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The Best and Worst Films of 2011… And a Few Honorable Mentions

by Steve Habrat

Another year has come to a close and I know I will fondly remember 2011 as the year nostalgia ran rampant through cinema. We couldn’t get enough of the retro throwbacks that Hollywood dumped onto us! It touched horror (Insidious), superheroes (Captain America: The First Avenger), dramas (The Artist), thrillers (Drive), and even more than that. Many proclaimed that the year was lacking strong, well-made films that will live on but I have to disagree with those statements. I found 2011 to be a very good year for film with a number of wonderful films flickering across the silver screen. I will admit that, yes, the awards season was a bit dry with the usual awards tailored releases but one could make the argument that they were spread throughout the year. Hell, Spetember, which is usually the dumping ground for crappy movies, saw several great releases. So, my loyal readers, here is my picks for the 10 Best Films of 2011. I will follow the best with the honorable mentions and the 5 Worst Films of 2011.

 The Best:

10.) Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

This Cold War thriller about a group of spies at the upper levels of British Intelligence trying to locate a Soviet mole that has apparently been walking among them for years is tense, paranoid, dry, and quietly threatening. With a discreet but brilliant performance from Gary Oldman and a slew of supporting acts not far behind (Toby Jones, Colin Firth, and Tom Hardy all give it 110%), Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy becomes a film not about the mole but about the casualties of the Cold War. The casualties are the egos, careers, and lives of the men and women battling this war where accusations are fired instead of bullets. I remained on the fence about including this film in my Best of 2011 list but as the days pass, I find myself being squeezed tighter and tighter by its frosty grip.

9.) The Help

You know that chick flick that wasn’t Bridesmaids or Crazy Stupid Love (both awesome movies, by the way) that your girlfriend really wanted to see but you groused about going to? Yeah, The Help. It was really, really good and you missed out. The Help was a dazzling and patient film that was a cry for female camaraderie while never isolating the male viewer. It was a film about speaking your mind while opening up and listening to those around us. It was a film about unlikely friendships and cathartic confiding in one another. It was also a really great drama with moments of howling hilarity and stinging heartbreak. So yeah, that film you refused to see because it was just a “chick flick”? Yeah, you might want to see it because it happens to be a whole lot more than just for “chicks”. See it also for the show stopping performances from Octavia Spencer and Viola Davis.

8.) Moneyball

Moneyball is to baseball what The Social Network was to Facebook. Featuring a crackling script by Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin and top notch performances from Brad Pitt as Oakland A’s GM Billy Beane and Jonah Hill as the number crunching Peter Brand, Moneyball is consistently engrossing. If you can’t get enough of the babble about how to properly recruit a player, you’ll be thrilled to watch a film about a man on a search to make concise and solid decisions yet has failed to make the best ones in his own life. Pitt throws himself into Beane and for the first time in quite a while, disappears completely in the skin of his character. Hill breaks from his funnyman typecast and delivers a brainy performance that will open up more doors for him in the future. Even if you are the furthest thing from a baseball fan, you will find yourself hanging on every word and every frame of Moneyball.

7.) War Horse

Steven Spielberg’s majestic and epic interpretation of Michael Morpurgo’s children’s book is a touching and traditional opus. The film is pure Spielberg, a feel good blockbuster that leaps across Europe spying on the regal horse Joey and the several lives that he touches as he navigates through war torn landscapes. The film is complimented with an extraordinary score from John Williams that will become just as iconic as his scores for Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and Jaws. Whether you are jolted by the intense WWI battle sequences, marveling at the jaw-dropping cinematography, or still reeling from the barbed wire sequence, everyone can agree that War Horse is a cinematic triumph for, yes, all ages.

6.) The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Director David Fincher’s frigid crime thriller that follows a disgraced liberal journalist and a punk rock hacker is a mature thrill ride that will leave you the viewer scarred. Refusing to pull any punches, Fincher’s take on Stieg Larsson’s source material is fully realized, confident, and just as unpredictable as its heroine Lisbeth Salander. Mara transforms herself into the troubled and prickly hacker while also making her extremely charismatic. Daniel Craig has fun as a man trying to repair what is left of both his dignity and his career. Just as graphic as you’ve heard (there is not one, but two squirm-inducing rape sequences), intense, and featuring the coolest opening credit sequence of any movie in 2011, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo leaves you pinned to your seat. You will also never listen to Enya’s “Sail Away” the same way ever again.

5.) The Artist

The nostalgia of 2011 hit its peak with the silent French film The Artist, a vivacious film about a silent film actor facing the death of the silent film. The Artist proved that we do not need loud action sequences, explosions, or words, for that matter, to be deeply affected by a motion picture. It also stands as a tribute to artists themselves, who stand by the medium that they contribute to. The Artist thrilled us with haunting images, on point slapstick, and gooey gobs of cuteness. Good luck getting the performances from Jean Dujardin and Bérénice Bejo out of your head. You’ll also eat up all the affection that director Michel Hazanavicius bestows on every single frame. You’ll find yourself longing for a musical sequel and to relive the chemistry between the two leads. Trust me.

4.) The Tree of Life

Terrence Malick’s cosmic symphony of creation and evolution is so resplendently beautiful, it will practically drive you crazy. You’ll never forget the vivid swirls of the creation of the universe sequence or the crystal clear wonder in 1950’s suburbia. While the film is truly a work of art to gaze at, the film is made even stronger by the performances at the heart of it. Brad Pitt as a stern and cynical father who possesses an explosive temper will strike child-like fear into the viewer and Jessica Chastain as a naive and awe-struck housewife is graceful and inviting. The real beauty of The Tree of Life is in what you take away from the film. To me, Malick seems to simply be reminding us that life will throw some emotional curves at us, but don’t ever forget to stop and take in the glory around us.

3.) The Descendants

Paradise is not all its cracked up to be in Alexander Payne’s The Descendants. George Clooney gives the best performance of his career as Matt King, a man whose wife is comatose from a boating accident and while she is in the hospital, he learns she was having an affair. Doleful and sporadically hilarious, The Descendants moved me beyond words and at times, is almost unwatchable due to the mental and emotional beatings that King takes. While Clooney steals the show, his troublemaker teenage daughter Alexandra, played by Shailene Woodley, is the life vest keeping King’s head above water. You’ll feel every blow that life dishes out to King but that is what makes The Descendants so emotionally raw, real, and just plain great.

2.) Drive

Nicholas Winding Refn’s rough and tough thriller Drive has been wrongfully overlooked this awards season. It’s an unabashedly cool art house thrill ride that is one part homage to the 1980’s and one part existential tribute to Alejandro Jodorowsky. Featuring moments of angelic tranquility and fits of nerve frying rage and unflinching gore, Drive dared to be different and all the more power to it. Featuring the one-two punch of Ryan Gosling’s loner, nameless Driver and the erratic brutality of Albert Brooks’ gangster Bernie Rose, Drive isn’t simply all muscle with nothing under the hood. The film boasts the coolest soundtrack of the year, features moments that are instant classics (the head stomping scene, the opening car chase), and is the epitome of badass, all while taking you for a ride you’ll never soon forget.

1.)  Hugo

There is a scene in Martin Scorsese’s Hugo where our child protagonists Hugo and Isabelle take a trip to the movies. Scorsese’s camera captures their wonderment, their gasping thrills, and their imaginations running wild all while they have smiles plastered across their faces. They are watching their dreams of adventure play out on a larger-than-life screen and they haven’t a care in the world. This is why I go to the movies. For two hours, I get to forget the outside world and I get to step into another, one where my dreams come alive and my imagination is at play. While Scorsese’s ultimate message is the call for film preservation, one I can stand behind, Hugo is alive with the love of cinema. If you are willing to immerse yourself in its glorious 3D universe that Scorsese meticulously creates, you will want to remain in the world along with Hugo and thrill as he darts around the 1930s train station that he calls home. A film that is tailored for film fans and film students a bit more than the casual moviegoer, Hugo is a love letter delicately written and magnificently composed by a living legend.  Hugo is why I go to the movies.

Honorable Mentions:

–       Crazy Stupid Love is a return to form for the romantic comedy genre.

–        Midnight in Paris is a return to form for Woody Allen and is unapologetically charming.

–       Thor, Captain American: The First Avenger, and X-Men: First Class were all stellar comic book offerings from Marvel Studios.

–       Super 8 was a super cool retro action/science fiction film that fans of 1980s Spielberg gushed over. Myself included.

–       The Adventures of Tintin was a rollicking nod to Raiders of the Lost Ark and stood as the best animated film of the year.

–       Rango was quirky tribute to Chinatown, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and Sergio Leone.

–       Insidious was a flawed but fun haunted house freak out.

–       Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol was the best and most nerve-racking action film of the year.

–       50/50 was at once hilarious and heartfelt. Be prepared to wipe away a few tears.

 

The Worst:

2011 also had its fair share of cinematic duds and man, were they disappointing. For my Worst Films of 2011, I chose not to go for the easy choices (Bucky Larson, Jack & Jill) and go for the films that had potentially but fell short of their expectations. These were the ones that hurt bad and were an immense challenge to sit through. These are the films you should have stayed far away from in 2011.

5.) Cowboys & Aliens

Not a downright awful movie but given the talent surrounding this science fiction/western mash up, it should have been a hell of a lot better and much more fun. Flat and one note, this clunker threw one lifeless action sequence after another at us, never once getting an “Ooooooh” or an “Ahhhhh” from its viewer. The aliens were also pretty lame looking too. Daniel Craig tries his hardest but he can’t save this one. Heck, not even a naked Olivia Wilde had the magic!

4.) Green Lantern

The only superhero outing from DC Comics this summer turned out to be a candy colored nightmare of trippy special effects and a cluttered script. Ryan Reynolds as the cosmic cop was also a pretty horrible choice on the part of the filmmakers. It didn’t help that Warner Brothers tried to make this the successor to the mega successful Batman franchise and they ended up marketing the film to death. Weird and with more shifts in tone than you could shake a green ring at, Green Lantern was headache inducing and laughable, with enough plot holes to fuel a dozen terrible blockbusters. If you don’t believe me, just watch the massive climax of this thing. You won’t believe your eyes.

3.) Breaking Dawn Pt. 1

America, don’t you feel the slightest bit of shame that this passes for pop culture in our country? The Twilight Saga struck again in 2011 and left countless girls and grown women (You all should know better) swooning over Taylor Lautner and Robert Pattinson yet again. With nothing resembling a plot, Breaking Dawn Pt. 1 existed for simply one reason: To cheat young girls and grown women out of ten bucks. And sadly, they flocked right to Lautner’s abs like moths to a light bulb. If you are not a part of the hysterical hype, you will want to bash your head against the wall while you watch this.

2.) The Hangover Part II

Before all the girls were robbed blind while hyperventilating over the sight of Lautner’s abs, bros everywhere were robbed blind while howling over the painfully unfunny jokes by Zach Galifinakis and his brutish wolf-pack. An unnecessary sequel that did nothing to elaborate on the mostly unfunny first installment, The Hangover Part II was offensive in almost every possible way. If you missed this while it was in theaters, don’t fret and certainly don’t go seeking it out. It seemed like near the end of its theatrical run, the film lost steam as many people started realizing that this was a flat out horrendous movie. Maybe there is a God. Seriously, folks, this is an ugly, ugly movie that should have never seen the light of day.

1.)  Battle: Los Angeles

Bad doesn’t even scratch the surface of the vociferous, stupid, and aggravating Battle: Los Angeles. You couldn’t tell if this abomination was supposed to be the most expensive commercial for the Marines ever made or the unholy brainchild of a kid who watched District 9 too many times and was obsessed with Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. Whether you’re cringing over the eye-rolling dialogue, trying to decipher just what the hell is going on in the non-stop gun fights, or trying not burst out laughing when the film goes for the dramatic territory, one thing is for sure, Battle: Los Angeles was the worst thing Hollywood dumped on audiences in 2011! Avoid it like a plague.

Green Lantern (2011)

by Steve Habrat

In a summer where the local movie theater has been besieged by tights–wearing superheroes who mostly found their allegiance to the Marvel camp, it was only a matter of time before one of them stumbled over their cape. This is not to say that we haven’t had a good summer movie season so far. Thor was an unexpected treasure and X-Men: First Class sits nicely at the top as one of the greatest to come out in quite a while. Now, we have DC Comic’s offering and his name is the Green Lantern. Perhaps you’ve seen a TV spot or two for this one? Or maybe a poster or three? Warner Bros. has launched a massively epic promotional campaign for Green Lantern in an attempt to lure crowds to the movie theater and I think I know why—because he is so excruciatingly un-extraordinary it becomes almost unfathomable. Green Lantern doesn’t really DO anything! He just spouts off one-liners, flies around in a green suit, and hits on Blake Lively. That pretty much sums up the experience of Green Lantern—it doesn’t particularly have much to do. It just thinks it does.

To be fair, I know basically nothing about the Green Lantern. I know he sports a green suit and has a magical ring that lets him create anything that he wants. That was as far as my knowledge went on the DC space cop. I didn’t know that the lore was alien-heavy and drenched in a vibrant day-glo ambiance. His first cinematic outing showed promise by a decently edited trailer and the presence of director Martin Campbell, who shocked the Bond franchise back to life with what I believe to be the best Bond film ever made, Casino Royale. But Green Lantern is a gigantic neon mess of a movie. The film boasts four writers and it’s painfully obvious. The film also inexplicably appears to be directed by three different directors, as it can’t decide on one specific tone. One moment it’s a light-hearted superhero flick for kiddies, the next second it’s a trippy sci-fi action film, then it shifts into dark and gritty territory, then a self-discovery drama, and finally taking the camp route all while drenching itself in endless clichés. It does manage to cough up a few bright moments every once in a while, which makes this jumble somewhat more endurable.

The film starts off with a complex back-story that I wont dive into in my review. I will however tell you this—the movie follows Hal Jordan (played by the wise-cracking Ryan Reynolds) who is an irresponsible hotshot pilot for the Air Force. One night, dying purple skinned alien Abin Sur, who has crash-landed on earth after narrowly escaping a menacing encounter with the hair-raising Parallax, rips Jordan away from his nephew’s birthday party. Abin Sur proceeds to tell Jordan that his Green Lantern ring has chosen him as his replacement in the Green Lantern Corps. Thus begins Jordan’s journey as the Green Lantern, the first human chosen as one of the protectors of the galaxy. Soon the same force that killed Abin Sur threatens Earth and it’s up to Jordan to defend mankind. Green Lantern of course has a love interest. She’s fellow pilot Carrol Ferris (played by The Town’s Blake Lively), who criticizes Jordan for his reckless behavior and has apparently been burned by Jordan in the past. She naturally still houses feelings for him and vice versa. Jordan finds himself envied by the eccentric and timid scientist Hector Hammond (played by the superb Peter Sarsgaard), who accidentally contracts the powers of Parallax in an autopsy on Abin Sur.

Somewhere in Green Lantern, there is a good movie trying to get out. Instead it settles for mediocrity. The Green Lantern’s ring provides him with the ability to create anything his imagination conjures up in a battle with a baddie. At one point, he creates a Gatling gun and in another moment, he creates a racetrack and turns a crashing helicopter into a dragster. In a back alley brawl, he dreams up a giant fist and knocks three thugs on their asses. It’s a neat gimmick that is rarely utilized by the film. It simply never makes a big deal about this ability and instead it subtly shows up from time to time. Further troubling is Reynolds himself, he at times looks like he is so bored in this role and that he’s secretly dreaming he’s on the set of a different movie. He shows absolutely no commitment in Hal Jordan and gives him about as much depth as a kiddie pool. He plays Jordan like a bad imitation combination of Bruce Wayne and Tony Stark. I was troubled from the get-go over his casting and the film only solidifies my concern. Just like his superpower power, he is exceedingly lackluster.

Given all the talent that signed on to the movie (Tim Robbins!?), there is one shining star among the group and that is Sarsgaard’s Hector Hammond. If they are to do a sequel to this, and I’m quite sure that they will, they should make a prequel about Hammond. He’s the only character that isn’t a walking cliché from another superhero movie. He’s an intriguing antagonist and his descent into homicidal madness is the films high point partly because it is basically the only part of the film that provides some real emotion. He slithers through the role as if he’s the only one aware of how bad everyone else is in it. He’s the only one who shows any effort. The most thrilling part of the movie is the climatic showdown between him and the Green Lantern. Unfortunately, it’s all too brief.

Green Lantern further blinds the audience to its mediocre story with heaping globs of neon CGI. It’s non-stop eye candy that is agonizingly artificial. The people behind this thing poured so much into the visuals that they completely forgot to give the thing a human heart. Nothing seems genuine about it and it’s a tailor-made franchise flick. It does offer up a couple intriguing sequences, which are mostly the ones consisting of Hammond and Green Lantern duking it out. The rest are dazzling trips to Oa, the planet that the Green Lantern Corps finds its headquarters. It’s teeming with peculiar aliens that babble on with nonsensical mumbo-jumbo about fear but it’s a place that you won’t mind visiting.

Putting it bluntly, Green Lantern is a pretty lousy movie. Before the film came out, several Warner Bros. heads ranted and raved about how superb the script was for this movie. After seeing the finished product, it must have sounded better on paper because the film is a blatant cash cow franchise flick with absolutely no build-up, a limp hero, and weighed down with too much CGI. The film is impersonal, lacking any trace of spirit. It seems like they were desperate to have another superhero hit outside of Batman, given the tanking of Superman Returns. It’s too bad that the Green Lantern can’t use his ring and imagine a better movie, one that is not all over the place and with a back-story that is not quickly brushed over in a senseless action scene.

Grade: D

Green Lantern is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011)

by Steve Habrat

As you exit the theater after viewing Michael Bay’s Transformers: Dark of the Moon, there should be theater employees stationed by the door that snap a picture of you and toss you a t-shirt that reads, “I survived Transformers: Dark of the Moon!” I kid you not that when the theater lights come up, the gleaming credits roll across the screen, and Linkin Park blares down on you from the theater speaker system that you will need to take a minute to compose yourself. Your brain will be reduced the pancake batter, your ears will ring, your bones will ache, and you may suffer from a pounding migraine headache as your try to decipher what it is that you just saw. The truth is that Transformers: Dark of the Moon is infinitely better than the previous installment in the Hasbro toy franchise, but the bottom line is that the film, which hints at an intriguing concept early on, single handedly creates a new subgenre of action film: Explosion porn. In the last hour of this film, I’m absolutely astounded that you could not hear Bay’s maniacal laughter as he reduces Chicago to a pile of smoldering embers, reduces the premise to ash, and leaves you reeking of gasoline and defeat.

Almost everyone I talk to about the Transformers films seem to agree that the first film was a charming action film about a boy and his car. About an eccentric kid grappling with problems most teenage boys face (girls, popularity, money, ennui in suburbia) getting thrust into something that is larger than life. Then came the second film and the awe factor was reduced to racist rubble at the pyromaniac claws of Michael Bay. The first film was clearly overseen by Spielberg, who is the executive producer of these films; because Bay demonstrated some disciplined restraint and didn’t blow up EVERYTHING he pointed his camera at. The second film was an incomprehensible mess that was nothing but one confusing fight sequence after another. Furthermore, halfway through the film, it seemed like the writers realized the storyline was rancid and tried to redirect the entire film. Bad idea.

So how does the third entry in this lucrative franchise fair? Well, it manages to be pretty average in the story department. It has a beefier plot than the previous film but the film is so garish and cramped that it almost bursts on screen. The plot wears thin after the first hour and a half and the film spends the next hour using an epic showdown in downtown Chicago as a dazzling diversion to the fact that the storyline has run out of fuel. The film begins with a nifty prelude that suggests that the space race of the 1960s was in response to a ship that had crash-landed on the dark side of the moon. Turns out that the ship actually belonged to Sentinel Prime, an Autobot that fled the planet of Cybertron during the war between the Autobots and Decepticons. He took with him a precious weapon that would have decided the outcome of the war. Flash forward to present day and the Decepticons are lurking on earth and looking for the weapon to launch a massive campaign against Earth and wipe out the remaining Autobots.

Back at the center of all the action is the bumbling hero Sam Witwicky (Played by motor-mouthed Shia LaBeouf). Once Sam was a lovable hero who just wanted to get the girl. Now, he’s been reduced to a shadow of his once beloved character. He’s set up shop with Carly (Played by Bay’s curvy Babe-of-the-Month Rosie Huntington-Whiteley) in what appears to be a left over set of a Victoria ‘s Secret commercial. The two can’t even come close to emulating the bizarre chemistry that LaBeouf had with Megan Fox in the first two installments. They seem like the most improbable couple on the face of the earth. The rest of the cast is back too and they are all as colorful as ever. We have the tough-as-nails army officers Epps (Played by Tyrese Gibson), and Lennox (Played by Josh Duhamel) back on the front lines of the alien/robot battle. Also back is Sam’s TMI-spouting parents and the eccentric former Sector 7 agent Simmons (Played with berserk delight by John Turturro). Newcomers include John Malkovich as Sam’s unhinged new boss, Ken Jeong as Sam’s jittery coworker, Frances McDormand as an icy government agent, and Patrick Dempsey as a charismatic boss.

It truly is enigmatic how Bay convinced some of the talent to actually agree to be in this beast of a movie. They must have all been desperate for a payday because I can’t imagine stars like Malkovich and McDormand actually biting at this tomfoolery. They do the best job they can with the material they are given. Let’s not forget that some of the dialogue has never been some of the sharpest banter ever projected onto the silver screen but it is given some life by these accomplished actors. Yet somehow all these characters are the reason that these films astonishingly stay afloat. Granted the second film may be one of the vilest movies of recent memory, but you have to admit that it had spunk. The characters are effervescent and so are their alien allies even if tired clichés pour from their CGI mouths.

While many are swift to accuse Bay of producing empty cinematic experiences, they are correct to an extent. Bay does action well and he can frame a scene better than most directors out there, but the problem with Bay is that he sabotages his own film’s potential. This film has plenty of said potential and the first twenty minutes of it are expertly constructed. He weaves history and fiction together just as effortlessly as they did in X-Men: First Class. But then Bay can’t resist himself and pulls the pin out of the grenade. He does this with a single shot that throws off the momentum that the film has been gathering—a shot of Rosie Huntington-Whiteley’s ass as it sways up a set of stairs. It sucks the life right out of the film and for the next hour, the film scrambles to gather back that momentum. It doesn’t help that the premise here is stretched to the breaking point, snaps, and then continues on for another hour. I believe that the first film worked so well because we knew so little about these alien visitors. Now, the films have been steeped in geek lore and suffer from being completely overblown. Everything is given a longwinded explanation that drags the events on another ten minutes. This entry keeps it a bit simpler but I still firmly believe the franchise should have been left at one. Shame on Hollywood’s gluttony.

Overall, Bay has become a target for another crime against his audience—making them feel no emotion whatsoever. His films are more concerned with the action sequences than any redeeming quality like emotion. Yes, a film should send you away with a feeling. That can include walking away sad, overjoyed, depressed, moved, or, yes, thrilled to your core. While the last entry sent you away confused and simply infuriated that it exists, Transformers: Dark of the Moon sends you away overwhelmed and disoriented. You will feel like you just stepped off of a rollercoaster. I guarantee that your stomach will be doing somersaults for hours after in your gut. We can spend all day arguing over the mediocrity of his latest film, or we can just agree on the obvious: At least Bay sent you away FEELING something this time around. Grade: C+

Transformers: Dark of the Moon is available on Blu-ray and DVD Friday.

Feature: The Summer of 2011 Belonged to Superheroes

by Steve Habrat

It’s official, boys and girls, the summer of 2011 belonged to tights clad do-gooders who saved the world countless times from certain doom. They protected the innocent from world annihilation and we cheered them on every punch and kick along the way. We saw three superheroes from the Marvel Comics camp and one lifeless cosmic cop from DC Comics. I feared that Marvel would have too heavy of a presence at the local cinema, but I have to commend them for the quality films that they delivered. They were smart, colorful, and just downright entertaining until the last villain was knocked out cold. I had some hostility to Thor at first, but after watching him hurl has hammer at Loki a couple of times, I was hooked. I loved his brutish arrogance and empathized with him when he had his powers taken by his old man Odin. I had my doubts about X-Men: First Class. I was convinced it would be a cheap money grab of a film that was just milking a name. What I saw was easily the most unsettling, brooding, and arresting superhero film since The Dark Knight. Sure, there were moments were it winked at it’s comic roots, but that earth shattering climax is a must see and was played absolutely straight. And how about Captain America? How could that not put a smile on your face?! It was a retro, rip-roaring escapade that was actually better the second time I saw it (and yes, I LOVED it the first time I went to see it). It was the kind of summer movie we wish for but we rarely get. We just get more transforming robot aliens and alien invasion movies (yawn).

Many audience members will be quick to argue that Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Pt. 2 was the real king of the summer but let me point something out to the ones who defend the Boy Who Lived until they are blue in the face: He had no staying power. As quickly as he made a bang, he fizzled. He quickly faded from the memory of audiences and we were right back to rallying behind Captain America. Sure, it was sad to see the Potter franchise finally come to an end but the film was honestly a bit underwhelming. I will give Potter credit, he now holds the title for the biggest opening weekend of all time but let’s not overlook those inflated 3D tickets. Thor opened to a respectable $66 million when it debuted, X-Men: First Class pulled $56 million, and Captain America mustered up $65 million respectably. And yes, I am aware Thor and Captain America were in 3D as well but they seemed to linger a bit longer near the top of the box ofice than Potter did. I still distinctly remember moments of Thor and I still shudder at the final frames of X-Men. The most distinct memory I have of Harry Potter was the jaw dropping teaser trailer for The Dark Knight Rises and few haunting images from the film itself. But as far as moments go in HP, I got nothing.

Perhaps the nation was under Potter fatigue. They were ready to just get the inevitable end over with. Yet I feel like more people actually saw Thor, X-Men, and Captain America than saw Harry Potter. I have one theory as to why audience members responded well to those three films. If we take a look at the news, all we see is one disaster after another. This year alone, we have seen the devastating tsunami that ravaged Japan, a shooting rampage in Norway, a shooting rampage in Arizona, another shooting rampage right in my backyard (Copley, Ohio), Casey Anthony found not guilty for the murder of her daughter, war in Libya, riots in Egypt, Hurricane Irene, etc. The world seems now more than ever in need of some form of hero. The times are undeniably grim and now, we are coming up on another anniversary of the horrifying September 11th attacks. Maybe that is why we flock to see the heroes vanquish evil. We need some form of comfort and even if it’s just pretend, we can still sleep better at night with the hope that someone will come around and protect us.

Next year, the summer movie season will see The Avengers, which teams up Thor, Captain America, Iron Man, and The Hulk to wage a war on terror in the form of Loki. We will see a fresh take on everyone’s favorite web head, The Amazing Spider-Man, and to top it off, we will see the third and final chapter in Batman legacy, The Dark Knight Rises. Next Christmas, we will see the return of The Man of Steel himself, Superman, to stand once again for truth, justice, and the American way. While I feel that Batman is really the only superhero to actually engage politically (rather blatantly might I add) as The Dark Knight is now acting as the defining film of the Bush era, there is still something about the remarkably wholesome Marvel good guys. If we also look at the suspected plots of these films, there are some rather disquieting comparisons to what many speculate will occur next year: An unstoppable, apocalyptic event. We see four powerhouse heroes joining together to fight Thor’s God-like half brother and (supposedly) a race of aliens in The Avengers.  In The Amazing Spider-Man trailer, Dr. Curt Connors/The Lizard asks Spidey if he’s “Ready to play God”. Judging by the trailer, this will be a much darker portrayal of the character and there are a few moments of what appears to be apocalyptic action. But what does this particular line of dialogue mean? Spidey has to play God and save us all from destruction? And lets not forget that jarring trailer for The Dark Knight Rises. It is rumored that Batman is going to need a little help from Catwoman to defeat the brute force that is Bane and save Gotham from annihilation. Just take a looksy at the final image from the trailer, which shows Bane advancing on a winded, clearly in pain Batman. Gotham is going to need more than one hero to save it. When we look at The Man of Steel, all we can do is speculate, as we have no trailer to go off of. The main villain has been confirmed as being General Zod, who wields the same powers as Superman. Has Superman finally met his match?

It makes sense to me that both Marvel and DC Comics would unleash their A-team next year to protect us from the rumored apocalypse. Maybe it is to subconsciously reassure us and give some hope to the individuals who are convinced the apocalypse will occur. But one aspect is certain, that superheroes were the true rulers of this blockbuster heavy summer. Together, Marvel had a mighty pull and combined, the three films were a juggernaut. Combined all together, I suspect that The Avengers is going to become one of the highest grossing films ever made. And what about the hype that has surrounded The Dark Knight Rises? It’s poised to become another monstrous victory for superhero movies. So is the Boy Who Lived really on top? He won this battle, but he will most certainly fall to another do-gooder next summer. His triumph was brief. Enjoy it now Potter fans, because it’s a superhero world and we are all just living in it.

Super (2011)

by Steve Habrat

Last year, Hollywood released the highly intelligent but morally questionable Kick-Ass. It shocked audiences with it’s unblinking portrayal of what it would be like if an ordinary citizen decided to don a cape and prowl the streets fighting crime. They would be beaten to a bloody pulp. And yes, Kick-Ass had plenty of Looney Tunes moments sprinkled throughout but it was unfathomably offensive. It also happened to be a wonderful movie that had quite a bit of depth to it. Early this summer, director James Gunn released his indie superhero outing Super, which globs on the black humor and spurting arteries with such maniacal glee, you almost start to question Gunn’s sanity. Yes, it’s THAT twisted.

I will admit that I found moments of Super enjoyable and the climax was an emotional sucker punch. I will confess to chuckling when Rainn Wilson’s dopey Frank would conk evildoers on the noggin with a monkey wrench and yell, “Shut up, crime!” But I sat stirred by how savage the film behaved even outside the inevitable action scenes. It wears a crooked grin even while it blindsides us with rape, child molestation, substance addiction, and endless foul language that would please Judd Apatow. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no prude when it comes to films of this nature but I completely understand why the film was never released into mainstream theaters.

Frank thought he had everything going for him in life. He had a beautiful wife Sarah (Played by the cooing Liv Tyler) and a mediocre job as a cook. He thought he had aided Sarah, who was apparently an ex-junkie, in kicking her habit and changing her life. That all changes when ostentatious drug dealer Jock (Played by Kevin Bacon, who seems to be everywhere this summer) shows up and steals Sarah away from him. One night, in a sequence that appears to be left over from Gunn’s zombie/alien opus Slither, Frank has a vision from God. He is told to don an amateurish suit of armor and parade around the streets as The Crimson Bolt. While building his alter ego, he strikes up a quirky friendship with a local comic book store clerk Libby (Played by an extremely off-putting Ellen Page). She convinces him to let her be his mad, bloodthirsty sidekick and together, they aim to take down Jock and get Sarah back.

Super does offer up its fair share of craggy authenticity. The film is shot with a handheld camera and at times, if the violence isn’t making your stomach groan, the camerawork sure will. It’s twitchy but alarmingly confident. Like Kick-Ass, the film realizes (only every once in a great while) that it has to use some sort of idiosyncratic distraction from the gruesome atrocities at hand. It does this by juxtaposing the action with freeze frames and animated “BOOM”s and “WHACK!”s that look like scribbling from a teenagers own private comic book creation. It’s efficient but also seems like just a petty attempt to soften the blow of the relentless cruelty.

The shining star in this bloody mess is Rainn Wilson’s disciplined and committed performance as Frank. It’s a relief to not see the Office funnyman relegated to tween scum like The Rocker but after Super, I have to wonder about Wilson’s actual character (according to the Blu-ray features, he stood by the project from the get-go). The worst part about the film is the abhorrent performance from Ellen Page, who is downright out of control. I failed to see anything funny about her character and see this as one of the lower points of her career. Everyone else is incredibly underused including the surprising presence of Michael Rooker (Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, The Walking Dead) as Abe, Jock’s right hand hitman. All his character does is munch on jellybeans, stare at Frank, and occasionally remember to fire his pistol. There is none of the subtle brewing intensity that he is so famous for. Bacon, however, seems to be having a blast in the role playing another villain (he was also the baddie in X-Men: First Class) and Tyler, who claims she found the script “touching”, seems to be bored to tears.

Overall, the film has an arresting climax that is great compensation for the warped first portion. It is moving and almost becomes a tearjerker. The final showdown between Jock and Frank is guaranteed to shake you up even if you have found the rest of the film despicable. Super is just simply not a film for everyone. If you are in the target audience, you’ll have a blast with it. If not, you will just walk away shaking your head and wondering why Hollywood doesn’t make more wholesome movies like they use to. Either way, it will get a reaction out of you and that is what good cinema should do. While I consider myself in the target audience for a film like this, it left me feeling a bit underwhelmed. I was left wishing the first half were as gratifying as the second. I also could have done without Page but I think all will safely agree that Wilson is downright magnetic. He is the heart and soul of Super and believe it or not, that allows us to forgive most of its morally contestable moments. Grade: B-

Super is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.

End of Summer Smack Down… GO!