Monthly Archives: June 2011

Green Lantern (Review)

The third superhero movie of the year thus far ends up a mild disappointment, ditching depth for a straightforward and overstuffed action flick that nevertheless delivers some solid entertainment.

It’s been called the year of the superhero film.  Green Lantern is the third comic book superhero movie to come out this year, following Thor and X-MenFirst Class.  Martin Campbell makes his first foray into the genre, adapting a superhero that has been around since the 1940’s.  While Thor and First Class featured more drama and depth than most superhero films, Green Lantern instead opts to be a simpler superhero action flick, which ends up entertaining frequently but feeling a little dated, much like old-school superhero films.

 

As a 1940s creation, Green Lantern‘s premise is a bit silly at face value: an intergalactic police corps is empowered by green rings that can manifest anything that the wearer imagines, since green is the color of will and is the most powerful force in the universe.  Each member of the Lantern Corps protects a planet, having been chosen by the ring.  The main source of trouble is usually yellow power, which is the color of fear.  Keep in mind, this was a comic created in the 40s.  Ryan Reynolds plays as the first human Lantern, Hal Jordan, an arrogant and reckless jet pilot who lost his father in a plane crash and hides a crippling fear of suffering the same fate.  His fear is so bad that he accidentally crashes a jet during a training session, getting fired from his job and losing the favor of his childhood sweetheart and friend & wingman Carol Ferris (Blake Lively).  Meanwhile, an unstoppable and evil entity known as Parallax, a raging cloud of planet-consuming yellow power, is on a rampage through the galaxy, and the Lantern Corps is powerless to stop him.  Giving his life fighting Parallax, one Lantern named Abin Sur crashes on Earth and releases his ring to choose a new Lantern.  The ring, of course, settles on Hal, who journeys to the Lantern homeworld of Oa to get trained by the intensely reluctant Sinestro (Mark Strong) so that he can join the Corps against Parallax.  Back on Earth, scientist Hector Hammond (Peter Sarsgaard) is given the privilege of doing a report on the body of the deceased Abin Sur and gets infected with traces of residual yellow power from Sur’s battle with Parallax, which causes his head to swell and his anger and fear to grow the point of supervillainy.  Hal must overcome his fear, master the ring, and defeat both Parallax and Hammond before they destroy Earth.  Again, 1940s comic book here.

 

Martin Campbell is easily one of my favorite directors working today.  He made two solid action flicks out of the Zorro franchise, ushered a new era of absurdity in the 007 film Goldeneye, and ironically grounded the series back in reality with the fantastic reboot Casino Royale.  He even managed to make last year’s otherwise horrible Mel Gibson thriller Edge of Darkness minimally bearable.  Campbell’s handle on visceral action sequences is matched by few other current directors.  His sense of energy is still palpable in Green Lantern, as the action has a very fast-paced feel to it.  Lanterns rapidly switching between conjured weapons and flying around to punch and shoot things is very exciting to watch, even if it is ridiculous.  Campbell has never done a film of this scope before, but on a strictly directorial level, he handles it relatively well, even if he does seem a tad overwhelmed at times.  The actors on hand here illustrate Campbell’s high and low points in terms of handling his actors.  Sometimes, he can bring out excellent performances from his players, and other times he doesn’t much care about deep performances and instead lets the actors go their own way.  This results in fairly average performances from the likes of Ryan Reynolds and Blake Lively (who seems very out of place), while Peter Sarsgaard and Tim Robbins do very well and make their respective and collective scenes very entertaining to watch.

 

What makes Green Lantern falter slightly in comparison to the other superhero films released this year is that it lacks the emotional depth that they had.  It’s simply an comic book action movie that occasionally makes attempts at emotion for the sake thereof.  That said, when it’s trying to channel the style of a comic book, it succeeds spectacularly.  The action of Green Lantern hits delightfully hard, with multiple instances of over-the-top mayhem and characters getting thrown through walls, and so on.  In a fun twist, the film takes care to reference or poke fun at superhero tropes, such as the concept that a small mask that covers the eyes is enough to conceal one’s identity.  Parallax, though shallow as a character, is a terrifying presence; seeing him hovering over planets as he prepares to devour them is a sight to behold.

