Category Archives: Reviews

Captain America: The First Avenger

The Superhero Summer continues with Friday’s release of Captain America: The First Avenger, which also serves as Marvel Studio’s final film before next year’s team-up bonanza, The Avengers. Thanks to Elfsar Collection, I was able to snag a ticket to the film’s Vancouver premiere screening on the 20th.

I went into the screening cautiously optimistic, but not overly excited. I’d never been a big fan of either the character or the comic, finding it rather difficult to relate with such an overtly American persona. That said, I enjoyed most of Ed Brubaker’s Eisner winning run on the title. And having, for the most part, enjoyed Marvel Studios’ films, I entered the screening desperate for the film to make me a fan.

Did it succeed? Spoiler-filled review after the pic.

For approximately half of the film, Captain America gave me a film that I absolutely loved. A fine blend of character, action, evocative production design, and hints of thematic depth had me rooted to my seat and buying everything director Joe Johnston was saying. Finally, I thought, after the miss that was The Wolfman, Johnston was proving that he never lost his The Rocketeer magic.

Sadly, and I’m not sure if this was a case of the magic running out or studio interference, but the wonderful first half abruptly gave way to a cartoon adventure that was of the Saturday morning variety than anything else. Plot threads were dropped, character development was stunted, and most of the thematic depth was lost.

What Went Right

The character of Steve Rogers, as presented in the first half of the film, was a wonderful representation of the idealized American spirit, the kind of gung-ho heroism that can only exist in the sepia-hued nostalgia of the 40’s. Here is a man, small in stature, willing to stand up for those unable to stand up for themselves. Here is a man who willingly allows himself to be beaten mercilessly, in the hopes of either proving his mettle or letting the bullies know that he will not lay down. Here is a man that we instantly believe is meant o be a hero.

And that’s what makes the character of Captain America work. The name, the costume, the entire persona… none of that would escape from its inherent cheesiness if not for the earnestness of Chris Evan’s portrayal of a burgeoning hero. When asked if he wanted to kill Nazis, Rogers calmly replied: “I just don’t like bullies.” And, by the way he delivered it, we believe that it’s enough justification to go charging headlong into Europe and beating up Nazis.

And even though I have issues with the way the character is utilized later on, Evans maintains his impressive performance all through out.

Also impressive is the production design all throughout. The world of the forties was brought vividly to life before our eyes in painstaking detail. As a geek for nostalgia porn, this was right up my ally. And as that aspect was one of my favourite things of The Rocketeer, I was praying that Johnston deliver. And he did.

Lastly, thematic setup, and to an extent the plot setup, was full of promise and potential.

As mentioned earlier, Steve Rogers was presented as brimming with unbridled idealized heroism. In a way, his ideals represented much of what everybody, Americans included, seem to think the “American Way” is. Over the top and somewhat embarrassingly jingoistic at some points, I was eager to see where the creators would go with this commentary on the American ideal, especially considering the way people view the United States and their foreign policy today.

They almost made it, too, with a wonderfully campy section in the middle that served to cut Captain America, the figure, off at the knees. After getting powered up and proving to be an excellent fighter, Rogers was poised to leap straight into battle. Instead, the smarmy Senator in charge of the Super Soldier project presses the good captain into service as a cheesy propagandist urging the American public to buy war bonds, all the while surrounded by dancing girls.

Would Captain America let his desperation to serve his country overcome his warrior spirit, his sense that he was destined to stay home? Would these cheesy scenes lead to some much welcome soul searching and introspection, proving that Captain America is not a one note, muscle-bound, idealized soldier?

What Went Wrong?

Sadly, as the film entered its second half, it squandered much of the intellectual and thematic ammunition it had built up.

This was a movie about heroism, right? So why did it only look at one side of it? Even the much maligned Green Lantern, which I freely admit is an inferior film, took a good long look at its hero from multiple angles, even having Hal Jordan essentially quit being a GL after some setbacks. Badly executed though it was, it still showed us a hero with a flaw.

After Steve Rogers made the full transition from propaganda machine to front-line warrior, the character stopped developing along any believable lines. He just became this almost monotone super man (small “S”) so emboldened by the patriotism running through his veins, so full of his own heroism, that he charges through the rest of the movie like an unstoppable juggernaut.

