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 

Black Widow

Release: Friday, July 9, 2021

👀 Theater

Written by: Eric Pearson

Directed by: Cate Shortland

Starring: Scarlett Johansson; Florence Pugh; David Harbour; Rachel Weisz

 

 

 

 

***/*****

Timing is everything. This applies, painfully so, to Black Widow, a film that feels compromised in a way few Marvel movies have.

In her first foray into the Marvel Cinematic Machine director Cate Shortland finds herself in an incredibly difficult position. Twenty-four films deep into a shared universe that has now spun off multiple streaming shows, she is tasked with compressing both origins story and swan song into one entertaining package. Black Widow‘s out-of-sequence placement burdens the filmmaker with a number of difficult creative choices, most notably how much nuance she can bring to a story that ostensibly dives into the emotional interior of one of the foundational members of the Avengers.

Hey, at least they finally got the damn thing made. Scarlett Johansson* may have had to wait 11 years, 20 films and her own character’s killing off to earn what Robert Downey Jr. got three times in five years, Chris Hemsworth three in six and Chris Evans twice in three,** but the only resentment you sense from Natasha Romanoff in her eighth and likely final MCU appearance is reserved for Dreykov (Ray Winstone — Noah; The Departed), the Russian psycho who brainwashed and tortured her and her ‘sister’ Yelena Belova (a scene-stealing Florence Pugh) as young girls, along with countless others from all over the world, into becoming an army of perfect assassins.

A bittersweet prologue sets us all up for a rude awakening: a seemingly normal American family in 1995 Ohio is suddenly compelled to make a break for Cuba after being discovered as the Russian sleeper agents they actually are. ‘Father’ Alexei Shostakov (David Harbour) and ‘mother’ Melina Vostokoff (Rachel Weisz) have been keeping their ‘children’ Natasha (here played by Ever Anderson) and Yelena (Violet McGraw) sheltered for as long as they can but a sad twist of fate shatters the illusion, the daughters separated and handed over to Dreykov and eventually sent to a nebulous place called the Red Room, a hovering fortress in the sky that could have been cribbed from a Pink Floyd concept album.

Cut to the present (which is still the past) and Natasha’s on the run from U.S. Secretary Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt) after giving him and his Sokovia Accords the one-finger salute. Her nomadic lifestyle in Norway is short-lived with the arrival of the mysterious mercenary Taskmaster, drawn to an item our hunkering-down hero is unwittingly in possession of. After a violent showdown on a bridge, Natasha escapes to Budapest, where another David Leitch-like round of punishingly awesome fight choreography awaits. Here, reunited with her former sis, Natasha discovers the true extent of Dreykov’s control and power, along with a possible solution to the problem.

Post-Budapest and the spy thriller dynamic evolves into more of a dysfunctional family team-up as the pair resolve to get the old gang back together in order to take down the brute who irrevocably changed them and free the other Black Widows from the same violent servitude. The process of course mandates that mom and dad also confront their own separate, lived-in realities and their culpability in this whole mess, leading to the film’s signature scene (awkward family reunion, anyone?) — an emotional catharsis for all involved. Turns out, reliving the “good old days” is tricky to do when the good old days are your own Tahiti (what a magical place).

Black Widow is a Phase 4 debutante that is much better when grounded instead of going for literally atmospheric, generic spectacle, with some of the quieter moments packing as much of a punch as the intense fight sequences. However, the timing of the whole thing magnifies certain issues. Eric Pearson’s screenplay is not compelling enough for a film this late in the game. And considering the hefty themes in which it traffics and the cast of characters at its disposal there is enough content here to make two films. Instead the exploration of trauma and disillusionment feels rushed and harried by the “Make it count!” business mentality governing its singular existence.

