Funkytown (2011)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Funkytown</strong> (2011)

(On DVD, July 2011) I should begin by saying that I’m less impartial toward this film than most, having put together a web site for director Daniel Roby’s first feature film a few years ago.  But even then, it’s hard not to be impressed by the scope of Funkytown, which looks at the late-seventies disco scene in Montréal through a large ensemble cast.  The first few minutes are electrifying, as the characters are introduced within a fluid sequence.  Patrick Huard headlines the film as an influential media personality whose decline forms the backbone of the film’s dramatic arc.  Period music is used effectively, and the period is rendered in its glorious brown-and-gold glory.  Not stopping at disco, Funkytown also dares to tackle the socio-political turmoil of the era (which would see the center of Canadian power shift from Montréal to Toronto as separatism led to an exodus of well-off decision-makers from one city to the other) and the rise of AIDS within the gay community.  Loosely inspired by real events (look up the story of Alain Montpetit and Douglas Leopold for reference), Funkytown has enough plot to stuff an entire TV show season as seven or eight main characters jostle for attention.  Screenwriter Steve Galluccio is able to keep everything intelligible, but the story cries out for a novel or a longer-form format, especially toward the end as subplots seem to be cut short.  There’s still a decent amount of subtlety and depth to the end result, and the film’s soundtrack alone is worth a look.  (Never mind the slight anachronisms, though.)  The way both English and French dialogues are used, often in the same conversation, feels authentically Montréal-style.  As one of the bigger-budgeted films in Quebec history, Funkytown has a decent dramatic heft and feels like a reasonably faithful look at the era.  It’s a joy to watch even despite its downbeat dramatic trajectory, and will probably rank as a definitive piece for the era.

The Fourth Kind (2009)

<strong class="MovieTitle">The Fourth Kind</strong> (2009)

(On cable TV, July 2011) As someone who sees far too many movies in the first place (and once vowed to write something up for every single one of them), I’m probably friendlier toward straight-up experimentation than most.  So never mind when writer/director Olatunde Osunsanmi claims that The Fourth Kind is all based on real events or when the film’s marketing takes pleasure in polluting the information space: I’m more interested in the way the film skips and hops in-between levels of fiction, splitting its screen four-way and trying everything it can think of to appeal to documentary viewing protocols.  The fun begins in the very first moment of the film, as Milla Jovovich gamely tells us she’s a movie star playing someone else.  From that moment on, we cut between putative archival material (featuring director Osunsanmi interviewing “the real Abigail Tyler”, who’s really Charlotte Milchard in an uncredited role) and a more conventional dramatic rendition of events with a very small cast led by Jovovich, Will Patton and Elias Koteas.  The Fourth Kind has a wobbly fourth wall, directly asking its audience to believe.  As interesting as it can be to see two levels of fiction playing off each other (sometimes in similar camera angles shown side-to-side), it’s an experiment that shoots itself in the foot in constantly reminding us about the level of fakery of the more conventionally-shot segments, and then shoots itself again in the other foot when we remind ourselves that even the pseudo-documentary footage is just as fake.  Oh, it’s entertaining itself to see a film self-destruct in this fashion and then hobble around screaming (and oh boy, is there a lot of screaming in The Fourth Kind) as it falls apart.  (There’s so much hand-held wobble that even the split-screen itself moves around, earning a snicker as if the film itself couldn’t decide which footage to show.)  But the film’s interest has little to do with its effectiveness as a horror film, because we’re left with a muddle of UFOs, Summerian myth, distorted voices and unexplained events.  In its lack of ultimate release, The Fourth Kind is once again trading satisfaction for interest: while it’s unusual to see a horror film hold on so steadfastly to audience satisfaction denial, it doesn’t make it any better from a narrative viewpoint, and it sure looks as if the film doesn’t deliver a conclusion by lack of imagination or guts rather than purposeful enigma.  It amounts to a film that jaded horror fans may appreciate for what it attempts to do rather than what it achieves.

