Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Movie Review: World War Z

As the zombie movie has had a resurgence in the last decade, "zombie fever" is still going strong! And with the success of cable TV shows like AMC's The Walking Dead, based on Robert Kirkman's acclaimed graphic novel series; the dead are still "walking tall"! The latest foray into the zombie craze actually comes from one of the forerunners of the genre, author Max Brooks (son of comedy legend Mel Brooks). Having first delved into the popular subject with his 2003 book The Zombie Survival Guide, at first, a seemingly humorous novelty guidebook, it sparked a new interest in zombies and apocalypse survivalists. With the immense success of the Survival Guide, (which even spawned a card game and a graphic novel The Zombie Survival Guide: Recorded Attacks), Brooks soon followed it up with the now immensely popular novel: World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War in 2006. Being an intense, sprawling narrative combining fictional interviews and vignettes from supposed survivors from all over the world, World War Z was a huge hit for zombie fans and brought new literary acclaim for the genre as well.
Few even considered that this epic tale would eventually be turned into a major motion picture. Many fans were skeptical when it was finally announced in 2008. What was leaked on the Internet was the original script by J. Michael Straczynski, which was then rewritten by Matthew Michael Carnahan. This created controversy with many fans. Now that the movie has been released, the frequent rewrites have proven successful. World War Z is directed by Marc Forster (Quantum of Solace (2008)) and stars Brad Pitt. The film focuses on the story of Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt), a former UN investigator living in Philadelphia. He is forced into facing the zombie apocalypse head-on while trying to save his wife Karin (Mireille Enos) and his two daughters. Reluctant to resume his former life, he must travel the globe to search for the cause of the zombie virus and hopefully find a cure. Beginning in South Korea, the violent pandemic spreads quickly all over the world and leads Gerry to various locations such as Jerusalem and the W.H.O. headquarters. A seemingly average person, Gerry soon presents himself as an exceptionally skillful (and incredibly lucky!) individual as he is thrust into even more dangerous locations and situations as the "zombie" plague spreads. Gerry is mostly alone in his search, he is occasionally accompanied by members of the scientific community (including one ill-fated virologist) and the military. He ends up with Segan (Daniella Kertesz), a young female Israeli soldier, as an unlikely sidekick who tags along with him. She soon proves herself to be a strong and helpful companion.
The movie is a fast-paced and action-packed story with exciting and exotic locales on a global scale. It is not necessarily a true "zombie" movie in the tradition of Dawn of the Dead (1978) or even 28 Days Later (2002). It is more like viral outbreak movies such as The Andromeda Strain (1971) or Outbreak (1995). The movie deviates far from the usual blood-and-gore type of zombie movie, to the point of being an almost entirely bloodless film. This doesn't detract from the action or its exciting subject matter. When it comes to zombie movies (and fans), there always seems to be a strong division between those that favor the slow-moving, traditional Night of the Living Dead (1968) type zombie or the faster, ravenous Dawn of the Dead (2004 remake) kind. This movie actually features both but more often the latter; especially when the zombies pile on top of each other and swarm over everything like ants. Later, when docile, the zombies are significantly slower (until stimulated) and can even appear less threatening and almost laughable (cue Dawn of the Dead mall music!). Although the movie doesn't have the same scope and originality of the novel, it does present an impressive and intriguing story set on a worldwide stage. Rumors of the original script presented a film that would have followed the book more closely, keeping the story centered on one main-character creates a more widely-accepted scenario.
World War Z (both book and movie) came at just the right time as the world is still reeling from the 2012 phenomenon hoax. The number of survivalist groups and our fascination and obsession of zombies continues to grow. Recently, the CDC even published an article on their website encouraging "Zombie Preparedness"!
As a fan of the book, naturally there was some disappointment the movie did not follow the book exactly but despite my reservations I was thoroughly impressed and I feel it is a worthy adaptation of the book. With box office totals already over $66 million, Paramount Pictures is supposedly in talks to develop a sequel that may focus on other stories from the novel.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Movie Review: Man of Steel

