Archive for the Superhero Category

Wonder Woman

Posted in Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Superhero with tags on June 3, 2017 by Mark Hobin

 photo wonder_woman_ver5_zpshsnw2ynx.jpg photo starrating-4stars.jpgThe story of Wonder Woman is less about the dawn of another superhero and more about a sheltered individual living in a bubble who comes to understand what is happening in the outside world around her. Princess Diana (Gal Godot) was a child sculpted from clay by her mother Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen) and given life by Zeus. As such, she does indeed possess special powers, superhuman strength to name but one.  Although her mother forbids it, Diana is trained to be a warrior by her aunt Antiope (Robin Wright).

The production is set during the era of World War I and this conflict forms the basis of the narrative. What really impresses is how much the tale could exist without the value added depiction of an origin story.  It’s telling you’ll never hear the words “Wonder Woman” in the entire movie. The crime fighting uniform she ultimately adopts consists of battle armor and a tiara.  Like other recent DC comic adaptations, they look rather subdued from the traditional red, white and blue tights we’ve seen in previous iterations. Long time fans rest assured, they didn’t try to totally reinvent the character.  This is still the defender you know and love, just recontextualized for a 2017 audience.  She still gets her cuff bracelets and the Lasso of Truth.  Her invisible jet is sadly missing though.

Gal Gadot is such a joy as the titular heroine. She is sexy and beautiful of course, but also wholesome and virtuous as well. She’s a refreshingly stable personality. In that respect, she’s reminiscent of Marvel’s Captain America. That mental stability has been lacking in the DC Extended Universe as of late. It began with Man of Steel in 2013.  DC has completely bungled the new version of Superman. Where is the decent champion of truth we love from the 1978 feature?  This pessimism continued on through Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad, both in 2016.  Most agreed, Gadot’s presence was the best thing about the former film.  Where the characters in those pictures have been conflicted and plagued with self-doubt, Wonder Woman is distinctly well-adjusted.

Events are set in motion when she meets Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), an American spy working for the Allied powers.  He crash lands his plane in the waters off of Themyscira, her island of Amazons. Wonder Woman was taught at a young age that Ares, the God of war corrupted mankind. She’s convinced that he is behind all this. Steve is skeptical of her beliefs but charmed by her presence.  Her adopted persona is Diana Prince when she leaves the island and the excursion becomes a learning experience. He explains what a watch is and she responds with “You let this tiny thing run your life?” Gadot’s chemistry with Chris Pine is so palpable it really enhances the drama. Of course, I expected Gal Gadot to be the major part of the production and she is. What I didn’t expect what how important Chris Pine would be. He really rises to the task. Their charisma together strikes the perfect balance. Their interactions run the gamut from romantic and sensuous to funny and lighthearted. The screenplay is by Allan Heinberg, co-creator of The Young Avengers, a superhero team published by Marvel Comics. Imagine, a comic book movie written by a comic book writer. What a concept!  Heinberg takes the time to develop well-rounded and likable people we truly care about.  It’s one of the most important requirements in an engaging story and Wonder Woman does it well.

The saga incorporates the terror of World War I but it’s still surprisingly upbeat and hopeful. Director Patty Jenkins (Monster) gets so much right. This is a long movie though – 2 hours and 21 minutes to be exact. I think brevity and simplicity are qualities to celebrate in a superhero fable. For the majority of the adventure, the action is well photographed and exciting.  The initial battle, an early skirmish on the beach between the Amazons and German soldiers gets things off a rocking good start. It’s arrows and shields vs. guns and torpedoes. There are more clashes later on and they’re visually well depicted too.  However, the finish is kind of mediocre.  Things deteriorate a bit in the video-game aesthetic of the finale with murky action and CGI.  It’s not enough to sink the whole picture, mind you. The rest of the film is absolutely sensational.  Nevertheless, it is a misstep that’s impossible to ignore in an otherwise spectacular production.

Wonder Woman is smashing success.  Gal Gadot is an absolute delight.  She is an innocent, a babe in the woods.  She enjoys ice cream for the very first time and she tells the vendor, “You should be very proud!” You want to embrace this good-hearted soul. She is someone to cherish. It’s no secret that the comic book business is a male-dominated genre. The pressure to deliver the first female-led superhero box office smash was pretty intense. There are so many instances in which this could have gone wrong, but instead, there are so many ways in which this was done right.  Expectations were so cautious.  The mere fact that the character is such a breath of fresh air makes one give the success perhaps, even more credit than it truly deserves. There has never been a successful female-led superhero blockbuster. That is until now. DC has finally given us something Marvel hasn’t.  I’m ready to see it again.

