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Monthly Archives: April 2012

Justice League: Doom rests on one of the oldest tropes of comic book heroes, supervillains teaming up to destroy their rivals. The interesting twist on Doom is that the plans to defeat the heroes come from within their own ranks. Batman has devised a doomsday scenario for every member of the Justice League, preying on both their physical and mental vulnerabilities.
The cleverness of the idea is offset by its execution several times, though. The Wonder Woman and Green Lantern scenarios hinge entirely on the two of them being incapable of simple deduction, with Lantern’s resting mostly on making him feel bad. The Flash’s scenario seems both generic and easily solvable, and is once Batman points out the obvious answer to him. Seeing as Superman has only one weakness, his is easy enough to deduce, but the solution is clever, and Martian Manhunter’s takedown is the easily the best. That was a horrible thing to do to a friend, and more should have been made of that idea.
Batman gets a pretty easy time of it, considering that his uncharacteristically lax security is to blame for Vandal Savage forming the Legion of Doom to enact his sanctions against the League. They brush over the topic with cursory anger and disbelief, but the outcome is never placed in doubt. Batman’s nonchalance about the whole thing is the only good part of his being tried.
Savage gets the barest bones of a backstory, which is an interesting one when given time, but the two-minute telling does little to make him credible. It’s a matter of time available, though, and was probably best left unsaid at all if that was what he was going to get. A mystery unsolved is better than an unsatisfactory answer. The Legion is generally the most obvious of villains—Kryptonite powered Metallo; the Cheetah, Wonder Woman’s most workable villain in a short story; the Mirror Master for Flash, who gets an interesting treatment and actually seems like a threat for once; Bane’s plan deserved its own animated film and time to show its psychological toll on Batman; Star Sapphire, still working the Hal-Jordan-broke-my-heart angle, offers no higher agenda than being a scorned woman; and Ma’alefa’ak, twin brother of J’onn J’onnz, previously the last of the Martians, who seems like an interesting villain but gets too little chance to prove it.
The problem with the final battle, once all the players are revealed and the combatants are in place, is that the League never uses any strategy to battle the Legion. Superman goes straight for Metallo, the cyborg housing literally the only substance deadly to him, while Green Lantern or Wonder Woman could have fought him without ill effects, and Superman could have handled the rest of the Legion almost singlehandedly. It would have been much more interesting for Batman to direct traffic, applying his planning ability to point each Leaguer to his or her best matched opponent, especially seeing as that same skill nearly got the League killed moments before this battle. Seeing him outsmart Mirror Master, for example, while Flash unhooked Bane from his Venom supply is what these big team battles are designed to showcase. It was a letdown to see them all just go head to head with their regular foes, especially since the clash was so brief and anticlimactic anyway.
The big draw of Doom is the reuniting of the Justice League: the Animated Series cast. I don’t believe these two are supposed to take place in the same reality, given that the Flash was Barry Allen rather than Wally West, but it was still a treat to hear all of the familiar voices again. I don’t know why DC Animated films ever stray from Kevin Conroy as Batman, but they do seem determined to allow someone else to inhabit the role in at least every other film, always with the effect of wishing for Conroy. It’s almost an event every time they bring him back. I would have been fine with someone else voicing the Flash once I realized it was a different character, but Michael Rosenbaum did his usual great job. He’s just a little too jocular for the more serious Barry Allen. I think Nathan Fillion stands a chance to turn around the Hal Jordan Green Lantern by his casting alone, which is more fan service than staying true to the character. I almost think Hal could be retconned into having some humility if Fillion picks up a stronger presence and identification with the character, instead of being the self-serving blowhard he’s been recognized as in recent years. Despite any criticisms, though, the casting and voice work are well above par, as usual.
Doom is a fine standalone work, bringing a new spin on an old standard, though it could have benefited from straying less from that story’s usual rules. Still, the idea is always fun, the film has the big event feel to it, and the animation and acting deliver. 3 ½ stars

Note that this review contains plot elements that will be considered spoilers.

Special is an early example of the suddenly burgeoning self-made-superhero genre, well ahead of the well-known Kick-Ass and the lesser known, but superior, Defendor. It has much more in common with the latter than the former in terms of performance level and underlying themes.

Traffic cop Les (Michael Rappaport) spends his days letting crying women out of parking tickets, however insincere they may be, and working up the nerve to talk to his local grocery’s cashier. Like all DIY superheroes, Les is an awkward, lonely man, given to fantasy, especially the comic books he loves. In fact, his only friends are the two brothers who own the comics shop he frequents. For presumably the chance to change his life, Les begins taking an experimental drug, whose intended purpose is never explained (Wikipedia claims it is an antidepressant, but I never heard that said; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Special_%28film%29). He’s warned of side effects, though, which kick in almost immediately: he begins floating over his couch.

Suddenly, Les can phase through walls, hear others’ thoughts and project his telepathically, and, of course, fly. The movie doesn’t play coy with these abilities for long, however, and the true effects on the drug on Les are revealed as visual and auditory hallucinations.

