Kent’s Damned Retro Reviews: X-Men: First Class

Just standing around like we're on a Christian album cover.

Let’s get one thing out of the way before all else; Matthew Vaughn’s X-Men: First Class is miles better than the slightly fun, but mostly dumb, Wolverine and the all-dumb X-Men 3. Bryan Singer’s return to the franchise as a producer is felt immediately and this is very much the spiritual successor to the first two X-films. One will probably find themselves wishing that he would ape his own Superman Returns in its flagrant nose-thumbing at what’s come before and make a sequel to the first two films that ignores the established film continuity of the third and fourth. (Actually, I’m pretty sure First Class already does in a way. I haven’t seen Last Stand since it was released in theaters due to its stank, but I seem to recall its opening (and the end of Wolverine) being contradicted by the ending of the current film.)

But enough of this nerdy fanboyism as to continuity and its place in the X-pantheon. (Yes, I hope to use a lot of X-words today.)

As an origin story, X-Men: First Class is pretty much X-pendable. It’s simply not needed. The first film did a good enough job introducing the characters and concept. However, this is no waste of a movie. It’s a solid piece of storytelling and a lot of fun.

The important thing is that not only does this sequel take us back to the roots of what made the franchise enjoyable, but it gives us something we haven’t seen before; a period superhero film that isn’t set in World War II and that takes itself seriously enough to get us to take it seriously.

It’s the sixties and the Reds are just shy of parking some warheads where they can shove them up our collective asses in, as JFK pronounces it, “Cuber.” In this alternate, comic book history, we see the situation being exacerbated for the malevolent machinations of Sebastian Shaw (Kevin Bacon), leader of the infamous baddies, The Hellfire Club. Will the X-tots be able to stop all-out nuclear war? Will Shaw act as Blofeld-ian as Kevin Bacon is capable of? Will Emma Frost strut around in what appears to be a wonderbra long before they were invented? What do you think?

There are certainly moments when the proceedings (or at least some of the props) will likely make you roll your eyes, but none of them are deadly to the enjoyment of the story. For the most part, the actors play their roles well and look the part, especially in their dapper yellow and black outfits, inspired by their Silver-Age origins. Take that, black leather.

The biggest question marks in the casting going in would undoubtedly be Xavier and Magneto, given the pedigree that the characters have been filled with in their later incarnations, but both are portrayed acceptably. Michael Fassbender’s turn as the future leader of the Brotherhood is especially inspired as he harnesses the rage of Magneto before it is tempered and turned into the simmering, weary villain that Ian McKellen would embody.

Quite a number of the other mutants are throwaways, shoehorned from more modern eras, but most of them work. Special attention is due to Rose Byrne as Moira McTaggart, a CIA employee that manages to pull off seeming like a capable agent and looking great in her underwear at the same time. Not an easy feat.

If you started out as a fan of this series, but feel burned by some of the previous entries, I recommend giving Professor X’s brood another chance. You’ll likely find a lot to enjoy in this Bond-ian superhero romp.

(Three and a half out of five stars)

 (This review was first published at the time X-Men: First Class was released in theaters.)

Aisle of the Damned Episode II – Attack of The Clones

Welcome back! In our second episode Bryan and Kent start off by reviewing some DVD’s/Blu-Rays: Dumbo, Winnie The Pooh, The Rocketeer, Godzilla/Godzilla: King of the Monsters, Flash Gordon, Superargo vs. Diabolicus, Golden Bat and Poltergeist. We then run down each of our “Top Five Movies of All Time”! Finally in our theatrical reviews we review Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.

Music: The Aquabats – Stuck In A Movie, Skavoovie & The Epitones – Batman Movie Theme

Golden Bat Trailer

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Kent’s Damned Retro Reviews: Tangled

There’s a reason I, as a straight, adult male, own a copy of Sleeping Beauty on Blu-Ray.

