Imperium is available on VOD

FBI agent Nate Foster (Daniel Radcliffe) is a total nerd who gets roped into going undercover as a skinhead, convinced by a colleague (Toni Collette) that white supremacy groups pose just as much of a threat, if not more, to homeland security as radical Islamic groups. She makes a good point. Early on she asserts people like Timothy McVeigh aren’t actually crazy even though it’s comforting to dismiss them as such. What’s scarier is people like him can’t be spotted in a crowd, unlike the low-level street thugs you see demonstrating in parades and redirecting the nation’s outrage away from the deeper problems.

The film suggests the outspoken hatemongers you see stirring up the controversy on TV and the internet aren’t necessarily the ones you should worry about, but we should instead focus on the smart ones who hide behind this veil of misdirection. It’s on the front line of unwitting pawns that Foster initially infiltrates the group, shaving his head and getting a pride tattoo. He quickly learns there are many layers to the real life conspiracy. The movement is meticulously designed with its hierarchy of street warriors, PR specialists, conventions, and militias. Foster is shocked to learn that his intelligence—the one thing he thought he had going against him—is actually what helps him advance within the dark network.

My first reaction to Imperium’s marketing was it seemed just a little too gimmicky. The movie sites were saying, “See Harry Potter go undercover and fight skinheads!” The trailer felt a little too much like The Departed, which I think was intentional. Meanwhile, Daniel Radcliffe’s performance, when taken out of the context of the actual movie, seemed entirely too suspicious to work, at least in the glimpses we got from the trailer.

His acting, however, is the best part of the movie. I’m a fan of the Harry Potter series, yet the more I see Radcliffe, the more I forget he ever played the boy magician. I think it’s clear he’s not trying to distance himself from his child star image, he’s simply doing it by being the real deal—an authentic actor who doesn’t feel too entitled to fully dedicate himself to the process. We’ve seen lots of stars play undercover agents, but have you ever seen one look like he was on the edge of breaking at any moment? When we see guys like Johnny Depp and Leonardo DiCaprio going undercover, they’re playing street-smart guys who happen to be good at turning the acting on or off as needed. Radcliffe is playing a guy who doesn’t have that particular skill set.

Meanwhile Toni Collette is great as always. Tracy Letts, playing a white pride radio personality (think Rush Limbaugh, Alex Jones, etc.) makes me wonder why the Killer Joe playwright doesn’t act more than he currently does. My only minor complaint is that although the movie doesn’t feel like Donnie Brasco or The Departed for the most part, there are certainly moments which seem a little too familiar. No, it’s not as good as those two films, and maybe not as good as American History X (though I haven’t seen it since it came out), but I did watch five movies this weekend and it was easily my favorite of the bunch.

An unusual creative decision in a movie like this is the reduced role of guns. This isn’t an action movie, nor does it want to be one. It isn’t going to have a montage of contracted assassinations or culminate in a big, bloody shootout. Imperium feels like it might be something that happens all the time, which is probably the most chilling aspect of it.

* * *

Speaking of Tracy Letts, he also appears in Elvis & Nixon, which stars Michael Shannon and Kevin Spacey as the title characters. It’s by no means a bad movie and you can currently stream it on Amazon Video. If you’re no stranger to the quality of HBO Films, it’s right along those lines in terms of production value. I’d describe it as pleasant, but not great, and having seen at least a dozen different actors portray Elvis, I always wonder how you can possibly play the guy without going over the top.

Doctor Strange… er, uh, Mordrid (1992) [Midnight Movie]

Although the premise certainly enticed me, I distinctly remember seeing Doctor Mordrid at the video store a million years ago, perhaps even picking up the box, but passing it up anyway. To be honest, I didn’t really want to watch it today, either, but Doctor Strange is coming out later this year and I’m reasonably hyped. So I guess it’s time to check out Doctor Mordrid, which entered pre-production as an official Doctor Strange film until directors Albert and Charles Band let their option expire.

That didn’t stop them from making the movie anyway (I wouldn’t expect any less from Full Moon). The character names which would’ve gotten ’em sued have been changed. What we’re left with is a movie about an alchemist (he’s insistent he’s an alchemist, not a wizard) from another dimension. He’s in charge of protecting the film’s MacGuffin, which is known as the Philosopher’s Stone… hey, maybe Full Moon should sue J.K. Rowling!

