The Scarlett Johansson Project — #10

Unlike certain things that are going on right now, this feature is indeed finally coming to an end. Believe it or not, the idea was not to drag this feature on until forever. (If you’re curious as to how things typically work, you can check the main Actor Profile page here.) Here we are at the end of a second year, finally bidding adieu to one of the most popular movie stars of this generation.

Setting my idealism aside, I am excited to have seen this latest project through and to have had so much good feedback on the roles I have chosen to cover. Unfortunately what ended up happening as far as role selection is concerned was not what I had intended, either; the original plan was to crowdsource ideas for which roles should be covered and then work from those, perhaps providing a link to the blogger’s site (should they have one) from the post they inspired me to create. In the end I inadvertently passed on an opportunity to build community by going with my own choices. It was never my intention to ignore others’ suggestions.

Besides, I’m 100% positive this suggestion would have made its way into the mix, some way, some how. Let’s be honest, you can’t really talk about certain actors without also considering their contributions to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The cinematic landscape has been changed forever with Jon Favreau’s template-setting Iron Man in 2008. The prestige casting has only intensified since Robert “Sundance” Redford decided to loosen his tie and join the fun by playing Alexander Pierce in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. The end credits of Black Widow, as an even more bizarre example, features Julia Louis-Dreyfus for crying out loud. One wonders, when all is said and done, what self-respecting Hollywood actor will have actually failed to have landed an MCU gig of some kind, if not on the big screen then on the small. Of course, that’s with the presumption the MCU is a finite thing. 

Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanoff in Cate Shortland’s Black Widow 

Role Type: Lead

Premise: Natasha Romanoff confronts the darker parts of her ledger when a dangerous conspiracy with ties to her past arises. (IMDb)

Character Background: Born in Russia in 1984, orphaned as a child and trained up to become a KGB spy through a brainwashing program targeting young women, Natasha Romanoff lived quite the complicated life. Or, as Cate Shortland’s Black Widow suggests, perhaps it was two lives, what with her being part of two adoptive families — one a little indie start-up you might know as the Avengers and the other a trio of Russian sleeper agents posing as American expats in suburban Ohio.

Making her MCU début in Iron Man 2 as a flirty undercover S.H.I.E.L.D. agent who was clearly never going to be just a simple foil for Tony Stark (or a sex object for that matter), the enigmatic redhead quickly became a fundamental part of the MCU fabric, earning increased screen minutes in The Avengers (2012) and notably Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), evolving from a sidekick to a significant role player in the process. Natasha Romanoff may be without superhuman or godly powers but her speed and brutality in hand-to-hand combat make her a force to be reckoned with — skills that are put on full display in her long-overdue solo film (not to mention, her propensity for dramatic fight stances).

Age of Ultron provided a glimpse of her past trauma as the team collectively reeled under hallucinations brought on by an enraged Wanda Maximoff, but it wouldn’t be until 2020 2021 that the specifics of that past would be brought into the full light (or in this case, dark) of day. Black Widow is the film that acquaints us with Natasha’s original adopted family — a true highlight being the dynamic between her and “sister” Yelena — as well as the source of her torment, the hissable spymaster Dreykov, the man who turned an entire generation of women into weapons.

And although the chronology remains an annoyance there is at least a sense of evolution with the way themes of independence and control are evolved through the character’s actions here. In Black Widow Natasha makes the decision to stop retreating from and instead start running toward those who oppress her, aspiring not only to rid herself of Dreykov but free all those still under his influence. Even if the thing that she must do in order to achieve her goal feels disappointingly been-there-done-that, in becoming a leader of women and an inspiration to her “sister,” Natasha’s arc feels emotionally and psychologically complete.

What she brings to the movie: Pathos, pride and consistency. I’d wager no two actors are more inseparable from their MCU personalities than Robert Downey Jr. and Scarlett Johansson. I say this in full recognition of all the fascinating roles she has made her own throughout a box office smashing career. Across an eight-film arc spanning more than a decade — nearly a third of her big screen career — Johansson has quite literally grown up with the character, one who has often been at the center of some of the most dramatic moments in the Infinity Saga. To say she knows Natasha well by the time Black Widow rolls around is some kind of understatement. 

It’s in her solo film where that comfort level is most felt, as we get to see Johansson flex more than her muscles in what has always been a physically demanding role. The weariness and cynicism in her performance feels true to where the character is at this point in time, itinerant and alone; down but hardly out. She also has this fantastic chemistry with Florence Pugh that makes this film human in ways it might not have been with different actors.  

In her own words: “When you find her in the beginning [of Black Widow] she’s just broken. By the end of the film the goal is to put her back together different than before, you know? I think Natasha has a lot of compassion and that’s not necessarily what I would have anticipated when we were filming Iron Man 2 or Avengers or whatever. You’ve seen glimpses of it and it’s developed over time, as we’ve been able to bring the character to the forefront in different instillaments, but she’s a very compassionate person and that passion is actually what drives a lot of her decision making. I mean, she’s also practical and pragmatic and I don’t think those two things have to necessarily work against each other. That part of her is what really touches me.”

Key Scene: A brutal trip down memory lane. There are so many good scenes between Johansson and Florence Pugh but one of the more poignant is this exchange between Johansson and Rachel Weisz, as the two reminisce over fake Christmases, fake traditions, fake family memories. It’s perhaps not a signature action scene but I’m always for the more grounded, human moments and this one’s a memorable one. 

Rate the Performance (relative to her other work):

***/*****


All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: www.imdb.com; interview excerpt courtesy of Ashley Robinson/Collider 

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

Release: Friday, September 3, 2021

👀 Theater

Written by: Dave Callaham; Andrew Lanham; Destin Daniel Cretton

Directed by: Destin Daniel Cretton

Starring: Simu Liu; Awkwafina; Tony Chiu-Wai Leung; Meng’er Zhang; Fala Chen; Michelle Yeoh

 

 

****/*****

Marvel Studios’ most recognizable batch of comic book origins stories are behind us, but given Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings‘ strong box office haul it isn’t going to be falling on hard times any time soon. And the numbers are justified. This movie is as entertaining as it is absorbing.

Following somewhat in the footsteps of Black Panther (2018), Shang-Chi immerses the viewer in a culture largely relegated to the muddy riverbanks along the Hollywood mainstream. The 25th overall film in the MCU is one of the most visually delicious, featuring spectacular sets where the mise en scène is often its own character and where — finally! — flashy CGI actually supports rather than hinders. The production design is a lavish platter sampling everything from the urban to the rural to the mythical and where the exquisite, violent dance of Kung Fu is ensconced in the sophisticated and occasionally literal scaffolding around it.

Underneath the obviously heavy budget however lies a hero’s journey that’s just as rich with human emotion and soul, qualities that Short Term 12 director Destin Daniel Cretton is no stranger to and that are most welcomed in a movie of this scale. The story tells of a deeply personal conflict between an immortal, power-obsessed patriarch Wenwu (Tony Leung — Infernal Affairs; The Grandmaster) and his children, son Shang-Chi (Simu Liu — Women is Losers; Kim’s Convenience — TV) and daughter Xialing (Meng’er Zhang). Given the film’s title, the focus narrows to the father-son dynamic as Shang-Chi is forced to confront the trauma of his past and the man responsible for much of it.

As an origins story largely divorced from the Avengers era Shang-Chi feels like a breath of fresh air in a staling superhero environment, even as it honors the tradition of Marvel’s prescribed narrative formula. While Cretton and his writing team are granted the proper space to explore their own world that’s not to say they don’t have some fun tricks up their sleeve, bringing into the fold former foes from past movies who end up mercifully repurposed into something more useful. This story is only beginning but the first chapter lays a lot of emotional brickwork, almost to the point of being burdened by it. The pacing is not always ideal but the trips down nightmare lane are intriguing and rarely feel purely extraneous.

