Tuesday, September 30, 2014

It Came From The Cineplex: Tusk

Tusk was written and directed by Kevin Smith.

The film is a very disturbing mix of horror and dark comedy that has trouble settling on a tone. It's very reminiscent of Misery and The Human Centipede, with a pinch of Psycho thrown into the mix. If you're squeamish and not a fan of body horror, this isn't the movie for you.

The movie's origin comes dangerously close to being more interesting than the film itself. During one of Smith's "SModcasts," which he produces with his longtime friend Scott Mosier, he told of an ad he saw on Gumtree (sort of the British equivalent of craigslist). The ad was for an eccentric homeowner who was offering free room and board to a lodger willing to dress up in a walrus costume for two hours per day.

The ad turned out to be a hoax of course, but Smith and Mosier ran with it and in the course of their podcast created an entire horror film based on the concept. Smith then asked his Twitter followers to vote yes if they wanted him to make the film, or no if not. Apparently the ayes won out, and here we are. We can blame the internet for this one, I suppose.

I'm not a fan of Kevin Smith's work, as his brand of movie making is much too self indulgent for my tastes. Nowhere is that self indulgence more evident than in the end credits, in which we hear a snippet of the actual podcast in which Smith and Moiser come up with the plot. They're barely able to speak as they chortle and guffaw at their own cleverness.

Smith also seems completely enamored with his own overwrought and excessive dialog, as conversations between his characters tend to go on interminably. You're making movies, Kevin. You're supposed to show, not tell.

Oddly enough I liked Smith's previous film Red State quite a bit. It seemed to avoid most of the pitfalls and tropes of his earlier work.  For the first time it felt like he'd made a regular film rather than a Kevin Smith movie. I hoped that Tusk would benefit from the lessons he learned while making Red State, but it wasn't to be. Tusk starts out promisingly, but halfway through it falters and falls into the same old self indulgence ruts as his earlier work. 

The Plot:
Sleazy podcaster Wallace Bryton (played by Justin Long) travels to Canada in search of mockable material for his show. He's put in touch with an eccentric retired sailor named Howard Howe (played by the always excellent Michael Parks) and travels to his mansion to meet him. Howe is charming at first, but his chilling agenda is soon revealed.

Howe was shipwrecked for a time on a small island with a walrus as his only companion. He claims no friendship before or since has been as fulfilling as the one he had with "Mr. Tusk."

In order to relive his glory days with Mr. Tusk, Howe kidnaps Wallace and begins horrifically altering his body so he'll fit into a walrus costume he's sewn from human skin. The deformed Wallace is forced to wear the suit and act as a real walrus for Howe's amusement.

Wallace's girlfriend Ally, his podcast partner Teddy and a Canadian detective named Guy Lapointe (played by an uncredited Johnny Depp!) track Wallace to Howe's mansion, where events reach a gruesome and disturbing end.

• At the beginning of the film, Wallace and Teddy are watching a viral video of the Kill Bill Kid, a bumbling teen who swings a samurai sword and accidentally dismembers himself.

Obviously this is based on the Star Wars Kid video that first popped up way back in 2002. Timely!

• Speaking of timeliness, the film is chock full of Canadian jokes. You know, how Canadians are all overly polite, love hockey and say "aboot" instead of about? That sort of thing. This might have been mildly amusing twenty years ago, but now? They're covering some very, very well-worn ground.

• Is there a reason why the movie poster looks a lot like the one for The Nightmare Before Christmas? If it was intentional, I don't get the joke.

• The main character's name is "Wallace," and he's turned into a walrus. He also sports a cheesy looking mustache that's reminiscent of a walrus' whiskers. Com-O-Dee!

• On the way to Howe's mansion, Wallace encounters two snarky Canadian convenience store employees. The two teens are played by Harley Quinn Smith and Lily-Rose Depp, the daughters of Kevin Smith and Johnny Depp, respectively.

• Michael Parks stars as eccentric recluse Howard Howe, and as always he's absolutely hypnotic. You can't take your eyes off him. The initial meeting between Wallace and Howe is mesmerizing, as Howe starts out spinning colorful tales from his equally colorful life, but slowly and steadily descends into madness as his true intentions become clear. Smith's interminable dialog actually becomes an asset here when it's spoken by Parks. 

Parks also starred in Smith's Red State, playing a very Fred Phelps-like character. You may also remember him as Sheriff Earl McGraw in many of Quentin Tarantino's films.

• In order to transform Wallace, Howe drugs him and amputates his leg. When Wallace wakes up and demands answers, Howe spins an elaborate story of a brown recluse spider bite that necessitated the radical surgery.

