When the first footage of a live-action Sonic was unleashed, it became the Internet’s new nightmare, until the Cats trailer was released. The strange, unsettling design made the classic Sega speedster just creepy to behold, and you could count his baby teeth in his human mouth. The producers did something unheard of in response to the onslaught of negative criticism — they listened. They redesigned the character to be more akin to a familiar 3D model from the games and delayed the movie several months in order to accommodate the special effects time crunch. The new and improved Sonic the Hedgehog movie benefits immensely from this redesign, though I routinely kept imagining what the original nightmare-inducing design would look like at different points in the film (a side-by-side DVD special feature, eh?). This is a kids movie very much geared toward that audience but I was mostly charmed by the inclusion of Sonic (voiced by Ben Schwartz) into our world. He’s paired with a straight-laced small-town cop (James Marsden) and given a road trip to retrieve his portal-creating magic rings. Jim Carrey plays Dr. Robotnik, a mad scientist hired by the U.S. military to find and capture the alien responsible for the mysterious power surges. Carrey’s unrestrained, intense physical performance is a nostalgic delight for 90s kids who grew up on his rubber-faced silliness, and he often made me laugh through sheer force of personality alone. However, I appreciated that the screenplay actually shows effort. There are sly, unexpected jokes that didn’t have to be there and yet the filmmakers didn’t rest on their laurels. I enjoyed the buddy dynamic between Sonic and Marsden and the more mawkish moments didn’t make me gag. It’s not anything groundbreaking or operating on higher levels of sophistication like Pixar, but it’s a generally enjoyable and brisk experience that’s colorful, fun, and accessible to Sonic fans and non-fans alike. Perhaps this will signal a new age where studios are more beholden to the demands of a noisy fanbase, and perhaps that’s not exactly the best thing moving forward for art. But it worked in this instance. The fans won.
Nate’s Grade: B-
Before I begin my review, I feel the need to come to the defense of Oscar-nominated director Lee Daniels (Precious). Despite what Internet message boards and detractors may have you believe, it was never the man’s intention to insert his name into the title of his latest film, Lee Daniels’ The Butler. Warner Brothers claimed copyright ownership over the title of The Butler. The MPAA mediates title discrepancies in cases where one movie could clearly be confused for another. However, Warner Brothers’ claims a 1915 silent short film in their vault by the same name. Is anyone in the year 2013 really going to pay a ticket for the Butler and reasonably expect a silent short that’s almost 100 years old? Rather than pay a financial settlement, The Weinstein Company decided to alter the original title, adding the director’s name. This isn’t The Butler. Now it’s Lee Daniels’ The Butler. So before I get into the thick of my review, I’d like to absolve Daniels of Tyler Perry-levels of hubris. You’ll excuse me for just referring to it as The Butler throughout the duration of this review, not to be confused with a 1915 short film.
From Harry Truman to Ronald Reagan, one man served them all and his name is Cecil Gaines (Forrest Whitaker). He was a White House butler for over 30 years, even attending a state dinner at the behest of Nancy Reagan. Cecil grew up on a Georgia cotton plantation and moved up the ranks in high-class service. His wife, Gloria (Oprah Winfrey), wishes her husband would worry more about his own home than the White House. Cecil’s two sons, Louis (David Oyelowo) and Charlie (Elijah Kelley), have very different views of their father. Louis feels like dear old dad is too close to the men of power, and Louis is going to do what he can on the frontlines of change.
I’m sure everyone had good intentions with this movie, but I walked away with the overwhelming impression that The Butler was too heavy-handed, too corny, and too mishandled with its plot construction for it to be the effective drama all desired. I also know that my opinion is of a minority, but that has never bothered me as a critic. Let’s start with the biggest handicap the film has going, and that’s the fact that its central character, the titular butler, is too opaque for a biopic. Early on, Cecil rises through the ranks of black service workers because of his skill, and that skill is none other than “having a room feel empty with [him] inside it.” I’m not downplaying the man’s dedication, or the culture he grew up in that preferred their black workers to be silent, but here is a movie where the man’s claim to fame is that he served eight presidents but he was in the background for all that history. I wasn’t expecting Cecil to lean over and go, “Mr. President, that Voting Rights Act might be a good idea, and I’ll help ya with it.” He is just sort of there. I was expecting him to have some larger significance, especially in his own life, but here’s the kicker: by the end of the movie, you’re left with the impression that all of his years of service were for naught. Cecil comes to the realization that his son, who he has sparred with for decades, was right and he was wrong. Is this the intended point? My colleague Ben Bailey will argue this is Daniels’ subversive intent, to undermine the tenets of typical biopics, to fashion an anti-biopic. I am not as convinced.
The problem is that Cecil is a passive character, which makes him the least interesting character in his own story. He served eight presidents, yes, but what else can you say about him as presented? What greater insights into life, himself, or politics does he have during those years with seven different presidential administrations? I cannot tell. I was thoroughly astounded that Cecil, as a character, was boring. I suspect this is why screenwriter Danny Strong (Recount, Game Change) chose to split Cecil’s story with his son, Louis. Here is a character on the front lines of the Civil Rights movement, getting chased by mobs, beaten, sprayed with firehouses. Here is an active character that wants to make a difference. He also happens to be mostly fictional.
