Star Trek: Beyond

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Source: wikimedia.org

Happy 50th anniversary, Star Trek! Tomorrow marks the 50th anniversary of the Original Show’s 1966 pilot premiere. In honor of Gene Roddenberry, a visionary, creative genius, and all around awesome person (check out this Oatmeal comic if you don’t believe me), I’ve started binge-watching the original Star Trek series on the ‘flix. While I dig myself out of some blorgin’ backlog, I wanted to publish my review of the latest film installment to the Trekkie universe. I will leave this post in note form (at least for now). I’ll just leave it as a list of strengths and weaknesses, along with a solid recommendation to go view it.

As an aside, I watched the film in IMAX at the National Air and Space Museum at the Smithsonian Institution, which is an amazing organization and well worth your time. You can sign up for membership or to donate here.

Strengths:

  • Dialogue and character development were spot-on
  • decision to split up the primary cast into pairs/ small groups was brilliant to showcase different facets of each character
  • Spock/Bones dynamic was awesome
  • humor — thank you Simon Pegg
  • Alien races looked cool and special effects were pretty exciting
  • the scale of the plot was reasonable – not about the future of the universe really, so much as saving a base
  • Kirk and Spock’s struggles to find themselves made a nice parallel
  • Tributes to Leonard Nimoy and Anton Yelchin were very heartfelt and genuine
  • Personal touch, watching it in IMAX was definitely the way to go. Ridiculously awesome, thank you Smithsonian!

Weaknesses:

  • early combat scenes had way too much shaky camera. it was the new lens flare of the movie, really distracting especially during first contact as the Enterprise crashed
  • Despite protests from friends, I don’t think it made sense that the music magically caused the ships to explode. While the hive mentality shakeup was sufficiently plausible to further the fun plot element, I disagree with the waves of explosions making it so easy to destroy them. These are the same ships that tore through the Enterprise no problem and seemed difficult to harm, so careening into one another shouldn’t set off such massive and complete destruction. I thought it should have served as a means to rally back and give the good guys a way to blow them up (think the shields in Independence Day or any Star Wars movie…)
  • The how of Krall’s transformation was a bit thin and could have used a couple more minutes of exploration. I liked the twist as well as the why of his change, but just a nebulous “alien technology” excuse for his sudden immortality and high-tech vampiric powers seemed kind of lazy

Overall: 8 of 10, because good dialogue and character development is really more important than staging the action in my book.

Secret Life of Pets

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Source: Wikimedia.org

Following hot on the heels of Finding Dory‘s June release, Universal Studios released its summer animated blockbuster in early June. With the help of some catchy marketing, which Universal excelled at with their previous blockbuster hit Despicable MeSecret Life of Pets was on a short list of movies for me to see this summer. I was excited to see all of those cute and funny scenes from the trailers showing various dogs, cats, birds, and other pets indulging in humanoid activities once their owners left for work. The idea of talking animals with the star-studded cast of Louis CK, Eric Stonestreet, Kevin Hart, and Jenny Slate was just too fun to miss!

Unfortunately, these fun moments that poked fun at or accentuated real pet behavior all felt recycled by the time you watched them at the theaters. All of the best jokes were cherry-picked from the film and put into trailers, and most of these fun moments felt as though they had been crammed hastily into the opening act. The whole plot of The Secret Life of Pets (let’s call it SLOP for short) was not, in fact, to explore the “secret life” of pets as the title and marketing materials suggested, but to go on a long drawn out story of camaraderie formed through mutual experience. Caution, mild spoilers regarding the story arc below:

Guess the movie: the main character is happy with their owner and the special bond that they share. Suddenly, a new character is added and appears to threaten the “special” bond between the main character and the owner, so the main character tries to get rid of the threat. But our main character is unsuccessful and is accidentally dragged off and lost far from home with their rival. The two must work together to get home and become friends in the process, learning to share the owner and create a different kind of special bond. Meanwhile, all of the dumb humans don’t notice anything, despite the shenanigans left in their wake. Oh, and there’s a subplot with some scary looking critters who seem evil, but really just want to be loved. The non-human characters even drive a car!

Answer: Toy Story! and now, apparently, also Secret Life of Pets. Only this time, it’s pets instead of toys and instead of one minor traffic collision in a quiet suburb (which, let’s face it, is really the Sid’s dog’s fault) in Toy StorySLOP opted for a gigantic Spider-Man-esque Brooklyn Bridge pileup and car-splosion that would cause millions of dollars of damage and become a major news story. Are we really supposed to believe that would go unnoticed? The scale of the destruction was too large and every trope was ripped off from the animated uber-classic, Toy Story. Unfortunately, SLOP just couldn’t deliver enough new ideas to seem like anything but an inferior copy.

Overall, it’s entertaining, the art is fun and captivating, and the cast is spot-on, but the plot seems lazy and the level of care we saw in Despicable Me or just about any Pixar film ever released just was not there. This is definitely more of a movie for kids than it is a film for the whole family. Nonetheless, Secret Life of Pets had some truly funny moments, and it’s fun enough to go see and enjoy. I’d just probably save a few bucks and go to a matinee. Rating: 6 of 10.

