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(This review contains spoilers)

Everyone knows superheroes. They have an ethical code and boundaries they will not cross. They think of others before themselves. They have their flaws, but learn from their mistakes. Sometimes they lose their way, but they find the strength to rediscover their road. And they always save the day.

Logan, known as the Wolverine, is not a superhero.

He was born with extraordinary powers of recuperation, but they made him vulnerable to those who wanted to exploit them. He’s a Frankenstein monster created to be a weapon who then turned on his creator. When he walked onto movie screens in the summer of 2000 (portrayed by Hugh Jackman) we found him a hopeless wanderer, without a past and apparently without a future. But then he meets Charles Xavier (played by Patrick Stewart), an eternal optimist who runs a school where even Logan can learn to accept community and find a purpose.

It’s been 17 years since X-Men sparked the craze for comic book movies. While the craze shows no signs of slowing down, Hugh Jackman has decided that it’s time to step down from the role that arguably started it all.

It seems only fitting that here, at the end, he’s back to where we first found him: a man just trying to survive without a community or a sense of purpose. But in a way he’s worse off than square one. Now he has a past, which showed him what having that community and purpose is like — and what it feels like to lose it. All he has left is Charles, aged and suffering from a neurodegenerative illness that causes psychic shockwaves fatal to anyone in the vicinity. Yet even half-senile and decrepit he still clings to hope that life will continue, that the world will be better, and that Logan is a good man. It’s 2029 and in a world where mutants are all but extinct they are still complements of each other; the hopeless wanderer and the eternal optimist.

Thrown into their lives is a girl named Laura (Dafne Keen), who comes with a story about a place named Eden where the few mutants left can live in safety. Like Logan, she was made to be a weapon. Grown from his own genetic material, she also happens to be the closest thing he has to a daughter. What she didn’t inherit was his fatalism, and even with the enemy hot on their heels she’s determined to make it to Eden at all costs.

Hope is what propels the story forward. All three characters are burdened by a deep sense of guilt over their pasts; Logan and Laura are both hardened killers who want to be rid of the blood on their hands, and it becomes apparent that Charles was responsible for a deadly massacre through one of his psychic seizures. Eden, then, taken from the pages of a metafictional X-Men comic book, becomes more than just a destination. It comes to embody the desire for a better future, the longing for new life in the midst of death, and the faint hope that what we have done is not who we are. Because if our sins are not our identity, then there remains the possibility of forgiveness and redemption and the restoration of all that we have lost.

Which is probably why I found Charles’ death the hardest thing to watch. I nearly cried. A broken old man lying in bed, ashamed of his past unintentional crime, voices his own hope for forgiveness and peace. And just at this moment…he’s brutally murdered. It’s confusing and painful and we’re not sure just what’s happened at first. This has to be a dream. He’s having a nightmare and he’s going to wake up. The reality of it is almost too cruel to bear.

But of course it’s the other major death that most people are going to focus on.

It’s clear that the conflict being waged involves more than just the lives of our three heroes. It’s a fight for Logan’s soul as well. He chooses to worry about his own concerns before those of others. He fights against love and family and hope, dismissing them all as fabricated fiction, or at best a past that can’t be reclaimed. “We thought we were part of God’s plan,” he says. “Maybe we’re just God’s mistake.” But in the end his resistance breaks down when he realizes he will have to fight to protect Laura and the other children from the enemy that’s been chasing them — a fight that ultimately ends in his death. Hope comes with a cost.

Logan dies virtually in sight of the new world, with his daughter’s hand in his. And in that moment he is given the gift of a glimpse into what it means to love. “This is what it’s like,” he whispers. He’s always seen bad things happen to the people he loves, and now it’s the other way around. His sacrificial act, fighting to protect the future of mutants just as Charles taught him, enabling them to escape to the safety of Eden, is a bittersweet end to the many years he’s fought for his own survival. There’s a symmetry to it, but a tragic note as well. We want better for this man who so rarely realized how good he could be. We want him to have more than just a glimpse of peace.

He doesn’t have that, but thanks to him the children have a chance. Like a friend of mine said in his own review of the film: “Maybe it is more important to leave blessed people than to leave a legacy.”

Logan is a beautiful and touching story, as hard as it is to watch at times. For me this is the end of the series. I know there are more spinoffs and movies planned, but they seem like meaningless noise right now. Logan feels nothing like passing a torch; it’s an epilogue and elegy to a franchise that has always been a mainstay of the comic book summer blockbusters. It might point to those children who walk into the future, but it lingers by the side of Logan’s grave. An X literally marks the spot where the saga ends.

