Review: Spidey is “Far From Home,” in a movie that is far from memorable

Spider-Man’s movies, more than any other superhero this side of the DC/Marvel divide, are identified by their villains—how memorable they are, and often the tangible connection they have to the movie’s most memorable scenes.

The one with a tentacled Alfred Molina, and the train battle.

The one with a winged Michael Keaton, and the twist that bares its teeth en route to a high school dance.

The one with a cackling Willem Defoe, and that stupendously horrific metal mask.

In “Spider-Man: Far From Home,” the big bad is the big bowl-headed Mysterio—a fascinatingly zany, stoicly formulaic amalgam played by the consistently zany, never-formulaic Jake Gyllenhaal, who fills his armored suit with the unkillable ambition of a smartass whose plans seemingly depend on being little more than a smartass. Gyllenhaal’s presence is the movie’s cheeky wink in A-list actor form, never less than incredulous and never more than high-concept gag, Continue reading →

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Review: ‘Dark Phoenix’ is the final plunge for a franchise that forgot how to soar

An unusual contradiction of expectations await the arrival of “Dark Phoenix.” For reasons motivated more by corporate hegemony than pure storytelling, the 12th entry in the “X-Men” franchise is essentially the last under the 21st Century Fox umbrella, following the studio’s acquisition by Disney earlier this March.

So, suddenly and somewhat startlingly, “Dark Phoenix’s” responsibilities are multiple, not the least of which is to provide a sense of finality. Depending on where your franchise loyalties lie, that may not be nearly as important as fixing the mistakes of 2006’s Brett Ratner-directed “X-Men: The Last Stand”; after “Days of Future Past” – still the most memorable of this recent run of “X-Men” extravaganzas – nuked its timeline in 2014 in ways we still don’t quite understand, the franchise had a clean slate to revisit the beloved Dark Phoenix comics storyline, and to tell it the right way.

Continue reading →

Review: ‘Captain Marvel’ a nearly wholly underwhelming MCU origin story

It’s fair to say that “Captain Marvel” – the 21st entry in the franchise to rule all franchises, and in many ways its most pragmatic – is arriving at a bit of a crossroads for this ever-blossoming superhero saga 11 years after it began.

More accurately, it itself is the crossroads; another origin story for another superbeing whose name hadn’t been uttered in over 40 hours of films, and yet the story of a hero with pre-ordained expectations of the highest order, thanks to a post-credits stinger, a pager and a logo that sent the Internet into a frenzy last April.

With “Captain Marvel,” our MCU overlords ask us to forget, if for a couple hours, about half of the Earth’s Mightiest Heroes being reduced to dust, and instead shift our gaze to Kree and Skrulls, a disorienting story that feels three steps ahead of the audience in the worst of ways, and Carol Danvers’s introduction as already one of the MCU’s most charismatic figures in spite of it. The miracle of overcoming one of the more ill-advised MCU narratives in recent years isn’t quite achieved, but the superhuman strength on display in the last bits of the movie by its titular hero should have Thanos sweating. Continue reading →

Stan Lee’s impact on someone who never opened a comic book

I had just turned 9 years old when Dad took me to see “Spider-Man 2” at an Indiana movie theater. It was the summer of 2004, and there was little foundation in my mind for what I could expect to marvel at on the big screen, other than the first Spidey movie and a tie-in computer game I spent some time playing a few years prior.

Of course, that didn’t stop me, nor millions of others, from having a hell of a moviegoing experience. In 2018 “Spider-Man 2” still a highlight of the genre—even though its arrival was still early in the era of the superhero movie, when Marvel Cinematic Universe wasn’t yet a part of the Hollywood lexicon.

It was also a movie that led me to an epiphany. Continue reading →

The Surgence of the Spring Movie Season

11 years ago, amid what society at large (including The Hollywood Sphere™) had for years deemed the “movie calendar’s graveyard shift,” a comic book movie burst onto the screen.

There were no superheroes in it. Six-packs, absolutely, but no genetically altered physiques housing superior, moral objectivity or superhuman wit. In other words, it would be another year before the birth of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The character of Iron Man was about as familiar to the mainstream moviegoer as a contemporary Oscar contender released before March — aka, not very familiar. But, more on that later.

