Thursday, May 31, 2012


First things first... throw the special effects out the window.

It is a major concern to me, in the world of film, that most younger moviegoers will dismiss the greatness of the original Superman because of its undeniably antiquated effects.  Sure, the flying scenes and the effects are outdated, but what still remains is arguably one of the best superhero films ever made.  And it is not because of seamless CGI, but because there is a story at the heart of this picture.  Christopher Nolan seems to understand how important narrative is in superhero film while hardly any other director today grasps the concept.  Richard Donner understood the importance of such details almost thirty-five years ago.

Just like baseball and apple pie, the "Great War" and the rolling wheat fields of Kansas, Superman is part of our American thread.  There is no denying this.  It is ingrained in American consciousness more than any other superhero, and Richard Donner understood this aspect of the character from the start.  Superman is told in very deliberate sections of pathos, melodrama, and Americana, until everything forms a complete whole.  The earlierst scenes are perhaps the most famous - or inafamous - of the film.  We meet Superman as an infant, Kal-El, son of Jor-El the ruler of the planet Krypton.  Marlon Brando, who plays Jor-El, was paid an unhealthy sum of money for less than ten minutes of screen time, hence the infamy of these early scenes.  Nevertheless, these moments shape the film, as Kal-El is thrust into space, out of harms way as the planet crumbles behind him, sent to earth to become our protector.  On earth, Kal-El will fall into the arms of Jonathan and Martha Kent, two Kansas farmers who embrace the boy, name him Clark, and try and shape him into the tropes of the world in which he has landed.

The introductory parts of the picture are set up and back story, a venture into space and extraterrestrial details.  And pay attention as there is a great set up for Superman II.  The next section is a slice of Norman Rockwell as Clark grows into a young man.  Once his father on earth, Jonathan, dies, he discovers his true purpose, finds his fortress of solitude, and becomes the hero we all know from the Action Comics of 1938 and beyond.  Despite the old-fashioned feel of the story, in these early moments there is a definite slice of seventies filmmaking in Superman, as his growth into an adult it handled in a space montage reminsicent of Kubrick's 2001.  Here is where we first meet Christopher Reeve as Superman, and here is where anyone my age or older can never again separate the two.

Christopher Reeve is the bumbling, clueless, lovable Clark Kent, and he is the valiant, strong, powerful Superman, all in the swipe of the eyeglasses.  It must be a challenging role, playing two characters at once.  Not enough has ever been said about Reeve's performance but he nails the character with wonderful aplomb.  Once Clark becomes a man and leaves Kansas behind he appears in sprawling Metropolis as a reporter working for the Daily Planet.  He meets Lois Lane (Margot Kidder), the spark plug and consistent love of the rest of his life, who forces him into action before long.  Supes and Lois share an intimate moment in the sky early in the film, in a scene which would never exist in modern filmmaking.

We get the typical scenes early on of Superman strutting his stuff, showing off his powers in an early helicoptor crash scene.  All the while, Donner has kept a firm grip on the subject, making sure that nothing in these central scenes mirrors anything from the earlier moments.  This is the next chapter in the story.  And who could forget the villain?  Superman has never had a Joker or a Green Goblin to battle, but he has had one Lex Luthor, a criminal mastermind intent of a sort of physical domination of the planet.  He loves real estate, he gets it.  It is an understood argument that many superhero films rest on the strength of their villain, which is why casting Gene Hackman, an Oscar winner and hot commodity in 1978, is a stroke of genius.  Hackman tackles the role with a grit and energy and a tongue planted firmly in cheek.  He plays right into the hands of such a wholesome character as Superman.

Then again, look at those effects and consider the fact they were created in 1978.  They are quite believable and effective enough to carry the picture.  Effects should never be a distraction for anyone.  When Lon Chaney Jr. tansforms into the Wolf Man, there is no reason to dismiss the film and prefer the 2010 version.  On top f it all, consider the great screenplay from --- where there are so many memorable lines, the compelling score from ---, and the wonderful action sequences near the end of the picture.  The best films belonging to the realm of blockcuster or summer entertainment are the ones which capture a certain part of the imagination.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Let's Re-Cast Police Academy... Why Not.

I know there have been rumblings of a Police Academy franchise re-boot.  At least I think there has been, and if there hasn't it won't be long.  Also, I have no faith in a re-boot of a franchise that was one of my childhood favorites, and was quite a fun series of films until they hit number five on Miami Beach.  They won't cast this thing right, either because of actor indifference or too many big contracts; either way my dream cast below seems like a long shot.  But this sure is a fun thing to do because of the sprawling central cast and wonderful possibilities.  I have been thinking about this Police Academy cast a lot recently - at least more than any sane person should think about a Police Academy cast - and some of these choices for the new class feel like second nature.  And then there are some tough ones.  I realize some characters come and go, some do not appear until the sequels, but I think these are the most vital characters (if those exist in this world) in the franchise.  Here we go:

First and foremost, the casting of Sargeant Cary Mahoney is key in the success of this new misfit comedy.  Mahoney, the wise-cracking ladies man who was in the foreground of most of the shenanigans, was played with a wink and a nod by Steve Guttenberg as a character as amused with himself as we were watching him.  Perhaps even more in the later films.  Casting Mahoney came easily, as there is but one comedic actor as self aware as Guttenberg in the role.  This seems like a part made for Ryan Reynolds, whose dry wit and perpetual smirk fit the irony of the character.  And of course Reynolds can stick the landing on the ladykiller angle with the best of them.

