Thursday, June 30, 2011

Film Faves: 1994

Welcome folks to another edition of Film Faves wherein I count down my favorite dozen of a film topic.  For those who are new, Film Faves is not intended as an objective 'Best of' list. Instead, think of it as an unabashedly subjective expression of movie geek love. Many lists stop at 10 with some Honorable Mentions thrown in afterward.  Film Faves is a list of 12 movies or related items - no Honorable Mentions.

I intend to explore many different film topics with Film Faves, but its primary focus for the time being is marching backward through time, taking a look at each year and counting down my favorite films of every year.

Let's get on with it, shall we?  This edition of Film Faves looks at the year 1994.

The year 1994 was a great year for movies.  It is the first year I've written about in a while with too many movies I loved than I can fit into the list.  Movies like Outbreak, The Crow, Disclosure, Maverick, and other movies apparently with one-word titles I really enjoy, but just couldn't squeeze their way onto the list.

There are several things worth noting about the movies of 1994.  In the foreign film market il Postino, Eat Drink Man Woman, and Kieslowski's Red and White garnered most of the critical and commercial attention.

The documentary of the year was Hoop Dreams, the three-hour chronicle of inner city high schoolers who dream of becoming the next Michael Jordan.  No documentary would gain such popularity for nearly a decade, however Hoop Dreams was not nominated for Best Documentary in the Academy Awards.

There were a couple notable debuts in 1994: Cameron Diaz (The Mask), Natalie Portman (Léon), and Kate Winslet (Heavenly Creatures).  Also, Dakota Fanning, Justin Beiber, and Saoirse Ronan were all born that year.

Several comedies reigned supreme at the box office, including The Mask, Dumb and Dumber, Four Weddings and a Funeral, and the dumb-as-a-rock The Flintstones.  Other notable comedies include Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult, Bullets Over Broadway, The Santa Clause, and Clerks.

Other movies of note include The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert; Heavenly Creatures; The Last Seduction; Legends of the Fall; Natural Born Killers; The Paper; Quiz Show; Reality Bites; Serial Mom; Timecop; and Wes Craven's New Nightmare.

Then there was the cack, the worst of the year.  Remember these screen gems?  Bad Girls, Cabin Boy, Camp Nowhere, The Chase, City Slickers II: The Legend of Curly's Gold, Clean Slate, Clear and Present Danger, Exit to Eden, Getting Even with Dad, I Love Trouble, It's Pat, Lightning Jack, The Next Karate Kid, North, On Deadly Ground, The Pagemaster, Renaissance Man, Richie Rich, The Specialist, and Raul Julia's final film (sigh...), Street Fighter.

But here are my favorite films of


1994:

12. With Honors


Once in a while, my taste in ‘90s films will dip into what many consider to be sub-par melodrama just a notch above Lifetime TV-movie schmaltz. I believe this film, starring Brendan Fraser and Joe Pesci, would count among those films. But I still enjoy it quite a bit. I watched this film about a dozen times during my teen years. As an adult revisiting this film for the first time in a decade (I’ve let a VHS copy sit on my shelf untouched most of that time), I steeled myself for an overwrought, treacley experience. I was pleasantly surprised. The ensemble – which also includes Moira Kelly, Patrick Dempsey, and Josh Hamilton – simultaneously gelled together and stood apart. The story is adequately told and avoids ringing false. The third-act drama, which touches on mortality, regret, and the sum of one’s life, was adequately moving without feeling forced. For those who aren’t aware, With Honors is about a Harvard student (Fraser) who loses his senior thesis to a bum (Pesci). That bum makes a deal to return a page of the thesis per charitable gesture given to him. One thing leads to another, and the student and bum develop a friendship as they learn more about each other, each teaching the other lessons in life. I won’t go so far as to say these are the best performances by Fraser and Pesci, but they are very good and help carry the film. Also, Patrick Dempsey was rarely seen during the '90s and his performance in this film is a treat.

11. Nell

This film has remained one of my favorite Jodie Foster movies – and happens to also be one of her personal favorites, as well. Directed by Michael Apted, Nell criticizes the cynicism and noise of our society through a 30-something wild child who was raised in the woods by a stroke victim. She is discovered by a scientist (played by Liam Neeson) and introduced to contemporary society. The film could’ve been completely melodramatic and silly – and it does go there a bit during a climactic courtroom scene – but Foster sells the character and keeps the film's feet on the ground. Nell connects not by resorting to cheap fish-out-of-water gags or a subject/observer romance, but by being truthful about its situation and focusing on Nell’s relationship with her sister. A very moving film.

