Friday, July 1, 2011

Animated MARVEL movie Smackdown!

On a whim (or by the voice in the back of my head anticipating Joss Whedon's The Avengers in 2012 and needing a fix of Marvel studios storytelling), I decided to rent a Marvel animated movie.  This was something of a first for me, as while I have watched various Marvel animated TV shows (classic 90's X-Men, the cut-too-short Spectacular Spider-Man and some of the Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes), I wasn't sure about the animated films for some reason.  DC is another story, as they've built up a reputation with so many of their films being at least entertaining and at best approaching great pop-art.  But, hey, it's The Invincible Iron-Man, why not?

Well, after watching it, I got the craving for MORE MARVEL ANIMATED, so I finally checked out two other features (or sort of one two-part feature if you want to be snooty about it), Ultimate Avengers.  There's also a HULK VS WOLVERINE and HULK VS THOR double feature I rented, but each of those are actually sorta more like short films being 35 and 45 minutes a piece, so whether I review them right away I can't say.

But, here goes:

First of all, for The Invincible Iron-Man, it helps to try and put aside other origin stories of Tony Stark becoming by luck and by being a victim of circumstance the titular hero of the title.  This goes for both in the original comic by Stan Lee AND the Jon Favreau version.  It is similar but also diverges, in good ways and sorta-not-sure ways.  In this film, Stark (by way of, mostly, Rhodes, or "Rhodey" for short) is supervising a dig in China that keeps getting thwarted by Chinese terrorists, and it gets to the point where he's getting flack from the partners at the Stark Industrial company (and his father), plus a certain 'secret' project he has on the side.

So he goes to China - in large part as Rhodey gets captured by these evil Chinese folk (trying to be careful how I say that) - and then the main part of his origin is kept intact: he's seriously injured in an attack as he's riding through town, and is taken prisoner (this time with Rhodey there) and finds his heart is not what it used to be, literally, as it's been replaced.  But here there's little time worry about the replacement heart, though the person who helps with that is disposed of by the terrorists who demand Stark make a mega-gun for them to use.  But, naturally, Stark decides to hell with that and makes a metal suit with Rhodey's help, and quickly jets out of there after taking out a few baddies for good measure.

So far so good.  It's around here that the story diverges from what we all know.  Which is just fine; it's good to see the writers and directors (yes, multiple directors, for supervising, voice, etc), and this time they take it back to ancient China as the last descendant of the Mandarin takes it upon herself to get together the rings she needs to resurrect her fore-father (something that, Stark finds horrified later, is part of his doing in digging it up, some other plot complications arise to I won't get into here).  All through this Stark has a variety of metal suits - yes, we find out, he actually was working on metal suits before he was captured, which was the Top Secret project that miffed the superiors.

This makes some sense and is acceptable here, but it's irksome in the one aspect: it doesn't have the same impact if Stark could already make such a metal suit, and a large variety of them (indeed one suit can go underwater).  Again, it's fine to let this go.  The main task of the filmmakers is to show the transformation of Stark from rash and uncaring Playboy to a true hero in the noble style.

Turn paper over and it still says "Dewey defeats Truman"

They do the best they can with it, mostly thanks to the plot-line with the Mandarin's descendant and her conflict with, you know, being "the one" that has to bring back one of the great evils of the world into existence again.  The only problem with this is because of the relatively short length of the movie- 82 minutes including credits- there's only so limited time for Stark's arc to fully take shape.  There's also some unresolved daddy issues with Howard Stark that feel crammed in to add some extra conflict with the whole 'Who Runs Stark and Who Fucks Tony Over' sub-plot.

And yet, with the complaints that could (and can) be had with the movie, there's a lot that works with its story and its characters to make it and entertaining volume of Marvel-lore.  One thing that helps is the animation, sometimes using computers, looks gorgeous.  According to the interviews on the DVD one learns that Avi Arad, the exec producer of this and practically all the other Marvel movies, insisted on high stakes for Iron Man, specifically through the locations, and he goes through an endurance test in his first battles as the character through ice, fire (lava too), and in the primordial WTF of the Mandarin's lair.  That was the most surprising element, to find a lot of tough action scenes, especially the climax, done with grace and sophistication.  Whatever their budget was, they made the most of it.

Ladies, is your man an Iron Man? 

And yet again, it's hard by the end not to see that 2008 feature film edging its way back into the mind, and on that score this does pale in comparison on the fronts of complexity and a satisfying denouemont.  At the same time, on its own accord, one hopes to see more stories from Iron Man in this style of computer animation for the action scenes and in tackling villains with some depth by way of invented-for-the-movie characters.

