Saturday, October 12, 2013

My Ten Favorite Romantic Comedies

I'll admit it, I've been on kind of a "RomCom" kick as of late (which is, thankfully, giving way to a "bad horror film" kick as Halloween draws nearer). I don't consider myself to be overly sentimental, but I enjoy a good romantic tale every now and then. Here are 10 of my favorites: 

10 P.S. I Love You
I’m secure enough in my heterosexuality to admit this: Gerard Butler (Dear Frankie) is a sexy, sexy man. Not only is he a very good looking guy, but he also has that deep, authoritative voice and an undeniable warmth about him. Unfortunately, his character dies five minutes into the film, but he still remains a constant presence throughout the film, having planned out a series of romantic surprises for his widow, played by Hilary Swank, prior to his death. Jeffrey Dean Morgan (Watchmen) and Harry Connick, Jr. (Hope Floats) show up as potential suitors for the widow Swank. Now, ordinarily I cannot abide Mr. Connick, as he invariably plays the unnervingly suave pretty-boy type. But in this film, he's the troubled, weird, dorky guy, and that in and of itself makes him infinitely more likable. Plus, the end result of his and Ms. Swank's attempt at romance is both sweet and hilarious. 

9 Just Friends
As a man well-acquainted with the “Friend Zone,” it’s nice to see it addressed in comedic fashion. Ryan Reynolds plays a guy who was the fat kid in school and had an unrequited crush on his best friend, Jamie (Amy Smart). After a humiliating experience at his graduation party, he swears to better himself and over the years becomes a suave, svelte womanizer with a high-paying job in the record industry. Through a series of “random” events, he is forced to return to New Jersey for Christmas, where he reconnects with family, friends . . . and Jamie. This is complicated by a fellow suitor named Dusty Lee (formerly Dinkleman, played by Chris Klein), a beaming, guitar-strumming EMT whose charm knows no bounds. This is a fantastic comedy with some great performances and some truly hilarious visual gags (if you like tasers, sports violence and holiday decorations that burst into flame, you’ll like this one).

"You're laughing now, but soon I'll be a Green freaking LANTERN!"

8 The Third Wheel
If ever there was a romantic comedy for guys, this is it. Stanley (Luke Wilson) has a crush on Diana, the new girl at work (Denise Richards). He purposes in his heart that he’s going to ask her out. A year passes. Then another. Finally, though, he learns she’s just exited a relationship, and if he’s going to ask her out, there is no better time. With some encouragement from his best friend (Ben Affleck), he finally works up the courage and invites her to dinner and a show, and she accepts. Stanley is elated, and his friends and coworkers secretly place bets as to how well the date will go. Everything goes smoothly until Stanley accidentally hits a pedestrian, Phil (Jay Lacopo), who they end up taking to the hospital. But Phil’s not done with them yet, and wherever they go, they keep running into Phil. The question is, will this third wheel ruin their date or bring them closer together? Wilson, Richards, Affleck and Lacopo turn in some great performances here, as does an uncredited Matt Damon as Richards’ smarmy, smirking ex. It’s a sweet, heartfelt film that will truly have you cheering for the underdog.

Well, isn't this cozy . . .

7 Stranger Than Fiction
To set the record straight, Blades of Glory is the best Will Ferrell movie ever. But it's not the best movie starring Will Ferrell ever (there's a difference); that honor goes to Stranger Than Fiction, a quirky, thoughtful film about Harold Crick, a nebbish IRS agent who leads a sad, solitary life and one day realizes he has a narrator in his head (with a British accent, no less!). S**t gets real when said narrator announces Harold is about to die. The rest of the film is essentially a subdued version of The Bucket List, in which Harold decides to live out his few remaining days to the fullest. He takes a break from work, learns to play guitar and ultimately, inadvertently, falls for Ana (Maggie Gyllenhaal), a fiery Marxist baker who he happens to be auditing. Alas, they have a bit of a falling out, but he makes up in the most perfect way in the history of the universe:

Anyway, there aren't a whole lot of movies that can make me cry, but this one has managed it a few times. Without spoiling too much, Harold eventually accepts his fate, and what happens next is so shocking, so unfair and so truly heart-rending that a happy ending seems impossible. 


It's not! 

6 The Wedding Singer
Just as Stranger Than Fiction isn't exactly a Will Ferrell movie, The Wedding Singer isn't exactly an Adam Sandler movie. Sure, there's some off-color, childish humor in parts (especially in the Special Edition), but if you look closely, past the pervy old ladies, drunken best men and butt-grabbery, there's a really thoughtful love story hiding just beneath the surface. Sandler plays the titular role, Robbie, a sweet guy who loves his job. Drew Barrymore plays Julia, a waitress at the venue he plays at. They're both engaged . . . but then Robbie gets dumped the altar (while an orchestral version of "Don't Stop Believin'" plays in the background). Julia feels sorry for him and they start spending time together, with him reluctantly helping her plan her wedding to Glenn (who turns out to be an absolute jackass). After a series of misunderstandings, Julia agrees to fly with Glenn to Las Vegas to get married, and Robbie is left alone to grieve over another missed chance at love. He confides in his best friend, Sammy, a womanizing limo driver played by Allen Covert (Mr. Deeds, Grandma's Boy), and tells him he wants to be more like him--a different woman every night. And then Covert steals the show. The subsequent happy ending borrows a bit too much from "Crocodile Dundee," but it does involve Billy Idol, so there's that. 

