Shoot ‘Em Up (2007)

To be honest I’m not much of a Clive Owen fan. For example, I found his performance to be the weakest amongst the lead characters in the brilliant Sin City. On the other hand, I guess that shouldn’t be held too much against Owen given how strong the other characters and actors in that film were. (In a race someone has to come in last place, even when all the runners are strong.) Also, to be fair, I feel Owen did acquit himself fairly well in Children of Men and King Arthur. So I was willing to give Clive a chance on Shoot ‘Em Up, mainly based on the good review I heard for it on NPR back when.

And sure enough, this flick is actually pretty darned good.

Bullets spray continually throughout this film and people are killed in all sorts of unusual ways. So be prepared for that.

Owen plays “Smith,” a man who strictly by chance finds himself in the position of rescuing a newborn baby from a bunch of bad guys are trying to steal the little guy after killing his mother.

To the chagrin of the villains, Smith is a former Black Ops operative with the marksmanship skills rivaling that of Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name. And in terms of getting out of a tight spot Smith is comparable to the John Smith character (Bruce Willis) from Walter Hill’s flawed but still (for me anyway) enjoyable Last Man Standing.

Paul Giamatti gives an offbeat performance as the chief villain, Hertz, who is a bit reminiscent of Wallace Shawn’s Vizzini character from the Princess Bride. Despite his overcompensating swagger he can never be, will never be, a match for Smith. And to drive this home, the film uses an ongoing joke comparing Smith to Bugs Bunny since he east carrots all the time. Smith is essentially Bugs to Hertz’s Elmer Fudd. In the cartoon there isn’t a shred of doubt who will win, but we still enjoy Bugs getting the better of Elmer. Same thing here. We just sit back and enjoy how creative and amusing the hero is in defeating his opponent.

The picture opens with a scene that is sure to please fans of this genre. The use of a particularly unlikely weapon is probably one of the most creative that I can ever recall seeing.

Monica Bellucci is very good as a prostitute that Smith enlists to help him.

Anyway, Clive Owen climbs the ladder a bit in my appreciation of his work for the job he does with this film. He makes it all work, and I certainly bought in to him as Smith. Shoot ‘Em Up is a great fun if you’re a fan of this type of action film.

Shoot ‘Em Up (2007)

District 9

District 9 is one of those films that took me completely by surprise, which most always a good thing and typically makes me a happy viewer. I was expecting a dark, gritty science fiction film, and it is that. But it has a wicked sense of humor that once I picked up on it made me almost giddy. This film is chock-full of cynical humor and some pretty darned good action. This will sound a bit out there, but if you mixed together various elements of The Office, Enemy Mine, Cry Freedom, Black Like Me, and RoboCop that’s kind of what we have with District 9.

I don’t think I’ll be giving away too much by sharing the most basic plot, which is simple: a gigantic alien space craft mysteriously appears one day hovering over Johannesburg that is teaming with creatures that some civilization somewhere in the galaxy is trying to get rid of, and therefore dispatches to earth. Evidently someone out there is sending these aliens to the galactic “projects.” And sure enough that’s what is pretty much what is done with them on earth–although it is worse than that, actually. It is collectively decided by all the world’s governments that the aliens are to be segregated in an internment slum (in Johannesburg, no less).

It starts with a documentary style that to me is vaguely reminiscent of TV’s The Office in its humorous undertones. The satire is hilarious, and elicited belly laughs from me. The scenes of the human protagonist serving eviction notices to aliens segregated in a Johannesburg barb-wired ghetto paid for the price of the blu-ray (in the Walmart bin).

I really don’t want spoil much more than that. But the story and action that follows is fun. It is hella violent of course.

There is within this film a more serious social commentary about how easily racism is stimulated, i.e., the notion that bigotry seems deeply etched into the core of the human psyche. However, the film still nurtures some positive and hopeful themes amidst all of its cynicism.

Sharlto Copley does a fine job as the human lead character, and the CGI animated extra-terrestrials are quite entertaining.

If you’re a sci-fi fan, aren’t bothered by heavy violence, and enjoy jaded humor, then give this film a go.

