Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Avengers (2012): Not So Good but (Un)surprisingly Successful

The Avengers
The Avengers has been the "biggest" thing in the cinema lately. It made a billion dollars in no time and it continued to be a box office success after that. It broke several box office records. It is in the top 50 movies in IMDb's Top 250 chart (based on user ratings). It dwarfed every other (3D) film released in the weeks after its initial appearance. And it is still very popular. All these suggest The Avengers should be a great motion picture. But is it actually so good in reality?

If you've seen some of the previous Marvel's creations (like Thor or Captain America: The First Avenger) you've probably already had an idea about the story you could expect from The Avengers. The expelled from Asgard Loki threatens the existence of the Earth and the only force that could stop him and his army is a team assembled from super humans and called "The Avengers". The team includes Iron Man, Captain America, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, Black Widow and Hawkeye: a dream for every comic fan.

The existence of several comics born superheroes is the main advantage of this film. It attracts the fanbase of each of the characters thus greatly increasing the potential audience compared with the single character movies. As we've mentioned before here, Americans are devoted lovers of comic book films but in this particular case the rest of the world help significantly for the enormous box office figures of The Avengers as well by adding a revenue of $800 millions (and probably more later). The question that arises in this regard is if Marvel had joined a few more heroes to the team whether they could top Avatar or at least Titanic in terms of profit.

Most of the principal actors in the movie perform their usual roles in their usual way (especially Robert Downey Jr.) and the most non-repetitive performance comes from Mark Ruffalo who is the new Hulk. Jeremy Renner plays a new character, Hawkeye, which together with Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow is among the not so supernatural part of the crew. Johansson is the almost mandatory feminine addition to the group although I think Cobie Smulders (in the role of Agent Maria Hill) is more attractive in this particular movie.

The story of The Avengers is rather weak. There's nothing interesting in the plot, which is only a device to employ our well-known superheroes. Some of the former films about Iron Man or Hulk were in fact more fascinating. Loki is not a very convincing villain and does not help to improve the movie. And there are enough inexplicable filmmaking decisions as for example, the Hulk's inconsistent ability to be in control of himself.

The use of 3D is also absolutely unnecessary. The movie is post-converted to 3D and does not really benefit from the 3D technology. The only advantage is for the film's producers in the form of higher ticket prices. Speaking of 3D films even the recent Men in Black III and Prometheus that have been far less successful in cinemas actually offer more curious stories and overall appeal despite also not benefiting from 3D and having their own flaws.

This is not to say The Avengers is awful because it is a decent movie. But it's far from the quality one could expect having in mind all the hype surrounding it along with the record-breaking news and huge box office success. And I'm not talking here about the virtues of some universally praised classic films. The Avengers is far even from the quality of not so well established contemporary movies like Avatar and Titanic.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Yojimbo (1961): A Classic Samurai Adventure by Akira Kurosawa

Yojimbo (Yôjinbô) is probably one of the most influential films by Japanese director Akira Kurosawa. It's a well-made film with solid acting, direction and cinematography. Over the years, Yojimbo has influenced many movies and filmmakers. Some of those have been an almost exact remakes of Kurosawa's film, e.g., Sergio Leone's A Fistful of Dollars (Per un pugno di dollari) with Clint Eastwood and Walter Hill's Last Man Standing starring Bruce Willis. Others, like the more recent Lucky Number Slevin are not so close to the original but share some of its plot's elements. Apart from feature films, Yojimbo has influenced also other forms of entertainment like television series or variety shows but its greatest effect has been on filmmaking.

Yojimbo itself has been inspired by the western genre and especially John Ford's films. Some claim it is more or less based on Dashiell Hammett's novels Red Harvest and The Glass Key. This is to point that despite Yojimbo's story has not been entirely original, it has been told and filmed in a way that has made the movie hugely important for the future film creators.

The story of Yojimbo (meaning "bodyguard"), similar to Akira Kurosawa's own film Seven Samurai from 1954, is about a samurai and a town needing a kind of protection. A samurai with no name (Toshiro Mifune) who has no master comes to a town with two competing criminal gangs. He decides to stay and work for the gangs constantly changing sides in order to make more money and help the peaceful population by reducing the size of the gangs.

