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For Want Of A One-Liner

If the World Series has taught anything it is that it is impossible to carry momentum indefinitely.  Marvel is about to discover that axiom this weekend with their release of the third Thor movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe: Thor Ragnarok.  The MCU now features seventeen films that have enjoyed almost universal success.  They have all made huge box office and generated a great fan following, but as with any franchise, there are those who rank the films from best to worse and the two previous Thor movies almost always rank toward the bottom of the list.  Ragnarok will premier below even them.

One of the things that has endeared the MCU movies to the fans is a tangible sense of humor.  None of the films, even the most dramatic of them, takes itself too seriously and all have been peppered with more than a few snappy one liners that have become the hallmark of the MCU and something the DCEU has been lacking.  But as with anything good, someone will always ask for too much of a good thing.

No spoilers here, but the term Ragnarok refers to the destruction of Asgard and Thor spends the film trying to avert that destruction, which seems assured as Hela, played by Cate Blanchet, lays waste to the Asgardian defenders and casts Thor out.  Our hero must rally a team to defeat Hela and save Asgard, so he happens upon the Hulk and a disgraced Asgardian Valkyrie to enlist their help.

Ragnarok has a lot going for it.  It features not only Thor and Loki, but also the Hulk engaging in a battle royal with nothing less than the future of Asgard in the balance.  But with all the action, the studio went overboard with the one liners.  Thor has not one whit of his serious, responsible attitude so often displayed in both his previous films but also in the Avengers movies.  This Thor spends most of this film wise cracking and making poor jokes.  Even the Hulk, who talks more in this movie than in all other MCU films combined, if full of wise cracks.  Add Jeff Goldblum as the near maniacal Game Master and the silliness reaches nauseating levels.  The teaser trailer should have been an indication of the level of silliness when Thor turns to the Game Master and says of Hulk “We know each other!  He’s a friend from work.”

With all the wanton destruction (and there is plenty) it is difficult to feel the sense of loss that by all rights should have the audience near tears when the cast is so busy whipping out one liners.  I found it difficult to enjoy this film and found myself sighing a lot during the two-and-a-half hour show, wishing it would wrap up.  That is not an indication of a good movie.  Thor Ragnarok is the worst film of the Thor films, which are the worst films of the MCU.  It is a shame.  It is also a shame that the next entry to have to swing the momentum back is a movie featuring the little known Black Panther in February before the next Avengers movie.

 

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Ghost Busted in the Shell

Science fiction is a large genre, so large, in fact, that there are sub genres within it. One such niche enjoys a nearly rabid fan base and those devotees refuse to brook any content not in keeping with a narrowly defined parameter for the niche, and that is cyberpunk. In the late 80’s and 90’s, cyberpunk was a growing segment of the Sci Fi phenomenon with its dystopian view of a future where people are fully integrated with technology so that entertainment is had by plugging one’s brain directly into the network. Many cyberpunk movies have enjoyed widespread appeal, such as the Matrix series, while others have fallen flat. One of the more eagerly awaited cinema treatments of a cyberpunk classic is The Ghost in the Shell, and the cyberpunk faithful have resoundingly decried the movie as a failure. Their beef with the film centers more around the casting of Scarlet Johansen as the protagonist, because Johansen is white and the story features an Asian in the role, rather than discussing the real problems with the film, and there are many.

The story centers around a cyborg referred to as “Major” who works for the ministry of security, section 9 in an unnamed future metropolis that looks like a concatenation of Hong Kong, San Francisco,Beijing, New York and any number of other large cities. Major is hot on the trail of a cyber terrorist whom she believes is responsible for the death of her parents and her current condition as a cyborg. During the course of the story, she uncovers a conspiracy that shakes the foundation of her understanding of her identity.

The contrived plot is not a new one and it has been depicted in TV shows and other films several times. The characters are flat and unworthy of empathy and the cinematography is a cacophony of color and light that hurts the eyes and disorients the viewer. The action seems disconnected from the plot and is used just to distract from the otherwise boring and uninspired story.

