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Film

Marvel-less

As the capstone of an 11-year cinematic journey through the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Avengers: Endgame was so thoroughly conclusive and satisfying that it has made me consider giving up on the MCU.

Seriously, how can you top this:

I’m sure someone can “well, actually” me about other even more epic crossover events in the comics or whatever. But I’m not a comics person. I have no connection to the Marvel universe beyond the films themselves.

And I’ve been a big fan of them! I wrote a positive review of Iron Man for my college newspaper at the time and have engaged with the MCU ever since. That’s probably why life as a casual fan post-Endgame has been a bit bewildering.

My only foray has been WandaVision. We signed up for a year of Disney+ back in March 2020, pretty much right after COVID-19 lockdown started, so we had it for just enough time to watch that show—but none of the subsequent ones—before our subscription expired.

I didn’t resubscribe mostly because Disney’s megathread on Twitter back in December announcing the next few years’ worth of movies and shows coming to theaters and Disney+ broke my brain a little bit. The prospect of the MCU metastasizing even further beyond its already expansive ambit forced me to consider how much time and energy the next phase is worth. (Or is it phases? I don’t know phases.)

The bottom line is: I’m OK with skipping whatever is on Disney+ (that’s what Wikipedia summaries are for) and I’m still open to seeing (some of) the forthcoming movies, though the threshold for seeing them in theaters versus waiting until they’re on DVD/Blu-ray will be high. I’ll let critical acclaim and my personal interest sort that out on an individual basis.

In the meantime, I look back on the journey to Endgame fondly. It remains a monumental achievement, and one I’ll treasure revisiting one day with Mr. 2 Years Old.

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Books Film

Media of the moment

An ongoing series on books, movies, and music I’ve encountered recently.

A Clockwork Orange. Had been putting this off based on what I’d heard of its disturbing content, but finally bit the bullet for the sake of the AFI 100. Typically impressive Kubrickian cinematography and dark satire.

An American Summer: Love and Death in Chicago by Alex Kotlowitz. Kaleidoscopic narrative of a violent Chicago summer. Kotlowitz embeds with people and families affected by gang violence, illuminating the humanity within tragedy.

Captain Marvel. Brie Larson was a great choice.

Minding the Gap. Stunning.

A Star Is Born. Admire Bradley Cooper’s dedication and Lady Gaga’s talent.

21 Lessons for the 21st Century by Yuval Noah Harari. Paired with Sapiens and Homo Deus, this book made me at once immensely proud of humanity and profoundly disturbed by it.

Three Identical Strangers. Wild, stranger-than-fiction story.

Pretty Woman. My first time, despite having seen the “jewelry box laugh” scene and shopping montage as parodied in Dumb and Dumber. This wasn’t ’90s Julia Roberts at her peak, but she was on the way up.

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Film

Top 5 films of 2018 so far

The Death of Stalin. I’m a sucker for dark and irreverent political satires.

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?This documentary about Fred Rogers didn’t make me cry, but it did make me sad about the Kids These Days who don’t know of him and his anti-television TV show.

First Reformed. I’m also a sucker for “dark night of the soul” films made by atheists that take faith and doubt seriously, which this Paul Schrader film is.

Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War. Quite the one-two punchsplosion from Marvel. Haven’t rewatched either yet, but I think they’ll hold up.

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Film Review

Thoughts on ‘Thor: Ragnarok’

Whenever the punching started, Thor: Ragnarok felt like a Marvel movie. Once the punching stopped, it felt like a Taika Waititi movie. Luckily Waititi’s mark on the movie is strong enough to overwhelm the underwhelming elements.

The Thor movies are my least favorite of the MCU thus far—I dare you to tell me anything about The Dark World—and I think Marvel understood that, which explains the left-field choice of Waititi. The goofy, laid back, self-effacing style of comedy he brings to what’s otherwise standard superhero fare follows the trail blazed by Guardians of the Galaxy but also ends up on a planet of its own.

