Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The New DCU - A Look Back.

In honor of DC COMICS' impending reboot and relaunch, I thought I'd take a moment to look back at some of my most fondly-remembered comics, stories, characters, and arcs from 20 or so years of reading DC Comics. This is only scratching the surface, of course, but it's a start. What were your favorite moments from the "old" DC Universe? Here are some of mine.

50 Things That Were Great In The Old DCU:

1. Mark Waid's run on THE FLASH ("My name is Wally West, and I'm the fastest man alive.")

2. The Death and Return of Superman. Epic.

3. Knightfall. Similarly epic.

4. Bruce Wayne: Murderer? Rucka and Brubaker tore it up on the Bat-titles.

5. No Man's Land - one of the coolest, best Batman stories ever.

6. Green Lantern by Geoff Johns. Rebirth. The Sinestro Corps War. 'Nuff Said.

7. Chuck Dixon and Gail Simone's runs on BIRDS OF PREY. Girl power was never stronger.

8. HOURMAN. The android one, from the future. One of the best, most underrated books.

9. Speaking of underrated, how about Karl Kessell and Tom Grummett on SUPERBOY.

10. Grant Morrison and Howard Porter. JLA. Definitive.

11. The David Goyer, James Robinson, Geoff Johns rebirth of the JSA. An amazing run.

12. Scott Snyder's just-completed run on DETECTIVE COMICS. Closed out 'Tec in style.

13. Tim Drake as ROBIN. A better Robin there never was.

14. Giffen and DeMattais' JUSTICE LEAGUE. Don't bwahaha it, it's a legendary run.

15. John Byrne's MAN OF STEEL. Rebooted Superman for the modern era.

16. Frank Miller's BATMAN: YEAR ONE. The definitive Batman origin.

17. CHASE. Introduced numerous killer concepts. One of the great gems of the 90's.

18. Mark Waid's JLA: YEAR ONE. Johns and Lee will ahve to work hard to top it.

19. JONAH HEX's recent run of awesomeness. Wild West at its best.

20. DC ONE MILLION. Grant Morrison's best-ever in-continuity DCU epic.

21. FINAL NIGHT. Hal Jordan reignites the sun, achieves redemption. Chills.

22. Gail Simone's SECRET SIX. Bad guys have never been so good.

23. SUICIDE SQUAD. Ostrander's legendary run. Barbara Gordon given new life as Oracle.

24. CHECKMATE by Greg Rucka. Brought black-ops intrigue back to the DCU.

25. Geoff Johns on THE FLASH. Few could have hoped to follow Waid, but somehow, Johns did.

26. Kyle Rayner as the one and only Green Lantern. A GL with imagination? Makes sense!

27. Guy Gardner as the one, true, Green Lantern. With Sinestro's ring. As Warrior.

28. Conner Hawke as Green Arrow. A standout star of DC's new generation.

29. BOOSTER GOLD's post-52 book. Time-travel adventure done right.

30. GREEN ARROW brought back to life by Kevin Smith, then turbo-charged by Brad Meltzer.

31. "Hush." Jim Lee drawing every Batman villain = geek out.

32. Paul Dini writing DC Comics. Amazing runs on 'Tec, Gotham Knights, Zatanna, etc.

33. UNDERWORLD UNLEASHED. The Joker vs. Satan. Kickass.

34. Cassandra Cain as BATGIRL. Batman as ninja girl ... she was awesome.

35. Stefanie Brown as BATGIRL. Spoiler warning: the recent run suprised by rocking hard.

36. THE HUNTRESS: CRY FOR BLOOD. The definitive look at Gotham's toughest vigilante.

37. The Wedding of Clark Kent and Lois Lane. It was meant to be. Don't undo it, DC.

38. "What's So Funny About Truth, Justice, and the American Way?" Best. Superman. Ever.

39. THE KILLING JOKE. An all-time classic Batman / Joker tale.

40. MARTIAN MANHUNTER's underrated solo book. Amazing Tom Mandrake art.

41. Batwoman's run as star of Detective Comics. Rucka. JH Williams. Incredible.

42. ZERO HOUR. Controversial at the time and today, but I maintain it was a great story.

43. Some great stories with THE NEW GODS, including Walt Simonson's epic run on ORION.

44. GOTHAM CENTRAL. Someone make this a TV show, now.


46. NIGHTWING by Chuck Dixon. Dixon had an unparallelled knack for writing the Bat-family.

47. Panic In the Sky - an epic early-90's Superman tale that established Supes as A-#1.

48. Grant Morrison's uber-ambitious 7 SOLDIERS mega-series.

49. IDENTITY CRISIS. A turning point for the DCU, but a great, gripping story.

50. Geoff Johns' most personal story - STARS & S.T.R.I.P.E. - Courtney Whitmore FTW.

Monday, August 29, 2011

COLOMBIANA - Is Revenge Sweet Or Sour?


- For Colombiana writer/producer Luc Besson, stories about revenge-seeking women kicking ass are old hat. Afterall, Besson helped popularize the genre in modern cinema with landmark films like La Femme Nikita and Leon: The Professional. But in recent years, we still haven't seen a ton of great roles for badass women in the movies. A long-in-development Wonder Woman movie remains in purgatory. Robert Rodriguez's Red Sonja remake seems to have lost steam. And with the exception of the occasional Angelina Jolie action-flick like Salt, few girl-power icons have truly emerged of late in film. That's why it's nice to see Zoe Saldana get top billing in COLOMBIANA. Saldana is legit - a good actress who also has the attitude, the moves, and the screen presence to work as a mainstream female action star. She deserves to star in a movie like this, and she really makes the most of the opportunity. Sure, Colombiana isn't going to win any awards for its somewhat generic, bare-bones script. It's not necessarilly even on the same level as some of the better Besson-produced films of the last few years, like District B13 or Taken. But, Colombiana is a really fun action flick that, I think, deserves an audience. Saldana shows that she has the chops to kick ass with the best of 'em, and seeing her in action is worth the price of admission.

Like I said, Colombiana's plot is extremely straightforward, and also very much out of the usual Besson playbook. The movie opens with an extended flashback to a time when Saldana's character, Cataleya (named for a Colombian flower), was just a wide-eyed ten year old living with her family in a crowded Colombian village. Young Cataleya sees her parents gunned down by Colombian ganglords after her father ends up double-crossed by his mentor - a ruthless criminal named Marco. Cataleya is left alive, which proves to be a huge mistake for Marco and his cohorts. The traumatized girl escapes to Miami, where she stays with her uncle, who happens to be a trained assassin. Her uncle slowly but surely teaches his niece how to be a killer. Now, we flashforward fifteen years. Cataleya - now portrayed by Saldana - is a hitwoman to be reckoned with, scaring even her uncle with her single-minded efficiency. Cataleya, now based in Chicago, works for him doing contract killings by day. But all the while, she has been biding her time to take vengeance on Marco and his organization. Now, she plans to lure them to her, in order to take them down.

The plot is basic, but it unfolds with some Euro-style flair thanks to director, and Besson protege, Olivier Megaton (quite a name, there). Megaton cut his teeth doing Transporter 3, and he seems to have gotten better since that film. He fills Colombiana with some truly breathtaking shots. Early scenes in Colmbia are particularly memorable. Later, just when things start to drag a little, Megaton throws in something particularly cool. A raid on a criminal's mansion is given an added degree of badassery thanks to the presence of a pool filled with deadly sharks. A prison-escape scene is rendered way-cooler-than-it-ought-to-be thanks to some super-slick techniques used by Cataleya to avoid detection. And the whole movie has that irony-free, Euro B-movie action tone that I always enjoy. There is humor, sure, but overall the movie takes its ass-kicking pretty darn seriously. It's fun. When young Cataleya asks her uncle if he'll show her how to kill people, he simply shrugs his shoulders and says "sure." Like I said, fun.

And again, Saldana rises to the occasion here. I kept thinking while watching this that, man, *she* could have been the perfect Catwoman. Saldana is slinky, cool, and deadly in this film - and she takes a backseat to no one. Criminal overlords, FBI agents, and prison guards are no match for her mix of cunning and badassery. I was also pretty impressed with the presence of the actress who plays the young version of Cataleya - Amandla Stenberg. She does a great job in those early scenes of playing the traumatized yet driven child. Saldana is mostly surrounded by a solid group of supporting players - the kind of grizzled badasses that typically populate these Besson action movies.

So where does Colombiana falter? Well, I think the main thing is that, as mentioned, the plot is so bare bones that there isn't much to sink our teeth into. We never learn much about the criminal organization that Cataleya is out to destroy, or what role her father played in the group (or why, exactly, he was portrayed). The movie only gives us the very broadest of strokes of story. This is also frustrating at the brief glimpses we get of Cataleya's personal life. There's a romance with a sort-of-random artist guy played by Michael Vartan, but the character feels a bit shoehorned into the plot. Overall, we just don't get enough sense of Cataleya's plans and her motivations. We know she's out for revenge - but why only now? What exactly has she been doing for the last fifteen years?

I also think that the action is cool looking, but that there aren't quite enough memorable, holy-$#%& moments that a movie like this needs to go from good to *great.* Don't get me wrong, there are several super-badass bits of awesomeness (did I mention the sharks?), but I think a couple more well-staged face-offs, and some better one-liners for Saldana to deliver, could have helped elevate this one to a must-see action flick.

Finally, I think the movie's tone is a little uneven. The movie works best when it's an unpretentious B-movie action flick. Once in a while though, the movie seems intent on pulling on our heartstrings in a way that doesn't quite work. Most jarring to me was the inclusion of Johnny Cash's iconic version of "Hurt" at a moment when it felt very out of place. I love the song, but you've got to earn a song like that, you know? And I don't think Colombiana ever quite attains the level of pathos / introspection it sometimes seems to wish it had.

Still, I think COLOMBIANA is way more fun and worthwhile than most critics have been giving it credit for. You may have read that the Cinemascore for this one has been very high, and I have to say, it's a crowd-pleaser. The audience I saw it with clapped at the end with enthusiasm. Like I said, it doesn't quite fire on all cylinders like I thought, say, Taken did, but it's very much in that same wheelhouse. It's just a tasty snack of an action movie - full of stylized ass-kicking, and anchored by the more-than-capable Saldana. It really is refreshing to see someone new step up to the plate and take the ball that the likes of Sigourney Weaver and Angelina Jolie have previously carried. Saldana is a certified badass in this one, and hey, watching a new action star come on the scene and own it - particularly a female action star - to me, that's something that's well worth checking out.

My Grade: B+

Monday, August 22, 2011

Taking a Bite Out Of FRIGHT NIGHT


- Despite being pretty decent overall, the new FRIGHT NIGHT is one of those films that just makes you question so many things about the current state of Hollywood. It's a remake of an only marginally-beloved, cheesy 80's horror flick that has minimal name recognition, even among geeks. It's in 3D for no particularly good reason. And it comes to us at the tail-end of a summer that's been chock full of unnecessary remakes and unnecessary 3D.

Now, on the first point - why remake Fright Night? I think the fact that both this and Conan bombed on the same weekend sends a message, once and for all, that this perceived value of having a presold brand-name for a new movie means nothing in and of itself. Some ideas and characters, I'll admit, lend themselves to reinterpretation as the years go by. Some characters like Superman, Batman, James Bond - they're so iconic that it seems fitting that their adventures should be told, retold, and updated for each new generation. Even something like Conan - you've got the original source material - the Robert E. Howard books - from which to draw from, so that isn't a reboot so much as a new adaptation. That movie, I think, had plenty of other issues that kept it from being a box-office smash. But FRIGHT NIGHT? Was this a movie that anyone, ever, demanded to see remade? Was there any real point to retelling this story here and now? Was there any real creative or commercial reason to remake the original rather than to just COME UP WITH AN ORIGINAL STORY with an ORIGINAL title? I'd like to think that the creative team behind this new Fright Night had some great new vampire story in them, one not beholden to the tired plot of a cheesy 80's movie that was never even that great to begin with. Most people aren't idiots - they realize that this is a lazy, cynical style of filmmaking, and I think people responded to that with their dollars. I mean, tell me about a cool new horror-comedy movie with Colin Farell as the villain, and you know what? - I'm interested. Tell me that that movie is in fact a remake of Fright Night, and guess what? - I'm actually LESS interested. There's your presold branding for 'ya.

