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Apocalypse Brings X-Men Back to the Beginning

The X-Men was one of the first comic book franchises to really break big in terms of public popularity. Oh, sure, Superman and Batman had their followings in the 70’s and the 90’s, but that was largely the fan-boy response and not indicative of the general movie-going public. But with Marvel selling the rights to Spider-man and the X-men, the comic book movie really came into its own. The X-men has been so hugely successful as a franchise that despite a lack of continuity between the titles and different actors being cast in the same roles across titles, people still follow it. It was even parodied in the Spring’s big hero surprise hit Deadpool, who commented on James McAvoy and Patrick Stewart both playing Professor X.

Courtesy 20th Century Fox

This weekend’s X-Men Apocalypse is the best of the X-Men series thus far. Brian Singer brings the best of all the previous X-Men titles together for what amounts to a reboot of the franchise; bringing the characters from the first movie and the first class while setting up for a continuation of the story beyond this title. The only actor that remains the same from the first X-Men movie is Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, who really has only a cameo in this movie. The characters of Jean Grey and Scott Summers, Phoenix and Cyclops, are recast as younger versions of themselves with Sophie Turner (Sansa Stark from Game of Thrones) as Jean and Tye Sheridan as Scott. Nightcrawler, Jubilee, Storm, and Angel are back with new actors while Charles, Magneto, Beast, Havoc, Mystique, and Quicksilver all make reappearances. One new mutant to the party is Psy-lock, played by Olivia Munn, one of the older mutants in the story.

Speaking of old mutants, what could very well be the first mutant in existence makes his appearance as the film’s titular character: Apocalypse, played by Oscar Isaac. Inadvertently awakened from a multi-millennial sleep by the overzealous CIA agent Moira McTaggart, Apocalypse sets about reclaiming his rightful place as the world’s ruler by finding the four most powerful mutants and augmenting their powers to help him enslave humanity. He finds Storm, Angel, Psylock and Magneto as his four horsemen. When Mystique learns of his existence and Magneto’s involvement, she enlists the X-Men to help foil the plan. The problem is that there are no X-Men. Charles has avoided training mutants to use their powers for combat ever since the assassination attempt on the President in “Days of Future Past.” Now Charles and Mystique must gather a bunch of young mutants with tenuous control over their abilities, and defeat five of the most powerful beings on the planet.

The film follows the industry trend of being precipitously long. As with the other superhero movies this year, it clocks in at two and a half hours long. It also tries to cram several sub plots in among the three main plots, and it can get confusing for the uninitiated. With so many characters interacting and integral to the plot, it is a challenge to weave a story that is not too complicated to follow. Fortunately, Singer manages the feat, if only just barely. There are one or two scenes where the viewer might be left wondering, “why did she do that?”

Game of Thrones alum Sophie Turner, better known as Sansa Stark, was cast as the younger Jean Grey. While many fan boys may think that Famke Janssen will always be THE Jean grey, Turner turns in a respectable performance, though she struggled with losing her English accent in a few scenes. While Jennifer Lawrence is probably the strong female hero in this story, Turner holds her own all through the film culminating the final conflict. She offers a different take on the character making Jean the pretty girl next door mutant, rather than Janssen’s exotically beautiful and worldly mutant.

Of all of the sub plots, one that has stuck around since “First Class” is Magneto’s flip flopping good and bad guy. In First Class, he is one of the first team of mutants to work with Charles, in fact it is the foundation of their lifelong relationship. His anger at the disparity in the treatment of mutants at the hands of humans always gets in the way of him doing the right thing. This film is no exception. After suffering a tragedy, Magneto is all about making humans pay, despite the pleas from Mystique and Charles. In this, Magneto is following his comic book origins of fighting against the X-Men as often as he fights alongside them.

We also finally get to see Professor Xavier bald again. It was looking for a while that only Patrick Stewart’s Xavier was going to be follicularly challenged as James McAvoy has a full head of think hair. McAvoy’s Xavier has always been more emotional and reactive than Stewart’s more mature Xavier, but now we see the effect of years of fighting and learning beginning to show up as McAvoy’s Xavier grows into the Xavier we know from Stewart. In the final scenes, it could be either actor playing the role as the more mature Xavier is finally realized.

