The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: Summer Blockbuster Reviews and Previews
The Good, X-Men: First Class
Not so much as good, but decent. Okay. A fairly entertaining movie. As far as comic book films go, X-Men: First Class is watchable. As far as the X-Movies go, it may be as good as the first installment of X-Men that was directed by Bryan Singer. I would have to revisit 2000’s X-men, but this reboot/remake/re-imagination/re-installment/origin story, I would venture to say, is better. It possibly is the best X-Movie, but that might not be saying much. Singer’s follow-up, X2 (2003), was a predictable and mediocre sequel. Brett Ratner’s, X-Men: Last Stand, though I thought was unfairly panned by critics and fanboys, was still, in the end, forgettable as a third film. Matthew Vaughn was originally tagged to direct Last Stand but then backed out, not confident that he could produce a coherent movie1 on Fox’s tight schedule. Recently, there has been a passive verbal back-and-forth between Ratner and Vaughn. SyFy:
Brett Ratner took over and, even though The Last Stand was a huge financial success (the biggest of all the X-Men movies, actually), critics and fans tore it apart. According to The Playlist, Vaughn agreed with the consensus on The Last Stand, telling a British newspaper in 2007, “I was trying to make a career as a director, and I didn’t want to be the guy accused of making a bad ‘X-Men’ movie. As it happens, I could have made something a hundred times better than the film that was eventually made. It sounds arrogant, but I could have done something with far more emotion and heart.” Flash forward to the present and Vaughn, flush with the critical acclaim for X-Men: First Class, is still talking trash about The Last Stand: “I storyboarded the whole bloody film, did the script. My ‘X3’ would have been 40 minutes longer. They didn’t let the emotions and the drama play in that film. It became wall-to-wall noise and drama. I would have let it breathe and added far more dramatic elements to it.”
It appears to me that these two divas are in need of a tête-à-tête. First Class is a better film than Last Stand, this we can agree on; but (I am no Ratner apologist2) I think that Matthew Vaughn should simmer down a tad. First Class is far from a great film. Let me delve into several standout flaws that had me looking up the running time of First Class on my phone while watching this feature. Matthew Vaughn is a talented filmmaker with a skilled eye. Layer Cake is one of my favorites and as far as comic book adaptations go, Kick-Ass, lives up to its title. It is confident, faithful and uncompromising; a punk rock comic book movie. But First Class is almost too faithful to the comic book genre and tries to be too much. You want Vaughn to have the confidence of Christopher Nolan. I am not saying that First Class should have been gritty and grimdark like The Dark Knight3. I am appealing to Nolan’s sensibility to play it straight, in reality, and be methodical about the pacing. The tempo in First Class becomes ridiculous in the beginning two acts. We jump to almost every continent in the first half. I found myself simultaneously bored and drained. It has too much exposition and set-up, even for an origin story. Too much plot set-up and not enough emotional exposition; they did not earn the belief in me that young Magneto and young Professor X became fast mutant brothers. First Class tries to be too many different things. The constant shifting tone is a disservice to this movie. At one instance, it is a James Bond flick4, another instance it is a war epic, another minute it is something out of 90210 or Betty and Veronica. The snappy tongue-in-cheekiness that was effective and made popular by Favreu and Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man has also become old hat. It is like David Mamet light; the near-meta self-realized cleverness has become grating. Vaughn griped that Last Stand failed because it lacked emotion and heart. In First Class, what is intended to be tender ends up being mawkish. What is meant to be heartfelt comes off as saccharine. I cannot specifically pinpoint it on the weakness of the written dialogue or the delivery (acting) of the lines, but the symbiosis of the two leaves an impression of stale contrivance. It should always, instead, feel organic. On the merit of consistency of tone, First Class is not cohesive. Aside from the ideal casting of Michael Fassbender as Magneto and James McAvoy as Xavier Charles, the rest of the cast of characters are forgettable. Jennifer Lawrence is a talented young actor, and is likable in this one, but strikes a wrong, girl-next-door vibe. Zoë Kravitz, the gorgeous offspring of Lisa Bonet and Lenny Kravitz, is appealing, but in the end, is an unnecessary and peripheral character. Caleb Landry Jones as Sean Cassidy/Banshee steals some scenes as a wisecracking and memorable mutant. Kevin Bacon summons enough vile that you barely want to see his comeuppance by the end; a completely utilitarian bad guy performance by Mr. Six Degrees. Then there is January Jones as Emma Frost. She has been crucified5, as of late; I do not mean to pile on like a troll, but she was an abomination in First Class. This is not entirely her fault, you can chalk it up to stupid, inopportune casting. Emma Frost, The White Queen, is a