Thursday, July 23, 2015

Film Friday: The Sting (1973)

The Sting is one of my favorite heist films, though I can’t honestly say that it holds up today as a heist film. For that, it is too slow, too simple, and too obvious. What makes this film such a joy to watch despite this, however, is watching Paul Newman, Robert Shaw and Robert Redford try to outwit each other.


Robert Redford is Johnny Hooker, a small time grifter during the Great Depression. As the story opens, Redford cons a man out of the money he is carrying. It turns out to be $11,000. Even worse, it turns out that the money belongs to crime boss Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw). Lonnegan kills Redford’s partner in retaliation and sends out his winged monkeys to kill Redford.
Redford flees to Chicago, where he meets Henry Gondorff (Paul Newman). Newman is a once-great conman who is now hiding from the FBI. Redford and Newman decide to work together to pull off a phony off-track betting scam known as “the wire” to get even with Lonnegan.

How this works is that Redford will entice Lonnegan into the scam by pretending that he works for Newman. Newman is running an illegal off-track betting parlor. But Redford has a way to supposedly defraud his boss Newman, by getting the results of the races phoned to him by a Western Union employee before the race gets called over the radio. How exactly they will use this to trap Lonnegan and then to escape his clutches, I will leave for you to discover. Suffice it to say that there are many twists and turns and many of the characters you are shown turn out not to be who they claim to be.

Why This Film Is Worth Seeing

It’s actually difficult to tell you why The Sting works. The reason for this is that The Sting worked for a different reason in 1973 than it works today. Let me explain.
Heist movies are rather a specialized set of films. What you need are the coolest actors of the generation, some sort of scheme that sounds impossible except for the extraordinary expert skills of the “good guys,” a bad guy who is bad enough to make the “good guys” (who are usually shady thieves) seem nice, and a lot of twists. Fortunately, you can cheat on all of this and your audience won’t care, so long as everything is hyper-stylized to be as cool as possible.

In 1973, heist films were still relatively new and unsophisticated. Prior to this, you had films like Ocean’s 11 (1960) which followed this formula, but the twists were mild, and The Italian Job (1969), which wasn’t stylized and didn’t really have the kind of cool cast typical of modern heist films. The Sting was really the first film to put it all together, and in 1973 this film must have seemed amazing. For the first time, you had a cool cast of near-superhero conmen, a villain you truly hated, a cool stylized plot, unforeseeable twist after twist (at a time when twists were rare), and an iconic soundtrack. That is why this film was so popular.

Over time, however, heist films have become much more sophisticated. The schemes have become more complex, the twists have become tighter, and as a whole, these films have adopted a much faster pace and greater energy. Compared to modern twist films, The Sting feels slow, simple and lazy.
But the thing is, this film stands up in the modern era for a different reason. What makes The Sting work today is the relationship of the characters and the performance of the actors. Newman is amazing as the ultra-cool conman. He’s so good in this role that he stands up there with Frank Sinatra in the pantheon of cool, and watching him on screen keeps making me wish he had made more movies. His relationship with Redford, which continues here from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, shows amazing chemistry.
Newman and Shaw have equally amazing chemistry, though it’s more anti-chemistry. Indeed, Shaw is pure menace and he and Newman truly come across as if they hate each other. What’s more, Shaw does such a good job of making you hate him with little things like being huffy and snippy, that you come to loath him on a personal level and you want to see him brought down. You relish seeing him tricked.

Redford is really good in this too, though he shows again that he is a lightweight compared to Shaw and Newman. He is the pretty boy actor of his generation next to two of his generation’s finest giving some of their best performances. Fortunately, as with Three Days of the Condor where he played a perfectly fitting role of an outmatched amateur, here he plays the perfectly fitting role of the arrogant grifter who doesn’t realize how far out of his league he really is. In other words, the role fits him, which lets his acting style work.
It is the relationship of these three and how they keep gaming each other throughout which makes this film such a joy to watch. It’s not the scheme, which is rather simplistic and somewhat dull once you know the twists. It’s not the feel of the movie itself either, as what was stylized and cool in 1973 feels almost made-for-TV lame today. But the tricky interaction of these amazing actors is just not something you can find anywhere else nor can you find it duplicated anywhere else.