Ex Machina

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Source: Wikimedia.org

Ex Machina is an engaging new science fiction film that is highly philosophical and surprisingly low on action for the vast majority of its screen time. As a film, it is an interesting exercise in some key philosophical and ethical questions surrounding artificial intelligence, such as freedom, guilt, and love. The amazing thing about this film is that it is highly suspenseful, even though the action is sparse. This beautiful and well-though-out film accomplishes a lot in a relatively short period of time (108 minutes) and with only four actors of note. The tightly-scripted dialogues between these few characters drive the plot as well as any moral or ethical questions surrounding the film. The performances of the three primary characters, Domnhall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac, and Alicia Vikander were all phenomenal. It is truly impressive as a piece of genuinely original material. So often now, the film industry is afraid to create original stories and relies solely upon adapting stories that have proven popular first as a book or graphic novel. However, in this case, Ex Machina is a rare story that feels new and exciting. Written and directed by Alex Garland, it was nominated for two Academy Awards, Best Original Screenplay and Special Effects, and won the latter. Its minuscule $15M production budget was positively dwarfed by its competition in the Special Effects category, but it beat out powerhouse blockbusters like James Bond: Spectre and Star Wars: Force Awakens.

Delving into too much detail is liable to only ruin the carefully crafted and suspenseful story. I recommend watching the film just as I did, with no preconceived notions or expectations as to what might occur. That viewing experience makes it all that much more enjoyable. One very quick negative note, however, is that I find it odd that there is so much of a sexual element to this film, which, to me, doesn’t necessarily seem crucial. Though Isaac’s character (Nathan) does touch on the very subject, suggesting that love/lust is a critical element of life and gives “motivation” for survival and desire. Perhaps that is the case, or perhaps that entire notion lends to the notion that Nathan, himself, is flawed and that they indicate his arrogance or shortcomings as a creator himself. Some of the resolution at the end of the film did feel a little rushed and may not have been sufficiently explained, but the statement made by the film does come through abundantly clear. Nonetheless, I very much enjoyed the film and recommend it to all mature fans of science fiction, especially harder science fiction that delves into the “hows” and “whys” of progress, humanity, and our place as creators. Rating: 8 of 10

The Incredibles – An Under-rated Superhero Film

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Source: Wikimedia.org

By now, the merits of The Incredibles as an animated movie are old news. Pixar’s 2004 film won two Academy Awards (Best Animated Feature Film and Sound Editing) and was nominated for a third (Original Screenplay); it earned a 97% on RottenTomatoes, who also named it the highest-rated movie of 2004. Brad Bird’s film was met with universal praise among top film critics like Roger Ebert and Peter Travers. The Incredibles even has a sequel in the works, showing that the appetite for its characters has not diminished in the 12 years since it was released. It ranks among the three Toy Story movies, Up, and Finding Nemo as the best Pixar movies ever, making it among the best of the best in the whole genre.

However, it is often overlooked in the other genre it falls into: the superhero film. The Incredibles has everything any other classic superhero film does: superpowers, secret identities, an origin story, a bad guy, and some emotional development arcs to give the characters some depth. Released a year before the first Fantastic Four film or Christopher Nolan had released a Batman movie, and a decade before Big Hero Six, The Incredibles appeared pretty early in the new wave of superhero films. The film featured genuine family dynamics, emphasizing the interpersonal relationships at the heart of a super-team in a way that had not been seen on the Silver Screen.

The Incredibles drew a lot of themes and concepts from the original Fantastic Four comics, with even many of the characters’ powers seeming eerily similar to those out of the World’s Greatest Magazine. Even more impressive is that it drew on these themes better than any of the subsequent three direct Fantastic Four films managed, and absolutely blew all three out of the water with regards to RottenTomatoes ratings. The three FF films have earned a 27%, a 37%, and a 9%, making some serious splats where even the sum of the three isn’t close to The Incredibles’ 97%. Character-wise, Elastigirl is a proximate for Mr. Fantastic, Mr. Incredible has super-strength like the Thing (though no orange rock skin), Violet had invisibility and force fields like Invisible Woman, and super speed vs. Human Torch isn’t really crazy different. But what’s impressive about these characters isn’t their superpowers, but how these powers fit their personalities. All under the alias of the Parr family (a delightful pun, btw), these supers are trying to blend into normal life, with some doing better than others. A good portion of the movie is spent seeing them do normal household tasks with superpowers, like the vacuuming and lifting of furniture, cutting through a dinner plate, running at super speed around the house, etc. These little things give a lot of depth to the characters and show how hard it can be to have untapped potential. Bob Parr (Mr. Incredible) is super strong, but he feels powerless to control his life. Helen (Elastigirl) is flexible and can juggle the needs of the three kids and seems to be the most well-adjusted. Violet just wants to be seen – her shyness and teenage awkwardness push her toward hiding, but she proves that she can be just as much of a force(-field) as everyone else. Dash is impatient, anxious, and generally hot-headed. These sorts of characterizations are very reminiscent of the FF and feel true to form with the superhero genre writ large. Oh, let’s also not forget that there’s a big time Mole Man reference at the end of the movie…

Even beyond all of that, however, the film’s signature accomplishment is actually in its ability to build a comprehensive world in such a short time, creating a believable backdrop of superhero skepticism that would serve to frame the story. The superheroes in The Incredibles received negative backlash for their heroics and ultimately were restricted by public opinion, a theme that has only just made it into Marvel films a whole 12 years after The Incredibles‘ release. The idea of a government program to reassign superheroes who had blown their aliases was really innovative and added a layer of credibility to the hero/public dynamic. But most importantly, the iconic Edna Mode, whose role as the costume designer for supers was hilarious and helpful in fleshing out a support industry for the superhero community. Even the classic “No capes” line showed the film’s ability to self-reflect and take superpowers seriously.

