Tuesday, December 22, 2009


Twelve years ago, James Cameron's last film, Titanic, was released to little fanfare. You might not believe that and I shouldn't say little, as it debuted at number one, but it actually took weeks for the film to build into the "must-see" event of early 1998. Word of mouth and incredibly broad appeal kept it at the top of the charts for months. Women flocked to the love story and Leonardo DiCaprio's charm...men waited for a couple hours to see the gee-whiz special effects as the ship sinks (and maybe Kate Winslet's breasts).

I waited years before seeing it and was admittedly underwhelmed. It's a good movie, sure, but not one I'd have seen multiple times in the theatre. I guess I'm not a softy (not always, anyway) and if I wanted Cameron special effects brilliance, I'll revisit the Terminator films, Aliens...hell, even The Abyss.

I appreciate that Cameron took some time making his next film and that he chose to return to his sci-fi roots rather than make another flick sure to appease the masses. (As a coworker put it, "aren't you disturbed by the fact that the people in this movie are blue?") He claimed that, in part, he was waiting for special effects to get where he needed them...apparently Gollum in The Lord of the Rings was the tipping point.

So now we get Avatar, an epic that relies heavily on it's effects wrapped in an eco-friendly plot about the greed of man and the kill-first military mentality. Sam Worthington stars as Jake Sully, a crippled vet who arrives on the planet Pandora determined to matter again by fulfilling his brother's commitment to assist in a project to develop relationships with the native humanoids, the Na'vi.

The story works quickly as we get an overview of the situation. The Na'vi are sitting on top of a deep vein of an incredibly valuable mineral. The industrial machine, in conjunction with a gung-ho military, wants to plow right in (literally strip-mining and destroying the forests), but the scientists would like some time to attempt peaceful diplomacy with the indigenous. Jake's asked to slide his consciousness into a Na'vi body to assist, but he's also expected to provide intel for his Colonel.

The plot predictably follows Jake as he becomes embedded in the tribe (who refer to themselves as "The People") and finds it harder and harder to help those who wish to exploit them. He learns their ways, becomes enamored of their spirituality (very "earth mother") and even falls in love. Again, nothing new or unexpected here.

Where Avatar sells itself and leaves an impression is in it's beautifully rendered special effects work. I'd venture to say that some 85-90% of the film is digitally constructed. It's not flawless effects, but believable enough that you'll eventually fall into the mystique of a beautiful world filled with exotic fauna and creatures both deadly and exciting. I did not see the film in 3D, so I can't speak to those charms, though they were impressive in the preview I saw months ago. The Na'vi themselves are realized with grace and realism, capturing just enough of the look of the source actor and yet maintaining an alien quality (I love that Sigourney Weaver's avatar has her sleepy eyes).

Much like Titanic, the first couple hours of the movie are occasionally slow before the action really kicks in. The military forces on the planet eventually move to take the Na'vi land by force and the ensuing battle is truly masterful. It's grandiose and often breath-taking.

Avatar will not be the slow-burn success of Cameron's last film and it might even struggle to recoup it's production costs (rumored around $300 million), but it's a welcome addition to his resume and a film that should be experienced on the big screen (though I suspect it will be dazzling on Blu-ray, too).

Rating: B+

Sunday, December 20, 2009

The Best Tracks of 2009

Long time friends and readers know that every year I put together a mix CD of my favorite tracks from that year. I typically give them out during the holidays, mailing several with Xmas cards to friends around the country.

I completed this year's mix last week, copies are currently burning for distribution at work, but you, dear MM fans, get a sneak peak at the playlist before copies make their way into the general populace. Without further ado...The Best of 2009.

1. The Fixer - Pearl Jam
2. Feel Good Drag - Anberlin
3. Sex on Fire - Kings of Leon
4. The Fear - Lily Allen
5. My Life Would Suck Without You - Kelly Clarkson
6. Just Breathe - Pearl Jam
7. Two Weeks of Hip-Hop - Dead Prez vs. Grizzly Bear
8. Dance Anthem of the 80's - Regina Spektor
9. Ghost Town - Shiny Toy Guns
10. Dominos - The Big Pink
11. Use Somebody - Kings of Leon
12. Who'd Have Known - Lily Allen
13. Lost in You - Three Days Grace
14. Undisclosed Desires - Muse
15. It's Nice to Know You Work Alone - Silversun Pickups
16. Uprising - Muse
17. Sometime Around Midnight - The Airborne Toxic Event
18. 21 Guns - Green Day
19. Panic Switch - Silversun Pickups

If you got a copy and it's damaged, please let me know and I will replace it.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Movie Leftovers

I saw a few movies this summer and fall that I neglected to review. Shame on me, so here are some quick and dirty reviews to catch you up.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince - B+

As a fan of the books, it's hard to get completely excited by the films anymore. Too much has been excised and streamlined to keep the films from running several hours long. From a Hollywood perspective it makes perfect sense and the films are well-produced and exciting. Half-Blood Prince is no exception...it's dark, brooding and perfectly sets the stage for the final installment(s) of the series. From a fan perspective, the best part of the book, an extensive backstory for villain Voldemort, is sadly missing.

