Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Movie Review: Kick-Ass 2

The most endearing thing about the Kick-Ass films to me is that despite all the the appearance of cynical subversion and deconstruction, it's deep down one of the most honest and optimistically childlike superhero series out there. It's in many ways the bipolar opposite of its bitter, unpleasant source material. For all the violence, debauchery, and juvenile humor, ultimately the films are about an earnest if completely-out-of-his-league kid who put on a costume for the same reason Superman or Spider-man did: to help people. And unlike the comic, the movie does not mock or punish him for that simple desire. It recognizes Kick-Ass as a loser, but a loser with his heart in the right place (more or less). It transforms a story that mean-spiritedly mocked the superheroic ideal into one that celebrates it. The films truly understand the appeal of comic books, that fantasy of having the courage to get out there and do good simply because it is good, to be the guy that finally says "enough" and gets off the sidelines. Kick-Ass the movie was a Silver Age 60's comic story in the guise of a Dark Age 90's comic story.

The bad news is Kick-Ass 2 isn't as good as Kick-Ass. By design, it couldn't have possibly been as good as Kick-Ass. There were certain key elements of awesome the first Kick-Ass had that are absent this time around, and without them there's just no way to completely recapture the magic. Those elements went by the name of Big Daddy and Hit-Girl, the undisputed show-stealers of the last film. The good news is that those voids have been filled by not-quite-as-awesome-but-still-pretty-awesome new stuff.

In the place of Big Daddy we now have Colonel Stars 'n Stripes, who tragically doesn't have quite as much screen time as his predecessor, but makes it count. Jim Carrey gives possibly the most uniquely un-Carrey-eque performance of his career here. Generally as an actor, Carrey only has two modes: Manic rubber-faced Ace Ventura Carrey and dower, I'm-a-serious-dramatic-actor-now Eternal Sunshine Carrey, and every role he plays is generally some slight variation of one of those two personas. But as the Colonel, Carrey reminds us all what a serious talent he can be when he puts his mind to it. Just as Nicolas Cage's Big Daddy called to mind Adam West's Batman if he decided the become the Punisher, Carrey's Colonel Stars 'n Stripes comes across as Robert de Niro trying to be Captain America. It's a startlingly chameleonic performance, and like Big Daddy it leaves you wishing he had been in more of the movie.

Now you might be confused by my earlier reference to Hit-Girl being "absent". "But Hit-Girl is in Kick-Ass 2," you might be saying, "In fact she's in it even more than she was in the first one". Well yes, a version of Hit-Girl is in Kick-Ass 2, but it's not quite the same thing. Hit-Girl was lightning in a bottle, and even with Chloe Moretz back, there's just no bringing back Hit-Girl as we knew here by simple virtue of the fact that she's too old now. The whole appeal of Hit-Girl was the transgressive, subversive image of a prepubescent girl swearing & killing people. But Moretz was 15 by the filming of Kick-Ass 2, and a 15-year-old girl swearing & killing people just doesn't have the same satirical bite as an 11-year-old girl swearing and killing people.

But like Big Daddy, a valiant effort has been made to fill the void. Instead of recasting the role to keep her 11 (and let's face it, what're the odds that your going to find another 11-year-old with the same combination of fearlessness & talent as Chloe Moretz?) or, God forbid, trying to pretend that she hasn't gone through puberty since the last movie, they instead embrace the change and do as many new and interesting things with it as possible. Fully aware of the character's immense popularity, the writers have moved her up from supporting player to secondary protagonist, with nearly half the running time devoted to her own storyline independent of Kick-Ass's. Hit-Girl, rapidly growing into a Hit-Woman, decides to honor her guardian's wishes and at least make an attempt at social assimilation at school. What could've been a show-stopping bore is made interesting by Moretz's performance and clever writing. Watching a high school girl who is both much more and much less mature than her fellow students makes for an interesting dynamic, especially when we witness the mighty super-assassin utterly terrified at the obstacles of basic social interaction and her own long-denied sexual development. The whole thing plays out as a Heathers-esque high school dark comedy, and while it's not quite as fun to watch as the rest of the movie, it holds you're attention and doesn't feel out of place.

But the real unexpected surprise is Christopher Mintz-Plasse as "The Mother Fucker". Not since Loki in The Avengers have I seen a villain who is such a perfect combination of pathetic and truly menacing. Choosing his blunt moniker after donning his dead mother's BDSM garb in the most understated joke of the movie, the former "Red Mist" from the first film goes on a chaotic revenge rampage in retaliation for Kick-Ass killing his mobster dad. The film derives endless humor from what an inept bastard the character is, especially a brilliant inversion of the most infamously misogynist scene of the book. But the character remains threatening as well for precisely the same reason: he's a bitter, out-of-control idiot with unlimited resources and an army of trained killers at his command. He's a loose cannon that can be alternately comical or terrifying, whatever the situation calls for.

