It's summertime and we all know what that means, right? Sun. Surf. Babes in Bikinis or Studs in Speedos.
Well, maybe that's what it means to you. But where I'm sitting, summer means sitting around the local multiplex, watching nearly every movie that gets sent down the pike. At least once a summer, a big movie comes out that relates to superheroes, fantasy or sci-fi in some way or another. And this summer has proven no exception. In fact, with Planet of the Apes and the first Lord of the Rings movie due out soon, one might say it's a good time to be a geek. Unfortunately, so far none of the movies that have a hint of any of these elements have proven to be very exceptional.
One thing before we start. I'm going to stay light on the spoilers and breeze through a lot of movies, but if you want to be totally free from spoilers, it might be safe to skip my column this month. Go ahead. I understand. Just read it twice next time.
You HAVE been warned.
Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within - not a bad movie, provided you don't think too much. The plot is standard sci-fi/action, but the real reason to see it is for the much ballyhooed, ground breaking animation. I'm a little split on recommending it to be seen in the theater. On the one hand, I doubt it will look as impressive on a small screen. On the other, the plotholes and the melodramatic characterization make it a painful watch if you don't like being lead to like and dislike certain characters instantly. If you want something that looks nice and don't mind booing and hissing the bad guy, by all means, spend your 8 bucks on this.
A word of warning though. Please do not take children to see this movie. Aside from some rather disturbing images, they'll get to hear Steve Buscemi and Peri Gilpin curse like truckers.
Tomb Raider - Angelina Jolie's chest stars as Lara Croft's chest in this bit of mindless action, based upon a video game empire, which in turn inspired a comic.
Okay, I admit. I did see this, but only for two reasons. First, a female friend of mine wanted to see it and she couldn't get any of her female friends to come with her. Secondly, I wanted to see Chris Barrie's performance. Barrie is perhaps most famous for his role as "Arnold Rimmer" on the British sci-fi comedy "Red Dwarf". His appearances in the movie are brief, but funny. As far as I know he was well cast in the role of an uptight and proper gentlemen's gentlemen to an unladylike lady.
As for the rest of the movie: it centers around trying to piece together a clock that gives the owner the ability to control time and the Illuminati searching for it, while competing against a large-bosomed woman, who runs around in slow motion a lot.
But seriously, as far as action goes, you won't find anything better this summer... yet.
A.I. - Perhaps the most eagerly anticipated movie among the film-school wannabe set, the idea behind this movie was discussed for years between Stanley Kubrick and Steven Spielburg. Two directors; both friends, award winners and undisputed masters of the craft of film-making, yet with two totally different styles.
Kubrick is a more stylistic and technical director than Spielburg and tells tales in a way that is detached from the characters. Spielburg tends to film things straight on and focus on the emotional aspects of directing, getting close to the characters and their emotions.
For years, the two of them discussed the idea of a movie about creating a robotic child who was built to love. Kubrick was the one who pursued making the movie, but he eventually handed over control of the project to Spielburg, saying it was more his kind of movie. Kubrick later died, his widow giving all of his notes for ideas to Spielburg, who then elected to try and mix his emotional storytelling with a Kubrickesque filming style.
The result is interesting to say the least. You can tell which parts of the movie are Kubrick influenced and which are Spielburgian. In fact, the act structure of the movie makes it seem as if they each made half the film. I am not sure if I'd call it great, since I think I need another viewing and more time to consider it, but the plot had me thinking more than any movie I have seen in a long while. Perhaps that's the best complement I can pay it, in a summer of mindless entertainment.
Jurassic Park III - why bother? The effects are the same, most of the actors are the same. Heck, the only real difference is that this time I was hoping for the dinosaurs to eat Tea Leoni instead of Laura Dern. In order to preserve some sense of mystery, I will not tell you if they do or not.
Sadly, we haven't gotten a true superhero movie all summer. The closest thing we have is a trailer for the Spider-Man movie due out in 9 months, which... I hate to admit, didn't look all that impressive. And what the heck is he swinging from in that clip, anyway?
And speaking of things that aren't really superhero movies, I finally got a chance to see Unbreakable . Unbreakable was made by the same director as "The Sixth Sense", was written by the same writer as "The Sixth Sense", with the same star (Bruce Willis) as "The Sixth Sense", who gives virtual the same performance as in "The Sixth Sense" opposite a totally different annoying child actor.
The plot (and I can say all this with no qualms, because all of this was revealed in the trailers) centers around a ex-college football star turned security guard named David, who survives a train wreck without a scratch. He is then harassed by a comic book art dealer named Elijah (Samuel L. Jackson), who suffers from a disease that makes his bones as brittle as glass. Elijah came up with a theory that nature had a way of balancing out and that if he could be born extraordinarily weak, then someone might be born who was extraordinarily strong... like in the comics. He began watching the papers, looking for disasters and hoping to see someone who could survive a massive tragedy unshaken. He thinks that Daniel is such a person.
