Teenagers shall inherit the world in Wes Ball’s Maze Runner: The Death Cure

While definitely not in the target audience, and without expressly setting out to do so, I’ve still somehow managed to see all three Maze Runners. Their easy availability on streaming services is just too tempting for my chronic addiction to escapist sci-fi.

It’s interesting to see how young adult fiction contrives such scenarios where adults are absent, subservient, or villains. Like Star Wars, Harry Potter, and Hunger Games, the Maze Runner movies are constructed upon the trope of there being one single girl or boy born with the inherent destiny of rescuing a world that the older generation has squandered. I’m sure kids are not blind to how the genre panders to them, but that doesn’t mean it’s not cathartic for them to imagine themselves bearing cataclysmic responsibilities in life-or-death, world-ending situations.

While none of the Maze Runner films are very good, I did appreciate the first’s relatively straightforward Lord of the Flies pastiche (with the caveat that the premise allowed for only one female character — inexcusable in this day and age). As the original title helpfully elucidated, the hero’s journey was to simply escape a maze, which of course came equipped with a minotaur. But the original quest is accomplished, the title becomes essentially meaningless in later installments. To be fair, their subtitles “Scorch Trials” and “Death Cure” are also silly, so I guess cool-sounding nonsense is part of the whole package.

Wes Ball’s The Death Cure is a bloodless PG-13 zombie war movie for kids, and almost preposterously long at almost 2 1/2 hours. But it does boast some exciting action sequences, however wildly illogical and coincidence-dependent. The opening rescue of captives from a caravan is an effective emulation of Mad Max for kiddos, and the aerial ensnare of an entire bus near the end is impressive.

The young cast is… fine, if a little bland except for an impassioned Thomas Brodie-Sangster (doomed to be known as him from Love Actually). Like Kate Winslet in Divergence, Ashley Judd in The Hunger Games, and every grownup in Harry Potter, a handful of respected respected veteran indie actors take up the slack: Patricia Clarkson and Aiden Gillen as baddies-with-actually-rather-complex-motivations, and the Giancarlo Esposito Drinking Game (take a swig every time he says “hermano”, and you’ll be on the floor long before the end).

Monty Python throws a farewell party for themselves in “Live (Mostly): One Down, Four to Go”

Like many misfit American kids of my generation, my brain was permanently rewired when I discovered the BBC series Monty Python’s Flying Circus on PBS in the 1980s. Monty Python, Doctor Who, and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy formed a triumvirate of British pop culture that gave dorky anglophiles like us a pool of clubby shared references.

But I suppose my interest waned over the years, aside from catching Spamalot on Broadway in 2007, being happy to see Michael Palin pop up in The Death of Stalin, and of course periodic rewatches of Terry Gilliam’s masterpiece Brazil, still one of my all-time favorite movies. Even when the surviving members of Monty Python reunited in 2014 for a series of live shows at London’s O2, I wasn’t motivated to go see the global theatrical simulcast or rent the subsequent DVD. But no more excuses, now that Eric Idle and Aubrey Powell’s film Monty Python Live (Mostly): One Down, Four to Go has appeared a click away on Netflix.

I’m not sure if I’ve grown out of Monty Python, if Monty Python has grown out of Monty Python, or if this reunion show was just rubbish. I sat through the film mostly stonefaced, when not cringing (except during Terry Jones’ befuddlement in the “Nudge Nudge” sketch, which is still funny). Part of the appeal of their earliest work was that it was done on the cheap and on the fly. But Monty Python has long since become Monty Python Inc., and these shows’ high production values come across as insincere and inauthentic — in other words, professional. It’s a nostalgia trip, like a veteran classic rock band on a yet another greatest hits tour.

At over 2 hours, it’s also somehow simultaneously too much and not enough. I realize the Pythons are all over 70, and even youngsters would need time to change costumes between sketches anyway, but I wasn’t expecting so much filler. They rely heavily on excerpts from the Flying Circus TV series and some of the movies. A large troupe of young dancers and singers often take over from the stars for big production numbers like “Penis Song (Not the Noël Coward Song)” and “The Silly Walk Song”. This preponderance of musical numbers suggests the show was Eric Idle’s baby. Notably, I don’t think there’s any material at all from Monty Python and The Holy Grail, perhaps to avoid overlap with Idle’s Spamalot musical.

