Monday, July 25, 2011

Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

During World War II, American comic book publishers started cranking out tons of patriotic characters as a way to boost morale. While many of them would disappear as quickly as they were created, one would stand the test of time to become one of the most enduring characters in the industry. Created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby for Timely Comics, Captain America was introduced before the United States even entered the war, debuting a full twelve months before the bombing of Pearl Harbor.

With its title character memorably punching Adolf Hitler in the face on the cover of the first issue, Captain America's book was a success. But his comic was ultimately cancelled in 1950, thanks in large part to the decline in popularity superheroes suffered after the war ended. Timely's successor, Atlas Comics, tried reviving him in 1953, but it was a commercial failure and Cap was cancelled again only a year later.

But as superheroes regained their popularity and the company that was once Timely Comics evolved into Marvel Comics, Captain America would make a comeback. He was formally reintroduced by Kirby and Stan Lee in 1964 and immediately inducted into the Marvel superteam known as The Avengers. He's been around ever since and earned status as one of Marvel's most venerable and courageous superheroes. He's been adapted into video games, cartoons, action figures, and other merchandise, and he's even been portrayed in movies. The first three of these movies were pretty awful, but the latest one more than makes up for those prior attempts. In short, it rules.

The United States has begun its involvement in World War II, and young Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) wants nothing more than to serve his country. But because he's a frail little runt with a long list of health issues, recruitment centers repeatedly turn him away as being unfit for duty. Steve's conviction catches the attention of Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci), a scientist working with the government's Strategic Scientific Reserve. Dr. Erskine enlists Steve into a small group of Army recruits and puts them into basic training, where the one with the best performance will undergo an experiment to create the first super-soldier. And despite Steve constantly bringing up the rear in practically every training exercise, the intelligence and courage he shows are enough to make him the perfect candidate for the procedure.

This experiment proves to be success, with Steve emerging from it taller and with a physical strength that matches his determination. But it ends in disaster as well. A German spy infiltrates the laboratory, killing Dr. Erskine and destroying the lab. Without Dr. Erskine's expertise, it will take years to create a duplicate of the super-soldier formula from Steve's blood. Rather than let him sit around as a lab rat, the government puts Steve to work promoting war bonds and performing at USO shows as the costumed "Captain America."

But he'll soon venture into combat, as the military has learned that dozens of soldiers have been kidnapped by Hydra, the Nazi regime's scientific research division. This news hits Steve particularly hard, as one of the soldiers is his best friend, Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Shaw). Steve goes behind enemy lines against orders and frees the soldiers from a Hydra laboratory, in the process discovering that the group's commander — the megalomaniacal Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving) — intends to break away from Hitler and the Nazis with his own plans for complete global domination.

Schmidt, nicknamed "The Red Skull" due to his severe facial disfigurement, has acquired a seemingly magical object known as the Tesseract. Schmidt has harnessed the immense power the Tesseract generates, channeling it into high-tech weaponry. And with these weapons, the destruction of all those who oppose Schmidt is imminent. With Hydra planning an all-out assault on the United States, Steve assembles a team of commandos and leads them into battle against Schmidt's forces.

I went into Captain America: The First Avenger hoping for the best. I've been enjoying Marvel's build to the Avengers movie thus far, and the trailers for the movie were promising. It looked like it would be pretty good. I just didn't realize that it would be this awesome. No joke, the movie is fantastic. It definitely rivals X-Men: First Class for the title of "best superhero movie of 2011." The movie is fun, charming, exciting, and entertaining, giving me all I wanted out of it and more.

At the helm is Joe Johnston, who I thought was a perfect choice to direct. If you're going to make a movie about a WWII-era superhero, who better to have direct it than the guy who made The Rocketeer? Johnston's direction is tremendous here, boasting a fantastic energy that really pulls the audience into the movie. While he doesn't quite give the truly epic feel that it probably should have, Johnston still does a damn fine job putting this thing together. The only bad part is that there are a few instances the CGI and green-screen effects looked really hokey. It's like the effects guys spent so much time making Chris Evans look puny (which I personally thought was pulled off really well) that they had to start rushing things towards the end of the movie.

And really, I didn't think the movie needed to be in 3D either. Having seen it in both 3D and 2D, there are a few instances where the 3D does give the movie a grander, more epic feel. But I felt that the movie still works in 2D. That, though, may be in part to Captain America being one of those 2D-to-3D post-production conversions. Those can be pulled off successfully, like how it was done for Thor. And like I said, there are moments in Captain America that look really cool in 3D. But you're not going to be missing too much if you choose the 2D version instead.

But let's move along to the script by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. I actually felt that the script's flaws were few and far between. Mainly, there were two flaws I found. One problem I had with the script was how the Howling Commandos were handled. The team of soldiers assisting Captain America is basically a group of one-note characters who sadly don't contribute much to the movie. I know this is the Captain America movie and not the Howling Commandos movie, but you'd think they could have done more with the characters.