Kurosawa uses Toshiro Mifune's competent acting to establish a likeable character regardless of his restrained talking and hasty use of sword. The plot development also favors the samurai's attractiveness. Many of the other actors have previously worked with Kurosawa too thus the director knows them and directs them very well. In addition to the plot's resemblance to western movies, the cinematography also relies on many of the western genre common shots like the hero standing alone in a wide frame or showing dust clouds between the adversaries.

Most of the town (which actually looks like a small village) is never seen and this reinforces the impression that the only important entities in this place are the two hostile crime gangs. There is a man who announces the time as though to remind the time still hasn't stopped in the town. But then he also obeys the gangs.

Yojimbo is a black and white film which may not be to the taste of everyone. On the other hand, The Artist has proved recently there are many who are not put off just by the lack of color in a film. If it wasn't shot in black and white though Yojimbo would be a different movie. Masaru Sato's soundtrack is a great complement to the narrative and its distinctive melodies and sounds help for the creation of Yojimbo's specific atmosphere, as does the usual raining in Kurosawa's films.

Being one of Kurosawa's best efforts Yojimbo is a must for movie buffs. Despite not being loaded with plenty of action it sets the course for many future action films. And even if you are already familiar with the story, don't worry about your high-grade entertainment cause it's a pleasure to observe the details of Kurosawa's masterful filmmaking.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Dark Shadows (2012): Goth Meets Hippies

Dark Shadows
Familiar style. Familiar faces. Familiar themes. Times change, Tim Burton's films don't. Based on the cult TV show from the 60s of the same name, Tim Burton's latest film Dark Shadows is everything you probably expect from it: black humour, Johnny Depp, ghosts, Helena Bonham Carter, vampires, witches, hippies.

There is that peculiar vigour one can sense while watching a film made by people that had a great time doing it. Dark Shadows has some good gags, lots of cool references, some very clever shots and snappy lines all the time. Really, there is some hilarious stuff in there. Especially some scenes involving synthesizers, hippies, vampires and McDonald's. The period atmosphere is well done. Cinematographer Bruno Delbonnel does a good job. His excessive diffusion works well for the ghostly setting, removing texture from faces and making them ephemeral. The soundtrack adds some extra believability through the period's hit selection.

The cast ensemble is properly selected and does a pretty decent job. Which is even more notable, considering there isn't actually a real movie in Dark Shadows. Johnny Depp is his usual mannerism infested self. Eva Green is stunning as the steamy witch. Chloe Moretz has grown from an ass-kicking superhero kid to a kick-ass sour and grumpy Michelle Pfeiffer supernatural daughter (whoops, that was a spoiler). Jackie Earle Haley is quite funny as the only family servant. Bella Heathcote almost tricks you to think that she is the protagonist in the first 10 minutes after the starting credits. Christopher Lee appears as a random boat captain leader in a random scene and radiates "What-the-f*ck-am-I-doing-here?!" waves.

The story in Dark Shadows is basic, scenes are disjointed and sketchy, the end confrontation is cheap and uninspired, the dialogue is often abysmal and even its deliberate over-the-top self-awareness can't save it. Characters come to manifest some totally random traits. The characters themselves form the typical Tim Burton freak show, this time even employing Alice Cooper (in the role of Alice Cooper from the 70's) to seal that. There is no character development whatsoever (which isn't really a bad thing in this case).

Dark Shadows is really quite enjoyable, and it is hard to comprehend how something can go wrong. A two-century-old vampire, hippies, the 70's... Sounds like a win recipe. For a lot of people it will be good enough, indeed. Others may be unimpressed if the mood doesn't click with them. Precisely because there isn't any actual movie behind the stylish visuals and the lines exchanges. It looks like the filmmakers have had to include characters just because they exist in the original, which often renders them useless. Together with the above faults this results in a sense of wasted potential. Nevertheless, Tim Burton fans should give this a try. They most likely won't be disappointed.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

HostGator Affiliate Program: Strengthening the Scam Tendency

A couple of months ago I described here my experiences with the web hosting affiliate programs of FatCow, BlueHost and HostGator. Those were unpleasant experiences on their own but unfortunately there was a continuation and it was even more objectionable. This time only HostGator staff were involved but their actions were practically more fraudulent than before. So, here is a brief follow-up to the case with HostGator.

