Archive for the Superhero Category

Black Widow

Posted in Action, Adventure, Science Fiction, Superhero on July 11, 2021 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Black Widow was first introduced 11 years ago in Iron Man 2. The perpetually sidelined superhero has finally gotten her own standalone feature in 2021. It’s long overdue.

There are two mindsets in which to approach this film. The first is as an expert. This is the 24th chapter in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Anyone able to keep track of the way all the various people, alliances, and developments fit together, deserves a Ph.D. in comic book history. You have my respect. The rest of us — me included — are better off disregarding trying to remember everything that happened in the past. Simply appreciate the movie at face value for what it is. In this case, a decent spy thriller.

Black Widow succeeds as a character-driven action thriller. As a necessary installment to clarify the MCU franchise, it comes up short. Case in point: the chronicle feels like an afterthought. A fan will notice the adventure is retroactively set during an earlier time to adhere to the series’ continuity. These events take place right after Captain America: Civil War occurred in 2016 but before what happens in Avengers: Infinity War in 2018. The picture should have come out 4-5 years ago. Ah but Black Widow is still an entertaining actioner. Better late than never.

Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) has been isolated from the other Avengers. Dissension amongst the group has split them up. She signed the Sokovia Accords at Iron Man’s behest but then sided with Captain America when it really counted. Oh snap! She played both sides. She’s currently not on friendly terms with Iron Man and on the run. Did you follow any of that? No matter. The setup merely provides an opportunity to present a completely new cast. Except for William Hurt who returns in a cameo as U.S. Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross. We meet mom Melina (Rachel Weisz) and dad Alexei (David Harbour). Surprise! The people who raised Natasha in suburban Ohio may not actually be biologically related to her.

At a young age, Natasha was placed in a covert Soviet facility known as the Red Room. There she was brainwashed and schooled in combat and espionage. Many other girls received this spy training as well. They became mindless assassins without free will, turning them into “Black Widows.” Her sister (Florence Pugh) likewise was also educated in this fashion under the direction of evil mastermind General Dreykov (Ray Winstone). He also commands an elite operative called Taskmaster (Olga Kurylenko) to do his bidding — a tangent that unnecessarily complicates a deeply tortuous narrative. Director Cate Shortland (Lore) directs from a screenplay written by Jac Schaeffer that was rewritten by Ned Benson, who was in turn replaced by Eric Pearson. There’s a lot of plot. The story excels when it’s focused on fewer characters, not more.

The core “family” forms a ragtag group somewhat reminiscent of dynamic in The Incredibles. That’s where the film finds its groove — in comedy. There’s a scene where David Harbour is attempting to squeeze into his old suit as The Red Guardian aka Russia’s version of Captain America. Then there’s Rachel Weisz as a seasoned professional and mother figure. She’s two steps ahead of Alexi with the plans. Then most notable of all, Russian sibling Yelena, portrayed by UK actress Florence Pugh, giving cold unemotional line readings that amusingly make us love her even more.

It’s a bit ironic that Black Widow’s sister outshines the titular superhero in her own movie. Florence Pugh is supposed to be support but her personality is just so darn funny. She totally takes the air out of Natasha’s sails when Yelena mocks her battle stance. “Why do you always do that thing? That thing you do when you’re fighting? With the arm and the hair, when you do like a fighting pose?” she deadpans. Yelena then hilariously affects a posture akin to a ballet position. “It’s a fighting pose. You’re a total poser.” Yelena’s enthusiasm for vests is cute too. She loves the pockets. She has even made some modifications on the one she’s wearing . Her pride is infectious. As expected there are some good action scenes but it’s the character-driven bits that I savor the most. Those parts elevate the film into something I really enjoyed.

07-08-21

Wonder Woman 1984

Posted in Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Superhero on December 24, 2020 by Mark Hobin

Rating: 3 out of 5.

** Mild spoilers ahead ** but honestly, I think the info contained within this review will actually help you understand this most confusing movie.

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Gal Godot is an absolute delight as Wonder Woman. This is simply a fact on which I will not entertain debate. The actress has a presence. She is goodness personified that recalls both Christopher Reeve in 1978’s Superman as well as the grace of Audrey Hepburn. She radiates decency. That’s a pleasure separate from how one feels about this finished product. Wonder Woman 1984 is the much-delayed sequel to 2017’s Wonder Woman. This is arguably the most anticipated release of the year. Director Patty Jenkins is back with a script she wrote with Geoff Johns and David Callaham. Our adventure begins on a breathtaking high at the Amazon Games ceremony and ends with a ridiculous low involving a TV broadcast. From a very auspicious beginning, the story somehow loses its direction. It’s a mixed bag to be sure. There is so much to praise in the first half that I must recommend the film, but with reservations. In short, I was entertained.

The picture opens with an American Ninja Warrior-style competition where Diana Prince competes in a multi-stage athletic championship on the island nation of Themyscira. Here she is a little girl (Lilly Aspell) competing against adversaries twice her size and age. The event is an exhilarating spectacle and a astonishing display to seize attention right from the start. I was enthralled. It has virtually nothing to do with the subsequent narrative that takes place years later. It merely provides a setting for Diana’s aunt (Robin Wright) to teach the young champion the importance of truth.

