Comic book geeks rejoice, your time is at last upon us. Along with a wide selection of the Warner-distributed DC animation line garnering steady acclaim across the past number of years, this week also sees release of a seminal television series—and the first covered in this column; it’s just that good—that dragged nerdiness right back into the centre of mainstream culture. With the exception of a particularly powerful documentary on urban development that’s not half as boring as that development makes it sound, these comic creations are by far the most noteworthy of this week’s VOD batch, an otherwise profoundly average hodge-podge of indie comedies and foreign features. Oh, and let’s not forget one tiny little taste of what Netflix have in store for us next year, just see if you can spot that below.
“A comedy about good times and grand theft”, reads one tagline of A Bag of Hammers, at once promising three things of which but one is delivered. Following the exploits of a pair of grifting man-children, played with reasonable repartee by Jason Ritter and co-writer Jake Sandvig, it’s a film with mature thematic aspirations to contrast its juvenile protagonists, attempting with its story of a neighbouring child who they—through a series of plausibility-stretching events—come to care for to enact a charming story on the process of maturation. Even putting aside the sheer ludicrousness of A Bag of Hammers’ plot, its flaccid yearnings for laughs earn exhaustingly few returns, leaving it a mostly witless time spent in the company of mostly unbearable characters. Its painful conviction of its own importance and misguided belief that these people make for interesting and likeable protagonist renders this a hopelessly unaware experience, and a profoundly dull one to boot. AVOID IT.
Beginning with promise as it establishes two different story strands, respectively resembling Left 4 Dead and Evil Dead II, it’s not long before A Little Bit Zombie exhausts its potential, the efforts of first-time scribes Trevor Martin and Christopher Bond to craft a fresh horror-comedy falling flat almost upon the first step. Concerned primarily with engaged couple Steve and Tina as they take a short pre-marital vacation with friends in the family cabin, it sees the former infected with a zombie virus transferred by mosquito, a smart little conceit that facilitates the bulk of the reactionary comedy at Steve’s sudden undead inclinations. Sadly, it’s material enough for only a short film at best, and with little else of worth to bring to the table Martin and Bond stretch their debut beyond salvation. The script’s troublesome depiction of the bride to be hardly helps; A Little Bit Zombie is one good idea lost amidst many bad ones. AVOID IT.
DTV animation or no, any Batman film released at the height of Nolan’s Dark Knight Trilogy’s popularity demands its own unique draw to make valid its contemporaneous existence; for Brandon Vietti’s Batman: Under the Red Hood, that draw is the Batman-Robin dynamic. Focusing on an aspect of the iconic character absent from Nolan’s interpretation, Vietti and writer Judd Winick deliver a story steeped in stark emotion, boldly beginning the film with the Joker’s brutal murder of Robin and thereby examining Batman as a hero defined by his greatest failing. A brooding Bruce Greenwood as the caped crusader heads a stellar voice cast including a chilling John DiMaggio Joker and Neil Patrick Harris’ delightfully comic Nightwing (the original bearer of the “Robin” appellation). Bringing something new to that most famous of fictional relationships, Batman: Under the Red Hood not only establishes itself as a worthy alternative to Nolan’s version of the character, it even threatens to exceed it. RECOMMENDED.
Released a year on from Under the Red Hood, and thus tasked with discerning itself not just from Nolan’s films but from its animated predecessor too, Batman: Year One returns to the roots of the character and joins him in his earliest experiences on the job. Somewhat misleadingly titled given its strong focus on Jim Gordon as he first arrives in Gotham, the film’s smartest move is the casting of Bryan Cranston as the commissioner-to-be. Less smart is the film’s lacklustre pacing; at just 64 minutes it rushes to tell a considerably tense, character-driven story, resulting in uneven pacing particularly in the ill-conceived opening act. The lack of a memorable villain is a further hindrance, rendering Batman’s side of the plot essentially throwaway and leaving the viewer desperate to return to the exploits of Gordon. Squandering the potential of Frank Miller’s reputedly great graphic novel, Year One is a disappointingly muddled take on the Dark Knight. SO-SO.
