Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Review: "The Leisure Seeker" is a highlight for Mirren and Sutherland.

The Leisure Seeker Review

I have had a few relatives who suffered from Alzheimer’s and watching the mind of someone you love and care for slowly deteriorate is hard to watch. I wouldn’t wish that for anyone’s family, even my worst enemy. Any disease that plagues us as we begin to get old is tough, and I wouldn’t want that for anyone. It’s already hard getting old in general, so the thought of a disease coming along and forcing us to forget things we desperately need to hold onto, it sounds terrible. It is terrible.

There have been many movies about the subject. There have been good movies, tearful movies, and movies that use the subject to make tearful movies. There have been enough of these movies that some tropes and norms within the genre. “The Leisure Seeker” features Donald Sutherland as John and Helen Mirren as Ella. They have been married for many, many years. They have remained at each other’s side for that amount of time. They had two wonderful kids, those kids became adults. They’ve had an entire life together. Sadly, that life is slowly coming to a close. John is having trouble with his memories. They come and go. John is slowly falling victim to Alzheimer’s. Ella decides to take John on a trip that they’ve talked about for quite some time. She takes him cross country from Pennsylvania to Florida to see Ernest Hemingway’s house. They take their prized Winnebago called The Leisure Seeker.

Their kids wouldn’t let them do that if they knew, so Ella sneaks them out without telling them. Oh, ho, ho. Yes, it’s all part of the comedy. There are some big laughs along the way too. The laughs land a little harder because both Mirren and Sutherland are so charming. Yes, there are some other players in the movie, but it’s pretty much steered, literally and figuratively, by both Mirren and Sutherland and they make an adorable elderly couple. It’s pretty hard for either of them to give a bad performance.

What’s both amazing and incorrigible is that he movie adheres to the formula these movies create. Yes, John brings up an old boyfriend of Ella’s, even though he was out of the picture way after they were married. There are some burping and peeing jokes. There are some ongoing jokes about underwear. It comes to light that someone cheats. There is a robbery that goes wary thanks to the old folks. John drives off without Ella, leaving her stranded at a gas station. These are all tired jokes, things we’ve seen before a hundred times. The thing is, I wasn’t bored as I watched the movie. There is a reason why Mirren’s work in was recognized by the Golden Globes. Not only is she adorable in this movie, but there are moments that are wounded, and she hits every beat. Ella slowly begins to see that if she passes away, John won’t understand what happened to her, and that’s more than she can bare. It’s startling work at times, but very human. Sutherland is so funny through most of the film, and there is a genuine sweetness to his performance here, so much so that I nearly applauded.

Here’s another thing, the movie clearly wants to try and jerk some tears out of you. But I have to admit, that I never got weepy. I hope that says something. Because even though no matter how much of a manly man I feel I am, I am a big softy when it comes to movies. I never even felt close to shedding a tear during this. The movie plays more like a comedy, and there are several laughs throughout the entire movie. The ending is rather predictable, and I heard many people say that the ending was sad and that it even bummed a few people out. I am not sure how this movie will affect me as I get older. Perhaps if I see this again in about fifty years, it will have an entirely different meaning for me.

“The Leisure Seeker” plays predictable and obvious pretty much throughout. There isn’t a moment in this film that I feel will surprise you. I did like that the movie plays more for laughs instead of being a tearjerker. Mirren and Sutherland are pretty close to perfect here, and you can forgive most of the absurdities of the story because they make you buy into the films premise. There are plenty of things to like in this movie. If this is your first Alzheimer’s film, this might end up being your favorite. It’s slight entertainment for sure, but still entertaining nonetheless.

"The Leisure Seeker" will be released on March 9th.


Monday, February 26, 2018

Review: "Mute" is equal parts beautiful and brilliant, also wrong-headed and wary.

Mute Review

If there was one name that got me excited almost a decade ago for science fiction, it was Duncan Jones. He exploded on the scene, at a moment notice, not really giving any sort of warning, and he changed a genre that really hadn’t been treated with respect in a long time. The first time I had heard the name was for a 2009 film called “Moon.” It had many parallels to Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.” But, Jones clearly took some similarities and made a movie which entirely belongs to him. There were moments I never saw coming and that’s always exciting. In 2011, he made “Source Code,” again he put a stellar cast together. Again, he was dabbling in science fiction. Again, it felt like he was borrowing from other movies, but he made it his own and featured some story beats that I didn’t see coming. Yes, he directed the corporate fodder “WarCraft” but even the best of the business has dark spots in their careers and sometimes you can’t totally trust somebody who has never failed.

Over the weekend, Netflix released Duncan Jones’ new film “Mute.” Again, Duncan Jones has brought together a great cast including Alexander Skarsgard, Paul Rudd and Justin Theroux. Much like his previous films, you can see other parallels to other films. There has already been many comparisons to “Blade Runner 2049.” But I am not sure I quite understand that one. Sure, both films take place in the future. Sure, both films are incredibly gorgeous to look at, but honestly, that’s where the similarities stop. I guess Ryan Gosling and Alexander Skarsgard’s characters are similar; silent, somber, brooding heroes. Skarsgard plays Leo. As a child, his throat was damaged in a freak accident, taking away his ability to speak. He’s grown up not ever uttering a word, but he’s still found love in Naadirah, played by Seyneb Saleh. They both work at a club together, and they are both very much in love. After one night, she’s being heckled by some assholes, and its Leo who steps in and stops them. Then the next day, she’s gone. Without a trace and Leo doesn’t even know where to look.

For a huge portion of the movie, there seems to be an entirely separate story going on involving Cactus Bill (Paul Rudd) and Duck (Justin Theroux). They are partners, best friends, maybe lovers. (I could never figure out if they were romantically involved, experimenting with their sexuality, or just weird friends. The movie does very little to explain this). They work as surgeons who work on people for the local mob. Cactus Bill is saving money to get from Berlin (where the film takes place) to the United States, and he needs his boss to forge documents for him and his daughter (further confusing the matter of Duck and Bill’s relationship).

Cactus Bill is connected to a man that attacked Naadirah in the opening moments of the film, and eventually Leo and Cactus Bill will run into each other. But honestly, I can’t go any further. I am never one to get into the way of spoilers. Of course there are some big reveals, this is a Duncan Jones movie. There are going to be big reveals. I am just not sure if those reveals were enough to save the movie from some of its pitfalls.

First of all, again, the film is gorgeous. This is a breath-taking look at the future. There are futuristic buildings, vehicles and technology has taken over most aspects of life, you have to be careful walking into a strip club, because the dancers may or may not be human beings. There are some things that are clever. There are things that made me laugh. Heck, I may watch the movie again just to soak up every detail that Jones packs into the film. Perhaps that is why there are so many comparisons to “Blade Runner,” there are designs that feel connected to that world.

People unable to speak seem like hard characters to play. I think Alexander Skarsgard deserves some massive credit for bringing together a character that comes to life with facial expressions and body language. He is a fully realized character here, and he feels real. Never does he feel like he’s overacting. Never does he feel artificial. It’s a wonderful performance. I would also say that Justin Theroux does some very good work in this movie too. I think he’s gone pretty underappreciated his entire career and this is just another precious performance by the guy. I like Paul Rudd, but he’s mostly a funny guy. There are some funny moments here that he nails, but Cactus Bill is mostly a serious role. It’s become clear that Rudd is not a jack-of-all-trades and there are some moments that do fall flat.

The thing is, it seems like Duncan Jones gave himself too much, he bit off more than he could chew here. I like the idea of a mute man going on a roaring rampage of revenge. But that’s not quite what happens here. The two stories between Leo and Cactus Bill are so different that they feel like they belong in different movies. They stay separate, despite a few faint whispers, for most of the running time. When the big reveal is brought to life, it nearly feels like a cop-out. Nearly. I think there is just enough development and exposition for it to land, I just don’t think it was nurtured to the point that would make the audience jaw drop. What’s also a little crazy is how the movie limps on for another fifteen minutes after the big finish. There is a moment that is ripe for a good ending, but the movie moves forward when it really doesn’t need to.

