#ThrowbackThursday – The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

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Original US release date: December 17, 2003
Production budget: $94,000,000
Worldwide gross: $1,119,929,521

Might as well do this, right?  I did a #ThrowbackThursday on The Fellowship of the Ring here and I did one on The Two Towers here, so let’s finish off the trilogy with The Return of the King!  As before, I’m looking at the Extended Edition, so there are scenes – and even characters – that are featured in the version I’m looking back upon that are not included in the theatrical cut.  These make a true difference in giving the audience closure on some of the ongoing subplots and character arcs.  For instance, near the beginning of the film, there is a major scene featuring Christopher Lee’s Saruman, yet Saruman was nowhere to be found in the theatrical edit.  So, yes, the Extended Edition is monumentally lengthy, but it’s a much more complete and satisfying narrative experience.

Also of note regarding the film is that it was only the second film in history, after James Cameron’s Titanic, to cross the $1 billion mark at the worldwide box office.  A couple of other films that were released before Return of the King, namely Jurassic Park and Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace, now sit above the $1 billion mark, as well, but they both required re-releases that occurred long after their original runs and after the original run of Return of the King, as well.

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In addition to that, after the series scored Best Picture nominations at the Academy Awards for both The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers in the two prior years, The Return of the King finally delivered with a win in the category.  Conventional wisdom is that the win counts as a moral victory for the entire series and that the first two installments were never going to win because the epic finale was waiting in the wings.  I don’t know if I agree with that, but that’s what many people think.

One way or another, the film certainly lives up to any lofty expectations it had weighing on its shoulders.  Director Peter Jackson took this job extremely seriously, wanting to pay respect to author J.R.R. Tolkien, pay service to the cornucopia of deep and engaging characters, and deliver for the fans that had waited for so many years – and in some cases, the majority of their lives – to witness Tolkien’s magnum opus fully realized in spectacular live-action.

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In order to end up with the film that Jackson (and everyone else) desired, he knew he couldn’t cut corners.  He had to deliver on story, character, dialogue, and action.  And there is plenty of each.  The action doesn’t kick into gear, right out of the gate.  There is still a healthy dose of groundwork to be laid before the fun, eye-popping geekouts can commence.  But that’s not a problem (for those with an attention span, at least), because by this point in the story, we already feel a strong connection with the characters.  We care what they have to say.  We care what they need to do.  We care about their wants and desires.  The film is never boring because we feel like we’re a part of it.  We’re engaged.  We’re invested.  This is the magic of big-sprawling franchises that allows us to spend a significant amount of time with the characters.  Had each of the series installments been a brisk 90 minutes, so much would have been lost – most importantly the weight of the events that occur.

Along the way, everyone gets at least one moment to shine – even the characters that weren’t introduced until later in the narrative.  Jackson is savvy enough to know that every character is someone’s favorite character, so he makes sure to give everyone in the audience something to cheer about.  (My favorite moment is the big one for Legolas.  “That still only counts as one!”)  Ultimately, all of the character arcs lead up to two nearly-simultaneous events: Frodo’s arrival at Mount Doom and the Battle of Pelennor Fields.  But instead of using the action as an escape from the story, Jackson adeptly uses the action to embolden said story.  Characterizations are further developed based on the actions that are taken in war.  Important events in the narrative are both caused and affected by the physical conflicts.  It all works together as one massive cornucopia of masterful storytelling by one of the great filmmakers of our time.

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This feels abbreviated, but what more can truly be said about this film or this series, in general?  Once everything is tied up at the end of the film (in a series of codas that the impatient whined about but were necessary in order to completely close the door on the story), the audience has had an immensely rewarding experience that honors the devoted, the attentive, the thoughtful, and the persevering patrons who were willing to submit themselves to the full, unforgettable adventure that was The Lord of the Rings.  The franchise will forever stand on its own as an unmatched combination of art, spectacle, and legacy that will likely long outlive each and every one of us.