During this scene, Howe is seen slowly and deliberately sharpening a long piece of bone. I didn't get it at first, but later realized he was actually carving Wallace's leg bone into a tusk to be used in his walrus suit. Yikes!

• Howe tells Wallace that he grew up as a Duplessis orphan, which amazingly was a real thing. 

In the early 20th century, Canadian orphanages were the responsibility of the provincial government, while mental institutions were wholly funded by the federal government. In order to save money and obtain federal funding, the Catholic Church relabeled their orphanages as mental institutions or sent their orphans to insane asylums. These Duplessis orphans were then quite often tortured and abused by fellow patients and staff alike.

Horrible, but I'm not sure it's justification for turning someone into a walrus.

• For some unfathomable reason, Howe leaves Wallace's cell phone on a table in the parlor (even though in an earlier scene he said it was accidentally stepped on and destroyed). Wallace gets ahold of it and manages to leave several frantic messages for help on Ally and Teddy's phones.

The two then begin a surprisingly sophisticated and methodical search for Wallace. I don't know if it was deliberate of just a coincidence, but this section of the film is very reminiscent of Alfred Hitchock's Psycho (except not as well done, of course), in which Lila Crane and Sam Loomis search for the missing Marion Crane, with the help of Detective Arbogast.

• Ally and Teddy contact eccentric Detective Guy Lapointe, who's devoted his life to capturing serial killer Howard Howe.

Despite the cutesy credits that assure us that Guy Lapointe stars as himself, he's actually played by Johnny Depp in heavy prosthetics (please excuse the poor quality photo; that's the best I could find). Unfortunately he gives Lapointe a ridiculous, over the top French-Canadian accent that would make Inspector Clouseau blush. It's a performance that makes Captain Jack Sparrow seem subtle.

I'm sure Depp was having the time of his life playing this role, but pity the poor audience that has to watch it. 

The Lapointe character seems like he wandered onto the set from a completely different film, and changes the entire tone of the movie. I assume his antics are supposed to be humorous, but they're just jarring, particularly when interspersed with the gruesome body horror scenes. 

Up to this point the film was a relatively competent combination of black comedy and disturbing horror. Depp's character sends it reeling straight into farce. He singlehandedly torpedoes the entire film.

I don't know if Smith just ate up Depp's performance and encouraged him to take it even further, or if he was afraid to try and reign in such an A-list actor. Whatever the reason, someone needed to tell Depp to tone it down a notch or twelve. Or better yet, edit him out of the film completely.

• Smith obviously realized that the main "turning a man into a walrus" story couldn't sustain an entire film, so he periodically splices in lengthy and talky flashback sequences. They do manage to pad out the runtime, but at the cost of the audiences' patience.

The most unnecessary of these flashbacks concerns Detective Lapointe's chance meeting with Howard Howe two years before the events of the film. It's a tour-de-force of scenery chewing, as the two actors try to out-overact one another with their outrageous accents.

The scene goes on far too long, does absolutely nothing to further the plot, and could easily be excised with no damage to the film whatsoever.

• After Wallace is abducted, we find out that his girlfriend Ally is having an affair with his best friend and co-host Teddy. Smith shoots these scenes in such a way that the identity of Ally's paramour is concealed for some time before finally revealing him. I honestly don't understand why he bothered to hide Teddy's identity as long as he did.

There're only five main characters in the film. Ally can't cheat on Wallace with himself, Howe's busy transforming Wallace, and she didn't meet LaPointe until after she started her affair. Teddy's the only other person in the movie! Who the hell else could she have been cheating with?

This reminds me of the time I wrote a detective story when I was around 13. I showed it to a friend and was dismayed when he immediately guessed the identity of the murderer. He said it wasn't tough to figure out– I only had three characters in my story. The victim, the detective and the suspect!

• Back when I saw the first Iron Man movie in the theater, I turned to my pal and said Black Sabbath's Iron Man would appear on the soundtrack at some point. How could the filmmakers resist such a thing?

I did the same thing here. I said we'd hear Fleetwood Mac's anthem Tusk before the film was over. And I wasn't disappointed. It was inevitable.

• Howe further mutilates Wallace's body, removing both his legs, grafting his upper arms to his torso and removing his tongue. He then sews Wallace into a grotesque walrus suit, made from the skin of his previous victims. Howe then demands that Wallace act like a walrus, so he can recreate the months he spent with Mr. Tusk. Yep, you read right. All that really happens. This probably wouldn't be a very good date movie.

• In the film's climax, Wallace savagely kills Howe with his tusks. We realize that he's not only become a walrus physically, but mentally as well. 

A year later Ally and Teddy visit an exotic animal sanctuary in Canada. Wallace is living in the sanctuary, still inside the walrus suit. He's now gone full walrus, and there's no coming back for him.

So... how the hell did this happen? How is he living in the sanctuary? How'd they approach the owner about this? Wallace is obviously not a real walrus. Don't you think the owner, not to mention the authorities, might have a problem with the idea of a mutilated man in a walrus suit sewn out of human skin being kept in a zoo? 

Apparently this ridiculous arrangement is none of our concern, as the film abruptly ends here.

• Kevin Smith recently announced that he intends Tusk to be the first part of a True North Trilogy. Part Two would be called Yoga-Hosers, and will feature the two aforementioned Convenience Store Girls in their own adventure (!), along with the entire cast of Tusk. Part Three of the trilogy would be titled Moose Jaws, and according to Smith, is "basically Jaws with a moose." 

The entire world waits with baited breath...

Tusk is a horrifying and disturbing film that can't seem to settle on a tone, as writer and director Kevin Smith reverts back to his old self indulgent ways. Michael Parks is worth watching as always, but Johnny Depp's over the top cameo torpedoes any sense of horror and dread the film may have had, and actually dragged down my score. I give it a C+.

Too Little, Too Late, Too Much

This week a company called Dragon Studios announced they're finally making a Baby Groot figure from this summer's mega-hit Guardians Of The Galaxy.

Talk about timely! The film premiered August 1, and the figure's due to be released in November, when the horse will not only be out of the barn, but down the road and well into the next county.

Why in the name of Stan Lee's Toupee was this toy not available when the movie first came out? Heck, they could have set up a card table outside every theater showing it and sold millions of these things to eager fans with money in their pockets. Marvel really dropped the ball here. I'm betting that someone in their marketing department probably received a hearty firing over this lack of foresight. 

Anyway, at long last you can get your Groot fix with this pre-painted model kit. The press release says it's scanned from the actual prop used in the film, so if you demand screen accuracy in your cinematic replicas, you're in luck. Baby Groot is seven inches high, and it's not clear what they mean by that. Is Baby Groot himself is seven inches high? Or do they mean the entire thing, pot and all, is seven inches? If I had to guess, I'd say the latter.

Now for the bad news: the Baby Groot model doesn't do anything. Doesn't move, doesn't squeak, doesn't sway to the rhythm of The Jackson 5ive's I Want You Back. Doesn't do anything but sit on your shelf and look cute. Disappointing!

And then there's the price tag. The Baby Groot model kit will set you back a whopping $80! Eighty smackers! Holy crap! That seems like excessive for a piece of simulated wood that doesn't even dance. Or massacre a corridor full of alien soldiers with a smile on its face. Or form a protective cocoon around you with its branches.

I wouldn't mind having a Baby Groot to collect dust on my own shelf, but between the ultra delayed release date and the week's worth of groceries price, I'm gonna have to pass.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Doctor Who Season 8, Episode 6: The Caretaker

Another week, another very good episode of Doctor Who! We're six for six so far. 

Showrunner Stephen Moffat has either written or co-written all of the first six episodes, which is surprising to me, as his past output has been uneven at best. So why wasn't he this good during the Matt Smith years? What changed? 

Whatever he's doing differently, let's hope he keeps it up. I've been sort of half-seriously calling for Moffat's head the past couple of seasons due to some of the sub-par scripts he's churned out (I'm lookin' right at you, The Angels Take Manhattan). If he can keep up this level of quality though, he's welcome to stay as long as he wants (I'm sure he's breathing a sigh of relief knowing I approve).


The Plot:
As the episode opens, Clara's trying to balance her travels with the Doctor and her relationship with Danny Pink. Meanwhile, the Doctor detects alien energy at the Coal Hill School, where Clara is teaching. He becomes the temporary caretaker in order to stake it out. He discovers a Skovox Blitzer, one of the most deadly life forms in the universe, is prowling around the school, and sets a trap to capture it. 

Sparks fly when the Doctor and Danny meet and immediately take a dislike to one another, much to Clara's dismay. She eventually discovers both men are wary of the other because they have her best interests at heart, and don't want to see her get hurt.

• This isn't the first time the Coal Hill School has appeared, of course. It was featured way back in The Unearthly Child, the very first episode of Doctor Who. It also appeared in the Seventh Doctor story Remembrance Of The Daleks. And of course Clara has been working there for the past couple of seasons.

• So why do aliens seem so drawn to the school? Is it one of those focal points in time and space, like the Rift in Cardiff?

The Doctor believes "artron emissions" in the school may have attracted the Skovox Blitzer. This isn't the first time we've heard of artron energy– it was first mentioned way back in the Fourth Doctor story The Deadly Assassin.

Artron energy seems to have something to do with time travel. Could the presence of the TARDIS be the source of the artron emissions? If so, the Doctor may very well have brought the Skovox Blitzer to the school himself.

• The Doctor replaces the regular caretaker in order to trap the Skovox Blitzer. I loved that he just put the janitor jacket on right over his Crombie coat and thought it was the perfect disguise. His black sleeves were even hanging out of the caretaker jacket!

• This is not the first time the Doctor's gone undercover and tried to pass as human in recent years. He did so in The Lodger and in Closing Time. In fact, the plot of The Caretaker is pretty much identical to those previous episodes. The Doctor detects some sort of alien presence, he goes undercover as a human to investigate, he influences the lives of those he's staying with, and chases off the alien in the third act.

It shouldn't be a surprise I suppose. Gareth Roberts, wrote all three of these episodes. If you need a story about the Doctor posing as a human to flush out an alien, Edwards is your man!

• Ugh, the Doctor wears his horrible sequined top again in this episode. I got a better look at it this week, and it appears that what I first thought were sequins are really dozens of tiny holes, revealing white fabric underneath.

Whatever the hell it is, it's awful looking and the sooner it gets destroyed in a laundry accident, the better.

• Man, Jenna Coleman was reaching maximum levels of cute in this episode, even more so than usual. Which makes the Doctor's inevitable dig at her appearance (which he's done every week so far) that much more incongruous and mean-spirited.

Once again I'm impressed by the improvements they've made to Clara 2.0's character. And once again, Jenna Coleman rose to the challenge. I'm really gonna miss her after she leaves in this year's Christmas Special.

• It's taken half a season, but the new Doctor's finally starting to warm up. I'll be honest, in the first couple of episodes Peter Capaldi left me kind of cold, but in the past couple of episodes it seems like he's becoming more comfortable in the role.

• In this episode the Doctor reveals his true nature and the TARDIS not just to Danny, but also to a young student named Courtney Woods. He's worse at keeping his identity secret than the Michael Keaton version of Batman.

I've noticed in recent seasons that whenever someone does find out the Doctor is an alien and they see the TARDIS interior, they accept it pretty quickly and matter-of-factly. I think that's probably how most people would really react. The majority of the public already believes in aliens, so seeing the Doctor would only confirm their beliefs.

• Speaking of Courtney Woods, are they prepping her to become a companion? Why would they devote so much screen time to her otherwise? I hope that's not where they're going though. The idea of the Doctor traveling around with an underage female student is a little... against the law.

• The Doctor realizes Clara is having a relationship with one of her fellow teachers. He believes it's Adrian, the English teacher. Did you notice that Adrian looks a bit like the Eleventh Doctor? He even sports a bow tie!

• The Doctor uses an invisibility watch to hide himself from the Blizter. So where'd he get that? Has he had it all along, or did he just now tinker it together?

Clara gives Danny the watch so he can secretly observe her interacting with the Doctor. Danny later gives it back to her. He should have kept the watch! Why shouldn't companions have special powers like the Doctor?

• I loved the desgin of the Skovox Blitzer. It'd make an awesome action figure. Too bad Character Options quit making the 5" toy line.

• During the Blitzer's POV shots, its eyesight seemed to operate on a different wavelength from ours. I wonder why, when the Doctor (or Danny) used the invisibility watch, it couldn't see them in infrared? Did the Doctor anticipate that and mask himself from all possible wavelengths?

Next week, the BBC costume department gets some more use out of the Doctor's space suit.

Friday, September 26, 2014


Previously on Bob Canada's BlogWorld:

Last week I predicted that sometime in the next month, some company somewhere would come out with a Sexy Elsa costume from Disney's bafflingly popular movie Frozen, despite the fact that it's a film targeted to little girls.

Well that didn't take long. The Sexy Halloween Costume Industry did not disappoint, and came through. Boy, did they come through!

Erotic lingerie company Yandy just released not one, but 2, count 'em TWO, Sexy Elsa costumes.

They even made a Sexy Anna costume for girls with less self esteem.

They don't actually call them Sexy Elsa and Anna though, as that would trigger a knock on their door from the Disney Attorney Squadron. They're calling the costumes "Ice Girl" and "Norwegian Maiden," but it's patently obvious who they're supposed to be.

See? Told you I did! I totally called this whole sorry situation.

And god help us, but they're even making a gender-bending Sexy Olaf costume, for those who feel the world isn't disturbing and horrifying enough. 

I suppose we should thank our lucky stars they put the carrot on her nose.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

It Came From The Cineplex: The Maze Runner

The Maze Runner was written by Noah Oppenheim, Grant Pierce Myers and T.S. Nowlin, and was directed by Wes Ball. It's based on the novel of the same name by James Dashner. Ball is primarily a visual effects artist, and this is his first shot at directing a big-budget movie. He does a decent enough job with the script he's given.

