We're all in a state of despair over the lack of any real content coming out of Hollywood these days: The major studios took a hit after the first Artifex union strike in 2012. Artifex... the first time a group of digital artists and programmers formed a stable union and brought the major studios to their knees. It was simple, it was coordinated, and it was international. Even trying to ship work to Taiwan, to Mumbai, to Africa failed utterly. The studio had to bargain with the Artifex to get anything made that involved effects.
We were reminded of this again three months ago when contract negotiations came to a head and the union left the bargaining table. During that three months, we saw a burst of creativity on the internet which was reminiscent of the period during the writer's strike of 2008. Is it possible that downtime while the titans battle is good for the creativity of the world? Let's remember that, without that writer's strike, there would be no Dr. Horrible, and without the Artifex strike of 2012 there would be no Xomsky.
If I'm waxing poetic it is only because I have seen what the studios are releasing this month. I have looked into the abyss and have seen only despair. Remake after remake, and even the comics cannot save us from the terminal boredom that is the studio machine. But... you ask for reviews, so I give you reviews. Here, in brief paragraphs designed specifically to enable you to get the gist of the movie without needing to gouge your eyes out with a spoon, are two of the movies you have to look forward to from the major studios. Stick with me, O reader: there are good things to follow if you can traverse these Dead Marshes.
Forrest Gump: Yes. A remake of Forrest Gump starring German wunderkind Gunther Hasselhoff. This one was almost intriguing. Almost. Gunther first came to the attention of the studios during his university days in Berlin when he was just Gunther Dopplebeck. His first agent made the shrewd if slightly heady-handed observation that taking the name of one of the country's pop icons would open some doors, and he was right. This is Gunther's first international flim; and while I respect the courage it takes to step into a role that Tom Hanks made famous, in this case, discretion might be the better part of valor. The problem with Forrest Gump is that the story is no longer like a box of chocolates: you do, in fact, know what you're going to get, and the result is an impatient slow drive through a neighborhood you know too well. Things which worked in the original no longer hold up: the time for this story is long past. Hasselhoff might be able to recover from this, but I'd recommend the movie to a movie with less brain... say the next Uwe Boll video game movie atrocity.
Plastic Man - The Adventure of Eel O'Brian: In the words of one of my old co-workers, this is why we cannot have nice things. The idea of putting Pixar's genius behind a terrible script with all the plot of dry white toast is just unbelievable. Let's face it: Disney acquiring Marvel was a tough blow, but we did get some decent movies out if it. They choice to acquire D.C. as well two years ago was, in many way, the death knell for major publisher comics. They tried, oh they tried, but there is some sort of curse of D.C. in that they cannot get a good movie made to save their skins. A 3D tale of a man that can take any shape is pandering to children who are already too worldly for their ages: they have no desire to see such a film. If the kids don't want it, do you think the adults will care? Hardly. This movie is bad, bad, bad: stupid visual gag, atrocious dialogue, and the plot is... well... nonexistent. Giving this sort of crap to children who have spent the last several years digesting fare like Harry Potter and The Arachnae Cycle is patronizing, and it deserves to go down in flames. To the staff of Pixar: shame on you. You should know better.
Now they you have follow me through those perilous waters, let me give you hope. Yes, O reader, I tear you down only to build you back up better, stronger, faster. There are good things out there: J.J. Abrams is back with the next Star Trek installment: it does not disappoint. Beyond that, there is a new Canadian studio doing some amazing things with a superhero classic from the late 1980s: read on, that you may learn more friends.
Star Trek 3: Despite my malaise with major studio releases, this one has some possibility. We see the return of Khan Noonian Singh, found in deep sleep on the Botany bay. J.J. Abrams and writing team of Orci and Kurtzman have made the right choice here, by restaging and updating the story from the classic original series episode, "Space Seed." The clever bit is this: They make Khan everything she should have been: smarter, faster, and more of a challenge to the crew. The result is that he is a one man match for the entire crew of the Enterprise: Kirk's raw nerve and charisma, Spock's genius, McCoy's understanding of human nature, Scotty's technical expertise. the result is a strong film which, while not quite the revelation that the first re-envisioning was, still is a worthy successor.
Now to the property I've most enjoyed of late. Let's look at Wild Cards: The Movie. What's this, you ask? Out in Vancouver, a group of fans of the 1990's George R. R. Martin decided to take their skills, build some funding, and then put together a movie based on the first book. The result is some top-notch talent, some unknowns, and some inspired moviemaking by a small studio that you've never heard of before.
Never heard of before. Isn't that nice? When a few major conglomerates own everything we watch, read, or listen to, it's nice to find courageous creative types willing to buck the trend.
