Sunday, June 30, 2013

A Tale of Two Dark Knights

*There will be massive spoilers for all three Christopher Nolan-directed Batman films as well as A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. 
Before The Dark Knight Rises was released, movie websites were updating the film nearly every hour with all the rumors and news about the film.  The one legitimate piece of information that came from Nolan and company that caught my attention was how the film was influenced by Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities.  As an English teacher, this definitely intrigued me.  Then the film was released and the geek war over whether it was the greatest or worst movie of all time commenced.  I’m exaggerating, but not all that much (seriously, just check the comments on nearly any post about superhero films in general). 
I’m not about to toss my pointless opinion into that battle.  I only bring it up because the Two Cities influence has been lost in the fog ever since.  I’m just as guilty as everyone else (this is being written a year after the release of the film, after all).  I watched the film and all I picked up on was Gordon reading from the novel near the end, there being a revolution in both stories, and the idea that Batman was like Sydney Carton, sacrificing himself for the greater good.  The reason why more aspects of the film didn’t occur to me was because it had been over a decade since I had read the Dickens novel. 
Flash forward a few months and I’m teaching the novel to one of my classes.  I read everything that I ask my students to read, even if it means reading it for the second (or more) time.  Before I assigned the book, I told my students that Rises was influenced by it, hoping to create more interest.  It seemed to work on a couple of students, but it really worked on me.  I was noticing many similarities between the entire Nolan trilogy and the novel.
While researching any references between the two works online, I was surprised that I couldn’t find a lengthy post comparing the two works.  (There might be one out there, but I didn’t find it in the immediate results.)  Everything I found was on the short side, pointing out the obvious stuff above and discussing how there are similar themes and whatnot.  So I’ve decided to try to point out as many blatant similarities as I can.  By blatant, I mean characters and events, not themes and messages.  Obviously revolution and stuff like that is similar; this is going to be more about which character was Darnay, Carton, Madame Defarge, Dr. Manette, etc. and which events matched up with the storming of the Bastille, the Reign of Terror, etc.  My advance apologies if this isn’t as succinct as it could be, but comparing a blockbuster with classic literature can get pretty messy, and I’m doing this for fun, not for a grade from a professor.  Anyway, here goes.
This comparison has to start with Bruce Wayne and Batman, of course.  When you consider that the main character is really two separated characters, it becomes obvious that Two Cities is an influence.  Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton are opposites but look so similar that a jury agrees they could be confused for each other.  Darnay is mysterious but good, while Carton has lived a worthless life and yearns to do something good.  The two characters flip flop when it comes to which one is Batman or Wayne.  When Wayne does the fake partying stuff, he’s Carton.  When he’s Batman, doing the right thing, he’s Darnay.  The fake death of both Batman and Wayne causes a bit of confusion, especially since they both live on, in a way.  Wayne literally goes on to a happy life, and Batman lives on as a concept that anyone can be.  So Batman is Carton in that he died so Wayne/Darnay could live.  But Wayne is also Carton because he fake died so that the concept of Batman could live on.  It’s up for debate, but I think each theory is fair.  The most important part of this theory is that it makes the final scene more interesting.

After first watching Rises, I was a little disappointed that Alfred actually got to see Wayne enjoying life after Batman.  Leaving it open-ended would have been fine with me.  And I really liked the idea of actually killing off Bruce Wayne.  When considering Two Cities, however, that scene becomes a bit more necessary if Batman is Carton by the end.  What is the point of his ultimate sacrifice (giving up as Batman), if we don’t get to see if it was worth it?  Part of me still wished the ending had been a bit more bold, but I also like that Wayne’s lifelong struggle with crime and his own demons is essentially over.
Since Batman/Wayne is Darnay, that means whomever he loves must be Lucie Manette.  Therefore, Rachel Dawes is Lucie.  The problem here is that Lucie doesn’t die in Two Cities.  This means that Lucie changes characters over time.  This is truly a chink in the Two Cities comparison’s armor because Lucie and Darnay are quite faithful and in love; there’s no switching.  Not only does the character switch, but even actresses were switched out for the role between Begins and Dark Knight.  So Selina Kyle becomes Lucie, but Thalia al Ghul was Lucie for a bit, too.  See what I mean by this being the weak spot?

Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton
The only way Lucie can exist as a character in this comparison is if we consider Harvey Dent/Two-Face and Rachel’s relationship as a warning of how Two Cities could have easily ended in a more tragic way.  Dent would be Darnay and Two-Face would be a Carton who never redeemed himself, allowing all three to die.  A cautionary Tale of Two Cities.   
Back to comparisons that are a bit easier.  I know Dr. Manette is Lucie’s father and Rachel’s father is not around in the films so that doesn’t work, but there is a still a good connection with Lucius Fox.  Mainly, it’s because Wayne “recalls” Fox to life much like Lorry and company brought Dr. Manette back from his shoe-making.  Fox was a once brilliant man who had been locked away in basically a dungeon until Wayne found him and returned him to prominence, much like how Manette goes from prisoner to revolutionary hero.  Fox doesn’t factor into the narrative nearly as strongly as Manette does, but I think it’s an apt comparison.
Sticking with the old folks, Jarvis Lorry is Alfred.  Alfred is a proper British gentleman who serves as the caretaker of the Wayne family.  There’s really not much more to it than that.  Lorry was the driving force of the story of Two Cities (one could say he was the “truck” that carried the characters along…), and Alfred is more on the sidelines here.  But he’s still an essential character. 
Lorry’s co-worker/subordinate was Jerry Cruncher, the messenger with a nefarious side job.  Commissioner Gordon is certainly not subordinate to Alfred or anything, but he does work as Cruncher in a way.  He represents the police which would be the blunt force of Cruncher, and he lies to the public about Dent.  He has a skeleton in his closet, and Cruncher digs up skeletons (bodies, really, but let’s go with skeletons for the sake of this article). 
That’s enough with the “good” guys.  People love Batman movies for the villains.  Unfortunately, I do not have a good comparison for the Joker.  The Joker has always represented chaos and evil anyway.  There isn’t really a personification of chaos in Two Cities, so if the Joker is anything, he could stand for the rising turmoil in the country of France before the true storm hits. 
Moving on from the Joker to some comparisons that are a bit easier to make, Bane and Thalia are a good starting point.  In Two Cities, Defarge appears to be in charge, but we find out that Madame Defarge is the true villain, fueled by her intense need for revenge.  In Rises, Bane appears to be the villain for much of the film, fueling the revolution, or “fire.”  We learn near the end that Thalia is the true villain, and she is also fueled by revenge.  (Although Madame Defarge's brutality is largely transferred to Bane.)  I know that Bane and Thalia are not married like the Defarges (and Madame Defarge definitely does not have sex with Darnay or Carton, as Thalia has sex with Bruce Wayne), but there is still an obvious emotional connection between the two.  The best connection is that both characters use the revolution as their excuse to also get revenge for dead family members wronged by Darnay/Batman. 
Ra’s al Ghul is in the same boat as the Joker in that he basically represents revolution in general as a way of wiping the slate clean.  But the Scarecrow can be connected in a more specific way.  It’s more of a cameo than anything, but Scarecrow is the judge who executes or “exiles” the people who have benefited the most from Gotham.  He is the dread tribunal from Two Cities which casts severe judgment for the sins of the past. 
Storming the Bastille
The dread tribunal brings me to the events that are similar.  The trials and executions are pretty blatantly the Reign of Terror from the French Revolution.  They are described in Two Cities as the “felons” trying the “honest men.”  Perhaps all of the people being tried in Gotham are not completely honest, but the Scarecrow is certainly a felon.  Pretty much everything that happens in Rises represents the French Revolution, but there are specific phrases that tie it into Two Cities. 
When a soldier has to sacrifice himself for the cause, Bane assures him that “the fire rises.”  “The Fire Rises” is the title of a chapter from Two Cities.  The “fire” is the revolution, both of Gotham and of France.  It is also referred to as a storm in both stories.  “There’s a storm coming, Mr. Wayne,” warns Selina Kyle.  And Rises is in the title, so there’s that.
As for events, the Storming of the Bastille is generally considered the beginning of the French Revolution.  For those who do not know, the Bastille was a prison.  Bane has already started the revolution at the football game (more on that in a second), but it really gets going when he storms the prison and arms the freed prisoners.  That one is fairly obvious.
The football game is a little less clear.  I consider this to be an accumulation of the events that cause the people to rise up in Two Cities.  Those events are the Marquis running over a child with his carriage and his subsequent murder at the hands of the vengeful father.  No child is killed by Bane (although we don’t really see what happens to that kid with the “beautiful” voice, do we?), but the mayor/Marquis is killed at the event.  Maybe the mayor isn’t as terrible as the Marquis, but he does represent a bit of power in Gotham.