I also thought the ending came rather abruptly. It felt like the climax started trucking along at a pretty good pace and then it just plain tapered off. I don't exactly know what I was expecting, but I thought it felt a little on the rushed side. It felt abrupt enough that the emotional punch they were going for is somehow lessened a little bit. The whole thing is sadly anticlimactic, making it more disappointing than anything else.

The rest of the script, though, is aces. Markus and McFeely perfectly captured the essence of Steve Rogers, making him look like a hero even before he's introduced to the super-soldier serum. And outside of my complaint about the misuse of the Howling Commandos, the writers handled all of the other characters incredibly well. And the way that they crafted the story, with all its triumphs and tragedies, is well done. The combination of the story and the characters really makes you care about the protagonists and what happens to them, making it an effective piece of storytelling.

But it would have all been for naught had the cast been anything less than great. However, the actors are indeed up to the task and deliver solid performances across the board. Most of the reviews I've seen have pretty much ragged on Chris Evans's performance, but I thought he did a fine job. Evans plays the part believably, giving Captain America the strength and determination that he needed. He portrays the character as courageous and willing to fight for what he believes in, everything that the comic book Captain America is.

But Evans comes dangerously close to being outshined by Hugo Weaving, who is a hell of a lot of fun in the role. Weaving is perfect as the Red Skull, playing the role with a psychotic menace and a certain hammy Bond villain flair. He always plays great villains, though, and his performance here is no exception.

And the rest of the cast all provide fine performances. Hayley Atwell is enjoyable as British officer (and Steve's love interest) Peggy Carter. Atwell plays the role with charm and strength, and she and Evans have a nice chemistry together that makes their romance believable. I enjoyed their scenes together, but they could have used more scenes together in the final cut of the movie. It isn't bad as it stands now, but I thought it could have stood being developed a bit further.

Tommy Lee Jones and Toby Jones are also really entertaining as their respective roles, while I thought Sebastian Stan was also good despite not having a lot of screen time. It really did feel like a lot of Stan's scenes were left on the cutting room floor, because his role is played as being bigger than evidenced by the amount of time he's actually in the movie. His character, Bucky Barnes, is an important part of the Captain America mythos and the movie version is depicted as Cap's closet friend, yet he feels like he's barely in the movie at all. But Stan still contributes a solid performance that I can't complain about.

And last but most certainly not least is Stanley Tucci. Tucci makes the role feel bigger than it is, bringing a sense of hopefulness and kindness to the character. He plays the role so well that, even though my existing familiarity with Captain America's origin meant I knew going in that Dr. Erskine wouldn't live to see the movie's closing credits, I was still a little saddened by his demise. Tucci was that good.

I've read more than one review of Captain America negatively critiquing it, railing against the movie because of their perception that it's just an extended commercial for next year's Avengers movie. (And wouldn't you know it, there's a teaser for The Avengers following the movie's credits.) But to knock it for hyping The Avengers just seems like nitpicking just for the sake of nitpicking. As a standalone movie, I thought it worked. The movie is a lot of fun, a really entertaining way to spend two hours. And while we wait another year for The Avengers, I wonder how foreign territories will respond to this movie. Will Captain America be well-received overseas? Hmm...

Final Rating: ****

Friday, July 22, 2011

Captain America II: Death Too Soon (1979)

In my previous review, I spoke of how Marvel Comics teamed with CBS in the '70s to create a number of live-action television projects based on Marvel's characters. And with the exception of The Incredible Hulk, none of them really turned out that well. Of particular note was the movie based on Captain America, which was not only boring, but just a poor adaptation of the character in general. It was awful, but the ratings had to have been decent because they made a sequel. Let me repeat that:

THEY MADE A SEQUEL.

Yes, CBS actually did run a sequel to that piece of crap. Broadcast just ten months after the first one, Captain America II: Death Too Soon was proof positive that its makers didn't learn their lesson from the first movie, because it's awful. The thing is a downright poor excuse for a movie, and if Marvel ever wanted to pretend it never existed, I wouldn't stand in their way.

Steve Rogers (Reb Brown) has set up shop as a caricaturist on the beach boardwalk of a small town on the California coast, continuing to help his fellow man as the masked hero "Captain America." But the muggers and purse-snatchers he's been fending off lately will be nothing compared to what he'll soon be up against. An international terrorist named General Miguel (Christopher Lee) has gotten his hands on a chemical weapon that can greatly accelerate the aging process in its victims. With it, he plans on holding Portland, Oregon hostage for a hefty ransom. And it's naturally up to Captain America to save the day.

I don't know how the first movie performed in the ratings, but I guess it must have done well enough for CBS and Marvel to make a sequel. It's either that or they wanted to test the waters with a second pilot to see if there was sufficient interest in the property continuing as a series. A Captain America TV show never came to fruition, and judging by these two movies, I'm glad for it. The show probably would have been cancelled after a few episodes anyway.

