Sam's Reviews of the Big Summer Movies
It’s almost impossible to do a short review for this movie, considering the enormous controversy that erupted after its release. It may be one of the most vehemently reviled films of the 21st century, especially amongst those who consider themselves fans of Ridley Scott. While I don’t think the film is in the same league as Alien, Blade Runner, or Gladiator, I certainly don’t think it deserved the tsunami of bile that flooded the blogosphere. It had some defenders and I count myself among them, though I do have some reservations.
With Scott at the helm, you expect it to be visually stunning, and it is. It also has great performances by Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender and Charlize Theron. It features a couple of terrific set pieces, the standout being Rapace’s encounter with the surgery pod. The pace of the movie is good overall, though a touch slower than a modern audience might prefer. The movie grapples with some grand issues, which it fails to answer of course, since not even Ridley Scott and Damon Lindelof know the answers. However, I think they offered some interesting thoughts on the matter.
Sadly, there are certainly some weak spots. The firefight against the transformed geologist Fifield is flat and feels tacked on, perhaps to appease action-grubbing producers. Logan Marshall-Green is tepid as archaeologist Charlie, whose motivations are muddy, especially his seeming disgust for the android, David. There are also some definite information gaps in how the “black slime” functions, and its true purpose. There are clues, and I think you can figure out a lot by engaging your brain a little, but Scott might have avoided much of the controversy if he’d been a little more explicit in this area.
Similarly, the behavior of the “Engineers” is needlessly abstruse. Had Scott taken a moment to explore a conversation between David and the surviving Engineer before he rips the android’s head off, he could have given us some much needed insight into their motivations. A lot can be gleaned from context, but the film would have benefitted greatly from a little ‘here’s how you humans screwed up’ info from the albino giant. There are other pros and cons, but I’m running out of room. I may do a dissertation on this at a later date, once the general fury wanes.
Unfortunately, I think it would be nearly impossible for this film, even without its problems, to live up to the titanic expectations many had for it. Sadly, we seem to live in an age where nothing is mediocre, or just pretty good. In the internet age it seems everything must be either utter genius or irredeemable sewage. You must love it or hate it, and no middle road is acceptable. Well, I take the middle road here. I liked it, in spite of its problems.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5
The latest offering from oddball film director Wes Anderson is a delightful little fable. An exceptional ensemble of great actors, including Edward Norton, Bill Murray and Frances McDormand, craft captivating characters in the service of a satisfyingly off-kilter story of young love, old love and weird love.
Preteen pen-pals Sam Shakusky and Suzy Bishop abscond together one sultry summer on a camping adventure. While the small island mobilizes to find the runaway kids, the fleeing pair hike, camp and fall in love.
The film is a little lighter in tone than some of Anderson’s earlier works, like The Royal Tenenbaums and Rushmore, but not so much as to leave out the headier issues completely. If the film does something exceptionally well, it is to create a palpable sense of time and place. Having experienced the 60’s myself, as a child, I can tell you this rings true. I grew up in rural southwestern Ontario, and the atmosphere was very much like that presented here for 1965 New England. Those from later generations may not fully appreciate this, but for me it was a warm, nostalgic visit to a nearly forgotten time and place.
The whole thing is funny, sad and clever, and never too preachy or self-aware.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
I am a big fan of many Pixar films, including the best superhero movie ever made, The Incredibles. They’ve had a few missteps here and there, creatively speaking, but I’d say they were quality failures. Unfortunately, I’m gonna have to put Brave in the ‘near miss’ category.
Visually, the film is amazing. Pixar rewrote their software for this and it looks great. Beautifully rendered characters with marvelous hair inhabit the lush, colorful landscapes of a magical, mythical Scotland that should have been. The character design is spectacular, with one exception, which I’ll get to later.
The story starts out strong. Tomboy princess Merida has no interest in marrying to fulfill the expectations of her mother the Queen or those of the united clans of the region. At an archery contest for her betrothal, she shoots for her own hand in marriage and wins handily.
Up to there, it’s awesome.
Sadly, the whole thing falls apart after Merida finds a weird woodcarving witch in the woods. She asks the witch to change her destiny and inadvertently transforms her mother into a bear. What the--? What? A freakin’ bear?
Yeah, that’s right, a bear.
