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Fantastic Four (2015)
Let These Kids Have Some Fun
In all the bad reviews I've read of this film, none of the writers has mentioned its defining moment of badness: when the young explorers get drunk and journey to the mystery planet/dimension, they celebrate their arrival by PLANTING AN American FLAG on its alien soil. Even Captain America would balk at this act of wanton imperialism (he balks at a lot of things his government wants him to do, which is one reason that the Captain America films are the best superhero films ever), but the planting of the flag marks a blindness to the implications of power that is one of this film's weaknesses; along with its incessant darkness.
No one is having any fun, except in the expository chapters that bring young Reed and Ben together with the Storm family; these episodes are the best part of the film, except for their excessive length. Once the team gain their super-powers, Fantastic Four starts to pick up again, but then after a quickly staged battle on the mystery planet/dimension, it's all over.
Do film makers always think a superhero film is going to be easy and then find, to their surprise, that it is not? The Tim Story films got it right with the cast and the mise en scenean attractive mix of characters in the brightly-lit streets of New York Citybut the writers could never figure out the tone; were the Four a joke, or not?--and the narrative device of pitting the Fantastic Four against Doctor Doom (although Trank and Toby Kebbell do much better with the Doom persona than the shrieky guy in the Story films) got old very fast.
In the comics, the Four had a lot of gravitas: Reed Richards was dead serious about everything, constantly worried about putting his girlfriend/wife in danger, and burdened with guilt for making a monster out of his best friend; the Human Torch was always getting in over his head; the Thing was inclined to lose his temper, etc.
They also got to pit their powers against a wide range of villains. In the movies, the Story films as well as Trank's, the Fantastic Four quite happily live in their dark laboratory until Doctor Doom comes along to be vanquished. Where are the legions of alien invaders and mad scientists who made the comics so much fun? Where are the Inhumans, not to mention the mole people, the Skrulls, Namor the Submariner lusting after Sue Storm, the other superheroes dropping by for a quickly-resolved dustup? Why does everything have to be dark and grimy? Let these kids have some fun.
Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
The End of an Age
It seems incredible to think that super-hero films might crash and burn the same way that historic/religious epics did half a century ago. After all, they have much more appeal for children than did those earlier movies, and every few years the market for a children's film is renewed. But seeing Avengers: Age of Ultron, one can see the end coming. Joss Whedon's writing is clever, but not as strong as what Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely have done with the Captain America films, although to cut Whedon some slack, the nature of the Avengers forces the writer to work with a huge and unwieldy cast; there aren't many writers who could have made Age of Ultron as good as it is.
Still, the overall feeling is that there's simultaneously too much of everything, and not enough of anything. Watching Avengers: Age of Ultron in a cinema with multi-channel sound turned up just a bit too high is a special kind of sensory overload, like those sixties rock concerts where the audience got stoned because that was the only way they could stand the volume. The multiple digital effects are at once dazzling and numbing; they are like a rich man's funeral where the huge floral arrangements are meant to confirm that the deceased was beloved, but only confirm that he was rich.
The result is that it's the real things that make us stop and say "hey there": that the crowds fleeing the Hulk's rampage are predominantly black (it is, after all, Johannesburg, but seems like a brilliant innovation because we are so used to seeing crowds of white people, and Asians, in blockbusters and kaiju films); that after years of hearing Paul Bettany as Jarvis, we actually get to see him, looking and sounding great; and that when all the dust has settled and the crisis is over, Tony Stark summons that most mundane of sci-fi devices (soon to be science fact): a driverless car. Although spectacles come and go, at the core of great films are real things. In Age of Ultron, the real things remain at the periphery, when they should be at the core.
PS: the incredibly skewed gender and racial politics of superhero films are also dating them shamefully. At least in Age of Ultron, a few women occasionally get to do something. But the black characters played by Don Cheadle (a bit of a fifth wheel, even in the Iron Man films), Anthony Mackie (after Captain America: The Winter Soldier, we want to see more of the Falcon and the actor who plays him, not just a glimpse) and Samuel L. Jackson (who doesn't do much in any of these films except once again, the excellent Winter Soldier) are hastily shuffled through the plot, soon dispensed with to make way for the white heroes. Perhaps mass audiences want super-heroes; but how long are they going to put up with this comic book white-guys-only world?