While the film opens with the phrase “inspired by a true story” you should be wary. Upon further inspection, very little is as it happened. I think all true stories, when adapted to the confines of a two-hour film narrative, are going to have to be modified, and pure fidelity to the truth should not get in the way of telling a good story, within reason. I don’t have an issue with Louis being fictional, but it points to the larger problem with the biopic of such an opaque man. The real-life Cecil, Eugene Allen, had one son who went to Vietnam and married a former Black Panther. Strong splits the difference, supplying two sons with different paths. Because of his invention, this means Louis has the benefit of being present at a plethora of famous Civil Rights events, like the Woolworth counter sit-in, the Freedom Rider bus burning, and the assassination of both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. Seriously, he’s in the same motel room with MLK in Memphis. With the exception of the Woolworth sit-in, the Civil Rights events feel like minor pit stops, barely spending any time to develop. It ends up feeling like a facile Forrest Gump-like trip through the greatest hits of the Civil Rights movement.
This narrative expediency also translates to the supporting characters in The Butler. Beyond Cecil, Louis, and Gloria, there aren’t any characters that last more than one or two scenes. Cecil’s White House co-workers, played by Cuba Gooding Jr. (Red Tails) and Lenny Kravitz (The Hunger Games), provide amiable comic relief but little else to the narrative. Terrence Howard (Dead Man Down) has an affair with Gloria and then is never seen again. That affair, by the way, is also never referenced again nor does it have any further ramifications with the relationship between Cecil and Gloria. So then what was the point? There is a litany of famous faces playing real people, but they’re all in and out before you know it. The actors portraying the presidents are more an entertaining diversion than anything of real substance. Alan Rickman (Harry Potter) as Reagan gets the closest in the physical resemblance game, though I strongly doubt Reagan, as presented in the film, sat down and openly admitted he was wrong to his African-American service workers. John Cusack (The Raven) as Nixon is a hoot. The movie speeds right through the Ford and Carter administrations, so I’ll play my own game of casting (Ford: Dan Akroyd; Carter: Billy Bob Thornton). The presidents, like the clear majority of supporting players, don’t stick around long enough to leave an impression. It’s as if our prior knowledge of these famous faces is meant to serve as characterization. Beyond the immediate Gaines family, you don’t feel like you’re getting to know anyone.
Then you bring in Daniels as director and the man has not shown much of a penchant for, let’s call, subtlety. This is, after all, the same man who directed Nicole Kidman in the ways of urinating upon Zac Efron. A coherent tone has often been elusive in Daniels’ films, which veer into wild, loud, sometimes clashing melodrama. The most clashing thing in The Butler are the matching 1970s and 80s fashion that will burn your eyes. He tones down his wilder sensibilities but The Butler is an especially earnest movie; but overly earnest without earned drama usually begets a corny movie, and that’s what much of The Butler unfortunately feels like. The significance of the Civil Rights movement and the bravery of the ordinary men and women, and children, fighting for equality cannot be overstated. These were serious heroes combating serious hate. I expect a serious movie, yes, but one that isn’t so transparent about its Staid Seriousness. The Butler is very respectful to history (fictional additions aside) but too often relies on the historical context to do the heavy lifting. It also hurts when the film is so predictable. At one point, I thought to myself, “I bet Cecil’s other son gets shipped to Vietnam and probably dies.” Mere seconds after this thought, young Charlie Gaines says he’s going to Vietnam. I’ll leave it to you to discover his eventual fate.
Daniels’ true power as a director is his skill with actors. The man nurtured Mo’Nique into an Academy Award-winning actress. From top to bottom, no actor in this film delivers a bad performance, which is a real accomplishment considering its stable of speaking roles. Whitaker (Repo Men) is the anchor of the movie and he puts his all into a character that gives him little to work with. He brings a quiet strength and dignity to Cecil, able to draw you in even as he’s presented so passively and ultimately perhaps in the wrong. Winfrey hasn’t been acting onscreen since 1998’s Beloved. Gloria is an underwritten part but she does the most with it and I’d like to see more of Oprah the actress more often. Another highlight is Oyelowo (Jack Reacher) as the defiant son fighting for what he believes is right. I want to also single out former America’s Next Top Model contestant Yaya Alafia as Louis’ girlfriend and eventual Black Power participant, Carol. She’s got real potential as an actress and if she gets the right role she could breakout and surprise people.
Lee Daniels’ The Butler (just one last time for feeling) is an earnest, emotional, but ultimately unsatisfying picture and it’s mostly because of its title figure. The figure of Cecil Gaines is not the kind of man that the entire perspective of the Civil Rights movement can be hung onto as an allegory. He’s treated as background of his own story. If the filmmakers wanted to highlight the life of a man who grew up on a cotton plantation, worked in the White House, and who lived long enough to see an African-American be president, well then tell me that story. But they don’t. I think Daniels and Strong knew the limitations of their central figure, which is why the son’s role was invented to provide a more active perspective outside the hallowed walls of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. In the end, I really don’t know what the message is, because the one I’m left with is that Cecil Gaines realizes late in life how wrong he was, not just with his son, but his faith in the office of the presidency. I doubt the majority of filmgoers are going to walk away with this message. While well acted and with a sharp eye for period details, The Butler is earnest without having earned your emotions.
