The Lone Ranger’s Unbankable Intrigue

At the beginning of Matt Zoller Seitz’s review of The Lone Ranger he encapsultes exactly what’s right and wrong with the film in my eyes:

Like “Speed Racer” and “John Carter” before it, “The Lone Ranger” is a movie with no constituency to speak of. It’s a gigantic picture with a klutzy, deeply un-cool hero (Armie Hammer of “The Social Network”), based on a property that most young viewers don’t know or care about. It arrives in theaters stained by gossip of filmmaker-vs.-studio budget wars, and concerns that its star and co-executive producer, Johnny Depp, would play the Ranger’s friend and spirit guide, Tonto, as a Native American Stepin Fetchit, stumbling around in face-paint and a dead-crow tiara. The film’s poster image might as well have been a target. Too bad: for all its miscalculations, this is a personal picture, violent and sweet, clever and goofy. It’s as obsessive and overbearing as Steven Spielberg’s “1941” — and, I’ll bet, as likely to be re-evaluated twenty years from now, and described as “misunderstood.”

You really should read the whole review it’s simply replete with brilliant observations about the movie, but what struck me most was that beginning wherein it enumerates not only kind of how I walked out of the film feeling but also what was miscalculated about it in terms of its being a tentpole.

The Lone Ranger (2013, Disney)

As I tweeted when the numbers started coming in, and I should’ve put it out there earlier, you could’ve seen the box office failure of the film coming. It was a film that almost didn’t happen and after John Carter flopped you thought it might not. It’s almost like they went back to a well that ran dry hoping to find water this time because they brought Johnny Depp along.

Lack of Bankability

The Lone Ranger (2013, Disney)

Not to sound too crass, as I did like it, but clearly the same inherent issues that John Carter had in terms of bringing out the masses The Lone Ranger was sure to have. It seems tiresome but every time there’s some sort of box office bomb it makes me want to list who is involved. Yes, there are still plenty of good actors and movie stars, but guaranteed draws are very few.

Off the top of my head it seems only Tom Cruise and Adam Sandler get people to show up, but even Cruise had the under-viewed Jack Reacher just recently. As with Sandler, I have to wonder how much of that is morbid curiosity because after seeing Grown Ups 2 I wanted to curl up into the fetal position, weep and wish it was still 1999.

So, in spite of the fact that this film also is a good one, likely a much better one than John Carter, I never saw it as a money-maker. I couldn’t have predicted how insanely Despicable Me 2 would open (It really is Universal’s year it seems; R.I.P.D. notwithstanding) but in a vacuum this is not one I had high hopes for in that regard.

Disney Issues

The Lone Ranger (2013, Disney)

It’s even more frustrating because if you follow what Disney does you know they acquired Lucasfilm and will be bringing Star Wars back. Sure that cost a lot of money both in acquisition and the production of the five announced films, but could they just grin and bear it for a while and know they’ll see a return on that investment, especially with the Marvel leviathan growing ever bigger? No, they just had to gut their hand-drawn animation staff.

Yes, hand-drawn is costly, but it did all begin with a mouse and all those investments will yield dividends but you can’t forget where you came from. New Mickey cartoons are great but it’s bittersweet to say the least.

Reflexive Western

The Lone Ranger (2013, Disney)

Back to The Lone Ranger, as for the film itself, it’s constructed in such a way that we can likely go back to it and start parsing the visual cues and narrative references to diagram the deconstruction of the western, as Zoller Seitz does and this review does.

It takes an old character, and perhaps a cynical, nihilistic advantage of older connotations of Disney films and toys with expectations and creates this The Lone Ranger perhaps the only way he can exist now and re-creates Tonto perhaps as he always should have been.

Does Depp being Depp undercut some of the commentary being made on race and the old west, Manifest Destiny and all the rest? That was something I grappled with as the film played. In the end, I don’t think it does for narrative perspective has to be taken into account. This is really Tonto’s story from the opening shot to when he tells The Lone Ranger to “Never do that again,” after finally breaking out the anticipated (by those who know something of the character) catch phrase “Hi-yo, Silver, away!” at the very end.

The Lone Ranger (2013, Disney)

There’s lamentation and regret from both characters in this tale: The Ranger for his lost ideals, and Tonto for his naive mistake. In some ways the film plays like a lament of the loss of the old Western, not the Old West. When film and society was more naive the Western was the canvas of absolute ideals, as we’ve come to terms with our past as a nation and further world events have stripped that naïveté; the Western had to grow up. The films are now adult tales for adults who remember the genre as children and don’t cater as well to a young audience anymore because it’s not really in the pop culture landscape anymore, not for kids.

While this allows the film to do some interesting thing in terms of commenting on genre, history, race, the country in general; it’s not box office material, especially considering the amount of money invested in this film.

Lastly, the character of Tonto, for how it used to be portrayed, is likely a racist symbol to many. Honestly, the only exposure to the character I had as a kid was in SNL parodies of Tonto, Tarzan and Frankenstein. I don’t think there will be a consensus of where this rendition falls. All I know is in culturally sensitive matters there is never a unanimous sentiment and hardly ever a consensus. From my perspective, as one who had my defenses up waiting for something that crossed the line, I really don’t think it did. Especially when the tribe s introduced and explains Tonto’s story.

The Lone Ranger (2013, Disney)

When one went in not knowing what to expect it was far too easy to be caught off-guard by the film; far too easy too take it at face value as over-produced, overly-expensive fluff, but there’s more to it than meets the eye, which is what makes it interesting even if it won’t make it profitable.

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Samuel L. Jackson: The Unbreakable Avenger

Warning: if for some strange reason you have yet to see Unbreakable you should before reading this, there are spoilers within.

When I saw that Bubbawheat was doing a blog-a-thon covering actors in comic book movies, I thought it was very appropriate. Now there generally is a delineation between comic book and superhero films, and there is value at looking at individual actors who have appeared in this kind of movie multiple times. However, one of these roles played by Samuel L. Jackson is in a film that toes the line very carefully.

Now, when referring specifically to the superhero film it’s especially interesting because we are currently immersed in a seeming golden age of the the Superhero film. There were occasional bursts of greatness, but now these kinds of tales are attracting not only the state of the art techniques, not only A-List actors, but also top directors and writers to the cause creating richer, more human stories, that are still filled with incredible spectacle. In short, we’re getting a much more complete film than we ever thought we were going to get from the genre.

However, being in the midst of such an age sometimes we don’t necessarily stop and look around to see how we’ve gotten to where we are. Looking at some actors who have participated in many of these films can start to show us some of the indicators of the rise of this subgenre.

The Avengers (2012, Marvel/Disney)

Samuel L. Jackson is a man who has been myriad films from record-setting blockbusters to small indies he believes in and wants to help out. Sam himself may have a type and a persona, however, he doesn’t allow that to pigeonhole the kind of film he does. It’s funny that I find myself writing about Sam Jackson again so soon after I named him 2012’s Entertainer of the Year, but a line I wrote in that post came back to me as I scanned the list of candidates for this blog-a-thon. With regards to his still-ongoing portrayal of Nick Fury in Marvel’s Phase One, I parallel it to Alan Rickman‘s work as Severus Snape.

Aside from the fact that Rickman appeared in one series, and Jackson’s portrayal of Fury is part of a universe of franchise films, there are really a few similarities of note. If you’re looking just at the film textually, and not inferring any pre-acquired information from the comic books, Fury’s presences in each film is a necessity, but it’s nebulous. We try, as we go from tale to tale, to ferret out his nature and his intentions. Ultimately we see his main desire in Phase One is the creating The Avengers. However, and there is some follow-through on this in The Avengers itself, being the head of an intelligence organization he does dabble in a gray area much of the time, and that was set-up bit by bit in the films leading up to The Avengers and expanded there. I can only imagine that as the Marvel films proliferate that his character will continue evolve and become richer.

Now, make no mistake about it Fury is most definitely on the right side of the divide. The other of his comic book film characters I am taking a closer look at is Elijah Price in M. Night Shyamalan’s Unbreakable. Now, this character brings to mind another statement I made in writing about Jackson’s entertainer of the year award, in the four films I cited in that award (The Good Samaritan, Meeting Evil, Django Unchained and The Avengers) he was a protagonist in two and an antagonist in the other two. He usually splits that fairly. Now, Price’s confrontational and difficult demeanor is apparent throughout. The twist, when Shyamalan still did them, is that views himself as the super-villain in his delusional relationship with David Dunn (Bruce Willis).

Unbreakable (2000, New Line Cinema)

This was a film well ahead of its time. There are quite a few reflexive superhero tales around now from the well-known and well-done Kick-Ass, to lesser known ones of lesser quality. However, Unbreakable, about which sequel rumors persist to this day is the kind of film that really could, and still can, have a sequel blow up and be something far greater than the original.

I’m not a critic of Unbreakable. I do like it, however, it’s not a film that’s impeccably rendered like The Sixth Sense is, or even like Shyamalan’s earlier film Wide Awake is. Jackson is a self-proclaimed comic fan, Ubreakable was his first title in the milieu and his filmography since then bears that out.

As either the persistent, hovering-around-the-periphery lynchpin on the Marvel universe or the injury-riddled, megalomaniac always seeking the yin to his yang, Samuel L. Jackson has always had an aptitude for injecting superhero films with life, for creating layered characters with quite a few notes to them. As the subgenre progresses one can only imagine Jackson going along with it and adding his own unique flavor to the entries to come.

March to Disney: Introduction

Though it really kicked off in my last Short Film Saturday post, and there were Disney titles among my 31 days of Oscar selections, this is where my March to Disney theme starts in earnest.

As to the timing of this focus, that owes itself to the fact that I will be going to Disney World during this month. Naturally it would seem to be the right time to get caught up and re-focus on their titles.

A brief history of my relationship with Disney films is as follows:

So far as I can remember a re-release of Bambi was the first film I went to see on the big screen. Bambi, of course, being one of the more silent and also more marking of the Disney animated features due to the fact that it not only tells the tale of an orphaned child, but within the story includes the death of Bambi’s mother.

Aside from that I saw many of the classics countless times as a kid.

My first trip to Disney World occurred when I was fairly young.

As I grew, and started to watch films in all forms, my horizons, of course, expanded. There was the occasional Disney title that would then not interest me, and after seeing Hercules, and disliking it a great deal; I went on a hiatus.

However, I did return. Now, through my fandom of Disney, I have come to a very safe and accurate, I feel, metaphor about said fandom. If you like the product of a studio its akin to being the fan of a sports team, your loyalty does not forbid your honesty. Yes, there are things about the company in terms of business over the years, and on the creative side, that I don’t necessarily agree with. However, that doesn’t color my view of their titles I’ve seen that work for me and I enjoy.

Aside from the timing of the trip this is also a focused and concerted effort to get DVDs or Blus that I haven’t gotten to yet seen. So there will be some re-assessments, reviews and other pieces and based on what I’ve already seen. I’ll likely rank the Disney feature-length Animated films, the crown jewels in their empire.

For a number of years, namely the ones where I was off elsewhere, Disney was fairly lost. Now, however, it seems that regardless of which branch of the family tree you’re discussing they’re doing fairly well both creatively and financially. Many of the pieces I write will be on the animated films, both during and after Walt’s time, but there will also be discussion of their live action ventures and maybe some talk of the more recently acquired subsidiaries of note namely Pixar, Marvel and LucasFilm.

So my first post on an individual film should be up tomorrow. Enjoy!

Hero Whipped: Richie Rich

It’s been a while since I’ve done a Hero Whipped piece and I was considering this idea and several others to liven things up. If you’ve not read one of these posts before. Since the introduction the focus has been on one character, one who appears in comics but usually in many kinds of media, including films, of course.

With regards to Richie Rich there are really quite a few avenues of my return to comics, not to mention that but also the relationship between comics and film, which I can touch upon here. Before getting to a specific case study, which is where this post will differentiate itself. I’ll go through a bit of character history, as well as personal history with the character.

Histories

Richie Rich (Classic Media)

Richie Rich is one of the characters I grew up with when I was first reading comics before I abandoned them. The fate of his character and Harvey Comics was one of the hard truths I had to come to terms with upon returning to enjoying the medium after about a decade and a half hiatus.

Now, he and other Harvey creations aren’t exactly dead in the water. Harvey Comics met its demise not too long after the release of the Richie Rich film. It was second major film project based on their characters and ironically, the single-issue adaptation of the film’s story was actually released by Marvel, and that’s where the case study will come in.

Since Harvey went under the characters of their universe have undergone quite a journey. They were reprinted in a series of collections, most of which are now hard-to-find, by Dark Horse Comics.

Richie Rich: Rich Rescue (Ape Entertainment)

However, that didn’t last long, but Richie Rich has been revitalized through Ape Entertainment’s Kidzoic label. What Ape, with aid of the old hands that are still with us, have managed to do is that they’ve modernized the character in appearance, behavior and plot, but kept Richie’s essence the same. Through Rich Rescue he still gets into capers but the tales are more formalized and less random. He rings a bit more true but is still essentially a good kid, and not the spoiled silver spoon baby one would expect. Reggie, his antagonistic cousin, is a bit more rounded. The art is also more malleable inasmuch as there are reprints/recolorings of old tales as well as new stories with classical design of the characters.

Richie Rich (Classic Media)

Then last year, Classic Media, which is the company that took control of the intellectual property of Harvey and a couple of other companies was purchased by DreamWorks. This development is great for the future of these characters. Firstly, it doesn’t seem like right now it’ll endanger rekindled comic adaptations (while Star Wars comics will migrate to Marvel, comics based on Disney’s characters remain entrenched at Boom Studios, and Disney has never really had a proprietary brand) I don’t foresee DreamWorks or Classic Media entering the fray either, but do believe Spielberg/DreamWorks will try and build upon his investment, and considering he was executive producer on the first Casper cinematic incarnation, other films may be in the offing.

The Harvey Universe would be a prime candidate (and this could be a list at some point) for a motion capture treatment in the future.

Which brings me to the specific.

Case Study

Richie Rich (Warner Bros./Marvel)

Before I revisited, and read Richie Rich more voraciously than I ever had before my departure from comics, I hovered around what was in part wrong with the film version. I think if I saw the film again, I’d still like it but there’d be similar issues for me.

Culkin (and here may be another list ranking his films) was not necessarily the wrong choice for the part, but the part was written more to suit him than the character, there’s the occasional precociousness and snark that’s really not Richie. There’s that origin of meeting his friends where the trite envy is built in where the greedy adult world is really what’s supposed to be the enemy. Richie, his father and mother are fictitious, altruistic billionaires that are all childlike counter-capitalists in their desire to always do right over what’s profitable, yet, due to their virtue always come out swimming in money. This nuanced tonality, even with some similar dialogue and plot points comes through a lot better in a comic version of the film tale because the performances are my interpretations through reading rather than being presented a concrete interpretation onscreen.

Richie Rich (1994, Warner Bros.)

Granted some of this commentary runs counter to some of my fanboy advice, but it’s a lot easier to avoid these pitfalls when there are multiple cinematic versions to fall back on. With Richie Rich there’s just this one major film and the TV show. It’s still a better more complete film than the latter TV project Richie Rich’s Christmas with David Gallagher, but a more creative dynamic with thew friends and perhaps someone like Elijah Wood in the lead would’ve worked better.

With recent sociopolitical developments the atmosphere’s right for a new, more mature, dare I even say deep, handling of this character. The time has definitely come I think for a screen return of some kind and a continued proliferation in comics for Richie Rich.

Hero Whipped: Why This Spider-Man Amazed Me

In this series of posts I tend to discuss comic book characters and my unique relationship with them since my fairly recent return to reading them again and I usually find a way to connect them back to movies somehow. However, since I decided that my posts may be a little different from hereon in, these posts may have a slightly different vibe to them.

Sure enough after that post The Amazing Spider-Man was one of the first things I saw. Now, in spite of my recent tendency to like superhero movies either a lot as the case is with say The Avengers and X-Men: First Class or somewhat as is the case with Thor or Green Lantern, the new Spider-Man hearkens me back to the original trilogy which were all released during my hiatus. Thus, this will be a heavily filmic post but it’s perhaps the most unique perspective I’ve yet had on a character.

It may be possible that I knew less about Spider-Man going into that first movie than I’ve known about almost any superhero before seeing their film. It was released at a time where I was typically attending films in a group so the selection process was fairly democratic. Going alone or with at least one other person, I could take it or leave it. To give you a sense of my lack of knowledge, after having seen it I was informed that in the books Peter created a web-shooter and it wasn’t a biological side-effect of the bite. So that frames it a bit.

However, I was a fairly blank slate. I didn’t have expectations I was just reacting to what I saw on the screen and what I saw there was something I didn’t care for much at all. In the post-film powwow I was the only dissenting opinion who chimed in “Well, I thought it really sucked.” I’ve never really had the urge to revisit it and the bad taste in my mouth kept me from seeing the other two.

I could identify easily enough with the elements of the story. Few and far between are the heroes whose archetypes that have a major variable. It was really a letdown in my eyes aesthetically, technically and viscerally. With regards to the viscera a lot of that boiled down to the casting of the leads. There is a certain alchemy in all of filmmaking but perhaps where it’s most present is in acting. Yes, there is a lot of technique and things that are good acting and bad acting just like in any aspect of filmmaking, however, an effective performer who doesn’t excite you in anyway is likely to be less engaging than a less technically skilled actor who is gripping, who has a presence. Tobey Maguire is not a bad actor and neither is Kirsten Dunst. I don’t find them interesting in any way, shape or form though. They bore me more often than not. It’s really a casting issue. Maguire is going to be seen in The Great Gatsby next. That’s great casting. He belongs in that film, here I didn’t care for it.

The casting and the actors get no help in the story department I remembered feeling it tepid and trite, nothing out of the ordinary, and getting back to the alchemy thing you have actors I felt were miscast, not particularly dynamic and then no chemistry too? Brilliant.

I was also not in the camp that ooh-ed and ahh-ed at the CG. Good effects work, truly good effects work is timeless. I doesn’t just stand up against contemporary expectations but stands the test of time too. I felt they were lacking in 2002, much less now. Whereas there are shots in Jurassic Park that are still astounding almost 20 years later.

It really seems in superhero cinema that much of it boils down to character, in the better ones performance, and spectacle. Very few are those films that will also make you legitimately, consistently, and even spontaneously, feel strong pangs of genuine emotion (Teaser: I got a lot of that in the new Batman and that’s the next in this series!).

Perhaps one of the most vivid memories I have of watching any movie ever was the first time I saw Batman. You know the 1989 one, back when Tim Burton was Tim Burton.

“Have you ever danced with the devil in the pale moonlight?” And thus, the crap was scared out of me and I was in love with that movie.

With Spider-Man you do have a basis for many emotions in the construction of his origin. As superhero films proliferate there will be more and more merit to the arguments about the viability of origin stories, however, in rebooting a series I have no problem with retelling. Similarity by itself is not cause enough for ridicule. Take the Psycho remake for instance (please?), if Van Sant had merely done the story over again: same place, same time, same characters, names; that probably would’ve been fine. However, he took it a step further into cinematic photocopying, which just felt flat.

I can stand a retelling, as I think I’ve stated before: I am fine with multiple versions of stories existing (and when I like the story I seek them out). I clearly wanted to be re-told this story based on my reaction to the first film. So, what was it in this new Spider-Man that worked for me? In short, practically everything.

However, as you may have guessed, it starts with Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone. Just by looking at Andrew Garfield you may not imagine he’s the dynamic performer, but if you watch him you soon find out. I first saw him in The Red Riding Trilogy and I was a fan. There are quite a few things that perturbed me about The Social Network, but he wasn’t one of them, at all. Robbed of an Oscar nomination, is what he was.

Then there’s Emma Stone. I think everybody loves Emma Stone at this point. If you don’t you probably aren’t watching that many movies.

There’s a certain quietness and introspection to this film that allows the emotion to be wrenched out of it. I spoke of spectacle above, spectacle is very external. In many of these films there is rarely introspection. This film manages to do that, build these characters but also steadily build the intrigue. The characters arc, you see what makes them tick, you see and understand their decisions and I felt for them.

Now, the dynamic was changed in this film by bringing Gwen Stacy into the mix rather than Mary Jane Watson. Now, in my return to comics I haven’t delved into Spider-Man really. I’ve only really gotten to know and like him from his teaming up with The Fantastic Four after The Human Torch’s temporary demise, so Gwen was new to me and I think involving her is a great story decision that just makes this film that much better and resonant.

On a technical level, not only do scenes tend to be intensified by occurring at night but the filmmakers figured out that the web-swinging looks better then. Another interesting aesthetic note to me was that the camera was very much controlled, not an over-abundance of motion. The shots look good and composed and it hearken back to earlier superhero films, but are made with newer toys.

All those proclivities aside here are the two true litmus tests for superhero movies as I see them: One, do I want to see the inevitable sequel? Two, does the film make me want to seek out the character in print? The answer to both those questions is a a resounding hell yes. And that is why this Spider-Man amazed me.

Review- The Avengers

So here it is at last, the convergence of all the Marvel has been working for with its recent films. It’s the make-your-head-explode conception sure to delight many a film geek and comic book nerd the world over. Surely almost any film would implode under these nearly insurmountable expectations and such deafening hype, right? Wrong.

What we turn to summer movie fare for are spectacles. It’s where we want the ultimate in escapism, and have been let down over and over again. The Avengers name is in some ways a meta-textual one as it avengers many of the over-hyped bombs of the past but it really does is delivered as expected and so much more.

The tale is a simple one wherein the Tesseract, a stone that is a source of renewable energy and power, has fallen into the hands of the megalomaniac Loki (Tom Hiddleston). Enter S.H.I.E.L.D., headed by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) who has had small appearances in the previous Marvel films building to this event, the assemblage of the Avengers, a superhero team to combat a super threat. The tale being rather straight-forward is a great thing here because it allows the film to do something these films don’t usually do: introduce and build the characters, create conflict and investment on behalf of the audience. In the end, you want the heroes to save the world, of course, but you also want for the heroes to succeed to avenge their enemies and vanquish their demons. A rare feat, and colossal when you consider how many characters this applies to.

The common thread that applies to all the characters and actors in this film is that even though they’ve all had their own film(s) none of them have been better in their given part than they are here. Which is slightly a contrarian thought because you’d think with less screen time each and so many characters it’d end up being insufficient and watered down, nothing could be further from the truth.

Thor (Chris Hemsworth), due to the fact that Loki is his brother, has the most invested in this cause. His entrance into the tale is spectacular and one of the many memorable moments this film offers.

Captain America (Chris Evans) is great here in many ways. Not only is he perhaps the most idealistic of the characters in the context of this story but he also has similar baggage to Thor in as much as he too is a bit displaced, Thor in place and Captain America in time. His moments come both in dialogue and in a few battles.

Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.) is back and better than ever. I’ll discuss Whedon’s writing and directing more later, but having Tony Stark be the one who is confrontational and snarky about the team is one of the film’s best touches. It gives him a journey as first he’s arrogant, the most informed on the dossier and then has to make it work with this crew because that’s the only way it’ll happen. I cannot describe his best moment as it’d be a massive spoiler if you’re one of the few who hasn’t seen it yet.

As for The Hulk, I did trudge through the previous two attempts to make his character work in a full-length motion picture. It didn’t work at all until now. This character was really the gamble, he’s a major “new addition” to characters who had recently gotten their own successful big screen ventures. They could’ve pulled someone else in but they went back to the the Hulk. This time it pays off big time. This is all thanks to both the way the character is written, again to not say too much, and also Mark Ruffalo’s tremendous performance.

Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) also makes a return after first appearing in Iron Man 2, however, here is where her character really develops and quite frankly she’s amazing in this. Not only in the fighting scenes but she’s also playing subtext and conveying emotion brilliantly. As the girl in the group she’s outnumbered but by no means outmatched.

Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) is an example of impeccable casting. Due to the way the film structures itself he suits the role perfectly well and does some pretty awesome jumping about and target shooting.

Every superhero film needs a villain and the best thing this film does is it has one and one only. We know who he is early and focus on him. He gets his thralls but is allowed to flex and posture and does his darndest to convince us that things won’t work out in the end. Tom Hiddleston far outdoes himself in this encore.

Joss Whedon is someone I’ll admit I didn’t know a lot about until very recently. I knew the name but I had not seen a lot of his work. However, in light of his role as co-writer and producer of The Cabin in the Woods I’ve started to see some more and I can say that his contributions to this film are massive. He clearly has immense respect for this material but also knows how to play with it. The respect is evident in that despite the fact that this film end with a massive, near-cataclysmic, jaw-dropping action sequence it takes the time to get these characters together see how they gel or create friction, sort through some of their baggage and get people moments that they earn.

The effects in the film are, of course, tremendous. I did happen to see the movie in 3D and I would say that it’s one you can enjoy just as much without it. The difference made is negligible.

So to those of us who wondered if a super-group superhero film could work, the answer is a resounding yes. Anticipation quenched and all we wonder now is where it’ll go from here.

10/10

Review- Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (Columbia/Marvel)

Last year saw a rash of superhero films and I believe the consensus was that we as a moviegoing public were pleasantly surprised with how they turned out. While each of us may have had a different favorite overall, as a class, the superhero films of 2011 faired rather well. Now the number of films in 2012 I believe is less but the expectations are greater, which makes it a little strange that it kicks off with Ghost Rider. Now as is the case with any of these films I do preface it with my personal history with the character as I feel it does matter.

So far as Ghost Rider is concerned, though I have returned to the comics fold in the past few years, I know nothing about him coming into this film, which I think is likely the ideal for any of these films but it was a strange experience. Strange in as much as I can’t say I disliked this movie but only barely. I certainly found it very flawed and wanted many things to be better but I didn’t hate it. Not a ringing endorsement but a true and modest one.

Part of the reason I decided to watch this film was that it was reported in trades and elsewhere that it’d be a reboot and it kind of was but bearing that in mind it really skimmed over the pretty decent backstory this character has. Of course, owing to my ignorance of the character maybe the origin is even better than indicated here but it’s rushed through in a voice over. Granted we’re all weary of origins at this point but if you commit to something touted as a reboot you’re committing to re-sketching the character for dopes like me who know next to nothing about him.

The other issue is that much of the story hinges on two rites one religious and one irreligious that are really rather simplistic and anticlimactic considering how high the stakes are and how huge the tasks. Such large accomplishments with obstacles so small are rather silly.

This contributes to a certain inoffensive flatness in this film. It’s never really un-enjoyable but in this sequel that should’ve been the fix it seems the risk-taking is non-existent and the peaks and valleys of emotion are kept at a bare minimum.

In a similar vein to the above rite issue there’s also the problem that our hero gets a temporary reprieve from his gift/curse and that too is granted and reversed a bit simply. This dichotomy should be allowed to build and perhaps shouldn’t even be tackled in the “first” film of a storyline but the saving grace is that it is corrected cleverly.

I’ve written quite a few times on the conundrum of Nicolas Cage. A Nicolas Cage who is locked in can be a great thing. A Nicolas Cage just going through the motions can be very hard to watch. This turn is much closer to the former than the latter, which is good because aside from Ciarán Hinds, as his nemesis, and relative newcomer Fegus Riordan who is caught in the middle of the battle, he gets little help from the supporting cast.

The special effects in the film are pretty good but the 3D is not as good as one might expect a native 3D film to be.

In summation, I did like the story both of the character and that the character is in. Clearly, the way in which it is rendered leaves something to be desired. Essentially, it’s sin is not quite enough ambition as opposed to The Green Lantern but I do find it to be an adequate, enjoyable and not dissatisfying film.

6/10

Hero Whipped: From Film to Comics (Part 2)

Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O'Sullivan in Tarzan and His Mate (MGM)

Think of my last few statements in cinematic terms. Something like Tarzan has been remade countless times and while rebooting clearly is a cinematic trend one never renumbers films without a purpose, without first having wiped the slate clean. Similarly, rarely is the question asked in film can I watch part 16 and get it. As I’ve stated prior if you can it’s probably a bad film.

There’s two ways it would seem to become a comics fan: one you’re born into it and are reading them from when you’re very young or two you find it later on in life and ask a butt-load of questions.

Cebolinha, Magali, Mônica and her rabbit Sansão, Cascão and Chico Bento (PMDS)

Now, in a way I could’ve been the former. As I mentioned I loved strips and still do. However, for all intents and purposes comics taught me to speak Portuguese. Now granted I always knew it considering my parents came to the US from Brazil, however, my mother would frequently read to me from Mauricio de Sousa’s Turma da Mônica books and it taught me to read in Portuguese and improved my vocabulary (and it does to this day). I also like many American “All Ages” titles. I grew up in an America that still had Harvey’s comics and one of the heartbreaks of my being “born again” was discovering they went under and that I’d only find those character in collections and sometimes costly back issues.

The revamped Gloria, Richie and Dollar (Ape Comics)

However, much to my delight less than a year later two of Harvey’s biggest starts, Richie Rich and Casper, have found a new home at Ape Comics and in my estimation they are thriving but I digress. The superhero realm was aside from being a majority always a daunting prospect and I never quite graduated there.

Growing up on Staten Island I took quite a few classes at the Snug Harbor Cultural Center as a kid and looking through the course offerings one day I decided I’d switch things up and I think the course was labeled Comic Book Drawing or something. I forget if there was a description but what I recall vividly was the course title was misleading. It seemed to be a lot freer than what we got. Essentially, it was a superhero drawing class. Now, I was inexperienced dealing with the human form as an artist in general at the time much less being asked to draw the overly-perfect, and let’s face it, exaggerated superhero bodies. It was a frustrating exercise in futility. While I can’t say I didn’t learn or get anything out of it (namely a character of my creation, a monster named Potroast, who was the hero fighting the evil Loumanna, based on the teacher) I did sense a bit of disdain and frustration from my instructor as well. It wasn’t my aesthetic, he knew it and resented me for it and it was a painful first encounter with comic book elitism.

Thankfully, in my sojourn as a born again thus far I have not met a Loumanna or Comic Book Guy. Allow me to state for the record: I am fine with nerdiness. I am a proud nerd on many subjects what I’m put off by is militant nerds who own the truth and can’t converse civilly or scoff at those who either don’t know or God forbid make a mistake.

So there was another comics trauma. Now one band-aid to the accessibility issue would be the return of some form of editor’s notes. Now I know what you’re thinking: they’re an eye-sore and they take you out of the moment of the story. However, much as the aesthetics of page layouts have changed so too can the dissemination of relevant back issues. It can be included on the front backstory page or at the end. Even with a simple URL. The fact of the matter is this is the Internet Age. I can look up a back issue and buy it off of New Kadia or some other site or go to Comixology or the publisher’s themselves for a digital copy. Specific back issues in most cases can be found if you want to find them.

ALF (Alien Productions)

A perfect example also comes from my journey from one who had disavowed comics to being a born again. When I was a kid, OK and to this day, I loved ALF to no end. I watched the show. I had the lunchbox (Plastic, this was the 80s after all) and I read the comics that Marvel published under its Star imprint (I’ve come to read many of these titles in my rebirth and have liked all of them- REBOOT it at least!). Anyway, whether it was me or my mother on one of her “Your closet’s too full” campaigns, I got rid of them. All of them. I regretted it many times. Suddenly, as I was getting back into comics this came back to me so I started searching the web. Sure enough they were mostly there but people were gouging you for single issues. However, that’s a common Amazon practice so I try E-Bay. Jackpot. A California comic book shop put up the whole series. Numbered and specials for what amounted to LESS than the cover price on each issue. Buy it now I said and that mistake was rectified and I am relishing the overly long re-read process.

So, yes, the internet can provide those valuable back issues. It’s the great equalizer. Similarly with films if you ask me, in college I learned that there was this 7-hour feature, Satantango, that has nothing but rave reviews from all who sat through it all. It had hit E-Bay and I saw it before it hit DVD and wouldn’t have known about it without the web. Granted this makes me sound like a geriatric fool who dances a jig at the marvel of the telephone but the fact remains it’s an incredible tool and one the film industry at the moment is utilizing to far greater effect.

Review- Captain America: The First Avenger

Chris Evans in Captain America: The First Avenger (Disney/Marvel)

As is always the case when dealing with a superhero film I feel that one’s personal history with a character is an important factor to consider when discussing the film, at the very least so I can relay to you my frame of reference. In the crop of superhero films released this year Captain America is likely the property I had the least amount of history with, which if you think about it is an advantage to the film. For as much as I talk about disengaging expectation built by other media from a film the reason I write on it so much is that it’s a fight against human nature to more purely and accurately judge a film.

So Captain America, to me, is free of the restraint of expectations but does it take advantage of this advantage? Not fully, no. The film sets its character up well enough: Steve Rogers is a kind, disciplined, brave young man who yearns to serve his country in the hour of its greatest need but is repeatedly rejected due to his build and health problems. This film, especially the opening, runs the risk of being overly overt propaganda, however, it focuses on character enough, at the beginning at least, such that it narrowly avoids that.

Another manner in which it dodges the P-word is in the turn the film takes immediately following the experiment that gives Steve his abilities. The trajectory from everyman to super-being isn’t a straight ascent because at first the only responsibility he’s given is that of pitchman. He has to fight the power and be a little rebellious to truly fulfill his destiny so that makes it a bit interesting.

Another strength that the film has to fall back on is the strength of its cast, the supporting cast mainly. Not to discredit Chris Evans, he does a fine job and is believable as Steve at both stages though he’s not as dynamic as he was in Star Trek and it seems like he was always waiting for the transition- that CG job making him skinny is quite impressive.

First and foremost among the supporting cast is Hayley Atwell who plays Peggy Carter and the love interest in this film and is not only a strong, intelligent woman but makes the love interest in a superhero film vital for the first time in some time. If you think about it many of the recent crop have had love interests as either an afterthought or not at all. The relationship between her and Steve gives this film the little extra it needs to get by.

Tommy Lee Jones and Hugo Weaving each do rather well in their respective required roles: Jones as the disbelieving Colonel and Weaving as the villainous Red Skull, replete with an authentic-sounding accent in a film with too much foreign intrigue to dabble in foreign tongues like others have recently. Also quite enjoyable is the performance of Stanley Tucci as Dr. Abraham Erskine who takes Steve under his wing.

This isn’t the only recent superhero film of late to deal with actual historical events in a fictionalized context, see the recent X-Men film, what that film did though that this failed to do (and it was the major failing of it) is that it made its tale as high stakes and intriguing as the historical incident in which it wrapped itself up. It also re-wrote history in a major way this film decided instead to write a subplot so to an extent you’re watching the undercard of World War II as Captain America and co. go after Red Skull and his rogue band of occultist Nazis and Hitler and the majority get second billing and no play. When an actual man who wanted to take over the world takes a backseat to a fictional creation who does, it’s a monumental task to make that notion as scary regardless of how likely it is in the world of the story.

Thus, in Captain America his initial battle as a hero, which in the end is more climactic, is also more effective.

When it’s all said and done Captain America is an effective and enjoyable film with obvious flaws that could’ve been handled and addressed better than it is.

6/10

Review- Thor

Chris Hemsworth and Natalie Portman in Thor (Paramount/Marvel)

To make it very clear I have in the past set down a list of rules regarding adaptations of any materials wherein I try to divorce myself entirely from the source material when gauging a movie. Meaning that I will not comment on adaptation choices or omissions. With Thor that task was much easier as my knowledge of both the legend and the Marvel rendition thereof is severely limited so I came into the film with a fairly clean slate.

Perhaps what is the most surprising part of the story to me is the fact that the film struck a very good balance of locations. It started for an extended period of time in Asgard establishing the characters and setting up Thor’s predicament and then after he’s exiled to earth switches back frequently. The advertising did make it seem as if it’d be very heavy on Earth-based action but I guess they just didn’t want you seeing too much of Asgard.

I think this balance serves the narrative quite well indeed. As Thor struggles to repent and reclaim his hammer at home the stakes keep on rising and events continue to conspire against him unbeknown to him. The pace is tempered so as the tale isn’t rushed and more meaning can be added to the spectacle rather than there just being a spectacle to behold and the audience “Oohs” and “Aahs” and walks out bloated by candy and soda gas.

You film buffs/comics fans out there might be aware, especially through the intimations made in prior films, that Marvel has been gearing up for an Avengers films. They have been doing so very methodically with slight dovetails in previous films. For the uninitiated where S.H.I.E.L.D. gets involved in the story has been the prelude to The Avengers. S.H.I.E.L.D. is more of a presence in this film as they cordon off his hammer in a makeshift compound and detain Thor for a while but they’re only as much of an obstruction as they have to be they never become an encumbrance to the plot as a whole.

Having said that if you should see Thor be sure to plan your bathroom trip carefully because you’ll want to sit through the end credits for a teaser and a cameo appearance.

What might perhaps be overlooked is that in a tale such as Thor where you’re dealing with gods in another realm, the Earthlings who find him and those trying to detain him is that acting is pivotal. It’s pivotal both in the casting and the direction of the film. Which is why Kenneth Branagh, as counter-intuitive as it likely sounded to you at first, is the perfect director for this vehicle. This is a man who made his name as an actor and a director by interpreting Shakespeare if anyone can infuse some comedy but also lend this kind of tale the kind of gravitas it needs to succeed it’s him. Yes, it’s strange to see his name attached to something CG-heavy but there umpteen thousand people involved in that aspect he’s just making sure the tale is communicated and it is.

Speaking of the effects they were absolutely fantastic. The most challenging thing for a film is to create a wholly new world and this clan did that with ease. There is some pretty effective creature-work in here too, chilling stuff. The effects, of course, can only do so much it’s merely an interpretation of the production design which is also great. The sets and locations, where they need to be, are grandiose and majestic and just marvelous.

And now for my token paragraph on the 3D. I did see it in 3D. I debated not seeing it in 3D. I don’t think I would’ve liked it one iota less if I had gone the conventional route. If you want to save some money go for it. The colors, scope and vistas will be just as impressive.

I will readily admit my expectations were not very high for Thor. I’ve given you the positives as there were many. It wasn’t perfect but it was darn good and enjoyable and left me wanting more no matter how I come about it (be it comics or a sequel).

8/10