Tag Archives | Marvel Studios

Movie Review: Thor: Ragnarok

With several credited writers, campy Cate Blanchett (Carol, Truth, Cinderella) in smeared black eyeshadow, full gothic gear and Maleficent-like antlers to match, butch lesbian warriors, scads of Marvel Comics characters and tie-ins, cameos and one gigantic Phallic symbol — even Jesus Christ and Moses if you know where to look — Thor: Ragnarok runs more than a bit amok. Pardon the kitchen sink analogy, but this Disney movie, directed by Taika Waititi (Hunt for the Wilderpeople), is almost a full-blown camp comedy, with action and a high body count.

With Chris Hemsworth (Thor, Snow White and the Huntsman) returning in the title role, Thor: Ragnarok starts flaming early on, with flying embers coming over the opening credits to Thor’s heavy metal musical theme. The Norse god of thunder narrates his own situation. Ragnarok is quickly explained (think the Rapture) and the movie’s off on its wild runs. Light, silly and depleted of the original Thor movie‘s mythology and sense of honor, in comes brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston, Thor, I Saw the Light, Kong: Skull Island) and their dad Odin (Anthony Hopkins) and a first-born child, Hela, played by Blanchett as a veiny goddess of death with black hair, black eyeliner and black bodysuit like she stepped out of an X-Men movie.

“This you must face alone”, Odin tells his son Thor about the new dilemma of the long-lost sister’s return to their mythical world. With shades of Terminator, Mad Max and Willy Wonka films, complete with a glitzier version of Thunderdome, the action comes in spurts while the comedy keeps the lines coming in crisp flamboyance. Blanchett’s Hela sashays around swinging her hips and dripping her lines such as: “You don’t know who I am?”

But Thor: Ragnarok, with Hemsworth gamely and amazingly staying in character the whole time, has more glitz and schmaltz in store with another planet’s grandmaster in gold lamé played by Jeff Goldblum (Jurassic Park) in a gray-haired pompadour with blue fingernail polish and face paint. Idris Elba (Star Trek Beyond, Zootopia, The Jungle Book) returns in the same role. Karl Urban (Pete’s Dragon, Bones in Star Trek Beyond), Tessa Thompson (Selma, Creed) and Mark Ruffalo (Hulk, Spotlight) are fine and look for an appearance by the director and, of course, Marvel and Thor creator Stan Lee. It’s all in good fun and games and the film feels and looks like a gaming play, complete with heavy use of automatic weapons and artificial scenes.

For instance, Hulk changes proportion. Hela is inexplicably regenerative while Thor is not. Others will probably notice an array of tricks, Avengers series nods and gimmicks, though it borders on exhausting and I opted to see Thor: Ragnarok in a two dimensional screening, not in 3D. Eye strain and fatigue may creep in but thematically interesting resistance, extermination and something called “obedience disks” gives the ensemble-driven, meandering plot a second wind. At root, Thor: Ragnarok is a comedy with action, not the other way around, though it is too long and I could have done without the Hulk and his subplot. Hemsworth’s Thor gets the best quip when he puts Bruce Banner in a bind to go somewhere else and says: “Use one of your Ph.Ds”. Fans of the original will want more of Thor’s mythology.

Movie Review: Ant-Man

AntManPosterMarvel’s Ant-Man (opening on July 17) is good for what it is. These Marvel movies for Disney are comic book-based movies, and this resembles a classic comic book, with exaggerated lines and all, especially during the first half. It’s an original and tightly drawn plot about a thief’s redemption. With proper exposition, for a change, it’s as enjoyable as 2008’s Iron Man.

Things get fragmented, fast and predictable in the second half and this is not a young kid’s movie as scenes include profanity and disturbing deaths. But Ant-Man is a light movie about keeping perspective and it’s better than the recent Avengers picture. Look for Avenger Anthony Mackie (Black or White) and Marvel man Stan Lee.

The three main characters are Hank Pym (Michael Douglas, Last Vegas), his daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly, The Hurt Locker) and Paul Rudd (Admission) in the title role. Pym invents a way of miniaturizing man, his daughter may be in on the plans and Rudd’s ex-convict burglar Scott Lang is recruited to conduct a live experiment on assignment to stop the bald, swaggering villain (Corey Stoll, Ernest Hemingway in Midnight in Paris) that aims to make the worst of the new discovery. The conflict plays out in corporate boardrooms and laboratories.