I’m legally obliged to inform you this is NOT the Sanctum Sanctorum

The “alchemist’s” name is Anton Mordrid. He and his brother Kabal were taught all manner of wizardry when they were children. Unfortunately, Kabal is breakin’ bad now that he’s all grown up and he plans to unleash demons from hell… or something. I didn’t really follow that part, but it’s enough to know that if he succeeds Earth is kind of fucked. Probably. Anyway, when he arrives on our planet he leaves a rash of murders in his wake, which snags the attention of Samantha Hunt, the policewoman who just happens to live in Mordrid’s apartment building.

What develops between Mordrid and Samantha is one of the mildest romances in movie history. You won’t even know they’re attracted to each other until the very last scene in the movie—and even then you won’t really know for sure. Yet what Mordrid suggests to her, out of the clear blue, is the equivalent of popping the question to a neighbor you occasionally see on the sidewalk. I love Jeffrey Combs to death, but his chemistry with actress Yvette Nipar is nonexistent. Considering they appear quite at ease with one another in this behind-the-scenes video, I’m not sure when or how the ball was dropped, but I suspect it has something to do with Full Moon’s speedy production schedule.

Kabal, played by Brian Thompson (you’ve seen him before in movies, but I’ll be damned if I can think of a single one off the top of my head), is just another bad guy. Yeah, he’s evil, but he’s not extraordinary evil and, frankly, he talks way too much to be effective. For some reason his presence gives me more of a Warlock vibe than a Doctor Strange one. Again, here’s another element that could have worked, but it doesn’t.

Look, Full Moon made a ton of movies. They’ve managed to produce a lot more greatness than you would expect from a fledgling studio, so you can’t be surprised when they make a dud like this one. The directors, at that point in their careers, were such experienced filmmakers you can’t even laugh at the movie in a so-bad-it’s-good way. Technically, it’s a well-made film, it just happens to stink. Even if you go into it seeking the hokey factor, you’re bound to be disappointed.

Starship Troopers was a terrible adaptation?

“If I tell the world that a right-wing, fascist way of doing things doesn’t work, no one will listen to me. So I’m going to make a perfect fascist world: everyone is beautiful, everything is shiny, everything has big guns and fancy ships, but it’s only good for killing fucking bugs!” — Paul Verhoeven

I remember thinking the marketing which led up to Starship Troopers’ release was awful. At first glance the cast looked like it belonged in a teenybopper drama. Meanwhile the over-the-top macho mentalities didn’t come across well in the 30-second TV spots, which didn’t have enough time to convey the fact the filmmakers were indeed in on the joke. My overall preconception of the film was this: it looked like a straight-to-video movie which somehow wormed its way into theaters.

Yet I still went to see it on opening night, shuffling into the theater with the lowest of expectations. I had nothing better to do on a Friday back then. There were maybe six other people there including, I think, a local film critic who occasionally shone a flashlight on his notepad and repeatedly touched the illumination dial on his watch. He didn’t look too happy.

You’ll remember in Paul Verhoeven’s Robocop that the narrative is occasionally interrupted by satirical advertisements and news segments, as if the film has absurd commercial breaks baked right into it. (It pains me to think we can expect nothing nearly as creative, original, or daring from anything coming out this summer.) Likewise, Starship Troopers opens with war propaganda, simultaneously establishing the tone for its irreverent attitude and setting up the plot’s simple premise: it’s the future and humans really hate aliens. In fact, humans hate aliens so much that young men and women everywhere can’t wait to fight the bastards.

That’s when we’re introduced to Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien) and his high school friends. The film, quite ingeniously, feels like a teenybopper drama for the first thirty minutes or so, but only so it can jerk the rug out from under our heroes’ feet. Rico has a hot girlfriend (Denise Richards), a hunky rival (Patrick Muldoon), a bad girl acquaintance named Dizzy (Dina Meyer), and an ultra-nerdy best friend played by Neil Patrick Harris, whose casting in an R-rated romp was wonderfully scandalous. Remember, he’d yet to shed the Doogie Howser persona we knew so well.

There’s even a cheesy prom scene which hints at what’s wrong with Rico’s life: it’s too sheltered and idyllic for him to have any inkling what he and his friends are actually signing up for when they join the Mobile Infantry. Rico doesn’t get his first hint until he turns in his papers to a double-amputee who assures him, “You’ve made the right choice, son. Mobile Infantry made me the man I am today.”

Rico’s girlfriend is sent off to the space navy, his brainy best friend gets absorbed by the science and technology sector, and Rico himself ends up in one of the toughest squads in existence. (His hardcore drill sergeant is played by the criminally underrated Clancy Brown, who I love to see in genre movies, not only because he takes them so seriously. The same can be said of Michael Ironside, who plays an even bigger part in the story.) There Rico makes new friends for the first time in his adult life, including Jake Busey, whose maniacal appearance instantly washes away the Dawson’s Creek vibe from the earlier portion of the picture.

