30 March 2015

Dueling Spies - Shady Counter-Organizations are the New Black

By the end of last week we had two new trailers on our hands for a pair of 2015 films that have, for better or worse, somewhat slid under the radar. This is really only due to 2015 being absolutely huge and crazy for the mega-franchises of or day and in another year where these flicks may have swung some heavy cultural weight, they're being a bit overshadowed in the wake of men flying around in tights and triple-bladed lightsabers.
An used image from Tom Cruise: Man of Steel

But these are venerated franchises. The first trailer dropped for Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation (2015), which I really only had a shaky recollection of coming out this year. The second is something we have no reason not to be pumped out of our minds about, the twenty-fourth Bond Film, SPECTRE (2015). Here, go watch their trailers.

What do you think? Maybe it's just because it's been a while since we've had dueling spy films, but I haven't noticed how similar these properties have become. We had this in the mid-90s when GoldenEye (1995) battled Mission: Impossible (1996), and again at the turn of the century during the great bout between Die Another Day (2002), The Bourne Identity (2002), and of course, xXx (2002).

Our spy duel in 2015 seems a little different though, because they're not just sharing genres, but it would seem plots as well. See, there are shady uncover agencies everywhere, even more secret than MI6 or IMF and The Syndicate and SPECTRE are out to get our respective super-spies. And that is really just following up on HYDRA from Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), which is something I never thought I'd say.

Why this sudden upsurge in dastardly evil organizations in mainstream spy thrillers? Maybe it's the aftereffect of terrorist cells like ISIS recruiting your neighbors next door. Maybe cinema's writers have just watched too many episodes of The Americans. There is a sense, though, of suspicion, that anyone around you could be a deadly insurgent, and after all, what better threat to a super-spy than an evil super-spy? And just because these movies all seem similar doesn't mean they'll be terrible. In fact, Rogue Nation and SPECTRE both look a few shades of awesome, with both franchises cashing in on what they've built their bread and butter on lately.

Mission: Impossible has had sort of a strange, tortured road to becoming an A-list franchise. It's built completely on Tom Cruise and is so tied to whatever level of patience audiences have with him at that moment. Looking back on films in the franchise I'm always reminded of the Mission: Impossible staple: not remembering any plot or why anything was happening at any given time for any reason, but there's always one great scene or stunt that stands out. The classic wire-hanging. Cliff-climbing. Keri Russel's brain exploding. Scaling the Burj Khalifa. It's all there. From the looks of it, Rogue Nation is following this up with a compelling remade scene from Black Sheep (1996).

Thanks to the general goodwill steaming from Mission: Impossible III (2006) and Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol (2011), people are also expecting a good flick. I think folks have also come around with Tom Cruise, who has actually had a pretty reliable string of early summer films lately. At the very least he has built up a reputation for some awesome stunts, made more compelling by the public knowledge that he does just about everything himself. You know, like a crazy person. He's stayed out of the public eye and avoided jumping on Oprah, which has also allowed us to remember more of how fearless an actor he is than how much of a maniac he is. That bodes well for Rogue Nation.
Why is skiing always a staple of the spy genre?

SPECTRE has the benefit of following up the most successful Bond Film of all time, financially and arguably critically, Skyfall (2012), with the same production team and a really intriguing trailer. Bond has done well lately to trade the exact kind of insane stunts Mission: Impossible loves for more personal, introspective stakes. Sure, Skyfall has its really big moments and explosions, but the funnest part of that film is when it boils down to a farm battle in Scotland between Bond, his nemesis, and the surrogate mother to both of them. There is a lot of complicated pain and relationships in Skyfall, which SPECTRE looks to build on. There isn't a "Tom Cruise hangs from a plane" scene in that trailer, but I find myself re-watching it even more. There's a lot of hope there.

It's interesting to think back nineteen years now, the impossible amount of time it's been between now and the first Mission: Impossible. We've gone through two Bonds in that time and that's with even Daniel Craig is nearing the end of his run. This further proves that Tom Cruise, even after cresting fifty years old, is immortal. I love how he was that semi-retired agent in Mission: Impossible III, which was now a whopping nine years ago. Think of it this way - that year also showcased Daniel Craig as a new Bond while Skyfall showed him rather as an old, rusty Bond. Cruise just keeps barreling ahead.