SUPERMAN has to be THE most popular superhero in the world! He has also been the most featured superhero in movies and TV since the 1940's. Since the beginning of the modern superhero movie with 1978's Superman: The Movie starring Christopher Reeve, there have been many incarnations of Superman on both TV (Superboy, Lois & Clark, Smallville) and movies (Superman I-IV, Superman Returns). But, there has only been one Superman worthy of the silver screen...until now. While 2006's Superman Returns, directed by Bryan Singer and starring Brandon Routh, Hollywood tried (rather unsuccessfully) to reignite the franchise. It was both a critical and commercial disappointment (mostly due to early writing and directing issues), leaving many Superman fans wanting. With the success of Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight Trilogy, Hollywood and DC Comics have again tried to reboot the Superman franchise with Man of Steel. The film is directed by Zack Snyder (300, Watchmen), written by David S. Goyer (The Dark Knight Trilogy, Ghost Rider, The Blade Trilogy) and stars Henry Cavill (Immortals) as "The Man of Steel".
Man of Steel tells the origin story that we all know so well (or at least think we do?) of Kal-el, the last son of Krypton, who was sent to Earth from his dying home-world to eventually become Superman! It begins with the birth of Kal-El to parents Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and Lara (Ayelet Zurer) on Krypton. While their planet dying from the inside, the ambitious General Zod (Michael Shannon) has staged a coup to overthrow the council and set up a new world order. Even though Zod asks Jor-El to join him, he denies him as he prepares to send his only son to Earth, saving him from their fate. Zod is stopped by Jor-El, arrested, and sentenced to the 'Phantom Zone'. Krypton is destroyed! Kal-El arrives on Earth and is raised by Jonathan (Kevin Costner) and Martha (Diane Lane) Kent in Smallville, Kansas. Now named Clark Kent, he slowly discovers his powers and realizes he is destined for greatness and he wants to help people. He is conflicted in dealing with his ever-increasing powers and their limitations. So much so, that he eventually leaves home to find himself and his purpose.
Henry Cavill IS Superman!
While this all sounds very familiar, the particulars to the story of Man of Steel is very different to what we would normally expect. It's hard not to compare this one to the classic 1978 film, which for generations made us "believe a man could fly". The original Superman movie was told in a more linear style, this latest film is told in a series of flashbacks. As we begin with Superman/Kal-El's birth and Krypton's destruction, we are then brought forward 33 years (as we soon discover) where we see an adult Clark Kent working on board a fishing trawler in the middle of the ocean. We then find Clark working at an Arctic archaeological site where scientists have discovered a mysterious object buried in the ice. To cover this historic occasion, we meet Lois Lane (Amy Adams) who has a knack for getting stories in dangerous locales and as we soon discover, getting into trouble!
Through much of the second act of the film Lois is searching for the mysterious man who rescued her and has been spotted at several other locations. In the third act we find out that Zod has returned and is looking for Kal-El and if the people of Earth do not surrender him he will destroy the planet (which he will most likely do anyway)! Superman learns of Zod's true purpose, and begins is a non-stop battle for Earth's fate as he must stop his fellow Kryptonians (who now have almost the same powers as he does) from destroying the Earth and killing the entire human population.
Man of Steel is an impressive and fast-paced superhero movie that barely gives you any time to catch your breath! While it does have a somewhat darker tone like The Dark Knight Trilogy, Man of Steel retains much of the optimistic and hopeful themes to which the story has always been known. Although very special-effects driven with over-the-top action and especially intense fights and destruction scenes; Man of Steel is the Superman movie many fans have been waiting for but not necessarily the one they expected. Director Zack Snyder has been known for his involvement in several  recent comic book adaptations (300, Watchmen) including movies with heavy CGI special effects (Sucker Punch). He is well suited to direct Man of Steel.
Kneel before Zod?
The biggest character difference with Man of Steel is that while Clark/Kal-El deals with his powers growing up, he becomes conflicted with using his powers. When he eventually decides to use them, he has to face the moral question of when is it "right" to use his powers based on the (somewhat contradictory) words of his adopted father. This fact becomes apparent when Clark/Kal-El is faced with a situation where he has the ability to use his powers to save someone (No Spoilers!) but due to the actions of his father is forbidden to interfere. This choice also becomes relevant during the final epic battle between Superman and Zod when Superman is forced to do the unthinkable. Without giving anything away (although the Internet is already a buzz with spoilers of the films controversial ending) I believe his actions are completely justifiable despite what many have said. This version of Zod (played previously by Terrance Stamp in the original movie and Callum Blue in Smallville), seems much more of a threat than his melodramatic (Stamp) counterpart. No longer the power-mad despot, he is merely the unquestioning soldier with a single-minded purpose who lets nothing stand in his way. As for the support characters, many prove to be very bland and dull compared to Cavill's "Man of Steel". Amy Adams presents Lois Lane as a more headstrong and albeit "fiery" red-headed version of Superman's quintessential damsel-in-distress. As a strong and confident character, she seems somewhat wrong for the part given her previous parts in more "family-friendly" roles such as Enchanted and The Muppets and I half-expected her to break out into song at any minute. Others who are a necessity with Superman stories such as Perry White, played by a rather stout Laurence Fishburne, as a much milder incarnation to the more aggressive "great Cesar's ghost!" Editor-in-Chief. Characters such as Jimmy Olsen and Superman's traditional arch-enemy Lex Luthor are nowhere to be seen. One of Superman's lesser-known support characters makes an appearance in this movie, Professor Emil Hamilton, played by Richard Schiff, appears in a few pivotal scenes. Coincidentally, Man of Steel was released over Father's Day weekend, not surprising since the story revolves heavily around Superman's father figures: Jor-El and John Kent. Not so much in Costner's presence as his often cryptic fatherly advice is subverted significantly by Russell Crowe's stiff scenes.
While there are many differences with the original classic Superman, both in comics and movies, this version presents the audience with a much more realistic view of the Superman story. With its strong elements of science-fiction and fantasy, Man of Steel feels very grounded in reality, addressing what our world would be like if there was someone who had superpowers and how would he use them. Stylistically, the scenes of Krypton borrow heavily from the 1980's comic designs of John Byrne with a little bit of James Cameron's Avatar thrown in (Jor-El riding atop a 4-winged dragon into battle!). While the technology of Krypton has a much more "organic" style in this one as opposed to the original shiny, crystalline structure of the original movies.
As for the redesign of the costume; this has more in common with the new comics than tradition. His new, somewhat-darker and streamlined costume, sans outside underwear, has created a lot of controversy. Some issues with the movies over-the-top action and particularly with its over-use of the "shaky-cam" and featuring scenes of ultra-destruction have been panned. Some may criticize that Man of Steel has too much violence and destruction, most don't seem to realize that this IS what a super-hero comic book is all about! Finally, we get to see Superman in an all-out super-fight with an actual super-villain and all the chaos that comes with it! One of the oddest features of the movie comes from its obligatory usage of product-placement. Everything from Sears, 7-11, IHOP and U-Haul are featured in this film. In one of the major fight scenes between Superman and Faora-Ul (Antje Traue), Zod's right-hand woman, takes place primarily in an IHOP! This is not a new-concept in movies, or even superhero movies, as there has always been products featured in movies. Even the original 1978 Superman featured a very commercial-like scene with a box of Cheerios on the Kent's breakfast table. Man of Steel may not be the "best" Superman movie in the last 35 years, but it is better than the last attempt and it certainly tries harder than some of DC Comics previous attempts (i.e. Green Lantern) to bring super-powered superheroes to life.
Man of Steel is an impressive, equally entertaining and enjoyable movie experience. Unlike some of the other Summer superhero blockbusters like the inadequate Iron Man 3 and especially laughable special-effects driven disasters like Star Trek Into Darkness. Even after 75 years, Superman still manages to inspire and entertain each new generation. Superman lives on! Although he may change along the way, like in the comics with DC Comics' recent "New 52!" line, the basic spirit of Superman stays true as continues to fight for "truth, justice, and the American way!"

