Tuesday, May 31, 2016

It Came From The Cineplex: The Jungle Book

The Jungle Book was written by Justin Marks and directed by Jon Favreau. It's based— more or less— on Rudyard Kipling's stories of the same name.

Marks previously wrote Street Fighter: The Legend Of Chun-Li and... well, that's pretty much it, other than a few short subject films! He must have a hell of an agent to land a high-profile writing gig like The Jungle Book.

Favreau is prolific actor, writer and (uneven) director. Most of the films he helms tend to be big budget, effects-heavy spectacles. He previously directed Made, Elf (the only Will Ferrell movie I can stomach), Zathura, Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Cowboys & Aliens and Chef.

The Jungle Book continues Disney's current trend of strip-mining its back catalog and pumping out live action retreads of its animated classics, such as Alice In Wonderland, Cinderella and the upcoming Beauty And The Beast. Apparently this strategy's working, as to date the film's grossed nearly $350 million against its $175 million budget.

Believe it or not this is Disney's third adaptation of The Jungle Book. There was the 1967 animated movie of course, starring the voices of Phil Harris and Sebastian Cabot. There was also a largely-forgotten live action version released back in 1994. It starred Jason Scott Lee as an adult Mowgli, who's reunited with the love of his life, follows her back to civilization, finds it's not to his liking and returns to the jungle.

Supposedly actor/motion capture performer Andy Serkis (of The Lord Of The Rings fame) is currently producing and directing his own live action version of The Jungle Book, for release in 2018. Another CGI Jungle Book? Coming so close on the heels of this one? Seems like a waste of time, effort and money to me. Is this story really that compelling that it needs to be adapted a whopping four times?

This version is a straight up remake of the 1967 animated feature, rather than an adaptation of the Kipling stories. How do I know this? Because Kaa the python is an enemy to Mowgli, and due to the presence of King Louie. In the book, Kaa is actually a Mowgli's friend and adviser, rather than an adversary who wants to eat him. And there is no King Louie in any of the stories— he was invented specifically for the 1967 cartoon.

Voice-over artists play an important part in any animated feature, but unfortunately the vocal performances in The Jungle Book is uneven at best. 
Some of the cast is perfect, such as Ben Kingsley as Bagheera and Lupita Nyong'o as Raksha. Scarlett Johansson even does does a surprisingly good job as Kaa the python. 

But then there's the terribly miscast Bill Murray as Baloo the bear, and the even more out of place Christopher Walken as King Louie. Neither are right for their parts, they stand out like sore thumbs and they make absolutely zero attempt at creating an actual character. I don't know if this was the actors' idea or Favreau's, but both Murray and Walken are basically playing themselves here. In fact Murray sounds like he may have recorded his lines in his car on the way to the golf course.

I've never been a fan of this sort of "stunt casting" in animation. If a celebrity turns in a real performance and creates an actual character— the way Mike Myers did in the Shrek films— that's perfectly fine. But I hate it when a celebrity just recites lines in their normal, everyday speaking voice. I end up spending most of the runtime trying to figure out who's doing what voice, and end up ignoring the plot. It's as if the studios believe that Bill Murray's voice is as much a box office draw as his actual presence, which is just plain silly.


The Plot:

The movie opens with Mowgli (played by newcomer Neel Sethi), a young human "man-cub," running a race with his wolf brothers deep in the Seoni jungle of India. As an infant, Mowgli was found by the black panther Bagheera (voiced by Ben Kingsley), who took him to a nearby wolf pack. Raksha (voiced by Lupita Nyong'o), a female wolf, raised Mowgli as her own cub. Lucky for Mowgli none of these deadly predators he lives with ever developed a taste for human flesh.

During the dry season, all the bodies of water disappear except for one, called Peace Rock. All the animals of the jungle honor an ancient truce to drink from Peace Rock in, er, peace. Mowgli uses a hollowed out piece of fruit to form a crude cup from which to drink. The other animals are wary of his human ingenuity, distrusting his "tricks." Just then the deadly tiger Shere Khan (voiced by Idris Elba) appears. He says humans are forbidden in the jungle, and demands Mowgli be handed over to him. Akela, the leader of the wolf pack, refuses to give up Mowgli, and insists that Shere Khan honor the truce. The tiger says he'll abide for now, but will be back for Mowgli when the rains come and the rivers flow again.

The wolves discuss the Mowgli situation, and it's decided it's too dangerous for him to stay. Sounds to me more like they just don't want any trouble for the local tiger, but whatever. Bagheera volunteers to escort Mowgli to the man village. Raksha and Mowgli share a tearful goodbye, as she tells him he'll always be her son. Say, that'd make a good trailer moment!

Mowgli and Bagheera set off, but are separated by a CGI buffalo stampede. Shere Khan appears again, and is about to pounce on Mowgli, when Bagheera fends him off. Mowgli runs into the jungle.

Shere Khan returns to Peace Rock and confronts the wolves. He kills Akela and appoints himself leader of the other animals. So I guess the Akela was the leader of the entire jungle, not just the wolf pack?

Mowgli wanders through the jungle alone, and comes across the huge python Kaa (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). She puts Mowgli into a trance with her hypnotic eyes, and infodumps his backstory to him, that she somehow knows. She says he came from the man village, and was just an infant when he and his father were attacked by Shere Khan. Mowgli's father used the "red flower," aka fire, to fight off the tiger. Mowgli's father blinded Shere Khan's left eye before the vicious tiger killed him. Kaa is about to eat Mowgli when Baloo the bear (voiced by a very miscast Bill Murray) saves him. 

Baloo takes Mowgli under his wing, and says he needs help gathering honey for his upcoming "hibernation." He talks Mowgli into climbing a dangerously high cliff to gather honey from bee hives that Baloo can't reach. Mowgli's stung a few times, and eventually uses his "tricks" to come up with bee-proof "armor." The two become fast friends and partners, and sing a very out of place song.

