X2


Rebecca Romijn-Stamos is feeling blue.

Rebecca Romijn-Stamos is feeling blue.

(2003) Superhero (20th Century Fox) Patrick Stewart, Hugh Jackman, Ian McKellen, Anna Paquin, Halle Berry, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, Bruce Davison, James Marsden, Famke Janssen, Brian Cox, Alan Cumming, Shawn Ashmore, Aaron Stanford, Kelly Hu, Katie Stuart, Kea Wong, Cotter Smith, Chiara Zanni, Daniel Cudmore, Peter Wingfield, Shauna Cain. Directed by Bryan Singer

As I write, moonlight shines down blue as sapphires through my open window. I can see a four-leaf clover clearly in the grass of my front lawn. If a haystack were at hand, I could unerringly find the needle hidden therein. Actually, none of those things are happening, but it feels as if they could. After all, I’ve just witnessed the extremely improbable: a sequel better than the original. Hard to believe, but true.

When last we left the X-Men (in 2000), their greatest foe, Magneto (McKellan) was confined to a plastic prison, unable to use his powers to escape. Rogue (Paquin) was back among the students at Xavier School, sporting a cool white streak in her hair after her ordeal on Liberty Island. Wolverine (Jackman) was leaving for Alkali Lake, a facility in Canada where some clues to his past might be found. To get there, he liberated a motorcycle belonging to Cyclops (Marsden). And Senator Kelly (Davison) had come out against the mutant registration bill he had sponsored. Of course, we know that the good senator was really Mystique (Romijn-Stamos), but that’s just our little secret.

As this sequel opens, the White House is under attack from a single mutant; a blue-skinned, acrobatic guy with a long tail and the ability to teleport. He takes on the Secret Service and dispatches agents with nearly no trouble, threatens the President (Smith) with a knife before teleporting out of the Oval Office, leaving the commander-in-chief more susceptible to his Mutant Affairs advisor, Colonel. Styker’s (Cox) suggestion that he raid the Xavier School, which he described as a training facility for mutants. Of course, it sounded much more sinister when he said it.

About this time, Wolverine returned home to Xavier’s School, having found nothing but rubble and deserted buildings at Alkali Lake. The attack on the president, obviously carried out by a mutant, troubles Professor Xavier (Stewart). He decides to send two of his most capable X-Men, Storm (Berry) and Jean Grey (Janssen) to retrieve the President’s attacker. Professor X uses his neato-keeno computer Cerebro, through which he is able to connect with every living person on the planet, to find the blue teleporter. Professor X also decides to pay his old pal Magneto a visit, taking Cyclops with him.

While visiting Magneto, Professor X finds out something horrible; the secret of his school has been compromised by Magneto. Not willingly; Magneto would never betray his own kind to humans. Using an acid-like substance applied to the back of the mutant’s neck, Col. Stryker was able to control the powerful Magneto just enough to get him to reveal the information Stryker wanted; the exact location of Cerebro. Too late, Professor Xavier realizes he is caught in a trap and both he and Cyclops are gassed into unconsciousness.

At the same time, Storm and Jean Grey have found the mutant responsible for the attack on the White House, a pious German named Kurt Wagner, or as he was known in the Berlin Circus, Night Crawler (Cumming). Rather than being a dangerous villain, he’s actually rather sweet and endearing. Puzzled, Storm and Jean arrange to transport the German back to the Xavier School. It’s about here they lose contact with everybody.

Of course, things are not going too well at the School. Under attack from deadly commandos who menace shrieking children with what looks like Tasers, the soldiers find the mutant children to be a little harder to capture than they may have thought. Some, like Kitty Pryde (Stuart) are able to literally walk through walls to escape. Some, like Colossus (Cudmore) grow an impenetrable metal armor on their skin. Others, like Bobby Drake (Ashmore) can create walls of ice. And Wolverine? Well, he just kicks ass.

Wolverine escapes with Rogue, Bobby Drake, and a kid with attitude named Pyro (Stanford) who can manipulate fire. They go to Boston, where Storm and Jean Grey are and where Bobby Drake’s family lives. It leads to an awkward confrontation with Bobby’s parents, leading to one of the best lines of the movie; “Have you tried NOT being a mutant?” whines Bobby’s rather dense mother. Unfortunately, before any kind of understanding is reached, Bobby’s brother calls the police, which leads to a great deal of destruction and injury, most caused by Pyro. Things threaten to get WAY out of hand before Storm and Jean Grey arrive to whisk Wolverine and the kids away.

Now we find out what the reason for all this is. Col. Stryker doesn’t just fear mutants. He doesn’t just hate mutants. He wants to kill all of them. Permanently. And, using a second generation of Cerebro based on the components he’s stolen from the school, he has the means to do it in Professor Charles Xavier. Of course, the X-Men have no choice but to rescue their mentor, stop the genocide and save the day. And they have acquired a most unlikely ally: Magneto, who has escaped from prison in a rather clever (but gruesome) way. And, Mystique.

This uneasy alliance leaves you wondering about Magneto’s own agenda, which manifests itself in a spectacular way. The inevitable rescue attempt will lead to a surprise outcome in which one of the X-Men will defect to Magneto, and another will face the ultimate challenge. And when did this start sounding like a comic book?

The special effects are far more extensive here than in the first movie, and utilized more effectively. The fight scenes between Nightcrawler and the Secret Service, Wolferine and Lady Deathstrike (Hu) and Pyro and the Boston Police are done well, marrying expert fight choreography with special effects that bring to life the powers of the comic book heroes. Visually, the movie never lets up.