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Music Review: Black Sabbath - 13

BLACK SABBATH, the originators of Heavy Metal...are BACK! Returning after 18 years since the release of their last studio album, Forbidden (1995) and since the reunions with both Ozzy Osbourne  and Ronnie James Dio, also during their brief incarnation as Heaven & Hell (2006-2010, after the untimely death of Dio). Now, three of the original members have reunited (again!) to bring Black Sabbath "back from the dead" with their nineteenth studio album, 13! While many call this album a reunion (although Black Sabbath has "reunited" several times since 1997) this is not a full reunion since it is without founding member and drummer Bill Ward, who left Black Sabbath, saying that he "failed to reach an agreement regarding his contract" in February 2012.  Legendary metal producer Rick Rubin, who is known for his "idiosyncratic hands-off way of producing", wanted to create the same vibe as the first Sabbath record drawing upon the raw and natural sound of that album. 13 also features drummer Brad Wilk from Rage Against The Machine and Audioslave. While the standard album only features 8 tracks, the special deluxe edition has 11 tracks included with a bonus CD. The album is also available in a "Super Deluxe Box Set" which includes a DVD and vinyl. There is little or no explanation for the name of the album since 13 is in fact the 19th studio album from Black Sabbath although some suggest because it was released in 2013, also coincidentally since Sabbath performed on the season 13 finale of CSI. As for the design of the album, the artwork was created by Zip Design in London who commissioned sculptor Spencer Jenkins to create an 8 foot tall "13" made from wicker, which was then set on fire in the Buckinghamshire countryside. The image was shot by photographer Jonathan Knowles. The first single from 13, "God Is Dead?", is a slow-paced, deep, yet somewhat thought-provoking song, which hearkens back to the early "War Pigs" style Black Sabbath. The second single and first track of the album, "End of the Beginning", a very old-school-like Sabbath song, was featured on a recent episode of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation for publicity. With songs such as "Loner", "Age of Reason", "Live Forever" and "Damaged Soul", the signature Black Sabbath sound is apparent in both Iommi's accomplished guitar-work as well as Ozzy's well-known wailing vocals. The oddest song on the album would have to be "Zeitgeist" which uses a combination of acoustic guitar and bongos, which sounds an awful lot like "Planet Caravan" from Paranoid (1970). Another song which references an older Sabbath song is "Dear Father", while one of the heavier songs on the album, it has a curious outro featuring the sounds of a thunderstorm and bells, not unlike the infamous intro to their namesake song "Black Sabbath" from their first album. Also included in the deluxe version of the album are three extra tracks: "Methademic", "Peace of Mind", and "Pariah". Following the release of the album, the band will set out on a world tour beginning this summer in the U.S., followed by shows in South America and Europe later in the year.
Since their formation in 1968, Black Sabbath has been THE most original, influential, and yet controversial heavy metal band in the world!
Iommi, Osbourne & Butler

The original founding members included Tony Iommi on guitar, Geezer Butler on bass guitar, Bill Ward on drums, and of course, Ozzy Osbourne on vocals. With their first two albums, their self-titled debut Black Sabbath, and Paranoid released in 1970, Black Sabbath immediately took the rock n' roll world by storm. Shortly after the release of their 1978 album Never Say Die, Ozzy was fired from the band and replaced by former Rainbow singer Dio with Heaven & Hell (1980), who then left the band in 1982, and respectively both singers went on to pursue  successful solo careers. Afterwards, former Deep Purple vocalist Ian Gillan sang for Black Sabbath for the album Born Again (1983).
Throughout its tumultuous history, Black Sabbath has been through a number of lineup changes including singers, but one constant has remained, lead guitarist Tony Iommi, who has been the driving force of the band for over 40 years. This fact became an important factor back in May of 2009, when Ozzy filed a lawsuit over the trademarking of the Black Sabbath name and logo, which ended in June 2010. Many were skeptic when in 2011 it was announced that Black Sabbath would be reuniting yet again and recording a new album. However the tour and album was put on hold due to Iommi being diagnosed with lymphoma in 2012 and is continuing treatments. Knowing Black Sabbath's history, who knows how long this "reunion" will last. Evidence from Ozzy's recent troubles with his wife and his admitted re-addiction to drugs is a sure sign that we have not heard the last of Black Sabbath's troubles and it will only be a matter of time before they either disband completely or just get too old to do this anymore! Either way, 13 is an impressive album and a treat for any long-time Black Sabbath fan or even new ones who can have the opportunity to rediscover just what true heavy metal is all about!
 "I don't know what's down the road. I just do what I can and enjoy it while I can. No one knew if Sabbath would ever put out another record. So that's done. And now the next thing is to do a great show. We don't have to prove anything. We just have to go out, play our music and enjoy what we do. - Tony Iommi, Guitar World, July 2013

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Comic Book Review: Astro City #1

After three years of "patiently" waiting, I'm happy to announce that one of my all-time favorite comic books has returned: ASTRO CITY! Now under the imprint of DC Comics/Vertigo, which specializes in more adult-oriented comic book titles, Astro City returns with an all-new ongoing series! After the end of the "Dark Age" (2005-2010) storyline and the Silver Agent two-parter (2010), the DC Comics/WildStorm imprint shutdown and unfortunately, writer/creator Kurt Busiek became gravely ill and had to have gallbladder surgery! Since that time, the creative team has been working on new stories Now under a new publishing imprint and as Busiek has almost fully recovered, the story of Astro City, it's heroes, villains and people can continue! With Astro City #1, "Through Open Doors, Part One", we are introduced to some new characters including: The Broken Man, who is our narrator for this particular chapter, a bizarre, David Bowie-esque, other-dimensional, being who guides us on our story. Another is the unusually, cute American Chibi (see Chibi), every anime fanboy's dream. Finally, there is Telseth, a Jack Kirby-like cosmic explorer, who appears off the coast of Astro City from a huge, Gozerian doorway!
Alternate Cover
Along with these new characters, there are also a few of our old Astro City favorites and regulars such as Samaritan, Winged Victory, The Confessor (my favorite!), and The Honor Guard. Like several Astro City stories, this particular chapter also focuses on the ordinary people who live and work in Astro City. One such individual is Ben Pullam, who also appeared in an earlier story during Astro City's Homage Comics years.
Astro City is written by Kurt Busiek, with covers by Alex Ross, and art by Brent Anderson. Since it's debut in 1995, Astro City has presented its readers with a world unlike any other. Astro City is not exactly a story of what superheroes would be like in the real world, but rather making a superhero world realistic. If you are new to Astro City, or even a long-time fan like me, be sure to pick up the first issue of this new series. I hope others will enjoy this unique look at the superhero-filled world of Astro City as much as I do and I also hope this series will be successful and will continue on "like the gleaming rocket icon on top of the 'Astro-Bank' Tower, Astro City is at the heart of America's hopes and dreams for a brighter tomorrow!" (Astro City: Life in the Big City)