It just seemed so… I dunno… arbitrary. It was like they tossed a dart at an illustration of the tree of life and hit the bear. While post-movie research reveals there are, in fact, bears in Scotland, there’s nothing inherently Scottish about bears. Why not transform mom into some creature from Scottish lore? Or better yet, why not find a real-world danger that can bring mother and daughter together?
The film tries valiantly after that, but as much as I liked it visually, they never really got me back.
I didn’t like the choice of ‘bear’, and there was another problem too. The design of the bear also didn’t work. One of the things I’ve always loved about Pixar is that they don’t try to make their human characters look like real humans. They are cartooned and simplified first, and rendered second, and this is why the animation works. They can push and pull these cartoony designs further and achieve stronger poses. It’s more like classical line animation in that way.
The design of the Queen bear looks… well, it looks like a frickin’ bear. A real bear. Therefore, all the intended comedy moments of the bear acting like a refined lady of the court fall flat. The exaggerated poses and expressions don’t jive with the fact we’re looking at a completely believable bear. I believe a cartoonier design would have worked 1000% better.
The other thing is that Pixar has never used magic in their films before. Even in Toy Story, there is no magical reason why the toys are alive, they just are. It may have been fanciful for a man to fly his house around using a thousand helium balloons, but it wasn’t magical. Even The Incredibles weren’t really magical, they were just born in a world where some folks have super powers. Disney, however, has always used magic in their films, and it feels like the cross pollination between the companies curdled the milk here.
Also, the original geniuses of the Pixar approach, guys like Lasseter, Bird and Stanton, have moved on from the company. Consequently, I fear the golden age of Pixar may be on the wane.
Rating: 2.5 out of 5
Before getting to some of the comic book based movies of the summer. Get a load of this:
Sam’s Rules for Making a Good Superhero Movie
Here is the lost answer to the ancient riddle of what Sam looks for in a superhero movie. It’s all very simple, really.
1)Get the origin right: (I’m looking at you, Batman Begins!) Hey, I understand, sometimes you need to tweak things a bit to make them more palatable for modern audiences. Okay, fine. But you don’t make Ras Al Ghul Batman’s mentor, you don’t make Galactus a giant space-cloud, and you don’t make Bruce Banner’s dad a mutant. Sure, surviving a Gamma bomb blast is a tad fanciful, so I’m willing to give you some wiggle room if you keep true to the spirit of the character. But damn kids, if you stray too far from the source material, it’s no longer the Hulk, is it?
2)Get the characterization right: (I’m looking at you, Batman Begins!) I’m not interested in a Bruce Wayne who decides to go and shoot Joe Chill. The murder of his parents by gunfire sends him in the opposite direction. He chooses never to use a gun. This is perfectly workable. Why change it? Don’t change it!
3)Give good action: Comics are all about the action and your movie should be too. Here, Batman Begins gets it right. The action, especially in Gotham, is everything you want it to be. Batman is stealthy, creepy and scary. The fights are well choreographed, convincing and beautifully shot. Unlike the action in say, Daredevil, which is muddy and flat. Don’t go all “music video” with it either, like Catwoman… Yick...
4)Don’t reveal their secret identity to everyfuckingbody: Seriously, what is up with this? You keep your true identity secret to spare your loved ones violent reprisal. If you reveal who you are, you endanger them, and you are an asshole, not a hero. This is superhero 101 people, get it right. And, PS, no one else should reveal it either. Especially don’t have Alfred let a chick into the freakin’ Batcave, breaking rules #2 and #4.
5)Don’t tie everyone together in a giant coincidental convergence: I can only assume this is some kind of screenwriters disease. When adapting an existing property they want everyone linked. Dr. Doom has to be formed in the same cosmic event as the FF, Ras Al Ghul has to be Batman’s mentor. When writing original movies, writers are perfectly capable of having characters who have no history at all come into conflict. But, in comic book movies, it seems that everybody simply must be bound together in some sort of inescapable “orgy of fate”. Don’t do it!
6)Keep the plot simple, but solid: This ain’t rocket surgery. Just tell a nice, tight story. Keep it clear, straightforward and exciting. You don’t need to tart it up with a half a dozen plot twists and shocking reveals.