 

There’s nothing notably bad about Green Lantern, though at the same time it does not provide the soaring entertainment that the other superhero films of the year had.  Even standing on its own, it’s a rather average film with some above-average action sequences.  The plot is way too busy and the film, as a result, is very overstuffed with story.  At the same time, it’s a consistently engaging movie where boredom is very rare.  Additionally, the film has the feel of a superhero movie from the 90s, which makes the emotional shallowness something of a nostalgia trip.  Whether or not this was intentional is irrelevant.  When it comes down to it, Green Lantern is probably worth a matinee showing in the theaters, as it does look good on the big screen and even manages to impress in 3D.  It’s good, but it’s not great.

Score: *** (out of 5)

Rated: PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence

 

 

Fast Five (Review)

Fast Five injects massive amounts of testosterone and machismo into the Fast & Furious franchise, as well as moving from street racing series into heist film, making for an action flick that delivers on the thrills but falters everywhere else. 

I’ve always been a huge fan of car chases in movies.  It’s something about taking something as dangerous as cars and pitting them against each other as they weave dangerously through traffic and pedestrians as high speed.  Car chases are fast, dangerous, and epic.  As much as I love car chases, however, I can’t say I’m a huge fan of cars.  That may be why I have never been a huge fan of the Fast & Furious franchise.  The absurd sense of car lust never exactly appealed to me, and the street racing action didn’t do enough to make me a believer.  However, for Fast Five, the series dispenses completely with the street racing slant of the former films and moves into heist territory.  It’s a step in the right direction and marks the first time I’m notably interested in a Fast & Furious film.

 

Fast Five pick up exactly where the previous film, Fast & Furious, left off: Dom Toretto (Vin Diesel) is loaded onto a prison bus to carry out a 25-to-life prison sentence, and is of course saved by his sister Mia (Jordana Brewster), and his best friend,  former police officer Brian O’Connor (Paul Walker).  The trio meets with their friend Vince (Matt Schulze), who has been recruited by a crime lord named Hernan Reyes (Joaquim de Almeida) to steal some DEA-possessed cars.  Things go sour during the heist and the crew ends up on the wrong side of Reyes and framed for the murder of several DEA agents.  This puts them squarely in the crosshairs of the obscenely macho DSS agent Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson), who is notorious for always being able to find the men he hunts.  To get revenge on Reyes, Dom recruits and old crew (comprised of characters from across the entire film franchise) in order to steal a safe containing $1oo million that is located in the middle of a police station (because of course it is).  What follows is the standard heist movie montage of preparation, comical trial-and-error planning, and witty banter between the ragtag crew.

 

Like I said, I’ve never been a fan of the Fast & Furious franchise.  When the first film, The Fast and the Furious, came out, I enjoyed it well enough but it was not exactly memorable.  I didn’t care for the sequel, 2 Fast 2 Furious, but I rather liked Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift.  The next film, Fast & Furious, just left a bad taste in my mouth and left me disinterested in any further sequels.  Fast Five mercifully moves away from the immature street racing scene of the franchise, and focuses on the theft of Reyes’s fortune.  There’s even a street race that is hinted at but skipped over in the actual film.  I liked this new slant, as the heist film is one that I enjoy as long as it is executed well enough.  Unfortunately, while this is a step in the right direction, the film still reads like a laundry list of heist film cliches: the aforementioned montage and ragtag crew, testing various methods for making the heist, and always barely escaping the cops and bad guys.  It’s fun, but also very easy to predict what’s going to happen next in the story.