And then slowly, very slowly, very very slowly... Elijah sets about proving himself right about David, as David continues to deny the totally obvious. In fact, it does become obvious to Elijah, David's son and everyone who has ever read a single comic that David is indeed a born hero. By the time David gets around to doing something with his powers, most of us have lost all interest... and then we get a surprise ending, ala "The Sixth Sense"... which isn't really all that much of a surprise.
Samuel L. Jackson gives a better performance than this movie deserves. Bruce Willis, for his part, spends most of his scenes looking forlorn, tired and stands around doing not much. Robin Wright, as his wife, isn't given much to do and often looks as if she is counting the minutes until she can get off the set and start looking for a new agent.
I rented the DVD version of the movie, which comes with a second disk that is well worth viewing if you have a DVD player. It is filled mostly with scenes cut from the original movie, most of which are introduced as the director as being "some of the best ones filmed" or "the best I wrote".
Take note, future writers and filmmakers- when most of your cut material can be described as "great character scenes" or "interesting, but we felt it was making the movie drag" and your movie is barely 90 minutes long... put something back in. Please. There's actually some scenes where Bruce Willis does some real acting and Robin Wright gets to do something other than look scared or nag her husband and son.
The second disk also comes with a documentary on superheroes and comic books, in which a number of top creators are interviewed on their creations. It's too short, and it makes the rest of the DVD set look horrible, but even if you don't watch the feature presentation, it's worth a couple of bucks just to see Frank Miller, Will Eisner and Denny O'Neil in the flesh, talking about their creations.
Finally, and on a better note, there is one superhero movie that probably slipped past you all. It's a small indy film called The Specials. It barely had a million-dollar budget, but it was sadly buried underneath a much more expensive, much more hyped movie with a similar concept. That movie, Mystery Men, was one of the more infamous bombs of several summers ago. While not truly a bad movie, it suffered from being unable to decide whether it was an action hero film with some comedy or a satire about superheroes.
Sadly, it's shadow fell upon "The Specials", which was actually written and turned in just as the rights for Mystery Men were settled. By the time "The Specials" was made, Miramax was reluctant to do a wide-release of a comedy about superheroes. This is unfortunate, because "The Specials" is easily one of the best comic book movies ever made.
The Specials are "the world's 7th or 8th most popular superhero team". The movie follows the members of the team on a day when they get a new member (Nightbird) and they are about to be honored with their own toy line; the equivalent of getting an Oscar in the superhero community.
There's no action per say. In fact, save for a charge scene near the end of the movie after the Pentagon is taken over by giant intelligent ants, there are no special effects of any kind and only one fight scene. But if you like comic stories that are just about the characters hanging out and dealing with their own personality problems in a humorous way (Keith Giffen's JLA comes to mind) you will probably love this movie.
In fact, you'll probably have fun watching this movie just to catch all the subtle in-jokes and jibes and other more famous heroes. Rob Lowe, for example, plays The Weevil; a wall-crawling, super-agile hero who got his powers from eating a rare Egyptian insect. The movie also stars Thomas Hayden Church as "The Strobe" (the team's vain, light-powered leader, who loves to give inspiring Superman speeches every 10 minutes) and Jamie Kennedy of Scream fame as "Amok" (think Silver Surfer as a smart-aleck slacker). The team also features Minuteman (my-newt, as in... small), who becomes the target of every joke you've ever heard about The Atom or Aquaman being useless or looking silly in their costume. He also has the added problem of people constantly mispronouncing his name based on the spelling ("I'm not min-at man! Do you see me wearing a three-corner hat?!")
Word of warning though... there's a lot of language and adult themes, including a discussion of how difficult it is to maintain an sex life when you have the power to channel anti-matter through your body... so put the kids in bed for this one, eh?
To sum up:
Thumbs down for "Final Fantasy" . The animation is gorgeous, but the plot and characterization are trite and flat.
Thumbs up for "Tomb Raider" . It's not fine art, but it's about the best you can hope for in a movie based on a video game babe.
Thumbs up for "A.I. Without a doubt the most thought provoking movie of the summer.
Thumbs down for Jurassic Park 3. What was the point?
Thumbs down for Unbreakable. It was dull and dragged on forever, but rent it anyway for the superhero documentary if you have a DVD player.
And finally, thumbs up for The Specials. As far as comics movies go, this is the best one to come out on DVD since Superman 2.