Monday, November 15, 2010

Modern Themes: The Redemptive narrative in the 21st Millennium

From time to time, movie critics will look back at certain movie genres and extrapolate great movements in the volksgeist of the time demonstrated by that particular genre.

One example would be how the science fiction B movies of the 1950s and 1960s have sometimes been viewed as parables for fears of Nuclear War and/or "the other".

It is in this tradition that I would look at a recent trend to be found in movies as disparate as Inception (2010) and Despicable Me (2010).

First we should preface this with a certain belief that has overtaken much of modern society. The United States has engaged in a series of behaviors that many people oft referred to as "left-leaning" believe to range from immoral to illegal.

These things range from the rejection of populist causes such as the Kyoto Accords to the invasions and/or continued occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq.

The U.S. is oft viewed in this light as somewhat of a rogue nation, a modern Rome throwing its weight around and forcing other nations to accept wrongs forced upon them because they do not have the might to resist.

As the last surviving "super power" and sometimes considered imperialist nation, the United States then must assume the role of villain and, as they are a super power, they must therefore be super villains.

Yet juxtaposed with this must be the vestiges of national pride and patriotism, they almost ingrained belief that "we", the citizens of the United States, are still somehow better than the mysterious "they"...those people not of the United States.

That includes the movers and shakers in Hollywood who are oft believed to be extremely far left-leaning.

Thus we have the recipe for their political views to inform the subtext of many movies.

At times it is overt, explicit, and preachy. One example would be the environmental aspect of Wall-E (2008), a movie so explicit about the damage people are inflicting on the environment it actually experienced a minor backlash. At times the message replaced the story.

Another less obnoxious example would be the more recent Avatar (2009) where the sought-after pointless rock is actually named "Unobtainium" and the references to Native American beliefs regarding the sanctity and mystical God-like powers and knowledge of the earth are the entire underpinning of the movie.

Other times, that message is more subtle. In Ice Age 2: The Meltdown (2006) the results of environmental devastation are shown without allusion to how they came to be...until the Noah's Ark reference. The message that environmental disaster is looming is there, though not nearly as explicit.

Many people do not see or notice these themes, and I would expressly state this; there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. Movies, to get their message across, must first entertain. If the experience is not enjoyable, the message will not get passed.

But that does not invalidate the indisputable fact that while much of the audience neither looks for nor notices the message, the filmmakers themselves are very much trying to impart their message throughout their work.

Which brings us to the central point of this piece. There is a theme that is becoming more and more prevalent in movies today which attempts to resolve the inherent tension between believing in your own superiority while behaving as a super villain.

Let's start with an explicit example. In Despicable Me Gru (Steve Carrell) is not simply a super villain, he is the greatest super villain in the world. He takes great pride in his dastardly deeds and is unrepentant about it.

Compare that with the view of the United States as rogue nation. The invasion of Iraq is believed by some to have been an illegal act perpetrated through a web of deception, forgery, and other acts that reek of almost cartoonish super-villainy.

The invasion was very public, done with tremendous fanfare and pride in the accomplishments, an attitude that lingers on through expressions of approval recently released in the press in regard to the interrogation methods which are widely believed to also be illegal...the acts of a villainous nation proud of its villainy.

Gru finds, however, that when he attempts to further his nefarious plot through adopting three girls, his evil suddenly loses its point. Instead, he seeks to protect and defend the girls, even at risk of his life.

In the end, the super villain finds redemption and rejoins society as a bit of a hero, completely redeemed by noble self-sacrifice and by taking on the role of parent and protector.

Compare that to the platform that brought President Barack Obama whose campaign slogans included "Change We Can Believe In".

Indeed, that was the belief of many who voted for him, that he would withdraw US forces from the Middle East, enforce the cessation of Guantanamo Bay type prisons and interrogation techniques, bring the US fully in line with the provisions of the Kyoto Accords and so forth.

He would move the US from super powered villainous nation to heroic fount of purity and justice. In short, he would be a return to the uniquely American narrative of "Truth, Justice, and the American Way". the United States would exemplify the crystal pure motives of the Lone Ranger and once more be a beacon of greatness, a verifiable super hero of how the world should be.

Just as Gru found redemption, so would the United States. Or vice versa.

Of course, the narrative of villain finding redemption is hardly new. In Aladdin (1992), Aladdin (Scott Weinger) is a "street rat:, a thief who survives through theft. It is notable in two things, however; first, unlike more recent villains such as Gru, Megamind of Megamind, and other examples we will look at, he was forced into his villainous ways by circumstances, not choice.

Gru is proudly, stridently villainous, as is Megamind, who even has as his best friend the aptly named Minion (David Cross).