We couldn’t have asked for a more emotional conclusion.

 

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In the buildup to the release of Logan, Hugh Jackman’s much-touted swan song as the Wolverine, I decided to rewatch the entire X-Men movie franchise. Reviewing it wasn’t part of the plan, but I found myself spontaneously writing one off-the-cuff for the first film. After that it only seemed fair to do the same for the others. Here they are collected in one place. Spoilers abound, if you need the warning.

 

X-Men: First Class (2011)
Prequels are tricky things. On the one hand they can be illuminating glimpses of beloved characters’ backgrounds that deepen our appreciation of what made them who they are. Or they can just as easily devolve into cheap fan service that in the process alienates those same fans from the franchise.

Coming off of a certain Wolverine movie that shall remain execrable and unnamed here, the Executives In Charge remarkably decided to stay on the prequel route and brought back Bryan Singer as producer to ensure the continued health of the X-universe. Who better to reinvigorate the series than the man who gave it birth?

Though he passed on the director’s chair, handing the honour to Matthew Vaughn, Singer’s influence is probably why First Class reminds me so much of the original film. Again a mutant organizes his posse to declare war on ordinary humankind; again Charles Xavier tries to bring a loner with a painful past into a community. That parallel is actually quite remarkable when you think about it.

Now on my third viewing, I noticed this time around how much of the story deals with shades of grey. How much really separates good from evil? A few lines of genetic code separates human from mutant. A swastika is easily reversed into the X of the opening title. America and Russia are portrayed as but two sides of the same coin. And it only takes a small nudge to push Erik over the thin line that separates him from Shaw.

There’s an elegant poetry in that scene, my favourite in the movie. Erik kills Shaw and because of Charles’ psychic link to Shaw, he feels the horrible pain. His long and agonizing scream is possibly more than just physical; it beautifully illustrates how, in that act of base revenge, Erik is hurting Charles as much as he’s hurting Shaw. The tragedy is that Erik becomes the very person he has spent his whole life abhorring. He becomes exactly like Shaw in goal and in method.

There are obviously other things going on, but that was the main thing that struck me on this viewing.

 

 

The Wolverine (2013)
The first positive thing to say about this first solo Woverine movie (no, that other one doesn’t count…no, it doesn’t…SHUT UP) is that it’s beautifully photographed. More than once we’re given some very compelling images to linger on, frames that could be taken out of some illustrated book…like a comic or something. And in every action sequence, there’s never any doubt as to who is where and what the fighters are doing despite how fast it’s all moving. Too many of these films use too many quick cuts to give a false impression of speed, only generating confusion. The Wolverine nicely avoids that trap.

It was nice to see Logan’s trademark gallows humour in full swing. Whether it’s a quirk of personality or a defense mechanism he uses to keep people at arm’s length I’m not really sure, but the character wouldn’t be the same without it.

However, as I reflect on this second viewing, I realize this isn’t the truly definitive exploration of Wolverine’s character that we could have. The arc he’s supposedly given seems a bit muddled, at least to me.

The weak spot is Mariko. Logan has no purpose or direction but has plenty of guilt; he meets and falls in love with Mariko which gives him purpose and ultimately allows him to let go of Jean and thus the guilt. The problem is I never really buy him falling in love with Mariko. It feels contrived and devoid of emotion. Indeed the scene where they suddenly decide to hop into bed comes virtually out of nowhere. In a film that actually passes the Bechdel test and also features a majority non-white cast, having the male lead sleep with the woman he’s reluctantly protecting feels like traditional Hollywood asserting itself. Ultimately, it hurts Wolverine’s character arc, and thus the movie as a whole.

This is one of those times when you can see what could’ve been but isn’t, and it’s a little disappointing. But the movie still manages to be entertaining overall.

 

 

X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014)
For fans and critics alike, the bar for the franchise was pretty much set by X2 back in 2003. Eleven years later…the series more than meets its own standards.

I’m going to come out and say it: this is the equal of Bryan Singer’s previous contribution. It might even surpass it.

The usual superhero stakes are taken to extreme heights: it isn’t just the world or people’s lives but history itself that needs saving. A war spawned by hatred and fear must be stopped before it ever began, and that leads to the element where Days of Future Past truly succeeds. Because it’s the emotional stakes that are higher than they’ve ever been. There’s a saying that if you want peace you must prepare for war. This movie makes the case that in fact you have to stop war from ever being prepared.

