<![CDATA[Mark Andrew Edwards - Markblog]]>Wed, 26 Apr 2017 17:52:48 -0700Weebly<![CDATA[Review: Levon's Trade]]>Wed, 26 Apr 2017 22:20:56 GMThttp://markandrewedwards.com/markblog/review-levons-trade
The first I can recall hearing about Chuck Dixon was someone recently saying he'd been blacklisted by Marvel. That made me do some digging only to find that he'd written some of my favorite Punisher stories back in the 90's.

And that's what Levon Cade reminds me of: the Punisher. Minus Vietnam and the compulsion to fight crime, adding friends and family still alive. Both are Marines (the only Ex-Marines are John Murtha and his ilk), both are hard men, both are ruthless and efficient. But the character motivations are different so I'll leave the Punisher comparisons for my doctoral thesis or for a time I have too much time stuck in an airport.

What I liked best was that Levon's motivation was always clear to me. He was disinterested in the job offer (yes, you can make the Joseph Campbell comparison to 'Refusing the Call') because he wasn't in that line of work anymore. This is a guy who is not an adrenaline junkie. This isn't fun for him or a game or even a question of revenge. But he is strongly motivated by a desire to keep his daughter. And the threat posed by his in-laws was interesting and not cliche villainy.

The novel is fast paced, with short chapters ala James Patterson. It makes for a quick read. And for an addictive pattern of purchases, on my part.
We do not get much of Cade's internal thoughts and he's terse in speech. That laconism appeals to me. I like to be shown things, rather than have them told to me. Chuck Dixon gets that done here. Just like Levon Cade.

What worked: Good, believable action, clear motivations for all actors, a lack of luck or plot immunity to resolve the story and real consequences that start the whole book series careening off in unexpected directions.

What didn't: I can't think of a lot of negatives, this is more novella-length (like the old Don Pendleton Executioner novels)

This is not a Jack Reacher novel. This is actually good.

Also: note to self, buy marine model shotgun with sidesaddle

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<![CDATA[Review: ​Logan: the hero that failed]]>Fri, 17 Mar 2017 22:00:28 GMThttp://markandrewedwards.com/markblog/review-logan-the-hero-that-failed

Logan is a post-heroic movie. There are no superheroes. There are no heroes, no leaders, no protection in innocence, no innocence in childhood.
You will not be inspired by this movie. It will not make you happy. It will not make you feel good.
But it is probably the most realistic and most grounded movie of people with unusual power.

It could have been better. It could have been happier. It could have inspired, it could have taught lessons or been ABOUT something. It could have explained things, it could have been clear.
 
It isn’t. It wasn’t. And you have to decide if you’re ok with that.
 
TL;DR review – Logan has grown old, Professor X has grown senile. There are no more mutants. Logan is compelled to try to escort a feral child similar to himself to the Canadian border while pursued by evil corporate types. Gruesome violence ensues, touching everyone.
 
Introduction and Plot:
Well, we wanted a R-rated Wolverine movie. We got one. All the claw deaths you imagined as a fan are here.  Just don’t look for any heroes. This is an odd, depressing movie. A good movie, not a great movie though it could have been. It does not give happy endings, it does not resolve much but it does pound the nail of finality into a number of characters. There aren’t a lot of bad guys still alive at the end of this but in a way, they still win.  Very little is won, much is lost including whatever affection you might have for some of these comic book characters.  This is a brutal, bleak look at failure and ennui, at the hero rejecting the call again and again and again. This is the story of age and failure and decay. Whatever its flaws, and I intend to talk about them at length, this movie is ABOUT things. Just not nice things.  Like Wolverine used to say, “I’m the best there is at what I do. But what I do isn’t very nice.” That’s true here. Only without him being the ‘best’ anymore.
 
So here’s the plot.  Logan has grown old, this movie is set in 2028 or there abouts. There have not been any new mutants born for a very long time. He is working as a limo driver near El Paso and trying to save money to buy a boat. Why a boat? Because he’s hiding Professor Xavier south of the border and Xavier isn’t safe to be around people. The world’s most powerful telepath gets seizures and loses control of his powers, possibly killing the Xmen off (the movie is vague on this but it’s strongly suggested). Logan’s plan is to buy a big boat and sail off where Professor X can die peacefully of old age without endangering anyone else.
However, Logan is found by a runaway nurse, who is harboring X23, a child grown from Logan’s genetic material in some way, who was raised in a laboratory as a weapon. He tries repeatedly to tell the woman he is not interested in helping her, but the promise of money (enough to buy the boat he needs for Xavier) seems to convince him to help. However, when he goes to pick them up, the nurse is dead and X23 appears to be missing.  It turns out, she’s stowed away in his trunk and so when he drives back to Xavier, she comes with. When Xavier meets the girl, he becomes obsessed with trying to help her reach safety.
The big, bad corporation that grew her, wants her back. Or dead. That’s a big vague. And they have some slightly cybernetic gunmen trying to chase her down.  They show up and force Logan, Xavier and X23 on the run.
They travel north, meet and help and fatally endanger a group of farmers. Xavier is killed by a full-sized clone of Wolverine. Eventually Logan gets to the border crossing where a group of children have somehow managed to make the same trip from Mexico City to North Dakota.  Logan is badly injuried by previous fights and recovers slowly. When the time comes to help the kids cross the border, he refuses to help them. But then changes his mind for some reason when he sees the corporate bad guys going after them.
Finally Logan is killed fighting his clone while the children manage to escape to Canada. X23 says a little benediction. Lines taken from the much better movie, Shane are said over his grave and the Cross is turned sideways to become an X as the children go north.
 
 
What worked:
Logan/Hugh Jackman. Hugh Jackman has embodied Wolverine like a second skin. He’s treated the character with respect and never given less than is all. Even in the lesser Xmen movies, Jackman is there trying to make Wolverine feel like a real person. He’s the same excellent actor here. It’s sad he won’t be playing the character anymore but it’s a decent send off for him. It just would have been nice if he’d been given a better send off.


The way the mutants were ‘taken out’. In previous Xmen movies, the mutant apocalypse has always been a huge monster/mutant/robot menace. With concentration camps and Nazi parallels galore.  In this movie, the mutants were killed off by a combination of genetically modifying corn syrup and Xavier’s own brain.  Altering the food and water supply to make mutants less likely to appear or to make them less powerful is neat. It’s a clever solution to the problem of too many mutants that hasn’t been attempted. 
 
The relationship between Logan and Xavier. I didn’t care for Xavier in this movie but Logan did. The father/son relationship couldn’t be more on-the-nose, with an old man taking care of his much older, failing father. Due to the writing flaws, they aren’t given many scenes where they can shine or show care for each other, but the bitterness and sense of obligation are there. And they feel real. Again, not a good feeling, but a real one, where the son resents having to care for an elderly father and where the father feels disappointment in his son.  Xavier is constantly trying to get Logan to do the ‘right’ thing, even when Xavier’s judgement is more….idealistic than wise.  Logan is the practical on, who has the earn the money, buy the pills, make sure Xavier TAKES the pills and carry him, rescue him, protect him.  It doesn’t feel like affection but rather an obligation that goes deep to the bone.
 
The future. This is no techno future, nor some blasted post apocalypse (Mark Millar can burn in hell, he’s a cancer on superhero comics), no a mindless dystopia. This is the real world. Just a few years down the road. TVs are incrementally better, semi trucks drive themselves, farming is mostly done by the huge robots that would be the bad guys in other Xmen movies, and there’s a Wall and border controls between the US and Mexico. But there’s still cars, still casinos, still hospitals, still normal guns.  It’s the world we live in and it’s very grounded and real-feeling.


The attempt to link comic books to the Western as part of the American myth. There are stories we tell about ourselves as Americans. The story of the Revolution and Independence. The Civil War. The Old West. And the Superhero.  Stories matter.  The stories we tell about ourselves shapes who we are and what we think of ourselves.  Logan is a Western, where the gunslinger has claws instead of a gun.  It explicitly links to that via an in-movie showing of the movie Shane (which is also a problem, I’ll talk about later).  But more than that, the setting of the film is all Western landscapes and farmers, gunmen and crooked company men. If the biogentic corporation ALSO ran the railroads, it couldn’t be more explicit. Leave aside the fact that the main character actors are Australian, British and British/Spanish. This is a story set in and about America. It says the superhero is the cowboy.

Spirituality.  This is not Unforgiven, which is one of the best stories to talk about violence ever to come out.  But along with borrowing themes and scenes from Shane, it also brought along the morality of it.  That there is a cost to killing. Not that feral murder child seems to care, but there is some indication that some day, she may.  Logan, for his part, is clearly haunted by his own savagery and the killings he carries with him.  And the fact that there is moral weight to killing leads to the giver of morality. God. This isn’t a religious film and it isn’t even about redemption, oddly.  But I give the movie credit for trying to grapple with the biggest questions of all: how should we live and how should we treat each other?  The movie doesn’t do a great job of addressing that but I give it credit for even trying.

Finally, it took chances and did something new with superheroes.  This is not like any other comic book movie out there. This is drama and deserves to be treated as a drama. What makes a movie ‘good’? A good movie accomplishes the goals it set out for itself.  A good action movie has skillful stunts and excitement. A good drama is emotional and feels like heightened reality. A good comedy makes you laugh.  And you get bonus points for trying to stretch the genre you are working in.  Casablanca was talking about isolationism as well as about Rick and Ilsa. Unforgiven was about violence as well as the western plot. My criticisms that follow pay the movie the respect of holding it to the high standards that the movies demands.
 
What didn’t:
 
Professor X. Patrick Stewart is a very fine actor and was the man born to play Professor Xavier. It’s unfortunate that the writing of the film leaves him little to do but moan and thrash around and be useless. This is deliberate. Xavier is a burden to Logan. He is both Logan’s reason and his cost. And he is dangerous. He is no longer able to control his mental powers or seemingly even able to use them. He is worse than useless, he’s a danger to himself and others. Stewart has done a better job showing a powerful, competent older man losing his mind in Safe House (an underrated movie I recommend for more than just the gun porn in it). If the screenwriter had watched Safe House before writing Xavier, there might have been more power and dynamism in Stewart’s role.  Instead, we’re left with a man babbling ‘Logan’ and ‘Laura’ tiresomely. Also, Xavier’s impulses are both racist (speciest?) and foolish.  He only cares about X23 because she’s one of ‘his kind’, a Mutant. And his decision to force themselves on a farm family when he knows they’re being pursued by murderous thugs, where every hour counts, where their presence will risk their lives is shockingly selfish and shameful. He is everything wrong with Liberalism and I don’t level that argument from a political partisan perspective. He just plain makes bad decisions coming from foolish worldview. The movie bear it out, causing his death and the death of innocents.


X23/Laura.  I just didn’t like her. The actress did fine, especially with role that is effectively mute. Which is part of the problem. For most of the movie she is a little murder machine, selfish and violent even against people who aren’t threatening her. That characterization makes sense for what was written, but that’s the problem. She is not an innocent child that needs protecting. She isn’t Logan’s offspring. She takes what she wants, kills without remorse and punches people in the face when she can’t get what she wants. She doesn’t talk or ask, in fact she’s mute for 3/4ths of the movie.  We have nothing to sympathize with her except for the fact that she exists and that she’s young.  She doesn’t ask for help, she demands it and the movie demands we care about her. Well, I didn’t. I almost thought the evil corporation had a point: she’s too dangerous to be running around loose.  Just imagine how many people she’s going to kill and maim throughout her life, because she doesn’t change by the end of the movie. I don’t believe she has learned about the sanctity of life by the end of the movie, despite the grave scene. No regret, no remorse, no thanks.
Also, how dumb is it to put adamantium in the body of someone who’s not done growing?  How does that work? Is she supposed to stay that size forever? Dumb.


Logan’s career.  Why a limo driver?  That is such a random job for Logan to be doing.  And we spend a good part of the movie’s opening watching him drive people around. It’s like he’s working as a cashier at a gas station. Why not have him smuggling people across the Mexican border? Or working as a bouncer? Or driving a semi truck full of liquor? Something that ties into the plot or ties into his past or ties into his character.   It might be a minor thing but it’s a missed opportunity and it bothered me and took me out of the film.
 
