Tuesday, December 24, 2013

It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year!

 Welcome back, saps and saplings! It is I, Douglas Fir, your coniferous overlord! I've tied up Cap'n Howdy and locked him in the closet given the Cap'n the day off to do whatever it is he's been doing instead of reviewing Madea's Christmas, and now it's time for your most benevolent overlord to provide you with some TREE-mendous merriment.

 As some of you pathetic sacks of meat know, Douglas Fir spends all of his time not used to bring about the Treepocalypse to track down sufficient video evidence of your impending doom, and while I seek high and low, I find myself PINE-ing for something worthy of sharing with you. Until this year, that is! Yes, this year, I found just the right son of a BIRCH with an eye to portray the holidays for what it truly is to my people, and to hint at the Treepocalypse to come. Then I, Douglas Fir, will assume the throne you will all cower before my greatness.

 In the meantime, here is a documentary about what is to come, called TREEVENGE:

Treevenge from jasoneisener on Vimeo.


Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Cap'n Howdy's (Back)Log: Escape Plan

  Escape Plan is a surprisingly good theatrically released DTV movie. Wait, let me take that back. That's a mean way to start the review, and since Escape Plan is actually a (lot) better than either Bullet to the Head or The Last Stand, I shouldn't be diminishing your expectations already by suggesting that it's a non-direct to video DTV entry. Not that you'd be mistaken for thinking that when I get to the cast, a who's who of once-upon-a-time "they're in this?" but now probably more like "oh, that's what they're up to"-ers. Again, I feel I'm being mean already, and I really liked Escape Plan. Maybe DTV is just better than what you'd expect it to be these days (except the ones starring Bruce Willis). Or maybe the average action movie just isn't (A Good Day to Die Hard, I'm looking at you...)

 So if you're ignoring The Expendables, and for the moment let's do that, Escape Plan is the first film co-headlined by Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger. This is definitely still a Stallone movie, but Arnold has a crucial supporting part and drives most of the narrative. More importantly, unlike his one-liner joke machine cameos in The Expendables movies, Schwarzenegger is actually playing a character that doesn't rely on the fact we know he's Ah-nuld. It's pretty cool to see him no be quite as larger than life but just be a grizzled criminal who needs Sly's help. Stallone is basically playing any of his non-Rocky / Rambo-types, but that's a good thing. The "man of few words" works for what amounts to a pretty linear plot.

 Ray Breslin (Stallone) is a former prosecutor turned profession jailbreak-er. He works for a consulting firm that helps the Department of Prison Services determine how safe their institutions are from escapes, and as he demonstrates in the first ten minutes, Ray is very good at observing routines, memorizing layouts, and discovering weaknesses in prison security. He's so good, in fact, that Ray literally wrote the book on prison design (we see it several times in the movie). CIA representative Jessica Miller (Caitriona Balfe) comes to Breslin's boss Lester Clark (Vincent D'Onofrio) with a proposition: a secret, non-government sanction super prison is being tested for the worst of the worst, and in order to make sure that it's really as state-of-the-art as they hope it is, they want Ray to try to get out. Despite the clandestine details surrounding his arrival to "The Tomb," Breslin reluctantly agrees, but quickly discovers that someone with an axe to grind intends for him to stay there permanently.

 Now this is already a pretty good "wrong man" setup before we're introduced to Emil Rottmayer (Schwarzenegger), who's in "The Tomb" for refusing to cooperate with authorities in locating his boss, an international thief / hacker. Rottmayer turns out to be the only friend Breslin has, even when Ray isn't interested in forging alliances. This prison is, well, different: the cells are plexiglass and elevated, the guards are all masked to hide their identities and use random schedules, and warden Hobbes (Jim Caveziel) built the facility using Breslin's book as a blueprint. Hobbes doesn't know Ray's actual identity at first, but he's bound and determined to keep every "asset" under his thumb, and his number one "guard," Drake (Vinnie Jones) is the muscle that backs that up.

 While Escape Plan doesn't necessarily rewrite the "prison escape movie" playbook (come in, turn enemies into friends, work out the prison, etc.), I will give it credit for little touches that you don't see often enough. For example, there's probably a really good reason most of the people in this high tech prison (one that has a barcode scanner for uniforms) were captured in the first place, but you never think twice when Ray includes some of them in his plan that they too should escape. Partly this is because of how cruel Hobbes is, but also the nature of this "black site" prison - which, speaking of nice touches, is in a novel location - we're already iffy that it should exist when the CIA pitches it to Ray. It doesn't get better when Breslin wakes up from being drugged to see Drake stabbing a prisoner and throwing him out of a helicopter. (To be fair, Hobbes does dock him the cost of the "asset" for doing that).

 This also might be the first American action movie since True Lies and definitely since the year 2001 that I can think of where a character is a practicing Muslim (Javed, played by the President of Elysium, Faran Tahir) and not portrayed as a cartoonish villain but as a man of faith who speaks openly about it. In fact, his prayer becomes a central plot point late in the film, as do his doubts about whether this would offend Allah. Hobbes gets to be even more of a jerk when he replies to Javed's "God is great" by saying "Yeah, whatever" and (SPOILER) shooting him.

 I also appreciated that while it plays out pretty much like you'd expect it to, there are initially some questions about allegiances and who Breslin can and can't trust, mostly due to a twist near the end of the film I must admit I'd forgotten about. This isn't tied to the twist, but to get back to the quasi-DTV casting nature of this, the prison doctor Kyrie is performed by In the Mouth of Madness's Sam Neill, and what I was expecting (or, I should say, dreading) was the long speech about how he ended up in these dubious circumstances. You know the speech, we've heard it a million times. It happens right before he decides to help the hero out, but in Escape Plan, it never happens. Instead of being told, we see it in the look on Neill's face when he tells Ray anesthetic is forbidden by Hobbes, or in a simple shot of Dr. Kyrie reading the Hippocratic oath with a bottle of liquor next to him. It explains the shaky hands when he tried to stitch up Ray. In a movie that could just go the expected route, I'm happy when it doesn't.

 So we've got Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jim Caveziel, Sam Neill, Vincent D'Onofrio, and Vinnie Jones so far, but this alone does not a non-DTV DTV roster make. We need at least two more cast members with name recognition, and luckily, I haven't even mentioned Ray's team. For starters, there's Hush, the ex-con who would go back into prison to help Ray get out if he needed help, and is the computer expert. How about 50 Cent? Done! And what about Abigail, the conscience of the team and hard-to-tell if she's hot for Ray or not (seriously, it's not clear). Let's go with Academy Award nominee for Gone Baby Gone's Amy Ryan. Ladies and gentlemen, let's slap those names on some photoshopped artwork and get this sucker onto Target shelves!

 Or they could not do that and release it in theatres with just Stallone and Schwarzenegger and people don't go see it, just like they didn't see The Last Stand or Bullet to the Head. It's a shame, because Escape Plan is a) really good and b) surprises you with the cast because unless you hit up IMDB first, you probably didn't know anybody else was in this movie. Not literally, of course, but I suspect you wouldn't know there were that many recognizable names / faces in Escape Plan. You probably just thought it was another stupid action movie that nobody wanted to see, thusly making Escape Plan's failure a self-fulfilling prophecy. And that's too bad, because while I enjoyed Furious 6 quite a bit, it doesn't need to be the only high water mark of action movies while we put up with garbage like G.I. Joe: Retaliation. From what I've seen of Olympus Has Fallen, it is arguably more preposterous but not as well constructed as Escape Plan.

 Speaking of which, I was very surprised to find that Mikael Håfström, he who made 1408, directed Escape Plan. Truth be told, this was an improvement in just about every way over that movie, with the exception of no John Cusack, who was probably busy making his own quasi-DTV joint. But anyway, Escape Plan. Rent it when it comes out. Watch it with your buddies. Sly's good. Arnold's good. The rest of the cast is good too. Some nice twists. An interesting setting. Arnold gives an entire monologue in German which is the first time I can think of that happening in a very long time (if at all). Gratuitous sequence in New Orleans because it's cheap to film action movies in Louisiana (seriously, even the Jason Statham / James Franco movie, Homefront*, was filmed there). It's a better movie than a lot of people will give it credit for, and definitely a better action movie than anything other than Furious 6 that I mentioned in this review. If you have to, pretend it's DTV and it'll be even better, but that's not really being fair to the movie is all I'm saying.

