human behavior. It's not as hopeless as, say, Melancholia, but The Descendants is concerned more with small, emotional moments than War Horse, Hugo, The Help, or The Artist. It's a decidedly low-key film with fine performances, the kind of movie I think is going to age well, and deserving of its Best Adapted Screenplay, so maybe it's okay it was overshadowed by the competition.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

A Very Prescient Video Daily Double!

 Willkommen, meine lieber Educationeers! It is I, Cap'n Howdy, your international man of teachery! Today's Video Daily Double is a look back as we look forward. The magical world we know as the Internets is helping to literally shrink Earth to a more manageable size, so that we can more easily partake of ridiculous videos from the FUTURE (true fact: people who live so far to the west of the west coast that they become the FAR EAST live in the future every day!) without needing Time Travel Goggles outlawed for their propensity to cause eye-bleeding. Little did we know that the soothsayers of the FUTURE traveled even further into the PAST and have now implanted into the lexicon of "short educational films" a roadmap of the Internets before the Telegramaphone had finished activating Skynet and wiping out pre-computer technology.



 Our first film, Our Shrinking World, predicts the literally collapse of Earth into a smaller sphere of connectiveness, based solely on the dominance of American short educational film makers over their eventual Chinese overlords.

 Our second film, Introduction to Foreign Trade, explains how the world will begin to shrink as we negotiate with our eventual overlords. Amazing!

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Retro Review: Wishmaster

 Today's Retro Review is a special one for two reasons:

 1. It was the first movie I watched with Professor Murder, and largely the reason we became friends shortly thereafter.

 2. For better or for worse, it's the catalyst for Cap'n Howdy becoming the "trash savant" that you dear readers will assume is going to watch literally any shitty film that comes out. And you're right. Sometimes.

 While it is true that I would rent nearly anything from Carbonated Video that looked interesting for years prior to the release of Wishmaster, young Cap'n Howdy had a slightly more discerning taste when it came to seeing something on the big screen. I stopped hanging out with a friend in high school because he tricked me into seeing Biodome and Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls on separate occasions (also, he stole my yearbook and burned my German textbook after borrowing it). To be fair, I also saw 12 Monkeys and Pulp Fiction with said person, so you can understand why I'd fall for two proto-Trappenings.

 It is also true that I saw McHale's Navy earlier in 1997, and while that is barely a watchable film, the large group I went to see it with all went for the same reason: Bruce Campbell. We support our Bruce, even when he's a third banana in a Tom Arnold TV-make.

 What distinguished Wishmaster from those films, and what began a regular trend afterward, was that the entire reasoning behind seeing a movie that in no way looked good was predicated on The Rocky Horror Picture Show experience: see the shitty movie, mock the shitty movie. It's a low-rent version of MST3k, another show I was (and am) a huge fan of, and one that continued for years and years.

 (For the record, we have certain rules in place when we do this: we always sit close to the screen, usually three rows back, so we'll never be louder than the movie. We also try to keep ourselves separated from the poor souls who wanted to see something like Lost in Space or Ghosts of Mars so that we don't ruin your experience of a horrible piece of shit. We don't like to be interrupted during movies we like, so we limit our interaction with said schlock to our own sphere).

 At the time, I knew of Professor Murder* from high school drama productions but didn't actually know the guy. We were actually kind of at odds - the musical he was starring in was preventing our smaller production from being able to rehearse, and we'd received word that he thought our Literary Revue was "stupid." When he leapfrogged from Drama 1 to Drama 3 between the 96-97 and 97-98 school year, we found ourselves in the same class, and didn't really know how to navigate that.

 The solution came when we both signed up for a series of classes on Shakespearean acting from Burning Coal Theatre, who was putting on a production of... Love's Labours Lost, I think with a student who graduated two years before me. As we were the only students from our school (and we were riding with our drama teacher every day), we got to know each other, our senses of humor, and the many ridiculous interests we had in common.

 One day, after getting back early and having time to kill before our rides got there, we decided to walk from high school to the nearby Imperial Theatre (now The Galaxy) to see a movie. And why not see Wishmaster? It was produced by Wes Craven (A Nightmare on Elm Street), written by Peter Atkins (Hellbound: Hellraiser II), directed by Robert Kurtzman (the "K" in KNB Effects), and featured cameos by many of the "big names" in horror, and was about an evil Genie. How bad could it be? Very, we hoped.