The Shane reference and the attempt to riff on that.  I gave the movie credit for trying to tie the superhero to the western and become part of the American story. But there’s an old saying, ‘never put a better movie in your own movie’.  Because people will wish that they were watching that instead.  Same with Shane. Shane is an iconic film and one that stretches the genre and goes from being a ‘good’ western to being a great film.  However, the attempt to tie Shane and Logan together doesn’t work.  One example is the farm family Professor Xavier gets killed…I mean that Logan and Xavier try to help.  These farmers are clear parallels to the homesteaders in Shane. Their farm situation is similar, their family structure is similar, they’re in conflict with the ‘bad guys’ that own all the land around them.  The movie almost wants you to talk about Shane instead of talking about Logan. It’s bait and I’m tempted to take it, but a movie has to be its own thing. It can’t lean on other, unrelated movies.*  Not to mention the fact that Shane saved the farmers, Logan and Xavier (Xavier really) gets the farmers ALL killed. This is both a head fake, subverting our expectations that Logan is going to follow the Shane plotline, and it’s cheap.
A big deal is made of Shane’s final speech about how there’s no living with a killing, that it’s a brand. And that ‘there are no more guns in the valley’, line.  The first half, about the weight of killing someone actually works and if it stopped there, I’d be more or less ok with that at least. But there ARE guns still in the valley, Logan may be dead but X23 is still a murder machine and all the other mutant children have all killed now too.  Yes, they’re leaving but they aren’t gone for good.  But this is where I’m getting sucked in to talking about Shane instead of talking about Logan, and again, that’s why you don’t put a better movie in your own film.


 
The relationship between Logan and X23.  First of all, they don’t have one.  As Logan says in the movie, he meets this little murder machine a few days ago and suddenly he’s supposed to care about her. She’s not his child. She is the product of DNA stolen from Logan and carried to term inside some random Mexican woman. Not only did he not know she existed, he had nothing to do with the mother. And this all leads to bad storytelling.  Because you can have this background and still have a relationship between the characters. But they don’t. She doesn’t seem to view him as a father figure, as a man of authority over her. She cries out calling him ‘papa’ towards the end of the movie but that doesn’t work because she hasn’t acted that way previously. But she should have. And he should have taken up the duty to raise her and teach her. Or else he should have left her by the side of the road, which he pretty clearly wants to do. Dick move but Wolverine seems to be a dick in this movie, not a hero. Not even a decent man.  Logan doesn’t care about her, she doesn’t care about him. And the tragedy here, among the many tragedies of this movie, is it didn’t have to be written this way.
But it was.


The theme.   What is the theme of Logan? What is Logan ABOUT? 
Well, it’s not about choosing to be a father, even if the child isn’t of your making. Logan refuses to do that all the way up to the end.
It’s not about atonement and trying to make right the mistakes of the past. Because Neither Professor Xavier nor Logan atone for their killings, they die but Xavier doesn’t even die doing anything.
It’s not about revenge. Logan doesn’t try to get revenge on the people who stole his DNA to make multiple clones of him.
It’s not about family. It’s not about facing your past. It’s not about trying to find peace.
It’s not about doing the right thing, even. Logan is given chance after chance to do something and it isn’t until the end where he goes and kills a bunch of random faceless bad guys and his own clone (the older killing machine, not the younger one)
It’s not even about confronting yourself, which Logan explicitly DOES, facing off against the younger, more fierce version of himself. Even this thematic possibility is passed over.
What is Logan ABOUT? Well, as far as I can tell it’s about getting old and failing and how life sucks and there are no superheroes. It’s about the failure of heroes. And this theme is consistent, it is carried out in every scene, so yes Logan has a theme. But it’s not a happy one.  I know, not all movies need to be happy or fun even. I defy anyone decent to have fun watching Shoah or Shadows and Fog or The Chekist. There are serious movies out there about serious things.  But Logan really shouldn’t be one of them. It can’t carry the weight of real drama. Logan’s a comic book character. Which leads me to..
 
The Xmen comics in the movie. This goes dangerously close to 4th wall breaking. In this movie universe, Logan exists as he’s described in the Xmen comics AND the Xmen comics exist. AND Logan flat out says they were based on real events that got distorted. So the Xmen comics, with their aliens and the Sentinels and Asteroid M and Genosha and all of the frankly silly stuff in the Marvel universe supposedly exists in Logan?  Heck, there’s even a Wolverine action figure one of the mutant kids clutches and it’s the yellow and blue spandex uniform.  This raises way too many questions. This was a mistake. It’s ok to acknowledge the previous Xmen movies. I mean, some of them are really bad (X3) but I suppose you can include them even in this more ‘real’ post-mutant world.  But the comic books are a whole can of worms that should have been left home. And speaking of comic book characters that don’t work…
 
Pierce/The Reavers.  Boyd Holbrook plays Pierce as an off-brand Brad Pitt with a mechanical hand. In the comic all the Reavers are cyborgs and that’s true here. But the cybernetic implants are supposed to make them better at fighting and THAT doesn’t happen here. At no point is having a mechanical hand shown to be an advantage, at no time are gun arms shown to be useful or anything else ‘super’ about being part machine.  Now with a little tweaking, you could have your Reaver fan service (which is all this is) but ground them in reality. Lots of Iraq/AfPak vets are missing limbs and some of the prosthetics they are getting are pretty close to what we see in this movie. If the Reavers were all embittered vets or adrenaline junkies or, if you really want to be a good writer, desperate or conflicted veterans it would have added weight and complexity. But no, they’re just generic bad guys for X23 and Logan to murder.  And they aren’t even competent bad guys, which is a major failing in my book.  They can’t take out anyone they’re sent after and don’t even seem to be trying very hard. Take the fact that these runaway mutants are wanted ‘Dead or Alive’, but with those rules of engagement, they should have been popping off shots at every opportunity. Those running mutant children should have been dead in three minutes. Now normally I’d say that a movie probably doesn’t want to show murdered children…except that it does. It murders the teenaged (or younger) son of the farmer. It shows mutant children being ‘put to sleep’ earlier in the film. So the movie is willing to cross the line of child murder but then not let the bad guys actually, you know, kill the little murder machines. Or even wound them. No one so much as slaps X23 once during the movie, unlike in the version in my head.
 
Logan chasing the bad guys at the end.  In a movie that’s been semi-to-seriously realistic, the last scenes of the movie really don’t work.  Logan has had a limp the whole movie. He’s dying. He’s not healing well and he seems to have chronic pain and injuries that slow him way, way down.  In addition, he’s up on a mesa or high bluff (and as far as I can find, there are no such things near the Canadian border, maybe near Walhalla…MAYBE but…that aside) that he had to get brought up to on a pulley and pallet.  Suddenly he sees the bad guys chasing the kids and they are ALREADY way north of him. He’s using high powered forestry service binoculars to see them.  Yet somehow he manages to catch up with and begin fighting with the Reavers before they catch all the kids. 
No way.
Logan has been moving far, far too slow. And he hasn’t taken the super dose of green steroids, that happens on camera as he’s wheezing like an old man.  So how does he catch up to kids who’ve had several hours of head start and to cars and trucks who are already north of him, on their way to Canada?
There is no way. Now this sounds like nit picking but this movie has been holding itself to a high standard of realism only to shake that off when its time for the final action scene.
Shame.


The failure of heroes. This ties back to the theme again but I really want to hammer home why this doesn’t work.  We watch superhero movies to see HEROES. And in this movie, the heroes all fail and die. They are mortal but not moral. They’re human. It’s almost as much of a deconstruction of superheroes as Alan Moore’s Watchmen. And it does it well, but not enjoyably. This wasn’t enjoyable. The theme isn’t enjoyable. Worse, it doesn’t even execute on the theme in a way that is satisfying. It doesn’t mean that it’s not effective, it tugs at heart strings, even the hardest of hearts might feel a sting by the end of this film. But it chose to tell a story that’s not just anti-hero, it’s anti-human.  And that doesn’t work for me.
 
Summary/how would I fix it:

So what we have here is a good movie, with good emotions, visceral action and unconventional protagonists performing a fairly nihilistic ballet. You can argue that the children getting away at the end spares it from total bleakness but the overall tone and mood of the movie is one of bleak depression and futility.  It’s a superhero movie where there are no superheroes. No regular ones, either.

How do we fix it? Well, it really isn’t that hard. A few scenes, three say, would give more depth and conflict and provide a decision arc for Logan. Changing the characterization of Laura/X23 to be a mix of child and animal (instead of just animal wearing clothes) would make her both more sympathetic and better motivate Logan to care for her.  Making X23 Logan’s biological child would dramatically change the stakes and tone of the movie, for the better.

Just imagine how much more powerful it would be for an Ex-girlfriend to show up with Laura in tow and in need.  A random nurse doesn’t mean anything and her death doesn’t mean much either. Hell, it didn’t even seem to mean much to the child-sized murder machine.

Show X23 learning from Logan.  The boy in Shane, for all his annoying characteristics, was learning from the gunslinger. Show us Laura learning from Logan.  Make her a child, not a monster in human clothes.

Make Professor Xavier lucid and strong in some scenes and demented and dangerous in others. The contrast of the man who was to the man who is could be powerful stuff and higher tragedy than the randomized death of a geriatric cripple.  Relatedly, have Xavier die for SOMETHING. Have him die trying. He founded the X-men. Let him go out doing battle. Hell, if he’d died in the casino from too much use of his power, that would have meant more than his eventual death in a farmhouse. Plus those farmer would be alive.

Logan needs to make a choice to help X23. He can deny her all her wants/needs to at first, but he needs to choose to help her. Not just drift along like a drunk in a bus stop.  Make him chose to be a hero, even if he’s dying.  Relatedly, make it clearer that he’s dying, earlier.

Hell, make a LOT of things clearer.  I’m a fan of ‘show don’t tell’ but this movie chooses not to show and not to tell some fairly big plot and background points.  It’s clear that a lot of people cared about this movie. It is not a corporate product or showing the signs of meddling like it was some sitcom spinoff series starring Matt LeBlanc.  People cared about this. Now all we needed were characters we could care about and who cared about each other.

*I’ll make an exception for direct sequels that are going to assume you know the characters in the follow up movies that were in the earlier installments.
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<![CDATA[John Wick and John Wick, Chapter 2 review]]>Wed, 08 Mar 2017 23:20:57 GMThttp://markandrewedwards.com/markblog/john-wick-and-john-wick-chapter-2-review
A Tale of two Wicks.

 
TL;DR review – both are good to great action movies. Keanu can act but not deliver dialog. Storytelling is not all verbal.
 
The John Wick movies take place in a slightly-fantasy version of New York. Not full on Harry Potter fantasy but it’s a world where there are hitmen everywhere (and I mean, EVERYWHERE, especially in Chapter 2), they are semi-organized and the police pretty doesn’t exist except to deliver funny dialog. But most of the fantasy is in the world building. The fights and stunts are very grounded, very ‘tactical’ as opposed to a wire-fu martial arts film or even a Hong Kong action film of John Woo’s glory days.  But if you suspect disbelief just a little, these are very good action movies.
 
In essence, these movies are Westerns, just transplanted to New York and Rome.  John Wick is the retired gunslinger who is brought back from retirement, first by a need for revenge and then by threats and compulsions. He is the reluctant warrior with an enviable reputation that also causes him problems.  There is also a ‘code’ of honor among these assassins and the organization they are affiliated with.  This is part of the suspension of disbelief again but if you buy into it, it is just as satisfying as any samurai flick.
 
Plot:
The two movies take place within days (or maybe hours) of each other, so I think we can talk about both plots at once.  I’m going off memory so this may not be as well-researched as it could be.
John Wick was a top shelf assassin for hire until he met, fell in love and married a woman from outside that world. He left, with great difficulty, the world of murder-for-hire behind. However, when John Wick 1 starts, his wife has just died. We start off seeing John grieving, going through his vast, empty house alone. Then a message from beyond the grave appears: his wife bought him a puppy and attached a note. Asking John to let himself keep loving, through the puppy, named Daisy.

One relic from his old life is a 1969 Mustang in pristine condition. A punk Russian mobster sees the car and tries to pressure John into selling it.  John refuses, the punk breaks into Wick’s house, steals the car and murders the puppy out of spite but leaves John Wick alive, not knowing who he is.  When Wick awakens, he buries the pup, goes looking for his car and returns to his old assassin life seeking revenge.  The rest of the plot of John Wick 1 is him finding and killing the Russian punk, who happens to be the son of a well-connected Russian mobster known to John in his old days*.

