Monday, November 7, 2016

A Lifelong DC Comics Fan Ranks the 14 Marvel Cinematic Universe Films

In my little review of Doctor Strange today, I referred to it landing in the middle of the pack in terms of the overall Marvel Cinematic Universe. So, it seemed only fair that I put together an actual list ranking all 14 MCU films. This is a rare instance where I'll go from best to worst, so let's kick it off with...

1. Guardians of the Galaxy 
No MCU film has been as much fun from beginning to end.

2. Captain America: Civil War 
Winter Soldier MIGHT be a better film, but the best superhero fight scene of all time wins the day.

3. Iron Man 
Gotta give props to the one that started it all, from the excellence of casting to elevating a lower-tiered superhero into the upper echelon.

4. Captain America: The Winter Soldier 
Re-imagining a superhero film as a Seventies conspiracy thriller and then getting Redford to appear — genius.

5. The Avengers
Sure, there’s some sizable flaws and ball drops in the film, but seeing the first culmination of what Disney/Marvel had been aiming for was a true thrill. Plus: “puny god”.

6. Captain America: The First Avenger
A good old fashioned rip roaring WWII film that managed to pull off a character that could have come across as pure cornball cheese.

7. Ant-Man
The only challenger to GotG as far as bringing the funny — which is little surprise with Rudd as the star. Plus, the most troubled film behind the scenes turns out to be pretty damn good after all. No "small" feat!

8. Doctor Strange
Cumberbatch continues a line of perfectly cast MCU heroes, just ends up being a little too lightweight for such a heavy character.

9. The Avengers: Age of Ultron
It was nice they gave Hawkeye something to do this time around, but the whole enterprise felt weighed down from beginning to end — as if decisions were made in a boardroom rather than in Whedon’s mind.

10. Thor
Props for even trying to do a film about the God of Thunder, and Hemsworth is a good fit for the role. And Loki remains the best MCU villain to date... 

But a lot of the execution feels limited in scope and range for what should have been a much bigger undertaking, not to mention an Asgard that looks as though it was designed by Donald Trump.

11. Iron Man 2 / Iron Man 3 (tie)
Anything remotely commendable in IM2 is undone by the painfully embarrassing drunk Iron Man scene, which is on-par for sheer cringe-inducing awfulness with the insipid Emo-Spider-Man in SM3. Speaking of wasted, if you get Sam Rockwell to be in your film, that's what you don't do -- waste him!

As for IM3 — as much as people disliked the borderline offensive Ben Kingsley/Mandarin BS the film tries to get away with, I was far more annoyed by Guy Pearce's Killian having an origin that is beat-for-beat a bizarre imitation of how Jim Carrey becomes the Riddler in Batman Forever. Say what?

12. The Incredible Hulk
The biggest sin of all: an utterly forgettable film. The not-so Jolly Green Giant has been one of the best parts of both Avengers films, and signs look promising for his sizable role in the upcoming Thor flick, but I’ve seen video game commercials more memorable than this heaping pile of meh.

13. Thor: The Dark World
But…this one is a far bigger head-scratcher. After two previous film appearances, both Thor and Loki were so well established, well defined and well liked — this should have been easy money, and a vast improvement on the first wobbly effort. Instead, it’s a big loud dud. From meh to bleah...

DOCTOR STRANGE: My Spoiler-Free Quickie Review

Dazzling visuals aside, DOCTOR STRANGE is a superhero origin story that is not only cut from the same cloth as movies like BATMAN BEGINS and IRON MAN, you can actually see the seams where they stitched in elements from both flicks. But also like those two franchise-launching films, what might have been rote is elevated by a strong cast. Sure, Benedict Cumberbatch may want to take a stab at a leading role that isn’t about a misunderstood, misanthropic and (of course) egocentric genius — but damned if he doesn’t pull it off every single time.

Although similar in formulaic structure to the aforementioned BB & IM, DS doesn’t do quite as good a job balancing the origins of the main character with the ultimate threat he must face to “save the day/world”. Perhaps fearful of a second act sag, the script has Strange go from novice to master of the mystic arts a little too fast, which is epitomized a key scene at the Sanctum Santorum in New York City. It’s still quite enjoyable, but they were really cutting to the chase far faster than a more fleshed out film should have.

