Friday, May 27, 2011

Does KUNG FU PANDA 2 Have Kung Fu Grip?!


- The first Kung Fu Panda film was a really nice surprise, and to me, it was the movie that made me look at Dreamworks Animation in a whole new light. Kung-Fu Panda had so much visual inventiveness, such memorable characters, and so many fun, funny moments that it was right up there with just about any other animated film that came out that year, finally putting Dreamworks on a level playing field with the almighty Pixar. Since that time, Dreamworks has been on a certified roll. How To Train Your Dragon was awesome. Megamind kicked ass. And now, Kung Fu Panda 2 hits the scene and keeps the streak alive. It's pure fun from start to finish - a great martial-arts adventure that is a feast for the eyes, and also adds a new layer of depth to what now looks to be an ongoing franchise.

After being frustrated lately with live-action summer movies that look underwhelming in 3D - that are still trying to figure out the right balance between CGI-enhanced fantasy and budget-saving realism - it felt great to pop on my 3D specs and be 100% transported to a bright, beautifully-crafted animated world that positively jumps off the screen. Kung Fu Panda 2 looks amazing - the level of detail and craftsmanship in the animation is stunning, with numerous scenes in the movie that are suitable for framing. This really is a stunningly gorgeous movie. Aside from the top-notch CG animation, the movie inserts eye-popping hand-drawn animated sequences that serve as flashbacks to our hero Po's dimly-remembered early childhood. And that's in addition to the woodcut-style opening sequence that introduces the film and ends it over the credits. Suffice it to say, this is one to see in 3D and on the biggest screen possible.

The story of KFP2 picks up a short time after the ending of the first film. Roly-poly panda Po is still goofy and clumsy, but he is also now a certified kung-fu master, and his reputation as a local hero - as the "Dragon Warrior" - is known throughout the land. Po spends his time thwarting badguys with his compatriots, The Furious Five, and things are going surprisingly smmothly - Po and the Five have developed some badass teamwork skills (as witnessed in an astonishing early action scene), and are a force to be reckoned with for evil-doers everywhere. One day, however, Po and his crew fight a pack of invading wolves, and the symbol on one of the invader's armor triggers something in Po - repressed memories from his time as an infant. From there, Po begins to finally question who he really is and where he came from (he was, apparently, the only one who never thought it odd that he was a panda but his father a goose). As it turns out, the Big Bad behind the invading wolf army has some sinister ties to Po's origin, and suddenly, Po's latest mission becomes very, very personal.

I don't want to spoil too much, but I'll just say that the movie has a pretty cool plotline that serves as Po's "secret origin" of sorts, but also gives us a great villain in Lord Shen - voiced by none other than Gary Oldman. So ... yeah, it's Gary Oldman as a vile, scheming, power-hungry villain. You can pretty much anticipate that awesomeness will ensue, and it does. Although, aside even from Oldman's effectiveness, the visual design of Lord Shen - a peacock who uses his long tail-feathers as a fan-like weapon of asskickery - was just plain sweet. Speaking of which, the character design in this franchise continues to be top-notch. Even if they only have a couple of key scenes each, I still loved the new characters of Master Croc (voiced by Jean Claude Van Damme!) and Master Oxen (Dennis Haysbert of 24!) from a visual standpoint. The way the movie takes all this animal iconography and blends them with kung-fu archtypes is really cool. And to that end, like Part 1, this latest movie deserves respect for the way it lovingly pays tribute to - and serves as a primer for - all the great kung-fu classics. There's even a little meta-history thrown in, as the movie deals with, on a certain level, the introduction of firearms and technology into old China, and the effect such weapons had on combat and warfare. Who knew ... Kung Fu Panda = educational on multiple levels.

Aside from all that though, this movie just plain dazzles with its incredible action scenes. The first film had a couple of mind-blowing set-piece action sequences, but Part 2 tops it with several fights, chases, and battles that are among the best in any movie so far this year. It's just one scene after another of pure awesomesauce, directed with kinetic joy by Jennifer Yuh. Seriously, get this woman on more big action movies, stat! She imbues Kung Fu Panda 2 with a sense of dynamism and boundless, videogame-like energy that makes it a pure rollercoaster ride from start to finish.

Are there weaknesses? Sure -- as with the first film, though to an even greater extent in this one, the lack of time spent with the other members of the Furious Five is a bit head-scratching, especially given the big-name voice talent behind them. People like Seth Rogen, Lucy Liu, Jackie Chan, and David Cross are literally given only a handful of lines each, with only Angelina Jolie's ass-kicking feline Tigress given a major character arc. Sure, the movie isn't really *about* these side characters, but a couple more memorable moments for each might have added something. Other than that, I guess my one real complaint is that the movie plays a bit fast and loose with its stakes. What I mean is, there are at least a couple of instances where it seemed like the film was going to actually kill and/or severly injure a major character, only to reveal that, nevermind, they're fine! This *is* a kids' flick, and I wasn't expecting graphic violence or wanton death, but by the second or third time a character seems dead, only to be miraculously alive, it gets to be a little much - and you begin to question the potency of the supposedly-imposing villains when their best super-weapons end up causing only minor damage to our heroes.

That said, KFP2 does manage to have a good deal of heart and soul, more so, I think, than Part 1. The movie's most heart-tugging moments involve Po and his relationship with his adoptive-goose father, the doting noodlemaker Mr. Ping (hilariously / touchingly voiced by James Hong). A lot of nice moments between the two - and it's a credit to Jack Black as well and the work he does as Po. Sure, it's cool to hate on Black in some circles, but he really is pitch-perfect and very funny as Po - and he gets in a ton of great, oftentimes hilarious lines in this one.

Overall, I had a great time at Kung Fu Panda 2 - and I'd say without hesitation that it's the most purely fun movie of the summer so far. There's even a mysterious cliffhanger ending to get you primed and ready for Part 3. Anyways, I'd say run don't walk to check this out. See it in 3D, and prepare to experience some of the most stunning action and animation you've seen to date. The kung-fu, in this one, is strong.

My Grade: A-

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Is a PIRATE's Life Still For Me? On Stranger Tides - Reviewed!


- I am of two minds when it comes to the latest Pirates of the Carribean. On one hand, I just inherently love these Pirates movies. As long as Johnny Depp is back as Cap'n Jack, as long as Geoffrey Rush is there bellowing awesome, pirate-y things as Barbossa, as long as there's ships and swords and adventure - and that rousing soundtrack - I'm there, in the theater, opening weekend. I'll happilly embrace more sequels, more adventures, because I love the characters, love the universe of these movies, and dammit all, I love pirates (and really, who doesn't?). On the other hand, I think that this fourth Pirates film was a letdown on many levels, squandering many opportunities for great storytelling in favor of a paint-by-numbers approach to blockbuster movie-making. Knock Gore Verbinski and his increasingly ostentatious sequels all you want, but man, those movies were *insane* - going completely balls-to-the-wall in an all-out effort to thrill and entertain. To me, that's why I love the second and third Pirates films, haters be damned. They're just awesomely imaginative, completely out-there, and visually mind-blowing. To that end, I felt like On Stranger Tides had the flaws of those sequels - an overstuffed script, too many extraneous subplots, a convoluted and hard-to-make-sense-of storyline - but lacked their sheer sense of fun and theatricality. Director Rob Marshall tries to keep things smaller-scale, similar to the first film, but the plot still manages to blow up very quickly, rapidly ballooning to include magic ships, ancient curses, and multiple rival factions of characters. At the same time, Marshall's action scenes only occasionally have the sense of wonder or Buster Keaton-esque merriment of those in Verbinski's films. The end result is a movie that is consistently entertaining, thanks to Depp, Rush, and all of the pirate-y trappings that make the series so fun - but that is also, ultimately a wasted opportunity to reinvigorate the now-aging franchise. My sense is that the next Pirates flick - assuming there is one - will once again have to go back to the drawing board.

There are a couple of big new characters in this one, but they all seem to get the short shrift in the script. I think a lot of fans were justifiably jazzed about the prospect of the great Ian McShane as Blackbeard, "the pirate who all other pirates fear." And McShane makes for a visually striking, imposing presence as the legendary Edward Teach, scourge of the seven seas. But the character never really gets to be the Big Bad that you hope he will be. Introduced at first as a recluse, then as a sort-of-goofy blowhard, then as a mean ol' hombre who'd kill his own daughter to get what he wants ... the fact is, you never get a great feel for why, exactly, Blackbeard is so feared. The character just never gets a great chance to shine or be evil or make us really love to hate him. In fact, one of his most dastardly deeds - his takeover of the Black Pearl and his slaughter of most of its crew - is never shown, only described by the surviving (but now peg-legged) Barbossa. My point being: Blackbeard had the potential to be a great, new villain for this franchise, but he never does anything all that cool or memorable - and his character remains somewhat bland - for the duration of the film.

And you know, that is kind of a recurring theme throughout the movie. Penelope Cruz is the other big new character, and they try to introduce her as this mysterious femme fatale who has a past with Captain Jack. The problem is that this past is never glimpsed, only hinted at, and her character remains frustratingly ambiguous throught the movie. It felt like the film was content just to have Cruz as a sexy she-pirate and foil for dept, without ever taking much time to give her an actual character. Cruz handles the role well, but again, you never care all that much about her. Let's just say that - if she were to triumphantly return midway through a fifth movie - I don't think the audience would burst out in applause as they did when Rush's Barbossa resurfaced at the end of Part 2.

And it's not just the new characters that feel slighted in this one. As I said, I could watch Rush as Barbossa all freakin' day, but man, I couldn't help but feel like he could have had bigger and better moments in this movie - a movie that, overall, seems oddly lacking in those big, crowd-pleasing, stand-up-and-cheer sorts of moments. Barbossa is actually given the best story arc in the movie. His beloved Pearl has been pillaged and taken by Blackbeard, his men offed, and he's been left defeated and peg-legged. He's now working for the British government as a privateer, but let's face it, Barbossa is a pirate through and through. At the moment though, he's using the resources of the King to track down Blackbeard and get his sweet revenge. Okay, not a bad plotline. But man, where was the payoff? The movie tantalizingly hinted at a big moment where Rush would discard his privateer facade and gloriously reclaim his status as a pirate - "a pirate's life for me!". But when the moment comes, it feels sort of half-assed and unsatisfying.