Just when Rico’s finally beginning to gel with his new life, who of all people should suddenly transfer to his squad? Why, it’s bad girl Dizzy, who has been pursuing Rico since high school. Seems suspicious, don’t it? Here’s something I really love about Starship Troopers: in practically every movie in which the leading character is pursued by two love interests, he or she always ends up with the wholesome, slightly less attractive option. Not our boy Rico. Soon after his girlfriend dumps him via email, Rico hooks up with Dizzy. Good job, Rico.

I can’t even put into words why I find this subplot, like so much of the rest of the movie, so endearing, but you’ll notice I’ve said practically nothing about the action and the science fiction. Starship Troopers is a lot deeper than that and yet I totally get why so many people don’t like it. Different strokes, folks.

The score by Basil Poledouris is as rousing as anything he’s ever done (and he’s done some of the best) while the special effects hold up even though they relied on a lot of early CGI. In fact, I’m a lot more convinced by the effects now then I was back then, when I was still looking for any reason to hate the movie. As for the action, it’s exciting and well-paced, and playfully violent as per Verhoeven’s style.

Yes, the movie’s message is about as obvious as it can get. I scratch my head whenever people suggest that’s a bad thing. I think the bluntness seems quite in line with its comedic aspirations, almost in a Mad Magazine kind of way. Besides, when was the last time you saw a hundred-million dollar movie which had the balls to be about anything of significance? This is not lowest-common denominator kind of entertainment here, it’s just masquerading as such.

Those of you who suggest it goes against everything Heinlein stood for seem to be underestimating how complex, politically and socially, Heinlein actually was in his long career. This is the guy who also wrote Stranger in a Strange Land. Meanwhile, the argument the film doesn’t do the novel justice is an understandable complaint. I kind of agree (Like, where’s the power armor, dude?), it’s just not a very good argument for me, personally. Minority Report is another adaptation which shares little in common with its source material, but I loved that movie, too, so how can I complain?

I think it’s every bit as good as Robocop and Total Recall. I’d be hard pressed to choose my favorite out of the three. We just don’t get movies like this anymore.

No Man’s Sky might be the most disappointing launch of the year [PC]

  • Current hardware: i5-4690k @ 3.50 GHz, GTX 970, 16gb RAM

No Man’s Sky launched at noon today in my timezone. I got a good three hours out of it before it began giving me major problems. (Naturally, Steam only lets you refund it if you return it before two hours of playtime have elapsed, which means I’m fucked there.) I was having occasional stuttering and FPS drops from the get-go, but for the most part it was playable.

Then, three hours into it, my CPU overheated and the PC shut down. No other game has ever done this to my current setup. I applied a number of fixes from various forums, booted it back up, and tried again. Thirty minutes later: roughly the same problem. This time my computer locked up entirely as the speakers croaked. I’m reluctant to try again even after they release another patch.

Technical issues aside, here are my first impressions about the gameplay itself: so far, it’s nowhere near as fun or polished as Rebel Galaxy. It’s not as satisfying as Elite: Dangerous. The ship controls are shit and I don’t see them improving at all, whether you jump through the hoops required to make a joystick work or not. I honestly wouldn’t bother trying. You can’t even pitch the nose down, as if that makes any fucking sense, while the dumbed down landing and docking procedures would be forgivable in a mobile game, but not this one.

This could have been a decent indie game if Sony hadn’t gotten their hands on it. I have a feeling the developers knew damn good and well it wasn’t a $60 title before the corporation stuck its proboscises into their brains. It’s the same way Facebook managed to corrupt Palmer Luckey and his Oculus VR platform. This is not a fun game at launch and I don’t see it getting much better, although I had a little more hope for it before my technical issues began.

Although I don’t think the dev team is entirely to blame (who would refuse Sony’s money?), I can’t remember the last time I was this disappointed. I’ll probably try it again after a future patch, but so far it looks like a major dud.

Here’s a big list of space games you should play instead of No Man’s Sky:

Empryrion – Galactic Survival $19.99

Despite being in early access, Empryion has just about everything you wanted from NMS, but weren’t actually going to get, including real multiplayer, base-building, and satisfying planet-hopping. The only reason I took a break from this one was to give it more time to ripen. It’s tough, challenging, and building your own spaceships is extremely rewarding. If you like supporting developers who actually take early access seriously, this is your game. It’s rough around the edges, but the freedom more than makes up for it.

