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Archive for January, 2013

Marvel Movies Project: The Punisher

I’m seven films into this Marvel Movies Project and one of the most interesting things so far is the widely different target audiences for these first few films. There’s Spider-Man, which despite being quite violent is fairly kid-friendly. The X-Men franchise seems aimed at teens and up.  The rest of the movies, perhaps surprisingly, are more adult in tone. Daredevil is not as dark as it probably should be, but it does hold the distinction of including the first Marvel movie sex scene. (Granted, it is about as non-graphic as sex scenes get, but still.) Eric Bana’s bare butt makes an appearance in Hulk; on top of that, it’s hard to imagine kids being very interested in Bruce Banner and his weirdo father. Finally, there’s the Blade movies, grotesque and darkly violent with plenty of swearing: definitely not for the children. Which brings us to movie number eight:

Movie poster for The Punisher (2004)

Marvel’s most twisted hero character made it to the screen in 2004 in a movie I hope no one took their kids to see. The Punisher, starring Thomas Jane as Frank Castle, is sadly not about a superhero who loves puns, but rather a retired FBI agent who turns to vigilantism after his entire family is massacred. When I say entire family, I mean his wife, child, mother, father, siblings, nieces and nephews, uncles and aunts, cousins — this is a very thorough job. (Luckily, cousin Rick and his daughter Alexis skipped the family reunion that year.) Castle just wants his family back, but this is impossible. So, instead, he decides to seek revenge on the man responsible for their deaths — Howard Saint, played by John Travolta — by taking out his entire family, plus his entire criminal empire.

While carrying out his plan, Castle lives in a very strange apartment building with some very odd neighbours, two of whom are played by Rebecca Romijn, also known to Marvel fans as Mystique, and Ben Foster, who would go on to co-star in X-Men: The Last Stand. His interactions with these individuals gives the vengeance-obsessed Castle a bit of a connection to the human world and their scenes serve to lighten things up for a few minutes … until a team of hitmen shows up at the building and Foster’s character is having his piercings ripped out because he won’t give up Castle’s location.

Overall, this film is a dark and violent affair with offbeat characters and several bizarre moments (singing assassin Harry Heck!). Dark, violent, and weird: based on the stuff I’ve read (admittedly not that much), that is a pretty faithful representation of what Punisher comics are like. The movie contains a few very cool sequences, notably Castle’s insane fight with the blond Russian giant and his absolutely epic final revenge on Howard Saint, but I don’t think there are any outstanding performances. Thomas Jane is acceptable but not excellent (though hunky) and John Travolta is, well, John Travolta. It’s not a bad movie. It’s not a great one either.

The Punisher, who first appeared in an issue of Amazing Spider-Man in 1974, can be an interesting character; unlike Marvel’s other heroes, he kills people on purpose and he does it without much regret. He’s a descendant of wild west vigilantes — a lineage the film seems to draw on by including a couple of western elements, notably in the opening credits — and the ancestor of Dexter Morgan and other anti-heroes who right wrongs by illegal and morally questionable means. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t deal with the character’s shades of grey at all, never really questioning whether what Frank Castle is doing might be wrong, and ending with the idea that “in certain extreme situations, the law is inadequate. In order to shame its inadequacy, it is necessary to act outside the law.” The whole thing ends up feeling a bit like an NRA propaganda piece. It’s unfortunate.

Marvel Movies Project: Hulk

Movie poster for Hulk (2003).

I noted in my X2 post that I didn’t care for Hulk (2003) the first time I saw it. I think I feel a bit more favourable towards it now, having watched it a second time, perhaps because my expectations were lower going in.

From my original perspective, this movie had a couple of things going for it: Ang Lee and Eric Bana. I loved Eric Bana as Hector in Troy, and if I remember correctly I didn’t even see Hulk until I went on a Bana kick after seeing Troy in 2004. I tend to like Ang Lee’s work; he’s directed several excellent movies, such as Sense and SensibilityRide with the Devil, The Ice Storm, Brokeback Mountain and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. At the time, I was most familiar with him from Crouching Tiger and Sense and Sensibility, which I still consider the best film adaptation of a Jane Austen novel.

