Saturday, February 15, 2014

DVD Review: The Expendables 2

I wrote my original DVD Review of the first The Expendables (2010) film on the eve of the theatrical release of The Expendables 2 (2012). Obviously, the second film has been available on DVD for quite some time and The Expendables 3 won't be released in the theaters until next August. The opportunity to rent The Expendables 2 at my local public library presented itself and so I took advantage of it, hoping I wouldn't regret my decision.

Actually, I almost passed up this DVD. I've avoided similar opportunities in the past simply because I wasn't all that enthralled with the first film. I figured, like most sequels, that the second film would be a downgraded version of the first with lots of violence and gore, but little else, capitalizing on what its targeted fan-base loves most.

I wasn't wrong, but that's why I think this movie is better than its predecessor. It doesn't pretend to be something it's not.

The first film was trying to find a soul for itself, something beyond the sheer gratuitous violence that is characterized in most of its frames. It almost succeeded but that "almost" painfully accentuated that what was attempted had ultimately failed. In this sequel, Stallone stuck to what works for this franchise. Don't deal too much with the characters as human beings or try to examine their histories or motives. Just stick to the mission and watch the body count climb.

There's one exception of course, "Billy the Kid" (Liam Hemsworth) a young ex-Army sniper who joined the team because of the promise of quick and abundant cash which he needed to marry his French girlfriend. He was given a sympathetic back story and a likable personality because his brutal death at the hands of the main bad guy Jean Vilain (Jean-Claude Van Damme), is what motivates most of the action in the film.

If you've already seen this movie (and I'll tell you even if you haven't), you know after the opening sequence where the team rescues a Chinese millionaire as well as Barney Ross's (Sylvester Stallone) mercenary rival Trench Mauser (Arnold Schwarzennegger) in Nepal, CIA Agent Church (Bruce Willis) "convinces" Ross to undertake what was supposed to be a "milk run" mission in Albania to retrieve a piece of undescribed tech from an downed aircraft. Church sends along agent Maggie Chan (Yu Nan) as the expert who will retrieve the tech for return to the CIA.

Ross, as always, is unhappy with having a female involved, probably because of his history of getting all the women around him killed due to his violent occupation, but he acts more hurt than angry. It's always interesting watching Stallone attempt to act as if his characters have a "sensitive side." It's usually the part in his films where I want to scream, "Just kill somebody, already!"

One flight to Albania later, the tech is retrieved but Billy's captured by Vilain and his gang of mercs. The Expendables have no choice but to hand over the computer (more on that in a minute) to save Billy's life. Here, Vilain establishes himself as a villain by killing Billy anyway and then he and his gang of thugs quickly escape in a helicopter (too bad Trench wasn't there to yell, "To the choppah!"

Maggie belatedly reveals to Ross that the device Vilain has reveals the location of five tons of refined plutonium hidden by the former Soviet Union. The Expendables manage to follow the signal of the device but only get so far on their own.

Ambushed after spending the night in an abandoned Soviet military base across the border in Bulgaria, the third "special guest" after Schwarzenegger and Willis appears. Ross's mysterious friend Booker (Chuck Norris) appears out of nowhere to annihilate the gang attacking the Expendables, including their tank, in just a matter of seconds. Then, after a few cute quips, this "Lone Wolf" disappears again, but not before giving Ross and company the location of a village of allies to help them find and stop Vilain's gang known as "the Sangs."

The Sangs have been raiding the village to use all of the men and boys as slave labor to dig up the plutonium. The Expendables make quick and violent work of the Sangs who again raid the village for more slaves, and then find Vilain and the rest of his crew at the cave, just in time for the bad guys to all escape with the plutonium and to trap the Expendables and the former slaves in a cave-in triggered by explosions.

You find out a few things about Gunner Jensen and the actor who plays him, Dolph Lundgren. To quote Wikipedia:
Volatile member of the team, undone by years of combat stress and alcohol abuse. Lundgren's personal history (including his chemical engineering degree) were incorporated into the character's story by Stallone.
Jensen tries to make a bomb to free the Expendables but predictably, it's a dud. Fortunately, Trench and Church arrive with a digging machine at this point in the story, and the gang chase the Sangs to a local airport. Joined again by Booker, there's an all out battle where the Sangs are wiped out, Lee Christmas (Jason Statham) is given the honor of dispatching Hector (Scott Adkins), Vilain's right-hand man who you learn to hate almost as much as Vilain, and Ross goes up against Vilain himself mano-a-mano to get revenge for Billy's death (and who cares about stopping an international terrorist from getting out of the country with five tons of weapons-grade plutonium?).

The film is watchable, surprisingly so since it's also really predictable. It's fun because of the appearances by Schwarzenegger, Willis, and Norris, each mugging for the camera and saying each other's "tag lines" from their other movies. Besides the kick ass violence, it's why anyone would watch this film. It's like one long gag or series of punch lines. If you like a lot of blood, gunfire, and explosions, this is your kind of entertainment.

The Expendables franchise is also sort of a "good guy Stallone" project which I have to admire:
Sylvester Stallone explained that his casting was looking particularly for actors who had not experienced recent hits: "I like using people that had a moment and then maybe have fallen on some hard times and give them another shot. I like those kinds of guys. Someone did it for me and I like to see if I can do it for them." -from imdb.com
Ross tries to be the best "good guy" as leader of the Expendables, given the fact that the team is made up primarily of dysfunctional mercs who would never be able to live "normal lives" like most of their movie audience. Stallone is the mirror image in terms of being a "good guy" by opening opportunities to actors who otherwise might not have the ability to advance or even sustain their careers.

