woensdag 30 oktober 2013

Today's News: will the real Mandarin please stand up?

Remember the MovieScene news I posted here earlier about that secret Marvel project Sir Ben Kingsley was working on? You better, since I only posted it last week. Seems the beans have been spilled over this one earlier than anticipated, as it has now become apparent what exactly the project involves:


Way to respond to controversy, Marvel. You finally realized you screwed up a classic bad guy -  something the fans had to tell you themselves - so now you feel like making amends. Too late, the damage has been done: Iron Man 3 was a hugely disappointing movie. You could have saved face if you had attached this one-shot as an epilogue to that film, instead of making it available on the BD-release of an upcoming Marvel flick (which will then also be soured by this heavily polarizing topic). Now it just appears as if you are capitalizing on the misery of your loyal followers by offering them an alternative to your own failure. Nevertheless, I am gratified Iron Man 3 wasn't the end for the Mandarin, since it never even included a proper beginning for this powerful and popular member of the Golden Avenger's rogue gallery. It was a farce, plain and simple. And maybe, jusy maybe from the ashes of this farce a new villain shall rise to claim his revenge (which might include killing Ben Kingsley's character, which would be fine by me). Considering the number of equally ticked-off Marvelites that want their Mandarin hot and bothered, this sort of conflict marketing might work in the studio's favour in the longer run. But for now, it seems like a clear sell-out to please as many people as possible.

But who will play the genuine Mandarin article? It could be Ben Kingsley himself, which would both be ironic and repugnant, considering the complete waste of his talents involved in his previous excursion into the Marvel Cinematic Universe which would continually be brought to mind. Another grand actor seems more likely. Perhaps even an actual Chinaman. Though if he must be of oriental origine, the studio will no doubt turn to Ken Watanabe as he's the go-to-Asian for Hollywood. It matters not, as long as this fake Mandarin will soon be forgotten. Who cares about actual incorrect social and racial casting if fictional characters' legacies are harmed?

dinsdag 29 oktober 2013

Today's News: women soon expendable too

Old news by now, but still new enough for posting, as it is mine and this is my blog so I post whatever pleases me anyway:


Expendabelles... I actually like that cheeky play on words. Of course it confirms this is basically just a rehash of the Expendables, except with an all-girl team, but I think most audiences would have picked up on that anyway, so why not exploit it to the fullest from the get-go? After all, the Expendables has become quite a brand name, so there's no harm in riding along its wake of success from a commercial viewpoint, especially if the rights belong to the same studio. A film like this was bound to happen, really; with all of the recent action films that feel like Eighties-throwbacks,  spouting their testosteron all over the place, a cry for girl power was to be expected sooner rather than later. I'm only surprised it took so long to get a project like this into gear. Coming from someone who got beat up by his sister regularly as a kid, I know there's plenty of strong women who take crap from no man, though not enough films have made use of this fact. Sure, there's the occasional female action star, but an all-girl team of commandos kicking butt? I can't think of a title that covers that angle. Charlie's Angels comes closest, so I'm not surprised at all Cameron Diaz' name has been revealed to be attached to this film. Same goes for Milla Jovovich, who alone has starred in just about as many action flicks - six Resident Evil films for instance - as all other female action stars combined. Meryl Streep however is an intriguing choice. Surely one of those olden goldies (which is not meant to come off as condescending to actors/actresses who were already active and successful in the Eighties, and still are today) that commands respect, though not particularly in a physical sense (and she better not sing!). In terms of acting it's certainly gratifying to see a woman of her caliber in a starring role. The names of Gina Carano and Katee Sackhoff also sound right up this film's alley, even though they may not be as familiar to general audiences as the previous trio. Still, I think there's room for more here. Linda Hamilton? Sigourney Weaver? Angelina Jolie? Rhona Mitra? Michelle Rodriguez? Seems like there's enough potential actresses to pick from for this film and two sequels at least.

Then there is this question, which just had to be asked at some point (though I haven't heard anybody else on the topic yet, surprisingly): if Expendables and Expendabelles are from the same studio, does that mean they share a universe from a narrative angle, which may lead to a crossover between the male and female departments, resulting in one super-ultimate, big-ass action flick-to-end-all-action-flicks? Or would people prefer to see gents and dames stick to their own corners instead of going at each other, which could only lead to the girls' defeat? I for one really can't see any female action stars surpassing the likes of Stallone and Schwarzenegger in terms of physical stamina, expertise with weaponry or sheer muscles. In terms of intelligence though...

zondag 27 oktober 2013

Today's Mini-Review: Blue Jasmine

Blue Jasmine: ****/*****, or 8/10

Woody Allen returns to directing with a vengeance after a disappointing interlude of lesser, though still decent, films. Allen's greatest gambit in Blue Jasmine is the formidable talent provided by the divine Cate Blanchett. Her portrayal of a down-on-her-luck big city socialite who must leave her comfort zone of excessive luxury in exchange for crashing on her blue-collar sister's couch (sort of, since both women were adopted as children) and getting an ordinary job both causes you to hate this woman and feel for her (at first!) in her misery and increasingly deteriorating mental state. Thanks to her former husband (impeccably nefarious Alec Baldwin), a wealthy entrepreneur whose entire fortune was built on the ruthless conning of decent folk – including her own sister and her former fiancĂ© – Jasmine was living the good life until she herself brought down her own house in a petty move that showed she was at least as vicious and self-absorbed as her spouse. Allen doesn't just give the reasons for her sad emotional state away; instead he utilizes a distinctly fragmented narrative that gives you one bit of information at a time until the full picture is revealed at the close of the film. But all the while, he paints a distressing portrait of an utterly narcissistic character who is living in extreme denial of her sorry social situation brought about by turning a blind eye to the obvious shenanigans of her husband for her own financial security's sake.

Nevertheless, a depressing drama Blue Jasmine is not. Rather, it is a tragicomedy in the truest sense of the word, which is swiftly indicated by the delightful opening that features Jasmine's non-stop rambling about her life to a complete stranger on a plane flight. Other hilarious moments include Jasmine's illogical reasoning as she decides what sort of job she thinks she deserves, as well as her wonderfully funny portrayal of a lousy dentist assistant, who can do nothing right but is so good looking her boss (a rather atypical performance by Michael Stuhlbarg) can't keep his hands off her, which illuminates the fact Jasmine is all style over substance: something that most certainly cannot be said for the film itself, unlike some of Allen's other recent work. Allen's message is clear: the rich and wealthy of this world, whose life is built on their own house of cards, are playing with fire at the ruin of others, but mostly themselves, as the hardworking everyday folk have much less to lose and can regain their happiness and lust for life far easier. You might consider this a form of social commentary on the current economic crisis that tells the audience it's really not all that bad unless you can't cope with living a simpler life, but Allen doesn't claim to have pretensions towards such lecturing on world affairs in Blue Jasmine. However, he clearly illustrates the life of high society is not a state of being to be envied with its incessant petty bickering and rampant relational double-crossing, especially compared to us normal people who fortunately don't have to deal with such scandalous affairs. Case in point, Jasmine's sister Ginger (a charming Sally Hawkins), who soon must deal with the rifts in her own circle caused by Jasmine's disturbing presence in her home. Ginger blames the bad history between her and her sister on her ex-husband, but over the course of the film must come to terms with Jasmine's apparent self-destructive nature, which threatens to drag her down with her, except she won't let it, after which she gets back on her feet much quicker because of her flexible stance towards life. Meanwhile, poor Jasmine sinks deeper and deeper, to our delight and sense of moral justice, as pity ever more tucks its tail between its legs when we come to know what she hath wrought and how much she deserves her fate, which is all the while coupled with nothing but the sincerest admiration for Blanchett's displayed skills at her craft in making this downward spiral feel totally compelling throughout.