To that end, a lot of stuff in the movie just feels cobbled together much in the manner of Barbossa's wooden leg (which, amusingly, doubles as a flask). For some reason, Blackbeard wields a magical sword that lets him control his ship - causing its ropes and tethers to spring to life and attack his enemies, and its cannons to shoot blazing streams of hellfire. How can Blackbeard do all this? Who knows. How and why does he have a colleciton of plundered ships (including The Pearl) magically shrunken inside glass bottles? Who knows? And what was the point of Keith Richards poppoing up again as Jack's father, then mysteirously disappearing, then having no further relevance to the plot? Again - a big WTF type of moment. The movie also introduces a whole subplot about a mermaid who is captrued by Blackbeard's crew - they need a mermaid's tear to unlock the powers of the Fountain of Youth, the magical pool of water that they seek (yeah, it's complicated). In a pretty badass action scene, the movie reveals that here, mermaids are vicious, vampire-like creatures with fangs, who attack sailors and drag them to their deaths in the hidden depths of the ocean. But for some reason, this one mermaid is good and innocent, and we're supposed to care about her and the square-jawed missionary who looks after her and protects her from Blackbeard and his men. The whole Missionary / Mermaid subplot seriously drags the movie down, and feels very much shoehorned into an already overstuffed script. It's hard to make a would-be epic, star-crossed romance between man and she-fish into a small subplot in ap irate epic, but On Stranger Tides attempts it, and the result is that we just want the lame Missionary to walk the plank. The plot reason for him sticking around is that it's at the behest of Penelope Cruz's character, who wants him around to try to save the soul of her might-be father Blackbeard. The meta-reason for him sticking around? Presumably that the movie, filled with scoundrels, thieves, and rougues, needed some sort of straight-laced hero-type character to provide a moral compass. But the chemistry just feels all wrong, and because so much time is devoted to Mr. Missionary, it means that Cruz, McShane, and Rush all. sadly, get less time to develop their characters. And by the way - with the entire movie being about the search for the Fountain of Youth, doesn't it seem odd that none of the characters is even particularly motivated to reap the benefits of the actual Fountain? Jack doesn't care about staying young, Rush never really mentions the idea, and Blackbeard is never given much motivation either. The Fountain in this film is a total McGuffin, and its inclusion feels a bit off given that, hey, this is the freaking Fountain of Youth - you'd think there'd be at least one character whose major motivation was to drink up and turn back the clock. But with the nonchalant Jack front and center, his relative indifference to the Fountain and its powers transfers to some extent to us, the audience. If the main characters don't particularly care about this quest, why should we?

And therein lies a fundamental issue with On Stranger Tides. The earlier films had Jack in the Han Solo role - the roguish antihero who stirs things up and reluctantly saves the day. In this movie, sans series stars Orlando Bloom and Keira Knightly, Jack is in the lead, but it feels like the movie only half-heartedly embraces that concept. If this were to truly be Jack's movie, then why have him compete with dozens of other characters for screentime, and why not flesh out some of the backstory between he and Cruz? The writers may have painted themselves into a corner by putting Jack front and center. Was it a great idea in the first place to have the quasi-villain of the franchise become its hero? Probably not. But does the movie 100% run with the idea of Jack-as-hero-and-star? Not exactly. If it did, we wouldn't need the Missionary/Mermaid romance taking up so much time.

By the same token, Depp is in fine form here, as always. His comic timing is impeccable, and his knack for physical comedy is unmatched. Just seeing him interact with Rush's imposing Barbossa is great, and same goes for beloved first mate Mr. Gibbs. Anytime the movie focuses on these three and just gives them license to be over-the-top, funny, and generally awesome, I was a happy camper.

And there are enough scenes that are funny, exciting, or action packed that the movie remains entertaining throughout. An early sequence, for example, in which Depp's Sparrow is taken prisoner by the King and questioned - even as Jack remains more concerned with procuring a delicious-looking pastry from the king's dessert table - is a lot of fun. The aforementioned mermaid attack scene is suitably visceral and riveting. And despite the larger weaknesses in the script, there are no shortage of funny one-liners, quips, and sly double entendres for Cap'n Jack. In many ways, Depp (with help from Rush and Kevin McNally as Gibbs) puts the entire franchise on his back and keeps it afloat. He's a one-man entertainment machine, and it just reinforces how great he really is as Jack Sparrow, and it's amazing how much he's able to make make the movie work through sheer force of will and charisma.

And so I did, ultimately, have a lot of fun with this latest Pirates adventure, and despite my issues with it, my enthusiasm for the franchise still remains. I'd like to see a more visually inventive director (Guillermo Del Toro? Robert Rodriguez?) take the reigns, as it seemed like Rob Marshall was a bit bland with his directorial choices and not a great fit for the franchise. I'd also like to see a script that brings back the series' best characters, but keeps the core players to a minumum and gives us a great new plot, new villain, and new storyline that makes sense, that gets us invested. This movie has a ton of moving parts, but it's just barely held together by Depp and co. But it's a testament to the inherent spirit of fun and adventure in this franchise somehow, the movie still manages to entertain and keep the franchise alive. It's why, on paper, I see a lot of flaws with the film ,but just can't bring myself to totally hate on it. On Stranger Tides isn't my ideal Pirates film, but - "a Pirate's life for me?" - hells yeah, bring on Part 5.

My Grade: B-

- And by the way, this is yet another film that needlessly used 3D as part of a post-conversion process that did the movie no favors. Again, the 3D added little to nothing to the visuals, while only serving to make the film darker and less sharp than it should have been. Enough! Either shoot the movie in 3D and optimize it for 3D, or release it in 2D only!

Friday, May 20, 2011

A Tribute to "The Macho Man" Randy Savage: Dig It!


- "Oooooohhh yeeeeahhh! Dig it!"

Such was the memorable catchphrase of "The Macho Man" Randy Savage, who tragically passed away today at the age of 58. A true legend of the squared circle, Savage was unique in that he was one of the most colorful and entertaining personalities the wrestling world has ever seen, but also one of the most gifted athletes and accomplished in-ring technicians - a participant in some of the all-time great matches in wrestling history.

As a kid, I was a certifiable member of Team Madness. Even though I was really young at the time, I vividly remember when Savage truly made an impact on my conciousness. I was watching Hulk Hogan on WWF Superstars reveal his mystery tag-team partner for his upcoming match against the combined forces of Andre the Giant and "The Million Dollar Man" Ted DiBiase - aka "The Mega-Bucks." As the crowd - and interviewer "Mean" Gene Okerlund waited in anticipation, Hogan revealed that his partner would be none other than ... "The Macho Man" Randy Savage! The crowd exploded, Mean Gene looked shocked, and I sat in awe in front of the TV. At the time, such a dream team of superstars was unprecedented. This was like Superman teaming with Batman, Michael Jordan on the same team as Larry Bird. Fittingly, this new super-team was dubbed "The Mega-Powers", and at that mere thought, the delicate minds of young wrestling fans around the world collectively exploded.

While some WWF fans of the 80's and 90's were Hulkamaniacs or Ultimate Warrior fans, my favorite superstar was always The Macho Man. While his persona was colorful and over-the-top, there was also a crazy intensity to him. He always seemed on the verge of full-blown insanity, with the one thing keeping him in check being his angelic manager / girlfriend Ms. Elizabeth, "The First Lady of Wrestling." Elizabeth's presence helped make every Macho Man match feel like an epic battle. Macho was fighting for her, and, it seemed, for his very survival. Savage would walk down to the ring in sparkling capes and crazy costumes, to the sounds of "Pomp and Circumstance," a theme song that set the stage for the epic battle sure to come. Today, you see many high-flying wrestlers take some damage, but then pop right back up as if they'd never been hurt. Not Savage - he would move around the ring like a man in the middle of a warzone. He looked like a guy who had been battered, bruised, and hobbled. He had a crazy look in his eye - to him, every match was literally life and death. Some wrestlers seem like they are having fun in the ring. Not Savage. He scraped, clawed, and scratched his way to each victory. That's why his top-rope flying elbow drop finisher was so climactic and epic - he didn't just hop up to the top rope and dive off. No, Savage would methodically climb each turnbuckle one by one, grasping at each rope rung, climbing that proverbial ladder with determination and a pained, desperate look in his eye. And then, finally, perched on the top turnbuckle, he'd raise his arms to the heavens in regal victory, swing, jump, and then deliver that patented elbow right to the heart of his prone opponent in dramatic fashion. It wasn't anything fancy or complicated, but the sheer epicness of that finishing maneuver will likely never be replicated.

Because of his association with Ms. Elizabeth, The Macho Man was able to participate in some of the most emotion-packed and personal storylines and feuds in wrestling history. At a time when many of the WWF's top storylines were of the generic "superhero vs. supervillain," face vs. heel variety, Savage's edgy, complex character gave his storylines an added layer of depth. When he eventually turned against the Hulkster, in a feud that would culminate at Wrestlemania V ("Mega-Powers Collide!"), sure, the rank and file fans rooted for Hogan, who was the good guy in the feud, but you also sort of understood Savage's beef. Afterall, Hogan *did* seem to get a little too cozy with Liz during his tag-team days with Savage. And Hogan *was* sort of a glory hound, an "egomaniac" as Bobby Heenan often called him. With the badass wrestler-turned commentator Jesse "The Body" Ventura constantly sticking up for Savage and bashing Hogan, it was easy to wonder if maybe all the "humanoids" rooting for Hogan might in fact be ignorant sheep who would turn on a true champion like Savage in the blink of an eye. And so, Savage was perhaps the first wrestling bad guy that I sort of rooted for even though I was "supposed" to hate him.

And that lingering appreciation for The Macho Man made fans follow and root for him for years to come. Even when he ditched Liz for the wicked Sensational Sherri and become "The Macho King," we still liked him and his awesome promos and crazy attire, and followed him as he fought the likes of Hogan, Dusty Rhodes, and The Ultimate Warrior. And it was in one of those matches with The Warrior that Savage pulled off the ultimate "face turn," in one of the most gripping, epic matches of all time. Savage went into the match as the bad guy, aligned with the evil Sherri and fighting the fan-favorite Warrior, in a match whose stipulation was heretofore unheard of: the loser would be forced to retire forever. Nowadays, us grizzled wrestling fans know that such retirement talk rarely sticks, but back then, this was serious business. The match itself ... was epic. The entire affair was heightened once it was revealed that Elizabeth herself was in the audience. Out of the limelight for a few years, this reminder of Savage's days as a popular people's champion was shocking and mysterious. As the match went on, we saw Liz looking on with worry and concern. Eventually, after grueling back-and-forth action, Savage had the Warrior down, and hit him with the patented big elbow. But instead of pinning his foe, The Macho Man went back up to the top rope for a SECOND elbow drop! Then - a third! A fourth! And finally ... a fifth! But that fifth elbow drop was one too many, in that it somehow, magically, *revived* the Warrior and caused him to pop up, filled with energy and ready to whup Savage's ass. This legendary incident of the "reviving elbow" would go down in wrestling lore forever after. Anyways, The Warrior eventually won the match, leaving a beaten Savage lying on the mat. Sherri entered the ring and berated him - she only stuck with winners, and now that Savage was a loser, she was finished. At once, the crowd began to turn back to Savage's side and channeled their hate towards Sherri. Sherri moved to strike Macho, but was stopped by an unlikely presence - Ms. Elizabeth! Elizabeth saved her old flame from the wrath of "Scary Sherri," and when Savage realized what had happened, he was in disbelief. At this point, the crowd was on their feet. Savage pointed and gestured at Elizabeth, questioning her intentions. Liz looked at Macho with love in her heart and tears in her eyes. The two approached each other, and in a dramatic moment, they embraced. "What a woman!" bellowed Bobby "The Brain" Heenan on commentary. "And what a man!" echoed the late great "Gorilla" Monsoon. Women in the audience wept. Boys' lips quivered in joyous emotion. Grown men choked back the tears. This was a true Moment for the Ages, when the typically cartoonish storylines of professional wrestling gave way to Epic Romance - Good, Evil, Love, Destiny - this was all of that, and by God, it was awesome.