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#ThrowbackThursday – The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

#ThrowbackThursday – Almost Famous

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Original US release date: September 15, 2000
Production budget: $60,000,000
Worldwide gross: $47,383,689

Directed by Cameron Crowe and released to much critical praise (including winning the Golden Globe for Best Picture – Comedy or Musical), Almost Famous is another example in a very long, sad line of examples in which a great movie of the precise type that people claim to love and want to see failed to succeed because those very people were all talk and bailed on the film when it was actually released.  I know a great many people who say they saw and loved this movie, yet look at the box office numbers above.  People love to make fun of a movie such as Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice for “only” grossing $873 million on a $250 million budget, but that final figure is nearly a multiple of 3.5 times its budget.  That’s a success.  Whereas Almost Famous didn’t even gross enough worldwide to match its already-modest budget.

That’s a shame and the audience bears the blame for it.  Almost Famous is a fantastic film and deserved to be a financial success in addition to being a critical one.  Director and writer Cameron Crowe used his own experiences from earlier in his life as a columnist for Rolling Stone as inspiration for the film, which follows wannabe rock-and-roll writer Will Miller (Patrick Fugit) as he tags along with the band Stillwater, who is on the brink of superstardom.  Miller has an assignment from Rolling Stone for a 3,000-word article on the band, but nailing it down proves difficult as he gets caught up in the whirlwind of life with a rock band and consistently gets the blow off from guitarist Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup) for the interview that will serve as the lynchpin of the piece.

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Complicating issues even further is the presence of a superfan who goes by the pseudonym “Penny Lane” (Kate Hudson).  Penny is infatuated with Russell while Will is infatuated with Penny.  Will gets increasingly involved in the personal issues of the band and must decide if it’s more important to be their friend or to be an honest journalist.

Almost Famous sports the shiny veneer of being a film about music, but the music is just one of the tools that Crowe uses to tell his story.  Here’s a secret: genre is an illusion.  Whether the topic of discussion is movies, music, books, or anything else, genre is essentially irrelevant.  Regarding film, whether the movie in question is classified as action, drama, romance, horror, or anything else, it always boils down to two components: story and character.  Any story can be told using any genre.  And this story is a coming of age tale for multiple characters – maybe even the majority of them.

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Most of the characters are largely unlikable – especially those in the band.  This is by design, as Crowe aims to present them honestly.  They are selfish, insecure, and suffer from delusions of grandeur, as most bands do.  They truly believe that they’re changing the world through their music, yet when Will asks one of them why they love music, he can’t even answer the question.  He doesn’t know.  That’s because it’s not about the music.  It’s about the lifestyle.  It’s about the image.  It’s about the ego.  The only one of the whole bunch who truly loves music is Will.  His resistance to being seduced by the romantic nature of the industry is evident throughout the film, but he clings to his desire to be honest and true to his hopeful profession.  The band sees journalists as “the enemy” because of their honesty (an all-too-common platitude, these days), yet they bring Will into the fold, anyway, trusting that his youth and their charm will make him easy to manipulate.

Will is the youngest character in the film, but he is also the most mature.  As much as he initially experiences during his time with Stillwater, Penny, and their friends, he teaches them even more about themselves.  The film is almost a three-person show, with Fugit, Hudson, and Crudup taking the leads, but Frances McDormand, Jason Lee, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Anna Paquin, Zooey Deschanel, and Fairuza Balk all make their mark on the film, as well – with McDormand and Hoffman standing out, in particular.  The film mostly served as Kate Hudson’s coming-out party, though.  She used the role to launch a solid career for herself (though she never quite hit the heights I expected her to), while co-star Patrick Fugit was unable to similarly capitalize, despite doing well in the role of Will.

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In the film, Jason Lee’s Jeff Bebe says that, with regards to music, “the popular stuff is usually the best stuff”.  That’s typically true in music (true, high-quality music speaks to people through its own merits, not through an associated image.  And you know it’s speaking to people when they respond by buying it.), but film is unfortunately a little different.  Films require more than someone liking it enough that they show it to a captive audience who is then forced to experience it, such as the way a disc jockey would play a song on the radio and grant it free exposure.  Movies require people to pay before they experience it.  And if there’s not enough money in the advertising budget to do that, many great movies can go without the support they deserve.  And that’s what happened to Almost Famous.  The award nominations should have gotten people to go see it, but general audiences still absurdly believe they know more about movies than critics, so they mostly ignore award nominations.  I hope that changes, one day.  But, until it does, you can still enjoy Almost Famous long after the fact, when it no longer does the film any good.