zaterdag 26 oktober 2013

The Lost World Series 1: Electronic Parasaurolophus

Year of release: 1997

Accessories: none

Description: due to the position of the legs caused by the inflexible action feature (more about that later in this review) this animal stands in an active pose, as if it’s running. Apart from that it’s positioned in a totally neutral pose. The head, adorned with a bizarre crest at the back, seems a bit small compared to the rest of the body, but it’s pretty accurate regardless. Pushing the button on this creature’s back makes the head move back and forth and produces sounds.
The figure is covered in a mostly beige paint job, with its underside (belly, inner arms and legs, lower part of the tail, throat) coloured white. The head and neck sport red colours, with four long dark brown lines stretching from the back of the head all the way to the tip of the tail, stopping only around the button on its back. Additionally, spots and stripes of the same dark colour adorn the back of the upper legs as well as part of the lower legs, the arms and two fingers on each hand. The claws on each finger (8 in total) and toe (three on each foot) are painted brown. The beautiful crest on its head, which basically starts at the upper jaw, is coloured in an almost shiny variant of the aforementioned dark brown colour, with three beige stripes on top of it. A black JP: Site B logo is found on the right upper leg, along with the number .19. Its eyes are totally black.

Analysis: next to the disappointing Electronic Spinosaurus and the various repaints in the TLWS1 toy line, this wonderful sculpt once again proves Kenner hasn’t lost its touch at designing great dinosaur sculpts. This is without a doubt one of the best models in this toy line and a great addition to the range of herbivorous dinosaur species made for the JP toy lines. Though a hatchling Parasaurolophus was made for the JPS2 toy line, an adult model wasn’t created (unlike for most hatchlings of the two JP toy lines). This model redeems that error on Kenner’s part, with a vengeance.
The paint job is quite good and very reminiscent of the Parasaurolophus’ look in the TLW movie. It’s also pretty large, even for a medium sized model; considering the sizes Paras grew to in reality this is good, because the figure looks more impressive and realistic compared to human figures. The sounds produced by pushing the button on its back are also similar to the sounds these dinosaurs made in the movie, though a bit more simple. They’re a bit like the mooing of cows; a not too bad analogy, since these creatures where basically the cows of the Cretaceous period.
This sculpt features a dinosaur strike action labelled a ‘leg kick action’. However, when activated, it looks more like the dinosaur is running. This makes sense, since it’s probably what any Parasaurolophus would do in real life when confronted with a ferocious predator. It’s a fun feature, identical to the one the JPS2 Electronic Gallimimus sported. However, it comes with a major downside: unlike with the Gallimimus the legs aren’t poseable to such a degree that the figure can assume different postures with them. When moved and released the legs will swing right back, which also hinders the dinosaur’s ability to stand up, and makes it fall down easily. A shame, since it’s the only real flaw this otherwise great sculpt has.

Playability: though the legs of this figure are poseable, they move right back because of the action feature, which also doesn’t allow this figure to stand up easily. However, the arms don’t have this problem and can move about ninety degrees; the design of the body doesn’t allow them to be posed any further. Unlike most dinosaur figures, the head is also moveable and can be twisted in a full circle (though why anyone would do that I don’t know). This figure is of course electronic, so don’t play too rough with it if you want to keep those neat sounds working. All in all, the playability of this dinosaur isn’t that great, but for such a fine sculpt I’d say it’s acceptable.

Realism: this is one of Kenner’s most movie accurate and realistic sculpts. The people creating this baby definitely based it on the concept art and design models of the TLW movie. In fact, I’ve seen model pictures made for the film that show a Parasaurolophus model with the exact same pose and detail as this one. A good move on Kenner’s part, something I wish they had done for more of their toy sculpts. The paint job is similar to the colour pattern the Parasaurolophus in the movie featured, except less detailed (it’s a toy after all).
It’s also quite realistic compared to the scientists’ view of Parasaurolophus, though it’s a bit small: Paras grew to be almost as big as T-Rex. It’s arms may be a bit on the small side, since Parasaurolophus also used them for walking on (so they’re legs too to a certain extent): they weren’t used for running though, something this sculpt is good at. Additionally, it’s also nice to see this figure’s paint job being quite similar to the one the JPS2 Parasaurolophus baby (Tim Murphy’s hatchling) featured, adding some consistency between toy lines.

Repaint: no. This figure would not be repainted for later toy lines either.

Overall rating: 8/10. Great sculpt, nigh total movie accuracy, fine paint job and fun action feature. The only thing really bugging me is the position of the legs and the fact it makes this figure fall over more easily (it’s even causing slight paint wear!). Still, this dinosaur is definitely worth getting your hands on, though it’s not the easiest one to find and may prove more expensive.

The Lost World Series 1: Electronic Velociraptor

Year of release: 1997

Accessories: none

Description: this rather large Raptor figure stands in a totally neutral pose, though the end of its tail is curved to the right, otherwise it wouldn’t fit in its box. It appears a bit fat, due to the electronics and snapping mechanism inside. Its legs are also quite short, unlike the arms. This Raptor is equipped with a ‘snap-jaw’ attack action: pulling its right leg back makes the head move forward and its mouth open and closing with a snapping move (though as stated later in this review this is relative). When activating this action the Raptor produces three sounds: two shrieks, the second one higher pitched than the first, followed by a low growl.
This creature is painted mostly orange, on the back and flanks, as well as the neck, head, upper part of the tail, arms and legs. The lower parts of the animal (belly, underside of the tail, throat, inward parts of the limbs, as well as its teeth) are coloured white. Additionally, it sports rows of black stripes all over the orange part of its body, on its back, tail, head, neck, arms and legs. It also has a stripe on each finger, as well as small black spots on its neck, lower jaw and lower flank. Its eye is yellow, with a larger dark spot around it. This carnivore has a black JP: Site B logo on its right upper leg, along with the number .18. Its claws are also painted black.

Analysis: this is definitely one of the more interesting and realistic Raptor sculpts, though it has some flaws as well. It features a fine paint job, reminiscent of the pattern the striped Raptors in the TLW movie had, though less dark. It has a great and almost movie accurate head sculpt. However, it looks fat and has rather short legs. If the legs were longer this animal would have looked even more accurate, but this at least suffices.
The ‘snap-jaw’ action isn’t totally original (the JPS2 Electronic Baryonyx featured the same option), but still a cool attack function. However, it wasn’t very well designed. The mechanism breaks down very easily. In fact, mine was already broken when I first bought it in stores in 1998. It wasn’t until a few months back when I saw a second figure I realized this dinosaur is actually supposed to snap its jaws shut, as its nickname indicated… Fortunately, the rest of the system is less fragile, so the average Raptor should still be able to move its head and mouth, and produce sounds. These sounds are also movie accurate; they are featured in the various JP movies several times and help us remember the awesome suspense scenes involving Raptors such as these, thus making this figure even more menacing.

Playability: this figure takes on a very neutral stance and has poseable arms and legs, though the legs can’t move very far because the design of the body hinders them, and one leg has an attack action to support. The arms don’t have these problems though. The ‘snap-jaw’ action would have stimulated playability options if it wasn’t so damn fragile. If you want to keep it intact, you better don’t play with it at all. If you decide otherwise you better still be careful not to ruin those great sounds.