That is what makes this film such a classic.

[+]

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Toon-a-Rama Tuesday: Inside Out (2015)

By Kit

Inside Out feels like a return to form for Pixar. After a run of movies that, whatever their merits, seemed to lack the Pixar Touch, we have Inside Out. Which, like all the great Pixar movies of the 2000s, gives us the full gamut of our emotions while weaving a story that imparts valuable lessons. In this case, it is a parable on the importance each of our emotions, even our “negative” ones, play in making us well-rounded, emotionally healthy human beings.

The Plot

Inside Out is about an 11-year old girl named Riley and the 5 emotions that live inside her head (along with everyone else’s): Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, and Disgust. Their job is to take care of you. They operate a little control panel inside the “Headquarters” room governing your reactions to the world around you, fear keeping you out of danger, disgust keeping you from being poisoned (“physically and socially”), Joy keeping you happy, etcetera.

So far, Riley’s life has been pretty happy, largely due to Joy’s work as the leader of the 5 emotions. She has a good relationship with her family and friends, she’s honest, and, due to living in Minnesota, is an avid hockey fan, even playing on the local kids’ hockey team. For the most part, the other emotions are kept in check, with Anger, Disgust, and Fear never taking too much control. Only Sadness (The Office’s Phyllis Smith) is kept away, largely because Joy (Parks and Recreation's Amy Poehler) does not want her dour attitude dampening how happy things are for Riley.

However, as anyone who knows story-telling can predict, the pleasant life is disrupted when Riley and her family move to San Francisco, leaving behind her friends and her life in Minnesota for a world of dead rats and broccoli-pizzas. Joy tries to keep things happy but in an empty house with a very-late moving van and a dad who is busy with work, it becomes increasingly difficult.

Soon, a fight of-sorts between Sadness and Joy that causes them to be sucked out of the headquarters and sent into the maze of Long Term Memory. Thus Joy and Sadness are forced on a journey to headquarters taking them all over Riley’s mind while Fear, Disgust, and Anger must take the helm

Why it’s Great

Now, you may or may not have noticed this, but in that description of the plot nowhere did I mention a villain. That is because there is not one. Instead, it is natural obstacles, the choices the 5 emotions and RIley make in response to those obstacles, and the consequences of those choices that drive the plot. Bad decisions create obstacles while good decisions remove or overcome them. The closest the movie comes to a villain would be a clown when she was little, but even he only appears for a few minutes.

This means the tension is not a simple “Will they escape Villain X” but “Will they learn the lessons they need to learn in time to make the right choices?” They are the makers of their own misfortune. If they want to make it back, they have to grow.

Further, the decisions of the 5 characters, and thus Riley, make sense because of the way the 5 emotions are drawn. The emotions each of the five represents are reflected in their personalities. Joy is a happy, eager, go-getter who is always ready to find the good in things, Anger is a hot head who wants to rush in and put his foot down in reaction to any slight, and Fear sees danger everywhere.

Thus, each of the characters act in ways that are natural and their choices, whether comical or serious, make sense even when they cause problems. For example, Joy’s insistence on keeping Riley happy all the time and her unwillingness to let Sadness take the helm even when she is needed makes sense in light of Joy’s personality but it makes it harder for Riley to adapt to the difficult circumstances caused by the move.

And all of this occurs against the backdrop of a beautifully imagined world, reminiscent of a video game The Sims, but without the sanctimonious “satire” —and smarter. You have Personality Islands branching off from the headquarters, you have memory balls formed from your life experiences, both big and small, with “Core Memories” being the big ones, and a variety of theme park-like lands such as “Imagination Land’ and “Dream Pictures”, a studio where her dreams are “filmed” and “broadcast” live to headquarters.

The 5 main character, as I mentioned above, are well drawn and, I should add, fantastically voiced. I already mentioned Poehler and Smith, who are both great, with Poehler giving a delightful cheer to her role and Smith providing a modern-day, blue Eeyor-like character, but special mention should go to the other 3 as well, Bill Hader as Fear, Mindy Kaling as Disgust, and Lewis Black as Anger.