Ever since the mad success of GRRM's Game of Thrones books and television series, the entertainment industry has been reviewing its other properties, going over his back catalog as it were. His work has become as influential as that of Philip K. Dick, whose work has been transformed into some of the most important and profitable movies of all time.
The Wild Cards series was a set of books based around an event that happened in 1946 in New York City. An alien, know by the nom de guerre of Dr. Tachyon, is chasing another ship from his world, a ship that carries a deadly virus. The virus cannister is lost during a spaceship crash, picked up by a villain of the most predictable sort... the kind that you find in fiction of the period, who aims to blackmail the city for cash or else he'll open the container. There is a fight of the heroic kind, when a hero of World War II know by the nickname "Jetboy" attempt to stop the villain. He fails, and the virus is released.
The virus changes humans. It is call the Wild Card virus by the press. Some people exposed die, called "drawing the Black Queen." Some get amazing powers, and they become known as Aces. Some are transformed, given horrific biological deformities or changed into odd creatures. These become known as Jokers.
Taking on the Wild Cards series is, in many ways, a stroke of genius... if you do it well. The series has a number of vibrant characters, a robust history, and the sort of tweak to the timeline that alternative history buffs love. One change starts a domino effect with time and circumstance, and suddenly the era of Red Scare takes on another dimension when superheroes get accused. The 1960's shift slightly when pop stars have transformative powers and can hypnotise and intoxicate an audience better than the drugs of the day. And civil rights marches become radically changed when the marchers are not simply racial minorities, but are the twisted, the deformed, and the unfortunate Jokers.
The end result is a story that has the same sort of charm and depth as Alan Moore's Watchmen - heroes that are not the usual suspects, character that are driven by real human emotions and desires, not the stereotypical one that get stale in the comics. There is a freshness to the series, even though it is nearly thirty years old.
Enough about the books. Let's talk about the movie.
The challenge of taking a shared universe on paper and turning it into a movie is pulling a single continuity from a set of disparate stories. Each set of characters is compelling, the book itself is a collection of short plots which, for the most part, do not overlap. To do this, the screenwriting team of Alec Spenser and Elliot Grant decided to use the persona of an invented character, journalist Travis Biroko. Biroko is walking the streets of Jokertown, the slum where the deformed are allowed to live in New York, collecting stories for a history book about the Wild Card era. Thus, we get to watch the stories he researches in flashback. At first, I was concerned at the use of this timeworn device, but the writers use a light touch, and the fact that Biroko is played by Will Smith, who does an excellent job of being understated (which let's face it, is a first). We learn about the Aces and Jokers through the eyes of Biroko, and the rich history of the world unfolds.
We begin with the story of Jetboy, played by Shia LaBeouf. This worried me, because I have yet to see LaBeouf play anything other than, well, LaBeouf in a movie. His role as a Rocketeer-like World War II flying ace is a challenging one - Jetboy is unsure what to do with himself after the war, he is selling off his plane, writing a book, all the sorts of things washed-up heroes do, cashing in on past glories. The poignant part of this is that Jetboy himself is only nineteen years old - he's washed up when he should be preparing for bigger things. Then comes the call: a madman is flying over New York City with a bomb of come kind. Jetboy moves into action, and LaBeouf is mostly successful in pulling of the transformation from has-been to a man grasping for the only thing he knows: heroism. In a stroke of genius on the part of GRRM's original story, Jetboy fails and the virus is released, kicking off the Wild Card era.
From there we move into story after story of Aces and Jokers; the tale of the Four Aces, a set of Cold War era heroes that get caught up in the Red Scare and are disgraced. We follow Biroko as he interviews eyewitnesses to the years that pass, the heroes that develop, the riots in Jokertown, the heroes that make themselves known. It is a movie filled with cameos; and it is held together by Smith's masterful acting. You never feel that the story is spinning out of control. The result is a movie which feels grand and sweeping; covering ground that, while somewhat familiar due to the presence of costumed heroes, is also harsh and both human and alien at the same time. There is a grittiness to it that reminded me of the best parts of Battlestar Galactica and an epic transitional storyline that harks back to Alan Moore/Zack Snyder's work in Watchmen.
Rather than supplant the books, this movie is more of a compliment to them. You never quite feel that you are getting the whole story: it's almost as if the writers are saying, "If you like this, man, you should read the books." Perhaps there is a bigger play here: after all, the books have been re-issued. I do recommend picking up the first in the series either before or after you see the film. It's well worth the money.
For my part, I can be found in the usual places: email and Qlatch. Drop by, say hi, feel free to tell me I'm full of shit: I'm a strong man, I can take it. Until then, know when to hold, know when to fold 'em friends. I'll see you next month.