Thursday, June 30, 2011

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen (2009)

While there are some who will lump sequels in with remakes and reboots as evidence of Hollywood's lack of originality, I don't have a problem with them. Me and sequels are cool. What I don't like, though, are bad sequels. You know what I mean, those sequels that are so awful that they make you resent the original movie.

Take, for example, the sequel to Michael Bay's live-action adaptation of the Transformers toy line. The first movie wasn't too bad; it was actually a pretty entertaining ride. But the sequel — Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen — is a total piece of flaming dog crap. It's a terrible movie from start to finish, and I'm gonna tell you why.

We pick things up two years after the events of the previous movie. Optimus Prime (the voice of Peter Cullen) and the Autobots have teamed with an elite squad of soldiers from around the world to create "NEST," a group dedicated to hunting down and eliminating the Decepticons that are still in hiding. But this is of little concern to Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) as he prepares to head for college. While he is initially only worried about maintaining a long-distance relationship with his girlfriend Mikaela (Megan Fox), things will soon get much worse for him. Sam stumbles upon a fragment of the AllSpark, which fills his mind with alien symbols to the point that he begins having a series of mental breakdowns.

It turns out these symbols contain clues to finding an energy source hidden on Earth by a cabal of Transformers thousands of years ago. If the Decepticons were to discover its location, it would bring ultimate power to an ancient Decepticon known as "The Fallen" (the voice of Tony Todd) and destroy the planet in the process. Aware of the threat, the Autobots and their soldier teammates travel to Egypt's pyramids to wage war on the Decepticons.

I've seen bad sequels before, but holy cow. Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is without a doubt not only one of the worst sequels I've ever seen, but one of the most irritating movies I've ever had the misfortune to sit through. Watching it, I got the impression that it has nothing but absolute contempt for its audience. This movie hates every single person who watches it and thus chooses to be as unpleasant as possible as a means of torturing us. And what gets me is that in spite of the overwhelmingly negative reviews, this piece of crap still brought in a worldwide box office gross of over 800 million dollars. I can't even begin to fathom that. Are moviegoers so stupid that they're willing to give a horrible movie nearly a billion dollars just because it has the Transformers name on it? That can't be true, can it?

While I felt his work on the first movie helped make it an entertaining watch, Michael Bay's direction on Revenge of the Fallen is terrible. It's like Bay compiled a checklist of all the clichés he's known for and put them together into one movie. It's full of explosions and overbearing action sequences, jittery camerawork that's more annoying than anything else, soldiers kicking ass, and visual effects that are admittedly pretty damn good. But watching even five minutes of the movie was enough to give me a headache. It's an all-out assault on the senses, appearing as if Bay has made a movie that practically beats you over the head with itself.

Bay's direction is unbearable, but it doesn't help that he's backed up by a terrible script too. Credited to Ehren Kruger, Roberto Orci, and Alex Kurtzman, the script is absolutely atrocious. For starters, they spend way too much time focusing on the human characters when I wanted to see more of the Transformers. I thought the movie was called Transformers, not Shia LaBeouf's Wacky Egyptian Adventure. I just wanna see some alien robots fighting and not have a bunch of crappy people crammed down my throat. Is that too much to ask?

It really wouldn't be so bad if the human characters hadn't been so dreadfully written. Sam's mother was annoying enough in the first movie, but Kruger, Orci, and Kurtzman decided to crank it up by having her run around like a moron after eating a bunch of pot brownies. A combination of the awful writing and Julie White's terrible acting make this a character that I honestly wanted to strangle. And the fact that Sam's parents turn up during the climax despite having outlived what little usefulness they had within the first twenty minutes of the movie makes their presence practically unbearable.

But they're not the only useless characters, oh no. There's Sam's roommate, a one-joke character who gets old really quickly. There's some useless bureaucrat who keeps bugging NEST about random crap. And let's not forget those two Autobots who pretty much everyone everyone hated. You know the ones: the ones that are pretty much every negative stereotype of modern African-American culture all rolled into a pair of CGI robots. The two characters are frustratingly irritating, every second they're on screen feeling like torture. There is no humor in their attempts at comic relief, no amusement in their antics. They're to Revenge of the Fallen what Jar Jar Binks was to Star Wars: The Phantom Menace.