Realism: this predator looks very much like the Raptors seen in the JP movies, particularly the striped Raptors from the TLW movie. The pattern differs somewhat, since the Raptors in the movie were much darker and didn’t have white undersides (though this may also be due to the fact the Raptors were only featured in night scenes in that movie). The sounds, as mentioned before, are taken directly from the movies, adding more welcome realism. Accuracy is lessened a bit because of the disproportionate legs: they simply are too small, and appear even smaller due to the fat stomach. Also, compared to the human figures of this toy line, this Raptor is way oversized. But all things being equal, this is definitely one of the more accurate and praise worthy Raptor figures Kenner produced.

Repaint: no. This sculpt would not be repainted either, though a repaint was originally in the works for the unreleased JP Chaos Effect: Night Hunter Series.

Overall rating: 8/10. Quite a good sculpt with some minor, but acceptable, flaws. A shame about the fragility of the snap jaw system, but even without snapping jaws, the biting action you (should) get instead is a good attack option. And the sounds kick total ass. Recommended you get one, though it might not be the easiest figure to find. It was released in lesser quantities than other electronic TLW figures, and didn’t make it to some markets (though it got imported here and there). It will probably be more expensive if you find one, but for any JP toy fan it should prove to be worth it.

donderdag 24 oktober 2013

Today's Double News: Cap 2 coming soon

Posted two bits of news relating to the same movie on MovieScene yesterday and today:



Looks pretty good, both poster and trailer. It clearly shows the writers understand the contemporary concept of 'defending freedom' isn't so simplistically black and white as most people (both now and in the Fourties) often consider it to be, especially in America where protecting liberty comes at the expense of liberty. Poor Cap is finally coming to terms with this revelation, something he didn't exactly have time for in The Avengers as he was too busy saving the planet from an alien invasion with his super buddies. But now he gets that much needed and anticipated reality check, which also forces him to find a new place for himself in American politics as the paragon of American virtue he has been shaped in. It's this aspect of Captain America, the analysis by American writers of what America stands for today relayed through this comic book character, that has always made him more interesting that most people would at first expect from a superhero who's dressed in a single nation's colours but is often shown to save the entire world, as if other nations couldn't do likewise. And hey, if you still don't like the Star-Spangled Avenger, there's still Black Widow (Scar-Jo!) to enjoy, as well as newcomer the Falcon (Anthony Mackie), who can still fly as in the comics, but apparently no longer communicates with birds (indeed, his real falcon sidekick seems to have been ixnayed, thus also saving some money on visual FX so more can be spend on crashing helicarriers). It seems he has upgraded to telepathic connections with humans instead (though this has not been overtly confirmed by the trailer). And last but not least, there's Samuel L. Jackson playing Nick Fury again, but apparently he's not as cheerful as before, and is turning a darker page of the character's history, keeping in line with his Ultimate Universe counterpart on whose likeness Mr. L. Jackson was based. Or was it the other way around? The villainous Crossbones also seems like a worthwhile addition to Marvel's current cinematic rogue gallery, but just what the deal is with that 'Winter Soldier' remains to be seen. Unless you're aware of his history from the comics, as I happen to be.

Cap 2 seems an intriguing step away from the more lightheartedly toned predecessor in favour of adding some much needed depth, both emotional and political, to the character. At the same time there appears to be a plethora of action scenes and ample room for a good joke here and there. If the film is as good as the trailer, 'winter soldier is coming' doesn't seem like that sinister a mantra. But hey, if Iron Man 3 is any indication, it may still turn out that the Winter Soldier isn't actually a scary bad guy at all, but just a silly actor hired by a much less appealing and narratively convoluted evil character we couldn't care less about who messes up our respect of the heroic protagonist, after which his girl friend needs to save the day in her underwear. Let's hope IM3 was just a one-shot screw-up for now.

woensdag 23 oktober 2013

Today's Double News: return of the bad 'bad guys'



Two bits of news that don't really rock my boat. I didn't like Ben Kingsley's character (at the ultimate reveal of the exact situation in the movie at least) in Iron Man 3 and I wasn't fond of any characters from Avatar in general. Both movies were poorly written and delivered only mild entertainment. That said, I am intrigued by Sir Ben's further involvement in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. As is usual, he's not allowed to give anything away, so as to keep the fanbase guessing ad nauseam. For all we know he's playing the same prank on us the writers of Iron Man 3 did in terms of writing his character. I doubt Kingsley is referring to Captain America: The Winter Soldier or Guardians of the Galaxy. The former is deep in post-production by now, while the latter is well underway in terms of shooting so it seems a little late to add more actors. The Avengers: Age of Ultron or Ant-Man seem more logical choices, since they're still only prepping and haven't been fully cast yet. What Kingsley could play in either of them is anyone's guess at this point. Then of course there's the option of Sir Ben popping up in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. on telly: many would call it unlikely such a grand actor of the big screen would lend himself for something like that, but it's a fact by now quality television series are getting ever more prestigious for actors and similarly big names have done TV before. Heck, if Samuel L. Jackson can appear in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (he did!), Kingsley's eventual guest star occurrence isn't that improbable. Last but not least, there's the possibility Kingsley is referring to a project as yet unknown to the general audience. Let us not forget, Marvel is already preparing Phase 3, as well as four (!) more TV shows. Sir Ben could appear in any one of them. It simply remains to be seen which project, and what he's playing. After the huge letdown that was his "Mandarin" in IM3, I sincerely hope he's playing a new character instead. He's certainly capable enough to look different enough from a character we already know. Whatever we can gather from his few tiny crumbs of information, the truth is exactly as he said: we'll have to wait and see.

As for Lang: really? His character is dead, but Cameron nevertheless wants him for three more Avatar sequels? Lang is a good actor, but his character in Avatar, the greedy and predictably nefarious Colonel Quaritch, was quite two-dimensional and I was glad to see him disposed of at the end of the film. Apparently, Avatar being science fiction, as Cameron confirmed (as if we didn't realize that!), gives the director free range of resurrecting any old character instead of getting creative and come up with more interesting new villains. I'm sad to hear it. It doesn't bode well for the next few Avatar movies in terms of a well developed story, what is what I (and many others) had hoped for this time around. Sure, it all looked great, but if it isn't put to inspired use, what's the point? Cameron was basically regurgitating Dances with Wolves and Pocahontas. It seems that by reintroducing Quaritch he's now regurgitating Avatar itself. After all, by the time Avatar 2 finally sees a release, we're sure to have forgotten Avatar's so-called 'plot' entirely.

dinsdag 22 oktober 2013

Today's Mini-Review: Contagion

Rating: ****/*****, or 7/10

Starring: Matt Damon, Laurence Fishburne, Marion Cotillard

Directed by Steven Soderbergh

USA: Warner Bros., 2011

Steven Soderbergh's cautionary tale about the dangerous reality that is (and/or could be) a deadly global pandemic and its disastrous effects of human society and sense of morality proves an often harrowing but ultimately overly clinical film. Gwyneth Paltrow returns home from a business trip (which included some secret bedding out of wedlock) and is struck by seizures. Her husband Matt Damon rushes her to a hospital where she soon dies, much to everybody's shock and surprise. Her demise is only the beginning, as the disease that killed her – a fictional form (fortunately!) of meningoencephalitis – soon manifests itself all over the globe. The social order starts to break down everywhere as governments are unable to cope with the sudden onslaught that plagues their citizens. Experts from the CDC and WHO attempt to find a cure and to locate the origin of the outbreak but are hindered by problems as diverse as boundaries in their professional ethics, conspiracy bloggers inciting public revolt against the rule of law for their own profit, and the overall fear and hopelessness that drives people to extremes they would otherwise never consider, just to survive another day. The result is a carefully woven mosaic of various plot lines that never merge but end up making for an excellently rounded structure as a whole in terms of exploring the nature of the virus, its effects on global society and the race for ending its reign of terror. Though credit has to be given to Soderbergh and his team for keeping this narrative as close to reality as possible, both for chilling us to the bone and for the benefit of our education, it's hard to deny the film's occasional uneven pace and its constant need for overexplaining the more technical situations portrayed, even though it's tremendously helpful in understanding the motions of science in hazardous scenarios like these, and provides some always welcome intellectual uplifting of the audience in general. At times it feels a documentary would have better suited this topic (and no doubt some have). An all-star cast is brought on board to demonstrate how swiftly a lethal, worldwide viral outbreak makes an end to everyday life and in some instances, human values we claim to hold dear until circumstances prove us otherwise.