06-01-17

Logan

Posted in Action, Drama, Science Fiction, Superhero on March 3, 2017 by Mark Hobin

 photo logan_ver5_zpsigtia2p8.jpg photo starrating-3stars.jpgFor the uninitiated, Logan is the 10th chapter in Marvel Comic series about the X-Men. You know, those wacky subspecies of humans called mutants who are born with superhuman powers. It follows last year’s fiercely successful Deadpool and the not so wildly lucrative X-Men: Apocalypse. It’s also the 3rd and final entry to feature the Wolverine (Hugh Jackman). Given U.S. ticket sales, 2013’s The Wolverine was the least popular entry of all 10 films. How to re-invent the character for a theater-going public that has clearly grown tired of this personality?

Logan revolves around Laura (newcomer Dafne Keen) a young mutant girl that enters the life of the aging Wolverine. His healing abilities are not what they once were. He is older and more grizzled here. At first, Logan is worried about caring for the even more decrepit Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart). However, his focus changes when a nurse named Gabriela (Elizabeth Rodriguez), entrusts a mute 11-year-old girl into his care. Young Laura yearns for a sanctuary in North Dakota called “Eden”.  Curiously the feral Laura has strengths that are not unlike the Wolverine’s. That makes Donald Pierce (Boyd Holbrook), the Chief of Security for a company called Transigen, unhappy. You see he doesn’t like mutants and he is in hot pursuit of the little girl.

If you enjoy hyperbole in your reviews then let me attest that Logan is The Goriest Superhero Movie Ever Made!  That’s not hype. I mean what are the contenders?  Watchmen, Kick-Ass, Blade or The Punisher? Logan tops them all. Someone’s face is blown off by a gunshot and the bloody aftermath is shown. People are routinely impaled, blood spurts everywhere. Then there’s my “favorite” scene.  Professor X is prone to seizures. During one of these episodes, time stops with his psychic blast and Charles Xavier freezes everyone at a hotel. This allows Logan to go through a room stabbing people through the head and face with his claws. I mean he splices and dices their brains while they just stand there powerless. It almost seems unfair.

Allow me to hypothesize how the pitch for this story went. “We loved ‘Midnight Special’ but nobody saw it so let’s adapt it into a superhero movie and add more decapitations.” A child in need of protection hits the road with guardians while being pursued by evil baddies. Midnight Special is the most recent cinematic example of this plot. TV’s Stranger Things is a current reference too in that Laura is a kindred spirit of Eleven on that show.  Laura and her ethnically diverse mutant peers are like the women of Mad Max: Fury Road or the kids who survive Children of Men. If this was the 80s we’d be making comparisons to Drew Barrymore in Firestarter. If it was the 90s we’d be talking Edward Furlong in Terminator 2. It’s a recycled story. The difference is that superhero yarns don’t usually center on the portrayal of people at the expense of the extravaganza. Nor do they mine R-rated territory very often. Logan is for people who think the PG-13 rating is why the previous Wolverine installments weren’t very good. I only wish the script had done more than salvage a familiar trope. The story is functional and utilitarian, but it isn’t deep. Logan works best for those who get giddy when an elderly gentleman like Charles Xavier says the F word.

Logan is a deadly serious road trip. To its credit, the saga is more concerned with character development than the spectacle. It’s more intimate than the traditional superhero picture too. Director James Mangold strips the production of unnecessary flourishes. Occasionally it pauses to reflect on age and one’s own mortality. That’s such a rarity it has caused some critics to elevate this to the status of greatest superhero film ever made. Let’s all just calm down now a bit shall we?  Anyone who saw the narratively similar Midnight Special knows an introspective study about people has been done before and better, but I’ll give Logan points for trying at least. This road movie does attempt to give the audience something more than the average X-Men commodity. Logan is easily the best of the three Wolverine episodes, but I stop short of giving this picture any more acclaim beyond that.

3-3-16

The LEGO Batman Movie

Posted in Action, Adventure, Animation, Comedy, Superhero with tags on February 12, 2017 by Mark Hobin

 photo lego_batman_movie_ver4_zpsc1rro5mm.jpg photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgBack in 2014, Batman was introduced as a supporting role in The Lego Movie, an animated tale from Warner Bros. Now the Dark Knight has returned. Both his gravelly voice and out-sized ego are in full force in this humorous take that is his most (deliberately) funny manifestation yet. I still contend Joel Schumacher’s 1997 Batman & Robin is unintentionally funnier.  Director Chris McKay (Cartoon Network’s Robot Chicken), who worked as an editor on The Lego Movie, is making his feature film debut here and he maintains the buoyant quality of the first picture.

The Lego Batman Movie is a rollicking good time. The light and breezy humor pokes fun at its own creation. The pop culture amalgamation is steeped in self-aware satire. It relies heavily on Batman history and every incarnation he’s ever had. Not only sampling from Tim Burton’s and Christopher Nolan’s work but from comic books, the campy 60s TV show, and animated adaptations as well. Unless you’re a superhero savant, it should be impossible to correctly place all the references. I laughed at a part where they recite a ridiculously long list of villains.  The Riddler, Catwoman and the Penguin I knew, but Polka-Dot Man, Crazy Quilt, and the Condiment King? I chuckled at the seemingly made up names. I had no idea that they were all real characters. The joke is amusing either way.

