Archive for the Superhero Category

X-Men: Days of Future Past

Posted in Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Science Fiction, Superhero with tags on May 25, 2014 by Mark Hobin

X-Men: Days of Future Past photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgOne wouldn’t think the seventh entry in a series would be cause for excitement, but X-Men: Days of Future Past (DOFP) is a rousing episode in the franchise. For one thing, it is a deft merger of X-Men films. The cast of the original trilogy is united with their younger counterparts of the 2011 prequel X-Men: First Class. It’s a tribute to Simon Kinberg’s script that for all its characters and detailed exposition, DOFP still manages to present an intelligible story. The time-traveling that begins with a dystopian future in the year 2023 then jumps back to 1973 where most of the chronicle takes place. A word of caution: anyone not up on their X-Men history will require a brief primer to bring yourself up to speed with mutant lore. In addition to the ever-shifting allegiances and objectives, there’s a host of new people. The Avengers had a meager 6 superheroes. DOFP has an astounding 20+ mutants. Thankfully most of these (Storm, Iceman, Bishop, Colossus) are merely window dressing in the background. Others get a few lines (Shadowcat, Beast, Quicksilver). Only Wolverine, Mystique (Raven), Professor X and Magneto are truly indispensable mutants. The narrative wisely focuses on them.

The majority of DOFP takes place a decade after the events of First Class in 1973. A smart move, given that it was the previous apex of this anthology. Dr. Bolivar Trask (Peter Dinklage) is an important new villain. A dangerous extremist, he advocates robots called Sentinels to protect humans from the mutant threat. We’re presented an alternate storyline of what originally happened. In an effort to put an end to his madness, Mystique assassinated him. Ironically this would ultimately cause more harm than good. As a result, she is captured and her shapeshifting power is harnessed to engineer the unstoppable Sentinel robots. They ultimately lead to the complete annihilation of life as we know it. That’s the grim scene that opens the film. So the mutants decide to send Wolverine back in time to stop Mystique from causing an event that triggers the Sentimental program. Will the mutants be successful? Wolverine will have to enlist the help of their younger mutant selves.

X-Men: Days of Future Past is the very best of a decent franchise. It marks the return of director Bryan Singer who helmed the first two respected entries before the collection took a serious nosedive with X-Men: The Last Stand (2006) and those two Wolverine-centric movies.  He entertainingly combines multiple entries into a coherent tale that conveniently incorporates a lot of fan service. That this doesn’t feel like the climax it should be, but rather another setup to further sequels is a bit regrettable. DOFP doesn’t introduce innovation to the formula. “Humans cannot be trusted” vs. “Can’t we all just get along?” mentalities continue to propel the dramatic discussion with Magneto and Professor X each representing the respective arguments.  But why quibble? There are great moments here that transcend all others in the series. Chief among them is a jailbreak featuring new mutant Quicksilver (Evan Peters) who can move at supersonic speeds. He must free Magneto from a prison cell beneath The Pentagon at one point. How he accomplishes the task is a dazzling sequence in slow motion that displays more inventiveness and wit than anything else in the entire picture. It’s a peak that kind of makes you wish the whole saga had been about him.

05-22-14

The Amazing Spider-Man 2

Posted in Action, Adventure, Drama, Fantasy, Superhero with tags on May 4, 2014 by Mark Hobin

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014) photo starrating-1andahalfstars.jpgI’m exercising restraint when I say that The Amazing Spider Man 2 (TASM2) is a staggeringly disorganized, senseless drudgery of a picture. The production is an expensively produced, techno-spastic, headache inducing mess. It’s populated by undeveloped roles that merely exist as a prelude to future chapters. TASM2 is not concerned with telling a coherent tale. The narrative is more focused on cramming multiple threads of various origin stories in preparation of the main event later. Apparently these fragments will have meaning not just in The Amazing Spider-Man 3 (2016) but also in spin-offs Venom (in development) and The Sinister Six. This recipe for disaster is comprised of 3 parts: A) cluttered action B) multiple narratives left unresolved for later sequels and C) too many antagonists.

