Saturday, September 24, 2016

Man Of Heel(s)

As you no doubt are aware, unless you've been frozen in the Arctic for the past seventy years, the upcoming second season of The CW's Supergirl series will finally feature the appearance of Superman.

The show was constantly teasing his appearance in Season 1, as Supergirl would get encouraging texts from her more famous cousin, or they'd give us a glimpse of his cape or a fleeting shot of his boots. I'm assuming they were playing coy and never actually had him fully appear for some sort of legal or copyright reason.


Welp, that's all changed in Season 2. In an effort to shore up Supergirl's less than super (see what I did there?) ratings, the Man Of Steel will be appearing in all his full-bodied glory.


Right now I'm hoping that Superman will appear sporadically on the show (such as in the opening episode and during Sweeps Weeks), because I don't think it'd be a good idea for him to become a series regular. There's a very real risk of the show shifting its focus exclusively onto him. Superman could very well become the Urkell of Supergirl, and shove her out of the limelight altogether.


Here's a shot of the two of them together. They make a good looking couple, I suppose. Actor Tyler Hoechlin makes an adequate Superman, I guess, as he looks reasonably heroic... wait a minute. Let's zoom in for a second.


Look at those boots that Hoechlin's wearing. Jesus Building-Leaping Christ! He's wearing lifts! His heels are literally bigger than Supergirl's! By a good four or five inches. Holy Compensation, Batman! I wonder what else he's padding under that suit?

I wonder if the producers noticed the two actors were the same height when they stood next to one another, so they jacked up his heels, pronto. Heck, I'm betting he may have even been shorter than her!

Hopefully he practices walking in those things before filming, so he doesn't wobble around and accidentally fall of his heels.

I know this is a horse I've beaten for far too long, but I don't care— this photo also perfectly demonstrates why Superman needs his red trunks to help break up the blue of his suit. Supergirl looks perfect with her little red skirt. Superman still looks like something's missing with his solid blue longjohns. I'll never get used to this look.

Also, as my pal KW Monster pointed out to me, why is Supergirl's "S" emblem (that stands for "hope" in Kryptonian) different from her cousin's? Why doesn't hers have a yellow— sorry, make that dirty mustard—  background? It makes her emblem look cheap and incomplete, and I honestly can't think of any reason to leave it off.

Old School Supergirl from the '80s had a red and yellow emblem  and she looked just fine. So why the change?

If I had to guess, I'd say they changed it for marketing and merchandising purposes. If the characters' emblems are interchangeable, Warner Bros. couldn't sell separate merchandise. They'd only be able to sell one S-shield t-shirt or pendant, and they'd halve their profits. Plus it might be confusing for the customer. "Is this a Superman shirt? I hope so, I don't want to wear a Supergirl shirt in front of my nerd guy friends!"

So I get it, but I don't like it.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Marvel's Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. Season 4, Episode 1: The Ghost

Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. is back, for its fourth, and most likely last season!

What's that? "But Bob," I hear you say. "Whatever do you mean? What could possibly make you think this'll be the show's final season?" 


Welp, because ABC, in its infinite wisdom, moved the series from 9pm to 10pm (8pm to 9pm to me, here in the middle of the country). 10pm has traditionally been considered "The Death Slot," the place where networks send put shows out to pasture. They limp along for a few months in that time slot until they start to wither, their audience dries up and they're ultimately cancelled. 

There are many series that have been quite successful in that time slot, of course. But they generally started out at 10pm. It's when a series is moved there that their days become numbered.

Naturally ABC's trying to put a positive spin on the move, assuring the public that the move to a later hour will allow Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. to "go darker" and feature more violence. Jesus Christ, how much darker can the show get? The Season 3 episode Failed Experiments featured a horrifying scene of a character's head melting, which was worse than anything I've seen on The Walking Dead. And in Ascension, the Season 3 finale, Yo-yo caught a bullet in her side (despite the fact that she has super-speed) and Mack cauterized her wound with a goddamned blowtorch! Holy crap! And they want to go even darker?

I can certainly understand ABC and Marvel's reasoning here. After all, going dark, grim and violent has worked out so well for the DC movie universe.

Of course the really big news this season is that Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. is adding Ghost Rider to the show. Yeah, you heard right. Ghost Rider. The guy with a flaming skull for a head, famously played by batsh*t insane actor Nicolas Cage in 2, count 'em two theatrical films from Sony.

I don't know... adding Ghost Rider to the mix seems like a very, very weird addition to what is ostensibly a spy series. They don't go together. There's no commonality there; they just don't mix or mesh. It feels as odd as if the cast of Sleepy Hollow suddenly appeared on Bones. Oh, wait...

On the other hand, it's not like this is the first bizarre turn 
Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. has taken. Agent Coulson came back from the dead, Skye developed superpowers and insisted on being called Daisy, we met a low-budget Hulk (aka Calvin Zabo) and the Inhumans, Simmons was stranded on an alien planet for several months, and Grant Ward died but was possess by a squid-faced alien god. Now that I think about it, a vengeance demon with a flaming skull head isn't so strange after all.

SPOILERS!

The Plot:

We begin six weeks after the Season 3 finale (which featured a six month time-jump
 confused yet?). Daisy's still doing her best Lisbeth Salander impression, but instead of stealing from the rich and giving to the poor like she had been doing, she's switched to tracking a white supremacist group that's running guns or something. Just as she's about ready to use her quake powers against them, a tricked-out '69 Dodge Charger appears. 

The car revs its engine and roars toward the gun runners. They fire a bazooka or rocket launcher or something at it, which blows it sky high. It flips end over end, lands on the feet, er, I mean wheels, bursts into supernatural flames and continues on its path. It smashes into the skinheads' truck, killing all but two of them. A figure with a flaming skull head emerges from the car. It's Ghost Rider! Not the lame one from the movies, but a cool new non-Cage version. He grabs one of the skinheads and drives off. A stunned Daisy mouths "WTF?"

