Binge Review 10: The Boys

Let me get this out of the way before we begin: Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood was great and you do not need me to explain why you should see it.

***

Writer Garth Ennis is Mark Millar with artistic integrity. Not only has he written the best Punisher books to date, he has the uncanny ability to take intense, childishly edgy material, and play it totally straight. His books hinge on serious, but are so absurd and ridiculous they border on humorous. Ennis obviously writes to have fun and does not let that get in the way of telling a great story… except Crossed.

I was pretty young when I heard about The Boys and never picked it up because I thought it was going to be more try-hard crap like Crossed. As I got older and absorbed more of Ennis’s work I grew to appreciate what he does, but Boys did not enter my mind again until I saw it was coming to Amazon Prime. I also heard the producers of Preacher were in charge, a great show if you want to fall asleep. Needless to say I was more than a little skeptical going in.

From the start Boys captures the tone of Ennis’s writing with a heroic sequence of the show’s Justice League analogue called the Seven punctuated by a scene the protagonist’s girlfriend getting accidently obliterated by the team’s Flash equivalent. After that we switch perspectives to an up-incoming heroin called Starlight who is asked to perform oral sex on the Seven’s Aquaman analogue in order to join.

It does not get much better after that.

Boys imagines what the world would be like if superheroes were real. Not unlike how film studios handle comic book characters today, superheroes or supes as they are called in the show are corporatized assets in a multi-million dollar industry of not only (staged) crime fighting, but also movie deals, PR stunts, and sponsorships. The show also explores the psyche of the supes and gives them very human flaws. The Wonder Woman analogue is a jaded aging alcoholic. The invisible supe is a voyeuristic pervert that hangs out in bathrooms fully naked. The Superman analogue has a messiah complex and a laundry list of other issues that are bound to get worse from season to season.

The supes are only half the show with the titular Boys the main focus. We follow Hughie, a normal guy that worked at an electronics store before Butcher, an independent contractor that used to punish or kill supes for the government, recruits him following the evisceration of his girlfriend. As the pair gets deeper into a conspiracy involving the Seven and their corporate overlords, former members rejoin the Boys to help unravel the mystery. As teams go they have a good dynamic where everyone is screwed up in some way and hates each other, but they get along when it comes to taking down supes.

Unlike typical Ennis stories, the violence of the show is toned down significantly. I looked up some choice panels from Boys and there was no way even half of that was going to make it to screen. What we get is enough that it maintains the tone without too much gratuity. Sure people are lazed in half, guns melted onto criminals’ hands, and supes are blown up into bloody chunks, but it happens in short bursts about once per episode.

Where the show falters is in character progression. Boys does a good job of setting up their personalities, but they develop faster than they should for the sake of pacing. A good handful of the characters have layers of complexity that needed time to simmer and grow from episode to episode. One in particular shows his true colors rather quickly and ruins an otherwise satisfying pay off for future seasons. The whole of the season was front loaded with all this baggage unwittingly dumped on the audience for seemingly no reason. Had the show left more in the dark or set up a better cliffhanger that does not ruin the more important mystery, it would have been satisfying.

With streaming services everywhere these days, there is so much content in the open that it is impossible to judge what is worth watching. About 90% of what is available is the same crap you find on cable. The Boys is the exception as it deconstructs the superhero genre in a time when entertainment media is utterly saturated in them. May not be the most intellectual, but the show is a good start in the right direction. If you have Amazon Prime, it is worth looking into if you have eight hours to spare.

Movie Review: Thor: Ragnarok

The Thor movies have struggled the most since the beginning of the MCU. The first film from 2011 had a bit of an identity crisis, torn between being a Shakespearean drama about Marvel’s Gods and a conventional superhero movie. It succeeded in some places, but Thor really had no idea what it wanted to be. Dark World from 2013 was a step in the right direction, taking into account the eccentric qualities of the characters and world pioneered by artist Jack Kirby, the Neil Armstrong to Stan Lee’s Buzz Aldrin. However, the film took itself too seriously, trying to appear way more important than it actually was. This was at odds with the comedic tone the Marvel movies were known for, failing to strike a balance. Did Ragnarok finally get Thor right or is the character series a failure?

While on the hunt for Infinity Stones across the galaxy Thor, played by Chris Hemsworth, learns of a truth his father kept hidden for centuries. Now he must deal with the consequences after he is captured and made a gladiator on a strange world.

Ragnarok takes the best parts of the last two films and brings them together. You have the weird and out-there nature of the material mixed with the broader sci-fi-fantasy inherent in Marvel’s Gods. It all comes together in a cohesive whole as each element complements one another.

