Iron Man 2 – Marvel Superhero week

This is Marvel Superhero week – why? Because even though I am almost 50, I still love comic books. Iron Man 2 is currently available on instant Netflix.

WATCH: Iron Man 2 (2010) – Rated PG-13 for sequences of intense sci-fi action and violence, and some language.

Wealthy inventor Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) — aka Iron Man — resists calls by the American government to hand over his technology. Meanwhile, Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke) has constructed his own miniaturized arc reactor, causing all kinds of problems for our superhero. Sam Rockwell, Gwyneth Paltrow, Scarlett Johansson, Don Cheadle and Samuel L. Jackson co-star in director Jon Favreaus sequel based on Marvel comic book characters.

I loved the first Iron Man movie. I loved the handling (and updating) of the origin story as well as leaving enough room for the emergence of a good villain to quickly be trounced but mostly I loved it as a wonderful vehicle for Robert Downey Jr. and his quirky acting style.

Robert Downey Jr. does get to shine here as well but more attention is paid to the other characters (as compared to Iron Man which was basically a one-man show). Gwyneth Paltrow and Jon Favreau return as Pepper Potts and Happy Hogan and are given more substantial roles. Paul Bettany again voices Jarvis.

For some reason Terence Howard was not asked back to play Lt. Col. James Rhodes. Instead he was replaced by Don Cheadle (who I have loved since he played Mouse in The Devil in a Blue Dress). The first line Don utters is “Look I am here, its me, deal with it, lets move on” which is a very humorous response to the whole replacement fiasco.

To more closely tie-in The Avengers event in May 2012, Samuel L. Jackson reprises his role as Nick Fury as does Clark Gregg as Agent Coulson. Scarlett Johansson plays a kick-butt Natalie Rushman AKA Natalia Romanoff AKA…

Everyone performs well and it is nice to see so many Marvel heroes onscreen (Iron Man, War Machine, Nick Fury, Black Widow) and allusions to several others (Black Panther, Captain America, Thor). The post-credit sequence remains intact.

Having said that, director Jon Favreau has tried to pack way too much into the movie much like Sam Raimi did on Spider-Man 3 (though it does not experience anywhere near that level of failure). The main plot deals with Whiplash trying to take revenge on Tony Stark but there are separate subplots involving a Senate sub-committee, SHIELD, Rhodey, blood poisoning, Justin Hammer, Natalie Rushman, and more.

I suspect that Marvel pushed Favreau to do too much with this film. The result is that while the film is quite enjoyable, it seems to come across more as a series of requisite scenes than as a whole story. While disjointed, it is still very shiny and fun.

People Watch: Look for the standard Stan Lee cameo as well as Christiane Amanpour, Larry Ellison and DJ AM Adam Goldstein playing themselves.

Blade 2 – Marvel Superhero week

This is Marvel Superhero week. Blade 2 is currently available on instant Netflix.

WATCH: Blade 2(2002) – Rated R for Strong pervasive violence, language, some drug use and sexual content.

Blade (Wesley Snipes) is a half-vampire sworn to eradicating the bloodsuckers who lurk in the shadows. But when a breed of “reapers” is unleashed, the Vampire Nation asks for his help in preventing a nightmare plague that would wipe out both humans and vampires. Directed by Guillermo del Toro (Hell Boy, Pans Labyrinth), this Blade sequel mixes high-tech action with crimson terror. Kris Kristofferson and Ron Perlman co-star.

“Keep your friends close. Keep your enemies closer.”

Well way back when I was a wee lad, my favorite comic book series was The Tomb of Dracula. I loved the portrayal of Dracula as an evil mastermind and all of the people hunting him were fascinating as well. One of those was Blade, the Vampire Slayer.

Wesley Snipes returns as Blade and Kris Kristofferson returns as his accomplice/handyman Whistler (despite having died in the first film). As he was in the first film, Snipes is a complete bada$$, dusting vampires by the score. Norman Reedus (Boondock Saints) plays the new addition to the “good guys”. You have to love a character that has Krispy Kreme doughnuts shipped to a stakeout.

This is definitely the way to make a sequel. Since Blade took out a vampire “god” in the last film, the vampires have formed a Special Forces team called the Blood Pack to take him down. Now in a by-the-numbers sequel that would be our movie. Instead we have a much larger threat that forces them to team up with Blade.

The Blood Pack is well cast and all the members have colorful personalities. Tough guy and Guillermo del Toro favorite Ron Perlman has a lot of fun as Reinhardt. Leonor Varela plays Nyssa, a possible love interest. Other members of the Blood Pack include Danny John-Jules (Cat in the Red Dwarf TV show) as Asad and Asian superstar Donnie Yen as Snowman. Donnie Yen also handled the impressive fight choreography.