Meanwhile Coulson and Mack are cooling their heels at S.H.I.E.L.D. Headquarters. There've been lots of changes since the season finale. The biggest one is that Coulson is no longer the Director. There's a brand new sheriff in town, one who's fond of terrible acronyms and goes unseen in this episode. This new Director has decided to split up the old team and give them all separate assignments. Coulson and Mack are determined to intercept Daisy and bring her back to S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent May is now training her own strike force. Fitz is still in the science lab, but Simmons has been promoted, and now reports to the Director. Yo-yo is apparently a part time agent, who's called in from time to time.

May intercepts a report on Daisy's whereabouts, and secretly shares the info with Coulson. Against orders from the Director, he and Mack set out to find her.

Cut to Ghost Rider interrogating his skinhead prisoner. When he refuses to cooperate, Ghost Rider kills him with his car. Daisy goes to visit the other skinhead in the hospital. He tells her that no one survives an encounter with the Ghost Rider for long, and promptly drops dead. Daisy then has a secret meeting with Yo-yo, who's supplying her with bone healing medication from S.H.I.E.L.D. Daisy needs the meds, because despite the fact that she freely used her quake power as much as she wanted with no ill effects last season, suddenly it's damaging the bones in her arms. Yo-yo also tells her that Coulson and Mack are close to finding her.

Back at S.H.I.E.L.D., May and Simmons argue. May thinks Simmons is kissing up to the new Director and betraying her former teammates. Simmons assures her she doesn't trust this new Director (hmmm...) and is doing everything in her power to gain his confidence so she can protect her friends. She then orders May to bring in Coulson and Mack.

Meanwhile, Fitz goes to Dr. Radcliffe's (remember him from last season?) place to watch the soccer, er, I mean football 
match. Radcliffe's Life Model Decoy AIDA wanders into the living room, much to Fitz's surprise and embarrassment (she's nekkid, dontcha know). Radcliffe says he invented AIDA to act as a "shield" for human agents (wah-wah), so they don't have to risk their lives in dangerous situations. Fitz reminds Radcliffe that that's pretty much how Ultron was born in Avengers: Age Of Ultron. Fitz says they have to report AIDA to Simmons immediately, but then changes his mind and says they should keep her a secret until she's perfected. Uh-oh. Keeping secrets from your girlfriend ain't cool, Fitz!

Daisy uses some impressive detective skills to track down Ghost Rider's Charger to an auto yard. She meets Robbie Reyes, who works there. He becomes suspicious of her, turns into Ghost Rider and attacks. She fights back with her quake powers, but is eventually pinned under heavy rubble by Ghost Rider. Feeling guilty for all the blood on her hands, she begs him to go ahead and kill her. He stares at her for a few seconds, then turns, gets in his car and roars off. Why, I have no idea.

Coulson and Mack show up at a warehouse, hoping to catch Daisy. Instead they witness an odd exchange, as two thugs are apparently selling an old chest to a group of Asian mobsters. The head mobster opens the chest, and some kind of mystical energy explodes from it, bathing everyone in glowy sparkles. A ghostly woman then walks past the mobster. Suddenly he sees his underlings transform into withered, black-eyed demons. He freaks out, grabs a gun and starts cutting them down.

May then appears and she and her team take out the rest of the mobsters. She orders her team to load up the Ark Of The Covenant, er, I mean the chest and take it back to S.H.I.E.L.D. Before she leaves the ghostly woman reappears and walks past her. May looks around in confusion, unsure of what just happened.

Later Daisy spies on Robbie, and sees him meet his younger brother (who's in a wheelchair) after school. Awwww. The supernatural vengeance demon has a disabled little brother he supports.

Back at S.H.I.E.L.D., Coulson plays backgammon with May, and they reminisce about the good old days. As May looks at Coulson, she sees him momentarily transform into one of the withered, black-eyed demons before he returns to normal... Uh-oh!

Thoughts:
• If nothing else, so far this Ghost Rider is miles above the Nicolas Cage version.

• Wondering why Ghost Rider suddenly drives around in a cool '69 Dodge Charger instead of his traditional motorcycle? Me too. Apparently this is the version that's in the comics these days.

There've been many different Ghost Riders over the years. Most people know the original, Johhny Blaze. He was a stunt rider who gave his soul to Mephisto in order to save his dying father. Every night or whenever he was encountered evil, he transformed into Ghost Rider, and drove a flaming motorcycle. He could also shots blasts of hellfire from his hands. This was the version (more or less) played by Nicholas Cage in Ghost Rider and Ghost Rider: Spirit Of Vengeance.

In the 1990s, Danny Ketch became the Ghost Rider after acquiring a motorcycle that was possessed by a Spirit Of Vengeance (!). 

Robbie Reyes is the newest incarnation of Ghost Rider, and debuted in 2014. Reyes works at an auto body shop, and takes care of his developmentally disabled brother Gabe. He entered a street race to earn money to move himself and his brother out of his gang-ridden neighborhood, but was gunned down by mercenaries. He's then resurrected as a demon with a flaming, helmet-like skull head. He drives a '69 Dodge Charger that also has supernatural powers. There's a LOT more to his story, but that'll do for now. 

Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. is using a modified version of the Robbie Reyes character.

 Ghost Rider's debut— in which his car is hit by a bazooka, flies into the air, flips over a couple of times and lands unscathed—  is taken directly from the comics.

 The Ghost Rider transformation effects were pretty cool, and very well done. Especially on a TV budget. I kind of like that this particular Ghost Rider's head looks more like a stylized helmet than a realistic skull.

 After Ghost Rider's big debut, there's a scene in the S.H.I.E.L.D. lab in which Simmons is walking around inside some sort of elaborate holographic simulation, invented by Fitz. He calls it "The Framework."

