On June 4th, we went to see Wonder Woman, the latest film in what is now being called the “DC Cinematic Universe,” and the first one we have seen since I declined to see Man of Steel. We were glad to see this one, and enjoyed it quite a bit.

I’m a bit bemused by the decision to set the story of Wonder Woman’s entry into the outside world in the final days of World War I. I liked it, and I can understand why WWI was chosen for purposes of plot, but I wonder if anyone has considered the profound changes this would make in the DC universe timeline. In the “standard model” Superman was the first superhero to come to public notice, either in the 1930’s (per the original comic books) or the 2010’s per the newest movies. However, now, Wonder Woman is first on the scene, by almost a hundred years? I expect that this will be glossed over for the future, but there would have probably been a very different approach to Superman’s advent, had Wonder Woman been around for a long time before that.

The opening sequences of the movie, portraying Diana’s youth and training on the island of Themiscyra are beautiful and wonderful. The island is fantastic, of course, but watching the Amazons train is fascinating, and in particular it’s great to see that not every Amazon has to be young and dewy-looking. Robin Wright as lead warrior Antiope, and Connie Nielsen as Hippolyta, show us that a woman can have some lines in her face, or edgy collarbones, and still be fabulous and powerful.

Gal Gadot, as Diana, is just great.  She looks wonderful in the role, and her background in the military and martial arts give her the bearing she needs to truly be a warrior princess. She’s well matched by Chris Pine, who is a smarter and edgier Steve Trevor than ever was in the comics or TV. The other “good guys” include Lucy Davis as Etta Candy. The character was originally part of Wonder Woman’s “comic relief” squad, the “Holiday Girls” in the 40’s comics. Here, she’s become a Brit, doing a WWI version of the “Keep Calm and Carry On” thing as a sort of Miss Moneypenny to Trevor’s Americanized James Bond. It’s a pity that we aren’t likely to see more of her. In order to foil the villains’ plot, Trevor puts together a particularly unlikely version of the classic “rag-bag team,” made up of Said Tagamouhi as a Moroccan actor turned con man, Ewan Bremner as a Scottish sniper with PTSD, and Eugene Brave Rock as a Native American smuggler, all of whom are interesting characters and have things to say about the world of 1918.

The chief villains are Dany Huston as General Erich Ludendorff, and Elena Anaya as Dr. Maru. Ludendorff, who really existed, is an interesting choice. The historical Ludendorff was Quartermaster General of the German Army until October 1918 (and so in position to make decisions about new weapons), when he resigned, a requirement of armistice negotiations. He went on to become a nationalist politician who promoted the theory that Germany was “stabbed in the back by Marxists and Jews,” took part in Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch of 1923, and wrote a book called The Total War in 1935, arguing that peace was only an interval between wars.  Although he did break with Hitler by 1933, I think we can fairly say that his portrayal in the film does not malign him too much, and Huston’s portrayal makes him believably megalomaniacal and dangerous.

Dr. Maru, alias “Dr. Poison”, played by Spanish actress Elena Anaya, is a recycling of a WW2 Wonder Woman villain, who was a Japanese chemist specializing in sabotage.  The doctor as portrayed is rather generically European, unsettling with the creepy prosthetic covering her scarred face, and not so much a “mad” scientist as an obsessive one. Her new weapon, the so-called “hydrogen mustard” gas is truly horrific, though not much more so than weapons actually developed. (The arsenic compound Lewisite, not used in WW1, could penetrate clothing and thin rubber--.)

I wasn’t put off by Wonder Woman’s stated goal to destroy the war god Ares as I was by (spoiler in case you haven’t seen it) Superman’s killing of General Zod in Man of Steel. In the movie, Diana considers destroying Ares to be her major mission in life, so its rather a given, and it was established in the comic books years ago that Wonder Woman would in fact kill in defense of life if the need were great enough. (And I’d be pretty sure that not all the German soldiers she clobbered liberating a Belgian village probably survived, either, although, as in many of the comic-book movies, there’s little blood, and most death is off camera--.)

We liked the movie’s approach to combat. Wonder Woman fights with focus and with purpose, but never with malice, and revenge, a frequent “hero” motivation, plays little part.

Of course, I have some technical quibbles: The Fokker Eindekker Trevor steals is way obsolete by 1918 (although that could be the reason it was in Turkey, far from the active front--), whereas the giant bomber in the final sequence, which vaguely resembles one of the late-war Zeppelin-Staaken bombers, is somewhat futuristic. We can tell that Themiscyra must be within a relatively short air flight from the Turkish coast: so far, so good, it makes much more sense for it to be among the Greek islands than off the coast of North America, as in the early Wonder Woman comics. However, in our 1918, there were no Central Powers warships, let alone German, operating in the Mediterranean, to have pursued him there--. Oh, well, it’s not actually our world, after all. However, getting from the Eastern Med to London in the course of a sleep by sail, even with the aid of a tugboat, just isn’t possible--.

Seeing this film makes me much more optimistic about the forthcoming Justice League feature.

First, let me address one point: Casting Scarlett Johannsen as the main character is NOT a “whitewash”. “Major Kusanagi,” as she’s generally known, has never, ever been drawn as Asian-looking either in the manga or the anime. She’s always had round eyes, and, when in color, they are blue (or red, in one of the animes), and her skin is white. “Section 9,” the special law enforcement group she belongs to does not exist in any recognizable version of Japan, instead it’s “manga Japan,” which, in that, as well as other works, is populated by racially ambiguous people, many of which are pale-skinned, round-eyed, and have hair in Caucasian shades (when it’s not blue, purple, or other colors not occurring in nature). The director of the animated films, Mamoru Oshii said: “The Major is a cyborg and her physical form is an entirely assumed one. The name ‘Motoko Kusanagi’ and her current body are not her original name and body, so there is no basis for saying that an Asian actress must portray her. Even if her original body (presuming such a thing existed) were a Japanese one, that would still apply.”

That being said, we went to a preview of the movie at the Oriental Theatre on Wednesday night, March 29. I liked the movie a lot, and Georgie did, too, as it didn’t exceed her tolerance for violence and flashing/booming.

The movie looks great to my eyes. The long shots of the urban landscape are amazing, rife with gigantic advertising holograms, which Georgie called “Blade Runner all grown up.” The opening sequence of the creation of the Major’s cyborg body is pure science-fantasy, but beautiful, and almost mystical as her framework is levitated through the various stages of its “birth.” That life is not going to be quite easy for the new being is immediately apparent with the dialog between her creator, Dr. Ouelet (Juliette Binoche) and the owner of the company that created her, Cutter (Peter Ferdinando), in which he declares, “She’s a weapon.”

Flash ahead to a year later, and “the Major” is lead operator for “Section 9,” here described as an anti-terrorist unit, where her strength, speed, and ability to make herself virtually invisible, are of great use. Her ability to “deep dive” into cyberspace is less well understood, and her commander, Aramaki (veteran Japanese action actor “Beat” Takeshi Kitano), is uneasy with her using it. She has an uneasy comradeship with the other members of her unit, Batou (Pilou Asbaek), Han (Chin Han), Ladriya (Danusia Samal), and Ishikawa (Lasarus Ratuere).