If you saw “Moon” in 2009, then you’ll notice Sam Rockwell in various moments in the film. In fact, you may catch more than one of him in one scene. If you know “Moon,” you know what that means. Even though this is billed as a “spiritual sequel” to “Moon” I am not sure I’d call it that. This is a completely different movie with a moneyshot included. The Sam Rockwell cameo doesn’t connect or move the film in any significant way. It’s just kind of there, and while I am sure “Moon” fans get a kick out of it, it’s really not needed. But alas, everybody is getting into the shared universe business. I knew it would happen. Why would Duncan Jones be any different?

Netflix has made it clear that they are trying to do more as a media platform then just buy independent films from festivals and give them wider releases. They are really trying to be a huge player each cinematic calendar year. “Bright,” “The Cloverfield Paradox” and now “Mute” have proven that they are very much trying to play the mainstream blockbuster game. So far, they’ve been mediocre at best, terrible at worst. For Netflix, its all about how many people click on a new release and watch it which they base their success on. It doesn’t matter if the audience openly likes the movie or not. “Bright” isn’t getting a sequel because it was popular with people, its getting a sequel because Netflix read their data and found out lots of people watched it. Netflix is running a risk of being a platform where studios will dump their junk on, and that’s not exactly what I hoped for within the company. I hope they base their decisions on a balance of creativity and monetary gain. “Mute” has its moments, its just a huge mess of a movie throughout much of its running time. I don’t want just pretty messes, I want movies that will make an impact on me. They can do better.


Road To Infinity War: Ten Years of Marvel (Part Eight- "Thor: The Dark World" 2013)

Road To Infinity War: Ten Years of Marvel

Part Eight

Thor: The Dark World

After “Iron Man 3,” came the next sequel to our favorite god from Asger, “Thor: The Dark World” I initially enjoyed when I saw in November of 2013. If you read my original review, you’ll see that when I pondered if it would be as good as the first “Thor,” I honestly didn’t know. I got the Blu-ray for “Thor: The Dark World” fairly early upon its release, and I’ve watched it a couple of times, but not nearly as much as other movies in either phase of the MCU. I did notice that as I watched it again last night, that I was actually getting impatient with the movie, and I don’t think it moves at quite the same pace as its predecessor after repeat viewings. I still the action scenes are better in “Thor: The Dark World,” and I still think Chris Hemsworth is much looser here than in the first “Thor” films and even “The Avengers.” But there are some nitpicks that continue to nitpick at me, and I think after seeing the film a couple of times, I can articulate them better.

Overall, I still think “Thor: The Dark World” is still a really good movie. I think it feels more like an adventure compared to the last film. I think they upped the action in this sequel and I feel the upped the stakes a little bit more. There is going to be an ongoing debate over the tone of the overall MCU, but I will argue any day that not all of these movies are exclusively for children, and those DC fanboys and general naysayers are genuinely not paying attention. It’s ironic that the caption for this film is “The Dark World,” because the story is more serious in tone, much like “Iron Man 3.” Not only is the film’s main villain trying to destroy the universe in a brutally dark way, but Thor’s evil brother Loki ends up on the Asgardian throne without ever letting anybody know he’s done it. There is kind of a bleak ending to things, and we’ll elaborate on a little bit more on this in future installments, but I definitely think that they did a good job balancing the usual marvel swashbuckling humor with some darker turns in the story. Between Algrim’s transformation as Kurse as well as Thor losing a hand, there is still some material that is completely suitable for children. I would also say that the few battle scenes, which aren’t nearly is scary as in “Iron Man 3” are a little rough and may not be suitable for children, but parents that’s up to you.

Some of the big flaws in the movie include how the film is structured. Personally, I would have loved a whole series of Thor movies just dealing with threats to the nine realms. I would have loved a trilogy of movies that moved him across all nine of the realms, fighting all sorts of colorful, crazy monsters. I would have loved to have seen The Warrior’s Three and Lady Sif fleshed out more. I would have loved to see an MCU version of Bolder and other characters in the Thor stable. One thing I loved about Wakanda was that it was mostly a Wakanda-specific story. Yes, they take slight detours to other places, but the action stays exclusively in Wakanda, and it becomes a real place even though its fictional. In the early days of superhero movies, and you still see this today, there is always a need to bring the action to Earth. While I love seeing other places within the nine realms and Thor’s mythology here, the detours to Earth really slow the action down. Yes, I get it, they had Natalie Portman on the payroll, but that doesn’t mean it’s a good CREATIVE decision. You saw it in “Green Lantern” in 2011, you saw it on “Inhumans” last fall, you saw it in the cheesy “He-Man” movie and probably others I refuse to remember. Every time someone tries to adapt a weirder character, they HAVE to bring the action to Earth, in order to make things, I don’t know, less weird?

It’s an extra problem because nothing much of consequence or excellence happened on Earth, aside from the film’s climax. Natalie Portman is great, no doubt about it, but she wasn’t giving anything to do here. She proved in the first film that she could be a provocative, smart Jane Foster, here she’s just the damsel-in-distress. I am no fan of Kat Dennings, and I found her character Darcy to be boring, tedious and frankly not needed. I never really realized how much the character annoyed me once I rewatched the first two “Thor” movies, but I am glad she didn’t end up in “Ragnarok” and I hope to god I never have to see her again, and they totally wasted Chris O’Dowd by giving him a throwaway cameo role instead of something significant.

In speaking of wasted characters, after the first two “Iron Man” movies, we really began to see a long list of wasted villains starting with “Thor: The Dark World.” As I stated in my review of “Black Panther” a few weeks ago, the villains can be just as marketable as the heroes. The MCU has got much mileage out of Loki. Comic books have a history of reusing villains at an alarming rate, and its commonplace to see villains more than once in the world of comic books. So why does the MCU choose to kill so many of them off? Christopher Eccleston has a knack for creating great villains, and I think, despite the predictable and safe plot, he does a really good job bringing Malekith The Accursed to life. Eccleston has always turned characters in gold, and he’s no different here. I also really liked Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje as Kurse, and I can’t stand that they gave him so little dialogue and so little to do, because Akinnuoye-Agbaje is great in everything he does. I would have loved to have seen these characters a bit more fleshed out, and when it comes to MCU’s villains, I am going to sound like a broken record in that regard.

I know, I know I probably sound grumpy. I don’t mean too, I am not trying to act like “Thor: The Dark World” is a bad movie. I still really enjoyed it. I think Hemsworth still has the charisma of a god. I love that Stellan Skarsgard’s Erik Selvig was so beloved by fans. I like Skarsgard, and I enjoyed him in every movie he’s been in. Selvig was an original creation for the first “Thor” movie. Then Skarsgard kept returning and returning, and continued to have meaningful parts in these MCU movies. Now, in the mainstream Marvel comic universe, Erik Selvig has become a character. That’s pretty cool. I think they do a good job of really balancing the more serious story threads with some quirky Thorish humor. It’s kind of a sad movie. Frigga, Thor’s mother played by Rene Russo dies. We believe Loki dies after a moment of grace and characters are constantly in danger, but that makes the more humorous moments count more. There are good transitions here.

“Thor: The Dark World” also really introduced the big story thread that the franchise would be chasing from 2013 until the present. When Thanos was introduced during the mid-credit scene at the end of “The Avengers,” I got pretty giddy, but I had no idea what Marvel was planning. For some reason, the idea of the Infinity Gauntlet, which was so tied to Thanos in the comics, never crossed my mind. I can’t tell you why, but it never occurred to be in the slightest. So, when Benicio Del Toro’s The Collector shows up, rambling about Infinity Stones, that got me even more excited. I put two things together and the possibilities became extra exciting. In just a few short months, we will see how well Marvel can payoff this hefty risk of a storytelling device, it’s certainly been crazy since “Thor: The Dark World.”