10. Forrest Gump

Forrest Gump is a really good film. That statement may come as common knowledge, but I think it may be a bit controversial. The AFI once named Forrest Gump among the 100 greatest films ever made. The Academy of Motion Picture Sciences named Forrest Gump the Best Picture of its year. I respectfully disagree with them both. Sure, Gump was one of the best films of 1994 and one could place it among the greatest films ever made. But it was not the best film of 1994 and it certainly would be in better company between the 200th and 500th best films ever made - not the top 100. Gump took top honors at the Oscars, proving once again that sometimes popularity beats out quality. That said, I bawl my eyes out when I watch this film (you’ll hear this sentiment more often in coming months). The cast is magnificent and the way in which Gump is weaved within the fabric of American history is far more poignant than in Winston Groom’s comedic novel. I remember how much of a phenomenon this film was; lines stretched to parking lots, in a way typically witnessed only with genre films like Star Wars. The only thing about Gump that hasn’t aged too well is what made it ‘revolutionary’: the archive footage looks completely fake now, especially where people’s mouths are manipulated.  Cinephiles will note the appearance of a tiny Haley Joel Osmett during the third act.



9. Léon (aka The Professional)

I reviewed Léon as part of the Remember That Movie feature earlier this year. I'd never seen the film before, but immediately loved it for the performances of its leads, the action, and its characters.  It is a film that has borne many cardboard copies. That this film's characters are not one-dimensional and its morality beyond one-note makes it the intriguing film it is.  It's a shame Jean Reno's career afterward never quite afforded him the kind of quality Portman's or Oldman's, but at least he can say he starred in Luc Besson's best film.

8. Interview with the Vampire

This film came out a couple years after Bram Stoker’s Dracula (another favorite of mine) and may not have been possible if not for that film. During the '80s, vampires were depicted in movies as street toughs with fangs. Interview once again captured the oldness of vampires; these are creatures who have been around since the Victorian Age. Unlike many other vampire films, the cast of Interview took the material seriously and reined in the camp. This was also first film where I sat up and took Tom Cruise seriously as an actor (to be fair, I’d probably yet to see Born on the Fourth of July or Rain Man). Kirsten Dunst impressed many as the aging woman trapped in a little girl’s body. Brad Pitt amped-up his star power by double-billing the tortured hunk role in Interview and Legends of the Fall. And Antonio Banderas, whose career would explode in coming years, is also fantastic as Armand.  It's a shame 'The Vampire Chronicles' couldn't be handled with this much respect again (a horrendous sequel, The Queen of the Damned, was released eight years later); it would've made quite a franchise.

7. Speed

A city bus loaded with a dozen civilians has a bomb that will explode if it drops below 50 miles per hour. What do you do? Action pitches don’t get much simpler than that. Thankfully, this action film kept things simple, fun, and exciting without treating the audience like idiots. Keanu Reeves works well as the determined hotshot bomb specialist and Dennis Hopper joins the love-to-hate villainy pantheon. Sandra Bullock, who appeared as a naïve cop a year before in Demolition Man, exploded with this movie, quickly becoming Julia Roberts’ competition for romantic leading roles. Unfortunately, director Jan de Bont and Bullock failed to yield and merged again for the ill-advised sequel, Speed 2: Cruise Control.

6. The Hudsucker Proxy

I have loved The Hudsucker Proxy ever since I saw it on cable when I was fourteen. It has remained my favorite Coen Brothers movie since (although True Grit is a close 2nd). It’s 1958. Just as Warren Hudsucker (Charles Durning), founder of Hudsucker Industries plummets from the top floor, Norville Barnes (Tim Robbins) wanders into the first floor. By chance, Barnes becomes the unwitting pawn of a corporate scheme of the stockholders (led by a gruff Paul Newman) to buy out the company and take total control. However, Barnes has an idea up his sleeve (Ya know… for kids!) that incidentally becomes a huge success, keeping Hudsucker stocks soaring. There are about a hundred things I love about this movie: the circular motif, Bill Cobbs’ narration, the score by Carter Burwell (he of the score to every Coen Bros. movie), the way the dialogue pops, and Jennifer Jason Leigh’s performance (swoon!) as a tough-talking Gal Friday who is skeptical about Barnes and later falls for him. The Hudsucker Proxy is one of the Coens’ most over-looked movies, which is a shame, because it’s also one of their most accessible. Check it out, if you’re unfamiliar with it.