Watching Monty Python’s greatest hits now, in the cold light of adulthood, the makeup of their humor seems pretty easily broken down:

  • 5% university-educated wit (philosophy, religion, world history, etc.)
  • 15% bodily fluids & noises
  • 20% naked or scantily-clad ladies
  • 50% exaggerated regional accents
  • 10% gay men talking and walking funny

Which brings me to the difficult subject of how so much of Python’s material struck me as offensive. The cheeky insouciance of their original BBC TV series The Flying Circus was genuinely boundary breaking in the late 60s. But a surprising percentage of the same material lands with a dull thud in 2018. The lumberjack and barrister sketches are transphobic, the “I Like Chinese” song and Mao cartoons are racist, many sketches (including Gilliam’s mincing in the Michelangelo sketch) are homophobic, and the Doctor Who “RETARDIS” gag is not only cringeworthy but also simply a really lame pun. Only “Penis Song” is substantially updated to be inclusive, now expanded to include additional genitalia.

Perhaps I am hypersensitive after living the past few years under an ascendant sexist and racist ruling class — emblematized by Trump — and how movements like #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter have further exposed the exploitation. All this has left me exhausted, making it hard to tell the difference between juvenile rudeness and expressions of greater societal ills, and predisposed to not laugh at any of this.

The ground is also shifting in popular culture, as it grapples with its depictions of gender, race, and sexuality. The world’s increasing tolerance is being abused by conservatives that would like to silence comedians (such as the recent vilification of Kathy Griffin). So I want to be careful when I try to explain how I now find some of the Python’s classic material offensive. Perhaps comedy should never be polite, and is under no obligations to be gentle to anyone. But as contemporary comedians like Sarah Silverman and Mike Birbiglia have explored, the potential of comedy to offend is one of its biggest strengths, but also its biggest a minefield. This paradox is explored at length in Birbiglia’s one-man show “Thank God for Jokes” (also available on Netflix).

Blundering right through this minefield comes Monty Python’s original material, transplanted mostly intact from the late 60s to today. Even though this show was put together years before Trump and Brexit bulldozed through the world order, the show is disappointingly apolitical, aside from a dated Mao reference and quick jabs at Putin and the Daily Mail. But I suppose its fair to note that even in their heyday, the Pythons usually steered clear of politics, instead being more eager to skewer class and religion.

Sadly, these septuagenarians come across as dinosaurs clueless as to how the world has changed while they’ve been in semi-retirement.

But maybe if a bunch of legendary comedians want to throw a farewell party for themselves, and fool around on stage one last time, I should just relax. They seemed genuine in their fond ribbing of each other, their tributes to the late Graham Chapman, and spotlighting collaborator Carol Cleveland.

two out of five stars

Gorging on Nostalgia: Solo: A Star Wars Story

Like a big bowl of candy, Solo: A Star Wars Story certainly went down easy. But also like a big bowl of candy, generations raised on too much Star Wars are going to gorge themselves sick on nostalgia. Who filled that bowl, and why? When Disney acquired the Star Wars rights, and promised a new movie every year, I don’t think I was alone in imagining there would be more than enough room for original stories. But so far Disney has spent more time facing backwards than forwards.

To recap: The Force Awakens was in many ways a phantom remake of the original Star Wars, rationalized as rebooting the franchise with a new foundation for future stories. Rogue One and Solo are essentially neu-prequels, plastering in the gaps deliberately left in the original foundation. Solo is especially focussed on continuity and nostalgic callbacks, and teasing future nostalgic callbacks yet to come. It isn’t about anything other than itself. Four films in, The Last Jedi stands alone in striking out for new territory. It’s the first to really surprise.

Maybe I’m being overly cynical, but what is the point of the neu-prequels, if not mere fan service? Aren’t the missions to steal the Death Star plans and the Kessel Run better left to the imagination? Did anyone really wonder how Chewbacca came by his diminutive nickname? Do we feel we understand Han more now that we know where he got his surname? The one major new detail we learn about him — that he is an Empire deserter — loses its impact when even this idea is recycled: q.v. Finn in the mothership films.

The most egregious fan service in the film is of course the confounding cameo by Darth Maul — confounding, that is, only for those evidently undedicated Star Wars fans like myself that haven’t seen the spinoff animated series. My reaction was not “wow, Darth Maul survived being sliced in half!”, but rather “All this took place before The Phantom Menace? How old is Han Solo? Does Darth Maul always fire up his lightsaber before hanging up the phone?”

Alden Ehrenreich has caught some flak for his performance here, but he was given an impossible job: impersonate Harrison Ford and get criticized, or don’t impersonate Harrison Ford and get criticized. He either chose the latter or was not able to pull off the former. Whichever explanation, he looks bad opposite Donald Glover, who successfully channelled Billy Dee Williams while still doing his own thing.

