Friday, May 25, 2012

Movie Review: "Men in Black 3"

Agents J and K return for this third outing in the Men in Black franchise.  While Men in Black 3 does not feel warranted, it's a harmless enough movie that somewhat makes up for the horrendous Men in Black 2.

When an alien named Boris escapes from a prison on the moon, he travels back in time and erases K from modern existence, with J being the only person remembering K.  Like Back to the Future, J must travel back in time to save K, and alas this is all you need to know about Men in Black 3.

There really isn't much more depth to this movie, and there are many plot holes to the time travel presented here.  Why is J the only one that remembers K?  Sure, they say that's because he was there in the past when what happened to K happened, but it still makes little logical sense.  Time travel is tricky, and if you can't iron out the holes, perhaps it's best not attempted.  Even still, it gives us the joy of seeing Josh Brolin play a young Tommy Lee Jones as Agent K in 1969.  What's most impressive is that Brolin actually manages to make the character his own, while still honoring Tommy Lee Jones, and in many ways he's actually more charismatic and more likable as the character.  As for Will Smith, his schtick is starting to get a touch old, with a few too many wisecracks that don't really hit their mark, as well, the action is fairly trite and uninspired.  Even with all this said, it's still a mildly entertaining film (key word:  mildly).

The jokes regarding Andy Warhol and Mic Jagger are spot on, the character of Griffin the alien who can see all possible futures is original and is the highlight of the film thanks to the humor he evokes, not to mention the fact that the ending is actually quite emotional and feels earned.  However, none of this really answers the question as to why this movie exists in the first place.  While the first Men in Black was fairly good, the second one wasn't, and it's simply because the characters of J and K were so one note to begin with, there wasn't much more room to go.  While the characters don't get many new layers in Men in Black 3, they get just enough to make this movie watchable, especially if you have an affinity for the original, such as myself, and if you don't, this one's going to do nothing for you.

I give Men in Black 3 a D-

Movie Review: "The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel"

Director John Madden's The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is more than just a film with a lengthy title, but rather a film about second chances at life.  A group of British senior citizens, who are all at a crossroads in life, move to India, to stay at what appears to be the greatest resort India has to offer, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, until they actually get there and realize that the future is never what you think it will be.  The true joy of this film is seeing the perennial who's who of British actors play off of one another, from the exemplary Judi Dench, who anchors the entire movie, to Maggie Smith, Tom Wilkinson, and Bill Nighy, all in tip top shape.  The film is charming because of these actors' performances, and it's what makes this film worth watching.  By having to juggle so many characters and storylines, director John Madden has his hands full and does more than a capable job, taking enough time with each character to flesh out their stories.  While The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel is not a groundbreaking film that will have you singing its praises for years to come, it's moving and highly enjoyable, with a smile on your face at the end that cannot be wiped away.  It's solidly made entertainment.

I give The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel an A

Friday, May 11, 2012

Movie Review: "Dark Shadows"

Far from a great film. 
Number one rule if you're doing a remake, have a reason for doing it.  Second rule of doing a remake, if you're going to change the style and tone of the series that you're remaking, then have a reason for doing it as well.  Unfortunately for Tim Burton's remake of the 1960's cult classic vampire soap opera, Dark Shadows, he breaks both of these roles. 

In another collaboration with Burton, Johnny Depp portrays Barnabas Collins, a 1700's man who wronged an evil witch, and is now cursed to live eternity as a vampire.  Where the movie falls apart is when Barnabas is unearthed in 1960's America, where he reunites with his modern day ancestors at their ancestral home in Maine.  Seeing as how this happens about ten minutes into the movie, you can see my problem. 

Here's why Dark Shadows does not succeed.  Unlike the 1960's TV show it's remaking, it's intentionally trying to be funny.  The original show was campy, but it was because they did not have the money to pull off what they were trying to do, so it often came across as unintentionally funny.  What this movie does, is it turns Barnabas' quest of trying to rebuild the family's shipping empire while having a showdown with the witch that cursed him, into a grand farce.  It's a movie that's cracking jokes around every turn, not interested in delivering a fun supernatural adventure, but in trying to be something that the original never was.  Now, would I be so negative if the movie actually was funny?  Probably not, but the thing is, the movie isn't funny.

