Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Halfway Point

So here we are, the halfway point of any given year is always an odd time. There is that sense of where has six months already gone, while there is also that sense that it is only six months away from a new year and a new beginning for film. This post here is not to simply give a full summation of the first half of 2011, but to also highlight some films coming out over the next six months that I think have potential to be some of the best of 2011. So let's get going.

Now, I don't see every movie that comes out in theaters, nor do I pretend to, but I have seen at least 90% of the major releases so far this year, and the output as of this point has been mediocre at best. There have been a few stinkers, a slew of so-so entertainments, and only one movie that I would actually go on record as calling fantastic. This past six months of moviegoing has been a wasted exercise, with many movies that were heavily hyped failing to deliver. Alas, all we can do is reflect and look forward to the coming six months and hope that they have more to offer.

As it is, the first six months of a year are always slower than the last six months in terms of film output, but the biggest disappointment was May and June. You don't usually expect May or June to be bum months at the movies, so when May and June don't really deliver on the must see entertainment fields of war, it's sad. The thing is, there has yet to be a must see movie this entire year, so far, a movie that I felt that everyone I know must see or else they'll be missing out. X-Men: First Class came close, but there has been nothing as of right now like Avatar or The Dark Knight, that is a movie that you must see in order to keep up with the conversation. However, to be fair, there are six months of film left in this year.

The next six months seem brighter, and we don't have to look that far to see if the second half of 2011 will be better than the first half, since July starts tomorrow! July will bring the conclusion to the Harry Potter franchise, while giving us The First Avenger: Captain America (which has been shaping up nicely thanks to trailers and promotions) and ending with Cowboys & Aliens, which I am still on the fence as to whether or not it will be any good, but the premise is intriguing and I love the stars (in particular Harrison Ford). Looking at the way July plays out, there is at least one major release per week worth seeing.

August kicks off with the final big budget blockbuster of the Summer, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which I think looks like an insanely good time at the movies. Other than that, aside from a few prestige films, like The Help and Lone Scherfig's follow-up to An Education, One Day, August is a dry spell. September will see the sequel to one of my favorite comedies of all-time, Johnny English Reborn, whether or not it's good, I don't really care. Then, the release of the Cannes' hit, Drive, which is a genre exercise that managed to find critical appeal, which is odd for a car chase movie about a Hollywood stuntman who moonlights as a getaway driver. It could be an early Oscar flick, or it could just be a lot of fun, but the talents of Ryan Gosling and Carey Mulligan are enough to make this one movie worth looking forward to.

Then, October tries to bring back a little of the blockbuster edge lost at the end of Summer with three movies: Real Steel, The Thing, and The Three Musketeers. Up first is Real Steel, which is essentially a rock 'em, sock 'em robots movie, but the movie looks incredibly awesome, with hints at an emotional story tied in with this tale that is hinting at some of the finer effects work of the year. Then, there is the remake of The Thing. Obviously an attempt to create some scares in October, whether or not it will be a worthy remake, I don't know, but there isn't much else to watch. Finally, there's Paul W.S. Anderson's take on the Dumas' classic, The Three Musketeers. The story seems to be taking a few liberties from the source material, but the action has been so ratcheted up from any other adaptation I have ever seen, I don't think I'll really care.

Finally we reach November, when the movie season gets interesting, with the combination of the big budget Holiday blockbusters and the movies vying for Oscar attention. Aardman Animations, the creators of Chicken Run, are giving us the story of Santa Claus's son, Arthur, in Arthur Christmas, which looks to be a fun and entertaining Christmas flick, while director Tarsem makes his first movie since the cinematic masterpiece, The Fall, with the Immortals. I don't know whether or not another Greek epic was what is needed, but Tarsem is a visual maestro, so it should at least be enjoyable to look at. Then, there is the Oscar contender, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, which could finally do something for Gary Oldman in the Oscar race. Think about it, a movie based off of a popular intelligence novel from the 1970s, with a highly respectable cast and crew, this could be one to watch. Then, there is Scorsese's adaptation of The Invention of Hugo Cabret, a kid's book classic that is actually one of my favorite books period, detailing a fictionalized idea of the early days of cinema while combining that with a rip-roaring children's mystery adventure. A kid's movie from Scorsese, for the first time since The Age of Innocence I can watch one of his flicks without hearing the f'bomb every other word. Finally, there is The Muppets. Their long awaited return to the big screen comes courtesy of Jason Segel, who is a Muppet fanboy, but the songs from Flight of the Conchords, Brett McKenzie are what has me most excited.