Sigh... another day, another Young Adult Dystopian Sci-Fi story. The Maze Runner takes its place along other such stories such as The Hunger Games, Divergence, Matched, Delirium, Life As We Knew It and many others. Bookstores and Hollywood alike love these things. And why not? They're big business right now. Teen readers and moviegoers can't seem to get enough of them. These stories are like a license to print money.

The formula's pretty simple. First you invent a futuristic fascist society, which, let's face it, is pretty much how most teens see the world. Second, drop in a young protagonist who just doesn't fit in, so the target audience will identify with them. Add a love triangle and throw in a rebellion against the oppressors. Drag the story out into a trilogy (or in most cases these days, a quadrology), then sit back and watch the money roll in.

The Maze Runner is a prime example of this formula. It's an interesting sci-fi story with an unusual setup and an intriguing mystery to solve. Unfortunately everything unravels at the end, as the origin of the Maze is a big letdown that makes little or no sense. Better they should have left the mystery unsolved.

The film also spends far too much time setting up the inevitable sequels at the expense the current story. Gotta make sure there are dangling plot threads so the audience comes back next year, right?

In addition to being similar to The Hunger Games and its ilk, it reminds me a bit of Philip Jose Farmer's Riverworld series. In Riverworld, every person who ever lived and died on Earth is resurrected along the banks of a million mile long river, which is bordered by sheer thousand foot high cliffs on each side. After a while a group of adventurous souls decide to sail up the river to try and discover where they are, why they're there and who's responsible for it all. Sounds pretty similar, eh?

The movie was originally scheduled to premiere in February 2014, but was pushed back to September 2014. It's generally regarded as a bad sign when a movie gets delayed, but it turned out OK here.


The Plot:
A teenaged boy wakes up inside a rusty elevator, with no idea where or even who he is. At the top of the elevator shaft, he finds himself in a large meadow called the Glade, which is surrounded on all four sides by the walls of an enormous Maze. He's welcomed by a group of other teen boys who arrived the same way he did. After a day or so he remembers his name is Thomas, but that's all he can remember.

As Thomas becomes part of the makeshift society set up by the Gladers, he learns that they're are trapped in the center of the Maze, which is guarded by terrifying, unseen creatures called Grievers who come out at night. Unlike the rest of the boys, he's intensely curious as to the nature of their situation and why they're there. He eventually becomes a Runner, one of an elite group who explores the Maze during the day.

After many excursions into the Maze, Thomas and another runner called Minho discover a door that leads out. They take a group through the doorway, and discover the disappointing secret of the Maze.

• This film is a prime example of why screenwriters should think twice about resolving their mysteries. Think about how many intriguing setups were ruined by mediocre payoffs. Under The Dome, The Village, Identity, Cube, and the grandaddy of them all, LOST. No matter how good you think your explanation may be, it's going to be a letdown because the audience can always imagine something better.

• When Thomas first arrives, he can't remember anything, not even his name. Alby, the leader of the Gladers, tells him his name will come to him in a couple of days.

Some of the other Gladers' names: Gally, Newt, Frypan and Zart. Hmm. Those are not names. Did their memories get scrambled? Or is this one of those deals where everyone in the future has some weirdo name like Katniss and Peeta?

• Alby tells Thomas that he was the first Glader and he's been there about three years. Once a month the elevator comes to the surface and brings supplies and a fresh Glader. Based on that formula and doing the math, there should have been fewer than 36 Gladers in the Maze (since a few died over the years). It certainly looked like there were more than 36 in the crowd scenes.

In the book it's explained that the elevator brought up more than one Glader at a time. But this ain't the book, and Alby specifically states it's one a month.

• Thomas hears a terrifying roar, and Alby tells him there are monsters patrolling the Maze. He matter-of-factly says they're called "Grievers," the same way you'd point up and say "That's called the sky." Sorry, Alby, they're not called that, that's the cockamamie "future slang" name you gave to them.

Chuck tells Thomas that no one knows what the Grievers even look like. They're so deadly that nobody has ever seen one and lived to tell about it. Then Thomas is attacked by Ben, who was stung by a Griever and is going through the "Changing," some sort of deadly disease. So in other words Ben saw a Griever and lived to tell about it, right? Then why doesn't anyone know what they look like?

One last thing about the Grievers. They had a pretty cool design; half fleshy monster, half robotic spider. Or at least I think they looked cool. We never really get a good look at them, as they're shown in shadows most of the time, and director Ball seems to be in love with the "shaky cam" fight scene technique.

• Why does the Maze look so old? When Thomas and Minho run inside it, the walls are crumbling and moss covered and look like they've been there for centuries. Isn't the Maze only three years old? Did the builders deliberately make it look old to hide its true age from the Gladers?