For me there are two lynchpin scenes that really ground the story. The first is the beautifully realized moment when Charles meets Charles. James McAvoy proves he can hold his own with Patrick Stewart as the older man, trapped amidst the rubble of a ruined world, actually shines his hope into the younger version of himself. That Xavier can still choose hope even while Sentinels tear down everyone he cares about is powerful. Indeed I think it brings home the fact that it’s Xavier and his dream for a better future — for mutant and human alike — that really holds the whole series together; it’s inspiring and life-giving. And makes for a very moving dialogue between the same character.

The second scene is when the younger Charles, now inspired by that glimpse of a better future, shares his hope with Mystique while she has a gun trained on Trask. He shows her the truth of what she faces: a choice of futures. In the end, what stops the war and saves the world isn’t Logan and isn’t Charles. It’s Mystique and her choice to drop the gun. If you want peace, you must first win the battle over people’s hearts long before they decide to prepare for war. I think Jennifer Lawrence did a great job of selling that inner struggle even through the heavy prosthetics. Which is good because the whole story depends on it.

And of course it’s wonderful to hear John Ottman’s awesome theme again, to admire the intercutting between two climactic battles, and to be awed by the setpiece of Magneto’s prison break. But the emotional force of the characters is what really makes Days of Future Past such a worthy entry in the franchise.

 

 

X-Men: Apocalypse (2016)
When En Sabah Nur (also called Apocalypse) first enters Storm’s living room in Cairo, there’s a clip from an old show playing on the TV. Being an incredible nerd for that show I immediately recognized it as a scene from the Star Trek episode “Who Mourns For Adonais?”. That episode tells of an all-powerful being who was once worshipped as a god and wants to be again. It’s an elegant allusion across geek culture that directly mirrors the scene playing out in Storm’s living room. It speaks to Bryan Singer’s keen eye for subtlety.

So it’s a shame the rest of the movie displays almost no subtlety whatsoever.

I wrote about the emotional force of Days of Future Past. Unfortunately it’s here replaced with brute force. For all his mutant strength and ambition, Apocalypse is a rather unmemorable bad guy. He only wants one thing — absolute naked power — and it’s something he already possesses in spades. So he doesn’t need a scheme or a plot or even other people’s help; if someone has something he doesn’t, he just beats it out of them.

The result is that our heroes have no recourse except to try to punch him. Over and over again. They can’t come up with any clever plan of their own to counter his because he has no clever plan. There’s no battle of wits, no contest of willpower, no moral dilemma or ethical quandary. Just a WWE championship match…and because we know who the heel is, we know who’s going to win before the opening titles roll. It makes for a somewhat dull and plodding film, where the attempts to bring some genuine character arcs end up getting lost.

And don’t get me started on the whole Stryker subplot. That just came out of nowhere and did nothing except give us a useless Wolverine cameo. How that was left in the script is beyond me.

Not that there’s nothing to like. Some very clever and even powerful dialogue comes to mind, including an awesome callback to the last lines of the very first film. But overall, this is the weakest entry since The Last Stand. Harsh judgment, I know. But that’s how I see it.

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In the buildup to the release of Logan, Hugh Jackman’s much-touted swan song as the Wolverine, I decided to rewatch the entire X-Men movie franchise. Reviewing it wasn’t part of the plan, but I found myself spontaneously writing one off-the-cuff for the first film. After that it only seemed fair to do the same for the others. Here they are collected in one place. Spoilers abound, if you need the warning.

 

X-Men (2000)
I wasn’t into it when it first came out like everyone else was. Didn’t even see it in theatres. Of course I’ve come to appreciate it since and I even own the original trilogy on Blu-ray. On every rewatching, I’m always pleasantly surprised to discover that it’s a solidly good film. Expertly crafted and designed with all the right actors and a satisfying script. It’s no surprise that the movie spawned not only its own sequels, but the emergence of superheroes into everyday entertainment.

Key to that ripple effect was Hugh Jackman’s performance as Wolverine. I have a theory that every film franchise needs a “hook” character in order to survive at the box office; that’s really what draws people back. Wolverine is that character and I don’t think anyone would give me an argument!

We meet him through Rogue’s eyes, and the extended introduction tells us just enough to keep us intrigued. He’s clearly tough and macho, but also willing to help a stranger in need; he isn’t sentimental, but he is a good man. The now iconic piece of dialogue (“When they come out, does it hurt?” “Every time.”) along with the rundown camper van manages to suggest his inner pain…but also increases the mystery. Who is this lone wolf that wanders the earth?