One of the aspects of movie versions of comic book is that film designers tend to avoid the costumes depicted in the print comics. This could be for many reasons, not the least of which is that comic artists tend to draw over-sexualized costumes, particularly for the female heroes, also, spandex looks cheesy in real life and it is difficult to picture anyone taking a hero seriously while wearing skin-tight spandex in day-glo colors. Most of the comic stars have had their costumes re-imagined in a tactical ballistic nylon or Kevlar mesh and sporting darker colors. In many cases, they have no costume at all, they just wear street clothes. In this film, however, we get a nod to the comic costumes. In the final scene, the new team of X-Men enters the “danger room” to train and finally wear costumes that more closely reflect the comic book.

While this is no “Captain America: Civil War”—the best comic book movie yet—this is easily the best X-men movie thus far and while I would love to see it integrated into the Marvel Cinematic Universe alongside the Avengers and Spiderman, it seems that 20th Century Fox is finally getting the X-Men right.

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What’s On the Tube?

Summer brings great opportunities for family togetherness from vacations to the beach, or trips to foreign lands or even just relaxing around the house gardening and doing crafts. Many people take this opportunity to break out of the hum-drum routine that defines the rest of the year by going to the theater, concerts or movie house to catch one of the summer blockbusters. The reason for all this activity is simple: There’s nothing good on TV.

For decades, the networks have released new episodes of existing shows and premiered new original programming in the fall; typically around the end of August to mid September. The shows would continue to air new episodes every week until Spring; usually around May. Oh, they would air a rerun or two during the holidays if the competition with another network was too great, but in that time—20-25 weeks—there were new episodes most weeks. In fact, in the 60’s, some shows were one two or three times a week.

A prime time television series ran approximately 16 episodes in a season over that 20-25 week fall/winter span. The time slot remained assigned to that show over the summer, but the series reran the episodes from that prior season for those who missed them and of course, to make more money from commercial breaks to offset the cost of production and licensing.

Today, things have changed. It seems there is no season anymore. Shows air episodes whenever the network chooses, and that appears—for the most part—quite random. Some networks run shows on different nights of the week—even airing two separate new episodes the same week. Some shows will just skip a couple of weeks and the network will air other shows instead; not always new shows either. It is getting to the point where a person can no longer plan on regular viewing of their favorite show.

Some shows are filming fewer episodes as well, as few as 13 episodes in a season instead of 16. “Game of Thrones,” a new series on HBO, only aired 9 episodes in its premiere season and announced that the next season won’t air for another year. “True Blood” made fans wait for more than a year for the season premiere of its fourth season.

Networks have long had to balance the cost of producing shows against the revenues generated from selling commercial airtime. For each hour-long show that airs, only 40-42 minutes is actually allocated for the show; the rest of the time is for commercials. The production costs can get quite cumbersome, with some shows costing hundreds of thousands of dollars per episode once actors and writers and producers and directors and crew salaries are factored in with effects, set design and construction and special effects costs. Networks, looking to maximize profits, are looking for cheaper shows to air. This is where ‘Reality TV’ came into being. Shows like “Survivor”, “American Idol,” and too many others to list here fill the program guide. No name-brand actors, no scripts, no special effects means cheaper production and, if the show is popular, they can get just as much ad revenue. This means more profit and that is the defining factor in network executive’s heads.

The cable networks are in a slightly better position than the broadcast networks in that since the premium networks are subscription based, they know how much money is coming in ahead of time and can budget for it. This is why shows like “Game of Thrones” and “Pillars of the Earth” are so well done with cinematic production values. That coupled with the fact that there is no FCC censorship issues that networks contend with allows the cable channels to offer more titillating fare with sexual themes and nudity to draw in viewers that may otherwise not watch.

But here again, the cable networks do not subscribe to a season model. They debut a show whenever they want to, and end it the same way; even if it is only a 9 episode “season” like “Game of Thrones”. NBCUniversal, which owns the SYFY network, has been adopting the “half-season” model. Airing only 6-8 episodes at a time then taking a 3-6 month hiatus before debuting new episodes. This tactic seems particularly stupid because, in those 3-6 months, viewer loyalty wanes. The fan favorites “Heroes” and “V” fell victim to this programming dilemma.

Unfortunately, with the increase of reality programming like “Wipeout”, “The Voice”, “Amazing Race,” etc. and the decrease in scripted original shows such as “Law & Order” or “Smallville,” the complete lack of originality in the few shows that are produced like “The Vampire Diaries,” it is getting more common to hear people lament about what’s on the TV. Maybe this is a good thing. Maybe we all need to get out more and spend more time with our families, take in a play or go to the symphony. That way, people can look forward to saying “there’s nothing good on TV.”