The X-Universe that Marvel Comics has created has a rich tapestry of characters from which to draw; many standbys, such as Gambit, Beast and Angel, have only been glimpsed so far in the movies.

What really sets X2 apart from its predecessor is the depth that is given to the characters. Jean Grey faces, in one of the movie’s better subplots, the increase of her own powers beyond her own abilities to handle them. Stryker is evil, but not in a cartoon-like manner. His hate is the man’s driving force, his fear the engine that powers his hate. His fear of mutants has hit his home in an impactful way, and drives him to exploit even those closest to him to meet his genocidal objectives.

Storm has always been one of the more enigmatic figures in the comic; she is aloof, distant and cold, but also loyal and fiercely determined. Berry plays her with all her vulnerabilities intact, quite a juxtaposition for a character able to create dozens of tornadoes with a thought.

That is, perhaps, why we relate to the X-Men so well; they are powerful, yet completely human, with all the vulnerability and frailty that implies. Even Magneto, the arrogant master of magnetism, is not all-powerful. Hugh Jackman captures Wolverine’s essence: feral and utterly devoid of conscience when fighting, but tormented by a past he cannot remember, held hostage to questions he can’t answer. Some of his questions are answered during the course of X2 but of course not all of them and several new ones arise in the process.

Wolverine’s defense of the Xavier School is one of the most vicious fight scenes ever filmed in a superhero movie and while it got cheers from the audience, it also left me a bit unsettled. There is something about stabbing a soldier with diamond-hard, razor-sharp claws that is more violent than beating him into unconsciousness with closed fists, or shooting him with a rifle. It made me wonder how far one can stretch the concept of “good guy” when the good guy is stabbing people. It’s all psychology; stabbing is a far more personal act than shooting someone. Dead is dead either way, but in our culture, heroes don’t stab.

Cumming portrays Nightcrawler as a tormented, but gentle soul whose faith is the rock that he clings to, even when his faith is sorely tested. He’s almost puppy dog eager to please his new friends so when the rubber hits the road he is there for them at great personal risk to himself. Cumming makes excellent use of his screen time, making his character one that you want to see more of.

Keep an eye out for Colossus, as well. The audience really reacted to his limited onscreen time; you can bet the filmmakers are taking notice of this for a future movie in the series although to this point that hasn’t happened yet.

The true test of a movie can be broken down to a single old saw: did the audience leave wanting more? X2 has got it all; eye candy, subtle undercurrents to which most of us can relate, characters who are not cartoons (another irony, given that this is based on comic books), big explosions, terrific fight scenes, everything for the summer movie Neanderthal in all of us. X2 is a perfect popcorn escape.

WHY RENT THIS: All the action you an ask for. Character depth and sophisticated story. Perfect summer popcorn movie.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Still gives short shrift to some of the characters.

FAMILY MATTERS: Plenty of comic book violence, a bit of sensuality and brief rough language.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Entered the Guinness Book of World Records on its opening day by getting the most number of screens for a single movie on its opening day ever.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: The special edition DVD release included a feature on Nightcrawler and rehearsal footage of the fight sequence between Wolverine and Lady Deathstrike as well as a web-based Q&A session from the film’s release date. The Blu-Ray adds a history of the comic book X-Men as well.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $407.7M on a $110M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Marvel’s The Avengers

FINAL RATING: 9/10

NEXT: The Wind Rises

X-Men


Wolverine makes sure everyone in the bar gets the point.

Wolverine makes sure everyone in the bar gets the point.

(2000) Superhero (20th Century Fox) Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Famke Janssen, Halle Berry, James Marsden, Anna Paquin, Tyler Mane, Ray Park, Rebecca Romijn-Stamos, Bruce Davison, Matthew Sharp, Brett Morris, Shawn Ashmore, Sumela Kay, Katrina Florece, Alexander Burton, Kenneth McGregor, Rhona Shekter, Stan Lee. Directed by Bryan Singer

One of the most eagerly anticipated movies maybe of all time this one, and it had all the ingredients necessary for a monster smash hit; comic-book action, eye candy, a respected director, attractive actors, even a few Names. So is it any good?

Certainly, the movie has a rich storyline to draw from, one over 40 years in the making. There are some differences (a few of them fairly major) from the comic book mythos, but director Singer remained true to the comic’s essential storyline. That’s as well he should, as it is one of the most complex and interesting in comics.

It starts with a concentration camp in Poland, where a young Jewish boy named Eric Lensherr (Morris) is being torn from his parents. The hysterical boy manifests a terrifying power, but it is not enough to save his mother (Shekter) and father (McGregor) from their fates.

Flash-forward to the near future. Mutant children with strange and sometimes deadly powers are manifesting themselves all over the globe. Senator Kelly (Davison) is leading a crusade based on anti-mutant hysteria. Kelly wants these mutants to register themselves as you might register a handgun. Eventually, the senator means to see every mutant locked away in an effort to keep society safe from these potentially dangerous mutants.

Reasonable voices, such as that of respect geneticist Dr. Jean Grey (Janssen) are being shouted down by the hysterics. In the background, the young concentration camp survivor – now an immensely powerful man who can control magnetic fields at whim and who calls himself Magneto (McKellen),  broods and plots. His close friend, the charismatic and immensely powerful psychic Charles Xavier (Stewart), plots and hopes.

Meanwhile in northern Alberta a lonely, frightened teen calling herself Rogue (Paquin) hooks up with a surly, curmudgeonly loner named Wolverine (Jackman). Turns out Wolverine has an incredible regenerative power – he can take a great deal of punishment and heal at an astonishingly rapid rate. With a skeleton laced with a diamond-hard alloy called adamantium and claws of the same material that can shoot out from his knuckles and slice through virtually anything, he can dish it out, too.

