Thursday, May 28, 2009

Good News for Spider-Man 4

While I'm one of the people who vehemently believes that Venom did not belong in Spider-Man 3, I also think that the buck should stop with the film's director, Sam Raimi. After all I think it was Raimi's idea to have Peter Parker do some ridiculous dance to a James Brown song, to retool Sandman as a sympathetic character and to retcon him (yes, even in the film) into the murder of Uncle Ben, and to cast some completely untalented children in bit parts towards the climax of the film (i.e. the boys who say "awesome" and "wicked cool" and the little girl who sells J. Jonah Jameson a camera). So while I joined the chorus of people who decried Venom's appearance in the story as dictated by Avi Arad, I'm not unmindful of Raimi's rightful share of the blame.

That said, I am really, really glad he seems to have gotten his mojo back, something apparent from the pre-release buzz surrounding his return to horror Drag Me To Hell. Now, I'm not a horror movie fan and will most likely not see it when it comes out here, but considering that the Spider-Man franchise remains very much in Raimi's hands I'm glad he's still got his touch. Also, it's encouraging to note that the scripting duties for SM4 have been handed over to someone else, which works for me because I think giving Raimi and his brother a hand in the writing was a huge mistake; SM1 and 2 were scripted by David Koepp and Alvin Sargent, respectively, and while Sargent pulled scrivening duties on the third film it was based on treatment by Sam and Ivan Raimi.

Now that Raimi's managed to win back some of the goodwill he may have squandered with SM3, I'm really hoping he manages to get the bit back between his teeth when SM4 starts shooting sometime next year. There are things he could work on; I'm hoping he improves the CG quality (which seemed to peak with SM2 before going disastrously awry in SM3) and, if possible, hires someone better than Christopher Young to do the scoring. As far as casting goes, I honestly wouldn't mind if he replaced Kirsten Dunst with Alison Lohman as well; I've always found Lohman more attractive.

Come May 2011, Sam, people will be back in your corner once more so you'd better deliver, especially considering you'll be up against Captain America and the Avengers...

The Real Slaughter...

I'm not terribly keen on seeing the film Kinatay, even though its director Brilliante Mendoza, has only just won the the award for Best Director at the recently-concluded Cannes Film Festival. I am genuinely annoyed, though, that apparently, I couldn't see it even if I wanted to, at least not in Philippine movie theaters. It looks like I have the government to thank for that.

For a change, it's not that the government banned the film or subjected it to heavy censorship; it's that Mendoza, its director, in anticipation of the hack-job treatment by the government has shied away from having it commercially screened choosing instead to show it at universities around the country, which is probably the best place for it.

I think it speaks volumes of how prudish and culturally stunted several of our institutions are that an award-winning filmmaker shies away from showing his own people what appears to be his greatest work so far. Our institutions are kind of like parents who won't let their kids play pop music, or do something radically different from what they're used to. After so many years, the children become shy to let their parents know about anything they do because they're afraid of getting chastised or worse. After awhile, the parent doesn't even have to do anything for the child to not want to tell or show him something. Notably, though, this doesn't stop the child from doing what he wants to do; he just doesn't tell the parent about it.

Now, while as a parent I certainly see the need to discipline my children and to make sure they don't behave in a way likely to get either of them in big trouble, the parent analogy fails insofar as it fails to take into account the fact that the censors and film review board often forget that with respect to certain things, movie viewers should be allowed to make up their own minds about something, whether it's excessively violent, or prurient, or unfit for their viewing. All the review board's job is to give a film a rating, and yet with that dreaded "X" they've managed to strike fear in the hearts of so many directors wanting to reach a wider audience and it is thus that the butchered movie is born; directors wanting to please the review board hack and slice until their film gets the favorable rating for which they yearn.

Ironically, the word "katay" from which the title is derived means, to butcher or slaughter rather than the "massacre" into which it has been incorrectly translated in some news outlets. Had Mendoza attempted to screen the film for commercial audiences here, perhaps its title would have been more a description of the film itself than of the story it had attempted to narrate. We shall never know.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Why Reduce Expectations?