Blade II is written very intelligently by David S. Goyer and yet oddly Goyer would go on to write the terrible third film Blade Trinity. The difference here is that the mighty Guillermo del Toro directs Blade II and naturally it is quite stylish.

The acting is good, the action is fast and fresh, the visuals are well-done, and the script is engaging and has a few good twists to it – basically there is not much not to like in this film. That and these vampires do not sparkle in sunlight.

Marvel Comics – Marvel Superhero week

This is Marvel Superhero week. There are a number of Marvel motion comics available on instant Netflix. These motion comics use the actual comic panels from the comics and minimally animate them and provide professional voice-acting. It all creates a very nice effect.

WATCH: Iron Man: Extremis (2010) – Rated TV-MA

The famed Marvel Comics superhero continues his epic animated adventures in the 21st century by taking on his old foe Mallen, who’s gotten his hands on a nanotechnology serum called Extremis that transforms humans into deadly super-soldiers.

WATCH: Spider-Woman: Agent of SWORD (2009) – Rated TV-MA

After an incident in her childhood, Jessica Drew is fated to become a full-blown superhero in this animated action series. Allied with the S.W.O.R.D. counterintelligence agency, the female Spidey defends Earth from multiple alien threats.

WATCH: Astonishing X-Men: Gifted (2009) – Rated TV-MA

From Joss Whedon and John Cassaday comes a new vision of the X-Men, propelling the often-conflicted, mutant superheroes into the 21st century. This animated feature brings the comic books alive with stunning graphics and dynamic voice actors. Cyclops and Emma Frost seek to reform the X-Men with a vigorous clarity of purpose, but when a “cure” for mutants is discovered, their plan is threatened, and ferocious enemies test them to their limits.

I have recommended all of these as WATCH simply because you should see how these are done. The main drawback is that these are stupidly broken up into “episodes” which really hurts their watchability.  Probably the easiest to get into would be Astonishing X-Men by Joss Whedon and Spider-Woman is the hardest as it takes place during the recent Skrull invasion storyline.

Please do not mistake these for the animated X-Men, Iron Man, Avengers, and Spider-Man series (all of which are also available on instant Netflix). Every word in the motion comics is taken from the comics themselves. These are certainly not for everyone because they are basically someone reading a comic to you while you watch but they are interesting.

Captain America & Marvel Superhero week

You might guess from the Captain America shirt that I was looking forward to the Captain America movie and you would be right. I went to see it with my honey today and I really enjoyed it (although both Thor and X-Men First Class were better).  It was a real throwback to the idealistic Captain America of my youth – not the grittier yet superb vision of Ed Brubaker. Strangely not many people stayed until the credits were over to see the “sneak peek” of The Avengers. I always love the bonus scenes for staying through the credits.

We also saw a preview for The Amazing Spider-Man but to me it really seemed like Green Lantern 2012. It looks like a retread of the Spider-Man origin story by a lesser director and with a less appealing cast. I love the plethora of comic book movies each year but I do recognize they have a wide range of quality associated with them. In fact I often feel relieved after I have seen a bad one (Green Lantern, either Fantastic Four movie) as I feel I have “disaster-proofed” the others for the year.

By the way if anyone has not seen Captain America yet, I got FREE tickets for my wife and I by buying Iron Man and Iron Man 2 on Blu-Ray at Best Buy. I love free movie ticket offers.

Shakespeare week – Theater of Blood

This is Shakespeare week. Apparently when you fail to give an actor of the Bard his due, you may be in for some trouble. Theater of Blood is currently available on instant Netflix.

WATCH: Theater of Blood (1973) – NR

“Vincent Price channels his peerless talent for playing refined madmen into the character of Edward Lionheart, a proud London actor who goes dramatically bonkers when he fails to receive a coveted award. While riverside tramps foil his attempt to drown himself in the River Thames, the world believes he has met a watery end. The thespian uses this cover to exact grisly — and fitting — revenge on the critics who ignored his genius.”

“O pardon me thou bleeding piece of earth, that I am meek and gentle with these butchers.”

The concept of having a Shakespearean actor take poetic revenge on his critics is certainly a fun one and this one is milked for all it is worth beginning on the Ides of March. The murders are quite inventive and each is taken from a different Shakespeare play. They were gory for the time but seem quaint today.

Much as Richard III was yesterday, Theater of Blood is essentially a one-man show. If you do not enjoy the theatricality (or hamminess if you prefer) of a Vincent Price performance then you probably will not enjoy this. This is not his best performance (see Witchfinder General – also available on instant Netflix) but ranks up there with Dr. Phibes as one of his most enjoyable.

Diana Rigg acquits herself well in her second billed role as Edwina Lionheart, daughter of Edward. This is probably her best role after her fabulous stint as Emma Peel in The Avengers but no one steals a scene from Vincent.