• Thomas suggests to Newt that they try to climb the Maze walls, to see if there's a way out. Newt causally dismisses his plan. Thomas then tries to offer more ideas, but Newt shuts him down each time before he can even finish speaking. Newt says that whatever ideas he has, they've already tried them.

How the hell does he know that? What if Thomas was about to suggest skinning a few of the weaker Gladers and making a hot air balloon from their hides? I bet they hadn't thought of that one! 

It just seemed irresponsible to not even listen to someone's plan before shooting it down.

• So once a month the elevator comes to the surface, bringing a new captive along with barrels full of supplies for the Gladers. Apparently among the supplies they bring are plenty of hair care items. Virtually every character sports freshly cut locks, loaded with tons of "product."

We're told that everyone in the Glade has a specific job in order to help them all survive. I'm guessing one of the boys must have been designated the official hair stylist.

• Speaking of styling, Minho the Runner had this impressively huge shelf of hair that juts out seven or eight inches past his forehead, like the bill of a baseball hat. If they ever make a live action Jonny Quest movie, this is what his hair would look like.

• Gally is the movie's Designated Asshole. You know, the character who makes things difficult for the hero for no other reason than because the script says so. Every story has to have one. Think Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter films, or Joffrey in Game Of Thrones.

• The Gladers have three rules. Number Two is "Never Hurt Another Glader." Gally violates this one several times during the film, but no one ever calls him on it.

• Every night at dark, the massive doors to the Maze close and grinding noises come from within. Minho tells Thomas this is the sound of the Maze changing. It does this every night so the Runners can't memorize its pattern.

Later he takes Thomas into a hut and shows him an elaborate model he made of the maze. He admits that he and the other Runners have mapped out the entire thing, and there's no exit. They're keeping this a secret though, so the other Gladers don't lose hope. 

Um... didn't Minho say the Maze changes every night? How do you make a model– or a map– of something that's constantly changing? Whoops!

• A month after Thomas arrives, the elevator comes to the surface again. This time it brings a girl! A girl who seems to know Thomas, and who's carrying a note saying she's "the last one ever" to be added to the Glade.

A couple things here. First off I'm convinced that the filmmakers deliberately chose an actress (Kaya Schdelario) who looks more like Kristen Stewart than Kristen Stewart does, in the hopes that the cachet of her Twilight films would rub off on their production.

Secondly, the movie completely avoids the fact that it's just introduced a girl into a colony of horny teenaged boys, some of whom haven't seen a female in three years. I realize they've got plot points to hit and don't have time to examine how this will affect the fragile Glader society, but would it have killed them to have Newt decree a "Hands Off" policy?

Maybe the Maze builders added some kind of anti-boner drug to the Glader's monthly supplies.

• Thomas and Minho eventually find a way out of the Maze. They convince most of the other Gladers to follow them, so they can all escape. WARNING! I'm gonna be discussing the reasons behind the Maze here, so this is your last chance to turn back!

The Gladers exit the Maze and discover a lab full of dead scientists. Before they can wonder what's going on, a monitor flickers to life, and a recording of Ava Paige, the head scientist, proceeds to info dump the origin of the Maze to them.

So what's the big mystery? What's the reason behind the Maze? Did aliens build it to study humanity? Did the gods create it to amuse themselves? Is it a manifestation of Hell itself?

Nope, it's none of those. Instead it seems the Earth has been decimated by a gigantic solar flare. If that wasn't enough, shortly afterward an epidemic (also confusingly called the Flare) rose up and killed off even more of the population. A group of scientists formed the World In Catastrophe Killzone experiment Department, known as WCKD (pronounced "wicked"), which may possibly be the most tortured and contrived acronym I've ever heard. WCKD built the Maze to research why certain youths are immune to the Flare, in hopes that a cure could be found.

That's it? Are you flipping kidding me? THAT'S why they built the Maze? These scientists are survivors of a global cataclysm. Manpower and resources are no doubt stretched very thin. In the middle of all this chaos and want, they somehow managed to construct an enormous, miles-wide Maze for the sole purpose of observing the subjects within. And in some mysterious way that's left unexplained, this is supposed to lead to a cure for a disease.

I honestly don't get it. I've approached this explanation from every possible direction, and I just do not understand it. Wouldn't all those resources have been better spent studying the Gladers' blood or brain tissue, to see why they're immune and to possibly synthesize a cure? Isn't that how normal scientists operate? No one in their right mind builds a goddamned maze to find a cure for the flu.

You can't even use the excuse that it's a "survival of the fittest" kind of trial, because strength had nothing to do with surviving or navigating the Maze. 