I am an animation nerd. It’s a bit natural, actually. I fancy myself a mediocre cartoonist so it just goes hand in hand with an appreciation for the art form. One of the sad things about the last ten years has been the abject abandoning of the traditional animated feature. Sure, there was The Princess and the Frog, but unless Disney shows me otherwise, I’m tending to think of it as a throwback fluke to show that it could still be done. So when I learned that Disney was attempting to created a computer-animated film that tried to retain the look of a 2D feature, I took notice. I felt I needed to check it out and see what the result was, if only for the sake of morbid curiosity. Were they successful? Well, yes and no. But almost all yes.

The characters in the film sometimes retain that common computer plasticity to them when it comes to their skin. On rare occasion, they even seem to be a bit doll-like. However, while the trend in CGI toons seems to make them as grotesque and hard to look at as possible (Mosters Vs. Aliens and Disney’s own A Christmas Carol to name a couple), the characters in Tangled are fantastically designed to look like they truly belong in a classic Disney film. Even more impressive is the exquisite facial work that often presents itself in Repunzal herself, the subtle deadpan of her prerequisite animal sidekick Pascal and the film’s standout character, the horse Maximus. In fact, it’s Maximus that shows just how leaps-and-bounds the film’s character animation is over that of a standard computer film. He looks like someone animated him with a pencil and then painted 3D over it. It’s outstanding.

He also is probably the most easily distinguished example in the film of how the animators have managed to take a dramatic step forward in something that until now has been utterly disappointing; physical comedy in CGI films. Hand drawn animation has always had one distinct advantage over three dimensional animation in it’s ability to use squash and stretch. Films like Meet the Robinsons, Cloudy with a Chance at Meatballs and the new Road Runner shorts produced by Warner Bros. are all films that have tried to incorporate large amounts of traditional cartoony physical comedy and all have failed to one degree or another because they simply haven’t been able to reproduce something unique in the artform. But with Tangled, there is finally a film that’s succeeded.

Admittedly, the visuals and the technical achievements overshadowed a lot of the other parts of the film for me. I’ve never been huge on musicals and while there’s a musical setpiece or two that I particularly enjoyed, it’s not the type of wowing that happened during the Mouse’s do-know-wrong period of the early 90s. The voice acting is very well-done. Zachary Levi of Chuck definitely steals the show in this regard with his excellent comedic delivery. Of the actresses trying to be singers and singers trying to be actresses, Mandy Moore has been the clear standout to me, so her presence is more than adequate for the princess. The animal sidekicks aren’t overdone and manage to display a lot of personality while still maintaining their non-human charm. Frankly, as far as the film itself goes, it is simple, straightforward and just plain good. It’s a definite throwback to the princess films of yesteryear and in a good way. It makes sense that this was Walt’s 50th film because it’s so representative to the formula that his artists perfected.

One note about the 3D itself, it is utilized well in the film. While most of it will translate just fine if you decide to save a buck or two on the glasses, there is a scene about three quarters of the way through that takes the format and squeezes it for what it’s worth, not by wowing with spectacle, but using it to bring focus. It’s a moment that likely won’t have the same impact when you’re watching the film at home for the hundredth time with your kids, so don’t feel bad shelling out for it.

(Author’s note: This review was first written and published in Nov. 2010.)

Aisle of the Damned Episode I – The Phantom Menace

Welcome to the Aisle of the Damned Podcast!  In our first episode, Bryan and Kent start off by talking about their recently watched movies at home: Super 8Trigun: Badlands RumbleCan’t Hardly Wait, The Film Crew: Giant of MarathonMystery Science Theater 3000: HobgobilnsGamera Trilogy (90s)The Monster SquadThe Girl Next Door, and Yes Man. Then they cover the upcoming movies of 2012 and go over the schedule of releases with commentary. Finally some theatrical reviews of: The MuppetsSherlock Holmes: Game of ShadowsThe Adventures of Tin-Tin, and Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol.