When you get right down to it, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 isn’t really about Spider-Man at all. It’s about the villains, 3 main ones in my estimation. We’ve got Aleksei Sytsevich (Paul Giamatti) who becomes the Rhino, Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan) who becomes the Green Goblin, and nerdy Max Dillon (a criminally miscast Jamie Foxx) who becomes Electro.  They’ll (presumably) comprise three of the members in the all-villain superteam known as The Sinister Six. Sony is clearly trying to beef up their stake in their Marvel property in a nod that seeks to compete with Disney and their Marvel universe centered around The Avengers. There are numerous other characters too. I have neither the strength nor desire to list them all here but surprisingly few exhibit any originality or nuance. Case in point, actor Marton Csokas weirdly channels Dr. Strangelove to play Dr. Ashley Kafka, the founder of the Ravencroft Institute. A notable exception is Sally Field as Aunt May who is a refreshing ocean of calm in a sea of madness.

Spider-Man is on somewhat more solid ground when he is allowed to be Peter Parker and not some CGI blur zipping across the screen. A technological exhibition doesn‘t engage the emotions like a personality. Scenes invoking humanity are preferable, although it’s really stretching credibility to have a man in his 30s pretending to graduate high school.  Garfield portrays Peter Parker as a smug hipster. He even self-knowingly whistles the Spider-Man TV theme. Unfortunately his supposedly spontaneous witticisms come off as shtick and not as the lighthearted banter I believe was written to endear us to the superhero. His interactions with girlfriend Gwen Stacy feel like manufactured affectations that cause the couple to conventionally fall in love, break up, get back together at various intervals for the sole purpose of romantic conflict. Their ersatz charm is sheer torture to anyone who values sincerity. A heinous screenplay derails even quiet moments that should be making us give a care in between explosions.

The whole production is a labor intensive chore to watch. We are presented with a visual and aural assault on the senses. The over-abundance of special effects are so chaotic at times that the brain cannot even reconcile what is happening. Take the fight sequences between combatants. The battles are computer generated imagery where people are irrelevant. Spider-Man is wearing a mask. Electro is a glowing blue humanoid. They’re thrust into a cacophonous light display of sound and fury that is an animated nightmare. A significant portion of the movie holds literally nothing organic on screen. There are bolts of lightning, crashes and pyrotechnics. The destruction of Times Square should be an awe inspiring experience but the event barely incites any concern from the audience. It gets lost in the annihilation of all the public property – the financial repercussions of which are never addressed. Of course you’re not meant to think about such things. This is just a bunch of random stuff that happens, a holding pattern if you will, that connects parts 1 and 3. The film is a glorified advertisement for upcoming installments. TASM2 is not a movie, it’s a 142 minute trailer, and very unsatisfying one at that.

05-01-14

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Posted in Action, Adventure, Superhero, Thriller with tags on April 6, 2014 by Mark Hobin

Captain America: The Winter Soldier photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgCaptain America: The Winter Soldier is the 9th installment in the series of superhero films, independently produced by Marvel Studios. The series has been dubbed the Marvel Cinematic Universe with its own acronym MCU. There are in fact different phases designed to apparently conquer the movie world (and your wallet). We’re currently in Phase 2 which will culminate with Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015). I’m only mentioning all this because some people take this stuff with a very straight face. The deeper we get into these franchises, the more they demand that you’ve see the others. I’ve seen everything but even my eyes begin to glaze over when actors start tossing around names and organizations like we’re in the middle of a history lesson. I’m just here to watch a fun flick and I’m happy to say that this is indeed an enjoyable picture. The Avengers and Iron Man are better, but it ranks in the top half of the 9 entries thus far.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier picks up two years after the events of The Avengers (2012). Following a lot of exposition that extends this movie 16 minutes past the 2 hour sweet spot, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) entrusts Steve Rogers / Captain America (Chris Evans) with a hard drive containing sensitive information. When he refuses to hand it over to senior S.H.I.E.L.D. official Alexander Pierce.(Robert Redford), Steve is branded an enemy of the very organization he once served. A superhuman agent codenamed the Winter Soldier does Secretary Pierce’s bidding. The Winter Soldier’s identity is a secret so no details on him. Helping Steve get to the bottom things are fellow S.H.I.E.L.D. member Natasha Romanoff / Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Sam Wilson / Falcon (Anthony Mackie). They’re both quite good. Scarlett Johansson fetchingly straddles the line between friend and flirt. Anthony Mackie has genuine camaraderie with Chris Evans as Steve’s buddy who he meets while jogging. The three of them joining forces makes this feel sort of like an Avengers movie.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is an entertaining spy thriller. The story includes lots of rousing action sequences . The hand to hand combat scenes draw heavily from martial arts films in the best possible way. The pace is efficient with a narrative that doesn’t disappoint fans looking for excitement featuring people they already know and love. There’s enough human interaction to satisfy those who savor a little character development in their superhero flicks. Occasionally the overly complex story takes itself a bit too seriously. I welcome the humor of Thor. Fan boys will appreciate the reverence, but anyone unfamiliar with the Avengers universe might not be as captivated. Thankfully the tone shines with the occasional witty quips where everyone in the production can simply lighten up.

