Friday, June 03, 2011

Penny Thoughts ’11: May 27 – June 2

X-Men (2000) ***
Director: Bryan Singer
Writers: David Hayter, Tom DeSanto, Bryan Singer
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Famke Janssen, James Marsden, Halle Barry, Anna Paquin, Bruce Davidson, Rebecca Romijn, Tyler Mane, Ray Park, Shawn Ashmore

Another week and more preparation for yet another sequel or prequel to be released this summer blockbuster season. This week’s series “The X-Men”. With “X-Men: First Class” opening June 3, I thought it would be a good time to get the boys in on the franchise.

Many forget that it was not “Spider-Man” that set Hollywood off on this new renaissance of comic book superhero movies, but rather “X-Men”, which beat Spidey out of the gate by two years. “X-Men” has always been such a complex comic book that it’s surprising how well they did adapting it to celluloid. With its themes about bigotry and hatred, it is one of the easiest genre films to decipher in terms of how it relates to our world. Its challenge is all the characters involved.

They did their best to just get the highlight characters involved on the first outing, focusing heavily on Wolverine. This was wise, since the creation of the Wolverine character had much to do with revitalizing interest in the comic after it had begun to wane in the 70s. Lets not forget that this character was also the introduction of one of today’s biggest stars, Hugh Jackman. The role was supposed to go to another Aussie, who probably never lets his agent hear the end of the choice to play the villain in “Mission: Impossible 2” instead.

In a day when most critics are flogging the Hollywood machine for churning out mindless summer action fare year after year, you have to admire that 20th Century Fox had the tenacity to keep the action in “X-Men” focused on the social issues of prejudice at the heart of the X-Men mythos. This film’s weak point is in its third act when it finally turns to just action, but it’s a strong introduction into the world of the X-Men. It establishes the point of the series solidly and realizes that the characters bring the strength to the stories.

X2 (2003) ***½
Director: Bryan Singer
Writer: David Hayter, Michael Dougherty, Dan Harris, Bryan Singer, Zak Penn
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Ian McKellen, Famke Janssen, Brian Cox, Halle Barry, James Marsden, Anna Paquin, Rebecca Romijn, Alan Cumming, Shawn Ashmore, Aaron Stanford, Kelly Hu

As I recall, there was a time when the title of this movie was “X2: X-Men United”. Apparently, it was shortened at some point to just “X2” for efficiency’s sake. I suppose a sci-fi/special effects movie has to do something different to distinguish itself in an age where many popular movies have titles that go on much longer than the marquis allows for.

Of course, the title is really beside the point when it comes to determining weather a film is any good or not. “X2” fits right in with my theory that the second in a trilogy franchise is usually the best of the bunch. The prejudice themes from the first film are better stated here, the characters are strong even though there are more of them, the action is better, and the sets and locations are even more stunning. The teleporter named Nightcrawler, played by Alan Cumming, is one of the most impressive elements of the movie and Mystique, the fascinating morpher from the first film, is treated with better development here.

The tired final act of the first film has been replaced here by a spectacular ending, which holds secrets, revelations, and a surprising death. It’s much better than the standard good guys fight bad guys finale. The plotting requires good guys to work with bad guys against a greater threat, but the nemesis Magneto is never one to be outsmarted and gets his cuts in against the X-Men even while helping them out. Will this movie remain the best team superhero movie when “The Avengers” make their debut next year, or is it too tricky a sub genre to pull off on such a successful scale more than once?

Gone with the Wind (1939) ****
Director: Victor Fleming
Writers: Sidney Howard, Margaret Mitchell (novel)
Starring: Vivien Leigh, Clark Gable, Olivia de Havilland, Leslie Howard, Hattie McDaniel, Thomas Mitchell, Harry Davenport

Scarlett O’Hara is one of cinema’s most interesting characters ever. I don’t know whether to admire her, pity her, or despise her. That all depends on which scene you’re watching in this four-hour romance epic. Somehow, despite the ever-shifting perception of her, she never betrays her nature, which seems to be survival above all.

Almost as impressive as Vivian Leigh’s performance as Scarlett is Victor Fleming’s stylized direction. In the year’s since its release, it has become known that George Cukor and Sam Wood also deserve credit for the direction, but I believe Fleming is responsible for the film’s most impressive photographic sequences, most of which occur before intermission. The use of silhouette is striking throughout the Civil War sequences and some of Scarlett’s key moments. Just as impressive is the famous sequence that shows Atlanta burning to the ground.