Featuring countless jokes about 1960's counter culture, such as hippies, the jokes just aren't funny.  Rather than being clever, the movie reverts to innuendos and humor we've seen countless times before.  I seriously would have enjoyed this story so much more if it was just played straight, and let humor be evoked through the absurdity of seeing supernatural beings battle one another, rather than intentionally trying to create that wink-wink, nudge-nudge form of comedy.  Honestly, the only ray of shining light is the hauntingly beautiful, and colorful lensing of the cinematography by Bruno Delbonnel.

I give Dark Shadows an F

Friday, May 4, 2012

Movie Review: "The Avengers"

Imagine taking only the best parts of each individual Marvel superhero movie, and then putting them all into one movie.  That is Marvel's The Avengers, the first ever superhero cross-over movie.

In The Avengers, Thor's brother Loki comes to Earth, seeking a cosmic cube known as the Tesseract, which acts as a doorway between realms of reality.  Loki steals the cube to unleash an alien army, bent on trying to take over the world, and the Earth's Mightiest Heroes:  Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, and the Hulk, must unite to stop him as The Avengers.

It's a simple plot, and writer/director Joss Whedon doesn't try to make it any more complex than it needs to be, because he would rather shift the focus to bringing the characters together and giving each character significant development.  That is what is so spectacular about The Avengers, it is like the superhero equivalent of Seven Samurai or The Magnificent Seven.  Evil bandits (aliens) are going to attack a town (Earth) and the town must recruit a series of defenders (The Avengers) to protect them when the attack comes.  What separates The Avengers from other superhero movies though, is the fact that it is bringing together Robert Downey, Jr.'s Iron Man with Samuel L. Jackson's Nick Fury, Chris Hemsworth's Thor, and Chris Evan's Captain America.

The movie gives each character an equal amount of the spotlight, allowing each individual character a moment to shine, and shows an arc for each character as the movie progresses.  Whether it is Iron Man realizing that a true hero must be selfless and not self-obsessed, or Captain America realizing that his blind faith in the government is not always the right way.  Joss Whedon deserves huge kudos for making this all work, with a sizzling script that is clever and witty, and a great directorial hand coming up with comic book panel-style shot designs, the movie excels from start to finish.  And the action, if you want explosions, The Avengers has them, and plenty of them, but to be honest, I was most enthralled by the moments when the characters were in a room talking, arguing, and revealing backstories about one another.

The dialogue was so crisp, and the acting so marvelous, with a surprising turn by Scarlett Johanson as SHIELD spy, Black Widow, The Avengers is never boring, even when there is no physical explosions to be seen, but rather explosions between the character relationships.  Most importantly though, the movie speaks the message of unity, of disparate people having to come together and set aside their differences to fight a common threat, and there is no greater message that can be delivered to today's children with this movie.

By the end of The Avengers, there is a realization that superhero movies have forever been changed.  Never has a superhero movie been made on such a large scale and been successful.  As great as Joss Whedon and all of the actors are -- in particular my favorite performance being Chris Evans as Captain America -- the real winners are Marvel Studios.  No movie studio has ever rolled the dice this big on a series of movies.  They made five individual movies that all come to a head with this one, gigantic epic, and the pay-off is more than worth it, not just making this the best Marvel Studios production since they  started with Iron Man in 2008, but it's one of the best superhero movies in general.  This is Marvel's finest hour.  Avengers Assemble!!!

I give The Avengers an A+++!!!

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Top 10: Performances in Superhero Movies

Tis the week of The Avengers, quite possibly the most ambitious superhero movie ever made, and this post just so happens to be another in the series of posts I've been doing over the past week inspired or in honor of the release of The Avengers this Friday, May 4th.  Early reviews are ecstatic, fanboy anticipation is high, and I myself am starting to get antsy with anticipation.  Summer is about to officially kick off, and I couldn't be more excited.  My favorite moviegoing experiences typically come during the Summer months (May-August), and aside from Oscar season, this is the best time to be a movie fan each and every year.  So, in honor of the release of The Avengers, I've decided to list what I believe the ten best performances by an actor in a superhero movie are.  Like all lists, this all totally subjective, but hopefully your favorites will have wound up on here.  Now, here's the criteria, the movie had to be released theatrically, because there are many straight to DVD superhero movies out there.  So, without further ado, the Top 10 Performances in Superhero Movies:

10.  Josh Pais, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
I have always loved this movie, and for me, I greatly admire the folks who can get inside a costume, like the ones Jim Henson studios designed for this movie, and be able to kick, punch, and deliver an emotional performance while under all that foam rubber.  Josh Pais' performance as Raphael is the center of this film, with his character being the one disobeying Master Splinter, questioning Leonardo's leadership, and ultimately forming the emotional spine of the movie by changing from punk to family turtle.  A performance of teenage angst can't be done much better than what Pais did here.  Sure, you never see his face, but the vocal performance and the physical actions Pais does under the suit relays just as much, if not more, than facial expressions can.

9.  Robert Downey, Jr., Iron Man
To say that Iron Man would not be the same movie without Robert Downey, Jr., would be an accurate statement.  He is this movie.  No other actor in a superhero movie has been more crucial to their individual movie's success than Downey's performance in this film.  On paper, Iron Man is a fairly by the numbers superhero origin story that had been told to death in stuff like Spider-Man and Batman Begins, but what made Iron Man different and fresh, was that Downey, Jr., was perfectly cast as narcissistic Tony Stark.  He played the cynical bad boy with a heart of gold to such crisp perfection, any predictability in the plot was forgiven because he was just so much fun to watch onscreen.  Not to mention he was emotionally vulnerable in the scene when he describes to Pepper why he must destroy the Stark weapons that have fallen into terrorist's hands.  A bravura performance if there is such a thing.

8.  Michael Chiklis, Fantastic Four
Okay, I have a feeling that I am going to get flamed for this one, but I don't care.  Now, I know Fantastic Four is hated by many, but I have gone on record as saying I have a soft spot for the movie.  It may not be a perfect adaptation, but as an entertainment it can't get much more enjoyable, and Chiklis' peformance as the blue-eyed Thing is the greatest thing about the movie.  Not only was the make-up work well done, but he captured the emotional state of Ben Grimm perfectly when he turned into his rocky alter ego, the Thing.  Chiklis captured the gruffness of the Thing from the comic books, while highlighting his soft heart, such as when his fiance breaks up with him.  Even through all of that prosthetic latex, his performance still came through, and you feel his sadness and anger when he sees what he has turned into and when Reed cannot turn him back to normal.

7.  J.K. Simmons, Spider-Man 2
After seeing J.K. Simmons as Daily Bugle editor, J. Jonah Jameson, I will be so sad whenever he is recast for a future Spider-Man movie.  He was the J. Jonah Jameson from the comics.  From the pitch perfect work of the make-up and costuming departments, making him look just like JJ from the comics, to the expert writing that gave Simmons all of the JJ-esque quips that he says.  Of course, it's how Simmons plays the part, with his hurried, brusk tone, that makes him the voice I hear in my head for J. Jonah Jameson whenever I read the comics.  Just perfect casting.

6.  Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight
In terms of villain performances, it does not get much better than this.  Heath Ledger gave his all with the Joker, and his performance was so groundbreaking, it is the only performance from a superhero film to win an Academy Award.  Ledger embodied the dark humor, and anarchic spirit of the Joker so well, the first time you saw him onscreen, you felt as if the Joker had walked out of the comic books.  What Ledger did, he created a character that had no rules, who was incredibly smart, and incredibly complex.  You never knew what he was thinking, and yet Ledger held nothing back, going all out with physical actions and over-the-top dialogue inflections, and that was what made his portrayal so much fun.  Not to mention, the fact that he was downright scary, while funny at the same time.