December will bring about the final push towards Oscar season, and I personally cannot get excited for David Fincher's remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. The source material has never appealed to me, so this movie doesn't seem to be doing anything for me. With that said, there are a few sequels coming out that have some promise. First up, is Guy Ritchie's follow-up to Sherlock Holmes, which was an honest to goodness surprise in 2009, a movie I ranked as my 8th favorite movie of that year, then there is The Incredibles director Brad Bird making his first foray into live action with Mission Impossible-Ghost Protocol. I have actually dug all of the Mission Impossible movies, and with J.J. Abrams still acting as producer, and Brad Bird's already proven track record as a storyteller, this should be one worth seeing.

Then the year ends with two big Christmas presents for a Spielberg fan, two Steven Spielberg movies within two weeks! First up is the motion capture adventure, The Adventures of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn. Produced by Peter Jackson, directed by Spielberg, and a feel of adventure that most of Spielberg's movies since the 80s have lacked, make this one to look out for. And finally, Spielberg makes another play at his third Oscar with War Horse, an adaptation of the Tony winning play and popular children's book classic. The cinematography looks stunning, and the story just screams Spielberg. This may just be the movie I am most looking forward to for the rest of the year. So here's the trailer:

While it is only the halfway point, here is hoping that 2011 will get much better from here on out. If any of the movies that I have talked about above though succeed, then there should not be any worrying.

[P.S. For a complete rundown of the ratings of every movie I have seen this year, check 'em out in order from ratings A-F:
X-Men: First Class - A+
The Tree of Life - A-
Rango - B+
The Adjustment Bureau - B
Midnight in Paris - B-
Super 8 - C+
Kung Fu Panda 2 - C
Thor - D+
Green Lantern - F
Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides - F
and Gnomeo & Juliet - F]

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Movie Review: "The Tree of Life"

If film could be poetry, then Terrence Malick's film, The Tree of Life, is one such film. The Tree of Life is a non-linear, visual experiment of a film that jumps around in the life of a small town American family, in particular their eldest son, Jack, from childhood to manhood. Through the eyes of Jack, Malick takes interludes into outer space, microscopic surroundings, and all the way to the dinosaur days, to explore greater ideas such as the creation of the universe and religion, tying them into Jack's arc of slowly discovering the world around him, through his strict father, brushes with death, rebellion, and angst. Simply, The Tree of Life is a metaphysical journey that makes the viewer think, reflect, and remember, and not many films are special enough to say that.

The imagery that Malick and cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, concoct is so lush and filled with details, that each shot, from cut to cut, requires thought as to the symbolic meaning of what that shot means and what is its purpose at that moment in the story. The film often has moments with odd jump cuts that displace one from the moment, as well as some quick cutting from luscious image to luscious image, often not allowing the viewer to drink the images in long enough to even attempt to figure out the symbolic impact. In all actuality, only one man truly knows what this all means, and it is writer/director Terrence Malick. This is a film that shows how he views life, and how he feels we should view life.

The film opens with a bible verse from the Book of Job, constantly referencing back to Job's story throughout the film, of how every bad thing imaginable happens to one man, and yet he still manages to praise God. The Tree of Life shows life as it is, thanks to the experiences of Jack and his family, and it makes a viewer question why bad things often happen. Malick chooses not to answer that question, for that is not his place to tell us, but he does tell the viewer that through love and grace is the only way to have life, so it is through love and grace that we should live.