I accept that not all films are created equal, that some films are inevitably better than others, that there are several different kinds/genres of film, and that sometimes it's pointless to compare films or evaluate some films by the standards that are applied to others. 

What I do not and will never accept, though, is the notion that a film, by virtue of being a comedy/action/insert-genre-here film, is exempted from having any semblance of quality, e.g. "what do you expect, it's an action film!" or "of course, it's mindless, it's a family movie!" Now, I realize that quality is a highly subjective term so I've come up with some very basic parameters that, in my opinion, should apply to almost any movie, no matter the genre:

1) I think that a movie should, first and foremost, have a plot, not a string of excuses for certain events to happen. There should be something, whether it's a physical MacGuffin or something more substantial, that pushes the characters forward from the start of the movie to its end.

2) I think it's fair to say that any movie or even any work of fiction, for that matter, should proceed according to its own internal logic, even if that logic is presented as inherently illogical. In short, once the filmmakers/storytellers lay down the parameters of the story, they should stick to them instead of shifting back and forth within this logic at their convenience just to advance the story.

3) I think that, with the possible exception of Dumb and Dumber, no film should be allowed to rely on the stupidity of its main characters to propel the story forward. The worst ever example of this faux pas I witnessed on film was when, in Back to the Future II, Michael J. Fox's Marty McFly, for no apparent reason, walked away from the time-traveling DeLorean and left the door WIDE OPEN for a considerable period of time, allowing old Biff (Thomas Wilson) to go back in time and mess up the entire continuum with his self-aggrandizing actions. None of this would have been possible if Marty McFly hadn't left the door open, and therefore his inexplicable stupidity was the only possible catalyst of some very important plot points. I know with absolute certainty that there are other examples of such awful plot devices but this is the one that truly left an impression on me, even though it occurred 20 years ago.

I therefore don't accept that Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian is supposed to be mindless. If I find it every bit as bad as reviewers have claimed it to be, I won't accept that Terminator: Salvation is excused from making any kind of sense just because it's an action movie. Whether their purpose is to make us cry, laugh, cringe or cheer, movies are supposed to be well-done love letters to the audience, not dumbed-down, pandering tripe that basically treats all moviegoers like small children. Heck, some of the most intelligent movies ever made (like most of the Pixar films) are branded as family movies, but they don't use that as an excuse to condemn their films to mediocrity. 

Suddenly I am Glad I Never Bought "The Passion of the Christ" on DVD

I was not a fan of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ, when it came out, though I did admire his singularity of vision and his striking (no pun intended) use of lighting, set design, acting, music, sound mixing and editing, all of which seemed to exude the sheer force of his conviction in making this movie. Not being Jewish or having grown up around Jews I was not aware of any anti-Semitic slant in the film (even though his drunken 2006 rant sort of retroactively confirmed what a lot of people were arguing just before and during the film's release). As a Catholic I also respected his devotion, even though I didn't exactly agree with his expression of it. But I never cared enough for his film enough to see it again, let alone bring it home on DVD.

When I learned about the failure of Mel Gibson's marriage on Yahoo News, and the fact that his new, younger girlfriend was pregnant with his child, I was surprised at how upset I felt, but subsequently glad that I felt that way.

Mel Gibson's 27-year-marriage, out of which he fathered seven kids was not, as far as I know, the typical Hollywood coupling. It's different from the unions that have so often been shoved in my face that I have, God forgive me, actually wished for their eventual failure, like the name-amalgam pairs, Bennifer (Mark I), TomKat and Brangelina to name a few and the really disturbing pairings like Marilyn Manson and Evan Rachel Wood. No, Gibson met and married his non-movie star wife before even he was a star; he didn't parade her around or jump on couches professing his love for her.  He wasn't very good tabloid fodder that way, but he did seem like a nice, low-key husband determined to keep his private life mostly out of the public eye.

