Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Marvel Movie Project #8: Spider-Man

How timely.  Fast on the heels of this summer's Amazing Spider-Man release we find its predecessor, the original Spider-Man movie dialing in here at #8 and unsurprisingly they both suffer from the same shortcoming: the plight of the origin story.

Spider-Man is the poster movie for what can go wrong in an origin story.  It simply tries to do too much. Since no one could be sure that this movie would not be Spider-Man's one shot at the big screen, there was a lot of pressure to cram every single iconic thing about Spidey into this film and it really shows.  The Origin, the Green Goblin, girlfriend goes off the side of the bridge, death of Green Goblin, Aunt May has money problems, Peter Parker in high school, Peter graduates high school, Peter in college, MJ is an actress, MJ is a nerdy student, Peter and Harry share an apartment, Peter is a prize student, Peter is a photographer, the Daily Bugle.  It's just too much for a single movie.  Toss in a huge World Day celebration (I think it held over from X-men) with Macy Gray (oh my have we just dated ourselves) and it;s just too much.

Despite this, Spider-man ends up being a pretty enjoyable movie that manages to capture many, if not all, of the things that have made the web-head my favorite super-hero since childhood.  The origin story is pretty much intact so the responsibility subtext (not always so "sub") is strong and gives the film direction.  Peter is sufficiently nerdy, even though Tobey Maguire's portrayal is a bit heavy handed.  My biggest complaint with Maguire is that his Peter is too emotional.  Peter in the early comics was a well meaning young man, but he was distant from almost everyone due to the burden of his responsibilities both as himself and as Spider-man and the difficult juggling act of keeping them separate. It was that distance that contributed to his awkwardness and made his a loner.  The Peter in this film wears his problems all over his soft exterior and comes across a bit weaker than his source material.

The Green Goblin is handled pretty well here as well.  The character design is smart replacing the rubbery goblin costume for body armor, even if the mask turns out to be laughable and very rigid.  Willem Dafoe is exceptional as Norman Osborn and does his best to overcome the difficulties of his costuming.  The downside is that the Green Goblin story wants two, maybe three, movies to tell, so the character is a bit short-shirted here.

Kirsten Dunst is a decent MJ, but she's not given a lot to do apart from being the girlfriend.  You feel for her character, but you don't get invested enough to have her tossed off the bridge in this film.

However, there is one thing that Spider-Man gets right, perfectly right:  The Daily Bugle.  J.K. Simmons nails J. Jonah Jameson like Hugh Jackman nails Wolverine.  He is spot on and he makes every minute in the Bugle offices an absolute treasure and leaves us wanting more time there and less at the Macy Gray concert.  A nod to Bill Nunn for his quietly perfect Joe "Robbie" Robertson as well.

I realize that this is the #8 film on our list and yet it reads harsher than our #15 review, but that is only because expectations were so very high for this movie.  Spider-Man is Marvel's flagship character and this movie came fairly early in the era, so it had to really knock it out the park or the entire future of Marvel Comics based movies could have been doomed.  I'm also particularly hard on this film because we are nearing the top five and being so-so isn't going to cut it.

Spider-Man is a great movie.  Lots of fun, packed with action, and true to the source material, this film gets the important stuff right even if it overachieves and fails on some of the finer points.  For an iconic character's origin story you could  do a lot worse.

Aimee's Take

I love Spider-Man, the character. I debated missing my senior prom to go see this movie (opening was the same day). In retrospect, I'm glad I went to prom, but it's not a reflection of the quality of this film. It's pretty good. At the time, I think I was just happy to see Spidey on the big screen.

Now that time has elapsed a little, I think Spider-Man suffers from the same issues that X-men has; overall, it's pretty solid, the characters are mostly right... but the story is a little lacking and overblown, and has to include an origin of sorts for the uninitiated. Stan already nailed it but for me the whole "World Day"/Macy Gray fiasco is my primary problem with the plot. There's no need to make these characters somehow globally relevant. It's passable for the X-men, I mean, they go to space and whatnot, but Spider-Man is a street-level guy with street-level problems. 