Inglourious Basterds - B

Quentin Taratino's latest piece of violent fiction is still distinctly his, but the premise and setting, following a troop of cutthroat (scalp?) WWII assassins and various Nazis, is new and helps elevate the film above quirk. In the end, it's a piece of revisionist fantasy, but a funny one filled with several moments of Tarantino's typical talking head dialogue pieces. Brad Pitt turns in another bizarre performance but Christoph Waltz turns in the best performance as a slick Nazi colonel.

9 - B
Not to be confused with District 9, this computer animated flick about strange canvas-doll creatures trying to survive in a machine-controlled post-apocalypse (I like hyphens!) is exciting and looks great. The pacing is brisk but the story could have been fleshed out a bit.

Law Abiding Citizen - C+

It's interesting to see Gerard Butler as a villain and his one-up vengeance plots are exciting, if very graphic. There's nothing inherently bad about the film, it simply offers nothing new either.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

TV: Fall 2009 Report Card

The fall season is underway and it's time to evaluate the new and returning shows to grace my TV and take up space on my DVR.

The Office - B

Not as funny as it used to be, but still filled with moments of absolute comedy. The wedding was as charming, awkward and fun as it should have been.

Fringe - A

I'm going to be super-pissed when this piece of brilliance is cancelled. Every episode has at least one moment that makes me freak out.

How I Met Your Mother - B

Alright, I'm ready to know who the mother is and I'm not sure how I feel about Barney/Robin, but apparently that's over now.

Dollhouse - B

Still a bit uneven, but the supporting cast is getting more interesting and the backstory is developing nicely. Word came out today that Fox is cancelling it...not sure if we'll see the rest on TV, but hopefully Whedon will get the chance to film some closure for the DVD.

Mad Men - A

It does deserve all the praise it gets...this season might be the best yet. All of Don's secrets and indiscretions exploded around him and the finale shook up the status quo in a very believable and exciting way.

30 Rock - B+

Quirky as ever, funnier than usual and Alec Baldwin gets more and more brilliant.

Star Wars: The Clone Wars - B

Action-packed, smartly animated and almost making me forgive Lucas for Attack of the Clones.

The Big Bang Theory - B+

I want to be a writer on this show...the nerd gags alone are worth it.

It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia - B-

Depravity knows no bounds with this foursome...not always evenly funny, but some moments make me laugh my ass off. ("Kittens in Mittons" was a high point.)

FlashForward - A-

I have no idea where this show is going, but I'm enjoying the trip so far. The most recent episode might have changed the game and I hope that helps pick up the pacing a bit.

Glee - A+

My vote for best new series of the season. A high school series that doesn't try to tweak the stereotypes and familiar characters...it runs full-force with them in hilarious and brilliant ways. The gay kid, the cheerleader, the dumb jock...when they burst out in song it doesn't matter.

Modern Family - A

Sitcoms are finally making a comeback and this one is at the top of the list.

Cougar Town - C+

Started strong and I like Courtney Cox in this role, but the bawdy jokes are starting to get predictable.

Community - B

I was a little ambivalent to this show at first, but the Halloween episode was so damn good, I'm officially sold. I love that Chevy Chase doesn't steal the show, that Joel McHale is such a charming cad and Abed should be Batman in every episode.

Stargate Universe - B

I was never a huge fan of the first two Stargate series, mostly because I didn't see enough of them, but this show has a very different feel from what I saw. It's the Deep Space Nine/Battlestar Galactica of the mythos...a little darker, more character driven.

White Collar - B-

This show doesn't deliver anything new in crime "drama," but star Matthew Bomer (previously seen on Chuck) is fun to watch as a smooth con-man turned FBI consultant. USA's motto of "Characters Welcome" is not an exaggeration.

V - C

I know I'm supposed to be in love with this show based on my fond memories of the original but so far, I'm underwhelmed. The pilot condensed the original miniseries into one hour lacking almost any suspense (esp. if you saw any of the myriad trailers ABC ran). This week's second episode really did little to advance the story and it almost feels like the sci-fi element is pushed aside. Sure, we already know where some of this is going, but where are the exciting reveals, the action, the lizard people eating live animals? An alien race is hanging out all over the planet and we're focusing on an FBI agent, her horny son and an alien with an identity crisis? YAWN...

The League - C+

FX keeps pairing comedies with Philly that try to outdo it. Last year's Testees was a disturbing, unfunny mess. The League isn't as crude but still works hard to be very raunchy. I'm drawn by the premise revolving around a fantasy football league.

Heroes - F

I'm done...I made it through three or four episodes of this season and nothing is changing, nothing is interesting and I despise every single character. If you ever have the desire to watch this show, go rent or buy the first season and convince yourself that the show was cancelled immediately after...the lack of closure will be infinitely more satisfying than the subsequent seasons of directionless plotting.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Where the Wild Things Are

Fans of the classic Maurice Sendak picture book might have been a little put off at the notion of a live-action feature fleshing out a very short story into a parable of childhood angst and family decay. But I think the first trailer, which brought tears to many eyes, proved that director Spike Jonze and co-writer Dave Eggers not only gave reverence to the childhood memory Where the Wild Things Are evokes...they created something unique and immersive.

The actual film is just as mesmerizing, if not quite as emotionally charged. Young Max (Max Records) is a boy who is feeling isolated from his sister and mother and acts out before running away into the night in his wolfish costume. After sailing across rough waters to a far away island, he meets a group of large creatures who crown him their king and include him in their bizarre play and activities.

All is not smooth and perfect in Max's new world (which is never assumed to be real, but is also never pointedly imagined either). Carol (voiced by James Gandolfini) is gruff and occasionally violent, mostly due to the loss of KW (Lauren Ambrose) from their gang. She's found other friends that appeal to her independent sensibilities and Carol can't always cope. Max brings some sense of unity and sets everyone to building a massive fortress they can live in, but turmoil eventually causes more rifts. Max works very hard to keep his new family together, but in the end this unit is no less dysfunctional than what he's likely encountered in his childhood already.

Wild Things is the most symbolic and metaphoric "children's" film I've seen in some time, but it's also one of the most vivid and well-constructed, too. The wild things themselves are marvelous creations, just different enough to be fascinating but emotive enough to be relatable. It doesn't take long for the viewer to recognize a familiar archetype in each character or, perhaps, themselves.

What may linger the longest in my mind is the world Jonze creates...elaborate set pieces, frame filling landscapes and seamless special effects. It's a world that can shift as quickly as a child's imagination...one moment frolicking in the woods, the next tirelessly trudging an epic desert.

The film is quickly paced, appropriate to prevent the inherent messaging from becoming heavy-handed and Max's inevitable departure is not as stunningly sad as one might expect...only a touching reminder that home is where we make it and nowhere is perfect.

Rating: A

Sunday, October 11, 2009

New Music

Apologies for taking so much time away...late summer/early fall has been busy for yours truly. Today, I'm going to run through some of the latest music releases that have been spinning in my car and will contribute to this year's "Best of" mix CD.

Backspacer - Pearl Jam - B+
Pearl Jam's last, self-titled album was heaped with praise for a band returning to form but I wasn't blown away by it. It was a step up from some of the dark, meandering entries of recent years, but still a far cry from early albums that made Eddie Vedder and company a staple of the 90s alternative scene. Backspacer seems to be a step in the right direction. Someone listening with me didn't actually recognize it as Pearl Jam due to the decidedly upbeat feeling of the new material. I suppose we're used to Vedder moaning and groaning his way through songs which makes tracks like single "The Fixer," opening with a "hey, hey, hey!" seem positively poppy. What actually draws me into the album is some of the softer tunes like "Just Breathe," possibly carryovers from Vedder's Into the Wild soundtrack.

Life Starts Now - Three Days Grace - A
On their third album, these hard rock heavy hitters craft a set of tunes very listenable from beginning to end. Lead singer Adam Guntier (last heard on Apocalyptica hit "I Don't Care") still flexes one of the best voices in rock these days. It's not all doom and gloom, though..."Lost in You" is practically a love song (only a few tracks after one about getting past the "Bitter Taste" of someone else) and "The Good Life" is a rollicking ode to getting the finer things.

Dear Agony - Breaking Benjamin - B-
I truly expected this to be one of my favorite albums of the year, after watching this band get better and better in their first three releases, but Agony has left me wanting. It's not bad, but I've yet to find a stand-out tune on par with "Diary of Jane," "Breath" or "So Cold." This one might end up growing on me, but Three Days Grace has overshadowed it so far.

Shaka Rock - Jet - B-
Jet makes party rock, plain and simple. I mean, the first song I heard from this album was at a strip club (she also danced to a new Muse song, so props to her tastes...among other things). Shaka Rock actually shows a lot more talent and diversity than one might expect, though...it's almost got a Brit rock feel to it.

Black Gives Way to Blue - Alice in Chains - C-
The new Alice in Chains doesn't necessarily suffer from the absence of Layne Staley...Jerry Cantrell sings many of the new tunes and new "lead" singer William Duvall isn't a stretch from Staley. Hell, Elton John even plays piano on a song. What does kill the album is monotony. Most songs sound utterly similar...grinding guitars, bleak lyrics...this isn't a bold new page for an absent band, just a collection of songs that could have been forgotten tracks on early albums.