Next in line behind Mahoney is the grand master of the team of goofballs, one aimless feckless Commandant named Eric Lassard.  Never far from his goldfish, Lassard is just as unaware of his surroundings as Mahoney is aware.  Played by Geogre Gaynes of Punky Brewster fame, Lassard was the lovable dope everyone "reported" to.  This felt like an easy casting chore as well.  Given his age now, his recent success on television, and his ability to play aloof with the best of them, I think Chevy Chase would slide into the role seamlessly.  Chase would bring a different sort of airheaded gullability to the role, carrying that goldfish a bit differently and swinging the golf club with a backstroke of a master physical comedian that Gaynes didn't quite have.

Filling out the ensemble cast might prove a little more difficult in areas.  I whittled away the outliers of the group and came up with a nucleus of five cadets: Tackleberry, Hightower, Hooks, Jones, and Callahan.  Tackleberry, the off-center munitions expert (and my childhood favorite) was played by the late David Graf and I had a tough time nailing down a new mate to fill the role.  I settled on Channing Tatum, whose mixture of muscleheaded machismo and comedic timing would fit perfectly.  For Officer Hightower, the mild-mannered giant who is always there when the cadets need a strong, imposing figure, Michael Clarke Duncan seems like a natural fit to take over the role for the late Bubba Smith.  Hooks had a specific bit.  Played by Marion Ramsey, Hooks was the soft-spoken, genteel officer who, when pushed, began shouting and screaming and scaring everyone around.  Wanda Sykes knows shouting for sure, and I think it would be rather amusing to see her stay bottled up before unleashing one of her patented tirades. 

Jones was the sound-effects guru Michael Winslow, who never had much to do other than make funny noises with his mouth and play a rather insensitive Kung-Fu trainer.  I don't know anyone who does the noises, but I do know Saturday Night Live's Jay Pharoah, the master impersonator with a great set of facial features.  Maybe they could take Jones in a different direction, impersonating voices to stir up trouble.  Callahan was the buxom blonde whose only trick was her impeccibly robust breasts causing distraction.  Rarely without her aviators, Callahan may not have had a large part to play, but it was vital to the comedy.  I say put Scarlett Johannson here, slap a bleach-blonde wig on her, hide her face with some oversized aviators, and let her chest take care of the comedy.  You could even shrink her role even more to something just above a cameo to heighten the comedy of her character and the fact that it is Johansson in the part.

There are some villains to consider as well, like Captain Harris and his sidekick Proctor.  G.W. Bailey's Harris was consistently the butt of the joke, always in the crosshairs of Mahoney and the cadets and a perpetual step behind.  And there was his sidekick, the bumbling dope Proctor played by Lance Kinsey.  These are two tough casting calls, but for Harris I thought Kevin Spacey could nail this role down, channeling his wickedness from Horrible Bosses.  This is a long shot, and a big star for a role like this, but Spacey fits in my mind.  And as for Proctor, well, is there anyone else other than Michael Cera who could fit this timid moron better?  I don't think so.

Sure, this is a pipe dream casting the new Police Academy, but I must say it was fun to revisit a childhood favorite and try and fit in the right characters for the parts.  It could really be something funny and inventive, but I feel like it won't be once casting begins.  Expect a lot of unknowns to fill out the list, and don't expect anyone to call Kevin Spacey.

Monday, May 28, 2012

In Celebration of Memorial Day, My Top 10 War Films.

FROM APRIL 20, 2010:

This was a tough list to narrow down. When you start looking at the history of war films, the catalog grows and grows and the page could fill with great cinematic moments. The following pictures are prominently war movies, dealing with combat, soldiers, the horrors of conflict. This in order to shorten the list and separate films like Schindler’s List and MASH, films that take place during war but do not directly examine the psychology of combat. Rather, they approach it through different avenues:

10) All Quiet on the Western Front –
There is a stigma about war pictures from the thirties and forties, that they all are very positive in their approach to war. They are the “pro-war” films that disappeared after Vietnam. But All Quiet on the Western Front, released in 1930, was an exception to that rule. The story revolves around a group of German schoolboys who are coaxed into fighting in World War I and discover the horrors and the disillusionment with killing. Aside form having the coolest title on the list, All Quiet is perhaps the only great war picture to deal with the first World War.

9) The Hurt Locker – This might find its way further up the list in later years, but for now there are eight pictures with a more solid foundation. Nevertheless, Kathryn Bigelow’s taut action film, set in the midst of the most recent war in the Middle East, never leans one way or another on the political side of things. Instead, she allows the performances from Jeremy Renner, the reckless bomb technician, and Anthony Mackie, the levelheaded company man, divide the thoughts and opinions of the war. This is the first great picture about the war in Iraq, one that is sure to get imitators now that it won Best Picture.

8) Glory – Somehow, when war films are being discussed, this Civil War epic from Edward Zwick gets overlooked. Perhaps because it deals with the Civil War. Telling the true story of Robert Gould Shaw (Matthew Broderick, really stretching his abilities here), the leader of the Civil War’s first all black volunteer company, Glory not only has some inspired fight scenes, it also has what is arguably still the greatest performance of Denzel Washington’s career. Glory handles prejudices and mindsets deftly, and never shies away from the way things must have been.