Enter the Dragon (1973)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Enter the Dragon</strong> (1973)

(On cable TV, July 2011) Given Enter the Dragon’s importance within the martial arts film genre, it’s a bit surprising that I hadn’t seen the film until now.  Well, that’s now done, and checking this film off my to-watch-some-day list wasn’t much of a chore.  Bruce Lee’s performance is compelling, but the film has, in aging, become a brief period look at early-seventies Hong Kong, followed by a deliciously unconscious take on the James-Bondian “Megalomaniac Island” plot device.  (Better yet is the period-inspired Black-Power character played by Jim Kelly, who definitely doesn’t get enough screen time.)  Even though scripting isn’t high on the priorities of martial arts films, Enter the Dragon has a few interesting refinements: The introduction of the main character is handled through flashbacks, the final fight has thematic visual ambitions, and there are a few well-done moments in-between.  It’s surprisingly coherent, but best of all it leads to a few well-shot fighting sequences that don’t chop the action in excessive cutting.  It’s pleasant to watch, and doesn’t necessarily ask viewers to forgive its flaws.  Lee is fantastic, both charismatic as an actor, and intense as a martial artist (there’s a sequence with nunchucks that will leave most viewers going “wow!”); too bad this ended up being his last film.  This is still well-worth a look; keep your eyes open for a few surprises.  If you think you spot a young Jackie Chan somewhere in the movie, well… you just may be right.

Cowboys & Aliens (2011)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Cowboys & Aliens</strong> (2011)

(In theaters, July 2011) There’s no real reason to dislike the western/Science Fiction hybrid Cowboys & Aliens, but no real reason to love it either.  It plays surprisingly straight, what with Daniel Craig and Harrison out-gruffing each other on the way to rid the Earth of an alien menace.  The SF elements are weak (Mining gold?  Really?  Did they miss all the asteroids on their way here?), the action sequence lack a certain oomph and the film seems happy just delivering the goods in more or less the same way the audience expects.  Given that even competence is sometimes missing from Hollywood blockbuster, the acknowledgement that Cowboys & Aliens does deliver on its promises should be seen as a compliment.  (If nothing else, you do get both Cowboys and Aliens.  Happy?)  The problem is that there’s little more to director Jon Favreau’s film.  After a thorny first act, everything reverts to unthreatening adventure with a perfunctory finale and the self-simplification of the script is particularly harmful to its SF elements: There’s little rhyme or reason to the aliens’ capabilities except for dramatic effect, and at the point it becomes harder for the viewer to actually form expectations or build any kind of suspense if narrative rabbits are going to be taken out of various orifices.  Interestingly enough, some of the better works comes from supporting actors: Sam Rockwell is once again unrecognizable in an atypical role far from his better-known characters; Adam Beach is earnest and sympathetic; whereas Olivia Wilde manages to carry an element of ethereal difference to her character beyond simply looking pretty.  Oh, Cowboys & Aliens plays well and satisfies base expectations.  There’s just a nagging feeling that the film could have been just a little bit more…

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Captain America: The First Avenger</strong> (2011)

(In theaters, July 2011) The inherent nationalism of the Captain America character makes it a tricky sell outside the United States.  How best to translate a superhero originally developed to tap into pro-American anti-Nazi fever to an international audience that, to put it politely, may not believe as much in American exceptionalism?  Nazis, unsurprisingly, are part of the answer: This Captain America not only takes places during World War 2 (albeit a dieselpunk-verging-on-atompunk fantasy version of WW2) and squares off against a supernatural Nazi opponent, but director Joe Johnston also adopts an un-ironic filming style reminiscent of classic adventure films.  Fortunately, it all fits together, with a little surprise at the end: Trying something a bit different from other films superhero films proves to be a good idea, and Captain America turns into a refreshingly old-fashioned entertainment.  A good chunk of the fun belongs to Chris Evans, who takes on the square-jawed heroics with unselfconscious honesty; good supporting roles also go to Hugo Weaving as the villainous Red Skull, Stanley Tucci as an eccentric mentor and Tommy Lee Jones, chewing on the kind of gruff military man role he’s so naturally suited for.  The story plays itself out over a few years, with a few unexpected hooks and references to the real-world history of Captain America: keep your eyes out for a reproduction of the real Captain America #1 cover during the film’s amusing showbiz digression.  Fans of the Marvelverse put on film will love the references to Thor and the Iron Man hooks with the importance given to Tony Stark’s father.  Add to that a few good supporting characters, a decent romance with chronological room to grow, a nifty coda and some fascinating special effects and Captain America isn’t just good enough to become a high point of Summer 2011 in Hollywood, but a superb lead-in to 2012’s The Avengers.