This scene has absolutely nothing to do with the plot. It looked expensive though, so there's no way they filmed it just as filler. I'm betting this was all set up, and The Framework is going to become really important later on in the season.

• At one point Simmons makes a comment about "absent friends we'll never see again." She's obviously talking about Mockingbird and Hunter here. As we all know, they were written out last season, so they could star in the Marvel's Most Wanted series. Now that ABC passed on the show (twice!), that's obviously not going to happen. So will they be returning to Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D. sometime this season?

Yes, they said Mockingbird and Hunter were now discommendated or something and could absolutely, positively, never, ever, EVER return. But as we all know, this is a comic book series, and the world "never" doesn't apply. Not even to Coulson, who was killed by Loki in The Avengers and later got better.

• The new S.H.I.E.L.D. Director, who was unseen in this episode but will supposedly appear next week, is fond of horrible acronyms. He comes up with "Special Advisor to the Director in Science and Technology," or S.A.D.I.S.T. for short, as well as "Widespread Infiltration Monitoring Program," or W.I.M.P.

Expect this to be a running joke all season.

 Fitz is shocked and disturbed when he meets AIDA, Dr. Radcliffe's Life Model Decoy. He says creating artificial intelligence is how Ultron was born. Radcliffe says, "But this is not A.I. A.I. is banned. This is mimicry of human behavior."

Um... what the hell's the difference? Aren't they the same thing? Doesn't artificial intelligence mimic the human mind?

• Now that FitzSimmons are finally a couple, expect the writers to immediately begin working on breaking them up. I have a feeling the fact that Fitz is keeping the existence of AIDA a secret from Simmons will end up driving quite a wedge between them.

• Something I'm wondering about Robbie. So far every time he's turned into Ghost Rider, he's been wearing his cool black leather jacket and jeans. The clothes obviously aren't a part of the vengeance demon's body. So what would happen if Robby is dressed for the beach when he transforms? Would Ghost Rider appear as a flaming skeleton wearing a tank top, cargo shorts and sandals? I'd pay to see that!

I need to get started on a drawing of that right away.

• Daisy and Ghost Rider have a big fight in the auto yard. Daisy's pinned under rubble, and even though he could easily kill her, for some reason Ghost Rider simply walks away. Why? Surely she has just as much blood on her hands as the white supremacists he killed.

In the comics, one of Ghost Rider's powers is his "Penance Stare." When he locks eyes with a victim, they feel every pain they've ever inflicted on anyone throughout their life, which causes great physical and mental discomfort.

Was that what was going on when GR had Daisy pinned under the wreckage? He was definitely staring at her, and she looked like she was in pain. If so, it wasn't made very clear. If they're going to use the Penance Stare, then it definitely needs some sort of special effect to show he's using it. An eye glow or something.


• I have no idea what the weird ghost in the chest is about. You know, the one that makes its victim see people as demons, or look like Bilbo Baggins momentarily possessed by the One Ring. I don't remember anything like that from the comics, but then again I stopped buying them when the cover price passed three bucks, sometime around 2000. So I've missed a lot of plotlines.

The S.H.I.E.L.D. producers have stated that this season will have some kind of tenuous connection with the upcoming Doctor Strange movie, so maybe it has something to do with him or his world. Some form of magic?

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Harry Potter And The Balloon Mortgage Of Kalamazam

Good news for fans of the Harry Potter movies! If you live near London and have some considerable spare cash lying around, you can buy the iconic house that Harry lived in.

In the films the location was home to Harry's relatives the Dursleys, and was famously located at 4 Privet Drive, Little Whinging, Surrey. The real world address is 12 Picket Post Close, Martins Heron, Bracknell, Berkshire, England, because British addresses just don't know when to stop.

The two story, three bedroom house features an attached garage and is selling for 475,000 pounds, which works out to a little under $620,000. Yikes! That seems a bit steep for a house that's slightly over a thousand square feet. I'm sure the fact it was featured in the films has nothing to do with the inflated price.

The house was used only for exteriors during filming, as the interiors were all shot on a sound stage.

The listing features a few shots of the actual interior, and it looks like the realtor pushed their wide angle lens to its limit in a flailing attempt to make the place look bigger than it really is. How can I tell they used a wide angle lens? Because most wall clocks are circular, not stretched out ovals, that's why.

The home also features a garden, or "back yard" to us non-Brits. The wide angle lens got a workout here too, unless the house really is shaped like some sort of extreme trapezoid.

I can only imagine the living hell the new owner of this house will have to endure, as carloads of fans pound on the door day and night, demanding to see Harry or get a look at the cupboard under the stairs. Hopefully the owner has a good wand and knows the Crutiatus Curse. Crucio!

It Came From The Cineplex: Blair Witch

Blair Witch was written by Simon Barret and directed by Adam Wingard.

Barret and Wingard are apparently writing and directing partners, and previously brought us A Horrible Way To Die (haven't seen it), You're Next (eh), some of the segments in V/H/S and V/H/S/2 (not bad) and The Guest (didn't see it). They're also both working on an unwelcome and unwanted remake of the excellent Korean film I Saw The Devil (groan). 

As you might have guessed, Blair Witch is a sequel to 1999's The Blair Witch Project. It completely ignores the 2000 sequel Book Of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, which can only be a good thing. 

Actually, Blair Witch is more of a remake than a sequel, as it recreates the structure of the original film almost shot for shot.

I was never a huge fan of The Blair Witch Project. I thought the idea of faking "actual footage" was an interesting film experiment, but ultimately it just didn't do much for me. Call me old fashioned, but I prefer stuffy old concepts like character development, motivation and most of all, plot in the movies I watch. The Blair Witch Project had none of those, as pretty much consisted of three people wandering around in the woods and screaming at one another for eighty one minutes. Heck, if I wanna see that I'll watch my family's home movies!