5. The Shawshank Redemption

The Shawshank Redemption may not only be the best Stephen King movie ever, but also the best prison movie ever. So rich is it with theme and pathos, it’s the kind of film that would make you sympathetic toward anyone doing hard time for murder. Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman are two guys with the choice to get busy living or get busy dying in prison. Robbins is Andy Dufresne, an accountant convicted of killing his adulterous wife. He proves himself wily enough to hold his own in prison despite a few scrapes with some sociopaths. He befriends Red (Freeman), a man who keeps getting denied parole. What follows may be one of cinema's greatest bromances.

4. True Lies

Arnold Schwarzenegger reunites with director James Cameron for this spy action comedy about the need to inject a little excitement in a marriage. Arnold stars as Harry Tasker, a spy on the trail of a terrorist and discovers his wife may be cheating on him. It turns out she’s just craving some excitement of her own and gets swept up in her husband’s secret life (Helen, played by Jamie Lee Curtis, thought Harry was a software developer). True Lies is one of Schwarzenegger’s more substantial action flicks, balancing effectively the home life with the set-piece action scenes. A dose of humor is provided by all involved, especially Tom Arnold, who plays Harry’s best bud and carpool partner. Cameron is usually remembered for his sci-fi epics (and Titanic), but shows a lighter side to the notoriously strong-willed filmmaker.

3. Ed Wood

Ed Wood is widely regarded as America’s worst filmmaker ever. Often, his films are derided, ridiculed, and looked at as the crown jewels of so-bad-it’s-good cinema. How incredible then that director Tim Burton made this man's story one of the most beautiful and endearing biopics ever to hit the screen. We are shown how Wood was a man who just wanted to be accepted for who he was and had a passion for motion pictures. Wood grew up reading pulp magazines and watching genre films. He idolized Bela Lugosi and dreamed of creating something as great as Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane. He had a predilection toward ‘realism’, yet could never earn a big enough budget to buy anything better than cardboard sets and cheap props. He was blinded by his visions, unwilling to accept many notes, yet deeply cut by negative reviews. He was the complete opposite end of the spectrum from Lugosi and Welles. Yet these are the things that make the film Ed Wood deeply fascinating. Johnny Depp may have earned Academy nods for playing Captain Jack Sparrow, but his best work is as Ed Wood. Depp disappears into the role and brings us Wood’s passion, frustration, fears, determination, and desperation. Likewise, as forgotten screen legend Bela Lugosi, Martin Landau transforms himself into a dope-addicted, animated old cuss whose career ended with his indebted friendship and collaboration with Ed Wood. Often, this is probably perceived as pathetic given that Lugosi was once the iconic Dracula, that most powerful and enduring of Universal’s classic monsters. Burton shows us the trust and faith behind that collaboration; Wood was Lugosi’s only friend in the end. I’ve seen the films depicted here – and they’re truly awful (although I find Plan 9 from Outer Space way more tolerable than Glen or Glenda). But Ed Wood is probably the best film of Burton’s career.

2. The Lion King

During the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, Disney went through a creative explosion, a new Golden Age, and The Lion King was the culmination of that great period. I’ll go so far as to say it was the best film from that era. The opening teaser alone is a perfect example of how much beauty traditional animation can behold. Combined with the opening number ‘The Circle of Life’ and the title card appearing with a silencing BOOM!, those three minutes are enough to give me chills. The rest of the film, modeled after Hamlet, thankfully lives up to that moment, grappling with daddy issues, responsibility, and friendship. The Lion King may have its cutesy sidekick characters, but it is the closest since Pinocchio that Disney Studios ever got to transcending the animation genre beyond kids stuff.

1. Pulp Fiction

Quentin Tarantino's sophomore effort not only has some of the best characters, dialogue, and structure ever put to film, but (like The Lion King) it also has one of the greatest opening title sequences. A couple in a diner have a pseudo-intellectual discussion about crime, which crescendos to a stick-up with Amanda Plummer’s threatening growl. Then that bass line kicks in and the title slowly crawls into view. A fantastic start to one of the decade’s most influential films. Pulp Fiction helped the careers of everyone involved: John Travolta’s career got a kick in the butt, Samuel L. Jackson became everyone’s favorite bad-ass, Uma Thurman became the cinephile’s IT girl, etc. It also started a trend of talky-violent crime films and, together with Kevin Smith's Clerks, revolutionized the indie film scene and made Miramax (and the Weinsteins) a force to be reckoned with.

 
That about wraps things up for the year 1994.  Were there any of your favorites or notable trends that I overlooked?  Feel free to leave a comment below or 'like' the new Facebook Fan Page to the right and leave a comment there. You can also email your thoughts to thegibsonreview@gmail.com Be sure to also vote on your favorite films of 1994 on the poll to the right.
 