In the storylines, Savage went off to have his epic marriage to Elizabeth, and, though history is quite fuzzy on the matter, he and Liz were actually a couple in real life as well (when the two actually became one in reality, and when things ended, is a bit murky). But on the air, the "Match Made In Heaven" was interrupted when, in a rather shocking storyline for the time (or any time), Macho's post-wedding celebration was interrupted by a "gift" from Jake the Snake Roberts - a bite from a poisonous snake! As a kid, this whole angle was incredibly disturbing, with the implication being that the devious Roberts had actually tried to *kill* Savage via snake venom! After a recovery period, the WWF of course had no choice but to reinstate Macho so that he could wreak unholy vengeance on The Snake. And so those two went on to have a pretty epic series of matches, in a feud that saw a young Undertaker align himself with Roberts. At this point, fan support for Savage was at an all-time high - and why not? While Hulk Hogan was fighting in lame feuds against cartoonish badguys, Macho Man was fighting for his very life against a sadistic, would-be murderer who hung with snakes! Eventually, Macho ended his feud with Jake the Snake and found himself back in title contention - and that meant squaring off against the then-champion, "The Nature Boy" Ric Flair.

Once again, though, this was no ordinary feud. The stylin' and profilin' Flair claimed to have had an affair with Ms. Elizabeth, and claimed that Liz secretly lusted after the Nature Boy. Once again, Savage fought not just for the world heavyweight title, but for his very honor - in an epic battle that culminated at Wrestlemania. In the ring, Flair and Savage were two of the best of all time, and Flair's cockiness mixed with Savage's intensity made for an awesome series of matches. The two would wrestle many times over the years in WWF and WCW, and they always put on a great show.

Eventually, Savage did actually semi-retire from active competition, becoming a commentator alongside Vince McMahon and "Rowdy" Roddy Piper in the mid-90's. Savage would wrestle the occasional match (almost winning the Royal Rumble one year before being squashed by the massive Yokozuna) and had a couple of decent feuds with the likes of Crush, but the Macho Man seemed unfairly relegated to the announcer's booth - when all indications were that he could still go in the ring and wanted to keep wrestling. Lots of rumors sprung up during this time - some said that Savage was in the doghouse with Vince McMahon for various reasons. But whatever the case, Savage eventually left the WWF for WCW in 1995, following the defection of Hulk Hogan and several other 80's-era veterans. But while many of those veterans seemed old and washed up in WCW, Savage was still on top of his game even at this late stage of his career. He resumed his old feud with Ric Flair and tore the house down. Eventually, he joined the nWo - the red-hot supergroup of villanous former WWF stars that helped propel WCW to overtake the WWF in the mid to late 90's. Savage had more memorable matches with the likes of Diamond Dallas Page and others - and even reunited with a glammed-up Ms. Elizabeth - until, eventually, age and injuries got the better of him.

Savage disappeared from the scene for a while. He was always visible to pop-culture fans though even when he wasn't wrestling. He was the enthusiastic pitchman for Slim-Jim for years, and everyone remembers his "Snap Into a a Slim-Jim" tagline. He appeared in various TV shows and movies. He was hilarious and self-deprecating on Space Ghost: Coast to Coast (as Space Ghost's wrasslin' grandpa) and also made an impact in the Spiderman movie, as Peter Parker's imposing wrestling opponent Bonesaw McGraw.

Savage had one last run in WCW in 1999 and 2000, reemerging on the scene with a new, bulked-up look, new entrance music, and an entourage of attractive valets - a hot blonde calling herself Gorgeous George, and "Miss Madness '99." Macho had a couple more decent matches at the time, but his mobility was clearly limited - even if he was, of course, as charismatic and colorful as ever. Macho disappeared again for a while, then made one final appearance on WCW Monday Nitro, kicking off an angle that never went anywhere about him becoming a mentor to the next great superstar. It turned out to be a one-shot appearance, and after that, one of the all-time greats just sort of vanished.

Clearly, he was on poor terms with the WWE, because he was rarely mentioned at all, never brought in for any appearances, and was inexplicably never inducted into the WWE's Hall of Fame, despite clearly being one of the all-time top superstars and an integral part of the company's rise in the 80's. And yet ... after years of radio silence (not counting his puzzling rap album from several years back, and his occasional online pot-shots at his eternal rival Hulk Hogan) ... Savage resurfaced last year to help promote the new WWE All-Stars videogame, in which he was a playable character. Just prior to that, WWE released a retrospective DVD on his career, although it was made without any participation from The Macho Man. Still, it seemed as though Savage may have made some amends with the WWE, and for that reason, I think fans were eager to see what might come next. Would Savage reappear, finally, on WWE TV? Would he at long last get his due and get a Hall of Fame induction. Might he reappear in more movies, TV shows, perhaps rival wrestling organization TNA?

Now, we shall never know what the future held for the legendary "Macho Man." But what we do know is that Savage leaves behind a legacy of incredible matches, promos, and feuds, from a pro-wrestling career that is nearly without equal in terms of memorable moments. One of those came for me sometime circa 1994, when I got to meet the man himself backstage at a WWE live event in Hartford, CT. Earlier that night, Savage had fought Yokozuna in an epic battle for the WWF title - one I still maintain he would have won if not for the dastardly interference of one Doink the Clown. Suffice it to say, I was totally star-struck, beyond psyched to meet this larger-than-life wrestling hero - a man who had provided me with so many great childhood memories. From his classic matches with Ricky Steamboat, Hulk Hogan, and Ric Flair, to his star-crossed romance with Ms. Elizabeth - from his awesomely insane promos, to his unique combination of brawling and high-flying maneuvers in the ring ... Savage was truly one of a kind - "a Tower of Power, Too Sweet To Be Sour." Sadly, he joins the late Ms. Elizabeth in that great wrestling ring in the sky, already overfilled with too many greats of the 80's and 90's to mention. People may wonder why so many of us are paying tribute to this admittedly unique character today, but in all seriousness, his persona was that of an epic hero, a larger-than-life gladiator who taught a generation - us children of the 80's and 90's - about pride, life, love, and fighting the good fight. So long live "The Macho Man" Randy Savage ........ OOOOOOOOOOOOH YEAAAH, DIG IT!

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Is BRIDESMAIDS a New Kind of Chick-Flick?


- Bridesmaids is one of those movies where the temptation is very strong to talk about the film in terms of the larger context of the movie landscape. Because, even without going into a deep analysis of the movie, let's just say right off the bat that Bridesmaids is very good - a really funny, enjoyable comedy. In terms of humor, it gives off a similar vibe to other relationship comedies produced by Judd Apatow, like The 40 Year Old Virgin, Knocked Up, and Forgetting Sarah Marshall. The difference? It just so happens that Bridesmaids is a comedy that predominantly features women, and one that is clearly told from a woman's point of view. All of the above mentioned comedies have fairly strong lead actresses to their credit - women like Catherine Keener, Katherine Heigl, Kristen Bell, and Mila Kunis. But they all unmistakably are told from a guy's perspective. And there's nothing wrong with that - in fact, to be honest, I think a lot of us (guys especially) immediately feel more comfortable when we can tell that that's the case. Not because a comedy from a woman's point of view can't be funny, but because so often at the movies, a "comedy from a woman's point of view" equals "chick flick." And chick flicks, by and large, are terrible. It's funny though because too often we think that romantic comedy is synonomous with chick flick. And yet, I think of movies as diverse as The Princess Bride, Punch Drunk Love, Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Juno, 500 Days of Summer, and Annie Hall as being romantic comedies. Those are all movies that I genuinely am a big fan of. But what I don't really have much patience for are the endless wave of assembly-line rom-coms that pander to the lowest common denominator. Some of these come from women (hello, Nora Ephron), some don't ... but what they all have in common is that they feel outdated, boring, generic, and worst of all ... are not funny. So is it sort of sad that, here in 2011, a movie like Bridesmaids feels noteworthy simply because it's a funny movie by and about women? Yes, it is, and yet ... how many other comedies in that category have actually been good? In a recent interview, Kristen Wiig pointed to Baby Mama (no) and Romy and Michelle's High School Reunion (ehhhh ...) as trailblazers. Decent but not particularly good examples. So really, even though it is kind of pathetic, the fact may very well be that Bridesmaids is a very, very rare thing - like I said, a movie by and about women that has universal appeal by virtue of feeling fresh, relatable, and actually being very funny.

So here's the thing: in the grand scheme of things, I think Bridesmaids is a top-tier comedy. Not a classic per se, but funny, smart, and very rewatchable -- on par with some of the best Apatow-produced films. But even though I'm not about to call this the funniest movie ever, I will say that this is a movie that comedy fans - male and female - should unequivically support. Because imagine a world where comedies featuring women - that appeal to women - were also funny for all! Imagine a world where movies targeted at women included not just terrible rom-coms, but also, you know, movies that were actually edgy and funny! Imagine an elightened world where a female-centric comedy actually features ... gasp! ... legitimately funny and talented women, and not tabloid-fodder pop stars (because lord knows, those are the only stars that women want to see in movies). So this is why I wholeheartedly hope that Bridesmaids is in fact the start of a larger trend, and that it inspires other women writers to write raunchy, edgy, smart, realistic, creative, go-for-broke comedies that don't fall into the same old genre trappings - and that it inspires movie studio execs to consider these sorts of movies as potential money-makers. So to those who are currently complaining that critics are giving too much attention to the uniqueness of Bridesmaids, I say: why complain if this movie's success could legitimately improve the movie landscape in a major, game-changing way?

