Friday, 31 August 2012

Review: Snow White and the Huntsman (2012)

Better titled The Evil Queen, the Huntsman, and What's-Her-Face. Charlize Theron steals the movie as the conniving, misandrist Ravenna, who revels in punishing men and looking at her own reflection. Sometimes both at the same time. Like her character in Young Adult, only empowered by black magic. Can't help but feel bad for the peasants who went to Medieval High with her.

Is this a trend for Theron? Will she play Elizabeth Bathory next? She's certainly enjoys playing the bad girl, and Bathory is one of the baddest.

Ostensible leading lady Kristen Stewart, who plays Snow White, fades into the scenery, hopelessly overshadowed by Theron's malicious queen bee. You tend to forget she's even in the movie.

Chris Hemsworth (The Huntsman) provides the requisite muscle bound heartthrob, caught between the two lovely ladies.

The film opens with the apporach of a mysterious phantom army, setting up high expectations. It then drops them like a granite block.

Everyone's favourite seven dwarves have little to do and are more of an afterthought. They don't appear until much later in the movie. Not hunky enough for the Tween audience. Too short, perhaps.

To keep the boy's attention, a second battle occurs at the film's climax. Special effects are deployed, blood is spilled, and What's-Her-Face goes mano a mano with Charlize Theron.

Good prevails and all is well in the kingdom, but by this point who really cares?

Thursday, 30 August 2012


I like making buttons from time to time. 

Review: Outpost II: Black Sun (2012)

The original was a surprisingly good and gruesome nazi zombie movie, a genre where low expectations are a given. Outpost II: Black Sun doesn't rise above them.

The first film saw a team of mercenaries enter a haunted house (bunker) and rouse slobbering Nazi zombies from their extra-dimensional slumber. Or something. Mayhem and slaughter ensued. Created by quantum field experiments at the end of World War II, the zombies were not only unkillable, but could slip in and out of reality at whim. Effectively they could teleport. Doesn't make much sense, but neither does quantum physics. Unfortunately, that feature undermines the drama, as it makes it difficult for the heroes to take effective action.

This time round the zombies don't flit about subspace, and screenwriter/director Steve Barker adds ways to permanently kill them. Like that. Adds spice.

The film begins the same way as the last, with a doomed team of mercenaries entering the dread bunker. While their employer watches via webcam, the soldiers piss of the undead National Socialists and get ripped to pieces. To be perfectly honest, I'm not sure how ideological these drooling horrors really are. They just like killing people. Once riled, they go about it with great zeal.

The stakes are raised as the roaming area of the zombie storm-troopers increases exponentially, threatening the entire region.

Nazi-hunter Helen (Catherine Steadman), hunting the mad scientist Klausener, hitches a ride into the maelstrom with action hero physicist Wallace (Richard Coyle), a kind of Indiana Jones meets Stephen Hawking. Inevitably they team up with a group of mercenary cannon fodder and work their way towards the bunker. Throw a stick in the Balkans and you'll hit a mercenary. Good to know.

The climax seems like a parody, and the lightning effects that accompany it are subpar, which doesn't help.

Still, the Outpost series remains far above anything else in this cheesy, guilty pleasure genre.

They're already at work on Outpost III. Let's hope the third one is the charm.

Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Lessons from Television: Borderline Nihilism and Boardwalk Empire

Every good story has a message, if not a moral. An underlying idea that permeates the text, giving meaning to the narrative. Shape. It can be touchy-feely banal ('Love conquers all'), or cutthroat cynical (Chinatown's 'Being rich lets you get away with murder'). 

Happiness writes white on a page, so entertainment delves deep into dysfunction. Yet underneath the surface struggle there's still that little meme nugget, the driving message. It can offer light at the end of the tunnel.

So what's the message of shows like The Wire, Breaking Bad, True Detective, and Boardwalk Empire? What meaning are they peddling?

HBO's The Wire, one of the most difficult and rewarding shows ever shot, depicts institutions being as flawed as the basket case humans that created them. Good work gets done only by persevering through absurdity and infuriating dysfunction. Most politicians are inveterate, venal liars, cops careerists more concerned with making their statistics look good than actual policing, and criminals are just businessmen out to make a buck in a difficult world. Selfishness both holds them back and propels them forward, abliet by the smallest of increments, when interests overlap. It's civilization through baby steps. A million mile walk on your knees, sans knee pads.

Even the motivations of the protagonist, ornery cop Jimmy NcNulty (the fabulous Dominic West) are laid bare as being utterly selfish. He fights crime to gratify his ego. Prove he's better, smarter, than the crooks. It's a profoundly libertarian view. You'd think the show was written by Milton Friedman. In The Wire, government provides solutions only when wrapped in massive amounts of waste and incompetence. The best person to look out for you is... you. 

Creator David Simon has described it as an angry show: "The Wire is making an argument about what institutions -- bureaucracies, criminal enterprises, the cultures of addiction, raw capitalism even -- do to individuals."  It's not a show that puts corporations or big government in a positive light. Still, and this is key, Simon leaves the door open for hope. Institutions are not entirely irredeemable. The problem is more one of inefficiency, cross purposes, and ineptness than outright malevolence.

It's nowhere near as angry or dark as Boardwalk Empire.

Empire, another HBO original, goes farther, painting a mercilessly negative picture of American society and culture, a nihilistic canvas of corruption and murder. Steve Buscemi plays Enoch "Nucky" Thompson, the corrupt treasurer of Atlantic County, based on real life political boss and racketeer Enoch L. Johnson. Affable ol' Nucky and his scheming political peers are either on the take or outright criminals. Elections are rigged. Political offices for sale. Prohibition is exposed as a tragic, well meant joke that facilitates the construction of crime empires, many of which are still with us today. Hello, Joe Kennedy and Samuel Bronfman. 

The police are even worse than the politicians. Better known as Murder Inc., they kill citizens on the whim of their political masters and actively protect organized crime. They're thugs with guns, irredeemable and amoral, without exception. It's so negative it feels like caricature.

The FBI is represented by a bat shit insane Christian fundamentalist, Nelson Van Alden (played with disturbing effectiveness by Michael Shannon), and his partner, a treacherous Jew, Eric Sebso (Erik Weiner), who kills his own prisoner for cash. I kid you not. Eventually Alden turns on Sebso as only a madman can. Then he shacks up with a prostitute and fathers her baby. You can hear the screenwriter's cackling. Alden makes Fox Mulder look like a choir boy.

The existence of the cesspit known as Atlantic City is credited to a ruthless thug known as The Commodore (Dabny Coleman), who's even worse than Nucky. Realpolitick is his only way. Life's a ruthless, bare knuckled struggle to the finish. That's how things work in Boardwalk Empire. Not exactly what they teach in public school today, is it? Not every criminal gets a prize for participation.

And what makes Nucky better? Where is virtue here? You guessed it: love of family. That's the redeeming virtue. Everything begins and ends with kin. Nucky takes care of his own, to be sure, which is why he's seen as admirable by the show's erstwhile moral centre, Margaret Schroeder (the fantastic Kelly Macdonald). Initially a Prohibitionist, she throws her ideals to the wind like soiled diapers before the first season ends.

And if you aren't one of Nucky's chosen, watch out. He'll do what's necessary. Get in his way? Bang! He accepts his flawed, selfish nature and acts upon it without reservation. The greater political system is just a cash cow to be milked and manipulated. He'd make a great dictator.

Obviously a globalized world cannot function effectively with such limited circles of trust. Rather than good acts flowing out from the stable family unit, good is sucked in and ravenously devoured. The mere existence of a relatively prosperous American middle class (admittedly now buried in debt) suggests that this series tilts too negative. Faith in the political system has not yet been entirely annihilated.

The best thing that can be said for Nucky is that he's willing to engage in positive sum exchanges with neighbouring crime cartels. Trade rather than war. Great stuff. Good thinking for the long term. Prosperity will no doubt ensue. Unfortunately, being television, instead of stronger, mutually beneficial bonds, these arrangements weaken and collapse into gruesome bloodshed.

Nucky's flawed, magnificently so. The show's real trick is to make him sympathetic, and that it achieves handedly. Like Tony Soprano, he's the alpha male who won't live by society's rules. Ethical concerns? Ethical what? Please. So long as you protect your immediate family, you can ice anyone you want. Only Game of Thrones has more gruesome murders. And that's set in a fictional fantasy land mired in medieval thinking and open warfare.

Now, Boardwalk takes pains to show Nucky's enemies as nastier than he is, making extrajudicial execution just. The baddies are abusive. Poor family men. Mean to kids. Kick puppies. It's a lazy but standard screenwriter trope, a means to justify otherwise reprehensible behaviour and make unsavory characters sympathetic, if not outright heroic. Plenty of nasty people justify their actions this way. It's called propaganda. Read a history book.

So the show coalesces around Nucky and Margaret Schroeder, whose (natch) abusive husband Nucky (nobly) had murdered and dumped in the Atlantic Ocean.

The message?

'The system', such as it is, does not work. It's hopelessly corrupt. Due process? Forget it, darlin'. The law? A fool. To paraphrase Mao, justice flows from the barrel of a gun. Kill or be killed; so get a gun and fortify your house. Murder your enemies. Might makes right. True, law ultimately depends on force, but most democracies have built in safeguards and protections for citizens. It's been relatively tamed. Boardwalk Empire scorns niceties such as due process as contemptible and impractical foolishness.

