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This list is of all the movies coming out this year, from May to August, that Fourth-day will watch and report on for our website. If you're planning to see these movies and would like to be a guest contributor, then contact one of our admins for details on how. If there's another movie in this time period you think we should add to the list, then just let us know in the comments.
I'd buy a ticket to this movie for a dollar. I'd even buy it at normal price. Certainly, the new RoboCop is different than the original, but it is by no means the worst installment in the franchise. Paul Verhoeven created a hyper-violent satire, and many fans of the original believe it can never be duplicated. But the remake, far from losing the spirit of the original, finds a way to make a story about cyborgs, robotic drones, and naked greed relevant for our day. Who knew?
The new Alex Murphy does a great job of embodying the central theme of this movie: how much of a man can you remove before he loses his soul? It's a legitimate question, and a relevant one in this age of artificial limbs. Face it, if you wanted to make a movie about a man who fights to stay "human" as his body is replaced with robotics, then RoboCop is the character you'd eventually create. And Joel Kinnaman seems perfect for the role. Even after most of his body is replaced, Officer Murphy returns to his family and friends with his personality more or less intact. It's only later that "complications" arise, ensuring his creators take drastic steps to keep their "monster" from running wild.
The mad scientist of this particular tale, Dr. Dennett Norton (Gary Oldman), is perhaps more of a schizophrenic scientist, as he can't seem to decide whether he's on the side of the angels or not. In the beginning, he wants to help Murphy retain his humanity; but he still manages to help kill it by degrees, first by making his tactical responses more computer-driven and later by dulling his emotions in general so he can cope with the new sensory inputs. Both of these fly in the face of the purpose of "putting a man inside a machine". The people of these great United States don't want machines making decisions, after all; they want a human mind making decisions, and a human hand pulling the trigger when necessary.
Ironically, Oldman would have been the perfect "mad scientist" in a Verhoeven-style satire; one who only cares about advancing his research, proving his theories, conducting more experiments, and ultimately being justified by his creation. Science fiction needs more of that type of mad scientist to explore the extreme scenarios of man versus machine; but, of course, Murphy needs an ally if he's going to some day take down the real "villain" of the piece.
That villain, of course, is Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton), purveyor of robotic drones across the globe who can't seem to find a market for his products in the states. "Americans want a product with a conscious," he laments to his marketing team, "something that knows what it feels like to be human." He isn't as overtly evil as Ronny Cox's Dick Jones, but his cool head and easygoing style makes him more insidious. He manipulates Norton into slicing just a little more of Murphy's soul away with every opportunity to make him more "efficient", more marketable to the American people.
And, of course, he has his team to back up his plays. Jay Baruchel is his marketing whiz-kid who comes up with various iterations of RoboCop's "armor" for various tasks (though Sellars himself ultimately decides on the black tactical shell). And Jackie Earle Haley is Richard Mattox, the mercenary who puts Murphy through his paces, while delightfully taunting him with the epithet "Tin Man". We see quite a bit of action in this movie, despite the much bemoaned PG-13 rating, and while most of Murphy's violence is directed towards robot drones (including multiple ED-209′s), he gets the chance to confront both Mattox and Sellars in several pulse-pounding scenes.
Of course, if you just can't survive without serious satire, then Samuel L. Jackson has you covered, starting, ending, and peppering the movie with his Pat Novak persona. Novak loves robots, and isn't afraid to use his popular cable news show to accuse America of being "robophobic". He'll cut off U.S. senators as quickly as he'll cut off scenes of robots shooting children a world away just to promote his profanity-punctuated viewpoint. While we see Murphy struggle with being a cyborg, we see the country struggle with the question of whether it's right to ask anyone to bear that burden; and we see it through the lens of an over-the-top political commentator with a weird hairpiece.
In the end, this movie owes its unique style to a Brazilian director in his first Hollywood outing. Jose Padilha, a big fan of Paul Verhoeven's style and aesthetics, sees no point in even trying to emulate him. And while most fans of the original would go further and say there's no point in rebooting RoboCop at all, Padilha sees a future, our future, that includes "autonomous drones, smart robots that will decide life over death".
"It's going to be a real important decision in the future, both politically and philosophically. When you have a robot that's pulling the trigger, but making the decision itself, our culpability gets thrown out the window. In the new film, set in 2028 Detroit, OmniCorp have these drones in other countries, but not in America. So they want to get them into the American market and needed a product that had a consciousness, therefore they put a man inside a machine, and that's the premise for the movie."
It's a great premise, too. Do we want machines making those kinds of decisions? Other sci-fi movies have tackled this question. Why not RoboCop, the one movie character who may be the most perfect for the job? Both Padilha and Verhoeven are noted for blending action and social commentary, which may make this not only the perfect time but also the perfect team for repurposing the world's most famous robotic police officer.