I'm also not a big fan of MJ in this movie. MJ was, in the comics, introduced as a ray of vibrant light in Peter's complicated life. She got more complex as time wore on, but initially she was a bubbly answer to his demanding life, not caring too much about anything and seeking only thrills. This MJ is a little morose for my taste. She's a good-girl/girl-next-door in the way that Gwen Stacy is, although Gwen is more upbeat and, frankly, more competent. All in all she's just too beaten-down and grounded to be believable as a struggling actress; this MJ would go to community college at least, and follow it up with an uninspired job.

What the movie does perfectly, in my mind, is capture the Aunt May character; it also manages to completely master the atmosphere of the Daily Bugle, as Stan mentions above. Enough elements are spot on in this outing that I'm willing to extend it some slack for trying to do far too much in far too short a time.

Spider-Man is fun. It does a lot of things good, some things, great, and most others passably. That's why it's #8. There's nothing glaring here, and it manages a very high production value without becoming bogged down in (too much) Hollywood nonsense.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Marvel Movie Project #9: X-men

That's right, another one from the early days that still manages to hold up, even in the face of far superior super-hero team movies like The AvengersX-men has obvious signs of being an early super-hero movie: there is the improbably world peace summit or whatever, there is the giant doomsday device that makes mutants via a whirling gyroscope, and there is inevitable battle atop a national landmark.  All entirely unnecessary, but not unexpected in a film that breaks ground the way X-men does.

If you overlook the goofy "Hollywood" crap, what you find underneath is a movie with a lot of heart that gets its base characters pretty much exactly right, and tells an adventure story that is fun to watch.  With a simple adventure story, there is plenty of time to focus on getting those characters right and satisfying the nerd contingent while also keeping things light enough for those who actually get out and date.

Speaking of getting characters right, Hugh Jackman.  Much like Snipes and Blade, I will accept NO ONE ELSE in the role of Wolverine.  Jackman nails the character right out of the gate and once he is introduced to the story, he is the reason we watch.  Look, Patrick Stewart is incredible as Professor X and Gandalf is compelling as Magneto (more so in the second film).  Cyclops, Jean, Rogue and Iceman are all great, but Jackman is so likeable as Logan that what is intended to be a team film borders on being a Wolverine film (and better one than the actual Wolverine film...)  Rebecca Romijn is also a breakout in this film, laying some nice groundwork for her future roles in the next two X-films.

Despite having a fairly standard plot, the storytelling is also smartly done here.  The story starts following Rogue, transitions to Logan and then opens up once we get to the school.  We are given two characters to relate to and to introduce us to the bigger world that the story takes place in.  It is also nice that the film has a sense of humor about itself that is allowed to manifest naturally through Logan's character ("what do they call you? Wheels?").  This keeps the gloomy plot from getting bogged down in itself and running us all into the river.

Like Blade, X-men is a product of the dawning of a new era in comic book movies.  It has its stumbling points, but it also has its successes and those successes greatly outweigh the "blockbuster syndrome" that plagues so many films of this genre.  It features enough geek moments for us comic book fans, but does not do so to the exclusion of a general audience.

Aimee's Take:

I'm not as taken with this film through the lens of time, but it's still a very serviceable X-Men vehicle. It suffers from all the problems of a major "introductory" film (i.e. "Hey, look at all these characters! This is what they do!") and suffers from some odd choices on the part of the direction/acting (Storm's inconsistent accent comes to mind.)
Still, it manages to capture the essential flavors of all the characters presented. Stan is quite correct; Hugh Jackman kills it as Wolverine and I'll accept no substitutes. It's not his fault that the stand-alone movie sucked. I think Cyclops is a douche here, but he is in the comics so no harm done. Magneto is compellingly cardboard here, doing typical super villain type stuff, but failing to delve much deeper. It's ok, though, there are more movies to go into with these characters and they improve. Oh, do they improve.

I think the ridiculous "world peace togetherness" bullshit is what kills the overall greatness of the film. A number of earlier comic book efforts are guilty of this, and I continue to hate seeing it. The over-the-top Hollywood ending is a miserable thing to saddle a movie with, and sadly, this isn't the last we see of it. Not by a long shot.

While not, to me, as satisfying as our last entry, Punisher: War Zone, this movie packs an overall higher quality of storytelling, depth of character and production value. When you add in a little top-notch casting and characterization, X-Men manages to present a solid, fun ride that is ultimately quite worthy of the Top Ten.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

4th of July Special!

