Saturday, September 21, 2013

The Wolverine

Being such a comic book nerd, I'd be the first to say that when it comes to super-hero titles, "team books" and "solo books" do have a different rythm to them. If handled properly any writer can make a solo character suddenly fit into the structure of a team and on the flip-side they could explore what a character that's normally part of a team does when they aren't surrounded by their peers. Wolverine is a character that does lend himself so well to both types of stories. He's fun to watch as the violent and scrappy ass-kicker of the X-Men, but he is also tortured and conflicted enough to take out his rage on those deserving all by himself. Bryan Singer and co. certainly captured the spirit of Logan very well when they introduced him as the lead character of the X-Men movie. He can't remember his past, but he can heal from any injury and due to experimentation he has a razor sharp steel alloy grafted to his skeleton (the fictional element of adamantium). 

Visually there is a lot to play with, but it also makes for an interesting psychology for an actor to delve into. If one looks at Hugh Jackman's filmography, there really isn't much before the first X-Men film. He is now an accomplished actor with excellent performances in such films as The Prestige and Les Miserables, but I'd argue that no matter what else may come, Wolverine will probably be the role he is most remembered for. His take on the character is iconic to the point where I can't imagine anyone else playing him. Batman and Superman and Spider-Man have all had other incarnations, but a non-Hugh Jackman Wolverine is pretty hard to conjure up any imagery. His embodyment of the role is just as recognizable as say Clint Eastwood as the Man with No Name.

Unfortunately, I've felt that the majority of the X-Men films have been lacking in story and character. Singer certinaly cracked the code to a successful comic-book adaptation of the franchise similar to Sam Raimi with Spider-Man, but I've just come to love and enjoy what the genre had later turned into with works such as The Dark Knight or The Avengers. I actually think Matthew Vaughn told the best on-screen X-Men tale with First Class, but James Mangold's The Wolverine, despite a few flaws, can certainly sit right below the prequel film (First Class, not Origins I mean) in a ranking.

Mangold is an extremely talented director with a vast range of films (Heavy, Cop Land, Girl Interrupted, Identity, Walk the Line, and 3:10 to Yuma are some of my favorites of his). Similar to Curtis Hanson, he can really tell a variety of stories, but sometimes the screenplay he works off of might not be as fully developed, unique, or complex as one might hope (Knight and Day comes to mind). The Wolverine (based in parts on the Chris Claremont and Frank Miller 1980s miniseries) is smart in how it moves from a Japanese-set mystery to a stylized samurai action film. It features the most character development that Wolverine has seen in the past four to five films and thanks to Jackman - and supporting turns by newer actresses Tao Okamoto and Rila Fukushima as Logan's personal and professional partners (who hold their own against Jackman's presence) - the film has a gusto to it that's only hampered by some senseless twists and turns during the third act. Still, the odd and ultimately impersonal twist doesn't take much away from the film's enjoyment (a sequence aboard a bullet train is particularly gratifying) and this is the most fearsome and vulnerable audiences will see Wolverine... at least until the next film. I just wish it didn't take five movies to get to this interesting of a point.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Pacific Rim

Being such a fan of directing, I often wonder if I'm unfairly judging movies because I'm comparing them to a director's own filmography. I've often thought that an "okay" Coen brothers movie is probably a really "good" movie for someone I feel is a lesser filmmaker. 

Guillemo Del Toro is easily one of my favorite directors; he's at least in my Top 30 (thats how nerdy I am, I have my favorite directors in a grouping of thirty). He has a wild imagination that pop-culture mavens of today would enjoy and yet is still an avid appreciator of classic works (his favorites including Frankenstein, Shadow of a Doubt, Greed, Modern Times, Nosferatu, 8 1/2, The Spirit of the Beehive). He is someone who can talk about comic books just as much as he can about H.P. Lovecraft. He is also extremely versatile, despite criticism to the contrary. Yes he might be perceived as a "genre" filmmaker who works in horror, fantasy, and science-fiction, but there is a world of difference between his independent debut Cronos and the blockbuster Hellboy or his Spanish Civil War films such as the ghost story The Devil's Backbone or the Alice-in-Wonderland-style Pan's Labyrinth and this very film, Pacific Rim. He seems to pay just as much attention and care to each aspect of his work like I feel any masterclass filmmaker should.

The reason I'm going on about Del Toro is to (1) mention how high I regard his work and (2) to get to the point that the biggest issue I had with Pacific Rim is that my own personal expectations were set against such films of his as Hellboy II, Cronos, The Devil's Backbone, and Pan's Labyrinth. This obviously isn't a problem with the film itself, but really just stating how I entered the theater with a specific mindset. That might explain how I interpreted the film.