I was really struck by Ms. Johannsen’s abilities as a physical actress. Although her role as Marvel’s “Black Widow” is superficially similar, both being female super-agent action heroes, the characters are quite different. I was particularly struck by the Major’s walk, which is a heavy-looking flat-footed trudge, as though she indeed had a steel skeleton. She walks with her head pushed forward, sometimes “forgetting” to move her arms, subtly underlining that she’s only had this body for a year and is still learning to use it. Similarly, her resting expression is very neutral: you don’t see thoughts cross her face, except when she is speaking or taking action.
The plot has some similarities to the 1995 animated film, with the major antagonist having the ability to “hack” people’s minds, but goes in a very different direction, becoming the Major’s origin story, which is more detailed and dark than any version given before.

Ms. Johannsen is well supported by the cast, especially Pilou Asbaek as Batou, and Marion Cotillard as Dr. Ouelet, who are the human heart and mind of the movie, respectively. It’s also good fun to see Mr. Kitano “taking names” in a wonderfully no-nonsense style. Peter Fernandino as Cutter is a villain for the 21st Century, taking personal command of mayhem with a remote-control interface.
The film’s portrayal of “augmentation” is quite compelling, and a lot of ways evocative of what the “man-machine interface” might be like. In other ways, it is quite fantastic and dreamlike, with robotic arms repairing the Major’s damaged muscle fibers by painting on new material with brushes. It’s never explained how she can jump off the top of a skyscraper (her favored method of “tactical insertion”) without harm, but still be damaged in combat. Of course there’s lots of over-the-top combat, but shooting and exploding is at a tolerable level. There’s some blood, shown as the aftermath of being wounded, but not much. No bad language or sex. We do see quite a lot of the Major’s artificial integument, but it’s not what one would call sexual nudity (unless you are already a robot fetishist--).

Recommended for fans of anime, SF/action, and superheroes.
On Saturday, May 9th, we went to see Avengers: Age of Ultron. We enjoyed this next installment of the ongoing Marvel Movieverse saga, but not quite as much as the initial Avengers film.

Part of this may have been due to the character interaction, which, while actually realistic, isn’t quite as much fun. In the time since the end of the last film, the Avengers have shaken down into more or less of a team, with Captain America (Chris Evans) as defacto team leader. Things are on more of a businesslike footing, with both less banter and less arguing between the team members. What character interaction we do get is good, with a poignant relationship developing between Black Widow (Scarlett Johannsen) and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), and our view into the abnormally (for superheroes) normal home life of Hawkeye/Clint Barton(Jeremy Renner).

The plot picks up shortly after the end of the last film. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) intends to take the “Scepter of Loki” back to Asgard, but yields to Tony Stark’s desire to examine it before it leaves Earth. Stark discovers that the device harbors an intricate matrix capable of supporting an artificial intelligence more complex than his “Jarvis” program, and decides to investigate its usefulness for his “Ultron” program—a projected automated defense network capable of defending the Earth from alien invasions.

Of course, things go wrong. In classic “Frankenstein” fashion, “Ultron” (voice of James Spader) achieves consciousness while Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) is away, and freely interprets its mission as being to defend the planet Earth against all dangers—including humans, and especially the particularly dangerous Avengers. Ultron, as interpreted in this script, is a fascinating creation, partaking not only of Frankenstein’s creature, but also other classics of science-fiction, such as the destructively over-protective robots of Jack Williamson’s “With Folded Hands,” and the Terminator movies’ “Skynet.”(Evidently, the Terminator films didn’t exist in the Marvel Universe--.) Ultron’s sometimes existential musings also reminded me of Heath Ledger’s “Joker”—thus proving that Stark has created perhaps the worst monster ever—a nigh-indestructible killer robot with Tony Stark’s sense of humor.
Quickly making himself multi-bodied, Ultron multi-tasks—trying to access nuclear launch codes, destroying the Avengers, building himself an upgraded “synthezoid” body, and coming up with a grandiose plan to render humanity extinct when he’s denied access to the nukes. Ultron recruits Hydra’s modified humans, Pietro and Wanda Maximoff (Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen), who have good reason to hate Tony Stark and want revenge on him and his.

While it’s a generally entertaining plot, there are some pointless diversions. The long battle between Hulk and the optimistically named “Hulk-Buster” Iron Man is needless, except insofar as it allows the script to hint that Stark’s judgment is bad and perhaps getting worse, and allowed the special-effects crew an extended exercise. When Hulk goes on a rampage due to Scarlet Witch’s mind-control, instead of leading him out of town, which could have been easily done at the expense of a few tossed cars, Stark activates “Veronica,” his Hulk-emergency system, and proceeds to engage in a battle that destroys approximately half of downtown Cape Town (or whatever African city that was supposed to have been). This misjudgment is scarcely commented upon, and I sorely missed having Rodgers give Stark a little after-action review.

The overarching plot will continue, with Thor having tumbled that something is going on with the Infinity Gems (as we loyal viewers have known),and Thanos (Josh Brolin) making another cameo appearance at the end.

Among other positive points, I really liked the characterizations and visualizations of new characters Quicksilver, Scarlet Witch, and Vision (Paul Bettany, heretofore the voice of “Jarvis”, in the synthetic flesh). We both particularly liked the Witch’s new costume, briefly glimpsed at the end, which is much better looking than any of her comic-book versions.
I guess the best way to take this series is as we took the comic books it is born from—they can’t all be great, but each one builds upon the next with good writers. In a lot of ways, this installment of Avengers is a “middle book” of trilogy, one in which complications are added, but few things ultimately resolved. I do look forward to further installments.

Big Hero 6

Dec. 9th, 2014 05:10 pm
Tuesday, we went to see Big Hero 6, and found it delightful.

Set in “San Fransokyo”, an amalgam city of San Francisco and Tokyo, I was grabbed by the movie’s design sense in the first images, a pan including what I am calling “the Tori Gate Bridge.” This combination of American and Japanese elements, combined with fantasy elements such as tethered wind-turbine balloons, make a setting that is attractive and fascinating.

The protagonist, Hiro (Ryan Potter), is a 13-year-old genius who has graduated high school, but dawdling over entering college that he doesn’t see the utility of. This changes when he visits his older brother Tadashi’s robotics lab, meets his self-described “nerd” friends, and becomes motivated to get admitted to college so he can do the kinds of work they are.

Hiro’s amazing entrance project, swarming “microbots”, is lost in a fire and explosion which also kills Tadashi (Daniel Henney). When he discovers the microbots have actually been stolen, he becomes obsessed with bringing his brother’s killer to justice, and begins by upgrading Baymax, his brother’s invented health aide robot (voice by Scott Adsit).