Nate’s Grade: C
It’s the age-old story about an elderly man (Frank Langella) suffering from Alzheimer’s who teaches his robot helper to be his partner in jewelry heists. While that sounds a lot more fantastic than the movie we eventually get, Robot & Frank is a mellow, sincere, and overall nice movie that treats the particulars of its world with a wry sense of whimsy. The movie is really a mismatched buddy film as Frank is hostile to being forced to live with robotic help, but soon the two of them form the basis of a friendship, and when things get dangerous it’s heartwarming the lengths they’ll go to save the other. Give the Alzheimer’s subject, expect some twists in the final act concerning Frank’s world. The movie wants to hit us emotionally but I felt mostly remote, smirking at some of the fun of the old codger back in the burglary business of his youth. But the film just stays at a very even-keel level of emotional resonance, drawing us in but not exactly taking us anywhere. The ending is curiously without any sort of comforting resolution that could have put a solid piece of punctuation on the film’s emotional drama. Langella, it should be said, is excellent. Robot & Frank is a high-concept buddy film, fairly pleasant and entertaining but when it comes to a close you may wish that the film had relied less on chaste understatement.
Nate’s Grade: B
Obviously this movie is bad. A sequel to a lukewarm family film from nine years ago, the chances were slim that Cats and Dogs 2: The Revenge of Kitty Galore would have ever worked. They don’t even have the temerity to have the subtitle read “Pussy Galore” for fear that repeating the most famous Bond girl name might cause parents discomfort. It’s a live-action talking-animal movie that posits that cats and dogs have been fighting an ages-old feud and they all have secret lairs and technology at their service despite lacking opposable thumbs. Really, premise alone you’re already lowering the standards, and with standards firmly and securely lowered, you may even laugh once or twice (that’s probably about it). It depends on how susceptible to puns you are because that is the primary joke vehicle. The film makes an attempt to throw animals into a Bond-styled action thriller with, pardon me, shaggy results. The character animation is poor, the dialogue feels like it was stitched from one groan-worthy pun after another, and yet Cats and Dogs 2 doesn’t offend with its sheer badness. Premise alone, you sort of watch the thing in a vegetative state.
Nate’s Grade: D+
Both films on the surface seem so radically different and yet I found lots of common ground between a sci-fi conspiracy and a muckraking documentary about the biggest financial meltdown of the modern era. Both are centered around the concept of greed and whether humanity can forgo selfishness for empathy of their fellow man. Would you kill a stranger for a million bucks? Would you rig a financial system so that the richest one percent can gamble the life of a nation? Both movies also bite off more than they can chew and both movies exist as interesting yet dispirit elements that could use more cohesion and resolution.
You have been given a box with a button. If you press the button tow things happen: somebody you do not know will die and you will receive a million dollars. Do you press it? That’s the hook of writer/director Richard Kelly’s sci-fi morality tale based upon a short story by Richard Matheson. The Box is a messy and outlandish conspiracy sandwiched between two moral tests, the second a consequence of the first and a means to wipe the slate clean. There’s plenty of weird unsettling moments, including the horrendous wallpaper of the 1970s, but not everything really hangs together. Kelly’s intergalactic conspiracy can get readily outlandish with all the variables and needed participants, but like in Donnie Darko, he lays out enough tantalizing info to keep your attention and then keeps the narrative vague enough for personal interpretation. However, unlike Darko, this movie needed to cleanup its loose storylines. It just sort of ends in perplexing rush, and I sat in silence through the end credits waiting for some kind of scene to help tie together dangling storylines that were left to dangle for an eternity. The Box has a nicely tuned foreboding atmosphere, and it certainly keeps you guessing, but it will also keep you scratching your head to try and make sense of everything from button boxes to teleportation pools to Mars probes to sudden nosebleeds to Satre’s No Exit. Kelly, as he has done with his previous movies, packs a lot in two hours. Whether or not it all formulates is up to the viewer’s wearying patience. I’d rather have more movies like The Box than more thoughtless drivel from the Hollywood assembly line.
After 20 years, you pretty much know at this point what you’re going to get from a Michael Moore documentary. There’s the anecdotal evidence, emotional interviews of the downtrodden, the one-sided arguments, the nods to the depressive state of Flint, Michigan, and Moore trying to bully his way to see the powers that be that have no interest seeing him. In a way, Capitalism: A Love Story is like a greatest hits collection for Moore that reminds you of his better moments and better films. Despite all the outrage, Moore wants to throw the baby out with the bath water. He cites capitalism as an evil that needs to be eradicated. His thesis isn’t very cohesive and consists of a series of related and unrelated anecdotes, some of them grossly offensive like companies profiting from the death of employees thanks to “Dead Peasant” life insurance policies. But at no point do you walk away thinking, “Let’s start from scratch. What has capitalism gotten us?” Several of his points are easy to agree with. There is a flagrant disregard for the well being of others on Wall Street, who carelessly gambled the nation’s fortunes and then got the taxpayers to cover the loss. The bailout is a crime of pure capitalism and in a true capitalistic society there is no such thing as “too big to fail,” there is only fail. It’s not following an ideology built upon greed that has hurt the U.S., it’s unchecked greed, capitalism run amok without any oversight or regulation that has endangered the nation’s livelihood, and I’m surprised Moore didn’t emphasize the process of deregulation from Reagan to Bush more. The story of our financial meltdown is too large for a confined two-hour narrative window, and it’s too important a lesson for a man like Moore to use it as fire to ignite a people’s revolution.