At the helm is Ivan Nagy, whose only other notable credits are a few episodes of Starsky & Hutch and CHiPs (and judging by the names of some of the movies listed his IMDB profile, a whole bunch of porn too). While some things have been improved for this sequel, particularly Captain America's ugly costume from the first movie having been altered to something more closely resembling his comic book uniform, it's readily apparent that Nagy doesn't feel the need to try spicing things up. Sure, the costume is a step in the right direction and the fight scenes aren't as ridiculously goofy as they were the first time around, but there isn't much of a difference in the direction. And really, if you've seen one bad '70s action-themed television show, you've pretty much seen them all.

But let's move on to the script, penned by Patricia Payne and veteran TV writer Wilton Schiller. While the plot is better constructed and the dialogue is a very slight step up from the first movie, it's still an unbelievably silly mess. And Payne and Schiller must not have been able to come up with a script that was long enough, because the movie is padded with scenes that either do not accomplish anything or go on for far too long. Seriously, did that hang gliding sequence need to take up three minutes of the movie? CBS could have taken a commercial break there and come back without missing anything.

Payne and Schiller have at least tried turning in something better than the first movie, but the improvements are slight at best. It seems like they could have turned out a better script if they'd had longer than a few months to write it, and if it hadn't been a sequel to a crappy movie. If it'd been an original movie based on an original character, perhaps Payne and Schiller could have stepped it up a little. But nope, we're stuck with this. Sigh.

And bringing up the rear is our cast, the performances from whom are pretty much exactly the same. Barely anything has changed at all. I could probably copy-and-paste the paragraph from my other review into this space. Reb Brown does seem a bit livelier than he was previously, but the guy is still way too calm. Not once did I hear him even so much as raise his voice. Come on, Reb! I've seen some of your other movies, I know that's not like you! I'd much rather see the Reb Brown that screams and wildly opens fire with a machine gun. The movie still would have been awful, but it would have been a lot more fun.

The rest of the cast is sadly but expectedly unremarkable. (Geez, it feels like I'm writing the same review twice.) But I must make mention of the actor playing our villain, the one and only Christopher Lee. Yes, the same Christopher Lee that appeared in The Man with the Golden Gun, the Star Wars prequels, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and as Count Dracula in the legendary "Hammer Horror" films. And why he's appearing in this, I have no idea. He's better than this; he always has been. Lee is actually pretty good here, though the material is beneath him. It's just a shame that the role wasn't written better, because had Lee's character been a more proactive villain, it would have been a lot more awesome.

I can't even begin to understand why somebody thought it was a good idea to make this movie, let alone air it on national television. Even if it does try to slightly improve upon the crap that was the first movie, you can only try polishing a turd so much. But I'm actually a little sad that both movies have fallen into obscurity, because this kind of silliness needs to be seen by as wide an audience as possible. More people need to see what bad superhero movies can look like, so they can appreciate the good ones. So yeah, I'm going to give Captain America II: Death Too Soon one star on the scale. And as cheesy as some of his action movies might be, I still want to see Reb Brown in the Expendables sequel. That'd be awesome.

Final Rating: *

Captain America (1979)

For the last decade or so, Marvel Comics has been cornering the market on superhero movies. But you younger readers might be surprised to learn that before they started showing up in movie theaters, live-action adaptations of Marvel's characters were all over television instead. After the successes that DC Comics had with TV shows based on Batman and Wonder Woman in the '60s and early '70s, Marvel tried duplicating it with their own superheroes.

To accomplish this, Marvel teamed up with CBS — the network that aired the second and third seasons of Wonder Woman — to create a batch of TV shows and made-for-TV movies. Their cartoons during the '60s were popular, so why wouldn't their '70s live-action efforts be? Alas, they didn't turn out so well. The only one that had any sort of lasting impact was the Incredible Hulk TV show that starred Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno. And the movies, which I'm guessing were supposed to be backdoor pilots, just weren't good.

The most notable of these made-for-TV movies were the two (yes, two) based on Captain America, the patriotic super-soldier created by comic book icons Joe Simon and Jack Kirby shortly after the start of World War II. Captain America has always been one of Marvel's most enduring characters, so he naturally wouldn't be left out of something like this. And that's too bad, because these two movies are just plain awful. But let's begin at the beginning and start with the first one, which aired on CBS on January 19, 1979. And take it from me: if you haven't seen it, you aren't missing much.

Our story focuses on Steve Rogers (Reb Brown), an ex-Marine fresh out of the service who's perfectly content to just drive around America and make a meager living as an illustrator. He's approached one day by Dr. Simon Mills (Len Birman), a scientist who has spent decades working on an experimental serum for the government. Named the Full Latent Ability Gain, shortened to just FLAG, the serum has the ability to greatly enhance a recipient's physical abilities. The one catch, though, is that none of the lab rats it's been tested on have survived longer than two weeks.