On the 3D ... I ended up seeing the movie in 3D, and it looked okay. But it never looked awesome. 3D should be an event ... an effect that's either really fun and over-the-top (Pirahna, Drive Angry), or else state-of-the-art and slick (Avatar, How To Train Your Dragon, Tron: Legacy, etc.). 3D should never just be "meh." It's not worth the extra ticket price, and again, audiences are responding to that. Shoot the movie in 3D, make the 3D awe-inspiring and immersive, or else DONT DO IT. Audiences know it's just a cash-grab. And too many movies this summer alone have come out with 3D despite not being shot in 3D and despite the 3D actually detracting from the picture quality. Again, Fright Night looked fine - the 3D didn't detract, but it also added a bare minimum of wow-factor.

So I think that FRIGHT NIGHT had a lot working against it from a box-office and from a public perception point of view. And ironically, the two things that probably hurt it were also the two things that the studio looked at as plusses. So studios -- STOP THINKING THIS WAY. And if you remake The Goonies in 3D, so help me I will be pissed off (yes, this movie is actually beloved). If you remake Harry and the Hendersons or Little Monsters ... no one will really care (and I say that as someone who really likes Harry and the Hendersons). They will bomb.

All that being said though, FRIGHT NIGHT is a pretty enjoyable romp. It's got some fun moments, and the cast largely does a good job. Colin Farell is really good as Jerry, the most casually antagonistic vampire in the history of vampires. Farell's facial expressions and super-laid-back demeanor all make Jerry a really fun - at times very funny - character, with a simmering vampire rage stewing beneath his slick, smooth-talking exterior. Christopher Mintz-Plasse brings some good comedy chops to the role of "Evil" Ed, with a tinge of darkness thrown in as well. And David Tennant is charismatic and occasionally funny as Peter Vincent, who in this version is no longer a creepy late-night TV horror host, but a Criss Angel-like illusionist who has an obsession with the occult.

What doesn't work as well in terms of casting? Anton Yelchin seems like a fine actor, but something felt off about his lead role in this film. He didn't quite feel believable as a former geek-turned-popular-kid, and throughout the whole movie, he seemed to be trying to put on a quasi-tough guy act that didn't really mesh with his character. Again, he seems like a really good actor, but his character just came off as pretty bland to me in this film. Imogen Poots, meanwhile, is the resident eye-candy for the guys. Maybe she can act, I don't know, but she isn't given much room to stretch here or much in the way of character. We're told she likes Yelchin despite his dweebiness, but why, exactly? Who knows. Finally, Toni Collette feels way overqualified to play "the mom." The movie actually sets thing up nicely, where Collette is positioned to help out her son fight off vampires. It could have been a cool twist - instead of mom as mere victim, how about a pretty kickass mom who's less June Cleaver and more Sarah Conner? But no, the movie ends up sidelining the capable Collette for the movie's third act, which is a shame.

Mostly, the movie is well-structured and evenly paced, although I think a couple of things kept the story from working as well as it should have. In the original, I think the fun conceit was that this old-timey horror host was believed to in fact be a legitimate vampire hunter - and then steps up to take on that role. It worked, in a cheesy, 80's, "what-the-hell-why-not" sort of way. Here, Peter Vincent feels very shoehorned into the plot, and the fact that he's both a stage magician and a source of legit supernatural know-how never quite gels to create a convincing - or particularly cool - character. And also - he's a loud-mouthed, wise-cracking, womanizing Brit. Again, this movie's version of Peter Vincent ends up just feeling too random to really make an impression, even though Tennant does his best to bring him to life. I also thought there were a few too many scenes of someone trying to convince someone else that there was, indeed, a vampire living next door. I get that it's logical that people would be doubtful about this, but come on - what fun is a vampire movie where half of it is spent with scenes where someone has to stammer on about how, "trust me, I know this sounds crazy, but this guy is a vampire!". To its credit, the movie doesn't keep *us* guessing for too long as to Jerry's true nature. We're clued in to his deal pretty quickly, thus we don't have to wait too long for the movie's dramatic stakes to be upped (pun very much intended).

Also to its credit, Fright Night is pretty good overall at delivering lots of fun scares and freak-outs. The movie gives us a number of fun hide-and-seek style scenes of Yelchin snooping around his neighbor's apartment. And, there are some pretty nifty chase scenes as well. Director Craig Gillespe really does seem to have a talent for creating a critical mass of tension and then surprising the audience with some unexpected craziness.

As for the humor, I do think the movie could have used a little more, well, fun. Give Mintz-Plasse some backstory to make him actually earn the nickname of "Evil" Ed. Have Toni Collette and Imogen Poots get more involved in the action. Give Colin Ferrell a little more opportunity to chew some scenery. The movie seemed a little torn between trying to be fun and serious. Somehow, 80's movies used to able to nail that tone of being silly while taking themselves seriously. More modern movies, always needing to give us that ironic wink of self-awareness, sometimes feel too concerned with being cool to just be weird and crazy.

FRIGHT NIGHT deserves credit for being way more fun, funny, and frightening than it had any right to be. It's an entertaining flick with a good cast, some chuckle-worthy moments, and some legit scares. To me though, the fact that this turned out to be a halfway-decent film still doesn't quite justify its existence. Because I know that this cast and this creative team could have done something better if tasked with bringing an original idea to life. The movie seems hamstrung by the need to emulate the original movie - nothing is really gained (not creatively, and clearly not commercially) from the connection.

My Grade: B

Saturday, August 20, 2011



-I grew up a huge fan of all things CONAN. Back in the old days, as a kid in New England, I'd spend many a night transfixed to whatever sword and sorcery movie was playing late at night on USA, TNT, or TBS. Beastmaster, Krull, Red Sonja, Conan the Barbarian, Conan the Destroyer - I loved 'em all. Even before I got into those films, my absolute favorite cartoon as a young kid was He-Man (clearly a slightly more high-tech riff on Conan's Hyborean Age). I loved all that stuff ... but when you look at the classic 80's sword and sorcery flicks, what I remember most fondly isn't necessarilly specifc plot points or individual scenes ... it's more just about atmosphere. You'd watch CONAN and be transported to this far-away time and place. A time of adventure and brutality. A time before technology. When there were still traces of magic in the world - mysterious beasts and dark sorcery. A time when men were men. A time when it was kill or be killed. Looking back at John Milius' original Conan The Barbarian - I know it's not something that everyone gets, but to me, it's a stone-cold classic. It's a movie that utterly succeeds at creating an epic world of heroes and villains. It's a film that artfully creates an immersive atmosphere - that whisks you away to the Hyborean Age. It's a grand, slow-burning, sweeping film - made all the more epic by the stunning score from Basil Poledouris. And back in the day - before Arnold Schwarzenegger was the Governator and tabloid fodder - the hulking actor gave the film's title character an exotic mystique. He was convincing as a barbarian from a long-ago era, and his overall presence in the film was nothing short of iconic. Writer Oliver Stone, drafting from the stories of original Conan creator Robert E. Howard, crafted a Conan whose ethos were straightforward but undeniably badass. In answer to the question "what is best in life?", Conan famously, emotionleslly replied: "to crush your enemies, seem them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of the women."

Conan the Barbarian remains one of my all-time favorite films. But since the 80's heyday of sword and sorcery, few new big-screen entries in the genre have emerged. For years, there were rumors of a new Conan film with Schwarzenegger reprising the role, but politics put that on the backburner. But here, now, we finally do have a new Robert E. Howard adaptation. And many were curious to see to what extent the movie would go back to the source material, and to what extent it'd be a retread of the classic 80's film. There was plenty of reason to be skeptical about the new movie, but as the summer's gone on, new reason for optimism also emerged. The biggest tide shift was the emergence of star Jason Mamoa as a legitimate fan-favorite, after he kicked all kinds of ass as Khal Drogo in HBO's Game of Thrones. Suddenly, it became less about this new guy not being as imposing as Ah-nold, and more about the excitement of seeing Drogo-as-Conan. I also think that this has been a summer of surprises. If a late-summer sci-fi oddity like Rise of the Planet of the Apes could be a sleeper smash, then perhaps this new Conan, too, would be able to surpass expectations and knock it out of the park?

As it turns out, the new CONAN THE BARBARIAN ends up being enjoyable, action-packed, but also something of a mixed bag. This is one of those movies where it feels like somewhere, buried underneath the movie we're actually watching, is a legitimately great film. The ingredients seem to be there. The cast is a lot of fun. And they ended up nailing the biggest hurdle of all - casting a great Conan. Jason Mamoa steps up to the plate and does a fantastic job. He's imposing, he's badass, he cuts a figure that at times helps make certain shots look like a Frank Frazetta painting transposed to the screen. He's a different sort of Conan than Schwarzenegger was - quicker, craftier, more jovial at times - but some of this Conan is indeed truer to the source material, so it's all good. So Mamoa is spot-on, the rest of the cast does a nice job, and there are enough bits and pieces of awesomeness - certain set-piece action scenes, certain lines of dialogue, certain moments - that again, the basic building blocks for a badass Conan movie are all here.

But where this new Conan ultimately falters is in the direction, editing, and overall pacing of the film. Director Marcus Nispel goes for a quick-cutting, frenzied style that aims to give the movie a videogame-like sense of chaos and energy. But what he ends up doing is undercutting the epic nature of the story, losing most of the required sense of size and scope in the process. The camera is almost constantly affixed close and tight on the lead actors, rarely panning out for the sort of wide, sweeping shots that made the original Conan The Barbarian so immersive. The story has Conan travelling the world, by land and sea, and yet there's almost no sense of geography. Everything is reigned-in, rapidly-edited, quick-cutting. Same goes for the action. It felt like there was some truly badass action going on throughout the movie, only we couldn't see it as it was meant to be seen. The cuts were so quick, and the editing so frenzied, that few of the movie's battles were able to sustain much dramatic momentum for more than a minute or so. The ADD directing style meant that a lot of the film's goriest, potentially coolest moments had much less impact than they might have otherwise. Similarly, there seem to be all kinds of interesting sets and locations in the film ... but we barely get any time to soak them in. We'll see a couple of frames of an establishing shot and then - boom! - cut. What this means is that the movie seems to *want* to have a sense of epicness and grandeur, but yet seems to be working at cross-purposes - too afraid to let the camera linger at all. To that end, watching the movie often feels less like going on an epic adventure and more like watching a "Conan's Greatest Kills" music video.

That doesn't mean that some of the action isn't cool, even in spite of the choppy editing. A wickedly fun battle between Conan and an army of sand-creatures is particularly well-done, for example. And there are some really nice moments of brutally entertaining violence scattered throughout the flick. The film definitely earns its R-rating, and pulls no punches in the action department.

It's funny though, the opening to the movie is a perfect example of the what the film gets wrong and what it gets right. It's a potentially awesome prologue - as we see the bloody birth of our hero in the midst of battle. The infant Conan is extracted from his dying mother and held aloft by his barbarian father - his first sights and sounds of the world being violence and death. It should be epic and memorable - and it sort of is. But the direction just refuses to give the moment the grandeur it needed to 100% work - focusing so much on the grotesque sight of the writhing infant, that the enormity of the moment is almost lost. The direction is just too claustrophobic and uneven. That uneveness also comes into play in some key action scenes, where the logistics of the action at times feel a little off. Certain moments either feel rushed or just slightly incomprehensible - but the movie is so intent on zipping from one thing to another that it's all a bit hard to process.

Like I said though, the cast does do a nice job, and really help to make the movie as enjoyable as it is. Mamoa is a great Conan. Stephen Lang, in turn, makes for an excellent villain - would-be conqueror Khalar-Zym. He hams it up as he did in Avatar and is nicely over-the-top and sinister. Even better is Zym's warped, slightly incestuous relationship with his insane, sorcerous daughter, Marique. Played by Rose McGowan, Marique is a real scene-stealer and has a great, supremely weird look - with whacked-out hair and makeup and a super-cool claw-glove. It was great to see McGowan back in fine, camptastic form after a lengthy absence from the big screen. The downside is that Rachel Nichols - as a virtuous monk and love-interest for Conan - comes off as a bit bland in comparison. Her character's romance with Conan feels a bit half-baked, though by movie's end she does get to kick a decent amount of ass in her own right. Still, more interaction between Mamoa and McGowan would have been welcome, as there seemed to be some great potential there for some truly twisted chemistry. The early section of the movie - where we see Conan as a young boy - also benefits from some nice casting. Ron Pearlman as Conan's imposing father is a lot of fun as usual (though he looks nothing like Mamoa or the younger version of Conan). But Leo Howard (nice last name) does a pretty amazing job as the young Conan - so much so that it kind of makes you want to see a Lone Wolf and Cub-style story about boy Conan and his Dad kicking ass.