I used the term “Super Man”, and that was entirely intentional. Sadly, after the tantalizing set up of the first half, Captain America became the very thing that Marvel acolytes wrongly accuse the Superman character of being: a morally incorruptible, bland, all conquering idealized hero with no weakness. If I may refer to another movie again, briefly, even the much maligned Superman Returns showed us a Superman who was a) vulnerable to Kryptonite, b) rejected by his lady love (for 90% of the film), c) a bit of a dead-beat dad apparently, and d) soundly beaten by Keyser Soze after being shived with a shard of Kryptonite. And yet, with all those weaknesses, Superman pulled himself together and came out smelling like roses in the end.

Captain America had none of that in the second half of the film. There could have been so much done with the character to build on the first half. What about, say, questioning the morality of using a quick fix to become a better hero, essentially “Roiding Up”, as it were? What about the possible health (or moral)  consequences of a man who had spent his whole life as a weakling suddenly able to do things he never dreamed possible?

Dr. Erskine kept saying that  he chose Rogers because he believed that he is a good man, that a weak man would know the value of strength. This was an interesting idea, but nowhere was it shown that Rogers’ moral makeup as Captain America utilized the weak/strong dynamic. Sure, at the end, the Red Skull tried to tempt him into joining him. But the Skull was so outlandishly over the top evil (more on him later) that  I think anybody in Cap’s place, good heart or not, would join the Red Skull.

One of the main problems is that Cap’s heroic beliefs are never challenged, not by outside forces and certainly not by himself. Wouldn’t it be interesting to see someone with so much belief in his own self righteousness have those same beliefs challenged in some way? I mean, that is essentially what happened to America itself when it was revealed that Iraq had no WMD’s. Even Superman, in Returns, was faced with a pulitzer prize winning article written by his own girlfriend questioning whether the world needs a Superman.

No, none of that was present in the second half of the film. Instead, we are given a very simplistic straightforward action adventure superhero film. And that would be fine, normally, except the plot was faintly ridiculous and over the top, and it was actually boring.

First of all, the villain of the piece, the Red Skull, is, in the face of having seen Loki a scant few months back, woefully one dimensional. The film tried to cast him as Captain America’s dark shadow, but it just doesn’t come off well.

Cap is driven by his heroism, his wish to prove himself in the face of his own weakness. Red Skull is driven by… well… he wants to… well… I guess he wants to use a cosmic cube to power his evil death machines to destroy the world. Uhm… yeah. That’s not one dimensional and cartoony at all. Nope.

Red Skull is difficult to take seriously, and in a movie that raises some interesting questions about heroism, that’s a shame. Here was yet another opportunity to talk about the nature of evil, heroism’s dark shadow. But… no. I guess Marvel wanted to leave that to Thor.

The villain’s lack of credibility underscores the hero’s problem in the second half: the man is just unbeatable, both emotionally and physically. He has no weakness, whether it be Thor’s arrogance, Tony Stark’s alcoholism and lack of a physical heart, Hal Jordan’s fear, or even Superman’s kryptonite.

Oh wait… he does have a weakness: Bucky. He gets sad when Bucky dies. But, oh well, right after that, at least he gets a souped up James Bond/Batman style super motorcycle that has more gadgets and gizmos in it than the Batmobile. Seriously, he just hops on the thing, drives up to Red Skull’s most secret, most powerful base and waltzes on through. He gets captured eventually, but it’s all part of the plan and he’s never in any real danger.

And that’s the thing, let me repeat: Captain America is in no real danger whatsoever in the second half of the film. There’s no – and if I may be film school-y here for a sec – third act “all is lost” moment where we truly believe that the hero can fail. There’s no “Thor gets killed by the Destroyer” or “Superman gets stabbed and left for dead” or “Superman lifts the Kryptonite continent and falls back to Earth essentially comatose” or “The Rocketeer has to give up his jetpack to the evil Nazi or his girlfriend gets it” or “Harvey Dent is mutilated, the two boats on the Gotham River are going to kill each other and the Joker is going to win, and Batman is vilified by the city” or “Superman has to choose between two nuclear weapons, which leads to his girlfriend dying”… the list could go on.

