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The Wolverine (2013)

wolverine_ver4I grew up in the 90’s watching the X-Men animated series, and that’s what my main knowledge and fandom of the property stems from.  It’s been sorry to say that the live action movies have, to me, failed to be remotely as faithful.  Simply said, I have had a number of issues with all of the previous films of this franchise, and I was skeptical about The Wolverine going into it.  Color me pleasantly surprised – I REALLY liked this movie.  I have barely a major issue to levy against this film, directed excellently by James Mangold.  While Wolverine has been a very central character in all the previous films, save for First Class, this film actually puts forth the honest effort to make him more than just an action bad ass.  Some might find the film less than exciting, but for me, this steers this character into the right direction.

After the events of X-Men: The Last Stand, Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) has become a vagrant lost and detached from society until he is sought out by Ichiro Yashida, the man whose life Logan saved at Nagasaki in 1945.  This now powerful businessman seeks to repay this debt to Logan by absolving him of an unending life via his mutant healing factor.  Regardless of consent, Wolverine is left physically vulnerable by secretive forces as he attempts to protect Mariko, Yashida’s granddaughter and heir to his empire, from the Yakuza and a band of deadly ninjas.  Wolverine is now pushed to his physical and emotional limits as he confronts not only lethal samurai steel but also his inner struggle against his own immortality to emerge more powerful than ever before.

This is one of those reviews where I’ll address my minor issues with the movie first before delving into what I very much enjoyed.  The Wolverine has a rather good tone keeping things mainly dramatically based, but it does inject some humor and levity.  However, it possibly could have pulled back in a few places.  Stuff like Logan and Mariko hiding out in a hotel which ends up being a “love hotel” where couples go to get it on.  Some humor comes out of this which is rather gratuitous.  The first half of the movie has these moments where there’s already been a fine balance of levity and drama, but adds in just a little more humor that makes it feel a tad extraneous.  It throws that balance off just enough to slightly detract from the dramatic progression of the film, but by the halfway point, these issues evaporated.

Also, I wouldn’t begrudge this movie if it intentionally disavowed X-Men Origins: Wolverine from its continuity.  I say this because in that film we clearly see that Wolverine’s memories were robbed from him via an adamantium bullet to the head.  However, in this film, Wolverine easily remembers events from Nagasaki, 1945, more than thirty years before his memory loss.  While the previous X-Men films have shown him recovering memories, particularly from the Weapon X program, it’s a bit of a shady area as to how he is able to so clearly remember these events.  Even then, if you went by the continuity of Origins, he was still going by the name James Howlett at that point in time, but Yashida knows him only as Logan, which he doesn’t adopt until the 1970’s.  This franchise’s continuity is extremely shoddy, and it’s that reason why I both eager and skeptical about how next summer’s X-Men: Days of Future Past will possibly resolve these continuity issues.

However, a more significant issue is very valid.  Wolverine’s healing factor is repressed for the bulk of this film where his wounds heal at the rate of a normal human being.  Yet, he is constantly extending and retracting his claws with not a drop of blood or sight of a wound on his knuckles.  I did buy many X-Men comics in the 90’s including X-Men #25 where Magneto ripped the adamantium from Wolverine’s body, and his healing factor is overloaded to where to stops working.  Thus, his knuckles continually bleed out every time he unsheathes his bone claws, and he keeps them wrapped in bandages.  I can understand that the PG-13 rating would never allow Wolverine going around bleeding profusely in graphic fashion through most of the runtime, but it is a serious oversight.  It didn’t take me out of the film at all, but it’s a definite flaw in the film’s logic that I felt should be addressed.

Now, onto the good stuff.  Undoubtedly, this is Hugh Jackman’s most dimensional performance as Wolverine.  The film takes him on a journey from this man living in the wilderness, cut off from everything after Jean Grey’s death, and vowing never to hurt another person.  We get an arc for Logan where he rediscovers his purpose, and finds a reason for living.  He reinvests himself in a reason to fight for someone else, and become that honorable, yet animalistic warrior that he once was.  Jackman does an excellent job showing the rugged anger early on, but he contrasts that with the vulnerable, physically weakened Wolverine.  There’s a great balance in his performance that really shines through, likely due to James Mangold’s smart direction.  I also like that despite having no healing factor, Wolverine still proves to be one of the toughest bad asses on the planet.  He gets shot up, slashed, and beaten, but does he ever push forward with everything he’s got.  And of course, Jackman is in the best shape of his life here as he finally achieved the lean, muscular physique he always wanted for Wolverine.  He is totally ripped, and that creates a real raw, intimidating presence.  The fight scenes are some of the best he’s ever done as this character.

Tapping into the vulnerability of Logan are two women.  The first is Yukio who seeks him out, and seems to have a great deal in common with him.  They are both warriors who have lost loved ones in their pasts, and are brought together by Yashida as wayward souls.  Yukio is able to keep Logan on his toes as she is as smart as she is deadly, but has formed a bond of trust and respect with him.  Rila Fukushima does a very, very good job in this role handling all the physical demands amazingly well, and making this a character who is enjoyable as well as dimensional.

Mariko is the one who peels back the vulnerability of Logan’s heart.  While there is never an overt romantic connection between them, the film builds an intimacy with these two.  They get very deeply involved with each other learning the pain and love that have affected them.  Logan is driven to protect her at every cost, and the emotional bond is built up with a lot of subtlety and grace.  I really found this to be the main cog towards exploring Logan.  Through Mariko, we see the change in him from the lost, fractured man to the fiercely determined warrior.  The chemistry between Jackman and Tao Okamoto is really sweet and endearing as the two characters grow closer.

I feel this film is filled with a strong set of characters that are well cast.  Will Yun Lee impressed me thoroughly as Harada, a ninja and archer who has dubious allegiances, and demonstrates some amazing physical feats early on.  When the Yakuza are chasing Logan and Mariko through the Tokyo streets, he’s jumping and flipping from one rooftop to another and picking guys off with his bow and arrow.  To me, he essentially put Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye to shame with just that one sequence.  Beyond that, Lee simply grabbed me right from the start with his edge and presence.  Plus, Harada has a really enjoyable arc as his loyalties and honor are certainly in question as he is associated with certain underhanded individuals, but has the best of intentions.

There are many characters that have their own personal sense of honor, however misguided it might be, and it creates this very strong gravity to each character.  Shingen Yashia, Mariko’s crime boss father, is really damn good exercising authority and conviction with a really imposing presence.  Ichiro Yashida is also solidly portrayed with a more honest breadth of honor, but he still has some turns to show for himself later on.  These characters all have depth and dimension making them intriguing and engaging.

However, the femme fatale villain of Viper was possibly the least captivating character.  The character is very well portrayed by Svetlana Khodchenkova giving her plenty of juicy material to wrap this venomous character up in, but ultimately, she’s just a hired villain with little purpose or motivation of her own.  So, she’s not nearly as interesting as all these characters who are enveloped in honor, tradition, culture, greed, and betrayal.  Their stories are much more strongly interconnected because there is family involved, and it is all tangled up in a treacherous web of deceit.  Regardless, there’s not a single weak link in this cast, and they all put forth great efforts that truly impressed me.  I cared about so many of these characters due to the strong performances behind them, and a solid writing by Scott Frank, Mark Bomback, and the uncredited Christopher McQuarrie.

What I really found refreshing in The Wolverine is that is doesn’t feel the need to have to throw action sequences down your throat to engage you.  I believe some may disagree and find the film lacking, but it really hit the spot for me.  Like I said, these characters are compelling enough all on their own for me, and it is quite a while before we get a real action sequence here.  The film invests you in following Logan, and seeing what kind of man he is now.  It peers you into his mind and pained heart as its central focus, and introduces action where the story requires it.  Especially with superhero films, we tend to see action thrown at us right from the beginning telling you that action is the central focus of this movie.  Director James Mangold tells you otherwise with how this film begins and progresses.  It has important substance to introduce you to so that when the action occurs, you can be invested in the danger faced by these characters, and that is highly admirable in my view.

And the action here is rather stellar.  From the trailers, I thought the bullet train sequence would not be very good, but I was so proven wrong.  I found it exceptionally well constructed especially with how Logan and his combatants have to keep dodging the overhead structures that keep flying over their heads.  Sometimes they duck, sometimes they jump over top, and sometimes, an unfortunate adversary goes on a very rough flight goodbye.  There’s more to it than that, and every clever element just made it work very well for me.  While it is all clearly CGI settings and backgrounds, there was still a sense of danger involved considering this is a train rocketing along at hundreds of miles per hour.

There are also some excellent fight scenes.  I have to love me some samurai sword fights mixed in with perilous acrobatic martial arts maneuvers.  When Wolverine faces off with Shingen, claws versus sword, it’s really the moment where the bad ass hero that we know re-emerges, and it’s a great moment and pay-off.  There is plenty of slashing and impaling of Yakuza upon Wolverine’s claws early on.  Now, I didn’t think of it at the time, but really, Wolverine never gets a full-on bezerker battle with ninjas.  I know that’s appalling because that’s practically the signature moment every die hard fan would want to see.  There is a confrontation leading into the third act, but there’s very little close range combat in it for Wolverine to start ripping at ninjas.  Also, the use of blood on his claws is rather inconsistent.  Sometimes, we’ll see blood on them after he impales a guy, but most times, we either don’t get a good look at them or there’s simply nothing shown.  James Mangold did do an interview this past week hinting at a bloodier, more violent unrated cut of the film on Blu Ray, but we’ll have to wait and see.  He supposedly did remove a more elaborate fight between Wolverine and the ninjas.  Why, I couldn’t tell you.

I honestly think this is the best score I’ve ever heard from Marco Beltrami.  Up until now, I don’t think he’s ever done anything this diverse or exceptional.  He really captures the flavor and feel of Japan in subtle ways throughout his score.  He never seemed to go for anything easy or expected in that realm.  It’s a very fine piece of work that also highlights some great moments with due weight.

The cinematography is indeed damn good.  I had desired a Wolverine film that was dark, gritty, and raw from when Darren Aronofsky was attached, but Mangold and his cinematographer did a lot to make this more polished look work.  The Wolverine gives us a strong, vibrant color palette, and the nighttime scenes have a pleasing neo noir quality.  It gives the film some mood where needed.  I especially found some beauty in the Wolverine / Shingen fight with his dim blue backlight, and the ninjas converging upon Wolverine in the snowy landscape.  The action sequences are essentially filmed very well keeping things steady and competent.

I can definitely say that the digital effects of The Wolverine are superior to those of X-Men Origins: Wolverine.  Surely, there are places where it’s not superb, but it’s fairly on par with your general effects-heavy summer film.  Believe me, I saw worse CGI in the trailers before this film, but there were areas for improvement at times.  Frankly, I can forgive some undercooked CGI if the film surrounding it is damn good enough.  That very much applies here because this is exponentially superior to its Gavin Hood-directed predecessor on every level.

The Wolverine might not reach the level of greatness, but I feel it is an almost perfectly solid piece of work.  The film takes its time to explore its characters, and give us a sense of depth and emotion with its title character.  Even the dream sequences with him and Jean Grey are very poignantly handled starting out as something that haunts Logan, but slowly reflecting his ability to absolve himself of the burden he has at the film’s beginning.  As you can likely tell, I very much respect and like this film’s focus on character instead of action.  It also doesn’t overload us with more and more mutants, trying to cram every last cameo it can into the runtime.  It takes the characters it needs, and builds the story around them tightly.  I can only imagine how insane X-Men: Days of Future Past is going to be with somewhere in the range fifteen to twenty characters populating the story.  Speaking of such things, stick around for a few minutes after the end credits begin.  There is a special scene that you will certainly not want to miss that sets up next year’s big sequel.

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Iron Man 3 (2013)

Iron Man 3I must give you fair warning.  A careless Facebook commenter ruined a major plot twist of this film for me before I saw the film.  I was very upset by that, and it did indeed affect my experience with the film.    This is why I write spoiler-free reviews of newly released movies.  Regardless of that, while I did find Iron Man 3 entertaining and mostly enjoyable, I have some strong stinging points to raise against it.  I do not feel it is the best of them all.  In all actuality, I still prefer both of the previous films over this one.  That is sad because this had the potential to be really great, but it has at least one major failing, among others, that I will avoid spoiling for you.

Brash-but-brilliant industrialist Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.) goes against an enemy whose reach knows no bounds.  When Stark finds his personal world destroyed at his enemy’s hands, he embarks on a harrowing quest to find those responsible.  This journey, at every turn, will test his mettle.  With his back against the wall, Stark is left to survive by his own devices, relying on his ingenuity and instincts to protect those closest to him.  As he fights his way back, Stark discovers the answer to the question that has secretly haunted him: does the man make the suit or does the suit make the man?

Let’s start out with what I liked about the movie.  It does a lot of fresh, inventive things with the suits.  Tony being able to call upon the Mark 42 at will with some injected sensors was excellent, and many of the suiting up sequences stemming from that were fantastic.  There’s even one action scene where Tony is fighting to escape captivity, and he only has one gauntlet and one leg of the suit to work with.  He has to be more clever and dynamic with just these two parts to combat his enemies.  I really liked that, and there’s even more awesomeness in the climax, which I’ll get to later.  For most of the film, he’s stuck with this not entirely functional prototype that continually gets beaten up, requiring Tony to cobble together various resources to survive and battle his foes.

Of course, Downey still does a great job with the character.  He’s lost nothing after his previous three outings, including The Avengers.  There’s very good material here for him to work with that shades Tony’s story a little darker than before.  He has some demons to resolve, and Downey does a fine job working with that.  However, as good as Downey is, the script has its shortcomings with that material.  There is the fact that Tony is struggling with these anxiety attacks, this sort of post-traumatic stress, but as the same as my gripe with Skyfall, we never see the character actually resolve this problem.  It’s there and then it’s not there.  This paralyzing fear that keeps striking Tony simply evaporates from his being with no resolution at all.  In Iron Man 2, Tony went through an arc where he dealt with his issues, made a mends, and rediscovered his purpose and ambition.  None of that effort exists within this movie.  Downey handles Shane Black’s comedic writing greatly, but this is a film that could have benefitted greatly from less humor and a lot more dramatic turmoil and peril.