P.S. Given Marvel’s history, I shouldn’t have to point out that there are mid-credits and post-credits stingers that you should probably stick around for. That is unless that extra large Coke you drank is playing havoc with your bladder.

The Wolverine

Posted in Action, Adventure, Superhero with tags on July 28, 2013 by Mark Hobin

The Wolverine photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgFor those keeping track, this the sixth installment in the X-Men film series and picks up where #3 X-Men: The Last Stand (2006) left off. In it our fearless hero the Wolverine–a.k.a. Logan–is confronted by the past as he experiences hallucinations of Jean Grey as well as the Nagasaki bombing of 1945. There he reflects back on a Japanese soldier he saved. Yashida is now a CEO dying of cancer and wants to return the favor with an interesting proposition.

In this cluttered cast there are actually three women vying for our hero’s attention. First there’s the ghost of Jean whom he was forced to kill. She keeps popping up to haunt our protagonist. She’s lovingly photographed in white with soft focus. Is that a halo I see? In addition we get Yukio, a woman who has powers allowing her to see people’s deaths. She is the messenger sent to bring the Wolverine to Japan. And then there’s Yashida’s granddaughter, Mariko, whom he meets when he gets there. Not vying for his attention is a villain named Viper who looks like a porn star. She’s played with ultra camp by Russian actress Svetlana Khodchenkova. She forces The Wolverine to confront his own mortality. For the majority of the saga, the Wolverine can be hurt as any human man. That’s a bummer because it reduces the drama to that of an ordinary person, albeit one who looks like Hugh Jackman. This is not an event in the way that Man of Steel or Iron Man 3 were this summer. It’s a much smaller picture.  I should be clear, though, this is BETTER than Man of Steel. Nevertheless, with his powers removed, this could be any generic 90s actioner.

The Wolverine is a middling attempt with a plot that is kind of dull. For a superhero film, there’s not a whole lot of fantasy. There’s a rousing sequence atop a speeding train. That got my pace quickening a bit. But for the most part it’s a minor entry in the X-Men franchise. I’ll admit there’s something to be said for a toned down effort with limited special effects and an intimate story. But this feels like a B-movie with characters cobbled together by screenwriters who have liberally sampled from Ninja, Samurai and Yakuza films. It all climaxes in a silly way that has nothing to do with the rest of the tale. No detailed spoilers, but a robot is involved. I’m not kidding.  It’s telling that the most exhilarating part of the entire picture comes 1 minute after the credits start rolling. There we’re given a glimpse of what could have been.

A Note for Parents: This sets a new high (or low) for PG-13 rated entertainment. It is extremely violent. They creatively edit around it so the amount of blood is minimal. However there are a multitude of stabbings and when the Wolverine operates on his own chest by slicing it open, well I had to look away. The scene where he is mercilessly shot in the back with poison-dipped arrows so that he resembles a porcupine, was an image I won‘t soon forget either. If this had been rated R, I wouldn’t even be talking about this. The MPAA have always had harsher restrictions for sex and profanity than violence, but their hypocrisy is really shameful here. This far exceeds the normal level for a PG-13 rated film.