In addition to the somewhat rushed nature of the script (which still feels more fully baked than other of this this year’s DC entries, if I’m being honest), there are attempts to lighten the story and characters sprinkled throughout the film. Some jokes land but others feel forced, as if concerns over the mostly humorless BATMAN v SUPERMAN from their rivals over at DC/Warner Brothers meant they needed to make damn sure smiles were being cracked here. No specific line or gag made me groan, so I wasn’t that put off with the attempt. After all, not every joke line in DIE HARD makes me laugh either. In either case - be it well crafted or not, the humor doesn’t negatively impact the overall tone of the film. And ultimately there IS something satisfyingly funny about how Strange ultimately DOES “save the world”.

I would also give the movie high marks for those dazzling visuals I mentioned at the top — the trippy nature of Strange plummeting through cosmic vortexes and mystical realms is far more “out there” than anything I’ve seen in any film of this genre so far. As for the INCEPTION conceits — yeah, there’s no denying that, but I’d also point out that both are tips of the hat to the works of MC Escher — done to great effect any number of times throughout the movie. This might be the one time I wouldn't have minded seeing the 3D conversion version (can one say “conversion version” — I’m not sure, but I just did).

Overall, I’d probably put the film a notch below ANT-MAN. It’s not as funny (which therefore reduces the fun), but you do get better antagonists (even in the typical limited scope of an MCU villain, I will always have a ball watching Mads Mikkelsen work), and I am very intrigued to see Stephen Strange appear in future Marvel films. There’s been 14 MCU films so far — I’d say this one lands almost exactly in the middle of the pack.

PS: Doctor Strange's cape is an actual fucking character unto itself — how crazy cool is that?

Friday, August 5, 2016

SUICIDE SQUAD - My Immediate Reactions Coalescing Into an Actual Spoiler-Free Review

When I talk about films and television, I often point out that “it’s all about the characters, stupid.” And if there’s a place where SUICIDE SQUAD truly shines, it’s with the characters. The film has to introduce a myriad of villains — who are actually going to be the heroes we’ll be rooting for in the forthcoming mission. Now, obviously there's been a number of movies in that vein over the past 50 years, from THE DIRTY DOZEN all the way to OCEAN'S ELEVEN — but it’s still just a twee bit different here, plus throwing in one big “known to the masses in previous incarnations” monkey wrench like the Joker makes it that much harder a feat to accomplish.

And on that basis, the movie mostly succeeds. Will Smith may not be the Deadshot comic enthusiasts envisioned or even wanted. Guess what? He pulls off a richly nuanced performance in the film, never losing sight of being “a bad guy” while still being human. Frankly, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this take on Floyd Lawton — it's most I’ve liked the not-so-Fresh Prince in quite some time.

Viola Davis really nails the part of Amanda Waller, a.k.a. the bizarro version of Nick Fury. I knew she was the "doesn’t take shit from no one" type from the ads — but trust me, there's a point in the film when she's clearly worse than any of her forced recruits.

Jai Courtney’s an actor I’m only familiar with by reputation. As I understand it, his reputation sucks. So I was delighted by how much fun and vitality he brings to his moments on screen as Captain Boomerang. Jay Hernandez’s Diablo is incredibly strong and probably the most sympathetic Squad member, and A-A-A’s Killer Croc deserves far more screen time to really sink his teeth into such a monstrously tasty role. 

And then there’s Harley Quinn and the Joker. 

Let me clarify a few things right now: 

(1) My main exposure to Harley Quinn comes from her appearances on the Batman animated series. I have a faint memory of her subsequent comic book appearances, but my HQ background is more cartoon-based (the inkwell from which she sprung).

(2) Although I was taken aback when I saw the first stills of Jared Leto as the Joker — due to all those tattoos and the dental grillwork — I was also accepting of it after that initial shock. Yes, his look was WAY different than Ledger’s in THE DARK KNIGHT — but I hastened to point out just how very different Ledger was from Nicholson in BATMAN. As long as David Ayer (the writer & director) and Leto kept the mischievously murderous spirit of the Joker intact, I was eager to see what they would pull off.

First, there’s Harley. Margot Robbie really dives in and goes for it with this role. Fans upset by her non-jester look *micro spoiler* there’s a little bone thrown to you. Is HQ hyper-sexualized? Maybe. Is she more a prop or an object? No. She knows exactly what she’s doing — even if in many ways, she’s the most broken character in the entire film. There’s a certain amount of tragedy with a few Squad members in the film, but that’s more tied to how they came to be incarcerated. Harley’s tragedy is her origin and the ongoing dangerous obsessive love for the Joker. 

I can’t say how Harley Quinn fans will react. Quite frankly, it will depend on what version they're more familiar with, as I've heard that later HQ stories were more empowering and less devoted to her abusive relationship to Mistah J. But the backstory I saw in SUICIDE SQUAD was mostly in line with my HQ knowledge.