The proper tale concerns Diana Prince who is now living a modest existence. She’s working as a curator at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. studying antiquities by day and occasionally performing heroic acts in her free time. The media is baffled by the identity of this mystery woman who fights crime. At night she eats dinner alone. She continues to carry the torch for Air Force pilot Steve Trevor (Chris Pine). You may recall Steve died in the previous installment, but when did that ever stop a screenwriter from bringing back a beloved character? If you’ve seen the trailer you know he’s back (sort of). 1940s Steve Trevor is fascinated by Pop-Tarts, fanny packs, escalators, subways, breakdancing, and parachute pants. He’s got all the naïveté that I loved about Diana Prince in the first film. As happy as I am to see him return, his reintroduction is poorly explained, much like most of what happens in this drama. I won’t spoil with details but the filmmakers introduce a lot of confusing plot developments. The further we delve into the saga the more we realize it makes absolutely no sense. If a script is a mathematical equation, the authors have completely removed the logic.

Things become dicey with the introduction of a magical citrine jewel that has the power to grant your desires. It’s like the Monkey’s Paw: “Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it” as the old adage goes. This means your request is bequeathed but with qualifications. Once again the writers are asleep at the wheel. This concept is not clear when it’s introduced. There’s a segment fully halfway through that explains the mechanism by which this artifact works. The communication occurs far too late after the audience is already thoroughly confused by the powers of the antagonist. This conversation should’ve happened at least an hour prior. Despite the audience’s lack of understanding, businessman Maxwell Lord (Pedro Pascal) clearly already knows this information as he romances Diana’s co-worker (Kristen Wiig ) at the museum to acquire it. Barbara Minerva and Maxwell Lord are the prime antagonists. They affect the story in both positive and negative ways. Ultimately I thought Kristen Wiig enjoyably captured the nerdy demeanor appropriate of her character. Meanwhile, Pedro Pascal’s generic portrayal didn’t embody the larger than life magnetism required of a central villain.

Wonder Woman 1984 is the promise of a dream unfulfilled. The feature starts at such a wondrous zenith then comes crashing down to a heartbreaking low. It’s difficult to pinpoint the moment at which this release went off the rails. The ultimate nadir is a toss-up, but the final 30 minutes ranks with some of the worst displays ever witnessed in a superhero film. There’s a worldwide TV newscast by Maxwell Lord then Barbara Minerva’s full-fledged emergence as Cheetah. She debuts like rejected CGI from the cinematic adaptation of the musical Cats. Her appearance is an affront to the senses. Note to the producers of every superhero movie ever made: one villain is enough! (Yes, that includes Batman Returns). Two only add to a cluttered ensemble. Then the President of the United States (Stuart Milligan) shows up. The year is 1984 so that should be Ronald Reagan right? The actor suggests him in appearance but it’s never explicitly acknowledged. Furthermore, Wonder Woman 1984 has a surprising dearth of action set pieces in a genre that is usually dependent on them. The introductory sequence is the best thing and a car chase in Cairo is pretty exciting too. I’ll admit dialogue can be captivating too. The interactions between Diana Prince and Steve Trevor are worthy of note. Those two save this production as their integrity shepherds us through so many bewildering events. I get it. These movies of the DC Extended Universe are supposed to be fantasy. However, even fanciful flicks such as this should offer an account somewhat grounded in reality. Wonder Woman 1984 is a mystifying mess.

12-22-20

Birds of Prey

Posted in Action, Adventure, Crime, Superhero with tags on February 13, 2020 by Mark Hobin

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“Anything you can do, I can do better. I can do anything better than you.”  That’s what Annie Oakley confidently sang to marksman Frank Butler in the musical Annie Get Your Gun.  She was boasting about her abilities as a sharpshooter and she wasn’t wrong.  Birds of Prey is about a decidedly different kind of feminist icon — Harley Quinn.  Some would even call her a villain.  There’s an ideology that subscribes to the idea that women can be just as — if not more than — coarse, vulgar and harmful as the men.  This is the approach where the very exhibition of destruction itself is an idea more cherished than drama, plot or logic.

Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn is a complete assault on the senses.  Even the unwieldy title is an irritant.  Warner Brothers also realized this later, because they have now retitled it as Harley Quinn: Birds of Prey as a course corrective.  At $33.0M, the movie had the worst opening since the DC Extended universe began in 2013.  One day the marketing campaign will be studied as a course entitled “What Not To Do”.  But let’s talk about the actual movie.  It doesn’t help that the plot is an incomprehensible headache to follow.  An animated intro — the only lucid thing in the whole production — informs us that the Joker and Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) were once lovers.  He has broken up with her and now she is no longer afforded his protection.  She is now pursued by numerous enemies.  The main baddie is an evil gangster named Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor) who owns a dance club.  He’s too much of a buffoon to be threatening.  Meanwhile, a teenage pickpocket named Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Bosco) has stolen and swallowed a precious diamond from Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina) one of Roman Sionis’ henchmen.  So Harley offers to retrieve it for Roman. In exchange, he will spare her life.