To me, Pacific Rim seems to be about unity. It is far from a war picture. Del Toro spoke about decisions he made to avoid telling a war story and the most obvious example would be how Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) dresses. He wears something more of a suit-jacket and tie to work than camo pants. The movie features the world coming together to fight an outside force using these giant robots called Jaegers. To operate them, two pilots must have their minds melded together in an act called "the drift". The emotional through-line of the movie comes in here. Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam) lost his cousin when he was piloting a Jaeger years earlier and was still emotionally in tune with his cousin's mind when the loss occured. Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi) was a little girl when the monster invaders known as Kaiju killed her family during a devastating attack on Japan. These two individuals must overcome their own personal loss by working together.

This might seem like a simple conceipt and frankly the film doesn't go anywhere too deep with this idea, but perhaps that is the point- a point that this film showcases quite well. Not to sound dismissive, but perhaps I shouldn't have expected too much from the 'Monsters vs. Robots' movie and just sat back and enjoyed what was in front of me, which there is quite a lot to enjoy. Like films from last year such as Prometheus and Looper (and frankly this is present in any of the great "genre" films), Del Toro uses the structure of a sci-fi action-blockbuster to deliver a message he presumably cares about to a mass audience (which it's a shame that this movie didn't click with U.S. boxoffice, but it's doing impressively well overseas). I still wish the film took a leap deeper into its own machinations, found a way to dispense with some unecessarily expository dialogue, and spent more time oogling at the creations that Del Toro came up with instead of cutting in close during the fighting. If there's one thing Del Toro is good at, it's showing us monsters- both man and otherwise.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

White House Down

I never udnerstood the phrase "turn off your brain". I see it on some message boards, comment threads, and during some movie reviews of news websites I follow. I understand what the saying refers to. It means to not take a film too seriously and sometimes certain films are just for pure entertainment value. Even then, I don't think the filmmakers wish for us to turn off our brains. If anything they still want us to read into their work. This phrase seems to be associated the most with action blockbusters and an action film's ability to make us cheer is just as valid to me as how a comedy can make us laugh or a drama can make us cry. 

Roland Emmerich's White House Down seems to be the ideal film to attach the phrase "turn off your brain", but you can actually be fully observant and still walk away from the movie feeling a sense of enjoyment.

It's a shame this film didn't meet expectations at the box office in the U.S. Like Pacific Rim, it certainly warrants a wider audience because this is the sort of the film the masses could appreciate. Maybe the gross has something to do with the similarly themed Olympus Has Fallen opening up earlier this year and ironically enough, White House Down was set up before that film went into production. Having seen both, I can say that White House Down suceeds where Olympus Has Fallen does not in the sense that it doesn't take itself seriously. Emmerich seems in on the nature of the movie and like other technical masters such as Michael Bay, he is aware to not pummel the audience with a barrage of imagery, but to instead be clever with his cinematography, editing, sound design, etc. and deliver what is the ideal summer escapist blockbuster.

Visual effects aren't used to overwhelm, but to supplement. The large cast is full of great chemistry between leads Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx and a villainous turn by the always great Jason Clarke. The film is fun enough that after looking at his past works, I think this might be my favorite film from Emmerich. One might scoff 'that aint saying much', but in this case I'm more than happy to admit it.

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

The Last Stand

The Last Stand is one of the better intentional B-movies probably at least since Robert Rodriguez's satirical Machete. However, the film directed by Kim Ji-woon and starring Arnold Schwarzenegger is not much of a parody as one might expect from the promos and trailers, but more an ode and update to the types of action films that Schwarzengger had made earlier in his career.

The movie has some tense bits sprinkled throughout and then explodes in fun chaos at the end. There is bloody carnage, but not with too much extra grittiness that one has come to expect in post-9/11 action movies (such as in recently mentioned films like The Bourne Identity, Batman Begins, Casino Royale). If anything this is a much better success at what I feel Stallone was trying to achieve with his first Expendables movie. It's part camp and then there's still a sense of the modern, especially due to the stylization of the material by its director, Kim Ji-woon. Kim is one of three South Korean new-wave directors to be making an english-language film this year (Bong Joon-ho's Snowpiercer and Park Chan-wook's Stoker are the other two). I'd be lying if I said I'm surprised Kim has chosen to make an action film in comparison to his fellows taking on what is deemed to be more "serious" material. Then again, it's a great way to perhaps introduce Kim to mainstream Western audiences. His camera constantly stays with the action through long takes such as Cortez's escape down a ziplane or when the same character is driving a fast car through a roadblock. The editing is also very quick and is reminscent of scenes from Kim's previous films the such as the ridiculously fun western The Good, The Bad, The Weird and one of the few revenge films to rival Oldboy, I Saw the Devil.