The common thread to both movies is they are villains who end up reformed and set about to make restitution for their formerly nefarious ways, giving up the ways of villainy.

Nor is the theme found only in "children's fare" such as these two animated features.

Let us briefly look at Inception (2010). Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCapricio) is a thief, and proud to be one. It is his expertise in illegal intrusion, theft of corporate secrets, and potential to do even more that brings the job to him that will ultimately be the focus of the movie.

Yet as we go deeper into his dream world, we learn he has committed a crime so heinous it cost him that he loved most and may yet cost him his very sanity. In the end he finds his redemption, once again through self-sacrifice, a sacrifice so enduring it turns someone who violates every sense of rightness or decency, who crosses every social boundary, into a sympathetic character.

If Cobb's invasion of other people's minds, that most sacred place that designates what separates one person from another, is not heinous enough, he also corrupts the formerly innocent Ariadne (Ellen Page), lies to people who trust him, withholds key information, and risks all their lives unnecessarily.

Yet by the end of the movie, this super villain is redeemed.

The thing that separates Cobb, Megamind, and Gru from redeemed super villains like Spiderman 2 (2004)'s Doctor Octopus (Alfred Molina), who finds redemption in death, is they are the centerpiece of the movie.

Each movie is about their journey from super villain to super hero. The same could particularly be said for the first Shrek (2001) with a slight but noticeable difference. Shrek (Mike Myers) is again proud of his villainous ways. Yet by the end, the redemptive love for Fiona (Cameron Diaz) makes him heroic, albeit with an edge and the twist that she turns to the APPEARANCE of villainy in being an Ogre.

Certainly Shrek fits other narratives, most obviously that of "the others" being acceptable despite their differences, but the thread of villain finding redemption he did not even know he sought is nevertheless there and, in fact, finds itself expressed in Shrek Forever After (2010).

The reason Shrek is willing to sign the deal with Rumplestiltskin (Walt Dohrn) is because he wants to his days of "being an Ogre", of proudly, loudly and often engaging in anti-social, villainous behavior and, in fact, we are treated to several scenes of him doing just that.

The tension between his past as a super villain and present as super hero even works its way into the movie in the "Do the roar" scene where he strives to keep his villainous side in check and, when it finally evidences itself, is rewarded with treatment as a hero.

These are noticeable and important changes. The traditional story arc has had the HERO find unsought for redemption. Take for example The Searchers (1956) where the iconic Western hero Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) does not seem to need redemption, yet by the end of the movie both his need for and redemption have been evidenced.

Edwards is everything a hero should be. He is strong, more capable than the average man, with knowledge of how to get things done. Yet his blinding hatred for "the other" leads him into wasting his life in a long, fruitless chase to rescue someone who neither wants nor needs rescuing and, along the way, costs him years of his life, family, and friends.

When he ultimately finds redemption, the cost has been high but the narrative is complete. The hero inadvertently became a villain and returned to his heroic ways only when redemption was accomplished.

So why the switch in narrative? More and more often we have movies where traditional heroes are eschewed in favor of stories of those who traditionally have been the villains but now are the hero of the story?

The examples are numerous and wide ranging. The Harry Potter franchise often blurs the line, making you wonder if characters such as Severus Snape (Alan Rickman) are good or evil...and, in fact, he sometimes hops back and forth across that line.

In the Twilight tales, much as in the Underworld series, we have traditional baddies in the form of Vampires and Werewolves taking the roles of heroes. Igor (2008) is an assistant trying to move up to head evil, only to turn into a hero.

Which brings us back to that same question; why the switch in narrative?

For many people, the years of the George W. Bush administrations were years in which the United States took on the role of super villain. We became the evil empire, the locus of all evil in the modern world.

Yet that is not who we wish to be. It does not fit the American myth, the narrative of being the fount of justice and righteousness in the world today. We need to believe that we can come back from the precipice, that we can move from nation of super villainy to nation of super hero.

But part of that process is believing it is possible So long as the Berlin Wall existed, it was not possible to view even a diminished, borderline impotent, obviously rotted and decayed Soviet Union as anything other than THE villain in the world. Only when the story of that symbol of evil being destroyed was accomplished could we view them as potential friends and cautious allies.

Thus a narrative needs to be created that it is possible for super villains to find redemption, face no repercussions for past actions (let us not forget Megamind avoids his last 88 life sentences once he becomes the protector of Metro City), and become the leaders in the world today.

It can be argued that certain elements responsible for bringing Hollywood entertainment to the screen see a need to create that narrative so the United States can take that same journey. The means to that is seen as being the election of Obama and the actions anticipated to come from that.