The first thing you will notice is the Kirby aesthetic on full blast. The color and complex designs of the sets and costumes are lifted directly from the page. The MCU has always embraced the look of the comics, but Ragnarok takes it far beyond previous attempts. Seriously, the guards standing in the background of some shots look like human-size Celestials. It is reminiscent of 5th Element with an over-designed style that remains within the realm of believability.

Unlike Dark World, Ragnarok is under no illusions about what it is. You cannot make a movie about a guy with a magic hammer and lighting powers and play it straight. Instead of a superhero film with comedic elements, we have a comedy with superhero elements. Ragnarok is entirely focused on being funny and does not take itself seriously. The humor is mundane with seemingly simple jokes and gags made all the more hilarious by the cast. In this way it has a lot in common with the original Ghostbusters.

The cast is the glue that keeps Ragnarok together. If the actors were not funny, then the jokes would have fallen flat, and the aesthetic left looking stupid. With everyone bringing their A-game, this was not the case.

Hemsworth showed he could play a funny man, which was surprising given Thor is always serious. I would never have thought he had decent comedy chops until now (Ghostbusters (2016) doesn’t count). There is a great scene where he talks about Loki tricking him as a kid and his time with Hulk were some of the best moments. It shows how much Thor has changed over years, becoming aware of himself and the people around him. He has allowed the regal persona of his character fall to the wayside thanks to his experiences as a hero.

Speaking of Hulk, Mark Ruffalo stays green for most of his screen time, giving him ample opportunity to flesh out the monster like never before. He talks more, tells jokes, and complains about people liking him because they prefer Bruce Banner. And when he turns human his attitudes become the exact opposite couple with Banner’s awkward personality. Cate Blanchet’s Hela proved to be one of the better MCU villains. Keeping in line with the tone, she hams it up from start to finish, having a ton of fun with a character that loves killing. Karl Urban was great for a short time as Scourge, but the stand out was Jeff Goldblum as the Grandmaster.

It is best if you see for yourself.

Ragnarok is also the first MCU movie with a memorable soundtrack. Before now the score has been heroic and upbeat with an operatic touch. The usual tunes have become so generic you forget they are actually playing, except for licensed tracks. This time composer Mark Mothersbaugh employed synthesizers for a majority of the score. It was like watching Tron: Legacy with superheroes or something from the 80’s, furthering the out-there and anachronistic feel of the film.

For all its positives there are some issues. Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie was boring and uninteresting with a run-of-the-mill backstory. Her performance was fine, but pointless because she had nothing to work with. I also have a personal problem with the “phantom objects” technology that is all over the MCU, where whole pieces of armor and weapons appear from nothing. Gamora’s sword, Star Lord’s mask, and Iron Man’s glove from Civil War form up in CG into physical props. It is so ake, cheap, and all over the place in Ragnarok.

Make it stop.

Joining Blade Runner 2049 as one of the better movies of autumn, Thor: Ragnarok takes the MCU to its logical extreme. The bizarre and eccentric world on the fringes of Marvel is on full unapologetic display. Director Taika Waititi does Jack Kirby proud by bringing such a vivid imagination to life. And thanks to his background in comedy, the film stands as the series’ funniest. No character needed such dramatic changes than Thor. Even if you are not a fan of the MCU, Thor: Ragnarok works as an action comedy and a great movie in a sea of mundanity. Give it a look and be sure to check out 2049 while you are at it.

Skip Justice League, obviously.

Movie Review: Star Trek: Beyond

When it comes to science fiction Star Trek does it the best. The shows and movies are about explorers solving problems with logic and diplomacy as representatives of humanity. I am not a fan, but I will watch TNG if it is on, and Wrath of Khan is a great standalone film. Because I do not have a bias, I can judge the Trek movies as movies and about half of them are pretty bad. Into Darkness is my least favorite because it is a remake of Khan. Instead of following up Trek 2009 in a meaningful way, the hack screenwriting duo of Orci/Kurtzman rehashed an already perfect film. There was nothing about the consequences of Vulkan being destroyed, how the event affected the Romulans, or what being admiral meant to Kirk. Cumberbatch was the highlight, but the rest of the movie was worthless. With Orci/Kurtzman nowhere in sight of Star Trek: Beyond, will we finally see a decent sequel to Trek 2009 or more faux science fiction?

After travelling into uncharted space to find a lost Star Fleet ship, the crew of the Enterprise is attacked and brought to a planet where Krall, played by Idris Elba, is gathering them for a nefarious plan.

Orci/Kurtzman’s absence from the writing is why Beyond is the best Star Trek movie since Undiscovered Country. We get a genuine science fiction narrative that does not add nonsense for the sake of spectacle and is competently written. Beyond is a technical film where every action has a purpose and the results make sense. Because the people in charge actually know what they are doing, the action sequences fit within a logical context while being exciting. The second to last major set piece is incredible and how the story got to that point made sense.