I really liked the film and was totally onboard with it right up until the end, and then it just lost me. I honestly wish they'd have just shown the Gladers walk through the exit of the Maze and faded to black, leaving us to imagine what they find on the other side. That would have been a hundred times better than the limp, wheezing ending we got.

• Ava Paige, the lead scientist who's been screwing with the Gladers for the past three years, is played by Patricia Clarkson, who was none other than Tammy 1, Ron Swanson's first wife on Parks & Recreation! Perfect casting!

• After the Gladers learn the truth about the Maze, they prepare to head for the exit and the world beyond. Before they can do so, Gally shows up with a gun, determined to stop them. 

How in the name of sanity did he catch up with the group? They left him way back in the Glade, and despite the fact he'd never been in the Maze before, he somehow managed to follow their course and find them in minutes. Did they leave a trail of breadcrumbs for him?

• After Gally's dispatched, a group of soldiers bursts into the lab, grab the Gladers and hurry them out. Are they the good guys? Terrorists? Mercenaries? Well, you'll have to come back next year to find out. This is Part One of a planned trilogy, dontcha know, so we can't answer every little question you have just yet.

• The Gladers are then whisked into a helicopter and as it takes off, we see that the Maze was sitting in the middle of a vast, lifeless desert (no doubt the result of the solar flare), under a leaden gray sky. 

So when they were inside the Maze, why was the sky always blue? And how the hell did it rain in the Glade? Apparently such questions are none of our business, as it's never addressed, and probably won't be in the subsequent Maze-less sequels.

Also, the Glade in the center of the Maze was lush and green, filled with trees and grass. If the scientists had the technology to build a budding oasis in the middle of a desert, why couldn't they have used it everywhere? Why not spend their resources replanting the scorched Earth instead of wasting it building a Maze for sketchy (at best) reasons? 

I'm starting to think the scientists resented the Gladers' immunity to the Flare and built the Maze just to torture them for their own amusement.

The Maze Runner has an intriguing premise and starts out strong, feeling much like a big budget Twilight Zone episode. Unfortunately it crashes and burns in the third act, as the less than compelling reasons for the Maze are revealed. Better they should have left it a mystery. I give it a B.

The Black What Now?

This week scientists– OK, one scientist– dropped a quite the bombshell. Laura Mersini-Houghton, who's too good for just one name, has decreed that Black Holes Do Not Exist!

That's right! Black holes, those terrifying whirlpools of the galaxy and destroyer of many a sci-fi spaceship, are not real!

Big deal, I hear you saying. How's that news gonna help me pay the rent? Ah, but it is big news. If black holes don't exist, it not only forces scientists to reevaluate how the fabric of space-time works, but to also rethink the origin of the universe! That's right, the entire universe may not work the way we thought it did. Up might be down! In could be out! Orange is the new black! Nothing makes sense anymore!

And worst of all, this movie's gonna look even stupider than it did back in 1979!

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Marvel's Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season 2, Episode 1: Shadows

Holy crap! Now that's how you start a season! This is the Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. fans wanted all along, and the one we should have got from the start. Fortunately for those of us who stuck with the show, our patience is finally paying off.

If you watched Season 1, you'll remember that the show started out strong, then floundered for months as it became little more than a standard police procedural with an occasional superhero name dropped in order to remind us it was supposed to be set in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

With the theatrical release of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, the series finally picked up, as the creative team seemed to be actually listening to fan complaints and taking steps to improve the show. The improvements and course corrections continue in this latest episode, especially with the inclusion of the Howling Commandos and the Absorbing Man. Let's hope they can keep up the quality for the entire season.

I really love all this continuity and interconnectivity. It reminds me of the good old days of Marvel Comics.

One last thing– it's been a long time since I've watched a TV show live– probably since last year's S.H.I.E.L.D. season finale. I usually watch shows online or on DVD. I'd forgotten how many commercials there are in an hour show, and how annoying they are. How do you people who regularly watch live TV stand it?


The Plot:
After the fall of S.H.I.E.L.D., Coulson and his Team have been slowly contacting former agents and recruiting new ones as they attempt to rebuild the organization. Complications arise as Fitz's injury has slowed him down considerably, General Talbot is determined to throw them all in prison, and the Absorbing Man shows up to steal alien artifacts for HYDRA.

• The episode opens with a flashback to 1945, as we see Agent Carter and the Howling Commandos! Well, two of them, anyway. I guess that's all they could afford on a TV budget. Sill, it was awesome to see them!

I wasn't very enthused about the idea of the upcoming Agent Carter TV series, but this flashback changed my mind. Now that I've seen a taste of what I assume the series will be like, I'm a bit more excited by the prospect. Are the Howling Commandos going to be in the series as well? I hope so.