Though convincing performances are found throughout, in hindsight it would have been more apt to have these characters be played by less known talents to increase the level of realism Contagion aims for. Though the likes of Matt Damon, Marion Cotillard, Kate Winslet, Laurence Fishburne and Jude Law are undoubtedly just as susceptible to nasty diseases as the rest of us (unless fortune really is a cure for every illness), their struggle against the horrible infliction in question doesn't feel as grounded in reality as it ought to because of the high level of internationally familiar faces and the lack of “normal people” in major roles throughout the whole. The movie's overall style is rather cold and detached, a tone many spectators would expect a scientifically accurate story to convey, while the human element is relegated to the background a little too much. Soderbergh focuses on the microcosm of things, so scenes of mass panic and rampant lawlessness are absent though they are referred to abundantly, which doesn't make the concerns addressed in this film feel as immediate and as serious as we are meant to experience them. Contagion is a fine attempt at explaining in a scientifically correct sense what very well could (and most likely would) transpire if it came down to a global pandemic of this magnitude – the death toll at the end of the film reaches 26 million people – but its reliance on letting science determine the course of the film doesn't make for as compelling and intense a drama as it should have been.

maandag 21 oktober 2013

Today's Mini-Review: Cleopatra

Starring: Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, Rex Harrison

Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz

USA/UK: 20th Century-Fox, 1963

If 'lavish' is the singular term to bestow upon the historical epics of the Fifties and Sixties, Cleopatra exceeds the term in every way, making it clear from the get-go of its four-hour running time this, adjusted for inflation, is definitely one of the most excessive and expensive movies of them all. 20th Century-Fox sure wasn't thrilled by that fact at the time, as it nearly pushed the studio into bankruptcy. Nevertheless, it persisted in the project (since cancellation would have been its death sentence for sure) and today it remains a testament to just how staggeringly detailed and rich a movie can be made to look if enough money is thrown at it. In many ways, Cleopatra is not one, but two movies: director Joseph L. Mankiewicz always intended for it to be released in two parts (a decision the home cinema release has honoured by splitting the movie in half, spread over two discs). The first would have been called Caesar and Cleopatra, its sequel Antony and Cleopatra, as the movie conveniently cuts from one male protagonist to the other around the middle of the film, with the Queen of Egypt the constant that unites them both in a tale of passion, decadence, lust and glory.

Grand diva Elizabeth Taylor plays her most iconic role of all as the young queen that finds herself in the middle of the plots and intrigue at the Egyptian court of her brother who means to dispose of her, only to be saved by the older Roman general Caesar (a thoughtful and intelligent, but undeniably ruthless and pragmatic character portrayed by Rex Harrison) who, compelled by her wit and charm, instead forms an alliance with her and gets rid of her treacherous sibling. Said union spawns a son, Caesarion, which gives her an incentive to make a claim on the rule of Rome when his father is murdered in the Senate. Enter his boorish, no-nonsense second-in-command Mark Antony (the notorious Richard Burton) who has his own notions on the matter, but swiftly is suckered into Cleopatra's web of passion too, an affair destined to end in tragedy. Ironically, Taylor and Burton couldn't keep their hands off each other in reality as well, leading to one of the most scandalous and infamous love affairs in Hollywood history that made Brangelina look second rate. Keeping the affair in line as well as could be managed – basically, not at all, thanks to Burton's loudmouth persona – to avoid overly devastating public scrutiny, coupled with the ever rising production problems and outrageous costs (driving a movie originally budgeted at 2 million dollars to a whopping 44 million dollars), drove many a Fox executive close to madness, but over the years Cleopatra made a decent recuperation for the studio and even turned a bit of a profit. 

Audiences sure got what they payed for: an outrageous epic-to-end-all-epics with a scale and scope still unsurpassed, using some of the biggest sets ever created, populated by thousands of extras and a diverse range of wild beasts, all just as background material. And unlike the digitally saturated present day, it was all there in the flesh, making the sets look as spectacularly opulent in real life as they appear on film. Of course the fabulously rich enviroments where secondary only to Taylor's magnificent performance as the young monarch, at first relying on her sensual beauty and ever underestimated intelligence for her own basic survival, but soon applying both to make her country and herself a top player in Mediterranean politics by going head to head with the might of Rome in a love affair with one of its most powerful men that is bound to destroy an empire, and ultimately herself as tragedy ensues. Taylor definitely dominates each scene and won't allow the bombastic sights to take centre stage. She is aided by a grand cast which includes the likes of Roddy McDowall and Martin Landau, only tools for her to play off against as they can't compare with her majesty. Nevertheless, because of the endless show of grandiose sets, sexual plotting and Roman violence it cannot be denied Cleoptra feels like it's dragging on too long, which convinces the audience cutting it into two separate pieces would probably have been for the best. Even so, Cleopatra remains one of the most sensational movies ever produced, its history as wild and epic as the history that inspired it.

zondag 20 oktober 2013

Today's News: Dark Lord of the Sith is coming to the small screen

Here's a bit more news from everybody's favorite Dutch movie news website:


Disney sure means business with the Star Wars franchise (as it always does when it smells the sweet scent of delicious money). Although they've cancelled a few projects, including the Clone Wars TV-series and the almost finished dark and gritty video game Star Wars 1313, the number of projects slated for release in the next few years far exceeds those left behind in number. Of course you can moan about the overly kiddie-oriented angle and therefore dubious quality of many of these - Phineas & Ferb Star Wars special? A new show on Disney XD? No thanks, says the adult enthusiast! - and many of them seem like blatant cash-grabs, but at least the franchise is exploring new territory now. Whether that will result in worthwhile material, especially for the old fanbase who had just about accepted the franchise's apparent creative demise, is to be decided in later years. But it's hard to deny some of these projects sound intriguing. Of course there's Episode VII, which in that regard will dominate fan speculation until its release, but 'Darth Vader Themed TV Specials' is also guaranteed to pique interest. Basically because it could mean anything at this point. A miniseries that delves deeper into the narrative gap between Episodes III and IV, a few 'made for TV' movies (animated or live-action), documentaries on the cultural impact of this iconic face of interstellar darkness and corruption, guest appearances on currently running shows on the Disney Channel: the sky is the limit. The whole term 'Darth Vader Themed TV Specials' is simply too vague to make heads or tails of it for now, the most noteworthy thing about it at this point being the multiple form. So not a single 'special', but at least two (unless it's a spelling error; you never know). Darth Vader is one of the most instantly recognizable, memorable and popular villains ever created for the big screen, so there's no doubt a tale or two more to tell about him (whether we want to hear it or not). Just what that tale is and how it fits into the franchise so far (Extended Universe or otherwise) has yet to be determined. It's safe to say we won't be able to fully decide what to make of it until summer next year. Which actually isn't that far off at all, so I wouldn't count on anything too spectacular.

zaterdag 19 oktober 2013

Today's Double News: Brolin's life turns Jurassic, Vaughn's life is cancelled

Another double dip of news posted by yours truly on MovieScene:



This is the way of things in the industry: for every project that gets greenlit (even after twelve years of friggin' pre-production hell! Heartless dino-hating bastards!), several more get turned down, sometimes even while already well underway, though such a situation is more exceptional since copious amounts of money have already been spent and publicity has covered the project in question so there is some general awareness around. Let's explore what might have went wrong with Term Life.