To that end, as fun as the first section of the movie is, I also wondered if perhaps it went on too long. It feels almost like a different movie than the rest of the film, and takes a lot of time away from fleshing out Mamoa-as-Conan. I also wondered if perhaps the backstory involving Zym and his quest for an ancient mask was a bit too convoluted for its own good. Somehow, even with an opening narration from Morgan Freeman (!) and a couple of evil monologues from Zym, it's still a little hard to grasp what, exactly, his master plan is. I also wished that Conan had some more badass companions. The supporting characters are mostly given the short shrift, and don't make much of an impression. As far as Conan's various travelling companions go, we don't get much of their backstories or a real sense of their relationships with Conan.

From an aesthetic point of view, the movie is definitely a mixed bag. As mentioned, certain sets look great, but we just don't get enough time to soak them in. I wish that the cool physical sets had been a bit more numerous and expansive - I am guessing that the filmmakers were, to some extent, limited in that regard. I also wish the movie had a better score. The original movie's was classic, and there's nothing here that's really memorable - no distinctive theme that you come away humming. It's interesting - there seemed to be a lot of push and pull going on behind the scenes as to the movie's aesthetic stylings. While the action tends to be more 300 and God of War than John Millius, there are also a couple of very 1980's-style visuals. One gratuitously long sex scene, for example, is right out of the 80's genre-movie playbook. If only other parts of the film could have been so epically shot!

Still, I ended up having a lot of fun with the new Conan, flaws and all. I think that Jason Mamoa's clear joy at playing the character shines through and proves infectious, and I would love to see a couple more Conan adventures with him in the lead. With Mamoa anchoring the movie, with Lang and McGowan doing a bang-up job as the villains, and with a plentiful amount of cool sets, locations, action scenes, and moments of badassery ... I think that CONAN THE BARBARIAN ends up being a decently-satisfying and ultimately entertaining update to the franchise. But, I'd also like to see any future Conan films take on a more serious, grim tone, and a more epic, sweeping feel. As is, the spotty direction and messy editing detracts from the movie and undermines the characters, story, and action.

It's a fun adventure, but not quite the epic quest of glory and awesomeness that I was hoping for.

My Grade: B

Monday, August 15, 2011

30 MINUTES OR LESS - Mmmm ... Now That's Some Tasty Comedy.


- In a couple of my recent reviews, I've talked about how wildly inconsistent - and oftentimes unfair - reviews of big screen comedies tend to be. Reviewers know all too well how to analyze a film's satirical bent or attempts at social commentary, but too often, very funny comedies get overlooked simply because their merits (ie being funny) are more difficult to explain. So let me explain why 30 MINUTES OR LESS is one of the best films of the summer and one of the best comedies of the year - because it's funny as hell. This is a movie with a razor-sharp script, a great sense of pacing, some crazy action, and an awesome cast that is just about perfect for the film. Somehow though, the movie is getting lukewarm reviews and had a less-than-stellar box-office debut. But I am here to tell you - this might just be a future cult classic in the making.

The premise of 30 Minutes Or Less might sound dark. Very dark. And that's because ... it is. The whole movie is just gleefully messed-up, and sometimes, just plain wrong. If you like things like Eastbound & Down, then you'll be right at home here. But I digress ... the premise here is that a twenty-something pizza delivery guy Nick (Jessie Eisenberg) is having something of a quarter-life crisis when his life gets a sudden nitro-boost of danger, thanks to two losers / would-be criminals (Danny McBride and Nick Swardson). One of the thugs, Dwayne (McBride), stands to inherit a lot of money if he can only off his war-hero dad. So Dwayne racks his pea-brain to come up with a foolproof plan to have his father killed - only problem is, Dwayne and his partner-in-crime, Travis (Swardson) need money to hire the assassin. So, the key to their roundabout plan is strapping a bomb to some innocent, unsuspecting patsy and having *him* rob a bank for them, getting them the necessary cash to payoff Chango (Michael Pena) - a hired gun. Dwayne and Travis decide to lure in an ususpecting pizza guy to strap the bomb to, and of course, that guy turns out to be Nick. So Nick - used to dashing around town delivering pizzas with a deadline, suddenly has to figure out how to rob a bank, make a getaway, and stay alive, all with a rigged vest of explosives fastened to his chest. He's got his best friend and roommate, Chet in tow (Aziz Ansari), but ultimately, he's got to rely on his wits, his survival instincts, and his ability to drive really fast ... to get the job done.

Jessie Eisenberg and Aziz Ansari make a great comedic duo, in the grand tradition of buddy-comedy pairings. And if you think about it, they're a perfect match. Eisenberg is known for playing tightly-wound characters who keep things bottled up. Aziz's whole persona is that of a guy who's loud, expressive, and has a hard time keeping things to himself. Suffice it to say, the two have great chemistry and have some great banter in the film. Even though both do some assholish things throughout the film, you can't help but root for these guys. And Eisenberg is great, as per usual, but Ansari is probably the big surprise. He's obviously a much looser, more improvisational actor than Eisenberg, but he's also a natural. Again, it's a great case where two seemingly odd-couple actors work great together. However, the biggest scene-stealers in the movie are the villainous duo of McBride and Swardson. These guys are absolutely friggin' hilarious together, and had me clutching my sides with laughter on multiple occasions. Sure, McBride is essentially just doing a variation on his trademark Kenny Powers character, but that doesn't make his brilliant line deliveries any less hilarious in my eyes. McBride has some lines in this movie that are instant-classics, in my humble opinion. Michael Pena is also great as the "Satanic Hispanic" Chango, and has some awesome lines and moments as well. Fred Ward also gets in a couple of great scenes as "The Major."

Overall, the movie's script is packed to the brim with hilarious dialogue, but makes time for nice character moments as well - and is filled with some intense action to boot. It's just a phenomenally-structured screenplay that really clicks on multiple levels. And the film's direction - by Ruben Fleischer of Zombieland fame - is similarly lean, mean, and ultra-slick. The movie just has - and maintains - an incredible sense of forward momentum throughout. There's not a dull moment, but the movie also never feels overstuffed. All the big character beats are woven seamlessly into the plot, and there are also tons of little touches - bits of dialogue, the eclectic soundtrack, well-placed pop-culture references - that give the movie an overabundance of personality. I also give the movie credit for having the guts to go dark and not go for the easy happy ending or the easy clean ending. In short, the movie isn't your typical by-the-numbers comedy, and I was pleasantly surprised at the somewhat twisted places the plot was willing to take its characters.

Fact is, I laughed my ass off while watching 30 MINUTES OR LESS, and was totally into the film and its characters for the duration of its running time. And hey, even though I said in my opening rant that most comedies don't need to work in some larger thematic context to be effective ... I will say this: this movie manages to capture a certain feeling of twenty-something restlessness that I found very spot-on. While the movie isn't overtly about this sort of thing, I think that it has an authenticity and realness - in the characters, the dialogue, the relationships - that make the funny moments all the funnier and the stakes of the action scenes all the higher.

This is one hell of an action/comedy that deserves to be seen, talked about, and quoted. Spread the word - 30 MINUTES OR LESS is hot, fresh, and right on time.

My Grade: A-

Monday, August 08, 2011



- I have to say ... I am a little surprised at some of the reviews for The Change-Up. So much time is spent on over-analyzing the movie's absurd premise and boundary-pushing R-rated humor, that comparitively little time has been spent on the most important question of all: is the movie funny? The value of a comedy ultimately boils down to that question, but it's one that critics tend to hate because it's such a subjective thing. It's why absurdist comedy is almost always underrated by critics - if there's not some sort of social, political, or cultural satire at the heart of a film or TV show, critics don't usually have the correct vocabulary to evaluate it. I'm not saying that The Change-Up is a comedy classic or anything, but I'm saying this: no matter what you think of the movie in theory, or on paper, well ... that only has so much weight at the end of the day. For me, I went into the film as a skeptic. The premise seemed tired and cliched, the lead actors are both overexposed at the moment, and the fact that this was from the guys who brought us "The Wedding Crashers" didn't exactly inspire confidence. Here's the thing though: the movie wasn't life-changing, but the script was clever and at times wickedly funny. Looking at this film in comparison to other Summer '11 comedies - Bad Teacher, Horrible Bosses, The Hangover 2 - I think it compares pretty favorably.

Here's the thing about The Change-Up ... if it took itself at all seriously, it would be a pretty obnoxious movie, no question. But I think the movie establishes pretty quickly that it's just going to go for broke, and use its ridiculous premise as a means to get as crazy, vulgar, and stupid as it possibly can. One of my personal pet peeves is movies that seem to have that disconnect where they seem to *think* their characters are likable, even though they are essentially d-bags (cough*The Hangover* cough). But The Change-Up basically comes out of the gate and says "yep, these two guys are complete assholes, now let's have some fun with that."

And both Jason Bateman and Ryan Reynolds are pretty game to degrade themselves and act like juvenile idiots in the name of getting a laugh. Both are quite good in the movie, and if not for their likability as comedic actors, the movie would probably really struggle to work as well as it does. I will say - after seeing Horrible Bosses, where Bateman's character supposedly grew up with Jason Sudeikis and Charlie Day, it was jarring to again see him cast as a childhood chum of an actor clearly a decade or more his junior. That said, the two actors have an excellent chemistry. Not only do they do a pretty good job of acting like the other, once the film's body-swapping premise fully kicks in, but some of the movie's funniest moments come from the small bits of back-and-forth dialogue between them.

Now, I give all this praise simply because I was a bit shocked at all of the extreme negativity directed towards the film. I see D-level grades, and I think that the film's script is too sharp, and its lead actors too good, to rate quite so low. Still, I will admit that the movie has some fundamental issues. Chiefly, I think where THE CHANGE-UP really goes off the rails a bit is with the tone. It's just way too all-over-the-place. The problem is that much of the movie is completely wacky and absurd, and yet at times it becomes way too sincere. All that stuff I said above about the movie not taking itself seriously? There are random scenes where all that gets thrown out the window, and the film stops feeling subversive and random and starts feeling like a sitcom episode. It's funny though, because, for example, the final act of the film is so melodramatic that it almost comes back to being hilarious. It's weird ... it feels like the film is being pulled in two directions. Part of it wants to be over-the-top and broad, like an Anchorman, and part of it is trying to be more standard-issue comedy. But the premise itself is broad and absurd - it doesn't lend itself to any sort of seriousness or sincerity at all. And yet, sometimes the movie sheds any layer of self-aware irony, blasts big, dramatic music, and seems to actually want us to feel sad or emotionally-invested in its characters. Like I said, very tonally uneven. It's the rare piece of comedy that can balance wackiness and absurdity with actual pathos (The Simpsons and Futurama come to mind ... and not many others). And yeah, in this case, it's one of those things where you cant quite be sure what movie you're watching from scene to scene.

I also think the movie crosses a couple of lines here and there. It relies too much on visual gross-out gags, for one. I have no problem with crude humor, and there is some very funny crude humor in the film. But just showing me (literally) crap for the sake of shock-value isn't really good comedy, it's just laziness. The movie has a few too many pure shock-value gags than were needed, and too many are simply of the "ugh, gross!" variety as opposed to actually being funny. I know that there's also a lot of talk about the movie's relatively poor handling of its female characters. I think it again ties back to an overreliance on lazy gags as opposed to any true sort of misogyny in the screenplay. At the same time, there is something a little off when the movie shows off a naked Leslie Mann (albeit via a fake / CGI'd body), and yet also wants us to be revulsed by her when she has has a bad stomach. It's all in the details though, you know? You could have had a gag where Reynolds-in-Bateman's-body is grossed-out, but then Mann reprimands him and calls out all the gross things that she has to put up with. Instead, she just sort of becomes sad at the insult and takes it. It's a little moment that's generated a lot of discussion / controversy, and I do agree that the movie only sparingly lets Mann's character have a brain or a spine. Given that Mann comes off as a very smart, strong woman in real life and on-screen, it's jarring and feels off. At the same time, Olivia Wilde's character is really more of a plot device than an actual character. Again, I do think it's a bit lazy to have her character's personality just sort of exist to serve the script.

