Oh come on, I called you mediocre, not "Worst of the Year."Image Courtesy of: ComicBookMovie
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Moving on in 2013, there were movies which while not absolutely bad, they aren’t really that outstanding or for that matter exemplary in the year that they released in. As you are about to see there are quite a number in which I felt just couldn’t be defined as one extreme or the other, just either felt pretty meh or disappointed in how they turned out. And as you can see from the page image, one I’ve been holding out for a long time.
The “Mediocre, But Not Terrible” Awards:
If They Couldn’t Do It Right the First Time Award: The Wolverine
Could be almost tempted to call this Wolverine: The Apology, but the film has problems of its own that drag it down to where it doesn’t really make up for the travesty of X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Be thankful as this film spares being a complete butcher-job on the character, a tortured amnesiac (Though in this film another memory kicks back just in time) who cuts people up for a living. But what is not thankful is being wedged in a paint-by-numbers noir/vigilante revenge flick where Logan (Hugh Jackman) is brought to Japan with the offer of a normal life, but then ends up entangled in a family conflict with the mob… and the rest just seems to progress just as you think, right down to the betrayals and twists. If not with the mutation angle and some sort of vague idea about honor or code, it does nothing to distinguish itself from films of the like.
And if the movie isn’t plain enough, it shoves in a generic love story to which the pacing takes a nosedive, any momentum the film had grinding so that Wolverine can have another girl to sink his claws in (so to speak). The movie also tries to parallel his tragic relationship with Jean Grey (Famke Jensenn) but ends up tripping and falling on its sharp adamantium blades when trying to develop the romance, not to mention how much it pains me to be reminded of X-Men: The Last Stand. Doesn’t help Mariko (Tao Okamoto) is such a paper-thin character among a sea of paper thin characters, she doesn’t really get much else to do other than be Wolvie’s “woman of the movie” and the human MacGuffin for ninjas, Yakuzas and creepy but ineffectual viper women.
About the only thing that really saves grace is some of the action scenes are pretty decent, except maybe distractingly bloodless shot in a way in which there probably should have been blood (Saw the Theatrical Cut) and a train sequence marred by some bad visual effects and chroma keying. But overall, this Wolverine is pretty forgettable, and I pray that we don’t have to witness anymore attempts to “get it right” because as much as I like Hugh, this character has been overexposed. Though with anything have Days of Future Past to look forward to in which he’s the bridge between two timelines.
Film I Have an Uneasy Time Defining Award: Man of Steel
Ooh boy, now it’s time to really dig into this film and try and make sense of everything. I feel like an alien myself looking at some of the reactions this movie has gotten, “worst movie of the year”, “a betrayal to the character”, “one of the most soulless pieces of moviemaking this year” “an example of Hollywood cynicism.” Alien in that I never felt any one of them. But maybe it’s because I’m either blind or willing to see gold within some grime.
I didn’t really have a problem it took a bit more of a down-to-earth approach to Superman’s (Henry Cavill) upbringing, that a person who has super powers wouldn’t have it easy. I think the idea of showing a Clark Kent trying to find a purpose in the world isn’t such a bad idea, as it would build how he becomes the Man of Steel we know and love. Though maybe the tragedy angle is what really puts it a little too much, having a childhood of fear which leads to the death of one of his father’s Jonathan (Kevin Costner), and in order to save the world he goes through another. There isn’t so much of that boundless optimism for Superman and symbol of hope, when he’s been dogged with the trauma of being different most of his life.
While there is certainly a theme of hope which they pretty much spell out with every Jor-El (Russell Crowe) monologue, but in that there just seems a conflict of interest at times. We do see Superman inspire the military that he is fighting for a force of good, but there isn’t so much ground level, in fact regular people are pretty much just background props. When large scale destruction happens it doesn’t quite show much consistency to what people feel on it, on one hand you have Perry White (Lawrence Fishburne) and a few other people being directly affected when whole sections of the city are leveled, but the rest caught in the crossfire don’t seem to get as much attention, especially when fists fly in the very destructive fight scenes.
