Category Archives: Reviews

NEW YORK COMIC CON 2011 – AN ESSAY

At some point in the wee hours of Friday morning, I dreamt that I was a King who was soundly defeated in some epic, Game of Thrones-style battle. Disgraced, I felt there was nothing else I could do but hurl myself off of the highest cliff in the realm. As the craggy ground and certain death rushed up to meet me, I was jolted into reality by the decidedly un-epic sounds of Train’s “Calling All Angels” blaring out of my clock radio. Outside my window the sky was black as pitch, the only light emanating from the oversized LCD numbers of the alarm clock which read 4:21. Their eerie green radiance mocked me as I dragged myself, zombie-like, out of bed and into the shower. As the hot water splashed on my face, I had to put all thoughts of royal suicide and lack of decent sleep behind me, because today was no ordinary sit-in-a-cublicle day. Today I was going to my first “major” Con, and my first Con as a member of the Geek Press. Today was New York Comic Con 2011 day.

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2011 SUMMER MOVIE HITS & MISSES

Thor has put down his hammer, and Captain America his shield. Lightning McQueen and Mater have finished the race. Green Lantern’s power ring has lost its charge. The pirates have sheathed their cutlasses. The cowboys have holstered their pistols. Hogwarts School of Wizardry & Witchcraft has closed its doors forever. The Transformers have returned to Cybertron. The Apes have risen. Summer movie season 2011 is at an end.

It was an overcrowded Summer blockbuster season, jammed with sequels, prequels, and four -count ’em FOUR, big-budget superhero movies. All of that competition ensured there would be no $500 million+ grossing juggernaut like Avatar or The Dark Knight. Instead, dozens of huge-budget spectacles battled eachother to eek out a $200 or $300 million take. There were many surprises, and a few films with lofty expectations crashed to Earth in a fiery wreck (I’m lookin’ at you, Green Lantern). So, without further ado, here’s LaserCola’s list of Hits & Misses for Summer 2011 Blockbuster season.

Hit: Marvel Superheroes

Marvel had the very daunting task of introducing audiences to a couple of superheroes that didn’t register very high in the public consciousness, as well as lay more groundwork for the epic superhero team up film, The Avengers. They succeeded brillianty with Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger. The former was a bright, fun Summer spectacle with Shakespearean overtones handled superbly by the very Shakespearean director Kennth Branagh. The latter was an earnest, un-ironic, rousing WWII-meets-superheroes adventure with beautiful period photography by Rocketeer director Joe Johnston. Even X-Men: First Class, following the dismal X-Men 3: The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine, was a surprisingly well-made and entertaining film; combining an Inglorious Basterds-like Nazi revenge film with a 60’s James Bond-like visual aesthetic and familiar superhero action.

Miss: Green Lantern, DC Comics films, and Ryan Reynolds

It was not a good year to be Ryan Reynolds. The actor tried desperately to transition away from smirky, comedic supporting roles to leading man status in big-budget pictures, only to see one attempt after another crash and burn. Buried, while garnering great reviews from critics, never got a wide release and made an anemic $1.5 million. Lame 80’s body-switching callback  Change-Up with Jason Bateman was a complete bomb at the box-office.  Most disappointing however, was Green Lantern, an effects-laden superhero spectacle that was meant to launch a successful slew of Iron Man-level blockbusters for DC characters, but was doomed by poor marketing and even worse word-of -mouth. It also didn’t help that the film itself was a poorly paced, laughably edited mess with gaping plot holes and weak villains. Green Lantern grossed only $53 million on its prime mid-June opening weekend, and has so far made only $115 million on a budget north of $200 million. Clueless Warner Bros. execs who don’t understand the character at all,   have already greenlit a sequel, which they promise will be “darker.”

Hit: R-rated Comedies

Despite critics labelling it a lazy re-hash,The Hangover 2 still did huge business at $254 million, making it the third-highest grossing film of the year. This success seemed to carry over to most of the R-Rated comedies, as Bridesmaids was a huge surprise hit at $167 million and counting. Horrible Bosses didn’t have a huge marketing push, but still managed an impressive $112 million take, an even the execrable-looking Bad Teacher nearly managed to hit the magic $100 million mark.