Despicable Me 2

Posted in Animation, Comedy, Crime, Superhero with tags on July 3, 2013 by Mark Hobin

Despicable Me 2 photo starrating-4andahalfstars.jpgWhen we last saw Felonious Gru, former super-villain, he had adopted three adorable orphan girls: Margo, Edith, and Agnes. They’ve formed their own surrogate family as he’s settled into a life of blissful domesticity. However when a secret laboratory somewhere near the Arctic Circle, is lifted and taken by a large flying magnet, The Anti-Villain League (AVL) calls Gru out of retirement so he may help solve the case by thinking like a criminal. This is the basic outline of the tale, but Despicable Me 2 is a much more relaxed affair than its predecessor. The storytelling isn’t centered on advancing plot, but rather focused completely on earning laughs. It’s almost Zen-like in its approach to humor.

The voice actors give the cast vigor pushing this from the enjoyable to the revelatory. There’s a zippy exaggeration to their actions that make their performances even funnier. Steve Carell is once again, compelling as the lead. When Gru walks down the street with the confidence of a man in love, the musical interlude is as triumphant as John Travolta’s famous strut in Saturday Night Fever. Kristen Wiig is back, but this time as Lucy Wilde, an AVL agent. The actress’ real expressions and body movements can be seen in the animation. Every raised eyebrow, awkward statement, and nervous gesture is there. Watching her behave is an absolute delight. Her development from adversary to ally is bewitching. It’s unusual that while she is competent, she’s not particularly beautiful, a rarity in a cartoon love interest. The complete manifestation of the character is captivating. The head of the AVL, Silas Sheepsbutt, oops I mean, Ramsbottom is played by Steve Coogan. (That was their joke, by the way) He speaks with an affected sophistication. Ken Jeong as a wig store proprietor and Benjamin Bratt as the owner of a Mexican restaurant, are possible suspects in Gru’s search. They’re amusing editions that highlight great voice casting coupled with wonderful animation.

Where sequels often lazily retread Part 1, Despicable Me 2 aims higher. Gru is now an entrepreneur with a new line of jams, tapped to aid in the capture of a mysterious evildoer. In his personal life he’s attempting to meet someone special. The story unfolds with the focus of a gentle stroll and the production is the better for it. The chronicle builds upon Gru’s character from the original as it explores the possibility of a girlfriend for him. There’s a familiarity, a knowing sarcasm with the pitfalls of the dating world that infuses Gru’s journey. This is especially true concerning Shannon, a gum-chewing blonde bimbo he goes on a date with. She favors unnaturally orange tans and leopard print dresses. You could say she comes across as a tad superficial. “Your accent is so exotic” she says in her Valley Girl patois. “I know someone who can fix that for you.“

For all of Despicable Me 2’s speedy 98 minutes, it never ceases to be anything less than a snappy joy. It is gag filled fun fest. We hear a rumor that a past villain died while riding a shark into a volcano with 250 pounds of TNT strapped to his chest. Then they proceed to show you what that might look like. The atmosphere is steeped in the manic lunacy of animator Tex Avery’s MGM cartoons of the 40s and 50s. This brings me to Gru’s minions which take on an even more pivotal role this time around. Their nonsensical language is exploited for maximum giggles. I can’t over-emphasize how wonderful they are here. There’s a zaniness that children will adore, but there’s also an edge that adults will appreciate.

Man of Steel

Posted in Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Superhero with tags on June 14, 2013 by Mark Hobin

Man of Steel photo starrating-1andahalfstars.jpgGeneral: What are you smiling about, Captain?
Captain: I just think he’s kinda hot.

Henry Cavill certainly looks like Superman. He’s handsome, almost distractingly so, sports a ripped physique that adheres closer to Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine than any previous incarnation of the role. The Brit even speaks the part affecting a perfect American accent with the necessary gravitas to make everything he says sound meaningful. But that’s where compliments end for Man of Steel.

Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster’s iconic superhero is given the bigger is better treatment in this updated version for moviegoers raised on Transformers films. Zack “I directed 300” Snyder has taken courses at the Michael Bay school for directors where spectacle is key and damn any coherence or dialogue that gets in the way. Loud noise is more important than the story. Millions of dollars gloriously spent to envision beautifully designed worlds of breathtaking 3D graphics only to be obliterated in some fantastic assault of bombs, explosions and mayhem. A bombastic excess where even Superman’s cape is digitally animated. Snyder’s aesthetic is money and spend lots of it

Man of Steel is an overinflated packed to the rafters display of computer generated imagery (CGI) that makes Transformers seem like Forbidden Planet by comparison. The CGI is ridiculously wild and unchecked. A full third of this film is fight scenes. Not exciting ones, but blurry, relentless onslaughts that are hard to follow. I think I counted three epic battles but honestly one conflict blurs indistinguishably into the next. Their sole purpose exists so Snyder can blow stuff up. The wanton annihilation of buildings in the climax doesn’t even appear to be Planet Earth anymore. At one point Superman wrestles with tentacles in the center of the globe as some rocket machine deconstructs the earth’s atmosphere to that of an alien planet. The whole spectacle is so removed from anything organic, it doesn’t even exist as a live action movie with human actors. More like a virtual 3D universe populated by automatons rendered by a computer program.

The obscene amount of CGI-enhanced activity might’ve been tolerable if it served a coherent story. Unfortunately following the haphazard chronology is a task in itself. Good luck figuring out what time period we‘re in. The films was apparently edited in a blender. First we’re on Krypton, then we’re on an oil rig with an adult Clark Kent, now Clark is a kid in school overwhelmed by his powers, suddenly he‘s older rescuing his classmates from a bus. Now he’s Superman in the Arctic. Now back as a child again with his parents near a tornado. The script flash forwards, then back, then forward and back again, back and forth, back and forth over and over to the point of complete incoherence. The movie is an attention punishing 143 minutes and you feel every single one of them.

Part of the reason the story is so mind numbingly long is because the plot spends an inordinate amount of time delving into Kryptonian society, and explaining the sociopolitical and ecological situation before the planet’s destruction. Just what I want to see in a Superhero film. How about some scenes inside the Kryptonian Senate while they vote on various bills and legislation? Last time I checked this was called Man of Steel but it’s a full hour before he even dons the suit and near the very end before someone clearly calls him Superman. Even then it’s used as more of a throwaway joke.

There are moments where the script attempts to convey Superman’s inner conflict. The narrative tries to present Superman’s undying love for the people of his adoptive planet earth. But his devotion never makes sense. He experiences overwhelming rejection from the faceless masses his whole life. We’re given infrequent glimpses of his interactions with the human population. School bullies tease him as a child, a bar patron humiliates him (shades of Superman II), the military wants to give him up to uber villain General Zod. This is predicted in early scenes by his father (Kevin Costner) who warns him: “People are afraid of what they don’t understand.” We comprehend why Superman isn’t accepted, but not why he still cares for the citizens of this foreign world called Earth. The population disregards him so thoroughly. We have no reason to sympathize, to care, or even to watch.

The movie is the creation of sterile perfectionism. The actors are pretty, everyone hits their marks, says their lines and does exactly what is asked of them. It exhibits slick professionalism but not art. The picture has no essence. There is no warmth, no wit, no humor, no joy. The only thing more offensive than the vulgar reliance on special effects in this flick, are the product placement deals. Word has it that it earned $160 million even before it ever played in a single theater due to all the advertising negotiations made. It doesn’t come without a cost. Superman literally has a fight that starts at 7-Eleven, heads over to IHOP afterwards, then wraps at Sears. All the while the aforementioned businesses conspicuously pop up in scenes where the action is a muddy blur but their beaming signs are clear as day. There is no spark of life to be found in Man of Steel. It is a soulless product bought and paid for by the Hollywood machine.

Iron Man 3

Posted in Action, Adventure, Science Fiction, Superhero with tags on May 3, 2013 by Mark Hobin

Iron Man 3 photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgAs a fan of writer/director Shane Black, I see Iron Man 3 more as the long awaited follow-up to Kiss Kiss Bang Bang than part two in the superhero franchise. Don’t get me wrong.  I enjoy the Iron Man series just fine, but it’s the writer’s wit that captivates me more than awesome technology. In both respects, Iron Man 3 does not disappoint.

