Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Summer Movie Stuff

So the Summer is half over and the usual bunch crap has been dumped out for the movie going public to sit through because hey, it's hot outside. And like the rest of you I've sat through my share of dross. For no purpose other than to vent my spleen ( I have to vent it occasionally or it explodes and makes a big mess) here are my utterly valueless thoughts on what I've seen so far this summer...By the way, these are just Chock a Block with spoilers, so if you still want to see any of these and you dont wanna know, stop reading now...Seriously...Right now

X Men : The Last Stand- So Bryan Singer makes the first 2 X Men movies, and they are generally well-written, and while the action in them is good (particularly in the second) what really makes them work are the way the characters are handled. Yes, they are from a comic book, but Singer never makes them cardboard. They are real people, all with their own issues, flaws, prejudices. They just happen to have these powers which, for the most part only add to their problems. They make them different, and we all know how well people with differences are tolerated

It's clear where we're going from the first scene in the Original X Men Movie. In the Warsaw Ghetto of World War II, 13 year old Eric Lehnsherr is being separated from his family who are being put on the trains for the concentration camps. As he is being dragged away by Nazi soldiers, he reaches out towards his parents and the fences between them begin to buckle and collapse, and only a rifle butt to young Eric's head keeps them from being destroyed completely...Eric grows up to be Magneto, and he's the VILLAIN of the piece

This scene signaled that this wasn't going to be just another comic book movie (and by the way, most people who use the term comic book dismissively haven't actually read one in the past 3 decades. Some of the best writing I've seen is going on in so-called comic books, courtesy of the likes of Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Frank Miller, Judd Winick, and Kevin Smith...yes, THAT Kevin Smith, about whom more later).

I wish there was something in the 3rd installment of the series that came close to matching that one scene, but alas Bryan Singer apparently took all that good stuff with him when he decided not to carry on with the trilogy and took, what from all reports was an offer he couldn't refuse from Warner Bros. to resuscitate the Superman franchise (whether that proved to be a wise move, gentle readers, we shall see later).

X Men: The Last Stand is at its best during the many action sequences. It's good that it has a lot of them, because when it tries to tell a real story, it falls flat on its ass. And here's where Singer's touch is missing. The established characters seem to be phoning it in as if to say "I only signed on for 3 of these things, and this is the last one", the acting equivalent of a kid watching the clock on the last day of school before Summer. Sir Ian steals the movie yet again, but he doesn't have much in the way of competition this time. Jackman's Wolverine goes through the motions, but the edge is gone. Halle Berry, who apparently demanded her part be expanded or she wasn't going to do the film, needn't have bothered ( Geek Note: I always thought Angela Bassett would have made a much better Storm who, as the name tends to imply, is supposed to have power. Ms. Berry is just pretty, whereas Ms. Bassett would have been a badass) And Famke Janssen as Phoenix (the resurrected Dr. Jean Grey who it turns out , after 2 previous movies where it is never mentioned, has a split personality), who is a fine actress normally, lets the jaundiced makeup and contacts do most of the work for her. James Marsden doesn't get much chance to grow in the character of Cyclops because he gets killed off in the first half hour by the aforementioned Phoenix (probably as punishment for also following Bryan Singer to Metropolis). I missed Alan Cumming as Nightcrawler, and resented the substitution of Kelsey Grammer as the Beast (Apparently youre only allowed 2 blue mutants per movie, and since Rebecca Romijn is always one of them...) Anna Paquin as Rogue seems to have decided to get off this train too, although its just as well. They never knew what to do with her character after the first one, anyway.

And since there will no doubt be a mass defection of the principals after this movie (Don't let the "Last Stand" thing fool ya, they've left plenty of wiggle room for sequels, as evidenced by the tag after the closing credits. Have we learned nothing from Friday the 13th movies?) we are introduced to a whole new crop of mutants, bad and good (Remember, Bryan Singer's gone and there are no shades of gray here) Unfortunately they're not given enough to do so you can't tell whether they can carry a movie or not. Again lots of action...little character. You don't know these people because, unlike the first 2 films, these are Action Figures not realized characters. And the film is a lot like those games you played with them as a kid, only with better effects and waaaay more


The Movie does get bonus points, however, for discovering yet another use for CGI. In the opening sequence Patrick Stewart and Sir Ian McKellen, in a flashback, visit the Young Jean Grey. The two have had 20 years digitally knocked off of them, without ever having to go near a plastic surgeon. This means, of course, that we'll be seeing Sharon Stone's cooch for another few decades, but I guess you have to take the good with the bad...But we'll leave Basic Instinct 2 for someone with a stronger stomach.

