Friday, August 28, 2015
Monday, August 24, 2015
Now we come to the penultimate film of Marvel's Phase One. This film, is not perfect, but it has a charm to it.
The movie opens in the modern day with a group of SHIELD agents exploring the Arctic and discovering Captain America. We then flashback to about halfway through America’s involvement in World War 2 (c. Late-1942, early-1943)
The scrawny Steve Rogers is trying to join the war effort, going to recruitment centers all over the greater New York/Newark area —and is rejected by every single one of them. He is small, about 5 feet, has asthma, and an slew of health problems. He also gets into fights with bullies, never backing down but only failing to get the snot beat out of him because of the intervention of his best friend, Bucky.
Eventually, at the Stark Expo, put on by Stark’s father, Bucky picks up Clara Oswald (Really!) and Steve tries to enlist again, but is found out by Abraham Erskine, who somehow figures out about his failed enlistments at other recruitment centers —and promptly enlists him in a top secret government program and thus he is shipped off to an Army boot camp under the purview of Colonel Chester Philips (Tommy Lee Jones), who heads the program, and the beautiful stiff-upper-lip British Army attaché, Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell).
In Rudy-like manner he quickly proves himself a good soldier and a good man who is brave and willing to think outside the box to find solutions. Oh, and a bit of a romance blossoms between him and Carter. (But you saw that one coming, didn’t you?)
Soon, at the insistence of Erskine, he is picked for the program and taken to a secret lab in Brooklyn where he is given a super-soldier serum and, after taking on a HYDRA saboteur, becomes Captain America —for War Bonds shows.
And is stuck there until he goes on a mission, without higher approval, with Howard Stark and Peggy Carter and single-handedly rescues a group of POWs who become the Howling Commandoes.
About the Movie
This movie is just charming. No matter what its flaws every time I finish it I just get a smile on my face, despite the sadder-than-usual ending. This movie should be utterly bland and yet, it is quite fun.
For one thing, all of the characters feel like a stock character from a 1940s war movie. Steve Rogers is the all-American boy, Peggy Carter is your stiff-upper-lip British officer crossed with 1940s tough gal, and Chester Phillips is your gruff, old American soldier. The same goes for the rest of the Howling Commandoes. Even the villains act like the cheesy villains from a 1940s movie serial or pulp magazine.
Now, this could easily go wrong and result in giving us the cheesiest, blandest, annoying set of characters but it doesn’t. Perhaps because they are so familiar we feel like we know them the moment we see them. This makes the characters, especially the Howling Commandoes, seem incredibly fleshed out. Even though they have only a handful of lines each and probably can’t remember their names without consulting a wiki. Their mannerisms, clothing, and overall demeanor tells us everything we need to know about each of them.
The cinematography, too, adds to the 1940s feel. The scenes depicting Steve Rogers are full of Norman Rockwell-esque colors and lighting.
Like all Marvel movies, this one is a live-action Saturday Morning Cartoon, and it delivers the goods in that department.
But there is one area in which this movie is a tad unique, and that is in the two leads, Steve and Peggy. Throughout the movie, as far as romantic leads go, they are ok. As a couple they are far more interesting than Thor and Jane but not as fun as Tony and Pepper.
But the end of the movie does something that takes them probably the most interesting couple in the Marvel movie universe.
Now, here I’m going to put a SPOILER warning so if you have not seen this movie or Avengers, Captain America: Winter Soldier, Avengers 2, or Ant-Man then read no further!
If you’ve seen the movie, or, heck, the ones I just listed, then you might know how it ends. Steve gets stuck in the ice and Peggy grows old without him.
In my opinion, it is after their separation that they became really fascinating. For both of them the other represents the one chance they had for something resembling a normal life, and without each other Two people who were meant to be but never can be.
That added a dynamic to them that was unique to them and unlike any of the other Marvel movie couples. At least for now.
So, in the end, a fun, enjoyable movie.
Posted by Kit at 12:16 AM
Saturday, August 15, 2015
The characters in Goodfellas are some of the most alive and memorable on film. I can rattle off their names off the top of my head without having seen the movie in years. By comparison, the characters in Godfather are mostly dull, slow, old and forgettable. Many of them feel like they are just waiting to die.
Godfather has nothing like this. In fact, Godfather is shot in such an amazingly bland and straight forward manner that it has come to feel a lot like a made-for-tv movie; it suffers that it is shot in an identical style as so many of the miniseries of the time. Indeed, not only is the camera work entirely generic, but there are no risks taken with the lighting, no risks taken with the staging, and no risks taken with the soundtrack.
Compare that with Goodfellas which is the first film outside of musicals to truly integrate the soundtrack as a means to light up a scene and mark the passing of time, or how it uses time warps to give scenes a sense of tension (slow motion killing of Samuel L. Jackson from multiple angles) or how its characters hover in unusual places for interesting shots. Think of the bar scene where the two enemy-camps-to-be are twenty feet apart talking down the bar. Had this been done in Godfather, the characters would all be huddled together center stage. Put simply, there is nothing innovative in Godfather, but Goodfellas is innovative from start to finish.
So Godfather sucks, right?
Well, no. Godfather is a decent movie. It’s not special enough that I would mention it here except that this is one of those that has a reputation which requires any film buff to see it. But it is a decent movie.
The way to enjoy this film is to understand that it is the ironic story of Michael. Michael is presented initially as a sensitive soul who disdains the murderous ways of his family and seems like he would be the savior of his family if only he were in charge. Unlike Vito, who seems tradition bound in a modern world, Michael is modern and practical. Unlike his hothead brother Sonny (James Caan), Michael comes across as a man who would never drag the family into pointless vendettas and can rationally solve any crisis. The only knock on Michael is that no one is sure he has the strength to issue ugly orders that may need to be issued because he is such a sensitive soul.