And then there's the cast, who are okay at best. Some of the actors are terrible, particularly Kevin Dunn and Julie White as Sam's parents and Ramón Rodriguez as his roommate. And Megan Fox isn't particularly thrilling either, but considering that she's only here for her looks and not whatever acting talent she may have, that's to be expected. I will say, though, that there were a few performances that I did like. One came from John Turturro, who I thought was a lot of fun. He's better at providing the comic relief than any other factor in the movie, mainly because he's actually amusing (unlike all the other crap in this movie). And I'll confess to enjoying Shia LaBeouf. LaBeouf isn't quite as good as I thought he was in the first movie, mainly because not as much is asked of him. But he's still likable and charming in the role, and as poorly written as the human characters are, LaBeouf still manages to bring a little substance to the table.

I also enjoyed the voice work contributed Peter Cullen as Optimus Prime, Hugo Weaving as Megatron, and Tony Todd as The Fallen. Cullen once again plays Optimus with the heroic presence he needs. But he's played Optimus for so long that I'm pretty sure it's old hat for him by now. Weaving always plays great villains no matter what, so it's no surprise his voice acting here is great. And as for Tony Todd, the guy was pretty much created to play characters with awesome voices. He can be incredibly intimidating when he wants to be, so Todd plays The Fallen perfectly.

Unfortunately, Revenge of the Fallen is still really bad. It's more disappointing than anything else, considering that I did enjoy the first movie. The fact that they actually put time and effort into making this thing and at least didn't try to keep it from sucking is just sad. And I still have yet to figure out how it made so much money despite being so awful, but I guess there are some questions that will never be answered. I'm going to have to give the movie one and a half stars and hope that the third movie in the trilogy is better. The reviews aren't great, but I'm hoping that when I get around to seeing Dark of the Moon will at least be slightly better than this piece of crap.

Final Rating:

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Transformers (2007)

I've never made my affection for the 1980s a secret. I'm still a sucker for the cartoons and toy lines of the decade, but one I never particularly got into as a kid was Hasbro's Transformers. Based on two separate Japanese toylines, the Transformers were a huge success, thanks to the Marvel comic book and the immensely popular animated cartoon. Although the Transformers have been around in some form or fashion since their creation in 1984, their popularity cooled significantly as the '80s ended. But they were brought headlong into the new millennium by Paramount Pictures and Michael Bay with a live-action motion picture. And while the diehard Transformers fans seemed to find any tiny little thing to complain about when the movie was released in 2007, it wasn't that bad.

The star of the show is Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf), a dorky teenager who's looking to buy his first car. Though he'd wanted something newer, all he's able to afford is a beat-up '76 Camaro. But Sam still tries making the most of it, offering rides to resident hottie Mikaela Banes (Megan Fox) and trying to win her over. But when the car starts behaving erratically, Sam learns that it actually isn't a car at all, but really a robot from another planet.

The robot, named Bumblebee, is in truth an advance scout for the Autobots, a small army of similar robots who are able to disguise themselves as human vehicles. The Autobots arrive on Earth soon after Sam discovers Bumblebee's true nature, and reveal just who they are to him. They have come to the planet to protect Sam from the malevolent Decepticons, another army of robots who have been warring with the Autobots for centuries.

Optimus Prime (the voice of Peter Cullen), the leader of the Autobots, reveals to Sam that he unknowingly holds the key to finding a powerful energy source known as the AllSpark. If the Autobots can obtain it, they will be able to revive their war-ravaged planet. But if it were to fall into the hands of the Decepticons, there would be dire consequences. Sam and Mikaela find themselves stuck in the crossfire of this new iteration of the war, which has drawn the attention of Sector Seven, a secret government agency that views Transformers both good and evil as a threat to national security.

Transformers fans were quick to proclaim that the franchise had been ruined forever with the release of the movie. But really, it's just that they were upset because Michael Bay played with his toys differently than they did. I mean, how dare Bay make a feature-length toy commercial that didn't live up to their unreachable standards? The way they talked, you'd think that Transformers was the worst movie ever made. But it's not as bad as they'd lead you to believe. It's not going to be considered an all-time classic, but it's one of those summer blockbusters that are way more fun that they should be.

Look up "style over substance" in the dictionary, and you'll see a list of Michael Bay's movies. Transformers is no different. But you don't really need a lot of substance in a movie about giant robots from outer space that come to Earth and fight each other. And that's what makes Bay perfect to direct this movie. The movie is basically a 143-minute toy commercial, so why not get a director known more for flash and pizzazz than anything else? I mean, if you want a guy to make a movie with emphasis on action, explosions, special effects, and not much else, Bay definitely the guy for you.

Bay isn't exactly known for making good movies. But the guy's got style in spades, and because of that, Transformers at least looks cool. The special effects are amazing, and frankly, I thought the cinematography was fantastic. The movie looks gorgeous at the very least. And the action scenes are actually really cool, really exciting. It's nothing revolutionary, nothing we haven't seen a bazillion times from Bay, but for Transformers, it works.