Music: The Aquabats – Stuck In A Movie, Man or Astro-Man – King of Monsters

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Kent’s Damned Movie Reviews: The Artist

Let me start out by saying that I can’t remember the last time I went to a movie with an almost packed audience. I mean, sure I’ve been to them. All three Star Wars prequels and two Lord of the Rings films have shown me full-blown, boisterous crowds. If I strain hard, it would probably be Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2. But it’s rare that I attend Saturday night screenings anymore and most of the midnight showings I’ve been to have been probably less than half full. So imagine my shock when I entered the local art house cinema to find that I was going to have trouble finding a seat. I found one towards the front and I hurried to plant my rear as I didn’t want to miss anything further from the Moonrise Kingdom trailer that was playing beforehand, which was making me howl. (Sadly, this was followed by a woefully facepalm worthy trailer that seemed to be a rebuttal to the treatment of King Edwards’ mistress in The King’s Speech. Directed by Madonna. …Yeah.) Now I’ll grant you, the film was showing in what is referred to as the “Little Theater,” but for a quirky film that had been in release for quite some time and had already been running for weeks at this very theater? That’s a lot, even for an Oscar nominee. Heck, I’d seen Tinker Tailer Soldier Spy in the same theater the week before and was one of only a handful of people.

For those not paying attention to the Oscar hype, The Artist is, for all but a few fleeting moments, a silent film. Which is not to say it’s truly SILENT silent, because it does have a musical score to accompany it. But you should probably just figure it as silent, because that’s how it plays. It’s in black and white. It’s in the 1.33 aspect ratio like your old TV set. It has dialogue cards. It tells its story like a comedic Sunset Boulevard, following a silent film actor at the top named George Valentin (GET IT?!?) who falls from grace due to a refusal to participate in talkies, the stock market crash and just about every bad thing that can happen to a man of his stature, except losing his ever-present dog. Seriously. He’s like Paris Hilton with that dog.

Valentin, played by French actor Jean Dujardin, was previously mostly known from the OSS 117 films that parody 60’s James Bond vehicles. Which is another way of saying, pretty much nobody in the US knew who he was. In a way, it’s a big of ingenious casting, since accents were a problem a lot of handsome fellows had in moving to sound films. It adds a bit of real-life influence to the part.

But while he is getting most of the praise and the nominations, the real revelation for the film to me is Bérénice Bejo. Which is a bit ironic, given the film’s story. Just trust me on this. According to IMDB, she was also in A Knight’s Tale, but considering I practically forgot everything about that movie right after I saw it, it doesn’t surprise me that she didn’t ring a bell. Anyway, she plays the wonderfully named Peppy Miller, a young actress who manages to rise from an accidental discovery to a superstar, seemingly in a matter of months. I couldn’t believe it when I visited her IMDB page while doing some research for this review and I found out she’s older than I am, because she looks like she’s 22. Irregardless, she provides a warmth to the film that helps immensely. Sure, Valentin is being a stubborn lout, but when Miller believes in him, we want to believe in him too.

The rest of the cast is filled with a surprisingly high caliber of actors. John Goodman, James Cromwell and Penelope Ann Miller all have well-supported supporting roles. Frankly, I’m just glad to see Miller in something, because I’ve been wondering what happened to her after The Relic recently. I liked that film. But I digress. There are a lot of “lookit” moments in the film. Hey, lookit! There’s Malcolm McDowell! Hey, I think that’s Bill Murray’s younger brother. What the… that’s Dawber from Coach.

The silent aspect itself definitely comes off as a novelty, which isn’t to say that it isn’t used well. I still had the issue that I always have when I see a black and white film these days, which is that almost nobody seems to be able to make one that looks like a real black and white film. (Except maybe Ed Wood. I haven’t had a chance to see it lately, but I remember it being better than most.) With few exceptions, they mostly look like someone watching a color TV show on a black and white television. I guess that people just forgot how to do the make-up for them and the filmstocks have changed. But despite being an anachronism, the film itself  should keep your attention and even throw out some definite laughs. One misdirect towards the end drew quite a few guffaws from me.

