Green Lantern (2011) Review

June 26, 2011 at 9:16 pm (Movies)

Green Lantern is a very flawed movie-going experience. It’s by no means a “good” movie, but it doesn’t fall into the ranks of the “superhero movie gone wrong” league of the horrifyingly awful “Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer” or “Daredevil”, or even the “close but no cigar” category like “Batman Forever” or “The Spirit”. Instead, in a much more tragic fashion, Martin Campbell’s Green Lantern is an obviously great movie buried beneath a very bad movie. The movie follows the first human lantern, Hal Jordan (Ryan Reynolds), a jet pilot that is chosen by the dying lantern Abin Sur’s ring to be the next lantern. While this is going on an evil force known as Parallax is endangering the universe and takes hold of the scientist Hector Hammond to destroy Hal. Green Lantern is one of those movies that tries to do way too much with way too little time. The way I see it either Martin Campbell had no idea how to interpret the character of Hal Jordan and his world, or, the more likely alternative, there were far too many hands pulling and molding Green Lantern in the development process. The film opens with your typical exposition scenes where we’re supposed to get to know Reynolds’ interpretation of Hal, but they’re so forced they end up not serving a purpose at all. We’re given characters that the film never uses and given a “dead dad” back-story for Hal that’s handled so poorly and inappropriately cheesy it’s laughable. Pretty soon we’re whisked off to the planet Oa that’s basically a “headquarters” for the lantern corps, which, ideally is supposed to be the set-up for an awesome series of training sequences. Nope, basically what you se in the trailer is all you see in the film. There’s a punch, kick, a few lines of exposition regarding how Hal’s powers work that we’ve already been told, Michael Clarke Duncan shows up, and in one awkward transition after another, we’re back on earth with our “established” hero, ready to save the day. Basically think Batman Begins, but Bruce only spends 7 minutes with Ras Al Ghul, the murder scene of his parents is done with cheesy black and white and sad music, and instead of the movie being 2.5 hours, it barely clicks over 1.5 hours, barely squeezing all the information in. I really believe the scenes on Oa could have been some of the movie’s strongest, had we gotten a clearer idea of how the world worked, who these other lanterns are, and went farther into Hal’s reaction to being a Lantern than “I’m not good enough”. There are a lot of great ideas on the page there, but none come to fruition. Unfortunately this isn’t a trend that changes once we get to earth. Much like Oa, if the movie just decided where it wanted to go and what the final product should look like, it would have been an awesome sequence of scenes that made for a comprehendible film. Peter Sarsgaard does a commendable job as Hector Hammond, which in theory is an awesome villain for the Green Lantern’s first outing. But in a way the movie just collapses under the potential. There’s a rivalry that’s hinted between Hal and Hector for the main love interest, and sadly it’s one of the most-emphasized parts of the film, but naturally it’s one of the least interesting things the film has to offer in a story about a guy who can make ANYTHING out of energy from a ring. The typical romance between Ryan Reynolds’ and Blake Lively’s character is one of the few things in the movie that does work. With the more outlandish nature of the Green Lantern’s powers, the movie does have a heck of a time trying to find a balance between the serious and the silly. I love the idea of a hero that’s so new to the idea of the ring that he forms things like a hot-wheel track or a flamethrower, and I think there’s an awesome, light-hearted and fun movie there. But it’s a bit more jarring when the movie switches from themes of a very dangerous battle that threatens to destroy the universe over to the love rivalry between Hal and Hector and then all of a sudden we’re tossed a whimsical, cartoonish action scene involving something zany coming from Hal and the ring. I honestly have no idea how you would do a serious Green Lantern film with Hal forming flamethrowers and gatling guns on the cuff of his mind, but there has to be a better way than the tonal mess Campbell chooses to use here. As I’ve said, there’s a really great story there, I love the ideas the film presents with green representing will and yellow (the color of Parallax) representing fear and the ensuing rivalry, along with the goofball nature of Hal Jordan and his self-esteem conflict presented. Overall, had there just been a lot of ideas extended and some ideas (love triangle, clunky exposition not on Oa) completely scrapped, we would have gotten closer to the better movie buried underneath.

A lot of controversy went behind the film early on when it was announced Hal’s suit was going to be entirely CGI, and now that I’ve seen the final product, I can say I somewhat-totally-kind-of-stand behind the decision. On one hand, making the suit CGI brings about a whole lot of other problems because you basically have to make a lot of other things CGI, like the world of Oa, the alien lanterns, etc. Let it be said right now, some of the shots are phenomenal. While the artistic design of Oa isn’t particularly inspired, from a technical standpoint it’s created pretty darn well with a real actor having to interact with it all. The final battle with the Parallax cloud at the end that’s plastered all over the trailers is also gorgeous, and is one of the film’s better accomplishments considering I actually enjoyed the sequence. The suit itself is even pretty consistent, never looking remarkable, but only being distractingly bad in a few smaller doses. It is somewhat remarkable though that we are living in an age of digital effects that can do this sort of thing, in that a movie like this couldn’t exist ten years ago. However that’s where my praise for the movie’s special effects ends. When the CGI succeeds, it creates a gorgeous world that you’ll marvel at. When it fails though, you feel like you’re watching a PS2 game from 2004 in action. The chase sequence between Abin Sur and Parallax at the beginning of the film looks downright awful in spots, there are several places in the film where the effects just look unfinished, and as I said just sentences ago, a little more polish on the suit wouldn’t have hurt. For the most part the performances of the film work, but they’re never really anything special. Blake Lively is fun to look at, but gives it an uninspired run by the time it’s all said and done. Peter Sarsgaard is arguably the film’s best element, which is said considering how awkwardly that character is handled. Ryan Reynolds smirks his way through it although in his defense Hal’s never really given a personality that’s evident on the screen. Finally, it has to be said Tim Robbins, a normally great actor, takes bland to an awful new level as the senator, a.k.a. Hector’s dad, a relation that is nowhere close to believable considering the two actors’ 12 year age difference that looks more like 2 years age difference in the face. I felt bad for Martin Campbell by the time this movie was over. The guy’s super talented, as he managed to successfully reboot Zorro and James Bond twice, including the incredible Casino Royale, unfortunately it just seems to be a case of too many ideas being present at once to make a concise, cohesive, or even satisfying film. A lot of people have compared Green Lantern to this year’s earlier hit Thor, but unlike Green Lantern, Thor is considerably more fun, and you can actually reasonably describe to others what the movie’s story is. To top it all off, once Green Lantern does come to a somewhat pleasing ending when we’ve “wrapped up” all our story threads, we’re given a “Let’s make a sequel!” cliffhanger during the credits. If the film wasn’t already such a critical and commercial failure, I would have loved to see Campbell and the gang put their heads back together and learn from their mistakes for what could have been an awesome sequel based on the interesting concept they set up. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you see it) the film’s probably never going to happen, instead Green Lantern will probably just end up with a new reboot in three or four years. Green Lantern sets lofty goals, and for a brief glimpse you can see what Martin Campbell really had in store for us: an epic, charming, and campy superhero space story, a movie I’m sure audiences would have loved. But as it stands, Green Lantern is a short, bloated movie with too many good ideas gone to waste.