Once the doctor tries getting Les off of the pills, the film’s true villain (Paul Blackthorne, of The Dresden Files) is finally introduced. The company manufacturing the drug has achieved its aim, being bought out by a larger conglomerate, and the owners cannot afford their failure in Les’ case being brought to light before the sale is complete. As Les falls deeper into his superheroic delusions, mostly involving innocent shoppers at the grocery where his love interest works, the secondary effects of the pills kick in, boosting Les’ confidence enough to talk to her.

It’s this part of the movie that slows too much, with Les hanging around doing little if anything. The plot isn’t advanced and not much characterization is added. Les is clearly lost in the use of his “powers,” but it takes longer than needed to get to the main confrontation with the villain, a downfall of any superhero film, which Special, for all its use of delusion, very much is.

It has all of the hallmarks, from the origin of the powers to the making of the costume to the failing of those powers in the final showdown, where the hero has to rise above his shortcomings and rely on himself to get through the battle. Special provides the full ride, the superheroes’ journey. Rappaport’s talent shines in this role more than I have ever seen before. Not to imply that Rappaport has not shown talent, but I don’t recall seeing him in a role so rich before, with the possible exception of Higher Learning. Les’ “dark night of the soul,” and the degradation he suffers, is particularly affecting, though it doesn’t even last through the end of its own scene. It’s another place the film stumbles, not letting Rappaport show the full effects of his humiliation. He really finds the heart of his character here, and it would have been more satisfying to see this explored rather than his “Batman” moments of patrolling his city.

The choice of villain is brilliant, a real high point of the film. He’s never concerned with whatever this drug was to accomplish—his only focus from the outset was to sell the company at a profit, nothing to do with helping anyone. Using the pharmaceutical industry in this manner seems tailored for a superhero film, too, though I can’t recall another that’s done it. The Smalltime Superman facing the Low-rent Lex Luthor feels perfect for Special, as they are so opposite in their motivations but so similar in their professed goals: helping humanity. One is sincere and the other false, one has means and the other only heart, like Special in a world of big-budget superhero films. It succeeds in a way that those films cannot, don’t have the room to, by being smaller and more focused. It’s not flashy, but it works harder to prove itself among its bigger counterparts. 3 ½ stars

The novel The Hunger Games conjures up fantastic images, struggles of life and death in a corrupt world, both on field and off. The film of the name manages that about sixty percent of the time, carrying the story but leaving off too much of the detail, some of which is simply unavoidable. It plays like a Cliff’s notes of the book, though too much of that discarded detail would bloat the film and sink it. It’s a damned project, but makes a fair go of it.

Panem, the fictional country rising from the remains of the United States and possibly Canada (I was never sure), hosts a tournament every year, the eponymous Hunger Games, wherein each of its twelve districts sacrifices two of its young as penance for an earlier revolt. These twenty-four children fight until only one survives. It’s a premise perfect in its simplicity for a young adult novel. Children are stolen from parents, sacrificed for a world they had no part in making. It’s all so unfair, as childhood so often is. There’s your story: now go.

Katniss Everdeen, of a hard luck family in coal-mining District 12, just barely provides for her family. She lives in a third-world state, where owning an animal like a goat is the difference between starvation and just enough. She, along with Peeta Mellark, represents her home in the Games. The rest of the movie prepares her for, and then drops her into, those Games, where the only goal is survival. She battles her fellow contestants, the elements, and even the machinations of the Capital, who need to make the Games as exciting as possible. Ratings count, even in a state-sponsored death tournament. You can guess enough of the outcome without me going into that.

The Hunger Games’ PG 13 rating hampers its action terribly. It falls into the shaky-cam trap in each and every fight scene, blurring them beyond any ability to make out its participants. Much of the violence takes place off-screen, but this is also due to the limited narrative of the movie, sticking with its star the whole way through. Rarely is Jennifer Lawrence away from the camera. Some of the effects are likely impossible to reproduce with the majesty described in the books, but the “Girl on Fire” was particularly underwhelming. Lawrence appears to be backlit by a butane torch during this scene. There are creatures so meticulously described in the book, as well, that they couldn’t be but disappointing rendered by CGI.

I give the filmmakers credit, though, for making no more of the story’s romance angle than need be. In other hands, this could have inflated out of proportion and dominated the foreground. Hopefully, the franchise sticks by this decision in the wake of director Gary Ross’s departure. Katniss’s relationship with her sister, though, has too little time to play out and it negatively affects her relationship with Roux, the youngest tribute. It has too little time to develop and comes to a close without the proper impact. Again, underwhelming when compared to its source material.

Lawrence handles her part very well, from Katniss’s awkwardness with people to her comfort alone in wooded surroundings. She seems confident when she knows her element, self-conscious when out of it. Woody Harrelson’s Haymitch goes through his trademark drunkenness a little too cleanly. I chalk this up to the rating, too. My only gripe with Elizabeth Banks’s casting is that she’s too young for the way I envisioned Effie Trinket. She seems a little too smooth, even caked in makeup as she is. She’s great in the part, just too young and pretty, if you can call that a complaint. Josh Hutcherson’s Peeta is good as the quiet, strong, resigned Peeta. He brings the right amount of stoicism and pent up emotion to the role.

The Hunger Games works as an action film but falls short of its roots. It needed a harder rating to properly showcase its world and bring out the hardness its inhabitants have to embrace in order to survive. I don’t expect that to change in its sequels, but I enjoyed what the film was able to give. 3 ½ stars