District 9

Cloud Atlas

Cloud Atlas

Cloud Atlas is the sort of film that I must applaud on general principles in pursuing a vision that is so creative and off the beaten path that it is truly like nothing I have ever seen before. For these things alone I would be tempted to recommend it even if I didn’t like the characters, story, or direction. However I did in fact enjoy all three.

This picture is essentially a science fiction tale that is built upon a metaphysical premise: we are born again and again into lifetimes in which our souls are tied to others through similar themes that recur in different variations. It is about reincarnation. The film makes an analogy with musical composition, in which variation upon key musical themes and motifs intertwine and coalesce to create the greater whole of the musical piece. One of the characters is a musical composer who during his short life produces his opus, the Cloud Atlas Sextet.

The film enters science fiction territory with the final two chapters which are set in the future. The CGI is quite good for the futuristic elements.

The style of narrative for this film will be challenging to some. Six stories are told in which two principal characters are bound either as lovers or close friends, and sometimes the other characters appear as supporting characters or villains. I will not spoil the reader about the specifics of these stories. But the viewer will soon notice that the same characters recur in different lifetimes, often playing very similar roles (though not always). There are thirteen souls that intertwine through the six time settings. Those time periods/places are:

  • Pacific Islands, 1849
  • Cambridge/Edinburgh, 1936
  • San Francisco, 1973
  • London, 2012
  • Neo Seoul, 2144
  • Big Isle, 106 winters after The Fall

The theatrical and prosthetic makeup is well done on the whole, so you may not immediately recognize the actor at first sight. In fact, in some cases it is virtually impossible to tell that it is the same actor. This all should flow effortlessly for the viewer, so in my opinion it’s best the first time to just innocently experience it. I will say, though, that for a second viewing I intend to use this Wikipedia chart and this wiki on my iPad as I watch to keep track of how the same souls apparently reincarnate and interrelate.

There are varying degrees to which the characters evolve from one lifetime to the next in terms of developing virtue or becoming more evil. Some are evidently on an increasingly virtuous trajectory through the succession of incarnations. Sometimes a character backslides in one incarnation but gets on track again in the next. At least one becomes progressively more evil to eventually devolve into what appears to be a kind of rakshasa that haunts another character’s mind psychically. Some start out fearful to aid their fellow human being, but eventually are healed and reformed into braver, more prosocial persons (a supportive mate seems to help here). At least one character moves in exactly the opposite direction, i.e., from brave to fearful (yet we may remain hopeful for him). One even becomes an archetypal figure who is eventually worshiped by the masses.

The film mentions, but shows more than says, the experience of a kind of ‘soul-binding’ that takes place between two souls due to reincarnation, which has people feel instant attractions and affinities, and even the stunning experience of love at first sight. I have resigned myself that this is something that is fated to be one of life’s many mysteries. But if reincarnation is something that is real, and we’re ultimately evolving toward more sophisticated knowledge and awareness of life, it would sure be nice if one day we could ever get a clear answer as to why such ‘soul-binding’ happens!

The actors are all great. Everyone is wonderful, but standouts include Doona Bae, Tom Hanks, Halle Berry, Jim Sturgess, and Ben Winshaw.

Anyway, this is a film that cannot be fully appreciated in a single viewing. I will have to watch it again at least once. The movie is a long one, by the way–it lasts about three hours. Hopefully I will get in another viewing over my upcoming quarter break from school.

Just as the characters in the film are haunted by the Cloud Atlas Sextet (several of them upon hearing it “know they have heard it somewhere before”), I admit that I am somewhat haunted by this film.

Cloud Atlas

Science Fact: the Scientific Search for Life Beyond Earth

So, as much of a science fiction geek as I am, I am every bit as much, if not more, a science fact nerd regarding the scientific exploration for the presence of life beyond our home planet. Among my Links (click the ‘sidebar’ navigation icon) I’ve featured two separate RSS feeds that I created, one for the search for habitable exo-planets (i.e., rocky planets in the ‘Goldilocks’ zone from their star) and another for space exploration missions and research within our own solar system (the search for evidence of life increasingly becoming the focus). I have now combined them into a single feed:  Search for Habitable Exo-planets and for Extra-Terran Life in Our Solar System. (And I’ve removed the two earlier individual feeds since they’re now combined.)

