Sunday, December 23, 2012

Christmas @Marvel TV episodes

Today, the kids and I watched a few of Christmas-themed episodes from past Marvel television series -- all of them currently stream-able on Netflix.

First up, we watched the 1990s X-Men animated series, and my all-time favorite episode, season three's "Nightcrawler".

It's not Christmas-themed, per se, but it does happen in winter during a failed ski trip vacation, and introduces team mainstay Nightcrawler to the series.

In the comic books, Nightcrawler was a deeply religious, deeply forgiving, convicted person, and this episode showcases that in an authentic way. The episode is pretty multi-faceted, and positions Nightcrawler's faith against Wolverine's desperate agnosticism against the mob-mentality of good -- but uneducated and scared -- people.

This episode, plus season four's "Have Yourself a Morlock Little Christmas", both show a sampling of the complexity hidden in the stereotypical nineties action cartoon series. Quite honestly, I'm not sure episodes like these two would even be made in today's faux politically correct broadcast world.

This latter episode is a little more nuanced about what being a hero can mean, and the fear that comes from having previously failed as a rescuer -- over and over again.

And while the episode is totally accessible to those not steeped in the X-Men comic book (up to that point), those that are will be rewarded with some fan-service historical reference nods (which makes the struggle with heroic acts more understandable).

We rounded out today's TV episodes with an updated take on the X-Men franchise, with the too-short-lived X-Men: Evolution, and the episode, "On Angel's Wings".

Here, fans are introduced to this series's incarnation of Warren Worthington III, aka "Angel". This is a nice, sweet little episode that in 22 minutes pulls together humble hidden heroism, secret agendas (factional, teen romance, and media), doing the right thing even if the world might hate you for it, and also neatly encapsulates in just a few sequences the complexity and methods of Magneto, the in-series leader of the X-Men nemeses, the Brotherhood of (Evil) Mutants.

I know there are more Marvel Christmas-themed episodes out there, but can't think of all of them right now.

We'll probably end up watching Christmas-themed The Spectacular Spider-Man season two episode "Reinforcement", and "at-least-they're-snow-themed" episodes like Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends "Spidey Meets the Girl from Tomorrow" and "the world is freezing over" story arc episodes of Season Two of The Super Hero Squad Show.

If you have Marvel-themed Christmas suggestions, let me know in the comments.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Wreck-It Ralph

Wreck-It Ralph is Disney's highest-grossing (non-Pixar) animated opening in history -- and it deserves it.

Besides being a solid all-ages animated film, it is a great, great nod to all things video game history (and other than not laughing when other folks in the audience might be laughing, that's not a barrier to entry for the film).

I'm a big, big John C. Reilly fan (since meeting him during his Criminal project), and I love to see him consistently moving up in the entertainment world -- The guy is genuinely talented, and is working his tail off in the Biz.

Wreck-It Ralph is fun, visually impressive, and has neat messaging about being yourself, using your gifts, and "the core of being" is more about who you are, and less about what you do -- But what you do (and your attitude while doing it) says a lot about that.

My minor quibbles with the film include a lot of time spent in one single environment -- which is totally organic to the film, but the "I make this stuff and it kind of breaks the fourth wall" side of me wonders if this was done to constrain costs.

The other thing to be aware of is while this is a good family film, near the end, one bad guy gets very (and very unexpectedly) dark and a bit scary, so if you have younger, more impressionable kids, it's good to know that going in (kind of like taking kids of the same age into Cars 2 is not as "safe" as the original Cars).

And, yes, this has some neat moments of heroism and sacrifice that are the telltale elements of what makes a film resonate longer with me that bubblegum fare.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Secret of the Wings

My girls and I are fans of the Tinker Bell franchise.

For me, beyond just the IP level, I have a more than passing curiosity for how Disney is using franchises like this to answer a few specific questions:

  1. What is Disney doing to articulate "important" messages to young audiences?
  2. How does Disney change the expression of the franchise in different ways with each film, but stay true to the franchise?
  3. Where does Disney place its focus  -- "Quality"? "Commercial return"?
The eponymous first film was a solid, fun origin story for a lot of folks' favorite pixie. Good animation, diverse characterization, and strong technical execution.

The second film, Tinker Bell and the Lost Treasure, is a far stronger film, and arguably the strongest in the franchise. Technically more complex and visually impressive, it expanded the franchise with fleshed-out male characters and animal companions, and very solid, explicit positive messaging about the lie of independence, our need for help from the community around us, and asking forgiveness for treating friends badly. Good stuff for growing girls.