Ah, the 4th of July!  The day when America celebrates its independence from one empire by buying and igniting combustibles from another empire that it has become dependent upon.  But you're not here for political tirades, you are here to be entertained.  And what can be more entertaining than taking a look at those very combustibles and the clever packaging designed to sell them to us, the American consumer.  And there is no better place to see ALL of the very best and brightest in fireworks than Reeves Boomland, the mecca of firework retail sales in the American Midwest.

For those of you not familiar, Reeves Boomland is literally a warehouse full of fireworks located in Southern Missouri.  They sell all of the great, highly dangerous fireworks that are illegal in states like Kentucky.  From Roman Candles to Mortar Rounds, Reeves Boomland sells everything you need to win a free ambulance ride and third degree burns to the hands and the face with summer.  Pyromaniacs and drunken rednecks alike flock to Boomland each year with the hopes of wheeling out a shopping cart full of explosives.  But how, oh how, do you pick which fireworks are going to be the right one for your sulfuric orgy?  There are literally thousands of brands and varieties of fireworks to choose from.  Sure, you want a sparking fountain, but which one?  What color?  Will it be as cool as you hope?  How is the prospective buyer to know?  As you might expect, the answer is entirely in the marketing.  Long standing companies like Black Cat and younger upstarts all compete for the consumers' dollars by trying to create the most exciting and enticing packaging for pretty much exactly the same product.  Pulling from popular culture and using evocative images and wording are sure way to draw the customer in and make your sale. Sometimes this works, and sometimes it goes a little askew.

Today we're going to celebrate Independence Day by taking a walk around the massive Boomland complex and check out a few of these head-scratching fireworks.

Language Barrier

Sometimes it is hard to know if the people naming or at least creating the labels for these fireworks have a firm grasp of the English language.  Engrish is very popular in lampooning these days, but sometimes its hard to tell if something is intentional or just an honest mistake.  Our first entrant is a clear case of "lost in translation."  The good folks at Boomland even tried to help the manufacturer out (see inset), but it didn't clarify as much as they might have hoped. Whether it is an exporative or an explorative (I'm not sure it makes a difference), this is a firework that guarantees to confuse, with fire.  Is "explorative" really better?

Sex Sells...Fireworks? 

American men love two things: beer and busty blondes.  Everyone knows this the world 'round. (football too, but it doesn't apply here nor is it alliterative)  So, of course, the best way to sell anything is to wrap it in pictures of buxom young ladies porting pitchers of ale.  While you are at it, toss in some clever names like "Pop the Top," "Last Call," "Bottoms Up," and "Happy Hour."  Never mind the fact that all four of those fireworks are exactly the same.  The real shame is that you have to set them on fire and ruin the St. Pauli Girl on the package.

Greatest Hits?

Fireworks aren't exactly known for their sequels, much less their entire bodies of work.  So exactly how this firework can be the "Best of..." anything is really beyond me.  I don't recall previous "Megatron" fireworks in the past, so I'm not entirely sure what to expect from this or what they might want me to expect from this.  And let's not forget the "Megatron" part of this whole thing.  As far as I know, Megatron is an evil Decepticon who turns into a giant gun that other Decepticons can grab and shoot at Autobots.  Nothing on the package suggests that this is the Megatron they mean, but who else could it be?  And let's not lose sight of the fact that this is the Best of Megatron 2.

Statute of Limitations?

Did the expiration date for the Space Jam trademark come and go already?  It doesn't seem that long ago that Jordan and Marvin the Martian were hooping it up, but now that beloved (or grossly over blown, you pick) franchise has made its way to the explosives circuit.  Never you mind that any hope of capitalizing on the Space Jam name went out the window about 15 years ago.  Maybe they are going for a retro thing here, but whatever they were thinking it leaves us with a suspect firework.  I particularly like the strange little rocket in the "J."

And While We are Talking About Copyrights...

Is this a blatant rip off of Pirates of the Carribean, or Finding Nemo?  I don't see an orange clownfish, so I'm going to go with the former.  But it's anyone's guess.  The real question is, if you are going to ape PotC, why is "Finding" your prefix of choice?  You have a vocabulary of more appropriate words at your disposal.  "Buccaneers," "Swashbucklers," hell even "Adventure" fits this box better than "Finding." The gold foil on the top is a nice touch, though.