It’s a damn shame Cate Blanchett’s Hela—Thor’s banished sister and Goddess of Death—is relegated to the film’s B-story. Not only is she a way better villain than Loki, Blanchett looks like she was having a ball. Alternating between petulant narcissism and terrifying fury, she’s like if Galadriel took the One Ring when Frodo offered it and went on a Middle-earth killing spree, demon antlers in tow. She deserves to be in more Marvel movies.

Jeff Goldblum seems to have achieved a kind of Bill Murray status where he is effusively praised for repeatedly playing himself.

Move over, School of Rock. “Immigrant Song” has a new movie home.

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Film

Guess the movie

Movie trailers usually spoil too much so I try to get to theater showings late to avoid them. But since I was right on time to Thor: Ragnarok, these were the trailers I saw: Jumanji, Pacific Rim Uprising, Justice League, Black Panther, and Star Wars: The Last Jedi.

Guess which one made me literally say “Oh hell yeah.”

I’m assuming the Jumanji trailer already used up the good jokes. Didn’t see the first Pacific Rim and I thought this was another Transformers, so no. The latest Star Wars interests me only because Rian Johnson is directing. Justice League might be good if Wonder Woman isn’t the only good thing about it.

So the winner is: Black Panther. Lupita N’yong’o! Michael B. Jordan as the villain! Non-CGI Andy Serkis for once! Ryan Coogler directing! Sign me up.

Categories
Film Review

Favorite Films of 2016

According to my records I watched 83 films in 2016, 33 of which came out this year. As is the case with my reading, I’m in a “watch as much as I can” zone because I love movies and there’s so much great stuff and there are too many movies and I’ll never have this amount of free time once I have kids. So here are my favorite films from 2016, ranked:

Arrival. I’m a total sucker for stories like this and Lost, Interstellar, Midnight Special, Gravity, Take Shelter, Contact and other deeply humane tales masquerading as sci-fi that make you think just as much as they make you want to hug someone. Though the geopolitical element to the story waded a little too close to didactic for me, I was nevertheless absorbed from the first minute, even if I’m still trying to figure everything out. Found myself surprised by the quality of Jeremy Renner’s performance, unsurprised by Amy Adams’s, and wishing Forest Whitaker had more to do.

Moonlight. I got the feeling there were two hidden acts before the beginning of the film, showing the childhood and adolescence of Mahershala Ali’s crack dealer before he crossed paths with young Chiron, who’s starting on his own journey through a troubled life. Time is a flat circle.

Everybody Wants Some!! With its likable cast, meandering dialogue, and lived-in plotless feel, it’s the middle sibling between Linklater’s Dazed and Confused and Before trilogy, all of which seem to take place in the same film universe where everyone’s a peripatetic philosopher and life happens in the ordinary moments between the usual milestones. More thoughts here.

Hell or High Water. “Tangled Up in Blue” by Bob Dylan: “But me, I’m still on the road / Headin’ for another joint / We always did feel the same / We just saw it from a different point of view / Tangled up in blue.” Lots of tangling up in this movie, for good and ill. Family, money, friendship, death, the future. Mutual haunting. And what is a haunting but a tangle with the past? That last shot tho.

Kubo and the Two Strings. Haven’t seen much love for this in the year-end lists, which is baffling. In sumptuous stop-motion animation, a cohesive fable plays out with a cast of characters who range from terrifying. Though in patches during the second act the interaction among the makeshift traveling posse borders on cloying, the larger arc of Kubo and his family and what it shows us about memory and creation is incredibly affecting.

The Wave. It’s Jaws plus The Impossible plus that New Yorker article about the earthquake that’s gonna destroy the Pacific Northwest one day. Dug it! More thoughts on this deliciously tense low-budget Norwegian thriller that doesn’t look low-budget at all here.

The Fits. That finale!