Well, when Michael takes over, he brings an analytical approach that at first rubs the others wrong. It seems like Michael will now get the chance to modernize the family and end the vendettas. He will run the family with logic and dispassion. Only, this doesn’t seem to work. His logic comes across as weakness and it seems like Michael fails to recognize that the other mobsters are truly despicable people who will forsake their own good for the things that Michael has rejected.
But logic is not static. And once Michael understand this, his dispassionate logic tells him to kill everything that stands in his way, without mercy or remorse. In so doing, he splits the family and becomes the brutal tyrant who has ruined his life by becoming everything he hates. We know he can never be happy again, nor can anyone else in the family. We also know that his actions will eventually destroy the family.
Thursday, August 6, 2015
Let me start by saying that I enjoyed Minions quite a bit. It was a solid movie with some good laughs and a few memorable moments. It did some clever things and it made me like the Minions even more than I did after the Despicable Me films. Now let me tell you what disappointed me, and let me do it by comparing Minions to Wreck-It-Ralph.
For my money, Wreck-It-Ralph is the best animated film in a very long time, if not ever. It is nearly perfectly written. It is beautifully drawn. And it does all the things the best stories ever do. Indeed, let me explain what makes it such a special film.
Indeed, Ralph is much more interesting than Woody because Ralph is not the archetype Woody is. Ralph is a flawed character who is unhappy with himself and must figure out what he truly believes. By comparison, Woody just needs to protect the other toys. Because of this, there is never a moment where you feel genuine emotion for Woody, but I guarantee you that you will cry when Ralph decides to sacrifice himself and he repeats the Bad Guy Affirmation with a whole new meaning to let the audience know what has motivated him:
“I’m bad, and that’s good. I will never be good, and that’s not bad. There’s no one I’d rather be, than me.”
Just as importantly, the humor in Ralph is just perfect. Every joke seems to fit the situation perfectly. And what helps cause that is that the culture references are done right. Cultural references have become the go-to form of humor, but few do them right. To do them right, you need to do what Ralph does.
In Ralph, the references are much more personal in nature. These references tended to be shared experiences rather than generic cultural references, e.g. recognizing the way characters slid along walls on the PS2 or the secret code on the Coleco or the difference between low rez and high rez worlds. All of those were things that gamers got because they were things we laughed about along the way. By comparison, bad films simply provide cultural references that anyone can get from watching a History Channel or MTV show about the particular period. They are the most obvious iconic moments of an era, so everyone can get the joke, but they means nothing to anyone. The Ralph references, on the other hand, invoke the hours of game play we experienced and the things we laughed about with our friends. It is the difference between a loving trip down memory lane versus a dull read through a history book.
Ralph never does that. Its references fit the action perfectly and they always result in a punch line. They become how the point to the scene gets across, rather than just appearing as an aside.
Studying Ralph could have helped Minions a lot.
Thursday, July 23, 2015
Robert Redford is Johnny Hooker, a small time grifter during the Great Depression. As the story opens, Redford cons a man out of the money he is carrying. It turns out to be $11,000. Even worse, it turns out that the money belongs to crime boss Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw). Lonnegan kills Redford’s partner in retaliation and sends out his winged monkeys to kill Redford.
How this works is that Redford will entice Lonnegan into the scam by pretending that he works for Newman. Newman is running an illegal off-track betting parlor. But Redford has a way to supposedly defraud his boss Newman, by getting the results of the races phoned to him by a Western Union employee before the race gets called over the radio. How exactly they will use this to trap Lonnegan and then to escape his clutches, I will leave for you to discover. Suffice it to say that there are many twists and turns and many of the characters you are shown turn out not to be who they claim to be.
Why This Film Is Worth Seeing
It’s actually difficult to tell you why The Sting works. The reason for this is that The Sting worked for a different reason in 1973 than it works today. Let me explain.
In 1973, heist films were still relatively new and unsophisticated. Prior to this, you had films like Ocean’s 11 (1960) which followed this formula, but the twists were mild, and The Italian Job (1969), which wasn’t stylized and didn’t really have the kind of cool cast typical of modern heist films. The Sting was really the first film to put it all together, and in 1973 this film must have seemed amazing. For the first time, you had a cool cast of near-superhero conmen, a villain you truly hated, a cool stylized plot, unforeseeable twist after twist (at a time when twists were rare), and an iconic soundtrack. That is why this film was so popular.
Over time, however, heist films have become much more sophisticated. The schemes have become more complex, the twists have become tighter, and as a whole, these films have adopted a much faster pace and greater energy. Compared to modern twist films, The Sting feels slow, simple and lazy.
Redford is really good in this too, though he shows again that he is a lightweight compared to Shaw and Newman. He is the pretty boy actor of his generation next to two of his generation’s finest giving some of their best performances. Fortunately, as with Three Days of the Condor where he played a perfectly fitting role of an outmatched amateur, here he plays the perfectly fitting role of the arrogant grifter who doesn’t realize how far out of his league he really is. In other words, the role fits him, which lets his acting style work.
That is what makes this film such a classic.
Tuesday, July 21, 2015
Inside Out feels like a return to form for Pixar. After a run of movies that, whatever their merits, seemed to lack the Pixar Touch, we have Inside Out. Which, like all the great Pixar movies of the 2000s, gives us the full gamut of our emotions while weaving a story that imparts valuable lessons. In this case, it is a parable on the importance each of our emotions, even our “negative” ones, play in making us well-rounded, emotionally healthy human beings.