What was really interesting though, and probably the reason why this review diverts so much from one of my normal writings into a random observation-filled piece that seems more about me recounting the experience of what was going through my head while viewing it, is that when the movie begins, we see an audience cheering and applauding a Valentin film like they would an opera or a concert. And when this film was over, there were enough people in the audience who loved what they’d seen, they felt compelled enough to take a cue from their example. I’ve only heard applauding once or twice when I’ve been to a movie, so it was enough for me to take notice, and smile because of it. I don’t think I was affected as much as they were, but darned if it wasn’t a fine way to spend an hour and a half. Do I think it should be a best picture nominee? Probably not. But I’m not surprised, given Hollywood’s masturbatory nature over movies about movies.

The important thing is, it’s an accessible film that will most likely make you laugh and get a bit wistful over an era you weren’t around to experience and there’s nothing wrong with that.

(Four out of five stars)

Kent’s Damned Movie Reviews: The Woman in Black

There’s something wonderful about seeing the Hammer logo again. Its adjusted look, which celebrates its rich heritage of b-movies and horror before solidifying into a blood red bit of typographical mastery, gets the feeling of their return just right.

It’s especially good to see it in front of a well-made film like The Woman in Black, the new gothic horror film released by the fabled production company.

After successfully remaking the Swedish film, Let the Right One In as ‘Let Me In’ (a practice that extends back to the beginning of Hammer, when they were essentially remaking the Universal horror pictures of two decades prior), The Woman in Black is a clear sign that the production company is taking another step in the right direction towards reestablishing itself.

The tale is a classic ghost story with nary a cynical or pretentious bone in it’s body. It does not wink at the audience and it certainly isn’t interested in making you laugh, unless it is for release. All it wants to do is scare you and, if you’re like me, your hackles will be raised.

It’s a film that goes for a more traditional feel than most modern horror films that simply rack up body counts and pile on gore to the point of self-satire. While that might often be fun, and is certainly an improvement over the hopefully short-lived torture porn boom, it should hardly be the only game in town. Woman is the first film of it’s type I can think of off-hand since Nicole Kidman’s The Others quite a few years ago. But this one does not rely on a Twilight Zone twist ending for its story to work, for better or worse. The only other recent film approaching its ilk is last year’s release Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark. They both have creepy houses filled with even creepier things. I still have yet to understand why in the Victorian era, humanity lost all sense of what was horrifying and decided to mass produce the most disturbing things possible for the express purpose of putting them in children’s bedrooms.

Like Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark, it manages to be scary through the use of camera work, atmosphere and a general foreboding that sneaks in from every corner of the screen. Sneak being the optimal word, in this case. At times, the film seems to be like a sibling that’s constantly trying to hide everywhere in the house in order to jump out and scare you and there comes a point where the viewer has to decide whether or not to come aboard and enjoy the game of hide and seek that’s happening.  For some of the supposed sophisticated set, who find the wind-up brick-a-brack populating the crumbling mansion more silly than creepy, it may be harder to do. There is little explicit gore here. (Not that there isn’t at least one scene that would likely have caused an uproar a few decades ago.) There isn’t any cracking wise by the hero. Just a house with sounds coming from every direction, looking like everything can come to life at any second. You almost think its statues will start breaking out in a chorus of “Grim Grinning Ghosts.” Oh, and there is a boatload of sideways child endangerment, so it’s fun for the whole family.

In many ways, this is a good follow-up to the Harry Potter films by Radcliffe, who seemed to be staking a claim purely in theater between their chapters. He plays a widowed lawyer, long suffering from depression, who is given a choice to either follow-up on the estate papers of a deceased woman, or be let go from his law firm. In their eyes, the four years following his wife’s death have been quite long enough for him to pull himself up by his bootstraps and he’s given what had to look like an easy assignment on paper. Of course, the house turns out to be an isolated nightmare named “Eel Marsh,” made even more solitary by it being cut off from the mainland when the tide is high. Radcliffe plays the part surprisingly well given his relative youth, with a hollow-eyed somber to him. Somehow finding out he was a borderline alkie at the end of the Harry Potter series only helps.

The rest of the cast is good, but given little to do. It truly is a film that stars Radcliffe and a piece of real estate. It’s certainly not a masterpiece, though I honestly wouldn’t mind seeing it get some consideration for its set design and sound work come awards season next year. What it is is a solid little film that helps buck the trend of bad movies coming out this time of year. We can all welcome that.

