Thursday, May 31, 2007

Movie Review: Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End

Unlike Spiderman 3 - which I had seen the day before - Pirates 3 lives up to its predecessors. But before I start singing its praises, I should get the negatives out of the way. First of all, it suffers from the same delusion most blockbusters do: it thinks that you can never get enough of frantic action and things blowing up real good. In the around nine hours of my life the trilogy took up, there were way too many extra's throwing around and/or stabbing stuntmen. The fights between ships got a bit boring: during most of them all our heroes and the main villains survived and only hundreds of people we didn't care about got killed. The characters joined us in not caring about any of these people even one little bit, which seemed a bit heartless. There were also a fair share of explosions I - and the movie - could easily have done without.
That said, Pirates 3 is a hoot. Some people say the second one sagged, and I do remember liking it less than the first, for the same reasons mentioned above. It was too frantic, too much running around and it felt overlong. The third one also feels a bit on the edge, but to its credit I never found myself looking at my watch. This time there is - again - a lot of running around but there are more and better jokes scattered throughout and there is time for a breather now and then.
Good luck keeping up with the plot. Motivations turn with the tide and I lost track of who was double-dealing with whom at some points and I gave up on remembering affiliations and grudges. As did, it seemed, the movie itself. By the end I am pretty sure everyone had screwed over everyone else at least once.
In any case, there is a highly contagious sense of fun throughout, especially when - after a truly bizarre and beautiful sequence, Captain Jack Sparrow (aka Johnny Depp) rejoins the land of the living. He is back in great form, swaggering, shooting off one-liners and doing double-takes with comic perfection. But then the whole cast has a firm grip on their funny bone and credit should also go to the writers: there are some truly inspired ideas, in particular the upside down 'Poseidon' scene. Kudos also for a cool, unexpected twist near the end.
Now if only they will quit while they are ahead. Nine hours of Pirates is enough, and some of the elements are already turning repetitive. I hope all involved can resist the urge to milk this cash cow any further, but I am sceptical. However, a short sequence after the end credits gives me a golden sliver of hope. Like a shiny doubloon.

Movie Review: Severance

Set 'em up, knock 'em down.

In Severance, a group of colleagues from an English weapons manufacturing company head to a far off, woody region for a teambuilding exercise and naturally get stranded there. Then one-by-one they start to get offed in horrible ways, for reasons I won't spoil here. So far, nothing new. Low budget film makers have been making horror movies from the 'isolate and kill' mould for years. The fun is in the execution, so to speak.
The actors get the first half of the movie to set up their characters and although they don't quite break away from stereotypes, they do engage us enough to make us care about their (potential) slaughter. It plays like an episode from The Office. There are: an ineffective leader, his yes-man, his arrogant and handsome challenger, a peacenik feminist, a nerd, a stoner and an American babe. The movie plays entertaining tricks on us by sticking deceptively close to cliché in both types and horror set-ups, but subverting those just enough to keep us unsettled. The movie won't terrify you, as the effective gallows humour is sometimes spectacularly silly and deflates some of the tension, but this also thankfully takes the edge off some gory and gruesome scenes later on. The movie's most entertaining gag involves a far off plane accidentally being taken out, with nó effect on the rest of the movie.
Apart from Tim McInnerny (of Blackadder fame) you might not quite be able to place the faces, all of them know mostly for television. This just adds to the fun as you can't always be sure what's going to happen next and to whom. The ending, like the rest of the film, is part cliché and part funny reinvention. At least it does not have one of those annoying open endings, where the final shot threatens a sequel. Recommended if you can stand gore.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Movie Review: Spiderman 3

Spiderman - with Extra Cheese

The story: Parker, Osborn and Watson work through their issues with each other while Sandman and Venom get on their case.