Now, about the movie itself ... Bridesmaids is the story of Annie (Kristen Wiig), a woman who's on somewhat of a downward spiral in life and love. Years ago, she took a chance and attempted to fulfill her dream of opening a bakery. But sometime later, in the midst of poor economic times, she was forced to close the bakery, take a crappy job working as a clerk at a jewlery store, and move into an apartment that she shares with two odd-duck British roommates - a brother and sister who don't quite understand the concepts of privacy and boundaries. At the same time, Annie's been without a boyfriend, and her love life mostly consists of being the unappreciated %$&#-buddy to a commitment-phobic ladies man (Jon Hamm, in a very amusing role). But Annie is forced to confront her various insecurities head-on when her best friend, Lillian (Maya Rudolph) reveals that she's engaged. Now, not only does the single and semi-miserable Annie have to dive head-first into wedding planning, she also is thrown together with Lillian's other assorted bridesmaids, most notably Helen (Rose Byrne). On the surface, Helen is everything that Annie is not - wealthy, married, poised, on top of things. Even worse, she seems to be edging out Annie as Lillian's new best friend. And so Bridesmaids is all about Annie trying to come to terms with these women who seem to have it all, while trying to work on her own life - including a potential romance with a nice-guy cop (Chris O'Dowd). On the surface, it sounds like it could be generic and boring. But again, Bridesmaids is written with the same sort of conversational, buddy-comedy humor as a Knocked Up or 40 Year Old Virgin. It has that same mix of sweetness and filth that gives it a feeling of authenticity, yet also produces any number of laugh-out-loud moments.

Wiig also really impressed me in this one. On SNL, a lot of her characters can feel one-note and repetitive. But here, what I found fascinating was the fact that Wiig was playing a character for whom those goofy personality quirks we see on SNL are just one part of the whole. Wiig creates a real-feeling, three-dimensional character in Annie, and really runs the gamut from being down-to-earth, to appealingly quirky, to borderline insane. I hate to bring up the whole modern feminist thing again, but it's rare, I think, to get to see a female comedienne get to show such range in a leading-woman role. Suffice it to say, Wiig really knocks it out of the park. And, adding to her performance is the easy chemistry she has with Maya Rudolph. The two have the same sort of back-and-forth banter that you see from the dudes in a typical Apatow movie. It doesn't feel strained, it's just two very funny women being funny together. I'm sure the talents of director Paul Fieg were also a factor. As he proved many a time with Freaks & Geeks, which he co-created with Apatow, he has a knack for finding the quirky humor in likeminded friends just hanging out and riffing.

Of course, the other big standout is Melissa McCarthy as Megan, Lillian's sister-in-law-to-be, and another of her bridesmaids. Again, McCarthy gets to go all-out here and play the kind of part that you rarely see from a prominent female character in this sort of movie - the insane goofball. McCarthy is playing the female equivalent of the kind of role that someone like John Candy or Chris Farley might have played back in the day, and she does an awesome job with it, having no fear when it comes to the gross-out gags but also bringing a sweet, salt-of-the-earth likability to the part. As someone who's liked McCarthy since the Gilmore Girls days, it's great to see her get the spotlight in this film and really run with it.

There is A LOT going in Bridesmaids, and like some of the other Apatow-produced comedies, it can feel a bit jumpy and overlong. One casualty of the movie's pacing is that some potentially funny subplots involving the supporting players - like Ellie Kemper's (from The Office) repressed newlywed or Wendi McLendon-Covey's (Reno 911) sexually frustrated mother - seem to get the short shrift. In fact, these two all but disappear in the movie's second half. I guess my other complaint about the film is that - also similar to movies like Knocked Up - the tone can be a little all-over-the-place, with the balance between dirty jokes and schmaltzy sweetness sometimes leaning a little too heavily on the latter. Wiig's relationship with Chris O'Dowd's good-natured cop is well-handled by both actors, but also felt a bit too sentimental at times. And sometimes, the movie just can't resist tossing out the chick flick fodder - like an extended scene of all the bridesmaids belting out Wilson-Phillips songs on the big day. Why is this bad? It's not bad, per se, just, well, easy. It was one of those moments designed to make you sigh and think "awww, isn't that cute?" rather than laugh out loud. And given that what's most refreshing about Bridesmaids is that it mostly avoids "cute" in favor of "funny," it's disappointing whenever the film merely settles for the former. This happens every so often in the movie, but, on the other hand, that is counteracted by moments that are genuinely surprising in their edgy comedic bite. Kristin Wiig's insult-war with a bratty teen, for instance culminating in Wiig calling her the C-word with dagger-sharp comic timing, was one of those moments - where I thought "okay, I'm impressed - this movie has cajones."

All in all though, Bridesmaids is one of those rare movies that has true universal appeal. It's got wedding-planning shenanigans, romance, and girl-talk for the women, and raunchy humor and wackiness for the guys. But really, the complete package is one that is very much a crowd-pleaser - smart, funny, and well worth checking out.

My Grade: B+

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Somebody Save Me From the SMALLVILLE Series Finale - A Look Back at 10 Years of Smallville!

SMALLVILLE Series Finale Review:

- Smallville was, for ten years, the ultimate origin story of sorts. You have to give the show credit - it pioneered the idea of "before they were a hero" as a viable premise for a TV show, and the the strength of Smallville's concept led to all manner of copycats and imitators. It's pretty incredible, Smallville predated, and outlasted, the likes of Lost, Heroes, and 24. In the time since Smallville first went on the air, the Superman movie franchise was rebooted, scrapped, and rebooted again. Smallville outlasted The WB and helped to launch The CW. The show has seen cast members come and go. Series regulars like John Schneider (Jonathan Kent), Kristin Kreuk (Lana Lang), Jonathan Glover (Lionel Luthor), and Michael Rosenbaum (Lex Luthor) all left the show's regular cast years ago (though most have returned in some form or another). Really, the only constant for the show's entire run has been Tom Welling. And the funny thing is, in all this time, in TEN years, Tom Welling has remained the same wide-eyed, head-tilting, grimacing, mopey, emo-rific version of Clark Kent. The show has never really allowed him to grow or change. It's always been two steps forward, three steps back. And hasn't that, in the end, been the story of SMALLVILLE? This is a show that was, ultimately, one of the most frustrating pop-culture experiences I've ever partaken in. The show had virtually limitless potential. Its canvas for storytelling was infinite. Its writers could draw on 75 years of DC Comics lore for inspiration. And the characters they had to play with were classics. Icons. Some of the greatest and most legendary heroes and villains ever imagined. Superman. Lois Lane. Lex Luthor. These are like the modern day versions of the Greek Pantheon. And as symbols, as modern myth, the power in these characters, in these stories, is unmatched. It's why people the world over wears T-shirts with the Superman S-shield. It's why everyone knows the origin. Everyone knows the costume. Everyone knows the meaning of "Truth, Justice, and the American Way." THIS was the sandbox that Smallville got to play in. Its writers and producers were nothing less than the gatekeepers of the premiere modern mythology of our time.

And that is why I couldn't help but stick with Smallville through the good times and the bad. I love Superman. To me, the concept is up there as one of the most powerful and impactful that I have ever been exposed to. The concept of being a hero. The concept of using one's abilities and skills to do right, to do good, to fight evil and make the world a better place. Some think that that simple moral purpose makes Superman boring as a character. But to me, that makes him the ultimate epic hero. You can put Superman in a bustling Metropolis, a quiet Kansas cornfield, a remote alien planet - you can put him in any setting, give him any sort of adventure - because he himself remains a constant. And you can have fun subverting that iconography. The characters are so well known that even the slightest tweak to the mythology presents interesting food for thought. And at first, Smallville got that. Its genius lay in the fact that it centered the show on the friendship (yes, friendship) between Clark and Lex Luthor. By presenting the famous enemies as two sides of the same coin - as childhood friends who were destined to become enemies - it gave Smallville the perfect spin by which to adapt the Superman mythos for the modern TV era.

On one level, sure, the early days of Smallville were a calculated attempt to fit the Superman characters into the trappings of a coming-of-age teen soap opera. But like I said, there was a certain brilliance to the way that the new dynamic played off of the established mythology. Michael Rosenbaum and Lex, Jonathan Glover as Luthor - their awesomely villainous turns helped distract from the fact that many of those early Smallville episodes felt like cheap X-Files rip-offs, with cheesy "freak of the week" stories involving some random Smallville teen causing trouble, having been granted mutant powers thanks to radiation from the "meteor rock" that accompanied baby Kal-El's rocket ride from Krypton to earth. As time went on though, Smallville started to raise the stakes. The mythology of the show got bigger, the production value got better, and the show infused more comic book action into the storylines, helping to balance out all the soapy stuff. Again, Smallville would time and again appease its loyal fans by pulling out something surprisingly awesome just when the show seemed to be on a downward spiral. Smallville earned a well-deserved reputation for pulling out all the stops for its movie-like season finales and season premieres, upping the action and delivering breathtaking cliffhangers and big reveals. It was like two different shows - sometimes, Smallville felt inspired and full of momentum. Sometimes it would get on a legitimate roll. Indeed, Smallville was on a notable hot streak right around the time that SUPERMAN RETURNS hit theaters, delivering the sci-fi action and epic plotting that the movie lacked. Othertimes though, Smallville was just plain awful. There were mind-numbing plotlines that stretched over the course of seasons (Lana as a witch, anyone?). There were stories that built and built for an eternity but delivered zero payoff (Doomsday -- ugh!). And there were the endless series of Smallville cliches - the stupid, contrived, lazy writing shortcuts that plagued the show over and over and over again. People hitting their head and being knocked unconcious *just* before Clark needed to use his powers. Clark barging into the Luthor mansion to talk, in person, to Lex - long after the two had become mortal enemies. Tom Welling's three facial expressions that he uses to react to *everything*. An endless, endless array of body-swapping storylines in which some mind-altered character had to explain that they "weren't themselves." Endless storylines in which Lana Lang (who eventually devolved from cute girl next door to MOST annoying character of all time) accused Clark of keeping secrets from her. Endless scenes of emo-Clark staring wistfully out into the sky from the Kent farm. And the montages. Oh, the montages. How many times were we subjected to oh-so-emo montages of our characters brooding to the tune of some lame, lame, lame wuss-rock song?

God, when Smallville was bad, it was bad. And oftentimes, and maybe even worse, it was frustratingly mediocre or at best only-okay, with decent concepts or stories brought down by the above-mentioned cliches, or by the show's knack for horrendous, talky dialogue, or by bad acting, or by the everpresent budget-constraints of being a TV show on the cash-strapped CW.

