R0BTRAIN’s Badass Cinema: Rob’s Mid-Summer Report Card

Hey there folks and welcome back! I know it’s been forever since I put one of these out, but real life has been pretty overwhelming lately. My longtime girlfriend of 14 years finally made me an honest man and I couldn’t be happier about it. Unfortunately, our wedding wasn’t just something I could throw together, so with the combination of the big day combined with the everyday stresses of my job, I’ve been out of commission with my writing as of late (or worse than usual I should say). Maybe even worse, I’ve also been way behind on my film watching duties, as I haven’t been able to get out there EVERY weekend as I usually do this time of year. Still, in that last few weeks I’ve managed to catch up with most of the major releases this summer, and I’ve been having a pretty good time at the movies with summer 2011 so far.

To be honest, even though I think it’s been decent fun at the multiplexes lately, if I had to name the single most entertaining thing I’ve watched in the last few months, I don’t think anything’s really come close to HBO’s Game of Thrones. Entertainment on the highest level, the series may look like Lord of the Rings on a TV budget, but after these initial 10 episodes I’m ready to go “all in” with this show the way I was able to do with the best days of The Sopranos, The Wire, 24 and Lost. While I’ve really enjoyed the work being done on series from FX (Sons of Anarchy, Justified) and AMC (The Walking Dead, Breaking Bad), I just feel like this is the show I’ve been waiting for since those shows I already mentioned went off the air.

First off, if you’re put off by the series premise of taking place in a fantastical land, don’t be. The world presented here is as real as any you’ve seen on TV or in film before. Characters make you believe in this land’s rich history and traditions, and the leap you have to make from our own medieval history to Game of Thrones’ Westeros is not a far one. Of course, it helps if the world around you looks as real as possible, and like Deadwood and Rome before it, Game of Thrones benefits greatly from the level of production HBO is able to afford the series. Sets and costumes are outstanding; fantastical without betraying their lived in feel. Compared with now defunct rival sword and sorcery tale Camelot on Starz, the difference is day and night in this respect, making the Arthurian series feel like a local renaissance fair by contrast. From every piece of armor to a castle carved out of a mountain of stone, the detail here is phenomenal.

Then again, none of that would really matter if the show’s acting, writing, and directing didn’t make you care about what’s going on. To that, the show is terrific all on accounts. The cast, with Sean Bean standing amongst a myriad of fine character actors, makes you wonder how HBO is so often able to find just the right actor for every part. While Bean’s shorthand for an honorable, tunic-adorned hero is on full-display, others in the cast, including Peter Dinklage and Emilia Clarke, end up stealing nearly every scene they’re in with the expertise of a brain surgeon. With intrigue and plot twists that could rival The Wire or The West Wing and just enough of that HBO brand of violence (and sleaziness), this show is the total package for me.

To put it frankly, I simply care about this world. I initially tuned into the show because of excitement for the fantasy realms of Thor; wanting to watch anything similar at all. Now though, while I really liked Thor, my excitement for the movie has since waned in the wake of so many blockbusters. On the other hand, my enthusiasm for Game of Thrones is still very much present and suffering since the show ended its season. To say that it’s killing me to have to wait for more episodes is a pretty large understatement.

Moving on, we’ve reached the midway point of summer 2011, and while I’m still a couple of movies behind (sorry Cars 2 and The Hangover 2), I’m coming out with my annual mid-summer report card anyway! There are some spoilers ahead as usual. Enjoy…

Rob’s Mid-Summer Report Card

Fast Five

I wasn’t sure what kind of bizzaro world I had entered when I sat down to watch Justin Lin’s Fast Five. While I do enjoy a big dumb action movie, here was a series that I pretty much loathed from the beginning, as The Fast and the Furious’ charisma-sucking unholy alliance of Vin Diesel and Paul Walker filled me with less of a furious feeling and more of a coma-like boredom upon their initial outing together. Even adding The Rock to the cast of Fast Five didn’t give me a lot of hope, as Dwayne Johnson still hadn’t exactly proven himself as a viable action star, other than his one bright spot in The Rundown.

Boy was I wrong.

Not only did I not hate the movie, as I had the previous movies of a Fast/Furious nature, but instead I sat there stunned as the spectacle of this new picture absolutely won me over. Fast Five is pure adrenaline from start to finish, with each action sequence getting bigger and bigger until Diesel and Walker decide to destroy Rio de Janeiro single-handedly. Ridiculous bus crash? Check. Insane train heist? Check. Awesome Call of Duty-style shanty town chase? Check? Epic finale? Check, check, check. Oh, and The Rock? Yeah, he’s tremendous here; towering over everyone in the movie and spouting macho one-liners like a champ when he isn’t beating the crap out of one of the movie’s “heroes” or some scumbag. Fast Five is like Bad Boys 2 without the guilt, and frankly, that’s pretty much exactly what I’ve been looking for.

