Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Good, the Bad and the Golden Army - My Hellboy 2 Review

So I saw Hellboy 2: The Golden Army yesterday afternoon. Now I'm writing a review. You're reading it (hopefully).

My relationship with Hellboy is a weird one. I saw the movie first, then read the comics. While I enjoyed the movie, reading the comics I thought "My god, the movie is nothing like these books!" But I think it gave me a certain perspective on the whole thing. They're simply two separate entities. In fact, I've heard Mike Mignola and Guillermo del Toro say as much: The film Hellboy is not the same as the comic Hellboy, who is not the same as the animated Hellboy. They're different mediums anyway, so who cares? While I'd love to see an animated or live-action Hellboy that 100% captures the look and feel of the comics, I can live without it and I understand that it's simply impossible. Some stuff doesn't translate. My comics are just fine, and I can read 'em anytime I want.

So back to the review. Here's my two cents in regards to The Golden Army... (I'll try to remain spoiler free, but I may drop a hint or two in terms of certain plot elements, so be forewarned)
Visually, this is the most impressive movie I've seen all summer. The last Hellboy pretty much only had a couple monsters, but this one has them in spades. Goblins, fairies, elves, dwarves and more uglies than you can shake a stick at. The Golden Army itself is a magnificent sight to behold, and every fight scene had me on the edge of my seat. I pretty much couldn't tell what was CGI and what was puppets (or guys in suits) throughout the whole movie.

The story wasn't too shabby either. In a nutshell, it boils down to this: Long ago, there was a battle between the greedy humans and all of the mythological creatures. It was brutal, and a truce was struck whereby the humans would get the cities and the towns, and the creatures would stick to the woods and become the stuff of legend. Flash forward to modern times and an elven prince who's not too happy with that arrangement. He wants to take back what is rightfully his, and since you kinda can't help but agree with him, he ends up being a really great villain. The guy who plays him is great too: if Christian Bale and Tom Cruise somehow had an albino baby, it would be this guy.

Anyway, on the other side of the coin, you've got Hellboy, who wants to out the B.P.R.D. He's tired of living in the shadows, and just wants to be accepted. So his story mirrors the elf prince's somewhat (sorry, I can't remember the guy's name), though not in an antagonistic sort of way. He just wants to fit in.

The overall plot is somewhat predictable, and they gloss over a few story elements here and there, but it's stuff that you can figure out on your own and really nothing that made me dislike the movie. It's got a really nice fairy tale element to it, and there's lots of little hints and clues to Hellboy's background and a sense of mystery that I really enjoy in the comics. At times, it feels like a cheap X-Men imitation though, and that I could do without.

Okay, so the bad... yeah, it's pretty much every time the main characters speak. They're not even like real characters, they're walking cliche's. While I thought their motivations were interesting and realistic, their manner of speaking was far from it. You know that scene in the trailer when Hellboy smashes the monster in the face and then he says "Now stay down!"? That's pretty much the whole movie.

I understand that Hellboy isn't supposed to be the sharpest tack in the drawer, but in this movie, he acts like a giant red seven-year-old with ADD. And not a cute and charming seven-year-old: a bratty annoying one. That's really the downfall of this movie. I kind of ended up rooting for the bad guy, because the heroes annoyed me. That's really a shame, because the beauty of the first Hellboy was how much I really ended up loving all of the characters. This one... not so much.

I get the impression that Guillermo del Toro was sitting in his office, or wherever he works on his movies, and he was thinking "I have to make a movie to appeal to the masses. I have to make a movie that will appeal to the lowest common denominator. I have to act as though I am Michael Bay when I write the dialogue for these characters." And since del Toro doesn't really know how to make a bad movie, he just totally overdid it. Hey, I've been known to like a Michael Bay movie or two in my lifetime, but I expect more from a guy like Guillermo del Toro. So it's a bit dissapointing.

But it's not enough to make me dislike the movie. It's a good story, and as I said before, a visual masterpiece. As much as the characters did annoy me, I have to admit that by the end, I was cheering them on. I mean, who doesn't cheer the good guys? Though most of the flick was played in a broad manner, there were still enough little emotional scenes that I began to care just a tiny little bit.

Hellboy 2: The Golden Army was a weird movie. In a lot of ways, it surpasses the first one, but in others, it falls far short. I think if you're a fan of the first movie, you oughtta give this one a shot. I had a few problems with this flick, but they didn't keep me from enjoying the overall product, so if you're willing to let a few things slide, you will probably enjoy it as well. If nothing else, it's worth the price of admission for the monsters.