 

(Three and a half out of five stars.)

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Kent’s Damned Movie Reviews: Haywire

   

    Taking someone from the athletic field and plugging them into a film isn’t exactly a new trend. Hell, if there wasn’t a National Football League, there probably wouldn’t even be a viable blaxploitation genre. Plus, how many wrestlers have tried to make the move to movies? Sometimes you get The Rundown. And then sometimes you get Santa with Muscles.

In this case, the non-actor in question is Gina Carano, a mixed-martial artist with looks enough to have emerged as a fan-favorite in the sport. I’m sure her expertise in the field helps, though tennis players have certainly been able to get by without it. Luckily for her, director Steven Soderbergh constructs Haywire in such a way that it comes across as a stylish 70’s-style thriller rather than, say, Gymkata.

And Soderbergh doesn’t shy away from drawing parallels to the era at all. The excellent, high-octane, funk-tinged score is certainly evocative of the time and some of her outfits display just enough retro-chic for the time without being terribly blatant and in-your-face about it. Add the fact that it actually holds shots and takes so you can follow the action and it seems like they are getting the audience to almost subconsciously associate with the films of that decade, a smart decision for them to make, as the leanness of the film and the genre trappings help curb certain expectations for the star, while making it a unique enough vehicle that it doesn’t seem at all like yet another entry in the over-cut, blue-filtered, direct-to-video action glut one would expect to see a fighter debut in.

Can she act? No. But she’s good enough that she doesn’t hurt the film, which is often the thing that is worrisome about putting someone with little to no performance experience in the lead role of your major motion picture. Perhaps that’s why there’s a sizable role for Channing Tatum, or as some may know him, the pine two-by-four with a buzz cut; so that there’s someone that will make her look good by comparison.

As for her fighting, the movie uses that to its advantage as well. It doesn’t try to finesse the action with fancy choreography and it doesn’t even seem to try to feel the need to make it seem more brutal than violence already is. At times it feels like the foley artist is taking the day off, because rather than having punches sound like a couple of t-bones being slapped together, they actually sound like… well, punches. The kind of sound that you heard as a kid, when your brother and yourself would finally just lose patience and wail on each other.

The plot is a pretty standard variation on the “wrong man been wronged.” Gina, going by the name Mallory and checking in often with her military daddy (Bill Paxton), is a mercenary. Sorry, “licensed government contractor.” She’s on the verge of quitting her position with the fella she’s been working for (Ewan McGregor) but he’s still giving her jobs. And on one of these jobs, she is the victim of an attempted frame-up and execution. She spends the rest of the movie running from the clueless authorities and pummeling the ones that did the wronging. That’s the basic plot. You can guess as much from the trailers that make it look as run of the mill as possible. Which is exactly what it is, story-wise.

What makes it unique are two things; first, the script, while keeping things tight and adhering to the established conventions, does a good job of establishing the double-dealings into an air-tight story. When the web is revealed in its entirety, there aren’t any glaring plot-holes (at least none that have been nagging me since leaving the theater.) It’s almost a let-down when you find out how limp the plot wrap-up is, but that’s almost the point. The characters she’s dealing with are the type of people who do this every day and the decisions they make with regards to her mean little more to them than their decision whether to have toast or bagels in the morning. Their machinations are just them using circumstance to their advantage.

Second, you have the cast. With this type of story, you usually have one up and comer and an aging star, who is playing the bad guy in order to chew some scenery and pick up a paycheck. In this case, the cast is much better than you’d usually get and they’re bringing their A-game. McGregor, Paxton and Michael Fassbender all put in excellent performances, despite not having a ton of screen time. Plus, you get Antonio Banderas in a role that is much more understated and low-key than one would expect. And yeah, OK… Michael Douglas showed up for a few days and collected a paycheck for playing Michael Douglas.

In the end, your milage on this type of film may vary, but I would recommend this one over any other with its tropes in recent memory. It doesn’t waste a moment of it’s run-time and is much more intelligent fun than you may expect.

(Three 1/2 out of five stars)