Inside Out is about an 11-year old girl named Riley and the 5 emotions that live inside her head (along with everyone else’s): Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust. Their job is to take care of you. They operate a little control panel inside the “Headquarters” room governing your reactions to the world around you, fear keeping you out of danger, disgust keeping you from being poisoned (“physically and socially”), Joy keeping you happy, etcetera.
So far, Riley’s life has been pretty happy, largely due to Joy’s work as the leader of the 5 emotions. She has a good relationship with her family and friends, she’s honest, and, due to living in Minnesota, is an avid hockey fan, even playing on the local kids’ hockey team. For the most part, the other emotions are kept in check, with Anger, Disgust, and Fear never taking too much control. Only Sadness (The Office’s Phyllis Smith) is kept away, largely because Joy (Parks and Recreation's Amy Poehler) does not want her dour attitude dampening how happy things are for Riley.
However, as anyone who knows story-telling can predict, the pleasant life is disrupted when Riley and her family move to San Francisco, leaving behind her friends and her life in Minnesota for a world of dead rats and broccoli-pizzas. Joy tries to keep things happy but in an empty house with a very-late moving van and a dad who is busy with work, it becomes increasingly difficult.
Soon, a fight of-sorts between Sadness and Joy that causes them to be sucked out of the headquarters and sent into the maze of Long Term Memory. Thus Joy and Sadness are forced on a journey to headquarters taking them all over Riley’s mind while Fear, Disgust, and Anger must take the helm
Why it’s Great
Now, you may or may not have noticed this, but in that description of the plot nowhere did I mention a villain. That is because there is not one. Instead, it is natural obstacles, the choices the 5 emotions and RIley make in response to those obstacles, and the consequences of those choices that drive the plot. Bad decisions create obstacles while good decisions remove or overcome them. The closest the movie comes to a villain would be a clown when she was little, but even he only appears for a few minutes.
This means the tension is not a simple “Will they escape Villain X” but “Will they learn the lessons they need to learn in time to make the right choices?” They are the makers of their own misfortune. If they want to make it back, they have to grow.
Further, the decisions of the 5 characters, and thus Riley, make sense because of the way the 5 emotions are drawn. The emotions each of the five represents are reflected in their personalities. Joy is a happy, eager, go-getter who is always ready to find the good in things, Anger is a hot head who wants to rush in and put his foot down in reaction to any slight, and Fear sees danger everywhere.
Thus, each of the characters act in ways that are natural and their choices, whether comical or serious, make sense even when they cause problems. For example, Joy’s insistence on keeping Riley happy all the time and her unwillingness to let Sadness take the helm even when she is needed makes sense in light of Joy’s personality but it makes it harder for Riley to adapt to the difficult circumstances caused by the move.
And all of this occurs against the backdrop of a beautifully imagined world, reminiscent of a video game The Sims, but without the sanctimonious “satire” —and smarter. You have Personality Islands branching off from the headquarters, you have memory balls formed from your life experiences, both big and small, with “Core Memories” being the big ones, and a variety of theme park-like lands such as “Imagination Land’ and “Dream Pictures”, a studio where her dreams are “filmed” and “broadcast” live to headquarters.
The 5 main character, as I mentioned above, are well drawn and, I should add, fantastically voiced. I already mentioned Poehler and Smith, who are both great, with Poehler giving a delightful cheer to her role and Smith providing a modern-day, blue Eeyor-like character, but special mention should go to the other 3 as well, Bill Hader as Fear, Mindy Kaling as Disgust, and Lewis Black as Anger.
Hader’s Fear is fun and Mindy Kaling is great as a Disgust who is modeled after that somewhat snooty high school queen who always knows the best fashion. But my favorite was Lewis Black. Yes, you read that right, Lewis Black is in this one, and he is excellent. In fact, the animation captured his mannerisms so well you’ll wonder if it was rotoscoped.
The only flaw I can think of is that Riley is not the most interesting character, as she seemed to be drawn to be a very, very normal, average girl to the point of, ironically, lacking a real and identifiable personality. But the same sort of goes with the rest of the human characters. It is a bit like the Toy Story Trilogy, where Andy and his mom were beyond bland but it didn't matter because the focus was on the toys. Though Riley and her parents play a much larger part in Inside Out the story than Andy and his mom, the focus is still on the small main characters who we are following, so the film works.And, given what works works brilliantly, this is a minor quibble.
This is a fantastic movie and a must-see. It reminds us of how far Pixar, and film in general, including animation, can take us into the depths of the human heart and mind. It touches on fascinating ideas about how our emotions are needed to make us whole, ideas that afterwards can result in some meaningful contemplation by oneself or discussion with others, particularly children. And it does this while telling a fun and touching story about 5 memorable characters.
It’s a Pixar Classic.
Posted by Kit at 2:51 AM
Monday, July 20, 2015
Sorry for the long wait, folks. Last week was rather hectic. Forgive me if I come late. If I run out of days in the summer I might continue it next year or continue it into the fall as Marvel Movie Mondays or something. We'll see.
Thank you to everyone for your support so far. This is my first time doing a series like this and I know my delays have tested your patience. So, thank you.
Anyway, on to Thor.
A long time ago, when Marvel still released movies via Paramount instead of Disney, the Frost Giants from Jotunnheim waged war upon mankind and threatened to unloose a second Ice Age. However, they were stopped by a race called the Asgardians, they are from Asgard, led by Odin (Anthony Hopkins). We flash forward to a ceremony where Thor is receiving his hammer, Mjolnir.
Meanwhile, a group of frost giants are sneaking into Asgard to steal an item that Odin took from Jotunnheim. They are stopped by Odin lickety-split, but, despite Thor’s insistence, he refuses to retaliate by starting a full-on war against the Frost Giants.
