Credibility for its Incredibility

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It’s petulant of me to be so hung up on the reception of Incredibles 2, which as of this writing has a 94% on Rotten Tomatoes and an 80 on Metacritic, as being insufficient to what the movie accomplishes. I have yet to encounter a person who thinks the movie is bad and the worst that I’ve heard is “it’s fine but not as good as the original”. But I do have an inclination of what kind of person is more reserved for their praise for Brad Bird’s sequel to the 2004 animated superhero film The Incredibles and what they look for in movies is frankly different than what I look for.

This is not necessarily to state that the very existent flaws in Incredibles 2 are not to be taken seriously. After all, cinema is to many a storytelling medium first and the sloppiness of Bird’s screenplay in terms of thematic drive and character arc is not nothing. There’s even an explanation for what might have caused such a lapse in narrative delivery: the unofficial story regarding Incredibles 2 taking 14 years to exist is that Bird did not really want to make the movie*. There’s more to the unofficial story, such as the slightly suspicious suggestion that Bird was forced to make the film due to Tomorrowland‘s underperformance (though the screenplay was announced as started a month BEFORE Tomorrowland‘s 2015 premiere). There’s also the official story that Bird was under the impression that he would have one year more of production than he actually got and when Toy Story 4 was pushed back from a release date of 15 June 2018, Incredibles 2 was placed into the empty slot and fast-tracked (Bird has since suggested that he has enough unused material from this motion to make a potential third film, though I doubt he’s in a rush).

So what was Bird able to come up with in that short amount of time? Returning back to the exact spot The Incredibles ended on where the Parr family prepares to face-off against the underground drill driver The Underminer (John Ratzenberger). Strongman patriarch Bob aka Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) is able to cause enough collateral damage during the fight to remind us just why superhero activity was still illegal at the end of the last film, which is just the perfect arena for the telecommunications magnate Deaver siblings to enter – super enthusiast pitch man Winston (Bob Odenkirk) and lackadaisical tech genius Evelyn (Catherine Keener) – and suggest a campaign be done to convince the government legalize superheroics again, picking Bob’s stretch wife Helen aka Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) as its face.

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This takes a definite blow to Bob’s ego as he’s left to the domestic demands of raising three children with their own issues: invisible teenager Violet (Sarah Vowell), speedy Dash (Huck Milner), and baby Jack-Jack (Eli Fucile) who is quickly discovered to have a revolving door of powers from flame manipulation to multiplying to laser eyes to dimension hopping to shapeshifting and on and on. It’s apparent Bob does not prove to be as flexible towards house-husband life as Helen did and the presence of a mind-controlling supervillain known as the mysterious Screenslaver taking up most of Helen’s attention means it’s a new world Bob has to traverse alone.

The places Bird’s script goes with this are not very revelatory, including the Screenslaver as an antagonist playing by the recent Walt Disney Animation Studios handbook. There’s a messier handle on communicating whatever themes Incredibles 2 wants to carry, with a lot less incisive commentary on domestic life or its characters (Violet has her own larger conflict that’s part of Bob’s arc, Dash doesn’t really have one except “bad at math”). But it does introduce to us a large amount of superheroes and a bigger world of ramifications than the effective interiority of the first film, effectively scaling upwards in an unwieldy fashion, so the somewhat sloppy manner doesn’t really bother me nearly as much as it should.

Plus, I think the movie is across the board funnier, even when it’s clearly padding the running time with jokes: every scene with Jack-Jack’s now increased role is an absolute delight whether his screen partner is costumer Edna Mode (Bird himself voicing her) or a wily raccoon. There’s a sequence in the middle of the film that’s an obviously bad move on Bob’s part but gives us plenty of cringe humor for Violet. The next generation of superheroes are made up of a variety of gag-ready powers and personalities (including a beautiful exchange regarding the concept of “uncrushing”). Not to say that The Incredibles wasn’t an enjoyable chuckler, but its humor is of a drier sort. This got a whole lot of chesty laughs from yours truly.

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Anyway, if Bird’s disinterest in Incredibles 2 as a project clearly affects the story, it does not affect the actual craft of the film and that’s where the real excitement comes in for yours truly. Pixar, much like any other household animation studio (possibly moreso), has made a name out of slowly improving the technical aspects of their animation. The Incredibles, being an aesthetic particularly based on rejecting photorealism for simple cartoonish character designs and an aesthetic based on 60s pop culture flatness, are a challenge to that ideology and yet Incredibles 2 expands on every single aspect a Pixar film can expand upon: a variety of shot scales, lighting, and image depth explored without losing one inch of the caricaturization of its worlds inhabitants. And it’s certainly not style for style’s sake: a city-sweeping montage set against the Screenslaver’s distorted monologuing earns a gothic noir tone specifically for how the cynicism in its voice plays well with the metropolitan shadows.

A moment followed by the infamous strobe sequence fight scene, which is the unfortunate source of pain for photosensitive viewers but also the moment the film is proudest about Erik Smitt’s lighting, blasting images of dizzying monochrome swirls against silhouettes of action poses, so intensely that it’s hard to imagine it not distressing the viewer in a visceral way, whether or not they suffer from epilepsy. And it’s only one of the many creative action setpieces Bird takes a joy out of constructing. The most popular one: a race to stop a rogue train that brings out all the possible stops for a speeding Elastigirl, looking for new ways to force her contortions and obstacles to make a viewer catch their breath with the speed in which she zips and bends and twists in fluid sweeping wide shots that editor Stephen Schaffer can hardly look away from. It’s a heart-stopping sequence that certainly explains Bob’s egotistical jealousy of his spouse’s capabilities as a superhero, while also establishing that Elastigirl is just so much more fun to watch. My personal favorite is Jack-Jack’s mini Looney Tunes showdown against a raccoon, a kneeslapper distracting us from the primary story arc for a moment yet bouncing as many powers out of a hat as possible for Jack-Jack to get the Raccoon’s eyes wider and wider. Hell, the supporting cast of next-generation superheroes transparently exist to give the Parrs a new source of challenges, particularly Voyd (Sophia Bush) who creates portals that make for interesting antithetical combat to Violet’s force-field defenses.

In general, I think the complaints of those who walked away disappointed and the accolades of others like me who were fascinated with the film come from the same modus operandi: if Bird was going to have to make this movie, he was going to try to make it big. The reason The Incredibles worked so brilliantly as a story was its ability to intimately alternate between its function as superhero tale and domestic drama and Incredibles 2 tries to do that and admittedly fumbles a lot. It can’t accomplish this as smoothly because Bird is interested implying a larger world now: more focus on the worldview of superheroes than how its affects the Parrs, more focus on establishing a gallery of supers rather than giving them the same depth as the Parrs or even family friend Lucius “Frozone” Best (Samuel L. Jackson). But it succeeds at making the world seem wider and promising the potentials of visualizing every single nook and cranie of that world with its craft, filling it with style and bombast. Even Michael Giacchino has found ways to turn his already iconic score into a brand-new snappy soundtrack for the picture (there’s a snare-kick early on during the Underminer bank robbery that got me ready for anything). So if The Incredibles surpasses as a construction of fiction, I still think the choice is clear which movie functions better as popcorn cinema overall and I frankly might go as far to call Incredibles 2 the best Pixar film since Inside Out. Sometimes, more IS more.

*Indeed, this clear reluctance to make Incredibles 2 is a large part of why my expectations for it were pretty low.

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Les Incroyables!

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Out of the four animated pictures Brad Bird wrote and directed, The IncrediblesThe Incredibles is my least favorite. But of course, Brad Bird is of an incredible (pun not intended) animation case where every single film he directed could fit a favorite spot for anybody and not get a blink from me.* Although, one has to admit it took the world maybe a tiny while to recognize that, as his masterful directorial debut The Iron Giant was a massive box office as a suspected result of Warner Bros. Feature Animation failing to market the film after clashing with Bird and trying to force him to add more “marketability” to it. Clearly that experience embittered Bird enough to take his ball and go to Pixar Animation Studios – then already earning its brand recognition as the high water-mark for contemporary animated storytelling – where he already had a friend in co-founder John Lasseter from their education at CalArts.