Next time on Film Faves, a creepy and kooky family, Chaos Theory, a one-armed man, and Tom Hanks gets sleepless in one city and on the streets of another.  It's 1993!

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Green is the Color of Will... and Mediocre Franchises


The summer season has officially arrived; that time of the year when all the effects-heavy tent-pole spectacles assault us week after week and we, the eager moviegoers, hope to find something entertaining that won’t insult our intelligence or tastes. Next to a Michael Bay film, the superhero movie is perhaps the most common prey to lowered expectations and snide snobbery. Let’s face it: for every Spider-Man 2 or Dark Knight, there is a Daredevil or X-Men: The Last Stand. So too can be said that for every Thor there is a Green Lantern.


Green Lantern stars Ryan Reynolds as a hotshot Air Force pilot named Hal Jordan whose flyboy daddy blew up when he was a kid. As an adult, Jordan is a quitter and overall failure; he knows how to run and how to fly, but that’s it (how this relates to watching Dad die isn’t clear). One night, Jordan is suddenly swept away by a green ball of energy and brought to the site of a downed spaceship (how it is nobody noticed the ship crash is a mystery). It is there that Jordan is faced with something way bigger than himself: the honor of succeeding one of the greatest members of an intergalactic police corps known as the Green Lanterns to fight a fear-preying entity known as Parallax. Jordan is informed by the dying alien, Abin Sur, that the ring, the source of a Lantern’s power, has chosen him. Before long, Hal is swept away to Oa, a planet that serves as headquarters for the Green Lantern Corps.

Meanwhile, back on Earth, the body of the alien is found by the government. A college professor named Hector Hammond (Peter Sarsgaard) is hired to examine it. Hammond also happens to have daddy issues, though they’re less clear than Jordan’s (it doesn’t matter since the movie seems to forget everyone’s daddy issues by its midpoint). While literally poking around the alien corpse, Hammond accidentally gets zapped by residual energy from Parallax, the being that mortally wounded Abin Sur. As a result, he is both deformed and granted incredible mind powers (we’re given one incredible scene that hints at Hammond’s potential as a villain, but he’s mostly reduced to a plot device for Parallax’s arrival on Earth).

Green Lantern is certainly entertaining enough, with some of the best special effects all year, and has an energy that is clearly modeled after Iron Man. But this film fails where that film succeeded: at making sense and not wasting a single character.

Jordan is introduced to an intergalactic corps of hundreds of aliens, but must win their acceptance. Why? Because he’s human. That’s right, these benevolent Lanterns can accept someone whose head is a cross between a bird and a fish, but they can’t accept the perfect model of Hollywood Hunkdom. Why? No reason – at least not one that makes sense of such idiotic hypocrisy. By the way, those oh-so-important Lantern characters (one played by Mark Strong and others voiced by Geoffrey Rush and Michael Clarke Duncan, respectively), they get roughly fifteen minutes of the 100 minute run-time. That means Jordan only takes about five minutes of the movie to learn how to use his powers. So much for a sense of awe and discovery.

Green Lantern is full of nonsense, particularly when it comes to Jordan’s powers (a race track, really? Also, shouldn’t there be a green energy field around him so he can breathe while he’s hurtling through space? If he did have one, where would the oxygen come from anyway?). But I couldn’t help wonder how it is that when the ring traveled 100 miles to find Hal, it couldn’t find a single person who was worthier of representing our planet? What does that say about his girl, Carol Farris (played adequately by Blake Lively, who proved her worth in The Town)?

All that pesky logic and character stuff aside, Green Lantern is fun. Despite its wormhole-sized flaws, it never feels like a complete waste, unlike many other superhero films (Elektra, The Punisher, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, etc.). It is light - especially on character - and breezy - too breezy. But most of all, it's entertaining. Also, Ryan Reynolds is charming and Lively is one the best superhero movie girlfriends (one of the film’s wittiest moments lays waste to the decades-old concept of secret identities protected by eyewear) – both actors help carry the film.

Green Lantern is nothing more than summertime eye candy; it is superhero mediocrity, like Fantastic Four, The Mask, or Superman Returns. That’s where this film’s real tragedy lies: Hal Jordan is a superhero unlike anything we’ve seen before, but treated in such a conventional manner that we may not see his return or the rest of his Justice League super friends any time soon.


5/10

Should you see it? Rent (only the hard-Corps should buy tickets, in 2D).


Green Lantern is now in theaters in 2D and 3D screens.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Super 8: Not Another Superhero Movie


Super 8 is set in the late seventies and follows a group of middle-schoolers who plan to spend their summer shooting a movie for a local festival. One of the kids, Joe Lamb (Joel Courtney), who provides lighting and make-up for the production and is the main focus of the story, recently lost his mother in an accident and is emotionally disconnected from his Deputy Sheriff father (Kyle Chandler).