The Strain (2014)
Indeed, it strains at every seam
Attracted, as no doubt many of us were, by the Guillermo del Toro name, a few years ago I checked the first volume of The Strain, the novel, out of the library and I was appalled. Fringe had just made its TV debut, starting with an airliner landing in New York City with all its crew and passengers dead, and here was The Strain, using exactly the same device. Moreover, as the story unfolded it showed an awful resemblance to another novel, Robert R. McCammon's They Thirst (1981), which told the vampires-devour-an-entire-city story with much more conviction. The Strain's story, like They Thirst, hinges on a sort of superDracula who arrives from central Europe, and on a single émigré who knows what's truly happening. Del Toro even steals from himself, reprising from Blade II the vampires-with-proboscises that he expects us to find so much more awesome than regular vampires.
The second volume dutifully followed formula, and the saga, co-written with Chuck Hogan, was becoming so dreary that I spent only a few minutes paging through volume three, skipping to the end to find a bald ripoff of Nigel Kneale's The Quatermass Conclusion.
But del Toro has made such interesting films, including the delightful comic book movie Hellboy, and he wrote and directed Pan's Labyrinth which is a great movie, period. Since "Pan" his track record as a director has been spottyalthough he has been a producer on such worthwhile films as Biutiful, Splice and Mama, and I admit that since seeing Gareth Edwards' ponderous Godzilla, I have renewed respect for del Toro's much more colourful and fun kaiju movie, Pacific Rim.
So why does The Strain, on film as in print, seem hasty and exploitative, and its personal touches so ineffective? Naming the hero Efraim, so that everyone calls him "F," was unappealing in the book and on film it's embarrassing, and so is the character himself. With these talents and resources on hand, you would think that the expository scene revealing his marital troubles would evoke some sympathy for poor Eff, but he just comes off as a dork. In these days of climate change and dwindling oil supplies, is his putdown of his wife's lover for driving a Prius really supposed to be funny? Eff of course, like a real he-man, drives around New York City in a gas-guzzling off-road Range Rover. Inspecting the derelict airliner, he finds a squirmy annelid which he immediately identifies as the host that carries The Strain. "Beautiful," he says with a delighted smile, although it has just killed 210 men, women and children and is now trying to pierce his ex-lover's protective glove. David Stoll's ability to convey inner weakness and outward bluster worked for him in House of Cards, but here the script dooms him from the startwe'd be so much happier if Eff got wiped out and Dr. Nora Martinez (Mia Maestro), who seems much faster on the uptake, took the lead.
Indeed, Episode One of The Strain exhibits all the faults that weakened the bookthe CDC guy working for the vampires was the only surprise. To give credit where it's due, the episode ended wella scene that could have become an effects bloodbath heavy on worms and proboscises, del Toro presents as a tender father-daughter reunion--like a great horror director he leaves the rest to our imaginationsbut given The Strain's assumption that viewers will be perfectly happy to see other people's leftovers presented as a master's chef's weekly special, as a viewer I am not tempted to continue.
Man of Steel (2013)
Another oversized carton of overpriced popcorn
The first 21st-century wave of superhero films, though excellently (even beautifully) done, were about twenty minutes too long: Spiderman, X-Men, Hulk, Batman Begins. They have long been superseded by films which are fifty minutes too long: Spiderman 3, the Dark Knight movies and now Man of Steel. If as a young adolescent, you enjoyed comic books which took twelve minutes to read, you probably thought, "if they could only make movies like this!" As is so often the case, getting what you wish for has turned into a curse: that 12-minute dose of high romance--that you spent the rest of the day thinking about while you did other stuff--has turned into a two and a half hour ordeal that you spend the rest of the day trying to forget. In this latest version of the Superman origin story, the planet Krypton is transformed into a (strangely colourless) wonderland where babies are raised in underwater reefs, Superman's dad Jor-el flies around on a giant insect, and we are treated to every second of mother Lara's delivery pains. But the essential story, mass-distributed since 1939, is old news. Fortunately, if you have waited, as I did, to see Man of Steel on the Movie Network, you can fast forward through all this to get to Superman/Kal-el arriving on Earthalthough you will pay for it, as I did, with some confusion as to why although the bad guy, Zod, ends up searching for Kal-el for 33 years, the vessel that becomes the Fortress of Solitude has been in the ice for 18,000 years, etc. The cast is first-rate, though Russell Crowe as Jor-el seems more at home spouting reams of solemn exposition than does Michael Shannon as Zodthough to cut Shannon some slack, it's hard to imagine any actor getting into a character who's such a cosmic sourpuss. When Superman saves the world, only to find that Zod is still left and spoiling for revenge, it gives the viewer not so much a shock of horror but a moan of anguish that the movie is not going to end, or even lighten up and give us a denouement with a few jokes, but continue for another seemingly endless CGI fight sequence. The fun denouement does arrive, though it's all too brief, and when the production credits start to roll, after the obvious talents of Zack Snyder and David S. Goyer, we have to wonder just which of the many producers were responsible for turning Man of Steel, with all the talents behind it, into just another oversized carton of overpriced popcorn.