There seems to be an attempt at moral ambiguity as well, especially in its depiction of General Zod (Michael Shannon), a man who wants to commit genocide but for what he believes is the good for his people to survive. With Clark it is definitely put in him a crossroads to be the hero that he can be, but in the end it isn’t particularly clear whether or not he has reached that or it’s one of those things which we “have to wait for the sequel” (And I’m really sick of those making that as an excuse). And certainly doesn’t feel like there is the absolute answer with the path you choose, in fact seems to show that every choice comes with hardship, destroying a ship filled with embryos of your Kryptonian “brothers” means you won’t be saving your species but also means saving the planet you were raised on. And the ultimate decision that leads to quite possibly the most controversial moment of the film is built upon a simple scenario which had he made more thought into it before probably would have avoided punching Zod through buildings. It just feels pretty un-Superman.
Yet… having written… all that, I don’t hate the film. On the contrary I thought it was an interesting to see this re-interpretation of the mythos, for all the problems there still feels like there is some solid foundation in the approach it took, even if not particularly original. I didn’t think Henry Cavill was a bad Superman, and really made me feel for the journey he went on. On another side of the coin I didn’t think Michael Shannon was that bad Zod, while goes into ham mode at moments (“I WILL FIND HIM!”) it still feels at match with the movie. I didn’t mind Russell Crowe that much as Jor-El either, while not stand-out I didn’t really think he was bad at it. If anything though I wish there was more for characters like Lois Lane (Amy Adams) to do, she comes in being “not your mama’s Lois” but as the film goes on seems to just be incidental to the plot, and has no real romantic connection with Clark except suddenly when it didn’t fit the moment at all.
And as much as the action is destructive, I thought it was pretty well done, and didn’t even think the somewhat unsual for Zack Snyder shaky cam detracted from it that much. Some of the visual effects are nice, while others like some of the flying sections feel like they needed more polish. Overall, the movie I felt was a good film just trying to break out, but could have done more to refine what they were having rather than seemingly bundle a bunch of elements together without thinking if they’ll really connect.
Sophomore Disappointment Award: Elysium
I really liked Neill Blomkamp’s District 9. While of course it is a thin allegory for the Apartheid in South Africa, only with aliens, the film I felt still had quite a number of visual flourish and creativity that set it above films of 2009, the Science Fiction movie I thought deserved more love that year over James Cameron’s Avatar (Though Moon was better than both of them). This follow-up however weaves a far more traditional narrative, with an even thinner allegory, this time about the haves vs the have-nots and buckles under the weight of being so hamfisted with its themes.
Matt Damon’s Max is a character who has been told as a child that he’s destined for great things. If that isn’t just one thing I’d rather have ejected out of terms continually used in films, usually as a way to forego actual characterization. He basically fulfills the arc of reluctant hero, which becomes even more transparent when he’s given a data full of MacGuffin that could change everything. At first he is kind of like Wikus (The main character of District 9) in which his ambition to get on Elysium is selfish, but it doesn’t take much pushing for him to turn the switch. He’s also lives in Los Angeles which has a large Hispanic population, so him being the center of this also kind of gets into the white savior territory that has been overdone and still kind of racist.
Then there is Jodie Foster’s Delacourt, and oh boy does she come across as cartoonish here. Her character is basically that of the soulless rich political figure-head who does things that only benefit herself and her society. She’ll allow ships filled with ill children to be blown up so that she could keep her world. There doesn’t seem much more than that, and not helping matters is Foster playing the game of “What the hell accent are you trying to attempt?” Apparently it’s supposed to be French but it’s hard to tell when her natural accent usually fades in and out at random.
Faring better and much more memorably is Sharlto Copley’s Kruger a mercenary for hire who looks like he’s having the time of his life being an evil bastard. In contrast to his more timid Wikus and the lovable insanity of Murdock from The A-Team, he pretty much plays the creepy and very much evil villain well.
The film also has some very good visual effects and production design which like District 9 integrate very well into the film itself, and also has some decent (though a bit shaky) action scenes. But had the film boasted a much better narrative, that doesn’t feel like it’s cheap and hitting the audience like a sledgehammer, it probably would have fared better than some of the other movies this past year.
Two Things Kind of Wrong With The Title Award: Oz: The Great and Powerful
Now depending on what circles you go around to this movie can either be a hidden underrated gem or a sexist piece of male fantasy crap. I’m in one of the circles that kind enjoy parts of it, but at the same time can’t overlook some glaring flaws that I feel undermine some of the elements of the film.