- Review originally posted at http://fourthdayuniverse.com/reports/2014/02/robocop-repurposed/
THAT Was a Dragon
"The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug" is the quintessential fantasy movie, with quests, monsters, fair maidens, heroes, villains, revenge, intrigue, magic, dungeons, and, of course, a dragon. All of these elements are present in Tolkien's novel "The Hobbit" (with the exception of the "fair maiden", that is), but not all of them are there throughout the novel; so, in trying to turn one novel into three movies, Peter Jackson had to stretch a lot of elements across all three movies, and introduce whole new elements in some places. It's less of a problem with "Desolation of Smaug" than it was with "An Unexpected Journey", which is partly why people say this film is superior to that one; but it's still a problem.
Jackson has taken some serious flack for reusing characters from The Lord of the Rings in a trilogy based on a novel that never even mentioned them. But, there is a valid and even important point to adding these characters. In the novel "The Hobbit", when the company enters Mirkwood, Gandalf (Ian McKellen) leaves them, claiming he has business elsewhere. While this may seem like a vague justification to give Bilbo an excuse to step up, Tolkien did actually have something important for Gandalf to do at the time. He leaves to investigate reports of a Necromancer in the crumbling stronghold of Dol Guldur. Many dark creatures in Middle Earth have a connection to this place, as you'll see in DoS. Radagast the Brown (Sylvester McCoy) alerted the White Council to the Necromancer's plotting in AUJ, which is why we see them all together there, and why Gandalf travels to Dol Guldur in this film. I mention this to show that not everything Jackson does in the Hobbit films is about pandering.
On the other hand, some of what he does is all about pandering. While Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and company are battling Spiders in Mirkwood, they are "saved" by Wood Elves, who promptly take them all prisoner as trespassers. Included among the Elves is Legolas, who, in the Tolkienverse, is the son of King Thranduil (Lee Pace), so at least there's a logical explanation for him being there. But the female warrior Elf Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) is completely new.
I understand that Tolkien didn't include a lot of female characters in his stories. But the least you could do is not include a woman who has only two roles to fill, one of them being purely romantic. Sure, Tauriel is seen slaughtering at least as many orcs as Legolas, but that doesn't make her a strong character; that just makes her a character who happens to have a talent for killing.
Her other role was, apparently, being in love with Legolas; and with the Dwarf Kili (Aidan Turner). Between the awkward flirting with both men, the lack of any substantive contribution to the narrative, and Jackson shoehorning in a brand new subplot for Kili just so Tauriel would have some more screen time in the final act of the film, there's no real reason why her character should have been added to DoS.
The main problem I had with Tauriel is she seemed completely out of place in the narrative, and not because she had never been there before. They interspersed tense and dramatic moments between Bilbo and the dragon Smaug with "romantic" and, frankly, quite silly moments between Tauriel and Kili. If they had eliminated the "love triangle" between Tauriel, Kili, and Legolas, even if they had left in the romance angle between her and Legolas, then it wouldn't have wrenchingly distracted from what were, in my opinion, the most powerful moments of the film.
Setting aside all the "extra" plot lines, whether Tolkien intended for them to exist or not, the "Hobbit" parts of the film were, in a word, fantastic. The way they wrote and handled the scenes with the Spiders, the escape from the Wood Elves' dungeon, and the climactic confrontation with the magnificent Smaug were my favorite moments, and Freeman's Bilbo virtually carried every scene. He melded tension, suspense, and even humor into a performance that kept me grinning from ear to ear.
Smaug the Golden, the Chiefest and Greatest of Calamities, in no way disappointed me. Dragons are magnificent creatures, and Smaug has set the standard for dragons for over 75 years now. Benedict Cumberbatch's voice undoubtedly lent to the powerful portrayal, but there's nothing that quite matches simply seeing the massive beast on the screen, emerging from beneath a sea of gold and jewels (with a cowering hobbit in the center adding no small amount to the feeling of awe at the sight). And to hear the words, only slightly altered from Tolkien's original text, as Smaug taunts Bilbo with his insignificance, teasing him with the prospect of near-instantaneous destruction, and even taking time to instill a sense of doubt in the hobbit's mind about his companions, the conspicuously reluctant-to-enter Dwarfs. I could watch the film over and over just to see Smaug again.
I shook my head several times throughout the film, though not as much as during the first film. I think some scenes (and characters, obviously) just didn't belong. But, some scenes that Jackson added helped the movie, and the larger narrative of the trilogy. And, as I cannot say enough times, the dragon was incredible. Much more so than after An Unexpected Journey, I'm looking forward to the next film.
(Read the full review at http://fourthdayuniverse.com/reports/2013/12/that-was-a-dragon/)
Man of Steel (2013)
It's Superman's Time
Most people chafed at the thought of a retelling of Superman's origin story. But, like a composer weaving the same notes into a new song, the team of Snyder, Nolan, and Goyer have taken the same elements and given us an all-new emotionally-resonant and intellectually-stimulating composition.