And it was thus that I realized that I didn't even feel that bad for him but for his marriage, because after all the controversy that hounded him over The Passion and his infamous DUI in 2006, it seemed that his being a decent family man was one of the few redeeming things about him. It was nice to know about a megamillion dollar movie star being able to stay married to his mundane, non-movie star wife for a long period of time and to raise a nice, big family with all of his millions. I was similarly disappointed when Eddie Murphy's longtime marriage to his wife, which also produced five or six children, if I recall correctly, ended.

But I think what riles me more about Mel's transgression against his marriage is basically the fact that he made a movie about Jesus. Jesus. He made a movie with the syrupy, extremely heavy-handed message that Jesus loved us and endured things that no person should have to endure just to redeem us of our sins. He blistered my eyes with the sight of the infamous "cat's claw" whip ripping flesh from Jim Caviezel's body as he played Jesus Christ. 

And I thought, how could a person who makes a movie about Jesus and goes around in junkets saying that this was his most profound and heartfelt expression of his love for Jesus do something like that? As far as Gibson was concerned, after all The Passion wasn't just some film or even a vanity project; it was, as far as I know, the very embodiment of his faith. He even said that he made a cameo in it; his was the hand that hammered the nails into Jesus' hands, saying that he crucified Jesus through his sins. Remembering that quote made me think: so are you lancing his side now too?

Nowadays I can no longer dissociate The Passion, which should probably still be appreciated on its own merits, as the sanctimonious ravings of some ultra-conservative blowhard who clearly has no moral authority or any other form of business preaching to anyone about how much God or Jesus loves us. I also felt irritated at how people like him, as cliche as this may sound, really give us Catholics a bad name. 

Thanks a lot for making us look like pontificating hypocrites, as if those idiots on the pulpits weren't already doing a good enough job. Why don't you go become a Fundamentalist Protestant and erode their credibility a few notches?

At the end of the day, the one thing I'm glad about is that I realize that I still value marriage even my own, at least enough to feel bad to see one that's lasted for so long end so badly. All that's left for me to do is somehow learn from Gibson's mistakes and hope I don't make them. It really is such a shame...

Thursday, May 21, 2009

More Marvel Movie Mania: Branagh's Bets

Marvel comics fan though I am, the mighty Thor is not among my favorite characters in their pantheon. That said, I like him as a character of the Avengers and in good hands he's a nice character to read...pretty much the same deal as with Superman. Though I did like the Don Blake alter-ego; typical Stan Lee irony was at work there (unless Blake was Jack Kirby's idea).  And while I'm not nearly as excited at the prospect of a movie about him as I was about, say Spider-Man or Iron Man, I am looking forward to the impending adaptation for a number of reasons.

The first and foremost is the upcoming Avengers movie; it's long been said that the principal Avengers (Captain America, Iron Man, Thor) will be introduced in their own movies before the team movie itself comes out, and with Iron Man already having opened to much success last year Thor is now the next crucial piece of the puzzle. A successful film about him will bring us that much closer to the Avengers film and that, by itself, is a highly tantalizing prospect.

The second reason I'm excited for this and it's almost as big as the first is the choice of actor-director Kenneth Branagh to direct the film. Now the only two Kenneth Branagh films I've seen in their entirety are Much Ado About Nothing (1993), which I found very good, and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1994), which I found very bad. So if it's based on my own experience of his work, there's a 50/50 chance the Thor movie will stink.

The thing is, and my own experience has nothing to do with this, there is no denying the pedigree that Branagh brings to this film. This is a filmmaker who has built his career almost entirely on adapting the works of William Shakespeare with films he starred in like Much Ado..., Henry V, Hamlet and ones he did not, like the recent As You Like It. That Marvel went after him shows how seriously they are taking this project.

Thirdly, and this is actually a corollary of the second reason, Branagh's showing a clear desire to defy convention. Conventional wisdom has for quite some practically dictated that with a franchise movie, the usual strategy is to cast a relative unknown in the lead and surround him with well-known (or at the very least, better-known) actors, preferably as the villains, but also as supporting characters. It's been that way for years, with the Hackman and Reeve playing off each other in Superman, Nicholson and Keaton squaring off in Batman, and Dafoe and Maguire duking it out in Spider-Man.