Of course, it’s quite a leap to go from Jane Austen to Marvel Comics. It was a big surprise to me and probably everyone else when Ang Lee was announced as the director for this movie. I don’t love what he did with it, but I give him credit for trying to incorporate the comic book panel look. It’s interesting and it works well on occasion to make the viewer consider the differences between the two forms. Comics have that ability to show several different perspectives at once, which movies generally do not.

The film’s focus on Bruce Banner’s daddy issues was an interesting and unexpected, at least to me, direction to take. I was watching the movie and I thought to myself, is all this stuff true? By which I of course meant, did it come from the comics? I don’t think I’ve ever read a Hulk comic, so I consulted my friend Darrell, who is the biggest Hulk fan I know, and asked him to tell me a bit about the comic book background for this movie as well as his take on the film itself. He kindly agreed to contribute a couple of paragraphs for this post. Over to Darrell:

In the comics Bruce Banner’s father, Brian Banner (the name was changed to David Banner in the movie as a nod to the TV series), has become a very significant part to what makes up the Hulk even though he was introduced many years later (1985). [Meaghan’s note: The Hulk first appeared in 1962.] The storyline was started by Bill Mantlo but it was Peter David that really took off with it. At one point it was even suggested that many of the Hulk’s powers (from his well known strength to his lesser known ability to see “astral forms”) came about from Bruce’s desire to protect himself from his father ever coming back from the grave to attack him (and he eventually did just that). It’s a part of the character that has come up again and again over the years.

Knowing the role his father played in the comics, I did appreciate that the movie makers attempted to incorporate at least some of this story (with some modifications) into the movie to give some backstory to Bruce and what makes him the character he is and to attempt to give the Hulk some depth. Unfortunately, I felt it was poorly executed, receiving glances in a set of quick flashback scenes, not giving it the chance to really connect on any level. And even then, it took up enough time that everyone complains about how long it takes for the Hulk to finally appear in this film. Also, I can’t deny that the final act of this movie with the father (which does not tie in with the comics at all) is a huge letdown in pretty much every way.

I agree with Darrell that the final act is a big letdown; I still am not sure I really understand what happened during the final battle between the Hulk and his weirdly superpowered dad, but oh well. I also feel that, as much as I like Eric Bana, he is not a very good Bruce Banner. He’s alright as a nerdy scientist, but he doesn’t pull off the moments of rage very well. Jennifer Connelly, too, is not quite right as Betty Ross; Betty complains about Bruce being too unemotional, but Connelly’s restrained performance makes her seem just as bad. Pretty much everyone in the cast seems slightly off in some way.

And that sums up the viewing experience that is Hulk. I’m trying to put my finger on what exactly I think the problem was, and I’ve concluded that the rather dark, slow story doesn’t match the comic book action movie style sequences. It’s a weird mix, and I think it was a noble attempt by Ang Lee, but ultimately it just doesn’t succeed.

Marvel Movies Project: X2

X2 movie poster

X2 (2003), aka X-Men 2: X-Men United, is a great movie. We’ve got the director of X-Men, Bryan Singer, directing essentially the same cast, playing the same characters we met in that first film: it’s a world we’ve already been introduced to, so X2 is able to dive right into the action — which it does fairly spectacularly, with the amazingly choreographed and CGI-ed opening sequence featuring the attack on the President of the United States by the teleporting German mutant Kurt Wagner (whose circus name is Nightcrawler). This is but the first of many brilliant action setpieces in X2. My favourite is probably the one where soldiers attack Xavier’s school while all the X-Men are away from home and Wolverine is babysitting. Talk about bad timing — for the soldiers, that is.

Alan Cumming as Nightcrawler is one of a few major new additions to the cast. He’s terrific, and I must note what a trip it was to see him in full blue again after having watched him as the forever-suit-and-tie-wearing Eli Gold on The Good Wife for the last three years or so.

Same guy? Same guy.

The other important new castmembers are the always excellent Brian Cox as William Stryker, Aaron Stanford as Pyro, and Kelly Hu as Lady Deathstrike. All the new additions work well; Lady Deathstrike is perhaps less well-used than some, but her fight scene with Wolverine is memorable, as is her horrific death by adamantium.

A couple of characters from the first film also take on larger roles in the sequel: Shawn Ashmore as Bobby “Iceman” Drake, boyfriend of Anna Paquin’s Rogue, and Rebecca Romijn as Mystique. Mystique wasn’t exactly invisible in X-Men, but I feel Rebecca Romijn gets more of a chance to shine in X2 as Mystique is clearly shown to be Magneto’s right-hand woman, and valuable for more than just her mutant power. Iceman, who really only had a cameo in the first film, is much more prominent here; the scenes featuring the “younger generation” — Rogue, Iceman, and Pyro — are integral to the plot, and each gets some good character moments. The scene that takes place at Bobby Drake’s house is classic, as his parents try to deal with the revelation that their son isn’t just really smart. “Have you tried not being a mutant?” his mother asks, calling to mind the real life struggles of GLBQT people (as well as a line from Buffy the Vampire Slayer). According to Bryan Singer, it was this metaphorical element of the story that drew Ian McKellen to the role of Magneto in the first place. From the Los Angeles Times’ Hero Complex blog:

As for Ian, he liked the idea of the movie because of the gay allegory — the allegory of the mutants as outsiders, disenfranchised and alone and coming to all of that at puberty when their ‘difference’ manifests. Ian is activist and he reality responded to the potential of that allegory.

Strangely enough, I sometimes find it harder to write about the movies I really love than the ones I’m not so crazy about. At this point, I’m kind of running out of things to say about X2 other than “it’s awesome,” so I will tell you a little story about the first time I saw this film in theatre. About half way through the movie, I started to feel a need … a need to have peed. Problem: the movie was so good I didn’t want to miss anything. So, I held it. And held it. I really, really had to go. I was just trying not to think about it, but it became a little bit hard to avoid what with the climax of the film featuring a dam bursting. Luckily, the flooding only happened on screen.

Next film in the series is Ang Lee’s take on the enormous green rage monster in Hulk. I didn’t like this movie much at the time, so I’ll be interested to see if my feelings have changed.

Marvel Movies Project: Daredevil

Daredevil (2003)

After the huge hit that was Spider-Man, the next Marvel character to make his way to the big screen was blind lawyer Matt Murdock, aka Daredevil, the Man without Fear, in 2003. Daredevil is a much less popular character than Spidey, of course, and Daredevil the movie unsurprisingly didn’t come anywhere close to matching Spider-Man‘s box office performance. This is not only a reflection of the two characters’ relative popularity; it also reflects the quality of the two films, as Daredevil is unfortunately one of the weaker entries in the Marvel movie genre. (I should note that, for this rewatch, I went with the theatrical version of the movie. People kept telling me the director’s cut was far superior so I watched it a few years ago and concluded that actually, it’s not that much better.)

It’s too bad, because Daredevil is a pretty cool character and this movie has a semi-decent cast. Ben Affleck, who seems like a good guy and has become a very good filmmaker in the last few years (Argo was one of my favourites of 2012), stars as Matt Murdock. It’s not one of his greatest performances — safe to say Affleck might go back in time and erase 2003 if he could: his other big movie that year was Gigli — but it’s also not his fault he has to deliver terrible lines like “I hope justice is found here today … before justice finds YOU.” The late Michael Clarke Duncan is quite menacing as Wilson Fisk, the Kingpin — I totally believe he could throw Ben Affleck across a room, too — and Colin Farrell gives an enjoyably psychotic performance as Bullseye. Jennifer Garner is good as both versions of Elektra: early Elektra, who’s a typical superhero love interest, and the revenge-obsessed post-father’s murder Elektra. (And doesn’t her stance on the poster bring to mind that “male superheroes posed like female superheroes” meme?) In some ways, this film works better if you view it as an origin story for Elektra; overall, though, there isn’t enough focus on her arc to make that totally effective.

The major problem I have with the movie is that it can’t decide what it wants to be. It starts off trying to be all gritty, with a muted colour palette and the miserable Matt Murdock’s sad life of isolation. But then it becomes a cartoon with Matt and Elektra’s absurd fight in the park, which is one of the most ridiculous meet cutes ever. Bullseye is also more on the funny side of psychotic than the scary side. Personally, I’d have preferred it if they’d stuck with the darker version of the story, because that’s more how I, being most familiar with the character from Brian Michael Bendis and Ed Brubaker’s runs on the comic, see Daredevil. Instead of going for the full on noir version of Daredevil, the movie goes with a watered down emo take on the character, complete with a training montage of Elektra stabbing sandbags set to an Evanescence song.

Ah well. Despite its flaws and general silliness, this movie is fairly fun to watch. If I saw the blu ray on sale for under $5, I would consider buying it.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Daredevil in the movie world at this point is the situation with the character’s film rights. 20th Century Fox, which produced Daredevil, needed to get another Daredevil movie in production by October 2012 in order to hang on to the character. They did not — though they had something in the works — and so the rights have now officially reverted to Marvel. Interestingly, at one point, Marvel is said to have offered Fox more time to get their Daredevil reboot going in exchange for Fox returning the rights to Galactus and the Silver Surfer, which Fox owns as part of its ownership of the Fantastic Four, to Marvel. Fox, who appear to be firmly committed to the idea of a Fantastic Four reboot, declined. It seems both 20th Century Fox and Marvel see more potential for box office glory with the Silver Surfer than they do with Daredevil, but I think Daredevil done right could be a great movie. Let’s hope Marvel comes up with something that shows off the character’s full potential.

SMASH! and Trash: 2012 in Review

Happy New Year! Now that we’ve made it to 2013, it’s time to look back on 2012. It was an ok year. I don’t know that I accomplished much. I learned how to make books. I finished paying off my student debt! That was actually quite exciting. I went canoeing and walked a few of the trails in Algonquin Park. I was a good aunt. I visited Newfoundland, which was the only province I hadn’t been to before. But enough about my actual life: here’s my take on the year in pop culture.

Movies

Every year, I set a goal of watching 50 movies I haven’t seen before; I accomplished that in 2012 with a final tally of 108 movies. A personal highlight of the year in film for me was going to Toronto for the Toronto International Film Festival. This was something I’d been thinking about doing for a few years. I saw five films, including one of my favourites of the year (see below). If I can swing it, I’d definitely like to go back in 2013 and possibly see even more movies. Looking at the list of 2012 releases I saw, it seems I saw more movies I didn’t really care for than movies I loved. However, there were four standouts on both ends of the spectrum:

Best

1. The Avengers. I’d been looking forward to this movie ever since that amazing moment when Nick Fury showed up in the Iron Man post-credits scene. Marvel superheroes + Joss Whedon + the generally high quality of the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies = lots and lots of hype and expectations. I was living in fear of the possibility that The Avengers would be disappointing. Luckily for me, it wasn’t! At all! In fact, it was superb. It was one of the most awesome movies I’ve ever seen in my entire life and possibly the best thing to happen on Earth in 2012. A massive (they have a Hulk) and massively entertaining summer blockbuster.

2. Les Misérables. I only saw this last week so it’s possible my opinion will change after the movie sits with me for a while, but right now I’m totally enamoured with it; I liked it so much the first time that I went again the next day — that’s a pretty strong recommendation. I was obsessed with the musical as a teenager and admire the songs very much. All I wanted from the film was solid performances that captured the tone of the musical well, and it delivered. Everyone in the cast is great. The film, while not perfect, is a stirring and emotional experience that is as grand as the songs.

3. Argo. This is the one I saw at TIFF, and the one I’m going to be rooting for come Oscar time. (Sorry, Les Mis. I still love you the most.) It’s a tense thriller about U.S. relations with the Middle East, mixed with a comedy about the movie industry — a mix that works very well and is highly enjoyable. Ben Affleck has turned out to be an excellent filmmaker. I’m honestly surprised this movie wasn’t a bigger hit: it has all the makings of a real crowdpleaser.

4. The Hunger Games. Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson shine as Katniss and Peeta in what I felt was a mostly successful adaptation of a book I like very much. The movie has suspenseful action as well as genuinely affecting emotional scenes plus all the terrible spectacle of the Capitol and the Games. The fact that a movie about the horrors of consumerism is now the centre of a vast moneymaking empire is of course a bit ironic, but oh well.

Worst

End of Watch. Vomit-inducing shakycam combined with lots of incoherent shouting. I remain convinced that this was originally pitched as a comedy and someone somewhere along the way accidentally took it seriously.

Cosmopolis. This was at least nine hours long. Why, David Cronenberg, why?

The Amazing Spider-Man. I liked this 10 years ago when it was just called Spider-Man and was actually amazing.

The Sessions. Heroic actor plays severely disabled person! Heroic actress no one’s thought about in years takes off clothes! “Well then,” say the critics, “it must be good.” No.

Music

I was really planning to make an effort to discover more new music in 2012, but alas. I failed quite miserably and basically spent the whole year listening to Florence + the Machine. The only new album I can say made an impact on me is Battle Born by The Killers. I’ve also been enjoying Muse’s The 2nd Law, particularly the unexpectedly beautiful song “Madness.”

As for the worst in music, I was dismayed by Tori Amos’ “new” album Gold Dust, which features orchestral “reimaginings” of some of Tori’s older songs. Sounds like an interesting idea … except that many of the songs included already featured orchestras in their original versions, which made me wonder what exactly the purpose of all this could be. The only thing I can think is that she’s actually run out of crappy new material to record so she’s decided to start destroying her good music, too. The horror, the horror.

Books

My biggest literary excitement of 2012 was no doubt the fact that two of my favourite authors, J.K. Rowling and Lemony Snicket, released new books within a couple of weeks of one another. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy was a very good entry in the English country village genre; Snicket’s Who Could That Be at This Hour? takes us back into the world of A Series of Unfortunate Events for a look at the author’s youth. I enjoyed both, but I think my favourite book of the year was Such Wicked Intent, the second book in Kenneth Oppel’s The Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein series. Aside from drawing with great skill on the themes of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Oppel brings in other influences — the main one being H.P. Lovecraft — and writes in a convincing Victorian style. I look forward to the final book in the series.

In the world of graphic novels, Jeff Lemire is my cartoonist of the year: I read both Essex County and The Underwater Welder in 2012 and have totally fallen in love with his art. Lemire’s strange and haunting Sweet Tooth is one of two comics I discovered and enjoyed catching up on this year, the other being Mike Carey’s very literary The Unwritten. I also continued making my way through Bill Willingham’s great series Fables, but I’m not caught up yet.

Television

I already covered the first part of 2012 quite extensively in my Memmys blog post so I won’t go on much here. In terms of things that have aired since I wrote that post, I felt Dexter returned to form this season. Yvonne Strahovski was a surprisingly good addition to the cast. Season 3 of Boardwalk Empire was also very impressive, and the most recent season of Survivor is probably one of its best ever, despite the presence of one of the all-time most irritating castaways (Abi, in case you weren’t sure).

I bade farewell to three old favourites as One Tree Hill, Weeds, and Gossip Girl made their final appearances. I discovered a couple of new to me, old to everyone else favourites in the utterly brilliant The Wire, the hilarious Community, and the very endearing Parks and Recreation. I rewatched Lost, and in doing so discovered that it works better the second time through. My rewatch cemented Lost as one of my top five favourite shows.

Finally, a couple of surprises, one good and one bad. Good: I am loving the newest season of Castle. I always thought it would annoy me if Castle and Beckett ever became a couple, but they’ve actually been really fun to watch. Bad: the final season of Fringe has been a real disappointment. I was so happy when it was renewed, but now that I’ve seen what they’re doing I will go so far as to say that unless the remaining episodes are mindblowingly amazing I will probably skip season 5 on any future Fringe rewatches I undertake. It’s a bummer.

So that’s 2012 in a nutshell. There is literally no chance that 2013 will be able to top The Avengers, but here’s hoping it provides some good stuff nonetheless.