2 out of 5

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Super 8 Review

June 18, 2011 at 12:50 am (Movies)

Super 8 aspires to be a lot. After the first few scenes of the film you can see the attempts at the charm of Spielberg’s charm from the 80s and 90s trying it’s hardest to fuse with Abram’s sensibilities about portraying suspense on the screen and his way of establishing mystery. Super 8 isn’t a bad film, in fact I actually really liked it. However I don’t think it’s as good as it thinks it is, or even as good as collaboration between two of the strongest filmmakers of all time could be, mainly undone by a clumsy final act. The film starts up in a small town in Ohio, where Joe Lamb is still grieving over the loss of his mother from a horrific factory accident. While Joe is helping his friends (including up and coming, young filmmaker Charles Kaznyk) shoot their zombie movie at the local train station, the kids narrowly escape a sudden, violent, and explosive train wreck. Pretty soon it appears that train crash is more than it appeared, as more and more strange phenomenon start occurring around town, people start vanishing, and the military begins an unwelcome and sinister participation in the “clean-up process”. The story’s been passed around a thousand times how Steven Spielberg’s always treated the kids in his films, in that he talks to them and directs them the same way he directs Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones, Robin Williams as Peter Pan, or Roy Scheider as Martin Brody. This is accredited to the phenomenal performances Steven gets out of his kids. Watching Super 8, you can sense that “Spielberg Tutoring” going on, as almost all the main kid actors’ performances in the film are trademark Spielberg. Ryan Lee, Gabriel Basso, and Zach Mills are all far better than most kid actors that are 99% of the time painfully phoning it in within the standard family film. I really liked Riley Griffiths’ role as the young director Charles, and I’d love to see him get more parts in the future even if it’s not with his best bud Spielberg. He really demands a lot of attention on screen, which is great and makes him really fun to watch. Plus his verbal sparring and comedic timing was fantastic. Noah Emmerich is your standard, tough-skinned military colonel as Colonel Nelec, and Kyle Chandler’s heart breaking take as Joe’s dad Jackson Lamb is a high point for the movie. Chandler convincingly brings that gruffness and hidden (sometimes not so much) sorrow to Jackson Lamb, all the while carrying himself with that stern “when I say no I mean it” attitude that reminded me a lot of my own father. Elle Fanning, sister of Dakota Fanning, comes out of nowhere and delivers a hard-hitting, very intelligent and yet still puzzling portrayal as Alice Dainard a.k.a. our love interest. I was also really surprised how much I was captivated by Ron Eldard’s role as Alice’s deeply troubled father Louis, and I found there to be a lot of honesty and genuine care put into making that character’s tragedy effective. Of course there’s also Joel Courtney as our lead Joe Lamb, and while it gets the job done (the kid has charisma), it was a bit discouraging that he got out-done by the adults in a movie about childhood. It’s these awesome performances (specifically the kids and in many scenes the super talented older cast) that give Super 8 its strongest pull. Much like JJ Abrams’ 2008 hit Cloverfield, Abrams makes sure to build a strong set of characters in a believable world before unleashing havoc. In contrast to the 15 minutes of exposition before the crap really hits the fan in Cloverfield, in Super 8 almost 3/4 of the film’s run time is thankfully dedicated to building the obscurity of this town’s new menace. There are a lot of great character moments in the time we get to spend with these kids, including some very dramatic family moments, some hilarious banter between the kids involving the kids attempting to finish Charles’ newest film, all sprinkled by a couple of incredibly effective thriller sequences that get the blood going and the anticipation rising as to what’s going to be revealed to us in the final act. I loved the fact that these moments with the kids feel so genuine, and that there’s a lot of time and care put into crafting a really interesting small town (much like the one I grew up in) and slowly sharpening our own anticipation to where we just can’t bear to think what might happen to these great characters in the final minutes. There’s a lot of exposition handed to us in chunks throughout the film, including some key explanations as to why certain characters behave the way they do all tossed at us at once and then the final, revealing description of the “force” invading the town being slapped on us in one awkward scene towards the end of the movie. I really dug the idea of telling this formulaic story in a very sweet, charming environment, as it makes the final moments all the more terrifying and real to us. We really care about what’s happening to the kids because they feel just like the kids that live down the street from us, and it adds an extra, efficient layer of impending doom and danger. But whether it’s because of a rushed script or just an inability to deliver on the goods, I felt like Super 8 played its cards too early in the film and mostly whimpers out in the final act. There’s not a single part of the film that’s “bad”, it’s just built up too much, both by the film’s immense hype in the film community brought on by the trailer and the hype within the film itself. It’s just sort of a bummer to see a character-driven, very suspenseful and heartfelt story of imagination and childhood delve into what felt like a monster-chase movie we’ve seen a thousand times before in the final 30 minutes. It just felt like a different film at times. It felt tonally different as well, taking on a darker, more morose vibe and ultimately playing it far too safe. As I said, even the strictly thriller final act is still a solid movie, it’s just like if someone overwrote the final act of your Die Hard VHS with Taken. Another thing that really helps the film stand out is the emphasis on style.