All this is awesome for Jeremy Renner, who constantly seems on the cusp of A-list stardom, being primed to take over the Mission: Impossble and Bourne franchises but constantly being denied. Even poor Hawkeye keeps getting the short shrift. Maybe he can be the next Bond. No, Idris Elba has a better chance for that than Jeremy Renner.

So, what do you think? Why are shady counter-organizations in this year? Which film will reign supreme - Rogue Nation or SPECTRE? And is there any room for these films as cultural objects of affection in a crowded year filled with Star Wars, Jurassic Park, Terminator, Avengers, and Hunger Games films? If I were a betting man, I'd put my money on...Paul Blart.

Rogue Nation drops July 31st, while you can check out SPECTRE  November 6th.

19 March 2015

Community on Yahoo - When Should Good Shows Stay Dead?

By this time if you're a fan of the show Community you ought to know that a deal was struck with Yahoo's fledgling streaming video service to revive the show after NBC's cancellation. Yahoo dropped two new episodes of Season 6 on Tuesday, and all things considered, they were pretty good. But how much should we milk a show that changes production houses to stay alive against improbable fan-fulfilling odds?

I suppose my only issue with this is a sort of Seinfeld-based theory. This show ought to have gone out at its peak, in Season 3, with the departure of creator and supposed wunderkind, Dan Harmon. Season 4 was a rough, forced year that didn't quite walk the fine line that made Community special. Season 5 saw the return of Harmon's fine touch, but always felt like it was forcing what once came to it so naturally. This was sort of due to the cast influx along with the specter of behind-the-scenes strife between both the show and its cast and the show and its network.

So, in many ways, escaping NBC, who, for the record, gave the show far more chances than it deserved - it wasn't lasting five years on any other network - for the realm of digital streaming seemed like a big win. It's kind of a hip thing to do these days, with Arrested Development returning (albeit the seven-year gap in that case is somewhat more significant), this time to Netflix. Plenty of other shows have jumped stations for a few more victory laps, from Futurama on Comedy Central to Cougar Town on TBS. All of this should be great, right?

What I'm getting at is that fans don't always know what they want. They want to replicate the feeling they had when that show was in its prime and refuse to understand that that feeling is gone forever once a show's prime has fallen and its creative minds have largely moved on to other projects. The interesting thing about Community is that, as Community should, it has dealt with these perceptions head on in a very meta-way.

Community has always used Abed as its semi-fourth wall breaking outlet to connect with the "show," something the rest of the cast refers to as their lives. This allows Community to comment on its place in the pop cultural landscape, play with tropes, and in some ways subvert the decline in quality that plagues other revitalized productions through its acknowledgment of its situation, a self-aware declaration that adds another layer of jokes to the proceedings.

Reliably, they have done this more obliquely when opening a season. But "Ladders" (S6;E1) notably addresses how much things have changed, how people in real life aren't quirky or interesting, and how it's more important to send emails than to start underground Miller's Crossing (1990)-inspired speakeasies. The show does a nice job of contrasting this sort of actual life heart with the absolute zaniness that's required to make a hilarious modern single-camera sitcom. The complete failure of this show in anyone else's hands but Dan Harmon is a testament that this whole thing requires a very delicate touch.

I'm a bit torn on what exactly to think of Season Six of Community. It's not like the episodes were bad, they were certainly as good as anything Season Five had to offer. If anything, it ought to help legitimize Yahoo as a streaming player (with ad sales taking over from subscription sales, which is almost a plus for the cash-minded media consumer) and its hybrid release model of two episodes a week for anytime streaming is an interesting way to push the flexibility of streaming services while maintaining the habits of traditional television viewing.

Community finds success as an adaptable show because of its inherent meta-nature. It can comment on things, reflect on things, and doesn't have to pretend it's replacing any characters or expressing internal feuds without tact or subtlety. It's actually free to morph and change independent of its cast or network. As long as Dan Harmon sticks around it ought to be fine. But part of me still thinks we're chasing down 2012 for this thing.

12 March 2015

Liam Neeson Plays the Same Character in Every Movie...I Mean this Very Literally

Liam Neeson isn't the only actor who is commonly criticised for playing the same exact character, but he is maybe one of the few in this day and age who makes the same exact movie over and over again. Especially considering the rapid fire succession of A Walk Among the Tombstones (2014), Taken 3 (2015), and now Run All Night (2015) debuting today, it's time to talk about this Liam Neeson problem. Now, I don't really care about the detached criticism of him playing the same character over and over again - I want to make the argument that the reason for this is that we have been lied to. We area actually only seeing bits of one story featuring different parts of one character's life. That character is actually Liam Neeson.