As it stands, The Change-Up is one of those movies that is probably way better in execution than it has any right to be on paper. It helps that the cast is filled with talented people who probably help to elevate the film as a whole. Bateman, Reynolds, Mann - along with supporting players like Alan Arkin (way too good for this, to be honest) and Gregory Itzin - all make the most of the material. And really, what makes the movie is that it's got several really great gags and a number of laugh-out-loud moments. Bad Teacher had a couple. Horrible Bosses had one or two. This one kept me laughing. At the same time, I recognize that on a stuctural / conceptual level, the movie is flawed. Ideally, I want to have my cake and eat it too. But in this case, I'll make the case that there is, indeed, some cake.

My Grade: B

Saturday, August 06, 2011

RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES Is A Truly Badass Blockbuster!


- Rise of the Planet of the Apes hit me like a thunderbolt. I know, there was reason to be skeptical of this one. Some of the trailers were a little flat. The memory of the misguided Tim Burton remake was still relatively fresh. The movie was yet another prequel / reboot in a summer that's had plenty of underwhelming blockbusters that failed to live up to the hype. But Planet of the Apes shocked me in that it wasn't even just a great blockbuster, but a great sci-fi film - a movie that was in turn action-packed, thought-provoking, and emotionally-charged. It even fits in very nicely with the world of the legendary original, and contains plenty of homages to the beloved classic. But man, this is, easily, the surprise of the summer - an absolutely kickass film that is captivating, intense, and positively thrilling for the entirety of its runtime. This might just be *the* blockbuster film of Summer 2011.

First off, I've been reading so many cynical / snarky comments from people who haven't even seen the film. All of these questions like "how can so few apes pose a threat to humans?", "how could a limited number of apes ever end up overtaking mankind?", etc. People - see the movie. The film actually does a fantastic job of laying the groundwork for the world that will eventually come to be in Planet of the Apes, and it does so in a way that is elegantly crafted and logically explained. But, the important thing here is that this movie is only the beginning of the story. It's not about apes taking over the world - not at all. It's about one ape - Ceaser - the first ape to gain super-intelligence, and about his struggle to find his place in a world where he does not quite belong. We see the backstory behind Ceaser's creation in a lab - where he is tested on as part of the search for a cure to Alzheimer's. We see his early life, raised almost as a human child by his scientist caretaker, Will - played by James Franco - and Will's girlfriend (Freida Pinto) and father (John Lithgow). It is because of his father's condition that Will strives - sometimes recklessly - to find a cure for Alzheimer's. Eventually, we see Ceaser's forced entry into a prison-like animal shelter, where he interacts with other apes for the first time, and is forced to deal with a stern warden (Brian Cox) and his semi-abusive assistant (Tom Felton). Finally, we see Ceaser's escape from the facility, and, well ... things get pretty crazy from there.

But really, RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES is all about Ceaser's emotional arc. We see him evolve over a period of years from a happy, playful infant to a thoughtful, curious, contemplative adult - and, eventually, we see him become a true leader of sorts. I absolutely cannot say enough about the phenomenal, heartbreaking, riveting work done in this film by ANDY SERKIS in partnership with the wizards at the WETA f/x studio. Ceaser is one of the greatest, most life-like, most emotive digital characters I've ever seen on screen. And Serkis deserves all the credit in the world for helping to bring him to life with his motion-capture performance, easily on par with the work he's done on characters like Gollum and King Kong. From his facial expressions, his gestures, his body language, his *eyes,* we know everything we need to know about what Ceaser is thinking at any given moment. And the level of character, of intelligence, of heart - that Serkis and WETA are able to give to Ceaser - it's mind-boggling. I know there's been talk of Serkis as deserving of an Oscar for his work here, and I couldn't agree more. Either a new category for digital performance should be created, or else Serkis should be included with other Best Actor or Supporting Actor nominees. Because, honestly, the half-human, half-digital performance of Ceaser in this film is one of the absolute best I've yet seen this year.

Aside from Ceaser, the overall f/x work on the film is superb. We get to know several other apes throughout the course of the movie, and the level of character and personality that each has - the level of expressiveness conveyed through body language, etc. - is pretty incredible. I felt more of an attachment to most of these apes than I have to a lot of other supporting characters in this summer's crop of blockbusters - and when they have their big moments, you can't help but be emotionally invested. What I love is that this is CGI used in the way that f/x used to be used back in the day - as a means to tell a story. Not as clutter, not as noise, but completely in service to the story being told. Sure, there is that uncanny valley of the apes at times looking not *quite* real - but with a little suspension of disbelief, you come to completely buy into these characters and this world.

Oddly, I have seen a decent amount of criticism directed at the human actors in the film. And I admit, something about James Franco's scenes from the trailers seemed a little off to me. That said, I came away from the movie thinking that Franco actually did a pretty damn good job here. I think the key for the role of Will was to have someone who seems driven and a bit reckless, but at the same time ... likable and sympathetic. To me, Franco pulled that off quite well, and as the movie progresses, and he and Ceaser's relationship becomes more complicated, I thought there was some real on-screen chemistry between Franco and his simian friend. I know, it sounds crazy, but man, it's there. And for that I give Franco credit - it couldn't have been easy to develop such a full-feeling onscreen relationship with a digital creation. I also hear people criticize Freida Pinto's character as being undercooked. I get that criticism, but I also don't think this was truly her or Will's story - it's Ceaser's. The movie didn't need a drawn-out romance, it had plenty of other things to worry about, and I actually give it credit for not falling into the typical blockbuster movie trap of unnecessarilly giving too much time to a big romance plotline. That particular plotpoint served its purpose in the story, but otherwise remained in the background ... which to me is fine. Also, I really loved John Lithgow in the film. The guy has done more TV than film for a while now, but it was great seeing him in a key supporting role here. Lithgow is one of those guys who can inject a certain sense of offbeat danger and imbalance into any scene, and he's therefore a perfect fit for this film. We root for Lithgow's character but also worry about him - so I say, it's an excellent turn for the actor. Meanwhile, Tom Felton plays the movie's most cartoonish character - a somewhat assholish kid who is mean to the apes in his care. I enjoyed the character though, because his entire purpose is basically to eventually learn a lesson about karma being a bitch, and when that moment comes ... it's a good one. Overall, I thought the cast of the film did a nice job. It's important to remember though ... the APES are truly the stars of the film, and some of the movie's best scenes actually have minimal or no human presence.

And man, one of the great surprises of the movie is the discovery of director Rupert Wyatt. I kept thinking throughout the film ..."wait a second, *who* directed this?". Because the energy, the dynamism, the flow of the film is just off-the-chain awesome. The storytelling at play here is simply superb, with Wyatt knowing when to breathe or when to give time to a key emotional beat. At the same time ... when the action kicks into high-gear: holy crap! This movie's big action set-pieces were absolutely badass. Wyatt delivers some incredible, head-spinning action scenes that were positively Peter Jackson-esque. He makes sure to pepper said scenes with the kind of momentous, holy-$%#& moments that will have audience members cheering and gasping in unison. Because wow, when some of the movie's big reveals and twists occur ... they really are jaw-dropping. And yet, the big action scenes are so effective in part because of the strength of the quieter, more character-driven scenes that build up the drama and emotional tension so effectively. Suffice it to say, Wyatt has now put himself on the map. Get this guy on more big movies, because the man clearly has skills.

I will also give some real credit here to the screenplay. It's thoughtful, character-driven, and very smartly-structured. One thing that really impressed me is how the film covers a somewhat large span of time in such an effective manner, with the arc of Ceaser feeling both epic and naturally-progressing. To be honest, the only moments that took me out of the movie a bit were some of the more blatant callbacks to the original. Fun, sure, but probably not needed in the grand scheme of things (and let's face it, Tom Felton's delivery of some key lines could simply never live up to Charlton Heston's from back in the day). But again, I really felt like the underlying plot of the movie was delivered in a smart way, creating a surprisingly workable scenario that sets the stage for a world that could, indeed, one day be ruled by the apes. There are some good twists here, so go into the movie with an open mind, and I think you'll be pleasantly surprised.

APES really does deliver the goods, and all in all it's hard to find much to complain about. It gave me everything I could want from great blockbuster filmmaking - a smart and thought-provoking sci-fi story, outstanding characters (in this case, brought to life by some truly groundbreaking f/x work), emotionally-charged and exciting action, and some truly great moments that left me buzzing as I walked out of the theater. Sure, it's been a crowded summer at the movies, but amidst a sea of medicority, the APES stand tall.

My Grade: A

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Danny Wonders About CRAZY STUPID LOVE


- Crazy Stupid Love has a little bit of the quirky humor and wit of comedies like Little Miss Sunshine. But, it also has a lot of the ingredients that comprise your typical romantic comedy. So, if you go into the movie expecting an offbeat, authentic-feeling black comedy, make sure you're prepared for lots of half-baked romances, big speeches, proclamations of undying love, and yes, lots of eye-rolling cheesiness. Still, the cast is so good, and there are enough moments of genuine, good-natured hilarity, that the movie solidly entertained me ... even if I eventually found myself disappointed in how conventional it turned out to be.

At the center of Crazy Stupid Love is Steve Carell as Cal - a 40-something nerd who's only ever had eyes for his wife, Emily (Julianne Moore). The two met in high school, got married young, and have been together ever since. Until now, that is. Because as the movie opens, Emily glumly and bluntly declares to Carell that she wants a divorce. She's having a midlife crisis, of sorts. And the kicker: she slept with her co-worker - the eager-to-please David (the ubiquitous-this-summer Kevin Bacon). Cal drowns his miseries with booze at a local bar, where his drunken rantings attract the attention of Jacob (Ryan Gosling). Jacob is a modern-day version of The Fonz - a too-cool-for-school ladies' man, who decides to take Cal under his wing to remake his image and give the newly-separated guy's dating life a boost. Also in the picture is Hannah (Emma Stone), a twenty-something, recent law-school grad whose life is quickly becoming overly routine, boring, and as her annoying friend keeps reminder her, "PG-13." Hannah intrigues Jacob because she's one of the few girls to reject his advances (at least at first). We also spend some time with Cal's kids, particularly his pre-teen son, Robbie, who's got a hopeless crush on the family's 17-year-old babysitter, Jessica. Jessica, however, has a hopeless crush of her own - on Cal.

As you can imagine, all of these romantic entanglements make for all sorts of standard-issue mixups and miscommunications. There are even a couple of big plot-twists thrown into the mix that make us rethink a couple of key characters and their place in the overall dynamic of the film. Overall, the script does a nice job of juggling all of the various characters and their intersecting stories ... although I did feel like the big twists - one in particular - felt a little cheap and manipulative. Still, the movie crafts several memorable characters who each have their own struggles with life and love.

And really, it's the stellar cast that makes the movie work as well as it does. There's not necessarilly a ton of depth in the script for Carell or Gosling, but both actors bring a certain multidimensional quality that hints at an inner life above and beyond what it's in the dialogue. Carell in particular brings his usual blend of wackiness and pathos to the role of Cal, and really sells a lot of the movie's cheesier moments by making them somehow feel more earned and authentic than they have any right to. And by the way, another scene-stealer in the cast is definitely Marissa Tomei, who never fails to impress me. Tomei brings awesome comic timing to the movie and is a huge scene-stealer - as a woman who Cal manages to pick up with help from Jacob - and it's yet another memorable turn for the seemingly ageless actress.

Still, a lot of the characters feel overly-simplified, and there's only so much that a Julianne Moore or Ryan Gosling can do to help with that. Moore's character, for example ... we're told many times that she is Carell's soul mate, the love of his life - someone he belongs with even though we know she cheated on him with her coworker and asked for a divorce. And yet, we never get much more from Moore, and it's frustrating - characters in the film seem to be rooting for Carell to win her back, but we never really get why. Similarly, Gosling's Jacob feels like too much of a cartoon character. The movie wants us to just buy into the idea that the first woman he meets who he does more than just sleeps with ergo must be *his* soul mate.