Eve Online $19.99 (plus monthly subscription)

Eve has one of the friendliest, most helpful communities in the world. It’s dry, but that’s just the nature of this variety of science fiction. (If you love hard SF, you’re probably going to enjoy this.) The only thing I dislike about it is the fact it lends itself better to a mouse and keyboard than my joystick setup. I’m allergic to paying monthly subscriptions, too.

FTL: Faster Than Light $9.99

Deceptively simple at first glance, FTL is more fun per minute than NMS is per hour. If you wanted NMS because you like emergent stories, this is the one you should get. It’s insane how attached you get to your crew members, all of whom are likely to die at any minute.

Kerbal Space Program $39.99

I think everybody knows how good KSP is by now. It’s perhaps the greatest early access title in history. Despite the cartoonish characters, it’s by far the most realistic space simulator on this list. The joy of making it to “the mun” (or successfully rescuing a character who you stranded there) is beyond words.

Rebel Galaxy $19.99

I was skeptical of simplifying what I like so much about Elite: Dangerous and games of that nature, but Rebel Galaxy is tons of fun. In fact, if you haven’t played Eve or Elite (or you didn’t get what all the fuss was about) think of RG as a kind of entry point to those games. A gamepad is a must, so it’s a great option for couch gaming, either via Steam Link or playing on a console. The NPC interaction in this game is leagues better than what I experienced in NMS, and the combat is naval style, meaning you mostly fire from and at the broadsides of ships.

RimWorld $29.99

Okay, this one doesn’t exactly let you travel through space, but it’s one of my favorite games in years. You will die. Your colony will die. It might be best for those who expected a science fiction flavored challenge out of NMS, which I certainly never saw in my admittedly short time with it. I didn’t ever feel like I was in danger once in NMS.

Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion $39.99

I can’t believe Sins is still $39.99, but it’s probably my favorite 4X RTS this side of Red Alert 2. This one will scratch your itch for deep, tactical gameplay.

Space Engineers $24.99

I love Space Engineers and they’ve been slowly but steadily folding survival elements into it. If you were drawn to NMS because you were drawn to the insinuation you would be able to do just about anything, this is a much better bet.

Starbound $14.99

I really enjoyed my brief time in Starbound, particularly in multiplayer, and it offers better planet exploration, looting, and crafting than NMS at the moment. I also think it has a better sense of wonder.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go play Destiny for the first time.

Come on, Suicide Squad isn’t THAT bad

So I saw Suicide Squad last Friday with a group of four. I was the one who liked it. Sort of.
Look, I hear the criticisms loud and clear, I really do. The RLM guys make an excellent case that the film’s shoddy pacing and patchwork tone is the result of executive meddling. In retrospect, I think they’re right. I just didn’t think it was nearly as apparent as it was in the theatrical version of Batman v. Superman Dawn of Justice. (Yes, I saw the extended cut of Dawn. I agree it’s a much better picture than what we saw in theaters, but its everything-but-the-kitchen-sink ending remained irredeemable in my opinion.)
Suicide Squad is getting almost as much shit as Dawn of Justice. I have no idea why some people seem to think it’s as bad as Dawn. It’s not. Like, at all. I wanted to punch the projector when I saw Dawn. I had a reasonably good time when I saw Squad.

There were things I hated about Suicide Squad, too. Minor spoiler: when Batman shows up to capture Deadshot at the beginning of the movie, Batman hides behind his daughter like a coward so Deadshot won’t shoot. (Never mind it’s already been established that Deadshot can ricochet bullets into his targets’ heads.) I get that this is supposed to be a more reckless Batman than we saw in Nolan’s films, but come on. Would a guy who’s haunted by the fact he saw his parents murdered in an alley show up to potentially murder a guy in front of his daughter in an alley?
Then there’s (another minor spoiler) the way they bring Joker and Harley Quinn together, only to concoct one of the dumbest ways to split them up again mere seconds later. And don’t get me started on the Joker. I liked him more than I thought I would, but, uh… yeah. Jared Leto isn’t one of my favorite people and the reports of his behavior on set make me dislike him as a person more. Why are method actors always such douche bags?
So my least favorite thing about the movie? The studio billed it as this irreverent, Dirty Dozen-esque film about bad guys, but the characters aren’t all that bad. Sure, you don’t want to invite these guys to a dinner party or anything, but Batman probably caused more property damage and murdered more people in Dawn than the entire squad combined. The film plays it way too safe for the bad-to-the-bone image it wishes to project.
Despite everything I didn’t like (such as Diablo’s fiery emoticons or the average Hollywood “humor”) there were aspects I did like. I’m just having a harder time putting them into words. Let’s put it this way: I really liked Swamp Thing movies when I was a kid and something about the hokey monsters in Suicide Squad reminds me of the cheese in those movies. So yeah, a lot of what I liked probably wasn’t intentional, but it was there nonetheless.
Although Harley Quinn and Joker are trying way too hard—way, way too hard—the performances aren’t terrible. Will Smith is effortless at playing Will Smith, which isn’t a complaint because that’s the entire point of Will Smith, and I was surprised to find Joel Kinnaman’s Rick Flagg had a much more substantial role than the trailers would have us believe. In fact, he’s probably my favorite part of the entire movie because instead of being an expendable military stooge, he’s actually the one grounding the group in reality. Katana is another comic book character who makes the transition to the screen surprisingly well. Although I want to see a lot more of her, I’m afraid her own movie would probably sap all the mystique out of her.
Color correction and lighting issues aside, I liked the look of the movie as it’s colorful without going full Shumacher. Joker’s crazed henchmen are awesome, but underused. It’s in all these little superficial moments you catch brief glimpses of the auteur before the corporate side of things fucked everything up.
At this point we should probably consider the theatrical versions as extended trailers of the DCU movies we’ll get on video a few months later. I’m looking forward to seeing the movie David Ayer made. It looks pretty good.

