New Release Tuesday: Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

26 07 2011

The summer of comic book movies continued this past weekend with the fourth major superhero release in “Captain America: The First Avenger”. Unless the title didn’t tip you off, yes this is a set up movie for the much-anticipated “Avengers” film but nevertheless it stands on it’s own quite nicely since it takes place 70 years in the past. So we begin during World War 2 and young, slight, and sickly Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) feels the need to join the army and after attempting to join five different times he gets noticed by a German scientist come over to America. Dr. Erskine (Stanley Tucci) chooses Steve for the Super Soldier program because of his pure determination and spirit. Steven Rogers is transformed into a larger man of supernatural strength and uses this new-found ability to… sell war bonds. Yes the beginnings of Captain America weren’t that glamorous, he wasn’t allowed on the front line so he became a symbol back home. On an trip to Italy to visit the troops he learns that his best friend ‘Bucky’ Barnes is missing in combat, so Cap, with the aid of the lovely Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) and Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper), breaks in and rescues the prisoners. Along the way he runs into Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving) who was in charge of the base and after he escapes creates a unit dedicated to destroying Schmidt’s various bases set up throughout Europe. Once Schmidt’s diabolical plan to destroy the world is stopped Captain America crashes into ice and is frozen in time for over 70 years until he is thawed out and recruited by Nick Fury. This giant origin story is all put together quite well; the acting is good and effects are excellent, the film has a great old time atmosphere, and it is all paced quite well. Outside of the action this is one of the best Marvel movies, unfortunately the action isn’t up the standards of the other Avengers.

“Your task will not be easy. Your enemy is not what he appears…”

The primary problem with the action of the film is that it simply lacked tension. This is because of two reasons; one is that we all know Cap’ survives and two is that once he gets his shield he basically becomes invincible. He blocks any attack directed at him and can hurl it at any enemy to take him out. The first is an easy problem to get around because it is less that the hero survives (big surprise there) and more about how he survives and while Steve has his shield he is rarely in any form of danger. In fact a rare blast of tension is formed when he suddenly gets himself thrown out of a plane without his shield and has to find a way to survive. This is the most exciting part of the movie. Luckily this occurs during the final climax, giving it strength right when it needed it.

“Why someone weak? Because a weak man knows the value of strength, the value of power…”

I mentioned the film does many other things right and these are mostly in the character interactions and the atmosphere produced. In fact all the character are exactly as they should be: simple and effective. There is no great character depth in “Captain America; The First Avenger” but these fairly one-note people play that note very well. Peggy Atwell is charming and strong, Steve Rogers is courageous and noble, and Bucky is the perfect right-hand man. Simple characters are fine in movies, especially action films, as long as they are done well and most of the primary characters here do just that and play off one another very nicely too. Atmosphere in any movie taking part in another time period should be one of, if not the most, important part of the film. “Captain America: The First Avenger” captures it quite well, sneakily well in fact. They have the costumes, music, and general attitude down but it does something . It never feels like the 40’s fully, in fact it feels more like a movie from the 40’s. It has a certain glamor that doesn’t produce the right amount of grit to feel fully realistic but it worked in a sense. I didn’t know how much it actually worked until the final scene of the movie; Steve Rogers is awakened and notices something is wrong causing him to run out into the streets of modern day New York and see how the world has suddenly changed. For me this was an extremely effective scene as the filmmakers made modern day look like the future by slowly drilling the past into our heads for almost two hours. This small scene may have actually been my favorite of the entire movie as it set up the character’s particular viewpoint perfectly in his future endeavors.

I’d like to call “Captain America: The First Avenger” the Anti-“Thor”. “Thor had visceral action that was intermediated by poor character development and an awkward central relationship. Instead we have mediocre action, perhaps the worst parts of the movie, that separates a fairly engaging story and characters. It isn’t breaking any boundaries but that doesn’t mean it still wasn’t a fun summer movie that I found quite enjoyable.

Score: 73/100


New Release Tuesday: Transformers – Dark of the Moon (2011)

5 07 2011

There comes a time when you always hope against inevitability. You know what will happen yet there are rumblings of hope, giving you reason to believe there could be a chance things unfold otherwise. Such is the case of Michael Bay’s new blockbuster. Sure the second movie was bad, and the reviews have been terrible but most say it was at least an improvement on the previous film. Perhaps most of it will be tolerable and I’ll be able to enjoy some good action. Alas, reality has to come crashing down eventually and I got to view it in the form of “Transformers: Dark of the Moon”. It would be unfair to call it a trainwreck but the whole production is so uninspiring that it makes me start to lose faith in American filmmaking altogether. The plot revolves once again around Sam Witwicky (Shia Labeouf), fresh out of college and he… you know what, no. I’m not even going to bother with whatever the series of events that occurs in this film could be called. I think it is better for all of us if we just move on.