If you thought the triumph of The Lego Movie was a fluke, prepare to be surprised once more. The Lego Batman Movie is another delight. It’s smart and witty in a way that everyone, even this comic book illiterate, can enjoy. Batman fights crime by night but by day he lives an ordinary existence. He retires to his living room to watch a live action projection of Jerry Maguire on a big screen while he eats his microwaved Lobster Thermidor. His computer assistant informs him he has an expired Bed Bath & Beyond coupon, “but I hear some stores will honor them after the expiration date,” she offers. That’s so random it’s genius. Listen closely for a mention of cheesy 80s martial arts flick Gymkata.

But The Lego Batman Movie is first and foremost about the Caped Crusader. He’s once again articulated by Will Arnett. His absurd rendition stands in stark contrast to the dark and brooding iterations of the cinematic adaptations since 1989. Nevertheless, his goofy performance ranks up there with the very best. It’s a clever choice that his Arrested Development co-star Michael Cera voices Robin. The cast is spirited.  Rosario Dawson is the new police commissioner, Barbara Gordon. Ralph Fiennes is Bruce Wayne’s loyal butler. Zach Galifianakis is the Joker. Even Mariah Carey plays a character. The whole production is agreeable fun. If there’s a quibble, it’s that the story is merely a perfunctory excuse to make wisecracks.  Even as the narrative sags in the 2nd half, the action continues to zoom forward in an increasingly eccentric fashion.  It plays for 15 minutes too long. Still, there are enough left-field references and rapid-fire gags to entertain. In fact, it’s tough to catch them all the first time around. I just might be willing to see it a second time.

Doctor Strange

Posted in Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Superhero with tags on November 5, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo doctor_strange_ver11_zpso25d43em.jpg photo starrating-3stars.jpgComic-book productions currently entertain as large a share of the overall film audience as they ever have. Moviegoers are inundated with product. This is the fourteenth entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) alone. I’m not even counting other features based on Marvel fiction like X-Men or Spider-Man and then there’s DC and all of its iterations. As with any series, some of it’s major (The Avengers) and some of it’s minor (Ant-Man). It’s just that there are so many origin stories. There is a template and they’re all so similar. There’s sort of a generic sameness that many of these superhero flicks fall into. The best redefine the genre and set their own course. Doctor Strange doesn’t raise the bar. However this creative fabrication does inundate the viewer with visual stimuli and to that end, the movie entertains.

Doctor Strange is thwarted by repetitive story beats. Brilliant/wealthy genius becomes helpless then discovers magical powers/suit after meeting a powerful entity. Tony Stark (Iron Man) and Bruce Wayne (Batman) are rather iconic at this point so it’s hard not to feel a little been there done that as this thin plot unfolds. In this case, our hero is an acclaimed neurosurgeon but loses the use of his hands in a car accident. He hears that the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton as a Celtic rather than Tibetan mystic) might be able to help him and he journeys to an isolated community in the Himalayas to meet her. The Ancient One shows Dr. Stephen Strange her powers. He pleads for her instruction, and she eventually agrees, despite his arrogant disposition. Some time later, Strange encounters a sentient cape and he dons it for protection.

The accomplished cast delivers their lines with all the gravitas of a Shakespearean drama. Star Cumberbatch has the serious demeanor to make all this silliness seem thoughtful. Jedi-like Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and his Morpheus-like master, the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), stand out as well. They make their preposterous lines seem credible. But Strange’s love interest, Christine (Rachel McAdams), is a particularly thankless role. Granted she’s not the proverbial damsel-in-distress. In fact, she’s even less important than that stereotype because her role is completely superfluous. Elsewhere Strange has learned to spin fire circles in the air that create doorways to escape to other places. It all builds to an expected showdown between good and evil as preordained by these fables. But Strange’ character arc makes no sense. First, he’s a jerk, then suddenly he’s not. Where did his climatic act of selflessness come from? The fact that it takes place in an alternate time-loop dimension is different at least.  Points for that I guess.

Doctor Strange is a formulaic origin story with dazzling computer-generated imagery. Director Scott Derrickson adheres closely to the superhero blueprint. He makes sure to add humorous quips that are indeed genuinely funny. After he accepts a card from Mordo, Strange asks, “What’s this? My mantra?” “It’s the wi-fi password,” Mordo responds. “We’re not savages.” Where filmmaker Derrickson steps outside the box is in the hallucinogenic head trip effects. The kaleidoscopic metropolis is rendered as if designed by M.C. Escher. Master of the mystic arts, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), and his minions chase after Strange and Baron Mordo through 3D manipulated landscapes that delight the eye. As one of the Ancient One’s former pupils, Kaecilius is a stock villain. Unfortunately, he’s a snooze. His dialogues with Dr. Strange are completely ridiculous.  Virtually everything he says is gibberish, but the visuals aren’t. It’s fun to watch.  It isn’t innovative though. The Matrix or Inception did these ideas earlier and did them better. It’s still fun to look at though. Doctor Strange is a dubious trendsetter – the first MCU movie where spectacle outshines a boilerplate adventure.