I continued to really like The Warrior’s Three. I think Ray Stevenson was perfectly cast as Volstagg, and it gelled better than I expected. I can’t really say who I prefer between Joshua Dallas or Zachary Levi for Fandral, but I think Levi certainly did some memorable stuff with the character that I really liked. I like Tadanobu Asano as Hogun, but I never feel like he was given much to do, in any movie. I think Anthony Hopkins always really enjoyed working on these films. He seemed to relish every line. He was never afraid to ham it up. He really went over the moon on playing with the Shakespearean lingo of some of it. Anytime Thor or Loki or another character says something Odin disagrees with, I love his little laugh. I truly believe Hopkins loved doing this.

I truly don’t hate the movie, but I think “Thor: Ragnarok” really highlighted the flaws of the first two movies, and did a good job of perfecting those flaws.

Does anybody else wonder whatever happened to that frost monster at the end of the credits? Is it still running around London?

Next week, we’ll take a look at my favorite MCU film.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Road To Infinity War: Ten Years of Marvel (Part Seven- "Iron Man 3" 2013)

Road To Infinity War: Ten Years of Marvel

Part Seven

Iron Man 3

After “The Avengers” blew up the year before, we were treated to another round of personal adventures with our favorite mighty heroes. Lots of people were concerned at the time if the other movies would feel pale in comparison to “The Avengers,” but for me, that wasn’t the case. I had read comics for many years prior to this project, so I personally knew how this worked. I knew that superheroes teamed up, then they split, and they teamed up and then they split. Rinse and repeat. I was curious to see how general audiences without all things comics knowledge would feel about this. I am sure there were some naysayers in the field, but overall, it seemed like regular moviegoers were okay with it, as “Iron Man 3” made a mint at the box office. So, it seemed like Marvel’s ever-growing experiment was still going to pay off.

We have now officially caught up with my writings. The year 2013 marked the first year I started my blog. I grew up watching “Siskel & Ebert At the Movies” then when Siskel passed away, I kept watching “Ebert & Roeper At the Movies.” I read every single Roger Ebert review, every single one I could get my hands on. I collected his movie yearbooks. He was the first critic who truly showed me that film criticism was worth something, that it mattered. That it could be taken seriously. He taught me that movies were true pieces of art, not just mindless entertainment after a long week. My love of movies grew bigger than it ever had been. Sure, there were several online voices who taught me that you didn’t need a bachelor’s in journalism in order to write movies, you just needed an internet connection and a way with words. They certainly pushed me to write. But Roger Ebert was very special to me, one of those people who shaped my life without even realizing he did it. When he passed away, it left a hole. I was determined to not care if I didn’t have a writing degree. Before this blog, I used to write movie reviews on Xanga, Myspace and Facebook. It was something I always wanted to do. In my circle of friends, I’m the movie nerd. It was Ebert’s death that finally made me realize that my voice could be part of the mix, even if I only got two readers, I was determined to write.

If you’re interested, you can read my original review of “Iron Man 3” right here.. I had recently began collecting all the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies, so while I had “Iron Man 3” in the house, I hadn’t watched since my first viewing up until last Sunday night. I was dreading it, because although I did overall enjoy the movie, it was one of those movies I just didn’t return to for pleasure. I was jaded by the few key disappointments the movie left for me. It’s amazing how viewing something after years away, removed from all the hype, can totally change how you process a movie. Sunday night felt like I was watching a new movie for the very first time. I should have known this. I am generally one of those guys who give movies second chances, just to see if I enjoy them more after some time away, and I have to say I found “Iron Man 3” much more enjoyable watching it years later.

One thing that we really don’t see in superhero movies is the human toll on some of the least spectacular characters, and I found that aspect of “Iron Man 3” much more relevant this time around compared to my first viewing. Much of the movie deals with Tony Stark’s PTSD, how badly he was affected flying that nuke into space, passing through that wormhole and seeing the other side of space near the end of “The Avengers.” Tony Stark isn’t like Captain America, who trained to be a soldier. He isn’t like Thor, who grew up fighting on many battlefields. He isn’t like Black Widow or Hawkeye, who have seen lots of action as field agents for S.H.I.E.L.D. Even though he has much more control of his behavior compared to, say, The Hulk, the toll it takes on him emotionally very much parallels Banner’s feelings. Even though Banner may have better control over his feelings. At least, a few of them. There where are a couple moments in “Iron Man 3” when it feels like Tony might just be taken to an emergency room. Dealing with humanity in the eve of all of this spectacle made things feel real.

“Iron Man 3” is also a movie about the demons we create. That age-old rule your mother or father probably told you about. How we always have to watch what we say or how we act towards colleagues or even strangers. Because even though there is seven billion people on this planet, the world is small. It’s amazing how, even in my own life, how I run into people I never thought I’d see again. People come and go in our lives, and its strange how some do pop back into our lives, so its always important we keep in mind how we are treating those around us. That plays right into the opening scene. A scene featuring the one-hit wonder by Eiffel 65. A scene where Jon Favreau’s Vince Vega “Pulp Fiction” garb still makes me snicker. A scene where Tony Stark meets Rebecca Hall’s Maya Hensen and Guy Pierce’s Aldrich Killian. Killian is a timid, injured man who invited Stark to his think tank entitled Advanced Idea Mechanics. Knowing the comics, I did get a little gitty. Stark tells Killian that he will talk to him about his company, but he ends up sticking him up for a night with Hensen, another person he just drops after a one night stand. That night is really important going forward in the film.
Then we pick up in present day. Stark is now reeling from the events of “The Avengers.” What defines Tony Stark as a character throughout all of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is that he is constantly trying to right wrongs he feels responsible for, while also keeping those he loves out of harm’s way. He chooses to be Iron Man because missiles with his name on them are causing unwanted destruction on innocence around the world. He chooses to fight with The Avengers once Loki killed a good friend of his. Now in “Iron Man 3,” he’s tired of the fighting, and he’s got a huge suit build-up. He’s working on technology that will allow him to control the suits without him being in them. He’s tired of putting people in harm’s way, but he knows his inner demons are taking a toll on him, so why not remove him from danger while still being Iron Man. Plus, he’s so worried about Pepper Potts that he wants to be closer to her. Potts can’t adjust to the gods, the rage monsters, the aliens, the superpowers, the weird villains. She doesn’t want to adjust, she doesn’t feel the need to adjust and Tony doesn’t can’t ask her to adjust.

Not to mention, there is a new tech-savvy terrorist named The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) who is beginning to attack the free world like crazy. In 2013, I knew for a fact that The Mandarin we would be getting in the movie would be vastly different from his comic book counterpart. Iron Man was created in the midsts of the Vietnam War. So, in Tony Stark’s original origin, he captured by The Viet Kong. In 2013, Vietnam isn’t the enemy anymore, but Middle Eastern terrorists are. So, in the first movie, Stark is captured by modern terrorists. The Mandarin was a wacky character in the comics, and yes, slightly racist. I was blown away that Paramount even decided to go with him as a villain in the movies. But they did, and they got Ben Kingsley to play him. So, I was expecting big things. I have to say that even all these years later, I am still not a huge fan of the Mandarin twist in the middle of the movie. I am sure that those not familiar with the villain found the twist clever and unpredictable. But I think the obsessive-compulsive need to ground Iron Man in reality hurt this third chapter. In the comics, The Mandarin had power rings, one for each finger. Hence, the name of the terrorist organization that kidnaps Stark in the first film. In a world that has always established super soldiers, gods, aliens and wormholes, would it really be so weird to feature a villain with power rings?