I give The Tree of Life an A-!

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Movie Review: "Midnight in Paris"

Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris is a decidedly simple story of fantasy and romance in Paris. When the clock chimes midnight in Paris, a writer with writer's block, witnesses the city turn into 1920's Paris right before his eyes, meeting F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, Ernest Hemingway, and many other prominent artists from the era. Owen Wilson plays writer Gil Pender with charm and wit; the whole movie is filled with the same amount of charm and wit, as Gil, tired of writing Hollywood movies, wants to be a real writer, while his fiance, played by Rachel McAdams, is about as opposite of a girl from Gil as any guy could imagine dating. What Gil finds when he travels back in time isn't just the key to unlocking his own writer's block, but potentially true love when he meets flapper, Adriana, played by Marion Cotillard. The charm of the story really lies in the segments taking place in the past, and most of the good humor comes in the modern day scenes when Gil tries to cover up where he is going each night. While no explanation is given as to how or why this time travel works, the charm overpowers the questions as to how and why (though these questions never leave the back of the mind either). As it is, without the occasional interlude into unnecessary politics, Woody Allen has written and directed an old fashioned fairy tale bridging modern day with that of the past, and what one can learn about their own time and appreciation of it through nostalgia. Like the romantics, it is straightforward. Is it too straightforward? Sometimes, but not enough to keep Midnight in Paris from being entertaining.

I give Midnight in Paris a B-!

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Movie Review: "Green Lantern"

(To preface this, I am a Green Lantern fan, and have been for as long as I have read comic books, so on with the review.)

Some movies are made just to sell toys, and this is one of them. Underdeveloped characters, underdeveloped relationships, gaping plot holes, and a movie in a bad need of a good rewrite, plague DC Comics first cinematic foray outside the Batman-Superman franchises, making Green Lantern possibly the last DC movie other than Batman or Superman we will see for a while.

The Green Lanterns are intergalactic police officers, and Earthling Hal Jordan just so happens to be the first human chosen to join their ranks, but alas an evil is brewing in the farthest reaches of space, and Hal must learn how to master his newfound powers, or else... You probably know what will happen next.

Green Lantern
wants to adhere to the superhero movie formula, but it does so with little charm, little wit, and not a lot in terms of flow from one scene to the other. Not to mention, characters come and go with no sense of where they came from or where they went when not onscreen. Should we care about Peter Sarsgaard's villain, Hector Hammond? His character is not even introduced till the second act and by then it is like, "Who is this guy, and why should I care when he becomes the psychotic villain?" Then there is star, Ryan Reynolds, who obviously cared about the source material, giving Hal Jordan his all, but when you're in a movie that simply wants to try and get to the next action set piece as fast as possible so that they can satisfy the seven-year-old who is going to buy the toys, it is hard to have much to toy with (like that pun?). The action is impressive, but when the story is just a bullet point, cliff note version of the larger, more expansive mythology that this comic book character boasts, one can see why Green Lantern suffers in translation.

I give Green Lantern an F!

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Movie Reviews: "Kung Fu Panda 2" and "Super 8"

Movie Review: Kung Fu Panda 2

Who am I? Kung Fu Panda 2 is about a panda with an identity crisis. Po, our hero (voiced by Jack Black), has mastered the art of kung fu, but when his father (a goose) reveals he isn't really Po's father (I know, shocker, right?), Po begins to wonder who he truly is. All the while Po has dreams of what he believes to be his real parents, and a peacock who haunts the darkness in the midst of flames.