11-03-16

Suicide Squad

Posted in Action, Adventure, Comedy, Drama, Superhero with tags on August 6, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo suicide_squad_ver24_zpstam6rkzx.jpg photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgI love the concept of Suicide Squad. The whole movie is predicated on the idea that bringing together a team of the world’s most dangerous criminals would be a great way to fight crime. Fight fire with fire, right? Their lives are expendable so if they don’t succeed it’s no great loss. The collection of a ragtag team of ne’er-do-wells has formed the basis of great films from The Dirty Dozen to Guardians of the Galaxy. And yet, the notion of assembling crooks to fight their own is inherently ridiculous. So if you can get past the illogical set up, you’re half the way there into buying this hokum.

The key thing is to set up an engaging group of characters that we want to embrace. It doesn’t matter if they’re good or evil. Give them charisma and we’ll follow their adventure. The assortment of convicts here is also known as Task Force X. “The worst of the worst” as Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) calls them. She’s the high ranking government official who oversees them. At her side is Col. Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) who is responsible for executing her orders. He directs the baddies in the field. But as we find out, deep down they’re really not so bad at heart.  Let’s start with the slightly more interesting people. There’s Deadshot (Will Smith), a dangerous assassin with impeccable aim. He also has an 11 year old daughter for whom he’d do anything in the world. El Diablo (Jay Hernandez) has pyrokinetic abilities. However he is reluctant to use them after accidentally killing his wife and daughter from setting a building on fire.

The best character is Harley Quinn in a star making turn by Margot Robbie. If this superhero movie has any hope for longevity in these seemingly endless comic book adaptations, it will be because of her. Honestly they should’ve called Suicide Squad, The Harley Quinn Show. She is the reason to see this picture and easily the most compelling outcast. She’s the psychiatrist that became a psychopath. Face smeared with pale makeup, she wears her hair in colorful pigtails, wields a baseball bat as a weapon and giggles incessantly. She knows more than her male cohorts but downplays her smarts with a flirtatious wink. She certainly outshines her boyfriend, none other than the Joker (Jared Leto), a former patient now turned paramour.  Ah yes she’s motivated by her love for him.  Given all the advance studio promotion of Leto’s appearance, you’d think he was the star of this joint. He’s nothing more than an expanded cameo here – neither the main villain nor a member of the squad – only Harley Quinn’s boyfriend that pops up briefly to rescue her in a scene. After months of online hype, it’s hard not to feel a little cheated.

Let’s not forget the section I call “and the rest” on the team: Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), and Slipknot (Adam Beach). Rick Flag’s bodyguard Katana (Karen Fukuhara) joins the gang too I think. It  wasn’t clear to me whether she’s an official addition or just sort of tags along.  Regardless none of the remaining constituents are able to register a definable personality in this loud cacophonous mess. In an adventure where everyone is a lunatic, the main evildoer should be pretty boffo. Instead we get the Enchantress, an archaeologist who becomes a powerful sorceress when possessed . She’s played by Cara Delevingne. The model turned actress simply doesn’t have the gravitas to play the arch villain that should anchor a production such as this. It’s not apparent at first, but suppressing her ultimately becomes Task Force X’s main objective.

The plot is confusing. We get so many incidental asides that give backstory as to how these felons came to be. A chemical baptism flashback between the Joker and Harley Quinn has some promise, but with so many tangents, it’s easy to lose track of all the random individuals. The film descends into tired action picture clichés with overstuffed commotion. The rapid fire cut and paste edit aesthetic does nothing to uplift this feature. The characters disappear under the weight of discordant madness and haphazard editing. The movie poster promises a colorful psychedelic mushroom cloud extravaganza. Yet in reality the production is actually a dark, dimly lit slog with a surprising lack of color.

I’d fault Suicide Squad for not having a story, but that’s not really the point. Introducing a bunch of characters is the plot. This is an excuse to create archetypes and parade them around for 123 minutes in a gleefully exuberant devil-may-care spectacle. That might have been acceptable. If every member of this battalion had as much pizzazz as Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), I’d be loving this flick.  If I had to name one other MVP, it would be Viola Davis as their governmental superior. She is often the voice of calm in a calamitous haze, reciting exposition to clarify the script’s more ambiguous passages. Three installments into the DC Extended Universe and I can see things are improving. The problem is that the rest of the cast is lacking. Not the actors’ fault. Their parts are simply underwritten. Suicide Squad is better than Batman v Superman. I’ll give it that. It’s just that it still has a ways to go.