An enigmatic terrorist known as The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) has taken control of the U.S. broadcasting signal. He has claimed responsibility for a string of bombings across the nation and ultimately threatens the safety of the President.  The threat becomes personal when Tony Stark’s security officer Happy Hogan is gravely injured in one of the attacks. As is usually the case in these Iron Man movies, multiple characters abound. Jessica Biel Rebecca Hall plays a botanist who manipulates DNA to reproduce the limbs of plants. Guy Pearce is also on hand as brilliant scientist Aldrich Killian, who continues to harbor a bitter resentment well after Tony had rebuffed him years before. He’s currently involved in scientific work isolating and empowering certain areas of the human brain. But the most welcome addition is a young Tennessee boy named Harley (Ty Simpkins) who is sort of an amusing foil for Robert Downey Jr. They’ve got great chemistry as a comedic team in the couple scenes that they have together.

I’ve never taken to superhero films that take themselves too seriously. I was one of the few that actually appreciated Iron Man 2 over the original. And this time around, I think I preferred this to part two. With Tony Stark as a lead portrayed by Robert Downey Jr., all of the Iron Man entries have been infused with a lighthearted touch. Its charm helps make this superhero picture a lively romp. Shane Black does a brilliant job at keeping the series light and fun while injecting enough of the requisite dramatic struggle that seems to afflict all superheroes. His major battle with The Mandarin is underscored by juggling relationship problems with girlfriend Pepper Potts and post-traumatic stress related to the events documented in The Avengers. While not particularly deep, the ideas help make the character a bit more complex than simply a generic champion for righteousness. If there is a failing, it’s that the action reverts to a conventional big loud explosion fest at the end. It’s still entertaining. I only wish the story had been as clever as the dialogue. That’s ultimately what makes this the funniest Iron Man yet.

Dredd

Posted in Action, Science Fiction, Superhero with tags on September 21, 2012 by Mark Hobin

Note: Dredd is offered in a 3D version as well. As I feel that format (1) actually makes things look worse and (2) solely exists to charge $4 more for the very same film, I watched this in the clearer, brighter, and less expensive 2D.

PhotobucketDredd is a character featured in British science-fiction oriented 2000 AD comics. He has made it to the big screen once before in a 1995 movie starring Sylvester Stallone. Based on that less than successful adaptation, my expectations weren’t particularly high for this. What a nice surprise that this is an entertaining improvement. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not going to win any storytelling awards. The whole thing plays out like an amalgamation of RoboCop Meets The Raid with a little Mad Max thrown in for good measure. But if you’re looking for a potent summer action flick (foolishly released in the fall) this should fit the bill.

In the future, the United States has become an ever expanding wasteland. People live in housing blocks that have become slums blighted by crime. The Judges are a new type of law enforcement that serve as judge, jury and executioner all in one. Judge Dredd is our hero and Judge Cassandra Anderson is his fledgling sidekick with psychic abilities. Hooligans driving recklessly down the street lead the pair to the Peach Trees housing block. The 200-story slum tower is run by a murderous drug lord called Ma-Ma. She is the sole supplier of Slo-Mo, an addictive new narcotic that hinders the user’s sense of time. Now Dredd and Anderson must infiltrate her drug den and take down Ma-Ma and her ruthless network of thugs within the building.

Dredd is an eye-popping combat film that is a violent pulp tale of mayhem. Actor Karl Urban strikes just the right balance as our lead. He’s all business as a no-nonsense superhero that gets the job done without ever cracking wise. He’s a poker-faced protector that never shows his face. Ok granted we do see his chin at least protruding from a helmet that covers his head. Actress Lena Headey as Ma-Ma is a bit harder to accept. She reads more like the grande dame on a prime time soap opera than the criminal kingpin she portrays here. Thankfully Olivia Thirlby gives us a reason to care in the engaging emotional arc her rookie Judge must undergo. The script conveniently involves a mind altering substance, called Slo-Mo, which gives the director free reign to slow down action sequences whenever the users are hyped up on the product. It effectively slows perception down and renders everything as if the air has been bedazzled with sparkles. Their production design of the future oddly gave me nostalgia for the late 80s sci-fi TV series Max Headroom. Some scenes almost looks as if they’ve been artificially colorized. The effects are kind of cheap, but if you’re a fan of shoot–’em–ups you’ll get your money’s worth. The violence supports an oppressively dreary tone. Its R rating is well deserved, but it’s highly stylized and artificial as befitting its comic book roots. Yes, we’ve seen this all before, but if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it I guess.