About 50 days after HostGator (non-automatically) credited the commission for a particular referral to my Commission Junction account they decided to revert it. Of course, an explanation was not provided so I asked them about the reason for this action. The answer I received was quite surprising (although whatever explanation would be surprising having in mind there should not be any good reason for cancelling this commission). They stated that the guy I had referred had been their existing customer and old customers were not able to generate commissions. This attempt would be a good one if I hadn't known the guy.

But actually, I had known my referral for tens of years and I knew that if he had a HostGator account he would tell me (not to mention that if he had a shared web hosting account, he wouldn't pay for a new one at all). He was not an old customer. He had paid for a couple of years in advance. He had an active website in this account and everything was as it should be per HostGator's terms of service. This time, it was pretty obvious that HostGator just tried to cheat me with a plain lie.

I wrote them back stating their explanation is simply not true cause I knew the guy. I expressed my dissatisfaction of their second try to avoid paying this particular commission as well as the lack of response to some of my previous emails. Well, apparently after seeing their scam attempt was not successful and I was in position to easily prove I was right, they did not continue in the "fraud" direction. Without any excuse they asked for my PayPal account in order to send my commission there. My subsequent question concerning the reason of using PayPal instead of the usual process via Commission Junction was not answered (as I expected). In fact, they did not reply with anything after receiving my PayPal address so I had to remind them once again before finally the payment was issued.

After this case, even if I had had any suspicions that the previous unpleasant events could be due to HostGator affiliate team's lack of professionalism rather than some bad intentions, I would be stupid to continue excusing them. The last action was just a plain fraudulent attempt and it's hard to see any realistic explanation excusing their behavior. I was determined to avoid using HostGator affiliate program anymore even before this final case and it just strengthened my decision. It isn't normal to expect I know personally everyone I refer to HostGator in order to be able to defend my commissions from getting "stolen" by what is supposed to be my business partner. HostGator affiliate people are unprofessional, they do not answer any inconvenient questions and they try to cheat their affiliates. Neither of this is a good reason for using them.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Bullitt (1968): A Boring Classic with a Remarkable Car Chase

Bullitt is probably a moderate classic praised by some and considered boring by others. It sports Steve McQueen, a remarkable car chase sequence, a few other good actors and a decent premise. It's easy to see where the praises are coming from and it is not hard to label it "boring". Cause Bullitt is a well-crafted movie lacking a solid story, unnecessarily prolonged at times and having a redundant character.

Bullitt is titled by the name of its protagonist, the San Francisco cop, Frank Bullitt (Steve McQueen). After being asked by Senator Walter Chalmers to protect an important witness for a US Senate subcommittee hearing, Bullitt hides Johnny Ross in a hotel and assembles a small police team to guard him. Ross does not survive to testify at the hearing since he is killed despite his accommodation in a secret location. Chalmers blames Lieutenant Bullitt for the loss of the witness. The lieutenant is not convinced that the Senator is telling him everything though and receives full authority from his superior to lead the investigation. He decides to act without explaining or reporting his actions in order to solve the case and save his reputation as reliable cop.

The story of Bullitt has a good premise and the movie starts intriguing but its promising beginning is overshadowed by a slow pace and boring events later. We do not clearly understand until the end what has been the purpose of the initial events happening in the movie and why such a complicated approach has been chosen by the people involved in them to achieve their goal. We also have to meet Bullitt's girlfriend (Jacqueline Bisset) although her presence is practically redundant. Bisset is a beautiful woman and it's nice to see her but her character does not contribute anything to the plot. She's just there to add some female presence in the otherwise masculine film.

If the above flaws had not been there Bullitt could have been a really good movie. Steve McQueen is very believable as the San Francisco cop having its own ways of investigating a case. In fact, the role suits McQueen perfectly. The rest of the cast is also of high quality. Robert Vaughn makes a notable performance as Chalmers and Robert Duvall has a small but important part as taxi driver. Bullitt makes a good use of the city of San Francisco and its surroundings. The ending is kind of original although I'm not sure it is to everybody's taste.

The main gem in this movie though is the famous car chase scene. It is very natural without myriads of special effects and it would be nice if more recent films containing "spectacular" chase sequences had learned better from movies like Bullitt. The film's cinematography and editing are very good. If director Peter Yates had been able to make the movie more involving in spite of its somehow weak narrative this could be a true classic.

Bullitt is an easy recommendation for car chase fans or lovers of 60's and 70's thrillers. If you are more into modern movies you should probably choose the right mood to watch it or better, read some other reviews of this film before taking a decision.