Piss Off!

Let's face it, there is nothing subtle about fireworks.  By their very definition and design fireworks are big, bright, and loud.  Logically, I guess, the packaging is going to reflect those qualities.  Of course there is always room to go over the top.  This firework manages to go over the top and take a stab at the person buying it.  Then again, maybe this firework's message isn't for the consumer, but instead for anyone the consumer deems worthy of the message.  Maybe "that's your problem" is a word of warning to anyone who might complain about the noise or from their roof/yard being set ablaze as a result of the firework.  I can see why self-important rednecks might cause this one to be a sell-out.  The skeletal Uncle Sam gives me faith in my theory.

For a Change of Pace

Not everyone needs to be assaulted by their celebration.  Some folks prefer a slightly more reserved observation of their holiday.  And for those people, there is Denver. 983 miles west of Charleston, Missouri where Boomland is located, this firework seems just a tad out of place, geographically speaking.  Not to mention the fact that unless I missed a news report, Denver has never exploded, is not the seat of American historical freedom, and has no real relation to fireworks.
Take a look at the package.  I would argue for the language barrier here, but that package clearly shows mountains and the night sky.  They clearly know where Denver, Colorado is; they clearly know what kind of city Denver is.  So there must be something about this firework that makes it earn the name "Denver."  What that might be is anyone's guess.  We looked all over, but there were no other fireworks named after mountain states.  Maybe next year: "Helena."

The Wrong Kind of Explosives...

Action words are an intrinsic part of advertising, whether you are selling fireworks or dinner plates.  Action words inspire action, most hopefully the swiping of a credit card.  But you still have to pay attention to what words you are using and in what context.  At first blush, this seems like a perfectly reasonable name for a firework: "Forceful Movement."  Suggests action, literally states "movement," it gets the point across.  But as anyone who has eaten a passionate bowl of nacho cheese sauce will tell you, "forceful movement" has a whole other meaning.

Then again, the double meaning may be intentional if this firework is so incredibly exciting it causes you to fill your shorts...

I Don't Think It Means What You Think it Means... 

The language barrier here is obvious.  What I am curious to know, is how many of those who purchase this particular firework realize the mistake that is being made here.  I am willing to bet that number is proportionate to the amount of Larry the Cable Guy DVDs the subject has in their "liberry."  Those among us who graduated elementary school will probably steer clear of this stinky firework.

Sex Sells...Part II

I almost passed this one up.  Dirty Dancing in the Sky isn't terribly curious as a name for a firework and considering the body of work above us, it almost works.  But then something caught my eye:  this explosive is rated X for "X-treme."  It wasn't enough to leave the mildly clever name to its own.  No we had to take it to the next level and give this bad boy a rating.  And not just any rating, but rated X.  What can that even mean for a box of gun powder, cupric sulfate and magnesium?

And yet, I still find myself impressed by this piece.  Here in the age of excess, when XXX is the gold standard for just how "dirty" things can get, the designers for this firework show exceptional modesty in keeping their rating at the simple, understated X.  Well done.

What. The. &$#@?!

If you can make heads or tails of this one, I'll give you the floor.

On our way out the door, we spotted The Godfather.  $500 dollars worth of fireworks in one gigantic box that makes you an "offer you can't refuse."  I'm not sure who has $500 dollars left to blow on fireworks after buying beer for their 4th of July celebration, but should that situation arise, The Godfather is the one-stop shop for fireworks.

For those with less deep pockets, or deeper beer stomachs perhaps, The Godfather is not out of reach.  Boomland was generous enough to offer one lucky customer the opportunity to WIN The Godfather free and clear.  All you have to do is figure out how to enter, then actually enter, and if your name is pulled on July 3, you win.  Of course, step one is the toughest one.  Go!

Aimee rose to the challenge, but alas, as I write this we have yet to hear from Boomland, so I am going to presume The Godfather will not be exploding in our backyard this year.

It's just as well.  I have to work on the 4th and I'm not big on setting my neighborhood on fire.  It would appear I have neighbors, however, that do not share that sentiment (he says as a roman candle emission lands on the hood of a car across the street).