Bagheera catches up to Mowgli, who says he's helping Baloo prepare for his hibernation. Bagheera points out that bears don't hibernate in the jungle, and realizes Baloo's taking advantage of his "friend." He insists on completing his mission to escort Mowgli to the village. Mowgli refuses to go, saying he wants to stay with his new best friend Baloo. Bagheera tells Baloo that Shere Khan is after Mowgli, and he's not safe in the jungle. Baloo understands, and tells Mowgli to get lost, for his own sake. A dejected Mowgli runs off, and is soon captured by an army of monkeys.

The monkeys bring Mowgli to King Louie (voiced by an even more horrifically miscast Christopher Walken). You might think Louis is an orangutan, but you'd be wrong— he actually takes the time to specifically point out that he's a Gigantopithecus, whatever the hell that is. He tells Mowgli he wants the secret of the red flower, in order to rule the jungle. When Mowgli says he doesn't know how to make it, Louie flies into a rage. He tells Mowgli that his "father" Akela has been killed, and Bagheera knew about it.

Just then Bagheera and Baloo show up, and fight off the monkeys as Mowgli escapes. Louie chases after Mowgli, but his huge bulk causes his massive stone temple to collapse on top of him.

Mowgli's furious that Bagheera didn't tell him about Akela, and runs away yet again. He sees the man village, and notes it's full of "red flowers." He sneaks into a hut, steals a lit torch and runs back into the jungle with it, I guess to use the "red flower" against Shere Khan. As he runs, embers fly off the torch and ignite the dry jungle.

Mowgli returns to Peace Rock in minutes (even though it took him days to get from there to the man village) and confronts Shere Khan. The tiger tries to turn the other animals against the man-cub, pointing out that he's brought the forbidden red flower into the jungle. Bagheera and Baloo show up, and tell the tiger he'll have to go through them to get to Mowgli.

Shere Khan says "No problem" and attacks Baloo. Mowgli runs into the trees while the tiger is distracted. Shere Khan's about to kill Baloo, when the wolves attack and drive him off. 

As the fire rages through the jungle, Mowgli uses his "tricks" to set up an elaborate trap for Shere Khan high in a tree. The tiger climbs Mowgli's tree, and inches out onto a narrow branch. The branch snaps, Mowgli grabs a safety line and Shere Khan falls into the forest, er, I mean jungle fire far below. The elephants temporarily diverse the river to put out the fire.

Later we see Mowgli reunited with his wolf brothers, as Raksha has become the new leader of the pack. Baloo has chosen to live with the other animals, saying he could get used to this. 

• Whatever your feelings about the story, there's no denying that the movie is technically astonishing.

It looks for all the world as if it was filmed on location in a thick, lush jungle, but according to the filmmakers, every single frame of it was filmed indoors inside a small studio in downtown LA. There were a few practical props and such, but for the most part, the only real thing in the film was Neel Sethi as Mowgli.

Kudos to the thousands of animators, computer programmers and server farms that made it possible.

You know, we really need a new name for this kind of film. Calling it "live action" is a misnomer, as ninety five percent (or more!) of it was computer generated. "Live Animated," perhaps? "Realistic Cartoon?" "Green Screen Extravaganza?"

• This is hardly Disney's first foray into combining live action with animation. Song Of The South, The Three Caballeros, Mary Poppins, Bedknobs And Broomsticks and Pete's Dragon all did so, although they combined traditional cel animation with live action, rather than CGI.

• The late Garry Shandling voiced the character of Ikki the porcupine in the film. Unfortunately it was his last performance, as he unexpectedly died of a heart attack shortly before the movie premiered.

• The film takes place in the Seoni jungle of India, and as you might expect, many of the animals in the story are not found in that region. Part of this is due to the source material, as Kipling didn't much concern himself with accurate geography, and part is due to Hollywood assuming the audience is a bunch of mouth-breathing dullards who don't know any better.

Supposedly there really are wolves in India, and of the same species that lives in Canada and Northern America. Unfortunately they're not found in the jungle.

Orangutans are definitely not native to India, as they're only found in Borneo and Sumatra. The writer tried to smooth over this by saying Louie is a 
Gigantopithecus, a massive, orangutan-like ape that once lived in the jungles of China, Southeast Asia and India. Unfortunately Gigantopithecus has been extinct for nearly one hundred thousand years (!). I nobody told Louie about this.

Even as a kid I knew there were no bears in the jungle, at least not like the ones seen in the various film versions of The Jungle Book. There is one species, called the Sloth Bear, that lives in the jungles of India.

Unfortunately it bears little or no resemblance to Baloo, who's typically been depicted as a North American Brown Bear.

• It's never actually stated when the story takes place, but I'm assuming it's set during the period in which the book was written— the 1890s. There are times in the film when Mowgli speaks and acts like a modern child, which is kind of jarring. 

• Kipling's The Jungle Book, er, book was written as a collection of short fables rather than a straight narrative. As a result the screenplay moves in fits and starts, as Mowgli wanders from one setpiece to another. In fact the entire film is feels very episodic in nature you can practically see the chapter headings onscreen!

• I am not a fan of the musical numbers in the film. The 1967 animated version was chock full of peppy songs that are still known today, especially Phil Harris' Bare Necessities

Unfortunately, while the songs worked fine in the animated version, they feel jarringly out of place here. Favreau did his best to make his jungle feel real (barring the talking animals, of course). It doesn't feel like a world in which the characters would suddenly break out into song. 

And when they do sing, they do it in the most awkward, half-assed way possible, almost as if Favreau was apologizing for their presence. Either commit to the songs fully, or leave them out altogether.

The Jungle Book is Disney's latest "live action" remake of one of their classic animated films. It's technical brilliant, but somewhat lacking in substance and soul. The vocal work is very uneven, and the songs should have been left out completely. Kids will no doubt be mesmerized by it though. I give it a B.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Why Do They Call Them Comics: Snuffy Smith

The American Educational System at work, ladies and gentlemen!

Only in America could a school give a student a failing grade four hundred times and still remain open for business, as the unconcerned teaching staff actually chuckles at the students' lack of learning skills.

As is the norm when it comes to Snuffy Smith (or "Smif," as the other characters call him), there's nothing particularly amusing about this strip. I included it because of the way it's laid out. 

Note the way the text in the first and last word balloons don't fill up the available space there's room for another whole line.