7) The Deer Hunter – Michael Cimino’s Academy-Award winning film is a lot of things, all revolving around what adds up to a brief act in the actual Vietnam conflict. This one is memorable for specific scenes, namely the roulette scene in Vietnam that aroused much controversy for its factual liberties. And there is the wedding scene, an hour-long opening act that could be its own short film. But that wedding scene, and the camaraderie between the men at the center of this story is vital in understanding how the war ultimately affects them. With a solid performance from Robert DeNiro, and an astounding turn from a young Christopher Walken, this is a heartbreaking picture with flashes of brutality and psychological horror that will forever stand in the pantheon of war pictures.

6) Full Metal Jacket – Stanley Kubrick’s journey through the hell of Vietnam does not start on the battlefield. Rather, it begins in boot camp, and takes an unabashed look at the psychological damage a hard-driving drill sergeant could have had on this poor young men who had no other choice but to saddle up, shave their head, and carry a rifle. Vincent D’Onofrio gives a truly haunting performance as Private Pyle, a performance that truly dominates the memory of most. What many forget is that Private Pyle’s decent into madness is but the first act of the film. The remainder revolves around Joker (Matthew Modine) and his platoon fighting their way out of a city in Vietnam. What begins as seemingly a pro-war film evolves into something much darker, more disturbing by the end.

5) Platoon – Oliver Stone borrowed from his own experiences in Vietnam, telling a semi-autobiographical tale about a young man who leaves college to fight in the war. Platoon is heavily an anti-war picture, but some great acting represents the two sides here. There is the pro-war side, led by Tom Berenger as a badly scarred – mentally and physically – Sgt. Barnes, a vicious monster who relishes in pain and bloodshed. And there is the antir-war side, led by a pot-smoking company man just making his way, Elias (Willem Dafoe). Both sides have their followers and the detractors, and the division is seemingly down the lines of hippies and bureaucrats in America.

4) The Longest Day – This is perhaps remembered as John Wayne’s best war picture, but the cast of stars here is unsurpassed by any other film. Telling the story of the D-Day invasion on the beaches of Normandy, The Longest Day stars Wayne, Robert Mitchum, Sean Connery, Robert Wagner, Rod Steiger, Sal Mineo, Roddy McDowall, Peter Lawford, Henry Fonda, Richard Burton… the list goes on. The Longest Day also looks at the conflict that day from both the German and American sides, an unprecedented idea at the time, and the action and battle scenes still hold up today thanks to the expansive cast of great talents.

3) Apocalypse Now – As much of an undoing of Francis Ford Coppola and the cast as it was an undoing of the idea of Vietnam, Apocalypse Now is an epic adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, set against the backdrop of Southeast Asia. The performances here go beyond the screen; Martin Sheen as Captain Willard and Marlon Brando as the insane Colonel Kurtz hold a spot in our imagination as truly haunting, disturbed human beings whose destinies are seemingly foregone conclusions. Dealing not only with the horrors of war, but the horrors of humanity and of the dark places in the mind, Apocalypse Now transcends genre and indicts human existence more than it does any specific war.

2) The Thin Red Line – Depending on what day you catch me, Terrance Malick’s meditative war epic might be number one on my list. But today, it is a close number two. The Thin Red Line, much like The Longest Day, is littered with stars: Sean Penn, Nick Nolte, Jim Caveizel, Adrian Brody, John Travolta, Woody Harrelson, Elias Koteas, Jared Leto, to name a few. But what makes Malick’s vision so unique is the eye of Malick himself, the way he observes not only the gun battles or the horrors of war, but the nature in which these events unfold. Firebombs and bullets rip through not only people, but place as well. Malick has always been anxious to tie humanity in with nature, and doing it in the setting of the battle in the pacific lends to some beautiful photography.

1) Saving Private Ryan – No surprise here. What is a surprise, what is so amazing in its banality, is the Academy’s decision to reward Shakespeare in Love with Best Picture over Steven Spielberg’s everlasting war masterpiece. No other picture, not even The Longest Day, has done justice to the chaos, the madness, the bloodshed that took place that day in June of 1944 on the beaches of Normandy. And the cast, from Tom Hanks to Matt Damon and all the way through, disappears into their roles here. These actors look and feel and are textured as soldiers in World War II. Dialogue is evenly distributed between battle sequences throughout that are epic in each their own way. While the narrative drive is specific, the larger scope of the picture is all encompassing, and an unforgettable experience.

SHOUTOUTS: To Patton and The Bridge on the River Kwai, to great war films that I just couldn't find a spot to fit in.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Saturday Scatter: Trailers, Trailers, Trailers!!!

This past week has brought about a whole slew of trailers for big fall and holiday pictures.  The scale and scope couldn't be more varied, and the initial reactions could not be more polarizing, especially for one classical adaptation.  One trailer seems to have everyone in its corner, and that is the new James Bond film, Skyfall, from Sam Mendes:

The trailer looks pretty cool for sure, and it looks like Daniel Craig as Bond might be back after the disastrous Quantum of Solace.  Then again, Quantum looked solid in the trailers and it had an unconventional director (Marc Forster).  That being said, I have more faith in Mendes and his ability to transition to action spectacle.