We start this new tale on the dying planet of Superman's birth. That single element right there is the first change from the traditional Superman mythos: the fact of Superman's birth. Like certain great science fiction tales of old (more on that in a bit), Krypton is portrayed as a hyper-advanced society that has become virtually (and in some cases literally) mechanized in all the aspects that matter. Children, for example, are not born, but rather grown. For centuries, this has been Krypton's way of controlling the population and assigning roles for everyone in society. It is considered heresy for a couple to bear a child on their own as Jor-El and Lara Lor-Van have done.
There's not much time for punishment, of course, as mining forays into Krypton's core have triggered massive geologic events that will lead to the planet's inevitable destruction. Jor-El and Lara have foreseen this, and they have prepared a ship to carry their son Kal-El to another world; along with the Codex, a genetic database for the entire Kryptonian race, that may one day be used to rebuild their civilization. Kal-El's parents don't join him in the life pod, partly because they consider themselves a product of their own failed society, but also because they need to protect the pod's launch from the forces of General Zod.
Michael Shannon has some large, hammy shoes to fill. Terence Stamp's performance as the megalomaniacal Zod in Superman II is the pinnacle of supervillainy goodness in film. Could "I will find him!" be the new "Kneel before Zod!"? Maybe not. But Shannon does give us a thrilling reinterpretation of the Kryptonian criminal. As I said earlier, on Krypton, children are genetically engineered and raised from "birth" to fill certain roles in society. Zod's role is as Krypton's protector; and he is good at his job. Anything he sees as a threat to Krypton, he seeks to eliminate. That includes the Council that dug too deep into Krypton's core, Jor-El and Lara's illegally-conceived son, and the people of planet Earth when it becomes clear that terraforming our planet is the only way to build an environment where the genetic lines in the Codex can be properly reconstituted. He's campy at times, but Shannon's Zod is no less threatening for that fact, and he provides a grown Kal-El with a frightening picture of what the planet of his origin had produced.
Armed all the morals both his adoptive parents could instill in him, grown up Clark wanders the Earth hoping to learn more about himself, and looking for any sign that the time to reveal himself is at hand. His travels eventually lead him to the Arctic, where military forces (and one enterprising reporter) are on the verge of discovering an alien aircraft that's been buried in the ice for thousands of years. Clark beats them to it, of course, and activates his real father's artificial intelligence interface, allowing him to learn at last about his other heritage.
Some have criticized MoS for being "dark and gloomy", but I see it as hopeful and inspirational. And nowhere is that hope and inspiration more evident than in the scene where Jor-El tells his son he will only know how strong he is if he keeps testing his limits. His speech about how humanity will race behind him, stumble, and fall, but eventually join him in the Sun is taken directly from "All-Star Superman", one of the best Superman graphic novels in history. Another graphic novel, "Superman: Birthright", gives us the gem about how the "S" is actually the Kryptonian symbol for hope. The scene culminates in Superman's first flight.
The final battle, of course, is where the great debate about whether this is really a "Superman movie" resides. As you know, superhero battles often cause a great deal of destruction, but it's often shrugged off as "cartoon violence". In any case, we rarely see anyone actually die (though we all have to admit there must be plenty of offscreen death in every superhero movie). MoS actually shows a lot of that death on screen as the Kryptonians' ships start terraforming the Earth into a new Krypton. We see that Superman, tasked with destroying two massive ships on opposite sides of the Earth, cannot save everyone. This has led a distressingly large number of people to claim that he actually causes the death and destruction in Metropolis, though a careful reviewing will show that Superman didn't actually cause all that much damage, either directly or indirectly.
You may say he was responsible for all the damage Zod caused during their titanic clash; but Zod, bereft of his one last chance to create a new Krypton to protect as he'd been born and bred to do, swore to make every human suffer to punish Kal-El. The fully deranged general would not let himself be led away, and in the end, he forced Superman to pass final, terrible, and swift judgment upon him with the lives of others in danger. On Earth, we call it "suicide by cop". Superman, no doubt, will call it the moment he realized there were some things even he couldn't do.
I love this movie. MoS has given us the chance to see a new Superman in a new way, and whether it makes a billion dollars in theaters or paves the way for a Justice League movie or even gets a sequel, it shows us what a man, even a man of steel, can do. It's enough to make me strain my neck watching the skies.
(read full review at http://fourthdayuniverse.com/reports/2013/07/its-supermans-time)
Okay, so the box office numbers haven't generally been that explosive, shall we say. That's more due to The Avengers totally dominating theaters, though. This movie, based very loosely on the Hasbro game of the same name, is actually a really enjoyable film; once the alien invasion starts, that is.