The DaVinci Code: Didn't read the book. Don't really get the controversy. I'm just judging it as a movie, and as a movie...Well...About 20 minutes in, my body had its own review...I fell asleep. During my nap, I apparently missed 3 more murders, but I noticed that our heroes (Audrey Tautou and the Weirdly Haired Tom Hanks) weren't much further ahead from when I was awake, but Ian McKellen was there, and since he wasn't wearing a red cape this time, I felt safe in assuming that I hadn't woke up in the middle of X Men III again. The movie is confusing enough without having missed a good portion of it. Ron Howard and Akiva Goldsman have revived the trick they used in "A Beautiful Mind" of floating text magically rearranging itself into some pattern that is supposed to make sense...It doesnt , but its still a neat effect (and if I were them I wouldn't do it again). And Hanks looks tired in the movie, not exactly the attitude you want in a thriller (and possibly what led to my slumber...Sympathy Sleep). And the surprise ending is no big surprise even if you missed stuff...And the tag after the real climax doesnt make any sense, but there you go. It fits the rest of the movie perfectly in that respect. The pacing is sluggish (also not a big seller in a thriller) and the dialogue has to do a lot of work in getting the plot over and ends up sounding like a series of disconnected lectures. It could use a few more jokes too.

As for the plot points that have everybodys spiritual knickers in a twist, a couple of things:

1) Since when are the Gospels considered "history"?

2) For you to buy into the central conceit of this movie requires leaps of logic, coincidence, and credibility that even Superman couldn't make...Speaking of which...

Superman Returns: In 1932 a couple of bespectacled nerds ( the original comic book geeks) created a Pop Culture Icon, and a fantasy for every kid who ever got picked on for being different. After six years of trying they unwittingly sold the rights to said Icon for 132 bucks (They thought they were selling a story. They didnt realize they were selling the rights to the character as well. They were kids.)

Nearly 70 years later their creation, Superman, is back on the big screen for the 9th time (Yes, I can count. Take the Fleischer Cartoons as a body, and dont forget the 2 Kirk Alyn Serials and that Superman and the Mole Men, George Reeves debut in the role that made/doomed him, was a movie first...Geez... How geek defensive was that? ). Yes, Superman Returns and having seen the movie twice now (IMAX 3D and regular), I'm still not sure how I feel about that.

Here's the thing. I'm in the middle of writing a musical about Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the aforementioned bespectacled nerds, and I've been immersed in research about them, their creation, changes the character went through over the years, the various media versions...So for the past little while I've been totally swamped by the Superman Mythos. Therefore I feel I come to this discussion with some credentials, for lack of a better term.

I've been wrestling over my thoughts about this film for a while now, and they are a mixed bag to say the least. I guess its easiest to break it down into what I liked, and what I didnt like about it. The simplest ways are often the best

Like: The fact that the movie actually, finally, got made after being talked about for nearly 10 years. I'm also glad it wasn't made by Tim Burton, with Nicolas Cage in the lead.

Didn't Like: The almost slavish dedication to the Richard Donner films from the opening credits, to the attitude, to the look (mostly), to the end fly by (at least they didn't do the patented Chris Reeve smile at the camera, but I bet they wanted to). Yes, they were good (I say they in anticipation of the long awaited Richard Donner Cut of Superman II coming in November. To me the existing version has always looked like it was mashed together [the credited director being Richard Lester, who was brought on after Donner was fired, and did a lot of reshooting] with completely different visions of the material. So different, in fact, that you can pretty much go through the movie and tell which director did what scene.) but I think it was a mistake to make it a virtual sequel to Superman II (presumably the Donner Version) and not start over again a la Batman Begins. I know we dont need another version of the origin story, but a new approach wouldn't have been unwelcome.

Liked: That Jack Larson and Noel Neill actually got speaking parts in the movie (albeit small ones) and not just cutesy cameos. They've done their time for Big Blue and they deserved it.

Didn't Like: Kate Bosworth's Lois Lane. She's cute and all, but where was the spark, the fire, the (dare I say it?) spunk? I didn't buy her at all. There was no there, there. And considering it's supposed to be one of the great romances in pop culture, that's kind of a big thing.

Liked: Brandon Routh's Clark Kent. Yes, it was a virtual Chris Reeve impression, but it had its own little tics and foibles. (By the way, much was made about how much he looks like Reeve, which didn't floor me nearly as much as how much he SOUNDS like Reeve.)

Didn't Like: Brandon Routh's Superman. Here's where Routh and Reeve part ways. How do you play an all powerful being who at his core has to be not only human, but humanity at its best (even though hes an alien)? Reeve was confident, but not cocky. Sincere without being a goody two shoes (... he looks at Lois underwear, fer cryin out loud, and probably had before she asked the question...and she's embarrassed, he's not) Superior without being smug. He knows what he is, what he can do, and he's only here to help. You believe him when he says with a completely straight face (and despite the whole double life thing) "I never lie". And, maybe most importantly, Reeve's Superman has a sense of humor. The most you can say about Brandon Routh's take on the Man of Steel is that he's stoic. He takes his job way too seriously, so much so that when he tries to pull off one of the signature lines from the first movie ("I hope this little incident hasn't put you off flying. Statistically its still the safest form of travel") It falls flat. I'm not ragging on the poor guy, though. It's a hard part to get right. Hell, only one actor has been able to pull it off so far. 9-1 are pretty long odds. Also the new suit doesn't help...The rubber/leather wear look is more suitable for fetishism than heroics, and the S is too small.

Liked: Kevin Spacey's Lex Luthor. He brought something to the role that no other actor, save John Shea in "Lois and Clark" has. Danger. Gene Hackman was having way too much fun., Michael Rosenbaum (Smallville) has yet to scare me, but Spacey's Luthor is funny, brilliant, and teetering on the brink of insanity. Now if we could just get rid of the lousy sidekicks... (Sorry, Parker).

Didn't Like: The Fact that Lex Luthor is the only Superman villain deemed worthy of screentime. I have one word for the producers of the presumed sequel (although until the domestic grosses hit 200 million, that isn't a given). Brainiac. Take a look at "Superman: The Animated Series". You'll see what I mean.

Liked: The Effects. Absolutely Amazing. This time I believed a man was flying.

Didn't Like: Superman's powers have gotten way out of hand. In his original incarnation Superman could jump over buildings, lift cars, and "nothing less than a bursting shell could pierce his tough skin". I'll accept flight as a substitute for jumping around like a grasshopper. Strength, sure. Near invulnerability, fine. But He Lifts a Freaking Island out of the Ocean and flies it out into Space!! C'mon, guys...I think his powers need a serious ramping down. That's why they've always had trouble finding decent villains with credible threats. And while were on the subject of threats, Can we get together on what Kryptonite actually does or doesn't do to him? It seems to be pretty flexible in terms of how long and how much damage. Hmmm? Can we get a standard here? Please?

Liked: Sam Huntington as Jimmy Olsen, although for the life of me I don't know why.

Didn't Like: Bryan Singer's lack of a personal vision. While I think he is a very talented director with a proven track record, his biggest mistake on this movie was letting another director's previous interpretation dominate. I would rather see Bryan Singer's Superman than Bryan Singer's continuation/vindication of Richard Donner's Superman. That decision comes at the expense of what Singer's great strength as a director is, and that's character. It's not here, particularly with the principals. What's missing in "Superman Returns" is Superman. Unlike Singer's X Men movies, we get no sense of who this guy is, what he thinks, what he wants...except in one moment, where he tries to show Lois how he sees the world...but can't really communicate it because it hasn't been set up properly. Maybe Singer's just tired of superhero movies and wants to go back to neo noir, or something new. But there's a disconnect here that throws the whole movie off kilter, and despite some great moments, the whole doesn't come together.

And don't get me started on the kid...

Art School Confidential : If you saw Ghost World, (and who didn't?... Okay...Never mind) there are a number of scenes where Thora Birch is forced to attend a Summer School art class. Art School Confidential is essentially those scenes expanded into a 90 some odd minute movie. And why not ? Same Writer and Director, right? Well, yeah...except there's nothing new here. It's merely cliché heaped on cliché . The Moral of the story is that most people who call themselves artists are talentless hacks, and most real artists can't get anywhere because of them, and the people who run the art scene wouldn't know real talent if it bit them in the ass. Get it? Got it? Good...Moving right along.

Clerks 2: You get the sense that Kevin Smith really wants to grow up, but he's got this fan base that is totally content with dick and cum jokes. So that's what he gives them. He tried to make a straight movie and was roundly slapped for his troubles. Despite what you may have heard, and apparently more people heard about Jersey Girl than actually saw it, it is a decent movie with a heart. It's just not Clerks. And unless there's a connection to Clerks (i.e. Jay and Silent Bob) the fanboys just dont wanna know. So after getting beaten up for Jersey Girl, and withdrawing from "The Green Hornet", which he was to write and direct (and which I secretly hope he still does) he decided to go back to square one and make Clerks 2

Smith had talked about doing a Clerks 2 for a long time prior to actually doing it but I get the impression that it was always a fallback position. But then he made the mistake of saying that "Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back" would be the last appearance of everyone's favorite hetero lifemate dope dealers. As Sean Connery could have told him "Never Say Never Again".

This preamble sounds like I'm going to slam the movie, but I actually liked Clerks 2. Yes, it's familiar territory. Yes, the dick and cum jokes are back galore. Yes, Jay and Silent Bob dealing again (although Jay has apparently found Jesus...And he got Mary Magdalene knocked up...Oops...wrong movie). Dante still whines and Randall finds new ways not to work, and yes it's all very funny...but...The 800 pound gorilla in the room is "Arent we a little old for this shit? Isn't it about time we grew up? Don't you want more than this?" And Smith is not only asking himself these questions, he's asking his audience too.

I just hope he gets the right answer...