It turns out that even he doesn’t really know, and this search is what keeps him moving. And ultimately propels us into the sequel…

 
X2: X-Men United (2003)
Like most sequels, this one goes bigger. Unlike most sequels it isn’t with bigger effects and explosions. Instead it goes bigger with the characters and with the stakes.

Wolverine was undoubtedly the main focus of the first film, and while here his past is the narrative’s primary impetus, there’s a lot more going on. Apropos of the subtitle this is much more of an ensemble piece. Everyone (or almost everyone) has their own little subplot and backstory, sometimes more implied than explicit. And for the most part everyone has very personal motivations for what they do; especially Stryker.

Ultimately, the real villain of the piece is not so much a person as a concept: war against the “other”, against anyone you can make unhuman and different. Both Stryker and Magneto may commit terrible acts–but they do so out of fear of each other and pride in themselves, not true evil. In the end the world stands at a crossroads with the future uncertain. That’s brave territory for a superhero film to explore, and I like it a lot.

And it’s all about the details in this movie. The claw marks on a pillar as Logan walks into the lab where he was ‘made’; the attack on the White House, which is much more about editing and precise shots rather than effects; even Deathstrike’s demise strikes a note of sadness and she doesn’t even get a word of dialogue in the entire film. That’s just sheer craftsmanship. No wonder it’s considered the best of the franchise.

 

X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)
I normally try to find the good in things. That includes books, movies, and other entertainment. Usually the people who produce such things have good intentions and it’s possible for those good intentions to shine through even if the end product fails to satisfy.

This movie has no redeeming qualities whatsoever.

Everything that X2 was, The Last Stand is not. That film gave multiple characters their own little arcs while Wolverine’s story provided the narrative ‘glue’. Here it’s as if there are no characters, only plot devices. People don’t act consistently with how we’ve come to know them, they only act the way the plot needs them to act.

The chief victim of this character assassination is Jean Grey–ironically it happens just as she’s resurrected. While Dark Phoenix is supposed to be one of the greatest storylines in the comics, you’d never know it from this movie. She comes back from the dead as the Phoenix to…literally stand there. And kill a lot of people including Cyclops and Xavier. But mostly just to stand there doing nothing until it’s time for her to die, her minimal service to the plot having apparently been accomplished. Just what that was remains a mystery.

If the overall narrative fails to please, surely there might be at least a few brief moments, lines of dialogue perhaps, where those good intentions can shine? No. Every joke feels contrived and hokey. Every moment that should carry some weight only falls flat. And all of it is about as subtle as the Juggernaut ramming through walls.

The air’s been let out of the balloon on virtually every level. Such a waste.

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My entertainment this holiday season was more or less split into two parts. It was a time to sit down with two of my favourite British cultural icons, Sherlock Holmes and Harry Potter. Let me review the first here; I’ll get to Harry later.

***

Sherlock

First up, I treated myself to the Series 1 Blu-ray of Sherlock, the recent BBC series created by Doctor Who showrunner Steven Moffat and fellow Who writer Mark Gatiss. The buzz was intense because of the names involved and fortunately it more than lives up to the hype. Taking perhaps more risks than most other adaptations, the series transposes the characters to modern-day London…but the riskier the road, the greater the reward, or so some say. Plenty of people are enjoying Sherlock and I’m one of them. In a lot of ways it’s more faithful to the Conan Doyle stories than some actual period pieces. Not the least of these ways is the fact that Watson remains to a large degree our main point of view character; we see the stories through his eyes more often than not, and he allows us to find the human connection next to a rather unpredictable and seemingly psychotic detective. Benedict Cumberbatch plays Sherlock Holmes and Martin Freeman plays John Watson. They can add their names with pride to the long list of those who have portrayed the pair onscreen — and more than that they can elevate them to the level of those who have been the best. January sees the premiere of a further three 90-minute episodes to make Series 2. Don’t miss out.