Baymax’s concern for Hiro’s “health” causes him to bring in friends Go Go, Wasabi, Honey Lemon, and Fred, (Jamie Chung, Damon Wayans, Jr., Genesis Rodriguez, and T.J. Miller) and Hiro uses his abilities to help build super tools reflective of each one’s specialty: speed and mobility for Go Go, lasers and plasma for Wasabi, and chemistry for Honey Lemon. Slacker Fred gets a monstrous super-suit gratifying his kaiju fantasies. Together they go after the kabuki-masked mystery man who has turned Hiro’s microbots into a devastating weapon.

Although the plot is standard comic-book fare (I knew immediately who the villain had to be--), there were still some surprises. The manner in which the kids get in each other’s way when fighting the foe is both realistic and refreshing, and Fred’s ongoing comic-informed commentary on “origins” and “revenge plots” does a lot to subvert the tropes in an amusing fashion. The blended city background is gorgeous, and the character animation effective and pleasing. (I thought there was more than a little well-done Miyazaki homage, particularly in the ominously flowing black mass of microbots. Such visions are frequently seen in Studio Ghibli movies.) Good voice characterization by all the actors and I thought the cartoonish character designs were distinctive and worked well.

Definitely the most enjoyable film we have seen this holiday season. Good for most ages, although as with most action movies, combat scenes may be too intense for younger children, and some images are scary.
Monday evening the 14th, we went to see "Captain America: The Winter Soldier," the latest Marvel super-hero movie.

Good points: Good plot dealing with the relationship between SHIELD and HYDRA since World War II. Kudos to the script writers for calling out the "rule by fear" strategy that is such a real part of world politics. The "Insight Initiative" is the "drone fear"-airborne, deadly, watchers-extrapolated and writ large into a Godzilla-sized nightmare. The events will have a profound effect on the future of the Marvel movie universe.
Good character development and exposition, especially on the part of Natasha Romanov/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and Nicholas Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). Chris Evans, as Steve Rogers, continues to develop a solid, very likeable and believable character. A very good entry by Anthony Mackie as Sam Wilson, a.k.a. Falcon, and nice work by Robert Redford as SHEILD's civilian boss.

Special effects and design continue to impress. The Marvel films and ILM are doing for the depiction of technology what Peter Jackson's Middle Earth movies have done for fantasy. The new SHIELD heli-carriers are beautiful in a terrifying way, and I liked the logical extension of Marvel Universe technology that made them plausible-they use Stark Industries "repulsor jets"-i.e., Iron Man tech-in order to fly. Sam's Falcon wings merge science fiction with real-life "Jet Man" flying.

Good super-fighting: The one-on-one combats between Captain America and Batroc (Georges St.-Pierre) and Captain America and the Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) were done with enhanced speed that I thought believably portrayed what combat between such supermen would be like. (I was also pleased to see an updated Batroc. One of Captain America's oldest comic-book sparring partners, he was always a faintly ridiculous character, but had a typically French panache that I enjoyed.)

Not-so-good points: TOO much violence. I guess I don't have the tolerance level for smashing and shooting that the typical young American has, but I thought I was pretty good. Nevertheless, I was weary of it all by the time the film was over, and it seemed longer than its 134 minutes. It's a bad sign when a film has two long car-chase and gun-battle sequences. The first one, when Hydra operatives attempt to assassinate Fury, shows the bad-guys' daring, ruthlessness, and viciousness, as well as showcasing SHEILD technology. The second one, which had only the plot purpose of bringing Steve Rogers and the Winter Soldier briefly face to face, could have been accomplished in one-tenth the time and with far less destruction of rolling stock. The climactic battle, which is appropriately spectacular, was lengthened by Falcon's flashy but frankly stupid aerobatics which convinced me that, whatever else he had been, 'combat pilot' was not in his resume.
And, frightening as the "Insight Initiative" may be in principle, the actual proposed implementation is rather ludicrous and not believable.
There are a few other quibbles: The Winter Soldier is a Soviet-era Russian creation, so it's strange that ex-KGB agent Black Widow knew nothing about him until he surfaces as an opponent.

"Captain America: The Winter Soldier" is Marvel's homage to the action-intrigue adventure, acknowledged by the music track, which has distinct "Bond in action" themes, and the graphics of the end-title sequences which also have a classic "James Bond" appearance. This is a very good-but not great-action/adventure movie, well worth seeing for fans of the genre, and a must-see for those following the Marvel movies.
On Sunday, June 2nd, we caught up with "Iron Man Three." We enjoyed it very much. The best thing about the "Iron Man" movies is the development of Tony Stark's character--I'm not necessarily going to say "growth," but he does change and adapt as the story goes on.

At the beginning of this installment, Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) is working through his post-traumatic stress after the events of "The Avengers," being somewhat freaked out that he is an "ordinary guy" (where values of "ordinary" include super-rich, super genius, and getting it on with Gwyneth Paltrow) dealing with aliens, monsters, gods, and super-soldiers. He's becoming increaingly withdrawn, begining to interact even with Pepper (Paltrow) through his suits as a mask. He's shaken out of his shell (so to speak) when Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) is critically injured in an explosion attributed to terrorist "The Mandarin." He unwisely calls the Mandarin out, with dire consequences.

The character of the Mandarin, as given to Sir Ben Kingsly to play, is rather a cross between Osama Bin Laden and "Bane" from "The Dark Knight Rises." Comic geeks get a major hint that this isn't the classic Mandarin when A.I.M. (Advanced Idea Mechanics) is referenced early on: also well-known Marvel bad guys, they never worked with the Mandarin in the comic books, so what does happen with him is a suprprise that I did not see coming.

It strikes me that a major factor that makes the "Iron Man" trilogy (so far) better than the recent Christian Bale "Batman" trilogy is that Tony Stark spends most of the movies being Tony Stark and only suits up for the action sequences, whereas in Batman, all the interesting stuff happens when Bruce Wayne is being Batman, and we don't see as much in the way of character interaction. In Iron Man Three, Downey gets an extended sequence of wisecracking with Ty Simpkins as the resourceful boy he ends up relying on for help. These scenes establish that, while Stark is still a jerk, he's a mellowed jerk--.

There's of course the obigatory whiz-bang final battle with some genuinely formidable villains, and a very interesting ending which puts the future of "Iron Man" in question (although the end credits advise us, James-Bond-style that "Tony Stark will return").

A very good, and strong entry for fans of the Marvel Movies.
Tuesday evening, August 7th, I went to out local movie house to see "The Dark Night Rises," the third installment of Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy, following "Batman Begins," and "The Dark Knight."

I went on my own since Georgie decided she had seen sufficient violence in "The Dark Night." I haven't gone to a movie by myself since before we were married, so that alone was an unusual experience.

The beginning of the film is three years after the events of "The Dark Knight," and the supposed heroic death of District Attorney Harvey ("Two-Face") Dent. With the Batman wanted for Dent's murder, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) has become a recluse, mourning the death of Rachel Dawes, and nursing the injuries incurred in his battle with the Joker. He's lured out when his private safe is burgled by Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) (the name "Catwoman" is not used in this picture, but we all know who she is--). This incursion is merely the tip of the spear of a convoluted plot that starts with a struggle for control of Wayne Industries and culminates with Gotham City being forced to re-enact a sort of "Paris Commune" of anarchy and bloodshed under the direction of Bane (Tom Hardy), who takes a gleeful, almost professorial role, in leading the Gothamites into degradation.