Thus the time is here to call for the changes that are desired. Much as the Gangster movies of the 1930s were sometimes seen as a call for social change, just as the screwball comedies of the same and succeeding time period were a challenge to wealth differentiations and elitism, the modern super villain as hero narrative is presenting a hope for where our country can go.

Great social movements, for good or ill, oft are predated by pop culture. It might be Upton Sinclair's The Jungle or the calls for prison reform of Dickens and Dostoevsky, or something else, but there are always references.

In past centuries print was the primary means of communicating calls for change. In the modern era there are other avenues. Protest songs were a hallmark of the 1960s. Movies engaging in social critiques have been a major mover almost since the first reel was rolled.

It remains to be seen how this one plays out, but the theme of the villain finding redemption and becoming a hero will be with us for the foreseeable future.

Other movies to take into account (and I stress this is a brief, very incomplete list) where the villain is a centerpiece to the movie and is a hero by the end of the movie or series;
Pirates of the Caribbean, Jack Sparrow
X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Wolverine
Area 51
Iron Man, Tony Stark
Jonah Hex
Ninja Assassin
Fast and the Furious
the Bourne franchise

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Movie Review: Megamind

It is not a big secret that I am a fan of both animated movies and super hero movies. Combine them, a la The Incredibles (2004) and I am up for it.

Also not a secret is my tendency to root for the likable villain...and key in on the likable. Syndrome (Jason Lee) in The Incredibles, absolutely. Mr Freeze (Arnold Schwarzenegger) in Batman and Robin (1997)...not so much.

Of course, with the advent of the Shrek franchise, the "twist" of starring the villain has really taken off with mixed results. The first, second and fourth Shreks were pretty good...Shrek the Third closely resembles its name if you simply drop the "h" sound from the title.

Happily N'evr After (2007) was so abominably bad I should ban it ever being mentioned on this website again on pain of being forced to watch it three weeks straight.

Of more recent vintage, Despicable Me (2010) was very good.

But with that background, I anxiously awaited the release of Megamind wherein Megamind (Will Ferrell) tires of his villainous battles with the heroic Superman clone Metro Man (Brad Pitt) and tries to become a hero.

Brief outline; Megamind and Metro Man have battled so often their battles have become predictable cliches, the outcome known to both of them.

When Megamind inadvertently discovers Metro man's secret weakness and defeats him, he is able to run amok in the city with the help of his faithful Minion (David Cross) and his Brainbots.

Success is not all it is cracked up to be, however, so he sets out to create a new enemy to face. But the new enemy foils his plans by turning into a villain. Can Megamind mend his ways, defeat the new villain, and get the girl?

So synopsis out of the way, lets get to the good and bad of this movie.

First, the good. There are some great moments of humor, the action is entertaining, the dialogue pretty good too. They take some well-aimed potshots at trite, predictable Super hero conventions but do it in such a light-hearted, entertaining manner that it does not feel pretentious.

They also take a tired old story line, punch it up and let you enjoy the tale of redemption embarked on by the titular hero of the piece.

Now the bad. There is not much. I was entertained from beginning to end. The extended flashback felt like it fit, as each piece fell into place it made sense, and the resolution was creative, entertaining and satisfying. So the bad part would be...I wish this was out on DVD now so I could watch it again.

If you enjoy light-hearted animated romps with a delightful sense of humor, go see this movie.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Movie Review: Jonah Hex

I have been preparing to hate this movie for a long time. See, while it was in development, they reputedly completely dumped the "real" Jonah Hex in favor of a story involving voodoo, zombies, and mass quantities of supernatural oddity.

Let me back up.

Sometime in the early 80's, I was at a friends' house and saw this magnificent cover.
He was done reading it so he gave it to me and I about wore that thing out with numerous re-readings of it.

Here was a magnificent anti-hero. To this day I can quote the tag line, He Was a Hero to Some, a Villain to Others, and Wherever He Rode People Spoke His Name in Whispers. He Had No Friends, This Jonah Hex, But He Did Have Two Companions: One Was Death itself...the Other, The Acrid Smell of Gunsmoke...

As an avowed Western and comedy lover, here was the guy I loved to read about. Fast with his gun and his mouth, he toured the West shooting up mass quantities of people (467 by the count of this Hex-a-holic...and if you have read many of his comics, that seems low for 101 issues..."ONLY" 4.67 kills for hex per issue? Seems low...)

And while he was racking up the body count, he was keeping a running commentary in his head replete with wise-cracks, one liners, and testosterone dismissals of the most trying circumstances. I had read other comics before...but this was the first one I truly loved.

