Sunday, March 27, 2011

Ego Spartacus Sum!

Starz's relatively new series, Spartacus, is quickly becoming one of my favorite shows. I wasn't sold on the pilot, but once our quasi-eponymous hero (Spartacus isn't his real name) lands in the Ludus of Batiatus, the story really takes off. After having been dealt a crippling blow by the gods, Spartacus finds himself face-to-face with the most lethal, savage, and adept gladiators in Capua, as he struggles to find his place and ultimately assume the title of champion. From there, the show is a combination of brutal, gory, and very stylized fights in the arena mixed in with back-stabbing political and social intrigues.

I'm mostly through the first season, so I haven't watched the prequel season yet, but this show is more addictive than crack. As they say. (I don't plan on finding out how addictive crack is any time in the near future.) Grizzly action sequences are set against the backdrop of a decadent Roman world, where sex is nothing to be ashamed of and grandiose political ambitions are harbored by all.

The dialogue takes some getting used to, as the characters are prone to orate and offer philosophical discourse, but it is rewarding once you get used to it. For you Latin buffs out there, I did read that the writers try to mimic Roman speech patterns as much as English will allow. The writers even try to avoid using the word "Yes" as much as possible because that word did not exist in Classical Latin.

(It's true, look it up.)

I really enjoy the lead actors: John Hannah is positively devious as the owner of the Ludus, Batiatus; Manu Bennett, who is testosterone incarnate; Peter Mensah, who has a presence to rival any actor's, living or dead; Lucy You-Know-Her-as-Xena Lawless; and Andy Whitfield. It's a damned shame what happened to Whitfield: during the first season, he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma and ultimately gave his blessing to the producers to keep the series going with someone else. He made for an excellent Spartacus, and I hope he recovers quickly and somehow finds his way back on to the show.

The series has inspired many, myself included, to adopt the Spartacus workout as their training regimen. And if you haven't heard, there's now a second routine available as well. It's also rekindled my interest in attempting the ridiculous 300 workout as well. These three workouts will kick your ass and they're perfect for someone with limited free time to exercise: you only need to do them 3 to 4 times per week, and the routines are only 20 to 30 minutes. It might sound too good to be true, but they really are effective and provide the most bang for your buck, because they're can do it all: add lean muscle, improve both your aerobic and anaerobic capacities, and shred fat. You're not going to get big doing these workouts, but you are going to get ripped, lean, and more athletic overall.

And if you haven't seen the original movie with Kirk Douglas, get out there and rent it. It's a classic, despite what Kubrick thought of it, and it's aged pretty well.

My only gripe with the show is this: why haven't they hired me as a writer yet? My Latin's pretty good, I also took two years of ancient Greek in high school, and I'm fit enough to do the Spartacus workout. And most importantly, I'd work for peanuts to write for a kick-ass show like this.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

A Blockbuster Summer

There's a debate amongst geeks online about whether 2011 or 2012 is going to offer the best blockbuster summer ever. In this geek's opinion, 2012 edges out 2011. But that's next year. Let's talk about some of the major tentpole events lined up for this summer:

Sucker Punch - Zack Synder gives us another visual feast in the style of 300. This one is right up a geek's alley: guns, gals, and explosions.

Scream 4 - Wes Craven is bringing this series back from the dead. Ha ha.

Fast Five - I could point to the impossibility of reconciling the idea that god is all-powerful and good with the idea that evil exists in this world to posit that the Judeo-Christian god as he is understood cannot exist. That argument has fallen on many deaf ears over the years, so I'll offer this instead: they've now made FIVE Fast and Furious movies.

Thor - An adaption of the comic book that pulls our mythological hero out of Valhalla and sucks him into the real world. Sounds kind of cheesy until you look at who's directing: Kenneth Branagh. I like that the studios are starting to make some creative decisions with their hiring of directors for blockbusters. (Along similar lines, Shane Black has been hired to direct Iron Man 3.)

Pirates 4 - Johnny Depp plays Johnny Depp in a pirate costume.

