Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Triskaidekaphilia: 'Gen 13' (2000)

On the 13th of each month, I write about a movie whose title contains the number 13. 

In a way, Gen 13 was ahead of its time: These days, DC churns out several PG-13-rated direct-to-video animated movies a year, based on specific comic book storylines and geared more toward hardcore fans than general audiences. In 2000, it was more of a risk to adapt the Wildstorm/Image superhero team Gen 13 (created by Jim Lee and Brandon Choi) into an animated movie aimed at adults, complete with surprisingly intense violence, swearing and sexual situations. And sadly, the risk did not pay off: The movie was never officially released in the U.S., since Wildstorm was sold to DC Comics before the scheduled release, and Touchstone Pictures parent company Disney apparently wasn't interested in releasing a movie based on a property owned by a rival studio (DC parent company Warner Bros.), even before Disney owned Marvel Comics. The movie ended up with a limited home video release in some foreign countries, and it's pretty easily found online.

Not that it's really worth looking for, unless you're a hardcore fan of the Gen 13 comics. It's a creative failure as well as a logistical one, a poor adaptation of what was a fun (if inconsequential) superhero series that took a lot of cues from Marvel's X-Men spinoff New Mutants. The mature elements feel out of place, the plotting is on the level of a really long pilot for a Saturday morning cartoon, the animation is subpar and ugly, and the voice acting (even from animation pros like Mark Hamill and E.G. Daily) is stilted and awkward. Artist J. Scott Campbell gave the comic book a distinctive look, but none of his style comes across in the movie, which looks like a generic late-'90s action cartoon.

The plot is an extremely slow-paced origin story, focused on just three of the original five team members, with one other making a couple of brief appearances and one left out entirely. It's mainly about Caitlin Fairchild (voiced by Alicia Witt), who's recruited into the top-secret Project Genesis program that is secretly experimenting on the children of former super-soldiers. Caitlin and her fellow students Roxy (Daily) and Grunge (Flea of the Red Hot Chili Peppers, in a truly terrible performance) undergo training and gradually discover the secrets of the facility, led by the evil Ivana Baiul (Lauren Lane) and the smarmy supervillain Threshold (Hamill). It isn't until the movie's climax that the characters actually get their superpowers, and before that they deal with a bunch of clumsy humor and ineffective suspense.

The action sequences from director Kevin Altieri (an animation veteran with numerous episodes of Batman: The Animated Series to his name) are generic and sometimes confusing, especially the long, drawn-out finale. The excessive violence (with multiple bloody character deaths) feels gratuitous, as do a few early semi-explicit sexual references, and they don't add anything to the storytelling. If anything, they make it feel less mature, like a teenager trying to sound grown-up. The movie never got an MPAA rating since it was never released in the U.S., but it probably would have been a hard PG-13, skirting up against an R. That's a poor fit for a movie that otherwise would be best suited for an unsophisticated tween audience. Years later, DC figured out a better balance for this kind of movie, and has done strong business with its PG-13 home-video features (although the ones I've seen have been mediocre at best). Gen 13 was probably better off being left on the shelf.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Summer School: 'Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome' (1985)

With so many summer franchises returning this year, I'm catching up on previous installments.

Given its reputation as the worst in the series (and my less-than-enthusiastic response to the first two movies), I went into Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome with pretty low expectations. I was actually pleasantly surprised at first: You can tell that series creator George Miller (co-directing this time with George Ogilvie) has taken advantage of the popularity of The Road Warrior to produce a movie on a much larger scale, with much greater resources. If Mad Max looked like a threadbare exploitation movie and The Road Warrior looked like a resourceful, action-driven B-movie, Beyond Thunderdome looks like a mainstream Hollywood production, complete with name stars (Mel Gibson, quite famous by this point, plus singer Tina Turner), elaborate sets, multiple locations and a large cast.

Miller and Ogilvie use those resources well in the beginning, following Max as he stumbles upon Bartertown, a pocket of semi-civilization in the vast wasteland of the Outback (the apocalypse seems to get retroactively worse in each installment of the series). There he meets up with Turner's Aunty Entity and agrees to fight a hulking brute in the arena known as Thunderdome, for the chance to recover the vehicle and belongings that were stolen from him at the beginning of the film. The Thunderdome battle is a creative and exciting action sequence, but it ends with a moment of goopy sentiment, which then sets the tone for the rest of the movie.