The Blair Witch Project was a huge cultural event in 1999, and kicked off the whole detestable "found footage" genre that's infested cineplexes for the past seventeen years. Sure, there'd been found footage movies before (like Cannibal Holocaust), but this was the first time one had ever gotten a wide release, and played in mainstream theaters.

It also made a poop-ton of money, grossing around $250 million worldwide against its paltry $60,000 budget, making it one of the most profitable movies of all time! That's why fifteen years later we're still seeing found footage movies. They cost next to nothing to make and are pretty much guaranteed to generate millions. As much as I hate 'em, they're never gonna go away. Studios will just keep pumping them out until the day they stop making money.

The Blair Witch Project's strength was in its simplicity. It was a no-frills, stripped down tale of three hikers who get lost in the woods and meet an untimely end. The actors filmed most of the movie themselves, and their dialogue was largely improvised, giving the film a gritty authenticity. In fact many audiences actually believed the events of the film really happened.

That won't be the case with Blair Witch. The new film is much too slick and polished for even the most gullible moviegoer to ever mistake it for reality.

Another reason The Blair Witch Project felt so real was because it was plausible. There's a spooky local legend, the hikers get lost, they start turning on one another and slowly begin losing their sanity. We never see the titular Witch, and it could be argued that the threat is all in their minds. There's nothing in the movie that's outside the realm of possibility. There was a subtlety to it.

Unfortunately that all flies right out the window in Blair Witch. Everything is bigger, louder and dumber. Here the Witch is most definitely real, we get a brief shot of her horrifying, inhuman visage, and worst of all, she now has spectacularly impressive superpowers, as she's seemingly able to bend time and space to her will. This puts the movie firmly in fantasy territory. There's nothing plausible, possible or subtle about this one.

I suppose Barret and Wingard had no choice but to up the ante in this film. You can only pull off a trick like The Blair Witch Project once, and there's no fooling the audience a second time. The only solution is to try a different trick, like they did here.

I think the filmmakers were screwed either way here. If they decided not to show the Witch a second time, modern audiences would be bored to death and feel cheated. But if you do actually show her, fans of the original will cry fowl. There's no way to win. Other than to skip making a sequel in the first place, and we all know that's not going to happen.

The filmmakers went to great lengths to keep the film a secret before its release. Writer Simon Barret claimed they did this because they feared an online backlash from rabid fans of the original, which could have generated negative buzz for the project (which is probably a legitimate concern).

They even went so far as to shoot the movie under the title The Woods, and even mocked up a fake poster to deflect suspicion (although the Blair Witch "stick figure" shape is right there, and not all that subtle). The film's true title was finally revealed in July of 2016 at the San Diego Comic Con, to thunderous applause. Suckers!

SPOILERS, I GUESS!

The Plot:
Back in 1994, Heather Donahue— along with her friends Josh and Mike— mysteriously disappeared in the woods near Burkittsville, Maryland, and have been missing ever since (as seen in The Blair Witch Project). Cut to 2014, as Heather's brother James watches newly uploaded online footage of the Blair Witch Incident. In the video he sees a brief flash of a face reflected in a mirror inside a dilapidated house. Against all reason and logic, he believes the face belongs to Heather, and the tape proves she's still alive after twenty years. Why he thinks this isn't made clear, but let's just roll with it or we'll be here all day.

Armed with this new clue, James heads to Burkittsville to find Heather. His friends Peter Jones, Ashley Bennett and film student Lisa Arlington come along for the ride. Lisa's documenting the trip for a film project, and comes fully prepared. She outfits the group with tiny, hands-free GPS-enabled ear cameras, as well as bringing a larger video camera and even a drone.

In Burkettsville, James meets with a man named Lane and his girlfriend Talia. Lane's the one who allegedly found Heather's footage and uploaded it to the internet. James believes he'll find Heather near where the tape was found, and asks Lane to give him directions. Lane refuses to tell James the location unless he lets him and Talia come along on the expedition. James reluctantly agrees.

The group enters the dense woods and hike for a few hours. As they walk along, Lane tells them about the legend of the Blair Witch. Peter thinks this is hilarious for some reason and bursts out laughing, offending Lane. They reach a shallow stream, and take off their shoes to cross. Ashley cuts her foot on a sharp rock, and James (who has some sort of first-aid training) wraps up the wound.

They decide to set up camp for the night, and pitch their tents in a convenient clearing. During the night they hear terrifying noises surrounding the camp. When they get up the next day, they discover they've all inexplicably slept until 2pm. Um... scary, I guess? They also see the tree limbs are decorated with wooden stick figures tied together with twine.

Ashley freaks out when she sees the figures and demands they go home. The others agree, and strike the camp and leave. As they're walking back, Lisa notices a roll of twine sticking out of Lane's backpack, and accuses him of making the stick figures. He admits he made them, as well as faking the footage on the tape, and says he and Talia have never been in these woods before. Angry, James tells Lane and Talia to find their own way back and chase them off.

James and the others hike for several more hours, but somehow arrive back at their campsite. Lisa launches her drone to try and get an aerial view, but it begins glitching and crashes into a tree. Ashley's foot becomes infected and she develops a high fever. With dark approaching, they're forced to camp in the woods a second night.

Peter leaves the camp to gather firewood (because the abundant branches surrounding the camp apparently aren't good enough) and hears strange noises. He begins running wildly through the woods and is crushed by a falling tree. James goes looking for him, but only finds his abandoned flashlight next to the tree.

James, Lisa and Ashley hear more horrifying sounds outside their tents during the night. A very haggard looking and disheveled Lane and Talia appear, claiming they've been wandering the woods for five days. Lane then runs off into the woods, leaving Talia behind. 