That's a sure sign you're looking at a recycled strip. There's no doubt in my mind that this particular comic has appeared in the newspaper at least once before. Current artist/writer John Rose simply took an old strip, removed the text, wrote some new lines and BAM! Instant "new" strip! Who cares if the new dialogue doesn't fill up the old word balloons? He had a deadline to meet!

Oh, merciful Jesus! When Loweezy seductively told Snuffy they had the house all to themselves, for a horrifying moment I thought we were going to forced to witness these two grotesque, pasty hillbilly homonculi writhing around the floor in carnal ecstasy. 

Our nation dodged a bullet tonight, ladies and gentlemen.

Friday, May 27, 2016

The Flash Season 2, Episode 23: The Race Of His Life

It's the season finale of The Flash!

This week we bid adieu to Zoom once and for all (I hope), we find out the true identity of a mystery character, and the legacy of a Golden Age speedster is finally restored.

Overall it was a very uneven season. This is due in no small part to a lack of focus on the core characters and their storylines. The series got sidetracked introducing a new half of Firestorm (after actor Robbie Amell's untimely departure to pursue a movie career), and it spent a ridiculously inordinate amount of time setting up The CW's new Arrowverse series, Legends Of Tomorrow. By the time all those obligations were fulfilled, the series' momentum was gone, and it never quite recovered.

It also didn't help that this season's overall storyarc was a carbon copy of last years an older mentor to Barry turns out to be an evil speedster who wants to steal his speed, kill him, or both. Some free advice to the writers no more evil speedster storylines for a while, eh guys?

This season's big bad, Zoom, was problematical as well. Has there ever been a character with so much potential who turned out to be such a disappointment? Visually he was amazing, what with his soulless black eyes and his unsettling, torn membrane of a mouth. Add in actor Tony Todd's otherworldly, intimidating growl and you had one terrifying figure.

But like most characters shrouded in mystery, the more we learned about Zoom, the less menacing he became. Especially when revealed his true identity and we saw actor Teddy Sears' baby face under the mask. Some mysteries are better left unsolved.

Zoom's every-changing motivations didn't do the series any favors either. He swapped master plans more than Princess Leia changed outfits in The Return Of The Jedi. He started out wanting the Flash's speed. Fair enough. Then after he "conquered" Earth-2 (which looked curiously unaffected when we eventually saw it), he decided he wanted to conquer Earth-1. Then he went back to trying to steal the Flash's speed again, and succeeded. Then in the last couple of episodes he suddenly decided he wanted to turn Barry to the Dark Side. And finally in this season finale, completely out of the blue, he decided he wanted to blow up the entire multiverse. After a while it became exhausting trying to keep up with what he was trying to do from week to week.

Season 2 also seemed to be less about actual plot, and more about shocking revelations and plot twists whether they made any sense or not. Take Zoom's true identity. I have this sneaking suspicion the writers didn't even know who he really was when they introduced him. I can easily imagine the following conversation in the writer's room:

Writer #1: "Guys, I have an amazing idea! What if we say Zoom is really Jay Garrick?"
Writer #2: "That's awesome! But how's that possible? How would we explain it?"
Writer #1: "I have no idea. But think what an amazing cliffhanger it'll be!"

Hopefully Season 3 will be feature much less of this "stunt plotting" and get back to actual solid storytelling.

That's not to say things were all bad though. There was quite a bit of good on display in Season 2. Grant Gustin did some of his best and most powerful work yet as Barry Allen. Tom Cavanagh was also amazing, playing the same, yet very different Earth-2 Harrison Wells. Iris' character was much improved this season as well, and was far, far less annoying than she was in Season 1. Danielle Panabaker surprised everyone as the wonderfully evil Killer Frost. And the whole visit to Earth-2 was awesome, and very well done, giving the entire cast a chance to cut loose and play alternate versions of themselves. It's just too bad there wasn't more like this.


The Plot:
Picking up where we left off last week, Zoom kills Barry's dad Henry Allen right before his eyes. Barry attacks Zoom, and the two speedsters dash through Central City. Zoom somehow duplicates himself. Barry manages to catch one of the Zooms, who begs him to "End me." Just then the other Zoom kills the first one from behind. The remaining Zoom says Barry's "almost ready" and runs off. Well, that was certainly weird.

Cut to Henry's funeral, which, as is the law on all TV shows, takes place on an overcast, rainy day. Barry's too upset to deliver a eulogy, so Joe steps in and does the honors.

At the West house, Barry asks the STAR Labs Gang what they plan to do about Zoom. They reply nothing
— after all, what can they do? He's a psychotic speedster who can travel between dimensions and kill them all at will.

Just then Zoom runs past the house, and Barry follows. When he catches up, Zoom challenges him to a race. Yep, that's right. This nightmarish figure the writers want us to be terrified of wants to race the Flash. What is he, six years old? He says if Barry doesn't agree, he'll start killing his friends and family one by one.

Back at STAR Labs, Harry discovers Zoom stole a Magnetar, whatever the hell that is, from Mercury Labs. If fully charged, the Magnetar can be used as a weapon of mass destruction. Barry says he has no choice then but to race Zoom and defeat him. 

Joe tries to talk Barry out of racing, but he says he has to do it. Joe realizes that Barry doesn't just want to win, he plans to kill Zoom in revenge. Joe says he's sorry for what's about to happen, and Harry shoots Barry with a trank dart. Barry wakes up in the Secret Super Jail. The whole Gang tells him he can't race Zoom on his terms, as the supervillain will surely cheat and everyone will die. They shut the cell door and leave.

Harry says he has a plan to take down Zoom, which involves using Caitlin as bait, shooting him with power-sapping "boots," having Cisco "vibe" open a portal and toss him back into Earth-2. It's a great plan, except for the fact that even if it works, Zoom can open a portal of his own and come right back five seconds later.

As the Gang prepares their plan, Jesse tells Harry that he can stay here if he wants, but she's returning to Earth-2. I guess there aren't enough blimps and art-deco buildings here on Earth-1 for her taste.

The Star Labs Gang sets up their trap in an industrial park, and soon Zoom appears. Caitlin approaches him and says she made a mistake walking out on him, and he's the only one who understands her dark side, or something. Zoom says he understands and then tries to kill her. He goes right through her, revealing she's a hologram. Harry boots Zoom, but Joe's gun conveniently jams. He finally runs out and manually inserts the trank darts into Zoom! Cisco opens a portal, but unfortunately both Zoom and Joe are pulled into it. Drama!

Back at STAR Labs, Cisco tries to vibe and see if Joe's OK, but can't find him. Harry says Zoom booby-trapped the Magnetar so it'll explode and destroy the Earth if he tries to stop it. Just then Wally waltzes into STAR Labs and asks where Joe is. They tell him he's on Earth-2 and they have no plans to rescue him, as they all agreed to never open another breach again, no matter what. Wally goes ballistic and releases the Flash from Super Jail. 

Over on Earth-2, Zoom has Joe strung up in his lair. He taunts Zoom, saying Barry won't race him. Iron Mask is still in his cell, tapping away. Joe asks who he is, and for some reason Zoom decides to tell him. He says he visited many other Earths in the multiverse, taking out speedsters and stealing their powers. He found Iron Mask on one of these Earths, and tried to take his speed, but couldn't. He then brought him to Earth-2 and locked him in his dungeon as a trophy. As a final insult, he took his identity of Jay Garrick (!) and masqueraded as a hero on Earth-2.

Back on Earth-1, Barry's furious that the Gang locked him up and went after Zoom themselves. He says he'll race Zoom and beat him with or without them. Feeling they have no other choice, the Gang agrees to help. Cisco vibes a message from Barry to Zoom, saying he agrees to race him if he brings Joe back unharmed. Zoom agrees.

They meet back at the industrial park. Somehow the Magnetar has grown from the size of a compact car into a ferris wheel-sized loop. I guess Zoom modified it while we weren't looking? I honestly don't know. Zoom appears and brings Joe along, and begins monologuing. He says that as he and the Flash race, each loop they make around the Magnetar will charge it, and when it reaches its full potential it'll unleash an energy pulse that'll destroy all the Earths in the multiverse— except for Earth-1, of course. That must be one hell of a pulse.

The Flash and Zoom begin racing. After a few hundred laps, Barry creates his own time remnant, which frees Joe. Zoom then pulls the real (?) Barry from the Magnetar and they start battling again. Meanwhile Time Remnant Barry begins running around the base of the Magnetar to counteract its pulse. He runs so fast he disintegrates, destroying the Magnetar in the process. Time Remnant Barry just sacrificed himself to save the multiverse!

Original (?) Barry manages to defeat Zoom. He pauses for an instant, as he decides whether to deliver the killing blow. Suddenly a couple of Time Wraiths appear and snatch Zoom away. His body begins withering and desiccating as they carry him into a breach, where he'll never bother anyone ever again (at least until the writers decide to bring him back).

Sometime later at STAR Labs, Wally's puzzled as to just what a time remnant is, and how Barry created one. You ain't the only one, Wally! Barry tries to explain it, but Wally stops him, saying he's sorry he asked. You know, writers, when a plot point doesn't make any sense, you can't just sweep it under the rug by having a character say they don't need an explanation. That's cheating and lazy writing.

Apparently Barry somehow made a quick jaunt to Earth-2 and brought Iron Mask back with him. Cisco and Harry remove his mask, and revealing he's the Earth-3 Jay Garrick, who looks exactly like Henry Allen. Barry freaks out and leaves.

Jay dons his old suit (that I guess was stashed in a locker in Zoom's dungeon?) and cuts a dashing figure as the Earth-3 Flash. He decides to wear the Mercury helmet that Hunter Zolomon wore when he was pretending to be Jay Garrick, saying it's time he took something from Zoom for a change. Personally I don't think I'd want to wear my sworn enemy's helmet, but that's just me.

Jay asks how he's going to get back home to Earth-3. Harry says he might be able to help, as he's decided to go back to Earth-2 with Jesse. They all say tearful goodbyes, as Cisco opens a breach and Jay, Harry and Jesse jump through.

Back at the West house, the Gang is celebrating. Barry and Iris talk on the porch. He says he's too broken inside to enter a relationship with her right now. She says she understands, and will wait for him as long as it takes.

Barry says, "That's why I'm so sorry, but I have to do this." He takes off running; so fast that he goes back in time. He travels back to the night of his mother's murder. He stops Eobard Thawne from killing her, which will no doubt have serious and extreme consequences in Season 3. He looks up and sees the version of himself who witnessed the murder (see Season 1) fade away. He turns to his terrified mother and says she's safe now. 

• So in this episode, Zoom's master plan is to challenge Barry to a race. Are you freakin' kidding me? What is he, six years old? 

This kind of goofy plot used to happen in Silver Age comics all the time, and it would work fine on The Flash if this was any other episode. But Zoom just killed Barry's father right in front of him. It's a whiplash-inducing change in tone to suddenly have him want to race immediately afterward, like they're schoolyard rivals.

The writers make a valiant attempt to smooth over this by making the race part of the Magnetar-charging process. Nice try, guys.

• I'm not even going to attempt to try and understand the whole "creating a time remnant" thing. Apparently 
if you're a speedster you can run back in time, grab an earlier version of yourself and bring it to the present to help you out. No matter how you look at it, that doesn't make any damned sense. 

If your past self is killed, then the current version of you should immediately wink out of existence. That doesn't happen of course, because the time remnants are from a "dead end" timeline or some bull hockey. Sigh… I need to lie down. I'm getting one of my sick headaches.

It's so easy to create one of these time remnants that Barry successfully does so on his first try. And apparently it's even easier to convince this "other self" to sacrifice its life to help your cause!

• According to Henry Allen's tombstone, he was sixty one years old. Actor John Wesley Shipp is sixty one as well!

• Wally apparently learned Barry's secret identity between episodes. I'm very thankful he was OK with it, and we weren't subjected to another "How Could You Lie To Me?" scene from the West family.

I think at this point Captain Singh is the only character on the show who doesn't know Barry's the Flash.