It's one of those situations where, as the movie progresses, less and less of it actually feels authentic. It feels too much like screenwriter fantasy - from the broad, overly-convenient plot points to the little details that annoyed me. Maybe it's just me, but I'm getting sick of movies that barely touch on issues of class or money, but it's just accepted that everyone in the film is wealthy and can afford designer clothes and expensive dinners out. There's a brief line in the film where Gosling mentions that he inherited a lot of money from his father, but that's the only point where the movie directly addresses how he can keep up his no-work/lots of play lifestyle. Another example is a wince-inducing gag in the film where Gosling uses the mantra "you're too good for The Gap" to Carell, implying that a bachelor like Carell will only woo a woman if he splurges on high-end clothes. Personally, if I actually saw Carell walking around wearing the "cool" clothes he wears in the film, I'd assume he was a giant douche. It's just one of those things where the movie seems to have only one foot in the real world, but thinks it has two.

And that's why, to me, Crazy Stupid Love really shines when it dares to get silly and crazy. There's a blissfully funny scene towards the end of the movie, for example, where all of the characters and their various dramas collide in a great, madcap scene that had a delightfully Curb Your Enthusiasm-style synchronicity. Similarly, the plotlines involving the respective crushes of Cal's son and teenage babysitter work well and get lots of laughs, because they are absurd and don't feel like they need much justification other than "teenagers are crazy." But whenever the movie tried to feel heartfelt or genuine, it sort of lost me, because it just seemed too cheesy, too contrived, or else just plain off the mark.

I think Crazy Stupid Love is a fairly breezy, entertaining film with a great cast and some very funny moments. But overall, it gave in to too many of the worst tendencies of the rom-com genre, rather than going for something better, funnier, more authentic. The shame of it is that the outstanding cast could easily have pulled off that better version of the film. As it is, they all feel slightly overqualified for what is, essentially, a pretty standard-issue romantic comedy.

My Grade: B

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Genre-Bending With COWBOYS & ALIENS


- Cowboys & Aliens is a movie that could have, should have been great. And for the first twenty minutes or so of the movie, I really thought it might get there. As great actor after great actor was introduced, as the tension thickened, as we were slowly sucked in to the dusty, dirty Wild West world of the film, it seemed like Jon Favreau and co. may have pulled off something special. But somehow, the early momentum of the film dips and eventually completely disappears. What starts out as a unique, satisfyingly pulpy Western devolves into a generic and witless action movie. The end result is a film that ends up feeling flat, and almost inexplicably bland and boring. For a movie with such a tantalizing premise and such a star-studded cast, that should not have been the case. It's strange and disappointing to me that a premise with such infinite possibility for fun and excitement ended up producing such a by-the-numbers movie.

As I mentioned, if you're a Western fan or just a fanboy, your eyes will surely light up throughout the film's first act. To start with, we've got a pretty cool setup - a mysterious stranger (played by Daniel Craig) wakes up in a ramshackle town in the Old West, with no memory of who he is or how he got to be in his current situation. All we know is that he's got some sort of futuristic, metallic device strapped to his arm. As Craig's character situates himself, we're introduced to a lineup of classic Western archtypes, each played by great character-actor types. The great Clancy Brown as a badass preacher. Keith Carradine - who already played Wild Bill on Deadwood - as the straight-shootin' sherrif. Sam Rockwell as an in-over-his-head saloon-owner. I mean, it doesn't really get much better than that, casting-wise. You've even got Paul Dano as a loose-cannon trouble-maker, whose dad is a powerful figure in the town.

And that dad is played by Harrison Ford, who seems pretty game to play the gruff, prickly character he plays in the film. Sure, in some ways he's practically playing Harrison Ford, but at least he's got a bit of that old twinkle in his eye for this one. He seems awake, which is more than can be said for some of his other recent roles. As for Daniel Craig, he initially does a great job of playing the mysterious, stone-faced badass. But he sticks so firmly to that archtype that the character ends up becoming a cipher. Even as we learn more about his checkered and trauma-filled past, there's little to no discernable change in Craig's demeanor. I don't know to what extent to put the blame on the script or on Craig, but the character ends up being so one-note that you just quickly stop caring.

Unfortunately, the same can be said of a lot of the film's characters. We are excited to meet them because of the actors who play them, but ultimately, most of the main characters never get much in the way of characterization. As for all of those great supporting actors, well, Clancy Brown never really has his big moment to shine, nor does Keith Carradine, or Paul Dano. In fact, a lot of the coolest actors in the movie get moved off the board for almost the entire second and third act of the film. It seems like a waste. Why go to all the trouble of building up Dano - and his relationship with his father, Ford, if those actors barely get to interact for most of the film?

The most glaringly "off" character in the movie is probably Olivia Wilde's. I think Wilde can be good, and she has done some pretty decent genre work over the years, but her character here is just lame. The mystery around the character amounts to an obvious and unexciting payoff. And the hints of romance / sexual tension with Daniel Craig just don't work in the slightest. Wilde's character ends up just being one giant plot-twist in the making, and never functions as an actual character that we care about.

And here's one big problem with the film - the movie is full of characters who are grumpy, prickly, stoic, and/or mysterious. I saw another review that said it's like a "peanut butter and peanut butter sandwich", and I agree (even though I do love peanut butter). The character dynamics are just all out of whack. But beyond that, there just aren't that many great character or story beats in the script. The movie tosses out most of its attempts at characterization once the aliens invade. But what's more, I just kept waiting - and waiting - for the movie to give me some big, stand-up-and-cheer, pump-my-fist moments. This is, afterall, Cowboys versus Aliens - how do you do a movie like that and have so little fun with the premise? I'm not saying the movie needed to be silly or cartoonish, but why make a sci-fi genre mashup with this if you don't write in as many big, badass, and kickass moments as possible?

To that end, the cool initial setup largely gives way to a fairly generic sort of alien invasion. The aliens themselves are unmemorable, seemingly ripped from whatever first-person-shooter videogame is hot at the moment. The aliens, not particularly distinguishable from those in any number of recent sci-fi movies - from Battle Los Angeles to Super 8 - have no real personalities or motivations, and that too hurts our investment in the film. Hell, even Independence Day had the big moment where that captured alien growls out something about wanting to kill us all, thus nicely setting up the stakes of the film. Here, there's some half-baked plot about how the aliens want to steal gold, but that just comes off as a bit silly without further explanation. The action, too, just feels so generic. There are the usual action movie sorts of sequences, but little that really screams "here's something awesome that could only be done in a movie called Cowboys & Aliens." It's less about imagination, wit, and fun than it is the proverbial mashing-up of two sets of action figures.

I also wasn't crazy about the stylistic choices of the film. The movie is never as gritty or stylized as a true Spaghetti Western, and it's never as intense, grand, or as awe-inspiring as the best alien invasion movies. The effect is that the movie just feels a bit bland, and too straightforward for a movie with such a potentially crazy premise. That said, some of the early sequences that were shown at last year's Comic-Con remain the movie's best. For example, the first attack on the town by the alien armada is suitably intense, atmospheric, and chaotic. It's a great scene - where the rivalries and feuds of the Old West town are suddenly interrupted by an invading force beyond and of the cowboys' comprehension. It's too bad then that we never get another set piece that lives up to the promise of that first attack, which was elegantly-staged and effectively mood-setting.

Aside from simply lacking cool, fun moments, the script is just structurally sort of a mess. Like I said, key characters are taken off the grid for huge amounts of time, we get lots of flashbacks that reveal "answers" that are easily guessed at from the movie's opening moments, and character arcs that get lots of play at the beginning of the movie all but disappear as things progress.

Ultimately, Cowboys & Aliens is sunk by a bland script and an overall lack of vision for the movie. You can tell this was likely a case where too many cooks were in the kitchen, and also one where the mere idea / gimmick of the premise overshadowed the need to create a great story and memorable characters. It's too bad, because the opening act of the film hints at something great, but things really devolve from there. I give credit to Favreau and co. for taking the movie seriously and attempting to legitimately mash-up genres, and there are certainly points in the movie (mostly in the first act), where you do feel like you're watching a really cool, really unique sort of action film. As it stands though, the movie turns out to be decently entertaining, but has enough problems that it can't be ranked among the best of the Summer 2011 blockbusters.

My Grade: B-

Monday, August 01, 2011

Geeks Only: A Mega-Sized Recap of My COMIC-CON 2011 Adventure!


- It's been a crazy month or two for me. Not only have things been nuts at work, but I moved to a new apartment (down the street from my old place in Burbank - but bigger!), had my parents in town from Connecticut, and, well, in general, it's just been, well ... a lot. But that's why this year's trip to the San Diego Comic-Con - my fifth! - was so much fun and such a welcome reprieve. This year, I really needed to get away. I needed the mental and spiritual lift that you get from leaving town for a little while, that you get from being out and about and spending time surrounded by people filled with passion and creativity. This year's show may not have had some of the high-profile movie reveals as previous years, but for me, it was just as fun and fulfilling as ever. Because although Hollywood types love to analyze the show and its role as a marketing vehicle for movies and television, that isn't really what the show is about at all. It's funny, I recently read a blog post from someone who went to Comic-Con for the first time this year, via her role as some sort of Hollywood assistant / wannabe - and her impression of Comic-Con was that it was just a place for parties, networking, and deal-making. Now that, my friends, is a cynical and misguided soul. Because sure, there are parties, and sure, the show is a great place to network ... but ultimately, to me, it's a place to let your geek flag fly. It's a place to celebrate that aforementioned passion and creativity, to celebrate writers and artists and directors. To celebrate great stories and characters. And that's why I really don't care all that much to what extent Hollywood officially supports Comic-Con going forward. The writers, artists, actors, and directors who want to be there, who have the passion for it, will go. And we the fans (and I'll always be a fan), will be spared the suits and the actors and directors who show up only because they're forced to. For me, the show is a place where the cynicism that pervades Hollywood is thrown out in favor of sheer love for movies, TV, and comics. The less the show is infected with the usual BS, the better. But that magic is something that will be there regardless of how many Hollywood parties are thrown in San Diego. That promise of renewal of the creative spirit, the chance to geek out with friends and strangers - that's what Comic-C0n is all about.


- Anyways, rants aside ... this year's show was, as always, a great time. As mentioned though, work has been crazy lately, and the week prior to the show was particularly insane. So, when the G-Man and I left for SD last Thursday morning, I was running on little sleep and a bit unsure of how I'd hold up throughout the day. Luckily, the sheer adrenaline rush of anticipation kept me awake and semi-energized, and the sounds of the Tron Legacy Remixed soundtrack CD got me in the proper mindscape. Eventually, and even a little ahead of schedule, we arrived at the Hampton Court Inn in downtown San Diego, checked in, and got on the local shuttle to the convention center.

- As always, the area around downtown SD was crazy, packed to the brim with people and, even on Thursday, teeming with activity. There were company reps giving out flyers or free stuff, people in costume, and all sorts of randomoddity going on around us (like a brigade of people in WILFRED costumes marching towards the convention center. After picking up our badges, the G-Man and I headed straight towards the Con's famous HALL H - the huge, cavernous room where the show's biggest panels are held. We hightailed it over expecting the monstrous lines of previous years, but were shocked - shocked! - to find that there literally WAS NO LINE. We walked right into Hall H without any wait whatsoever.

Why was this the case? Well, I had been betting that that morning's Twilight panel would work in our advantage, with all of the Twihards emptying out of the hall after that panel was through. But, I still anticipated a big line for that afternoon's round of panels, which included a much buzzed-about 20th Century Fox movie panel. Overall though, I think the lack of lines at Hall H this year were refelctive of a couple of things. One was that this year's show lacked that one "must-see" event that every single con-goer *had* to see. In previous years, we've had panels for Watchmen, Avatar, The Avengers, and Green Lantern - all holy grails of geekdom. Even things like last year's Scott Pilgrim had a huge amount of grassroots support and buzz (even if that didn't translate to box office gold). This year, there just wasn't that same sort of big-event movie that caused people to line up early in the morning to get a coveted seat in Hall H. This, in turn, combined with the fact that, if anything, the huge, must-see attractions this year were actually TV shows, not movies. Comic-Con's other big hall, Ballroom 20, was easily the home of the show's biggest lines this year, with much buzzed-about shows like Game of Thrones, True Blood, and The Walking Dead commanding the Con's biggest crowds, and generating lines that practically extended into the Pacific Ocean. The balance of power definitely shifted from film to TV at this year's show. Part of that is thanks to super high-quality, super geek-friendly shows like Game of Thrones. And part of that is the absence of some of the big movie studios from the show - with neither Disney, Paramount, or Warner Bros. holding panels specifically for their movies (though smaller production studios like Legendary and Relativity, in response, held their own panels for the first time ever). So in the past, the smaller movies got huge exposure in Hall H by virtue of being wedged between the huge panels for Marvel or Disney. This year, without such anchors, Hall H felt a bit emptier than usual.