Battleship is actually one of the best alien invasion movies I've seen; and you know how critical I can be of alien invasion movies. It exploits a weakness, of course, but not an unreasonable one like a sensitivity to water (which is good, because most of the action takes place in the Pacific Ocean). It requires a diverse group of humans to band together, which is arranged by staging an international war games exercise on the day the invasion begins (bit of a coincidence, but the sailors from different countries do make a great team). And it has Liam Neeson; not very much of him, but hey, it's Liam Neeson.
On the other hand, it also has Taylor Kitsch (John Carter). Kitsch's character is Lieutenant Hopper, whose attitude problem has grown so large that he's facing a discharge from the Navy once the war games have ended. His older brother, played by Alexander Skarsgård (True Blood), is commander of one of the other ships. He's been looking out for him all his life, but can't make him grow up. And one of the Japanese captains, played by Tadanobu Asano (Thor) goes from fistfighting Hopper to fighting alongside him. Oh, and supersinger Rihanna is also in the film.
The characters are all pretty cookie-cutter, but like I said, once the invasion starts, it gets really good. They don't bother trying to impress people by spending a lot of time on the aliens' biology or weapons technology, focusing instead on strategy. They don't give the aliens a massive advantage (not too much of one, anyway), showing from the beginning that even aliens can have a crash landing. The communications ship is disabled, which means they have to take over human communications satellites to reach the rest of their species. So, the humans have a simple, if not particularly easy, task: knock out their own satellites as well as the remaining alien ships.
The aliens still have the advantage, though. Their weapons are still superior to ours (some of their artillery actually resembles the pegs from the old Hasbro game), and they quickly demolish any warships that engage them. Hopper and company, though, manage to limp their way to Hawai'i, where the last battleship in the Navy awaits them. The "Mighty Mo", the USS Missouri, where Japan surrendered as the final act of World War II, which fought in the battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa, which has been essentially a floating museum for decades, finds itself brought out of retirement for one last fight. It sounds cheesy, maybe even a little jingoistic, but you rarely see an alien invasion movie that doesn't have some ultra-patriotic scene. In Battle: Los Angeles, it's the U.S. Marines going straight into battle. Independence Day, of course, has the big battle on the Fourth of July. Battleship, however, doesn't feel cheesy at all when you see veterans returning to their posts and the Mighty Mo taking to the sea. Perhaps foreign audiences won't feel the same swell of pride that Americans do, but purely as an action sequence, watching it sail into battle is still thrilling.
Do the aliens sink their battleship? You don't expect me to give away the ending, do you? Go see the film. The "human interest" parts may not be Shakespeare, exactly, but the "human versus alien" parts will blow you out of the water.
(original review posted at http://fourthdayuniverse.com/reports/2012/05/battleship-unsinkable/ )
Wrath of the Titans (2012)
All Plot, No Characters
Now, I actually liked the remake of Clash of the Titans better than the original, as I've written before. Though the plots were very similar, I felt the characters had better development and motivation in the remake. Unfortunately, Wrath of the Titans takes a step backwards in that regard.
Take Perseus, played again by Sam Worthington. In the 1981 Clash, he was sort of a generic hero who sort of generically decided to save the world and marry Princess Andromeda. In the remake, he's given actual motivation for his actions. He's a half-man, half-god whose adopted human family was just killed and blames the gods for their deaths, and must reconcile his divine heritage with his desire to live as a man. Whatever you may think of Worthington's performance in the remade Clash, the effort was certainly made to give some depth to his character.
In Wrath, however, he sort of falls back into his generic role as the "demi-god hero". Not for lack of trying, mind you. They do give him a son and a half-brother (Ares, played by Édgar Ramírez), but neither they nor he spend much time on screen developing themselves past their surface traits. That's a shame, too, because Ares, the God of War, could have been such an impressive character, especially since he betrays his father Zeus (Liam Neeson) to the Titan Kronos. Instead, the God of War comes across as more than a little ... whiny as he berates Zeus for being a bad father to him. The rivalry between Ares and Perseus is never really explored, but you can't imagine there being much to explore given that Ares actually lives with Zeus on Mount Olympus and Perseus lives as a human with his son and didn't even like Zeus all that much in the last movie. Why does Perseus seem so devoted to his father now? Why does Ares seem to think Zeus has grown so close to his half-human son? Those are two questions the movie never even tried to answer, but should have.
Next on the list of underdeveloped (and underutilized) characters is the demi-god Agenor (played by Toby Kebbell), the son of Poseidon (Danny Huston). We first meet Agenor in an Argos prison. Apparently, he's something of a master conman/thief/liar, but his father, the God of the Sea, trusts him and sends Perseus to enlist him in the fight between Olympians and Titans. Agenor could, potentially, have been the most interesting character in the movie, as charming rogues with hearts of gold have a tendency to be. However, we're not given much of his backstory, which leaves us with the vague clichéd assumption that his father abandoned him, he turned to a life of crime and cons to survive, and the news of his father's death has shaken him so that he's decided to give being a good guy (for a price) another shot. To be fair, hearing that a god has died would make anyone stop and think; and it gives us one of the better exchanges in the movie: Agenor: Gods don't die.