Dr. Mills and his assistant, the lovely Dr. Wendy Day (Heather Menzies), have reached out to Steve in the hopes that he can help them. His dearly departed father had aided in FLAG's development, even going as far as to test it on himself. The experiment was a success, and he secretly used the abilities FLAG granted him to become a crimefighter before his untimely demise. Since Steve and his father have a similar genetic makeup, Dr. Mills theorizes that Steve would make a perfect candidate for FLAG and could become the super-soldier that his father could have been.

Steve's answer: No. I'm not sure why; I'm not sure even Steve knows why. But the guy turns it down. It doesn't matter, though, because Steve soon finds himself critically injured in a car accident shortly after leaving Dr. Mills's laboratory. The accident has left him on the verge of death, and in order to save his life, Dr. Mills gives him the serum anyway. This turn of events doesn't sit too well with Steve once he regains consciousness. He pretty much tells Dr. Mills to go screw himself, and that he plans on living his life like nothing ever happened.

What he doesn't know is that things don't always work out as planned. It turns out Steve's car accident had been orchestrated by Lou Brackett (Steve Forrest), an oil tycoon who wants to branch out into domestic terrorism. A recently murdered friend of Steve's had been developing a neutron bomb, the plans for which Brackett wanted for himself. He'd had Steve's friend murdered to acquire those plans, and tried killing Steve under the assumption he knew something about it.

Brackett eventually does assemble his own neutron bomb, and with it plans to nuke Phoenix and steal 1.4 billion dollars worth of bullion from the city's gold depository. And that just isn't cool at all. Unwilling to stand by and let so many innocent people die senselessly, Steve transforms himself into the heroic "Captain America" and vows to save the day.

I just don't know where to begin. This movie is just so frustratingly awful that any words I could use to describe it escape me. I can forgive a bad movie as long as it's cheesy and at least somewhat entertaining in its ineptitude. But where Captain America fails as a bad movie is that it's a tremendous bore. Don't be fooled by the fact that my plot synopsis is five paragraphs long; there's nothing going on in this movie. Nothing happens during this whole stupid thing. I loathe bad movies like that too, because it's much more fun (and frankly, a lot easier) to mock crappy movies that have an aura of silliness to them. But movies like this, ones that are not only bad but boring to boot, are nothing less than painful to write.

If this was really supposed to be a backdoor pilot for a Captain America TV show as I suspect, then it's a pretty miserable attempt at such. I was more filled with contempt for its existence rather than a desire to see the further televised adventures of Steve Rogers. This piece of crap is practically a chore to get through. And what makes it that way is a combination of a number of things. One is the unbelievably mediocre direction from Rod Holcomb, a veteran TV director who's helmed episodes of a ton of classic shows over the course of his three and a half decades in the business. Captain America was one of his earliest forays into directing, and frankly, he does a piss-poor job.

I can understand that the movie looks like a low-budget TV show, since it pretty much is. But Holcomb doesn't even make an attempt to inject any sort of life or excitement into the movie. He doesn't draw good performances from his actors, the cinematography is weak, and the action scenes are just plain boring. And then there was the stupid decision to not show Captain America in his full costume until 71 minutes into the movie! If you watched it on television without the commercials edited out, it's 94 minutes! The movie had the balls to take that long to give us Captain America in his costume. That's just not cool. And call me crazy, but I get the idea that Holcomb simply did not care.

But then why should he care when the writer couldn't be bothered to? The script was penned by Don Ingalls, himself a veteran within the TV industry. I just can't believe how bad the writing is. The worst part of it all is just how badly Ingalls screwed up the title character. In the comics, Steve Rogers was a frail yet strong-willed young man who wanted do nothing more than serve his country in World War II. A military science experiment turned him into a super-soldier, advanced to the peak of natural human ability and made into the living embodiment of everything good about America. He's one of the most respected and beloved superheroes in the Marvel Universe. But in this sweaty turd of a movie, Steve Rogers is some burly dude who just wants to drive around the country and not do much of anything. He's shot up with super-steroids against his will and does nothing but whine about it until essentially being talked into becoming a superhero.

I don't know how it was in the '70s, but this utter lack of respect in regards to the source material is disappointing and insulting. Ingalls practically stripped away every bit of dignity the Captain America character had and turned him into a lunkhead wearing Lycra tights and a motorcycle helmet. I know comic books were viewed differently then than they are now, but Cap is a character who could have kicked ass on television if he were treated right. Ingalls doesn't swerve into full-blown camp parody like William Dozier did with the Batman TV show, but his apparent lack of respect for the comic book character is sad.