Thor meets up with his fellow young Asgardians; his brother Loki, Sif, Fandral, Hogun, and Volstug, and convinces them to join with him in going to Jotunnheim to seek retribution. Loki tries to talk him out of it but eventually agrees. They leave for Jotunnheim and start a brawl which goes well at first until things turn and they are nearly curb-stomped only for Odin to show up and save their hides.
Back at Asgard Thor is banished to Earth, deprived of his powers and his hammer, which is also thrown to Earth with Odin casting a King Arthur-esque spell on it that says only someone who is worthy may wield it. Thor arrives on Earth and is hit by a car driven by Dr. Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), Dr. Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård), and intern Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings), who are studying some kind of vortex thing.
Thor is taken to a hospital where he is subdued pitifully (and comically) by a doctor with a sedative. The hammer, meanwhile, has landed in the desert, not far from where he landed, causing a massive crater. A huge crowd soon develops as a bunch of men try to wield it (none are worthy) until SHIELD rolls in led by Agent Coulson from Iron Man and Iron Man 2 and sets up a camp there.
After the agents seize Jane's equipment, Thor learns about the hammer and decides to go into the SHIELD compound to retrieve it. He beats up half the guards, which is observed by a by a sniper using a bow-and-arrow codenamed Hawkeye. Thor reaches the hammer to discover he can't wield it and sinks into despair. Foster and Selvig come to retrieve him and Coulson (for some reason) lets him go. Thor, Selvig, Foster, and Darcy start hanging out.
Meanwhile, Loki, who discovers something about his past, may be up to no good. Shocker.
Is it Good?
Ok, that is not high praise. Saying “It’s fun” in reply to the question, “Is it Good” sounds a lot like saying “She has a nice personality” when asked “Is she pretty.” Re-watching this movie I found it was not as good as I remembered it, but it was still fun.
Let me explain the problem.
Unlike other movies which ramp up the tension in the main plot in every scene with bombastic action this movie took a different approach. We have a lot of action in the first and third acts but the Second Act, aside from the scene where he punches through a dozen SHIELD agents to retrieve Mjolnir, is mostly humor and character development —or, rather, attempts at the two.
The second act of Thor is basically one, long fish-out-of-water Rom-com about a Norse God.
Actually, come to think of it, the whole movie Thor is just that. You have the female lead, her female friend, her parent figure, and the handsome, dashing young man who occasionally appears shirtless. It’s Kate & Leopold but with a slightly more interesting ending (the very end). Someone should do one of those mash-up trailers, you know, like the one that guy did to make The Shining look like a family comedy, but instead make Thor look like some cheesy Romantic Comedy.
Which means that your enjoyment of this movie will be whether you enjoy a romantic comedy built around a Marvel comics character and whether you think there is any chemistry between Thor and Jane Foster. (I found them ok in this movie)
Now, why didn’t I like it this time?
When I first saw it, I loved it. Now? Eh. I enjoyed seeing the God of Thunder getting tased and hit with a car, among other injuries. But now, I think I have seen it so many times that the jokes, which are for the most part, ok, were just not as funny as they used to be. Or maybe I was not in the right mood.
But you may enjoy it, again, I did the first time I saw it.
Interestingly, I still prefer the middle section to the opening and the climax. The opening has always been rather boring for me. Heck, the fight scene in the middle when he storms the base is, not only the best fight scene in the movie, but by far the best scene in the movie, though that might largely be because of Hawkeye and Coulson. On second thought, it might be one of the best fight scenes in a Marvel movie. Period.
Anyway, that’s about it. The Cast is good. Idris Elba is awesome as Heimdall. Ditto with Anthony Hopkins as Odin and Hiddleston as Loki. Hemsworth is Thor. The girl from Two Broke Girls is good.
So, in sum, right now I’d rank it low on the list. Maybe at the bottom. Of course, the list won’t be finished until I finish the Summer of Marvel (and the clock is ticking).
The Summer of Marvel will return on Monday with Captain America: The First Avenger!
“We drank, we fought, he made his ancestors proud.”
Posted by Kit at 1:38 AM
Thursday, July 16, 2015
The Exorcist begins with a character you won’t even see again until near the end of the film. The film starts with Father Lankester Merrin (Max von Sydow) on an archeological dig in Iraq. In a scene that involves more sights and sounds than words, you see Merrin uncover an amulet which resembles a demon Merrin defeated in an exorcism years ago. The exorcism lasted several days and nearly killed Merrin. The demon he exorcised was called Pazuzu.
As this story progresses, we simultaneously meet Father Damien Karras. Karras is a priest and a psychiatrist. He is a firm believer in modern science and he disbelieves things like exorcism. In his story, Karras's mother dies without Karras being able to help her and that causes him to lose his faith in God.
What Made This Film So Special
The Exorcist is perhaps the best example of how 1970’s films were different than today because there are so many films we can compare to it. Indeed, you can’t really find a modern exorcism movie which isn’t essentially a direct copy of The Exorcist. Yet, all of them fail to live up to the original. And the reason all the imitators fail, despite having so many advantages, such as having a success to study and the benefit of being able to go further in terms of effects and scares with modern audience, is exactly what makes The Exorcist the great film it is.
This film worked because it was a story about several people who endure horrific choices and incredible suffering. It was not a film about two priests fighting a demon. That is what makes this film so unforgettable, so re-watchable, and why none of the copies have ever approached its quality.