It's a shame that the script, written by Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, is kinda lackluster, though. There are so many scenes and elements that could have been excised from the script — or removed by Bay during the editing process — that wouldn't have been missed. Did we really need every single one those scenes with the soldiers? Did we really need the subplot with the hackers trying to decode some Decepticon transmission? (Considering that none of the characters from that subplot not only disappear with no payoff near the end of the movie but aren't in the sequels, I'm gonna say no.) They could have established the government's awareness of the Transformers a lot more smoothly than that. If they'd kept it to just the "Sector Seven" thing, they'd have been alright. And did we absolutely have to have that scene where Sam locks his parents out of his bedroom as he looks for a clue for the AllSpark's location and his parents ask if he as diddling himself. The scene was protracted for way too friggin' long and accomplished absolutely nothing. If all the unnecessary fluff had been removed either by Orci and Kurtzman or by Bay, then the movie wouldn't have been two and a half hours long. They could have reined it in at a more tolerable two hours.

Last on my list is the cast, who are okay. Not great, not awful, but okay. I did like Shia LaBeouf, who turns in as good a performance as he can despite the character being written with too many silly, over-the-top moments. The guy is a lot of fun with the right material, and in the instances where Orci and Kurtzman didn't run off the rails with the character, LaBeouf is pretty good. I also really liked John Turturro, who plays the leader of Sector Seven. I usually enjoy Turturro's work anyway, but here, he's particularly funny.

I just wish that I could say that Megan Fox was as good as LaBeouf and Turturro. This was her first big role, and in retrospect, it probably should have been her only big role. We'd have been saved from Jennifer's Body if she hadn't been so overexposed following the success of Transformers. And I don't know why people made such a big deal out of her anyway, considering she's an absolutely dreadful actress. Outside of being pretty, Fox brings nothing to the table. I know that the only reason she's even in the movie at all is because of her looks, but aren't there any good-looking actresses out there with actual talent? There has to be, right? I know it's about four years too late to change it, but geez, there had to have been someone who auditioned for the role of Mikaela who was better than Fox.

At least they made up for it by bringing in Peter Cullen to once again voice Optimus Prime. I was never a fan of the Transformers cartoon, but Cullen's work as Optimus was something that I always thought was awesome. He makes the character sound authoritative yet heroic, just like you'd imagine Optimus should sound. Outside of the distinctive transforming sound effect, Cullen's voice is probably the most famous part of the Transformers franchise, and it's easy to understand why.

Transformers isn't a great movie, but it's most certainly a fun one. And really, being entertaining is all you need sometimes. I'm not going to be one of those guys who cries foul because the movie wasn't what I wanted. I don't have those nostalgic "warm fuzzies" for the Transformers that other people do, so I'm gonna say yeah, I liked the movie. Now if only they hadn't made Revenge of the Fallen...

Final Rating: ***

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Paranoia (2011)

If you read the review of Kickassia that I posted back in April, you'll know that I'm a fan of TGWTG.com, a website dedicated almost exclusively to geeks giving their own sarcastic takes on pop culture. The site features dozens of contributors, some whose work is more prevalent than others. Of them all, one of my absolute favorites is Brad Jones. He produces a number of shows for TGWTG.com and his own website, but his biggest claim to fame is his "Cinema Snob" character. The Snob's comically snooty opinions on cheesy exploitation movies and skin flicks have earned both the character and Jones himself their own followings.

But beyond his short videos, Jones also likes to try his hand at making feature films with ultra-low budgets. Most of them can be seen for free on Jones's website, but his latest one — a psychological thriller titled Paranoia — was made available on DVD two weeks ago. And I figured, what the heck, I might as well buy a copy. And you know what? It's pretty damn good.

Mark Bishop (Jones) is a struggling writer who's having a bad night. He thinks his wife leaving him is the worst of the problems he'll face this evening, but he's dead wrong. Not long after his wife walks out the door, someone breaks into Mark's house and attacks him. Mark is left with no recourse but to shoot and kill the intruder (Brian Irving) in self defense. While it's possible that this person was the serial killer that's been terrorizing his neighborhood, Mark doesn't want the attention that something like this would garner. He dumps the body off a bridge and begins roaming the city, trying to avoid the cops and clear his head. But as he finds himself in a series of increasingly disturbing situations over the course of the night, his sanity starts crumbling away as he wonders if the killer is after him.

You can tell just by watching the trailer that Paranoia had a very modest production. Shot and performed by a group of friends with a top-of-the-line HD camcorder on a budget of 20,000 bucks, the movie is about as independent as you can get. But despite its low budget and lack of studio involvement or big-name talent, Paranoia is still a great movie. It isn't without its flaws, but I'm actually impressed by how good the movie is.