The two are attacked in the Canadian wilderness by a lion-like creature called Sabretooth (Mane) but are rescued at the last minute by a strikingly beautiful woman of coffee-colored skin and ivory, silken hair who generates her own weather patterns; she is Ororo Munro, also known as Storm (Berry). With her is a boy-next-door type named Scott Summers, a.k.a. Cyclops (Marsden) who can generate devastating force beams from his eyes. The two take Wolverine and Rogue back to Xavier’s School for Gifted Children, a place where mutant youngsters can learn to control and refine their powers, as well as gain an education in an almost normalized environment.

They are also gearing up for a fight. You see, Sabretooth is one of a crew that works for Magneto that also includes the agile Toad (Park) whose tongue would make Gene Simmons green with envy, and the alluring, shape-shifting Mystique (Romijn-Stamos) whose normal appearance has her with a strange blue skin. Magneto believes that a war between normals and mutants is coming, and that natural selection favors the mutants, but sheer numbers favor homo sapiens, who will kill off all mutants in order to survive.

Xavier believes that humans deserve to survive but that mutants can be integrated into society. He has assembled a group of X-Men to protect humanity and show them that the two species can work together in harmony. Magneto, however, has plans to win over the hearts and minds of the world’s leaders and he needs a powerful mutant to make that happen – and it isn’t Wolverine.

There is a lot more depth to this movie than the average summer action flick. It examines our tendencies to distrust and be fearful of those different from us — skin tones, religion, sexual orientation, whatever. These “mutants” for the most part are no different than the rest of us, externally. What makes them different generally doesn’t manifest except in specific situations which is true of those that society currently does mistrust. “Normal” is really a term subject to broad interpretation, even outside the comic books.

The eye candy is impressive, but it isn’t what this movie is about. A lot of kudos must go to the casting director; nearly every role is perfectly cast, particularly Stewart and Jackman, who physically resemble their four-color counterparts. The script is well-written and thought provoking but never lacking in the action that summer moviegoers crave. The character who are developed are believable.

The trouble is, you would need a 30-hour miniseries to properly develop all of the characters here, so many get short shrift, particularly Storm who deserves more screen time and more background. Also, if you aren’t familiar with the comic as Da Queen is not much of the details are going to go sailing right over your head. You may want to have a 12-year-old boy with you to explain it.

Hugh Jackman ascended to immediate stardom with his performance here. His Wolverine is at the center of the movie, and Jackman carries it effortlessly. Stewart’s Xavier is not that dissimilar to Captain Picard, from Star Trek: The Next Generation but that’s just fine; the role calls for the kind of commanding presence and compassion that Stewart invested Picard with. McKellen is astonishingly compelling, as much victim as villain. One can’t help but sympathize with him even as he’s doing horrible things – the mark of a great movie villain. Not every actor out there could bring those qualities – which were always evident in the comic book version – to life.

It isn’t exaggeration to say that the success of this movie opened the floodgates for Marvel to re-define the superhero movie and become the industry force that they have become. The X-Men franchise has continued to flourish with two off-shoots starring Jackman as Wolverine and three other feature films and a fourth scheduled for release in May and a fifth already on the schedule for 2016. If a movie can be this entertaining and at the same time promote tolerance, I’m definitely on board for the series continuing indefinitely.

WHY RENT THIS: Compelling story used to address issues of intolerance and prejudice. Some nice performances, particularly from Jackman, Stewart, McKellen and Berry.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: May be too cerebral for those who like their comic book action non-stop. Some purists might complain about deviation from comic book canon.

FAMILY MATTERS: As is necessary for most comic book adaptations, there is a surfeit of action and violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Jackman started his tradition of beginning his day with ice cold showers whenever he is playing the role of Wolverine on this film. He had jumped into the shower at 5 AM, not realizing that there was no hot water. Not wanting to wake up his wife, he just tolerated and had an epiphany that this was what Wolverine felt all the time – wanting to lash out and forced to hold it all in. He uses these cold showers to get into character and has for every film featuring Wolverine.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO FEATURES: The original DVD release had a wealth of features including an Easter Egg scene involving a well-known Marvel superhero who doesn’t appear in the film (but would later get a franchise of his own), a Fox-TV special called The Mutant Watch that is centered around the Senate hearings on Mutant Affairs, an interview with Singer by Charlie Rose and Jackman’s screen test. There was also a method of integrating deleted scenes into the place in the film where they would have been by means of hitting the enter button on your DVD remote whenever an X-Men logo appeared on the bottom right of the screen. A special edition DVD, known as X-Men 1.5 was also released and while it had an entire second disc of special features, most were of the standard production diary sort which were strangely lacking from the initial release. Most of these are also available on the Blu-Ray edition released in 2009.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $296.3M on a $75M production budget.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Marvel’s The Avengers

 

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: Phantom

Iron Man


 

Iron Man

Stop! In the na-ame of love…Robert Downey Jr. finds his inner Supreme.

(2008) Superhero (Paramount/Marvel) Robert Downey Jr., Jeff Bridges, Gwynneth Paltrow, Terrence Howard, Jon Favreau, Leslie Bibb, Shaun Toub, Bill Smitrovich, Paul Bettany (voice), Nazanin Boniadi, Micah Hauptman, Samuel L. Jackson, Clark Gregg, Faran Tahir. Directed by Jon Favreau

 

Some superheroes are born to be heroes. Others are made by circumstance. The question is, were those sorts born to be heroes and always had that characteristic in them, or is it more a matter of necessity.

