Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Movie Review:Death Race

Roger Corman was famous for making inexpensive movies of questionable quality that made money because of their appealing factors...scantily clad women, extreme violence, and other segments of exploitation. One of his cult favorites was Death Race 2000 (1975), an extremely violent depiction of a race where pedestrians are worth points and a driver's odds of surviving are not good. Someone decided this was such a good idea it needed an update so they cribbed the "plot" of The Condemned (2008) and mixed it with Death Race 2000 to give us Death Race.

In 2012 the economy is shot, the prisons are overcrowded, fires burn randomly in major cities, and thje only colors in existence seem to be dark blue, grey, and black. Death Race has all of the visual markers of classic dystopian fare with the grim color schemes, constantly overcast skies, and settings in scenes of urban decay. However, unlike most classic dystopian films such as Brazil, Metropolis, The Handmaid's Tale, The Condemned, The Omega Man, Wall-E, 1984, and so forth, Death Race apparently has nothing to say about society. It is definitely a child of Corman in that the appeal of this movie lies in the violence, the cars, and the babe.

Death Race is the story of Jensen Ames (Jason Statham), an ex-NASCAR racer who lost his license do to some shady dealings. He has a country music type day...the plant where he works shuts down, he gets home to find his wife murdered and himself framed for it. Sentenced to prison for life he is sent to Terminal Island, home of the Death Race.

There he is under the direction of Warden Hennessy (Joan Allen), the by-the-numbers corporate villain who is willing to kill prisoners for good television ratings to make money for her corporation. I suppose that could be the message of the movie if not for the fact the entire line-up of prisoners involved in the Death Races seem to indeed be exactly what you would expect in a maximum security prison for the violent criminal. They are unabashed and unashamed psychopathic killers who race because they like killing people. They do not feel taken advantage of but actually enjoy what they do.

Ames is expected to take the place of secretly deceased masked racer Frankenstein. If he wins the next race Frankenstein will be a 5 time winner and therefore entitled to freedom. However, it is quickly obvious that Hennessy has no intention of allowing her highest ratings earner, Frankenstein, to win a race.

She has even gone so far as to co-opt Frankenstein's navigator Case (Natalie Martinez). Case is a fine example of the exploitation nature. There is no real reason within the Death Race world to have a female navigator brought in. However, in the film-going world, Natalie Martinez is really easy on the eyes in her tight jeans, mid-riff baring and bust enhancing t-shirt so she comes along for the ride.

Ames is driving the real star of Death Race, the fast-back armored Mustang.

As the race goes along, he and rival Machine Gun Joe (Tyrese Gibson) kill most of the competitors who are there for cannon fodder with the notable exception of the prisoner who actually killed Jensen's wife who of course must be killed by Ames. The other drivers knock off a couple of each other, and the bizarre addition of the monstrous Guard-driven semi accounts for a couple more. This forces Machine Gun Joe and Ames to team up to eliminate it.

In the end Machine Gun Joe, Case and Ames team up to escape the prison, kill Hennessy and escape to a good life in Mexico.

There are no themes of redemption, though there certainly are themes of vengeance. The movie is not complicated and makes no bones about what it is; a big engine, big gun ride full of big guns, death and destruction with a feel-good ending. If you like that, you should really like Death Race. It doesn't do very much but it is very good at what it does.

Movie Review: The House Bunny

Sometimes you see a movie review and think, "Wow, here is a train wreck I don't want to get within a mile of" but circumstances beyond your control combine to lure you in anyway. As a thirty-something married male I think it is safe to say I am not the target audience for The House Bunny (2008). Nevertheless, off I went to see it.

The opening scenes had a few laughs but were mostly just setting up the character of Shelly (Anna Faris) whose talents lie more in having a hot body, beautiful face, and skills at being sensual than they do in the areas of having a functioning brain.

When the machinations of another Playboy Bunny lead to Shelly thinking she has been kicked out of the house she finds herself homeless and directionless. She lands at a sorority house full of over the top "individualists".

She then shows them how to be more attractive to boys...primarily by wearing fewer clothes, more make-up, and gyrating their hips and breasts while demonstrating less intelligence. Meanwhile, her own attempts to romance Oliver (Colin Hanks) fall flat as she goofs up again and again. At one point after the transformation of the girls is complete there is a "coming out"scene where they show off their new sexy looks.

Ultimately the situation at the Playboy Mansion is straightened out, she is allowed to move back but instead elects to stay at the Sorority House where everyone has learned they don't need to dress provocatively...they just need to be themselves. And yes, it works for Shelly and Oliver as well...

This is not a particularly deep movie but it is a very entertaining one. Shelly has line after line that are hilarious and quotable. In the end, it is just good fun with a surprisingly large number of laughs and a nice feel-good conclusion.
I think you will see from the pictures pretty much the main theme of the movie visually. They try to attach a weak, "Oh, just be yourself" moral at the tail end but it is at best tacked on. Nobody returns to their anti-social modes of dress or over the top nerdiness, but rather retains some of the more typical modes of dress and less negative attitudes in order to remain close enough to mainline society to be likable. This is definitely not a socially conscious movie but it is an entertaining one.

Movie Review:You Don't Mess With the Zohan

Adam Sandler is not known for doing particularly serious work. In fact, the more serious he tries to be, the more critics seem to lam bast him. Nevertheless, he has found his niche. He typically plays immature, directionless losers with good hearts that some event stimulate to change their life for the better. They are generally a bit...well...stupid, but fun nevertheless. They typically provide a decent number of laughs even when you see the jokes coming.

