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Saving the Best for Last

After more than ten years and twenty-one movies, the Marvel Cinematic Universe reached a capstone with the release of Avengers: Endgame. While many movie franchises have met with varying levels of success over the years, none have been as successful as the MCU. Warner Bros. misstep with the Justice League is a perfect example. Even the 007 series pales by comparison to the storytelling and cinematics exhibited in the Marvel series of movies. Avengers: Endgame is a perfect knot tying together all the threads that had been woven by the preceding films. It is not to be missed.endgame

When last we saw our intrepid heroes, they were licking their wounds from their ignominious defeat at the hands of galactic bad guy Thanos, played by Josh Brolin. The dedicated viewer will remember that at the end of Avengers: Infinity War, Thanos had reduced half of all life in the universe to dust, including some of our favorite heroes. Endgame starts by showing us how that snap of the fingers affected the one avenger that did not take part in the Infinity War, Hawkeye, played by Jeremy Renner. We then get caught up on how life has marched on for the survivors, including newcomer, Captain Marvel, played by Brie Larson. Under the direction of Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), the surviving Avengers try to figure out a way to reverse the disaster but are unable to do so.

Meanwhile, in another Galaxy, Nebula (Karen Gillan) and Tony Stark (Robert Downy Jr.) are drifting lost in space in a damaged ship without power. Just as things look bleakest for the pair, fortune smiles on them.

Meanwhile, in another dimension, Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) drifts without direction in the tendrils of the Quantum Realm until a bizarre happenstance returns him to our dimension, where he finds himself alone and unaware of what happened in his absence.

Meanwhile, in another part of the Earth, Thor is dealing with his failure in typical Asgardian fashion.

Meanwhile…well, you get the idea.

There are a lot of plotlines going into this movie, and the filmmakers do their level best to stitch them all together into a cohesive continuity. They succeed. The pacing is just right to allow for proper character and plot development and the cuts are just enough to keep the viewers interest without leaving them confused by the many plotlines. This is no easy feat and was only achieved by the film’s 3-hour runtime.

Yes. That’s THREE HOURS.

It seems unlikely they film makers could have delivered a story that was as satisfying in less time. While some might say the film drags in some places, it is a nice respite from the insane level of action that is going on the rest of the time.

Avengers: Endgame is a perfect capstone for the franchise. The viewer will leave this film satisfied that, if they never made another MCU movie, it would be okay. This story is finished. Anything that follows this movie is a whole different story. Endgame will be met with gasps, laughs, tears, and cheers, plus one scene that leaves the entire theater in utter stunned silence. The typical Marvel humor is sprinkled liberally throughout the script and the performances are spot-on consistent with the characters that have become beloved by fans. Of course, the special effects are top notch, even the Hulk’s effects, while new, are quite realistic.

If there were a downside, it is that some of the characters don’t get as much screen time as might be preferred. But given that it took three hours to give them that much, any more would require breaking Endgame into two separate films. That would not have been as satisfying. That said, every character that has been introduced in the MCU in any film seems to make an appearance in this movie, even if it is just a few seconds of screen time. Still, any more and it might have been too much. No, Avengers: Endgame is just fine the way it is. Go see it.

 

 

 

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Not So Marvelous

Captain Marvel PosterDisney has officially kicked off Marvel’s phase 4 of the MCU with the release of Captain Marvel in cinemas Thursday. The much-hyped film, touted as the new standard bearer for the Marvel franchise, features Marvel’s first female super hero to get her own title. As such, many feminists have joined a chorus touting the film as a feminist anthem without the benefit of actually watching the movie. This follows the hype of Black Panther as offering the first black super hero to get his own movie. Even before Captain Marvel was released, the movie was being bashed online by one group while being vociferously defended by another. It is unfortunate that Captain Marvel does not fair well by the comparison.

