Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Comic book fare (X Men: First Class, Kung Fu Panda 2, Thor)

Charles and Erik share an intimate moment

Multiplex munching

"You're Thor? I could hardly walk!"

Kenneth Branagh's Thor is a disappointment--but, come to think of it, what can one expect from Branagh? His best work was arguably his Shakespeare pictures, his single best film--a 1989 adaptation of Henry V--cribbed its very best scene (the St. Crispin's Day defeat of the French) from the Battle of Shrewsbury that Orson Welles shot for his Harry Bolingbroke adaptation (Chimes at Midnight (1965), in my opinion one of the greatest films ever made) at a fraction of Branagh's budget and many times its impact.

Thor captures some of the epic soap involved--the God of Thunder (Chris Hemsworth) acting arrogant and being banished to Earth for his pains; Loki (Tom Hiddleston) scheming desperately for his father's approval; and so on. Perhaps the movie's highlight is a clash between the God of Thunder and a metallic 'Destroyer'--an oversized, modernized version of Gort from The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) complete with death ray, devastating a small town.

The town's crucial, I think; it helps provide a familiar background against which two powerful beings can come to grips. Also helps that when Thor strikes The Destroyer you hear the vast metallic clang of metal under extreme stress--goes a long way towards selling the idea that you're witnessing titanic forces at work. When the stakes are raised--when Thor finally ascends to Asgard and takes on his Asgardian brother--the dramatic impact feels paradoxically diminished. Hard to care about a shiny kingdom you've never seen before (approached by what looks like a psychedelically lit and painted polyurethane bridge), hard furthermore to care about godlike beings whacking at each other without any apparent harm. 

Could barely stay awake throughout Thor; the special effects are bland, the hero's bland (only Hiddleston and Anthony Hopkins as Odin look as if they're having any real fun), most of the battles save for the sparring in the small town are bland; there's little actual (as opposed to digital) substance for me to hold on to emotionally, much less form any interest over. They would have been better off releasing the Kraken--at least that creature (along with a hundred-foot lemon wedge) might have kept my interest. Kept me salivating, anyway.

"Let it flow, let it flow, let it flow"

Thor had one thing going for it (that small town melee, possibly inspired by a similar scene in Richard Lester's Superman II (1980)); Kung Fu Panda 2 has--oh, maybe one and a half: the lovely mixed-media animation design (2-D animation, the use of Chinese motifs, even shadow puppets), and the unlikely image of Gary Oldman's voice coming out of an evil peacock's throat. Oldman's Lord Shen sounds on paper like an unlikely choice for a supervillain, but the combination of a vividly written and realized backstory (he's the son of a royal clan sent into exile for committing atrocities), a collection of deadly blades hidden in the wing feathers, and Oldman's inimitably reptilian delivery help sell the menace.

Jennifer Yuh does better than Branagh with the action--for one she understands the concept of 'flow;' for another, she understands that setting the action against a background of familiar locations helps enormously (villages, caverns, Daoist temples--locations fans of wushu movies will swiftly recognize and appreciate).

It's not a great movie--too much time spent on psychoanalysis, too much angst about lost parents. Where the original focused on a fat loser who aspires to eat his dumplings with a pair of chopsticks (a wonderful scene probably inspired by Jackie Chan's gift for turning everyday objects into weapons and bits of unexpected comedy), the sequel is about a hero seeking to resolve childhood issues and achieve 'inner peace.' Give me the dumplings and a pair of chopsticks any day.

"They're just kids."

Finally: Matthew Vaughn's X Men: First Class doesn't have the brash violence of his Kick Ass (2010), nor does it have the wit and startling sweetness of his Stardust (2007), but it does give new life to a franchise that in the hands of hack extraordinaire Brett Ratner was on its terminal stages.

It helps to have a young and attractive cast, to have above all James MacAvoy and Michael Fassbender (as Charles Xavier and Erik Lensherr (a.k.a.Magneto) respectively) play out their budding bromance with youthful flair (the electricity crackling between these two could sizzle bacon), and to set the whole thing during a vivid moment in American history (the Cuban Missile Crisis).  

Also helps that Vaughn--as evidenced in Kick Ass and this picture--has the filmmaking chops to exceed even original X Men director Bryan Singer, at least in the action sequence department.

What the movie's missing--what it lacks to make it memorable, maybe even great--is the sense of urgency that Singer brought to the first two pictures. X Men and X Men 2 seethed with the fury of the marginalized, the dispossessed; Magneto may not be right about how to achieve what he wants to achieve, but when he tells us "...there is no land of tolerance. There is no peace. Not here, or anywhere else" he does so not with the malevolence of a supervillain, but with the weary despair of someone speaking from long experience.  

"The war is still coming," he informs us; "I intend to fight it, by any means necessary." More than the shock of invoking Malcom X for its closing lines, there's the sense that Singer's X Men movies were a political statement, a declaration maybe not of war, but of defiance: we are here, we're alive, you're not ridding yourselves of us so easily. You don't get any of that in X Men: First Class.



Dennis Yu said...

"What the movie's missing--what it lacks to make it memorable, maybe even great--is the sense of urgency....." I like this reboot better than X1 and X2. I think what I like about it was exactly its lack of urgency. In that way, First Class feels more personal.

Noel Vera said...

The personal can be urgent. That coming out scene in X2--and the way his family reacted. How much more personal can you get? And there's nothing like that in this one.

I like it fine, but if the series has any claim to greatness, X2 has the best argument.

But if it's comic-book films we're talking about, there are only three worth seeing: Batman Returns, Danger: Diabolik, and Popeye. Now those three are very personal projects.

Dennis Yu said...

Kung sabagay. It's been a while since I saw X2. But didn't that coming out scene involve one of the "minor" characters? (I really can't remember the details.)

In First Class, there are also moments intense and personal, like the attempt to reverse mutation that went awry, the partial memory erasure that left hints of romance nipped in the bud, the stray bullet that betrayed the randomness and cruelty of life.

There's somewhat more balance in First Class: childhood spent in a secluded estate, contrasted with childhood stolen during the WWII years. The film focuses tightly on the two lead characters. And ended as they were in the beginning: on separate ways.

Noel Vera said...

The antidote gone wrong is a classic trope in science fiction--I can see it coming a mile off.

That said, I still enjoy it. Hank had it coming, too--his attitude was so wrong.

Partial memory erasure? Far as I know she's just lying so she can keep tabs on the CIA for Xavier.

Not a big fan of the bullet gone wrong--felt the timing (they could have save it for the sequel) felt more like melodrama than honest drama. Like "oh, they had him shot so that we can have a finale in a wheelchair."

I can see where pitting two polar opposites intensifies the contrast, but I can also see the argument that this can be a bit diagrammatic, a bit too neat. I tend to favor the latter view.