The Resistance - Muse - A
Muse find their inner rock gods on their fifth studio release, as close to a modern day rock opera as most bands can get without being utterly ridiculous. The pomposity is occasionally much, especially on the closing three part "Exogenesis: Symphony," but the first half of the album is mostly brilliant, especially Queen-ish "United States of Eurasia" and sultry "Undisclosed Desires." Lead single "Uprising" is a fairly standard Muse cut, which is in no way an insult.

Humbug - Arctic Monkeys - B
I really didn't want to like the Arctic Monkeys when their debut album broke Oasis' sales record (in Britain at least), but by their second album, I found their heavily accented pop-rock infectious. Humbug is probably their most well-rounded set.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

TV: Summer Review/Fall Preview

Ahh, September...summer comes to a close, the weather begins to cool and we look forward to all the glorious new and returning television ahead. Actually, the fall TV season is growing somewhat archaic in the days of DVR, On Demand, TV on DVD and internet outlets like Hulu. No one has to make appointments to watch TV. With a couple button presses or a little time on your computer, you can watch your favorite show or catch up on the buzzworthy programs you missed at any time you like.

Despite such leisure, there is still a strong desire to see the shows we love and those that everyone will be talking about before...well, everyone starts talking about them. Don't worry, the MightyMartian is here to tell you what you must watch, might want to watch and maybe a couple things to avoid. Well, at least I'll tell you what I'll be watching and not.

Let's start with a recap of summer series you might have missed.

Being Human (BBC America) - A-
I could see this show being remade in America soon, but the original will probably be better. The premise sounds quirky at first: a vampire, ghost and werewolf share a house while trying to blend in with society and deny their "problems." Mitchell, the vamp, is struggling to fight his impulses and stay away from the rest of his kind. George is ashamed of his hairy transformation and ghostly Annie is still pining for her ex-fiance. Lots of dramatic twists keep you guessing.

Leverage (TNT) - B
Fun, fast-paced caper series about con-men/women playing Robin Hood to help out the little guys. The cons have the occasional Ocean's 11 feel to them and the cast, anchored by Timothy Hutton, is incredibly likeable.

In Plain Sight (USA) - B
Mary McCormick is the biggest reason to watch this show about Witness Protection agents. Her supporting cast is the rest. The "witness-of-the-week" plots are a little dull sometimes, but still watchable.

Defying Gravity (ABC) - B-
A lushly produced astronaut soap opera that starts slow before wrapping you up in its characters. Bouncing back and forth between the character's lives before and during a big space mission, the drama won't really appeal to sci-fi fans despite the setting. I suspect there won't be enough interest to keep this one around, which is a shame because there is potential.

Warehouse 13 (SyFy) - C+
There is some charm to be found in the story of two Secret Service agents pulled into chasing down dangerous artifacts to be kept in a secret warehouse in South Dakota. The problem is that the plots and effects are often hokey and we've yet to build a sustained thematic element.

And now for fall's new and returning offerings. Keep in mind that some of the best shows on TV right now (Lost, Breaking Bad, 24) won't return until spring. Let's start with returning series.

Mad Men (AMC) - Premiered Aug. 16
Already back in sexy 60s style, Mad sizzles as much as ever. Don still can't grasp the concept of fidelity while trying to hold together his marriage with very pregnant Betty (who is *gasp* still smoking and drinking...it is the 60s). Sterling-Cooper's new British owners are stirring up trouble and office political intrigue and the show is tackling issues with aging parents and homosexuality. Still tersely written and beautifully detailed.

The Office (NBC) - Sept. 17
I confess, the series lost a little bit of its heart when Jim and Pam finally got together, but their relationship has progressed nicely (I won't reveal last season's finale shocker for those that are behind) and the will they/won't they is replaced by Michael and Holly now. There are still guaranteed laughs in every episode.

Fringe (Fox) - Sept. 17
I never should have doubted J.J. Abrams. I wasn't certain how I felt about this pseudo-X-Files thriller at first, but the latter half of the season found its own voice and chilling thematic elements. Fringe is Lost without duping viewers into following a sci-fi premise disguised as a drama. It's edgy concept storytelling that will occasionally leave you staring at your TV in awe and I can't wait to see where it goes next. I fear a move to Thursday (up against Grey's, CSI and NBC comedies) could hurt.

Heroes (NBC) - Sept. 21
Oh, Heroes...in your first season, you were quite possibly the most innovative, well-constructed comic book story ever conceived. You juggled a great cast of characters, a strong storyline and several intriguing sub-plots. In two seasons since everything has gone to shit...and that's the kindest way to put it. I'm strongly debating tuning in for the next season (with such attention grabbing early plot leaks as Claire kissing her lesbian roommate). You'll have a short leash on my always rapidly filling DVR. Use your time there wisely.

How I Met Your Mother/Big Bang Theory (CBS) -
The best comedies on TV will now bookend CBS' Monday lineup (oddly Mother ends up in the earlier slot) and I'm so glad I finally keyed in on Big Bang's immense pool of laughs. Sheldon might be one of the greatest oddball characters ever conceived.