The Incredibles may be some good family fun, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that it is a genuine superhero story that fits neatly into the broader genre – complete with questions of duty, morality, and how to balance great power and great responsibility. Soon we will have the clearest indication of all that The Incredibles is indeed a superhero film: a sequel. If you don’t believe me, go watch it. Rating: 10 of 10

Zootopia

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Source: wikimedia.org

Disney’s done it again. And I know we really shouldn’t be surprised by now. Especially since I’m now pretty late to the game on this review. Just this past week the animated mega-hit crossed the Billion dollar threshold in worldwide box office earnings, moving into the 26th highest-grossing film of all time. Sure,these “highest-grossing” lists don’t quite mean what they used to, what with 3-D ticket pricing and much higher rates of movie going worldwide, but still cracking the 7-figure threshold is no small achievement. Zootopia has also been raking in critical acclaim, sitting at a stellar 98% on RottenTomatoes, and already jockeying for the Best Animated Film Oscar for next February. But does it live up to the hype?

Yup. Zootopia is really a clever movie. Not that talking animals are anything new, and the fictional megacity is pretty commonplace in the Hunger Games era. But what this movie achieves is authenticity. The creators managed to give this world come cultural history, highlighting prejudices within the population and hinting at larger themes of equity and identity in a seemingly utopic society. The impressive thing about Zootopia is that it manages to mingle these serious themes into a genuinely interesting story without it feeling too preachy. The metaphors were never heavy-handed and the allegories weren’t so over-the-top that it distracted from the fun plot. Throw in some great voice acting from the likes of Jason Bateman, and some funny (if bizarre) jokes for the adults watching, like a nudist colony and Godfather references, and you have the perfect formula for success. I do wish that the trailers didn’t give away the whole sloth scene, because that really would have stolen the show had it still been a surprise. Special shout-out to Nate Torrence as Clawhauser, the hilariously doofy leopard who ran the front desk at the police station, who was definitely my favorite character.

By now, Disney has perfected the art and will likely continue the pattern of releasing a Disney Animation film in the early spring to avoid competing with their frenemies (Pixar) who own the big summer release. I hear there’s even a chance of a Zootopia 2 on the way. I’m not sure how I feel about that, given how nicely this wrapped up, but the world they created in Zootopia was big and vibrant, so I suppose there’s room for more stories. Overall, Zootopia is a good movie that’s sufficiently fun for the whole family. Like Frozen and its numerous Pixar predecessors, this will quickly join the pantheon of elite animated films. Go watch it. Rating: 9 of 10

X-Men: Apocalypse

It’s 2016, year of the superhero movie! We’re not even half way through the year and four major superhero movies have already been released, and there are still more on the way. Following the roaring success of Fox’s Deadpool and Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War, and even the high-profile bummer-fest that surrounded WB’s Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice (see: Sad Affleck), it has felt like X-Men: Apocalypse got a little lost in the shuffle. Some of that could be that, even before it’s official release, the movie started accumulating middling reviews. So even the modest excitement it had garnered a few months prior started to peter out. It’s gotten such unflattering reviews that the architect behind the vast majority of Fox’s X-franchise, Bryan Singer, has decided to step away from the series for a while. That news is likely making Fox executives nervous, as the franchise hasn’t done as well with non-Singer-directed X-titles, with only Tim Miller’s brilliant Deadpool and Matthew Vaughn’s under-rated X-Men: First Class earning a “Certified Fresh” rating on RottenTomatoes.

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Source: Wikimedia.org

On that note, RottenTomatoes gave Apocalypse a harsh 48%, making it the second-lowest rated splat in the franchise. Its box office success has been modest, but not stellar, especially when compared with February’s Deadpool phenomenon. Apocalypse is currently on pace to be right in the middle of the pack in box office earnings (6th of 9) within the X-franchise. What started as some shrugs and lackluster endorsements has gradually descended into more definitively negative remarks, notably calling out its cliches and recycling of past plot lines. The reviews appear to be a contributing factor to the movie’s limited success, but the release timing has overlapped with the tail end of Civil War and the release of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles sequel, which seems to be doing surprisingly well.

So it was with all of this in mind that I sauntered into the theater for a Sunday afternoon showing, my expectations low and hoping only to glean some fun character moments from what I expected to be a slow-moving train wreck. Fortunately for all X-fans out there, the movie isn’t as bad as all that, and was really a pleasant surprise. There were a lot of things I liked, I laughed, and I was genuinely excited to see some of my favorite X-Men re-imagined in the X-Men Cinematic universe, take 2. That right there is probably enough of a reason for people to go see Apocalypse, and I’m not here to try and stop you. If you have enjoyed the past X-Men movies like me, it’s worth a trip to the theaters because it has enough positives to cover the price of admission, just don’t get your hopes up too much.