John Wick 1 introduces us to John, his reputation and offers a little glimpse into the alternate world they inhabit. Including old friends like Wilem Dafoe’s Marcus and old rivals like Adrianne Palicki’s Perkins. It also shows us the Continental, a luxury hotel run by Ian McShane’s Winston that offers a safe haven against violence and coordinates the distribution of contacts.  No killing is permitted in the Continental. This assassin world uses gold coins both as currency and as a way of showing that you ‘belong’ to that world. These coins are shown to be precious and we see that John Wick has quite a store of them saved up.

John Wick 2 starts off right after John Wick gains his revenge and his old associates come calling to call in a ‘marker’ to force him to kill again.  John tries to refuse but after his home is destroyed and all other attempts at reason and negotiation fail, John agrees to kill a former friend and ally.  After doing so, he is stabbed in the back and a large contract is put on his head. John manages to elude a vast number of assassins, with some assistance from sympathetic or otherwise criminals who allow him to kill the man who forced him out of retirement. However, John kills him inside the Continental Hotel, which results in John losing all immunity and access to the special resources the assassins enjoy. The second movie ends with what seems like a vast number of killers world-wide looking for him, seeking to collect the multi-million dollar bounty on his head.


What worked?
The movie has some of the best gun fighting in it since Way of the Gun or 13 Hours. The choreography is very well done and Keanu Reeves seems to have done most of his own stunts. He certainly has done his prep work and comes off as an older, lethal gunman. Sort of like a sadder-but-wiser Neo without all the magic powers. 
 
I also want to call out Keanu’s acting.   In 2000’s The Gift, I saw Keanu actually Act for the first time.  And he really impressed me here. He really can act. What he can’t do is dialog. Luckily for him, I doubt John Wick says 100 words total in each movie. It is a very terse performance and he emotes very well in it.

The writing worked well for me, too. The first script comes off as a bit rote but it builds this alternate world well, it has some great understated dialog and it has people who have what feel like real lives. Sure, many of the gunmen literally have red shirts (in the Red Circle scene of the first movie) but the speaking role characters all have relationships that don’t revolve around John Wick.  I like the way people reacted to John Wick, both in the humorous way of ‘are you working again, John?’ as well as more human ways of people being glad to see him, having missed him. You can see that John had a life here, had friends and even lovers. Stuff like that makes a fictional world feel real and its important the more ‘out there’ your fictional world is.

The movies worked emotionally as well. The death and aftermath of the puppy’s death still affect me, the way the blood trails shows how it dragged its broken body along to lie beside the unconscious John. Jeez…
Or seeing how his wife, Helen’s, death affected him and his longing for the life he had with her.  You see what he cares about and see people caring about him and that makes us, as an audience, care about John Wick too.

The second movie also did a great job of constantly raising the stakes on John. The numbers of people after him keeps going up, his obstances get higher and higher, the stakes if he fails and in the end, if he succeeds, keep rising. Things keep getting worse, even as he surmounts each obstacle. The script is a great example of how to write a ‘it gets worse’ story without turning the character into a sad sack punching bag.  The second movie also expands the world, taking us international and showing us the vast criminal network of this world. Derke Kolstad, the screenwriter, seems to have been a fan of the 100 Bullet’s graphic novel. As the ‘High Table’ of crime families feels a great deal like the ruling families of the Trust in the graphic novel. Even the assassins start to feel a bit like uncommitted  Minutemen of that graphic novel.

We also see things being taken from John, irrevocably.  His wife, his dog, his phone with the video from his wife, his house, his security with The Continental. John keeps losing everything he wanted to hang onto, leaving nothing but his lethal skills for him to cling too. A skilled screenwriter will find some way to give him something new to cling to after putting him through hell in John Wick 3.

Gun porn. I love it.

What didn’t work?

There’s some repetition of dialog in the second movie that felt odd after watching both films back to back.  Word for word descriptions of John Wick seem to have been copy/pasted from John Wick 1. That’s just lazy. 
For a fairly realistic movie with people who want John Wick dead, he survives being captured too many times. The ending fist fight between John and the Russian mob boss was odd and almost embarrassing, given the fitness and age differences between the two actors.

The framing scene that opens (and almost ends) the first movie: John bleeding, stumbling, watching the video of his wife, that felt awkward and staged. It worked ok the first time but doesn’t hold up on rewatch.

Wilem Dafoe’s assassin character was a little too easy to surprise and kill off. It felt like he was written out, not resolved.

The opening car scene from John Wick 2 was exciting but it didn’t matter to the plot of the movie and could/should have been cut.
Some of the CQB fights are too repetitive. It was all arm-lock into headshot, over and over. Or it felt that way. The first movie had more versatility in the fights.

There didn’t seem to be a strong enough motivation for John to violate the rules of the Continental hotel just to kill the guy who hired him. Yeah, he stabbed him in the back and put a price on his head but that shouldn’t be a new scenario.

Too many assassins. On the one hand, ratcheting up the stakes by sending almost everyone after John is good screenwriting. But it started to get silly. And you don’t want silly in a John Wick movie. When you have homeless hit men and random subway busker hitmen, you’re starting to approach the Warriors-level of silly street gangs.  Less is more. A handful of Replacement Killers (men of John’s caliber) is more memorable and cool than hitman bus drivers and hitman waitresses or whatever else the next level of goofiness is.  Show respect for the craft, man. Show respect for your world.

Summary:

Two damn fine action movies. I think I prefer the second movie a bit more for the action and I like the first one a bit more for the acting/emotions.  If you don’t mind violence for violence’s sake in your movies, you’ll have a good time.



*The Mob boss seems to be a former employer of John Wick or in some way he was able to command Wick’s services before letting him retire. It isn’t clear if he was one of the High Table families but if not, they certainly have power and influence in New York.


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<![CDATA[Review: Rogue One, a Star Wars story]]>Thu, 22 Dec 2016 18:08:48 GMThttp://markandrewedwards.com/markblog/review-rogue-one-a-star-wars-story
Why are the fan posters so much better than the offical one, above?  Kind of off topic, let's begin.
 
TL;DR review – It’s ok. It’s short on wonder, long on grimness and bloodless combat.  The Rebels are indeed revealed to be kind of scummy but the Empire is still bad, so it’s ok to sit on their corpses.  More of a war movie than a space opera.

Longer, boy you have time on your hands, review:

I’m going to try something different from my ‘what worked, what didn’t formula from previous reviews.

Orson Scott Card came up with the acronym MICE for writing science fiction.
Milieu – The world or setting
Idea – A cool sci-fi concept
Character- Interesting characters you like and want to follow
Event – Or a plot-based story that hooks you based on the events of the story.

A knock out story has all four elements but you really only need to do one well to have a ‘good’ or at least ‘ok’ story.  All are important, though and screwing one or more up usually results in bad or cheesy science fiction.  This is a great tool to evaluate whether a story is objectively good*.  So let’s talk about Rogue One in terms of MICE.
 
First of all, they nailed the Milieu. This movie feels like it’s part of the Star Wars universe. A gaggle of odd aliens and cultures all jumbled together with enough humans around to give you something to hang onto and identify with. You’ve got spaceships, blasters, the Empire, The Force…all the world stuff that Lucas helped create and that the good Star Wars movies feature.  It’s right up there with Force Awakens in giving us the ‘lived in’ world that the first** trilogy created and we loved.  I can’t praise the production design team enough, they made a Star Wars movie. Well done.  And for a lot of fans, this is all you need to enjoy yourself.  Tie Fighters, X-Wings, blasters, AT-ATs, Stormtroopers to kill by the hundred, they’re all here.  And there are some folks who are knocking the movie for not introducing enough ‘new stuff’ in this movie (There’s one new armed troop transport that I wasn’t personally aware of, the U-Wing, it gets a lot of screen time), this is set in a specific time period in the films, just before Star Wars (1977), so TIE fighters and X-wings are to be expected.  It’s like showing off Panzer IV-D tanks in a WW 2 film…it’s what was around and being used.
    They did screw up some of the continuity of the first Star Wars, however.  The Rebel Blockade Runner with Princess Leia in it didn’t seem like it was running FROM the Death Star. And C-3PO and R2D2 didn’t seem to know much about the Rebel alliance, far from being AT THE FRELLING REBEL BASE as the’re shown here in Rogue One.  Likewise, Leia was supposed to be a Senator but she just seems to be hanging around a space battle in this Rogue One. The plans R2D2 had had to be analyzed by the Rebellion in Star Wars, they then discovered a vulnerability to exploit. In Rogue One, Jyn TELLS them what the vulnerability is and then they go looking for the plans. Huh???  Oh and apparently you can just push Star Destroyers into each other, causing massive damage to both and the ‘pushing’ ship somehow isn’t destroyed or shot to pieces.  The scale of the Star Destroyers seems to have been lost.  There are other small injustices to the Star Wars continuity but unless you’re a nit-picker like I am, you may not notice.

The Idea here is a little thin but it’s there.  It’s the ‘how did the Rebels get the plans to the first Death Star?’ story. There isn’t really a clever idea here or concept. This isn’t a story about race relations in Star Wars or droid rights, or even how star drives have changed the galaxy.  If you want to be very technical, Star Wars isn’t really Science Fiction.  There’s very little science in here. This is Space Fantasy.  And that’s ok.  But the only other idea at work here is ‘war is messy and it can be vicious’ and ‘not all the Rebels were nice people’.  It’s a baby step towards showing more complexity in the Star Wars universe and I applaud that at least.

Character is where the movie mostly falls on its face.  The two main leads are neither likeable nor interesting.  There’s very little character development.  Jyn Erso makes Rey from The Force Awakens seem like a fireball of charisma.  Jyn is sullen drifts through the movie until she’s inexplicably called upon to deliver speeches.  Cassian Andor is a slimy, weasely little man who murders people who are on his side. He is also a black hole of charisma.  It really does show how important casting and writing is in making good characters. Heck, good casting can almost make up for bad writing. Orson Crennic is almost interesting or could have been with a little more care given to his character.  But it’s not all bad, the leads are terrible but there are two supporting characters that do have good writing and charisma: the blind Chirrit Imwe*** and the droid K-2SO. Honestly, the dialog isn’t bad here, though. There’s one groan-inducing line that’s inexplicably given to Darth Vader (Vader should not do one-liner’s folks, he’s not James Bond) and one Star Wars verbal cliché that gets cut off, but the rest of the movie felt like real people talking…except during the speechifying scenes. It’s not as bad as in Gods and Generals but it’s close. Mind you, I think if you’re going to have Darth Vader in your movie, USE him. Make him the building threat.
    One of the many problems with Jyn is she lacks motivation and transformation. We aren’t given a chance to know the character, we don’t see her interact with anyone before the plot kicks off. We don’t know what her deal is, what she’s like so we can’t really get interested in her as a person. And we certainly can’t believe her transformation from skittish criminal to impassioned Rebellion true believer 
    Worse, what we see of Cassian Andor makes us like him even less, as he murders an informant who’s just trying to give him information and get away, alive (seriously, this is some Gestapo-level shit he pulls). Then later he shoots a rebel attacking imperial troops for no reason I could see on one viewing. He’s also ordered to kill Jyn’s Death Star-building father and if he’d done that, I’d at least given him the respect of being consistent. But they screw that up to.  There’s no Peo Dameron here, no Han Solo, heck there’s no Kylo Ren here.  I don’t know if it’s bad casting, bad writing or maybe bad direction.  On the whole, I think Gareth Edwards did well here, so I don’t know what went wrong here. But it did go wrong in the character department.