It is pleasing that we get a little more Don Cheadle here as Colonel Rhodes, but I still feel the character should be a lot more fleshed out by this point.  Granted, this film puts him more into the thick of the action, both in and out of the suit, but I want to feel like Rhodey is more than just a supporting character.  You’ve got an excellent actor here, and I don’t think he’s been used to a tenth of his potential, yet.  The one thing I do like is how Tony kind of speaks for the audience in that rebranding War Machine into Iron Patriot doesn’t sound like a good idea.  War Machine is who Rhodey has been in the comics, not Iron Patriot, and besides that, War Machine sounds like a guy you just do not want to mess with at all.  That’s a bad ass name.  Iron Patriot, not so much.

Now, Ty Simpkins portrays a young boy named Harley that Tony crosses paths with while trying to untangle the mystery of the Mandarin and the bombings he’s been behind.  Simpkins does a stellar job trading sharp, witty dialogue beautifully with Downey.  The two work wonderfully together, and I really did like and enjoy Harley.  He was a great companion for Tony to have for a while that helped him along the way, and remained endearing and smart.  He also gets a great pay-off at the end that was charming.

I am a big believer in the talent of Guy Pearce.  I think he is an immensely talented actor that should have broken into the big time a good decade ago.  His Aldrich Killian is the controller of this Extremis technology which creates nearly indestructible human weapons allowing them to regenerate body parts and repair fatal injuries almost instantly.  Yet, the tech is not entirely stable resulting in some volatile reactions.  Pearce makes Killian rather compelling with his charisma, air of sophistication and culture, and definitely with his underlying merciless villainy.  I did find him to be an effective villain, but not a great one.  Pearce certainly sells every bit of the character’s ruthless savvy and sociopathic relentlessness with just the right degree of arrogance and intelligence.  In the climax, he definitely becomes a wicked bad ass that is not easy to take down.  So while he’s not a villain that jumped out and stuck in my mind greatly, Killian is still a damn good one in the hands of Guy Pearce.

Now, the first thing I didn’t really care for was the Tony Stark narration at the beginning.  Some months ago, I tried to watch Shane Black’s other directorial effort with Robert Downey, Jr. – Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.  It was the incessant narration that turned me off to that film as well.  It made the film too self-aware in a bad way, and I just couldn’t even get twenty minutes into it.  The narration is not incessant here, but it just didn’t establish an inviting tone for me.  It just felt like Tony was breaking the fourth wall on me, and I didn’t like that feeling.  Ultimately, it really only ties into the comedic post-end credits scene, which was funny but really frivolous.  That was yet another thing that was spoiled to me going into it.  This is sort of a movie experience that makes me realize there’s just too much information, preview clips, trailers, and TV spots spoiling important aspects of movies today.  That’s why I’m glad for the marketing of Star Trek Into Darkness and Man of Steel – they have given us fantastic glimpses of the films while spoiling nothing crucial.  I’m excited for both films while still going into them knowing very little about the plot and layout of the films.  Iron Man 3 just spewed out every little piece of footage and information people could get their hands on, and it terribly impacted my experience seeing this film.  I’d expect a big, marketing savvy studio like Disney or Marvel to be more strategic in what they release, but apparently, that was a false perception on my part.  It felt like I had watched this movie in sections on television, and was only now watching it in full for the first time.  Of course, careless commenters on Facebook are beyond their control.

Now, while Guy Pearce’s Aldrich Killian is an excellent character and villain here, showcasing much of Pearce’s wonderful talent and charisma, the issue I have is hotly focused on the handling of the Mandarin.  Again, I will spoil nothing about the plot twist that goes into either of these characters, but simply said, the Mandarin is horribly, insultingly wasted.  In the comics, he is Iron Man’s archenemy, and this film had such a powerful, masterful setup for this revamp of this villain.  Instead, they chose to piss all over that potential and flush it down the toilet.  If I didn’t have this essentially spoiled for me in advance, I think I would have been pissed sitting in that theatre.  Almost as pissed off as I was at the end of The Dark Knight Rises because it is just stupidity at its finest handled in the most asinine way.  I have no passionate connection to the Iron Man mythos, but I do know a bad idea on screen when I see it.  You have this amazing actor in Ben Kingsley portraying this menacing, threatening, foreboding, and brutal character, and you make a complete and utter insulting waste of his talent with this horrendous plot twist.  Frankly, the Mandarin could have elevated this film to an astonishing height with his reign of terror, but instead, it came crashing down because of what Shane Black did with him.  In the comics, the Mandarin is a genius scientist and martial artist utilizing ten power rings adapted from alien technology as his primary source of power.  Shifting that to a more grounded straight up terrorist with advanced technological bio-weaponry was working immensely well in the film until it was all dashed.  The fact that Tony Stark was abducted by the Ten Rings in the first film created a closed loop of storytelling here that could have worked beautifully, but we are denied any ingenuity or brilliance here.  The Mandarin is reduced to a punchline that I found no humor in at all.  It is the biggest black mark on this film because it presented to us with amazing, potentially stunning potential, and turned it into a bad joke.

The other thing I really didn’t like was how much this film forced itself into feeling like the final act of a trilogy.  I am so sick and tired of everyone’s obsession with trilogies these days.  What happened to just telling a solid, independent story?  Why MUST everything be conceived as a trilogy?  Shane Black drops in so much stuff, especially at the end, making it feel like Marvel is closing the book on Iron Man.  That’s surely not the case, but does this film ever feel like the final act of a movie trilogy.  I really don’t get what the problem is with just making another sequel that allows for an ongoing series.  There’s no reason this film had to be written as if it’s some final chapter for Tony Stark when Marvel is likely, in no way, considering that.  I almost guarantee you we will see Tony Stark as Iron Man in The Avengers 2, but the way this film ends, you’d think otherwise.  It’s such a blatant message that really annoys the crap out of me.  The Mandarin issue is indeed worse, but this further burned me as the film came to an end.

And lastly, I felt the film indulged in too much humor.  I really miss the sharp, punchy comedic timing that came with Jon Favreau’s direction.  He rarely ever lingered on a joke or gag.  He kept it tight and to the point.  Shane Black drags too many bits out for too long.  The joke plays itself out, but the film keeps running with it.  There’s also frivolous gags like how Happy Hogan is dressed up like Vincent Vega from Pulp Fiction in the flashback to 1999 (five years after that movie came out).  There’s no reason for that.  It’s just there as a gag that no one in my theatre even picked up on to laugh at.  Probably because you could barely tell it was supposed to be Jon Favreau in that ridiculous getup.  Most importantly, I feel the humor outweighs the drama of the story.  There’s an over abundance of it with the dramatic turmoil going on is brushed aside.  Almost no scene goes by without some kind of witty, funny banter between characters, and that really weakens the dramatic weight that Black attempted to inject into this film.  The previous two Iron Man films knew when you shift tones and focus on the emotional or dramatic poignancy of the story.  This film barely does that at all.

There is also the inevitable thought that’s going to come into the minds of a lot of people.  With this terrorist threat imposing itself upon America, where are the other heroes?  I mean, you’d at least expect Captain America to be called upon to combat an enemy to the American people.  Even Iron Patriot doesn’t get called in until almost the last minute.  At least with Thor, he’s off traveling to different worlds and realms, and the Hulk is too potentially unstable to call in on a whim.  Yet, Stark shouldn’t have much hesitation in doing so considering the Hulk saved his life, and he and Banner are now close buddies.  Still, even S.H.I.E.L.D. is apparently not even involved.  At least in the comics, you have dozens of storylines running concurrently with all of these books being published showing what’s occupying these heroes at all times.  You don’t have that luxury here.  Marvel Studios is going to have to craft these films extremely carefully to explain away these issues.  You can’t have a shared universe with stories that take place in a vacuum.

Now, Iron Man 3 does contain the best climax of the series, so far.  The all-out assault on Killian and his Extremis soldiers was killer!  The entire army of Iron Man suits greatly ties into Tony having had too much time on his hands from all his sleepless nights.  Him jumping in and out of various suits throughout this sequence to escape various scenarios was an exciting, brilliant idea.  It has a lot of peril and awesome action that blends together in masterful fashion.  It all taking place at this shipyard with cranes and scaffolding really allowed for great dynamics to have the Jarvis-automated suits flying around attacking and being attacked.  How Tony tries to jump into certain suits, only to have them blown away, or only get part of a suit added to the unpredictability and danger of it all.  The battle between Tony and Killian was fantastic and bad ass.  I really loved it all the way through.  And while I loved the quirkiness of what Tony does after the fight with the suits, the connotation it left me with was not to my liking.  Again, it’s part of that forced trilogy style close-endedness which seemed ridiculous and stupidly unnecessary.

The main problem here is that Shane Black seemed intent on making this an entertaining, humorous film with a backdrop of drama and consequence, but ultimately, did not give most of those dramatic aspects their just due.  The only time he does allow any dramatic resolution is in trying to tie off all character threads at the end like it was a conclusion to a trilogy.  Black also sacrifices coherent, intelligent, and solid storytelling for a few extended gags.  I mean, if you’re not going to do the Mandarin justice, don’t bother putting him in the film at all.  Also, don’t bother having that PTSD aspect part of Tony’s character if you’re not actually going to have him go through the process of dealing with and overcoming it.  While Iron Man 2 was an over-bloated film with too many plot threads and a story that veered off track, I can still enjoy it because it at least did nothing to raise my ire.  It’s a lightly enjoyable mess.  This film has enough abrasive stinging points for me to say I don’t really like it.  There are things in it I do like and found a lot of enjoyment from, but as a whole, those miscues and bad ideas sour me to it.  After I found The Avengers to be a largely entertaining, yet hollow movie with a paper thin plot and stock villains, I had hopes that the individual sequels would be better developed and more substantive, like what had come before.  While Iron Man 3 has substance, this was not at all the right script to sign off on.  I’ve loved a lot of Shane Black’s work from Lethal Weapon to The Monster Squad to The Last Boy Scout, but this is clearly where Marvel Studios should have exercised more creative control, in my opinion.  Maybe you won’t find these issues so objectionable upon your viewing of the film, but for me, they really drive me away from wanting to see it again.  There is a lot of entertainment value to be had, but this film, for me, features more than just a few stumbling blocks.  It has some rocky pot holes in its road.


Iron Man 2 (2010)

Iron Man 2I do like this sequel.  I’ve never vocalized any criticism of it because it is fun and enjoyable, but yeah, it does have some problems that should be pointed out.  Probably its biggest is a few too many plot threads running through it.  They never make the film incomprehensible, just a little bloated, but there is the fact that the film constantly veers off track by following the wrong story after not too long.  It had promise at the start, but let’s see how exactly they dash that.

Now that Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) has revealed to the world that he is Iron Man, the entire world is now eager to get their hands on his hot technology – whether it’s the United States government, weapons contractors, or an unknown enemy.  That enemy happens to be Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) – the son of now deceased Anton Vanko, Howard Stark’s former partner.  Stark had Vanko banished to Russia for conspiring to commit treason against the US, and now Ivan wants revenge against Tony – and he’s willing to get it at any cost.  But after being humiliated in front of the Senate Armed Forces Committee, rival weapons contractor Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) sees Ivan as the key to upping his status against Stark Industries after an attack on the Monaco 500.  All the while, an ailing Tony has to figure out a way to save himself, stop Vanko, and get Hammer before the government shows up and takes his beloved suits away.

Simply said, I think Iron Man 2 could have been a better movie if it didn’t overload itself with so many plots.  The story we get with Tony dealing with a self-destructive mentality has some great stuff in it.  Instead of dealing with alcoholism, which has been a major issue for Stark in the comics, it deals with his failing health due to issues with his arc reactor.  What’s saving his life is also killing him is a fine idea.  I do like that this ties into Ivan Vanko and Howard Stark, creating something that appears cohesive in concept.  Yet, adding in all the unneeded machinations of Justin Hammer and the S.H.I.E.L.D. plot elements convolutes things, taking away the focus and poignancy of the core story.

I feel that everything directly involving Tony dealing with his father’s legacy, and rebuilding himself is excellent.  It creates the weight and gravity of the film, and it is what I love about Iron Man 2.  While it does seem like the filmmakers kind of took Tony back a step from the more altruistic and compassionate guy he became in the last film, I can see how Tony’s deteriorating health could alter his personality and disposition.  Once Tony’s health is on the upswing, and he becomes inspired by his father’s legacy, he rises back up to being that hero we knew.  Still, that kicks in for the third act, and so, for the majority of the picture, we have the more self-absorbed, self-destructive Tony Stark.  Downey continues to do a fantastic job in the role bringing his charm and charisma into the fold to maintain Tony as likeable even if he’s being a belligerent ass.  You know there’s a better guy underneath and he just needs a kick in the back side to open his eyes and mind again.

Obviously, I really liked Terrence Howard as Rhodey, but after a disagreement over money, Marvel replaced him with the equally talented Don Cheadle.  He does a fine job following up on what Howard did, but admittedly, I can’t help but constantly think how Howard might’ve played things a little differently.  That’s not a knock on Cheadle, who I love, just the unfortunate fact of having to re-cast a role.  Regardless, Don Cheadle is a strong fit for this role focusing more on a character of serious candor and conviction with a few touches of humor.  We still get moments of compassion from Rhodey, but he’s forced into a more conflicted role of trying to help Tony, even went it turns adversarial, while maintaining loyalty to the U.S. military.  Cheadle takes the role and runs with it adding his own vibe and depth to it while not betraying what was done previously.

Scarlet Johansen is amazingly sexy and killer as Black Widow.  She’s got some sharp, alluring chemistry with Downey.  Natasha Romanov is able to lead Stark on while also never giving into his advances, making her a very smart and assertive character.  When it comes time to kick ass, she is immensely impressive handling all the agile fighting skills beautifully.  She’s a wonderful and vibrant fit for this role.