I scrimped, saved, collected bottles and cans to purchase the next issue. When he was thrown into the future for the ill-starred Hex series, I was devastated....until it proved to be actually pretty entertaining, though having just a short run (18 issues) before being canceled.

Later, I went on a buying spree and purchased about 70% of the entire run of Jonah Hex. He became an old friend, and one I very much wanted to see brought to the big screen...just not in some ridiculous zombie-battle.*

So when the trailers showed him "resurrecting" a bad guy, blowing out "spirit smoke" from his mouth and them referring repeatedly to his supernatural powers, yet also demonstrating the penchant for violent gun-based retribution and snarky one-liners, I was in a quandary.
Do I go see a movie bound to disappoint me and thus encourage crap....or do I pass up on seeing some version, any version, of one of my all-time favorite fictional characters on the big screen?

I had a free movie ticket and a desire to avoid traffic, to the theatre I went.

The movie starts in classic fashion...Jonah Hex (Josh Brolin) dragging multiple bodies behind his horse, on his way to collect a reward. He is a fine bounty hunter.

Soon the situation degenerates into another shoot out, this one a bit more atypical of the classic Hex comic but that is is a forgivable nod to the brainless summer blockbuster action-blow-em-up adventure genre.

It also showed somewhat of the different direction director Jimmy Hayward was going to take it. Hex does some pointless, over-the-top destruction that even for the calloused Hex is exceptionally violent.

There are two reviews of this movie. First, the lover of classic Hex.

I am burned that they took Quentin Turnbull (John Malkovich) from the debonair, refined, politician behind the scenes mysterious enemy and moved him clearly into the cheesy villain with decent plans but too ready to do his own dirty work and thus be eliminated reminiscent of the Joker (Heath Ledger) in the Dark Knight movie.

Gone were the deep, rich characterizations that would take dozens of issues to bring to enemy who spanned every issue from Weird Western Tales #22 and he was still a major force when the aforementioned issue 77.

Also gone were Jonah's troubled childhood with an alcoholic father and prostitute mother, his adoption in and expulsion from the Apache tribe...and how he got his star.

Still there were his ability to out shoot, out think, out-skulk, and out-track anybody while popping off sarcastic and witty one-liners.

Added were a malicious streak...such as his gunning down of a guy for asking how he got his scar and his blowing up of the town where he had already killed 8/10ths of the population.

Also added were his supernatural powers and apparent inability to be killed by gunfire.

There were also some nice nods to classic Hex the callback to the half-wolf Iron Jaws that was with Hex for a few issues, Turnbull carrying an eagle-top cane, the appearance of an Indian Wife recalling White Fawn, and even the pit-fighting.

It made for a Hex that was interesting and intriguing but just barely lacking.

Now for the movie review from the guy who wanted to see Hex on the big screen and was willing to compromise.

This is not a movie for those who want hole-less plots, who want to think, or who want reality.

But if you are willing to suspend your disbelief and watch an adrenaline fueled duel of wills between the bad guy (Jonah Hex) and the worse guy (Turnbull) duke it out, you have come to the right place.

Burke (Michael Fassbender) is an outstanding villain. He is fearless, intelligent, and a worthy foe for Hex.

Lilah Tallulah Black (Megan Fox) is exactly the type of girl that a man like Hex would be expected to associate with.

And the story proceeds along at a good clip with some metaphysical meanderings taking place along the way. It is a good, entertaining, quick-moving yarn that sticks to what it is good at....high-octane action interspersed with build-ups to the next high-octane set piece with occasional pseudo-dramatic moments...will Turnbull and his men blow up Washington? Or will Hex stop them in time?
In the end, it is a basic revenge for revenge tale that is pretty entertaining along the way.
Hayward shows a good eye for the camera, with some nice framing and interesting point of view shots. He can also show the panorama when necessary.

Other than Malkovich, the acting is pretty solid. You are seldom pulled out of the movie and reminded these are not real people, they are actors playing created people.
Unfortunately, this is not true with Malkovich. He tries to be smooth but comes off cheesy and over acting. He is like a serious version of Jim Carrey...and that is not meant to be a compliment.
Brolin, on the other hand, brings a nice presence to the Hex role and there are some great supporting actors such as Will Arnett in a serious roll as Lieutenant Grass and Tom Wopat as Slocum.
Ultimately, I enjoyed myself enough that a movie I was prepared to hate I walked away from having had a good time.

* It is only fair to note that under the Vertigo banner, Hex DID in fact engage in stories of this nature. And, in this writer's humble yet accurate opinion...they sucked so bad I have not read his new series, either.