Ultimately the performances save this from total mediocrity. Johansson has kicked ass from her Bechdel Test-failing introduction in Iron Man 2 (2010) through to this bitterly short-lived end, saving her most somber performance for last. Yet even in her own movie she is to some degree playing second fiddle. That’s less of a problem when the reason is Florence Pugh, who might well be stretching her legs for her own MCU run. Let’s just hope it doesn’t take quite as long — in real time or otherwise — to get that going. 

* I am considering reviving the Scarlett Johansson Project. I feel bad leaving that one incomplete. Would anyone be interested in seeing more of those kinds of posts? Show of hands in the comments below, please!

** I do not include Captain America: Civil War in that list considering that is more of an ensemble film than a true stand-alone entry. But, sure, go ahead and add it. Even more to my point.

Comrades in harms.

Moral of the Story: An uncharacteristic end-zone fumble for MCU President and ball-cap enthusiast Kevin Feige, Black Widow feels rather shortchanged by the finite space into which it has been forced to exist. On one hand, you might look at the movie multitasking as both origins and send-off as a unique thing. I don’t know any other MCU installment that has had to do that. On the other, you can’t help but feel Natasha Romanoff deserved more than what amounts to the cinematic equivalent of a hit single. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 134 mins.

Quoted: “Tell me, how did you keep your heart?” 

Check out the Final Trailer for Black Widow 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; http://www.forbes.com

Extraction

Release: Friday, April 24, 2020 (Netflix)

👀 Netflix

Written by: Joe Russo 

Directed by: Sam Hargrave 

Starring: Chris Hemsworth; Chris Hemsworth’s muscles; Randeep Hooda; Golshifteh Farahani; Rudhraksh Jaiswal 

Distributor: Netflix

 

 

***/*****

The more cynical takeaway here is that Extraction exists for no other purpose than to prove that the three — er, make it four — Marvel Cinematic Universe alums who have made it possible are capable of more hard-hitting, violent movies. The marketing seemed pretty simple: Here’s another Avenger unleashed in an R-rated movie. Chris Evans got The Red Sea Diving Resort; Chris Hemsworth gets Extraction. (On that note, who the heck is Robert Downey Jr.’s agent?)

As if to one-up his own brooding performances in Thor: The Dark World and the opening stanza of Avengers: Endgame, the hulking Australian goes from being superheroic to super-sullen in this straightforward and straight-up bloody action thriller directed by stunt coordinator extraordinaire Sam Hargrave. In his directorial début he is joined by his buddies Joe and Anthony Russo — the fraternal duo behind some of Marvel’s biggest chapters. The former writes the script and serves as a producer alongside his brother. That pedigree of talent in front of and behind the camera ensured Extraction won the popularity contest with housebound audiences earlier this year, becoming the most-streamed title in Netflix’s catalogue of originals.*

To be more charitable — and more honest — Extraction is a throwback to gritty, ultra-masculine action cinema of the past, a one-note drama that knows its boundaries and doesn’t try to cross them. It isn’t gunning for any awards, but if you’re looking for a way to get your adrenaline pumping, this fast-paced adventure of bone-crunching action should do the trick. Based on the graphic novel Ciudad, the movie pits Hemsworth’s black ops mercenary Tyler Rake against multiple waves of bad guys crawling the cramped streets of Dhaka, Bangladesh. His mission is to rescue Ovi (Rudhraksh Jaiswal), the teenaged son of a drug lord, from a rivaling kingpin. He’s reluctantly sent in by fellow merc Nik Khan (Golshifteh Farahani), along with a support team who are here mostly to help fill the movie’s dead body quota.

What should have been a simple in-and-out turns into basically a suicide mission as the sadistic and well-connected Amir Asif (Priyanshu Painyuli) gets wind of the rescue attempt and puts the city on lockdown, sending reinforcements to all possible exit points. Meanwhile, Ovi’s guardian Saju Rav (Randeep Hooda) is highly motivated to retrieve the boy himself, with his family being threatened by an incarcerated Ovi Sr. Prison walls don’t make this man any less dangerous when there is this much pride at stake. Saju puts his years as a special forces op to good use, muscling through any and all objects standing in his path and leading us to the expected confrontation with Mr. Rake himself.