08-04-16

Captain America: Civil War

Posted in Action, Adventure, Science Fiction, Superhero on May 6, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo captain_america_civil_war_ver15_zps6veouhci.jpg photo starrating-3andahalfstars.jpgIt’s amazing how two superhero movies can share nearly identical themes, and yet be so different in what they achieve. It was just six short weeks prior that Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice was released. Although the movie was a success at the box office, it received a critical drubbing from many viewers (this critic included). Now we have the release of Marvel’s latest opus, a movie built around the ultimate showdown between two warring factions of the Avengers. The motivation of revenge for the central antagonist is the same. Even the way in which to exact revenge is the same. Despite the similarities, the satisfaction derived from each film is a study in contrasts. Captain America: Civil War is the far superior picture. No surprise. By now, everyone knows Marvel has perfected the ongoing storyline across sequels down to a science.

If you’re not up on your Marvel Cinematic Universe movies, this is presented in name as a sequel to the events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier. In that adventure, we learned that Captain America’s friend, Bucky Barnes was captured and experimented upon during WWII. He was brainwashed into a trained assassin using mind control. Although Civil War also concerns the much larger picture as to what happed more recently in Avengers: Age of Ultron. The number of civilian deaths as a result of the war in Sokovia has become a global concern. Can the Avengers be partially held accountable? The United Nations is preparing to pass the Sokovia Accords, an international agreement designed to limit and control the Avengers.

The Avengers are torn apart into two factions: one led by Captain America (Chris Evans) and the other by Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.). Captain America’s anti-registration squad is composed of Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan). Iron Man’s pro accord team is comprised of Vision (Paul Bettany), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and War Machine (Don Cheadle). New VIPs Spider-Man (Tom Holland) and Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) also join up on this side as well. Side note: Thor and the Hulk are conspicuously absent for reasons that seemed a little murky, but honestly this movie already has plenty of speaking parts. While their absence is noticeable, it’s not crucial.

If all this exposition and characters sounds complicated, it is. This is a superhero film that subscribes to the idea that bigger is better. More cast members, more battles, more run time. At almost 2 1/2 hours, this does seem long and a bit overblown. Yet the strengths far exceed the weaknesses. Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely deserve a lot of credit for making sense of all these events and distilling it into a narrative we can still follow and enjoy. The big fight featuring the whole gang is fashioned as a centerpiece of the drama. The choreography is appropriately spectacular. Surprises await and the showdown is a delight. Although shaky camera work and rapid cuts do detract a little from the mostly rousing action sequences.

With all the personalities, Civil War, truly plays out like a third Avengers movie, besting Age of Ultron (2015) for emotional depth, but lacking the breezy joy of The Avengers (2012). The story is at its best in quieter moments when it focuses on the personality of the individual. The narrative gives clear, understandable reasons as to why each superhero aligns with the side that they do. Chris Evans and Robert Downey Jr deserve major kudos for anchoring the production with sincere performances that captivate our attention. That’s not easy to do with a cast of this magnitude. In a film full of many highs, I did not expect Ant-Man & Spider-Man to be at the very top.  Both have amusing vignettes that make the promise of 2017’s Spider-Man: Homecoming and 2018’s Ant-Man and the Wasp something I am now willing to embrace rather than dread. Additionally the heavy emotional burden that Bucky Barnes carries as the Winter Soldier is emphasized. His relationship with Steve Rogers, his buddy since childhood, is affirmed as well. These cast members stand out in a roster that is uniformly excellent. I could cite more characters and the traits that make them interesting but that would spoil the fun of discovery. It’s their complex backstories that help secure our interest in the personal dynamics of these people. They give the heroes depth. That is what makes Captain America: Civil War so gosh darn entertaining.

05-05-16

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

Posted in Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Superhero on March 27, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo batman_v_superman_dawn_of_justice_ver8_zpsgpnkvncd.jpg photo starrating-2andahalfstars.jpgSuperhero movie are serious business. Just ask director Zack Snyder who apparently doesn’t have a humorous bone in his entire body given his latest opus.  The awkwardly titled Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is dark. Like really really really really really really really DARK. This is entry #2 in the DC Extended Universe and it arrives three years after 2013’s Man of Steel, a deplorable waste of time and talent that I hated as much as anything I saw that year. The good news is that Batman v Superman is an improvement, The bad news is that it still isn’t very good.

DC Comics is clearly on a mission to create this grand epic. This is their bid to outdo the franchise empire created by Marvel Studios. And let me tell you, there’s a veritable onslaught of releases planned by the DC machine in the next few years. There’s two movies centered around the Justice League with the individual meta-humans Wonder Woman, the Flash, Aquaman, Shazam! Cyborg and Green Lantern all getting their own pictures. We’re introduced to some of them via a computer screen in this movie. Bruce Wayne is seen opening their files on a drive from LexCorp by clicking on their icons. It’s the cinematic equivalent of observing someone watch a coming attractions trailer.