 And bad it is - I remember we had a nearly constant running commentary about the logic gaffes, bad acting, and the scenery chewing Djinn, played Andrew Divoff. Whether in his Djinn "monster" makeup or his "human" form of Nathaniel Demerest, Divoff was a hoot as the deliciously EEEEEEVVIIIILLLL villain that tricked people into making wishes so he could punish them ironically. There's the girl who wants to be beautiful forever (he turns her into a mannequin), the guy who wants to escape (he gets put into a tank full of water), and the guy who wants to see him "walk through him" (he turns him into glass or something).

 The last two are interesting because they were played by Tony Todd (Candyman) and Kane Hodder (Jason Vorhees), who appeared alongside Robert Englund (Freddy Krueger) and the voice of Angus Scrimm (The Tall Man) in Wishmaster. Also appearing: Reggie Bannister (Phantasm), Ted Raimi (Army of Darkness), Joe Pilato (Day of the Dead), Danny Hicks (Evil Dead 2), and uhhh... Verne Troyer (Pinocchio's Revenge)! I'd also like to point out something I just discovered, which is that Andrew Divoff was not only the Djinn in Wishmaster, but also Mikhail, the one-eyed Russian from Lost. I did not know that.

 It's a loaded cast (and crew) for a movie that amounts to surprisingly little - it's a slasher movie structure but with a supernatural genie that can make anything happen as long as someone wishes for it. He needs to collect souls or something to become real or take over the world... honestly I don't remember. It's bad of the Cap'n to not go check but let's be honest, there's only one scene that sticks out for me, and it involves Kane Hodder as a security guard who won't let the Djinn get by. The genie says "ask me for something", and Hodder replies "I want you to leave."

 The Djinn, forced to walk away, begins saying "no, no, I have to get inside," setting up the ironic kill. It's hilarious. In fact, here it is (the encounter begins at the 2:26 mark, but you might want consider watching the scene in the police station too, which is also silly).

 After Wishmaster, the Professor and I were on the same page, and we banded together with the rest of the gang to see terrible movies and give them what-for, even if only for our personal enjoyment. It also meant we intentionally sought out movies that were worse than Wishmaster and accordingly earned us a reputation of being willing to see every terrible movie that someone released (in theatres or on VHS / DVD). I cannot say that we didn't earn the rep, but I've been living that down ever since. The Professor? Well, he doesn't really care. He's the reason I saw Satan's Little Helper, Monsturd, and Dinocroc vs Supergator. Then again, I'm the reason he saw ThanksKilling, so I'd say we're even.

 And Wishmaster? Well, there are three more sequels, only one of which I've seen part of. Wishmaster 2 somehow sends the Djinn to prison, so that Divoff can spend most of the movie without his makeup and grant wishes like "I wish my lawyer would go fuck himself," which of course literally happens as the lawyer is trying to get the guy released. Divoff couldn't be bothered to play the Djinn again in parts 3 and 4, and I guess I couldn't be bothered to watch them. Someday... they're probably good Cranpire Movie candidates.

 * I don't use his actual name because of the sensitive work the Professor does, but most people familiar with the Cap'n know exactly who I'm talking about. I also can't claim any credit for the nickname - he earned it while away at school.

Monday, March 12, 2012

The Return of Cranpire Movies: Underworld - Awakening

 (If you don't think there are SPOILERS in this review, by all means read on and try to be surprised when there are.)

 I don't actually know if Cranpire ever watched any of the Underworld movies. I know Professor Murder did, and that he liked the first one enough to insist that I at least watch the scene where a vampire with silver whips fights a werewolf (sorry, Lycan). The way he described it was more entertaining than the actual scene (for the record, that Korn song isn't actually playing during the movie but you work with what you can find), but I found the first Underworld film to be agreeably stupid.

  For those of you that somehow missed out on the REAL "werewolves vs. vampires love story saga for the new millennium," I can happily recap it for you. Selene (Kate Beckinsale) is a Death Dealer, which is the vampire equivalent of "Blade Runner". She hunts Lycans (a fancier way of saying "werewolves" so the movie doesn't sound so stupid) while both warring factions avoid being seen by humans. It's kind of like the Blade movies, except that there are a bunch of Blades and they all take themselves very seriously and so do the Lycans. The leader of the Lycans is Michael Sheen, and the leader of the Vampires is Bill Nighy. Selene falls for Michael (Scott Speedman), who is a Lycan that becomes a hybrid, which means he turns all black and has super vamp-can powers, and the two of them kill Viktor (Nighy - see why I saved that for now?) and then go into hiding because they betrayed blah blah blah. You get the idea.

 The only really distinguishing factor between the Blade and Underworld series is in my opinion the fact that Kate Beckinsale is in skintight leather instead of Wesley Snipes in slightly less skintight leather. It's certainly what 99.9999% of Underworld fans talk about on the internet and why there are now more Underworld movies than Blade movies (and you thought it was because of the tax evasion...) despite the fact that Blade Trinity is arguably just a collection of the worst series of decisions ever committed to film.