Shifting from Harley Quinn to the Homicidal Harlequin of Horror — Leto’s Joker is undeniably spellbinding. I can’t help but wonder how electrifying he would be as the main antagonist in a later Batman film. Also, I think most movie audiences are so accustomed to seeing the Joker take over any flick he’s in (as Ledger and Nicholson did), that it's mildly jarring to see such a villain confined to a smaller supporting role in SS, even if it’s a memorable one. So it's unfair to compare Leto to either Ledger or Nicholson, as they both had far more screen time for their turns as the Joker.

For the most part, all the characters sizzle and crackle like frying bacon. And the set-up — the formation of Task Force X (the Suicide Squad) is handled with considerable flair and panache, from the villain introductions all the way to the eventual suiting up for action. 


Where SUICIDE SQUAD fumbles is with the actual plot — the menace that brings these bad guys together to do a good thing. There’s nothing remotely interesting about the threat, and some aspects feel like visual carbon paper of the third act of every other superhero movie good and bad over the past ten years. Trust me, you’ll be all “Hey, that reminds me of THE AVENGERS…and MAN OF STEEL…and FANTASTIC FOUR…and—“ That’s the point when you realize you’ve seen this same dopey third act end-of-the-world cosmic light show over and over again.

Sadly, superhero films, action films, horror films...they’re often only as good as the villain. Bond movies with great villains are eternal. Bond movies with less than memorable villains? By definition, they’re forgettable. That rule applies whether the hero is Harry Potter or Harry Callahan — there’s just no getting around that. 

SUICIDE SQUAD buys itself an additional thimble-full of credit because the protagonists are villains. But as underscored in this film, there's a big difference between bad guys and villains, and that credit is quickly converted to a demerit. Why? Because it should've been clear to David Ayer that the actual villain HAS TO BE HORRIFYING EVIL AND JAW-DROPPINGLY CRAP-YOUR-PANTS WE'RE SCREWED SCARY. 

Someone or something memorable, with clear motivations and intent, that should induce as much post-movie conversation as any cool scene or funny line or favorite protagonist.

Here, eh. Not so much.

And that’s a HUGE problem — I can’t help but dream about how incredible this movie COULD have been if the antagonist sparked our interest, wonder and imagination the way most of the crew of colorful convicts do. 

Something original, something clever...
Something different.

Now, I can overlook some of the smaller flaws in the film, such as:

(1) The overuse of pop music in the first half is a misguided attempt to differentiate SS from either MAN OF STEEL or BATMAN v SUPERMAN. Except — that’s pretty evident from the get-go, so stacking all these tracks one right after the other is complete overkill (and in the case of an admittedly great but overplayed White Stripes song, kinda steps on the humorous impact of one scene). Just because I might have all these songs in my iTunes, doesn't mean I need to hear them all during my moviegoing experience...

(2) Maybe there are just a few too many characters running around in SS. As a result, while some have plenty of room to develop and impact the audience, others feel as if they were tossed in to fill out a cast promo shot (like Katana and Slipknot, not to mention any and all the army personnel under Rick Flag’s command, including Scott Eastwood). Personally, I wouldn’t have minded more time with the likes of Captain Boomerang and Killer Croc.

(3) Some clunky dialogue is TOO on-the-nose; a few jokes land with a solid THUD. Even gags that were amusing in the trailer -- for whatever reason don’t quite work in the context or pacing of the film. There’s also at least one scene in the trailer that didn’t make the final cut.

If only SUICIDE SQUAD had been handled the right way...this should have been DC’s answer to GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY. Instead, while it’s certainly far more enjoyable than BATMAN V SUPERMAN, I’m still left waiting to see a DCEU film that doesn’t require hedging and explaining and the usual comic book fan apologist routines that were on display after both MAN OF STEEL (which I actually liked despite some flaws) and BATMAN V SUPERMAN (the Ultimate Edition was an improvement). 

You're up next, WONDER WOMAN.

Those were my “immediate reaction” thoughts to SUICIDE SQUAD. While I’m gratified that a film of this nature does a good job with a number of characters, I wish they were given a more genuinely compelling mission --- because THAT would make for a genuinely compelling MOVIE. 

Overall, I'd still recommend SUICIDE SQUAD on the strength of many of the performances, a refreshingly spry tongue-in-cheek tone, and a surprising amount of heart for a fairly dark subject matter. I would also urge fans of the genre to ignore the ridiculously excessive negative critical feedback the film has piled up. It's a B, B minus...not an F, unless the F is for Fuck the Critics, that is. 

