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 

Point Blank

Release: Friday, July 12, 2019 (Netflix)

→Netflix

Written by: Adam G. Simon

Directed by: Joe Lynch

Point Blank isn’t a very good crime drama, but in its pairing together of some famous superheroes (third-tier Avengers, but who’s counting) it surely hopes to distract you from that inconvenient fact of quality. I suppose that depends on how you define quality, for you could make the argument Point Blank is actually a great laundry movie — ideal for blasting through the tedium of folding socks, for example.

Borrowed from the 2010 French film of the same name, the plot is as follows: An ER nurse named Paul (Anthony Mackie) gets pulled into a life 24-hour-period of crime when his heavily pregnant wife Taryn (Teyonah Parris) is kidnapped by a career criminal named Mateo (Christian Cooke). Turns out, Mateo’s got a brother named Abe (Frank Grillo) and he’s the patient Paul’s currently caring for. They’re both in deep with even worse people. If he’s to see his family again, Paul must follow a series of orders that compels him to violate hospital policy, his own moral code and even the law itself in a race against the clock — one mostly dictated by how far apart his wife’s contractions are.

Abe is played by the gritty Frank Grillo, a compulsively watchable actor who puts his tough guy act to good use here, playing the part of an outwardly bad person with a complicated past. Mackie’s character is less complex but he remains empathetic even as he’s starting to do things a registered nurse would never do. Point Blank thematically screams don’t trust cops but it also straight-up makes a mockery of medical professionals. Hospital passes and IDs are swiped from under “capable” people’s noses, and the Hippocratic oath all of a sudden seems to encompass firing guns in public places. “Do no harm, my ass,” says this movie. Do harm when necessary (i.e. when your wifey-poo is about to go into labor in the presence of her kidnapper)!

Point Blank would be far less tolerable were it not for its leading men. The former Avengers foes strike up an enjoyable if unlikely rapport as two people from distinctly different walks of life. They tread familiar arcs, Paul learning to toughen up (and how to shoot a gun with some degree of accuracy) and Abe learning to trust someone outside of his own wayward family. There is some surprising poignancy in a development later on that makes Point Blank ultimately a statement about family and what we do to protect them.

And Joe Lynch’s remake automatically improves just by including the likes of Oscar-winner Marcia Gay Harden and House of Cards‘ Boris McGiver, who pop up as a pair of homicide detectives. Meanwhile The Walking Dead‘s Markice Moore truly hams it up as the quintessentially, paradoxically diminutive “Big D” who rolls with bodyguards twice the size of Arnie. I had fun with him, but his performance is microcosmic of the movie’s biggest issue: tonality. It’s inconsistent, considerably threatening one scene, goofy and jovial the next. Like the brothers Guavera, Point Blank just doesn’t quite know what it wants to be.

I mean, other than a nice distraction from that damn laundry. That I have just now realized I am yet to take out of the washer. Fantastic.

“Third tier? What’s that mean bro?”

Recommendation: The mileage you get out of this overly familiar, tonally bipolar buddy/cop actioner will depend on your nostalgia for The Avengers. From a genre standpoint there’s not much here to recommend, sadly, other than the really economical 86 minute running time. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 86 mins.

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

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

Ant-Man and the Wasp

Release: Friday, July 6, 2018

→Theater

Written by: Chris McKenna; Erik Sommers; Paul Rudd; Andrew Barrer; Gabriel Ferrari

Directed by: Peyton Reed

You’ve read it everywhere: Ant-Man and the Wasp is a refreshingly lightweight summer adventure that offers up more laughs than big character moments. It’s more of a superhero side dish than an entrée. But that’s okay for viewers like me, whose stomachs are starting to get pretty full with all the superhero shenanigans.

Is it me, or does “quantum entanglement” sound more like the way scientists fall in love rather than an actual problem they must solve? (“Hey everyone, I’d like you to meet my Scientist Girlfriend — we just recently got quantumly entangled.”) Alas, this isn’t a joke. Getting stuck in the quantum realm is quite serious, I assure you. Granted, not as serious as what we all went through a few weeks ago when Thanos snapped his decorated little fingers and turned half the audience into a sobbing mess. Mercifully, this is a new, pre-war chapter that gets away from all of that and returns us to a time when the superhero stakes weren’t so tiresomely dramatic.

The follow-up film to the Phase 2 finale finds Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) growing restless under house arrest. On the one hand, this has provided him an opportunity to spend some quality time with his daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson). On the other, his careless actions at the airport two years ago (you know, when Steve Rogers blamed Tony for losing his luggage) have created a rift between him and his mentor, Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and love interest Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly). They’ve gone on the run in an attempt to keep their miraculous shrinking technology a secret.

Scott has only a few days left to finish out his sentence, but that’s a large enough window for him to find trouble. But the interesting thing is, he doesn’t go looking for it; it finds him. He spends his time trying not to go insane in isolation, kept on a short leash by his parole officer (Randall Park, enjoying himself immensely). When Scott experiences a vision of Hank’s wife/Hope’s mother, Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer) still stuck in the quantum realm, his former allies seek him out in an attempt to retrieve her from the abyss to which they believed she had been forever lost.

It’s a ridiculous leap of faith following a simple voicemail but hey, there are worse plot mechanizations out there. Solving the problem of returning safely from the microscopic world isn’t the only challenge ahead of them, however. Because Scott in effect went public with his little stunt in Captain America: Civil War, a number of competing third parties are coming out of the woodwork in an attempt to benefit in some way from Pym’s genius.

There’s the black market dealer Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins), who sees the potential profit that can be made from getting into the quantum business. He gets into a little bit of a struggle with Hope over a parts deal that sours just as Ava Starr/”Ghost” (Hannah John-Kamen) appears out of nowhere. Ava is a young woman who seeks a cure for her gradually weakening physical state as a result of — and let’s not get too personal here — her unstable molecules. On top of that, we are introduced to a former colleague of Hank, a Dr. Bill Foster (Laurence Fishburne), whose life work blahdee-bloodee-blahblah. He has a few reasons to make things more difficult for Ant-Man and the gang.

If anything, Ant-Man and the Wasp is about a family coming back together. That’s kind of the perfect scope for a film following one of the most financially successful (and costly) cinematic events in history. 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 the ex-con receives from Hank and Hope. This sense of family extends to Scott’s friends over at X-Con Security, a consulting firm he and his ex-con friends — Luis (Michael Peña), Kurt (David Dastmalchian) and Dave (T.I. Harris) — started up in an attempt to go legitimate. Though these personalities don’t get much time to do their thing, you still feel the support system they provide for their perpetually-in-trouble pal Scott.

Of course, Ant-Man and the Wasp can’t really achieve any of these things without Rudd anchoring the movie. Never mind the fact he offers up a pretty wonderful example of fatherhood, he is just so effortlessly likable in the suit that he has quickly become a favorite of mine, in spite of how minor that role really is in the grand scheme. For my money, he’s right up there with Robert Downey Jr. and Ryan Reynolds in terms of infectious personalities. You have to squint to see him but he’s there, standing on the shoulders of giants while slowly but surely becoming one himself.

“Honey, I shrunk everything I cared about.”

Recommendation: Ant-Man and the Wasp is the beneficiary of Paul Rudd and a really likable all-around cast of characters. In a time when browsing through the back catalogue of the ever-expanding MCU feels a lot like shopping for flavors of Gatorade, it’s nice to have a superhero film that is not quite as preoccupied with furthering, deepening, expanding, extrapolating, implicating, duplicating, redacting, whatever-ing that all of the other chapters seem to be about. The more I think about the simplicity of this film the more I like it. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 118 mins.

Quoted: “Well, the ’60s were fun, but now I’m paying for it!”

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

Month in Review: March ’18

To encourage a bit more variety in my blogging posts and to help distance this site from the one of old, I’m installing this monthly post where I summarize the previous month’s activity in a wraparound that will hopefully give people the chance to go back and find stuff they might have missed, as well as keep them apprised of any changes or news that happened that month.

I didn’t end up posting much this March as a result of some very whacky weather (and March Madness — which really lived up to the hype this year), but a steady diet of Oscar and film festival coverage kept me going. The first two weeks brought over two feet of snow and a weeklong power outage. I ended up watching the 90th Academy Awards in a hotel room, eating Doritos out of a cup and biting my fingernails when yet again Warren Beaty came into contact with an envelope.

What I did manage to accomplish this month, besides further cement my status as your local weatherman, you can find below. Here is what has been going on on Thomas J during the month of March.

…and then there was light!


New Posts 

New Releases: Annihilation; Unsane 

Other Posts: In Memoriam: Stephen Hawking; 30-for-30: One and Not Done

Movie News

Time is running out on our beloved Avengers. Because I never read the comics, I wonder who we are going to lose in this ridiculously heavily anticipated round of Marvel mayhem. Sometimes ignorance really is bliss.

You have the choice between two Dwayne Johnson blockbusters this year. Hypothetically you have only enough money to see one of them. What will it be — him going apesh*t in Rampage (April), or as an amputee building security manager who thwarts terrorists in Skyscraper (July)?

The hype for John Krasinski’s directorial debut — wait, what? This is his fourth effort?! — A Quiet Place has reached critical mass. I can’t wait to get my hands on his first horror film and confirm whether the rumors are true, that Dwight Shrute is indeed the main villain.

Blogging News

My favorite blog on the planet has been putting in the overtime with their coverage of the 2018 SXSW Film Festival. Seriously, if you love movies, and aren’t following Assholes Watching Movies already, you are missing out! Their reviews are top-rate and holy balls Batman are they in abundance.

Some of you might be aware of my enthusiasm for Alex Garland’s latest movie, Annihilation. Well, as it turns out — I am not the only one who has been mesmerized. Viewers the world over have been responding to the film surprisingly well considering how few actually got the chance to experience it in theaters. I don’t usually get too wrapped up in what the majority think but in this case, I have become enamored with this film and how it has spoken to audiences. It really is an exciting film.

The Sporadic Chronicles of a Beginner Blogger’s recent Blindspot Review of Will Ferrell’s Anchorman pulls no punches. It was a great and rib-tickling read and it defines exactly why I have been following this blog for the better part of a decade — the honesty!


🙂

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 

Four Years of DSB

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. . .being a Brit.

Roughly four years ago today I gave birth to DSB. In case you were wondering, yes, it was an immaculate conception. There was no one else who helped make it happen.

I don’t mean to toot my own horn here, but I’m proud of what this has become. I think I might have said this before, but I was surprised I ever returned to this page after I took a year-long hiatus from mid-2011 until March of 2012. I remember having just . . . such an embarrassingly emotional reaction to Todd Phillips’ bacchanalia Project X that I felt the need to go and write my thoughts down. That was a review that makes my recent Jurassic World rant tame by comparison. I’m going to try in the future to not let those emotions get the better of me. I’m sure I have annoyed a few readers in the process of doing that, and I kind of regret it. Sometimes I have this feeling that I do more harm than good by coming on so strongly. That’s why the blog has lost its original slogan: ‘Rants and Raves.’ I want to take the focus off of the negatives and focus more on the positives!

Regardless, I’ve appreciated having this space to vent. I thank WordPress for being such a tool . . . a good one, that is. 😉 You can bet I’ll be signing up for another year with you. Since consistently posting from around early 2013 and onwards, this has become quite the addiction. I love the feeling of getting to write something and then have like-minded people ‘Like’ and leave feedback on my stuff. It’s truly great and that energy is what is helping propel me into the future.

Speaking of which, my next moves are going to be a tad scarier and undoubtedly more expensive. The goal is to relocate to Salt Lake City. Not only is that town a killer place to be for those attracted to the outdoors (as I am) — as well as Mormon fundamentalism (as I am not) — but every January there’s a little film festival that takes place known to some as Sundance. I have loved covering mainstream releases — and there are a lot to be found here — but I would really like to start digging into the world of independent cinema more often. I’d love to have exposure to things that could prove to be harder to access outside of the film festival circuit. So, I’m setting that as a goal for me to achieve within the next two years. I think that’s reasonable. Right . . . ?

Alright I was promising myself I wouldn’t ramble on with this post and here I am doing just that. I shall use the rest of this space to list a few little tidbits and factoids in celebration of the blog’s fourth birthday/anniversary. And is it just me, or does time really fly when you’re having fun blogging. . . ?

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DSB’s original banner image

Four of my Favorite Films I Saw in 2011

  1. Drive – Ryan Gosling, meet Nicolas Winding Refn
  2. Win-Win – first of all, how many people saw this? And second, Paul Giamatti – awesome.
  3. Cedar Rapids – another under-seen and under-appreciated film, this time starring Ed Helms.
  4. Crazy, Stupid, Love – a crazy, not stupid and lovely date film

Four of my Favorite Films I Saw in 2012

  1. The Dark Knight Rises – a near-perfect end to a near-perfect trilogy. Tom Hardy gave me chills
  2. Marvel’s The Avengers – . . .do I really need to qualify this?
  3. Moonrise Kingdom – Wes Anderson’s made a lot of good ones, but this one’s hard to beat
  4. Skyfall – Sam Mendes’ apology for Marc Forster’s indiscretion with the convoluted Quantum of Solace

Four of my Favorite Films I Saw in 2013

  1. The Way, Way Back – so awkward it becomes adorable. I. Love. This. Movie.
  2. Rush – Ron Howard concocts a classic racing film, least in my eyes. And that casting — wow!
  3. Safety Not Guaranteed – an excellent and beyond-quirky little gem starring one of my biggest celebrity crushes, Aubrey Plaza
  4. The Place Beyond the Pines – too quickly forgotten, this sprawling epic proved an acting showcase

Four of my Favorite Films I Saw in 2014

  1. Her – Spike Jonze’ deeply personal and witty commentary on our relationship with technology is one of the most impressive films I’ve ever seen
  2. The Skeleton Twins – pairing Bill Hader with Kristen Wiig in this deeply touching and moving dramedy worked like a charm on me
  3. Godzilla – a refreshingly restrained monster movie in an age where we seem to demand we get all the good stuff up-front without question
  4. Winnebago Man – this docu is amazingly insightful and hilarious. Underrated is how I’d describe it.

Four of my Favorite Films I’ve Seen so far in 2015 

  1. Love & Mercy – achingly nostalgic and filled with spectacular performances, the biopic of Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys is a definite winner
  2. What We Do in the Shadows – painfully funny stuff brought to you by one-half of the musicomedy duo Flight of the Conchords
  3. Almost Famous – a classic from the turn of the millennium which I have no excuse for putting off for so long. This is a fantastic film from Cameron Crowe
  4. The Guest – suspenseful, artistic and bloody in equal measure, this is a crazy awesome film that snuck under a lot of people’s radars

Four Films I’m Most Anticipating in 2015

  1. Spectre – I’m excited to see where Sam Mendes can take the gritty James Bond next. Trailers so far hint at the darkest chapter yet.
  2. In the Heart of the Sea – set to the tune of the epic tale of Moby Dick, this film will reunite director Ron Howard with star Chris Hemsworth
  3. The Revenant – with a mind-glowingly awesome cast under the direction of last year’s Oscar Best Picture, I’m really curious to see what this will be like
  4. The Green Inferno – I wouldn’t call myself the biggest Eli Roth fan, but no joke . . . his latest film looks bloody and bloody brilliant. Sign me up.

What are four of your most anticipated this year? What are four of your favorites so far? 

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Four new things about the blog

  1. Expanded menus – I finally figured out how to customize menus in the editing page and now you can access all that DSB has to offer through a variety of drop down menus located above the banner. That only took me four years to figure out lol
  2. The introduction of character studies in the form of 2014’s The Franco Files and 2015’s John C. Reilly Factor. If you’re a fan of these folks, check these pages out!
  3. The DSB Spotlight – this new ‘feature’ represents the first paid contribution to this site and it makes me very proud to be able to feature a fellow movie fan’s writing on here. This is validation that others beyond the blogging community have been reading and accessing what I have to say about movies and it is humbling to say the least. You can check out this article here.
  4. With the help of esteemed blogger and friend Mark Fletcher of the fantastic Three Rows Back, I co-hosted my very first blogathon — The Decades Blogathon — which turned out to be a great experience and led to even more exposure to both film titles and film fans/bloggers alike. This was a great experience, and hopefully not the last for me.

Thank you as always for reading my stuff. It’s an honor and a privilege to still be doing this. Onwards!

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 

Much Ado About Nothing

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Release: Friday, June 7, 2013 (limited)

[Theater]

From Marvel’s The Avengers to. . . . . . a Shakespearian play? Joss Whedon makes the jump in genres seem all the crazier when I tell you that I believe that his vision might be the one that tops Kenneth Branagh’s incredible 1993 film by the same name. And of course, these aren’t the only folks who have had their hand in reshaping one of the great playwright’s most beloved comedies. It’s also hard to imagine that the best version of Much Ado About Nothing will be anything besides the original, when it was played out on stage by the Lord Chamberlain’s men. Still, subsequent versions have proven worthwhile and immensely enjoyable experiences. Fortunately Whedon’s new project — one that won’t require so many popcorn bags to be purchased — does not buck the trend.

His camerawork in this is so unlike his ability to capture the epic and the iconic structures of the superhero world; indeed, the slight and whimsical storyline of Much Ado requires virtually the complete opposite treatment, which Whedon manages to great effect. This is a film that is both intimate and elegant in setting — it was shot in a total of 12 days, exclusively at Whedon’s Santa Monica residence — and has cinematography worthy of at least a nomination. It’s gorgeous and strengthens the presence of every character in the frame.

Some could find the visual contrasts a little jarring in the very beginning, admittedly. You first see these characters and if you are like me, you are caught off guard at first by just how they speak. The muted color saturations, coupled with Shakespearian prose is juxtaposed against the habits and customs of 21st Century living. Bottles of beer are being clanked together; fists are bumped rather than hands shaken; iPods now the sources of music at parties; Counts and Lords garbed in Giorgio Armani.

Dogberry spews his hilarious lapsus linguae to his small staff who have flat screen Dell computers.

But as the film unfolds it becomes easier to adjust. The more we see of the characters interacting, it’s all very natural and we are reminded once again of the genius in Shakespeare’s writing and romanticism. The atmosphere is light; the mood slightly silly but perpetually energetic. The cast, though not well-known, is definitely a strength. This time around we have Ami Acker as Beatrice, and Alexis Denisof plays Benedick, who make up the central romantic affair. Surrounding them are Fran Kranz as Claudio and Jillian Morgese as Hero; Clark Gregg goes from manning SHIELD to playing Hero’s father Leonato; and we have Reed Diamond playing Don Pedro, Sean Maher replacing Keanu Reeves as the Bastard Prince Don John; and Spencer Treat Clark taking on the role of Barachio. . . that sleaze-bag. Not Clark, but. . .well, you know what I mean.

As Dogberry, Nathan Fillion has an absolutely wonderful supporting role. He oversees a squad of semi-competent, but fully overzealous night watchers, of which two were actually successful in curtailing the plotting and scheming of the shadowy duo, Barachio and Conrade (here played by Riki Lindhome). The moments with them and Dogberry serve as the funniest moments in the film undoubtedly, but are also very well-acted and reproduced in a contemporary setting. That was the case with a lot of the material in this film.

The story may be well-known, but to bring everything and everyone up to speed. . . . Much Ado is the comparison of two love affairs — that of Beatrice and Benedick who essentially are lovers in denial who must endure a battle of wit and of carefully calculated ‘rejection;’ and the other is quiet but fierce love affair between young Claudio and Hero. Benedick and Beatrice are tricked into confessing their loves for one another by waves of gossip, while Claudio is tricked into thinking his soon-to-be-wife is not faithful and their relationship seems to trend the other way. But this all is found to be the scheming of the envious Don John, who seeks revenge on his brother Don Pedro. He instilled in Claudio the idea that he was wooing Hero secretly. Then Barachio commits an act before an open window in the presence of Claudio, convincing him to think that Hero really was cheating. The malcontents eventually receive their comeuppance thanks to The Watch and Claudio is reunited with Hero in the end after all truth is revealed. I won’t add more info than that, although it’s, again, well-known territory I’m skipping over here.

There’s also a very rich soundtrack flowing throughout the piece that ties both the romanticism of the Shakespearian era to the Messina we have portrayed here in the present-day. Party scenes are lavish and look very fun. The moments of darkness and drama, as light-hearted as this comedy is, are overhauled with the appropriate overture that seems to give as much life to the movie as the script and acting do.

Going into the film I really had no preconceived notion about how Whedon might be able to handle this material. I can’t remember the last time I did see the Branagh one, so I was unable to accurately have a picture in my head as I sat down (in an empty theater!) Frequent YouTube visits after the fact have jogged my memory and reminded me that it was indeed infectious and it was indeed endearing; Branagh’s was a fully-realized portrait of what Shakespeare was trying to say about the nature of pride and honor, of courage and conviction and speaking truthfully. Whedon, using the original text, is similarly successful in that he’s been able to adapt the story so as to not make a carbon copy. The title may suggest that there’s a lot of fuss being kicked up over nothing here, but there’s no shortage of reasons to go see this latest adaptation.

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4-0Recommendation: Joss Whedon has successfully created an undeniably accessible version of the famous comedy, and it plays out as breezily as you think it ought to. For anyone who is a fan of anything Shakespeare, this is a film you cannot miss. For fans of film in general, this is also going to be a high priority. It’s another Shakespeare play to fit our times, and will likely join the ranks of appreciated contemporary overhauls like Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet and certainly Branagh’s version, which was some 20 years ago now.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 109 mins.

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