Apparently Branagh would have none of that. While he went with the relatively unknown lead (Australian actor Chris Hemsworth, who made quite an impression on me with his very brief performance as George Kirk Sr., the father of James T. Kirk of the Star Trek series) which was almost to be expected (with people like Robert Downey, Jr. being more the exception than the rule), he cast an actor who was perhaps even LESS known outside of his native country than Hemsworth, a British theater actor named Tom Hiddleston, who had worked with Branagh before. That kind of moxie can lead to one of two things: astonishing success or utter disaster. There is no middle ground, as far as I know. 

Considering what's riding on this film, I do hope Branagh's gambit pays off.  Thor is not quite the household name that Spider-Man was before his film, but neither was Iron Man, or Daredevil or Ghost Rider, and every one of those characters' movies, whether deservedly or not, spent two straight weekends as America's number one movie.

In short, Thor may be another feather in Marvel's cap or their first misstep as a studio, but either way, I'm quite interested to find out how it does.

Monday, May 18, 2009

My Attempt to Untwist Trekkies' Panties

SPOILER WARNING: This is not a review; it is a discussion of certain key story elements of the new Star Trek film. Anyone not wanting to have plot points revealed before hand should steer clear of this post.

I am no Trek newbie. I was seven years old when Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan came out and was old enough to feel sad when Spock, then played by Leonard Nimoy, sacrificed himself to save the crew of the Enterprise, and glad to see him return in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. Of the ten movies that came before the 2009 film, described by some as a reboot, by others as a prequel and still others as a sequel, I've seen five in the theaters, and only eight overall (having missed the much reviled Star Trek V: The Final Frontier and the franchise-killing Star Trek: Nemesis). My favorites prior to the new film were the 1996 film First Contact, which actually featured the Next Generation cast of Patrick Stewart et al., and, of course The Wrath of Khan. I'm not a big fan of the original TV series and I may not have written dissertations on Trek (though I've heard that at least one has been written) but I think I'm fit to at least offer an opinion on why the new Star Trek film does NOT erase all of the previous ones from continuity.

As I understand it, time travel is not possible in the fanciful way it's been depicted in fiction, i.e. apparently, due to the laws of physics, it's not possible to go back, though it is theoretically possible to go far forward. Apparently H.G. Wells was correct to assert, as he did in The Time Machine, that one cannot travel back in time. Hence, the notion of traveling back in time will forever remain a fantastical one, the rules of which can pretty much depend on the writer.

In Star Trek, therefore, when the villainous Nero and Spock find themselves flung backwards in time after being sucked through a black hole it is revealed that they have altered the space-time continuum by their mere presence, and even more so by the acts of mayhem Nero perpetrates on the universe of the past, destroying space vessels and even an entire planet.

It is the course of the film that the young/new Spock (Zachary Quinto this time around) declares that because of Nero, the time-stream has been altered and that all of the characters' destinies have changed and are now completely unpredictable.

This has caused a bit of an uproar among some fans (who appear to be in the minority, considering that the new Trek film is reportedly on its way to becoming the most successful in the history of the franchise, even allowing for inflation).

Still, if for no other reason than I want to stand up for a movie I really enjoyed, more than I've ever enjoyed ANY Trek movie, I would like to try my hand at justifying my belief that what has been created is an alternate universe that runs parallel to the original continuity but does not replace it.

The key here is Spock, who appears both as a young man portrayed by Quinto and an old one portrayed by Nimoy.

First of all, Spock remembers the past that he knew; he remembered his friendship with Kirk, Scotty's transport theories and even what drove Nero to do what he did. Had his timeline been erased, he would not have remembered things the way he did and the writers could have just as easily come up with another story device for Kirk to learn of what happened, like Nero's monologue for example, or something else. Just as Nimoy is the link between the past and the present Star Trek in the real world, so is Spock the nexus between the original reality and the one that now runs parallel to it. Time travel to the past will never be real; there are no rules, let alone hard and fast ones, so the writers have a lot of room to play around, and they've played pretty well in my opinion.