The third film, Tinker Bell and the Great Fairy Rescue, took a dramatic step backwards, with violation of the IP (people outside of the Peter Pan crew having knowledge of the Fairy world), sub-par fiction elements,  noticeable decline in visual and technical quality, and superficial content. Perhaps not coincidentally, it seems to have the largest outsourcing effort of the assets and animation of the first three films.

(Editorial: "Quality" and "Commercial Return" aren't exclusive -- I have a bias that says if you make a quality offering, you'll make more money --but a lot of good, large companies try to reduce cost to the point of impacting quality, and then the commercial return is less.)

Fortunately, Secret of the Wings is an improved fourth entry for the franchise. Overall, stronger visually and technically (with two noticeable aberrations in the form of a bobcat and breaking tree boughs), and positive  messaging that can be taken to be the importance of siblings, and a race relations (seriously).

There's also a decent bit of heroism (something in particular that resonates with me in media). I'm also a fan of films showing "sacrifice with cost", and Disney dances on the edge of that in the climax of the film -- though I feel they missed a big opportunity when they mulligan it (but maybe that would have been too Dark Knight for them).

Overall, a solid family film, engaging and enjoyable, with high art attributes and less "parental disrespect" moments than similar offerings. Totally recommended.

Saturday, October 13, 2012


I'm a fan of Judge Dredd as a character and a franchise, so I'm pretty happy the new Pete Travis Dredd movie does a spot-on job of translating the UK long-run, homegrown comic book success to the big screen (something the 1995 Stallone vehicle wasn't able to to do).

For me, the comic (running in some form or another since 1977) is a fascinating take on police states, one man as judge/jury/executioner, and vigilantism (the latter two, I'd argue, being different things).

Gritty and uneven, the Dredd comics for me shared a common ancestry with the thematically and artistically "messy" work of people like James O'Barre (the man behind The Crow, later turned into it's own successful (first) film with the late Brandon Lee).

Dredd is an odd character. Not as in offbeat or cartoonish, but in compelling, high-caricature fashion. In some ways, he's a broken-mirror parallel to Marvel's Captain America -- Not "Bizarro Cap", but a man living in and empowered by a system, code, and framework for operating into which he's deeply, deeply bought, and it informs everything he does.

He's not like Marvel's Punisher, who in his best portrayals is a tortured soul dealing with the devastating loss of his wife and children -- and in his worst, he's a screw-lose psychopath with a penchant for arbitrary bloodletting. To be fair, there are some portrayals of the Frank Castle character -- like those by writer Matt Fraction -- that bring the character closer to Dredd's consistently monochromatic umbrella of "assess guilt and mete appropriate judgement".

(And by "monochromatic", I don't mean pejoratively. Think along the lines of a dog (who can allegedly see only in black and white), with the faculties of a human being, the rolled-up hyper training of S.W.A.T. soldier / beat cop / F.B.I. agent, the need to instantly sift through and separate black, white, and myriad shades of gray, and act on those differences.

The film is set almost entirely within a single mega-city -- a monstrous evolution of today's high-rise living buildings that can house seventy thousand people, multiple communities, crime syndicates, and environments. The challenge of successfully pulling off the movie equivalent of a video game "corridor shooter" is impressive.

But what strikes me as most impressive about Dredd are two things:

  1. Karl Urban is Judge Dredd
  2. The brilliant gimmicks that enable movie tropes

Let's face it -- Karl Urban's got chops. To try to dismiss his portrayal of an "emotionless character" as "easy" would be to both miss his range of play (just look at 2009's Star Trek), and the nuanced character of Dredd himself.

To be honest, that's what made the movie fun for me. Urban brilliantly portrays this tough, stoic character -- who never takes off his mask --and shows weight, diversity, humor, and even worldview growth through the course of the movie. And he does it only from the nose down.

(In the comics, Dredd's face was never shown -- the one time he did remove his helmet on-panel, a large "Censored" bar was placed in front of it.)

Secondly, from a guy from "The Biz" side of movie making and acting, I love the conceits that allow for movie tropes to play out, "organic-in-the-context-of-the-movie".

I don't want to give anything away, so all I'll say is the Slo-Mo drug as an excuse to do cinematic things like camera and composited slow-motion sequences, hero poses, and special FX, is just brilliant. Astoundingly so.

What I didn't see (and can't comment on) is the 3D aspect of the film -- I prefer the higher-resolution of 2D prints.

That said, this is a film I may see again for the 3D, which warrants some defense.

Like a lot of folks, if I see one more 3D filmic ax thrown at my head, I may run out the theater screaming obscenities.

But this film (besides the pretty VFX) might get 3D right.

