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


Comedy Monday: The Rules of the Game (1939)

6 06 2011

The critically acclaimed “The Rules of the Game” is widely regarded as not only one of France’s greatest films, but one of the best of all time. Needless to say I was quite excited at the prospect of finally getting to watch it. So much occurs throughout Jean Renoir’s classic that even having just watched it find myself wondering what actually just happened. The best summary I can provide would be that it begins with a man, Andre Jurieux (Roland Toutain), who just set a record for crossing the Atlantic. At the celebration of his landing he finds that the woman he loves and inspired him to take up such a feat is not there. This woman, Christine (Nora Gregor), is married and embarrassed by the whole situation so she convinces her husband to to invite him out into the country with them and their friends to bury the hatchet. From this point on Renoir masterfully constructs this astute and provocative satire of the Parisian upper class.

“Love, as it exists in society, is merely the mingling of two whims and the contact of two skins.”

Perhaps the most noticeable  aspect of “The Rules of the Game” is it’s complexity due to the number of central characters to the story’s plot. Now there are obviously some more developed than others but there are at least eight characters that we observe and come to know. They range from Christine and her husband Robert (Marcel Dalio) to the servants in their house. With so many characters and a story inhabiting a restricted space we constantly see multiple storylines invading the same scene, we will see something occurring in the background that is a continuation of a completely different scene. This type of film-making was not only revolutionary at the time but keeps the pace going and makes every scene engrossing at the same time.

“Corneille! Put an end to this farce! “

Jean Renoir’s satire is a about the indulgent, care-free nature of the French upper-class. They do things that will obviously hurt someone else but with a mind only for their own desires. Weirdly enough they also have a bizarre system of honor to go with it, or the rules of the game that they play. The whole affair is contrasted by several effective scenes such as the mass killing of wildlife on a hunting outing. With the way Renoir presents the characters in his film it is easy to see the original outrage that was produced when it was first released. It would have been very controversial at the time but time often does good things to these types of movies, especially those that focus on an aspect of society. This is one of the reasons why “The Rules of the Game” is regarded so well today, it pushed boundaries that may not have been popular at the time but in retrospect those people were just too close to what the film portrays to be comfortable.

“The Rules of the Game” is a very fun and often funny satire, combining that with something a little deeper to say. The character interactions are complex and Jean Renoir weaves a narrative which involves all of them to almost an overwhelming point. Nevertheless Renoir’s classic is a timeless work of cinema and deserves a place among the best satires made.

Score: 94/100

Escapist Friday: The Princess Bride (1987)

3 06 2011

Oh the days when Rob Reiner was making quality movies, how I long for thee. Here he gives us the swashbuckling tale of revenge, romance, true love, betrayal, and a dozen other descriptors  I won’t bother to list. There are so many twists and turns in “The Princess Bride” that it would be unjust of me to describe what happens with a fraction of the luster the film provides. To put it simply it is about Buttercup (Robin Wright), who is set to marry a man she does not love when she becomes kidnapped by a trio of thieves. From there the movie takes off and what we are left with is one of the most re-watchable, quotable, and enjoyable movies ever made.

“You rush a miracle man, you get rotten miracles.” 

As far as films go, “The Princess Bride” may be one of the finest examples of escapism, primarily because it never lets the viewer forget it. This isn’t a movie about a fairy tale, but about a grandfather reading his grandson a fairy tale and we are just going along for the ride with them. Films explore so many different genres that this small touch allows the viewer to remind themselves that they are entering a story and produces a dreamy atmosphere. Another big reason why “The Princess Bride” is such an effective fantasy film is the ambiguity. Everything in the movie feels very grounded yet every so often something completely foreign will pop up reminding us where we are; from giant rats and killer eels, to the ridiculous names of places and a small hint of mysticism. “The Princess Bride” is definitely a fantasy film but occasionally seems very realistic at the same time allowing the viewer to really get involved in what is happening.

“Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.” 