 * Written by Sylvester Stallone.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Cap'n Howdy's (Back)Log: Documentary Recap!

   While it may come as a surprise to readers that the Cap'n spends time watching more than just schlock, more often than you'd expect I'll sit down and watch a documentary. What you may notice is that I don't often write about them, usually because I don't feel like rehashing what they're about. Ultimately, the question is whether there's something new to learn about the subject that you didn't already know (if you knew anything about it in the first place), and I suppose that most of the below succeed in that category to one degree or the other. In this instance, I'm including these mini-reviews to let you know they exist, because I hadn't seen or heard too much about them prior to screening.

Ecstasy of Order: The Tetris Masters - It's hard not to see this movie and draw parallels to The King of Kong, because they are, in essence, about the same thing. Tetris fan Pat Cotri discovers that while there are a number of rankings on various sites, there has never been a tournament to determine a champion for the game, so he organizes one and invites various "masters" from around the world to compete. Looming over the entire event is the question of whether Thor Aackerlund, the legendary wunderkind of the Nintendo World Championships of the 1990s, will return from a self-imposed exile in order to join the tournament.

 Where Ecstasy of Order differs from The King of Kong is that there's no "David vs. Goliath" angle, ala the Billy Mitchell / Steve Wiebe high score battle. These are evenly matched players who accomplished extraordinary feats with the game of Tetris (the NES version, for those curious), including the rumors that Thor not only reached "Max Score" but has more lines than anyone on the "Kill Screen," - the point at which lines begin to fall so fast it's nearly impossible to line them up.

 Rather than deal with human conflict, Ecstasy of Order centers around technique, about the approach to Tetris, and about the many ways players accomplish feats most of us didn't know where possible. It becomes a bit hypnotic, and that's well before the demonstration of the "invisible pieces" version of Tetris appears in the film. I won't reveal who does and doesn't make it to the tournament, let alone who wins, but I appreciated the level of respect among competitors. The title of Tetris Master is no misnomer in this case.

 Rewind This! - A documentary about VHS tapes and the people who love them? Yes indeed, my friends. Designed as a love letter of sorts to a (mostly) defunct staple of home video, Rewind This both covers the history of the videotape, its rise and fall, and the fanatics who go out of their way to collect the obscure and the bizarre releases that will in all likelihood never be released again. As somebody who grew up during the era of home video (and who has more than a few VHS tapes at home), it's nice to see that the love for the format still exists, even though tapes have a worse chance than vinyl of enduring over time. The very things that come up about why VHS is so endearing - the tracking lines, the wear over parts of the film replayed repeatedly - are the very reason that they don't last. Tapes wear out, break, and can sadly be erased at a moment's notice.

 Now that hasn't stopped me from keeping the ones I have (and coveting the one VCR I own that still works) but the truth is that it's harder to maintain this medium. The nostalgia factor and the access to titles that, quite frankly, have and probably will only exist on tape is the driving thrust behind the documentary (not to mention a continuing thread on series like Red Letter Media's "Best of the Worst" or Everything is Terrible), so it was nice to see a celebration like Rewind This!. VHS essentially launched home video, and it was (and, I suppose, is) the longest running format to date. After all, DVD barely made it ten years before Blu-Ray began chipping away, and who knows how long that has before digital or the next innovation takes over? Eventually we may come to a point where the tapes no longer play, and Rewind This! might go from a love letter to an archive of a lost era, but in the meantime, it really got me jazzed to fire up the VCR again...