Don’t get me wrong, Apocalypse is seriously flawed. As the first entry in Singer’s “new timeline” following the events of Days of Future Past (DoFP), X-Men: Apocalypse has the important job of establishing a new normal for the mutant/human relationship. The film is acutely aware of this job and devotes a significant portion of its nearly 2.5 hours in length to set-up, but still manages to rush through how Apocalypse fits into the X-franchise’s relativistic timeline. I like sci-fi and time travel is really cool, but how old are these people? If Jennifer Lawrence as Mystique was around 20 in 1962 when the First Class took place, is she 40 now? This is especially confusing when you factor in Alex and Scott Summers as brothers (Havok and Cyclops for the uninitiated). If Alex was a teen in 1962, he’s at least got to be 35 now, so if Scott’s in high school he’s max 18. Even that age gap makes no sense, and that’s on the generous side… The “decade-themed” movie entries was a fun idea, but it does all sorts of problems to the concept of characters aging.

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This is the timeline that X-Men: Apocalypse had to work with. No wonder people get confused. A little retcon magic and we have a franchise as unkillable as Wolverine. Image Source: xmenmovies.wikia.com

But even that sort of confusion is forgivable. As an audience, you’re still excited to see such iconic and lovable characters get a second chance at a first impression. I love the X-Men and really like four of the X-Men movies that have been released (5 if you count Deadpool, which shouldn’t really count), and the first 1.5 hours of The Wolverine was pretty good, so there was plenty of familiarity and past success in this franchise that could have led to a much bigger success for Apocalypse. This film also had an opportunity to learn from past mistakes and correct some poor characterizations in previous iterations. The sad, and honestly surprising, thing about X-Men: Apocalypse is that it often did not learn from those mistakes, which is probably one of the more damning critiques of the film. But without further ado, I’d likely to quickly enumerate some of my highlights and low lights of the film, and fair warning, there will be some *Spoilers* ahead.

Thumbs Up:

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Source: imdb.com
  • Nightcrawler: played by Kodi Smit-McPhee, was great. A good blend of thoughtful, funny, and inquisitive, Nightcrawler’s role at the core of a new crop of X-Men brings me hope for the future of the franchise.
  • Cyclops: though not perfect, Tye Sheridan finally gave one of the greatest X-Men of all time some characterization. This film finally patched over some of the damage done to Cyclops by the first round of films, which was probably my largest complaint about Singer’s first two installments.
  • Laughs: some much-needed humor seemed to finally make its way into the story, and not just from Quicksilver this time, Xavier and Havok have some good laughs early on during an awkward visit to Moira MagTaggert’s CIA(?!?) office.
  • Jubliee: Though only a bit part and never called by that name, Jubliee is the catalyst for one of the most genuinely “X-Men” scenes in the film, when she, Scott, Jean, and Kurt go to the movies and see Star Wars: Return of the Jedi. She even has a great line about the third movie in a trilogy always being the worst (a great meta joke by Singer)
  • Cameos and Easter Eggs: a couple of fun cameos did some fan service to us comic nerds that appreciate them. Throwing Caliban, the Blob, and a nice Nathaniel Essex post-credits scene into the movie help to flesh out the expansiveness of the X-Universe.
  • Storm’s modified origin: though never a horseman in the comics, this adaptation seemed to really honor some key elements of the character: starting as a thief in Cairo, giving her white hair, calling her “goddess.” Her relationship to Apocalypse was certainly better than any of the other horsemen, so her character development early on in the film was just enough to offset the completely flat second half.
  • Team Dynamics: the developing relationship between Cyclops, Jean, and Nightcrawler worked very well and should serve as the emotional core to the future movies. It gives me hope for the future, especially once Storm is fully integrated. I also really like the idea of having Beast less as a team member and in a more supporting role as professor, scientist, and training instructor alongside Xavier.

Thumbs Down:

  • Repetition: Let’s make a movie where an evil mutant wants mutants to rule the world, we’ll have a funny scene where Quicksilver saves the day running around at super speed, and Magneto will waffle around between good and evil, making it really only up to him to face his inner demons and save the fate of the world. Maybe we can blow up the mansion. Sound familiar?
  • Havok: a great X-man, and one of only a handful of legacy characters remaining from previous movies is unceremoniously dispatched in a moment of unnecessary stupidity, then instantly over-shadowed by Mystique’s return to blue skin. What?!? Even Hank (Beast), who is supposed to be Alex’s friend, basically forgets that Alex died until Scott comes running up for a short-lived and awkward grief sesh.