5.  Michael Caine, Batman Begins
As Alfred Pennyworth, Michael Caine gave one of his more affecting performances in the last decade.  His dry sense of humor, coupled with his fatherly touch, make him the most likable character in the movie.  In essence, Michael Caine was playing himself, and in some ways, for a consummate actor used to being a chameleon, like Michael Caine, that can be the hardest thing to do, and he did it beautifully.  Hey, even without the mustache that Alfred has in the comic books, Caine embodies the spirit of the character to perfection.  Not to mention, I am just a huge fan of Michael Caine.

4.  Christian Bale, Batman Begins
I favor Christian Bale's performance as Bruce Wayne/Batman in Batman Begins over The Dark Knight because I feel he had more to play with in his first outing as the Batman.  The Dark Knight was an ensemble piece, where as Batman Begins was a character driven story, driven by Bale's performance.  Bale had to embrace Bruce's fears and insecurities, his lust for vengeance, and his ultimate realization that justice and revenge are not the same.  Bale conveys this character arc perfectly in his performance.  As well, when he is playing Bruce in his playboy persona, it is hilarious, I mean the way he buys the hotel is just priceless.  To go from that to being the fractured soul of the ordinary Bruce Wayne, and then turning up his inner Clint Eastwood when in the Batman costume, how can anyone not find this performance astonishing.

3.  Tobey Maguire, Spider-Man
For me, Maguire's work as Peter Parker/Spider-Man in the original Sam Raimi film is the quintessential Spider-Man portrayal.  What Maguire did was he geeked it up.  He made Peter Parker a geeky teen who talked real fast when it came to science, yet he was awkward when around girls, often stumbling around words, and yet when he became Spidey he was a confident smart mouth.  He managed to play all aspects of the character, tying them together with an emotional unity that keeps them feeling as if they're all parts of the same character, rather than separate characters.  Maguire does this by letting the relationships of Peter Parker drive his actions.  No matter what incarnation of the character he is playing, Maguire plays his love for Mary Jane the same, even if he is more confident in costume and more bumbling when not, the emotion in his voice and his face tie it all together.

2.  Christopher Reeve, Superman:  The Movie
Christopher Reeve was Superman.  He was charming when wearing the cape, and absolutely hilarious when he was bumbling around under those horn-rimmed glasses.  What makes Reeve's work stand out is that he took it all seriously.  He never saw Superman as a simple, two-dimensional character.  He saw him as a moralistic man, who was from another planet, but was raised to be an emotional being capable of finding and losing love.  His emotions drive him at the end of the movie to turn back time to bring Lois Lane back to life, and the sheer anguish that Reeve's face conveys when he cries is heartbreaking.  However, more so than perhaps any other performance on this list, when you go back and watch Christopher Reeve as Superman, you actually believe he could have been the genuine article from the comics.  He made you believe a man could fly.

1.  Gary Oldman, The Dark Knight
I know, how many spots can I give away to performances from Christopher Nolan's Batman movies, but let's face it, these are about the best superhero movies there are, and a large part of that is due to Gary Oldman's work in both films, in particular The Dark Knight.  I love Oldman's work as Jim Gordon in this movie so much.  First off, Oldman is a chameleon who is different in each and every film, and to see him as a Russian terrorist in Air Force One and then as an idealistic police commissioner in The Dark Knight only helps to show his massive range as an actor.  I feel Oldman's performance in this particular film is the strongest out of the entire ensemble, even stronger than Ledger's work, and it is because Oldman's performance is so electric, it becomes the heart of the movie.  The world weariness that he brings to the role is perfect, and he only gets more tired down before the movie is over.  Out of all the characters ravaged by the Joker, he has the most to lose, as is evidenced when Two-Face is manipulated by the Joker and kidnaps Gordon's family.  Oldman plays the family man pushed to his limits so well, you break apart when he does in that scene where a gun is held to his son's head.  As well, who can forget that marvelous monologue he delivers at the end of the film?  That ending still sends shivers down my spine.