Iron Man vs Superman vs Star Trek

29-Apr-13 12:01 PM by
Filed under Films, Trailers; 1 comment.

The summer movie season kicks off this week, with dozens of big-budget blockbusters maintaining the momentum through Labor Day. Although our attention may be piqued by many films, from Pacific Rim to The Wolverine to Now You See Me, only three film have bubbled to the top of my must-see list. For each one, I am cautiously optimistic, as each has the potential to be awesome — or to soar too close to the sun and plummet spectacularly.

I have purposely avoided trailers for each of these three films. If the purpose of a trailer is to sell its audience on seeing the movie, then mission accomplished: I'm sold. Many trailers do so by featuring the film's best moments, and I'd prefer to avoid such spoilers and see them in context. If you're of a similar mindset, you're welcome to skip over the trailers embedded below.

Despite ignoring these media, I've still absorbed critical details about each of the films. So here is my breakdown, which I'd like you to use to answer the question: If you could see only one movie this summer, what would it be: Iron Man 3, Star Trek Into Darkness, or Man of Steel?

Iron Man 3 (May 3)

  • Jon Favreau, director of the excellent Iron Man, is not at the helm of this sequel. How good can it be?
  • Jon Favreau, director of the mediocre Iron Man 2, is not at the helm of this sequel. How bad can it be?
  • Written by Shane Black, who also wrote the excellent Robert Downey Jr. noir comedy, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.
  • It's been only a year since we last saw Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark; his Avengers teammate, Thor, is also returning to the silver screen later this year. Is Marvel running the risk of saturating the superhero genre?

Star Trek Into Darkness (May 17)

  • Likely J.J. Abrams' swan song in Gene Roddenberry's universe before he departs to play in George Lucas's sandbox.
  • Benedict Cumberbatch is the villain — but do we know yet what character that is? Could Paramount be playing this too close to the chest?
  • Star Trek XI was the highest-grossing Star Trek movie of all time; it earned almost as much as Star Trek Generations, First Contact, Insurrection, and Nemesis combined. Can lightning strike twice?

Man of Steel (June 14)

  • The first Superman film reboot since Christopher Reeve's 1978 movie.
  • Smallville was on the air for a decade before signing off in 2011. Is it too soon for more Superman? Or is this just the right time to capitalize on the character before he fades from public consciousness?
  • Directed by Zack Snyder, who's had mixed critical success with past films 300, Watchmen, and Sucker Punch.
  • Produced by Christopher Nolan, who directed the recent Dark Knight trilogy. He knows how to make a superhero relevant and cool — but Batman and Superman are the dark and the light. Will Superman become a brooding badass?
  • The film's title does not actually say "Superman", in much the way the first seasons of Enterprise did not include "Star Trek". That didn't work out so well, either. Are the producers trying to cast this as something it's not?
  • This film holds the potential to set up a Justice League team-up movie. If well-executed, could DC finally begin to rival Marvel in silver screen popularity?

Fortunately, we can have our cake and eat it, too: I'll be seeing all three of these films in due time. What about you?

Identity crisis in Man of Steel trailer

14-Dec-12 12:55 PM by
Filed under Trailers; 2 comments.

Tis the season for superhero reboots: Spider-Man got his this past summer, and the Fantastic Four will get a makeover in 2015. Between those two will be the most iconic superhero of them all. Kal-El, the Last Son of Krypton, will become Clark Kent, then Superman, this June 14 in Man of Steel, an original film directed by Zack Snyder (300), produced by Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight Rises), and written by David Goyer (Blade II, Jumper, The Dark Knight, Ghost Rider 2). With teasers having been released at this past July's Comic-Con, it wasn't until this week that the masses got their first glimpse of Metropolis' defender with this full trailer:

Man of Steel is the first Superman film (if it can be considered that, given the movie's title's lack of nomenclature) to not be based Christopher Reeve's interpretation since he made that role manifest in 1978. Bryan Singer's 2006 sequel was both empowered and limited by its adherence to continuity, and though I seem to be one of the few who enjoyed Brandon Routh in the role, even I agree it's time for an original retelling.

And that we'll get: Snyder's version appears to focus away from the action and more on the character. Although there are hints of super-powered villains, the film's tension appears to originate from the identity crisis Kal experiences. Is he an alien, a Kansan, or a Samaritan? How will he balance his responsibilities to himself, his family, and his world? It doesn't sound like the stuff of a Hollywood blockbuster, yet with such a storied production crew behind it, Man of Steel has potential to deliver the movie franchise back into the sun.

(Hat tips to Gene Demaitre, Kevin Melrose, and Keith Shaw)

Insipid Inception

16-Aug-10 10:53 AM by
Filed under Reviews; 5 comments.

Inception has been out long enough, and enough people have formed their own opinions, that I now feel confident expressing mine: I didn't like it. I would think that sci-fi fans would find it unoriginal, and other theatergoers would find it confusing. Popular opinion has proven me wrong, yet I'll attempt to defend my position, though it will likely cause me more nightmares than Inception did its cast.