The exhaustive (maybe a little exhausting) narrative structure is most compelling when building up the villain, extensive flashbacks offering a rare opportunity to understand the man behind the monster. When Wenwu met his wife he vowed to give up his never-ending quest for power, the very quest that brought him to the clandestine village of Ta Lo where he first encountered her. Shunned by the residents the pair fled to start a family, a halcyon period that tragically wouldn’t last. As a heartbroken, tormented father Leung authors one of the best villains the MCU has yet seen, oscillating between sympathetic and menacing, coldly composed and dangerously delirious, yet passing on the histrionics a lesser actor might have pursued.

In response to loss Wenwu relapsed back into his old ways, resolving to toughen up his son to be an assassin worthy of joining the powerful Ten Rings organization, so named after the physical rings he discovered that gave him immortality. However, following in his father’s blood-stained shoes is a destiny Shang-Chi grew uncomfortable with and so he fled for sunny San Francisco, changing his name and starting up a new life parking cars for wealthy elites alongside best friend Katy (Awkwafina — The Farewell; Crazy Rich Asians), a proud underachiever whose mother lovingly prods her to jump-start her life. When the pair are attacked on a bus one afternoon, Shaun has some explaining (and traveling) to do, while Katy recognizes an opportunity to help a friend in need.

The star of the film is obviously Simu Liu, who handles the duality of his character’s emotional and physical sides with grace and finesse. He’s likable and convincing in the action scenes, particularly for playing a character famous for being proficient in multiple martial arts styles, but the film excels because of the tag-team effort. Awkwafina is the yang to Liu’s yin, her terrific camaraderie making it easy to get over the goofy stage name (real name Nora Lum) and embrace the 30-something actor/rapper as more than comic relief; she’s a genuine friend whose expressiveness also makes for a perfect audience surrogate, especially as the narrative takes leaps and bounds away from the pedestrian and into the fantastical.

Thematically the movie isn’t a radical departure, certainly when in view of this summer’s Black Widow whose central thrust was also about the futility of running from one’s past. These movies share assassins and miserable childhoods in common. But where Black Widow was cold and absolute in eliminating the architect of pain and suffering — and justifiably so — Shang-Chi is more interesting in the way it confronts those committed to similarly transgressive behavior. It knows, perhaps on the level of a Captain America: Civil War or Winter Soldier, that good guys and bad in reality come with their shades of gray. We’re told it’s always personal, but here’s a case where mourning feels more appropriate than celebration; the anguish over what must be done makes the obligatory climactic battle that much more grounded despite the high-flying theatrics.

As it turns out, Cretton’s first run with the Marvel big dogs is a beautiful movie in more ways than one, and a really exciting way to kick off a new, less familiar chapter. Ta Lo is the pinnacle at which all things conceptual come together, invariably violently. This fascinating bubble within the multiverse is where everything goes down, and yet almost every scene along the way overflows with meaning and symbolism. It’s a movie with a spectacular finishing move, but also one of measurable personal growth. The friendship dynamic refreshingly remains undisturbed by studio heads undoubtedly desirous of something more expected. At once crowd-pleasing and nuanced, Shang-Chi is a superior Marvel offering.

No one’s up in arms . . . yet

Moral of the Story: The fun factor is through the roof with Shang-Chi and The Legend of the Ten Rings. It’s also got a nice message to send, it looks fantastic and, though far be it from me to say this is true for all, seems a legitimately diverse, passionate and truthful representation of Chinese culture and traditions. Me to you: I freaking loved this movie and would see it again in theaters in a heartbeat. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 132 mins.

Quoted: “Welcome to the circus.”

Feast your eyes on the Official Trailer from Marvel Studios here! 

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; www.indiewire.com

The Marvelous Brie Larson — #3

Welcome back to another edition of my latest Actor Profile, The Marvelous Brie Larson, a monthly series revolving around the silver screen performances of one of my favorite actresses. If you are a newcomer to this series, the idea behind this feature is to bring attention to a specific performer and their skill sets and to see how they contribute to a story.

I have been looking forward to March, not so much because of my undying allegiance to the Marvel brand but rather to Brie Larson. This is the month where she takes the next step, going from an indie darling to a mainstream commodity. Because superhero movies are the only movies that seem to matter anymore, getting the lead in a new Marvel movie seems to this armchair critic a kind of validation of one’s hard work and talent: You’ve officially arrived. You ARE Marvel-worthy.

But with great publicity comes great controversy, and by now we are all aware of the furor surrounding Captain Marvel and its star. Reading/listening to all the ways in which her comments have been misconstrued has been infuriating to say the least, and while the push for greater diversity in the movies and in the press covering them is certainly a discussion worth having (it was a sobering moment learning that 78% of the current critical landscape skews white male) I fear going in that direction is invariably going to turn into a rant. Besides, to focus on the negatives would be to completely lose sight of what this feature is about — celebrating the strengths and unique qualities of the performer in question.

And there is no denying that there is much to celebrate here. Captain Marvel, flying defiantly in the face of all those who were adamant a female-led superhero film just won’t sell, has racked up an impressive $900 million in global box office receipts. Bigger numbers geeks than I will tell you with greater confidence how the film probably won’t crack the billion-dollar mark, but let’s not turn a nose up at 900 mill.

Brie Larson as Carol Danvers in Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck’s Captain Marvel

Role Type: Lead

Genre: Action/adventure/sci-fi

Premise: Carol Danvers becomes one of the universe’s most powerful heroes when Earth is caught in the middle of a galactic war between two alien races.

Character Background: Carol Susan Jane Danvers hails from a distant world known as Hala, the galactic capital of an alien race called the Kree. In comics lore, Carol isn’t actually the original incarnation of Captain Marvel. That distinction belongs to her super-powered colleague (and at one point love interest) Mar-Vell, who was originally conceived as a Kree Imperial Officer sent to spy on Earth and, under the guise of Dr. Walter Lawson, took note of our technological developments as we readied ourselves for space exploration and in the process of sympathizing with the humans, met and fell in love with a certain American Air Force Pilot, one Carol Danvers. Famously the Captain Marvel brand has endured a long and convoluted history and Marvel Studios takes advantage, dispensing with the romance and macho heroics. As the story used to go, it was Mar-Vell who saved Carol both from an envious Yon-Rogg in pursuit and from a powerful blast from some crazy Kree machine but due to their physical proximity to each other at the time of the explosion Carol’s DNA got infused with that of Mar-Vell, rendering her half-human, half-Kree, and 100% badass. The film, however, gives the character more agency, depicting her “transformation” as a direct result of her own actions, when she shoots the energy core that powers her light-speed-capable jet to keep the tech out of the hands of Yon-Rogg. Because she essentially inhales the Space Stone she becomes super-powerful, but in the exchange also loses her memory. The film then becomes about her working backward to discover where she’s really from and what side she’s on in this overarching Kree/Skrull war.

Brie Larson, a refreshing new face in this familiar superheroic collage, trained for nine months to prepare for the physical aspects of the role, learning judo, boxing and wrestling . . . and throwing in the occasional push-a-5,000-pound vehicle for 60 seconds for good measure. She said of the lengthy preparation: “I got super-strong. It wasn’t enough to just put the costume on and play pretend strength, I wanted to be actually strong.”

Of course, the physical abilities are just one aspect of the character — and they are significant, suggesting she may well be the key in defeating the terrible Thanos in the upcoming Avengers: Endgame. But her film arc is just as much about her emotional growth and her psychological state. In flashbacks we see how a parade of men have routinely discounted her as being some kind of “Not Enough” — she’s not strong enough, fast enough, doesn’t smile enough. And damn it anyway, she endures, standing back up and pushing on, turning a deaf ear to the jeers. Brie Larson describes Carol as “probably the most dynamic character I’ve ever played. I’ve had to go through every possible emotion with her. That’s what I want: I want to see complicated female characters.”

Marvel at this Scene:

https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=dqeEZJvFuiE

Rate the Performance (relative to her other work):


All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.imdb.com; http://www.wikipedia.com

Year in Review: 2018 on Thomas J! (Part 2 of 2)

In Part 2, we finish up the year (July thru December) in movie reviews, my seventh (technically sixth full-year) since first joining WordPress back in 2011. (Click here or just scroll your happy self to the bottom of this post if you missed Part 1!)

