All posts by Sheldon Wiebe

TELEVISION: Flashpoint: A Cop Show With a Real Difference!

Flashpoint [CBS, Fridays, 10/9C] looks like a lot like an updating of SWAT – for most of the first two acts. The members of Toronto’s Strategic Response Unit [based on the real Emergency Task Force], Team One, are called in to deal with a hostage situation – which is resolved, uncharacteristically, before the end of the second act.

The teaser introduces SRU Team Leader Ed Lane [Hugh Dillon] and sets up the team’s shift preparation and a hostage situation. When the call comes in, assignments are made and the team rolls. Onsite, Jules [Amy Jo Johnson] and Ed take up sniper positions [Ed winds up being lead when her location isn’t as good as his] and Sergeant Gregory Parker [Enrico Colantoni] tries to talk the gunman into putting down his gun.

The SRU

To this point, Flashpoint is a smoothly executed cop show as it cuts back and forth between the events leading up to the hostage taking and the team’s shift preparations. The difference comes in the second act, when the situation is resolved and we follow Ed through the regulation follow-up investigation. Now we’re into something different – the way the day’s work affects Ed – leading up to the ep’s compelling final scene.

At first Flashpoint seems like just another cop/SWAT series, but then it takes a turn that changes the game for the characters and the audience. As skilfully as the first two-thirds of the episode are produced, the flashpoint pilot doesn’t quite fully engage us until after the resolution of the hostage situation, when Dillon takes Ed through some strange and affecting moments. When Parker tells him that he’ll one day have to do the math on the “I’m fines,” Flashpoint goes from being about cops to being about people – people working a job that has incredible ramifications. From that point on, it’s appointment TV.

Final Grade: B

EM EXCLUSIVE: Superpowers: Saving the World? Not As Easy As It Looks!

Superpowers, a novel

Now that superhero movies are practically a genre unto themselves, maybe it’s time to look at novels that deal with super characters – after all, they’ve been around for decades! One [The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay, by Michael Chabon] even won a Pulitzer Prize. Superpowers, A Novel, by David J. Scwartz, looks at the impact of superpowered people in the real world in a way that is fresh and insightful – but most of all, entertaining.

Continue reading EM EXCLUSIVE: Superpowers: Saving the World? Not As Easy As It Looks!

TELEVISION REVIEW: Burn Notice Still Cooks!

Burn Notice’s first season concluded with former spy Michael Weston trapped inside the cargo trailer of an eighteen wheeler. When season two begins tomorrow [Thursday, USA, 10/9C], the little exercise in claustrophobia results in Weston [Jeffrey Donovan] being given an assignment – over the phone – by the mysterious Carla [Tricia Helfer] before the trailer is opened onto a scene of carnage. Spies. Whatcha gonna do?

Breaking and Entering, the second season premiere, deals with stealing information from a civilian military [mercenary] company. If it’s not done by a certain time, it will result in the death of the wife and child of the man who set up the firm’s security. The carnage that greets Michael when he clambers out of the trailer is what remains of the computer expert, Richie’s effort to flee. Plus, there’s always Michael’s manipulative mom [Sharon Gless], fellow ex-spy and buddy, Jack [Bruce Campbell] and ex-girlfriend/former IRA demolitions expert, Fiona [Gabrielle Anwar] to help and/or hinder. Topping that, Carla is one of the people who had Michael burned in the first place!

Burn Notice - 2nd Season Cast

The follow-up ep, Turn and Burn, finds Michael helping a young woman with a stalker problem – by the number two man of the local drug kingpin! Even worse, he gets manipulated into attending a “counselling session” with his mom. [Oh, the humanity!] And these are just the side gigs! His assignment from Carla is to get a computer key card copied – and that requires a special kind of expert…

Burn Notice was probably the best series of last summer, in terms of pure entertainment value. It certainly filled the requirements of the USA “characters wanted” brand – though Michael is the most normal of the characters [it’s his mom and Jack who are the real characters!]. If anything, it seems that the series has gotten smarter, funnier and maybe even a bit edgier this season.

The first two scripts are killer and the ensemble certainly makes the most of that. Each ep is paced just quickly enough to maintain interest without trying to do too much too quickly [a real potential problem here]. Donovan has really done a nice job of keeping the balance between nice and twisted in Michael’s character. He gives the show its calm center in the eye of the hurricane that is his mom, Jack, and Fiona [though Fiona seems to have calmed down a bit from last season – let’s see how long that lasts]. Tricia Helfer nicely underplays Carla’s menace, thereby seeming even more dangerous, and she definitely adds a bit of spice to Michael’s life – which makes it even harder for Michael to find out who she really is – and who she works for.