It seems an interesting project, sure to find some kind of audience (though probably not as major as the studio had hoped for). It has a fairly solid plot which guarantees an appealing mixture of drama, action and humor. It's a graphic novel/comic book adaptation, which is all the rage these last few years (and that rage hasn't quite yet died down). However, Image Comics, though a well renowned and established company in the world of paper media (responsible for, among others, Todd McFarlane's Spawn, Michael Turner's Witchblade and The Darkness by Ennis & Silvestri), doesn't come with a brand name that screams 'hype', unlike its major competitors Marvel and DC. There's one problem for ya. Here's another: Vince Vaughn. Vaughn has done almost nothing but comedy (and not always good comedy at that) for over a decade. So could he be a compelling enough actor to also take care of the dramatic, emotional side of this story, as well as make a convincing action hero? Though he has dabbled in such elements of acting before in films as diverse as Into the Wild, Psycho (the remake, obviously) and The Lost World: Jurassic Park (which spawned no less than three action figures in his likeness; see my Jurassic Park Toy Review Archive for more details on that), his talents in both department remain limited, while most spectators can only see him as a comedic actor because of the overwhelming portion of said genre in his resumé, which would make it harder for the general - target - audience to accept him in a role like this. It seems the real talent would have been delivered by young actress Hailee Steinfeld, Oscar-nominated for True Grit. In this case the trouble is that film is basically the only stand-out title in her career, promising as it may be, but short as it yet is. True, she will soon be seen in the big budget Sci-Fi action flick Ender's Game, but as that feature has not yet been released it's too soon to pin a studio's hopes on Steinfeld just for that one. Term Life is no True Grit, so Steinfeld's participation also is not a guarantee for success. Nor is the intended direction by Peter Billingsley, whose curriculum vitae in that particular function also is far from impressive. His only feature of note in this regard is Couples Retreat, a comedy starring Vince Vaughn (and not one of his better ones), which brings us full circle to the matter of comedy versus other human emotions present in Term Life.

Overall, there's many variables and risks present in Term Life a new studio executive would not have been comfortable with, sadly making it an easy target for premature cancellation to save a few bucks that can then be spend on sure-to-deliver blockbuster projects. In Universal's case, one of them being... Jurassic World! Josh Brolin's apparent soon-to-be-payed salary has to come from somewhere. And Brolin is an intriguing choice for JW. He has done similar genre projects before to great success in terms of his acting (Planet Terror, Hollow Man), while also having been a star in completely different types of film the likes of No Country for Old Men and Milk. His name brings audience recognition, Oscar-nominated past performances that transcend genre and an acting job that is sure to satiate execs' expectations. Every risk you have in Term Life is absent in his persona. Do I agree with cancelling Term Life? Not per se, but if its "insurance money" is pumped into Jurassic World's undoubtedly stellar budget, I'm all for it. All's fair in Love, War and Jurassic Park. Plus, Vaughn has already been involved in one of those, so now it's Brolin's turn.

vrijdag 18 oktober 2013

The Lost World Series 1: Electronic Chasmosaurus

Year of release: 1997

Accessories: none

Description: this smaller species of Ceratopsian sports the typical four legged body with huge horned and plated head. The animal has a body resembling that of a rhinoceros: a heavy, muscled body and a short tail, walking on all fours. Its very large head ends in a huge plate (hence the code name ‘plate face’), though unlike his famous cousin Triceratops this dinosaur’s plate doesn’t have a round quality to it, but feels more square, adorned with horned protrusions along the edge of the plate and three rows of knobs running down it on the front side. The creature has a large parrot like beak, with one small horn on the nose and two more above its small eyes. Additionally, a smaller horn is found on each cheek. Its plate ends in a pair of horns on each side. The creature stands in an almost neutral pose, except for the tail which is bent somewhat to the left, and its right front leg being raised slightly upwards as if taking a step.
This sculpt doesn’t sport an elaborate paint job. It’s mostly beige, including its legs and most of the head. Its throat, belly and lower part of the tail are coloured brownish orange, while its back and upper part of the tail, as well as the middle part of the head and the knobs on the plate are painted black. Its claws, five on the front feet and four on its hind feet are white, as are the horns on the head and the top horns of the plate (though strangely enough not the knobs on the sides of the plate). A black JP: Site B logo can be found on its upper left hind leg, with the number .21 next to it.
This animal is electronic and has a dino attack action with accompanying sounds. Pulling the left hind leg backwards makes the head move upwards, as if striking a blow with it. This also causes mooing sounds to be heard, similar to the sounds of cows, as if the Chasmosaurus is warning its herd of danger.
Analysis: unlike with the two JP toy lines, which featured hardly known creatures alongside the usual range of Rexes and Raptors, Kenner proved less daring with unfamiliar dinosaurs or dinosaurs not featured in the movies when it came to the TLWS1 line. This Chasmosaurus is one of the few exceptions and a welcome relief from well known species. Though it’s not very dissimilar from Triceratops, its different head clearly sets it apart. Its plate is even more bizarre than the Trike’s, though it has smaller horns.
Though the sculpt is quite original, its action feature is not. In fact, it’s the exact same feature as the small Triceratops from this toy line sports: pull leg back for moving head action. Granted, given Ceratopsians’ body structure a head butting action is the most logical way to go, but not the most imaginative. It’s a good thing this model features electronic sound, so there’s at least some part of its action features that sets it apart from the other Ceratopsians Kenner produced thus far. Its sounds are pretty good, and though of course nobody knows what roars Chasmosaurs produced in reality, they suit the beast. The head attack action works properly, and is easy to activate. You can put the animal on the ground, hold it by the tail and pull its leg, and it will knock any smaller figure in front of it down.
The paint job is also a bit of a letdown. It’s very bland and could have used more detail. It’s speculated by palaeontologists that Ceratopsians’ plates had the most elaborate colours, either to attract mates or give warning signals (as in ‘don’t mess with me, my horns aren’t friendly’). Even though these are just guesses as to the use of the plate, the people designing this sculpt might have listened to them and give this sculpt a more interesting paint job.

Playability: good enough. All four legs are poseable, though one of them will move right back since it activates the attack action (same thing applies for the head). The legs can’t move very far due to the design of the body: otherwise they would get in each other’s way. They can move far enough to make for some striking attack poses for this creature though. Keep in mind this is an electronic figure. If you want to keep it in working order you shouldn’t play very rough with it.

Realism: Chasmosaurus wasn’t featured in the TLW movie, or any other JP movie for that matter. Still, the shape of the head plate clearly establish the identity of this animal. It looks pretty realistic. The horns above the eyes could be a bit on the short side though. Another thing: this animal is most definitely called Chasmosaurus, and not Chasmasaurus as is stated on the box.

Repaint: no. This animal would be repainted once for the first JP Dinosaurs line though.