Hader’s Fear is fun and Mindy Kaling is great as a Disgust who is modeled after that somewhat snooty high school queen who always knows the best fashion. But my favorite was Lewis Black. Yes, you read that right, Lewis Black is in this one, and he is excellent. In fact, the animation captured his mannerisms so well you’ll wonder if it was rotoscoped.

The only flaw I can think of is that Riley is not the most interesting character, as she seemed to be drawn to be a very, very normal, average girl to the point of, ironically, lacking a real and identifiable personality. But the same sort of goes with the rest of the human characters. It is a bit like the Toy Story Trilogy, where Andy and his mom were beyond bland but it didn't matter because the focus was on the toys. Though Riley and her parents play a much larger part in Inside Out the story than Andy and his mom, the focus is still on the small main characters who we are following, so the film works.And, given what works works brilliantly, this is a minor quibble.

This is a fantastic movie and a must-see. It reminds us of how far Pixar, and film in general, including animation, can take us into the depths of the human heart and mind. It touches on fascinating ideas about how our emotions are needed to make us whole, ideas that afterwards can result in some meaningful contemplation by oneself or discussion with others, particularly children. And it does this while telling a fun and touching story about 5 memorable characters.

It’s a Pixar Classic.

[+]

Monday, July 20, 2015

Summer of Marvel: Thor (2011)

By Kit

Sorry for the long wait, folks. Last week was rather hectic. Forgive me if I come late. If I run out of days in the summer I might continue it next year or continue it into the fall as Marvel Movie Mondays or something. We'll see.

Thank you to everyone for your support so far. This is my first time doing a series like this and I know my delays have tested your patience. So, thank you.

Anyway, on to Thor.


A long time ago, when Marvel still released movies via Paramount instead of Disney, the Frost Giants from Jotunnheim waged war upon mankind and threatened to unloose a second Ice Age. However, they were stopped by a race called the Asgardians, they are from Asgard, led by Odin (Anthony Hopkins). We flash forward to a ceremony where Thor is receiving his hammer, Mjolnir.

Meanwhile, a group of frost giants are sneaking into Asgard to steal an item that Odin took from Jotunnheim. They are stopped by Odin lickety-split, but, despite Thor’s insistence, he refuses to retaliate by starting a full-on war against the Frost Giants.

Thor meets up with his fellow young Asgardians; his brother Loki, Sif, Fandral, Hogun, and Volstug, and convinces them to join with him in going to Jotunnheim to seek retribution. Loki tries to talk him out of it but eventually agrees. They leave for Jotunnheim and start a brawl which goes well at first until things turn and they are nearly curb-stomped only for Odin to show up and save their hides.

Back at Asgard Thor is banished to Earth, deprived of his powers and his hammer, which is also thrown to Earth with Odin casting a King Arthur-esque spell on it that says only someone who is worthy may wield it. Thor arrives on Earth and is hit by a car driven by Dr. Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), Dr. Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård), and intern Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings), who are studying some kind of vortex thing.

Thor is taken to a hospital where he is subdued pitifully (and comically) by a doctor with a sedative. The hammer, meanwhile, has landed in the desert, not far from where he landed, causing a massive crater. A huge crowd soon develops as a bunch of men try to wield it (none are worthy) until SHIELD rolls in led by Agent Coulson from Iron Man and Iron Man 2 and sets up a camp there.

After the agents seize Jane's equipment, Thor learns about the hammer and decides to go into the SHIELD compound to retrieve it. He beats up half the guards, which is observed by a by a sniper using a bow-and-arrow codenamed Hawkeye. Thor reaches the hammer to discover he can't wield it and sinks into despair. Foster and Selvig come to retrieve him and Coulson (for some reason) lets him go. Thor, Selvig, Foster, and Darcy start hanging out.

Meanwhile, Loki, who discovers something about his past, may be up to no good. Shocker.

Is it Good?

It’s fun.

Ok, that is not high praise. Saying “It’s fun” in reply to the question, “Is it Good” sounds a lot like saying “She has a nice personality” when asked “Is she pretty.” Re-watching this movie I found it was not as good as I remembered it, but it was still fun.

Let me explain the problem.