When it comes to watching a well-known classic like “Gone with the Wind”, one can’t help but wonder if it will hold up to today’s filmmaking standards. Certainly there is a good deal of film style that has changed throughout the years, but this film in particular holds up very well. The sequence where Scarlett shoots a Yankee soldier in the face shows how fearless Fleming was in his direction and calls into question the ‘G’ rating that was awarded the film upon later rereleases. “Gone with the Wind” is still every bit as good as you’ve ever heard it was.

Hot Dog …the movie (1984) *½
Director: Peter Markle
Writer: Mike Marvin
Starring: Patrick Houser, Tracy Smith, David Naughton, John Patrick Reger, Frank Koppala, James Saito, Shannon Tweed

When I saw “Hot Dog… the movie” was streaming on Netflix, it must’ve panged some unconscious chord in my memory. I knew I’d seen the movie. I remember sneaking downstairs to watch it on HBO after my parents had gone to sleep, because it had nudity. It was one of those movies that existed pretty much for the sole purpose of being shown on late night cable with some ramshackle story strung together as an excuse to show naked breasts. At least, that’s what I remembered about it.

I don’t know why I felt the urge to stream it, but once I did, I realized it wasn’t just one of those late night comedies. Well, it was, but it held a little more importance during my youth. Despite the excuse to see naked women for brief moments, it was also a pretty serious ski movie. That is to say it took the skiing seriously, if nothing else.

I must’ve seen it many more times than just that once sneaking down in the dark with the volume turned way down so my parents wouldn’t hear me. I know this movie through and through. I remember the characters. I remember the parties. I remember the bad eighties music. I remember the gaudy outfits and colors. But mostly I remember the skiing. The Chinese Downhill sequence that closed the film had a particularly profound influence on me as a child and on a great many of my contemporaries at the time. We held Chinese Downhill races of our own. I remember doing something terrible to a fellow competitor while racing down Tote Road at Sugarloaf one day. But hey, it was a Chinese Downhill, so he knew the risks.

It’s a pretty bad movie, but it brought back such fond memories.

Due Date (2010) ***½
Director: Todd Phillips
Writers: Alan R. Cohen, Alan Freedland, Adam, Sztykiel, Todd Phillips
Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Zack Galifianakis, Michelle Monaghan, Jamie Foxx, Juliette Lewis, Danny McBride, RZA

Last year’s “Due Date” is one of the funnier road trip movies I’ve seen. Capitalizing on the newly a-listed Robert Downey, Jr. and even newer a-listed Zack Galifianakis—an unlikely pairing that works—“Due Date” is just a notch down from the great Steve Martin/John Candy starring “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.” Perhaps the slight difference is because trains are never attempted in this one.

Downey is trying to get home for the birth of his child, which is a scheduled c-section. At the airport, he bumps into the oddly mannered Galifianakis, whose “glaucoma medicine” gets mixed up with Downey’s bags. This causes trouble in security, but doesn’t derail everything immediately. That’s really where this fairly well traveled territory gets it all right. The situations the characters find themselves in don’t determine their fates; it’s their own poor handling of those situations that lead them there.

Downey is a bit of a jerk here, and that works for the trouble he helps to get himself into. Galifianakis is clueless and downright stupid. Despite chances to escape from his situation, Downey either makes the wrong decisions and sometimes tries to do the right thing and finds it backfiring. While the trouble they get into gets quite overblown by the end of the movie, Downey’s approach to the material is never overblown, and even Galifianakis finds a fairly toned down approach to his sad sack.

X-Men: The Last Stand (2006) ***
Director: Brett Ratner
Writers: Simon Kinberg, Zak Penn
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Halle Berry, Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart, Famke Janssen, Kelsey Grammar, Anna Paquin, Shawn Ashmore, Rebecca Romijn, James Marsden, Aaron Stanford, Vinnie Jones, Ellen Page, Ben Foster

You know. I disagree. Everybody’s got a problem with the third one. “Aw, the third one sucks!” or some such thing. No. It doesn’t. Is it as good as the second one? No. They bite off a little too much in terms of characters and story lines, but “sucks?” No. They’re still going strong with the themes of the series, bringing the incredibly complex notion of what would mutants do if there was a cure? Yes, the action gets a little cliché by the end of the film, but the lead up is far from cliché and the action is very well done. “The Last Stand” is not my favorite X-Men movie, but really it takes a movie like “X-Men Origins: Wolverine” to evoke words like ‘sucks.’