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#ThrowbackThursday – Almost Famous

#ThrowbackThursday – Men in Black

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Original US release date: July 2, 1997
Production budget: $90,000,000
Worldwide gross: $589,390,539

Based on the Marvel comic (yep), Barry Sonnenfeld’s Men in Black just recently celebrated its twentieth anniversary.  How old does that make you feel, huh?  Upon its original release, the film was a smash hit, earning more than five times its production budget in worldwide grosses and establishing Will Smith as the king of the American Independence Day box office (after also hitting it big with . . . well . . . Independence Day, the previous year).  Mixing action, science-fiction, special effects, and comedy, it was the right mix at the right time.

I always liked Men in Black, but I was never as enthusiastic about it as many others were.  On practically every level, the film meets expectations, but rarely exceeds them.  Sharing the lead roles in the film are the aforementioned Smith and the legendary Tommy Lee Jones, as Men in Black Jay and Kay, respectively.  Both bring a welcome dry wit to the proceedings, and Jones, in particular, lends the film some prestige and legitimacy following his Best Actor Academy Award win for The Fugitive, a few years prior.  They both seem to be enjoying themselves, which in turn helps the audience to enjoy themselves, as well.  But the dialogue is honestly a little bland, and not nearly as witty as Smith and Jones convince us that it is.  It is a true testament to their abilities that they are able to wring laughs out of a largely unfunny script with fair consistency.  With stars of lesser talent, the project may have been dead in the water.

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Speaking of talent, Vincent D’Onofrio gets some time in the spotlight, as well, as “Edgar”.  I used quotations there because the true Edgar is killed seconds into his initial appearance, resulting in his skin being ripped off and worn by an alien throughout the duration of the film.  I can understand the appeal of this part for D’Onofrio as it’s truly unlike anything else we’ve seen before or since.  “Edgar” shambles around town, humorously trying to blend in with his surroundings while working towards a shadowy plan that can only mean bad things for Earth.  D’Onofrio is outstanding (when is he not?  Seriously, he’s one of the greats of our time.), making the perfect choices regarding vaudevillian physical comedy and vocal delivery.  The tremendous makeup job only helps to ultimately make “Edgar” the most memorable aspect of the entire film.

Linda Fiorentino rounds out the cast, but really gets little to do, despite the signs that big plans were in store for her, down the road (and then jettisoned).  She really deserved better, not only in this movie but in her career in general.  She always seemed on the brink of superstardom but never quite got there.

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Aside from the cast, the rest of the film is solid, but unspectacular.  The action is fun and somewhat inspired, but often cut short and anticlimactic.  The character designs are top notch, though, and I love the old-school, campy feel of the different alien forms.  That’s where the films truly excels, actually: world-building.  The different alien races, their social hierarchies, there biological systems, the jargon and vocabulary . . . the entire mythology fleshes the film out and elevates it above common fare.  I may not have been over the moon regarding the script, but the thought put into crafting the framework that supports the film can’t be understated.

Still, it feels as if – much like Fiorentino – the film is always on the verge of becoming something special and then pulls back at the last second.  Truth be told, in today’s landscape, Men in Black would have had a much tougher time becoming a hit.  Not only have other studios – mostly Marvel – raised audience expectations but there is also simply much more competition to deal with, these days.  Men in Black benefitted from existing during a time when gigantic blockbusters weren’t a commonality, even during the summer months.  Now, from late-April through mid-August, there’s at least one new potential smash hit being released every week, and often two.  In the summer of 1997, there were only about six potential barnburners: Men in Black, The Fifth Element, The Lost World: Jurassic Park, Con Air, Batman & Robin, and Disney’s Hercules.  Of those, only The Lost World and Men in Black truly broke out, as well as the surprise hit of the year, My Best Friend’s Wedding.  It was a different time, and that worked in the favor of Men in Black.

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Still, I enjoyed reflecting on the film.  There’s a charm in its nostalgia as well as its more low-key approach.  The film never feels as if it’s attempting to outdo another film or to lay groundwork for a franchise of six sequels.  It tells its story, it does so with love, and then it leaves the door open for more, if we wanted it.  And, we did.  If it’s been a while, pop in Men in Black for a revisit.  There’s nothing going on under the surface, no deeper significance to the film; it just wants you to have fun.  We can all use that, right now.  And don’t turn it off when the credits roll!  Not because of a post-credits scene, but rather because you know you want to rap along to the song.

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#ThrowbackThursday – Men in Black

#ThrowbackThursday – Juno

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Original US release date: December 5, 2007
Production budget: $7,500,000
Worldwide gross: $231,411,584

Squeezed out at the end of 2007 in order to be eligible for the 2008 awards season, Juno was a rare example of a small little independent film that caught fire with general audiences and became a bit of a phenomenon at the beginning of 2008.  The film was nominated for Best Picture at (among others) the Academy Awards and Diablo Cody won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, making the film a raging success with audiences, critics, and within the industry, itself.  I don’t hear much about it, anymore, suggesting that the film has become somewhat forgotten over the last decade, so here I am to remind people about the little engine that could that went by the name of Juno.

The premise behind Juno is simple: the precocious sixteen-year-old title character (Ellen Page) is impregnated by her friend-with-benefits/maybe-boyfriend/look-it’s-complicated-okay? Paulie Bleeker (Michael Cera).  Filling out the tremendous supporting cast are Juno’s parents (J. K. Simmons and Allison Janney), who have no choice but to take the situation in stride, and the potential adoptive parents of Juno’s unborn child, Marc and Vanessa Loring (Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner).

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It’s a cast that virtually anyone should love, though I suspect that Cera can be polarizing.  Paulie Bleeker is essentially the exact same character that Cera always portrays, but this was only his second major film role at this point, so the act had yet to wear thin.  Also, I take Cera’s very presence to be a deliberate choice to assist in crafting the tone and the humor of the film.  Seriously, is it easy to imagine Michael Cera, of all people, accidentally impregnating someone?  Even Simmons’s Mac makes a comment to that point, and in that moment, Juno’s supportive best friend Thea (Olivia Thirlby) seems relieved that someone finally says what she’s been thinking.  It didn’t have to be Cera, but the fact that he’s the father adds to the charm of the picture and he does well in the role.

The film also served as another stepping stone to stardom for Ellen Page.  Her visibility has dropped off in recent years (despite the fact that she is, in fact, still working regularly), but ten years ago, she was blossoming into the new It Girl in Hollywood.  She received major praise for her performance in the disturbing revenge thriller Hard Candy, but most general audiences missed it.  After that, she was (perfectly) cast as the legendary X-Man Kitty Pryde in X-Men: The Last Stand.  Lots of people saw that one, but she wasn’t the lead, so her impact was minimal.  She had a couple of small releases after that, but it was Juno that then brought her to the forefront of audiences’ radar and almost single-handedly made her a household name for a few years.

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Juno is a quick-witted, well-read, intelligent girl who wasn’t quite as ready for life as she wanted everyone to think she was.  She knows things most sixteen-year-olds don’t know, thinks in ways they don’t think, and handles situations with respectable maturity, even after getting into them due to her own poor judgement.  She plays everything off as No Big Deal, but Juno wants to handle the situation responsibly and is trying to do what will be best for the unborn child.

As she gets to know the adoptive parents, her path becomes clearer.  Jennifer Garner does well as the softhearted housewife who only ever wanted to be a mother, though the part hardly stretches her abilities.  Jason Bateman’s Marc is more against-type for him.  While he usually plays the deadpan comedian, here – even though he certainly has a sense of humor – he’s a little heavier.  There’s something going on with Marc that we don’t know, and Bateman conveys that to audience with apparent ease.