Don't look for too much reality in this movie or any others like it. Watching the huge battle at the airport, I caught myself wondering where airport security, the police, or even the Army were hiding. In real life, a major gun battle between a team of mercs and terrorists with a cargo of plutonium hanging in the balance would have gotten someone's attention. At least the passengers and other civilians in the terminal had the good sense to run rather than just stand there and get shot down.

Norris's character appears, disappears, and reappears like a ghost. He has no back story, there is no explanation for his presence, and his ability to take on and defeat impossible odds is very much in line with what has become known as Chuck Norris facts.

At the beginning of the film when the Expendables rescue Trench, it is presumed that Trench was there in a failed attempt to rescue the Chinese hostage. Trench even mentions that his own team were hanging back, but when the Expendables, Trench, and the hostage all escape in a rain of bombs and bullets, we see no evidence that any of Trench's force is around or ever had been.

At one point in the film, Maggie tries to get close to Ross, and this is Ross's cue to explain why he keeps women at a distance. It's an attempt to introduce some of Ross's humanity into the narrative (and I guess you can only blow up so much stuff in an 103 minute film) but the scene just fills space until the next battle begins. As I said, the movie works precisely because it has no soul or depth. It's just what you want and expect: action and gags.

Near the beginning of the film, Yin Yang (Jet Li) has to bail out of Ross's plane with the former hostage to return him to his home (Li had a scheduling conflict and could only be present for the filming of the opening sequence). At one point, he and Jensen trade barbs and Yang says that if Jensen misses him, he can find some other minority to torment. Apparently, this doesn't translate into Chinese women, because later in the movie, Jensen clumsily attempts to flirt with Maggie (unless you count that as torment, too).

At the climax of the film, Ross confronts Vilain to get his revenge for Billy's death. Vilain is unarmed except for the huge and ugly knife he previously took from Ross. Ross has firearms, but he lets Vilain's "fight like men or sheep" speech get to him. In real life, tossing your guns aside to fight a homicidal maniac hand to hand as a matter of pride is dumb. Even though this is good guy (anti-hero) vs. bad guy, there's no guarantee that you are going to win. If Ross wanted to humiliate Vilain as well as kill him, he could have just said "Bullshit" to the "men or sheep" business, and started out by blowing off both of Vilain's kneecaps. Then, until you run low on ammo, keep shooting this jerk in various non-lethal areas of the body to maximize pain and then, when done, put one between his eyes to make sure he'll never come back for the third film.

Sadly, in attacking the cave, Ross chooses to sacrifice his Grumman HU-16 Albatross. Such a beautiful and classic aircraft. It was probably the thing I liked the most in the first two films. To make up for being such a shmuck during most of the film, Church gives Ross a replacement: an Antonov An-2 biplane. Not as classic to be sure, but I'm interested to see how it'll figure into the third movie. Yeah, I'll probably watch it...but not until it comes out on DVD...cheap.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Update: 2013

I can't believe I haven't written here since last August.

Well, yes I can. I've been busy in other areas of my life, so the "Missing Man," by necessity, had to stay missing, apart from twitter.

I had wanted to write a DVD review of Skyfall (2012) but then time passed and I didn't have the film in the forefront of my thoughts to be able to write a credible article. I've seen The Avengers (2012) and The Dark Knight Rises (2012) again, but what would I say about these films that I haven't said before. The same is true of my recent viewing of Man of Steel (2013).

On the other hand, I've avoided viewing Star Trek Into Darkness and Iron Man 3 (both 2013) on DVD because although they were entertaining films, I didn't feel like spending even a little of my cold, hard cash on reviewing lukewarm experiences.

On recommendation of a friend, I did watch and thoroughly enjoy Red (2010). It was a fun romp with a bunch of aging badasses and on that theme, a better viewing than The Expendables (2010). Not enough new, young action heroes so we have to keep recycling the old ones.

And then, just the other night, I watched Taken (2008) for the first time. The young woman at the rental place said she watched it with her Dad all the time as the "perfect father-daughter movie." All I knew was the famous line parodied in all the memes:
Brian: I don't know who you are. I don't know what you want. If you are looking for ransom, I can tell you I don't have money. But what I do have are a very particular set of skills; skills I have acquired over a very long career. Skills that make me a nightmare for people like you. If you let my daughter go now, that'll be the end of it. I will not look for you, I will not pursue you. But if you don't, I will look for you, I will find you, and I will kill you.
And kill them he does. I don't know about the "perfect father-daughter movie," but it was a watchable action film. Bunch of plot holes such as how he and his daughter make it out of France without being arrested since Brian kills something like 35 people through the course of the film. Or what about his daughter's traveling companion? After Brian finds her dead of an overdose, that's the end of it. No one cares about her. No one worries about telling her parents she won't be coming home. Who takes care of the body count?

I'm finally in the 10th season of my Smallville (2001-2011) reviewing. I have to say that at this point, I'm getting ready for it to end again. On the other hand, I find that I've gotten very used to Clark and Lois together, now that Clark's secret is out. But the story arcs are uneven, Ollie's whining about Chloe is getting on my nerves, and I just don't buy that Tess, who has murdered more than a few people in cold blood, just gets a pass and is now one of the good guys.

I'm considering watching The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011) tonight (never seen it before) even though I have to get up early tomorrow. I watched Mr. and Mrs. Smith (2005) last night because it was the shorter of the two films and I was tired. Not bad on the subsequent viewing, but I kept thinking how much Angelina Jolie looks like her Dad Jon Voight when she makes certain facial expressions.

I did have a lot of fun watching the first two seasons of Batman Beyond (1999-2001) as well as the first season of Batman: The Animated Series (1992-1995). They were more a trip down nostalgia lane, but Kevin Conroy still is the voice of Bruce Wayne and Batman. In a way, I like Conroy's old Bruce in "Batman Beyond" better. He's more vulnerable since he's an old man, but his emotions are much less transparent, which makes him more like Batman than ever psychologically.