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State of the Digital Art

It takes a big man to admit when he is wrong. For those of you who know me, you know I am not petite, so I guess I have to admit I was somewhat incorrect…maybe not exactly right…a smidge on the in error side of the equation when I said that 3D is not worth watching. We went to see Avatar Friday night at the AMC Dunvale theater off of Westheimer, which boasts a digital projection system (for those who haven’t seen a digitally projected film, run—don’t walk—to the nearest theater with one). The film is one of a bunch of movies filmed in 3D that have been hitting the theaters since last summer. I could not have chosen a better film to demonstrate the improvements in 3D film technology.

3-d-glasses-traditional.gifOld 3D movies used a color-shift system to fool the eye into seeing a picture with depth of field. The viewer must wear glasses with one red lens and one blue one to get the 3D effect. This was fine for black and white movies since it did not affect color reproduction, but today’s movies are filmed with exceptional color reproduction and a color shift system makes them look muddy. The other technology for 3D uses polarized lenses that pick up slight shifts in the wavelength of the light image from the screen. This technology was first used in the 80’s and failed to gain much support with audiences. It has come a long way since then.

In fact, both technologies suffer from a fundamental problem which will keep 3D movies nothing more than a novelty: the viewer needs to wear glasses to get the 3D effect. People don’t like the glasses. If and when scientists perfect a holographic viewing system that give full 3 dimensional image recreation without the need of glasses, then you will see people flocking to get it. More about 3D in another blog.

But that having been said, I have to say Avatar was definitely worth seeing in 3D. James Cameron has a history of setting film budgets huge, then blowing that budget by a factor of three. He did it with The Abyss, Titanic and Avatar. The amazing thing is that it is worth it. Cameron delivers a film that rises above the movie experience to the level of art form.

He uses a digital brush and paints a canvas of the most vivid imagery and color to create a beautiful other-wordly landscape of his planet Pandora—which is the setting of the film as well as one of the main characters. As I watched, I couldn’t help but mutter “so much to look at” every 5 minutes of the beginning of the movie. The detail is intricate. The design is imaginative. Nothing was overlooked. The use of lighting and color tells as much about the story as the plot and characters.

Avatar.jpgThe biggest star of the production has to be the digital characters. Fans of CGI animated films like Up and Wall*E may love the details of texture in inanimate objects, but when CGI tries to look human, it usually falls short. The Polar Express and Beowulf illustrate the problem as characters look mannequin-like and plastic. In Avatar, that is not an issue. The skin of these characters seems so life-like you come to think of them as organic. You could not tell where the CGI ends and the live actors begin. The movements are fluid and real, not choppy and stiff. Skin stretches and moves along with the actors’ movements. It has pushed state-of-the-art to a whole new level.

While Avatar is a visual feast, it is also a compelling–if not completely original–story. The film is 160 minutes long, which for you math-challenged means two-and-a-half hours. That is a long time to sit still with no bathroom break. The good news is that you get so drawn into the story, you lose track of time. The film runs like an emotional rollercoaster taking the viewer on a ride to awesome heights before screaming into a plunge that pulls the heart strings and rocketing around a thrilling plot curve.

The story is kind of Pocahontas meets Dances with Wolves meets The Abyss. A big, bad corporate mining operation wants a mineral deposit located beneath the home of an indigenous tribe who do not want to move and cannot be bought with human temptations. With the ever-present threat of a military solution, they try diplomacy, using mindless cloned hybrids of the aliens that are linked to human minds using technology. These clones, called avatars are like an avatar from the Second Life game, they become the person in the alien society. One avatar is piloted by our hero, a paraplegic ex-marine who is looking for his purpose in life. He finds a purpose as he becomes entangled in the politics and intrigue of trying to juggle two lives with two cultures on a collision course.

This is the finest film of the movie season and may find itself with a best picture nod. The special effects Oscar is a gimme at this point. No other film out now can touch it, and I doubt the rest of the movie season will come close.

I have never recommended a movie as strongly as I recommend Avatar. It is not just a must-see. It is a if-you-don’t-see-it-you-miss-one-of-the-greatest-movies-ever see. The plot, characters and direction alone would be worth it, but they pale next to the visuals. I don’t mean the special effects (which are quite impressive), I mean the whole visual experience. It is simply the most stunning example of movie as art form EVER. See it.

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