Something I didn't care for and that could be found in films attributed to Schwarzenegger, is the sudden  attempts at humor as it sometimes fall flat. Examples include Johnny Knoxville's character's antics with guns or even just at the end of the film when Schwarzenegger delivers a punchline and then walks back with his deputies with an "aw shucks" sort of demeanor. Kim has made this sort of humor work in his films before, but here it just felt out of place for me. I think it's not so much because the film can't decide what it wants to be, but because I wasn't sure what I wanted the film to be. A sometimes campy actioneer? A bloody thriller? Something else? Regardless I can say that the a majority of the movie still seemed average as opposed to something that is 100% unique.

Ultimately, the film provides a lot of escapism and most importantly, Schwarzenegger's screen presence hasn't dissipated to as large a degree as one might have thought.

The Lone Ranger

General consensus on the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise starring Johnny Depp seems to be that the first film was a lot of fun featuring a great performance by Depp, but the sequels failed to live up to expectations. They were deemed long, unnecessary, and bloated. Director Gore Verbinski who directed the beloved first installment and the second and third chapter, has re-teamed with Depp, Disney, and producer Jerry Bruckheimer on a new property- a big screen version of the Lone Ranger. Unfortunately, this film is more in line with the Pirates sequels. I personally don't hold the first Pirates film in that high of a regard as others might, but there is no denying the charisma and panache that Depp unleashed as pirate Jack Sparrow. For the sequels, I wanted to see more of Jack and although I got my wish, the filmmakers piled on such unnecessary side-plots and convoluted events and dialogue that have led me to wish the franchise would stop making money so it could just go away quietly (both thanks to the two sequels directed by Verbinski and the fourth film that was directed by Rob Marshall, a fifth film is forthcoming).

If the saving grace of any of the Pirates film could be Johnny Depp's acting, then I was hoping at least performance would carry The Lone Ranger should the plot be what I mentioned above (long, bloated etc.). Unfortunately, perhaps without a previous film as a starting point or blueprint, the cast of Ranger feels weighed down and constrained in their performances because of the hefty amount of plotting. The actors seem to occupy their space and not do anything with it, which is a shame because the idea to have the marquee name of Depp in a supporting role and instead have Armie Hammer in the lead role is pretty ingenius. I recognize Hammer from The Social Network and J. Edgar, but larger audiences might not be all that familiar with him so it lends the authenticity of a "new face" that I've mentioned here before (most recently in reference to Man of Steel). Plus, Tonto is probably the most fun of the two to play. Depp's Tonto is more of a strict and controlled Jack Sparrow, but undeniably the type of free-willing character that Depp is known to play.

It's also not that Depp and Hammer have a lack of chemistry, but due to a dense conspiracy plot, I feel like the audience isn't allowed to appreciate the relationships between the various characters. Despite all of the overkill, Verbinski certainly demonstrates that he can once again direct large-scale sequences. The final sequence aboard the trains is remarkable and feels as fun as any of the scenes from Curse of the Black Pearl or Rango. Should Steven Spielberg ever give up the reigns to Indiana Jones, I would think Verbinski would be the perfect choice to replace him, assuming he could get a manageable script.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

This Is the End

Outrageous. Hilarious. Ambitious. Smart. Original. Best comedy of the year. These have all probably been uttered in some reviews for the film and I'd have to agree with all of the praise. This Is the End is the sort demented movie that I'd find ingenious. I've been such a huge fan of Judd Apatow and his alum's style and brand of humor. You can cast the net wide to include many filmmakers under his umbrella and frankly, they've all been open about what has inspired them thus to say that they aren't so much as trailblazers as they are re-imagining and re-interpreting the humor that informed their own tastes. Come to think of it, some of my favorite comedies have been from the past ten or so years- The 40 Year Old Virgin (2005, Apatow), Knocked Up (2005, Apatow), Tropic Thunder (2008, Stiller), I Love You Man (2009, Hamburg), Zack and Miri Make a Porno (2008, Smith), Pineapple Express (2008, Green), Forgetting Sarah Marshall (2008, Stoller), The Five-Year Engagement (2012, Stoller), The Hangover (2009, Phillips), Role Models (2008, Wain), The Foot Fist Way (2007, Hill), Anchorman (2004, McKay), Talladega Nights (2006, McKay), Step Brothers (2008, McKay), The Other Guys (2010, McKay), Superbad (2007, Mottola), Walk Hard (2007, Kasdan), Bridesmaids (2011, Feig), Borat (2006, Charles), Bruno (2009, Charles) etc. all liked to varying degrees of course.

Maybe some would agree with me while others might think I'm being low-brow, too generous towards a popular trend, or even just insane. Putting all that aside, I'm a huge fan of many of these performers and to see them all play and lampoon themselves was a neat treat, but ultimately directors/writers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg one-up their concept by taking it from gimmick to... well something else that shouldn't be put into words but can only be alluded to. 

The gag of this being like a crazy episode of Entourage (a show whose creator has feuded with Rogen coincidently enough) doesn't run out in minutes. Instead the film almost unkowingly breaks a fourth wall of sorts to transcend that expectation. The best comparion I can think of is to another brilliant comedy, that being Edgar Wright's Shaun of the Dead. Wright often tells a story about deep relationships that is then placed in the realm of some sort of genre. Wright has used zombies, buddy cop movies, and alien invasions and here Rogen uses the apocalypse (which has been a popular concept in movies and especially television in recent years).

Similar to their screenplays to Superbad and Pineapple Express, This Is the End suddenly has these "awwww" moments with there being actual character development. Thankfully, Rogen and Goldberg also realize that development can be really, really, really, really, really funny.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

World War Z

My biggest issue with World War Z was how incredibly tame it felt. There are several responses to the film that mention how even with a PG-13 rating that the film is still incredibly intense and thrilling. I'd have to disagree and I would rather use the word entertaining.

The novel by Max Brooks (son of filmmaker Mel) is subtitled "An Oral History of the Zombie War". The book is a series of individual collections and accounts as a member of the United Nations postwar commission attempts to gather information through oral interviews and other documents. For the purposes of the movie, the plot has been changed to follow a United Nations investigator named Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) who experiences the zombie breakout firsthand. The scale of this film is impressive and is rarely seen in zombie films which often take place in contained scenarios and here this film moves from the U.S. to South Korea to Jerusalem to the British isles. I do have to compliment the filmmakers' abilities to adapt such challenging material because the movie does capture some of the themes present in the original source novel such as how conflict changes social, religious, political, and environmental landscapes. Brad Pitt is commanding in a very 'typical leading-man in a PG-13 summer action blockbuster movie role' sort of way. He is capable of better performances, but this seems to be just more of a safe role for him and it does speak to how tame the movie is.

Yes it's ultimately a good movie, but it could be more intense. It could be more scary. It tries to be a different type of zombie movie, but it's basically the blockbuster version of 28 Days Later and packs nowhere near as much of an emotional wallop as that movie does. The versatile director Marc Forster (who according to the press had a troubled shoot with this film) does a great job of relating the zombie epidemic to the times we are in with chaos, war, and economic turmoil. Yet, as fun as the movie can be, it certainly needs something more than a metaphor to warrant the praise I feel others have been giving it.

Man of Steel

Time for some random ramblings, but first, "who do you like more, Superman or Batman?" Many have complained about Superman being a boy scout. That he's boring and just can't compare to grittier characters such as Bruce Wayne's alter-ego. My own tastes do tend towards the darker characters. I find that the hero who is more tortured and goes through the proverbial rabbit hole will come out the other end as a stronger individual against his or her challenges. Heck, one of if not my favorite movie Schindler's List features evil incarnate in the form of Amon Goeth thus making Oskar Schindler more compelling because he is a hero who doesn't realize that he is even the least bit heroic to combat such cruelty. To use characters from the same genre as that of Zack Snyder's Man of Steel- audiences prefer their Jason Bourne's, Daniel Craig's James Bond, and Christian Bale's Batman and on TV we like Walter White, Jax Teller, Dexter Morgan, and Don Draper. So does that mean in the mainstream film/TV climate I just described that other characters should be written off because they are too shiny or heroic?


I remember when I first started reading comics at the age of 9, I started out reading purely because of the characters. Then I learned after reading a really good Spider-Man comic and a really bad Spider-Man comic from two different creative teams, that there was no such thing as a bad character, only a bad writer. Not to take the passion away from or denounce the fans that will pick up every X-Men comic simply because it is an X-Men comic, but ultimately any fictional character can be made interesting (obvious observation, but I'll mention it nonetheless). I've read incredible Superman stories and not-so incredible ones. Screenwriter David Goyer, Christopher Nolan's (who is also a producer on this film) writing collaborator for his Batman trilogy, has very obviously decided to infuse Superman with some grit. I'm not against that (as I mentioned, I read Superman stories of all sorts, some with darker tones), but I think the approach to concentrating on Kal-El's tortured soul didn't need to include a lot of what was ultimately chosen to be included in Man of Steel.