A "Hound" Rocky & Uneven as the Foggy Moors Themselves
The Hound of the Baskervilles is, of course, the Sherlock Holmes mystery where Holmes goes undercover for the whole middle part. He is always lurking just offstage, but in this 1983 production we especially miss, for an awful lot of the film, the marvelous voice and presence of Ian Richardson. If like me, you tracked down this mystery solely to get more of the virtuoso Richardson, whose acting highlighted the BBC House of Cards trilogy, this gap will disappoint you, although we are compensated by the great Denholm Elliott as the country doctor who comes to Baker Street to fetch Holmes. These are the acting highlights: Martin Shaw as the young American Baskerville heir seems to be thrusting his way through on sheer goodwill--he is likable enough that you wish that for his own sake, Sir Henry would heed the many warning signs, head back to London and take acting lessons. Meanwhile, stuck in small parts as the mansion's head servants are Eleanor Bron and Edward Judd --now there's a pair who could have made a great Holmes and Watson on their own. There is just enough good stuff here to carry you throughcinematographer Ronnie Taylor makes the scenes on the open moors in daytime epic in scope, and the night scenes amid the boggy, fog-shrouded moraine around the remote mansion are often scary. In the grand climax, a chase by black silhouettes against bottomless fog is staged and filmed with great skill. On the other hand, too often this "Hound" offers the standard Masterpiece Theatre stuff of lamplit Victorian parlours, tame-looking city streets and city folk hobnobbing with the rustic locals, and seems pretty generic considering the acting and storytelling talents elsewhere on display.
Monster on the Campus (1958)
Fast, cheap and satisfying
Minor as Monster on the Campus might be as an entry in the Universal horror series (it is evidently the last such Universal film to be produced in the USA), it offers the pleasures of a minor production done with thorough professionalism. There is little of the Jack Arnold atmosphere that made The Incredible Shrinking Man one of the great 1950s science fiction films, and that make Creature from the Black Lagoon and It Came from Outer Space worth watching today. It is as if Universal wanted the box office success of those films, only this time done fast and cheap. The science-fiction elementthe blood of a deep-sea coelacanth, when ingested, induces short-term reversion to a "prehistoric" state (apparently "they," in the past, were much more bloodthirsty then than "we" are now) is tacky even by '50s sci-fi standards. The hapless scientist, Donald Blake played by Arthur Franz, falls victim to it by the sloppiest set of laboratory standards imaginablehe lifts the coelacanth carcass by its teeth, rinses his hand in the tank's meltwater
the poor goof even manages to get blood into his pipe tobacco. Next thing you, know, Blake suffers fainting spells during which he transforms into a hairy, muscular ape-manprimitive in every way except for a marvelous knack for hatchet-throwing. Worst of all, discovering that the mysterious killer terrorizing the (strangely-deserted) campus of Dunsfield University is none other than himself Blake, not to offer any more spoilers, takes actions that bring the film to a rapid conclusion. Fast and cheap. If the screenwriter, David Duncan, had been given the time to do a re-draft, who knows what Monster on the Campus could have offer us? Time for a remakethis time bringing out the submerged tensions of Blake having to work for his fiancé's father, of the nurse who makes no secret of her attraction to the handsome professor, of the bland teenage lovers who emerge from these horrors curiously unscathed. David Cronenberg, who once said (and demonstrated in The Fly) that it is bad films rather than good films that merit remakes, should chuck his current boring and talky art films and do what he does best by remaking Monster on the Campus!