Tony Stark (Downey) has it all; the brilliant CEO of Stark Industries, he is young and one of the brightest minds in America. Most of the cutting edge weapons the military uses as their bread and butter were inventions of Stark, overseen by his partner, Obadiah Stane (Bridges) who worked with Stark’s dad, the founder of the company. Stane more or less bridged the gap between father and son.

In addition, Stark has a beautiful and efficient assistant, Pepper Potts (Paltrow) and a succession of Maxim supermodels to share his bed at night. His butler, Jarvis (Bettany) is completely electronic. He has a magnificent home in Malibu with a panoramic view of the Pacific. What’s not to like?

Out in Afghanistan demonstrating a new missile along with his good friend and military liaison Col. Jim “Rhodey” Rhodes (Howard),  Tony’s convoy is ambushed by insurgents and Stark is gravely injured, but taken to the caves where the insurgents are holed up. Just before losing consciousness, Tony notes that the weapons that attacked the convoy were manufactured by his own company.

There is shrapnel near Stark’s heart so Raza (Tahir), the leader of Ten Rings (the terrorist group that captured him) forces Dr. Yinsen (Toub) to keep Stark alive, which he does with an electromagnet ringing the industrialist’s heart powered by a car battery. Once Stark is able to, Raza orders him to build the Jericho missile (the same sort that Stark had been demonstrating) for his group which Stark knows will be used against American forces. This he cannot abide. He convinces Raza he’s building the missile while in reality he and Yinsen are creating a suit of armor that will allow him to break out of the caves and get away. He does, but barely – he has to construct a miniaturized nuclear power source called an ARC reactor to power the suit but the flight capabilities of the armor are limited and Stark crashes some miles from the caves, destroying the suit.

Back at home, Stark announces that Stark Industries would be getting out of the weapons industry to the consternation of Stane and Stark’s shareholders. Stark responds by withdrawing from the public eye, going into his home workshop to upgrade both the reactor and the armor. The sleeker Mark II armor, red and gold after his racing team’s colors, prove to be a powerful weapon as Stark returns to Afghanistan to prevent Ten Rings from destroying Yinsen’s village, leaving Raza to the less than merciful villagers.

In the meantime Pepper discovers that someone within Stark is selling advanced weapons technology to terrorists and had set up Tony for capture and eventual murder by Ten Rings. She notifies SHIELD, a newly formed government agency set up to deal with exactly these sorts of issues and Agent Coulson (Gregg) is dispatched to investigate.

Ten Rings has discovered the pieces of Stark’s original armor, as well as the blueprints for it. Scientists attempt to reverse engineer the armor which they do, but they are unable to build an ARC reactor to power it. There’s only one of them in the entire world – and it’s the only thing keeping Stark alive. The terrorists want it and will use whatever means necessary to get it.

When this was released in 2008, Marvel had licensed their characters to specific studios; X-Men, Daredevil and the Fantastic Four to Fox, Spider-Man and Ghost Rider to Columbia. They had a vision of creating a shared universe like the one they created in their comic books but in order to do that they would have to have control over their characters and how they were being used; this couldn’t be done if they were licensed all over hell and gone so they decided to create a movie division of their own and with a fairly substantial investment, announced an ambitious slate of five films of which this was the first.

It is here that the roots of The Avengers were laid. The tremendous success of the movie not only established Marvel Comics (who were already seeing great success with their licensed properties) as a major force in Hollywood. Even the notoriously hard-to-please comic fan base were impressed not only with this film specifically but with the vision of Marvel generally.

The fact that this is a kick-ass summer movie doesn’t hurt. Downey is perfectly cast as the wise-cracking billionaire industrialist with an eye for the ladies and a mind unparalleled anywhere in the world. Much of the dialogue was ad libbed and Downey tends to excel in that kind of environment with a quick wit of his own. Downey was already a fan of the comics when he was approached to play the part; he had a real understanding from the get-go as to who Tony Stark is and what makes him tick.

Favreau hit a home run not only with the casting of Downey but with the look and feel of the movie. In many ways this was the anti-Batman; whereas Nolan’s hero is dark and brooding, Stark takes himself less seriously. That both are wealthy playboys is about all Bruce Wayne and Tony Stark have in common.

In fact, the movie looks like it could be taking place right here, right now. Most of the weapons that are employed during the movie (of course excluding the armored suit and the Jericho missile) are at least based on weapons that are either already in use or not far away from it. That gives the movie a sense of realism that other superhero films lack.

The supporting roles are more or less backseat drivers for the movie. Bridges looks like he’s having a good ol’ time as the bald and bearded Stane. Paltrow provides some nice chemistry as Potts and Howard, while given not much to do, does it well at least.

This turned out to be a huge fanboy chubby-inducing blockbuster of a film. It accomplished nearly everything it set out to do, creating a huge universe for filmmakers to play in – one that has been expanded upon with every succeeding film. They’ve also set the quality bar very high, one which has been at least approached if not met with all the other films that Marvel Studios has released since (not including the Ghost Rider films – sorry Nic). This is a favorite that holds up well even after all the other films that have since seen the light of day. It all started here and it’s worth going back to the beginning once in awhile to see how far you’ve come.

WHY RENT THIS: Kick-started Marvel Studios into becoming one of the industry’s big players. Elevated both Downey and Favreau’s career.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Final battle between Iron Man and Iron Monger kind of anti-climactic.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is plenty of action which of course means violence – some of it on the ugly side. There are also some suggestive situations. Tony Stark is a playboy billionaire after all.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The sound used during a target lock on Iron Man’s Head Up Display is the sound of a laser cannon firing in the original Space Invaders arcade game.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There’s a look at the history of the Iron Man comics, as well as some rehearsal and audition footage. There’s also a hysterical piece from the Onion News network about the adaptation of the Iron Man trailer into a feature length film. The Blu-Ray edition also has a “Hall of Armor” that examines the various iterations of the armor complete with 360 degree rendering.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $585.2M on a $140M production budget; the movie was a great big hit!