Suicide Squad doesn’t have a reputation as artistic cinema but it’s Citizen Kane compared to this bewildering collection of gibberish.  At least Suicide Squad had Margot Robbie’s appearance which rose above the chaotic assemblage of actors.  As part of an ensemble, Harley Quinn was the charismatic standout, but here as the main focus of a narrative, you realize just how shallow and empty she truly is.  The once certified psychiatrist is a brightly colored confection not motivated by anything.  She merely responds to whatever is happening around her.  For most of the saga, her raison d’etre is to simply not die.  As one brutal spectacle piles on top of another, I grew numb.

Margo Robbie isn’t a character she’s an affectation.  An entity entirely composed of mannerisms and attitude.  She’s Baby-Spice blasting glitter bombs, occasionally breaking the fourth wall by winking and talking to the audience under the guidance of director Cathy Yan.  This is the filmmaker’s second feature after the indie comedy-drama Dead Pigs.  Star Robbie is a two-time Oscar nominee.  She is unquestionably a talent but here she is being instructed to behave in a way that truly tests the patience of the audience.  Harley Quinn’s cutesy chirp of a New York accent seems cobbled from Madonna’s performance as Nikki Finn in Who’s that Girl (1987).  Even their names sound similar.  Harley also narrates the film in a scattered singsongy voiceover that explains what’s happening on screen.  Obviously required because no sane person could possibly divine a point to this nonsense.

There is no story — just a series of raucous setpieces to which Harley Quinn must react.  Fight scenes are accompanied by a rock soundtrack cranked at full volume to distract from the lack of rationality.  “I Hate Myself for Loving You”, “Love Rollercoaster” and “Barracuda” all play at various points in the background.   The aural soundscape blends together.  One scene bears little relationship to the one before it.  Indeed the tale is conveniently told in a nonlinear fashion.  The decision feels more like a desperate struggle to obfuscate the lack of structure rather than a purposeful choice of style.

Birds of Prey is a violent action fantasy based on DC Comics’ infamous supervillain “girl gang”.  They’re opposed by Roman and right-hand man Victor who cut their victims’ faces off while they’re still alive.  They gun down a family with children in a gory display too.  For most of the movie’s runtime, it concerns one Harley Quinn but three other women emerge who have been mistreated by men: a vigilante called Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a singer dubbed Black Canary (Jurnee Smollett-Bell), and a police detective named Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez).  The screenplay disingenuously attempts — in the end — to reinterpret all this mindless cursing, and mayhem into a pseudo-feminist anthem of banding together against their male oppressors.  Yet the women are undeveloped and conventional as characters.  Their one-dimensional personas feel like a giant step backward for female empowerment.  Ultimately the disjointed narrative makes absolutely no sense.  Birds of Prey — utterly lacking in wit, cleverness or coherence — is a featherbrained mess.

02-06-20

Joker

Posted in Crime, Drama, Superhero, Thriller with tags on October 5, 2019 by Mark Hobin

joker_ver2STARS3.5There’s a moment in Joker that takes place on a subway where three bro-ey guys in suits are behaving in an obnoxious and contemptible way.  They’re rich white well-dressed types and they’re hitting on a woman who clearly isn’t interested.  Our protagonist Arthur Fleck sits farther away keeping to himself.  He will ultimately become the title character but that happens much later.  The dudes soon set their sights on hapless Arthur.  The scene will end in three deaths but it’s symbolic of something much more fascinating.  You see douchey frat boy figures were once the heroes of a movie called The Hangover back in 2009.  Todd Phillips directed that film as well as this one.  Oh, how times have changed over the past decade.

Joker is an origin story about the villain who first appeared in the debut issue of the DC creation Batman back on April 25, 1940.  However, the atmosphere here goes to conspicuous lengths to separate itself from being a typical comic book feature.  It’s an evocative period piece set in 1981.  There’s a bit of Sidney Lumet (Dog Day Afternoon, Network) and Water Hill (The Warriors) in there.  However, Joker has a lot more in common with a couple of flicks directed by Martin Scorsese: Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy.  Those classics are the blueprint of this movie.  Robert De Niro even appears as a talk show host like the one that Jerry Lewis portrayed.  The subtle distinction between homage and rip-off is really put to the test.  I suppose your judgment will rest with how entertained you are by the final product.  There’s nothing wrong with being influenced by other directors.  I was engrossed and occasionally appalled at various points throughout this drama.  However, my attitude veers closer to admiration than disgust because this is a compelling chronicle.

Joker wallows in an alternative view of New York society called Gotham where depravity and inhumanity are borderline de rigueur.  It is a presentation of how hateful and nasty and empty the world is.  The irony is, the film itself is hollow as well.  The screenplays of Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy were complex.  The political commentary of the script by Todd Phillips and Scott Silver is a superficial examination.  It has absolutely nothing to say about the civilization it presents.  It merely creates a community that is so uncaring and so awful that violence seems like an acceptable response.  The Joker sees himself as a victim and we the audience are supposed to view him in the very same way.  There is no insight.