Who'll hang a noose on those goose-stepping goons?
I confess that despite his jingoistic origins and his embarrassing costume, I've always had a soft spot for Captain America, whom Marvel revived during the short period, ages 12 to 14 or so, when I was reading their comics. As a bookish adolescent trying doggedly to get in shape, my favourite Marvel characters were those who had to work hard to exercise their super-powers, such as Daredevil (who aside from his sensory abilities, gained his powers from workouts in his private gym), Spiderman and the X-Men's Beast (who had to stay on their toes when battling stronger enemies like Rhino or Juggernaut) or Captain America (who in addition to his "super soldier" treatments, had developed uncanny skill in using that cool frisbee-like shield as a weapon).
As a Canadian, it was not always easy to maintain my affection for the Cap in the face of his name, costume and persona. Although I was reading about his exploits during the 1960s, I don't recall him ever questioning what the heck his country was doing in Vietnam. At the time the blanket answer of "fighting communism" was used readily to justify any US act of overseas aggressionjust as nowadays the answer is "fighting terrorism" and despite his crises of conscience and identity, Captain America's first loyalty was always to American troopsoften as not supporting them on the ground, right in the front lines, no matter who they were fighting. At the time, Marvel was always glad to seize upon communists as convenient super-villains, since popular American discourse depicted all communists as imbued with an insane and insatiable lust for power, making Chinese generals and Russian inventors into characters whounlike American politicians, generals or oil magnatescould be easily shaded into supervillains.
I must say that I was not completely taken with the film on first viewing. Captain America: The First Avenger seemed a bit low-key to be a great superhero film--perhaps in its lack of a full-fledged monster villain like Dr. Octopus, the Abomination, or the Evil Mutants of the X- Men movies, but nonetheless it impressed me with how perfectly it was made. The amazing transformation of big Chris Evans into little Steve Rogers; the period sets and costumes; the wonderful design of the Raymond Loewy-styled "streamlined" 1940s hi-tech inventions, and even a classic swing-era musical number: the film's artistry was first-rate on every level. This is big-budget Hollywood filmmaking at its best In fact, on repeated viewing The First Avenger's assets appear more clearly to be those of any classic feature film.
It is wonderfully written (and better-structured than its successor, The Avengers) by screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely and impressively acted, balancing the younger Chris Evans and Hayley Atwell with veterans Tommy Lee Jones, Stanley Tucci, Hugo Weaving and Toby Jones. Above all, it is directed by Joe Johnston, whose talents have been evident to me ever since the third Jurassic Park film made its predecessors look like plodding religious epics, so quickly it moved and so skillfully it blended drama, action and humour.
With the introduction of the super soldier formula, the tesseract cube and Red Skull running wild with his Nazi splinter group Hydra, Johnston segues us smoothly from the real war of recruiting centers, boot camps, stretchers and bombed-out London to a comic-book war fought with acrobatics, ray guns, Howard Stark and a Hydra airplane the size of a football stadium, launched from an underground hangar that is about two miles long. WWII history tells us that not much of the European war was actually fought in the Alps by guys with machine guns on zipwires, but this is the world of Marvel Comics, a world in which Johnston is perfectly at home, with the result that there is much in the film that is perfect.
The growing empathy between the frail but plucky Steve Rogers and the statuesque Agent Carter takes a new turn when Rogers emerges from the Super Soldier pod sporting acres of muscle"gee, can I touch this?" Carter obviously thinks, sublimating these new urges in the name of professionalism, but she is the first of many, and during the musical montage of Captain America's career in show business, the eager face of a female autograph seeker, and Roger's interested response, indicates that by the time he and Carter start to cement their attraction, he may not be the sexual innocent he once was. Carter's burst of jealousy, expressed by firing a gun at Rogers and his new shield, is a romantic signifier that Howard Hawks would have been proud of: perfect. Steve's misunderstanding of the word "fondue": perfect. The final shot where, having missed his big date by over half a century, Captain America wonders if maybe the Red Skull might have been right, and they have transcended humanity (though Steve Rogers has never wanted to be anything but an ordinary man): perfect. And don't forget the big musical number, its tone and message exactly fitting the period, expertly crafted by Alan Menken and David Zippel"Who'll hang a noose on those goose-stepping goons from Berlin?" Perfect.