This summer blockbuster stars Leonardo DiCaprio as an expatriate whose job is to enter people's dreams and steal confidential data. The reverse — planting an idea in someone's mind and making it seem organic — is nearly impossible, but he accepts such an assignment knowing that it could clear his criminal record and allow him to return to the States and see his children (who he apparently never considers having flown to France). He enlists Ellen Page and teaches her the subtle rules of creating a dreamscape: basing it on other's realities but never your own, so you know what's real and what's not; creating a personal totem that serves an indicator of dream or not; how dying in a dream simply wakes you up, but if someone in the real world needs to wake you up, they need to convey a "kick" — a sense of falling.

It sounds like a neat science-fiction plot, but Inception can't decide if it wants to play to the action crowd or the sci-fi one. As a member of the latter, I found many of the film's devices hackneyed. Is this a dream, or is it reality? The Thirteenth Floor, Dark City, and ExistenZ asked the same question. I suspect the director, Christopher Nolan of The Dark Knight and Memento fame, was inspired by these and other media, though to suggest its origin lies with Scrooge McDuck is a bit far-fetched.

MC Escher waterfallThe ability to create and inhabit fictional worlds was also explored in both films and The Matrix, except inhabitants of the matrix could achieve awareness of the nature of reality and use it to their advantage. Inception's dreams are remarkably lifelike, where people put on suits, go to work, then get a drink at the bar to unwind, with one scene flowing naturally into the next. Since DiCaprio's team is often tasked with lulling their victims into a false sense of security, it is vital that the world seem realistic, such that the nature of the trap is not revealed. In that respect, the dullness of these dreams makes sense. But in moments of urgency, we rarely see DiCaprio use the dreamscape to his advantage. There are two instances of one person disguising himself as another, and only one of an Escher-like trap into which a dreamer lulls an enemy. But we see no one leaping over tall buildings, pulling bazookas out of their pockets, or — if you really wanted to make this dream-like — finding talking elephants in their closets. It's not what I would expect from lucid dreaming.

I also failed to understand how multiple people could share the same dream. One person going into one other's seems plausible, but the film usually had a bank of dreamers networked into each other by nothing more complicated than IVs. Just before they'd fall asleep, they'd ask amongst themselves, "Whose dream are we going into this time?" and, without rhyme or reason, one person would pipe up, "Mine", with no parallel action to suggest how or why.

Inception by Profound Whatever, on FlickrThe final, prolonged sequence of events features multiple layers of dreams. In each dream, time supposedly moves faster than in the dream before (or above) it (though we never see days turn into weeks or months as they suggest). In this sequence, we see a van falling off a bridge, providing its sleeping occupants with a waking kick. It takes about a half-hour of dream-time for the van to fall, as we're reminded every five minutes by a slow-motion sequence of its progress. I understand the temporal mechanics of this technique, but the tension of the moment is insufficient to sustain the suspense over such a long period of time. Slow motion is intended to bring attention to a brief, singular moment, as bullet time did in The Matrix. To have it last thirty minutes causes it to lose momentum, so to speak. Compounding the situation is that, throughout this climax, the action sequences aren't terribly exciting — though one fight scene in a hotel hallway with variable gravity was definitely cool.

One thing Inception consistently does well is pace its plot. As the film progresses, nuggets of DiCaprio's background are slowly revealed to the audience, each one elaborating on what we already know while raising new questions, until finally, all is revealed. Though the acting throughout these revelations is impeccable, the story itself didn't engage me enough to be enraptured by the film's indefinite and unoriginal conclusion. Friends tell me they went to see the film multiple times to see everything they missed. Though it's true that any film has details that are overlooked in an initial viewing, just like the first time I saw 12 Monkeys or Memento, I didn't walk out of Inception feeling I'd missed anything mission-critical.

I confess that I went into this film petulantly biased: there were other films I wanted to see, and the group I was with voted to see none of them. I tried to keep an open mind and let Inception in to work its magic, but I found it somewhat less than dreamy and not up to the creative and inspired storytelling of which Christopher Nolan has previously demonstrated himself capable.

Are You Watching Closely?

13-Dec-08 10:45 AM by
Filed under Reviews; 1 comment.

Stage magic is a wonderful act, offering to the uninitiated a sense of wonder seldom found beyond childhood. But do the deceptions and illusions end on the stage? Not in The Prestige, a 2006 film adapted from the 1995 novel of the same name.

The Prestige is a tale of two London magicians whose escalating feud spans the end of the 19th century. This is not a friendly rivalry and is never professional, as it includes sabotage, kidnapping, bodily harm, and threats of worse. In a way, it's similar to The Count of Monte Cristo, except without knowing who to root for. Perhaps likening it to the Hatfields and the McCoys would be more accurate: a vendetta that spirals out of control to the point that winning becomes more important than whatever began the dispute in the first place.

The Prestige's title comes from the supposed three stages of an illusion: the pledge, in which the audience is hooked, usually with a distraction; the turn, in which something marvelous occurs; and the prestige, or resolution, in which all is revealed to be well (such as a woman sawed in half being returned to whole). This setup also serves for the film's format: the illusionist protagonists' stock in trade is secrets that they keep them not only from their loved ones, but also from us. The last half-hour of the film is intensely intriguing as the audience finally gets to peek behind the curtain and see how the tricks are done. It is also when the movie's credulity is strained, for what's purported to be science seems more akin to magic, and characters are revealed to be even more psychotic than expected. Although some of the mysticism is preserved from the book upon which the movie is based, the resolutions, motivations, and even moralities of the characters are starkly different.

It was the characters, or rather the actors, that first drew me to the film. In that capacity, The Prestige is a landmark of being the first Christian Bale film I liked, except maybe for Newsies. I was underwhelmed by Equilibrium and found nothing attractive in Batman Begins, to the point that I skipped on The Dark Knight. Finally, here's a role that suits him, and vice versa. The Prestige is also the first time I've seen Hugh Jackman do well in a non-Wolverine role. Thank goodness he chose to do this movie and not another Van Helsing! Also of note in the cast is Scarlett Johansson as a magician's assistant and mistress, and the character Nikola Tesla, played here by David Bowie of Labyrinth fame. I thought such a historical character's presence in this movie was a stretch, but some cursory research shows Tesla was indeed in Colorado Springs in 1899, conducting experiments that included using the Earth as a conductor, as depicted in this film.

The Prestige is a movie that begins at the end, with regular flashbacks and flashfowards — a technique not entirely unexpected when you observe the credits. The movie was directed by Christopher Nolan, who also directed Bale in his two Batman movies. Mr. Nolan is also well-known for Memento, which similarly played fast and loose with linear narrative. I didn't always know at the beginning of the scene when it was taking place, but I had it figured out by the time it ended.

Hugh Jackman and Christian Bale have become famous for their roles as action superheroes. I was glad to have this opportunity to witness them flex their acting muscles, revealing themselves to be more well-rounded than I'd previously experienced. Alas, what makes The Prestige so compelling also makes it depressing. We the audience are never given a hero to believe in, and for practitioners of such black arts, there can be no happy endings.

Memento — The Freshmaker

11-Nov-08 3:30 PM by
Filed under Reviews; 2 comments.

With Chris Nolan in the news for having directed the summer blockbuster The Dark Knight, I thought it time to finally see the film for which he was previously best known: Memento.

Given that I've been hearing about this movie since its 2000 release, I imagine its plot and devices are fairly well known by now. I knew about two of them: a man (Guy Pearce of L.A. Confidental; The Count of Monte Cristo; The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert) is trying to find whoever killed his wife; and the film plays backward. What I didn't know is that the incident that saw his wife murdered also caused him brain damage, resulting in anterograde amnesia — a rare disorder that prevents a person from transcribing short-term memories into long-term (as seen in Clean Slate). Our hero can't remember beyond the last few minutes, which he works around by taking notes and photographs and learning to trust his own handwriting.

"Have you seen my car?"

"Have you seen my car?"

Some critics call the film's chronology a hackneyed device, but even eight years after its release, I'd never seen it anything like it. The movie starts at the end and plays in chronological order the last five minutes of a day in the life of Leonard Shelby. We then see the five minutes that preceded that sequence, and the five before that, until we get to the beginning. Each chunk of time is about how long Leonard's memory lasts, though interspersed in these sequences is a forward-progressing, black-and-white, narrative flashback. It reminds me of how Billy Crystal's character in When Harry Met Sally would always skip to last page of a book to see how it ends, then read the rest to solve the mystery of how the characters get there. We the audience think we know what's going on because we're introduced to the characters and their fates before Leonard is — but it's the genesis of these situations that prove to have more impact than their consequences.

It's an engaging film made more so by great casting. Guy Pearce is remarkably calm (and occasionally didactic) for someone in his situation, yet his performance has been called "the most accurate portrayal of the different memory systems in the popular media." Carrie-Anne Moss (The Matrix; Fido) and Joey Pantoliano (The Matrix; The Sopranos; Daredevil) are fantastic as supporting cast members who leave both Leonard and viewers wondering if they are truly friend or foe. It was a sufficiently intense film so as to distract from the RiffTrax version.

Memento reminded me of a lot of my favorite media: Quantum Leap and Sam's swiss-cheese memory; the comic strip For Better or Worse's recent decision to retreat from the present to the past; the danger of amnesia in Déjà Vu. We need more media like Memento and Braid that's willing to be unconstrained by the dimension of time — not just because of the challenge it presents its audience, but because of the fresh experiences it allows filmmakers to offer.