What Joker has is a bravura performance by Joaquin Phoenix that invites the viewer to sympathize with an individual you never thought you’d side with.  We watch him kicked and beaten and punished and belittled so mercilessly that when he finally rises up and shoots a man point-blank in the face with a gun, it’s a cathartic display toward a callous character.  We almost understand his frustration.  This won the top prize at the Venice Film festival.  The win was surprising but not unexplainable.  This movie is very much a product of our times.  Joker casually exploits hot button topics like bullying and mental illness for his descent into violence.  Oh and be forewarned, this can be extremely brutal.  Two murders, in particular, are exploited for shock value.  However, they’re so over-the-top under the guises of a comic book that the drama kind of gets away with it.

The Joker has been played in theatrical films by Jack Nicholson, Heath Ledger, Jared Leto and now Joaquin Phoenix.  The part is like the Hamlet of our age.  Joaquin Phoenix is indeed great.  He swings for the fences in a scenery-chewing role.  He lost weight and looks physically emaciated.  He bursts into uproarious laughter at inappropriate moments and dances with a showy flair.  It is an act that is going to polarize people because it is an overwrought and risky exhibition.  I dug it quite honestly.  I was captivated throughout.

10-03-19

Spider-Man: Far From Home

Posted in Action, Adventure, Comedy, Fantasy, Science Fiction, Superhero on July 6, 2019 by Mark Hobin

spiderman_far_from_home_ver7STARS4Warning: Review contains an Avengers: Endgame spoiler.

Spider-Man: Far From Home doesn’t waste any time getting started.  A gigantic cyclone “with a face” terrorizes a city in Mexico.  An enigmatic superhero heretofore unknown arrives to fight the creature and save the day.  We later learn his name is Quentin Beck (Jake Gyllenhaal).  He will become a key figure in this narrative.  Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and his sidekick Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) investigate.  They appeal to Peter Parker (Tom Holland ) for help.  However the mild-mannered teen a.k.a. Spider-Man is more concerned with high school life.  This means preparing for a class trip to Europe, hanging out with his buddy Ned Leeds (Jacob Batalon) and attending to the crush he has on cute classmate “MJ” (Zendaya).  He likes her and she likes him.  They’re just too painfully shy to tell one another.  It may technically be the final chapter in Phase Three of the Marvel Cinematic Universe but debuting after Avengers: Endgame, this really feels like a fresh beginning.  The adventure enthusiastically prepares the viewer for a new series of MCU movies with a lighthearted attitude that is buoyant and fun.

Each entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe has its own identity.  Like Spider-Man: Homecoming, its 2017 predecessor, this one is equally coming of age comedy as it is a superhero fantasy.  Actually, the portrait of teen angst is the best part.  Coming on the heels of Endgame, this is the first feature to detail the aftermath of what Thanos caused.  In that vein, their high-school TV station playfully presents an “In Memoriam” segment for Tony Stark, Steve Rogers, Natasha Romanoff, and Vision.  It also explains what happened when half the Earth’s population disappeared in what this story calls “The Blip” then reappeared exactly the same age five years later.  Their peers who remained on Earth did age.

Peter Parker is torn.  Four Elementals are wreaking havoc on the world.  These immortal creatures are so-named because each one controls an element: earth, air, fire, and water.  As Tony Stark’s protegee, he feels the call to be a superhero.  At the same time, Peter just wants to see the sights of Europe with his friends.  Enter Quentin Beck, a hero from a parallel Earth, who seems ever more capable than Peter when dealing with these supernatural threats.  Peter’s classmates start calling the individual “Mysterio” which the genial guy soon adopts as his moniker.  Jake Gyllenhaal is memorable.  He imbues his character with a charisma that deftly straddles the line between good-natured and disingenuous.

Spider-Man: Far From Home is a blast.  It also details a very personal odyssey.  Directed by Jon Watts, with a screenplay by Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers, the film brilliantly juggles a crisis of conscience for Peter Parker.  This is a character based chronicle and as such, his desire to simply live a “normal” life is quite compelling.  I truly cared about the various choices that Peter Parker makes.  One, in particular, is an (almost) unforgivable decision.  Deep down we know in this Tony Stark-less reality, the world truly needs Spider-Man.  The emotional stakes are huge!  A wonderful cast engages the emotions with humor and intensity.  I’ve discussed most of the main players but “Happy” Hogan (Jon Favreau) and Aunt May (Marisa Tomei) also bear a mention.  They share an amusing flirtation in their minor roles.  The class field trip provides a picaresque tour of Europe.  This appealingly sets the action in various destinations: Venice, Prague, Berlin, and London.  The action comes to a crescendo in a climax that exploits the idea that everything you see in a deception.  It’s a dizzying feat of CGI and the effects had me gasping at the optical illusion of it all.  The chaotic frenzy recalls the bewildering displays of last year’s animated Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.  Mysterio’s glowing orbs of lightning blasts are kind of awesome in a kitschy old-school science fiction way.  This saga perfectly blends emotion and technology.  This summertime romp effortlessly entertains with wit and style.