By the standard set by the original trilogy and prequels, Solo’s three prominent female characters should count as progress. Or, it would have, had the film not quickly killed two of them off. The original Star Wars infamously included only one woman among its cast, but Carrie Fisher’s force of personality made her instantly iconic, and that’s lacking here.

Also, Paul Bettany was fine but Michael K. Williams got robbed.

The Future is a Tasteful Monochrome: Anon

Andrea Niccol’s Netflix exclusive Anon is a rather quaint throwback to the techno-paranoia cyberpunk genre, once common in the late nineties — remember Virtuosity, Johnny Mnemonic, and Paycheck? The ultimate modern incarnation of is of course the BBC series Black Mirror, which out-Philip-K.-Dicked Philip K. Dick., and set a newly high bar for cynical, pessimistic takes on the future. But reality has outpaced all of these cautionary tales, as we’ve since come to understand that of course governments surveil our movements and communications, while unchecked corporations build detailed consumer profiles on all of us. Logging off is little protection.

If Anon’s future America without the Constitutional right to privacy were to come true, society’d have bigger problems than a sexy serial killer (Amanda Seyfried), exploiting the system to murder those who exploit the system. Ultra-grim detective Sal Frieland (Clive Owen) must fight the ambiguities of his digital record to entrap her. After, of course, bedding the much younger woman under false pretenses (for there are sleazy erotic thriller tropes and a female nudity quota to fulfill). Privacy is the foundation for many civil rights we enjoy today, a topic Anon only glancingly acknowledges.

And if we ever start installing apps into our eyeballs, I somehow doubt the GUI will be a tastefully-designed monochrome. Everyone who’s ever touched a computer or smartphone knows we’ll be blinded by punch-the-monkey banner ads, free-to-play gem-matching games, and tweets from President Kid Rock.

two out of five stars

Exhaustively exhausted: Ben Affleck’s Live by Night

Has any topic been more exhaustively dramatized than Prohibition-era gangsters?

Live by Night seems especially redundant so soon after HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, which covers a lot of the same ground: the Florida/Cuba liquor pipeline, the Irish/Italian mob conflict, the pivot to legal gambling, etc. The explanation being pretty simple: original novelist Denis Lehane also contributed to Boardwalk Empire. The few elements not already done to death by the gangster genre, including additional conflicts with evangelicals and the Klan, are in this case simultaneously not enough and too much.

Also, did Ben Affleck always play every role as a man in a deep depression, or is this a recent development?

Two out of five stars.

A Dangerous Delusion: The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is of course a remarkable achievement, a massive production with epic scope, a clever structure, and one of the best possible showcases for Technicolor. But I’m evidently so far out of step with the consensus on this one that I’m doubting my film snob bona fides. I simply hated it.

I couldn’t look past my contempt for the delusional rich. Consider: American politics is dominated by wealthy families living in dangerous fantasylands: the Trumps, Kushners, Kochs, Mercers, DeVoses, et al. Terrifyingly, they are in positions of real power, including and especially that of war.

As such, I have no time for the war-glorifying Clive Wynne-Candy (Roger Livesey), playing soldier in his mansion, insulting his lifelong loyal manservant, and falling in love with three different Deborah Kerrs. It is simply beyond my suspension of belief to imagine a veteran of the Boer War and World War I that could preserve a lifelong delusion that there is such a thing as “good clean fighting”.

His Good German man-crush Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook) repeatedly fails to disabuse him of this fantasy. He’s the more relatable character here; his monologue describing his grief over the rise of Nazism in his home country is heartbreaking.

Two out of five stars.

Sad Dinosaurs: Calling Bullshit on Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life

As a public service, The Dork Report will now summarize all 2 hours and 19 minutes of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life for you:

My mommy was pretty, my daddy was mean, sometimes kids die, I inhaled too much DDT, and it makes me so sad. Sad like the lonely birth of the lifeless universe. Sad like an anachronistic demonstration of animal altruism in the cruel dinosaur-eat-dinosaur prehistoric biosphere. Sad like the decay of all matter and energy as the universe inevitably collapses.

I call bullshit.

The degree of enjoyment I took from The Tree of Life was in inverse proportion to the sense of obligation I felt to see it, which is to say: very little vs. a whole lot. The very private auteur Malick had fallen silent for a number of years after he burst out of the gate in the 70s with Badlands and Days of Heaven, but has been on something of an uncharacteristic tear lately, producing three films in 10 years, with more in the pipeline. Since he chooses to not participate in publicity for his films, we may have to wait years until we find out what motivated him to return from this mysterious interregnum.

