"Moneyball"Written by Steve Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin, Story by Stan Chervin based on the book by Michael Lewis; Directed by Nicolas Bennett Miller.  Stars: Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill and Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Story: The story of Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane’s successful attempt to put together a baseball club on a budget by employing computer-generated analysis to field his team.Seen by Lars & Adam, September 25, 2011

LARS:I’m not a big fan of sports movies in general. It’s not that I don’t see their appeal. It’s just that it’s mostly the same story over and over again: Underdog fighter/player/team is struggling to make it. An event occurs which makes them change/try harder/see the error of their ways. At first it doesn’t work and they begin to doubt themselves. Then there’s a breakthrough and they end up coming out on top. We cheer how they triumph against adversity and believe that anything is possible, if you just have faith. In the end, the best sports films are not about the sport in question, they are meditations on the human condition.I also have absolutely no affinity for baseball. In my native Denmark, it’s basically a children’s game. Granted, with slightly different rules and played with a softer ball, but to all intents and purposes, it’s the same game. I used to love to play it, when I was a kid, but there was never a possibility of making it something that could be pursued as a career. Hence, I find professional baseball somewhat humorous, even if I once had a great day at Wrigley Field watching the Chicago Cubs and drinking beer in the sun. It’s just that it seems odd to me for grown men to play this game for a living.The reason for this preamble is just to put it into perspective how low my expectations were, when I walked into a screening of “Moneyball”. Hence, it was quite a surprise to find that, after a slow start, the movie was riveting, even if it did mostly adhere to my above breakdown of how sports movies work.A lot of the kudos must go the writers. Not only is “Moneyball” based on a book written by the excellent Michael Lewis, who has reported insightfully about both Wall Street (“Liar’s Poker”) and sports (“The Blind Side”, which was turned into a movie a few years ago). The screenplay was done by Steven Zaillian and the genius Aaron Sorkin, who is probably the best dialogue writer working today (see “The Social Network” and “The West Wing”). Bennett Miller is not the most obvious choice of director. His only other feature film credit is “Capone”, a biography of the writer Truman Capone, who was surely no baseball fan (I’d guess). Originally, Steven Soderbergh was attached as the director, but the old stand-by excuse, ‘creative differences’, made him leave the project and make room for Miller. Thankfully, Miller focuses more on the human drama off the field. The single best scene in the movie features Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill working the phones and concocting a scheme to ensure the Oakland coach does things their way. The actors are uniformly excellent. Brad Pitt is getting better as he’s getting older and less of a pretty boy that the camera just drools over. Here’s he is giving a solid portrayal of a man who has no other option than to believe that he can change things for the better by going completely against conventional wisdom. It’s also nice to see Jonah Hill play against his normal shtick. He is the geeky number cruncher who adamantly believes that statistics can change the game, if you know how to read and act on them. This may be the last time we see Hill fat, as he’s shed about half his weight since this movie. He looks like a completely different person now. Philip Seymour Hoffman does a great job as the coach who is not drinking the kool-aid, until all of a sudden the plan works. Looks also for Spike Jonze, who pops up in an uncredited cameo that must make the real-life person the character is based on cringe, if he ever sees the movie. Thankfully, the movie avoids most of the sports movie clichés and the end is not what you’d expect. That alone makes it a better movie in my book. Finally, as a curious aside, the lovely little ditty that Pitt’s daughter sings to him was recorded by Lenka in 2008. But the movie is set in 2002. Anachronism, ahoy!  

ADAM:In the days leading up to seeing “Moneyball” most people asked me if I thought a baseball move could live up to the hype this film was getting. First of all, since when were movies that feature baseball lousy? I can think of a range of films from the dramatic “The Natural”, “Field of Dreams” and “Bull Durham” to comedies like “Major League” all of which had much to offer. More importantly, films that use baseball as a backdrop rarely are really about the sport; the metaphor for life, additional chances, living day to day, overcoming obstacles, being an hero, working as a team, dealing with authority, winning and losing are all components of America’s pastime, so it’s no surprise that baseball films often work if (of course) they have strong characters and a decent story. That’s the case with “Moneyball,” where Pitt plays Billy Beane, a former child star ballplayer destined to be a hall of famer, but who simply didn’t make it (a New York Met prospect - go figure), but who didn’t give up on the game that gave him such a hard time.  He decided to use his smarts (he was offered a scholarship to Stanford) to become a dedicated baseball scout, and eventually became the General Manager of the Oakland A’s.  Struggling with the budget afforded him versus the stratospheric payroll of the New York Yankees, Beane realized it was impossible to compete with the Yanks on the field if the A’s operated in the same way with them off the field.  He needed an edge in the way he built his team and found it via Peter Brand, an young exec with the Indians who examined player statistics like no one else, likening players to commodities and a team not unlike a mutual fund.  It was exactly the different perspective Beane was looking for, and adopting Brand and Brand’s thinking was a gamble he was willing to take.  The rest of the film explores the results of that decision; the effect that decision has on Beane’s and Brand’s careers, their relationships with players and coaches, Beane’s inner demons and his relationship with his ex-wife and daughter, and the way this thinking affected baseball forever.
Pitt, Hill and Hoffman provide outstanding performances from an exceptional script by two of the best writers in Hollywood.  And Miller, a documentary director, gets the best of his cast in the film.  For a story that is completely linear and totally historical, you’re still on the edge of your seat.  This will garner several nominations I’m sure, and rightfully so; it’s about going against the grain, taking risks, not listening to convention, but rather to your own conviction and your heart, believing in others, and never giving up.  That’s baseball.  And that’s Hollywood entertainment.

"Moneyball"

Written by Steve Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin, Story by Stan Chervin based on the book by Michael Lewis; Directed by Nicolas Bennett Miller.  Stars: Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill and Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Story: The story of Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane’s successful attempt to put together a baseball club on a budget by employing computer-generated analysis to field his team.


Seen by Lars & Adam, September 25, 2011




LARS:

I’m not a big fan of sports movies in general. It’s not that I don’t see their appeal. It’s just that it’s mostly the same story over and over again: Underdog fighter/player/team is struggling to make it. An event occurs which makes them change/try harder/see the error of their ways. At first it doesn’t work and they begin to doubt themselves. Then there’s a breakthrough and they end up coming out on top. We cheer how they triumph against adversity and believe that anything is possible, if you just have faith. In the end, the best sports films are not about the sport in question, they are meditations on the human condition.

I also have absolutely no affinity for baseball. In my native Denmark, it’s basically a children’s game. Granted, with slightly different rules and played with a softer ball, but to all intents and purposes, it’s the same game. I used to love to play it, when I was a kid, but there was never a possibility of making it something that could be pursued as a career. Hence, I find professional baseball somewhat humorous, even if I once had a great day at Wrigley Field watching the Chicago Cubs and drinking beer in the sun. It’s just that it seems odd to me for grown men to play this game for a living.

The reason for this preamble is just to put it into perspective how low my expectations were, when I walked into a screening of “Moneyball”. Hence, it was quite a surprise to find that, after a slow start, the movie was riveting, even if it did mostly adhere to my above breakdown of how sports movies work.

A lot of the kudos must go the writers. Not only is “Moneyball” based on a book written by the excellent Michael Lewis, who has reported insightfully about both Wall Street (“Liar’s Poker”) and sports (“The Blind Side”, which was turned into a movie a few years ago). The screenplay was done by Steven Zaillian and the genius Aaron Sorkin, who is probably the best dialogue writer working today (see “The Social Network” and “The West Wing”). 

Bennett Miller is not the most obvious choice of director. His only other feature film credit is “Capone”, a biography of the writer Truman Capone, who was surely no baseball fan (I’d guess). Originally, Steven Soderbergh was attached as the director, but the old stand-by excuse, ‘creative differences’, made him leave the project and make room for Miller. Thankfully, Miller focuses more on the human drama off the field. The single best scene in the movie features Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill working the phones and concocting a scheme to ensure the Oakland coach does things their way. 

The actors are uniformly excellent. Brad Pitt is getting better as he’s getting older and less of a pretty boy that the camera just drools over. Here’s he is giving a solid portrayal of a man who has no other option than to believe that he can change things for the better by going completely against conventional wisdom. It’s also nice to see Jonah Hill play against his normal shtick. He is the geeky number cruncher who adamantly believes that statistics can change the game, if you know how to read and act on them. This may be the last time we see Hill fat, as he’s shed about half his weight since this movie. He looks like a completely different person now. Philip Seymour Hoffman does a great job as the coach who is not drinking the kool-aid, until all of a sudden the plan works. Looks also for Spike Jonze, who pops up in an uncredited cameo that must make the real-life person the character is based on cringe, if he ever sees the movie. 

Thankfully, the movie avoids most of the sports movie clichés and the end is not what you’d expect. That alone makes it a better movie in my book. Finally, as a curious aside, the lovely little ditty that Pitt’s daughter sings to him was recorded by Lenka in 2008. But the movie is set in 2002. Anachronism, ahoy! 




ADAM:

In the days leading up to seeing “Moneyball” most people asked me if I thought a baseball move could live up to the hype this film was getting. First of all, since when were movies that feature baseball lousy? I can think of a range of films from the dramatic “The Natural”, “Field of Dreams” and “Bull Durham” to comedies like “Major League” all of which had much to offer. More importantly, films that use baseball as a backdrop rarely are really about the sport; the metaphor for life, additional chances, living day to day, overcoming obstacles, being an hero, working as a team, dealing with authority, winning and losing are all components of America’s pastime, so it’s no surprise that baseball films often work if (of course) they have strong characters and a decent story. 

That’s the case with “Moneyball,” where Pitt plays Billy Beane, a former child star ballplayer destined to be a hall of famer, but who simply didn’t make it (a New York Met prospect - go figure), but who didn’t give up on the game that gave him such a hard time.  He decided to use his smarts (he was offered a scholarship to Stanford) to become a dedicated baseball scout, and eventually became the General Manager of the Oakland A’s.  Struggling with the budget afforded him versus the stratospheric payroll of the New York Yankees, Beane realized it was impossible to compete with the Yanks on the field if the A’s operated in the same way with them off the field.  He needed an edge in the way he built his team and found it via Peter Brand, an young exec with the Indians who examined player statistics like no one else, likening players to commodities and a team not unlike a mutual fund.  It was exactly the different perspective Beane was looking for, and adopting Brand and Brand’s thinking was a gamble he was willing to take.  The rest of the film explores the results of that decision; the effect that decision has on Beane’s and Brand’s careers, their relationships with players and coaches, Beane’s inner demons and his relationship with his ex-wife and daughter, and the way this thinking affected baseball forever.


Pitt, Hill and Hoffman provide outstanding performances from an exceptional script by two of the best writers in Hollywood.  And Miller, a documentary director, gets the best of his cast in the film.  For a story that is completely linear and totally historical, you’re still on the edge of your seat.  This will garner several nominations I’m sure, and rightfully so; it’s about going against the grain, taking risks, not listening to convention, but rather to your own conviction and your heart, believing in others, and never giving up.  That’s baseball.  And that’s Hollywood entertainment.

"Drive"Written by Hossein Amini based on the book by James Sallis; Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn.  Stars: Ryan Gossling, Carrie Mulligan, Bryan Cranston and Albert Brooks. Story: A Hollywood stunt performer who moonlights as a wheelman discovers that a contract has been put on him after a heist gone wrong.Seen by Lars & Adam, September 18, 2011
LARS:It’s nice that there may now be two Danish directors that people know. Many moviegoers have heard about Lars von Trier by now, if only because his antics are often more newsworthy than his movies (which I generally love to hate). Nicolas Winding Refn is cursed with one of those Danish names that don’t exactly roll off the tongue of anyone outside of Scandinavia, so he just has to work the harder to get the name recognition that he certainly is beginning to deserve.Refn made waves in Denmark in 1995 when he dropped out of film school in his first semester to direct “Pusher”, which went on to become a massive blockbuster in Denmark. He was 25 years old. Over the next decade, Refn tried his hand at various other films, but none replicated the success of “Pusher”, so almost a decade later he shot two sequels that were not as well received. At that point I had written him off as a wunderkind, who was doomed never to repeat his early success (in related news, “Citizen Kane” came out on Blu-Ray this week. Buy it.). But then in 2008, Refn directed “Bronson” (which is available on Netflix Streaming) and it looked like he was back on track to real greatness. Featuring a blistering performance by Tom Hardy as the British convict ‘Charles Bronson’ who has spent the last 34 years in prison, “Bronson” was tough as nails and poetic at the same time. So when the buzz around “Drive” began to surface at the Cannes Film Festival, I was really looking forward to seeing where Refn was going this time around.“Drive” is not for the squeamish. The use of violence as the last resort or just as a substitute for communication has always been one of Refn’s trademarks and this movie is no exception. There’s a scene with a guy getting his face kicked in that has only been bested in pure gruesomeness by Gaspar Noe in his notorious movie “Irreversible”. “Drive” has a tension to it that you know will eventually be released somehow. And after a while you realize how. It is in many ways a timeless story. It could just as easily and plausibly have been set in the 1940s and have been shot as a pulpy film noir in the 1950s. “Drive” is based on the eponymous book by James Sallis that opens with the lines, “I drive. That’s what I do. All I do.” Those lines influence Ryan Gosling’s surprisingly tough and sensitive performance. I’ve sung Gosling’s praise on this blog a number of times before, but I frankly never envisioned him as a vengeful angel of death, all bulked up and dangerous to mess with. But here he pulls of a menace that combines the quiet of Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name with a dose of Steve McQueen in his prime coolness. He remains the best actor of his generation and that he has an awesome band, Dead Man’s Bones, as well just makes him that much easier to hate. The rest of the cast do wonderful work with their relatively limited screen time, especially Albert Brooks, who stands out as the head bad guy. Isn’t it funny how comedians always make excellent villains? Maybe it’s the seething insecurity of the stand-up comedian that lurks right below the surface that they tap into? Carey Mulligan has little to do other than be cute enough to fall in love with, and she pulls that off with no trouble at all.Refn sets the film in the LA that the movies rarely show; a suburbia of run-down apartment blocks and faded strip malls, the film feels like the work of a young Michael Mann. Refn deservedly won Best Director in Cannes for “Drive” and his sense of pacing as well as the muted color scheme makes the film stand out and feel out of time in the best possible way.Apparently, Refn and Gosling have a bit of a bromance going on. They are also collaborating on Refn’s next film that takes place in the world of Thai boxing. I have a sneaky suspicion it’ll be on the violent side.
ADAM:I walked into “Drive” with high expectations based on the bits and pieces of reviews that had managed to get into my head, despite attempts to ignore them.  I had no idea that I’d see what, for me, was the second coming of the young Michael Mann who I so love so dearly.  There was no one like the early Mann to set a cruel mood, to pace and musically score a tension-filled scene, to choreograph a shootout with realism, to trivialize violence for a character, yet give it so much weight and meaning.  “Thief,” “Manhunter,” and “Heat” are likely his most quintessential action, crime films.  He spread his wings with “Last of the Mohicans” and had quite a misstep with “Public Enemies,” but he’s also a huge influence on other younger, big filmmakers of various genres: Michael Bay of big action, Brett Rattner of action comedy, and David Fincher, of dark drama.I wonder if Mann’s films influenced Nicolas Winding Refn, director of “Drive.”  Because Refn’s telling of the story (adapted from James Sallis’ book) hits all the right notes and possesses perfect pacing; tender in spots, haunting and brutal in others.  Like the best engrossing, contained films, “Drive” pulls us into the seedy underbelly of Los Angeles, and the rest of the world seems to drop away.  Characters are well-developed, even if they have minimal screen time.  Performances are first rate, particularly Ryan Gosling, Bryan Cranston and Albert Brooks, as the heavy. This is the type of film that would’ve been made in the early seventies to moderate success and would become a cult classic.  In fact, the closest a film has come to telling a story like this in the past twenty years was probably “Payback,” starring Mel Gibson.     “Payback” was inspired by the 1967 film “Point Blank,” written by Richard Stark — a pseudonym for Donald E. Westlake, who also wrote “The Grifters,” “The Hot Rock,” and many great novels.  I enjoyed this so much and want anyone who goes to make as much discovery personally as possible, so I won’t say more other than if you enjoy the gruesome reality that is the world of crime and the characters who inhabit it, “Drive” is for you. 

"Drive"

Written by Hossein Amini based on the book by James Sallis; Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn.  Stars: Ryan Gossling, Carrie Mulligan, Bryan Cranston and Albert Brooks. Story: A Hollywood stunt performer who moonlights as a wheelman discovers that a contract has been put on him after a heist gone wrong.

Seen by Lars & Adam, September 18, 2011


LARS:

It’s nice that there may now be two Danish directors that people know. Many moviegoers have heard about Lars von Trier by now, if only because his antics are often more newsworthy than his movies (which I generally love to hate). Nicolas Winding Refn is cursed with one of those Danish names that don’t exactly roll off the tongue of anyone outside of Scandinavia, so he just has to work the harder to get the name recognition that he certainly is beginning to deserve.

Refn made waves in Denmark in 1995 when he dropped out of film school in his first semester to direct “Pusher”, which went on to become a massive blockbuster in Denmark. He was 25 years old. Over the next decade, Refn tried his hand at various other films, but none replicated the success of “Pusher”, so almost a decade later he shot two sequels that were not as well received. At that point I had written him off as a wunderkind, who was doomed never to repeat his early success (in related news, “Citizen Kane” came out on Blu-Ray this week. Buy it.). But then in 2008, Refn directed “Bronson” (which is available on Netflix Streaming) and it looked like he was back on track to real greatness. Featuring a blistering performance by Tom Hardy as the British convict ‘Charles Bronson’ who has spent the last 34 years in prison, “Bronson” was tough as nails and poetic at the same time. So when the buzz around “Drive” began to surface at the Cannes Film Festival, I was really looking forward to seeing where Refn was going this time around.

“Drive” is not for the squeamish. The use of violence as the last resort or just as a substitute for communication has always been one of Refn’s trademarks and this movie is no exception. There’s a scene with a guy getting his face kicked in that has only been bested in pure gruesomeness by Gaspar Noe in his notorious movie “Irreversible”. “Drive” has a tension to it that you know will eventually be released somehow. And after a while you realize how. 

It is in many ways a timeless story. It could just as easily and plausibly have been set in the 1940s and have been shot as a pulpy film noir in the 1950s. “Drive” is based on the eponymous book by James Sallis that opens with the lines, “I drive. That’s what I do. All I do.” Those lines influence Ryan Gosling’s surprisingly tough and sensitive performance. I’ve sung Gosling’s praise on this blog a number of times before, but I frankly never envisioned him as a vengeful angel of death, all bulked up and dangerous to mess with. But here he pulls of a menace that combines the quiet of Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name with a dose of Steve McQueen in his prime coolness. He remains the best actor of his generation and that he has an awesome band, Dead Man’s Bones, as well just makes him that much easier to hate. The rest of the cast do wonderful work with their relatively limited screen time, especially Albert Brooks, who stands out as the head bad guy. Isn’t it funny how comedians always make excellent villains? Maybe it’s the seething insecurity of the stand-up comedian that lurks right below the surface that they tap into? Carey Mulligan has little to do other than be cute enough to fall in love with, and she pulls that off with no trouble at all.

Refn sets the film in the LA that the movies rarely show; a suburbia of run-down apartment blocks and faded strip malls, the film feels like the work of a young Michael Mann. Refn deservedly won Best Director in Cannes for “Drive” and his sense of pacing as well as the muted color scheme makes the film stand out and feel out of time in the best possible way.

Apparently, Refn and Gosling have a bit of a bromance going on. They are also collaborating on Refn’s next film that takes place in the world of Thai boxing. I have a sneaky suspicion it’ll be on the violent side.


ADAM:

I walked into “Drive” with high expectations based on the bits and pieces of reviews that had managed to get into my head, despite attempts to ignore them.  I had no idea that I’d see what, for me, was the second coming of the young Michael Mann who I so love so dearly.  There was no one like the early Mann to set a cruel mood, to pace and musically score a tension-filled scene, to choreograph a shootout with realism, to trivialize violence for a character, yet give it so much weight and meaning.  “Thief,” “Manhunter,” and “Heat” are likely his most quintessential action, crime films.  He spread his wings with “Last of the Mohicans” and had quite a misstep with “Public Enemies,” but he’s also a huge influence on other younger, big filmmakers of various genres: Michael Bay of big action, Brett Rattner of action comedy, and David Fincher, of dark drama.

I wonder if Mann’s films influenced Nicolas Winding Refn, director of “Drive.”  Because Refn’s telling of the story (adapted from James Sallis’ book) hits all the right notes and possesses perfect pacing; tender in spots, haunting and brutal in others.  Like the best engrossing, contained films, “Drive” pulls us into the seedy underbelly of Los Angeles, and the rest of the world seems to drop away.  Characters are well-developed, even if they have minimal screen time.  Performances are first rate, particularly Ryan Gosling, Bryan Cranston and Albert Brooks, as the heavy. 

This is the type of film that would’ve been made in the early seventies to moderate success and would become a cult classic.  In fact, the closest a film has come to telling a story like this in the past twenty years was probably “Payback,” starring Mel Gibson.     “Payback” was inspired by the 1967 film “Point Blank,” written by Richard Stark — a pseudonym for Donald E. Westlake, who also wrote “The Grifters,” “The Hot Rock,” and many great novels.  I enjoyed this so much and want anyone who goes to make as much discovery personally as possible, so I won’t say more other than if you enjoy the gruesome reality that is the world of crime and the characters who inhabit it, “Drive” is for you. 

1 note 

"Contagion"Written by Scott Z. Burns Directed by Steven Soderbergh.  Stars: Matt Damon, Lawrence Fishburne, Kate Winslet, Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow. Story: A thriller centered on the threat posed by a deadly disease and an international team of doctors contracted by the CDC to deal with the outbreak.
Seen by Lars & Adam, Sept 10, 2011
LARS:There is no such thing as ‘A Stephen Soderbergh’ picture.  His films are so diverse that they may as well have been directed by a whole bunch of different people. He sometimes acts as his own director of photography and will carry the camera around himself. He has starred in one of his own movies (“Schizopolis”) and has made excellent popcorn movies like “Out of Sight” and “Oceans Eleven” as well as his initial claim to fame, the film that kicked off a 1000 bad imitations but was at the time a ground-breaking indie, “Sex, Lies & Videotape”. This preamble is just to say that you generally have no idea what to expect, when you go to see a movie directed by Soderbergh. It could be one of his crowd pleasers, or a small personal experiment. In that respect, he is one of the true originals of American film in the last two decades.The story of his latest, “Contagion”, is not exactly an original concept. It aims to show exactly what happens, when a lethal virus jumps from animals to humans, much like we’ve seen with AIDS, SARS and N1H1 (you can’t be a lethal virus and not have an abbreviation, apparently). This plot has played out in a number of films before, e.g. “Outbreak”, and the whole doomsday scenario is the driver of many a science-fiction movie. When I first saw the trailer for “Contagion”, it looked like an amazing thriller that stood out based on a spectacular cast (Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law et al) and that’s what I expected. Instead I got something very different.The first word that comes to mind when trying to describe the film is ‘clinical’. It is a step-by-step depiction of what would likely happen if (or, more likely, probably when) a global virus breaks out. The script, written by former ad guy Scott Z. Burns, flows logically from event to event and does a great job in terms of believability. What it doesn’t do so well is entertain. In many ways, without the stars and the name director, this would have been a fine documentary on History Channel. The problem is that there is never anyone to relate to, nor a central conflict (other than stop the virus, of course). The first rule of any disaster movie is that you have to establish casts of characters that the audience loves and hates and then make the former survive horrifying ordeals and the latter perish in inventive ways. Then you have to come up with a fun way of stopping the disaster – a central point where this movie fails spectacularly. “Contagion” flaunts these rules, and its reportage style becomes (dare I say it) a little boring.This is certainly no fault of the actors, who are uniformly excellent. Matt Damon’s reaction when he learns that his wife has died is a magnificent piece of acting. Jude Law’s annoying and insane conspiracy theorist is thoroughly unlikeable and a nice departure for Law. And, personally, I really enjoyed seeing Gwyneth Paltrow die. And it’s always nice to see Lawrence Fishburne – even if he does increasingly look like the answer to the question ‘who ate all the pies?’
ADAM:Do you take responsibility for your actions, or are you the type of person who places blame upon what set things in motion?  It’s an interesting psychological question about behavior.  Saying the poor service I received at a store led me to leave at a certain moment, which led to the particular cab which smelled of gasoline, that gave me a frustrating headache, which is why I kicked the cat when I finally got home is not logical; it’s an excuse for bad behavior.  However, statistical-based cause and effect data is much more profound (in fact undeniable).  What’s most interesting to me is that, at least in Hollywoodland, regardless of which of these templates is the backdrop for telling a story, ultimately fate has a hand; what will be, apparently will be.  Two films (both featuring Gwyneth Paltrow) really prove the point.  One is the wonderful romantic comedy “Sliding Doors,” in which Paltrow plays a fired advertising exec whose life heads down two divergent paths (shown intermittently and flawlessly within the film) after a specific moment: her ability/inability to catch an underground train. The other is “Contagion.”  Here, Paltrow’s character works at the wrong company, is on the wrong assignment, and arguably makes the wrong decisions at the right time to become carrier one of a hybrid bat/pig disease from Asia that proceeds to potential end human civilization as we know it.Directed by Steven Soderbergh, who I personally think is competent behind the camera when filming drama, “Contagion” actually ran like a documentary, straightforward and lacking twists, so the audience is putting together the mystery along with the members of the CDC, WHO, etc.  This is a bit of a problem since very little if anything is done to make the audience appreciate or like many of the characters.The cast is competent, though I wouldn’t say challenged much, highlighted by strong efforts from Laurence Fishburne, Kate Winslet and Marion Cotilliard.  They’re supported by Matt Damon, Jude Law, Bryan Cranston and others who do the best with what they’re given.  And the scare factor is there: the brutal reality of how quickly and easily something like this can happen (and potentially wipe out so many before a cure is found, developed and distributed to the masses) is simply maddening — a concept that’s like fear-based claustrophobia for your brain’s ability to process logic.The film is certainly not without its faults, and I assign them more to gaping omissions or odd choices than anything else.  Jude Law plays the fly in the ointment, both to the illness itself with his atypical cure, and later to the government that’s trying to solve the crisis.  Law’s character is revealed to be a capitalist more than a savior, but his storyline comes across a bit foggy.  He meets someone who can help facilitate his role as informant, but we never get a sense of who that contact is, what his role is, or what the endgame is.  It still works (sort of), but it feels far less developed than other parts of the film.  Also, apparently as a character trait, Law or Soderberg decided to give Law’s character a crooked front tooth.  Weird to do that to an actor with one of the best known perfect smiles, weirder still that propaganda posters abound in the film with hand-drawn illustrations of Law, showing his perfect smile.  And the tooth itself is clearly fake when Law is shot at certain angles.  Some shots even show his real tooth under the prosthetic.But this isn’t about nit-picking or attention to detail…wait, maybe it is; the movie does outwardly preach(even if in the last minute) the danger of tearing down natural habitats and rain forests and points more than subtle fingers at adultery.  So I don’t feel too bad  pointing out a few small mistakes of the film that might add up to something more significant as a sum?  Still, it’s a decent effort all around, but certainly not something to see if you plan to travel to the orient, unless you are prepared to boil yourself every night in a pot of Purell.

"Contagion"

Written by Scott Z. Burns Directed by Steven Soderbergh. Stars: Matt Damon, Lawrence Fishburne, Kate Winslet, Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow. Story: A thriller centered on the threat posed by a deadly disease and an international team of doctors contracted by the CDC to deal with the outbreak.


Seen by Lars & Adam, Sept 10, 2011


LARS:

There is no such thing as ‘A Stephen Soderbergh’ picture.  His films are so diverse that they may as well have been directed by a whole bunch of different people. He sometimes acts as his own director of photography and will carry the camera around himself. He has starred in one of his own movies (“Schizopolis”) and has made excellent popcorn movies like “Out of Sight” and “Oceans Eleven” as well as his initial claim to fame, the film that kicked off a 1000 bad imitations but was at the time a ground-breaking indie, “Sex, Lies & Videotape”. This preamble is just to say that you generally have no idea what to expect, when you go to see a movie directed by Soderbergh. It could be one of his crowd pleasers, or a small personal experiment. In that respect, he is one of the true originals of American film in the last two decades.

The story of his latest, “Contagion”, is not exactly an original concept. It aims to show exactly what happens, when a lethal virus jumps from animals to humans, much like we’ve seen with AIDS, SARS and N1H1 (you can’t be a lethal virus and not have an abbreviation, apparently). This plot has played out in a number of films before, e.g. “Outbreak”, and the whole doomsday scenario is the driver of many a science-fiction movie. When I first saw the trailer for “Contagion”, it looked like an amazing thriller that stood out based on a spectacular cast (Matt Damon, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jude Law et al) and that’s what I expected. Instead I got something very different.

The first word that comes to mind when trying to describe the film is ‘clinical’. It is a step-by-step depiction of what would likely happen if (or, more likely, probably when) a global virus breaks out. The script, written by former ad guy Scott Z. Burns, flows logically from event to event and does a great job in terms of believability. What it doesn’t do so well is entertain. In many ways, without the stars and the name director, this would have been a fine documentary on History Channel. The problem is that there is never anyone to relate to, nor a central conflict (other than stop the virus, of course). The first rule of any disaster movie is that you have to establish casts of characters that the audience loves and hates and then make the former survive horrifying ordeals and the latter perish in inventive ways. Then you have to come up with a fun way of stopping the disaster – a central point where this movie fails spectacularly. “Contagion” flaunts these rules, and its reportage style becomes (dare I say it) a little boring.

This is certainly no fault of the actors, who are uniformly excellent. Matt Damon’s reaction when he learns that his wife has died is a magnificent piece of acting. Jude Law’s annoying and insane conspiracy theorist is thoroughly unlikeable and a nice departure for Law. And, personally, I really enjoyed seeing Gwyneth Paltrow die. And it’s always nice to see Lawrence Fishburne – even if he does increasingly look like the answer to the question ‘who ate all the pies?’


ADAM:

Do you take responsibility for your actions, or are you the type of person who places blame upon what set things in motion?  It’s an interesting psychological question about behavior.  Saying the poor service I received at a store led me to leave at a certain moment, which led to the particular cab which smelled of gasoline, that gave me a frustrating headache, which is why I kicked the cat when I finally got home is not logical; it’s an excuse for bad behavior.  However, statistical-based cause and effect data is much more profound (in fact undeniable).  What’s most interesting to me is that, at least in Hollywoodland, regardless of which of these templates is the backdrop for telling a story, ultimately fate has a hand; what will be, apparently will be.  Two films (both featuring Gwyneth Paltrow) really prove the point.  One is the wonderful romantic comedy “Sliding Doors,” in which Paltrow plays a fired advertising exec whose life heads down two divergent paths (shown intermittently and flawlessly within the film) after a specific moment: her ability/inability to catch an underground train. The other is “Contagion.”  Here, Paltrow’s character works at the wrong company, is on the wrong assignment, and arguably makes the wrong decisions at the right time to become carrier one of a hybrid bat/pig disease from Asia that proceeds to potential end human civilization as we know it.

Directed by Steven Soderbergh, who I personally think is competent behind the camera when filming drama, “Contagion” actually ran like a documentary, straightforward and lacking twists, so the audience is putting together the mystery along with the members of the CDC, WHO, etc.  This is a bit of a problem since very little if anything is done to make the audience appreciate or like many of the characters.

The cast is competent, though I wouldn’t say challenged much, highlighted by strong efforts from Laurence Fishburne, Kate Winslet and Marion Cotilliard.  They’re supported by Matt Damon, Jude Law, Bryan Cranston and others who do the best with what they’re given.  And the scare factor is there: the brutal reality of how quickly and easily something like this can happen (and potentially wipe out so many before a cure is found, developed and distributed to the masses) is simply maddening — a concept that’s like fear-based claustrophobia for your brain’s ability to process logic.

The film is certainly not without its faults, and I assign them more to gaping omissions or odd choices than anything else.  Jude Law plays the fly in the ointment, both to the illness itself with his atypical cure, and later to the government that’s trying to solve the crisis.  Law’s character is revealed to be a capitalist more than a savior, but his storyline comes across a bit foggy.  He meets someone who can help facilitate his role as informant, but we never get a sense of who that contact is, what his role is, or what the endgame is.  It still works (sort of), but it feels far less developed than other parts of the film.  Also, apparently as a character trait, Law or Soderberg decided to give Law’s character a crooked front tooth.  Weird to do that to an actor with one of the best known perfect smiles, weirder still that propaganda posters abound in the film with hand-drawn illustrations of Law, showing his perfect smile.  And the tooth itself is clearly fake when Law is shot at certain angles.  Some shots even show his real tooth under the prosthetic.

But this isn’t about nit-picking or attention to detail…wait, maybe it is; the movie does outwardly preach(even if in the last minute) the danger of tearing down natural habitats and rain forests and points more than subtle fingers at adultery.  So I don’t feel too bad  pointing out a few small mistakes of the film that might add up to something more significant as a sum?  Still, it’s a decent effort all around, but certainly not something to see if you plan to travel to the orient, unless you are prepared to boil yourself every night in a pot of Purell.

"Cowboys and Aliens"

Written by Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, Damon Lindeloft, Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby and Steve Oedekirk, based on the comic book by Scott Mitchell Rosenberg; Directed by Jon Favreau. Stars: Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford, Olivia Wilde, Sam Rockwell and Paul Dano. Story: Two sides of the law, cowboys and American natives must band together to battle strange visitors from outer space in a dusty town in the late 1800s.


"Attack the Block"

Written and directed by Joe Cornish. Stars: John Boyega, Jodie Whittaker, Alex Esmael, and Nick Frost.  Story: A teen gang in south London must defend their block against an alien invasion, forced to ally with a woman they recently mugged.


Seen by Lars & Adam, July 25, 2011




You know it’s summer when two let’s-kill-the-aliens movies open on the same day. One a massive blockbuster wannabe and the other a small British flick that plays in only two theaters in NYC. Since they are thematically related, it makes sense to review them together and look at what works and doesn’t for both of them.

When a movie is called “Cowboys & Aliens”, you’ve signaled from the beginning that this isn’t a movie to be taken too seriously. The first half hour of the flick plays like your classic western. A new guy comes to a small town, creates a ruckus, ruffles some feathers with the local powers that be and finds himself in trouble. Daniel Craig is excellent as the stranger, using his craggy features and blue steel gaze to great effect. It’s also nice to see Harrison Ford look less like he’s sleepwalking through a movie for once. Here he’s having fun chewing the scenery as the cattle baron of a small town, trying to reform his hopelessly spoiled son; a great turn by Paul Dano.

Then aliens attack and abduct people for unknown purposes. The good guys and the bad guys gang up in the face of a common enemy and the rest of the film is pure western – except, of course, for those aliens.

It’s a slightly uneasy blend of mystery (what’s going on with the abducted folks, where did Daniel Craig’s character come from), classic western motifs and sci-fi. Does it all add up to more than the sum of its parts? Not really. Is it pretty decent entertainment? Sure.

Director Jon Favreau is an actor himself and you can tell that the cast is having a great time, which goes a long way, when you have such accomplished actors in your movie. Olivia Wilde continues to light up every movie she’s in (she was by far the most human element of Tron. Ironically, since she was playing a digital avatar) and even though she’s playing a somewhat preposterous character here, she takes it seriously and has fun with it at the same time.

Ultimately, “Cowboys & Aliens” fail to be great because of a script that is nowhere near as clever as it thinks it is. It’s mostly a rehash of western and sci-fi clichés and once the machinery is set in motion, it’s too easy to see where it’s all going. In a summer full of great movies, it’s not enough to just be diverting.

“Attack the Block” was probably shot for about the same amount of money they spent on catering on “Cowboys & Aliens”. And while this story is not wildly original either, it’s a wonderfully written script by writer/director Joe Cornish, and it gets the balance of action, comedy and horror right. Which is no mean feat. Tonally, this reminded me of “An American Werewolf in London”, which to me is still the gold standard in blending horror and humor. Joe Cornish knows how to defuse a tense moment with a well-placed joke, just to throw you back into the thick of it one second later.

“Attack the Block” features a cast of heroes as unlikely as “Cowboys & Aliens”. It’s a bunch of young hoodlums from a South London council estate. Not a place you want to live, trust me. When a lone alien falls from the sky, they deem it ugly and decide that the right thing to do is to hunt it down and kill it.  This is all done in a great spirit of fun and right after a mugging and shows that our ‘heroes’ are a bunch of ne’er-do-wells who are just one small mishap away from getting killed or put in jail. Of course killing the alien was a really bad idea, as aliens (with the possible exception of E.T.) never travel alone. So our young anti-heroes have inadvertently started an intergalactic war, which plays out on the council estate over the course of the next hour.

In addition to the great one-liners and zingers (Cornish has a background as a comedy writer), the movie is blessed with a great young cast. There are a few familiar faces in supporting roles (Nick Frost, Jodie Whitaker), but mostly it’s a cast of young unknowns carrying the movie. Special mention must go to first-time actor John Boyega who plays the gang leader, Moses, with a quiet intensity that makes him seem much older than his years. He is the one that realizes that since they are to blame for this alien invasion, they must be the ones to end it too.

Special mention to the aliens as well. Spectral Motion has created some truly original monsters that don’t resemble anything I’ve seen before. And, man, I’ve seen a lot of monsters and aliens in my time. These are, for once, not related to H.R. Giger’s seminal alien, but are very different. They are scary, but also slightly comical, which is just right for this movie.

“Attack the Block” is a lean 88 minutes long, and it flies past. It’s one of the most fun thrill rides of the summer so far. So go and support indie filmmaking at its best and see this in the theater.


ADAM: 



So, you know how Lars and I roll; one movie sometimes isn’t enough.  We like to challenge ourselves.  And in this case, timing worked out nicely, with two movies about aliens opening up around the same time.  What’s more, they couldn’t be much more opposite in regards to budget, setting, scope, execution and publicity.  Perfect, we say, for some comparisons and contrasts.

So our first foray into the genre generally inhabited by little green men was the massive blockbuster “Cowboys and Aliens.”  And just in case you haven’t been hit by enough media buys to know this was the big movie, it’s apparent that the suits at the studios made sure anyone with a pulse would know what this was about, right from the title.  To be fair, the title’s been in place for over a decade of development, but still, the name reeks of making sure it can reach the lowest common denominator.  I always feel compelled to mention my expectations for the film from the trailer.  Though I don’t kid myself that anyone reads this blog in order to make decisions about what to see, I feel that there’s something to comparing shared experiences; maybe someone who hasn’t seen the film HAS seen the trailer and can compare that experience to mine.  If low and behold the experience was similar, then maybe so too will the ultimate response to the movie.  I sat through at least a few incarnations of the “C&A” trailer and as a result didn’t expect much.  As I’ve written before, when aliens attack us in present day in films, F-16s, scud missiles and nuclear weaponry rarely takes them down; what was a Colt .45 and a lasso going to do?

And though that theory hold up as one of my biggest credibility notes in the film, it was certainly entertaining.  Harrison Ford does a good job with a role different from most of his from past memory, Daniel Craig is fairly stoic as the confused lead with a cloudy memory, and Olivia Wilde looks hot, which is about all she’s hired to do here.  There’s so good action, and an only slightly interesting mystery unravelled, but for the most part the film moves from a to b to c and on.  Jon Favreau is his most reserved behind the camera to date, and I appreciated that.  So I did enjoy it.  But to sit through the first five minutes, watching a disoriented and disheveled Daniel Craig wake up in the middle of the desert and subsequently kick the asses of a gang that happen upon him — all while looking like the second coming of Steve McQueen’s made me wish this film was just called “Cowboys,” and that I’d be sitting through some great gun play with no Close Encounters at all.

It seems like it’s always the case when we compare the expensive to the indie, that the indie film is better.  That was the case for me with “Attack the Block.”  It’s probably not a fair comparison; when a film is so small, you have very few expectations, so when it’s good, you think it’s great.  Here, in this British film, produced by Edgar Wright (Director of Hot Fuzz, Shaun of the Dead) and featuring Nick Frost (of those same films), a gang of seemingly forgotten stoner kids in a bad section of London find themselves fighting to survive when a bunch of aliens (who look much like bears with glowing eyes and teeth fall to Earth to populate the planet and take over.  The kids have their own internal struggles, and we see that come out as the battle and drama unfolds.  Decent action and gore, and a sense form the director about how much to show in order for it to not look fake makes this movie work.  Comic relief from Frost (and the script in general) make it a fun ride.  And because unlike Cowboys and Aliens we’re not familiar with any of the actors, we’ve no idea who will survive and who won’t.  It makes the film all the more enjoyable, investing in characters without knowing their probably fate.  I’d recommend both of these movies versus many others we’ve seen this year, but between the two, Attack the Block is my winner.

"Captain America: The First Avenger"
Written by Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely, based on the comic book by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby; Directed by Joe Johnston. Stars: Chris Evans, Hugo Weaving, Hayley Atwell and Tommy Lee Jones. Story: After being deemed unfit for military service, Steve Rogers volunteers for a top secret research project that turns him into Captain America, a superhero dedicated to defending America’s ideals.
Seen by Lars & Adam, July 25, 2011
Being European, I never had much use for the patriotism of a superhero whose mere name flies in the face of subtlety. I never read Captain America comics as a kid, as I don’t think they were translated into Danish the way that most other mainstream comic books were. Also, his outfit is silly (like none of the other superheroes have stupid threads, Lars…). In short, I have not been a fan, and from the trailers for the movie, I was led to expect the worst kind of propagandistic flag-stroking bullshit. So imagine my surprise, when “Captain America” The First Avenger” turned out to be not just a good superhero movie, but great entertainment as well.“Captain America” plays like the pulp serials of the 30s and 40s and is more than a little inspired by the hi-jinx of “Indiana Jones”, which is about the highest praise I can give. It is a relentless action ride, and it took me back to the matinees of my 70s childhood, when our local movie theatre would play old adventure movies every Sunday at 2, and all the kids in town would show up to watch. I felt like that kid again with my big bag of candy and a smile on my face, as the Captain was fighting a preposterous and wonderfully cartoonish bad guy.Even though half a village has screenwriting credits on the movie, they somehow manage to get the balance right. We spend the first half hour getting to know and like Steve Rogers as a human being, before he is transformed into Captain America. This anchors the movie somewhat in reality before it flies into pure comic book action. It’s not that the story is all that great. If you asked me to sum it up, it’s Captain America wins the 2nd World War by fighting the real enemy, which is another superhuman named Red Skull. But the film moves from set piece to set piece at such an unrelenting pace that you’re never given the pause to say ‘hang on…’. You’re along for the ride and you’re sitting there with a goofy grin on your face. It’s the first superhero movie to be set not in the present or the future, but mostly in the past. There’s a trick connecting the Captain to the present, so he can appear in next summer’s superhero extravaganza, “The Avengers”, but that’s really just a fun little aside. The majority of the movie takes place in the 1940s.Many of the kudos for the success of this flick must go to the cast. Chris Evans, whom I couldn’t stand as the human torch in “The Fantastic Four”, gets another chance to make a superhero his own and this time he doesn’t blow it. From the ‘aw shucks’ mentality of Steve Rogers to the slow realization that he can make a difference, Evans never lets us lose sight of the character’s humanity and that’s why it works. Hugo Weaving has a field day hamming it up as Red Skull; a character decidedly not anchored in anything but pure cartoon villainy. Tommy Lee Jones predictably plays Tommy Lee Jones better than anyone. Relative newcomer Hayley Atwell, who is very delectable, if I may be so blunt, does a good job of being comedic foil and love interest for the Captain, even if he never really has much time to put down the shield.One of my biggest reasons for concern before seeing the movie was director Joe Johnston. With a resume that includes “The Wolfman”, “Jurassic Park 3” and “Jumanji” there was absolutely no reason to think he’d get this right. He also has a few episodes of  “The young Indiana Jones Chronicles” (a show that was much better than it’s credited for) on his CV and this seems to be where he found his inspiration for “Captain America”. The movie is tonally pitch-perfect, and it would have been so incredibly easy to get it wrong.So now we have all the balls in the air, all the heroes have been introduced, and it’s time for “The Avengers” next summer. Personally, I’m doubtful that any film needs 5 superheroes working together, but people in the know say the screenplay by director Joss Wheadon is great, so we’ll see. In the meantime, go have fun seeing Captain America win the war. It’s like buying war bonds, except you’re paying Marvel to make more great superhero movies.
ADAM:  When watching a trailer, you always get a feeling.  These days when the trailer ends, you turn to the person sitting next to you in the theater, and seemingly most often groan; the movie looks terrible, or you feel as if you’ve seen most of the comedy, action, or other devices of the film already.  Occasionally, your opinion differs from the crowd; that was the case for me with Captain America. I think I found myself excited about “CA” for two main reasons: although I was never a big comic reader, I liked Captain America best amongst the superheroes, and the “Indiana Jones” 1940s setting of the film (possibly my favorite time period) got me pumped. It seemed few others agreed with me, arguing that the Captain didn’t really have any super powers, that it looked too much like “Hellboy,” that it wouldn’t be cool because it wasn’t set in modern day.I actually admired that this was different from other superhero films for exactly those reasons; every other comic adaptation seemed to be pitched to movie execs as taking the hero and throwing him into today’s surroundings.  Maybe that’s why every other superhero film (with the exception of Nolan’s Batman series) seems exactly the same as another.  Maybe that’s why I’ve pretty much forgotten them all.  Maybe that’s why a Spiderman film is being re-done 8 years after the last “first in the series” was made.  Maybe it’s that and greed.Captain America for me, is the best comic book hero movie made in recent memory.  I’m so glad it not only delivered on what was promised in the trailer, but much more.  Don’t get me wrong — this isn’t award-winning film making, and it never set out to be that; instead it takes what it is trying to do seriously.  And that’s entertain in a pre-technicolor way, mixing the drab olives and khakis of the U.S. army with the red white and blue of U.S. war propaganda of the 40’s and does so in a genuine way, feeling reminiscent of serials from sixty years ago.  What it ultimately conveys is a tough as nails attitude of a war involved America where everyone pithes in, war bonds are sold, and the battle is front page news everyday.  This isn’t the “don’t trust your own government” of the 70s films rhetoric; it’s the “us versus them,” the “enemy are monsters trying to take over the planet”, one for all and all for one rhetoric.  Funny; that sounds like the kind of rhetoric of most comic books.  Good versus evil, etc.  No wonder it works so well.  And it’s not all 40’s nostalgia; what’s great is that the Nazi faction we’re battling has developed weapons so advanced, there’s a perfect crossover to Sci-Fi, another wise calculated choice.  Add great action and a good amount of humor provided by Tommy Lee Jones, and it’s a fun ride from start to finish.  And speaking of finish, but trying not to to be a spoiler, for those of you who have loved the clone-ish comic book adaptations we’ve been subjected to in the past ten years and must have your heroes ported into present day, there’s a solution to that too.  See it.  You’ll have some patriotic fun.

"Captain America: The First Avenger"


Written by Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely, based on the comic book by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby; Directed by Joe Johnston. Stars: Chris Evans, Hugo Weaving, Hayley Atwell and Tommy Lee Jones. Story: After being deemed unfit for military service, Steve Rogers volunteers for a top secret research project that turns him into Captain America, a superhero dedicated to defending America’s ideals.


Seen by Lars & Adam, July 25, 2011




Being European, I never had much use for the patriotism of a superhero whose mere name flies in the face of subtlety. I never read Captain America comics as a kid, as I don’t think they were translated into Danish the way that most other mainstream comic books were. Also, his outfit is silly (like none of the other superheroes have stupid threads, Lars…). In short, I have not been a fan, and from the trailers for the movie, I was led to expect the worst kind of propagandistic flag-stroking bullshit. So imagine my surprise, when “Captain America” The First Avenger” turned out to be not just a good superhero movie, but great entertainment as well.

“Captain America” plays like the pulp serials of the 30s and 40s and is more than a little inspired by the hi-jinx of “Indiana Jones”, which is about the highest praise I can give. It is a relentless action ride, and it took me back to the matinees of my 70s childhood, when our local movie theatre would play old adventure movies every Sunday at 2, and all the kids in town would show up to watch. I felt like that kid again with my big bag of candy and a smile on my face, as the Captain was fighting a preposterous and wonderfully cartoonish bad guy.

Even though half a village has screenwriting credits on the movie, they somehow manage to get the balance right. We spend the first half hour getting to know and like Steve Rogers as a human being, before he is transformed into Captain America. This anchors the movie somewhat in reality before it flies into pure comic book action. It’s not that the story is all that great. If you asked me to sum it up, it’s Captain America wins the 2nd World War by fighting the real enemy, which is another superhuman named Red Skull. But the film moves from set piece to set piece at such an unrelenting pace that you’re never given the pause to say ‘hang on…’. You’re along for the ride and you’re sitting there with a goofy grin on your face. It’s the first superhero movie to be set not in the present or the future, but mostly in the past. There’s a trick connecting the Captain to the present, so he can appear in next summer’s superhero extravaganza, “The Avengers”, but that’s really just a fun little aside. The majority of the movie takes place in the 1940s.

Many of the kudos for the success of this flick must go to the cast. Chris Evans, whom I couldn’t stand as the human torch in “The Fantastic Four”, gets another chance to make a superhero his own and this time he doesn’t blow it. From the ‘aw shucks’ mentality of Steve Rogers to the slow realization that he can make a difference, Evans never lets us lose sight of the character’s humanity and that’s why it works. Hugo Weaving has a field day hamming it up as Red Skull; a character decidedly not anchored in anything but pure cartoon villainy. Tommy Lee Jones predictably plays Tommy Lee Jones better than anyone. Relative newcomer Hayley Atwell, who is very delectable, if I may be so blunt, does a good job of being comedic foil and love interest for the Captain, even if he never really has much time to put down the shield.

One of my biggest reasons for concern before seeing the movie was director Joe Johnston. With a resume that includes “The Wolfman”, “Jurassic Park 3” and “Jumanji” there was absolutely no reason to think he’d get this right. He also has a few episodes of  “The young Indiana Jones Chronicles” (a show that was much better than it’s credited for) on his CV and this seems to be where he found his inspiration for “Captain America”. The movie is tonally pitch-perfect, and it would have been so incredibly easy to get it wrong.

So now we have all the balls in the air, all the heroes have been introduced, and it’s time for “The Avengers” next summer. Personally, I’m doubtful that any film needs 5 superheroes working together, but people in the know say the screenplay by director Joss Wheadon is great, so we’ll see. In the meantime, go have fun seeing Captain America win the war. It’s like buying war bonds, except you’re paying Marvel to make more great superhero movies.


ADAM: 

When watching a trailer, you always get a feeling.  These days when the trailer ends, you turn to the person sitting next to you in the theater, and seemingly most often groan; the movie looks terrible, or you feel as if you’ve seen most of the comedy, action, or other devices of the film already.  Occasionally, your opinion differs from the crowd; that was the case for me with Captain America. I think I found myself excited about “CA” for two main reasons: although I was never a big comic reader, I liked Captain America best amongst the superheroes, and the “Indiana Jones” 1940s setting of the film (possibly my favorite time period) got me pumped. It seemed few others agreed with me, arguing that the Captain didn’t really have any super powers, that it looked too much like “Hellboy,” that it wouldn’t be cool because it wasn’t set in modern day.

I actually admired that this was different from other superhero films for exactly those reasons; every other comic adaptation seemed to be pitched to movie execs as taking the hero and throwing him into today’s surroundings.  Maybe that’s why every other superhero film (with the exception of Nolan’s Batman series) seems exactly the same as another.  Maybe that’s why I’ve pretty much forgotten them all.  Maybe that’s why a Spiderman film is being re-done 8 years after the last “first in the series” was made.  Maybe it’s that and greed.

Captain America for me, is the best comic book hero movie made in recent memory.  I’m so glad it not only delivered on what was promised in the trailer, but much more.  Don’t get me wrong — this isn’t award-winning film making, and it never set out to be that; instead it takes what it is trying to do seriously.  And that’s entertain in a pre-technicolor way, mixing the drab olives and khakis of the U.S. army with the red white and blue of U.S. war propaganda of the 40’s and does so in a genuine way, feeling reminiscent of serials from sixty years ago.  What it ultimately conveys is a tough as nails attitude of a war involved America where everyone pithes in, war bonds are sold, and the battle is front page news everyday.  This isn’t the “don’t trust your own government” of the 70s films rhetoric; it’s the “us versus them,” the “enemy are monsters trying to take over the planet”, one for all and all for one rhetoric.  Funny; that sounds like the kind of rhetoric of most comic books.  Good versus evil, etc.  No wonder it works so well.  And it’s not all 40’s nostalgia; what’s great is that the Nazi faction we’re battling has developed weapons so advanced, there’s a perfect crossover to Sci-Fi, another wise calculated choice.  Add great action and a good amount of humor provided by Tommy Lee Jones, and it’s a fun ride from start to finish.  And speaking of finish, but trying not to to be a spoiler, for those of you who have loved the clone-ish comic book adaptations we’ve been subjected to in the past ten years and must have your heroes ported into present day, there’s a solution to that too.  See it.  You’ll have some patriotic fun.

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"Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2"Written by Steven Kloves, based on the novel by J.K. Rowling; Directed by David Yates. Stars: Daniel Randcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint. Story: After seven years at the Hogwarts school of magic and battling his nemesis Voldemort, things come to a head and the final battle ensues.
Seen by Lars & Adam, July 17, 2011
LARS:
It’s a miracle that this film series has worked out as wonderfully as it has over the span of no less than eight movies. That’s an enormous amount of movies. Sean Connery only played Bond in 6 movies. Indiana Jones is 3 movies (I refuse to acknowledge the 4th). Star Wars is 6 movies. So doing 8 movies of high quality and unbroken continuity may actually be a first in the history of the movies.The kids they cast grew up be actors. No one could have known, when they cast Radcliffe, Grint and Watson, that they’d turn into fine thespians. While this last movie is really Harry’s show, both Hermione and Ron have their moments in the sun, in particular in the first half of the four and a half hour long opus that is “Deathly Hallows”. The supporting cast is made up of British acting royalty. It’s a who’s who of Sirs and Dames and Oscar winners en masse. If you’re a British actor of repute, you’re probably asking yourself what went wrong, if you were never offered a part in any of the Harry Potter movies? They are all great, but a special tip of the beret must go to Alan Rickman, whose portrayal of Severus Snape is only fully appreciated and understood in this last movie. It’s a performance for the ages, and I would not be surprised to see him get acting nods, when awards time rolls around.Adam and I got together a bunch of people and watched all 8 movies in a row to get the full story and see what the impact of continuity would be. It was about 17 hours worth of Harry Potter over two days. They are all surprisingly watchable and only get better along the way. J.K. Rowling’s genius (aside from her amazing storytelling skills) was to up-age the story, as Harry grew older. The same thing happens in the movies. Chris Columbus did a decent job directing the first two movies. As they are essentially kid’s movies, they were right up his alley. But producer David Heyman had a stroke of genius, when he got Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron to direct what many consider to be the best film in the series, “The Prisoner of Azkaban”. It was not exactly obvious casting, as Cuaron was coming right off of “Y Tu Mama Tambien”, decidedly not a children’s movie. But Cuaron took the series in a much darker direction, where the mere fact that the main characters are children doesn’t change that the evil lurking out there in the form of ‘he who shall not be named’ and his cohorts is absolutely real. Heyman pulled another surprise out of the hat, when he asked David Yates to direct the last four movies in the series. Yates had mostly done TV up until then and there was little that made it look like he was the right man for the job. But he grew into the gig, and the last Potter movie also has the honor of being the best of the series, in my opinion.Finally, screenwriter Steve Kloves deserves a round of applause. He has written the screenplay for every film, except “The Order of the Phoenix” (I wonder why he didn’t write that one?). Ignorants might say that it’s all there on the page in the books. But without clever pruning and restructuring, the films would have been 5 hours each. Kloves worked very closely with J.K. Rowling and she would give him pointers as to which things he really couldn’t leave out of the films, as they would become important later on. Apparently Rowling had most of the story in her head from the beginning.So, after this epic preamble, what’s the last movie like? Well, first of all, parts 1 and 2 of ‘Deathly Hallows’ are really just one movie that happened to be chopped into two. Partially because Warner Brothers didn’t want to kill the golden goose, but in reality, no film could have done justice to the story in one go. It needed time to breathe and evolve. Thus we had Part One that was all ‘woe is me’ for Harry, as he went looking for the parts of Voldemort’s soul that was hidden in 7 horcruxes. It was all about setting the scene for the final showdown between the forces of good and evil in Part Two.So if Part One was all about exposition and explanation, Part Two is all about action. The time for running is over. So after a fantastic set piece that must rank with the best of the series, where our trio of heroes goes to Gringott’s Vaults to find a final horcrux and make a spectacular escape on a dragon, it’s time to go back to Hogwarts and prepare for the final battle. When I read the book, I was wondering if The Battle of Hogwarts might be the one to challenge The Battle of Minas Tirith from the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. While it isn’t quite that, it is incredibly satisfying to see minor characters have their moment in the sun. Neville Longbottom, Professor McGonigal and Mrs Weasley all get a chance to shine and bring closure to their character arcs. And it is a battle to keep you on the edge of your seats for the duration.Reading the books, I was always sure that Harry’s ultimate destiny would be to die to save the world, but of course Rowling had me somewhat outsmarted. It’d be a shame to reveal too much of the details of the final showdown between Harry and Voldemort, except to say that for the first time ever Radcliffe impressed me as an actor. He is asked to do some pretty preposterous things, but he brings grit, despair and purpose to his part and brings Harry’s plight to life better than ever before.Rowling has said that she won’t be writing any more books about Harry Potter. But every now and then, she’ll tease. As recently as a few weeks ago, she said to a reporter that Harry was her creation, and if she ever felt like writing about him again, she’d do it. Who knows? Both Rowling and the final film does bring closure of sorts to Harry’s journey, but also opens up whole new storylines that could be pursued.A suitably epic and awesome finale, then, to a piece of film history, where everything went right - almost as if it were touched by a little bit of magic.
ADAM:  Though not a super fan (I haven’t read even one of the books), I’ve really enjoyed the Harry Potter series on the whole. I could see my eleven-year-old self buying my wand and supplies in Diagon Alley, bundling up my trunk and my owl, running through the wall to platform 9 ¾, hopping on the express and going to Hogwarts. Who wouldn’t? The ultimate fantasy element surrounding a school where anything can happen — from the magically floating trays of pies and turkey legs in the dining hall to the cloak of invisibility and the Marauder’s map; the foul tasting Bertie Bott’s Beans to secret passages, flying ghosts, talking portraits and Hermione’s ability to stop time drew me in. And it was these magical details, the learning of the spells and the practicing with the potions that I found myself missing as Harry and his cohorts began to grow up and the movies became darker and more centered on the lead up to the ultimate battle of Good versus Evil. The Prisoner of Azkaban is my favorite installment. With the most intricately wrought, creatively original story, combined with the superb direction by Alfonso Curon, it is by far the superior film of the series, in my mind.Still, following an epic 2 day Potter-thon, chez Bastholm, I felt fully immersed in all things Hogwarts and ready for the eagerly awaited conclusion to the truncated Deathly Hallows Part 1.  And I wasn’t disappointed. The finale to this tremendous series was beautifully shot and full of exciting set pieces. The dangling storylines were tied up and special pains were taken to give even some of the more minor (but beloved) characters at Hogwarts a final moment to shine. Good and Evil faced off yet again, and the result was ultimately very satisfying. Deathly Hallows Part 2 is a summer blockbuster in the true sense, providing “edge of your seat” action, a (very) few laughs, tears, cheers and oddly, given that it’s actually just the second half of a story, the feeling that there really is a beginning, middle and end. In fact, I argue that the Deathly Hallows should have been one three-hour film – comprised of 75% of part 2 and 25% of part 1 (which was waaaay longer than need be in the padded & greedy attempt by the studio to eke another movie out of the series).At the risk of sounding like too much of a hater, I feel like there were some missed opportunities (not just in the finale but from the 4th or 5th film on) to get really creative story-wise. My biggest issue with the Potter films, in general, is that Harry isn’t very interesting and often, not very smart. He is mostly handed the answer to the mystery or stumbles on the solution to his problems by chance. His failure to confide in his friends, his teachers and his mentors is usually his undoing and the frustrating realization that if Harry would just SAY SOMETHING, his problems would be easily solved, remains a repetitive force in virtually every story.  Luckily, there are so many other interesting, characters, with phenomenal performances by virtually every talented British actor alive, that Harry’s blandness doesn’t ruin the films.  And not to knock J.K. Rowling or screenwriter Steve Kloves, I feel like that when you are creating a world where magic exists – the possibilities are endless. And I was disappointed that the Polyjuice Potion spell was the major solution to getting information or solving a situation time and again. The first time it was cool. And the use of the polyjuice potion spell in the Ministry of Magic was probably the best thing about the Deathly Hallows Part 1 but the over use of that spell and the ensuing hijinks, just started to feel unoriginal.  Minor criticisms aside, this incredible series was a spectacle of consistently tremendous filmmaking, amazing effects, gorgeous costumes and dozens of nuanced performances. It’s sad to see it come to an end. And maybe it hasn’t…  I hear that talks of a TV series are in the works. Let’s hope it’s produced by the BBC.

"Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2"

Written by Steven Kloves, based on the novel by J.K. Rowling; Directed by David Yates. Stars: Daniel Randcliffe, Emma Watson and Rupert Grint. Story: After seven years at the Hogwarts school of magic and battling his nemesis Voldemort, things come to a head and the final battle ensues.


Seen by Lars & Adam, July 17, 2011


LARS:


It’s a miracle that this film series has worked out as wonderfully as it has over the span of no less than eight movies. That’s an enormous amount of movies. Sean Connery only played Bond in 6 movies. Indiana Jones is 3 movies (I refuse to acknowledge the 4th). Star Wars is 6 movies. So doing 8 movies of high quality and unbroken continuity may actually be a first in the history of the movies.

The kids they cast grew up be actors. No one could have known, when they cast Radcliffe, Grint and Watson, that they’d turn into fine thespians. While this last movie is really Harry’s show, both Hermione and Ron have their moments in the sun, in particular in the first half of the four and a half hour long opus that is “Deathly Hallows”. The supporting cast is made up of British acting royalty. It’s a who’s who of Sirs and Dames and Oscar winners en masse. If you’re a British actor of repute, you’re probably asking yourself what went wrong, if you were never offered a part in any of the Harry Potter movies? They are all great, but a special tip of the beret must go to Alan Rickman, whose portrayal of Severus Snape is only fully appreciated and understood in this last movie. It’s a performance for the ages, and I would not be surprised to see him get acting nods, when awards time rolls around.

Adam and I got together a bunch of people and watched all 8 movies in a row to get the full story and see what the impact of continuity would be. It was about 17 hours worth of Harry Potter over two days. They are all surprisingly watchable and only get better along the way. J.K. Rowling’s genius (aside from her amazing storytelling skills) was to up-age the story, as Harry grew older. The same thing happens in the movies. Chris Columbus did a decent job directing the first two movies. As they are essentially kid’s movies, they were right up his alley. But producer David Heyman had a stroke of genius, when he got Mexican director Alfonso Cuaron to direct what many consider to be the best film in the series, “The Prisoner of Azkaban”. It was not exactly obvious casting, as Cuaron was coming right off of “Y Tu Mama Tambien”, decidedly not a children’s movie. But Cuaron took the series in a much darker direction, where the mere fact that the main characters are children doesn’t change that the evil lurking out there in the form of ‘he who shall not be named’ and his cohorts is absolutely real. Heyman pulled another surprise out of the hat, when he asked David Yates to direct the last four movies in the series. Yates had mostly done TV up until then and there was little that made it look like he was the right man for the job. But he grew into the gig, and the last Potter movie also has the honor of being the best of the series, in my opinion.

Finally, screenwriter Steve Kloves deserves a round of applause. He has written the screenplay for every film, except “The Order of the Phoenix” (I wonder why he didn’t write that one?). Ignorants might say that it’s all there on the page in the books. But without clever pruning and restructuring, the films would have been 5 hours each. Kloves worked very closely with J.K. Rowling and she would give him pointers as to which things he really couldn’t leave out of the films, as they would become important later on. Apparently Rowling had most of the story in her head from the beginning.

So, after this epic preamble, what’s the last movie like? Well, first of all, parts 1 and 2 of ‘Deathly Hallows’ are really just one movie that happened to be chopped into two. Partially because Warner Brothers didn’t want to kill the golden goose, but in reality, no film could have done justice to the story in one go. It needed time to breathe and evolve. Thus we had Part One that was all ‘woe is me’ for Harry, as he went looking for the parts of Voldemort’s soul that was hidden in 7 horcruxes. It was all about setting the scene for the final showdown between the forces of good and evil in Part Two.

So if Part One was all about exposition and explanation, Part Two is all about action. The time for running is over. So after a fantastic set piece that must rank with the best of the series, where our trio of heroes goes to Gringott’s Vaults to find a final horcrux and make a spectacular escape on a dragon, it’s time to go back to Hogwarts and prepare for the final battle. When I read the book, I was wondering if The Battle of Hogwarts might be the one to challenge The Battle of Minas Tirith from the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. While it isn’t quite that, it is incredibly satisfying to see minor characters have their moment in the sun. Neville Longbottom, Professor McGonigal and Mrs Weasley all get a chance to shine and bring closure to their character arcs. And it is a battle to keep you on the edge of your seats for the duration.

Reading the books, I was always sure that Harry’s ultimate destiny would be to die to save the world, but of course Rowling had me somewhat outsmarted. It’d be a shame to reveal too much of the details of the final showdown between Harry and Voldemort, except to say that for the first time ever Radcliffe impressed me as an actor. He is asked to do some pretty preposterous things, but he brings grit, despair and purpose to his part and brings Harry’s plight to life better than ever before.

Rowling has said that she won’t be writing any more books about Harry Potter. But every now and then, she’ll tease. As recently as a few weeks ago, she said to a reporter that Harry was her creation, and if she ever felt like writing about him again, she’d do it. Who knows? Both Rowling and the final film does bring closure of sorts to Harry’s journey, but also opens up whole new storylines that could be pursued.

A suitably epic and awesome finale, then, to a piece of film history, where everything went right - almost as if it were touched by a little bit of magic.


ADAM:

Though not a super fan (I haven’t read even one of the books), I’ve really enjoyed the Harry Potter series on the whole. I could see my eleven-year-old self buying my wand and supplies in Diagon Alley, bundling up my trunk and my owl, running through the wall to platform 9 ¾, hopping on the express and going to Hogwarts. Who wouldn’t? The ultimate fantasy element surrounding a school where anything can happen — from the magically floating trays of pies and turkey legs in the dining hall to the cloak of invisibility and the Marauder’s map; the foul tasting Bertie Bott’s Beans to secret passages, flying ghosts, talking portraits and Hermione’s ability to stop time drew me in. And it was these magical details, the learning of the spells and the practicing with the potions that I found myself missing as Harry and his cohorts began to grow up and the movies became darker and more centered on the lead up to the ultimate battle of Good versus Evil. The Prisoner of Azkaban is my favorite installment. With the most intricately wrought, creatively original story, combined with the superb direction by Alfonso Curon, it is by far the superior film of the series, in my mind.

Still, following an epic 2 day Potter-thon, chez Bastholm, I felt fully immersed in all things Hogwarts and ready for the eagerly awaited conclusion to the truncated Deathly Hallows Part 1.  And I wasn’t disappointed. The finale to this tremendous series was beautifully shot and full of exciting set pieces. The dangling storylines were tied up and special pains were taken to give even some of the more minor (but beloved) characters at Hogwarts a final moment to shine. Good and Evil faced off yet again, and the result was ultimately very satisfying. Deathly Hallows Part 2 is a summer blockbuster in the true sense, providing “edge of your seat” action, a (very) few laughs, tears, cheers and oddly, given that it’s actually just the second half of a story, the feeling that there really is a beginning, middle and end. In fact, I argue that the Deathly Hallows should have been one three-hour film – comprised of 75% of part 2 and 25% of part 1 (which was waaaay longer than need be in the padded & greedy attempt by the studio to eke another movie out of the series).

At the risk of sounding like too much of a hater, I feel like there were some missed opportunities (not just in the finale but from the 4th or 5th film on) to get really creative story-wise. My biggest issue with the Potter films, in general, is that Harry isn’t very interesting and often, not very smart. He is mostly handed the answer to the mystery or stumbles on the solution to his problems by chance. His failure to confide in his friends, his teachers and his mentors is usually his undoing and the frustrating realization that if Harry would just SAY SOMETHING, his problems would be easily solved, remains a repetitive force in virtually every story.  Luckily, there are so many other interesting, characters, with phenomenal performances by virtually every talented British actor alive, that Harry’s blandness doesn’t ruin the films.  And not to knock J.K. Rowling or screenwriter Steve Kloves, I feel like that when you are creating a world where magic exists – the possibilities are endless. And I was disappointed that the Polyjuice Potion spell was the major solution to getting information or solving a situation time and again. The first time it was cool. And the use of the polyjuice potion spell in the Ministry of Magic was probably the best thing about the Deathly Hallows Part 1 but the over use of that spell and the ensuing hijinks, just started to feel unoriginal.  Minor criticisms aside, this incredible series was a spectacle of consistently tremendous filmmaking, amazing effects, gorgeous costumes and dozens of nuanced performances. It’s sad to see it come to an end. And maybe it hasn’t…  I hear that talks of a TV series are in the works. Let’s hope it’s produced by the BBC.

"X MEN: First Class"Written by Ashley Miller, Zack Stentz, Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn; Story by Sheldon Turner and Bryan Singer; Directed by Matthew Vaughn.  Stars: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Kevin Bacon, Rose Byrne and Jennifer Lawrence.   Story: The events leading up to 1962, when Charles Xavier starts up a school and later a team, for humans with superhuman abilities. Among them is Erik Lensherr, his best friend… and future archenemy.
Seen by Lars & Adam, June 5, 2011
LARS:
It’s really hard not to hate Matthew Vaughn. He started his career as a producer of Guy Ritchie’s movies, “Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels” and “Snatch”, arguably two of the finest films to come out of England in the 1990s. He then decided that he could probably do this directing thing himself (presumably after producing Ritchie horrifying remake of “Swept Away”), and did the brilliant gangster film “Layer Cake”, which, for my money, was one of the best genre flicks in many years. Then Vaughn was attached to do the last X-Men movie, “The Last Stand”, but walked out over the usual ‘creative differences’, which can mean anything from ‘I want more money to make this film’ to ‘If you insist on these poodles being in the movie, I’m out’. This led him to jump into “Stardust”, a film of the adventure story by Neil Gaiman. While not terrible, it was a low point in Vaughn’s career so far. Last year’s “Kick-Ass” did just that. With the addition of “X-Men: First Class”, the best superhero movie since “The Dark Knight”, it’s becoming clear that Vaughn has by now surpassed his old comrade in arms, Ritchie, as a director and is now one of the go-to guys for modern, cheeky action flicks. On top of that, he’s just turned 40 and he’s married to Claudia Schiffer. Bastard.So what makes “First Class” such a great addition to the superhero movie genre? First of all it is, as far as I can recall, the first of its kind to be a period piece. It takes place in the early 1960s, during the Cuban missile crisis. The fact that the plot revolves around a series of real historical events anchors the movie, both historically and in the real world, which makes room for all the super-stuff to be mainly just good fun, as they don’t have to waste a whole lot of time on world building (hello, “Green Lantern”).The story jumps from location to location all over the world. That, and the 60s setting, reminded me a lot of the best of that period’s James Bond movies. And, every now and then, there was a touch of “Austin Powers”. Just enough to make it fun and not so much that it took you out of the story. And while it is an origin story, it’s not one of those origin stories that have been told time and time again (see Bat, Super, Spider and other Men). It’s the story of how two best friends, Professor X and Magneto developed different points of view on the relationship between us regular Homo sapiens and our more evolved mutant brethren.In terms of the bad guys, we finally get to meet The Hellfire Club, who were my favorite bad guys when I was reading “X-Men” as a kid. Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon who has the time of his life hamming it up), Emma Frost (January Jones; a little stiff) and Azazel (Jason Flemyng), who, in the convoluted world of Marvel, will eventually father Kurt Wagner (whom we met in “X-Men 2”) with Mystique, played in this film by Jennifer Lawrence. Phew…back story overload.Where the film really excels is in the casting. In addition to the above mentioned, we have Michael Fassbinder as Erick Lehnsherr/Magneto and James McAvoy as the young Professor X. They are both magnificent and provide a believable heart to the story. And then there’s a bunch of youngsters, led by the aforementioned Lawrence (who does well with her slightly clichéd arc, which could have been set to the Smith’s song “When Will You Accept Yourself”) and the kid from “About a Boy”, Nicholas Hoult, who is fine as the reluctant scientist, who ends up turning himself into the Beast.So tons of fun and a great story – surprising, really, given that no less than 5 people are credited with it – and an all-round charming tone of voice has given me new hope that with the right directors on board, there’s no reason why we can’t get many more great X-Men movies in the future. Because let’s face it, they are a whole hell of a lot more interesting than most of their super friends.
ADAM:
 If you’ve read much of this blog, you know that I’m not a huge fan of the superhero movie, mainly because I wasn’t a big comic book reader as a kid.  In fact, my graphic novel reading is bigger now than ever.  I do promise to get excited later this summer when Captain America comes out, as he still is my fave of the genre.  And even if I’d been a comic lover, the rash of superflicks in the past few years (with the exception of Nolan’s Batman films) have left more than a little to be desired; repetitive, forgettable action shot too close, storylines that make little sense, character we don’t care about and predictable finishes.  Earlier this summer, Thor finally bucked the trend for me, a film with good action and even better performances.  Quality casting and nice directing by Kenneth Branagh made it more than watchable. It was actually good.  And that’s why even though the trailer for “X-Men: First Class” looked tight, I expected the worst.  Thank goodness for surprises.I’m not going to re-hash the storyline; Lars has done that perfectly, above.  I will say that from the first sequence, we know this is something cool; a Nazi camp sets the stage for a revenge theme that threads throughout the film and beyond into the sequels.  All the characters we know are set up with care and cleverness and without getting too hokey.  And Matthew Vaughan (“Layer Cake”) helms the film with precision. Action is never too close, and the story flows well, if not a bit too long.Most clever may be the way real events in history, specifically the Cuban Missile Crisis are woven into the story, creating more depth and believability in the story.  The building of backstory for Magneto, Charles Xavier, Mystique, Emma Frost, etc. is spot on, and (take it from an X-Men outsider) welcomed.  The action is solid as are the effects and even if you’ve seen the sequels and know how things must turn out, the way the twists and turns are employed satisfy.  So everything works behind the camera; what about in front?  For the most part, more of the same.  James McAvoy as Xavier, Michael Fassbender as Erik/Magneto and Kevin Bacon as Heavy Sebastian Shaw carry their weight, while January Jones as Emma Frost is as stiff as a board.  Her only saving grace: looking as hot as can be in bond girl way with the delivery of every line.  And that’s certainly not enough to get me off the happy train with this film, I really did like it.  So as a non-superhero movie lover, I’m on a streak; this can’t last, though — “Green Lantern” is coming…

"X MEN: First Class"

Written by Ashley Miller, Zack Stentz, Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn; Story by Sheldon Turner and Bryan Singer; Directed by Matthew Vaughn. Stars: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Kevin Bacon, Rose Byrne and Jennifer Lawrence.  Story: The events leading up to 1962, when Charles Xavier starts up a school and later a team, for humans with superhuman abilities. Among them is Erik Lensherr, his best friend… and future archenemy.


Seen by Lars & Adam, June 5, 2011


LARS:


It’s really hard not to hate Matthew Vaughn. He started his career as a producer of Guy Ritchie’s movies, “Lock, Stock & Two Smoking Barrels” and “Snatch”, arguably two of the finest films to come out of England in the 1990s. He then decided that he could probably do this directing thing himself (presumably after producing Ritchie horrifying remake of “Swept Away”), and did the brilliant gangster film “Layer Cake”, which, for my money, was one of the best genre flicks in many years. Then Vaughn was attached to do the last X-Men movie, “The Last Stand”, but walked out over the usual ‘creative differences’, which can mean anything from ‘I want more money to make this film’ to ‘If you insist on these poodles being in the movie, I’m out’. This led him to jump into “Stardust”, a film of the adventure story by Neil Gaiman. While not terrible, it was a low point in Vaughn’s career so far. Last year’s “Kick-Ass” did just that. With the addition of “X-Men: First Class”, the best superhero movie since “The Dark Knight”, it’s becoming clear that Vaughn has by now surpassed his old comrade in arms, Ritchie, as a director and is now one of the go-to guys for modern, cheeky action flicks. On top of that, he’s just turned 40 and he’s married to Claudia Schiffer. Bastard.

So what makes “First Class” such a great addition to the superhero movie genre? First of all it is, as far as I can recall, the first of its kind to be a period piece. It takes place in the early 1960s, during the Cuban missile crisis. The fact that the plot revolves around a series of real historical events anchors the movie, both historically and in the real world, which makes room for all the super-stuff to be mainly just good fun, as they don’t have to waste a whole lot of time on world building (hello, “Green Lantern”).

The story jumps from location to location all over the world. That, and the 60s setting, reminded me a lot of the best of that period’s James Bond movies. And, every now and then, there was a touch of “Austin Powers”. Just enough to make it fun and not so much that it took you out of the story. And while it is an origin story, it’s not one of those origin stories that have been told time and time again (see Bat, Super, Spider and other Men). It’s the story of how two best friends, Professor X and Magneto developed different points of view on the relationship between us regular Homo sapiens and our more evolved mutant brethren.

In terms of the bad guys, we finally get to meet The Hellfire Club, who were my favorite bad guys when I was reading “X-Men” as a kid. Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon who has the time of his life hamming it up), Emma Frost (January Jones; a little stiff) and Azazel (Jason Flemyng), who, in the convoluted world of Marvel, will eventually father Kurt Wagner (whom we met in “X-Men 2”) with Mystique, played in this film by Jennifer Lawrence. Phew…back story overload.

Where the film really excels is in the casting. In addition to the above mentioned, we have Michael Fassbinder as Erick Lehnsherr/Magneto and James McAvoy as the young Professor X. They are both magnificent and provide a believable heart to the story. And then there’s a bunch of youngsters, led by the aforementioned Lawrence (who does well with her slightly clichéd arc, which could have been set to the Smith’s song “When Will You Accept Yourself”) and the kid from “About a Boy”, Nicholas Hoult, who is fine as the reluctant scientist, who ends up turning himself into the Beast.

So tons of fun and a great story – surprising, really, given that no less than 5 people are credited with it – and an all-round charming tone of voice has given me new hope that with the right directors on board, there’s no reason why we can’t get many more great X-Men movies in the future. Because let’s face it, they are a whole hell of a lot more interesting than most of their super friends.


ADAM:

 

If you’ve read much of this blog, you know that I’m not a huge fan of the superhero movie, mainly because I wasn’t a big comic book reader as a kid.  In fact, my graphic novel reading is bigger now than ever.  I do promise to get excited later this summer when Captain America comes out, as he still is my fave of the genre.  And even if I’d been a comic lover, the rash of superflicks in the past few years (with the exception of Nolan’s Batman films) have left more than a little to be desired; repetitive, forgettable action shot too close, storylines that make little sense, character we don’t care about and predictable finishes.  Earlier this summer, Thor finally bucked the trend for me, a film with good action and even better performances.  Quality casting and nice directing by Kenneth Branagh made it more than watchable. It was actually good.  And that’s why even though the trailer for “X-Men: First Class” looked tight, I expected the worst.  Thank goodness for surprises.

I’m not going to re-hash the storyline; Lars has done that perfectly, above.  I will say that from the first sequence, we know this is something cool; a Nazi camp sets the stage for a revenge theme that threads throughout the film and beyond into the sequels.  All the characters we know are set up with care and cleverness and without getting too hokey.  And Matthew Vaughan (“Layer Cake”) helms the film with precision. Action is never too close, and the story flows well, if not a bit too long.

Most clever may be the way real events in history, specifically the Cuban Missile Crisis are woven into the story, creating more depth and believability in the story.  The building of backstory for Magneto, Charles Xavier, Mystique, Emma Frost, etc. is spot on, and (take it from an X-Men outsider) welcomed.  The action is solid as are the effects and even if you’ve seen the sequels and know how things must turn out, the way the twists and turns are employed satisfy.  

So everything works behind the camera; what about in front?  For the most part, more of the same.  James McAvoy as Xavier, Michael Fassbender as Erik/Magneto and Kevin Bacon as Heavy Sebastian Shaw carry their weight, while January Jones as Emma Frost is as stiff as a board.  Her only saving grace: looking as hot as can be in bond girl way with the delivery of every line.  And that’s certainly not enough to get me off the happy train with this film, I really did like it.  So as a non-superhero movie lover, I’m on a streak; this can’t last, though — “Green Lantern” is coming…

1 note 

"Midnight in Paris"Written and Directed by Woody Allen. Story: A romantic comedy about a family traveling to the French capital for business. The party includes a young engaged couple forced to confront the illusion that a life different from their own is better.
Seen by Lars & Adam, May 22, 2011
LARS:
Woody Allen has the most grueling schedule of any filmmaker. He writes, shoots, edits and releases a movie every year. That means that some of them are a bit shoddy and hurried. And when Allen misfires, it can be excruciating to watch. See e.g. the recent “Whatever Works” and “Anything Else”. Or, rather, avoid them at all costs. But when Allen is good, he is a unique voice. From ‘the early funny ones’ to his mid-life ‘I want to be Ingmar Berman’ phase, Allen has created a portfolio of masterpieces that most directors can only dream of. Thankfully, his latest, “Midnight in Paris”, is one of the really good, if not great, ones.Allen hasn’t dabbled a lot in magic realism. But when he does, he is spectacularly good at realizing a world that obviously doesn’t exist outside the head of the protagonists (or does it?). The closest relative to “Midnight in Paris” in Allen’s oeuvre is “The Purple Rose of Cairo” from 1985, which is set in the 1930’s New Jersey and features a movie character walking off the screen and into real life. In this movie, a character walks off the streets of modern day Paris and into a glorified version of the ‘gay Paris’ of Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein.If you’re not at all familiar with the world of literature and art and all the ex-pat Americans hanging out in Paris in the 1930s, I imagine much of this flick could leave you utterly nonplussed. There are in-jokes galore that will completely elude you, unless you know a little something about e.g. Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s tumultuous relationship, Hemingway’s macho personality and Picasso’s relationships with his female models. This is a movie unashamedly made for well-read adults, and it’s a pleasure to see Allen put humorous dialogue into the mouths of long dead celebrities and poke gentle fun at their legacies. My particular favorite was Adrien Brody’s gestation of Salvador Dali and his hilarious diatribe about a rhinoceros. A melting rhinoceros, of course.  In fact, everything in the movie that takes place inside the 1930’s fantasy version of Paris makes you long for a time that has by now been romanticized out of all proportion. You can tell that Allen would have loved to hang around with these people and this is his way of getting to do so. And giving us, the viewers, the pleasure of doing the same.The real world that Owen Wilson’s screenwriter with literary ambitions, Gil Pender,  inhabits is somewhat less interesting. It’s hard to see what, if anything, has made Wilson’s character get engaged to Rachel McAdams’ shallow and nagging character. So it’s a pleasure whenever she and her parents disappear from the movie and Gil goes back in time. As with any male protagonist in an Allen movie after he got too old to play them himself, Wilson is essentially channeling Allen. Whether it’s the cadences in Allen’s writing, the way he directs his male actors or just how the actors in Allen’s movies think they have to play their characters, I don’t know, but it’s always fun to see different actors figure out how to be stand-ins for Allen. Wilson does a fine job here, almost as good as the one Kenneth Branagh pulled off in “Celebrity”.The lesson is that every time you’ve written Allen off as ‘over’, he bounces back with a movie as pleasurable to watch as “Midnight in Paris”. At 76 years of age, Allen is still going strong. You should support him by going to see his movies. He is truly a national treasure that doesn’t get the respect that he deserves in the US. In Europe, he is considered an icon of modern cinema. He should be here too.

ADAM:
 A new Woody Allen movie is always a must see, though I enjoy them (or not) in varying degrees. Allen’s latest is not his best but not even close to his worst. A beautifully shot love letter to the city of lights, “Midnight in Paris” showcases all that is gorgeous and romantic about Paris and is the perfect backdrop for the bit of magic that envelops the lead character and transports him to a simpler time. And that’s really the name of the game here, simple: an ambivalent Hollywood screenwriter (played by Owen Wilson, as the current incarnation of Woody Allen) is insecure about his new novel. He’s sure he would have flourished in the Paris of the 1920’s where art and creativity were paramount. On a trip to Paris with his shrill, materialistic fiancée, Inez (played by Rachel McAdams) and her family, he stumbles on a sort of portal to the 1920’s Paris of his dreams where he parties and kvetches with his literary heroes of the Lost Generation.Despite the time travel element, the basic story is a little one-note (and sports a familiar Allen theme of insecurity and discontent). I prefer his broader, early movies like “Bananas” or his more complex and nuanced stories like “Manhattan Murder Mystery” or “Match Point.” And Allen clearly borrows certain elements from himself, most notably from one of his early comedy sketches immortalized on the album “Woody Allen, Comedian” about hanging out with Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein, and from the “The Purple Rose of Cairo.” Still, it’s an enjoyable two hours with some genuinely hilarious moments – especially the characterizations of the 1920’s artists. The interactions with Hemingway, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald and an especially funny scene with Adrien Brody playing Salvador Dali are clever and fun.I confess, I was skeptical going in mainly because, I’m not a fan of Owen Wilson. He generally seems to play the same guy in every movie – a cockier version of himself, maybe? But he is more tolerable when he plays vulnerable and does a decent job as Gil, the stuttering, hand wringing screenwriter. Ultimately, there is no real substitute for Allen himself. And even though Allen is getting up there in years, I think I still would have preferred seeing him muddle his way through his Paris fantasy, interacting with Hemingway and Dali. On the other hand, I’m not sure Allen could pull off the romantic portion of the adventure.  In 1920’s Paris, Gil meets a stunning artist’s muse, Adriana (played by Marion Cottillard). Gil and Adriana bond primarily over their love of an earlier time. In Adriana’s case, she longs for Paris of the early 1900’s, the “Belle époque.” Gil is instantly smitten by the smoldering Adriana and starts questioning his relationship with Inez. And it’s no wonder – Inez and her family are wholly unlikeable. Inez badgers and demeans Gil at every turn; constantly deferring to a know-it-all, smarmy, former college classmate they bump into at a museum. As Gil becomes immersed in the 1920’s, traveling back nightly, his life during the day, in the present, becomes less and less appealing. And it’s no big surprise that he realizes he needs to make some big changes.With its’ old fashioned sensibilities and “inside” literary and art references, Midnight in Paris stands out as a witty, grown-up film among the superhero movies this summer and let’s face it: for many of us, Woody as filmmaker will always be a superhero.

"Midnight in Paris"

Written and Directed by Woody Allen. Story: A romantic comedy about a family traveling to the French capital for business. The party includes a young engaged couple forced to confront the illusion that a life different from their own is better.


Seen by Lars & Adam, May 22, 2011


LARS:


Woody Allen has the most grueling schedule of any filmmaker. He writes, shoots, edits and releases a movie every year. That means that some of them are a bit shoddy and hurried. And when Allen misfires, it can be excruciating to watch. See e.g. the recent “Whatever Works” and “Anything Else”. Or, rather, avoid them at all costs. But when Allen is good, he is a unique voice. From ‘the early funny ones’ to his mid-life ‘I want to be Ingmar Berman’ phase, Allen has created a portfolio of masterpieces that most directors can only dream of. Thankfully, his latest, “Midnight in Paris”, is one of the really good, if not great, ones.

Allen hasn’t dabbled a lot in magic realism. But when he does, he is spectacularly good at realizing a world that obviously doesn’t exist outside the head of the protagonists (or does it?). The closest relative to “Midnight in Paris” in Allen’s oeuvre is “The Purple Rose of Cairo” from 1985, which is set in the 1930’s New Jersey and features a movie character walking off the screen and into real life. In this movie, a character walks off the streets of modern day Paris and into a glorified version of the ‘gay Paris’ of Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein.

If you’re not at all familiar with the world of literature and art and all the ex-pat Americans hanging out in Paris in the 1930s, I imagine much of this flick could leave you utterly nonplussed. There are in-jokes galore that will completely elude you, unless you know a little something about e.g. Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s tumultuous relationship, Hemingway’s macho personality and Picasso’s relationships with his female models. This is a movie unashamedly made for well-read adults, and it’s a pleasure to see Allen put humorous dialogue into the mouths of long dead celebrities and poke gentle fun at their legacies. My particular favorite was Adrien Brody’s gestation of Salvador Dali and his hilarious diatribe about a rhinoceros. A melting rhinoceros, of course.  In fact, everything in the movie that takes place inside the 1930’s fantasy version of Paris makes you long for a time that has by now been romanticized out of all proportion. You can tell that Allen would have loved to hang around with these people and this is his way of getting to do so. And giving us, the viewers, the pleasure of doing the same.

The real world that Owen Wilson’s screenwriter with literary ambitions, Gil Pender,  inhabits is somewhat less interesting. It’s hard to see what, if anything, has made Wilson’s character get engaged to Rachel McAdams’ shallow and nagging character. So it’s a pleasure whenever she and her parents disappear from the movie and Gil goes back in time. As with any male protagonist in an Allen movie after he got too old to play them himself, Wilson is essentially channeling Allen. Whether it’s the cadences in Allen’s writing, the way he directs his male actors or just how the actors in Allen’s movies think they have to play their characters, I don’t know, but it’s always fun to see different actors figure out how to be stand-ins for Allen. Wilson does a fine job here, almost as good as the one Kenneth Branagh pulled off in “Celebrity”.

The lesson is that every time you’ve written Allen off as ‘over’, he bounces back with a movie as pleasurable to watch as “Midnight in Paris”. At 76 years of age, Allen is still going strong. You should support him by going to see his movies. He is truly a national treasure that doesn’t get the respect that he deserves in the US. In Europe, he is considered an icon of modern cinema. He should be here too.



ADAM:


A new Woody Allen movie is always a must see, though I enjoy them (or not) in varying degrees. Allen’s latest is not his best but not even close to his worst. A beautifully shot love letter to the city of lights, “Midnight in Paris” showcases all that is gorgeous and romantic about Paris and is the perfect backdrop for the bit of magic that envelops the lead character and transports him to a simpler time. And that’s really the name of the game here, simple: an ambivalent Hollywood screenwriter (played by Owen Wilson, as the current incarnation of Woody Allen) is insecure about his new novel. He’s sure he would have flourished in the Paris of the 1920’s where art and creativity were paramount. On a trip to Paris with his shrill, materialistic fiancée, Inez (played by Rachel McAdams) and her family, he stumbles on a sort of portal to the 1920’s Paris of his dreams where he parties and kvetches with his literary heroes of the Lost Generation.

Despite the time travel element, the basic story is a little one-note (and sports a familiar Allen theme of insecurity and discontent). I prefer his broader, early movies like “Bananas” or his more complex and nuanced stories like “Manhattan Murder Mystery” or “Match Point.” And Allen clearly borrows certain elements from himself, most notably from one of his early comedy sketches immortalized on the album “Woody Allen, Comedian” about hanging out with Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein, and from the “The Purple Rose of Cairo.” Still, it’s an enjoyable two hours with some genuinely hilarious moments – especially the characterizations of the 1920’s artists. The interactions with Hemingway, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald and an especially funny scene with Adrien Brody playing Salvador Dali are clever and fun.

I confess, I was skeptical going in mainly because, I’m not a fan of Owen Wilson. He generally seems to play the same guy in every movie – a cockier version of himself, maybe? But he is more tolerable when he plays vulnerable and does a decent job as Gil, the stuttering, hand wringing screenwriter. Ultimately, there is no real substitute for Allen himself. And even though Allen is getting up there in years, I think I still would have preferred seeing him muddle his way through his Paris fantasy, interacting with Hemingway and Dali. On the other hand, I’m not sure Allen could pull off the romantic portion of the adventure.  In 1920’s Paris, Gil meets a stunning artist’s muse, Adriana (played by Marion Cottillard). Gil and Adriana bond primarily over their love of an earlier time. In Adriana’s case, she longs for Paris of the early 1900’s, the “Belle époque.” Gil is instantly smitten by the smoldering Adriana and starts questioning his relationship with Inez. And it’s no wonder – Inez and her family are wholly unlikeable. Inez badgers and demeans Gil at every turn; constantly deferring to a know-it-all, smarmy, former college classmate they bump into at a museum. As Gil becomes immersed in the 1920’s, traveling back nightly, his life during the day, in the present, becomes less and less appealing. And it’s no big surprise that he realizes he needs to make some big changes.

With its’ old fashioned sensibilities and “inside” literary and art references, Midnight in Paris stands out as a witty, grown-up film among the superhero movies this summer and let’s face it: for many of us, Woody as filmmaker will always be a superhero.

"Thor"Written by Ashley Edward Miller & Zack Stentz and Don Payne, based on the comic book by Stan Lee, Larry Leiber and Jack Kirby; Directed by Kenneth Branagh; Stars: Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Stellen Skarsgard, Kat Dennings and Anthony Hopkins. Story: The powerful but arrogant warrior Thor is cast out of the fantastic realm of Asgard and sent to live amongst humans on Earth, where he soon becomes one of their finest defenders..
Seen by Adam and Lars, May 7, 2011
LARS: When they announced that they were making “Thor”, I honestly thought Marvel had gone mad. Thor was never a huge mainstream comic book character, and I was wondering why in god’s name they wouldn’t focus on some of the more relatable characters in the Marvel universe. Because, frankly, the Marvel version of Thor is a silly character. The Norse mythology that he is drawn from has great stories like any quasi-religious scripture that has been handed down over generations is bound to have. It’s a universe populated with various archetypes, and it functions great, when you keep the stories in that world, as a multitude of Scandinavian comic books and stories have done over the centuries. It’s when you take the Norse God of Thunder out of his own world and bring him to contemporary America that it all goes a bit silly.That said, “Thor” is an entertaining entry into the superhero film catalog, as long as you don’t think too hard about it. Even a stray thought may make the whole house of cards collapse into a puddle of utter nonsense.First the good: Kenneth Branagh directs “Thor” as if the material were much more worthy stuff. Arguing gods are treated with Shakespearean dignity and the camp factor, which, given the setting and the clothing could have been through the roof, is nowhere to be seen. I dread to think what a lesser director would have made of this script. The Australian beefcake Chris Hemsworth, who plays Thor, certainly looks the part. I couldn’t tell you whether he can act based on this film, but, again, at least he plays it straight and doesn’t wink at the audience. His romance with Natalie Portman is about as believable as the rest of the story, which is to say, not very. But since they are both hot, I guess that in Hollywood, there’s be no way they would be capable of not tearing off each other clothes. Not that they do that, this is a movie for kids! If you want adult behavior in a quasi-medieval setting, you’d be better off watching “Game of Thrones” on HBO. Anthony Hopkins does his usual ‘scowling for money’ that goes for acting for him these days. The nice surprise in the acting department is the British TV actor, Tom Hiddleston, who does a fine job brining personality to Loki, Thor’s evil brother. He goes from megalomania to groveling in a heartbeat and comes across as someone who’d do anything, as long as he sees an angle in it. Idris Alba from “The Wire” fame does OK bringing Heimdal, an impossible character to play, to life as well.
As was the case in Peter Jackson’s “The Lovely Bones”, so it is in this movie: Directors born in the early 60s were exposed to way too many prog-rock album covers in their teen years, and it has colored their taste. And not for the better. Jackson’s afterlife looked silly at best in ‘Bones” and Asgard (yes, kinda pronounced ‘ass guard’), the home country of the Norse gods in “Thor” looks like somebody browsed thru their 1970’s LP collection and got stuck right around Styx. But I am probably over thinking things here. While I was watching “Thor”, I was entertained and not bored at any point. And isn’t that really all you can ask of these movies? That they transport you for a few hours. I mean, it’s not like we ever thought they were going to be art, is it?
ADAM:
I’ll remind you (as I’m sure I’ve mentioned) I’m not the biggest super hero fan in the world; I was never a big comic book collector or reader; The extent of my understanding of the myth and lore of these larger than life figures does not extend beyond a rudimentary knowledge gathered from an occasional glimpse at a 25 cent book of yesteryear and the Saturday morning “Superfriends” and “Justice League of America,” cartoons I watched between “Hong Kong Phooey” and “Land of the Lost.”  It’s not surprising that I’ve liked almost none of the superhero movies released in the last ten years.  Beyond Chris Nolan’s Batman films, that I admire far more for their mood and storytelling, I find most superhero movies unbelievably forgettable and interchangeable.    Flawed hero (from this planet or other) with daddy or parent issues, tainted by some accident or experiment gone wrong, decides to save public while defending self and is constantly pursued by authorities, who question said hero’s motives.  Superman? Daredevil? Hulk? Spiderman? Iron Man, even Batman could have that generic description fit fairly well.  But I’m in the minority; people eat this stuff up, and whether repetitive or not, it’s two hours of escapism that’s entertaining enough to keep the cameras rolling. And while the rolling cameras produce sequel after sequel, it’s quite amazing that we actually have new, fertile superhero ground in which to dig; three original superchestnuts hatch this summer: The Green Lantern, which looks like as if it will appeal to kids more than the others, Captain America, which just happens to be my favorite superhero, and will probably be the biggest bomb in the trifecta, and Thor, a movie about a Norse God with a magical hammer; on the surface seemingly least likely to have ever been made in to a film, much less attract a crowd.
 Having seen Thor, I can say that of the non Chris Nolan superhero films, this might be my favorite.  I can’t really put my finger on why.  It may be that while the story seems relatively familiar, the action(well choreographed and shot) kept it flowing.  It may be that this film assembled a fantastic cast: Two oscar winners, Anthony Hopkins and Natalie Portman in a superhero movie?  That’s a win.  Surround them with Peter Skarsgaard, Kat Dennings and newcomer Chris Hemsworth, who as Thor holds his own  and that’s a nice nucleus.  And the big win might be that it’s all held together quite nicely by Oscar nominated director Kenneth Branagh, who counts this as his fourteenth film behind the camera, and by far the most expensive and complex.The first half hour unravels two stories, one on Earth, about the scientist Portman plays finally finding some meaning to her study and research into the sky and weather patterns, but learning it’s not the most important thing and one in the mythical Norse heavens, where Thor is anxious to assume the throne and make his father the king proud of him, not knowing the king’s pride in his son already exists. These two stories intersect when Thor is exiled for his erratic and dangerous behavior.  We soon learn that Thor’s fate is being manipulated by someone else who is tired of living in young warrior’s shadow and has designs on the crown.  A classic battle for power and the king’s respect rages on, with a small town on Earth (Portman’s) getting in the way.What I did enjoy about Thor, in addition to the action and performances were the choices made in regard to story development; while there’s action an explosions, this isn’t another movie about a hero forced to save the Earth from destruction; this is a story about character (as all good stories are), and about how Thor can save himself from destruction, redeem his previous relationships, forge new ones, and still manage to kick some serious ass in the process.

"Thor"

Written by Ashley Edward Miller & Zack Stentz and Don Payne, based on the comic book by Stan Lee, Larry Leiber and Jack Kirby; Directed by Kenneth Branagh; Stars: Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston, Stellen Skarsgard, Kat Dennings and Anthony Hopkins. Story: The powerful but arrogant warrior Thor is cast out of the fantastic realm of Asgard and sent to live amongst humans on Earth, where he soon becomes one of their finest defenders..


Seen by Adam and Lars, May 7, 2011


LARS: 

When they announced that they were making “Thor”, I honestly thought Marvel had gone mad. Thor was never a huge mainstream comic book character, and I was wondering why in god’s name they wouldn’t focus on some of the more relatable characters in the Marvel universe. Because, frankly, the Marvel version of Thor is a silly character. The Norse mythology that he is drawn from has great stories like any quasi-religious scripture that has been handed down over generations is bound to have. It’s a universe populated with various archetypes, and it functions great, when you keep the stories in that world, as a multitude of Scandinavian comic books and stories have done over the centuries. It’s when you take the Norse God of Thunder out of his own world and bring him to contemporary America that it all goes a bit silly.

That said, “Thor” is an entertaining entry into the superhero film catalog, as long as you don’t think too hard about it. Even a stray thought may make the whole house of cards collapse into a puddle of utter nonsense.

First the good: Kenneth Branagh directs “Thor” as if the material were much more worthy stuff. Arguing gods are treated with Shakespearean dignity and the camp factor, which, given the setting and the clothing could have been through the roof, is nowhere to be seen. I dread to think what a lesser director would have made of this script.

The Australian beefcake Chris Hemsworth, who plays Thor, certainly looks the part. I couldn’t tell you whether he can act based on this film, but, again, at least he plays it straight and doesn’t wink at the audience. His romance with Natalie Portman is about as believable as the rest of the story, which is to say, not very. But since they are both hot, I guess that in Hollywood, there’s be no way they would be capable of not tearing off each other clothes. Not that they do that, this is a movie for kids! If you want adult behavior in a quasi-medieval setting, you’d be better off watching “Game of Thrones” on HBO. Anthony Hopkins does his usual ‘scowling for money’ that goes for acting for him these days. The nice surprise in the acting department is the British TV actor, Tom Hiddleston, who does a fine job brining personality to Loki, Thor’s evil brother. He goes from megalomania to groveling in a heartbeat and comes across as someone who’d do anything, as long as he sees an angle in it. Idris Alba from “The Wire” fame does OK bringing Heimdal, an impossible character to play, to life as well.


As was the case in Peter Jackson’s “The Lovely Bones”, so it is in this movie: Directors born in the early 60s were exposed to way too many prog-rock album covers in their teen years, and it has colored their taste. And not for the better. Jackson’s afterlife looked silly at best in ‘Bones” and Asgard (yes, kinda pronounced ‘ass guard’), the home country of the Norse gods in “Thor” looks like somebody browsed thru their 1970’s LP collection and got stuck right around Styx. 

But I am probably over thinking things here. While I was watching “Thor”, I was entertained and not bored at any point. And isn’t that really all you can ask of these movies? That they transport you for a few hours. I mean, it’s not like we ever thought they were going to be art, is it?


ADAM:


I’ll remind you (as I’m sure I’ve mentioned) I’m not the biggest super hero fan in the world; I was never a big comic book collector or reader; The extent of my understanding of the myth and lore of these larger than life figures does not extend beyond a rudimentary knowledge gathered from an occasional glimpse at a 25 cent book of yesteryear and the Saturday morning “Superfriends” and “Justice League of America,” cartoons I watched between “Hong Kong Phooey” and “Land of the Lost.” It’s not surprising that I’ve liked almost none of the superhero movies released in the last ten years. Beyond Chris Nolan’s Batman films, that I admire far more for their mood and storytelling, I find most superhero movies unbelievably forgettable and interchangeable. Flawed hero (from this planet or other) with daddy or parent issues, tainted by some accident or experiment gone wrong, decides to save public while defending self and is constantly pursued by authorities, who question said hero’s motives. Superman? Daredevil? Hulk? Spiderman? Iron Man, even Batman could have that generic description fit fairly well. But I’m in the minority; people eat this stuff up, and whether repetitive or not, it’s two hours of escapism that’s entertaining enough to keep the cameras rolling.

And while the rolling cameras produce sequel after sequel, it’s quite amazing that we actually have new, fertile superhero ground in which to dig; three original superchestnuts hatch this summer: The Green Lantern, which looks like as if it will appeal to kids more than the others, Captain America, which just happens to be my favorite superhero, and will probably be the biggest bomb in the trifecta, and Thor, a movie about a Norse God with a magical hammer; on the surface seemingly least likely to have ever been made in to a film, much less attract a crowd.

 

Having seen Thor, I can say that of the non Chris Nolan superhero films, this might be my favorite.  I can’t really put my finger on why.  It may be that while the story seems relatively familiar, the action(well choreographed and shot) kept it flowing.  It may be that this film assembled a fantastic cast: Two oscar winners, Anthony Hopkins and Natalie Portman in a superhero movie?  That’s a win.  Surround them with Peter Skarsgaard, Kat Dennings and newcomer Chris Hemsworth, who as Thor holds his own  and that’s a nice nucleus.  And the big win might be that it’s all held together quite nicely by Oscar nominated director Kenneth Branagh, who counts this as his fourteenth film behind the camera, and by far the most expensive and complex.

The first half hour unravels two stories, one on Earth, about the scientist Portman plays finally finding some meaning to her study and research into the sky and weather patterns, but learning it’s not the most important thing and one in the mythical Norse heavens, where Thor is anxious to assume the throne and make his father the king proud of him, not knowing the king’s pride in his son already exists. These two stories intersect when Thor is exiled for his erratic and dangerous behavior.  We soon learn that Thor’s fate is being manipulated by someone else who is tired of living in young warrior’s shadow and has designs on the crown.  A classic battle for power and the king’s respect rages on, with a small town on Earth (Portman’s) getting in the way.

What I did enjoy about Thor, in addition to the action and performances were the choices made in regard to story development; while there’s action an explosions, this isn’t another movie about a hero forced to save the Earth from destruction; this is a story about character (as all good stories are), and about how Thor can save himself from destruction, redeem his previous relationships, forge new ones, and still manage to kick some serious ass in the process.

"Source Code"Written by Ben Ripley; Directed by Duncan Jones; Stars: Jake Gyllenhall, Michelle Monaghan, Vera Farmiga. Story: An action thriller centered on a soldier who wakes up in the body of an unknown man and discovers he’s part of a mission to find the bomber of a Chicago commuter train.
Seen by Adam and Lars, April 19, 2011
LARS:When Duncan Jones released his first film, “Moon”, a few years ago, few critics could get over the fact that he is David Bowie’s son. It was almost like there was a collective gasp of surprise that someone that famous could have a son that was also incredibly talented. There was something like a collective sigh of ‘that’s totally not fair’ going on. Thankfully, once they’d gotten over that hurdle, most realized that “Moon” was a little gem of a science-fiction movie with a brilliant central performance by Sam Rockwell. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it.Now that Jones has his second film, “Source Code” in theaters, there is no longer any doubt that he’s a very talented filmmaker. This is certainly no sophomore slump.“Source Code” is an original script from Ben Ripley, whose previous work (Species III and other straight to DVD titles) didn’t exactly promise greatness. But “Source Code” works extremely well as a sci-fi take on “Groundhog Day”. Essentially, the premise is the same: a guy has to relive the same situation over and over until he gets it right. While Bill Murray had to change his personality in order to find true love, Jake Gyllenhaal has a more desperate challenge: he has to find a bomb on board a train, identify the bomber and stop the train from blowing up. Oh, and he has exactly 8 minutes to do it. Between his stints on the train, Gyllenhaal’s character, Colter Stevens, is trying to find out what the locked room he finds himself in is, and where he is. Giving away more of the plot would be a shame.Jones has a deft eye for casting. Gyllenhall and Michelle Monaghan have easy chemistry (btw, wouldn’t it be nice to see Monaghan for once get a juicy part, where she is not just the cute girl?) and Vera Farmiga plays a morally torn ‘controller’ as effective as any part she’s ever played.However, the real smarts of the film is in the way Jones cuts it together so Stevens discovers little bits every time he goes back on the train as well as back into the locked room, so both strands have cliffhangers every time we leave them behind. Where reliving the same situation over and over again could get repetitive and dull if done badly, here there never less than constant tension.If the film has any flaws, it’s the tacked on ending. You can almost hear the studio executives seeing the first cut of the movie go ‘but…but…that’s not a happy ending… Let’s make sure we come up with something that’s more uplifting!” It is tonally out of whack with the rest of the film and seems dumber than the rest. Hence, I blame a studio executive.Duncan Jones is great to follow on Twitter, where he is @manmademoon. He’s obviously a fellow geek, into games and sci-fi and completely aware of how blessed his life is. It’ll be interesting to follow his career. Maybe one day, Duncan Jones will be the most famous member of the Bowie family.  
ADAM:One particular psychological theme echoed in a great number of films in the past few years, and one I’ve talked about repeatedly here is what I’ve referred to as the “predictive future” theme.  Science fiction (at its core) can deviate a long way from spacemen and monsters, as in “Groundhog Day.”  Remember, science fiction just means the scientific rules that form our understanding of what is possible are challenged and broken.  The predictive future film puts the main character in a situation where he gains some form of information, either directly or indirectly about what is coming or going to happen (in a way no normal person would believe), and must use that information to solve a bigger problem.  “Minority Report,” “Next,” “Knowing,” “The Adjustment Bureau,” “Total Recall,”  the TV shows “Medium” and “Early Edition.”   These are just some examples and with the exception of “Medium” always feature a male lead.  It’s not a surprise; these films always seem to be about a lack of control; ironic with the advance knowledge they possess.“Source Code” is the second feature length film from Duncan Jones, known nearly as much for his first film “Moon,” a tight and very contained and claustrophobic Sci-Fi tale about a astronaut on a lonely mission as he is for being the son of arguably the most inventive and creative rock star of all time, David Bowie.  Despite Jones’ attempts to keep that fact under wraps, what is apparent is that Jones shares much with his dad; namely a love of story, a care for visual craft as well as the meat and potatoes of the narrative, and a genuine desire to have the audience feel on the same level as the creator.  For David Bowie, that has always been a confidence that never disrupts his desire to make the audience feel like his friends or part of the crazy club.  Jones shows the same respect for his audience, by not treating them like idiots.  He throws us into the middle of what’s going on and expects us to figure a lot out in the outset.  Mind you, it’s not rocket science here, but still there’s an immediate feeling like Jones actually believes the viewer has a brain in his head, and realizes he does not need his hand held throughout.“Source Code” is “Groundhog Day” meets “Speed” to a degree: Jake Gyllenhall is forced to try repeatedly to solve a crime (the bombing of a commuter train) until he succeeds, though of course there is a ticking clock, explained away by some scientific explanation that also defines the ability to change the past — things you must, as a sci-fi fan, make peace with when you agree to leave some sense of reality at the theater door.  Without getting to into detail, “Code” does entertain, and due to both a secondary story about Gyllenhall’s character and the charming Michelle Monaghan, we care about their fate.It’s a much better than average script by Ben Ripley, whose previous work was less than memorable; there are repetitive passages and there is some creative and scientific license taken. And there seems to be three possible endings in the last five minutes.  I like the last one the least, and would’ve preferred the movie to end on the train. But this is about the ride, and it’s certainly a fun one.

"Source Code"

Written by Ben Ripley; Directed by Duncan Jones; Stars: Jake Gyllenhall, Michelle Monaghan, Vera Farmiga. Story: An action thriller centered on a soldier who wakes up in the body of an unknown man and discovers he’s part of a mission to find the bomber of a Chicago commuter train.


Seen by Adam and Lars, April 19, 2011


LARS:

When Duncan Jones released his first film, “Moon”, a few years ago, few critics could get over the fact that he is David Bowie’s son. It was almost like there was a collective gasp of surprise that someone that famous could have a son that was also incredibly talented. There was something like a collective sigh of ‘that’s totally not fair’ going on. Thankfully, once they’d gotten over that hurdle, most realized that “Moon” was a little gem of a science-fiction movie with a brilliant central performance by Sam Rockwell. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it.
Now that Jones has his second film, “Source Code” in theaters, there is no longer any doubt that he’s a very talented filmmaker. This is certainly no sophomore slump.

“Source Code” is an original script from Ben Ripley, whose previous work (Species III and other straight to DVD titles) didn’t exactly promise greatness. But “Source Code” works extremely well as a sci-fi take on “Groundhog Day”. Essentially, the premise is the same: a guy has to relive the same situation over and over until he gets it right. While Bill Murray had to change his personality in order to find true love, Jake Gyllenhaal has a more desperate challenge: he has to find a bomb on board a train, identify the bomber and stop the train from blowing up. Oh, and he has exactly 8 minutes to do it. Between his stints on the train, Gyllenhaal’s character, Colter Stevens, is trying to find out what the locked room he finds himself in is, and where he is. Giving away more of the plot would be a shame.

Jones has a deft eye for casting. Gyllenhall and Michelle Monaghan have easy chemistry (btw, wouldn’t it be nice to see Monaghan for once get a juicy part, where she is not just the cute girl?) and Vera Farmiga plays a morally torn ‘controller’ as effective as any part she’s ever played.

However, the real smarts of the film is in the way Jones cuts it together so Stevens discovers little bits every time he goes back on the train as well as back into the locked room, so both strands have cliffhangers every time we leave them behind. Where reliving the same situation over and over again could get repetitive and dull if done badly, here there never less than constant tension.

If the film has any flaws, it’s the tacked on ending. You can almost hear the studio executives seeing the first cut of the movie go ‘but…but…that’s not a happy ending… Let’s make sure we come up with something that’s more uplifting!” It is tonally out of whack with the rest of the film and seems dumber than the rest. Hence, I blame a studio executive.

Duncan Jones is great to follow on Twitter, where he is @manmademoon. He’s obviously a fellow geek, into games and sci-fi and completely aware of how blessed his life is. It’ll be interesting to follow his career. Maybe one day, Duncan Jones will be the most famous member of the Bowie family.  


ADAM:

One particular psychological theme echoed in a great number of films in the past few years, and one I’ve talked about repeatedly here is what I’ve referred to as the “predictive future” theme.  Science fiction (at its core) can deviate a long way from spacemen and monsters, as in “Groundhog Day.”  Remember, science fiction just means the scientific rules that form our understanding of what is possible are challenged and broken.  The predictive future film puts the main character in a situation where he gains some form of information, either directly or indirectly about what is coming or going to happen (in a way no normal person would believe), and must use that information to solve a bigger problem.  “Minority Report,” “Next,” “Knowing,” “The Adjustment Bureau,” “Total Recall,”  the TV shows “Medium” and “Early Edition.”   These are just some examples and with the exception of “Medium” always feature a male lead.  It’s not a surprise; these films always seem to be about a lack of control; ironic with the advance knowledge they possess.

“Source Code” is the second feature length film from Duncan Jones, known nearly as much for his first film “Moon,” a tight and very contained and claustrophobic Sci-Fi tale about a astronaut on a lonely mission as he is for being the son of arguably the most inventive and creative rock star of all time, David Bowie.  Despite Jones’ attempts to keep that fact under wraps, what is apparent is that Jones shares much with his dad; namely a love of story, a care for visual craft as well as the meat and potatoes of the narrative, and a genuine desire to have the audience feel on the same level as the creator.  For David Bowie, that has always been a confidence that never disrupts his desire to make the audience feel like his friends or part of the crazy club.  Jones shows the same respect for his audience, by not treating them like idiots.  He throws us into the middle of what’s going on and expects us to figure a lot out in the outset.  Mind you, it’s not rocket science here, but still there’s an immediate feeling like Jones actually believes the viewer has a brain in his head, and realizes he does not need his hand held throughout.

“Source Code” is “Groundhog Day” meets “Speed” to a degree: Jake Gyllenhall is forced to try repeatedly to solve a crime (the bombing of a commuter train) until he succeeds, though of course there is a ticking clock, explained away by some scientific explanation that also defines the ability to change the past — things you must, as a sci-fi fan, make peace with when you agree to leave some sense of reality at the theater door.  Without getting to into detail, “Code” does entertain, and due to both a secondary story about Gyllenhall’s character and the charming Michelle Monaghan, we care about their fate.

It’s a much better than average script by Ben Ripley, whose previous work was less than memorable; there are repetitive passages and there is some creative and scientific license taken. And there seems to be three possible endings in the last five minutes.  I like the last one the least, and would’ve preferred the movie to end on the train. But this is about the ride, and it’s certainly a fun one.