Actress Coral Browne, who plays Miss Chloe Moon here, first met Vincent Price on this movie. They were married the following year and, unlike traditional Hollywood marriages, stayed married until her passing in 1991.

The rest of the cast reads like a list of Hammer supporting players – Madeline Smith (Vampire Lovers), Diana Dors (Hammer House of Horror), Ian Hendry (Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter), Michael Hordern (Demons of the Mind), Dennis Price (Twins of Evil) and even the voice of Charles Gray (The Devil Rides Out).

This film is a huge amount of fun and could be watched just for the early 70s fashion. The Shakespeare references are plentiful and much of his dialogue is included as well. Theater of Blood is a showcase for Vincent Price and he shines so watch it already. Besides which, where else are you going to see a swordfight on gym equipment?

People Watch: When Vincent Price retired from his stint of hosting Mystery for Masterpiece Theater, his co-star in this film, Diana Rigg, took over hosting duties.

Shakespeare week – Richard III

This is Shakespeare week on Instant Netflix. Another inventive adaptation of the Bard is Richard III by Richard Loncraine. Richard III is currently available on instant Netflix.

WATCH: Richard III (1995) – Rated R for violence and sexuality.

“Ian McKellen stars in the title role in this visually inventive adaptation of Shakespeares classic drama, which is set in 1930s England after a civil war has torn the country apart and left the people under fascist rule. Richard plots against his brother, Edward (John Wood), in his quest to usurp the throne, and will stop at nothing in pursuit of his goal. The film received Oscar nominations for art direction and costume design.”

“I that am rudely stamped, deformed, unfinished, sent before my time into this breathing world…”

For all the inventiveness of Romeo + Juliet, Richard Loncraine got there a year earlier with Richard III. Richard III begins with a teletype machine hammering out a message about the war and segues into a 1930s style war room and from there… well lets just say that that would be a visual spoiler only a few minutes into the film. Seriously though even if you do not choose to watch the film, watching the first three minutes will give you a wonderful idea of its chutzpah.

Star Ian McKellan co-wrote the screenplay with director Richard Loncraine. While they have rewritten Shakespeare, fear not – The House of York speech and much of the original dialogue remains intact.

Ian McKellan is absolutely stunning as Richard. This should come as no surprise to those who have seen him steal every scene as Magneto in the first three X-Men movies or again every scene as Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. This is practically a one-man show (as Richard III often is) and McKellan is riveting, repeatedly breaking the fourth wall to speak directly to the camera.

McKellan is ably supported by John Wood as King Edward IV, Jim Carter as Hastings, and Nigel Hawthorne as Clarence. Jim Broadbent is very impressive as Buckingham. Robert Downey Jr. acquits himself well as Rivers but his recent performances have been more nuanced than this.

On the distaff side, Annette Bening makes quite a good American Queen Elizabeth but Kristin Scott Thomas has the juicier role as the cursed Lady Anne, a year before Kristin earned an Oscar nomination for The English Patient. She even gets to spit on Ian. It is of course a given that Maggie Smith is compelling as the Duchess of York.

While it did not win any Oscars, it was nominated for both Best Costume Design (Shuna Harwood) and Best Art Direction – Set Decoration (Tony Burrough). It lost both to Restoration. The set design, costuming and even the choice of setting in Richard III are fabulous as each descends into darkness and severity as Richard comes ever closer to his goal of the throne.

While there are a few niggling plot holes, due to Shakespeare and streamlining in equal measure, the film overall is quite wonderful and definitely a showcase for Ian McKellan.

People Watch: Look for Black Adder ninny Tim McInnerny as a very serious Catesby and The Wire star Dominic West (James McNulty) in his feature film debut as the Earl of Richmond.

Shakespeare week – Romeo + Juliet

This is Shakespeare week. One of the things I most enjoy about our local Shakespeare company is the unique spin they put on his plays. One of the more unique movie adaptations of Shakespeare is Romeo + Juliet by Baz Luhrmann.

WATCH: Romeo + Juliet (1996) – Rated PG-13 for scenes of contemporary violence and some sensuality.

“In director Baz Luhrmanns contemporary take on William Shakespeares classic tragedy, the Montagues and Capulets have moved their ongoing feud to the sweltering suburb of Verona Beach, where Romeo (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Juliet (Claire Danes) fall in love and secretly wed. Though the film is visually modern, the bards dialogue remains intact as the feuding families children pay a disastrous cost for their mutual affection.”

“The hurt cannot be much” – “Twill serve – ask for me tomorrow and you shall find me a grave man.”

Right off the bat there is no mistaking Romeo + Juliet for the stately Franco Zeffirelli version (the previous gold standard for Romeo & Juliet adaptations – currently also available on instant Netflix). Romeo + Juliet opens with a TV newscaster reading from the prologue and quickly segues into a helicopter overview of Fair Verona Beach.

