Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Shut Up, Crime!

Super (2010): written and directed by James Gunn; starring Rainn Wilson (Frank Darbo), Ellen Page (Libby), Liv Tyler (Sarah), and Kevin Bacon (Jacques): Super pretty much asks and answers the question, 'What if Travis Bickle had wanted to be a superhero?' 

The answer is a bleak, bloody satire that does everything well except stick the landing. Frustrated, mentally ill fry cook Rainn Wilson loses his recovering addict wife (Liv Tyler, way too good-looking for the movie, especially when she's supposed to be in the throes of drug use) to drug kingpin Kevin Bacon. Inspired by a Christian TV show superhero (Nathan Fillion under a hilarious Jesus wig), Wilson sets out to fight crime as the pipe-wrench wielding Crimson Bolt!

Let me tell you, writer-director James Gunn (in his pre-Guardians of the Galaxy days) is on to something here -- a massive pipe-wrench really is a good weapon!

Gunn maintains a certain tone for much of the movie -- violent, satiric, but weirdly weightless -- that only collapses in the coda. One could interpret that coda as yet another delusion by Wilson's character, though there aren't really any cues that is meant to be a delusion and not a curiously sentimental summation. 

A similar problem occurred with the unearned (and anomalous) treacle at the end of Guardians of the Galaxy 2, meaning that I'd say that the very similar Defendor is a better version of almost the same movie, by a smidgen, because its ending supports more ambiguous interpretations as to the worth (or lack thereof) of superheroes. Actually, Hobo With a Shotgun might be the best version of this story in recent years.

Ant-Man (2015): based on the character created by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, and Jack Kirby; written by Edgar Wright, Joe Cornish, Adam McKay, and Paul Rudd; directed by Peyton Reed; starring Paul Rudd (Scott Lang), Michael Douglas (Hank Pym), Evangeline Lilly (Hope van Dyne), Corey Stoll (Darren Cross), Bobby Cannavale (Paxton), Anthony Mackie (The Falcon), and Michael Pena (Luis) (2015): Still the greatest pilot ever for a superhero TV show that was never intended to be made and never will be made. If only Edgar Wright had been allowed to stay onboard as writer and director, this might have been an all-time great superhero movie. As is, still refreshingly zippy and fun, with a cast up to the hijinks. Recommended.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Justice League (2017)

Justice League (2017): written by Joss Whedon, Chris Terrio, and Zack Snyder; directed by Zack Snyder and Joss Whedon; based story-wise on works by James Robinson, Gardner Fox, Nicola Scott, Mike Sekowsky, Geoff Johns, and Jim Lee; starring Ben Affleck (Batman), Gal Gadot (Wonder Woman), Amy Adams (Lois Lane), Ezra Miller (The Flash), Jason Momoa (Aquaman), Ray Fisher (Cyborg), Jeremy Irons (Alfred), Ciaran Hinds (Voice of Steppenwolf), Amber Heard (Mera), Diane Lane (Martha Kent), and Henry Cavill (Superman):

Saw Justice League at the 12:45 p.m. show in Galleria on opening day. The 'print' arrived late so they hadn't done a sound-check before showing it. Oops! 

The first ten minutes played without any noticeable treble in the mix (seriously!), which made for an interesting audio experience. I wondered if Christopher Nolan had done the sound mix until they stopped the movie, fixed the sound, and started again from the beginning.

Then for another ten minutes or so, the theatre made almost inaudible announcements that it was seeking out the source of the fire alarm (which we couldn't hear) and not to panic. Friday was a PA Day for kids. Damn kids going to a superhero movie in the afternoon and pulling fire alarms! Rascals!

Also they never quite got the movie framed properly. But then we all got free passes at the end of the show, so really, who's complaining? Though it did all make me wonder if Disney is paying people to sabotage the film.

As to the film -- well, the stitches between the fairly light-hearted, earnest or snarky Whedon scenes and the glum, occasionally straining-to-be-funny Snyder scenes are pretty obvious. Whedon also turned up the Brightness, which means Superman is actually dressed in bright blue and red for the first time in the DCEU movies, so that's good. 

