(Don’t) Go Solo

I watched Solo tonight on Netflix so you don’t have to.

Haha, no. It wasn’t that bad. But it really wasn’t very good, either. Here are my thoughts in list form:

  • I’m glad I didn’t pay full price to see this in a theater
  • Aiden Ehrenreich was okay, but really didn’t have much to work with, and didn’t feel at all like the same character Harrison Ford played
  • Not enough Lando
  • Lando’s emotional attachment to L3 (a droid) was kind of weird
  • Never have a character talk about how predictable everyone is in a movie that is predictable
  • Competent special effects but few that had any real “wow” factor
  • The fan service bits weren’t as overbearing as in the prequels, but they were still bad
  • We get it, any band in a Star Wars movie needs to be really weird and alien
  • The movie started out slow, almost dull
  • Han is supposed to be a great pilot, but we are literally never shown this until he is suddenly forced to fly the Falcon
  • The tone was way too dark for a character who is a lovable rogue
  • We don’t need a backstory on the name Solo
  • Bring back the opening title crawl
  • If they still go ahead and make a Boba Fett movie, I will be very cross
  • It ends hinting at a sequel. Ha, fat chance.

Deadpool, false alarms and free movies

I saw Deadpool last night. I knew just enough about the character and movie to properly calibrate my expectations (vulgar, gory over-the-top violence, irreverent) and was pleased to find the movie was, in its own vulgar, gory and irreverent way, quite charming and at times pretty funny. Ryan Reynolds obviously has affection for the character/material and had a great time making the film–and it shows. As a bonus, you get to see him nude. As a special bonus, you even get to see his naughty bits. As penance for this, you see them after he has been transformed into a hideously ugly mutant.

About a quarter of the way through the movie a pair of small white lights began flashing, one on either side of the movie screen. It seemed like an alarm of some kind. Presumably they don’t have real alarms (the kind that pierce ear drums) to prevent that whole “yelling fire’ in a theater effect. I ignored it for a bit and then Nic finally said we should check it out so we went to the lobby and immediately got word that it was a fire alarm, but a false one. We returned to our seats and the lights kept flashing, which was more annoying now that we knew there was no inferno imminent.

A few minutes later a pair of employees came in and one gamely tried talking over the movie’s audio (Deadpool is not a film that employs subtlety in its audio–or any other part) and we got the gist: an apology for the alarm and an offer for a full refund or free pass.

After they left the film suddenly froze. It’s a digital projector so I’m wondering if the hard drive crashed. Would we get to see the world’s largest BSOD? No, it turned out they were setting the movie back to just before the disruption. I actually caught a piece of dialogue I had missed the first time.

When the movie ended we filed past someone who did indeed give us a pair of free passes (good until December 31, 2017, so good for the release of Episode VIII). We’ll likely use them for Zootopia, one of those anthropomorphic Disney moves that looks way better in the previews than it has any right to.

Overall, the disruption was relatively minor, didn’t detract from the experience (Deadpool is pretty much the perfect movie to experience a false fire alarm in) and we got a free movie out of it. I rate the evening 6 out of 7 Ryan Reynold’s fourth wall-breaking comments.

Movie review: Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Hey, there’s a new Star Wars movie out. You may have heard about it, possibly.

Released twelve days ago, Star Wars: The Force Awakens has already made over $600 million domestically. Even taking into account ticket price inflation, that’s an impressive figure. Ten years after Lucas wrapped up his prequel trilogy with Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, there’s apparently quite an appetite for more Star Wars movies.

I’m not going to ramble on since the Internet is already stuffed to the gills with reviews of the movie, but I will offer a few of my own thoughts.

I saw the original Star Wars when I was 12 years old. It was magical and awesome. I’d never seen a movie like it before. When Return of the Jedi came out in 1983 I paid to see it four times, something I’d never done before and have never done again since. I loved Star Wars and its flaws and imperfections didn’t bother me in the slightest, even as I acknowledged them.

When Lucas decided to make Episodes I-III I was excited. I’d have preferred Episodes VII-IX since we already knew Anakin Skywalker became Darth Vader, but still, new Star Wars!

As it turned out, whatever Lucas captured for the original three movies largely eluded him for the prequels, which were flat, poorly-directed, bloated with overly busy effects, featured embarrassing fan service and had one of the worst movie romances ever.