07-02-19

Avengers: Endgame

Posted in Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Superhero with tags on April 28, 2019 by Mark Hobin

avengers_endgame_ver2STARS4Dear Marvel fan, this is the movie you’ve been waiting for.  Avengers: Endgame is ostensibly the direct sequel to 2018’s Avengers: Infinity War.  We’ve waited one year with bated breath for a resolution to the cliffhanger of that film.  In a much larger sense, it’s the impressive culmination of 21 films that all began when Iron Man first debuted 11 years ago in 2008.  It was a daunting task.  There were many goals, but for me the three most important were to (1) fashion a chronicle that could coherently juggle a myriad of superheroes with various backstories (2) remain emotionally invested in each one and (3) maintain interest without relying on haphazard conflicts that can often degenerate into a bloated slog. (see Avengers: Age of Ultron).  I’m relieved to say Endgame satisfies every one of these objectives.

A good review shouldn’t recapitulate the plot.  As such, I won’t be revealing spoilers contained within this new episode.  However, I will assume you have at least seen Infinity War which is essentially Part 1 to the continuity of this film.  If that’s not the case, and the denouement of that story still remains a mystery, congratulations on abstaining from every single form of social media!  Furthermore, please stop reading here and come back after you have watched Infinity War first.  Ok ready?  We begin after half of all living things in the universe have been snuffed out by the mighty supervillain Thanos (Josh Brolin).  Among those left to deal with the aftermath are the six original Avengers. There’s Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner).

The situation is dire.   The loss of life is even more calamitous than a decimation as that word is, by definition, only 1/10 of all living things.   The Avengers have lost many of their closest friends.  Understandably they are a doleful bunch.  Being the do-gooding champions that they are, they set out to recover the Infinity Stones from Thanos so they can reverse his actions.  Sadly he has already destroyed them.  The first hour is abnormally solemn, a somber rumination on coming to terms with what has happened.  The characters now exude a world-weary exterior.  There is a poignancy in the first third that sucks you into the developments that unfold later.  The movie isn’t afraid to gradually lay the groundwork for what must ultimately be done.  The Avengers devise a plan to undo the damage that Thanos has caused.  Hint: the conclusion of Ant-Man and the Wasp provides a crucial element.  The narrative takes its time but once the events of the 2nd hour begin, the payoff is all the better for it.

Endgame is surprisingly moving.  Working from a screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, the Russo brothers, Joe and Anthony, rely heavily on past films and alliances.  Given that, this will unquestionably please die-hard fans.  Having seen every installment will surely add to your experience.  Endgame includes a profusion of moments to delight those people, a consideration now known as fan service.  The bad news is that this not an adventure for newbies or even the casual moviegoer that may have seen, oh let’s say, less than 5 of these productions.  Your enjoyment directly depends on an appreciation of formerly established alliances and circumstances.  Tony Stark/Iron Man is a key personality.  His relationship with Steve Rogers, Pepper Potts, and Peter Parker all provide touching high points.  I, like the rest of my theater, was visibly affected by the sentiment.  Conversely, newcomers are likely to sit stone-faced, shrug and wonder why the rest of the theater is in tears.

The narrative brings out the humanity in these beloved individuals.  They may be all-powerful, but they still care for one another.  The drama frequently relies on previously articulated interpersonal connections.  For those that have been on this journey since the very beginning, this entertains on every level.  There’s gratification is seeing this branch of the franchise tied up in such a satisfying way.  The spectacular climax fully captivated the 12-year-old in me.   It was a complete and utter wow – the visual manifestation of the epic battles in my wildest imagination as a child.  Along the way, we’re treated to a lot of developments over the course of a 3+ hour movie.  Amazingly, it never drags.  The script brings closure to many personalities while always providing interesting happenings on screen.  Endgame‘s take on the Hulk and Thor present enjoyable character changes that really made me smile.  The return of Queen Frigga of Asgard (Rene Russo) is particularly poignant.  This isn’t the termination of the MCU mind you, but it is the concluding phase of the Infinity Saga which handles the exit of several cherished favorites.  I’ve seen every single entry in this series.  The Russo brothers clearly embody a genuine love for this franchise.  Sure, this is merely a fantasy about superheroes.  The plot isn’t deep or essential in any spiritual or metaphysical sense.  However, the production generates the wave of feelings that this fan craves.  In that respect, Avengers: Endgame is an emotional catharsis that totally delivers.

04-25-19

Shazam!

Posted in Action, Adventure, Comedy, Superhero with tags on March 28, 2019 by Mark Hobin

shazam_ver3STARS3.5I’m officially ready to concede that the DC Extended Universe has me excited.  It’s been a rocky road ever since Man of Steel debuted back in 2013.  For a while, this current DC iteration of films subscribed to the gospel of Christopher Nolan.  Moody and brooding realism equaled a quality flick.  I adore The Dark Knight trilogy so, in theory, it sounded like a good idea.  Then one joyless, poorly written project after another proved that something wasn’t working.  I wasn’t a fan until Wonder Woman came along in 2017 and then Aquaman solidified that love in 2018.  Both were entertaining episodes that stood on their own.  They were individual chapters that didn’t depend on having seen the rest of the series.  Justice League, which was sandwiched between the two, negated that concept, but let’s focus on the positive.  We currently have a new offering based on a DC Comics property previously known as “Captain Marvel” when it was originally published by Fawcett Comics 1940–1953.  Branded as the DC character “Shazam!” In 1972, the superhero has made his first appearance in a theatrical feature since the 1941 movie serial from Republic Pictures. What took so long?  This production is an outright charmer.