 "ASTRO CITY is art, and it is good art. It creates something - a place, perhaps, or a medium, or just a tone of voice - in which good stories are told." - Neil Gaiman

Monday, June 3, 2013

Disney's Star Wars Weekends 2013

This weekend I had the opportunity to go to Walt Disney World for their annual Star Wars Weekends at Disney's Hollywood Studios! This is the third time I've experienced this event (the first was in 2008 and the last was in 2011), unfortunately I was unable to attend last year, but this year's celebration was extra special since it was the 30th anniversary of Return of the JediStar Wars Weekends is a month long celebration of Star Wars featuring special guests, celebrities, characters and entertainment! This year's special guests included hosts James Arnold Taylor (the voice of Obi-Wan Kenobi and Plo-Koon in Star Wars: The Clone Wars and Ashley Eckstein, the voice of Ahsoka Tano from Star Wars: The Clone Wars. Also featured this year are: Ray Park (Darth Maul – Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace), Jeremy Bulloch (Boba Fett – Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi), Dee Bradley Baker (voice of Captain Rex – Star Wars: The Clone Wars), Warwick Davis (Wicket the Ewok – Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi), Jim Cummings (voice of Hondo Ohnaka – Star Wars: The Clone Wars), Tim Rose (Admiral Ackbar – Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi), Sam Witwer (voice of Darth Maul – Star Wars: The Clone Wars), Billy Dee Williams (Lando Calrissian – Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi), Peter Mayhew (Chewbacca – Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi) and Tom Kane (voice of Yoda – Star Wars: The Clone Wars)!
Warwick Davis
As I was only able to attend the third weekend this time, I was however able to meet and get autographs from Tim rose and Sam Witwer. I have met other guests including Anthony Daniels, Warwick Davis, James Arnold Taylor and Ashley Eckstein in previous years.
Star Wars Weekends continues to grow not only in activities and special guests, but also in attendance. Many fans, both young and old, flock to Star Wars Weekends on regular basis. While some of the more interactive activities are meant for younger audiences, such as the "Padawan Mind Challenge" and the "Hyperspace Hoopla!", both hosted by Snig & Oopla at the Event Stage. The whole event starts off with the "Legends of the Force" Motorcade and Celebrity Welcome which features a parade including all the Disney/Star Wars characters, special guests and celebrities and also members of the 501st: "Vader's Fist", Florida Garrison and The Rebel Legion. One of the biggest draws at Star Wars Weekends is of course all the exclusive merchandise and collectibles available only at "Darth's Mall" along with photo opportunities with Star Wars characters and this year features an almost life-size Rancor! One of the most popular (and expensive) collectibles available at Star Wars Weekends is the "Carbon-Freeze Me" and a personalized Stormtrooper available at the D-Tech Me Experience Star Wars Weekends also features several entertaining shows for fans of the Clone Wars show from Cartoon Network including "Behind the Force: Star Wars Voices" hosted by Ashley Eckstein, along with "Obi-Wan and Beyond" and "Stars of the Saga" hosted by James Arnold Taylor. The most entertaining show at this year's Star Wars Weekends has to be "An Ewok's Tale-My Short Story" starring Warwick Davis. In it he tells his "short" life-story including how he got the parts as Wicket, the Ewok in Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi, Willow and the Harry Potter series.
The Rancor!
As popularity for Star Wars never fails to grow even after 36 years, despite the recent controversy over Disney buying Lucasfilm from George Lucas, the upcoming release of Episode VII directed by J.J. Abrams in 2015, not to mention the cancellation of the immensely popular Clone Wars show from Cartoon Network and the upcoming new animated series Star Wars Rebels on Disney Channel XD in 2014! It is an exciting time to be a Star Wars fan and it is both a pleasure and a relief to have annual events like Star Wars Weekends and Star Wars Celebration where fans can come together and revel in all things Star Wars! I hope to attend next year's Star Wars Weekends and hope to see you there as well! "May the Force Be With You!" and See you next year!