The movie I’m referring to is the uberviolent, uberlubricated “300.” The only still-relevant aspect a decade later is its (over)reliance on CGI as an innovated form of box office-busting, audience-driving weaponry.

(And no, I won’t hear your argument that Gerard “Sure I’ll Sign Up For Your Generic B-Movie Action Flick That Won’t Make More Than $30+ Mil Opening Weekend” Butler has remained relevant.)

(Lena Headey makes a strong case, though.)

Virtually transplanted for the screen from its comic book roots in a way that somehow didn’t constitute plagiarism, “300” transported audiences in a way few films had up to that point. More importantly, it transported them at a time when virtually any film of its kind didn’t dare to.

Continue reading →

Review: Marvel pokes fun at itself with ‘Thor: Ragnarok,’ and has a blast doing it

It’s about time we got something like “Thor: Ragnarok.”

After nearly a dozen years of spinning an increasingly complex web of Marvel stories and characters, the studio realized a need for giving audiences something new and invigorating; something to keep the spark alive, if you will. And they picked the perfect franchise to do it.

With “Ragnarok,” one of the MCU’s least consequential (and – let’s face it – one of its least interesting) franchises doesn’t just get a facelift; it’s infused with a new energy. With the third solo entry for Thor – “solo” becoming more and more ambiguous the further along the MCU machine churns –  he’s officially the ugly girl you initially passed up on who went on to become a runway model. Continue reading →

2017: Surprises and storylines so far in movies

Welcome to (almost) August.

Well, ok, in the real world. But in the parallel cinematic universe that mirrors our own, it’s probably more accurate to say we’re coming up on the end of April as far as the movie year goes, what with most of the year’s best films to come as the weather gets cooler.

Nonetheless, 2017 has been supremely interesting for movies so far.

We got a 2018 Best Picture dark horse contender almost a full year early in Jordan Peele’s Get Out. Following a series of misfires, DC finally gave us a film that is both a critical darling and box office smash in Wonder Woman. After La La Land invigorated the musical last year, Edgar Wright reinvented it with Baby Driver. And, of course, Marvel Studios keeps doing Marvel Studios things. Continue reading →

Review: Doctor Strange’s visuals overshadowed by strong characterization

The Marvel Cinematic Universe – the entire superhero genre, in fact – is at a bit of a crossroads. Watching characters like Iron Man, Captain America and, soon, the third different Spider-Man this century grace the big screen has become a regular event seemingly more common than teen novel adaptations.

It’s led to a bit of an oversaturation of the same thing over and over, and Hollywood knows it.

As a result, just when we think we’ve seen it all, along comes the R-rated “Deadpool,” the fresh “Guardians of the Galaxy and the ambitious “Captain America: Civil War” to reshape how the genre can take advantage of the film medium.

The production of “Doctor Strange” takes that philosophy to heart, with excitement having been stirred about its “Inception”-influenced visuals and the introduction of Benedict Cumberbatch to the MCU.

And so we get Marvel Studio’s first feature-length debut since “Guardians,” and it turns out to be, in many ways, not your run-of-the-mill MCU flick. At this point, that’s a great thing. The action teases to be some of the most immersive we’ve seen from a superhero movie in years, and Cumberbatch is an immediately welcome addition as the selfish doctor-turned-magician.

It’s a tantalizing start to a film that, after about two hours, fails to deliver on its promise of being a totally fresh experience. It’s clearly an origin story, but in trying to be something different in terms of aesthetic, it ends up an underwhelming and familiar experience.

“Doctor Strange” is formulaic to a fault in terms of its narrative – there’s simply too much recycled material – and an overreliance on its visuals. It’s clear that it is functioning on the gamble that its special effects take a revolutionary turn. But while for the first time in a long time I found myself wishing I was watching in an IMAX theater, the film’s Rubik’s cube-on-LSD set pieces don’t necessarily mess with the plot in a seamless way.

Marvel's DOCTOR STRANGE..Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch)..Photo Credit: Film Frame ..©2016 Marvel. All Rights Reserved.

In fact, the film explicitly introduces a pretty big loophole that essentially erases any sense of stakes that could be suggested when seeing a city literally being folded unto itself. What we see onscreen almost seems to reflect just how muddled the bigger MCU narrative has become with the addition of film’s lore.

As far as the elephant in the room, yes, the role of Brit Tilda Swinton in an environment clearly evoking an Asian aesthetic sticks out like a sore thumb. Swinton is fine as a Supreme Powerful Do-Gooder, but it feels out of place and inappropriate of Marvel Studios to utilize imagery, architecture and even other characters of Asian origin without going the full distance with arguably the film’s most important persona.

Despite its weak direction, there is some new material that “Doctor Strange” brings to the table. For a movie universe with seemingly so little attention in the prospect of finality, death is a major theme here, as is its inevitability.

Also, Strange himself is a decidedly morally ambiguous character, with a sense of arrogance that isn’t simply replaced with heroism the first time he dons the cape. Instead, the audience welcomes a more dynamic internal journey.

Dare I say it, Strange’s characterization is actually more fascinating to witness then when he engages in what amounts to not much more than combat with glorified metaphysical scepters and weapons, using the very concept of time itself to defeat a villain it doesn’t seem like he has any business even confronting just an hour and a half after first discovering his powers.

For all intents and purposes, the MCU has backed itself into a corner with “Doctor Strange,” a film that suggests powers and abilities that can bring an end to any plight the beloved Avengers might face. Here’s hoping the studio is aware of that fact, and has thought far enough ahead to make Strange’s future adventures more memorable.

 

 

Doctor Strange is rated PG-13 for sci-fi violence and action throughout, and an intense crash sequence

Starring: Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams and Benedict Wong

Directed by Scott Derrickson

2016

Review: Deadpool delivers on the hype without sacrificing substance

This review first appeared in the Daily Lobo, the independent student newspaper of the University of New Mexico. You can see the original review here

It’s almost a farce in itself, getting settled in to watch Deadpool as trailers for upcoming superhero flicks like Batman v Superman and Captain America: Civil War play, when we feel like we’ve seen those particular movies a dozen times already.

Rest assured that Deadpool is the freshest Marvel entry since Guardians of the Galaxy, combining the best elements of successful superhero films with the creative freedom of an R-rating and a passion to bring the spirit of Deadpool to the screen…for real this time.

The result is a thoroughly entertaining film that, while it grasps its title character’s unique nature by the horns, it doesn’t go overboard with it.

That, in particular, is a pleasant surprise and one of Deadpool’s biggest strengths. While the film was hyped for taking a popular superhero adaptation to uncharted territory in terms of debauchery and raunchiness, Ryan Reynolds and director Tim Miller realized that they shouldn’t sacrifice substance for the sake of shock value.

deadpool 2

After all, to a degree rarely seen in the superhero genre, the character of Deadpool is just as much a part of the spectacle as the action is, perhaps even more so.

Make no mistake, the film is definitively a hard R, with enough blood, sex and profanity to make Captain America blush. But in making Deadpool as unapologetically faithful to its audience as it is to the source material, the film also has a heart that raises it a notch or two above what most were probably expecting of it. 

Ryan Reynolds truly is born for the part of the merc with a mouth, bringing not only Deadpool’s twisted sense of humor and relentlessness (his motto being “Maximum Effort”) to the screen, but also infusing him with a sentimentality that gives unexpected weight and stakes to the action and story.

Deadpool is also structured in a way that is very appealing, essentially an origin story told via flashbacks. It helps a lot with pacing, and gives the film a certain energy and flow that persists even through its few slower sequences early on.

The story is decidedly small-scale compared to other superhero films, but it’s also in essence a very personal story of revenge and, yes, love that it feels ok. Deadpool himself certainly is larger than life, and that is more than enough, especially with the knowledge that a script for a sequel is already being worked on.

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Aside from the gritty action, the humor is also top-notch. The script is so well written to accommodate both sides of Deadpool’s personality, but his fourth-wall breaking, Wolverine-bashing, mercilessly-chastising side is what audiences pay to see, and Reynolds delivers every line with the perfect blend of sarcasm and wit.

There’s also some pretty funny moments with the introductions of X-Men Colossus and Negasonic Teenage Warhead, and T.J. Miller effectively goes toe-to-toe with Wade Wilson as his pal Weasel.

It’s as much a testament to the focused direction as it is the passion imbued in the final product by its cast and crew that Deadpool manages to deliver so successfully everything it was hyped to be. In the process, it also surprises its audience by reminding us that its creators had every intention of giving us a film that has as much heart and story as it has style.

If only younger fans could use that as an excuse for their parents to take them.

In a Nutshell

Deadpool makes fun of the cinematic universe it’s now a part of not only through its mockery of it, but in its personality that takes so many risks and exceeds at pulling off what so many thought might never happen. Hollywood might try and adapt its formula, but Deadpool stands on its own as a true beast of a film, as much about the passion of bringing it to life as it is about embracing its mature nature.

8.9 / 10

 

 

Deadpool is rated R for strong violence and language throughout, sexual content and graphic nudity 

Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Morena Baccarin, Ed Skrein, T.J. Miller

Directed by Tim Miller

2016

Avengers: Age of Ultron, a disenchanting and explicitly naiive roadmap for Marvel’s Phase Three

Avengers: Age of Ultron is opening to some fairly lofty expectations. Everyone knows it, what with the first Avengers premiering to nearly universal acclaim, bringing every comic book fanboy’s dream to life while garnering $1.5 billion in the process.

So yes, director Joss Whedon (The Avengers, Serenity) in some respects set the bar incredibly high for himself. But over the last year, it’s been raised even higher. Last year’s Marvel Cinematic Universe offerings – the noir thriller Captain America 2: Winter Soldier and Star Wars/Dirty Dozen mashup Guardians of the Galaxy – were some of the studio’s strongest outputs to date, and it was up to Whedon to keep the ball rolling.

He stumbles.

And, tragically, he starts with the titular villain, Ultron: James Spader (Boston Legal, The Blacklist, Lincoln), who voices the robotic nemesis, does his job. Whedon does not.

Ultron is scene-stealing, and it’s all thanks to Spader’s trademark verbal flourish, menacing and charming all at once. He would make an excellent Bond villain sometime just with the way he speaks, he’s so ostensibly threatening.

Spader brings Ultron to life – and literally so in a sequence that is gorgeously written and hauntingly brilliant, in the way it’s cinematically choreographed – but unfortunately it’s just downhill from there. Whedon simply can’t balance Spader’s euphemisms with the threat that Ultron poses. He ends up being underwhelming, comic relief more that we’d like. Which is a travesty given how horrifying the trailers built him up to be.

Oh, what could have been.

Oh, what could have been.

Loki, a constant highlight in MCU films, is a hard enough enemy to top in himself, but it seems like all the attention Whedon put on making Loki so endearing and mystifyingly brilliant in The Avengers was concentrated elsewhere.

That elsewhere being our heroes, banded together to finish off the remains of Hydra/S.H.I.E.L.D., albeit for only a time before cracks start to show. Age of Ultron once again does a great job balancing each hero’s contributions and showing off their abilities in battle and their humanity while not taking down enemies, especially – and invitingly – when it comes to Jeremy Renner’s (The Hurt Locker, American Hustle) Hawkeye, who has an exponentially larger role than he held in 2012’s The Avengers.

As with The Avengers, Whedon again shows his strength in the various little moments between huge action set pieces, as well as within them. The film is expectedly full of hilarious one-liners – heck, the very first bit of dialogue in the movie will make you laugh out loud – and there is even an unexpectedly human romantic storyline between Bruce Banner and Natasha Romanov. Their relationship is eloquently done, with just enough focus on it to detract from the world around them falling apart.

As awesome as the team is, it’s certainly not as exciting seeing them together on the screen this time around, which was what made the first Avengers so fascinating to behold. To compensate, Whedon goes noticeably darker with his sequel, something increasingly common in the MCU with recent films. The tone is about as consistent as you can be, and definitely puts the film on a different tier than Avengers, but not necessarily a higher tier.