My beef with 3D in movies and video games (aside from the gratuitous and arbitrary nature of its use), is the "outside-of-the-plane" implementation that causes such rigid viewing position, occasional headaches for sensitive people, and even sometimes eye-stabbing pain (thank you, Uncharted 3 multiplayer UI).

Well-done games (some on the Nintendo 3DS, for example), do 3D behind the plane -- "shadowbox" style. Dredd 3D (I hope) makes use of the perfect opportunity of the amped-up version of a skyscraper spiral staircase to leverage this particular implementation of 3D to interesting effect.

As far as franchise fans go, the film will treat you to the violence of the comic (though the gore side of that violence was surprisingly high for my expectations, and isn't necessarily required for violent films). You'll also get nuanced bits from the comic book series, like "dirty judges", the gang wars, and some nods to the then-futuristic tech depicted in the serials.

Which is the final thing I like about Dredd -- it's true to the source material. I expect (and want) IP to be different to adapt across different consumer mediums,but for broadest success, it should be true to the source. The Guardian's Phelim O'Neill maybe said it best when he commented on the film, in the context of complaining about other adaptations changed too much when moved to film: "In a world of compromised adaptations, Dredd is something of a triumph."

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

The Avengers

I'm not going to say a ton about Marvel's The Avengers movie -- because I hate spoilers and don't want to be That Guy.

I will say, as a lifetime comic book fan and film guy, I'm very happy with the film.

Joss Whedon and Zak Penn do a great with story and dialog (and the cast with delivery and physicality), and there were some unexpected, laugh-out-loud moments (in a good way).

I also like the parkour stunts for Captain America (I think Levi Meeuwenberg was his double) -- this worked far better for me than the CGI that (for me) takes away from things like the Spider-Man films.

Mark Ruffalo is a surprisingly good Bruce Banner / /Hulk, Tom Hiddleston is an increasingly good Loki (with one particularly good / creepy vitriolic diatribe), and Scarlett Johansson surprised me by holding her own in the film.

And (again avoiding spoilers), the after-credits scene surprised and shocked me, and put my hairs on end -- non fan boys might not get the import, but for me, it teases toward one of the defining story arcs in the Avengers universe.

Well worth a watch. Maybe a re-watch. Or several.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Batman: Year One

I finally got around to watching the Blu-ray of Batman: Year One - and it's pretty solid. Critical and user reviews are all over the map, probably due to fanboy attachment, previous voice actor fixations, and nostalgic reminiscences of the original comic book arc.

If you're not familiar with Frank Miller's seminal retelling of Batman's and James Gordon's origin, it's a gritty, character-driven story about motivations.

The film adaptation is pretty appropriately brutal, pushing the boundaries of its PG-13 animated rating. My big problem with Batman's origin is - if told badly - it's easy to dismiss the critical, devastating death of Bruce Wayne's. This adaptation walks the line pretty well.

Though that's maybe where the film drops a bit -- the original arc was arguably not kid-safe, and trying to make the motion adaptation fit into a safer rating gimps it.

But almost better than the movie are the special features, which are pretty robust for this direct-to-disc release.

  • Catwoman -- A sexy (definitely PG-13), slick anime-esque original short pits Eliza Dushku-voiced Selena Kyle against a very, very bad man (voiced by John Di Maggio).
  • "Heart of Vengeance" -- A solid (if a bit fawning) look at Frank Miller's comic book work and impact on comics; more than just a "known name", I'd say Miller creatively re-invigorated comics at a critical point in the speculative market that arguably nearly killed the industry.
  • Voice acting -- There's a commentary-heavy voice acting feature with producer Alan Burnett, writer/editor Mike Carlin, and Andrea Romano (voice casting director); good for Biz folks.
  • Two previous Catwoman cartoons -- Oddly, there's a Catwoman-themed episode each from Batman: The Animated Series and The New Batman Adventures. They're OK, but not stellar. 
  • Justice League: Doom -- This teaser shows off the upcoming modernization of the Justice League versus Legion of Doom, popularized in the Super Friends Saturday morning cartoon from the late seventies.
But my favorite extra is the roundtable let by Batman producer Michael Uslan, with Dan Didio, Denny O'Neil and Scott Snyder. Insights from O'Neil by himself made this worth the price of admission for me, but (though it might just be great editing) my favorite part of the interview is seeing young gun Scott Snyder share what resonates with him about the Batman mythos, and watching Didio and O'Neil apparently visibly moved by the impact of the franchise on a new generation of writers.

Overall, a good Blu-ray for content and extras, especially for those of us who are Batman fans and are OK with different expressions of some of our favorite stories.