- But hey, that made for a pretty pleasant and breezy experience for us on Thursday, and one that was filled with some nice Hall H surprises. In fact, we walked into Hall H a little earlier than we had anticipated, and who was there on stage but PEE WEE HERMAN? Not advertised for any panel, it seemed like Pee Wee had simply come out to thank fans and just take some questions for the audience. Random, but cool.

- Next up was one of those great, out-of-left-field panels that ended up being seriously awesome. It was a panel for two films coming from indie studio FILMDISTRICT. Rather than presenting each film individually, the panel got the talent behind both films on stage at once, which resulted in a really interesting back and forth. Especially given that the panel included the great GUILLERMO DEL TORO, who to me, was this year's official King of Comic-Con. The man was everywhere this year, and, on every panel he participated in, he was passionate, hilarious, honest, and insightful - churning out classic quotes at a ridiculously rapid rate. Del Toro was at this panel to promote his upcoming indie horror movie DON'T BE AFRAID OF THE DARK, which looked like a really cool creature feature in the vein of a Gremlins. One of the movie's stars, Mr. Memento himslef GUY PIERCE, was there to talk up the film, which Guillermo wrote and produced (though it was directed by newcomer Troy Nixon). Meanwhile, up-and-coming director NICHOLAS REFN was one hand to talk about his new movie DRIVE, which has a great cast and looks like a super-badass, gritty, noir-ish, Pulp Fiction-esque crime flick. CARRIE MULLIGAN and the great RON PERLMAN were both there to help promote the film (which also stars Ryan Gosling). Anyways, the setup of the panel allowed for some great back and forth between Del Toro and Refn on the world of filmmaking, Hollywood politics, etc. - and both movies shown looked kickass from the trailers and scenes we saw. Guillermo really was the man of the hour though - despite a bad back that almost prevented him from coming to SD, he was animated and engaging, and reestablished himself as one of the true Good Guys in film - a real inspiration both creatively and personally. Awesome.

- After this was the big FOX film panel - the one that I had been really anticipating due to the rumors that we'd get a first glimpse at Ridley Scott's psuedo-prequel to Alien, Prometheus - a movie that had the chance to be one of *the* big reveals of this year's show. First though, out came panel moderator DAMON LINDELOFF - he of Lost fame - to start things off. And sure enough, Lindeloff got things started by talking PROMETHEUS. He brought out star CHARLIZE THERON, and then, finally, showed some of the first footage from the film.

Prometheus, to me, looked great - but I still have no real idea what the movie is, exactly. Most of the scenes we glimpsed were more about aesthetics than plot. But in that regard, the movie looked awesome from a visual perspective - very Alien-esque - grim n' gritty yet sleek interiors, claustophobic space ships, and very sci-fi-ish costumes and space-suits - all very much in that classic, H.R. Giger mold. The clips didn't tell us much about the story, but they all had that sense of impending dread and fear that made Alien a classic. And, what little hints we did get pointed to a plotline that treads similar territory to Alien - people poking their noses where they probably shouldn't, and in doing so, awakening some very scary things. In any case, I am dying to see more on Prometheus. I do think it's a little strange though that they are being so ambiguous about whther or not the movie relates to Alien or takes place in the same universe. Why hide this? I am worried that all the mystery and vagueness could hurt the movie's box-office in the long-run. Certainly, the ambiguity about what the film is likely hurt the number of people that made their wayto Hall H to see the panel. Because you can bet that if this was simply called "Alien Origins" or something, the place would have been packed. I was also a little surprised by Charlize Theron's assertion that she had issues with the initital script she read, but that once she came onboard she worked with Lindeloff and Scott to make it better. I don't know, that just sounds a little fishy to me. At the end of the day though, Scott is a visual storyteller, and I think the main draw of this film is going to be the visuals, not the script.

In any case, RIDLEY SCOTT himself was present in the hall via a live video feed from Iceland, where he was still shooting the movie. You could tell that he was in quite the location, standing on a snow-covered mountain range. And with him was the star of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo movies, NOOMI RAPACE, who seemed very genuine, committed to giving her all to the film (sounds like a very physical, very demanding role). It was definitely cool hearing live from Ridley Scott though, even if it was via video feed. As the intro video that introduced Prometheus reminded us, the man is a master of sci-fi and adventure movie-making, the man behind such classics as Blade Runner, Alien, and Gladiator.

After the Prometheus portion of the panel, Lindeloff introduced director ANDREW NICHOLS, the writer of The Truman Show and the man behind Gattaca, to talk about his new movie, IN TIME. We then got some bigtime starpower, as JUSTIN TIMBERLAKE and AMANDA SEYFRIED came out to talk about the film. I give Timberlake credit, he talked a good game, and referenced movies like Die Hard and The Fugitive as inspirations for his man-on-the-run role in this one. And hey, seeing Seyfried in person was pretty cool - I have, afterall, been a fan since her days on the late great Veronica Mars. As for the movie - it looked interesting, VERY high-concept sci-fi. The film takes place in a future where time is used as currency, where your alotted time expires once you hit age 25, and life can only be prolonged if you've purchased additional time. But, since the aging process stops at 25, 100 year olds look identical to 30 year olds - meaning that in this world, Olivia Wilde plays Timberlake's mom. I like movies with big ideas like this, so I am definitely curious about In Time.

Finally, we got a segment on RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES. Given that the movie is out shortly, I wasn't quite sure what would be shown to us to really get the crowd pumped. But I have to say, the movie is shaping up nicely, from the looks of things. ANDY SERKIS came out and spoke about the mo-cap process that went into bringing the movie's main chimp, Ceaser, to life. Serkis, the man behind Gollum and King Kong, is a really cool guy who is clearly an actor's actor, who literally transforms himself into all manner of creatures to bring to life the CGI creatures he lends his performance to. But man, Apes looks like it could be somewhat epic, and one scene in particular, in which an enraged Ceaser rushes to protect his keeper, John Lithgow, was even sorta chill-inducing.

- The next panel in Hall H was centered around the one and only ROBERT RODRIGUEZ. The director of El Mariachi, From Dusk 'Til Dawn, Spy Kids, and Machete was on hand to talk about upcoming projects that he's working on. While RR didn't have anything in any advanced stage to show - ie no true trailers or footage, he did have some *very* intriguing announcements. For one, he mentioned that he's in preproduction on not one but two Machete sequels, the second of which is set in space (!!!). For another, he announced that he has purchased the rights to spearhead a new HEAVY METAL movie. Now, there's been talk of a new HM for ages, but it sounds like Rodriguez is 100% committed to making it happen this time, and is busy recruiting some top talent to be a part of the film. He also mentioned that he'll do a contest for fan submissions, similar to what was done with Grindhouse (and eventually led to the creation of Hobo With a Shotgun). RR even brought out Kevin Eastman, publisher of Heavy Metal (and co-creator of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles!), who talked enthusiastically about the project. RR then had another cool announcement for the Hall H crowd. He brought out the son of the late, great FRANK FRAZETTA, and announced that he is working with the Frazetta estate to bring the master artist's work to bigger-than-ever prominence in pop-culture. To that end, RR would be helping to open and curate a Frazetta museum in Austin, TX - featuring original Frazetta paintings that hadn't been seen by the public in 40 years. In addition, RR is developing a feature film based on the works of Frazetta, in the vein of the animated 80's film Fire & Ice. But, this new movie would be much more sophisticated, using new digital painting techniques to capture the look and feel of Frazetta's work. A reel was shown that demonstrated the technique, and the results were pretty awe-inspiring. If you don't know Frazetta, his work was iconic - he painted incredible scenes of swords and sorcery fantasy, creating some of the most well-known images of characters like Conan The Barbarian, and influencing generations of artists - in comic books, movie posters, etc. Suffice it to say, a Rodriguez-directed movie based on Frazetta's work would be positively epic. As an added bonus, RR brought 10 of Frazetta's most famous original paintings to SD to be shown in a gallery at the Hard Rock Hotel. I immediately made a mental note to go and check 'em out.

- The last Hall H panel of the day was a surefire crowd-pleaser - a meeting of the minds between two of the biggest forces in geekdom today, directors Jon Favreau and Guillermo Del Toro. The panel, sponsored by Entertainment Weekly as part of their "Visionaires" series, was the kind of thing that Comic-Con should do more of - panels that aren't about promoting anything specifically, but just great discussions between big names in entertainment on any variety of topics, with a chance for fan questions and interaction. As great as movie previews and panels filled with stars can be, I like these sorts of panels because they allow for more free-flowing, stimulating dialogue, and more honesty, when the directors or stars aren't in full-on marketing mode. So yeah, this was a great panel. Guillermo again stole the show with his gusto and passion and endlessly-quotable rants. He talked about being an outsider in the Hollywood system and about just being a "crazy mother$#%#er" in general. Favreau too had some interesting insights into the studio process, though you could tell he was feeling the burn a bit from the pre-release Cowboys & Aliens machine. You could definitely see the difference in the two men, as Guillermo is an iconoclast who doesn't like to compromise, but who wins people over with the sheer power of his artistic vision and passion. Favreau is more of a company man - willing to take on out-there, fanboy-friendly properties and try to make them more palatable for mainstream audiences. That said, he certainly has an intense loyalty to the Comic-Con crowd, and he really seems to credit the fanboys and fangirls with the early buzz around Iron Man - the movie that helped propel him to the A-list. He's definitely a dedicated, hard-working type of guy, though he does seem a little worn down by what was seemingly a crazy process in getting Cowboys & Aliens made. And then, his involvement on Disney's upcoming Magic Kingdom also sort of seems like a huge project that he is still very much figuring out how to tackle. In contrast, Guillermo Del Toro was basically born to direct The Haunted Mansion. The guy is obsessed with the famous Disney attraction, going so far as to have a home modeled after it, which he calls "Bleak House." Apparently, a coffee table book is coming out that shows Guillermo's funhouse of an abode in all of its tricked-out, super-themed detail. I came away from the panel super-excited about Haunted Mansion though, and also very intrigued by Pacific Rim, Guillermo's next directorial project that sounds like a crazy action film involving giant Lovecraftian monsters. But man, I would sign up for a lecture series given by Del Toro in a second. The guy is just a fountain of knowledge - a true expert on film history and an encyclopedia of info on sci-fi, fantasy, and horror. Quite simply, he's the man.

- And, well, that was the end of Day 1 at the show. But, it was certainly not the end of Day 1 in San Diego, not by a longshot. After the Del Toro / Favreau panel, we walked down to the Gaslamp district across from the convention center. On a normal weekend, the Gaslamp is a hub of activity and nightlife, but during Comic-Con, it's pure insanity! There are street performers, giveaways, people in costume, and all sorts of random and wacky promotional spaces. This year, there was a whole art gallery dedicated to CONAN O'BRIEN and his superhero alter ego The Flaming C. There was a garage full of Marvel Comics-themed monster trucks. A SEGA lounge and play area. The Tinfish restaurant was themed after various NBC shows, including the upcoming, fairytale fantasy GRIMM. And, as has been tradition for the last few years, a large diner inside the Hard Rock Hotel was transformed into CAFE DIEM - a Syfy-themed restaurant, with a complete menu of food themed off of shows like Eureka, Ghost Hunters, and WWE Smackdown. The grub at Cafe Diem is always pretty good, if a bit overpriced to capitalize on the Comic-Con crowds - but I mean, how can you go to Comic-Con and NOT eat at an entire Syfy-themed diner? So go there once again we did, and we even met up with my old BU buddy, the one and only Aksel C., along the way. The three of us enjoyed some delicious diner food (okay, Aksel had some weird salad contraption that he made up on the spot ... vintage Aksel), and were therefore recharged after a long morning and afternoon.

- We capped off the night with a very special event - an exclusive Comic-Con screening of ATTACK THE BLOCK. I had entered my name in an online contest to win tickets, and somehow, I ended up scoring two passes to the event, which saw director Joe Cornish, star John Boyega, and producer / generally awesome person Edgar Wright in attendance. The movie rocked (see my recent review for the full low-down), and it's always great to see one of the great geek directors - Edgar Wright, responsible for some little films like Shawn of the Dead and Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World - hold court. And that, that was the end of Day 1 in San Diego.