• In order to keep Barry from doing anything stupid, Harry shoots Barry with a trank dart, knocking him out. Barry wakes up in the Secret Super Jail, and sees the entire gang standing there staring at him.

Did the entire Star Labs Gang really all assemble outside Barry's cell and wait around for an hour until he woke up?

• The Star Labs Gang comes up with their own plan to defeat Zoom. They'll lure him into the open, boot him, then toss him through a breach into Earth-2. Somehow they're convinced this will end his threat forever.

I don't understand how they can think that. We've already seen that Zoom can simply pound his fist on reality and open up a breach anytime he wants. What's to keep him from opening another one and returning a second after they banish him?

• In his dungeon, Zoom gives Joe an abbreviated version of his life story, saying:
 "I got my speed the same way Barry did. When I got struck by the dark matter and electricity, I became Zoom, the fastest man alive. Wasn't long before I had this Earth on its knees. But it wasn't enough. I wanted more. I wanted to be faster. So I created a speed drug. Velocity-9."
Zoom did absolutely no such thing. Masquerading as Jay Garrick, he convinced the Earth-2 Harrison Wells to create a drug that would make him faster so he could defeat Zoom. Wells whipped up Velocity-1 through 5, but they were all failures. "Jay" actually did create Velocity-6, but it caused him to lose his powers and began killing him.

The Earth-1 Caitlin Snow then helped "Jay" with his plan. She refined the formula, creating Velocity-7 and 8 before finally coming up with the successful Velocity-9.

I don't know if the writers were trying to simplify the history of Velocity-9 here, or if they just plain forgot what happened earlier. Either way, Zoom's wrong.

• In the comics, Earth-2 was where all the Golden Age superheroes (such as Jay Garrick) lived. There was also an Earth-3, which was filled with super villains, and the only hero was Lex Luthor.

It looks like The Flash writers have reversed this for some reason. So far very single metahuman from Earth-2 has been evil. And in this episode we find out that the real Jay Garrick is from Earth-3. So why the switch?

I'm betting that because they wanted to introduce the metahuman doppelgängers first, so it would have been (even more) confusing if they said they came from Earth-3, when no Earth-2 had yet been introduced. So I'm willing to give them this one, even if it's wrong and kind of clumsy.

• When did Cisco develop the ability to open up portals to Earth-2? Up until this week he had little or no control over his "vibe" powers, and could only use them to see flashes of the future or peer into Earth-2. It almost feels like there's an episode missing here.

Last week in Invincible he could suddenly fire some sort of sonic blast at Black Siren, so I guess sudden power manifestations are the norm with him.

• When Harry first mentions the Magnetar, we cut to a flashback of Zoom finding it inside Mercury Labs (he's at the left hand side of the screen above, gazing at in in wonder). Note that the Magnetar is a bit larger than the average doorway.

We see it again in the industrial park, as the Gang makes their play to send Zoom back to Earth-2. He stands in the middle of it, making a few last-minute adjustments. At this point it's still fairly small.

The next time we see the Magnetar, it's inexplicably expanded, now roughly the size of the London Eye. What the...? That skyscraper-sized contraption was not there the first time we saw the industrial park. If it was, Cisco would have commented on it, as he does here.

So where the hell did it come from? Zoom was back on Earth-2 from the time the Gang "banished" him until he returned for the big race. Did he use his superspeed to build this mammoth construction in the seconds before the Gang arrived? 

Once again, it feels like there are big chunks of story missing here. I'm wondering if the episode was running long and they had to start trimming scenes?

• Zoom reveals his second Master Plan of this episode— using the Magnetar to destroy the multiverse. As he and Barry race around the Magnetar, their Speed Force lightning will charge it up, releasing a powerful pulse.

But why does Zoom need Barry for that? Even if it takes more than one speedster to charge up the Magnetar, why couldn't Zoom just conjure up another time remnant of himself to help?

• At long last Barry beats Zoom senseless, and pauses as he's about to kill him. Which life-altering decision will he make? Will he give into his anger and kill his enemy in cold blood? Or will he show him mercy, proving he's a hero? 

The answer is apparently none of our goddamned business. Before Barry can finish wrestling with his decision, the Time Wraiths show up and whisk Zoom away. That was certainly convenient!

• Isn't it funny how the Dementors, er, I mean the Time Wraiths, get pissed when a speedster travels in time, but are fine when Rip Hunter and his crew do it every week over on Legends Of Tomorrow

Oddly enough they don't even bother Barry when he makes a major alteration the timeline at the end of the episode.

• As the Time Wraiths carried Zoom away, his face becomes withered and gaunt, and he looks not unlike one of the zombies from The Walking Dead.

I wonder if this was a nod to the Black Flash? In the comics, he's basically the Grim Reaper for speedsters. Could Zoom return some day as the Black Flash?

• I called it! Well, sort of. For months I've been saying that Iron Mask would turn out to be the real Jay Garrick. Especially after he was frantically tapping out the letters J, A and Y in Escape From Earth-2

Once Zoom revealed he was Jay Garrick, aka Hunter Zolomon, I changed my mind, and said Iron Mask would somehow turn out to be a version of Henry Allen.

Welp, looks like I was right in both cases. Iron Mask was both Jay Garrick and (sort of) Henry Allen.

• Seeing John Wesley Shipp in a version of the Flash costume again was the highlight of the episode. Best of all the costume's pretty darned close to the one in the comics, and it even features bright primary colors, instead of the dark, muted hues we usually get in modern superhero movies and shows. Amazing!

That said, the costume seemed to fit Shipp a bit oddly, almost like there wasn't time to properly size it.

And it was reeeeally contrived when Real Jay decided to wear Fake Jay's helmet, saying, "Well maybe I can continue that sentiment. Take something from him for a change, make it my own."

Oy. Why not just make the helmet a part of his costume from the start? Why would anyone want to wear something that belonged to their mortal enemy? And how the hell is he going to keep a metal helmet— without a chin strap— on his head when he runs at superspeed?

• I'm very, very happy the writers found a way to restore the Jay Garrick Flash as a hero. The Golden Age Flash is one of the very first superheroes, debuting way back in 1940. It bothered me quite a bit that the writers turned him into a psychopath this season, as Zoom tainted his name. Hopefully we'll see more of this true version of Jay Garrick soon, to wash away the memory of his impostor. 

• After Zoom's defeated, everyone just sort of ignores the fact that Barry just created a duplicate of himself and they all watched it die. Even Barry doesn't seem all that torn up or weirded out by witnessing his own death. 

When Barry tries to explain the concept of time remnants to Wally, he says it's something he can't do very often. Let's hope so! In fact I hope the writers all vow to never use this ridiculous plot crutch ever again!

• Harry and Jesse bid the STAR Labs Gang a tearful farewell as they return to Earth-2. I wouldn't worry too much about this development. There's no way in hell the show's going to let actor Tom Cavanagh leave. And they wouldn't have introduced a character nicknamed Jesse Quick if they didn't have big plans for her.

• At the very end of the episode, Barry makes the incredibly selfish and boneheaded decision to alter the timeline and prevent his mother's murder. Idiot.

This is no doubt going to cause a huge chain reaction and have major, MAJOR repercussions for the entire cast in Season 3. If the writers play by the rules of time travel, then the fact that Barry's parents are alive and well means he never went to live with the Wests. If he didn't do that, then he probably wouldn't have fallen in love with Iris, and I doubt he'd have been inspired by Joe to become a CSI. If he didn't follow that path, then he wouldn't be in his lab the night of the particle accelerator explosion, or get hit by lightning, meaning he wouldn't become the Flash. In fact there probably wouldn't be an explosion in the first place, as stopping Eobard Thawne means the real Harrison Wells didn't die.

And those are just the potential changes I can come up with off the top of my head! There would no doubt be even more.

As I said though, these changes would happen if the writers play by the rules. As we saw last season and many times in this one, they gleefully ignore the laws of cause and effect as it suits their scripts. For example, at the end of last season, Eddie Thawne killed himself to wipe Eobard Thawne out of existence. Taking Thawne out of the picture should have resulted in the same changes I listed above. It did not. Nothing seemed to change for Barry and the cast at all. In fact, Eobard Thawne even returned this season in the aptly titled The Reverse Flash Returns. Who knows if there'll actually be any changes this time around?

I have a feeling they might actually go through with altering the timeline this, er, time. I'm betting Season 3 will open with everything radically changed. Barry's not the Flash, and he lives with his parents. If he knows Iris at all, it's because he frequents Jitters, where she's a barista. He won't know the STAR Labs Gang at all. After a while Cisco's plot-convenient vibe powers will reach through the timeline and let him know something's terribly wrong. He'll then realize Barry's the focal point of the disturbance, and will track him down. Barry will then be faced with the unimaginable— he'll have to decide whether to continue living in a reality that's "wrong," or sacrifice his mother to restore the timeline. There, The Flash writers. I just wrote Season 3 for you.

It looks like the writers are gearing up for an adaptation of the Flashpoint comic miniseries published in 2011. In the comic, Barry Allen wakes up to discover his world has radically changed. He's no longer the Flash, his mother is still alive, Captain Cold is Central City's greatest hero, and Superman and the Justice League don't exist. Somehow he can remember the previous timeline.

Barry eventually discovers that he's responsible for changing history, by going back in time and preventing the Reverse Flash from killing his mother. It's a long and very complicated story, but Barry manages to recreate the accident that gave him his powers, and he goes back in time again to prevent himself from stopping the Reverse Flash. He succeeds, the Reverse Flash kills Nora Allen, and the timeline is restored. Sounds pretty familiar, eh?

• Best Line Of The Episode:

Harry (to Cisco): "Have you ever worked with a tool before?” 
Cisco: “I’m working with one now.” 

A Hard Lesson

This week Anne Graham Lotz, daughter of the late famed televangelist Billy Graham, appeared on the Steve Deace (whoever the hell that is) radio show, flashing her apex predator smile and warning Americans about their sinful, sinful ways.

In the interview, Graham Lotz claimed, through her ghastly rictus grin, that the Lord God allowed the 9-11 attacks to happen due to America's recent awareness and acceptance of transgenders.

Interesting! You know, I'm pretty sure the whole transgender rights issue is a very recent topic. It most definitely was not a thing back in 2001. Heck, gays were only just starting to become tentatively accepted by the general public back then, so I know darned good an well transgenders weren't on anyone's radar in 2001.

So let's see if I have this straight— according to Graham Lotz, God is apparently so pissed off at America's acceptance of Caitlin Jenner than he used his unlimited power to reach fifteen years into the past and cause the World Trade Center to be destroyed. Impressive!

I realize everyone has their own interpretation of God, but I believe this is the first time he's been presented as a Star Trek villain. 

It's been said that the Holy Spirit works in mysterious ways, but punishing us back in 2001 for something we didn't do until 2016 seems counterproductive. How are we ever going to learn our lesson and renounce our wicked ways if we don't yet know what we did, er, will do wrong?

Graham Lotz went on to say that the recent rash of destructive tornadoes in the Midwest is God's punishment for the election of the first openly gay President, which will occur in 2032.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

It Came From The Cineplex: The Darkness

The Darkness was written by Shayne Armostrong and Shane Krause, and directed by Greg McLean.

Armstrong and Krause are Australian writing partners whose previous credits include the Doctor Who spinoff K9, along with a series of TV movies you're unlikely to have ever heard of. 

McLean is an Australian filmmaker (I get the distinct impression that despite the fact it takes place in America, this is an Australian film) who previously directed Wolf Creek and Wolf Creek 2, which were both decent slasher-type movies. As I always say, you can't hit one out of the park every time at bat.

Sigh… another month, another watered-down, PG-13 suburban "horror" film that's about as scary as a basket of kittens. There've been so many of these half-assed horror films in the past ten years or so that I can no longer tell them apart. 

The blandness even extends to the movie's title— The Darkness. I can't imagine a more uninspired name. Originally the film was going to be called 6 Miranda Drive, which is even worse, and tells you absolutely nothing about the content. As dull as The Darkness title is, at least it sounds slightly ominous.

Imagine the Hawaiian vacation episode of The Brady Bunch (in which Bobby steals a tiki idol necklace from a sacred site) crossed with the original Poltergeist, and you'll have a pretty good idea of what this film's like. 

In fact, every frame of this film is inspired by, if not lifted directly from Poltergeist. The writers don't just use it as a rough outline, they slavishly copy it in every possible way. There's a suburban family whose house is plagued by strange happenings. There's a younger child who's the only one who can see or communicate with the spirits. The spirit activity escalates until they begin physically attacking the members of the household. Worst of all, the family ends up calling a professional spiritual medium to rid their house of evil spirits! 

The writers of The Darkness simply swapped out angry corpses for ancient Indian demons, and switched the medium from Caucasian to Hispanic. Other than that they're pretty much the same film.

According to the promotional materials, The Darkness is based on a true story, and I believe it. Yep, there's no doubt in my mind that it's true that this movie is based on a story.

Once again we get another one of those "Produced by" posters. This one proudly proclaims it's from the producers of The Visit, Sinister and Insidious. First of all, that's nothing to brag about. Secondly, does Hollywood actually believe this works? Do they really think the general public is going to look at this poster and say, "Hey, this movie's from the producer of The Visit! That guy produced the hell out of that movie, so this one HAS to be good!"

Lastly, take a good look at that poster. It's supposed to be terrifying (I think), but it looks for all the world like a clueless husband was working on his car, mistakenly grabbed a bedspread instead of a towel and wiped his greasy hands on it.


The Plot:
Peter Taylor (played by Kevin Bacon), his wife Bronny (played by Radha Mitchell), his teenaged daughter Stephanie and young son Mikey all go on a vacation to the Grand Canyon. While there, Mikey, who's autistic, wanders off from the campsite and falls into a deep cave. Inside the cave he finds strange markings on the wall, along with five stones arranged on a makeshift altar. The stones are all carved with primitive symbols. Mikey takes them, hides them in his backpack and strolls back to the campsite.

The Taylors return home and it's not long before odd things start happening around their house. The kitchen tap turn on by itself (terrifying!), light bulbs explode (horrifying!) and strange noises emanate from the attic (ghastly!). Mikey says his new imaginary friend "Jenny" is responsible.

As the incidents escalate, the Taylor family begins slowly falling apart. Peter, who once had an affair, begins spending more time at work and flirts with his beautiful young assistant. Bronny, a recovering alcoholic, begins drinking again. Stephanie throws up in a container and hides it under her bed (!), revealing she's bulimic. Mikey's already odd behavior becomes more erratic, as he tries to kill his grandmother's cat.

Bronny takes to the internet to find answers. She finds a Youtube video that helpfully explains everything that's happening. According to the video, the Anasazi Indians believe that thousands of years ago powerful demons they called the Sky People left their dimension and appeared on Earth. They took the forms of a crow, a snake, a coyote, a wolf and a buffalo. The demons were prone to dragging children into their dimension, but were mostly concerned with triggering an apocalyptic event called The Darkness (we have a title!), that would cover the Earth in night, or something. 
The Anasazi were able to banish the Sky People back to their dimension, and placed five carved rocks in a cave to prevent their return. 

Just then Bronny hears a noise, and discovers Mikey's set the wall of his room on fire (?). Peter, who doesn't buy into all the supernatural guff, is fed up with Mikey and tries to discipline him, but Bronny stops him, saying the fire wasn't his fault.

That night the Taylors have dinner with Peter's boss (played by Paul Reiser) and his wife Wendy (played by Ming-Na Wen). Bronny and Wendy both chat about the supernatural, while the Boss (amazingly, Reiser's character has no name) interrupts and shuts them down.

When the Taylors return home, they find Mikey covered with black, sooty handprints, and blood pours from his mouth. Apparently this is no cause for alarm, as Peter suggests waiting until morning to take him to the hospital. Bronny brings up Peter's affair (is this really the best time for that?), and accuses him of being distant and not noticing anything. He proves he notices plenty by pointing out the bottles of booze she cleverly hid under the couch. Jesus, what is this, Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? Meanwhile Mikey sits in his room, as demonic looking hands come out of his burned wall, indicating it's a portal of some kind.

Stephanie falls asleep and is awakened by a series of black handprints appearing on her legs, arms and neck. Ah, so the Sky People are perverts! Peter finds Mikey in his room, which is covered by handprints on the walls and ceiling. Peter's finally convinced something supernatural is behind the odd occurrences.

He contacts "Boss," who says his own son had some sort of vague supernatural malady a year or two back, and was cured by a couple of spiritual healers. He gives Peter their number.

Peter calls the healers, and Tangina Barrows, er, I mean Teresa Morales and her granddaughter Kat arrive. Teresa speaks only Spanish, so Kat serves as her translator. Bronny tells them about the Sky People, and the healers get to work busting the ghosts. I could make a joke here about a white family hiring a couple of Hispanic women to "clean" their house, but I won't.

Teresa uses metal divining rods to hunt down the demons and chase them back to their own dimension. They clean the downstairs, but when they enter Mikey's room, Teresa says it's where the real evil dwells. As she recites a banishing spell, the unseen, angry demons smash the windows and hurl shards of glass at her. 

As the others are distracted, Mikey walks through the portal in the wall of his room. When Bronny notices Mikey's missing, Peter rushes into the room and the door locks behind him. He sees Mikey on the other side of the portal, standing with the Sky People. They're wearing masks of a crow, snake, coyote, wolf and buffalo. 

Peter sees the carved stones on the floor of Mikey's room, picks them up and leaps through the portal. Unfortunately he's too afraid to place them back into position, which will banish the Sky People. He tells the demons to take him instead of Mikey. So he's too terrified of them to lay some rocks on an altar, but can willingly offer to sacrifice himself. Got it.

Mikey, who's "not afraid" (because of the whole autism thing), picks up the stones and puts them back in place. The Sky People vanish one by one, and Peter and Mikey jump back through the portal as it disappears. Teresa says, "This house is clean!" Wait, wrong movie.

We then see a ridiculously contrived ending scene of the Taylor family having a picnic on a golden sunny day. I guess all their deep-rooted psychological problems are cured!

• In most suburban horror films, the family in question is plagued by deep-seated psychological problems. In fact it often seems like the sinister occurrences in their home are caused by long-suppressed neuroses finally bubbling to the surface rather than ghosts.

Nowhere is that more true than in The Darkness. Every member of the Taylor family has some sort of mental disorder. Peter's a workaholic and philanderer. Bronny's a recovering alcoholic. Daughter Stephanie is a distant teen with bulimia. Young son Mikey is autistic. 

Jesus, is there any syndrome or malady the writers forgot to trowel onto them? I'm surprised Stephanie didn't run away to join ISIS, or Peter wasn't revealed to be an evil cyborg from the future.

• During the Grand Canyon vacation, Mikey wanders around the sharp rocks and sheer cliff walls. He steps on a weak spot in the ground and falls into a large cave. The way the scene's shot, it looks like he falls at least a hundred feet. After he takes the carved stones from the altar, he casually strolls right out of the cave, and I swear it looks like he exits about five feet from where he fell into the hole. 

How the hell did that happen? Were there stairs in the cave? A really tall ladder? How'd he fall a hundred feet while staying at ground level?

• So five small rocks arranged on a makeshift altar are the only things keeping these super-powerful evil entities from invading our world. Got it.

Good thing no one else ever discovered the cave in the past thousand years. Or that there was never an earthquake that dislodged the rocks.
 Who the hell would ever name a character "Bronny?" Especially these days, when My Little Pony fandom is still going strong? Every time I type her name I can't help but think "Brony."

• Apparently Mikey doesn't go to any kind of school. We see Stephanie come and go to class every day, so obviously the story's taking place during the school year, but Mikey— who looks to be at least ten— stays home every day with Bronny. She doesn't even appear to be homeschooling him. Shouldn't he be in some sort of special class for kids with his condition?

• Who the hell is Jenny? When strange things begin happening in the Taylor house, Mikey blames them on his new imaginary friend, who he calls Jenny. Later on we find out that the "Sky People" are behind all the occurrences.

I refuse to believe that any of these ancient demons from pre-history goes by the name of "Jenny."

Also, at one point Bronny goes grocery shopping, and takes Mikey with her. He begs her for a helium-filled balloon, and she gives in and says yes. He then says that "Jenny" would like one as well, looking at her expectantly. Smash cut to the Taylor home, where we see two balloons floating in Mikey's room.

So apparently the evil, world-conquering Sky People like playing with balloons.

OK, later on we're told that the Sky People like to abduct children, so I suppose it's possible that "Jenny" was one of those kids, and they're using her spirit or something to try and indoctrinate Mikey. I get the feeling I'm putting way more thought into this issue than the screenwriters did though.

• I'm a big fan of actress Ming Na Wen, and have been watching her in movies and TV since the 1980s. It pains me to see her starring in dreck like this. Surely there are better parts for her than derivative, watered-down PG-13 horror films like this one?

• Kevin Bacon and Ming-Na Wen are both 1980s soap opera veterans. Bacon starred as alcoholic teen Tim Werner on The Guiding Light, while Wen played Vietnamese refugee Lien Hughes on As The World Turns.

• Bronny discovers her daughter Stephanie is bulimic. A couple things here:

First of all, every time Steph eats something, she retires to her room where she chastely vomits into a plastic bag and seals it inside a Tupperware container (awesome product placement!). Bronny finds several hundred of these containers under Steph's bed. Jesus Christ! Did it never once occur to this air-headed teen to quietly dump the Tupperware in the trash? Did she really think no one would ever notice the large, festering vomit cemetery under her bed?

Secondly, after her family discovers her condition, they take her to a therapist. And that's the end of that! We see her go in for one session, and the problem is never mentioned again! I'm pretty sure it takes years to get over bulimia. If ever.

Kevin Bacon gets a good look at the script in The Darkness.
• Bronny does a google search, and conveniently finds a YouTube video (with the logo strangely scrubbed off) explaining Everything You've Ever Wanted To Know About The Sky People, But Were Afraid To Ask. Yep, there's nothing more riveting that watching a character in a movie surf the internet!

We then see a montage of the webpages and articles she finds. They look like they contain pertinent information that would be good to know, but they fly by much too fast to for us to read, making me wonder why they bothered with them in the first place.

• I could overlook most of the film's many, many similarities to Poltergeist, except for one— calling in the occult expert to clean the house. They might as well have just taken footage of Tangina Barrons and spliced it directly into The Darkness. It's that blatant. Teresa Morales, the spiritual medium here, does everything but shout, "Cross over, children! All are welcome! GO INTO THE LIGHT!"

• The end of the film is a huge cheat. Peter finds out that Mikey stole the carved stones from the Grand Canyon cave, which released the Sky People from their exile. One he discovered that, I figured he'd get in his car, drive all the way back to the Grand Canyon and replace the stones on the cave altar. Nope!

The Sky People very helpfully open up a portal in the wall of Mikey's room. This allows Peter and Mikey to step through and instantly teleport several hundred miles to the cave where the stones were found. Once inside the cave, Mikey replaces the stones, which banishes the Sky People back to their own dimension.

Why the hell would the Sky People do this? They basically just helped Peter destroy them!

Oddly enough, once the stones are replaced and the spirits vanquished, the portal is considerate enough to stay open long enough for Peter and Mikey to step back through into their home. 

• The final scene of the film, in which the Taylors are picnicking in the sunshine, apparently free of all their problems, was unintentionally hilarious. These people were all at each other's throats earlier, and now they're apparently blissfully free of all their problems. 

Yes, we're told that the Sky People amplify negative emotions and cause people to argue and fight. But the Taylors all seemed like they hated one another before the demons came to live with them. I ain't buying their over the top, 1950s sitcom family act.

The Darkness is a bland mess of a film that's a virtual carbon copy of the original Poltergeist. Unfortunately it proves that stealing from a good film often results in a poor one. Don't bother seeing this one in the theater— stay home and re-watch Poltergeist again. I give it a C-.
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