This is a fun feed, as it provides a steady stream of science news regarding this very exciting realm of research. Below is a sample of the sorts of articles you’ll find regularly appearing in the feed:

NASA gallery of artists’ conceptions of exo-planets

What Are Exo-planets?

‘Second Earth’ to be found in DECADES as experts claim ONE BILLION planets may hold life

NASA’s chief scientist thinks we’ll find alien life by 2025. Here’s how we’d do it.

Solar-powered spacecraft set to scour Europa for signs of alien life: Nasa reveals mission to blast off in 2020s

Distant Moons Orbiting Massive, Jupiter-like Planets May Support Life

‘Venus zone’ narrows search for habitable planets

Massive clouds erupted 260km into Martian atmosphere – and no one knows why

Search for Alien Life Should ‘Follow the Methane,’ Scientists Say

Methane ‘belches’ detected on Mars

Science Fact: the Scientific Search for Life Beyond Earth

Spawn

I watched Spawn  this evening (1997, the live action film, not the animated one).

I had been thinking of watching the picture upon the advice of a friend who recommended it as a movie that can still be enjoyed for how bad it is (he enjoys Howard the Duck in that way, for example). On the heels of just having strongly liked the critically savaged I, Frankenstein, I figured, hey, maybe I can get a streak going.


Before I discuss Spawn, please allow me a digression first: although it was mainly a coincidence taking place alongside my decision to watch Spawn (a superhero who is black), over the last week I read two articles that got me thinking about the casting of African American actors in the superhero film genre: Michael B. Jordan: Why I’m Torching the Color Line and Selma’s Ava DuVernay tipped to direct Marvel’s Black Panther. I’m very much looking forward to seeing Michael B. Jordan as the Human Torch in the upcoming Fantastic Four (newest) reboot set for release August 7th. And while I know nothing about Marvel’s Black Panther character, I’m eager to see an African American superhero that really catches on in the mainstream in light of the recent popular explosion of superhero films and TV series. Perhaps Black Panther will be that superhero. Or maybe not. But Black Panther appears in the upcoming Captain America: Civil War  (May 16, 2016) and he gets a film of his own slated for release Nov. 3, 2017. Time will tell.

African American stars have not had a particularly easy time getting great roles in superhero films, although arguably the best well established ones to be found in the source material are white characters. Hancock did not work for me, as likeable as Will Smith always is as an actor. Nor am I particularly a fan of the Blade film series. Wesley Snipes does a fine job portraying the character, but I just don’t care much for the character himself–nor the whole vampire thing, for that matter. And as much as I like Halle Berry, Catwoman was a pretty lackluster film for me. However, Halle Berry’s Storm in the X-men series has been a lot of fun to watch unleashing her powers, even if Storm hasn’t been a central character.

(Spoiler ahead for Avengers: Age of Ultron !)

Anyway, I feel some weirdness about how things are going regarding efforts to give moviegoers a truly popular African American superhero. At the close of Avengers: Age of Ultron we are shown that the new team adds Iron Patriot (aka “War Machine” played by Don Cheadle) and Falcon (played by Anthony Mackie). But both of those characters have thus far in the Marvel films played second fiddle to superhero A-listers Iron Man and Captain America, respectively. Honestly, neither of those character concepts (Iron Patriot or Falcon) excites me much. Both basically assume the mantle from an established popular white character. I realize I must wait and see how the new Avenger team gels, though. It is a fairly oddball group overall. And that might work out pretty well for various storylines and character development, actually.

Okay, anyway, on to Spawn… Which, um… well… it’s… just really, really bad.

You can read a synopsis of the film here at IMDb.

When I first started watching this movie I immediately tried shifting into a mental framework of imagining that the film was simply the pages of a comic book brought to life. That is, I pictured in my head that that every scene I was watching was a projection of the distinct panels from a Spawn comic book. Comic books are usually intentionally corny and melodramatic–it’s a convention of the medium. And Lord knows this film is as well. So I played with the idea that it was the intention of the director to depict the comic book style of dramatic overstatement. So that actually kind of worked for a little while… maybe for about 15 minutes or so. But as time wore on, it just took too much effort to conceptualize the film in that way.