The biggest criticism I might level at The Force Awakens is that it largely uses the template of the first movie, swapping in new characters for the same general roles. But this is a minor nit, because it is done well and serves as a way to relaunch the movie series, not just for people who didn’t grow up with the original trilogy, but especially for those who did.

I suspected J.J. Abrams would be a better fit for Star Wars than Star Trek and he is. Reining in his excesses, he ably directs a cast that is diverse, smart and appealing. The script is rather sharp for a Star Wars film. The whole thing moves relentlessly, but finds the right places to breathe before picking up the action again. The fan service is tolerable–in stark contrast to what Abrams did in Star Trek–and Harrison Ford, who plays a surprisingly large part in the film, perfectly recaptures the character of Han Solo. And BB-8 is adorable.

Really, the major achievement here–apart from the stellar work done by the young cast that will carry the series forward–is that this feels like a Star Wars film in a way the prequels never really did. It’s ironic that it took people other than Lucas to rediscover and recapture what made the original trilogy work so well.

Now I just have to wait impatiently for Episode VIII.

Movie review: The Martian

I don’t review movies much anymore but I’m offering a quick one for The Martian:

Go see it.

Based on the self-published book of the same name, this is a smart, funny and even touching movie that is grounded in believable science, telling the story of an astronaut stranded on Mars and the effort to rescue him. The cast is diverse and enjoyable, the script respects the intelligence of the audience and the visuals are as lush as you’d expect in a Ridley Scott film.

I can now forgive Scott for Prometheus.

Movie review: Oz the Great and Powerful

Nic and I wanted to go watch some mindless spectacle so we settled on Oz the Great and Powerful. This is a great example of a movie filled with CGI for its own sake. So much of the movie looked fake–deliberately so in the case of the backgrounds, which were callouts to the look of the original Wizard of Oz–and was distracting because of it. Just because you can CGI a bunch of butterflies doesn’t mean you should.

James Franco was okay as Oz but lacks the presence the role needs. When he smiles he looks like a goofy kid, not an oily con man. Michelle Williams did what she could with the role of Glinda but had weird eye makeup or something that made it look like she was always on the verge of weeping. Plus I’d just seen her again in Brokeback Mountain and was half-expecting Ennis to show up and ask her how she could afford that g-damn fancy dress she was wearing.

The battle between Evanora and Glinda at the end of the movie was wholly unnecessary and brought to mind the Gandalf/Saruman fight–not a flattering comparison. And Evanora obviously went to the Emperor Palpatine School of Discipline.

The flying monkeys were baboons and didn’t look as scary as Zach Braff (human or monkey form). Disappointing.

Overall I found it mediocre but not entirely objectionable, like eating a bag of chips that aren’t your favorite flavor. You’d miss nothing by waiting to catch it on video.

It made $80 million this weekend.

Top grossing films of 2011

Yeah, I’m a bit late with this.

Here are the top-grossing movies domestically for 2011 (domestically refers to Canada and the U.S. As you’ll see, worldwide grosses paint a somewhat different picture):

1 Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 $381,011,219
2 Transformers: Dark of the Moon              $352,390,543
3 The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1     $281,287,133
4 The Hangover Part II                        $254,464,305
5 Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides $241,071,802
6 Fast Five                                   $209,837,675
7 Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol        $209,278,301
8 Cars 2                                      $191,452,396
9 Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows          $186,842,737
10 Thor                                       $181,030,624

This list can be summed up thusly: YOU HAVE NO RIGHT TO COMPLAIN ABOUT TOO MANY SEQUELS. EVER. Exactly one of the top 10 movies is not a sequel and it — Thor — is based on a licensed property and is in a genre (superhero films) that has had titles cranked out regularly over the past decade.

Let’s have a look at each film and figure out why they made buckets of money (apart from exorbitant ticket prices).

1. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2. If you include ‘in 3D’ this becomes one of the longest movie titles ever but no one can keep an accurate count of how many Harry Potter movies there are (7? 8?) so it never got called Harry Potter 7 (or 8), typically being referred to as simply ‘the new Harry Potter’. The success of this is no surprise because it wraps up the saga and all of the HP movies have done well. Most of them have been looked kindly upon by critics, too, which never hurts.

2. Transformers: Dark of the Moon. Regarded as better than #2 (the very definition of damning with faint praise) the third installment proves the least popular of the trilogy (when taking into account ticket sales and not inflated ticket prices) — not a good sign for Michael “BLOW IT UP” Bay but $352 million even in 2011 dollars isn’t chump change, so this series seems safe for awhile or until it’s run into the ground (with Bay directing, this will probably literally happen).