And Steve Buscemi . . . because Steve Buscemi.

5 My Man Godfrey
This is the oldest film on my list, but don’t be fooled; it might be from the 1930s, but it still holds up today. It’s essentially the story of a rich girl who takes a homeless man off the street and gives him a job as the family butler, and his attempts to make sense of the crazy, dysfunctional household he’s been brought into. William Powell is one of those great leading men of the olden days who never really got his due. He’s not conventionally handsome, but his cool, unflappable presence and quizzical brow give him a unique charisma all his own. Also consider Carole Lombard as the blonde, ditzy leading lady, Irene Bullock, a sweet, childish girl who genuinely cares about Godfrey’s well-being and only late in the film admits that her concern is more than that. Another comedic standout is Mischa Auer as Carlo, the constantly eating “protégé” of Mrs. Bullock, who is more than willing to humiliate himself for the family’s amusement if it means continued access to the refrigerator and its contents. 

The things I have to do to get a sandwich around here . . .
Aside from the screwball humor in and of itself, the movie retains its relevance today in that it is a product of the Great Depression. Now more than any other time since then, we as Americans can understand and relate to the financial troubles of the era, and the struggle between the haves and the have-nots resonates well into today.

4 Pride and Prejudice
This is a very polarizing opinion, but I’m going to share it anyway. I’ve seen the old-school, half-a-day-long BBC production of Pride and Prejudice, starring Colin Firth and Jennifer Ehle, and frankly, I’m not a big fan. I mean, it’s good and all, but it’s lacking in spark, and Firth seems to mistake Mr. Darcy’s lack of social skills for a lack of emotion altogether. Firth is a bland block of wood onscreen, which severely diminished my enjoyment of the film. That said, I absolutely love the 2005 version, starring Matthew MacFadyen and Keira Knightley (with Rosamund Pike as Jane Bennet . . . mmmmm). It’s a much more condensed version of the classic Jane Austen romance, but what it lacks in depth (which isn’t much, all things considered), it more than makes up for with its characters. Donald Sutherland absolutely nails the dry wit of Mr. Bennet. Brenda Blethyn is suitably obnoxious as the meddlesome Mrs. Bennet. Jena Malone personifies the dotty, foolish and entirely oblivious Lydia Bennet. Dame Judi Dench is manipulative and downright sinister as Lady Catherine de Bourg. And Tom Hollander absolutely nails the role of the odious parson Mr. Collins. 

Why yes, I am an odious little toad. Thank you for noticing.

Then we have our leading man and lady. MacFadyen excels where Firth failed. He plays Darcy as callous and standoffish, but there is warmth and sincerity in his eyes. He is not without a sense of humor, although it takes serious effort to extract it from him. And when he finally professes his love for Elizabeth, the emotion pours out like a tidal wave despite his apparent calm. Knightley’s Elizabeth, too, is a nearly perfect adaptation of Austen’s iconic character. Feisty and flippant, she takes severe offense to Darcy’s initial coldness and holds it against him for most of the movie. Their game of emotional cat-and-mouse is handled superbly, and to put it bluntly, despite the modest dress and moral propriety, the sexual tension between the two is unbelievable. They don’t even kiss until the very end, but it’s the scenes wherein they almost kiss that stand out. The film provides that delightful sense of “will they or won’t they?”, although any reader worth his or her salt knows they will.


3 You’ve Got Mail
When one thinks of great Nora Ephron movies, Sleepless in Seattle is usually the one that springs to mind. It’s a good movie, with some great chemistry between stars Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan, but their reunion nearly a decade later is actually a far superior movie, despite sharing a nearly identical plot. Hanks and Ryan play rival business owners who are also—unknowingly—engaged in an anonymous email affair. In person they exchange barbs and plot each other’s destruction while confiding in each other and discussing Austen online. Costars Heather Burns, Steve Zahn, Greg Kinnear and Parker Posey are top-notch, and there’s also a golden retriever named Brinkley, so what’s not to like? The film also has a fantastic soundtrack, including Harry Nilsson, Roy Orbison, The Cranberries and Louis Armstrong, which is yet another reason to enjoy it.

"Wait, what are you doing? That caviar is a GARNISH!" 

