Thursday, September 29, 2016

I went to my local Target last night and noticed they're now selling Election Day Greeting Cards. Wha…? What the hell are you supposed to do with those

I've always thought the St. Patrick's Day, Halloween and Thanksgiving Day cards were a stretch, but Election Day? Sheesh! What a waste of recycled paper! It's not like it's a cherished holiday, or an occasion to spend time with family and friends. It's a day when you get to take a couple hours off from work and pretend to go vote for one of two candidates you can't stand.

And what the hell do they even say? "Just wanted to let you know I'm thinking of you on this beloved and most holy of Election Days. And if you vote for the other guy you're dead to me."

The only reason I can come up with for the existence of Election Day cards is monetary. Hallmark probably noticed a sharp drop in sales in early November, and rushed these cards into stores, hoping to trick a few gullible consumers into thinking it's an occasion for sending out a card.

It Came From The Cineplex: The Magnificent Seven (2016)

The Magnificent Seven (2016) was written by Nic Pizzolatto and Richard Wenk, and directed by Antoine Fuqua.

Pizillatto previously wrote several episodes of the TV series The Killing and True Detective. This apears to be his first theatrical work. Wenk wrote 16 Blocks, The Mechanic, The Expendables 2 and The Equalizer.

Fuqua previously directed The Replacement Killers, Training Day, King Arthur (!), Shooter, Brooklyn's Finest, Olympus Has Fallen, The Equalizer and Southpaw. Apparently Fuqua loves working with both Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke, as The Magnificent Seven is their third collaboration. Washington starred in Training Day and The Equalizer, while Hawke was also in Training Day, as well as Brooklyn's Finest.


The Magnificent Seven is of course a remake of the 1960 film of the same name, which in turn was a remake of the 1954 Japanese epic Seven Samurai. It's a moderately entertaining film, but follows the plot of the previous film very closely and honestly brings nothing new to the table. In fact if you've seen either of the prior versions, you already know everything that happens here— right down to which of the main characters die at the end!

The "Inexperienced Townspeople Hire Fighters To Save Them From Bad Men" storyline is a very popular one in westerns and action films, and has been used in many times over the years. The same plot (or a variation of it) is used in The Professionals, Vera Cruz, The Hallelujah Trail, The Wild Bunch, Nevada Smith, Red Sun, The Great Escape and The Dirty Dozen

And it's not just westerns that use this plot. Roger Corman's low-budget sci-fi epic Battle Beyond The Stars is basically The Magnificent Seven in outer space. Even comedies like Three Amigos! and A Bug's Life are pretty much remakes of the 1960 film.

Thankfully, director Antoine Fuqua used suitable actors of color for all the ethnic characters in the film. Hallelujah! It's the right thing to do, of course, but as an added bonus, now we won't have to endure another controversy like the one that brewed over the casting in Gods Of Egypt.


Speaking of casting, I spent the whole goddamned movie thinking I was watching actress Jennifer Lawrence as Emma Cullen, the female lead. Imagine my surprise when I saw the end credits and found out it wasn't her at all, but Haley Bennet, whoever the hell that is.

Just look at her! You cannot tell me that isn't Jennifer Freakin' Hunger Games Lawrence right there! She looks just like her! If this really and truly isn't J-Law, then she's got a twin no one ever knew about before.

I suspect this is another one of those Hollywood conspiracies, just like the one in which Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Summer Glau are the same damned person.

SPOILERS FOR A REMAKE OF A FIFTY SIX YEAR OLD REMAKE OF A SIXTY TWO YEAR OLD MOVIE!


The Plot:
Have you ever seen Seven Samurai? Or The original Magnificent Seven? Eh, this is pretty much the same thing.

In 1879, evil businessman Bartholomew Bogue (played by Peter Sarsgaard) invades the peaceful little tow of Rose Creek. He informs the locals he's buying out their town to turn it into a mine or something, and considerately gives them three weeks to get the hell out. Then, just to make sure we get that he's evil, he shoots and kills Matthew Cullen, the only man in town who tries to stand up to him.

The terrified townspeople stand around wringing their hands, wondering what to do. They want to fight back against Bogue, but they're simple farmers, not soldiers. Matthew's widow Emma Cullen (played by Jennifer Lawrence Haley Bennett) gets the bright idea to hire a team of gunslingers to protect the town.

Emma and her friend Teddy Q ride to the nearest city to recruit protectors. There they witness cool, unflappable bounty hunter Sam Chisolm (played by Denzel Washington) as he enters a saloon. Chisolm's obviously supposed to be the Chris Adams character here, who was famously played by Yul Brenner in the 1960 film. Chisolm kills a criminal who's posing as a bartender. Emma approaches him and offers him everything she has to protect Rose Creek. He's reluctant to get involved at first, but agrees to help when he learns Bogue's behind it all. I guess he really hates Bogue or something?

Chisolm first recruits boozy gambler Josh Faraday (played by Chris Pratt). He's clearly the Vin Tanner character here, who was played by Steve McQueen in the previous version of the film. Chisolm and Faraday then split up to recruit more gunslingers. Chisolm hires his friend Goodnight Robicheaux (played by Ethan Hawke), a sharpshooter who's constantly accompanied by his associate Billy Rocks (played by Byung-hun Lee), a knife-tossing assassin. Faraday recruits Mexican outlaw Vasquez (played by Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), who apparently can't afford a first name. The two groups meet up, and are eventually joined by wheezy mountain man Jack Horner (played by Vincent D'Onofiro) and Commanche warrior Red Harvest (played by Martin Sensmeier). Let's see... five, six, seven... yup, that makes seven protectors. And they're magnificent!