Within the logic driven plot is a character story of Kirk, played by Chris Pine, questioning his choice to join Star Fleet. He turns the same age as his father when he died and contemplates taking an office job. A part of Kirk feels he accomplished his mission of living up to his father and that his reason for being in Star Fleet has expired. His struggle throughout is finding a reason to continue.

The rest of the characters added a lot to the whole. Beyond is arguably an ensemble because each member of crew is paired with another and given an equal share of the runtime. There is something for everybody where all our favorites get a chance to be who they are while playing off of each other. Kirk/Chekov have some harrowing moments, Bones/Spock are the highlight, and Scotty with newcomer Jaylah had some nice moments. The great performances of each actor in their respective parts go without saying, Elba included.

My main problem is the shoddy CG work. Most of it was good, but with shots of people running and/or in motion, there are CG stand-ins taken directly from Blade II. They just looked terrible and I do not know why live people were not filmed and dropped into the shot instead. Everything else was fine except those instances. Also, the uniforms were inconsistent and there was a lot of shaky cam.

The Martian was the last science fiction movie that emphasized the science, but it was Star Trek that did not forget the fiction. Gene Roddenberry’s vision of the future could not have been realized without the television show and movies that followed. Star Trek: Beyond is a return to form and one of the best works of science fiction this year. Even if you are not a fan it is well worth your time.

Movie Review: The Loft

There are quite a few movies I want to see this week, such as Black Sea and, despite my preconceived notions, Project Almanac. I might see Cake, but I am really not interested in a story about a drug addict unless it is Trainspotting. I will begin this gauntlet of criticism with my review of The Loft.

* * *

            I do not usually see movies like The Loft. For me, I want to see something unique or something that takes an ordinary set up and does something different. Mystery-thrillers are not for me, but if Karl Urban is in the cast, I may consider buying a ticket.

He is one of those character actors that love his job. With good material like Pathfinder, he tries his hardest. With bad material like Priest, he gives Michael Sheen a run for his money with glorious over-acting. He is so good he makes the new Star Trek movies semi-tolerable. Had he not been cast for the lead in Dredd, that amazing film would not be a cult hit. Seriously, you should see Dredd.

So did Urban make Loft worth a watch or did it stand on its own? Not only did he make this less than memorable film qualify for good bad status, he had help from the rest of the cast. Before I move on, I should explain what I mean by good bad.

There are two kinds of films: one made with good intentions that succeed, and another also made with good intentions that collapse under it’s own incompetence. The end result determines if a movie is good or bad. But when a movie is made with good intentions that fail, it is the process on which the failure happens that makes it good bad.

My go-to examples of this are The Room and Miami Connection. Tommy Wiseau and YK Kim had visions, delusional and misguided though they may be, they wanted to put something onto film. What brings their movies down is those involved in the production had not clue what they were doing. The end result, their failed attempt at bringing their visions to life is comedy gold.

Loft did not entirely fail, but it was very obvious everyone knew the story was ridiculous, and it was a consensus between the cast that nobody was going to take it seriously.

I should start on the plot, but if you are reading this, I assume you have seen the trailer and know what happens.

My only real complaint is the actors did not go far enough to make Loft a fun watch. A big part of good bad movies is how fun they can be. It is like watching a train wreck where no one is hurt or killed. I would go so far as to say good bad movies are more fun than actual comedies.

Urban as Vincent and Eric Stonestreet as Marty were great, but I wish everyone else enjoyed themselves. The biggest shame was James Marsden as Chris because he does not try enough. I want to see him in a role where he becomes more than his signature White guy. Wentworth Miller as Luke also caught my attention because he did not fit the role. I mean no offense, but Miller is way too gay to play a man married to a woman. It is like actress Katee Sackhoff playing a submissive mother or wife; it is impossible because all you see is Starbuck.

Though this movie succeeds in how it fails, there is plenty wrong. For one thing, the best of the good bad moments do not start until 3/4ths into the runtime. After the first big twist, there is a huge spike in ridiculousness, so much so I laughed out loud in the theater, followed by a few minor twists that were icing on the cake. But getting there takes forever as the plot goes through the motions of misdirection and other mystery-thriller tropes that have been done better in other films.

Furthermore, whoever directed and edited this movie needs to go back to film school because Loft is a mess. There are simple shots mixed in with complicated, artsy confusion that muddle up the picture. Had the director picked one style and actually watched his movie after the first edit, it would have turned out better.

I was surprised to see The Loft turn out the way it did. I was expecting disposable January trash and got a relatively enjoyable good bad movie. I recommend this to people who like good bad movies. As for your average moviegoer, I recommend a rental so you do not spend so much money and regret it afterward.