This movie is marginally less dark than "The Dark Night," in part because Bane and company do have an agenda, and are not as reflexively vicious as Heath Ledger's Joker. Like "Batman Begins," the movie culminates in an over-long and drawn-out running battle which still manages to maintain interest due to the number of twists and turns it takes.

I am stuck by the "criminal genius" of director Nolan and his co-writers. They have come up with some artfully planned capers: however, they cheat a bit since all their major villains are all nihilists who don't really care what happens next. Bane, Joker, Ras Al Ghul, Scarecrow, and even Two-Face all fall into this category of hell-bent self-destructiveness. (Hathaway's self-interested Selina Kyle is an exception, although even she takes some insane risks--.) I suppose that once you have introduced these ultimate wreckers into your universe of discourse, mere thieves and thugs aren't exciting enough.

As expected, strong performances by the returning cast members, including Gary Oldman as Gordon, Morgan Freeman as Lucius Fox, and particularly Micheal Caine as Alfred Pennyworth. To hear Alfred's usually correct accents slip back to something more Cockney as he finally shows emotion to Wayne was to appreciate artistry in acting.

The new cast for the film were excellent as well. I would not have thought to cast Anne Hathaway as Selina Kyle, but she was excellent. Usually notable for her dazzling smile, she could be strikingly feral when growling into the ear of a thug. Tom Hardy as Bane was a striking character as well. He's clearly drawn on "Darth Vader", as shown by his casual killing of displeasing henchmen, but he has an almost jolly and expansive manner at times. There's no question Hardy was hindered by Bane's mask which almost entirely hid his expressions as well as distorting his voice (sometimes to unintelligibility), but he did well, regardless. Other notable new characters included Matthew Modine as Gordon's ambitious deputy; Joseph Gordon-Levitt as a young cop who believes in the Batman; and Marion Cotillard as a wealthy investor and player in the contest for control of Wayne's technologies.

If you saw and appreciated "Batman Begins" and "The Dark Knight," you will probably have seen "The Dark Knight Rises" by now. If you haven't you should. If you haven't been following the series, it's a bit late to get on.

Harsh, brutal, and exciting as its predecessors were. Not as cruel and savage as "The Dark Knight," quite. A satisfying end to this arc of stories.
On May 31st, we finally made it out to see "The Avengers,which may well be the best comic-book adapted superhero movie ever made. (I will reserve a possible exception for 2008's "The Dark Knight", due largely to Heath Ledger as Joker, but they are two radically different pictures.)

The film open with Loki stealing "The Tesseract" (better known to Marvel readers as "The Cosmic Cube") from SHIELD's underground research lab. This sets in motion events including Nick Fury's activation of "the Avengers Initiative," and Loki leading an invasion of Manhattan by space aliens.

There are a few plot holes, but they are minimal. There's just so much cool stuff in there--. Even the SHIELD helicarrier is almost believeable.

Loki (Tom Hiddleston) is a very effective master villian and plays with the good guys in a nicely evil manner.

One of the classic bits in marvel comics was the hero-vs-hero slugfest which often occurred when the new guy on the scene meets another hero, and each thinks the other is a bad guy. This never happened between Iron Man and Thor in the comics, since both were known heroes by the time they met. The revised timeline of the movies allows this epic battle to happen, with a bit of Captain America in the mix as well. Also, I don't ever recall a one-on-one fight between Black Widow and Hulk, either. Although an obvious mismatch, there's good reason for it happening as it does, and it is played to good dramatic effect. The Hulk in action is truly frightening.

Jeremy Renner as Clint Barton/Hawkeye gave good depth and feeling to this character, shown as a SHIELD agent with background in Spec Ops, who evidently has some (at least professional) history with Black Widow. This both harks back to comic origins, and makes it more interesting. We also get to see Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury actually in action this time, rather than just enigmatically lurking.

Joss Whedon is credited with (most of) the screenplay, and gives us a lot of wonderfully characterful smart-alec dialog, as might be expected from his work on "Buffy" and "Firefly."

Character development and plot actually take up most of the 143 minute film--the climactic battle does not actually comprise the last half of the film, as happens in some action/adventure movies. For all that, the big fight vs. the aliens is very well done, again, with a high coolness factor (alien invasion craft that look and move like paeleolthic fish--) satisfactory action, logical consequences, and actual teamwork among the heroes.

It must be admitted that some of the goodness of this movie is buit upon the prior solo features for the main characters, which allow us to get into the story without trying to cram in origins or introductions, so thanks again for the good work done by the prior crews, and to Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Scarlett Johannsen and Clark Gregg for carrying on their characters so well, and to Mark Ruffalo for picking up the difficult role of Bruce Banner and doing an equally good job with it.

And, of course, there's an "easter egg" among the end credits that foreshadows even bigger trouble coming in the next installment.

If you like superhero movies, you've probably seen this already. If you haven't, you must.
After the glut of summer action films, we finally caught up to Marvel Studios' "Captain America: The First Avenger" at the budget cinemas. We liked it. As with "Iron Man," the film stayed very close to the comics origin of the character, and, since it happened during World War II, didn't need to be updated like Iron Man's did (from Vietnam to Afghanistan).

There were some very impressive effects in the movie, but, in my opinion, the best one was the subtly integrated and flawless CGI that turned strapping Chris Evans into a 90-pound weakling for the first part of the film. It really is amazing when you think about it, but it looks perfectly natural.

Evans gives a very nice and low-key performance as the Brooklyn boy whose bound and determined to get into the war against Hitler despite his feeble physique. He's well supported by Stanley Tucci as Dr. Erskine, the inventor of the super-soldier formula, and Hayley Atwell as Agent Carter, the British representative on the Allies Strategic Science Reserve.

The bad guys are lead by Hugo Weaving as Johann Schmidt, a.k.a. "The Red Skull," who, in this version, instead of being an Abwher agent, heads Hydra, a scientific satrapy within the Third Reich which combines aspects of the S.S. and a technically advanced Organization Todt.

"Steve Rogers'" journey from being a 4-F recruit reject to heading a special unit tasked with destroying the Hydra operations, and to direct and deadly conflict with the Red Skull, is the plot of the movie, and works out well in the context. The movie has a high "cool stuff" factor, ranging from tricked-out motorcycles, giant German bombers, and the Skull's supercharged automobile, which looks like an updated and militarized version of the one used in "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen."

Cool also are the many Marvel references, ranging from the introductory shot of Arnim Zola (Toby Jones) to the fact that "Dum-Dum Dugan", "Gabe Jones," and "Percy Pinkerton" of Marvel's "Howling Commandos" are among the prisoners Cap frees from a Hydra compound, although they aren't named as such in the script. (Given that, I was surprised that Tommy Lee Jones' crusty Colonel Phillips wasn't named Sam Sawyer, after the Commandos C.O. in the comics--.)

The movie has a nice balance of action, adventure, and character development, with some genuine suspense and pathos thrown in. One of the best of the Marvel franchise in my opinion.

And I'm still surprised at the number of people who don't stay through the credits--you'd think word would have gotten around. This time, the "Easter Egg" was a teaser trailer for next summer's "The Avengers" movie. Looks good!
July 4th, we spent the afternoon at the movie house, seeing "Green Lantern," the latest comic-book adaptation to the big screen. We enjoyed it more than most of the critics did.

I've been a fan of Green Lantern in his various incarnations in DC comics since I was a kid, although I've often been frustrated by how the power ring was used. (Giant green mallets, come on--.) As with a lot of the comics out there, the incessant reboots of the DC Universe have put me off reading them, but I still have a fondness for the character.

We thought that what was done with the character and the milieu was far from perfect, but still pretty good. The 1960's Hal Jordan was of course an "All American hero". Eventually, he evolved into rather a jerk in the famous "Green Lantern/Green Arrow" series, which has kind of been part of the character ever since. The movie starts off with a reasonable modicum of jerkiness which is intended to make the character (played by Ryan Reynolds) more human and likeable. At least he acknowleges that he is an "asshole" and shows some self-knowlege of his collection of issues.

The movie follows the classic origin, wherein Jordan receives the Power Ring from the dying alien, not knowing what it is. However, he soon recieves an initiation notice from the Green Lantern Corps, which is, in my opinion, one of the weakest parts of the picture. I don't know why an ancient and galaxy-spanning group like the Corps should have to rely on Marine boot-camp movie cliches as a training regimen, but apparently the writers couldn't come up with anything better.

Much more interesting is the development of the local villain character, Hector Hammond (Peter Sarsgaard), who goes from being a friend to a monster, and seems actually to be getting "high" on his alien inspired power, despite the grotesque transformation it causes. The big-bad boogeyman of the film, Parallax, is largely devoid of character or sensible motivation, and exists only to be defeated. I really question the judgement of introducing and so cavalierly destroying one of the major villains of the Green Lantern canon so early on, which would make one wonder what they will do for a sequel, were that not telegraphed at the end.

The visualization of the planet Oa, home of the Green Lantern Corps and the Guardians of the Galaxy, was nicely done as were the many alien members of the Corps, in particular well-known characters such as Sinestro (Mark Strong), Kilowog (Michael Clarke Duncan), Tomar-Re (Geoffrey Rush) and Abin Sur (Temuera Morrison). It was also a bit interesting to see the character of Amanda Waller (Angela Basset--I would have cast Queen Latifa, myself) introduced into the Green Lantern canon as the front woman for a "man-in-black" agency. In the comics, Waller is one of the DC Universe's master manipulators and back-room-dealers, which makes me wonder if Warner Brothers has a role in mind for her similar to the Samuel Jackson "Nick Fury" character in the Marvel movies leading up to "The Avengers"--. "Justice League," anyone?

Thor

May. 10th, 2011 01:16 pm
On Sunday the 8th, we got to see "Thor", the latest Marvel Studios adaptation of one of their comic-book properties. I'm not the huge fan of J. Michael Straczynski that some are, but I have to say I like what he and Mark Protosevich did with the storyline, as turned into a screenplay by Ashley Miller,  Zack Stentz, and Don Payne; as realized by director Kenneth Branagh. 

The adaptation of course relies heavily on the Thor comic, created by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Larry Lieber, and starts off in Asgard with the impulsive Thor (Chris Hemsworth) being banished by his father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins), until he learns some humility.  This is a result of a deadly prank played by the jealous Loki (Tom Hiddleston), that ends up going badly wrong for all concerned.

On Earth, the befuddled thunder god is picked up by scientists Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard) and  Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings) who are investigating the strange phenomena associated with the god's transit to earth, and who at first think he's a loon they found wandering in the New Mexico desert. I liked this recasting of Jane Foster, who, in the comics as the "nurse" working for "Dr. Donald Blake," I always thought was one of the weakest of the Marvel love-interests--she never had much individual character, and existed pretty much solely to be threatened by vastly more powerful beings after Thor. (True, that's the job of most comic-book "girlfriends," but one could imagine Spider-Man's Mary Jane coshing Doc Ock or the Green Goblin if she got a chance; with villains in the league of giants, trolls, and evil gods, about all Jane got to do was cower--.)  We thought Portman did a good job in the role, nicely balancing frustration in her work with facination with the mystery man. The role of Selvig (Skarsgard) to the story as Foster's mentor/adviser was also a good one.

Hemsworth looks as much like the recent comic incarnations of Thor as an human can,and was decent in the role. The real stand-out performance was Hiddleston as Loki, who handles his part as a deeply conflicted antagonist excellently. The major roles are rounded out by Hopkin's Odin, which was a surprisingly good choice, Colm Feore as the treacherous Laufey, and Clark Gregg as "Agent Coulson", the non-super SHIELD agent who's investigating the fall of Thor's hammer in the desert. Coulson's very good as the low-keyed G-man and contrasts nicely with the flamboyant characters around him.

I liked the actors who were cast as Thor's "posse", Shieldmaiden Sif (Jaimie Alexander) and the Warriors Three; Hogun (Tadanobu Asano), Fandral (Josh Dallas), and Volstagg (Ray Stevenson), who are there largely to play back-up for the big man, but did a good job and looked like they were having fun with the parts. (When a SHIELD agent describes them as "Xena, Jackie Chan, and Robin Hood," the audience gave a good laugh.)

CGI gave a good rendering of "Eternal Asgard" that harked back to the Kirby-esque superscientific days of impossibly tall towers, gravity-defying buttresses, and incomprensible giant machines. I was glad to see that the credits gave thanks to some of the other important writers and artists, like Walt Simonson and Marie Severin, among others, who shaped the Thor comic over the years.

I would rate this one of the best comic book adaptations to date, with a literate and complex story that still had the "cosmic" feel to it. 

Megamind

Nov. 26th, 2010 02:21 pm
After Thanksgiving dinner, we went to the local cinema to catch "Megamind," the second movie of the year with a supervillian as protagonist, following summer's "Despicable Me." We were pleased to find that "Megamind" is equally good, and, in fact, quite charming in some ways.

"Megamind", voiced by Will Farrell, is a blue-skinned macrocephalic alien genius, rocketed to Earth as a baby to escape the destruction of his home planet (which was apparently sucked into a black hole). If this sounds familiar, even more famiiar is the origin of Megamind's nemesis, Metro Man (Brad Pitt), shot to Earth from a different dying planet at the same time. Metro Man lands among a wealthy family, who raise the orphan with every advantage. Megamind, on the other hand, crashes into the yard of a prison for incorrigibles. The convicts, improbably enough, manage to keep and raise the baby as a mascot, filling his hungry mind with their warped worldview. When Megamind eventually ends up at the same "school for the gifted" as Metro Man, a rivalry ensues that lasts into adulthood.