Wait, did David Ayer take over my blog...?

PS: There IS a mid-credits scene... don't be in such a hurry to leave the theater!

Monday, June 6, 2016

Game of Boneheads: GOT & the 2016 Presidential Campaign

Game of Thrones has never quite been my favorite TV show. Seemingly a mere dragon's breath away, there’s always some drug kingpin, ad exec or Minnesota peace officer blocking its path, ironically keeping the HBO juggernaut from assuming the throne in my mental kingdom of current TV series. 

Still, with very few missteps, it’s been wildly entertaining so far this year. But in terms of sheer head-shaking absurdity, stomach-churning obscenity, vein-popping hostility and skin-crawling insanity, whether it be it from Westeros to the Wall and even the White Walkers themselves — Game of Thrones has absolutely nothing on the most downright disturbing reality show of all time: the 2016 Presidential Campaign.

However, one doesn't need the insight (or is it foresight) of a Three-Eyed Raven to see that they may have far more in common beyond dreading what the Winter will bring…

Cersei Lannister was married to an affable war-tested glutton of a man who ascended to the ultimate position of authority and rule. But this was a union built more on practicality and pragmatism rather than true love. Even though her husband sat in the most coveted seat in all the lands, clearly she was the one who truly sought such power. 

Her sheer ruthlessness in political matters and hawkishness in military affairs combined with a penchant for duplicitous plotting made her a foe few wanted to challenge. Stir her fierce maternal instincts into that [rhymes with witches'] brew, and it's easy to see how she became a leader that few wanted, but far fewer could ever deny that this cunning and deceitful queen had earned her place at the top.

So...there’s your Hillary. All that's needed now is an inane subplot where it's revealed that Cersei inappropriately used her own personal unkindness of ravens to deliver and receive messages pertaining to matters of state. Incidentally, how unbelievably cool is it that a gathering of ravens is actually called an unkindness? And get this, another word that can be used for any bunch of those black-feathered birdies — is a conspiracy of ravens! The more you know…

But dubious fun with thesauruses aside, what about her opponent? Well, that aligns almost perfectly…

The High Sparrow’s life was devoted to the plight of the poor, not the indulgence of the privileged. He saw firsthand how they were all too often of low moral character, as if the gold in their pockets was in equal weight to the sin in their souls. As his perspective was alien to those in control, the High Sparrow was easily underestimated. Despite his age, his rise to power was almost meteoric, but many still scoffed. 

A pious man in a world without virtue? What could one voice possibly do? But his words enthralled and inspired both the young and disaffected, and his zealotry to expunge sin and punish the immoral was the sole focus of his expanding movement, putting him at odds with one-time ally Cersei.

The cult-like blind devotion of his followers showcased the High Sparrow's inability to see the big picture, for there were even far greater threats outside their borders than the sinners within. So even as his power grew, the foreboding dangers to the citizenry of Westeros and beyond multiplied as well. And these enemies are unlikely to be slowed or swayed by the eloquent and righteous words of a single stubborn old man.

Bernie Sanders, meet your humble but still dangerous doppleganger: the High Sparrow.

Since I’ve matched up the Hill as well as the Bern…that only now leaves the Donald. It’s a damn shame I didn’t whip this goofy time-killer up several months ago, when there were still the likes of Jeb “Stannis” Bush and Ben “Grand Master Pycelle” Carson to mock. Of course, it would likely have resulted in a blog as long as one of these George R.R. Martin opuses that I will NEVER EVER read.

Nope, now there's just that pablum-spewing PUMPKIN HEAD to pair up with some scourge of the Seven Kingdoms. Now, I'm sure a more knee-jerk selection process would point to someone horrifically horrible and dreadfully detestable (feeding my alliteration addiction), like a Joffrey or Ramsey. But that’s too easy, too obvious, and in all honesty, simply not the right fit for who Donald Trump is, what he represents…and what havoc a Trump victory would wreak upon the world. 

Far more than the High Sparrow, there was an entity almost no one took seriously. A bizarre looking creature that was more a joke or a fairy tale, a bogeyman more likely to inspire the laughter of disbelief rather than shudders of fear. But this ominous danger grew as the monster's violent minions multiplied, a truly brain-dead army completely devoid of all reason and thought. And now, as these terrifying forces march onward, the world is finally becoming aware that this nightmare is very real...and possibly unstoppable as well.

From a death reaping bad-ass to a dickish tweeting dumb-ass, Donald J. Trump is our Night King. And if enough voters don't wise up and step up, we may end up with a Mad King.