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The film was directed by Jason Reitman (who also directed one of my two favorite George Clooney films, Up in the Air) but I only remember how so many people were throwing around Diablo Cody’s name in the wake of the success of Juno.  And I don’t just mean people within and around the industry; fans and even people I knew were suddenly discussing her as if they had known her all along and were just waiting for her to hit it big.  Huge fans, they were.  So huge that they didn’t really follow her to her other projects such as Young Adult (which was great), Jennifer’s Body (also great, but people won’t admit it because it stars Megan Fox), and Ricki and the Flash (never got around to seeing it.  Sorry?).  It’s no surprise that everyone wanted to jump on the Diablo Cody bandwagon with the emergence of Juno, however.  The script is quick, sharp, clever, and heartfelt.  Her characters make mistakes, learn, grow, and move on with their lives, all while looking at life with the tongue-in-cheek resignation of people who know they don’t really have control of anything.  They live their lives and just do what they can to make it from day to day.  There’s something appealing in that.

Juno is a creative success in every way that Reitman and company intended it to be.  But, ultimately, it was a financial success because of its unrelenting charm.  It’s tough not to fall for Juno, herself, and Page radiates energy throughout the entire film.  The rest of the cast (especially Simmons) helps her along at every turn and the whole film is a fun, lighthearted look at the serious issue of teen pregnancy.  It’s not a topic that’s often tackled in film, and it can be a delicate one, but Juno handles it with class, poise, and a whimsical wink that enchants the viewer from the very beginning and never lets go.  Don’t forget about Juno.  It deserves better.

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#ThrowbackThursday – Juno

#ThrowbackThursday – Bridesmaids

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Original US release date: May 13, 2011
Production budget: $32,500,000
Worldwide gross: $288,383,523

In May of 2011, director Paul Feig released his new comedy Bridesmaids to the public and turned it into a hit far beyond the level of what anyone had anticipated.  Focusing on complex and realistic female characters, Bridesmaids tapped into an underserved audience during the typical male-driven blockbuster season, opening one week after Marvel Studios’ Thor.  The counterprogramming worked and Bridesmaids earned nearly $300 million worldwide and significantly raised the profiles of not only Feig, but some cast members, as well.

Kristen Wiig takes the lead in the film as Annie.  Middle-aged and down on her luck, Annie now has to find it within herself to be supportive of her life-long best friend Lillian (Maya Rudolph) after Lillian gets engaged.  Though Annie is chosen as Lillian’s maid-of-honor, a jealous streak emerges after Annie meets Lillian’s newer – and seemingly more put-together – bridesmaid BFF, Helen (Rose Byrne).  From there, hilarity ensues.

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And that’s not an overstatement.  Bridesmaids is genuinely hilarious, to a far greater degree than most films that are advertised and marketed as comedies.  One scene in particular featuring Annie and a young boy is brilliantly funny and a scene that I immediately wanted to find and send to friends.  But the film as a whole, though heartfelt, never loses its comedic slant and even presents the more dramatic moments with a wink of the eye and tongue firmly planted in cheek.

Two supporting stars in particular positioned themselves to get a lot of mileage out of this film.  Melissa McCarthy had been primarily relegated to television roles or small film parts until Bridesmaids.  She unquestionably made the most of her opportunity to play bridesmaid Megan, as I recall her being the most-talked about character from the film.  After that, she hit the ground running and has been a huge star ever since.  And it’s no wonder; not only is she consistently funny in the movie, but she radiates sincerity and relatability.  She’s naturally somewhat exaggerated in order to get the desired laughs, but it’s easy to understand why so many people fell in love with her performance, here.

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Rose Byrne had been featured in a handful of films before she portrayed Helen, but none that put her as firmly in the spotlight as this particular film.  Only one month after the release of Bridesmaids, Byrne was prominently featured in the underperforming but excellent X-Men: First Class as longtime comic character Moira MacTaggert.  It was the one-two punch she needed, as the disparate natures of the roles, combined with the high profiles of both, firmly gave her the opportunity to craft a stable, versatile career for herself.  As Helen, she largely plays it straight, but in future roles (such as the Neighbors franchise), she really got to flex her own comedic muscles, which have plenty of power.

So, the impact of Bridesmaids can’t be denied.  But even if careers hadn’t been solidified by the popularity of the film, it’s still a great movie, anchored in the idea that one can’t love others without loving oneself.  Kristen Wiig’s Annie has a charming arc and while she gives a low-key and subtle performance, it’s no-less hilarious than anyone else’s in the picture.  She essentially represents the layperson who wants to be happy for their friends’ successes but can only find the strength to do so if they, themselves, are content in their own life.  She’s a good person in a bad place and she doesn’t know how to handle it properly.  On the flip side, Maya Rudolph’s Lillian is getting everything she’s ever dreamed of, but might lose her best friend in exchange.

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The core of Bridesmaids‘s success was centered in its genuinely funny humor and its presentation of the female perspective.  All of the women in the film feel real and whole and like people we all could know.  I would imagine that, for many of the female viewers, the characters feel a lot like them, but I can only speculate.  I just know that, in spite of the necessary comedic hyperbole, the entire film is grounded in reality and presents the idea that we can all find a way to laugh at ourselves, in most cases.  And, even if that’s a difficult task, laughing at Bridesmaids is not – and that’s the hallmark of a truly successful comedy.

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#ThrowbackThursday – Bridesmaids

#ThrowbackThursday – Fantastic Four (2015)

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Original US release date: August 7, 2015
Production budget: $120,000,000
Worldwide gross: $167,977,596

Well, here we go.  I talk a lot about the entitlement of modern audiences – especially those from the comic book fanbase – and no film in recent memory is a better example of that fan entitlement than Josh Trank’s 2015 Fantastic Four.  From the day that Fox dared to cast the African-American actor Michael B. Jordan as the traditionally-white Johnny Storm/Human Torch, the comic book quote/unquote “fanbase” raged against this film and decided they hated it before it had even started filming.  Because that’s how mature people behave.  The fact is, this is another situation where it wouldn’t have mattered what the final product was like; audiences already somehow knew the movie “sucked” and they weren’t about to do or say anything that would put them in the position of having to backtrack.

So, I’m here to be objective.  You should know that I’m the biggest Fantastic Four fan you have come across.  I grew up on them.  I’m still faithful to them.  Comics haven’t felt the same to me since Marvel cancelled the Fantastic Four’s book in an apparent effort to lash out at Fox for retaining the film rights to the characters (that’s not confirmed, but it sure looks as though that’s their motivation).  If anybody was going to view this movie through rose-colored glasses, it would be me.  So, is it really as bad as people say?  Well . . . some of it is and some of it isn’t.

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Let’s start with the good (and, yes, there is good).  The best aspect of this film is, funnily enough, the casting.  The primary cast of Miles Teller, Kate Mara, Michael B. Jordan, and Jamie Bell as Reed Richards/Mr. Fantastic, Susan Storm/The Invisible Woman, The Human Torch/Johnny Storm, and Ben Grimm/The Thing, respectively, completely deliver and make the film exceedingly more watchable than it would have otherwise been.

Of the four, Jamie Bell is the only one who lacks the same level of screen presence and charisma as the others, but he’s still pretty good in his own right.  With a little more experience, he would have matched up.  My personal favorite is Mara as Sue.  I admittedly was skeptical about her casting as I had trouble envisioning her in the role based on what I had seen from her in previous outings, but she resonates charm, intelligence, and a hesitant warmth that only shows on the rare instances when Sue lets her guard down.  If Marvel were ever to get the rights to the FF back, I wish there were some way they could retain Mara as Sue, though I’m fully aware that it wouldn’t make any sense, narratively speaking, to do so.  What’s interesting is that rumors following the film’s release (if you choose to believe them) insisted that director Trank hated Mara’s performance and regularly verbally accosted her on set.  I don’t know if that’s true, but she manages to squeeze significant sincerity into her performance in spite of all the talk that Trank actually encouraged the cast to do otherwise.

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On the flip side, Toby Kebbell was horribly miscast as Victor Von Doom/Doctor Doom.  Kebbell is completely devoid of any sense of threat, menace, or genius-level intellect (I don’t mean that personally – just regarding his performance).  Part of the issue is the way the character is written.  That way is “awfully”, by the way.  Petty, weak, and lacking independence, Doom is not only a shell of his comic book counterpart, but he’s just a poor villain, altogether.  Doom, in fact, is the worst component of the film.  The requisite Final Battle at the climax of the film makes no sense because Doom is never given any sort of comprehensible motivation for his thoughts, feelings, or actions.  Suddenly, he just hates the Fantastic Four after being friends with them for the majority of the film and we never really know why.  The FF don’t really seem to question it, themselves.  They just know it’s time to fight.  So they do.