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Spider-Man

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: Craigslist Joe

The Amazing Spider-Man


 

The Amazing Spider-Man

There’s just no way to look dignified in this costume and in this pose.

(2012) Superhero (Columbia) Andrew Garfield, Rhys Ifans, Emma Stone, Denis Leary, Sally Field, Martin Sheen, Campbell Scott, Irrfan Khan, Embeth Davidtz, Chris Zylka, C. Thomas Howell, Jake  Ryan Keiffer, Kari Coleman, Stan Lee, Tom Waite. Directed by Marc Webb

 

Most of us have something missing in our lives. Whether it be something emotional – a feeling of being loved or needed – or something physical, like one’s parents or a new Ferrari, we all have something we lack and would do quite literally anything to get back.

Peter Parker (Garfield) is by all accounts a fairly normal kid, but a little on the dark side; his parents left him with his Uncle Ben (Sheen) and Aunt May (Fields) one rainy night after their house was broken into. They were later killed in a plane crash according to newspaper accounts. He misses them and yearns to know why they left but they are shadows and smoke to him. Peter is a science nerd with a good deal of brilliance inherited from his geneticist father (Scott). He has goo-goo eyes for Gwen Stacy (Stone), the beautiful blonde daughter of Capt. George Stacy (Leary) of the NYPD. However, she seems to have the attention of Flash Thompson (Zylka), a jock who loves to pick on Peter.

When Peter finds an old briefcase that belonged to his father, he discovers some papers in a hidden compartment containing something called a decay rate algorithm. He also discovers that his father worked at Oscorp, a large biogen firm in Midtown Manhattan, along with Dr. Curt Connors (Ifans), a one-armed scientist who is trying research combining animal DNA with human to transfer the traits of that animal (in Connors’ case, the regenerative power of reptiles) to the human. While nosing about the lab on his own, Peter finds a room where mutant spiders spin a biocable of incredible tensile strength and adhesive qualities. While in there, he picks up a hitchhiker who bites him and burrows into his skin. He also discovers that Gwen is Dr. Connors’ intern.

Within hours Peter develops these odd powers – the ability to stick to smooth surfaces, extreme strength and the ability to sense danger moments before it occurs. He finally meets Dr. Connors, introducing himself as the son of his former colleague. He also draws up the algorithm, having committed it to memory. The two begin working together to figure out the right formula to create a regenerative solution.

In the meantime Peter uses his new powers to humiliate Flash, who had beaten the snot out of him earlier. Ben is forced to switch shifts in order to deal with his nephew, admonishing him to pick up his aunt at work since he now had to work a later shift. Unfortunately, Peter is late coming home, having forgotten his responsibilities while working with Dr. Connors. He and Ben get into an argument with Peter storming out into the night. Ben goes out after him but this ends up in tragedy.

Peter decides to go looking for the author of his pain and winds up donning a luchador-like mask and spandex suit to conceal his identity, leaving those criminals tied up in a web of the biocable which he has developed a shooter for. He also begins to develop a romantic relationship with Gwen.

Unfortunately, under pressure from the powers that be at Oscorp to begin human testing on the formula, Dr. Connors injects himself with the formula. It works all too well, not only regenerating his arm but turning him into a 9-foot tall lizard, with tail and scales and murderous rage, yet combined with the good Doctor’s intelligence and cunning. Peter finds himself needing to stop the Lizard, whom he partially created but the cops are after him, the Lizard has a sinister agenda and is out to keep Peter Parker from stopping him and trying to hide his identity from his girlfriend’s dad who wants to put him in jail. And I thought chem finals were bad.

Webb, who previously directed the incredible (500) Days of Summer, is saddled with a kind of a double whammy. Not only does he have to measure up against Sam Raimi’s filmed trilogy whose numbers helped usher in the Marvel film renaissance but also against the comic books that Raimi did so well in translating to the screen.

For some odd reason the studio decided to reboot the series with another origin tale – because it’s been ten years since the first one so I’m sure nobody remembers it by now. *snerkle* That’s sarcasm, in case you were wondering.

Garfield is a find. Most will remember him from The Social Network but he has established himself here as a leading man for the next 20 years. He is charismatic, brooding, likable and able to do serious and funny, a rare trait. It is not often when opportunities to take the next step in your career evolution come along and Garfield makes the most of his. This is in every sense a star-making performance.

Stone has been on a winning streak of late but she is curiously flat here. Her Gwen Stacy lacks the spunk and fire of her previous performances and while far from a typical damsel in distress role, she doesn’t show much of the personality I know she has. I think a little less courtesy and a lot more personality would have only benefitted the film.

Sheen is so reliable; every role he takes is full of compassion and gravitas. He resonates with both as Uncle Ben, although Ben has a bit of a temper on him that was absent from Cliff Robertson’s version from the Raimi films. Fields plays May a little younger than previous editions, but with all of the maternal love and wisdom that she is known for – well, both Fields and Aunt May in this case.