The group rides to Rose Creek, where they're met by some of Bogue's thugs (I guess he left them behind to guard the town?). A shootout ensues, and the gunslingers kill most of the thugs. During the shootout, Robicheaux can't bring himself to fire on the enemy, and we learn he fought in the Civil War and now suffers from PTSD. 
The gunslingers chase off the corrupt Sheriff (who's in Bogue's pocket) and tell him to deliver a message to his boss: Leave Rose Creek alone, or else.

Chisolm says they'll have about a week before Bogue returns with an army of goons, and the town will need to be ready for him. They train the townspeople how to shoot, plan strategies and set various deadly traps. At the end of the week, Robicheaux decides he can't kill anymore and leaves town. Emma, who's proven herself a capable marksman, er markswoman, fills in for him.

The next day Bogue arrives with his army. He attacks the town, but the Rose Creekians spring their deadly traps, killing many of the thugs. 
To absolutely no one's surprise, Robicheaux returns at just the right moment to turn the tide. I guess he miraculously got over his PTSD during the night. The gunslingers pick off dozens more of Bogue's men. Vasquez kills McCann, while Horner's killed by Denali, Bogue's Comanche assassin. Red Harvest labels Denali a traitor to his people, and kills him. 

Just when it looks like the townspeople are winning, Bogue reveals his secret weapon— a Gatling gun. He unleashes it on the town, killing dozens of innocents. Chisolm tells the surviving townspeople to leave before they're all murdered.

Robicheaux and Rocks climb the church tower and begin picking off Bogue's men from above, but are ultimately cut down. Faraday then goes on a suicide mission to take out the Gatling gun. He's shot several times, and falls to his knees just in front of the gun. He tries to light a last cigarette, but his hands are shaking too badly. One of Bogue's men lights it for him out of pity. Faraday then reveals he's holding a stick of dynamite, lights it with his cigarette, and blows up the Gatling gun and several more of Bogue's men. See, smoking is dangerous to your health!

Realizing his entire army's gone, Bogue tries to flee. He's confronted by Chisolm, who challenges him to a shootout in the middle of town. Bogue tries to draw, but Chisolm shoots the gun out of his hand (of course). Bogue runs into the church (that he burned earlier), confident that Chisolm won't cut him down in the Lord's house.

Chisolm follows him into the church. He reveals that his mother and sister were raped and murdered by Bogue and his men, and begins strangling him. 
Bogue pulls a small gun out of his boot, but he's shot in the head by Emma, who appears just in time.

With the town saved, Emma tells Chisolm that he and the other gunslingers are legends, and the town will never forget them. Chisolm, Vasquez and Red Harvest ride off into the sunset. Cue Elmer Bernstein's score!

Thoughts:
• There are a lot of cast connections in this film:


Denzel Washington and Jennifer Lawrence Haley Bennett both starred in The EqualizerEthan Hawke and Vincent D'Onofrio were both in Brooklyn's Finest. And Chris Pratt and Vincent D'Onofrio starred together in Jurassic World.

• Man, this new Magnificent Seven movie poster is one butt-ugly piece of design. Who the hell thought slate gray and muddy gold would make an eye-catching color combo? I guess it's in good company though, as the 1960 poster wasn't much better.

• Any time Chisolm places his gun in its holster, he does so with the grip facing away from him. Wha...? I freely admit I know nothing about guns or gunslinging, but this seems completely wrong to me. I don't see any tactical advantage to this method at all. When he draws, he's not only going to have to flip his gun over, but around, so it's facing his opponent. Wouldn't that eat up precious split seconds, and get him killed in a draw?

• As in most westerns, the main characters all know one another personally or by reputation. This despite the fact they live hundreds of miles apart, in a world in which the telegraph is the most advanced form of communication. It's a small world, I guess.

• The movie definitely needed more of Bartholomew Bogue, the main villain. He shows up for a couple of minutes in the opening scene, then disappears completely from the movie until the big battle in the third act. 

All through the film we're constantly TOLD he's a badass, psycho and force of nature all rolled into one, but when he finally shows up again at the end, he doesn't do anything particularly evil. In fact once his army of goons is wiped out, he turns out to be a sniveling coward.

I guess maybe that was the point? That he's only a threat when he's got an army to back him up? If so, that's an interesting take on the character, but it's not right for this film. The Magnificent Seven needs a villain who's a formidable force even without his army.

• During the obligatory "bonding" scene between the gunslingers, Faraday (Chris Pratt) tells a joke about a man who's thrown off a six story building. As he falls past a windows, a person looking out asks him how things are going. The falling man says, "So far so good!"

Steve McQueen's character told the exact same joke in the 1960 film.

The Magnificent Seven continues the time-honored tradition of bad guys who can be killed by one bullet, arrow or well-place axe, while the heroes can keep on fighting after being shot a dozen times. I'm honestly surprised that Faraday didn't get up and dust himself off after detonating the stick of dynamite he was holding. 

• In every version of the film, four of the seven protectors die during the final battle. The way they're remembered is quite different in the new film though.


In Seven Samurai, four of the protectors are brutally cut down. At the end of the film, one of the surviving samurai says, "The victory belongs to those peasants. Not to us."

In the 1960 Magnificent Seven, Chris Adams gazes at the graves of his fallen comrades and says virtually the same thing.

In this new version, we see the graves of the fallen gunslingers, and Emma Cullen says they're all heroes and will never be forgotten by the townspeople.

This completely changes the tone of the ending, and not necessarily for the better. In the previous versions, the protectors died for people they didn't even know, and the world at large would never know their sacrifice. In the new film, the gunslingers and their actions become legendary.

Chalk it up as a sign of our times. Few people today understand the concept of self sacrifice (for no personal gain).