7)Tone is key. (Don’t be campy, don’t be pretentious, don’t be boring): I’m looking at you, Green Hornet. Look, campy CAN be done successfully, but only if you have absolute respect for the property. I think filmmakers often choose the campy approach because they think the property is stupid. Hey, if you don’t like it, why would we like your goofball version of it? Or maybe they think retooling something sincere as a comedy is easier than trying to get the tone right. It isn’t. Comedy is fucking hard. Good comedies are practically extinct. Try matching the tone of the original material and you are out in front immediately.
Easy, peasy, lemon squeezy!
Now no one has any excuse for making a bad superhero movie ever again.
Now back to your regularly scheduled reviews.
Just excellent! It successfully adheres to all my guidelines for a good superhero movie. The characters are right, the action is great, and the story is simple and solid. The long buildup started by Marvel Productions with movies like Iron Man, Thor, Captain America and others, pays off handsomely in the capable hands of Joss Whedon. He simply nails it. Second only to the first Iron Man film in quality, this Marvel movie is expertly handled entertainment.
It was so refreshing to hear Bruce Banner and Tony Stark conversing like genius scientists, and it was marvelous to see Black Widow develop into a complex, clever and formidable character. The traditional Marvel “heroes fighting heroes” scene is handled perfectly, and doesn’t balloon into something unwieldy.
Some pathos is effectively achieved in a touching moment when the much beloved Agent Coulson dies and his sacrifice brings the team together. (I’m still betting that was a Coulson Life Model Decoy, but only time will tell.) The climactic alien invasion sequence is beautifully handled, giving each character in the ensemble their moments without seeming contrived. The destruction of New York is surprisingly accurate and believable.
This thing is really great, a popcorn crunching triumph. Action packed, funny, beautifully paced and perfectly acted. A really fun time at the movies.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Unfortunately, I found this film very uneven. It breaks a lot of my Superhero rules. For instance, they change the origin story by creating a science backstory for Peter’s dad and pointlessly changing the death of Uncle Ben into a sudden shooting during a convenience story robbery. Ben’s death has no dramatic impact whatsoever, and is completely wasted. Since this is known territory, it feels like they skimmed over it quickly, and that is much to the detriment of our ability to relate to Peter’s pain.
In further contravention of my rules, # 5 to be precise, they conveniently tie Peter’s parents to Dr. Connors, link Gwen Stacy to Dr. Connors, and have the radioactive spider come from Oscorp where Connors works. Peter even brings Connors the formula that turns him into the Lizard. Jesus! Too much coincidence there, guys!
And Spidey reveals his secret identity to bloody everyone!
They do get Peter Parker and Gwen Stacy right. The couple is effortlessly charming and the dialogue isn’t too predictable. At dinner with the Stacy’s, Peter and Captain Stacy have a terrific little debate about vigilantism that is pitch perfect. Unfortunately, the characterization of Spidey is… off, somehow. His wisecracks seem mean spirited and abrasive, not light-hearted and fun, something which Tobey Maguire always pulled off perfectly. And Spidey, in his search for his uncle Ben’s killer, seems more obsessed than troubled, which feels too dark for Spider-Man.
I had a few other issues, like having the Lizard infect some cops with the lizard formula, but then never using them. Guys, if you can’t afford to have an army of lizardmen attacking the city, don’t bother transforming them in the first place.
The acting is great across the board, except Garfield’s quip delivery, and the action is fantastic. I like that Garfield wears an actual suit, and his poses, both digital and practical, had the spidery feel I’d hoped for.
But, sadly, it all left me rather ambivalent by the end.
Rating: 2 out of 5
The Dark Knight Rises
Oh, Christopher Nolan, you are so good and so bad at the very same time.
Since I don’t feel I can discuss this flick without at least touching on its two predecessors, I’m not sure this will qualify as a capsule review, but it simply can’t be helped.
To begin with, as you might have gleaned by my Rules for Making a Good Superhero Movie, I was not a fan of Batman Begins. There are some terrific sequences, certainly, but it contravened far too many of my rules for me to give it a passing grade. Christopher Nolan got the origin so terribly wrong I almost didn’t go see The Dark Knight, and that would have been a shame since it is the best of the three films.