telepath and an ultimate seductress with an urbane, dry wit. Jones might have taken that play it dry direction/note a step too far. She exudes the charisma and sexuality of a door knob in this one; it is laughable. We really see Jones’ limits as an actor in this. Horrible casting. Was Scarlett Johansson or Olivia Wilde not available? With all the gripes that I had with X-Men: First Class, I can still give it a tepid recommendation. In the end, I can say, I was still entertained; I was just disappointed that a capable director such as Matthew Vaughn, who I respect and like, did not fully capitalize. Regardless, go see a matinee. If you are on the fence, go see the next movie that I reviewed… 1. You know what was not a coherent comic book movie? X-Men Origins: Wolverine. It is an abortion. Just awful movie-making. My immediate reaction after watching Wolverine was that Gavin Hood should be hanged, drawn and quartered. This was the director who brought us the brilliant, Tsotsi. This is what Hollywood studios, a big budget and a production schedule will do to talented filmmakers. Sigh. 2. I think Ratner should start a film production company with McG called Hackneyed Hacky Hack Films. Although, I will admit, that I enjoyed and almost cried during McG’s We Are Marshall with Matthew McConaughey; with the caveat that sports movies based on true stories are emotionally manipulative. 3. Michael Fassbender does, however, deploy a cold, gravelly, gruff-voiced Magneto, reminiscent of Christian Bale’s Batman. Even though Magneto was a two-dimensional character, Fassbender is a star and carried this movie. 4. They should have just went in this direction. It could have been Mad Men meets Munich meets Casino Royale with Fassbender and Magneto as a borderline heavy, a kind of anti-hero. 5. Lost creator, Damen Lindelof, excoriated Jones on Twitter: “Emma Frost’s THREE mutant powers: Telepathy, Transformation to Solid Diamond and last but not least, Sucking at Acting.” Wow. Shots fired.
The Bad, Super 8
That is mint!
Not bad meaning bad, but bad meaning good. I thoroughly enjoyed Super 8. It is old fashioned movie-making by J.J. Abrams at its almost-best. To Abrams, the concept of mystery1is near and dear to his heart and is at the core of his storytelling process.
…It represents infinite possibility. It represents hope. It represents potential. Mystery is the catalyst for imagination. Maybe there are times where mystery is more important than knowledge…
Super 8 is, obviously, Abram’s love letter to filmmaking. Throughout the movie, we follow a group of kids, a pubescent group reminiscent of The Goonies or Stand By Me, as they attempt to make a Romero-esque zombie movie2. It is a constant thread that weaves itself in and out of the narrative as disaster and mayhem ensues within the small town where they live and film. At times, in service to comic relief, they opportunistically incorporate their destroyed town as a backdrop. We benefit from Abram’s self-indulgent homage to his own craft. An honestly fun ride that kept me in suspense for a sustained duration. Where I was forcing myself to be entertained while watching X-Men: First Class, my focus came naturally in Super 8; I was engrossed and was committed to the trip. I am going to be careful with any spoilers; with a healthy dollop of suspended disbelief, I thought that there was a decent payoff in the end, even with the windy set-up. I feel as if J.J. Abrams is succeeding where M. Night Shyamalan is failing3. Newcomer, Joel Courtney as Joel Lamb, is a good lead. The doe-eyed teenager brings an honesty and an unaffected, digestible sentimentality. We want it to work out for him and feel sorry for his loss. His father is played by the lovely, Kyle Chandler, Coach Eric Taylor from one of my favorite television series, Friday Night Lights. Chandler, the ultimate and eternal three-dimensional nice guy, always brings a believable earnestness. With her ghostly, ivory complexion, Elle Fanning is also very good. She commands her scenes, makes you resign and say, “Okay, we get it. Talent runs in the Fanning family.” The practical effects and stunts were also fantastic and on point. Abrams has proven himself to be an adept action sequencer and director. If I was forced to single out some questionable things, aside from being an homage to movies, it is also, embarrassingly, a shrine to the film’s producer, Steven Spielberg. But Abrams unabashedly references his idol and mentor’s films with zeal. In Super 8, we detect traces of Jaws, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial, Empire of the Sun, Jurassic Park and War of the Worlds. If I was embarrassed for his liberal citing of Spielberg history, Abrams himself, is unashamed in his sampling and confidently makes it his very own. One final distracting element and sidebar that I must bring up is Abram’s infatuation with the lens flare4. What gives, Man? Just stop it, J.J., or limit it to three lens flares per film. Quit messin’ with my rods and cones, Bro. What started out as a stylized gimmick in his Star Trek reboot, is now Abram’s patented signature. If he keeps up this current body of work, we are going to refer to this time as his Lens Flare Period. Super 8is not perfect, but it is very good. A straight up popcorn movie that you will enjoy. Go see it soon, you do not have to wait for a matinee.