And yet ... and YET - and this is something I've talked about many times before here on the blog ... Smallville would always find a way to surprise you. There've been many times where I've skeptically sat down to watch Smallville, only to be somewhat amazed that - holy crap! - I had just watched a damn good episode of TV. Despite all of the cheesiness, the flat dialogue, the crazy continuity - despite all of that - there was an inherent good-naturedness to the show that always, in the end, won me over. Sometimes, Smallville would just find a way to tap into that fundamental power of the Superman legend. And I do mean power. Because a great Superman story is a rare thing. But when it happens, nothing is better or more inspiring. I think back to moments of Smallville throughout the years that somehow got it right. I remember Christopher Reeve appearing as Dr. Swan, in a memorable "passing of the torch" moment. I remember that classic episode where Michael McKean first appeared as Perry White - it was full of heart and written to perfection. I remember some of the great Lois and Clark moments, with Erica Durance bringing a great spirit and spunk to Lois, that just felt right and good and true to the characters. I remember some of the moments between Clark and his adoptive father - where Jonathan Kent's salt-of-the-earth wisdom felt spot-on. I remember the episodes of Smallville written by Geoff Johns, one of the premiere comic book writers of today who has guest-written for the show. Johns made "Absolute Justice" into a showcase for what Smallville could be - an epic superhero series fileld with imagination and wonder and infused with the history and magic of DC Comics. Just recently, his Booster Gold-centric episode brought a beloved comics character to the show with style, wit, humor, and heart. When Johns wrote for Smallville, we saw all of that potential inherent in the show realized, and man, it was fun to see. It was moments like these that made Smallville an easy show to root for despite its many faults. Its heart seemed to be in the right place mroe often than not. And that's what kept me, and I'd guess many others, watching all these years, through the good times and the bad.

Now, the strange thing is that, as a whole, the tenth season of Smallville was surprisingly strong. The season was pretty heavily-serialized, with a number of ongoing threads that gave the show a consistent level of intrigue week-to-week. Unlike past seasons, which spent so much time on a single, overarching plot so as to completely kill all momentum (Doomsday, Zod), this season mixed things up a bit. We had Clark and Lois' engagement and impending wedding. We had the return of Lionel Luthor (and in turn the great Jonathan Glover) via some interdimensional shenanigans. We had continued hints about the return of Lex, which stemmed from a mostly well-done storyline involving a kid-clone of Lex that was adopted by Luthor sibling Tess Mercer. And, most intriguing, we had a rather ambitious arc that built towards the coming of Darkseid - one of the all-time classic comic-book villains, and a true force of evil to be reckoned with. Just seeing the outlandish Fourth World stable of comic book characters brought to life on TV was a lot of fun, and I give Smallville credit for daring to introduce writer-artist Jack Kirby's out-there creations - like Granny Goodness and the Female Furies - into the show to build-up to the appearance of their Apokoliptian lord Darkseid.

So yes, this season of Smallville was overall pretty strong, especially coming off of a couple of seasons of underwhelming mediocrity. In fact, despite some clunkers here and there (the return of Zod a few weeks back, for example, was just brutal) Season 10 was probably the strongest the show had been in a long while. At the same time, as we got closer and closer to the big series finale, something was clearly amiss. With all of these ongoing plotlines, we headed into the SERIES FINALE with a TON of loose ends. Going into this episode, all of this season's major plotlines were still wide open. And you had to wonder - with the show building towards a full-scale war between earth and Apokolips (something surely deserving of two hours of time in the finale), how could the show possibly also fit in the inevitable return of Lex, the dangling Lionel / Tess subplot, AND the marriage of Clark and Lois? And beyond all that, on a more macro level, there was the lingering question of whether, after ten freaking years of build-up, we'd FINALLY see Clark Kent as SUPERMAN? Would we get the finale we all wanted to see, with Clark donning the familiar suit and officially debuting as Superman to the world, in an epic battle to stave off the forces of the alien-god Darkseid and his Apokoliptian army?!

Despite the tricky narrative corner that the show had painted itself into, there were still a number of ways that the writers could have delivered the great finale full of action and emotion that we all wanted. The key, I think, would be to ramp up the pace. At this point, after ten years of brooding and inner conflict and talking about feelings, now was the time for ACTION. Perhaps you open with Clark and Lois' wedding - give them that long-earned moment of happiness - and then drop the other shoe and have Lois kidnapped and held hostage by Darkseid. Do something huge, epic, jaw-dropping!

But somehow, that's exactly what DIDN'T happen. Somehow, for some unfathomabel reason, we needed one more entire hour of Clark and Lois brooding and babbling about their deep existential crises of the soul. ARE YOU KIDDING ME?!?! How many times have we ALREADY seen Clark and Lois go through ups and downs exactly like this? How many times? And all of this manufactured, dragged-out conflict was brought to us via the most nonsensical, rambling dialogue imaginable. Economy of storytelling, people. For some reason, every emo thought that Clark's ever had was brought back to the surface for this finale. Should he, could he marry Lois? Was he human or alien? Should he dwell on the past, or move forward? What the hell do some of these questions even mean? I mean, as if yet another roadblock between Clark and Lois getting married wasn't bad enough, we now had to endure Clark talking to the ghost (the ghost!) of a dead Jonathan Kent. Sure, it's always nice to see Jon Schneider return, but we just saw him a few weeks back, in an ep that delivered some nice closure for Clark and his feelings of guilt over his adoptive father's death (which by the way, happened YEARS AGO on the show).

So yeah, in the middle of the should-be-epic finale of Smallville, ten years in the making, we got scene after scene of Clark hearing worn-out advice from the ghost of his adoptive father, without any explanation or rationalization or particular plot justification for why we needed this now. Oh, and we didn't just get fatherly advice from Pa Kent. Nope, we also had to endure one mo' visit to one of the show's all-time stupidest aspects - the Fortress of Solitude, which - speaking of ghosts - is inhabited by the all-knowing spirit of Clark's birth-father, Jor-El. Jor-El's presence has *never* made a lick of sense on the show, and the character's sole purpose has basically been to be a giant deux ex machina for whenever the show needs to hit a reset button or have some crazy cosmic thing happen (like last week's lame twist where Jor-El's ghost, as a "trial" for Clark, gave Lois all of Clark's powers for 24 hours). Everything about Jor-El sucked on Smallville, save that he was voiced by the awesome Terence Stamp. And the only redeeming thing about him in this finale was that he presented Clark with a pretty sweet montage of his greatest moments on Smallville.

And honestly, the finale's two big montage clip sequences may very well have been its biggest highlights. Each one - one spotlighting Clark and the other spotlighting the returning Lex - were nicely nostalgic and an effective reminder of Smallville's history and legacy. It's too bad that these well-made clip packages came in the context of such a weak-ass episode.

Because yeah, as I alluded to earlier, there were some big plotlines that needed resolution in this finale. But since over an HOUR of the finale's two hours were literally Clark and Lois brooding about whether or not to get married, things finally kicked into high gear as time was literally running out for the show. Lex's big return amounted to two short scenes. One, a decently-written confrontation with Clark, was probably better in theory than in practice. As performed by Rosenbaum and Welling, what should have been a highly-charged, emotional scene that is the clmax of a TEN YEAR rivalry felt flat and inconsequential and sort of out-of-nowhere. Where we the viewers have known Lex would return for a while, for Clark, this was a totally out-of-the-blue revelation, and it came right as he was in the middle of dealing with what might have been his biggest challenge yet - freaking Darkseid coming to destroy earth. I thought Lex's return might have been somehow cleverly interwoven INTO the Darkseid storyline -- wouldn't it have been cool if Lex and Clark had to work together as allies to take down the alien conqueror? But no, Lex just popped up, gave Clark one of his old standby lectures about heroes and villains and destinies, and that was that. Um ... okay? And then, Lex is later shown confronting his sister, Tess. Lex kills Tess (to "save" her from becoming like him), but before she dies, Tess infects Lex with some poisonous compound that wipes away ALL HIS MEMORIES.

What ... the ... F ...? What was the point of this? It may have made sense, at some point, to somehow have Lex's knowledge that Clark was an alien with superhuman abilities get wiped away. Because clearly, that knowledge would prevent the two from theoretically having the same sort of hero-villain relationship as in the comics or movies. But having Lex essentially become an amnesiac just felt so cheap and out-of-left-field. And it sort of undermines the flash-forward reveal that Lex eventually becomes President in the Smallville universe. How does a man with no memories become Prez? I guess my larger point is - after a year of build-up towards Lex Luthor's return on the show, it is weak to have the payoff be that he shows up, talke to Clark for a minute, and then gets mind-wiped, end of story, game over. I can only imagine Michael Rosenbaum - who to his credit has done a GREAT job as Lex over the years - thinking "man, I shaved my head bald again for *this* ...?".

Then, there's the other big storyline ... the invasion of Darkseid! As soon as we got past the hour mark and there'd been nary a sign of the dark one, my friends and I all knew that this was going to be Doomsday all over again - months and months of build-up to a giant smackdown with one of Superman's iconic villains, only to end up with a short, disappointing, letdown of a climax. I mean, seriously, what the hell? If you only knew Darkseid from watching Smallville, you'd think he was totally lame. On Smallville, he was just some smoke monster who possesses people, has a couple of minions, and is somehow able to make a planet hurtle towards earth to make the two planetary bodies go smashy-smash. WEAK. I sort of knew something like this was coming, but I didn't want to believe it. I wanted to believe that Smallville would rise to the occasion, and pull off something that we've never seen in the Superman movies - a fully-realized battle between Superman and one of his most fearsome enemies, the mighty Darkseid. I know, there are budget constraints and other considerations ... but there had to be something better than this. There is no excuse to have a two hour season finale, and yet to relegate the Clark vs. Darkseid confrontation to a ten-second face-off between Clark and a Darkseid-possessed Lionel Luthor. That is unacceptable. I mean, that's the resolution to all this? Clark can finally fly, so he dive-bombs into zombie Lionel, and that's that? And then, to avert disaster, with the planet Apokolips hurtling towards earth, he dons the CGI'd Superman suit, flies into space, and ... pushes the alien planet away from earth?! What? And that resolves the situation? It also didn't help that in the midst of this we got a horribly-staged scene with Lois Lane on Air Force 1, trying to convince the President not to nuke Apokolips but to let the "heroes" of earth take care of the problem. Basically, a season's worth of buildup of the threat of Darkseid amounted to jack and squat. Zack Snyder, if you're reading this, please spend WB's money liberally to give us, finally, a huge and epic and cosmic Superman storyline worthy of the character. Because this, this was just pretty sad.