3. The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1. Another popular series, the sparkly vampires continue to draw in its loyal audience with the penultimate film (at least until Twilight: The New Generation or something comes along). Like Harry Potter, they are squeezing out a few more bucks by splitting the last book into a two-part movie. While I can see this for HP, given that the first book was about 300 pages long and the last was about 10,000, it seems more of a money grab for Twilight. But hey, I have not read the books nor seen the movies, so who am I to judge? As a bonus, even the critics seem to be warming up to this saga of pasty white teenage/werewolf/undead love.

4. The Hangover Part II. Hey, another sequel. Weird! This one seems to have coasted a bit on the success of the first movie. A third is all but inevitable and probably won’t do as well. This will not stop a fourth or fifth from being made. This is the only live action comedy to make the top 10, proving again that for whatever reason people do not like to go to movies to laugh. Maybe the ticket prices put filmgoers more in the mind frame for tragedies.

5. Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides. In North America the wind seems to no longer be in the sails much for this, although overseas it’s still incredibly popular (over $802 million), so Johnny Depp can probably continue to wear eye makeup (and get paid for it) into the foreseeable future.

6. Fast Five. I am surprised at the resiliency of this series. The April release would suggest it was viewed as not cut out to be a summer movie yet it did boffo box office. People really like Vin Diesel and fast cars, it seems. Don’t blame me if Diesel uses this to leverage a new Chronicles of Riddick movie, I never saw it!

7. Mission: Impossible Ghost Protocol. Another sequel, another surprise. After a tepid reaction to #3 people returned in greater numbers to watch Tom Cruise running again. He can probably crank out a few more before shifting into the inevitable character (‘I’m too old to be a leading man anymore’) parts.

8. Cars 2. The second worst-performing Pixar movie ever and after adjusting for inflation the worst. While you can’t really call a movie that makes close to $200 million a flop, it clearly underperformed. This is what happens when merchandising is a primary consideration and the audience can sense it. This won’t stop them from making Cars 3 before The Incredibles 2, though. There is no justice. This was the only animated film to crack the top 10, a bit unusual in itself.

9. Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows. Exemplifying both ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ and ‘more of the same’ the sequel to Sherlock Holmes managed to do almost as well as the first, which means it’s probably considered a failure of sorts. Expect more explosions or zombies or exploding zombies in the third one.

10. Thor. Wait, this isn’t a sequel. How did this get here? Thor is, of course, based on the Marvel comic character and under the direction of Kenneth Branagh (!) it proved a solid hit. But before they can stamp out Thor 2, Thor 3 and Thor 4: I Adore there’s The Avengers movie this summer. I find it hard to imagine a sequel to this but on the other hand, do we really want them to remake The Incredible Hulk again?

I tried to watch Batman & Robin

I tried to watch Batman & Robin. Yes, the 1997 movie with George Clooney and Arnold Schwarzenegger. There’s a Warner movie channel on preview now so I figured I’d record it on the PVR (in HD!) and give it a shot, having never seen it before. I was aware of its less than stellar reputation. I cringed at the first butt shot, winced at the batsuit with nipples and watched through my fingers as if at a horror movie while Arnie lumbered onto the screen and bellowed, “Da ice man cometh!” I found it odd that Batman and Mr. Freeze would meet right at the start of the movie and that distracted me until the hockey guards/attackers skated in.

At that point kitsch was no longer enough. Or it was too much. In any case, that’s as far as I got. I’ll assume Batman won in the end and be happy with that.

The Dark Knight Rises (which is almost as dumb a title as Batman Begins) is coming out this summer. My only concern is that Nolan will fall into his own navel and make it too Grim and Serious. What it is unlikely to be, however, is too campy. I’m fairly confident that Batman & Robin sucked all remaining camp out of the universe.

Twilight Zone: The Movie review

I’ve seen Twilight Zone: The Movie before (in the theater when it came out in 1983, in fact) but just recently recorded and watched it again. It doesn’t hold up.

I had forgotten that the opening is a literal update of the final few seasons’ intro sequence, complete with the Scary Door, floating eyeball, shattering window, human figure and clock, all given a nice modern sheen. The effect is to underscore just how silly the whole thing was to begin with. When CBS revived the series two years later they wisely jettisoned this for completely different opening credits that call back to the original without aping them.