The cat-and-mouse game that ensues is more technically impressive than it is emotionally involving. While we get some insight into what drives this brooding badass into such dangerous situations, it’s really just window dressing to the carnage that unfolds in the present tense. If you squint you can see a bond beginning to form between Rake and the blank canvas of a schoolboy in his ward (in fairness to the young actor, he just isn’t given enough to do other than look scared). Joe Russo squeezes the orange hard, until some droplets of juicy redemption emerge finally for Rake, a man clearly being consumed inside by pain from a traumatic past.

The editing team paces the story pretty breathlessly, leaving you with as little time to think as its characters, which can only be a good thing when you have a protagonist this immune to dying. The marquee scene, a protracted mid-movie battle between Hemsworth and Hooda that incorporates car chases, falls from rooftops and hand-to-hand combat, proves why Hargrave is one of the best in the business when it comes to building up an action sequence that remains not just white-knuckle but also coherent. The final showdown on a bridge is also quite memorable, with bullets flying everywhere and vehicles set ablaze as all characters converge on the targets.

Unfortunately it is the epilogue that proves to be the movie’s biggest misstep. For the most part Hargrave assembles a lean, mean and self-contained story but when it comes to finishing things off, he becomes weirdly non-committal. As it turns out, he isn’t nearly as ruthless as his leading man. Still though, lack of character development and emotional depth notwithstanding, Extraction gets the job done in brutal and stylish fashion.

* the game has changed. Netflix’s metric now considers two minutes sufficient time for a person to have ‘viewed’ something. it used to be you had to watch something like 75% of a movie or a single episode for that to be counted as a view. 

Drowning in despair

Moral of the Story: I haven’t mentioned anything in my review about Extraction‘s reliance upon the white savior trope, and that’s because I’m not entirely sure it’s problematic. This movie has some undeniably ugly moments (child soldiers, for example) and yes, it is clearly a vehicle for star Chris Hemsworth, but in my view it is Randeep Hooda’s complicated family man who is the movie’s most interesting character. Story-wise and thematically this is pretty basic stuff but it certainly succeeds in its capacity as an ultra-masculine action thriller.  

Rated: R

Running Time: 103 mins.

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

Photo credits: Netflix

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):


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

Captain Marvel

Release: Friday, March 8, 2019

→Theater

Written by: Anna Boden; Ryan Fleck; Geneva Robertson-Dworet

Directed by: Anna Boden; Ryan Fleck

Captain Marvel figures to be a significant piece in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, acting as both a standalone origins story and a precursor to Jon Favreau’s standard-setting Iron Man; ipso facto it predates the entire MCU. That’s a pretty bold decision considering how much we are preoccupied with the present and the future of our favorite characters. Unfortunately the story this film tells isn’t quite so bold, the awkward way it ties into the overarching saga arguably a distraction more than it is an exciting talking point. Yet by force of personality Captain Marvel overcomes its weaknesses, and there is no denying the Avengers will be adding another nuke to their already impressive arsenal.

Unbeknownst to me, Captain Marvel is a generic name that actually refers to several characters, the very first appearing in 1967 as Captain Mar-Vell, a male (albeit an alien) military officer sent to our humble corner of the universe to spy on us and who, having grown sympathetic to the plight of mankind, ultimately switched allegiances, becoming a protector of Earth and a traitor to his own race. Multiple incarnations followed, with the character’s gender constantly changing (e.g. Phyla-Vell was female while Khn’nr and others were male) — justified by the episodic nature of comics and their need and ability to adapt.