Which brings me to...

Though two separate films not released at the same time, the Ultimate Avengers films are rollicking fun, intense drama, wild spectacle, and both cheaply and breathtakingly animated.  It's based on the popular revamp series by Mark Millar, which did such things as making Nick Fury Samuel L. Jackson to the point of him being cast by default in the live-action films, and reanimating Captain America from being frozen in a block of ice after a crash down into the ocean.  Some fans may not have dug some of the changes, but to my estimation (or just understanding, and having not read more than one issue of the series) what Millar did and what the filmmakers do here is present the main stable of characters as honestly as possible to what their conflicts and desires and hatreds are all about.  If you need a crash course in Avengers-ology, this is a great place to start.

As movies?  The first movie sets up the Steve Rogers saga very nicely, being one helluva war hero struck down by a nefarious Nazi (who really isn't, more on that in the second movie), and then is found in present day by Nick Fury and Natasha Romanov (or Black Widow) in the artctic.  He's revived, and becomes by being such an upstanding and good guy the lead guy in the Avengers squad.  How it becomes a full-on squad is due to, well, what do you expect to bring together the main stable on Marvel heroes outside of Spider-Man?  An alien invasion, naturally, specifically the kind that are really hard to kill and have that attitude (and, somewhat surprising in rip-off/homage, to the ships from Independence Day) to slay everything in sight.

Iron Man (pretty quickly revealed as Tony Stark), Ant-Man (Hank Pym) and his wife Janet, and after a little pondering Thor, all become recruited as the Avengers, with Dr. Bruce Banner still fighting the whole Hulk-deal, both by trying not to become it and subjecting himself as a 'Super-Soldier' candidate... the only one as it turns out, to try and curb the problem (oh, and if only he'd take his meds, ho-ho).  The Avengers work at first a little bumpily, however usually with success against the alien menace, but it's one of those plot contrivances that Fury have a problem with the Avengers doing a decent (if slightly sloppy at following orders to the note) job.  And then there's that Banner problem...

What works so well and snaps out at the viewer open to this universe is how well the characters interact with one another, and how every character feels true to where they're coming from not just by the comic's standards but just in this story.  There's adjusting to be in such a heavy-duty group (Iron Man and Thor turn Fury down flat at first request, while Pym is more than eager to join as Fury refuses), and there's a tiny bit of humor, but mostly it's handled seriously and not always in such a way that's "kid-friendly".  There's real emotional and psychological struggle here, and I liked that it took some twists and turns that made things not so simple.

Take the conflict with the Hulk as the main example, which also leads into the second film (thankfully making it less like a sequel and more like an adjoining twin); when he finally does turn into the big green SMASH machine, it comes at just the right time in a hectic battle that the other Avengers are having with the aliens.  The Hulk turns out to beat them all into submission... and then doesn't stop his rage at all the other Avengers, which ironically becomes the bigger fight than what came before it with the aliens (and, my tip of the hat to the animators, there's some real thrills and what-will-happen-next going on, not the predictable Saturday morning cartoon stuff).  How does a 'hero' like Banner function in a world such as this, where he may be one of the very most powerful of all, and can't control himself save for the moment Betty Ross comes into the picture.

This arc with Banner and his 'Hulk' makes this much more interesting than I would have expected, and it may even be more coherently handled (for the most part) in these two animated films than in the (at least first) live action film.  Only the pay-off in the second film leads to the let-down with this whole arc; by the time all of that waiting with Banner after his crimes of the first film leads to its logical conclusion it happens too fast and without enough time paid to what the character can do aside from a minor but significant revelation in terms of weaponry.  It's the big flaw of the second film that seemed to stick out like a sore thumb.

The second movie, by the way, 'Rise of the Panther', is a curious little-big effort.  In its story of the Black Panther, one of the lesser-known but most powerful of the Marvel-Avengers stable, and how his kingdom Wakanda in Africa is threatened by the return of Captain America's arch nemesis, the "Nazi" (nay ALIEN shapeshifter-hard-to-kill) Kleiser, we get to see another Aliens-Come-to-Destroy-Earth tale unfold.  This one ups the ante by the alien take-over happening much faster than before and with more imminent destruction worldwide (ironically Nick Fury is able to do more in terms of overall coverage than the Avengers can do, as they focus their attention on the source of the problem in Wakanda), and with Banner as the locked-up wild-card.

