Saturday, July 22, 2006

Civil War Kicks Ass!!!

Three issues into Civil War, the twists and turns just keep on coming. So as to avoid spoilers for anyone planning to read issue three after this post, all I will say is that, following Spider-Man's unmasking in issue #2, things get seriously ugly as the pro-registration and anti-registration heroes have their first real confrontation.

In only three issues, this miniseries has given us enough iconic images and jaw-dropping moments to keep fans talking for years. Whether or not the events from this story will become a permanent fixture of the Marvel Universe, Mark Millar and Steve McNiven are definitely going to leave a permanent impression on comics storytelling as we know it. Just as Millar and Bryan Hitch had redefined the superhero genre a few years earlier with "Ultimates," Millar and McNiven are now redefining the "event miniseries," showing the likes of Bendis and Coipiel and Johns and his rotating battalion of artists how it's done.

As bold a proclamation as this may seem, I feel that Mark Millar is this generation's Alan Moore. In the last five years, no other single writer, at Marvel or elsewhere, has given fans quite as much subversive, balls-to-the-wall storytelling as this guy. It's a wonder Quesada et al kept him confined to the Ultimate Universe for as long as they did before finally unleashing him on
the hapless Marvel Universe.

He did a brilliant twelve-issue run on Spider-Man, respecting tradition while at the same time introducing a brilliant concept: that a conspiracy of businessmen and capitalists originally created supervillains. This does not offend Marvel canon and opens the door for a heck of a lot of story possibilities. Not long thereafter, he did an incredibly engaging run on Wolverine, a character I don't even like, which culminated in what I feel was easily one of the best single issues of 2005: the World War II issue.

Civil War, however, is something that stands head and shoulders above his prior work.

Back in 2004, when most fanboys were drooling over Jim Lee's work in Superman and Michael Turner's work in Superman/Batman, a much smaller cult of fans were being treated to the work of a then somewhat obscure but much more talented artist named Steve McNiven, who was half of a team originally meant to supplant Mark Waid and Mike Wieringo on Fantastic Four following a falling out with then-President of Marvel, the egomaniacal Bill Jemas. After Jemas was fired, McNiven and his writer already had several issues in the can, which became a new series, Marvel Knights 4. Waid predicted that McNiven would be comics' next superstar, and what do you know, he was right; McNiven became Marvel's most sought-after artist.

McNiven's style is hard to pigeonhole. Suffice it to say that it's incredibly detailed, albeit without cross-hatchings, and in some instances even virtually photo-realistic, without being static. In Civil War #2, he gave fans an iconic Spider-Man swinging pose...without sacrificing anatomical feasibility. He draws beautiful women, without falling into the trap of having them all look the same. And he draws kick ass action sequences.

Probably most amazingly, he is able to do all of these incredible things and still put out a book ON TIME!!! The only time his books had scheduling problems was when writers were playing tug-of-war with his talents, with that bald prick Brian Bendis snatching him off Warren Ellis' Ultimate Secret to do a rather lame run of his New Avengers. It was nice to know that McNiven was later snatched off a second run on New Avengers after completing just one issue in order to do his greatest work to date: Civil War.

With Civil War dominating the sales charts for its first two issues, and, I hope, throughout its entire run, Millar and McNiven are finally getting the recognition they both truly deserve as two of the medium's greatest talents.

A Cute Little Movie

This will easily be the shortest film review I've ever written, but I feel it's worth writing anyway, if only because I'm afraid the movie reviewed won't last very long in Philippine theaters.

Nacho Libre, a movie about a cook in a Mexican oprhanage who secretly longs to wrestle as a luchador, reteams star Jack Black (King Kong) with writer and co-producer Mike White (School of Rock, Orange County). Jack plays Ignacio, a.k.a. Nacho, whose life as a cook is miserable but for the fact that he loves the orphans he cooks for (and the nun who shows up one day to teach them). Things change for him when, upon running into a street vagabond named Esquelito (Hector Jimenez), he feels he has finally found his tag-team partner and ticket into lucha libre glory. The movie enters laugh-a-minute territory from this point and doesn't stop.