Whedon clearly also had the job of hacking and slashing the movie down to two hours, and having it be basically 'stand-alone' rather than Part One. So Darkseid gets only one mention, though it's clear that the big bad works for him (the villain is Steppenwolf, who is a Kirby New Gods character whom writer James Robinson promoted to Darkseid's world-conquering general in the Earth-2 comic series from 2012). 

The hacking and slashing results in some pretty funny 'infodumps' which end up feeling like homages to the crazily fast-paced, Gardner-Fox-scripted Silver Age Justice League comics from the 1960's. The explanation of what a Mother Box is is especially... compact... as is an exchange between Aquaman and Atlantean Mera (Amber Heard) which condenses Aquaman's back story into about 45 seconds of dialogue.

The acting is pretty solid. The Flash is genuinely funny and charming. Jason Momoa's Aquaman seems to have been written as a surly underwater hillbilly Wolderine by Snyder and as a jolly underwater stand-up comedian by Snyder. Cyborg is, well, a cipher.

Also, somebody (probably Snyder) basically restages the opening battle against Sauron from Fellowship of the Ring as part of the backstory of Steppenwolf's previous invasion of Earth, and even frames it in terms of it being the last time the various races of Earth (Atlanteans, Amazons and Greek Gods, and what seems to be King Arthur and his knights) united against a common foe. I kid you not. Wonder Woman narrates, per Galadriel in LOTR: TFOTR...

Bonus points for including parademons and getting a mention of Kirby's New Gods into the dialogue. Fun fact: the movie's 'Unity' seems to pretty clearly Jack Kirby's Anti-Life Equation restated euphemistically.

Though the only two rational explanations for Superman's unintentionally funny, late-movie line to Bruce Wayne ("How did you get the farm back from the bank ?!?!?") are that Superman doesn't understand how money works or that Lex Luthor owned the bank that foreclosed on the Kent farm.

Also, maybe it's swim-suit season on Themyscira, Snyder-haters! Did you ever think of that?

There are two end credits sequences, one early and one right at the end. Plan accordingly.

Hey, the movie is only 2 hours and one minute long. Kudos! My butt thanks you!

Far better than a lot of superhero movies, a list that includes Whedon's studio-garbled Avengers: Age of Ultron, The Dark Knight Rises, Superman III, Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, Spider-man 3, Amazing Spider-mans 1 and 2, X-Men: The Last Stand, Guardians of the Galaxy 2, the first two Thor movies, Dr. Strange, the two Hulk movies, Wolverine: Origins and The Wolverine, Batman Forever, Batman and Robin, X-Men: Apocalypse, Ant-man, Superman Returns, Man of Steel, Batman v. Superman, Suicide Squad, and many others. Recommended.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Spielberg (2017)

Spielberg (2017): directed by Susan Lacy: Earnest HBO hagiography of Steven Spielberg dishes almost no dirt, almost no critiques of his work, and almost no mentions of the writers who wrote many of his finest movies. Welcome to Hollywood Auteurism 101. 

It's nonetheless an often engaging film, especially as it lays out Spielberg's childhood and the increasingly strained and then broken relationship of his mother and father that led to Spielberg being estranged from his father for more than a decade. Don't look for a discussion of Always, though. Lightly recommended.

Murder on the Orient Express (2017)

Murder on the Orient Express (2017): adapted from the novel by Agatha Christie by Michael Green; directed by Kenneth Branagh; starring Kenneth Branagh (Hercule Poirot) and a cast of dozens: Enjoyable, good-looking adaptation of the 1930's Agatha Christie classic of British mysteries stars Kenneth Branagh and his crazy prop mustache as Hercule Poirot, world's greatest consulting detective. 

Branagh directed as well, in a classic Hollywood style buttressed by CGI for some of the large-scale visuals with which he opens up Christie's locked-room mystery. Well, locked-train mystery.

The all-star cast has about three lines each, which is pretty much how the movie has to work unless it's going to be 8 hours long. Critical backlash to this film puzzled me. It's pretty much exactly what it has to be, and it's far superior to the stiff 1974 version that netted Ingrid Bergman a sympathy Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. Recommended.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Thor: Ragnarok (2017)

Thor: Ragnarok (2017): based on characters and stories by Jack Kirby, Walt Simonson, Sal Buscema, Larry Lieber, Stan Lee, and others; written by Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle, and Christopher Yost; directed by Taika Waititi; starring Chris Hemsworth (Thor), Tom Hiddleston (Loki), Cate Blanchett (Hela), Idris Elba (Heimdall), Mark Ruffalo (Banner/Hulk), Tessa Thompson (Valkyrie), Jeff Goldblum (Grandmaster), and Karl Urban (Skurge the Executioner): Almost too jolly and jaunty an entry in the Marvel Movie Sweepstakes, given the death toll in the movie. Reducing Gotterdammerung to a punchline seems both too much and not enough.