There are some pacing issues too. It takes its sweet time on occasion, testing our patience, and Age of Ultron does have a small case of “How did you get here? Why are you here?” syndrome with some characters.

Be afraid, box office competition.

Be afraid, box office competition.

The plot isn’t exactly as straightforward as it could be, but in the increasingly interconnected and complex MCU web, when is anything ever simple anymore?

The premise is basic. Tony Stark has an idea. The idea goes berserk. Avengers assemble. It’s almost completely predictable, committing one of cinema’s cardinal sins. But Whedon covers his backside with new inclusions.

The bigger of which are the twins, themselves more interesting characters than Ultron ever hopes to be. While what drives Ultron is basically ripped off of Terminator, the motivations behind what drives Wanda and Pietro Maximoff – Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver – is much more down to earth and also much more sympathetic.

And interesting. Just much, much more interesting. Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Kick-Ass, Godzilla) and Elizabeth Olson (Godzilla, Oldboy) do a substantial amount with the limited exposure they have, something to be admired.

The twins also add an interesting new dynamic to the film’s action pieces, along with newcomer Vision. Whedon makes sure to get them their due diligence in what eventually becomes a pretty crowded field of players. Quicksilver doesn’t quite match the glory of Evan Peters’ iteration in X-Men: Days of Future Past, but he provides his own standout moment nonetheless.

Welcome to the party.

Welcome to the party.

Much of Age of Ultron’s two and a half hour running time can be attributed to his devotion to each individual hero, Thor’s “side mission” being the supremely weak link; it’s distracting and almost certainly there just to serve as a set-up for future MCU films (I mean, of course).

On the opposite end of the spectrum, the growing rift between Captain American and Iron Man is fascinating to behold. We seen the two going at it as they did in Avengers, and they have even more at stake by being at each others’ throats this time around. Get excited, people. Captain America: Civil War should be a good one.

Wait. You're not Thor.

Wait. You’re not Thor.

But enough about plot and intimate moments. We know why we’re all here, why Age of Ultron is going to be filling up movie theaters for weeks to come – the action and spectacle!

Concerning explosions, flying cars and flying punches, this must be said: if you’ve seen the ten or so films in the MCU, you know what you’re getting. The action delivers at times, but in other moments it is mundane, kind of like you know you’ve seen a certain way Cap throws his shield at baddies fifty times before, or how you’ve become so familiar with Iron Man whizzing through the sky blowing up baddies.

At least they’re consistent, right?

That being said, out of the four or five distinct action set pieces, two of them stand out. The finale, obviously, is one of them. Michael Bay should take a few pointers from Marvel as to how to create action with weight and levity. Age of Ultron does an excellent job in his final, destructive act of infusing drama with the punches, actual consequences with each car or building that is blown up. The finale may run a tad long, but it’s something to behold, even though it is barely not just a rehash of Avengers’ New York City piece, with robots replacing alien invaders this time around.

And then there’s the Hulk vs. Iron Man Hulkbuster suit, without a doubt the most high-octane sequence of the film. Everyone wants to see the Hulk go out of his mind, and he does in a memorable sequence that the audience wouldn’t watching on repeat for an hour.

Maybe he should have been the primary antagonist. Avengers: Age of Hulk? No? Okay.

 

In a Nutshell

Whedon brings his strengths to the table with Age of Ultron, but also offers a glance at his weaknesses. If only he’d spent more time exploring the potential of Ultron himself, the film could have been much different.Thanks for the ride, Joss, but it’s time to hand the reins to the Russo brothers to finish off the Avengers’ story.

7.5 / 10

 

Avengers: Age of Ultron is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi action, violence and destruction, and for some suggestive comments.

Starring: Robert Downey, Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffallo…ahh c’mon, you’ve seen this lineup before.

Directed by Joss Whedon

2015

 

 

David Lynch likes to talk about and write about movies, sports, and important happenings around the world. He can be reached at alex.695@hotmail.com or on Twitter @RealDavidLynch.