Up next might be the most polarizing of the new trailers, Baz Luhrmann's hyperkinetic adaptation of The Great Gatsby might be the most divisive in a while.  Some are stark raving mad at his hopped-up style and spastic visuals attached to such a celebrated piece of American literature:

I say, let Luhrmann do his thing. With this cast and this director anything is possible.

Up next is my most anticipated film of the year.  And if you respect genius filmmaking, innovation, and freshness, it should be yours as well.  This is The Master, Paul Thomas Anderson's latest picture, a film mirroring the birth of Scientology.  And this trailer, showing only one of the film's stars (Joaquin Phoenix) and keeping the "master" himself, Philip Seymour Hoffman, offscreen, is quite a bold and brilliant stroke:

Intrigue, mystery, a hint of the seductive score from Radiohead's Johnny Greenwood, The Master is going to be masterful.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

THURSDAY THROWBACK: Men in Black (1997)

The original Men in Black came out at a time when Will Smith was at the height of his powers as a summer blockbuster wunderkind.  And the pairing of Smith, bold and cocky and quick-witted, with the tight-lipped straight arrow that is Tommy Lee Jones was a match that struck gold.  Aside from the pairing of Smith and Jones, Men in Black also came out at a time before alien fatigue had set in across the world.  Alien movies are a staple of the Hollywood landscape, with nearly every other big-budget summer flick involving extraterrestrials in some for or another.  While they were around in 1997, the well didn't seem as dry as it does today.  And if this weren't enough, Men in Black had a fresh spin on the whole genre.

Smith plays, of course, a young hotshot New York detective James Edwards who we see early on cracking wise and bringing down baddies in the street.  It just so happens that James Edwards has been recruited by a super-duper top secret organization who police Earth and hunt down aliens.  James is recruited by K (Jones) a no-nonsense straight arrow agent who tells James he must help them to stop the threat of some aliens to blow up the world.  These are intergalactic terrorists.  Naturally, James doesn't buy in at first, it takes some coaxing and a handful of wisecracks before K takes him to see the "office."

Part of the joy of this first Men in Black is seeing this world of agents for the first time.  It is a bright and vibrant world, and a funny moment comes when we see a list of known aliens on a big board and we can spot Sly Stallone and Al Roker among others.  The men also have a great list of toys, including a red-laser mind eraser and a few fast cars.  Eventually James - whose name is changed to J - is convinced and saddles up with K to thwart the alien terrorist plot.  And the special effects explode all over the screen.  Even for 1997 the effects are quite solid and convincing, especially in an early scene where an alien takes over the body of a farmer played by Vincent D'Onofrio and his skin hangs and is slack in a few spots.

The plot development always takes a back seat in films of this ilk.  Basically, the development of the plot is a Macguffin set up to show off effects and extravaganzas.  Director Barry Sonnenfeld, a known tech guru who writes tech pieces for Esquire magazine, directs Men in Black with less regard for plot and more regard for pure fun, and the final showdown between the Men and the monsters taking place in New York is a splendid payoff to everything that has come before.  Smith and Jones also prove to be wonderfully charismatic companions, each with their own style to bring to the picture.

Men in Black II was a disaster.  There is no other way to put it.  Part of that misfire was due to the writer's strike back when films in the early 2000s were rushed into production.  Fortunately, MIB2 is not vital to understanding the back story of these characters and the layout of this universe.  To catch up on the players in the upcoming MIB3, I suggest looking right past the first sequel and enjoy the original for what it is.  And who could forget about that catchy little jingle from Will Smith which accompanied the success of the film in the summer of '97?

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

THE BOND VOYAGE: #3 - Goldfinger (1964)

"Do you expect me to talk?"

- "No Mr. Bond... I expect you to die."

The producers were in the zone once Goldfinger was released in 1964, just a year after From Russia With Love upped the ante and the quality of the Bond franchise from the debut film, Dr. NoGoldfinger is widely regarded as the best and most complete of th eJames Bond pictures, and a great film in its own right.  Those assumptions are accurate, as almost every element of this third Bond picture is iconic.  The extravagance of the villain grows, the henchmen become more vital, the women more beautifully abundant, and Sean Connery is at his very best as 007.  This was the sweet spot of the franchise, where parody had not yet enetered American pop culture and soiled some of the imagery.  No, this film is played straight, with just the slightest hint of a smirk, and it all gels into near perfection.

The first thing to notice with Goldfinger is the introduction of the now-famous, often poorly made title song (which stopped with the rebirth of the character in 2006).  It is Shirley Bassey, doing her best impersonation of a young Tina Turner as she croons "Goldfinger" over another first: the use of Connery as Bond from the previous films.  The flamboyance of these opening titles surely began a trend. 

This time around, 007 is dispatched to Fort Knox, where Auric Goldfinger plans on cleaning out the Federal Reserve and bankrupting the world economy.  The megalomania has begun to creep in to the chatracterization of Bond villains, and nobody can do it quite as well as Gert Frobe here in the first and best of the super villains.  In every scene, Goldfinger is wearing some sort of yellow or golden-hued clothing.  Sometimes, it is a golden pistol.  The most memorable of the early sequences, where Bond must meet and befriend Auric in order to get close to him, is the golf scenes.  Here, we meet Goldfinger's driver, his trusted henchmen, Oddjob, still the best assistant baddie in the Bond universe this side of Jaws.  Oddjob's deadly bowler hat gets to show off early on, and Bond takes note.