Exiled from Bartertown, Max is picked up by a group of children living in an oasis in the middle of the desert, and Beyond Thunderdome turns into an entirely different movie. The annoying kids (seemingly modeled after Peter Pan's Lost Boys) speak in a cutesy patois and decide that Max is their savior, and while his character arc is the same as in The Road Warrior (being captured, then reluctantly agreeing to help a group of survivors), it's played with much more sentimentality. Eventually they all head back to Bartertown, and the movie culminates in another well-crafted car chase, but even that sequence is tainted by dumb kiddie stuff, with the action taking on a more slapstick tone (including some of the kids smacking bad guys with frying pans). There's less emotional resonance in Max's relationship with this whole group of kids than there was in his relationship with the one feral boy in The Road Warrior. The movie ends essentially the same way as the previous one, with Max continuing to drift while the people he helped find peace, but there's no impact to it this time. No wonder Miller had to wait 30 years to get another chance to bring Max to the big screen.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Summer School: 'The Road Warrior' (1981)

With so many summer franchises returning this year, I'm catching up on previous installments.

After the disappointment of watching Mad Max, I didn't have high hopes for The Road Warrior, but I was much more impressed with director George Miller's sequel. I wouldn't say that I was blown away, but I could definitely see how this movie has become a beloved classic, and its influence on so many other post-apocalyptic movies is obvious. With a larger budget, Miller was able to stage even more impressive stunts, and he also does a better job of sketching the post-apocalyptic world, providing the context that the first movie was missing. The plot is still pretty thin, and the characterization is minimal, but at least this time the action and the atmosphere make up for it.

Suddenly Max's world is way more post-apocalyptic than it was in the first movie, even though an opening recap of sorts tries to make it seem like this is a natural progression. Narration explains that wars and a scarcity of oil have turned the world into a wasteland, and the police force and tranquil home environments that supported Max in the first movie seem to have disappeared. (There's no mention of Max's wife, who was still alive in the hospital at the end of the previous movie.) Max wanders the Outback in his badass car, evading the marauding gangs that are so familiar from the pop-culture representations of the series. He comes across a colony of survivors who are trying to move their tanker of precious gasoline to the coast, for reasons that are not entirely clear, and he reluctantly agrees to help them escape the gang's attacks.

That's it for the plot, which leaves a lot of motivations and logistics vague. It's clearly secondary to the action, which Miller once again stages with energy and style, helped by all the crazy vehicles he gets to use and all the colorful characters (the mohawk and assless chaps seem like impractical attire for the villain, but they do look cool). It's pretty amazing what Miller can do without the aid of CGI, and the stunt work here deserves all the acclaim it gets. But even so, I got kind of bored after a while, since I didn't really care whether Max succeeded in his plan to get the survivors to safety (partly because he didn't seem to care much either). The mute, feral boy (whose adult self is revealed as the narrator) is kind of endearing, but none of the characters really held my interest. Mel Gibson's stoic performance carries more weight than his performance in the first movie, but Max by design is a sort of inscrutable figure. I suppose for fans this movie is a triumph of style over substance, but while I admire the style, it only carried the movie so far for me.

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Summer School: 'Mad Max' (1979)

With so many summer franchises returning this year, I'm catching up on previous installments.

Of all the blockbuster series coming back this summer, Mad Max is the only one that I wasn't previously familiar with. I never saw the original Mad Max movies as a kid, and I don't remember having any friends who were into them, either. Maybe I am a little too young to have been part of the original target audience, but the movies were all on video when I was growing up, and for whatever reason they just never reached me. So my only sense of Mad Max going into this movie was from various parodies, references and homages, which are apparently all based on the style and plot elements of the second (and most beloved) movie in the series. Imagine my surprise when I put on this movie expecting to get a gritty post-apocalyptic action movie full of grotesque villains in leather outfits and instead got a mildly futuristic revenge/exploitation movie with a couple of decent car chases.

None of the hallmarks of the series' post-apocalyptic world are explained or even apparently present in this movie; the world doesn't look post-apocalyptic at all, really, just a bit dingy and under-populated. "Mad" Max Rockatansky (an impossibly young-looking Mel Gibson) is a cop who specializes in intercepting criminals on the run, and the movie opens with its best scene, a dynamic and exciting car chase as Max and his fellow officers pursue a gangster who killed one of their colleagues. Director George Miller stages some seriously impressive stunts on what was obviously a very small budget, and the opening promises a fast-paced action movie to come.