Paranoia was directed by Ryan Mitchelle, this being his only directorial credit on IMDB. I'm not sure if he's directed anything else, considering that IMDB can be grossly inaccurate at times, but his work on Paranoia shows a lot of talent. It really shows how one can take perceived weaknesses, in this case a limited budget and lack of Hollywood-quality equipment, and turn them into strengths. But while one could view Paranoia's behind-the-scenes aspect as having certain limitations, Mitchelle makes the most of it and it works. The movie is very intimately made, with moody cinematography that helps to build the atmosphere and ratchet up tension and suspense. It's gripping filmmaking, and I'm looking forward to seeing more from Mitchelle in the future.

The aforementioned Brad Jones handles the writing duties for the movie, and his script is quite good. There are a few moments where the dialogue seems a little stilted, but outside of that, the script makes a very effective thriller. And while I guessed the basic gist of the movie's twist about 45 minutes in, Jones still manages to pack the movie with enough twists and turns to keep it unpredictable. It's one of those movies that when you watch it a second time, you start noticing things (that may or may not actually be there) that seem to set up the ending. It's these little clues that not only make Paranoia worth watching more than once, but shows that Jones really has a handle on what he wants to do and how he wants to do it.

This brings us to the acting. The majority of the cast are okay but nothing to write home about, since it's obvious that acting isn't their day jobs. Nobody is particularly bad, but I didn't think there were any real standouts either. But it's not even really that big a deal, since Jones is so good that he carries the entire movie. He plays the role incredibly well, making the character both likable and sympathetic. We want to follow the character and grow concerned with what he's going through because of how awesome Jones is. It's a fantastic performance that definitely makes the movie worth watching.

Paranoia does have its flaws, yes, but it doesn't let them bog it down. It overcomes those flaws and is a much better movie for it. I honestly can't convey how impressed I am by the efforts of its creators. The movie more than likely will not appeal to everyone, perhaps due to the subject matter, one's own opinions of Jones's online performances, or its modest production, but that doesn't stop Paranoia from being a great flick. I'm going to give the movie three and a half stars, leaning towards four. And I'm definitely looking forward to what the makers of Paranoia come up with next.

Final Rating: ***½

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Green Lantern (2011)

There's more than a few comic books that I follow on a regular basis, but among my favorites are the ones featuring the Green Lantern Corps. While the name "Green Lantern" is most commonly associated with the group of heroes who've called themselves that since the '60s, it's been around for a lot longer. It was originally coined in 1940, when Martin Nodell and Bill Finger created Alan Scott, who wielded a magical green ring and lantern in his fight against crime. Adopting "Green Lantern" as his superhero pseudonym, Scott became popular enough with readers to be one of five DC Comics characters created during the decade to receive a comic book all to himself. He was even a charter member of DC's original superteam, the Justice Society of America.

But as the "Golden Age of Comics" ended and comic book sales sagged in the period following World War II, DC pulled the plug on Green Lantern's book in 1949 and cancelled the Justice Society's book in 1951. That didn't mean he was forgotten, though. After DC successfully brought back The Flash with a sci-fi twist, DC editor Julius Schwartz charged John Broome and Gil Kane to do the same with Green Lantern. Broome and Kane reimagined the character as Hal Jordan, an Air Force test pilot whose ring wasn't magic, but a piece of intergalactic technology entrusted to him by a dying alien.

As time has passed, we've gone from one Green Lantern to a literal army of thousands. Hal Jordan is far from the only character currently using the name, but he's one of the most famous. So when the Green Lantern franchise was adapted into a live-action movie, it was Jordan who was pegged to be the star. I've been eagerly anticipating the movie since it was first announced, since the Green Lantern Corps have become some of my favorite superheroes since I started reading comics a few years ago. It's too bad, though, that the movie is less than impressive.

Centuries ago, a group of beings known as the Guardians of the Universe harnessed the green essence of willpower. Forging this essence into rings that grant their bearers superpowers, the Guardians created an intergalactic police force, the Green Lantern Corps.

With thousands of members recruited from all across the universe, the Corps has managed to defeat every threat that has challenged them. But a new foe has arisen in the form of Parallax (the voice of Clancy Brown), quite literally the living embodiment of fear. Parallax is a seemingly unstoppable monster, destroying entire worlds and killing multiple Green Lanterns as he heads for the Corps's home planet of Oa.