Oh, well. Thor: Ragnarok is also the Marvel movie that looks most like the comic books it's based on, particularly Jack Kirby's 1960's work on Thor and Walt Simonson's writer-artist duties on his great Thor run of the 1980's. 

The tone is really more Simonson than Kirby -- there was a jocularity and a sense of the absurd to his run, though he was better than the film-makers at balancing the epic and the absurd. Full credit to director Taika Waititi, whose What We Do In the Shadows was an absurdly hilarious faux-documentary. 

The movie goes on about 15 minutes' worth of CGI battles too long. All the actors are as fresh and lively as in any Marvel production to date, and Cate Blanchett camps it up as super-villain Hela, whose crazy head-piece comes right off the Jack Kirby pages (so, too, the designs of many of the aliens in campy Jeff Goldblum's space-court, extras from Kirby's 1970's space-god saga The Eternals). Even Bruce Banner and the Hulk are funny. Recommended.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Blade Runner On a Train

The Girl On the Train (2016): adapted by Erin Cressida Wilson from the novel by Paula Hawkins; directed by Tate Taylor; starring Emily Blunt (Rachel), Haley Bennett (Megan), Rebecca Ferguson (Anna), Justin Theroux (Tom), Luke Evans (Scott), and Alison Janney (Detective Riley): 

Based on a best-selling psychological thriller, The Girl On the Train is neither thrilling nor psychologically believable. Unpleasant pretty people do unpleasant things. Someone gets murdered. Whodunnit? Who cares! Emily Blunt's portrayal of an alcoholic probably merits inclusion in the Hall of Fame for Unintentional Funny Bad Performances by Otherwise Capable Actors. Not recommended.

Blade Runner 2049 (2017): based on characters created by Philip K. Dick; written by Hampton Fancher and Michael Green; directed by Denis Villeneuve; starring Ryan Gosling (K), Dave Bautista (Sapper), Robin Wright (Lieutenant Joshi), Ana de Armas (Joi), Edward James Olmos (Gaff), Sylvia Hoeks (Luv), Jared Leto (Niander Wallace), and Harrison Ford (Rick Deckard): 

A slow-burn fever dream of a movie, and a worthy successor to the cult-favourite original. Ryan Gosling is pitch-perfect, while the visuals are marvelous. It doesn't quite equal the original because Jared Leto as the new 'Tyrell' is terrible in that specifically Jared Leto Hambone Way. More operatic scenery chewing from Rutger Hauer, or someone like Rutger Hauer, would have helped give the film more drama. Nonetheless, it's a haunting work at points, one that stays in the memory. Highly recommended.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Avengers: Age of Ennui (2015)

Avengers: Age of Ennui (2015): based on characters created by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Joe Simon, Jim Starlin, Roy Thomas, John Buscema, and others; written and directed by Joss Whedon; starring Robert Downey Jr. (Iron Man/ Tony Stark), Chris Hemsworth (Thor), Mark Ruffalo (Bruce Banner/ Hulk), Chris Evans (Captain America/ Steve Rogers), Scarlett Johansson (Natasha Romanoff/ Black Widow), Jeremy Renner (Clint Barton/ Hawkeye), James Spader (Ultron), and a bunch of other people: 

Marvel Studios interfered with the production of the second Avengers movie so many times that Joss Whedon is now doing emergency surgery on DC's Justice League movie and developing a DC Batgirl movie. Yay! 

Avengers: Age of Ultron is a busy, crowded mess with plot holes one could fly the SHIELD helicarrier through. It's a good time-waster on TV because one can pause it every 45 minutes or so and because, as with the majority of Marvel Studios movies, it looks like the world's most expensive movie to have ever been shot on the same videotape used for 1970's Doctor Who episodes. Jesus, I hate the colour palette of most Marvel Studios movies. Lightly recommended