Kung Fu Panda 2
is a character piece, that has some astonishing action set pieces, both highly creative and well choreographed with the camera, a rarity in this day and age of confusing whiz-bang action. The villainous peacock, Shen (voiced malevolently by Gary Oldman), has deep ties to Po's past, making him a villain that seems more menacing than your average, "I wanna take over the world," bad guy, even though he wants to do that too. No other character is ever given anytime to develop or grow further than what their archetype allows, which kind of echoes the overall sentiment. There is an attempt at depth to the story, but it is rushed at almost each attempt to reach the next cool action set piece. While the story and humor always works, the emotion is not always there. Perhaps if more time had been taken and certain things fleshed out, this would be more than an enjoyable kid's movie and be something more, regardless, the action and humor of Kung Fu Panda 2 charms the child inside.

I give Kung Fu Panda 2 a C!


Movie Review: Super 8

Small town America, the most unassuming place in the entire world for anything amazing or spectacular to happen, and yet it does in 1979 Lilian, Ohio. Super 8 is a fond throwback to the time that the filmmaker, J.J. Abrams, grew up in. A time running around with your friends making home movies, just when you started liking girls, and still at a time when you believed in the mysteries around us all.

Joe is our hero, a 12-year-old boy whose mother recently died. His father, a police deputy, has no idea how to relate to his son. Joe wants to help his best friend Charles finish his zombie movie, and it doesn't hurt that his crush, Alice, is the lead actress. Upon sneaking out one night to film a pivotal scene in Charles's movie, this lovable gang of pre-teens witness a train crash carrying a peculiar cargo, leading to the U.S. military's arrival in Lilian, along with a monster that starts wreaking havoc across the town.

Super 8 is a movie that wears its heart on its sleeve, and it is the better for it. So many monster movies fall in the B-movie tropes of forsaking any sort of character for the monster, and Super 8 is the other way around. In a way, this movie could have been made, and possibly have been better had it not been so focused on constantly trying to give us the monster thrills to make this a Summer blockbuster. The relationship between Joe and Alice develops nicely, and is just plain cute and authentic, with newcomer Joel Courtney and the other Fanning, Elle Fanning obviously having some sort of chemistry. The movie often stumbles when it tries to cut away from our young heroes, and focus on the adult perspective which is where majority of the exposition to the monster portion of the movie takes place, following Joe's dad as he tries to understand what is truly going on in Lilian.

J.J. Abrams' screenplay is exceedingly well written, with his dialogue mirroring almost any pre-teen boy or girl, and the characters seem to represent at least someone you knew at that age of innocence. Whether you were the quiet Joe, or the artistic and bossy Charles, or the pyromaniac Cary (who needs a whole bunch of Ritalin), these characters take the viewer back to their own Middle School days.

As pure entertainment, Super 8 excels, as a monster movie, it can stand proudly alongside many of the 1950s classics, but it lacked that special something that could have made it something more than a monster movie. That something was in there, but the monster overshadowed it. While the monster is incredibly cool, each time I saw it I just wanted to get back to Joe and see what was happening with him, Charles, and their friends making their movie, which is where the true heart of the story lies, and ultimately only three-fifths of the story takes place. Though it's easy to overlook when you have David Gallagher from 7th Heaven stealing the show as the pot dealer working at the local film developer.

I give Super 8 a C+!

Friday, June 3, 2011

Movie Review: "X-Men: First Class"

Forget the G-Men, these are the X-Men! Professor Charles Xavier and Erik Lensherr (a.k.a Professor X and Magneto, for those not in the know), meet and become friends, then tragedy corrupts their unique relationship when mankind refuses to accept them for what they are. As it is, there are always two sides to the same coin. Erik carries a Nazi coin the entire movie, a memento that helps him remember his mother's killer; a nice touch by way of screen storytelling, giving us viewers a visual cue to remember the character's emotional anguish of watching his mother gunned down before his eyes. However, the coin that Erik and Charles reside upon flips up into the air at the end of this film, but this is not about which side the coin lands, but how we get there.