Much like Matthew Vaughn’s brilliant X-Men: First Class, the movie takes subtle advantage of its time period, submerging us in 1979’s America with the cars, fashion, and even technology (I had a heck of a time trying to figure out what year this movie took place in) without being overbearing. Through the film’s style it also becomes very apparent the film was built from the ground up for movie geeks. Spielberg’s style and Abrams’ style are a perfect marriage that I’d willingly pay to see get back together again. Like I said earlier the kid actors are obviously Spielberg-trained, and even the way the kids talk in such a sharp  entertaining way is somehow a clear cooperation b/w Abrams and Spielberg. The way the world has such a childlike wonder to it, the very sleek approach to concealing a mystery, and of course the gorgeous lens flares that infuriate some are just a few of the elements that show Spielberg and Abrams fingerprints all over the project. Speaking of the visual flourishes Abrams brings to the table, one thing Super 8 does really really well is its effect sequences. Like I’ve stated multiple times, there are a couple of “suspense” sequences that are really effective. Not only because they’re efficiently playing to the mystery of the monster, but also because a lot of the scene is done with practical effects. That car you see being demolished, the windows being obliterated, and the poor helpless soul being dragged out of the camera’s view, it’s all real. I’ve stood on my soapbox before about how I always prefer the real to the computer-generated whenever it’s possible; as it’s been proven in other films of Abrams and even Chris Nolan’s Batman films the physical presence of these effects adds so much more weight to what’s actually going on. While there’s no way it could have avoided using computer effect (it’s just not possible to put something like that on film), the much-advertised train-crash sequence that comes in about 20 minutes into the film is jaw-dropping in the most literal sense of the phrase. It almost felt like they were going to blow the speaker systems in our theater. There are so many quick shot changes that always give you a great view of what’s going on, so many huge explosions, an incredibly chaotic sense of destruction that leads you to believe death is waiting at any corner, and so much more surrounding children that haven’t even hit puberty yet. It’s a very tense, loud, and dangerous sequence that will leave you gasping for breath just like the kids who have narrowly escaped with their lives. It’s by far the film’s most brilliant moment, a moment that’s unfortunately not matched ever again. While the CGI shots (the few that stay on the screen long enough to be studied) during the train wreck sequence looked great, there are a few computer-generated shots that didn’t look particularly great and quite frankly a little unfinished, the majority of which came during the film’s climax I won’t spoil. I find it ironic how much this film works as a great inspiration to kids in that it does work really well to casually approach themes of letting go with the loss of a parent or even indulging in your creative passions and letting your imagination run wild. I had entertained the thought that the whole film could be a metaphor for imagination, and that the “conspiracy” of the town and even the train crash were all a made-up story as part of Charles’ and Joe’s wild imagination, but the film never comes close to supporting my notion. Either way, the movie does effectively take on these ideas and I feel taught the kids in my screening an important lesson by the time the movie was over. However because of the pervasive language (for a PG-13 film), there’s no doubt in my mind I wouldn’t have been able to watch this movie when I was 12 (around Joe’s age). There are a lot of “s-grenades” even by the kids, and it all compiles into enough to profanity to out-class this as a kid’s movie in my mind. Sure it’s a movie about childhood (and our own childhood depending on the viewer), but by no means is it a film made for kids, which is a little disheartening. This movie also fell into the trend, being a PG-13 film, of shoehorning in the one use of the “F-word” allowed in a PG-13 movie. It didn’t really bother me, but it was a really inopportune and ridiculously unnecessary addition to a movie that could have been a classic for kids. Super 8 is a good film. However I feel like it was planning on being the “breath of fresh air” Inception was last summer, which was an amazing film amidst a whole lot of crap we were force fed last summer. Thankfully, Summer 2011 has been a time of some really amazing films we’ve already seen, like Vaughn’s revival of X-Men and Todd Phillips’ wildly successful, wildly hilarious, and just wild The Hangover Part II, with plenty more potential greats on the way (Johnston’s Captain America, Bay’s Transformers, etc.). Basically, instead of being a diamond of normal beauty in a bed of rocks, it’s just a normal-looking diamond in a bed of gorgeous gems. I wish Super 8 had tried a little harder, had been more focused on being a knockout kids’ movie or just the nostalgic sci-fi film it is but with a third act that didn’t deliver on its promises. Super 8 taught me a lot of things; including how blessed we are to have filmmakers like Abrams to succeed Spielburg along with brilliant kid actors that exist outside of the world of Disney. More importantly though it teaches us the wonder of imagination and how wonderfully that can impose itself to the big screen, and that innovative ideas can still trudge through the maze of getting made into film. Had it spent a little more time on the development desk, there could have been a lot more to love here, heck it could have been a BIG stand-out this summer. However Super 8 ends up as a two-act wonder that, thanks to the wonder of those two great acts and some amazing effects, phenomenal characters, and creativity of the purest order, deserves to be seen.

