Movie Review – Comic-Con Episode IV, A Fan’s Hope

Comic-Con Episode IV, A Fan’s Hope, directed by Morgan Spurlock.

Comic-Con. Two small words, but to those of us who love comics, movies, or video games, they mean so much. It’s a 150,000 person nerdgasm that happens every year in San Diego, California. There are literally dozens of other cons that happen all over the world, but when you say Comic-Con, you mean San Diego. It’s the largest event in geek culture.

And this, the latest in Morgan Spurlock’s endless stream of “documentaries” that don’t actually document anything, is about that event. Or at least that’s what I thought it was about. Unfortunately, it’s not about the San Diego Comic-Con at all. In fact,  there is almost no mention of the history, or current status, or anything really, about the con at all, other than that it’s a) really big and b) people really like it.

What this film is really about, is a dream.

You know the dream. Everyone has it, really. It’s not specific to comics or movies though. It could be sports. Or chess. Or Nigerian barrel juggling. It’s the dream to be more than what you are, and to succeed at your secret desires. And while those dreams may be admirable, they’re probably more appropriate for a film about an inner-city basketball program, or a spelling bee featuring kids with last names I can’t pronounce. In this context, they just come across as a longbox full of maudlin sentimentality.

Spurlock divides his movie into 6 or 7 major segments, each focussing on a different personal story. And so we are introduced to the young lovers who met at the previous con, the struggling artists wanting nothing more than to work for Marvel one day, and the costume designer wanting to become the next Jim Henson. They are all admirable endevaours, and each are entertaining in their own way. Watching people follow their dreams is always a recipe for success, and Spurlock shows a steady eye for good storytelling here, something that has often been missing in his other films.

But any documentary that starts with such a bold assumption (that is, that the event we’re documenting is inherently a good thing), isn’t really a documentary at all. And this definitely isn’t. What it is, is a 2 hour commercial for a trade show. A trade show where you can have the chance to meet a lot of people that feel the same way that you do about Klingon mating rituals,  sonic screwdrivers, and bikinis worn by Carrie Fisher in 1983…. but a trade show nonetheless. While almost every story covered here is entertaining and worth watching, they are stories that could have been transported into almost any interest: Stamp collecting, sports, 1dancing with failed celebrities, etc. We are told a lot about the people going to the con, and why they’re going there. What we aren’t told, is almost anything to do with the con itself.

It’s mentioned in passing that the con is bigger than it used to be, and that comics are barely even covered there anymore. But what isn’t covered is why. No one reads comics anymore, even though geek culture is bigger than every before. Sci-fi literature sales are dwindling, yet action movies that pretend to be sci-fi are massive. To me, that’s the real story here, but Spurlock chooses to gloss over that and instead showcase a fabricated public marriage proposal that wouldn’t have been out of place on Hockey Night In Canada.  It’s entertaining, but it tells us nothing about what the movie says it’s actually about: Comic-Con.

Comic-Con is important because it showcases everything that is good, and that is bad, about today’s geek culture. What used to be a burgeoning subculture of underground comics, films, and novels, has been bought and paid for by multi-national corporations. And as a result, everyone who likes movies is now part of the club. Let me tell you something folks, liking The Matrix doesn’t make you a geek. Reading Shaolin Cowboy, the comic created by the guy who did production design on The Matrix makes you a geek. But in this new, homogenized world of geek acceptance, everyone is granted access.  Liking shows that everyone else watches, and reading books that everyone else reads, isn’t geeky. It’s mainstream. And if it’s mainstream, then it’s not special anymore. And if it’s not special, then why does this movie go out of it’s way to pretend that they are?

These are important questions to ask as geek culture changes and grows, and the answering of those questions would make an interesting movie. Unfortunately, Morgan Spurlock didn’t choose to make that movie. What he chose to make was perfectly serviceable TV quality puff piece about nice people that like to own things.  That they happen to like to own some of the same things that I do, doesn’t make it any better.

Rating: C+

Movie Reviews: My entirely spoiler-free review of Cabin In The Woods

Cabin In The Woods directed by Drew Goddard

It’s not really fair to be mad at filmmakers for making a movie, but it’s the position I find myself in here. Not because Cabin in The Woods is a bad film, but because it’s a movie that’s almost impossible to review without spoiling pretty much every reason why you should go see it.

I’ll give it a shot. 5 generic college students go visit a cabin in the woods, and then…Nope…I can’t do it. Although it’s fairly obvious from the trailers that this isn’t the generic teen horror movie it appears to be at first glance, it’s also a film that deserves to have its secrets experienced, not spoiled.

Things I can tell you:

This is a good script. This is a very good script. In fact, this is a script that anyone who loves American horror movies needs to study. Because like all of the best tributes, this is a script truly in love with its source material. This film isn’t mocking the mindless tropes of horror films, it’s honouring them. Not only that, but Drew Goddard and Joss Whedon’s strip does such a nice job of slowly dolling out tiny pieces of information through the entire film, that when it comes time for the lengthy “Here’s what in the Harper is actually going on” scene, it’s almost needless. We’ve figured it out, but just need a little bit of clarifying, which is then done quickly, with little wasted time.

These are good characters. They verge on stereotype, with good reason. Horror is a genre that lends itself to stereotype incredibly well. We know that we need a goofball to keep the tone light. We know that we need a brainiac to help us figure out what’s going on. And we know that we need an innocent to rail against the forces of darkness. Not only does Cabin give us those clichés, it gives us a great reason as to WHY we need them….and it turns out we need them pretty badly.

This is a fantastic premise. Unfortunately it’s a premise that I can’t tell you anything about. But it’s really good. It’s so good that you’ll kick yourself for not thinking of it first. It’s so strong, and so well-thought out, that’s it’s going to be hard to enjoy another film in the “cabin-in-the-woods” genre ever again.

Anything I didn’t like? Sure. This was a genre juggle, and while I normally like that in my storytelling, I found the lack of pure horror to be somewhat anti-climactic. It’s a horror movie, but it’s rarely truly scary. And it’s also a comedy, though it’s rarely truly funny. It still combines both genres better than most films do, and as such is eminently watchable, despite the lack of real chills. Still, I found that I appreciated it more from a technical perspective than I did as a film that’s truly emotionally engaging. A quibble, but a quibble worth discussing.

Cabin In the Wood is that rare scary movie that is smart, but also extremely accessible. It’s a fun horror film on its surface, with a terrifying secret at its centre that only enhances your enjoyment of the whole thing.

Rating: A-

Movie Reviews: Raid – Redemption, and The Hunger Games

The Raid: Redemption directed by Gareth Evans

“It’s pretty good, for an action movie.”

That’s a common description, but one that’s filled with as much derision as it is praise. Certain movie genres are considered so detestable that no manner of skill or talent could possibly transcend them. You’re praising, but apologizing at the same time…and movies you have to apologize for probably weren’t worth watching in the first place.

The Raid: Redemption is worth watching, I’m happy to report. And by “worth watching” I mean “Get your lazy ass down to the theatre right now and watch one of the very best pure action movies of the  last decade.” Please.

Our hero here is Rama (played ably by Iwo Uwais, a martial artist and actor so monstrously talented that my wife took as many opportunities as she could during the movie to inform me that he is now her secret boyfriend), a member of an  Indonesian SWAT team sent to arrest a crime lord  holed up in a tenement infested with criminals, drug addicts, and other tawdry assundries.

The team finds out almost immediately that things are NOT the way they seem on the surface, and Rama spends the rest of the movie kicking, punching, stabbing, and shooting dozens upon dozens of criminals just to keep his team alive.

The plot is so utterly straight-forward that it makes “See Spot Run” look like Inception: Guy with pregnant wife fights bad guys to get back to pregnant wife. That level of simplicity would usually deter me from fully enjoying something like this. But in the case of The Raid the efficiency of the story, as well as the earnestness and baldly straight-forward nature of the character motivations, served only to accentuate the brutal nature of the violence that we’re watching.

And violent it is. This my friends, is a big, overflowing bucket of ass-kickery. Since Rama is a cop, the movie starts out as a traditional shoot-em up, with Rama attempting to use weapons as well as his surroundings to get out. And then he runs out of bullets. And so the punching commences. Good lord, the punching.

Gareth Evans seems to know what his audiences have come for, and so has artfully put together a series of wildly disparate action scenes, each taking full advantage of that fight’s surroundings. Not only that, but Evans also takes the time to build JUST enough depth into his characters to make us truly care about what’s happening to them.

Don’t get me wrong. This is “just” a simple action movie, with nothing much more than “punch the bad guys till they stop” going for it. But it’s one the best simple action movies you’ll ever see, and I would go as far as to say that it’s one of the very best martial arts films of this new millennium.

Rating: A-

The Hunger Games directed by Gary Ross

Odds are that by now you are familiar with the media-gasm known as The Hunger Games. It’s a movie based on the first book in a trilogy of novels by Suzanne Collins, and while a month ago you had never heard of it, by now you either have seen it, or have been properly castigated by the media for not having seen it, or your name is Rick Santorum.

But is it actually any good?

Sure. It’s a solid adventure movie. But it’s hardly perfect, and while it’s nice to see the movie industry do well, this should be a wake up call to studios. Hunger Games didn’t do $155 million in three days because it’s a great movie, though it’s watchable of course. It did $155 million in three days because every single media outlet in the world told every single person in the world that if they didn’t see it, then they were about one rung lower than George Zimmerman in the pecking order of society.

Our story revolves around Katniss, a young girl just struggling to provide for her family in a dystopian future where 12 colonies struggle to pay tribute to the Capital that conquered them decades before. Her young sister has just been randomly chosen to be her village’s annual cannon fodder in the gladiator-style games that this society takes part of, and Katniss volunteers to go in her place.

One of the best compliments I could give to Hunger Games is to compare it to 1984, saying that like Orwell’s seminal masterpiece it plays across all ideological spectrums, letting the reader take from it what they will. And it’s kind of true. Conservatives will say that this is the society you get when a central authority overreaches over the satellite states it’s supposed to manage, and will use it as an example as to why “provincial autonomy” (or “states rights”, if you’re one of my friends to the south) should be considered sacrosanct. Liberals will say that it’s a cautionary tale about the rich taking advantage of the poor, and will use it to rail against the financial tyranny of the “1 %”.

And most will just enjoy it as a moderately entertaining adventure story. Because that’s what it really is. It lacks the visceral danger that seeps out of every poor from books like The Long Walk or Battle Royale (just 2 of the many novels that come to mind when watching this), and there isn’t a single minute where you truly worry about whether or not Katniss will survive this “epic” battle to the death.

Gary Ross does a fairly nice job of world building here, but as a warning against possible futures to come The Hunger Games is relatively toothless. Which is probably why it’s so popular. It’s so far removed from our own reality that it’s easy to project your own politics or worldview onto the characters, and it’s so tame and watered down as to really remove any actual “hunger” that one should find in such a dire scenario. As a moderately entertaining adventure movie this works, but when compared to other works in the “dystopian” genre like Brazil, or Clockwork Orange, or V For Vendetta, or 12 Monkeys, or even Sleeper, it fails miserably.

Rating: B