The one redeeming aspect of this film is Scarlett Johansson, but not for her performance. Johansson’s characterization of Major doesn’t let the viewer into her personal struggle, despite scenes written just for that purpose. She coasts through those scenes, looking confused and detached where one would expect a sharp focus. Her performance was less “Natalia Romanov” and more “Lucy,” with a lot of jumping, running and shooting. The only thing about her performance, and the film in general, that could be construed as positive is the skin tight body suit she wear during combat scenes. The effects of peeling her artificial skin, or detaching her face are interesting, but they’ve been done before. Her nearly perfect physical form, however, is unique and is the only reason to sit through this dismal failure of story telling.

Major’s partner in the film, Batou played by Pilou Asbæk, is the only character that creates a connection with the viewer, but the writers don’t give him enough story. For those who follow the Marvel Cinematic Universe, he could be excellent casting for Cable in any upcoming X-Men film.

If you are a fan of Scarlett, see it at the matinee, otherwise, wait for cable. It is not worth full admission price at a mainstream theater.

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The Fantastic Failure

Reading audiences have been fascinated by fantastic flights of fancy since the beginnings of literature. Jules Verne gave the world the adventures of Captain Nemo on the Nautilus and H.G. Wells produced amazing journeys that took heroes to unimaginable lands far away. For younger audiences, comic books brought forth heroes who were set apart from normal people by extraordinary abilities of super strength or flight or invulnerability. These comic heroes have been part of pop culture for more than 50 years. The abilities of these heroes have been so fantastic that the technology to depict them visually has only recently been developed. This is why the super hero has become the big box office draw for the past 20 years or so. With every new movie, the public’s appetite for fantastic visual effect-laden comic based movies has only grown and every movie has satisfied that appetite. Until now.

The Fantastic Four opened Friday to tepid public response. Expected to fetch $50 million on its opening weekend, the film barely made half that, only garnering $26 million. Public reviews have given the film a low C, the lowest score for a major Hollywood backed superhero film franchise. Even the dismal Green Lantern scored higher.

While many “experts” will offer their ideas on why this latest reboot of the Fantastic Four, one of Marvel Comics’ most famous titles, I doubt anyone will lay the blame where it really belongs: squarely on the shoulders of those who think that by reimagining the franchise, it will increase its appeal. This is sorely incorrect thinking.

The story of any of these heroes is one that was born on the pages of the comic book. Writers labored over the back story, the origin of the hero, the birth of the super to make them engaging to the audiences. They succeeded. Not every time, though. Garbage piles are full of failed comic book titles that didn’t connect with audiences, much the same way that, over in the next garbage heap, is a pile of celluloid from bad movies. No, the titles that have lasted for decades work for the audience. Now, if you have a successful franchise, why mess with it? Why try to fix that which is not broken? Why reimagine it?

Some have said that the first two Fantastic Four films were not as successful as they could have been, so the studio felt a change was needed. They probably went to their consultants, people who probably never opened a Fantastic Four comic book in their lives, and asked them how could they make a more successful film. These consultants probably opened an issue of the comic and said “Oh! Look! There are no black people in the team! You can’t have that. Statistics have shown that X number of audience members self-identify with being African American. You should really have one person on the team represent that demographic.”

They probably followed that up with, “Oh, look! These characters are too old! You can’t appeal to the younger audiences by having heroes in their 30’s and 40’s (Reed Richards, leader of the Fantastic Four, has always had graying temples). No, these heroes need to be high school aged. Yes! That’s the ticket. Make them younger.”

So what we end up with is a movie based on a successful story that was consulted to death. In defense, the movie was purportedly based not on the original Stan Lee comic book, but on the revamped title “Ultimate Fantastic Four,” part of the Ultimate series that Marvel foisted on the public in 2004. But then again, the ultimate series was a mistake for the same reasons.

The original story of these heroes begins with Reed Richards, one of the most respected and established scientists on Earth, building a rocket ship to explore space. Along with his crew, Sue Storm and her biological brother Johnny, and Ben Grimm, a mechanical engineer, they are accidently subjected to cosmic radiation that alters their bodies, imbuing them with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men. They are all adults. They are all capable of rational thought, and they are all respected professionals. Not kids. Sue and Johnny are brother and sister. There is no need to create some convoluted back story of how a black man adopted a girl from Kosovo just to explain how Johnny Storm is black. Johnny Storm doesn’t need to be black. The character was introduced in 1961 as white. Even in the Ultimate series, he is white. Why change it? Unfortunately, this isn’t the only super hero character getting a historical makeover either. The comics have introduced other racial identities for some heroes, but those heroes are different people. While the new comic version of Captain America may be black, Steve Rogers is still white. While Spiderman may be Hispanic, Peter Parker is white. While Green Lantern may be any number of races, Hal Jordan is white. This is consistent.