Metal Tornado (2011)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Metal Tornado</strong> (2011)

(On cable TV, July 2011) There’s no way around the fact that this made-for-TV-movie struggles in presenting a wide-scale unnatural disaster on a shoestring budget.  It’s in the nature of the thing, and it’s a small wonder to see how many low-budget SF movies actually try to deliver on catastrophe.  Naturally, some indulgence is helpful in watching this kind of movie: It’s better to squint a little and focus on what the filmmakers were attempting to do rather than focus on the unconvincing special effects and flat cinematography that follows low-budget filmmaking.  In a generous mood, it’s tempting to suggest that Metal Tornado’s premise is more original than most and just convincing enough to suspend disbelief: As satellite power generation becomes possible, a flawed experiment creates the titular metal tornado that runs along underground iron ore and sucks up anything metallic in its path.  The techno-babble isn’t completely dumb, Lou Diamond Phillips makes for a likable hero, there’s some cleverness in the usual plot template and the quantity of special effects almost make up for their quality.  It builds, it plays, it ends –basically, it does what it was designed for.  This being said, Metal Tornado doesn’t rise much above the usual made-for-TV-Sci-Fi-movie level: as one would expect from budgetary limitations, the dialogue is dull, the plot points are expected, the camerawork is plodding, and the re-use of actors/characters gets increasingly ridiculous rather than powerful.  Mistakes abound, including non-magnetic metals being sucked into the tornado, but they’re not nearly as hilarious as the last act, which wipes out Paris but manages to triumphantly save… Pittsburgh.  As an added treat, Canadians may have fun spotting the small tell-tale details that betray the film’s shooting location.  I spotted the Canada Post mailboxes, but I was a bit surprised to find out, reading the credits, that the film was shot locally, in/near Ottawa.  (“metal tornado Ottawa” is just a search away to tell you that it was shot in summer 2010, featuring local talent and in exotic locations such as Wakefield.)  The local connection alone makes it a must-see in my case… but I can’t vouch for you the farther away you feel from Ottawa.

Bad Teacher (2011)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Bad Teacher</strong> (2011)

(In theaters, July 2011) R-rated comedies often seem to live in a different universe than the rest of comedies, and one of their chief characteristic is how much irreverence they can throw at institutions and beliefs that are otherwise untouchable.  Here, nothing less than the sacrosanct image of the teacher as a virtuous force is under full attack with Cameron Diaz’s unhinged portrait of a strikingly inappropriate junior-high teacher.  Drugs, embezzlement, thievery, coarse language and wanton seduction are all part of her repertoire, and if nothing else, Bad Teacher provides Diaz with a plum comic opportunity.  Diaz isn’t the only good actor in the mix: Lucy Punch is a revelation as the neurotic Amy Squirrel, while Jason Segel is unexpectedly sympathetic in an everyman role and Justin Timberlake takes a few risks with a dweebish performance.  Too bad, then, that it’s handled so unevenly: The script doesn’t really start to click until its second half (where characters are forced to act against their nature in the hope of gaining something), and the touchy balance between portraying an offensive character entertainingly is sometimes in doubt.  It’s almost, yes, as if Hollywood tried to soften the edges of an edgier kind of comedy; in the subgenre, Bad Santa will still remain a reference.  Meanwhile, the end result of this film is average, although individual moments stand out as being better than their sum.  Some people will be offended; the biggest problem with Bad Teacher, however, is that it doesn’t give nearly enough laughs to those who are willing to play along.

Rule 34, Charles Stross

<em class="BookTitle">Rule 34</em>, Charles Stross

Ace, 2011, 358 pages, C$30.00 hc, ISBN 978-0-441-02034-8

Every new Charles Stross novel is an event in the world of Science Fiction, and rarely more so than when he turns his attention to near-future speculation.  As is obvious to anyone reading his blog, Stross is a pretty good techno-social pundit, and his willingness to play around with big concepts advantages him when he tackles near-future scenarios.  In Halting State, he imagined a wild conceptual rollercoaster where crime and technology intersected in late-2010s Scotland.  Now, with Rule 34, he revisits the same notional playground and dares ask what’s the future of deviance at a time where ideas spread nearly instantly, and where no idea is so outlandish that it can’t be shared by a group of like-minded people.