Beyond his crappy take on Steve Rogers, Ingalls doesn't write anything worth talking about. The plot is so threadbare that it barely exists at all, a 30-minute story stretched out to three times that with no improvements made to fill the added running time. You know, I'd like to go back in time and ask Ingalls just what in the blue blazing hell he was thinking when he wrote this thing. I'm sure he was just hoping to cash a nice CBS paycheck for writing some dumb little comic book movie, but is it so hard to friggin' try to write something that doesn't suck?

Even the music totally sucks. Composed by Mike Post and Pete Carpenter, a pair of musicians who contributed to some of the most famous television shows of the '60s, '70s, and '80s, the music quite simply does not fit at all. The music in this is remarkably bland and quite unbecoming of a superhero movie, which I guess is a pretty good summary of the whole movie in general. It's way too mellow and doesn't suit any scene in the movie at all.

And naturally, the acting blows too. Like you'd expect any different. In the title role is Reb Brown, star of the tremendously awful Space MutinyCaptain America is actually a departure from Brown's usual performances. Instead of yelling and screaming and acting like a total spaz while blowing things up like he does in most of his movies, Brown is laid back and casual. It's like he took a whole bunch of downers during production. Nobody will ever accuse Brown of being a good actor. But his cheesy overacting in bad foreign action movies is a heck of a lot more entertaining than this.

The rest of the cast also fails to make any sort of positive impression. Lens Birman seems like he wanted to put forth an earnest performance, but he just struck me as being stiff. Heather Menzies is forgettable, and Steve Forrest simply doesn't make for a very believable villain. I know Captain America doesn't have a very well-known rogues' gallery outside of the Red Skull, but couldn't they come up with something other than an oil tycoon holding a gold depository hostage with a bomb? That's worse than the worst Bond villain. The fact that this is such a weak character doesn't help Forrest's performance any, though he isn't all that great regardless of the writing.

I don't know what else there is for me to say about this stupid movie. There are only so many nasty things you can say about a bad movie before you get tired of it, and Captain America is awfully close to wearing out its welcome. It's a failure as a superhero movie; it's a failure as a pilot for a TV show; and it's a failure, period. It's actually worse than that Captain America movie from 1990, and that's saying something. So this movie gets one star and a recommendation to avoid at all costs. But do you want to know the really sad part? It gets worse. It gets much, much worse. Stay tuned.

Final Rating: *

Monday, July 18, 2011

Hobo With A Shotgun (2011)

When Grindhouse was released in 2007, one aspect of it that really stuck with people was the fake trailers sprinkled throughout the movie. These advertisements for non-existent exploitation movies were so well-received that fans began clamoring for them to become real movies. Robert Rodriguez did just that with his Machete trailer last year, making it the first to go from fake trailer to real movie. But it's now not the only one. The second was a recently released Canadian-based production called Hobo With A Shotgun.

Hobo With A Shotgun began as a fake trailer created by a trio of filmmakers from Nova Scotia. It won a contest organized by Robert Rodriguez at the "South by Southwest" festival in 2007, being rewarded with an inclusion in some Canadian theatrical screenings of Grindhouse and status as one of the bonus features on Grindhouse's Blu-ray release. A few years would pass, but the trailer's creators culled together the necessary financing to expand Hobo With A Shotgun into a feature film. They even somehow managed to get Rutger Hauer of all people to play the title role. And let me tell you the honest facts: the movie is awesome.

As the movie begins, we're introduced to a nameless hobo (Rutger Hauer) as he catches a ride on a freight train. He eventually arrives in Hope Town, a lawless city overrun by crime and iniquity. The streets are plagued with senseless violence, pimps selling underage hookers, pedophiles dressed as Santa Claus, and people making their own versions of the Bumfights videos. The ringleader for the whole thing is Drake (Brian Downey), a mobster who runs a criminal empire with his sons Slick (Gregory Smith) and Ivan (Nick Bateman). Thanks to their efforts, every lowlife in Hope City is running wild while innocent people are too afraid to stand up for themselves.

But the hobo is gonna change things. He stops Slick from kidnapping a young prostitute named Abby (Molly Dunsworth) and hauls him to the police station. But he's rebuffed by the cops — all of whom are corrupt — and is beaten to a bloody, mangled pulp. After spending the night recovering at a grateful Abby's apartment, the hobo's luck gets worse when he finds himself caught up in a robbery at a pawn shop. Unwilling to let it slide, the hobo takes a shotgun from one of the shop's displays and kills the thieves. He pays for the shotgun and begins using it to wipe out every crook in the city. The ensuing war between the hobo and Hope City's criminal element causes chaos in the streets and ultimately leads to a showdown between the hobo and Drake.

I can't even begin to properly describe just how awesome Hobo With A Shotgun is. From the moment it begins to when the closing credits roll, the movie is nonstop fun. It's like they rolled everything about '70s and '80s vigilante movies that kicked ass and lumped them together into one exciting 96-minute package. It's so badass, in fact, that I'll tell you to stop reading this review right now so you can go out and pick up a copy of it. Do it. Now. Seriously, I'm not joking.