That's about it for now. Just a few weeks left until 2014 and a whole new year of films to look forward to, though I'll watch only a small number on the big screen.

Friday, August 2, 2013

DVD Review: Marvel Knights, Astonishing X-Men

From Joss Whedon, the Mastermind Behind the Acclaimed TV Series Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Firefly, and Award-Winning Artist John Cassaday Comes the Ultimate Story of Mutant Survival!
 
When Dr. Kavita Rao develops a controversial mutant cure, Professor Charles Xavier's X-Men, the aggressive Wolverine, conflicted Beast and newly returned Kitty Pryde, led by Cyclops and Emma Frost, once again find themselves battling against science, prejudice and a mysterious new foe named Ord! Can the X-Men protect the mutants of the world against this powerful new alien menace and the concoction that threatens to rid them of their unique abilities?
 
With smart storytelling, incredible action, startling revelations and the reemergence of old friends, this Will Eisner Award winner for Best Continuing Series will have you on the edge of your seat like never before with truly astonishing animated motion co-directed by artist John Cassaday and the legendary Neal Adams himself! 
 
Editorial Review for Astonishing X-Men - Gifted (Marvel Knights) (2009)
 
Sometimes your local public library can have some interesting videos. Last week, I discovered mine had the Astonishing X-Men Gifted, Dangerous, and Torn motion comics (at least, that's what they're called. The videos are taken from the graphic novels of the same name. Having never read the graphic novels, I can only assume the story lines are the same or markedly similar.

However, I had to read up on the Marvel Knights imprint to find out that these stories were taking place in one of a collection of Marvel Universes (comic books are becoming way to complicated, in my opinion).

In brief, this trio of videos forms an entire, unbroken sequence of stories starting with Kitty Pryde's (Sprite, Shadowcat) return to Charles Xavier's school as an adult after an absence of some time. Although Cyclops (Scott Summers) is currently running the school and is the leader of the X-Men, the story is largely Kitty's story. She's the heroine on more than one occasion and the person who seems to be seeing with the clearest eyes.

Jean Grey (Marvel Girl, Phoenix, Dark Phoenix) is dead and the Professor is on a sabbatical at some initially unknown location. The other X-Men are Hank McCoy (the furry blue version of the Beast), Logan (the recently returned Wolverine), Emma Frost (the White Queen) and eventually Peter Rasputin (Colossus). Since the audience is thrust into the sequence of events mid-stream, we pick up details as the action moves along.

The videos seem geared to an older audience, as evidenced most clearly by the sexual scenes involving Scott and Emma. Nothing pornographic, but you see them in bed together in fairly little clothing and leaving almost nothing to the imagination. Also, at one point, Wolverine starts swearing. No, you don't hear the words, but you hear a lot of bleeping, during one sequence for about ten seconds solid, so you know he's unhappy.

The X-Men are apparently trying to recover as a team both in terms of public image and motivation at the beginning of the story. The school is like how Xavier's school is treated in the live action X-Men film series with the X-Men being the core team and the school's instructors but with a large number of young mutant students who play supporting roles in both the film series and this motion comic series.

The series ties directly into the larger world of Marvel characters with a cameo appearance by the Fantastic Four and an ongoing presence by SHIELD.

There are a number of subplots including the aftermath of a genocidal event which claimed the life of Kitty's father among millions of others, and which seems to have involved both the Sentinels and the X-Men. This is where the Professor has chosen to go, leaving the X-Men behind (he never rejoins them at the Mansion during the three-disc series.

The story arc that crosses all three discs is the prediction that one X-Man will be responsible for the destruction of an alien world. Someone from that world was sent to Earth to kill all the X-Men, since it's unsure which one will be "the destroyer of worlds." SHIELD is charged with stopping the alien but also finding the "guilty" X-Men, and it's unsure if one rogue agent and her team may not try to take the X-Men out themselves to prevent an interstellar war.

Within this context, other subplots occur, including the Danger Room becoming sentient and reforming itself as a feminized, humanized robot and trying to destroy the X-Men (and all of the students) by exploiting their weaknesses which "Danger" (the humanoid version of the Danger Room) knows all too well.

Emma Frost is something of an "X" factor within the team since she originally was a member of the Hellfire Club. It's revealed at the end of "Dangerous" that she is still in league with her former partners for some insidious purpose, but she's conflicted (of course) because she really does love Scott (even though she takes away his powers and reduces him to a drooling idiot in "Torn."

The stories are all reasonably compelling and the "acting" isn't bad. Each disc is made up of about six "chapters" running around fifteen minutes each (sometimes it seems that the opening and ending credits of each chapter go longer than the actual story). The animation seems choppy and especially in the opening sequence, the X-Men move more like robots than people, but I think that's an effect of this series being "motion comics" as opposed to straight up animation.

In addition to how the school and students are presented, other similarities to the films include a cure for mutation, the death of Jean Grey, and sinister Government forces threatening to destroy the X-Men. SHIELD even has a mole inside the school (I won't give the identity away and its only revealed late in "Torn".
 
Oh, one more similarity is that Scott is pretty much a stooge and an ineffectual jerk in both the films and the motion comic series. He's a tad more heroic in these videos, but not by much. Emma even confronts him about how Xavier only made Scott the leader because he felt sorry for Scott. Scott doesn't deny it.

Apparently Jean's death breaks him completely and he never emerges as the hero and leader he was (though still admittedly conflicted) in the original comic book incarnation.

The series is definitely watchable but if there is a back story that explains what's going on and what lead up to this sequence of events, I don't know about it (which is no surprise because I don't really keep up on the comic book universes...who has the time or the disposable income?). I was disappointed when I saw that "Torn" ends on a cliff hanger. We discover who the "destroyer" is and that destruction of the alien world is coming soon, but with the launch into space of a SHIELD spaceship trying to head off the disaster, that's all she wrote...literally.