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    Here we go again… Source: imdb.com
  • Angel: Two swings and two misses. Why is Warren Worthington III the toughest nut to crack in the X-Men film franchise? Choosing him as a horseman made sense, there’s a lot of history there, but who was this Angel? The film never mentioned his real name, and aside from being a punk he didn’t seem evil. But nevertheless, he seemed pretty loyal to Apocalypse, and how did Apocalypse give him the metal wings? In the comics, he gets the metal wings and becomes Archangel after being injected with the blood of Apocalypse, a source of power as well as inner strife that made the character very compelling over the past three decades. But the movie skipped all of that, opting instead for a character-less zealot who dies without purpose or consequence. Like Havok’s, his death is immediately forgotten.
  • Wolverine: Okay, so I understand why Singer did this. It was an opportunity to remind audiences of the aforementioned timestream hullabaloo and provide some an “Aha” moment in Wolverine’s complicated continuity. The problem is that it didn’t work. A nice idea, but come on! We don’t need Wolverine in every. single. X-men. movie. ever. Also, it provided a cheap way for the young X-Men (Cyclops, Jean, and Nightcrawler) to overcome the swarm of baddies that had captured Beast, Quicksilver, and Mystique (and Moira?). The grisly violence didn’t faze the kids one bit, which seemed implausible and disturbing, and a Jean/Logan dynamic with Jean supposedly still in High School is beyond creepy. Boo.
  • The Horsemen: This is such a cool concept, why did the assembled horsemen end up just being super-powered props for Apocalypse? All they did was stand around and act menacing then kind of fight off the X-Men for a second during the final battle. There were high hopes here and almost zero execution. Psylocke was probably the most boring character in the history of X-films.
  • Magneto: Okay, okay. Obviously, Michael Fassbender is a great actor. And I will give some props to the development of Magneto’s attempt at living Xavier’s way. After all of the criticisms of Magneto’s role, I found his opening arc to be surprisingly compelling. However, why is it always down to Magneto? Not every film can be about him waffling between good and evil. It’s just lazy.
  • Sadly, Apocalypse: Oscar Isaac is also a great actor, just look at Star Wars and Ex Machina. But Isaac just didn’t have much to work with. The origins were a little messy and underdeveloped. We mostly saw the plot of his take down and witnessed the destruction of a pyramid, but it didn’t really show much character development. It also left a lot of questions about the technology he used and where his horsemen’s power came from (especially if he was the “first mutant”). In the present day, his motive seemed bland, just cookie-cutter “World Domination,” but any nuance about a Darwinist approach to survival of the fittest seemed left to those with some comic background. Apocalypse’s powers were unclear: he could heal, teleport, transmute matter, amplify other mutants’ abilities, transport his own consciousness to a new body, and defeat Xavier in psychological warfare? And how did he adapt to Quicksilver’s attack? He seemed to speed himself up. It was all pretty unclear. Then, his demise was pretty unglamorous, as the Magneto/Storm/Phoenix (I mean Jean Grey) team just obliterated him no problem…
  • Scale: how did Magneto tear the world apart? Why did he have to? Can’t a movie be meaningful without destroying all of the world’s landmarks? It seemed like a gratuitous over-complication of the conflict’s scale. Let’s just have mutants fighting off some sentinels at a mall. That’s good, old-school fun.
  • Dark Phoenix: Really? Already? Because that worked so well last time…. ahem X-Men: Last Stand… ahem…
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Look, the world’s exploding. And there’s no consequence once we beat the weird mutant with blue lips! Yay scale! Source: imdb.com

The real truth of X-Men: Apocalypse is that it’s inconsistent. When people ask what I thought, I’ll sort of shrug and say, “ehhhh, yeah it was good. Not great, but good.” But I went in expecting the worse. Those poor saps who went on opening weekend were hot on the heels of Civil War and hadn’t had time to adjust their expectations. Sure, there are a whole bunch of problems, logical pitfalls, cheap story points, and some poor character development in places, but is the movie still fun to watch? Yeah, I’d say so. If you’re a life-long X-Men fan, you’ll find plenty of things to like and plenty to scoff at, but there are just enough light moments to keep you amused between dramatic scenes. The real thing to remember is that this movie is largely a setup for future films. It’s the forming of a new X-team that should inspire hope in audiences, because it sure did for me.  Rating: 6 of 10

Captain America: Civil War

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Source: Marvel.com

So good!!! I was lucky enough to go see the movie last night when it opened, and I was not disappointed. I was always hopeful that Civil War would live up to its predecessor Winter Soldier and would do its comic book namesake justice (comic reviewed here). But I also was nervous that, even with the Russo brothers at the helm, this movie could become unmanageable because of the sheer size of the cast or that it would no longer feel like a Captain America movie. I can tell you now, that none of those fears held true. I’m sure some will still criticize the film as “Avengers 2.5,” but it is, first and foremost, a movie about Captain America and his supporting cast (Falcon, Bucky, Sharon Carter) as they navigate the ideological quagmire that is the Sokovia Accords. These accords function as the MCU’s replacement for the Superhero Registration Act in the comics, building on UN-driven, international pressure to regulate and control superhuman activities. As any trailer from the last six months indicated, these accords drove a wedge in the superhero community, leaving Captain America and Iron Man on opposite sides. Each assembled a team of Avengers, new and old, to their causes, leading to some pretty epic battle sequences.

In this review, I will be avoiding spoilers, and focusing on things that were already revealed through trailers, as well as overall execution and tone of the film, rather than discussing specific plot points. I’ll basically break out the strengths and weaknesses of the film below. Don’t worry, there are many, many more strengths than weaknesses!

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Look familiar, True Believers? Source: Marvel.com
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Yes it does! That’s Civil War #7, Cover by Steve McNiven; Source: Marvel.com

Strengths: Though not at all surprising from Marvel at this point, one of the strengths of Civil War is in its comedic timing. There are plenty of jokes and quips from all of the characters you would expect (Spider-Man, Ant-Man, Hawkeye) but also some genuinely funny moments with the relatively new character: Vision. The Russo brothers did a great job of highlighting Vision’s explorations of humanity and a budding relationship with Scarlet Witch. The buddy humor between the three main characters (Cap, Falcon, and Bucky) was also a lot of fun. There was a sense of rivalry between Falcon and Bucky to be Cap’s best friend, and it was definitely fun to watch.