One late night, while the kids are filming at a local train station, a pick-up truck crashes into a passing train, causing it to derail in an amazing series of explosions. Something escapes from one of the cars. The military rush to the scene while the kids bolt in fear. Soon after, dogs, appliances, auto engines, and people begin to go missing and a lot of lights flicker on and off.

To say much more about the plot of Super 8 would rob you of some of the film’s sense of discovery, which is exactly what director J. J. Abrams holds dear. The film is the combination of two ideas swimming around in J. J.’s head and the result of a collaboration between him and producer Steven Spielberg. It is a film about kids of a certain age for movie lovers of a certain time, with assistance from one of the brilliant visionaries who created the kind of film Super 8 pays tribute – those films like E.T., The Goonies, and Stand By Me about kids who are sucked into an adventure while also dealing with family issues and crushes.

It’s a film that successfully balances relationships and character beats with jump scares and thrilling action sequences. The trailers for the film (which are brilliant) make the story seem to primarily be about the mystery behind what’s in the train. That actually serves as a subplot. The real story – and the real draw, actually – is of these amateur filmmakers, particularly Joe, who silently grieves over the sudden loss of his mother while also crushing on Alice (Elle Fanning), the production’s reluctant (and only) actress.

For those of you who may have skipped last winter’s inert film Somewhere, this will be Fanning’s star-making role. Elle, kid sister to Dakota, is given some of the most demanding scenes of all the kids and is spectacular in them. So great is Elle in Super 8 that she comes dangerously close to giving Dakota (who has recently been stuck in either mediocrity or the Twilight franchise) a run for her money. Not only is she likeable in an unconventional way, but she has some powerful acting chops. At the risk of building expectations too high for those who have yet to see Super 8, I will declare Elle is as good a reason to see the film as Abrams’ filmmaking.

As for the filmmaking, this is the first effort by Abrams that isn’t a part of a franchise (he directed Mission: Impossible III and 2009’s Star Trek reboot). As such, it is a strong one. The jump scares are unpredictable. The action and explosions are jaw-dropping. Yet, this is a film that is more interested in relationships and its time period than being a creature feature. That is not to say the creature is glazed over – it certainly gets its time. However, Super 8 is more focused on the love of filmmaking during a time when you needed models for effects and real locations for principle photography, when computers didn’t do all the work for you (wouldn’t it be great then if the monster were practical rather than CGI?). The film also shows a love of seventies sci-fi films (particularly Spielberg’s) and those eighties films about kids with family issues who go on an adventure of some kind. For audiences old enough to recognize this, Super 8 is quite effective. Michael Giacchino’s score also helps, which evokes the wonder and excitement of such films as Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. As a result, it’s up there with the scores from X-Men: First Class, Kung Fu Panda 2, and Hanna as the best of the year so far.

What should also not go unnoticed about Super 8 is how refreshing it is. This is one of the year’s first legitimately good films that isn’t part of a franchise, a remake, or based on a book. It’s just a story, told by two guys who love movies. That is reason enough to support it.

Yet, Super 8 falls far short of the mind-blowing spectacle one might expect, given the talent behind the scenes. For all the film’s interest in relationships, it fails to deliver on a key rivalry between Chandler’s Deputy Lamb and Alice’s drunken single father, played by Ron Eldard (TV’s Men Behaving Badly). It’s clear that their grudge has something to do with the death of Lamb’s wife; what isn’t clear is how or why they’d both keep their kids – Joe and Alice, who just started liking each other – away from each other. One expects this plot point to clear up by the end, but it only fizzles in an unsatisfying moment alone in a truck. Being as what was so essential and handled so well by the films Super 8 is nostalgic over were the family issues, it is a letdown that Abrams failed to sell it in his film.

Super 8 is not the staggering spectacle one might expect from the combined talent of Abrams and Spielberg. It certainly fails to land the emotional beats as well as it wants to, leaving one slightly underwhelmed in the end. But it is far from disappointing. It is a film that will appeal to many: film buffs, genre fans, those who grew up in the seventies and eighties, and fans of those eighties films about kids and admired their ability to cope with whatever challenges they’re faced with, be it kidnapping thieves, aliens, or a death in the family. But mostly, Super 8 will appeal to anyone who simply enjoys a well-made movie.