Aside from father-daughter storytelling arcs and Pym’s reclamation of an invention which rightfully belongs to him—he explains that he “hid it from the world”—the plot is plain. Action moves at a steady clip when it’s engaged. Ant-Man’s deployment, based on Lang wearing a suit and applying thought and technology that makes him the size of the insect and able to be skillful, agile and fast in commandeering other ants, comes at the expense of Lang’s redemption, largely due to a trio of clownish criminal cohorts. With Michael Pena (Lions for Lambs) doing a version of a Joe Pesci character, lines and scenes are broad. But this is a movie called Ant-Man, after all. Cartoonish comes with the deal.

With his geek, gee-whiz persona, Rudd’s fine in the role and Lilly is very good at measuring her performance in what could have been a flat character (despite a wig or hairstyle that makes her look like a cross between Swing Out Sister’s lead singer and Lee Grant in Airport ’77). Lilly’s character bridges Ant-Man‘s gaps, which should have been filled by Rudd as Lang. Veteran Douglas gets more screen time than expected and he’s good, too. This is pure popcorn fare, really matinee material at best, with glimpses of a more daring movie in scenes such as Ant-Man literally emerging from a groove into an electronic dance music scene as mindless as an acid-tripping hippie and a military-industrial complex scenario out of Starship Troopers. Audiences that become animated over everything Avengers will probably rave on Ant-Man, too, which offers coherent, light, witty escapism.

Movie Review: Avengers: Age of Ultron

AAOUHollywood whiz kid and libertarian folk figure Joss Whedon (Firefly) finally grinds Marvel’s creative engine to a halt with the flat, overwrought Avengers 2 picture, Avengers: Age of Ultron. It sputters and spins.

With a generic, meaningless title as generic and meaningless as its Ready for Hillary arrow logo movie poster, this mediocrity exploits the past, flaps its lips and signifies nothing. After years of defending and enjoying these comics films, such as Thor, Iron Man and Captain America, including last year’s sequel, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which is among 2014’s best movies, I found Avengers 2 to be the amalgamation of every negative stereotype about geek-gamer-fanboy subculture; a hyperactive, meaningless mess. If you loved Whedon’s other overrated, overstuffed fare, from one cancelled TV series to another and every bloated thing in between, you’ll love this monster mash, too.

However, if, like me, you were drawn into his blank worlds of TV’s Dollhouse and whatever else and came away utterly unimpressed, this, too, will deflate the dollars and senses. I deliberately braced and lowered expectations before the show just to loosen up in case Marvel let Whedon have his way with this one. I was bored within five minutes.

It takes an effort to waste Robert Downey, Jr. (The Judge), Chris Evans (Snowpiercer), Chris Hemsworth (Thor) and secondary players such as Samuel L. Jackson (Pulp Fiction), Anthony Mackie (Black or White) and Jeremy Renner (The Hurt Locker). But writer and director Whedon makes them all look bad, though Evans fares best, with atrocious lines that are supposed to be snappy but instead come off as a half-formed Forties rehash. Everything is too fast, too forced and totally counterfeit. The plot never develops. The characters never develop. The theme, which involves some sort of indictment of German superman philosophy and propagates the Bush-Obama foreign policy directive to elevate not killing civilians to the highest moral purpose at the expense of letting madmen who’ll destroy everyone go. The Avengers sequel reduces the avenger—the hero—to a sacrificial soldier in a thankless drudgery of duty. More than once, someone shrugs that it’s been a long, bad day.

More than once, I felt this as a long, bad movie. Aside from nitpicks, including that Scarlett Johansson’s character has miraculously lost any trace of an accent that I could have sworn her Black Widow character once had or that James Spader sounds like the National Car Rental ad guy as the voice of evil biotech villain Ultron (not like James Spader), too many characters are shoved into too little plot with no real point.

The result is an arbitrary kitchen sink movie with some of the worst dialogue written for the screen.

“They scratch the surface and never think to look within,” a character says of human beings, for instance. This comes after multiple one-liners, smash-ups and explosions and no exposition. Characters change allegiances for no coherent reason. What usually makes Downey’s caustic Iron Man appealing falls flat without context. I never did figure out why Renner’s bow-and-arrow character was doing in a subplot as deep as a country music video. Throwing in derivations of Silver Streak (1976) or Spider-Man (2002) and a collapsing skyscraper, mega-earthquake and a subplot pairing Johansson (Her) and Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk, with the romantic chemistry that suggests, and any remaining action heroism is strung out in long-winded riddles, belabored contrivances and sight gags. I think Disney’s John Carter made more sense.