The film tells the story of Carol Danvers, an air force pilot who rankles at being denied the opportunity to be a combat pilot because she is a woman, taking a female scientist (Annette Benning) on a flight in an experimental aircraft and encountering unexpected problems. The film starts with our heroine fighting along side a noble band of warrior heroes already introduced in the MCU as the Kree. Vers—as she is called by the Kree—has an aggressive, emotional fighting style that frustrates her mentor played by Jude Law. She also has powers and abilities that no other Kree seems to possess, and she has no memory beyond six years prior. Through the course of her adventures, she uncovers the secret of her prior life and how she came to the Kree and how she obtained her awesome powers.

The Kree are engaged in a long-fought war with a race known as the Skrull; shape-changing aliens who can assume any identity down to the DNA. The war reaches Earth, where Vers encounters agents of SHIELD Fury and Coulson, who help Vers unravel the mystery of her origin and the secret behind the war.

The movie is full of CGI special effects, as all Disney movies seem to be these days. The age-regression on Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury and Clark Gregg’s Phil Coulson are superb. They don’t look a day over 35. The fight sequences are fantastic and visually stunning, as are the Skrull transformation effects.

The story is set in 1995 (Vers crashes into a Blockbuster Video store loaded with VHS tapes) and has a lot of popular cultural Easter eggs for those who like searching for them. There is no discussion of or reference to any other super heroes or mutants, though at the end of the film, we see Fury typing the first draft of his “Avengers Initiative.” It makes no reference to Thanos, but it does include Ronin, who we first met in Guardians of the Galaxy. The first post credits scene does tie back to the events in Infinity War as Captain America and Black Widow are trying to see who Fury was texting right before he disintegrated. This is the only tie in to the greater MCU story arc, which was a bit disappointing.

The film is somewhat long, running at 124 minutes, but seems longer. Despite the incredible, gratuitous action sequences, the film does drag in spots. The plot is straightforward, if somewhat predictable and offers no insight on the deeper motivations of the main characters. Why the villain does what he does is never discussed. What is the primary motivation for the Kree war? Why did the Kree keep Carol Danvers on Hala and more important, why conscript her into their army? These could have been great story arcs to explore and made a more compelling movie than the string of action sequences the film provides.

There are also some continuity errors.  In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, we learn that Fury lost his eye infiltrating a terrorist camp to save Alexander Pierce’s (Robert Redford )daughter.  In Captain Marvel, there is an alternative history.  Also, the Tesseract appears in this film, with no explanation of how it got there, when last we saw it (timeline-wise) it was lost in the arctic.

Brie Larson’s portrayal of Carol Danvers is problematic. Larson is a fine actress; her Oscar win for “The Room” is a testament to that. Carol Danvers is a great character in the comic books, full of heroism and faults like the pantheon of Marvel heroes before her. But we don’t see Larson really bringing Danvers to life. She isn’t given the opportunity to explore the frailties that drive Danvers to excel as a hero. Also, Captain Marvel is so powerful in the film that an even a space armada cannot slow her down. She never doubts herself or her role in what is happening to her and around her. There just isn’t any emotion from her at all. I don’t think it’s Larson’s fault. I think it is the staff of writers and directors that all had their fingers in this pie that was trying to please fan boys and feminists too much that they failed to satisfy either. This is why both groups are fighting online so much.

Hopefully, Endgame will give Captain Marvel more material to work with and allow the viewers to see more of the humanity of what is right now the most powerful hero in the MCU. Having said all that, Captain Marvel is an entertaining film. While not as funny as Guardians of the Galaxy or Thor: Ragnarok, it has the occasional chuckle. It plays out like a comic book, which, considering the source material, is a good thing. But it could have and should have been so much better. It falls in the middle of my ranking of MCU titles.