The movie is framed by a character played by Dan Aykroyd. In the movie’s first sequence he is a passenger in a car driven by Albert Brooks. They exchange banter for a bit before Aykroyd talks Brooks into pulling over in order to show him something ‘really scary’. This turns out to be Aykroyd done up with make-up effects worthy of the original Star Trek. The main problem here is that they apparently could not budget a movable mouth so Aykroyd’s monster face looks like a mound of blue plaster topped with a fright wig. Maybe it was meant to be an homage to Creepshow and other cheesy horror movies/comics but that’s not what The Twilight Zone is about, so it would have still missed the mark there.

This leads into the first of four stories and the only original one, which I find both understandable (present the audience with stories they know and presumably love) and mildly puzzling on the other (“I can watch these stories for free on TV, why should I pay to watch them in a theater?”). Sadly the original story is the weakest of the bunch. A racist man played by Vic Morrow leaves a bar in a huff and finds himself in Nazi-occupied France where the bad guys see him as a Jew. He then lands at a KKK lynching, appearing as the black would-be lynching victim, escapes again to find himself doing a compelling impersonation of Charlie during the Vietnam war before ending up back with the Nazis. Upon return he is captured and put into a cattle car and shipped off to the concentration camps because he is a racist and isn’t that ironic?

Granted, the message episodes of The Twilight Zone were never subtle to begin with ( in one an American Nazi — played wonderfully by Dennis Hopper — is guided by Hitler himself) but this story is a limp series of sequences that feels rote. There’s no investment in the character — he’s just a nondescript loudmouth with ugly views and an uglier suit jacket (it was the early 80s, after all) and each sequence is too brief to carry any emotional impact. There is a certain ghoulish feeling knowing that Morrow was killed during the shooting of the Vietnam scene (when a helicopter hovering above him crashed due to an effects explosion).

The next story is a remake of “Kick the Can”, directed by Steven Spielberg and is cute enough to be twee and that’s even before you get to Scatman Crothers’ creepy perpetually grinning character. Where the original leaves off with the seniors transforming into kids and running off into the night, the remake brings them back to old age because the object is to be old in body but with ‘young minds’. Having shown everyone how neat it is to be young again but not really so you better climb back into bed and be old, Crothers heads off to the next seniors home to do it all over again. The scene where someone finally punches him in his stupid grinning mouth was apparently deleted.

This story captures Spielberg at his most sentimental. While the actors are fine, the script is mawkish and heavy-handed, once again bent on delivering a message above all else. As you might have guessed, I found Crothers’ character (new for the remake) annoying and unnecessary.

The third story is a remake of the classic episode where Bill Mumy plays an evil kid who can do anything with his mind and occupies most of his time by demanding fealty from his parents and their neighbors as they are forced to endure his childish, outlandish indulgences, lest they get sent to the corn field — or worse. The remake introduces a new character, a young school teacher who takes the boy home and gets ensnared in his bizarre world and changes the supporting characters to be similar victims, rather than his actual family. The rest plays out mostly the same but while the horror of the original was palpable (one character is famously turned into a living jack-in-the-box) it is presented more cartoonishly here (literally, for the most part). The biggest change is the ending, where the teacher breaks through the boy’s loneliness and agrees to teach him to be nice and use his power wisely rather than to put people into cartoons where they are eaten by monsters. It’s a happy thing but makes the story feel a bit too pat. The original leaves one with a sense that these people are going to be stuck in his hellish world for a very long time, the remake seems to sum up with ‘all you need is love’ and while that’s nice, it’s not nearly as fun. Still, this is far better than the first two stories.

The final is perhaps one of the best-known of the original series, “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet” where a nervous airline passenger (William Shatner in the original, John Lithgow in the remake) believes he seems a creature on the wing of the plane trying to damage the engines. This is the most faithful retelling, down to Lithgow’s character being carted off in a straitjacket and the reveal of actual damage to the plane, proving he wasn’t just seeing things. It differs in a few ways, most notably by eliminating the wife of the character. My biggest problem with this segment is the pacing. In the original the character seems perfectly normal but nervous about flying (given that his previous flight ended in an actual nervous breakdown). After first spotting the creature he begins to unwind and grows increasingly hysterical but there is always the sense that he is trying to maintain control. The remake starts with Lithgow in the washroom already freaking out. The arc of the character isn’t given room to breathe and is less rewarding as a result. Plus Lithgow plays nervous maybe a little too well. The creature’s appearance is also changed from a big fluffy something with a kind of ugly face to an hairless, demon-like thing with a mouth full of nasty-looking teeth. While it is theoretically scarier, it also changes the creature’s motivation. In the original it seemed to be pulling apart the plane out of fun. The remake creature seems more determined to actually bring the plane down, which muddles why it would disappear when Lithgow’s character tries to point it out to others instead of just finishing the job.