Ifans is a fine actor in his own right but as the villain here he has a tough time. Part of the problem is that he isn’t strictly speaking a villain; he is overzealous, yes, and has a mistake born of hubris that nearly proves fatal, but for the meddling of Spider-Man! That doesn’t really make him a bad bad guy, just a vulnerable one. In fact there really isn’t anything evil here and that might be what stops me from really getting into this version; none of even the most villainous characters is without redeeming qualities. That may work for Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko and other artists and writers, but it simply doesn’t work here. Basically Spider-Man is fighting a less powerful Hulk (i.e. Mr. Hyde) whom he doesn’t have the heart to take out.

Still, this is entertaining enough although I still wonder why another origin was necessary. If you want to reboot with a young high school-age Peter Parker, that’s fine (although why cast a 28-year-old man to play a 16-year-old boy?) but why not simply assume we all know that the guy was bitten by a radioactive (or in this case genetically enhanced) spider and move on from there? I understand that Columbia is planning at least three Amazing Spider-Man movies, all of which deal with the missing parents in some fashion as Parker tries to unravel the tangled threads of his past. That’s all good. Rehashing a story unnecessarily costs the movie points and that blame goes directly to the studio heads who thought it was necessary. Otherwise, Webb shows that he can direct a blockbuster as well as a small-budget indie romance and do both with charm, inventiveness and deftness.

REASONS TO GO: Garfield is a terrific Peter Parker. Follows comic book mythology a little more closely.

REASONS TO STAY: Action sequences were moving too fast to follow easily at times. Not quite up to the best moments of the first trilogy.

FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of comic book violence and action.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Anne Hathaway was originally cast as Felicia Hardy – a.k.a. the Black Cat –  but her character was eventually written out and she went on to do the similarly natured Catwoman in The Dark Knight Rises.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/17/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 74% positive reviews. Metacritic: 66/100. The reviews are definitely good.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Spider-Man

STAN LEE LOVERS: Plays an oblivious librarian listening to classical music on the headphones while the Lizard and Spider-Man engage in a raging battle behind him

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: The High Cost of Living

Marvel’s The Avengers


Marvel's The Avengers

Jeremy Renner and Scarlett Johansson are a bit grumpy because they didn’t get a nifty uniform.

(2012) Superhero (Disney/Marvel) Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Samuel L. Jackson, Tom Hiddleston, Stellan Skarsgard, Clark Gregg, Cobie Smulders, Gwynneth Paltrow, Paul Bettany (voice), Alexis Denisof, Powers Boothe, Jenny Agutter, Harry Dean Stanton. Directed by Joss Whedon

 

Okay, take a deep breath now. It’s finally here, after five years of anticipation, of endless speculation, it’s here. Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, assembled in one place. Comic book fans of all sorts have been squirming in their chairs for months waiting for this movie to make it into the multiplex.

The thing is, this isn’t a movie just for those who love superheroes. This is spectacle on an epic scale, with battles raging in the skies as well as in the streets of Manhattan. However, there is more to it with a bit of pathos as well as some sharp dialogue. For those wondering, you don’t necessarily have to have seen the preceding Marvel superhero movies, although it helps to have done so.

Loki (Hiddleston) has been released from his quantum exile by the Tesseract, a cube of immense power that SHIELD has been using to try to create a self-sustaining energy source. He immediately uses his spear to control Professor Erik Selvig (Skarsgard) who’s been consulting with SHIELD on the project, and Clint “Hawkeye” Barton (Renner), an agent of SHIELD.

SHIELD director Nick Fury (Jackson) realizes that war has been declared on Earth by Loki – and he may have an army of alien beings behind him. The armed might of the world’s armies will be insufficient to stop what’s coming, so he is forced to recruit the most powerful beings on Earth to stop the threat – Iron Man (Downey), he of the powerful metal battle suit; Dr. Bruce Banner (Ruffalo), a brilliant scientist and expert on gamma radiation who when angered turns into a gigantic mindless beast that can tear about virtually anything without much effort, and Captain America (Evans), a soldier from World War II rescued from a decades-long sleep who was enhanced at the genetic level by a super soldier formula.

They are joined by the Black Widow (Johansson), an athletic spy and master interrogator and agent Phil Coulson (Gregg), Fury’s right hand – and eye in the field. They’re going to need all of them because with Hawkeye swinging for the other team, Loki is privy to all of SHIELD’s dirty little secrets.

The rest of the team is transported to SHIELDS heli-carrier, an airport carrier with gigantic helicopter rotors and the ability to turn invisible – yes, a cloaking shield! Eat your hearts out, Trekkers! In any case, Banner works on a device to track the unique but faint gamma radiation signature of the Tesseract. In the meantime, Loki is captured by Cap and Iron Man in Germany.

That brings Thor (Hemsworth) into the mix. Thor, Loki’s adopted brother, has noticed what Loki is up to and has had his father send him to Midguard (Earth) at some great cost. The intention is to bring Loki back to Asgard to answer for his crimes there. However, there is work to be done on Earth before that can happen – heading off the invasion that Loki has initiated, for one thing and the alien Chitaurs are not particularly interested in a gentle, benevolent rule. It will take the combined might of all of them to thwart Loki’s intricate plans and save the Earth from being subjugated by alien masters.

This is everything a superhero film is supposed to be; it captures the dynamics of each individual character and Whedon and writer Zak Penn extrapolate how the interpersonal relationships would work given their personalities and egos (which, to be fair, the comics have been doing for years). The result is a believably dysfunctional group of heroes who can be prima donnas and have their own agendas from time to time. Tony Stark (the alter ego of Iron Man) for example is highly suspicious of SHIELD’s motives and distrusts government, particularly after they forcibly tried to take away his work from him in the first two Iron Man movies.

Everyone gets to shine here, from the big guns (Downey) right on down to Gregg who has few scenes but makes the most of them. All of them, including Nick Fury (who hasn’t had much to do in previous films except for a good deal of expository dialogue) kick patooty, whether each other (as in  Thor-Hulk battle) or against the aliens (Cap gives the big green guy the orders “Hulk smash” and Hulk, grinning broadly, does just that).

It might have gone a little bit long (and waiting until the very end of the credits for the second extra scene might be a too much to ask) but all in all this is mind-blowing when it needs to be and visceral when it has to be. Watching Hulk smash is one of the great joys in life, as is seeing Cap’s leadership abilities come to life, or Tony Stark’s ego.

Nothing I say is going to dissuade people who want to see this from seeing it or those that don’t want to see it from avoiding it. If you don’t like superhero movies, if you find big loud action movies with Dolby sound and 3D glasses to be sensory overload, you’re going to be uncomfortable with this. HOWEVER if you don’t mind or actively love these things, you’ll be in your element here.

A note to parents: please don’t bring your kids along if they’re say seven or younger. The movie is a bit long for kids with short attention spans, it’s very scary in places and LOUD throughout. There was a moment when Hulk was roaring and I happened to be glancing at a little girl who couldn’t have been more than five years old covering her ears with a look of ABSOLUTE terror on her face. She had no business being there and you know it wasn’t her idea to go. Get a babysitter folks, or take them to see a Pixar film instead or be prepared to have an angry mob of people at the theater turn on you. This isn’t a little kids movie by any stretch of the imagination. If your kids aren’t able to handle a two hour movie at home, they probably won’t be able to handle it in a theater – and if you should know how easily frightened they are. The movie theater isn’t a day care center.

REASONS TO GO: Extremely well-choreographed action sequences. None of the heroes get short shrift.

REASONS TO STAY: Might be a bit long for those with short attention spans.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of violence of the alien invasion sort, as well as a few fairly scary sequences. This is definitely not for children under, say, seven years old.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie became the fastest to earn $200M at the U.S. box office – it only took three days to reach that milestone.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/10/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews. Metacritic: 69/100.The reviews are almost without exception positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: X-Men

STAN LEE LOVERS: The legendary Marvel Comics grand vizier shows up in his cameo during a montage of interviews of Big Apple residents being interviewed about the battle just fought on city streets.

FINAL RATING: 8.5/10

NEXT: Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance


 

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance

Nicolas Cage may be laughing now but he won't be when he shows up on another Conan O'Brien Homeland Security Threat Alert sketch.

(2012) Superhero (Columbia) Nicolas Cage, Ciaran Hinds, Idris Elba, Violante Placido, Johnny Whitworth, Fergus Riordan, Anthony Head, Christopher Lambert, Spencer Wilding, Sorin Tofan, Jacek Koman, Cristian Iacob, Jai Stefan. Directed by Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor

 

This is a movie that is just going to make you stammer. On Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor: “Didn’t they direct Crank? That-that-that was so good!” On Nicolas Cage: “But-but-but-but…didn’t he win an Oscar? Didn’t he make Raising Arizona? Peggy Sue Got Married? Adaptation? Valley Girl?” All true. Throw those expectations out the window.

Johnny Blaze (Cage), the Ghost Rider has fled the United States and his curse of turning into a flaming headed demon who extracts vengeance (and the souls) of those who deserve it which is pretty much everybody. He is living in the Balkans now, skulking in the darkness. He is approached by a drunken French priest named Moreau (Elba) who tells him that he is needed to help protect a young boy that the Devil is after; should he fulfill his end of the bargain, his order will help him get rid of the curse. Having nothing better to do and 90 minutes of screen time to fill, he agrees.

Said boy is named Danny (Riordan) and he is the son of the comely gypsy Nadya (Placido) who wants him back. Denis Leary-esque thug Ray Carrigan (Whitworth) – who has a history with Nadya – has managed to steal the boy after blowing up the Ghost Rider with a grenade (they just don’t make demons like they used to). Still, you can’t keep a good Rider down and Blaze steals the boy back which hacks the devil off .

Satan, going by the name Roarke (Hinds) – and he’s about as far from “Fantasy Island” as you’re going to get – is pretty cheesed off so he turns the dead Carrigan into Decay, a demon that rots everything he touches – everything except Twinkies which are immune. Take that, snack food naysayers – who knew an armor made of sponge cake and filling would grant the wearer immunity from demonic powers?

Anyway it’s all leading to a ritual that must be performed on the solstice blah blah blah blah blah…you know the drill. The odds are against them but you know ol’ Flamehead will save the day. This is, after all, a Marvel Comic book adaptation.

And folks, I’m here to tell you it is the worst Marvel movie since the largely unseen 1994 Fantastic Four film that was made to retain the rights to the comic for Constantin Films (who would finally make a big budget version in 2005), and that’s saying something. This is Steel bad. This is Catwoman bad.

Neveldine and Taylor have made some nifty action films but you get the sense they were hamstrung by the PG-13 rating imposed on them by the studio. While there is some of the out-of-control seat-of-the-pants filmmaking that characterized their first movies, mostly they resort to clever camera angles and loud pulsating hard rock to turn the movie into an hour and a half long Megadeth video. This isn’t nearly as much fun or free-spirited as their earlier works; not only is it not anything goes, it feels more like nothing does.

Cage has gotten his fair share of flack for his overacting, but he sets a new bar here. Remember those Conan O’Brien bits about Nicolas Cage performances being the new means of setting Homeland Security threat levels? Cage has produced a whole new threat level. There’s a scene where he interrogates an Eastern European Eurotrash club owner about the whereabouts of Carrigan that has simply got to be seen to be believed. I honestly believed his head was going to explode (and it pretty much does in CGI when he transforms into the Rider). And while we’re on the subject of acting, can we not find a juvenile actor who could act? Riordan delivers a performance that compares unfavorably with Jake Lloyd’s wooden extravaganza as Anakin Skywalker in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. And no, that’s not something you want said about your acting.

In fact, much of the CGI owes as much to Warner Brothers’ Looney Tunes as it does to Marvel Comics. Cage’s eyes bug out like a wolf checking out a female – I half-expected a wolf whistle and an “Ah-OOOOOOO-Gah!!!” to accompany the transformation. He also spits out bullets machine gun-style at one of Carrigan’s thugs. When you can’t do a comedic scene as well as a 70-year-old cartoon, even with all the modern technology at your disposal, you’re doing something terribly wrong.

This is simply an embarrassment. I didn’t think the first Ghost Rider was as bad as it was made out to be but this one is far worse than you can imagine. Other than Placido who is sweet to look at, and Hinds who is at least having fun chewing the scenery as a Wall Street Beelzebub, and Lambert as a tattooed monk, there really isn’t a lot to recommend this movie, other than to serve as a warning that not all Marvel movies are necessarily good.

REASONS TO GO: Film is a bit better-looking than the first Ghost Rider.

REASONS TO STAY: Cage just…oh my God. Overacting doesn’t even cover it. Story is predictable and dull. Too much “look ma I’m directing” in the action sequences.

FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence, some darkly disturbing images, and plenty of bad language.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Eva Mendes was approached to reprise her role from the first movie but perhaps wisely she declined.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/24/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 15% positive reviews. Metacritic: 32/100. The reviews are a train wreck.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Wicker Man (2006)

TATTOO LOVERS: Lambert sports a face full as do several of the other monks. Cage as Johnny Blaze doesn’t have any per se but his flaming skull would make a wicked awesome tat.

FINAL RATING: 3/10

TOMORROW: Shame

Incredible Hulk


Edward Norton

Ol' green eyes is back!

(2008) Superhero (Universal) Edward Norton, Liv Tyler, Tim Roth, William Hurt, Tim Blake Nelson, Ty Burrell, Christina Cabot, Peter Mensah, Lou Ferrigno, Greg Bryk, Paul Soles, Debora Nascimento, Robert Downey Jr., Bill Bixby, Brandon Cruz. Directed by Louis Letterier

 

All of us have some sort of demon inside of us. They are of varying size and ferocity, with varying holds on us but we all have one. Some, however, have demons that are far more evident than others.

Dr. Bruce Banner (Norton) is living as inconspicuously as possible in a suburb of Rio de Janiero, working in a soft drink factory. When he is at home, he is doing complex research trying to reverse his condition – when his heart rate goes over 200, his physiology changes, turning him into a green behemoth of enormous strength and agility. Banner had accidentally irradiated himself with gamma radiation in an effort to find ways to regenerate cells but which now the U.S. Army in the person of General “Thunderbolt” Ross (Hurt) wants to create an army of behemoths. Complicating matters is that Banner’s girl is Betty Ross (Tyler), the general’s daughter. Yikes.

Banner runs afoul of some toughs working in the factory and when they attack him and set his heart rate above 200, Banner hulks out just as the army arrives to capture him. Let’s just say it doesn’t go well for the army.

Banner returns to Culver University in Virginia where Betty now works and where she is dating psychologist Dr. Leonard Samson (Burrell). Betty is reluctant to reunite although she clearly still has feelings for Bruce but the suspicious Dr. Samson turns Bruce in and he is captured. But Emil Blonsky (Roth), a British Special Forces agent charged by General Ross to capture Bruce, has taken a super soldier formula and forces Dr. Samuel Sterns (Nelson), a genetecist who has been secretly working with Banner, to inject Banner’s blood into his veins, turning him into an abomination. Only Banner as the Hulk can save the city now.

This movie is inevitably going to be compared to Ang Lee’s 2003 Hulk starring Eric Bana in the Banner role; the earlier version is a much more cerebral turn which was excoriated by fans and critics alike, but which I found to be much better than it was given credit for. This new Letterier-directed version is much more action packed, which is what fans wanted. Consequently it got better marks from fans although that didn’t translate into astounding box office.

Norton makes a terrific Banner; thoughtful, haunted and a little bit short on the fuse, temper-wise. There was a fall out between Norton and Marvel over the editing of the movie, causing the actor to distance himself from the film and Marvel to hire Mark Ruffalo for the upcoming The Avengers movie in the Bruce Banner role. One can only wonder what Eric Bana thinks of all this.

The action sequences are spectacular as you might expect although the CGI Hulk is still not quite as effective as he might be. There is more a connection to the Marvel universe here, with Doc Samson and the Abomination both in the mix and Hurt makes am mighty nice villain. This isn’t the perfect Hulk movie, but it’s a very good one and with homages to previous Hulk incarnations (including the Ang Lee version) in various ways, this is a fanboy dream.

WHY RENT THIS: Action-packed and a compelling story to underline it. Norton does a good job with the Banner side.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Some of the CGI doesn’t quite work.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of sci-fi/comic book violence and a few frightening images.

TRIVIAL PURSUITS: Paul Soles, who played Stanley the pizza parlor owner, provided the voice of Dr. Bruce Banner in the animated “Hulk” TV series in the 60s.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: In the Blu-Ray edition, there’s an animated comic book feature that is also a part of the U-Control feature that allows viewers to access behind-the-scenes content while watching the film.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $263.4M on a $150M production budget; the movie was just shy of being profitable.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Please Give