The next morning Lisa's alarm goes off, but the group is puzzled to see the sun hasn't risen. They see the camp is surrounded by even more stick figures, and Talia freaks out when she sees one woven with clumps of her own hair (?). Ashley blames Talia for Peter's disappearance, and grabs the stick figure from her. She snaps it in two, which causes Talia's body to contort and fold in half, killing her instantly. So I guess they're like voodoo dolls?

The Smoke Monster from LOST, er, I mean an invisible force then attacks the camp, smashing trees and tossing their tents high in the air. James and the others run for their lives. Ashley gets separated from them and sits down to rest. She examines her infected leg and pulls some sort of worm from the wound, for no reason than to inject a bit of gore into the film. She then spots the damaged drone high in a tree, and decides she's gotta have it, no matter what. Despite the fact that she was barely able to hobble along a few seconds earlier, she somehow she climbs high into the tree with cat-like agility. As she reaches for the drone she slips and falls several hundred feet, and her body's dragged away by the unseen force.

As a thunderstorm erupts, James and Lisa find the house from Lane's video. James thinks he sees Heather in an upper window (?) and rushes inside. We're then treated to several minutes of vertigo-inducing shots of him frantically running through hallways in the house. Lisa sees a bizarre shape outside the house and reluctantly runs inside. She ends up in the basement, where she's attacked by an insane and bearded Lane. He throws her into a tunnel beneath the basement (??). She crawls through the muddy tunnel— becoming momentarily stuck a few times— and eventually exits into the basement (???). Lane attacks again and she stabs him in the neck with her camping knife. She runs into James, and they head upstairs. As they do, we briefly see the same reflected face that James saw in the tape— the one he thought was Heather—  indicating there's some timey-whimey shenanigans going on in the house. They make it to the attic and lock the door.

A bright light shines through the cracks of the house, as the movie briefly becomes Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. James, who's suddenly become an expert on the Blair Witch, orders Lisa to stand in a corner and close her eyes, saying they'll be safe as long as they don't look directly at the Witch, as we now begin referencing Raiders Of The Lost Ark

The attic door's forced open, and the Witch enters. She does her best vocal impression of Heather, which causes James to turn around and see her, and he's instantly killed. Lisa uses her camcorder screen to try and walk backwards out of the house without looking at the Witch. She almost makes it, but then she hears "James" call out, and like an idiot turns around and is killed. Her camera drops to the floor and the screen goes black, as the audience sits in confusion for a few seconds, unsure of whether the movie's over or not.

Thoughts:
• The movie takes place in 2014, a full twenty years after Heather disappeared. So why the hell is James convinced that she's still alive? Does he really think his sister's been wandering around the woods for two decades, trying to find her way out? That must be one damned big forest! Does he think she learned to hunt and kill animals to survive, and how to fashion clothing from their skins?

I'm also not clear as to why he thinks the blurry face in a single frame of a grainy online video is unequivocally her, when it's impossible to tell who the hell it's supposed to be.

I get that the filmmakers wanted a connection with the first movie, but James' Ahab-like obsession with a sister he didn't even know (he was supposedly only four years old when she disappeared) was just plain bad writing. It might have worked if this film had come out a year after the original, or was set in 2000. But twenty years later? Nope.

• Peter mentions that he was part of the search party that scoured the woods for Heather after she disappeared in 1994. Um… Peter looks to be about the same age as James, which means he was four years old when Heather went missing. Did they really bring a four year old on a search party? And if they did, would he really remember anything about it? How much do you remember from when you were four?

• One of my biggest complaints about the found footage genre (besides the lack of acting talent, special effects, production design and plot) is the fact that invariably the characters will continue filming everything, even when they should be tossing the camera to the ground and running for their lives.

Credit where credit's due: Blair Witch addresses this problem by providing the four leads with tiny, wireless ear-mounted cameras. Now their hands will be free as they're avoiding angry witches while running blindly through the woods. Well done!

Of course I wouldn't be doing my job if I didn't point out that the Ashley character wears one of these ear cameras under her impressive shock of thick, curly hair. Yet somehow her camera consistently has an unobstructed view!

• Jesus Christ, this movie set a new record for jump scares. I finally stopped counting them at ten, and there were several more after that. In fact after two or three of them in a row, one of the characters actually tells another to "Stop doing that!" When the characters start commenting on how excessive the jump scares are in their own movie, there just might be a few too many.

When are directors ever going to learn that jump scares are not, well, scary? If you can't think of a better way to try and frighten your audience than by yelling "BOO!" at them, then maybe you'd be better off making a romantic comedy.

• Earlier I said The Blair Witch Project had a certain subtlety to it. Heather and her friends hear a twig snap outside their tent, and they freeze in terror. I saw the film in the theater, and the entire audience (including me) was leaning forward during that scene, desperately straining to pick up any stray noises on the soundtrack. The uncertainty of whether there was really something there or not is what made it scary.

Cut to Blair Witch. Lisa says, "Did you hear that?" Suddenly a sound like a herd of elephants trampling the microphone blares from the speakers, trees snap in half and fall, and some unseen force rips the tents from the ground and hurls them upwards into the sky. It's not quite the same.

• As the group enters the Black Hills Forest, Lane tells the others that no one ever enters this particular woods, and it's completely untouched. Oddly enough, he says this while they're walking along a nice, clear, wide trail that winds through the trees.

• I mentioned this in the plot, but it deserves repeating. During the second day of the trip, Ashley's foot is badly infected, she has a severe fever and she's barely able to rise out of bed and hobble along.

Yet the second she sees the drone in the tree, this woman who looks like she's never even been in a forest before can suddenly climb like a lumberjack. She climbs up at least a hundred feet, constantly placing all her weight on her swollen foot with no ill effects. Maybe the Witch used her time-manipulating powers to speed up Ashley's healing when we weren't looking?