The film was made at a time when comic book superheroes were portrayed more whimsically, with a kind of wink and a nod, i.e., they were self-consciously more ‘spoofy’ than they are today. It was shortly after this film was made that the broad shift toward a more confidently serious storytelling sensibility began with, I would say, 2000’s X-men, followed by 2002’s Spider Man, 2004’s Hellboy, and consolidated by Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy beginning with Batman Begins in 2005. (Arguably 1978’s Superman and 1989’s Batman helped set a more serious dramatic standard as well, but both still had strong whimsical overtones.)

The Spawn character concept is fairly interesting actually, at least at a broad level. There’s something to work with there, I think. But as Spawn is portrayed in this film, I did not feel very sympathetic toward him. Maybe I wasn’t supposed to? He was apparently a heartless and cold-blooded killer in life, after all. But I think I was supposed to have sympathy for him. We’re supposed to root for the superhero usually, right? You can’t really root for his enemies here (unless you are seriously jacked up). You sort of have to root for him by default. But whether the blame falls mostly upon Michael Jai White, or the director, or script writers, or all of the above, the character didn’t really make me feel for him much.

For all I know, maybe the main villain the “Violator,” a hideously grotesque clown, was portrayed by the usually excellent John Leguizamo consistently with how the character appears in the comics. But what I am certain of is that at least in this film version, this is just one of the most downright annoying villains I have ever seen. The Violator is certainly evocative and memorable. But it’s tiring to watch him unleash one bad joke after another.

Also, I don’t think I’ve ever seen Martin Sheen give such a hammy performance before. The performances by everyone else are fine, though.

The story does not unfold in a way that gradually builds tension or increases emotional investment. It’s sort of a perpetual miasma experience.

The special effects are underwhelming. The CGI is not too bad for Spawn’s armor, which does help a bit. But the CGI for the Violator’s true form is on the ‘meh’ side. And the CGI of the devil is actually poor.

So what do we have when we add all this up? For me… we have 1) a main character that I don’t care much about, 2) just about the painfully worst villain I have ever seen, 3) a story that fails to gradually build and increase my interest, and 4) (on the whole) poor special effects.

The film ironically (i.e., in terms of how bad it is) does work toward making me want to finally one day see some African American superheroes that are truly A-list. So the film has that value for me. And I actually do think the Spawn character concept has potential if it were in better hands, and with a decent budget. Although after this debacle I doubt we’ll ever see that.

Here’s where Spawn falls on my favorites list for superhero genre films:

  1. Guardians of the Galaxy
  2. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
  3. The Avengers
  4. Captain America: The First Avenger
  5. Iron Man
  6. X-Men: First Class
  7. Hellboy
  8. The Wolverine
  9. Thor
  10. Sin City
  11. Daredevil (Yes, and I realize few fans share my appreciation)
  12. Man of Steel (when grasped as setting the stage for Superman v Batman: Dawn of Justice)
  13. Avengers: Age of Ultron
  14. X2: X-Men United
  15. Spider-Man
  16. Iron Man 2
  17. Thor: The Dark World
  18. X-Men
  19. Kick-ass
  20. Superman (1978)
  21. The Dark Knight Rises (Yes, ranked here, above The Dark Knight and Batman Begins)
  22. Hellboy II: The Golden Army
  23. I, Frankenstein
  24. Batman Begins
  25. The Dark Knight
  26. Superman Returns
  27. The Amazing Spider-Man
  28. Batman (1989)
  29. The Amazing Spider-Man 2
  30. X-Men: Days of Future Past
  31. X-Men: The Last Stand
  32. Iron Man 3
  33. The Fantastic Four (2005)
  34. Spider-Man 2
  35. Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer
  36. Spider-Man 3
  37. Kick-ass 2
  38. Green Lantern
  39. The Incredible Hulk
  40. Constantine
  41. The Phantom
  42. The Crow
  43. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen
  44. Mystery Men
  45. The Punisher
  46. Hulk
  47. Judge Dredd
  48. Elektra
  49. Batman Forever
  50. Batman and Robin
  51. Batman Returns
  52. Superman II
  53. Superman III
  54. Catwoman
  55. Blade
  56. Hancock
  57. Spawn
  58. Unbreakable
  59. Darkman
  60. The Shadow
  61. Superman and the Mole Men
  62. Batman (1966)
  63. Howard the Duck
Spawn