Marvel’s hands are not entirely clean in this debacle either. Several years ago, Marvel needed cash so they sold the rights to some of their most famous titles to other studios. Spiderman went to Sony, X-Men and the Fantastic Four went to 20-Century Fox and the Hulk went to Universal. Because of these deals, multiple studios can develop multiple production teams to develop any number of movies based on the characters involved in the deal. Disney bought Marvel outright in 2009 and set to developing what has become known as the Marvel cinematic universe. This has led to the highly successful series of films with the Avengers, Iron Man, Thor and Captain America. Marvel got the rights to the character of the Hulk back in 2008, and Spiderman is now a shared property with Sony, so both of those characters can also appear in the Marvel universe. 20-Century Fox has decided that they don’t need to play nice, however. Since their X-Men films have been so wildly successful, they don’t see a need to work with Marvel in developing their properties. This is why none of the Marvel studios movies mention mutants, X-men or the Fantastic Four.

Marvel has developed their titles using material developed from the original comic books. Stan Lee, the progenitor of almost every title in print, had a hand in the development of the cinematic universe and more to the point, the creative people he hired at Marvel are working on these movies. This is the biggest reason why they are so successful. Even a little known minor character in the comic books, Ant-man, had a successful movie. I don’t even want to think of how Fox would have tried to make that one work.

So, Fox, listen up: Sell the Fantastic Four back to Marvel, or at least partner with them. You don’t know how to make that movie. They do. Besides, those characters can be important to the upcoming Infinity War series of movies and you know you will want a piece of that action.

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Rewriting History X-Men Style

In this age of comic-book-based movies ruling the multiplex, it is little wonder that the reigning box office champ is X-Men: Days of Future Past, the latest in the 20th Century Fox’s X-Men franchise. The movie effectively wraps up the last four X-men movies in a nice little package, incorporating the actors from the first three X-Men movies and the actors who played the younger versions of them in the last one. It is all very neat and tidy, except for two glaring discrepancies that just about every fan noticed: the claws and Professor X.

Continuity is that aspect of storytelling in which facts and events set up in early stories are accounted for in later stories using the same characters. It is essential in soap operas and movies sequels and to a slightly lesser extent in TV series (of course the TV serial has made a resurgence, hence the “previously on [insert show title here]). When something significant happens to a major character, the viewer has to accept it as a fact of life for the character. This is why writers rarely kill off a principal character: the viewers then expect not to see them again (exception for Southpark’s Kenny).

The character Wolverine, played in all movies by Hugh Jackman, has two spinoff movies of his own, X-Men Origins: Wolverine and The Wolverine. In the latter film, Wolverine’s adamantium claws are severed (an impossibility, by the way) by the Silver Samurai, to be regenerated as bone claws by his mutant healing ability. At the end of that film, in a post-credits scene, Wolverine is approached by Professor X and Magneto asking for his help.

Jump ahead to X-Men: Days of Future Passed and Wolverine is helping the X-Men fight a losing war against mutant hunting robots called Sentinels. The problem is that Wolverine has his adamantium claws back. This begs the question of how that happened. The movie says nothing of it, he is just happily shredding away as if he never lost the metal claws.

Of course, the plot of the film involves Wolverine sending his consciousness back in time to take over his younger body to prevent the advent of the Sentinels in the first place, and in this younger body, he had not yet acquired the adamantium in his bones. But the future self has the metal claws. Brian Singer, the director of the X-Men films offered a half-hearted possibility: perhaps Magneto helped restore his claws. He did not say this definitively what happened. He said nothing definitive.