We also get a ton of supplementary characters that needlessly complicate matters. Ok so both Lex Luthor and Lois Lane are required. I’ll allow for them, but neither adds much to the proceedings. On the plus side, Wonder Woman (Gal Godot) does make an appearance all dressed up in a muted uniform that doesn’t stray too far from what we associate with that character. Her reveal got applause so that’s good. Girl Power! and all that. But elsewhere the news isn’t so rosy. Central antagonist Lex Luthor (Jr.) is portrayed by a woefully miscast Jesse Eisenberg. Superman’s arch rival is an iconic villain, a brilliant manipulator, but here he comes across as just a bratty millennial. Lex Luthor is anti-Superman right from the beginning. The superhero has become this controversial figure in the media after all the death and destruction he caused during his battle with Zod (Michael Shannon) in Man of Steel.

Luthor’s objective is kind of ambiguous at first.  Initially it appears he wants to make people dislike Superman even more but he develops into this puppeteer of people who aims to pit the two crime fighters against each other. He partners with U.S. Senator June Finch (Holly Hunter). She is contacted by Wallace Keefe (Scoot McNairy), an employee of Wayne enterprises injured in the previous installment’s Zod vs. Superman combat. Luthor has tapped wanted criminal Anatoli Knyazev (Callum Mulvey) as well to get him some kryptonite. There’s a lot of people involved.  However Luthor’s grand master scheme is ridiculously inefficient when you ultimately realize how it depends on so many arbitrary things potentially falling into place.  When his plan doesn’t work, Luthor has a back-up that involves creating yet another super-villain, sort of a cross between the Thing and the Incredible Hulk. It’s a CGI mess of technology that is about as thoughtful as witnessing two explosions have an argument.

Batman v Superman should have been an engaging character study, but it’s overstuffed – crowded with actors, jammed with plot, packed with mayhem. Look at the title. It promises a one-on-one showdown between two titans of the superhero world. Granted we do get that. If two physical specimens throwing each other around sounds exciting, then you will be pleased. But there’s so much excess fat in this almost three hour film. Too many extraneous plot threads muddle a crowded adventure. Was it really necessary to present the Batman origin story yet another time? I got it, Zack Snyder. Bruce Wayne’s parents were murdered. Sheesh! That scene has had more performances than Phantom of the Opera. Cameos from Charlie Rose, Neil deGrasse Tyson and Anderson Cooper are superfluous padding.

We’re talking about two guys that dress up in tights and run around fighting crime. The very idea is inherently silly, but you’d think we were detailing the most horrific chapters of World War II given this movie’s utterly bleak tone. There’s little room for “fun” when grim, depressing self-importance is the thrust of the DC agenda. The strident inability to “lighten up” must also afflict writers Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer who penned this ponderous screenplay. Batman v Superman isn’t horrible. It’s intermittently involving as it unfolds, but all these issues weigh it down upon reflection. One of those “I was mildly entertained while I sat in the theater, but days later I couldn’t care less” type films.

03-24-16

Deadpool

Posted in Action, Adventure, Comedy, Fantasy, Superhero on February 13, 2016 by Mark Hobin

 photo deadpool_ver8_zpsxm3xv2hl.jpg photo starrating-3stars.jpgDeadpool is really funny. As a story, it gets by on a lot of witty one-liners. Hey they charmed this guy — a reviewer that doesn’t care about the comic book origins of a Marvel superhero. The comedy is obscene at times, but that’s not the part that lands. Mostly it’s the meta material that breaks the 4th wall, when it knowingly pokes fun at the idea that everything we’re watching is just fiction. Take the opening credits for example. It’s like the title sequence version of Screen Junkies’ “Honest Trailers”. The camera crawls through a frozen-in-mid-air car crash amid stopped bullets. Dismissive descriptions pop up as stand ins for names. The cast features “Hot Chick,” “Some Idiot,” “Moody Teen” and “British Villain.” I give it numerous points for making fun of itself, but I deduct a few for the fact that it actually succumbs to those stereotypes.

Deadpool was introduced as Wade Wilson in 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine. That entry treated the personality like an afterthought. It even went so far as to sew his mouth shut at one point. That definitely isn’t the approach here, where the wisecracking individual seems like a totally different person. Deadpool makes offhand concessions to the same X-Men universe. A couple mutants even show up. They want to recruit Deadpool for a slot in the X-Men. Neither are the ones you were hoping for though. We get Colossus (an entirely CGI creation this time around) and Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand). Wait, what, who? Sorry no clue, but then why only two of them? Well that’s all the budget could afford — or so says the script. That line is priceless so I’m not complaining. The takeaway, you don’t need to have seen any of the X-Men films to enjoy Deadpool. It stands on its own and it’s all the better for it.