The Tree of Life
No one was there to watch as the planets form from stardust… except Terrence Malick’s computers

Anticipation high, The Tree of Life was hotly discussed as his most beautiful, philosophical, and autobiographical film yet (the last point being especially tantalizing to film buffs looking for entry points into analyzing the man and his ouvre from a distance). The hook was further baited by the all-star cast (Brad Pitt, Sean Penn, and it-girl-who’s-in-everything-these-days Jessica Chastain) and an awards campaign branding it as one of the key prestige pictures of 2011. The willingness of top-drawer talent to work with Malick, even if they may very well wind up on the cutting room floor (as happened to George Clooney in The Thin Red Line), suggests he is revered as a director of actors. The perennially prickly Sean Penn, however, had none of this. He publicly derided the completed film:

While [Penn] considered the script “the most magnificent one that I’ve ever read,” he believes that “a clearer and more conventional narrative would have helped the film without, in my opinion, lessening its beauty and its impact.” Noting that Malick himself was little help when it came to explaining what he was going for, Penn adds, “Frankly, I’m still trying to figure out what I’m doing there and what I was supposed to add in that context.”
The A.V. Club

All of Malick’s films are inarguably staggeringly beautiful, but their flimsy substance would get laughed out of a high school creative writing class. The Thin Red Line provided a much-needed meditative counterpoint at the time to the comparatively sentimental Saving Private Ryan, but too much of the film was taken up with the private thoughts of inarticulate grunts struggling to understand why they were killing each other when they’d all be much happier as cinematographers filming wildlife and sunlight filtering prettily through treetops. The New World approached outright silliness in its portrayal of Pocahontas as a pimply teenager in leather lingerie, caught in a love triangle over two of her European oppressors, and became truly absurd as the film contorted itself to avoid speaking her name.

Jessica Chastain and an unnamed dinosaur extra in Terrance Malick's The Tree of Life
I want to equate these two shots to the famous jump cut from prehistoric man to a spaceship in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, but I just don’t respect The Tree of Life enough.

There’s something to be said about Malick deconstructing two of the most overused subjects in Hollywood history (the World War II picture and the Pocahontas myth) for his own personal statements, but critics must really strain for these to hold up to discussion in serious philosophical terms. The Niles Files makes a valiant attempt to tackle The Tree of Life, looping in Blake, Proust, Joyce, and many other big guns to extract some meaning from Malick’s pretty pictures.

The Tree of Life was part of a miniature trendlet in movies this past year, in which the painfully intimate was equated with the distantly cosmic. Sadly, two better films with similar concerns were unjustly crowded out of the award season — curiously, both featuring young women. In Mike Cahill’s Another Earth, a girl whose carelessness ruined several lives finds hope for redemption when an exact duplicate of the entire planet inexplicably appears in the sky. Like everyone that has ever lived, she wonders if maybe there’s a better world where things turned out differently. For Cahill, it would have superfluous to concoct a pseudoscientific explanation for the phenomena, but another filmmaker that same year turned to physicists to properly substantiate his cosmic visions. Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia is exactly that — a painful but stunningly beautiful examination of crippling depression. One young woman’s mental illness all but splinters her extended family, a destruction so cataclysmic it is reflected in the eradication of the world. Von Trier harnesses computer animation for images of profoundly moving beauty, rendering Malick’s mopey CGI dinos silly in comparison.

Apocalypse Porn: Terminator Salvation

Terminator Salvation was released in a year curiously rife with apocalypse porn. The visions of world’s end in theaters that year varied wildly in tone: everything from illuminating art to alarmism to escapism. The competition to bum you out included Roland Emmerich’s 2012, which utilized the best special effects technology money could buy to depict the systematic destruction of international landmarks, and John Hillcoat’s The Road, which imagined the scattered remnants of humanity scrabbling to survive in a world they may have themselves decimated, but long past a point where blame had any meaning. Technology is both destroyer and salvation in Terminator and 2012, but largely irrelevant to the stragglers clinging to life in The Road. All of humanity’s inventions are gone, and give neither aid nor harm.

For the Terminator series to be such a long-lasting mass entertainment is odd, considering it is set in a desolate, post-nuclear-war world ruled by a self-aware artificial intelligence. It would seem that a distrust of technology and fear of world war is a perpetual motivation to go to the cinema. James Cameron’s original science fiction nightmare is vintage 1984, with old-school optical special effects and stop motion animation that, depending on your point of view, are either quaint or relics of a lost era of handmade moviemaking. But its core concept was strong enough to become archetypal of an entire genre, inspiring countless derivative works. The Wachowski Brothers stole it outright for The Matrix, where self-aware computer programs turn against the human civilization that created them, like the Terminators before them. The Terminators stage a malicious holocaust of pure extermination, but the Matrix programs instead virtually enslave the human race while they feed on giant electrical batteries comprised of farmed human bodies. While the eponymous Matrix was a weapon of fratricide, The Terminators were instead locked in a game of time-travel chess. But in each case, the offspring of humanity are afflicted with profound Freudian complexes: they are fixated on consuming their parents.