If you liked Burn Notice last season, you’re going to love it this year.

Final Grade: A

MOVIE REVIEW: Hancock is Definitely Not Superman!

The trailers and clips released online for Hancock promise a superhero dramedy with an edge – and, for the first half of the film it delivers just that. Watching the drunken superhero get the bad guys while toting up millions of dollars in property damage is, at first, diverting and new. When he saves a PR whiz named Ray Embry [Jason Bateman], Bateman persuades him to change his image – first by doing jail time, second by treating people with more respect, and third by wearing a spiffy spandex outfit that looks like something out of the X-Men movies. Of course, being the rotten example that he is, before he can completely remake his image, Hancock develops the hots for Ray’s beautiful wife, Mary [Charlize Theron].

So far, so good. Hancock, in its first half, comes off as an effort to make a movie about the kind of hero that Marvel [Spider-Man, Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk] does so well – the hero with superpowers and regular people’s problems. But now, we come to Hancock’s kryptonite. Like Superman, Green Lantern and so many classic superheroes, Hancock does, indeed, have a weakness – a weakness that’s telegraphed by several clues scattered through the first half of the film.

HANCOCK

Therein lies the problem. After carefully setting up Hancock as one thing – a superhero – the revelation of his weakness changes everything, and not in the most sensible of ways. As I watched the clues develop, my first thought was, “oh, no. They wouldn’t…” Then, when it happened, I thought, “oh, no! They didn’t” – followed closely by, “golly-gosh-all-hemlock-gee-whiz-to-pieces! They did!” I won’t give the twist away, but I will say that, when you add up all the species of life and types of minerals there are on this planet, Hancock’s weakness is so hugely, disproportionately coincidental that, had it been used in a real comic book or graphic novel, the writer would’ve been laughed out of every comics shop in North America – just for starters!

As a result, the second half of Hancock is filled with mayhem of all sorts that, essentially, robs the film of the charm and wit that helped build up the first half. The shame of it all is that Smith, Bateman, and Theron give really good performances as the film disintegrates around them – and Peter Berg’s direction is precisely what it should be throughout. The problem with the script is that writers Vincent Ngo and Vince Gilligan seem to think that, because Hancock is a superhero movie, they can do anything they want. They’ve forgotten [if they ever even thought about it] that the best comics and graphic novels are set in universes that have rules – and adhere to them.

Sadly, the last half of Hancock, full of sound and fury as it is, totally undercuts the first half of the film’s effectiveness. In the end, Hancock may not be an average superhero, but his movie never reaches that level.

Final Grade: D+

MOVIE REVIEW: Wanted: Adrenaline-Squared!

Remember the scene in Pulp Fiction where Uma Thurman’s character overdoses and John Travolta’s character has to administer a shot of adrenaline directly to her heart? That is, roughly speaking, the effect that Timur Bekmambetov’s Wanted has on an audience.

Wesley Gibson [James McAvoy] is a cubicle slave with an impressive, but meaningless title, and a boss who takes particular delight in demeaning him. He has a surprisingly good-looking girlfriend and a cheery best friend – who are sleeping with each other. Then, one night when he’s in line at a pharmacy to buy medication for his anxiety attacks, a gorgeous, tattooed goddess of a woman informs him that his father was the greatest assassin in the world; the number two guy killed him the day before and is just… over there!

Wesley, it seems, has inherited his father’s skills, but has been blithely unaware – mistaking his hunter’s/assassin’s traits as anxiety attacks. The goddess is named Fox [Angelina Jolie] and he is to become a member of The Fraternity – a society of assassins headed by the dapper, dignified Sloan [Morgan Freeman]. Of course, he’ll have to be trained – by a host of assassins with names Like The Repairman [Mark Warren] and Gunsmith [Common]. Then he will hunt and kill the man who killed his father.

wanted_poster

Based on Mark Millar’s graphic novel of the same name, Wanted seems to be little more than a framework to showcase Bekmambetov’s dexterity as a director. Instead, it turns out to be a showcase for McAvoy’s transformation from wage slave to a man in charge of his own life – and for Fox to discover the real meaning of integrity. At the same time, of course, Bekmambetov does, indeed, throw everything he’s got into action sequence that take the work of people like Louis Leterrier and the Wachowski Brothers and ramp it up to a level so high that the bar is no longer even visible.