4/5 

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X-Men First Class Review

June 8, 2011 at 11:38 pm (Movies)

Imagine if someone Nolan-ized X-Men. Ok, maybe we use the phrase “Nolan-ze” a little too often. But if Nolan ever did direct an X-Men film, it’d be something close to First Class. Whenever I was a kid I remember watching the Bryan Singer’s first two X-Men films, and compared to bigger, more fantastical superhero movies I was accustomed to like Sam Raimi’s Spiderman series and even the pre-Nolan Batman films, they weren’t my favorite. In fact they bored me. Wolverine and Cyclops were the only characters that were “cool” enough to hold my interest, and a lot of the more serious elements like Professor X and Magneto’s rivalry and the Civil Rights subtext slipped right under my radar. I haven’t re-watched the original X-Men film all the way through in years, and with each repeated viewing of X2 I grow fonder of it. X3: The Last Stand, I myself being 14 at the time, was the first of the series I saw in theaters, and I remember loving it. Looking back now that movie has its problems, mainly due to Fox’s interfering nature throwing Brett Ratner on the project, but I stand by the fact that it’s a fun film, and at least more entertaining than 2009’s disappointing “Wolverine”. Somewhere in my room is that X3 poster that I need to dig up. In case you didn’t already know or are just now figuring out through my brief recap, the X-Men series has had it’s own troubled past. A tumultuous past that’s almost entirely redeemed by Matthew Vaughn’s “X-Men: First Class”, which was produced and co-wrote by Bryan Singer himself. The film approaches the X-Men series with strong, loving reverence along with a very clear desire for a smart, stylistic, and emotion-charged restart of a series that was once in trouble of growing stale, but now feels just as fresh in a 5th film as it did 12 years ago. Wow, 12 years ago? Great job making me feel old, Bryan Singer… The film centers on the very beginning of the mutant conflict in 1962 (the year before the X-Men comics actually started in the real world) and the tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union that eventually led into the Cuban Missile Crisis. However this just serves as a backdrop to the real story here, which includes Charles Xavier’s continuing research into the mutant genome including discovering new individuals with powers and the government’s involvement along with Erik Lensherr’s bloodthirsty hunt for Sebastian Shaw, the super-powered and slightly demented owner of the Hellfire Club that is out to recruit a few mutants of his own to start a third world war. That’s a very, very condensed version of this film’s sequence of events that you could condense down to a synopsis. There’s a whole lot going on in this movie, a lot of characters and a lot of material covered, the movie takes full advantage of its 2 1/2 hour run time. However I feel like I could spend just as much time talking about the commendable performances that we get to see because this movie exists. The X-Men series has always been outstanding with its casting decisions which included Singer’s excellent choice in having acting juggernauts (all pun intended) Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan define Professor X and Magneto, giving Hugh Jackman the chance to infamously portray Wolverine, and even the surprise in Kelsey Grammar’s awesome Beast from X3. Matthew Vaughn, while he’s not been in the film game nearly as long as some of these same actors, has made some great but more daring choices like attaching wild card Nicholas Cage to his 2010 movie Kick-Ass and helping Ellen Page become the huge star that she is today. It’s this marriage of casting divinity that’s going to be hard to forget in X-Men: First Class. As I said just a few sentences ago, the performances by Stewart and McKellan were what part of the reason the original trilogy was stood out so much, and were undoubtedly a big “sink or swim” element for the trilogy. As luck would have it, both James McAvoy as Charles Xavier and Michael Fassbender as Erik Lensherr match the tone and most surprisingly the quality of the “original” portrayals, along with even exploring new, interesting facets of these comic legends. James McAvoy, portraying a mobile and much more naïve Charles, perfectly illustrates Charles’ immense wisdom while still giving it a touch of boyish arrogance underneath anything he says. Also, he does the thing any guy would do with telepathy, use it to pick up women. Michael Fassbender also really nails it as “pre-Magneto” Erik. He really pulls all of the emotional strings to give us a peek into Erik’s tormented mind that contains great intelligence, deep-seated hate, a lust for revenge, and what we’re told is an even stronger ability than Charles’. I’ll go ahead and say that seeing Erik take on the Magneto helmet by the end of the movie (it’s in the trailer, don’t act surprised) sent chills down my spine. Both actors convinced me of the vast emotion and turmoil within the characters but also the otherworldly power present there. It’s really astonishing that these actors have both crafted a remarkable portrayal of these mutant “brothers” but you can see that natural progression coming down the line that made them who they were in the original trilogy. Rose Byrne, who’s really been known just for her parts in comedies (Bridesmaids, last year’s Get Him to the Greek) does a surprisingly awesome job as the government agent McTaggert that’s there to escort the “First Class’s” efforts to stop Sebastian Shaw, portrayed magnificently by Kevin Bacon. I admittedly chuckled whenever I heard Bacon was cast in the film’s “main villain” role, but the guy pulls “fully despicable” off well, and does so in a surprisingly sincere and intimidating way. January Jones isn’t particularly amazing as Emma Frost, but she’s easy enough on the eyes most guys in my demographic won’t complain about her acting skills. Oliver Platt, Michael Ironside, and Nikolas Hoult all do considerably awesome jobs with the smaller parts they’re given (with the exception of Hoult as Beast of course), but it’s Hoult’s performance as Hank McCoy that rarely breaks out of the teenage movie stereotype but seems to want to go farther.