Another huge strength was the movie’s handling of scope. The huge cast of characters all fit into the story well and somehow did not seem overcrowded. The team alignment decisions all seemed well thought out (even if not always well-explained), and the power sets ended up pretty balanced. They also managed to find time to feature each Avenger in a way that showed their powers and their characters. Even Hawkeye, who so often gets overlooked, was shown in a much better light, holding his own against Iron Man and Black Panther, both of whom significantly overpower him. The introductions of both Black Panther and Spider-Man were handled extraordinarily well and the two stole most of the scenes they were in. Wonderful acting by both Chadwick Boseman and Tom Holland makes me extremely excited for their upcoming solo films! The decision to leave Thor and Hulk out was also a great one: either or both of them would have tipped the balance, and their enormous capacity for destruction would have further complicated things. Leaving them out kept the film as a more human affair, with an emphasis on finesse over raw power.

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Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa, AKA Black Panther was a perfect fit for the powerful and calculating Prince of Wakanda. He and Tom Holland (Spider-Man) were tremendous additions to the MCU. Source: Marvel.com

The huge airport fight scene was awesome — it is an incredible feat that it took place in the middle of the movie and did not result in the sort of massive destructive event that most recent films have. Minimizing property destruction and civilian loss of life was also especially important given that those very things had been the catalysts of the Sokovia Accords to begin with. The battle also blended some key elements of humor (though some of the best lines had been cherry-picked for ads over the past six months) and a sort of reluctance on the part of the heroes to fight one another.

Lest we forget, Daniel Bruhl’s Zemo was also wonderfully cast and his role in the film kept just enough on the fringes to make his motives and his influence a mystery to audiences and heroes alike. The resolution of the film allowed for some vital character development and emotional arcs in many of the central characters. Zemo fit the bill for this sort of nefarious plot quite well, and kept either side of the debate from being wholly wrong.

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I wish this had been a surprise rather than something given away in the first trailer. The moment would have been much more meaningful. Source: Marvel.com

Weaknesses: Very, very few overall. My primary criticism was that the picking of sides seemed rushed for some characters (namely Black Widow, Hawkeye, and Falcon). I think their motives were largely implied, but the film could have taken a few more minutes to flesh them out. Black Widow chooses to sign partly in an attempt to atone for past wrongs as an operative, Falcon just wants to be with his buddy and trusts Cap entirely, and Hawkeye…. I think he just doesn’t want his kids to be in danger because a government refuses to send heroes? Or something? I just wish they’d spent 4 more minutes on it to clear things up. Fortunately, this little hiccup is only relevant for a few minutes, as the subsequent battles and debates were well-constructed and deftly toed the line of keeping the fighting civil and between friends. It was far less brutal than previous battles with villains had been.

My other biggest complaint is actually based on the marketing materials leading up to the movie’s release. See the above photo of War Machine? Why was that part of the trailers? That ruined any element of surprise that we could have experienced while watching the movie. I guess the Russo brothers aren’t quite JJ Abrams with their big reveals, but I just thought they’d try to keep something this important under wraps. At least they did keep most of Spider-Man’s scenes out of trailers, that was a good call.

Overall, Civil War was a great movie and one of the better entries into the MCU. I don’t think it can quite top Guardians or Iron Man, but it’s pretty close. I absolutely loved it and hope I’ll be able to see it again soon!

Rating: 9 of 10

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Tom Holland is an Amazing Spider-Man. Source: youtube.com via giphy.com

 

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Hmmm see how Spider-Man was edited out of the trailer? Source: youtube.com via giphy.com

You’ve already read the safe review, now here are some of my favorite things from Captain America: Civil War that would definitely count as *SPOILERS* — Blorgons, proceed at your own peril! Ant-Man is finally Giant Man! He’s huge and he’s hilarious. Spider-Man’s first suit and how Stark found him! A quick glimpse of Wakanda as well as the cool blend of honor and straight up bad-assery that Black Panther brings. I also applaud Marvel’s willingness to remove some characters from the fight, at least for a while. I expected some deaths to help bring down the numbers, but this will do for now. There is still some risk of over-crowding in the future films, especially with characters still on their way and a Guardians/Avengers team-up imminent, but that problem can be put off for now.

Make Mine Marvel! Excelsior! Not Brand Ech!

 

Doctor Strange: Mysticism in the MCU

The first Doctor Strange trailer is finally here! It came out on yesterday (April 12th) and unsurprisingly racked up over a million views in its first 12 hours. If you haven’t seen it, please go watch it here.

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Source: wikimedia

This November, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is going to face a tough challenge. I’m not talking about the specifics of introducing a little-known hero into the growing pantheon of Marvel heroes, because that is a gamble that has paid off time and again for Kevin Feige and co. A stellar cast, anchored by Benedict Cumberbatch, Tilda Swinton, Rachel McAdams, and Chiwetel Ejiofor, is sure to deliver a quality movie. Stephen Strange’s comic book origins provide plenty of material for an emotional and dramatic film. Much like Iron Man, Doctor Strange will provide audiences with a complex and flawed character whose greatest enemy is often himself. I think the casting of Cumberbatch is absolutely perfect, as evidenced by his iconic portrayal of Sherlock Holmes in the eponymous Sherlock BBC series.

Even in the comics, Doctor Strange’s origin is the story of redemption. The fall of a prideful surgeon, whose wild successes had tainted the motives of his medical profession, driving Stephen to seek fame rather than focus on healing his patients. A horrible accident then left Stephen unable to perform surgeries, effectively destroying his life’s sole purpose. Aimless wandering leads him to the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) who takes him on a path of mindfulness, meditation, and the mystical arts. Stephen’s journey is a personal one, as he fights his own inner demons and overcomes his own weaknesses to become a powerful magician/mystic. Created by Steve Ditko in 1963, Strange’s path to heroism is not all that different from many of the other Marvel characters of the Silver Age, and these origins have all translated successfully to the big screen. All of that being said, I think Marvel has earned our trust to deliver solid movies with believable and likable characters, especially when the material is there for them to draw upon. The wild successes of MCU films and Netflix shows about lesser-known characters like Jessica Jones, Ant-Man, and most especially the Guardians of the Galaxy, have proven that any character can succeed with the right creative team (and with a little help from branding, to be sure). There is only one problem:

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Doctor Strange with the Eye of Agamotto. Source: Marvel.com

Magic. Don’t get me wrong, I love magical stories: Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Chronicles of Narnia, even movies like Prestige, or Inception are all wonderful. My hesitation is not about whether the magic or mystical powers of Doctor Strange and his foes will translate to film, because I’m sure they will. It is all about how the existence of magic in the MCU affects the rest of the films. I’m afraid it will taint them. How will magic blend with the science fiction elements of futuristic technology (Iron Man, Ant-Man), biological accidents/experiments (Captain America, Daredevil, Hulk), and alien technology/influence (Thor, Inhumans, Guardians)? Marvel has already done a lot of work to downplay some of their other mystical elements in Daredevil (see Stick and Elektra) and the seemingly Inhuman explanation of the Scarlet Witch’s powers. So maybe they will continue the trend, making the mystical arts more of a cosmic entity or alien technology, making it fit better in the MCU. There are a couple of ways to do that, but I am not sure if they would come at the expense of Doctor Strange’s own story.

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the Eye of Agamotto zoom of the above image. Source: Marvel.com

One big theory floating around is that the Eye of Agamotto is one of the Infinity Stones, of which only Time and Soul are presumed to remain, assuming the Aether from Thor: Dark World was actually the Reality gem, of which I’m kind of iffy. The portrayal of gravitational anomalies and portals in spacetime doesn’t seem to really show control over “reality” in the same sense that alternate universes would. And the first Doctor Strange trailer hints directly at a multiverse for the first time in any MCU or TV property: “what if I told you that reality is one of many?” This may lend to the exploration of alternate realities, and how better to do that than with the Reality Stone? Perhaps the Eye is actually the Reality stone and the Aether is something else (Time?). If Doctor Strange gets all of his magical powers from the Infinity Stone, it begs the question of what would happen once he loses the stone to Thanos (as he is bound to in one of the two Infinity War mega-films). If magic were only derived from the Infinity Stone, however, it would take away the permanence of Doctor Strange’s power, making him into merely the custodian of someone or something else’s abilities. I think that would short-change him, as his comic presence relied as much on the training and exploration of the mystic arts as on the artifacts he found along the way. Either way, using the Eye of Agamotto or another infinity stone to control Doctor Strange’s magical powers couldn’t be all-inclusive, since Baron Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), the Ancient One, and other characters would have to have had magic of their own too.

That means magic will have to become a central force in the MCU. In order for it to blend well, Marvel will have to establish rules. Rules about magic’s limits, who can use it, how it works with or against technology or powered individuals, or even a good reason why magical individuals might not deign to participate in the more earthly conflicts (i.e. why Strange may be kept to the sidelines in other films). I hope that Doctor Strange, whether he is the Sorcerer Supreme or not, will be tasked with serving as the sole protector of Earth/this reality/this realm from magical attack. If he is pledged to inaction in non-magical events or otherwise indisposed, it might help to keep magic out of future films that rely more on technology or biological powers. The problem with magic is that it can be limitless or transcend rules of physics, that tend to limit the more science-fiction-based elements of the superhero genre.

Magic could introduce a sort of deus ex machina into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, giving heroes (or even their enemies) an “out” in seemingly unwinnable situations. I firmly believe that one of the MCU’s true strengths has been its attempt to keep things real-ish, creating an alternate reality only slightly different from our own. This relies upon believable explanations for the powers and events that drive the superhero films. Suddenly, magic can be a loophole or creative shortcut that brushes over sloppy plot points or neuters story complexity. Can you imagine the Avengers facing Ultron or Thanos or the Masters of Evil and having Doctor Strange show up and just conjure a spell that traps all of the bad guys in another reality? Or distorts time around him so that the Avengers can have a second chance to win? Suddenly, the limits that are placed on our heroes could be upended. Characters can be brought back from the dead, impossible things can become commonplace, and then our heroes can’t lose. Not that we want them to, of course, but for a movie to be good, the peril has to seem real. Magic can remove the consequences of mistakes and take the edge off of our heroes’ peril. If it does that, will the MCU survive?