So, partly inspired by this canny observation, here is the REAL history of Liam Neeson's actual life, which is all we have been watching until this point in time. Needless to say, there are so many spoilers for every Liam Neeson movie made in the past thirteen years. So, with a really select version of Neeson's recent action films, let's take a look at the Neeson family, starting from the Old Country:
They made surprisingly good movies in 1846

In the early 19th Century, Liam Neeson's great-great-great grandfather arrived in New York City. Taking the name Vallon, he feuded with locals in the Five Points neighborhood, in particular with a gang leader named Bill "The Butcher" Cutting. The Butcher eventually killed Vallon in combat, but not before Vallon birthed a son, Amsterdam Vallon. Eventually, Amsterdam's son would reject the throngs of the city, mostly because he was a homeless bastard, but found much more at home expressing his family's violent tendencies out west. He turned into one of the most dangerous men in the Arizona Territory and the first and only Irishman in the West. To separate himself from his brutal upbringing, he took the name Clinch Leatherwood.

After Clinch, generations would pass without much disaster. That is of course, until June 7, 1952 when a baby Liam Neeson shot his way out of his mother's whom. He nominally took the role of an actor as a cover for a baffling array of roles in the military and law enforcement, but he would mostly reject this and use his specific set of skills as a private mercenary time and time again. He got his start as a police officer, then detective in New York City, but gave that up when he was involved in a bar fight that resulted in him accidentally shooting a seven-year old girl.

Liam look the name Bill Marks and after drowning his sorrows in alcohol, became an Air Marshall. He was hailed as a national hero after a dangerous, bomb-laced flight from New York to London. His faith in government renewed, he joined the Army, dying his hair and changing his name again in order to mask his well-known identity as both the well-respected actor from Schindler's List (1993) and as the savior of British Aqualantic Flight 10. He decided John Smith would be a perfectly reasonable alias, although his close compatriots nicknamed him "Hannibal."

Hannibal and his cronies, though, were set-up by the CIA and estranged from the government, despite their valiant efforts in securing missing U.S. Treasury plates. Calling themselves "The A-Team," Neeson and his gang worked for those who had no one else to turn to. The life wore on Neeson, however, and he longed to again be at peace with his country. He joined the CIA, but in order to protect the rest of the A-Team he took the name Bryan Mills and died his hair again.

Quick! Guess which movie this still is from!
It's impossible!
It was as Bryan Mills that he took a job to assassinate the Prince of Saudi Arabia under the cover of Dr. Martin Harris. Suffering a car accident immediately prior to the job, though, Neeson unknowingly found himself with amnesia. I don't think this was actually CIA work in Unknown (2011), but it could have been...right? They could have used a cover name. Shut up, it fits this stupid post). This job would alienate Neeson from the Agency, though, and he retired. It was then that he met the love of his life, Lenore.

He would have a daughter named Kim with Lenore, but eventually they divorced. Neeson got a job bodyguarding pop stars, but the life pulled him back in. Kim was taken, so Neeson, using the name Mills still, killed a lot of people. Then his wife was taken, so he killed a lot of people again and got her back. Then his wife was killed, which really devastated Neeson. After investigating and avenging her death and seeing his daughter, Kim, pregnant, Neeson left for a job in Alaska fighting wolves.

He took the name John Ottway to distance himself from his tortured past, but was constantly reminded of images of his dying wife. To cope with her murder, he envisioned her slowly succumbing to a lethal disease. After a plane crash, subsequent survival in the harsh wilderness, and yes, some more wolf fights, Neeson set out across the world; a true attempt to leave the world behind.

In Asia he stumbled upon the League of Shadows, who immediately welcomed him in, particularly enamoured with his specific set of skills. They bestowed upon him the name Ra's al Ghul. In his depression and nihilism, he rose through the ranks of the League of Shadows and trained many warriors, including a young Bruce Wayne. That one would come back to haunt him. Bruce Wayne turned his back on the League of Shadows philosophy of burning the world and starting over. Liam Neeson, after his years of pain, betrayal, and hardships was a strong proponent of this insanity. When Bruce learned of Neeson's plan to destroy Gotham City using a train system that turned all of the city's water into fear gas (boy that sounds stupid when stated succinctly), he foiled the plot and killed Neeson.