The Flash (2014-2015 TV Series)

The Flash and Netflix’s Daredevil are the only TV series I have had a chance to watch this year with my busy school/work schedule, and both began at the urging of a fellow superhero genre fan nerd friend since we talk about this stuff a lot to begin with. But I have to say, I’m really enjoying The Flash a lot. I’m just not sure if I have anything terribly interesting or creative to observe about it. But because I did enjoy it, I should be able to come up with something… Let’s see…

I’m sure that by now many bloggers have listed the reasons why the show works so well. The story development is very well done. The characters and actors playing them are great. The special effects are even pretty good. By comparison, the negatives are relatively trivial. It’s just a tad sexist in its treatment of women. Some of the villains are on the hokey side and overdrawn (*cough* *Leonard Snart!* *cough* *Mick Rory!*). The show can get a little maudlin here and there. But it is after all, based on a comic book, so…

Actually, I guess that leads to a possibly original thought (or it could well be out there somewhere, and I’ve just not heard or read anyone else express it yet). It’s about how much of the comic book medium translates well to TV and film:

The plotline about Barry Allen time traveling, and the creation of alternate timeline universes is actually becoming mainstream in popular culture due to an actual “multiverse” theory from physics that is regarded as credible now mathematically (experts like Stephen Hawking, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and Michio Kaku tell us so). So the show is able to keep these wild plot devices within a somewhat plausible real world framework. For the  purposes of creating a willing suspension of disbelief with a TV show, that is.

But to generalize a little more broadly on this theme… comic books can get pretty damn crazy. They’re actually sometimes downright bizarre with respect to content. Granted, the comic book is a place for the imagination to run buck wild–and it does so in a way that allows for graphic artists to go to town with their amazing skills. But looked at from the lens of everyday life it’s almost a place of madness, really.

For example, after just the other day reading a rumor that the character Doomsday might be featured in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, and seeing as this is the character that kills Superman in the comics, I looked the other day at the Wikipedia on the “death of Superman“… and the aftermath of Superman’s death is pretty nutty. Four new Supermen appear that take Supes’ place and they are weird amalgams of Superman and something else. Superman is eventually resurrected, however. Anyway, it may have been entertaining in the comics. But for the Love of Mike, Warner Brothers please do not try anything like that in the DC Comics Shared Universe of films.

It’s an interesting problem of how closely to match the wildly inventive but often bizarre stuff of the imagination that fills the pages of comic books with what will work in the cinematic form. In Guardians of the Galaxy it worked almost beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. (A talking raccoon? A tree-creature that says only “I am Groot”? Really? Well as it turns out, yeah, really.) But this will not always be the case.

Anyway, The Flash works in large part because it is able to give us the fantastic but in a way that we can still relate to in the everyday world. It finds that sweet spot and makes the fantastic relatable–and isn’t that precisely what we’re looking for from the comic book superhero genre, after all? At least in films and TV series we are, I would say.

Indeed, as Barry says at the show’s introduction “an accident made me the impossible.” And a major theme of the show throughout is basically that the impossible has become possible, so get ready for a wild ride. I think that probably does capture something at the core of why comic book characters and stories strike our fancy. Human beings seem innately hardwired to hope and dream that if we are ingenious enough we can make the seemingly impossible possible. We certainly play at it in our entertainment forms. And sure enough, our scientists and engineers do seem to keep pushing the boundaries of what we’re capable of all the time. For better or worse, that raises moral issues along with it (“with great power comes great responsibility,” in the words of Spider Man’s Uncle Ben). Anyway, perhaps shows like The Flash are a kind of collective cultural play therapy ‘working through’ about all those things.

The Flash (2014-2015 TV Series)