Batman: Gotham Knight review

When you gather six totally awesome writers and six totally awesome directors, the end product should be nothing less than totally awesome, right? While Batman: Gotham Knight falls just shy of the totally awesome mark, it definitely deserves a spot in the pantheon of animated superhero offerings and a place on your DVD shelf.

The movie boasts a host of comicdom’s finest writers such as Greg Rucka, Brian Azzarello and Batman Begins scriptwriter David Goyer and some of the (allegedly) top directors from the world of anime. I say “allegedly” because to be totally honest with you, my interest in anime pretty much peaked with Voltron and Akira. I’ve got nothing against the stuff, mind you: I’m actually quite impressed with everything I’ve seen. But in the busy world of geekdom, it’s just a subject I haven’t found time to become well-educated in. So when the back of the DVD package says that these guys are the top directors in their field, I’ve got to take them at their word.

The film consists of six independent segments offering different viewpoints on Batman, from some Gotham City youths to the new guy on the police force to Batman himself. Each segment has a different writer and a different director and while they can be watched separately, they form a greater whole when watched together. It reminded me a bit of The Animatrix for a couple of reasons. The first being that it’s made up of a bunch of different pieces and different styles, and the second being that it takes place squarely between the last Batman movie and the next Batman movie. The biggest difference is that The Dark Knight probably won’t be as much of a disappointment as The Matrix sequels were. But that’s neither here nor there.

While it’s probably not necessary to watch Gotham Knight in order to watch The Dark Knight, it does serve as a nice little bridge between Begins and its upcoming sequel. It gives us a few different looks into Batman’s psyche and what drives him to do what he does and the manner in which he does it. As a fanboy, I really enjoyed the little nods to Chris Nolan’s film. This movie features Lieutenant (not Commissioner) Jim Gordon, and a Gotham City dealing with the aftereffects of the Arkham Asylum breakout. Lucius Fox shows up, playing a role quite similar to the one he played in Batman Begins. We see a young Batman learning the ropes, and an expanded origin story that doesn’t dwell solely on the night his parents were killed, but also shows us the paths he took to become the Dark Night Detective, much like Batman Begins showed us his training with Ra’s al Ghul.

My only real complaint with the film is that despite the advertisements stating that it features “Six totally different versions of the Batman mythos”, it actually only gives us six slightly different versions of Batman. Not that I’m complaining about the artwork or the stories; but they really weren’t all that astounding in their variation. Yes, Batman/Bruce Wayne was drawn differently in each segment, but I got the feeling the animators played it a bit safe. I was expecting some real night-and-day variations on the Caped Crusader, but really only got some “night-and-dusk” variations. I was expecting the differences between segments to be akin to comparisons between Superfriends and Batman: The Animated Series, but it was more like comparing Batman:TAS to Justice League Unlimited: different, but certainly not a drastic change. Is this really worth complaining about? Absolutely not, but this is a movie review, so you have to expect I’ll find something to complain about, right? A critic’s gotta be critical.

At the end of the day, Batman: Gotham Knight is a worthy addition to your DVD shelf, especially if you’re a big Batman fan. It didn’t blow my doors down by any means, but it was an entertaining new addition to the Batman mythos and something I’ll definitely watch again. I’m hoping that DC and Warner Brothers will continue to release stuff like this in-between their movies, and more importantly, that they’ll continue to release high quality animated fare suitable for adults as well as children.

The two-DVD set contains a ton of extras. There’s commentary by DC Comics Senior Vice President of Creative Affairs Gregory Noveck, former Batman Editor Dennis O’Neil and Kevin Conroy, aka “The Voice of Batman”, a sneak peek at the upcoming Wonder Woman animated feature two documentaries and four episodes of Batman: The Animated Series.

The documentaries include Batman and Me: The Bob Kane Story, an enlightening look at Batman’s creator, and A Mirror For the Bat, the obligatory look into Batman and his rogue’s gallery that seems to accompany every Batman DVD release. I found both of these documentaries to be very interesting and well worth the extra price one pays for a two-disc set. Plus, you get four episodes of the animated show! That’s a lot of bang for your buck. Go ahead and buy the deluxe version.