Except for a very few scenes, Wanted makes the proverbial bat out of hell look like a tortoise on its back. The fight scenes are agile in ways that combine John Woo and the Shaw Brothers with Peckinpah and the Wachowskis; the chases are well into the land that exists beyond ridiculous, and the gun play is beyond even that.

Bekmambetov hits us so quickly with pans and zooms and smash cuts and dissolves and changes of pace that we go along for the ride – even though the whole thing is as insubstantial as smoke [and we get some of that, too]. This is what summer blockbusters are supposed to be – smart and absurd and gracefully jagged adrenaline delivery systems. On that level, it is superb!

Final Grade: A

MOVIE REVIEW” WALL*E Is Simply Dazzling!

With an A-story that features the love story between WALL*E [Waste Allocation Load Lifter – Earth Class] and EVE [Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator], and a B-story that involves humanity’s possible return to a post-apocalyptic Earth, WALL*E is more than a bit of a gamble on PIXAR’s part.

Neither WALL*E nor EVE has a large vocabulary [at least, in terms of actual words – he has a number of R2D2-like sounds that clearly express what he’s feeling, and she has her own electronic vocabulary as well] – and neither has what you could call a real face [he’s a pair of binoculars on a box and she’s a floating egg with occasional arms & hands] – and yet we always know exactly what they are thinking and feeling.

Their romance is a classic one – and simultaneously poignant and hilarious – even though the film goes almost twenty minutes before a word of English is spoken.

The B-story features humans who have, in 700 years in space, become obese figures on floating couches/chairs. They live on a gigantic starship called the Axiom, where they are waited on, hand & foot, by robots of all sizes, shapes and functions [there’s more than a bit of eco-satire here, and it’s quite sharp].

walle7

The appearance of EVE [and WALL*E] with a fragile little plant from Earth should signal a return to Earth, but there are problems…

WALL*E does pay homage to various classic SF films [he resembles ET more than Johnny 5, and the ship’s autopilot, Otto, will certainly remind one of Hal from 2001], but homages are only cool if the film is worth seeing.

WALL*E is, quite frankly, dazzling. Purely from a cinematography perspective, almost every frame of the film is a perfect composition – and yet not predictable, or in any way sterile.

Some of the best moments include the realization that the deserted city we first see is only partly man-made [you’ll see what I mean…]; the lovely moment from the trailer when WALL*E trails his hand through asteroid dust like a little boy trailing his fingers through the water as a motorboat zips across a lake [see photo]; the beautiful skyscapes that open the film, and so many more [including the fact that WALL*E is hooked on Hello, Dolly – and has a cockroach as his only friend!].

WALL*E is the best film of the year – let alone the summer – so far. Easily. It may be too intense or hard to follow for younger children [the lady and four kids, ages about three to six, who were sitting next to me got up and left well before WALL*E reached the Axiom], so you should be aware of that.

Grade: A+

MOVIE REVIEW: Get Smart: From Analyst to Super-Spy by Sheldon Wiebe

Get Smart could have gone wrong in oh so many ways. Fortunately, rather than parrot the ‘60s hit spy spoof, writers Tom J. Astle and Matt Ember choose to give us the story of how super-analyst Maxwell Smart [Steve Carell] made the shift from computer jockey to field agent. Mixing clever gags with action is tricky, and while the ratio isn’t quite right, the film manages to maintain its entertainment quotient by keeping Max from being hopelessly incompetent. Instead, Max passes the field agent test with flying colors but is only sent into the field when the identities of all Control’s agents are compromised.

Only Smart and Agent 99 [Anne Hathaway, sexy in a Disney-cute way and deadly in a Modesty Blaise way] can find and destroy KAOS’s stockpile of nuclear weapons – cleverly hidden in a Moscow bakery [well, it would be cleverly hidden if the bakery wasn’t a huge building with an enormous sign bearing its name]. If they fail, it could be curtains for Los Angeles and the visiting President of the United States.

86 & 99

Staples of the series [Max’s love of little British sports cars; Agent 13, the master of disguise; certain trademark phrases] make appearances – including one that is so utterly perfect that I won’t mention the character or the actor. I wouldn’t want to ruin the surprise for fans of the original series. Besides the homages to the original series, there are things about this movie that work because they are different.

Max is not incompetent – his bumbling usually occurs because his focus is too narrow and everything outside his focus gets past him – watch him deal with a hulking Russian assassin, for instance. He also cuts a mean rug in a party scene – where he gives an unlikely dance partner an incredible ego boost [which refers back to Max’s past].