7/10

Should you see it? Buy tickets


Super 8 is now in theaters.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

These X-Men Kick Ass


We’ve seen a decade’s worth of superhero films with somewhere around five new ones hitting theaters this year. It’s enough for some to have questioned whether or not audiences will grow weary of the genre. As long as movies like Thor and X-Men: First Class keep coming along and freshening things up, the genre will stay alive for many years to come.

First Class takes the X-Men franchise back to the beginning, before Xavier built his school for gifted youngsters and Magneto started his war against Homo sapiens. It’s the early sixties and Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) is a party animal, believe it or not, who uses his high I.Q. and psychic abilities to score chicks. Erik Lensherr, later dubbed Magneto (somewhat lamely by Mystique), is on a murderous rampage, tearing through the surviving members of Hitler’s army with the hopes of reaching the man personally responsible for his mother’s death in a concentration camp, Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon). Xavier’s research on mutant genetics catches the attention of Special Agent Moira MacTaggart (Rose Byrne) of the CIA who recruits him to find Sebastian Shaw. The CIA’s interest in Shaw is purely Cold War era intrigue; Shaw is believed to have ties to those nasty Communist Russians.

The three separate storylines come together for one cause (albeit with separate agendas), resulting in the creation of a team of teenage mutant G-Men that must avert a global disaster Shaw is trying to instigate. Meanwhile, character drama abounds as a bond grows between Xavier and Lensherr (Michael Fassbender) and Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) relates with Hank McCoy (Nicholas Hoult) over self-image issues.

The latter is partially where First Class really excels. It brings the franchise back to where it first started: when character took precedence over superhero action. Director Matthew Vaughn (Kick-Ass) and producer Bryan Singer (director of X-Men and X2) take the time to humanize much of the principle cast, knowing it is only by doing so that we can really care about the stakes and the action. Interestingly enough, what matters most in First Class isn’t whether or not our heroes live to defeat the bad guy as much as what happens to the relationships within this group during and as a result of their mission. Anybody familiar with the comics or the earlier films knows that eventually Erik’s rage and cynicism will get the best of him someday, making the character – and Xavier’s attempts to tame him – this film’s tragic center (Xavier’s later attempts to tame the equally-tortured Wolverine becomes that much more poignant having now witnessed this).

Where else First Class excels is in the action. This should come as no surprise to anybody who saw last year’s Kick-Ass. Vaughn proved he could film superhero action coherently and brilliantly with both jaw-dropping thrills and emotional weight. That skill has been successfully applied to First Class. We are shown here why the crimson Master of Magnetism is perhaps the greatest villain in comics’ history. His powers are implemented more creatively and with so much more awesomeness than even Singer ever showed us that he steals the movie.

It helps to have someone like Michael Fassbender in the role. While James McAvoy works well as a version of Xavier who matures before us and takes on the responsibility of starting the X-Men as a result of experience rather than some MLK-like pragmatic vision, it is Fassbender – who showed off his bilingual dramatic chops in Inglorious Basterds – that is the real highlight here. Fassbender, as Lensherr, is raw pain and violent rage incarnate. No weapon is any match for him. He can even make teeth fillings cause a man to tremble in fear. He can also make thrusting his palms out and staring really hard compelling rather than silly. More importantly, we understand well who Magneto is and how his deeply jaded view of humanity came to be. Fassbender is the emotional and dramatic center of First Class and soon to be a household name.

Also grounding the film is Jennifer Lawrence as Raven Darkholme (a.k.a. Mystique). As Xavier’s adopted sister (you read that right, fanboys) and a shapeshifter who struggles with her self-image, Lawrence proves she can successfully bring the dramatic chops she exhibited in last year’s Winter’s Bone (see it if you haven’t already!) to a mainstream franchise. This should temper those worrisome Hunger Games fans (Lawrence will play the lead in that franchise next).

The rest of the cast is top-notch: Kevin Bacon as the film’s villain, the energy-absorbing Sebastian Shaw; January Jones as the sexy gemstone telepath Emma Frost; Nicholas Hoult as the brilliant, yet insecure, scientist Hank McCoy; Rose Byrne as X-Men ally MacTaggart; and Zoë Kravitz as Angel Salvadore, who has had plenty of experience with being stared at by others. Vaughn and Singer, who both have ties to previous X-movies (Vaughn almost directed a version of X-Men 3), give each of these actors plenty of material to chew on and moments to shine.

Yet X-Men: First Class is a peculiar film, itself a bit of a mutation. It is the result of two prequel concepts – one focused on Magneto’s back-story, the other about the original X-Men – joined together. But it is being only partially described as a prequel. Vaughn has referred to the film as mostly a reboot. As annoying as that may be to some people who saw X-Men: The Last Stand only five years ago, it makes the most sense, given how much First Class fails as a prequel. The film’s story and characters completely conflict with the characters and continuity of the first three X-Men films (even the heinous The Last Stand featured a scene with Magneto accompanying Xavier to recruit a young Jean Grey).