2 While You Were Sleeping
Bill Pullman is one of those great, underrated actors who can play the dork (Sleepless in Seattle), the jerk/nutcase (Mr. Wrong) or the president (Independence Day), but very rarely does he get to play the romantic lead. While You Were Sleeping remedies this wonderfully. Pullman plays Jack Callahan, the strapping heir to an estate furniture company owned by his father, Ox (the ever-cantankerous Peter Boyle). And Jack is in love with his comatose brother’s fiancée, Lucy (Sandra Bullock). What he doesn’t know is that Lucy and his brother have only met in passing, and she’s afraid to tell his family the truth for fear his grandmother will keel over dead. Hilarity ensues, along with more misunderstandings. By all rights, it should be a terrible movie, but the actors, who also include Jack Warden, Michael Rispoli and Peter Gallagher, are quick-witted and clever, and there is a great mix of one-liners and visual gags to go along with the surprisingly competent script. It’s one of the highlights of the seemingly endless supply ’90s romantic comedies, and it’s one my mom and I have watched over . . . and over . . . and over again.

"We know you're in there, Lucy. JOIIIIIINNNN USSSSSSS!"

1.  As Good As It Gets

This is also my all-around favorite movie of all time. Directed by James L. Brooks (director of Broadcast News and producer of TV shows like Taxi and The Simpsons), this film is a truly fulfilling study of human nature and the winding path to redemption. Jack Nicholson—he of the deviously arching eyebrows and predatory grin—stars as Melvin Udall, one of the most loathsome characters in film history. He’s rude, fastidious and bigoted, and has no filter whatsoever. Worst of all, he doesn’t care. He uses his obsessive-compulsive disorder as an excuse to avoid human interaction and is content to while away the hours locked in his apartment, hammering out flowery works of romantic fiction that belie his cruel nature. But, slowly but surely, Melvin is forced to come out of his shell and learn to relate to other people, starting with the gay neighbor he torments (Greg Kinnear) and the longsuffering waitress he abuses (Helen Hunt). Just as gradually, we begin to see how damaged and in pain Udall himself really is under his abrasive surface. And then, out of nowhere, what started out as a biting character study blossoms into a love story, and it works. The film manages to end on a hopeful note, with Udall literally taking his first step toward rediscovering his own humanity and overcoming his personal faults. In my opinion, it’s the best movie ever made, and I will gladly debate that point with anyone. 

"Who's an ugly little dustmop? Yes, YOU are!"

HONORABLE MENTION: Intolerable Cruelty. 
From Raising Arizona to Fargo to O Brother, Where Art Thou? to No Country for Old Men to True Grit, I love the Coen Brothers. And I love this strange, cynical romance between a strange, cynical divorce lawyer (George Clooney) and the manipulative yet oh-so-beautiful Catherine Zeta-Jones, who marries womanizers and then takes them for everything they've got when she divorces them. I didn't particularly like this movie when I first saw it, but over the years I've really come to appreciate it. Plus, there's a hearty dose of Simon and Garfunkel in the soundtrack, and that's always a good thing. There are some great performances in this film, not just from the romantic leads but also from the likes of Richard Jenkins, Billy Bob Thornton, Cedric the Entertainer and Geoffrey Rush, who is absolutely hilarious in the opening scene. Plus, look sharp for the Bruce Campbell cameo appearance. All in all, it's a great movie, and one of my favorites.

"You fascinate me!"

Sunday, September 29, 2013

My (Actual) Playlist

A while back, I posted my "Anti-Playlist," which consisted of songs that I absolutely hate, as well as detailed explanations why. Because I can't think of anything worthwhile to write about, and because I really like lists, here's a list of a few songs that I absolutely love. It's not a comprehensive list, but it's some old favorites along with a few I've been listening to a lot lately.

This was the opening track on Simon's Graceland album, which I listened to pretty much every day between the ages of 4 and 6. It was the first album I ever loved, and it had some great stuff on it, most notably "You Can Call Me Al." "The Boy in the Bubble" was by far the funkiest track, though. I never got around to upgrading the old cassette to a CD, so I went a good decade or so without listening to it again before I finally picked up a Greatest Hits album about a year ago. I'm pleased to say that absence has indeed made the heart grow fonder, and although Peter Gabriel's cover is excellent, Simon set the bar delightfully high.

"Without You" by Harry Nilsson

The name might not ring any bells at first, but if you've ever watched You've Got Mail, you've heard quite a few of his more popular songs. But this is the most heartrending and powerful of them all, one that rivals even the great Roy Orbison with its ability to haunt you with the power and beauty of its vocals. Nilsson is called at times the "Fifth Beatle," although he never achieved their level of popularity. I'm glad to have discovered him, though. And this one showed up in an episode of The Simpsons a while back. 

"First We Take Manhattan" by Leonard Cohen

Although I first heard John Cale's take on "Hallelujah" in Shrek, I discovered Cohen himself through Watchmen, which I think has one of the best soundtracks of all time. As much as I love Cohen's "Hallelujah," though, I like "First We Take Manhattan" even more. It's dark, sardonic and sinister, and I love that about it. There is also a very good dance remix, which I typically shy away from, but this is really quite good. I do prefer the original, mind you; nevertheless, this alternate take is well worth sharing.

"Muswell Hillbilly" by The Kinks

I've liked The Kinks since I was a kid, but I would never have even heard of this song were it not for Matt Meacham, a folklore teacher at Missouri State University-West Plains who over time became a good friend of mine. This is a deeeeeeep cut from their collection, and there's an interesting story behind it that I don't feel like explaining at this time. It's quirky and catchy, and is one of my very favorites of theirs now. Of course, they also put out classics like "You Really Got Me," "Lola" and "Where Have All the Good Times Gone?", but if I'm going to share another one with you, it'll have to be "Alcohol," one of the greatest, strangest, most hilarious and raucous tunes of all time.

"What's on Your Mind (Pure Energy)" by the Information Society.

Best use of Star Trek voice-over to date. It's really hard to get more '80s than this . . . very heavy emphasis on synthesizers and general awesomeness to be found. It gets stuck in my head on a regular basis, but unlike many songs of today, it's a welcome distraction to have this one rattling around in my skull. I don't have anything else from them to share, so I'll instead give you another '80s gem, "Love My Way" by the Psychedelic Furs, used to best effect in the bar scene in The Wedding Singer. It's one of my all-time favorite '80s songs, and actually makes a xylophone look cool, so enjoy with my blessing!

"Heathen (The Rays)" by David Bowie

I've been a Bowie fan since I was a wee lad. I started with "Rebel Rebel" and worked my way up from "Golden Years" to "Let's Dance." I was delighted and terrified by his appearance in Labyrinth, ecstatic to see his cameo in Zoolander and pleasantly surprised to see his turn as Nikola Tesla in the otherwise-unmemorable film The Prestige. Bowie is the consummate showman, and although some of his identities through the years were weird even for a progressive glam-rocker, he nevertheless knew how to create and manipulate energy in a crowd. One of the most fascinating rock stars of the 20th century and now, I found "Heathen (The Rays)" to be the most chilling and poignant of his entire prolific library of songs (along with "Ashes to Ashes"). Although "Let's Dance" remains my favorite, this one's been getting the most play as of late on my playlist. And if you haven't heard his new album, The Next Day, you should give this funky new tune a listen.

"I Know It Hurts" by Alter Bridge

I have a confession to make: I love Creed. And I know there has to be something wrong with me if I love Creed and hate Pearl Jam, but there it is, out there in the open for all to mock. Creed's comeback album, Full Circle, is jam-packed with great stuff, from the introspective "A Thousand Faces" to the adrenaline-surging "Overcome" to the softer "Rain." But a year after Full Circle's fall 2009 release, guitarist Mark Tremonti's other rock band, Alter Bridge, released ABIII, which I have to say was even better. It's more unabashed hard rock, which I love. For a slower one, though, one of my favorites is "Ghosts of Days Gone By." 

"Turn to Stone" by the Electric Light Orchestra

I have fond memories of those childhood days when my oldest brother Mike would come to visit us in his white-with-black-stripes '71 Chevelle and we'd go cruising around listening to sweet tunage. He introduced me to music ranging from the Bee Gees to the 2 Live Crew (Mom would not be thrilled about the latter). One of my favorite CDs in his collection (aside from the deliciously stupid Booty Mix 2) was Strange Magic, a two-disk album of ELO's greatest hits. Mike's favorite song was "Don't Bring Me Down" (and to this day I'm convinced they're yelling "Don't bring me down, Bruce!"), but I preferred "Turn to Stone." It was fun and fast-paced, with a really nifty fade-in intro and was a great showcase of the band's vocal harmonies. For a great showcase of frontman Jeff Lynne's awesome pipes, you might also give "Endless Lies" from Balance of Power a listen.

"Down at McDonnelzzz" by Electric Six

First off, I simply MUST insist you watch the video. It is truly bizarre, and E6 frontman Dick Valentine's grin will haunt your dreams forever. And it's also freaking awesome, as is the song itself. It's basically Murphy's Law meets the night shift at a certain fast food chain, when a band of ruffians accosts the late-night employees as they try to close down for the night. I find myself humming this tune every time I pass said fast food establishment, and I suspect you will too. For more E6, perhaps their most iconic songs (and videos) thus far are "Gay Bar" and "Danger: High Voltage!". You can't go wrong with either. 

"Comfortably Numb" by Pink Floyd

David Gilmour is my all-around favorite guitarist, and the solo at the end of this song gives me chills every time. Pink Floyd is one of those bands that has a song for every mood, and "Comfortably Numb" is perfect for breaking up writer's block. It's simultaneously hopeful and cynical, with Roger Waters' snarling tone dredging up an almost Dr. House level of cynicism and Gilmour's more conventionally beautiful voice painting images of bittersweet joy and nostalgia. And again, that guitar solo is amazing. For added fun, check out this version with David Bowie on vocals. It's very different but delightful in its own way. 

"The Boxer" by Simon and Garfunkel

Out of all Simon and Garfunkel's songs (and I love them all), this is the one that tugs most insistently at my heart strings. This is the one I can listen to over and over. Mumford and Sons did a great cover version, but Simon and Garfunkel will never be surpassed. There's something magical about the way their voices blend--the soulful lows of Simon mixed with the anguished highs of Garfunkel. Heck, this song was part of what made the opening scene of Intolerable Cruelty so memorable, thanks also to Geoffrey Rush. Simon & Garfunkel are my absolute favorite artists, and this is my favorite of their songs. 

"Poison" by Alice Cooper

This one kinda sticks out like a sore thumb on my list, because Alice Cooper is a radically different kind of musician from the likes of Paul Simon and Leonard Cohen. But this song speaks to me. As someone who has a tendency to be attracted to unhealthy relationships, I can relate to Cooper's description of a woman who is so harmful and yet so very irresistible that she can't be let go, even though to love her is to embrace certain doom. Plus, it's extremely catchy. Another good one from Alice is this little number, which was literally the only good thing to come from Friday the 13th Part VI: Jason Lives

"Big Time" by Peter Gabriel

This might very well be my favorite song (plus, the video is equal parts awesome sauce and Claymation nightmare fuel). It's a song that perfectly captures my life up to this point. Case in point:

"The place where I come from is a small town. They think so small, they use small words. But not me--I'm smarter than that. I've worked it out. I've been stretching my mouth to let those big words come right out."

That right there says a lot about me. Not to sound arrogant, but I'm from Couch, Missouri. There are MAYBE 75 or 80 people there, it's in the middle of nowhere. Blink and you'll miss it--the sign is double-sided, so as soon as you get there, you're already leaving, for whatever that's worth. Even though I was born and raised there, and it will always be home, I have never fit in and likely never will. But "Big Time" became my anthem, reminding me that I could strive for more, and that a humble beginning does not necessarily mean settling for less than what I want. And now, thanks to hard work and not a small amount of good fortune, I've finally hit my stride. I'm about to graduate from the finest journalism school in the country. I've won awards for my work both as a writer and an illustrator. I have close to 100 bylines to my name and I've seen my work published in several different papers and magazines. I'm not at the big time yet, but I'm closer now than I ever thought possible. In the words of Mr. Gabriel, "My heaven will be a big heaven, and I will walk through the front door."

That's all I've got. But if you must have more, here's Gabriel wearing a muscle suit under the Joker's purple zoot suit. Enjoy!

Monday, July 29, 2013

"The Wolverine" . . . was pretty darned good

Mom and I went to see The Wolverine its opening weekend. I liked it quite a bit; Mom thought it was just okay, Hugh Jackman's butt-baring bathtub scene notwithstanding. Before I go into the review, let me talk a little bit about my background with the character. 

When I was 6 years old, I got a board game called “Marvel Super Heroes” for Christmas. I had no idea who these characters were, but they were a darned sight more interesting-looking than Batman or Superman. I mean, on the box alone there was a picture of a scowling, muscle-bound green man, a dour-faced man in a star-spangled costume with little wings on his head, a guy in a cobweb-patterned red-and-blue costume with his entire face covered, a fanged, drooling, black-hued monster with some kind of strange white pattern on its chest, and a guy in a brown-and-tan suit and a pointy-edged mask with knives coming out of his fists. These were not the G-rated heroes I was familiar with. 

Whoever dressed those poor children should be ashamed. I know the kids are.

The knifey-guy, Wolverine, really stood out. I mean . . . knives. Coming out of his fists. Plus, his costume was a stark contrast to the bright colors and friendly faces of most of the other characters. His character card, drawn by Jim Lee (who soon became my favorite comic book artist), showed him in a smug pose, flexing a bicep and showing off his claws. Even my mom thought Wolverine looked awesome, and when I started getting into comics, she showed the most interest in those that featured Wolverine.

He even looks cool when he's traipsing around in a sewer, unlike most ninja turtles.

Flash forward almost 19 years. Mom still loves Wolverine (Hugh Jackman playing him in the movies didn’t hurt), and the X-Men are still among my favorite comic book characters. I loved the first two X-Men films, and First Class was pretty good, too, but the two in between, X-Men: The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine really dropped the ball, screwing with the continuity of both the comics and the films and generally feeling like they were made by stupid kids playing with action figures. 

Still better than X-Men Origins: Wolverine!

The Wolverine was a chance to get things right, a self-contained story that wouldn’t contain any shoehorned-in cameos (like Cyclops and Emma “not Frost but kind of” in the previous Wolverine film) and would focus on Wolverine just doing his own thing. 

Living like a wild man and looking like a hobo.

This is definitely the closest we’ve come so far to seeing the Wolverine of the comics translated to film. Hugh Jackman is in top form both physically and in terms of characterization, and despite being a foot too tall for the role, he finally has that proper stocky look about him.

And, as Warren Zevon would say, his hair was perfect.

Also impressive is the way various comic storylines are incorporated into the film. Although they’re not exactly handled the way they are in the comics, it’s fun to see Viper and the Silver Samurai in the same film, and Wolverine’s rivalry with Shingen Yashida, although watered down from the Frank Miller epic, is still a welcome plot point. 

When I first heard this movie would take place in Japan, I was excited, but then I started to worry. My first concern was that it might be too far removed from the larger X-Men franchise, and I also worried the lack of known characters (and American actors) might make it less accessible to general audiences. I feared it would be boring, as, in many ways, Miller’s miniseries was kind of boring.

"Wanna take a step closer and say that, bub?"

What we get, though, is a very rich, immersive experience as Wolverine dodges the Yakuza and tries to protect heiress Mariko Yashida from the forces that seek to do her harm. The scenery, ranging from urban chase scenes to quiet rural environs, is lush and detailed, and there are plenty of thrills and laughs that come about as a result (the hotel scene is hilarious).

We also get to see another classic character from Wolverine’s comic book history, Yukio (played by Rila Fukushima). She doesn’t quite have the catsuit-clad lesbian biker vibe she has in the comics, but the movie’s creation is effective nevertheless. Her insistence upon acting as Wolverine’s bodyguard is simultaneously cute and insulting at first, but she quickly proves herself as a valuable and dangerous ally. Her ability to foresee death, however, was an unnecessary addition. It spoils the ending in the first 20 minutes and does nothing else to further the plot except tease Wolverine’s possible demise. 

Not sure who's more intense, her . . .
. . . or her.

When he’s not romancing Mariko and flirting with Yukio, though, Wolverine has to deal with another woman from his past: Jean Grey, who he was forced to kill in the still-terrible-after-all-these-years X-Men: The Last Stand. She haunts his dreams, beckoning him to join her in death despite his immortality. And then, when that immortality is taken away, she taunts him. Famke Janssen is gorgeous in this film, by the way. She’s going on 48 years old, but a minimum of CGI tweakage goes a long way. There is one giveaway, though: her hands. Dem be some ol’ lady hands. 

That said, waking up to her is NOT a bad thing.

I was also concerned when I found out one of the plot points would be Wolverine losing his healing factor. I’m sorry, I don’t care how broken up Wolverine is about life in general, I just didn’t see any reason why Wolverine would willingly give up his immortality. And that’s where the film surprised me: he doesn’t give it up willingly; he warns Yashida that his gift is actually a curse, and it’s taken from him by force. Aaaaand that’s the moment when I realized the movie wasn’t going to stink. 


Probably the only glaring plot hole is the idea that Wolverine actually seems to remember World War II and meeting Yashida. The best explanation I can think of is that he didn’t, but played along to humor the dying man. Then, when he finds the site where they first met, something clicks (can I get a No-Prize?). But hey, that’s just the master of nitpickery talking. Another question is what Viper's motivations are, as she's just kind of . . . well . . . there, but that can be overlooked as well. And what exactly do the bad guys want with Mariko? 

One would assume the same thing Wolverine wants.

As for action sequences, there really aren’t that many. If you’re going into the film hoping to see Wolverine being Dr. McBad@$$ and slicing and dicing bad guys left and right, you’re going to be disappointed. This is Ang Lee’s Hulk as opposed to Louis Leterrier’s The Incredible Hulk, a character study more than an action film. However, the action sequences we do get are great. Wolverine’s first scrap with the Yakuza is fun and violent, and it’s when he first starts to realize his healing factor is gone. His battle with the Silver Samurai has two distinct “Oh, snap!” moments, but is ultimately forgettable. Yukio’s fight scenes, particularly with Viper, are kinetic and fun. And Wolverine vs. Shingen, adamantium claws vs. samurai swords, is surprisingly not as one-sided as it sounds, and is the best fight in the movie. If only the stakes were as high as they were in the comic . . .

Winner of the dance-off gets Mariko!

Something that has consistently bothered me about Wolverine’s portrayal in film so far is that he has never gone into a proper berserker rage. Sure, there was that little tantrum he threw in X-Men Origins: Wolverine when he broke out of the adamantium bonding tank, but even after that unimaginable trauma, he was back to his mild self in minutes. But that didn’t bother me so much in this film. This Wolverine has been beaten down by the world and is frustrated with his own immortality. He is tired of watching those he cares about get killed, and he is tired of killing people himself. He’s a quieter, more introspective Wolverine, and it works. 

With a taste for the more sophisticated things in life.

The special effects are really good. The bullet train fight scene could have been an embarrassing failure, but it somehow manages to not look ridiculous. The scenes of Wolverine healing from his various wounds are handled well (although I still don’t understand how Wolverine’s exact haircut heals after severe head injuries). Wolverine’s claws, in both their bone and adamantium-coated forms, finally look right (without the obnoxious CGI sheen from X-Men Origins: Wolverine). And when Viper literally sheds her skin . . . *shudder* 

Talk about nightmare fuel!

There have been a lot of complaints about the use of the Silver Samurai in the film. He’s certainly an unorthodox adaptation, a CGI behemoth that shares a great deal in common design-wise with the Destroyer in Thor. However, I wasn’t overly offended by the liberties taken. He was definitely presented as a viable threat, an adamantium fiend who can cut through anything with his swords (and he does, in a horrifying moment reminiscent of The Empire Strikes Back). 

I would argue, though, that any scene involving Yoda was horrifying.

Also, as with most Marvel movies, it’s wise to stick around through the credits. There’s a really nice setup for X-Men: Days of Future Past, and although one cameo was to be expected, the other is a delightful surprise. 

If only . . .

Ultimately, James Mangold (3:10 to Yuma) has given us the best cinematic portrayal of Wolverine to date. It’s not a perfect movie, and the ending leaves a little to be desired, but it’s a great stand-alone film that really gets into the head of the character. Go see it! But skip the 3-D. 

Kind of like that.

My rating: 3.5/5

Monday, July 22, 2013

The Evils Dead: A comparison

The 2013 Evil Dead reboot came out on DVD last week. Naturally, a comparison is due.

The Evil Dead franchise is one of the most treasured in my DVD library. The first one, admittedly, was “so bad it’s good,” but the second was something magical—a delectable blend of gross-out horror and slapstick comedy. Then, with Army of Darkness, the series became something else entirely. Yes, it still had its grisly moments, but these were overshadowed by some of the most quotable one-liners and hilarious visual gags . . . ever. 

Aaaand some stuff that was just weird.

Although most people love Army of Darkness, there are some who felt it drifted too far from the whole “evil dead” concept. Rumors of a reboot started to surface some years ago, with the goal of returning things to the gnarly old cabin in the woods. 

And chainsaws. Gotta have chainsaws.

Personally, the last thing I wanted to see was a reboot of Evil Dead. I wanted a real sequel, with a grizzled Ashley J. Williams continuing to shop smart and kick butt. But, alas, this became less and less of a possibility as Bruce Campbell got older and Sam Raimi got distracted by the likes of Spider-Man and the land of Oz. So, as it became clear that a sequel wasn’t happening and a reboot definitely was, I grudgingly had to admit that maybe a different Evil Dead was better than no Evil Dead at all. 

And, as news and early reviews flowed in, I grew cautiously optimistic. I fully intended to watch it opening night . . . but it didn’t work out. One of the many frustrations of being a college student is that one doesn’t always have money to go out and do fun things. This penniless dilemma extended through the run of the film, and, alas, I missed it.
As soon as it came to DVD, however, I hurried to the nearest Redbox. I was excited. I wanted to see how this one compared to or improved on the original. Well . . .

Jane Levy (TV's Suburgatory) is no Bruce Campbell. That said, in 1981, Bruce Campbell was no Bruce Campbell, either. He spends most of the first film cowering in a corner, helplessly clutching an axe but doing nothing with it. Evil Dead II: Dead by Dawn was his time to shine, and boy, did he ever. 


That said, though, it's still difficult to judge the two films on acting merits when the over-the-top spectre of BRUCE-FREAKING-CAMPBELL from later films is still lurking in the back of my mind. 

You don't forget a face like that.

The new film tries to create compelling characters, as well as a legitimate reason for why they're out in the middle of nowhere. Levy's character, Mia, is a recovering drug addict, and this is their intervention. No matter what happens, one character says, they are not going to leave. She's right about that. 

"Wanna know how I got these scars?"

Mia's brother, David, was absent for most of this, leaving her to take care of their dying mother. Thus we have a redemption story of sorts when he's unwilling to give up on or abandon Mia when she gets all drooly and bitey. 

Then we have generic blonde no. 1, who dies in gruesome fashion along with generic brunette no. 1, who is shown above applying a homemade Glasgow grin. Then there's this nincompoop, Eric, shown here doing nincompoopish things. 

Say "hi," Eric.

The book has "DON'T READ FROM THE BOOK" written all over it—literally on some pages. Whole passages are blacked out. Soooo what does he do? Yep. And then this happens:

If you guessed he's about to die horribly, you're right.
Although he comes back as a Deadite first.

The old film had some pretty terrible acting. Granted, it's 30-plus years old, but there are some scenes that are just plain painful. However, it establishes its group pretty well, and it keeps the audience guessing as to who's going to make it out alive, if any of them. 