Sadly, that list doesn’t include Captain America. He has no such moment, no major obstacle to overcome. At no point in the movie do we think the Red Skull has won.

Lastly, and briefly, Cap’s love interest Peggy Carter is a shell of a character. The two actors (carter is played admirably by Hayley Atwell) have good chemistry, but the relationship itself as written feels forced. And it feels unrealistic because Peggy has essentially no function in the story except to introduce Cap to the wonders of puberty. She herself has no character arc, no internal need or goal that has to be attained or obstacle to overcome. She’s a non-entity, and as such the poignancy hinted at the end of the film, when Steve gets frozen, feels forced.

So there you have it. After a brilliant first half, I feel that Captain America descends into a far more inferior film than promised. If the film had been set up like that from the get go, a Transformers-like “turn of your brain” kind of action romp, then ironically I would have enjoyed it better.

But because they worked so hard to successfully engage us  viscerally, emotionally, AND intellectually in the beginning, it’s crushing to see all that work go to waste.

That said, I did enjoy it, even if I come off very negative in this review. I have heard and read other people saying that all of those things are not what they want from a superhero film, but I think that films like Iron Man, Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, and the like prove that you can have your superheroics and have a character driven story as well.

And the first half of the film gives us that. For me, that is the movie I’m going to remember. The second half is just apocrypha.



Transformers: Dark of the Moon

Boy, it’s shaping up to be a pretty exciting summer, what with some heavy hitters like X-Men: First Class and Super 8 storming out of the blocks and racking up both the accolades and the moolah. But always looming over the competition was the biggest tentpole of all, the concluding chapter of Michael Bay’s critically divisive Transformers trilogy.

So, was all the hype worth it? Did he truly make amends for some atrocious decisions made in the second film? Did he deliver the rollicking summer blockbuster he promised? Or is Dark of the Moon dead on arrival?

I will try to avoid spoilers.

What Dark of the Moon is… is difficult to review. On the one hand, I could go on and on about some of the niggling issues that I have with it, and the issues it has with the concept of “story”, but on the other hand I just enjoyed the hell out of it so much that I don’t care.

To get it out of the way, yes it is way better than Revenge of the Fallen, and yes I fully acknowledge that it has some problems (pace, unnecessary characters, underdeveloped secondary plots).

But I go to these summer films to be entertained. I never go in expecting In the Mood for Love, The Shawshank Redemption, or Se7en… movies to be analyzed and studied in order to be fully appreciated. For a summer blockbuster, as long as it is reasonably well structured and a glorious sensory experience, that’s more than enough for me.

Transformers: Dark of the Moon is everything I want from a summer film. It is an excellent way to kill 2 and a half hours, and I enjoyed every minute of it. It’s filled with fun and explosions and all around bad-assery (yes, that’s a word now), and Bay’s sure directing hand makes it hard to dislike any of it.

First of all, he cleans up all the mistakes he made in the previous film. Annoying roommate sidekick? Gone. Nonsensical combiner robots? Kaput. Oodles of expository nonsense that goes on and on and on and on? Whittled away. And best of all… Transformers Nirvana? Forgotten.

Instead, Bay and company give us a running-time-not-withstanding fairly tightly plotted adventure where the stakes are raised both for the characters on a personal level and for the world’s survival in general.

I also absolutely loved the prologue of the film. If you think the opening to Watchmen was a great example of expository compression, wait till you see this one, dealing with the Apollo 11 moon landing.

The robot battles are even crisper and smoother, with Bay pulling the camera back far enough for us to see more of what’s going on. And that “bad-assery” I mentioned? Every single battle in the film had at least one moment that either made me drop my jaw in awe or want to stand up and cheer for one of the combatants. The entire final act of the film is one long battle in a war zone, and that battle is an epic one.

Acting-wise, we get more of the same. The Transformers films have always had middle fo the road solid acting, so no real complaints there. For this film, Bay gave us a few more characters. Leonard Nimoy is back in the Transformers Universe at last (anyone remember that he played Galvatron in the animated film?) as Sentinel Prime, and he does a fantastic job. He lends the role a real sense of gravity, which extends to the rest of the film. Alan Tudyck (Wash, from Firefly) is in the film as a pretty unnecessary character, but he is a welcome addition and tons of fun. And watch out for fun cameos from Ken Jeong and the great Buzz Aldrin himself.