Oh, and there's other drama in the process, like with the Pym's and how stubborn Hank can be and what peril throws their relationship into.  And the whole Rogers-being-blinded-by-his-past anger (understandably) towards the Nazi-Alien.  Oh, and Stark has that heart problem that was so prominent and the emotional core/problem of Iron Man 2.  It might seem on the surface to be just a rehash of the first movie, but it's not totally fair to look at the two movies as being completely separate; as a whole two and a half hour movie it works much more like an epic tale of the Avengers fighting the same entity - Those Darn Alien Scum With Radiation-Weakness - the stakes get much higher and the chance for redemption grows.

Some things do stick out like sore thumbs here.  For one thing the Wakanda people are such one-dimensional beings (maybe cause they're natives, which does make some sense, but not always dramatically) who are so stubborn in their ways that they don't see what's coming at them (and keep acting like total dicks to the Black Panther - HELLO he can turn into a PANTHER and he's ROYALTY come on!)  And the whole aspect of the doctor/soldier/whatever keeping Banner held up in that cell watching the same Avengers-Destruction loop-reel from the first movie gets a little tiresome after a while, albeit leading to "the thing" that can stop the aliens.  In general, at least in the second half of this Ultimate Avengers series, the movie would do things to pull me away from it, or remind me that some of the animation was kinda cheap (i.e. destruction of London bits) or with some of the side characters like the Pyms...

However, then the movie would do things to win me back over, such as an open ending that still feels complete in some way as the end of a complete story (some characters also won't come back at all, a ballsy move on Millar and/or the filmamker's part).  It earns its PG-13 by not pandering to kids, being something that the whole family can enjoy while sometimes being just violent enough to probably make the wee little ones a little scared - all speculation by the way, maybe for some it won't be violent enough(!)

Overall the Ultimate Avengers series finds the heroes brought together through some extraordinary circumstances, each one with reservations - Thor especially, what's with that thunder God sometimes and his bitchy All-father - and yet they all find what they're really made of when pushed to such limits and put together as a team.  I loved seeing that camraderie and tension and spectacle take place, even if it's far from great art (though it too has its moments, like when Iron Man goes inside a certain unfamiliar place in the climax).

Monday, June 27, 2011

Googolplex Gulag - SEQUELITIS edition - with PIRATES 4 and CARS 2

Summer time, and the living's easy... for Hollywood execs.

Just picture them right now, big fat cats in fat black suits sitting in their fat jumbo-jets (or those skinny-anorexic ones), counting their millions as slobs like the United States of the World (and sometimes myself) trudge on to the cineplex to see the latest gruel that's being served.  Sometimes the gruel is yummy, or sometimes it's Krusty Brand Imitation Gruel (nine out of ten orphans can't tell the difference ;)), but then other times it's just... meh.  Nothing to get the pitchforks up in arms about, and yet that in its own way could make it worse.

And right outta Disney (and, surprisingly, Pixar) comes two sequels this summer that have that sequel-gruel feeling to them.  There is creativity going on in both of them, but not to a fully successful extent - at least what one could expect from either franchise.

First up... He's Captain Jack Moneyrichardsparrowjet!

The Pirates of the Caribbean franchise is a big McDonalds thing of the movies, where it comes slapped with the greasy paws of Jerry Bruckheimer and ready to sail off into matinee serial territory.  This could be fine except that as each passing film goes on (with a couple of minor exceptions to scenes I'll mention) the quality of the series lessens with each film.  It also doesn't help that this time the franchise loses one of the interesting things going for it in Gore Verbinski's visual/storytelling sensibility.  While he ended up making parts of Dead Man's Chest and At World's End cumbersome with super-sized plots not worth much (albeit parts of Dead Man are a lot of fun, and the Davy Jones Locker segment of 'World's' is a perfect slice of surrealism), Rob Marshall just doesn't really have it in him to take the series where it could go.

Johnny Depp as Captain Jack Sparrow as Gizmo in Gremlins: the Next Franchisation.

This latest effort, On Stranger Tides, misleads in its title (not very strange, not even with the mermaids, which I'll get to in a moment), and is still stuffed with over-plotting with double crosses and other shenanigans and new characters.  The premise should be simple, and it is: there's word of a Fountain of Youth(TM) off on an island somewhere, but as Captain Jack (Johnny Depp, of course still around once again) is off to find it he has to contend with Blackbeard (Ian McShane) going also for it.  This could make enough for a movie, albeit lifting a bit already from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.  And there's a little extra intrigue with Blackbeard's daughter, Angelica (Penelope Cruz), being Sparrow's kinda-sorta-not-really love interests of yore.  And of course the mermaids, who for at least five minutes when revealed as the blood-thirsty hybrids they are make the film full of vigor and excitement.