 Since the second one was coming out soon, I did what you would expect the Cap'n would do - waited for it to come out on DVD and then rent it from the used book store I worked at. Underworld Evolution was also stupid, but more bombastic and with less story. More importantly, it didn't have the "this is a very serious story we're telling, thank you" that made the first film so hilarious. Underworld: Evolution did have the benefit of having Bill Nighy come back (in flashbacks? I don't remember) plus returning Michael Sheen, and then on top of the Derek Jacobi (I, Claudius) as an ancestor of Michael's. The story gets more complicated, yadda yadda, super vampire bats or something.

 I did not see Underworld: Rise of the Lycans, a prequel that brought back Sheen and Nighy and added Rhona Mitra (The Descent) when Kate Beckinsale decided that skintight leather was too much of a bother. I have no idea what it was about, although if I had to guess I'd say it centered around the feud between vampires and Lycans in the middle ages because they seem to be holding swords on the cover.

 This brings us to Underworld: Awakening, which is the fourth film in the series (and is in 3-D!!!). Kate Beckinsale, who clearly had so much fun making Whiteout and Everybody's Fine that she decided it was time to be miserable in skintight leather again, returns as Selene. She and Michael are on the run (again), but this time because between Underworld: Evolution and Underworld: Awakening, the humans noticed that people in skintight leather outfits were running around cities, shooting at each other, and that when some of them died they exploded. One of the people who seems to be organizing this is Dr. Jacob Lane (Stephen Rea), who joins the inexplicably quality supporting cast for movies this silly.

 Somebody brielfy plays Michael, but it sure didn't look like Scott Speedman and the character isn't listed in the credits or IMDB. In fact, he isn't mentioned at all anywhere except IN the film. He's killed and then Selene is frozen for twelve years until she's rescued by "Subject Two" (India Eisley), a twelve-year-old girl who has the same powers that Michael does. Hrm...

 I know what you were thinking, but she's not a twelve-year-old female clone of Michael: she's their DAUGHTER!!!! Selene was almost as surprised as you were, because to her twelve years didn't pass. It was like she went to sleep underwater across from a guy who kinda looked like Scott Speedman but not really and then woke up the next day with a preteen vamp-can. In fact, Selene says something very much like that later in the film, in case we were too confused by the plot to remember that.

 Unfortunately for Underworld: Awakening, its plot isn't nearly as convoluted as the first two films (and, what the hell, let's assume the third one too), so it's actually not that hard to keep up. See, Dr. Lane works for Antigen, a company trying to cure the "disease" of vampirism and lycanthropy (I guess separately, they don't address this until THE TWIST!), and the hybrid-daughter is the key to cracking the code. Since she escaped, they let Selene escape to track them, and send some Lycans after them. Selene, in the meantime, finds a hidden coven of vampires led by Thomas (Charles Dance), who is hiding to keep his people alive. His idiot son, David (Theo James), wants to fight the Lycans and they all get their asses kicked when a super-Lycan that's immune to silver shows up (in normal form he looks like Coldplay's Chris Martin).

 Anyway they all go back to Antigen and Selene gets Detective Sebastian (Michael Ealy) to help her break in, just in time for THE TWIST! See, Jacob and the rest of the Antigen team are Lycans, and they used the whole "exposure to humans" angle as a way to get vampires on the run while they researched a way be immune to silver. That's it! That's the extent of this movie - the master plan of the Lycans is to be immune to silver and kill the rest of the vampires while still being closely monitored by humans. Well, that last part clearly isn't important because they'd be invincible, right?

 But if that's the case then how did Selene kill the Coldplay Lycan by putting a silver grenade in his stomach? And her daughter just clawed Stephen Rea's face off, so that works too.

 Then again, I don't watch an Underworld movie for the story. I watch it because the deadly serious tone coupled with the absurd action scenes and gaping plot holes are a potent combination, the end result being incredulous laughter. Underworld: Awakening is not a good movie, not by any standard. That's fine, because I wasn't expecting it to be a good movie. I was expecting something stupid and I got it, and I chuckled for most of the film. Adding children used to be the touch of death for television shows, and sure enough it's a sign of desperation in Awakening, designed to cover up the fact that Scott Speedman / Michael don't factor into the story much (oh, did I mention he isn't actually dead and that Selene unfreezes him so he can escape?). The daughter fills that role and is half-hardheartedly designed to give Selene some depth, but it largely fails.