That ball happened to be a pitch on a domestic drama between a family of superheroes developing personal anxieties, developed by Bird to eventually become the full concept of a post-superhero society outlawing the superpowered crime-fighters for their collateral damage and the family’s attempts to conform into a mundane suburban existance with their relocation and government-mandated identities. And that family is the Parrs: made up of cocky child speedster “Dash”iell (Spencer Fox), teenage invisibility-and-force-field-capable outsider Violet (Sarah Vowell), stretchable housewife worn thin Helen (Holly Hunter), strongman Bob (Craig T. Nelson) whose weakness is midlife crisis, and baby Jack-Jack to round it off. The character and family metaphor behind all of their powers is impossible to miss, but it’s certainly not 2-dimensional. Their home life is in fact the very core of the narrative and grants it thematic richness, especially in terms of Bob’s painful nostalgia for old times and Helen having to deal with it. Back in the day, Bob and Helen were among apparently beloved superheroes, the two of them known as Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl respectively. And we’re introduced to this and other facts in an opening sequence that’s a rolling Rube Goldberg machine of setpiece after setpiece (with subtle expositional setups) while Mr. Incredible keeps himself busy with non-stop crises just before a big night, just before Bird masterfully brings the momentum to a screeching halt as the government pulls its shutdown in comedic black-and-white newsreels slowing us down to see the dead-eyed Bob fifteen years later with the story proper.

When it first came out in 2004, we just at the very cusp of superheroes carving out their own reserved spot in the annual cinematic discussion. They had an increased presence in the wake of the X-Men and Spider-Man successes, but we weren’t yet at the post-2008 surge into a pop culture environment where superheroes have now become an overwhelmingly permanent fixture on mainstream cinema. Back then, The Incredibles had earned the immediate fanfare that Bird desired from audiences and critics, generally considering it to be just another knock-out in Pixar’s early run of masterworks, but that doesn’t acknowledge what’s most fascinating about The Incredibles as a project was how distinguishable it was from the rest of Pixar’s output at the time.

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Not least of which in the visual design of the film, with Bird already coming to the studio with a conceit of the movie taking place in a world reminiscent of the 1960s and having Lou Romano and Ralph Eggleston give us a world of sleek shape-based metropolises that embody the pop art of that long-gone era of the idealized nuclear family, right down to Tony Fucile and Teddy Newton’s character designs. In general, the ending credits of the incredibles have a bold “POW” to its aesthetic that works as a cheatsheet to what the movie was going for, but those are flat silhouettes against the brilliant dimension given to the solid-block-without-feeling-blocky human beings (thanks also to some wise lighting conceits like a whole lava dining room demanding fiery chiaroscuro close-ups and silhouette wide-shots).

They look like comic strip illustrations that are given definition simply by the fact that they are 3-dimensional, like Mr. Incredible’s linear jawline and exaggerated torso. It’s a precursor to the later Lasseter-era Walt Disney Animation Studios CG films of the 2010s and a boon to the animated format Bird indulges in for this movie considering how it dives headfirst into the idea of being a cartoon than anything else Pixar made to that point. Pixar’s preceding release for instance, Finding Nemo, came bragging (very deservedly) about the photorealism of its water animation even if (very textured) cartoon fish were inhabiting that ocean. There is no room for photorealism in The Incredibles, the aesthetic wants to simplify everything from the trees to the cars to the chairs (and yet still finding room to make a costume designer’s home extravagant). And it’s because of that simplicity, the way it looks dynamic without demanding much from the eye, that The Incredibles feels like it held up the best out of any of pre-2010s movies. It certainly has a few shots (mostly moving or involving background “extras”) that feel paper-thin but it mostly retains the same sort of power 14 years since its release.

It’s not just mood and tone that the craftsmanship of The Incredibles gives to itself, it’s also strong storytelling. Despite the bright red tights of the family zipping through the exotic volcano location with futuristic Bond villain lair for a good part of the second half of its efficient 115-minute runtime, most of the first 45 minutes mutes its colors to zombie greys and whites for his insurance office or unexciting browns and faded greens for the Parr household. The very difference in energy once Mr. Incredible sets off on an hired adventure that the rest of his family must confront/rescue him about is night and day, mirrored by the climax of the family’s tense relationships with each other before they find themselves working together.

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And it’s not just visually, Michael Giacchino’s feature breakout as a composer yielded one of the most beloved Pixar scores, a blasting fun John Barry homage (Barry originally being offered the part) informing the pulp attitudes of its adventures and the mysterious element of Bob’s early attempts to keep his superheroing secret from his family, but it’s not even present for much of the first half save for a perilous attempt at reliving the glory days with partner-in-crimefighting Lucius “Frozone” Best (Samuel L. Jackson), until the secretive Mirage (Elizabeth Peña) approaches him with an assignment and the music begins whispering dreams of valiance building until up to the full bombast of the rest of the score. And the Oscar-winning sound design like-wise just fills the florid island environment within which the Incredibles chase and battle with the expected bird calls and forest brushes and alarming gunshots, but the powers of the children in particular get this unreal quality of quick pitter-patter for Dash’s speed (met in one brilliant surpise with a xylophone cue that may be my favorite moment in Giacchino’s score) and Violet’s force-fields augment and distort the dialogue taking place within them with a flanged muffle.

My word, The Incredibles is such a fully-realized work of art that I find it impossible to find elements not to exhaust regarding it, barely having time to recognize the A-game of the entire voice cast with some playing to their expected strengths (Hunter, Peña, Jason Lee as a role I feel like describing in detail would be a spoiler even for a movie this old) and some filling side-lined characters with charisma (Jackson and Bird himself as the superhero’s tailor Edna Mode). Or unpacking the further observations it makes about government or society, including the film’s infamous skirting with Objectivism (though Bird claims it was unintentional, I find the reading valid though I can’t say I consider The Incredibles to be Randian). There are so many angles to look at The Incredibles for and almost all of them are ones that demand your admiration that when I call back to the opening of this review acknowledging it is my least favorite of Bird’s animated features, I hope my enthusiasm for it illustrates just how much further we have witnessed Bird ascend.

*Ideally from anybody, but it seems like Incredibles 2 is sadly getting a very muted dismissal as “good but not as good”. Watch this space later for me to get back to that. And the general consensus appears to be that all four animated projects are superior to Bird’s two live-action films, the phenomenal Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol and the forgettable Tomorrowland.

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Cat People

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It has been at once amusing and bemusing to see a lot of the critical praise go to Black Panther for being “different” from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. If there’s anything admirable about Black Panther‘s storytelling, it’s that it accomplishes being a great popcorn movie while being very much the same as the rest of the MCU’s style and elements. And it’s also co-written and directed by Ryan Coogler with evidently very little corporate interference (As they’d kind of have to. It’s not the first MCU film directed by a person of color – Taika Waititi just preceded Coogler with Thor: Ragnarok – but it’s the one where the most attention was brought towards it being a person of color telling a story about people of color), whose previous (and still best) film Creed also dealt with similar thematic conceits (a character dealing with the trials of his rise adjacent to an absent father) and similar aesthetical conceits (taking the elements familiar to the home franchise and arranging them in a manner that evokes surprisingly new concepts and emotions from the story).

In general, it is a film that takes the two most recent handicaps of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and surpasses them: their fixation on daddy issues and their inability to craft great action setpieces with any director not named Gunn or Russo. I’d dare say in the case of the former, it’s an active strength by expanding on that singular issue to observe much larger social elements. In the case of the former, it’s just disappointing given that Creed revolved around incredibly well-shot and edited fight sequences while Black Panther‘s are often painfully underlit and a climax involving a mess of three-tier cross-cutting and carrying some very dubious CGI.

But enough of that, I come to praise Black Panther, not to bury it, and it is a very easy film to praise. It takes place not very long after the events of Captain America: Civil War (where the character made its big-screen debut and blew nearly every other character out of the water as a presence) and wisely establishes enough of what occurred there to make it unnecessary to watch Civil War to understand what’s going on: the former Black Panther and King Wakanda T’Chaka (John Kano) was killed in an attack in Vienna, leaving his son T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) to take up both the throne and mantle of their symbolic superhero Black Panther with uncertainty on how to helm the responsibilities inherent in these seats of power towards the isolated African nation he rules, the wealthiest and most technologically advanced nation in the world.

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That sort of establishing of an African nation far more progressed than any other nation we can see in our real world (which Black Panther certainly wants us to bring Wakanda into and succeeds in making it convincingly grounded) allows for some visually rich designs in terms of production and costumes (provided by Hannah Beacher and Ruth Carter) indulging for possibly the first time in commercial cinema in the aesthetic of Afrofuturism which means exactly how it sounds: Black Panther is full of vibrant greens, reds, and blacks and especially blues bringing life to the East African biomes of grassplains and mountains and waterfalls, populating it with brilliant coded hierarchal robing and architecture that looks like the World Fair’s dreams. The design team wisely weave in between the two concepts by finding common ground in the generous usage of lines and fluid movement through hues they can utilize, most tremendously in sequences involving the ancestral plane certain characters visit – a dusky purple sky blanketing a serene serengeti landscape.