Get Smart’s supporting cast is excellent, but underused. Since some of the action sequences run a bit long, it might have been a good idea to give more time Dwayne Johnson’s suave Agent 23 – or Terrance Stamp’s Siegfried. Another cool change is Alan Arkin’s Chief – instead of being put upon like the character originated by the late Edward Platt, here the Chief is very much a player.

Overall, then, Get Smart is a smart, if slightly overlong movie that reintroduces the characters from the TV series in a fresh way that does not negate the originals. For the most part, it is great fun – and the moments where it tries too hard can be forgiven. Peter Segal directs the film with good energy and if the action threatens to overwhelm the comedy occasionally, it never quite does. The result is an entertainment that should tickle fans of the series as well as those who’ve never heard of it.

Final Grade: B

MOVIE REVIEW: The Love Guru: Crickets… by Sheldon Wiebe

Imagine the sound of one hand clapping. Not in the Zen koan way, but in the actual one hand impacting on nothing but air way. This was the sound that accompanied eighty-five of The Love Guru’s ninety-one minutes at the screening I attended – and another four minutes were closing credits.

In a nutshell: Toronto Maple Leafs owner Jane Bullard [Jessica Alba] hires the number two self-help guru in the world, Guru Pitka [Mike Myers] to help her team’s superstar, Darren Roanoke [Romany Malco] get his mojo back after his girlfriend leaves him for the Jacque Grande [Justin Timberlake], goalie of the Leafs’ Stanley Cup opponents, the Los Angeles King.

Grande Parties With Pitka

Myers performance is smarmy and self-indulgent; Alba is her usual wooden self and virtually no is funny. In the course of the film, I laughed six times – two because of actual humor and four because if the sheer awfulness of the attempts at humor. That was four more times than the group of fifteen-year olds [allegedly the film’s targeted audience]. Otherwise, the theater was silent.

Writing, acting, cinematography, directing – all pretty much suck. The only things preventing The Love Guru from being the worst movie I’ve seen in the last few years would be Norbit and Delta Farce. The Love Guru makes The Cat in the Hat look like Shakespeare. You have been warned.

Final Grade: D-

MOVIE REVIEW: The Incredible Hulk: This Time Hulk Smash! By Sheldon Wiebe

Ang Lee’s Hulk, the A Beautiful Mind take, left fans cold, so now we have Louis Leterrier’s “HULK SMASH!” version – and it does indeed rock the house. The script – solely credited to Zak Penn [suggesting that the parts star Edward Norton worked on were edited out] – gives us all kinds of neat stuff to watch: Bruce Banner [Norton] working on Brazilian martial arts techniques to maintain his calm; a graphic that pops up every so often to remind us that it’s been x days since his last Hulk-out; a kind of spiffy pair of references to Captain America [including a shield!]; a brief appearance by Dr. Leonard Sampson; a hint that the Hulk’s smartest arch-enemy might be waiting in the wings if a sequel is warranted, and lots more.

The question is, does the movie work? Well, yeah, it does. The only real problem with the film is that it has been edited to be almost the exact opposite of the Lee film – almost all action, with a small amount of character development. A lot of critics will probably tell you the film is humourless, too, but watch for what has to be Stan Lee’s best cameo ever and see what you think. There’s even just enough romance to remind people that Banner had a serious relationship before he become the Jekyll/Hyde being that he is.

Hulk Not Like Little Man

The plot here is pretty much the basic Hulk comics plot: Banner doesn’t want to become the Hulk but people won’t leave him – with predictable and dire results. The fun is in setting the film is real locales [the chase through the Brazilian favella might remind of Jason Bourne, but it’s nifty in its own way] and in using the Banner character to show two of the basic conflicts in fiction: Man vs. Himself; Man vs. The Environment, and Man vs. Man. Banner’s struggle against his primal self is there, just as in the comics, as is his struggle with the U.S. Army – personified by General Thunderbolt Ross [William Hurt] and Emil Blonsky [Tim Roth]. A case could be made that the climactic battle between Hulk and the Abomination could also represent Man vs. The Environment [or misuse of same], but we’ll forego that one.

Louis Leterrier’s The Incredible Hulk loses the comic affectations of Lee’s film – there are no shots composed to resemble comic book panels – but retains the emotional core [however little screen time it might get] and powers forth the action. By the time Hulk and the Abomination clash, they are characters and not merely CG constructs. Leterrier’s direction is as swift as merciless as Emil Blonsky, and a whole ‘nother level beyond what he achieved in his Transporter films.