The back half of 2018 found Thomas J putting up 22 new film reviews, plus two more 30 for 30 pieces. Fair warning, this is a MUCH longer post than Part 1 (10 posts total). I probably should have taken into account the two months of NO REVIEWS that I had in the first half, and maybe restructured this whole thing. C’est la vie. Here is what the rest of my 2018 looked like:


July 

I celebrate my seventh year of blogging this month by posting a few thoughts on movies both political and comedic (and in one case, a bit of both). No celebratory post to mark the occasion, though sequels are a hit with me at this point in time apparently, with Sicario 2 and the new Ant-Man installment.

Sicario 2: Day of the Soldado: a sequel that struck me as unnecessary before I actually sat down to watch it. Soldado offers a far more traditional, action-driven film than what Denis Villeneuve supplied in Sicario, a white-knuckle thrill ride that packed a powerful sociopolitical punch. Yet its timeliness what with current border politics, in conjunction with its even more morbid, anything-goes attitude (again, timely) and the return of Josh Brolin and Benecio del Toro made this invitation impossible to decline. A lesser film absolutely, but one with its own unique thrills. I enjoyed it enough to want a third. I don’t say that often when it comes to sequels.

Ant-man and the Wasp: good things come in small packages, and the sequel to 2015’s charmingly diminutive Ant-man is further proof. Timing works in this film’s favor as well, occupying a very special place on the MCU timeline in the wake of the devastation brought on by Infinity War — it still cracks me up that that movie actually made people cry. Yet despite the calculated timing, what makes the sequel refreshing is that, just like the incredible shrinking Pym lab, the drama is very self-contained; there is almost nothing linking this film to the Avengers narrative at-large, with the exception of the constant berating Scott Lang receives from his former mentor and his daughter, Hope Van Dyne (a.k.a. The Wasp). Fun, fast-paced and . . . well, more time with Paul Rudd. Need I say more?

Sorry to Bother You: first of all, was this a dream or did this movie actually happen? Was anybody expecting this movie to be like . . . that? The Oakland, California-set directorial début of Chicago-born rapper and social justice activist Boots Riley epitomized uniqueness. From my review — “Perpetually forward-bounding with gusto and verve, with an intensely likable Lakeith Stanfield leading the charge, Sorry to Bother You is a strange but powerful experience that you really shouldn’t miss out on — even when there is a percent chance greater than fifty you walk away from it feeling something other than purely amused.”

Skyscraper: an amiable action thriller featuring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and the perpetually under-rated Neve Campbell that both functions as a throwback to classic action films of the ’90s (Die Hard, anyone?) and gives the former wrestler another platform for demonstrating his not-inconsiderable range. The family dynamic presented in Skyscraper is genuine, likable and creates a surprising amount of tension even as the action bits themselves stretch credulity well past the breaking point. Of the two Dwayne Johnson summer flicks that were on offer this year (Rampage being the other), the glimmering lights of Hong Kong’s impossibly lofty skyline was absolutely the place to be.

August

August is responsible for one of my favorite movies all year, actually a documentary. In stark contrast to that, I also have the misfortune of going against my better judgment and seeing the latest Jason “I act better when shirtless” Statham movie. Sports film coverage also makes a cameo appearance this month with my second (and quite accidentally, final) 30 for 30 review.

Three Identical Strangers: to put it simply, one of the best movies I have seen all year. This outrageous true story about three young boys discovering the true nature of their existence is entertaining, captivating and ultimately disturbing. Where do we draw the line between science and ethics? While there is a great deal of fun and excitement in the first half of the film, the revelations brought to light in the second are stomach-turning to say the least. You just can’t make this stuff up (even if I wish it were made up).

The Meg: yes, I saw this movie. Yes, I’ve seen worse, like Deep Blue Sea. But no, not the kind of ringing endorsement Statham et al were looking for, I can’t imagine.

 

 

Alpha: I really enjoyed this narratively simple but deliciously atmospheric survival film about a young Cro Magnon (Kodi Smit-McPhee) befriending a wolf (a Czech wolf dog named Chuck — I am actually not kidding) after he becomes separated from his tribe and father/tribal leader Tau (Game of Thrones‘ Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson). The story isn’t very inventive but the filmmakers’ decision to create an entirely new language (comprised of roughly 1,500 words) really helped sell the authenticity of the period. Heartwarming without being overly sentimental.

30 for 30: Mike and the Mad Dog: a bonafide classic, especially for the New York sports fan. Details the relationship between oversized egos/sports jockeys Mike Francesa and Chris ‘Mad Dog’ Russo and their many (many!) ups and downs across a wild 19 years at WFAN 101.9 FM.

 

 

September

Things start to get kind of exciting (unless you are a Tennessee football fan). A new Spike Lee joint that had been sprayed with critical praise during its festival run finally opens to the public (granted back in August, but I wouldn’t get a review up until weeks later), while word-of-mouth about an unusual thriller about a father’s desperate search for his missing daughter starts to really pick up. (And now I see that that movie was also released the month prior. Damn it, I really have been playing catch-up this entire year!)

Searching: I could not — still cannot — believe how tense and emotional Aneesh Chaganty’s first feature film was. This was an absolutely fantastic conceit that became so much more than a gimmick. The story told of a father (an excellent John Cho) having to go to extreme lengths to track down the whereabouts of his suddenly missing daughter (Michelle La) by delving into her social media accounts in a desperate race-against-time, a seemingly hopeless search for the clues that could make the difference between miracle and tragedy.

BlacKkKlansman: this was one wild ride. Loosely based upon the 2014 memoir of the same name (minus that little ‘k’ that writer/director Spike Lee threw in there), it recounted the experiences of an undercover black police officer in the late 1970s, when he cozied up to a local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan in an effort to bring them down from the inside. Despite the foul regions of humanity it must poke and prod around in, BlacKkKlansman proved to be a mightily entertaining movie. It’s intermittently even beautiful, but more importantly it’s alarmingly relevant.

Operation Finale: a film that passed all too quietly, Chris Weitz’ handsomely mounted and smartly-casted Operation Finale takes audiences on a top secret mission into the Argentinian capital of Buenos Aires, following a group of Israeli spies as they attempt to capture a high-ranking Nazi officer who fled Europe at the end of the war to seemingly escape without consequence. While the broader historical significance of the mission objective cannot be overstated, the drama is at its most compelling when it gets personal, when it explores the emotional rather than political stakes.

White Boy Rick: a drama about a wayward Detroit teen (introducing Richie Merritt) and his equally morally bankrupt father (Matthew McConaughey) getting into the coke-‘n-guns business in the Motor City circa the mid-’80s that just fell flat dramatically and really lacked an empathetic hook. I learned in this movie you can feel bad for a person’s circumstances without actually feeling bad for the individual. Barring a few moments here and there, this turned out to be a disappointingly middling effort from Yann Demange, the director of the sensationally gripping war drama ’71 (2014).

October

Even though I am not the biggest fan of horror, I was still disappointed in my lack of horror viewing this year. Particularly in the month of October. I wasn’t interested one iota in David Gordon Green’s retooled Halloween (“Hi, I’m Michael Myers. I have enormous psychological issues and now I am going to take them out on you!”) so I ostensibly skipped the month’s biggest event. Apostle is a Netflix horror that has picked up favorable reviews yet I still haven’t gotten to it; the revamped Suspiria never even ventured into my area and the only thing scary about the Goosebumps sequel was just how silly/geared-to-children it suddenly appeared. Thus:

A Star is Born: one of the true big hits of the year, a doomed love story that’s already been told three times before! The main attraction here was the excellent chemistry between stars Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga — the latter proving she can be as captivating a performer without all that ridiculous make-up and wardrobe as she can with it. I fell in love with the performances and the music, and apparently so did the world. For romantics, this movie is a must.