The Dark Knight Rises

Posted in Action, Crime, Drama, Superhero with tags on July 20, 2012 by Mark Hobin

PhotobucketI love Christopher Nolan. Memento. Insomnia. The Prestige. Inception . Even without the Batman trilogy the visionary director has an impressive filmography. With the crowing achievement that is The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan caps the trilogy in a way that is both artistic and crowd pleasing. It was a task that could’ve been insurmountable, Let’s face it, The Dark Knight is considered by many to be one of the greatest superhero films of all time. If the auteur doesn’t quite equal that last episode for its poetic heights, he certainly approaches it for sheer spectacle and rousing emotion.

When we last saw Batman, he had taken the rap for the crimes of Harvey Dent, Two-Face, and gone into hiding. Now branded a hero, Harvey Dent is currently being celebrated at the 8th annual Harvey Dent Day, since the once noble district attorney’s death. The lie has given the city hope in the decency of man, but it has also had the adverse effect of branding Batman a criminal. A new supervillain, Bane, comes into power aided by a business rival of Bruce Wayne. His appearance coaxes Batman out of retirement who must now fight the terrorist and put a stop to his destructive stranglehold over the city.

Batman is nothing without fascinating side characters and there are at least two worth discussing in detail. Tom Hardy is Bane, a supervillain who speaks using a digitized voice-box. He’s suitably intimidating, the brute force of a wrestler coupled with an intellectual capacity to match. Overall it’s a startling portrayal and a memorable villain worthy of the Batman universe. The thing is, his voice is so distorted, so electronic sounding, he’s difficult to comprehend at times. Because Bane wears a mask that covers half his face, we can never see his mouth so the performance sounds as if Hardy has been reduced to an actor playing the body with a different actor’s disembodied voice, a la James Earl Jones as Darth Vader. Regardless, he’s frightening and the drama more than makes up for the deficiencies in the hard to understand dialogue. The other figure is Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle, a sleek and sexy cat burglar that has sort of a love-hate (read ambiguous) relationship with our main protagonist. This re-reimagining of Catwoman definitely is a modern update. She’s never referred to by that name and her costume bears little resemblance to the character we have come to know in previous incarnations. Nevertheless, Hathaway’s interpretation is wonderful. She’s literally given the best lines in the production and she manages to deliver them with a winking sensuality that makes her altogether captivating. She isn’t Michele Pfeiffer awesome, but she is awesome nonetheless.

These two figures would’ve been enough to maintain an interesting plot. However the somewhat overly complex storyline has an over-packed supporting cast. These include a key executive on the board of Wayne Enterprises (Marion Cotillard), a resourceful police officer (Joseph Gordon-Levitt ), acting deputy commissioner Peter Foley (Matthew Modine), Bruce Wayne’s business adversary John Daggett (Ben Mendelsohn) and his assistant (Burn Gorman). Of course this doesn’t even mention returning favorites Michael Caine as Alfred, Gary Oldman as Police Commissioner James Gordon and Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox. There’s even a couple of surprise cameos which I won’t elaborate on for fear of spoilers. It’s a dizzying array of personalities and at times one wishes the narrative had simply focused on the Batman vs. Bane concept for simplicity. When these two face off in hand to hand physical combat, nothing matches the well choreographed scenes for raw visceral action.

As expected, what’s a summer blockbuster without grandiose set pieces designed to really wow the audience? From a football stadium attack to a prison riot – The Dark Knight Rises has edge of your seat excitement in one extravagant demonstration after another. The opening prologue aboard a CIA airplane is a breathtaking event that galvanizes interest right from the start. Later there’s a particularly chilling takeover of the city that inadvertently recalls occupy Wall Street protests. These aren’t empty examples of pyrotechnics, they’re brilliant illustrations arranged to give life to a script with a depth rarely seen in these types of films. If Marvel’s The Avengers is lighthearted, fun popcorn entertainment, this is the somber creative vision of a master at work.

Christopher Nolan realizes that none of these fantastic displays would resonate without an emotional connection to the people involved. The magnitude of despair woven into the development of various characters is indeed impressive. Christian Bale’s personal conflict to reconcile his desire to help his beloved city vs. a longing to live a normal life is beautifully played up in this installment. Michael Caine provides some of his most affecting work of the entire series. His interactions with Batman highlight this inner struggle. And struggle he does! Bruce Wayne rises not once, but TWICE in this chapter. The first time is his re-emerging from his self imposed exile. The second is almost Rocky-esque in the way it exaggerates our hero’s underdog status. It’s a bit manipulative sure, but it’s effective because it gets the viewer to cheer for someone who’s got nothing to lose and everything to gain. Christopher Nolan more than lives up to the daunting mission of putting a fitting coda on the Dark Knight series – a satisfying conclusion to one of the greatest trilogies ever. It stands for goodness in the face of evil and isn’t that what superhero films are all about?

The Amazing Spider-Man

Posted in Action, Adventure, Drama, Fantasy, Superhero with tags on July 4, 2012 by Mark Hobin

The Amazing Spider-Man is a dependable revisitation of the superhero series that debuted just a decade ago. The last entry only came out 5 years back and we have already been blessed with a reboot. The current version trods much of the same territory that Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man did in 2002. Oh there are some variations this time around. The webs Peter Parker shoots are mechanical devices that he invents instead of a genetic mutation that springs biologically from his body. He’s initially perceived as a menace, not a help, by the police. He’s got a different girlfriend and the villain has changed too. If you feel those are refreshing changes, you will enjoy this a lot more. It’s really a film that should rightfully be deemed a remake over a reboot – like a reheated leftovers with a few savory tidbits for variety.

One area where the movie excels is in the casting. Andrew Garfield has a sarcastic nerd sensibility that is keenly appealing. He nails the excitement of a adolescent coming to grips with his newfound powers, perfectly. It’s hard to explain how he can come off as insecure and confident at the same time, but he does. A good example occurs when Peter humiliates the school bully in front of his friends at basketball practice. There’s glimpses of genuine wit throughout the script. After Peter Parker is bitten by a genetically enhanced spider, he fights back against a group of thugs who are harassing him on a subway. At one point, he casually rests his hand on the shirt of the hoodlum’s girlfriend and he accidentally takes it off with his sticky hands, The scene has a quirky sense of humor. Later when confronted by a car thief with a knife, he drops to his knees in agony and cries “You’ve found my weakness…it’s small knives” right before bombarding the criminal with so many webs he cannot move.

Where the movie falters is in the details. Following the murder of Peter’s Uncle Ben, the direction of the narrative appears to be Spider-Man‘s search for the man who killed his Uncle. He becomes a vigilante of sorts apprehending various suspects that match the description of the killer. But once his father’s old colleague, Dr. Curt Connors, injects test serum into regenerating his absent arm, the story shifts focus. Dr. Connors metamorphosizes into The Lizard, a creature that kind of looks like Louis Gossett Jr. in Enemy Mine. Now all of Spider-Man’s efforts are concentrated on stopping this sociopath. His original mission is dropped and forgotten. The Lizard is a rather perfunctory attempt at fashioning an exciting antagonist right down to his moniker. He’s not particularly memorable. I couldn’t even understand if The Lizard was supposed to be an evil mastermind or some tragic antihero. First he’s a noble scientist helping people with missing limbs, but then he evolves into a malevolent lizard man and he’s out to infect humanity by turning everyone into lizard monsters like himself. Then yet again he returns to being good trying to safely pull our hero up out of harm’s way. I suppose the schizophrenic nature of the villain is something akin to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but it renders his personality confusing and he’s difficult to get excited about.

The Amazing Spider-Man is merely an acceptable update. Fittingly named director Marc Webb doesn’t put a unique stamp on the production to make the web-slinger his own. There isn’t enough inspiration to explain why another interpretation of the same movie needed to be made. It’s just all so familiar. However there are enough flashes of ingenuity to label this an entertaining diversion. Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone inhabit their roles beautifully. The romance is stronger in this installment making their relationship the plot’s emotional center. While they’re charismatic characters, the villain is a complete bore. Given 136 minutes of action to fill, he’s not sufficiently compelling to maintain interest. I was constantly checking my watch during the final third. Let’s call this The Adequate Spider Man.

If I may paraphrase the Blocko-Land Announcer’s query in The Simpson’s episode “Hungry Hungry Homer”: So! How much did you LOVE The Amazing Spider-Man!?

It was alright I guess.

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