First Class is a film best thought of as its own vision of the universe. However, even by that perspective it falters since it still attempts to reference the previous series with cameos and by reusing X-Men’s opening Holocaust scene. As well as those things are executed, it is a shame since they allow cracks to appear in what would otherwise be a solid film. Still, First Class has more working for it than most of the other X-Men films (I find it just shy of X2’s excellence).

X-Men: First Class is not perfect. It attempts to have it both ways as a reboot and prequel without completely working as either, which makes its other flaws more noticeable (let’s mention slavery and then cut to the token black guy! Doesn’t everybody seem a bit color blind for living pre-Civil Rights Movement?). As indicated by the details mentioned previously, comic purists should be warned about changes to the source material’s characters, relationships, and continuity. Despite this, Vaughn and Singer have succeeded in the unexpected: making a tired superhero franchise once more exciting and full of promise.


7/10

Should you see it? Buy tickets


X-Men: First Class is now in theaters.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Skadoosh! Po Returns in KFP2


In 2008, an entire generation was reminded of kung fu’s awesomeness thanks to a roly-poly panda by the name of Po. Kung Fu Panda, about a dumpling-loving panda who revered kung fu and its legends, earned over $215 million at the box office, becoming one of the year’s top-grossing films.

A sequel was inevitable (especially when sequel-happy DreamWorks is involved).

Kung Fu Panda 2 has arrived and is the best sequel DreamWorks has released to date.

A peacock, who turns an invention of joy and celebration into a symbol of death, is told a creature of black and white will bring about his demise. In response, the peacock does what any fearful tyrant would do and tries to destroy all pandas in the region. Years later, with an arsenal of his own design and an army of wolves by his side, the peacock aims to rule all of China. It’s up to Po, now the legendary Dragon Warrior, and the Furious Five to stop him. But will Po need to come to peace with his past first?

Kung Fu Panda 2 is directed by Jennifer Yuh, whose only previous directing credit was HBO’s late-nineties animated series Spawn. The two projects couldn’t be more tonally different. But Yuh handles the action and drama well here, at times better than the humor. When the jokes land, they land well. Most successful jokes come from undercutting a character’s previous statement or actions, such as when Shen the peacock (voiced well by Gary Oldman) prepares himself for finally meeting the panda who is reputed to bring his end. Shen has built the moment up in his mind down to the last word. When it finally comes, Po (again voiced by Jack Black) interrupts Shen with a lackluster “Oh, hey,” thereby stealing the dramatic moment out from under him. But other times the film goes for the easy laugh, inspiring a mild snicker.

While the humor may not be as sharp as in its predecessor, the drama packs a punch and the action is quite awesome. The screenwriting team of Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger (who previously worked together on MADtv, King of the Hill, and the first Kung Fu Panda film) excellently weave a new story within the fabric of the original by marrying the new villain with Po’s family history, which brings our hero’s struggle within in a very credible way. This helps the film feel like the least superfluous sequel of the DreamWorks oeuvre.

Kung Fu Panda 2 also maintains the original’s love of kung fu movies. The film treats kung fu with reverence. It nudges us and frequently points out how awesome kung fu is, while also keeping a finger on the philosophy behind kung fu, reminding us there is more to it than beating up bad guys. The film also seems to tap into many of the genre’s tropes: the secret link between a hero’s past and a present villain, the pre-fight posturing, the old man plucking strings in the background of a fight, etc. I’m sure audiences more literate in the martial arts film genre will even spot visual references to other films.

As to be expected, the Furious Five play a much larger role in the sequel, particularly where dialogue is concerned – especially Tigress (voiced by Angelina Jolie). If you watch the original carefully, you’ll notice the cast of the Furious Five aren’t given much dialogue beyond a key scene or two. Not so in Kung Fu Panda 2. While Tigress is positioned as Po’s closest teammate and thereby given the most dialogue, Mantis (Seth Rogen), Monkey (Jackie Chan), Crane (David Cross), and Viper (Lucy Liu) are distributed an equal amount of lines. They may not have their own subplots (although Tigress hints at a history we’ve yet to learn), but they are an indispensable part of the action.

It’s worth noting the sequel features not one, but six new voice talents! As previously mentioned, Gary Oldman plays the villainous peacock Shen, legendary martial arts actress Michelle Yeoh voices Shen’s soothsayer goat, Danny McBride plays Shen’s right-hand wolf, and Jean-Claude Van Damme, Dennis Haysbert, and Victor Garber play three kung fu masters who are the first to face Shen’s secret weapon. All of them blend right in instead of causing with name-that-actor distractions.

Kung Fu Panda was released in 3D. This is not a popular feature these days (bad news for the eight other 3D releases coming this summer). I actually witnessed a man delay his plans to see the film because he learned the next screening was in 3D. I would probably have done the same thing – if this were a live action film. However, more often than not, animated films outperform live action films in quality 3D (last year’s Toy Story 3 is the lone exception in my experience). Kung Fu Panda 2 is further proof of this. The first film, though released only in 2D, already featured some incredible sequences that would’ve easily been heightened by stereoscopic 3D. The sequel not only improves upon that film’s animation in detail and sharpness, but is truly enhanced by the extra dimension. While the character designs may not be photo-real and are closer in style to maquette, they occasionally seem to practically exist outside of the screen with 3D. Is the 3D essential to Kung Fu Panda 2? Will a 2D Blu-ray rental seem to have the annoying element of occasionally trying to pop out of your screen, such as in Legend of the Guardians or Piranha? I don’t think so. But, if you give the 3D a chance, you certainly won’t be wasting your money.

Kung Fu Panda 2 surpasses the sequels of Shrek, Ice Age, and their ilk to become one of the best in recent years. In fact, in terms of character development, dramatic storytelling, and plotting, it’s just shy of Pixar-quality – certainly the best animated family film so far this year. It accomplishes what any sequel should do: deliver more of what worked in the original and further the story and our understanding of its characters. It is… awesome.


8/10

Should you see it? Buy tickets (in 3D)


Kung Fu Panda 2 is in theaters in 2D, 3D, and IMAX 3D screens.

100th Post Celebration!


I’m not sure it ever occurred to me that this might happen, but after 16 months of more than 220 movies, including 18 great theatrical and DVD releases, 32 good ones, 9 bad ones, over 30 feature articles, 2 essays, 2 movie marathons, and 1 accidentally deleted post, you are now reading the 100th post of The Gibson Review.

Yet, I know this weekly blog, which averages eight posts a month, is not exactly prolific and but a blip on the movie-related blogosphere. Still, I want to thank you readers – new and returning - from across the United States and throughout the rest of the world in such countries as Brazil, Slovakia, Canada, Germany, and England, who have somehow found this site on Google and continued to read what this opinionated windbag has to say each week.

This site went from nothing but bland text to actually resembling something like a real website with posters and trailers. I’d like to thank Michelle Leippe for her invaluable technical assistance. Without her support, I’d still feel the way I felt when I first started this site, like a monkey trying to read Latin. You may have already noticed a few tweaks here and there recently. Keep a look out for more changes to come down the line.

To celebrate this major milestone of a tiny movie site, I want to announce the launch of a Facebook fan page. Now, instead of adding my personal site to your friends list and getting random remarks about how what I ate isn’t agreeing with me, you can just ‘like’ The Gibson Review on Facebook and visit a separate page for the site. There you’ll find site updates, poll announcements and results, daily movie trivia, movie news, and all the movie chatter you can stand from me and other like-minded individuals.

But that’s not all!

I have something special as a way of giving back to you, devoted readers, on this special occasion: a contest for the chance to not only be a part of a John Cusack movie marathon but also to win a $100 gift card to any Regal Cinemas near you!

Here’s the deal:

- Below you will find a John Cusack trivia question.

- Be one of the first ten (10) readers to email the correct answer to thegibsonreview@gmail.com and you will win a spot to the John Cusack Movie Marathon to be held on Saturday, June 18th, 2011.

Wait, there's more!

- Not only will the very first email with the correct answer be included in the John Cusack Movie Marathon, but that person will also win a $100 gift card to any Regal Cinemas!

- Emails must be sent by Tuesday, June 7th, 2011 at 11:59pm.

- Only answers emailed to thegibsonreview@gmail.com will be accepted. Any answers posted on Facebook will be deleted and ignored.

- Those who enter will be notified via email the following Wednesday evening of their winnings.


Ready?  Here’s the trivia question:



John Cusack has starred in films of every genre. For which two animated films did he provide his voice?


Remember: email your answer to thegibsonreview@gmail.com by 11:59pm on Tuesday, June 7th, 2011. The first ten (10) correct answers will win.



Thanks again for your continued readership. Good luck with the contest. And don’t forget to vote on this week’s poll to the right and ‘like’ the new Gibson Review Facebook fan page!

As always, you can leave your comments below or email them to thegibsonreview@gmail.com