Read my original review here.

Western of the Week

A Reason to Live, a Reason to Die (1972) **
Director: Tonino Valerii
Writers: Rafael Azcona, Ernesto Gastaldi, Tonino Valerii
Starring: James Coburn, Bud Spencer, Rene Kolldehoff, Ugo Fangareggi, Guy Mairesse, Benito Stefanelli, Adolfo Lastretti, Telly Savalas

Part of the wave of Italian spaghetti westerns that swept the early 70s after the success of “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly”, this forgotten heist western has some good qualities, but is otherwise best forgotten. James Coburn stars as a disgraced Union colonel who faces the gallows for desertion after losing a fort at Joplin, Mo. to a Confederate. He promises to take the fort back and brings along a band of death rowers to help him.

The dubbing isn’t as bad as most spaghettis, but the locations are ridiculous considering it’s supposed to take place in southwest Missouri. The mountainous desert landscape is all wrong, but works well for the plot. Coburn’s colonel entices his convict helpers with promises of buried treasure. I don’t think his promise is true, but it doesn’t matter since everyone besides Coburn is dead by the final moments. It isn’t a terrible movie. It just doesn’t grab you the way the best spaghetti westerns do.

Wet Hot American Summer (2001) ***
Director: David Wain
Writers: Michael Showalter, David Wain
Starring: Michael Showalter, Janeane Garofalo, Marguerite Moreau, David Hyde Pierce, Paul Rudd, Christopher Meloni, Ken Marino, Michael Ian Black, Amy Poehler, Bradley Cooper, Elizabeth Banks, Molly Shannon, A.D. Miles, Joe Lo Truglio, Zak Orth, Marisa Ryan, Kevin Sussman, Gideon Jacobs, Jacob Shoesmith Fox

In the tradition of “Meatballs” and this week’s earlier entry “Hot Dog: The Movie”, “Wet Hot American Summer” is a throwback to 80s late night comedies where a bunch of young horny people are thrown into a fairly average situation to devise ways to have sex. “Wet Hot American Summer” doesn’t actually show any skin, except for a gay sex scene that will have those uneasy with their own sexuality squirming, but it has every other detail of the genre right on the money. It has a better soundtrack, too.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this comedy from the members of the comedy troupe The State is its use of some big name actors before their stars had risen. Amy Poehler, Bradley Cooper, Elizabeth Banks and Christopher Meloni all have fairly large roles in the ensemble. Meloni and Cooper in particular have rather shocking roles considering the personalities they now command. Meloni is best known for his work on “Law & Order: SVU”, but here he plays a crazy Vietnam vet cook who talks to a can of vegetables and likes to hump his refrigerator. Cooper, from “The Hangover” and “The A-Team”, is one of the participants in the gay sex scene.

Ultimately, “Wet Hot American Summer” is stupid, goofy and juvenile, but it knows that’s what it is going into it. I couldn’t help holding affection for its absurdity and nostalgia for the types of movies it’s parodying.

Faster (2010) ***
Director: George Tillman, Jr.
Writers: Troy Gayton, Joe Gayton
Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Billy Bob Thornton, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Carla Gugino, Maggie Grace, Moon Bloodgood

“Faster” feels like it should’ve come earlier in Dwayne Johnson’s career. It’s a good solid action movie. It’s far from perfect, but it has an efficiency that raises it above movies like his remake of “Walking Tall”. It has a great cast, who do a good job making ridiculous characters seem plausible, Johnson especially. And, he looks bigger in this movie than I remember him in others. With The Rock that’s saying something.

Still this movie seems like it should’ve come earlier for Johnson. Ever since he switched from professional wrestling to movies back in 2001 as the Scorpion King in “The Mummy Returns” he seemed like a natural replacement for aging action star Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was making the move into politics at the time. Schwarzenegger even “passed the torch” to Johnson with a cameo in the overlooked 2003 action comedy “The Rundown”. Like Schwarzenegger, Johnson has dabbled in both action movies and silly comedies. I like Johnson better than Arnold. He seems smarter.

But, after ten years in the movie business, he has yet to land that iconic role. He’s still doing the one-off action standards. I want to see Johnson get his Terminator role. Something that will launch him into the stratosphere of major action stardom, so that every movie he does will be the next action extravaganza; in the same fashion Arnold existed for a while. You know, before he boinked his housekeeper. I think Johnson can do it, hopefully without the illegitimate kid.

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