But then there's other stuff padded in to make it once again an over-long effort (not as long as At World's End thank goodness, but too long still), with Barbosa, Geoffrey Rush's most hammiest of ham-bone characters (whether it's also in his acting I'm not sure), also chasing after the Fountain but for more shady reasons as he appears up front as an actual "Captain" in the Royal British navy or whatever.

AND there's another goody-too-shoes along the lines of Orlando Bloom, though this time not him (thank foodness) but some other bland guy I don't remember his name at all and then he gets into some entanglement with the one mermaid they catch to take to the fountain.  Why the mermaid?  It's complicated... or, rather, not really, just a tear of a mermaid and some water and a couple of glasses and that's it... but it's more complicated than it seems, after a while.

"Man, I could really go for a Woody Allen sandwich right now..."  I don't know if that joke works, I wrote it anyway
Frankly, I saw the movie about a month ago, and memory of it is spotty.  Not because of it not trying, but because it just didn't try hard enough.  Marshall's direction doesn't really try for anything that inventive like Verbinski was able to, and directs action in the most cardboard-cut-out of styles that one could see in any Bruckheimer actioneer.  If that floats your boat, you might enjoy the movie a lot, but the action and excitement of past films (save for an escape scene early on with Sparrow through the streets of London, or some such town, and the mermaid scene mentioned earlier when they first appear and attack the pirates) is lacking here.  So, therefore, much of the movie has to rest on the appeal of its performers.  How does it fare?

Taking out of account whoever that bland-priest-kid was, and the mermaid girl equivalent (aka Bloom/Knightley 2.0), we got a couple of the regulars with Depp and Rush, and they both have their moments for sure - Depp especially has to carry a lot of scenes (arguably, even, the whole movie overall) on his shoulders, and for what it's worth in the fourth go at it he can still hold attention and get some chuckles... not laughs, mind you, just chuckles at this point.  Honestly why they keep Sparrow's father, Captain Teague (the almost inimitable Keith Richards) as such a walk-on player on these films is beyond me as he could save portions if it was bumped up to a small role.  Rush, meanwhile, is often relegated to exposition even when things should get interesting once he gets to the island and Barbosa's true intentions are revealed to his flabbergasted British crew.

Warning: Bad-Ass Meter is bigger here than it actually appears

But curiouser still is McShane and Cruz.  McShane could have made this a really memorable villain, but he seems to be tired through a lot of the performance, sometimes getting a little energy to yell during a scene, and not enough to make one feel that this is such a "Bad Man" as he calls himself.  Cruz does better as a firebrand tough-girl sort who can kick ass and take names when need be, but isn't given much of a character either except near the end when there's some wicked double-crossing going on between her and Sparrow on a beach.  It's a fine scene that the two actors have - and it's even a moment that shows why they're such *great* actors in other performances - and yet a little too little too late.  By then the plot has turned its gears, Hans Zimmer's surprisingly generic score has gone through its motions, and mermaid tail (pun intended) is sorely lacking.

One small note to Marshall's credit, he gets ONE really fantastic WTF cameo during the city-chase scene with Sparrow when he lands in one of the carriages crossing town.  I won't say who it is, but it's a self-conscious regal-joke that had me laughing harder than almost anything else in the movie.  This with Depp still doing his best, and still having fun in a movie where the plot just keeps chugging along only taking minimal time to have fun.  A scene like when Sparrow argues over a big-giant-scary jump off a cliff into a river should have been the tone of much of the movie... and it isn't.  It's not too terrible to hate (sorry House Next Door guy, this probably makes me a half or quarter of a cunt then), but to recommend it as anything other than at best a rental or a lazy summer afternoon nothing to do cable TV view would be false. 


And yet that in its own way was somewhat expected - a middling sequel as the fourth film in the series.  But from Pixar?  A trip to dullsville?  Goodness gracious!

Cars 2 has as its plot one of those goofy oh-gosh-I'm-a-this-or-that elements that has been done repeatedly. So was the fish-out-of-water element of the first film Cars where Lightning McQueen comes accidentally to the town of Radiator Springs and learns life lessons and yada-yada.  But I kept on thinking back to Cars- nay, all of the Pixar films- and what they had that Cars 2 was sorely, awfully lacking in.  Heart, sophistication in its humor (or as has been coined now, "Kidult" humor or as the layman might say a 'family' film), and some three-dimensions to its storytelling.  That's what Pixar has aside from the usual breathtaking animation.  This film might have had some of the latter part, but just some, which is staggering enough.  That it's so busy with its stupid plot and just not funny where it counts drags it down so much than any other film from the studio.