Okay, if you're still here, I might as well go through my usual routine. The movie was directed by Jason Eisener, who brings a lot of style to the show. His enthusiasm for the project shows, as Eisener brings a tremendous energy to it. It feels just like one of those old vigilante movies, and the fact that it doesn't take itself seriously makes it more entertaining. My only problem is that it appears almost too colorful. Maybe it's because of how new the movie is and the fact that I watched it on Blu-ray, but I missed the old-fashioned gritty look of those movies Hobo With A Shotgun was paying tribute to. If I'd watched a faded print of it on some worn-out VHS tape that I'd rented from a mom-and-pop video store, it probably would have looked more true to the movies it was striving to be like.

John Davies contributes the screenplay, which I thought was really great. Davies goes through pretty much all the tropes and clichés you'd expect, playing them in such a way that it makes all of them a lot of fun. And his use of cheesy dialogue and one-liners ("Put the knife away, kid, or I'll use it to cut welfare checks from your rotten skin.") adds an element of unfettered silliness.

Never once does Davies try writing anything other than a sleazy exploitation movie. While Machete bogged itself down with its crummy pro-immigration allegory, Hobo With A Shotgun has nothing to say. It merely wishes to cram itself with as much insanity as possible. And besides, when you've got a movie where hookers use a man as a piñata and a bus full of schoolchildren are burned alive by the villains, there's not really much room for any sort of social commentary. Where would you fit it in?

Let's move along to the cast, who I really liked. Molly Dunsworth is sweet and charming as the movie's resident "hooker with a heart of gold," playing the role with a lot of amiable warmth. Our villains, on the other hand, are unbelievably outrageous. Gregory Smith and Nick Bateman are incredibly over the top, while Brian Downey chews the scenery with such ferocity that I can practically hear his overacting coming from the DVD case as we speak. There's no way to take Smith, Bateman, or Downey seriously, but isn't that the point of the whole movie?

But one cannot speak of Hobo With A Shotgun without mentioning its star. Rutger Hauer has been in the acting game for forty years, but this movie almost seems like the one he was born for. He plays the titular hobo with a fiery zeal that makes him frightening at times, yet he also adds a sympathetic tenderness in certain places throughout the movie. Hauer is absolutely perfect here, and the movie is stronger for his presence.

Hobo With A Shotgun was legitimately some of the most fun watching a movie I've had in a while. The movie has no qualms with doing something crazy in order to get a reaction out of its audience. But there aren't enough good things I can say about it. Hobo With A Shotgun is a movie worth seeing if you love low-budget action movies from the '70s, or awesome things in general. So on my typical scale, the movie gets four stars and a proud recommendation from yours truly. And remember: when life gives you razorblades, make a baseball bat covered in razorblades.

Final Rating: ****

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

This Is Spinal Tap (1984)

Not every movie can age well. The passage of time can ravage them, leaving them outdated relics from days gone by. This is especially true of comedies, as what was funny when they were released may not be funny in the future.

There are some, though, that can withstand the test of time. One of those movies is This Is Spinal Tap, a movie that is as funny now as it was twenty-seven years ago. A "mockumentary" spoofing the excesses and eccentricities of '80s rock bands, This Is Spinal Tap just may be one of the most charming comedies I've ever seen.

The movie takes the form of a documentary being made by Marty DiBergi (Rob Reiner) as he shadows his favorite heavy metal band, Spinal Tap, during their 1982 North American tour. Granted unprecedented access into the band's daily grind, DiBergi gets to know Spinal Tap's three primary members — lead singer David St. Hubbins (Michael McKean), guitarist Nigel Tufnel (Christopher Guest), and bassist Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer) — as they deal with the tour's surmounting difficulties.

This Is Spinal Tap is one of those comedies that's consistently funny all the way through. Not every joke is a "rolling in the aisles" gut-buster, but every scene has at least one or two things that will most definitely elicit a laugh. Though the movie satirizes rock stars from the early '80s, its satirical nature continues to be effective. I'm sure there are more than a few musicians out there who, like Spinal Tap, take themselves way too seriously despite being total kooks. There are actually more than a few rock stars who've said that the movie is actually a pretty close recreation of things that happened to them during their own tours. And maybe that's why This Is Spinal Tap continues to hold up after nearly thirty years.

The movie really doesn't have much in the way of story, but is instead mostly a series of vignettes documenting Spinal Tap's various misadventures. The band gets lost on the way to the stage before a concert. A copy of Stonehenge's megaliths built for one concert ends up being not 18 feet tall as intended, but 18 inches. A scheduled autograph signing goes awry when the only people that show up are Spinal Tap themselves. I could go on and on, so I'll just say what others have said: This Is Spinal Tap may be just a collection of moments and scenes, but these moments and scenes are all fantastic in their own ways.