 

Where Fast Five unmistakably delivers is in the action sequences.  Director Justin Lin, who has helmed the franchise since Tokyo Drift, has crafted some extremely entertaining action setpieces for the film, and each of the major ones are undeniably pulse-pounding, from a high-speed car theft aboard a speeding train to an absurd chase through the city streets towing a massive safe between two cars as mobsters and police take chase.  In fact, that final chase ranks as one of the most satisfying car chases I’ve seen in an extremely long time.  A hand-to-hand fight between Dom and Hobbs late in the film has them destroying tables, shelves, and walls.  The action in most of the film has a rather ridiculous edge to it, and it makes for a film that is, at least in the action scenes, a lot of fun.

 

I say “at least in the action scenes” because the rest of the movie really isn’t as entertaining.  The recycled Ocean’s 11 character archetypes are not that funny anymore, and the constant arguing between several of the characters got old really fast, especially in a script that is, at best, lukewarm.  Reyes is disappointingly weak as a villain as well, popping up now and then to look menacing or kill one of his henchmen, then disappearing again, and failing to ever create a truly formidable presence.  Fast Five also sports the most machismo that I’ve seen in a movie since The Expendables, and coupled with the adolescent male fantasy of fast cars and hot women, it creates the perfect storm of absurdity, and not always in a good way.  Dwayne Johnson sports a pair of ridiculously muscular and shiny arms and shouts lines like “If he goes to the john, I want to know how many times he shakes it”.  Such displays of masculinity are to be found throughout the film, and are fun for a while, until it really starts to strain the film.  It’s a one-note tone that, in a film whose running time exceeds two hours, gets old after a while.

 

I did enjoy Fast Five, even though the story dragged when things were not crashing or blowing up.  Striking that delicate balance between drama and action, and being able to keep the film engaging throughout both, is not easy to do, but it seems like the screenwriters were not even trying.  The non-action bits of the film seem culled from the book of heist film cliches and the dialogue appears to have been written by pro wrestlers.  I certainly enjoy such absurdity from time to time, but here it borders on idiotic, whereas the “serious” moments were simply boring.  Even so, it’s still the best film in the series and certainly worth checking out from some very entertaining action.  Just don’t expect to get blown away by anything else.

Score: ***1/2 (out of 5)

Rated: PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action, sexual content and language.

 

 

X-Men: First Class (Review)

Matthew Vaughn reboots the comatose X-Men franchise with a refreshing style and energy that has been missing since X2, giving an emotional core to one of Marvel’s most famous villains and resulting in one of the most satisfying films of the summer.

Preliminary news on X-Men: First Class had me somewhat skeptical. My knowledge of the X-Men franchise is certainly not as robust as I would like it to be, and the announcements of an origin film with several mutants that I was not entirely familiar with was not particularly appealing to me. It didn’t help that the marketing that started to come out for the film was nothing short of horrendous. An over-reliance on shots from the original films for a backbone to the trailers and shockingly ugly posters coming out every few weeks seemed destined to kill the film before it even came out. Going to the theater, I was less than thrilled. However, the surprising critical acclaim for the reboot does not lie: X-Men: First Class is an energetic, stylish superhero flick that stands tall alongside the strong original movies.

The films opens just as Bryan Singer’s original film did: a young Erik Lehnsherr in a concentration camp, suddenly separated from his parents and accidentally discovering his power over metal. The next scenes establish how Erik refined his powers on the path to becoming Magneto: through psychological and emotional torture at the hands of a Nazi doctor who would come to be known as Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon). Shaw murders Erik’s mother before his eyes, and sends Erik on a lifelong manhunt for the cruel doctor. A flash-forward has Erik well on his way to tracking down Shaw and his right-hand woman, Emma Frost (Mad Men’s January Jones), an extremely powerful telepath who can transform her skin into diamond. Shaw manages to escape Erik the first time they cross paths, upon which a young Charles Xavier (James McAvoy), delighted to find another person with powers, invites Erik to join him as allies. Recognizing that he cannot defeat Shaw alone, Erik decides to join Charles in their search for other mutants. Before long, the duo, along with Xavier’s lifelong friend Raven/Mystique, find and recruit the teenagers who would come to be known as Beast, Havoc, Banshee, Angel, and Darwin.