It sucks to be in this position of wagging a finger at a movie company that's done so much good, but it's the kind of wagging like a family member who loves someone so and just gets so upset seeing it screw up the way it does.  If it were by any other animation studio, even Dreamworks, maybe the story could be cut some slack: McQueen and the ever-(NOT)-lovable Mater (Larry the Cable Guy, let's call him 'Guy' as he earned nothing more than it) go off to an international race being held in Japan, Italy and London, England, with two plotlines converging and/or crowding in for space: first is a spy plotline headed up by Michael Caine's Finn McMissile and Emily Mortimer's Holly Shiftwell (an odd way to pair up the two again after Harry Brown, but I'll go with it) who are tracking an evil German car (Thomas Kreutschmann, and you know he's evil as he has a monocle), and second a new kind of "environmentally friendly" oil for cars to race with created by Eddie Izzards', uh, other car (forgetting his name it's one of those).

And, as these stupid plots go, Mater gets mistaken as a spy (cause, um, I guess why not?) and it turns out the environmentally friendly oil is actually making cars explode... sorta, depending on if a couple other evil cars point a ray at it.  And then there's a whole other Evil Plot revealed about it all being about a giant oil field that's up for grabs.  By this point you just want Daniel Plainviewmobile to come in and smack a couple of the cars with a bowling ball.  There is a logical question here that will probably slip some kids by completely - why go through the over-elaborate Dr. Evil plot when the oil is right there - but this is just one of the film's problems.  The big problem, the one swinging like a pair of gnarly fuzzy dice over one's head, is that it's just... dull.

That really is the key to the film's problem: it throws so much at the viewer, in terms of visual jokes (not many that are funny, maybe a few worth a few chuckles), and in terms of plot and exposition, and in rather mundane action sequences of the spy variety that don't feel fresh and exciting like in other Pixar movies (most recently Up and Toy Story 3 come to mind but the list goes on, Incredibles especially), and it all just falls so flat.  Maybe a big part of that was not connecting with the characters; McQueen's role is diminished to the point of being just a "I'm embarrassed" or "I'm ashamed" role opposite the *real* star here with is Guy's Mater; the new spy characters are bland archetypes that aren't imbued with any kind of pathos or, again, heart really like in Cars with Paul Newman's character; the villains are uninteresting and underdeveloped by the time their plots are revealed.

Oh, and did I mention John Tuturro's Big-Fat-Italian-Sportscar-Stereotype?  Well... I just did, and he was amusing, but could have been great - why not a movie where he was a main character or villain?

There's also the issue of the 'Guy's acting appeal here, which I found pretty grating after a while.  Opinions on this may vary, since, apparently, the research was done and it appeared that he was the most likable enough galut to warrant him being bumped up to main character for this movie, where he does probably have more dimension than anyone else, but it's so one-note until the movie demands it to be something else un-organically.  Maybe he is a funny character and I just didn't see it.

And maybe kids were just clamoring for a Mater movie, I dunno (as straight-to-video it could have been passable or fun).  As a comic foil Mater can work decently, but in smaller spurts.  When it becomes about him and his "you're an idiot! but... it's okay, you're not really an idiot... no you are, it's awesome", it sours during it and in retrospect.  Lasseter even has a small montage at the third turning point where Mater (in dream-state I guess) looks back at all the instances so far in the movie of him messing up against a black background.  That's the kind of crap you see in Rock-A-Doodle, a lessor Don Bluth film from the 90's, NOT PIXAR!

And who knows, maybe I'm just being grumpy.  And, as I mentioned, if it were by any other movie company I might let such material slide.  But it's akin to looking back at, for example, the career of Steven Spielberg, who is a director we all mostly love and coming up against 1941, a movie that is dumb and loud and too busy and too full of its own grandeur, with (I'll admit) intermittent spots of entertainment that sticks.  In this case it comes with a montage of McQueen and Mater coming to Japan and being inundated with what Japan is awesome at: cute-crazy shit that is adorable and/or frightening.

::Car on the right expresses animator's disdain at John Lasseter's sudden dearth of storytelling ability:::
All I knew leaving the theater was that the movie, for all of its flash and pizazz and bright colors and (occasional) thrilling sequences, left me cold with its characters, lacked any depth or nuance with its storytelling, couldn't be a strong enough parody of spy movies (the way Toy Story 3 so brilliantly did a send up of prison/break-out movies) so it became just a mundane-weak one, and mostly played to the lowest common denominator (i.e. Middle America) with its messages and comedy.

And for Pixar it's more than disappointing, it's like getting a punch in the gut.  And being bored by it.



PS: Pixar's Brave looks like a step in the right direction, as does
PPS: Tim Burton's Dark Shadows with Johnny Depp, albeit no stills or trailer yet.