• The film sets up a bunch of things that seem like they're going to be important, but are promptly dropped and never pan out.

Lane admits that he and Talia made the stick figures and hung them in the camp, but we never find out just why they do this. Are they trying to prank James and his friends by dragging them out in the woods and scaring the crap out of them? Are they working with the Witch, and providing her with victims? That would be an interesting idea, but I guess it's none of our business as the issue is never dealt with.

After the gang hears the scary noises during the first night in the woods, they attach a small security camera to a tree to monitor the camp. When the noises recur the next night, no one thinks to check the camera to see what was causing it.

Lisa brings a drone so the group can hopefully spot the house from the air. It feels like this drone's going to play a big role in the plot, but it's used a couple of times and then forgotten.

Talia freaks out when she sees one of the stick figures has some of her hair woven into it. Ashley angrily grabs the figure from her and breaks it in two. This somehow causes Talia's body to be gruesomely folded in half, killing her. Again, this "voodoo doll" thing was an interesting idea, but it flies against everything that was previously established. It was pulled straight out of the screenwriter's ass, with absolutely no justification or foreshadowing. And then like everything else it's promptly dropped, never to be mentioned again.

Ashley sits down on a log to examine her infected foot. She then pulls some thing out of a festering hole in her calf. It looks for all the world like a squirming alien creature. She looks at it in horror for a few seconds and then tosses it away from her in disgust. And that's the end of that! We never find out what the hell the creature was or what it was doing in her leg. Was it an alien? Is the Witch an alien as well? That would certainly explain a lot, like the time travel and the bright lights at the end.

• In the original film, the locals say that in the 1780s and old woman named Elly Edward was accused of witchcraft, tied to the trunk of a tree in the Black Hills Forest and left to die. Her spirit returned and cursed anyone who entered the woods.

Suddenly in this movie we're told that Elly was strung up in a tree with heavy rocks tied to her hands and feet, which stretched out her limbs to unnatural proportions before she died.

So which is it, movie? Tied or stretched?

At the end of the movie we get a very brief glimpse of the Witch as it lurks behind Lisa, and its arms and legs are freakishly elongated. In fact it looks more like some kind of alien than a witch. Is that look supposed to be the result of her limbs being stretched by the rocks as she hung from the trees?

• At the end of the film, James suddenly becomes an expert on the Blair Witch and her rules. When he and Lisa are trapped in the attic with the Witch, he tells her to stand in a corner and close her eyes, as catching even a glimpse of her will instantly kill them. And it works! The Witch is seemingly powerless against them as long as they follow these rules.

That's fine and all, but how the hell did James know any of this? A few hours earlier he poo-pooed the notion that she existed at all, and the minute he enters the house he starts figuring out loopholes in her powers.

• The big twist in Blair Witch is that the video that James sees at the beginning of the movie that kicked off the whole "Search For Heather" expedition— is actually the footage filmed by Lisa's camera in the final scenes.

Apparently the Witch took Lisa's camera, tossed it outside the house, and then used her superpowers to send it back into time so Lane would find it and upload it to the internet.

For someone who lived in the 1780s, the Blair Witch has a remarkably savvy understanding of modern technology and time travel.

Why she would send a tape back in time, and why she seemingly has a vendetta against James' family, is apparently none of our concern.

• Unintentionally hilarious moment: During the end credits there's a caption that reads, "Costume Design by Katia Stano."

That must have been a tough job. I bet she spent all of an hour grabbing clothes off the rack at Dick's Sporting Goods or Gander Mountain.

Blair Witch is big, loud and dumb, and lacks all the subtlety that made the original so influential. It trades plausibility for impossibility, as it even throws time travel into the mix! If you like watching characters wander through the forest and shriek one another's names, then this is the film for you. Stay out of this woods, and go watch the original again. I was going to give it a C-, but ultimately decided on a D+ for completely missing the point of the first film, and because I hate found footage films.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Dino-Sore Redux

Dear Science:

Please stop ruining dinosaurs.

signed,

The World

When I was a kid, I loved, loved, loved dinosaurs. I couldn't get enough of them. I had a Big Book Of Dinosaurs that I read until it fell apart. I had dinosaur toys, and I would eagerly watch any movie that starred a stop-motion dinosaur. Did I mention I loved dinosaurs?

And why shouldn't I have loved them? The dinosaurs of my childhood were enormous, extremely powerful and amazingly impressive. What kid wouldn't be enraptured by the idea that literal monsters once roamed the Earth?

But that was then. In the past decade or two, things have changed drastically, and not for the better. Science has apparently decided that the dinosaurs of my youth were a little too exciting, and have done their best to water them down, lest the pasty-skinned, asthmatic children of today become overstimulated and curl up into a ball.

First Science decided that many of them were covered in feathers, like gigantic, garish chickens. Who the hell wants to see a dinosaur that looks like it's wearing a feather boa? Then they told us that the Brontosaurus, the most recognized dinosaur of all, never existed. Then they changed their minds and said it did. They even declared that the most fearsome dino that ever existed the T-Rex— was probably a vegetarian rather than a meat eater.

Case in point scientists recently discovered a spectacularly preserved fossil of Psittacosaurus in China. In addition to the usual bones, this fossil included actual soft tissue remains, allowing scientists to accurately determine the dinosaur's skin texture and even its coloration!

Armed with this knowledge, Science then rolled up its collective sleeves and went to work to bring us the most precise recreation of a dinosaur in modern history.

And here it is the world's first  completely accurate model of a Psittacosaurus.

(sound of chirping crickets)

Jesus Christ, are you frakin' kidding me? The awesome and ferocious dinosaurs I loved as a kid have now been replaced by a bald, four legged parrot the size of the average dog, complete with a plume of foot-long ass hair.