And speaking of Superman ... look, there would have been a huge emotional payoff for fans of Smallville to just see, finally, Tom Welling on screen decked out in the Super-suit. Seeing a simple, iconic shot of Welling as Superman would have been catharctic. It would have brought a sense of closure and finality to the show. And yet, inexplicably, we never really got that in this episode. We only saw quick flashes of Welling from the chest-up, or else blurry, CGI renderings of him moving at super-speed from afar. Very, very strange, and definitely suspicious. I don't know if the suits at WB gave the order to avoid any iconic shots of Welling as Superman or something, but if so, for shame. I mean, it's such a simple thing, but again, to see Welling as Superman was literally the single biggest piece of payoff that Smallville needed to deliver. On the show, Clark putting on the suit was something that had been artificially delayed over and over and over again. As the show's lifespan kept increasing, the writers kept having to give us more and more manufactured stopgaps between Clark and his destiny as Superman. He became The Blur - a proto-version of Superman. He wore a weird leather-jacket pseudo-costume. He worked with other heroes like Green Arrow, yet he himself was never seen in public. Again, it's amazing to me that, for one reason or another, Smallville was unable to just give us that one big moment where Clark was undisputibly, undeniably Superman. And honestly, I think the conspicuousness of that moment's absence is going to be a long-term black mark on the show's legacy. Because that is a major, major payoff that the show failed to deliver on. For years, fans had likely dreamed up their own fantasy ending to Smallville, where Clark, finally, dons the red, yellow, and blue and debuts as Superman. I don't think any fan could have come away satisfied with the half-hearted way that this long-awaited transition ultimately played out.

Almost as odd was the finale's flash-forward sequence which seemed absolutely determined to erase the show's continuity in favor of aligning things with the established cannon. In the glimpse of the future that we saw, Clark and Lois still hadn't gone through with their wedding, seven years later. Inexplicably, Clark calls Lois "Ms. Lane" at the Daily Planet, in an attempt to keep their relationship a secret. Don't their friends and coworkers remember that they were once engaged and moments away from being married? Lex is President - as mentioned, makes little sense given his mindwipe in this episode. And amusingly, Jimmy Olsen, wearing 1950's-style newsie garb, is at the planet, looking exactly like the *old* Jimmy Olsen who died a few years back on Smallville (in one of the show's most infamous retcons, it was revealed that Jimmy had a younger brother also named Jimmy, and *he* was actually the real Jimmy Olsen from the comics). Oh, and we clearly heard the voice of Michael McKean as Perry White, but never actually saw him. And the whole thing was bookended by scenes where a future version of Chloe is reading a "Smallville" comic book to her young son (presumably she and Oliver's?) - the story of how Clark Kent became Superman. Which makes no sense. So in this future Smallville timeline, DC Comics publishes a comic book called "Smallville" in which Superman's teen and young adult years are documented for all to read? Does the "Smallville" comic refer to Clark Kent by name? If so, does that mean everyone in the future timeline knows that Clark Kent is Superman? Can't be - or else why would Clark have to pretend like he and Lois are just-coworkers? Look, I get it - the Smallville comic book bookend was probably meant to be cute and nothing more - not something to be overanalyzed. But what was the point then? Again, with so many huge storylines and characters getting the short shrift, you have to wonder who the hell outlined this episode and decided "hey, we'll wrap up the Darkseid stuff in five minuted and give Lex two scenes, but hey let's do bookends where the whole series turns out to be a comic book - that'll be cute!"

At the end of the day, I give Smallville a lot of credit for persisting, for telling some good and even great stories, for putting an interesting spin on the Superman legend. But if anything, the disappointment of the series finale shows how, for much of its run, the Smallville writers and producers just didn't know how best to utilize that sandbox that they had to play with. So much time was spent just, well, filling time ... that the big moments, the memorable, iconic moments, the payoffs ... they were few and far between. Smallville, until the bitter end, stubbornly remained in a perpetual holding pattern - intent on preventing Clark from truly going to that next level, intent on keeping that pattern of push and pull, push and pull. Even up until the last, the show couldn't seem to just let Clark and Lois get married and be together. Up until the end, there had to be brooding and turmoil and uncertainty. Smallville was always at its best when it got away from figuring out how best to bide time until the series ultimately ended, and just said "to hell with it, let's tell a great Superman story." That's what Geoff Johns did every time he came in to write an episode. That's what the show did whenever it had one of those great little moments that made you sit up and say "hey, Smallville really can be great when it brings its A-game." Sadly, I think this finale is going to help shape Smallville's legacy as a show that came out of the gate with a fresh take on old characters, but one that never managed to tell consistently good stories with them over the long haul. Oftentimes, when you hear about the premise for a new show, a criticism that's repeated is "sounds interesting, but is it sustainable?" Smallville had a great premise, but one that was by its very nature unsustainable for a long period, because it was, essentially an origin story. At some point, for the story to work, Clark has to become Superman. So how did Smallville last for ten years, given that fact? By repeating itself, by dragging out plotlines, by going back to the same well over and over again. By the time the finale came around, I think the writers had become so accustomed to being in that holding pattern that they simply didn't know how to proceed any differently.

For ten years, I've watched Smallville - complained about the bad moments, and been pleasantly surprised when those great moments did come. From the likable actors in the cast, to the fun nods to the comics, to that uber-catchy theme-song that made the start of every episode feel rife with possibility, Smallville was hard to love but even harder to give up on. If anything, it's a testament to these characters - to the power of Superman and his iconic legend - to Truth, Justice, and The American Way -that we kept watching for all these years, and that we'll keep watching for generations to come.

My Series Finale Grade: D

Friday, May 13, 2011

Thoughts On The Mind-Melting S3 FRINGE Finale!

FRINGE Season 3 finale thoughts:

- Is there any ballsier show on TV than Fringe? For the last several weeks, FRINGE just plowed forward with no fear. No fear of being too weird, no fear of being too experimental, no fear of being too ambitious. Fringe went for broke this year, and the same is true of its incredible, mind-blowing finale. It didn't just deliver a single twist or "game-changer." No, Fringe did Lost one better, delivering twist upon twist, turn over turn - and all in the framework of an time and space-spanning story that took us into the future and back, across universes, and into the great unknown.

I will admit, there were times in Season 3 of Fringe where the show seemed to lose a good deal of momentum. While the season kicked off with a bang - employing an ambitious structure in which each week's episode alternated between Earth's 1 and 2 - things definitely cooled off for a bit mid-season. A couple of episodes in a row seemed to veer away from the thing I love most about Fringe - that it attacks all of its plotlines from a SCIENTIFIC angle, maintaining a sense of wonder because everything, no matter how outrageous, somehow feels plausible. For a bit, Fringe started doing stories where love was the answer. Love overcame the rift in the universes, love was what would determine the fate of worlds, etc. That to me was not Fringe, and that, to me, was a big part of what made Lost get so off-course at the end. Yes, there is the old saying from writers and producers that these shows are "about the characters." And Fringe does indeed have some of the best characters - played by some of the best actors - on TV. But those characters work so well *because* of the stories being told about them. And if those stories are undermined by odd divergences in theme or tone, well, the characters get weaker as well. I mean, what's wrong with having two characters who love each other, but having it be a flawed, hard-luck, earned sort of love? That's the kind of love that it seems Peter and Olivia share. I think that making them star-crossed, fate-of-the-universe-rests-on-their-love lovers was out of character for Fringe. To that end, I think you could argue that having a two episode arc in which Olivia was possessed by the spirit of William Bell (Leonard Nimoy) was also a bit much for the show. It's a huge, huge testament to the great Anna Torv that she somehow pulled this sorta-silly storyline off and made it work, even made it pretty fun. And, ultimately, it helped pave the way for a nice send-off to Nimoy and Bell, and gave some nice character development for Walter. But, let's just say I think most Fringe fans were relieved when the body-swapping storyline wrapped (even if the final part of the story included a crazy, trippy, sort of awesome animated sequence through Olivia's subconcious). Now though, finally, it was time to get to the good stuff.

And it was the good stuff indeed. We got one last, ultra-intense visit to Earth 2, where Fauxlivia was beginning to doubt Walternate's increasingly sinister-sounding plans to destroy Earth 1. Her rebellion and attempt to escape to warn the denizens of our Earth failed, however, and Earth 2's Olivia Dunham was locked up by that world's Secretary of Defense version of Walter Bishop. Later, the penultimate Fringe episode of Season 3 ramped up the tension even more, with the fabric of the universe coming apart at the seams. Desperate to halt the disaster, Peter again tries to enter the machine that was built off of plans found in the books of "the first people." The first time Peter attempted to enter the machine, it fried him as if he'd been hit by a bolt of lightning. But now, in theory, the machine - having been moved to the same spot as Walternate's version on Earth 2, Liberty Island - would give Peter the power to close the rifts and heal Earth 1. But that next-to-last episode ended with a HUGE cliffhanger - Peter gets into the machine, and appears to be in control. However, in a shocking twist, Peter wakes up IN THE FUTURE of Earth 1. His conciousness has been transported twenty years through time, to an apocalyptic world where earth is on the brink of collapse thanks to the rip in the universe. It's a world where an aged Walter is imprisoned, having been found guilty of causing the initial damage. It's a world where the Fringe division keeps order in what has become a near-police state. And it's a world where Walternate roams, plotting acts of terror and chaos. His world - Earth 2 - has been destroyed, but he managed to flee to Earth 1 before all was lost. Now, seeing that Earth 1 is also a sinking ship, he threatens to ensure that it too goes down in apocalyptic flame.

After all of the alternate realities we've seen on Fringe, it was somewhat shocking to see yet another warped version of the show and of the characters we love. It was a lot to process - Peter and Olivia were married! - Broyles had one eye! - Walter was old and bearded and seemed to have suffered a stroke of some sort! - Olivia's niece was all grown up and a junior Fringe Division agent! Holy crap.

But this look into the future of Fringe was a tantalizing glimpse at what might be if our heroes in the present fail to avert the damage to Earth 1. And not only that, the finale was full of amazing character moments that made this more than just a "What-If?", but into a genuinely moving, heart-wrenching episode. We know these characters so well, that it was easy to imagine them in this future. Imagine if Walter was in isolation for 20 years - we know how much he'd miss Peter and Olivia. And it made the moment where he finally does see Olivia again that much more packed with emotion. And by god, is John Noble the man or is he the man?! To see him play essentially a third version of Walter, with such nuance, such emotion, such humor, such pathos. I mean, there is no doubt in my mind - John Noble as Walter is the single greatest dramatic performance on television at the moment. The guy just rules it on all levels, and any would-be actor should study his performance here. If he doesn't win an Emmy, then holy crap, screw the Emmys. This is simply phenomenal work. Even the little scene where Peter brought him his favorite candy, Red Vines. Walter's reaction was hilarious, emotional, just so bursting with different things. Good lord, Noble is the real deal.