The Weasel is (strongly) satisfied.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Movie Review: Shrek Forever After

Four movies. Ten Years. A zillion laughs. A sea change.
All these phrases and more fit the Shrek franchise.
When Shrek opened in 2001, it was noted for the way it "stood traditional fairy tales on their head". It capitalized on elements of anti-establishment emotions and made a hero of the classical villain-figure.
In 2004 with Shrek II they expanded the characters and broadened the story lines.
The laughs in both were plenteous and the references to well-known tales and cliches easy, natural, and awesome. And the "filler", Shrek the Halls (2007) was classic.
Later, it turned out 2007 was a dark year. In Shrek the Third...or as I prefer to refer to it, Shrek the turd, they forgot what made the first two movies great.
They tried so hard to push a particular concept that they forgot a key part of the formula that worked so well in parts one in two...namely, that the jokes come as part of the story, not at the expense of the story.
Pushing jokes, "non-traditional" ideas and so forth led to it more closely resembling epic fail icon Happily N'Ever After (2006) than the first two members of the Shrek franchise. It was unfunny, unentertaining, and borderline unwatchable.
That was unfortunate, because it showed promise. It just never delivered...and the failure was so epic that the entire Arthurian legend portion of the add-ons was completely eliminated from what is supposed to be the closing number, Shrek Forever After.
The story is nothing super exciting or original...but that is not necessarily a complaint. There are only so many times you can "turn cliches on their head" before there are no cliches left to turn.
At its roots, the movie can be summed up in either of two ways; 1) Shrek (Mike Meyers) experiences a mid-life crisis and must learn how lucky he is or 2) "I did not know what I had until it was gone" as Shrek intones late in the movie.
The story revolves around a deal Shrek makes with the delightful Rumplestiltskin (Walt Dohrn) who, along with his goose, are exactly the type of villain the first two Shreks liked the villain nearly as much as Shrek. He was funny, entertaining, and a fitting counter-point.
There are many jokes, some nice one-liners, great animation, and a light but fun story. The "Do the roar" kid is outstanding.
They also do a nice job of drawing the story to a close. Shrek is no longer the feared, dangerous ogre....he has settled into life with wife, children, and friends...and he is happy about that. They conclude with a montage of some great moments for the series.
I have read several critics just blasting this flick for not being as fresh, original, or layered as the first one.
Maybe. But it is still very entertaining. We had a full theatre of people laughing from beginning to end and walked away satisfied. The bad taste from the third effort is gone and we can put it to bed with fond memories of this one.
Was it the best of the four? No...probably third best, but in a series like this...that is still pretty good.
And I saw it in just 2-d...really, it did not strike me as anything worth the extra premium for 3-d tickets. The animation looked spectacular, the jokes were every bit as funny, and this is a title that will end up on my shelf when it is released.
The Weasel is Full

Friday, May 21, 2010

Movie Review: Robin Hood

This is a hard review for me because there is simply no way I can be fair to the movie.

Much like my review of GI Joe was skewed by the ridiculous accelerator suits and my anticipation for the forthcoming Jonah Hex is shattered by the fundamental shift in his story, the things I heard about Robin Hood proved false.

When the movie was first green-lighted, the rumor was the "twist" to the story was that Robin Hood was also the Sheriff of Nottingham. That would be a fun take on it and center on the best part of the story...Robin and his Merry Men hanging out in the forest, doing good deeds.

What we got was nothing like that. It started on the return from the Crusades, had just a couple of the classic Robin Hood tales, and had the feel more of a "tent pole origin story" than a self-contained movie.

Not that it was devoid of its charms...Ridley Scott has an excellent eye for the camera, he pulled excellent performances from a strong cast of supporting actors, and had a richly developed, nuanced world.

This version owed more to the gritty, violent Kevin Costner Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves version than to the light-hearted Robin Hood cartoon Disney put out, though there were elements of humor to it.

Ultimately, though, I think the movie failed on its own merits.

Instead of a bow-slinging Robin Hood (Russell Crowe) we get one who is more courtier than rough-hewn peasant, who wields a sword more than a bow and, in the climatic sea-battle, wields a battle hammer? What in the world?

This movie simply had too many gaping holes in it;
- why would the wild orphans steal SEED?
- why would they then decide to rescue the towns-folk and join Marian (Cate Blanchett) in battle?
- why would Robin abandon the bows (and how did he do it so quickly) and the sword for that ugly battle-hammer?

I should clarify; I did enjoy the movie. It had several likable characters, an interesting enough plot, was well-paced and had some depth to it.

It simply was not what was expected, and that harmed my personal enjoyment of it. It also felt like an incomplete story.