Abin Sur (Temuera Morrison), one of the proudest members of the Corps, is mortally wounded during a battle with Parallax. He crashes on Earth and instructs his ring to find the most suitable person to replace him. The ring finds Hal Jordan (Ryan Reynolds), a cocky and irresponsible test pilot who is unprepared for induction into the Corps. The ring whisks Hal away to Oa for his training, though the various Corps he meets aren't pleased with the idea of a lowly human being among their ranks.

The training is so rough that it ends up convincing Hal that he doesn't have what it takes to qualify for the Corps. He returns to Earth to discover that he's got a huge mess on his hands. The government has obtained Abin Sur's body and brought in xenobiologist Hector Hammond (Peter Sarsgaard) to study it. During the initial autopsy, Hammond is infected by a lingering piece of Parallax's energy. This infection drives him insane while giving him both advanced telepathy and telekinesis, allowing him to take petty revenge against people he doesn't like. It also catches Parallax's attention and sends him straight for Earth. But because the Guardians themselves fear Parallax and cannot find a way to defeat it, Hal takes it upon himself to save Earth alone.

The last two decades have been really rough for live-action adaptations of DC comic books. Christopher Nolan's Batman movies have been successful, but the rest have either been absolutely terrible or underperformed at the box office. Green Lantern itself has been up against a tremendous amount of negative reviews. And while the movie isn't terrible, it is disappointing. It could have been a whole hell of a lot better, but it's only okay. It's really just kinda there, to tell you the truth.

But it's not the fault of the director. Martin Campbell, probably best known for his work on the James Bond flicks GoldenEye and Casino Royale, is at the helm for Green Lantern, and I thought he did an okay job. I didn't really know what I was expecting out of his direction for this particular movie, since those two Bond movies, despite their ties to the action genre, don't exactly make me think he'd be the guy to direct an effects-heavy comic book movie. But Campbell was not a bad choice to direct Green Lantern. The movie is lively and well-paced, and any errors within it are more than likely due to the editing process than any fault of Campbell's during production.

But while I thought Campbell's direction was adequate at the very worst, I should point out some of the more talked-about elements of the production. One is the much-maligned CGI. A lot of people have been ragging on the CGI, and I will concede that there are parts of it that look really fake. I mean, it looks like Ryan Reynolds had his head edited onto a Pixar cartoon when he's in the Green Lantern uniform. But considering that the costume and Hal's weapons are energy constructs created by the ring, it can be understood why these things would look not quite real. It still doesn't explain why Oa looks unconvincing, though.

Then there's the 3D effects, which didn't really do much for me. It didn't add any real atmosphere, and not much popped. I'm pretty sure this is one of those cases where a 2D movie was converted into 3D after filming was completed, which could explain a lot. Green Lantern's conversion isn't terribly awful, since there are a couple of moments where it looks really cool. But those moments aren't enough to justify the movie having to be in 3D.

But let's move along to the acting, which is hot or miss. Ryan Reynolds isn't the first guy I'd have picked to play Hal Jordan, mostly because Green Lantern isn't a straightforward comedy (even though it does have its humorous parts). But Reynolds does as good a job as he can. He's charming and likable as always, but he has a few odd moments where he comes off as bland. I don't know what it is, but there are a couple of scenes where he's very unlike the Ryan Reynolds everyone is familiar with.

And I have to admit that I enjoyed Peter Sarsgaard a lot. He approaches the role in such a way that makes both he and the character fascinating to watch. Sarsgaard also approaches Hammond in much the same way Tom Hiddleston played Loki in Thor, only the character runs out of steam near the end due to some lousy writing. But for much of the movie, Sarsgaard plays a great villain that I wish had been treated better by the climax.

Mark Strong is also very good as Sinestro, the proud Green Lantern who in the comics would become one of the Corps's greatest villains. His role is sadly way too small, which I can also say for Angela Bassett and Tim Robbins. Michael Clarke Duncan and Geoffrey Rush are in the same boat as well, providing fine voice work as Green Lanterns Kilowog and Tomar-Re yet having roles that are way too small. It's like they're barely in the movie at all.

But the worst performance comes from Blake Lively, who plays Carol Ferris, Hal's primary love interest. She's terrible, exhibiting very little in the way of personality. Lively is so flat and wooden that she actually made me pine for Kim Basinger's Vicki Vale from Batman. It's one of those awful performances that you can actually watch the trailer for the movie and immediately know that she's gonna suck. To her credit, she's not as bad as January Jones in X-Men: First Class, but she's still horrible. Just because Lively is cute doesn't mean she was the right person for the part.