Southland (NBC) - Oct. 23
In the wake of gritty cop dramas like Homicide, The Wire and The Shield, it's hard to tell if this one will live up to the legacy, but the first season finished strong.

The Tonight Show with Conan O'Brien (NBC)
I was a little concerned Conan would lose some of his edgy humor moving to an earlier slot, but he hasn't. Letterman may still have the overall ratings, but Conan has to be winning younger viewers.

Dollhouse (Fox) - Sept. 25
I admit, I'm amazed this was renewed. Not always up to Joss Whedon's brilliant standards (admittedly, that can't be easy to accomplish), but the latter half of the debut season got much better and there are some great ideas to build upon.

Star Wars: The Clone Wars (Cartoon Network) - Oct. 2
Quite possibly the biggest surprise of the previous season, the Star Wars universe is exciting again, even though we know what happens down the road, there are plenty of characters and plotlines here that will be fun to follow.

Now on to the new series debuting this fall.

V (ABC) - Nov. 3
The original V miniseries in the 80s were probably the must-see TV events of my youth. Epic alien invasion drama played out over a couple weeks with WWII allegory and lizard people pretending to be human? Sign. me. up. The remake promises to stick with the winning formula, updating the premise to our post-9/11 world and certainly kicking the special effects and production values up a few notches.

Flash-Forward (ABC) - Sept. 24
Attempting to fill the void that Lost will inevitably leave after its final season, this new drama also has a great mind-bending concept. On a random morning, the entire world blacks out for over two minutes and many see visions of a future in six months. The blackout causes worldwide destruction and carnage along with the trauma of futures terrifying and exciting to those who saw it. This will be the water-cooler series of the season.

Glee (Fox) - Sept. 9
The pilot, previewed in late spring, was incredibly fun and outlandish...High School Musical as semi-dark comedy. Centered around an unwanted glee club with varied members in it for varied reasons...the casting is excellent and the pilot's featured songs were toe-tapping (okay, I sang along, too).

Eastwick (ABC) - Sept. 23
Another attempt at a series based on The Witches of Eastwick? I was ready to ignore this one, but Paul Gross (of DueSouth) involvement guarantees I'll watch at least a couple episodes.

Community (NBC) - Sept. 17
Chevy Chase isn't really the draw on this new comedy set at a community college, it's Joel McHale. It's got to be better than the uneven Parks and Recreation.

Vampire Diaries (CW) - Sept. 10
Is it too much to hope that this is a new Buffy/Angel? Yes, but I'll give it a shot, hoping that it's more True Blood than Twilight.

What I won't be watching:

The Jay Leno Show (NBC)
Really, NBC? You've given up on producing new dramas for the ten o'clock hour entirely? So you're giving it over to Leno every night of the week? Good luck with that...

Melrose Place (CW)
Okay, I admit, I may actually check this out...the same way I did the first ep of 90210. I mean, I grew up with this stuff...I was a horny teenager when Heather Locklear was running around in micro-skirts and Laura Leighton (returning for this update) was sleeping with everyone. But taking my hormones out of the equation, I know it was a lot of sudsy flash.

NCIS: Los Angeles (CBS)
Nope...I don't do shows with acronyms or dozens of spin-offs. It just seems lazy... (V doesn't count.)

Mercy (NBC)
Medical dramas are temporarily done and this one looks so melodramatic...

Brothers (Fox)
This looks like the most generic comedy ever conceived...and then they asked Michael Strahan to star.

Three Rivers (CBS)
See Mercy above...

Whew...that was long. Choose your TV viewing wisely, my friends. Your DVR can only hold so much (esp. if you record in HD).

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Avatar (Sneak Peek)

I had the chance to check out about fifteen minutes of footage from James Cameron's new film, Avatar, releasing December 18. The movie is being hyped as a revolution in special effects and the boundaries of filmmaking.

After a brief intro from Cameron himself, we put on our bulky 3D glasses (especially for someone that already wears corrective lenses) and watched a quick early scene of Sam Worthington as a crippled soldier attending a briefing on a distant planet. The commanding officer is speaking to all the dangers in the jungles beyond the base. Cut to a scene with Sigourney Weaver strapping Worthington ("Jake" in the film) into an apparatus that scans his brain.

Apparently Jake's consciousness is then transferred to the tall, muscular body of a native alien, his "avatar." The next scene features Jake in his new self deep in the jungle going toe to toe with a dinosaur-like beast. From here on out, the clips are essentially highly rendered CGI...an uber-detailed animated film set in this alien land. Creatures are attacking or attacked...Jake meets others of his "kind" and his grapples with a flying creature to show his dominance. The final minute or so is a montage of battle sequences with militaristic forces.