The other issue is Professor X. He was killed by the Phoenix in X-Men 3: The Last Stand. Although in the end, we hear some other person speaking in his voice; we saw the Professor’s body disintegrate, so it cannot be his body the voice is coming from. Yet at the end of The Wolverine, Professor X is back in his body—complete with wheel chair—asking Wolverine for help. Now, comic book characters have an affinity for coming back from the dead. Barry Allen’s Flash was killed in the 90’s and he got better. Superman was killed by Doomsday and he got better. But in every one of those cases, the resurrection was explained (albeit sometimes very flimsily) by some plot device like time travel or alternate realities or parallel universes or cloning or something. In X-Men: Days of Future Past, there is no explanation of how this happened. Perhaps Brian Singer will suggest that Professor X is related to Kenny.

So, while Days of Future Passed is a very enjoyable film, it leaves two unresolved plot holes that the viewer will have to fill in on their own.

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From Comic Books to Cinema

This summer brings an opportunity to enjoy many relaxing pastimes from hiking to fishing to swimming and camping. Many people who don’t want to spend that much time outside in the heat might opt, instead, to take in a movie or two and Hollywood has plenty of blockbuster hits lined up for those cinemaphiles. Thor thundered into a huge box office and Pirates of the Carribean has plundered a heafty treasure as well. But along with Harry Potter and The Smurfs, the biggest blockbusters are predicted to be films based on comic books or sequels to established movie franchises.

There have been many movies the past few years based on comic books. Spiderman, Batman, and X-men have been hugely successful in terms of box office returns, but also as fan favorites. My wife and I were talking about why so many comic books are being adapted to film and the answer was so obvious that it is easily overlooked. The people making movies in Hollywood are my generation: raised on comic books and cartoons. Our adolescence has been peppered with the super acts of our heroes and depicted in the pages of comics and on the Saturday morning TV screens for years. This was the only way we could see these impossible feats of superhuman strength, since live actors could not do it and Hollywood did not possess the technology to create the effects.

Now, thanks to John Dykstra and John Lassiter and some serious computing power, we can have a man fly, shoot friggin lazers out of his friggin eyes, change into a snake, have razor sharp blades emerge from his hands, climb walls, and levitate a bus and have it all look as real as if he was putting on a jacket. Now we can enjoy the exploits of Superman, Batman, The Hulk, and this year, Green Lantern, and Captain America and watch the scenes that we used to see in pen and ink drawings years ago. Graphic novels are also getting the big screen treatment with films like Priest and there are nerd-as-hero movies like Scott Pilgrim Vs The World that are clearly inspired by comics and video games.

Of course, the other side of the issue is that Hollywood doesn’t have to wrack its collective brain to come up with anything truly original is they can mine 30 years of comic books for plotlines and characters and then create movie franchises based on those stories. This also accounts for the reboots of movies like last year’s Star Trek and this year’s Conan and adaptations of TV shows like last year’s A-Team.

But since I love comic books and love these adaptations, I will happily shell out the inflated ticket price as I enjoy watching my imagination come to life before my eyes. I have loved the Iron Man movies and the latest Hulk was even good. Bring on X-Men : First Class and Green Lantern!

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The Brain Extension

The human machine was designed brilliantly. It has the ability to adapt, to grow, to heal, and to learn. That is the greatest thing we have going for us: the ability to learn. The brain is a fantastic thing. It is a repository for the accumulated knowledge garnered over the years; it is where decisions are made; it can make calculations and reason. We all need a brain—though sometimes it may seem that some of us don’t have one. I have a brain. I keep it in a pouch on my belt.

Once was a time when I could call a person by actually dialing their phone number. I would put a finger into the little hole in the dial and turn it around to the metal hook and let it go. I did this seven times in proper order to complete the call, and the most impressive part was not that I actually had the patience to wait for the dial to spin back to the start position before entering the next digit, but that I actually knew the number from memory. Oh, there was a two-inch thick phone book stored right by the phone for the purpose of finding the number, and there was always “information” at 1-411. Those aids were for the more forgetful—those of us who can’t remember numbers.

Now, no one remembers phone numbers anymore. Speed dial reduced seven digits to one. Calling home is now a matter of pressing a single button on a keypad. Integrated phone books in phones did even more damage. Now people simple lookup the person they want to call in their personal phone book and press “call.” Technology hasn’t stopped there, either. Along with phone numbers, these phones also can keep track of birthdays, anniversaries, family member names and relationships and so much more. My phone even reminds me when I need to send a birthday card, or get a gift.