Friday, July 10, 2015
"You will believe a man can fly." —movie tagline
Remember when DC made fun superhero movies? None of that angst and moody stuff, just sheer fun at a movie theater? And Marvel was struggling just to get a (watchable) movie out? Well, today’s Summer of 70s pick, Superman: The Movie, is the quintessential fun superhero movie. It is also progenitor of the superhero movie genre. All of the great superhero movies came after it. Burton’s Batman, Raimi’s Spider-man, Nolan’s Dark Knight Saga, and all the Marvel movie series owe their existence to this movie.
I’m going to be brief. Moreso than usual.
The movie begins on Krypton, where Jor-El on the planet Krypton warns his fellow members on the Council of Krypton that the planet is going to explode and they must leave it immediately. You know the story, they refuse to listen so he and his wife decide to save their only son, Kal-El by sending him to the planet Earth.
He arrives on Earth where he is adopted by Jonathan and Martha Kent, who realize he is very special when hee, a 3-year old, lifts Jonathan’s truck up with his bare hands. At age 18 he is already showing powers and after Jonathan Kent dies of a heart attack he leaves. At Jonathan’s funeral he says, “All those things I could do, and I couldn’t save him.”
He then journeys to the Fortress of Solitude where takes lessons from Jor-El, learning about various things and leaves it in 12 years later dressed as Superman. He arrives in Metropolis where he takes a job as a reporter alongside Lois Lane, played by Margot Kidder, who finds him to be a nice but strange man but falls head-over-heels with his Superman alter-ego when he saves her from falling to her death out of a helicopter. An act which turns Superman into a hero and, since he has a crush on Lois, gives her an interview and, afterwards, takes her flying.
Meanwhile, the criminal mastermind Lex Luthor is plotting the crime of the century, that involves buying lots of land in the middle of California and hijacking a nuclear warhead.
Why It Works (And is Still Awesome 35+ years on!)
This movie has problems that detractors love to list, the two biggest being Superman being over-powered at the end and possibly the handling of Lois Lane. And I can see their criticisms, but I don’t care because the movie works.
First, the cast is iconic. They fit their roles to a T. It has been said a thousand times but I have to say it again, Christopher Reeve is Superman. He moves deftly between Clark Kent and Superman, making you believe that (1) they are the same person and (2) people could actually be fooled by it. Unlike Superman Returns, they don’t need a scene to point it out.
Margot Kidder nails Lois Lane. In the hands of any other actress (and a lesser director) Lois Lane would’ve come across as little more than a ditzy air-head who misspells words and falls madly in love with the first superhero she sees but Kidder and Donner give her something else. Instead we get a woman who is a brilliant reporter, going to many lengths to get a story (sometimes to her own physical detriment) and often so focused on getting the story and telling it that little details, like proper spelling and keeping her eye on the road, just slip her mind completely.
The villain is great. Hackman’s Lex Luthor is a brilliant criminal mastermind, but he’s also vain, egotistical, and arrogant and every bit of it comes through in Hackman’s performance. He’s a man in love with his own brilliance. He’s stuck in a world full of little minds who can’t appreciate his genius.
The supporting cast is also good. Marlon Brando brings a weight to his role as Jor-El, Ma and Pa Kent have a warmth and kindness to them, Chief Perry White of the Daily Planet is what you think of when you think of a boisterous and brash newspaper editor (who has some funny scenes), and Luthor’s two not-very-bright henchman, Otis and Miss Tessamacher, are fun to watch and their comedic chemistry with Hackman is perfect.
I could probably write a whole book One thing that is overlooked is just how funny this movie is, the scenes at the Daily Planet have the snappy dialogue reminiscent of movies like His Girl Friday. And the movie was made back when filmmakers still framed their shots theatrically, which gives the movie a bit of an epic feel. Something directors don't do anymore.
Now, before I hit the movie’s two biggest flaws, I want to say something about John Williams score. A great score cannot save a movie, if it could, Kevin Costner’s Waterworld would be ranked on AFI’s list of Top 100 Films, but it can give a good movie a nice boost. A good soundtrack for a good movie is a lot like the whipped cream on a milk shake; it makes something is already enjoyable and add an extra layer of delight.
And this score, well, there is no other way to say it, the moment you here the theme blare out in full orchestra in the opening credits to the word “Superman” you want to tie a red towel around your neck and zoom around like a little kid pretending to be Superman. As cheesy as it sounds, this score makes you want to cheer. It is hard to think of a score in recent memory that actually makes you want to cheer like this one does.
Another home run for America’s grand maestro.
The Two Big Flaws
A two flaws, both contain MAJOR SPOILERS so don’t continue if you don’t want the movie spoiled. Many people complain about Lois’ reporting of Superman’s inability to see through lead and Superman turning back time by flying around the world super-fast. For the first, yeah, I don’t have much of a defense, today it makes both of them seem rather dimwitted (criminals read papers too, you know?) but it’s a minor gripe compared to how much of the movie works. It is also worth remembering that this movie was really the prototype superhero movie.
As for the latter, I have some mixed thoughts on it. In terms of its depiction of Superman as the comic book character, it is very stupid (why doesn’t Superman do this more often?) but in terms of the story that the movie was telling, I think it works. During that scene Superman stops a nuclear missile and then proceeds to not only save a school bus, stop a flood by pushing rocks in front of the surge, and single-handedly stop the Western coast of California from falling into the ocean.
The scene builds up the idea that Superman is becoming a god-like being who can seemingly bend nature to his will. Then he discovers Lois is dead. And what happens next was also foreshadowed when he told Martha Kent at Jonathan’s funeral, “All those things I could do, and I couldn’t save him.” Again, he can stop a state from falling into the Pacific but he can’t save someone he loves. He decides he will, and bends the laws of
He is not longer god-like, he is a god.
Lois even mentioned during the scene when she and Superman are flying together when she describes flying with Superman like “holding hands with a god.”