But worse than Lively's acting is the script, written by Greg Berlanti, Marc Guggenheim, and Michael Green and rewritten by Michael Goldenberg. And when I say the script, I mean this thing sucks out loud. It's terrible. I fell in love with the Green Lantern comics because of the absolutely awesome stories that Geoff Johns and Peter Tomasi have been writing over the last couple of years, but the writers of the movie pretty much said, "Screw that, we're slapping together some hunk of emerald-colored crap and calling it the script for a Green Lantern movie."

There is practically no character development to speak of; what is there is treated poorly. A lot of the gags are way too corny. The romance between Hal and Carol is handled tepidly at best. And why were characters like Sinestro, Kilowog, and Tomar-Re diminished to the point of having only a few scenes each? Just because Ryan Reynolds is the star of the movie doesn't mean that Hal Jordan has to be the only Green Lantern to get more than three scenes. I just... wow, the more I think about the script for this movie, the more frustrated I get. How hard would it have been for the writers to do a straight translation of the "Secret Origin" story arc that Johns wrote in 2008? Or at the very least, couldn't they have hired Johns and Tomasi to write the movie? Would that have been so hard?

All that yammering and I still don't feel I've scratched the surface of how barely adequate Green Lantern is. It isn't the offensively horrible waste of film that a lot of professional critics are claiming that it is, but it could have been a lot better. I'd probably put it in the realm of comic book adaptations like Ghost Rider or Batman Forever, where they're okay movies but nothing special. And that really breaks my heart, too. I love the Green Lantern comics, and I was hoping for a movie that I could hold up and proclaim that this was one reason why I loved them. But unfortunately, all I've got is disappointment. The movie is probably worth checking out on DVD or on HBO, but don't feel like you have to rush to see it right away. Green Lantern gets two and a half stars on my usual scale, and I'm hoping that if they end up making a sequel, they'll learn their lesson.

Final Rating: **½

Sunday, June 5, 2011

X-Men: First Class (2011)

Of the thousands of characters that have appeared in the pages of Marvel's comic books over the years, some of the most prolific have been the X-Men. Though their book wasn't the hottest of sellers when it debuted in 1963, the X-Men have since become one of Marvel's biggest cash cows. There are at least ten different X-Men comics currently in publication, and they've been adapted into cartoons, video games, toys, and most recently, a series of live-action movies.

The critical and financial success of the first X-Men movie in 2000 helped to spark the massive amount of superhero movies studios have released since then, among them two sequels and a spinoff detailing the origins of the franchise's most recognized character. And rather than follow them up with X-Men 4 or a sequel to the Wolverine movie, Twentieth Century Fox decided that the next movie in the saga would be a prequel to the whole franchise and show us how the X-Men came to be. And as poor as the last two movies in the X-Men franchise were, X-Men: First Class is one hell of a fun movie.

The year is 1962, and the Cold War is heating up. As the movie begins, we're introduced to Erik Lehnsherr (Michael Fassbender), a mutant with an intense hatred for traditional humans. This hatred was fostered in him at a young age, as both his Jewish heritage and his magnetism-based mutation made him a target of Nazi experimentation during the Holocaust. Since then, he has been consumed with seeking vengeance against Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), an ageless scientist who made a rather vicious attempt to harness Erik's powers while he was locked up in a Polish concentration camp.

Erik's hatred for humanity starkly contrasts with the idealism of Charles Xavier, a dashing, Oxford-educated ladies' man with advanced telepathic abilities. Xavier believes that he and his fellow mutants can peacefully coexist with humanity in spite of their differences, even publishing a thesis about human mutation. This thesis catches the eye of CIA agent Moira MacTaggart (Rose Byrne), who contacts Xavier and tells him of her suspicion that a mutant is fanning the flames of tension between the United States and the Soviet Union.

As fate would have it, this causes Xavier and Erik's paths to cross. Xavier follows a trail of clues and discovers that Shaw trying to instigate the Cuban missile crisis into a full-blown nuclear war. Shaw reasons that if humans nuke each other into extinction, then mutants can take over and claim the world as their own. Xavier and Erik meet while hunting tracking their mutual quarry and after an incident which allows Shaw to escape, the duo begins recruiting a team of mutants to combat Shaw's own team.

After the last two lackluster entries, I was beginning to think that the X-Men movie franchise was beginning to run out of steam. But X-Men: First Class proved that there's still some life in it after all. It's a fantastic movie that almost makes up for the disappointing mediocrity of X-Men: The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine. It's a tremendous film that for all its pathos never gets what's important: being fun. It's an immensely entertaining movie that I can't help but enjoy.

