Friday, July 26, 2013

Movie Review: The Wolverine

Fox just made a drama about Wolverine. A large portion of the movie is built around the events of X-Men 3, particularly the death of Jean Grey.

By all rights, that formula should have resulted in a movie which fell somewhere between Origins: Wolverine and X-Men 3. Instead, we got something between First Class and X-Men 2. How did that happen? I'm honestly not sure.

It probably helped that this seems to have been directed by someone who knows the difference between a camera and a toilet and was therefore able to deliver a movie to the screen (take note Brett Ratner and Gavin Hood). It also helped that this movie pulled in some fantastic characters and does them justice. Yukio more or less steals this movie from right under Wolverine's nose.

A lot of X-Men fans - myself included - wanted future installments to bury the mess that was X-Men 3. Well, the makers of The Wolverine had another idea: they wanted to salvage it. They dug into the trauma of Jean's death. They wanted to make it clear that X-Men 3 happened.

And you know something: that's what they'd have done in the comics. You can't maintain continuity and ignore a bad story. You have to place it in the context of a larger story. The Wolverine takes place between The Last Stand and Days of Future Past. It serves as epilogue to one, a prologue to the other, and story of its own.

And it works on all three counts.

The movie isn't start-to-finish action, but there's plenty of violence for Wolverine fans. The claws come out, and blood gets spilled, including a lot of Wolverine's. As you know from the trailers, Logan spends a large portion of the movie mortal. But unlike Superman and Spider-Man 2, it's not to make him see how much the world needs him. If anything, it makes him into more of a bad-ass. Wolverine's best weapon was never the healing: it's the willpower. They got that.

The movie has flaws, of course. The final act villain was far too CG heavy and was the one character the movie didn't do justice. And even I had a hard time ignoring the fact Wolverine couldn't heal but his knuckles were mysteriously fine.

But make it a point to look past those details, and there's a great film here.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Movie Review: Pacific Rim

The first thing that crossed my mind as I was watching the opening sequence of Pacific Rim is that the screen I was seeing it on was too small for this movie. The second thing to occur to me was that every movie screen in the world is too small. We, as a species, don't make movie screens large enough to handle this movie.

Actually, the premise of Pacific Rim works surprisingly well as an allegory for the need for the human race to come together and produce larger 3D movie screens for the viewing of Pacific Rim. I'm not sure whether that was what Del Toro had in mind, but it fits.

Oh, and that brings up another point. Remember how you had to see Avatar in 3D? You need to see this in that format, too. Actually, it might be more important here than with Avatar.

Alright, let's talk about the movie. You know most of the premise from the trailers, but probably less than you think. There are giant robots fighting giant monsters: I assume everyone's up to speed on that. But less well advertised is the fact this thing is infused with 80's nostalgia. I've seen several people note the movie's similarities to Top Gun - they're hard to miss. And it's not just the plot: the dialogue and music reminiscent of adventure and even sports movies from that decade.

I might be mistaken, but I also found myself recalling elements of the Speed Racer movie while watching Pacific Rim. Both movies took a similar approach to constructing a fusion of live action and animated elements to translate concepts originating in Japanese animation to the movie screen, and both chose to embrace the absurdity of their premises rather than try to replace it with realism. After far too many "Post-Matrix" SF movies, I kind of feel like we've gotten the first Post-Speed Racer.

It should be noted that Pacific Rim is more interested in its action scenes than its drama. The dialogue is cheesy (though it's clearly intentional). The characters are fairly dull (probably less intentional), but they're not so bad they ruin the movie (looking at you, Avatar).

Pacific Rim is also an uneven movie. The opening is breathtaking, while the ending - while solid - certainly doesn't meet expectations.

Nonetheless, this movie raises the bar on monster movies in a way that's completely unprecedented. There are more than a half-dozen kaiju in this thing, and they're all awesome. The robots are equally cool, though the movie definitely leaves you wanting more. I could gleefully watch an entire movie about any of the jaegers. It's kind of tragic we got so little time with Crimson Typhoon and Cherno Alpha.

There's room for debate on whether indulging in 80's nostalgia was the best choice, but I have a hard time understanding anyone who walks away from this not feeling amazed. The movie is awesome. The setting and scale are bread and butter to animation, but I don't think we've ever gotten anything close in live action.

This has been a decent summer so far: Iron Man 3, Star Trek, and Superman were all good, but none of them really offered anything new or surprising. Pacific Rim is easily the most incredible movie we've gotten this year. This is the one you really can't miss.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Give Us Your Worst, Part 21: The Fantastic Four

I want to be crystal clear: this movie isn't to be confused with the 2004 movie, "Fantastic Four", which also deserves consideration in this series, but this is rather its predecessor from a decade earlier. Produced by Roger Corman for an estimated 1.5 million dollars and never released or shown in any official capacity, "The Fantastic Four" is infamous as one of the worst superhero movies ever made.