Or so it would seem. Neeson was injured in the crash but crawled his way to a Lazarus Pit and regained his health. These Ra's al Ghul Lazarus Pits were actually the means by which Liam Neeson has stayed so virile all these years and how he has two fully grown daughters. He sired the second one, Talia while in the League of Shadows. She was also taken from him and raised by Bane in a hole. It was rough but she loved him. It is unknown whether or not Talia and Kim ever got together.

Seeing another chance at life, Neeson reformed and became a career military man. He joined the Navy and quickly rose up the ranks until he earned the rank of Admiral, again changing names to hide his past, this time to Terrence Shane. His polished tenure was marred during an alien attack at a RIMPAC that coincided with the much worse offense of one of his subordinates macking on another daughter of his, Samantha. Samantha was notable for being the only Liam Neeson daughter who wasn't taken, but in the aftermath of the alien invasion, his daughter became engaged to the young Alex Hopper.

Yes, even Battleship.
This turn of events again disillusioned the decorated Admiral, and taking the name Matthew Scudder, tried to forget his life and resist a return to alcoholism. He was eventually wrapped up in a convoluted story about a junkie, some drug dealers, and street rats. He again solved his problems by killing a lot of people. Finally, he is called for some of some actions he took while he was a mercenary assassin under the name of Jimmy Conlon, and has to kill Ed Harris' son. Or Ed Harris is killing his son or something. I haven't seen Run All Night.

At the end of all this, though, Zeus wakes up. See, all of Liam Neeson's life has been a dream. When Zeus dreams he pretends he is Liam Neeson, because we all want to be something more powerful than ourselves. Then Zeus died in Wrath of the Titans for some reason, so Liam Neeson's life is finally put to rest. Or...is it?

For your convenience, here are the films we were able to dissect to pull data about Liam Neeson's actual life and how they are possibly connected. Feel free to debate my order:

Gangs of New York (2002) - Priest Vallon's son, Leo ends up birthing:
A Million Ways to Die in the West (2014) - Clinch Leatherwood, dies but his fierce Irish progeny with an appetite for killing everyone would live on.
A Walk Among the Tombstones (2014) - (1991 scene) Matt Scudder kills a kid
Non-Stop (2014) - Bill Marks, former NYC cop, now an alcoholic Air Marshall
The A-Team (2010) - Hannibal Smith, army leader turned mercenary
Unknown (2011) - Amnesiac assassin, Martin Harris at some point cannot maintain a life on the run and buys his way out through working with a shady organization
Taken (2008) - Bryan Mills, former CIA
Taken 2 (2012)
Taken 3 (2015) - Wife dies
The Grey (2012) - Taking the name Jon Ottway, Liam Neeson flees to fight wolves in the wilderness
Batman Begins (2005) - Ra's al Ghul forms the League of Shadows in his depression
Battleship (2012) - After a guise of death, and filled with awesome stories of wolf-fighting and ninja-army leading, it's a lock that he rises to the rank of Admiral Shane
A Walk Among the Tombstones (2014) - Matt Scudder retired alcoholic cop
Run All Night (2015)
Clash of the Titans (2010) - all of the preceding was actually Zeus dreaming that he was Liam Neeson
Wrath of the Titans (2012) - Zeus finally dies.

10 March 2015

The Eternal Glory of Predator, with respect to JAWS and Masculinity

The other week I managed to catch Predator (1987) on Esquire, which I need to start planning to watch about once a month. And no, I have never watched anything else before or since on Esquire. I don't even know what that channel typically plays. But all they really need is Predator, which reminded me that I ought to write something up about this fantastic movie and the extremely crappy legacy it has left since.
This time with facial scruff!

The amazing thing about Predator is how it's a subtle mix of a few disparate genres that bends its way into being a real solid action film, despite its complete lack of car chases, minimal explosions, and fast, incoherent editing. Okay, so that opening assault on the Guerrilla camp has enough explosions to make up for the rest of the film, but once it gets going it trades these action tropes for the kind of psychological paranoia more befitting of a slasher film. In fact, that's the best way I could describe Predator - it's a military slasher film. Luckily for us, the viewers, when your film is full of big, scary men, you need a bigger, scarier monster to fuck them up.