This also leads to the biggest problem with the “Iron Man” trilogy in general. It’s really the only trilogy in the whole Marvel Cinematic Universe where each film just merely treads water. The first “Iron Man” is about a jealous billionaire getting back at Tony for his accomplishments, and using outside forces to do so. “Iron Man 2” is about a jealous billionaire getting back at Tony for his accomplishments, and using outside forces to do so. Finally, “Iron Man 3” is about a jealous billionaire getting back at Tony for his accomplishments, and using outside forces to do so. Out of all the trilogies in the MCU, it’s the most disappointing because it’s the least ambitious. I guess Marvel thought they could just coast on Robert Downey Jr’s charm. Iron Man is a rich character, and I wish they gave him more to do in his own movies.

There is a compliant by hardcore DC fanboys that makes me laugh out loud. It’s when they say they can’t connect with Marvel films because they are for kids. Simple. Sincere. Totally untrue. Yes, the Marvel movies know they are movies, and they aren’t afraid to wink at the audience. But solely for children? No. So, does every superhero movie have to be a clone of “The Dark Knight” in order to be relevant now? There is much content scattered throughout the MCU that is suggestive towards children, and we will discuss this as we go. There isn’t lots of action in “Iron Man 3,” but the action in this movie is brutal. The attack on the Chinese Theater in “Iron Man 3” is brutal, freaky, and something that would scare children. The way extremis works is enough to give children of a certain age nightmares. There isn’t much Iron Man in the movie at all, its more of a movie about how Tony has come this far in this story, and it’s a deeply personal movie. A movie that forces Tony out of his comfort zone as Iron Man, and I’m not sure that’s something kids look for in their superhero movies. Not everything in the MCU is for children, and I think “Iron Man 3” is about the last movie you introduce to your children.

I was glad that Shane Black was able to let loose on a movie of his. Whether you recognize the name or not, you know who Shane Black is. He gain momentum in the 1990’s for his scripts “Lethal Weapon,” “The Last Boy Scout,” “Last Action Hero” and “The Long Kiss Goodnight.” No matter what you think of any of those movies above, because of a middle man director getting in the way, ALL of the movies listed above are watered down versions of what Black wrote. As I watch “Iron Man 3,” it seems there is more “Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang” in “Iron Man 3,” the first movie Black both wrote and directed and also starred Robert Downey Jr. The humor matches that movie, as well as the tone and style of “Iron Man 3.” There is still lots of Black in it, which I ultimately enjoyed. I enjoyed better than I did six years ago, but it will still be a Marvel movie I watch the least for pleasure.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Review: "Like Me" is...like...really lame.

Like Me Review

The trailers for this movie were really haunting, and really cool. That's my only explanation for giving this film a chance. The trailers featured imagery that we rarely see in movies, if at all, and I was totally drawn in. That's my best excuse. I like to champion independent cinema whenever I can, simply because it doesn't get a fair shake compared to the blockbusters, which we don't get too many good ones anyway. I like experimental cinema when its done right, I never mind exposing a piece of myself to a movie, I don't mind discussing and thinking about what images and scenes meant, that's part of the fun. I also like to see what chops new filmmakers have, because with the rate Hollywood has been going, we are going to be mightily dependent on the new blood.

With all that said, "Like Me," written and directed by newcomer Robert Mockler is a pretentious mixed bag. An experimental movie which gives its audience very few emotions. A movie that wipes your face in self-loathing and darkness just for the sake of wiping your in self-loathing and darkness. A meditation in millennial narcissism but without anything confident or intelligent to say. Don't get me wrong, Mockler can conjure up a startling image, that I am certain. I think after some tweaking, he can be a profound and perplexing filmmaker for all the right reasons. If we look at this first feature though, there is nothing much to it.

And before the debate starts, yes I understood the film just fine. There are several arty hippsters that will attach themselves to a film like this just to have a pet cause, just because they know its supposed to appeal to them. In every case, they will pick a fight with a "hater" and come to the simple conclusion that they just didn't get it. I understood the film just fine. I can say with confidence that there isn't much to get. Kiya (Addison Timlin) throws herself at this role, and relishes every moment. She's playing a girl who essentially goes a media-driven crime spree because she's tired of being a loner. Even in a world that is rich in social media, how easy is it to become isolated and alone? Very easy, the film suggests and Kiya goes out into the night, doing very disturbing things, posting her videos on the internet just get that connection. Just to be noticed. She is mocked by a harping YouTube personality (Ian Nelson), which only makes her videos more visceral, leveling the stakes. The first video she makes is one of the best moments in the film, when she sticks up a convenience store clerk with a toy gun until he wets himself. Its shot with such a raw, subtle power that I couldn't look away from the screen.

Had the rest of the film fired on those same cylinders, I would be agast right now, on the verge of insanity as I sang the praises of Mockler. The movie really goes out of its way to continue being twisted and dark, but it fails as a genuine experience. It fails as entertainment. What could turn terribly haunting when Kiya kidnaps a motel clerk, forcing him to do disgusting things with junk food. Taking a homeless man to a diner, and going on a road trip to get some revenge should all add up to some horrifying, and at the very least memorable imagery. But nothing is haunting in a good way, its all haunting in a repulsive way. There are just too many scenes of close-up vomiting and close-up of fast-forwarding mouths chewing junk food that gets old very fast. And no, there is no hidden message, there is no profound discovery. I mean, is it really Mocker's point to prove that millennials can be lonely in this digital-driven, modern world? Wow, such insight Mr. Mockler! You mean to tell me that millennials can't get so depressed and lonely that they snap? I would have never known.

The actors do what they can, and they try hard to make them count. Heck, I am sure I could cut some scenes from this movie and randomly edit them to a disc, send it to somebody, and cause nightmares for a month. I guess in that regard, "Like Me" is worth at least a look. There are some camera games Mockler plays that make you think this movie has a pulse. I hope that Mockler does grow as an artist and I do wish him well. I just hope he remembers that when he's making points that have already been made countless times in movies, that he does it in an insightful, fresh way. I also hope that his future movies will have a point, I don't mind doing the digging, but I want something to be on the other end of my work. Experimental movies can have a beginning, middle and end and they can certainly mean something, but you got to get us there as the director.


Monday, February 19, 2018

Batman Ninja trailer

Batman transported to ancient Japan. Yes please!

Can't wait!

Who Played It Best: Pennywise The Dancing Clown

Who Played It Best?

Pennywise The Dancing Clown

It seems like every one of my columns I've created for this blog have become irregular. I apologize for that. I am the only person to writes on this thing and I absorb so many movies in a given week, and have so many ideas for this blog that I more or less execute successfully. Add in a day job and a personal life, and it gets tough to keep up with all the things I like to do here. It's probably not going to help when my daughter is born this summer, but hey, I've been waiting for that moment all my life, and I cross that bridge when I get to it.

If you've never seen this on my blog before, its a very simple game. I present two actors who have played the same character, and then I give my readers one week to vote and decide who they think portrayed the said character the best. We've had fun over the years battling it out with characters such as Batman, Hulk, The Wicked Witch, Lois Lane, James Bond, The Wicked Witch and so on and so forth. It's been a while so let's dive right in.

If there is one monster that has frightened me more over the course of my life than any other pop culture monster, its Pennywise The Dancing Clown. I have a deep phobia of clowns in the first place, so add that this monster chooses to wear the skin of the clown in order to lure children to him and he can embody the deepest, darkest fear of any person in their proximity, dear god that's terrifying. I watched the 1990 version of "IT" and read the excellent Stephen King novel over one long summer, and while I enjoyed both experiences, it made me a bit delirious. The rain used to freak me out, being in the shower would freak me out. As I got older, I didn't feel the 1990 version held up very well. Tim Curry still did very well, and there are definitely some pros to his version, but the version itself just doesn't have the shelf life I feel it should. I dreamed of an updated version of this story. Apparently, Hollywood has been trying to get an updated version since around 2009/2010, and I prayed that it wouldn't hit development hell. Sure enough in 2017, we got that updated version. Bill Skarsgard it the scene with a powerful statement, but now, who played it best?