There is a pacing issue, though it’s not the worst I’ve seen.  Frankly, the only reason the pacing is a problem is because the film rushes to a conclusion after taking its time to set the stage.  The first hour or so of character- and relationship-building is actually really solid work.  The dialogue is unspectacular, but also inoffensive.  And the FF, themselves, have great chemistry.  Their interactions are fun to watch and entertaining on a consistent basis.  It takes a while to get them together as a team, which is fine seeing that it’s an origin movie.  But if an audience is forced to wait for what they really want to see, then they need to get a healthy dose of what they want when the time for it finally comes.  And that doesn’t happen.  Most of the action was cut (including the big money-shot scene from the trailer of the Thing falling from the sky) and the FF as a fully-functioning family unit comes and goes in what feels like the blink of an eye.

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The special effects are also really strong, when in play.  The Thing looks amazing – much better than in the Tim Story films – though pants would be great.  I understand the logic behind him not having his trademark shorts, but Trank should know that that’s the sort of thing that audiences single out to make fun of and there’s no reason to give them ammunition.  The Human Torch effect is beautiful, as well, and – though it’s brief – Sue gets to use her powers in some very cool, sleek-looking ways straight from the comics.  Mr. Fantastic’s stretching isn’t quite as convincing as the others’ abilities, but, again, it’s still better than in the Story movies.

If only we could get more of that.  A lot of people complained about the tone of the film, stating that it was too serious.  Look, the FF comics have never been a comedy.  They’ve had lighthearted moments, yes.  But those mostly came after the origin and the team had started to come to terms with what had happened to them.  But, generally speaking, Fantastic Four stories have the same mix of light and dark as any other typical comic book.  So, the tone was fine.  But, once the film starts having fun, it’s over.  And, fun?  Fun, I could have used more of.

Another issue is how Sue – the only woman on the team – is excluded from the mission that gives the team their powers in favor of Doom.  It makes her seem less important and integral to the team and to the film.  It’s a very misogynistic choice in a film that didn’t need any misogyny to compound its other issues.

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Josh Trank’s Fantastic Four is not the worst movie – or even the worst comic book movie – ever made.  It’s better than Catwoman.  It’s better than Batman & Robin.  It’s better than X-Men Origins: Wolverine.  And it’s pretty comparable in quality to X-Men: Apocalypse and Suicide Squad.  I actually prefer it to those two films.  The problem is that the film got hacked to pieces by a group of people who got their priorities mixed up and began second-guessing every little thing instead of simply trying to make a good movie that is faithful to its characters, the fanbase, and appealing to general audiences.  I know that’s not easy to do, but Fox clearly focused on money (saving it more so than making it) instead of art, and it came back to bite them.

Fox says they want to keep trying with the Fantastic Four.  The problem is that they’ve gotten the property to the point where it’s damaged in the general public’s eyes.  There needs to be a long wait before another attempt is made.  But if Fox waits, then the rights revert back to Marvel.  That would be best for everyone, but I don’t think Fox sees it that way.  So, for now, we’re stuck with no Fantastic Four comic and ill-advised films that very few will see, no matter how good the films are or aren’t.  As a lifetime fan of the property, I anxiously await an epic, large-scale, blast of a Fantastic Four movie with a proper Doctor Doom (or Galactus or Annihilus or the Skrulls) that shows people just why I love them so much.  I’ll cross my fingers, but I won’t hold my breath.

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#ThrowbackThursday – Fantastic Four (2015)

#ThrowbackThursday – The Green Hornet (2011)

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Original US release date: January 14, 2011
Production budget: $120,000,000
Worldwide gross: $227,817,248

The Green Hornet was director Michel Gondry and co-writers Seth Rogan and Evan Goldberg’s take on a character first created for a radio serial in 1936.  Most modern audiences had little to no significant exposure to the character before the release of this film, but many claimed to hate the movie for not being “true to the source”, anyway.  Granted, it was an unexpected approach (until it was announced that Rogen was starring in the title role.  Then, what else could one expect?), given that the character had never been associated with comedy – much less Rogen’s brand of comedy – at any point in his existence.  But few people actually cared about that; most just wanted an excuse to bash Rogen and feel better about themselves.  But was the film really that bad?