"The felons were trying the honest men..."
I can’t leave it at just events and characters.  Not to turn this completely into a term paper (and good luck out there if you stumble upon this to use for an essay, because I’ve messed it all up for you by being so informal…), but the themes and messages have to be mentioned a little. 
Revenge is definitely a theme that resonates in both stories.  Batman’s very identity is based on getting some kind of vengeance or closure for his parents’ murder.  The actions of Two Cities are all about Madame Defarge getting revenge for what happened in the past.  I think that both stories take a negative viewpoint on revenge.  No one gains peace from it (Madame Defarge dies for it, and Bruce realizes that killing Joe Chill himself wouldn’t have done much). 
There is also plenty to say about revolution in general.  Both stories are negative towards it when handled in such a brutal way.  Overthrowing an evil power is not seen as a bad thing, but when you become just as, if not more, brutal than the previous regime, then how is that better?  This is connected with revenge in that when characters allow their emotions to take control, things get worse. 

The Dark Knight trilogy and A Tale of Two Cities may appear to be unlikely bedfellows, but if the book is fresh in your mind, you’ll notice tons of similarities.  On that note, I’ll finish up by admitting that this is in no way a definitive comparison of the two works.  There are plenty of events and characters I didn’t even mention.  For instance, what about the mob in both stories?  What about the fact that each work has a character named Stryver?  Yeah, I skipped over some stuff.  The point is that comparing these two works is not just possible, it’s obvious.  This is just as deep as I want to go into it because if I have to look any further (like pausing Rises or reading Two Cities for the fifth time) then my enjoyment will turn into work. 
As an English teacher and a movie geek, the comparison between The Dark Knight trilogy and A Tale of Two Cities just makes sense and makes both works much more interesting.  I invite any fellow enthusiasts out there to find their own comparisons and whatnot, mainly because I want to read more stuff about this, especially if it didn’t occur to me (or cause me to do more work).  Sometimes it’s possible to look beyond the love/hate relationship people develop with the over-hyped movies and apply some thought to it all.  And if you truly love movies, then that’s something you’ll want to be a part of.     

Thursday, June 27, 2013

"World War Z" Is Totally Decent, Even if It Is PG-13

Directed by Marc Forster, written by Matthew Michael Carnahan, Drew Goddard, Damon Lindelof, and J. Michael Straczynski, starring Brad Pitt, Mireille Enos, Daniella Kertesz, James Badge Dale, Fana Moekana, and David Morse - Rated PG-13 (ugh)

Yeah, a zombie movie gets a Kurgan.  Shocking, I know...