 41 - I didn't know much about George H.W. Bush - as a President or as a man - when I watched 41 so in that regard this HBO documentary was informative. It's much more focused on Bush as the man rather than as the public servant, and surprisingly doesn't cover much of his time as President (or, for more obvious reasons, his period in the CIA). If you don't know much about him or his family history, it's certainly worth checking out, but don't expect much in the way of political gossiping, ala Clinton's My Life. Other than a very curt mention of how he "doesn't want to talk about" Ross Perot and the 1992 election, Bush is remarkably magnanimous towards most of the people he worked with. You also won't learn too much about what he thinks about George W. Bush, or Jeb for that matter, but there's plenty about the dogs. I don't mean to undersell the documentary as fluff, because it really isn't - you'll learn a lot about Bush's personal history and home life, but there's a limit to the political lessons to be gleaned from the experience.

 Richard Pryor: Omit the Logic - Showtime produced a rather thorough documentary about the life of Richard Pryor, from his earliest stages of comedy right up until his premature retirement due to advanced MS. I must admit to being surprised at how much of Pryor's career I wasn't aware of, in particular the period before he dropped out of comedy to reinvent himself in anonymity out west. There's a great deal more to the "freebasing" incident that led to burns all over Pryor's head and body than one would think based on more cursory career retrospectives, and certainly more about how he lived after MS sidelined him (something even a heart attack couldn't do earlier in his life). I'm not sure that I'd ever seen footage from the failed attempt at Live on the Sunset Strip that preceded the concert film we all know, but it's fascinating to see his awareness that it's just not happening. My only gripe is that among all of the other comedians, celebrities, friends, and lovers interviewed, I don't understand why Dave Chappelle was included if he only appears twice in the documentary, for a total of less than two minutes. Both times he appears the comments are more conjecture than insight, and it seems like a waste of Chappelle to bring him in only to add nothing.

Necessary Evil: Super Villains of DC Universe - My familiarity with the villainy of the DC Universe is mostly limited to Batman, with a smattering of Superman and Green Lantern antagonists thrown in for good measure. Other than knowing the names Manta Ray, Black Adam, Reverse Flash, and Gorilla Grodd, I don't know much of anything about them. I'd like to say this documentary helped, but while a lot of DC antagonists are included, the focus sways heavily on psychoanalytical reasons for villains to exist and how each DC hero's rogues gallery is uniquely suited towards them.

 This is not to say that the documentary, narrated by Christopher Lee, isn't interesting, but if you're looking for more than the most cursory discussion of major villains, you might wish that this could be spun off into a series. Lex Luthor and the Joker get most of the screen time, and that's not actually that much, because at a little over 100 minutes, there's more of a focus into breaking them down into types with the occasional brief overview of characters like Man-Bat or Harley Quinn (again, Batman characters I already knew about).

 I'm not certain who this documentary is for, either, considering that many of the participants - including DC executives, artists, writers, voice actors, and people who on the surface have next to nothing to do with the comics (WWE Superstar CM Punk shows up once specifically to mention Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight, and nothing else!) - talk about major characters as though fans have never heard of them. Doomsday's entire first appearance is covered, up to the death of Superman and an explanation of what happens if you kill Doomsday. Perhaps Necessary Evil was designed as a primer for readers of DC's new-ish "52" re-launch. I'm not sure. It's fun to watch, but I must admit that it amounts to little substance by the time it ends.

Lovecraft: Fear of the Unknown - There's a lot of substance at hand in this documentary about one of the titans of horror writing. Yes, Stephen King sells more and Clive Barker is more disturbing, but the influence of H.P. Lovecraft permeates every crack and crevice, every darkened hallway of horror to this day. What I wasn't expecting from Fear of the Unknown, what turned out to be the most welcome, was how in depth the coverage of Lovecraft's personal life and how they influenced his writing. The documentary moves in a basically chronological fashion through his life, but takes detours to analyze major stories in depth with a who's who of writers, directors, and historians.