You cast Ryan Reynolds for two reasons. His sarcastic, comedic delivery and his pretty boy good looks. The first strength is put to great use. Ryan Reynolds’ winking, snotty attitude is a delight and he delivers the consistently amusing screenplay with wit and aplomb. I admit that Robert Downey Jr. has already done the smart alecky shtick to perfection in Iron Man, but Reynolds takes the concept in a slightly new direction. The approach is not cutting edge, but still interesting. However the second attribute is where the movie gives the ultimate middle finger to the viewer.

The action is violent verging on sadism. At the lab, Wade is mercilessly tortured for months by a criminal named Ajax (Ed Skrein). The purpose ostensibly to unleash his powers of regeneration and cure his cancer. However Ajax definitely takes a perverse pleasure in the whole procedure. The process works but the treatment leaves Deadpool horribly disfigured. A face so bloodied and pulverized he dons a red mask and bodysuit to hide his appearance. It’s really gross to be quite honest. “You look like an avocado had sex with an older avocado” opines Wade’s best friend Weasel (TJ Miller). The unnecessary endurance test serves nothing other than to cater to the cruelest sensibilities of a maladjusted adolescent. The off-putting scene is a regrettable detour from the production’s mostly intelligent satire.

Too often Deadpool seems to rely on its gratuitous gore, nudity and language as if it’s inventing something new. This is business as usual for the most part. Anyone who has ever seen Blade, Kick-Ass or Dredd will be familiar with hard R-rated shenanigans in this usually family friendly genre. Of course there’s the knowing, self-aware aesthetic. It’s the humor that sells the film. Although even that doesn’t feel innovative. Heck even affable blokes like Zack Morris on Saved by the Bell or Ferris Bueller have famously addressed the audience directly. Incidentally, stay tuned for a cute after credits segment that satirizes that. This isn’t truly subversive in a way that redefines the genre, but the picture maintains an environment that is consistently hilarious. Deadpool undermines the business of making superhero movies just enough to be interesting and worthwhile.

02-11-16

Ant-Man

Posted in Action, Science Fiction, Superhero with tags on July 17, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Ant-Man photo starrating-3stars.jpgIt’s getting hard to summon up the enthusiasm for these superhero movies. There’s just so many of them. Oh and why must each one start with a convoluted origin story? Over the last 10 years we’ve seen as many as 11 comic book adaptations come out in a single year. That was 2011. Since then the sheer number of offerings has declined so perhaps we’re in a bubble that’s about to burst. That’s a shame because a few have ranked among my favorites in a given year. Guardians of the Galaxy is an example that transcends the genre. Unfortunately that’s an exception. For every Avengers there’s an Avengers: Age of Ultron. Which leads me to the latest offering. Ant-Man isn’t terrible but it is far from required viewing.

Even though former systems engineer Scott Lang has been released from prison, he’s a good guy at heart. His crime? Breaking into a shady corporation and transferring money back to workers who deserved it. So he’s like a modern day Robin Hood. Now that he’s a free man, he’s determined to help support his young daughter. She’s an adorable little moppet that gets ample screen time to be cute. Continuing the family angle there also former S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and his adult daughter Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly). They have some unresolved issues to work out too.

How about some more great actors cast as random people?  Michael Pena is conspicuous as a member of Scott’s heist team. Pena emphasizes his ethnicity by speaking with an exaggerated Mexican accent. His sidekick character will either be amusing or cringeworthy depending on your tolerance for ethnic stereotypes. My audience giggled. I was quiet. But this is Scott Lang’s story. Apparently stealing things is his sole hope of earning a living. First Scott steals a suit that shrinks him down to microscopic size. Then he uses the technology to steal more things. Yup. Ant-Man is a heist film.

The best moments involve humor. Yet the giggles are pitched at very young viewers, the humor marked by a jejune mentality. “Whoa! I can’t believe things that are usually small now look big!” is that what the audience is supposed to think.  Personally I couldn’t stop thinking this feels like a made for TV movie for the Disney channel. With a few judicious edits for language, this PG-13 could easily be PG. The script has a favorably lighthearted attitude at least. “Isn’t the idea of a tiny masked vigilante kind of stupid?” it winks at us. Part of you laughs with the filmmakers because sometimes they’re in on the joke, and part of you snickers at them because sometimes they aren’t. The action is really generic. No conflict is ever too complicated that it can’t be resolved with another fistfight. There’s several. Each one is uniquely staged I suppose. Call it Honey I Shrunk the Superhero!  But if that’s the only novelty that this picture can offer (and it is) then that’s hardly innovation. Ant-Man is a boilerplate superhero production. It reinforces the (unfair) accusation that, if you’ve seen one costumed crime fighter film, you’ve seen them all.