Grade: B

Thor

Flat out, Thor is just tons of fun. While I was worried early on about the movie being too campy or director Kenneth Branaugh not being able to handle a big event film, the movie ends up a real charmer with some nice action beats and a breezy, pleasant tone. Reminding me of the feel of Richard Donner’s original Superman, the movie had me pumped for its Asgardian sections but then surprised me with how much I enjoyed the goofy humor and romance of its Earth-bound scenes. Never getting too silly, the film wows with a charismatically big performance from Chris Helmsworth and an adorable one from Natalie Portman. Great Shakespearean-esque work from Anthony Hopkins and Tom Hiddleston help to make this one a winner. Not a Dark Knight-level classic mind you, but still a heck of a good time.

Grade: B+

Pirates of the Carribean: On Stranger Tides

I know people were complaining after the last two Pirates movies that the series had become too big. Human characters were getting lost in the shuffle amongst the labyrinthine plots and giant CGI creatures, and audiences seemed to be exhausted instead of exhilarated by the end of Gore Verbinski’s original trilogy of movies. Disney’s solution to this problem; put out a Pirates of the Caribbean movie that is devoid of spectacular sequences whatsoever. On Stranger Tides does have some diverting moments, all of which have to do with Johnny Depp doing his schtick, but there’s no meat here, just some measly snacks. At their best, the Pirates movies were amusing pieces of pop buffoonery that engaged you with an occasional badass exclamation.

Sure, they were overblown, but you got the sense that Verbinski was at least trying to do his own sort of Indiana Jones -type movie with the original three films, even if he failed to really cross the finish line when the last movie rolled credits. Rob Marshall’s entry is completely inert from start to finish; there are zero great action scenes, very few lively comedy moments, and effects are scaled back so far that that this almost seems like a knock off instead of a continuation of the same series. I know this one has already made its money back, but if Disney goes ahead with another POTC adventure, I hope they get a director that can add more life and personality.

Grade: D

Bridesmaids

This one came out of nowhere. Sure, not all of the gross-out scenes work, but Kristen Wiig and company pull off what still may end up being the comedy of the year. Bridesmaids is full of belly laughs for sure, but what really makes this movie sing are the uncomfortably funny moments that make you squirm in your seat and look for a moment of relief. This goes double for a standoff between Wiig and Rose Byrne, as maid of honor rivals desperately trying to out-do each other for the best toast at their friend’s engagement party. All joking aside, a friend I saw this movie with had to get some pain pills afterward, because the movie had literally made him laugh till he hurt.

Grade: B+

Kung Fu Panda 2

Looking for an awesome 3D spectacle? Look no further. Kung Fu Panda 2 is action-packed eye candy that has an actual soul, managing to better its predecessor on almost every level. Expanding on the themes of the original movie, this sequel comes at you with a pretty terrific and emotional tale of the mystery of Panda’s birth while our unlikely hero also teams up with his friends to try and save kung fu from the forces of evil. In addition to the amazing 3D animation (perhaps the best that Dreamworks Animation has ever produced), the movie makes amazing use of gorgeous 2D sequences that I found simply breathtaking.

What else? How about some of the best fight scenes of any movie this summer? Despite being an animated film, the movie’s visceral thrills are as enormous as its hero. Director Jennifer Yuh Nelson’s freshman effort is loaded with incredible set–pieces as the movie’s deft balance of action and comedy are on full display while we witness the Furious Five and Po soaring through the air and fighting for their lives all the way up to the picture’s glorious “kung fu vs. cannons” finale. Dazzling, hilarious, and chocked full of kung fu heroics, this is the best 3D action picture of the summer so far.

Grade: A

X-Men: First Class

It’s really sad that X-Men: First Class isn’t having the sort of financial success as its last two predecessors, because by comparison X-Men: The Last Stand and X-Men Origins: Wolverine feel like poorly made fan films next to Matthew Vaughn’s new entry. After Wolverine I was nearly against the idea of Fox ever making another X film all together, but Vaughn’s picture reminded me of why I loved this series in this first place. Even if it breaks with both comic book and movie continuity at times, this movie does its best to develop strong characters and compelling action, coming close to producing the best film with the words X-Men in the title.

A little rough around the edges due to a quick production schedule (the movie’s script isn’t perfect and not all of the CGI works) the film perseveres on the back of a great cast and a clever story arc that weaves the X-universe into our own history. Michael Fassbender and James McAvoy are both electric as the film’s leads, the film’s young supporting cast is solid and Kevin Bacon does his best work in years as the picture’s main heavy. Even if the film’s themes tend to be presented in a heavy-handed fashion at times, the movie keeps coming at you with big action sequences, some well-timed humor and some heartbreaking pathos. Here’s hoping we get another one with this cast soon.

Grade: B

Super 8

I know in the past J.J. Abrams has enjoyed using Michael Jordan as a comparison for some of the heroes he’s focused on in his storytelling. When he was working on his failed Superman script, a reference is made to the Man of Steel being like Michael Jordan of superheroes. When he was directing Mission: Impossible III, he referred to Ethan Hunt as the Michael Jordan of spies. Well for me, after M.I. 3, Star Trek, and now Super 8, when it comes to making awesome pop cinema, J.J. Abrams is the Michael Jordan of film directors.