Perseus: They do now.
You see, it's not that this is a bad movie. The dialogue, for the most part, is actually pretty good. The plot, while it's more akin to epic fantasy than traditional Greek myths, is an interesting one. And the settings and special effects are, quite frankly, spectacular. The labyrinth that leads into Tartarus, where Zeus is being slowly drained of his life force so that Kronos can be freed of his prison, is an incredible shifting stone maze. The creature effects, especially the Chimera and the Makhai, are stunning and even fairly realistic. But the movie revolves entirely around the plot, which is a fairly basic one and even mirrors the plot of the 2010 movie. The characters are just going through the motions, like a puppet show with really good visuals. I understand that, at nearly two hours in length, it could hardly take more time for character development, but there are ways they could have gotten around that.
I'd recommend this movie, personally. It's exhilarating, and at times quite hilarious. For all that it has very little character development (and only one Titan), it's still a good movie.
(This review originally appeared at http://fourthdayuniverse.com/ )
Green Lantern (2011)
A Courageous Effort
We're all a little spoiled with our movie-going experiences these days, I feel. Even without the CGI (which was spectacular) and the cast (which had several fan favorites, both as characters and the actors portraying them), this movie would have been a serious contender not ten years ago. We've had a glut of superhero movies in the last decade, some phenomenally good (The Dark Knight, Iron Man) and some phenomenally bad (Catwoman, X-Men 3: The Last Stand). We've adopted a sort of attitude that a superhero movie isn't "good" unless it's "great". Sure, we can say to ourselves and each other that we never expected it to be on par with Christopher Nolan's films, but that's exactly what we wanted it to be. And that's exactly what it didn't need to be.
GL tells the story of a cocky test pilot, Hal Jordan, who manages to disappoint several people close to him by crashing his plane during a test. Despite this apparent failure on his part, the risks he was willing to take during the test demonstrate the sort of indomitable will Hal possesses that makes him worthy to enter the Green Lantern Corps.
Hal is the first human being to ever be chosen for the Corps. We're a "young" species, unaware of any life beyond our own planet, and rather arrogant, besides. That makes some of its more prominent members, Kilowog (Michael Clarke Duncan) and Sinestro (Mark Strong), doubtful that Hal can fulfill his duties; especially since the Lantern he replaced was Abin Sur (Temuera Morrison), their greatest warrior. In the face of their skepticism and even hostility towards him, even Hal begins to doubt that he belongs.
Meanwhile, back on Earth, Abin Sur's dead body has been recovered by the government. Killed and infected by the dreaded being Parallax, he is examined by scientist Hector Hammond (Peter Sarsgaard), who also becomes infected and begins to exhibit strange powers of his own as a result. Jordan and Hammond are seemingly polar opposites: one so self-assured and charismatic that he can do anything he wants, and the other so brilliant and yet so timid that all he can do is dream of what he wants. It's a dynamic that sounds cliché, but that fits easily into the storyline and their eventual confrontation. The problem is the movie doesn't spend enough time building their chemistry and relationship on screen.
Actually, the movie doesn't have much time to spend on anything. It's only an hour and forty-five minutes, which, given how much ground (and space) they need to cover, is not enough. It needed to be at least twenty minutes longer, not just to give the characters more time to develop, but also to smooth out some very awkward segues between scenes.
Not that everything about the movie was awkward or rushed. I actually think they did a good job with Carol Ferris' (Blake Lively) relationship with Hal throughout the movie. They establish their childhood friendship, their past as lovers, and their current balancing act as best friends and pseudo-employer/employee. She's positioned to take over her father's company, so she needs to put her foot down about Hal's seemingly careless attitude sometimes; but she still helps him realize the difference between being fearless and being able to overcome fear; which is the one lesson he needs to learn if he is ever to live up to the responsibility entrusted to him with and by the power ring. The only real misfire with her character, again, was with her relationship with Hector Hammond. It's another aspect of their particular triangle that could have worked, if only they'd been given more time.
More time is exactly what this franchise needs. It laid a significant amount of groundwork for a trilogy, especially with the character of Sinestro and his ruthless pursuit of what he considers to be the right path to justice. It gave Hal Jordan an opportunity to grow from willful to full of will. It was sort of the Iron Man 2 of the franchise (if, indeed, it becomes a franchise): more setup for what's ahead than establishment of what is; more flash than substance, though it certainly did not lack for substance. DC and WB should not be afraid to follow up with a sequel or even a full trilogy; because, as Hal reminds us in the movie, "once you give in to fear, you can never go back". They want to branch out from Superman and Batman? They want to compete with the Avengers and Marvel's full slate of superhero movies, both planned and current? Then they need to give Green Lantern time to grow into his role. They need to take another chance, another risk, as they did when they made this one in the first place. Now is the time to give the franchise the support it needs. Just making this movie was a courageous effort; it will take even more courage to move forward from here.