Well color me surprised.  I had seen the trailers and thought the whimsical — no make that goofy — mood was a tonal misfire.  We haven’t seen such brightly colored tights on a superhero costume in quite a while.  The whole thing seemed too irreverent to be taken seriously.  Turns out the jokey tone is the screenplay’s greatest asset.  Not since the halcyon days of Christopher Reeve has a buoyant, upbeat tone been employed so effectively.  Superman II (1980) is one of the greatest films ever made (not kidding) so pardon the aforementioned blasphemy.

Billy Batson (Asher Angel) is a foster kid with a mischievous and arrogant demeanor at first, but he has a kind and compassionate heart.  While escaping a couple of schoolyard bullies, he’s magically whisked to a magical realm known as The Rock of Eternity where he meets the Wizard Shazam (Djimon Hounsou).  No stranger to comic book adaptations, Hounsou has played Korath the Pursuer in Marvel productions (Guardians of the Galaxy, Captain Marvel) and (using CGI) the ruler of the Fisherman Kingdom in DC’s Aquaman.  Here he portrays the sorcerer who chooses to bestow his magical powers on Billy.  By saying the word “shazam”, Billy receives Solomon’s wisdom, Hercules’ strength, Atlas’ stamina, Zeus’ power, Achilles’ courage, and Mercury’s speed.  It’s all in the name.

A big part of the chronicle is the joy of discovery as young Billy becomes acclimated to his new god-like abilities.  Remember, he’s still fundamentally a teen, but when he becomes Shazam, he is an adult.  Incidentally, he never embraces that name here.  An ongoing joke is trying to come up with a suitable moniker.  Zachary Levi is absolutely winning when Billy transforms into the musclebound champion.  He perfectly conveys that naive enthusiasm even as a grown adult.  His “golly gee wilikers” expressions convey pure innocence.  He’s a do-gooder that kids can look up to.  His friendship with Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer), one of the foster kids he goes to live with, is a sheer delight.  The two of them have a lot of fun figuring out what superpowers he has.  Grazer is an actor to watch.  He memorably portrayed the youthful hypochondriac, Eddie in 2017’s It.  Here he stands out as well with his wide-eyed charisma.  His curiosity is contagious.  The chemistry he has with both actors Angel and Levi is captivating.

Of course there’s a villain.  He’s Dr. Thaddeus Sivana, ably played by the dependable Mark Strong.  This adventure actually begins with his story.  We learn how the poor treatment he had received at the hands of his older brother and father led to his dark desires.  He too was summoned by the Wizard Shazam as a child but was not chosen.  A bunch of CGI gargoyle monsters that each represent the 7 deadly sins assist him in his sinister ambitions.  They might frighten very young toddlers.  There’s a moment where Dr. Sivana pushes his equally corrupt brother out of a skyscraper.  If you can manage the cartoon level violence of Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner cartoons, you can handle this.  Although I completely understood why Dr. Sivana turned evil, I didn’t particularly care.  His saga is less compelling.  It occupies a lot more time in the narrative than I cared to indulge.

Ultimately Shazam! emphasizes the happiness in comic books.  This celebrates the feeling of wish fulfillment.  Billy’s childlike wonder in savoring his newfound abilities is so palpable.  We appreciate his euphoria.  Writer Henry Gayden (Earth to Echo) and horror director David F. Sandberg (Lights Out, Annabelle: Creation) also emphasize the importance of family.  After being separated from his mother, Billy is sent to live with a foster home that includes other children.  Based on this account, I suspect these individuals will become more important in the inevitable sequel.  Besides Freddy, there’s college-bound Mary (Grace Fulton), gamer Eugene (Ian Chen), shy Pedro (Jovan Armand), and youngest Darla (Faithe Herman).  The close camaraderie that develops proves that a family isn’t necessarily about blood relations.  It’s surprisingly uplifting.  Even when Shazam! gets bogged down in less interesting plot machinations, it’s the heart that shines through.

03-23-19

Captain Marvel

Posted in Action, Adventure, Science Fiction, Superhero with tags on March 10, 2019 by Mark Hobin

captain_marvel_ver2STARS3It’s hard to believe, but after 20 films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), Captain Marvel is the first to star a female lead.  I still don’t understand why we didn’t get a Black Widow movie back in 2010 when that character was introduced in Iron Man 2.  The DC Extended Universe beat Marvel to the punch by two years with Wonder Woman, a critical and box office hit in the summer of 2017.  Much has been made of Captain Marvel‘s trailblazing status.  I mean it was released on International Women’s Day.  The drama is so retro.  Ok so yes, the feature is set in 1995 but it actually feels like it was made back then.