This film, otherwise a cut-and-dried kid's movie, is infused with Black's borderline insanity and wonderful antics, but without the crassness which usually turns him off to some viewers. He elevates the material past mere straight-up slapstick and really makes this 100 minutes time well-spent.

Audience response here doesn't seem too favorable, so I exhort anyone who reads this movie to go out and see this movie, and take your kids, too; it teaches selflessness and how to have a really good laugh.

Monday, July 10, 2006

All Things Must End

Over the weekend, the long-standing opening weekend box-office record set by Spider-Man in 2002 ended, courtesy of a mammoth opening for Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest. I was sad to see my favorite web-slinger finally relinquish his throne, but nonetheless take comfort in knowing that Spidey's will always be the first movie to have scaled those once-fabled heights. Still, all good things must end.

The summer of 2006 has been one of endings, specifically, for three major movie franchises, at least by my reckoning.

1. The Mission Impossible franchise. Never have I been happier to see a movie bomb than the latest installment of Tom Cruise's favorite vanity projects. It seems that each and every one of these pieces of crap is designed to show off something he can do, whether it's scale a mountain or spin a motorbike around, or even just toss his ridiculous long hair. This third installment, while admittedly made with a little more finesse than John Woo's over-the-top sequel, suffers from this malady. The kicker is that the screenplay presents such an incredibly formidable villain in Philip Seymour Hoffman's Davian that you genuinely wonder how Cruise's Ethan Hunt and the IMF will overcome him. When the script, after over two hours of buildup, went into "Rocky" territory and simply had Hunt pummel his adversary, I knew I'd wasted my money. I really don't give a damn about Cruise's off-screen antics, which many suspect are the real reason behind this movie's failure, for as long as he appears in quality movies. I mean, Russell Crowe may be an asshole, but at least he's still a brilliant actor who does good projects. Now that Tom realizes that his smile alone can't sell his movies, maybe he'll start trying to appear in good ones again.

2. The X-Men franchise. Don't be fooled by the record breaking weekend of X-Men III. After the purgatory Fox execs went through to get the movie made, it's doubtful they'd want to subject themselves to that all over again. It's probably why they called this movie "The Last Stand." Making an ensemble superhero movie presents all kinds of different ordeals, not the least of which is getting all of the stars, literal and figurative, to align. And for every movie that sells, all of the major stars' pay grades get harder to meet. For these and all of the technological requirements, these things just get exponentially more expensive as the years go on, and, less and less profitable. Judging from the way the latest movie's grosses are shaping up, it would appear that the popularity of the franchise has plateaued, so it actually makes sense that they're now splitting it up into spinoffs, although the only character with a real chance of selling movies is Wolverine. I only hope they get competent directors and writers to throw his solo adventure together or we can look forward to more turkeys like Elektra.

3. The Superman franchise. More than Spider-Man's opening weekend record, Superman Returns was the real casualty of Pirates of the Caribbean's runaway success. The strange thing is, this is actually a tough call. All things considered, the franchise had already ended on a rather sour note. This was an attempt to restart it, via a somewhat ill-advised sequel rather than a safer remake. Yet despite all the indicators that reviving this franchise might be more trouble than it was worth, Warner Brothers, buoyed by the success of rival comic book movies, pushed through with it, putting up almost $300 million in what was effectively the biggest gamble in studio (and possibly movie) history. Anything less than a record-breaking weekend would have spelled doom for this attempted revival, and a lot less was what they got. Nevertheless, Warners execs (and the annoying DC fanboys who infest message boards) are still confident that the movie will make back its mammoth investment overseas and on DVD. Honestly, I don't think so. All things considered, they've all but run out of excuses. They had an A-list director and a bottomless budget at their disposal, and a star who was a dead ringer (pardon the pun) for the greatest Superman of all time. Oh, and let's not forget a saturation marketing campaign rivalled only by that for Mission Impossible: 3. If after all this, they still couldn't sell the movie, then it just means that the demand for another Superman movie just wasn't that high. Still, one can't say for sure that they won't try it again in a few years, maybe after swiping Sam Raimi this time...

Friday, July 07, 2006

Comic-Book Based Casting Coups

Obviously, the comic book movie on everyone's lips these days is Superman Returns, and how appropriate the casting of newcomer Brandon Routh is, given his striking resemblance to the late, great Christopher Reeve. Well, while the physical resemblance is undeniable, as well as the awkward acting, I dare say there have, in the last few years, been better casting decisions, in terms of how well the chosen actor fleshed out the character described in the comics and eventually envisioned in the script. By this standard, I feel that Routh is less a man of steel and more an actor of wood, and devoid of Reeve's charisma.

I've decided to skip the more obvious casting triumphs like Tobey Maguire as Peter Parker, which by common knowledge was a huge component of the franchise's success so far, or Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, or even Christian Bale as Batman, and highlight what I feel were some real gems over the last few years. I've even included supporting characters. In no particular order, they are:

1. Paul Giamatti as Harvey Pekar (American Splendor). This guy deserved, at the very least, an Oscar nomination for this role. Granted, it wasn't hard for him to play someone as schleppy as Pekar considering both his looks and his prior resume, but in coming up with this list I was less concerned about the effort it took to bring the character to life but the accuracy with which it was done. We have an instant point of comparison as by some self-indulgent script device Harvey Pekar appears frequently throughout Splendor to lend his thoughts to the viewer. This was some truly brilliant work, and it's nice to see Giamatti getting his due, with the lead role in M. Night Shyamalan's Lady in the Water.

2. Chris Evans and Michael Chiklis as the Human Torch and the Thing, respectively (Fantastic Four). This movie has been widely reviled, by fanboys, viewers and critics alike, and yet one can't argue that for a relatively cheap budget, Fox and Marvel churned out a certified box office hit. I attribute this to the chemistry between the Thing and the Torch, which was, for me, taken right out of the comics. They're listed together because it is the way they play off each other that is something special to behold. Evans' cocky Johnny Storm played perfectly against Chiklis' gravelly Ben Grimm. These two guys saved the day for me, injecting an otherwise forgettable, cookie-cutter superhero movie with generous helpings of fun.

3. Cliff Robertson as Uncle Ben (Spider-Man). The man whose death transforms Peter Parker from self-absorbed teen to New York City's greatest hero is brought to life with haunting poignancy by Oscar-winner Robertson. While his toupee (at least that's what I think it is) is admittedly a little distracting, this guy plays the perfect father figure to Peter, and when he dies it hits the audiences every bit as hard as it hits Peter. Rosemary Harris' Aunt May is also pleasant to watch, but this guy's performance stands out.

4. Michael Caine as Alfred (Batman Begins). It's funny how Oscar-winning Caine and his Cider House Rules co-star Tobey Maguire went on to star in very different comic book movies, but at least each of them brings the appropriate heft to his respective role. It's truly pleasant how Caine breaks Alfred out of the English butler cliche and presents us instead with a more proactive vision of the guy, dumping the traditional, Bonny Prince Charlie enunciation for his trademark cockney accent. He is the perfect foil to Bale's brooding Bruce Wayne.

5. Linus Roache as Thomas Wayne (Batman Begins). This is notable for much the same reason that Cliff Robertson's Uncle Ben is memorable, but the difference here is that this role is considerable smaller. That notwithstanding, Roache (the gay priest in Priest) managed to give a lot of dimension to it. We know how pivotal the death of Bruce Wayne's parents is to the eventual decision he makes to become Batman, but Linus Roache makes us understand it.

6. J.K. Simmons as J. Jonah Jameson (Spider-Man). This one's so obvious I shouldn't even have to put it, although I didn't want anyone to think I'd forgotten him. 'Nuff said.

7. Sam Elliot as "Thunderbolt" Ross (Hulk). This is another movie that was widely reviled, and while I (as one of the three or four people on the planet who liked it) will concede that the casting of Bruce Banner and Betty Ross (as well as Nick Nolte) was less than ideal, I don't think anyone who has read the Hulk comics will argue with me when I say that Elliot was Ross personified from his imposing build down to his freaking mustache, down to his deep voice and scowl. The best part is how he added dimension to the character.

8. Jon Favreau as "Foggy" Nelson (Daredevil). The script of this movie sorely underutilized Foggy's character, which is sad considering how important a role he plays is the comics, but Favreau plays the character as best he can, being a lot more enjoyable to watch than Ben Affleck's wince-inducing Matt Murdock.

9. Kelsey Grammer as Hank "Beast" McCoy (X-Men 3: The Last Stand). Yeah, baby! A fan favorite that Bryan Singer couldn't make room for in two X-Men movies finally found his way into the franchise, thanks to aborted director Matthew Vaughn. While the casting of the whiny, irritating Ben Foster (Punisher, Six Feet Under) as Angel really pissed me off considering I would have wanted the role to go to someone a little more high profile, Grammer's inclusion in the last film made up for it. His delivery of the Beast's famous line, "oh my stars and garters" is one for the ages, really.

10. Shelly Duvall as Olive Oyl (Popeye). I know, where the fuck did that come from, right? Anyway, there wasn't really much for her to do, as the whole movie was camped up to the hilt, but she was a lot of fun to watch, all things considered.

Maybe next time I'll do the worst comic-book movie casting I can think of...

Monday, July 03, 2006

The Remake Disguised as A Sequel

Nineteen full years after the disastrous Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, Warner Brothers pictures attempts to make the Man of Steel fly again. The question inevitably arises: does he?

Before I start this review I'd like to get something out of the way, a little thematic aspect of the movie that doesn't really have anything to do with its overall craftsmanship but which proves bothersome just the same. I hate the Jesus Christ take on Superman. I despise it, for reasons I don't think I have to explain. Well, there's one thing John Byrne and I have in common.

That aside, the movie is not the magnum opus I had hoped it would be.

It is by no means a bad movie, and is in fact head-and-shoulders better than X-Men 3, the movie that director Bryan Singer abandoned to do this. But there was so much that Singer set out to do that the movie pretty much gets out of hand midway through.

The plot is pretty much familiar to anyone who surfs the internet or even just browses the entertainment pages of any daily newspaper: after a trip to space to find his lost homeworld Krypton, Superman (Brandon Routh) returns home to Earth to find out that five years have passed, Lois Lane (Kate Bosworth) has given birth to a son (some shaggy-haired kid who looks like yet another Culkin clone) and moved in with Perry White's nephew (James Marsden), and that the world apparently doesn't need him anymore.

This is the first Superman movie that's been released in nearly two decades. It's the first Superman movie to be released in the post Terminator 2, Jurassic Park, and even Spider-Man CGI era. There is so much that can be done that wasn't possible in the 70s or the 80s. This movie purports to be a sequel to Superman 2, thereby (wisely) abandoning the last two movies of the franchise, the last of which killed it. And yet, for a sequel, it has surprisingly little to say that's new.

The movie's single biggest stumbling block is the clumsy execution of the Lois-Superman love story. So much of the movie's marketing revolved around it, to the extent that one of the earliest production stills released was the close up of the two of them just before they fly off the Daily Planet and all around Metropolis. Bryan Singer even declared "this is the first chick flick I've ever made." The thing is, it all feels like a marketing stunt, because it just doesn't work.

Superman and Lois Lane have a very rich history together, in both the films and the comics. We're not talking about boy-meets-girl, young love here. It's a long time sort of thing, that is not at all reflected in the actor's performances. There is no regret, no sense of longing, no...forgive me for using the word...angst over love lost. There is no chemistry between them whatsoever. We're told that they should be in love, but we aren't given any convincing reason to believe it.

If Singer had wanted to establish a dynamic of people with such a storied romance, he shouldn't have gone for such young stars. Kate Beckinsale, for one, would have made a great Lois because apart from being gorgeous, she brings a certain maturity to the table, due in no small part to the fact that she already has a kid in real life. While there has been much hullaballoo about the casting of Brandon Routh, who admittedly bears a striking resemblance to Christopher Reeve, Singer should have gone for an actor who could convincingly play romance. Routh simply can't sell us on the idea that he's in love with Lois Lane. Well, apparently we now know why Bryan Singer didn't bother to write any real love stories into his X-Men movies: he can't do romance to save his life.

The second biggest problem is the way the hero-villain dynamic is played out. Yet again, Lex Luthor (given the hambone treatment by Oscar winning Spacey) has a diabolical scheme that involves him becoming rich and powerful at the expense of billions of lives. As in the earlier films, he has included the use of kryptonite in his plans to protect himself against Superman. And again, Superman walks right into Luthor's kryptonite-laced lair.

I seem to remember a vivid image of Christopher Reeve chained to a huge hunk of kryptonite in the first Superman movie. This movie supposedly only takes place five or six years after that, so I wonder why on earth it doesn't even occur to Superman that Luthor would use kryptonite against him again?

See, the trouble with making a hero so powerful that he only has one known weakness is that the only way for an infinitely weaker opponent to take advantage of that weakness more than once is for the hero to be a complete and utter moron, which in this case, Superman apparently is. Kudos actually goes to Luthor for outsmarting Superman yet again.

See, if this were told as a remake, these concerns would be non-issues. Lois and Superman, having only just met, could be as awkward and devoid of history as they wanted to be, and Luthor could zap Superman with as much kryptonite as could fit the screen, and it wouldn't matter, because it would all be shiny and new.

As parts of a sequel, however, these little details simply don't add up.

The good news, however, is that as an action director, Bryan Singer is in absolute top form. He is every inch the auteur who had Nightcrawler kick the ass of the American President's entire entourage, who had Wolverine gut the U.S. military blackops agents invading the Xavier mansion, and who had Storm take out U.S. fighter jets with tornadoes. Singer's sense of scope is very much intact and it was this that X-men 3 was sorely lacking, all things considered.

The space shuttle piggyback sequence was perfectly conceived and executed, and it was a properly auspicious way for Superman to make his grand return. The homages to both the Action Comics artwork and the Reeve flying sequences were also well done, although in the case of the latter it once again reinforces my opinion that this should have been presented as a remake instead of a sequel.

Guy Hendrix Dyas' reimagining of the fortress of solitude is absolutely awe-inspiring, and I'm only sorry there weren't more sequences involving it. His vision of Luthor's rock palace towards the end is obviously derived from the fortress and is therefore not quite as spectacular being cast in black and grey hues, but it's still imposing to behold. When I saw the ice cathedral that was the fortress, I had a good idea where a healthy portion of this movie's $200 million plus budget went. It was, in this instance, money well spent.

Sony Pictures Imageworks justifies the fact that they were chosen over other visual effects outfits by showing that the effects of this movie could not possibly have been done any better. Like many people, I'm sure, I am a huge, huge fan of that bullet-bouncing-off-Superman's-eye sequence. Incredible stuff.

The visuals I expected of Singer were all there, but storywise, this is still nowhere near what he threw together in X2.

I don't know if there will be a sequel anytime soon, given that this mammoth-budgeted movie's box-office returns aren't quite as robust as people have predicted, but I hope that next time around Singer brings a solid, FRESH, take on the Man of Steel to go with his stunning visuals.