I wrote off World War Z months ago when I read an interview with Brad Pitt in which he admitted that there were massive re-shoots and plenty of setbacks in bringing the zombie-themed novel to the big screen.  A very large portion of the film was cut out entirely and new scenes had to be shot.  When stuff like that happens, it usually means the movie is going to be mediocre at best and a complete disaster at worst.  Surprisingly, WWZ turned out to be a tense, interesting summer action movie that has me anxiously waiting for a sequel. 
First off, I need to be docked a few geek points because I have never read the popular zombie novel.  It’s just one of those random books that I know I will love, but I keep finding other things to read first.  So this review is not going to be a judgment of how faithful of an adaptation WWZ is.  From what I’ve read, though, it has almost nothing in common with the novel aside from the name.  I imagine that is the case, especially since there is very little actual war going on in the film.  It’s more of a disaster movie, for better or worse.
WWZ is a disaster movie with zombies, though, which makes it much better than your standard disaster fare.  As a zombie movie, this doesn’t crack my top ten, but I really enjoy a good, traditional zombie movie, like Romero’s Day of the Dead, for instance.  This is not to say that WWZ is a bad movie, it’s just that the zombies aren’t all that interesting.  They are the fast kind, for one thing, and the film is rated PG-13, so the damage they inflict is not nearly as brutal as that of the TV show The Walking Dead. 
The PG-13 rating is truly this film’s biggest setback, but it doesn’t make the film less enjoyable, just less effective.  The zombies in general are treated in a unique way because of this.  So we can’t see a lot of gore and the zombies are fast, which means they have to be threatening without showing us up close and personal attacks.  This is why WWZ goes with the swarm/virus effect.  The zombies are the physical incarnation of a virus that wants to spread as fast as possible.  This means the zombies will swarm over each other to reach new heights.  It’s an interesting idea and it makes for some memorable set pieces in the film.  I thought the swarms looked a little too computer generated at times, but overall it was a fresh take on an old genre. 
"Shh...there, there.  This is PG-13, so that severed hand of yours isn't that bad.  There isn't even any blood."
Because of the virus take, WWZ also gets to be a bit different than most zombie movies because the main character, played by Brad Pitt, is a United Nations employee trying to find a cause (and possibly a cure) for the disease.  (Hats off to the filmmakers for finding a situation in which the UN seems to be useful!)  Normally, a zombie apocalypse film is about survival, not investigation.  I prefer the survival approach, but this aspect allowed a PG-13 zombie film to remain interesting. 
This isn’t CSI: Zombies or anything, however.  It is definitely an action movie and has the big sequences to prove it.  They are well done and hectic, but the best moments of the film are actually the quieter times.  Watching Brad Pitt and company sneak past zombies while trying to remain as quiet as possible is much more effective than watching them simply run away while stuff blows up.  I’m a big fan of tension in film and this film’s final third is filled with it. 
As for performances, Pitt is really the only actor who has much of anything to do in WWZ.  That doesn’t mean he gives an outstanding performance or anything, though.  He’s there to drive the action and be the main character.  He’s great at this, by the way; this just isn’t the role that allows him to do much. 
Perhaps it’s because of my low expectations, but World War Z really surprised me.  It had a lot going against it, like reshoots, a bloated budget, a PG-13…, but it overcame all of that to provide a flawed, but ultimately entertaining zombie movie.  Fans of the book might have issues, but zombie fans in general should find something to enjoy about this movie.  And for those who wanted more war in WWZ, keep your fingers crossed for the potential sequel.  If any of the stuff hinted at the end of the film is any indication, there’s plenty of action left in this potential franchise.  I’m just hoping they go for the R rating…
Random Thoughts (SPOILERS)
Okay, the ending was a bit weak, and it's obvious that that was where the film had been going before the reshoots and all.  I'm cool with the tense last portion at the WHO facility, but I also really want to see that battle in Russia.  I really want to see the war that was promised by the title.  Basically, this movie was more like World War Z: The Beginning or something...
If you look into what had been filmed, or at least written, for that final third, I think it would have been at least interesting.  Although Marc Forster is better suited for those tense scenes than the big battles and stuff...
That UN command ship is pretty harsh.  So Pitt goes missing for two days and they immediately boot his family off the boat?  I thought his decision to risk his life was like a lifetime guarantee for his family's safety.  Pretty sure if he'd been given the specifics of the deal he would've renogotiated before he took off for a very dangerous mission. 
Brad Pitt isn't the only person in the movie, of course.  Peter Capaldi (In the Loop) shows up, but it's kind of disappointing to see him play a boring doctor-type after seeing him verbally destroy people...
Matthew Fox is in there, too, as a soldier on a helicopter.  It is essentially the role of an extra.  From what I've read, his character is supposed to be expanded in a sequel.
David Morse was interesting as the weird CIA agent with no teeth.  I would definitely like to know more about what he knows.
James Badge Dale had some good scenes as well.  Cool to see him with the grizzled beard. 
Oh, I saw this is in 3D, but I'm not sure why...
Finally, while the film didn't deliver on finding a cause for the zombie outbreak, it did at least deal with it in a different way by having the characters find something to combat it.  Most zombie movies are much less optimistic and usually end with everyone dead or most likely going to die.  I love that about zombie movies, but it's nice to see the genre handled in a normal disaster movie way.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

"Man of Steel" Is No "Superman Returns," for Better or Worse...

Directed by Zack Snyder, written by David S. Goyer, story by Goyer and Christopher Nolan, starring Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Diane Lane, Laurence Fishburn, Kevin Costner, Russell Crowe, and Michael Shannon - Rated PG-13

The Kurgan is not a fan of humanity, but even he didn't kill this many people with his collateral damage...