Captain Marvel is a prequel to the entire MCU.  The adventure concerns an officer in the United States Air Force named Carol Danvers.  This is the saga of how she became Captain Marvel through a series of events, Yup it’s another origin story.  The problem is she has amnesia. We know who she is.  Unfortunately, she doesn’t, so she wanders through a large part of the film on an “emotional journey” with her mind in a funky haze.  That makes her personality kind of nil.  She interacts with a youthful looking Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury minus the eyepatch.  For once the de-aging technology looks pretty amazing.  Jackson gets to see out of both eyes and he has a nice repartee with Brie Larson.  He helps her unravel the mystery of her past.  Also of note is Ben Mendelsohn who plays a shapeshifting Skrull villain named Talos.  As of late, he’s been playing underwritten parts that could simply be labeled as “old evil white guy” (Rogue One, Ready Player One).  Here he gets a part with depth worthy of his talents.  He rises to the challenge.  Talos is not all that he seems and he’s a highlight in a movie in desperate need of them.

The best scenes of Captain Marvel take place on Planet C-53.  That’s Earth to you newbies. Before we can get there, the production is saddled with the worst 20-minute intro ever to grace an MCU film.  It all takes place in space.  Carol Danvers, who thinks her name is Vers, reports to commander Yon-Rogg (Jude Law) who is a Kree.  She believes herself to be one as well.  She ends up on Earth which is the site for a galactic conflict between these two alien populations, the Skrulls and the Krees.  Directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck are a filmmaking duo known for indies (Half Nelson, It’s Kind of a Funny Story).  It’s the quieter moments where Captain Marvel shines.  Carol meets her longtime friend from the U.S. Air Force, Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch).  The two women have a conversation about something other than a man.  Bechtel test, check.

I hate to invoke a cliché like “been there done that” but it’s too fitting to reject.  The overall sensibility of the presentation is conventionality.  As you’d predict for a film set in the 90s, there are nods to the trappings of the era.  Blockbuster Video, Radio Shack, Blackberry cell phones, CD ROMs that take forever to load are all visual gags.  The 90s infused soundtrack means we can listen to tunes like No Doubt’s “Just A Girl” while she engages in combat or hear Nirvana’s “Come As You Are” as she enters Mar-Vell’s (Annette Bening ) quarters.  Brief musical snippets pop up here and there.  However, their presence is far less memorable than the way Guardians utilized songs from the 1960s and 1970s.  The problems go deeper than the timeworn habit of invoking familiar references to elicit laughs.  Captain Marvel is encumbered with a narrative that is surprisingly old hat. Expectations in 2019 demand a plot with more innovation than the formulaic story beats presented here.

Captain Marvel was a highly anticipated production. The ending of 2018’s Avengers: Infinity War teased the introduction of this character.  She is clearly going to be an important part in next month’s Avengers: Endgame. I still believe this is an acceptable amuse-bouche for the upcoming main course.  The world has been waiting with bated breath.  Sadly this is not the significant episode we imagined.  We waited over a decade for this.  Had this film come out back in 2008 when the MCU began, the simple novelty of a female-led superhero movie would have been enough.  A decade later and things have changed.  Now we also need the thrills to be extraordinary too.  Instead, they’re rather ordinary.  For the first time, Marvel is struggling to keep up with the spirit of the times.

03-07-19

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Posted in Action, Adventure, Animation, Superhero on January 9, 2019 by Mark Hobin

spiderman_into_the_spiderverse_ver2STARS3.5How much Spider-Man do you need in your life? Sequels, reboots, so many origin stories – This is the 7th feature film to star the Marvel superhero since 2002 and the first animated movie in the franchise. That’s roughly a new release every 27 months. This chapter has certainly put the other entries in perspective. The cognoscenti extolled this feature as the best Spider-Man ever, some even going so far as to call it the best superhero picture of all-time. Those are some pretty lofty declarations. It’s an enjoyable production to be sure. Just based on innovation alone, this production justifies yet another iteration. At this point, those Amazing Spider-Man movies with Andrew Garfield from 2012 and 2014 are only worth watching if you’re a die-hard completist.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse plays with tradition. I wasn’t up on my comic book history. Those well versed in such lore will be at a distinct advantage. If that’s you, go ahead and skip the rest of this paragraph. In fact, go ahead and skip the whole review. This movie was made with you in mind and I can recommend it to you wholeheartedly. Ok now for you casuals and non-superhero fans,  apparently the setting is a shared multiverse called the “Spider-Verse”, which has alternate worlds. This is the first to feature Miles Morales (Shameik Moore), an Afro-Latino teenager from Brooklyn. He was a re-invention of the character in 2011 by writers Brian Michael Bendis and artist Sara Pichelli. Miles admires Spider-Man /Peter Parker (Chris Pine), the classic guy with whom we are familiar. In this realm, Peter Parker is blonde, fit and seemingly perfect. Miles is bitten by a radioactive spider in the very same way and also develops the same powerful abilities.

That’s merely the beginning. Maniacal crime lord, Wilson Fisk AKA the Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) and his top scientist Liv Octavius (Kathryn Hahn), the head of Alchemax, are the baddies. They’ve built a particle accelerator to access parallel universes. Fisk wants to reconnect with his wife and son who died in a car accident. His use of this thing allows various forms of Spider-Man to come into contact with Miles and interact. There’s Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson), a more disheveled, brown-haired Spider-Man that sort of acts as his mentor. He’s from another dimension.  There’s teenaged Gwen Stacy, a Spider-Woman (Hailee Steinfeld), a brooding reporter from the Great Depression called Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage), an anthropomorphic pig parody called Spider-Ham AKA Peter Porker (John Mulaney), and Japanese-American high school student Peni Parker (Kimiko Glenn) who pilots a robot called SP//dr. Does this sound confusing? Believe me, it’s even more dizzying as you’re watching it. Each one of these versions gets a chance to tell their tale of how they became a “spider-man”. The production boasts three directors (Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman) and five producers including Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, the team behind The Lego Movie. They don’t adhere to the past rules of the live-action films. It’s not based in reality. It’s ridiculously bonkers. I suppose that’s part of its charm.