Second, clearly director J.J. Abrams and his writers wanted to pay homage to what had come before; rather than have Spock recount the past in some cheesy Titanic-style flashback, they infused him into the story and kept him around when everything was finished rather than have him fade away to his own time or something like that.  This movie is a sequel because even though it's set in the past, the old Spock is right smack in the middle of it; for him, this takes place AFTER all of the old adventures in the first six movies (the seventh being the first of four Next Generation films), so the past is his future. It could have been a straight-up prequel, but the filmmakers were determined that it should not be so, hence the fascinating prequel-reboot hybrid feel to the whole affair.

Finally, it makes no sense that Abrams and company would go through all this trouble to woo new audiences but be completely and utterly oblivious to the built-in fandom that this franchise has accumulated over well over forty years. Trekkies are the last people on Earth they would want to alienate because theirs would be the first fannies in the seats. It's probably the main reason Nimoy was brought on board.

In short...of all the possible conclusions, given both the narrative devices and the imperatives behind them, the idea of a parallel universe is the most...logical.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Toy Tie-Ins: Often A Boon and Sometimes a Bane to A Film's Marketing...

Toy tie-ins are cool. Ever since the concept was first massively popularized by Kenner when it made and sold licensed toy versions of Han Solo, Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader and the other characters of Star Wars, toy tie-ins have been an integral part of the marketing push of any big movie franchise or aspiring movie franchise. I think there have been books written on the subject, which has, by now, formed a sort of sub-culture all its own which was arguably lampooned in films like The 40-Year-Old Virgin.

So important are toy campaigns, in fact, that they can help a movie studio make money even if the film itself underperforms, as was the case with the "Hulk hands" which proved to be rather popular toys despite the underwhelming grosses of the 2003 Marvel Comics-based film Hulk. Notably, with last year's sequel, The Incredible Hulk, also came the return of the very same toy, albeit from a different manufacturer in Hasbro as opposed to Marvel's "in-house" toymaker Toy Biz. Toy tie-ins, of course, can help the profile of TV shows as well, although in some instances the show is merely the vehicle to sell the toys, as was the case with such popular toy lines as Transformers and G.I. Joe, to name a few. That's a different animal altogether.

Sometimes, the tie-ins are brilliant; this is determined mainly by the quality of the toys. I despised the plastic and overly expensive Speed Racer Hot Wheels cars that came out to coincide with the movie, but liked (and even bought) the relatively cheaper, die cast Jada Toys versions of Speed Racer cars based on those featured in the original 1960s cartoon. Jada toys does good tie-in, movie-based stuff like the Scarface Cadillac (with matching Al Pacino figurine!) or the Initial "D" cars based on the popular anime. Sometimes they're awful, and I won't even go into some of the worse ones I've seen on a shelf.

For better or worse, though, I won't deny that all of these toys help increase awareness of a film, even months before its actual release.

The thing is, sometimes they can make a potential audience a little too much aware of a film by revealing plot points. I won't go into specifics, but suffice it to say I think a certain summer movie this year has had one of its surprises revealed by the toys currently on the shelves.

Now this could all be deliberate; let people think they know a certain plot twist ahead of time and give them a sense of gratification upon being able to "get the jump" on everyone else, but for those of us who want our surprises to remain surprises, it can be rather irritating to have a good chunk of the plot telegraphed to us beforehand. It feels a case of some really bad marketing strategy. Can anyone imagine how much The Sixth Sense would have been diminished if people knew the whole story, or even just the twist at the end, beforehand? That's the kind of spoilage I think I experienced by glancing at these toys (and, incidentally, some stupid person also spoiled the ending of The Sixth Sense for me as well, though I was still able to enjoy it despite my profound annoyance).

I mean, what's the point of dodging wikipedia, and other spoiler heavy sites on the internet if a spoiler can appear in glorious 3-D on a toy shelf?