And I thought George Lucas hated democracy. Too messy and inefficient. The creators of Boardwalk also yearn for a benevolent dictator, an enlightened philosopher-king like Marcus Aurelius. One who holds a baby in one hand (Nucky takes the vulnerable under his wing, justifying his murderous rampages) and a shotgun in the other. The problem, of course, is that Marcus was followed by the mad Commodus; you cannot guarantee virtue in the heir. Autocratic efficiencies ultimately yield atrocities.

The cops of Boardwalk aren't there to enforce law and order but to protect the dominant criminals who have seized legitimacy by winning political office in rigged elections. Killing whenever required, they have no moral authority. That rests, instead, with the crime kingpin. It'd be a morally inverted world if moral orientation here didn't spin with relativism.

Without a husband to support her and living in an age of systematic gender based discrimination, freshly minted widow Schroeder turns to Nucky for protection out of sheer necessity, a hapless waif in a cruel, hopeless world. She must be protected and sheltered by men with guns, who kill to provide. The state is for chumps and suckers, an institution only present to fleece the people and line the pockets of the rich.

It's a great representation of the thinking and self-justification of the criminal class. If the system is completely horrid and there is no justice, then what they do is perfectly moral.

Boardwalk's misanthropic bottom line? Nothing exists above tribalism, except corruption. It's utterly and entirely at odds with traditional liberal points of view. Social Darwinism at its ugliest, life on Boardwalk is 'solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short'. Interesting that Matt Damon, a liberal, should be behind it.

It's our society in a fun house mirror: most do not, in fact, live in a medieval hell. The populations of Western democracies are healthier, better fed, more peaceable, better educated and all around better off than ever before.

True, farthest fringes of society are still living in a world of hurt, of brutality and violence and lost hope, but today that's the exception rather than the rule.

In the medieval world, it was the other way around.

Both programs are excellent entertainment value, but have very different messages. The Wire looks down on brutality, murder and tribalism, while Boardwalk Empire celebrates them.

As the French writer Henry de Montherlant said, 'Happiness writes white on a page.'

We're the opposite of moths, endlessly fascinated and enthralled by the dark.

Review: The Avengers (2012)

Cinematic equivalent of bubblegum, The Avengers is tasty fun, but loses flavour quickly. Joss Whedon's signature snappy dialogue and ensemble juggling skills keep the film from going off the rails. Special effects are top notch, outshone only by the megawatt wit and blazing white hot ego of Robert Downey Jr, playing the even more egotistical Iron Man. He's Main Humour Dude, the funny guy, and is only outdone once, when the taciturn Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) confronts Loki (Tom Hiddleston). 

The plot is hardly relevant. It's the usual planet-in-peril stuff. Loki betrays earth to aliens who can only be stopped by the combined forces of Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Black Widow (seriously?), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), yada yada yada, explosions! 

The end. 

You want to go for kinetic spectacle and the interaction between larger-than-life actors having a ball. Ruffalo and Downey stand out here, blurting bon mots.

Writer/director Whedon does his best to give each lead their own action set piece and emo break. Said action sequences are suitably impressive and slathered in money burning CGI, but all the punching gets tiresome after awhile, and just gives you time to think about the plot holes, of which there are a few. Not a surprise given how complex and outlandish the film is, bringing together five different superhero franchises. On paper it sounds unworkable. It's amazing the film is as good as it is and a testament to Whedon's skillz.

The studs look macho and Scarlett Johansson's foxy Black Widow adds some estrogen to the ensemble.

Goes great with pop and popcorn. Don't skimp.

Monday, 27 August 2012

Fan Expo Toronto 2012: Part I

Another great, jam packed show. Sat beside the amazing artist Dave Ross (Spiderman, Star Wars, Necromantic) who can whip up the most complex, anatomically accurate figures on the spot.

And on the right side, a creative powerhouse: storytellers extraordinaire Raff Ienco (Epic Kill), Jim Zubkavich (Skullkickers, Pathfinders), and Adam Warren (Empowered).

Absurdly talented gentlemen, all. An honour to be seated with them.

They even let me finish my sentences. Madness!

Monday, 20 August 2012

Toronto Outdoor Art Show Part III

There were a number of painters of beautiful but somber landscapes. A number of them caught my eye. Jeremy Browne in particular.

Simple Days by Jeremy Browne

His foregrounds are Western in style, but he adds these gorgeous hints of mountains in the background that look straight out of Japanese prints. Wispy, barely there delicacies. Check out his work!

Peter Rotter is another regular at the TOAS. His extreme yet achingly calm compositions delight the eye.

Peter Rotter - Stony Lake Island

Lorne Winters loves hay as much as Monet did; he has a series of paintings from the Ontario countryside depicting hay rolls. Fabulous, atmospheric stuff. He's also painted a number of ballerina pieces in homage to Degas.

Untitled by Lorne Winters