Both the graphic novel set and the series of videos include only "Gifted," "Dangerous," and "Torn" without any subsequent products, so either the story was continued in some older series which was eventually collected as graphic novels, or (hopefully) the cliffhanger will be resolved at some future date.

The creation date for the videos runs 2009-2012, so they're recent. My interest and curiosity is piqued. I want to see what happens next. I think you will, too.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Film Review: The Man of Steel

I'm in a little bit of shock. I don't usually see movies so close to their release date. Nevertheless, on Sunday, July 7th, I was sitting in a local movie theatre watching Man of Steel (2013). I couldn't have been happier.

A word of warning, especially if you haven't seen the film yet (and I highly recommend that you do). I'm going to be dropping spoilers all over the place. If you don't like surprises ruined, then save this review until after you've seen the film. Remember, you have been warned.

I love this movie. I really do. It's not a perfect film but it's very, very close. As far as superhero films go, I thought The Dark Knight (2008) completely nailed it, and Heath Ledger's portrayal of the Joker sent it over the top. I thought The Avengers (2012) was just as good, although in a completely different style. I'd have to say that Man of Steel comes very, very close to equaling those two other movies with just a few small problems.

First things first, though.

The Movie

Man of Steel starts out with a bang, almost literally. We're on the planet Krypton. The son of Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and Lara (Ayelet Zurer), Kal-El (when referred to by his Kryptonian name, he's called "Kal" most of the time) is the first natural birth on their planet in centuries. He doesn't have much time to enjoy that distinction.

The planet Krypton is about to explode. This is straight from Superman canon going back at least fifty years. Jor-El confronts the planetary council and begs them to take the only option they have left after centuries of consuming the core of their now unstable planet: space travel. One hundred thousand years past, Krypton had a thriving system of space colonies. They eventually became a more introspective and even xenophobic race and withdrew from space, abandoning all the colony worlds. If they don't revive that tradition and very quickly, the planet's explosion will destroy the Kryptonian civilization.

The old guard in the council refuse to accept this. Jor-El speaks to deaf ears. But General Zod (Michael Shannon) has another plan. Violent overthrow of the government in order to save the essence of what Krypton is. Jor-El approves of saving Kryptonians but not by bloodshed.

Lots of action ensues and not only does Jor-El illegally launch his newborn son into space, but he sends the stolen codex, the genetic record of all Kryptonians, into the void with him, rocketing to an unnamed planet with a yellow sun.

In the battle to prevent Zod from stopping the launch, Jor-El is killed. Zod and his commanders, including Faora-Ul (Antje Traue), are captured and condemned to the Negative Zone. With her husband dead and her son sent into an uncertain future on an alien planet, Lara lives long enough to mourn before being killed along with her entire species as her native world explodes.

A space warp opens and a ship emerges just outside Saturn's orbit. The ship negotiates the rest of its journey with remarkable speed, passing Earth's moon and then entering the atmosphere...

...shift to the present on a fishing boat where a mysterious man with a beard is working, although this is hardly the sort of job he's used to. An emergency call from a burning oil platform. Men trapped inside. The stranger disappears from the boat and the trapped men are confronted by a shirtless man standing in the naked flames unburned...one who can rip a steel door open with his bare hands.

They all make it out and onto a rescue helicopter in time except for the stranger, who manages to keep the flaming, melting superstructure of the rig from collapsing on the aircraft until it can take off.

Clark Kent's (Henry Cavill) life story is told from present to past and back to present in a series of flashbacks. As the stranger travels from town to town in the frozen north, he picks up clues to the mystery he's searching for...an artifact of some kind trapped in a glacier over ten-thousand years old.

He's a quiet man, almost serene at times. He wants to help, even when it's not appreciated. He doesn't quite fit in. He keeps moving.

Enter Lois Lane (Amy Adams) by helicopter at the arctic site where the American military and scientists, including Dr. Emil Hamilton, still can't find a way to investigate whatever is buried in the ice. She almost doesn't notice a worker named "Joe" who is assigned to carry her luggage.

That is, until she sees him later that night outside in the sub-zero weather wearing no coat. She follows him. It almost kills her.

Besides the ship, Clark came from Krypton with two artifacts: the codex and a key displaying his family crest. Clark burns his way through the ice and into what turns out to be an ancient Kryptonian scout ship. He activates the ship with the key and his father's "personality" is uploaded. Jor-El answers all of Kal's questions. Lois isn't so lucky since the ship's security identifies her as an alien.

Clark saves her...the first of many times. He places the wounded woman outside where she's quickly found by others. The ship launches and then lands in another part of the arctic, this time without witnesses. Jor-El tells Kal of his destiny, gives him the undersuit to the battle armor worn by the House of El. It's a suit that is unmistakably familiar to generations of people in search of a hero.

We learn in flashbacks that Clark's amazing calm (no, he's not emotionless) is a result of how his parents brought him up. His mother Martha (Diane Lane) helped young Clark overcome the debilitating sensory overload when the vast information gathering power of his eyes and ears turned on all at once.

His father Jonathan (Kevin Costner) was hard on Clark, desperate to protect him, and he's the one who taught Clark to endure any abuse or insult, no matter how harsh, as opposed to using his vast power to strike back, which would not only kill, but expose young Clark to a government that would most assuredly exploit or destroy him if they knew of his existence.

But sometimes young Clark had to help. A blow out of a school bus tire sends the vehicle over the side of a bridge and into a river. Everyone is going to drown...except one young teenage boy. He's the boy who pushes the bus back onto the bank and then dives under the water to pull out Pete Ross (the teen version played by Jack Foley), who only minutes before had been teasing him.