Whereas Vaughn’s 2010 “Kick-Ass” had a pretty profound color palette and visual sense, First Class does the same in a far subtler, but just as impressive way. The costumes at the end of the film that we see in all the trailers had a nice aesthetic that gave us just enough of a taste of the classic X-Men, and I’ll never be able to fully explain my love for Vaughn’s design of the Magneto helmet that is actually a critical crux to the story. Seeing Erik get that helmet by the end of the film (it’s in the trailer and it’s not a huge spoiler to say Magneto becomes Magneto) was really something to see, especially considering the setup to that moment in the seconds before. Of course the movie has a 60s vibe to it and while it’s never really as overbearing as a lesser-talented director would have made it, it lends itself to some great design choices in clothing, building architecture, and of course the classic cars. For the most part the visual effects looked fantastic in the movie as well as the action sequences; even if there were a few shots that didn’t look entirely impressive probably because the film was completed on a very tight schedule thanks to Fox not wanting to lose the X-Men rights. The action scenes range from your classic power vs. power chaos, the incredibly epic finale we see in the trailers, and to a far darker and more disturbing place especially when the film is delving into Magneto’s tormented past with a handful of scenes at the Nazi camp Erik discovered his powers. I can see where X-Men: First Class would be a huge risk for Fox. There’s no Wolverine, there’s no Patrick Stewart, heck, there’s literally no one in the official cast list that’s in the original trilogy. So it’s understandable that X-Men First Class covers such a HUGE RANGE of story here, and the fact that it does take a colossal, twisting story and just uses that to make it a stronger, more tremendous film with its story, that’s just fantastic. It’s almost dizzying to think about what all could be mentioned when rambling about the story Vaughn and Singer tell here. I mean you have all these concepts at work here like the ever-present X-Men theme of acceptance in a changing society, a strong tale of revenge that in the first few scenes of the film feels almost like a crossover of James Bond and Inglourious Basterds, a historical backdrop very reminiscent of Alan Moore/Zack Snyder’s Watchmen, an origin story of one of the greatest superhero teams ever, and most importantly of all to me, this tragic story of two patriarchal men with very different ideas of approaching the world slowly but surely falling in line against each other. Yeah, and all of this is told in two hours and 13 minutes. It’s a very streamlined flow of ideas that all make their way to the screen in their own sweet time, each one appealing to a different fan. I almost felt like the trailers for the film were a little misleading, considering 90% of those shots are in the last 40 minutes of the film. This is very much a spy thriller that just so happens to include superheroes, an idea I just can’t get enough of. Vaughn and Singer have such an eye for this series and an eye for making these characters believable that by the end when we reach this humongous ending where all these seemingly random story threads meet together, it’s one of the most ambitious and grand finales Marvel’s ever achieved.

There’s easily enough material here for 2 or 3 films in that the events of First Class could have been their own trilogy, but guessing that either Vaughn or Singer wasn’t sure they’d get a second run at this, they tell almost every single story they want to tell here while still not over-packing it. But still at the end of the movie we’re given a very ominous, almost cliffhanger conclusion with even a few story elements that could easily be explored. Once you’ve seen the film, you’ll know exactly the shot this film ends on, and just like me, you’ll be dying to see more. Once you’ve seen the film, you’ll know exactly the shot this film ends on, and just like me, you’ll be dying to see more. I could have easily spent another 2 or 3 hours in the theater watching more of the world Vaughn and Singer created, or rather, re-created. While this is such a loving tribute to the original trilogy and such a beautiful marriage of the old and the new that unifies the sensibilities and ideas of the originals while giving it the shot-in-the-arm revival it needed with this new spin and new world to explore, Singer’s script isn’t perfect per say. He does do an awesome job of connecting the films together here and giving you those “Ah ha!” moments where you realize how certain things came to be, but the way he writes some of those scenes felt a little on the nose. The whole sequence where Raven explains all the mutants names was hard to swallow, and there were a few times it was a bit insulting that the movie assumed we still didn’t realize what something was by writing it out a bit too obviously. That might sound obscure, but once you see the film you’ll know what I mean. The same goes for a few of the powers in the film, including one of the bad guy’s ability to throw tornadoes.  In the midst of a thankfully more serious and morose world where this epic clash of brothers is going on, a mutant line is about to be drawn between good and evil, and World War 3 is looming, seeing the cheesiness of some of these powers felt a little out of place and goofy. Also, a lot of people I knew had a big problem with how this film fit into the others continuity-wise, but when this film that apparently “breaks the timeline” is better than the timeline, I don’t have a problem accepting this as just that director’s own vision of how it happened. I really wouldn’t have wanted to see this film changed in any way. Thankfully also with Singer partially at the helm there are a handful of amazing cameos and winks to the trilogy to keep the older fans in delight. X-Men: First Class is an extraordinary film, and I’d go as far to say that it’s the first superhero film this year to truly break the mold and almost transcend the genre. It’s as powerful as any drama I’ve seen in the past few years, it’s got the action scenes that never fail to impress, it’s hilarious in several spots, it has style just oozing out of its pores like a James Bond film, and for those of us that have loved X-Men forever, it’s really rewarding to see this work of love really come to the screen. It defies the odds to tell one of Marvel’s greatest stories, the birth of the rivalry between Charles and Erik, in a perfect way. I think this is Marvel’s best film they’ve done in the past couple of decades of bringing amazing comics to life, if not it’s definitely tied with Spiderman 2, finally Marvel has a Dark Knight they can boast about. Underneath all the beauty of this film and even the dark places it goes, you know how this movie ends, you just don’t know how or by what measures it’ll get there.