Thanks for sharing our trip to Boomland and taking a look at the curious world of retail fireworks.  For those of you who partake, hope you have a safe and relatively sober holiday.  For the rest of you, as you were.  As for me? I can think of no better way to celebrate my country's independence tomorrow than by going to the comic book store and then playing some Skyrim.  Bon Chance!

Monday, July 2, 2012

Marvel Movie Project #10 Punisher: War Zone

Yeah, you read that right.  Punisher: War Zone.  I realize that this is a shocker to most of you, but I am also willing to wager that many of you never saw this one.  I immediately dismissed it as soon as it came out on the back of how bad the Thomas Jane Punisher movie was.  There was no way I was going to see another terrible Puinsher movie.  And the trailer didn't defy my initial feelings.

That is why watching PWZ for this project was such a pleasant surprise.  This movie delivers everything that the original Punisher movie did not.  It is dark; it is gritty. It is set in a city that is appropriate for such a film. The action is over the top without being goofy or stupid.  The villain is not a cornball, but a twisted hardball who radiates evil.  The movie starts strong, does NOT beat us over the head with an origin story, and ramps smartly toward its high intensity climax.

PWZ does everything it promises us from the start.  It does not promise to be a study of violence a la Clockwork Orange.  It does not aspire to be great cinema, but like several of the movies in the middle of this list, what it promises is to be a violent action movie with clearly defined good guys and bad guys and the triumph of good over evil.  It's not hard to make a good, enjoyable movie, but nearly half the films on this list fail where Punisher War Zone succeeds.  Keeping it simple and staying true to what you are setting out to do goes a very long way.

Ray Stevenson's Frank Castle is heads above Thomas Jane's interpretation, who was likeable, but not given much to work with.  Stevenson takes everything he is given and then takes it to the next level.  He is gritty and serious and never once shows a hint of weakness.  He is the embodiment of justice and retribution, and bulletproof in his war on crime.  He gives you an easy character to cheer for.

Wayne Knight is a surprisingly pleasant addition as Micro; a character I honestly feel would have been more at home in the goofy first Punisher movie.  But instead of being an obese, bumbling milquetoast (yeah, I'm bringing that back), Micro proves his value to Frank's mission in the film much as he did in the comics.

Again, you are not going to be blown away by how incredible Punisher War Zone is, but you are also not going to be disappointed by it.  I firmly believe that it belongs in the Top Ten Marvel Movies of the modern era.  It delivers exactly what it promises and has few flaws that derail it from its goal.  Ultimately it is entertaining and enjoyable.  I would happily watch it again before I would watch any of the movies below it on this list.  Still skeptical?  Open your mind a bit, give PWZ a watch--invested only in having a good time watching a crime flick--and I think you'll see my point.

Aimee's Take

Ok, I get it. I have no doubt that you're sitting here wondering how on earth we could rank this movie, so panned and hated, in the absolute top ten. Yes, it beat out your precious Captain America. 

I'll tell you why it's so awesome: it delivers exactly what you want to see and no more, no less. It doesn't bog down in origin stories and gives you only the information you need to understand what you're dealing with. It features over-the-top violence in some pretty exciting ways, and while the acting isn't always the best, the entire package works as a gritty comic book on film. 

You know exactly what you're getting the very moment the Punisher puts a chair through a man's face. This is a workable level of camp. This is a real "Punisher clocks a polar bear" moment, and thus, a totally acceptable and compelling incarnation of Frank Castle on screen. It's not some angry guy fighting John Travolta's fat laughing ass-face in friggin' Florida and it's not Dolph Lundgren naked in the sewers. It's a lone vigilante fighting organized crime from the street level with the prowess afforded a combat-trained man with nothing to lose.

A chair through the FACE!

 And isn't that the kind of Punisher we all wanted to see? Not some kind of crazy complicated story that makes no sense, no tertiary characters without meaning (I actually really enjoyed Wayne Knight here). 

Ultimately, if you are squeamish about violence, you'll hate this thing. It has an impossibly high body count and, you know, chair-through-face action. But that's much closer to the beloved modern Punisher stories upon which the Thomas Jane film was supposedly based. If you love the character, and can take your "offendometer" off the hook for a couple of hours, you'll be solidly entertained. This film is not spectacular or beautiful. It's not going to win any awards. It simply... delivers. It's above reproach. 

It belongs in the Top Ten, no questions. I don't care what the critics say.