Spider-Verse sets up some emotional stakes. This Spider-Man is still another origin story about a guy coming to terms with his superpowers. In those broad terms, this doesn’t distinguish itself. It’s another hero’s journey.  However, Spider-Verse does a great job at introducing people we care about. We understand Miles. He’s the teenaged son of Jefferson Davis, a black cop (Brian Tyree Henry) and Rio Morales, a Puerto Rican nurse (Luna Lauren Velez). Despite the different surnames, they are married. His uncle Aaron Davis (Mahershala Ali ) is a supportive presence who encourages his nephew to express his artistic side. Brothers Jefferson and Aaron have drifted apart, however. At one point Dad pleads with his son not to drift away like his brother did. The conversation occurs while Miles is in his room on the other side of a closed door. It’s very poignant.

Spider-Verse is a built upon the DNA of comic books. I’ve explained how the story utilizes that aesthetic but it also infects the trippy graphics as well. The stunning visual design is what captivated me the most. The computer animation is distinctive. Its bold colors and images almost bleed through the lines. Not constantly, but the effect is noticeable at times. Initially, I thought I had accidentally walked into a 3D showing without the glasses to render the proper effect.  It was an intentional choice. The technique recalls the Ben-Day Dots printing process of old, pulpy magazines on cheap paper.

The visuals are gorgeous. The computer rendering gives the faces a photo-realism. It’s incredibly expressive. Their faces emote. Yet it’s still filtered through the style of a comic book. It’s a nice balance. Thought bubbles occasionally pop up. When someone activates his Spider-Sense it’s conveyed through squiggly lines around their head. Then the hyperkinetic action sequences kick in. It can get a bit insane. The interconnected characters from other dimensions start to glitch and become unstable. This random twitching seems to increase when they’re fighting.  At times this mixes with the action on screen and it can be a lot to process for the uninitiated.  “What is happening?!” I thought to myself on more than one occasion. Yet it’s always a wonder to behold. “How much Spider-Man do you need in your life?” I ask.  Spider-Verse proves that when creativity and innovation are fully engaged, there’s always room for one more.

12-28-18

Aquaman

Posted in Action, Adventure, Fantasy, Superhero with tags on December 25, 2018 by Mark Hobin

aquaman_ver11STARS3.5Well, it finally happened.
Aquaman got his own film.  What was once a running gag on the HBO program Entourage (i.e. “James Cameron’s Aquaman”) has become reality at the cineplex.  Life imitates art.  Alright, so James Wan of Furious 7 fame is the director in this case, but it became a huge hit just like it did in the TV show.  The idea of a half man and half Atlantean superhero that communicates with fish as a superpower was always kind of humorous.  His wholesome depiction in the animated 1970s TV series Super Friends certainly didn’t encourage viewers to take him more seriously.  The remedy?  Re-imagine the look of the character, keep things somewhat lighthearted and embrace the silliness. Aquaman is like the Saturday morning serials of the 1930s & 1940s that featured characters like Buck Rodgers and Flash Gordon.  Obviously, a DC movie from Warner Bros. features an astronomically higher budget.  This allows for eye-popping special effects, colorful set design and a whole raft of stars that include Willem Dafoe, Patrick Wilson, Dolph Lundgren, and Nicole Kidman.

This is not your father’s version of the superhero.  He stands in stark contrast to previous incarnations of the heir to the underwater kingdom of Atlantis.  “I’m the first mixed-race superhero,” star Jason Momoa has said.  With his long hair and tattoos, the native Hawaiian’s winking portrayal makes perfect sense in the story.  Aquaman is a half breed born to a human father (Temuera Morrison), who’s a lighthouse keeper and the Atlantean princess of a deep-sea kingdom (Nicole Kidman).  Momoa plays the titular character with the swagger of that guy you’d want on your side in a bar brawl.  “Permission to come aboard” he introduces himself well after he has already smashed his way into a submarine.  The line could’ve been uttered by Arnold in his prime.   That’s Schwarzenegger to you children.  Momoa’s charismatic personality complements the impressive production design.  After the Kingdom of Atlantis sunk into the ocean, it split into seven separate realms.  Each one is a whimsically imagined metropolis where people ride sea dragons and sharks.   No seahorses though.  Apparently,  they weren’t macho enough.  There’s a lot to dazzle the eye.  Yes, I’ll admit the film is far too long and there are perhaps too many generic battles that drag things down. Nevertheless, this is mostly a lighthearted production where people actually take the time to discuss things.  The spectacle is the triumph of a creative spirit.   Its essence is quite simply, pure fun.

12-21-18