An abstract documentary on the evolution of urban civilisation in the state of Georgia hardly sounds like the most alluring of viewing experiences, yet such is the slow-building power of General Orders No. 9 that by the last of its 72 minutes it has the viewer encased in a shell of fascinated wonder, transfixed by the strange majesty of its hypnotic approach. Cyclically structured, the essay film uses the development of Atlanta as the paragon of modern human evolution, employing an entrancing Southern drawl in voiceover readings of writer/director Robert Persons’ poetic arguments. Its hauntingly ethereal and eerily omnipresent soundtrack accompanied by a host of stunning images of the city and country both, General Orders No. 9 overwhelms with a combination of visual and aural seduction, Persons building his argument slowly and steadily, gradually inviting us to question where not just Georgia stands in the world of today, but where we all do. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
The latest release in DC Animation’s line of direct-to-DVD releases, Justice League: Doom stands as proof positive that Warner’s fast-track plans to assemble the iconic superhero collective by 2015 needn’t necessarily end in disaster. Directed by studio mainstay Lauren Montgomery, the film balances its broad cast with aplomb, allowing equal time and characterisation to each of its instantly recognisable heroes. Centred on a plot by evil mastermind Vandal Savage and each of the protagonists’ most fearsome enemies to incapacitate them with contingency plans stolen from Batman, it’s a work of surprising intimacy and hubris, the inter-group conflicts and personal traumas—particularly of Green Lantern, brilliantly portrayed by Nathan Fillion—forming the backbone of a storyline riddled with action. Whoever should find themselves saddled with the considerable task of helming a live-action convergence of these characters without the benefit of stand-alone introductions for all à la Marvel could stand to learn a lot from Justice League: Doom. RECOMMENDED.
Though originally not intended for network broadcast, this studio pilot of new Judge Judy knock-off Mock Trial with J. Reinhold offered so strange a case that the show’s producers—Reinhold among them—opted to air it ahead of the first full season’s September premiere. Its widespread, irritating promotion in magazine adverts everywhere has ensured everyone living above ground is already familiar with the fallacious concept wherein the Santa Clause actor presides over court cases. The disastrous choice of show title—the man’s name is JUDGE, for goodness’ sake!—is just the tip of a terrible iceberg involving everything from a disgraced “analrapist” to a failed illusionist to a nervous young man curiously interested in his own cousin as the dysfunctional Bluth family take to the stand to defend their patriarch, accused of illicit construction deals in Iraq. A nonsensical procession of nitwits tailored to the non-standards of reality television, Mock Trial has already been green lit through 2020. UNWATCHABLE.
Note: Mock Trial is, like this review, a joke. Clicking the above link will redirect to Arrested Development, the new series of which Netflix is hereby teasing. It, by contrast, is very watchable indeed.
Returning to his “Chronicles of Brooklyn” series for the first time since 1998’s He Got Game, Spike Lee presents a powerful examination of faith with Red Hook Summer, following the fortunes of iPad-equipped Atlanta youth “Flik” as he spends a summer with his grandfather, a well-loved Bishop in the titular community. Though restrained by a limited central performance, Lee’s film shines with the saturated glory of cheery optimism, its underlying ideas of technological furtherance and the dissolution of community making it an interesting look into our modern society that pootles along at a perfectly enjoyable pace. And then it explodes. A late-game plot development—ingenious in concept, catastrophic in execution—facilitates the film’s total implosion as Lee derails it all with startling speed. Its stark change is in earnest, and admirable in its intentions, yet so hastily deployed and haphazardly mounted that it does its serious themes a serious disservice. SO-SO.
Negating any and all concerns of self-obsession by beginning with a witty tirade of self-deprecation, comedian Mike Birbiglia’s adaptation of his own one-man show is a unendingly endearing take on relationship woes and the difficulties of realising one’s potential. Addled with as many neuroses as Woody Allen, and almost as much humour, Birbiglia is a terrific anchor to this tale of a couple on the cusp of major commitment, considerably aided by the majestic Lauren Ambrose as his girlfriend. The pair make for a marvellous couple, which makes all the more real the pain of their slow drift apart as Birbiglia’s dream of earning a living as a stand-up comic finds realisation in his observations of the perils of pre-marital life. It’s an unfortunate drawback then, that the film’s central conceit—Birbiglia’s stress and sleep deprivation-rooted sleepwalking disorder—brings little to the film, dulling the impact of an otherwise unendingly amusing feature-length anecdote. RECOMMENDED.
How fitting that Edgar Wright’s tantalising tweet hinting the completion at last of his and Simon Pegg’s “Blood and Ice Cream” trilogy should be so soon followed by the streaming release of the show that first brought the pair to major attention. Across just 14 episodes Spaced—scripted by Pegg and Jessica Stephenson who co-star as new friends posing as a couple in order to rent an apartment together, and directed by Wright—catapulted itself into the annals of pop culture history, channelling its influences with much the same energetic intensity as Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and—we hope—The World’s End to follow. Populated with a host of memorably mad characters and just as funny, fresh, and inventive as any of Pegg and Wright’s features, Spaced belongs among the upper echelons of British sitcom history, its pulpy pop sensibilities and sleek slacker substance rendering it a perfect encapsulation of twenty-something life. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.
A certain candidate for alternate Christmas movie viewing, The Assault takes its cues from the December 24th, 1994 hijacking of an Air France flight out of Algiers to Paris, following the tense operation mounted by a special task force of the French Armed Forces to intercept the Jihadist terrorists as they refuel in Marseilles. Director Julien Leclercq, aiming presumably for an aesthetic of gritty realism, strips the film of almost all colour, the resultant desaturation contributing only a gloomy visual dankness that brings little of stylistic worth to proceedings. That the antagonists and their motivations are so thinly sketched is—whether the reality of the situation or not—among the film’s most significant failings, its inability to move them beyond “Allahu Akbar” screeching caricatures stripping it of any real sense of conflict. Nor are any of the film’s protagonists interesting characters, the task force and behind-the-scenes team scarcely able to offer a single recognisable human being between them. SO-SO.
Situating her engaged protagonists in the vast wilds of rural Georgia, writer/director Julia Loktev reduces their relationship to its basest elements in The Loneliest Planet, a beautifully composed and impeccably paced examination of the fears and insecurities of commitment. Gael Garcia Bernal and Hani Furstenberg craft beterrn them a couple both vibrant and understated, their love unquestioned until a subtle but striking midpoint development turns everything that came before entirely on its head. Loktev’s direction is by far her strongest suit, the jaw-dropping panoramic shots she composes with her characters sketched as only infinitesimal dots, barely discernible enshrouded by the vastness of the natural world, communicating visually the growing distance between them rather more confidently than ever her writing manages: for all its ability to enrapture, The Loneliest Planet‘s quietness is such that it feels often almost slight; so delicate are the whispers of Loktev’s insights that they seem nearly lost in even the quiet aura of the wild. RECOMMENDED.
Conceptually a cross between Confessions and Battle Royale, Yôhei Fukuda’s X Game (alternately known as Death Tube) sees a group of Japanese students captured, imprisoned, and forced to torture one another as vengeance for a series of brutal bullying games they played upon her as children. Interestingly incorporating aspects of modern media in its opening act, it’s a film that appears attuned to the tenets of the world around, its icy representation of internet voyeurism and snuff film offering additional underlying weight to its violent plot. Alas, all soon turns stale as Fukuda lapses into sensational, vacuous portrayals of the very violence he earlier seemed to condemn, depicting in moderately graphic detail the horrors inflicted upon the students by each other. When at last its overlong 2 hour runtime comes to a close, X Game has long since abandoned all potential in favour of cheap gory thrills, none of which, of course, ever manage to be terribly thrilling at all. AVOID IT.