The hyper-kinetic stylings of Baz Luhrmann would seem to be antithetical to a proper rendition of Romeo & Juliet yet it works. The entire film can be watched just for the visuals as each scene is filled with explosions of color and music. There are many inventive modern updatings such as guns named “sword” and “rapier” and the truck called “Post Haste Delivery”.

Baz Luhrmann is clearly fond of male pecs – not only do all the young men appear partially or entirely shirtless but even Pete Postlethwaite as Father Laurence, a character one would imagine clothed in a particular fashion, is seen instructing young boys while half-naked. I will go ahead and guess that this movie predates the massive Catholic priest scandals. Juliet is also topless in a scene but only hr back is shown.

The performances are all over the map. Thankfully, Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes are wonderfully fresh faced and intense as the doomed couple. Diane Venora plays mother to Juliet quite well but her accent slips terribly from scene to scene, even from line to line. Brian Dennehy is wasted as Ted Montague but Paul Sorvino is surprisingly restrained as Fulgencio Capulet.

Many of the other actors have their performances turned up to 11. Harold Perrineau (Michael from the TV series Lost, also available on instant Netflix) does a delightful job of playing a deliriously over-the-top and seriously deranged Mercutio. John Leguizamo is filled with bitterest gall as Tybalt. Jaime Kennedy is his usual screwball self as Sampson, a “Montague boy”.

Afterthought: while I highly recommend this film, Romeo is hardly a sympathetic character. He mopes around coveting Rosaline, drops a tab of Ecstasy, crashes a party, and promptly forgets all about Rosaline when he spies Juliet. He then inadvertently causes the death of his friend, guns down an unarmed cousin of his wife, and performs a few more heinous acts on his way to the tragic finale.

People Watch: Look for currently popular comedian Paul Rudd as Dave Paris and noted character actor M. Emmet Walsh as the apothecary.

 

My Weekends with the Immortal Bard

I like Shakespeare and always have since my mother took me to see Hamlet oh so many years ago. I find his themes to be intricate and his wordsmithery (okay maybe that is not a word but it should be) fabulous. I never cared much for his comedies but enjoyed his tragedies and the few histories I had seen. My wife never cared much for Shakespeare and thought him to be the most overrated playwright ever. Both of our opinions lasted until a few years ago.

Now we both adore the Bard. Every weekend we go to see FREE Shakespeare in Montford Park in Asheville. Yes this is a plug for The Montford Park Players. Every summer they put on FREE Shakespeare plays at the Hazel Robinson Amphitheatre in Asheville. They run every weekend all summer and each play runs four weeks.

This year the first play was a double feature of Double Falsehood and Comedy of Errors. It was brilliantly staged by director Jason Williams and choreographer Kristi DeVille as a Bollywood musical. Currently we are two weeks into director Scott Keel”s adaptation of All”s Well that Ends Well. He has adapted this as though it were a Jane Austen novel. The acting, costuming, sets, and music are all superb.

The above picture is where I play the drum in the enemy ambush scene from All”s Well (two audience members are chosen at random to help with the drumming in that scene). My wife and I enjoyed the play so much that we went to Friday, Saturday, and Sunday evenings performances. If you ever go – bring a picnic dinner and something to drink (alcohol is permitted).

This leads of course to my theme of the week which is Shakespeare on Instant Netflix.

The Return of Instant Netflix

Well it has been a ridiculously long time since I have blogged. While Netflix is no stranger to the news, their latest announcement has their community in an uproar. They are separating their DVD and instant movie services (to an extent). Of course this was couched as a positive in the press release.

Digression: This positive portrayal of a mostly detrimental change strongly reminds me of working for Eckerd drugs. Every time they changed the benefits package, they always portrayed it as getting better when in fact it got persistently worse (not to mention more expensive)(oops I mentioned it, sorry). All the Eckerd drugstores were bought out later by CVS but I imagine the principle applies to many if not most corporations.

The new pricing structure is effective immediately for new subscribers while current subscribers will not take the price hit until after September 1st (assuming current subscribers do not attempt to change their level of service prior to then). My current level of service is 2 DVDs at a time and instant Netflix and costs $14.99 a month. As of September 1st, that plan will be $19.98. All the other disc plus instant plans went up substantially as well.

I understand customer ire at these huge price hikes. While a bitter pill to swallow, Netflix is still a fantastic bargain. Between Netflix (for movies) and Hulu Plus (for TV series), we do not bother watching cable television. That is not just hyperbole – we only have cable internet and cut off our TV cable well over a year ago.

The basic set of channels in our area costs $55 a month and that does not include the premium channels. For Netflix’s $15 (soon to be $20), I get a vast selection of movies that I can start at 8:20 or any time of my choosing, pause it later to make my wife some popcorn or a soda, and then return to where I left.

So to sum up, in spite of the price increase, I remain an instant Netflix fanboy.