On initial viewings, I found Sam Rockwell’s Justin Hammer to be nearly insufferable and obnoxious.  He came off like the lame guy at the party trying to act like the coolest guy at the party and failing.  I understand that this is sort of the intention with the character.  Make him seem like a second rate Tony Stark who is more lame by trying to be cool, but annoying is sort of what I got out of the performance.  The film sets him up as this inferior and incompetent competitor to Stark, and he never becomes anything but incompetent and egotistical.  No one in the film is really buying any of the bull he’s selling, especially Vanko, and you can see that even he views Hammer as a foolish, abrasive joke.  Rockwell is a highly talented actor with many various talents, but I think this character is too much.  He eats up so much scenery and screentime while being one of the least consequential characters in the movie.  At times, I can enjoy him more now, finding some humor in what Hammer is doing, especially during his weapons presentation to Rhodey, but the film really would have been far better off without this character.

It’s almost sad that Hammer has so much screentime compared to Mickey Rourke.  While Ivan Vanko’s story is simply revenge, it has more potential substance than Hammer’s purely ego-driven scheme.  It would’ve pushed the more internal conflicts with Tony into the foreground, and have Vanko represent everything wrong and twisted with his family’s legacy.  Rourke can be a fantastic actor, or in the least, a very entertaining one.  There are scenes here where Rourke does very solid dramatic work, especially when Vanko and Stark meet after the Monaco incident.  Rourke makes this a great, intimidating, and menacing villain that should have been the main threat throughout the movie.  Yet, he quickly becomes relegated to be a minor character after he joins up with Hammer, and even the conclusion to his part of the film is very dismissive as a generic “villain in a suit” throwaway action sequence.  With so many plot threads weaving through this film, it seems the filmmakers lost sight partway through of what was pertinent to the core story and what was just entertaining fluff.

The scene between Vanko and Stark after the race track incident is the best scene of the film, and it is terribly wasted.  The thematic material Vanko brings up in it and the questions about the Stark family legacy are barely followed through on in the remainder of the film.  This scene establishes a serious, dramatic tone that is not really revisited.  Even in the trailers, this was the dramatic hook for me.  If this set the tone for the remainder of the film, it would have been a tremendously solid film, but alas, that was not to be.

Again, the film is a little over bloated and a bit indulgent.  Stuff about Vanko obsessing over his bird is entirely frivolous, but thankfully, doesn’t take up more than a few minutes of screentime.  Yet, the film has little moments like this where it indulges in extraneous junk, such as in the Senate Committee meeting.  The film gets cluttered with too much junk that it can’t see the track to stay on it.  The main plot of this film deals with Tony Stark falling apart and having to rebuild himself by rediscovering his father’s legacy.  That’s apparent right from the beginning, and it would have flowed very well if the film dealt mainly with Ivan Vanko’s intentions of revenge.  It would all thematically tie in solidly, but again, it is the Justin Hammer aspect that disrupts that plotline of the film.  The first part of the film through Vanko’s incarceration is great to me.  It felt like the film was on-track, for the most part, towards a meaty story filled with emotional resonance.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t maintain that because the filmmakers felt it was necessary to add a second, frivolous villain who overshadows the more superior and relevant villain.  This really is my main gripe with the movie, and it is why I keep harping on it.  Vanko has strong motivations based in bitter emotions that make him a formidable adversary.  Hammer just has ego going for him, and that is just not very interesting.  Beyond that, he’s just a lame character good merely for small jokes, not a forefront storyline.

Now, people say that this film being a setup for The Avengers is its biggest problem.  Frankly, that is barely part of the movie.  Yes, there are ways you could have written Nick Fury and Black Widow out of this for a tighter, less crowded movie, but let’s look at what they contribute to the film.  They provide Tony with an injection that curbs the symptoms of his ailment, provide him with further knowledge into his father which leads to Tony discovering the new element to power his Arc reactor, and Black Widow helps to stop Vanko’s assault with the Hammer Drones.  They don’t actually impede upon the plot, or wedge their own plot into the film, they are part of the on-going plot of the movie.  They assist Stark with various aspects of it, and while they are there in order for there to be a segue into The Avengers and more concretely establish S.H.I.E.L.D., they don’t hijack the movie from Iron Man.  It’s still his movie, and they just happen to be in it.

On the upside, Iron Man 2 does feature some excellent action sequences.  They are all different and exciting from Vanko’s attack on the race track, which creates a sense of grave peril, to the fast-paced finale teaming Iron Man and War Machine together against the Hammer Drones.  It does have less action than the first film, but what Jon Favreau and his creative team of filmmakers achieved with these sequences is still excellent.  There’s enough plot going on to maintain a rhythm and pace in the film for it to survive and mostly thrive without the aid of additional action sequences.  I do feel that the Hammer Drone attack is far more satisfying than when Vanko shows up in his Whiplash suit.  This is mainly because the Hammer Drone segment is just an action scene with the sole intent of delivering excitement in a smart and slick fashion.  Vanko’s conclusion, again, feels flat and secondary, at best.

Regardless of its problems, I still do find Iron Man 2 quite an enjoyable film with plenty of excitement, charisma, mostly great performances, and some very smart ideas for evolving Tony’s character.  I do think that Marvel Studios had all the right talent and elements, but weren’t able to either trim them down for a leaner story or arrange them in the most effective order.  You could have Justin Hammer be in the film without him dominating so much of the plot.  He could easily be a more minor character enabling Vanko, who remains in the forefront enhancing the thematic elements of the story.  In any case, many do see this film as a stumbling block in just the Iron Man franchise, but I’m far from thinking it’s terrible.  I know others disagree.  It’s a film that still had substance and evident talent behind it which still manages to be entertaining, in my view.


Iron Man (2008)

M Payoff 1shtSometimes, when you want it done right, you’ve got to do it yourself.  That’s how I feel about the Marvel films.  Until Iron Man, I don’t think anyone entirely handled the Marvel Comics properties correctly on a consistent basis, and so, it took until Marvel Studios was launched for a cohesive and high quality franchise of films to be created.  This was the groundwork, and on every level, it was a stunning success.

Billionaire industrialist and genius inventor Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) is the CEO of the leader in military weaponry, Stark Industries.  After Stark conducts a demonstration of the company’s state of the art Jericho Missile, his convoy is attacked and he is taken captive by a group of insurgents who want Stark to build him their own missile.  Instead, using his intelligence and ingenuity, Tony builds a high-tech suit of armor and a means to prevent his death from the shrapnel left in his chest by the attack.  Stark soon escapes captivity, and when he returns to the United States, he  changes his outlook on life, and begins to dedicate himself to peace instead of war.  He finds opposition and criticism from his closest confidants in business partner Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges), his best friend Lt. Colonel James Rhodes (Terence Howard), and his smart and affectionate secretary Peppers Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow).  Yet, when he uncovers a nefarious plot with global implications, Tony Stark dons his powerful armor and vows to protect the world as Iron Man.

This is absolutely one of the best superhero origin stories ever realized on film.  I had not been thoroughly impressed with any Marvel Comics movies before this since Blade.  Whether it was unfaithfulness to the source material, the wrong talent involved, or the wrong tone being implemented, nothing from X-Men to Daredevil to Spider-Man ever really got it completely right in my view.  Iron Man is a perfect example of handling it right.  This set an excellent tone for the full Marvel Cinematic Universe, and also reflects the tone of Marvel Comics, in general.  It can have good drama, but usually, Marvel Comics are meant to be largely fun and colorful.  Director Jon Favreau does an exemplary job meshing those ideas together in a very cohesive and entertaining film.

It’s beautiful how Favreau sets up and establishes Tony Stark here.  We get a dash of the charisma and personality followed by the awards ceremony video package detailing his history in short.  It gives you all the basics right up front in an entertaining and succinct fashion.  This style permeates the film being sharp, smart, and stylish.  It also reflects Stark’s personality.  He’s a man of sharp wit, arrogant intellect, but is irrefutably charming and fun.  I can hardly imagine anyone but Robert Downey, Jr. pulling off this diverse and engaging role.  The charming yet arrogant egotist is a major challenge, but it seems to come easy to Downey.  It’s that sense of heart and lovability he adds in there, especially opposite Paltrow, which allows Tony Stark to come off as a charismatic joy instead of a self-important jerk.  Downey is simply a vibrant, solid leading man who handles the dramatic, soul searching aspects of Tony Stark as strongly as the fun, humorous bits.  He’s compelling and electric on screen.  He makes that subtle, yet profound evolution from the self-important genius to the selfless, righteous hero masterfully.  He doesn’t just embody Tony Stark, he launches him into excellence.

Jeff Bridges does an excellent job as Obadiah Stane.  He’s an immensely diverse actor able to do the full spectrum from kind hearted hero to tough, gritty guy, and here, he gives us some taste of that whole range.  We get the upbeat, friendly guy who is very close to Tony, and can work an awards ceremony audience or a press conference with charisma and spin.  Then, we get the gradual transition to the intimidating, menacing villain.  It’s a masterful turn towards the corrupt businessman willing to sell out his company, best friend, and country for profit.  Bridges embraces all of these fascinating aspects with great zeal making Stane a very solid and smart enemy for Stark to combat.  In general, he just plays an awesome heavy.  And apparently, Bridges always wanted to shave his head for a role, and I think maybe that propelled his enjoyment of the character.

I also really love Terrence Howard.  He’s an amazing actor that I hold in high value.  As Lt. Colonel James Rhodes, he’s really a joy.  The strongest qualities are his vibrant chemistry with Downey, and the sense of compassion and honor he has.  Rhodey’s clearly a great character with a lot of depth and dynamics to offer, and I think Howard was wonderful in this part.  It’s a performance that gives us a character of potential, and while it’s unfortunate that Howard could not negotiate a return for the sequel, the character has yet to go to waste in any actor’s hands.  And of course, I’ve always loved the little tease of War Machine we get going into the third act.  It’s a great moment thrown out for fans, but also works smartly for non-comic fans.

And of course, Gwyneth Paltrow is wonderful as the sweet and smart Pepper Potts.  It’s great how Pepper brings out the heartfelt honesty in Tony, and Paltrow does that with some great subtlety and charm.  She makes Pepper this interesting person who can be very assertive and a sharp business personality, but then, get very sweet and flustered when trying to keep up with Tony’s rapid fire wit.  The chemistry between her and Downey is beautiful, and really allows for the humanity of Tony Stark to show through.

What we get here is a very strong and smart origin story that never bogs us down.  So many origin stories seem to suck up a lot of time just establishing every little element methodically before we get to see the hero come into being.  With Iron Man, the film unfolds at a tight rhythm always pushing the story and character forward to where you are fully invested in Tony Stark, and what he’s going through.  We see the man himself evolve and change his sensibilities in order to make Iron Man what he needs to be.  It is a story of redemption.  Stark is reforming his ways and becoming accountable for what his company does, and how his negligent behavior has facilitated Stane’s corruption of Stark Industries.  It’s qualities like this which make Stark one of the more fascinating Marvel superheroes.  He has a lot of bad behavior and decisions to make up for while trying to build a better, safer future for everyone.  The relationship with Pepper Potts beautifully reinforces the depth of humanity that is motivating Tony.  He wants to be a better person that saves lives instead of enabling war.

I love the motivating scene where Tony is watching the newscast of the Ten Rings having ravaged Yinsen’s hometown while he is working on the Iron Man gauntlet.  It’s that moment which triggers Stark into action as a protector doing what no one else can.  That is the moment where his purpose and path is clear.  He’s been betrayed by one of his closest friends, and sees that betrayal has lead to this level of tragedy and injustice.  He will not stand for it, and that is the scene where Iron Man is solidified.

We also get those great phases as Tony goes through the Mark I, Mark II, and Mark III armors gradually refining Iron Man.  Each one is excellently adapted from the pages of the comic book making them convincing as functional pieces of machinery.  The visual effects married with practical elements create a cohesive and seamless result.  These are top grade visual effects featured throughout this movie giving us dynamic, cinematic images that serve the story superbly.

This film has plenty of sharp, smart humor.  These moments really create the fun factor of Iron Man, and maintain the entertainment value in between the scenes of action and engaging drama.  They hit in just the right moments to highlight the well written and developed qualities of these characters.  And the dramatic qualities of Iron Man are executed with equally great skill and care.  The emotional weight and drive of this story is powerfully accentuated throughout.  Excellently directed by Jon Favreau, all of this results in a movie of great thrills.

This is just filled with wonderfully done action sequences.  They are never frivolous.  They drive the story and characters forward each time.  Stark has something to fight for each time whether it’s freedom, destruction of his back market sold weaponry, or protecting those he cares for, it all has a purpose to exist.  The action climax is beautifully done.  It has bombastic intensity and emotional stakes while all the while being fun and thrilling.  It is exceptionally satisfying.

Needless to say, Iron Man is one of the best comic book movies ever made.  The casting of Robert Downey, Jr. was brilliant and pitch perfect.  There are possibly other actors that could have done a fine job with the role, but what Downey brings is that sharp wit and charisma that instantly and endlessly entertains an audience while hitting all the dramatic beats beautifully.  Favreau was also ultimately a fantastic choice for a director bringing in a lot of those same elements from behind the camera.  This was an exciting, successful launch to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and that little tease after the end credits of Tony getting a visit from Nick Fury drove fans crazy at the time.  What Marvel Studios has since done with this universe and franchise is an amazing achievement that is not ready to slow down anytime soon.


Punisher: War Zone (2008)

Punisher War ZonePoor Frank Castle.  He can’t get a film franchise started to save his life.  It’s just reboot after reboot.  However, out of the three that have been made, I believe this is the one that gets the most right in the right places.  I did see this theatrically, twice in fact, and I was really blown away by it.  Regardless, it did poorly at the box office due to a lackluster marketing campaign by Lionsgate and an untimely December release date.  Conversely, this was the same year that gave us Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, and The Dark Knight.  So, there was high caliber benchmarks set in 2008, and I would say that Punisher: War Zone did not disappoint, in most part.  To me, Ray Stevenson is the best Frank Castle to date, but there are some glaring problems with the villain of Jigsaw that impact the quality of the overall movie.

Ex-Special Forces officer Frank Castle (Ray Stevenson) wages a one-man war on two fronts.  While targeting the vicious mob boss, Billy Russoti (Dominic West), Castle horribly disfigures the gangster in a firefight that also claims the life of undercover FBI Agent Nicky Donatelli.  Seeking terrible vengeance, Russoti takes the name “Jigsaw” and begins recruiting the underworld’s most notorious criminals while Agent Paul Budiansky (Colin Salmon) joins with the sole member of the NYPD’s Punisher Task Force, Detective Martin Soap (Dash Mihok), in order to avenge his partner’s murder.  However, Frank’s lethal mistake weighs on his conscience, and he is nearly ready to pack it in until he realizes the danger Angela Donatelli (Julie Benz) and her daughter are in.  Now, The Punisher must find a way to elude the law and decimate a deadly crime army before more innocent lives are tragically ended.

First off, I really like that the filmmakers didn’t make this film another retread of the Punisher’s origin story.  They instead chose for the Punisher to have already been operating for five years at the time of this story.  Although, they surely weren’t going to gloss over that origin considering this was another reboot.  We get tragic flashbacks to the aftermath of the Castle family’s slaying, and the story is briefly, yet poignantly told by Detective Soap to Agent Budiansky.  We get the details on what happened, and even more impactful is noting the Punisher’s track record and body count.  The entire basement of the police station is filled with files on every case, every murder involving the Punisher.  There are literally thousands of them.  This was a brilliant direction to go in to join Frank further down the road, and allow some perspective and reflection to enter into the equation of his character.  This is no longer a man in the heat of his passionate revenge.  This is a grim, weathered individual who is driven by his disdain for injustice, and has buried his soul deep down underneath all that pain and grief.  That’s a fascinating route to go, and it works directly and purposefully into the story.

Fan reaction was that this film was very faithful to the Punisher MAX and Marvel Knights comic series with its gritty, yet over-the-top violence and vibrant color scheme.  While I cannot comment on the accuracy of that sentiment, what I can say is that this is really what I’ve always felt a Punisher film should be.  It is unrelentingly brutal with a generous helping of blood, gore, and violence, but with proper depth to its characters.  The action sequences are slam bang amazing, even if they can tend to defy the laws of physics, at times.  However, Punisher: War Zone is clearly geared towards a very comic book style, just based on the gorgeous cinematography.  It is so vibrant, moody, gritty, and saturated with all the right colors that it often looks like it came straight off the pages of a comic book, and the action is indeed jacked up with that mentality.  Just in the opening sequence, we’ve got a good dozen mobsters getting shot, slashed, and just laid to waste in graphic fashion.  It sets an awesome, aggressive, relentless vibe for the whole movie which never disappoints or eases up.  It puts you in the world of Frank Castle, and delves you right into his bleak, graphic state of mind.  This is an action film that pulls no punches, and goes straight for the hard R rating all the way.

I also love how Castle moves and operates in the action scenes.  It’s all very militaristic, but exceptionally nasty.  No mercy, no prisoners – everyone dies.  While the previous Punisher films had plenty of action and unique use of weaponry, this film employs tactics and strategy that feel very authentic.  This is even more appropriate since this Frank Castle is actually revealed to have been a Marine.  Dolph Lundgren’s was a former police officer, and Thomas Jane’s was a federal agent.  I don’t know why it took a group of filmmakers so long to actually get Castle’s background correct, aside from the Vietnam aspect, but thankfully, it is well realized here in very subtle and clear details.  It is very much ingrained in Frank’s mentalities and disciplines.  Even his body armor reflects a man of vast wartime experience as it covers his torso up over his neck, and appears to be very heavy duty.  Frank looks like a man waging a war as he’s always prepared with another weapon at hand, and has precise, razor sharp reflexes.  This is a guy you’re going to have to massacre in order to stop, and he is not going to make that the least bit easy to do.  I love the moment early on when he uses a pencil to reset his broken nose.  That’s hardcore right there.  Frank himself is immensely intimidating just by the sight of him.  The slicked back black hair, beard stubble, and the obvious wear and age on Ray Stevenson’s face create a grim visage that says more than words ever could.  And the signature white skull on the body armor is the final glorious touch to put the fear of death into any criminal.

Of course, I stand very firm in that Ray Stevenson was a brilliant casting choice for this character.  I know Lundgren’s version had some sense of self-reflection, but I’m not familiar enough with Jane’s Punisher to know what he brought to it, depth wise.  I just know that the film he starred in is one I cannot sit through.  Here, Stevenson gives us every dimensional quality that could exist for Frank Castle.  Yes, he is a hardcore bad ass that is unwaveringly lethal.  Unlike most superheroes, The Punisher has no lines he won’t cross.  If you’re a criminal, you will be punished.  There is no gray area.  It doesn’t matter if the cops are right there to arrest the criminal, he exacts his own brand of justice every time.  The level of violence and carnage is absolutely appropriate for The Punisher.  It is necessary to have in order to understand the emotional and psychological mindset of Frank Castle.  The graphic violence he dishes out is the same which claimed the lives of his family.  It explains why he is such a grim figure, what the definition of a vigilante truly is, why the cops and criminals fear him, and why neither want him on the streets.  He is a man alone, and no one can truly understand him without seeing and feeling what it is he has gone through.  Still, you see that he does feel things, and that he has a morality and a soul.  Frank’s been emotionally shattered by the violent murder of his family, and that has resulted in a grim man with a lot of deep seeded pain, torment, and disdain.  Ray Stevenson brings those powerful, realistic qualities to the surface, and it creates the real solid core of this film.  The action, violence, and brutality are givens for a Punisher film, but it’s that serious depth of character which sets this film apart from its predecessors.  You see the fractured remnants of the caring family man Frank once was, and it really penetrates for me.  The story aspect of Frank accidentally killing an undercover cop instigates that deep exploration of his soul and heart, and creates an emotionally moving arc by the end with Julie Benz’s Angela Donatelli.  Stevenson is absolutely everything that you’d want from your Frank Castle thespian.  He handles the role with serious weight giving it credibility and humanity.  It is the most three dimensional Punisher I have yet to be exposed to, and shows that the character is more than just a vigilante with a bad attitude.  He has depth to spare, when put into the right creative hands.

Julie Benz is truly excellent as the grieving widow as she is not a wholly trembling mess.  Angela is a cop’s wife, and has strength and conviction within her to survive through all she endures.  There is a deep well of pain and emotion that pulsates through her performance.  While she is strong, she is vulnerable nonetheless, and it’s a great mixture she puts together that can really be felt by an audience.  I know Benz from her work as Darla on Buffy the Vampire Slayer & Angel, and so, her range of talent is not a surprise to me but is a great pleasure to witness.  She shares some substantive scenes with Stevenson, and they both work beautifully together.  The same goes for Stephanie Janusauskas who endearingly portrays the young and innocent Grace Donatelli.  Stevenson’s scenes with her bring out Frank’s adoration he had for his own daughter, and is the most tender insights into Frank.  Stephanie is wholly sweet showcasing some genuine talent that really forges an audience’s empathy for Grace.

Now, this film is easily divided up into two separate sections of quality.  Everything that does not involve Jigsaw is tremendously bad ass and awesome.  Unfortunately, almost everything that does involve Jigsaw is really ridiculous and silly.  Now, Dominic West did a superb job with Billy Russoti.  He was charismatic, threatening, a little intimidating, and a perfect fit for an Italian Mafioso.  He had all the elements just right for this slick, underhanded villain.  If he had remained as this character throughout the film, I think the tone would have been much more consistent and balanced.  However, after he’s disfigured at the hands of the Punisher, that’s when we’re subjected to a very comical villain that poorly contrasts with the dark, heavy, serious tone of the film.  Jigsaw becomes almost cartoonish in his behavior, attitude, and look through most of his screentime.  He’s clearly overacting through those facial prosthetics, and it’s nothing but detrimental.  There are better moments here and there, but in general, it’s the one major element that brings the film down for me.  It’s not even like a Jack Nicholson Joker where he’s at least morbidly comical in his homicidal tendencies.  Jigsaw is very much plucked out of a twisted cartoon concept where it’s difficult to take him seriously after a while.  His criminal recruitment montage sequence is almost enough to force a face palm reaction.  It’s not a purely bad performance, but there’s far more bad than there is good from Dominic West once he adopts the Jigsaw persona.

There is one semi-saving grace amongst the villains, and that’s Doug Hutchison as Looney Bin Jim.  It’s a character strictly created for the movie, but his psychotic qualities really do help boost the threat level.  He’s immensely agile and brutal, and thus, is able to take the fight right to Frank Castle near the film’s climax.  In the least, the character gave Jigsaw someone to bounce off of, someone who feels like a trusted and capable right hand man, and that’s commendable for the filmmakers to have done.  Hutchison is surely over-the-top in his own right, but for the character, it does work immensely better than for Jigsaw.  It would have worked better had Jigsaw been a much more serious character and threat to create that contrast of Jim appearing far crazier.

The remainder of the cast is solid starting with Wayne Knight as Frank’s arsenal securing friend Micro.  Knight does a fine job keeping the character enjoyable, but still dramatically poignant and sympathetic.  He and Stevenson work very well together creating an honest, open relationship between Micro and Frank that feels genuine.  Dash Mihok also does an exemplary job as the enthusiastic, innocent minded Detective Martin Soap.  I liked the twist with the character about midway through the film.  It’s very comical but terribly appropriate as it makes a fun kind of sense, and makes Soap appear more capable than he tends to appear.  I really enjoyed the character, and Mihok made him endearing.  On the more bad ass side, Colin Salmon is excellent as Agent Paul Budiansky.  He’s a very take charge type of guy who doesn’t shy away from danger, and is deadest determined to haul in the Punisher no matter what.    Salmon brings a lot of heart to the role, and the script gives him depth to work with as he owes Nicky Donatelli his life and career after Budiansky got hooked on narcotics.  There’s a debt to repay, and he’s not going to take a backseat to anyone.  Budiansky throws down with Frank, and with a guy of Salmon’s size at 6’4”, he absolutely looks like a guy who could hold his own against real bad dudes.  Overall, this is a film with some mostly solid and dimensional performances that not enough comic book films strive for, but should.  It’s easy for a lesser grade screenwriter or filmmaker to gloss over character depth in favor of spectacle or action, but that’s exactly when they’ve already failed.  This film succeeds, and in many different ways.

I mentioned the cinematography a bit already, but I’d like to elaborate on it.  While the film does have a very vibrant color palette, it is soaked in dark, shadowy environments.  It has plenty of moodiness and atmosphere to spare.  Even the daytime scenes are a little washed out to enhance that bleakness.  The richest visual feast occurs in the church scene where Frank meets with Budiansky before the climax.  This location is filled with brilliant colors, but has the added beauty of numerous lit candles.  The scene has some exquisite depth of field and artistry to it that, while it fits solidly with the rest of the picture, gives this scene a special aura all its own.  The action cinematography is excellent.  There is absolutely zero shaky cam quick cut editing.  The camera work is wholly competent going regularly for fluidity instead of chaotic motion.  That shows there were some smart filmmakers behind this.  They were able to give this film a unique style that is very comic book in nature while never becoming cliché or showy.  It’s clever, sharp, and beautiful all around.  Cinematographer Steve Gainer deserves a load of credit for making this film look so stunning, and director Lexi Alexander deserves credit for pushing for many of the stylistic composition choices.  It all works to amazing effect.

And while this movie was shot in Québec, Canada, the filmmakers had enough perspective on the material to seamlessly integrate some excellent stock footage of New York.  My favorite bit of this is when Frank’s standing on the rooftop and the Chrysler Building is over his shoulder in the distance.  It was surely some sort of green screen shot, but when I saw this theatrically, I couldn’t tell that this movie wasn’t shot on location in Manhattan, New York.  So far, this is the only Punisher film to actually have the film blatantly set in New York, and actually go to the extra effort to sell that illusion.  That is something I cannot commend them enough.  Nearly every Marvel superhero is based out of New York, but if there’s any one character from Marvel Comics that is a tonally perfect fit for the urban grit of New York, it is the Punisher.

Now, the music of the film is a bit divided for me.  While I am a big heavy metal fan, I admit that it rarely has an appropriate place in a film.  Most times, like in this film, it tends to be intrusive and a bit overblown.  Maybe if these were songs from bands I actually liked, perhaps I’d be more welcoming of them.  However, there is some great score performed by Michael Wandmacher.  It brings out the dark, dangerous tone of the film, but also, highlights and enhances the moments of emotional depth and turmoil.  It’s a very well rounded piece of work that perfectly complements this stellar film.

Aside from the comical elements of Jigsaw, I think Punisher: War Zone has a very solidly put together story and script.  Every Punisher film that ever has and ever will be made is always going to have Frank unleashing an all-out assault on organized crime, but it’s what’s beyond that which makes such a film standout.  Beyond the action and violence, this has some very strong emotional plot threads and character arcs.  There are elements of guilt, grief, forgiveness, responsibility, revenge, and trust running through Frank, Angela, and Budiansky.  These arcs are handled exceptionally well, and really flesh these characters out in a great way.  Even Soap and Micro have their say in Frank’s struggle with his murder of Agent Donatelli.  These aspects are treated with great care and are executed wonderfully.  It’s also great seeing everyone’s different viewpoint on the Punisher.  Some see him as a menace to be thwarted and condemned.  Others consider what he does a service.  The NYPD put together the “Punisher Task Force” as merely a public image joke as they mostly couldn’t care less about what trash the Punisher executes on the streets.  This is evident by the fact that Detective Soap is the sole member of the task force, and the NYPD dumps Budiansky there just to brush him aside.  How all these elements and characters converge and end up relying on the Punisher is smartly done, and really develop organically from the plotlines and character motivations.

The entire climax is just a magnificent onslaught.  It’s the Punisher set loose massacring probably half the street criminals in New York, working his way through the Bradstreet Hotel to rescue Angela and Grace from Jigsaw’s clutches.  The stunts are spectacular, and the sound design of all the different styles of gunfire and explosions as well as the crunching of bones and the splat of blood is just absolutely brutal.  This is hardcore action all the way through.  It is as unforgiving and merciless as the Punisher himself.  Still, this climax has some emotional turmoil for Frank, but I won’t spoil a thing for you.  Simply said, it has resonance and weight to it that add to the dramatic realism that the film is so rich with.

All in all, this is definitely the Punisher movie that strived to do the most with its characters and concepts, and it succeed in nearly every regard.  I do love the movie very much, but the fact that Jigsaw is a ridiculously comical villain you can almost never take seriously does negatively impact the film.  It doesn’t kill Punisher: War Zone, however, because everything outside of Jigsaw is so amazingly good that it’s near impossible to topple it with one bad performance.  Ray Stevenson is hugely blockbuster in his portrayal of Frank Castle.  He brings so much depth and pure bad assery that it would be a steep mountain to climb to top or rival him.  He makes the Punisher a character that could thrive on the big screen, and that is also largely due to director Lexi Alexander.  She showed a massive wealth of talent here as well as the ability for a vibrant, hard-hitting, and compelling vision.  So many action films today come off as lackluster carbon copies of the last big theatrical hit that it’s invigorating to see someone inject some fresh style and depth into the genre.  We’ve been treated to many great comic book movies over the last several years, and so, the standards have gotten pretty high.  In my mind, I truly believe that Punisher: War Zone just about reaches that standard.  The only major element that a Punisher movie needs at this point is a rock solid villain that’s worthy of squaring off against the Punisher.  So far, I don’t feel we’ve gotten that, and it is the only real failing of this movie.  For my parting words, let me just say that the last moments of the film are just flat out bad ass!  The very final shot is perfectly iconic and foreboding.  Ray Stevenson is my quintessential Punisher, and there is just not enough I can say about his detailed and awesome performance to do it justice.  Punisher: War Zone gets a damn strong recommendation from me.


The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)

The short version of this review if that The Amazing Spider-Man is a pretty damn good film.  I liked it.  Now, I fell off from being a fan of Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man movies.  The first one was okay, but very cartoonish.  The first sequel is something I passionately hate, and have no desire to ever subject myself to it again.  Thus, I never bothered with the third film.  That made the news of a reboot immensely pleasing to me.  I was very excited to see all that muck washed away, and allow a new filmmaker to start with a clean slate.  Mainly, what I like about this movie is how character driven it is, and how well developed the emotional qualities of it are.  Instead of a very self-pitying Peter Parker, we get one that feels like the character I’ve wanted to see, and is one that is highly enjoyable to invest myself in.

Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) is an outcast high schooler who was abandoned by his parents as a boy, leaving him to be raised by his Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) and Aunt May (Sally Field). Like most teenagers, Peter is trying to figure out who he is and how he got to be the person he is today. Peter is also finding his way with his first high school crush, Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), and together, they struggle with love, commitment, and secrets. As Peter discovers a mysterious briefcase that belonged to his father, he begins a quest to understand his parents’ disappearance – leading him directly to OsCorp and the lab of Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans), his father’s former partner. As Spider-Man is set on a collision course with Connors’ alter-ego, The Lizard, Peter will make life-altering choices to use his powers and shape his destiny to become a hero.

I want to start out with the tone of this film.  Some may have labeled it a “darker” approach, but that is an incorrect term.  This is a serious, dramatic approach to the character with substantive depth.  However, that doesn’t mean it is not fun.  In fact, this is a very fun movie that finally gives us the witty, charismatic Spider-Man that was sorely absent in the previous three films.  There is a scene where Spidey to webbing a criminal to a brick wall, and the Web-slinger is spouting off the funniest wisecracks which never border on campy or cheesy.  Spidey’s never been an intimidation type of hero like Batman or the Punisher.  He uses his sharp wit and humor to throw his adversaries off balance, but most importantly, it shows that Peter Parker is having a lot of fun being Spider-Man.

The more dramatic tone is handled exceptionally well by director Marc Webb.  The character is treated with love, respect, and integrity.  The relationship between Peter and Gwen is very heartfelt, and never shies away from Peter’s understandable awkwardness.  It makes the character endearing and likeable.  Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone have solid chemistry making every loving moment magical.  Of course, the emotional resonance for Peter goes deeper and further than this.  When Peter loses loved ones in the film, it deeply penetrates through the screen.  The connection and mystery surrounding his parents’ death is the linchpin of Peter’s story here.  It’s what drives him forward through the narrative, and causes a lot of heartache and emotional pain for him.  He’s sad, angry, and curious about it at different points in the film.  Both Webb and Garfield make Peter’s pain strongly relatable and sympathetic.  It pours out even stronger after what happens to his Uncle Ben, which is handled with similar circumstances as in the original comics.

Marc Webb and the screenwriters made some smart choices in presenting a similar yet slightly different origin for Spider-Man.  Long standing events in the character’s origin still exist, but are simply given a different environment.  Same general context, but presented in a way to not be carbon copies of what was done in the Sam Raimi Spider-Man.  These sequences entirely retain the purpose and resonance they’ve always have, but we just get to see a different take on how they happen.  For instance, Peter gets bitten by the genetically altered spider because he goes snooping around OsCorp seeking answers on his father.  It’s not a pure chance that’s he’s at the lab.  Specific actions are taken by Peter to place himself in that situation, and Spider-Man is born out of it.  Again, these events are driven by character motivations.  They are plot elements that link back up with one another and tangle up quite nicely.

I love the newly designed costume.  Admittedly, I’m more of a general Spider-Man fan, not a die hard one.  So, I felt that Spidey’s costume could use a little updating, and this fits the bill very well.  The costume slowly comes together as Peter refines how he operates.  I also love how the web-shooters come about.  Sam Raimi decided to make them organic in his films because he didn’t think it was believable that Peter Parker could create an adhesive that some big corporation couldn’t invent.  Here, it is invented by a big corporation – OsCorp – and Peter merely obtains a supply of the material. That’s a brilliantly simple solution.  The mechanical shooters, however, are his creation.

The overall look of the film maintains that dramatic tone with a rich color scheme and respectably moody lighting.  Cinematographer John Schwartzman really does a fine job giving weight and beauty to the dramatic character scenes, and plenty of rousing, exciting camera work to the action sequences.  It looks like a big movie.  As always, I only go see the 2D versions, but I can see a few sequences theoretically turning out rather impressively in 3D, especially the Spidey point of view shots when he’s web-slinging.  There are plenty of dynamic and big shots in the action sequences to give your eyes a pleasant visual feast.  Complementing that is James Horner’s gorgeous score.  He’s done scores I’ve not cared much for, but he’s also done some wondrous work that I think highly of.  He does an exceptionally strong job here giving the film both its poignant emotional moments and its big heroic themes.  Marc Webb really pulled together all the right elements to encapsulate a cohesive tone overall.

And yes, Andrew Garfield is stellar in this role.  I like his take on the character.  He’s not some lowly geek with no spine.  He’s much more modern as a teenager who has a good heart and the desire to stand up to the bully in Flash Thompson, but just doesn’t have what it takes to physically or confidently take a stand.  He can be a little socially awkward here and there, but you can see his heart and charm shine through.  Garfield brings out a fully dimensional character that I truly felt for throughout the movie.  It’s a character journey where Peter has to come to grips with a lot of emotional struggles, and to grasp onto his responsibilities.  He helped Curt Connors find the missing equation that allowed him to become this mutated menace, and Peter knows he has to clean up his own mistakes.  As it has to be said, Garfield AMAZINGLY handles all these diverse aspects from the socially awkward to the heartfelt teenager in love to the emotionally hurting to the humorous wise cracker to the inspiring hero.  He is truly a rock solid fit for this character, and a substantive actor who can carry this franchise for a long time to come.

Emma Stone is equally as good.  She has talent to spare that makes an audience take investment in Gwen Stacy.  She’s a loving, caring, well rounded character brought to textured life by Stone.  She is beautiful and intelligent, making it no wonder why Peter Parker would be so fully taken by her.  I know that, in the comics, Gwen Stacy is killed by one of Spider-Man’s villains, but frankly, with an actress of this quality and breadth of talent, it would be foolish to dispose of her in any soon-to-come sequel.  Again, she has glorious chemistry with Andrew Garfield, and this film definitely takes its time to develop their loving relationship.  I hope to see it grow and flourish in any sequels Columbia Pictures chooses to make.

I also very much liked what Denis Leary did with Captain George Stacy.  Leary easily could’ve slipped into an area of comedy with his line deliveries, harkening to his role on Rescue Me with cynicism and such.  However, he keeps it restrained.  Leary has impressed me vastly with some dramatic roles in the past while also balancing humor such as in Suicide Kings.  Here, he keeps Captain Stacy a respectable man with a serious, focused mind.  He makes the character strong and pertinent as well as showing us some heart along the way.  It’s very exceptional that so many characters are given noticeable development as the film progresses.

I even like how Flash Thompson is given some development.  At first, he’s the usual hard ass bully muscling people around, but he’s given a few scenes where he softens a little.  He expresses compassion for Peter’s loss, and even sort of kids around with him at the film’s end.  That’s such an excellent touch to not make Thompson a one dimensional convenience.  So many times, a bully is just a shallow foil for the hero to overcome.  Here, we see that he is a human being with the capacity for being more than just a jerk.  That’s very nice work by the filmmakers with excellent execution by actor Chris Zylka.

Greatly compelling in the role of Dr. Curt Connors is Rhys Ifans.  He’s an intelligent character who slowly becomes more obsessed with his increasingly crazed machinations.  Once he’s injected with that serum, it begins to change him both biologically and psychologically.  Ifans goes from a fascinating, if distant character to much more unnerving and intimidating.  It’s a rather subtle performance he puts in, never trying to go over the top.  It entirely goes with the film’s general tone, and surely builds Connors up to being threatening as his psychological state becomes more unhinged.

Lastly with the cast we have Martin Sheen and Sally Field as Uncle Ben and Aunt May Parker.  I really, really liked them in these roles.  Sheen conveys the feeling of a surrogate parent doing the absolute best he can to be as good as Peter’s own father.  He’s compassionate and understanding, but also, stern when called for.  With the limited screentime he has, he creates a character that can resonate with an audience through Peter’s perspective.  Sally Field gives Aunt May a more modern sensibility than how the character is usually portrayed as some soft, grandmotherly type.  Field still gives her vulnerability and compassion, but feels like a parent most can relate to.  She has some spirit, humor, and inner strength that I very much admired.

I really just enjoyed how everything felt more contemporary here.  Characters felt like products of the world we live in, and have realistic depth.  It’s a long period of time before Peter Parker dons a costume in this because a lot of time is taken to develop the characters and the context of the world they inhabit.  It all feels very rich and dimensional.  This now feels like a film franchise that can have many layers to it that is not so action dependent.  It can create a compelling story driven by the characters and their emotional states.  Marc Webb definitely leaves the mystery about Peter’s parents open to be further explored and unraveled in another film or two.  There is a single scene just after the start of the end credits featuring Dr. Connors speaking to this effect with an unidentified character.  It’s a definite tease that keeps that storyline in the forefront of the minds of the audience.  I also like how Norman Osborn is continually mentioned, but never shown.  This sets up an unknown reveal of if and how the Green Goblin may enter into this franchise.

The visual effects are pretty good.  There’s a lot of really good stuff, and some effects that could still be better.  The Lizard himself can seem a tad lacking in the seamless realism.  Granted, it’s difficult to make a nearly seven foot tall Lizard appear realistic, but I just felt that it didn’t always interact well with its real world surroundings.  It could be a little cartoonish, especially when tumbling around with Spider-Man at times.  However, it never soured the movie to me.  Admittedly, the digital creation looks better in darker environments such as the sewers or nighttime exteriors, and that’s mostly where we see him.  Thankfully, essentially everything with Spider-Man as a digital effect is practically seamless.  I wasn’t so sold on it from the trailers, but in the film itself, I really can’t see any difference.  The motion of the character remains consistent with realistic weight given to his movements.  No loss of texture was evident to my eyes, either.

The action sequences tend to be very smart.  It’s very much making great use of Spidey’s various powers, and the environments they are set in.  I immensely loved the subway car scene where Peter is first discovering his powers, by accident.  You see the Spidey Sense in action as he reacts instinctually to threats and showcases his speed, agility, and strength without even realizing what he’s doing.  It’s also a rather funny sense as Peter unintentionally assaults some troublemaking subway riders.  There is a sequence showing Peter being overwhelmed by these strong powers, but he slowly reigns them in as he gets more comfortable having them.  It’s handled with some wit and humor along the way.  More dire action scenes really demonstrate the great dynamic between the Lizard and Spider-Man.  The former has the strength and size advantage, but that just forces Spidey to be more inventive and strategic in how he battles this foe.  The climax of the film is very well handled entirely shying away from the worn out “damsel in distress” scenario, and going with something far more organic from the plot that has more dire consequences for the whole city of New York.

However, as I said, this is a character driven story, and the film doesn’t end two minutes after the action climax.  It takes what time it needs to tie off the emotional and character threads that the film spent so much careful time developing.  I really, really like that, and it’s qualities like that which really elevate this film for me.  While I wasn’t astounded or floored by the film as a massively exciting experience, I found more value in that it was structured around character and the intent on building a deep, rich palette to draw upon for stories with more emotional depth and resonance than what was given to us previously.  I can definitely see some people not quite liking this film so much as does feel like a 136 minute film with its more easy pace.  It is a film that takes its time, but balances the drama with plenty of fun.

If Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3 was the equivalent of Joel Schumacher’s Batman & Robin, then The Amazing Spider-Man is the Batman Begins equivalent for this franchise.  I give The Amazing Spider-Man high praise and a wholehearted recommendation.  I was disappointed that The Avengers had such a weak plot and a totally stock villainous force with no emotional depth or character development.  This is just the opposite as I came to care for practically every pertinent character on screen because the writing was so strong and the direction was very strong and deeply impressive.  The story is injected with plenty of substance with beautiful chemistry from its romantic leads.  It never gets lazy by falling into clichés, and is intent on being fresh and weighty with a nice sense of fun.  The more I think of it, the more I love what this movie has to offer.  I wholly believe it is worth your time to experience it.  While it doesn’t have as much big action punch as The Avengers, I damn well enjoyed The Amazing Spider-Man a hell of a lot more.  It feels like a full, fleshed out film with a world of possibilities to explore in subsequent entries.  I just hope most of the audience can see the value in it that I do because I really want to see more of this Spider-Man.


The Avengers (2012)

Marvel Studios has spent a lot of careful time and resources into building their cinematic universe.  For the record, these films include Iron Man, Iron Man 2, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, and Captain America: The First Avenger.  They have all been excellent films that I have highly enjoyed, and found a lot of depth and strength in.  After many studios licensing the rights to their characters, and coming up with very mixed results, Marvel finally took it upon themselves to do it right.  Its ultimate culmination is The Avengers, and while it is a highly enjoyable and entertaining film, there is an emotional depth that it lacks which its predecessors were quite rich with.  These are great characters realized exceptionally well by a stellar cast, and balanced well by a filmmaker who specializes in ensemble casts.  Still, there is plenty to discuss on both the positive and negative side here.

When the Asgardian enemy Loki (Tom Hiddelston) arrives on Earth to utilize a cosmic power to unleash the alien force the Chitauri to destroy humanity, the director of the covert agency S.H.I.E.L.D, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), proceeds to unite a mismatched team of superheroes as the Avengers.  There is the charismatic billionaire industrialist and scientific genius Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.), aka Iron Man.  Loki’s brother, the Asgardian god of thunder Thor (Chris Hemsworth).  The super soldier and World War II hero Captain America (Chris Evans), a man out of his time and era after being frozen in the arctic for decades.  There is also the brilliant scientist Dr. Bruce Banner who becomes the monstrous Hulk when provoked.  And the two master assassins Clint “HawkEye” Barden (Jeremy Renner), and the Black Widow, Natasha Romanov (Scarlet Johansson).  This immensely powerful collection of extraordinary people must learn to function as a team in order to save the world.

There are some mixed qualities here, and I can’t help but just get the negative off my chest.  First off, the invading aliens, the Chitauri, come off as a completely generic and disposable force.  They are given no build up or personality in the film.  They could be anything or anyone, it doesn’t make a difference.  No threat is built into who they are, just that they are a hostile force invading our planet.  These days, we get numerous alien invasion movies per year – such as Battle: Los Angeles, Battleship, Skyline, and Transformers: Dark of the Moon – and so, this is a well treaded concept that requires more effort behind it to make it fresh, unique, and better than the rest.  Not to mention, the design of the Chitauri ships and technology is very evocative of Transformers: Dark of the Moon.  So, it feels even more tired and generic.  Ultimately, they never seem to be more than the heroes can handle.  They are easily dispatched with to the point where it seems like the Chitauri are the ones hopelessly outmatched.  The filmmakers throw in a mild moment where the Chitauri gain an upper hand, but it’s not enough to sell the epic resonance of the battle.  While I am not fanatic for or against Michael Bay, I do have to say that, in this area of filmmaking, Joss Whedon is no Michael Bay.  Everything that was done in the climax of The Avengers was done on an exponentially more cinematically epic scale by Michael Bay in the last Transformers movie.  It simply had more scope, more dire consequences, and bigger stakes.

Also, for the life of me, I cannot understand why Whedon shot this in 1.78:1 aspect ratio.  All the other Marvel films have been filmed in the far more cinematic format of 2.40:1, my personal favorite.  These days, almost all major studio films are shot in 2.40:1, the widest film format in current use.  The use of the standard 16×9 format you see on most any current television show just takes something away from the visual potential of this film.  When it’s meant to be the epic culmination of this franchise to date, you’d think they’d go the extra mile to boost the visual format.  Of course, this is all a personal irritant of mine.  Most people won’t even pick up on it, let alone have it affect their experience of the film.  The cinematography of Seamus McGarvey is generally good with a couple of impressive shots, but I just feel like some of the composition would’ve been tighter and stronger with that wider format.

Now, let me shift into the positive for a while to better reflect my mixed feelings on the movie.  While we already know from the previous Marvel Studios films that the cast is fantastic, the question is how well are their characters handled and realized?  Quite well.  The good thing about bringing in Joss Whedon is that he does done nothing but work with ensemble casts for the last fifteen years.  All of his shows – Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly, & Dollhouse – have been as such, and he always did a remarkable job balancing out the various personalities of those characters.  In The Avengers, everyone has their fair time to establish themselves and make an impression.  However, it seems mostly focused on Robert Downey, Jr. and Mark Ruffalo as Tony Stark and Dr. Banner, respectively.  One might’ve expected a more prominent role for Captain America since he’s really the true leader of the team in the comics, or at least, co-leader with Stark.  However, his forefront time is really in the heat of battle, but still, there seems to be an emotional resonance that is missing with him.  I would’ve expected some substantive material with him coming to grips with being a man out of time as a symbol of an era long past.  I’d like to see Steve Rogers trying to care about and save a world he doesn’t fit into anymore.  I’m sure they are saving that for his proper solo sequel, but it feels heavily glossed over here.

Now, everyone that’s taken on the role of Dr. Bruce Banner has had their own style to it.  I recently caught some of Ang Lee’s Hulk on cable, and man, is that an atrocious film.  Beyond the stylistic gripes I have with it, Eric Bana didn’t strike me as much to be interested in, but in such a overbloated film, it’s tough to really care.  Edward Norton was far superior in the role, and I really liked The Incredible Hulk film from 2008.  His Banner was very Bill Bixby-esque, but still with its own identity and drive fueled by Norton’s creativity and talent.  Mark Ruffalo’s performance is distinctly different than Norton’s, but still quite good and interesting.  His Banner is a bit more awkward, and less socially comfortable.  So, he’s a bit of an eccentric genius, and while the development is never detailed, Banner has evolved from his struggles in The Incredible Hulk.  Yes, while the role was re-cast, that film is still part of continuity.  Ruffalo makes Banner quite interesting as both a sympathetic and admirable person whose initial purose in the film is scientific until circumstances require the green beast to be unleashed.  Generally, it comes down to taste in how you prefer Banner to be portrayed if you like Ruffalo in the role or not, but I found his interpretation quite satisfying.

Downey remains hard to compete with.  The charisma and charm of his Tony Stark can be scene stealing, but it remains in line with the character’s ego and personality.  He and Ruffalo share a lot of screentime, and they have good chemistry.  When it’s just them, the Stark charisma is toned down a little as he seems to enjoy having another brilliant mind to connect with.  Tony appears to admire Dr. Banner, but constantly prods him about unleashing the Hulk, as if it’s a joke.  It’s just like Tony Stark to dance with some danger.

I still love Chris Hemsworth as Thor.  He just brings a powerful presence and majesty with him.  I reviewed Thor here some months back, and I gave it glowing praise.  I think of all the upcoming Marvel Studios sequels it will be Thor 2 that I most anticipate.  The vast possibilities with the character just excite me.  Hemsworth continues to be an excellent choice for this character able to bring solid acting talent along with great physical ability and a strong presence worthy of a god.  He has a lot of formidable acting talents around him, and he stands tall amongst them.

What the filmmakers did with Jeremy Renner’s HawkEye changed my mind about the character.  Before, I couldn’t grasp what an arrow slinging marksman and a gun toting lady spy could contribute to combating an alien invasion when they are surrounded by such super powered and technology enhanced heroes.  I loved how Clint Barton helped with spotting strategy in the battle, giving tips to Iron Man on how to out-maneuver the Chitauri’s aircraft.  Plus, I loved his arrowhead selector.  Different arrowheads for different purposes, and with a touch of a button, he could have the arrow mechanically shift to another selection.  Explosive arrowheads really inflicted some damage.  Black Widow did well in the combat with the foot soldiers using some of their tech against them.  Both Renner and Johansson are given their time to show a connection between their characters and some depth.  It’s a very nice touch to make sure neither gets lost amongst the larger than life characters.

Tom Hiddelston as Loki remains a fun, menacing, and treacherous villain.  He’s an excellent actor who fills the role well, and conveys Loki’s ideals and intentions with exceptional vigor.  However, the problem is not the performance, it’s the threat level.  Loki himself gets beat up on by almost the entire team throughout the movie – Captain America, Thor, Iron Man, and the Hulk all give him a beat down.  In combat, he’s not formidable.  Only through his use of magically empowered manipulation does he become problematic.  He uses his skills of trickery and deceit to attempt to forge a wedge between the heroes, to get them at each other’s throats, but that is only a small cog in his plan, not his endgame.  This ties back into my initial negative mark against the film.  In the end, there is no sense of a perceived insurmountable threat here.  Loki can’t hold his own in battle, and his invading force is terribly generic with no sense of what true destructive power they possess.  This is only one of a few failings of the film.

Since the film has to spend so much time dealing with the character dynamics of a reluctantly formed team, there’s no time to really build up an emotional resonance in the main plot.  Because the enemy is so nonspecific no one has a real, direct personal and emotional conflict to resolve.  Emotion is ultimately what makes a story epic.  Explosions and flashy action sequences might have visual scope, but they alone don’t make the story epic.  You need emotional stakes.  The Avengers are fighting to save the planet, but there are no ideals they are fighting for, no thematic elements in the story for them to grapple with that will make them more than what they were at the start.  All the other Marvel Studios films have had these elements to varying degrees.  In their respective solo films, Thor had to evolve from a impulsive, thick-headed warrior to a noble, more wiser leader.  Tony Stark had to stop being a self-centered merchant of war to becoming a selfless hero intent on stopping war.  Captain America had to learn to take his weakness and turn into his strength, to push himself to becoming the hero he knew he could be, despite everyone else’s doubts.  Bruce Banner had to struggle with the monster inside him.  If he could not be rid of him, he had to find a way to control him.  In The Avengers, there is no substantive emotional or character development.  They just learn to work as a team, which is important, but that just leaves the film feeling flat.  Again, the threat level is never build up enough to draw out emotional strain.  While it’s certainly not as shallow as a Michael Bay film, to turn the earlier comparison around, it definitely doesn’t add up to its predecessors.  The only moment where the filmmakers try to milk some emotional poignancy feels clichéd and contrived.  It’s just there as a cheap heartstrings manipulation which evaporates within a matter of minutes.  It has no real lasting impact.

“A special effect is just a tool, a means of telling a story.  People have a tendency to confuse them as an ends unto themselves.  A special effect without a story is a pretty boring thing.”  That was said by George Lucas, circa 1983, and is the filmmaker quote that has held the most weight and relevance with me through the years.  Why I’m mentioning it here is that while this film has very good visual effects, none of them left a real impression on me because the story was so weak and thin.  It’s not a bad story or that there’s a lack of one, it’s just not very meaty.  Action scenes don’t hold much weight unless the story has enough substance.  While the visual effects are generally good, the one CGI fall off for me was with the Hulk.  Ang Lee’s CGI Hulk was just down right bad on so many levels, and was done by Industrial Light & Magic,  Digital effects house Rhythm & Hues got it perfect with Louis Leterrier’s The Incredible Hulk.  They made the Hulk visceral, textured, and raw.  He had realistic qualities in his muscular structure, and the weight in his movements.  In The Avengers, the digital effects have gone back to ILM, and the Hulk goes back to not looking very good.  He seems almost flabby with too much flesh jiggling around instead of the tight physique he had in the Edward Norton film.  He looks partly cartoonish, and that is not good at all.  I was also disappointed that there wasn’t one good dramatic transformation from Banner into the Hulk.  Having grown up with Bill Bixby and Lou Ferrigno, getting that good transformation has always been a necessary element to my satisfaction of the character.  The two transformations we get are not impressive.  The first is all in shadows, showing us next to nothing.  The latter is far too smooth, and done in slow motion.  It doesn’t reflect the rage-filled metamorphosis of the Hulk.

The action scenes are impressively well handled.  They are all exciting and unique with their own rallying moments.  Each hero is given the time to shine.  Everything really gets going when Captain America is sent to capture Loki in Germany.  Cap’ gets a ‘standing tall’ moment with a solid, yet succinct speech after saving a man’s life.  As the fight goes on, Iron Man joins in, and then, Thor makes his first appearance looking to retrieve his mischievous brother so to bring him back to Asgard.  Then, Iron Man and Thor throw down themselves, and it’s just great stuff.  Later on, as Loki manipulates the team to force his plan forward on board the S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier, Banner Hulks out under Loki’s subtle influence and fights with Thor.  That is one excellent fight sequence as you’ve got to know how they match up, strength wise, and seeing Hulk fighting to pick up Thor’s hammer, yet not being able to (since he is not worthy of the power), is also a stellar touch.  Many of the action scenes in the early half of the film help to evolve the team dynamic.  Showing Captain American and Iron Man working together to trying to get the hellicarrier’s engine operational again was good.  The Captain doesn’t know jack about modern technology, let alone any of Stark’s scientific talk, but they make it work.  Trust is slowly built up as they shake loose their individual trepidations about teaming up.

All in all, the character interactions are well balanced and greatly played by the cast, and they are the richness that makes the film enjoyable and entertaining while wrapped up in some exciting action sequences.  There are plenty of light-hearted beats and flourishes of humor that give it levity.  It opens up the characters further than before to be even more accessible and entertaining.  This is sort of the superhero equilivent of Ocean’s Eleven.  An ensemble cast rich with talent and chemistry that know how to share the spotlight and maintain the right tone throughout.

Leading up to this film I was not enticed by the marketing campaign.  It was just big explosions, action scenes, and a few comical quips from Downey.  It was not giving me what I wanted to see.  It was only a little word of mouth that gave me some hope for The Avengers.  So, while the film was not as bad as I feared it would be, it certainly wasn’t as good as many people have said it would be.  There is a lot of good action with good effects work and solid character realization and execution, but the plot just doesn’t have much substance.  I don’t get excited over spectacle alone.  I need a strong plot and story to make the action mean something.  The film could have been more than it was with more attention to thematic material and emotional depth.  Some fluff action or comical scenes could’ve been excised to make room for more character building segments.  Personally, I just ask for more than this from a superhero film with a lineage of strong, well-rounded outings like Superman, The Crow, Blade, Iron Man, Captain America, Watchmen, and The Dark Knight.  So, it’s sad for me to say that The Avengers is the least of the Marvel Studios films when it should have been the best.  Regardless, it is still a mass audience crowd pleaser, and for many, that is all they desire.  I just know that the filmmakers should’ve strived for more than that as others have before them.


The Punisher (1989)

Marvel Comics had a long history of trying to get their popular superhero properties onto the big screen.  Of course, it wasn’t until 1998’s Blade that they finally achieved some success, and it opened the door to the boom we’ve had since then with X-Men, Spider-Man, Iron Man, Captain America, and so on.  However, in the late 80s, they were truly going about it all the wrong way.  Where DC had Warner Bros. backing their prospects (since they had an ownership of DC Comics), Marvel was going to low budget B movie production companies to adapt their heroes into feature films.  Many were planned, but very few got a final product.  None of them were successes, and for rather good reasons.  The Punisher might seem like an unusual choice when they had such family friendly characters to choose from, but in the era of the action heroes in Stallone, Schwarzenegger, and Willis, this does make sense.  In the right hands with the right budget, it could have been a contender.  But for those unaware of who the Punisher is, how about a brief synopsis?

Frank Castle (Dolph Lundgren) was once a cop with a wife and children until that family was murdered in a mob hit.  Faced with this horrific tragedy, and believe dead himself, he became the unrelenting, homicidal vigilante known as the Punisher.  His mission is to punish the criminals and the corrupt without mercy or hesitation, but he remains the most wanted target of the police.  Over a five year period, he has racked up a triple digit body count, and has weakened the city’s organized crime outfits.  However, this has prompted Gianni Franco (Jeroen Krabbé), one of their most powerful bosses, to come into town to take control, and bring them back to prominence.  Unexpectedly, this move has gained the attention of the Yakuza, the most dangerous and powerful criminal organization in Asia.  They decide to take brash actions to force the mafia’s allegiance to them.  Many innocent lives are soon put into jeopardy from this, and the Punisher is coxed into taking action by his sole ally and street informant, Shake (Barry Otto).  Meanwhile, Frank Castle’s former partner, Detective Jake Berkowitz (Louis Gossett, Jr), remains vigilant on finding the Punisher, and bringing an end to his blood soaked crusade against injustice.

I feel Lundgren makes for a fine Frank Castle.  He’s not the best of the lot, but he easily holds the film strongly on his shoulders.  He hones in nicely on the fractured soul of Frank, and adds some sense of self-reflection as a man seeking a reason for the injustice that has shattered his life.  He’s not just a raging vigilante, he has an emotional core that is clouded with contempt.  He’s a man with vulnerabilities, but chooses to bury them deep down beneath the hardened exterior.  On the action side, Dolph handles that with ease, and does essentially all his own stunt work.  He makes the Punisher a very practical threat as both a physically intimidating individual, and as a one man arsenal.  Visually, after dying his naturally blonde hair jet black and throwing in some five o’clock shadow, he fits the role dead-on, aside from the absent white skull T-shirt or body armor.  The motorcycle is a nice fit as well.  It re-enforces the gruff loner aspect of the Punisher, and allows him to move quickly when action needs to be taken.

The supporting cast is decent enough.  Everyone plays their roles with competent talent, but no one jumps out at an audience to make a memorable mark.  Both allies and enemies of the Punisher make the story dynamics work, and the story itself moves along with a consistent pace and balance.  Louis Gossett, Jr. probably has the most to work with as Frank’s former partner who happens to be tracking the Punisher.  He has some emotional conflicts to deal with that Gossett does a fine job with, but the focus of the film’s emotional context really is with Frank Castle.  So, the supporting cast doesn’t get nearly as much meat to sink their teeth into as Lundgren.

Jeroen Krabbé had previously played a Bond villain in the Timothy Dalton 007 film The Living Daylights, and this role as Franco is not much different.  He plays it fairly well, but he never entirely sells Franco’s stature as a high ranking Mafioso.  He’s too laid back.  I would’ve preferred a stronger character or actor that could offer a more authoritative presence.  I’ve seen some awesome crime bosses on film before that could likely leave Gianni Franco creaming his pants.  There are a lot of enemies for the Punisher to combat in this film, but no one ever stands out as a major threat for him to conquer.  No one ever appears to be more than he can handle.  It’s only ever a numbers game that tends to ever overwhelm him.

In general, the action sequences are nicely conceived and executed.  Numerous shootouts, chase sequences, hand-to-hand combat, and a few explosions make for a decently satisfying string of thrills.  At times, Frank is given the image of a stealthy, covert soldier who can get into a location with ease, and attack with swift efficiency.  That is another key for the character to pin down, and it was done well here in both concept and execution.

The story itself is sort of generic in terms that it doesn’t really adapt anything directly from the comics, and features no villains from the Punisher’s classic rogues gallery.  Partially using the Yakuza was nice, but I’ve seen the Japanese criminal outfit used to better effect elsewhere.  From what I’ve been exposed to of the Punisher, it seems that his stories work best when there’s a non-violent emotional motivation that propels him through the narrative.  What some writers don’t seem to get is that the Punisher is not just some angry guy with a bad attitude and a nasty mean streak.  There’s a deeper emotional turbulence to him stemming from the tragic, violent slaying of his family.  He has a lot of deep down pain which he cannot overcome.  Everything that he loved in life was violently robbed from him, and he can never get that back.  Since society has failed to punish these people who victimize the innocent with due severity, the Punisher will do it for us.  Frank Castle is indeed the very definition of a vigilante.  He has no consideration or respect for the laws of society.  He’s here to do what no one else can or will do, and our laws be damned.  That’s not from a jaded or cynical sensibility, but an attitude from a man whose soul has been irreparably broken by gruesome tragedy.  The best comic book adaptations are the ones that understand the core concept of the character.  The ones that understand what makes them who they are, and what aspects have made them timeless, beloved icons of pop culture.  They are built on ideals and themes that resonate with their audiences.

So, does this film hit that mark?  Decently so.  I’m sure it’s not the Punisher movie that hardcore fans were waiting for, but it hardly does anything to betray the core of the character.  Various aspects of his history are changed like being a former cop instead of a Vietnam veteran, but he’s still entirely recognizable as Frank Castle.  What we see is quite true to his more popular interpretations in comics.

Ultimately, what hampers this film is indeed the low budget.  Sets that would otherwise be big and impressive are small, dark, and limited.  Cinematography has nothing all that special going for it, especially the lighting.  Every scene is lit about the same with full, flat lighting lending nothing to atmosphere or mood.  This basically looks like a low rent television series pilot.  And while this is vaguely meant to be New York, no effort is given to even purchasing stock footage, as was later done with Punisher: War Zone, to sell that idea.  The film itself was shot in Australia.  Surely, the Punisher is the one Marvel Comics character who benefits the most from the urban environment of Manhattan, New York.  So, I feel getting the location aesthetics right is very pivotal.  Yes, that is also a knock on the Thomas Jane Punisher film.  Seriously, a black leather trench coat in Southern Florida?  I don’t think so.  Here, at least we do get gritty, grimy city streets at night to offer some contrast to the uninspired lighting throughout the rest of the feature.  The screenplay seems like it works, but the budget limits how fleshed out the concepts, tone, action, and visuals could have been.  Even then, a stronger villain would’ve elevated the quality of the movie like Frank Langella had done in another Dolph Lundgren movie, Masters of the Universe.

Simply said, it was a good try that stuck to the basics, but it didn’t have the financial muscle to make it everything that it could have been.  Nor did it have a quality director behind it.  This was the last film Mark Goldblatt ever directed, and only his second ever.  It is a good watch, worthy of killing 90 minutes with, but it’s far from being a success.  This was released the same year as Tim Burton’s Batman.  That shows the huge contrast in handing a property to a major studio with a generous budget and a visionary director, and handing it to a low budget production company about to go bankrupt helmed by an editor-turned-second time director.  Frank Castle would get another two runs at a fresh start on a film franchise, but neither would achieve what the studios needed them to.  Hopefully, the future can have better fortunes for the Punisher.


Thor (2011)

The marketing for Thor was real iffy.  Including a very uninspired poster campaign, it was very hard to tell from trailers and TV spots if the film worked balancing out drama, humor, and action along with the stark contrasts of our world and the fantastical realm of Asgard.  For me, I feel most films today are not marketed well or appropriately.  It seems more like the film has to adhere to what they want to market instead of the marketing adhering to what the film is.  Either that, or the advertising firm is a bunch of hacks who don’t know how to capture what’s special about the property.  Regardless, the trailers and TV spots didn’t sell me enough on the film to run out to theatres.  Later in the summer, Captain America: The First Avenger came along, I ran out to see it, and highly enjoy it.  However, some major plot points harkened back to the mythology of Thor,and so, I got the urge to see it if only to fill in any gaps that I was not aware of.  It was too late to catch it in theatres, and so, the DVD has arrived to help me out.  Simply said, I very much like this movie, and was highly satisfied at the end.  Of course, for those unaware, here is the obligatory synopsis.

Amongst the nine realms, the forces of Asgard, led by their king Odin (Sir Anthony Hopkins), and the icy realm of Jotunheim (pronounced Yodenheim) populated by the Frost Giants, led by Laufey (Colm Feore) have been enemies for countless ages.  After a great battle in Norway, 965 A.D., Odin and his courageous warriors defeat the Frost Giants and seize the source of their power, the Casket of Ancient Winters.  Many years later, Odin’s sons Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Loki (Tom Hiddleston) grow to manhood, and while Thor is the great warrior ready to be granted the throne of Asgard, Loki is a mischievous practioners of magic and illusion.  However, the Frost Giants infiltrate the palace and attempt to retrieve the Casket.  They fail, but subsequent actions in retaliation of this by the impulsive and battle-hungry Thor and his warrior friends leave Odin in contempt of his oldest son.  As punishment, he banishes Thor to the realm of Earth, and relieves him of his greatest weapon and source of his power, the hammer Mjolnir.  From here on, the hammer and its power can only be wielded by one who is worthy of the power of Thor.  Thus, Thor must go through an evolution of character to prove himself worthy of being the man he needs to become.  On Earth, he comes into the graces of the young and passionate Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) and her astrophysicist team.  Jane gradually forms a caring relationship with the wayward son of Odin.  Meanwhile, Loki uncovers long held secrets, and plots his own rule over Asgard.  Amidst this, agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. arrive to examine and quarantine the downed Mjolnir which is embedded in stone like Excalibur waiting for its future king to wield it.

There is so much I could talk about here, but perhaps the best, most apprehensive aspect, is how all these different realms of existence are handled and balanced out.  Frankly, I think Kenneth Branagh succeeded in doing what very few probably could have done.  The scenes in Asgard and Jotunheim are wonderful.  They establish the grandeur of the society that Thor comes from.  He is used to a world of honor and glory.  A place ruled by gods that is magnificent in its visual spectacle.  The production design is fantastic here, and the realization of it all in CGI and set design is quite remarkable.  In Asgard, people speak with large, proud voices and passionate words of an extraordinary culture, and it all fits, it all works in this realm of gods.  When Thor is dropped to Earth, literally, he still acts this way, but to Hemsworth’s credit, I think it’s his charm that makes it all endearing to me.  It does comes off comically, but I feel Branagh and Hemsworth make it work because of that charm.  They handle Thor with gallant heart and compassion instead of some dumb brute who just doesn’t get it.  I, personally, did not find one joke misplaced, mistimed, or out of character.  Unlike in Green Lantern where all the Earth scenes were mishandled, poorly executed dead weight, and all the CGI’d otherworldly sequences were the real juice, Thor strikes the balance correctly.  This is also due to the plot being tightly crafted to keep the pace up, the emotional threads alive, and the plotline or character relationships developing throughout.  Branagh and his editor kept this a lean film from beginning to end.

The only detracting element of the film, for me, and what could’ve been used to make the Earth and Asgard realms stylistically different was the camera work.  The biggest gripe is the obscene, excessive use of Dutch angles throughout the film.  Usually, a Dutch angle is used to give a scene or the filmed subject an off-kilter feeling.  Here, it is used without an intended effect.  Branagh’s audio commentary on the DVD gives insight into this choice.  These are angles and compositions that were frequently used in the comics he saw and read.  So, he intended to translate that onto the screen.  He says that there was a concern that he may have been overdoing it, and I believe that concern was warranted.  The simple fact is that it’s annoying, and has no positive effect on the shots or scenes it’s used in.  There are Dutch angles used on crane shots, dolly shots, steadi-cam shots, static shots, and so on.  It was very distracting to me since I am more aware of it than most people likely are due to me being a filmmaker.  If Branagh used this style for just the Asgard sequences, and stuck to a more natural style of framing and composition for the Earth scenes, I think that would have enhanced the stylistic differences between the different worlds.  As it is, I think it’s exceptionally distracting because it is used with no real storytelling purpose in mind.

Now, where these Marvel Studios films have mostly excelled is in the casting.  Attracting some higher grade talents to fill these modern mythological roles is something that Richard Donner started with Superman: The Movie over thirty years ago.  Hemsworth is a slight exception to Robert Downey, Jr. and Edward Norton in terms of high profile talent, but he inhabits the dimensional role of Thor impressively well.  Again, his compassionate charm carries much of the character through, and allows an audience to connect with his personality.  He starts out as a temperamental, hot headed young warrior in search of battle over wisdom, but as the film progresses, more of his heart develops to show his depth.  None of us can really relate to the situation he’s in or the cosmic forces he’s battling against, and so, making the man and his emotional conflict relatable is the key.  When he turns on the action hero mojo, he continues to impress.  Hemsworth clearly worked out for many long months to create the physique of a god, worthy of myth and legend.  Furthermore, it is not easy to hold up your end of a scene opposite Sir Anthony Hopkins, but Chris Hemsworth did so with great success.  I think that says a good deal about how Branagh handles his actors, and helps them to balance their drama out.  However, I will take no credit away from Hemsworth because he greatly displays his wide range, powerful screen presence, and passionate commitment to his role.  And of course, Sir Anthony Hopkins really delivers well as Odin.  Who else do you get to play a role filled with this breadth of wisdom, power, compassion, and fatherly weight?  Hopkins brings a definite sense of history and wisdom with him.  He exudes strength, commands respect, but also demonstrates the moments of Odin’s weary age well.  He is also a hero of legend that does what he does because he is a good father, and knows what his son must go through to become the man he wishes to be.

The darker side of the spectrum is occupied by Tom Hiddleston as Loki.  What could’ve easily been a whiny character is handled with a fine breadth of dimension and intelligence.  Deceit and bitterness are what forge his character, and they live and breathe in an actor able to turn those elements back around as a weapon for Loki.  As others have deceived and used him, so he does to others in order to gain the power and authority he feels entitled to.  Hiddleston handles Loki’s devious nature quite well like a puppet master manipulating his pawns across a chess board to service his ultimate goals.  There is also the leader of the Frost Giants, Laufey, portrayed by Colm Feore.  Granted, the man is covered by a great deal of make-up and prosthetics, and his voice gets some post-production treatment.  However, Feore plays the darkly evil role subtlety.  A sullen, methodical villain that is not easily intimidated, and being a giant, does not back down from a challenger.  He achieves a lot by doing so little.  He uses the make-up to sell the character, but even without it, there would still be a chilling, memorable performance.

Natalie Portman has more than proven her worth as an exceptional acting talent over the last 15-20 years.  Sometimes, it’s hard to articulate what makes a great performance.  People get wrapped up in the grandiose awards show displays of performances, but great acting can be defined in many different aspects.  Here, Natalie portrays a role that is more subtle and graceful to win over an audience’s heart.  Maybe it’s just me being struck by how much more beautiful she has become over time, but I was very engaged by her in this movie.  Likely, it’s because she can project so much genuine, honest emotion on screen that it easily ensnares me.  Portman holds her ground well opposite Hemsworth, and their chemistry is very, very good.  As Jane Foster, Natalie projects passion, conviction, heart, and warmth here.  Jane is very enthusiastic about what she does, and the mystery around Thor is something she finds charmingly compelling.  She slowly involves herself more and more in his well being, and desires to know more about this peculiar stranger.  Their relationship slowly develops to a very honest and heartfelt romantic connection.  Jane’s associates allow for some good dynamics to bounce off of to give the character some context.  Portman really sells everything well, and at the end of the film, I truly feel hopeful for Thor and Jane Foster to reunite.

Again, I feel the production design of Thor is really great.  I was in real awe of the innovation and grandeur of Asgard.  There are no limits to this realm.  It is fantastical beyond known logic.  Branagh and his team really create a unique, colorful world worthy of legend, and the costuming reflects that creativity and detail.  The film doesn’t burn any unnecessary time away showing it off either.  On the flip side, there’s not much to say about the Earth scenes.  It’s a small town in New Mexico, and that feeling is captured well.

The visual effects, for the most part, are very well done.  There are moments or elements that don’t sell quite as well as others.  When the Destroyer (a fire spewing mechanical monster from Asgard) comes to Earth, the CGI construct does feel a little too artificial at times, but it’s mostly during its interaction with its live action counterparts.  I was glad that the Asgard scenes did not feel cheap.  They took a lot of time and attention to detail to make them hold up strongly throughout the film.  They are marvelous to behold.  The effects, like the production design, service the story and characters instead of overwhelming them.  That’s what visual effects are meant to do, and far too many filmmakers have forgotten that.  I’m glad to know that Kenneth Branagh is not counted among those filmmakers.  I’m not a supporter of 3D, and seeing this firstly on DVD, doesn’t even give me the option to watch it as such.  So, all my impressions of the film’s visuals are based on the traditional 2D viewing.

I’m also glad to be reassured that Branagh never degrades the film down to shaky cam action sequences.  They are shot with a good sense of geography and composition so that an audience can follow the scene competently.  Really, aside from those aforementioned Dutch angles, the film is shot with a great deal of emotion and epic stature.  The cinematography does have character.  The shots don’t just capture the personality of the performers, but they enhance them with how they captures them.  Much of the same compliments can be translated to the vibrant, powerful score by Patrick Doyle.

I feel the brightest praise I can give this film is the fact that when Thor finally reclaims his power, the thunder roars, and the lightning strikes, I was as choked up with momentous enthusiasm as I am during the helicopter rescue scene in Superman: The Movie.  The ascension of Thor’s greatness has reached a level equal to that rousing moment in the first blockbuster superhero film for me.  Perhaps that is only me, but I was so very entertained and engaged with this film to have that sort of emotional reaction.  What that really means is that the film was successful in every storytelling aspect from direction to acting to cinematography to music and beyond.  It made me feel for this hero, his journey, and his triumphs.

While the marketing left something to be desired in convincing me of the film’s quality, the actual film itself leaves no doubt behind.  It’s been laborious writing this review because there’s so much to praise that I didn’t want to leave anything significant out, but I had to limit myself to not scouring every single performer or detail.  Simply said, in this especially long review, is that Thor is another big win for Marvel Studios.  I’ve enjoyed all these films leading up to The Avenger including Captain America: The First Avenger and The Incredible Hulk.  Iron Man lit the torch, and while not every entry has been perfect, there has not been enough of a misstep to derail the cinematic plan that Marvel Studios has been carefully planning.  So, with a man I have a lot of confidence in directing the picture, Joss Whedon, I feel that climactic movie will be a great achievement.  I also highly look forward to what might be crafted for a direct sequel to Thor.


Blade II (2002)

Blade II is a distinctively different animal than the original Blade.  This is practically all due to the change in directors from Stephen Norrington to Guillermo del Toro (The Devil’s Backbone, Hellboy).  He brings a much more colorful canvas to the film, and a bit bigger sense of fun.  Cinematographer Gabriel Beristain helps del Toro achieve this to the fullest extent.  Also, as is another trademark of Guillermo’s films, he brings in the wonderful Ron Perlman to the main cast as a token bad ass.  The film definitely takes a lot of new turns and fleshes out established ideas.  Though, it lacks the dramatic weight and emotion that Stephen Norrington’s film was quite rich with.

The film picks up five years after the events of the first film.  In that time, Blade (Wesley Snipes) learned that his old friend and mentor Abraham Whistler (Kris Kristofferson) eventually did turn into a ‘suckhead,’ but the vampire nation has kept him hidden.  Though, Blade soon rescues him, and returns to his new lair in Prague.  A cure of some sort to administered to Whistler, and only time will tell if it takes fully.

Meanwhile, it isn’t long before the vampire nation comes looking for Blade with a unique offer of a truce.  A new mutated species of vampires, called reapers, have become a serious threat to them and potentially all of humanity.  They are overall a more advanced species with abilities and strengths beyond any other vampire, and a hunger that is like a drug addiction – they have to feed constantly.  Anyone bitten is immediately infected.  Also, Nomack (Luke Goss) is the original reaper who holds secrets that could bring down the vampire nation.  Thus, vampire princess Nyssa (Leonor Varela) has come to enlist the aid of the Daywalker to lead this hunt for them.  Blade teams up with a death squad named the Blood Pack that have been trained to kill Blade himself, but are focused on eliminating the reapers for the time being.  At the head of this group is Reinhardt (Ron Perlman) who shows immediate distaste and opposition to Blade, but he’s soon put in his place the way only Blade can do.  There is also pure blood elder Damaskinos (Thomas Kretschmann) who is Nyssa’s father, but also holds secrets of his own that he refuses to take responsibility for.  These sorts of things come into play later in the film.

The hunt for the reapers and Nomack is only half the story here, and thus, only lasts through about half the film.  Members of the Blood Pack are lost in the hunt, but the main characters survive it.  Along the way, a bond is formed between Blade and Princess Nyssa while the relationship between Blade and Whistler seems to fade deep into the background.  It almost seems like Whistler needs protecting, like he can no longer hold his own.  Though, the hunt to destroy the reapers is really only half of the film, and barely scratches the surface of the overall plot which Blade hardly sees coming when he and Whistler are taken captive and a traitor is revealed along with buried truths with threaten everyone.

I would like to say that I actually feel this is NOT a sequel that surpasses the original, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad film.  I enjoyed the more dramatic, serious tone of the original Blade with its balance of action, vampire lore, and interesting, entertaining characters.  Blade II offers up a more fun, multi-colored visual style with jacked up action sequences, but lighter on character depth and lacking a coherent plot progression.  The first half of the film sets up a really strong threat in the Reapers, but all the setup and very detailed exposition is dashed when all but Nomack are wiped out halfway through the film.  After that, it’s all personal agendas and vendettas to sustain the film from there.  A far less sympathetic Frankenstein’s Monster tale of a creation turning against its creator ensues, and Blade is just there to clean up the mess.  The final fight between Blade and Nomack, while intense and entertaining, is mostly a CGI affair like something out of The Matrix Trilogy forcing it, by default, to lack a needed visceral element.  The fight mainly happens because the film needs a climax.  The only real justification for it is a last minute act of violence that fires up Blade to throw down – an act that has no real purpose to have happened.  There’s no build up of personal disdain between the two as there was between Blade and Deacon Frost in the 1997 film.  Ultimately, Nomack is not the real villain of the film, but is left as the only remaining threat by the film’s end.

I also think Guillermo del Toro imbued this film with a bit too much cheesiness and levity.  While Snipes, Perlman, and the other actors pull it off well, I feel we lose the weight of the story overall.  First and foremost, Blade just doesn’t come off as imposing or as threatening as before.  While Blade was quite the antisocial, brooding, edgy, blunt, and internal personality before, here (amongst enemies no less) opens up his thoughts and sense of humor significantly more.  Snipes still plays the role exceptionally well, it just seems to go against Blade’s established personality – especially since he retains that cold, stone-faced facade when he’s amongst his established allies.

Speaking of which, Norman Reedus appears as Scud, a new ally of the Daywalker.  He essentially took over Whistler’s role in his absence, but now that he’s back, there is friction.  Though, where Whistler was allowed to be his own strong, solid character in the previous film, he becomes little more than an object of abuse by the Blood Pack here.  This is deeply unfortunate considering that Kristofferson is a spectacular actor, and Whistler had such a wealth of potential for serious exploration before.  Instead, he’s made into a weaker character overall that Blade has to protect whereas he could hold his own before.  I really liked his gruff cowboy style mentality from the first film, and to see it be depleted here throughout the film for no major reason is just sad.  You don’t get to see Whistler kick anyone’s ass, at all, ever in this whole film.  That’s a greatly negative mark against this film, in my eyes.

The special and visual effects are superior than those in the original film, but with a span of four years between films, it’s not surprising.  Guillermo does use a great deal more CGI than Norrington did, but it still works well for the film (even if it might be a slight bit obvious, at times).  While I believe del Toro makes very good films, and excels with the more fantastical material, I simply believe he veered certain aspects of this film into incorrect directions.  I like a good dash of humor in my films as much as anyone, but I don’t like it when the essence of an established character is lost within it.  That’s what I see happened here with Blade.  His character is too light, and loses some of his dark, mysterious edge.  Whistler is handled in a pretty pathetic fashion which doesn’t roll for me.  Anyone who casts Kris Kristofferson does so for his strength of character and natural presence of authority – that is totally wasted in this sequel.

Also, overall, I feel the vampire nation is presented in a very inconsequential light in this film.  Whereas in the first film, they seemed like a powerful underground global organization, here the vampire nation seems terribly smaller and less influential with the weak and cowardly Damaskinos heading everything.  He carries himself with no weight, and hardly seems like a threat to anyone.  The only thing that makes him powerful is his personal influence and armed guards.  When danger comes his way, he retreats like a little old lady – literally.  Nomack really is a greater threat (and proves it), but is terribly downplayed by the second half of the film.  This is all why del Toro’s film is marginally inferior to Norrington’s original film – mishandling of characters and plot.  This might be attributed to David Goyer’s writing (lord, I know what it’s like when there’s no around to fix it up), but it is the director’s job to balance these things out.  I simply feel like there was more consistent storytelling and character continuity with the original Blade.  I’ve seen Hellboy, and I feel it suffers from the exact same problems as Blade II.  It is a fine film, but could use some definite improvements as could this sequel.

And I just have to say the biggest mishandling of a talent in this film is in Donnie Yen.  I’ve only seen him in Highlander: Endgame, but DAMN, was I impressed by his talent and abilities.  The man is a premiere martial artist that rivals the likes of Jet Li and such.  He is simply an amazing athlete and martial artist.  The fact that he’s barely utilized in this film should be a crime.  Maybe the filmmakers were afraid he’d out-shine Wesley Snipes?  I don’t know, but it’s just wrong to have under-utilized him in this picture.  Honestly, if you cast a talent the caliber of Donnie Yen, it’s for a very specific reason, and that reason is blatantly obvious.  To not make use of his most prominent talents is simply stupid.  Of what I’ve seen of him, I’d definitely look forward to seeing more of his talents.

This film has new music composers in Marco Beltrami and Danny Saber, but the difference isn’t strikingly different.  In the least, the music fits well with del Toro’s tone and style.  The soundtrack still features some techno-style music, but also rap / hip-hop music is present with the likes of Cypress Hill.  Not at all my taste in music, but it’s good within the context of the film.  Simply put, I have no qualms about the musical score or soundtrack for the film.

The film does indeed look fantastic with a rich color scheme, and the stellar cinematography.  The camera moves and angles definitely lend a sense of scope and power to the images.  The production design is top-notch creating various distinct sets and locales with bring a European flavor to the film.  With all the more diverse settings in this film, it easily makes it look more elaborate than the American urban setting of the first film.  But whatever the case, it all looks amazing!

Overall, taking in all the good and not-so-good of the film, I would have to give Blade II a score slightly below that of the first film.  Guillermo del Toro is an awesome filmmaker, but with this film, I just don’t feel his style lent itself best to this film.  I would’ve preferred more dramatic and emotional weight overall, and a stronger consistency in the characters of Blade and Whistler.  They are the only franchise mainstays, and they’re the ones we follow from film-to-film.  I feel their characters were weakened, and their potential strength was drained by excessive levity in the film overall.  Also, the CGI is good, but during the action scenes, you know when it’s CGI, making it not all that great.  It certainly helped the filmmakers achieve things that they couldn’t do otherwise, but also took away from the effectiveness of the times it was used.  It becomes a toss up, but never the less, I count it as a mark against the film, to a small degree.  Simply put, I give Blade II an 8.5/10.  It’s a good film, but it could’ve been stronger and more coherent in its storytelling progression and character development.