So it depends on whether you like this particular handling of Superman or not.
"You've got me? Who's got you?"
Posted by Kit at 4:05 PM
Monday, July 6, 2015
Some dude in Russia, Anton Vanko, sees the disclosure on the news that Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is Iron Man. He starts building his own arc reactor, which is the thing that powers the Iron Man suit, so he can prove that Iron Man isn’t invincible.
Back in the US, Stark grows despondent and reckless when he realizes that he is dying because the reactor in his suit is poisoning him. He hands his massive company over to his assistant, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), and he starts having wild parties and doing stupid(er) things. He even decides to compete in the Monaco Grand Prix. During that race, however, he gets attacked by Vanko. Stark defeats Vanko, but Vanko attracts the attention of Stark’s rival Justin Hammer, who breaks Vanko out of jail so he can build a line of armored suits for his company.
Soon, Stark cures the problem of the arc reactor poisoning him. He then learns that Hammer has created heavily armed drones he intends to show off for the government, but Vanko arrives and they fight to end the movie.
Why I Liked This Movie
Hmm. Ok, stick with me. By and large, I’ve found that I like sequels better than originals in the “franchise” genre, i.e. the genre where “properties” are put on film with the hope of being able to milk an existing fan base through three or four movies and some spin-offs. The reason is simple. The first film in every franchise series is invariably an origin story, especially in the comic book universe, and origin stories suck. It’s in the sequel that the writers normally first get the chance to offer real stories.
What’s more, the Marvel universe is much more prone to interesting movies than the regular comic book fare because Marvel likes to delve into the heroes in the story and what makes them tick. That shifts a significant portion of the screen time from seeing useless CGI punches being tossed to seeing the writers make the characters interact. The end result of that is that the characters tend to be much more interesting, the dialog is less transactional (“I will stop you now”) and more about who these people are and how they interact, and you end up caring more for the characters.
Trust me, nothing spells “soul death” like watching Superman trade punches with another cardboard villain who can’t be harmed physically for forty f*cking minutes!!! Arggg! Fortunately, you will never find that in Marvel films (excluding the Hulk crapfests): “Hulk smash pixels until you slit your wrists with popcorn bucket!”
Paltrow is an excellent foil for Downey Jr. Cheadle evokes a lot of sympathy because you know he’s a good guy and he’s being held back by Downey’s irresponsibility. Johansson is hot... and is in this movie. Rockwell is slimy as Hammer and you really despise him. Even Vanko, who is rather clichéd, is enough of a brooding presence that you at least get a sense of menace whenever he is on screen – too often villains just prance around and act melodramatically; not so here.
All of this makes him a genuine contradiction and easily the most complex and unpredictable character ever written in the comic book film world... and Downey Jr. is 100% believable as him. In fact, thinking about it, I can’t imagine another actor who could handle this role. Most would try to hero-him-up and give him a secret pain which is keeping him from being perfect. Some would slacker him down into Van Wilder. Others simply would never present themselves as having a dark, a-hole side. And others would make him into manic depressive Batman who wants the world to die so its misery ends.
Only Downey Jr. can balance the good with the bad, the responsibility with the obnoxiousness, the self-pity with the nobility, and give us this unique Tony Stark. Only Downey Jr. revels in the complexity and doesn’t try to make Stark into a one-note antihero.
That is why I like this film.
Wednesday, July 1, 2015
Soylent Green (1974). This is a great dystopian film based on a very faulty premise. The premise is that the human race would keep breeding and breeding until there are so many of us that the world simply collapses in a dead, polluted mess. Now those who are left are starving, and their leaders have turned to the unthinkable to feed everyone. The story itself is about NYC Detective Thorn who is investigating the death of a food company executive and comes to discover the truth. This film does an excellent job of presenting its mystery and an even better job of making you feel like you are living in this forsaken hell hole.
Vanishing Point (1971). This barely known film is essentially one long car chase. You had a lot of these in the 1970s. What makes this movie work so well is the divine overtones as the hero seems to be guided by a blind radio DJ who can see more than a human could and a fascinating ambiguous ending... plus a great soundtrack.
Alien (1979). This is simply the best horror-science fiction film ever made.
Deliverance (1972). This seemingly simple tale of four city-folk from Atlanta who go rafting on a dying river in hillbilly country effectively defined the urban, rural split that still influences much of our culture and our politics today as the panicked snooty elitists start killing what they think are butt-raping hillbillies... but might not be.
The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975). This musical could be the first true “cult film” and it’s something everyone should see at least once to understand the same subculture that gave birth to modern cos-play.
Rollerball (1975). Perhaps the most conservative film of the 1970s, this film brings a strong warning against collectivism to the big screen by telling us that the collectivists cannot afford to allow a single talented athlete to give people the idea that they can succeed through individual effort.
Smokey and the Bandit (1976). Although seemingly just another car chase film, this film announced to the country that the American South had moved beyond Jim Crow and joined the modern world. I think it is no understatement to say that this film heralded the South’s rise as an economic and political power that rivaled any other part of the nation and saw the sunset of the once-dominant Northeast.
Silver Streak (1976). This film wasn’t really consequential, but it is perhaps one of the top comedies of the 1970s and I would say that it was a high-water mark for Gene Wilder. It was also Wilder’s first collaboration with Richard Pryor.
Make sure to check these out, and enjoy the films! Anything you would add to what we've already reviewed? And why?
Monday, June 29, 2015
Following up their big-hit Iron Man later that summer Marvel released their attempted reboot of the Hulk. The Hulk had previously been made into a film in 2004 to much disappointment, widely seen as too pretentious and too dreary by many. So in 2008 they decided to add more action and less drama, but still retain some.