I enjoyed Snyder's Dawn of the Dead and Legend of the Guardians and I feel Man of Steel is certainly better than 300, Watchmen, or Sucker Punch. He is a capable filmmaker in that he understands he deals with a visual medium, but even at his best I find him to be heavy-handed. Not just because of the slo-motion everyone loves to place him in a corner for, but just in how he conveys the script's events. Man of Steel is full of a lot of action that certainly makes up for Bryan Singer's passive Superman Returns. Yet at a certain point, the action becomes joyless and endless and full of carnage that could only exist with post-9/11 imagery. I hate to sound like the hoighty-toighty movie nerd, but I truly did enjoy the quieter scenes in this film more than Superman just pummeling Zod. Even when they were fighting, what they were saying was something I wanted to see be explored more than the trading of punches.

Superman can also do what many consider to be the coolest and most wish fulfilling superpower of all time- he can fly. The moment when Superman first takes flight in Man of Steel is wonderous and handled well from the cinematography to the booming score by Hans Zimmer. The fighting in Smallville and Metropolis just didn't capture that wonder for me. Maybe that is where people get annoyed at Superman. They want to see him be a badass and nothing is less badass than a man having a zen-like moment as he hovers above the ground. It's cool, but fans (and myself included) could care less whether Batman can jump really high as long as he's kicking ass at the same time. The film also tries to work in Superman's backstory from Krypton as a major point of the villain's plot and although it creates an emmotionally tense atmosphere, I can't help but feel it was a convoluted way to bring the story full circle and over-complicate Zod's conquer-all scheme.

Now, I'm mentioning a lot of the negative and I'm only really doing so because it's the easiest to write the most about, but on the positive side- I can't stress how well-acted this film is. For any of the typical tropes of the blockbuster action-movie genre, this film was at least a testament to how just having a damn good cast can elevate the material. Henry Cavill (The Tudors, Immortals) probably gives the best acting performance as Superman on-screen. The emotion he brings to the controversial ending and throughout (especially in flashback scenes involving his upbringing) makes this on-screen version of Superman the most fully formed version there's been. The idea of going with a lesser known actor for such a role does work and it not only makes the performance but the character's arc feel relevatory. The chemistry with Amy Adams' Lois Lane might be lacking the expected 'oomph', but it wasn't as bad as I felt some reviewers were making the relationship out to be. Laurence Fishburne, Kevin Costner, and Russell Crowe all also have some incredible moments, but it's Michael Shannon (Boardwalk Empire, Revolutionary Road) who steals the show.

Zod is such a great villain. He was the brawn to Jor-El's brain and he was sent into an empty void for years because his dedication to his own people was not shared by others. The man therefore embarks on a potential blood feud with the son of his enemy, a young man who doesn't even know his place in the world yet. There's a lot to play with there and Shannon finds every faucet of Zod's character to explore and expose in his performance.

Now back to the grit. I'm not against it, but I do sometimes wonder what it would be like to see the other side. Jeff Jenson recently wrote a great article for Entertainment Weekly about anti-heroes and he pointed out Don Draper's arc on AMC's Mad Men this past season. Don is the biggest dick in the world on that show. He is the villain of his own story like Michael Corleone. He sunk so far this past year and was duely punished for it. So what does he go and do? He shows his shame to his kids in the final moments of the season finale. It spoke a lot more to me than just having him delve deeper into darkness. 

Cue that Aaron Eckhart quote from The Dark Knight about darkness before a very bright dawn.


Now as a fun extra, here are some of my favorite Superman stories that I read as they came out.

-Superman: Birthright by Mark Waid and Leinil Francis Yu
-Superman: Secret Identity by Kurt Busiek and Stuart Immonen
-Mark Millar's Red Son miniseries
-Jeph Loeb's run on Superman/Batman (Public Enemies, Supergirl, Absolute Power, and Vengeance)
-Busiek/Johns' Superman/Action Comics crossover Up, Up, and Away
-Kurt Busiek's Camelot Falls
-The Geoff Johns run on Action Comics (Last Son, Escape from Bizarro World, Legion of Super-Heroes, Brainiac, the Secret Origin miniseries)
-JMS's recent Earth-One graphic novels
-Grant Morrison's Action Comics relaunch
-Infinite Crisis and Final Crisis have some great Superman moments
-The greatest Superman story ever- All-Star Superman by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely