Sunday, August 9, 2009

It Came From The Cineplex: X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Star Trek, Terminator: Salvation, Drag Me To Hell, The Hangover, Land Of The Lost, Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen

Believe it or not, summer's almost over, and with it the big summer movie blockbuster season.

Due to production schedules, we're just now feeling the effects of last year's Hollywood writer's strike. Many, if not all of the movies at the cineplex this summer suffered from the strike, as films were rushed into production with weak and hurriedly finished scripts. It's even been rumored that a certain quiet little film about robots that turn into vehicles started filming without a finished script (based on the final result, I have absolutely no trouble believing that).

Anyway, for good or ill, I thought I'd run through the movies I've seen this summer, and let you know how I think they stack up, because I know how much the rest of the world is interested in my opinion. I'll try to keep my reviews as brief and to the point as possible.

X-Men Origins: Wolverine
Dear Hollywood:

Please stop making prequels.

the World

The Summer Blockbuster Season was kicked off this year with the premiere of X-Men Origins: Wolverine. The movie made quite a splash in the news, not because of its storyline, but because a near-complete print of it was leaked to the internet some months before it was released. Fox bigwigs stood wringing their hands in anguish, fearful the leak would affect box office returns. It in fact did no such thing, and the movie went on to gross as much or more as it probably would have without the leak.

But on to the movie itself. Wolverine is OK at best, a bit below par with the rest of the X-Men movies. This is the fourth time Hugh Jackman has donned the claws, and honestly there's nothing much new to see here.

The main problem with Wolverine is that it suffers from what I call prequelitis. What does a studio do when its profitable film franchise runs out of steam and can no longer move forward? Why, it moves backward of course, toward the beginning. If you've no more new stories to tell about your hero, then tell an old one. Go back to the beginning and tell how he came to be.

The problem with prequels though is nothing of any consequence can happen. The screen writers can throw all the peril they can imagine at the hero, but none of it can ever stick. Since Wolverine is set before the X-Men trilogy, we know that no matter what happens, no matter how great the danger Wolverine may be in, he's going to survive. OK, so obviously nothing is ever going to happen him anyway; he's the main character. But there's a tiny part of your brain that's never quite sure about that. That's why we watch movies and read stories. But when you know going in that nothing can happen to your hero, there's no real point in watching. It's about one step up from the old "It was all a dream" trope.

Since the movie can't offer any plot points of consequence, it offers up a plateload of answers to questions no one asked: How old is Wolverine? What was his family life like? How'd he get his claws (OK, that one might have been worth asking). Did he ever date? Why's his memory faulty? And most importantly of all, where did he get that cool leather jacket (I wish I was kidding about that last one, but sadly I'm not). Like all prequels I've seen, one can almost imagine the director marking items off of a checklist. "Claws? Check! Love life? Check! Reason for memory loss? Check! Acquistion of stylish jacket? BIG check!"

Like the first three X-Men movies, this one tries to see how many other mutant characters it can trowel onto the script; most come and go in seconds, and precious few are ever identified by name. It would be a challenge for even the most hard core comic geek to recognize and identify the majority of them.

Most puzzling is the decision to take the popular character "Deadpool," who has a very cool costume and distinctive wise guy personality, and change him into a bland, shirtless hamburger-faced killer whose mouth is inexplicably sewn shut. He's set up here for a return; hopefully if that comes to pass, he'll look and act more like his comic book inspiration.

An aside: There's supposedly some controversy among geekdom (what else is new?) about when exactly this movie takes place. Some have apparently done the math and say it takes place some 30 years prior to the first X-Men film, which would put it in the 1970s. But, they cry, the production design and costumes don't reflect the 70s, and in fact look quite contemporary. Honestly none of that entered my mind for a second while watching it. It takes place sometime before the previous movies, and that's all I need to know. If you want to get really nitpicky about it, the first X-Men movie starts out with a caption that says, "In the not too distant future," so technically they haven't happened yet, and Wolverine could indeed be a contemporary piece. Confused? I don't blame you. Don't worry about it and skip to the next paragraph.

Not a horrible movie, and definitely not a great one, it resides squarely in the vast plain of "Meh."

I give it an apathetic and half-hearted C.

Star Trek
The best movie I've seen all summer, which in a summer littered with this much mediocrity seems like damning with faint praise.

Writer/director J.J. Abrams took the wheezing and ailing Trek franchise off of life support and rejuvenated it by starting over from the beginning. Forget everything you know, this is a brand new Star Trek, set in an fresh and alternate time line.

Personally I think jettisoning all that history and baggage was a great idea. The franchise was collapsing under the weight of 40+ years worth of continuity. To date there've been FIVE different series set in the Trek universe (six if you count the animated series) giving us well over 700 episodes. And you can bet your captain's log that every fan demanded that any new material jibe with what's gone before in all those episodes. Mistakes will not be tolerated. It made coming up with new material and moving forward nearly impossible. Starting over was the only answer, and the perfect solution, giving the franchise a fresh start.

I wasn't sure how I would feel seeing new actors playing the old familiar characters, but after a few minutes I didn't even think about it-- I totally accepted them in the roles. I guess that shouldn't have come as a surprise; look at how many different actors have played classic characters like Tarzan and Sherlock Holmes throughout the years. I thought the new cast all did a great job-- the new Dr. McCoy was excellent!

Some hard core fans may say the new movie's long on action and short on traditional Star Trek substance, but that's fine with me-- I'm a little weary of getting hit over the head by thinly veiled messages. I already know racism is bad, I don't need a "white on one side, black on the other side alien" to tell me so.

There will no doubt be sequels, and I hope the producers don't blow their opportunity. They've got a brand new universe to play in, and they need to take advantage of it. Give us new stories, no remakes please. We don't need Antonio Banderas as Khan.

Full of action and a lot of fun. When was the last time you could say that about a Star Trek movie? Too bad we'll have to wait two or three years for the next installment, instead of tuning in next week.

Highly recommended, I give it a solid A.

Terminator: Salvation
Again with the prequels! Only in Hollywood could we get a movie that takes place in the future, but is actually set in the past of the Terminator universe!

Ever since the first Terminator movie came out in 1984, we've been hearing bits and pieces about the Future War, the battle between Skynet and humanity. For over 20 years fans have been dreaming, "Boy I sure wish I could see what the Future War was/is like! If only they'd make a movie set in that time." Well, be careful what you wish for. Now we've got our Future War movie, and it ain't all that great.

Once again we have a movie that has all the symptoms of the rapidly spreading plague of sequelitis. The screen writers valiantly try to whip up some danger for our heroes, but since we've already seen their futures, we know nothing of consequence can possibly happen to them.

Terminator:Salvation features John Connor, leader of the human rebels, risking life and limb to save ordinary grunt Kyle Reese from the clutches of the evil Skynet. If you've seen even one of the previous movies, you'll know that through the magic of time travel, even though Kyle is younger than John, he's actually his dad. So they can place Kyle in as much danger as they want, but we know he's not going to die. If he was to be killed in this movie, then the first three wouldn't be able to happen. All that makes watching this movie an exercise in pointlessness.

The film also suffers greatly from the absence of Arnold Schwarzenegger. The fact that the movie picks up considerably after a fully computer animated version of the T-800 appears is testament to this. Maybe if Arnold wasn't busy running California into the ground, he could have appeared in Salvation and elevated it a bit.

Also, based on the amount of ordnance and deadly robots that Skynet has at its disposal, it strains credulity that the poorly-organized and outfitted humans would survive for long, much less be able to defeat it. Skynet has riderless motorcycles with robotic brains and reflexes, unstoppable killer cyborgs and even giant, 100 foot tall Gundam-like robots. The humans have standard issue helicopters and machine guns. There's no doubt in my mind who would really win this conflict.

It's full of cool robots and lots of noisy explosions, but since it's yet another prequel and we know nothing can happen, it's ultimately pointless.

I give it a C.

Drag Me to Hell
Sam Raimi wrote and directed this back-to-basics horror movie that turned out to be one of the best things in the theater this summer. Too bad nobody saw it. Drag Me was unfortunately crushed by a poor release date and the "Transformers" juggernaut.

A simple story about young woman, and old lady and a gypsy curse, Drag Me to Hell is smart, violent, gory, funny, and believe it or not, genuinely scary. What more could you ask for in a horror film?

I was worried when I found out that it's rated PG-13, and expected yet another watered-down horror flick in the mold of "The Ring" and countless other toothless, scare-less movies that have littered the cineplex in the past decade. But Raimi manages to squeeze the rating until it cries "uncle," resulting in one of the best horror films I've seen in years.

Do yourself a favor: Skip Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and go see Drag Me To Hell.

I give it a solid A.

The Hangover
A buddy comedy about four guys who travel to Vegas for one last fling before one of their number is married. The Hangover is probably the best comedy I've seen so far this year, but honestly that's not saying a lot. It was nice to see a movie about actual adults for a change, instead of yet another movie about horny teens looking for sex.

It has some laughs, but IMO they were surprisingly sparse and the middle of the film slows down considerably. Zack Gallifinackas steals the show, and will no doubt get a lot more film work soon (and deservedly so).

Ed Helms plays virtually the same "spineless guy marrying a bitter harpy" character as he does on The Office; in fact it's hard not to think of his Andy character while watching this movie. If Helms wants a career in films, he's eventually going to have to start playing a different character (are you listening, Michael Cera?).

Warner Brothers is proudly trumpeting that this is the highest grossing R-rated comedy of all time. I hate these kinds of statistics. Of course it's the highest grossing ever, ticket prices are no doubt higher than they were last year, or at any time in history. Next year there'll be a movie that sells fewer tickets but will still make more money. Studios need to stop counting cash and start counting actual tickets sold. Then we'll see who's really the highest grossing whatever. Butts in the seats, that's what counts.

An OK comedy that just didn't grab me the way it apparently did the other 99% of the population.

I give it a B.

Land of the Lost
Universal and Will Farrell take a beloved and surprisingly grown up kid's show and turn it into an unfunny fart comedy.

Not the worst movie I've ever seen, but far from the best. I was (and still am) a big fan of the 1970s TV show, so I figured I would be incensed by the treatment it received at the hands of the new movie. Actually I found myself oddly indifferent to the new film. It's so far removed from the TV show that it scarcely affects it at all.

I'm wondering exactly who this movie is for. The fans who fondly recall the original will be unimpressed at best. Moviegoers who've never heard of the original will most likely shrug and say, "So what?"

The main problem with the movie is that it's just not funny. They'd have got more laughs if they'd made it a straight up action movie with a few comic relief moments. Will Farrell seems particularly lackluster and unenthused, as if even he's tiring of his own antics.

The movie has an odd, almost cartoony look. I've heard speculation that this was intentional, as an homage or sorts to the primitive effects of the original show. I'm not buying that. That would be a bit too subtle for a movie like this.

What's genuinely puzzling about the whole thing is that it was produced by Sid and Marty Krofft, so the whole thing must be sanctioned by them. I guess everyone needs to eat, and make their yacht payments.

I give it a hearty and resounding D.

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen
Transformers: Revenge is dumb. Big, noisy, stupid and dumb. The first movie was somewhat watchable, but this one is just a big giant mess. The plot, if you can call it that, makes absolutely no sense. It's almost as if director Michael Bay watched a child playing with some Transformers toys, stole his ideas and incorporated them into a script. In fact we would probably have gotten a better movie if that were the case.

According to internet rumor, which we all know is always 100% accurate, last year's writer's strike disrupted production and they started filming without a completed script. I see nothing in the movie that would disprove that rumor.

The movie sets up a world with ill-conceived and illogical rules, and then blissfully ignores said rules when it's convenient to the plot, or when it will get a so-called laugh. Defenders of the movie will tell you to chill, it's a film about giant robots that turn into cars. They'll tell you it's just a big dumb summer movie that's supposed to be fun, not make sense. I would remind those people that one of the best summer movies of last year concerned a man who dressed as a bat and fought a green-haired clown. Summer movies can be smart as well as fun.

Megabytes of server space have already been written about the movie's many flaws, so there's no need for me to cover the same well-worn ground. I will, however, offer a few items that especially bothered me about the film.

• Lack of "The Sound." You know what I'm talking about. On the cartoon series, whenever a TF would change from a car to a robot and back again, there'd be this unmistakable grinding metallic sound cue. Every kid who ever owned a TF toy made a reasonable facsimile of this noise with his mouth while playing with them. They used a distorted version of the noise a couple of times in the first movie, but it was totally absent this time.

Why? Why would you make a TF movie and leave out that sound? It's like making a Six Million Dollar Man movie and not using the "nanananana" noise when he does something bionic.

Not using it is downright criminal, and it's too bad there's no law on the books against it.

• Whenever two or more Transformers are fighting, it looks like someone shook a box of scrap metal and filmed it. I honestly can't tell what I'm looking at. It's all a blur of hyper-detailed cgi models.

The "design" of all the Transformers is just plain too complicated. I already believe that they're robots who can turn into cars, you don't have to show me where every single part of the vehicle goes when they're in robot mode.

The TF designs in the cartoon were fairly simple in order to facilitate animation, but that worked to their advantage. Look at the images above. Which robot looks like it's made from the parts of a semi truck, and which one looks like a loose collection of jagged red and blue parts, hot-glued together into the rough outline of a bipedal shape? There's no reason that the cartoon designs couldn't have been used in the movie. Just add a bit of texture and they would have been fine.

When I was a kid and I saw a movie that particularly excited me, I couldn't wait to get home so I could start drawing the characters. I'd fill page after page full of Disney characters and Star Wars ships. If I was a kid today and had just seen Transformers, there's no way I would even attempt to draw one of those scrap metal monstrosities. I couldn't! If I'd seen this movie as a kid I probably would have given up drawing for good and never have become an artist.

• Why did the old Decepticon who decided to switch sides have what sounded like a Scottish accent? And if he was supposed to be so old that he was falling apart, why was he disguised as a Blackbird? That's a relatively recent invention. Wouldn't it have made more sense if he was a biplane or some such older model?

• For me, the stupidest and most irritating moment comes during Sam's first day of college, Sam is attacked by a Decepticon that is disguised as a super hot co-ed. Once her cover is blown, she turns into a robotic puma or something, attacks Sam and then promptly disappears from the movie (or maybe she was blown up, I honestly can't remember). This opens up an ENORMOUS can of worms, roughly the size of the Queen Mary. Is this some new ability the Decepticons have developed? It had better be, because if they've had the ability to disguise themselves as perfect replicas of people all along, then why the frak have they been bothering to look like cars and trucks all this time? This little incident causes a hee-yuge problem in the TF universe, and it's brought up for no apparent reason other than "because it looks kewl." And once it's brought up, it's promptly forgotten and never mentioned again.

• When Sam and company need to go to Egypt, instead of the Scottish Transformer flying them all there, he decides to teleport them. Can all Transformers do this? If so, then this opens yet another can of worms. If they can teleport, then why do they waste time disguising themselves as vehicles and driving or flying?

• Mikeila (Megan Fox) must have earned all sorts of badges in first aid when she was a girl scout. After the cast teleports into the desert, Sam's hand is burnt and smoking, apparently injured from the violent teleportation process. Not only does Mikeila whip out a roll of gauze, she wraps Sam's hand up so expertly that it appears he even has splints and a cast under the bangages.

The reason for this of course, was Shia LeBouf's real life hand injury, sustained in a drunk-driving accident. Much was made in the media about how this injury shut down production for a week or two, and how the injury would be written into the script. Apparently "writing it into the script" is Michael Bay code for "saying nothing about it and having Shia wave his injured hand about as much as possible."

There's no excuse for this; if they can animate a cgi robot with 40,000 moving parts, then they can add an uninjured cgi hand to the end of Shia LeBouf's wrist.

• After Optimus Prime is killed, Sam is told that the only way he can be brought back to life is to use sort sort of ancient key. After much searching and hundreds of explosions, Sam finds the key and sticks it in Prime's chest. He is immediately recharged and comes back to life. About 30 seconds later, one of the Decepticons flies down and yanks the doohickey from Prime's chest and flies off with it. Optimus Prime seems none the worse for wear. So he did he need the key or didn't he? In essence Sam stuck a new heart into Prime's chest, and then it was ripped back out.

I could go on, but I'll spare you. It doesn't matter what I think anyway-- at the time of this post, the movie has somehow grossed over 800 MILLION DOLLARS worldwide, and it would not be a surprise if it passed the BILLION dollar mark before it's over with.

The world just isn't fair. Michael Bay makes a movie without a script and as a result no doubt lives in solid gold house with hot and cold running champagne. Meanwhile the rest of us sit in our dingy kitchens eating store brand macaroni and cheese. There's a lesson in there somewhere, kids, and I don't think I like the sound of it.

If you've not yet seen it, please, by all means skip it and go see something worthwhile.

I give it big dumb D.


  1. Bob: agree with you completely on the two movies of this group I saw, which was Star Trek and Drag Me to Hell. In fact, I'd say DMTH was one of the best horror movies I've ever seen! With Star Trek, wasn't the casting for Kirk perfect?

    With Land of the Lost, I'm afraid all we have left in comedy anymore is fart and tit jokes. It's a said state of affairs. -- Mykal

  2. I haven't seen any of the big summer movies. I'm still catching up with older blockbusters via Netflix. Despite this, I'll comment on Wolverine:

    Somewhere in a dusty comic box, I have the first appearance of Wolverine to the X-Men back in 1975. The book was about an ensemble cast with Xavier as the leader and Cyclops as second-in-command. Wolverine was part of the ensemble. He was the hardcase character kind of like John Wayne in "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance." The movie is about Jimmy Stewart, but it needs just enough of the Duke to make it. My problem with all of the X-Men movies is that Cyclops becomes Potsie to Wolverine's Fonzie. Yes, Wolverine is a popular character, but he should be used sparingly and judiciously. The whole tough guy routine gets tedious. But that's what summer movies are about - eating a whole birthday cake for dinner.

  3. Another thing I hate is weekend box office receipts! Count butts in seats, not dollars! How many people saw this or how many tickets were purchased? I think if you took that into consideration, the top ten movies would look very different. Did more people see "The Sound of Music" or "Star Wars?" It's probably "Star Wars," but you know what I mean.

  4. Mykal: Glad to hear you enjoyed "Drag Me To Hell" as much as I did. Just goes to show you don't need a hundred million to make a good movie! I just wish more people had seen it. I think they should have released it a little later in the summer, after most of the big blockbusters had come and gone. Maybe it will do better on DVD?

    I liked pretty much all of the casting in the new Star Trek. Karl Urban played a perfect Dr. McCoy! Somehow he channeled DeForest Kelley without doing an outright imitation. The new Spock was excellent as well. I was also glad to see they tried to give all the characters at least one or two moments to shine.

  5. Willceau:

    I agree with your views on Wolverine. He's one of those characters with a mysterious past who works best that way. We don't need to know his origin story, it's more fun to try and imagine how he came to be.

    But Marvel couldn't leave well enough alone, and 4 or 5 years ago they released a miniseries featuring the origin of Wolverine. I didn't read it, but from what I gather they used much of it in this movie.

    The comic version of Wolverine suffered from "Power Bloat." Over time his powers grew and grew until he's now practically immortal. When Wolverine first appeared, he had a metal skeleton and could heal faster than normal. That was it. Over time his healing power kept getting ramped up. He started healing instantly, then we find out it keeps him from aging and he may be hundreds of years old. A year or two ago the Hulk actually pulled Wolverine in half, and he managed to heal himself from THAT injury!

  6. Willceau: I agree wholeheartedly about the box office receipts. It's meaningless to measure success in dollars, as the price of tickets constantly goes up. Tickets sold is what counts, and would be a much more meaningful yardstick of success.

    If Hollywood insists on counting cash, then I've read that if you account for inflation, "Gone With The Wind" is still the all-time box office champ.

  7. In response to your comments on the terminator movie, are you aware that after each different terminator is sent to the past, an alternate timeline is created and the future is changed? Kyle Reese was not the original john connor's father, cyberdyne was the original robot overlord, not skynet, etc. So, both John Connor and Kyle Reese could have died in the new movie without having any impact on the past.

  8. Hmm. I'm confused. I thought they made it more than obvious in the first movie that Reese was JC's father.

    If for some reason by the time the 4th movie rolls around Reese is NOT JC's father, then why did JC risk life and limb to rescue him?


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