And it's largely due to the cast. Everyone in the movie makes their own humorous contributions, but the funniest bits come from Spinal Tap themselves. Michael McKean, Christopher Guest, and Harry Shearer are hilarious, and since the movie's dialogue is predominantly ad-libbed, their characters come off as far more realistic and believable. I was also impressed by their musical ability; McKean, Guest, and Shearer actually performed the songs in the movie. The rock tunes are all really catchy; their sophomoric lyrics properly suiting the whole aspect of the musical style that the movie's parodying.

Comedy is a largely subjective genre. What some find funny, others might not. But This Is Spinal Tap has plenty here for everyone to get a laugh from. It's a wonderfully hilarious movie from start to finish. If you've never seen the movie, this review may not convince you to (and it's certainly not the best one I've ever written). But you'll be doing yourself a favor by checking it out at least once. It's well worth the watch. This Is Spinal Tap is going to get four stars on my usual scale and a big stamp of approval from yours truly. It's definitely a movie worth cranking up to eleven.

Final Rating: ****

Friday, July 1, 2011

Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011)

People seem to really enjoy bashing Michael Bay. His movies make boatloads of cash at the box office, yet every review I read treats him like he's the Antichrist. They hate the movies he directs, they hate the movies he produces, and they hate him for his involvement with Platinum Dunes, the production house that specializes in remaking classic '70s and '80s horror movies. But I can't say I have the same amount of vitriol towards Bay that others do. I'm cool with Platinum Dunes, and I can't rage against his directorial efforts, since I've only seen three of them, those three being his Transformers trilogy.

People have been especially savage when critiquing the Transformers movies. While it was justified in the case of Revenge of the Fallen, I don't think the other two deserve it. In particular, I thought the newly-released Dark of the Moon deserved a lot better. It's got more than a few flaws, I'll admit, but it's not as bad a movie as the critics would have you think.

As the movie begins, the Autobots are still allied with the United States military, yet largely acting independently in eliminating threats to humanity's existence. After a mission in Ukraine, Optimus Prime (the voice of Peter Cullen) discovers in the Chernobyl facility's rubble a Cybertronian artifact that had the Soviet Union had attempted to harness as a power source. Their attempt was obviously a failure, since the Chernobyl disaster happened and all.

It turns out that this artifact is a fuel cell from the Ark, an Autobot spaceship that had escaped from Cybertron at the end of the planet's civil war. Piloted by Sentinel Prime (the voice of Leonard Nimoy), the Ark carried "the Pillars," technology that could have ended the war and saved Cybertron. The Ark crashed on the moon in 1961, where it was detected by NASA and ended up sparking the space race between America and the Soviet Union. While history records that America and Apollo 11 won that race and got to the moon first, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin's exploration of the Ark has been top secret ever since. Not even the Autobots were told the Ark was there until finding that fuel cell.

Upset by the fact that the Ark had been kept hidden from him, Optimus Prime embarks on a mission to the moon so he can retrieve Sentinel Prime and the five Pillars that remain on board, describing them as being able to create a bridge between two points in space for transportation. This absolutely terrifies the bureaucratic National Intelligence Director (Francis McDormand), who distrusts all Transformers and thinks the Pillars could be used to summon an invading army.

Meanwhile, Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) is fresh out of college, living in Washington DC with his new girlfriend Carly Spencer (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley). And despite having received a medal from President Obama for twice helping save the world, Sam is having a hard time finding employment. He ends up landing a job as a mail room clerk, where a co-worker (Ken Jeong) takes a bizarre interest in him. It turns out that the co-worker knows about Sam's secret role in the war between the Autobots and the Decepticons, passing along information about something on the dark side of the moon before he is killed by a Decepticon.

Sam passes along the information to Seymour Simmons (John Turturro); the duo start putting together clues and realize that the Decepticons are killing various people connected to the American and Russian space programs. Through their investigations, Sam and Simmons discover that there were actually more Pillars aboard the Ark that what the Autobots found, that the whole thing was a trap set up by the Decepticons... and Sentinel Prime is at the center of this trap.

If you read my review, you'll know that the last Transformers movie left a very bad taste in my mouth. But Dark of the Moon definitely makes up for it. It's not quite up to the level of the first movie, but it's definitely leaps and bounds ahead of Revenge of the FallenDark of the Moon is a fun flick, having excised a lot of the flotsam that plagued that crappy sequel that came before it. Watch Revenge of the Fallen and Dark of the Moon back to back, and it's like you've seen two completely different attempts at approaching the Transformers franchise. And the approach taken with Dark of the Moon is probably the approach that should have been taken in the first place.

The movie's only true drawback is that it's too damn long. It's over two and a half hours long, despite only having enough story for an hour and 45 minutes. Roughly the last hour of the movie is all one long fight scene, feeling like so much padding to bloat the movie's running time. It's overbearing, to say the least. There's a ton of stuff that could have been cut out of the last hour, and it wouldn't have made the movie any better or worse.