From time to time he steps out a bit and tries something new. I now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry (2007) made a more or less serious statement about how gay marriage is perceived and how gays are treated in firefighting. Click (2006) dealt with life, death, and dealing with your spouse. Spanglish (2004) was far and away his most serious, well-rounded role. Gone were the over the top zaniness, the clueless, hapless loser, and in their place were a serious attempt to look at a marriage in trouble and a cultural divide between immigrants. These roles have been atypical.

In You Don't Mess With the Zohan (2008) he returns to the Waterboy (1998)/Anger Management (2003) /Wedding Singer (1998) type of zaniness. As Zohan Dvir (Adam Sandler) he is an Israeli counter-terrorist. He is very good at whatever he does....including catching stuff in his butt-crack and flipping it wherever he wants it to go.

His primary enemy is the Phantom (John Turturro), a Palestinian bombing expert. When the Phantom is traded in a prisoner exchange, Zohan tires of it. He decides the never-ending war is pointless and wants to cut hair instead. So when he is sent after Phantom once more he fakes his death and moves to New York.

There he befriends Oori (Ido Mosseri), a Jewish electronic salesman. I point out he is Jewish because the movie pointedly does, and that points to one of the themes of this movie. There is a very prominent theme to the movie; the ongoing war between the Palestinians and Jews in Israel and Palestine should be resolved and ended in peace. Unfortunately it never makes any attempt to explain how this can be accomplished or any real-world solutions.

Eventually Oori helps Zohan get a job in a Palestinian hair salon working for Dalia (Emmanuelle Chriqui). Slowly he works his way up from floor-cleaner to hair cutter. One of the running jokes has to do with his enormous ah, talent with the ladies. After he cuts each elderly woman's hair he takes them in the back room and nails them. Finally, this brings him to the attention of erstwhile cab-driver Salim (Rob Schneider). Meanwhile, Dalia rejects him because he is Israeli and she is Palestinian even though she has previously stated she likes New York because it doesn't matter if they are Palestinian or Israeli, they are just trying to pay the rent.

This introduces another subplot. Walbridge (Michael Buffer) wants to tear down the "community" of shops and build a mall. To accomplish this he has been raising the rent on the shops to ridiculous levels. Dalia is able to keep paying the rent because of Zohan's success which is threatened by his discovery.

Salim notifies Phantom that Zohan was not dead but was posing as a hair cutter. In the climactic battle it is revealed Phantom is Dalia's brother, Phantom and Zohan put aside their differences to battle the rednecks Walbridge sent to firebomb the shops. Peace is achieved between the Palestinians and Israelites, Zohan and the Phantom...and Salim....all become friends and Dalia and Zohan hook up.

There are a lot of laughs in the movie. The action sequences are deliberately over the top and ridiculous but they are not the point of the movie. It is not meant to be a brilliant movie, just a bunch of fun with some vague sense of social awareness and it delivers on that promise.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Hamlet 2

There is a moment in Hamlet 2 (2008) in which Brie Marschz (Catherine Keener) says to her husband Dana Marschz (Steve Coogan) something along the lines of, "Every so often there is an idea that is so bad it almost becomes good again." If it was not a self-referential line it certainly should have been.

Hamlet 2 follows the story of Dana, a failed actor turned failed drama teacher as his life undergoes a profound change. Driven by an adversarial relationship with his father which seemingly predestined him to failure, he tries to recapture his fleeting glory from life in commercials by producing plays that are copies of popular movies. To show the depths to which he has descended they show a few minutes of his adapted play Erin Brockovich in which his 2 (two) high school drama students try to convincingly play people old enough for her to have multiple marriages and kids. The visual is so ludicrous it threatens to leave the audience in stitches. Fortunately, the deliberately cheesy and horrific acting kept us in our seats. Meanwhile, the tiny audience gives only light applause.

Here they review the caustic review of their play.

Nor is Dana's home life any better. He makes no real money and Brie doesn't either since she stopped dealing drugs. As a result, they have taken in a border named Greg (David Arquette) who is the only one with a paying job or car. Dana roller-skates to class.

Due to budget cuts, the new school year brings a surprise. Instead of merely 2 students, now Dana faces 28, most of them Latino, none of them interested in drama. Soon Dana is told that drama is being cut effective at the end of the semester. Desperate to cling to some vestige of being in show business, he decides to write a play to raise sufficient funds to keep the department alive. He settles on a sequel to Hamlet. Sort of...

The students slowly come together, the project takes on a life of its own, and soon becomes larger than life and incredibly, over the top profane. Rand Posin (Skyler Astin), his long-time stalwart student becomes disgruntled as his role is shrunk and Octavio (Joseph Julian Soria) becomes the unquestioned star. He turns the script in to the principal. Meanwhile, Dana's life is falling apart as his wife leaves him for Greg, he is tossed out of school, and protests threaten to completely shut down production.

In the climax the play is put on in an abandoned warehouse over the protests of the school, other portions of the community, and even the parents of some of the actors. It's controversial nature causes it to become a hit and he ends up with the girl he wants, Elisabeth Shue (Elisabeth Shue...her role is one of the in-jokes in the movie), and a triumphant cast.

This movie is marketed as a comedy and on that score it does deliver. There are plenty of laughs...but some of them are perhaps laughs of embarrassment at the over the top crudity, profanity, and so forth. A pretty good example would be the song, "Rape my Face" which is performed primarily by (supposedly) high school students and discussing rape quite extensively with classy lyrics such as "To talk about rape is never nice, don't use it on a date to break the ice" or something similar. I don't recall the lyrics exactly but the meaning was clear.

And in what is destined to be the most talked about, most controversial section they do the song Sexy Jesus in which they do everything Jesus Christ Superstar was afraid to do one suspects. By the way...seldom have I seen anyone better channel Weird Al Yankovic as Coogan does when playing "sexy Jesus". I did quite a few double-takes, thinking I had seen this before in Weird Al's It's All About the Pentiums video.

You see, though it might be marketed as a comedy and played for laughs, this movie is very much a message film...as he says about his play, it is agit-prop. And it is definitely meant to be.

They go out of their way to offend as many people as possible and they do it deliberately, almost breaking the fourth wall to make sure you understand that offensiveness is the point. Clueless, aggressive ACLU lawyer Cricket Feldstein (Amy Poehler) makes this clear with line after line that is something like, "I married a Jew. That explains the last name.", "Go ahead, hit me, I married a Jew, I have nothing to lose" and so forth.

It is a commentary on lack of funding for the arts...and on how whether the arts are any good is irrelevant. When apparently 10 year old theatre critic Noah Sapperstein (Shea Pepe) is approached for ideas to save the drama program he laments the impending death of theatre and then adds, "But you didn't make anything worth saving." Later, Cricket is walking to her car after telling Dana she will defend his play on free speech grounds. He says, "I think the play might be pretty good." to which she replies, "irrelevant."

I interpreted it as a critique of certain elements of the art world...painting, theatre, movies, music...which produce absolute swill and when people object claim, "We are making art". Just because something is profane or is not understandable does not mean it is good.

Of course, the movie also touched on funding crises which threaten programs such as band, theatre, etc. while leaving athletics untouched. And on pay for teachers. And on race matters. And religious objections to blasphemy. And on...well, there were so many things that even some I meant to remember slipped through the cracks of memory.

Examples of how things were approached are not hard to find. When Dana says his Dad won't let him be in the play, Dana insists on "going to the hood" to tell his Dad what it is. So he charges in only to find Octavio is not a gang-banging violent hoodlum trying to stay in school...he is a 3.9 student already accepted at brown who lives in the rich part of town with his highly successful parents.

In the end, this movie tries to do too much and where they have something to say but don't always know how to say it they rely on driving the "everyone has problems with their Dad" theme through the ground and then centering on time-traveling Jesus as a modern celebrity.

There are moments of brilliance and moments of triteness. You are pretty likely to come away with strong feelings for or against this film when you are done. And probably a lot of quotes.

Monday, August 18, 2008

On audience sophistication

In light of the recent spate of Super Hero movies I have seen numerous Internet conversations which go something like this:

Joe: "Iron Man had a huge plot hole. Why would Stark have the day's paper even though he had not been to the office in a month or so."

Schmoe:"You are watching a movie where a guy uses jerry-rigged parts to keep his heart going that provides more power than an airplane engine, he flies in iron, crashes from a thousand feet in the air without damaged, and you are worried about plot holes?"

The point is pretty clear. As viewers we pick and choose which plot holes matter and which ones don't. In any superhero movie we suspend large chunks of understanding of physics, just as in any Bruce Willis flick we suspend our comprehension of how the world works. But we expect that. We expect Bruce to be able to withstand super-human amounts of punishment and make the world work in unbelievable ways to accomplish his goals.

After the Die Hard series his fans came to expect that so he continued the super-human roles in flicks as diverse as The Last Boy Scout, Sin City and Unbreakable. As a viewer, you intuitively know that Bruce Willis is able to do things "normal" people can't. However, even Willis is able to sometimes break the mold as he did in the Look Who is Talking franchise and even to a large extent in The Whole Nine Yards and its less successful sequel whose name shall not sully this current editorial, Bandits, and so forth.

In other words, the movie audience is willing to wait and see which Willis they are going to see: the one who shrugs off bullets, shoots down helicopters with cabs and outruns collapsing bridges or the one who is always wise-cracking yet ultimately "one of us", a person bound by the laws of nature. He can play both and we will arrive at the theatre in droves to see him in either role.

Yet there are some in Hollywood who apparently believe fans cannot distinguish these types of things. Characters are typecast, put in boxes, and even their real-life personas are expected to conform. There are several examples, but just 2 will exemplify the point perfectly.

Earlier this year there was a huge uproar because Miley Cyrus posed in photos that some found offensive. Maybe they were, maybe they weren't...but the effect they had on her career has been fascinating. See, the problem was not that she posed for them. The problem was someone, somewhere, thought audiences could not distinguish the actions of Miley Cyrus the person from those of Hannah Montana, a fictional character she portrays.

Really? Someone is that naive? This is not the 1960s anymore. Unlike the peccadilloes surrounding George Reeves, people these days certainly have access to plenteous quantities of information about the personal lives of these people. And yes, that applies even to the kids. It is not unusual to see 5 year olds building up Webkins empires, for example. Within a couple of years they certainly are able to, and do, frequent sites that discuss the private lives of super stars and are often contributors to forums.They know the premise of the Hannah Montana show. Yet they are somehow supposed to not be able to differentiate the actions of Miley in her personal life from Miley in her acting life? Is that not the very conceit of the show?

In the same vein, we have the rather shocking rumor that perhaps the reason the next Harry Potter movie has been moved back may have less to do with holes in the schedule from the recent writer's strike and more to do with his role on Broadway where he performs naked?

We as an audience are assumed to be able to comprehend match cuts, dissolves, picture in picture, the meaning of entering a scene via complex dolly pans as opposed to more conventional long shot-medium shot-medium close up-close up sequences, but cannot distinguish the theoretical innocence of Harry Potter, a magic wielding teen, and the rather obvious sexual awareness of Daniel Radcliffe of the real world? Really?

We can easily comprehend complex technical vocabulary that relates states of power or vulnerability by low-angle or high angle shots, we can derive key information regarding character based on amount of focus in a shot, we can subconsciously pick up subtle themes based on how a character's entrances are framed or subtle shadings of color and the soundtrack behind them yet we cannot distinguish an actor's personal life from the characters they portray on the scene?

Isn't that the very point of acting? To make us believe that a rotund midget is extremely dangerous in one role and a lovable uncle type in another such as Danny DeVito has done, Joe Pesci has done, and so forth? In fact, this playing against type has been an art form and career rejuvenating genre at times for guys like Jack Nicholson and Robert DeNiro.

Being stereotyped into just one type of role is a terrifying thing for most actors. How much worse would it be to be removed from some of those roles because of other roles they had performed or even for things in their personal life?

But back to the point. To be sure I skew slightly older than the primary audience for Harry Potter but that does not alter the fact that even the target audience is old enough and smart enough to easily distinguish the naivete of Harry Potter from the worldliness of Daniel Radcliffe just as easily as they are able to figure out that meeting Daniel Craig on the street does not mean they have met an MI6 agent who is licensed to kill.

I am arguing the movie-going audience is smarter than the studios give us credit for. We can distinguish between the character being played on screen and the person playing that character. We have advanced in sophistication past the point where Roy Rogers had to be Roy Rogers off screen as well as on, where George Reeeves WAS Superman.

I would even argue that we are sophisticated enough to accept someone else as Joker despite the way Heath Ledger owned the role. We have accepted different Batmans, Rachel Dawes, and so forth...we will accept anyone WHO ENTERTAINS US and will reject anyone who fails to do so for whatever reason.

In short, the audience is quite sophisticated enough to watch Harry Potter without prejudice because Daniel Radcliffe did an edgy Broadway show whether the movie is released this Thanksgiving or nexy July. Thanks for nothing, those who made the decision.

(Please note: Regardless of when it is released, I will not be seeing the movie)

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

What Happened to Jet Li? The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor

Sometimes you have a choice in life. You can go to the dentist to have every tooth drilled through the root into your skull without benefit of anaesthesia or you can go to a Brendan Fraser movie. I sincerely hope you are wiser than I and choose the former. That was not always true. I mean, sure, he has been in Encino Man (1992), Son in Law (1993), Airheads (1994), George of the Jungle (1997), Blast from the Past (1999), Dudley Do-Right (1999), Bedazzled (2000), Monkeybone (2001), and Looney Tunes: Back in Action (2003), but doesn't that mean he is due? And to be fair, he also was in The Mummy (1999), Crash (2004), and somehow weaseled his way into the reputed train wreck of G.I. Joe:Rise of Cobra (2009) but for the most part he has been in train wreck after train wreck after train wreck.

Now, I in no way blame him. If I could be hired for movies and those were the only roles I could get I freely admit I would take them too. And someone keeps hiring him so he must be doing something right.

Now he stars in the 4th entry in The Mummy franchise, The Mummy:Tomb of the Dragon Emperor (2008) alongside a pretty promising cast including Jet Li and Michelle Yeoh (probably most famous for Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), ). That perhaps begs the question, whatever happened to Jet Li?

Once he made quality flicks and still pops off with the occasional gem such as the overlooked War (2007). Unfortunately, he more than counterbalances that in this effort.

The Mummy gets lost in too many asides and 4th wall jokes about the events of the first 3 movies. It tries for the same sense of fun that placed them atop the constellation of Fraser movies but misses badly. The performances are wooden, forced, and inadvertently cheesy. There is a good cheese and a bad one. A bad cheese takes you out of the world the movie tries to build and makes you regret the coin you spent to enter the theatre.

Actually, it started out okay. The opening scenes of how the Emperor became a Mummy were pretty well done and entertaining. Until, that is, he turned into a Chocolate Fountain and so did his army. Seriously, it looked like liquid chocolate. And that is being charitable.

Shortly thereafter I knew I had made a mistake walking in on this. The derivative scenes that steal from...not reference, not "homage" but steal from Indiana Jones and so forth. You will see nothing original...but you will see inferior nonsense. The way Alex (Luke Ford) and Professor Wilson (David Calder) disregard the numerous deaths of their trap-fodder henchman and NEVER TAKE PRECAUTIONS pretty much set up how it was going to go.

This movie was so painful to watch I nearly walked out. The story was weak, the dialogue forced, the special effects, with a couple of notable exceptions, simply sub-par, and ultimately this movie disappointed on every level. I really struggled to come up with at least one good thing to say about it, to spotlight a good performance or a nice line, to talk about the cinematography or special effects in a vain attempt to redeem this movie. Ultimately I could not because it lacked the 2 things that would have made this movie bearable; an awl to pierce my eardrums so I couldn't hear it and an ice pick to take care of my eyes so I did not see it.

Stay away from this poison. Please. See The Dark Knight (2008) again. See Step Brothers (2008). Smurf, see Mamma Mia (2008) or Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2 (2008). Just don't make the mistake of seeing this horrific effort.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Step Brothers: Can Ferrell and Reilly recreate their magic?

Will Ferrell inspires about as much passion regarding his status as almost anyone else in movies. Is he a one-note talent-less hack who has one joke or is he a talented comedian who keeps people laughing? If you watch for long you will hear passionate arguments both ways.

John C. Reilly is a guy on the rise. In Talladega Nights: The Legend of Ricky Bobby (2006) he played the dumb as a post sidekick to Ferrell's title role and he was hilarious. Their "Shake...and bake" celebration has become legendary as has the "That...just...happened" line. He followed that up with a star turn in the underrated but hilarious Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story (2007). In Walk Hard he was indeed hilarious, though the jokes were cruder. Matter of fact, Will Ferrell has been getting cruder as well, possibly in response to the success of Judd Apatow movies recently. It seems to be a trend as evidenced by the joke of Zohan Dvir (Adam Sandler) "pleasuring" his elderly customers in You Don't Mess With the Zohan (2008) which is apparently even more explicit than his breast fondling of Jessica Biel in I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry (2007). Apatow has ramped up the obscenity level and long-established comedians are trying to keep up. Oh, by the way...one possible reason for the ramped up nastiness? This is produced by the Apatow Company...just sayin'.

You figure that out early in Step Brothers (2008) when the primary joke is established. That would be the joke of dropping the F-bomb. Pretty much everybody does it. It is funny to drop the F-bomb because it is done by loser stay at home 40 year old Brennan Huff (Will Ferrell). It is funny to drop the F-bomb because it is done by loser stay at home 40 year old Dale Doback (John C. Reilly). It is funny to drop the F-bomb because it is done by Brennan's younger, highly successful brother TJ Huff (Jason Davis). It is funny to drop the F-bomb because it is done by "classy" Dr. Doback (Richard Jenkins)...by "classy" mother Nancy Huff (Mary Steenburgen), by everyone referring to the "F-in California Wine Mixer" over and over and over and over by everyone even remotely connected in even the loosest way with the plot. Yeah, that is pretty much the main joke. It is certainly the most-repeated joke...just check out the movie quotes...which is saying something because this movie does nothing if not repeating a joke.

Most of the jokes have to do with 39 or 40 year old men who act like immature, spoiled 12 year old jerks.

And frankly, they are often hilarious. The insult battles have some classic lines. When he tells him he is going to "fall off your dinosaur" in one age-related joke it is quite hysterical. And their music video, "Boats and Hos" should not be missed.

On the other hand, their sleep-walking is, even by Ferrell and Apatow standards, almost unbelievably juvenile, unfunny, and hard to watch.

I know this review is all over the place...but so was the movie. It ranges from hilarious to mildly amusing to mildly stupid to abominably bad.

Will Ferrell (and John C. Reilly fans, for that matter) will find this more of the same and love it. Ferrell haters will think it abysmal and those who can take him or leave him will probably be right there with me...I wish I had waited and rented it. I would have liked it more because I could have written down the classic quotes which were plentiful and should be used, and could have ignored the rest. Well, not all of it...the drum tea-bag scene, the Boats & Hos video, the come-ons by Tj's Wife (Laimarie Serrano) and so forth were pretty hilarious as well. Enjoy.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Part 6: Pulling it all together

Clearly, there are a great number of factors to consider when putting together a Super Hero movie. The end result can range from fantastic on down to horrible. Obviously, the intent is always to provide the audience with the best experience possible but still, for almost every Spiderman we get a Daredevil and for every Batman Begins we get a Batman Forever. What separates the best from the worst?

The Hero Saves the Day or Movies you Should not miss.

There are some movies which escape the genre of Super Hero movies. They can and should be enjoyed even by people who perhaps are not so much fans of comic books yet still love good action movies or just plain entertaining features.

Any discussion of the greatest Super Hero movies of all time has to include The Dark Knight (2008). It contains every element needed to appeal to both the core audience for action movies and to the more casual fan. The storyline is complex, the characterizations layered, and the themes that run through the movie are easily accessible.

Interestingly, one of the most important lines any Super Hero movie must consider is life and death. Will people face real death or will they simply be put in peril yet ultimately escape. The Dark Knight turns the question into a primary theme. The Joker (Heath Ledger) is an indiscriminate killer who uses a variety of methods to dispose of enemies, police, and innocent bystanders. On the other side of the divide is Batman (Christian Bale) who refuses to take a life.

Questions of morals and corruptibility run throughout the movie. Yet it is not so lost in following these questions that it forgets to fulfill expectations for dynamic action. Though the primary villain, the Joker, has weaker motivations than you will typically find for villains on this list, the visuals, story, and action combine to fill over 2-1/2 hours with entertainment.

Close behind is an animated feature, The Incredibles (2004). Easy to dismiss because it is an animated feature, The Incredibles is a surprisingly well put together feature. The cast of heroes from Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) to Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) to Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson) is one that is instantly recognizable as belonging to the Golden Age of heroes. The villain Syndrome (Jason Lee) has classic motivations, a cool look, and provides a distinct threat to the heroes that is believable and fun to watch as they overcome it. The action sequences are mind-blowing and highly entertaining. To casually dismiss it because the Incredibles are not a DC Comics or Marvel Comics creation and because it is animated is to do yourself a huge disservice. The Incredibles bears up well to repeated viewings and should be high on the list for anyone who enjoys good Super Hero movies.

The Hero is On His Way or Movies Worth Seeing more than once.

There are several movies which are on the cusp of greatness. They are above average action movies with good characters and story lines yet are not quite on the same level as the very best of the genre.

Take a movie like The Fantastic Four (2005). It explores themes of how to deal with being different in a variety of ways, Dr. Doom (Julian McMahon) provides a great challenge for the heroes, the path to the final confrontation is entertaining with some nice turns along the way, and the final battle is epic. This is a movie which has a deserved fanbase but it is not quite on the same level as the top few movies.

In the same vein would be a movie like Iron Man (2008). Perfectly cast from Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) to eye-candy Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) to fun villain Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges), it jumps right into the action and keeps the audience entertained from beginning to end. There is a nice dose of excellent action, strong supporting characters, and the theme of redemption for Stark is one that the audience can latch on to. Yet there is just...something, some undefinable something that marks it a step below the very best. Perhaps it is the less deep motivations of Stane or the surprisingly short final confrontation with the Iron Monger but something makes this movie one that, while entertaining, just is not on the same level as the very top tier.

There are a number of movies that fall into this vein. 2 of the 3 Spiderman movies fall into the realm of movies that are highly entertaining, have engaging action sequences, cool villains, and explore themes that most people should find interesting. In the first of the three, that theme has to do with how power is handled and in the second the themes are revenge and dealing with broken dreams. Where do they fall short while The Dark Knight and The Incredibles succeed? Perhaps the motivations are just a bit off or the resolutions just a bit hokey...sometimes it is hard to say why one movie works better than another movie, a theme we will explore more in the underrated section.

Some movies make it into the realm of eminently satisfying movies simply because one certain element stands out above the others. For example, The Incredible Hulk (2008) is a pretty average movie for most of the length. The opening is slow and somewhat maudlin. The action sequences seem to be battling the ghosts of The Hulk (2003) and, while good, are not great...until the finale where the Hulk (Edward Norton) battles the Abomination (Tim Roth). Here we see the true potential of Super Hero movies with a battle that is truly titanic. Two seemingly evenly matched super strength warriors battle each other across a city and their path of destruction is truly memorable. If not for this scene then it is possible that, incredibly, The Incredible Hulk would have followed The Hulk into the pits of disappointment. The motivations ring hollow, Norton is not particularly sympathetic as Bruce Banner, and the story tends to drag in places yet the movie is redeemed by the finale.

Down to Defeat: Whither the Hero? or movies gone wrong.

As fun as it might seem to watch Super Hero movies, sometimes the boat is missed and the results are disappointing. Perhaps the poster child for this is the aforementioned The Hulk. It spends so much time on metaphysical questions that it fails to deliver the story lines that are needed in a fantasy world such as one inhabited by Superheroes. It exhibits the same flaw that ultimately crippled Fantastic Four:Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007). A weak path to the movie, albeit with some very cool special effects, ultimately is not saved by the finale but instead turns the entire movie into a travesty, a weak echo of what was expected. Both finales involve not a fight of epic proportions and over the top action but instead a metaphysical, abstract mind-meld that leaves the audience disappointed. It is not necessarily that either effort was a bad movie or even that the endings were unsatisfying...if they were a different genre. But in a Super Hero movie you want action and both movies failed to deliver it for their denouement.

Another way to miss it is to miss the "feel" of the source material. It has been tried twice with the Punisher franchise. The first time, when Dolph Lundgren took on the role of Frank Castle in the 1989 version the movie was roundly panned, possibly because Dolph Lundgren has the screen presence of a leper and the grace of a 1-legged mule. He simply was not a sympathetic character and his acting removed the viewer from the world they were trying to immerse themselves in. When Thomas Jane took on the role in 2004 he suffered many of the same issues. His facial expressions vary so seldom that you assume he is attempting to recreate the legendary Kuleshov Effect. While the climax is indeed a bloodbath worthy of the comic book source material, the variety of guns he uses is remarkably small and not nearly as over the top as expected. We have seen larger arsenals of weaponry in a variety of flicks. As a result, The Punisher is just another gunfighting movie that does it more poorly than a lot of other gunfighting movies and does not have a storyline or characterizations to make up for it.

Superman Returns (2006) is another example of a movie that is a fine effort at movie making but a failure as an attempt at a Super Hero movie. The climax is reached without a real super hero type activity and as a result it is a rather depressing, maudlin, dark-hued effort that leaves people waiting to see Superman (Brandon Routh) unleash on them wondering what happened. If this movie were not Superman then perhaps the cheese-ball overacting of Kevin Spacey as Lex Luthor and his rather pedestrian motivations could have been overcome to give us an entertaining foray into the questions of relationships rekindled after an unexpected time apart. Perhaps not. But we will never know.

When Super Hero movies forget their core audience and either are not true to the source material or else fail to deliver action packed finales they almost always end in tremendous disappointment.

Who Was that Masked Man? or, Super Hero movies that have been underrated.

As Super Hero movies go, the box office numbers for Hellboy (2004) and Hellboy II:The Golden Army (2008) were not stellar. Yet both efforts star a wisecracking Super Hero (?) Hellboy (Ron Perlman) in the best tradition of the Gold Age of comics. He is an interesting character study of "genetics versus environment"and his desire to be "normal" provides an entertaining sub-plot. To be sure the motives of the villains are pretty stereotypical but the movies move along at a good pace, are entertaining to watch and should have been much better received.

Another fine example would be Daredevil (2003). The movie had interesting characters, an action packed plot, motivations that made sense, and while the battle with Kingpin (Michael Clarke Duncan) was disappointing, it did come after an epic battle between first Daredevil (Ben Affleck) and Elektra (Jennifer Garner), then Electra and Bullseye (Colin Farrell), and finally Daredevil and Bullseye that is not to be missed. Yet it has been roundly panned and dismissed as a weak effort. I suspect it has more to do with the timing of its release with Ben Affleck in a starring role than the quality of the movie itself.

This look at Super Hero movies obviously overlooks older, and sometimes great efforts such as Superman (1978) and is not meant to look at every movie ever made. But in looking at the list, one thing becomes clear. When people set out to make a Super Hero movie, they sometimes go half way or they forget their core audience. It is all too easy to dismiss those audience members as dorks or geeks and assume the same level of effort to produce great movies in other genres is not required for Super Hero flicks.

In truth, some of those audience members are among the most discerning members out there, capable of catching subtle nuances and themes that fly over the heads of many audience members. To create a great Super Hero movie, it is incumbent to treat the source material and audience members with respect, to give us a script that includes sensible motivations, 3-dimensional characters, explores issues people care about, and still delivers the action we crave to resolve those situations.

In real life it is not possible to resolve disagreements with girlfriends by defeating a Super Villain...but that is what we want in our movies. That is what we look for, it is what we want, and it is what we celebrate. Long live the Super Heroes.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

How can the Climactic Fight alter your perception of a Super Hero Movie Part 4

The most important part of any movie is the climax, that moment when all the threads of the story you have been following (theoretically) come together to give you some sort of resolution. In Super Hero movies that resolution is virtually always achieved through combat. A great climactic fight can save a bad movie and a horrible climax can ruin a good one. And sometimes it makes no difference...

While every genre has certain conventions which must be observed it is perhaps the Super Hero movie which is most reliant on a particular element. Romantic comedies must have a boy gets girl element, even if there are movies such as The Break-up (2006) which defy that convention and do not have a stereotypical happy ending. Westerns can have the hero die as John Wayne did in The Cowboys (1972) or even be set in places other than the west as the entire Star Wars franchise was. But a Super Hero movie without over the top action and fights? Uggh.

Test this theory out. Go watch the Hulk (2003), the vastly and rightfully maligned version. Watch it as a character study. It is actually an excellent movie. Clearly Bruce Banner (Eric Bana) has issues. He struggles with guilt. He struggles with identity. And most of all, he battles with who his Father (Nick Nolte) actually is. The movie is a very deep movie on some levels and takes a long, hard look at that. If it were marketed as Pan's Labyrinth (2006) was it would have been a niche film to be sure but very highly regarded in that niche. Unfortunately, it was marketed as a Super Hero movie.

As a result, the final, climactic battle...well, actually, the complete lack of one...destroyed the appeal of the movie. The battles with the Army along the way were not much better. People went to see a Hulk fight and got introspection and weirdness.

Contrast that with the epic battle between the Hulk (Edward Norton) and the Abomination (Tim Roth) at the conclusion of The Incredible Hulk (2008). Oh smurf yeah. Now we are talking. This fight was what Super Hero fans are looking for. It had huge amounts of fisticuffs. The moment when Hulk rips apart the police car and pounds the Abomination with it is awesome. The portion where the Abomination sends the Hulk careening through buildings is outstanding. And in a tremendous homage to the Hulk fanboys know and love, we even get a verbalized Hulk Smash. This fight is over the top, destructive, impressive, and satisfying.

An easy comparison would be the final battle between Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and the Iron Monger (Obadiah Stane). It is surprisingly short. Of course, the action bringing us to this point was plenteous and entertaining but the climax seemed like it had just started when it ended and, significantly, ended not by the efforts of Iron Man but actually at the hand of Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). Yet despite the length and somewhat unheroic denouement, the fight was a great conclusion to the movie that left the audience feeling satisfied. This helps demonstrate that the length of the climax does not necessarily make or break the meaning that fight imparts to the film.

Arguably, the climactic battle of Daredevil (2003) was between Daredevil and Bullseye, not the Kingpin (Michael Duncan Clarke). It went on for quite some time. Actually, the climactic battle was among the lengthiest in Super Hero film history, starting with combat between Daredevil and Elektra, moving on to take in Elektra against Bullseye,

and then moving on to a sprawling battle between Daredevil and Bullseye. That portion of the movie is quite lengthy and moves from rooftops to a cathedral including a tremendous set-piece on the organ. But even then it is not done as the barely able to walk Daredevil makes his way to the Kingpins office for the final confrontation.

For all its length and interesting situations, somehow the fight did not capture the attention of the audience and the movie failed. This indicates a great climax cannot save a movie. Of course, the almost complete lack of any combat can pretty much ruin one. Lets check out one of the best action pictures from Superman Returns (2006). It looked a lot like this:

Okay, so that is a visual joke. But not much of one. Having Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) serve as the primary villain pretty much doomed the final battle to lameness and as a result, the movie has not engendered a huge call for a sequel.