Helming First Class is Matthew Vaughn, who previously jumped into the world of superheroes with last year's Kick-Ass. Although Kick-Ass was an irreverent quasi-parody of superheroes, this movie is more serious fare. Vaughn is up to task, though. His direction is slick, focused, and very much suits what the movie needs. Vaughn doesn't take things to any sort of flashy extremes, but he crafts the movie in such a way that it doesn't feel like he has to. He actually crafts the movie as if it were a '60s-era James Bond movie, making a really cool-looking flick in the process. I don't know if the whole Bond-like style was intentional on Vaughn's part, but his direction — combined with the setting, the set design and costumes, and John Mathieson's cinematography — gives the movie that kind of feeling. And you know what? It works.

The script (credited to Vaughn, Jane Goldman, and Thor co-writers Ashley Edward Miller and Zack Stentz from a story by Sheldon Turner and Bryan Singer) is also solid, with a focused narrative that knows exactly what it wants to accomplish. But it also falls into the same trappings as the other four X-Men movies: it introduces more characters than it plans to follow. Some of the young mutants that Professor X and Magneto recruit for their team barely have any time to shine, leaving them so underdeveloped that we just don't care about them at all.

There's also more than a few inconsistencies and plot holes cause by setting the movie in the '60s. Take, for example, the presence of Emma Frost. She appeared as a teenager in the Wolverine movie, which takes place in the late '70s or early '80s. But in First Class, she's obviously an adult. How does that work? And then there's Beast, who develops his blue fur and feline appearance here despite having a cameo as a regular person in X2. There are more than a few little things like that in First Class; most of them could be called inconsequential, but it's distracting if you notice them. Maybe First Class is supposed to be a reboot instead of a prequel? I could get behind that, since the existence of both this movie and the Wolverine movie leaves the franchise's continuity rather muddled.

At least it benefits from some stellar acting. There are a few bad apples among the bunch, specifically Zoë Kravitz (who is unbearably, unforgivably dull) and January Jones (who is not only forgettable, but so wooden that they could have replaced her with a tree and I wouldn't have noticed). But the less-than-great performances are the exception, rather than the rule. For example, Jennifer Lawrence's turn as the shapeshifting Mystique is very sweet and charming, providing a lot of heart to the role. But the best acting in the movie comes from three people in particular.

One is Kevin Bacon, who radiates evil and megalomania in every scene he appears. His performance as the villainous Sebastian Shaw is about as perfect as one could hope for. Bacon makes for a fantastic bad guy, which helps make the movie a lot more fun. I also really liked James McAvoy as Charles Xavier. I thought I'd have a hard time accepting anybody other than Patrick Stewart in the role, but McAvoy gallantly makes the role his own. McAvoy doesn't try to replicate Stewart's performances, approaching it in his own way and is better for it. He's great in the role, bringing a sense of playfulness to it at first before transitioning into the compassionate nobility that we'd expect from Professor X. Though I won't deny that I miss Stewart, McAvoy is still wonderful.

But the best performance of the whole movie comes from Michael Fassbender. Like McAvoy, Fassbender had some pretty huge shoes to fill. Sir Ian McKellan's performances as Magneto were some of the best parts of the first three X-Men movies, but Fassbender takes the role and completely owns it. There are so many layers and nuances to his performance; you can see all the rage, sadness, fear, and the hope for a better world for mutants all over Fassbender's face. You're practically compelled to keep your eyes on Fassbender for every single frame in which he appears. And through a combination of fantastic writing and brilliant acting, Magneto is without a doubt the best part of First Class. I'd actually heard that the movie was originally intended to follow in the footsteps of the Wolverine movie and be X-Men Origins: Magneto, but it evolved into the movie I'm currently reviewing. I bring that up because Fassbender was so awesome that I wish they'd made the Magneto solo movie with Fassbender as its star. That movie would have been awesome.

That isn't to say that X-Men: First Class isn't good, though. It's a damn good movie. As disappointed as I was with The Last Stand and the Wolverine movie, I'm just as satisfied with First Class. It's been a while since there's been an X-Men movie this awesome, perhaps due to Bryan Singer's absence from the franchise. But with him returning as a producer and a co-writer, it feels like the franchise has gone back to the good ol' days when it didn't suck. First Class is definitely worth seeing as soon as you get the chance, so if you haven't seen it already, go do it now. It's definitely worth the effort of checking out. My final rating is four stars on the scale, and if they end up going with the idea I'd heard that First Class would be spawning a new trilogy, I'm all for it.

Final Rating: ****

Friday, June 3, 2011

Monster (2003)

Biographical movies don't come out all that often, but when they do, they're usually inspirational stories. They're tales of respected celebrities who've conquered personal demons or of people who have overcome tremendous adversity. A lot of them are either critical darlings or box office successes, but there are some that don't really come up in conversation. Some are made for TV or select markets, but others don't have a very mainstream subject matter. These are the ones that focus on serial killers.