There's a rumor that it was never even intended for release; that it was filmed simply in order to retain the movie rights. It's a good story, but it's not actually true. This was made in order to utilize (and presumably retain) the rights, but there's no indication that the producers didn't intent to screen it. What is accurate is that they were paid to not release it (more accurately, the studio with a long-term interest in the franchise bought the rights to the movie in order to bury it).

The question you're probably asking is, "Was it really that bad?"

Disappointingly, the answer is: not entirely. Don't get me wrong: this is definitely low budget. The effects are abysmal, and the production values are laughable. It's a B-movie, through and through.

Actually, if it weren't for a few sequences of awful computer effects, this would be indistinguishable from something made for TV in the 70's or 80's. But... here's the thing - if that was its origin, if this had been made in the 70's and aired on NBC, it would be a cult favorite. People would remember it from their childhood and adore it. It may not have been good, but it's more watchable than the live-action 70's Spiderman or some of the direct-to-video superhero flicks of the 80s.

Of course, this wasn't a made-for-TV production from the 70's, so it's hard to overlook how bad everything looks. But strip that away and you're left with something that's fun almost as often as it's tedious. The script's certainly not great writing, but it's got far more right to the name Fantastic Four than the 2004 film. The origin story for the team and Doom are straight out of the comics (no random lightning powers for Victor, either). Likewise, the leads do a decent job with the material. I wouldn't say they deserve any awards, but the team sure felt a lot closer in spirit to the Fantastic Four I know than the cast assembled a decade later.

I don't want this to come off as too positive. There are things in this movie that are painful. When the camp isn't carrying it, the tedium sets in. There are also scenes in this movie that are painfully out of place, sequences where an actor overacts to the point of absurdity or there's an extreme tone shift.

This isn't good; not by a long stretch. But, as a campy superhero comedy, it's nowhere near as unwatchable as its reputation suggests.

Like most in this series, there's no reason to seek this out unless you're a serious (and I do mean serious) Marvel fan interested in all the minutiae of the Fantastic Four's history. Then again, same goes for the 2004 movie and its sequel.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Give Us Your Worst, Part 20: Steel

It took me a while, but I finally got around to Steel, the 1997 movie starring Shaquille O'Neal. I don't think I need to tell you this is a bad movie. I knew what I was getting into when I went in: history has judged this movie and it has done so fairly.

My biggest issue with the movie is that I happen to like the DC character it's based on quite a lot. In the comics, John Henry Irons was introduced as one of four "replacement" Supermen during the arc where Superman died fighting Doomsday. Irons was a former weapons designer who quit after having a crisis of conscience. Inspired by Superman's example and sacrifice, he built a power suit and started fighting evil. He's essentially become the Tony Stark of the DCU.

The movie, of course, threw out all but a handful of details. Irons still starts out as a weapons designer, though he's portrayed as significantly less cutting edge than he is in the comics. The movie implies the real genius behind the weapons is a new character, Susan Sparks (more on her in a minute). Needless to say, the connections to Superman are severely cut back. There's actually a little more than I'd anticipated - Irons has a Superman tattoo containing the phrase "Man of Steel." It's strongly implied this is the source of his costumed name, too. For what little it's worth, I appreciated the nod.

Setting that aside, it's pretty clear the filmmakers were bigger Batman fans than Superman. Steel's mask bears some resemblance to versions of the live-action Batman masks, and his power level is dropped to something closer to the Dark Knight's.

And then there's Susan Sparks, the super-genius red-head who suffers a spinal injury in the first five minutes of the movie then goes on to help Irons build his crime-fighting gadgets and uses a computer to monitor his progress and hack into everything from traffic lights to illegal weapons auctions.

So, yeah. They more or less put Oracle in this movie. And, shockingly, they didn't do a horrible job with her. Granted, it's about the only thing in the movie that isn't horrible, and it's still a long way from good.

The movie's pace drags even more than you'd expect. It takes more than forty minutes for the suit to be built, and things don't pick up when it's constructed. The costume is among the worst I've ever seen in a superhero movie, and the fights are astonishingly boring. For the most part, combat is reduced to Steel and bad guys shooting at each other. I've read some quotes suggesting the director had no interest in superheroes - it shows.

The acting is pretty awful for the most part, but I can't imagine anyone expected otherwise. The direction's even worse, but - again - no surprise there. The movie's tone is uneven: it can't decide whether it's supposed to be serious or a farce.

I'm glad I can cross this one off my list, though I'm not sure I can say I'm glad I saw it. It was pretty awful, but I've seen worse.

Someday, I hope Steel gets a chance to appear on screen in a film that does him justice. I'd love to see him introduced in a Superman movie (maybe in Man of Steel 3 - I'm hoping the next installment is reserved for Kara). Irons is a great character, and he deserves better than this.