I don't think anybody was placing bets on our fluffy-headed friend on the left.

Indeed, it isn't Ash but Scotty who emerges as the resident bad@$$, willing to do what's necessary to stay alive while Ash snivels and hides.


But Raimi throws the audience for a loop when this happens:

Scotty goes off his meds.

. . . and Ash is forced to kill him, thereby winning this season of Zombie Cannibal Survivor . . . or does he? *Cue the ambiguous ending*

Ultimately, the 1981 version wins in this category. I really didn't care about . . . well . . . anybody in the new film. Although I did have the expected knee-jerk "Oh, dear!" reactions when bad things happened to them, there seemed to be an ongoing sense of "Here we go again . . ." every time somebody turned evil. In the original, though, I found myself much more invested in what was happening. Perhaps because we really didn't hear any backstories in the original, it was easier to play along, whereas in the reboot, I thought I could hear the director whispering "See? You MUST care!" every time David or Mia told a sad story, or Eric whined about how David never hung out with him anymore. 

The effects in the reboot are really good. Like, gut-wrenchingly good. As bones snap and blood spills, it’s all extremely sickening and visceral. And, fittingly, director Fede Alvarez said no CGI was used save for minor touch-ups, so there's that going in the film's favor, too. I approve wholeheartedly.  

"All-natural, baby!"

Compare this to the $350,000 budget of 1981's The Evil Dead. I watched the trilogy last Halloween, and let me tell ya, the effects in the original have not aged well. 

"We're gonna get you . . . to change the channel."

Nevertheless, at the end of the day, that doesn't matter. As ridiculous as the effects are, the original version of The Evil Dead is still a labor of love, and although Raimi didn't quite hit his stride until the sequel, the first one's still well worth watching.

For Bruce's unibrow, if nothing else.

Here’s where the reboot fails. Is it scary? Terrifying. We have the expected array of possessed zombie violence, tree-rape and self-mutilation, and it’s all shown in graphic detail. One girl cuts off part of her own face. Another saws her arm off with an electric carving knife. And then another RIPS HER OWN HAND OFF when it’s trapped under an overturned vehicle. That’s intense stuff. But it all seems by-the-numbers. Things that should have made me jump out of my skin instead just made me cringe a bit. 

"It's just a flesh wound!"

What made the original work was the fact that nobody had seen anything like it before. I mean, tree-rape?!! Possessed, soul-hungry campers lurking in the basement? Gratuitous dismemberment? Yowza. And even though it looked ridiculous on screen (due to budget constraints and Sam Raimi’s childlike glee), it was nonetheless awesome to behold in its silly way. 

That’s the primary difference between Evil Dead and The Evil Dead:

Evil Dead isn’t fun. It’s gory, it’s gross, it’s everything the original was probably intended to be, but I didn’t enjoy it. It’s a darned sight better than a lot of other “cabin in the woods” films, but it’s no Cabin in the Woods, which was nothing but fun with the genre. Evil Dead is a fairly solid horror film, but it’s not an Evil Dead film by any stretch of the imagination. Indeed, the best part of the movie—perhaps the only thing worth watching for a fan of the classic trilogy—is after the credits.

And yes, it involves this guy. 

Evil Dead is a humorless exercise in gratuitous mutilation and gut-churnery, and it's completely, utterly heartless. You don't get the feeling that Ted Raimi is barreling through the woods with a camera mounted to his bicycle, or that Fede Alvarez is laughing his butt off with cast and crew between takes as practical effects go awry. Like I said, for what it is, it's not terrible, but what it is . . . is by no means a fitting addition to the Evil Dead franchise. Just as "Don't Fear the Reaper" needed more cowbell, so also did Evil Dead need more Campbell.   

The verdict: Redbox it if you must, but don't expect great things. Don't expect to laugh. Don't expect clever one-liners or outstanding action sequences. Don't expect to have fun. Seriously, abandon all hope, ye who watch this movie. 

Two stars and two stars only. Let the Raimis handle the series from here. 

Friday, June 28, 2013

For your enjoyment, the Incredible Floating Passenger!

I was playing Red Dead Redemption a while back, and something odd happened. Not "Cougar Man" odd, but odd nevertheless. Our fearless, peerless hero John Marston happened to be hanging around the railroad camp near Tall Trees, when he suddenly bore witness to this:

That dude is floating. Literally floating above the railroad tracks, as if the train has left the station and he's still there. And he just stayed there.

I walked Marston all around him for the better part of five minutes. Then I remembered I had a camera right next to my bed, so I decided to snap some photos of this, probably the strangest video game phenomenon I've seen so far.

Still there. 
After a while, the guy still hadn't moved, so I walked even closer to him. Finally, he decided he'd had enough of the whole David Blaine schtick and dropped back down to terra firma.

At which point he walked away. I dunno, just thought I'd share. Anybody else find funny stuff in video games lately?