The Rediscovered Railyway Mysteries, and Other Stories by John Taylor (Read by Benedict Cumberbatch)

A search for some Sherlock Holmes audiobooks turned up this interesting set. John Taylor apparently wrote some Holmesian radio plays for the BBC and has recently returned with some audio-only short stories…read by none other than Benedict Cumberbatch, star of the above-mentioned Sherlock. I obviously couldn’t resist checking them out and found them quite satisfying. Curiously the opening story, “An Inscrutable Masquerade”, has almost nothing to do with the ostensible theme of trains but takes place entirely in the Baker Street apartments. “The Conundrum of Coach 13” involves gold bullion, a locked railway carriage, and Cumberbatch’s rather admirable American accent. “The Trinity Vicarge Larceny” again loses the overall train of thought, but features a very strange set of clues that give off a strong atmosphere of Conan Doyle at his best. The last story, “The 10.59 Assassin”, is probably the best of the four and the murderer is the one you least expect. While none of the stories would be mistaken for a lost adventure the way they and other pastiches claim, they are fun if you’re a fan and nitpickers will find little to complain about. It’s also fun to hear the voice of a current Sherlock Holmes pretending to be Watson, and Benedict Cumberbatch (I will never get tired of typing or saying that name) does a very good job of making you forget that fact.

Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows

A few people seem to have given into Holmes mania this past month, and this movie is probably the reason why. 2009’s Sherlock Holmes gets a sequel that is at least as good as the original, though not necessarily better. I admit this version of Holmes and Watson is not my favourite, but I was probably a bit harsh in my initial review, which was written before a couple more viewings convinced me of what it really was: a fun action adventure that happened to have Sherlock Holmes in it. The plot may be a bit convoluted, but it breaks out in a run and slows down for breath at the appropriate moments, making sure we’re never utterly bored and never utterly lost. Professor Moriarty, a shadowy presence (get it?) in the first film, steps out into the light and reveals himself as Jared Harris who I knew from his guest role on the TV show Fringe. He doesn’t disappoint but gives a grand and show-stealing performance as the infamous Napoleon of Crime. Which is saying something given how many writers can’t resist casting him as the main villain, making it easy for it to fall into hoary cliche. Not this time. And it all builds to a wonderfully suspenseful sequence that is this adaptation’s version of the Reichenbach Falls episode — which manages to elicit a surprised gasp from even this lifelong Holmesian.

The House of Silk by Anthony Horowitz

The press releases proclaim this as the first “officially” authorized Sherlock Holmes story since the death of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, but ignoring the fudged reality that the stories have been in the public domain for quite some time I was still looking forward to this novel. While I can’t say I’ve read many pastiches, I think I’ve read enough to distinguish a good one from a bad one. Pastiches can never hope to quite match the original, but that doesn’t stop authors from trying. And this is perhaps the most successful I’ve ever read. True, it begins with a rather cliched promise that what we are about to read is an account sealed up by Watson because the world was not yet prepared for such a scandal, but when we remember the Victorian Era’s culture it becomes not only easier to accept, but in fact very easy. This also allows there to be a more modern taste of subject matter (the final solution is certainly something Conan Doyle would never publish) without violating the period setting. But the true triumph of the novel is the way Horowitz captures Watson’s voice almost perfectly, and this lends it a background air of sadness which sometimes comes to the foreground. While the plot may be set in the earlier days of the partnership (or at least before Reichenbach) Watson tells us that he is writing the account in his final days — and the sadness comes not just from the passage that muses on Sherlock Holmes’ death after retirement, but that this will be the last time his faithful chronicler puts pen to paper.

***

All of these recent adaptations come highly recommended, whether you’ve followed Holmes and Watson’s adventures for ages or if you’re just a casual mystery fan. I enjoyed myself so much that I’m going to be returning to the original stories for a thorough re-read, hopefully later this year. If you get to 221B Baker Street before me, tell the boys I said hello and that I’m on my way.

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A young man sits for his portrait by a street cartoonist. The artist notes that his subject looks familiar and asks if he’s drawn him before. Finally, he finishes his work and hands the drawing over. “I believe I’ve captured something of your likeness,” he says proudly. And indeed he has, with the perfectly oval head, tiny nose, and dotted eyes — exactly as that artist, Hergé himself, drew him for fifty years. It’s a fitting tribute, even if you can see it coming, and it’s a nice moment for those like me who have followed that young man for a healthy portion of our lives. He is, of course, the trench-coated and tuft-haired boy reporter Tintin.

When I heard that Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson were teaming up to make a movie based on the Tintin comics, I was both nervous and excited. These are two Hollywood demigods we’re talking about, but for me Tintin has been equally sacred. In this age of reinvented heroes, he was getting his one chance at bat. It would take a special touch to do this properly. Fortunately, my fears were all in my head. They have captured something of Tintin’s likeness.

The same magic that was in those comics is undoubtedly in this film. Adventure is still the key word in this story, not action; there are fights and chases galore, but they achieve the desired adrenaline rush from fluidity and suspense rather than quick cutting and confusing angles. Not just humour, but the same sense of humour as Hergé’s comics is present throughout, with a mix of slapstick and wordplay that is charming and genuinely funny. Cartoon physics are on display in virtually every scene, which keeps things light and magical. And most importantly, though the plot is both a mashup of a couple different adventures (primarily The Secret of The Unicorn) and drastically different from either of them, the characters have not been altered in the least. Tintin is still the boy reporter, a title that no other fictional character in the world can lay claim to. He still has the heart of gold and the qualities of an everyman. Captain Haddock steals the show with his quick temper and quicker taste for whiskey. The Thom(p)son twins are the Chaplinesque but dependable comic relief they always were. It’s a joy to see them come to life so fully.

There has been a fair share of “Hollywoodization” to the universe, however, none of which is all that unpleasant. The action scenes especially are plussed beyond even the wildest dreams of James Bond. The major setpiece is a car chase through the streets of fictional Bagghar that never even cuts to a different shot, but swings around as if on some impossible crane and holds its momentum as the audience holds its breath. A bit of the self-analysis that characters in modern films tend to do also creeps in (they say things like “I am like this and you are different in this way and that’s why we work so well together”, as a broad example). But none of it hurts or feels like an injustice against the tone of the original comics.

One of the things that made me nervous about the movie was motion capture CGI. I admit I was slightly prejudiced, since I’ve never seen one these pseudo-animated movies. At first I thought the technology was mainly a shortcut way for live-action directors to make animated movies without having any experience as animators, which feels like cheating to me. But while I still think there’s room for that opinion, the more I think about it the more I think it resembles the time-honoured art form of puppetry. In all the different forms of puppetry, performers manipulate a character through their movements while never appearing onstage themselves. Motion capture is like so many things of the digital age: a high-tech version of something that’s been around for centuries. Some have suggested that it could be used to make entirely human characters that are indistinguishable from filmed actors. Personally, nothing could be more distasteful to me in a movie, but for those projects where a certain stylization is required like The Adventures of Tintin, it seems to be an interesting technique.

And the way they have translated the faces of the original characters is outstanding. Tintin’s face is still honest and open and shows his earnest love of adventure. Captain Haddock’s has the necessary careworn weariness of a seadog combined with a kind of childlike quality. Perhaps the only stumbling block the movie makes in this regard is the Thompsons. I felt their expressions in the movie were a little too dumbfounded compared to the way Hergé drew them. It’s their nature to be dumbfounded of course, but their faces always had a confidence that told you they were completely unaware of their own haplessness. But it’s a relatively minor quibble in a film full of positives.

Over the many years that I’ve read Tintin, one sequence has always been a highlight: the flashback scene in The Secret of The Unicorn where Captain Haddock recounts the story of his ancestor’s battle with the pirate Red Rackham. There have been many times when I’ve gone back to just read those few pages again. The excitement just flows from panel to panel and displays the real power of comics. To my surprise, the movie matches that power almost completely. Using the language of cinematic movement and the unique style that animation affords, the excitement still flows gracefully and more than a couple of transitions are simply stunning. And imagine my delight when my favourite dialogue exchange between Tintin and Haddock involving a bottle of rum was kept word for word. I could have jumped and down with glee if it wouldn’t have been so embarrassing in a public place.

Surely you don’t need me to say anything more about this movie? I’ve gushed over it enough for a lifetime. If you have no idea who Tintin is or what this movie is about, there are worse introductions to these fantastic stories. If your copies of the books are falling apart like some of mine are, you have your wish come true: a chance to meet once more your old friends and follow them on a brand new, faithful adventure.

“How’s your thirst for adventure, Captain?” says the boy reporter with a smile to his new friend. The reply comes with a look towards the horizon.

“Unquenchable, Tintin…”

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It’s 1979. Four boys are busy making an amateur zombie film with their Super 8 camera and plenty of ambition. Joe, in charge of makeup and sound, struggles to reconnect with his father after his mother’s death and come to terms with the fact that she’s no longer in his life. But when the guerilla moviemakers sneak out to the train station for a night shoot, they’re witnesses to a train wreck that unleashes a mysterious creature into their small town.

That summary gives the boring bare bones of a story which, despite treading safely in conventional territory, manages to find a heart and soul in its script, its style, and most importantly its lead actors. If you’ve read any of the professional reviews of Super 8, you’ve seen the majority of critics compare it favourably with the early films of Steven Spielberg. With Spielberg not only given a producer credit, but also responsible for cooking up the story with writer/director J.J. Abrams, that’s perhaps only to be expected. The film contains strong echoes of both Close Encounters of The Third Kind and E.T., with a little dash of Jaws thrown in for good measure.

But the last label this movie deserves is “derivative”. J.J. Abrams, himself a rising star in Hollywood much like Spielberg was all those years ago, has more than his fair say in the story–he does after all have sole writing credit on the script. And more than a few sequences, such as a spectacularly overdone (and exciting) train crash, bear Abrams’ style. Not to mention the infamous lens flares, which are mercifully far less distracting and annoying than they were in Star Trek; one of them even adds a nice flavour to the final shot.

Where the movie truly stands out, however, is the performances. And the fact that these fine actors are in their early teens only makes it more impressive. Joel Courtney plays Joe Lamb with such naturalness and honesty that it’s hard to imagine him playing any other role. He has great chemistry with Alice Dainard (played by Elle Fanning, younger sister of Dakota), who also holds her own to become more than just the love interest of the picture–a feat that can’t be pulled off by some actresses twice her age or older. The supporting cast of Joe’s friends aren’t given much to do besides crack jokes (good ones), but they mostly succeed in finding the balance between individuality of their characters and the unity of their friendship. They are truly an inseparable gang and you get the feeling that when they grow up they won’t lose touch with each other.

The film has a serious side as well, with Joe having to deal with the grief for his mother and a father (the deputy sheriff of the town) who doesn’t understand him or what he’s doing making a monster movie. Though it does veer slightly into cliche with those scenes, this is where the story performs an admirable tightrope walk. That element of the plot is given all the necessary dramatic weight, but no more; to give it any more would be an exercise in sappiness that would be painful for the audience. Just when you think the conventional motions are going to spill over into pure movie cheese, the scene stops at the right moment and you’re back to the monster storyline.  It needs to be admitted, however, that it also has what I feel to be the movie’s major weak point. Here we delve a little into SPOILER MATERIAL. But given that most viewers will see it coming a mile away purely because it’s expected to happen, it’s probably not much of a spoiler to say that Joe’s father has an eventual change of heart towards his son. But what we are waiting to see is how that happens. We don’t really get much of answer. We see the moment when his actions speak of the turning point, but how his thoughts and feelings lead him there is left untold. It’s unfortunate, and given the trajectory he goes through in the plot and the fact that he has no one to really talk to about it both prevent the medium from exploring it fully. On the other hand, it’s not the father’s story so maybe it’s appropriate to not see more of the shift. END SPOILERS.

A brief, unspoilery word on the film’s ending. A few have commented negatively on it, thinking that there should be more. I disagree. If you stop and think about it as you leave the theatre, what else is there to tell? With a couple of hugs and a holding of hands we are shown all we need to of the emotional storylines, and perhaps all we care to if we’re to avoid cliche. Like Spielberg at his best (and particularly in the above examples of his ouevre), the film ends at what it wants us to remember–the highest emotional point. It leaves us before the plot has a chance to deaden our reaction with a needless denouement. Michael Giacchino is given the chance to let his score carry a largely wordless conclusion and a beautiful final shot, ending on a lovely gracenote of hope and satisfaction.

Super 8 is a wonderful antidote if you’re feeling a little tired of the loudness and obviousness of the average summer blockbuster. Character-oriented and with a good dose of humour, it could stand as evidence that perhaps your plot isn’t what makes a story successful–it’s the way you tell it.

Hurry and see it in theatres before it gets pulled. If you do miss it, make sure you grab hold of the disc when it comes out. And stay a moment when the end credits begin to roll. There’s a nice little surprise waiting for those who do.

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The side of a wooden crate fills the frame. White painted letters beside helpful directional arrows read “This Way Up”. Then the camera angle moves–downwards. Suddenly, the ground and the sky have shifted positions. Robert Downey, Jr. in Victorian clothes chases a big bruiser near the harbour. They’re running upside-down. The camera dances and whirls through the air in a misguided attempt to make running look interesting, arighting itself in the process. The crate was not sitting in the sky. The camera fooled us, making us believe (if only for an instant) that the laws of nature had been rewritten. But if you think about it carefully, we were actually fooled twice. Because for the words on the crate to be read the way we did, with the camera on its head, the crate itself had to be placed upside-down. The rule of which way was meant to go up was dutifully noted, dutifully demonstrated…and then conveniently ignored.

We live in an age of remakes. We seem to enjoy “new and improved” versions of stories we have long known and loved. And not just any stories, but heroic stories. Comic book superheroes have dominated the theatres for almost a decade now. The retelling of legends, it turns out, is quite popular these days. Sometimes the attempt is made to remain faithful to the source material. Sometimes everything is turned completely on its ear. A new word has entered our vocabulary: Reimagined. The reason behind this phenomenon is not something I’m prepared to guess at, but the word does interest me. What need is there to reimagine what has already been imagined? Surely once is enough. Especially when it has the longevity of one of the greatest detectives who never lived.

“What a busy afterlife you’re having,” says Sherlock Holmes to the apparently resurrected villain Lord Blackwood. The same could be said of Holmes himself, not to mention Watson. The pair long ago achieved apotheosis from fictional characters to popular icons. As such, a steady stream of novels, short stories, plays, films, radio dramas, comic books, computer games, and virtually every other medium you can think of has been flowing ever since the publication of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s original tales. The latest screen incarnation stars Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law and is directed by Guy Ritchie. Many people involved with the film have claimed in interviews that the film is a return to the spirit of the original tales. And I don’t doubt that they read them.

But they must have been reading them upside-down.

I can easily point to a dozen references to elements of the original stories in the movie, including lines by Holmes himself (“My mind rebels at stagnation”; “It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has any data”; “Crime is common, logic is rare”). But everything feels twisted somehow, as if its all been taken out of context just for the sake of working it in to please purist critics. A prime example: At one point in the film Holmes says to Watson: “You have the grand gift of silence, Watson. It makes you quite invaluable as a companion.” In the original story (“The Man With The Twisted Lip”, in case you were wondering) it is meant as a genuine compliment on Watson’s ability to not interfere with Holmes’s train of thought when he needs to concentrate. In the movie…Watson just punches Holmes in the nose. Granted, he may have deserved it with the way he was acting towards Watson’s fiancee, but instead of being funny as intended, it just comes off as juvenile. In fact, the entire movie treads a fine line between pastiche and parody that occasionally left me wondering what the point of the whole stunt even was. I was also, unlike several other people I’ve spoken to, unconvinced by the portrayal of Victorian London. I’ve read too much of the period’s literature to be taken in by a couple of horse-drawn carriages and some cobblestone streets. Sherlock Holmes above almost all other literary creations is an icon of his period. The production design was beautiful, but it failed to mesh with much of the 21st century style dialogue. In one scene Watson calls Holmes an “old cock” (a common slang term at the time), and I had to laugh at the ridiculous strain to be Victorian and modern at the same time; it’s yet another tightrope walk that the movie doesn’t quite succeed in.

Ultimately, though, it’s difficult to remain too upset at the sea-changes of this version. After all, the aforementioned stream of adaptations has produced even quirkier knock-offs. And I wasn’t too surprised at some of the choices made. A number of them have been done before. Pitting the master of rationality against primitive supernatural forces that turn out to be not quite what they seem? Check. A plot involving Freemasons (thinly disguised)? Check. Irene Adler and Holmes in a complicated love affair? Check. For a film that is meant to be a fresh take on the characters, it’s surprisingly unoriginal.

To segue from such a scathing backhanded compliment to calling the film a diverting if unmemorable bit of fun is a bit too difficult for me to really pull off, so I might as well jump right in: The film was a diverting if unmemorable bit of fun. Once I realized that Holmes and Watson weren’t being messed with any more than usual, I was able to sit back and enjoy a relatively entertaining action-adventure movie. I’ve certainly seen worse in my time. In fact, when it was over, I almost regretted that they had used Sherlock Holmes for it. I probably would have enjoyed it even more if they had just come up with an original character, styling him as an homage to the many detectives of Victorian literature including Holmes.

The characters are but pale imitations of the original. The period setting is not so much evoked as it is given a modernized gloss. But ultimately, “Sherlock Holmes” is quite harmless, and not worth the vitriol I was prepared (and indeed, I admit, had started) to throw at it. It may not be as faithful an adaptation of Conan Doyle as I could wish, but it also isn’t as unfaithful as it first appears. It’s fun, it’s a good excuse to enjoy some popcorn, and not a bad choice if you’re at a party and people want to watch a movie.

But it also seems to be driving me closer towards the original stories, towards a warm fire on a foggy London night, towards two characters who have become almost as real to me as my closest friends. If you’ll excuse me, I must pay a call to Baker Street…

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