Christian Bale and Sam Worthington in Terminator Salvation
That’s so $&#%ing unprofessional, you $&#%ing cyborg infiltration unit!

The cast of Terminator Salvation was more populated with famous names than it needed to be. Christian Bale is now the fourth actor to play the role of humanity’s savior John Connor, and with apologies to Edward Furlong, Nick Stahl, and Thomas Dekker, the first marquee name. One need look no further to spot the biggest gamble this film makes: nobody went to see any of the previous three Terminator films because they were fascinated by the good guy. From the very beginning, the big draw for audiences (and the plum role for any actor looking to make a splash) was the villain. The eponymous cyborg antagonist James Cameron created quickly became iconic and launched bodybuilder Arnold Schwarzenegger to Hollywood stardom and, even more implausibly, a political career.

Bale is coming from an entirely different place than a ‘roided-up Austrian amateur thespian in 1984. Bale is a capital-S Serious Actor, from the very beginning of his career as the child lead in Steven Spielberg’s still under-appreciated Empire of the Sun through to his modern resurgence in Mary Harron’s controversial American Psycho. Like Brando and Crowe before him, Bale comes across as an angry and humorless guy — possibly even unstable — in most of his roles and even his public persona. Indeed, rumors of his ill temper were seemingly confirmed by his infamous eruption on the set of Terminator Salvation in July 2008.

Terminator Salvation
This is as good a place as any to ask: why do the Terminator movies refer to these as “endoskeletons”? Isn’t that redundant?

A pessimist might even imagine Bale’s histrionics part of a publicity campaign to create awareness and positive buzz — not just for a movie that studio executives might consider an unsure prospect in need of a marketing boost, but even to cement his own sexy reputation as a loose cannon or Hollywood bad boy. In the end, a hissy fit thrown by a handsome and overpaid celebrity wasn’t enough to prevent minor box office disappointment and tepid reviews, (a modest 52% on Metacritic). At the very least, Bale’s tabloid presence helped most of the celebrity obsessed world become aware that there was a new Terminator film coming out, when previously only Comic-Con attending sci-fi geeks had been paying attention. Personally, knowing about Bale’s tantrum beforehand actually took me out of the experience of watching the film on its own merits. I was continuously distracted by wondering which particular scene stressed him out enough to blow his top.

Bale’s prickly persona might make him eminently suitable for roles like the driven resistance leader John Connor, but it makes his range seem quite limited. He employs the exact same set of mannerisms he used for Bruce Wayne in Batman and The Dark Knight: a hoarse voice, tensed posture, and lowered-head thousand-yard stare. Bale may play the top-billed role in The Dark Knight and Terminator Salvation, but he is arguably not the real protagonist in either and is overshadowed by Two-Face (Aaron Eckhart), The Joker (Heath Ledger), and Marcus Wright (Sam Worthington) — both in terms of screen time as well as actorly showiness. Perhaps it’s a deliberate choice on Bale’s part to seek out essentially supporting parts in which he allows his character to be subordinate to a cast ostensibly billed below his name. Fittingly, Bale was to earn an Oscar the next year for an actual supporting role in David O. Russell’s The Fighter, so at least in one case his real-life persona completed its redemption arc, if his Terminator role John Connor didn’t.

Moon Bloodgood in Terminator Salvation
Moon Bloodgood checks behind her for her character’s motivation. It’s got to be around this wasteland someplace.

I have nothing to back this allegation up, but I’ve heard rumors that the original script for what became Terminator Salvation centered around the characters of Marcus (Worthington) and Reese (Anton Yelchin). Worthington and Yelchin would have shared the focus, while the character of John Connor was relegated to a cameo appearance, but the role was greatly expanded when Christian Bale became attached. This rumor could account for the relative richness (albeit truncated) of the Marcus character arc, as compared to the one-note Connor. It would have served both characters better had the movie focused on just one tortured male savior.