Swamp Thing : the series Volume Two

The character of Swamp Thing has had a very rich history since he was first created by Len Wein and Bernie Wrightson for DC Comics in 1972. Thanks to the immense talents of his creators, the initial series turned out to be a surprise hit for four years or so. In 1982, Wes Craven wrote and directed a low budget horror film based on the character which led to something of a revival. The movie is fondly remembered by nerds everywhere for two things: the terrible Swamp Thing costume that looked like paper machè and for giving us an all too brief glimpse of Adrienne Barbeau’s breasts.

The ‘82 revival eventually led to Alan Moore’s classic run on the series which led to a movie sequel, The Return of Swamp Thing, a film notable for its awesome opening montage set to Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Born on the Bayou” and it’s terrible sense of humor. Swamp Thing continued to live on in both animated and live-action form on the small screen. In 1991, the USA Network commissioned a total of 72 episodes of a Swamp Thing series. I enjoyed the series as a youth and for the past month or so, I’ve had the distinct privilege of watching the majority of them again. Oh, did I say privilege? I think the word I’m actually looking for is a little closer to torture.

The first volume of the Swamp Thing television series features the first two seasons totaling 22 episodes. Now, the first season is an absolute turd, but I have to admit that by the end of the second season, I was getting into it. The show had been re-tooled and was turning into something of a guilty pleasure for me. The scripts were getting better and while most of the acting was subpar, Mark Lindsay Chapman was a pretty entertaining Anton Arcane, and it’s always good to see Dick Durock in the big green moss-covered suit. When volume two arrived for me to review, I was actually pretty excited. It contained the first 26 episodes of the series’ 50-episode third season. With the groundwork being laid down in season two, I figured that season three was going to be a barnburner!

Turns out I was wrong. All of the interesting subplots that were introduced in the second season were still there, but they were downplayed a bit, and never really expanded upon. What’s worse is that Swamp Thing began to pretty much just appear in a brief cameo at the beginning and end of each episode. He might pop in to save the day and maybe spout some words of wisdom, but that’s about it. Everything went right back to the old formulaic garbage I had to sit through in the first season.

To make matters worse, there aren’t any extras on this set. Hell, they could’ve just thrown a commercial or two on there and I would’ve been happy. But it was not to be. Swamp Thing: The Series Volume Two turned out to be a letdown, but since I had invested this much in the show, I figured I might as well see it through to the end. Slogging through that series was not unlike making my way through a dank and frightening swamp, but I made my way, and I’d like to think I’m a better man for it. What doesn’t kill us will only make us stronger, no?

I’m not sure when Volume Three comes out, but you can bet that I’ll be here to review it when it does. I have to give Shout! Factory a lot of credit. I can’t possibly imagine that anyone in the world has any interest in this series except me, but here it is in all its DVD glory. Is it a good series? No. But I can think of worse ways to pass the time and this can be done without expending any extra energy or brain cells. If you’re a die hard comic fan or Swamp Thing completist, Swamp Thing: The Series Volume Two is a must-have for your collection. Now bring on Volume Three!

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Swamp Thing:the series Volume One - DVD Review

I was 14 years old when the Swamp Thing television series began to air on the USA Network. I faithfully watched every week, and for reasons unbeknownst to me, my mother joined me in viewing this fine piece of American television every Friday night. Much like me, I guess she didn’t have anything better to do on a Friday night. As I got older, I began to appreciate little things like this: obviously, some parents will do whatever it takes to connect with their children on some level.

Having spent the past two weeks immersing myself in Volume One of the Swamp Thing television series, I appreciate my mother even more. Any parent willing to sit through this show on a weekly basis is truly dedicated and possibly deserving of some sort of Parent of the Year Award.

Okay, okay. It isn’t that bad. But it isn’t that good either. Swamp Thing: The Series Volume One, recently released by Shout! Factory, contains the first two seasons of the cult classic series, totaling 22 episodes. Reprising his role as the muck-encrusted mockery of man is stuntman-turned-actor Dick Durock. Mark Lindsay Chapman portrays Dr. Anton Arcane, Swamp Thing’s evil nemisis, and Carrell Myers rounds out the cast as Tressa Kipp, a divorced mother who has recently relocated to Houma, Louisiana to start a new life with her young son Jim. I’m not sure what the name of the actor is who played Jim, and to be frank, it isn’t worth my time or yours to look it up. The kid is terrible. He makes Jake Lloyd’s performance in The Phantom Menace look like Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood.