5 out of 5

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Kung Fu Panda 2 Review

June 3, 2011 at 3:02 pm (Movies)

When an animated movie hits the right note for me, it really knocks it out of the park. I’ve sat through my fair share of awful animated movies, and when one screws up the formula, it’s really hard to sit through. You can see the resolution coming a mile away, and the jokes that fail to hit the golden balance between kids and adults makes you want to jump out of a window. Thankfully, Kung Fu Panda 2 is a classic benchmark for efficiently mixing humor, action, and a hybrid sort of story into a single awesome movie that’ll give any age group an unshakable smirk, and it might just teach you something. Kung Fu Panda 2 picks up a few years after Kung Fu Panda 1, where Po the Dragon Warrior Panda (Jack Black) has become a hero of China but is still the bumbling, “ska-doosh”-ing hero we love leading the Furious Five that includes Mantis (Seth Rogen), Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Viper (Lucy Liu), and Crane (David Cross). The movie focuses on Po and the gang’s attempt to overthrow the evil Lord Shen (Gary Oldman), a vengeful peacock that with the help of a baffling new weapon plans on bring China and kung-fu itself to its knees. I’m usually not a fan of all-star casts like DreamWorks uses a lot of times, but the Kung Fu Panda series is one of those exceptions. Jack Black is practically the Picasso of the voice work art form. The guy clearly has a lot of fun in the voice booth getting to become Po, and it helps that they both have a lot in common personality wise. It’s just refreshing to have an actor bring so much fun, physicality, and innocence to what could have been a bland character. I like that certain characters like Seth Rogen as Mantis and Jackie Chan as Monkey get more time on screen, and I even liked what new-comer Danny McBride brought in as the leader of Lord Shen’s wolf pack. While he’s not really gotten a huge break, he has a very clear shtick in a lot of his films that for some reason was really funny to see animated. I’m pretty sure they even let him improvise on a few lines of the dialogue, which is pretty unheard of, but a perfect opportunity for the hysterical McBride to stretch his legs. James Hong, just as he was in the first film, is a hilarious addition to the movie as Po’s “father goose”/noodle storeowner. Gary Oldman though as the nefarious Lord Shen is almost unrecognizable. It’s a running joke on Internet message boards that Gary Oldman is in almost every movie that comes out, yet it was a huge surprise to me that he was in this. Surprise or not, Oldman’s incarnation of Shen is commendable, as he gives it just the right pause of words here, the right menacing flourish to make Lord Shen really intimidating. He clearly gives it his all, and easily becomes the best villain this series has and probably ever will see. The look of all these characters has also improved dramatically. Re-watching parts of the original Kung Fu Panda just the other day, the older models by no means look dated, but the increased quality in small things like shading and detail on the characters looks phenomenal. Take a moment to look at just the fur on Po or Tigress in the snowy mountain or harbor scenes, just to admire that painstaking detail. Also just on an artistic level these characters are a huge animation milestone. I really dug the aesthetic of the wolves and gorillas as sort of Shen’s “brute force”, and while we’re on the topic of Lord Shen, that character in and of itself is a wonder to behold. DreamWorks deserves a standing ovation for making a laughable conceit like a peacock as a villain one of the fiercest villains to ever be animated. Lord Shen must have been a pain in the rear to animate but is almost like a Swiss army knife, being as there are about 17 different things he can do with his unique body structure, including using his wreath of feathers as a shield AND projectile stash, using metal claws to gain traction and as a landing support, and oh yeah, he also has a sweet sword. This world that the characters inhabit is also gorgeous, the animators once again going out of their way to create a faithful but still creatively complimentary portrayal of ancient China. Each shot seems to incorporate a temple, mountain ridge, or just a peaceful but artistically vibrant Chinese marketplace, and it’s like some kind of amazing mosaic. While this is a small detail, I also really dug the idea of making everything around Shen a deep red and black any time he goes into a rant or is up to another nefarious deed, giving us as an audience an immediate feel that he’s got to be up to something. I might also make a point of picking up the movie’s score by Hans Zimmer, a very traditional but effective track that gave off a really old school kung-fu movie vibe. Would you think that’s the end of this movie’s artistic luster? Of course not, there are a handful of flashback scenes that use a really magnificent hand-drawn, 2D style to signify the shift in time. It reminded me a lot of the same historical Chinese style the film harkened back to in so many other aspects. It’ll go unappreciated by kids, but to a film nerd it’s an amazing touch. Kung Fu Panda 2 really is a remarkable feat in how it has a really great attitude about itself. A little too often we get these animated films that are a little too snarky, they’ve always got this smart-allecky smirk underneath all of its jokes and tender moments, but that never felt like the case to me with Kung Fu Panda 2. Everything it’s doing on screen always felt really genuine and sweet to me. I’ve discovered that I’m addicted to the recurring idea of normal people (and in a lot of cases people we’d normally associate as geeky, out of shape, or just a loser) doing amazing things. I mean I’m a huge fan of the show “Chuck” on NBC, and so many other pieces of work much like how Kung Fu Panda 2 with Po the very unfit Panda, probably because I can find a lot to relate to there. Once that hero gets to accomplish his goal at the end it means all that much more because he had a lot more to overcome, including other’s expectations. No one’s really surprised when James Bond saves the world for the umpteenth time, but when a down-on-his-luck nerdy guy with a heart of gold gets the girl or stops the bad guy, you just want to cheer. Much like Po from start to finish the movie does have a very innocent soul, and that helps the action and comedic moments hit so much better, mainly because the characters are just as astonished as you are that they just saved the day.