The narrative of this film is fairly straight-forward, especially when compared to the needed complexities in the later Bond pictures as the World began shrinking.  Goldfinger plans on stealing all the gold in Fort Knox, Bond is here to stop him.  For the first time, we get the Aston Martin, fully equipped with all of the toys and the tools Bond needs to stop Auric.  There is also a certain Bond girl named Pussy Galore (Honor Blackman), a beautiful vixen playing both sides of the fence.  The name brings a snicker, sure, but it's playing on the sexual nature of these films, and such an overstated sexual name may be used to combat the phallic nature of, well, the entire Bond franchise.  While Galore is Goldfinger's personal pilot,  she cannot help but fall prey to Bond's charm.  This places her in a terrible situation later in the film, as she is found covered in gold paint in one of the more iconic scenes.

Goldfinger is great as its own film, but as a Bond picture it exemplifies everything which has been right with this franchise for decades.  It is a film of firsts, including the first villain intent on World domination, the first title song, and the introduction of the legendary Aston Martin.  There is also some playfulness here with the introduction of Pussy Galore, and the recognition that a great deal of Bond'a appeal as a hero is his way with women.  I say it works, because everything works in Goldfinger.  I am certain they may not - better yet they will not - always work the same way in every subsequent picture.


Wednesday, May 9, 2012

THE BOND VOYAGE: #2 - From Russia With Love (1963)

The most noticeable thing about this second James Bond adventure is the confidence everyone involved has in the character and the storyline, a storyline which would become something of a commonplace in the franchise.  Dr. No felt rough around the edges, the grip on the character seemed loose - and deservedly so as this was the first film.  But the success of Dr. No must not be overlooked when considering the brilliance and deft skill of From Russia With Love.  Without the test run elements of the first film, producers Albert Broccoli and Harry Saltzman wouldn't have known what worked and what didn't with the character.  When people cite Sean Connery as the best Bond, they look at this picture and the one to follow.  From Russia With Love shows us all the elements of Bond fare: the action, the women, the gadgets, the score from John Barry, the villain, and indeed the debonair Bond.  This time around, James Bond is less coarse, more smooth, and Connery holds just a little more arch in that eyebrow.

We begin with the villains in a clever opening sequence.  SPECTRE, the evil adversary to Bond throughout the years, is planning to steal an encoding machine from the Russians, and they also plan on luring James Bond into a trap at the same time.  The plan requires Bond to snag the encoding device, and have it stolen by Red Grant (the great Robert Shaw), who is also in charge of killing 007.  This scheme requires, of course, an alluring Russian beauty, Tatiana Romanova (Daniela Bianchi).  The plot leads Bond to Istanbul, where he hunts for the encoding device whilst avoiding the murderous eye of Red Grant.  Behind the scenes is Blofeld, the leader of SPECTRE, seen only from behind stroking a white Persian.  We get the sense he will return in a later picture.

Bond has his normal connections throughout the film, including his boss M (Bernard Lee) and the secretary, Miss Moneypenny (Lois Maxwell), whose long-standing sexual tension with Bond will make one of the better running gags of the series.  But somehow I think in these earlier films, before sexual harassment became a court case, the flirtation and advances of Bond might be more digressive.  A newcomer to this film is Q, who would appear from here on out.  Q is the gadget man, and here he shows Bond an exploding briefcase and a specialized rifle among a handful of other things.  The simplicity of these devices when compared to the more modern Bond films makes one long for simpler times. 

Under everything is the familiar score from John Barry, coursing through the veins of the film like the lifeblood of Bond himself.  The rolling energy of the score adds more urgency, suspense and style to the proceedings.  And speaking of suspense, there is considerably more action in From Russia With Love, as Bond becomes more of a skilled hero.  Connery had undeniable confidence as Bond in Dr. No, otherwise he wouldn't have gotten the part.  But he seems to understand what makes this super spy tick this time around, and he is having much more fun.  And it helps that the villains, mainly Robert Shaw himself, are more prevalent and influential to the narrative than Dr. No in the original film.

I got a kick out of the opening title sequence, decidedly sixties in its overt sexuality.  Bond was a character made for the decade, and I am beginning to wonder if the shifting times had more to do with the nosedive in quality Bond films.  But as it stands now, From Russia With Love is a strong entry, and we are only two films in. 


Monday, May 7, 2012

Marvel's The Avengers

MARVEL'S THE AVENGERS: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner (138 min.)

After four years and five films, we have reached the payoff for Marvel fans, superhero fans, and comic book fans.  The Avengers have assembled to catapult the 2012 Summer box office into the stratosphere.  It is a good start to the year.  Since 2008, Marvel has banked on this film, putting all their chips on the table over a span of four years where we met these characters individually and tossed in some set up each time.  It has to be the most ambitious strategic maneuvering from a studio (technically, Marvel wasn't a studio until last year) in the history of film.  So, needless to say, this pinnacle film could not fail.  It had to succeed on a financial level, and thus must be good enough to satisfy fans from the casual to the fervent.  I can't imagine anyone being unhappy with this finished product as a whole, which is not to say we are done with these heroes by a longshot.

Loki (Tom Hiddleston), the evil brother of the Norse God Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and the adversary in the 2011 film Thor, is the villain stirring up trouble in The Avengers.  As the film opens, he boldly strides into the base camp of SHIELD, led by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, being so very Samuel L. Jackson here), and swipes the Tesseract, a cube holding the power to open up time portals.  Loki plans to open up a portal and release and army of aliens on the planet, therein becoming supreme ruler of the world.  You know, the usual.  After the attack leaves the SHIELD compound in shambles, Fury goes against his bosses, "the committee," and re-activates the Avengers Initiative.  This leads us to an obligatory introduction of our heroes who are currently spread across the globe... and beyond.

The collection of scenes introducing our heroes is mandatory, but done with patience and style by director Joss Whedon.  There is Tony Stark, a.k.a. Iron Man, the billionaire playboy and wisecracking genius who is reluctant to join in the fight.  There is also Steve Rogers, Captain America, who we saw most recently of the team in last July's Captain America: The First Avenger.  Rogers is still living in his manufactured forties environment, afraid of the new world.  And there is Dr. Bruce Banner, hiding out in the far reaches of the earth trying to keep his, ahem, anger issues in check so he doesn't get big and green and wreak havoc.  Replacing Edward Norton here is Mark Ruffalo as Banner, and he somehow fits the character better than Norton.  And of course there is Thor, who appears from Asgaard with his own hammer to grind against Loki.  Along for the ride is Black Widow, a spy and martial arts expert played by Scarlett Johansson, and Hawkeye, an expert archer played by Jeremy Renner.

The Avengers are assembled on SHIELD's backup base, a nifty aircraft carrier which doubles as a hovercraft with a cloaking device.  Of course, with these egos in the room, it's tough for everyone to simply get along from the start.  These heroes butt heads and each try to posture for positioning.  But they soon discover there is no time to battle each other, as Loki positions the Tesseract and opens up a portal to bring ultimate death and destruction.  These heroes put their egos aside and learn to work together to bring down Loki and foil his plan.

The final act of The Avengers is what you would expect.  There are explosions on top of explosions and faceless attackers coming at our heroes from all sides.  While Hiddleston as Loki has significantly more to do here than in Thor, and is more effective as a villain, I would have liked more definition on the evil side from him and from his army that is difficult to make out in the fast-paced battles.  The action is perfectly balanced as each of the Avengers are given their moment to show off.  My personal favorite has always been The Hulk, and once Banner can no longer keep his anger in check the appearance of the not-so-jolly Green Giant is a delight.  We have reached a point now where big-budget CGI is really not an issue anymore, it is that seamless, and the appearance of The Hulk is evidence of technology reaching a satisfying point for the character to be legit.

Robert Downey Jr. is, naturally, the most entertaining of the bunch.  Part of that is his character Stark, and a larger part of it is probably Downey's undeniable charm.  Evans is solid, Hemsworth the same, and as I mentioned Ruffalo is an upgrade as the brain Dr. Banner.  A large portion of the opening scenes are filmed at night, which I felt was odd.  I always like day time in a film like this.  But Whedon shows patience with his directing, building a story under the action like a bed of pathos so we are engaged by the time Manhattan is under fire.  Marvel's The Avengers is a more-than-satisfying payoff for fans of these franchises, and quite a wonderful entertainment for even the most casual Marvel student.


Friday, May 4, 2012


This is the film which started this entire Avengers ball rolling.  And it just so happens to be the best picture of them all.  Sometimes, things just work out in casting and storytelling, and Iron Man is the perfect example of actor and subject matching at the right time in the right place.  Robert Downey Jr. carries Iron Man more than any other actor has ever done in a superhero film, and the result is one of the three or four best superhero films of all time.  Bringing the billionaire playboy to the screen was never an easy task, but Jon Favreau managed to organize everything with the picture.  Iron Man never had the fanfare of Batman or Superman, but I guarantee you, after Favreau's first foray into the genre, he picked up some steam.

Downey plays Tony Stark, the smooth, brilliant billionaire playboy, heir to his father's defense corporation.  Stark Industries specializes in creating weapons of mass destruction, and as the film opens Stark is showing off his new toy in the Middle East.  His vehicle is attacked and he is captured by terrorists.  These villains are intent on forcing Stark to build them a bomb, and they hold him hostage in a cave.  Stark must also create a device to place around his heart to keep shrapnel from entering his heart and killing him.  In this cave, Stark builds the prototype of Iron Man, a giant metal suit of armor.  Once he escapes in this original suit, Stark has a change of heart, and a few ideas on how to refine his armor to something more practical.

The creation of Iron Man in the hands of Downey is one of the joys of the film.  As Stark, Downey is in his comfort zone of sarcasm as he flirts incessantly with his assistant, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and tests out suits until he gets it right.  This Iron Man film was maybe more vital to the character than any Superman, Spider Man, or Batman film because for many this was a formal introduction to the character.  Favreau understands this and has the pacing down pat.  The introduction of Iron Man strutting his stuff is in a glorious day time sequence where we can see everything. 

Iron Man may be lacking a strong villain, but Jeff Bridges' jealous Obadiah Stane comes as close as possible.  The final showdown between  Stane and Stark is more thrilling than anything you can find in Iron Man 2, and it isn't even the best part of this original film.  The Avengers film series started with the best, and it's not that any of the other films are bad, it's just that none of them ever had the charm of the original Iron Man.