Director McG’s Terminator Salvation is by no means equal to James Cameron’s two original films, but it’s really not all that terrible, and certainly better than Jonathan Mostow’s Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines. My theory is very simple: it’s too grim. The first three movies all had some degree of humor, but Terminator Salvation’s trailers and TV commercials made no attempt to tart it up as a good time. By far the highlight for the audience I saw it with was the sudden appearance of a famous T-800 model Terminator, not entirely successfully realized by applying a CGI Arnold Schwarzenegger head atop bodybuilder Roland Kickinger. If a little less than convincing, it at least provided some relief from the oppressive apocalyptic despair. Also, a newly recorded voiceover cameo by Linda Hamilton was a nice touch for nostalgic fans. The always entertainingly eccentric Helena Bonham Carter appears in an significant cameo, with Bryce Dallas Howard in a totally inconsequential part that could have gone to a newcomer. Following the established rules of action flicks (perhaps best exemplified by Cameron’s Aliens), the cast includes the requisite cute kid, but thankfully she’s mute.

Bryce Dallas Howard in Terminator Salvation
Yes, Bryce Dallas Howard is in this movie, for some reason. Still doing penance for The Lady in the Water, perhaps?

I was able to go along with the plot for the most part, but found the reduction and oversimplification frustrating. A global war against artificially aware machines is condensed down to a hand-to-hand battle with a single T-800 on a factory floor — a self-conscious retread of the climax of the original film. But perhaps this is a better dramatic choice than what Cameron did in Aliens, which excessively multiplied the single alien threat of Ridley Scott’s original, effectively diminishing the core premise that was appealing in the first place: an almost indestructible creature driven by pure biological instinct, not malice.

Another fatal flaw with Terminator Salvation is a consistent problem with many characters’ comically blasé reactions to extraordinary situations. Connor’s right-hand man Reese rescues a guy who claims never to have seen a Terminator before, or even know what year it is. But Reese simply answers his questions, and never wonders just where the hell this weirdo’s been the past few years. Also, I understand Williams (Moon Bloodgood) bonding with Marcus after he rescues her from gang rape, but she risks the safety of an entire human outpost when she decides to free him. This choice goes beyond understandable impulsiveness and into the realm of lunacy.

Also curious is an apparent lack of imagination in realizing futuristic technology. We’re told the Terminators communicate over old-school shortwave, so evidently SkyNet hasn’t taken over the satellite network and blanketed the planet in Wi-Fi or 3G. Maybe the robots found their reception was as bad as Manhattan AT&T subscribers. I won’t go into how the gleamingly sleek SkyNet HQ includes fancy touchscreen graphical user interfaces designed for humans, or how Connor miraculously witnesses a nearby nuclear explosion without being atomized by the shockwave, or at least going blind or contracting radiation sickness. Such a thin line between suspension of disbelief (for the purposes of thrills & spills) and sheer stupidity would bother any viewer with half a brain, whether the other half is cybernetic or not.

Action Figures: G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra

It’s tempting to throw up one’s hands in despair that the brow level of source material for movies has dropped this precipitously low. To be fair, trash (escapist or just plain trashy trash) has existed since the very first days of the medium. But cinema’s early conception as a theatrical presentation made before a paid seated audience associated it with plays, and many early narrative silent filmmakers looked to plays and literature for source material.

Over 100 years later, no amount of original material, adaptation of great works, or repeated remaking of other movies could be enough to feed movies’ hunger for story. It took almost 80 years for Hollywood to draw upon comic books for anything beyond cheap serials. The success of Richard Donner’s Superman (1978) reverberated for years, leading directly into other seriously budgets prestige productions as Tim Burton’s Batman (1989) and Warren Beatty’s Dick Tracy (1990).

At the risk of sounding like a curmudgeon, something has changed. Drunk on the proceeds of a second wave of comics movies (particularly Bryan Singer’s X-Men and X2: X-Men United and Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins and Batman: The Dark Knight), Hollywood burned hundreds of millions of dollars on failed projects based on comics properties that even many comics fans might not be terribly familiar with, including Tank Girl (1995), Elektra (2005), and Jonah Hex (2010). With popular comic books exhausted for now, Hollywood is quickly turning to toys and even from board games (Peter Berg’s Battleship and Ridley Scott’s Monopoly are coming soon to a theater near you).

Lee Byung-hun and Ray Park in G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra
Ninjas: The reason 10-somethings played with G.I. Joes and also the reason 30-somethings went to see this movie

G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra is based on the eponymous line of plastic action figures and accessories marketed to boys in the early 1980s by toy company Hasbro. No doubt it was rushed into production after the massively lucrative success of Michael Bay’s two Transformers films, which were based on a contemporaneous toy line. The Rise of Cobra’s critical reception was all but assured as soon as it was announced; it was of course widely and justly panned. But I happened to see it in quick succession with Transformers: Rise of the Fallen and X-Men Origins: Wolverine. In such company, it is a masterpiece, if for no other reason than its logic is internally consistent (if stupidly implausible).