Now, one of the bigger questions regarding this film was whether the new hot chick can act.Well, I’m happy to say that Rosie Huntington-Whitely does a commendable job, considering she had no real acting experience besides strutting down a Victoria Secret walkway. Her character, Carly, is more interesting than Megan Fox’s Mikaela, and Rosie is flat out a better actor.

So in the end, I walked out of Transformers: Dark of the Moon quite satisfied. Michael Bay said that this one is his last… but the rumour mill is churning like crazy, and some sources have claimed that if Bay really is gone, Spielberg himself might step in. True or not, the possibility of a Spielberg directed Transformers is mouth-watering.

So it looks like this trilogy has reached it’s conclusion. But if they decide to continue, let’s hope that there’s more to this situation than meets the eye.

Super 8

I am a child of the 80’s (and early 90’s). In the world I grew up in, Cringer turned into Battle-Cat with a bolt of Greyskull infused lightning, Captain Power and his Soldiers of the Future fought for humanity, and Zack Morris always got into trouble with the principle. I watched Return of the Jedi first and worked my way back, I played video games on my Commodore 64, and Justice League comics were hilarious sitcoms.

The movies of my childhood, both in theatres and on Betamax, were windows into another world. The movies I gravitated to, primarily horror, sci-fi, and fantasy, took hold of my imagination and refused to let go. Later labeled as “Escapist fare”, my favorite films were filled with a sense of wonder and awe, dripping with a feeling that if you stepped out into your backyard and gazed at the night sky filled with stars, the world around you would drop away.

There would be no space, no time, for worry and stress… how could such things exist in a world of pure imagination, a place where a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, the Goblin King Jareth has stolen a pretty girl’s younger brother, Marty McFly has just hit 88 miles per hour, and Elliot is taking the bicycle ride of his life. So many wondrous things… such a short childhood in which to appreciate them.

Super 8, JJ Abram’s loving homage to producer Steven Spielberg’s films from the 70’s and 80’s, is aimed squarely at someone like me. It is a film that reminds us of a time when the long, lazy summers were filled with possibility and our imaginations knew no limits; a time when the days stretched on forever and ever, and we could take our time to appreciate everything that we had.

Such an homage is dangerous to make, especially in today’s overly-cynical, caffeine and redbull-infused ADHD world; a world where a sense of wonder is deemed naive and childish and feel-good movies are not to be trusted. But Super 8 pulls it off. And how.

I’ll try to be careful, but assume SPOILERS from here on out.

Briefly, the film is set in a small middle America town, circa 1979 and follows the exploits of young Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney) and his friends as they deal with the triple threat of young love, young ambition, and young powerlessness in the face of death and the army. After losing his mother in an industrial accident, Joe has to deal with an emotionally absent father (Kyle Chandler), who also happens to be a deputy, completing his best friend’s zombie film shot on a Super 8 camera, and falling in love for the very first time with an older girl, Alice (Elle Fanning), who has agreed to be in the film. As the friends shoot a pivotal scene at an unused train station, they get caught in  the middle of a massive accident involving an air-force train carrying a mysterious, lethal cargo.

JJ Abrams does a masterful job in making Super 8 both a successful homage to 80’s classics like ET and The Goonies, while making sure it stands up well on its own two feet. I may be biased, being the target audience an all, but I just feel it does so many things right.

First of all, though not a long film at about 112 minutes, Abrams gives his movie the time and space to breathe. In other summer blockbusters this year (Thor and Green Lantern come to mind), everything moves at an incredible pace. BOOM, BOOM, BOOM go the scenes, plot point after plot point thunders past as if running a death race. Exhilirating? Sure. But I prefer Super 8‘s style of letting us linger with the characters as they react to things, internal and external, happening around them. Abrams knows how to direct some pretty spiffy “scary movie” scenes, but he also gives us plenty of purely character driven scenes and is content to give them as much time as they need.

There is a moment in the film when the kids are setting up to record a pivotal scene in their zombie movie. With it being a last minute addition to their script, budding Spielberg-wannabe Charles (Riley Griffiths) gives his cast an opportunity to rehearse off camera. While everyone else phones in their performances, Alice gives a heartfelt rendition so powerful that it chokes everyone up. It is at that moment that Joe really falls for her. Hard. There is silence after while the boys process this new sensation. In the hands of a lesser director, maybe one more concerned with run-times and exposition, this scene would have been treated like a bullet point on the script, worthy of a token small reaction.