It is probably worth seeing at a second run theatre or on a Netflix release, but not worth full price admission.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Movie Review:John 3:33

John 3:33 is a low-budget, local production written and directed by Tim Burr with producing help from Tyler Travis. Since it starred a former teammate of mine, I went to see it.

The Story
John (Phil Stoddard), Jonathan (Phil Stoddard) and John (Phil Stoddard) are three potential life-routes taken that all encounter a terrorist attack in Willamina, OR in different ways.

John, guided/prodded/harassed by a mysterious stranger...maybe an angel, maybe a demon, maybe both or neither, looks at various incidents that may or may not have happened, what they reveal about him, and whether they reflect fate or his own choices.

The story is often confusing with incomplete, incoherent segments with little or no relation to other scenes. This, per Burr's admission, is partly by design. The resolution is left to the viewer's discretion, a tactic often used by movies that intent to be proclaimed "smart". Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't.

This story has potential, but also some rough edges and ultimately has too many threads which go nowhere. The journey is more important than a clear narrative. If you are willing to accept the vignette-unrelated methodology, it will work far better.

It contrasts with a movie like Crash where seemingly unrelated vignettes ultimately prove to be intimately interwoven and you will see a clear difference between a movie with potential for a memorable experience and a movie that is an ambitious, worthy attempt...but still an early, inexperienced attempt at a feature movie.

He tried to put in some nice touches, like the reoccurring dog appearances...but they were unmotivated and therefore did nothing to add to the story. Had the dog had some purpose for being in random locations, they would have been great.

He had several ideas like this which came close but juuuuuuuuuuuuusssssttt missed.

The Cinematography
One problem with filming a low-budget movie is the lack of budget for certain things. This feature looked like what it was; a low-budget labor of love.

I would guess it was shot single-camera. He did a nice job of de-emphasizing some of the weaknesses...he chose to go low-light as a mood-enhancer, for example, shooting almost universally in dark locations.

He also spent a lot of time with close-ups of faces, actions...even the tearing of a receipt got a double-dose of the close-up treatment.

At times this worked rather well, other times it was somewhat distracting.

This is not standard Hollywood fare. It is an off-beat, somewhat unconventional flick designed not to tell a story but to raise questions in the viewer and stimulate them to thinking about their own life.

If you like slick special effects, pretty cinematography, and a clear story this movie is not for you.

Conversely, if you like unusual, off-center, "personal films", this should be right up your alley.

It will never be confused with great cinema, but there is a place for material like this.

The Weasel is Satisfied

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Movie Review:Iron-Man 2

Comic books went through a massive change from their inception. Much early fare was basic escapist entertainment with outlandish story lines, fantastical feats of derring-do, and campy stories that delivered a high fun factor.

As the mood of the nation changed, so did the super hero comic. By the late 80s or early 90s it seemed many titles focused more on the personal, typically angst-driven problems of the titular hero with the action scenes providing the next beat in that story, almost secondary to the main point of the book.

In that period, when they were trying to be taken as a serious medium, they delved deeply into a variety of social issues and causes. For some, this was a wonderful thing. For others, they started to miss the fun factor that made the medium special.

That is not a criticism that can be leveled at Iron Man 2. The fun factor is high, the action sequences numerous and spectacular, the violence at near spaghetti western levels, and the scenery...just gorgeous.

Director Jon Favreau has a great eye for spectacular, eye-pleasing moments that border on the iconic, a sly sense of humor, and a talent for bringing out the best in his well-populated star list. Perhaps the moment that best displays this is the Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) in the donut.
From a story standpoint, Iron Man is excellent. The basic storyline is nothing spectacular, nor are any of the sub-plots taken individually...but when melded together they provide a very nice texture to frame an overall effect that has re-watchability.

Additionally, they show a knowledge of and respect for the fans of the comic book. This is shown by little things such as Stark using the phrase "war machine" in regards to the suit Rhoades (Don Cheadle) is wearing that had a brief run as its own comic titled War Machine. It was a very nice touch.

It is one reason the movie works on many levels. The non-comic fan gets a big, bold action-adventure. The comic fan gets to see little bits and pieces of the Marvel Universe on the big screen with homages to the "canon".

From a cinematography standpoint, I think most viewers can find many things to enjoy. The scenery...whether nature or the often spectacular and easy on the eyes. (When Stark says of Natalie Rushman (Scarlett Johannsen), "I want one", many viewers probably already had that thought when they saw the Ironettes).

If you go into this expecting Schindler's List you will deservedly be disappointed. But if you go in expecting one-liners, double-entendres, over-the top action, gorgeous visuals, and a lot of fun you will love it.