 

 

 

Into the Woods: AKA Meryl Streep Can Do Anything

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Source: Wikipedia

It was only within the past week that I finally got around to watching last year’s musical movie spectacular: Into the Woods. I was already familiar with the story, having seen the stage play a couple of times back in my *cough* musical theater days in high school. It’s a fun story that is classic Sondheim — good and entertaining music that is easy to listen to. The music is definitely kind of catchy and will stick in your head for a few days after watching it, which is certainly not a complaint. It has a lot of humorous moments too, providing levity for the somewhat perilous adventure the main characters are thrust into. For those not familiar with the plot, it is a sort of fairy tale mashup, amalgamating different pieces of classic fairy tale lore into one story, and often self-referential humor that simultaneously pulls from and mocks the fairy tales from which Into the Woods takes its inspiration. Much of this is all a credit to the original screenplay and score, so while a great plus, isn’t really something the movie can take credit for. For the director, Rob Marshall, and his cast, it is really the interpretation and production value that can be critiqued.

Stylistically, Into the Woods was perfectly done. The dark and ominous lighting in a somewhat surreal fairy tale forest had a nice blend of mysticism and reality, which presents a very different feel than can be achieved on stage. The tone and quality of the singing was also pretty well done. The cast seemed well-balanced, and there is no doubting the acting and singing talents of Anna Kendrick or Emily Blunt. James Corden also definitely impressed as the Baker, especially for a comedic late night talk show host. And the kids seemed plucked straight from Broadway. But, to be sure, the main draw is Meryl Streep – proving, yet again, that she can do anything. She is captivating and talented and most certainly deserves the Best Supporting Actress nomination she got that year. Even so, my favorite scene was the Princes’ song, performed by Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen. It was funny and sufficiently self-aware to embrace the silliness of the song and the moment in the play. I laughed out loud as the two actors frolicked and pranced through a small stream-fed waterfall. The actors were mocking their fairy tale roots, with a tongue-in-cheek melodramatic scene. It’s all good fun.

I certainly enjoyed the film for the most part, and though it was pretty easy to pull off once the solid cast was cemented, the director did a good job of filling in the blanks. However, there were a few moments where the style seemed to fall apart and there were some inconsistencies with how the film sought to balance its stage play roots with the fact that it had a modern film’s CGI budget at its disposal. Why is there a CGI beanstalk and green-screened Giant, but the wolf is just Johnny Depp in a weird hat? Why did Little Red’s ingestion by the wolf look like a weird rip off of Shakira’s She-Wolf music video but we saw magical swirls of computer animation when the witch cast spells? It was in these moments that I felt the director lost some focus and could not make up his mind. Either stick wholly to a stage play feel with the costumed wolf and a make believe giant or simple voice over focus on the foot, like a play would see, or fully embrace the movie effects and make a singing CGI wolf. Either way would have worked, just look at how cool the new Jungle Book movie looks. But meeting half-way was odd and definitely distracted from the final product. I still think it is worth watching, but it is definitely not as good a final product as it could have been. Acting gets an A, but Directing gets a C+. Overall, a good film and definitely a fun story that’s worth watching if you enjoy musicals.

2016 Oscars: Spotlight

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Source: Wikipedia

Spotlight was this year’s surprise winner of the Best Picture Oscar, and though very few thought it would actually win the award, I would be surprised to hear many people say it was not deserving. The film was actually rather unique in the modern era – it was entirely dialogue-driven and featured no action sequences. The only suspenseful moments had to do with the information these brave journalists were unraveling and the sensitivity of the subject matter. The premise of Spotlight is that a small group of investigative journalists for the Boston Globe stumble across some old press clippings and case files that lead them to dig deeper into the, now famous, Catholic Church sexual abuse scandal. The movie shows these intrepid reporters’ journey to unravel decades of cover-ups, misinformation, and even outright collusion between church officials, Boston area lawyers, law enforcement, and even media executives. As the truth comes together, it becomes enormously clear just how horrible and how rampant the abuses were, making the cover-up that much more horrific. Plot-wise, the subject is certainly worthy of a film and makes for an important topic to be reminded of today. It is a timeless lesson in the importance of standing up against abuse and protecting our neighbors from systemic problems; a message that certainly resonates in today’s world, where media outlets, political agents, and corporations are becoming increasingly intermingle.

Regarding the film’s stylistic choices, the director, Tom McCarthy, deserves a lot of credit. The film is perfectly cast, and undoubtedly features the strongest ensemble cast of any film this year. The performances of Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Stanley Tucci, and everyone else were incredible. If there is any doubt that Mark Ruffalo is much more than just the Hulk, look no further. The format is also very enjoyable, with minimal film effects or dramatic lighting, it feels much more like a documentary in tone and feel. This makes the information being relayed and the heartfelt acting feel incredibly real and important. The content of the story is very upsetting, but the tone of the film is relies on dialogue and portrays the story’s development much more how it would have felt to the reporters who uncovered it. The result is that Spotlight is a must-see film and one of the most important stories of the year. Though it tells a very specific story in great detail, the film’s importance is much more far-reaching and its message is timeless. An unexpected, but well-deserved win for Best Picture. Academy Pick: Best Picture

 

For more Blorgin’ on the Oscars, click here!