The main flaw the film has is occasional confusion of tones, especially at the end when it tries to sum up the movies themes only to immediately contradict itself. The writers sometimes try to make these movies "about" something other than a teenage power fantasy with a healthy dose of superheroic optimism, which rarely works out. But despite that, the movie is consistently entertaining, and more or less captures the same spirit as the original, making up for its shortcomings with unique strengths of its own. In a summer that has seemingly been a war between light-hearted fun (Iron Man 3, Pacific Rim, The Fast & the Furious 6) and cynical, convoluted downers (Star Trek Into Darkness, Man of Steel, The Lone Ranger), Kick-Ass 2 is definitely on the side of the former.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Movie Review: Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters

Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief was one of those movies I disliked for reasons I could never quite put my finger on. Oh, there were plenty of obvious things to dislike it for. It was uninspired and had no identity of its own outside of mimicking a trend, it was dull and unmemorable, the characters were flat and unengaging, etc. But in the sequel Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters, which is basically everything bad about the first one cranked up to 11, it finally became obvious: Percy Jackson is basically racist Harry Potter.

But not in the sense that Percy sits around talking about how Asians can't drive. I'm merely noticing that there is a recurring theme, however unintentional, of genetic privilege in the Percy Jackson movies. In Camp Half-Blood, the secret summer camp for the half human offspring of the Greek Pantheon around which the series revolves, who your parents are is all that defines you. Annabeth* is the smart one because she's Athena's daughter. Clarice is the tough one because she's Ares' daughter. And Percy is the hero because he's the one living son on one of the original three gods**, and there's a prophecy that says he's the hero. Because every screenwriter knows that if you can't give your protagonist a personality, you can always give them a destiny. I could not tell you the first thing about Percy as a person. I only even remember his name because it's in the title. The movie relies entirely on the prophecy and his genetic lineage for his identity and motivation. It's the worst possible use of Joseph Campbell's Hero's Journey. The movie begins with Percy afraid that he has no identity outside of being Poseidon's son and that all his victories have just been handed to him by fate, and by the end of the movie it seems the answer is "yes".

And in the context of this movie, that leads to some unfortunate implications. Camp Half-blood isn't just home to demigods, there's also satyrs, centaurs, and other races from Greek mythology running around, all of whom are essentially second-class campers. Them receiving less attention or being considered less important would be at least a little understandable if all the demigods were possessed of superpowers, just to complete the X-men scorecard every Harry Potter wannabe needs. But thus far the only one we've seen demonstrate any special abilities is Percy. Satyrs and other lesser races seems to exist only to serve the demigods, as caretakers, protectors, etc. And this isn't there to set anything up, like Harry Potter did with the plight of house elves or the Death Eaters' crusade against mudbloods. The racial privilege of demigods over other magical races is just the plain old status quo that nobody ever questions***. In fact, more than anything it's played for laughs. Grover, the Ron Weasley of the series, pretty much exists to be humiliated at every turn to comic effect, and when combined with his rather stereotypical "black sidekick" persona, one can't help but raise an eyebrow. The only time any of this comes to a head is in the introduction of the camp's first half-cyclops camper. Annabeth has an immediate prejudice against him due to his heritage, that makes her incredibly unlikable and petty even after it's explained away. Sorry, but if a Klansmen told me a black guy killed a friend of his once, I wouldn't say "oh, well that's perfectly understandable, then."

Of course, the fact that the movie has some troubling, presumably unintended undertones has nothing to do with whether or not it's a good movie in the end. Fortunately, Percy Jackson at least has the decency to be shit as well as super-elitist. Beyond the aforementioned vacuous protagonist and predestination-driven plot, the film is a complete mess. Characters come and go with no rhyme or reason. Several campers who join the main villain from the last movie are never given any introduction or even screen time before their betrayal, so when the characters ask "So-&-So? You betrayed us?" the audience can only ask "Who?". It's a lot of poorly set-up import for a bunch of characters who are never used as anything but mute henchmen. Another character, a macho satyr set up early on as Grover's rival in the same way Clarice is to Percy, disappears before Act 2 begins, and is later handwaved away as having died offscreen, making his entire existence pointless to the plot.