But Abrams understands that this is not a movie about a monster and action, it is about emotion and all the wondrous feelings of adolescent enchantment. He lets it go on long enough for us to  see why Joe would fall for her, remembering what it was like to be young ourselves and in love for the very first time.

Speaking of which, the cast here is quite remarkable. It has often been said that working with children is impossible in Hollywood. Well, Abrams (and Spielberg before him) proves that if you cast well, and if you have a firm hand on your vision and know how to talk to them, then you can pull out some striking performances from anyone.

Our two leads in particular, Joe and Alice, command the screen like veterans. Elle Fanning already has a track record, and is on her way to becoming a great star, but newcomer Joel Courtney was a pleasant surprise. For someone who came to Hollywood to hang out with his cousin, not to be an actor, Courtney makes a strong case for the label of “someone to keep an eye on” in years to come. The adults do a great job as well, with Kyle Chandler in particular lending the role of the father a conflicted gravitas that makes me wonder why this guy doesn’t get more roles.

Abrams also has a firm grasp of tone in this film. He knows exactly what he wants us to feel when we’re watching it – awe and wonder, of course – and with the help of strong collaborators like composer Michael Giacchino and DP Larry Fong, he knows exactly how to extract those feelings from us. Even his (now) trademark lens flares make sense, adding an eerie other worldliness to the film.

I don’t know if other people see in this movie what I do. I don’t know if they’ll respond to its message of hope and understanding in the same way that I did. I don’t know if in this time of uncertainty and worry, this time of “it’s hip to be cynical” style of filmmaking, there is a place for a throwback like this. Box Offices have been strong so far. Will it last? Is this film destined to be a classic in the way that Stand By Me or ET is?

I hope so. It may not reach the heights of those earlier films, but I hope audiences see this film and realize that there is room in this world for a little wonder, a little awe, and a lot of optimism.

Green Lantern

You’d have to be living a completely un-connected life to missed all the scathing reviews of the new Green Lantern film. With a 40% rating on metacritic, the film has quickly garnered a reputation of being, shall we say, significantly below expectations. As a huge fan of the comics, this worried me, and I went into my screening last night with trepidation.

Is it as bad as some reviewers say? Is it a joyless, soulless, execrable piece of celluloid turd that never should have been made?

Well, that’s a simple question with a not so simple answer.

I personally think that the film is not as bad as people try to make it out to be.

Is it a superhero film on the level of The Dark Knight or Superman, films that transcend the medium and bring respectability to the genre? Heck no. Not even close. It it, then, this season’s Batman and Robin or Elektra, pieces of cinematic hackmanship that do nothing but denigrate the source material? Again, hell no.

Instead, I’d lump Green Lantern with films like Thor and Spider-Man 2. These are movies that capture much of what makes the source material so wonderful and enduring, all the while showcasing some serious problems that give critics major handholds to latch onto.


In Brightest Day…

So what does it do right?

1. The Setup – The first act is actually extremely well done, and does everything a first act is supposed to do right. Beginning with an exposition heavy prologue, necessary, I feel, due to Green Lantern’s complex mythology and world-building, the film then proceeds to introduce us to Hal Jordan, played by Ryan Reynolds. And the Jordan we meet, while perhaps more of a Kyle Rayner-Guy Gardner-Hal Jordan amalgam than a straight up Hal Jordan, is perfectly established right from the get go. We see his cockiness, his irresponsibility, his childishness, and, yes, his fear. In other words, all the flaws he will have to overcome to become a hero. The other story and character beats also fall into place pretty well, and made me eager to see where the filmmakers would take things.

2. Hal Jordan – I’m not the biggest fan of Hal as he exists in the comics. But I like what they did with him in the film. On the page, he’s essentially a supercop crossed with a Mercury 7 astronaut: cocky, but skilled enough to deserve his cockiness, and one of the greatest GL’s to ever sling the ring. He really had no weaknesses, except a slight inability to relate with some of his comrades, and a major inability to hold a long-term relationship. That’s a fun character for a mentor or side-kick, but not as the main focus of the story.