Unlike other movies which ramp up the tension in the main plot in every scene with bombastic action this movie took a different approach. We have a lot of action in the first and third acts but the Second Act, aside from the scene where he punches through a dozen SHIELD agents to retrieve Mjolnir, is mostly humor and character development —or, rather, attempts at the two.

The second act of Thor is basically one, long fish-out-of-water Rom-com about a Norse God.

Actually, come to think of it, the whole movie Thor is just that. You have the female lead, her female friend, her parent figure, and the handsome, dashing young man who occasionally appears shirtless. It’s Kate & Leopold but with a slightly more interesting ending (the very end). Someone should do one of those mash-up trailers, you know, like the one that guy did to make The Shining look like a family comedy, but instead make Thor look like some cheesy Romantic Comedy.

Which means that your enjoyment of this movie will be whether you enjoy a romantic comedy built around a Marvel comics character and whether you think there is any chemistry between Thor and Jane Foster. (I found them ok in this movie)

Now, why didn’t I like it this time?

When I first saw it, I loved it. Now? Eh. I enjoyed seeing the God of Thunder getting tased and hit with a car, among other injuries. But now, I think I have seen it so many times that the jokes, which are for the most part, ok, were just not as funny as they used to be. Or maybe I was not in the right mood.

But you may enjoy it, again, I did the first time I saw it.

Interestingly, I still prefer the middle section to the opening and the climax. The opening has always been rather boring for me. Heck, the fight scene in the middle when he storms the base is, not only the best fight scene in the movie, but by far the best scene in the movie, though that might largely be because of Hawkeye and Coulson. On second thought, it might be one of the best fight scenes in a Marvel movie. Period.

Anyway, that’s about it. The Cast is good. Idris Elba is awesome as Heimdall. Ditto with Anthony Hopkins as Odin and Hiddleston as Loki. Hemsworth is Thor. The girl from Two Broke Girls is good.

So, in sum, right now I’d rank it low on the list. Maybe at the bottom. Of course, the list won’t be finished until I finish the Summer of Marvel (and the clock is ticking).

The Summer of Marvel will return on Monday with Captain America: The First Avenger!

“We drank, we fought, he made his ancestors proud.”

[+]

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Film Friday: The Exorcist (1973)

When is a terrifying horror movie not a horror movie? When it’s one of the greatest films of all time and it was made in the 1970’s. As we’ve mentioned before, the films of the 1970’s were different. They tended to be contemplative and involved solid storytelling rather than being about quick emotional triggers. The jokes took time to develop. Love was the goal, not sex. And when it came to scary movies, filmmakers strove for building psychological terror rather than quick shock. The movie that demonstrates this best was The Exorcist.

The Plot

The Exorcist begins with a character you won’t even see again until near the end of the film. The film starts with Father Lankester Merrin (Max von Sydow) on an archeological dig in Iraq. In a scene that involves more sights and sounds than words, you see Merrin uncover an amulet which resembles a demon Merrin defeated in an exorcism years ago. The exorcism lasted several days and nearly killed Merrin. The demon he exorcised was called Pazuzu.
The movie then switches to the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C. Actress Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) is here to film a movie at the Georgetown University campus. Her daughter Regan (Linda Blair) plays with a Ouija board and soon strange things begin to happen at their home. These are very minor at first. In fact, they are mistaken as just being rats. But soon Regan begins to show signs of potential mental illness. MacNeil has her daughter evaluated by every specialist she can find, but none of them has an answer. They finally suggest an exorcism as a sort of placebo because Regan has begun to claim she is possessed.

As this story progresses, we simultaneously meet Father Damien Karras. Karras is a priest and a psychiatrist. He is a firm believer in modern science and he disbelieves things like exorcism. In his story, Karras's mother dies without Karras being able to help her and that causes him to lose his faith in God.
With her doctors having told her to seek an exorcism, MacNeil seeks out Karras, whom she has seen at the film set. She now believes that Regan is possessed and that Regan has killed her director Burke Dennings. Karras tries to dissuade her from pursuing exorcism, but ultimately agrees to see Regan. He meets with Regan several times and starts to believe that she may actually be possessed, even though the demon within her gives both evidence of his existence and evidence that he is being faked by Regan. Ultimately, however, Karras decides to do the exorcism.
To do this, he needs the permission of the Church. The Church assigns Merrin to help Karras. They then do the exorcism, which involves several truly iconic moments in film.