The Hangover 2 - Probably a bad idea, but the first flick is so hysterical I'll see it regardless. Mel Gibson was slated to have a cameo until one of the cast members raised his objections. Which is kind of strange, because if Iron Mike Tyson should get a second chance, why not Mad Max?

Kung Fu Panda 2 - Jack Black is back as Po....alright, I'll own up: the first one was pretty good.

The Tree of Life - Just kidding. The word blockbuster and Terence Malick should never appear in the same sentence. Except, er, that sentence.

X-Men: First Class - James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender as Professor X and Magneto, respectively? Sign me the hell up.

The Green Lantern - Just when you thought there were no more superheroes left to pilfer from comic books. Martin Campbell is directing, the same man who gave us Casino Royale and Goldeneye, so this could be good.

Cars 2 - Yeah, this'll make a crap ton of money.

Transformers 3 - Okay, still not convinced that an all-powerful, benevolent God is incompatible with the fact that evil exists in this world? Michael Bay brings us Transformers 3.

Harry Potter - How long until Warner Brothers decides to reboot this series and make billions more dollars? I give it three years, tops.

Captain America - Along with Thor and Iron Man, another origin story that's also setting us up for 2012's The Avengers.

Cowboys & Aliens - A ridiculous premise that is intriguing beyond all reason. Daniel Craig as a mysterious gunslinger, Harrison Ford as a crotchety sheriff, and menacing aliens.

The Smurfs - One word: Gargamel.

Conan the Barbarian - Jason Momoa has some pretty big shoes to fill here. It's slated for an August release, which doesn't inspire a lot of confidence.

Spy Kids 4 - Like Cars 2, this'll make some serious coin.


And the one I'm most looking forward to? Super 8. For a lesson in how to make an awesome trailer and perfectly capture a mood, watch this. Directed by JJ Abrams, this one's supposed to be a throwback to early Spielberg, who is involved himself. If this is anywhere near as good as Close Encounters of the Third Kind, it'll be awesome.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

My Reviews of the Best Pic Nominees

I was going to post this before Oscar night. I swear. Really. Anyway, here are my reviews of the 2010 Best Pic Noms I saw.


INCEPTION - I'm an admitted, unabashed, fawning Nolan fanboy, so take my review with a 50 pound bag of rock salt, the kind that could eat a whole through your kitchen floor, poison your dog, and actually destroy Carthage. So with that out of the way, here goes: Inception is the most original film I've seen in years. It's by no means a perfect film, or even Nolan's best film. But enough disclaiming. This movie is a lot of fun. Always entertaining, never dull, and different. Remember the last time the Hollywood machine produced something ORIGINAL? Yeah, I can't either. Inception should have failed at the box office: it's a sci-fi movie, you've got to pay attention or you'll be lost, and it's not based on a comic book, video game, graphic novel, or previous movie. And no, don't tell me it's just like The Matrix, or Solaris, or whatever. Inception is without the pseudo-intellectual philosophy of The Matrix series, and god don't even get me started on that one. If a doctor performed a physical on Solaris, he'd have to declare that film clinically dead because it has no pulse. The same cannot be said for Inception - just the opposite. My main problem with the film is that it cheats a teeny, tiny little bit halfway through by changing its own internal rules, but I'll forgive this misstep because the game-changer ups the ante and imperils the characters in a very real way. And, the rotating hallway fight scene is so good the Academy should have created a category called Best Rotating Hallway Fight Scene because that sequence alone was Oscar worthy.

TRUE GRIT - It's as if Charles Portis, reclusive author extraordinaire, had a crystal ball and gazed some forty years into his future before writing True Grit and his vision fell on the Coen brothers and he decided he could write a book that they would one day read and realize was the answer to all their box office prayers. Like Peter Jackson was put on this earth to direct the Lord of the Rings movies, so too were the Coens put on this earth to direct True Grit. It's a western, it's a religious parable, it's a glorious piece of decidedly American fiction. Call it whatever the hell you want, just don't try and Hooraw it. (If you haven't read the book, you should. Portis is one of the best under-read American authors.) It's a very simple story about justice, revenge, character, and life not so long ago in America. Every year people say the western is dead. This film proves otherwise.