With any film that gets by on its wit and charm, the actors must all be up for the task which clearly everyone is in “The Princess Bride”. The two standouts of the cast have to be Cary Elwes as Westley and Mandy Patinkin an Inigo Montoya. Elwes seems to channel Errol Flynn to produce the perfect leading man for this adventure story (he would, appropriately, play Robin Hood later on as well) while Patinkin brings the conviction that Inigo Montoya couldn’t be without. To cap it off, Rob Reiner brings in an outstanding group to flesh out the rest of the cast including: Wallace Shawn, Christopher Guest, Billy Crystal, Peter Cook, Carol Kane, Andre the Giant, Mel Smith, Chris Sarandon, and Peter Falk.

“The Princess Bride” isn’t a perfect film, in fact it is a fairly conventional story in a basic world. What makes it so good is everything else including the script and cast which are both top notch making it one of the most enjoyable movies to watch for people of all ages.

Score 90/100

Foreign Language Thursday: Ran (1985)

2 06 2011

Today we visit Kurosawa’s take on a Shakespeare classic. “Ran” is obviously based upon King Lear, but actually resembles quite little outside of the general premise. We begin on a beautiful hilltop as Lord Hidetora (Tatsuya Nakadai) of the powerful Ichimonji family is dining with his three sons and allies. He decides that it is time to step aside and pass on his legacy to his sons, he gives the First castle and leadership of his house to his eldest and the Second and Third castles to the other two. While the two eldest sons, Taro and Jiro, have nothing but sweet words for their father, Saburo calls him foolish and that Hidetora should not trust the other two. Hidetora obviously takes this as an insult and banishes Saburo and well as his adviser Tango who agrees him. Of course they end up being correct as Taro and Jiro turn on their father and one another. Ran is one of Akira Kurosawa’s largest films, taking place on a huge scale with castles, vast armies, and wide landscapes but at the same time it is really about the characters like most of his movies are.

“Only the birds and the beasts live in solitude.”

The first thing that comes to mind when thinking of a Kurosawa film would not be the colorful settings, yet that is what stands out the most in his final classic. Many scenes take place in locales that accentuate the green hilltops which rustle in the wind and the crystal clear blue skies. Armies feature distinct flags or red, yellow, blue, and white. Even during battle the red flames and great splashes of blood help make every scene vibrant. It all makes for a very unlikely setting considering how much death and destruction occur throughout “Ran”.

“Men prefer sorrow over joy… suffering over peace!”

Ultimately “Ran” is about chaos and violence bred from our own desires. Hidetora was a merciless ruler in his time; he murdered, mutilated, and burnt down entire castles. Taro, the eldest, loves his new found power and would do anything to hold it while Jiro believes Taro to be a fool and that he should rule in his place. Taro’s wife, Lady Kaede, soon becomes the power behind the throne as she pulls the strings of war and violence in revenge for what was done to her family. In “Ran” everyone gets pulls into the violence, those responsible all have different goals and motivations but produce the same result while those ranging from completely innocent to only a little innocent get caught up in the aftermath. “Ran” primarily invokes pity, pity for all and on many different levels.

“Ran” is a beautiful, provoking piece of work from one of the greatest directors of all time. The colors play off one another strikingly well and although it is a visual treat, “Ran” has the depth within it’s characters to be more than just a war drama but also an intense look at the individual’s motivations and drives.

Score: 96/100

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

Escapist Friday: Orpheus (1950)

27 05 2011

“Orpheus”, or “Orphee” in the original French, is the influential Jean Cocteau’s surreal take on the Greek legend. This is the middle part of his Orphic trilogy, one spanning 30 years between first and last film, but this film deals with the most famous part of the myth. It goes: Orpheus, the famous musician and poet, has a wife, Eurydice, who passes away from a snake bite. To get her back he travels to the underworld and convinces Hades and Persephone to let her come back to the living world with him. Of course there is one stipulation, he cannot look upon her until they both reach the mortal world, so he walks ahead of her and once he reaches the upper world he turns to embrace her yet she is still on the other side making her disappear forever. Jean Cocteau follows the myth fairly closely yet sets it in then-modern Paris and makes few other changes such as inserting a different love story and starting the movie out more like a mystery.

When a director attempts to do a movie about a classical myth they usually have one of two option: set it entirely in the classical context, or modernize it with metaphorical supernatural elements. Jean Cocteau decides to take it right down the middle; he sets it in modern Paris yet keeps the names (Orpheus, Eurydice, etc) and all the supernatural aspects. Despite this, he actually changes all but the skeleton of the original tale. The biggest of which is that Orpheus ends up falling in love with Death which conflicts with his happily married life to Eurydice. The strongest part of “Orpheus” has to be the surreal nature of it all. By setting it in the modern world and keeping the supernatural aspects the viewer is treated to a true fantasy film which we do not expect. The film also uses many interesting tricks in editing and cinematography to help produce a surreal atmosphere which makes “Orpheus” work very well as an adventure film. As Orpheus is working out what is happening the viewer is also taken to along for the ride as the movie produces scenes which I don’t think we could really expect.

The weakest part of “Orpheus” I believe aren’t the changes, but the development of those changes. We see Orpheus as a loving husband; he has never cheated on his wife despite being so famous, and has a couple parts of dialogue where those feelings really come through. Cocteau does a very good job showing the allure of Death allowing the viewer to understand why Orpheus is attracted to her but we never see the internal struggle that Orpheus must go through during this time. The character Heurtebise also falls in love with Eurydice but nothing really comes of it. “Orpheus” has many powerful themes of love and loss but few of them are fully realized by the characters, we are told more of their feelings than we actually see on screen which a problem when much of the movie revolves around love.

Although “Orpheus” feels underdeveloped, it is still quite a treat to watch. When the supernatural sections arrive it feels like a series of surrealist paintings come to life. I wasn’t blown away by “Orpheus” and it might have been better if Cocteau just sticked to the original myth, but it is hard to deny that the parts that work do so wonderfully.

Score: 85/100

Foreign Language Thursday: Pather Panchali (1955)

26 05 2011

Today we examine the poetic and emotional “Pather Panchali”, directed by the legendary Satyajit Ray in his very first film making this, without a doubt, one of the finest directorial debuts ever. “Pather Panchali” revolves around the newly born Apu and his family over several years as they struggle with life; from the weather to their neighbors to even one another. The incredibly well formed characters give the movie a very natural feel allowing for more impact in every scene. It is easy to recognize one-self within these characters as they each have a distinct personality and outlook, and despite the regular situations presented on screen they never allow it to never feel worn.

“Whatever God does is for the best.” 

The biggest strength of “Pather Panchali” is the characters. The plot revolves around Apu’s family which includes his sister, Durga, as well as his mother, father, and auntie. Apu is the looking glass in which we observe everything that happens, he acts like a child but is enough of a blank slate that the viewer can associate themselves with him as someone who is a passenger and can do little in regards to the events surrounding him. His mother acts as the strict hand watching over the children. She worries about money, what her children are up to, and what other people think about her. Her husband on the other hand is very much the opposite; he has a strong sense of duty yet has a more playful sense of responsibility. He quotes the above line “Whatever God does is for the best” often and lets life come to him, nevertheless both of them obviously love their children very much and would do anything for them but show it in two separate ways, he will give them anything while she is consciously thinking of what is best for them and the entire family. His older sister really is a mix of the two. She shares her mother’s stubbornness while also being adventurous and fun-loving like her father. Finally, his aunt is older and nearing the end of her life so she is a little more care-free and encourages Durga is her misadventures, not to mention frequently clashing with the children’s mother over several issues. All of these people are so well formed and play off one another extremely well giving the movie a natural and riveting dynamic.

“… we’ll go and look at the trains again. We’ll get a good look this time.” 

“Pather Panchali” has often been described as poetic and with good reason, the cinematography is just outstanding. Subrata Mitra works on his very first movie at only 21 when filming started and is able to bring the country to life. As great as the characters are, it is in his work in which the movie really comes into its own. Mitra uses wide shots and natural lighting to excellent effect and takes full advantage of nature when it presents itself. The shots during the monsoon rain scenes will particularly stay with me for some time.

Overall “Pather Panchali” is a familiar yet absorbing  film. In the beginning it is quite easy to relate to these characters in what seems to be a standard family drama, yet little does the viewer know that this familiarity will only greatly intensify what is going to happen later. The plot moves along surprisingly well and it is always a treat to look at. It is very hard to overstate how good “Pather Panchali” is because it truly is one of the best films ever made.

Score: 100/100