Just look at that sorry thing! That's gotta be the most pathetic looking excuse for a dinosaur I've ever seen. That's not a "terrible lizard!" It's downright cuddly. That's a face that's built to say, "Let's be friends!" or "The most important thing is always being yourself!"

This is a creature that belongs on Barney & Friends! Hell, this thing makes Barney look like the T-Rex in Jurassic Park!

What kid in their right mind would possibly be excited by a dinosaur that looks for all the world like Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell?

For the record, this is what Psittacosaurus used to look like, before Science decided to ruin it for everyone. It used to have a cool, spiky, dangerous face. Yeah, it still had the overgrown forest of ass hair, but you could excuse that due to the awesome face. Now, thanks to Science, it's become a Muppet.

Thanks a lot, Science. Why don't you go ruin astronomy or meteorology or something, and leave dinosaurs alone.

DogDog

If you're a child of the 1990s/2000s, you no doubt remember Nickelodeon's bizarre CatDog program.

Well, behold DogDog, the new ill-advised, fused life form from the twisted minds of the demented ex-Nazi scientists over at the One SmartBlend corporation. Twice the slobbery, lovable fun, with none of the unpleasant mess associated with a normal canine.

As Ian Malcolm would say, "Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn't stop to think if they should."

Spotted at my local Schnuck's grocery store.

Classy!

We get a higher class of graffiti here in Evansville. None of that "Prove You Know How To Spell Your Name" type of vandalism for us!

Friday, September 16, 2016

It Came From The Cineplex: Lights Out

Welp, Summer Movie Season 2016 is officially over, as evidenced by the limp offerings at the cineplex this past weekend. The theaters were packed full of stale leftovers, and unless you're six years old and want to see Pete's Dragon or ninety and can't wait to see the Ben Hur remake, it was slim pickings indeed. I finally had to settle on Lights Out, a PG-13 "horror" film which actually premiered way back in July (!).

Lights Out was written by Eric Heisserer and directed by David F. Sandberg.

Heisserer wrote The Nightmare On Elm Street remake (meh), Final Destination 5 (OK), The Thing remake (blech) and Hours (?), which tells you everything you need to know about his talent level. He also wrote the upcoming Arrival, which actually looks pretty good, although my interest level just went down quite a few notches now after finding out he's involved with it.

Sandberg previously wrote and directed several short films. This is his first time directing a major (well, sort of) Hollywood movie.

One of the shorts Sandberg directed was also called Lights Out, and, as you might expect, served as the inspiration for this film. The two and a half minute short features a woman (played by Sandberg's wife Lotta Losten) who's terrorized by a ghostly figure that can only be seen in the dark.

The short was submitted to a film festival, but unfortunately didn't win. It did go viral though (as the kids say) and you've probably seen a piece of it online. Sandberg was contacted by numerous producers who all wanted to turn the short into a feature-length film. Sandberg wrote a treatment that expanded the short, which impressed James Wan (the man responsible for putting most of the Saw films on the screen), and he agreed to produce it.

Does the idea of a dark, violent, ghostly figure who manifests itself through a mentally unbalanced woman seem like an obvious metaphor for depression? Well, that's not just a coincidence. In an interview, Sandberg admitted that he's suffered from depression for years, and the Diana character is most definitely meant to be a physical representation of the condition.

That's kind of a cool idea, I suppose, until you realize that— SPOILERS!— one of the characters decides the only way to rid herself of Diana (and "cure" her of her depression) is not with medication or therapy, but by shooting herself in the head (!). Yikes! That's probably not the best message to send out to the clinically depressed. I'm hoping this plot resolution was unintentional, and Sandberg wasn't deliberately encouraging people to kill themselves.

Horror movies tend to make a lot of money, since they're generally cheap to film. Lights Out is no exception. Shot for a mere $5 million, so far it's grossed over $66 million. So you know what that means! Look for Lights Out 2: Even Lightier in theaters next fall.

Best of all, Lights Out clocks in at a brief 81 minutes, so it won't take up too much of your time.

SPOILERS!

The Plot:
Paul (played very briefly by Billy Burke of Twilight fame) is the owner of a mannequin warehouse (?). His employee Esther (played by Lotta Losten, wife of director David Sandberg) is closing up for the night, and sees the ghastly figure of a woman whenever she switches off the lights. The figure disappears the second the lights are turned on. Esther tries to tell Paul about the ghost, but he blows off her warning and she leaves. 

Paul then hears noises coming from the warehouse. He goes to investigate and see the ghostly woman. He runs back to the office and switches on all the lights. Unfortunately the lights start flickering and go out. Paul's dragged into the dark and killed by the ghostly woman. That'll teach him to ignore someone when they tell him there's a ghost in the warehouse!

Paul's death causes his widow Sophie (played by Maria Bello), who suffers from chronic depression, to take a turn for the worse. She stops taking her meds and begins talking to a seemingly imaginary friend. Martin, Sophie's ten year old son, hears her talking with someone late at night. When he gets up to investigate, he sees she's talking to a ghostly figure (the same one that killed Paul, although Martin doesn't know that). Quite rightly, he runs to his room and spends the night with his light on, terrified beyond the capacity for rational thought.

When Martin begins falling asleep in class, the school tries to reach Sophie, but she's too out of it to answer. They then call Rebecca, Martin's rebellious half-sister. Rebecca and her friend-zoned boyfriend Bret pick up Martin at school and take him to Sophie's house. When Rebecca sees Sophie's off her meds and acting crazy again, she takes Martin back to her apartment.

That night, Rebecca hears a scratching noise, and sees the ghostly figure (who sure gets around) in the doorway. The ghost leaps for her, but Rebecca manages to turn on the light at the last second, causing it to disappear. She sees that the ghost was using her claws to scratch the name "Diana" into her nice hardwood floor. Rebecca recognizes the name from her childhood.