Hail, Caesar! Liked this pretty much immediately. Full of hilariously deadpan Coen Bros Touches™ like David Krumholtz yelling things in the background of the communist gathering. I only wish we could have spent more time with the rotating cast of capital-c Characters I’ve come to expect from the Coens. Like Frances McDormand’s film editor: can their next movie be just about her? This could easily be the origin of a Marvel-esque cinematic universe.

Midnight Special. From idea to execution, this Jeff Nichols joint is inspired in every sense: as homage to Spielbergian themes of family and destiny, as a sci-fi fable with the courage of restraint, and as an auteurist vision that doesn’t always shine scene to scene but adds up to something effulgent when it matters. Review here.

Captain America: Civil War. Finally, a Spider-Man who actually looks like he’s in high school! That, along with ever more compelling character studies of Steve Rogers and Tony Stark, made this latest episode of The Marvel Cinematic Universe Show worth watching. Full review here.


Other favorites: The Lobster, 10 Cloverfield Lane, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, The Innocents, La La Land, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, Last Days in the Desert

Haven’t yet seen: Silence, Toni Erdmann, Manchester by the Sea, Certain Women

Categories
Film Review

Captain America: Civil War

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Spoilers, natch.

Finally, a Spider-Man who actually looks like he’s in high school! That, along with ever more compelling character studies of Steve Rogers and Tony Stark, made this latest episode of The Marvel Cinematic Universe Show worth watching.

Captain America and Iron Man are by far my favorite Marvel characters thus far, and the Avengers I find most interesting. That they find themselves on opposite sides here is made all the more interesting when you realize how both have essentially flip-flopped. Stark, the recalcitrant “genius billionaire playboy philanthropist” playing by his own rules but tormented by guilt, now wants controls on their heretofore unchecked power. Rogers, the patriotic soldier desperate to fight for good, now is disillusioned by authoritarian overreach and wary of a corruptible bureaucracy. Neither of them are wrong. The other superheroes who align with or against them have their own reasons for doing so, but fundamentally Civil War concerns itself with this core conflict.

I suppose this puts me on the #TeamIronMan side of things, but I think there absolutely should be some oversight of the burgeoning cadre of “enhanced” persons formerly under the purview of SHIELD. Even after gnashing their teeth about the devastation of Sokovia, it takes like two seconds before this motley crew of all-powerful superheroes with fragile egos and hair-trigger tempers are obliterating an airport or whatever building they happen to be in during their latest squabble. It’s like they’re all early-stage Spider-Man, wracked with teenage insecurity, lacking self-discipline, flailing around while trying to discover and control the extent of their powers. Setting aside the ethical debate over the Sokovian Accords, the cost of their property damage alone warrants reparation and regulation.

As for the film itself, the directors Anthony and Joe Russo mentioned in an interview that they tried not to follow the typical three-act superhero movie structure, which is something I noticed while watching. The film doesn’t resolve where we’re conditioned to expect it; it could have ended at several points but didn’t. Perhaps that’s a product of the ongoing (infinite?) nature of the MCU, wherein each movie doesn’t begin and end in its own self-contained universe like normal movies and needs to set up the next installments. (Which currently include not only the two Avengers: Infinity War films, but offshoot franchises for Black Panther, Spider-Man [again again], Doctor Strange, and a bajillion other products characters.)

However, for the first time in eight years’ worth of movies within Phase 1 and 2 of the MCU, I’m OK with that. I’m OK with, or at least resigned to, winding through the spider’s web of stories with cautious optimism, knowing not every installment will achieve the same balance of thoughtfulness, wit, and dazzling spectacle the best of the MCU display.

As much as it’s true that superhero films are eating Hollywood; as much as it’s true that a fraction of the billions being spent on these franchises could and should be allocated to the smaller, non-serialized films that end up on Oscar ballots and Top 10 lists far more often than the latest comic-book fare… I enjoyed watching superheroes fighting each other. It was fun (if sometimes confusing to determine who was on which side and why), and made the case for being seen on the big screen. For another entrant into an already abundant genre, that’s good enough for me.