I guess the one sure way to make sure one has a spoiler-free action/franchise movie experience is to steer absolutely clear of toy stores (assuming one is the kind who frequents them to begin with) for at least three or four months before the movie's release in theaters, and, if one is a toy collector, buy them the day after watching it.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Easter Eggs

Since I introduced the concept of the "Easter Egg" on DVDs to my son, he's been pretty much obsessed with them, quite to my amusement.

I realize that an Easter Egg is loosely defined as something that is hidden, but what's really fun about movies based on pop-culture icons like the Hulk or Spider-man is that these characters have such rich histories that it's child's play to pack in tons of references, some obvious, some obscure, to these histories in the movies. Depending on the fan's knowledge of the character, the little factoids may be easy or tough to spot, i.e. they may or may not be "Easter Eggs," but I'll just call them that for convenience's sake.

Here, in no particular order, are some Marvel Easter Eggs/references, some obvious, some a touch more subtle, that I particularly enjoyed:

The appearances of Jim Wilson and Bill Bixby in The Incredible Hulk. "Hey! That's a great punch!"

Tony Stark referring to a "Ben" during the press conference in Iron Man where he had everyone sit on the floor, who may or may not have been Ben Urich ( a character that Scott Glenn---not Joe Pantoliano--was born to play).

Captain America's shield in Iron Man.

The "Eddie's been trying to get a picture of him for weeks" line in the first Spider-Man movie, seen as an oblique reference to Eddie Brock which was later invalidated by the fact that in Spider-Man 3 he was "the new guy." It was quite a tease, and even though SM3 eventually disappointed, that particular reference was still fun.

The list of mutants that appeared on a computer screen in X2: X-Men United. Yet another tease that eventually let me down, but it sure got the fanboy in me drooling.

The Fastball Special from the much-reviled X-Men 3. The difficulty with casting a man as large as Hugh Jackman as the diminutive Wolverine is that you have to cast someone even bigger than him as Colossus to make the FS seem anything other than ridiculous. Well, they found their man with Daniel Cudmore, who must be seven feet tall and four hundred pounds or something (he looks huge, anyway), and even though the actual move looked a touch awkward (in the comics Colossus doesn't have to spin around; he just chucks Wolverine like he would a baseball, hence the name) I applauded the effort.

"Whiplash 1" and "Whiplash 2" in Iron Man. Coincidentally or not, Whiplash (whom I "met" in the comic book world as Blacklash), played by Mickey Rourke, is slated to be the next villain for Shellhead to square off against.

Samuel Sterns' swelling head in The Incredible Hulk, a sneak preview of his guise as the Leader. If only for that, that movie deserves a sequel.

The references to the writers and artists of the character Daredevil was one of the few things that was truly good about the movie based on him. From the names of the boxers Matt Murdock's father fought (Bendis, Mack, Miller) to the billboards (Romita was on one) to the names of the characters (Fr. Everett being a reference to co-creator Bill Everett, lowlife Jose Quesada being a reference to Marvel E-I-C and Daredevil writer/artist Joe Quesada) to appearances by the creators themselves (Stan Lee in his obligatory Marvel movie cameo, Kevin Smith as a morgue attendant, Frank Miller as a bodyguard with a Bullseye-flung pencil in his forehead), this movie is second to none in references to the character's many, many creators. It'd be even cooler if there were references I didn't catch, like Gene Colan or something like that; though I'm not about to get that movie on DVD just for that, it would be cool to catch it while I was watching the movie on TV or during a bus ride or something like that.

Yeah, comic book geeks, except for the perenially-complaining, impossible to please ones, are really in a better position to enjoy comic-book derived films than anyone else. ;D

Friday, May 08, 2009

For the Love of Simon Cowell, Jeremy Clarkson and...Armond White???

Just about anyone who watches TV knows who Simon Cowell is. The sultan of snark has achieved heights of notoriety that neither of his co-judges, each of whom is well-enough-known in his or her own right, can quite aspire to achieve, at least as judges of the show (considering that Paula Abdul was already quite popular on her own independently of the show), and it isn't just because he was responsible for (or at least instrumental to) bringing the show over to the U.S. from across the pond. It's because of all the four (formerly three) judges, he is apparently the hardest to please, and of four judges, all of whom are perfectly capable of giving an aspiring idol a thumbs-down, his negative remarks are easily the most biting, the most caustic, the most likely to break hearts and crush spirits. Pleasing Cowell has therefore become something of a Holy Grail, with many aspirants, including the really, really awful ones that kick off any given season, often proclaiming that they WILL win him over. Never mind, Paula, Randy and the other new judge whose name I have yet to remember. Simon, in many people's eyes, is the big cheese, even though, during auditions, there are three people who could (and often do) outvote him, and even though during the actual contest, the voting is entirely in the hands of the audience. 

It's the same thing with Top Gear host Jeremy Clarkson, who, to those who follow the show, is rather famous/infamous for his virtually all abiding intolerance of two things: 1) American cars; and 2) almost all variants of the Porsche 911. Over the years, the BBC program has by and large been more about entertainment than journalism, with Clarkson and his co-hosts Richard Hammond and James May having gotten their facts wrong about the cars they were reviewing on more than one occasion, and rather than give straightforward reviews of the vehicles they drive the reviewers, particularly Clarkson, invariably resort to hyperbole, quite often in lambasting the subjects of their review. In fact, in one episode last year, Clarkson, rather than actually review the Porsche 911 GT2, had a series of shots of him smoking the wheels with him wailing behind the wheel to signify how unruly a car he found it to be.  Between his hatred of the 911, which can sometimes border on the irrational, and his repeated fudging up of the facts of the cars he drives, Clarkson is hardly the world's most professional automotive journalist, but I defy anyone to name someone in the same line of work who is anywhere near as well-known (at least in the English-speaking world).

While he is nowhere near as well-known as either of the foregoing gentlemen, Armond White, a film critic for the New York Press whose reviews appear online at the popular website, appears to be gaining a bit of notoriety for his apparent determination to give otherwise critically acclaimed movies failing grades and to do the exact opposite for a lot of movies that get critically panned. As absurd as this sounds, allow me to give examples: last year he panned films like The Dark Knight, Slumdog Millionaire, The Wrestler and Milk, all of which scored at least 93% or higher on the "Tomatometer" or the site's collective score based on all of the compiled reviews. This year, his was one of the eight negative reviews of the new Star Trek film, which so far has rated an astonishing 96% on out of more than two hundred reviews so far (though to be fair, he was in good company this time, with renowned film critic Roger Ebert posting a rather negative review himself).  With this guy the rule of thumb seems to be that if everyone else seems to like it, it's almost a given that he will hate it. 

But that's not the astonishing thing.

What really killed me was how, of the more than two hundred reviews currently tracked on, White's review, far and away, has the most traffic in the form of user comments, with RT users having posted well over TWO HUNDRED COMMENTS on his review alone at last count. Sure, the comments were basically buckets of venom, some of them racist, some of them calling for his job, threatening his life, or that of his family, while some of them posited conspiracy theories about why he likes to give bad reviews to otherwise well-reviewed movies, but the point is, the comments were THERE. NO OTHER review generated anywhere NEAR as many responses. I never even bothered to read the review, and my previous experience with White's reviews had gotten my blood boiling; the comments were more than enough reading for me.

And it hit me: a GREAT many people in this world, whether they are followers of Simon Cowell, or of Jeremy Clarkson or the people who just want to pull down their pants and crap on Armond White, are profoundly addicted to negativity.

I'm sure someone with a better understanding of the human psyche could articulate this point a lot better than I am trying to do here, but since a dear friend of mine pointed out (on this very space) that I seem to seek out things that annoy me I've been trying to understand why. I haven't yet succeeded, but I've at the very least determined that I'm not alone.

And that isn't a good thing.

Maybe it's part of our nature because we aim to please, therefore we seek out the people hardest to please. Or maybe it's because when we see a red stain on a white dress we have to keep rubbing and rubbing it until the entire dress is stained.