Launches, sputters, crashes
If you've enjoyed any of the ALIEN films, be prepared to find PROMETHEUS deeply depressing. Its plot is silly, its characters are unengaging and its suspense is missing. What went wrong? We have a skillful director, a great cast, and wonderful special effectsall undone by a clumsy script. It's as if the credited screenwriters, Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof, wrote two separate screenplays and Ridley Scott just stir-fried them together, occasionally mixing in a page or two from a script of his own. The result is a little bit of sci-fi spectacle, a little bit of action- buddy movie, a little bit of medical horror, and even a little bit of the laziest device in sci-fi movies, a character whom alien infection turns into an unstoppable zombie killer.
Part of making a believable imaginary world is that the world of the film must at least be consistent with its premises. When the film's scientists, searching for clues that terrestrial life emerged on an alien planet, find the air breathable and TAKE OFF THEIR HELMETS, only to spend the next hour or so worrying about contagion, it seems likely that the production was filmed from a scattering of pages. Similarly, although the premise of the film is that Prometheus has taken more than two years to travel at great speed to a distant star, at one point its commander Charlize Theron (who, no doubt furious at finding herself in this turkey, plays her ice queen role to grim perfection) complains that they are "half a billion" miles from Earthmeaning that they are only out around Jupiter somewhere.
Scientific illiteracy, irrelevant back stories, uncertain motivation (like the geologist who, when they find an ancient alien skeleton, turns around and heads back to the ship, because skeletons aren't geology)-- it's as if they had given Ed Wood 150 million dollars to make his dream film. Proof of the prevailing contention that all the good screen writing is on television these days, ALIEN fans would be better off watching ALIEN RESURRECTIONnow THERE'S a fun movieor even the much-maligned ALIEN VS PREDATOR which at least, unlike PROMETHEUS, is professionally- done every inch of the way.
The Thing (2011)
This time around it's less Goth, more Gothic.
For a film that is excellent in many ways, but unremarkable where it counts the most, perhaps the most interesting aspect of this new version of THE THING is how it converts this (by now) venerable plot into modern Gothic. The difference of course is the introduction of Kate, a female lead character.
Mind you, the great 1951 THE THING FROM ANOTHER WORLD had women in it two to be exact, with Margaret Sheridan, despite her secondary role top- billed, no doubt for studio reasons that are lost to history. In this post WW-II "THING", the female characters were brave and capable, but they stood deferentially behind the men in the battle against the alien, and despite the skill with which screenwriter Charles Lederer laid out the romantic subplot with Sheridan and Kenneth Tobey, the female presence did not significantly impact the plot (I can't at the moment construct analogies between the scene where Sheridan tied Tobey up during a drinking boutonly to have him escape--and the scene where the men confined the frozen alien to a store room--only to have it escape but if anyone else wants to, I'll be glad to listen).
Otherwise, from its provenance as the John W. Campbell short story Who Goes There? in 1939, through to John Carpenter's 1982 version, THE THING has always been stolidly and depressingly all-male. The addition of "Kate Lloyd" to the plot changes its focus significantly: THE THING (2011) departs from its science fiction origins to become a Gothic thriller.
A remote, controlling older man arrives without warning to spirit away an innocent (or in this case, work-obsessed) young palaeontologist to his distant castle or mansion. Once there, she has no way to escape, and has to figure out some way to avoid becoming the next wife to be locked up raving in the attic or rotting away in the icy depths beyond the pounding surf etc. In this case, Kate's task is to alert her new colleagues to the seriousness of their situation, and to avoid getting absorbed herself. Traditionally the Gothic heroine has to await rescue or reform her captor through sheer goodness. Kate however, obviously having grown up on Sigourney Weaver movies, grabs a flamethrower and starts barking orders. In the end though having suffered great losses, she still has some kind of control.