Add dream sequences, inner turmoil and an anti-climactic showdown in the air between the avengers and Ultron and Avengers: Age of Ultron is at best an action movie with psychobabble and badly written banter.

Three years ago, almost to the day, I wrote about a publicity piece in one of those promotional publications on The Avengers that gave me pause and made me wary of Joss Whedon’s anti-heroism. This weekend, Avengers: Age of Ultron, underestimating its cast, audience and studios and taking its fans for granted, adds nothing to Marvel’s universe and further detracts from the series. Disney’s Thor director, Kenneth Branagh, delivered what may be this year’s best picture, Cinderella. By contrast, Disney’s Avengers director, Joss Whedon, delivers a manic mixture of incomprehensible plot points that minimize Marvel’s iconic heroes in the worst new movie I’ve seen in some time.

Movie Review: The Amazing Spider-Man 2

TASM2 posterThe Amazing Spider-Man 2 is short, far short, of amazing. The 2012 original in Sony’s and Marvel’s rebooted series, The Amazing Spider-Man, was less predictable, more character-driven and more focused. This movie is not terrible, not middling, just lacking in cohesion and feeling unfinished.

Centering upon Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield again) and his girlfriend Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone again), both graduating high school as the oldest high school students since any season of Glee, no less than three villains complicate Spider-Man’s already complicated life, not counting the evil Oscorp and its evil business executives in an unfortunately and implausibly anti-capitalist subplot that bubbles underneath the whole movie and finally pops with the impact of slowly deflating bubblegum pfftt. Easily the most developed and interesting villain is an electrical engineer played by Jamie Foxx, recreating his homeless lunatic from The Soloist, that also fades out without a proper finish. The character isn’t really believable as an engineer but he at least has reasons for becoming Electro.

And, taking back what he created, Electro zaps some life into an otherwise flat, lifeless script that doesn’t know what to do with its sense of humor or story, spreading Peter Parker’s doubt too thin and wasting time with disjointed scenes that result in a wildly fluctuating and self-contradictory movie. The throughline is misanthropy, which is shared by everyone from Parker’s photojournalist, who is never seen working at the Bugle, to a baggy-eyed business heir, gothic secretary and of course poor Maxwell Dillon/Electro (Foxx) who is lonely, invisible and misunderstood. Joined by Sally Field as Aunt May and Campbell Scott in flashback as Parker’s father, they all flit in and out of this kitchen sink sequel with abandon. The boozy Oscorp kid is not for a second plausible as someone who could contemplate what time it is let alone running a big business that powers Manhattan and the only one whose character makes some internally logical sense is a hammer-and-sickle tattooed Soviet type (Paul Giamatti) in what amounts to a cameo as a mad dog Russian bent on mowing every New Yorker down for kicks.

All of this takes place in large, cartoonish action scenes in 3D (I saw the picture in IMAX 3D, which adds nothing) and only the most invested and diehard Steve Ditko, Stan Lee and Marvel fans will want to shell out the cost of parking and movie ticket to see the twists (which most will see coming) and feel satisfied. The rest will leave the theater feeling subjected to a Wagernian exercise in overkill that magnifies everything but what matters to the max. The result reminds movie people that Marvel is capable of losing touch with what made its Captain America: The Winter Soldier a fine film – strong lead character, purposeful story and a meaningful theme – and getting caught in flat tales of misanthropy. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is at once incomplete, underdeveloped and overblown.

Movie Review: Captain America: The Winter Soldier

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Chris Evans makes the new Marvel Studios picture, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, a strong, exciting and powerful sequel to 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger. Its theme of bonding with shared Americanism – rightly depicted here as the essence of individualism – echoes throughout the film. There are a few problems, but mostly this movie, released by Disney, makes for an exceptional experience.