Although possessed of a certain degree of deliberate camp not seen since Burton and Beatty’s comics-based films, the movie seems bizarrely unaware of spoofs that came before it. Echoing the Mystery Science Theater 3000 theme song, a title card announces the story is set in the “Not too distant future” — which, as any MST3K fan knows, promises little but cinematic crimes against humanity. The futuristic settling weakly explains away the advanced weapons and transport technology readily available to G.I. Joe, an elite transnational military force with seemingly unlimited funding, and its nemesis Cobra, a terrorist organization enamored of teleconferencing. Traditional ballistics are deprecated in favor of cheesy laser blasters that provide for lots of death, all of it bloodless. To be fair, this is relatively more realistic than the comics and cartoons, where every shot simply missed and nobody was maimed, disfigured, or killed despite a constant state of war. The other major head-slapping moment of cultural deafness comes when a major action set piece is staged in Paris, as Cobra disintegrates the Eiffel Tower. Does no one involved remember Team America: World Police?

Its structure is a strange and confident gamble; rather than start the story in the middle, with its heroes and villains established and locked in perpetual battle as in the source material, we start before Cobra even rises. The movie makes plain its intentions to set up a franchise, not even giving birth to two of its most iconic characters until the final moments.

Saïd Taghmaoui and Rachel Nichols and Ray Park in G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra
Body armor works better if molded with faux breasts and six-packs

The entire movie is designed as one giant origin story hobbled with numerous flashbacks. First off, a prologue set in 1641 France features an ancestor to Scottish weapons dealer James McCullen (Christopher Eccleston), with little benefit beyond providing a framing device. Other flashbacks tell us more about the rivalry between dueling ninjas Snake Eyes (Ray Park) and Storm Shadow (Lee Byung-hun), and the relationship between Duke (Channing Tatum), The Baroness (Sienna Miller), and her brother The Doctor (Joseph Gordon-Levitt, hilariously full of himself in promotional interviews, citing the art of kabuki as his inspiration for acting much of the film behind a mask). The Baroness and The Doctor (not to be confused with Eccleston’s most famous role) are siblings, Duke dated The Baroness, and was once responsible for protecting the young Doctor. Got all that?

None of these tangled family ties figure into the original mythos established in the 1980s comic books and animated television series, which existed in service of promoting the toy line. The ancillary media provided characters and scenarios for play, all with the aim of inspiring kids to want to collect the whole set and stage epic battles in their parents’ basements. The stories provided by marketers arguably reduced the element of imagination in children’s play. But looked at another way, the entire G.I. Joe package could be seen as a large-scale multimedia act of world-building. Over time, the brand accumulated an epic story with a giant cast, and may have helped set the stage for later ambitious serialized popular fiction of the 21st century, like Lost.

The story ultimately centers around Duke and his pal Ripcord (Marlon Wayans), implying the filmmakers failed to poll fans to find out what exactly it was they found appealing about G.I. Joe as kids. Ask anyone who actually read the comics, watched the cartoons, or played with the toys, and they will tell you Snake Eyes was always the most popular character. His unrequited love for the Joes’ sole female operative Scarlett and complex relationship with “brother” Storm Shadow provided most of the longest-running storylines. Sommers’ movie minimizes the disfigured, mute ninja commando (despite the perfect casting of Park, famous as Darth Maul), and inexplicably costumed with a mask incorporating a mouth. Scarlett’s affections are here transferred to Ripcord, and Storm Shadow is more overtly evil, whereas I recall his loyalties being more interestingly ambiguous in the comics. His apparent death is an obvious homage to Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, as is an underwater submarine battle lifted from any number of other George Lucas space battles. In the exact inverse to Storm Shadow, the purely villainous Baroness is here transformed into a fixer-upper.

Sienna Miller as The Baroness in G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra
Modelling the latest in terrorist fetishwear is Sienna Miller as The Baroness

One flaw the movie retained from the comics and cartoons: while each “Joe” has a distinct codename and personality, most of Cobra’s forces are nameless and faceless drones. Indeed, their stormtrooper brains have been surgically modified to turn them into obedient zombies. Some meager drama is derived from The Baroness’ potential rehabilitation, but her villainy is defused by making her another victim of mind control. Leaders Destro and Cobra Commander are classic examples of the grotesque figure in literature — like Gollum and Richard III — where physical deformity is an outward expression of evil.