Megamind's life changes radically when one of his plots succeeds beyond his wildest dreams, taking Metro Man out of the picture and leaving Megamind as "Evil Overlord" of Metro City (which he pronounces "metrocity" to rhyme with "atrocity"). The movie is full of visual references, but the sequence of Megamind looting the city is especially rich. Not only does he sequester the Mona Lisa, his personal hoard includes the Ark of the Covenant, and what appear to be both Emmy and Oscar statuettes.

Megamind soon suffers from boredom, and begins work on recreating a new superhero to battle. While he's doing this he falls in love (while in disguise) with Lois-Lane-like reporter Roxanne Ritchi (Tina Fey). She, no longer required as an object for Metro Man and Megamind to fight over, is engaged in researching how to overthrow Megamind.

Nevertheless, Megamind continues in his efforts to create a new Metro Man, and accidentally empowers Hal (Jonah Hill), Roxanne's camera man. Not only does Hal harbor a completely unrequited crush on Roxanne, he is a socially malajusted, lazy, selfish dweeb, who reacts to frustration with petulant physical violence. However, Megamind doesn't know this, and attempts to tutor "Titan" into superherodom, using yet another disguise, taking off Marlon Brando as Jor-El from the "Superman" films. Of course, as ill-begun as this project is, you know it's going to go bad, and does so with a vengance when goes over to the "dark side" and challenges Megamind for the woman, the city, and his life.

How it all works out is very good fun in super-comics fashion. Megamind as a supervillain is obsessed not only with beating the good guys, but doing it with style as well, and his Ming-the-Merciless capes, disguise gadget,adjustable ray-gun, invisible car, and giant war machines are all very cool. He's also loyally served by "Minion," (David Cross) an intelligent talking alien fish, who runs a "Robot Monster" styled cyber-ape body from his fishbowl, and has a horde of flying brain-drones at his command (more or less).

We really enjoyed this film, and,as with most films this year, didn't miss seeing it in 3D a bit.

OK for older children,although they might not get all the jokes or nuances. No sex, nudity, or foul language. Lots of cartoon violence*, but no blood. "Titan" could be quite scary for younger children when rampaging.

*In the partial destruction of Metro City, I was struck by the extent to which the imagery of the September 11th attacks has entered the visual vocabulary, even for "light" fare such as this. The depiction of shattered buidings and falling masonry are in part shaped by the video from that time, and the towers of black smoke looming over the distant city scape were chillingly familar.

Kick-Ass

Jun. 16th, 2010 03:06 pm
Tuesday night the 15th, I went out to the budget cinemas with Henry
Osier to see "Kick-Ass", the comic-based film about a normal young man
who decides to become a costumed hero and fight crime on the streets of
New York. (Georgie passed on seeing it, correctly estimating that the
"wince factor" would exceed her comfort level.)

The rather extreme violence level aside, we found it a very clever movie with an interesting and intricate plot, and a storyline that is full of
allusions to both the comics and the crime movies that inspired it.
There is also nicely allusive sound track, that includes music from both
Saturday morning kid's shows and Sergio Leone westerns, as appropriate.
As a world, it lies somewhere between "Mystery Men" and the Hill Street
Blues "Captain Freedom" storyline, informed by the exploits of real-life
superheroes like those found on the World Superhero Registry.
(Apparently Milwaukee has or had a couple of costumed heroes, known as
"The Watchman" and "MoonDragon".)

There was good acting on the part of the mostly-young cast, including
Aaron Johnson as Dave Lizewski / Kick-Ass ; Lyndsy Fonseca as Katie
Deauxma, Dave's love interest; Clark Duke and Evan Peters as Dave's
comic-geek friends; and Christopher Mintz-Plasse as Chris D'Amico / Red
Mist, the son of mob boss Frank D'Amico.

However, the major scene-stealer in the film is Chloe Moretz as Mindy
Macready / Hit-Girl, ably supported by Nicholas Cage as "Big Daddy," her
revenge-obsessed father and mentor. Cage has the bright-eyed fanaticism
I associate with Libertarian survivalists anticipating the fall of the
state, or Triumphalist Christians contemplating the Rapture. Instead,
his goal is the downfall of drug lord D'Amico, the man who destroyed his
career and brought about the death of his wife. "Hit Girl" is a rather
horrifying creation, viewed soberly, a child soldier drafted into her
father's crusade, but on-screen she's so over the top she is amusing, if
frequently shocking. It is only when she is down, apparently alone and
at the mercy of villain D'Amico, and you see pain on her child's face,
that it gets truly disturbing.

Mark Strong, currently one of moviedom's favorite villain actors, plays
Frank D'Amico with a hair-trigger vicious intensity that makes him a
formidable foe for the "good guys".

Comic book background aside, this is definitely a movie for mature
viewers: besides the violence level and body count, there is quite a bit
of bad language (some of it from "Hit Girl"), and some implied sex. If
you can deal with that, it is an enjoyable movie and would be
recommended if you liked "Mystery Men," or "The Watchmen".

Iron Man 2

Jun. 11th, 2010 09:08 pm

On Friday the 4th, we went to see “Iron Man 2” and found it better than most critics did. We did not find that there were too many characters, or that the plot was too cluttered.  Of course, we are accustomed to comic books, and the fact that what we have here is a decent (if short, by modern standards) comic book story arc.

I wonder, do movie critics seem to think that actually reading comics might be beneath them? I can remember days when quite a few critics looked down on anything that wasn’t “cinema”—today, we would say “indie” or “art house”—and automatically condemned anything that was fantasy or science fiction to the “B” movie ghetto.  Now, with the critical success of films such as “The Lord of the Rings” or “District 9” it is OK to approve F&SF in movies, apparently if it comes from a “respectable” source, to wit a book between hard covers,  or someone who’s a film “auteur”. Mainstream comics, however, still don’t seem to be understood by the film reviewers.

That said, we liked “Iron Man 2”.  Robert Downey, Jr., continues to add depth and personality to the role of Tony Stark, who is keeping up a cocky and risk-seeking front to the world while being slowly poisoned by his arc reactor power source. (This is one of the weak points of the movie, since palladium, the metal blamed, is actually very inert--) Downey does a fine job of delivering Stark’s wise-cracking dialog, including a barrage of double entendre aimed at an obnoxious Senator (played with just enough smarm by Garry Shandling). In general, the script is as witty as any I’ve seen in a long time, as Stark sinks barbs into fatuous rival Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell), argues about responsibility and the avoidance of it with “Pepper” Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), and flirts with newcomer “Natalie Rushman” a.k.a. Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johanssen), although his “here-we-are-in-the-foxhole” banter with James Rhodes (Don Cheadle) during the climactic battle scene seems a bit forced.  (And, OK, does Tony Stark have the best job in the world or WHAT? He’s filthy rich, has the Iron Man gear to play with, AND has both Paltrow and Johanssen on his personal staff. Methinks it would be worth dealing with a few supervillains for that--.)