First, the problems. Some of the computer simulations, and especially the visually jumbled fight scenes, are distracting and disorienting. It takes one out of the movie. Also, for consistency, it must be mentioned that a sequel should flow perfectly from the original and this one doesn’t strictly speaking; Winter Soldier is contingent upon The Avengers (which I never saw) and this is poor form. The film should stand on its own and instead characters and references pop all over the place that have no prior existing relationship to the lead character and plot. Some sultry superwoman character played by Scarlett Johanson is a major part of the picture and the audience is never properly introduced. And don’t let gushing fans fool you, as gushing fans are prone to do, that this is the best movie ever. It is not; this is a brilliantly conceived comic book hero movie which is powerfully written and produced and well acted, not more than that.

With Evans in the lead, it’s no big deal. He gives the film its power. His all-American good looks, sincerity – really, his seriousness – and ability to portray emotional depth and an honest, upright character exude both what it means to be a captain and what it means to be American. This is crucial, this is powerful and in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which is essentially like the story of American whistleblower Edward Snowden, this is everything.

Beginning with a man on the run, in friendly competition with a comrade, and in the deepest sense, the movie jogs around monuments to men such as Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln – men who were giants in forging a nation based on individual rights, a fact which is at the core of why this leaves other comics pics in the dust. War hero and veteran Steve Rogers (aka Captain America) adjusts to life in the new America of the modern age, where he’s been delivered since the first movie’s time transport. The change allows the plot to take a serious, deep turn toward the inner torment of the solider and, more broadly, those who work for the government. Rogers wonders how he will fit in and he wonders aloud whether he wants to; the more he sees of the new American state, the less he likes it. He dares to doubt it.

The new captain of America is strong, somber and, after a mission compromised by a warrior (Johanson) too eager to serve the state without question, skeptical. The action is swift in the overseas operation and Captain America comes on like a ninja with perfect timing, precision strikes and athletic ability. He’s in top form, or, as an Apple Store employee puts it in a good laugh line, he’s “specimen”. The Apple Store serves as an organic product placement (unlike the Chevy brand) fitting the movie’s theme that the rogue individualist thinks for himself, finds refuge in commercialism and sports the most durable, best gear. When he reports to government security SHIELD boss Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), who seeks cooperation from world security principal Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford), Steve Rogers further doubts who is friend or foe in the rising military industrial state.

But he never doubts himself. This is why he cashes in on a new friendship with a fellow war veteran named Sam (Anthony Mackie) who tends to those who pay the ultimate price of the military industrial complex. As the fracture in the burgeoning Big Government spreads into rupture, threatening SHIELD’s stated purpose to protect freedom in the country, Captain America comes to understand the fallacy of having faith in the state and the urgency of starting from scratch. As Redford’s distinguished statesman says, with crisp, concise economy: “to build a really better world sometimes means tearing the old one down.” This Hunger Games type dystopian vibe permeates Winter Soldier, which cleverly supplants a mysterious automaton that perfectly represents and dramatizes the movie’s core theme that every individual faces the fundamental choice to get in line and follow orders or break free and think for himself.

Only Captain America sees the big picture and he knows what to do, motivating and activating the few who choose to step forward and reject faith in government – when he expresses consternation that so many have gone wrong, one steps up to say “not everyone” in an emotional scene – and he knows both not to trust everyone and not to discard trust entirely. As he takes on the whole government, with a stirring score by Henry Jackman, he studies the past, including his own (listen for the voice of Gary Sinise narrating at the Smithsonian), thinks about every act and lets himself feel. He sees himself as he is, as he was, in thoughtful and powerful scenes, realizing that his own heroism is a decisive force for Americanism against the villain’s correct observation that civilization is willing to “surrender its freedom voluntarily.” Captain America: The Winter Soldier explicitly rejects sacrificing freedom for security, so don’t expect this film to win Best Picture with a state-sponsored presentation by Mrs. Barack Obama.

Instead, Steve Rogers as the captain of his (and the nation’s) soul runs, hides and seeks refuge from the oppressive state, just like Snowden. He painfully learns the 21st century pitfalls of treating government and technology as a religion with the cost the life of each fellow soldier whom he has had the honor of fighting beside, the leitmotif of this extraordinary cinema series. He is willing to stand alone – he says so, plain and clear – and, in the war between the rights of the individual and the omnipotent power of the state, dramatized here as an epic battle with wings, agility and rationality, he asks no less of each American in return.

The villain, once unmasked, seeks to pit the choice falsely as order versus chaos, just like Obama. Captain America: The Winter Soldier, beautifully portrayed on every level by Chris Evans, depicts what ought to be America’s shining response.