It’s quite possibly the MCU movie to date with the most visual personality and so soon after Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. But here I am, getting so dazzled by the designs of Black Panther that I interrupted my recap.

It is in fact insane that Boseman turned out to be possibly the best thing about Captain America: Civil War when he’s not even the best performance in his own movie and not for lack of trying. Coogler and Joe Robert Cole’s screenplay toss T’Challa a barrel of new political pressures that popping up one by one and give Boseman leeway to construct them into a thoughtful arc where we can actually watch T’Challa’s stance go from point A to point B (and yes, this is a political film. Not a VERY political film because Disney is scared of politics*, but its themes take observation of the state of race relations in the world from its very first scene and an awareness of Africa’s history of colonization and applies them both to the current closed borders refugee matter).

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The biggest of those pressures happens to be Erik “Killmonger” Stevens (Michael B. Jordan), an armed forces veteran from Oakland, starts making waves enough to challenge T’Challa’s claim to the throne and bring out very violent skeletons from the late T’Chaka’s actions that T’Challa must deal with in his father’s stead, taking a leaf out of Creed‘s book once again to explore a father-son conflict with an absent father. In fact, there are two of them as Killmonger reckons with the source of all his rightful anger and hate. I’ve heard it used as a criticism that Killmonger’s clearly Black-American urban style in costume, dialogue, and performance is a coding against the sort of young African-Americans that are most targeted by police brutality in America and I honestly think that’s ignoring how much Coogler (who shares Stevens’ cinematic Oakland origins and so probably imbued a lot of his background into the character) is possibly more generous to Killmonger’s point of view than T’Challa’s**. It’s not hard to figure why Jordan, Coogler’s regular weapon of choice actor, is cast as Killmonger (other than the fact that Black Panther is already cast) and with his powerful and aggressive performance comes a perspective of the marginalized individual outside of Wakanda’s borders begging for resolution (a perspective the film aligns with sympathetically) and a core of soulful hardness most prevalent in a late scene shared with the brilliant screen partner of Sterling K. Brown (my first time seeing him perform after hearing so much hype about the actor and the hype is founded in my opinion).

Jordan, Boseman, and Brown are of course only a few of a full-on cast of extraordinary performances acting as the leads to their own stories on the side: Forest Whitaker’s secret-holding priest, Daniel Kaluuya’s frustrated herder, Letitia Wright’s scene-stealing intellectual, Winston Duke’s charming rival, Danai Gurira’s strong-willed warrior, even Andy Serkis playing Mel Gibson all embody different strands of life for T’Challa to look over and consider in his arc. Which is probably the last and greatest credit I feel I can give to Black Panther, Coogler and Cole can facilitate the narrative and themes all day and Beacher and Carter can create this dimensional environment, but it’s the cast themselves that have to inhabit it and sell every inch of its liveliness, its stakes, and its humor and I don’t think the Marvel Cinematic Universe has ever had an ensemble more qualified to provide that in spades.

*I believe Carvell Wallace of the New York Times said it beautifully – “The film arrives as a corporate product, but we are using it for our own purposes.”
**This is also much more apparent in the official original soundtrack created by Kendrick Lamar, of which only two songs appear in the film itself so it’s slightly extraneous but still a good and illustrative work of how Black Panther grabs hold of Killmonger’s point of view and gives it a validity even despite being unambiguous about his villainy. It is also, because I’m sure certain people around these parts know I’m a Kendrick fan and so will probably ask me, a decent album though significantly less revelatory or engaging than anything else he made in his career.

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Ragnarok n’ Roll

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Now I know what you’re thinking. “Oh no, STinG isn’t in love with the new Taika Waititi-directed film the way he wanted to and has to reckon with whether or not it was as huge a disappointment as he expected.” How did we end up here? Well, it’s kind of a long story.

I was expecting a Taika Waititi movie. Well, that’s not such a long story after all, never mind.

And to be fair, Thor: Ragnarok – the third film in the Thor series and 17th in the gigantic Marvel Cinematic Universe franchise – is not not a Waititi film. But it’s interrupted by the side of it that’s a Kevin Feige-produced MCU film. There’s no reason to hold that against Thor: Ragnarok since the result is still roundly the best Thor film and the out-and-out funniest MCU picture in their whole lineage, but the fact that it’s unfortunately short bursts and portions does leave me a bit disappointed with the result.

For one thing, it takes its sweet ass time getting to the good stuff. The previous Thor film, The Dark World, and the second Avengers film, Age of Ultron, left so many threads open ended that co-writers Franco Escamilla, Craig Kyle, and Christopher Yost had no choice but to address and resolve from square one the threat of Ragnarok – the end of Norse home world Asgard to be brought by demon Surtur (mo-capped by Waititi, voiced by Clancy Brown) – and the absence of Thor’s father and ubergod Odin (Anthony Hopkins) replaced by Thor’s trickster step-brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston, who has now reached the sort of casual obligatory tone in playing this character as Robert Downey Jr. in playing Iron Man), neither of which are the main conflict of the story for our thundergod himself (Chris Hemsworth). For a movie where Waititi claimed in an interview that his modus operandi was to ignore the previous (and frankly) mediocre Thor films, Ragnarok is certainly happy to do a lot of clean-up.

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Now granted, the movie is still joyful and funny at points, as Hopkins does a hilarious job imitating Hiddleston and we witness a cult of personality formed around Loki with a wonderful play featuring three brilliant cameos I must remain mum over for the poor souls who haven’t seen Ragnarok yet. But the fact that we also get the obligatory MCU character cameo before Odin can proper introduced us to the villain in a very clunky monologue is quite frankly annoying and a nuisance in storytelling.

The villain herself is Hela – Odin’s firstborn daughter and the goddess of death – and played by the brilliant Cate Blanchett in full ham and scenery-chewing glory commanding every fucking shot she gets to appear in effortlessly and the sad thing is that Hela is the only reason I enjoyed the Hela/Asgard end of the story. Because quickly after her appearance the film splits based on her expulsion of Thor and Loki and her subsequent conquest of Asgard and attempts to expand her realm being thwarted by the brave Bifrost guardian Heimdall (Idris Elba). That’s her side of the story and it’s mostly just a reminder that evil stuff is happening that Thor must stop, while meanwhile, Taika Waititi is making a Taika Waititi movie (that just so happens to be a low-key adaptation of the “Planet Hulk” story) on the industrial trash planet Sakaar where Thor and Loki have landed.

Ruled by the flamboyant Jeff Goldblum Grandmaster (but it may as well just be recognized as Jeff Goldblum himself), Sakaar turns out to be home to a vicious gladiator deathmatch tournament that Thor is shanghaied into participating in against the grand champion: The Incredible Hulk himself (Mark Ruffalo). And this reunion is the catalyst to Thor’s attempts in building a team to save Asgard with Hulk and his troubled scientist alter-ego Bruce Banner, the comfortably lucky Loki, an alcoholic and disillusioned former Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson, best in show that’s not Goldblum and a born action star), and a failed revolutionary yet infectiously friendly rock monster gladiator named Korg (Taika Waititi) and his robotic sidekick Meek.

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Sakaar isn’t necessarily the stuff of brilliant visual craftsmanship – the lighting is mostly as muted as any other MCU film beyond a mindblowing flashback sequence and this is not the best effects work of the franchise – but the physical design of it is absolutely fun to look at in all of its shapes and mounds and kitchiness, full of a mix of tones between bazaar and industrial and nightclub. It’s clear that Waititi himself walked into this production ready to make a space opera and he sure as hell gave his all, providing a wonderfully colorful and bouncy world full of a variety of bipedal alien races. All of which tuned into a vibrant weirdo tone that takes a few leafs out of the 1980s thanks to Goldblum’s absolute relaxed rock star of a performance and Mark Mothersbaugh’s techno epic of a score. And with a hangout atmosphere courtesy of Waititi’s wonderfully amiable brand of humor, best personified in Korg’s lovable presence even when in the middle of a fight trying to act polite. It’s exactly the MCU film I was waiting for and unfortunately it only lasts as far as the movie spends time in Sakaar.