Of course, being me, I have to find SOMETHING I did not love about this movie; how, exactly, did the rather light-weighing Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) manage to haul around a suitcase containing a full Iron Man suit? How did Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) make and retain all his money if nothing he makes works?

Those, of course, are things that are irrelevant. Just roll with them.

On the other end of the spectrum are two nice surprises for fans of the Marvel being the sighting of Captain America's shield and the other...well, stay through the end of the credits. Nice teaser to be found there.

If you like fun movies with beautiful people and high-octane action, great special effects and fun...this movie is a must-see.

The Weasel is full.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Movie Review: Date Night

I should admit up front that I A) am not a Tina Fay fan, finding her at best modestly funny and at worst downright unfunny and B) I can take or leave Steve Carrel. Loved him in Get Smart but in the Office, too much of the humor is "uncomfortable humor" where you are supposed to laugh at him while liking him.

It is to his credit that he pulls it off.

With that pairing, I was quite ambivalent about seeing it...until my wife saw it and loved it. So with her recommendation in mind, off I went.

First, the movie review itself;

So long as you are capable of suspending your disbelief, this is a marvelous, entertaining movie. Yes, the plot and situations are ridiculous, bizarre, and unbelievable...but when you lose yourself in the movie, they make sense and provide the perfect vehicle for the stars.

Steve and Tina play understated, fun roles that become not just believable, but empathetic.

There are some laughs along the way, a couple minor plot twists that add just that little extra bit to the story and in the end a very satisfying conclusion. If you like "serviceable comedies" this one is a home run.

Where Date Night really shines, however, is its take on the modern marriage.

With both spouses often working outside the home, there is often a lack of energy for interacting with one another. Furthermore, there can easily develop a complacency, an assumption that all is well with the status quo.

The problems faced by the Fosters that come to light as they rampage across the city causing rampant property destruction, engaging in breaking and entering, theft, and entrapment, and consider whether their marriage has grown stale or not are things that many couples may find familiar.

Are they "boring" because their nights have a regular routine? has their marriage "lost the spark" because they no longer "get it on" with the regularity of rabbits or porn stars? Are they just going through the motions?

Or are those signs that they are working together in so much harmony that they are working for their common good?

A telling moment comes when it comes to light that Phil (Carrell) had actually read the entire, horrendous book referenced throughout the movie. He had not done so out of a sense of duty or obligation, but did so because, as he says to Claire (Fay), "It was important to you."

He did not resent reading books he lacked interest in but rather enjoyed it because it mattered to his wife. He did not ignore her interests but exerted some effort into learning what they were, expended energy into seeing to it that she was able to engage in them and enjoy them.

It was actually the picture of a truly wonderful marriage. They are comfortable with one another, they care about one another, and they are willing to work to make the life of their partner better even at the expense of sacrificing some of their own desires.

Theirs is the type of marriage oft-mocked in today's society. Aside from the duel career versus "making dinner in heels and pearls", it was almost a 50s stereotypical marriage...except real.

The type of marriage that many millions of happy couples have.

Sure, we and/or our mate may not be the most handsome, fittest, richest, or smartest person...but to our mate we are.

And when Phil tells Claire, "I would do it all again." referring to the marriage, it is a beautiful moment.

Yes, it is a reaffirming of "traditional" marriage. But I am one of those people who appreciates that.

I have my Claire. I hope I am her Phil. And even if we never steal a reservation and spend the next few hours destroying a town, running for our lives, dressing as strippers and having robot sex, I will still love her with every fiber of my being. I may never walk 20 miles into the desert to menstruate...but in the feelings expressed, I identify with Phil and Claire. (And yes, that is an inside reference, sensible only to those who see the movie. So go see it.)

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Movie Review:How to Train Your Dragon

Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) is a young Viking who missed all the Viking traits...he is slight of built, slender, wiry, weak, and creative.
His father, Stoick (Gerard Butler) is quite disappointed in him since he is not a "real Viking". Hiccup, in the course of trying to prove he is a Viking, brings down a dragon with one of his inventions.
The story then follows his developing friendship with Toothless the dragon as they figure out the "hereditary enmity" between dragons and Vikings is actually an acquired taste. The story follows a predictable arc ending in reconciliation and new friendship.
That is no indictment of the movie, however. The joy in this movie is broad and rich.
It comes from the beautiful animation, the heartwarming story, and the entertaining story.
Sometimes those of us who have seen a vast number of movies and/or read a wide range of literature tend to get a bit jaded. Sure, the story arc here is familiar, many of the jokes have been seen before...but that has more to do with the number of flicks I have seen than the quality of this movie.
The story is good...that is why it has been done before. The fun comes in the slight tweaks, the cool animation, and the way Toothless will remind you of the coolest dog you ever had.
I loved this movie and walked away smiling. Love the animation, the story, the jokes. It will be coming to my house in DVD form.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Movie Review: Alice in Wonderland

Tim Burton made his name as a director for having a skewed, warped vision of the world that came through in offbeat, off-kilter, and edgy movies. The movie viewer who anticipates standard colors, appearances and fare in a Burton flick will inevitably be sadly disappointed.