Both movies: C+
Katherine Hiegl is a likeable enough actress. She got her big break in 1994’s My Father the Hero, which had the exceptionally gross premise of having an adolescent’s father posing as her European lover to score the guy she’s really got her eyes on. The most memorable moment of the movie was a 15-year-old Heigl strutting around in a thong bathing suit. Her resume got better with a steady stream of network TV shows like Roswell and Grey’s Anatomy, and then she broke into another level of stardom thanks to the runaway success of [I]Knocked Up[/I] where she carried Seth Rogen’s baby. Then she told Vanity Fair that she felt Knocked Up was “sexist” and that the women were portrayed as shrews and that the men were fun-loving dudes (I must have seen a somewhat different movie). She’s entitled to her opinion, but what seems very odd is that Heigl’s follow-up to her breakout role is 27 Dresses, a romantic comedy about a woman who is a perennial bridesmaid and yearns for her own perfect wedding when her life will be complete.
Jane (Heigl) busies her time helping others to have heir ideal weddings. She has contributed to so many wedding ceremonies that she has amassed a closet full of 27 bridesmaid dresses that serve as trophies. Jane is in love with weddings. She is also harboring a crush on her boss (Edward Burns, wooden as always) that seems to be going nowhere. Jane’s younger sister Tess (Malin Akerman) comes to visit and immediately hooks up with Jane’s boss/crush. Jane’s wisecracking best friend (Judy Greer) is quick with a quip and declares Tess to be some very negative terms. Poor plain Jane is also taken aback when she meets wedding columnist, Kevin (James Marsden), whose fawning words about weddings are like poetry for Jane. He turns out to be a cynical guy who feels weddings and marriages are “the last legal form of slavery.” When Tess gets engaged to the boss man, wedding responsibilities fall upon Jane and Kevin is right beside her, ready to trade barbs about romance and perhaps start one of his own.
27 Dresses hews pretty close to the familiar romantic comedy formula trappings. Opposites attract, bickering will lead to romance, and then true love will overcome all misunderstandings, that’s a given. Another given is the fact that we will get a montage of Heigl trying on all 27 titular dresses. 27 Dresses also includes the wisecracking best friend who has no purpose of her own but to comment on the troubles of our heroine with stark bluntness. Once again, this is the type of film where one character has some earlier, negative opinion or statement that resurfaces late to bite them in the ass after they have learned how flawed and shallow that original opinion was (otherwise known as the 11th hour misunderstanding). One party has a personal epiphany and runs to catch the other party leaving by some means of transportation (I’ve seen boats, taxis, motorcycles, barges, but usually they run to catch a plane). And then there’s the sing-a-long; oh what romantic comedy would be worth its salt if it didn’t include a group sing-a-long to some older tune that just united everyone in spontaneous song? 27 Dresses uses Elton John’s “Benny and the Jets” to rock out a beer bar. Really, “Benny and the Jets”? Rocking out a bar? And it’s not even a gay bar? Hmm. 27 Dresses is rather predictable from the first frame onward, but familiarity isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker for a strictly genre movie.
I’ve seen plenty of romantic comedies and I like to judge them fairly, so I use my patented cute-to-cringe count whereby I take stock of the number of times I smile, laugh, or find a moment, line of dialogue, or even choice of song that leaves a favorable impression. I then compare this figure with the number of times I want to roll my eyes, check my watch (if I had one), vomit, or any piece of dialogue or moment that feels so saccharine, so unbelievable even in the rom-com universe that I want to laugh derisively. The final tally for 27 Dresses was somewhere in the middle but I’ll admit it skewed closer to the positive “cute” side of the spectrum.
The acting overall really helps to make the most of the formulaic material. Heigl seems destined to thrive in the rom-com genre; she has an every girl appeal and seems apt making funny faces of seething indignation (take note of the amount of times she uses food in her mouth for comic effect). She seems like the heir apparent to Sandra Bullock movies. Her chemistry with Marsden is ripe and they bring out good thing in one another with their playful give-and-take. Marsden has a terrific smile (seriously, the man might have the best choppers in the industry) and is suitably dreamy but he also has an enjoyably droll delivery. Akerman plays a spoiled brat well, though she isn’t given the opportunities to flash her rather skillful comic skills that she displayed in The Heartbreak Kid remake. Greer is a top-notch scene-stealer and deserves her character deserves her own movie. She has the most fun role to play but Greer sinks her teeth into the character and delivers a juicy performance that feels slightly naughty, uncensored, and carefree.
The movie falters when it trips up in maintaining believability. There’s an extensive scene in a Goth bar/club where the costumed extras are acting like… costumed extras. It’s the least believable Goth club I have ever seen in a movie, not that I was expecting Hollywood fluff to pain an accurate picture. It’s just wall-to-wall stereotypes, but not only that, they’re distracting and lame and dated stereotypes. Then Jane marches outside to scream to the heavens an expletive-filled rant about her bad luck when, ut oh, right next door to the Goth club is an old couple celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary. What? Grandma and grandpa Old People celebrating their marriage vows next door to a Goth club? This incongruous setting takes a long, long while to set up one very blah joke that could have functioned anywhere. Realistically, the joke is that Jane is swearing unbeknownst to others, so why even have it next to the world’s crummiest Goth club? If you’re going that route, why not have grandma and grandpa Old People dressed in tacky Goth apparel as well? This may become my most nit-picky criticism of all of 2008 but it really stuck in my craw.
