Thursday, 29 July 2010

The Super 00's

The Best Superhero Films of the 2000s - Part V of a series

The Dark Knight (c) 2008 Warner Bros.

One would be amiss to dismiss superhero movies as a genre. They have really risen up during the last decade, mostly because they have made tons of money. They have partially made the classic one-man-army action movies obsolete. Their heroes may be powerful, but they are ordinary and vunerable at the same time. It is easier to identify oneself with Spider-Man than with John Rambo. As nowadays war movies have to be serious and westerns don't sell any more, it's the last of the classic boy's own adventures the young 'uns still have.

In fact, a superhero movie has in a way become the new century's answer to westerns. The stories in both bear strong similarities, namely in that they usually deal with an individual that brings order to chaos. The superhero genre's movies usually follow a tight pattern, that leaves few twists. As they are made to be franchises from the first film on, they can take time to deal with origins in the first, on why to sacrifice oneself for the innocent in the second and the darker side in the third.

In case you didn't figure already, I really dig the genre. I am a nerd, and mentally on the level of a 14-year-old, so there's that. But for children's movies, the recent superhero movies have given plenty to chew even for adults. To say there's something wrong with the genre essentially is to go on complaining about how superheroes are essentially stupid or how bendy the movies' logics are. Honestly, some people are such boring grumps. The studios have gotten great independent directors to do the films of the popular characters. The risk must be smaller than in completely original big-budget films as the superheroes' names are already familiar to large audiences. Thus the films practicaly sell themselves. The genre is divided enough that I've in purpose left the superhero movies out from my other lists. What troubles me is that most of the good superhero movies feature male protagonists, while Catwoman, Elektra, etc. are usually crap. I wonder why Hollywood can't make reasonable female protagonists.

So what follows is a sort-of top ten of superhero movies of the decade.

Batman Begins
2005, Dir. Christopher Nolan

In advance this was claimed to be hyper-realistic. Not so. It simply has left the Tim Burton-fantasy world and Joel Schumacher neon-vomit behind it, and happens solely in the clinical Nolan-verse. Simply because it doesn't have any elements which couldn't exist in our world doesn't make it realistic. It is the only Batman film to fully explore, what makes the character tick, and intimidation is the name of the game. It's great that as rare as it is for a superhero movie, the protagosist is morally a bit ambiguos. This will be more properly examined in the sequel. I love the scenes that are like a horror movie for petty criminals. The final third is pretty generic super hero stuff, but this is a huge step into the direction Nolan has headed head first to this day.

Big Man Japan (Dai Nipponjin)
2007, Dir. Hitoshi Matsumoto

Oh man, this would actually fit more into comedy or sci-fi, but seeing as I forgot to include it, here it is. It fits the superhero bill good, too, as it is about a normal schmuck, who occasionally heads to a power plant to get electrocuted. This makes him to grow into a giant and battle some utterly surreal monsters. It is shot as a fake mockumentary and the comedy comes from settings and enviroments. The jokes are hilariously underplayed. Even the bad CGI is utilized well to this purpose. And the main character sure is a lovable loser, working at a dangerous job and hated by the people he has sworn to protect. He is also in his father's shadow, who was a national hero in the same job. This is a truly batshit crazy Japanese Kaiju comedy, and telling anything more about it would just ruin the surprises. And you wouldn't believe me if I did. Find it.

The Dark Knight
2008, Dir. Christopher Nolan

By the way, this trailer has become a classic of it's own and one of the most well-known of all time. It has countless variations on YouTube.

Everyone loves this, as no one could've anticipated just how good this was going to be. Like Burton's Batman Returns, this is one of the rare occasions where the director didn't have to do any pandering for children, and could introduce adult themes into the superhero world. Nolan uses a bit of all sorts of great recent adult films in building this film's athmosphere. It's part Heat, part Se7en, all post-9/11, creating an astonishingly cold and grey dog-eat-dog world. But some goodness is to find in even the streets of Gotham. This surely was THE blockbuster with brains AND balls before Inception rolled along. It is a bit structurally uneven, but nevertheless damned entertaining. And not to mention the best description of American traumas in the George W. Bush era. It is a product of its time, but one that one would picture future people looking back on.