What Made This Film So Special

The Exorcist is perhaps the best example of how 1970’s films were different than today because there are so many films we can compare to it. Indeed, you can’t really find a modern exorcism movie which isn’t essentially a direct copy of The Exorcist. Yet, all of them fail to live up to the original. And the reason all the imitators fail, despite having so many advantages, such as having a success to study and the benefit of being able to go further in terms of effects and scares with modern audience, is exactly what makes The Exorcist the great film it is.
Unlike the modern copies, The Exorcist takes its time, but it does so with a purpose. This is something too many modern directors don’t understand: time does not equal drama, careful use of time does. Consider the sequence where Pazuzu possesses Regan. This begins so slowly that the audience could be forgiven for not even knowing what is happening at first. Indeed, at first, it seems like a game where Regan is talking to an imaginary friend over the Ouija board, and then MacNeil thinks there are rats in the ceiling. Soon, Regan’s behavior starts to grow stranger. At this point, the film cleverly leaves the door open for this being either something demonic or simply Regan having a mental condition or possibly a seizure condition. At the same time, the director slowly isolates MacNeil. By the time we know for sure, MacNeil has no friends outside her home and Regan is showing supernatural signs of being a prisoner in her own body... she has become bait for Merrin and Karras.
All of this is vital because the point to this story is not the possession itself, it is the horror caused by the possession. Specifically, it the horror MacNeil faces as her daughter succumbs to a condition MacNeil cannot treat which terrifies us as we translate it to our own children. It is the horror of being Regan who becomes a prisoner in her own body which makes us shudder at being in her condition. It is the horror Karras feels when Pazuzu taps his guilt over his mother and what Karras must do to save Regan which makes us sick as we ask if we could do the same thing. That is where this film works and it is through the slow build that the film makes this real. The modern copies don’t get this. They think the horror comes from making the demon seem as evil as possible, but the demon is irrelevant here... a mere Macguffin. Indeed, this film could almost end with the possession being faked and be just as terrifying because it sells us a drama of a mother, a little girl, and a priest who endure extreme suffering. The copies would be a joke without the demon, since that’s really all they offer.
What's more, another key distinction is that this film actually cares about the character stories. Consider Karras’s issue with his mother. We are essentially given an entire movie about that story before Karras ever meets with Regan. The reason is that we are meant to be pulled into who this man is and what his problems are long before we are shown the monster who will exploit his weakness. The copies generally replace this entire movie of story with a montage of someone the priest loves dying and then the priest telling his boss that he’s lost his faith. That gives you the form, but nowhere near the substance of The Exorcist which is why you can’t even remember the names of the copy-cat priests, but you remain haunted by Damien Karras’s story long after you have seen the film.

This film worked because it was a story about several people who endure horrific choices and incredible suffering. It was not a film about two priests fighting a demon. That is what makes this film so unforgettable, so re-watchable, and why none of the copies have ever approached its quality.

[+]

Friday, July 10, 2015

Summer of 70s: Superman: The Movie (1978)

By Kit

"You will believe a man can fly." —movie tagline

Remember when DC made fun superhero movies? None of that angst and moody stuff, just sheer fun at a movie theater? And Marvel was struggling just to get a (watchable) movie out? Well, today’s Summer of 70s pick, Superman: The Movie, is the quintessential fun superhero movie. It is also progenitor of the superhero movie genre. All of the great superhero movies came after it. Burton’s Batman, Raimi’s Spider-man, Nolan’s Dark Knight Saga, and all the Marvel movie series owe their existence to this movie.

The Plot

I’m going to be brief. Moreso than usual.

The movie begins on Krypton, where Jor-El on the planet Krypton warns his fellow members on the Council of Krypton that the planet is going to explode and they must leave it immediately. You know the story, they refuse to listen so he and his wife decide to save their only son, Kal-El by sending him to the planet Earth.

He arrives on Earth where he is adopted by Jonathan and Martha Kent, who realize he is very special when hee, a 3-year old, lifts Jonathan’s truck up with his bare hands. At age 18 he is already showing powers and after Jonathan Kent dies of a heart attack he leaves. At Jonathan’s funeral he says, “All those things I could do, and I couldn’t save him.”

He then journeys to the Fortress of Solitude where takes lessons from Jor-El, learning about various things and leaves it in 12 years later dressed as Superman. He arrives in Metropolis where he takes a job as a reporter alongside Lois Lane, played by Margot Kidder, who finds him to be a nice but strange man but falls head-over-heels with his Superman alter-ego when he saves her from falling to her death out of a helicopter. An act which turns Superman into a hero and, since he has a crush on Lois, gives her an interview and, afterwards, takes her flying.

Meanwhile, the criminal mastermind Lex Luthor is plotting the crime of the century, that involves buying lots of land in the middle of California and hijacking a nuclear warhead.

Why It Works (And is Still Awesome 35+ years on!)

This movie has problems that detractors love to list, the two biggest being Superman being over-powered at the end and possibly the handling of Lois Lane. And I can see their criticisms, but I don’t care because the movie works.

First, the cast is iconic. They fit their roles to a T. It has been said a thousand times but I have to say it again, Christopher Reeve is Superman. He moves deftly between Clark Kent and Superman, making you believe that (1) they are the same person and (2) people could actually be fooled by it. Unlike Superman Returns, they don’t need a scene to point it out.

Margot Kidder nails Lois Lane. In the hands of any other actress (and a lesser director) Lois Lane would’ve come across as little more than a ditzy air-head who misspells words and falls madly in love with the first superhero she sees but Kidder and Donner give her something else. Instead we get a woman who is a brilliant reporter, going to many lengths to get a story (sometimes to her own physical detriment) and often so focused on getting the story and telling it that little details, like proper spelling and keeping her eye on the road, just slip her mind completely.

The villain is great. Hackman’s Lex Luthor is a brilliant criminal mastermind, but he’s also vain, egotistical, and arrogant and every bit of it comes through in Hackman’s performance. He’s a man in love with his own brilliance. He’s stuck in a world full of little minds who can’t appreciate his genius.

The supporting cast is also good. Marlon Brando brings a weight to his role as Jor-El, Ma and Pa Kent have a warmth and kindness to them, Chief Perry White of the Daily Planet is what you think of when you think of a boisterous and brash newspaper editor (who has some funny scenes), and Luthor’s two not-very-bright henchman, Otis and Miss Tessamacher, are fun to watch and their comedic chemistry with Hackman is perfect.

I could probably write a whole book One thing that is overlooked is just how funny this movie is, the scenes at the Daily Planet have the snappy dialogue reminiscent of movies like His Girl Friday. And the movie was made back when filmmakers still framed their shots theatrically, which gives the movie a bit of an epic feel. Something directors don't do anymore.

Now, before I hit the movie’s two biggest flaws, I want to say something about John Williams score. A great score cannot save a movie, if it could, Kevin Costner’s Waterworld would be ranked on AFI’s list of Top 100 Films, but it can give a good movie a nice boost. A good soundtrack for a good movie is a lot like the whipped cream on a milk shake; it makes something is already enjoyable and add an extra layer of delight.

And this score, well, there is no other way to say it, the moment you here the theme blare out in full orchestra in the opening credits to the word “Superman” you want to tie a red towel around your neck and zoom around like a little kid pretending to be Superman. As cheesy as it sounds, this score makes you want to cheer. It is hard to think of a score in recent memory that actually makes you want to cheer like this one does.

Another home run for America’s grand maestro.

The Two Big Flaws

A two flaws, both contain MAJOR SPOILERS so don’t continue if you don’t want the movie spoiled. Many people complain about Lois’ reporting of Superman’s inability to see through lead and Superman turning back time by flying around the world super-fast. For the first, yeah, I don’t have much of a defense, today it makes both of them seem rather dimwitted (criminals read papers too, you know?) but it’s a minor gripe compared to how much of the movie works. It is also worth remembering that this movie was really the prototype superhero movie.