See, the movie begins like another Arnold vehicle, Commando (1985) (they actually take place in the same fictional Latin American country), but more a "men on a mission" war film that descends about halfway through into a science fiction thriller in the jungle. There's never been anything quite like it. It should have been a good candidate for my article on Movies that are Two Movies. By the time it's traded its military shoot 'em up for a science-fiction slasher movie it's just as ready to become Home Alone (1990) in the jungle. Keep in mind that the first Predator kill isn't until about 42 minutes in. The fact that it keeps up a remarkably efficient plot and a consistent tone and theme through these genre swaps is amazing.

This is especially true as the film narrows down to just Arnold and the Predator. Dialogue ends and all we see is an extremely focused preparation and battle between these two giants. The film does a great job of visually establishing the Predator's abilities, particularly the heat vision and cloaking powers, which the audience has been able to deduce through "Predator-Vision" but has been unclear to the protagonists. Watching this in 2015 makes me appreciate how much mileage a film gets out of having its heroes lost in trying to figure out their alien enemy and how it skirts any exposition explaining what's going on. Here is the best clip I could find of a film that fails hard in this regard. Yes, for some reason, YouTube isn't filled with sexy exposition scenes.

It's reminiscent of other films that dramatically change their construction when events happen that would naturally limit dialogue, from JAWS (1975) to Cast Away (2000). Let's go back to JAWS, though, because it's a film that actually has plenty in common with  Predator. Like I said, there is a shift in the kind of film it is trying to be - JAWS morphs from this small-town drama with many intersecting characters to a confined monster hunt with only three. Predator boasts this expansive, macho military-driven cast that's again whittled down to one man and his monster. There's a lot more to it, though.

Both films are an examination of masculinity. Chief Brody is an ineffectual child who can't really do anything right or impose his will on anything until he's able to become a man with that one final rifle shot. And all of the gang's giant guns and chest-cutting testosterone is completely ineffective when faced with the Predator. Just take Apollo Creed's death scene, with the glistening abs, giant guns, and manly bellowing. It doesn't mean shit when an invisible alien runs up and stabs you in the chest with giant serrated Wolverine claws.

Come at me, bro!

For most of the movie, the Predator is unseen, but his presence is always felt by the characters, whether they realise it or not. Killing the earlier platoon led by Jim Hopper that was sent in is the reason why Dutch's guys are there in the first place. The one girl (in the entire movie), Anna, comments that the Predator is "the jungle itself" and when the men realise that it's been using the trees this fear grows that no where is safe and this thing is around them all the time, hunting them. If your mind is turning, yes, that's exactly like the Shark and its ocean in JAWS. Too bad the Shark never ripped anyone's spine out.

Finally, by the end of the film we finally get to see the monster's big ugly mug, in JAWS as it tries to munch on Brody's chum-chucking hands, and in Predator as the alien realises that Arnold Schwarzenegger may be a worthy opponent to fight without battle armour. I really love that final fight. Dutch has such strong situational awareness that he's able to win by turning the Predator's advantages into his own. Throughout the whole movie the Predator is killing these elite military guys because it's invisible while it can detect them in the infrared spectrum. Arnold turns this around by first disabling his cloaking and then rendering himself invisible through mud. It's a sublime switcheroo.

After Predator came Predator 2 (1990), which completely traded settings, Val Verde for Los Angeles, to a lesser effectiveness and a whole new can of worms thanks to that damn Xenomorph head in their spaceship. It's worth noting that nothing about Predator (or "Yautja") society has ever really been fleshed out, and the canon is mostly limited to the tactics and weaponry established in Predator, which is kind of astounding. I actually enjoy Alien vs. Predator (2004) for that scene where the chick and Predator almost kiss. I'd consider Alien vs. Predator: Requiem (2007) to be pretty dumb, not for including the Predalien or whatever, but just because it's a fantastically dumb movie. Predators (2010) actually seemed like it was a valiant attempt to get back to what made the original so special, and it's probably the second-best Predator film, but you just can't trade Arnold for Adrian Brody, even if the cat beefed up ridic for that flick.

Stray observations while re-watching Predator:

  • Shane Black looks just like Harold Ramis from Stripes (1981)
  • 1987 featured two movies starring both Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jesse Ventura, the other one being The Running Man. Both these men would become State Governors. I love America.
  • Jesse Ventura wears an MTV shirt. This happens, unironically, because his character is supposed to be edgy.
  • Are Mac and Blaine gay?
  • The Predator's laugh at the end is so well articulated and un-monstery. It's so unsettling to me every time.
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