• Agent Carter and the Commandos arrive just as a squad of Nazi/HYDRA soldiers are packing various supernatural items into crates. Carter commandeers the items and sends them to a secure government storage facility, probably the same one that houses the Ark Of The Covenant. 

One of these items is a shiny hunk of metal called the Obelisk. They pack it in a case and label it SSR 084. If you're a regular viewer you'll know doubt recognize that 0-8-4 number. It's the classification S.H.I.E.L.D. gave to "objects of unknown origin."

• We get a brief glimpse inside one of the HYDRA crates, and it contains something blue and glowing. Coulson's alien Kree from last season, perhaps?

• I assumed that Season 2 would pick up right where Season 1 left off, but it appears that several months has passed since then. I think that's a good thing. Watching Coulson painstakingly rebuild SHIELD a brick at a time might well have become tedious after a while. It's always better to start your story in media res.

• This episode lobs several new agents at us, including Izzy Hartley (played by Lucy Lawless), Lance Hunter and someone named "Idaho." Izzy's OK, but the others are pretty forgettable. I can't tell yet if they're just there as redshirts or if they'll be fleshing them out more in later episodes. Hopefully the latter.

• By Stan Lee's Toupee! The Absorbing Man makes an appearance! Wow! I honestly never thought I'd see a TV series featuring him. And he looked pretty close to the way he does in the comic, too! OK, so this TV version was prettier than the Crusher Creel of the comics, but he was still pretty darned awesome. He even had his ball and chain there for a minute!

• Does Creel have magic pants that transform along with his body? When he "disappears" from his Plexiglass prison cell (more on that in a minute), it looks completely empty. Seems like we should have seen a pair of pants standing against the wall. 

Later in the storage facility, Izzy walks right by him as he blends in with the wall. Again, she ought to be seeing a pair of pants standing there. 

I don't think his pants are changing, because when he turns into gold (or whatever it was) for fun, his pants don't appear to transform. So he must be taking them off and standing there nekkid when he wants to hide.

• By the way, if the Absorbing Man had a son, would he be called Absorbine Jr.?

• Last season's super annoying Skye has finally become 95% less annoying. I shall call this new and improved version Skye 2.0.

• Skye 2.0 visits Evil Ward in his Hannibal Lecter prison cell. I'm a bit worried that they're eventually going to start trying to redeem him. I really hope they don't. He committed far too many crimes last season to forgive.

By the way, while talking to Skye 2.0, Evil Ward lists the various ways he's tried to kill himself over the past few months, including sawing at his wrists with a button, slicing his wrists with a folded piece of paper and running full speed into the wall.

Oddly enough, we see he still has a bed in his cell, complete with sheets. Seems like someone as resourceful and determined as Evil Ward could have figured out a way to turn those items into a noose, sharpened hospital corners or some sort of suicide implement.

• So about Talbot's aforementioned soldiers– they aren't the sharpest utensils in the drawer, are they? Their prisoner disappears from his clear plastic prison, and even though they can see right through it, they open the door for some boneheaded reason.

I get that the door needed opened for the plot to proceed, but surely there was a smarter way to go about writing it.

• Note that the Team use what appear to be normal handguns, but they all have a subtle blue glow when they fire. I'm assuming these are the ICERS Fitz invented last season?

• The Team breaks a government warehouse to steal the Obelisk and if it's not too much trouble, a Quinjet with a cloaking device. Trip disguises himself as a general in order to infiltrate the base. 

No offense to Trip, but he looks a bit young to be a general.

• Izzy's having a really bad day. The Absorbing Man attacks and Izzy grabs the Obelisk, I guess intending to bean him in the head with it. Unfortunately it bonds itself to her hand, turning it all black and crusty. 

She says she can feel the Obelisk killing her, and demands that Hunter or Idaho (I told you they were forgettable) cut off her arm. He does so, and then the Absorbing Man attacks their car, seemingly killing Izzy. A bad day indeed!

The episode heavily implies that Izzy's dead, but I wouldn't count her out just yet. This is a Marvel series after all, so I'm betting she'll return soon, complete with a bionic hand.

• Awesome use of Creel's powers as he touches a tire and absorbs the properties of the rubber so he can safely pick up the Obelisk.

• I was totally surprised by the big reveal that Fitz is only imagining Simmons talking to him, Gaius Baltar-style. I hope Jemma comes back for real soon, and doesn't spend the entire season in Fitz's head.

• It took me a while to realize that the Reinhardt, the Nazi/HYDRA agent we saw in the flashback, and Professor Whitehall are the same person. It doesn't appear he's aged much, if at all, in the past 70 or so years. He did say that the Obelisk had "powers over life and death" or something like that, so I guess that's got something to do with his appearance.
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