Clearly it is incumbent on a Super Hero movie to have some sort of super fight. It can be short or long as long as it is there. Movies like The Hulk and Superman Returns struggle to entertain their audience without them. Arguably, without the dog fight and the psychedelic mind-meld, had The Hulk had this
we might never have gotten The Incredible Hulk because we wouldn't have needed it to satisfy.
Open memo to writers, directors, and producers of future Super Hero movies. Please, give us a satisfying combat to finish up your flick. Remember, whatever else you are trying to do, whatever questions you are trying to answer, remember your core audience; people who enjoy super fights. Remember, even a movie like The Dark Knight (2008) which is primarily about what it takes to corrupt good people, it still offered a fantastic and action packed finale to resolve the various story lines. I think I am on pretty safe ground in saying people enjoyed it more for that than they would have a group session in therapy.
Super Hero movies, whatever else they do, whatever other ground they cover, they still, in the end, are about action. And that, more than any other factor, makes or breaks the movie.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Is he good or evil? The 2 sides of questionable heroes, Part 4

Every so often there comes along a moment so iconic it leaps of the movie screen and makes its way onto posters, shirts, and other paraphernalia. One such moment was when Spiderman saw his reflection as Venom. Besides being a stunning visual, it also is a stunning visual metaphor for one of the trickiest roles in Super Hero movies. That would be taking it from hero to villain or villain to hero.

Venom is one such example of course. When he performs a symbiotic relationship with Peter Parker (Tobey McGuire) he acts for good. Yet the entire time it is a struggle that leads Parker to moves that are out of character for him such as trying to kill Sandman (Thomas Haden Church) or his strut and humiliation of Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) in the restaurant. Yet ultimately Parker is able to overcome those effects. Venom, of course, is unquestionably, undeniably and irredeemably evil in the hands of Eddie Brock (Topher Grace).

This contrast with someone such as Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhardt). He is pretty unquestioningly good at the beginning of The Dark Knight (2008). He is the White Knight to Batman's (Christian Bale) Dark Knight. Whereas Batman works with fear and terror, Dent is a symbol of hope. His courageous stand against the death threats of the gangsters and Joker (Heath Ledger) provides an example to the citizens of Gotham that there are good men among their leaders. His heroic move to take the fall for Batman when the town insists on his arrest spoke to his heroic intentions.

Yet even at the height of his heroism there were signs he had certain flaws in his character. His habit of deciding things seemingly by chance in flipping a coin showed one of those flaws. He was cheating the entire time. There was no chance whatsoever in those coin flips and that willingness or desire to take advantage in these situations showed that while he might be upright and courageous he also was willing to bend or break rules to get what he wanted.

Thus when he was physically scarred in the explosion minutes after losing Rachel Dawes (Maggie Gyllenhall) it was really just an external showing of an internal truth. His now-scarred coin became a true measure of chance. However, he was now willing to go places he was previously unwilling to go and perform actions he was previously unwilling to perform. His move from hero to villain was a long trip and certainly reversible. That is primarily true because he bought into it completely as both hero and villain. He was willing to risk his life to put the mobsters behind bars or to stand against the Joker. After the corruption, he was equally willing to give up everything to achieve his new aims.

This stands in sharp contrast to Elektra(Jennifer Garner).

She is the daughter of a gangster. Does she truly not know what he does for a living? That strains the bounds of credibility. She is in many ways the epitome of apathetic neutrality. She does not stand up against evil nor does she seek to perform good actions. She simply is. Yet it is not a lack of capability. Her fight with Matt Murdock (Ben Affleck) on the teeter-totters is not only entertaining, it demonstrates a high degree of capability.

Her move into the realm of super is unclear as to whether she is hero or villain. You would argue villain based on her opponent being Daredevil and also since she is seeking vengeance on the man she believes kills her father. Yet she quickly turns and fights Bullseye (Colin Farrall) when she learns the truth. Again she is neither hero nor villain but instead falls into the nebulous realm of major players who have questionable alignments.

On the third point of the triangle is the individual who moves from evil to good. The iconic example of this is unquestionably the Silver Surfer (Doug Jones and Laurence Fishburne(voice)).
At the beginning of the movie he is clearly evil as his role consists of finding and preparing planets for destruction, even if they are inhabited. The story arc has more to do with the attempts of the Fantastic Four to stop him and then, once they learn his true role as merely the herald for Galactus, to convince him to stop the destruction.

At the end of the movie he is unquestionably a hero as he conceivably commits suicide to stop Galactus. Of course, as anyone who knows the history of the Fantastic Four knows, he is probably not dead but the fact he was willing to sacrifice everything to save the planet, the true epitome of a hero. The sacrifice does not have to take place. There simply has to be a willingness to make the sacrifice and that he unquestionably is.

Clearly, the story arcs that take characters from good to bad or vice versa can provide great value to the goal of entertaining the audience in Super Hero movies. Keep an eye on these subplots in any given movie and it might enhance your enjoyment. Go back and watch the 3 Spiderman movies and concentrate solely on the character arc of Harry Osborne (James Franco) as he goes from neutral to bad to neutral to good. It is an oft overlooked sub-plot that helped turn that series into great entertainment.