The Alice in Wonderland world then seems like a natural for him. If he can turn Willie Wonka from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory into a freak show that makes the creepy version played by Gene Wilder seem downright normal…which he did…then the possibilities for the Mad Hatter, Cheshire Cat, Queen of Hearts, and so forth are many indeed.

That makes the bland, uninspired, dare I say outright boring Alice in Wonderland all the more surprising. There is no sense of fun in the drab Mad Hatter played by Johnny Depp, the Knave (Crispin Glover) is…boring, Alice (Mia Wasikowska) is boring, the Queen of Hearts (Helena Bonham Carter) is…boring, the boring, the cinematography...well, you guess what I think it is.

Burton did not expend much energy on this flick. From the formulaic, stereotypical “villains who are not real villains, just clueless, self-absorbed people” trying to convince Alice to marry the simpering, image-conscious Lord Charles Kingsley (Martin Csokas) in the opening scene to the final “sailing off into the sunset” moment, the movie just plods along going nowhere.

There are moments of fun. Tweedledee and Tweedledum (Matt Lucas) are mildly amusing and the movie would be better with more of them and less of everyone else. The rocking horse bugs, for example, are at least easy to look at. But they disappear and with them the imagination you usually find in a Burton movie. There is little or no originality in the remainder of the movie.

There are a few curious yet unbelievably major plot holes…such as how the Cheshire Cat (Stephen Fry) can assume the appearance and form of the Mad Hatter, or why the deposed White Queen (Anne Hathaway) has a nicer castle than the Red Queen.

But the supporting characters feel…boring, incomplete…there are no memorable secondary characters. This is a surprisingly uninspired, unoriginal, insipid bit of movie drivel not worthy of the talents of Burton, Depp, or anyone else involved in the project.

I never expect much from a Burton movie and so often receive a pleasant surprise as his dark, twisted take on the world turns certain things on their head and makes them entertaining. Not this time.

If you have a free movie rental via Netflix, save it for something better than this stinker.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Movie Review: Edge of Darkness

For a while it looked like Mel Gibson had killed his movie career. Between movies found insensitive by some groups (really? Passion of the Christ? People feel they, as a modern group, are being called to account for a 2000 year old event because somebody made a movie based on the best documented source available? Perhaps some Persians should have been up in arms over 300 then...), drunk driving, and all around oddness. He kind of was becoming the Dennis Rodman of cinema.
Mix in the train wreck Apocalypto and you have a guy nobody really wants to see or hear from. This is not the same guy who made Lethal Weapon, Braveheart, The Patriot or even Paycheck.
Somewhere along the line he lost his cachet, and being somewhat up in years, his days as an action star seem somewhat behind him, yet an action-thriller was the entire marketing of Edge of Darkness.
It is unfortunate that the previews spoil one of the best "twists" in this fairly by-the-numbers action adventure yarn. There are a couple other minor surprises, but it mostly follows the film-by-numbers to the letter.
Not that it is a knock on it...Darkness is a rollicking good time with plenty of violence, intriguing characters, a mystery that, even if you figure it out the first time the villain and/or anti-heroes come on screen, is still fun to watch get where it is going.
When Emma Craven (Bojana Novakocik) is shot down in front of Detective Thomas Craven (Mel Gibson), it sets him on an investigation that will lead to the halls of Congress, the headquarters of major corporations, and points in between.
Along the way he has some fascinating interplay with Jedburgh (Ray Winstone), the mysterious enforcer-for-hire who takes an interest in preventing Craven from ever discovering the truth.
As the body count rises, it seems everyone who could help Craven turns up dead, yet he relentlessly draws closer and closer to finding out the truth of who was responsible for the death of his daughter. Can he find the answer before he is killed himself?
The answer is mildly surprising, but the trip is what is really entertaining.

If you like action-adventure movies, this is an excellent diversion for a few hours. Winstone is perfection in his role and is perhaps the most well-developed character along the way. If you are surprised that Senator Jim Pine is represented as a Republican you have no concept of the American political scene. If the bad guys being who they are surprises you...well, again, wake up and smell the smoke stacks, my friends.
In the end, it is an entertaining 1:48 and worth seeing on a matinee...or at least on Netflix.