“You die!”

Yes, that is actually a line in the film which brings us to the first deficiency, and I’ll be sure to rush through them as there are many. The dialogue is very stale, every character seems to just repeat the same lines in every movie, and during action scenes everyone is reduced to monosyllabic words to give some interaction between the characters and the many explosions that take place around them. The themes are identical to the previous movies in the series and each character is still fighting for the same thing whether it be respect or freedom or honor. Michael Bay’s cinematographic style is officially stale for me now, he repeats so many shots that the intent and purpose of those shots have lost all meaning. He has become so predictable that it feels as though we are now just going through same steps before the action begins again. Yes, Michael Bay films are all about action but the sections in between have no excuse for being this dry. The characters are flat and uninteresting, and their decisions are so illogical at times that you end up hating all of them. Finally the worst part of this film has to be in the editing. Several sequences end abruptly and aren’t revisited before quickly moving onto a new area, far too many characters are used and intertwined with no practical purpose, and the ending is non-existent. This area almost becomes laughable at the end.

“You have 21 minutes… “

I chose the above quote to define this section as there is only about 21 minutes of good cinema here, and I use that term very loosely. Alan Tudyk is easily the best member of the cast, he is hilarious and if this movie was about him I think it may have been OK. The newcomer, Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, is incredibly sexy and very good when she is being her flirtatious British, or is it Australian, self yet the serious moments were… well, it is obvious she’s never acted before. Nevertheless she more than replaces Megan Fox in my opinion. Finally there are some great action sequences mostly involving the new giant, mechanical worm.

“Transformers: Dark Side of the Moon” is better than “Revenge of the Fallen”, but being slightly better than a disaster still isn’t good. It is an infuriating, migraine inducing mess that has some redeeming qualities, but they are so few and far between that the production cannot be kept afloat. This has been but a nutshell review because there are so many thing wrong that I would have to dissect it scene by scene and I have no inclination to ever watch this movie again. The few bright spots barely keep the movie running at it’s elongated time and seem more like the gasps of air one takes as he trying to survive drowning in white-water rapids. I’m sure there will be another Transformers movie with the money it is currently bringing in so hopefully I will remember my lesson and miss it or at least only view while extremely inebriated.

Score: 45/100

New Release Tuesday: Super 8 (2011)

20 06 2011

“Super 8” is the third and most recent film from lens-flare enthusiast J.J. Abrams. Although we do see that trademark a couple times, “Super  8” is a drastic change of form compared to his other two, high-octane films (“Star Trek” and “Mission Impossible 3”) and such a change has never suited another director better. The plot revolves around Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney), a thirteen year old boy who, the summer after losing his mother, is helping his friends complete a gory zombie film for a local competition. While filming they are witness to a mysterious and explosive train crash which brings in the military and sets off an odd series of events. Joe and his friends work to finish the movie while investigating what really happened, all while navigating their interpersonal feelings. Abrams uses an excellent touch to weave all his strands together throughout the movie and allows them to all come together at the end creating a fantastic summer movie and one of the best using kids as leads.

“We’re going to find our kids.”

Movies revolving around young actors are a big gamble. There are few good enough at that point in their careers to produce the range and depth required to carry a movie. Sometimes it turns out adequately (the early Harry Potter films, ET) and sometimes it helps destroy the movie (The Phantom Menace), Super 8 is one of the rare examples where the young cast actually makes the movie. Several are ‘types’ among the child cast but they perform the roles well, and what keeps it from getting stale though, is the excellent writing of Abrams. He must clearly remember what it is like to be a kid making a movie because every one of them comes off as very believable. Sure, many of them only serve one purpose in film, but the dialogue and their interactions make these single-purpose-characters feeling fully formed. Joel Courtney plays the lead admirably and I think credit once again goes to Abrams for creating such a realistic character. I’m sure most of Joel’s work was quite easy for him being at that age but it must be noted that he rises to the occasion multiple times when a dramatic turn was required. The star of the film though is without a doubt Elle Fanning. I thought she was fantastic in one of my favorite films of 2010, “Somewhere”, and she once again shows that she may just be the best actress of her age.

“Production Value!”

It is easy to see why the keyword in most reviews of this film has been “nostalgia” and with good reason. “Super 8” invokes a feel of a time when summer movies were simpler. When it was more about telling a story. At the turn of the century when “The Matrix” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” came out, filmmakers realized that audiences now demanded more of a movie in terms of style and plot. This has resulted in them becoming more and more complex and produced some fantastic results like last years “Inception”, but when a movie like “Super 8” comes along it is a very refreshing change of pace.