Bad things happen, but you can still live.
1. Abrams talked about the concept of mystery and his mystery box at TED. He also guest edited Wired magazine with the central theme of mystery, in mind. 2. Stay tuned for the credits, we get to see the final cut of their movie, The Case. It is comical. 3. Or took an utter nosedive off a cliff. Have you seen a film career turn this badly? M. Night had so much promise. I mean, I loved The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable is one of my all-times, I even have a soft spot for The Village. He went from Spielberglite or a modern day Rod Serling, to Ed Wood. Unfathomable. Chuck Klosterman has a good piece where he touches upon M. Night and discusses how spoiler culture is affecting screenwriters’ processes. 4. The lens flare which acted as a thematic indicatorin Start Trek, has become Abram’s calling card now. It is like he is almost fucking with us, “You thought those lens flares were annoying and distracting? Well, here’s twenty in a row! Suck it.”
And The Ugly, Thor
I wanted a refund for my admission and to be reimbursed for the time I spent watching Thor. Leaving the theater, I was embarrassed that I had dragged my friend to see this movie with me. Afterwards, I felt the need to apologize for the invitation. Granted, my expectations were pretty high to begin with. Rotten Tomatoes, at the time1, was rating it at about an 85% clip for both critics and audiences. For Rotten Tomatoes, this is an astronomical rating. When it hovers around the mid-eighties, it is an Oscar-worthy film. I trust Rotten Tomatoes, it is pretty accurate the majority of the time. I usually split the difference and average out the critical and audience reaction; this gives you a decent indicator of the quality of a film. Also contributing to my inflated expectations was the fact that this movie was being helmed by a smart man. A classically trained man; a Shakespearean actor. An accomplished Academy Award-nominated director, Kenneth Branagh. Should I also mention the power-packed cast of Sir Anthony Hopkins, Stellan Skarsgård, Natalie Portman, Rene Russo, Ray Stevenson and Idris Elba? It was a perfect storm for an epic movie about Asgard and the God of Thunder and I left utterly deflated. Son, I am disappoint. Where do we begin? I will start with the few highlights that I can muster. Idris Elba, The Wire’s Stringer Bell, as Heimdall2, steals the show. He is the lone character that I enjoyed in every scene. Heimdall, I feel, was the only character written with any alacrity. Chris Hemsworth was decent. The guy has charisma, range and bears genuine potential as a leading man. Natalie Portman is always fetching and fun to look at, even when spewing banal dialogue from her soup-cooler. Tom Hiddleston3, a talented actor, was serviceable as Loki. The cameo by Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye4 hyped me up. Also cool, was a scene in New Mexico where the Destroyer obliterates everything in its path. My premiere highlight? Sadly, the film’s conclusion5. Let us start with the tone. Because the story deals with Asgard and Norse mythology, which is ethereal and fantastic, should not give it license for the film to be Disneyfied. At times, boosted by an over-the-top dramatic, sappy score, I genuinely felt as if I was watching a Disney movie. This is not a good thing. The costumes, in the dimly lit halls of Asgard, are passable. When the Warriors Three and Sif are catapulted to the land of mortals, Earth, the costumes look almost laughable. In the daylight of Earth, the garb looks like what they are, painted latex and soft plastic. The costumes are what we thought they were! Thor’s character arc is steep and rapid. I would have preferred to have seen Thor carry himself as the arrogant jock a little longer than he did. The God of Thunder recognizes the failure in his narcissism in himself way too quickly, his evolution from infallible egoist to humble alien and honorable god seems completely rushed. Also forced and rushed was the romantic tension between Thor and Portman’s character, mortal human astrophysicist, Jane Foster. They are basically spooning on a rooftop under moonlight by first act’s end. Thor is a hunky god and all, but still, let’s take it slow. Skip the $18 for stereoscopic 3D. Skip Thor in the theaters altogether this summer. Bypass it on Netflix. Wait for it on HBO, Showtime or Cinemax. 