The first season finds Tressa moving into her familial estate on the outskirts of the mysterious swamp inhabited by Swamp Thing. Her son Jim has a reputation as a compulsive liar, so naturally Tressa doubts his tales of the swamp creature he’s befriended, but what becomes very clear to her in little time is the evil nature of Anton Arcane, a local mad scientist. (I guess every small southern town has one.) Arcane’s goals are never exactly stated, but he basically spends all of his time either hitting on Tressa or splicing the genes of humans and animals together.

For those of you unfamiliar with the Swamp Thing comic books, here’s the basic gist of the story: Scientists Alec and Linda Holland were working on a bio-restorative formula capable of rapidly increasing the growth of plants. When their lab was sabotaged, Linda was killed and Alec was doused in the formula. He ran into the swamp and several days later, Swamp Thing emerged. Anton Arcane is a wizened old codger well-versed in black magic who is constantly trying to capture Swamp Thing in order to transfer his mind into Swampy’s body. For the purposes of the television series, this story has been slightly changed so that Dr. Arcane is a strapping young scientist responsible for blowing up his rivals’ laboratory. When he’s not creating bird-men or trying to get a piece of Tressa Kipp’s action, Arcane occasionally tries to capture Swamp Thing in an attempt to find the secret to the bio-restorative formula. No reason is given, but when you’re a mad scientist, do you really need one?

For the first season, the series basically follows a monster-of-the-week formula, sometimes without the monster. Something weird happens in the swamp, Jim and/or his mother is placed in danger and Swamp Thing acts as something of a deus ex machina, showing up for about 5 minutes to bring someone back to life or frighten away Arcane and his goons. It’s very basic and very bland.

Season One’s finale finally gives us a reason for Arcane’s genetic menagerie: he’s creating mindless slaves to sell on the black market. This episode sees Jim get captured and sent to a work camp and (thankfully) written out of the series. The series was retooled for Season Two, introducing Jim’s older step-brother Will and bringing on Kari Wuhrer as Abigail. The show became more action oriented, the scripts got a lot better and… dare I say it? The series actually started getting pretty good.

In Season Two, we find out that Arcane is just a small part of a larger evil organization which is headed by General Sunderland. Sunderland essentially plays the same role that Arcane played in the comics. He’s an old man who wants a new body, and he hopes that Alec Holland’s bio-restorative formula will be the key. In addition, it is revealed that Arcane hopes that the formula will hold the secret to saving his wife, who is kept alive in some sort of stasis after a near-death experience. Apparently, the writers realized that actually giving your characters some sort of motivation makes them vastly more interesting.

Will Kipp (played by Scott Garrison) basically takes over Jim’s role, only he’s in his early 20’s and isn’t completely annoying. It seemed that the creators of this series still felt a need to have a complete black hole of talent on the show though, and Kari Wuhrer was added to fill that void. She’s also pretty easy on the eyes, and her constantly being outfitted in very short shorts in nearly every episode may further explain why the second season outshines the first. Her character’s name is Abigail (no relation to Abigail from the Swamp Thing comics), and apparently she was created in a laboratory as another one of Sunderland’s experiments.

The tone of the series becomes much darker in the second season, but it also maintains a sense of humor. Not a particularly funny sense of humor, but there’s a few good jokes here and there. Swamp Thing’s role is expanded, and we begin to see more of the inner turmoil of a man trapped in the body of a plant. Also, Arcane’s experiments become more violent in nature, and we get to see Swampy throw a few stuntmen through some breakaway windows. It’s almost as though the creators used the first season as a test run and completely reinvented it with Season Two. The much-needed improvements make for a much better show.

But is the show really any good? Well, it’s as good as you’d expect an early 90’s made-for-USA series to be. I can’t deny that by the end of the second season, I was really enjoying it quite a bit, but I will also freely admit that anyone who isn’t already a fan of Swamp Thing probably won’t find a whole lot to enjoy in this series. It’s what I always refer to as a “Sunday afternoon show”. When you’re sitting on the couch on Sunday afternoon, winding down after a long weekend and you have nothing better to do, it’s not a terrible way to pass the time. It doesn’t take much effort to watch the show, and if you fall asleep during an episode, you won’t really be too upset that you missed it.

The DVDs also feature some interviews with Swamp Thing co-creator Len Wein and star Dick Durock. These little vignettes are really quite interesting and are definitely a must-watch if you’re a fan of the comics, movies or television series.