Although it isn’t the best film I’ve seen in theaters in the last couple of years, it could very well be the most enjoyable experience. Between the warming feel of the movie, the great kids, and purely enjoyable ride of it all “Super 8” is the must-see movie so far this summer and one I’m sure that will be among the best at year’s end.

Score: 91/100

New Release Tuesday: X-Men – First Class (2011)

7 06 2011

The one thing I dislike about the recent comic book movie trend is the urge to reboot a franchise so soon. For me it would just make more sense to take the James Bond route and change-up actors and directors but keep the stories and developments intact, like lets say… comic books do with writers and illustrators. Yet I digress, this new X-men movie shows an evolution of the summer blockbuster from the first in 2000 to now in 2011. Before movies just had to have action and perhaps the occasional humor, now a certain class and style needed to set one apart from another and Matthew Vaughn does this part very well. We pick up at the very origins of the X-Men; Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) is finishing his thesis at Oxford while Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender) is hunting down Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon) for past crimes against him. It is Charles’s helping the CIA that unites the pair as they close in on Shaw. Shaw is recruiting mutants in an attempt to destroy the human race and take over the world while Xavier must try to do the exact opposite. The film is set in the ’60s, right in the middle of the Cuban Missile Crisis which gives an ideal setting to produce a unique atmosphere that we don’t see, at least from blockbusters that often. Yet as many unique moments Vaughn gives us, we get just as many run-of-the-mill montages, and the overall film structure is far from ground breaking. “X-Men: First Class” is thrilling, fun, and the great leads provide the necessary depth to make it stand out ever so slightly from the saturated summer crowd.

“A new species is being born. Help me guide it, shape it… lead it.”

To take a reboot of a recently deceased trilogy seriously, something new has to be brought to the table and for “First Class” the most glaring are the worthy younger models of Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen. James McAvoy is a high rising Scottish star since “Atonement” and “Wanted” and he plays the role with all of the conviction and kindness you would expect of Charles Xavier. Michael Fassbender is a cinematic force in the making, from “Fish Tank” to “Inglourious Basterds” to “Jane Eyre”, he just keeps switching it up and providing exceptional results no matter what the role. The rest of the cast is rounded out quite nicely, Kevin Bacon provides the standard bad guy routine, January Jones of “Mad Men” is a little too cold as Emma Frost but perhaps that was intentional, and Jennifer Lawrence who I adored in “Winter’s Bone” does well with what she has but her character isn’t fleshed out that well. Everyone else is just there although some may recognize Nicholas Hoult (Hank McCoy) from his role on the British teen drama “Skins” where he played Tony, Angel being played by Lenny Kravitz daughter Zoe, Rose Bryne from either “Damages” or “Get Him To The Greek”, and obviously Oliver Platt. It is a young cast full of many talented actors and actresses which makes me very intrigued to see what the future has in store for this franchise.

“Ready for this?” 

The ’60s setting gives the film a very welcoming retro atmosphere, combining the attire and music to the CIA infused storyline makes it all reminiscent of a James Bond film but obviously lacks the swagger despite how hard James McAvoy tried. Henry Jackman is the composer for this movie, and gives life to many of the action scenes in the film, unfortunately is was rather hit or miss for me. The use of many deep, pulsating beats cannot remind me of anything but “Inception” which although may not be that original it definitely lends gravity to the scenes. It reflects the film nicely in that regard as it is ruthless in the action scenes. Vaughn constantly goes for the throat and although there aren’t many moments of gore, if any, the body count is fairly high. Despite Jackman’s occasional effectiveness in the score, far too often does he veer into something you would hear in a Michael Bay movie. The uplifting melodies seem far too generic and modern bringing me out of the ’60s feel and into a bland summer blockbuster.

Overall “X-Men: First Class” was a very entertaining movie: the characters are great, the actors are likable, many of the CGI moments are amazing, and the whole movie has a refreshing feel to it. Nevertheless Vaughn never quite goes for it, McAvoy and Fassbender do their best but the movie never leaves it all on the line or constantly provides the necessary tension that it touches upon whenever Fassbender takes the screen. It is an intriguing beginning to what could be a great new franchise, definitely better than the original X-men but I don’t think it quite reaches the standard of some of the genre standouts in X-men 2, Spiderman 2, or either of Nolan’s Batman movies. It is definitely worth your time this summer and I am looking forward to seeing how they build upon this in the usually superior second movie.