This is not to say Asgard is a slouch in design, but Waititi’s heart is so obviously in Sakaar and not Asgard that returning to Hela’s storyline where she has literally no momentum thanks to Heimdall’s efforts feels a severe buzzkill to what is otherwise an extremely fun movie. That doesn’t override the fact that the sum of it all IS that is a poppy concoction that’s even able to make the best of the usually unbearable Hemsworth, who proves so much more capable at comedy than he is at drama. Nor is it unclear that there are full consequences to Ragnarok, ones that feel a lot more permanent than the last few times in the MCU where it seemed like consequences of Iron Man 3 and Captain America: Winter Soldier were just brushed aside. Whatever obligatory MCU drama we have to push through, it’s rewarded by a much more engaging film than at least half of the MCU preceding it and while it seems like a good illustration of how studio interference obstructs with auteurism, the biggest thing I took away from Thor: Ragnarok is that we should give Waititi money for science fiction and fantasy extravaganzas that have really personable talking rock creatures in a Kiwi accent.

P.S. Rachel House from Hunt for the Wilderpeople (my favorite Waititi film) is also in this playing no less a psychopath than her character there and I’m rooting for her to be in, like, everything now.

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Does Whatever a Spider Can

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I think I already went over in the X-Men review about Spider-Man’s placement in movie history blew the doors wide open for comic book movies to saturate the market, so let me open instead with my personal anecdote to break open some nostalgia.

The night of 11 May 2002, I recall clearly. My mom had brought my 9-year-old self and my siblings to the only-2-year-old shopping mall next to my elementary school and when our paths crossed the box office of the then spanking-new AMC multiplex and I saw a very very late 11 pm showtime for the already week-old release of Sam Raimi’s superhero adaptation Spider-Man, based on one of my favorite superheroes of all time*. It had already been a hard week because despite my excitement for the film, I haven’t been able to watch it yet. All the showtimes were sold out, but all my peers in school were able to watch it.

On the spot, I convince my annoyed mom to take that late showtime opportunity and I finally watch the movie I was hardcore anticipating.

Shortly after I left the theater, Spider-Man was the first experience I’ve had where I consciously had a favorite movie of all time. And while, some of the 15-year-age has knocked the dust off of it from being my idea of a perfect movie, it’s one of the few favorites of my childhood where I don’t look back and think “what the hell was I on?” On maybe a better day, I could imagine it having made the lower end of my favorite movies post.

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So, if you’re expecting me to have a problem with Tobey Maguire’s portrayal as Spider-Man like the rest of the world inexplicably does, no, I’m sorry. He may not be much of an actor in his doughey pushover look and his soft-spoken two-steps-away from crying demeanor, but it’s perfect for a role like Peter Parker, a tired kid on a learning curve in the real world who has too much piling on top of him and can only hold on to his morality. Maguire doesn’t even have to try to act – this is Keanu-Reeves-in-JohnWick kind of casting for a limited actor***. When he smiles, you still feel there’s something wrong in the back of his mind (or Spider Sense), when he tries to win something that’s not a supervillain battle, you get the vibe he’s going to lose because he looks like he knows he’ll lose. It’s miraculously undepressing (Maguire sells both his casual underplayed scientific brilliance and his ability to inspire Kirsten Dunst’s Mary Jane Watson no matter how low they both find themselves), but clear this kid is overwhelmed by the stuff life is throwing at him.

It would be such growing pains that writer David Koepp throws as the Queens-based hero, who finds himself quickly graduated from high school within the first hour (as would have to be, Maguire was 26 at the time of filming) and living with his best friend Harry Osborn (James Franco), son of scientist Norman (Willem Dafoe). Peter is still helping his Aunt May (Rosemary Harris) deal with the murder of his Uncle Ben (Cliff Robertson), the man who inspired Peter to don his costume as Spider-Man with the immortal words “With great power comes great responsibility” after being bitten by a radioactive spider in Columbia University’s lab causing him to sling organic webbing, climb up walls, and become physically enhanced in strength, speed, and all of the above except still looking like Tobey Maguire. Meanwhile, Norman himself has his own secret performance enhancers causing him to go so crazy he dresses up as a Power Rangers villain and enacts a bloodthirsty vendetta against his corporate competitors under the name of Green Goblin.

A lot of tangled web strands for the story and it’s kind of impressive that Koepp and director Raimi are able to streamline this into one great big arc of Parker’s growth as a responsible young adult while finding time to insert super battles in the skies of Manhattan, all of them with that in-your-face comic punch that Raimi supplied in spades with his Evil Dead trilogy. He, cinematographer Don Burgess, and composer Danny Elfman supply weightless enthusiasm to all of Spidey’s web-slinging (most notably in the final shot – some of the effects aged poorly, but that scene alone still dazzles and entertains me even up to the Matrix in-joke) and jazz up the energy to match with Dafoe’s expected mania at being able to embody such a cackling monster, even under the gaudy design of his robotic suit. Raimi’s the kind of filmmaker that clearly makes them for the love of being silly and young again and having the context of a comic book property to let his fan-status translate to pulp popcorn cinema is the best thing. He even gets a chance to play up his horror roots with Dafoe’s self-confrontations in the mirror, two jump scares, and a climax in dark and damp ruins (of an abandoned mental institute, Peter David’s novelization informed me because of course I was so excited I bought the book) where the action gets really violent and colors get dusty and dark against the earlier tones of episodic thwarting in bold colors and mirrors.

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Now, the other big complaint I hear is that the movie is too corny or sappy because of Raimi’s eager beaver tones. Just recently, I heard somebody claim that Spider-Man had “too much heart”. Now, what a surprise from somebody like me who swears by Spielberg, but I think “too much heart” is precisely the best kind of problem to have for any work of art. If Spider-Man wants to include post-9/11 portrayals of unity and solidarity of New York helping out Spidey, why should I complain about the positive energy of these moments? Or the human honesty in having the first lines Harris and Robertson deliver give the coziest possible ways to say “Don’t fall on your ass” and “I’m already on my ass”?

Raimi’s Spider-Man may be sloppy in a sense from a lot of tangeants – I barely got through J.K. Simmons ripping Spider-Man’s newspaper boss J. Jonah Jameson right out of the comic panels or the love triangle between Peter, Mary Jane, and Harry – but it’s sincere in all of that sloppiness and that’s always the easiest way to make me fall in love with your movie. Raimi’s just as bold about his human melodrama as he is about his superhero splashes and he has a very incredible cast to help him out, including two actors I normally despise (Robertson and Franco; I had this attitude about Dunst but she’s been impressing me more and more) turning in understated and casual enough performances that when they actually have to work their big moments like Uncle Ben’s death** (including one of my favorite silence cues in all of film music) and Harry’s feeling of betrayal towards Peter and Mary Jane’s closeness, finding out I’ve actually been fond of these people and hate seeing them go is like having the rug pulled out from under me.

That’s to say nothing of Dunst as Mary Jane, pretty enough to understand exactly why Peter’s affections are fixated on her, weathered enough to understand she has her own life and problems beyond Peter’s perspective (and Koepp’s script is VERY generous to her on this front), and charged enough as a presence to sell that iconic upside-down kiss that immediately became a part of film canon like nobody’s business. Her and Maguire make terrific foils and watching their relationship grow (and especially to the script’s credit, not meeting our expectations) is a warm and comforting thing you wouldn’t expect from the same movie where Willem Dafoe has a great big green plastic suit wobbling his head wildly saying “Hello, my dear”.

The main point is Spider-Man is one of the best examples in my mind of letting people make movies because they really want to make this particular movie. There’s not a single frame of this where it feels Raimi isn’t over the moon with what he gets to do with all that Sony money and in an industry right now where comic book films almost uniformly feel more like obligations rather than any real sense of personality, Spider-Man‘s exhuberance at presenting the character kicking and swinging over the city never ceases to endear me.

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*In fact, around 2002, Ultimate Spider-Man began its run – those first few stories still hold up – and rejuvenated my love for Spidey.
**And flat out fuck people who make fun of Maguire’s crying. I’m sorry, is it supposed to be photogenic? These folks ain’t worth talking to.
***And we will definitely discuss Maguire’s limitations when it comes to Spider-Man 3.

Girl, You’ll Be a Wonder Woman Soon…

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Let me begin first by saying that it feels so very great to have my faith in the DC Extended Universe’s ambition (something that wasn’t always there – many will testify to how certain I was that Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice would turn out to be the worst movie of the decade, but lo and behold it hit me in the right spots) now that Wonder Woman is the first unambiguous critical hit of the franchise and right at the point where it needed that boost most. That it turns out to be a great movie is just the cherry on top.