Perhaps, if there were more character moments [not many, but the inclusion of the Banner-Samson chat from the first trailer would’ve been nice] the film would resonate better, but this time, it’s all about the fun – and The Incredible Hulk is definitely that!

Final Grade: B+

MOVIE REVIEW: The Happening: Almost… by Sheldon Wiebe

Any great mystery, espionage or horror movie lives or dies on its writer and director combining to provide suspense – the ominous shadow here, the piercing music sting there – while creating characters we can relate to and placing them in situations that leave them more and more unable to cope, or adapt, until some revelation… some idea… gives them the wherewithal to overcome their plight.

For about two-thirds of The Happening, writer/producer/director M. Night Shyamalan does exactly that. Beginning with the first intimations of something wrong beginning to happen in New York city’s Central Park, Shyamalan provides an almost Hitchcockian build of suspense as people begin killing themselves in numbers that suggest, at first, a terrorist attack.

thehappening_teaser

The film follows a troubled couple, Elliot [Mark Wahlberg] and Alma [Zooey Deschanel] and the young daughter of a friend, Jess [Ashlynn Sanchez] – giving us a chance to see her with her father [John Leguizamo] before bad things separate them. As the behavioural problem mounts, and theories about the problem evolve, it seems certain that humanity is about to be removed from the face of the planet.

Even allowing for Shyamalan’s tendency to write dialogue that no one would ever really say, The Happening builds nicely. Tak Fujimoto’s cinematography and James Newton Howard’s score do work well to keep the audience on the edge of its seat. The problem arises when the third act has absolutely no surprises and the development of the attacks evolves precisely as it seemed it would – until…

Normally, that would be a good thing, but here, Shyamalan telegraphs the way the film plays in a rather clunky manner, so that the impact of some events are nearly nullified. Also, as a direct result of information imparted earlier, the film’s brief tag is also telegraphed, leaving us saying, “So?” On the other hand, The Happening is a huge improvement over Lady in the Water, so maybe Shyamalan’s career isn’t over just yet.

Final Grade: C-

MOVIE REVIEW: Kung Fu Panda: Panda Power? By Sheldon Wiebe

Pandas are perceived as being laid back, relaxed and just enjoying munching on bamboo shoots. Kinda like your fat, old uncle Kenny – only bigger and with fur. Casting a panda as a kung fu master is one of those contradictory images that just automatically provoke smiles and chuckles – if not hysterical laughter. Which is why Kung Fu Panda had to be more than just another animated movie. In order for it to work, the film would have to find a way to make us believe – in with excellent CGI – that Po [voiced by Jack Black], a poor panda working for his father in a noodle house, could make that leap to… wait for it… Dragon Warrior!

Po & Master Shifu

In anticipation of the evil snow leopard Tai Lung [Ian McShane] breaking out of the most secure prison in the country, Master Shifu [Dustin Hoffman] has trained the Furious Five – Masters Crane [David Cross], Mantis [Seth Rogen], Monkey [Jackie Chan], Tigress [Angelina Jolie] and Viper [Lucy Liu] – in hopes that one of them would be chosen to fulfill the prophecy of the Dragon Warrior and obtain the Dragon Scroll that would take them to an almost exalted level of martial arts mastery. Through a fluke involving fireworks and a chair, Po finds himself chosen to become the Dragon Warrior by Master Oogway [Randall Duk Kim] – and fierce lessons must be learned by all of them so that, when Master Oogway’s time comes, the Dragon warrior will be ready to face Tai Lung.

Kung Fu Panda is a small miracle in both character and animation development. The script, by Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger [from a story by Ethan Reiff and Cyrus Voris] packs as much character into the film as action [and there’s a lot of action!]. Watching Po and his father, Mr. Ping [James Hong] deal with the changes in Po’s life are fraught with genuine emotion; the disbelief of Shifu and the Furious Five combine to make things even harder for the poor Po. The animation of the martial arts sequences add to the depth of the film with their intricacy and clarity.

Directors Mark Osborne and John Stevenson have done a masterful job of matching voices to characters [Jolie and Liu especially, bring it – and Rogen, counter cast as the tiny Mantis gives his character a surprisingly supple quality] and staging both moments of frenzy and unexpected beauty [the passing of a key character]. Kung Fu Panda is a movie that might have been wholly summarized by its title, but instead is so much more. Thanks to the factors mentioned plus the unexpected range of Black as Po, this is a classic in waiting.

Final Grade: A