2003, Dir. Ang Lee

This is an underrated gem. Granted, a comic-book like telling of the story of a great green ogre and a slow-moving father-issues drama aren't the pair made in heaven, but they do work surprisingly well together. This is a film so dark, that the gritty reboot looked tame in comparison. It's almost a shame this has to be a franchise movie of a popular comic book character. If it was an original creation, everyone would hail this film. Hulk's a too stupid a character to deserve a treatment this deep. Nick Nolte steals the show as the father from hell, and the movie's creations, such as Hulk-dogs, are pretty sick. The film could use a little more humour, though.

Alas, Hollywood saw that this didn't have enough action and made a sequel so stupid Hulk himself could've wrote it. In the upcoming Avengers movie they will take away the only thing that made it even a bit interesting, Edward Norton.

The Incredibles
2004, Dir. Brad Bird

Even though Pixar showed how to do it first, Hollywood couldn't tell a proper story of a superhero group as a family dynamic (Fantastic Four - although the first one isn't quite as bad as everyone says) or superheroes in a society that wants to control and limit their powers (Watchmen). The Incredibles succeeds in both of them and manages to be also funny, charming and actually exciting. And to boot, all the family characterizations are pretty spot-on, too.
Brad Bird would've wanted to have a symphatetic character that would've been killed to create an athmosphere of real danger. Pity this didn't materialize. It would've been just another slap to the face of live-action superhero movies, who can't even kill Spider-Man's girlfriend, even though it would be essential to the character. The Incredibles is one of the most sequel-worthy Pixar movies to my mind, but given how much we have other superhero movies, it's probably better they stick to more original subjects.

Iron Man
2008, Dir. Jon Favreau

It is sad that the blockbusters in the noughties were either so dark, or so crap, that whenever a decent light-hearted romp appeared, it generated a huge buzz. So was it with this and the first Pirates of the Caribbean. But still the studio execs force-feed us that Dark Knight-light crap over and over again. Yuck.

But this, along with the Spider-Man franchise, are the closest people have gotten on to realize how the Marvel characters work. Superheroism is supposed to be fun as well, as witnessed by Tony Stark in this. And the whole cast, including Jeff Bridges, seems to have had heaps of fun making this, too. The plot is generic and the story has a few worrying implications (can Iron Man truly kill terrorists just like that without anyone ever addressing the issue?), but the quality one-liners cover the stuff pretty good. Plus, the characters have actual development and SOME moral issues during the movie as well. The film embraces it's boy's own roots by not only centering the movie on technology, partying and hot chicks, but also totally metal music like AC/DC and Black Sabbath. Iron Man Rocks! I hope the sequel does too, haven't seen it yet.

2002, Dir. Sam Raimi

This is a real cornerstone of the genre, side-by-side with Donner's Superman and Burton's Batman. It set the genre's archetype for this decade. Thus the film has been parodied, referenced and reproduced dozens of times already. It, as the character does, deals with an everyman, who gets the gift of great powers. Like people would, he first tries to exploit them for profit. But the bitter irony of not taking action gives him a punishment by getting an innocent man, his father-figure, killed. He wovs to use his powers for good as you might've guessed.

The film tells a quite good growing-up story as it is, even without the explosions. I also love the Green Goblin villain by Willem Dafoe, although I would've liked to save him later in the franchise to get him to be more vicious. Now he has little chance of getting the girlfriend or the mother-figure killed.

I have made it clear in this blog that even though I quite like the film, I don't think it is the Ultimate Spider-Man film. 1 & 2 feel like Burton's Batman films compared to the better, Nolan films yet to come. Let's have them, Marc Webb!