But leave it to Michael Bay to make an action movie that comes dangerously close to wearing out its welcome. Believe it or not, though, he actually shows some restraint here. It's shocking, I know, but Bay actually holds back a little from his usual "jittery camerawork and super-fast editing" style. You can still definitely tell that it's his kind of movie, but it's not as frenetic as you'd expect. I suspect that it may be in part due to the movie's 3D aspect, since you'd want to linger on things in order for the 3D effects to actually work. But you know what? I liked Bay's approach. It's makes things a hell of a lot more bearable to watch. Yeah, it's 90% action and metal clanging and things blowing up, but it's a fun ride.

And I thought the 3D was phenomenal, to boot. Bay chose to forgo doing a 2D-to-3D conversion in post-production, apparently hiring the crew that helped James Cameron make Avatar to shoot the movie natively in 3D. And the fact that it wasn't some crummy conversion is immediately apparent, as the effects look really, really good. I've always preferred the cheesy "throw stuff at the audience" 3D over the Avatar-style atmospheric 3D as a matter of personal preference, but Dark of the Moon finds a nice balance between both styles.

I did, however, find the script written by Ehren Kruger to be a little weak, though it was mostly due the amount of padding in the last hour. Like I said, any sort of plot or story ends after about 90 to 100 minutes so Bay can stage his huge Transformer war. But it's actually pretty solid, for the most part. I'm not calling it good, but it holds up for the most part. The story doesn't come off as frustratingly convoluted as it was in the first two movies, and the characters are also written stronger. I'm also very happy that Kruger eliminated those annoying twin Autobots from Revenge of the Fallen and reduced Sam's parents down to two or three scenes. That alone already makes Dark of the Moon at least moderately successful.

And last but not least is the acting, which I thought was give or take. I liked Shia LaBeouf, though I got the impression that he's getting kinda burned out on all these Transformers movies. But I will confess that I feel he's got a certain charisma that makes him an amusing watch even in his less-than-stellar moments. And unfortunately, I didn't particularly care for Patrick Dempsey. Dempsey's character, a romantic rival for Sam, is kinda lame, and I thought it affected his performance. I was also unimpressed Francis McDormand and Ken Jeong's performances and I thought John Malkovich was absolutely wasted in his small, utterly pointless cameo.

But there are other performances that I enjoyed a lot. One was John Turturro, who I'll confess to liking in pretty much every movie I see him in. He's really entertaining, really funny, and he's amusing in pretty much all of his scenes. And I also thought Peter Cullen and Leonard Nimoy were fantastic as Optimus Prime and Sentinel Prime. I can't go too in depth about Nimoy's performance without spoiling some of the plot, but I will say that his voice work is perfect for what the role requires. I can say the same for Cullen, but the weird thing about it is that Optimus has become a lot more violent in his fight scenes. He's almost sociopathic. But Cullen still brings a lot of intensity to the role and I enjoyed him a lot.

And this brings us to Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, a Victoria's Secret model making her acting debut. Hired as a replacement for Megan Fox (who was fired by Steven Spielberg, the trilogy's executive producer, after she likened Bay to Adolf Hitler), Huntington-Whiteley was brought on solely for her looks. If you don't believe me, then her first appearance in the movie should be proof. The first time we see her in the movie, the camera is pointing right at her butt as she walks around in just her underwear. Yeah.

But Huntington-Whiteley isn't all that bad. She's roughly equal to Fox in terms of acting talent, which means she's still a pretty awful actress all around. But she at least puts forth more effort than Fox ever has. There's a scene where she needles Megatron into picking a fight with Sentinel Prime, and she's actually pretty good in the scene. The only bad part about the whole thing is that Huntington-Whiteley's character isn't an action girl like Fox's was. Fox's character was more than willing to jump into a fight, as evidenced in the first movie when she steals a tow truck and helps Bumblebee get back into the climactic fight scene. But Huntington-Whiteley's character actually tells Sam not to try saving Bumblebee lest he be killed too. Yeah, it means that her character cares for Sam, but this is an action movie. If she'd actually told Sam to go save him and got involved to boot, I think it would have made the character (and Huntington-Whiteley's performance) more likable. But still, for a model with absolutely zero acting experience, she shows at least a little promise, which is more than I can say for Fox.

I know this review puts me in the minority, but I enjoyed Dark of the Moon. It's dumb, mindless entertainment, but that's not always a bad thing. I enjoy a little dumb fun once in a while. And even though it's too damn long, the movie was an entertaining ride from start to finish. Screw the negative reviews, I enjoyed Dark of the Moon. I'd have probably liked it more had Bay used "The Touch" by Stan Bush on the soundtrack. The fact that somebody's made three Transformers movies without it is a damn shame.

Final Rating: **½