Categories
Film Review

Iron Man

I think us moviegoers have caught on to the whole Superhero Movie thing. We’ve learned that comic book superheroes are born out of a freak radioactive experiment gone wrong, or out of childhood anger, yadda yadda yadda. We know that evil villains will eventually be outsmarted and killed due to excessive monologuing. We’ve caught on to the formula, which is why the summer Superhero Movie blockbuster was in danger of extinction.

Was. Was in danger of extinction. Thanks to Iron Man, the Superhero Movie has returned to glory. And I say, welcome back.

Robert Downey Jr. plays the billionaire engineer, genius, and playboy Tony Stark who runs Stark Industries, a weapons manufacturer and military contractor. After a demonstration of his highly destructive state-of-the-art missile called the “Jericho”, Stark is attacked and captured by terrorists in Afghanistan. He gets hit with shrapnel in the attack, but avoids death by creating a device that keeps the shrapnel away from his heart using electro-magnetics.

Stark’s captors force him to build a new Jericho missile inside a cave completely from scratch, but he instead builds an armored iron suit equipped with guns and missiles a plenty and escapes his captivity. But after seeing his own company’s weapons being used by the enemy against American forces, Stark returns home with a new mindset. He decides to no longer manufacture weapons. This moral transformation is the key to the entire film.

Stark secretly rebuilds the armored iron suit he created with new hi-tech features, intent on using it to destroy the enemy forces from which he escaped and the weapons they were using. The scenes where Stark perfects the design are full of slapstick and wit between Stark and his robotic lab assistants. The final product, the Iron Man, looks something like the Tin Man from the year 3000, outfitted with hyper-intelligent technology and a slick paint job.

Stark’s conversion from being a cocky showboat to a morally-conflicted superhero is what makes these kinds of films interesting to watch. He is tremendously flawed, even with his intelligence, but we still like him and want him to succeed.

Only a few people close to Stark see the transformation: his assistant Pepper (Gwyneth Paltrow), who tries to balance her strong independence and her increasing attraction to Stark; his business partner Obadiah (Jeff Bridges), who tries to hide shady business deals from the newly-idealistic Stark; and Rhodes, Stark’s Air Force Colonel friend who is wary of Stark’s new crime-fighting methods.

Ultimately, Robert Downey Jr. is this movie. He’s funny, quirky, and a terrific actor. He’s also a unique casting choice for a superhero, which is why the film works so well. His troubled real-life back story helps his character seem all the more real. Story-wise, Iron Man isn’t revolutionary, but that doesn’t really matter. The characters are strong and relatable, so the story simply falls into place around them.

Downey and the director Jon Favreau, who also directed Elf and Zathura, allow the film to stretch beyond the normal guidelines of the typical summer action movie. There are the usual high-octane action sequences, of course, but the talented supporting cast makes each character vital and interesting. The last superhero film to accomplish that was Batman Begins.

I’ve already heard Oscar buzz for this film, and rightly so. I would fully endorse a Best Actor nomination for Downey. The Academy has snubbed summer superhero movies in the past, and for good reason. They are produced solely to make a profit, so sometimes a quality cast and story are lost between the ridiculous special effects sequences. But not with this film. I was fully engaged with Stark’s moral debate, but I also thoroughly enjoyed Stark-as-Iron Man battling his nemesis at Mach-speed in the Los Angeles night sky.

Iron Man is just about the best movie to kick off the summer season. After last year’s lackluster threequels failed to inspire, Downey and Co. have given us something to fully enjoy without sacrificing the crucial elements that make a good film. Two sequels have already been planned—the first is set to release on April 30, 2010—so it looks like we’ll be seeing much more of Stark and Iron Man. And I say, bring it on.