 Underworld: Awakening has some fun, if imbecilic, action sequences, although I can't imagine they would be necessary in the third dimension. The color palette is (unsurprisingly) dark blues, blacks, and greys. The dialogue is stilted and designed to get us to the next fight scene, where at least the gore is pretty good. To be fair, it's probably more watchable - if not as staggeringly dumb - than Blade Trinity, and it's definitely better than the fourth Resident Evil film.

 I know, I know; when I'm comparing Underworld: Awakening to Resident Evil: Afterlife and Blade Trinity, most of you are politely nodding your head and slowly backing away towards the door. That's fine, but this is a Cranpire Movie, and compared to most of the Syfy Channel Originals he prefers, Underworld: Awakening is a minor masterpiece.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Films of Tim Burton Trailer Sunday (Part One)

Pee-Wee's Big Adventure



Edward Scissorhands

Batman Returns

The Nightmare Before Christmas (technically a Henry Selick / Tim Burton joint)

Ed Wood

Mars Attacks

Thursday, March 8, 2012

News and Notes: Breather Edition

 Yeesh! I feel like I've been doing nothing but putting up reviews for the last few weeks. Yes, there are the obligatory Video Daily Doubles and Trailer Sundays, but between those have been a nonstop run of reviews and not much else. I'm not even done with the list of movies I've seen but haven't done write ups for (The Descendants, Young Adult, Captain America: The First Avenger, Saw IV, V, and VI), and now I'm strongly considering diving into the first season of Game of Thrones.

 Well, I watched the first episode last night, and based on how it ends, you have plenty of incentive to watch the second one. I've also been keeping up with season three of Eastbound and Down, which manages to up the ante on the horrible things that Kenny Powers is able to endure and inflict on others. It seems like either would be a fine candidate to return to TV Talk with. I must confess that I am not up to date with The Walking Dead or Breaking Bad, and if I'm going to invest another nine hours on Game of Thrones, it could be a little while before I get there.

 Now that we're nearly two weeks removed from The 84th Annual Academy Awards, allow me to share a few things I found amusing:

 - I didn't really like the "test audience" segment as it pertained to the content, but it was nice to see the Christopher Guest Players (sans Parker Posey) together again. I hope this entices them into making another of their mockumentaries.

 - The fact that the cast of Bridesmaids had a drinking game involving Martin Scorsese's name made me smile. That no one ever explained or confirmed said drinking game makes me smile all the more.

 - The Cirque de Soleil performance that people, at best, can describe as "impressive" is still tenuously (at best) related to movies after the North By Northwest opening. It is, however, as ridiculous as the "interpretive dance to scores from movies like Saving Private Ryan" from the 2000 Academy Awards telecast, so there's that.

 - Did I miss it, or was there only one pointless montage this year? To be fair, I had some apple pie early in the program, so I didn't even catch all of that montage, but if there was another one I've forgotten it.

 - Chris Rock looked younger. Like, a LOT younger. Also, he called out celebrities that do voice-over work in animation and was funnier than Billy Crystal while he did it. It didn't hurt than most (if not all) of the stars in attendance have done animation voice-over, including Martin Scorsese* (drink now).

 - Not to be outdone by George Lucas, James Cameron made sure everybody watching the Oscars that didn't DVR it would know that Titanic will be in 3-D very soon. I look forward to not watching the film for the first time again, but this time in fake 3-D.

 This is maybe something that only I chuckled at, but Criterion made it so that Belle de Jour and Godzilla will sit side-by-side in Spine Numbers from here on out. Also, they are upgrading The Last Temptation of Christ on Blu-Ray in time for Easter. Being John Malkovich, The War Room, Harold and Maude, and Shallow Grave are soon to follow. Now we just need C.H.U.D.

 Speaking of which, why is nobody trying to remake C.H.U.D.?

Finally: A List of Fifteen Minute Movie movies I Watched on VHS but Never Got Around to Writing About:

 Midnight Run
 Kelly's Heroes
 Wayne's World
 Best in Show
 The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring

 * Shark Tale. You're welcome.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

A Super Wednesday Video Daily Double!

 Greetings, Citizen Educationeers! Cap'n Howdy is here with another civics minded Video Daily Double. As we all know, yesterday was Super Tuesday, the most important of all primary election dates because... well... it is. Many states made their voices heard, and soon our great nation will be closer to knowing who will be bickering all summer and have some idea the types of character assassination contrasts between candidates we'll be privy to this fall. With that in mind, let's take a look at a special film designed to explain the voting process, something you'll be old enough to do one day. If they don't change election laws before that point...

 Do your duty! But please keep it in the voting booth...


 Our film for today is called Behind the Freedom Curtain which, despite its title, has nothing to do with the opposite of the evil "Iron" Curtain, the oppressive state founded by Tony Stark.