I had heard a lot of bad things about Spiderman 3, but still I could not conceive that the same people who made the good first Spiderman movie and the great second one, could make a really mediocre film. There had been missteps, most notably the misguided Power Rangers mask they gave the Green Goblin in the first outing. And Tobey Maguire had funny moments, but was always on the edge between charming and irritating as sappy Peter Parker. In this movie he crosses that line and joins Mary Jane Watson and Harry Osborn on the wrong side. The romantic triangle of friends was the core of the trilogy, but here especially, they are given flat, repetitive dialogue to work through their soapy melodrama. All of them are called on to give way too many doe-eyed stares. And the avenge-my-father arc that Osborn (pretty-boy James Franco) goes through is as eye-rollingly contrived as ever and lamely resolved. Should you go to see Spiderman 3 - and let's face it, you probably will, or have done already - wait for the moment where a character decides to finally divulge some information that could have come in useful before a major smackdown and was withheld for no reason whatsoever. See if you can keep from laughing. For that matter, a lot of the people in the theater - me included - were giggling at a supposedly very dramatic scene near the end as well. You will have no trouble spotting that scene.
You might also find yourself laughing at (not with) the movie during the parts where Spidey is influenced by the evil black goo from outer space. His Evilness is shown by having him have Weird Hair and strutting his supposed funky stuff around town. It is not clear if the people around him are supposed to find him Cool when he does this, but to us - the audience - he looks like an idiot.
It's not all bad; there are some effective bits of comedy and good one-liners and there are a couple of frantic, well-shot action sequences. But the movie could have done with a lot less major coincidences at least one less villain. The sand effects for Sandman are indeed spectacular and amazing, but the character is flawed. We are expected to feel for him because he is fighting for a good cause, even if it is in a bad way. It should apparently not matter that through his actions over the course of the movie, he must have maimed or killed at least some of the bystanders. Even if he didn't, by some miracle, it wasn't because he was so concerned about other people's welfare.
It's a shame that this trilogy ended on such a bum note. But then I doubt it will stay a trilogy for long. We can only hope that in the next one there won't be any more women hanging around screaming and falling from great heights only to be saved by Spidey at the last moment. And no more shots of Peter staring at Mary Jane from a distance, then a cut to her suddenly looking up because she 'felt' the stare, only for a second cut to reveal that *gasp* Peter Parker is gone. But he won't be, not until the money runs out.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Cool Site: The Onion

Bless The Onion for their twisted sense of humour. Bringing you 'news' by way of insanity, or - in this case - a sixties stoner.

Comics Review: Astro City

Never let it be said that I am not right on the ball when it comes to my knowledge of comics. It is only slightly over a decade after publication that I read some of Kurt Busiek's legendary Astro City stories. There is always the danger that something that has been buzzing around in my mind as a must-read for so long will disappoint. When I finally read some Cerebus, I just could not understand the cult following around it. In its defense, I have this thing about wanting to follow a story from the beginning, so I started with the oldest stuff, where Dave Sim might just not have hit his stride yet. One day I will give it a second look. Also lingering in the partly-read pile are Preacher, Jeff Smith's Bone and Neil Gaiman's Sandman series. These I really want to marathon-read at some point when time and money allow. From what I read so far, they will be worth the investment.
Astro City has an interesting narrative set-up; first Busiek, Brent Anderson and Alex Ross thought up a city bustling with superfolk and a long and complex history. Then they started telling short, fairly self-contained stories, showing the place and the characters from interesting viewpoints. They are like snapshots, each story combining with the others to form a bigger picture. Though it seems like you could just start with about any issue, there is a build-up. In the first issue, the major hero gets introduced: Samaritan, basically Superman remixed. The powers and costume are not that original and that goes for pretty much the whole roster of Astro City superfolk, both heroes and villains. They often só closely resemble Marvel or DC characters that it's a wonder no one got sued: First Family? Fantastic Four anyone? And Winged Victory and Wonder Woman must be bosom buddies in some alternate reality.
These old chestnuts have been given very interesting twists though, an introspective take that makes them feel more 'real'. For instance, you might wonder how Superman can live with himself, wasting hours a day lounging with Lois Lane, when at any given second, he could be saving someone's life somewhere from a crime or calamity. To have a life of his own, he is in effect letting a lot of people die. Maybe he reasons that you can't save all of the people all of the time, but Samaritan feels he can't stop trying. He zooms around from place to place without stopping, not able to have a moment's rest. You start to feel that maybe all that responsibility might not be such fun after all, just a lot of hard work. By the end of the first issue, you understand completely why, on the first page, he dreamt of flying. Just aimlessly, blissfully flying. And so it goes in following issues: well-written short stories from the perspective of superfolk or civilians from Astro City, leading up to a satisfying twist at the end of them.
By the age of thirty, most comic readers will have matured beyond a lot of the monthly fare out there. Beyond the brainless battles between people in spandex, who occasionally die and get resurrected when it suits the publisher. The same plots, alternate realities, intergalactic wars, 'final' confrontations, crossovers and events and stories after which the characters 'will never be the same'. As the years roll by, the past is forgotten, characters get complete personality overhauls and the neverending soaps rumble onwards and onwards. Thankfully, there still are talented writers out there that can spin stories that stand on their own and have a unique feel and mood to them. Kurt Busiek is one of those writers.