Overall rating: 7/10. Despite its originality it’s not as good as it could have been, thanks to the boring paint job and the predictable attack action. It’s still a good sculpt though, so worth tracking down for anyone who’s tired of the old Rexes, Raptors, or Trikes. Fortunately it’s not rare, so you shouldn’t have a problem finding one for an affordable, or even low, price.

The Lost World Series 1: Electronic Spinosaurus

Year of release: 1997

Accessories: none

Description: this medium sized bipedal carnivore sports an elaborate paint job, which basically consists of four layers. The lowest layer is found on the underside (throat, belly, lower tail, sides of the limbs) of the figure, and is dark blue. Secondly, a light blue tone, almost white, covers most of the arms and legs, as well as parts of the flanks and head. It gradually shifts in the third, most noticeable colour, a bright green, which is found on most of the flanks and head, middle part of the tail, and in three stripes on the sail. Last, a dark purple paint job covers the back of the head, upper part of the legs and tail, and the whole back of the creature. Additionally, purple spots are seen on the animal’s head, flanks, upper legs and tail. Finally, the same shade of purple adorns the sail in three stripes as well as three rows of small spots on each side of the sail. A black JP: Site B logo is found on the upper left leg, with the number .39 next to it. The claws are not painted in a different paint job, unfortunately.
The creature assumes a walking stance, with the right leg posed in a backward move. This position causes problems: the sculpt can’t stand on its own accord (despite its large flat feet) and must lean on something to stand up. This dinosaur features an attack action: pull the left arm down so the mouth will open, revealing a snake like scarlet tongue, as well as a not very impressive set of teeth. This also produces a roar, which is relatively high pitched, at least more than you might expect of a carnosaur like this.

Analysis: Kenner once again opted for originality with this figure, the first, but certainly not the last, Spinosaurus toy of the JP lines. Because of Spino’s appearance in JP III the originality factor has diminished, but back then this dinosaur was less well known, and made for an interesting addition to the line. Unfortunately, it’s not the best Kenner sculpt and leaves much to be desired.
Most irritating is the fact this sculpt can’t seem to stand up because of the position of the right leg. If it’s not supported by hand or some object to lean on, it simply falls down, making this predator look rather silly. The attack action is also not very convincing: the figure has a rather small mouth, an odd tongue and tiny teeth. The mouth does close with some force, making this figure more of a ‘snapper’ than a ‘slice’: this makes it able to knock down figures, but it can also clamp body parts of figures between it’s jaws. The paint job is fifty-fifty. The dark tones and even the green are satisfactory, but the light blue clashes totally with these colours. More vexing is the fact this critter’s claws are unpainted.
The attack roar is not all that bad though. It’s less thundering and awe-inspiring than the various Rexes’ noises, but gives this creature a bit of his own character. 

Playability: limited. Though all limbs are poseable, the legs can only be moved to a low degree because the body gets in the way. The same goes for the arms, one of which has an attack action to support, which restricts playability options further. The mouth can open and close, but it’s pretty small so there’s not much you can do with it. And since this is an electronic figure you must be careful with it if you want to keep it in working order.

Realism: Spinosaurus had not yet entered the JP franchise by the time this figure was released, so it looks different from the JP III Spinosaurus that has now become so recognizable. Still, the sail on its back is a dead giveaway and makes sure this creature can’t be mistaken for any other carnivore. Compared to the human figures this animal is way too small, since even back in 1997 Spinosaurus was known to be one of the largest carnivorous dinosaurs (though its status as the biggest of them all had not been confirmed by then). Incidentally, the roar this sculpt produces is reminiscent of the sounds Hasbro’s JP III Spinosaurus figures featured.

Repaint: no. This animal would be repainted once for the first JP Dinosaurs line though.

Overall rating: 5/10. Despite adding more diversity to the TLWS1 toy line, this is not a very good figure. Its action feature isn’t impressive and it can’t stand on its two legs. The paint job had potential, but is overly festive for my taste. It’s not a total loss but could have been better. It’s not particularly rare, so won’t be too hard to track down at a reasonable price, should you really want one.

The Lost World Series 1: Giant Pteranodon

Year of release: 1997

-Two pieces of capture gear

Description: elongated and slender is the word for this Pterosaur. It features a long, skinny body ending in a small tail. Right under the tail it has a pair of thin legs with three claws on each. Two of these claws are poseable, with the third one positioned opposite the others, so the creature can grab things like human figures or small dinosaurs with these claws. On its left upper leg this critter is marked with a large black JP: Site B logo, numbered .22.
The front part of the body ends in a thin neck with a large head on top of it: this head is basically a long beak on one end and a large pointy crest on the other. The Pteranodon has three small protrusions on each side of its beak. Next to these are a nostril, bright red eye (with a black iris), and small ear on each side of the head. Pressing the crest will open the animal’s beak, showing a large red tongue.
Most noticeable are the wings of this Pterosaur. On each side of its body a blue clamp is positioned, to which a thick arm is attached, ending in four fingers, the last of which is very long and runs to the tip of the wing, where a small rectangular pin is found. The pins can be pushed into the small holes next to the creature’s legs, creating a wings-folded-in system. The wings can fold out by pressing the large button on the back, which also controls a flapping wings mechanism. The rest of the wings consists of a fine beige cloth, with a plastic strip in the middle of the wing holding it together.
This creature sports a mostly beige paint job. It’s wings, arms, inside of the mouth and legs are painted in this colour, with the animal’s belly and throat coloured in a lighter shade of beige. The upper parts (back, upper tail, neck and middle part of the face) of the Pteranodon are painted in shiny blue, including the large button on its back. The beak and crest are painted yellow.
This animal comes with two pieces of capture gear, both sporting an entirely shiny dark grey paint job. The smaller piece can be wrapped around the creature’s beak, right behind the protrusions which make sure the piece doesn’t fall off. The other piece can be clamped around the Pterosaur’s legs and tail.

Analysis: with regard to the Pterosaur figures, this is a rare case in which Hasbro’s figures are more realistic and playable than Kenner’s. The JPS1 Pteranodon wasn’t a great figure to begin with, and this larger Pteranodon, almost twice as big, isn’t much of an improvement. First of all, the paint job, though somewhat resembling the colours of the Pteranodon seen in the TLW movie, isn’t appealing. The beige is quite bland. The yellow on the head sculpt looks a bit silly, especially since the Pteranodon already has a goofy face (those eyes look ridiculous). This sculpt could have used a more elaborate and detailed paint job.
Second, the wings. They are too small, and though the cloth is a nice touch, it’s more susceptible to damage and dust. It gets spotty quite easily (in my case my cat once puked on it, after eight years the stains are still there…). Also, the arms are way too thick compared to the rest of the body, and thanks to the extra strip of plastic in the middle of the wings this figure has a sort of bat like quality to it, unlike real Pteranodons. The clamps next to the body make the wings look fake.
The capture gear, as if often the case, doesn’t add much either. You can put it on the animal but it’s hard to find other uses for it. The Pteranodon can rid itself of the beak piece by opening its mouth a few times so it slips loose. There’s no breaking-free action for the other piece. We’re to believe the V-shape structure of this piece causes the wings to stay folded in, but when the button is pressed the wings fold out: the animal can just take off and leave, it seems.
Still, this figure has some redeeming features. The claws on it’s feet are neat and can really hold a figure tight. They’re strong enough, so when “in flight” the figure doesn’t shake loose and fall to the ground. The flapping wing mechanism works better than the one the JPS1 Pteranodon featured, though as far as accuracy is concerned it’s commonly believed Pteranodons were gliders; their size made it hard to fly through flapping their wings, and they used air lifts and wind to glide instead. The unfolding system is a bit odd; though in real life Pterosaurs could fold their wings in some fashion too (in order to walk using their hands), it would probably not be very healthy for a Pteranodon to fold its wings in this position. But the unfolding looks cool, and it saves space when the creature’s wings are folded in. However, the right wing has some problems folding out sometimes, because the right leg gets in its way.

Playability: this figure provides for more playability options than you might be inclined to think. It has poseable claws and legs, its mouth can be opened, its neck twisted 360 degrees. The flapping mechanism works fine, and the folding of the wings is an interesting additional option. Added to this are the two pieces of capture gear, though their use is very limited.

Realism: like stated earlier, this sculpt does resemble the Pteranodons seen in the TLW movie to some extent. It has a similar paint job, though a lot less detailed of course. It’s also a slender skinny animal, as it was in the film. However, the wings are totally off: for one thing they should have ended on the base of the legs instead of halfway across the flanks. Its legs and claws are also disproportionate, as is the case with the head, which is just too big. Its crest has a different shape. Compared to human figures, this Pteranodon is somewhat oversized. Maybe that’s the reason this model is called Giant Pteranodon.

Repaint: partially. The capture gear and the creature’s head are new, but the rest of this Pterosaur’s body is a repaint of the JPS2 Quetzalcoatlus. It would not be repainted again.

Overall rating: 5/10. Though it has some fun action features, this sculpt isn’t very good. It’s not rare and can probably be found quite cheap, but my advice is to go for one of Hasbro’s various Pteranodons instead (undoubtedly the only time I pick Hasbro’s work over Kenner’s). Still, if you can get it for little cost it may be worth it.

donderdag 17 oktober 2013

Today's News: Dwayne Johnson versus earthquake

Another post of mine on MovieScene:


The user comment left behind by someone that read this newsflash isn't wholly incorrect: this does bear a fair bit of resemblance to 2012. Problem is, that film was basically the ultimate disaster movie, featuring everything from devastating earthquakes to giant volcanic eruptions and humongous tidal waves, so how could you hope to impress a post-2012 audience with "only" an earthquake? Simple. You add a star. As is the case in most disaster movies, the star of the film is the disaster itself, while the cast is only meant to guide you through it to add some human drama. That's why casts of disaster movies usually, with very few exceptions, don't feature big name moviestars but only 'moderately well known' actors instead, often with the addition of older actors that have slowly but surely fallen out of favor with the public's immediate interest (as was done all through the Seventies with classic actors of the Thirties, Fourties and Fifties). None of the actors in 2012 were genuine moviestars. But now Dwayne Johnson gets to stand up to an earthquake, and currently he's undeniably a hot star, with a fairly wide audience appeal. So people that don't care about Johnson get to enjoy the tremors (which probably won't bring The Rock down), while Johnson fans will care less about the actual catastrophe, but simply crave to see their hero back in action. You wonder why studios don't employ big names in this type of epic film more often. It may have something to do with the bad reputation of disaster movies (also thanks to the Seventies), that so far generally told stars they've reached their expiration date. Maybe Johnson can debunk that much maligned 'genre curse'.

In other ways San Andreas seems an overly standard disaster flick: epic shots of ruin and destruction coupled with standard family drama throughout (an estranged family too, that no doubt finds new strength due to their trials). I doubt Johnson can change much about that routine. Especially if it's brought to us by Brad Peyton, who delivered quite a similar story in Journey 2: The Mysterious Island, except against a fantasy backdrop. Even in 3-D though, I doubt San Andreas will outboast 2012 in terms of scope and awe.

woensdag 16 oktober 2013

Today's Double News: Two Hercules movies, four TV-shows

Here's two short news flashes brought to you from MovieScene and myself:


Another Hercules movie in 2014? What is this, Hercules Memorial Year? Or just a very suspicious coincidence? Whatever the cause, I don't really mind the fact Hercules, or Greek mythology for that matter, is suddenly enjoying newfound popularity. I do mind if the results are poor though, which seems to be the case in the majority of recent examples of the Mediterranean classics being adapted to the moving image, from the two heavily digital Titans movies to the new BBC series Atlantis (which also features 'a' Hercules). This new film, Hercules: The Legend Begins, doesn't seem to steer in the right direction, as the story ventures far from the known Hercules tales and tells an origin story all its own which, judging from the trailer, seems a bit of an uneasy potpourri between traditional mythology fare and Roman plots and intrigue, complete with the ever sensational topic of arena fighting. The visual style is all too similar to the likes of 300 and the Spartacus series (the latter also starred Liam McIntyre, who plays an important role in this film as well), which is not necessarily a bad thing, but definitely an uninspired move at this point, as it currently seems "the" route to take for action flicks set in ancient times. There's also quite a 'B-movie' or 'direct-to-video' vibe to the piece (even though it's just a trailer and therefore nowhere near an accurate representation of the final product, as trailer history has taught us in the past) with its fairly bland and overly digital vistas and battle scenes, plus the fact there are no genuine A-list actors present, despite its obviously intended epic scope. All of the main cast is composed of actors that previously played bit parts and supporting roles, often minor, though some did take place in moderately big budget projects (including lead Kellan Lutz of Twilight Saga fame). For now it seems Hercules: The Legend Begins will find a major competitor in Brett Ratner's Hercules: The Thracian Wars, starring popular muscleman Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson as its titular character, while the cast includes veteran names like John Hurt, Joseph Fiennes, Ian McShane and Rufus Sewell. And that film too is nothing like the Hercules we know, but at least in its case that can be attributed to the fact it's a comic book adaptation. It seems Hercules will experience some tough competition from himself next year...


Then there is the news Marvel's TV plans, alluded to before when I reported on a potential Agent Carter series, have been revealed to some extent, and appear far bigger than anyone would have dared to anticipate. Four TV-shows and a miniseries, produced simultaneously, with a commitment for no less than sixty episodes?! Madness says I, and most seasoned television producers would agree with that assessment. However, this is the House of Ideas, and it has a brand name which has shown to survive seemingly mad notions before: on the big screen at least, establising a shared universe between various movies, culminating in one of the biggest box-office successes ever. Could it work similar wonders on the small screen and thus continue to slowly but surely dissolve the boundaries between both audiovisual media (as further interweaving of universes will be sure to happen, now that Marvel's only currently running show Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. has witnessed its first Samuel L. Jackson appearance that most people previously considered was not gonna happen)? Marvel's previous gamble payed off successfully and one cannot help but admire this bold move, but it would definitely be wiser to either continue more modestly (say, two additional shows) or wait for Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. to conclude its first full season and see the financial results. Of course, the latter would mean risking the loss of the current momentum: Marvel is hugely popular now, so better exploit that huge fan love before it dies down (you never know whether it will or won't, eh?). There's simply all kinds of pros and cons involved and that's not gonna change, so why not show a little more bravery and contine to risk much and gain more? After all, there's still many hundreds of fascinating superhuman characters (see above) that have yet to be seen on film, with an equal amount of good actors available to portray them satisfactory. I'm gonna watch whatever is spawned here for sure, and I know many many other people will do the same.