A better example is how the film handles Jane’s bratty sister, Tess. For 90 minutes we bare witness to Tess being a thoughtless, self-absorbed, lying, horrible human specimen, and then the movie tries to change strides. In the very end, it wants us to open up and look at Tess’ life and realize that she doesn’t have it so awesome because she was fired and dumped. Oh my, that must be perfectly excusable then for her rampant inexcusable, me-first behavior. If 27 Dresses has an antagonist in its midst than Tess is that bridezilla. The movie plays her bitchiness for comedy but then wants an audience to forget every whine and betrayal because, woe is her life, Tess wants to be happy. Tess remains an unsympathetic twit from beginning to end, no matter how hard the movie and its soft piano score try to change your mind.
The fact that 27 Dresses thought it could throw in some contradictory evidence at the last minute to make an audience forgive Tess is very telling. It showcases that the film has a hard time grasping the realities of characterization; Kevin is cynical about weddings because he was stood up at his; Jane must focus on making others happy because she is afraid of focusing on her self; Ed Burns is a douche. That isn’t necessarily an indictment on the film per se, just my honest opinion. 27 Dresses spells everything out in bold statements that hit like anvils, like when Kevin’s news editor congratulates him on his front-age story ridiculing Jane: “Hey, you got what you wanted, right?” Gag. The movie is too lockstep with the genre’s clichés that it doesn’t push hard enough with its characters, so we get plenty of intermittently cute moments but cute moments that will be easily forgotten and stored away like one of Jane’s hideous bridesmaids gowns.
27 Dresses is more or less par for the course in a genre littered with sappy clichés and cookie-cutter characterizations, and yet the movie possesses enough charm to outdistance its lapses in believability. The acting ensemble help make the movie enjoyable in parts, especially the chemistry between Heigl and Marsden. 27 Dresses passes the time but you wish that Heigl, Marsden, and especially Greer would be teleported to a better movie. One free from bitchy younger sisters, bar sing-a-longs, giddy dress-up montages, and Ed Burns. Did I mention that his character is a douche?
Nate’s Grade: C+
It’s been a total of 19 years since we saw Superman grace the silver screen in the mega-bomb Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. The big question is… did we miss him at all? I know a lot of people that say they just can?t get into Superman as a character. He’s always been a do-gooder, someone with infinite power but too great a sense of nobility to abuse it. Does the Man of Steel still hold relevancy in today’s more erratic, cynical, fearful world? Is it possible to make an indestructible alien relatable or empathetic? Director Bryan Singer is interested in finding out, and he brought nearly his whole X-Men 2 team with him. Instead of retooling the franchise Singer has adopted the idea of starting shortly after the events of 1980’s Superman II. (Yes, I know Richard Lester is credited with directing Superman II but it’s still contentious that Richard Donner, who helmed the first super outing, directed a majority of the sequel. From here on out, Donner will cited as the director of Superman and Superman II).
Superman (Brandon Routh) has been absent for five years trying to look for pieces of his home world, Krypton. Lex Luthor (Kevin Spacey) and his moll (a cheerfully batty Parker Posey) have got some big plans up their villainous sleeves. Using crystals from Superman’s home world, they plan on building a new continent of land to prosper with. He also has a nice supply of kryptonite to make his own fortress with. When Clark Kent does arrive back in town, coincidentally along the same time Superman rescues Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) in a plane crash, he’s shaken by the changes that have taken place in his absence. Lois is engaged to Richard (James Marsden), nephew of The Daily Planet‘s editor in chief, Perry White (Frank Langella). She’s also won a Pulitzer Prize for her article, “Why the World Doesn’t Need Superman” (a kiss-off letter to a lover if ever there was one). To top it all off she also has a five-year-old son, which would put him within the realm of having a super dad (Lois and Supes took a roll in the hay at the Fortress of Solitude in Superman II). The Man of Steel has a lot on his plate, obviously.
This is rumored to be the most expensive movie of all time, with budget predictions going as high as $260 million. If that?s true than Singer let’s you see every dollar onscreen. As a movie going experience, Superman Returns has little to no equals. The special effects are astounding and the imagery is simultaneously iconic and awe-inspiring. We now exist in a world where we can see a man in a red cape zoom through the sky and have it become believable. Singer, after two X-Men flicks, has a terrific eye for glistening visuals and boy does he know how to conduct Hollywood bombast with equal parts genuine character. His loss was considerably noticeable with X-Men 3, which wilts in direct comparison as unfair as it may be (it’s like the difference between a Van Gogh and a third grader’s imitation of a Van Gogh). The difference is that you can feel the respect the filmmakers had for superman; not so much with X-Men 3. But alas my countrymen, I come here to praise Superman not to bury X-Men 3. The sheer breathtaking visual artistry of Superman Returns demands to be seen on as big a screen as possible. Singer has crafted a wonderful tableau for the eyes and ears, filled with religious symbolism, opening the wonderful possibility of the movies just a little wider.