What little strength the film has lies in its world building. The basic conceit of "Greek mythology reimagined in a modern setting" has some clever moments. Hermes (played by Nathan Fillion in the best performance of the movie) running a magic UPS store for the gods, the Gray Sisters as cab drivers for the damned (though the Fates might've been more appropriate), Circe deciding to create an amusement park (though we're never shown that part, unfortunately), Clarice getting a Civil War battleship crewed by zombies as transportation from Ares, that might've gone towards giving a better movie its own unique flavor. And though it's no Guillermo del Toro, there is a decent menageries of creatures on display, including a manticore, a steampunk mechanical bull with an impressive arsenal of weapons, and a hippocamp. It is marred, however, by the fact that despite the title, about 20 minutes of the movie actually take place at sea, during which there is precisely one monster.

It truly is a tragic waste of potential that these films keep turning out so poorly, because there is fertile creative ground here. So much could've been done with the present themes of parental abandonment, search for identity, destiny vs. free will, etc. Why not have Percy's arc be all about distancing himself from his imposed destiny and absentee father, and inspiring his fellow demigods to do the same? That kind've thing was certainly hinted at earlier in the film, but tragically nobody cared enough to give it any real payoff. A young man discovering who he is beyond his father's son is a timeless story that could've been great if well-told, but unfortunately Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters itself has no identity outside of its own father: Harry Potter.

*I had to look up most of these names, BTW. Such was the impression the movie left on me. There's one character that accidentally calls Annabeth "Annabelle" and I was like "oh, I thought that WAS her name."

**Which is bullshit, because Zeus and Poseidon were two of the biggest mansluts in Greek mythology, so the idea that they have no other living bastard children is ludicrous.

***Except for Luke, the villain who it's becoming increasingly hard not to root for. Not only is he really the only well-rounded character in the entire cast, but his more-than-a-little legitimate grievances against the gods are never really considered or taken seriously by our heroes.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

The Geek Chorus: 10 Things We Want to See in Pacific Rim 2

So Pacific Rim is officially a hit. What's that? You didn't think Pacific Rim was a hit? You thought it had been mostly ignored, coming in third after a week old Dreamworks movie and a lazy Adam Sandler vehicle? Well, you're right, that sadly is the America. The rest of a world is loving it though, so much that it became the number one box office earner in the world. After opening in China just this weekend, it broke box office records. And in an increasingly less America-centric economy where the question of "Will anyone in the US come to see this?" is becoming less and less important, being a hit everywhere except America may be enough for WB to go through with a sequel. Guillermo del Toro certainly seems optimistic, having already dropped hints on several plot details he has in mind. And being a massive nerd, I have a few of my own. So in no particular order, here are 10 things I'd like to see happen in Pacific Rim 2. Obviously, spoilers follow.

1. The consequences of Newt drifting with the Kaiju Hivemind
The subplot of Newt and Herman drifting with a Kaiju is the best kind've sequel tease, in that it serves an actual function in the plot and leaves no gaping loose ends, but still has enormous potential to be expanded upon. These are now two characters who have a unique connection to the Kaiju. Was Otachi really after Newt specifically, or was that just speculation on Hannibal's part? Do they want him dead, or do they want to take him alive, & if so for what purpose? Assuming the Kaiju Masters are still around, is Herman now also a target? How have they been changed either mentally or physically by the experience? I could imagine this leading Newt particularly down a rather dark path. Seeing as he already has a vaguely disturbing fanboy obsession with the Kaiju, having one inside his brain could seriously mess with his head. I'd wouldn't be surprised to see both Newt & Herman figure in more centrally to future sequels because of this.

2. The consequences of the Jaeger program going rogue
One minor quibble I did have with Pacific Rim upon repeated viewings was that the Jaeger program being decommissioned had little to no effect on the actual plot. We never get the feeling that they're running particularly low on resources, and apparently the world governments do not mind that they are acting without authorization, using equipment built with their money*. I'd like to see the fallout of the PPDC going rogue dealt with. Now that the Breach is sealed, will the Jaeger program still exist in any form? What about the failed Wall of Life? Surely people are still upset that their leaders were prepared to abandon them and leave them with an obviously useless defense. I'd like to see the early hints at social stratification given a little payoff. Are people still rioting? Are the rich and powerful still cowering in their safe zones? I was hoping to see an attacking Kaiju deliver a little poetic justice against those assholes, bypassing the pacific cities to go further inland and show them just how "safe" those safe zones are. After all, the Kaiju are taking orders from intelligent beings, it'd make sense for them to go straight for the leadership.

3. New Jaegers & Kaijus
Guillermo has already said that we'll see "Gypsy 2.0" which is fine. Gypsy Danger is more or less the face of this budding franchise, so it makes sense to bring her back for Raleigh & Mako to pilot. But I don't want to see rebuilding old Jaegers to become a trend. I don't want Crimson Typhoon 2.0, Cherno Alpha 2.0, or Striker Eureka 2.0. Especially in Cherno's case, since being so old and outdated was part of the charm of that particular Jaeger. Those were all awesome robots, but a sequel should give us new things, not recycle old ones. I want to see new Jaeger designs with personalities all there own. I want new and interesting characters to pilot them. I want to see other pacific countries get Jaegers of their own. Given who's directing, I'm surprised we didn't get a Mexican Jaeger or even a Peruvian Jaeger (I know I saw a representative from Peru among those chewing out Stacker). Central or South American representation was surprisingly lacking this first time around, considering they'd be on the front lines of an invasion from the pacific.

4. More variety in the characters
A small nitpick, since comparatively Pacific Rim had a much more diverse cast than an average American blockbuster, but it could be better. Mako Mori was a great and rather unconventional female character, but she was also the only female character (excluding Sasha Kaidonovsky, who I'd really have like to see more of). The prequel comic Tales from Year Zero had a few lady characters to offer that I could see showing up in future sequels, such as Caitlin Lightcap or Naomi Sokolov. And with the exception of the half-Peruvian Tendo Choi, there is (once again surprising given who's directing) a noticeable lack of Hispanic people among the mostly Asian and European cast of characters.

5. Mako getting a new hairdo
I'll allow you to look puzzled by that odd-sounding request before explaining.

Okay, now I'll explain. As you doubtless noticed, Mako has streaks of blue in her hair. The choice of blue is a rather interesting one for the costume department, and one I have a hard time believing wasn't intentional. Blue is by far the most significant color in Pacific Rim. Whenever it shows up, it typically means one thing: Kaijus. Their bodies glow with it, they bleed it, wherever they go, blue follows. But more than that, it means death and decay. It's the toxin they leave behind, the way they taint everything they touch. Even after the monster is gone, it leaves its venomous stench, corrupting and killing anything left behind. So I find it hard to believe the blue highlights in Mako's hair aren't representative of that. She survived her first encounter with a Kaiju, but it left her scared, tainted, poisoned if you will, by fear and hate. To see the highlights gone or replaced with a different color would be a great visual cue for her ongoing character development. And I do want it to go on. I want to see how Mako has grown since the ending of the first film, now that she's achieved her life's goal and no longer needs her mentor. I imagine she'll be far more confident and commanding, very much her father's daughter. I'd love to see her give a Stacker-esque speech at some point. I'm quite sure cancelling the apocalypse runs in the family.

6. "You can always find me in the Drift!"
Speaking of Stacker, you might remember those as his last words to Mako before he died. A heartbreaking goodbye to be sure, but I can't help but wonder how literally he meant that. Obviously I don't wanna see Stacker brought back from the dead, that would completely negate the ending of his story. Stacker Pentecost went out like a boss, and that's how it should be. But I feel a Pacific Rim completely devoid of the Pentecost brand of awesome would be poorer for it. I could easily see him returning Ben Kenobi's ghost style, appearing to Mako during a neural handshake to offer counsel at a moment of uncertainty. It wouldn't actually be him, of course, just Mako's memory of him, or her concept of what he might have said. But any excuse to get Idris Elba back in this mother for a scene or two, I say.

7. A good Kaiju
I admit it disappointed me a little that none of the Kaiju had quite as much character to them as the Jaegers this time around. Oh, they looked great, the designs were awesome, and the names they gave them certainly helped make them memorable. But none of them had much personality of their own, they were just mindless soldiers serving an unseen power. Maybe that's the problem, that they were mass-produced drones under someone else's control as opposed to being unique agents of chaos and random destruction born from man's hubris like the classic Kaijus: Godzilla, Rodan, etc.

My point is that as cool as they were, I don't feel they'll have much longevity as individuals. I doubt anyone will be clamoring for the return of "Knifehead". A good way to make one of the Kaiju a memorable character? Introduce one as a good guy. The baby Kaiju raises interesting questions about what might've happened had it lived. Were they to capture a baby Kaiju alive, could they potentially raise & tame it, perhaps even train it to fight alongside the Jaegers? Imagine Gypsy playing fetch with a lovable Kaiju with the personality of a faithful dog. I know Newt would be all over that. At the very least the guy deserves a pet skin parasite or something.