From a more creative standpoint, the filmmakers really did do a great job at stepping up their game on a lot of the fantastic aspects of the first film and telling the unique story they tell here. Kung Fu Panda 2 is very much an origin story, but some how it manages to not fall into the predictability of that or even make that the only focus of the film. They use Po’s origins that are touched on throughout to make the new story make more sense and to even advance that story farther, mainly because Lord Shen has a much stronger connection Po’s past than you’re initially led to believe. We get to learn who Po’s real parents were, what happened to them, and who Po really is in these 2D cell-shaded animated sequences that often go to some dark, scary places (thanks mostly to Executive Producer Guillermo Del Toro) without being too daunting for kids. I didn’t expect Kung Fu Panda 2 to match or even top Kung Fu Panda 1’s action or comedy, but somehow it managed to top it. Who knows, maybe I was in an awesome mood going into the theater, but I was floored by how funny Kung Fu Panda 2 was. Of course there’s your fat joke here and there, Po’s hysterical habit of shouting out plan names for completely unpredicted battle scenarios as if he had planned them months in advance, and several other kid-aimed bits of humor, I was laughing a good 15 minutes after some of the hilarious scenes I won’t even spoil here. The action sequences also aren’t just beautiful, they’re much more creative this time around, and often times really take advantage of the animation medium, creating some gorgeous scenes you just couldn’t ever do with live action. The set piece from the trailer where the Furious Five have to scale Shen’s palace is remarkable, and manages to be as hilarious as some the movie’s best jokes at the same time. Along with a chase scene in a Chinese marketplace between Po and the Wolf Pack Leader, of course the final battle between Po and Lord Shen, and a handful of other action pieces here and there throughout the film are just awesome. From start to finish I was never bored with the movie, I never had any idea where the story was going to go next, and I was constantly entertained in the best way by this absorbing story, engaging action and great moments of hilarity. I can only imagine what it would be like to see this as a kid. I’ll admit, I didn’t see the film in 3D but I cheaped out and went with the 2D print of the movie, and while I’ve heard the 3D print is actually worth it, I didn’t feel like I was missing anything without the glasses. Much like a lot of other cases I didn’t miss the glasses. If there’s anything I could really complain about here, it’s that I felt the movie was a little too short for me. While that’s a pretty good compliment of your film that I wanted to spend more time in the world you created, at about 90 minutes it felt just a little rushed in places like we were moving from plot point to plot point pretty quickly. Also, while I did love the fantastic cliffhanger ending to this movie, the concept that they’re setting up has set a few other animated series astray. I have the utmost faith in this crew, and hopefully we’ll see a Kung Fu Panda 3 in the next few years, but they’ll really have to knock it out of the park. All in all, I had an amazing time watching Kung Fu Panda 2; it’s a film I feel like I could recommend to any age group, knowing they’ll leave the theater satisfied. Not just in terms of improving and innovating the animation game, but when you’re trying to find a hilarious, sweet, good-natured animated movie with a sincerely great message, there are few animated movies this summer that’ll come close to topping Kung Fu Panda 2’s mastery of kung-fu. As I wrap up, let me make something clear, I am a firm believer in the lifestyle of being awesome. Be awesome to others, treat yourself awesome, do awesome things, live an awesome life, and it’s rare that a film embodies the spirit of awesome quite like Kung Fu Panda 2 does. It’ll be a film I re-watch over and over in a couple of months just to remind myself what “awesome” really is. It’s almost like a poster child for awesomeness, and I feel as if that’s one of the best compliments and best descriptions I can give it.

5 out of 5

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The Hangover Part II Review

June 1, 2011 at 11:05 pm (Movies)

I remember bragging to my friends back in 2009 that I was going to see the “little-known” comedy called The Hangover on its opening night, mostly because I had already heard some of the amazing buzz coming off the film’s advanced screening and thinking it could very well be the next huge hit. Apparently I have a great foresight for modern comedy classics (it’s totally like me to have a useless skill like that), as The Hangover (Part 1) was a colossal hit. It established new box office records for both live action comedies and the R-rated genre in general, and living in a guys’ dorm myself, I can assure it’s still gleefully quoted on a night-to-night basis. Now, The Hangover Part II (one of the funniest titles I’ve ever heard in my opinion) has landed in theaters, and to be honest, Todd Phillips didn’t even have to try here. Just put in the same cast, slap on a new location, and keep up the fantastic jokes that you know people will laugh themselves into tears with, and you’ve got another half-billion in the bank. I can’t say that Todd Phillips’ latest is the most profoundly original film I’ve ever witnessed, but being able to see arguably this summer’s biggest comedy hit first with a room full of other eager fans at 12:01 in the morning was a perfect setting for this immensely funny and infinitely amusing movie. The film takes place about 2 years after the original Hangover, with Doug still happily married and still afraid of rooftops, Phil still with his wife and with their new child, Allen still living with his parents at home and cherishing the memories from two years prior, and Stu now being the bachelor of the hour, arranged to be married in Bangkok, Thailand. Despite Stu’s stern precautions, after a bonfire and drinking night on the beach the guys wake up in a run-down slum in Bangkok with no idea where they are or where Stu’s future brother-in-law could be.