(originally appeared at http://fourthdayuniverse.com/reports)
Super 8 (2011)
Production values, man! Production values!
Super 8 holds the almost unique position of being a big budget genre release this summer that is not a sequel, remake, or adaptation of a book or comic.
(I know. I'm just as surprised as you are.) That said, it's easy to discern the roots of J.J. Abrams' latest project, even if one doesn't notice who's executive producing or what long-unused production company label is in the credits.
It's basically the ultimate Valentine yet produced to the work directors like Steven Spielberg, Richard Donner, Joe Dante, and the like had a hand in, back in the late 70s and early 80s. Most specifically the ones that featured snarky but likable kids on a wild adventure.
I think some people forget just what a revelation those films were. Released at a time when Disney and other purveyors of family entertainment produced toothless, faded films that people forgot about (if they even bothered to see them in the first place), these movies drew us in with their humor, their heart and the delicious sense of danger.
We begin the film with a group of kids who want to win the upcoming Cleveland Super 8 film festival. They have the perfect idea for a movie: ZOMBIES! School is finally out for summer. They're refreshed and ready to make the best monster movie ever.
I knew these kids. I used to be one. Sweet, geeky, bickering, goofy, and endearingly innocent.
But, all isn't fun and games. Joe, the boy who budding director Chris chose to be their makeup guy, is still secretly mourning his mother, who died in a terrible accident a few months ago. His dad is the town sheriff and is very obviously overwhelmed with being the local law -and- a full-time father.
To add spice, the girl who agreed to star in the film and drive them around at night is the daughter of the man indirectly responsible for the death of Joe's mom! It's all familiar, involving coming-of-age soap stuff.
The young cast is excellent. They totally sell their friendship, their banter, their heartache, and their desire to do a cool monster movie.
But, as things will, a monkey wrench is thrown in after about 20 minutes of youthful innocence and wistfulness. Sneaking off to the local railroad station for "production values", they witness a spectacular, terrifying train crash.
A crash which releases SOMETHING into their hometown. Something that wants very much to leave it, at any cost.
And it becomes a new movie, with sinister military men, secret monsters, and the kids themselves getting in way over their heads in an attempt to figure out the truth and just possibly save their hometown and the world in the process.
The slow reveal of the escaped alien was actually pretty cool. In fact, most of the more exciting scenes in the film are excellently done. I get the feeling many of these images were in J.J.'s head for a long time.
On the level of being a nostalgic tribute to the late 70s/early 80s work of Spielberg, it works. It's perhaps one of the most well put together Valentines to those films I've ever seen.
Unfortunately, it's never quite able to work on a level deeper than that. The emotional climax of the film is attempted, but they just can't seem to sell it the way it was sold in, say, E.T.. (Or to give a modern example, in almost every Pixar film since Toy Story 2.) I usually enjoy the work of Abrams. I definitely enjoyed this. But it's probably not quite what he wanted to accomplish.
That said, the youthful cast is stellar, the eye candy action pieces are jaw-dropping, and at least a third of the film really is as mysterious and wistful as it wants to be. That's more than can be said for many attempts at creating a retro-classic.
There are so many wonderful moments I want to spoil but won't. Be on the lookout for an oddball but beautifully touching lesson on zombie behavior. Look for the strange link between the eyes of a beloved, much missed mother and the gaze of a bizarre alien.
Look for the way misunderstanding and fear can be replaced by joy and wonderment. Even after bad things happen.
And definitely stick around during the credits, where as a bonus you'll get treated to the delights of the completed zombie film.
(The first person to make a "Hey, were there LENS FLARES? Hyuck, hyuck, hyuck." joke: Prepare to face my wrath.) (post originally appeared at http://fourthdayuniverse.com/reports)
X-Men: First Class (2011)
Between rage and serenity
X-Men: First Class takes us on a strange journey. It takes us back to the land of "might have been".
The source material has been doing this for years, of course. Alternate timelines, possible Earths, parallel universes are old hat for the X-Men. Heck, some of their members come from such times and places. But the cinematic X-Men have more or less avoided such toys.
Until now. Ignoring X-3 and Origins: Wolverine (no. stop. don't. police.), the film postulates and explores missed opportunities. The tragedy of roads not taken. And it does this all without Wolverine hogging the screen! (Not to say that there just might be a cameo of some sort, bub.) By taking this unconventional approach, the franchise has not just been rejuvenated, I believe that it raises the bar for live action super-hero films in general.
Magneto and Professor X. They were friends, once. But who was responsible for the creation of whom? Why are they each other's arch-foes? Let's travel back to 1962 and find out, shall we? The young, spoiled Charles Xavier we meet has lived a life of privilege and wealth. His powers are easily hidden. If anything, he's more interested in using them to chase women and score educational opportunities than change the world for the better.