Jonathan and Martha later try to calm Pete's mother down as she rants on about how Lana (Jadin Gould), Pete, and several other kids saw what Clark did. After all, how could any human being, especially a thirteen year old boy, push a school bus out of a river? This isn't the first time Clark's done something like this, but it's rare enough that it only attracts local attention...for now.

As an adult, Clark has an almost supernatural calm. But he's not perfect. When he's bullied by some drunk in a bar, Clark just walks away. But when the trucker walks outside, his rig is a twisted mess, tangled with cable and tree trunks. Apparently Clark can lose his cool, but only when no one can see and so that no one gets hurt.

When Perry White (Laurence Fishburne) refuses to print Lois's story about the alien stranger and the ancient spacecraft in the Daily Planet, she goes on a personal quest, starting with "Joe" at the arctic site and working backwards, searching records for mention of a dark stranger, a loner with a penchant for helping, and who sometimes seems more than human.

Apparently, it's not hard to follow the trail, which leads the reporter straight to Smallville, Kansas, restaurant manager Pete Ross (as an adult played by Joseph Cranford), and finally, Martha Kent.

Lois meets Clark again at his father's grave. She knows who he is now. And because of who he is, she kills her story. She'll never tell anyone about him as long as she lives...if she can help it.

It might have ended there if not for the message from a ship from the stars: "You are not alone." When Krypton exploded, the Phantom Zone was opened and Zod and his commanders were freed. They converted the "phantom drive" of the prison ship to a warp drive and then searched the old, long dead colony worlds for decades, picking up old technology, looking for the lost Kal-El, until Clark's entrance into the scout ship activated a signal and led Zod straight to Earth.

This is when the world learns that they have had an alien in their midst for thirty-three years. This is when they find out if he's a threat or a hero.

That's really the point of the movie in many ways. Ten and twelve year old boys in 1938 wouldn't have asked themselves how we'd all react if we really found out we weren't alone in the universe. They wouldn't have wondered how the human race would respond to an alien "Superman" whose powers would make it all too easy for him to kill millions. They'd have assumed he was good and a hero and a lot of fun to read about. They wouldn't have a clue how a flawed and panicky mankind would really see a stranger from the stars who could "bend steel in his bare hands."

The love story between Kal and Lois is handled well. She does name him "Superman" in a lull in the action, after Kal surrenders himself to the military and before he is surrendered to Zod in exchange for Zod not destroying Earth. They only finally kiss near the end of the film but the magnetism between them is obvious and forged by her search for his story and her integrity in keeping his secret.

It's Lois who saves Kal on Zod's ship where the Kryptonian environment maintained on board weakens the would be "Man of Steel" and even makes him sick. She uses the key given to her by Kal, since she was turned over to Zod as well, to upload Jor-El, and the simulation of Kal-El's father sends her off the ship in an escape pod along with the secret Jor-El teaches her of returning Zod and his crew back to the Phantom Zone.

Jor-El reprograms the environment on the ship for Earth normal, and Kal's powers are back...but not before a blood sample is taken, which is important later on.

Superman rescues Lois from her damaged space pod and sets her down on Earth. But the battle is on. Zod and his team come to Earth, to Smallville. They want Kal's ship and the codex that is supposed to be inside.

The problem is not only how Superman is supposed to handle numerous super-powered Kryptonian soldiers, all wearing battle armor. It's also how the U.S. military considers all Kryptonian's a threat, including Kal. The human weapons can't really hurt him but the betrayal can, especially since he gave up everything to protect them.

However, after the immediate battle is finished and Kal exploits the one weakness the Kryptonians are sure to have and sends them back to their ship, General Swanwick (Harry Lennix) tells his troops, "this man is not our enemy."

This is also where Clark's calm and his father's love and trust pay off. After the fight is over, Kal pushes the wreckage aside and finds dozens of American troops all pointing their weapons at him. He looks at them. He's serene, almost parental. He slowly, calmly walks up to them and past them. They can't fire. Everyone is in awe of him, not just his powers, but how almost godlike he is.

"This man is not our enemy." It's the first time Kal-El becomes Superman, Earth's greatest protector.

Lois shares the secret of stopping Zod and his lieutenants with Kal. It involves Kal's ship and the Kryptonian key. It may be too late. Zod uses his ship in tandem with something called a "World Engine" to attempt to change Earth's environment into Krypton's. Zod discovered one unpleasant thing in Smallville. Kal's ship didn't contain the codex. His blood sample revealed that Jor-El had encoded all of Kal's cells with the genetics of millions of Kryptonians. They could be used to restore their race using the Genesis chamber in the scout ship. But doing that would exterminate all terrain life...including human beings.

All Zod has to do is kill the son of his enemy and take his blood to make his race live again. It's all Zod knows how to do. It's the one thing that gives Kal the advantage. On Krypton, everyone is artificially nurtured from conception to birth. All their characteristics including their role in society are predetermined. This was true of even Jor-El and Lara, just as it is true of Zod. Kal-El was the first natural birth on Krypton in centuries. Of all Kryptonians, only Kal-El is free to choose his own destiny. It's what saves his life when, after the rest of the Kryptonian soldiers are sent back to the Zone, he is faced with battling a desperate and incredibly dangerous General Zod alone.

Kal-El wins. Superman wins. The world is saved. But the cost is horrible. Kal has to give up everything. His ship, the scout ship. All of Zod's technology. Even the key bearing the crest of the House of El. All that is left of Krypton is its last son...and the DNA of his race now trapped in his body, with no way to release them, to regrow them, to restore their lives. Perhaps even his mother and father are somewhere inside of him.

There's one more cost, the worst of all. In order to save people, Kal had to take a life. It devastates him. But Lois is there to comfort him.