X-Men: First Class details the days before the X-Men, the days before Charles and Erik were known as Professor X and Magneto. These were the days that Charles was a silver spoon playboy, who is compassionate, but may be too cocky for his own good. Compare that to Erik, who grew up in a Nazi concentration camp to watch a mutant named Sebastian Shaw murder his mother before his eyes. Now, as a young man, Erik scours the globe to avenge his mother's death and kill Shaw. Yes, this is the 1960s! The Cuban Missile Crisis! A time of great divide, and at a point in American history, right before everything just kinda goes South. Sebastian Shaw is manipulating the Russians and the U.S. to start World War III, and Charles is recruited by the CIA to help create a mutant division and stop this war. With Erik's help, Charles trains many young mutants to make up this team, from Mystique, to a personal favorite of mine, Beast.

There is a sophistication to X-Men: First Class. Director Matthew Vaughn evokes the visual style of 1960s pop art in his direction, using kinetic visuals and fanciful camera movements to create a sense of being lead through this world, but never feeling as if we're being pushed. Vaughn in particular should be commended for being able to balance the dual origins of Charles and Erik, as it takes nearly the first half hour to finally see these two meet. The first thirty minutes jet all the way from Oxford, England, to Vegas, to Switzerland, to Argentina, Germany, and Rochester, New York. There are tons of stamps on the suitcase within the first act alone, but Vaughn makes the transitions smooth and natural, a feat that is hard to explain in words, but makes the difference upon viewing the film.

With an arc of revenge, Michael Fassbender gets the meatiest role to play as Erik, but to say that James McAvoy does not succeed as Charles would be incorrect as well. To be honest, Erik is the scene stealer of the entire movie. This is Magneto as he has never been seen before. For once the viewer does not see Magneto as a manipulator of the plans, but actually use his powers in action, as a soldier, an action hero who must find a place between peace and anger in order to truly master his powers. Seeing Charles trying to teach Erik how to master his powers, shows how these two characters develop such a memorable friendship, keeping up the mantra of the entire movie. There is very little told, it is always shown to us, making X-Men: First Class a visual masterwork, and a joy for escapist popcorn entertainment with the action exhilarating, and all of the cast looking as if they had fun (especially Kevin Bacon, knocking villain, Sebastian Shaw, out of the park).

With that all said, X-Men: First Class all boils down to being comfortable in one's skin and how should someone different approach being different in normal society. Should they hide being a mutant, or should they have mutant pride? This question has been the foundation of nearly all of the X-Men films, so this may not be new territory, but the examination of how Charles and Erik become Professor X and Magneto, is what this movie is truly about. The journey these two men go on is exciting, beautiful, and heartbreaking, making X-Men: First Class must see entertainment.

I give X-Men: First Class an A+!

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Reboot-Mania! When will it end!?!

It is safe to say that the entertainment industry is obsessed with reboots. Almost every movie franchise is going to be or has been rebooted (Star Trek, Planet of the Apes, etc.), even television (with the new Hawaii Five-O and upcoming shows like Charlie's Angels), all the way to video games (with upcoming reboots of such storied franchises as Tomb Raider and Devil May Cry). Now, within the past few years we've seen the comic book industry get in on the action, with Marvel in essence rebooting Spider-man a few years back at the hands of Mephisto, and just the other day the news came from DC Comics that every character in the DC Universe is being reimagined and rebooted come September.

Unlike Marvel's Ultimates line, this will not be an alternate storyline that tries to give a more modernized take on these classic characters, it is just completely erasing over 75 years of history and starting anew. To be fair, this is not the first time DC has done such a thing. After the event, "Crisis on Infinite Earths," in the mid-'80s, all of DC's characters were rebooted then with new looks, new origin stories, and other changes. Now, they are doing the same thing again in 2011 with the event, "Flashpoint," presumably leading to this reboot. As much as I love comic books, I am baffled at this decision.