8. More of the Kaiju culture
Pacific Rim did a great job with world-building, giving up tantalizing glimpses of details of this future world that could very easily be expanded upon. You could probably build an entire movie just around Hannibal Chau and the entire premise of a "Kaiku Black Market". It'd be like The Godfather, but with giant monsters. And it raises so many questions. Since they've figured out so many different ways to use the consumption of Kaiju body parts, they must've gone through a lot of experimentation to arrive at that point. So what kind've things resulted from that? Surely a lot of those experiments when wrong. Are there human/kaiju hybrids running around, the unfortunate result of Chau's experimentation? What about that cult of people who worship the Kaijus from inside that hollowed-out skeleton? Do you think they ever make human sacrifices to the Kaijus? I could imagine some monks sitting and praying directly in the path of a rampaging Kaiju.

9. More about the Kaiju masters
This one is pretty much a given if there is indeed a sequel, but it's worth mentioning. For there to be anymore to the story, the mysterious other-dimensional conquerors that created the Kaijus with almost certainly be back in some form, and it would be nice to learn a bit more about them. Will any of our main characters ever meet one face to face? Will they personally visit Earth at any point? How many other planets have they invaded, or even other dimensions? All they all evil, or are there good factions within the race that oppose their colonialist actions? Do any of their Kaiju creations ever rebel? Are they the only factions out there with giant monsters at their command?

10. A Power Rangers crossover
Hey, if Guillermo can talk about a Godzilla crossover that will never happen in a million years, I'm allowed a ridiculous fanboy request too. After all, the now-in-young-adulthood Power Ranger generation likely comprised most of Pacific Rim's American audience. So let's see the PPDC up against Rita Repulsa. Let's see Gypsy Danger and the Megazord cross swords before teaming up to punch some monsters. Who wouldn't want to see Staker Pentecost meet Zordon, or Kimberly Ann Hart (yes, I know her character's full name, what of it?) meet Mako Mori? You know that Alpha 5 interacting with with Newt and Herman would be a riot. Sure, the PPDC would be a little out of their league with the hand-to-hand stuff (though a sparing scene between Tommy & Raleigh would be a must). But seeing the Megazord brought to life by those glorious modern special effects would be worth the price of admission alone. Plus, it could make for a great setup for that Power Rangers movie Saban keeps saying they're gonna make.

*I did notice on the 3rd or 4th viewing that the UN council said they'd still be funding their operations for the next month before cutting them off, meaning Stacker hasn't gone rogue exactly. My point still stands, though.

Bad News

Some of you may have noticed that there hasn’t been a new episode of The Lunatic Fringe in a while. Or maybe you haven’t, since long waits between episodes are kind’ve my modus operandi at this point. There’s a reason for that, and it’s simply that my editing software is fundamentally broken to the point of non functionally. For the past few videos since I got it, I've been soldiering on making do with what I had, but at some point I hit a brick wall. I simply cannot continue with the show in this way, which I why I must regrettably announce that The Lunatic Fringe is officially on hiatus until further notice.

This has not been a easy decision to come to. I thought I could work through this. I thought the days of tinkering and fiddling with long ago completed editing projects just to get them to some magical, arbitrary state when they finally decide to render would always be worth it just to have the finished product to show you all. And for a while it was. But with every project the process got harder and more frustrating. Every time I made a new video it took longer. I would frequently be reduced to tears and impotent rage from the stress, losing unhealthy amounts of sleep. And this last project I'd been working on, a take-down of Superman II, was the straw that broke the camel's back. After weeks of torturous effort, the thing simply will not render. I've tried every trick I know, consulted forums and tech friends, but eventually for my own health and sanity, I was forced to admit defeat.

So what does this mean? Well, for one thing, the Superman II review is officially shelved. I'll try to take another crack at it in the future, but for now there's nothing more I can do with it. Secondly, until such time as I can find an editing software I can work with without losing my mind, I can no longer produce videos. The Lunatic Fringe is not dead, I fully intend to revive it once I'm operational again from the tech side of things. But for now, video production is definitely on hold.

But fortunately, that doesn't mean you won't hear from me. I will continue to bring you written reviews on new releases as always. And just because there's no Lunatic Fringe at the moment doesn't mean my head isn't full of things I need to say. So as a new outlet for that, I'm reviving an old column of mine: The Geek Chorus. Basically articles about whatever media related topic I have on my mind at the moment. Depending on their continuing relevance, some of these articles will likely still become Lunatic Fringe episodes once the show returns, it all depends on if I feel they bare repeating. Regardless, I hope you enjoy it.

In conclusion, thank you for your continued support. There would be no motivation to bring the show back without you guys. I will bring The Lunatic Fringe back bigger and better than ever, and in the meantime I will do my best to keep you guys entertained. Joshua the Anarchist's adventures is Arkham will continue...