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Freedom Writers

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****

Oh, no. No, no, no, young man, no. I am not a hero. No. I did what I had to do, because it was the right thing to do. That is all.

MTV Films pretty much only made crappy movies. This, however, was very much an exception. Hilary Swank was very good as an optimistic teacher at Woodrow Wilson High School in Long Beach, CA in 1994. All of her students seemed real. Scott Glenn was good as her former civil rights activist father. Patrick Dempsey was good as her moderately supportive, but eventually abandoned husband. Even Imelda Staunton and John Benjamin Hickey are good as racist teachers.

Marcus (Jason Finn) telling Miep Gies that she was his hero in Freedom Writers, © 2007 MTV Films.

Marcus (Jason Finn) telling Miep Gies that she was his hero in Freedom Writers, © 2007 MTV Films.

But the best aspect of this movie was how it serves as an eye-opener for both inner city viewers and suburbanites as well—sorry ruralites. It not only addressed the Holocaust, but demonstrated how people in this country might not know about it. It demonstrated how age basically tainted people and how easy it was to make excuses for not doing the right thing, for just dismissing people and accepting racism. If this movie motivated just 1% of its viewers to do the right thing, then it was worth every dollar MTV Films spent on it.

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Man of Steel

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You will give the people an ideal to strive towards. They will race behind you, they will stumble, they will fall. But in time, they will join you in the sun. 

Russell Crow as Jor-El in Man of Steel, © 2013 DC.

Russell Crow as Jor-El in Man of Steel, © 2013 DC.

****

No kneeling before Zod?

Do people get that reference? It was from before my time, but I was torn while watching this film. When General Zod–Michael Shannon–makes his agonizing speech about he was born with one function in life, to protect Krypton, and how since Krypton was gone…I wanted to hear him tell Kal-El/Clark Kent/Superman–Henry Cavill–to kneel before Zod! But I knew it would probably elicit laughter, which would have been wholly inappropriate.

Michael Shannon as General Zod in Man Of Steel, © 2013 WB & DC.

Michael Shannon as General Zod in Man Of Steel, © 2013 WB & DC.

I mention this because the director, Zack Snyder, probably had to make that choice dozens of times throughout this film. With a character like Superman, there is baggage unlike any other. With so many opportunities to reference the cheesiest nuggets from its past. There are literally thousands of comic books on which to base this Superman. There have been multiple television shows. And even a series of movies, one of which actually featured General Zod. And Snyder deserves credit for managing to tell a story without using Superman’s personal kryptonite, which is actually kryptonite. How hard it must have been to avoid that!

Henry Cavill as Superman in Man of Steel, © 2103 WB.

Henry Cavill as Superman in Man of Steel, © 2103 WB.

This is best blockbuster of the year because it has coherent end of the world stakes, twice. Because it has the best fight scenes of the year. Because it has the best action sequences as well. It has a villain on par with Star Trek Into Darkness‘ Khan. Its score is on par with John Williams’ excellent Superman theme. Its supporting cast includes Amy Adams, Diane Lane, Antje Traue, Christopher Meloni, Kevin Costner, and the underrated Harry Lennix!

Now there are just two things I would like to address: 1. the Jesus-y side of the Man of Steel; and 2. Zack Snyder is the best comic book adapter of all-time.

1. I remember reading an article in “Reformed Judaism,” about Superman and his creators Joe Shuster and Jerry Siegel. While this may not be that particular article, scroll down to The Golem and Superman. Hopefully that link works, since it is to the cached article as the website has a broken link to the original. I believe that many Americans, the majority of whom are Christian, see a Jesus allegory because of their frame of reference. I do not know if this was Zack Snyder’s intention or not, but if people see it then I feel that is as valid as my viewing Superman, in the historical context more than just here, as a Jewish character placed into two tales of potential genocide.