Does it work? Let's see.
The movie begins with an opening credits montage giving us a little back story on what has happened; Bruce Banner was doing tests for a military project led by General Ross alongside Ross’ daughter, Betty, who he has a thing for. Something goes wrong, he turns into a giant monster, severely injures Betty Ross and is forced to go on the run from General Ross.
The movie then picks up with him in Brazil, working at a factory that bottles a type of green soda (the color green pops up a lot in this movie) and he is well-liked by floor manager who often has him fixing broken-down devices. When he is not working he often works on ways to manage his anger and communicates online with a mysterious Mr. Blue, who might know of a cure.
Unfortunately, a bit of his blood falls into a bottle where it is shipped to America and consumed by Stan Lee, who contracts gamma radiation poisoning/sickness from it, which, after tracking it to the factory it was made, alerts General Ross to Banner’s likely whereabouts. He promptly sends a squad of soldiers led by Russian-born Brit special ops guy Emil Blonsky —neglecting to inform them of Bruce’s unique “condition”.
They go in and try to grab Bruce while a group of local thugs are messing with him. Eventually, both push Bruce far enough that he snaps and you know how that song and dance goes. What follows is a mostly-in-the-dark fight scene (smart decision, I should add) where the Hulk takes out both the local thugs and Blonsky’s soldiers one-by-one. The hulk flees and Bruce soon finds himself waking up in Guatemala (the Hulks runs far) where he decides to head back home to Culver University.
Arriving there he meets up with an old friend who tells him his old girlfriend Betty is dating some guy played by Phil Dunphy from Modern Family. Bruce decides to get into the computer lab and hack in using Betty’s password to get the information on the research back when the experiments went wrong. He does and returns to his old friend’s place —where Betty is there with her boyfriend.They see each other.
Meanwhile Blonsky is filled in by Ross on what Banner was doing, apparently, unbeknownst to him, he was working on trying to re-build the old Super-soldier serum from the 1940s. Things were not going well but he was sure he was onto something so he went ahead with a test and things went wrong or something like that. Blonsky decides he wants a bit of that and Ross agrees.
Meanwhile, Bruce and Betty are catching up at the Quad when the military arrives, having been informed by Betty’s ex-boyfriend. Bruce gets put in a corner and Hulks out and tosses a few humvees like a two-year old tosses little toy cars. That is, until Blonsky arrives who manages to put up a decent fight dodging his blows due to the super-soldier serum until the Hulk eventually knocks him out of the fight, breaking all of his bones. The Hulk then flees with Betty.
After returning to his human form Betty and Bruce decide to travel to New York City to meet up with Mr. Blue, or Samuel Sterns, a.k.a., “The Leader” in the comics (but not yet), in order to see if they can develop a cure. Meanwhile, Emil Blonsky quickly heals and is ready for another go, though now slightly unhinged.
What ensues is a race to get the cure, which has limited success, and Blonsky becoming the Abomination, a Hulk-like monster but with protruding bones , and a fight between the Abomination and the Hulk in Harlem.
Is it Good?
It's a mixed bag.
This movie was a bit better than I remembered it being, though still nowhere near as fun as the rest of the Marvel movie canon. The movie is a mixed bag. It has a strong performance from Ed Norton, the humor, like in all Marvel movies, is very good, and the movie has very fun fight scenes. But outside of that it struggles. The CGI of the Hulk still needs work and the villains are clichéd Hollywood military stereotypes you’ve seen a thousand times before.
First, the lead.
Ed Norton is very good. He gives us a Bruce that is likable but modest and unassuming. After watching this I have to say that he’s a better Bruce than Mark Ruffalo, not that Ruffalo is bad (he’s very good, actually) just that Norton is better.
Unfortunately, when he turns into the Hulk we see the movies first big problem. For reasons of either insufficient tech or insufficient money, the CGI for the Hulk, though a big improvement over 2004, is still not quite up to the level it would be in Avengers, let alone Avengers 2. He still looks a bit too much like a giant Shrek and at times I felt he looked a bit like a green, juiced-up young P.J. O’Rourke for some weird reason. Though, again, it is still an improvement over 2004.
Fortunately, if you can get past the CGI issues, the fight scenes are a lot of fun. The movie builds up anticipation for the Hulk each time, bringing us to the point that we are almost begging for the Hulk to appear, and unleashing him on the whoever has been asking for whooping. And the fight scenes, like with much of the pre-Avengers Marvel movies, are not the over-the-top destruction fests that now seem to dominate the genre. Today, the entire campus would probably be leveled, but here, we just have a simple fight scene on a quad between the Hulk and the military.
On the topic of the military, it is there we come to the movie’s most annoying weakness. This one has a slew of liberal, anti-military, Hollywood clichés.
Here are three questions that popped into my mind while watching the movie:
—Why the hell doesn’t General Ross tell the squad he sends after Banner at the beginning of the movie that the guy they are hunting can change into an enormous green rage monster at the turn of a second? That seems like something you want to bring up in the pre-op briefing. But I’m just a civilian so what do I know.
—Where the hell is the Congressional oversight on this? Two years later in the movie Iron Man 2 Congress would be trying to rip Stark over not letting the government have his suits but General Ross is able to do whatever he wants. Oh, and FYI, in-universe, Iron Man 2 occurs in the same week as this movie.
—On the subject of General Ross doing whatever he wants. Apparently full battalion, with machine guns-armed humvees, is able to just roll onto a college campus? Posse Comitatus Act, anyone? I’m pretty sure that requires at least an act of Congress to approve.
Yeah, this is not the worst handling of the military in a movie but coming on the heels of the fairly pro-military Iron Man and in a film series that has generally been pro-military, it was and still is quite jarring. The only real redeeming factor here is that William Hurt actually gives a pretty decent performance as General Ross, making him into a sort of Captain Ahab who has this mad obsession with the Hulk. You kind of feel sorry for the guy. Kind of.
As for the rest, the humor that is now trademark to the Marvel movies is funny. The side-performances are mostly ok, Liv Tyler is good in some scenes but there were a few I felt she was lacking. There are also some pleasant touches to the 1970s series, the best being the use of the iconic “Lonely Man Theme” as Bruce is traveling to the United States.
So, in all, the movie is ok. Not near the top but if you can get past the still-troubled CGI and the clichéd military then you will probably have a fun time watching it.
Summer of Marvel will return with a review of Iron Man 2, this time written by Andrew Price.
Bruce: "I can't get too excited."
Betty: "Not even just a little excited?"
Posted by Kit at 4:34 AM
Thursday, June 25, 2015
Close Encounters involves the convergence of two separate but related stories. The first story unfolds in small vignettes that take their time to explain what is going on. In the first vignettes, a group of men race through the desert to find a collection of World War II era fighter craft, Grumman Avengers, in pristine condition. We don’t know this yet but these are the planes belonging to the doomed Flight 19 which vanished without a trace off of Florida. In the second, the same men find a ship, the SS Cotopaxi (which sank on her way to Cuba), in the sand dunes of the Gobi desert. In the third, an air traffic controller hears two planes report seeing UFOs flying near them. In the forth, the men are in India, where they seek villagers who claim to have seen something in the sky. These villagers provide the men with a series of musical tones which the men conclude are a form of communication.
The second story, which is interspersed between these vignettes, involves Richard Dreyfuss as Roy Neary, an electrical lineman from Indiana. Roy is out looking to fix a downed wire when he has a close encounter which sunburns half his face. This piques his interest and he starts to investigate UFOs. In the process, he meets a single mother named Jillian, who also has had a close encounter. Her son will be kidnapped by the aliens while she is in the house.
What Makes This Film So Awesome
Close Encounters is an awesome movie. It’s beautiful shot. It’s incredible well written. You really care about these characters. The plot is engaging. The mystery of what is going on is fascinating the first time through and still engaging even when you know how it will turn out. The movie has iconic music and sounds. It has amazing special effects too, blowing away those of today.
It’s also historically interesting because of the way it influenced UFO believers. Before this film, UFO abductees all over the world reported seeing very different aliens. But after this film, they all saw the small gray eunuchs with large heads and large eyes. So in a way, this film unified the UFO story, which has made the industry stronger... even though it should be discrediting.
Anyway, what makes this film so fantastic is the way Spielberg handled it. This was probably the film that cemented Spielberg’s empire, coming on the heels of Jaws and being a world wide mega-hit, and the reason why is that Spielberg was at the top of his game. This was Spielberg before he succumbed to commercialism and before he started using shortcuts to generate emotion. This was Spielberg when he took his time and told the story as it should be told.
The real key, however, is in the wide array of characters who get solid screen time. Roy is the everyman skilled laborer. His wife (Terri Garr) is the frustrated wife. Jillian is the overwhelmed single mom. David Laughlin (Bob Balaban) is a cartographer who is enlisted in the search for clues because he can translate French into English. Claude Lacombe (Francois Truffaut) is a French scientist and specialist in UFOs who leads the search for clues. Other prominent characters include an Air Force officer assigned to Project Blue Book, the Army commander in charge of clearing out Wyoming, air traffic controllers and the pilots to whom they speak, police, co-workers of Roy, Roy’s kids, a UFO crank, the men in charge of communicating with the aliens, and so on. Each of these characters feels real to us because we learn tons about them. In fact, we know more about them than we know about the lead characters in most modern films, and that makes the film feel real.
Now take Laughlin, who is a sort of narrator for the vignettes. He never tells us anything about his life, except that he was a cartographer who also speaks French. But we soon learn that he’s rather meek, that he’s amazed by what he’s seeing and wants to believe, that he’s a kind man, that he never once worries that the aliens might be a danger, and that he’s rather bright. We learn this in an intensely clever scene where he solves the key mystery. In this scene, Laughlin realizes that the signals sent by the aliens represent coordinates on a map. In most movies, he would blurt this out and the scene would end. But Spielberg doesn’t do this.
In fact, while we are talking about that scene, I think the brilliance of that entire scene deserves mention, as Spielberg converts a scene involving men talking into an action scene. He does this by having all the characters talking over each other and moving their arms around, which gives the impression of motion. Then, rather than grabbing a map, they find an enormous globe, which they free from its holder rather than carry back to their room and they let it roll toward the camera as they chase it. Again, this gives a sense of motion and urgency, and strangely it makes the audience tense as they wait to see if the men can catch the globe, just as it's tense waiting to see if Laughlin can interrupt them to be heard - in a similar moment, Roy is distracted by his wife as the television shows Devil's Tower in the background and it feels very tense as you wait to see if he will turn around in time to see it. Finally, rather than just finding the spot on the map, we watch two fingers trace the longitude and latitude lines until they connect, giving the audience a feeling of a race and a treasure being found, and then suddenly the room explodes in voices again.
The end result is that a scene which essentially only involves some men pondering the meaning of some numbers and looking it up on the map, turns into an action scene with a dramatic punch. Spielberg does this throughout the movie. This is what Spielberg used to do so well and which so few others ever managed to copy - make boring moments into heart-pounding scenes filled with real characters. Sadly, no one does this today. This is why this film is so amazing.
As an aside, notice that the rolling globe and the tracing of lines will appear again in Raiders of the Lost Ark.