 Even people who've never seen the 1960 The Magnificent Seven have heard Elmer Bernstein's iconic theme music. I was wondering if they'd shoehorn it into this new version, and sure enough, they did. They play a few bars of it during as the end credits begin to roll.

Composer James Horner wrote the bulk of the new film's score. Sadly, he died in a tragic plane crash in 2015 before he was done. Horner's friend Simon Franglen finished the score for him. 

Horner wrote many, many memorable film scores over the years, including Star Trek II: The Wrath Of Khan, Star Trek 3: The Search For Spock, Cocoon, ALIENS, Willow, The Rocketeer, Braveheart, Titanic and Avatar

Sadly, his score for The Magnificent Seven isn't going to top Bernstein's.

Although he was a brilliant and excellent film composer, he was often criticized for "stealing" bits and pieces from his earlier scores. Nowhere is that more evident than in The Magnificent Seven. As I watched the film I heard a couple of familiar riffs on the soundtrack, and I honestly knew it was a James Horner score before I even looked at the end credits.

He scored over a hundred films though, so I'm willing to cut him some slack here. What artist (including myself) hasn't reused an idea now and then?

The Magnificent Seven is a fairly enjoyable update of the 1960 version, but offers little or no surprises. If you've never seen any of the previous films, I guess it's worth a look. If you've seen the others, then you're safe skipping this one. I give it a B-.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Man Of Heel(s)

As you no doubt are aware, unless you've been frozen in the Arctic for the past seventy years, the upcoming second season of The CW's Supergirl series will finally feature the appearance of Superman.

The show was constantly teasing his appearance in Season 1, as Supergirl would get encouraging texts from her more famous cousin, or they'd give us a glimpse of his cape or a fleeting shot of his boots. I'm assuming they were playing coy and never actually had him fully appear for some sort of legal or copyright reason.


Welp, that's all changed in Season 2. In an effort to shore up Supergirl's less than super (see what I did there?) ratings, the Man Of Steel will be appearing in all his full-bodied glory.


Right now I'm hoping that Superman will appear sporadically on the show (such as in the opening episode and during Sweeps Weeks), because I don't think it'd be a good idea for him to become a series regular. There's a very real risk of the show shifting its focus exclusively onto him. Superman could very well become the Urkell of Supergirl, and shove her out of the limelight altogether.


Here's a shot of the two of them together. They make a good looking couple, I suppose. Actor Tyler Hoechlin makes an adequate Superman, I guess, as he looks reasonably heroic... wait a minute. Let's zoom in for a second.


Look at those boots that Hoechlin's wearing. Jesus Building-Leaping Christ! He's wearing lifts! His heels are literally bigger than Supergirl's! By a good four or five inches. Holy Compensation, Batman! I wonder what else he's padding under that suit?

I wonder if the producers noticed the two actors were the same height when they stood next to one another, so they jacked up his heels, pronto. Heck, I'm betting he may have even been shorter than her!

Hopefully he practices walking in those things before filming, so he doesn't wobble around and accidentally fall of his heels.

I know this is a horse I've beaten for far too long, but I don't care— this photo also perfectly demonstrates why Superman needs his red trunks to help break up the blue of his suit. Supergirl looks perfect with her little red skirt. Superman still looks like something's missing with his solid blue longjohns. I'll never get used to this look.

Also, as my pal KW Monster pointed out to me, why is Supergirl's "S" emblem (that stands for "hope" in Kryptonian) different from her cousin's? Why doesn't hers have a yellow— sorry, make that dirty mustard—  background? It makes her emblem look cheap and incomplete, and I honestly can't think of any reason to leave it off.

Old School Supergirl from the '80s had a red and yellow emblem  and she looked just fine. So why the change?

If I had to guess, I'd say they changed it for marketing and merchandising purposes. If the characters' emblems are interchangeable, Warner Bros. couldn't sell separate merchandise. They'd only be able to sell one S-shield t-shirt or pendant, and they'd halve their profits. Plus it might be confusing for the customer. "Is this a Superman shirt? I hope so, I don't want to wear a Supergirl shirt in front of my nerd guy friends!"

So I get it, but I don't like it.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Marvel's Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season 4, Episode 1: The Ghost

Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. is back, for its fourth, and most likely last season!

What's that? "But Bob," I hear you say. "Whatever do you mean? What could possibly make you think this'll be the show's final season?" 


Welp, because ABC, in its infinite wisdom, moved the series from 9pm to 10pm (8pm to 9pm to me, here in the middle of the country). 10pm has traditionally been considered "The Death Slot," the place where networks send put shows out to pasture. They limp along for a few months in that time slot until they start to wither, their audience dries up and they're ultimately cancelled. 

There are many series that have been quite successful in that time slot, of course. But they generally started out at 10pm. It's when a series is moved there that their days become numbered.

Naturally ABC's trying to put a positive spin on the move, assuring the public that the move to a later hour will allow Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. to "go darker" and feature more violence. Jesus Christ, how much darker can the show get? The Season 3 episode Failed Experiments featured a horrifying scene of a character's head melting, which was worse than anything I've seen on The Walking Dead. And in Ascension, the Season 3 finale, Yo-yo caught a bullet in her side (despite the fact that she has super-speed) and Mack cauterized her wound with a goddamned blowtorch! Holy crap! And they want to go even darker?

I can certainly understand ABC and Marvel's reasoning here. After all, going dark, grim and violent has worked out so well for the DC movie universe.

Of course the really big news this season is that Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. is adding Ghost Rider to the show. Yeah, you heard right. Ghost Rider. The guy with a flaming skull for a head, famously played by batsh*t insane actor Nicolas Cage in 2, count 'em two theatrical films from Sony.