 

First Man: it kills me how contentious a release this became. If you want to live in ignorance that is your prerogative. But we went to the Moon and Damien Chazelle made a pretty jaw-dropping movie about it. I will happily have people disagree with me on that point. More specifically, he made a brilliantly personal film about what it might have felt like to become the first person to have stepped foot on two different worlds. There of course have been more since Neil Armstrong’s historic lunar walk (eleven in fact, four of whom are still living), but Neil was the first. A technical masterclass besides, First Man features one of the year’s most curious and intensely internalized performances from the enigmatic Ryan Gosling. And, as an aside, now that China has successfully planted a lander on the Dark (or much-less-cool-sounding “far”) Side of the Moon, I am sure there are those out there who are going to deny that, too. Go right ahead.

mid90s: an unexpected (not in terms of quality but rather subject matter and style — and yes, okay, a little in terms of quality too!) début for Jonah Hill, the once-pudgy star of such raunchy Judd Apatow-esque (and actual Judd Apatow-produced) comedies Knocked Up, The 40-Year-Old Virgin and SuperbadMid90s creates a fully lived-in environment with its urban setting, natural performances, smartly chosen locations, its street-skating-video aesthetic and eclectic musical choices, simultaneously inspiring whiffs of nostalgia for an era long since passed while never really trying that hard to be about nostalgia. A small but pretty valuable gem.

November 

This month introduces me to some of the year’s best — a small sample size for sure but two films that leave a lasting impression still.

Can You Ever Forgive Me?: Melissa McCarthy at the top of her game, and another potential top-five candidate for this reviewer. My goodness, I loved this movie. The performances are one thing, but the milieu is just perfect. I could smell the leather-bound books in the cute little bookstores dotted around Manhattan, feel the cold harsh of winter breathing down those streets. Smelled the stink of failure (and festering cat poop) within poor old Lee Israel’s dingy apartment. I actually don’t know what it was that prevented me from giving this a perfect score. However, I am not really in the habit of retroactively adjusting my ratings.

Avery: a fun post that found this apparently uninspired writer reviewing a snowstorm FFS. Yellow journalism at its finest.

 

 

 

 

Widows: the new Steve McQueen movie that I had been anticipating for nearly a year, with some trepidation! The British auteur was, until this film, 3/3 in terms of delivering grueling, hard-to-watch dramas about people living in hell-on-earth. Widows, which tells the story about four women having to atone for their husbands’ indiscretions when they rob from the wrong guy, is no slouch either, especially with the twist at the end there, but it isn’t quite as punishing as what has come before. Still, it is a far more robust genre film than you’re likely to get from almost anyone else, packing one hell of a timely message in amongst its gritty action.

The Girl in the Spider’s Web: a far less intriguing but nevertheless worthwhile follow-up to David Fincher’s 2010 hard-hitting The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Spider’s Web featured an impressive Claire Foy taking over from Rooney Mara. Heavy on style, much lighter on substance.

 

 

December

And I finish off 2018 strongly with five new reviews. No monthly wrap-up post nor any timely viewings/write-ups of seasonal releases old or new as celebrating the holiday season just, ya know, gets in the way. Again. Even with the best of intentions, I STILL have yet to see classics like It’s a Wonderful Life or Miracle on 34th Street. (I know, I know . . . ) Plus working at a liquor store during the holidays tends to take something out of you.

Assassination Nation: if the popularity of this post was anything to go by, Sam Levinson’s scathing political/social media satire was not exactly the year’s hottest item. I was glad to have been one of the few to have seen it, even if it was tonally uneven and became kinda sanctimonious at the end. Still, you can’t deny the film’s energy and chutzpah. A Salem Witch Trials for our generation, this is one righteously angry film with a lot on its mind.

 

Free Solo: a documentary of great interest to me given I devoted 10+ years to climbing both indoors and outside. I worked at rock climbing gyms for several years, where I made some long-lasting friendships with some great people. Free Solo exposed the world-at-large to one of the great risk-takers in the game, one Alex Honnold. His goal to climb the world-famous El Capitan in Yosemite Valley without a rope was captured by Jimmy Chin and a team of creative minds that, due to the death-defying nature of the undertaking, had to rethink their entire approach to filming it. Honnold’s 3,000-foot free solo is one for the history books.

Beautiful Boy: I was completely and utterly moved by Timothée Chalamet and Steve Carell, and perplexed by the lukewarm reviews the movie overall received. I thought this was a brutally authentic yet sensitive portrayal of drug addiction that had a well-defined emotional component to it that I latched on to right away. I may be in a minority on this one, but I am completely fine with that. “Everything. Everything.”

 

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse: an incredibly eye-popping trip into the pages of the iconic comic books of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, Into the Spider-Verse just has to be one of the biggest surprises of the year. Into the Spider-Verse has it all: an incredible visual spectacle, a streamlined but hardly contrived narrative with a big heart and a great sense of humor, a villain with a compelling motive, one heartbreaking reveal and an emotive soundtrack. Best of all, the multiverse doesn’t require an intimate knowledge of what is canonical and what isn’t for you to really get inside it. A rare example of a PG-rated film earning a perfect 5 rating from me (for whatever that is worth).

Mock and Roll: okay, so this was a really cool way to cap off 2018 in movies. I was fortunate to have been contacted by Mark Stewart, one of the writers of this underground film from Columbus, Ohio. I haven’t reviewed a truly independent film in some time, so having this experience was a total refresher. It lit a fire under my ass to do some more digging and find more stuff like this. Silliness and hijinks run amok in this one. Stream the film on Amazon Prime, today!

 


Happy New Year everyone! Shall we do another round?

Thor: Ragnarok

Release: Friday, November 3, 2017

→Theater

Written by: Eric Pearson; Craig Kyle; Christopher L. Yost

Directed by: Taika Waititi

Save yourself a pat on the back for me, Marvel. The Taika Waititi experiment has paid off and now you’ve got a great big success on your hands. Thor: Ragnarok isn’t a revelation but it is a very entertaining package, and that largely comes down to the studio investing in yet another unlikely candidate for the job. The New Zealand-born comedian-turned-director has the global audience in his hands as he sets about parodying the realm of fancily-clad, musclebound superheroes into oblivion.

Rarely do you find a franchise hitting a high note late into their run, yet here we are three films in and Ragnarok is unequivocally one of those highs. Thor (2011) had its moments but too often it took pleasure in slamming you in the gut with corny dialogue and half-hearted attempts at levity. The Dark World in 2014 overcompensated by going really heavy and really broody. In the end it was even sillier than its predecessor. Cut to another eight films deeper into the superstructure of the MCU and we finally get a Thor film that beats everyone to the punch by being the first to make fun of itself. It’s still not quite a balanced effort but Thor: Ragnarok is a much better film for using humor as its primary weapon.

From the opening scene it’s apparent things are going to work a little differently under the Kiwi’s creative leadership. In his fifth reprisal of the legendary son of Odin, Chris Hemsworth is able to find the funny in everything, including being hogtied upside-down and held captive at the hands of the fire demon Surtur on a remote planet. (Well, almost everything. He doesn’t seem to enjoy being tasered, being bound to a chair or losing his beloved Mjölnir.) It’s been two years since we’ve last seen Thor, when the Republic of Sokovia was lifted dramatically skyward during another marquee Avengers moment. He’s been scouring the Nine Realms for the remaining Infinity Stones ever since but we find him now caught in a bind.

Spewing exposition for the benefit of the audience is never a glamorous job, so Waititi figures why not let it fall to an anthropomorphic molten rock thingy. Surtur informs us that ‘Ragnarök’ — the prophesied destruction of Thor’s home world — is nigh, and that essentially nothing can stop it. Even though he Houdini’s his way out of this initial hang-up, Thor is sent on a collision course with an even bigger problem: dealing with his incredibly dysfunctional family. In tracking down Odin (Sir Anthony Hopkins), who is in failing health and has exiled himself from Asgard, Thor, along with half-brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), learn about the sister they never knew they had in Hela (Academy Award-winner Cate Blanchett) as well as her imminent return to Asgard.

And it is imminent. Hopkins has barely finished his monologue before we get our first glimpse of a goddess scorned. Blanchett, resembling at the very least in her eye shadow an evil version of Canadian pop singer Avril Lavigne, comes storming on to the scene, a wicked grin transforming her naturally pretty visage. The anticipation of her return proves to be far more interesting than the return itself however, as not even Ragnarok can stem the tide of Marvel’s history of disappointing villains (though the irony of this franchise spawning arguably the entire MCU’s best baddie is never lost). Spouting the platitudes of power-hungry deities isn’t the actor’s forte, yet Blanchett is such a pro she hides her inexperience well, clearly relishing the opportunity to do something a little different. If only the writing around her character aspired to do something different as well.

The major beats of the story ping-pong us back and forth between two alien worlds, the Eden-above-Eden that is Asgard, and a garbage planet called Sakaar, a wild land that feels like an extension of a music video for Empire of the Sun. There we are walking not on a dream, but amongst the brokenness of dreams, of spirits. It’s a planet literally comprised of junk and over which Jeff Goldblum‘s Grandmaster deludedly reigns. As the resident Crazy, the Grandmaster likes to put on gladiatorial battles for his scavenging underlings to drool over. (Cue Thor’s involvement and, so as to emphasize the film’s newfound identity, his new haircut.)

Contrived writing and trailer-provided spoilers aside, this is an important detour as it introduces a pair of fringe players who end up vying for MVP of the movie. And when Waititi prioritizes entertainment over logic at almost every turn he could always use more hands on deck. In the arena we meet Korg, a warrior made out of rocks and brought to life by Waititi himself in a motion capture performance. He’s a gentle giant whose voice is guaranteed to throw you for a loop. Then there’s Tessa Thompson’s hard-drinking bounty hunter, who at the behest of the screenwriters consistently rejects Thor’s pleas for help. The Valkyrie brings a beguiling new attitude that makes her eventual turnaround not only convincing but emotionally satisfying. She needs a movie of her own.

Thor: Ragnarok is a spirited good time, and it is surely an impressive feat for a director who considers himself decidedly more indie. The guys over at Industrial Light and Magic contribute an appropriate sense of scale and the rich textures needed to make these alien environments feel lived-in. The world-building is beyond reproach, but not even Waititi’s brand of comedy is enough to cover up all the existent flaws in the design, the likes of which seem to accrue rapidly along a common fault. The tonal shift is so jarring between the events taking place on poor old vulnerable Ass-guard and those on Sakaar that the film could be clinically diagnosed as bipolar. One part of the film is unapologetically fun, the other — Hela’s brave new world — feels like Game of Thrones. Enormous man-eating wolves only solidify that impression.

It’s ironic that the third Thor film suffers from precisely the opposite problem its predecessors had. It seems almost unfair or overly harsh to criticize the new one for correcting and then overcorrecting, but the scales are nevertheless still unbalanced. The comedy is too varied for Ragnarok to be dismissed as purely asinine — you’ll find elements of slapstick coexisting with wry observational humor, and then there’s always the familiar Marvel formula for giving us a sense of power dynamics (the Hulk smash is once again invoked, and we all know that’s not something Waititi invented). Indeed, there’s much to celebrate with this movie, and while there’s nearly as much to criticize, I’d call this progress. Significant progress at that.

Recommendation: Colorful, energetic, popcorn-destroying fun. The continued adventures of Thor are given a new lease on life with the Johnny-come-lately director who seems to take advantage of the timing of his arrival. When in full comedy mode, Thor: Ragnarok is at its best but as with all of these movies, I’m not the expert. I wonder how more dedicated fans in the long run come to view movies like this, like Shane Black’s Iron Man 3. Will these movies be remembered for the history they helped shape or what they had to sacrifice in order to make room for more laughs? 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 130 mins. 

Something kinda neat: Thor’s “friend from work” line about the Hulk was suggested to Chris Hemsworth by a Make-A-Wish child who paid a visit to the set on the day the scene was filmed.

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Photo credits: http://www.flickeringmyth.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Spider-Man: Homecoming

Release: Friday, July 7, 2017

[Theater]

Written by: Jon Watts; Jonathan Goldstein; John Francis Daley; Christopher Ford; Chris McKenna; Erik Sommers

Directed by: Jon Watts

The only thing that’s slightly unconvincing about the high school experience as depicted in Jon Watts’ re-re-freakin’-re-boot is the distinct lack of oily skin and pimples. Nobody ever looks as liberated from acne at this stage, not unless you have a parent working for a skin-cleansing company. Or maybe you were just more amazing than Spidey himself way back when.

Otherwise, holy crap. Spider-Man: Homecoming gets it. Tom Holland definitely gets it. The high school awkwardness. Being so young and impressionable. Being willing, perhaps overeager, to prove yourself. These clumsy first steps toward adulthood are so earnestly rendered this played out as a flashback of my drifting through Farragut High, a school originally designed for 1,800 but whose population was, at the time, swelling to over 2,100. I was reminded of the cliques and the cliches, of Toga Nights and canned food drives that epitomized our silly little rivalry with the Bearden Bulldogs. And, more generally, the undeveloped idealism that inspires 18-year-olds to “change the world.” And, of course, how few school dances I went to wasted time and money on.

Although Spider-Man: Homecoming almost made me nostalgic for those days, it’s not a film completely defined by its knack for triggering trips down memory lane. It’s a superhero origins film, through and through. It’s far less formulaic than many are inevitably going to give it credit for. While significant chunks of character development take place within the confines of the fictional Midtown School of Science and Technology, the story follows a proactive Peter Parker (Holland) as he attempts to stop a newly emerging threat and thus prove himself worthy of Avengerdom. He’s also taking part in academic decathlons and learning how to drive and talk to girls. Because of its placement within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Watt (along with half of Hollywood’s screenwriters, apparently) choose to keep the world of . . . World-Saving on the periphery, effectively ensuring the film has a personality and trajectory all its own.

This is undeniably one of the most assured installments in the MCU yet — some feat, considering we are nine years into this thing now. It’s thrilling because of what it suggests for the future of the MCU and future standalone films, yet the production remains fully connected to the present and focused, careful in the way it blends spectacle with human drama. In the process it leapfrogs past Andrew Garfield’s two outings and at least two of Tobey Maguire’s. Arguably all three, for as cuckoo as Doc Ock may have been, Michael Keaton’s villainy is far superior both in terms of impact on the story and the menace introduced. Spider-Man: Homecoming may be about teenagers, but it carries a surprising amount of gravitas. Driven by the exuberance of the youthful Londoner, the saga is bolstered further by the mentor dynamic established earlier between Tony and Peter in Captain America: Let’s All Hate Each Other Temporarily.

We’re first introduced to one Adrian Toomes (Keaton), who has been profiting from the salvage of scrap metal and precious recovered alien technology in the aftermath of the Battle of New York. Shut down by the intervening Department of Damage Control, jointly created by Tony Stark and the feds, the already desperate Adrian finds himself turning to more shady activity all in the name of providing for his family. Cut to eight years later, and to the unassuming residential sector of Forest Hills, Queens, New York. The architectural wonder that is Stark Tower looms large on the Manhattan skyline. Peter, in a makeshift outfit, sets about fighting pick-pocketers and other small-time crooks after school. To satisfy his ever-curious Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), he explains that he’s busy taking part in “the Stark internship.”

We know the drill by now. Secrets don’t stay secrets for long when you are living a double life. The tension’s familiar — Peter having to come up with ways of defending Spider-Man (“he seems like a good guy”) all while excusing himself from his normal activities with little to no warning. But the execution here is confident and creative, a consideration of what must be in place first before one goes from part-time to full-time superhero. Several recurring motifs are presented, but they’re buried convincingly within the drama more than they ever have been. Keaton redefines the role of the antagonistic father with a mysterious alter ego all his own. Best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) is the first Average Joe to become privy to Peter’s abilities. The girl is right there in front of Peter, yet she couldn’t be further from reach.

Mercifully, the film avoids a retread of the “great power” lecture. Tomei and Holland brilliantly internalize the pain created in the wake of the death of Uncle Ben. This frees up the quasi-origins story to explore the specific challenges of maturing into a bona fide superhero. Feeling suppressed under the supervision of Tony’s personal assistant, Happy (Jon Favreau), Peter is often left frustrated by the red tape he must deal with from his idol, a point of contention that frequently paints him, no matter how naturally aligned our perspective is with his, as a kid with a lot of learning ahead of him — an homage to the Tony Stark that was before he engineered his way out of a terrorist cell. One of the best scenes in the movie is when Tony chastises the 16-year-old for not fully understanding the consequences of his actions.

Question is, does director Jon Watts (Cop Car; Clown) realize the consequences of his? A bar has been raised. Will it remain out of reach? It’s no accident that Spider-Man: Homecoming is the most solid MCU offering since Iron Man (in effect, the inception of the MCU itself). It’s a fluidly paced, two-plus-hour movie that passes by in what feels like five minutes. It balances dramatic elements with high entertainment value, all while introducing highly advanced tech, with yet another new, sleek suit sporting over 500 different web combinations (thanks, Dad!). More compelling than the suit, though, is the way Holland acquits himself with regard to the burden of expectation placed upon him. Maybe that’s what reminds me most of Iron Man. That movie wasn’t supposed to be that good.

So, yeah. With great power comes . . . well, you know the rest.

What a fun movie.

Spidey chillin in HisTube

Recommendation: Buoyant, heartfelt, surprisingly moving. Spider-Man: Homecoming proves that not only was a new iteration possible, it was essential to our understanding of where the MCU goes from here. Speaking from the point of view of someone who never read the comics, I just fell in love with Spider-Man. I really did. I can’t wait to see more. With any luck, the more committed come out feeling the same way. It’s a testament to the quality of the film when it thrives even without J.K. Simmons. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 133 mins.

Quoted: “What the fu — ” 

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Doctor Strange

doctor-strange-movie-poster

Release: Friday, November 4, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Scott Derrickson; Jon Spaihts; C. Robert Cargill 

Directed by: Scott Derrickson

Benedict Cumberbatch’s introduction to the Marvel Cinematic Universe is far from inauspicious, but Doctor Strange falls short of being the prodigy its parents want so badly for it to be, though not for a lack of trying with shaky hands.

Strangely, what proves to be yet another underwhelming, formulaic and contrived origin story ultimately becomes an acceptable reality because inventive special effects rule the day. This is such a sumptiously visual feast the story all but becomes an afterthought. It’s The Deadpool Effect: some movies are just going to get a pass because somehow, whether through mixed tapes, sorcery or outrageous Ryan Reynoldsry, the enjoyability factor supersedes substance. Cumberbatch slips into the superhero role like he’s been here before, turning in an excellent performance that will be, if anything, the big takeaway from this particular chapter in the MCU. He’ll be the torch that will light this story through forthcoming installments.

It’s either that or the Inception-on-steroids visual gimmickry that takes our lowly three-dimensional existence and flips it, twists it, inverts it and then manipulates it back into a shape approximate to what was there before. In Doctor Strange you’ll experience a multitude of physical and even psychological paradoxes as you break the planes of multidimensional existence and pass through portals to other worlds (or just other parts of our world). Perhaps no other movie this year or in the last several have made such a conscientious effort to make the viewer feel like they’re hallucinating most of what they’re witnessing. Go ahead, rub your eyes. It’s really happening.

The story, the fall from grace of Tony Stark Md. Doctor Stephen Vincent Strange, isn’t particularly exciting but I suppose it’s one worth investigating here. An egomaniacal surgeon who regularly performs miracles on the operating table, his world is flipped upside down one night when he is involved in a bad car accident and becomes a patient in the very hospital he has stood tall in for years. A complicated emergency surgery follows, something that Strange doesn’t take altogether very well. In the ensuing fall out, he shuns emotional support provided by former lover and fellow surgeon Christine Palmer (an under-used Rachel McAdams) after attempts to receive experimental surgery fail. Too arrogant to accept there are other ways in which he can help people, Strange sets off for Kathmandu to seek the help of a mystic who lives there.

A hop, skip and jump later we’re in the slums of Nepal, sifting through an altogether unfamiliar environment. The backdrop suggests humble new beginnings, but it’ll take some time for Strange himself to become humbled. His arrogance follows him everywhere, even inside the walls of the Kamar-Taj, a secret compound that could have been lifted right out of the Matrix training program. Rather than a dojo for Neo to learn how to control his mind, it’s one in which Strange will learn to drop everything he knows to be true and to embrace the realm of sorcery and magic. Tilda Swinton, beautifully androgynous in the role as The Ancient One, is his reckoning.

The Sorcerer Supreme shows the doctor that indeed other dimensions exist — realms that Earth is shielded from thanks to the tireless efforts of sorcerers stationed at the three sanctums found in London, New York and Hong Kong. But she’s not prepared to train Strange because his cocksureness reminds her of a former Master who had gone rogue. That Master is none other than Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), who became seduced with the idea of eternal life offered by Dormammu (voiced by Cumberbatch), a supreme being concealed in the bowels of the Dark Dimension. Kaecilius manifests as the film’s chief antagonist, with whom Strange finds himself interacting if not entirely too prematurely.

And that’s largely the film’s problem: it is in too much of a hurry to get to the goods. Much of this transformation, while rewarding in the sense that this is much like returning to the mindfuck Neo experienced when he took the red pill, is designed to provide the easiest, most agreeable payoffs. Like much of Marvel’s cinematic property. Here, though, the psychological, philosophical and mystical elements lend themselves to a much more high-brow kind of cerebral experience. Once more the cutting edge of creativity is blunted by writing-by-committee: witty one-liners attempt to provide levity but end up more distracting and pandering, the training montage is almost blink-and-you’ll-miss-it, and the villain is maddeningly mediocre, though the talented Danish actor makes him worth watching more so than he probably deserves.

Notable stand-out performances help elevate the pedestrian narrative considerably. Chiwetel Ejiofor as Karl Mordo is an idealist with an intense and complicated relationship with The Ancient One who is the first to accept Doctor Strange into the ranks. Then there’s the film’s second Benedict, Benedict Wong who plays . . . Wong. I’m actually not kidding. He is a source of stoicism and loyalty, acting as the full-bodied keeper of the Kamar-Taj and chief librarian, after the former librarian is, um, relieved of his duties. And Mikkelsen resonates in the role of a man hell-bent on immortality. He convincingly argues he is not out for the destruction of mankind but rather the continuation of it, albeit via some pretty questionable methods.

We’re 14 movies deep into the MCU and yet Doctor Strange never seems to work as hard as it should, overly reliant on the strength of the visual component to carry the burden. (Okay, and Cumberbatch, lest I forget to state the obvious. He’s great.) This particular film, directed by Scott Derrickson (Sinister; The Day the Earth Stood Still) is an axiom in the sense that modern cinema is trending the more visual route rather than the intellectual. Like DeadpoolDoctor Strange never succumbs to mediocrity, but it’s just barely above that threshold. The familiarity of everything we go through makes the title Doctor Not-So-Strange-Actually-He’s-Quite-Normal feel more appropriate.

doctor-strange-wtf

Recommendation: Don’t get me wrong, Doctor Strange is a lot of fun, but when it comes to introducing another of its obscure characters, Marvel seems far too satisfied with outfitting them with overly familiar clothes. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 115 mins.

Quoted: “Dormammu, I’ve come to bargain . . . “

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Guest Editorial: 5 Questions About the New Spider-Man Reboot

Spider-Man reboot

Guest Editorial by: James Murray

If you’re a fan of superhero cinema, or really movies in general, you’ve heard the news: 2017 will bring us yet another version of Spider-Man on the big screen, after the series directed by Sam Raimi and Marc Webb ran out of steam. It’s a little bit tiresome that we’ll be getting a sixth Spider-Man film as the start of a third franchise. However, this one will be different. This time around, Marvel Studios is at the helm, and Peter Parker/Spider-Man will be brought into the Marvel Cinematic Universe alongside the Avengers, rather than isolated to his own storyline in Manhattan.

There are a few things we know for sure already. We know Tom Holland will play Peter Parker, and that the focus will be on the character as a high school student (rather than a graduating young adult entering the world, as we’ve seen in the past). We also know that his first appearance will come in this spring’s Captain America: Civil War, and that his introduction to the Avengers will come through Iron Man. But for the most part, the rest is unknown! So here are five questions that remain about the latest reboot, as well as a few guesses at the answers.


Who is Michelle?


We recently learned that Sony and Marvel have cast Disney star Zendaya as a supporting character in the untitled 2017 reboot. And though Zendaya doesn’t fit the usual appearance of a Gwen Stacy or Mary Jane Watson, most fans probably assumed she’d be playing the part of one or the other. As reported by Hollywood Life, however, Zendaya will actually be playing a character named Michelle.

So who’s Michelle? Well, according to a Marvel comics database, she’s a pretty abstract character from the Spider-Man comics. She’s the sister of an imprisoned police officer who has a brief fling with Peter Parker. It seems Michelle may simply be a convenient way for the new reboot to give Parker a love interest without rehashing Watson (played by Kiersten Dunst in the Raimi trilogy) or Stacy (played by Emma Stone in the Webb films).


Is J. Jonah Jameson on board? 


Looking back at that comic database describing Michelle (or Michele, as it’s spelled there), one interesting connection comes to light: her first appearance is as Peter Parker’s wedding date to the union of Aunt May (who’s set to be played by Marisa Tomei in the reboot) and J. Jonah Jameson. Jameson was famously played by J.K. Simmons in the Raimi trilogy, in which he became something of a fan favorite.

So could Jameson be in this film as well? We do know that fans have called for a return to the role by Simmons, and Simmons has indicated interest. However, we also recently learned that he’s been cast as Commissioner Gordon in the upcoming Justice League film by DC. It would seem that his appearing in two rival superhero franchises simultaneously is unlikely, but the Jameson character could still be involved.


Who’s the villain?


possible Spider-Man reboot villains

Perhaps the biggest mystery remaining about the reboot is who will play the villain, or who that villain will even be. The frontrunner may be the Green Goblin, given that he’s one of the most iconic Spider-Man villains and has a very strong foothold in modern pop culture. Not only was the Goblin the featured villain in past Spider-Man films, but he’s also maintained a strong presence in Spidey video games for console and mobile devices. In fact, there’s even an ‘Attack of the Green Goblin’ casino game for Spider-Man fans to play online. It’s described as a Marvel slots game with cool graphics and jaw-dropping animation, and the focus (given the name) is clearly on the Goblin.

But will a slew of video game appearances, a popular online slot title, and past film roles prop up the villain or doom him? He’s the character modern fans who may not have read the comics are most comfortable with. However, the introduction of a Michelle character may indicate a determination to stray from past projects. Mysterio, Chameleon, Doctor Octopus, Venom, and Hobgoblin come to mind as other possibilities.


Have we seen the only suit?


If you follow Marvel news closely, you may have noticed that a bombshell was dropped on March 10. A new trailer for Captain America: Civil War debuted, and at the end of it we got our first official look at the new Spider-Man, as he whizzes into action and steals Captain America’s shield (with a strand of sticky web, of course). The character then crouches, faces the camera, and says, cheekily, “Hey, everyone.”

It’s a pretty great moment for the trailer, but fans are already focused on the suit, which offers a whole new design. In short, the red is brighter, there’s a bit more black, and a bit less blue than what we’ve seen in the past two film franchises. But will this be the only suit we see? Before the trailer, there was a lot of talk of Tony Stark possibly designing the so-called “Iron Spider” armor that exists in some comics. Now that we know what Spidey will look like, we’ll all be wondering if he’ll have an alternate costume as well.


What kind of tone should we expect?


Generally speaking, the Spider-Man tone is easy to predict. There’s an intentionally cheesy factor, a strong dose of humor, and some seriousness that takes over when the stakes get high. But looking into the people behind the new reboot, it’s hard to imagine this movie falling neatly into place. Director Jon Watts’ only notable projects to date are Clown (2014) and Cop Car (2015). Both were tense thrillers, with the former employing elements of horror. Meanwhile, screenwriter John Francis Daley is best known for comedies like Horrible Bosses (2011) and The Incredible Burt Wonderstone (2013).

That’s a pretty odd team, and it opens the possibility of Spider-Man going dark (think Daredevil or Jessica Jones), going full-on comedy (think Deadpool), or falling pretty much anywhere in between.

Marvel has its work cut out in convincing fans to go out and see Spider-Man in yet another franchise. That being said, we are talking about one of the most beloved comic superheroes of all time, and it seems that excitement is already building.

the many faces of Peter Parker


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Ant-Man

ant_man_ver2

Release: Friday, July 17, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: Edgar Wright; Joe Cornish; Adam McKay; Paul Rudd

Directed by: Peyton Reed

Well, it’s official. After watching this, stepping on ants for me is a thing of the past. Stepping on ants is murder.

If someone were to ask me what would be the strangest superhero for Marvel Studios to base a movie around, Ant-man would be the last thing I would have suggested. Then again, I’m likely not the best person to ask such a question, as my ignorance when it comes to everything comic book-related borders on embarrassing. Until it was announced last year that they were casting the role of Scott Lang/Ant-man, I had no idea that this was actually a thing.

When Paul Rudd was confirmed, suddenly I became antsy to see it. (Do we need to start tallying all of these awful puns?)

Edgar Wright’s . . . er, sorry, Peyton Reed’s Ant-man, the final film in the MCU’s Phase Two, is ultimately a successful new addition because the star of the film — a high-tech suit designed by former S.H.I.E.L.D. member Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) — represents one of the riskier propositions Marvel has had to sell relative newcomers to the superhero genre in some time. Let’s be honest, for every Marvel geek in attendance there is likely to be at least three who aren’t quite as attuned.

Everyone of course will continue basking in the glory of the Avengers’ camaraderie, pondering the likelihood of another stand-alone Hulk movie, eagerly anticipating the return of Chris Pratt’s Starlord. The popularity contest was won even before Tony Stark came on the scene in 2008. Basing a film around a piece of tech that can shrink a man to the size of an insect, enabling him to gain strength in the process, well   . . . that’s a difficult pitch. Similar to Guardians of the Galaxy, obscurity actually works in Ant-man‘s favor.

Unlike Guardians, Ant-man isn’t quite as dynamic or willing to take risks with its principals. That’s mostly because the main character itself is riskier than Gamora and Groot put together. (His name is Ant-man for Pete’s sake.) Neither film has a particularly inventive story to offer — it’s either save the galaxy or save the world from villains who equal one another in their villainous ineptitude. The former, however, did have spectacular visual effects and a cast of characters that remain vivid today. Conversely, Ant-man isn’t so interested in characters as it is in the environment, taking a magnifying glass to the mundanity that surrounds us in our everyday lives. Bathtubs, briefcases, children’s rooms and playsets become wild, vast expanses that play host to all sorts of adventure and exhilaration.

Déjà vu: Ant-man is an origin story. It operates, somewhat uninspired, as a redemption arc for a con-man wanting to do right by his young daughter. Despite the fact he has an electrical engineering background, Scott Lang has made a life out of cat burglary, robbing people without using violence. As such he has lost privileges with his ex-wife (Judy Greer) and daughter, after having served one too many prison sentences. When “one last robbery” leads Scott to discover a kind of jumpsuit in the heavily-protected cellar of an eccentric old man, he is faced with the opportunity to save more than just his reputation as an absentee dad and husband. Old habits die even harder when they are vital to the plot.

A sinister development within Pym Technologies sees Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), Hank’s former protégé, on the brink of harnessing the same power he had discovered, and has plans on unleashing it upon the world. Reed, whose previous directing credits are a little more than questionable, doesn’t rely on groundbreaking storytelling techniques, epic action setpieces nor particularly memorable performances to effect a highly entertaining, mischievous little outing that completely ignores its once-disastrous potential. Ants are hardly anyone’s favorite creature (sorry if they are yours) but in his film, ants become the good guys. I feel like that’s a feat in and of itself. We even get an education on their various classifications.

So, no. No I’m not stepping on any more ants. Even if this film had potential to become slightly more explosive I personally got a lot out of this exercise, other than realizing Paul Rudd can pretty much do anything he wants. Ants aren’t soulless, they aren’t the harbingers of ruined picnics I once thought them to be. Sure, they might be pests who always seem to find a way into your house but the next time I see a string of soldier ants strutting their stuff from one hole in the wall to the other, it might be best to assume they are reporting for duty.

Recommendation: Ant-man works as a genuinely entertaining (and genuinely harmless) bit of sci-fi action, though it will exist on the fringe in terms of Marvel’s most memorable outings. Its best attributes come in the form of a reliable Paul Rudd and some impressive visual effects which end up doing much of the film’s heavy lifting as the story shifts between points of view. Even if this character has eluded you until now, you should check it out and see what all the ant-icipation was about.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 117 mins.

Quoted: “It’s very rare you get invited back to the same place you robbed from.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Marvel’s The Avengers: Age of Ultron

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Release: Friday, May 1, 2015

[RPX Theater]

Written by: Joss Whedon

Directed by: Joss Whedon

In the chaotic and climactic final twenty minutes a wistfulness arose within me, and though I didn’t let it fully disengage me from one of the year’s most ambitious CGI spectacles I was annoyed I let it happen. I knew it was going to, though. That feeling that, after all of this battling against the hype machine, this was it. This was all it could have been.

And of course it was; it makes sense. Marvel’s The Avengers: Age of Ultron may be the much-anticipated follow-up to that most grandiose uniting of superheroes from far-flung corners of the globe but in the end it is still just a movie. At two hours and twenty minutes it’s a lot of movie but even that kind of length ends up shortchanging those who have built this up in their heads as some kind of singular event. I honestly put the blame on Joss Whedon, though. Maybe if he hadn’t made Marvel’s The Avengers such a spectacular escape little old film fans like me wouldn’t have unfairly begun wielding our hopes and expectations like a shield of vibranium against which the man would have little hope of defending himself.

The one thing he won’t have to hope for is a solid box office presence, though. That’s perhaps the only thing that’s guaranteed about his new film.

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AGE OF JAMES SPADER

Age of Ultron arrives at a time when superhero movies have . . . okay, forget that. Instead: yay, summer! Rather than detangling the network of superhero film reel that’s enabled this one to happen, I think it’s best to cut to the chase and talk all things artificially intelligent and Hydra-related. Whedon wastes no time in appealing to our appropriately elevated adrenaline levels by introducing the gang kicking ass and taking names in the remote European nation of Sokovia, the location of a Hydra outpost. Baron Wolfgang von Strucker (Thomas Kretschmann) has gotten a hold of Loki’s scepter and is using it to experiment on humans. His most notable creations become Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor Johnson) and the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), who take pleasure in being the collective thorn in the Avengers’ collective side.

Following their successful stand against some of Hydra’s henchmen, the Avengers return to headquarters and celebrate, but only briefly. Given Stark’s affinity for constantly tinkering with his creations he uses the A.I. he and Banner discover within the scepter to jumpstart his long-dormant and secretive Ultron project, a program he believes will be humanity’s best chance of living in a safer world.

Amidst one of the more memorable scenes — Thor ribbing his companions into trying to lift his hammer knowing full well none of them will succeed, only to be gobsmacked by Steve Rogers’ ability to actually influence it ever so subtly — a worst case scenario rears its ugly head as Ultron’s sentience rapidly exceeds Stark’s ability to control it. Ultron (voiced by James Spader) quickly deduces people are no good; that the only way Earth will be safe is to eradicate them. One thing I was impressed by was how my cynicism was put in perspective in the face of a vengeful, ten-foot tall robot with evil red eyes.

If there’s anything that bundles together Age of Ultron‘s dizzying number of thematic and physical ambitions it’s the notion that not everything created by a billionaire genius can be controlled. Not by him, and not even by Whedon. The arrival of a one-of-a-kind android in Spader, whose own image rather disappointingly supersedes that of his on-screen counterpart, heralds an age in which over-ambition, even born out of purely good intentions, very well might mean the downfall of everything. That’s obviously not going to be the case for the MCU. Still, this bloated sequel is not the joyride its predecessor was.

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SUPERHERO FATIGUE V. SUPERHERO INDIFFERENCE

In propelling the complex mythos and relationships that have endeared millions to this lone property into the future, Whedon has incidentally obligatorily spawned an environment in which everything is expected to get more and more extreme. Unfortunately that’s kind of an issue that can be traced back to the Avengers’ cinematic birth in 2012. How the Infinity War sequels are supposed to top this is anyone’s guess, but there is no doubt Marvel will demand it from the Russo brothers. I suspect we are yet to enter the darkest days facing our fearless heroes, and if this middle film is a barometer of anything, it’s solemnity.

But like Man of Steel and The Amazing Spider-man, just because the story takes a darker turn — these properties are, after all, reflecting a reality that seems to be growing ever more hostile — this doesn’t discount Age of Ultron‘s potential to be an enjoyable summer getaway. Rather, I have found it easy to forget about that potential, and much more challenging to be as enthusiastic as Whedon’s canvas continues spreading to include lesser-known players, heroes who are admittedly cleverly worked into the picture, but who don’t mean as much if you haven’t done your Avengers homework. (And I am referring to the comics.) There’s something about the hatred Ultron directs primarily towards Tony Stark and secondarily to the human population at large that screams ‘classic movie villainy,’ yet the same can’t be said about Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch’s decision to shift loyalties.

Perhaps my detachment from the Maximoff twins, in particular, stems from my failure to be entertained by Elizabeth Olsen trying on a Russian accent. Equally distracting is Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s Beach Boys hairdo. These two needed their own cinematic introduction before showing up in ostensibly pivotal roles here. The Vision means little to me, although his . . . odd genetic make-up is something to behold. If this all sounds like a personal problem, that’s because it likely is. Whereas some are experiencing the inevitable ‘superhero fatigue,’ I find I may have accidentally banished myself to the realm of superhero indifference.

What Age of Ultron ultimately assembles (and stop me when this sounds familiar) is an overstuffed extravaganza that tries, mostly succeeding, to incorporate as much of the popular Marvel legacy as a single film can handle before breaking and before turning off as many of its several hundred million viewers as possible. It’s the epitome of blockbuster in a blockbuster age. It’s a mighty compromise between getting really technical and remaining lowest-common-denominator entertainment. I feel as unique as the Avengers are, they deserve something not quite as mundane.

At the same time, what else could I have expected out of a summer movie? While I don’t feel like my expectations turned on me as drastically as Stark’s program did him, like him I am reluctant to admit it was pretty much my fault. . .

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3-5Recommendation: Featuring Whedon’s trademark comic relief and ability to weave together multiple story lines, Marvel’s The Avengers: Age of Ultron unfortunately might signal what has been coming down the pipe for a long time. It’s a film of excess but also a film that minimizes enjoyment to pack in as much information and spectacle as possible. Diehards will no doubt lap this up. Anything less though, are sure to find things that could have been much better. A recommended watch in the large format, but unlike the first one I can’t say you need to see it twice in such a fashion. There is a mid-credits scene that you should stick around for.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 141 mins.

Quoted: “Everyone creates the thing they fear. Men of peace create engines of war. Avengers create invaders. Parents create children, that will supplant them.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.moviepilot.com; http://www.imdb.com