2. Zack Snyder has directed the following three comic book movies: 300, Watchmen, and Man of Steel. This is the first of those not based on a specific work. Clearly his success on those films, and the critical beating he took on Sucker Punch, prepared him to excel on this feature. Henceforth as long as the source material has anything of merit in it, I am ready to watch it. Even if it a sequel to that atrocious Green Lantern, or something as daunting as adapting the Age of Apocalypse. This makes me wish that Brett Ratner–X-Men: United–or Michael Bay–Transformers– were 1/3 the director that Snyder is.

Batman: Under the Red Hood

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****

Lie to me again, and crashing into a wall head-on will be the least painful activity of your evening.

Joker and Robin, © 2010 DC.

Joker and Robin, © 2010 DC.

The artwork in this was spectacular. As was the story, which I already loved from the comic books. The voice acting was great—although I prefer Mark Hamill to the extremely talented John DiMaggio, Bender on “Futurama,” when it comes to the Joker.

The Red Hood and Batman, © DC 2010.

The Red Hood and Batman, © DC 2010.

The premise of this is that Gotham has a new crime lord/vigilante, the Red Hood. But no-one knows who he is. Moreover, his name harkens back to an early villain “The Red Hood.” However, as fans of the Joker may recall, before he was The Joker, he was just another schmoe who told some crooks how to steal from his employer—Acme Chemical. He got suckered into putting on the Red Hood to appear to be the ringleader. Instead he became a poor guy who falls into some chemicals and comes out scarred and emotionally damaged. Eventually that man becomes The Joker. The movie does not start here, instead it tackles the hardest scene to film that I could imagine—the death of Robin (II) at the hands of The Joker. This is from the infamous “A Death In The Family” story where the second Robin, Jason Todd, was in Joker’s power and a telephone number was presented to DC readers for them to decide Robin’s fate. It was a vicious scene, but as I said about Sin City last year, there is a difference between violence in comics and violence in movies. In comic books the action takes places “between the panels,” whereas in a movie the action takes place in before our eyes. This movie does an exceptional job of putting the action before our eyes.

In addition to the stylistic and character successes, there are also very interesting moral questions the movie provides. I do not know which side people will side—Batman’s or the Red Hood’s, but it is a fair question. One that levels a very fair criticism against Batman. A criticism that very well might make you reject his approach to seeking justice.

Brave

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***

Pretend I’m Merida, speak to me. “Ooooooh! I don’t want to get married, I want to stay single and let my hair flow in the wind as I ride through the glen firing arrows into the sunset.”

Brave © 2012 Disney.

Brave © 2012 Disney.

This is a very pretty movie. Like really, really pretty. And it is cute. Pretty cute.

It was also a bit contrived and annoying also though. Sometimes they say you yell at characters because you are so invested in them. If that were true, then I truly cared about Princess Merida in a way that I did not about Jason Bourne or my own brother. On the other hand, at least I chose to watch this and not Cars 2. Which brings me to my bias—this is a Pixar film. If this were not, perhaps I would not have been so frustrated with it and less likely to try to give it **½.

The Great Gatsby

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Can’t repeat the past? No, why, of course you can… of course you can.

A better question is can you create the past? Even as it was written, The Great Gatsby was a tale of the past. Each movie adaptation has attempted to recreate that past, which never existed. One of the best things about Baz Luhrmann’s update was the rejection of old-timey music. But mentioning the excellent usage of the song “No Church in the Wild,” evokes the wonderful trailer released for this film. It was the best preview of the year.

Carey Mulligan (Daisy) and Joel Edgerton (Tom), at Gatsby's. © 2013 Warner Bros.

Carey Mulligan (Daisy) and Joel Edgerton (Tom), at Gatsby’s. © 2013 Warner Bros.