- Well, I knew that Friday ... well, if I didn't sleep in on Friday, I'd be zapped of energy for the rest of the weekend. So I slept nice and late Friday morning, recharged the ol' batteries, and then set out for another day of Comic-Con adventure. First, I met with the G-Man (who awoke early to rome the show floor in search of swag), and we got in line for the Frank Frazetta exhibit that Robert Rodrguez had mentioned the day before. We were told that you needed a special pass to go into the exhibit, in a gallery in the Hard Rock Hotel - but it seemed like ultimately you just had to wait in line. The whole scene outside the hotel was crazy, because in the same general area, people were lining up for a Jon Favreau signing. We waited in line for a bit longer than I'd hoped, but we finally got in and got to get up close and personal with the awe-inspiring paintings of Mr. Frazetta, including an iconic portrait of Conan (the Barbarian, not O'Brien), and the legendary "Death Dealer" painting, arguably Frazetta's signature work. Then, we wandered around a bit in search of a lunch spot, and stumbled into The Broken Yolk - a charming diner that fit the bill to a T, and that made a mean waffle. One cool thing about San Diego during Comic-Con - the fact that so many of the local restaurants get totally decked out for the show, with special menus, decorations, waiters wearing superhero T-shirts, etc. You have to wonder if any other city would go to such lengths to get into the Comic-Con spirit. At the Broken Yolk, they went all out with special menus, wall decorations, etc. - sweet!

- After lunch / brunch, we headed back to the convention center and made our way towards one of the big hot spots of this year's show, the area where DC COMICS was holding its numerous panels. This year, of course, DC was the source of much speculation and controversy, thanks to their announcement that, come September, they'd be rebooting their entire line of comic books - with a revamped continuity, huge story and character changes, and with 52 new comic launches, each with a new issue #1 (yep, even venerable institutions like Action and Detective). To that end, the DC panels at this year's Con were a lot of fun - lots of angry questions from fans, who were riled up about everything from changes to beloved characters to a perceived lack of diversity in characters and creators. One emotional woman dressed as Batgirl reportedly showed up at numerous DC panels, each time accusing the panelists of not having enough strong female characters, or female creators, at the company. Sometimes, the comic book panels at SDCC can feel a little dry compared to the bright lights and big stars of the movie and TV panels, but man, there was definitely some electricity this year with all of the shakeups at DC.

This was also evident in the long lines. We got in line about an hour early for DC's SUPERMAN panel, and just barely made it into the room. Lots of people didn't end up getting in to that or the subsequent Justice League panel - a sign that interest was very strong in DC this year. Now, the Superman panel had a star-studded lineup of big name creators - GRANT MORRISON and J. MICHAEL STRACZYNSKI chief among them. Morrison is always a fascinating guy to hear speak - he is one of the true mad geniuses of comics, and even if I don't love the changes being forced upon Supes, it'll be hard to resist checking out what Morrison has in store for his upcoming Action Comics #1. Meanwhile, JMS talked up the sequel to the NY Times best-selling Superman: Earth 2. It sounded like another emo-teen-soap version of Superman - not something that particularly interests me, but whatever. Surprisingly though, the fan questions never dove too deep into all of the questions surrounding the relaunch. In this new continuity, Superman and Lois Lane were never married, for example. Um, whoah - what? And yet, supposedly some of the big events in Superman's history - like his "death" at the hands of Doomsday, *did* still happen in the revised timeline. So ... how does that work? Personally, I am a traditionalist when it comes to Superman - I like the old-school costume and like him as the classic, iconic hero. I don't really see why he needs a ton of updating - just tell good stories. I can already tell that the new costume looks cool when drawn by Jim Lee, but I see where it could look goofy when others with a less-slick style take a crack at it. We shall see. Definitely a very interesting panel though, and, for me, it's always a thrill to hear the great Grant Morrison hold court.

The second DC panel we caught was around the revamped JUSTICE LEAGUE. This was a panel full of huge names, as the new JLA comic book is set to be written by one of comics' biggest names - GEOFF JOHNS, and drawn by the legendary JIM LEE. Johns was also there to talk Green Lantern and Aquaman, which he'll also be taking a crack at in September. In addition, the panel had a bunch of other talent who will be contributing to other, related titles come September. For example, you had DAN JURGENS (the man who killed Superman), who's writing the new Justice League International series, and Philip Tan, who's drawing a new Hawkman series. Again, there were lots of questions from fans concerned about changes, diversity, how decades of stories might possibly be squeezed into the new five-year timeline, etc. DC has a lot of prominent talent who tend to be men of few words, so there weren't necessarilly a ton of revealing answers. But, just being in the room with fellow fans and soaking up the energy was a lot of fun. And hey, it's Comic-Con, and to me that means making time to get back to basics and celebrate the artform of comics!

- At this point, my goal was to attend a special panel being held to celebrate the 45th anniversary of the 1960's BATMAN TV show. There was a panel being held that was set to reunite Adam West, Burt Ward, and Julie Newmar, to discuss the show, review favorite clips, etc. Here is an example of where Comic-Con sometimes drops the ball. I mean, this is a beloved show that has multiple generations of fans. Everyone loves Adam West, and a guy like him is practically royalty at Comic-Con. So, why was this sure-to-be-popular panel relegated to one of the convention's smallest rooms? We ended up not getting into the panel despite lining up an hour early, so, yeah ... holy disappointments, Batman! Of course, these types of epic fails are par for the course at Comic-Con, but still - give Adam West Hall H, I say! I think he could fill it. So once we admitted defeat, we decided to walk the convention floor for a bit and get some good photo ops.

- After a bit of floor-walking, I met up with Heather S. and her boyfriend to hit up the evening screening of DC's latest animated movie adaptation - BATMAN: YEAR ONE. Heather was already in the big Ballroom 20 from previous panels, so I had to get in line by my lonesome. Good thing that I got in line when I did, because I just barely made it in to the packed room. I did though, and the moment was sweet. Because I have to admit, the panel for the screening was comprised of some big names. Not only was legendary animator BRUCE TIMM there along with his DC animation colleagues, but so were stars Katie Sackhoff (Battlestar Galactica), Ben MacKenzie (The OC, Southland) and yes - the man who is perhaps the best actor currently on television - BRYAN CRANSTON. As a longtime Malcom in the Middle fan, and a current Breaking Bad super-fan, it was awesome to see Mr. Cranston in person. And man, he did a bang-up job in the film voicing Commisioner Gordon. It's funny, too, because I think he could kill it doing a live-action Commish as well - he's got the right look, for sure. But, we all watched the movie together - and it was a lot of fun seeing it with such a jacked-up crowd. The film was an extremely faithful adaptation of Frank Miller's classic comic book, and while it wasn't anything mind-blowing, it definitely retained the gritty atmosphere and noir-ish feel of the comic. The Q&A afterwords was a lot of fun though, with very lively banter between the leads, particularly Sackhoff and Cranston. Some interesting announcements also came out of the panel, including the fact that DC is working on a two-part animated adaptation of Frank Miller's dystopian classic, THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS.

After the screening, the three of us grabbed a late dinner (at one of my favorite downtown SD spots - Sloppy Joeys), and then wandered around the Gaslamp for a bit. It was a great time, and I was definitely charged up for the day ahead.


- Saturday was an oddly quiet day at SDCC. Typically, Saturday is the busiest, most insane day of the show, with at least one or two marquee panels in Hall H. But again, a lot of the attention was on TV -- and that was evident when we arrived at the convention center. We walked over to the Indigo Ballroom at the nearby Marriott, where a lot of the show's big TV panels are now held, to see see what our odds were of getting into that afternoon's COMMUNITY panel. As we wound our way through the line, I was shocked to see that the line extended down the beach as far as the eye could see. There was no chance of us getting in to see Community, let alone anything in Indigo that day.

- And yet, we walked past Hall H, and there was, again, absolutely no line. Shocked, we waltzed in just in time for a panel on THE IMMORTALS, a new, highly-stylized action film based on Greek myth. Directed by Tarsem Singh, who did movies like The Cell and the Fall, the movie looks pretty amazing from a visual standpoint - like 300 on crack. We were treated to some positively badass action sequences, and some footage that was quite eye-popping - definitely putting the movie on my radar as a potential must-see. That said, the panel for the film was a bit strange. Tarsem Singh was very animated and interesting, and Frieda Pinto of Slumdog Millionaire charmed the crowd, but the rest of the cast all seemed a bit bored and out of it. I expect that from someone like Stephen Dorff, who just seemed super hungover. But I was really hoping for a standout appearance from panelist and star HENRY CAVILL, aka the man who will soon be Superman. To me, there's something special about being chosen to play Superman, and I think it's the responsibility of the man playing him to show a certain reverance for the legacy of the character and the iconography that he's tasked with bringing to life. There wasn't a lot of talk about Superman: Man of Steel on the panel, but I was really hoping to get some kind of inspiring / reassuring words from Cavill that would put him in a truly "super" light. I guess I'll chalk up his relative quietness to this being his first Comic-Con, but dude - next year I expect you to come with guns blazing and give the fans a true Comic-Con moment.

- We then left Hall H to get in line for one of my most-anticipated panels, that being the panel for the best sci-fi on TV today ... FRINGE. The line for Ballroom 20 was long, but we got there very early so were in good shape. We even suffered through eating cardboard-like convention pizza so that we could eat while in line. Funnily enough though, I actually didn't want to be *too* early to get in line, because right before the Fringe panel was a panel for THE VAMPIRE DIARIES. No offense to anyone who's into it, but it's just not my thing, and I was weary of being in a giant room filled with screeching teenaged girls (I know, I probably just set myself up for some smart-assed joke, but oh well ...). Of course, as fate would have it, we *just* made the cut for Vampire Diaries. I feel bad - there was probably some diehard VD fan behind us who went home crying due to not getting into the panel, but hey, them's the breaks. At the least, we'd be in prime position to get great seats for Fringe. And so, I sat in the back of Ballroom 20, half-listening to the show's good-looking stars talk about all the soap-opera-y drama that had unfolded over the previous season. And I cringed as girls literally just SCREAMED every time Ian Somerholder said a word. Damn, that guy has it good.

And I guess this is as good a time as any to go off on the tangent of: is this sort of teen girl demo good or bad for Comic-Con? I don't know, I really don't. I mean, being in Ballroom 20 for Vampire Diaries, it was literally like being at a different show altogether. It was like being at a boy-band concert or something. And I wonder whether these girls would have any interest in reading a comic book or getting into any harder, purer forms of geekery. Typically I'd say yes - that getting noobs to Comic-Con is ultimately win-win, as it broadens the appeal of the show and serves as a gateway towards the really good stuff. At the same time though, there's now enough semi or non-geeky stuff at Comic-Con that one could go to the show and spend the whole time checking out panels for things like Vampire Diaries, Twilight, Glee, The Big Bang Theory, Family Guy, and Dorothy of Oz. I guess that's fine, I just don't want all of those things spotlighted *at the expense* of other, cooler, more legit things. I mean, there are other places where a show like Glee can do fan outreach ... I'd like to see panels like that one go away in favor of more cool spotlights, free-for-all discussions, cast reunions, screenings things like that. I mean, there's now a viewing party around the musical episode of Buffy that's held every year. Why not do a group screening of other classic TV episodes or movies, with talent present, etc.? An X-Files reunion, perhaps? Maybe next year - 2012 - the year the aliens are set to invade!