Finally, the Event or Plot of Rogue One isn’t great. It might even bad.  I’m tempted to just do a huge list of questions that this movie doesn’t answer but that might get boring. I do want to start with one huge flaw.  There is an old saying that ‘Hope is not a plan’, when it comes to military operations. Yet, that’s EXACTLY what the Rebel plan to steal the Death Star data is.  They just are going to sneak in and hope they can find the plans.  This is such a huge screw up.  Instead of a cool series of scenes where the Rebels find the plans and scheme to get them, they Rebels just go in, blow stuff up and sorta droid-hack their way to victory.  There is no plan. None. The idea that trained Rebel soldiers would go along with this suicide mission makes zero sense.  Basically it seems like the writers ran out of page count and decided to spend run time on space battles and gun fights that are supremely stupid.  I…I can’t just let go of this, the ‘hope’ not-plan is SO bad. And it could have been so good.
    That is terrible but the rest of the plot isn’t a whole lot better.  It is fairly simple and linear, which fine.  The Rebels break out Jyn so she can talk to a torturing terrorist-style Saw Gerrera  whom she knew as a child, who has a pilot trying to defect, who has a message from someone building the Death Star.  The message is from Jyn’s father so she tries to go find him and then she goes to a third planet to try to steal the plans.  Not great, but it could be worse.  There is some subtle complexities here, like the fact that Jyn is being sent to talk to Saw Gerrera because he might just kill any other Rebel who might try and meet with him. There’s in implication that the Rebels have tried to assassinate him before, he certainly thinks Jyn was sent so they could kill him. Again, that the REBELS might kill him, not the Empire.
    And I might be alone here, but I’m starting to feel sorry for the Stormtroopers.  They just line up and get shot like paper targets on a range. They never use tactics and never get to win.  And they apparently have some sort of body armor that doesn’t actually protect them from anything, even punches and…sticks.  Lame. Once again, your protagonist is only as good as their opponent. If the Rebels were up against tough, aggressive, dangers bad guys, their victor would mean more and so would their losses.
  I think they tried to keep things fast-paced. The movie certainly didn’t feel like two hours +, but the downside of all the running and fighting is that we don’t really understand what’s going on and why and who. It’s basically trying to baffle us with bullshit instead of treating us like adults and giving us a clear plot we can understand and approve of.  A clear plot takes time, set up and even some exposition here and there.  If they’d tried to make a movie more like The Guns of Navarone or Where Eagles Dare, they might have had a really great war movie. Instead we get…Hope.
  Hope is not a plan. And it’s not a plot.

So how could we fix it?

Well it wouldn’t have been hard to make this a very good movie instead of an OK one.  I want to go over some ideas that I think would have made more sense. The more I write, the more it seems like I’d need to re-write the whole frelling movie, so let me try to focus on just a few key changes.

1. We meet Jyn and spend time with her. Give us 5 minutes of Jyn being angry, drifting, lacking anything to believe in.  She’s a criminal, so show us her doing criminal things and getting caught by them empire.
2. Give Cassian a reason for being a murderous douche.  If his informant is running to the Imperials blabbing his mouth off, he might deserve a blaster bolt to the back.  Just wanting to live and get away doesn’t deserve death.
3. Either show Cassian having reservations about the killing he’s being told to do, or being forced to do, or make him a fucking soldier. He’s almost one, a guy who follows orders because if you don’t follow orders in wars, people get killed.  You can even toss in a scene with Jyn not wanting to follow his orders and getting someone killed. There are consequences for acting without knowing all the facts.  Grunts don’t know the big picture, so they have to trust their officers know more than they do. That doesn’t make them Stormtroopers, it makes them moral people who believe in fighting for a cause.
4. Make the Empire ‘human’. They can still be the black and white bad guys.  But show a personal connection between Crennic and Jyn’s father. Maybe they’re friends. Maybe he’s been covering up for him because he’s a friend and not just because he’s super scientist man.  Make Crennic’s problems greater.  It shouldn’t be him going to Vader, it should be Tarkin. Tarkin is taking over the Death Star and he’s going to bring Vader along to make sure Crennic can’t do shit about it. Give Crennic a reason to go scurrying around trying to fix things. His life should be at stake, not just his career or his command. And see my note about the Stormtroopers, above.
5. Forget one of the locations.  We jump from one world where Jyn’s father is at, to the tropical world. Pick one, all the action should take place there. Don’t waste screen time. Combine the events, the finding the plans and the assassination/reunion with Jyn’s father.
6. Finally, have a PLAN to steal the Death Star info, not just Hope.
 
 
 
*(I remain convinced that there are objectively good stories and objectively bad ones.  That doesn’t mean one’s personal taste prevents you or forces you to like it.  But quality is quality and deserves respect. Crap is crap and deserves jeers.  Hey, I like Pepsi and it’s objectively crap, so not trying to be pulpit pounding here)

** There really is only one trilogy. The Prequels were terrible alternate history.

***Boy, these names…I’m sticking with character names here for consistency. Donnie Yen played the blind monk and he’s really, really, really good. Check out his other films.  And, bad as these names are, they avoid the worst of Lucas’ excesses like Dexter Jetster or Kit Fisto.

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<![CDATA[​Mister Doctor is Strange…but who am I to judge?]]>Fri, 04 Nov 2016 17:38:02 GMThttp://markandrewedwards.com/markblog/mister-doctor-is-strangebut-who-am-i-to-judge

 
Doctor Strange feels like it’s kicking off a new phase in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  After several years of fairly realistic/high tech superhero movies, it’s time for a little strange.  Magic is strange,  but not too strange – if you’ve seen Inception or Harry Potter.  Benedict Cumberbatch is strange, but not too strange – if you’ve seen House, M. D.  Doctor Strange is a strange superhero, but only a little.  There’s nothing here to turn off Marvel fans and quite a bit to make them happy, as well as to subvert some of the tropes the MCU have been using.

Ok, enough intro, here’s the TL;DR review – A dizzying new superhero origin movie in the vein of Iron Man. Go see it. Marvel knows what it’s doing and it didn’t drop the ball here.
 
In-depth, way too many words review and critique.
 
First off, Doctor Strange did enough things right that most of my criticism is either nit picking or suggestions for improvement. It isn’t a perfect movie, but it’s good.  I doesn’t reach the heights of The Avengers, Captain America 2: The Winter Soldier or The Guardians of the Galaxy but it’s just a few notches below them. There is some ‘fridge logic’ but nothing that took me out of the movie as I was watching it.  It’s entertaining and feels shorter than its actual running time.
 
Plot:
Doctor (and he makes a big deal about that title) Stephen Strange is a narcissistic neurosurgeon of great skill but of little empathy. A car accident cripples his hands and, when Western medicine can’t fix him, he goes to Nepal* to chase a miracle.  Once there, he is eventually trained in the mystic arts by a woman known as The Ancient One, just in time to have to confront one of her previous students, Kaecilius. He is plotting to turn the earth over to the extra-dimensional deity named Dormammu, but not for the reasons you might assume.  I won’t go into too much additional detail as there are some nice twists and flairs that a film fan will enjoy seeing for themselves.

The visuals of the movie are rather good, sometimes dizzying and sometimes awe-inspiring.  It feels like a cross between Inception and an acid trip sometimes.  I don’t recommend 3D for most movies, but this one might be worth the extra cash and discomfort.  The camera is mostly locked down and if it’s often zoomed in to closely, it doesn’t really have ‘shaky cam’ issues. So though some scenes are disorienting, I don’t think it will cause too much discomfort for most viewers. It is worth seeing on the big screen, though.
 
What worked:
I’m going to keep saying this but, Marvel knows what they’re doing. I know it’s fashionable for movie critics to write clickbait articles about ‘when is the superhero bubble going to burst’, but as long as Marvel is making movies like this, that bubble can keep building. I can only liken it to the glory days of the studio system of the 40’s and 50’s.  A Marvel movie is like a David O. Selznick production. They are organized and they are telling good stories with impressive special effects and characters you care about. 
 
The casting is very good. BC (because spelling his name is a pain) looks perfect in the role and acts appropriate for the character.  Mads Mikkelsen is amazingly good as Kaecilius, giving pathos and menace to his character, punching well above most Marvel villains.  Chiwetel Ejiofor is similarly good as Mordo, frankly I almost consider him to the be the real hero of the movie. Rachel McAdams manages to be cute, competent and useful which is impressive considering how little screen time she gets. Tilda Swindon is appropriate as The Ancient One, managing to be compassionate, creepy and ambiguous at the same time. For me, though, Benedict Wong stole the movie. Wong is awesome and I loved seeing him every time he was on the screen.
 
The magic mostly worked as well. They kept it simple, no overly-complicated spells like D&D or Mage: The Ascension gets into.  In Doctor Strange, wizards are channeling energy from other dimensions to create shields, melee weapons and to open holes in this world or between our world and the many, many others.  In the ‘mirror’ dimension, they are able to manipulate the reflection of the physical world and the Inception images shown in the trailer are largely taken from scenes in that ‘mirror’ universe. In our world, they’re more limited.  By limiting the magic, it makes it easier for the audience to understand and makes Doctor Strange more of a martial arts movie. There are magical artifacts that can accomplish more impressive effects, but they seem to be unique and not something everyone can use.  Frankly, I would have preferred to have more creative magic usage but this works for this movie.

Set, makeup, all the technical and special effects work is top notch. A lot of that gets missed or overshadowed by the visual effects, but everything looked great.  Marvel hires pros and mostly lets them be excellent.
 
Special mention should go to the ending. Rather than have Doctor Strange get into a huge fight vs a monster or have to try to stop a blue laser blasting down from the sky, Doctor Strange outsmarts Dormammu with a little magic. It’s a nice subversion of superhero expectations.
 
This is an origin movie done very well. It introduces the character, gives him problems to overcome –inside himself as well as plot problems – lets him be heroic, lets him make mistakes and it allows him to win against very great odds but using things he’s learned along the way. The script isn’t perfect, but it works well enough.
 
What didn’t work:
Most of my problem are script logic and direction/photography choices.

First and most obviously, the action scenes are not well shot. The camera is too close to the actors and we can’t see what they’re doing. The action is hard to follow at times. I don’t know if the actors weren’t up to complicated fight choreography or if this was a result of the special effects required for most of the fights.  The director, Scott Derrickson, has mostly done horror and suspense movies, not action.  Deadpool, Captain American 2 and 3 and The Avengers 1 and 2 are still the gold standard (the action in Guardians of the Galaxy was fine, too) for superhero fight scenes. Which is odd as stuntman Jonathan Eusebio is credited as the fight coordinator in the Avengers and in Doctor Strange and the cinematographer Ben Davis has worked on Guardians of the Galaxy, so I have to put this on the direction.
 
The humor didn’t always work.  The best humor comes from character, like the trailer scene about the wi-fi password, the confusion over Doctor Strange's name with Kaecilius and Wong’s scenes in general.  Those work fine. But the slapstick humor with the cloak of levitation didn’t fit the tone of the movie. It felt like something out of a Harry Potter movie and it was one of the only things that jarred me in this movie.
 
Most of my other problems are script nit picks, which I’ll go into but they may not bother you as much as they did me.
  1. There isn’t really enough supernatural stuff here.  There’s Kaecilius, his zealots and Dormammu and…that’s it. We hear about all these threats to our world that the sorcerers are protecting us form, but we don’t see any of them except Dormammu.  Some lower-level bad guys that need magic to stop them would have been useful and could have been used to set up future antagonists.
  2. Script inconsistencies. Like the Ancient One telling Strange that the crippled man he was following had ‘convinced his body how to heal itself’. Which is fine and miraculous enough. But then later in the movie, it’s changed to say that he’s channeling some magic to control is paralyzed body remotely. Huh?  That’s dumb. I assume it was done for the sake of the second post-credit scene**
  3. Having action scenes off-screen.  We don’t see the Hong Kong destruction live. We do get a cool backwards rewind of some of the destruction, but show your bad guy being bad. No reason to hide it, unless you ran out of money.  Similarly, the destruction of the New York fortress (I think it was New York, the location was unclear) also happens when the main characters are away from it.  Missed opportunity.
  4. Timeline.  It was not clear when this movie takes place and how much time has elapsed in it.  If it had started out, pre-accident prior to most of the Marvel movies and Strange had literally had to spend years learning the mystic arts, it would have solved a lot of little nit pick problems.  As it is, I THINK he learned all this magic is a few months. Not as bad as The Force Awakens, but they made a point of about years of study to become a neurosurgeon, but it only takes him months to learn how to poke holes in reality?
  5. Miraculous recoveries happen quite a bit, actually.  Science really can’t explain everything and that could be played with. How Science is a technique for understanding the natural world. It can’t explain the supernatural, by definition.  They tease a little about that with a line of dialog here and there but you could have written a good scene instead of a forgettable one around that theme. I get that they want to create a fairly atheistic world here, which lines up with Ditko’s worldview and probably Stan Lee’s as well. But there’s some lifting from theology of eternal life and ‘becoming one’.  It would have been nice to have some actual spirituality in a movie that’s about spirituality working, supposedly.  But no, it’s not spiritual, just channeling extra-dimensional energy. Like writing source code!  Timid, especially considering the screenwriters and directors.
  6. The post credit sequences. They are very skippable. Very. I really, really suggest everyone skips them. There’s a tease for Thor: Ragnarock and an amusing self-refilling beer mug, but it doesn’t fit with the rest of the movie. And the second one….one of the things I liked best about this movie is that it didn’t make Mordo a bad guy.  Mordo is actually a very good, very moral man and Stephen Strange’s biggest supporter.  Then they decide to flip his villain switch in the post credit sequence. It’s clumsy and crappy. His heel turn should have been its own movie.
 
Finally but most glaringly for me, this is a movie set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s set just after Civil War (one of the Easter eggs is him being asked to work on what seems to be Rhode’s spinal injury from Civil War and him refusing). And he lives in New York. You know, a New York that had the Hulk break Harlem. That had aliens invade. That had a Norse god, Thor, fight to defend New York and hang out with the Avengers.  But he finds the idea of chakras and acupuncture to be beyond the pale?  Really? A giant flying armored space whale flew through Wall Street a few years ago.  It simply doesn’t make sense for him to consider the supernatural to be so legendary.
 
So, that’s a lot of words and I have more but I think I’ll leave it there.  It’s a good movie, with a little tinkering, it actually could have been great but so it goes.

Recommended.
 
 
 
*Can’t send him to Tibet, like in the comics, because you might piss off the Chinese and alienate all those Chinese ticket sales.  Chinese yellow-washing is one of the least attractive trends of this decade but I will say that it’s fairly unobtrusive here, unlike the Magnificent Seven or the Red Dawn remake.
 
**The second stinger scene feels like it was tacked on and the dialog earlier about the paralyzed man’s ‘healing’ was also added to make the ending make sense. Which is a mistake, in my opinion.

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<![CDATA[​The Magnificent Mighty Morphin Multicultural Seven]]>Fri, 23 Sep 2016 16:59:43 GMThttp://markandrewedwards.com/markblog/the-magnificent-mighty-morphin-multicultural-sevenPicture

 
What a waste.  A cast like this, a story like this and we get…oatmeal. Bad oatmeal, hastily cooked and quickly forgotton.
 
Sigh.  All right, let’s talk about this.  I was really looking forward to this movie, so I had some expectations, mostly due to Chris Pratt and Denzel Washington. And in truth, those two are solid in this.  Denzel can act, man* and Chris Pratt has charisma.  There’s solid work or entertaining work at least from Vincent D’Onofrio and Ethan Hawke, even Byung-hun Lee –a Korean playing Chinese?- is good**.  But the script is terrible and some of the directing choices are baffling.
 
A bad script kills a movie, even one based on a story told twice (or more) times already.  There was some good dialog, some of it was so fun and natural that I assume it was ad-libbed, but the rest is a mess. The editing wasn’t quite Suicide Squad levels of bad, but it wasn’t good.
 
All right, let’s talk about what was good and what wasn’t.  The good first.
 
As mentioned, some good or entertaining acting in this.  Washington or Pratt in a scene automatically makes it watchable. Vincent D’Onofrio seems to know he’s in a crappy remake and is having fun with his character.  Ethan Hawke is giving a solid try at playing a rattled PTSD Confederate vet and as I mentioned, Byung-hung Lee is also good.  The gunfights are mostly good, decently choreographed though the sign of a bad Western is present as I think people reloaded maybe twice in the whole movie.  But back on the good…the set and costume design is very period and well done, with one glaring, jiggly exception we’ll get to.  There’s even a slight hat tip to the kind of tensions that should be there with a diverse cast and there are both good-guy Indians AND bad-guy Indians, which was surprising in a movie that is clearly trying for Diversity with a capital D.  I’m afraid that’s it for good, on to the bad.
 
Where to begin?  Maybe a list.
  1. The cast is so multi-cultural that it boggles the mind. Seriously, it’s like the took out a checklist and started assembling the cast from that.  Now I hate identity politics with a passion and I would have loved to just ignored everyone’s color and culture and just enjoy their characters but this….this is too much. We have: a Black guy, a Mexican guy, an Asian guy (named Billy Rocks? WTF? Billy Rocks???), an Indian guy, Southern guy, a Religious guy, a hot girl and Chris Pratt.  Now the movie plays a little bit with the tensions that this group SHOULD create, but only a little. There’s some light taunting among the 7 and some mild flirting or interest in the hot girl but that’s it.  None of the villagers comment on a red Indian coming into the village, in war paint no less.  Look, I know this is basically a Western fantasy but this is too much.  The 19th century was a time when the races did not mix. The idea of egalitarian universal brotherhood of man was limited to a very few, typically a few very devout Christian sects. Yes, there were female outlaws and Black cowboys and more Mexicans than you can shake the Alamo at in the Old West.  But there were no Asian gunslingers, I checked.  The tensions between northerners and southerners was still alive…ah I’ll leave it there. You get my point. Too much.
  2. Haley Bennett’s tits.  I am an unapologetic fan of the female form and I am not terribly feminist but the way Haley Bennett was dressed in this felt more like a Michael Bay movie than an period piece.  In every single scene, until the end, her tits are up thrust and almost falling out of her top. I’m not talking mild cleavage, I’m talking “Sophia Loren is looking at you in distaste” levels of décolletage. And this is baffling because, all the other wives and mothers are dressed very period-appropriate, in high necked dresses with long sleeves.  She’s supposed to be a married woman, a recent widow no less (Spoilers) and she dresses like the whores that are everywhere.
  3. There are whores everywhere.  Seriously, in almost every scene we have women with bare legs and nearly-bare chest.  Prostitute was far, far, far from unknown in the Old West. But it wasn’t this blatant. They have girls in broad daylight in front of bordellos like this was New Orleans during Marti Gras.  And there’s no reason for it.  Girls aren’t going to like this. And guys are already going to come because people are going to be shooting guns.  So why?  This has to rest on the Director, Antoine Fuqua, and I’m baffled because the guy has done such good work before.
  4. Dumb and lifeless bad guys.  Peter Sarsgaard is barely there. He’s about as subtle as Darth Vader, but lacking his depth and subtlety. Yes, I’m being sarcastic.  Look, this exact scenario of a very rich guy coming in and taking over a valley or a mining area actually happened. For real.  And it was nothing like this.  They could have made a great bad guy but they went with a cartoon. And then there’s the final attack…Everyone is running around with pistols out, instead of the rifles and shotguns that they should be carrying. Nobody runs away or falls back to regroup or tries to use cover or do ANYTHING to save their own life. The Orcs in the Lord of the Rings were more subtle and had more character. None of the secondary villains stand out, except the Indian wearing parts of a Union uniform jacket.  Your good guys need decent bad guys to overcome. Otherwise they might as well be shooting the stuffed dummies we see briefly in the movie.
  5. Missed opportunities to deepen relationships.  The movie has no time to develop anything. We have one real bonding scene with the 7, we’re literally told ‘I think we’re bonding’.  Washington and Pratt are given none of the shared respect you got between Yul Brenner and Steve McQueen, the sense of two professionals against one hell of a big task. We don’t get time to see the 7 trying to relate to these villagers they’re here to defend, and die for.  There’s some threat of romance between Pratt and Bennett but it’s not developed or pursued.  When she announces she’ll take the place of one of the 7 who fled, she’s basically ignored. She’s ignored most of the movie in fact, leaving her to hop up and down and demand attention from a director, a writer and characters that don’t even bother to condescend to her.  I swear to God, I could fix these problems with 3 minutes of screen time and you’d actually care about these characters. 
  6. Oh God, the voice-overs.  From the opening scene to the very last NARRATION over the graves of the fallen 7, we are told – not shown – what is happening.  It’s like someone stuck in some ADR voices so drunk guys watching this who blacked out for a moment can pick up where they left off.  You get crap like: “What about our land”, “We gotta mine that gold” or “There’s more gold in the wagon” or “He looks serious”, all just tossed in, constantly from characters that serve no other purpose than to say that line in passing and scurry off. It is the sloppiest, crappiest screenwriting I’ve seen in a while.
 
I’ve got to stop.  This movie doesn’t even deserve a serious critique. It’s crap and waste of talent.  Not recommended.
 
 
 
*Just don’t ask him to do romance, that he can’t do.
**Seriously, he’s good. I’m going to go look up his other movies…he has 37 others done

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<![CDATA[Review: Suicide Squad with special guest Assault on Arkham]]>Mon, 08 Aug 2016 20:49:07 GMThttp://markandrewedwards.com/markblog/review-suicide-squad-with-special-guest-assault-on-arkham
VS
 
This will be a review of both the theatrical Suicide Squad movie and the animated version.
 
TL;DR review:
Suicide Squad is ok.
Assault on Arkham is good.
 
Now, those of you who are in the mood for way too many words written about comic book adaptations, read on. First we’ll start with the newly released Suicide Squad theatrical film.
 
Suicide Squad is a chopping, incoherent mess that manages to be entertaining and even interesting in parts.  It’s not terrible and I would suggest it to anyone over a certain age. It’s a PD 13 movie but there are some 13 year olds who probably shouldn’t see it without an informed adult with them. And that means one that’s seen the movie and thought about it.
 
It has good stuff in it. It’s diverse without being ‘about’ diversity. It’s got action. It’s sexy.  The special effects in places is pretty impressive. The Enchantress comes off as spooky (and a little goofy, wiggling around at the end) compared to Marvel’s Scarlet Witch. There’s good character development and this is the best Joker movie I’ve ever seen.  Sure, it has the worst daughter in history (Seriously, Deadshot’s daughter is black Sansa Stark) and Captain Boomerang basically does nothing at all but even they don’t ruin the movie.  It has a vision, a little murky and disjointed but it’s way better than anything Zach Snyder has done since Watchmen.
 
Gossip time. Stories about edits and re-edits and re-re-edits and possibly more ‘re’s in there as well seem to be true.  The gossip is that after Batman V Superman made money but got little respect, the risk-adverse suits at DC/Warner Brothers got panicky.  Since Deadpool and Guardians of the Galaxy showed humor and action could work big time, they took David Ayer’s dark, (allegedly) slow, turgid first cut and started monkeying with it.  One of the monkeys was the editing house Trailer Park, who apparently were brought in to edit the entire movie. James Gilroy is the credited editor but there’s been a LOT of work done on the movie after he apparently left the project.  What we’re getting is apparently the Trailer Park edit, which did the best in test screenings.
 
Ok, enough gossip, at this point, why the movie is a mess is more a curiosity. The real question is, will it affect your enjoyment of the movie?  Well, yeah, it probably will.  It’s not as bad as the bizzare jump edits of Batman V Superman, but the sequences and flashbacks cause confusion. Once the movie settles down into a scene, the individual scenes themselves kinda work.  The plot is a mess and stupid besides. I’ll look at how that could have/should have been fixed near the end of the review. But we should talk a little about the plot as it is.
 
Plot:  Superman is ‘dead’ and the US government is worried about the next big invading alien or whatever. They have no good guys they can rely on (though there’s no sign of them trying to work with any established heroes), so one of the world’s top supervillains, Amanda Waller, convinces a bunch of military folks to allow her to recruit a bunch of criminals she supposedly can control through blackmail and threats to murder them.  One of the first she ‘recruits’ is a possessed “Archaeologist”* who is the host for a 7,000 year old witch/demigod called The Enchantress.  Her control over her is by controlling the witches heart, which she keeps in a briefcase and seems to be her only weakness.  She then recruits a bunch of other criminals.  When the Enchantress bolts to free her similarly-trapped brother, The Incubus, and tries to take over the world (yes, really), the criminals are unleashed to take down…the other villain Amanda Waller recruited.  Huh.  Which they do.  The Joker is also in the movie. But not in the plot.
 
Can you spot the dumb there?  Did you see what I left out?  The plot is bad but it could be workable but the plot is only part of the problem. What I left out was a listing of all the other characters.  So let’s list them now.

  1. The Enchantress/ Archeologist June Moone
  2. The Incubus – The Enchantress’s brother and possibly lover
  3. Deadshot
  4. Harley Quinn
  5. Killer Croc
  6. Captain Boomerang
  7. Slipknot – briefly
  8. Diablo – also known as El Diablo
  9. The Joker
  10. Katana
  11. Master Sergeant Rick Flag
  12. And the real villain of the piece, Amanda Waller
And these are just the characters who are part of the main plot. It doesn’t include cameos by Batman and The Flash or the main Prison Guard (who…did something, maybe, it’s unclear), the other special forces team members, at least one of which sacrifices his life to kill a bad guy.  That’s not even all the speaking part roles.  Do you see the problem?  12 characters.  That’s basically an invitation to failure.
 
But let’s compare that to the cast list for Assault on Arkham. That wasn’t convoluted and it didn’t have too many characters.  Again, just focusing on speaking part roles who impact the plot.
  1. Harley Quinn
  2. Deadshot
  3. King Shark
  4. Captain Boomerang
  5. Black Spider
  6. Killer Frost
  7. The Joker
  8. Batman
  9. The Penguin – one scene
  10. KGBeast – briefly
  11. The Riddler
  12. And the monster in human form, Amanda Waller
That’s just as long a list. But Assault on Arkham doesn’t feel bloated.  Suicide Squad IS. Why?  Partly of the problem is plot, part of it is backstory and also how the characters are introduced and used.
 
You see, due to the way Suicide Squad was written and edited, most of the characters are introduced multiple times.  Each is given several minutes of backstory, usually in a flashback scene, but also in an expository lecture usually delivered by Amanda Waller to some military officer.  Furthermore, then character introductions are scattered throughout the first half of the movie. It’s not all ‘boom and done’ in one big infodump.  Infodumps are not elegant, but they can get the job done and when you’re dealing with a large cast, you gotta be efficient.  Not just in how you introduce the characters but in how you use them. And that’s where Suicide Squad screwed up.
 
Because, you can’t (or shouldn’t) do a superhero movie where you spend half the movie just introducing the characters. That’s what Ang Lee’s Hulk movie did and it was terrible.  At some point, you need to trust your audience. You don’t need to tell them ‘Deadshot is the best assassin in the world’, then have someone else tell them the exact same thing, then have the character demonstrate their ‘power’ (which is really just extreme accuracy.  It’s not even really a super power) in a set up scene.  Pick one, either tell us what their power is, or (better) just show them in action.  Action related to the plot, ideally.
 
In Assault on Arkham, each villain got a 30 second intro. We see them committing some crime or being discovered (King Shark’s scene is particularly horrific) and them being arrested. Boom, done. Now that style may not be what David Ayer was going for, that’s fine. And you can spend more than 30 seconds, -Assault on Arkham might be a bit too fast paced in areas, due to budget reasons- but you introduce the characters, you set up the situation, then you show the audience the characters interacting and solving problems together.
 
But back to Suicide Squad.  There is a good movie here, I think. But it wasn’t fully realized.  Margot Robbie NAILED Harely Quinn, just got the character perfect, exactly like the cartoon brought to life.  Will Smith did a pretty good job with Deadshot, he didn’t really capture the character but he was charming and charm goes a long way.  Viola Davis did a good job playing a despicable human being, Amanda Waller. Jared Leto, to my surprise, was so good as Joker, I wanted to see more of him. I’d watch a full movie of Joker and Harley, seriously, make that happen, DC.  Even the plot could work, if only as a cautionary tale AGAINST the concept of having a Suicide Squad.  El Diablo was genuinely sympathetic and a good guy.
 
Now I could, with time and effort, recite the full plot of the movie and go point by point over what was wrong and why.  But honestly, I have a job. :)  But what I want to do is explore how this movie could have been good, instead of just ok.
 
First, everyone needs to have something to do.  Slipknot is just there to die, but the audience shouldn’t know that.  In the animated movie, each villain got equal time in their introduction. Do that here as well, introduce everyone all at once and let it be a little surprise who’s going to die. Put Slipknot on the movie poster. Better yet, he should have a plot-critical role. Maybe his climbing ‘power’ is going to be used to get into the building to rescue the VIP. So when he gets killed by Waller when he tries to escape, it makes the mission harder. There should be a cost to everything.  Same with the Joker. He needs to DO something related to the plot.  He can’t work with the Squad, he’s too crazy and impossible to control, but if the government needs something from him, and they have his girlfriend…suddenly they have leverage over the Joker, for the first time.** Of course, involving Joker to get his help causes problems, he sabotages the Squad for giggles and helps Harley escape. 
 
Katana needs to be removed. Or, if she is needed for future movies, have her in jail for murder. Sure, justifiable vigilante murder, but that’s still a crime. Boom, she’s a bad guy now, too. One who despises being trapped with criminals, same as with Black Spider in the animated movie. Maybe he sword can actually hurt The Enchantress and it only will work for her. Fine, she’s in after all.
 
Rick Flagg needs to have something different to do. He doesn’t work as a controlling authority figure. He just doesn’t.  So we get rid of him as being ‘in charge’ of the Squad and at the same time, we get rid of all the soldiers that accompanied them.  The movie is about the Suicide Squad, it should stay focused on them. But he can still be in the movie? How? As an undercover double agent.  You can keep all his backstory, I think his romance with June Moone/The Enchantress didn’t work in the movie, but maybe it could be made to be so.  That means you have a good guy surrounded by bad guys who has to fit in with them. That’s good tension. And inevitably, they will discover who he is and that can cause some serious drama too.  But not too soon, because the team needs to bond and gel.  Amanda Waller works as a heavy on her own. Have the implant allow her to hear what everyone says, have her mount cameras on everyone so she can see, Aliens-style, what they see.  She should be the remote control villain anyway.
 
That was another problem with the movie, though it wasn’t apparent to most people, I guess. They just noticed it was odd how everyone got along and a few people might have wondered why someone who is shown backstabbing (yes, literally) a fellow thief in the back, is going along and not being a backstabbing prick. The fact is, they villains don’t actually help each other much.  They need to . They should start out being guarded, even at each other’s throats.  Inter-group tension is good. Overcoming it and bonding as a team is gold.  The fighting against faceless eyeball monsters can serve a purpose, though I’d change the character design.  But the fighting can put each team member in danger and if they take turns helping each other and getting better and better at fighting them as a team, that’s a way for us to like and bond with them as well.  Let Deadshot be the team leader, just like in cartoon. I think Will Smith could have handled that.  Then, just as the group is seemingly solid, in comes the Joker to throw a wrench into it.  Harley is rescued. Captain Boomarang actually leaves when he’s given the chance. Like gone for a while, maybe he joins the Joker or he’s just chasing Harley’s ass.  But Harley and Boomerang need to go. Suddenly, it seems less likely that they’ll succeed.  The villains have to dig deep and decide if they’re willing to be heroes, at least in some way, to go face the big bad guy.  And, here’s your true climax of the movie, Harley and Boomerang GO BACK to help.
 
This is actually a way for Suicide Squad to be better than the animated movie. In Assault on Arkham, the villains do in fact stay true to their natures, they turn on each other and go their own way first chance they get.  That doesn’t happen in Suicide Squad but it isn’t handled well.
 
You see, someone compelled to be a hero isn’t one. Can’t be one. Heroism involves sacrifice.  Harley has to leave her ‘Puddin’ to help her new friends.  Boomerang has to redeem his selfish jerkass self.  And there has to be a cost, there has to be a sacrifice.  To its credit, Suicide Squad does have some of that. El Diablo, the most likable of the villians and the one with the biggest character arc, does sacrifice himself as does a SEAL to kill (?) Incubus.
 
So how do we fix it?
 
Well, assuming we have to keep the plot and characters we’ve been provided with, here’s my suggestions.  Amanda Waller is trying to get permission for her Suicide Squad, now that Superman is dead.  The military is reluctant but they also like contingency plans, so they say go ahead and set it up.  We get introduction scenes for each of the villains. Each of them gets two minutes to show them being bad guys and getting caught.  Some may get caught by Batman or the Flash, some by cops, some by military types.  El Diablo may even get snatched AFTER he turns himself in to the cops. We see a quick montage of everyone getting injections or collars for the explosives/bug.  Amanda Waller introduces herself via camera and tells them they’ve all been drafted into the Suicide Squad.  Fifteen minutes in, and all introductions have been done and we had some quick action to keep audience attention.
 
Next, someone higher ranking comes to Amanda. They want a demo of her project, proof of concept.  Take out the Joker, they suggest.  Now Waller has a problem, to prove herself and her team. She selects The Enchantress, thinking it will be a drop kick.  Joker is stealing some cool artifacts, one of which is the Incubus statue.  They fight and she wins pretty easily but he has the statue. She recognizes it. She does some mind thing to him, via magic, to see what he wants and sees Harley and recognizes her from the intro. She offers to tell him where Harley is in return for the statue.  He agrees. She takes the statue and bolts. We need Joker to be part of the plot and this is one way to do it. (I can think of a few ways to involve him in the plot but this is just one of the first that popped into my head)
 
Now Amanda Waller has a big, big problem. Her demonstration just went sideways.  She tries to kill The Enchantress but that doesn’t work. She needs to take the Enchantress down…and she can’t let anyone else know she screwed up. Cue the Suicide Squad.  This is also where we introduce the Rick Flag character, not as a criminal though. He’s still The Enchantress/June Moone’s lover and she thinks he’s the only way to get close to The Enchantress. The Suicide Squad has to keep him alive and get him to the Enchantress.  I like the VIP rescue twist from the movie but not enough to justify the setups and screen time we’d need to spend on it.  This keeps the plot streamlined and it gives us a ‘normal’ guy’s view of all these crazy killers.  Now everyone is face to face, it’s time for some group conflict and drama. You put bad guys together and they all have to establish the pecking order.
 
The Squad is flown into the city The Enchantress and Incubus are taking over. She’s turning everyone into zombies or something supernatural, creating her own army, etc.  She’s way up on top of some skyscraper and they will need Slipknot’s help getting up there without having to fight an army of faceless goons. The helicopter goes down, as in the movie. Slipknot and Boomerang try to run. Slipknot gets killed by Waller. Suddenly, the job just got harder. Now they have to fight through a possessed city while keeping Flag safe.  The fights don’t go smoothly, in fact the Squad will get a chance to show off their abilities but they are also getting swarmed.  Several times, team members will get in trouble and need to be saved by other Squad members. This doesn’t make them friends immediately but it’s a start. 
 
Here we have a good sequence of scenes as they try to get to skyscraper. The Squad starts working as a team and they start getting pretty good at this. Time for the Joker to reappear. He shows up in the city with his crew of animal head killers and they start making a bee line for Harley.  Joker, being the mad genius he sometimes is, has a jammer for the bombs and cameras.  And, unlike the Squad, he doesn’t care about the city being taken over. He might even find it amusing.  Here is where you put in the bar scene. The squad takes a break to get their drink on. Boomerang maybe hits on Harley instead of Katana.  In fact, Katana and Deadshot make a better pairing and they can compare how they view each other, as samurai vs assassin.
 
Time for the Joker to find Harley. He deactivates everyone’s collars, for shits and giggles or maybe as a way of trying to get their assistance going after Waller. More threats or problems for her isn’t a bad thing, even if they don’t pan out. May even set up sequels.  Harley leaves with him, happily. And Boomerang bolts at the first chance he gets, being true to his selfish nature.  Suddenly the Squad is down two members and another one, El Diabo, is maybe still moping over using his powers. Maybe he used them once to save someone, maybe Deadshot, but then stopped himself, horrified. El Diablo’s a good character and his story arc should be preserved.  Now though, it’s decision time. Everyone has to debate if they should bring Flag to the skyscraper or not.  Flag should be willing, even without having any powers.  Katana is also going to go, the good samurai. Croc sticks with them, these people might be the first to ever treat him decently.  Finally, they all do decide to be the heroes.  Reduced in size, they fight their way up the skyscraper floors.  Waller, meanwhile, is shitting herself. She’s trapped.  She can try to get help, try to get away, try to blackmail someone but it’s too late for her to get out of this. Her only chance of a career is in the hands of the Suicide Squad she created.
 
Now we switch back to Harley. She has everything she wanted but…she realizes that she can’t just fly off with her boyfriend. She has to choose to go back. Boomerang too.  The Joker doesn’t get it but maybe he comes too. For laughs. What could be funnier than The Joker helping save the world?
 
The final fight comes.  Here, again, we have El Diablo sacrifice himself to kill Incubus. During the fight, Flag is pleading with the Enchantress, maybe even getting her to waver and maybe…maybe he’s about to succeed when Incubus dies. That shocks the Enchantress enough to stop talking and fiddling around with her spell and start fighting the heroes herself.  This really, really doesn’t go well for the Squad with El Diablo out of the picture.  But Harley, Joker and Boomerang all show up to save the day.  Joker has the knowledge of the little magic statues, Harley and Boomerang deliver it. The Enchantress is trapped again inside a little statue. That preseves her again for future films, but maybe that comes at a cost as well. Maybe Rick has to sacrifice himself or June does, or both. 
 
Tragedy and triumph, the FBI shows up to capture some or most of the squad.  Waller is saved, which gives her a chance to voluntarily do something nice for each of the captives, rather than making it a stupid wish list as in the current movie.  That’s not probably perfect, with some more time and editing, I could refine the story some but there’s your basic Suicide Squad movie, remastered.  No flashbacks or very very few. A simple, liberal plot that has lots of complications, drama, conflict and shots at redemption.  Everyone has something to do, a reason for being there and you have a shot at surprising people a little.
 
Big budget vs small budget.  Or Batman: Assault on Arkham vs Suicide Squad
 
Despite the title, Batman has very little to do*** in Assault on Arkham. It really is a Suicide Squad movie done right.  In it, the Squad is introduced and assembled in minutes. Waller demonstrates her power and ruthlessness and the characters are sent on a ticking time clock plot to break into Arkham.  There are doublecrosses, murders, backstabbing and teamwork, sex and affection, vengeance and madness. Seriously, it’s cheap, go check it out. 

And when I mean cheap, I mean that if this movie cost 2 million dollars, I’d be amazed.  The animation quality is good, not great, but good enough. It’s the writing and acting (yes, voice acting counts) that carries it.  A well-written movie will carry any number of flaws.  A good script is the best bang for your buck that any studio can get.  But maybe that’s part of why Assault on Arkham is so good and why Suicide Squad is just…ok.  Stakes.  Suicide Squad cost $175 million to produce, likely another 100 million to market it.  That’s a lot of pressure.  It’s like shooting a 1” group at 5 yards at the range. No problem.  But now change that to having to shoot out the eye of someone holding your wife hostage.  Stakes go up. Stress goes up. Now add people shouting advice, insults, second guessing you. Suddenly that easy shot is almost down to luck as much as skill.
 
Suicide Squad is under immense pressure to succeed. Some of that pressure is, indeed, self-inflicted.  DC wants to be making Marvel studios money but without wanting to spend the years and money Marvel has invested in it’s cinematic universe.  And Batman V Superman made money but that’s all. And it didn’t make Avengers money and never will.  Back to gossip, David Ayer apparently turned in a dark, slow moving movie.  With some good performances and with a lot of side tangents. So the studio, Warner Brothers, ordered re-shoots and started re-editing the movie.  Basically they were trying to remake the Guardians of the Galaxy combined with Deadpool. What they SHOULD have been doing was looking at their own animation department.  I’m pretty sure Ayer did. There are some beats in both movies that are almost identical.  Killer croc is almost identical to how King Shark was depicted. Harley is sexually aggressive in both movies. They’re different, I’m not saying Ayer ripped off Assault on Arkham. Maybe he should have, but he didn’t.
 
So the executives meddled. They may not have been wrong to, I’m not even saying that.  Another dark, depressing movie – especially after the trailers made the movie look like a fun, jokey action movie- might have killed off the entire franchise. That’s a lot of canceled movies.  But they didn’t go back to the script. They went to the editing table and there’s a lot you can do there, but you can’t do everything.  And what we ended up with is a Suicide Squad movie that was basically ruined. Not toxic, not painful but it’s not as good as it could have been.
 
Still, go see it.  It’s fun in places, sexy in a way none of the Marvel movies have been, Viola Davis, Margot Robbie and Will Smith are solid.  But also go buy Batman: Assault on Arkham.  There’s a good Suicide Squad movie out there. It just came out in 2014.
 
 
*Seriously, what archeologist finds an ancient statue and just twists its head off?  Indiana Jones showed more respect for the artifacts he ‘raided’.
 
** This was one of the best surprises of the movie. The Joker actually seemed to care about something other than having a boner for Batman. He cared about Harley, Harley cared about him. Sick and twisted, sure, but characters who care and inherently more interesting than characters that don’t.
 
*** Though he is involved and does have vital things to do in the plot, he isn’t the main character.
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<![CDATA[Review: Dancer's Lament]]>Fri, 24 Jun 2016 21:34:05 GMThttp://markandrewedwards.com/markblog/review-dancers-lamentPictureToo on the nose? Eh, still beats the book's cover art.



​​One of the most interesting backstories of the Malazan books was the Ascension of Dancer and Emperor Kellanved and the creation of the Malazan Empire.  By the time of Gardens of the Moon, the Empire has expanded onto multiple continents, the Emperor and his assassin companion, Dancer has been murdered and a new Empress, Lasseen, is on the throne. For all the flaws of the Malazan Books of the Fallen, and they are legion, the worldbuilding hooked me.


Now Ian Cameron Esslemont has begun to tell those stories and I couldn't be happier.  Well...I could, actually.

See, unlike "Steven Erikson" (ie. Steven Lundin), Esslemont's strengths are in narrowly-focused stories and characters who feel more real than the emo demigods of Erikson's books.  The book wasn't perfect and I will try to address what I perceive as the flaws but on the whole, I'm glad this book was written and I'm looking forward to the books to come.

Plot:
The book is from Dancer's point of view. It introduces us to him and to the Emperor-to-be. Neither of them are what they will become but some of the core personality traits are there.  In fact, both characters are so different from how they appear in the Malazan books, at least in Dancer's case, that they seem like different people entirely.  

Of the two, the Emperor -currently masquerading as 'Wu' and more than a little crazy already- is the most similar to the scheming Kellanved.  Both are young, ages aren't given but they seem to be in their late teens.  This is a bit confused as neither really feels like a teenager, Wu spends most of the book magically disguised as an old man (he says he already 'fully inhabits his illusions').  Dancer does have all the arrogance and impulsiveness of youth, so he's closer to what might be expected of an un-worldly boy setting out to make his mark on the world.  But apparently his assassination training gelded him or he suffers from low testosterone or something. He doesn't have the hormonal cocktail pumping through his veins that I recall so clearly from my late teen years.  Minor nit pick, perhaps.

The pair of them meet early in the novel, both sneaking into what seems to be an Azath house and we get our first of many, many cameos of characters who will play major roles in the future, Gothos.  I did find it interesting that they were permitted to leave, partially signaling their legendary escape from the supposedly impregnable Azath house in Malazan.

You have to tolerate or enjoy these cameos because they happen throughout the book. Sometimes they feel graceful and natural and sometimes they're about as subtle as a Jerry Lewis telethon.  I won't go into a full list of who appears and under what circumstances or I'll be writing this review for the next week. Rest assured, there is fan service aplenty here.

But back to the main plot, Dancer and Kellanved (if not using those names, yet), come to a major walled trade city intending to make their mark on the world. Dancer intends to be a famous assassin, having been trained from early childhood in the art of murder.  Kellanved's goals are more mysterious, though they eventually seem to involve an attempt to seize control of the city.  However, the city already has a powerful ruler and we get to see her from another POV character, the City Mage (whatever that is supposed to mean, apart from literal) Silk.  The city comes under siege as the forces of Ito Kane try to seize the location to take advantage of its central location in the continent.  We also have some side issues with dragons in female form, a super shapeshifter of sorts named Ryllandaras and various other powers and potentates poking around briefly.

Most of the story is from Dancer's point of view as he tries to become a big deal.  His halting, almost one-sided relationship with Ullara - a bird collecting girl with hidden talents - provides much of the emotional progress for the character. Good thing too, otherwise we'd just have to listen to him complain in most of his scenes.  That gets old in a hurry.

Characters:

The number of point of view characters is limited, compared to an Erikson book, which keeps the page count of this novel low.  The page count is already slight for a fantasy novel but I feel that at least one of the POV characters should have been cut.  Iko, a 'sword dancer', does not advance the plot and never takes any action that impacts...anything.  She feels like a cameo for a character who'll get their own novel.  Unlike Silk, whose POV chapters give us very valuable information about the plot and the setting, Iko spends most of her time sequestered in the palace, squabbling with her fellow female sword dancers.  You could cut every scene she's in and you would miss noting, she never interacts in any meaningful way with any main character or the plot itself.

Silk is given a lot of time on page, which I enjoyed. It allowed us to see more sides of the city, it's powerful, inhuman female ruler, and the plots and politics that would be missed by a more narrowly-focused POV centered on Dancer.


Wu/Kellanved does not get a POV, which might be a good idea as it keeps him mysterious but I feel a little cheated. I wanted to get inside the one-day Emperor's head. I wanted to see what motivated him, what secrets he held.  I don't get that, everything is from the outside. And he starts off acting crazy and mysterious.  I think that's a mistake.  He should have started from somewhere instead appearing already crazed, powerful and frankly, a jerk.

We also have the aforementioned cameos by the Crimson Guard, on both sides of the seige and  by Dassem -who will be a major force in the empire one day.  Again, if you know these characters already, they might be fun to see before their allegiances got locked in.  But if you go in cold, some of the weight of them is easy to miss.

Overall:

The magic was good, the plot serviceable and it was an entertaining read.  I wish it had been given another layer of polish/trimming and had made different characterization choices but I didn't dislike the book.  I probably will re-read it but on the whole, I have to rank it below his previous Malazan efforts.  That said, I am eagerly awaiting his next novel. Maybe that will show me what I want...

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<![CDATA[Review: Captain America - Civil War]]>Wed, 11 May 2016 17:05:52 GMThttp://markandrewedwards.com/markblog/review-captain-america-civil-warPicture

​I'm on record of really, really, really hating the Marvel Civil War comics. I think Mark Millar is a shit and like most UK writers, doesn't really get (or like) U.S. Superheros.  So I have been dreading Captain America: Civil War more than any movie in my memory. Literally dreading it.  And much to my surprise, there wasn't a lot to hate in this movie.


The movie mostly jettison's the comics to stick with it's own continuity, which is wise.  I will be talking about the movie in way too much depth, so spoilers will abound.

Plot summary first:

Building on the events of the past Avengers (and other Marvel) movies, the collateral damage from the shenanigans of various villains has reached the point where the United Nations has decided to demand regulation of the Avengers.  Tony Stark is given a particularly-pointed guilt trip early in the film. The happy-go-lucky capitalist from Iron Man 1 and 2 is gone and what we have is a careworn, stricken man with an obsession for trying to protect people.  The US  - UN negotiated treaty, the Sokovia Accords, would put the Avengers under UN control.  Half the team immediately agrees to be placed under higher authority while others are more reluctant.  Steve Rogers alone seems to immediately reject substituting their judgement for a panel of bureaucrats. 

At the same time, Bucky Barnes -Steve Roger's childhood friend turned programmed assassin - is being sought with shoot to kill orders for a bombing of UN members that takes the life of the Black Panther's father.  Black Panther then swears revenge against Bucky. Steve risks much to try to apprehend his friend without him being killed. He succeeds but he, Falcon and Barnes are arrested.  A Sokovian intelligence agent, Helmut Zemo, orchestrates Bucky's escape and asserts control over him as well.  In the confusion of Bucky's attempted escape, he, Rogers and Falcon escape.  The remaining Avengers are tasked with finding and apprehending the three of them.

Rogers finds proof that Bucky was framed for at least one bombing and discovers that Bucky was just one of 6 'Winter Soldiers', the others being kept on ice in Siberia.  While attempting to fly to Russian, the Avengers come and fight with Rogers and those Avengers who have decided to help him.  Rogers and Bucky escape with the rest of Roger's allies being apprehended and thrown into a maximum security prison. However, in the fighting, the Vision hits War Machine in an instance of friendly fire, crippling him.

However, Zemo left evidence as to his destination and Falcon tells Stark where Bucky and Rogers are heading.  Stark, followed by Black Panther, arrives at the Siberian holding facility.  There Zemo shows them the dead Winter Soldiers and video footage of Bucky murdering Stark's father and mother.  Zemo's family was killed in the fighting in Sokovia and he wants the Avengers to tear each other apart.  He seems to succed. Stark snaps and tries to kill Bucky while Rogers tries to protect him.  Meanwhile, Black Panther finds Zemo, sees what Zemo's obsession with revenge has done to him and takes him captive instead of killing him.  Rogers defeats Stark but Bucky is crippled in the fighting. He leaves his shield behind and takes Barnes into hiding.  As a last gesture, he sends Stark a note and a phone to call him if he's truly needed, and breaks out his friends and allies from the maximum security prison.

And that's leaving a lot of details out :)

As you can see, there's a lot going on here.  No less than 12 super heroes are involved in the big battle at the airport, plus side characters who impact the plot like Sharon Carter and ol' Thunderbolt Ross.  And, a quick aside, I understand the need to recycle characters but having a former general as Secretary of State just felt odd. I realize Alexander Haig and Colin Powell have served in that role. Just felt odd. 

Honestly, too much plot for one movie but I'm not sure folks would like another Civil War movie.

So what worked?

Well a lot of it did but what I liked best were the characters themselves. Their interactions, their emotions and the performances by the actors. Everyone felt real and felt like 'themselves'. In particular, I feel like this is the first movie to get Spiderman right.  These actors and characters have been established for years now and they've fought side by side, shared secrets, tragedies, pain and triumph.  They really seemed to care about each other.

The special effects, including a de-aged Robert Downey Jr, are so good nowadays that I almost forget to notice them. Which is an accomplishment worth shouting about....if you can remember to.

Black Panther worked, good performance. I think Wakanda is silly wish-fulfillment but I'll watch the Black Panther movie if it's as good as this.

And...I feel like I shouldn't be struggling to come up with a fourth thing in a movie I liked.  But really, 'characters I care about, caring about things' sums it up.  Chris Evan's performance as Captain America is one of the truly iconic movie performances of this century.  Seriously. The guy makes what could have been a cliche, work.  Similarly, Robert Downey Jr's Iron Man is going to be the defining performance for that character.

I will give a shout out to the writers and directors. The Russo brothers did a fine job with a complex list of characters.  Markus and McFeely turned in a screenplay where it feels like I took a pass on it myself.  They got some moments just perfect.

For example, there's a fairly minor (from a plot perspective) moment after Peggy Carter's funeral where Black Widow is talking to Cap.  She's not trying to persuade him to sign, though they talk about it a little.  Instead she says she's just there so he won't be alone. And then they sorta awkwardly hug. For a woman who is often depicted as a supreme Femme Fatale in the comics, it is a very human moment between two friends. And stuff like that is what grounds a movie where guys shrink to the size of ants or shoot yellow beams of energy out of their head.

Or the motivation behind Cap asking Barton to rescue Scarlet Witch. Not to pad the movie (I hope) but to show that he cares for his teammate who's being kept under house arrest back at the Avenger's base. He doesn't have her rescued because he needs her, he does it because it's right.

Or the Vision trying to cook for Scarlet Witch.

Or the Hydra agent choosing death, dying with a 'Hail Hydra' rather than provide information to Zemo.

Or the camaraderie between Cap and Falcon, Iron Man and Rhodes.  The writing and performances got so much right.

So what didn't work?

Well, the plot and the antagonist are two big stumbling blocks.
The "shaky cam" at the beginning is another dig.

The biggest problem is that, despite the fine acting (yes, even by Scarlett Johansson), it does not make sense that the Tony Stark we saw in Iron Man 1 and 2 would agree to government oversight. He's already been on record rejecting that. Sure, there's some nods to guilt trips and character evolution but it just doesn't quite fit and it's one of the main problems with the whole frelling concept of the story.  Why tell it?  Why couldn't the whole conflict of the movie have been solely over what to do about the Winter Soldier?  I get that it makes sense for the governments of the world to want to control the Avengers, that's what governments want to do: control things.  But it's startling how many Avengers are ok with this.

The plot is thin and not well developed.  Zemo is trying to tear the Avengers apart from the inside, which is the same plan Loki had, interestingly enough. Only Zemo has better instincts on what stakes are required to pull people apart.  Transparently he knows, somehow, that Bucky murdered Stark's parents. (side note: the name 'Stark' seems to be cursed. Do not name your kid 'Stark', if your last name is 'Stark', change it.) This isn't explained, to keep the reveal powerful. But the tradeoff of that, is a lack of clarity and focus.

Also the decision to regulate the Avengers feels forced and random. I fully expect this to be yet another conspiracy, especially after Hydra's penetration of SHIELD.  It felt odd no one bringing that up as a reason to be cautious of governmental supervision.

Zemo isn't a bad antagonist, he's written almost sympathetically, as a good villain should be. But because this has aspects of the thriller or mystery, we don't see him doing much.  And your villian needs to be doing, Loki was a do-er, even Ultron was.  Zemo could have been far more cunning and charismatic but the character from the comic is ultimately wasted here.

Too much going on for one movie.  If we just had a movie focused on Bucky and the hunt for him, we might have a short, solid Captain America movie. If we had a movie focused on the Civil War aspect and the desire of humans to control the Avengers, you might still have a pretty good-length movie.  Combining the two, even woven together as it was, just gives us too much material to put into one movie.  For example, showing Cap breaking his friends out of prison could have been a great set up and action scene. Instead we get it summarized, all the action is off-camera. Not a big deal but it's an example of what was sacrificed to make this one movie.

On the other hand, two-parter movies are a pet peeve of mine. And I'm not sure audiences would want to see two movies of heroes fighting other heroes instead villians, as they should be.  Marvel and Feige seem to have a vision and a story they're telling and at this point, I trust them to tell it.

And that's my summary: if you like the Marvel movies, go see this one.  It isn't as deep as it could be...I think.  And it makes some mistakes but it's more good than bad.

Recommended.

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<![CDATA[Review: The Force Awakens]]>Thu, 31 Dec 2015 22:39:43 GMThttp://markandrewedwards.com/markblog/review-the-force-awakensPicture
Go see it

I take movies too seriously sometimes.  Well, most of the time, my friends would say.  I can't help it, I care about stories, I want transport, I want magic.  Star Wars gave that to me, the first and probably best movie I fell in love with.  The prequels took that away from me.

So for a TL;DR review: Go see this movie. It washes away the stank of the prequels. Nary and gungan or midiclorian to be seen here.  There were enough good moments that the flaws were overshadowed.

Is it perfect? Oh no and I'll get into the nitpicks in a bit but it's a good 'popcorn' movie.

So what was good?
Well, apart from redeeming the series from George Lucas's creepy and clumsy grasp, there's a lot to like.

1. It feels like Star Wars. It feels like a lived in, worn world. Unlike the sterile green-screen excesses of the prequels, this world has dirt on it.  A lot of shooting was done on-location and it shows.  Expect more costumes than computers. But when computers are used, for example to create vistas of crashed and decaying Star Destroyers, it is used to good effect.

2. The characters are likable.  This is subjective, of course, and I liked some characters more than others (which I'll get into later) but a big reason why I cut this movie slack for its plot holes has to do with liking Rey, Poe, Han Solo especially.  As for Finn, well, he does close his mouth eventually and he's good in the comic moments.  Even BB8 was likable, with more personality than R2 even.

3. The wonder is there.  This is the hardest thing to pull off and I'll give JJ Abrams credit for achieving it. The crashed Star Destroyers, the looping dogfights (In atmosphere), freezing someone AND their blaster bolt in mid-air (!) just tickled me.

4. Han Solo.  Harrison just slipped back into this character and ran away with the movie.  Han is the emotional core of this movie, not Rey (which is why her...gifts aren't unbearable).  His decisions, his actions drive the middle and late plot and he is the at the climax of the movie.  Without him, The Force Awakens would be an inferior Star Wars remake.

5. Chewbacca.  Most of the aliens and droids are not translated in this movie and Chewie's reactions almost steal the show.  He actually gets to act and do things in this movie, earning his place in the story for the first time.

6. Reasonably competent and effective bad guys.  I like Kylo Ren quite a bit and consider him one of the main characters in way Darth Vader never was in the Star Wars trilogy.  Likewise, in the first half of the movie, the tie fighter pilots, storm troopers, officers all execute their orders quite well.  Later on, they become blaster magnets, which I'm not fond of, but they do a good enough job feeling formidable that they don't feel like disposable cardboard cut-outs. In fact, they take Finn's defection quite personally.  

7. The movie doesn't shut down plotlines or characters. One of the dumbest things in the long, long line of dumb things Lucas did in the Phantom Menace was to kill off Darth Maul.  Kylo Ren, Snoke, even the blond Nazi general guy all survive to oppose the heroes in the next movie. That's smart.  Starkiller base might be destroyed but there's no indication that's the whole of the First Order's strength, in fact we know it's not as we see at least one huge Star Destroyer unaffected by the planetary weapon's destruction.

What didn't work?

Oy.  Could be a long list but I'll try to keep it focused.

1. Rey's super powers. The speed and ease with which she masters the Force makes training feel unneeded.  She is powerful enough to resist Kylo Ren's mind probe. That's fine. She even gains insight into him, during the contest. Still fine.  Then she gains the ability to do jedi mind tricks to fool stormtroopers DESPITE HAVING NEVER SEEN THAT POWER BEFORE.  Not fine.  She's far too good at shooting which, trust me, is not easy to do.  She's even more mysteriously competent with a lightsaber after some sort of zen moment comes over her.  That really, really didn't work for me.  
  You see, power has to be earned. Potential can be inborn, I can buy that. That's why her piloting and mechanical skills didn't bother me. I bought that as her Force potential.  But the rest of it is unearned. This is bad writing, very bad writing. The only reason it doesnt' sink the movie is that, again, I found her likable enough and she isn't the main protagonist. We don't follow her for the whole movie the way we follow Star Lord in Guardians of the Galaxy.

2. Finn. Just...Finn.  This screenplay went through several hands and you can see the seams where it was welded together.  Despite being raised from childhood as a stormtrooper, Finn fails in his first field exercise.  That's fine.  But then he decides to rebel and escape. Sure, still fine.  Then he's slaughtering fellow stormtroopers, folks he's grown up with, the only family he's known, without remorse.  Not fine.  It would have taken three seconds of screen time to give this some depth and signifigance and they didn't take the time.  Bad writing.  He's also supposedly a stormtrooper, an infantryman, and yet he runs panicked from a 105 pound girl with a stick, gets his butt kicked by her (try it at home, kids and see if that works), and basically is borderline cowardly. Not fine.  Next he knows how or where to deactivate the planetary shield on Starkiller base.  That...doesn't make sense. How does he know.  Does an infantryman in the 101st Airborne know where the powerplant is at the Pentagon??? (spoilers, no, he doesn't unless he was stationed somewhere near them).  Again, this could have been fixed with a few seconds of dialog, which we don't get. Not fine. Then, here's the seam showing, he tells Han Solo he's in Sanitation.
  Sanitation??? He's a stormtrooper. He's not a janitor.  This makes no sense.  It feels like it's from another draft of the script. Which, I suspect, it is.

3. Unanswered questions.  Some of these could be left undefined so future, non-JJ Abrams filmmakers won't be locked into his canon, but there's a long list of things that are confusing or don't make sense. Like: Who is the First Order? What's their relationship to the Republic? What is the Resistance? Who is Rey? Why was she abandoned on Jakku? How is Rey able to out-fly experienced TIE fighter pilots? Why is there a map leading to Luke? Who made it? Did Starkiller base really drain a star each time it's fired? If so, have they never fired it before? If not, why did it get dark-ish after powering up? What are the Knights of Ren? Is Kylo good with a lightsaber or not?  ...you get the point. There are nits.

For all these, and other flaws, I still found myself delighted by the movie.  It was more dramatic than Guardians of the Galaxy, I didn't feel 'good' after seeing The Force Awakens like I did with GOTG.  But it was good ENOUGH.  

So far, so good. A lot will depend on what comes next, if Marvel can continue to revive the old Studio system, if there's a Kevin Feige substitute keeping a hand on the Star Wars tiller, if they can do a new plot rather than just repeating Star Wars/Empire/Jedi.
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