That brings us to Carol Danvers, a half-human, half-alien super-being whose specific powers — supersonic flight, incredible strength, an ability to control and manipulate energy forms — identify her as one of the most powerful figures in the Marvel realm. As such, she wins the lottery to become the first female subject of a Marvel movie, its 21st overall. Captain Marvel is a reliably entertaining chapter that balances humor with heartache, becoming just as much about the struggle to find her real identity as it is about her discovering her powers and how she decides to wield them. It may not be winning many points in the original storytelling department, but it does have a winning cast of characters, fronted by Brie Larson and a digitally de-aged Samuel L. Jackson and Clark Gregg and provided depth by the likes of Ben Mendelsohn, British actress Lashana Lynch . . . and one Hala of a cat.

Directing duo Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, known heretofore for indie fare like It’s Kind of a Funny Story and Sugar, keep their story pretty earthbound with only a few signature scenes sending us beyond our atmosphere. In terms of scale, it’s surely a bigger deal than Ant-Man, but if Guardians of the Galaxy gave us a tour of the cosmic town, Captain Marvel barely introduces us to our next-door neighbors. The relative intimacy certainly feels appropriate since the human side of the story manifests as a journey inward, into the heart and mind of a character unsure of herself. The superhero plot meanwhile draws elements from the Kree-Skrull War comic book storyline, setting up an intergalactic war between two alien races wherein we innocent earthlings get caught in the middle and need Captain Marvel to come to our defense.

Captain Marvel opens on an alien world known as Hala, the galactic capital of the Kree Empire. A young woman named Vers is awakening from a nightmare involving some older woman who looks a lot like Annette Bening, but that’s impossible since this kind of material is several fathoms beneath an actress of her caliber. But upon closer inspection I confirmed it is indeed Bening, playing a mystical figure referred to as the Supreme Intelligence, to whom Vers is sent at the behest of her mentor Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), who is concerned about Vers’ inability to control her emotions. The Supreme Intelligence doubles down on that cautionary advice before sending the pair on a dangerous mission to rescue an undercover operative on a distant planet overrun by the enemy Skrulls. Naturally the mission goes awry when the team gets ambushed and Vers becomes separated from Yon-Rogg and her other Starforce colleagues, the former crash-landing on some scrap pile known as C-53 (a.k.a. Earth). Even worse, she’s a fish out of water in mid-90s L.A. and if fashion is anything to go by, it isn’t exactly our species’ finest hour (luckily she didn’t crash land a decade earlier).

Vers is soon intercepted by a couple of serious-looking, suit-wearing gentlemen who work for an agency whose name should never have been provided in this film for continuity’s sake. A two-eyed Nick Fury and a Just For Men advocate in young Phil Coulson witness something extraordinary when a Skrull invader crashes the scene. Because the Skrulls have this ability to change their appearance, identifying friend from foe becomes problematic, with a notable alien named Talos taking the form of Fury’s higher-up and S.H.I.E.L.D. director Keller (Mendelsohn) and another impersonating Agent Coulson. After shaking this shape-shifting shit off Fury, at the direction of Talos the predictable script, leads Vers to a U.S. Air Force Base place of thematic relevance where she finds clues to her past life — photographic evidence of her as a pilot and news clippings presuming her dead after a disastrous testing of an experimental new engine designed by a Dr. Wendy Lawson (played by Spoiler Spoilerson).

She also learns she had a close friend in Maria Rambeau (Lynch), an important link in the ole’ jogging-the-memory chain (not to mention in the realm of the MCU at large — her daughter Monica, played by an instantly lovable Akira Akbar, ostensibly set to play yet another version of Captain Marvel in the sequel — Ms. Marvel, perhaps?). The scene at the house in Louisiana is among the film’s best, the emotion that comes pouring out here no doubt a result of the indie flavor the directing tandem have brought to this much bigger project. Whether it is Lynch describing what it feels like to see her bestie return from the dead — hence the longevity of the MCU,  the human cost of being in the superhero biz has always been handled in an interesting way — or Mendelsohn getting a really juicy character whose intentions are not what they first seem, Captain Marvel soars in these more grounded moments.

Even as the action takes a turn for the surprisingly cooperative, the character work is ultimately what saves Captain Marvel from its own Negative Zone of mediocrity. While the action sequences are worthy of the big screen treatment they aren’t as integral to the personality of the film as Larson is in the title role. At one time considered too young to play the part of an Air Force pilot (this was before the filmmakers double-checked with members of the American Air Force who confirmed it is possible for a 26-year-old to be so accomplished), Larson acquits herself with the utmost confidence, maturing from reckless and unpredictable to every bit the noble warrior hero she so advertises her people as to her de facto partner in Agent Fury.

Captain Marvel/Carol Danvers is by far Larson’s most high-profile role to date and while the plight of the superhero is unfamiliar territory for someone who has developed herself through such intimate human dramas as Room and Short Term 12, you wouldn’t know it based on her confidence and how much fun she’s having here. And sorry to break it to the basement dwelling trolls who review-bombed her new movie, a perma-smile does not for a natural performance make. I personally don’t need to see someone smiling through every damn frame of the movie to know they’re enjoying themselves, or to know what this material and this role means to them.

What is this thing called The Oregon Trail?

Recommendation: While I didn’t think Captain Marvel is a game-changer — save for the first earthly encounter with the Skrulls the action scenes are pretty forgettable — it certainly has its strengths, namely the lead character and the friends she ends up making along the way. It might go without saying for most of these Important Marvel Movies but considering the way this one was seemingly preordained to fail by insecure men before it even opened, it really seems that ignoring the internet has never been more crucial in allowing you to experience the film on your own terms. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 124 mins.

Quoted: “You know anything about a lady blowing up a Blockbuster? Witnesses say she was dressed for laser tag.”

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

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 — ” 

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

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

Release: Friday, May 5, 2017

[Theater]

Written by: James Gunn

Directed by: James Gunn

One of the things that struck me about the sequel to Guardians of the Galaxy is how obviously the returning cast carry their swagger around. It’s as if they just got done saving the entire galaxy. But has this level of cockiness really been earned? All they needed to do was stop a villain with the personality of a toaster. Forgive me for sounding arrogant here — I haven’t saved any galaxies myself (yet) — but they made it look pretty damn easy.

I have been so on the fence about this movie since it came out. It’s both everything fans wanted from a sequel and not quite enough ironically for the same reason: it’s Volume 1 all over again; yet the law of diminishing returns already seem to be kicking in. You argue there’s a new villain, with new circumstances, but really what we’re talking about here is a parts exchange. The formula is very much the same. Everyone jokes around a lot — too much at times — bickers a lot, procrastinates a lot, and then, just in the nick of time, do some firing of some lasers and engage in some exciting fisticuffs just before end credits usher them off the screen like an acceptance speech on Oscar night.

Vol. 2 backtracks to the source of Peter Quill (Chris Pratt)’s heartache — his mysterious family history. Kurt Russell is in as the powerful Celestial PlanetmanbeardMacReady, a creation that dates back to the early Bronze Age of Marvel Comics. He’s got a proposition for his estranged son, whom he suddenly finds — after millions of years of scouring the Greater Universe — on a cast-off planet to which the Guardians have narrowly escaped after doing a very Guardians-y thing (well, Rocket does a very Rocket-y thing, stealing an important battery thingy from a race of people called the Sovereign, who all look like Shirley Eaton circa Goldfinger).

Russell’s Ego (but really, that’s his actual name and yes he’s also a planet — that part I wasn’t being silly about) tells Peter about his higher calling. But this attempt to rip him away from his custodial services as a Guardian of the freaking Galaxy is poorly conceived. Granted, not by Ego himself, but rather the script, which once again lay at the feet of the one-man wrecking crew James Gunn.

Guardians 3 would have been a much tougher sell should Star Lord have gone to the dark side. (And someone remind me, how did that work out for Tobey Maguire?) We’re well aware of the acrimony that has arisen amongst the crew before, but this isn’t like pondering whether or not we should be concerned about Anakin Skywalker’s hot temper. Gunn doesn’t necessarily force us to draw that exact comparison, but that’s the nature of the father-son dynamic here. It’s old-hat, the suggestion of breaking bad feels awkwardly episodic, and Russell’s utterly forgettable within it.

Elsewhere, the others are sorting through relationship issues of their own. It’s like a soapy space opera. Gamora (Zoe Saldana) is confronted with her own guilt when she’s forced to spend more time with her psycho sister Nebula (Karen Gillan, wooden as she’s ever been). Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista) is still the least subtle thing since Donald Trump, yet he’s actually endearing with his sledgehammer, awkward commentary. He cuts through the crap we humanoids generally like to call social etiquette like a combine harvester, especially when he strikes up a friendly rapport with Ego’s bug-eyed personal assistant Mantis (Pom Klementieff).

Where Vol. 2 does manage to find separation, however, is in the exploration and comparison of Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and Yondu (Michael Rooker)’s criminal pasts. As the film expands and fractures the foursome into their own little thematic camps, it’s the insight we get into the lonely life of a space-bound raccoon and Yondu’s fall from grace that really hits a nerve. There’s legitimate gravitas attached to their character arcs, something a film as outwardly flamboyant and noisy as a Guardians of the Galaxy installment kinda-sorta needs more of.

The production design remains as elaborate as anything Marvel has created before. In fact, it’s dazzling to the point of eyeball overload. But of all the problems this new and underwhelming iteration has, that’s at least a good one. The cosmic wonders of the universe work overtime to compensate for another lacking story. Overcompensatory is a fairly accurate way to describe the characters this time around as well. Baby Groot is cute, we get it. Drax doesn’t get the art of subtlety. We understood as much within the first ten minutes of his first appearance. Amusing, but one-note. Also, Gamora and Quill continue to act like magnets when you try to put the wrong ends together.

Vol. 2 is of course not a bad film. That’s ridiculous. In fact it inherits many of the qualities that made its predecessor an enjoyable and endearing farcical adventure. The characters are well-established and unique, only they’ve lost some of that novelty and a few limitations might already be on display. The cast-director chemistry is as palpable as ever. Listen, they’re all good vibes, but let’s hope the next mixtape is more inspired and has more memorable hits.

Recommendation: More of the same, for better as well as for worse, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 I believe has done just fine without my recommendation. Hasn’t it made a trillion dollars at the box office by now? 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 136 mins.

Quoted: “He may have been your father, Quill, but he wasn’t your daddy.” 

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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 . . . “

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

Captain America: Civil War

'Captain America - Civil War' movie poster

Release: Friday, May 6, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Christopher Markus; Stephen McFeely

Directed by: Anthony & Joe Russo

Standing in a line of about 200 rabid fans an hour before the screening I was asked by a woman in line — a hot mom actually — if this was the line for the Avengers movie. I really wanted to tell her, “No, this is for Captain America,” but who am I kidding, this is totally an Avengers movie. And so I was like, “Yeah,” and she was like, “Cool,” and then we both just went back to our lives.

That Captain America: Civil War is closer in spirit to one of those ultra-blockbusters is actually good news for me as I’ve never really stood behind Captain America. The Boy Scout/super-soldier kind of ruffles my feathers for some reason, and that’s through no fault of Chris Evans either. Nevertheless there I was, middle of a mob on a Saturday afternoon, the manufactured product of a month-long brainwashing program designed to win my allegiance toward either Team Steve or Team Tony.

Civil War is a film whose emotional upshot takes an eternity to eventuate, but when it does it’s actually well worth the two-and-a-half-hour sit. Steve and his embattled friend Bucky, a.k.a. The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) are at the heart of a complex moral, emotional and psychological battle that divides the Avengers — all but Hulk and Thor, of course, who are off galavanting elsewhere — straight down the middle when they are asked to sign the Sokovia Accords, a peacekeeping effort drawn up by the United Nations in response to the concerns of a growing population that thinks the Avengers are doing more harm than good.

After yet another disaster, this time in Wakanda at the hands of Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen, who has completely given up on trying to sound Russian at this point), in steps Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt) to give everyone a choice: either agree to the sanctions, to be potentially overruled in any given situation if it is deemed necessary . . . or retire from the superhero biz.

And then everyone seems to get really mad. Needless to say, the stakes are high this time, higher than they were when Loki was trying to divide and conquer from within all those movies ago, if you can believe it . . . (wasn’t it pretty much doomsday then, too?) One side argues for their continued autonomy while the other, surprisingly spearheaded by a guilt-ridden Tony, believes having a watchdog might help prevent future awkward encounters with any living relatives of people he has inadvertently killed.

Thanks to Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, two writers keen to redress familiar characters under this new guise of bitterness, distrust and uncertainty, there are equally compelling reasons to join either camp. In fact as Civil War progresses it gets ever more entrenched in the complexities of this ideological conflict. The appearance of a cold German militant named Baron Helmut Zemo (Daniel Brühl), the one behind an earlier attack on the UN that claims the life of Wakanda King T’Chaka, father of T’Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), inspires Steve to ignore new-age protocol as he attempts to stop Zemo from unleashing a secret arsenal of other Winter Soldiers being kept in cryogenic stasis at a Hydra facility in Siberia.

Civil War, like Tony and Steve, has a lot on its plate, but it wisely (and creatively) spreads the workload across its many players. Even if Downey Jr. takes this opportunity to effect a more somber version of his character than we’re used to seeing, that famous acerbic wit is never lost with the integration of Scott Lang/Ant Man (Paul Rudd) and Tom Holland’s amazingly acne-free Peter Parker/Spider Man. Black Panther digs his claws in with menacing presence and a lot of righteous anger. Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye returns as do Anthony Mackie’s Falcon and Paul Bettany as the visionary . . . Vision.

Even though giving each their time to shine means taking some away from Evans, extended interactions between less famous figures are more than welcome and give these individuals purpose within the context of the cinematic retelling of their own journeys. Bettany is perhaps the highlight, his loyalty to protecting the lone Maximoff twin from destruction following her actions in Wakanda offering a miniaturized version of the conundrum facing Iron Man and Captain America. And then there’s Black Panther’s determination to take out the one responsible for his father’s death.

For all of the potential devastation that is implied Civil War isn’t a dour affair. It doesn’t dwell in misery, and it really could have. There’s a melancholy vibe here, but the Russo brothers seem comfortable conforming to Marvel’s standard of finding levity amidst dire circumstances, injecting humor into scenes that would otherwise trend DC-dark. (God forbid that ever happen.) A movie with ‘war’ in its title going the comedy route is a risky proposition, and though this isn’t devoid moments of weakness, the continued expansion of a world parallel to ours allows them to pass quickly. There’s so much going on that Civil War all but demands repeat viewings. Eight years into the game, that’s a very good thing for the MCU.

I wonder what the hot mom thought about all of it.

Screen Shot 2016-05-09 at 1.03.32 AM

Recommendation: With the slightly-famous actors as comfortable as ever in their respective roles, Civil War benefits from the intersection of emotionally resonant performance and thoughtful, crafty storytelling. People like me — non-Captain fans — benefit greatly from the distraction of the other people around him fighting for what they believe is right for the future of the Avengers. A solid realization of a very complicated time, and the balance struck herein makes it one of my favorites of the entire MCU canon thus far.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 146 mins.

Quoted: “Okay, anybody on our side hiding any shocking, or fantastic abilities they’d like to disclose, I’m open to suggestion.” 

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