Notorious murderers like Ted Bundy, Jeffrey Dahmer, John Wayne Gacy, Ed Gein, and the BTK Killer have had their crimes turned into movies, either as biographies of the killers or as docudramas about their activities. And practically all of them have flown under the radar with direct-to-video releases. Some of them do reach wider audiences, as evidenced by Spike Lee's Summer of Sam and David Fincher's Zodiac. But I'd go as far as to say that the king of them all is Monster, Patty Jenkins's Oscar-winning movie about a hooker who murdered seven men between 1989 and 1990. It's an absolutely captivating movie that's well worth the watch.

The star of the story is Aileen Wuornos (Charlize Theron), a prostitute whose life has been one long and rocky road of abuse and tragedy. As the movie begins, we find her sitting beneath a highway overpass contemplating suicide. But she figures she might as well spend her last five dollars before she does the deed, figuring that if she doesn't, then her last john would have practically gotten her services for free.

Aileen stumbles into a gay bar, and ends up finding a friend in Selby Wall (Christina Ricci), a meek, lonely young woman whose family has shunned her for being a lesbian. And despite Aileen insisting she's straight, they quickly fall for one another. But because she doesn't have much money to support them, Aileen's inability to find a legitimate job means that she has to keep selling her body to passing motorists to score some cash.

This ends up being a tremendously bad job choice. One john in particular rapes and brutally beats her, and Aileen shoots him to death in self-defense. She steals his car and money, enough to get her and Selby a motel room for a week. But soon the cash will run out, prompting Aileen to start murdering her clients so she can rob them.

Though very good, Monster is also an odd film. It doesn't go as far as to fully excuse or justify Aileen Wuornos's crimes, but it does depict her with a certain level of empathy. Writer/director Patty Jenkins obviously wants us to feel for Wuornos, seeming to imply that while she was a stone cold killer, she probably wouldn't have ended up that way it weren't for all the hell she'd gone through in her life. And it's kinda hard to ignore that the real Wuornos was at least slightly mentally ill (though deemed competent enough to stand trial), but Jenkins appears to want we the viewer to see Wuornos as someone who could never catch a lucky break. Wuornos was unloved, sexually abused, turning tricks at the age of fourteen. Her whole life was a downward spiral from practically day one, and I think Jenkins captured that.

While Jenkins does take a few liberties with the known facts for the sake of drama (and some for legal reasons, such as Wuornos's girlfriend being an entirely different person in the movie), she does craft a rather compelling story. Though her script is rough around the edges, her direction is more sound. Monster is Jenkins's only feature film, and I'd actually like to see her make another one because she shows a lot of promise. It's apparent that the movie was a low-budget affair, made for less than ten million dollars, but Jenkins puts it together like a pro. She manages to get some great cinematography from Steven Bernstein and gorgeous music from BT (the stage name of musician Brian Transeau), creating a movie that is stellar from a production standpoint.

But Jenkins's work is drastically overshadowed by her two primary actresses. Though her character could have been written stronger, Christina Ricci still puts forth a very credible performance as a naïve young woman who gets in way over her head. But the true star of the show is Charlize Theron as Aileen. Theron's performance is fascinating to watch, as she actually becomes Aileen Wuornos. While much had been said at the time about her makeup and weight gain for the movie (trading her gorgeous appearance for a more homely one), what's more impressive is how much effort she puts into her performance.

Theron is absolutely captivating to watch, playing the role with an intensity that nobody guessed the actress had in her. She had previously been just some pretty blonde lady that happened to be in some movies. But once the movie gets rolling, you'll feel like you're actually watching the real Aileen Wuornos instead of an actress portraying her. It's like they actually brought Wuornos back to life and dropped her off at the set. Theron has all of her tics and mannerisms down to a T, and plays the role with such an unrelenting ferocity that she is unstoppable. It's a powerful bit of acting, worthy of the Oscar that Theron was awarded and worthy of being called one of the best performances of this young century.

Monster would have probably faded into obscurity had it not been for the strength of its lead actress. There's absolutely no doubting that Theron carries the entire movie. But even beyond her absolutely amazing performance, Monster is still a damn fine movie. The movie definitely isn't a fun movie to watch, but it's a movie that won't let you turn away from it once you start. And I'm going to give the movie a recommendation to see it just to see how amazing Theron's performance is. If you want evidence that one person can make a good movie an awesome one, it's Monster.

Final Rating: ****