Unfortunately, that's not what we get. What follows is some familiar B-movie sleaze with the biker gang terrorizing a small town and attacking a young couple, then killing Max's partner after he roughs up one of their members. In between there are dull scenes of Max at home with his wife/girlfriend (never exactly clear) in a nice suburban house that doesn't look post- or even pre-apocalyptic. Once Max's partner gets killed, Max decides to quit the force, and what follows is a dull stretch of Max on vacation with his family, which now includes a baby boy (who either showed up out of nowhere or appeared so briefly in earlier scenes that I completely missed him).

Eventually the action picks up again when the gang comes after Max's family, and there's another fairly exciting action sequence to end the movie. But the whole revenge storyline doesn't get going until the movie's almost over, and the plot up until then is pretty slow and meandering. Miller is often praised for his world-building, but the world of Mad Max is pretty thin, made up of a handful of cool-looking cars and some leather police uniforms. Had I not known that this was the start of an immensely popular film series, I'd dismiss it as a mildly entertaining '70s Ozploitation movie, and not a particularly distinguished one.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

WonderCon round-up, part 1

It's been a very long time since I wrote anything about comic books on here, but I am still an avid (if sometimes slow) reader, and a few weeks ago I attended WonderCon in southern California for the third time, doing some news coverage for Comic Book Resources and hitting the convention floor. As usual, my convention strategy was to focus on indie publishers and artists' alley, to look for some interesting discoveries. If something caught my eye and I could pick up an individual issue for $5 or less, I gave it a shot.

The Children's Vampire Hunting Brigade (David Blake Lucarelli/Henry Ponciano) There isn't really anything new in this series inspired by the true story of hundreds of Scottish children searching a cemetery for a vampire in 1954. Lucarelli uses that as the jumping-off point for a typical vampire tale, with one of the grown-up children warning modern-day teens about the dangers of vampires. It's a solid setup with decent art, but there isn't enough of a unique angle to really hook readers in. Plus the "Scottish" dialogue reads like it's all being delivered by Banshee in a 1980s X-Men comic.

Cirrus (Graham Sibley/Hillary Bauman) The first issue of this sci-fi series opens with a huge text-page info-dump about the development of weather-controlling technology, a super-virus that wiped out nearly the entire human population, and the rise of animal-human hybrids who could resist the disease. But almost none of that seems to have any bearing on the story, which is vague and sometimes hard to follow, despite the overabundance of back story. There is a mysterious weather-controlling figure who breaks some other mysterious figure out of a mysterious holding facility. The characters appear to be human, but Bauman's painted art, which can be evocative when depicting landscapes, is clumsy when it comes to faces and people, so it's hard to tell whether they're hybrids or regular humans or something else. The issue's end is meant to be a shocking cliffhanger, but to me it was just more confusion.

Havenhurst (Tanya Bjork) Bjork offers up a familiar concept, with a girl who's inherited magical powers ditching her heritage and living among humans. The art is cute but sometimes a little awkward, especially during an unclear fight sequence near the end of the issue. The main character is a bit inscrutable as well, which is problematic when the entire series is based on the idea that she's abandoned her heritage to live in the world of humans. There aren't quite enough distinctive elements here to make me interested in reading another issue.

Nutmeg (James F. Wright/Jackie Crofts) I really enjoyed the first issue of this teen crime drama, billed by the creators as "Betty and Veronica meets Breaking Bad." There isn't any actual crime in the first issue, but writer Wright sets up the ominous vibe at the all-girls junior high where the story is set, with basic but effective characterization for the main characters and their mean-girl nemesis. Crofts' art is both simple and expressive, with just the right balance of sweetness and menace. It's a strong debut, and the next two issues are already available on Comixology. I plan to get them both.

Rök (Katie Longua) This cute series launched in 2011, according to the indicia, and the first issue is a little slim and slight (Longua relies a little too heavily on splash pages). The concept is that the Norse gods have come down to Earth and formed a rock band, which is somehow key to defeating their enemies. A young woman turns from fan to participant when she ends up with the power of one of the gods. The art and the combination of rock music, hipster style and supernatural threats reminded me a bit of Scott Pilgrim, although without as much self-aware humor. The story barely gets started in the first issue, but it has the potential to be goofy, exuberant fun.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Triskaidekaphilia: 'Apartment 1303' (2012)

On the 13th of each month, I write about a movie whose title contains the number 13.