No, Chris, Ra’s Al Ghul and the League of Shadows did NOT train Batman. This breaks both rule #1 and rule #5. No, Chris, (as further discussed in the rules), Bruce Wayne would never take a gun and go out to shoot Joe Chill. Nor would he hang around miserably debating the moral implications of doing so. He would know it's wrong. These items contravene rule #2. He would, instead, steel himself and travel the planet learning martial arts and detection from the greatest masters in the world. That kind of obsessed determination and dogged discipline is SO much more interesting that your version, with the brainwashing and the mind altering drugs and all. (Drugs that, in another dumb tie-in coincidence, later pose a threat to Gotham.)
It’s not Batman, Chris. It just isn’t.
Once Bruce gets back to Gotham and puts on the suit, the movie improves a great deal. The scenes where Batman schmoozes Gordon and battles the gangster Falcone all work very well. This is what Bats should be doing, battling criminals in the dark and scaring the shit out of them. The scenes with Scarecrow also work pretty well. But then, of course, Batman also reveals his secret identity to Rachel Dawes, contravening rule #4.
The film also comes very close to contravening rule #6. The poisoning of Gotham’s water supply and the elevated train climax is just barely within the level of threat Bats should be fighting.
The Dark Knight works considerably better. Since the dumbass origin isn’t recapped, I can pretend this is actually Batman. Heath Ledger gives an inspired performance as The Joker. Nolan re-imagines the character slightly, but within reasonable boundaries, and dodges a bullet by leaving out the Joker’s origin story altogether, (thus saving himself from contravening rule #1). Most of the action is kept to the creepy streets, and it all works pretty damn well, overall.
Unfortunately, there is a severe pacing issue at the end, where Nolan feels the need to tack on a 40 minute “bonus movie”. The whole “ferry conundrum” is too long, and it’s heavy-handed from a thematic viewpoint. Also, creating, corrupting and killing Two-Face in less than an hour is both contrived and a terrible waste of a perfectly good villain.
Still, I’d give the movie a solid 3.5 out of 5 on the entertainment scale.
Now The Dark Knight Rises.
Again, there is just far too much bullshit co-incidence here. In the comics, Bane never had anything to do with Ra’s Al Ghul, Talia or the League of Shadows. Bane was a villain in his own right, with his own motivations. I mean if you’re going to use the character, shouldn’t you at least give him his due? This all taints his origin, which they get partly right but mostly wrong.
Now, I can see where you might not want to have Bane wearing a Mexican wrestling mask like in the comics, but why this bizarre techno-appliance which A) Restricts the actor’s ability to emote, and his general intelligibility, B) Is too wheezily reminiscent of Darth Vader, and, C) Looks like nothing so much as a hardware version of a Predator face? Bad, bad choice, Chris.
Bane’s motivations are weak and unclear, and ultimately come down to him being Talia’s protector and slave. Also, there is no real justification for why Bane is so much more badass than Batman. In the comics Bane is addicted to the drug Venom, which greatly enhances his strength and speed. Here he is taller than Batman, and he’s a certainly bulkier, but there’s no explanation for his seeming immunity to pain and his ability to toss Bats around like a rag doll. Without Venom to enhance his abilities it all seems too convenient. (Oh, there’s some lame justification that Bruce is all injured, old and beat up, but seriously, that’s Bruce. Once he puts on the suit he must be formidable, no matter what. Make Bruce weak and human if you must, but Batman must be badass.)
Sadly, the problems don’t end there.
We return to Gotham to find that Batman is reviled and Harvey Dent is deified, and Bruce Wayne has given up the cowl to become a recluse. What? Batman has given up the cowl? Sorry, Chris, but no. This is a man obsessed. In the comics Bruce might give it all up for a story arc a few issues in length, but for eight freakin’ years?
No… no way.
The only balm for his damaged psyche is putting on the suit and whomping bad guys. This is the character, man. No way he gives it up for eight years.
The film also breaks rule #6. It breaks it to bits. This is all waaaayyy too complicated. There are so many story elements, historical flashbacks and twisty surprises here that the whole deal becomes overwhelming and tiresome. Chris, much better filmmakers than you have failed to keep this many balls in the air. To quote the recycling hippie from The Simpsons; “Simplify, maaaaan.”
Toss in another tacked-on “bonus movie” of Batman recovering in Bane’s former prison and this film also has some serious pacing issues.
There are some other nits I could pick, but I’ll leave it there for the sake of my (already compromised) brevity.
On the up side, Nolan does have a flair for dramatic action. When there’s a fight on, it always works beautifully. The acting, too, is generally very good. Bale thankfully tones down the raspy voice, which he overdid in The Dark Knight, (probably in an effort to keep up with Heath Ledger). Though I had severe reservations about Anne Hathaway as Catwoman, she manages to come very close to pulling it off. All the elements of the character are visible, if delivered in a somewhat overly studied fashion. And, the character is thankfully taken back to her thieving roots. Hathaway falls a yard or two short of the mark here, but does much better than I expected for a rom-com ingénue. Caine, Oldman, Gordon-Levitt, Freeman and Cotilliard are all predictably solid.
The reveal of Talia works pretty well. Her betrayal of Bruce’s budding love for her, and his hopes for a better life, are all nicely squashed by her treachery. (Having her actually stick a knife in him was a touch on the nose, but what the hell.)
Unfortunately, all things considered, I have to give this a failing grade. It’s too big, too complex. It all begins to collapse under its own weight. As I said before, the Batman character works best when he’s going up against thugs, mobsters and the occasional psychotic nut job. You need to keep him on the dark, gritty streets of the city, scaring the shit out of punks.
Anarcho-terrorism, invasion, subjugation, nuclear bombs?
This is a job for Superman.
Rating: (Movie) 1.5 out of 5 (Action) 4.5 out of 5
Safety Not Guaranteed
This low budget romance with sci-fi touches is a real hidden gem. It has little in the way of production values, but more than makes up for it with wit, cleverness and some sincere performances.
Would-be reporter, Darius Britt, wonderfully played by Aubrey Plaza, is a deeply cynical young lady willing to do anything to get ahead. She and her boss, Jeff, investigate a strange want ad, which reads:
"Wanted: Somebody to go back in time with me. This is not a joke. You'll get paid after we get back. Must bring your own weapons. I have only done this once before. Safety not guaranteed."
After travelling to Ocean View, Washington, Darius's boss buggers off to reconnect with a high school sweetheart and leaves her to get the story. She nominates herself as a potential time-travel companion to the mysterious Kenneth, played by Mark Duplass. He accepts her on a trial basis, and begins to train her, body and mind, for the journey, while she makes notes and prepares to skewer him in print. However, as Darius goes through her extensive, and hilarious, ninja training with Kenneth, she begins to fall in love with him instead.
The film is always amusing, and often downright hysterical. Great supporting performances from New Girl’s Jake M. Johnson and Karan Soni round out the ensemble as the film builds to its intriguing climax.
This is well worth checking out if you are in the mood for a fun break from the endless explosions of the summer blockbusters.
Rating: 4 out of 5
Snow White and the Huntsman
Another near miss, I’m sad to say. I was really looking forward to this one, but problems of tone and pacing, and some acting missteps sink the boat.
Charlize Theron makes a game stab at the role of the evil queen, Ravenna, but only gets halfway there. While her depiction of the cold, calculating, succubus queen is exceptional when the character is in control, there are several moments where Ravenna becomes petulant and paranoid. These moments undermine the scariness of the character, and Theron is unable to make them convincing. (Possibly because she senses the tone is all wrong, but that would be conjecture on my part.)
Kristen Stewart is adequate as deposed princess Snow White, but the best performances come from Chris Hemsworth as the Huntsman, and Sam Spruell as the queen’s loyal, but much abused, brother.
The visual design of the film is inspired and there are a few serviceable battle sequences, including a nice fight with an ogre, but it’s all in support of a clunky, plodding narrative. The Queen needs to consume Snow White’s heart to achieve mortality, Snow hooks up with the huntsman, they join forces with the seven dwarves, and they all meet a lot of faeries, soldiers and magical animals, blah, blah, blah and so forth.
There is an attempt give the Queen a sympathetic backstory, but it backfires, partly because it’s cryptic, and partly because she’s so unrepentantly evil.
The dwarf actors, including Ian McShane, Bob Hoskins and Ray Winstone, are game, but the film can’t seem to decide if the dwarves are real people or comedy relief. Sadly, neither is effectively achieved.
It’s an amusing enough ride, most of the time, if you turn off your brain, but in the final analysis, it clanks around without any real drive or direction.
Rating: 2 out of 5
I will have some more reviews later in the summer.