Unfortunately, the best part of the trailer does not make it in the film! That being the Filter version of “Happy Together.” Still, this is a complex story, so it must have been difficult to cut together an accurate preview. From the preview I expected Joel Edgerton’s character, Tom Buchanan to be more of a villain. He is simply who he is. A well educated, small minded lout, who does not mind slapping his mistress for badmouthing his wife. But he is not a criminal and not a murderer, just an entitled adulterer. He is married to the much sought after Daisy Buchanan–Carey Mulligan. Mulligan’s performance stole the film. She maintains a consistency throughout all that she faces, allowing the audience to see anything they want in her, much like the men in the film do. Her companion, Elizabeth Debicki, shows more personality, but also the twinge of self-doubt as she is more athletic and taller than might be generally found to be ladylike. I am a bit surprised in how her fledgling relationship with Tobey Maguire’s Nick Carroway seems to fizzle out. And the last actress to mention is the 1920’s pinup bombshell version of Isla Fisher—most famous for Wedding Crashers. With so much to get through for the main characters, I understand why she disappears from the film, but this could have been done more gradually.

Va va va voom.

Isla Fisher as Myrtle Wilson, in the single terrible costume in the otherwise cosmetically flawless  Warner Bros. Pictures’ The Great Gatsby.

Even more impressive than the varied beauties provided in the film are the dynamic looks of its heroes, Carraway and Gatsby–Leonardo DiCaprio. The film opens with a weakened, alcoholic Carraway, which made me think that this was simply how Maguire looks today. That is absolutely not the case, as he looks chipper and dapper as a man in his late 20’s dressing for work, recreation, and dining. Gatsby, on the other hand, mostly appears in the visage of a movie star. Yet in one wet scene, even his perfect hair betrays his age as he mats it down like aging dog, long left out in the rain. Together they simultaneously show the grandeur of the Jazz Age, as well as the emptiness of its boozing elites.

DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby, Maguire as Carraway and Debicki as Jordan Baker in Village Roadshow Pictures’ drama "The Great Gatsby."

DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby, Maguire as Carraway and Debicki as Jordan Baker in Village Roadshow Pictures’ drama “The Great Gatsby.”

One criticism I heard leveled against this film is that it is too slow and too long. I disagree. The measured pace works for me, and it made the exciting parties and drives seem that much faster. To give this *** is to say that I did not know what to do with this film. It has provided me with so much to think about and so much to take in. On the other hand, it was a huge disappointment compared to that perfect preview. So there it is: ***

Furious 6

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**½

This code you live by makes you predictable. In our line of work predictable makes you vulnerable. I can reach out and break you any time I want.

Luke Evans (Shaw) driving a "ramp car" in Furious 6, © 2013 Universal Pictures.

Luke Evans (Shaw) driving a “ramp car” in Furious 6, © 2013 Universal Pictures.

It was truly difficult for me to give this flaming pile of garbage 2&½ stars. It was an impressive pile of garbage with fancy cars and fun actors and explosions and the flames were humongous, but it still made about as much sense as lighting a trashcan on fire and standing around watching it. I say, get some marshmallows and some cheap “domestic” beer, then get ready to feel the heat and enjoy some laughs. For instance, there is one scene were Vin Diesel flies out of a car across a divider to tackle Michelle Rodriguez who is flying perpendicular to him off of the barrel of a tank. When they land, about 25 feet away, I hope that Justin Lin gave the audience a pause for the laughter that ensues. This scene is certainly a sequel to the Fast 5 moment where Diesel and Paul Walker drive a car off a cliff into a lake without dying.

Michelle Rodriguez (Letty) and Vin Diesel (Dom) mid-air. As you can guess, they both are about to die. © 2013, Universal Pictures.

Michelle Rodriguez (Letty) and Vin Diesel (Dom) mid-air. As you can guess, they both are about to die. © 2013, Universal Pictures.

One major criticism of Fast 5 was that it was a street racing movie with no legitimate scenes of street racing. 6 changes that. There were tons of cool and interesting driving sequences. 5 played fast and loose with story and logic, but this just throws logic and a coherent plot out of the window. Here are my top 12 dumpster fire worthy moments:

  1. The opening credits–they showed clips from all of the previous movies without any narrative arc. It was like as if someone edited together clips with the clearance to see those clips, but not to read the current script.
  2. The world’s longest runway—in a climatic scene there is a plane that lands about halfway down a runway in front of some cars. The plane never stops. And after a minute it has vehicles on it. And then accelerates. And then tries to take off. For about ten minutes. Takeoff for this “planet”, as Tyrese Gibson calls it, would require at least 180 mph. Ignoring the fact that a car was driving faster than it by the end, this would still require a runway between 7 and 17 MILES.
  3. Elsa Pataky’s and Vin Diesel’s relationship–first she is with him and sleeping naked, then he leaves to find Michelle Rodriguez, then she is not heard from at all—she is just chilling with Jordana Brewster and the baby—then she saves the baby and…then the movie gives us no information until the last scene where she has a badge again and says that her family has always been the police. She was a Brazilian cop for like 2 years and quickly sided with some criminals AND went into hiding with one of them. She has always been a cop like Donnie Brasco was always in the mafia.
  4. Jordana Brewster’s failure to escape with her baby–she is literally handing the baby down to Elsa when she shakes her head no and chooses not follow Elsa, instead she runs back into the house to get kidnapped, or something. Just a nonsensical scene.
  5. The Rock having only one fellow officer on his team–as impressive as Gina Carano’s Riley is, it seems stupid to have no other agents along with him, just these Fast and Furious Fools.
  6. The first raid to get Luke Evans (Shaw)–ignoring how much of a disaster it was, Interpol wired up their prisoner and had him walk in to get killed by their target directly in front of his front door. Also, had they shown up two minutes earlier they might have just captured Evans.
  7. That the Rock puts the gun to the head of a NATO general in order to hypothetically save Brewster’s life, even if it costs the death of millions of people by letting Evans leave with the super computer chip. This was worse than him destroying a room with the prisoner at Interpol. He has replaced Paul Walker as the poster child for NOT A GOOD LAW ENFORCEMENT OFFICER.
  8. Vin Diesel drives a car through the front of a burning plane. And he magically has the briefcase with magical micro chip.
  9. NATO decides to transport the secret micro chip in an unmanned tank inside of a big truck–I think that NATO’s idea was, well, if anyone is clever enough to watch Dark Knight Rises and tries to hop into our big sturdy truck, they deserve to have an armed, unguarded tank as a bonus.
  10. In a movie that takes place over a span of approximately 5 days, Paul Walker leaves London to fly to California, where he spends 24 hours in jail, to learn something that Evans could have just told any character at any point in time. I say this because when he returns with the “crucial” information as to why Rodriguez has become a villain-criminal, Vin says, “Don’t tell me. That was for you.”
  11. Someone has amnesia.
  12. The ads for this say Fast & Furious 6, but in the movie itself the title is “Furious 6.” I think that refers to Vin, Ludacris, Gal Gadot, Tyrese, Walker and Sung Kang. But I would hesitate to call them furious. Vin is mostly slow spoken. Ludacris and Tyrese seem to be having fun cracking jokes. Gal Gadot seems down for whatever. Walker gets seriously scared when people try to kill him and legitimately furious when his wife has been kidnapped. And Sung Kang seems melancholy. Fast 6 would have made more sense.
No Rock yet!?

5 of the Furious 6: Sung Kang, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, Gal Gadot, Vin Diesel, and Paul Walker. © 2013 Universal Pics.

All that madness aside this movie had some major positives: It is a truly multi-ethnic movie; there are cross racial relationships; there are strong female characters; and more action than all of the other Fast & Furious movies combined. And, in spite of the nonsensical opening clips, the traditional credits before the movie were a pleasant surprise.

Hart attack!

The Rock flying clothesline on Kim Kold with the Vin’s assistance. © 2013 Universal Pics.

Oh yeah and THE F’N ROCK was in this. I felt like his best moment came while clotheslining his larger, German-er version. A nice thing about the cheesy matching team of bad guys, is that the film itself acknowledged what it had done. Indeed, Tyrese gets off some good lines about them. If I could have edited this script, I would have either tried to make it better, or let it move into so bad it’s good territory. Instead, the movies navigates amidst all three places with too much in the bland middle.

Ultimate Avengers: The Movie

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**½

Any questions? Any questions not about the Hulk?

As a longtime comic book fan I rejected the “Ultimate” line from Marvel Comics. The “Ultimates” were a reboot of the Marvel Comics universe without any overlap or baggage from the true universe. Their artwork seemed geared towards children and appeared to rehash the origins I already knew. So I chose not to read any Ultimate Spider-Man, or whatever other books they released, until that universe came crashing down, killing off a great deal of its main characters. That no longer seemed like kid’s stuff to me.

Black Widow, Captain America, and Gen. Nick Fury

Black Widow, Captain America, and Gen. Nick Fury

I would say that these are not the Avengers familiar to those who have enjoyed Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, and Captain America: The First Avenger, and The Avengers, but that would be a lie. At first I thought the only connection between those movies and the “Ultimates” was that Nick Fury went from a white, cigar chomping, one eyed, World War II veteran to a comic rendering of Samuel L. Jackson, who was too young to have fought in WWII. In fact, most of the storyline elements come from this “Ultimates” timeline.

Most of the Avengers: Captain America, Iron Man, Black Widow and the Wasp.

Most of the Avengers: Captain America, Iron Man, Black Widow and the Wasp.

As I did not read those books, I gleaned a lot from this 2006 cartoon movie. I would recommend this 75 minute movie as a history lesson. It was one for me. And here are some of the differences between the Marvel canon and from The Avengers and Ultimate Avengers: The Movie.

  • Dr. Bruce Banner and becoming the Hulk — originally Dr. Banner turned into the Hulk when a nuclear gamma bomb doused him in a huge amount of gamma radiation; but in the Ultimates he was attempting to recreate the Super Soldier Serum©.
  • Steve Rogers and becoming Captain America — this origin is consistent, it is the rebirth that differs. Originally the Avengers find Cap’n America in the late 1960’s, but now it is S.H.I.E.L.D. and his recovery is much later.
  • The Wasp and Ant Man, aka Giant Man — originally the Black Widow was a villain and the Wasp–Janet Van Dyne–was the only female founding member of the Avengers. She had a relationship with Hank Pym, who could initially only shrink down, but eventually learned to turn himself gigantic. Pym was the resident genius ahead of Iron Man, who kept his identity secret longer in the Marvel comics than in the Ultimates or in Iron Man.
  • The formation of the Avengers — the Avengers were initially formed as a response to Loki…but there was no S.H.I.E.L.D. and Nick Fury had nothing to do with it. In the Ultimates Fury seems to have recruited them, as shown in live action movie as well. In fact, the Chitauri invade in both of these movies as well, but without Loki’s assistance in Ultimate Avengers: The Movie.
  • Back to the Black Widow — I guess at some time she did join S.H.I.E.L.D., but that was long after she joined the second iteration of the Avengers. Hawkeye, “Agent Barton” in Thor and The Avengers was also a reformed villain who aligned with Captain America when the original Avengers quit; but in the Ultimates Black Widow’s past is already behind her and she is a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent.
  • And lastly Thor — Thor gets his costume from Thor in the Ultimates universe, although Mjolnir—his hammer—looks unlike either the Marvel universe or movie versions. His origins on Earth differ in this movie, his movie, and in the original Marvel comics.
Thor trying to stop the Hulk, with Mjolnir's help.

Thor trying to stop the Hulk, with Mjolnir’s help.

As I said, this is a colorful, and at times enjoyable, history lesson. It could use an English accent for some narration, but otherwise this would have been a dream come true to watch in 9th grade history class.

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