Score: 75/100

New Release Tuesday: Kung Fu Panda 2 (2011)

30 05 2011

Kung Fu Panda 2 is the sequel to the surprise 2008 hit, and although it has only been three years it honestly feels like forever considering how quickly animated films get churned out these days. This time we pick up soon after the first film and our hero Po, the Dragon Warrior, is training in the temple with the furious five. All the major characters are back except this time around they aren’t just trying to save the Valley, they are trying to save Kung Fu altogether as an evil Peacock (oddly not the first time I’ve heard that over the past year) threatens to take over the world thanks to the invention of gun powder. Po also starts having visions of his youth and his quest is conflicted by his desire to find out the truth of his past. I’ll be honest, I loved the first Kung Fu Panda, aside from the “made for American children” aspect of it, I thought it was a fantastic adaptation of a unique genre doing justice to not only the movies that inspired it but to the culture that produced them as well. Unfortunately, Kung Fu Panda 2 doesn’t feel like this at all, but an American attempt a Wuxia comedy-drama, exactly what the first didn’t and why it stood out.

 “This could be the end of Kung Fu.”

There are two major storylines in Kung Fu Panda 2, the first is Po’s desire to discover his past which (somehow) coincides with his attempt to learn his next lesson: inner peace. The plot that moves the film forward is the furious five’s (six’s?) quest to stop Shen, the maniacal Peacock with guns. Po’s journey is a standard man vs self, except that he is never in conflict with himself. He is always searching for answers from other people; most of the movie has him asking Shen for what he knows… and really the big piece of advice that clears it all up for him is that his obvious memories he believes are dreams are in fact memories. Po is the audience’s conduit in which we interpret the movie, they set that up clearly in the first film and continue it here, so when his great epiphany is something incredibly obvious to the audience it looses most if not all it’s impact. Not to mention his inner-peace can’t really be called inner-peace at all by the movies own chronology and interpretation of the term, but I’m not even going to get into that.

The central storyline is consists of the battle against Shen and it seems like a western interpretation of an eastern theme done wrong. Although not as common in Wuxia films, the idea of martial arts vs Industry (ie. firearms) is a very common one in Samurai films. Kung Fu Panda 2 takes this theme but only the title and none of the substance that goes into it. It is about the warrior ideals, honor, and integrity over the dehumanization of violence and its consequences. It is an emotional battle, only there is absolutely no emotion in this conflict at all. I’m not even exaggerating, I didn’t see one character involve themselves at any level or even mention what it was really about. It was there only as a plot device which really surprises me considering how much care was taken in the first film.

“My fist hungers for justice! “

The true failing of Kung Fu Panda 2 has to be within the fight scenes. The first film had only three or four and each had much more than just the fight taking place. Each scene involved one bad guy, Tai Lung, and we get to see his power. First against an incredibly well guarded prison, then against the furious five, and then against Shifu. Each time Tai Lung overcame an increasingly difficult barrier, and all appearing greater than Po making the foretold final fight all that more dramatic. Everything in Kung Fu Panda from the opening scene built to that moment. In Kung Fu Panda 2 we have our heroes getting into a battle not even 10 minutes into the movie, and after that we barely get a 5-10 minute break where they aren’t fighting. This dulls the action especially when all they are fighting are henchmen, the exact same henchmen over and over. There is no build up, just action scenes serving no real purpose outside of taking up screen time. In all fairness though, the movies climax doesn’t even occur against the antagonist, it is Po vs the Cannons. Hard to get emotionally invested when the enemy is an inanimate object.

Kung Fu Panda 2 is a mess. The story, the structure, the character arcs etc are all just poor. That said, it has very pretty animation and I believe it may be even funnier than the first, but the animation and humor only accounted for part of what made the first one great. I guess it is an OK way to beat the heat this summer but if you expect anything close to the original in quality you will be disappointing.

Score 55/100

New Release Tuesday: City of Life and Death (2009)

17 05 2011

This week I am going to feature an older film that is finally making it to North American shores. It is most likely limited in release so make sure you check out if your city has it running.

This harrowing film depicts the infamous “Rape of Nanking” during the Second Sino-Japanese war in 1937. An estimated 200,000 unarmed soldiers and civilians were executed and up to 80,000 women raped during the occupation of the ruined city, yes this is not going to be a happy film. Director Chuan Lu splits the story up into three primary perspectives, although it does sway to those near them occasionally. We have: Masao Kadokawa, a young Japanese soldier; Lu Jianxiong, a Chinese soldier still guerrilla fighting within the city; and Mr. Tang, an assistant to the German businessman (Mr. Rabe) who is in charge of the “Nanking Safety Zone”, an area for the wounded as well as women and children. From each character we view the many atrocities that take place almost to a point of numbness. The film borders on being heavy-handed but I am conflicted on whether what occurs could ever rightfully be called that. “City of Life and Death” just might be, perhaps appropriately, like war: I’ll never forget it and yet never wish to see it again.

” You know their power. You have no choice.”

“City of Life and Death” tells a story that cannot be told in any other form other than historical context because it would be shunned by society. Movies can draw metaphors from what happened to the Native Americans or during the Crusades or, if they are careful enough, even the holocaust but the Rape of Nanking presents a whole different animal. It is pure indulgence of our lowest qualities as humans and shows us what we are capable of, all of us, when there is no one with authority to say “No”. There were no orders, no political or theological stances to be had, just people stealing, murdering, and raping because they could. We have all had at least thought about being with someone we couldn’t, wanting something we don’t have, or wishing harm in some form on another. Of course most don’t act on this because of our morals and society, but when the mob says yes and we gorge, something like Nanking can happen. The fact this occurred less than a century ago makes this all the more frightening. It is Lord of the Flies on a epic scale if you will, but a city full of civilians, women and children instead of an island and a powerful army instead of children. Through our three major perspectives we get every side of the occupation and we see it’s effect on the human spirit. All three are good men, honorable men, but unfortunately they are also all powerless men who must sit and watch, as the viewer does, helpless.

“Life is more difficult than death”

Perhaps the best decision make by Chuan Lu was to film the movie in black and white. It gives it a 50s classical feel but more importantly a cover for what occurs on film. Within the first couple minutes the mood is set and the dark tones on the screen insure that the audience never forgets it. The cinematography allows us to be a fly on the way, rarely giving us any one perspective. Allowing us to see many different actions and reactions, we can effectively view several different views characters have on what is occurring. Perhaps the best word to describe “City of Life and Death” is “raw”. The little use of music adds to that, every so often we’ll get a very meek piano or strings warming up but those instances are few and far between. Overall it is through the extreme care and dedication that was taken during the production of the movie that makes this such a powerful film to behold. One that will undoubtedly stand the test of time and be remarked upon as one of the greatest and most effective war movies ever made.

“City of Life and Death” is powerful, that is without question, but it is also long and dense. Add in the constant violence and you have a movie that isn’t all that easy to get through. Some scenes feel like they are put in purely to keep the viewer feeling how awful everything is and some acts verge on being heavy-handed on the subject. Nevertheless it is a movie that should not missed by anyone.

Score: 95/100

New Release Tuesday: Thor (2011)

10 05 2011

Tuesdays will focus on movies just released and to start it off is the first big blockbuster of the year: Thor.

This latest addition to the Marvel movie family is a good way to start off the Summer blockbuster season. The film tells the story of Thor, the God of Thunder (Chris Hemsworth), a hot-headed warrior who is the heir to Odin’s (Anthony Hopkins) throne which reigns over Asgard. Due to his over-eager, aggressive nature Thor gets his powers stripped and is banished from his celestial home to Earth. There he meets Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), a young and beautiful astrophysicist who helps Thor regain his powers and save the world. Now there is nothing particularly fantastic about Thor but it hits all the right buttons to make a fun summer blockbuster.

He says his name is Thor…”

Casting Chris Hemsworth was a big gamble for the studio to take considering pretty much every other Marvel movie was getting the A-list treatment and he was best known for 15 minutes in Star Trek. Hemsworth does come through and becomes the highlight of a cast that includes Natalie Portman, Anthony Hopkins, and Stellan Skarsgard. He is convincing as the stern, headstrong warrior and surprisingly comedic as a fish-out-of-water when on Earth. Anthony Hopkins brings the power you would expect out of someone of his stature and Tom Hiddleston gives a very good performance as Thor’s brother Loki. The same cannot be said though of Natalie Portman’s portrayal of Jane Foster. It should be noted that she wasn’t given much to work with but it is obvious Portman is just having some fun and didn’t take the role all that seriously which is quite understandable given her recent rigors in Black Swan.

“God, I hope you’re not crazy… “

Natalie Portman is quoted as saying one of the biggest reasons she did this movie was because Shakespearean director Kenneth Branagh was at the helm. This is an obviously good choice as the main plot of Thor draws much from that area, unfortunately like all movies that borrow its themes and ideas from Shakespeare they have been done so many times that without anything new brought to the table they become cliched and tired devices. Such is the case of Thor, despite the stylish setting of Asgard and snappy dialogue the story still feels old.

Thor has the action and humor to keep it moving along smoothly and although it never breaks any boundaries, or ever tries for that matter, it is hard not to at least enjoy the ride.

Score: 64/100