To address the whole sexism debate first off is that… I can only see the case with Theodora (Mila Kunis). She is presented as this sort of wide-eyed ideal witch who really seems to be all into Oz (James Franco) and smarmy charm, who gets turned wicked by being scorned by love. And essentially it was the latter part that got the most heat for it, the fact that they made one of the most iconic movie villains have her transformation rely on what is considered to be sexist “woman scorned by man” trope. While in fairness it was a poison apple Evanora (Rachel Weisz) gave her that probably did most of the wicked transformation, but at the same time there isn’t really much fleshing out of the character that really makes her an outstanding example of a female antagonist.
I think of the witches though standing out much more is Evanora and Glinda (Michelle Williams) who feel more as fleshed out sort of characters and having Oz be in their lives don’t detract from their power. The former just uses Oz as a way to further her evil deeds, she doesn’t buy into the whole prophecy thing, while the latter actually would actually use Oz as well but as a driving force for good to use the prophecy for a victory for the forces of good. Essentially in comparison to these two ladies it isn’t Oz that comes off as the “great and powerful”, but essentially one that can help add to a cause.
And as much as it doesn’t make narrative sense for Glinda to really fall for Oz except that, hey he did a good job saving the world, I don’t think her finding good in him and making a leader of the land is sexist at all. Finding what a person is being capable of even if they don’t recognize themselves as good is what is a universal narrative trope. Maybe overused but at the same time I don’t feel like it takes away from Glinda, and the final battle is pretty much with Evanora was hers to win, Oz isn’t that involved except giving the illusion that he has more power than he does to drive Evanora away.
I think though by far the best character in the whole movie is China Girl (Joey King), a character who is set up as the person who is meant to parallel a rather sad part of Oz’s prologue, but turns up as a rather cute and determined little porcelain character. It’s tragic the circumstances she comes into the fray, but ends up being one of the more endearing and adorable characters of the film.
Not what to really say on the movie itself and why I might just find it mediocre. Well firstly are the rather inconsistent visuals, while there are nice moments and some great CG characters it’s a bit pulled back by some wonky-chroma work especially in Oz’s entrance to the world of Oz and the bubble sequence. I also felt that James Franco doesn’t quite turn up quite the quite deceitful charm yet good meaning fitting for the character, it definitely felt more in the range of Robert Downey Jr. who was originally considered for the role.
Still I think I feel this wasn’t the awful thing that some make it out to be, but pretty far from great and being powerful.
Pixar Reputation Diminishing Award: Monsters University
What was once a renowned name in modern Western Animation now seems to be in a creative slump. Cars 2 was a colossal misfire, Brave wasn’t really as great as it could have been and now Monsters University comes along and commits probably the worst crime of being nothing special. The film already sets itself for failure being a prequel to Monsters Inc., which while a good film I don’t think there was a high demand from people to see what Mike (Billy Crystal) and Sulley’s (John Goodman) college days were like.
Yet for being pointless, the film is not without its charm. I didn’t really mind the whole monster approach on college tropes, some decent laughs here and there, and really flexing the creativity of the animators at Pixar to come up with some crazy new monster designs. The voice cast isn’t too bad, but one character standing out is Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren) who plays an antagonist but not a villain, breath of fresh air for this sort of story. The film also plays off an interesting narrative subversion on the whole “You can be anything if you really try” which while it’s somewhat questionable about the high standards to become something scary, still plays off most earnestly than some would have, especially when characters actions aren’t easily forgiven.
Ultimately though, it’s a prequel and the journey just feels a little too padded out for something we ultimately know will work out in the end. It undercuts the tension you try to build when you’ve already seen their futures, as well know in the future that all their experience trying to scare people will turn out moot. I know people like to think it’s the journey mattering but in this case, it just doesn’t feel needed.
There is also supporting characters that just don’t come across memorably, or are really defined well, even as comic relief. And while the third act gets to a pretty spectacular conclusion it almost feels like the film is struggling to find a decent end. Ultimately while it wasn’t the massive fail that Cars 2 was, it still shows the lamp’s bulb is still a bit dim. 2014 will also mark the first year since 2005 that a Pixar film hasn’t been released, while next year supposedly will have a double-bill of Inside Out and the delayed The Good Dinosaur. Will a year off do wonders for the company? Who knows but I think other companies are definitely stepping up their game.
Next Time: The Surprise Films
Rant to be continued… (Maybe)