I don't know... adding Ghost Rider to the mix seems like a very, very weird addition to what is ostensibly a spy series. They don't go together. There's no commonality there; they just don't mix or mesh. It feels as odd as if the cast of Sleepy Hollow suddenly appeared on Bones. Oh, wait...

On the other hand, it's not like this is the first bizarre turn 
Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. has taken. Agent Coulson came back from the dead, Skye developed superpowers and insisted on being called Daisy, we met a low-budget Hulk (aka Calvin Zabo) and the Inhumans, Simmons was stranded on an alien planet for several months, and Grant Ward died but was possess by a squid-faced alien god. Now that I think about it, a vengeance demon with a flaming skull head isn't so strange after all.

SPOILERS!

The Plot:

We begin six weeks after the Season 3 finale (which featured a six month time-jump
 confused yet?). Daisy's still doing her best Lisbeth Salander impression, but instead of stealing from the rich and giving to the poor like she had been doing, she's switched to tracking a white supremacist group that's running guns or something. Just as she's about ready to use her quake powers against them, a tricked-out '69 Dodge Charger appears. 

The car revs its engine and roars toward the gun runners. They fire a bazooka or rocket launcher or something at it, which blows it sky high. It flips end over end, lands on the feet, er, I mean wheels, bursts into supernatural flames and continues on its path. It smashes into the skinheads' truck, killing all but two of them. A figure with a flaming skull head emerges from the car. It's Ghost Rider! Not the lame one from the movies, but a cool new non-Cage version. He grabs one of the skinheads and drives off. A stunned Daisy mouths "WTF?"

Meanwhile Coulson and Mack are cooling their heels at S.H.I.E.L.D. Headquarters. There've been lots of changes since the season finale. The biggest one is that Coulson is no longer the Director. There's a brand new sheriff in town, one who's fond of terrible acronyms and goes unseen in this episode. This new Director has decided to split up the old team and give them all separate assignments. Coulson and Mack are determined to intercept Daisy and bring her back to S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent May is now training her own strike force. Fitz is still in the science lab, but Simmons has been promoted, and now reports to the Director. Yo-yo is apparently a part time agent, who's called in from time to time.

May intercepts a report on Daisy's whereabouts, and secretly shares the info with Coulson. Against orders from the Director, he and Mack set out to find her.

Cut to Ghost Rider interrogating his skinhead prisoner. When he refuses to cooperate, Ghost Rider kills him with his car. Daisy goes to visit the other skinhead in the hospital. He tells her that no one survives an encounter with the Ghost Rider for long, and promptly drops dead. Daisy then has a secret meeting with Yo-yo, who's supplying her with bone healing medication from S.H.I.E.L.D. Daisy needs the meds, because despite the fact that she freely used her quake power as much as she wanted with no ill effects last season, suddenly it's damaging the bones in her arms. Yo-yo also tells her that Coulson and Mack are close to finding her.

Back at S.H.I.E.L.D., May and Simmons argue. May thinks Simmons is kissing up to the new Director and betraying her former teammates. Simmons assures her she doesn't trust this new Director (hmmm...) and is doing everything in her power to gain his confidence so she can protect her friends. She then orders May to bring in Coulson and Mack.

Meanwhile, Fitz goes to Dr. Radcliffe's (remember him from last season?) place to watch the soccer, er, I mean football 
match. Radcliffe's Life Model Decoy AIDA wanders into the living room, much to Fitz's surprise and embarrassment (she's nekkid, dontcha know). Radcliffe says he invented AIDA to act as a "shield" for human agents (wah-wah), so they don't have to risk their lives in dangerous situations. Fitz reminds Radcliffe that that's pretty much how Ultron was born in Avengers: Age Of Ultron. Fitz says they have to report AIDA to Simmons immediately, but then changes his mind and says they should keep her a secret until she's perfected. Uh-oh. Keeping secrets from your girlfriend ain't cool, Fitz!

Daisy uses some impressive detective skills to track down Ghost Rider's Charger to an auto yard. She meets Robbie Reyes, who works there. He becomes suspicious of her, turns into Ghost Rider and attacks. She fights back with her quake powers, but is eventually pinned under heavy rubble by Ghost Rider. Feeling guilty for all the blood on her hands, she begs him to go ahead and kill her. He stares at her for a few seconds, then turns, gets in his car and roars off. Why, I have no idea.

Coulson and Mack show up at a warehouse, hoping to catch Daisy. Instead they witness an odd exchange, as two thugs are apparently selling an old chest to a group of Asian mobsters. The head mobster opens the chest, and some kind of mystical energy explodes from it, bathing everyone in glowy sparkles. A ghostly woman then walks past the mobster. Suddenly he sees his underlings transform into withered, black-eyed demons. He freaks out, grabs a gun and starts cutting them down.

May then appears and she and her team take out the rest of the mobsters. She orders her team to load up the Ark Of The Covenant, er, I mean the chest and take it back to S.H.I.E.L.D. Before she leaves the ghostly woman reappears and walks past her. May looks around in confusion, unsure of what just happened.

Later Daisy spies on Robbie, and sees him meet his younger brother (who's in a wheelchair) after school. Awwww. The supernatural vengeance demon has a disabled little brother he supports.

Back at S.H.I.E.L.D., Coulson plays backgammon with May, and they reminisce about the good old days. As May looks at Coulson, she sees him momentarily transform into one of the withered, black-eyed demons before he returns to normal... Uh-oh!

Thoughts:
• If nothing else, so far this Ghost Rider is miles above the Nicolas Cage version.

• Wondering why Ghost Rider suddenly drives around in a cool '69 Dodge Charger instead of his traditional motorcycle? Me too. Apparently this is the version that's in the comics these days.