- Speaking of which, after Vampire Diaries emptied out, we moved up towards the front of Ballroom 20 in preparation for the FRINGE panel. Honestly, I am such a fanboy for Fringe that I was thrilled just to be sitting so close to the likes of Lance Reddick, Jasika Nicole, Joshua Jackson, Anna Torv, and yes, the great JOHN NOBLE. The applause from the fans as each of these actors walked up to the stage was huge, and Noble in particular got a thunderous ovation. And deservedly so ... not only is he amazing on the show as Dr. Walter Bishop, but, geez, he is apparently the coolest guy ever in real life. Noble kicked things off by issuing a heartfelt speech to the gathered fans, thanking them for their support. And throughout the panel, he was animated, funny, gracious, and insightful. How this man has not been Emmy-nominated, I have no idea, but his absence from the Emmys is, to me, a black mark on the whole awards show. Anyways, the big tease at the panel was that Joshua Jackson didn't initially show up with the other cast members, and since his character was written out of existence on the show, the producers joked that the search had begun for a replacement. We were then treated to a pretty amusing video of people like Danny Pudi, Jeff Probst, and numerous others auditioning for a part on Fringe. Eventually, Joshua Jackson came on stage incognito, dressed as one of the show's mysterious Observers. There was a lot of joking around and comraderie on stage, and so, even if there wasn't much if anything revealed about Season 4, it was still a really fun panel. And the cast seemed genuinely appreciative of the fans, which was cool. Noble, Jackson - all seemed in good spirits. And yeah, Anna Torv probably melted the hearts of at least a few fanboys, adding credence to the idea of her character, Olivia Dunham, being the modern-day Agent Scully - the thinking man's sex symbol. I only wish we had been shown SOME kind of teaser for the new season. Oh well - can't wait for FRINGE to return in the Fall. And I'm glad that after a few years of missing the Fringe panel, we finally were there, front and center, at this year's show.

- After the Fringe panel, we checked in on Hall H ... nope, still no line! So we again walked in just as the Dorothy of Oz panel was wrapping up. I had little interest in the animated Oz musical, until I looked on stage and realized that PATRICK STEWART was there. My god! How is he not in more movies? How is he not in *every* movie? I may not be a full-fledged trekkie, but man, is there any TV character ever with more gravitas than Captain Picard? Okay, Jack Bauer. But still ...

- Anyways, the real reason we went back to Hall H was to catch the annual KEVIN SMITH panel. It's funny, because years ago this was just another panel at Comic-Con. But now, Smith regularly goes on speaking tours and charges some obscene amount of money to get in. So seeing him for free at Comic-Con? Not a bad deal. That said ... whoah. Smith was hilarious in his annual panel, no doubt. But he also seemed a little ... off? He just seemed to be rambling big-time, answering audience questions with half-hour rants, that repeatedly led to him plugging his podcasts and such over and over and over again. It's always fun to see Smith speak, but I think he really lost the crowd for a while there, just seeming to be lost in his own mind, speaking in a circular sort of manner that was neither here nor there. Still, there were some great nuggets of hilarity during the panel. One great moment came when Smith played a scene from his latest, independently-distributed movie, RED STATE. The clip was preceded by a hilarious text crawl that gushed about how awesome The Dark Knight Rises would be. It was super-funny, and to be honest, one of the funniest pieces of writing I've seen from Smith in a while. It's funny because a fan asked him whether he'd ever consider writing scripts for others to direct, and Smith seemed a bit lukewarm to the idea. It's too bad ... even if Smith is content to smoke weed and do podcasts these days, I still credit him with being a huge influence on me personally with movies like Clerks and Mallrats. And, as far as Comic-Con goes, I think Smith was a legit pioneer in his day - a guy who helped make geek culture mainstream and cool. I do feel like it's a shame that, after his next movie, he plans to call it quits in terms of the film biz. But if he's that uninspired to make more movies, then hey, get while the getting's good. He can tell a good story though, and I will say that after a lot of aimless rambling for much of the panel, Smith redeemed himself with a hilarious closing story about his dealings with the Westboro Baptist Church. The story - both profound and vulgar - was vintage Smith, and had the crowd crying with laughter. I'm glad that Smith was able to emerge from his cloudy haze long enough to tell it. So yeah, it was a really fun panel overall, and hey, seeing Smith has become somewhat of a Comic-Con (or "Com-ee-Con", as he calls it) tradition. And we were even joined by my friend Samantha L. for the panel as an added bonus.

- After the panel, we hit up the Marriott hotel to cash in a prize voucher we'd gotten at the Fringe panel. Turns out all it was good for was a lousy luggage tag! WTF. Not cool - I wanted a T-shirt! (although on Friday, I did snag a limited edition, official Comic-Con T, featuring a Jim Lee rendering of the JLA - not too shabby, especially considering that they were sold out by Sunday! I also got a sweet Batman T with the customized red-and-black Bat-logo from the Flashpoint comic book series - pretty badass.) From there, we went back to the hotel for a bit before heading out to downtown. One annual tradition in San Diego is to eat at TGI Fridays. Why? Because somehow, LA is completely lacking in TGI Fridays, and so SD is a rare opportunity to indulge in some delicious Fridays grub. But, this was no ordinary dinner, because we were lucky to be joined by the one-and-only KC, and her friends. Now, this is when Comic-Con magic happened. Because two years ago, while waiting in a ginormous line for Hall H, KC, G-Man, and I randomly met this crazy dude from Norway who looks like Dooley from King of the Hill (complete with mohawk-ponytail), has an obsession with Superman (he has a giant statue of Supes in his house) and who, disturbingly, has a a number of seemingly unhealthy proclivities that I won't go into here. Suffice it to say, this man had been built up to be a legend in our minds - an icon of Comic-Con that we never dared to dream that we'd see again. And yet, just as I was joking to KC that seeing this Norwegian enigma again would be the final ingredient towards a perfect night ... who should boisterously walk into Fridays but Cousin Sven himself (I just thought the name suits him)!!! Yes, the Norwegian wunderkind graced us with his presence (it turns out that he and KC have actually kept in touch all this time), and at that moment, our level of sheer jubilation was cranked up to eleven. Here I was, with good friends, at TGI Fridays, reunited with the mythical, insane, mohawked Norwegian dude 0 talking about robots and zombies and other geeky stuff - at the San Diego Comic-Con! For this moment, my friends, life was good, and I was officially in my happy place.

- After a great dinner filled with hilarious moments and good conversation, I ventured off on my own to play the part of Hollywood bigshot. Because yes, I had one and only one ticket to Syfy's annual Comic-Con party, which is a very private, very swanky affair. Held on the rooftop of the Solimar hotel in downtown SD, the party is comprised of a mixture of industry folks (execs, clients, etc.), press, and celebrities. This year's celeb contingent was a bit lacking compared to year's past (perhaps having something to do with the competing Entertainment Weekly party down the street), but there were a couple people that piqued my interest, including geek-queen Felicia Day. The problem with these types of events though is that everyone sort of stands around and tries to look cool, and everything is pretty buttoned-down and formal - so it's hard to just approach people or meet new people. And acting like a fan and asking for pictures or autographs, well, that would come off as a severe breach of Hollywood party etiquette. Still, I'm glad I made an appearance, if for no other reason than to say I went. But when I think of this swanky Hollywood party and the relative awkwardness of just standing there, pretending that I have somewhere to be or someone to talk to, versus the good times I'd had only hours earlier with my friends (and crazy Norwegian dude), I'd choose TGI Fridays any day of the week. Of course, one day I plan to attend one of these swanky parties in the role of token VIP celeb, and hang out with my friends who will, by then, also be huge deals. But until then, I'm good with nerd-talk and chicken sandwiches.

I will say this though: running into "industry folk" at Comic-Con is often a momentary downer. Nothing personal, but there's nothing worse than talking to people who a.) look down on Comic-Con attendees for some reason, b.) think they are entitled to cut in lines or get special access to events, or c.) are not particularly passionate about anything at the show, and view the whole thing as an annoying obligation. I mean, look, as much as I appreciate the big-time feel and cool events that Hollywood brings to Comic-Con, I also don't like some of the Hollywood attitude that comes with it. Comic-Con is by and for fans, and is all about egalitarianism - no special treatment for anyone. And that's how it should be. That said, I couldn't help but laugh as I ambled up to the Syfy party check-in and saw all manner of wannabes desperately trying to get in. What was this, a club on Sunset? So I did have a moment of smug satisfaction when I flashed my ID and was ushered right in to the swanky hallway of the Solimar. Take that, D-list-celebrity-whose-name-*should*-have-been-on-the-list-but-*wasn't!* In ya' face! Danny Baram from Bloomfield, CT has ya' beat.

- I will also say though, and I'm not sure why this is ... but it seems like every year I go to San Diego, there's a higher percentage of d-bags walking the streets of the Gaslamp. It's funny, because four or five years ago, you'd go to the restaurants and bars in downtown at night, and a huge percentage of the people out and about would be from the Comic-Con crowd - everyone still proudly wearing their badges as they ate, drank, and got down with their bad selves. You'd walk into The Whiskey Girl or the Blarney Stone and it was Geeks' Night Out. Lately though, perhaps thanks to an increase in late-night programming at the show, and/or more fan-specific gatherings, screenings, and other events around town, you don't see as many Con-goers just hanging out in the Gaslamp late at night. And yet, the "regular" crowd hanging around just seems ultra-obnoxious and unfriendly, much more so even than at your average LA or Hollywood haunt. I've heard about and read about numerous instances from this past year alone where there seemed to be some tension brewing between Con-goers and unsavory locals. Now, friends have told me that the Gaslamp, under normal circumstances, tends to be known for attracting this sort of after-hours scumbaggery, and that most of the cool kids tend to stay away from it more often than not. Still, every year the area seems more and more overrun by the d-bags. It's like animals in a zoo that eventually become normalized to being around humans - the d-bags have become increasingly unfazed by the hordes of geeks that flood their city each year. I guess the natural reaction would be for Comic-Con to begin holding even MORE after-hours events and official parties. I mean, why not? What if one night of the Con, Hall H was retrofitted into a giant party space, for SDCC badge-holders only? I say do it, because other parts of SD seem to be getting a bit less friendly these last few years.

- I ended up staying at the Syfy party a bit later than I had intended, and ultimately ended up boarding a late-night shuttle bus back to the hotel, passing by a mini-village of fangirls camping out for the next morning's Dr. Who panel. What is it with women and Dr. Who? Who knows. But I do know that on that bus, I had the most random conversation ever with this glasses-wearing, long-haird ubergeek type, who responded to everything I said with a wide-eyed reply of "indeeeeeed." And yet, for all his nerdiness, he'd never even read The Walking Dead. Lame. It's a classic illustration of Nerd vs. Geek. Nerds are just awkward and weird. Geeks can be awesome, cool, and disarmingly good-looking (ahem) ... we just happen to have really amazing taste in pop-culture.


- Sunday is always the most laid-back day of SDCC, but this year, there was definitely a sense that, yeah, this thing was going to the limit, baby. With TV shows with huge cult followings, like Dr. Who, occupying Hall H though, there was a lot of hustle-and-bustle going on around the convention. The G-Man and I walked around the show floor, as is tradition, and it's something that, increasingly, is my favorite part of the convention. It's great to check out all of the random artists and small-press publishers who've taken the time to set up a booth at the show. And, especially since I recently moved into a new apartment, I was on the lookout for any good (n' cheap) art for the new place. I found one guy who drew famous movie scenes, and once I realized he had prints from The Big Lebowski, I couldn't resist purchasing a couple of pieces, which are now proudly hung on my wall at home. I also picked up a super sweet drawing of Zatanna, done by Dead@17 creator Josh Howard. Also now hanging on my wall at home. All in all, there were all kinds of cool things to see on the show floor this year - from great cosplay costumes, to roving R2-D2 robots, to the Suicide Girls, returned after a one-year banishment.

- I did, however, make time for one final panel Sunday afternoon, and it was a spotlight on one of my new favorite writer/artists, JEFF LEMIRE. Lemire has been doing absolutely incredible work on the ongoing series SWEET TOOTH, which to me has nicely filled the gap left by the endings of acclaimed mature-readers series like Y: The Last Man. It's a badass post-apocalyptic series that's weird, unpredictable, and gripping, and it might just be the best series on the stands today. Lemire's also been dabbling with some more mainstream DC Comics of late, currently finishing up a well-received run on Superboy, and has relaunches of Frankenstein and Animal Man coming in September. It was interesting to hear Lemire talk about his work, and I look forward to reading more from him in the future.

- After the Lemire panel, we did one last pass of the show floor, soaking in the atmosphere and checking out the scene one last time before heading out. We grabbed some pizza, and then walked over to a big outdoor mall in downtown. There, we met up with the Axe-Man and another friend of his, and took in a showing of CAPTAIN AMERICA. I loved the movie (see my review, posted a few days back), and it was a fitting way to cap off another successful Con. Eventually, we retrieved our luggage from the hotel and set out on the long journey back to LA.

- I returned home tired, exhausted even. And yet, I felt full. Especially having come off of a grueling couple of weeks at work and in life in general, this year's Comic-Con adventure was exactly what I needed to refocus my energies and regain some perspective on things. It was another epic adventure, and I can't wait to do it again.