Singer’s film is a show-stopping pop spectacle, which is good, because the story itself, upon fresh perspective and distance, is good, but not great. The story doesn?t pursue character as strongly as last year?s fellow franchise reboot, Batman Begins, nor does it interlace themes as well. The characters in general are pained but left with little other expressions. Lex Luthor’s evil scheme is grand in cataclysmic scope but at the end of the day it’s still a real estate scam. It’s like if Donald Trump was human or less evil (he’s definitely got the same hair stylist as Luthor). How exactly is Luthor planning on keeping control of a new continent of land? I would think the world would have some way of establishing order. Once again a villain’s scheme is ruined by the less dastardly, more squeamish baddie in the entourage. In fact, the villains are on their own for a long while, embarking on their own tangential movie to play alongside the return of superman. The first hour is slower paced and the final climax could have used an additional boost, but these are quibbles. Superman Returns could have done a lot more with their characters, especially considering their take-off point is two films hence, but this movie is more about reassembling the pieces. To that end, Singer’s satisfying retread is forgivable for its shrift characterization.
Do not let any misgivings about character and story betray how awesomely entertaining Superman Returns is when it turns on the magic. Even at a bladder-unfriendly 2 hours and 40 minutes in length, the film has little drag and a great sense of confidence of a crowd pleaser that knows how to play to an audience while respecting their intelligence. The movie is self-indulgent (how many slow-mo shots do we need of Superman in the air?) but it never falls short on thrills. Between plane crashes, bank robberies, sudden explosions, and spontaneous, cavernous land masses, you’ll likely be glued to your seat waiting for the outcome, which even with a nigh indestructible being isn’t always a given.
The action is grand in scale but Superman Returns also has the unmistakable stripes of a chick flick. Lois is jilted, moves on to a good man, and suddenly the man of her dreams, the one she thought was gone for good, reenters her life. The film’s sharpest plot point is the complication of its love triangle with Richard and a child in tow. The romantic yearning and interplay give the film its biggest emotional involvement. Even though the filmmakers are deliberately vague, the answer of who’s the father should be rather easy to deduce. Still, the audience has an increasing desire to know the paternal truth.
Singer’s louder, brighter Superman is a loving tribute to the Richard Donner Superman films, you know, before Richard Pryor, evil twins, and the rather rash, though very effective, decision of hurling the world’s supply of nuclear weapons into the sun (the less said about The Quest for Peace the better). It even exists in the same universe so we don’t have to go the origin tale route, though we do get flashbacks to Clark’s past. Marlon Brando’s original performance as Jor-El, father of Superman, is reused and John Williams’ theme gets a new polish. Even the opening title graphics, so horribly dated like a “cutting-edge” Atari game, are the same from the Donner era. There’s such reverence for nostalgia and a fondness for what makes Supes Superman, and that’s why it gets closer than even the Donner flicks, which are good but have weathered with age and can come across as too silly or cheesy.
Even Routh looks uncannily like Chistopher Reeve. Routh is an interesting choice; he’s chiseled, handsome, and questionably appealing. He comes across more like a being finding his place, like a kid fresh out of college, than a being of incalculable power protecting our blue planet. At any rate, Reeve played the comedy better, being both suave hero and clumsy earthling. I wish Superman Returns would go further exploring the perils and expectations of being Superman, a life devoted to servitude and always being an outsider. There’s a small scene where he orbits the Earth listening to 1000 overlapping voices crying for help before zeroing in on one. Otherwise, the movie doesn’t pay much notice to the burdens of Superman, which may unfortunately keep many at a distance.
Bosworth is just too young for her role; she resembles Lois Lane’s baby sister, not the feisty Margot Kidder incarnation that left such an impression. This Lois Lane doesn’t so much bicker as she does harrumph. It’s like they took the role, dolled her up, muted her, and then told her to play Lois Lane as if she had stayed up all night binging on Sex and the City reruns. Bosworth is at the mercy of her character, a figure pressed into danger more than she is into emotion. There are some nice moments, like a midnight stroll through the atmosphere with her knight in blue tights. I just wish there were more.
But at least there’s two-time Oscar winner Spacey, who’s terrific as the infamous Lex Luthor. He’s got a funny quirkiness and a perfectly deadpan sarcasm. The opening that reveals how Luther earns back a sizeable fortune is hilarious and perfect to a T. Everyone else seems a bit dour but Spacey is having a ball; he’s even employed Kumar as part of his muscle (you’re a long way from White Castle, Kumar). However, Spacey’s spirited take is a lot more menacing than Gene Hackman’s version, which always came across as an oily used car salesman, more huckster than arch villain/evil genius. Spacey has a really strong disdain for the Man of Steel and his eyes sparkle at the opportunity to get vicious. I’m all for a darker, angrier, down-and-dirty villain to better torment Superman. Not to be out done, used car salesmen have their moments of intimidation.
The story may be good, not great, but Superman Returns is a first-rate cinematic spectacle. Singer and his X-Men 2 team have crafted a nostalgic, reverent movie that smartly addresses whether today’s world has outgrown a big blue Boy Scout. The action sequences and special effects are astounding, and, for the first time in a Superman movie, they are wholly believable. This helps when the main guy wears his underwear on the outside and shoots lasers from his bullet-proof eyeballs. The film stalls when it comes to characterization and the interplay of strong unified themes, but much is forgivable because Singer has worked his ass off getting a storied franchise back on its feet with dignity.
After three super hero films in a row, each with an escalating budget and running time, I’d say the man needs a break, perhaps a tiny independent movie to rejuvenate the batteries. But after watching Superman Returns, what I really want is for Singer to get right back to work as fast as possible. We’ve got this world back in order. Now it’s time for Superman to truly take flight.
