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Doctor Strange

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***½

The bill comes due. Don’t you see? Her transgressions led to the Zealots to Dormammu. Kaecilius… was her fault! And here we are… in the consequence of her deception. A world on fire.

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It just dawned on me that Chiwetel Ejiofor and Benedict Cumberbatch, who play Marvel’s mystic arts students who become masters, were in a movie together before this one—12 Years a Slave. Can you think of two less similar movies? In that movie Ejiofor plays the hero and Cumberbatch the villain who does not know he is a villain because he is less evil of a slaveowner than some others. The reverse is done in Doctor Strange, where Ejiofor’s Mordo goes from valiant champion for good to feeling betrayed by the Ancient One—Tilda Swinton. While on its surface Doctor Strange was the eponymous hero’s origin story, which served to reveal an infinity stone, it is simultaneously Mordo’s origin as a villain, for Doctor Strange 2. I find that alone to be more interesting than the actual superficial movie itself.

Doctor Strange’s origin is far less famous than most superheros, but since I was familiar with it, I felt like I was just paying my dues for the first 30-40 minutes. At least the opening action scene was cool and Inception-esque. Plus Mads Mikkelsen—Le Chiffre in Casino Royale—is always a treat and really delivers as the villain in this. When he unlocks Dormammu I was surprised, since Dormammu is like Doctor Strange’s strongest foe. So how Strange manages to save the day is really ingenious, and I appreciated that.

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I cannot end my review without tackling the controversy surrounding the casting of Tilda Swinton as The Ancient One. In the comics the The Ancient One is a very old Asian man, not a bald white woman. The director, Scott Derrickson, thought he was moving in the right direction by casting a woman into a movie that otherwise had no powered female characters. He did not realize how removing an Asian character to have a white actor take the role would be a step backwards. Apparently now he does, so we will see what his next MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) movie does with its casting choices.

N.B. – Since I write these and schedule them, instead of just posting them, I started to re-review this movie. This caused a false memory that lead to me to start my re-review with a letter to you:

Dear Reader,

You may have noticed how I review almost every movie I watch. Be it in theaters, on Netflix, on DVD, Blu-Ray, TV with commercials, DVR, On Demand, or DivX, if I watched it to completion for the first time since May 24, 2004, then I rated it, and sometimes reviewed it. Then starting on August 27, 2010 I began reviewing every movie under those rules. The first one was Crimson Rivers 2: Angels of the Apocalypse. I bring this to your attention because I wanted to piggyback on the work I had done for the 2007 animated Dr. Strange movie. This was going to be useful because the MCU came out of the mid-2000s animated Marvel movies’ success, which in turn came from the success of the Heroes Reborn comic books. Or not. But it makes sense to me this way. Yet somehow when I watched that DVD somewhere around the summer of 2010 or 2011, in either Toledo or at my grandparents’ house in Buffalo on my laptop, no review was made or no score given. This is a long way of saying I have to do more work than I want to do. Also, that I want to credit this as a double review since I’m giving both movies…

And at that point my search revealed my folly.

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Thor: Ragnarok

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****

Are you Thor, the god of hammers?

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That line is simultaneously badass and hilarious. For me this movie walked that line so well. Making me care, while also being the 1970s camp it was. It was kind of like the original Star Wars. One way it differed from Star Wars, while simultaneously being similar to the Star Wars Saga, was the level of prior story and knowledge that this movie used. Dr. Strange barely gets introduced, but he is necessary. Hela is brand new, so she gets a lot of backstory, while Loki and Thor are expected to be known quantities—hell this is their fifth movie. Hela has some Darth Vader qualities about her. She looks super cool and is a superficially soulless killing machine whose power can seem unmatched. But she has feelings too and wants those feelings validated, like any child of Odin would. She was such a badass I did not immediately recognize that she was Cate Blanchett. She has great range as an actress, but as a physical force, I did not think so until this. This made me believe she could take Chris Hemsworth in a fight. Or at least that Hela could realistically slaughter hundreds of Asgardians. I was disappointed when the Warriors Three (plus Lady Sif) were vanquished so easily, but it did continue to sell just what a threat she was.

Thus act one, in this approximately seventeenth installment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (“MCU”), has the greatest character of the MCU humbled and broken. Is there an image more fitting for breaking his spirit than that of Hela crushing his hammer, Mjolnir? The hammer has a name for Pete’s sake. To quote the wonderful Korg, “It sounds like you had a pretty special and intimate relationship with this hammer and that losing it was almost comparable to losing a loved one.” It both sums up the emotional heft of that moment and its comic absurdity.  The things that make it great, might also prevent it from attaining true greatness. As I have said about Hot Fuzz being only ****, but one of my all-time favorite movies, perfection does not necessarily make something fun, or my favorite. Right now though I could see this being the second best MCU movie of them all. If only it did not lead straight into Avengers: Infinity War. *Sigh*

Black Panther

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****

If you say one more word, I’ll feed you to my children! … I’m kidding. We’re vegetarians.

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This is a kick ass action movie that rejects toxic masculinity as the only option and showcases only two white men in the whole movie. As a white guy, I will focus my review solely on them. Just kidding, but how awful would that be? That’s basically (statistically) the mentality of 20th century American filmmakers, by the way.

Ryan Coogler—Creed—did a great job with this movie. It looks great. The story is interesting without being an origin story. It managed to strike a great balance between drama and comedy. It also had a tone that was not the traditional morality tale that shows good versus evil, warning against our weaknesses and how to overcome evil. Instead it posed the question of isolated success, while others suffer, versus risking losing that success by offering aid to those who are suffering. Offering aid is the end of the movie, but this end is not presented as a rosy future.

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The response that surprised me the most was just how many people liked Killmonger. Michael B. Jordan was great in the role and looked amazing, but I did not find his side to be at all enticing. I thought he was clearly, sadly, in the wrong. His character is a tragic villain, but he is a villain through and through. His side offers no future, save for himself, for instance, he orders the destruction of the magical flower that imparts the power of the Black Panther after using it himself. The traitor he pulls onto his side, W’Kabi—Daniel Kaluuya—really disappointed me. His journey is under-explained and not emotionally strong enough for my tastes. How many Wakandans did he kill while fighting for a false king? How many of his brethren did he force his Wakandan sisters to kill? Earlier I lauded this film for not pretending to have all the answers, so maybe this is a product of that mentality.

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.

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 ought 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.

 

****

Logan

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***½

As I live and breathe, “the Wolverine”.

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Finding a quotation without lots of profanity was difficult. I am not sure why it is so pervasive here, but it certainly is. Maybe just to show this was not the same world, not at all the same world as the other X films. At least it is not thematically the same world. Instead of being meta and satisfying, as many reviewers have proposed, I just found it a bit confusing. It is still a good movie and a fitting swan song for Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine.

The only other thought I have is that this was not an adaptation of “Old Man Logan” as you may have read. The upcoming Thor movie with Thor facing the Hulk seems to have as much in common with that story as this did—at least that has villain Hulk fighting. Tying things up with the Hulk was a fitting idea since Wolverine’s first appearance was in Incredible Hulk #181. Last thought, it is funny to go online and read crybaby rightwingers who think this movie filmed before the 2016 election was an indictment of Trump and Republicans because future US is a corporate garbage state where people have fewer rights than corporations.

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! 

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