I would imagine finding leading men to take the comedic reins on your movies is a supremely tough task, but I think it’s one that Todd Phillips might just be one of the best at when it comes to consistency. Thanks to him the comedic brilliance that is Zach Galifianakis is as recognized as it is, and it’s been his pairing with Robert Downey Jr. in last year’s Due Date or his threesome with the remarkable Ed Helms and the suave Bradley Cooper that makes fans like myself feel better about making him an A-list director. Much like The Hangover Part 1, it’s this “modern day three stooges” that’s still one of the primary reasons this film works so well on a comedic level. They just play so well off of each other, their chemistry is unbeatable, and the fact that each one of the guys is just as funny as the other in different ways helps too. The underappreciated Ed Helms is a remarkable straight man as Stu, and his gross-out/freak-out reactions are still an uproarious staple of his character.Bradley Cooper, as an opposite to Zach’s far-left character, is calm and most importantly cool for the majority of the film just like last time, and allows his on-screen charm to carry him through. As I said earlier, it’s awesome that Galifianakis is getting the recognition he has been for this same role, and if you’ll watch any of his own stand-up bits on YouTube you’ll realize the guy has an incredibly sharp comedic mind. Just as you’d expect and much like last time, he’s the most bizarre character on screen and has most of the film’s best, most knee-slapping hilarious lines my hall mates will be citing well through August whenever school starts back. Ken Jeong as Chow also has a much larger part in this film than in Part One, which is a nice refresher from time to time popping into the story’s events without being annoying. Paul Giamatti even springs in about halfway through as a Russian crime boss, and while he doesn’t do particularly anything as interesting as he’s capable of, it’s still a fun bit. Being in Bangkok this time around, the film’s tone has also taken a much dimmer note. Instead of the barren deserts, brightly-lit and neon landscape that was Las Vegas last time around, Bangkok is a much filthier and grimier place, and we get to see this on every street corner, strip club and shipping port the guys visit. The buildings are filthy, the people are hostile, and it’s a rare sight that the Wolf Pack is in a building that doesn’t have electricity or more than 2 floors. It’s not exactly the most flattering portrayal of Asia, but the few shots that Phillips manages to get from the top of skyscrapers or a “P.F. Chang’s” monastery is a nice aesthetic touch. It’s great that Phillips seemed to want to raise the stakes and disparity of the situation just a little bit more by making it a more forlorn, dangerous and god-forsaken landscape, on top of the fact that no one speaks English. A lot of the greatest and funniest bits of the movie are also darker in spots. The 15 minutes we get before the gang gets to Thailand are pretty reminiscent of Hangover Part One even in joke tone, including a hilarious shot showing the jealousy between Allen and Stu’s new brother-in-law on the plane ride over. But after the beer bottles clink and we get the time lapse of the city over night just like in Part 1 as we know what’s to come, everything and I mean everything takes a turn for the worst, and by the worst I mean the funniest. The Hangover Part II pushes the boundary of “How far can we take this bit?” much farther than the original and ends up in some jaw-dropping places. Not to spoil any of the moments, but there’s a certain scene inside of a Bangkok strip club that you could almost tell by a rippling effect who discovered how that scene was going to end, and once that realization came it slowly sent laughter and shivers down our backs. It’s nowhere near unrecognizable compared to Part 1 (it’s still boys behaving badly through and through and for the most part it’s good clean drunken debauchery), you should know the film goes to some dark places in a few spots, pushing even its R rating. It’s interesting to also note that you could almost label The Hangover Part II as an action comedy. There are a handful of great action sequences in the film that are peppered in the trailer, greatly out-tailing the scope and action of the first film. There were a few spots that I felt like the new emphasis on action came at the expense of the humor, the ending credits clip show was a little bit disappointing, but there are still a slew of great laughs in this one, and the added action emphasis is appreciated, innovating on the comedy in a fun way. Plus it helps that Part II, much like Part One, is a genuinely funny film that’s only going to get funnier on repeated viewings, much like the first film, with expanded, yet still gut-bustingly hilarious set-ups for the Wolf Pack to overcome. I mentioned earlier that The Hangover Part II isn’t going to win any awards for originality, and I find that to be its biggest fault but also one of its best things about it. Much like the first film, The Hangover Part II has the same trio of guys waking up somewhere with no idea of what happened the night before. You could even argue that a lot of the plot elements are just duplicates, like how instead of a tiger there’s a monkey, instead of Chow there’s Paul Giamatti’s Russian gangster character, instead of a baby it’s a Thai monk, and so on. True, I think if Phillips had deviated from the formula just a little or tried something totally bold and crazy and made an entirely new format, we could have had an entirely new, fresh, and potentially amazing comedy, but these similarities that seem to really bother others with this film never really got to me. Sure, there were a few times in this one that I thought “Oh that thing’s like that thing from the original”, but it never got to the point where I thought I was being ripped off. Instead it became clear (at least to me) that Todd Phillips was patterning these new antics in a different, fresh way (and in many instances a darker way) that sometimes simply referenced the original in a demented, hilarious sort of way. In a lot of scenes it’s even part of the joke, and works to the joke’s benefit when both you and the character are thinking about the idea that they’ve already been through this torment. It’s almost like an inside joke between you and the Wolf Pack. Maybe that’s what I loved best about The Hangover Part II and what makes it better than the original in some regards, that it’s a loving work of fan service. They know what we love about these characters, and they give us more of it, polishing the bits that worked and tossing out the “dud” elements (however few there were) from the first film. Just like Part One, the movie opens with Phil calling Doug’s wife, telling her “we really screwed up this time, it’s bad”, and my midnight screening immediately burst into applause and tearful, anticipation-laced laughter. I love this movie, I love the wolf pack, and I’d be more than willing to see at least a half-dozen more hungover antics of this crew. And it doesn’t just rely on replicating the first film’s formula, it ratchets all the jokes to 11, widens the scale, pays homage to the things we love, gives us new things to love and new lines to quote, and tries its darn hardest to make sure each theater patron leaves satisfied. We know Phil, Stu, and Allen are screw-ups; it’s just great fun to see them again. The Hangover Part II, much like it’s wolf pack, is a real piece of work. I won’t be re-watching this movie months from now with friends because it’s the most original piece of comedic entertainment out there, but because it delivers and expands on what I love about this comedy series while pushing the envelope a little farther, daring to go there, and not being afraid to go the extra comedic mile. It’s a comedy I love waking up to.

4 out of 5

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