07-16-15

Avengers: Age of Ultron

Posted in Action, Adventure, Science Fiction, Superhero with tags on May 3, 2015 by Mark Hobin

Avengers: Age of Ultron photo starrating-3stars.jpgI consider myself to be reasonably intelligent. I understand that it’s a good idea to settle your credit card bill at the end of the month and not let the balance roll over. I grasp the difference between ‘there’, ‘they’re’ & ‘their’ and use them appropriately. But Avengers: Age of Ultron is confusing. I’ll admit it’s nice seeing the old gang get together and kick butt again. They do a lot of that here in cacophonous spectacles that are the best money can buy. Age of Ultron was made with an estimated budget of $250 million, making it the most expensive Marvel picture to date and I won’t question that figure. This looks like a costly movie. Although the battles feel a bit familiar this time around. More expensive doesn’t always equal better. The recent direction of superhero productions like Man of Steel (2013) and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (2014) don’t enchant me. They’re not rooted in dramatic storytelling but rather feats of engineering. There’s a lot going on. Kristopher Tapley over at HitFix defined the practice as “money-shot overload.” The term fits perfectly.

The Avengers was enjoyable because it kept things relatively simple. Let’s bring the superheroes of the Marvel universe together to fight a known enemy: Loki. Age of Ultron is about introducing even more characters to that universe. When I research the cast on the IMDb I see names like Scarlet Witch, Quicksilver, and The Vision. I could’ve missed it, but I don’t recall ever hearing those actual words in the film. What seemed so fun and effortless the first time has now become a thoroughly labored affair. It begins with a complicated opening set in a fictional eastern European country with a mad scientist named Baron Wolfgang von Strucker. Von Strucker’s experiments have created genetically enhanced versions of twins Pietro and Wanda Maximofff. They’re portrayed by Aaron Taylor-Johnson & Elizabeth Olsen sporting embarrassing pseudo-Russian accents. It is interesting to note the actors went from playing a married couple in Godzilla to a brother & sister duo here.

Avengers: Age of Ultron makes precious little sense. I realize looking for consistency in a sci-fi fantasy is a feeble pursuit but I must start with a random observation. Pietro’s powers are wildly inconsistent. The dude is supposed to move at supersonic speeds. We saw this in 2014’s X-Men: Days Of Future Past when the individual was notably played by Evan Peters. In that film, Quicksilver raced around a room to prevent an onslaught of bullets from hitting his friends. So I take serious exception to what he does here. I must tread lightly to avoid spoilers but his behavior is beyond comprehension. Paul Bettany’s role as J.A.R.V.I.S.. takes on a new dimension in a mystifying story arc which I couldn’t spoil because I didn’t get it either. Somehow the internet made it possible though.

Also lacking clarity is Ultron, the main villain.  He is actually part of Tony Stark’s global defense program. I will say it’s kind of amusing seeing Robert Downey Jr. reunited with his Less Than Zero co-star, or at least his voice anyway. James Spader looks different but hey, that was 28 years ago. Apparently Ultron is Tony Stark’s fault and he’s kind of a jerk about it. The words, “I’m sorry” would’ve helped.  Initially he had the best of intentions.  He wanted to keep the peace. His Ultron program was designed to protect the Earth.  But Ultron becomes a sentient being and naturally decides that the human race must be eliminated because they’re the biggest threat. It’s that darned artificial intelligence gone wrong again. You didn’t see this coming? How many movies are going to use this as a plot point? From 2001: A Space Odyssey to Ex Machina.  Oh but why have just one Ultron when you can have many. Of course there must be an army of robot drones further cluttering the screen.

A big part of the narrative involves the gang coming to terms with their feelings. Assisting them in this is Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen). Her power is to get inside people’s heads. She disorients them with visions of their fears. There’s several dream sequences that put division amongst the Avengers. In fact much of the tale, in between conventional combat, is centered on Avengers who just wanna go home and walk away from all this.  Ah, that’s what was missing from the last Avengers movie, existentialist mumbo jumbo.  Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye gets an expanded back-story that seeks to further humanize him. There’s even room for a burgeoning romance between Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow and Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk. I hesitate to use an adjective like boring, especially in a film with so much visual stimuli thrown at the screen, but these arbitrary developments aren’t captivating. How about lame? Is that a better word?

It’s not all bad. There are some genuinely humorous moments that made me smile. The Hulk’s dream (which we unfortunately never see) causes him to fly into a rage and forces Iron Man to don his Hulk-Buster suit of armor to calm him down. The team takes turns trying to pick up Thor’s hammer which has a hilarious payoff later. But then Ultron and the twins go to a shipyard in South Africa and Andy Serkis inexplicably pops up. Cue fanboy giggles. Bewildered looks on everyone else. Enough with the fan service! It shouldn’t come at the expense of a coherent story. As per usual, stay for a mid-credits scene (no post credits one) where we’re reminded of that creature with a purple face that we saw briefly in The Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy. (I’m told it’s Thanos) I only wish Age of Ultron were more focused on giving the audience a lucid plot instead of being a character springboard for future films.

05-01-15