Everyone on Fringe has really kicked ass, and pulled off near-impossible acting challenges. Anna Torv, Joshua Jackson, Lance Reddick - all amazing. Torv especially has really risen to the occasion. Anyone who could pull off playing two versions of her character plus Leonard Nimoy deserves huge kudos. And the final fate of future-Olivia in the finale ... even though we knew this was merely a "possible' future, that didn't make Olivia's murder at the hands of Walternate any less shocking or impactful.

Overall, when I think about the apocalyptic future world that we saw in the finale ... it was an ambitious, thought-provoking plot turn, and that to me is Fringe at its best. Again, seeing this raised the stakes for the characters in the present day, and also provided a whole potential playground that the show could, in theory, revisit. I don't think it *has* to happen, but there were so many intriguing threads in that future-verse that it definitely left me hungry for more. In any case, the big twists happened as future Peter and Walter hatched a plan to save their world via time-travel. Afterall, it was becoming increasingly clear that all of the "first people" stuff was the product of some kind of crazy time-travel shenanigans, so it seemed as though Peter was fated to somehow interfere in his own past. So Peter's conciousness had, all this time, been pulled into the future thanks to his own future self. And when it returns to the present, it does so with the directive to create a hub between the two worlds - so that Walter, Walternate, and everyone else can work together to heal the universes. Peter does this, and this ending alone would have been enough - with Walter standing face to face with Walternate in a merged bridge between worlds. But right as we were coming to terms with this striking notion, BAM, Twist #2 occurs. Peter blinks out of existence - disappears! Cut to a group of the mysterious Observers standing outside. They observe, as they are prone to do, that all is according to plan -- now, Peter has been erased - it is as though he *never* existed!

WTF! What does that mean? Is Peter unstuck in time, Slaughterhouse 5 style? Is he outside of time? Is he dead? And if he never existed, then what now is the revised version of reality sans Peter? Without Peter, why did Walter ever end up crossing over to Earth 2, and why do he and Walternate think this war between them ever started? Perhaps Peter's erasure was necessary to ensure that the two Walters work together instead of trying to destroy each other? And is Peter now time-hopping, planting all of the "first-people" clues throughout time and space? And where and when will Season 4 pick up?

Talk about mind-blowing, mind-bending, mind-%&#$'ing. This was one hell of an ending, and is sure to be the subject of many a speculative summer discussion and debate.

All I know is, FRINGE had some missteps in Season 3, sure - but mostly, it cemented itself as one of the smartest, riskiest, and emotion-packed series on TV. For those who loved the likes of LOST but have yet to jump aboard the Fringe bandwagon, I urge you to spend the summer catching up. Because while Fringe lacks Lost's breadth of characters, it gets the most out of who it does have. And Fringe is telling an epic sci-fi story better than Lost. Because there is mystery and there are questions, but there is also momentum and forward movement. Questions and cliffhangers are there in service of dramatic storytelling, but there is always the sense that all of this escalation is going somewhere. And already, in three seasons, the payoffs and rewards have been huge. John Noble - he just owns. Awards for him, asap. And Fringe - man - that is a finale, man. That's how you shake things up and raise the bar.

My Grade: A

Fall TV Finale Wrap-Up: JUSTIFIED Gets 'er Done

Man, I've had barely any time to write lately, but I've been dyin' to talk about one of the best dramatic series on TV and how it wrapped up last week in spectacular fashion.

So, let's talk JUSTIFIED. Justified has been such a great, unique show over the course of its two seasons. For much of Season 1, the show flailed around a little bit, trying to find its legs. Was the show a case-of-the-week crime show, or was it something bigger - an epic, modern take on the Western, with a number of serialized plotlines slowly but surely building in intensity week in and week out. Luckily for fans of great TV, Justified embraced the latter style of storytelling, and quickly became one of the best serialized dramas on TV. Sure, the show kept some more self-contained episodes in the mix - but it was the overarching storylines that made the show a must-watch.

In Season 2, Justified brilliantly embraced the possibilities of long-form storytelling - and the payoff to a season's worth of build-up was evident in the finale. In fact, rarely have we seen such neatly-designed, well-bookended storytelling on television. When I think back at how the season started, and the way it ended, and the parallels between those opening and closing chapters - you can't help but appreciate the care, the planning, and the attention to detail that went into the crafting of this season.

Because while Season 2 delved deeper into the heart and history of Raylan Givens, it also set up its own new, self-contained arc, that being the rise and fall of the Bennett clan. In that first episode of Season 2, we met the character who would become one of the great and unlikely villains on TV - Mags Bennett - brilliantly played by Margo Martindale (if she doesn't get nominated for / win an Emmy for this role, it will be a crime). Mags was a big, mean, grizzled, terrifying woman. And yet she had that motherly/grandmotherly side that was always eager to sit you down for a hot slice of apple pie (though watch out, there was a 50/50 chance that the pie is poisoned). That kinder and gentler side of Mags was clear when we saw her interact with Loretta - a hard-nosed teenage girl who Mags takes under her wing after murdering her father - a rival in the drug trade - in the season premiere. For much of the season, Loretta doesn't realize that Mags and her boys (loose-cannon trailer-trash rednecks Dickie and Coover, and corrupt cop Doyle) were responsible for her father's death. But again, here is where Justified played out the arc so well from premiere to finale - with Loretta proving to be the x-factor that helped bring about the downfall of the once-proud Bennetts.

Really, Season 2 saw Justified create a much larger universe for Raylan to live in, with Harlan County becoming a living, breathing place filled with oddballs, criminals, rednecks, and runaways. After Season 1, the Crowder clan was mostly dismantled, but Boyd Crowder - played as awesomely as ever by the great Walton Goggins - was still lurking in the background, trying to figure out if he should go legit or give in to his criminal instincts. When you have as great a character as Boyd, you don't want to relegate him to a bit player. So eventually, Boyd became an integral part of the ongoing drama, setting up a three-way-dance of sorts between the fueding Crowder, Bennett, and Givens families. Of course, Arlo Givens, Raylan's scrappy, old, and crazy dad was back in Season 2 - and though he was crazier and more over-the-top than ever, his relationship with his wife Helen gave the season some of its most unexpected heart and soul and sadness.

We also got a bit more of an in-depth look at Raylan's co-workers at the US Marshall's office. In particular, his father-son relationship with his boss, Art - who had some real standout moments in S2. The dialogue between Art and Raylan is always a huge highlight of Justified, and it will be interesting to see how many indiscretions and off-the-book southern justice Art can tolerate before he severs his ties and breaks his loyalty to Raylan. Already, there relationship has been strained thanks to a number of factors - Raylan's ex-wife Winona, for one, who took center stage this season. Winona got back together with Raylan - sort of. But she also involved him in a highly dangerous robbery scheme and in the machinations of her asshole *other* ex-husband, Gary.

Winona was definitely an interesting character in S2, taking on a shadier, more femme fatale vibe than in S1, where we really sort of rooted for her and Raylan to get back together. And if there's one development in the S2 finale that seemed a bit suspect, it's the revelation that she is apparently pregnant with Raylan's baby. Now, I don't think anyone wants to see the adventures of Raylan Givens: Stay at Home Dad ... so I'm curious how this storyline will play out in S3. I can't imagine a standard pregnancy storyline working for this show, so I wonder if a.) Winona is lying about Raylan being the father, b.) something will go wrong with the pregnancy, or b.) something will happen that will take Winona - and her baby - out of Raylan's life on a semi-permanent basis. As it stands though, this was probably the one area of the episode that felt a little cheesy. That said, there are definitely some interesting possibilities that could stem from this reveal.

At the end of the day, you have to give so much credit to Timothy Olyphant for what he brings to Raylan. For me, I think the thing that changed the way I looked at Raylan was in S1, when Winona said that he was "the angriest person" she knows. Olyphant often projects a cool, almost detached demeanor - but when you look at Raylan as a guy who has a lot of rage boiling up beneath that cool exterior, that makes him even more interesting. Olyphant had a ton of great moments in S2, and we saw a lot of sides of the character. Most notably, we saw the conflict between the part of Raylan that belongs in Harlan - the country boy, the hometown kid done well, the one guy who can clean up Harlan - and the part of him that longs to get out and escape. Raylan is a character that can sort of move between worlds - but I don't know that Justified would work if the setting changed to a big city or something. Maybe it could. But for now, I hope the show finds a sensible way to keep Raylan planted in Harlan, complete with feuding rednecks, backwards-ass criminals, and scary, trailer-trash dirtbags as his main antagonists.

In any case, the S2 finale of Justified was just plain badass. The final fate of Mags Bennett was cathartic but also heart-stopping. It's a shame that Margo Martindale is now off the show, but her character reached such heights mid-season that I guess it was only fitting for her to also reach the lowest of low-points by season's end. But man, I still think the high point of the season was that episode where Black Pike held a town hall meeting for all the citizens of Harlan. When Mags got up to make her big, anti-mining-company speech, and invited everyone at the meeting to attend her own home-spun party, her "whoop-de-doo", it was just awesome. Martindale was like a freaking force of nature in that scene. In any case, it's been just a pleasure watching her on Justified this season. I wasn't sure how they could top Bo Crowder from S1 in terms of a new Big Bad, but somehow, they did in the form of Mags Bennett. And it wasn't just Mags - Dickie (an always-awesome Jeremy Davies), Coover, and Doyle - an awesome group of villains. And the growing tension, as Loretta went out to avenge her father, and that final confrontation with Loretta and Mags and Raylan - just awesome, intense, superlative stuff. As always, bullets flew and blood was spilled ... but it was those little moments that made it all work. When Raylan asked Loretta what her father would have her do (as Loretta held a gun to a vulnerable Mags), and Loretta, with tears flowing, said how she wished her father was there to tell her - that was just one hell of a moment. Similarly, the Dickie vs. Raylan confrontations, with Dickie stringing Raylan up like a pinata and going to town, were pretty brutal and intense. When Doyle ultimately had Raylan lined up in his sights, saying that he'd been saving a bullet for Raylan for twenty years ... well, that right there was the culmination of a season's worth of kickass storytelling and plotting. Luckily for Raylan, Art, Tim, and the rest of the cavalry was there to save the day and save Raylan by the skin of his teeth.

I can't wait to see where a Season 3 of Justified will take things. But I think that, with Season 3, the show has firmly entrenched itself as one of the absolute best on TV. Awesome characters, a steadily unfolding and expanding storyline / universe, and one of TV's most badass central characters. More, please.

S2 Finale Grade: A-

Monday, May 09, 2011

What Makes Danny of The Mighty THOR ...?!?!

THOR Review:

- Despite being a certified comic book fanboy, I never had any particular fascination with Marvel Comics' THOR. Even as a kid, I always thought the Viking-helmeted God of Thunder looked goofy and out of place next to his fellow street-smart Marvel heroes like Spiderman and Iron Man. The best part of Thor was, if anything, the gleefully crazy Thor-isms that the hero would utter thanks to the unabashedly over-the-top penmanship of Stan Lee - a man who never met a bit of alliteration that he didn't like. But I will say this: as footage of the Thor feature film was released, as more details of the cast and crew began to leak ... well, I couldn't help but get excited. With a grandiose mythology and an epic feel, I could start to visualize how THOR could indeed become a different sort of superhero movie. With master thespian and award-winning director Kenneth Branagh onboard, I realized that Thor could play out like a Shakespearian epic with a superhero twist - a grand melodrama that could be the Marvel Movie Universe's version of Lord of the Rings. Somehow, this vision for what a Thor movie could be, combined with the fact that THOR marks the unofficial kickoff of the 2011 Summer movie season, perhaps gave me unrealistically high expectations. After a mostly underwhelming Winter and Spring at the movies, I was ready for the kind of ass-kicking, mind-melting blockbuster that would have me shouting "Excelsior" at the heavens. So is THOR the sweeping superhero epic that I wanted? Well, I'd say it is about 3/4 of the way there. There are moments where Thor shines - thanks to majestic visuals, a couple of great performances, and some kickass action. But there are also times when Thor feels too overstuffed and poorly plotted to fully work as a self-contained movie. It was an entertaining film, but it didn't blow me away as I had hoped it might. And yet, as I'll explain, sometimes a movie like this has to nail the *essentials*, and the other stuff becomes less important in the grand sceme of things.

What THOR is sort of emblematic of is the new challenge that faces both DC and Marvel as they try to turn some of the second-tier characters into big-budget film franchises. It feels like Thor was the victim of too much tampering by the studio or whomever, in an effort to balance out the cosmic, epic, mythology stuff with a lot of cutesy/goofy earthbound stuff. Now, sure, selling some fun, fish-out-of-water humor with likable actresses like Natalie Portman and Kat Dennings - riffing with Chris Hemsworth's Thor - may help to make the movie feel more mainstream. But having these sorts of moments take up so much of the film definitely lessens the impact of the Shakespearian drama taking place on Asgard - the mythological realm which the Norse gods of legend - including Thor - call home. It also means that a lot of plot points in the movie feel VERY rushed. This is true on Asgard, where the machinations of Thor's manipulative brother Loki never really have time to feel meaningful. Loki is an intriguing character and villain - as played by Tom Hiddelston, he has just the right mix of nobility, self-assurance, and sleaziness. And yet, his transition from adversarial ally to full-on *evil* villain happens very quickly, to the point where Thor's anger and rivalry with his brother comes across as tacked-on. Same goes for Thor's romance with Natalie Portman's character, an astrophysicist (groan) named Jane Foster. Their relationship feels pretty forced, and it felt cheap to escalate the two from having some awkward flirtations one minute to being star-crossed lovers the next minute. We have no real grasp as to why Thor is so smitten with Jane (other than the fact that she's Natalie Portman), or why she has legitimate feelings for him. And while I'm railing on the Jane Foster character, I have to say that Natalie Portman plays her as way too wide-eyed and girlish for someone who's supposed to be a freaking astrophysicist. We all know that Portman is an incredible actress, but I think the combination of the part being underwritten and her playing it wrong really makes Jane Foster feel like a buzzkill in the movie.

And to that end - why does every superhero movie NEED a love interest right off the bat? Sure, there are some legendary superhero romances out there - Superman and Lois Lane, Spiderman and Mary Jane. But when you think of THOR, do you think of it being a love story? No. So why is an underdeveloped love story awkwardly shoehorned right into the middle of this movie? For that matter, why is Kat Dennings' goofy intern character here? I like Dennings a lot, and she has great comic timing, but again, it's a character that feels completely unnatural to the story. It's funny, the little group of astrophysicists (Portman, Dennings, and Stellan Skarsgard as the experienced leader of the outfit) ALMOST works in an endearingly 80's-movie sort of way (you know, how all 80's adventure movies featured a ragtag, makeshift family unit of some sort). But then you wonder - am I watching Adventures in Babysitting (which, of course, famously featured Thor) or, well, THOR?

Now, I know that sounds like a lot of criticism, but the fact is, THOR can be pretty damn entertaining and badass at times. The fact is, the movie COULD have been a complete mess given all of the disparate elements woven into the script, but Branagh manages to steady the ship and give the film a sense of awe and wonder and visual splendor that will send audiences home happy. I loved the design of Asgard in the film - from the gleaming spires and citadels to the entrancing Rainbow Bridge that serves as a gateway to other realms. I loved the awesome ANTHONY HOPKINS as ODIN, the regal father of Thor. Hopkins just flat-out owns in the movie, delivering his lines with gravitas-infused pomp and circumstance. I know some people rag on Hopkins for the over-the-top acting style he brings to genre films, but dammit all, I say he kicks ass. He's not playing some random dude here, he's playing by-gum ODIN, king of the Norse gods. And by Odin's beard, he was, in my estimation, one of THOR'S greatest assets. Similarly awesome is Idris Elba as Heimdell, the guardian of the gate that leads from Asgard to other worlds. I wish Elba had more screentime, but man, does he kick some ass in the time that he is given. I also greatly enjoyed Ray Stevenson and the other actors who comprised THE WARRIORS THREE - Thor's loyal friends / allies. These guys were all real scene-stealers. And after seeing Jaimie Alexander in badass she-warrior mode as Sif, you wonder why Thor would pass her up for the bland Ms. Foster. So yeah, visually, and in terms of the cast of characters that inhabit it - ASGARD is truly one of the things that makes Thor pop. Of course, there's also additional visual sizzle when Thor and co. visit the world of the formidable Frost Giants - longtime rivals of the Asgardians. Early on in the film, there are some truly epic sequences involving god vs. giant combat. And Colm Feore, digitally transformed into the king of said Frost Giants, is pretty awesome to boot.

Of course, the MVP of THOR is undoubtedly Chris Hemsworth as the title character. Hemsworth is one of the best casting choices in any big-budget comic book adaptation to-date. He IS Thor, plain and simple, and I don't think they could have gotten anyone better for the job. Hemsworth just has that larger-than-life presence where you never doubt for a second that he is a bonafide superhero. He's not a scene-stealer like Robert Downey Jr. in Iron Man, or doing deep, Oscar-caliber stuff like Christian Bale in Batman, but he basically just embodies the role and makes it all look pretty effortless. Marvel has found the definitive Thor, and it's going to be fun to see him continue the role in future sequels and in THE AVENGERS.

Speaking of which, in addition to the Asgardian drama and the romance and the astrophysicist stuff, there's ALSO a large chunk of Thor that'd dedicated to the ongoing Marvel Universe saga involving SHIELD and the planting of seeds for The Avengers. The SHIELD bits in Thor are decent, but too much of it feels like a mere warm-up for bigger things to come. For example, I got excited when Thor prepares to break into a SHIELD compound that's been built around the site where Thor's mystical hammer Mjolnir lies encrusted in desert rock, sword-in-the-stone style. But the big scene mostly consists of Thor taking out C-list SHIELD red-shirts. A confrontation with HAWKEYE is teased (Jeremy Renner makes an applause-worthy cameo as the future Avenger), but never comes to fruition. And Samuel L. Jackson's Nick Fury is nowhere to be found, until his obligatory post-credits epilogue scene. Left to carry the load is Clark Gregg as Agent Caulson, but let's face it, his presence isn't particularly exciting, except as a hint of more epic Marvel Universe adventures yet to come. And the way that Thor is eventually freed from the clutches of SHIELD, with Skarsgard simply waltzing into their compound, explaining that Thor is simply a crazy guy named Donald Blake (a nod to Thor's comic book alter ego) under his protection? One of the more groan-worthy moments in the film.

And you know, all this stuff crammed into one movie makes you think about the very concept of adapting serialized comic books into self-contained feature films. With TV shows like GAME OF THRONES currently weaving complex, big-budget, serialized mythologies on the small-screen, you just wonder if, in all the excitement to create a cohesive Marvel movie universe, the ability to create a truly awesome Thor movie gets lost in the process. To me, it felt like THOR had the makings of a true epic, but at some point in the creative process, the hammer fell and someone said "this is too out-there, give us more comic relief and romance and earth-bound stuff." Okay. Then, word came down from on high "okay, this is better, but now we need to devote a chunk of the movie to provide set-up for The Avengers." Okay - now what you're left with is a THOR movie that's seemingly being pulled in a couple of different directions. So the rivalry with Loki ends up feeling rushed (again, despite the best efforts of Tom Hiddleston to create a great villain). The romance with Jane Foster ends up feeling rushed, and a bit ridiculous. The movie never gets to find a great rhthym, and the final act therefore ends up feeling anticlimactic.

At the same time, I don't want to undermine the fact that Kenneth Branagh and co. somehow make the movie work despite all of what I just said. They are walking a tightrope, no doubt, but what Branagh does is to make sure that it's his sensibility - his knack for epic, sweeping melodrama - that ultimately rises to the forefront of Thor. He is able to tilt the movie's goofier aspects more to the side of "charming" than annoying. He and the movie's artists and f/x team make Asgard and the movie's other cosmic realms look awesome - Jack Kirby, I think, would be proud. And he benefits from a couple of killer performances, including an iconic turn from Hemsworth as Thor. At the end of the day, I think that Thor does have some large-scale plot issues, but part of me is willing to forgive it if only because, let's face it, Marvel Comics' THOR has always been a weird, random sort of character that never quite fit in with the rest of the Marvel Universe. It makes sense that the movie version would have a similar clash of tones. But the fact that the character has existed and endured is a tribute to Stan Lee's "what the hell" willingness to try any idea that seemed cool or fun no matter how insane it seemed. I think that's why I always get such a kick out of Stan The Man's cameos in these movies - to think that the out-there superhero universe that Stan helped create in the 60's is now the stuff of serious blockbuster movies - that always makes me smile. And it's why I am willing to somewhat shrug off Thor's weaksauce romance with Jane Foster, at least a little. Because although I as a modern filmgoer expect a little more from blockbuster moviemaking, part of me also just wants to see a movie version of Thor capture, well, the essence of Thor - that being a huge guy with a magical hammer fighting monsters and saving the day. And for all its flaws, THOR gets the important stuff right.

My Grade: B+

End note: I don't usually factor in poor 3D conversions into my grades, and I haven't done so here. But I will say, the fact that THOR is mostly playing in 3D in theaters across the country is pretty upsetting as a movie-fan. The 3D in Thor adds absolutely nothing to the film, and, if anything, it detracts from the visuals by making them darker and less sharp than they should be. If possible, I would say see this one in 2D. And movie studios, either shoot a movie in 3D, or release it in 2D. Simple as that. These unnecessary post-conversions to 3D need to stop.