Superman has had a rough (and strange) go of it in Hollywood over the years.  The promising start in the late 70s quickly fizzled out into arguably one of the worst movies ever made with Superman IV: The Quest for Peace.  In 2006, the franchise was revisited with Superman Returns, director Bryan Singer’s ode to the Richard Donner films. Returns was a critical and commercial success but somehow was not good enough to spark the franchise.  So here we are again with Man of Steel, a, for lack of a better word, grittier and more sci-fi influenced entry.  My gut reaction to this new version from Zack Snyder (300, Watchmen, Sucker Punch) is positive.  Man of Steel is a big, action-packed summer movie and it never slows down during its lengthy 140+ minute running time.  So if you want the short review, quit reading after this paragraph.  Man of Steel is worth the price of admission.  Now, if you want to know how it stacks up in the series (or you’ve seen it and you want to see if we agree or disagree about certain elements), keep reading, because that’s a trickier issue.
I referred to Man of Steel as a “gritty” movie above, and that’s a good starting point.  I didn’t want to use that word because it has become so unoriginal in modern cinema.  Gone are the days of a hero wearing a costume simply because that’s what he wore in the comic books.  Now we need a “realistic” hero that wears a uniform almost solely for its utility.  I’m actually okay with this approach if done correctly.  The best example of this is the recent series of Batman films.  I just don’t think this is completely necessary for every hero.  Superman has always been that squeaky clean hero (he still is, for the most part) that stood apart from the rest.  Man of Steel does not make Superman stand apart in the cinematic world; he is on the same level as Batman.  That’s not a bad place to be, but it’s not a different place, either. 
The grittiness of Man of Steel isn’t that major of a problem, and a squeaky clean version might have been a disaster.  But I can’t help but look back on Superman Returns and think that that is Superman done right.  No big deal, though; if I want that version of Superman, I have a DVD player. 
Man of Steel’s more realistic look is simply awesome, however.  Zack Snyder and his team (including Dark Knight director Christopher Nolan serving as a producer) have crafted detailed and interesting worlds.  From a purely visual standpoint, this film is far and above the best of the series.  That goes for the action as well.  While some of the sequences bordered on exhaustion, they were all impressive and showcased both Superman’s and his enemies’ incredible power.  That showcase of power might leave you feeling a little troubled, though (more on that later). 
Great action and visuals can be enough for some people (it certainly goes a long way for me) because of the entertainment value therein, but the casting of Superman and his opponent can also make or break a film like this.  Henry Cavill (Immortals) does a great job as both Clark Kent and Superman.  He is believable, looks natural in the uniform, and, most importantly, he’s likable.  Michael Shannon as General Zod is equally impressive.  I’ve been a fan of Shannon’s for years, but this is most likely the first time many viewers have seen him in a major role (although fans of HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” are already aware of his talent).  Shannon brings his usual intensity to the role.  This is an actor who can convey so much with a stare.  He’s not going to get an Oscar nomination or anything like that, but at least Man of Steel will showcase his talents to a larger audience.  The rest of the cast is just as strong, just in more limited capacities.  Amy Adams turns in yet another good performance as Lois Lane.  Russell Crowe holds the first twenty minutes of the film so well that I almost wished that had been its own movie.  Diane Lane and Kevin Costner provide the emotional impact of the film, most notably Costner in some scattered fatherly advice scenes (perfect timing, by the way, releasing this film on Father’s Day weekend).  Maybe it’s the memories of the father-son moments from Field of Dreams, but I found his scenes to be very effective.  And Laurence Fishburne provides some much-needed comic relief as Perry White, the editor of the Daily Planet.
I haven’t mentioned the plot yet because, well, it’s not terribly important to a film like this.  Like most, if not all, superhero movies, the safety of the entire world is at stake.  General Zod wants to turn Earth into a different planet that can sustain life for his nearly extinct race, and Superman must stop him.  Pretty simple, really.  Although there are quite a few moments and elements that might confuse you, it isn’t that big of a deal because it’s all done so well.  Of course, if you don’t care for the movie, then nitpicks about character motivation and inconsistencies will bother you much more.  I enjoyed the movie enough to lose focus on those elements and say, “Well, it is a comic book movie…”
Man of Steel does stretch a bit into the science fiction world, though, and that might be an issue for some.  I was surprised by how far into Krypton the movie went.  The portion of the film that takes place on Krypton is actually my favorite part, so I was definitely okay with seeing this new world and its technology brought to life.  It might be too much for some viewers.  But hey, The Avengers had an alien invasion and that was popular, so maybe audiences in general dig sci-fi more than I give them credit for.