As for the latter, I have some mixed thoughts on it. In terms of its depiction of Superman as the comic book character, it is very stupid (why doesn’t Superman do this more often?) but in terms of the story that the movie was telling, I think it works. During that scene Superman stops a nuclear missile and then proceeds to not only save a school bus, stop a flood by pushing rocks in front of the surge, and single-handedly stop the Western coast of California from falling into the ocean.

The scene builds up the idea that Superman is becoming a god-like being who can seemingly bend nature to his will. Then he discovers Lois is dead. And what happens next was also foreshadowed when he told Martha Kent at Jonathan’s funeral, “All those things I could do, and I couldn’t save him.” Again, he can stop a state from falling into the Pacific but he can’t save someone he loves. He decides he will, and bends the laws of

He is not longer god-like, he is a god.

Lois even mentioned during the scene when she and Superman are flying together when she describes flying with Superman like “holding hands with a god.”

So it depends on whether you like this particular handling of Superman or not.

"You've got me? Who's got you?"
[+]

Monday, July 6, 2015

Summer of Marvel: Iron Man 2 (2010)

What can I say about Iron Man 2? I liked it. Hmm. Now what am I going to talk about for the rest of the column?


Some dude in Russia, Anton Vanko, sees the disclosure on the news that Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is Iron Man. He starts building his own arc reactor, which is the thing that powers the Iron Man suit, so he can prove that Iron Man isn’t invincible.

Back in the US, Stark grows despondent and reckless when he realizes that he is dying because the reactor in his suit is poisoning him. He hands his massive company over to his assistant, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), and he starts having wild parties and doing stupid(er) things. He even decides to compete in the Monaco Grand Prix. During that race, however, he gets attacked by Vanko. Stark defeats Vanko, but Vanko attracts the attention of Stark’s rival Justin Hammer, who breaks Vanko out of jail so he can build a line of armored suits for his company.
In the meantime, Stark gets drunk and angers everyone at a party he throws. He needs to be subdued by Air Force Lt. Colonel James Rhodes (Don Cheadle), who confiscates an armored suit for the government; so far, Stark has refused to part with them. At the same time, Stark learns that his new assistant is really Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and he meets Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) of SHIELD, who claims Stark’s father was a member of SHIELD and wants him to join too.

Soon, Stark cures the problem of the arc reactor poisoning him. He then learns that Hammer has created heavily armed drones he intends to show off for the government, but Vanko arrives and they fight to end the movie.

Why I Liked This Movie

Hmm. Ok, stick with me. By and large, I’ve found that I like sequels better than originals in the “franchise” genre, i.e. the genre where “properties” are put on film with the hope of being able to milk an existing fan base through three or four movies and some spin-offs. The reason is simple. The first film in every franchise series is invariably an origin story, especially in the comic book universe, and origin stories suck. It’s in the sequel that the writers normally first get the chance to offer real stories.
Iron Man 2 is not an origin story. The writers don’t waste time trying to explain who Tony Stark is or how he ended up in the suit. Instead, they get to focus on the next step in the story. That gives this film an instant boost because it adds the element of the unknown because the story isn’t following a tired formula that everyone follows. This is unchartered water.

What’s more, the Marvel universe is much more prone to interesting movies than the regular comic book fare because Marvel likes to delve into the heroes in the story and what makes them tick. That shifts a significant portion of the screen time from seeing useless CGI punches being tossed to seeing the writers make the characters interact. The end result of that is that the characters tend to be much more interesting, the dialog is less transactional (“I will stop you now”) and more about who these people are and how they interact, and you end up caring more for the characters.

Trust me, nothing spells “soul death” like watching Superman trade punches with another cardboard villain who can’t be harmed physically for forty f*cking minutes!!! Arggg! Fortunately, you will never find that in Marvel films (excluding the Hulk crapfests): “Hulk smash pixels until you slit your wrists with popcorn bucket!”
Anyways, Iron Man 2 is a movie I enjoyed for these reasons. It is populated by real characters with different personalities and different goals whose interactions are often endearing or humorous. There were few fight scene to bore me, none were all that long, and none of them felt really pointless. The actors were perfect too.

Paltrow is an excellent foil for Downey Jr. Cheadle evokes a lot of sympathy because you know he’s a good guy and he’s being held back by Downey’s irresponsibility. Johansson is hot... and is in this movie. Rockwell is slimy as Hammer and you really despise him. Even Vanko, who is rather clichéd, is enough of a brooding presence that you at least get a sense of menace whenever he is on screen – too often villains just prance around and act melodramatically; not so here.
Ultimately though, the guy who sells this movie is Downey Jr. Stark comes across as simultaneously inspiring and annoying as hell. You want to punch the guy. He’s such a genius with such a potential to save the world, and yet he acts like a spoiled child who is more interested in fart jokes than achieving his potential. THAT SAID, HOWEVER, (here is the key), he’s not a slacker. Stark is an ass and an annoyance, but he’s also a brilliant scientist with a strong sense of responsibility. He works hard. He bathes. He does take his responsibilities seriously... too seriously at times actually. Nothing about him is the pathetic modern slacker that these films jam into the hero roles (cough cough Green Lantern, Green Hornet, etc.). He really is a hero.
Unfortunately, he’s also a bit of a control freak in the worst possible sense. Indeed, Stark doesn’t trust anyone else to handle the suit and he is rather fascist in his outlook, thinking that he can impose order on the world to make it a perfect place.

All of this makes him a genuine contradiction and easily the most complex and unpredictable character ever written in the comic book film world... and Downey Jr. is 100% believable as him. In fact, thinking about it, I can’t imagine another actor who could handle this role. Most would try to hero-him-up and give him a secret pain which is keeping him from being perfect. Some would slacker him down into Van Wilder. Others simply would never present themselves as having a dark, a-hole side. And others would make him into manic depressive Batman who wants the world to die so its misery ends.

Only Downey Jr. can balance the good with the bad, the responsibility with the obnoxiousness, the self-pity with the nobility, and give us this unique Tony Stark. Only Downey Jr. revels in the complexity and doesn’t try to make Stark into a one-note antihero.

That is why I like this film.

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Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Summer of 70's (Bonus Round)

While we’re doing the Summer of 70’s films, I wanted to be sure to mention some films that I would definitely add to the list but which have already been reviewed at the site. Here is a list of those film you should add to your film library:

Soylent Green (1974). This is a great dystopian film based on a very faulty premise. The premise is that the human race would keep breeding and breeding until there are so many of us that the world simply collapses in a dead, polluted mess. Now those who are left are starving, and their leaders have turned to the unthinkable to feed everyone. The story itself is about NYC Detective Thorn who is investigating the death of a food company executive and comes to discover the truth. This film does an excellent job of presenting its mystery and an even better job of making you feel like you are living in this forsaken hell hole.

Vanishing Point (1971). This barely known film is essentially one long car chase. You had a lot of these in the 1970s. What makes this movie work so well is the divine overtones as the hero seems to be guided by a blind radio DJ who can see more than a human could and a fascinating ambiguous ending... plus a great soundtrack.

Alien (1979). This is simply the best horror-science fiction film ever made.

Deliverance (1972). This seemingly simple tale of four city-folk from Atlanta who go rafting on a dying river in hillbilly country effectively defined the urban, rural split that still influences much of our culture and our politics today as the panicked snooty elitists start killing what they think are butt-raping hillbillies... but might not be.

The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975). This musical could be the first true “cult film” and it’s something everyone should see at least once to understand the same subculture that gave birth to modern cos-play.

Rollerball (1975). Perhaps the most conservative film of the 1970s, this film brings a strong warning against collectivism to the big screen by telling us that the collectivists cannot afford to allow a single talented athlete to give people the idea that they can succeed through individual effort.

Smokey and the Bandit (1976). Although seemingly just another car chase film, this film announced to the country that the American South had moved beyond Jim Crow and joined the modern world. I think it is no understatement to say that this film heralded the South’s rise as an economic and political power that rivaled any other part of the nation and saw the sunset of the once-dominant Northeast.

Silver Streak (1976). This film wasn’t really consequential, but it is perhaps one of the top comedies of the 1970s and I would say that it was a high-water mark for Gene Wilder. It was also Wilder’s first collaboration with Richard Pryor.

Make sure to check these out, and enjoy the films! Anything you would add to what we've already reviewed? And why?
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