There've been many different Ghost Riders over the years. Most people know the original, Johhny Blaze. He was a stunt rider who gave his soul to Mephisto in order to save his dying father. Every night or whenever he was encountered evil, he transformed into Ghost Rider, and drove a flaming motorcycle. He could also shots blasts of hellfire from his hands. This was the version (more or less) played by Nicholas Cage in Ghost Rider and Ghost Rider: Spirit Of Vengeance.

In the 1990s, Danny Ketch became the Ghost Rider after acquiring a motorcycle that was possessed by a Spirit Of Vengeance (!). 

Robbie Reyes is the newest incarnation of Ghost Rider, and debuted in 2014. Reyes works at an auto body shop, and takes care of his developmentally disabled brother Gabe. He entered a street race to earn money to move himself and his brother out of his gang-ridden neighborhood, but was gunned down by mercenaries. He's then resurrected as a demon with a flaming, helmet-like skull head. He drives a '69 Dodge Charger that also has supernatural powers. There's a LOT more to his story, but that'll do for now. 

Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. is using a modified version of the Robbie Reyes character.

 Ghost Rider's debut— in which his car is hit by a bazooka, flies into the air, flips over a couple of times and lands unscathed—  is taken directly from the comics.

 The Ghost Rider transformation effects were pretty cool, and very well done. Especially on a TV budget. I kind of like that this particular Ghost Rider's head looks more like a stylized helmet than a realistic skull.

 After Ghost Rider's big debut, there's a scene in the S.H.I.E.L.D. lab in which Simmons is walking around inside some sort of elaborate holographic simulation, invented by Fitz. He calls it "The Framework."

This scene has absolutely nothing to do with the plot. It looked expensive though, so there's no way they filmed it just as filler. I'm betting this was all set up, and The Framework is going to become really important later on in the season.

• At one point Simmons makes a comment about "absent friends we'll never see again." She's obviously talking about Mockingbird and Hunter here. As we all know, they were written out last season, so they could star in the Marvel's Most Wanted series. Now that ABC passed on the show (twice!), that's obviously not going to happen. So will they be returning to Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. sometime this season?

Yes, they said Mockingbird and Hunter were now discommendated or something and could absolutely, positively, never, ever, EVER return. But as we all know, this is a comic book series, and the world "never" doesn't apply. Not even to Coulson, who was killed by Loki in The Avengers and later got better.

• The new S.H.I.E.L.D. Director, who was unseen in this episode but will supposedly appear next week, is fond of horrible acronyms. He comes up with "Special Advisor to the Director in Science and Technology," or S.A.D.I.S.T. for short, as well as "Widespread Infiltration Monitoring Program," or W.I.M.P.

Expect this to be a running joke all season.

 Fitz is shocked and disturbed when he meets AIDA, Dr. Radcliffe's Life Model Decoy. He says creating artificial intelligence is how Ultron was born. Radcliffe says, "But this is not A.I. A.I. is banned. This is mimicry of human behavior."

Um... what the hell's the difference? Aren't they the same thing? Doesn't artificial intelligence mimic the human mind?

• Now that FitzSimmons are finally a couple, expect the writers to immediately begin working on breaking them up. I have a feeling the fact that Fitz is keeping the existence of AIDA a secret from Simmons will end up driving quite a wedge between them.

• Something I'm wondering about Robbie. So far every time he's turned into Ghost Rider, he's been wearing his cool black leather jacket and jeans. The clothes obviously aren't a part of the vengeance demon's body. So what would happen if Robby is dressed for the beach when he transforms? Would Ghost Rider appear as a flaming skeleton wearing a tank top, cargo shorts and sandals? I'd pay to see that!

I need to get started on a drawing of that right away.

• Daisy and Ghost Rider have a big fight in the auto yard. Daisy's pinned under rubble, and even though he could easily kill her, for some reason Ghost Rider simply walks away. Why? Surely she has just as much blood on her hands as the white supremacists he killed.

In the comics, one of Ghost Rider's powers is his "Penance Stare." When he locks eyes with a victim, they feel every pain they've ever inflicted on anyone throughout their life, which causes great physical and mental discomfort.

Was that what was going on when GR had Daisy pinned under the wreckage? He was definitely staring at her, and she looked like she was in pain. If so, it wasn't made very clear. If they're going to use the Penance Stare, then it definitely needs some sort of special effect to show he's using it. An eye glow or something.


• I have no idea what the weird ghost in the chest is about. You know, the one that makes its victim see people as demons, or look like Bilbo Baggins momentarily possessed by the One Ring. I don't remember anything like that from the comics, but then again I stopped buying them when the cover price passed three bucks, sometime around 2000. So I've missed a lot of plotlines.

The S.H.I.E.L.D. producers have stated that this season will have some kind of tenuous connection with the upcoming Doctor Strange movie, so maybe it has something to do with him or his world. Some form of magic?

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Harry Potter And The Balloon Mortgage Of Kalamazam

Good news for fans of the Harry Potter movies! If you live near London and have some considerable spare cash lying around, you can buy the iconic house that Harry lived in.

In the films the location was home to Harry's relatives the Dursleys, and was famously located at 4 Privet Drive, Little Whinging, Surrey. The real world address is 12 Picket Post Close, Martins Heron, Bracknell, Berkshire, England, because British addresses just don't know when to stop.

The two story, three bedroom house features an attached garage and is selling for 475,000 pounds, which works out to a little under $620,000. Yikes! That seems a bit steep for a house that's slightly over a thousand square feet. I'm sure the fact it was featured in the films has nothing to do with the inflated price.

The house was used only for exteriors during filming, as the interiors were all shot on a sound stage.

The listing features a few shots of the actual interior, and it looks like the realtor pushed their wide angle lens to its limit in a flailing attempt to make the place look bigger than it really is. How can I tell they used a wide angle lens? Because most wall clocks are circular, not stretched out ovals, that's why.

The home also features a garden, or "back yard" to us non-Brits. The wide angle lens got a workout here too, unless the house really is shaped like some sort of extreme trapezoid.

I can only imagine the living hell the new owner of this house will have to endure, as carloads of fans pound on the door day and night, demanding to see Harry or get a look at the cupboard under the stairs. Hopefully the owner has a good wand and knows the Crutiatus Curse. Crucio!

It Came From The Cineplex: Blair Witch

Blair Witch was written by Simon Barret and directed by Adam Wingard.

Barret and Wingard are apparently writing and directing partners, and previously brought us A Horrible Way To Die (haven't seen it), You're Next (eh), some of the segments in V/H/S and V/H/S/2 (not bad) and The Guest (didn't see it). They're also both working on an unwelcome and unwanted remake of the excellent Korean film I Saw The Devil (groan). 

As you might have guessed, Blair Witch is a sequel to 1999's The Blair Witch Project. It completely ignores the 2000 sequel Book Of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, which can only be a good thing. 

Actually, Blair Witch is more of a remake than a sequel, as it recreates the structure of the original film almost shot for shot.

I was never a huge fan of The Blair Witch Project. I thought the idea of faking "actual footage" was an interesting film experiment, but ultimately it just didn't do much for me. Call me old fashioned, but I prefer stuffy old concepts like character development, motivation and most of all, plot in the movies I watch. The Blair Witch Project had none of those, as pretty much consisted of three people wandering around in the woods and screaming at one another for eighty one minutes. Heck, if I wanna see that I'll watch my family's home movies!

The Blair Witch Project was a huge cultural event in 1999, and kicked off the whole detestable "found footage" genre that's infested cineplexes for the past seventeen years. Sure, there'd been found footage movies before (like Cannibal Holocaust), but this was the first time one had ever gotten a wide release, and played in mainstream theaters.

It also made a poop-ton of money, grossing around $250 million worldwide against its paltry $60,000 budget, making it one of the most profitable movies of all time! That's why fifteen years later we're still seeing found footage movies. They cost next to nothing to make and are pretty much guaranteed to generate millions. As much as I hate 'em, they're never gonna go away. Studios will just keep pumping them out until the day they stop making money.

The Blair Witch Project's strength was in its simplicity. It was a no-frills, stripped down tale of three hikers who get lost in the woods and meet an untimely end. The actors filmed most of the movie themselves, and their dialogue was largely improvised, giving the film a gritty authenticity. In fact many audiences actually believed the events of the film really happened.

That won't be the case with Blair Witch. The new film is much too slick and polished for even the most gullible moviegoer to ever mistake it for reality.

Another reason The Blair Witch Project felt so real was because it was plausible. There's a spooky local legend, the hikers get lost, they start turning on one another and slowly begin losing their sanity. We never see the titular Witch, and it could be argued that the threat is all in their minds. There's nothing in the movie that's outside the realm of possibility. There was a subtlety to it.

Unfortunately that all flies right out the window in Blair Witch. Everything is bigger, louder and dumber. Here the Witch is most definitely real, we get a brief shot of her horrifying, inhuman visage, and worst of all, she now has spectacularly impressive superpowers, as she's seemingly able to bend time and space to her will. This puts the movie firmly in fantasy territory. There's nothing plausible, possible or subtle about this one.

I suppose Barret and Wingard had no choice but to up the ante in this film. You can only pull off a trick like The Blair Witch Project once, and there's no fooling the audience a second time. The only solution is to try a different trick, like they did here.

I think the filmmakers were screwed either way here. If they decided not to show the Witch a second time, modern audiences would be bored to death and feel cheated. But if you do actually show her, fans of the original will cry fowl. There's no way to win. Other than to skip making a sequel in the first place, and we all know that's not going to happen.

The filmmakers went to great lengths to keep the film a secret before its release. Writer Simon Barret claimed they did this because they feared an online backlash from rabid fans of the original, which could have generated negative buzz for the project (which is probably a legitimate concern).

They even went so far as to shoot the movie under the title The Woods, and even mocked up a fake poster to deflect suspicion (although the Blair Witch "stick figure" shape is right there, and not all that subtle). The film's true title was finally revealed in July of 2016 at the San Diego Comic Con, to thunderous applause. Suckers!

SPOILERS, I GUESS!

The Plot:
Back in 1994, Heather Donahue— along with her friends Josh and Mike— mysteriously disappeared in the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland, and have been missing ever since (as seen in The Blair Witch Project). Cut to 2014, as Heather's brother James watches newly uploaded online footage of the Blair Witch Incident. In the video he sees a brief flash of a face reflected in a mirror inside a dilapidated house. Against all reason and logic, he believes the face belongs to Heather, and the tape proves she's still alive after twenty years. Why he thinks this isn't made clear, but let's just roll with it or we'll be here all day.

Armed with this new clue, James heads to Burkittsville to find Heather. His friends Peter Jones, Ashley Bennett and film student Lisa Arlington come along for the ride. Lisa's documenting the trip for a film project, and comes fully prepared. She outfits the group with tiny, hands-free GPS-enabled ear cameras, as well as bringing a larger video camera and even a drone.

In Burkettsville, James meets with a man named Lane and his girlfriend Talia. Lane's the one who allegedly found Heather's footage and uploaded it to the internet. James believes he'll find Heather near where the tape was found, and asks Lane to give him directions. Lane refuses to tell James the location unless he lets him and Talia come along on the expedition. James reluctantly agrees.

The group enters the dense woods and hike for a few hours. As they walk along, Lane tells them about the legend of the Blair Witch. Peter thinks this is hilarious for some reason and bursts out laughing, offending Lane. They reach a shallow stream, and take off their shoes to cross. Ashley cuts her foot on a sharp rock, and James (who has some sort of first-aid training) wraps up the wound.

They decide to set up camp for the night, and pitch their tents in a convenient clearing. During the night they hear terrifying noises surrounding the camp. When they get up the next day, they discover they've all inexplicably slept until 2pm. Um... scary, I guess? They also see the tree limbs are decorated with wooden stick figures tied together with twine.

Ashley freaks out when she sees the figures and demands they go home. The others agree, and strike the camp and leave. As they're walking back, Lisa notices a roll of twine sticking out of Lane's backpack, and accuses him of making the stick figures. He admits he made them, as well as faking the footage on the tape, and says he and Talia have never been in these woods before. Angry, James tells Lane and Talia to find their own way back and chase them off.

James and the others hike for several more hours, but somehow arrive back at their campsite. Lisa launches her drone to try and get an aerial view, but it begins glitching and crashes into a tree. Ashley's foot becomes infected and she develops a high fever. With dark approaching, they're forced to camp in the woods a second night.

Peter leaves the camp to gather firewood (because the abundant branches surrounding the camp apparently aren't good enough) and hears strange noises. He begins running wildly through the woods and is crushed by a falling tree. James goes looking for him, but only finds his abandoned flashlight next to the tree.

James, Lisa and Ashley hear more horrifying sounds outside their tents during the night. A very haggard looking and disheveled Lane and Talia appear, claiming they've been wandering the woods for five days. Lane then runs off into the woods, leaving Talia behind. 

The next morning Lisa's alarm goes off, but the group is puzzled to see the sun hasn't risen. They see the camp is surrounded by even more stick figures, and Talia freaks out when she sees one woven with clumps of her own hair (?). Ashley blames Talia for Peter's disappearance, and grabs the stick figure from her. She snaps it in two, which causes Talia's body to contort and fold in half, killing her instantly. So I guess they're like voodoo dolls?

The Smoke Monster from LOST, er, I mean an invisible force then attacks the camp, smashing trees and tossing their tents high in the air. James and the others run for their lives. Ashley gets separated from them and sits down to rest. She examines her infected leg and pulls some sort of worm from the wound, for no reason than to inject a bit of gore into the film. She then spots the damaged drone high in a tree, and decides she's gotta have it, no matter what. Despite the fact that she was barely able to hobble along a few seconds earlier, she somehow she climbs high into the tree with cat-like agility. As she reaches for the drone she slips and falls several hundred feet, and her body's dragged away by the unseen force.

As a thunderstorm erupts, James and Lisa find the house from Lane's video. James thinks he sees Heather in an upper window (?) and rushes inside. We're then treated to several minutes of vertigo-inducing shots of him frantically running through hallways in the house. Lisa sees a bizarre shape outside the house and reluctantly runs inside. She ends up in the basement, where she's attacked by an insane and bearded Lane. He throws her into a tunnel beneath the basement (??). She crawls through the muddy tunnel— becoming momentarily stuck a few times— and eventually exits into the basement (???). Lane attacks again and she stabs him in the neck with her camping knife. She runs into James, and they head upstairs. As they do, we briefly see the same reflected face that James saw in the tape— the one he thought was Heather—  indicating there's some timey-whimey shenanigans going on in the house. They make it to the attic and lock the door.

A bright light shines through the cracks of the house, as the movie briefly becomes Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. James, who's suddenly become an expert on the Blair Witch, orders Lisa to stand in a corner and close her eyes, saying they'll be safe as long as they don't look directly at the Witch, as we now begin referencing Raiders Of The Lost Ark

The attic door's forced open, and the Witch enters. She does her best vocal impression of Heather, which causes James to turn around and see her, and he's instantly killed. Lisa uses her camcorder screen to try and walk backwards out of the house without looking at the Witch. She almost makes it, but then she hears "James" call out, and like an idiot turns around and is killed. Her camera drops to the floor and the screen goes black, as the audience sits in confusion for a few seconds, unsure of whether the movie's over or not.

Thoughts:
• The movie takes place in 2014, a full twenty years after Heather disappeared. So why the hell is James convinced that she's still alive? Does he really think his sister's been wandering around the woods for two decades, trying to find her way out? That must be one damned big forest! Does he think she learned to hunt and kill animals to survive, and how to fashion clothing from their skins?

I'm also not clear as to why he thinks the blurry face in a single frame of a grainy online video is unequivocally her, when it's impossible to tell who the hell it's supposed to be.

I get that the filmmakers wanted a connection with the first movie, but James' Ahab-like obsession with a sister he didn't even know (he was supposedly only four years old when she disappeared) was just plain bad writing. It might have worked if this film had come out a year after the original, or was set in 2000. But twenty years later? Nope.

• Peter mentions that he was part of the search party that scoured the woods for Heather after she disappeared in 1994. Um… Peter looks to be about the same age as James, which means he was four years old when Heather went missing. Did they really bring a four year old on a search party? And if they did, would he really remember anything about it? How much do you remember from when you were four?

• One of my biggest complaints about the found footage genre (besides the lack of acting talent, special effects, production design and plot) is the fact that invariably the characters will continue filming everything, even when they should be tossing the camera to the ground and running for their lives.

Credit where credit's due: Blair Witch addresses this problem by providing the four leads with tiny, wireless ear-mounted cameras. Now their hands will be free as they're avoiding angry witches while running blindly through the woods. Well done!

Of course I wouldn't be doing my job if I didn't point out that the Ashley character wears one of these ear cameras under her impressive shock of thick, curly hair. Yet somehow her camera consistently has an unobstructed view!