1. It has now settled at 77% for critics and 80% for the audience. 2. Ironically, the most controversial casting, was the best. There was an uproar (by racists) that a black actor, Englishman, Idris Elba, was being cast as a fictional character in Norse mythology. 3. Hiddleston is the spitting image of Brent Spiner’s Lt. Commander Data in this movie. 4. Hawkeye will be a major player in The Avengers movie, this was another Avengers tease. Renner looks pretty good as Hawkeye. I like Renner and I like that casting, even though I still feel that The Hurt Locker is a woefully overrated film. One of the worst Academy Award winning films, ever. 5. Even the secret sceneat the end (of every Avengers related movie) was forgettable.
Upcoming Summer Blockbusters:
Captain America: The First Avenger
I am hyped for this one, Captain America: The First Avenger. This is the last member of the Avengers starting lineup to debut their own film before the superteam movie, The Avengers, comes out in 2012. It is Chris Evans as Steve Rogers, the titular Cap’n. I like Evans, it is a decent choice. I cannot really come up with a better alternative. Add Hugo Weaving as ultimate baddie, The Red Skull. Hugo Weaving rarely disappoints as the sinister antagonist; brilliant casting there. There was the danger that this would be another vanilla movie and franchise much like Fantastic Four. Initial reservations had surfaced being that the director, Joe Johnston, has a questionable resume and record. Upon seeing the trailer, it has instilled some confidence so far. The movie looks like a fun World War II romp and judging from the early glimpses, it appears to have great production value. I hope it delivers after the awful submission of Thor and an ultimately boring sequel to Iron Man.
Cowboys & Aliens
Speaking of Jon Favreau, here is his follow-up to Iron Man 2, Cowboys & Aliens. This promises to be awesome and I expect to be blown away by it (knock on wood). This is based on the 2006 graphic novel of the same name, from Platinum Studios.
Cowboys & Aliens features an epic cast; see Daniel Craig, legend and veteran Harrison Ford, immaculate muse Olivia Wilde and favorite (one of the most underrated, fearless actors of our generation) Sam Rockwell. This movie is part science fiction, part western thriller. I am thinking Stargate meets Unforgiven. What more do you need? Seriously.
Honestly, Green Lantern does not look great. This is unfortunate because I am a huge Green Lantern fan. Sadly, I can recite the Green Lantern Oath from memory. The striated digi-costume thing has been a turn off from the beginning. The pop-casting is questionable. Although, I like Ryan Reynolds (I think he will be a very good Deadpool), I think he is a wrong choice for Hal Jordan, Green Lantern of Sector 2814. I am also curious as to how Blake Lively will pan out as Carol Ferris. Londoner Mark Strong is a strong (pun intended) choice for Sinestro, this will be his opportunity to steal the movie. This movie had the potential to be a combination of the Star Wars Trilogy meets The Last Starfighter with nods to The Lord of the Rings series, but so far, it looks Fantastic Fourdumb combined with a sophomoric CGI bukkake. I have yet to find a person that is willing to attend this movie with me; I might have to solo-stag this one. On the bright side, the expectations are so low that it is going to be hard to be let down. Maybe that is a good thing? We can only go up…