Following the overt racial caricatures in Transformers: Rise of the Fallen, I feared the worst for Marlon Wayans as Ripcord. Indeed, the trailer made a point of highlighting his clowning around. Surprisingly, one of the few areas in which the film managed to outperform expectations was its treatment of its non-white characters. Wayans was given the opportunity to be often genuinely funny and not nearly as annoying as I suspected he might have been. Ripcord gets real chances to prove himself, succeeds, and even gets the girl in the end. Further proving The Rise of Cobra’s bona fides as a surprising source of affirmative action is seen in Saïd Taghmaoui as the heroic Breaker, finally breaking out of his terminal stereotyping as a generic Middle Eastern terrorist / enemy combatant (q.v. Three Kings, Vantage Point, and Traitor). Now if we could just do something about Cobra being made up of evil Brits, Scots, Japanese, and Eastern Europeans.

Mummy’s Boy: The Mummy 3: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor

Perhaps it was the mood I happened to be in the day I saw it in 1999, but I will freely admit I loved The Mummy, the first film in the latter day incarnation of the 1930s MGM horror franchise. In concert with Simon West and Jan De Bont’s pair of Tomb Raider films, The Mummy picked up the period-piece action/adventure mantle left dormant since the last Indiana Jones in 1989, and perhaps contributed to the fedora-clad adventurer’s return for The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull almost 20 years later. It struck me as exactly what all big-budget action blockbusters should aspire to be: good fun, with genuinely impressive special effects, thrills, a little romance, and a few laughs. Not a little of its charm came from the self-deprecating Brendan Fraser, a decidedly different kind of character compared to the arrogance and near superhuman capability of Lara Croft and Indiana Jones.

The franchise proved unusually fertile, spawning an inevitable sequel (not really terrible, but still nowhere near as fun as the original) and even two prequels starring The Rock: The Scorpion King and The Scorpion King 2: Rise of a Warrior. The Mummy 3: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (2008) came as something of a surprise when the series had seemed to have petered out. Original director Stephen Sommers had since moved on to G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra (2009), leaving it up to Rob Cohen (The Fast and the Furious, Stealth), to see if there was any freshness to be found.

Maria Bello and Brendan Fraser in The Mummy 3: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor
“Sorry pal, there’s a mummy on the loose.”

Some time has passed, and Rick (Fraser) and Evelyn (Maria Bello) have retired to a staid English manse. Evelyn earns a living from transforming her past adventures into the form of a popular series of swashbuckling adventure novels, while Rick does, well, nothing. Both find their lives unfulfilling and yearn to return to adventuring. The youthful Fraser hasn’t even grayed his hair, but if Evelyn looks like an entirely new woman, it’s because she is; Bello replaces “thinking man’s sex symbol” Rachel Weisz, who likely had higher aspirations. Their son Alex (Luke Ford), now a rogue archeologist in his own right, forms a contentious relationship with Lin (Isabella Leong), a girl with a considerable secret — she and her mother Zi Yuan (Michelle Yeoh) are immortal (but she doesn’t seem to have matured her emotionally or intellectually over her long life). The slightly fey John Hannah is back in the role of gentle comic relief.

The enemy this time is China itself; the government conspires to awaken the cursed Emperor Han (Jet Li), possessed of supernatural powers but encased in stone for all eternity. With its modern military at the service of a superhuman immortal emperor, China plots nothing less than world domination. The Emperor’s powers also seem to be pretty vaguely defined, and he rarely uses them to best effect. Jet Li rarely appears onscreen in the flesh, leading me to guess he probably did a lot of motion-capture work a la Andy Serkis in the Lord of the Rings and King Kong. He spends much of his time made of indestructible molten rock, but can transform into a fierce dragon at will. Nonetheless, he spends more than a few scenes standing back as his minions fall before his foes, when he could simply sweep in and kill everybody whenever he wanted.

Michelle Yeoh and Isabella Leong in The Mummy 3: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor
“Here we go again!”

The movie produces obstacles as it goes along, and you have no choice but to shrug as one MacGuffin piles up atop another. To wit: a special diamond needed to awaken a mummified Chinese Emperor, the blood of someone pure of heart, a drink from Shangri-La, and the sudden appearance of the sole dagger capable of killing the revived Emperor. Capping it off is a trio of benevolent yeti, but the Emperor is eventually defeated with the aid of a literal ghost in the machine: General Ming (Russell Wong), vanquished earlier by the Emperor. The moral of this story seems to be: the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

Like a lot of contemporary effects-oriented features (including Watchmen, Sin City, The Spirit), the best thing about it are its excellent closing credits.