The 2007 Japanese horror movie Apartment 1303 is not exactly a stellar example of the genre, but the dreadful 2012 American remake makes it look like a masterpiece. It's sort of appropriate that a third-tier J-horror movie has been remade as a low-budget, basically direct-to-VOD American horror movie, featuring C-list actors clearly hard up for roles. Apartment 1303's only real selling points are its stars, specifically Mischa Barton in the lead role as a woman investigating her sister's mysterious death and Rebecca De Mornay as the sisters' mother, whose part has been greatly expanded from the original. But both actresses are terrible, with Barton giving a wooden performance that feels like she's marking time until the shoot ends and she can go home, and De Mornay overacting wildly as a drunken washed-up rocker who smothers her daughters.

The plot outline is basically the same, with timid 20-something Janet (Julianne Michelle) moving into her first apartment and encountering the ghost of a young woman who forces her off the balcony. Janet's sister Lara (Barton) then attempts to find out what happened, discovering the story of a mother and daughter who are now haunting the apartment, pushing all the young female tenants off the balcony. Writer-director Michael Taverna spends more time with Janet before she falls to her death, and he compresses the lengthy back story into a few quick explanations. Neither of these changes improves the plotting, especially since Michelle is extremely irritating as Janet, who's constantly talking to herself so she can over-explain her feelings and what's happening in the story.

Clearing out the flashbacks also makes room for more scenes of De Mornay, dressed like a second-rate Stevie Nicks, chewing scenery, but her performance is more desperate and sad than campy. A couple of months ago I watched the obscure Sam Rockwell indie movie Lawn Dogs on DVD, and was pleasantly surprised to see a remarkable performance from a 10-year-old Barton in one of her first roles. She apparently peaked early, because she's clearly completely checked out by now, barely putting any effort into her performance. Not that this material deserves much effort; Taverna's screenplay includes such dialogue gems as "Apartments don't kill people. People kill people," which is such a crucial line that it gets repeated three times throughout the movie.

Taverna's film is also a mess visually, with cheap-looking effects and some basic failures of blocking (there are multiple scenes in which he can't even bother to put the two actors who are facing off against each other in the same frame). For some reason this movie was released in 3D in a very limited capacity, but I can't imagine how the flat images and drab sets would be improved by seeing them in 3D. I dismissed the original Apartment 1303 as dull and forgettable, but that's a welcome alternative to a movie this inept and tedious.

Thursday, April 09, 2015

'The Comedians'

On the FX comedy The Comedians, Billy Crystal and Josh Gad play versions of themselves who are pathologically desperate for attention and validation, and who reluctantly team up for a sketch-comedy show even though they have no chemistry or creative compatibility or mutual respect. That doesn't seem too far from the truth about this show, which is strained and painfully unfunny, bringing out the worst in its two already hammy leads. The format itself is tired, with more disingenuous self-deprecation from celebrities playing fictionalized versions of themselves, alongside a parade of awkward cameos.

The jokes about the shallowness and insincerity of show business are cliched, and dated enough that they could have come out of a sitcom from 20 years ago. Crystal seems like he's reluctant to really dig into his persona, so his character is more put-upon than actively unpleasant, but that just makes the potential satire even more lifeless. Gad is more willing to mock himself, but he's not really famous enough to have enough material for mockery (there are far too many jokes about 1600 Penn). The supporting cast features some cliched show business characters (the pretentious writer, the lazy production assistant, the stressed-out producer), and plenty of the humor is just moldy and stale (Steven Weber has an unfortunate two-episode arc as a wildly miscalculated transgender character, and there's an entire episode devoted to Crystal and Gad getting high and wandering a supermarket).

I'm honestly not sure whether the occasional sketches from the show-within-the-show are actually meant to be funny, or meant to be funny because they are terrible, but they don't succeed at either one. I may have been disappointed with the last season of Louie, but at least Louis C.K. is pushing boundaries and expanding the idea of what can be done in a show featuring a celebrity playing himself. Pairing The Comedians with Louie just highlights how backward and regressive and pathetic it is. For a network known to take chances and foster artistic ambition, this is a lazy, clumsy misfire.

Premieres tonight at 10 p.m. on FX.