Or maybe it's because we love bad boys/girls. I mean, when talking about Star Wars, one has to ask: who's more iconic, Luke Skywalker or Darth Vader? And is it coincidence that Hannibal Lecter has been featured in five movies as opposed to Clarice Starling's two?

I don't pretend to understand why it is that so many people gravitate towards things that upset them, irritate them or make them varying degrees of unhappy, but it seems like an inescapable truth that people do just that, even when they know better. 

We really are a bunch of total basket cases that way...

So the next time Simon buys another mansion or shacks up with some other impossibly gorgeous ingenue, or the next time Jezza smokes the tires of some unconscionably expensive, million-horsepower monster with Alcantara leather and gets paid for it, or the next time Armond White basks in the thousands of negative comments from his anti-fans, each of these men should take pause and give thanks for many people's inordinate fondness for dwelling on the negative.

Monday, May 04, 2009

The Difference Between Fox Marvel Movies and Every Other Kind...

Last year, 2008, was my favorite year for Marvel Comics movies. Last year, we Marvel Comics fans were treated to one hit-it-out-of-the-park fantastic film with Iron Man, and one solidly-entertaining, if sometimes flawed popcorn flick with The Incredible Hulk. Not since 2002, when the one-two punch of Blade II and Spider-Man rocked my world, had I enjoyed a year full of comic-book movies that much.

For me 2008 was particularly gratifying as a Marvel fan because it was a year that some luster was restored to the brand; after a run of both critical and box-office successes with the first two Spider-man movies and X-Men 2, Marvel's film properties suffered a visible drop in quality, with the Fantastic Four movies being average at best, the Ghost Rider film turning out to be unspeakably awful, and the third installments of both the Spider-man and X-men franchises proving to be huge disappointments to many fans.

The summer of 2008 changed that when Iron Man surprised everyone by coming in second only to The Dark Knight in terms of United States grosses and garnering stellar reviews almost across the board, at least if and metacritic are to be believed. The Incredible Hulk may not have scaled similar heights, but considering that it was working against a lot of factors, chief of which was the very poor reception of its predecessor, Ang Lee's 2003 debacle Hulk (which I actually liked), it was actually quite an achievement; it opened well, showed visibly better legs than the Lee film, and left a lot of fanboys cheering. And best of all, both movies, the latter even more than the former, offered somewhat tantalizing teases of the unified Marvel Universe to come, something no other comic book film, Marvel, DC or otherwise, could claim.

Of course, the best part about both these movies was that they were not made by a studio, whether Sony, Fox or Universal; they were made by Marvel itself, with studios such as Paramount and Universal only handling the distribution duties. Marvel showed that with the right amount of money, talent and love for the material, there was so much they could do. Sony Pictures, the studio responsible for Spider-Man, perked up and took notice; they pushed the release date on the inevitable fourth installment back a full year to allow for more development time.

Unfortunately, however, the quality of those two films appears to have had no impact on how Twentieth Century Fox handles its Marvel movies, at least if X-Men Origins: Wolverine is any indication.

To be fair, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, was probably well into production at the time both Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk came out, so its quality, or lack thereof, may well have been set in stone in some respects, but the chasm in quality between the Fox film and that made by Marvel themselves is so wide one wonders if Fox will ever catch up, though they're reputedly fixing to retool the Fantastic Four franchise along the lines of Iron Man.  If they hire ILM to do the effects instead of some two-penny, half-penny outfit I'll be inclined to believe them. 

The way Fox makes Marvel movies is a lot like the way Mattel/Hot Wheels makes 1/18 Ferrari model cars. Both companies are fond of cutting corners and are often so intent on getting more for less than their products are visibly slipshod, especially when compared to the slicker products of their rivals.  Just as Mattel has a stranglehold on the Ferrari license, unfortunately so does Fox seem to have an interminable contract with Marvel over properties like Daredevil, Fantastic Four, and,  of course the X-Men. So for years to come we can look forward to cheap excuses for Ferrari models and crappy Marvel/Fox movies. The thing is, like a toy modeled after a Ferrari, a movie made based on a Marvel Comics property has the potential to be so much more.