While DC sees this as the best solution to keep the stories fresh, creative, and interesting, I don't think younger versions of these classic characters, will in the long run, fix any of these problems. I mean, how long will it really take for DC to remarry Lois Lane and Superman (assuming they will be unmarried when Superman #1 hits shelves in Sept.)? One just has to look back 26 years when DC did this with, "Crisis on Infinite Earths," and they're doing it again, now. Now, the thing with reboots, in any medium, is that they are sometimes warranted, and sometimes are even good, but a reboot on this large of a scale just seems like a risky endeavor, and a poor idea in trying to boost sales.

While knocking each issue back to #1 is always a good idea to draw in new readers, if the new readers miss issue #1, they wont pick up #2, or #3, so on and so forth. Using the crutch that this will help create new readers is bogus. Sure, it may seem comforting at first no longer having to contend with 75 years of continuity in order to fully have a grasp on the story, but how much longer will it take to build up a new continuity that will scare off new readers two to three years down the road? The bottom line is, how will this change the characters we know and love?

When Marvel did something similar to Spider-man a few years back, it did in fact make his books more fun to read than they had been in over a decade, but can the same happen to DC, and will some characters be left in the cold? As it is, characters like Superman have had a real hard time remaining relevant within the past few decades, where as characters like Green Lantern and Batman are in what most would consider their Golden Ages (with Batman the best I think I've ever read it).

Ultimately, both the Green Lantern line of comics and the Batman line of comics, stand the most to lose from this change. So many good stories have happened to these characters just within the past five years, that not only forever changed these characters, but it actually worked in adding new layers to these characters and made them better than ever. With the return of the original Green Lantern, Hal Jordan, a Golden Age of Green Lantern stories started, and the stories are still super powerful month to month. Same for Batman, with Bruce Wayne having a son, then him dying, Dick Grayson becoming Batman and Bruce's son the new Robin, then Bruce comes back and founds Batman, Inc. (an idea to have multiple crimefighters around the world fighting under the Batman symbol). Even Wonder Woman and the Flash have had a renaissance of sorts in the past few years. With so much fresh storytelling going on in the DC Universe, why reboot?

It all seems to boil back to Superman. Currently a lawsuit is raging between DC and the estates of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster (the creators of Superman), over who actually owns the character of Superman. As it is, the lawsuit is working out in such a way that one side owns certain aspects of the character, while the other owns the rest. So for example, while Siegel and Shuster's estates may own the origin story, DC owns his power of flight, etc. Some have speculated that this reboot is merely to try and safeguard the character of Superman if such a split in rights does ultimately happen. While that may be part of it, seeing as how Supes is DC's flagship character, I don't think it's all.

As I mentioned earlier, Superman's comics have been stale for years, but I think it is not because he isn't relevant. Superman is about as relevant as he's ever going to get. As director Richard Donner said of the character, he is as American as Apple Pie, and that will never change, nor should it (I mean, no one's ever gonna make Captain America become Captain Earth, instead). So relevancy is not an issue, but rather I think it's the editors at DC being unwilling to try and find creative solutions to make the stories fresh. I mean, try something like Green Lantern or Batman did. Have a big, forever changing thing happen to the character that cannot be undone, like when he married Lois. Let him and Lois have a kid (if Batman can have one, and if any superhero should be a father, it should be Superman), I dunno, do something that will forever change the character but still keep his core intact and without erasing everything that has ever happened to him.

A similar approach could be made to all of the other DC heroes who have lost appeal over the years, all it would require is some work. In some cases, as mentioned earlier, a reboot can sometimes be good, and I wont say this new direction from DC will be flat out awful, it could be amazing. On the same side of things, reboots can often be warranted, with a franchise running its course, like Star Trek, and needing a shot in the arm and some reimaginging to keep it going. However, if the Green Lantern, Batman, Wonder Woman, or Flash comics have shown us anything in the past few years, is that these characters have not run their course yet, and that this reboot is simply a cop out by DC in order to keep from having to be as creative as they were when they reinvigorated all of these other heroes. We'll see when September rolls around if DC's gameplan works, but for now, here is a look at the redesigned Justice League: