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Archive for February, 2013

Marvel Movies Project: Ghost Rider (and Half-Way Roundup!)

Movie poster for Ghost Rider (2007).

Ghost Rider (2007) is the story of stunt motorcycle rider and monkey documentary devotee Johnny Blaze, who sells his soul to the devil, here named Mephistopheles, in order to cure his father’s cancer. To work off his debt, Johnny is forced to become the “Ghost Rider,” which involves being the devil’s bounty hunter. Then there is some deal about a contract so evil that another Ghost Rider hid it, and now Mephistopheles’ son, whose name is Blackheart, wants to used it to show his father up … or something. Meanwhile, Johnny reunites with Roxanne, the love of his teen years. Eventually, Blackheart threatens Roxanne and Johnny has to save her.

Nicolas Cage is a fun actor and he seems to enjoy being Johnny Blaze, who is an offbeat character with some absurd quirks. The whole movie, really, is odd and cannot be taken seriously, with its paper thin plot and the cheesetastic delivery of lines like “I am speaking to the fire element within me” and “My name is leeeeeeeeegion. For we are maaaaaaaaaaany.” Most of the cast give silly performances to match the movie’s tone. Peter Fonda hams it up as Mephistopheles. Sam Elliott, making his second Marvel movie appearance after playing General Ross in Hulk, is in full mysterious stranger mode as a former Ghost Rider named Carter Slade.

Eva Mendes plays Roxanne. It’s not much of a role; she wears tight, low-cut clothes and looks pretty — as if to drive home the point, Roxy even desperately asks a waiter at one point if he think she’s pretty — and gets rescued after making ineffectual attempts to help Johnny. Ghost Rider is probably the worst movie so far in terms of female representation.

Ghost Rider also marks the half-way point of this Marvel Movies Project, being the 14th of 27 films! To celebrate this milestone, here’s a quick look back on some of what we’ve seen so far.

Origin Stories

Blade, Spider-Man, Daredevil, Hulk, The Punisher, Fantastic Four, and Ghost Rider all show us how the heroes got their powers. All of these except Blade and Daredevil, which pick up the action with the protagonist already in evil-fighting mode, also show the characters’ transitions from normal person to something more.

In every case but Fantastic Four, the hero’s story involves the death of a parent or loved one — several loved ones in poor Frank Castle’s case. Castle, Matt Murdock, Peter Parker, and Johnny Blaze have all lost their fathers, while Bruce Banner is haunted by the sudden reappearance of his. Castle, Blade, and Banner’s stories are different enough that you almost don’t notice the similarity, but I think Daredevil and Ghost Rider probably suffer from being too similar to Spider-Man, which is the original and still the best dead father figure story in the Marvel Universe.

It’s also worth noting that Daredevil acts as an origin story for Elektra in some ways, and it’s the death of her father that prompts her to put all her martial arts training to use.

Sequels & Spinoffs

Blade, the X-Men, and Spider-Man all feature in more than one film. I’ve watched three sequels and two threequels so far. The X-Men films rely strongly on continuity, with developments that take place in the earlier films affecting the later ones. The Blade movies are less continuity-based: there are very few references to the earlier films in the sequels; it would be pretty easy to follow Blade: Trinity without having seen Blade. Spider-Man 2 most definitely builds on a foundation established in Spider-Man, and in my opinion the two movies work best when seen in relation to each other. The core characters are all the same and many scenes in Spider-Man 2 call back directly to scenes from the first movie.

Elektra is the lone spinoff so far. The link to Daredevil exists but the filmmakers obviously intended Elektra to be a standalone movie.

Villains

Magneto and his Brotherhood of Evil Mutants and the Green Goblin (sort of) are the only villains who appear in sequels. Every other villain appears in one movie only. Most of the main villains have personal connections to their adversaries: either they’ve known each other for a long time, or the villain was involved in the murder of someone close to the hero. The exceptions are the Blade sequels, where the villains want to kill Blade mostly because he’s a pain in the butt.

My picks for standout villains are probably Magneto and Mystique from the X-Men series, as well as Doctor Octopus from Spider-Man 2. Doctor Doom was unfortunately disappointing; I was all ready for him to be awesome after I saw the first photos of his costume, but then he pretty much just relived Norman Osborn’s arc from Spider-Man.

Romance & Love Interests

Doomed pairings (Bruce and Betty, Daredevil and Elektra), token love interests (Eva Mendes in Ghost Rider, Goran Visnjic in Elektra), some extremely disinterested heroes (The Punisher, Blade — no woman in the Blade trilogy even makes it into more than one film), and one love triangle which turns into a doomed pairing (Wolverine-Jean-Cyclops) add up to not much in the way of heartwarming romance in the Marvel movies. There are a few bright spots, though. In the X-Men trilogy, Bobby and Rogue’s young love is very sweet. In Fantastic Four, Ben Grimm meets the kind-hearted Alicia after being dumped by his horrible wife. Reed’s hilariously inept attempts to woo Sue are also enjoyable, and their story ends well.

The one epic love story to be found is Peter and Mary Jane’s. Their courtship plays out over the course of the first two films and Peter’s love for Mary Jane drives a lot of the action. They’re both fully-developed characters who know each other well and support each other, even though their actual relationship has its fair share of bumps. By the end of Spider-Man 2, Mary Jane is aware of Peter’s secret identity and has made the choice to be with him anyway. The final shot of the movie is a closeup of her worried face, setting up their relationship to continue as a major source of drama in Spider-Man 3.

Best & Worst

Spider-Man 2 is possibly my favourite movie of all-time, so obviously I’m sticking with that as my choice for the best film so far. X2, Spider-Man, and X-Men are also a cut above the rest. Blade and Fantastic Four stand out as very enjoyable, too.

I’d probably place Blade: Trinity, The Punisher, Ghost Rider, Hulk, and Daredevil in the bottom five.

One thing I’ve noticed is that I haven’t found some of the movies I thought were awful the first time around as painful this time. Even Daredevil and Hulk, though I still don’t think they’re good, don’t seem quite as bad now that my expectations are lower. Elektra is probably the movie that benefited most from this “adjusted expectations” effect: I remembered it being terrible, but this time it seemed ok. On the other hand, I remembered thinking Ghost Rider was ok at the time, and when I watched it again I was disappointed.

My opinion of Blade: Trinity hasn’t changed. It sucked then and it still sucks now.

Marvel Movies Project: X-Men: The Last Stand

X-Men: The Last Stand movie poster

X-Men: The Last Stand (2006) saw a major change for the X-Men franchise: Bryan Singer, who directed both X-Men and X2, left the Marvel Universe and went over to DC to do Superman Returns, leaving Brett Ratner to take over. Singer did such a great job on the first two films. I think it’s fair to say his voice was missed here.

The film picks up an unspecified amount of time after X2 left off, with the team still dealing with Jean’s death. Cyclops in particular is pretty much broken after losing his true love. But then … surprise! She’s not really so dead after all: she reappears mysteriously, kills Cyclops quite unceremoniously (he just disappears from the movie so James Marsden could go with Singer and play the nice guy in Superman Returns), and returns to the X-Mansion where she and her immense power become film’s focus.

We see a flashback to the time Professor X and Magneto (played by heavily airbrushed versions of Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen) first visited Jean when she was a child, at which time her power amazed even them. Then we learn that Jean has a split personality, caused by the Professor’s attempts to create roadblocks that prevented her from accessing her full powers. This raises some interesting questions about the morality of mind control. More generally, control and the violation of free will are the major themes of the movie. Wolverine, who has strong feelings on the subject thanks to his own past, is appalled by what the Professor did to Jean, but the Professor strongly feels he acted in her best interests. For her part, Jean seems kind of pissed off. So, she disintegrates Professor X with her mind and goes to join Magneto.

The other big development in the film is the creation of a “cure” for mutation. Some of the mutants see this as a good thing, in particular Rogue, who almost immediately goes off to get cured. If you hadn’t seen any of the other X-Men movies, you might look at Rogue’s actions and think she was just doing it because she was jealous of Bobby’s flirtation with Kitty Pryde. In the context of the series as a whole, though, we know that Rogue has always been uncomfortable with her powers. On the other hand, she seemed to be coping better in X2, and that does make this seem like a step back in her character development. Still, it’s hard not to sympathize with her given the extreme nature of her mutation.

But Rogue seems to be in the minority and many other mutants most definitely do not like the idea of being cured. Storm is offended by the very word “cure,” asking “when did we become a disease?” Meanwhile, Magneto is convinced that regular humans will eventually use the cure as a weapon against mutants — and he’s quickly proven right. Magneto’s righthand woman Mystique is among the first victims of the cure as weapon … and he drops her instantly, leaving her lying naked in the road after declaring that she’s no longer “one of us.” Ouch. It’s a sad end for Mystique, who I found to be one of the more interesting characters as I watched the series this time around. I’m not sure whether X-Men: First Class may have altered my perception of her — possibly — but I find her anger at the way the world treats outcasts like her very striking. She’s also extremely competent and smart, and after Magneto abandons her she gets back at him very quickly by giving evidence to the government. Screw you, Magneto.

The cure seems to bring out the worst in everyone, human and mutant alike. Even the X-Men, some of whom have expressed serious reservations about the cure’s very existence, end up using it as a weapon against Magneto. This is at best a morally questionable action. At worst, it’s a huge violation of Magneto’s rights. There’s no way to see it as anything other than massively hypocritical coming from people like Storm, who’s been vocal about her hatred of the cure, and Wolverine, who was so hard on the Professor for his treatment of Jean. And then there’s the end of Jean’s story (presumably), which sees Wolverine kill her to save her from herself after the two re-enact the yellow crayon scene from Buffy. At least she asked him to do it, I guess?

My point is there’s a lot of moral outrage in this movie that doesn’t end up meaning much when characters actually find their philosophies tested. The cure is a complex issue, no doubt, but it just feels as though some characters give up on their principles a little too easily. The whole film feels somewhat garbled, with old characters dying suddenly — at least they stop to mourn Professor Xavier; poor Cyclops’ passing is hardly noticed — or, like Mystique, suffering unsatisfactory endings. New characters like Angel, Colossus, and Kitty show up for a few brief scenes but aren’t well developed. Angel in particular is wasted: a couple of (admittedly very cool) shots of his wings end up being his major contribution to the movie. Kelsey Grammer as Beast is the only one of the new cast members who gets enough screen time to make a strong impression.

All in all, it’s a disappointing ending to this porton of the X-Men series. I leave you with a glimpse at what might have been had Superman Returns never happened (quick answer: we’d all be better off) via Cracked’s article on 6 Famously Terribly Movies That Were Almost Awesome. Interestingly, Bryan Singer has rejoined the world of mutants to direct the upcoming X-Men: Days of Future Past, and has said he’ll used that film to try to “fix” some of what happened in The Last Stand. It’s an intriguing proposition. Hopefully it’ll work out.

Marvel Movies Project: Fantastic Four

Poster for Fantastic Four (2005)

This movie has a 5.7 rating on IMDb, a lowly 27% on Rotten Tomatoes, and a slightly better 40 on Metacritic. But I can’t help it … I like it. A brilliant cinematic achievement? Well, no. But it’s light and funny and it does a fairly good job of bringing the FF and their dysfunctional family dynamic to life.

Fantastic Four (2005) stars Ioan Gruffudd as Reed Richards, Jessica Alba as Sue Storm, Michael Chiklis as Ben Grimm, and Chris Evans as Johnny Storm. The FF’s archnemesis, Victor Von Doom, is played by Julian McMahon. (In some dark corner of the internet I’m sure there’s a Nip/Tuck-Fantastic Four mashup in which Dr. Christian Troy asks Doctor Doom what he doesn’t like about himself and Doctor Doom says he needs to do something about that scar, but I haven’t found it yet.) The great thing about this cast is that they have chemistry. I thought about the problems I had with Blade: Trinity a lot while I was watching Fantastic Four this time around. While Blade and Hannibal King butting heads in Blade: Trinity leads to nothing but painfully unfunny awkwardness, the tensions between team members in Fantastic Four drive the story and make the movie fun to watch. Ben’s paranoia about Reed putting his feelings for Sue ahead of everything else allows Doom to manipulate him and bring on the final showdown. Johnny’s brash personality leads to a lot of conflict, as well as some very funny moments as he drives Ben crazy. Sue’s frustration with Reed’s constant focus on science is also amusing.

This is probably the funniest of the Marvel movies so far. The FF have pretty good lives compared to certain other Marvel heroes — somewhere, Spider-Man watches the media and public fawning over them and cries — so the mostly comedic tone of this movie is appropriate. The script is quippy, with lots of puntastic and silly dialogue: Reed is said to be “always stretching,” Ben feels “solid,” and just after Victor tells Sue he has four little words that will change their lives forever, Reed rushes in to announce that “the cloud is accelerating!”

Much of the humour comes thanks to Chris Evans’ hilarious performance. Johnny is egotistical, mischievous, and totally unfazed by going to space and coming back with superpowers. Evans, who gets almost all the best lines, plays him with lots of energy and a great sense of fun, not to mention perfect comic timing. Who’d have thought he’d go on to do an equally good job playing the rather more straight-laced Captain America? Chris Evans is truly one of the Marvel Movies MVPs.

Chris Evans as Johnny Storm, greeting his adoring public.

Michael Chiklis is also very well cast as Ben Grimm, a role he’d apparently always wanted to play. (He later played a similar character in No Ordinary Family, the short-lived, fairly FF-ish TV series about a family who develop superpowers after a plane crash.) I like the fact that they didn’t use CGI to create The Thing, even if I’m not totally sold on the actual costume and makeup job that appear in the film. It looks a little awkward to me, but the face is well done: Chiklis’ expressions come through vividly.

I’ve never been convinced that Jessica Alba was the right choice to play Sue Storm, but she does a decent job with the role as it’s written and works well with the rest of the cast. Ioan Gruffudd is good, but Reed is not a standout character here: he’s mostly playing straight man to everyone else. I think one problem with putting Reed Richards in a movie is that when you see them in “reality” as opposed to on the pages of a comic book, his stretch powers really are, as Johnny says, kind of gross. Ultimately, Gruffudd and Alba both are just plain overshadowed by Chiklis and Evans. Alba and Gruffudd’s romantic chemistry is just okay; on the other hand, Chiklis and Evans are, well, fantastic together. Ben and Johnny’s rivalry and the larger group dynamic make much more of an impression than Sue and Reed’s love story.

I can’t say that this is one of the best movies I’ve ever seen, but it’s certainly entertaining: something to put on when the weather is bad and you want some brainless fun. If nothing else, it’s worth watching just for Chris Evans.

From Amour to Zero Dark Thirty: Oscars 2012

Oscar time is upon us once again and this year I’ve actually managed to see all the nominees in the major categories before the show. This may be a first for me! Here’s a quick rundown of some of my thoughts.

Best Picture

This is a pretty solid year for Best Picture nominees! Normally, there’s at least one movie on the list I can’t stand; this year, all nine are a-okay. I wasn’t crazy about Life of Pi but I didn’t think it was terrible or anything. My personal favourite is probably Les Misérables; however, I don’t think it’s the best of the nine. I just happen to love it despite its flaws. The cream of the crop, in my opinion, is Argo, which is a massively entertaining film that is both a funny Hollywood parody and a nailbiting action thriller. Argo looks like the frontrunner right now and I’m hoping it’ll continue its streak on Sunday night. Zero Dark Thirty, with its subtle non-commentary on the hunt for Osama Bin Laden, is my second choice. The most impressive thing about this film is that it neither praises nor condemns those involved. Even the end result, the killing of Bin Laden, is not seen as a good thing or a bad thing. It just is.

I’ve been posting reviews of every movie I see over at Letterboxd since the beginning of 2012. Here are links to my reviews of the Best Picture nominees, in case you’re interested: Amour | Argo | Beasts of the Southern Wild | Django Unchained | Les Misérables | Life of Pi | Lincoln | Silver Linings Playbook | Zero Dark Thirty

Best Director

I’m guessing Steven Spielberg will take this, and I can’t complain about that. I thought he made a few strange choices in Lincoln, but overall I liked his quiet, low key handling of the dialogue-heavy script. No matter who wins, though, the story in this category is that Ben Affleck and Kathryn Bigelow weren’t nominated for their outstanding work on Argo and Zero Dark Thirty respectively. These are both shocking omissions, especially given that Affleck won the Directors Guild award. The guild of directors thinks he’s the best director! AMPAS fail.

Best Actor

As soon as I heard Daniel Day-Lewis would be playing Abraham Lincoln in a film directed by Steven Spielberg, I assumed he would win an Oscar for it. This doesn’t come as a huge shock. But if he does win, which he no doubt will, he will absolutely deserve it. I don’t think any of the other nominees even comes close. It’s unfortunate that Jean-Louis Trintignant from Amour was passed over, however. He was excellent.

Best Actress

This is an interesting category. It’s the one that seemed most up in the air until the nominations were announced and I still find a couple of the inclusions a little odd. Naomi Watts is solid in The Impossible, but she’s out of action for a large part of the movie and I’m not sure how she managed to be included here. Little Quvenzhané Wallis was the sparkplug that made Beasts of the Southern Wild run, but you just know she has no chance of winning. Emmanuelle Riva is excellent in Amour, no question, but I thought she was more of a supporting character to Trintignant’s lead. It seems likely that Jennifer Lawrence will win this. I like her and I very much enjoyed her performance in Silver Linings Playbook. Jessica Chastain would also be a worthy winner for Zero Dark Thirty.

Best Supporting Actor

Five nominees, all previous Oscar winners — this is a solid category. I’m hoping Tommy Lee Jones will win for Lincoln because he was one of the best things about the film. I wish there could have been more than five nominees, though, because there are some excellent performances I feel were overlooked:

  • Ewan McGregor in The Impossible. Somehow, Naomi Watts is getting all the attention for this film, but McGregor is the one who provides its best, most moving moment: his heartbreaking, emotional phonecall home to England.
  • Christopher Walken in Seven Psychopaths. A great actor playing a great character with a lot of depth.
  • Leonardo DiCaprio and/or Samuel L. Jackson in Django Unchained. It might be a bit much to nominate every actor from Django, but these two would both have deserved it. I was saying all through 2012 that this would finally be Leo’s year because he was playing against type. Okay, so I was wrong about him winning the Oscar, but I wasn’t wrong about his performance. Jackson is also phenomenal and adds a lot of punch to a movie that at times lacks it.

Best Supporting Actress

Anne Hathaway is up against, uh, some other people … ? Really, though, this category is puzzling to me. Jacki Weaver was alright in Silver Linings Playbook, I guess, but she didn’t exactly have much to do. Helen Hunt has the nudity nomination. Amy Adams is very good in The Master, but I felt her character could have been more developed. I hated Sally Field’s performance in Lincoln, but I accept that no one else feels that way.

Anyway, Hathaway is good enough that I think she would win against much better competition, but I can’t help feeling the relative weakness of the two actress categories demonstrates the lack of solid roles for women. And that makes me sad.

Marvel Movies Project: Elektra

Movie poster for Elektra (2005).

Remember last post when I was saying how of all the Marvel movies I’d watched so far, only Blade: Trinity and X2 would pass the Bechdel Test? Well hey, look at this — it’s a movie with a female lead! A comic book movie … about a woman. And not only is a woman the main character, a teenaged girl is the second most important character! This movie is like a unicorn or something.

I remember back when Elektra was released, I went to see it and thought it was terrible. Upon watching it again last night, I have changed my opinion a bit. It’s still not very good, but terrible is probably too harsh. For the most part, it’s visually interesting; I particularly liked the way the filmmakers sometimes used brief flashes of red to show Elektra moving through the darkness. The Vancouver area scenery is lush and mysterious as always. The story, about a legendary female warrior who will play a role in the eternal battle between good and evil, is engaging enough. The characters, on the other hand, are mostly lacking. Elektra and Abby, the young girl she’s protecting, have spark, and a couple of the villains — Typhoid and Tattoo — do some cool tricks. But everyone else in the film is fairly generic, from Goran Visnjic as Abby’s dad/Elektra’s love interest to Terence Stamp (whose voice I can no longer hear without thinking of his work as Jor-El on Smallville) as the grey-haired wise man figure, to Will Yun Lee as Elektra’s main antagonist.

One of the things I originally really did not like about this movie was the fact that they took Elektra, solitary unemotional badass, and essentially made her a mom. “Why must a female character only find fulfilment through motherhood?” my self of eight years ago asked. There are aspects of this I still don’t like very much, but mostly my perspective has changed. Now, I can see the good in the fact that instead of the traditional story about a man with daddy issues, we get a film about two “motherless daughters” with some mommy issues. (I felt the same way when I saw Beasts of the Southern Wild: a quest story where a young girl goes looking for her mother.) Elektra not only helps Abby cope with the absence of her mother, she even gets to avenge her own mother’s death in the end. I also quite like the fact that there’s a superhero movie where a female protagonist serves as mentor to a future heroine. Abby’s idolization of Elektra is kind of adorable: stuck with a weighty destiny in a male-dominated world, Abby clearly craves a female role model. So, when Elektra — who is basically the perfect role model for Abby’s situation — shows up, she goes Mini-Me. Aww.

All that said, though, there are things I hate about the way Elektra’s gender comes into play in this movie. For starters, the satiny corset costume she wears for her most important fights is ridiculous (though admittedly not more ridiculous than comic book Elektra’s outfit). Fortunately, she only wears it in a couple of scenes, both of which, perhaps coincidentally, are shot in a way that calls to mind either a Victoria’s Secret ad or a Meat Loaf video. I can’t decide.

Then there’s the way the film is marketed. See the poster above: the tagline “Looks can kill” is obviously awful and stupid. Really? Elektra kills with her looks? Here I was thinking she used knives. See also the description of the movie in the iTunes store: “Superstar Jennifer Garner proves that looks can kill as the sexiest action hero ever to burst from the pages of Marvel Comics.” Ick. Based on this, it sounds like Jennifer Garner’s hot body in her battle lingerie is apparently the only reason to watch this thing. Hey Hollywood! How about making a movie about a female superhero and marketing it, I don’t know, to women? Too revolutionary? Here’s hoping Scarlett Johansson can use her clout do something about this situation if a Black Widow movie ever makes it onto Marvel’s list of confirmed projects. The fact that nothing has been announced yet is discouraging, though.