Man of Steel is a virtual rollercoaster ride of action and is paced wonderfully so that the more "narrative" portions of the film take nothing away. I especially loved Clark's relationship with his father Jonathan. As an older teen, Clark chafed at being controlled but in the end, his father, who was also a very calm and parental man, was always right. Even on the day he died.

Heroes

Superman wasn't the only hero. The world was full of them. OK, to be fair, there were also a lot of jerks in the movie, which was part of Clark's problem. When Zod gives him only twenty-four hours to surrender to the authorities, Clark doesn't know what to do. Are human beings worth it? He's an alien but he was raised in Kansas. He turns to the only authority who he thinks can help him, a Priest in a church.

I'm glad this scene was included. Clark was raised by a farm family in a small town in the middle of Kansas. His values from a young age were almost certainly conservative and he probably went to church as a child. Hollywood has been phobic about having their heroes be religious for decades now for fear of offending someone, but the movie, television, and comic book media abandon and important aspect of many people's reality by enforcing a politically correct (and real world incorrect) view of our world.

In his context, church is the only place where Clark could learn why it was right for him to surrender to save a people who might end up hating him just for who he is. The priest, once learning that he's in the same room with a potentially dangerous alien, maintains his composure (after a moment of total shock) and tells Clark that we have to have faith before we can earn trust. It's that message that enables Clark to do the most heroic thing he's ever done...protect the human race even if they aren't worth it.

Except they are.

Jonathan Kent dies when his son Clark is seventeen years old. There's a sudden tornado. Traffic is backed up. Jonathan sends Clark to shelter under a freeway overpass to protect his mother while Jonathan helps rescue other people. Something goes wrong. Jonathan's caught out in the open with a broken ankle. He'll never get to safety in time. Clark struggles against a lifetime of inhibition against using his powers and almost races forward to save the only father he's ever known.

Then he sees his father. Jonathan looks right at Clark and calmly, quietly raises his hand telling Clark to stop. He's almost smiling at his son when the tornado strikes. Clark let his father die because he trusted that his Dad knew what was right. As much as anyone, Jonathan Kent lived and died to show his son what being a hero was all about.

Perry White is a hero. In the destruction caused by Zod's ship and the World Engine, as gravity is turned upside down and inside out, a Planet staffer is caught under some rubble. There isn't time to get her out and destruction is coming. Perry and reporter Steve Lombard could still run away and survive, but then the young woman would die alone. They stay. And halfway around the world, an all but exhausted Superman stops the World Engine just in time.

Colonel Nathan Hardy (Christopher Meloni) is a hero. He's a soldier, so you short of suspect he should be, but even knowing how impossible it is to stop any Kryptonian soldier, he still goes toe to toe with Faora...with a knife. She tells him that a good death is its own reward. A line he'll use against her at their next and last meeting. Even more than General Swanwick, I liked Hardy. At first, I thought he'd be a typical Army hardass, but he was always at the front of the action, never shirking risks his men were taking, protecting them, protecting his people.

Even Emil Hamilton was a hero, on board a crippled aircraft activating Kal's ship at the last second so it could be used to send the Kryptonians back to the Phantom Zone.

Lois Lane is a hero. She kept a secret that if revealed, would have made her internationally famous overnight (true, she'd already won the Pulitzer Prize for Journalism). At first it was out of respect, but eventually it would be love that turned a hard nosed and jaded reporter into a woman with a conscience who would sacrifice even her career for the hero we don't deserve but desperately need.

A Few Problems

Superman supposedly gets his abilities from sunlight. Somehow, his biology allows him to absorb the rays of the yellow sun, store their energy, and turn it into the source for his amazing powers. He generates a field around his body that makes him invulnerable and enables him to fly. Sunlight also powers his strength and his sensory abilities. He can even survive for brief periods in orbital space (and who knows what his limits are in this universe?).

So why does Kryptonian air and Kryptonian gravity suddenly make him weak, sick, and have him spitting up blood?

Here's a much bigger problem. Clark shouldn't have a secret anymore.

It seemed almost easy for Lois to start at the arctic base and work her way backward through Clark's history, eventually tracing him to Smallville. Pete Ross remembered Clark and when Superman crashed into his diner during the battle with the Kryptonians, Pete looks right at his face and knows who he is.

Martha Kent told Lois about her son. I don't know why she trusted Lois.

After Kal rescues Lois from the burning space pod when they escaped from Zod's ship, he leaves her by a country road to go battle Zod who had invaded his mother's farm. Lois gets a ride from a passing police car. They take her to the Kent farm where they can obviously see a costumed Clark Kent talking with his mother.

Later, when its discovered that Kal's ship is the secret to sending the Kryptonian criminals back into the Phantom Zone, the military just retrieve it from the storm cellar under the Kent's barn.

And at the very end of the film, when General Swanwick is asking Superman how he could ever be sure Kal wouldn't turn against American interests, the last son of Krypton replies, "I was raised in Kansas. I'm about as American as you can get."

Duh!

But at the very, very end, Perry White introduces a new stringer to Lois and Steve Lombard and asks them to show him the ropes. It's Clark Kent in a suit and glasses and a winning smile.

Humor

A number of the other reviews I've read of this film have complained that Man of Steel lacks the ability to make fun of itself, that it's too dark, too serious. I know my fear was that too much camp would be inserted into the movie and I'm thankful I was wrong, but most critics say movies about Superman need to have the ability to poke a little fun at themselves.

But this movie does that. I guess no one was paying attention.

The first time Martha sees Clark in his costume, she wryly comments, "Nice suit."

When Kal turned himself in to the military, he was handcuffed. He's sitting in a room talking with Lois while being watched by a lot of soldiers including General Swanwick. He can see all of them and standing to address them, Superman tells them they are afraid of him because they can't control him. He punctuates that statement by breaking the handcuffs, startling everyone behind the glass.

This may have been unintentional, but in the final battle with Zod, the General finally strips off his battle armor revealing his under suit...which looks a lot like Kal's except it has no cape. At one point Zod, having recently learned how to fly, grabs Superman's cape and uses it to whip Clark around and throw him several hundred feet into a building. Inside my head, I heard a tiny voice whisper "no capes."

When new reporter Clark Kent is introduced to Lois Lane for the first time, she says, "Welcome to the Planet," obviously referencing his being from another planet.

British Henry Cavill playing Superman tells General Swanwick that he's as American as they come. That's got to be worth a chuckle.

There weren't a lot of jokes in the movie. It wasn't that kind of film. But I did see that Man of Steel was able to wink at itself from time to time.

Smallville Television Show

There were a few tie-ins but just a few. In the Smallville TV show, Dr. Emil Hamilton is played by actor Alessandro Juliani. In Man of Steel, Juliani plays a minor role as Officer Sekowsky, a technician at the site where the Kryptonian scout ship was found.

Of course, actress Amy Adams plays Lois Lane in the film. However, she also played a high school student in the first season Smallville TV episode Craving (2001).

I know when this film was first announced, an overwhelming number of fans of the Smallville show demanded that Tom Welling and Erica Durance play Clark/Superman and Lois Lane respectively.

Having seen the film, it's tone, it's personality, I just can't see those two fine actors pulling it off the way Henry Cavill and Amy Adams played Clark and Lois. Welling was a great teenage Clark Kent, but even though Cavill is only six years older than Welling, the Smallville actor's youthful face wouldn't have carried over into the maturity that Cavill brought to the role. Cavill is young enough to communicate charm, especially once he puts on the glasses, but old enough to be Superman. Even though during the final episode of Smallville, the Superman suit was CG-ed onto Welling's body, it never seemed to fit.

As far as Durance vs. Adams as Lois, Durance patterned a lot of her portrayal of the role after Margot Kidder's Lois from the Christopher Reeves Superman movies. Lois was disorganized, impulsive, scatter-brained, and she couldn't spell. While Durance played Lois a little more seriously than Kidder, she was never a "real" reporter. Adams brought a serious human being into the film. True, as time progressed, Adams seemed just a tad "sappy" every time Kal was around, but she could bring both a hard edge and competency to her Lois Lane. Durance might have been able to do the same, but the fans would have freaked if she was the same face but a different personality.

Also, Smallville was largely derivative from the earlier Superman films and Man of Steel needed to be a clean reboot. And it was.

DC Universe

Two small tie-ins to the larger DC world. We see a truck with the LexCorp logo on it, promising a future appearance of that company's dastardly CEO. The satellite that Kal and Zod crash into during their final battle had a Wayne Enterprise logo. Either Batman already exists in Kal's world or he soon will.

I know this was long. It's longer than I intended it to be. I had a lot to say about this movie, but I'll sum it up in just a few words. If you haven't seen Man of Steel yet, go! It's worth it. It's the must see movie of the summer of 2013.

Friday, July 5, 2013

Review: Iron Man 3

It wasn't as bad as Iron Man 2 (2010) but not quite up to the original Iron Man (2008) film. Of course, it's trying to tell a more complicated story than the original film and it's trying to show us the humanity of Tony Stark. So who is Iron Man: man or machine...or both?

That's really the main question this film is asking and trying to answer, which is why we don't see Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) in his armor for most of the film. However, when this movie finally gets rolling, we have armor up the wazoo!

But first things first.

The movie starts in the dark with Stark's narration, "A wise man once said: we make our own demons." This is important but you don't realize it right away. I'll get to that.

Stark decides to start his story on New Year's Eve 1999 in Bern, Switzerland. He's trying to get a brilliant research scientist named Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall) into bed for a one-night stand and all she wants to do is talk about her latest experiment in reprogramming the human brain to amplify a person's ability to self-repair dramatically. Tony seems too drunk to notice or care, but he's brilliant enough to not let that stop him, either in his quest to get her into the sack (which he does) or to help her with her technical problem (which he also does, but we don't find out until later).

OK, she's interested in bedding Tony too, after they get rid of the overly attentive Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau). Tony's also promised to meet with the newly minted inventor of AIM (that's right, Advanced Idea Mechanics...the bad guys) Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce with a really bad haircut and a hopelessly fan boy attitude in the 1999 sequence) on the roof of the hotel, but that was a total lie. Booze and sex drive Tony Stark at this point in his life.

All this is to set the stage for the present where we pick up the loose threads left dangling on the morning of January 1st, 2000.

As a nice homage to the first film, we get to see the brief appearance of a very beloved character (at least to me) in the opening few minutes of the 1999 sequence. Watch for him.

Shift to the present or close to it: the Christmas season 2012 (presumably). Happy has been upgraded to Chief of Security at Stark International, Pepper is handling the day to day running of the empire, and Tony...Tony's a mess.

He has been ever since the end of The Avengers (2012), but then again, escorting a live nuke into another dimension and almost getting stranded there, and then, having gotten back out, almost falling to his death, all have a way of negatively impacting a person. In Tony's case, he's prone to panic attacks (they don't last long enough to qualify as anxiety attacks).

Pepper's moved into the Malibu mansion with him, but that only helps a little. Night after night he can hardly sleep and he spends most of his time building a wide variety of super-powered armor prototypes. The latest is Mark 42, which on command, will leap into the air in pieces and slap themselves onto Tony's body (it's not a perfect process).

But then he finds something to focus on besides the past, his anxiety, and his uncertainty. The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley). The Mandarin seems to have it in for America in general and the American President in particular. So much so that he needs to blow up lots of American stuff, including the TCL Chinese Theatre in Hollywood.

Long story short, the formerly dweeby Aldrich (with a much better haircut and tons more confidence) visits Pepper at SI to pitch "his" technology for hacking into the human brain to enhance healing and performance (sound familiar). Pepper turns it down since it can all too easily be weaponized (something SI doesn't do anymore). Security Chief Hogan gets suspicious of Aldrich and his henchman Savin (James Badge Dale) and follows them to the aforementioned Chinese Theatre...

...where he discovers how the Mandarin blows up things...not with bombs but with genetically altered people...

...and ends up in a coma (don't worry, he gets better by the end of the movie).

This is where it becomes personal for Tony and he challenges the Mandarin on TV to a duel, giving out his home address (as if the entire world could miss that giant half factory/half work of art in Malibu hanging over the Pacific).

Big mistake. The long missing Maya Hansen shows up "coincidentally" to warn Tony about her boss as Pepper is trying to convince Tony to get out of the mansion...just minutes before three of the Mandarin's helicopters blows the whole thing into the ocean.  Tony "armorizes" Pepper just long enough for her to get Maya and herself out of harm's way, then pulls the armor onto himself just in time to go into the water with his house.

So begins Tony Stark's armorless journey to discover who the Mandarin is and the secret behind exploding people.

Cute relationship between Tony (AKA "the Mechanic") and eight-year old Harley Keener (Ty Simpkins). Nice and heartwarming, even though Tony is still a dick at heart. The relationship does buy Tony time to start unraveling the mystery and he makes a number of surprising discoveries.

Most aren't all that surprising to the audience but one came at me out of left field. I loved what Kingsley did with Trevor. I had no idea it would turn out this way but in retrospect, it was brilliant. It goes completely off canon which is probably good, since you can't do The Mandarin the way he originally appeared in the 1960s Marvel comic books. The Mandarin in the comics was actually a throwback to the 1930s pulp fiction stories and comic strips and in no way could that "Fu Manchu" character type ever play in the 21st century. Nice twist and kudos to the writers.

I was disappointed that the armored suits, including James Rhodes's (Don Cheadle) seemed to be taken out so easily by the "Lava people." Even though Rhodes inside Iron Patriot (the War Machine armor with a Captain America paint job) was taken by surprise, once Rhodes regained consciousness, none of the armor's toys were put into play to get him out of his mess. The best he could do was eject himself out of the armor and run like hell.

In fact, Rhodes was a far more effective fighter without the suit than he was in it. He could totally kick ass with nothing besides a sidearm and lots of athletic skill, which is how he manages to rescue the President.

Tony manages to do derring do, including saving about a dozen people in free fall who were forcibly blown out of a crippled Air Force One, but finally it's Rhodes who saves the Pres and it's Pepper who defeats the real bad guy and saves Tony's ass (never mind that she came just that close to buying the farm herself).

Good Stuff

What they did with the Mandarin. Ben Kingsley puts in a surprising performance once Tony comes face to face with who he thinks is the mastermind behind the international terrorist organization AIM.

The finale where thirty or forty remotely controlled suits of armor are all flying around fighting the bad guys. JARVIS is the main hero here, although Tony shows masterful coordination at getting into and out of different suits of armor literally on the fly. Pretty good for a guy who has panic attacks with very little provocation.
For once, the female lead saves the day. She kind of blows it by immediately being shocked at how violent she could be (having just blown the bad guy into millions of superheated pieces).

Tony finally gets rid of all of the shrapnel around his heart, eliminating the need for an electromagnet in his chest powered by a mini-arc reactor.

He blows up his armored suits. All of them. It's a way for Tony to grow up and realize that he is he hero behind Iron Man, not a bunch of technology.

Bad Stuff

For a guy who has panic attacks when you just mention "New York," he can do lots and lots of really risky, heroic stuff that should either have put him in a fetal position or sent him to an emergency room. Even without his armor, he's leaping  thirty feet to come down on precarious perches, dodging flying debris, explosions and one really super-heated and pissed off bad guy. If he was that prone to debilitating anxiety, she should have ended up dead.

The film seemed uneven. Yes, I know the point was to show Tony outside his armor and what he could and needed to do without depending on "the suit," but the name of the movie is "Iron Man," not "The Adventures of Tony Stark."

The armor was shockingly ineffective against a crew of super villains whose only real power was getting hot enough to melt metal and exploding. I can see where that could catch you by surprise the first time, but once you expect it, the armor and all its gadgets should just kick ass. I think the film makers tried too hard to make their "man over machine" point.

The worst disappointment though has to go to the after ending credits scene. Normally these scenes are meant to show secrets into the next Marvel films, little surprises, teasing easter eggs. This time it was a cheesy joke between Stark and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo). Totally not worth wasting seven minutes of my life sitting through the end of film credits. This is where we see that Tony's narration is part of a dialogue with Banner.

The movie is watchable. It leaves us with the feeling that Tony has outgrown Iron Man and is leaving the armor behind along with his blown up and sunken Malibu mansion (guess he's moving to New York). If I didn't know Downey had signed on to do two more Marvel films, I would have interpreted this movie's ending the way The Dark Knight Rises (2012) ended. Batman dies so Bruce Wayne can live.

I had thought that the after end credits "teaser" might have been used to introduce Ant Man (2015) or at least his alter ego Henry Pym. No such luck (unless he was in the scene but too small to see).

Yeah, I'll watch this movie again, but not until it's out on DVD. It was a nice ride, but not a fully satisfying one. The Avengers is still top of the heap of super hero movies...at least until I see Man of Steel (2013) next Sunday and then review it.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Super Independence Day!

Yes, it’s Superman, strange visitor from another planet who came to earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men. Superman, who can change the course of mighty rivers, bend steel in his bare hands. And who, disguised as Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter for a great metropolitan newspaper, fights a never ending battle for truth, justice and the American way.

-Opening narration from the television show
The Adventures of Superman (1952-1958)