Sophie demands that Martin return home where he belongs. That night, Sophie and Martin have a movie night, and things seem back to normal. But then Sophie turns out the light, and the ghostly figure appears. Martin freaks out, but Sophie tells him it's OK. The ghost's name is Diana, and she won't hurt him. Just then Diana lunges at Martin, and he turns on the light, which vanishes her. He then runs back to Rebecca's place. 

The next day Rebecca goes to Sophie's house while she's out, and roots through Paul's old home office (which I guess has remained untouched since his death). She just happens to find a box of papers that conveniently infodump Diana's entire backstory to her, as well as the audience. It seems that when Sophie was a girl, she was sent to a mental institution for her depression (right). She met a girl there named Diana, who had a rare condition that made her skin extremely light sensitive (sure). The doctors tried an experimental treatment on Diana, which consisted of exposing her to intense light in order to cure her (sounds reasonable). Unfortunately the treatment made Diana spontaneously combust or something (naturally). Ever since then, Diana has manifested herself through Sophie and her depression, and kills anyone who tries to make her well (makes perfect sense). 

Sophie returns home, and she and Rebecca get into a big argument over Diana. Rebecca and Bret decide to spend the night, mostly to protect Martin. After dark, Rebecca goes to Sophie's room to apologize. Sophie says she wants to start fresh in the morning, and be a good mother again. As she closes the door, she secretly passes Rebecca a note reading, "I need help." Sophie's then slowly pulled back inside the room by Diana's claws.

Rebecca turns on all the lights to keep Diana away. Diana somehow shorts out all the lights, plunging the house into darkness. Rebecca and Martin go into the basement to find the fuse box, and Diana locks them in. D'oh! Outwitted by a ghost! Diana then attacks Bret and drags him outside into the driveway. She's about to kill him, but he uses his key fob to turn on his SUV's lights, making Diana vanish. He gets in his vehicle and speeds off, seemingly abandoning Rebecca and Martin.

Meanwhile Rebecca roots through a pile of junk in the basement and just happens to find a huge black light, complete with a fully charged battery (?). She realizes that the UV light allows them to see Diana without making her disappear. Bret returns with a police car in tow. Two officers investigate the house, and are promptly and gruesomely killed by Diana. While Diana's busy with them, Rebecca and Martin escape and run outside.

Rebecca then goes back to save her mother. Diana corners Rebecca and is about to kill her when Sophie appears, holding a gun (which I guess she got from one of the dead cops?). She says she warned Diana not to harm her children, and now she's going to pay. She says she's Diana's only link to the physical world, and she's going to end her threat once and for all. Sophie then shoots herself in the head, which causes Diana to burst into flame and disappear.

Rebecca, Bret and Martin then huddle in an ambulance and vow to become a family. The lights in the ambulance flicker a bit, but Bret says it's nothing (like he knows anything). The End. Or IS it…?

Thoughts:
Lights Out is a perfect example of the typical watered down PG-13 movie that litters the cineplex these days. You know, the kind that's completely free of blood, gore and especially scares.

Credit where credit's due though— despite its rating, there are a couple of genuinely creepy sequences in it. Especially at the beginning, when the characters in the warehouse keep seeing Diana appear whenever they turn out the lights.

There were also some innovative uses of light as a weapon against Diana. The best scene in the film was when saved himself from Diana by remotely activating his SUV's lights, which caused her to disappear. The fact that UV light had no affect on Diana was interesting as well, and gave the characters a slight advantage against her.

Another cool bit Diana was immune to gunshots. When Rebecca shot at Diana, the muzzle flash caused her to momentarily disappear, allowing the bullet to sail harmlessly through her.

These little touches were all very well thought out and filmed, so it's too bad the rest of the movie was hobbled by its anemic rating. Think how much better the film would have been if it had been rated R!

• At the beginning of the movie, Esther sees a ghostly figure that only appears in the dark. She hurriedly runs into the office to tell Paul about it. He tells her he's on an incredibly important call and doesn't have time for her blathering. Esther looks worried and reluctantly leaves. Paul returns to his call and says, "Welp, I gotta go. Talk to you later" and hangs up. It literally took him less than ten seconds to wrap up this vitally urgent phone call!

Of course if he'd told Esther to wait ten seconds and then wrapped up the call like a normal person, he wouldn't have ended up alone in the warehouse with Diana, and would probably have survived. Script Shenanigans!

• In an interesting twist, the adult in this film is the one with the imaginary friend, instead of the kid.

• Just when we thought Bret had hightailed it out of the film for good, he reappears with a couple of policemen (policepersons?). The cops charge right into Sophie's darkened house, and are instantly killed by Diana.

So how's Rebecca going to explain the two mutilated cop bodies in her mom's house? Did she tell the authorities her mom did it, and then killed herself?

• The original version of the film had a very different ending. In it, Sophie kills herself, seemingly ridding the world of Diana forever. The film then cuts to several months later, and we see that Martin is now depressed over the death of his mother. Diana then reappears and latches herself onto him. Martin, Sophie and Bret then have to kill Diana a second time.

Test audiences hated this ending, mainly because it made Sophie's sacrifice meaningless. So the film was recut, and now ends with the survivors recovering in an ambulance. Because this is a horror film, the lights in the ambulance flicker a bit, the characters exchange nervous glances as they realize evil never truly dies, thus setting up a potential sequel.

Lights Out is a standard PG-13 "horror" film that features a couple of genuinely creepy moments, but on the whole is woefully lacking in scares. The "depression as a deadly, clinging monster" metaphor is interesting, but it takes an appalling turn when the film suggests the solution to mental illness is to kill yourself. There was some actual thought put into the film though, especially when it came to figuring out how to use light as a weapon against Diana, which bumps up the score a bit in my eyes. I give it a B-.
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