Britt Reid (Rogen) grew up a spoiled rich kid with an unsympathetic father (Tom Wilkinson), who had no patience for Britt’s desire to help people if it didn’t involve making money or if it did involve the risk of failure.  When Britt’s father passes away, Britt inherits everything and finally finds the freedom to live his life as he sees fit.  Along with one of his father’s former employees, Kato, Britt sets out to fight crime, but he approaches it from a different angle: he attempts to infiltrate the crime world and take them by surprise by convincing them that he and Kato are among their kind.

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Speaking objectively (which is what I’m here to do), the film is a mixed bag.  Having the heroes deliberately intend to gain a reputation as criminals is certainly a twist on the superhero genre.  Even more, the script is flipped by the obvious fact that Britt – who dubs himself “The Green Hornet” – is completely incompetent and in way over his head, whereas Kato is the only reason that the duo meets with any semblance of success.  Despite Britt’s greatest wishes and total delusions, the Green Hornet is the sidekick and Kato is the hero.

All of this is great for freshening the genre up, but I can understand how the three or four people out there who were actually Green Hornet fans from the genesis of the character onward would be upset by this presentation.  I have always said that creative liberties with established properties are absolutely fine as long as the heart of the original is retained.  And that’s certainly not the case, here, if we’re being honest.  But only fans of the original should truly be upset by this.  If one never knew or had any allegiance to that version, what difference do the changes make?  So, to most people whining about the changes, I call BS.  They didn’t actually care; they just wanted to feel important and knowledgeable on the Internet.

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These changes obviously lend themselves to the opportunity for comedy.  And the comedy isn’t that bad.  It’s not an all-time classic, but I chuckled fairly regularly.  It’s Rogen’s style, but without all the drug references, and when he abandons that stuff, he’s at his best.  His delivery is exceptional and he knows how to play earnest stupidity.  Britt is the exact same character Rogen plays in all of his films, but it works for him, so I’m not going to fight it.  He and Goldberg essentially approached the film as “Seth Rogen tries to become a superhero”.  And it’s fine.

Jay Chou as Kato is the standout performer in the movie.  His action scenes are truly exceptional, due both to his own efforts and those of the creative minds behind them.  The action, in general, is actually above average for a lower-tier action film (a “lower-tier” action film that cost $120,000,000 to produce, which was way too much for this untested, long-dormant license).  It’s all creatively conceived and beautifully executed, with Gondry going out of his way to ensure it feels different from other films.

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Besides Britt and Kato, the other characters are hit-and-miss.  Cameron Diaz does fine as Lenore, the assistant to the crime-fighting duo.  She’s much smarter than either of them and has absolutely no desire to be The Girlfriend, fiercely and refreshingly rebuking Britt’s advances at every turn.  The villain(s?) don’t fare as well.  Christoph Waltz is a tremendous talent but his mob boss baddie Chudnofsky is bland and uninteresting.  The only scene featuring the character that didn’t make me want to move along to the next is his introduction, in which he confronts a new boss on the scene (James Franco, in a delectable, scene-stealing performance) after he moves in on Chudnofsky’s turf.  After that, he devolves into clichéd, standard fare for mob bosses.  Britt’s father isn’t much better, as the a-hole father who just doesn’t understand his kid.  It’s a trope, but at least that one has significantly less screen time than Chudnofsky.

The Green Hornet is an average action film.  Some of it is pretty good, some of it leaves much to be desired, and it all kind of evens out.  I appreciate what Gondry, Rogen, and Goldberg were going for but it ultimately needed a more interesting story and villain to stand out as truly memorable and be something that audiences would crave more of.  Trying to lean solely on strong action beats and moderately amusing dialogue left us with an experience that isn’t entirely a waste of time, but not something that many will wish to revisit.

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#ThrowbackThursday – The Green Hornet (2011)