Nate’s Grade: B+
The story behind the making of X-Men: The Last Stand is more interesting than most. Bryan Singer had directed the first two X-Men films and had done a fine job establishing many loveable characters and the universe that housed them. Warner Brothers has been trying to get their Superman franchise flying for so long, going all the way back to 1996 when Kevin Smith wrote the script, Tim Burton was to direct, and Nicolas Cage was going to be the man in tights. Since then directors and drafts of screenplays have come and gone, including Brett Ratner, best known for directing both Rush Hour movies and a slate of mostly mediocre movies. Then Warner Brothers poached most of the X-Men 2 team to make Superman Returns, hiring Bryan Singer as director, plus X2‘s screenwriters, cinematographer, editor/composer, and maybe even the cat that licked Wolverine’s claws. Fox was left without a captain for X-Men 3. They daringly picked Matthew Vaughn (Layer Cake) but then he dropped out for family reasons. Then Fox went with their second choice … Brett Ratner. Both directors had essentially switched projects. Hollywood’s funny like that.
It’s been a few months since the events in X-Men 2. Scott “Cyclops” Summers (James Marsden) is still mourning the loss of his love, Jean Grey (Famke Jannsen), who sacrificed herself to save the rest of the X-Men. He’s tormented by her voice, whispering all around him and pleading with him to return to Alkali Lake, the site of her death. Miraculously, Jean returns from the dead but she’s much different. Her persona has broken and the Phoenix has taken over, a destructive killing force unparalleled on earth.
Magneto (Ian McKellen) has great use for such a force. There’s been news of a new drug that suppresses the gene that causes people to be born as mutants. This discovery has been dubbed a cure. The question persists, is should being different be curable and what would that even mean? Magneto sees the writing on the wall, knowing that any cure would only be voluntary for so long. He collects new mutant fighters along with his stalwarts the shape-shifting Mystique (Rebecca Romijn) and fire starter Pyro (Aaron Stanford), a former student at Xavier’s School for the Gifted.
Over at Professor X’s (Patrick Stewart) school, the mutant students are each questioning life with a cure. Rogue (Anna Paquin) is considering it so she can finally touch her boyfriend, Bobby “Ice Man” Drake (Shawn Ashmore) without killing him. Plus, so he’ll stop spending so much time with Kitty “Shadowcat” Pryde (Ellen Page), a girl who can walk through matter. Storm (Halle Berry) and Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) are left to run the team after some disastrous setbacks. Henry “Beast” McCoy (Kelsey Grammer) is a man covered in blue fur and appointed as head of Mutant Relations for the president. He senses the growing danger and anxiety the administration has with mutants and joins the X-Men to do what he feels is right.
It feels like that in a rush to production that character development, subtlety, and subtext were chucked out the window to make time for more boom-boom action. The first two X-Men flicks juggled the characters and introductions but still managed to squeeze in one great moment for the characters we cared about. The plot moved at a mature pace, insightful and touching on elements of psychology, politics, and personal struggles to fit into a society that fears you. There was some sophisticated, relevant stuff bandied about this franchise in between the kick-ass action. But with X-Men 3, you basically have Halle Berry doing less with more. She’s got more screen time, in part to her demands, and now she can use that extra time onscreen to show us how perfectly bland her character is as the film’s most laughable moral ideologue. The idea of a cure for the mutant gene is vastly interesting with all kinds of great avenues for character introspection and socio-political debate. But X-Men 3 renders all of its debate to be merely superficial, another in a series of plot points to get the action moving quicker.
The X-Men franchise was already overpopulated with lots of characters vying for screen time, so I don’t understand the decision to add even more characters to the ensemble and cut down the running time to a brisk 100 minutes. As a result, certain characters sit out for long stretches of the film, are inactive during key moments, some are mostly forgotten, or some meet unjustifiably hasty ends. If I was still an ardent comic book fan, and a follower of the X-Men, I might view the third film as heresy. Why even bother bringing the character of Angel into the movie if he’s just going to be on for two minutes, including a forehead-smacking deus ex machine moment? The Dark Phoenix storyline is the most pivotal storyline in the comic’s history, so why even bother dragging it into X-Men 3 if it’s just going to be Zombie Jean Grey? It feels like Ratner is off screen with a pole poking Janssen whenever the story needs her to wake up and stir up some stuff.
I hope comic fans enjoy the brief glimpses of some of their favorites, because X-Men 3 does a good job of throwing characters into a meat grinder. I had to check online to just to find out who they were, and even then my realization was followed by, “Her? Him? What?” And what the hell is up with Porcupine Face? That has got to be the worst mutant ability of all time. What’s he going to do to his enemies? “Hey, will you come a little closer. I have a secret to tell you. Closer … closer … closer still … that’s right, now please lean against my face.”
The movie trades character for action, so is the action even good? Ratner is a workmanlike director devoid of any personal style, which further brands X-Men 3 as ordinary. The action sequences aren’t anything extraordinary, there just happens to be more of them. The climax pits mutant against mutant in short-lived bursts. A battle between Ice Man and Pyro should be awesome, but Ratner stages the showdown like he was choreographing his neighbor’s kids. This battle lasts a whopping 45 seconds. The climactic end battle, the “war to end all wars,” is rather sloppy. Ratner keeps cutting back and forth between his pairing of Good mutant vs. Evil mutant (why do the two black girls seem forced to fight each other?), but his showdowns are all too quick to quicken the pulse. Wolverine’s brawls in the woods never rise up to the adrenaline-soaked fights in X-Men 2. The special effects and make-up are just as good; they’re just not being put to as good a use. If Ratner is going to dump character for action he has to make his action exceptional. The movie feels on autopilot.