If I don’t have an appointment in my calendar on my phone, chances are I won’t make that appointment. If a birthday is not in there, I might not get a present to give. To my defense, there are just too many ways to contact people now. People have three, sometimes four phone numbers. Home numbers, work numbers, cell numbers, pager numbers, not to mention text messaging IDs and email addresses. How can anyone remember all that?

Well, I take all that and put it in my phone and keep it with me. Oh, it may take a little longer for me to get a phone call dialed, but not by much. With everyone getting multiple numbers, people in most metropolitan areas now have to dial 10 digits to complete a call. I can complete most calls with two to four key presses from my address book.

It doesn’t stop with phone numbers, though. Since I am a movie buff, I often notice an actor in a film I am watching and someone will ask “wasn’t he in…” some other movie. When I was younger, I could probably tell you what movie he was talking about (my younger sister still can), but these days, I rely on the IMDB—the Internet Movie Database. I have this netbook with me almost everywhere I go, so I can look up any actor’s filmography. My cell phone is internet connected as well, so on those rare times I don’t have the netbook, I can still research anything I need.

So now, I don’t even have to remember movies anymore. I can look up the cast, the production company, who wrote the score and what the box office take was when it opened. I can even look up my favorite quotes and the lyrics to the theme song.

I can find recipes online, so who needs to remember one? I can find out how to build a cabinet, so I don’t need to remember the plans. I can look up the family tree, so I don’t have to remember who married who or who begat who. In fact, I don’t have to remember anything. Everything I need to know, I can look up. All I need is my brain…which is in a pouch on my belt. I just have to remember to charge the battery.

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A Whole New Dimension

I blogged recently about the movie “Avatar,” and in that review, I mentioned that the film was released in digital 3D—and let me take a minute to say the news headlined a story where one viewer suffered an aneurism supposedly from visual overload while watching that movie. There have been many new films release in the past few years in 3D, most of them CGI cartoons like “Up,” “Monsters Vs. Aliens” and the upcoming “Shrek 3D.” During the previews for “Avatar” was an upcoming remake of the classic horror flick “Piranha,” which boasts 3D. Another 3D live action film that was released was “Journey to the Center of the Earth.” In that film as well as “Piranha,” the 3D effects are not as significant as they are in the CGI films.

Hollywood has had an infatuation with stereoptic vision for many years. The first feature film to attempt 3D was “Power of Love” in 1922. It met with critical ambivalence and was quite expensive to make. Since then, there have been fewer than 100 films to use 3D, the expense and the apathetic viewer response keeping the effort at bay. Even to this day, most people will attend a 3D movie out of curiosity rather than for the immersive cinematic experience. The film “Avatar” has elevated 3D to a true experience and if Hollywood can maintain that level of filmmaking, 3D may catch on except for one problem: the glasses.

To get the effect, the viewer has to wear special glasses to fool the eye into seeing two separate images as one. Watching the image without the glasses makes the movie blurry. Older technology used red and green or blue lenses and color films use polarized lenses that separate the images. To get the best effect, one needs to view the screen straight on. To look at it from an angle alters the perception. This has been and continues to be a problem. That, and the fact that movie houses charge a premium for 3D movies.

Now, with the success of “Avatar” and other 3D films, there is much talk about 3D television coming out of the Consumer Electronics Show in Vegas. A lot of pundits in the industry insist that 3D is the next big thing since HDTV. Unless, however, there is a huge development in the technology that removes the need for external viewing glasses, 3D will never become the norm for TV watching. Imagine coming home from a hard day’s work, taking off the glasses you have to use to read, settling into your easy chair and clicking on the TV. The picture you watch is all blurry and, with a groan, you reach over and grab the TV viewing stereoptic glasses just so you can watch the news or your favorite program. Of course, you also had to replace your 2-year-old LCD or LED TV with a new 3D set.

Won’t happen. TV producers dragged their feet in developing HDTV content and even converting to an all-digital broadcast medium. They will not be quick to jump onto 3D series development. The most we can hope for is 3D presentation of feature films.

Now, if they can develop holographic TV, where the image is projected in 3D from several projectors and needs no glasses, then we’re talking a success. People will flock to this kind of viewing experience, and demand original broadcast content from producers. But in the meantime, we need be content with the meager 3D movies during the summer and Christmas movie seasons.

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