My Two Cents
This is one of the hardest editions of this column. On one hand, I think Tim Curry's version has a strong leg to stand on mainly due to appearance. I think Curry's is a little scarier simply because he looks like a normal clown. Skarsgard's version suffers from one fatal flaw that so many horror remakes suffer from, its clear the filmmakers tried to make Pennywise scary. Curry is extra scary because he looks like a conventional clown, so when the creep sets in, it leaves the audience in more of an unease. Skarsgard just looks like he's trying too hard, and in the book, Pennywise looked like a normal clown until he was ready to strike. That sense of normalcy should have been important in both versions, and I believe that only the 1990 version embraced it. With that said, I laugh more than I get scared when I watch Curry's version. Like I said about that shelf life above, Curry just feels outdated. While Skarsgard's version is clearly trying to scare you, he succeeds more often than not. So, while this is incredibly tough, I have to give the edge to Skarsgard.

Agree? Disagree? Fire away in the comment section below. You can also email me your answers at bloggershawn@gmail.com. A week from today, I will announce the winner. Now its time to get back on track with this thing!

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Review: Prepare to bow before the power of King T'Challa from "Black Panther"

Black Panther Review

As I exited the theater with my wife after our viewing of “Black Panther” this afternoon, she asked me how I thought it compared to the other Marvel movies. I thought about it for awhile, and at this point, its such a task to compare the MCU movies. Much like Pixar, or the filmography of Quentin Tarantino or Steven Spielberg or the Coen Brothers, franchises and directors who barely screw-up, its hard to compare the Marvel movies. Marvel studios has done such a great job of creating a persuasive, vibrant film universe that comparing the films at all seems almost arbitrary. Do you like space operas with some rough gags? Go enjoy the “Guardians of the Galaxy” movies. Do you like Tom Clancy style spy movies with a comic book twist? Go enjoy the “Captain America” movies. Do you like trippy magic adventures and comedic heist movies? Then “Doctor Strange” and “Ant-Man” are for you. Marvel has got really good at creating entirely different experiences and each film feels like a different level of greatness.

In “Black Panther,” we journey to the fictional African nation of Wakanda. Billions of years ago, a meteorite containing vibranium crashed into the lands that would eventually make up the nation, and five tribes ended up founding the nation. If you’ve been keeping up with the MCU movies at this point, you may remember that vibranium was used to make Captain America’s shield, and that Ultron stole lots of it in bulk for himself in the second “Avengers” film. It’s the strongest substance in this world, and the Wakandan people have used it to build technology, vehicles, weapons and medicines all far beyond the rest of the world’s resources, and they’ve managed to create a world hidden from the world, in order to preserve and protect this precious metal.

“Black Panther” picks up roughly a week after the events of “Captain America: Civil War,” but I don’t want this to feel like a sequel. Because its not. The movie does a good job speeding newcomers up on the recent events, and really all you need to know is Prince T’Challa’s (Chadwick Boseman) father was killed in a terrorist attack in “Civil War” and now T’Challa is gearing up to be the new king of Wakanda. Much of the first half of the movie deals with the traditions and culture of Wakanda. Yes, Wakanda is not a real place, but what director Ryan Coogler does so well here is create a fictional country that feels very real. Every weapon, every piece of clothing, every building, every piece of art on the walls, all adds to the culture of this fictional place. This is exactly what Peter Jackson did so well with “The Hobbit” and “Lord of the Rings” films, creating a world that feels lived in, feels like a piece of worldy history, even though its about a place that has never existed.

These superhero movies are made or broken by their supervillains. For any movie of any genre, you have to have a villain that is just as interesting and grounded as the hero. “Black Panther” has a great villain in Erik Killmonger, brought to magnificent life by Michael B. Jordan. Its easy for these superhero movies to just throw in a villain who wants world domination or to blow up New York City, just because he’s the bad guy. But its harder to set up a situation that’s not just black and white. Killmonger grew up in the United States, but he has Wakandan ties. He’s read the histories of Africa, about how Africans were forced out of their homes to become slaves, how they were terribly abused by “colonizers” all around the world. He sees how the world has rarely changed, and how those of African descent are still treated terribly. He sees the racial profiling, the police brutality. He also knows that Wakanda has the tools to put their people on top, so he wonders why Wakanda refuses to do anything to help their people. Killmonger goes about this entirely the wrong way, but its hard to deny that his philosophy is wrong. Michael B. Jordan relishes every moment he’s onscreen, with a hellish confidence that’s absolutely intoxicating every moment of his screen time.

 Yes, this is a movie that comes from a black perspective and I bet there are those who will right this movie off just for being progressive, and that’s too bad. I wouldn’t say that “Black Panther” is selling an agenda and it’s still very much a comic book movie. It only features a modern perspective. What shocked me most about the movie was how feminist the movie is, and not in a negative way. One thing my wife kept discussing on the ride home was how well the movie created strong female characters. The Dora Milaje, an all-female throne protecting combat unit is lead by Okoye (Danai Gurira). Gurira, who has become popular thanks to her incredible work on AMC’s “The Walking Dead” deserves unlimited credit on creating another badass who is both witty and intelligent. Speaking of brains, I love that the smartest character in the whole movie is Shuri (Letitia Wright), T’Challa’s brother and an all-purpose female version of James Bond’s Q. Although the gadgets and inventions coming from Shuri would make Bond uber-jealous. There isn’t a single woman in this movie who is the stereotypical damsel-in-distress, every woman shows profound strength and smarts.

The movie is known for featuring a predominant black cast, and as far as that goes, the film features a who’s-who of the best black actors in the business. Forest Whitaker, Angela Bassett, Lupita Nyong’o, Isaach de Bankole, Daniel Kaluuya and Sterling K. Brown all delivering absolutely incredible performances. All putting in the effort to help create a believable world. Even though the supporting cast is great, its Chadwick Boseman who drives the whole thing as the lead. He expands his character from his introduction in “Civil War” and continues to push why he popularized the character in the first place. I wasn’t too impressed by “42” or “Get On Up” as movies, but Boseman’s power as a performer was undeniable, he’s going to have a great career.

I don’t want to get too far into spoilers, because right before “Infinity War” is released, I will discuss “Black Panther” again. All I want to say is my biggest gripe with “Black Panther” is a gripe I have with many of the MCU movies. If Loki has had as much mileage in these movies as he has. Even Nebula is starting to branch out seemingly. This all proves that the villains can be just as marketable as the heroes, and in the comic books, the superheroes had frequent run-ins with their ever-growing rogues galleries. I wish I could say the same about these movies.

For now, I can’t wait to see the future of this franchise. Kevin Fiege is already trying to get Ryan Coogler attached for a sequel, and that is great news. I hope Coolger gets the same clout and freedom that James Gunn, Joss Whedon and the Russo Brothers have at Marvel. After how well he created this corner of the universe, I can’t imagine it in anybody else’s hands. “Black Panther” was everything I hoped it would be and more and its an announcement that Wakanda truly will be forever.

And man, all of that writing and I didn’t even touch upon the vibranium-armored war rhinos…


Thursday, February 15, 2018

"Incredibles 2" trailer

When I am asked what my favorite animated kids movie is, one of the movies I hold pretty high on my list is "The Incredibles." I love that it was a surface superhero movie, but it was also a very smart fable about what's expected of us and how responsibility leaps onto us at a moments notice. How expectations may not be what we always suspect. I love the movie. I have dreamed of a new movie for a very long time, and finally, over a decade later. We are getting it.

This looks like it could be a lot of fun. Plus, I love the posters below, I want them.

I literally want all three of them. They are perfect.

The only thing I do worry about is that it will essentially be a different version of the first film. I guess that's an unnecessary evil in this business. I have lamented before how much I find it to be lazy when a sequel just treads water instead of pushing our characters in a new direction or highlight something in the characters that didn't happen in the first film. The Pixar sequels, other than the "Toy Story" sequels, haven't held the same traction as their predecessors. The sequels have been safer and lazier than before. I was hoping Pixar would just deal in original ideas, but sequels were going to happen eventually. I have a huge love for the first film, and I am hoping and praying that I can love this series. 

Third "Ready Player One" trailer

There was a book I got for Christmas last year called "Ready Player One" and I am nearly finished reading it. Just in time too, because next month, the film adaptation of the movie will be hitting theaters. When I saw the first trailer, I thought that the movie looked cool. I figured I had to start with the book, and I am sure glad that did. Its a great read, and watching the parallels between the movie and the book has been great fun.

You are probably wondering why these trailers keep featuring Willy Wonka music, well the character who invented the VR in this movie is heavily based upon Willy Wonka. If you've seen every trailer, then you probably think that this is just going to be a big bag of nostalgia, a reference to a whole bunch of easy targets. If Steven Spielberg understands the book, and I bet he will, then this will be a good adaptation. Yes, Ernest Cline, the author of the book, was pretty obsessed with all things popular culture, but he makes that fit well into the context of his story. I think Spielberg will make sure that translates well to the screen. I think its going to be much more than just "hey, look it a reference to this, hey its a reference to that!" The book has been more than that.

It's not going to be much longer now!

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Review: "Winchester" feels like a wave of fresh air in the horror genre

Winchester Review

It seems like the paradigm of horror fandom seems to be shifting. It seems to me that we’ve been so conditioned by the modern horror film that when something truly different and genuinely scary comes along, it goes by without a trace, leaving modern audiences unsatisfied. I was dumbfounded by the general reaction to both “It Follows” and “The Witch.” These are movies built on mood and atmosphere, and they are classically styled horror films. But after many years of movies in the genre full of torture porn, needless gore, and sweaty, untalented teenagers running around with a handheld camera screaming at a darkened room, movies that takes us back and use some classic styles and try to scare the audience is more and more important. I don’t know what that says about me as a horror fan, but I am being honest.

“Winchester” is definitely a movie that stands out in the genre because it doesn’t look like a modern horror film. It takes place in the early 1900’s. It’s a classic haunted house set-up. It’s got two great leads in Helen Mirren and Jason Clarke. The movie relies on the audience caring about the characters, so when they do end up in peril, the audience cares. Instead of merely brainstorming interesting ways to kill the characters before we even get to know them. We don’t get too many horror films like “Winchester” these days, which probably helped my shape my overall opinion of it. Yes, there are some “boo-scares,” and I got to say that by and large, they work pretty well. I usually find “boo-scares” to be lazy and obvious, but when they are done just right, they are affective.

“Winchester” tells the story of Sarah Winchester (Mirren), the wife of the famous William Winchester who founded Winchester guns. After losing her husband and their daughter in a small amount of time has left her in grief. Not only that, but Sarah begins to think that she is cursed as she begins to think that she is seeing the spirits of the dead who were struck down by Winchester firearms. To help these spirits cross over to the other side of life, her home is under construction around the clock, constantly building rooms, trapping spirits in those rooms, and allowing them to go to the next life. Then they rebuild the room for a different spirit and it goes along. Her home would eventually be dubbed the Winchester Mystery House, and is still believed to be one of the most haunted places not only in the United States but in the world.

Jason Clarke plays Eric Price, a psychiatrist who is hired by the Winchester Firearms board to determine whether or not Sarah is going crazy or not. Of course, Eric Price doesn’t believe in ghosts. Of course, he’s a troubled man suffering from a past trauma. Of course, by the end of the film, both of those sentences will leave Price satisfied as they are both connected to the mystery of the film. So yeah, there are some plot points in “Winchester” that you can teleplay basically from the beginning. But the work by Mirren and Clarke is so undeniably strong, that they make you believe in a story that is contemporary Hollywood. The rest of the cast is pretty solid too. It wouldn’t be a haunted house movie without a creepy kid getting possessed by ghosts, and Finn Scicluna-O’Prey does a good job transitioning between sweet and innocent and downright evil. Sarah Snook plays his mother; Sarah’s daughter and she does good work here in a role that would probably be a throw-away role in the hands of another actress.

One other dissenting aspect of the film is that there is some over-reliance on special effects. But those CGI moments are so fake-looking that it kind of takes me out of the film. If I can tell a scene is clearly made up of computer pixels, I’ll be fully drawn into the scare. It’s the same minor problem I had with “IT” s scares. Either put down enough money on the CGI to make it look more authentic, or drop it entirely for practical scares. I’d take make-up and mood over half-ass special effects work every day of the week.

But the good acting keeps you engaged. The scares that land keep you on your toes. The mystery keeps you guessing. And in a genre dominated by found footage, that is a welcoming miracle. This is the type of movie that makes me believe that horror hasn’t completely lost its way and if you have any love for the genre whatsoever, you should check this out. I wanted to get out of the house after more than twenty-four hours of snow, I wanted to see a movie. There wasn’t much playing close to me. I liked the actors involved so I decided to give “Winchester” a try, and I am glad I did. Perhaps my low expectations also helped me enjoy this movie more than most. It felt like a surprise, and I hope this is a movie that picks up traction by word-of-mouth. Here’s hoping that Hollywood learns the right lessons from this movie, the genre could sure use it.


Monday, February 12, 2018

The Grinch trailer

Who here has been watching The Winter Olympics. If you have, you may have caught a glimpse of the brand new Grinch coming to cinemas soon.

When the live-action, Jim Carrey Grinch movie came out, I was in fifth grade. I went to a packed theater with my parents, and two friends from school. We enjoyed ourselves well enough, but I am not sure it was due to "The Grinch," even at such a young age, I wasn't blown away by it. Despite the inspired casting of Jim Carrey, despite the remarkable set design and cinematography, it just wasn't that good of a movie and I remember it got lots of hate for the time.

Its hard to believe that the Carrey movie came out 18 years ago. Now a new generation of children are in the world, and I am not sure the Carrey version is suitable for them. We are getting an animated version of the story from Universal, the film will feature Benedict Cumberbatch providing the voice for The Grinch. Man, could Universal be anymore on the nose?

Looks fine. I haven't been a huge fan of the recent Dr. Suess adaptations haven't been the best. We'll see how this goes.

Road To Infinity War: Ten Years of Marvel (Part Six- "The Avengers" 2012)

Road To Infinity War: Ten Years of Marvel

Part Six

The Avengers

I’ve spoken many times before about how filmmaking as we knew it changed the moment in 2008 when Samuel L. Jackson emerged from the shadows in front of Robert Downey Jr, inviting his character, Tony Stark, into The Avengers Initiative. For better or for worse, the old era filmmaking ended and a new era began, whether we realize it or not, that’s exactly what happened. From that moment forward, Marvel Studios, and very soon after Disney Pictures had been working towards an “Avengers” movie. A movie that would bring together a group of characters who had been established in separate film franchises. They would then go back to their original franchises then eventually team up again later on down the road. At the time, it was hard to fathom. Seeing a movie like that. It was completely unheard of. Could Disney and Paramount and Marvel pull it off? What were they pulling off? Would each character only get a total of five minutes of screen time, or would the film be four hours long? Would any director and any screenwriter on the face of the planet be able to juggle that many personalities at once?

The answer to that all of those questions were a rousing yes. “The Avengers” was everything fans of this crazy experiment were hoping for and more. Trust me, there were many people who were skeptical. Even after the Iron Man movies were great, even after “The Incredible Hulk” turned out to be fun, even after “Thor” and “Captain America” clicked with audiences, there was still skepticism within the fan community. When the finished product came out, there were many people who said that “The Avengers” was a miracle that a movie could feature as many characters as it did and still be able to balance them ably. Honestly, that was never a miracle, this is what an issue of “The Avengers” looks like. This is what the very best of the “X-Men” movies looked like. Juggling each personality, given them room to breathe and develop, have each of them bounce off of each other, this is classic comic book storytelling. This is exactly what this was supposed to look like. Writer and director Joss Whedon was a relative no-name when he was hired to make “The Avengers,” I certainly wasn’t familiar with him. After some careful research I found out that he was responsible for “Buffy The Vampire Slayer,” “Dollhouse” and “Serenity” on television. He was mainly a television maker. Talk about a big risk from Marvel studios. But hey, as we go along further in this series, that’s something you’ll see a lot with Marvel. They took risks, they took chances, they didn’t just go after the famous, well-known, popular director. It was clear that they found the right people to make these movies. Telling from “The Avengers,” Whedon understood these characters, understood what made them tick, and clearly loved playing with action figures as a child.

The year 2012 was kind of a bumpy one for me personally. You see, I was all ready to graduate from college in May, only to find out as I was signing up for my second semester that I took some crucial classes out of order and I needed to finish them in the right order before I could student teach. That meant sticking another whole semester plus a summer class to get it all done. I was pissed. I couldn’t believe my advisor didn’t help me catch that before this time. Finding out mere months before my last semester was over to learn that I wasn’t going to graduate at my attempted time was hard. As the year grew closer to a close, it was even harder. All my friends were getting excited to graduate and move onto the next phase of their lives, and while it was only for one semester, I felt like I had been held back. I needed some good, old-fashioned escapism. And if there was any year that was ripe for cinematic escapism, it was 2012. This was the year that was going to give us the conclusion of Christopher Nolan’s “Batman” trilogy. The year where we would get a brand new “Spider-Man” franchise. The year we got a new Daniel Craig James Bond film. The year where Ridley Scott returned to the “Alien” franchise. The year Peter Jackson was returning to Middle-Earth to shoot “The Hobbit.” Plus, there wasn’t a single Michael Bay movie in sight. This was going to be a definitive year for film geeks. And it all began with “The Avengers.” This was a divisive year at the theater too, each of the movies I listed above weren’t even close to having universal acclaim. But in May, when I couldn’t stop beating myself up for my mistakes of that school year, I needed “The Avengers” more than most.

I re-watched the movie this weekend, and one thing I always found interesting about the movie is how gleefully it borrowed from both the mainstream Marvel universe as well as the Ultimate Marvel universe. Now, I’ve talked about the Ultimate Marvel universe in this series before. But for those who aren’t avid comic book readers, let me give you a quick definition of Ultimate Marvel. Back in 2000, Marvel was losing readers fast, and they struggled to get new readers. Why? The audience didn’t like having to have so much knowledge of past events, they didn’t like the outdated costumes, they thought the stories were too silly. Marvel was getting close to shutting their doors permanently. It’s a problem even DC has from time to time. How do you keep telling this long, complicated continuity while keeping the readers interested and without needing years and years of prior knowledge? It gets hard. Marvel had an idea, start from scratch, but this time in a different universe within its own multiverse. Thus, The Ultimate Marvel universe was born. It featured the same heroes we know and love, but younger, more modern, updated, and featuring more believable, grounded origins. (Instead of Peter Parker being bitten by a radioactive spider, he’s bitten by a genetically modified spider.) The brand was a hit, and quickly brought Marvel out of its Dark Age.

Pretty much every character trait you see in “The Avengers” as well as the Marvel Cinematic Universe at large can be traced back to the Ultimate Marvel Universe. From Samuel L. Jackson playing Nick Fury, to the government backing and funding The Avengers, to Tony Stark being a drunken womanizer to Hawkeye’s cooler-looking, more tactical, modern outfit. It all owes its roots back to the Ultimate Marvel universe, which just proves how well received the universe was. In the Ultimate Marvel universe, the Avengers, dubbed the Ultimates, fought off an alien invasion. In the mainstream universe, they stop a plot by Loki. I found it very interesting and clever how Whedon blended both Loki and an alien invasion into this introductory movie. And I hope all true Marvel lovers caught it too.

What kind of kills me about the movie, and its something I kind of alluded to last night, is how I think Marvel missed out on a big opportunity using music. Each superhero leading up to “The Avengers” had a specific score, and I wish they utilized those scores when introducing these heroes in “The Avengers.” There is a moment in “The Avengers” when Loki and Cap are fighting, and Iron Man flies into the fight to Cap’s aide. He intercepts the signal from Black Widow’s quinjet, playing Black Sabbath from the quinjet. I would have loved if every character had the same sort of introduction with the scores from their respected movies. The use of music is a profoundly powerful tool in the making of any movie. Look at the iconic evil representing good and evil in “Star Wars” and “Lord of the Rings.” Each movie in the Marvel Cinematic Universe has a new score with each new movie, aside from “The Avengers” movies, and I kind of think it sucks that they never used the original scores. With that said, “The Avengers” theme has become an iconic score in its own right, so there’s a win there.

Through five movies, we’d already grown to love Iron Man, Thor, Hulk and Captain America as characters. We grew to love Black Widow from “Iron Man 2,” Hawkeye had a nice cameo in “Thor,” and heck we grew to love Phil Coulson, agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. That’s important too, since he’s the whole lynchpin of the Avengers assembling to save the world. I think why Marvel has been so successful is that they took their time to set up these characters, and slowly began to have them interact with each other. DC proved that you can’t just pull the trigger right away. It takes time for the audience to assimilate with these characters, to get to know them. Understand them as people. You rely on prior knowledge with many of these superhero movies, especially heroes that aren’t as well known compared to Superman or Batman. The average audience member needs to understand the tropes of the genre, and how they are alike and different. That takes time, and Marvel certainly benefited from taking their time.

I was shell-shocked walking out of the theater, so taken aback by a high the movie gave me. My girlfriend and some of our friends caught a midnight premiere, and at the time I was selling electronics at Wal-Mart. I didn’t care that I had to work at 7am the next morning, I was going to see the movie. Even after existing the auditorium, I didn’t care how early I had to get up for work, that I’d only get mere hours of sleep. It didn’t matter, it felt like a lot of time and patience had paid off in a big way. Then when the mid-credit scene played out, I was once again pulled into the excitement and anticipation of the future, just as I was when Nick Fury appeared at the end of “Iron Man.” This is the great power cinema can offer when it’s at its best.

Next week, we’ll kick off Phase Two with “Iron Man 3.”

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Road To Infinity War: Ten Years of Marvel (Part Five- "Captain America: The First Avenger" 2011)

Road To Infinity War: Ten Years of Marvel

Part Five

Captain America: The First Avenger

Our next film in this look back at the Marvel Cinematic Universe takes a look at “Captain America: The First Avenger.”

I remember spending many days wondering who Marvel would pick to play Thor, and like I said the last time we were together, even trying to find somebody to play Captain America was even more difficult to figure out. For Thor, you need a tall guy who doesn’t mind speaking like he’s known William Shakespeare in person mixed with a professional wrestler, and they got to make that language believable. For Captain America, you need a wholesome man who can act like he doesn’t have a shade of deception, manipulation, greed, evil or jealously in their heart. They had to act like leader, a good man no matter what decision they made. Plus, they had to have blonde hair and blue eyes, the all-American look. These were the two tough gigs, the ones Marvel absolutely had to nail, otherwise this experiment of a cinematic universe would fall like a house of cards.

I had some hope, as they got Thor right. It didn’t matter that Chris Hemsworth was a complete unknown at the time, for the most part. Who on Earth would play the Captain? Joe Johnston was hired to direct, and if you’ve seen “The Rocketeer,” then you know how perfect the match between director and material would be. Captain America’s first movie was to be set in World War II, Marvel was really going to do the origin story correct. So, who would be Johnston’s Captain?

Above all other casting decision, this was the one that had the most attention on the internet. I used to read tons and tons and tons of movie forums in that day, I belonged and discussed in many of them too. There was a good handful of people who thought the role would fall between two people, Matt Damon or Leonardo DiCaprio, both nice choices in their own right, but the other half of fandom seemed to give the excuse that both actors were too old. You see, Steve Rogers was in his twenty’s when he was doused with the Super Soldier serum, and while Damon and DiCaprio were both talented men, they were getting really close to 40, how could they play mid twenty’s in a believable manner? Channing Tatum was suggested by fans, and so was Matthew Fox. Maximonline suggested Josh Duhamel. No matter what you think of those choices, I think all of them were way better suggestions than the 2008 rumor that Matthew McConaughey was going to play the role. Yep, glad that turned out to be just a rumor.

Around 2010, Marvel finally stopped keeping fandom in the dark. We knew Marvel was looking at actors in their mid to late twenty’s, the oldest they were looking at was 31. So okay, Marvel was playing things pretty close to the source material. We knew John Krasinski was an early favorite for the part, then Ryan Phillipe came up and confirmed he auditioned. Garrett Hedlund, Chace Crawford, Mike Vogel and Sebastian Stan (who ironically ended up being cast as Bucky Barnes) were all in the mix too. I had to be honest, at the time I really wanted to see Garrett Hedlund get the part, out of all the men they were circling. Even Alexander Skarsgaard auditioned for the role. But eventually they landed on someone else, someone who never came up in any sort of news story or press release, someone who turned down the role three times before finally accepting it. In 2010, we found out that Chris Evans would play Captain America.

I was pissed at the time. The guy from those cheesy “Fantastic Four” movies. The guy from “Not Another Teen Movie.” The guy from “Cellular” and a host of other mediocre to bad movies, a guy who had not proven any sort of range as an actor, and got stuck playing the same character in all his movies? Marvel was convincing me that he was going to play the Captain? I thought the franchise was fucked. I thought the studio shot themselves in the foot. I thought the movie was going to be failure way before I had even seen a trailer. I mean, casting for the film was rounding out well. Hugo Weaving may have been a save, obvious choice to play Red Skull, but that doesn’t mean it was a bad choice. Weaving is one of those rare actors who can play a villain well, and also make them feel different with each new performance. There is a reason why in 2016 that Weaving was in the mix to play Pennywise in the recent “IT” movie, the guy does bad guys well and I was excited to see his Red Skull. But Chris Evans as Captain America? What were they thinking on that?

Well, when the movie finally came out, I instantly shut up. I don’t know what it was about the character or the script or just an actor maturing into something better than they were before, but the Chris Evans who went to play Captain America was NOT the same Chris Evans prior. Everything, no matter how major or minor the detail that makes Captain America who he is was beautifully and brilliantly brought to life by Evans. There was a genuine sweetness, innocence and elegance to Evans’ Steve Rogers, but he was a good man with determined moral compass. He wasn’t afraid to be a realist, not afraid to confront problems or know his flaws, he was a man to look up to a born leader who was stuck in a frail, sick body. Not only was it a flawless, surprising performance by Evans, but the script absolutely nailed the character too. They didn’t make him cheesy. They didn’t make him overly comedic. They didn’t sex the character up. They didn’t give him several stupid one-liners to spew. The writers really did their homework to get Steve Rogers/Captain America just right. Apparently, Chris Evans did his homework too, because he made the character believable, he made somebody we could all strive to live up to. I can’t believe how perfect he got it. It’s one of those moments that left me shocked as a film fan, but the best possible kind of shocked.

I will also let you in on a little secret. In 2002, I was obsessed with HBO’s “Band of Brothers,” a mini-series detailing a company during World War II who were instrumental in winning that war. The series starred Neal McDonough. For many years, I was hoping and praying that somebody would make a Captain America movie within the release of that mini-series, and I always believed Neal McDonough would be the perfect Captain America. So, it always made me laugh that McDonough was eventually cast in the film as Dum Dum Dugan, one of the soldiers who would help Cap fight HYDRA, as apart of a group of soldiers called The Howling Commandos. It always made me laugh that McDonough got cast in the movie, and its one of those small world things that dawns on you as a film geek who reads comic books. I absolutely loved that The Howling Commandos got a much-needed nod in the movie, and I only wished that they introduced the Infinity Formula so that Dum Dum’s aging would slowdown, I would have loved to see McDonough’s Dum Dum Dugan as a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent, whom Dugan eventually became in the comics. I guess, never say never though.

The rest of the cast rounded out very well. Hayley Atwell was an actress I knew nothing about before seeing the movie, and I absolutely fell in love with her as Peggy Carter. Stanley Tucci was perfect as Dr. Erkstine, Tommy Lee Jones was equally perfect as Chester Phillips. It would take a few years, but I would end up laughing that Richard Armitage would end up playing Thorin in “The Hobbit” movies, since he appears as a villain in this movie. It’s also funny to see Natalie Dormer show up in a small appearance, since she seems to play seductive women in everything she’s in. Toby Jones was also very good as Armin Zola, a character we will talk about in the future. I also have to say that even early on, Sebastian Stan was really great as Bucky, and Dominic Cooper was really good as a young Tony Stark.

As I stated above, every detail of personality with Captain America was spot-on, but the other details of the movie were strong too. The movie kind of feels like a time machine while your watching it. Like you got a glimpse of a World War II America that just happened to have a super soldier in it for some reason. The costumes, the cars, the sets, how everything is stylized, its amazing the attention to detail that was present in this movie. But at the same time, despite all the grounding of realism from a real time, it still felt like a comic book. There is a crackjack quality to the movie. It feels like a swashbuckling adventure movie. I remember reading that Kevin Feige and Joe Johnston mentioned that one of the inspirations for “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” was “Raiders of the Lost Ark.” After watching the movie over the weekend, I can totally see that connection. It definitely did feel like an Indiana Jones movie in some aspects. For the time and place of the movie, and what they were hoping to accomplish with the movie, that tone is totally appropriate.

I also need to point out that Alan Silvestri wrote one of the best scores in any superhero movie with his music in this first film. If you’ve got eagle ears like me, then you’ll notice that they never used Silvestri’s score again in any of the other Captain America movies, that to me is a shame. I think and believe all things Captain America when that song comes in on a scene or plays out. I cannot, cannot believe this is the only movie where we heard that score, that should have been the heroes definitive score. It’s one of the most glaring mistakes that these Marvel movies make time and time again, and we will get into more detail on that in my piece tomorrow. But I have to single out that gracious, powerful piece of music here for good reason.

I remember seeing this movie for the first time in a packed theater on a hot evening in July 2011. My girlfriend and I had gone to my hometown to see my mom for her birthday and it felt like a movie that everyone would like. I was glad to see that was just the case. As the credits rolled and we saw that quick glimpse of what we would expect from The Avengers movie, my heart stopped, I was out of breath. I was so giddy that I couldn’t handle it. We talked Avengers all night long when we got back, and I was glad to know that no matter how old you were or how much knowledge you had with superheroes and comic books, these movies could still inspire and bring the best out of people. That will always be what I treasure most.

Tomorrow, as I catch up on this countdown, I will discuss “The Avengers!” That should be a fun one.