• Jesus Christ, this movie set a new record for jump scares. I finally stopped counting them at ten, and there were several more after that. In fact after two or three of them in a row, one of the characters actually tells another to "Stop doing that!" When the characters start commenting on how excessive the jump scares are in their own movie, there just might be a few too many.

When are directors ever going to learn that jump scares are not, well, scary? If you can't think of a better way to try and frighten your audience than by yelling "BOO!" at them, then maybe you'd be better off making a romantic comedy.

• Earlier I said The Blair Witch Project had a certain subtlety to it. Heather and her friends hear a twig snap outside their tent, and they freeze in terror. I saw the film in the theater, and the entire audience (including me) was leaning forward during that scene, desperately straining to pick up any stray noises on the soundtrack. The uncertainty of whether there was really something there or not is what made it scary.

Cut to Blair Witch. Lisa says, "Did you hear that?" Suddenly a sound like a herd of elephants trampling the microphone blares from the speakers, trees snap in half and fall, and some unseen force rips the tents from the ground and hurls them upwards into the sky. It's not quite the same.

• As the group enters the Black Hills Forest, Lane tells the others that no one ever enters this particular woods, and it's completely untouched. Oddly enough, he says this while they're walking along a nice, clear, wide trail that winds through the trees.

• I mentioned this in the plot, but it deserves repeating. During the second day of the trip, Ashley's foot is badly infected, she has a severe fever and she's barely able to rise out of bed and hobble along.

Yet the second she sees the drone in the tree, this woman who looks like she's never even been in a forest before can suddenly climb like a lumberjack. She climbs up at least a hundred feet, constantly placing all her weight on her swollen foot with no ill effects. Maybe the Witch used her time-manipulating powers to speed up Ashley's healing when we weren't looking?

• The film sets up a bunch of things that seem like they're going to be important, but are promptly dropped and never pan out.

Lane admits that he and Talia made the stick figures and hung them in the camp, but we never find out just why they do this. Are they trying to prank James and his friends by dragging them out in the woods and scaring the crap out of them? Are they working with the Witch, and providing her with victims? That would be an interesting idea, but I guess it's none of our business as the issue is never dealt with.

After the gang hears the scary noises during the first night in the woods, they attach a small security camera to a tree to monitor the camp. When the noises recur the next night, no one thinks to check the camera to see what was causing it.

Lisa brings a drone so the group can hopefully spot the house from the air. It feels like this drone's going to play a big role in the plot, but it's used a couple of times and then forgotten.

Talia freaks out when she sees one of the stick figures has some of her hair woven into it. Ashley angrily grabs the figure from her and breaks it in two. This somehow causes Talia's body to be gruesomely folded in half, killing her. Again, this "voodoo doll" thing was an interesting idea, but it flies against everything that was previously established. It was pulled straight out of the screenwriter's ass, with absolutely no justification or foreshadowing. And then like everything else it's promptly dropped, never to be mentioned again.

Ashley sits down on a log to examine her infected foot. She then pulls some thing out of a festering hole in her calf. It looks for all the world like a squirming alien creature. She looks at it in horror for a few seconds and then tosses it away from her in disgust. And that's the end of that! We never find out what the hell the creature was or what it was doing in her leg. Was it an alien? Is the Witch an alien as well? That would certainly explain a lot, like the time travel and the bright lights at the end.

• In the original film, the locals say that in the 1780s and old woman named Elly Edward was accused of witchcraft, tied to the trunk of a tree in the Black Hills Forest and left to die. Her spirit returned and cursed anyone who entered the woods.

Suddenly in this movie we're told that Elly was strung up in a tree with heavy rocks tied to her hands and feet, which stretched out her limbs to unnatural proportions before she died.

So which is it, movie? Tied or stretched?

At the end of the movie we get a very brief glimpse of the Witch as it lurks behind Lisa, and its arms and legs are freakishly elongated. In fact it looks more like some kind of alien than a witch. Is that look supposed to be the result of her limbs being stretched by the rocks as she hung from the trees?

• At the end of the film, James suddenly becomes an expert on the Blair Witch and her rules. When he and Lisa are trapped in the attic with the Witch, he tells her to stand in a corner and close her eyes, as catching even a glimpse of her will instantly kill them. And it works! The Witch is seemingly powerless against them as long as they follow these rules.

That's fine and all, but how the hell did James know any of this? A few hours earlier he poo-pooed the notion that she existed at all, and the minute he enters the house he starts figuring out loopholes in her powers.

• The big twist in Blair Witch is that the video that James sees at the beginning of the movie that kicked off the whole "Search For Heather" expedition— is actually the footage filmed by Lisa's camera in the final scenes.

Apparently the Witch took Lisa's camera, tossed it outside the house, and then used her superpowers to send it back into time so Lane would find it and upload it to the internet.

For someone who lived in the 1780s, the Blair Witch has a remarkably savvy understanding of modern technology and time travel.

Why she would send a tape back in time, and why she seemingly has a vendetta against James' family, is apparently none of our concern.

• Unintentionally hilarious moment: During the end credits there's a caption that reads, "Costume Design by Katia Stano."

That must have been a tough job. I bet she spent all of an hour grabbing clothes off the rack at Dick's Sporting Goods or Gander Mountain.

Blair Witch is big, loud and dumb, and lacks all the subtlety that made the original so influential. It trades plausibility for impossibility, as it even throws time travel into the mix! If you like watching characters wander through the forest and shriek one another's names, then this is the film for you. Stay out of this woods, and go watch the original again. I was going to give it a C-, but ultimately decided on a D+ for completely missing the point of the first film, and because I hate found footage films.
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