So, it’s kind of tough to try to square away what makes Wonder Woman stand out so far from the rest of 2010s comic book movies that makes it possibly my favorite out of the bunch. It’s not a particularly unique film in any regard, especially since so much of its aesthetic and setting seems to be the World War I analogue to Captain America: The First Avenger (a movie that would put a valiant fight for the spot Wonder Woman just stole). It’s not a movie that reinvents the wheel by any angle, so I guess the idea is that it just does it… better? Patty Jenkins as a director keeps her eye so many of the genre’s strengths and sticks to the name of the game – iconic moments, charismatic heroes, memorable theme music, a sense of tone and theme – and… like, maybe, one of its weaknesses. It’s a big damn weakness, the final “battle around a beam of light” CGI rampage that is so very much a bane of the genre. But even that moment has its silver lining: a surprisingly colorful villainous turn by an actor who already knows how to provide robust villain turns.

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Anyway, before we reach that stretch, we have some efficient standalone non-universe-building breath of fresh air storytelling by Allan Heinberg: Diana (Gal Gadot) is the princess of the hidden island Themyscira, where Amazonian women train in anticipation of the banished God of War, Ares. When Allied spy Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crashes on Themyscira in chase from German forces, the devastating firepower they bring and the sobering description Trevor has on the Great War’s severity convinces Diana that Ares himself has landed on Earth. Defying the orders of her Queen and Mother, Diana journeys with Trevor back to Europe to find a way to definitively end war, finding herself on the front lines of one of the most devastating events in world history.

Being set in World War I promises that Wonder Woman will not end up abandoning the solemnity from Man of Steel and Batman v. Superman and indeed once Jenkins leaves the gorgeous mountain and beaches landscape of Themyscira filled with sun gold, forest green, and sea blue, we are suddenly pulled into the dying ember greys of the trenches, suffocated by dust and smoke with an amount of grounded dimension that never undercuts the suffering of the soldiers or the Belgian residents whose lands are being destroyed by warfare. In fact, just prior to the famous “No Man’s Land” scene that incorporated itself in superhero movie canon just as instantly as the Upside Down kiss from Spider-Man, we’re witnessing a long rush through a miserable trench watching the casualties and destruction with the sound of warfare afar and it builds us up parallel to Diana’s resolve before she reveals her costume and steps right into the war zone herself.

And yet it’s not a miserable film. One that treats the war seriously but it searches for inspiration within the ruins. It’s exactly the sort of popcorn movie sensibility you would not expect from somebody who made a movie about the depressing tale of Aileen Wuornos but all of the careful treatment of the subject matter you would. Jenkins treats this delicate subject with such awareness that the “promise of ending war” can come to a human and satisfying but indefinite conclusion, like the Watchmen conclusion without any nihilism attached.

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Still POPCORN MOVIE FUN! That “No Man’s Land” first appearance of full-costume Wonder Woman happens halfway through the movie and yet it’s oh too breezy for us to notice the time has passed (I mean spending half your time in the Mediterranean Coast will do that). Gadot and Pine are incredible together with chemistry for days, even beyond the benefit of their individual performances (and surrounded by just as bouncy supporting actors – I’m most happy to see Said Taghmaoui in a Hollywood film and delivering a humane and forgiving monologue on the fear of war). I don’t know what happened between 2016’s Hell or High WaterStar Trek Beyond, and this, but Chris Pine has been imbuing more sincerity into his performances and it works wonders especially within his third act developments, giving his statements and actions more humanity. As for Wonder Woman herself, the naive female outsider trope is tiresome but Gadot turns it endearing and transforms Diana’s discovery of the world outside of her land into daring and confidence that makes Diana such a pillar of charisma, defying officials and attempting to illustrate the simplicity of solutions.

Sometimes, solutions ARE that simple. Wonder Woman isn’t trying to build a universe (beyond its bookend scenes that surprisingly don’t seem divorced from the film, though it ends on a notably confusing shot), it’s not trying to make a deep comment beyond “war is bad”, it’s just attempting to provide a watchable and weighty superhero movie experience. And beyond a dependency on slow-motion and a Dragonball Z mess of a final battle that’s expected anyway of the genre, Patty Jenkins, Gal Gadot, and company have given a superhero work so enjoyable that it alone allows it to be distinguished amongst the rest of the decade’s lineup.

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25 for 25 – Why So Serious?

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I have it on relatively reliable authority (my mother) that I’ve been obsessed with superheroes since I was a child. Like go to the toy store with my mom and ask only for superhero action figures. Be taken to the comic book store by my dad and just grab whatever comic looked the coolest. Namely Batman. Especially Batman. At the risk of being basic, Batman was my favorite superhero as a child and even when I couldn’t understand the English words, I’d love witnessing him come to life from the art of Neal Adams and Kelley Jones (my very first Batman artist) growing up and how shaded and somber he’d look. I hate to say it but darkness is so much more interesting than brightness (captivating as brightness is, which is why I liked Superman a lot too).

I think child me is happy to have his love for Batman validated by the new decade (though I would be curious how he would be if he lived in 1989, when the first wave of Bat-Hype came about). For The Dark Knight is perhaps one of the biggest cinematic events that I have ever lived through and – unlike Titanic and Avatar – one that has its influence spread all over pop culture into this new decade since. For which I’m really glad I wasn’t writing about movies at the time so I could turn around in retrospect and comment on the effect.

You see, I mentioned in my X-Men review that the door was opened for superhero movies as a trend by the one-two-three success punches of Men in BlackX-Men, and Spider-Man causing everybody to run for comic book properties, but 2008 was the year comic book movies took their most important and recognizable shapes and began being recognized as legitimate arts for cinema. Iron Man supplied the universe-obsessed irreverent lively bright comic book films while The Dark Knight became the nihilistic sober-minded revisionist drama mode. Every superhero movie, even the ones that people claim to do something different like Deadpool or Logan, have the success of one or both of these movies in their DNA (like Deadpool‘s character focused, small-scale irreverence being a child of Iron Man‘s right down to the unorthodox action hero choice, while Logan‘s helpless nihilism is The Dark Knight in a Western setting).

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I think it’s very safe to say The Dark Knight may have made the bigger splash on how superhero movies can be taken seriously and its box office appeal (being the fourth movie to break the $1 billion barrier before it became a regular thing) and its subsequent critical acclaim leading to an outcry for its lack of a Best Picture nomination that led to the Oscars expanding the slate to up to 10 movies. Consensuses call it among the best movie of the 2000s, IMDb lists it as the fourth best rated movie since its release, and it’s roundly considered the best superhero film ever made.

Let’s get my opinion on it straight: it’s not my favorite superhero movie. Hell, it’s not even my favorite Batman movie. Hell, it’s not even my favorite of the Batman films directed by Christopher Nolan, of which The Dark Knight is the second part after Batman Begins (my favorite). And I wouldn’t hesitate in thinking it’s a somewhat overrated film (I am of the reducive attitude that any pop culture with that amount of popularity has to be overrated, whether Citizen Kane or The Beatles). If I’m recognizing the flaws that truly hold me back from considering it perfect, there’s infamously plodding dialogue (“NO MORE DEAD COPS!”, “Have a nice trip. See you next fall.”, etc.), the prisoner’s dilemma incorporated into the climax, and most grievously the double-edged sword of Nolan grounding the film making it feel more derivative of crime pictures (namely Michael Mann’s work) and having Wally Pfister’s cinematography downplayed after the expressionist wonder of Batman Begins‘ construction of Gotham City. Now, it’s Chicago. The Dark Knight calls it Gotham, but it’s totally Chicago. And that removes a lot of magic.

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Now that’s what I don’t like about a movie I love, so I’m gonna talk about what I do love. Grounding Batman in the real world may not be as pretty as I’d like, but it still provides a more effective narrative hook to follow – now we have legalities and public perception to worry about for our Dark Knight Bruce Wayne/Batman (Christian Bale), GCPD Lieutenant Jim Gordon (Gary Oldman), and District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) trying to reel in the chaotic carnage of The Joker (Heath Ledger). And these factors aren’t just mentioned once and never shown up again, Batman’s arc revolves around whether or not he can retire so that Dent – the cleaner non-vigilante image for Gotham’s hero – can take over the fight that wears him down so.

There’s Nolan and Pfister’s expert usage of action setpieces. I know that’s not a popular opinion, but hell with it, I think Nolan and editor Lee Smith are the only people who have been able to follow through on Paul Greengrass’ famously kinetic physical action editing style that portrays and compels the viewer into feeling in the action while still giving a sense of confusion and incoherence without losing ourselves. I can’t imagine anybody trying to convince me the truck chase scene in the middle of the film is a poorly-edited scene and we do realize the opening bank robbery that introduces us to the Joker is kind of the favorite sequence of most viewers for a damn reason.

Aiding that editing by giving it its rhythm is one of the first scores that introduced to the idea that Hans Zimmer could not be bad in his collaboration with James Newton Howard. While much of it is just a re-packaging of leitmotifs served better in Batman Begins, it is indeed the Joker’s theme – a savage, slightly percussive undertone wonderfully described by Zimmer as “razor blades on cellos” – always able to tighten up a listener and briefly blasting horns in a consistently interrupted way as it climbs in intensity and puts our mind to the ticking timeclock Batman has to beat in order to overcome all of the Joker’s obstacles and beat his games.

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And that means addressing, finally, the elephant in the room: the much-mythologized penultimate performance of Heath Ledger as Batman’s Clown Prince of Crime arch-nemesis – the first acting performance nominated for an Oscar posthumously, the second awarded the Oscar, the subject of much speculation that the role was dangerous enough to cause Ledger’s premature death (speculation I honestly find tasteless and disrespectful to his abilities as an actor). He’s fantastic, personifying destruction and chaos in such an unexpected manner. He knows he owns each scene he appears in and drives it as far as he can, an energetic but never light or bouncy presence in the film that brings sickening darkness from his attire (provided by Lindy Hemming) to his grungy makeup to his lip smacking. He gets the closest he can to being believable in this pseudo-real world environment without losing the theatricality of a cinematic portrayal and his lack of restraint is not overzealous but measured. Sure, the other performances are fine, but people go to see The Dark Knight at this point for Ledger and it’s only serendipitous that Nolan’s movie surrounding him is also absolutely great.

I called the movie overrated, sure. But it doesn’t mean it’s not solid, intelligent popcorn cinema full of power and thunder. It’s bleak and operatic nihilism in the most accessible fashion, even moreso than No Country for Old Men. And while some of its gravitas has to have been informed by Ledger’s unfortunate death, that gravitas is still there and makes it compelling to watch without any guilt.

I mean, it’s been nearly ten years. I’m kind of gracious I gave the 16-year-old who first walked out telling his dad “I think it’s my favorite movie” time to figure out above all the overhype if The Dark Knight is still a great movie and I think the answer is loud yes. Sure, I’m not gonna call it one of the greatest comic book movies or of the 21st century and in the end I like my comic book movies bright and bouncy. But if The Dark Knight were a bad movie, it would not have survived the test of time. No, its grandioseness as a dark superhero picture in the post-9/11 world has leaked itself into so many films trying to copy some of that summer movie mojo and honestly none of them have been able to do much more than pale in imitation.

There can only be one Dark Knight.

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The Best There Is At What He Does

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I don’t know why I held that torch out for so long but ever since the marketing for director/co-writer James Mangold, producers Simon Kinberg and Laura Shuler Donner, and star Hugh Jackman’s farewell to the beloved X-Men character Wolverine titled Logan after his common (but not birth) name, I really really thought we’d be going for a father-and-daughter road trip type of movie like Alice in the Cities (really most Wim Wenders pictures) or Paper Moon. And indeed Logan is on the run alongside a young ward by the name of Laura who shares his abilities (Dafne Keen) and a now older and more jaded psychic Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart, who also announced this would be his final turn in the role) broken by Alzheimer’s and it does have a sort of focused on the tired American landscape that makes a lot of sense for the film to receive all the comparisons to a Western that it has been getting (and kind of fishing for given how often Shane pops up as a plot point). But that means nothing! Nothing at all when Keen – wonderful as she is in the role – is not anywhere near verbose as Tatum O’Neal.

Unfairly stupid expectations aside, Logan is absolutely the best of the Wolverine solo series that begin back with 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Mangold, Scott Frank, and Michael Green accomplish that by pulling the same “Steal Mark Millar’s general idea but leave his shitty plotting and writing behind” strategy that made Captain America: Civil War a decent movie and the sparseness and restraint of that attitude makes it the most grounded film since X-Men Origins: Wolverine. The crux of the story is that in 2029, the X-Men are no more and mutants are nearly extinct. Logan takes care of the mentally deteriorating Xavier with the help of mutant sensor Caliban (Stephen Merchant) when Laura falls into their laps with Xavier’s invitation and a squad of mercenaries named the Reavers headed by Donald Pierce (Boyd Holbrook) come bringing hell back into their lives in their hunt for Laura. Logan begrudgingly agrees to take Laura halfway across the country and while there is a bit more mythological fleshing-out (especially round the third act) than I am letting on, I don’t think that matters.

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This is essentially a better version of X-Men Origins: Wolverine to me, sharing all of its strengths like an interest in trying to make the film a solo story (without the weakness of being afraid to give Logan the main anchor of the story) or the absolute restraint and low-key design of the whole film (without the weakness of looking boring or indistinct). And what really sells it to me on its R-rating (even despite more f-bombs than I think necessary and a moment of nudity that’s totally gratuitous for the sake of “hey, this is an R”) is how it’s also willing to function as a modernized version of that aforementioned Shane as Logan attempts to express to Laura the regret and weight that his violent disposition has brought to his soul. This is something Jackman and Stewart are able to jump unconsciously given how long they’ve spent inside the skin of these famous characters and, from the reactions I’ve heard before even catching the film, fans are only more willing to give gravitas to the finality of this movie’s existence to tie up the Wolverine story. And as contrived and cliche and predictable as the revelation of Logan and Laura’s connection is, the two work together so well in energy and tandem that it just seems right to find out the things we find out. Keen could easily steal the show and yet somehow opts to stay in the back of Jackman’s own development of the character. And the violence is intense and harsh enough to push Logan’s world-weariness to the edge. Hell, the movie is even stopping during its long road movie structure to have a subplot function as Wolverine’s personal Shane moment helping a family of modern homesteaders against the angry armed land barons (albeit the end of that particular subplot is extremely mean-spirited even by the standards of Logan as a film).

I guess, what I’m trying to say is when Logan, Xavier, and Laura are on the road (and it does feel more like “on the road” – thanks to Stewart’s persuasive performance being on the leisure side of the trip – than “being chased” like they truly are) is when the movie is at its best and I could have done with another hour of that. Unfortunately, that doesn’t last as its third act and climax turns more towards the superhero movie tropes it spent 2 hours desperately avoiding by giving YET ANOTHER PERSON involved in Wolverine’s experiments and having a very poorly edited battle. It is the very worst sign when I have all my eyes on the screen and yet completely miss the moment the main antagonist was killed. And yet the movie is wise enough to utilize its last few shots to end the saga on its best note and to lay it to rest in a manner that your mind is precisely on that final beat and the mood it sets in you as you walk out the theater.

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When You’re Strange

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I’m not very well read on Doctor Strange as bigger fans (ie. I know his story and mythology, but I never ever picked up a comic book where he headlined. It is one of the few comic books where my knowledge comes solely from wikipedia or other comic appearances) and so I don’t know the extent to which Doctor Strange’s famous red Cloak of Levitation has a sentient life of its own in the comics and I feel even if it did, it would not be with the clearly Disney-esque personality they gave it here in the newest installment of the MCU. The Cloak plays the same role in Strange’s (Benedict Cumberbatch takes on the role) path as the Magic Carpet in Aladdin and certainly feels just as much a product of Disney’s buying into Marvel as Ty Simpkins’ character in Iron Man 3. Regardless, the cloak is very much a character in its own right, absolutely one of the most lovable and enjoyable on-screen, and one of several impressive works of visual effects in the best effects-extravaganza ever released in a franchise that’s constantly tried to be an effects-extravaganza powerhouse. That pretty much is a good sum-up of my attitude on Doctor Strange as a film. Not to say this hurts the film when Ted and Rise/Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and Life of Pi and The Jungle Book and The Lord of the Rings all pull this off as well without being a mark against them, but yes. Potentially my favorite character in the film is just another one of the many special effects.

After all, that was obvious from the moment Doctor Strange‘s trailer came out that its special effects were the name of the game and it’s absolutely dazzling and outstanding effects, make no mistake. Effects so damn good I whispered to my girlfriend during the most shameless yet absolutely fun homage to 2001: A Space Odyssey‘s Jupiter and Beyond the Infinite scene “maybe we should have caught this movie in 3D”. Effects that can still manage to supersede Ben Davis’ kind of underlit photography to fill scenes with color and shape (especially in fractal form that cut into the image) that – while it’s nothing that absolutely breaks the ceiling – keep things fun and dare I say even immersive at moments. I don’t want to go 100 on that last part because one of the problems with Doctor Strange in the end is that it feels like Inception as directed by someone who is not Christopher Nolan. Scott Derrickson doesn’t really know how to keep a grip on where Strange and other characters relative to each other when the world starts bending and that becomes absolutely bothersome in one of the setpieces, a chase through a four-dimensional New York where the point is to make sure that villain Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen in a thankless role whose main arc is given a monologue to another character) is far away and see how close he is to catching Strange and Derrickson doesn’t seem to know how to shoot a chase for that matter.

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This is however easily Derrickson’s best work otherwise and I know that’s kind of faint praise for the director of The Exorcism of Emily Rose and Deliver Us from Evil, but it’s praise nonetheless. He’s not overall bad, he keeps things in rolling and moving once the effects start a-showin’ up, there’s a pretty fantastic astral fight between Cumberbatch and Scott Adkins that isn’t Gareth Evans here but is a great amount of fun. The anti-climax to the film is a fantastic comic bit of repetition that also lends itself to some creatively violent moments in the MCU. And of course there’s also that lovable cape.

But I said things are rolling and moving once the effects start showing up and that’s another big problem with me and Doctor Strange. I didn’t stopwatch the movie obviously, but I can’t imagine it was any longer than 45 minutes that passed before the movie’s best sequence – that very same 2001 homage – showed up to show Strange and the audience what’s what, yet it felt like it took an agonizing hour for me. Part of this is because Cumberbatch makes no effort to have this performance prove to me he’s worth all the hype he’s given. The script by Jon Spaihts, C. Robert Cargill, and Derrickson clearly sets the character up to be arrogant and intolerable in all the same ways Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark is and yet the difference here is that where Downey Jr. knows how to turn his sarcasm and wit to charm, Cumberbatch really ups the despicability and nastiness of Strange as a person to 11. I’m sure it’s deliberate and yet it’s a miscalculation (like, Ben, this isn’t an HBO series) and it very quickly gets to a point that I don’t like the guy and can’t be even slightly sorry for the severe damage to his hands early in the film that kickstarts his search for the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) and her (I’d like to say “it” as a celestial being but the movie refers to “her”) potential in making his hands suitable to be the great surgeon he once was.

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And with the Ancient One means kind of dealing with an elephant in the room… the white-washing of the Ancient One from a Tibetan old man to a Celtic woman portrayed by Swinton. To be frank, it’s extremely obvious the change was deliberately to avoid crossing China, no matter what the filmmakers say. It’s bothersome and problematic and the filmmakers attempts to off-set this are gaggingly awful – by including Chiwetel Ejiofor playing the same damn fundamentalist character he played in Serenity in the role of Strange’s future nemesis Mordo (who also has the utterly tasteless line that they’re “not savages” because they have wi-fi) and Benedict Wong as a character whose given a stereotypical role of the humorless wise Asian man who OBVIOUSLY gets a laugh at the end and whose choice to be mononymous is constantly berated by Cumberbatch (this is probably a good time to note that the comic relief is garbage and the worst thing about Doctor Strange) – but it was an inevitability in the great big machine that is Hollywood moneymaking, knowing that China is where much of the international bucks was to be grabbed. They clearly don’t want to alienate them and it leaves a bad taste in my mouth, but if we were going to have any non-Tibetan play the Ancient One, I’d certainly rather it indeed be Swinton.

Because Swinton is absolutely the best performance in the movie hands-down, no contest. She gives the supernatural character the ethereal presence she’s always been very good at, a sort of ability to make us feel like she’s levitating even when her character is clearly on the ground and yet we know the Ancient One isn’t a deity but a human being with the same desperations and faults as Strange or Mordo or others, which leads to the second best moment in Doctor Strange where she gets to wrap her characters’ emotional arc in a great bow and a tenderly delivered monologue. Most of the characters in the script are throwaway like Mikkelsen, Rachel McAdams or even Michael Stuhlberg (I swear to God, I didn’t even know he was in the film until AFTER I saw it), but Swinton gets to make up all for it and takes over the movie every time she gets to appear in a shot.

Before Swinton came up, it was starting to sound like I was burying the movie so I may as well quit before I do. Doctor Strange is not a perfect movie, nor the greatest in the MCU. It’s complicated. It’s as complicated as Michael Giacchino’s score blatantly pulling a James Horner on himself with lifting themes from Star Trek for the sake dramatic yet familiar undertone (as well as Pink Floyd themes too). But the moment the Ancient One shows up, it’s a complicated film that makes for a very satisfying fantasy feature and some very wondrous special effects work that I would be very surprised and disappointed if it doesn’t get nominated for an Oscar. And I will not pretend that I did not walk out of the film realizing that I had a good time, forgiving all of the flaws I elaborated on and forgetting they were there until after the fact. Isn’t that what a good popcorn film ought to do in the moment after all? Or is time just relative when you’re moving through dimensions?

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FLASHBACK: Two Movies I Really Tried to Like That I Couldn’t.

Author’s Note, July 2017: Remind me in a bit once I’m done writing about Raimi’s trilogy and the new Spider-Man Homecoming to actually write a REAL review for The Amazing Spider-Man, because while my feelings haven’t changed much on the movie… man, reading 20-year-old me’s writing is fucking awful. I sound like an idiot. And 2400 words?! What the fuck am I, Charles Dickens here?

In 2012, I didn’t really have many movies I was looking forward to. I had taken to watching more classics and oldies than looking out for any coming attractions. I was surprised to realize that Ben Affleck and Paul Thomas Anderson came out with new movies, though I jumped on them immediately. I was not excited about The Avengers as such a concept of a film sounded unwieldy (though I was pleasantly surprised upon seeing the movie) and The Dark Knight Rises as I knew the movie would not be worth the hype that occurs. In fact, the upcoming Spider-Man reboot was the only movie I had expectations for. I thought it was way too soon to do a movie on the Osama bin Laden search, despite being under the direction of Kathryn Bigelow. And although I had been following Rian Johnson and Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s next collaboration after BrickLooper was not a movie that I was going to rush to see if I had no time.

The only three movies I was legitimately anticipating were two movies whose pre-production and production I had been following out of rabid fandom: Prometheus (out of my rabid fandom for Alien), Django Unchained (out of my Tarantino fandom) and a movie I had been surprised to find was being made… John Dies at the End.

My expectations to John Dies at the End were foolish. I won’t say it was a bad movie, but Don Coscarelli, a director whose made movies I have undying love for like PhantasmBubba Ho-Tep and Incident On and Off a Mountain Road, is a guy who can only make movies that are good enough. Not great, not fantastic, but good enough to pass off the story and maybe have a bit of style and humor to it. It’s a result that probably has to do with unwieldy yet ambitious production and budget problems. Coscarelli is probably at best a more independent Terry Gilliam without the reputation.

It may work for the other films, but when reading the original book by David Wong, John Dies at the End is a tale that requires larger than life, fantastic elements. It’s a tale about two guys basically finding a gateway to a darker world through a drug. You cannot just half-ass that. The Coscarelli humor is somewhat adequate, but it’s not the humor of the book – the absurdity, the banality, the true invincibility of the titular character’s jackassery. At the same time, it has to be legitimately frightening. It’s part of the atmosphere. It can’t be hallucinatory, because the things David and John encounter are real. The threat is real, not in the mind.

And the bigger thing is just that the story is more serial-esque but with an arc. If anything, it fits more as a TV series, but how do you really pitch such a series?
Very small changes are forgivable, a dog who is the central character of the story has been changed in sex and renamed to a punny ‘Bark Lee’. A significant battle in the Luxor casino at Las Vegas has been removed – disappointing but understandable because of budget.

Other changes are pretty hurtful… They take out a huge twist in the story that defines the book, they made the lead female character Amy more of a love interest than anything else and there ARE NO CHAIR JOKES!!!! None!!!

These are not story changes that Coscarelli should take all the blame for himself, but David Wong as well, who has taken responsibility and explained why he insisted on the changes from book to movie. I’m only having a problem with it due to my attachment to the book to be honest.

As a strength to the movie, even though they had less time to flesh out the lead characters of David and John, the actors who played them really understood who they were. I didn’t feel like I was watching an attempt at recreating David and John, I felt like I was actually watching David and John.

My advice to those interested: Watch the movie and then read the book if you liked the movie. You won’t be as disappointed with the movie as I was if you read the book after the fact and it will really fill in the details for a lot of other things that had to be shortened for movie’s length.

Now get ready, because a rant is about to ensue…

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The Amazing Spider-Man on the other hand, I was initially disappointed. I was intrigued by the idea of a new Spider-Man film and was intent on seeing it. When I first saw it, I thought it was whatever, but not a terrible movie. But the reviews came in, lower than the first two Spider-Man films, but higher than the terrible Spider-Man 3. And all my friends were seeming to like it. And then, they started saying the movie was better than Raimi’s trilogy – they started claiming Raimi’s trilogy always sucked. Nevermind the sudden internet about-face, I thought there was nothing spectacularly good or bad about the Amazing Spider-Man. But I figured, I’d give it another shot… I’d see if I could catch what I was supposed to be missing and they were catching.


The Amazing Spider-Man is not just an overhyped movie, it’s a very bad movie. There’s in actuality, after watching it again and again, nothing whatsoever of cinematic merit in it. My attempt to watch it again to find the good in it backfired. I only found more bad.

I’ve had times when I went against the public opinion to not like a popular movie… I was not a fan of CrashTransformers (albeit the 2nd and 3rd movies were bad and everyone knew it) or a good portion of Tim Burton’s work (though I have lightened up on him)… But I understood there was at least some merit in these films that allowed for their legacy, even The Dark Knight RisesThe Amazing Spider-Man does not have that. At all. It does not have anything of quality in it. There has never been another time I was so certain people were eating up shit since The Walking Dead TV series started and everybody claimed it was the best show ever made.

So, let me start with the obvious…
1) The most underdeveloped romantic story I’ve seen in films. I haven’t seen From Justin to Kelly or Gigli yet, and I have no intention to, so I’ll be fair and not say it’s THE most underdeveloped romance in all films but giggling and staring at each other does not constitute chemistry.
2) Peter Parker is a brooder all around the movie. Before Uncle Ben even dies, he’s brooding like a punk. People all around me say that this is the Spider-Man they’ve been waiting for, but that’s not Spider-Man. They say Spider-Man has to be an asshole, Spider-Man has to make jokes…

Look, Spider-Man is not Spider-Man because he makes jokes. If you get mad, Raimi’s Spider-Man didn’t make jokes, you may as well be mad at Christopher Nolan’s Batman because he didn’t do that Dracula thing he always does with his cape…

 

Pictured: That Dracula Thing… I can English!

You know what makes Spider-Man Spider-Man? The fact that he’s not an asshole. The fact that he legitimately means well everytime. He’s human with faults, but Uncle Ben taught him to be a better person and his death spurs him into taking on hefty responsibility in life. He doesn’t love his life, but he doesn’t brood 24/7. A gritty Spider-Man would not work, just as a gritty Fantastic Four does not work. Peter Parker’s a legitimately good guy who wants to do the right thing.
Anybody who claim Spider-Man is an asshole or his only defining feature in persona is his smartassery (which is done to offset the weight he feels put under)… These people don’t know what they’re talking about at all.

Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone, in my opinion, are better actors that Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst… But man, Andrew Garfield’s acting in this film, he made me want to punch Peter. Every damn time… they barely glance over his scientific knowledge and they make him look like a modern Edward Cullen.

3. The story was rushed. The origin was rushed, Flash Thompson was inconsistent in his treatment of Peter, the chase for Ben’s killer went nowhere, the romance was rushed… and when they killed Captain Stacy, I just went ‘Wow, that already happened?’… Then, I look at who wrote the script and I figure out why… James Vanderbilt: his portfolio does not seem to understand development or pacing. Zodiac is the one credit that actually seemed satisfactory. Alvin Sargent wrote all Spider-Man scripts… that’s fine whatever, but he made mistakes too. And Steve Kloves wrote the Harry Potter films… which I despise with a passion for their lack of understanding how to properly adapt works of literature into cinema (Granted, I really really love the books, like anybody who grew up reading them, and I have a warm reception towards the movie of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban – So, I’m not anti-Harry Potter at all).

The Amazing Spider-Man could’ve went into places Raimi never went to, it could’ve brought new life to the comic book film, but instead it played out as a lifeless script treatment of a high school drama.

The biggest gripe I have is with what The Amazing Spider-Man claimed they were bringing to the table turned out to be absolutely empty promises. Norman Osborn’s disappearance was laughably obvious by the sudden showcase of the shadowy bust they had in the OsCorp tour.

Are you fucking kidding me? Is that a whole obnoxious ‘I’m gonna deliberately not show you the face because I want to be incredibly mysterious as a picture’ instead of being unassuming about the whole deal and letting the ambiguity flow naturally?

Curt Conners’ transformation into the Lizard was actually a well-treated part of the story, particularly with his being ridden on by Irfan Khan’s character, but then his whole plan to flood the city with that mutation cloud was once again, worse than the more cliche comic book villain schemes I’ve seen since I was a child… At least the Green Goblin, despite a bad design, had a personal vendetta with everyone he targeted.
The worst part, the biggest crime, was the sudden focus on the parents. There’s three reasons why it was absolutely appalling to use.

1) They don’t say anything about his parents. They act like they’re a big part of the story, but by the end of the movie, nothing is known about them except Richard worked for OsCorp with Connors. Nothing jaw-dropping out of that. Then they make the mid-credit scene in prison to laugh at us, teasing like they have more to say… when there was nothing said to begin with. By the end of the movie, I polled all of my friends who loved The Amazing Spider-Man (ie. Everyone who saw it for some reason – including my brother who I saw it with) to name the parents of Peter Parker. Half of them were able to name Richard as the father, nobody except one guy could name Mary as the mother.

2) It doesn’t matter. It just doesn’t. Richard and Mary Parker left Peter’s life and they never returned and it never affected Peter in the comics (it had weight in the Ultimate Spider-Man universe, but never so severe). For all intents and purposes, Ben and May Parker are Peter’s parental figures. They were the ones who shaped Peter into the man he became, not his parents… which leads me to the third reason.

American Gothic… it is not.

3) They downplayed Ben and May’s role at this point. Their importance to Peter’s life was absolutely nullified. Instead of feeling the pull I felt when I saw Ben die in 2002’s Spider-Man, I instead thought ‘Huh, they shot him already?’ in 2012’s The Amazing Spider-Man.

It was an bloodless picture that thought just from its existence it was going to change the Spider-Man game the way Batman Begins did to the Batman game and instead, it came off as movie that was all the bad parts of the Ultimate universe and the Harry Potter stories. It was created only to make money and retain the Spider-Man copyright for Sony Pictures and everybody fell for it and ate it up. It’s very insulting to the intelligence of the audience because it’s obvious they half-assed this movie.

At this point, it goes far beyond I just don’t like The Amazing Spider-Man. It goes far beyond Raimi’s Spider-Man 1 and 2 being my favorite movies. I’m trying to avoid comparison.
I’m making a certainly childish move to a degree, but one I feel completely justified in… The Amazing Spider-Man was a bad movie. A very bad movie. It has it’s hype phenomenon going for it, solely because it’s the new version… Everybody’s going to eat it up because they like teenage angst and think it equals cinematic emotion. I’m that guy trying to explain that Soylent Green is people and whatever… I’ll be the pariah, but everybody’s wrong if they say there’s something of quality in The Amazing Spider-Man.
I will forever fight this until it dies down.
It’s not like you can say The Amazing Spider-Man was more accurate to the comics – that’s not the case. In fact, it goes a lot backwards in comic book accuracy than forwards or makes the same leaps that Spider-Man made. The only accuracy added was the web-slinging device. That’s one item of accurate delivery and even then, Parker steals it in TAS as opposed to building it.
You certainly can’t say it’s because it’s the Untold Story. It wasn’t. It wasn’t everything told in Spider-Man as an origin.

At least John Dies at the End was funny.

Wait, no, The Amazing Spider-Man was better because 3D!

EDIT: So, I just read that the sequel to The Amazing Spider-Man will feature Jamie Foxx as Electro and possibly Paul Giamatti as Rhino. DEAR ODIN, this series fucking reeks of stunt casting – Martin Sheen, Sally Field, Denis Leary, C. Thomas Howell, Irfan Khan, Rhys Ifans and now this… this is only done to use big-name stars without respect for character.

Okay, I’m done now, I promise.