If I had to pick a clear favorite of 2011’s summer movie crop, I don’t think anything else even comes close to the joy I felt after seeing Super 8. I’m completely enamored with the flick; from its awesome youngsters, to Kyle Chandler getting to a play Roy Scheider-esque dad, to the movie’s fun Saturday monster movie plot. Just like George Lucas and Steven Spielberg infused their films of the ‘70s and ‘80s with so much nostalgia for the movies they loved as youths, Abrams has done the same with a love of the bearded duo’s films from that period. The director has that deft touch to turn a noisy household into an endearing setting, the way Spielberg used to be able to do in films like Jaws and Close Encounters. He makes the awkwardness of first love feel real. And he makes the impact of personal loss really hit you.

Abrams is also able to breathe life into these roles like nobody’s business. These aren’t kids that spew clever dialogue as if they were adults, they’re just awesome characters with clever 6th grade wit, just like the heroes of The Goonies and E.T. Working with these terrific child actors, this is a wonderful group with their own ticks and personalities and you’d want to spend time with them onscreen even if there was no sci-fi plot. When was the last time you really saw that with a group of actors this young?

But what if the kid heroes of those ‘80s movies didn’t face off against goofy criminals or forces that turned out to be benevolent? That’s the scenario that Abrams puts forth with Super 8. It’s as if the Goonies had to face off against the shark from Jaws or the creature from The Thing but were smart enough to know how to beat them. The old tropes of love, loss, and friendship are still there and still awe-inspiring, but when the danger is real it adds a whole new dimension to the proceedings. Super 8 may not work for everyone, but for me personally the movie works like nothing else I’ve seen in 2011. Mint!

Grade: A+

The Green Lantern

I know there’s a lot of hate for this movie, but for me it still managed to work overall. I thought that Ryan Reynolds would bother me with too much of his schtick, but he’s a decent Hal Jordan when all is said and done. Jordan needs to be as cocky as possible, with his confidence and his ability to overcome fear saving the day when all hope is lost, and that’s the character Reynolds manages to embody. Sure, as a villain Parallax is a little too abstract and Blake Lively doesn’t have a ton of chemistry with Reynolds onscreen, but I give the movie a pass because of how much it embraced the weirdness of the Green Lantern mythology. Even if we didn’t get enough of them, seeing so many of DC’s characters onscreen was a ton of fun, and everything presented on OA was spot on. A better script and a director more familiar with CGI spectacle would have been more ideal, but as a DC fanboy, I’ll take what I can get.

Grade: B-

Transformers: Dark of the Moon

It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a movie that I wanted to like so much, but kept having said movie trying desperately to prove me wrong. Look, if you liked the other two Transformers movies, then this one is going to work for you also. If you hated the ridiculous Bay-hem of the last two flicks, then by all means stay away. On the good side, the movie’s 3D finale is an hour of pure awesome, with Autobots and Decepticons fighting to the death in a battle so extreme that if these were flesh and blood characters the movie would be rated NC-17. Arms are ripped off, eyes are gouged, spines are ripped out, and faces are blown away. There is a scene where Optimus Prime basically orders the Autobots to rip a Decepticon limb from limb, and they do so gleefully. On top of that, the movie’s effects and stunts are second to none. There’s a moment when commandos are flying through the air in 3D and the effect is so good it may give you vertigo.

On the other hand, there’s plenty of agony to go with the ecstasy. Instead of just John Turturro playing for the cheap seats, we’ve got a whole lineup of actors throwing subtlety out the window, including Frances McDormand, Patrick Dempsey, Alan Tudyk, Ken Jeong, and John Malkovich, who literally tries to take on Bumblebee with kung fu in one of the movie’s “comedy” high spots. Shia LaBeouf also joins the ranks of the over-actors this time out in an awful performance and Rosie Huntington-Whiteley made me long for the subtlety of Megan Fox. There’s an awesome movie in here where commandos and the Autobots fight the Decepticons for control of Earth, but you’ve got to wade through an extra hour of crap to get to it.

Perhaps the most frustrating thing about the movie is that there are a lot of awesome concepts that are scattered throughout Transformers: Dark of the Moon. I love the film’s opening sequences that involve the space race and the cold war. This modern world has “energon early warning sensors” and the Autobots are a covert team that hunts terrorists at Dark of the Moon’s outset. There’s an elite commado squad that trains to fight the Decepticons on their own and an Illuminati-type society pulling strings in order to help the Decepticons take over Earth. Unfortunately, so much of this is glossed over instead so we can see Shia LaBeouf spend an hour stressing over his new girlfriend. Look, when the CGI characters are less cartoonish than human ones, then something is wrong. The movie brings the goods in its final hour, but it’s up to you whether you can stomach the rest of it. I’ll be kind.

Grade: B-

So that’s it for now. Hope to see you guys again soon.

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