The Disaster Artist [Book Review]

Here are some facts about Tommy Wiseau:
  • He shot The Room on film and video using side-by-side cameras. Why? Who knows.
  • He built the infamous rooftop set in a parking lot despite having access to at least two real-life rooftops. 
  • He built the alley set in a building which had a perfectly usable alley outside.
  • He’s mega rich.
  • Whenever questioned about his bizarre creative decisions, he often replies, “No Mickey Mouse bullshit.”
  • He maintained a billboard of his face on Highland Avenue for five years at five grand a month.

When it was clear Hollywood wasn’t going to bust down his door and give him the role of a lifetime, Tommy Wiseau decided to take matters into his own hands. He wrote, directed, and produced The Room, which is today considered one of the greatest bad movies of all time. This thing has such a cult following that James Franco purchased the rights to make a movie about it, which will feature Franco himself as Wiseau, Dave Franco, Seth Rogen, Hannibal Buress, Kate Upton, Zac Efron, Alison Brie, Sharon Stone, and Bryan Cranston.

Franco’s movie is based on The Disaster Artist, a 2013 book by Greg Sestero, The Room’s co-star. In it, Sestero details the friendship he forged with Wiseau. It quickly becomes apparent the reclusive filmmaker is a deeply guarded person despite his dreams of megastar fame. Whenever he does open up about his past, the contradictory stories are unlikely at best.
That’s what makes Wiseau such an interesting character: the mystery surrounding him. To this day people are still trying to piece together the clues about his origins. He’s kind of like the Jack the Ripper of independent filmmakers, a guy who stormed out of obscurity and plunked down the cash to make himself a star. If the day ever comes when we know everything about him, the fun will fizzle.
For now, nobody seems to know who Wiseau is or how he amassed his absurd fortune. Not only did The Room cost six million dollars to make, but Wiseau maintained homes in both San Francisco and Los Angeles, the latter of which he hadn’t visited in so long he couldn’t remember its location or the code to the alarm system (1234, as it turns out).
The story is mostly about Sestero—because there’s so much we’ll never know about Wiseau—and his own quest as a Hollywood hopeful. It’s at an acting class where he first meets Wiseau, who is last picked when the students have to pair up. Sestero, at the time, thinks Wiseau’s madness is charming. Despite the protests of friends and family, who suspect Wiseau is either mafioso or the Zodiac Killer, Sestero agrees to move out to LA with his new buddy. 
That’s when things begin to get really weird. 
When Wiseau meets Sestero’s concerned mother for the first time, as the men are headed out to LA, she warns Wiseau not to hurt her son. Sestero writes:

I put my hands over my eyes. The worst thing Tommy could do in response to this request, I thought, would be to chuckle creepily. 

“I would not,” Tommy said, chuckling creepily.

Ha ha ha, what a story, Greg.

The Disaster Artist is so funny at times my laughter woke my girlfriend up. Most readers will probably come to this book seeking the same answers I did, hoping for an insight into a bizarrely structured mind. Yet by the end of the book you won’t know much more about why Tommy Wiseau made the movie he did. If the book had shed light on these matters, The Room, and Wiseau himself, would lose the allure.

I’m just glad the story behind the scenes is as fascinating and curious as the movie itself. There are a lot more questions than answers and it makes it all the more fun. The best answer you’re going to get? No Mickey Mouse bullshit.

I really loved this book. I’ve heard the audio version is a riot if you’ve got the extra money to spare.