Miss: Pixar’s Reputation & Animated Films

Though it was still a moderate financial hit at $186 million, Cars 2 was Pixar’s worst-reviewed film ever, and it put the studio’s impeccable reputation under scrutiny for the first time . Many media pundits and bloggers saw Cars 2 as a crass cash grab with none of the heart or deeper moral resonance that fueled previous Pixar masterpieces. Pixar chief John Lasseter admittedly stated Cars 2 was designed to be a fun, action/spy adventure film targeted at very young children. While there is certainly nothing wrong with Lassester wanting to branch out and do something different, critics felt the film was noisy, gaudy, and put too much emphasis on the character of Mater and his crude humor.

Meanwhile, Dreamworks Kung Fu Panda 2 underperformed at the box office domestically, barely surpassing  its $160 million budget (it did do very good numbers overseas, though). Perhaps the biggest tragedy of the Summer of 2011 was the wholesale rejection of the beautifully hand-drawn, traditionally animated feature Winnie The Pooh, which was widely lauded for telling a heartwarming family-friendly story with beloved characters. It arrived with a thud, scraping out a disappointing $7.5 million opening weekend en route to a $26 million gross.

Hit: Super 8

Director JJ Abrams served up a slice of  nostalgic movie magic with Super 8, a beautifully shot homage to late 70’s/early 80’s Spielbergian wonder. In a Summer teeming with bombastic robot carnage, colorful capes and masks, and fast-paced CGI wizardy – Super 8 returned audiences to a time when shots lingered longer, dialogue was delivered slower and with more impact, and every frame had a misty, dreamlike sheen to it. The gang of kid actors, led by Elle Fanning and Joel Courtney delivered captivating, innocent performances that brought back pleasant recollections of kid gangs like The Goonies or the Monster Squad. The spectacular destruction and fiery chaos of the train crash sequence is one of the most exhilarting set pieces I witnessed in the Summer of 2011. The film also did very well, earning $233 million worldwide on a modest $50 million budget.

Miss: The Pirates of the Caribbean Franchise

Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow shtick is getting old. The fourth Pirates of the Caribbean film shed much of the convolution and bloat of the previous installments, but it also felt cheaper and downright arbitrary altogether. Ian McShane was wasted as the infamous Blackbeard, as was the potential romance between Penelope Cruz’s character and Capt. Jack.  Still, it’s the fourth-highest grossing film of the year, and has made well over a billion dollars when you factor in foreign grosses, so we will be subjected to many more of Captain Sparrow’s tired antics in the years to come.

Hit: The Re-Birth of the Apes

No one could have predicted the late-summer success of Rise of the Planet of the Apes. It had everything going against it: An over-exposed and unpopular (at the time) star in James Franco, an August dumping-ground release slot, the memory of a  poorly-received installment of the franchise by Tim Burton in 2001, and a mostly unknown director. But the film was helped immensely by terrific word of mouth about Andy Serkis’ motion-capture performance for the main ape, Cesar. The movie itself was very well-paced and crafted, and it looks to be an exciting launching point for a new series of Apes films.

Miss: Transformers

Transformers: Dark of the Moon was another loud, dumb, sexist, juvenile, and incoherent explosion-fest from Michael Bay. The 3D was visually stunning, and in some cases vertigo-inducing, but ultimately none of the dazzle meant anything due to the obnoxious, poorly-developed characters and outright silliness. Yet, audiences lapped up Bay’s frosting-covered dog slop to the tune of $1.1 billion worldwide. Thankfully, Bay’s reign of terror is over (at least where this franchise is concerned). Rumor has it Jason Statham could be facing off against Megatron in future installments.

Hit: Fast & The Furious

This series, which reached new lows in both execution and box office take with Tokyo Drift, gained new life this Summer by adding a Rock vs. Vin Diesel dynamic, and transitioning from street-racing thuggery to balls-to-the-wall action spectacle. The fifth installment of the Fast & Furious series pulled in an astonishing $87 million opening weekend on its way to a gargantuan $605 million worldwide gross.

Miss: The Horror Genre

Horror had a…well, horrific showing at the box office in Summer 2011. The tone for the genre was set in April with the dismal failure of the much-heralded Scream 4. Shortly thereafter, Priest was released to atrocious reviews and an even poorer showing at the gates, making a paltry $29 million on a $70 million budget.  A completely unecessary fifth Final Destination film stunk up theaters in mid-August, and horror-comedy reboot Fright Night with Colin Farrel vamping it up was D.O.A. at the theaters with a terrible $7.9 million opening weekend. The year’s lone horror hit was Insidious, which grossed $54 million on an unbelievably meager $1.5 million budget.

Hit: Harry Potter

After ten years and eight films, the Harry Potter franchise racked up enough cash to feed several third-world nations for decades. What’s remarkable to me about these films is the fact that all of the principal cast members(with the exception of Richard Harris, who passed away after the second film) appeared in every single installment and developed their craft over a grueling ten-year period. The high point of the saga remains Alfonso Cuaron’s Prisoner of Azkaban, but The Deathly Hallows Part II delivered a very solid conclusion to a saga that I have heard referred to as “this generation’s Star Wars.”

Miss: The Smurfs & The Zookeeper

Two examples of everything that is wrong with Hollywood filmmaking in the 21st century. Lowest common denominator drivel that exists solely to pander to uneducated audiences and sell products. Everyone involved and everyone who fell for it, should be ashamed of themselves.

BONUS: My Top 5 Best and Worst Summer 2011 Films:

Best: Super 8, Captain America: The First Avenger, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, X-Men: First Class, and Thor.

Worst: Transformers: Dark of the Moon, Cowboys & Aliens, Green Lantern, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, TIE: The Zookeeper & The Smurfs.

CONVENTION REVIEW – ‘CONNECTICON 2011’

On a sweltering July Friday, yours truly and two of my best LaserCola staffers drove about 45 minutes south of LaserCola Headquarters to scope out and file a report on ConnectiCon, one of the largest fan conventions in the Northeast United States. The ConnectiCon draws an estimated 8,000 cosplayers, gamers, manga/comic readers, action figure collectors, and Sci-Fi fans every year over the course of a three-day run time to its enormous, bright, and clean facilities at the mammoth Hartford Convention center.

ConnectiCon offers panels and how-to workshops on podcasting, video game design/voiceover technique, drawing Manga and traditional comic art, web site design and promotion, action figure collecting, and more. It also features a huge dealer’s room, a large video game expo/demo area, an artists colony (for webcomickers, t-shirt/sticker designers, sketch artists, etc.), screening rooms, role-playing game competitions, and an after-hours “rave” at the adjoining hotel ballroom. The cost was quite expensive, with a three-day weekend badge coming in at a hefty $60, and one-day passes ranging from $30 on Friday, $40 on Saturday, and $25 for Sunday.

The ConnectiCon website boasts an event that appeals to fans of all the major “geek” genres:

Over 7,000 people attended ConnectiCon in 2010, making it one ofNew England’s largest pop culture events. Why pop culture you ask? Well, because ConnectiCon doesn’t focus on just one element of fandom, the convention’s organizers are fans of a lot of different things, so we focus on all of the awesome stuff that we like including: web comics, anime, console games, board games, table top miniatures, science fiction, fantasy, comics books, role-playing games, live action role-playing, collectible card games, and horror. You name it we’ve probably got something related going on, even Madden Football, and spontaneous games of Twister while folks wait in line! ConnectiCon has “Everything but the kitchen sink!”

However, after spending an hour wandering the three floors of the convention, it became clear to us that Connecticon isn’t so much a Sci-Fi/Fantasy/Comic Book convention as it is an excuse for cosplayers aged 12-16 dressed as characters from Final Fantasy, Pokémon, Bleach, Cowboy Bebop, and other Japanese pop culture icons to mingle, hug each other, and pose for photographs.

The panels and events seem to be an afterthought, finishing a distant second place to the mass photo ops and the main event known as the “Cosplay Masquerade” – a talent show of sorts where the cosplayers perform skits and dance routines based off their favorite Anime, video game, etc. This certainly isn’t a negative thing, but for our group – which consisted of 20 and 30-something hardcore comic book/sci-fi/film nerds – much of the event programming left us feeling bored or out of place amongst the loud, shrieking teen and pre-teen crowd.

We did enjoy strolling through the gargantuan dealer’s room, which was exploding with colorful merchandise from all facets of the nerd universe including movie posters, steampunk accessories, imported DVD’s, comic books, medieval armor/clothing, Asian weaponry, board games, trading cards, action figures, video games, and even Japanese food treats like Pocky. Some controversy was sparked in this area, as a dealer dressed in full Nazi regalia refused to remove the Nazi items he was selling and even harassed Con attendees who demonstrated offense to the merchandise. (LaserCola.com later found out he was asked to leave and will not be returning to the Con next year).

The Dealer's Room

With the attendance that the ConnectiCon draws, one would expect the guest list to be on par with some of the mid-range conventions like Dragon Con in Atlanta or even the New York Comic Con, but comic book artists and writers from the major publishers, as well as any sort of entertainment guests from TV or genre films were nowhere to be found.  Instead, Carlos Ferro and Rachel Robinson – two video game voiceover artists – were the Con’s “signature” guests; hardly a who’s who in the geek community.

Due to poor signage and a combination of bad timing and a lack of interest on our part, we didn’t get a chance to attend any of the panels. We also skipped the “rave” and any after-hours activities. We left the Con with the impression that in order to increase their overall marketability and begin competing with the larger Conventions across the country, the organizers need to divert some of the focus away from the younger cosplaying demographic and put more effort into securing comic artist/writers from DC, Marvel, Dark Horse, etc. as well as media guests like actors from Battlestar Galactica, Dr. Who, LOST, Firefly/Serenity, Star Trek, and Star Wars to help attract more of the older Sci-Fi comic fans to the event. We’d also like to see the convention showcase some movie props like Iron Man’s armor, Thor’s hammer, CaptainAmerica’s shield, Star Wars lightsabers, swords from Lord of the Rings, etc.

Here are our scores for ConnectiCon 2011:

  • Facilities: A+
  • Cosplaying/Photo Ops: A
  • Events/Panels: C
  • Guests: F
  • Signage/Organization: D
  • Dealer Room: B+
  • Value: C-

CLICK HERE for our full ConnectiCon 2011 cosplay gallery!


MOVIE REVIEW – ‘X-MEN: FIRST CLASS’

In March of 2005, director Matthew Vaughn was hard at work preparing to direct the conclusion to the X-Men trilogy, X-Men: The Last Stand, taking over for a departing Bryan Singer. It quickly became clear to him that the pressure from the FOX studio executives to rush the film into production and get it into theaters for the Summer of 2006 to compete against Singer’s Superman Returns was completely unreasonable. There was no way Vaughn could make the film he wanted, so he walked away and FOX slapped together X-3 under the inept helm of uber-hack Brett Ratner.  Now, seven years later, Matthew Vaughn has finally made the worthy successor to X-2: X-Men United that he always wanted to. And now that I’ve seen the finished product, it truly makes me sad to think about what X-Men 3 could have been like under the very capable hands of Vaughn, because First Class is a surprising triumph, and might be the best X-Men film of them all.

X-Men: First Class is a wildly ambitious movie that crams a lot of narrative threads into its running time, but it never feels bloated or poorly-paced. It zips along well thanks to a combination of a clearly defined (if a tad goofy) plot by the villains to kickstart the Cuban Missle Crisis and manipulate America and the U.S.S.R. into starting WWIII; and the battle of fundamental beliefs that threaten to tear two friends apart. With its miniskirts, go-go boots, lingerie-clad undercover spies, and secret, swinging nightclubs,  the film threatens to careen down a slope of Austin Powers-esque kitsch at times, but quickly rights itself whenever McAvoy and Fassbender are clashing, or learning more about their unique mutant gifts from each other. The action scenes range from quieter Inglourious Basterds-meets-superhero moments, to exhilarating, epic set pieces full of spectacular explosions, and dazzling mutant powers on full display. The flight effects for the characters of Banshee and Angel, in particular, are shot in a visceral style that  makes them more convincing than just about any film you’ve ever seen a human being “fly” in.

The meat of the film explores the dichotomy between young mutants Professor Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), and Erik Leshner (Michael Fassbender). If you’re familiar with the themes of the X-Men comics, or have seen the previous X-Men films, then you know the drill: Charles takes on the Martin Luther King ideology of tolerance and peaceful coexistence with humanity, while Erik embodies the more radical Malcolm X approach of casting off the shackles of human oppression and wearing the mutant badge with pride. The early part of the film cuts back and forth between Erik and Charles in their formative years; Charles lives in a posh Westchester mansion as a boy and there he befriends a young shape-shifting girl named Raven, who broke in to steal food. Meanwhile, Vaughn faithfully re-creates the opening shots of the original X-Men film, which finds young Erik violently separated from his parents in a Nazi concentration camp, then introduces us to the “big bad” of the film, Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon, in a welcome change of pace from his usual affable characters), who is posing as a Nazi doctor to discover mutant recruits for his world-domination-seeking Hellfire Club. In a horrific sequence, Shaw murders Erik’s mother after he fails to demonstrate his metal-controlling powers by making a coin move, then gleefully celebrates as the grief triggers a screaming, metal-rending episode.

Vaughn deftly shows us the stark contrast between the two future enemies as we see Charles (with Raven in tow, now posing as Charles’ sister) living a cushy existence, studying genetics in the Oxford halls by day and using his charm to pick up women in pubs by night. Leshner, in the interim, has become a revenge-obsessed Nazi Hunter travelling the world to kill the Concentration camp monsters that scarred him for life, and to find his ultimate target – Sebastian Shaw. Fassbender’s screen presence in these Nazi-killing sequences is nothing short of astonishing, filled with quiet menace and simmering rage. These moments are so effective, that I could easily sit through an entire two-hour movie of Erik Leshner dispatching Nazis in various brutal and creative ways. (I swear my fillings were aching after watching one of the encounters). It’s obvious to anyone with eyes at this point why Fassbender is quickly becoming a superstar. McAvoy, while not having as meaty a role as Fassbender, is still excellent in his own right as a young, idealistic Xavier who is genuinely fascinated my genetic mutation. He turns in a very nuanced performance as the future Professor X,  coming across as charming, enthusiastic, and at many points, arrogant. His initial encounters with Leshner as their friendship grows and they bond over their abilities are a joy to watch, which makes the inevitable tragedy of what is to come even more powerful.

McAvoy and Fassbender are so mesmerizing on-screen, and their story is so compelling, that it’s easy to overlook some of the film’s flaws, like the casting of the mutant recruits and the secondary baddies of Shaw’s Hellfire Club. These youngsters  (with the exception of Jennifer Lawrence) are bland, nondescript newcomers in their 20’s who offer little in the acting department, and basically serve as pawns in the battle sequences. In addition, January Jones continues to be one of the worst working actresses in Hollywood. The Emma Frost of the comics is a haughty British vamp that relishes in ice-queen wickedness, but with Jones’ vacant, bored delivery, she comes across as Shaw’s doped-up, high-class prostitute.

The supporting cast, led by a lively (and sexy) Rose Byrne as CIA liaison Moira McTaggert, also boasts veteran presence Oliver Platt as the head of the CIA’s mutant division, About a Boy‘s grown-up child star Nicholas Hoult as Hank McCoy (a genius teen scientist with ape-like feet and enhanced reflexes), and the smoldering Jennifer Lawrence as the teen Raven/Mystique. They all lend life to the proceedings with their more than capable performances. One of the film’s more interesting facets is a psuedo-love triangle between Raven, McCoy, and Leshner. Raven is immediately smitten with McCoy, and he promises to help “cure” her blue-skinned, yellow-eyed appearance with a serum that he is developing to rid himself of his over-sized peds. Leshner enters the picture by telling Raven that she should never be ashamed of who she is; that she should embrace the power and beauty she holds in her true form. It’s an intriguing  little element of the screenplay that helps flesh out all three characters.  Terrific cameos by longtime character actor favorites like Ray Wise, Michael Ironsides,Glenn Morshower, Rade Serbedzija, and James Remar, round out the very solid cast.

In a more forgiving world, X-Men: First Class would be the franchise rejuvenator the X-Men saga desperately needs, but the acrid stench and bitter taste of X-Men Origins: Wolverine, and X-Men: The Last Stand are likely too fresh in the movie-going public’s senses to truly make this a Summer blockbuster on the level of the upcoming Harry Potter finale.  Still, it’s a fantastic mash-up of Superheroes, James Bond, and a story of two men whose friendship is torn apart by ideology.

MOVIE REVIEW – ‘THE ADJUSTMENT BUREAU’

Destiny is bureaucracy, and true love conquers all — even meddling Angels roaming our streets in the guise of grey flannel suit-wearing 1960’s ad execs. Marketed shamelessly as an amalgam of films I like to refer to as ‘The Bourne Inception’, The Adjustment Bureau is a velvety-smooth chocolate movie romance with a thin, easily dissolved sci-fi candy shell around it.

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