Spider-Man 2
2004, Dir. Sam Raimi

This, however, is at least closer to it. The only problems with this stem from the poor romance-dialogue (MJ's monologue at the end is particularly cringe-worthy). Also Spidey isn't nearly as concerned about maintaining his secret identity as he is in the comics. But hey, enough about the problems. What works:
This is a romance film about two people who can't work out how to be with each other and aren't sure of the other's feelings, either. This doesn't overplay the action, and has Peter Parker unable to use his powers due to low self-esteem for much of the movie. This leads also to pretty hilarious slapstick scenes. When the action finally arrives, it's pretty kickass, but never forgets who are fighting and what their personalities and dilemmas are. Also once again the villain works very good. I didn't like Dr. Octopus that much in comics, but Alfred Molina's version works fine in this. It's just that I would wish him to be a little more nefarious, too. Like in that Evil Dead 2-homaging surgery scene. Hm. Nevermind.

I'd also like to say, that this one's game version is one of the very, very, very rare tie-in license games that is fun to play.

2000, Dir. M. Night Shyamalan

Ah, back when M. Night still made somewhat tolerable movies. This is actually a pretty good one, in that many people (including me) didn't realize this was a superhero movie any more than Bruce Willis's character did. It's silent, coldlighted world sold itself pretty well as a real world at the beginning. The end twist makes sense to me in the universe the movie built up to, and it was meant to work as a prelude to two more films of the franchise. Sadly, this tanked, whereas Signs and probably some other crap Shyamalan films have succeeded. The audience isn't always the smartest.

X2: X-Men United
2003, Dir. Bryan Singer

The first X-men film is overrated in my book, and the third one underrated. But everyone gets it that this does it just right. In case you didn't know, the series deals with the society's hatred of people who are different. The intolerance against mutants is compared to hatred against Jews, communists and especially homosexuals. In this the character Iceman "comes out of the closet" with his mutant powers to his family, who react by saying "Have you tried not being a mutant?"

This movie handles the big cast better than it's predecessor. The story's focus is on Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), who will find out more about his past, as hinted out in the first movie. Another primary character is Professor Xavier (Patrick Steward), who is being used against his will as a tool to destroy all mutants. As people often are in these cases in real life too. The bad guy isn't Ian McKellen's Magneto this time, but a greedy general William Stryker. Not only is he power-hungry, he holds a personal grudge against the mutants because of his son, who is also a mutant.

This movie has more action this time, but fortunately it doesn't interfere with the plot. This is how more action movies should be made; the action alongside the story, not only neat CG-sequences. Consequently, the movie's CG is quite nicely made, especially considering the diminishing returns in this series (Wolverine looks as crap as The Phantom Menace). My favorite scene would have to be the lead-up to Magneto's cunning escape from prison. "Never trust a beautiful woman. Especially one that's interested in you". Ian McKellen is easily my favorite villain on this list, surpassing even Heath Ledger's Joker.

Dammit, now I mentioned Him. I tried to write the only Dark Knight review in history that didn't. He did a good job, him.

Thursday, 22 July 2010

Hate the game, not the playa

M. Night Shyamalan on the left shooting Lady in the Water. Leave poor Paul Giamatti out ouf this beef with him. (c) 2006 Warner Bros.

A couple of film directors are more hated than anyone right now. These include Mel Gibson, Roman Polanski and M. Night Shyamalan. But only Shyamalan is hated because of his work.

Because of the relatively cheaply made Sixth Sense made truckloads of money back in the last millennium, Shyamalan got what most film directors can only dream of in Hollywood: total creative control. Thus, he directs, produces and writes his own films. And usually even acts a role. Too bad these talents were properly utilized only in Unbreakable. From there on, I've only seen the frankly crap Signs and The Village and I'm a better person for it. Everyone else keeps saying the films get worse and worse.

Shyamalan is hated among movie viewers mostly because with Sixth Sense and Unbreakable he had potential, which went on wasted. All the while big Hollywood studios see that it perhaps doesn't pay off to give directors control over their work. Very few directors get the chance. I hope Christopher Nolan inspires both studios and talented filmmakers to aim for the skies.

One thing in the internet which I've never quite gotten is the hate towards Brett Ratner. True, he's not a very personal director. But hey, most people in Hollywood aren't. Very, very few precentage of Hollywood's directors have any vision whatsoever. I would go on to claim this includes the celebrated X-men director Bryan Singer. Ratner hasn't made any great movies, but I haven't actually seen anything absolutely horrible from him, either (then again, I haven't seen Rush Hour 3). I'm probably the only person in the world that likes X-men 3. Of course I see that the film has some problems, that stem from too much happening at the same time. But I would blame the studio system wanting to make the sequel bigger, rather than Ratner. After all, he made from the studio constantly meddling a perfectly entertaining superhero flick (stop stoning me).

I think the problem is that audiences tend to think too auteuristic of Hollywood films. When it's obvious a director doesn't have much say in the final version of the film, one shouldn't judge the quality of the direction too harshly. After all, we have Michael Bay still making movies when someone spotted that some Jerry Bruckheimer productions were actually DIRECTED by someone. If we could've just ignored him when we had the chance...

So, don't talk about Hollywood directors unless they make something extraordinary, which only an unique vision could do. This does not include Zach Snyder. And if that same unique voice keeps making horrendous new films like M. Night, just keep ignoring him. He'll have to stop at some point when no one wants to see his shit films.

M. Night Shyamalan would literally kill himself were he not so incredibly delusional

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

The Animated 00's

The Best Animated Films of the 2000s - Part IV of a series

Persepolis (c) 2007 2.4.7 Films

Okay, I tried not to do a list of animations, as I feel it's less of a genre, more of a film-making style. But it turned out not that many animations are actually easily divided into other genres. So here I have a whole post to just celebrate this style, which created many of the very best films of the decade.

I have already mentioned the following films in these lists:

In fantasy:
Monsters, Inc.
Spirited Away

In sci-fi:
Howl's Moving Castle

In comedy:
The Simpsons Movie
South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut (which had its premiere in Finland in 2000)

Team America: World Police

So that makes ten great animations that you should've checked out. Here's ten more.

The Triplets of Belleville
2003, Dir. Sylvain Chomet

It's almost like France: The Movie. We have near-wordless slapstick, film noir influences, caricatures, frog-eating, cabaret and of course the whole film revolves around bicycling. I love France, thus I also love the film. I saw it in French, but luckily it has very little dialogue in it. Also director Sylvain Chobet's animated world is cute as hell and impossible to resist. Funny, too.

Flushed Away
2006, Dir. David Bowers, Sam Fell

Aardman is every bit as good in the animation game as Pixar, but alas, unlike Pixar they can fail at the box office. It doesn't matter that this is one of the funniest animated movies of the decade packed to the rafters with good ones. It's also lovably british although the actors are major movie stars as they are won't to be in most of these cases. But besides the European sense of humour, no-one quite does action sequences like Aardman, and they have cute animated animals (snails here) in small parts to boot. Come to think of it, the film maybe plays it a bit too close to its American counterparts. It is a computer-generated movie, after all, and not claymation, where Aardman excels.

Mary And Max
2009, Dir. Adam Elliot

This is one of those quirky films few people outside film festival crowds ever get the chance to see. But if you get the chance, I would urge you to see it. The audience at last year's Helsinki International Film Festival loved it and so did I. It's an Australian claymation film about a little girl who becomes a pen pal with a mentally ill, morbidly obese New Yorker. It treats life as a series of pretty unfortunate events, the film is mostly black and white, and it's certainly not for too young children. But in the end, it is a funny, uplifting, a little sad story about unlikely (platonic) friendships that last forever. Nice, although one might think it makes fun of mental illnesses.

2007, Directors: Vincent Paronnaud, Marjane Satrapi

Traditional animation is, alas, quite rare on this list. But clearly the greatest masterpiece that art created this decade, is this film. Based on the autobiographical graphic novel by Marjane Satrapi, it is smart enough to adapt only the parts that are suited for cinema. Satrapi has added a great deal of good stuff to the film too. The black and white movie follows her story from the rebellious punk rock childhood in ever-more religious Iran, to her blossoming adulthood (which may be even darker times) in France. Funny, thought-provoking, a little sad and always intelligent, this is one for the ages.

Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea
2008, Dir. Hayao Miyazaki

I'll have to have at least one anime here, to balance things out. And wow, I still have one Miyazaki film left (Hayao, not Goro). Cuteness overload! The pure Miyazaki charm doesn't fail this time, either. The story of the Little Mermaid made at least ten years younger makes the princess of the sea wreack all sorts of havock on land. And how Miyazaki pictures this havock! Giant waves, flooded villages, and of course, the underwater world crawlinmg with life. Nothing ever made by a computer can even come close to its magnificence.

2007, Dir. Brad Bird

Pixar on top form once again. This is the film after the dire Cars, that started the studio's new reneissance. The old buddy formula gets weird from here on, as here it's a puppet master rat controlling a bumbling youngster, both on their way to become great chefs. As it usually is in American animations, this one has a little too much of "believe in your dreams" messages. However, it does come with a twist this time. It is encouraged this time to follow your skills along with your heart, as Linguini shouldn't clearly be a chef. Also charming, particularly in the few second's silent flashback to the childhood of Anton Ego, which explains everything there is to know about the character. Brad Bird's best film.

The Spongebob SquarePants Movie
2004, Dir. Stephen Hillenburg

One TV-spurned film I just can't resist is this SpongeBob one. Maybe I'm a retard or a pothead or immature, but I just find his escapades funny. Plus, in finnish, he's named like my name! The plot doesn't matter that much in this, as it's mostly just weird set-pieces of Spongebob's adventures across the sea. But it's got a live-action cameo from a very sea-worthy actor, an actually pretty threatening villain (not talking about Plankton here) and heaps of hilarity. Good for hung-over mornings.

Terkel in Trouble
2004, Directors: Stefan Fjeldmark, Kresten Vestbjerg Andersen, Thorbjørn Christoffersen

(I apologize for the bad english dubbing)

As the finnish animations of this decade were good in only copying better ones (Niko), or to contain political caricatures and to just be a very moronic farce (Keisarin salaisuus), leave it to the danish to get Scandinavia on the list. The anarchistic film is crude, and very slapstick-heavy. And of course hilarious, as forks are shoved to eyes, sledgehammers used on crotchs and babies ears bitten off. The film deals with a prepubcescent boy going to summer camp. He feels guilty of getting a fat girl to commit suicide, and as if things aren't bad enough already, someone is trying to kill him, too. All the characters are created and voiced by the same person, comedian Anders Matthesen. And they are pretty great characters, too. My favorite is the constantly drunk and violent sailor-uncle.

2009, Directors: Pete Docter, Bob Peterson

One more of Pixar's greatest, a bar, which has constantly been raised. It is a pure fairy-tale, even though it has humans as its main characters. That's why one mustn't be nit-picky about the story's plot-holes and Deus ex machinas. Even though it is unusual for Pixar to have as many. Still, you simply must love a movie with as plenty of laugh-out-loud moments (The Road Runner-homaging works nicely) and as much heart. The highlight in this is most touching montage in any film ever since Battleship Potemkin. And maybe even better than that.

Wallace & Gromit in the Curse of the Were-Rabbit
2005, Directors: Steve Box, Nick Park

I just love these characters. I was worried that the longer length and the American producer would harm the british charm of the classic W&G adventures. But I was clearly wrong. aardman can't do wrong. This is a wildly hilarious send-up of Hammer horror films. As always, Wallace's machines create the problem, this time creating the titular beast eating the townsfolk's prized vegetables. It's up to Wallace and Gromit (mostly Gromit) to stop this. This is just a brilliant gag-filled comedy, mixing slapstic, situation comedy, little background gags, and humour you can only do in animation. All the while never underestimating anyone in the audience, whatever their age. Cracking!

This time, I had to include some films bubbling just under the list. Man, this decade's animated films were good.

Chicken Run
The Emperor's New Groove
Finding Nemo
The Girl Who Leapt Through Time
The Kingdom of the Cats

Monday, 5 July 2010

Spider-Man: A Brand New Day

Is Spider-Man actually in any sort of danger?

Andrew Garfield was just selected to play Peter Parker and his alter-ego, The Amazing Spider-Man. The future movie will feature Parker still in high school and will be directed by (500) Days of Summer's Marc Webb. I have been surprised how much the whole of internet has been s opposed to this whole project. One reason must be that beloved director of the previous three, Sam Raimi, was so suddenly given the sack while developing Part 4.

As I am a huge nerd, I have spent way too much time thinking about the next Spider-Man movie. It's the one franchise I know through and through (although I have tried to catch up with the Marvel universe - I refuse to go to the 90's). Although I have planned out pretty good sequels in my head (Harry Osborn helps create The Scorpion in 3, Kraven hunts the Lizard in 4), I have been pretty easy to please with Sam Raimi's films. Yes, even the treequel. I recognize however, that none of them are perfect Spider-Man movies.

First, Tobey Maguire wasn't probably the best possible actor to play Spider-Man. He's just too serious and part of Spidey's charm is that he hides his nervousness with constant insulting and joking. And while Kirsten Dunst was okay as MJ, the girl next door, she was a far cry (gettit?) from the strong bombshell of the comics. She would've been better as Gwen Stacy, Spidey's great love who was killed by the Green Goblin. But we never got to see that tragic turning point on the big screen because Gobby was disposed in the first movie already.

I recognize the reason Marvel has suddenly decided to reboot the franchise not even 10 years old. Raimi was moving too fast with Spidey's life story. Rumours had been circling around that the fourth movie would've circled around Parker's wedding to Mary Jane Watson . As most people who love Spider-Man are either teenagers or can relate to him as a teenager, this makes him a bit too old for our tastes. Marriage drama isn't as interesting to the focus group as teenage love woes. Marvel recently rebooted the character in comic books from a married teacher to a college student via him having to make a deal with the devil. Let's be glad in the land of movies we can just start fresh without having to resort to that sort of plot gimmicks.

What I especially liked in Raimi's films is his knack for creating symphatetic villains. Although the Vulture isn't one of my favorite villains I would've loved to see what he and John Malkovich would've gotten out of the character. In fact, as a huge fan of Con Air, I would love to still see Malkovich as Webb's film's villain.

There has been some fear over the choosing of Webb as the film's director as he hasn't showed his action chops. Brother, I got news for you. In a production this big in Hollywood it has no importance whatsoever how good a director can direct action. They will hire the best fight choreographers, CGI artists, cinematographers etc. anyway. What is needed is an understanding of the characters, the skill to create believable romances, and a sense of humour. And Webb proved he has all of these in (500) Days of Summer. I also approve the casting decision of Garfield. I liked him in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, although he didn't actually get much to work with there.

However, there are a couple of worrying things, too. I don't know where the "gritty" reboot rumour originates but I hope it is just a rumour. Darkness doesn't fit to a movie about a guy in tights who shoots webbing at people made of sand and mad scientists. The other worrying part about the film is that James Cameron is a consultant in the film. I hope that only means him giving tips to Webb of how to use the 3D film camera. He obviously doesn't know anything about believable romances and the Spider-Man script he wrote in the 90's is reportedly laughably bad. His script has Spider-Man shouting to Electro "I'm gonna kill you, you motherfucker!" Hardly kid's movie stuff.

Finally, I won't believe we will be given anything that has already been made good. So I'm guessing no origins or Uncle Ben in the next one. They didn't go all the way to the start in the other Marvel reboot, the Incredible Hulk either, remember. So here's putting my hope to Webb. You will do whatever a spider can.


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