And, speaking of villians, there are some very good ones in the form of Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) and the aforementioned Justin Hammer (Rockwell).  Vanko is a worthy addition to the Marvel canon, showing the modern face of Russian crime. (In Marvel comics, Ivan’s “father”, Anton Vanko, was the creator of the “Crimson Dynamo” powered suit, used by Iron Man’s Cold War era Soviet foes.)  Rockwell’s Hammer is a great development. In the comics, there wasn’t much to choose between Justin Hammer and Obidaih Stane (villain of the last movie)—both were rocky-jawed, hard-as-nails, ruthless businessmen.  This Justin Hammer is an inspired departure, a monster of evil banality.  It’s as though the “Bill Lumbergh” character from “Office Space” had had just enough drive and tech savvy to become the head of an arms company before reaching  his level  of incompetence--.  He’s a cliché-spouting empty suit, whose envy of Stark makes him apt to be exploited by Vanko in pursuit of his revenge.

Special effects are up to series standard: purists will note that the “War Machine” version of the Stark armor is very faithful to the comic original, and there are little details, such as the fact that parts of Vanko’s ultimate armor resemble that of “Titanium Man,” another Soviet armored foe, which will gladden the true fans.

Of course, there is lots of violence and LOTS of explosions, although, true to the Marvel tradition, no sex, and no bad language (although Stark’s material in the Senate hearing is a bit “blue”--).  Fun for fans of the genre.

"Hancock"

Sep. 15th, 2008 08:46 pm
The good thing about the movie doldrum time in fall is that it gives you a chance to catch up on summer movies you didn’t get to. “Hancock” was still playing at the local budget cinema, and seemed like a good gamble for $2.00 on a rainy Sunday afternoon. We were pleasantly surprised.

“Hancock”, played by Will Smith, is the only known superhero. He is super-strong, invulnerable, and can fly at super-speed. He is also sloppy, disaffected, frequently drunk, and has a bad attitude that has alienated the Los Angeles community he tries to help. Jason Batemen plays Ray Embrey, a public relations man with ambitions to change the world, who makes rehabilitating Hancock his project after the hero messily saves his life. Charlize Theron is Embrey’s wife, Mary, dismayed by the disruption Hancock brings into her family life. The unexpectedly dramatic plot revolves around the interaction of these three characters, with, of course, some intervention from the criminal element. Eddie Marsan plays Kenneth “Red” Parker Jr., Hancock’s would-be nemesis, who is a thoroughly nasty character. You have to listen closely to the sound track to find the delightful details that he is an evil Psychology professor who turned to crime leading a gang of graduate students he had led to the bad.

We had expected the film to be a pure comedy, but it is far from that. Although there are a lot of comic elements, some of them quite outrageous, particularly in the early portions of the film, it takes a major and quite effective twist into the dramatic.

The script was quite inventive in a number of ways, particularly involving Hancock’s use of his powers, such as using the pressure of his super-strong fingers to make a sharp edge on a piece of metal when needed--. I also liked some of the effects treatments, like his shattering pavement when he carelessly leaps into the sky, and the fine turbulence vapor that trails from his heels when flying at speed.

Being a super-hero movie, there is considerable, often gross violence, but comparatively little blood; quite a lot of moderately bad language; and no sex.
Due to a number of other opportunities and obligations, we just got out to see “The Dark Knight” until Sunday, August 24th. Assuming that anyone reading this who cares to has seen the movie by now, I’m not going to do a detailed analysis, but I was strongly affected by the film and have had a good number of thoughts about it.

This movie belongs to Heath Ledger as “Joker” for performance, and to the character Joker for plot.

“The Joker” as he used to be, was always one of my favorite DC Comics villains. He was one of the first villains with a sense of style, however grotesque, and would commit outrageous crimes simply because it suited his mad aesthetic. He is an ancestor of “Hannibal Lecter” as well, committing murders just to show that he could and to demonstrate his superiority. Of late in the comics, the Joker has become a near-indestructible avatar of chaos, which I think exceeds his brief a bit.

“Joker”, as portrayed in “The Dark Knight,” is the nightmare criminal everyone fears. He doesn’t want anything from you but to see your sweat, tears, and blood, and if you soil yourself that’s all to the good. In one scene, he sets fire to millions of dollars in cash, saying, “See, I'm a man of simple tastes. I like dynamite...and gunpowder...and gasoline! Do you know what all of these things have in common? They're cheap!” That is part of what is scary about what Joker does—he uses no super weapons, and in this movie we don’t even see any of the trademark devices like “Joker venom,” which causes its victims to die laughing. He does, however, have a diabolical degree of cunning which puts him one step ahead of the heroes all through the movie. The Joker acts, the “good guys” react, usually in the way that he wants them to. In fact, it’s debatable who won in this story. Joker succeeds in bringing the heroes down to his level: as he says, “I took Gotham's white knight, and brought him down to our level. It wasn't hard. Y'see, madness, as you know, is like gravity. All it takes is a little...push.” He succeeds in shattering District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart), and even good cop Gordon (Gary Oldman) looks the other way while Batman (Christian Bale) abuses the Joker while he is in police custody. The irony is that this is what the Joker WANTS—not just because it’s a moral victory for him, but also because it brings on events that further his schemes. This, I think is a good example of why the abuse of prisoners in the name of gathering information is a bad idea: who knows if they are feeding you what THEY want you hear--.

The movie is very dark, dire, and powerful. It has something I have not seen in a movie in a long time—SUSPENSE. You literally do not know what Joker is going to do next, and wondering if the heroes—or, notably, the common people of Gotham in the final sequence—are going to be able to foil him or not, which adds a much more genuine tension than the either the slasher movies where the killer jumps out to go “boo” in a predictable fashion, or the kind of shoot-‘em-up’s that rely on non-stop action for excitement. Make no mistake, however, there’s a lot of action in this movie, and, given Joker’s penchant for “arson by explosives,” a lot of things get blown up, so much so that it’s kind of fatiguing. By the time the film was over, I would have sworn we had sat through a three-hour movie, although it is not much shorter at 152 minutes.

A couple of reflections: 1) On the naming of names: When he first appeared in DC Comics, and for many years after that, the character was always “The Joker” (much the way the playing card is usually referred to--), which was understood to be an epithet or nom de crime, although Joker’s name before he turned to crime was not, and has never been revealed. Over time, however, in the comics as in the movie, he is more often just “Joker”, which tends to indicate that he HAS no other name (see reference to being an avatar, above). By contrast, Batman has gone from being “The Bat-Man,” to the familiar “Batman” back to, as he always is in the movie, “The Batman.” As a title rather than a name, it puts him back into the category of “creatures of the night” like The Wolf-Man or The Phantom of the Opera. It seems curious and rather disturbing that we refer to the villain in terms of familiarity, while the one who would defend us is held off at arms’ length. This driving a wedge between the people and their defenders is another one of Joker’s goals, which the erosion of The Batman’s reputation at the end of the film, contributes to.

2) Did Joker kill Heath Ledger? Like most fans of cinema, having seen Ledger’s stunning and flawless portrayal of the monstrous Joker, I lament his passing. While sitting in the darkness as the credits rolled for “Dark Knight,” we wondered if the experience of having so closely inhabited that skin in some way contributed to his unfortunate demise. One of the secrets of acting is that, not only do your experiences shape what you bring to a role, you also take things AWAY from the roles you play. In a well-written role, if you succeed in a solid interpretation, you can come to have empathy and understanding for a lot of characters totally foreign to yourself—or maybe, not so foreign. One wonders if Ledger found confronting his own dark side to be too much—or perhaps, just enough to tip him over the edge into terminal depression. I was reminded of the tag line from Fritz Lieber’s story, “A Bit of the Dark World”: “He had a crack in his skull, and a bit of the dark world came through and pressed him to death.” Joker is certainly a bit of the Dark World. The idea that an actor might have been killed by the character he embodied is a very Lieber-esque idea. In fact, we will never know for sure, but one cannot help but wonder--.

"Iron Man"

May. 12th, 2008 09:55 am
On Sunday afternoon the 11th, we met a few friends to see "Iron Man," the latest movie adaptation of a major Marvel comic book character. It was good fun. Like the other Marvel movies of the last decade, it gives us an updated version of the character's orgin story, which shows us "Tony Stark" (played by Robert Downey, Jr.) as CEO of Stark Industries, a high-tech operation that has some briefly mentioned other lines, but chiefly exists as a weapons manufacturer. The plot is developed in the first few minutes, when Stark, returning from a demonstration in Afganistan, is blown up by one of his own weapons in the hands of the enemy. The plot then follows the familar comic book history: forced to create weapons for his captors, he creates the prototype "Iron Man" suit and uses it to escape. There aren't any HUGE surprises after that, although the way things do work out is handled cleverly, with style, and with some twists. The major fun of the movie lies in Stark's refinement of the Iron Man suit, which one can see was a real labor of love both for the CGI techs and the physical prop fabricators, as well as the script writers and Downey (and/or his stunt men). And, frankly, I love the invention of the 'arc reactor' as a power source. The power supply for the various versions of the comic book suit have always been varieties of 'hand waving' but I like having a definite if fantastic invention that drives the rest. (Now I just need to get one to hook up to my oscillation overthruster and flux capacitor--). I also thought the idea of having most of the suit's outer covering be reconfigurable as part of the flight control systems was very neat. That said, although the science-fiction was nice, there were some really boneheaded errors in basic science that I'll pick on below the spoiler alert. This is (mostly) separate from Stark's "mad science*" approach to development, which provides much of the humor in the movie. (Really, who would do a first test of the boot jet system at 10% power a) without having a calculation how much thrust would be developed, and b) indoors?)

*My definition: A scientist works out the hypothesis, then designs an experiment that will show if the hypothesis proves true or not. The MAD scientist says: "Hmm. I wonder what will happen if I do--THIS! Ha-ha-ha!" (Or, uses themselves as experimental subject--.)

Downey gives a very nice performance as the playboy inventor who is coming to grips with the idea that his work may not all be for the "good guys." There are actually, in my opinion, even better performances: Gwyneth Paltrow as "'Pepper' Potts", Stark's personal assistant, manages to be both appropriately squeamish when helping Stark plug his reactor into his chest, and reasonably under control flipping switches to help defeat the bad guy while the building is coming down around her ears. Part of this, of course, is the character, who, in the comics was always feisty and not a screamer, but Paltrow carrys it off. The usually likeable Jeff Bridges shows a good talent for villainy and enjoys himself an awful lot as the corrupt corporate heavy, "Obadiah Stane".

Good fun for fans of the comics, and enjoyable and accessible for newcomers.

And now for the quibbles. Beware of the spoilers!
Read more )
I might have to reserve judgment on "The Incredible Hulk," depending on reviews. Checking out the cast list, I see Liv Tyler as Betty Ross, which is an attraction, and the characters include Tim Roth as Emil Blonsky, a.k.a. "The Abomination," and Ty Burrel as "Doc Samson", who are some of the comic book Hulk's more interesting sparring partners. Also, I see Robert Downey Jr. a.k.a "Tony Stark" is in also, which I believe makes it the first Marvel movie adaptation to cross over any of the characters from the others.
Although we did enjoy "Spider-Man 3," I would also agree the series has "jumped the shark."

Read more... )
We caught Spider-Man 3 opening weekend, courtesy of AT&T, which was throwing an event to promote its U-verse digital TV over Interent product. (Which, by the way, is getting very good reports, although of course there are a few glitches with such a new product. If we had time to watch more than an hour of TV a week, I'd definitely be interested.)

So were were out at the Ridge Theatre in New Berlin at 9:00AM on May 5th for the first show of the day. After the half-hour of unexpectedly light-handed agitprop, we settled in to enjoy the movie.

Critics aside, we found the movie very good. We were reading Spider-Man comics regularly during the orginal "black suit" storyline and so were able to follow the allegedly convoluted plot quite well. In fact, perhaps being comics readers, we didn't find the plot all that convoluted. There is actually a very strong unifying theme about the corrosive effects of the lust for revenge. Harry Osborne (James Franco) wants revenge on Peter/Spider-Man for the death of his father, and takes the mind-altering Goblin potion to do it, using some upgrade to his father's old gear. Peter, agression amped up by the alien symbiote, takes a really spiteful revenge on Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst) for having dumped him; publicly humiliates his photographic rival, Eddie Brock (Topher Grace); and engages Harry in a vicious fight fueled as much by testosterone as by their mutual demons. Brock of course wants revenge on Peter for getting him fired and joins with the alien symbiote (ticked off at having been abandoned by Peter) to become the monstrous Venom. When Peter learns tha an escaped convict, Flint Marko (Thomas Hayden Church), now the Sandman, may have been the "real" killer of Uncle Ben, Peter gives into rage fighting him, and exults in his seeming demise until brought up short by his Aunt May in a scene some have wrongly described as "preachy."

Marko is about the only major character who isn't at some point motivated by rage and spite. With his heavy build, stoic face, and growly, apologetic voice, Church invokes the late Lon Chaney Jr. in "accidental monster" roles such as "The Indestructible Man". In fact, Church said in an interview that he was inspired by Chaney, and it shows, strongly, but subtly, in the scenes surrounding his transformation. Sandman,is an esentially hard-luck character, and is more reactive than active in what happens to him.

Special effects were, of course, "spectacular" and I was very interested in the producer's choices. Peter's aireal battle with Harry is breathaking in its speed and violence. Sandman, with his malleable body giving him enormous reach, and ability to climb walls digging sand grains into crevices, and abilty to slough off webbing, was one of the earlier villains designed to give Spider-Man a fight in his own element, although he lost out becasue he was slower and less agile. The movie version is more powerful, able to travel through the air as a sandstorm and to animate huge amounts of sand, becoming a colossus. Even though much of Sandman's on-screen action is CGI, trivia about this movie notes the extent to which Church was beaten up in the making of it. (more to come).

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