The movie ends with Lithgow in the ambulance and Aykroyd revealed as the driver, offering to show him something ‘really scary’ (I’m guessing bad make-up effects).

On a scale of 1 to 10 Serlings, Twlight Zone: The Movie rates 6 Serlings. Individually:

“Time Out”: 4/10
“Kick the Can”: 4/10
“It’s a Good life”: 6/10
“Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”: 7/10

Review: Skyline

Remember how there were two asteroid movies that came out close to each other (Armageddon and Deep Impact) and two volcano movies that did the same (Dante’s Peak and the creatively-titled Volcano)? This past year has seen the same thing happen with alien invasion movies set in L.A., namely Skyline and Battle: Los Angeles.

I watched Skyline and it was mediocre at best. The effects were decent and the alien design was competent if uninspired (the usual weird organic/machine hybrids, much like those seen in The Matrix sequels) but the movie overall was limp. The opening has some promise — a series of mysterious blue lights drop down from the sky — but once the alien reveal is made and the assault begins in earnest the movie lumbers along with its ultimately uninteresting band of survivors trying to escape the luxury beachside tower they are holed up in. Inevitably their numbers get whittled down as they get plucked off/sucked into the light or the hungry maw of an alien one by one. When it was down to the young couple who have both been exposed partly to the magic alien transformation light I realized I didn’t care about their fate. It’s suggested that their partial exposure (and the woman being newly preggers) may have saved them and even though the man goes through the whole transformation and becomes a big glistening alien hulk thing with blinky lights for eyes, he still retains enough of his human self to save the woman from being turned into an alien snack. To what effect I don’t know, since the coda also establishes that the aliens have pretty much trashed every city across the world and a nuke dropped on L.A. only made them even more ticked off.

It was a better ending than uploading a virus into the mothership, so I will give the filmmakers credit for that.

As with so many alien movies, the reason behind the invasion is so much poorly-explained, unbelievable nonsense. It seems that humans are being caught and used to ‘hatch’ new aliens, which begs the question of what the aliens did before they arrived on Earth. It’s not even worth pondering more than that.

Thumbs down, although the lead actor was kind of cute, so on a scale on one to ten aliens, Skyline rates three aliens and one mutant alien/human offspring. For having a cute lead actor in a bad movie, Skyline rates a six.

Review: Super 8

SPOILERS AHOY! If you do not want to read spoilers, skip this review in its entirely and just read the last paragraph where I sum up whether the movie was poop or worth seeing.

Super 8 is one of those movies that gets worse the more you think about it. That makes sense, because it’s a monster movie and as such it’s not meant to stand up to the intense scrutiny of some fancypants film critic. I don’t even have fancypants, though, and I still had some problems with it.

First, I don’t think it’s a bad movie, but it is disjointed. It feels like a couple of different stories have been stitched together, some of which would have been better off not being in there at all.

In an example of the film’s problems with tone, it starts darkly, with a post-funeral gathering for the mother of the main protagonist, a teen boy named Joe. A man is bum-rushed out of the boy’s house by the town deputy — the boy’s father. It is later revealed that the man is the one who missed his shift at the factory and Joe’s mother went in to cover and got squished dead in some sort of horrible industrial accident. The man’s daughter later serves as the proto-love interest of Joe.

None of this is relevant to the main plot and could have been removed in its entirety. I am guessing it was put in to add depth to the characters or something. It’s a monster movie. You don’t need depth. You need monsters.

The film then lightens up considerably as it settles on the four boys and girl shooting their homemade zombie movie. As Super 8 is set in 1979, their little production is done on, well, a Super 8 camera. The scenes of them putting the movie together are charming and the interaction among the kids — arguing, blurting out non-sequiturs and acting weird in little ways — feels authentic or at least authentic enough for the purposes of a monster movie.