Meanwhile, a mysterious man named Erik is systematically traversing the globe, hunting down the men who made his childhood a living hell.
Both end up on a collision course when they run afoul of the enigmatic Sebastian Shaw, the self-appointed "Black King" of mutantkind, who's rapidly manipulating world events to the point that the Children of the Atom just may be the only living things left.
Charles' and Erik's respective arcs consume most of the film, but much focus is also had on Hank McCoy and Raven Darkholme, perhaps better known as Beast and Mystique. Neither can go out in the world without hiding what they truly are. Both long to be normal.
But is their freakish appearance truly a curse? Do they need to be "cured"? Or do they need to be proud? The tragic results of their haphazard experiments with being normal drive the points the film wishes to make home just as powerfully as Erik magnetically drives his points home in certain intense scenes.
Don't be mistaken. This movie, despite the teen goofing, 60s spy film cool, and general bright production design gets very dark before the end.
And it's unafraid to take this darkness to its logical conclusion.
We may mourn for Beast and Mystique's relationship being starcrossed. We may sigh and shake our heads at Charles' foolishness in not understanding just the wrong things to say to a man on the brink.
But the irony is, these same failures create hope, and heroism, where before was only hedonism and hidden villainy.
The final truth: By having his youthful blinders ripped away, his legs crippled, and his friendship betrayed, Xavier finally understands what a terrible place the world actually is. And this gives him the fire he needs to be a shining light of goodness in it.
By damning himself, Erik creates the method by which the world may ultimately be saved.
This is deep, mythic story-telling here. It's the sort of fresh start Marvel's mutants needed. Here's looking to much more to follow.
(Originally appeared at http://fourthdayuniverse.com/reports)
The best sci-fi western I've seen in years
The latest comic book/manga adaptation to reach the big screen is Priest, an action-horror story based (very loosely) on Min-Woo Hyung's manga of the same name. As far as adaptations go, this movie gets an F in Faithfulness. It could hardly differ more from the source material. The manga is set in the past; the movie, in the future. The eponymous Priest has a name in the manga; in the movie, he has a number. The role of the church differs greatly in each, from a very standard, recognizable incarnation in the manga to a disconnected, dystopian theocracy in the movie that would make George Orwell blush. Min-Woo Hyung's monsters are akin to George Romero's zombies, while director Scott Charles Stewart's vampires are a cross between the soldier demons in 2005′s Constantine and the raptors in 2000′s Pitch Black. These changes make last month's Dylan Dog: Dead of Night seem like a frame-for-frame copy of the original comics.
There are some welcome changes, though. In the manga, "Priest" is an ironic moniker, as the main character is actually a servant of (and bodily host to) a demon. He is essentially a pawn in a civil war between two powerful devils, who struggles to save his soul, even though he has literally traded it already. While I appreciate irony as much as anyone, at this point the "white knight in Satan's service" has become a bit of a cliché. I much prefer the movie's version of priests, the specially trained soldiers of God who turned the tide in the war between vampires and humans. While the church's treatment of their mortal saviors, mistrust leading to disbandment á la the Templar Knights, is itself a cliché, it does perfectly set the stage for what follows.
And what follows? Well, the manga and the movie share more than a name. Though the plots and settings are different, both are actually powerful representatives of the sci-fi western genre. Paul Bettany (A Knight's Tale, The Da Vinci Code) is a retired soldier (of God) who comes out of retirement when his brother's frontier home is attacked. Cam Gigandet (Pandorum) is the lawman in love with the girl abducted during the attack who brings word to Bettany and joins him in his quest to hunt down the creatures responsible. They cross the desert, investigate hostile settlements, fight roving gangs (of vampires), and even have a showdown with the villains on a speeding train. It's a plot right out of a classic western, and it completely supplants the stereotypical dystopian future/vampire scourge narratives as the heart of the movie.
The actors make it work, too. Bettany is thoroughly enjoyable, and believable, in his role as a man tortured by more than one element of his past and seeking any form of atonement. Gigandet is certainly no rookie, but he is when it comes to vampires, and he needs Bettany's guidance as much as he needs his quicker-than-the-human-eye reflexes. Maggie Q (Live Free or Die Hard) is solid in her role as one of four priests sent to retrieve the disobedient Bettany and bring him before Monsignor Orelas (Christopher Plummer, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, Star Trek VI) to face judgment, dead or alive. And last, but certainly not least, Karl Urban (The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Riddick) shines darkly as the vampiric villain leading an army of monsters in swift slaughters of the unsuspecting and unprotected towns. The human-vampire war, thought by most to be long dead, is set for a bloody resurrection.