Thursday, May 3, 2012


The following is my review of Thor from last May...

THOR: Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Stellan Skarsgard, Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Hopkins (105 min.)

I’ve always contested that Thor would be the toughest sell for the Marvel Universe and the upcoming Avengers. Here is a character from another planet, not simply a man who has discovered a power or a suit. The celestial background of Thor adds an element to the story that is unfamiliar to most superheroes, and all other superheroes in The Avengers, so the film will have to carry a certain amount of dedication and weight in order to come across as anything more than silliness. Director Kenneth Branagh is the perfect answer for this dilemma, a director of certain seriousness and weight, classically trained in Shakespeare and able to balance a story between Earth and the extravagance of a mythological realm. Most of the time, Thor works. Sometimes, it doesn’t.

Chris Hemsworth, a gigantic specimen who seems to have been born to play this character, is Thor. Thor is the son of Odin, the great king of Asgard played by Anthony Hopkins, and as the film opens Thor is about to be handed the throne. But the villainous, cool-looking Frost Giants return to Asgard and threaten the peace of this world. Against Odin’s orders, Thor travels to the land of the Frost Giants (I realize this sounds corny, but as I said this film requires greater suspension of disbelief than most superhero films) to destroy their ruler. A battle ensues and Thor must be rescued by Odin, who is furious at his son’s arrogance and careless nature. Odin strips Thor of his power and casts him out of Asgard and down to Earth through a wormhole. His source of power, a hammer, is sent through the wormhole behind him and crashes into the New Mexico desert.

All of this is to be simply understood by the audience. The people on Asgard can travel through wormholes and over rainbow bridges and they can fly and do really whatever they need to do at the moment. There is a certain lack of rules in the celestial world, elements of these characters’ power we are simply supposed to accept, and this is a bit troublesome. When Thor falls to Earth, however, the picture really gets its footing.

Thor is the fish out of water in New Mexico, discovered by scientist Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), her mentor Erik (Stellan Skarsgard), and her assistant/comic relief Darcy (the wry Kat Dennings). They take him to eat where he “demands sustenance” and throws his coffee cup to the ground. There are some comedic moments early on here, and it allows Jane and Thor to develop their flirtatious relationship. Hemsworth and Portman thankfully have quite a bit of chemistry, a subtle and quiet chemistry that is never overplayed. Thor attempts to reclaim his hammer, and this is where we meet Agent Coulsen (Clark Gregg) of S.H.I.E.L.D., and The Avengers storyline begins to interweave. Pay close attention to the cameo of Jeremy Renner; there will be a test later.

Where Thor falters is in the intercut story taking place back on Asgard, where Thor’s jealous brother Loki has taken control of Asgard and tries to keep Thor on Earth. Loki is played by Tom Hiddleston and is quite good as the villain, but the scenes on Asgard are murky and dark and stop any momentum generated by the time on Earth. I enjoyed the opening battle sequence and the climax on Asgard, but those brief scenes throughout the meat of the film are dull. Of course, I don’t see how anything could be changed because the story on Asgard is pivotal. I just wish someone would turn on the lights.

Thor is a solid entry into the Marvel film train that is rolling right along to the Avengers film next summer. I enjoy the tie-ins and the references to other characters. Thor is about as good as The Incredible Hulk, much better than Iron Man 2, not quite as solid as the original Iron Man. This was the toughest character to tackle in this universe and for the most part Branagh has served the story well. Although the rules of Asgard are a bit rushed, and the scenes on Asgard in the middle of the picture are forgettable, Hemsworth is a fantastic leading man here. He oozes charisma as Thor. The performances here are all good because everyone here takes it seriously. Had there been a wink from anyone in the other direction, the entire thing might have fallen apart.


Wednesday, May 2, 2012

THE AVENGERS MOVIE COUNTDOWN: #3, Captain America: The First Avenger

* The following is my review of Captain America from last July...

CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER: Chris Evans, Hayley Atwell, Tommy Lee Jones, Stanley Tucci (121 min.)

The final piece of The Avengers puzzle has been put into place with Captain America: The First Avenger. The film, from a maligned director, a suspect leading man, and a difficult task, manages these complications admirably, although it does not come out of things unscathed. It might be a little lumbering at times, and the editing has some major issues, but overall I was impressed by the look of Captain America. And the feel of it all. All of the issues going in were not issues at all once the film got rolling. But a few other may have popped up along the way.

Captain America is Steve Rogers, the prototypical 90-pound weakling from the muscle-man ads you used to find in the back of comic books. Through the help of some seamless SCGI work, Chris Evans plays this fragile Rogers as a man whose heart is too big to live inside this asthmatic with countless health issues keeping him from enlisting in the Army. All he wants to do is fight, and his courage is immeasurable. He catches the attention of one Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci), who talks Steve into volunteering for his top-secret military program. Rogers gladly volunteers. The unit is led by Colonel Phillips, played perfectly by (who else?) Tommy Lee Jones. Jones nails the comedy and wit, and as Phillips is reluctant to see the heroism inside this frail kid. But after a test shows Rogers’ mettle, Phillips has no choice but to embrace the decision to make Rogers the first super solider.