The “Rule 34” of the title is familiar to anyone who’s spent time on internet discussion forums: “If it exists, there is porn of it”, which I have always interpreted to be not a warning or a promise, but an acknowledgement that humans, especially as a group, are an imaginative species when it comes to their base desires.  Stross’ application of the concept is to imagine a team of police officers monitoring the internet to catch wind of new dangerous ideas before they have to deal with them on their own turf.  After all, If the newest craze spreading through internet hoodlums is llama-stomping, it far better for the police to be prepared than caught surprised.  (Right on cue as I edit this review, Ottawa feels its first “flash rob”.)

But there’s a lot more to Rule 34 than police using web browsers: It’s an excuse for Stross to start thinking about the near-future of crime and law-enforcement.  Much as Halting State thought about the intersection of crime, games and national security, this follow-up has a bit to say about what happens when crime is run along business principles, when police work becomes enmeshed into the cultural matrix and what the future of “perversion” can be.  (I’m overselling this by talking about “the future of perversion”, but none of the three main characters is traditionally heteronormative, and the deviance to be contained has more to do with consent that sexual orientation.  This, to Stross fans, will be strictly routine.)  As with Halting State, Rule 34 feels stuffed with neat ideas that will pop up elsewhere in the Science Fiction genre within a few years: Stross is, as usual, five minutes ahead of everyone else, and this novel does little to tarnish his current credentials as SF’s essential writer.

But if techno-social extrapolation is Stross’ best-known virtue, Rule 34 shows that he’s constantly underrated when it comes to style.  Like its predecessor, Rule 34 is written in present-tense second-person point-of-view.  The rationale for doing this isn’t as strong as in Halting State (where it could be interpreted as a take-off on the narrative voice of game tutorials), but it does lead to a crunchy game of “Who is narrating this?” toward the end of the volume as the mysteries of the plot are teasingly brought closer.  This time, Stross seems to be having a bit of fun in the narration, and never quite as much as when a particularly spirited piece of writing explains the new shape of the world in a preposterously entertaining fashion.  It used to be that you could rely upon the SF writers with the best ideas to be only marginally competent in writing prose.  Rule 34 shows that Stross is able to combine the ideas with vastly entertaining writing.  It’s still mind you, aimed straight at the techno-nerd segment able to process multiple simultaneous streams of information (chunks of the novel are best appreciated if you can get all of the references to web memes, recent political/criminal/financial history, or simply the info-SF mindset.) but it still, at times, approaches a bravura performance: As he slowly enters his second decade of professional publishing, Stross is getting better and better at delivering the kind of satisfying SF reading experience that genre readers are asking for.  It’s also, in the typical Strossian tradition, both very funny and very scary at once.

A first-rate SF novel, cutting-edge even by 2011’s most rigorous standards, Rule 34 is about as good as the genre can be at the moment, avoiding the prevailing doom-and-gloom atmosphere while presenting a challenging view of the near future.  It’s exhilarating, satisfying and entertaining at once, and it seems likely to rocket up the list of the Hugo Award nominations next year.

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 (2011)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2</strong> (2011)

(In theaters, July 2011) As review-proof as they come, this second installment of J.K. Rowling’s final Potter book is all narrative pay-off after the often interminable setup of Part One.  The action moves back to Hogwarts and stays there, although what happens is closer to a local Armageddon than a traditional school year as the two opposing camps of the wizard civil war finally clash.  There are a few deaths (quickly glossed over), but also a few triumphs along the way:  Neville and Mama Weasley each get unusually good moments for themselves, and the film goes have the feel of an eight-volume epic conclusion.  There isn’t much more to say than even though this conclusion may not be a startling cinematic achievement it itself, it delivers what fans were hoping for.  (If you didn’t see it opening day with a psyched-up audience, well, you missed one of the rare times where seeing a film with a big raucous crowd can add a lot to the experience.)  It’s far more appropriate to take this opportunity to salute the eight-film series with a deep bow and a flashy tip of the hat: I don’t think there’s been such a long-running series with this sustained level of quality before, and the bet that Warner Brothers made in going forward with this series has handsomely paid off for everyone even as other attempts to create kids-film franchise haven’t gone past a first film.  The way the actors have grown up in front of our eyes is amazing, and Deathly Hallows Part 2 can’t resist showing us a few sequences of baby-faced Daniel Radcliffe to remind us of the long ten-year road from the first film to this one.  While it hasn’t been all good (Alfonson Cuaron’s job on the third film hasn’t been equaled, and the seventh film seriously dragged at times), it’s been a remarkable adaptation of complex books and the result will, I think, be enjoyed by many people for a long time to come.

The Lost City of Z, David Grann

<em class="BookTitle">The Lost City of Z</em>, David Grann

Doubleday, 2009, 339 pages, C$32.00 hc, ISBN 978-0-385-51353-1

To the average modern citizen, the world is known, mapped and defined.  The mountains have been climbed, the poles have been reached, the forests have been photographed from above and the dragons have been banished off the charts.  There are no pockets of adventure left, as most of the world is reachable within 48 hours if you have a reasonable amount of money.  There are no undiscovered tribes, no mysteriously vanished cities of gold, no fantastic journeys left to discover.

I’m not mourning for the loss: I like my globe stable and predictable, and the fact that I can go anywhere in the world with enough money and a bit of preparation is a feature as far as I’m concerned.  Especially considering the alternative, which comes naturally after reading David Grann’s The Lost City of Z.  The non-fiction book is a dual narrative covering the life and mysterious disappearance of Victorian-era explorer Percy Fawcett, and Grann’s contemporary quest to find out the truth about Fawcett’s last Amazon expedition.  Whereas Fawcett’s life is filled with accounts of deadly treks in undiscovered lands, Grann’s own adventures take him to archives, walking down a well-traveled path of similarly fascinated enthusiasts wondering what happened to Fawcett after mysteriously vanishing in the jungle.

Perhaps the best thing about The Lost City of Z is the way is brings alive the mystery and romance of the post-Victorian-era of exploration; a time when the last frontiers of the world were being mapped, but also a time when rich bored Englishmen could go to the National Geographic Society to follow a few courses on exploration, and then take it upon themselves to expand the knowledge of a British Empire that was already visibly retreating.  Percy Fawcett was one of those gentlemen-adventurers, relying on other people’s fortune to put together expeditions with the explicit goal of mapping what hasn’t yet been explored.  Gunn does a fine job at explaining the psychology of this curious character, whose action-filled life went on, indirectly, to influence the creation of Indiana Jones.  Fawcett had an eventful love life, quite possibly acted as a spy for the British secret service while in the field (apparently, the explorer training was similar to a spy’s curriculum) and led a number of difficult expeditions in the Amazon before the fateful 1925 trek from which he never returned.

At the same time, we learn a lot about the Amazon jungle.  Arguably too much, as the various deadly horrors of the environment are described at length through the explorer’s journals.  Fawcett was unbelievably resilient, his body shrugging off hardships that ended up killing a significant number of the men traveling with him.  One of the most surprising pieces of information in The Lost City of Z is that the jungle isn’t a particularly good place to feed oneself: much of the ecosystem being located high above in the tree canopy, the explorers found that floor of the jungle could be barren of life-sustaining nutrients.  And that’s without describing the various exotic insects found along the way…

The contemporary counterpoint to Fawcett’s last expedition is Grann’s twenty-first century’s pursuit of the truth.  Fawcett’s disappearance has led to decades of efforts by amateurs looking to retrace the explorer’s steps, to a point where their numbers exasperated National Geographic Society archivists answering requests for the same documents.  Fortunately, Grann is able to get access to the Fawcett family archives and his ultimate visit to the area where Fawcett disappeared is informed by a close look at rumours of his possessions being traded years afterward.  What he finds out doesn’t completely solve the mystery, but it clears it to the point where the rest is just details; Fawcett most likely wandered into an unfriendly tribe’s territory and… do we really want to know more?

His legacy, ultimately, is still being felt.  His search for the mythic city of “Z” is now starting to be confirmed thanks to satellite imagery and a better understanding of how the jungle could sustain a human presence.  If the Amazon has retreated (Grann suggests that many of the areas that Fawcett explored are now clear-cut expanses of agricultural fields), it has also revealed its secrets and helped modern anthropologists discover new facets of the world as it once existed.  The book ends by disproving the notion that the world has already been mapped to completion: there are clearly still new things to discover… even today.

Horrible Bosses (2011)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Horrible Bosses</strong> (2011)

(In theaters, July 2011) Two and a half years after a catastrophic global meltdown, movies are starting to reflect the soul-deadened guilt of those who kept their jobs.  Playing heavily on wish-fulfillment, Horrible Bosses dares to ask how much better life would be if people could just get rid of their awful supervisors in the most definitive way possible.  It takes strong protagonists to keep our sympathy in such circumstances, and Horrible Bosses get two out of three in that matter: Jason Bateman continues his streak of playing endearing everymen, while Jason Sudeikis somehow manages to make us look past his character’s horn-dog issues.  As the remaining member of the trio of oppressed worker looking to dispatch their bosses, however, Charlie Day is almost more annoying than useful, and the tic of reverting to a high-pitched whine whenever things go wrong is annoying the moment it happens a second time.  Then there’s the other half of the deal: the bosses.  Fortunately, that’s where Horrible Bosses wins a perfect score: Kevin Spacey is deliciously slimy as the kind of arrogant sociopath that climbs up the corporate ladder; Colin Farrell is unrecognizable as a loser working to extract as much loot out of the family company before it goes bankrupt; whereas Jennifer Aniston is all sex-appeal with bangs, toned body and racoon eyes as a crazed harasser.  They deserve their fate; the protagonists have suffered enough; and the film can stand on its own.  It does get better as it develops, mostly due to some clever writing, sympathetic performances (including Jamie Foxx as a criminal consultant), a few twists in which real world problems become comic plot points, and a conclusion that neatly wraps things up.  While Horrible Bosses won’t stick around in popular culture, it’s a decent example of the kind of film it wants to be: It’s amoral without being offensive, edgy without grossing-out and polished to an extent that it leaves little if any unpleasant aftertaste.  Good enough for entertainment; consecration isn’t an essential prerequisite with a good-time comedy like this.

Ex Machina, Brian K. Vaughan & Tony Harris

<em class="BookTitle">Ex Machina</em>, Brian K. Vaughan & Tony Harris

Originally published as a series of fifty-four issues by DC/Wildstorm from 2004 to 2010; republished as a five volume series of hardcover by Wildstorm from 2008 to 2011.

I picked up Ex Machina in part because it seemed to do what I want to see more often in superhero comics: Using its conventions as a mean to talk about something else; paying attention to the real world; and, perhaps more importantly, ending.  The average superhero title exists in a state of meta-stability, not daring to change its basic premise too much lest the core of the character becomes unsalable.  That’s how you end up with meaningless decades-long melodramas starring hundreds and comic-book tropes that have less and less relevance to ourselves.

But Ex Machina, like my beloved Transmetropolitan, takes place in a completely separate universe untainted by other superheroes and was always planned to end after a set number of issues.  It diverges from our reality on October 18, 1999, as Mitchell Hundred, an engineer working for the city of New York, is wounded in an explosion while working on the Brooklyn Bridge.  Recovering, he discovers that he now has an ability to talk to machines and make them do his bidding.  Conditioned by years of reading comic-books and encouraged by his new ability to build advanced technology, he decides to become a superhero and, over the next few years, becomes “The Great Machine”, fighting crime (not always successfully) around New York City.  After revealing his identity and announcing his intention to run for mayor, his last achievement as a super-hero is to save one of the World Trade Center towers on September 11, 2001.

Ex Machina begins after 2005, as Hundred narrates the events of his tenure as mayor.  The series being one big flashback, it skips and hops in-between all eras of Hundred’s life in an effort to tell his story with maximum drama.  The nice thing about having an ex-superhero mayor protagonist, at least for series writer Brian K. Vaughan, is that he gets to fill his 50 issues with issues both political and science-fictional.  Hundred’s powers come from somewhere, and this mystery hangs over the entire series as a question to be answered.  Meanwhile, Hundred presides over America’s largest city at a time where terrorist threats and new social issues combine to make his tenure uniquely complex.  The series veers in-between issues both realistic and fantastic, trying to give equally satisfying time to both.

It doesn’t always work, especially when the series forgets its super-heroic premise to discuss social issues.  The entire series may look impressive when collected in hardcover tomes, but it’s still constrained by the parameters of American political discussions.  While Vaughan may try to claim an affiliation to the moderate centre, this doesn’t always translate to “moderate center” by non-American standards.  Furthermore, some story arcs are meant to serve “very special lessons” that are only ground-breaking within the narrow realm of comic books.  Is Ex Machina better than other comic books when it comes to political credibility?  Yes.  Is it good enough to sustain the scrutiny of political junkies?  Not quite.

The series also seems unwilling to resolve some of its own issues; mentions of Mitchell being sexually ambivalent, pot-smoking, potentially traumatized by the deaths of people near and dear to him eventually resolve to… nothing much.  It’s not an indefensible choice, given how clearly the last issue presents him as someone so convinced by his own obsession that he seems willing to sacrifice everyone around him to his ultimate (admittedly altruistic) goal.  But something got lost in-between the planning of the series and its final execution.  The pacing of the super-heroic mystery component of the narrative seems to be deliberately held back until the last volume, the character’s lack of curiosity betraying the writer’s uneven pacing.

From an artistic standpoint, I have always disliked the coloring of the series, which takes Tony Harris’ realistic art style and gives it a garish palette… but at this point, I’m just kvetching, because Ex Machina remains a modest success.

It’s not a series I’d recommend without reservations, but it’s a good example of an ambitious project, decently executed.  I may quibble with the series’ empty moments or the unadventurous nature of its political content as perceived from abroad, but by the stunted standards of the superhero comic book genre, it’s far ahead of its competition and helps the sub-genre perceive possibilities that may not have been as obvious before.  It’s also good where it counts, which is to say to provide an ending that definitely closes the series while leaving a big intriguing question mark over what else may happen to Hundred after the last page of the series.  Closed-ending science-fiction comic book series aren’t that plentiful; I should be grateful that this one is there to do most of it right.

Hamlet 2 (2008)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Hamlet 2</strong> (2008)

(On DVD, July 2011) There’s a mess of intentions in Hamlet 2 that makes it hard to cohere as a purely enjoyable comedy.  On one hand, the film is generally more successful when it plays things broadly, taking advantage of Steve Coogan’s go-for-broke willingness to try anything, and an irreverent attitude that places no gags beyond the script’s reach.  The “Rock Me, Sexy Jesus” musical number is the highlight of the film, topping whatever risqué subject matter and foul language may not have reached.  There are a few good absurd touches and unexpected character reversals, such as starring Elizabeth Shue as herself, taking plot directions from a young drama critic, meeting the accomplished parents of a good kid posing as a gang-banger, and ultimately having the kids save their teacher’s self-esteem rather than the usual other way around.  As with most comedies, there are a few smiles here and there.  But Hamlet 2 is also saddled with a misguided intent to delve into humiliation comedy, to carry scenes too long after the point of the joke, and to attempt providing redundant emotional scaffolding to the comedy.  As a result, the film runs long even at roughly 90 minutes.  Coogan, playing a character often too dumb to live, is exactly the kind of actor who overacts when he’s not reined in: his performance is a symptom of a film that hasn’t quite mastered tonal harmony from beginning to end.  There’s enough off-kilter experimentation here to keep anyone interested, and the third act is successful enough to patch most of the early film’s laugh-free rough spots, but Hamlet 2 doesn’t quite manage to do justice to the kind of film it’s mocking.  The DVD contains a making-of featurette that tells us a bit about the writers’ intentions (parody the “inspirational teacher” movies sub-genre) and shows us that the film’s been fun to make.

Weird Science (1985)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Weird Science</strong> (1985)

(Second Viewing: On DVD, July 2011) At this point, I shouldn’t be surprised if movies I dimly remembered as being hilarious end up just on the amusing side of funny.  Unfortunately, Weird Science goes to join the ranks of eighties comedies that just aren’t as good as they should have been.  The central idea in seeing two nerds create “the perfect woman” thanks to some modern hocus-pocus is still potent (albeit maybe a bit less amusing nowadays given the age difference between the actors) and the film does have a few good scenes.  But the connective tissue between those scenes… and the mismatch between the possibilities of the premise and what’s up on the screen is just annoying.  Part of the problem, especially for viewers schooled in fantasy fiction, is the film’s very loose adherence to a coherent imaginative framework: everything seems possible in the film, and while this carries its own reward (let’s face it: the Pershing missile thing is still one of the film’s finest moments), it also unmoors the film and sends it in fantasyland where the stakes are low because everything’s possible –it’s far, far better to file Weird Science under “teen comedy”  rather than “fantasy” or “science-fiction”.  Both the plot and the characters are underdeveloped, and don’t go much beyond “two good kids learn a lesson”.  The overacting in the film is a bit surprising twenty-five years later.  Weird Science, seen from 2011, doesn’t quite hold together, and definitely seems like a minor John Hughes teen comedy when compared to the rest of his eighties filmography.  Still, the film still warrants a look today for a couple of reasons: It has aged reasonably well, turning itself into an unabashed time capsule of the mid-eighties in their weird Reganian splendour.  (Mid-riff shirts?  Why???) It also remains one of Kelly LeBrock’s defining performances: being asked to play “the perfect woman” to two horny teenagers is a tough order, but she manages to make it look easy.  The film also features early roles for Bill Paxton and Robert Downey Jr., and a catchy theme song that eighties kids probably still remember.  Weird Science certainly isn’t perfect, but in the right mood it’s a charming throwback to another time –a perfect movie for a quiet evening.

Pledge This! (2006)

<strong class="MovieTitle">Pledge This!</strong> (2006)

(On DVD, July 2011) There’s an unsolvable contradiction at the heart of Pledge This! that condemns it to being a terrible film, and it’s more amusing to see the film try to ignore it than it is to witness the gross-out gags and weak jokes that pass themselves off as a comedy.  The contradiction is that the film capitalizes on its star Paris Hilton, even as it tries to set up an underdog plot opposing “normal” girls to the plastic sorority ideal that Hilton incarnates.  The first five minutes set the unpleasant tone, as Hilton’s character’s affect-less voice-over introduces herself as a heroine of mythical proportion, teaching girls how to be perfect pledges without a single hint at deprecating self-awareness.  It takes a while, in fact, for the true heroines of the film to be introduced, and Pledge This! is such a prisoner of Hilton’s top billing that it wimps out whenever it tries to oppose its heroines to the kind of superficial ideal that Hilton represents.  That would be enough to sink a film, but Pledge This! is also remarkable by how badly it’s made.  Forget about direct-to-video; this straddles the line between professional and amateurish.  Acting, staging, cinematography, sets, screenwriting: nearly every aspect of filmmaking is perceptibly worse than average in this film, and it’s not an intentional artistic choice or a consequence of the budget.  In an effort to goose up the interest of the film, the “naughty edition” DVD includes more female nudity, but even that fails to be impressive when it’s shoehorned so obviously: on at least three occasions, the film stops dead for about ten seconds as the camera lingers on naked breasts, and the result feels more embarrassing than alluring.  Compared to such rank incompetence, commenting on Hilton’s lack of acting skills, lack of intonations and forced “That’s hot” dialogue seems almost beside the point.  But her very presence actually drags the film further down because she will not allow herself to be considered as the villain her “character” is supposed to be.  She even torpedoes a number of one-liners that would have been funnier from just about any competent actor.  There are, to be truthful, a few chuckles here and there: Kerri Kenney makes the most out of a small role, while Noureen DeWulf somehow earns smiles in a borderline-offensive role.  Still, it’s hard to avoid that this isn’t a comedy as much as something for frat-boys to put on the big-screen TV while they drink themselves to a stupor.  Wikipedia’s entry on the film details Pledge This!’s troubled production history (shot in 2004, delayed, re-shot with nude scenes in 2005-2006, delayed, publicly disowned by Hilton, and released direct-to-video in late 2006) but does not excuse the final result.  It’s certainly an instructive demonstration of about half a dozen ways a film can self-destruct, but don’t take this as a recommendation.  The DVD itself sports one of the cheapest-looking menus and making-of featurette I can recall, faithfully reflecting the impression left by the film.