Bryan Singer delivered two excellent X-Men movies; they functioned as a commentary on individuals who were different and felt isolated, and were shunned as a result. Mutation served as a blanket representation for color, sexuality, and anything not deemed “normal” by society. Singer’s films had depth and heart, something that lacked from superhero films before them. Those two films were followed by Brett Ratner’s flashy but shallow X-Men: The Last Stand and Gavin Hood’s dreadful X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Starting with Ratner’s film, the series lost its focus in favor of massive action sequences, and Hood’s film, while exciting, was simply a messy travesty of butchered comic book mythology. The series was clearly in desperate need of new life, and has found it in director Matthew Vaughn, who helmed last year’s gleefully inappropriate and completely excellent Kick-Ass, as well as 2007’s inventive Stardust. Vaughn has a pleasing style and energy to his filmmaking, and his creative directorial flair shines through in First Class‘s 60s setting. From creative cuts to some fun split-screen montages, the visual style of First Class treads away from the noise and confusion of the last two X-Men films and grounds the series once more.

The visual style of the film carries over into the set design, which is tastefully diverse and expensive looking with a distinct 60s-era James Bond flavor. There are a number of large setpieces–a Strangelove-esque war room, the Xavier mansion, the estate of a Russian general, and Shaw’s submarine/secret base–all of which are delightfully reminiscent of the time period while also echoing science fiction and paranoia that was characteristic to the times. It’s a great film to look at and there is a very impressive attention to detail in the sets. Keep an eye on the backgrounds and see what you can find in them.

But what of the emotional core that Singer’s films had and the other two lacked? It has returned in full force for Vaughn’s reboot, and the characters are once again refreshingly three-dimensional. These characters all have a past, and the sense of angst due to isolation and difference makes a triumphant return from the original two films. It may be even stronger here, since the film focuses on the pivotal disagreement between Erik and Charles: whether or not humans and mutants can coexist. The emotional dynamic between the characters, while unfortunately becoming volatile before the two became best friends, is very powerful to watch unfold.

Surprisingly, the best aspect of X-Men: First Class is the acting. It is common for superhero films to feature hammy or excessive acting, and though several of the minor characters do slip into the stereotype, the main players refreshingly keep their performances natural for the most part. By far the strongest performance comes from Michael Fassbender as Erik Lehnsherr/Magneto. Fassbender brings an emotion to the character that Ian McKellan lacked. Here, Magneto is a dynamic and three-dimensional character, and arguably the individual central to the film. He creates a villain that invites sympathy, and his individual swath of destruction in the name of vengeance for his mother is one that is easy to root for. One pivotal moment for Erik toward the end of the second act was beautifully acted by Fassbender and a satisfyingly emotional, quiet moment for Erik. James McAvoy plays an extremely different Charles Xavier than Patrick Stewart did in the original trilogy. A far cry from the serious, wise Professor in those films, this Xavier is a charming womanizer. It was fun to see the difference, and I look forward to seeing the evolution in future sequels. Kevin Bacon makes for an excellent central villain as Shaw. While Shaw would occasionally get a little over-the-top with his constant sneering, scheming, and killing of random people, Bacon still was a blast to watch. He remains, in my opinion, a much better villainous actor than heroic, and I want to see more of it. January Jones, as his partner in crime, is equally cruel and just as entertaining to watch. Jones is a ridiculously good actress, and seeing her play a villain character (as opposed to Don Draper’s wife in Mad Men) is great fun.

Matthew Vaughn has proven over the years that he is a remarkably capable filmmaker. He began as a producer for Guy Ritchie films such as Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, and went on to direct Layer Cake, Stardust, and Kick-Ass. X-Men: First Class is no different; like last month’s Thor (which I thoroughly enjoyed), and like Bryan Singer’s original films, it shows that superhero movies can deliver plenty of thrills and comic book-style fun and still have heart. It’s been a long time since I’ve been as excited for a franchise as I am for Vaughn’s new vision for this super team.

Score: **** 1/2 (out of 5)

Rated: PG-13 for intense sequences of action and violence, some sexual content including brief partial nudity, and language.