Rogers is transformed into a huge, hulking beast of a man, faster and stronger than anyone else. The operation is headed by Howard Stark, the Military’s number one weapons manufacturer. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because Howard Stark is the father of Tony, a.k.a. Iron Man. Along for the ride as well is Peggy Carter, a hard-nosed Military woman played by Hayley Atwell. Peggy is, of course, the romantic interest, but Atwell makes her tough enough to be memorable in this world of men.

Unlike Iron Man, or The Incredible Hulk, there is a definitive villain in the Captain America legend which is a great advantage for the story itself. Hugo Weaving plays Johann Schmidt, one of Hitler’s finest soldiers who has branched away from the fürher and is in search of a higher power, one which will quicken his attempt at world domination. Schmidt is the leader of HYDRA, a branch of the Nazi party. He is also the Red Skull, as his face is a furious red/orange skeleton behind a human mask of Weaving. Hugo Weaving is perfect tonally as The Red Skull, seething menace and anger as he attempts to dominate the planet. And his look, the sharp red skeleton, is fascinating, just as I imagined it from the comics.

Meanwhile, Rogers has been exposed as the superhero of the War, and thus is reduced to traveling road shows, selling bonds to Americans while wearing a ridiculous version of his eventual costume and phantom-punching an actor dressed as Hitler. The rationale is, he is but one man, what could he do to try and save the world without a thousand others like him? The answer is, Rogers has the heart to do quite a lot.

In the second half, Captain America becomes a series of attacks on HYDRA locations by Rogers and the assembly of soldiers he collects. With the help of Stark and Peggy, Rogers fine tunes his costume to make it more user friendly and much tougher. And of course there is the shield, created by Stark, which becomes a great weapon for Rogers as he mows down HYDRA henchmen on his way to a one-on-one showdown with The Red Skull. Some of the action here has poor editing; it’s like the spatial elements were out of sync and it took a minute to figure out who was attacking who and where they were coming from. Things move at a furious clip during the action and could have been aided by some more confidence in the editing room. And the film naturally sags in certain areas, which seem in hindsight to be unavoidable lapses in the action.

Captain America
looks beautiful, and the acting is all quality. The best way to dilute the focus on Evans himself is to surround him by actors like Stanley Tucci and Tommy Lee Jones, which is not to say Evans does a poor job. He is quite good, but he feeds off these other actors and it helps to elevate his game. This is a classic throwback film, an adventure story which embellishes the newsreel mentality of the 40s serials. There are moments that are direct homages to Raiders of the Lost Ark and the Star Wars films, and I enjoyed these subtle winks. Captain America is a fun summer film, nothing more and nothing less, and it is a solid entry into The Avengers franchise. This is the final piece, and with all the things stacked against it the film manages to fight the odds. Kind of like Steve Rogers himself.


Tuesday, May 1, 2012

THE AVENGERS COUNTDOWN: #4, The Incredible Hulk

I debated where to put this version of the big green beast, this version that includes itself in the canon of the upcoming Avengers film.  It is noticeably better than Iron Man 2, but not without a few flaws.  Some flaws are unavoidable, some are easy to fix.  As much as there is to like about Louis Letterier's The Incredible Hulk, it is not quite as good as number three on this list.  And despite the shift in sentiment over the years, despite the growing throng of apologists, Ang Lee's 2003 version, Hulk (which is not tied to The Avengers at all) is not a good film.  It is nowhere near this 2008 version on a level of pure entertainment.  This film knows its place and does not try to outweigh action spectacle with some sort of psychoanalytic nonsense.  This is what fans of The Incredible Hulk want to see.

The Incredible Hulk stars Edward Norton as the brilliant Dr. Bruce Banner, who is tortured by the gamma radiation experiment that causes him to turn into a gigantic, raging green monster.  A nice move by the film is to show Banner's experiment gone awry in an opening title sequence, pushing us past the normal set up and into the life of the character.  As the film opens, Banner is in South America studying alternative methods of anger management, proper breathing and the like.  But there is the General, Thunderbolt Ross (William Hurt) and his single-minded desire to capture Banner and extract his "Hulk Juice" in hopes of creating an army.  When you have a General and an entire military on your tail, it's tough to stay calm.  Before long, the beast is unleashed and the film basically turns into a chase sequence with some spectacular visuals and watered-down acting.

Liv Tyler plays Betty Ross, Banner's love interest and daughter of the General, and she is underused and forgettable.  Tim Roth is Blonsky, a fierce soldier under Ross who becomes Hulk's equal later in the film.  But Roth is one not as well.  Norton does a fine job as the human incarnation of Banner, but we all know the not-so-jolly green giant is the main draw here.  The CGI is decidedly more believable this time around than the glowing green version in 2003.  The central fight scene takes place on a college campus during the day, so we are able to enjoy the transformation and the power of the Hulk in clear sunshine rather than darkness.  Which, in turn, becomes the problem with the final fight between Hulk and Blonsky's incarnation; too dark and dizzying.

The Hulk may be the most difficult superhero to film and keep interesting because of a number of issues.  First, he is all green rage and shouting and destruction, it's Banner who has the dialogue.  Second, the Hulk takes more work to look realistic than simply putting a costume on a human.  He is all CGI, and must be convincing as such.  The Incredible Hulk manages to pass these tests; oddly enough, it's the human element that holds the film back.