dinsdag 15 oktober 2013

Today's Mini-Review: Don Jon

Don Jon: ****/*****, or 7/10

Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars in and wrote this film, his directorial debut, which in a comedic tone explores the life of a porn-addict: apparently the fringes of socially accepted sexual behavior continue to be of interest to him (e.g. Mysterious Skin, where he played a young hustler). Jon (G-L) apparently has it all: he's good looking, has a nice car, some close friends to bro down with, he loves his family and his church and he can all too easily score with girls. But what interests him the most is porn, the only thing he can totally loose himself in. Real girls just don't cut it compared to the wild excess he witnesses in porn. And that's not likely to change, until he meets 'perfect dime' Barbara (Scarlett Johansson) at his local club and starts actively pursuing her, as she's the closest he has ever come to falling in love with anyone. Unfortunately for him, Barbara doesn't make it easy and has a long list of changes in store, not so much for him as to satiate her own view of what a prospective partner ought to be. Porn is unsurprisingly off the table, as is lying, after which Jon soon discovers how much of an addict he really is, as he can't stop watching the former and consequently doing the latter. Set in an outrageous stereotypical 'Joysee' milieu (if you can't stand those awfully annoying accents you would do well to stay away from this film), Don Jon proves a quirky, at times witty comedy that makes no illusions it doesn't have grand notions to share with its audience when it comes to addictions, porn or otherwise. Its ultimate message appears to be 'if you want to find real love, be yourself and don't let it change you into someone you're not'. It doesn't take the audience long to learn that lesson – unlike Jon himself, fairly thick-headed as he is: he concurrently, much to his dismay, learns too late there's an option to erase his online browsing history too – as we swiftly see Barbara for what she is: a vain and overly demanding broad who insists Jon must give up his idiosyncrasies and private aspirations to satisfy her personal take on a good match, all brainwashed by the absurd simplistic fairy tales she takes for real life that she has seen in too many romantic comedies, which Don Jon convincingly equates with pornography, except the female counterpart. The stuff seen in typical Hollywood dreck about romance and marriage – exemplified by a short sample of such fare featuring funny cameos by Anne Hathaway and Channing Tatum – is just as much a work of gender defining fantasy as the carnal possibilities porn generally delivers, and a successful match that triggers genuine love both compromises and balances these two paradigms. It takes Jon a lot longer to realize this than us, the audience, though we are surprised at the outcome as he eventually runs off with someone we wouldn't have expected (thanks to the typical cinematic standards Hollywood has imbued us with, which Don Jon sometimes feels like breaking). Meanwhile, we are treated to a gutsy comedy that only narrowly escaped an NC-17 rating thanks to all the talk about hardcore sexual intercourse (the film's end credits reveal the Pornhub site was a minor partner, while a pornography consultant was also employed). Admittedly, it does come off as preachy a bit towards its climax, at which point the number of laughs also drops, but until that time we witness a strong cast deliver terrifically funny performances with a good sense of timing. Gordon-Levitt and Johansson are particularly hilarious as the would-be star couple, evenly matched towards one another and fortunately sharing a good deal of chemistry. Also of note is Julianne Moore as an oddball older woman in a semi-mentor role that ends up differently than we might have foreseen. As a director and writer, G-L is off to a decent start as he clearly inspires enthusiasm in his fellow actors and successfully balances both directorial duties and a star performance, while tackling a fairly heavy topic with surprising ease, albeit for laughs more than for actual audience contemplation.

zondag 13 oktober 2013

Today's Mini-Review: Gravity

Gravity: ****/*****, or 8/10

It is rare these days to encounter effects in movies that look so astounding that they pull the audience in completely and won't let go until the credits roll. After twenty-odd years of increasing overuse of CGI, it seemed positive that everything had been done, also owing to the plethora of home video releases containing behind-the-scenes footage that reveals in detail the tricks of the trade, thus enhancing the audience's expertise on what is real and what is not when watching a film. It has diminished the emotional impact of the contemporary blockbuster, which often tends to rely heavily on such big budget effects work, because we spectators think we've seen it all and know it all by now. But once in a while a movie comes along that does manage to sweep us off our feet entirely and immerses us completely into the world its director has envisioned for our viewing pleasure. In such uncommon cases, the often derogatory term 'effects film' turns out both wholly justified and incorrect: the effects it contains do not make a film, but instead engage us into a full fledged cinematic experience we cannot help but be captivated by so strongly that all we can do is undergo it until it releases its grip on us. And then we still sit back in awe for a while longer, with that most pertinent of questions firmly on our minds: how on Earth did they do that?! Alfonso Cuaron (Children of Men, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) has crafted just such a fantastic experience with Gravity, a superior science-fact feature that adheres to the laws of physics but constructs its own laws in terms of what you can accomplish cinematographically these days. From a narrative point of view it's simply the struggle of two astronauts (George Clooney and Sandra Bullock) to survive in our planet's orbit after their space shuttle has been devastated by space debris caused by the demolition of a Russian satellite. In every other regard, there is nothing simple about Gravity

It is most definitely one of the greatest accomplishments in the field of visual effects and 3-D technology in recent years and an incredible tour-de-force on the part of both actors whose capabilities are put to the most extreme test imaginable. In fact, you are pulled in so deeply you neither have the time nor the interest to agree the story is pretty bare and the few attempts at introducing deeper levels of character development – including Bullock's character still trying to cope with the death of her young daughter – don't add all that much to the protagonists' plight. We run with them because we cannot help but feel we are one of them, and we too must get out of this ordeal in one piece before time (and oxygen) runs out. Applying his signature use of the 'long take', Cuaron opens the movie on a quiet, peaceful note as we witness “our fellow astronauts” working on a telescope, a job that suddenly turns extremely hazardous as the debris field hits their workplace hard, cutting them loose, adrift into the endless black ocean of space: all in a single, apparently uninterrupted shot (though few will actually consider that fact as we are already engaged fully by this point). We're slowly introduced to their Zero-G environment, but soon must deal with intense camera movements as we float around the shuttle in fast motions at first, and soon almost unchecked as the mission is spiralling out of control. Their spacecraft lost, our fellow pair of astronauts must make its way to the ISS before it too gets hit by the rubble, and before they run out of breathable air, if they ever hope to get back down to Earth. Unfortunately physics don't make it easy on them and reaching their goal appears ever more hopeless. All to our benefit, as we are treated to some of the most spectacular visual imagery seen on the big screen in years. Gravity is a prime showcase of what 3-D can add to a film other than a higher admission price. Not only is the cinematography breathtaking, we feel part of a three-dimensional environment at all times, surrounded by pieces of space rubble on every side, or Bullock's sweat and tears when we are locked in an escape pod with her in very close quarters. The intricate shots of floating equipment and people going up, over and around each other adds a layer of depth that is not likely to be surpassed in film any time soon. Even though the lack of sound in space deprives us of an auditory experience the likes of Star Wars, the immersive visuals make us forget all about any lack where other sense are concerned. Credit is also due to the seasoned actors, Bullock in particular, that make the whole experience feel that much more convincing – though the effect the film has on our stomachs does half their work already – by delivering excellent performances few of their colleagues could have matched as they play off against each other and... yes, against what else, exactly? How much, if anything, of what we seen on screen was there to aid them? Even for a trained eye, it's nigh impossible to tell where the real setting ends and the fictional construct begins. Yet we never get the feeling we are watching visual effects, which is of course exactly the trick such effects aim to pull off: don't let the audience know you are only an effect. The result is a staggering, completely compelling cinematic experience, one best seen on the big screen as it is doubtful its full physical and emotional impact is done justice on a home cinema release, though hopefully the latter can tell us just how Cuaron and his team managed to accomplish this extraordinary feat. One thing is for sure, Gravity is gravitating towards well deserved Best Visual Effects and Best Cinematography Oscars.