As I said, it's hardly like the manga series at all; but I like that. In a world with actual monsters, I don't want a hero who is part monster himself. While the idea of a hero who must fight for his soul while he fights demons may sound compelling, it's sometimes enough of an internal struggle just being human. And in a world where the Devil sends armies, I like that God also sends an army. To quote a line from Purgatory, the graphic novel written as a prequel to the movie, "I will now show you our Lord is not filled with sh**, but with power." The line is uttered by a priestess who demonstrates, with three of her fellow priests, just how powerful they are as they proceed to decimate the ranks of a vampire army all on their own. Though the church has become corrupt in the future, those with faith are still shown to be heroes. Even in an action-horror movie such as this one, it's nice to see actual good guys as the "good guys".
So, yeah, it gets an F in Faithfulness; but for great actors, horrifying vampire effects, spectacular action sequences, and being the best sci-fi western I've seen in years, it gets an A in Awesomeness.
Dylan Dog: Dead of Night (2010)
No Groucho? No problem
Okay, so the movie isn't set in London. So there is no Inspector Bloch, Dr. Xabaras, or Groucho Marx. So the zombies are more Shaun of the Dead than Dawn of the Dead. It's still a good movie.
Dylan Dog: Dead of Night stars Brandon Routh (Superman Returns, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) as the eponymous "nightmare investigator", with Sam Huntington (Being Human) as his undead sidekick, Marcus. When the movie begins, Dylan has retired from keeping tabs on the paranormal beings that walk among us (and they walk all among us), and has settled into a more conventional private detective gig. One day, though, a potential client named Elizabeth (Anita Briem, Journey to the Center of the Earth) tries to hire Dylan to solve the death of her father. He refuses, until he returns to his office that night to discover Marcus has also been killed. The two slayings are just the beginning, as Dylan, his now zombified assistant, and Elizabeth crisscross New Orleans in search of the monsters responsible.
Now, readers of the Italian comic books on which the film is based have blasted the movie for its "unfaithfulness" to the original works by Tiziano Sclavi. While it would have been nice to see Brandon Routh playing the clarinet once or twice, the realities of movie-making must intrude at some point. A low budget, for example, means not being able to film in London, where the comics are set. The American city of New Orleans probably comes closest in old school creepiness, though (apologies to the people of New Orleans; and of London, I guess). The same goes for Groucho Marx, the black-and-white era comedian on whom the comics' Dylan's assistant is based and whose likeness is very expensive to use in the States. While they show pictures of people in Groucho glasses and posters for Marx Brothers movies, the cost for securing the rights to have an imitator was likely quite high. Even the American adaptation of the comics had to "shave" Groucho's mustache and change his name to Felix for similar reasons. Sam Huntington more than fills the role of "comedy sidekick", though, as he struggles to adjust to the fact that he's dead; and he and Routh have excellent chemistry due to their time working together on Superman Returns.
Anita Briem's character seems like a bit of a misfire at times, but she certainly follows the path of most female characters in the comics. Often, Dylan Dog finds himself taking the case of an attractive young woman who has lost a loved one (or several) and needs his help coming to grips with the supernatural world into which she's been thrust. And while the supernatural world of the movie differs noticeably from that of the comics, the atmosphere it presents is almost instantly recognizable. The walk they take through the streets at night as Dylan tries to open her eyes to the presence of the undead as they literally pass in front of her eyes would not have seemed out of place on Sclavi's pages, I feel. Sure, the monsters themselves are different, but again, you've gotta give American moviegoers a bone every now and then, show them something they'll recognize, as well.
And then there's Dylan himself. Brandon Routh is a fine actor; I don't think anyone can deny that. He works very well with what he's given, and in this case, he did an excellent job as Dylan Dog. The movie character shared much in common with the comics character: mistrust of technology (the comics Dylan refuses to use a cell phone, the movie Dylan still uses cameras with film in them); a deep, brooding disinterest in the world at large; drives the same VW Bug, even though the colors have been inverted; and, though some may disagree, he even looks a lot like the Dylan from the comics. Dylan is an old school private investigator, whether he's investigating the living, the dead, or the undead. In the movies, though, he's given an additional role: keeping the creatures of the supernatural world from getting out of line. A pact was formed, presumably to protect the "monsters" from being wiped out entirely by humanity, and as part of that pact, a human was chosen to sort of police the undead; to keep them in check, so to speak. In our day, that's Dylan; or, at least it was until he "retired".
That last part is probably the biggest difference between the comic books and the movie. It turns the character from a sort of Philip Marlowe of the undead world into another version of Keanu Reeve's John Constantine, another movie character who wasn't that closely based on his graphic novel counterpart; and it is probably the part of the movie about which fans of the Dylan Dog comics will be the least forgiving. I'm enough of a purist myself to agree that the movie should have done more to adhere to the source material. That being said, I liked the movie a lot. I think they did a fine job with not that much in the way of resources, and they created a very believable "underground" world that could very well coexist with our own. Brandon Routh has always been a favorite actor of mine, and even if this is the latest in a string of underrated movies in which he starred, he and Sam Huntington did a great job in it.