The alien element in general was fine with me, but whenever a powerful enemy to earth is introduced, destruction must take place.  In the past, superhero movies were mainly about preventing death and destruction.  Now, it seems like killing unseen thousands (maybe millions) of people in a film is okay.  Not to spoil anything, but mass amounts of a large city are destroyed in this film, and it’s ridiculous to imagine that everyone made it out safely.  Multiple skyscrapers topple to the ground, yet we only see Superman get upset about humans dying when he has to actually see people in harm’s way.  I know that the audience doesn’t technically see any death happening in these action sequences, but anyone who thinks about it a little is bound to be troubled by what is happening off camera in these scenes.  I don’t know…I know these summer movies have to keep upping the ante with the destruction, but it leaves a bad aftertaste when that destruction involves buildings filled with innocent people.  This is where that “It’s just a comic book movie” line should help me out, but this part was just too much.
I’ve come to the conclusion that I like the Superman of Superman Returns a little more.  There was less collateral damage in that film, and it’s a feel-good movie, which is what a Superman film should be like.  Man of Steel is cooler, more action-packed, and more entertaining, but it doesn’t feel any different from all the rest of the superhero/summer movies out there.  This is not to say it’s a bad film.  I’m glad I watched it, and I plan on buying it on video and watching it many times again.  It’s just that it didn’t blow me away.  Perhaps this is simply a result of hype.  Man of Steel is the movie of the summer, what with all of the random product tie-ins (“Try the Super Bacon Burger at Hardee’s!  And be sure to check out Man of Steel!”).  I just got my hopes up way too high.  So I didn’t love Man of Steel.  I merely liked it…a lot.  Nothing wrong with that.  It is just a comic book movie, after all.
Random Thoughts (SPOILERS)
As always, the IMDb boards are a minefield of lovers and haters of the film, and they've covered any complaints I might have with the film.  But I still feel like airing some of my grievances here.
I had no clue if the Kryptonians were automatically superhuman when they got to earth or if they had to be exposed to the air.  I know that Zod changes when his mask is off, but the others who weren't exposed still seemed to possess Superman strength.  So was it the suits?  It's not that big of a deal because all the fights would suck if Superman just knocked them out with one punch, but it still left me a bit confused.
The biggest question I had after the movie was over was why Lois Lane was asked to board Zod's ship.  Someone on the boards said that it was because she could lead them to the codex.  I'll have to watch it again to see if that's ever stated or implied, but at the moment it seemed like she was just there to make sure Superman got out of a jam and he would've been screwed had she not been there. 
Speaking of the codex, all that business of genetic engineering and no natural births on Krypton had to be explained a bit too quickly, which is why I would love to see more of the story from Krypton.  That first part of the film is great, but soooooo much is going on that I feel like I need to watch it a few more times to pick up on everything. 
Back to the destruction.  Between this and Star Trek into Darkness, I've seen millions of people killed this summer.  I just don't understand why skyscrapers and entire cities have to be demolished in all of these movies.  Is everyone drinking the Roland Emmerich Kool-aid? 
I was hoping the whole Clark Kent wears glasses and Superman doesn't gimmick wouldn't come into play with this incarnation, but I guess some things are sacred.  Can't take Batman out of the Batcave, right?  (Although that facility he was in in The Dark Knight wasn't much of a cave, per se, and people love that one more than all of the others...but whatever.)  I just figured they would abandon that because it's supposed to be a bit more realistic.  I mean, it took Lois a day or two to figure it out?  How hard could it be to identify him in this world they have created?  At least make Superman grow a beard or something when he's Kent.  Speaking of which, anyone else notice that when Clark saw the suit in the ship he had stubble, but he was clean-shaven the very next scene as he was flying around?  So can he grow and discard facial hair at will?  Was there a Bic on the spaceship?  (Or a Gillette?  Is that the tie-in for this?)  All joking aside, there should be more to it than just glasses and a slightly different hairstyle.  If everything else gets the gritty new realistic upgrade, then this aspect should too.
Finally, just because I prefer Returns doesn't mean I think Routh is a better Superman.  (Honestly, the goofiness of Returns and Kevin Spacey's performance is what put me over the edge.)  I think both Routh and Cavill are great as Superman in their respective films, but neither would work as well in the other film.  Routh is better for the goofy Clark Kent stuff while Cavill makes for a more believable powerhouse.  Perhaps Cavill could work in Returns, but no way would Routh fit in Man of Steel.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

"This Is the End" Makes the Apocalypse a Very Funny Thing

Written and directed by Evan Goldberg and Seth Rogen, based on the short film by Jason Stone, starring Rogen, Jay Baruchel, James Franco, Danny McBride, and Jonah Hill - Rated R

The Kurgan loved it, but he thinks all end of the world movies are funny...
Reviewing comedies isn’t really my thing these days, but I do make exceptions for interesting comedies.  This Is the End is, at the very least, an interesting film.  End is unique not because it boasts a who’s who from comedic films of the last decade; it is different because all of the actors are playing themselves (sort of).  The fact that this is the most anticipated comedy of the year for me (and others, I assume) says something about our obsession with celebrity.  Is it an easy laugh to just have Seth Rogen play himself and riff on his past successes and failures to a knowing audience?  Yeah, but it’s still a laugh.  In a world filled with Kardashians and Real Housewives, I don’t think it’s all that terrible to use celebrity for comedy.  At least these people are doing it intentionally.  I was laughing with the guys of This Is the End; whenever I am forced to watch the other type of “celebrities,” I’m laughing at them.
Celebrity aside, This Is the End takes a familiar premise, the end of the world, and plays it for laughs.  It only makes sense that we’ve come to this.  There are so many hyper-serious end of the world movies out there.  Isn’t it time we laugh about it?  And honestly, who hasn’t had the conversation with their friends about what they would do if the world ended or how (zombies, rapture, aliens?) they wish it would end?  For anyone who has thought or talked about the end of the world, or needs a break from the bleakness of films like The Road, this film is for you.
As with all comedies, though, it all comes down to whether or not you like the actors.  I don’t want to spoil all of the cameos (although most surprises have been shown in previews), but there should be something for nearly everyone in this film.  That said, the main players are Rogen, Jay Baruchel, James Franco, Craig Robinson, Danny McBride, and Jonah Hill.  Most people enjoy most if not all of these actors, but some might be put off by a few of them. 
What’s great about End is that you might like it even if you hate some of these guys.  This is a very aware movie.  Rogen comments that some people find his laugh annoying; Franco is called out for his perceived pretentiousness, etc.  Once again, these are easy laughs, but laughs nonetheless. 
The only issue some may have with the film is the amount of references to other works.  It’s not required that you see everything else these guys have done, but it certainly helps.  I’m a big fan of most of these actors, so I was able to pick up on references to Freaks and Geeks, Eastbound & Down, Your Highness, and Pineapple Express, to name a few.  I would say the closest thing to required viewing is Pineapple Express.  The majority of that cast is in this film, and they even film a homemade sequel to it within the film.  You might not find that sequence funny if you have no clue what they’re referencing. 
This Is the End is mainly about the apocalypse, though.  While it is filled with outlandish laughs, there is still the very serious threat of death and eternal damnation throughout the film.  If there is a message behind it, it’s about friendship and being a good person (which are lacking qualities among the cast of this film, apparently).  This is hardly a message film, but at least there’s a little something there. 
No one is going to this movie to learn about being a good person or friend.  This movie is all about the laughs.  I loved it, but as I like to point out, my sense of humor might be (and usually is) different from the general population’s.  Perhaps the main two things to keep in mind if you’re on the fence about this movie are that it’s rated R and the cast is almost exclusively male.  Some people don’t take the R rating all that seriously, but they should.  This is certainly not a comedy for children.  It’s not a comedy for easily offended adults, either.  It’s not the filthiest comedy by a long shot, but it’s definitely not squeaky clean.  As for the lack of women in the film, this didn’t bother me (probably because I’m a man), but it might be hard for some women to identify with many of the comedic moments since this is very much a movie for the guys.  In fact, when a woman finally does show up (another moment played up in the previews) the guys instantly tense up and create a very awkward situation.  I can see a lot of women enjoying it, but they are not the target audience.
This Is the End is a comedy tailor made for fans of the all the actors involved.  So this movie is made for people like me, which is why I loved it.  But even if it’s not for you, I think it’s possible to enjoy it.  Because even if you don’t like them, it’s still funny to watch celebrities have to deal with problems that can’t be taken care of with money and fame.  And, finally, look at it this way: if you hate some of these actors, at least you get to watch some of them die.

Random Thoughts (SPOILERS)
I didn't really mention it at all in the review itself because it was getting too long as it is, and I didn't feel like finding a logical spot to include it, but Rogen and writing/directing partner Evan Goldberg deserve a lot of credit here.  Not just for the writing and everything (they've already proven that they can write some funny stuff), but for the directing.  The death scenes were handled well, and they created a decent hellscape with what I assume is a relatively small budget for an apocalyptic film.  The CG was a little cheap-looking, but I can't imagine who would care about that.  Anyway, hats off to Rogen and Goldberg. 
Okay, now for the cameos that I loved.  Michael Cera.  I know, I know, it's all in the previews, but I still found him hilarious.  To take such a notoriously softspoken actor like that and turn him into a cocaine-blowing psycho is hilarious enough; to imagine that that is what Cera is like in reality makes it doubly funny. 
All the rest of the little cameos are great and all, but Channing Tatum showing up later as McBride's dog/sex slave was amazing.  I lost it when McBride said he had taught him to do tricks.
Not really a spoiler, but a final note: All of these guys yelling expletives at each other will always make me laugh, but for some reason when they do it as versions of themselves, I find it absolutely hilarious.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Who Honestly Still Enjoys Vince Vaughn's "Comedies"?*

*Of course, everything written below falls under my opinions about comedies in general.  Some people like the movies below that I call bland, and those people will probably like this new film, as well.  This is just my personal reaction to Vince Vaughn's career.
"We need more than a premise for this to be funny?  Oh, crap."
I liked Swingers, Made, Old School, and Wedding Crashers as much as anyone, but Vince Vaughn’s shtick has finally worn thin.  This started to occur to me when I watched the terribly bland The Watch.  Vaughn was simply annoying in that film.  Then I watched him host SNL and attempt to do some crowd work that ended up being awkward and, worse, not funny at all.  Now he’s reunited with Owen Wilson (a comedic actor who has also lost a step, but he tried to kill himself a while back, so I’ll chalk his fallout up to personal issues) for The Internship.  On paper, this sounds like a movie I would go see.  It reunited the Wedding Crashers team, has a potentially amusing corporate tie-in (Google), and it’s about out-of-touch older guys getting schooled by young people.  I was willing to pay some money to see that until I saw the first preview (check it out below).
The Internship preview didn’t evoke so much as a smile from me.  That’s not a good sign for a comedy.  I’m all for a movie saving the funny moments for the film itself, but I do not think that’s what’s going on with this one.  Why would Hollywood decide to go against the grain for this unassuming summer comedy?  So this preview is the “good” stuff.  Wow.  It’s not that the material isn’t funny, it’s that most of it doesn’t even seem like it’s supposed to be funny.  The majority of it is exposition that painfully reinforces the gimmicks that Vaughn and Wilson are older and they are interns.  The problem with the premise is that it seems unlikely that guys their age would be so tech illiterate.  I can get past the premise if the material is funny, but it doesn’t look like that’s going to be the case.  By the way, this is not some pre-review.  I acknowledge that I have not seen this film yet and it might actually be something I enjoy.  I just highly doubt that I will.
So the preview sucks.  Big deal.  This is a Vince Vaughn movie.  The humor is not in slapstick comedy or pop cultural references (the Flashdance reference was odd; the Professor X thing was kind of amusing, but once again, like these guys wouldn’t at least be slightly aware of that character?).  The humor is in Vaughn’s famous rambling rants. 
Vaughn hovered on the edge of drama and comedy for a bit of his career until he finally embraced his most popular early character’s persona from Swingers.  That fast talking hipster cracked people up with his exaggerated metaphors about how picking up a woman is like a bear killing a bunny.  That metaphor doesn’t sound funny by itself, but let Vince Vaughn run with it and it becomes a memorable, hilarious tirade.  Vaughn was able to keep this up for years, and it was great, but something has changed. 
At first I thought that maybe it was improvisation and now directors and screenwriters were holding him back.  But Vaughn is a credited screenwriter on The Internship.  He also received credit for Couples Retreat and The Break-Up, two mediocre comedies.  So he’s been unfunny when the material was at least slightly up to him.  So what’s the problem?  I can only assume that it’s complacency and repetition.  He skated by for so long that he stopped trying.  Just check out that SNL monologue for proof.  He is not trying at all.  Vaughn just spouts off random crap, calling himself a “tall drink of water,” blathering about energy, and giving vague, unfunny compliments to uncomfortable strangers.  Check it out HERE if you want to ruin eight minutes of your life.  The point is that Vaughn’s usual banter isn’t good enough anymore. 
"Now listen here, pretty babies.  This tall drink of water is going to make some magice tonight.  We're going to share some moments.  I'll keep talking until you nervously start to laugh because that's what I do, honey.  Oh, and you, you glorious son of a bitch, you know what's I'm talking about.  I'm going to talk to you like I'm slightly familiar with you until you or other people start to laugh.  No one laughing yet?  That's okay, you lovable bastards, you, because I'll keep talking until the sheer exhaustion of listening to my voice forces you to sigh in such a way that it sort of sounds like laughter.  That's just what I do.  That's what I bring to the table."
Most troubling for Vaughn is that it seems like audiences are agreeing with me.  The Watch didn’t do well, and that one movie before it, The Dilemma (which I had to look up because I had already forgotten about that dull crap fest) bombed, and The Internship is predicted to finish behind The Purge, a non-franchise horror film starring Ethan Hawke, this weekend.
Things don’t look much better in the immediate future for Vaughn.  The teaser trailer for Delivery Man features him saying “What?” and “I don’t have mental problems” twice…and that’s it (I've included it below for proof).  I know it’s just a teaser, but a teaser is still allowed to be a little funny, just look at the new Anchorman movie. 
 The look on his face says it all...
Speaking of Anchorman, according to IMDb, Vaughn is reprising his role of Wes Mantooth.  Maybe there is a light at the end of the tunnel.  Odds are, though, Vaughn isn’t going to wake up and be the funny guy we all remember.  He’ll skate on by into comedy oblivion.  But there’s still Mantooth.  I doubt that his cameo in the new Anchorman will amount to much, but it does allow me to finish this article with this line: There’s hope in Mantooth.