 Among the interviewees are Lovecraft biographer S.T. Joshi, writers Neil Gaiman, Ramsey Campbell, Caitlin R. Kiernan, Peter Straub, and directors John Carpenter, Stuart Gordon, and Guillermo del Toro, all of whom bring a wealth of knowledge about the author and his stories. Carpenter tells the story of how, as a child, he read The Rats in the Walls in a horror anthology and its lasting effect on him. Much to my surprise, the racist tendencies in Lovecraft's writing isn't glossed over and discussion and contextualization of his opinions on immigration appear throughout Fear of the Unknown, often with a more frank and less apologetic tone than might be expected. The analysis of the stories is most welcome and the participants go well beyond rehashing the Elder Gods mythos in bringing insight to Lovecraft's many phases of writing. Also, make sure to watch the extra interviews if you pick up the disc to hear Carpenter discuss In the Mouth of Madness, Gordon explain why his adaptation of Shadow Over Innsmouth is called Dagon, or about del Toro's (currently) aborted attempt to adapt At the Mountains of Madness.

Bronies: The Extremely Unexpected Adult Fans of My Little Pony - Well, maybe this should be called "the Extremely Unexpected Pre-teen to College-Aged Male Fans of My Little Pony," because at least at the outset, that's what Bronies seems to be about. This documentary is all over the place, and while I suppose it is enlightening, I'm not sure what audiences are supposed to take away from it, other than adults watch My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic.

(After doing a little research, it looks like the documentary was originally going to follow John de Lancie at conventions (he appears on the show as the voice of Discord) but when the Kickstarter campaign ended considerably more successful than anticipated, the scope changed. I'm not sure it was for the better.)

 Bronies is a schizophrenic film, one that starts with a montage of teenage guys talking about how weird it is that they like My Little Pony ("it's for little girls") and then later the persistent argument is that it shouldn't be weird but gee, isn't it so weird you guys? It's never a Trekkies level of "freak show" documentary* but I really think that if people didn't continually mention how weird people must think it is even though it's totally not and we should get over being prejudicial about the fact that adults watch cartoons for kids, the message might just sink in for itself. Seriously, all the documentary really needed was the scene where the dad of one Brony who doesn't know how to feel about his son liking the show talking to another dad who embraces his son's fandom. It says more than a dozen talking heads repeating ad nauseum that "there's nothing 'weird' about it" and that bullies should stop picking on Bronies. Yes, we got it. Please can we not keep reminding the audience that it's not weird that people are geeky about things. Most of them - particularly ones who are inclined to watch a documentary about Bronies - are going to move past the "weird" phase quickly.

 That said, the increased scope does mean that while the focus is all over the map, there is more of an international vibe to the film. Bronies follows an Israeli DJ who makes music based on the show, a couple in Germany who make their own figurines, a young man in England with Asperger's who travels to Manchester for his first convention, and stateside, a fan from a small town in North Carolina who is incessantly bullied for proudly displaying his fandom for the show. Hearing what the show means to all of them is worthwhile, and while I don't necessarily think it's "weird" for adults or young adults (we don't really meet adult fans until well into the movie) to like a cartoon, I get that My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic is probably viewed differently than Invader Zim or SpongeBob Squarepants (shows that started airing when I was well into my twenties).

 Interviews with de Lancie and voice actor Tara Strong are valuable, as well as insight from creator Lauren Faust, but I think Bronies tries too hard to be too many things - a late inclusion that "oh yeah, adult women like My Little Pony: Friendship is magic, too!" seemed, well, odd, as though the focus needed to shift once more well into production. This is a side note, but I could tell it was a Kickstarter funded production when the movie ended with nine minutes to go, and sure enough, eight of those nine minutes were names of people who helped to fund Bronies. I hope they don't mind that I skimmed that part - normally I watch the entire credits of a film out of respect for the people who made it, but even the Cap'n has limits. Still, enlightening, I guess, in that I a) had no idea there was a new My Little Pony show (and I worked in a toy store!) and b) that it had unexpected adult fans. Good on you, Friendship is Magic!

* In truth, nothing is ever as strange as the Trek-themed dentist, and yes, I get that initially My Little Pony cosplay just looks like neon "furries," but I've seen weirder examples of fandom. Like Steampunk. Yeah. Steampunk Comic Book Cosplay. That is a real thing.