THE SOCIAL NETWORK - David Fincher brings his immense and considerable talents to a film about...Facebook. At first blush, you have to wonder why the man who directed Seven and Zodiac would be interested in the subject matter, but it turned out alright. Aaron Sorkin penned a great screenplay full of snappy dialogue and populated it with unsympathetic, but fascinating characters. Emotionally, the film is a little hollow but that's probably the intention: these characters, with a few exceptions, geniuses they may be, all seem pretty hollow. I thought it was a good movie but not quite Best Picture material.

THE FIGHTER - Story-telling at its best and most basic: raw performances, no sentiment, no bullshit. You know how this one's going to end going in, even if you're unfamiliar with boxer Mickey Ward's story. But that doesn't stop you from cheering Mickey on as he slugs his way to the top. Bale is a force of nature, Wahlberg is understated but effective, and Melissa Leo is the mom you love to hate. You feel every punch, you cringe during every family argument, you feel bruised and battered, but ultimately, triumphant by the end. If Rocky and Raging Bull produced a child, this would be it.

BLACK SWAN - In keeping with the movie's duality, here are my two takes:

White Swan: Lurid, melodramatic, heavy-handed, ham-fisted, non-sensical, pornographic, nauseating, pretentious tripe. Why did they bother spending millions of dollars on a story the show runners of General Hospital would have rejected? When the film's not playing to your baser instincts, it's cheating you. Over and over and over. It keeps on cheating till the climax where it REALLY cheats you. Yes, it's possible for (SPOILER ALERT) Portman to stab herself and yet continue giving the greatest ballet performance anyone has ever seen. (END SPOILER ALERT) This is all things ugly rolled into one film as some sort of twisted attempt by Aronofsky to shock you into submission. I wanted to tap out, UFC style, at about the hour mark. The performances are loud, the music is loud, the story is loud, everything is loud, loud, loud. It's about as subtle as a tsunami. Don't let the critics fool you - this is nothing more than a soft-core horror movie with outstanding production values, tantamount to something you'd find on Cinemax (a.k.a. Skinemax) around 2:30 in the morning. Or so I'm told.

Black Swan: Unrelenting, unremitting, tour-de-force, roller-coaster of a ride that knocks you on your ass and keeps kicking you while you're down. This movie is supposed to be a ballet: it doesn't have to make literal sense because it's going to bypass that snooty, rational part of your brain and tap right in to that collective unconscious and make you feel something. Remember the last time you just FELT a movie? You'll be uncomfortable, grossed-out, frustrated, and, if you let it, the film will devastate you the way it should. Why does everyone pine for gritty realism in movies and art? If you want realism, go watch an effing documentary (but not a Michael Moore one, we're talking realism here). Art is supposed to shock. It's supposed to be challenging. If you want something transformative, sublime, and visceral, watch this movie. And yes, it IS a horror movie. Of course it is, you prude, White Swan. It's a damned good - maybe even a great - horror movie, and how often do those come along?

THE KING'S SPEECH - I find the UK's fascination with and rationalizations of the continued financial support of the royal family baffling. I find America's fascination with the royal family even more puzzling. I have trouble sympathizing with a bunch of wealthy, pampered people who are treated like celebrities because of their birthright. Don't get me wrong - I'm not saying they're bad people, in fact, some of them have done some great things. I'm just saying I don't get it. Non-royal philanthropists aren't treated the same way, which means that yes, birthright has something to do with it. And yes, The King's Speech is stereotypical Oscar bait: literate British period piece about the royal family combined with a story of one man's perseverance in overcoming a handicap. And's simply brilliant. Firth and Rush are excellent, Firth especially, the camerawork is interesting, the dialogue is smart but never cute, and the underdog story IS compelling. You'll be on the edge of your seat during the climax of the movie, which is nothing more than a man giving a speech. Yes, the story-telling's that good. The English are often accused unfairly of being shut-off and bottled up emotionally, but that trope is used here to great effect, resulting in a very poignant moment of personal triumph.