The 3D was intriguing (I probably haven't been to such a film since my childhood and it's obviously advanced a bit from the days of flimsy blue/red lensed glasses) and the effects are certainly solid, but, as I said, it's more or less exceptional animation. I'm intrigued by the story and I was very pleased visually, but I have this horrible feeling the film might be met with apathy outside of the genre set (of which the screening was mostly populated). It's been over 10 years since Cameron was king of the movie world with Titanic. I'm happy to see him return to his science-fiction roots, but from this glance Avatar won't offer anything earth-shaking.

So is it a revolutionary step in filmmaking that will change the future of movies? Maybe only for directors and producers with deep pockets and long leashes. I think the rest will still rely on actual actors and sets. We'll see how the general movie-going populace reacts in December.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Hangover

I'm not a huge fan of modern comedy. Most of it tries too hard, aims for the lowest of laughs and assumes that the only comedy that's funny requires bodily fluids, naked women to distract you from the lack of real jokes and an overpaid actor hamming it up with a goofy voice. But enough about Adam Sandler... (I kid...mostly.)

That's not to say that The Hangover doesn't have it's share of dirty, nay...filthy, jokes that are most definitely meant for an adult audience. At one point a seemingly gay naked Asian gangster attacks the leads and a tiger is dry humped in the back of a police car...so we aren't talking about sophisticated humor in a British accent.

What makes The Hangover so much fun and such a solid modern comedy is sheer unpredictability and a cast that gels with comic synergy. The first act of this flick is a little slow, but necessary to set up the rest. Four guys head to Las Vegas for one last night of partying before one gets married. They get dressed for the night out and head to the roof for a drink and toast together before getting started. Flash-forward to the next morning as three of them wake up in a demolished room with a chicken, a tiger and no groom. No one has a clue what happened.

Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms (The Office) and bushy man-child Zach Galifianakis hold their own as the three groomsmen racing around town attempting to piece together a night they need to remember but may be happy they forgot. The quest puts them in one bizarre situation after another, including encounters with the aforementioned "gangster," a sweet stripper (Heather Graham) and Mike Tyson. Cue hilarity and enjoy.

Rating: B+

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Lily Allen

Alright, Still - B
Sassy, sweet, profane and utterly British, Lily burst onto the pop scene in 2007 and immediately disarmed listeners with catchy ska-esque tunes occasionally fused with hip-hop and a potty mouth you can't help but smile at. Album opener "Smile" sets the tone immediately:

When you first left me I was wanting more
But you were fucking that girl next door
What ya do that for?
Thrown in a few more songs about dealing with unwanted suitors ("Knock 'Em Out"), life in a gimme-gimme world ("Everything's Just Wonderful") and a plea to her slacker brother, "Alfie," and you have a charming debut, but not too charming.

It's Not Me, It's You - A-
For her follow-up, Allen doesn't stray too far from her formula, but still grows up and out a bit, mixing in stronger social commentary with her usual cheeky attacks on bad lovers ("Not Fair"), small-minded people ("Fuck You"...nothing left to the imagination there) and the celebrity drug culture ("Everyone's At It"). Along the way she even gets downright romantic on "Who'd Have Known" and "Chinese." I look forward to where this gal can go in the future.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

District 9

Some of the best science fiction films are those that slip in under the radar. They don't have a "name" cast, multimillion-dollar promotional campaigns or prime summer scheduling. They get by on solid screenwriting, directing and maybe a concept never before seen or expected. Think Dark City, Donnie Darko or Cloverfield. All "little" films that could...only the latter was a real box office success, but they all became cult classics through "you have to see this" word of mouth.

District 9 seems likely to be added to this list. Mostly unheralded in this summer's blockbuster season, it's quite possibly one of the best unconventional sci-fi films in years.

Filmed in a semi-documentary style (at least in the first half), the movie depicts one of the most honest portrayals of an alien visitation. In the early 80s, a giant spaceship appeared over Johannesburg, South Africa (which the movie acknowledges is already different than most American-centric filmmaking would give us) and just sat there. Once the military got inside, they found millions of alien refugees in a state of disorder, disease and poor living conditions, eventually moving them to a poorly managed slum called District 9.

Twenty years have passed and conditions have only worsened. Johannesburg's residents are not pleased with their presence and occasional incursions, the governments of the world won't let the aliens (known as "prawns" for their insectile/crustacean-like appearances) leave or join our society. The third-world/war refugee analogies are pretty obvious, but there is no heavy-handed proselytizing here.

The prawns have powerful weapons that can't be used by humans, so a powerful corporation with UN-esque authority have taken it upon themselves to police the district and seize these weapons. Their latest effort is to relocate the aliens to another camp, further from civiliation (and presumably even more restricted). Our POV character is Wikus (Sharlto Copley), the paper-pusher promoted to oversee the evictions and serve notice across the district. Wikus ends up deeply embroiled in the struggle for the prawns to survive under circumstances I won't spoil, leading to a shift in the status quo and a battle for the future of an entire species.

At times brutal and violent, District 9 plays more like a street-drama than traditional genre flick, but it's still filled with incredible special effects work. The prawns themselves are masterfully done...I couldn't tell when they were CGI or practical models and/or costumes (if they are ever the latter at all). The haunting mothership looms over many shots and the action-packed final act features exotic weapons and machinery that makes CGI like Transformers look like over-done videogames.

District 9 is my pick for sleeper hit of 2009.

Rating: A-

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Alice in Chains

The Seattle music scene of the early 90s has been well-documented for pioneering the "grunge" sound...that raw, crunchy noise that broke past the by-then passe heavy metal phase. Eschewing big hair and makeup for flannel, combat boots and mop-tops, hard rock had new gods, albeit somewhat reluctant ones. Nirvana got the press and bittersweet ending, Pearl Jam tried their hardest to deny their stardom and Soundgarden launched spin-off bands. Alice in Chains is the band that always feels forgotten to me, but I found them one of the best of the era.

Anchored by the nasal snarl of front man Layne Staley and man-behind-the-music Jerry Cantrell, AiC kept their sound dark and sinister, more in tune with the "heavy" side of metal with occasional hints of country and acoustic sensibility. They aren't for everyone and they didn't get the pop love of those other bands, but they still contributed to a much-needed musical revolution.

Facelift - B-
Starts strong, but gets redundant in the latter half. Still, the first six tracks, including "Man in the Box" and "Sea of Sorrow" are early essentials

Sap - C
The first of two EPs with a more experimental, "softer" sound. Only "Got Me Wrong" stands out among the four tracks. Listen for Chris Cornell on "Right Turn."

Dirt - A-
Probably the most definitive and well-known AiC album is filled with tunes about drug addiction, anger, suicidal thoughts and my favorite track, "Rooster." See also "Down in a Hole," "Angry Chair" and "Would?"

Jar of Flies - A
AiC's best album is their second EP of slower acoustic tracks, famously written and recorded in one week. You didn't have to be a fan to appreciate chart-topper "No Excuses," epic and symphonic "I Stay Away" or haunting "Nutshell." Short, sweet and nearly perfect, Flies rates as one of my favorite albums.

Alice in Chains - B-
Layne Staley's recurring battle with heroin addiction delayed new material for a couple years and this self-titled album (their last all-new studio release) tries to reclaim their metal roots. It has a few great tunes (opener "Grind," Cantrell-sung "Heaven Beside You" and "God Am" really work) mixed with clunkers.

Unplugged - A-
Appearing on the popular MTV acoustic show probably seemed unlikely for this band, but the set proved just how graceful their music could be, even previous "hard rock" tunes. Watch the actual show to see Staley visibly worn but still able to mesmerize in one of his last appearances.

Music Bank and Nothing Safe - B
Staley's addiction and personal life problems made him a recluse before his overdose in 2002. He recorded a couple new tracks for box set Music Bank, preceded by "sampler" Nothing Safe. A three CD (and one multimedia) compilation of hit tracks, early demos and unreleased recordings...it's mostly for the purist.

Live - C
Gathering live tracks from shows throughout the 90s, this disc is surprisingly spare of "classic" AiC songs.

Cantrell has recorded two solo albums and the band is "reuniting" with a new lead singer to release a new album in late September. I'm intrigued and concerned at the same time. The new decade/century hasn't been good to the grunge figureheads of the past, but I'll give it a listen all the same.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen

The first Transformers, much like most Michael Bay films, was a over-directed, sunset-soaked mess of special effects, explosions and fetishistic shots of military vehicular hardware. But also like many Bay films, there was a guilty pleasure quality to it. Fans of the old toys, cartoons and comics might have felt slighted to see their favorite characters no longer familiar (other than iconic Optimus Prime), but the film didn't sell itself to be anything more than a mayhem-filled action flick with gratuitous shots of Megan Fox bending over a car engine and an Autobot peeing on Jon Turturro. No one really complained.

Given all of that, there was no reason to expect a sequel to be cinematic genius or anything more than the first. It's everything we were delivered the first time...with a little less charm, a lot more mayhem and nothing resembling coherent storytelling. Let's not forget a sexy fem-bot with deadly kisses and a peekaboo skirt, more Megan Fox in unlikely clothing and scenarios, a pair of "good guys" that are bad comedy racial stereotypes at best and Jon Turturro standing beneath a giant robot's testicles. I'm making none of that up.

Michael Bay is apparently the horny teenage dork of the director set.

Transformers 2 made a ton of money, of course (and since I don't get paid to write this stuff, I willingly contributed so I share in the blame), and will inevitably lead to a third flick, but I won't be catching it in a theatre.

Picking up some time after the first film, the Autobots (the good guys) are working with the military to hunt down and destroy Decepticons (the bad guys) still on the loose. Said bad guys are getting reinforcements from on high and look to resurrect their fallen leader, Megatron, on behalf of an even badder guy, The Fallen. Don't bother piecing it all together, it's pretty much irrelevant.

Shia LaBeouf re-enters the story while heading to college, finding a piece of a Transformer artifact and getting stalked/seduced/hunted by that fem-bot. He goes on the run with his robo-buddies and unlikely girlfriend Fox while getting tangled up in some plot involving ancient Transformers and Egypt. I don't know...I gave up making sense of the film when a fight burst out of the back of the Smithsonian (last time I checked in Washington D.C.) into a desert.

The Decepticons are even more forgettable in this film...during the final battle, I couldn't distinguish between any of them that didn't have balls. At least the Autobots had color and product placement transformations when they weren't talking in Ebonics about being unable to read.

The action was sharp and the effects mind-bending at times (I'm still annoyed with how many moving parts the robots have, though), but it's all a smokescreen for a movie without any real heart, intelligence or sense. Michael Bay can blow shit up like no one else, but after a while, you completely forget why you should care.

Yes, I'm capable of watching a "mindless" popcorn flick, but when we give Hollywood so much leniency to make them, eventually we'll be left with nothing but. Thankfully, last summer's blockbuster, The Dark Knight, proved that smart film-making can still rake in the dollars, too.

Rating: D+

Wednesday, July 29, 2009


I wonder how other animation studios feel when they put together a great, well animated film with big-name voice talent and a multi-million dollar ad campaign. They are a lock for one of those Oscar nominations for best animated feature. They pick a great release date in late summer on a holiday weekend. It's going to be a great year.

Then someone tells them that Pixar is releasing a new film. It's about a lonely old man missing his departed wife who uses an incredible amount of balloons to float his house away from society and take one last grand adventure. He picks up a stowaway scout, a talking dog and a rare bird (none of which are wanted but loveable) and gets that adventure in a roundabout way. It's funny, heartwarming and of course the CG animation is spectacular.

Oh...it will also make pretty much any viewer weep within the first ten minutes.

Those other studios just sigh and go about their business. Pixar will win the Oscar, the box-office and the kudos yet again.

Up isn't as obviously a masterpiece like their last venture, WALL-E, not as exciting family-fun as The Incredibles or even as funny as Toy Story, but it's still another fine entry in their by now iconic neo-legacy. Despite their occasional conflicts, Disney should be proud of their acquisition as it has led to a surge in beloved animated features on par (and maybe, dare I say it, greater) than their classics of the mid-20th century or the 1990s.

Ed Asner is the voice of cranky Carl, fed up with the bussling world around him and determined to leave it. He longs to seek out a place he dreamed of visiting with his dear wife since they were children. Finally making his dream come true doesn't pan out as planned when eager young Russell ends up on the porch of his airborne home. Soon they are tangled up in a plot involving another adventurer (voiced by Christopher Plummer), long a hero of Carl's and his quest for a creature he never managed to capture.

Up is fast-paced, funny and an intentional tear-jerker. It's not the best of Pixar's canon, but even their "lesser" films are top-notch adventures that satisfy and impress.

Rating: B+

Monday, July 20, 2009

The MightyMartian Reviews

Welcome to the new site for all my reviews and occasional bits of news and observation from the world of entertainment. I suppose I'm just one more geek on the internet peddling his opinions, but after years of people telling me I should be publishing this stuff, I figure this is a good place to start.

I watch a lot of movies and a lot of TV. I listen to a lot of music and I've been getting back into video games. I read comic books obsessively and still love science fiction though my novel intake has decreased in recent years.

I'm not exclusively nerdy, though. I do love baseball, football...I do well with the ladies and I don't live in my mother's basement (or anyone's basement for that matter).

I've been reviewing films via email since I was in college (so something like ten years now), occasionally throwing in television and music reviews as well. The idea behind this site is to collect those reviews going forward in one place and to branch out a bit more.

One ambitious project that will debut here is a complete review of my CD collection (probably over 300 albums at this point). These won't be overly detailed, but I would like to get my thoughts on each artist and their oeuvre out into cyberspace.

I will also occasionally use out-of-left-field "big" words like "oeuvre." Sorry, I just have a thing for language, but I promise not to be the pretentious reviewer that spits out rarely used words to make something as simple as "it was well-directed" sound like an English lecture.

Some things you won't (or rarely) see reviewed here:
  • country music
  • rap/r&b
  • horror films
  • generic/formulaic TV (a la CSI, Law & Order, reality TV)
  • any film with a chihuahua in a leading role
  • James Patterson/John Grisham/Dan Brown
  • most X-Men comics
  • any games that can't be played on PS2, PS3 or Wii

I encourage comments of agreement and dissension but I do not tolerate flaming or insults against other readers. I will delete comments and block commenters at my discretion.

In short, welcome, enjoy and I look forward to your feedback.

The MightyMartian