While the kids are filming late at night outside a rail station, an approaching train collides with a truck, resulting in a spectacularly over the top wreck that launches the central plot of the movie as something big and clearly not good lumbers out of an overturned box car and disappears into the dark. When I say the train wreck is over the top, I am not employing hyperbole. Either J.J. Abrams really likes train crashes or he wasn’t confident enough to simply have the boxcars derail and the monster slink out unseen. Imagine a train getting hit by a tactical nuke and you have some idea of what the wreck was like. Okay, now I’m engaging in a little hyperbole. But only a little!

The military enters into the film in short order and Super 8 is one of those ‘military bad’ movies, so we find out the escaped monster has been previously examined, prodded and tortured by the men in uniform. So the monster — which later goes on to capture and eat several townspeople while also destroying half the place in order to get its spaceship working again — is meant to be at least somewhat sympathetic, like King Kong. Except Abrams doesn’t really pull it off so it’s a bit of a muddled mess instead. It doesn’t help that the monster itself is one of those colorless gray generic CGI things. It projects absolutely nothing — not anger, not empathy, nothing. Even at the end when it reveals human-like eyes, they feel dead, unseeing. It has a ‘psychic connection’ to its victims but it feels like a tacked-on device to explain why Joe is not immediately gulped down when the monster snatches him up in its lair. In fact, it’s unclear why the monster even chases after the puny kids when it’s clear it can stomp them like bugs with little effort and it’s actually trying to get its spaceship ready. Again, Abrams throws a lot of stuff together but the glue is missing.

The movie steers toward an increasingly uneven conclusion. The town is put under military evacuation. The kids escape and return. The army rolls in tanks and soldiers that seem to be shooting all over the place. There’s only one monster, guys. Shoot at the monster, not every building you see. Or lamp post or whatever. Apparently the best plan of attack when trying to bring down a monster is “shoot in every direction”. The kids are able to run through this literal warzone unscathed and unnoticed.

A scene in the monster’s lair below the town’s water tower (a location whose importance is telegraphed early on) is meant to be suspenseful but hews so closely to horror movie tropes that it comes off as merely by-the-numbers. The worst bit is probably the pyromaniac boy’s lighter refusing to light until just in the nick of time! I rolled my eyes. For real!

Proving that it wasn’t just a Star Trek thing, Abrams employs plenty of lens flare in Super 8 and it is never less than distracting, particularly when there is no apparent source for it. I have theorized that all of Abrams’ movies take place in an alternative universe where light is magic and can appear spontaneously.

The 1979 setting is handled well for the most part and I didn’t notice any anachronisms. Abrams does bonk you over the head with the retro setting a few times, though, most notably in a scene at a gas station where the young clerk marvels over a Walkman. “Yeah, it’s this cool portable music device called a SONY WALKMAN. Haha, it’s like being in the future, except it’s only 1979!”

The end, with the monster (alien, really) spaceship lifting up into the sky, plays like an awkward homage to ET. But ET was cute and tender and lovable and Super 8’s alien is ugly, eats people and trashes the place. It’s less an “Aw, he’s going back home” scene and more of a “I’m glad that sucker is gone” thing, though the silent reaction of the townfolk watching suggests more the former. I can’t help but think Super 8’s sequel (What would they call it? Betamax?) would start with an alien armada arriving to take revenge on Earth.

Despite everything I’ve written, I did enjoy the movie. The scenes with the kids are charming, especially when they’re making their little zombie movie. In fact, that probably would have been a better movie than the main plot of Super 8. As monster movies go, Super 8 comes off as watchable but disjointed, with awkward shifts of tone, unnecessary subplots and an ending that sputters out. I give it a thumb sideways, slightly up if there’s a strong breeze blowing.

Not so hot wheels

I’ve now watched a good portion of Cars and I still can’t get past the concept. I can accept talking fish, rats, ants and toys but for some reason talking cars stretch credibility too much. Maybe because the talking animals and toys still exist in a human world, whereas the cars exist in a bizarro world where they stand in place of humans. It begs obvious questions like ‘Where do baby cars come from?”

And I don’t want to know the answer.

Reviews: Thor and X-Men: First Class

I freely admit that when I go out to see a movie, it’s because I want to see it on a freaking huge screen to better appreciate the spectacle of sound and light being presented. This means when I’m seeing a movie during the summer it ain’t gonna be an arthouse film. This year I’ve started with two superhero movies, both from the Marvel universe.