This is why I’ve always liked Kyle Rayner more. His vulnerabilities are real and deep seated, his stakes more personal, his journey more heroic. He has flaws in abundance, flaws just like you and me.

In crafting the Hal Jordan character for the screen, the writers took what made Kyle great, his humanity, and put them into Hal, making him a guy I could root for. Reynolds did a bang up job as well, knowing when to play it straight and when to crack wise.

3. Sense of Wonder – An aspect of film as a medium that has been missing for a long while is that “childish” sense of wonder that used to accompany Spielberg’s movies and science fiction in general. Green Lantern is a space opera about the ultimate tool of wish fulfillment, a concept begging for the return of a sense of wonder.

Had the filmmakers given in to modern cynicism and withheld that sense of wonder, then the film would have fallen flat on its face. As it is, OA is given the appropriate sense of grandeur, Hal revels in his constructs and his ability to fly, and everything feels heavy with wonder. In fact, it practically drips off the screen in that moment when Tomar-Re (Geoffry Rush) shows Hal a complex construct of a writhing mass responding to his will. Hal’s face, filled with wonder, seals the deal.

4. The Constructs – Reviewers have slammed the constructs as childish and immature. Well, guess what: Hal Jordan, as written, is childish and immature. It fits. And besides, the film is about the power of imagination… if the idea of a grown man occasionally indulging his inner child is offensive to you, then I suggest popping out your DVD of Requiem for a Dream and watching The Goonies or Superman. Have some fun.

5. Sinestro – Although he didn’t have too much to do in the film, Mark Strong as Sinestro was definitely a highlight. The man owned every scene he was in.

6. The Humour – the film is funny in all the right places. It just works. See: Carol Ferris discovering Green Lantern’s secret identity.

In Blackest Night…

It wasn’t all brightest days for Green Lantern, though, as some of the criticism was absolutely justified. So… what went wrong?

1. Pacing – I’m not going to go scene by scene here, but the pacing of the film after the first act was definitely off. Some parts dragged, the first fight scene between Hector Hammond and Hal Jordan was terribly paced within itself, and the third act was atrociously quick. Parallax’s approach and subsequent attack on Earth felt way too rushed. The final battle felt like it was only 5 seconds long, and the wrap-up felt like they just ran out of time and wanted to end things quick. Nothing was given its proper weight in the end, and that’s a shame. In that sense, it was reminiscent of the ending for Golden Compass, which is not a good thing.

2. Carol Ferris – As I said earlier, Blake Lively was competent in her role, having to do nothing more than stand around and look sexy. But that’s the problem… she had nothing else to do but stand around and look sexy. Yes, I know she becomes a major villain (Star Sapphire) later on, but it feels like her character is locked in a holding pattern until such event occurs. A problem, arguably, shared by Sinestro.

3. The Dialogue – I’m sorry, most of the film’s dialogue is just clunky and messy, on the nose and expository to an extreme. There’s some good stuff in there, but I’d rather forget any of the characters outside of Hal and Sinestro opened their mouths at all.

4. The Villains – Hector Hammond, while played admirably by Peter Sarsgaard, was really nothing but a distraction and a waste of space. All his screen time could have been spent developing Parallax more, or perhaps showing more training on OA. Speaking of Parallax…

No. No I will not speak of Parallax any further. Instead, I will just direct you to pick up a copy of Green Lantern: Rebirth from your nearest comic store.

5. No Fear – Yes, I get it. The film is about overcoming fear. You didn’t have to tell me that every 10 minutes. Seriously, I get it.

Beware My power…

So, yes, there you go. The film has a multitude of flaws, and certainly could have been better.

But it could have been worse, too, and when it did work, Green Lantern was a soaring space epic with a strong likeable main character who definitely deserves a chance to anchor another film or two. As the opening film of a potential new franchise, it may not be on the level of Batman Begins, but I’d say it did at least as good of a job as, say, X-Men.

And with the requisite origin story out of the way, I can see the next film being a better, tighter piece, able to focus on the plot, presumably the beginnings of the war of light. And if the end-credits teaser is any indication, Sinestro is about to become a huge factor.

And, let’s face it, I can’t wait to see how Blake Lively fills out this uniform: