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Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

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***

As a child, my father would have Gamora and me battle one another in training. Every time my sister prevailed… my father would replace a piece of me with machinery, claiming he wanted me to be her equal. But she won… again and again, and again, never once refraining. So after I murder my sister, I will buy a warship with every conceivable instrument of death. I will hunt my father like a dog, and I will tear him apart slowly… piece by piece, until he knows some semblance of the profound and unceasing pain I knew every single day.

If you loved this movie and want to continue loving it, feel free to stop reading this review. This movie, in many ways, is the theatrical release of The Two Towers. That is to say that almost everything great about this movie was cashing in on the investment fans made through the quality of the first film. There are a couple of high points though, so I think I will Good, Bad, Ugly this.

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The Good
Yondu’s character gets a chance to grow and to explain his prior actions. His story arc was good and moving.
Chris Pratt and co. are all as charming and amusing as ever and Kurt Russell was mostly a good addition.
Nebula–Karen Gillan–is in this movie and her relationship with Gamora–Zoe Saldana–is interesting, important to the plot of Avengers 3, and gets this film to pass the Bechdel Test.
Some of the CGI was really good and the Sovereign have a cool look.
Good music again.

The Bad
Sylvester Stallone’s hamfisted hamminess.
Some of the comedy feels tonally discordant with the action/drama on screen.
Baby Groot is more often annoying than cute.
Taserface’s savage turn with the Ravagers.
Some of the CGI, especially the Ego recaps.
The opening scene goes for funny and comes close, which made me worry that this was Age of Ultron again.

The Ugly
The child abuse scene where Baby Groot is tortured with water and has his cage shaken. It’s supposed to be showing that he is kind of brave and angry, but it is a prolonged and wholly unnecessary scene of child abuse. Oh the Ravagers are evil? Maybe when they senselessly and cruelly murdered half of their comrades while laughing sent that message already.
Mantis goes from being a fully fledged comic book character who can fight and speak in non-pathetic ways, to being a one dimensional tool of the story who seems vaguely racist against Asians and definitely sexist. She is meant to be the dumb yin to Drax’s dumb yang, but that does not work for her character because Drax has such a huge ego, while hers has no confidence and is extremely accommodating. They even took away her parents and made her just a thing created by Ego (the Celestial-planet, not the other kind). And how Drax, played for the audience’s laughter, just crushes her by calling her ugly over and over again.

Going through this has reminded me that there really was a lot about this film that I liked and that it was very well produced. But the better the rest of the film is, the more upsetting these two major offenses get. This is the James Bond slapping a woman on the butt after saying “Dink, say goodbye to Felix. Uhh, man talk.” Or this is James Bond undercover as a Japanese man. Or the casual use of Black slurs in Live and Let Die.  I am making light of the situation to get over the discomfort of what I said in the ugly portion. I still enjoy Goldfinger, but I have to acknowledge its flaws and view it through the right prism. This was 2017 and James Gunn should know better. To quote Treebeard in The Two Towers, “A wizard should know better.” I gave Guardians 1 ****. My instinct was to give this the same grade, but in hindsight maybe 1 deserves higher and this deserves lower. What do you deduct for two things that stuck with me far longer than the technically sound execution of a primarily amusing film? I gave the theatrical Two Towers **, so I averaged that with Guardians 1 to get the rating listed above.

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Justice League

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***½

But it doesn’t need you.

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This gets an extra half-point for not giving away what happens in the trailers. The thing that Zack Snyder does as well as, if not better than, any other comic book director is  shooting epic battles. The end battle has an odd color scheme to it, but it’s the high point of the film. Or perhaps the first time the Justice League work together is. But both scenes kick ass.

Something that I found very interesting was that the story was based on the same source material that the animated Justice League: War had. But this is without Green Lantern or Captain Marvel. I love Green Lantern and I wish he were not just a punching bag for jokes now. Also, Hal Jordan was not my favorite Green Lantern. I would like to add that this movie was well cast. Also, I thought DC would jump straight to Darkseid, as a screw you to Marvel. He is like their Thanos, but Jack Kirby created him instead of Jim Starlin. And Jack Kirby is like the Stan Lee of comic books. Instead we got Steppenwolf, voiced by the wonderful Ciarán Hinds.

Avengers: Infinity War

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The rabbit is correct and clearly the smartest among you.

You know, I’m 1500 years old. I’ve killed twice as many enemies as that. And every one of them would have rather killed me than not succeeded. I’m only alive because fate wants me alive. Thanos is just the latest of a long line of bastards, and he’ll be the latest to feel my vengeance – fate wills it so.

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Thor was the best written character of this movie. Chris Hemsworth finally gets to show his full range of acting ability in this sequel to Thor: Ragnarok. It is fun to call this culmination of 19 films just a sequel to the most fun Thor movie. After all this time the grade for the film really out not be the number of stars, but was it all worth it? On that binary scale I give this film a yes.

Did I need to see all 18 films before this one? Obviously not. In fact I did not watch Incredible Hulk or Spider-man: Homecoming. I am so glad that I watched Thor 3 since the post credits sequence is the start of Infinity War. And it is Thor’s journey that really moves the film. With a 2:40~ runtime, most of which flowed pleasantly quickly, there was not much room for character introductions, which were shockingly minimal. For a genre obsessed with origin stories (if I still footnoted these, I’d put one here, but just wait until next paragraph) you get none of the main characters. It basically said, this is for the people who stuck with us, which, based on its first three weeks in theaters, was more than 100,000,000 people. But what about the villain? You see his smile in the credits of Marvel’s The Avengers. He is like a higher up boss in Guardians of the Galaxy. Besides learning that his daughters Gamora and Nebula want to kill him, and knowing that he wants power, we know nothing about him. This film finally tells us where he is from and why he wants to kill half the galaxy, but only just barely.

Back to my supposition that the comic book film industry is obsessed with origin stories. Who are the most famous superheroes of all-time? Batman? Superman? Spider-man? Wolverine? I’ve seen Batman’s parents die like five times in movies. He has been in like 5,000+ comic books, but you need to sacrifice 25 minutes to reminding me how he became Batman?? Even Wolverine, a character whose origin was unknown for years, had to get his own origin movie cleverly titled X-Men Origins: Wolverine. And done.

People often talk about spoiler alerts, and I wrote that how only some movies can be spoiled. But I wrote that in A Few Cubic Meters of Love, so probably most people skipped that review. There are two ways a movie can be spoiler proof: A. By being such an engrossing film that knowing the end is irrelevant, like United 93 or Apollo 13; and B. a movie is so bad or so predictable that foreknowledge of the ending, or some twist, is irrelevant because the movie sucks both ways, like any Transformers movie, or X-Men Origins: Wolverine. When I went into the film, I kind of knew what was going to happen because I read the mini-series back in law school. I knew what they could not do, and I wondered how far they were willing to go with this. But watching this film with other people, it is a very spoilable movie. Maybe I would have enjoyed it more if I had not read the comic, but Vladimir Nabokov said that re-reading is the only way to read and would tell his students the end of their novels before they started to read them. Even though 100 million people have seen it, I won’t say what happened. But it was powerful. And the rationale was far superior to the comic book’s. Feel free to message me if you want to talk about the differences, or have any questions.

 

****

The Best Batman

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Everybody loves Batman. If asked, most people would probably not trust an ultra-wealthy vigilante with sadistic tendencies who spies on people. But if Batman asked you help him, you know you would. Herein I will address the cinematic Batmen only. This means that Frank Miller’s Batman versus Scott Snyder’s Batman and Kelley Jones’ Batman1 versus Neal Adams’ Batman will not be addressed here. Someone else probably made those lists and once I finish writing this I will probably try to find them.

 

BRUCE WAYNE/BATMAN (l) Michael Keaton in Batman; Val Kilmer in Batman Forever; George Clooney in Batman & Robin; Christian Bale in The Dark Knight

BRUCE WAYNE/BATMAN
(l) Adam West in Batman: The Movie; Michael Keaton in Batman; Val Kilmer in Batman Forever; George Clooney in Batman & Robin; Christian Bale in The Dark Knight.

Chronologically:

Adam West (1966-1968) – This was my first Batman so it is hard to be overly critical of the version of a character that made me fall in love with said character. As an actor, West’s performances were amazing. He never let the absurdity of the scripts crack the crucial veneer of the caped crusader’s crime-fighting career. By playing it so seriously and so whole-heartedly, children bought in and parents loved to watch it with them. Still, as far as Batmen go, he was extremely lame, like a more physical Jeff Goldblum character from the 90s.

Michael Keaton (1989-1992) – Michael Keaton’s Batman sometimes felt less like Batman than Adam West’s did. Revisiting the movies his Bruce Wayne was a very good character, but his Batman was kind of a schmuck. Planes with machine guns mowing down a crowded Gotham street seems like something people trying to kill Indiana Jones might have second thoughts about. And they were nazis. Plus, Batman gets upstaged by his villains in both movies. He lacked the detective skills that help make Batman a well rounded borderline sadistic sociopath.

Joker and Batman fighting in Batman: Mask of The Phantasm, © WB 1993.

Joker and Batman fighting in Batman: Mask of The Phantasm, © WB 1993.

Kevin Conroy (1992-present) – The voice actor behind the Batman from “Batman: The Animated Series” and the resulting movies, such as Mask of the Phantasm. After Adam West got me to fall in love with the character, Conroy shaped my conception of the ‘true’ Batman. Thus I am biased towards Conroy and want to put him at #1. His Batman looked amazing. He looked tough, yet human. Solved crimes as well as used violence. He had the style of Michael Keaton’s Bruce Wayne and Tim Burton’s Gotham, but with good storytelling, character development, and a fully formed reality. This Batman taught lessons like Adam West’s, but in a less ridiculous fashion.

Val Kilmer (1995) – Physically he was the first to fit the description of a Batman. His fighting skills were good and he improved the deep Keaton voice. His Bruce Wayne was less convincing, but almost no points deducted for that. He did lack some of the brutality helpful to the role of Batman. Also, Robin stole his batmobile. Maybe he should get credit for hiring a 25 year-old instead of a young teen, though. It may fly in the face of tradition, but seems much more reasonable than a 13 year-old fighting crime.

George Clooney (1997) – Bat nipples + Joel Schumacher = the incorrect assumption that Batman & Robin had killed comic book movies stone cold dead.2

Christian Bale (2005–2010) – Oh Dark Knight Rises…how many points does Bale lose for quitting his crusade against crime? Even with that flawed premise, he does make a great Batman. His Batman had the right balance of fun and rage. While he is not the darkest Dark Knight, he does show the most fascism (in Dark Knight). He also cracks some jokes, which show how his Batman is not really as far from Val Kilmer’s, as it might have seemed. Lastly, I liked the Batman voice,3 despite the parodies it engendered.

THE LEGO MOVIE. Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. © 2014.

THE LEGO MOVIE. Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. © 2014.

Will Arnett (2014) – I love Will Arnett and I love Batman. I do not love Will Arnett as Batman. He has a low voice which helps, but he mostly sucks in The Lego Movie. But the movie was pretty good, unlike Batman & Robin.

Ben Affleck (2016) – I know that if I pick Affleck as my number one Batman that it will elicit an angry response from most readers. My biggest complaint with Affleck’s older Batman is that I do not have enough Batman to work with, since he has not had an entire film’s worth of Batman-ing under his belt. Still, he convincingly plays a Batman who has been through years and years of a crusade. He beats Superman down. Like, more so than even in The Dark Knight Returns. The difference is that Dark Knight, in that graphic novel, has an endgame more elegant than killing Superman.4  Some people do not like how Batman could kill or be tricked, but he has done both in his long history—including in Dark Knight Rises.

Ben Affleck as Batman, calling out Superman in the aptly titled Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice, © WB 2016.

Ben Affleck as Batman, calling out Superman in the aptly titled Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice, © WB 2016.

Rankings:

8. George Clooney
7. Will Arnett
6. Michael Keaton
5. Adam West
4. Val Kilmer
3. Ben Affleck
2. Kevin Conroy
1. Christian Bale

 

1 I wrote Kelley Moench first, which is amusing because the writer/artist team was Dave Moench and Kelley Jones.
2 June 20, 1997 Batman & Robin is released. August 21, 1998 Blade is released. So assuming Blade took only 8 months to make, give or take 3 months, comic book movies were “dead” for at most 9 months. 
3 I also loved Tom Hardy’s Bane voice. Although not casting a Latino for the role was close-minded of Christopher Nolan, since the character is South American and the only Latino/a I can recall from the trilogy was Det. Ramirez.
4 People generally use the term “graphic novel” to mean respected comic books. It has been wildly overused. Comic books are light and thin. Trade paperbacks are softcover collections of comic books. Hardcovers are trade paperbacks, but with a hardcover. Graphic novels initially meant a hardcover/trade paperback that contained new material, thus skipping the comic book phase. It has been expanded to include works that are initially released as comic books, but meant to be read together. Thus a mini-series can qualify, but a story arch in an on-going series would be less likely to meet that criterion. Anything more than that, would be uncivilized. 

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World

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In order to win the girl of his dreams, nay, just simply to survive, Scott Pilgrim must defeat The League of Evil Exes! In said League there are seven evil exes. In honor of that, here are my seven favorite things in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World.

Chris Evans as Lucas Lee, AKA Evil Ex #2. Part of me wants to believe that his cheesy action hero character helped him land the role of Captain America. This or him as Johnny Storm did it. Hey, they’re both comic book movies! To show the level of detail that went into this film, here is an article about the fake movie posters from Lucas Lee’s career. The glimpses we get are amazing, with lines like, “Now you listen up, bucko. The next click you hear is me hanging up. The one after that…is me pulling the trigger.”

How Anna Kendrick and Kieran Culkin are already talking on the phone about what Scott has said before Scott finishes telling either of them whatever it is that he is saying. It is punchy and funny and Anna Kendrick’s bubbly character, as Scott’s sister, just fits. Sub-thing I like, how Kim Pine would cut off the lead singer of Sex Bob-omb to yell, “We are Sex Bob-Omb!! 1-2-3-4” and just start playing the drums.

The. Bass. Guitar. Michael Cera’s Scott Pilgrim plays the bass in Sex Bob-Omb—a totally sweet looking Rickenbacker. And it is great. But my favorite bass comes from Brandon Routh’s Todd Ingram, AKA Evil Ex #4(?)

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Michael Cera and Brie Larson as Scott Pilgrim and the way cooler Envy Adams, Scott Pilgrim vs the World, © Universal 2010.

Brie Larson as Envy Adams. Sure she would make a terrible girlfriend but she has an amazing voice, beautiful look and fascinating manner. I felt legitimately bad for her when her boyfriend exploded. On a side note, I hope The Clash At Demonhead re-forms in real life and starts touring.

The end non-fight fight scene. “No. This is something I have to do for myself.” Such a classic cheeseball line! Usually the reasoning behind such a decision is rather poor and is used to even the odds, so to speak, after the hero has overcome a more difficult challenge. Then jumping to the outside where the two women who care for Scott are outside waiting to see if he has lived or died perfectly sets up the nonchalant, wound free exit Scott and Nega-Scott have.

That Edgar Wright directed this masterpiece. I have seen his Hot Fuzz about ten times and I love it very much, but this film—not The World’s End—harnessed every skill Wright had as a director, and screenwriter, and pulled off this unlikely adaptation of an English language manga.1 Going back to Lucas Lee, Wright even shot a clip from the movie within a movie that I quoted above and it was amazing and in a totally different style. Or maybe Brad Allan shot it with the second unit, who knows. The result is the same—the best film of 2010.2 

*****

1 A manga is a Japanese comic book, or a comic book done in the Japanese style, often printed in a small paperback format.
2 2010 was a good year for movies too. It also was apparently forever ago because Winter’s Bone came out that year starring a teenage Jennifer Lawrence in her first starring role. If you ever question her abilities, just go back and (re)watch that movie.

X-Men: Apocalypse

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****

Who the fuck are you?

Michael Fassbender as Magneto/Erik Lensherr in X-Men: Apocalypse, © 2016 Fox.

Michael Fassbender as Magneto/Erik Lensherr in X-Men: Apocalypse, © 2016 Fox.

Just as in X-Men: First Class, the one F-bomb got the biggest laugh. Then it was  Wolverine–Hugh Jackman–saying it to Magneto and Charles Xavier–Michael Fassbender  and James McAvoy, respectively. This time is is Magneto, in tears1, about to slay his human co-workers for exposing him. So how does that line rank amongst the 8 X-Men films? Amongst the 3 back-in-time X-Men movies?2 How do other aspects and actors compare too?

The line itself, along with its delivery, ranks about equal to Wolverine’s. Fassbender’s Magneto is great, as always, and his young Magneto is as good as Ian McKellan’s old one. McAvoy’s Professor X is not as good as Patrick Stewart’s, but it is still very good. McAvoy really inhabits the character well, with his fumbling flirtations operating as a charming inconsistency—why is he less confident now than he was as a college student when he already knows a woman liked him?

As in First Class, Wolverine has one scene, but it’s a much more physical fan service scene than his “Go fuck yourself.” If you are a big enough fan to get the reference, then you will not be surprised when he appears in the film, and in the capacity in which he does so. The X-Men, comprised of Beast, Mystique, Quicksilver and Moira MacTaggert—portrayed by Nicholas Hoult, Jennifer Lawrence, Evan Peters, and Rose Byrne, respectively, have been captured by young William Stryker–Josh Helman, who is no Brian Cox. Stryker takes them to the Weapon X facility in Canada…goose bumps yet? This is recognizable since Wolverine heads there in X2. When we finally see Wolverine he is straight out of Barry Windsor-Smith’s “Weapon X” storyline. He proceeds to, as he did in the comic, butcher his way through every soldier and scientist in the facility. It was much cooler than just one great line. That said, by freeing him Jean Grey—Game of Thrones’ Sophie Turner—is at least partially responsible for the murder of dozens and dozens of people. This is not addressed, nor does it appear to affect her, despite being telepathic (and empathic) and not sociopathic.

Sophie Turner as Jean Grey at the Weapon X facility, with Nightcrawler (Smit-McPhee) and Scott Summers (Tye Sheridan), © 2016 Marvel & Fox.

X-Men: Apocalypse is clearly set in the 1980s. Sophie Turner in a blazer with shoulder pads as Jean Grey at the Weapon X facility, with Nightcrawler in a jacket designed for Michael Jackson or Eddie Murphy (Smit-McPhee) and Scott Summers (Tye Sheridan), © 2016 Marvel & Fox.

Beast is still Beast, although Kelsey Grammer’s Beast in X-Men: The Last Stand3 provides a wonderfully cerebral representation that Hoult’s lacks. Also this Angel is as okay as Last Stand’s, but gets better scenes. In East Germany Angel–Ben Hardy–fights Nightcrawler–Kodi Smit-McPhee–in an underground mutant gladiator ring, until Mystique frees them both. Smit-McPhee does a good job as an awkward teen, but he is no Alan Cumming. After freeing Nightcrawler, Mystique brought him to a mysterious mutant named Caliban. I was certain that he was portrayed by Oscar winner Jared Leto. Nope. Tómas Lemarquis plays Caliban in a much more cutthroat way than I have always envisioned the mutant detecting mutant, but he definitely fits into this dark world. He loses his bodyguard, Psylocke–Olivia Munn, to the sway of Apocalypse.

Speaking of Apocalypse and the women of the film, this brings us to an awkward place because Apocalypse is choking Mystique in some of the publicity, which in our culture seems inappropriate because of the violence against women. While ironically the irreverent Deadpool did a better job of dealing with violence against women, this tone deaf approach actually works within the film itself. Apocalypse transcends gender and sex, which can be said at times for Mystique too, thus their shapeshifting violence did not bother me and films should not be judged by their ad campaigns.4

Mystique (Lawrence) losing a battle with Apocalypse (Isaac).

Mystique (Lawrence) losing a battle with Apocalypse (Isaac).

One thing that giant action serial movies can be judged on are their special effects. Firstly, this captured the excellent apocalyptic future of Batman v Superman—Dawn of Justice. While the colors were better than in Batman v Superman, there were a couple of X-Men Origins: Wolverine moments, specifically the flying intermodal shipping containers, and Evan Peter’s amazing Quicksilver trying to get through Magneto’s sphere of metal bits. On the plus side there is literally every other moment of Quicksilver moving at superspeed. Every. Single. Moment.

One way this film is better than First Class and Days of Future Past is by its villain. Oscar Isaac’s En Sabah Nur/Apocalypse comes across like a more powerful Bane (The Dark Knight Rises). I could not foresee the man becoming the force of nature that is En Sabah Nur. Wonderfully the opening in Egypt does not show a giant, or a monster, or even a man in his peak of power. Instead he is covered in armor and a headdress that masks his old, frail body. He was everything that Ultron (Avengers 2) should have been. Isaac’s performance created a surprisingly subtle character, who outdoes both Bane and Ultron. Probably Isaac’s best performance, although I have not watched Inside Llewyn Davis.

In closing5, the end exchange between Fassbender and McAvoy almost finishes verbatim from the end of X-Men! The McKellan/Stewart exchange gave me goosebumps. So this gave me goosebumps and through the power of nostalgia brought a tear to my eye. I leave you with screenwriter David Hayter’s words:

Magneto: Does it ever wake you in the middle of the night? The feeling that one day they will pass that foolish law or one just like it, and come for you? And your children?
Professor Xavier: It does, indeed.
Magneto: What do you do, when you wake up to that?
Professor Xavier: I feel a great swell of pity for the poor soul who comes to that school… looking for trouble.

Apocalypse’s screenwriter Simon Kinberg changed the lines, removing “that foolish law”, and turning “that school” into “my school”. He created a similar ending, but in some ways a more hopeful one with Magneto walking away from Xavier’s School For the Gifted and not Xavier wheeling away from Magneto’s plastic prison. Sixteen years apart and they are still making wonderful X-Men movies. How astonishing! How uncanny!

1 I love crying Michael Fassbender as much as the next person, but he shed a lot of silent tears in this movie.
2 Oh, the problems with naming this…series. If I say “the original X-Men” one might think of the original X-Men movies. If I say the First Class X-Men, one might think I was making a qualitative judgment. If I say prequel X-Men, that would ignore the worldchanging ramifications of X-Men: Days of Future Past.
3 Thanks a lot Brett Ratner. I did think that Beast could have been physically more imposing.
4 The exception to this rule is when a movie promises something in previews that does not occur in the actual film. For example, I will never forgive Murder at 1600 for cutting the preview line, “Murder at 1600…an address that changes all the rules.” And I do not know if I approve of the posters with Jennifer Lawrence being choked. I understand the appeal in having your biggest star and the villain together, but it still feels a little funny.
5 I didn’t even get to how good Storm was! Alexandra Shipp was much better than Halle Berry’s Storm. I never even wrote the words “Four Horsemen”! There is just too much here to discuss! 

The Beauty of Film: Batman the Movie

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Batman: The Movie (1966) — Howard Schwartz (cinematographer) & Leslie H. Martinson (director).

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Julie Newmar as Catwoman and Burgess Meredith as The Penguin on his submarine.

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