Future writers are welcome to explore THE THING as a Gothic romance in all its permutations. The Carpenter versionthis may have come from the original short storyeven has a character who goes nuts and has to be locked up, raving, in a nearby garret/toolshed (although it turns out ), and in both cases, Gothic and Sci-Fi, the protagonist's goal is to have the status quo restored and their freedom regained.
So while I am willing to cast my vote in favour of the argument that Mary Elizabeth Winstead is the best thing that could have happened to THE THING (2011), even without her it has a lot going for it. It has been well-written and produced; an obvious labour of love from a writer and director who are fans of the 1982 Carpenter version.
But although I tempt the wrath of its many fans, I must admit I also find THE THING (1982) notable for the sheer pleasureless creepiness of its concept and execution. It is a virtuoso work in the way that it groups together a cast of unsympathetic characters, and then pits them against each other in new and gruesome ways, killing off almost everyone starting with the dogs. But for those very reasons, watching it can be a grim and depressing experience. So in watching THE THING (2011), it's not long before, to again hark back to ALIENS, the viewer starts quoting Ellen Ripley: "Look, I can see where this is going." The special effects alien in all its forms is a wonder to behold, but although we enjoy the suspense of just where and when it will next appear, there is never any doubt what it will do: grab the nearest human and get down with some hideous absorbing. So in the end we have a virtuoso work, but curiously unsatisfying: why doesn't Hollywood get these talented people together againbut this time, let them do something original?
Liam Takes Paris--takes it for all it's worth.
As exciting, well-made, fast-paced Hollywood thrillers go, it is hard to match Taken for sheer loathsomeness. Retired operative Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson) lives alone on his CIA pension, his life taken up with barbecue nights with his CIA old-boy group, and with obsessing over his 17-year-old daughter Kim (Maggie Grace), who is about to go on a trip to Paris with a girlfriend. Substitute "Paris" for "Bangkok red-light district" and you will get an idea of how Dad reacts to the idea of his little girl on her own in the City of Light. Considering that his face-to-face interactions with Kim and her mother (Famke Janssen) are hopelessly awkward, Bryan's obsession with his memories and his photo album, though played for pathos, start to seem a little creepy. But Dad's paranoia turns out to be well- founded; before Kim can unpack her toothbrush, the Albanian slave trade scoop up her and best girlfriend Amanda. On the phone with Kim while the kidnapping takes place, Bryan has just enough time to hear a few clues before he's begging his ex-wife's rich new husband for a private jet to get him to Paris in the 96 hours after which, authorities tell him, she will "disappear forever."
The trouble is, EVERYONE in Paris is in cahoots with the Albanian slavers. For all the help he gets, Bryan might as well have stayed in Los Angeles, taking on Disney, human smuggling and the Mexican drug trade. In this film from a French writer, director and producer, the French are all slimebags; even Bryan's old friend & fellow agent Jean- Claude (Olivier Rabourdin) refuses to get involved (Irish actor Neeson nails his American accent when he pronounces his old buddy's name "John- Clod") and when Bryan persists, amps up his resistance. The Albanians, and their chief clients the Arabs, are even worse. Bryan gets to revive his old skills, shooting, stabbing and breaking necks as if he was in his prime; almost no one he meets in Paris doesn't end up dead, and to a man they're the better for it. Fortunately at one point when Bryan gets in too deep, he is saved by that old standby; the pipe which has that one essential loose bracket the hero needs, and which also contains that pressurized steam whichat least in action moviesseems to be the lifeblood of large buildingsnothing so banal as the electricity or natural gas we use in real life. In the end, according to one IMDb contributor, Bryan kills 35 people to get his daughter back. But he fails to win our sympathy. Not once in Taken is he given a hint of the self-deprecating humour which is the hallmark of the successful action hero. Dour, socially awkward, good only at murder, he is a man better off on his own. Once off the plane, his evidently untraumatized daughter, bubbly as ever after her ordeal, rushes into her mother's arm with great relief; no doubt even worse than 4 days with Albanian slavers has been a trans-Atlantic flight next to her dour dad. And Famke Janssenof whom we see too littleis clearly better off with the rich guy.