 

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Jurassic World Jumps The Shark

More than 25 years ago, the cinema was irrevocably changed as technology was able to bring to the big screen, in startling photo-realism, creatures that had up until then, only been done with small clay models in stop motion, or normal-sized animals superimposed to look more monstrous. Computer Generated Imagery (CGI) allowed film maker Stephen Spielberg to bring dinosaurs to life in Jurassic Park and Hollywood has never been the same since. In fact, the film was so groundbreaking it set the standard for special effects that has only been increased in the interim years and it spawned several sequels, including this weekend’s Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. Unfortunately, for its pedigree, Fallen Kingdom suffers by comparison.

The film stars Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard reprising their roles from the first Jurassic World. Howard is the daughter of film maker Ron Howard who once starred in the 70’s TV series Happy Days, which was an immensely popular series. The show enjoyed its success until season 5 when a character performed a stunt on the show that was so unbelievable it coined the term “Jumped The Shark” to describe a show that goes so far that it exceeds the limits of believability. That family legacy continues here as Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom jumps the shark.

Howard and Pratt are tapped to return to Isla Nublar to save the dinosaurs that have been permitted to live on the island after the events in Jurassic World. It seems that the island has a volcano that has become active and threatens to kill all life on the island. It also seems that Pratt’s personal pet raptor, “Blue,” is of particular interest in the survival effort, which is why they need Pratt’s help. Unfortunately, the rescue is not as altruistic as Howard and Pratt are led to believe and dangerous situations ensue.

Where the movie jumps the shark is that aside from the above synopsis there is no real plot to the movie, which means it devolves into nothing more than a series of action sequences loosely tied together by a common narrative. In order to create stimulating visuals, the film makers put characters in increasingly unbelievable situations and have them make decisions that no normal human being would make. It also creates a back story to explain the current situation that runs contrary to established story line from the previous films.

Howard’s Clair, so strong a character in the previous film, is reduced to bit character status in this sequel, not giving her room to grow or any opportunity to show her acting range. She is simply window dressing in this film. Even Pratt’s Owen is left flat as he gallops from scene to scene reacting to the impossible plot points with nothing more than a smirk and a shrug. Jeff Goldblum reprises his character Malcom from the first trilogy, but only inasmuch as he appears to testify before congress so the film can moralize on science run amuck.

The story also introduces a new character, Maisie Lockwood, but then doesn’t do anything with her, other than to put her in danger and in need of rescuing on several occasions, despite having potentially the greatest plot thread of the whole film. One possible explanation is that she is setting up the third film in this second franchise. Unfortunately, if other people agree with this assessment of the movie, it may not spawn a third installment.

The special effects, revolutionary in the first Jurassic Park, are run of the mill here, offering no awe inspiring graphics or breakthrough visuals. In fact, some sequences seem rushed, the overlays are obvious and the physics are problematic. It is as if the producers didn’t bother to research how hot lava really is.

Of course, the movie has to introduce a new variation of a big bad dinosaur as every other film in the franchise has done, but this big bad monster is a bit of a retread and does not engender any real sense of malice or threat beyond that of “Oh My God, It’s a Dinosaur!”

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is a poor addition to the Jurassic Park franchise and is unworthy of the name. Even the most ardent dinosaur fans could skip this film and not really miss anything. The producers, in an effort to capitalize on the franchise while feeding a frenzy of mindless action, have taken the story into unbelievable plot points much like Happy Days did in season 5 where Fonzie Jumped the Shark.

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Infinity War Has No End

The summer 2018 movie season has just launched what will be the reigning king of the annual box office with Marvel’s Avengers: Infinity War. This much anticipated installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) ties all of the previous MCU films together in a tight package that spans galaxies and offers parts for almost every super hero and supporting character in the franchise. In fact, it wouldn’t be inaccurate to say that almost every preceding film has set up the events in this movie. With all of that setup and with all the money Disney/Marvel has spent building up the hype, this movie is poised to be the biggest blockbuster or the biggest failure in the studio’s history. And for all that, the answer to the question of success or failure is not revealed in this movie, as Avengers: Infinity War is simply a setup for the next Avenger’s movie to be released in summer 2019.

When the greater MCU was announced after the successes of Iron Man and Captain America: The First Avenger, there was a lot of talk about how the Avengers’ ensemble films would play out. Kevin Feige said early on that the Avengers would end up in the Infinity War and that the story would span two movies. Some fans were pumped by the news, while others expressed disappointment. Marvel responded to the fan’s outcry by saying that there would not be an Avengers: Infinity War part 2 and changed the working title to Untitled Avengers Movie.

This was a lie.

There HAS to be an Avenger Infinity War part 2 if for no other reason than Avengers: Infinity War doesn’t finish the story at all. In fact, it just stops in the middle of the climax with no resolution to the dramatic events unfolding during the climax. Whatever they do entitle the film, it is going to be Infinity War part 2.

Part 1 offers fans all the excitement the hype promises by tying the dangling threads of previous films such as Captain America: Civil War, Doctor Strange, Thor: Ragnarok, and Black Panther into a complicated but easy to follow story that carries the MCU heroes battling the minions of Thanos on Earth, on Titan, and in a place called Nowhere among others. The film reveals the location of the final Infinity Stone, known as the Soul Stone and demonstrates what the stones do individually and together. We even see the return of characters believed long dead.

The recurring theme of sacrifice carries throughout the film as most of the heroes offer to sacrifice themselves for the greater good. In fact, it has been a foregone conclusion that one of the primary heroes will not survive the Infinity War and much discussion has been devoted to guessing which one will make that ultimate sacrifice. Rest assured no one will guess correctly.

The movie is very entertaining and in many ways, quite satisfying. But I cannot say I left the theater satisfied. In fact, when the credits started rolling, no one clapped, which is testament to the complete lack of satisfaction this film provides with regard to the story at the film’s end. Is it worth seeing? Yes. Is it good? Yes. But don’t go thinking you’re going to get the whole story. It isn’t finished yet. Do go see it, if for no other reason that to know what’s coming in the next Untitled Avengers movie. Of course, Marvel can pull a fast one and resolve all the issues that Infinity War creates in one of the other films in the pipeline like Ant Man and the Wasp or Captain Marvel.

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Play The Game

As a child of the 70’s and a teen of the 80’s, I find shows that delve into the pop culture of those decades particularly compelling. I thoroughly enjoyed the Netflix series Stranger Things which featured so many Easter eggs of the 80’s it has become a cultural phenomenon for this decade. Easter eggs are small hidden references in media that harkens to another film, show or game. Cultural Easter eggs are also the point of Stephen Spielberg’s latest film, Ready, Player One, and viewers will spend much of the film trying to identify all of them. The movie is an adaptation of the novel by first-time author Ernest Cline, a self-described child of 80’s culture who takes the title from the experience of playing most 80’s video games. While most viewers will find satisfaction in this film looking for and identifying the parts of 80’s pop culture that are significant to them, the movie does work on its own merits as well, although it does have to overcome one or two challenges to do it.

The movie centers around a young man in a dystopian future where people escape the pain of daily life by plugging into a virtual reality world called the Oasis where people can become anyone they wish to be. Many people chose to become super heroes or characters from films and TV. The Oasis is so pervasive that its virtual economy drives the real world economy. The Oasis was designed and built by two men who have become legends to users and when they end their partnership, it creates ripples across the world. One of them dies and leaves his stake in the oasis to the person who can complete three puzzles in the Oasis to unlock Easter eggs and win the contest. Much like the sword in the stone, no one has proven worthy to win the challenge. Until now.

The Hero of the film is Wade Watts (AKA Parzival), portrayed by Tye Sheridan, a loner who competes in the contest as a loner without the benefit of a “pack.” He does, however, have other loners that have become friends while idolizing the mysterious player known only as Art3mis. Parzival and his friends soon realize that in order to beat the corporate team known as the IOI’s to the win the game, they must pool their knowledge. But even then, will it be enough?

The film is almost entirely CGI, since most of the engagement is in the Oasis, with the occasional back story being filmed with the real actors. One would think that with this technological advantage, the 3-D version of the film would be spectacular. Unfortunately, it did not use the technology to its advantage and the 3-D was subpar, even though the imagery was very good. The textures were some of the best yet, especially the skin textures of the character’s avatars. It was difficult to distinguish between the CGI and the actual film sets in some scenes.

The acting was probably the biggest challenge the film facing it, as most of the cast are unknowns and their performance was rather stiff and stilted. Add the fact the CGI avatars suffer from the CGI inability to convey the subtleties and nuances of human expression and the performance suffers accordingly.

The story does fall into the standard quest formula with the requisite challenges the protagonist must overcome to reach his goal, but the characters do a good job of driving the story through the plot by being engaging and easy with which one can identify. The other challenge is that the film is long at two-and-a-half hours and drags at times. If the script had been tightened up, the film would have flowed much better.

Ready, Player One is a good movie to enjoy in the cinema, although not necessarily in 3-D. Spend the time watching for the Easter eggs that are individually significant, as there has to be at least one. Parzval drives a DeLorean that is a mash-up of Marty McFly’s time machine from Back to the Future, the Ghostbuster’s hearse and KITT from Knight Rider. The Iron Giant makes an appearance, as does King Kong, and MechaGodzilla. The reference to the 1980 film Excalibur was my personal favorite.

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The Black Panther Claws the Box Office

A second super hero movie has the internet all atwitter this week with accolades such as “historic” and “triumphant” pretty much for the same reasons.  Last year’s Wonder Woman was the first female super hero movie and the first directed by a woman.  This year, “The Black Panther” is touted as the first super hero movie with a Black protagonist and directed by a black director.  Now the veracity of that claim can be and has been debated, but that is irrelevant to the quality of the film.  The Black Panther is a character in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (not the only black one) that interacts with the Avengers.  His character was introduced in 2016’s Captain America Civil War and played a major role in the events of that film.  In this movie, we learn more about the Black Panther and his alter ego, King T’Challa, ruler of the fictional African country of Wakanda, but the focus of this movie is not really T’Challa or the Black Panther.  One could argue the movie is actually about Wakanda.  As Wakanda is in Africa, it follows that this movie will feature predominately black characters.  In fact, the only principle characters that are not black is Andy Serkis’s Klaw and Martin Freeman’s Ross.  Given the setting of the movie and the characters, one would expect certain social commentary about race relations.  This film does not shirk in this regard, and in fact, is a bit “in your face” about it, almost too much so, which is the only problem I have with this otherwise enjoyable action movie.

One observation that bears notice is that story told in “The Black Panther”, while set within the MCU, has absolutely no bearing on the greater MCU story arcs. There is no mention of the Infinity Stones, the Avengers or any other heroes at all.  In fact, it almost seems as though Freeman’s Ross was tacked on just to tie it in, as his presence really doesn’t move the plot much.  Having said that, he does offer a bit of humor.

The rest of the cast turn in solid performances.  Chadwick Boseman reprises his role as King T’Challa and brings the same brooding strength to this performance.  His likeable naiveté dares the viewer not to like him.  His skills as the Black Panther, while impressive, are still developing and he finds himself in dire straits on more than one occasion.  Boseman conveys this and portrays T’Challa’s learning process convincingly.

Angela Basset stars as T’Challa’s mother and brings out his humanity along with Letitia Wrght’s performance as Shuri, T’Challa’s sister.  We also meet his ex-girlfriend and the general of the king’s guard, who all serve to help T’Challa face his first major challenge as king: A literal challenge for the throne from his American cousin, Killmonger, played by Michael B. Jordan.

The story is full of intrigue and more than one plot twist and if the writers and producers had left it at that, it would have made for an outstanding movie.  But with the current social climate, they couldn’t resist attacking the perceived “white-dominated” power structure in the world that was only serving to keep down “those who look like us,” as Killmonger says.

Of course, the film will win the box office.  It is an MCU film, after all, and opening on a weekend bereft of any real box office competition.  The movie was enjoyable, but it doesn’t rank as high as Civil War or Guardians of the Galaxy, and while it is good, it is not quite historic or triumphant.  Movies should earn those accolades with plot, character and message, not by the gender or the color of the skin of the actor or director.  I still give it a thumbs up.

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Searching For Hope: The Last Jedi Answers

Questions answered and questions raised: That could be the subtitle of the latest in the Star Wars franchise hitting theaters this weekend. The Last Jedi picks up immediately after the events of The Force Awakens, with the resistance evacuating their base and Rey finding Luke Skywalker and Fynn in a coma. That first of the third trilogy left a lot of plot threads hanging and a lot of questions unanswered. The Last Jedi follows suit, but does so in a much better fashion, with much better writing.

The First Order has the republic on the ropes, with the remnants of the imperial rebellion now calling themselves the resistance and scattered to the outer rim planets while the command core is trying to escape the First Order’s dreadnaught. The future looks bleak for our heroes as they fight to hold onto that one thing that they hold most dear: Hope. For some, that hope is embodied in the last Jedi Master who has been missing for many years, Luke Skywalker. For others, hope is in the form of the new cadre of heroes like Poe Dameron and Fynn Rider. Everyone will begin to lose hope as the First Order closes in.

While both this film and The Force Awakens are produced by J.J. Abrams, this one was written and directed by Rian Johnson, with George Lucas sharing the writing credit. Perhaps it was the new writer, perhaps it was a fresh vision, but The Last Jedi stands taller as a standalone story and less of a retread like its predecessor. The Force Awakens had too many similar elements with A New Hope and felt too familiar and predictable. The Last Jedi dares the viewer to try to predict the outcome as it offers multiple threads that twist and interweave with each other. Some may try to draw similarities with The Empire Strikes Back, and, superficially, there may be. It is the second act in a three act story, and as such, certain things typically happen with regard to the hero’s struggle. They happened in The Empire Strikes Back and they happen in The Last Jedi. It is how they happen that sets this story apart.

The characters actually relate with each other better in this story and act within the established motivations that Johnson established for them. The newer characters of Rey, Fynn and Kylo are now much more fully realized and relatable, making a connection with the viewer that they lacked in The Force Awakens. The Last Jedi adds even more new characters, such as Laura Dern as Vice Admiral Holdo and Kellie Marie Tran as Rose, and each of them makes a lasting connection to the story and the viewer.

There is one thing about Abrams that even the most dedicated opponent cannot deride and that is his artistic visuals. If there was one thing that could be considered problematic, it would be that he relies too much on the visuals at the expense of story—a problem that plagued Abrams’ Star Trek. The Last Jedi doesn’t suffer for its visuals, indeed, they accentuate the story by how appropriate to the mood and setting they are. The sacrifice of the heavy cruiser is one of the most arresting visuals in the entire Star Wars franchise and drew a collective gasp from the audience.

The Last Jedi tells a new chapter in the epic Star Wars story and picks up where The Force Awakens left off. Some of the questions left hanging at the end of Force Awakens do get answered such as what happened to Ben Solo and why did Luke go into hiding. The question of exactly who Snoke is and where he came from is rendered moot. There is even an answer given as to who Rey’s parents are, but the answer is, of course, in question as even more questions come to the fore. Those questions will drive the discussion boards for the next two years.

The Last Jedi will win the box office for its opening weekend, and the Christmas season and probably for the year. Once word of how much better the writing is gets out, it will be heralded as one of the best of the franchise. It is much better than The Force Awakens, better than all three prequels combined and at least as good as The Empire Strikes Back, even if it does leave the viewer asking more questions.

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