Ratner is not fully to blame for the shortcomings of X-Men 3. Screenwriters Simon Kinberg and Zack Penn (Elektra) have crafted an overly rushed story that is more tailored for getting the job done than telling a good story. They present some big ideas and interesting elements, like a love triangle between Rogue-Ice Man-Shadowcat, but then most of the promise is either skipped over or dropped. They’re trying to juggle too many balls at once, and it just makes me miss Singer and the X2 screenwriters and how effective they were in defining character even in the smallest of moments. Some of the X-Men 3 dialogue is awfully stilted, like “You of all people know how fast the weather can change” and “Sometimes when you cage the beast, the beast gets angry.” There’s also a silly subplot about Storm teaching Wolverine what it means to be responsible. Try and count how many times you roll your eyes with that one. How many times are they going to have the president look blankly at a TV screen and gasp, “My god”? There’s some clever use of mutant powers during battles (mostly involving Shadowcat) but there’s just as many routine moments as well.
The acting is all over the map. Jackman owns his role as Wolverine. McKellen and Stewart bring a needed dose of grandeur to the proceedings. The X-kids are enjoyable, and Ellen Page (knocking ’em dead in Hard Candy) makes a very nice addition to the fold. I’ve likely enjoyed Paquin the most in this series, next to Jackman of course, so it’s so frustrating that she just plays Jealous Girlfriend at Window. I think it’s criminal how little she’s examined in the movie, especially since the supposed cure has the most questions and ramifications for her. Grammer is essentially Frasier in blue fur, but that’s essentially what Beast is so it works. He has a very nice moment when he sees what life would be like minus his mutant likeness. It’s really hard to judge most of the performances because of how short they appear in the movie.
X-Men: The Last Stand is far from boring but it’s more serviceable than special, and lacks the maturity and imagination that its previous films held. This was a franchise full of limitless potential, so to see it drop to something ordinary is sad, especially if this is the rumored end of the franchise (a record opening gross over Memorial weekend says otherwise). This franchise feels dumbed down; yes it’s still entertaining on a mass market level but it doesn’t have the creativity and precision that Singer’s movies had. X-Men 3 is fast-paced and not without its great geek moments, but it’s also the least emotionally involving of the films. When the deaths and departures come you’ll probably shrug your shoulders because of how the film presents them. X-Men 3 is fine, but I expect better from this franchise.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Rollicking entertainment until they reach the dam and things get really bogged down. However, still the action film to beat this year. I heart Bryan Cox. X-Men 2 shows the promise of the X-Men world after the somewhat dull first film. thank God we got the jumping point out of the way because now we can have fun with these characters and their world. And X-Men 2 is great fun. This is how sequels should be.
Nate’s Grade: B+
Take a storied franchise that has long been the backbone of Marvel comics and develop it into a feature film where the last superhero movie was the purple-spandex-in-the-jungle The Phantom and you’re just asking for trouble. A nation of fans is breathing down the neck of the film crew nitpicking every fine detail. Studio execs want the film done as fast as possible and under budget regardless of the numbers of effects needed. Despite what would seem like a cataclysmic set-up, X-Men proves that Hollywood can occasionally take a comic book and get it right. For the most part.
X-Men is basically the pilot for a movie franchise. It sets up characters, conflicts, origins, but periodically forgets its audience. Numerous people are introduced and then given a grocery list size of dialogue to read. Some even have atrocious John Watters-like wigs they are forced to wear. It’s a good thing then that the film centers mainly around Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), Rogue (Anna Paquin) and Magneto (Ian McKellen), the three most interesting characters.
Often times the action in X-Men is surprisingly lackluster and contained. The battle royale finale atop the Statue of Liberty might induce more than a few eye rolls. I can’t help but hope that with all the groundwork laid out with this film that the eventual sequel will be more efficient with its action set pieces.
For the most part the dialogue in X-Men is passable and it even has a few rally snazzy sound bites. However, there is that ONE line delivered by Ms. Berry (“You know what happens when a toad gets struck by lightening? The same thing that happens to everything else.”) that is groan-worthy and destined to be notorious.
It may sound like I’m coming down hard on X-Men, but for a comic adaptation it got a whole hell lot more right than wrong. I want to congratulate director Bryan Singer (The Usual Suspects) for the amount of pressure he had looming over his head and what he pulled through with. X-Men is no campy nipple-plate festival but an attempt at possibly serious drama with tortured characters. The whole mutant/racism metaphor may be a little bludgeoned at times but for the most part is handled very well with care. The best aspect X-Men has is its patience. The film is in no rush and takes its time even if it is only like an hour and 40-some minutes. Still, it’s a welcome change in the summer action.
Singer’s direction is smooth and well executed. The casting of the movie is near perfection with some minor exceptions. Stewart and McKellen were born to play their dueling think tank leaders. Jackman is an exciting breakout in a role that was supposed to be occupied by Dougray Scott (thank you MI:-2 delays). I look forward to more from this actor. And does anyone know when young Oscar recipient Anna Paquin became so attractive? Someone buy this casting director a fine steak dinner.
X-Men may have its flaws, one of which is an absolute mundane score, but the film is one of the better summer entries into the world of explosions and noise. I just hope the sequel(s) will be a tad better.
Nate’s Grade: B