Thor

I know little about Thor the comic (comic book, that is, not stand-up comic, though that itself is an interesting concept). I know he’s some sort of viking dude with a hammer and that’s about it. The movie fleshes out his origin story, presenting Thor as a reckless warmonger lusting for blood with little thought to the consequence. A heavily made-up Anthony Hopkins plays his father who banishes him to Earth for being such a reckless boob (Thor lives on a snazzy viking planet and they have some kind of wormhole thingie that can shoot them hither and yonder across the galaxy. Nerds everywhere are cringing at my inability to give any of this stuff its proper names). Thor’s arrival is heralded by him getting hit by a van. This turns out to be a literal running gag. Over the course of the movie Thor goes through a character arc of sorts, which kind of surprised me, given I was mostly expecting lots of fighting and special effects (and there is plenty of both), turning into a wiser, more mellow kind of dude who is fit to be king, unlike his rat brother Loki, who plots to exterminate their enemies, Thor, dad and pretty much anyone who gets in his way.

Good triumph over evil in the end, of course, and Loki gets away with a Vader-esque escape, so he’s primed to be a main bad guy in The Avengers movie — and that’s what Thor feels like, a prequel of sorts to The Avengers, introducing Thor. But it works for what it is. Kenneth Branagh (!) keeps the action moving and gives the characters enough time to catch their collective breath and flesh out scenes that would otherwise feel like perfunctory bits between explosions. The off-kilter camera angles often used to establish shots on Earth might recall the same trick being used on the campy Batman series from the 1960s but here it works as an effective way to illustrate the fish-out-of-water nature of Thor’s presence on the planet.

Chris Hemsworth appears to have had a great time playing the title character and is thoroughly enjoyable as he alternates between bumbling about powerless on Earth and swaggering and swinging the hammer with gusto about on his home planet of Asgard. For some reason I didn’t even recognize Natalie Portman until well into the movie. Her plucky scientist Jane Foster is fairly rote and she does little to distinguish the role but she’s not bad, either and this will certainly look better on her resume than Your Highness. Tom Hiddlestone does a nice job with Loki, at turns menacing and slightly campy.

The effects are dazzling and well-rendered and the action is plentiful and satisfying. Comic book movies don’t have a very high bar to reach to be considered decent. After all, Electra and Daredevil both got greenlit and they’ve made two Fantastic Four movies, so by my account, Thor comes off quite well. A solid romp, I rate it 3.5 mystical hammers out of 5.

X-Men: First Class

After the fairly dismal X-Men 3: Everyone Dies and an okay-but-not great Wolverine movie, the powers-that-be at Marvel apparently decided it was time to reboot the franchise by going the prequel route and so we find X-Men: First Class set in 1962 and laying out the origins of the merry band of mutants led by Professor Xavier. The film plays up the early 60s angle right down to making the Cuban missile crisis the centerpiece of the story but never veers into Austin Powers territory in terms of costumes or design. In fact, there are a few fashion anachronisms, mostly with some hairstyles looking a bit too modern.

James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender are both well-cast as the younger Xavier and Magneto, respectively. While the film shows Magneto’s transformation into a ‘bad guy’, Xavier is given a completely different take as a sex-loving, beer-swilling kinda guy (who still has a highly developed moral code that causes him to ultimately part ways with Magneto).

I don’t have any serious coimplaints about the movie. It moves along well and although the supporting cast don’t get a lot of time to explore their characters, they all handle themselves well. It did seem Angel was given no real motivation to join with evil mutant Sebastian Shaw and I suspect the many-credited writers may have had something in there at some point that got cut. And speaking of Shaw, I’m unsure what to make of Kevin Bacon as the chief bad guy. I actually didn’t recognize him in the 1944 scenes where he appears as a Nazi doctor. Once he became Evil Kevin Bacon in 1962 I was less convinced because, you know…Kevin Bacon. They should have given him a big villainous mustache or something.

I’m usually not big on reboots, remakes or prequels but X-Men: First Class actually pulls off the origin story with intelligence, flair and, well, class. If the film does well, expect to see X-Men: Second Class get the go-ahead. Okay, maybe not with that title. X-Men: Top of Class? X-Men: Still Classy? They had four people credited on the screenplay, they can throw a couple of writers at coming up with a decent name for a sequel.