Marvel, Paradise Regained

Yesterday, I covered how Marvel set up a series of deals that helped rescue them from financial difficulty but horrifically tied their hands. Now, Marvel has a wonderful cinematic universe where, just like in the comics, stories cross over each other.

Daredevil

The Daredevil and Punisher licenses have lapsed (Yay!). Marvel and Netflix made a wonderful series out of Daredevil (and I daresay spent less than they did on the mediocre movie). I have high hopes for Jessica Jones (November!), Power Man, Iron Fist, and The Defenders.

Agents of SHIELD

So why doesn’t Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. work? It was sold as being part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. This means The Avengers as that is basically what the MCU is, given the absence of mutants, Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, and others. Yet for being based on The Avengers, there is no sign of Thor, Iron Man, Captain America, Black Widow, Hawkeye, or any superheroes at all. The closest they come is that Lady Sif (Jaimie Alexander) guest stars in two episodes. That’s two episodes out of two full seasons. In the second season, they added Bobbi Morse aka Mockingbird but haven’t done much with her.

Another part of it has to do with SHIELD. SHIELD as a comic book evolved out of the James Bond series. Nick Fury was a spymaster with a vast array of incredibly cool gadgets but that was in the 70s. The cinematic Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) is based more on The Ultimates line of comics and works well.

Unfortunately, a television series could not afford Samuel L. Jackson on a regular basis so the leader of SHIELD is seen in only three episodes and even then it’s briefly. So they resurrect Agent Coulson to lead the team so that we have at least one familiar face. The gadget antics wore out their welcome long ago. It’s why when Daniel Craig became Bond, they went back to basics and ditched the outlandish gadgets. Unfortunately the SHIELD team thinks these items can substitute for plot. They don’t really understand how a Mcguffin works.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe has already had a wide array of supervillains, drawn from a long history of comics. While many of the heavy hitters like Dr. Doom and Magneto are unavailable, we still have Loki, Malekith (who was much cooler in the comics), Thanos, Yellowjacket, Ironmonger, Whiplash, The Mandarin (sort of), The Red Skull, Arnim Zola, Ultron, and others, heck they even manage to shoehorn Strucker and Klaw into a movie that didn’t need them.

Who does SHIELD have for a supervillain? Umm, The Enchantress guest stars in an episode. Kyle MacLachlan periodically guests as Calvin Zabo. Who?

SHIELD has started to introduce the Inhumans, one of the few properties not sold off. Unfortunately, they do so in a rather lame fashion. Black Bolt? Nope. Medusa? Nope. I guess they are saving those for the eventual Inhumans movie.

Agent Carter

There is the real crux of the problem. Marvel appears to be saving everything for their blockbuster movies, leaving nothing for SHIELD (or Agent Carter for that matter). There was even talk of a spinoff from SHIELD featuring Bobbi Morse (Mockingbird). Why do a spinoff when you cannot even get the original right?

Obviously, the Inhumans are SHIELD’s big push this year, until the inevitable spring tie-in with Captain America: Civil War. I am a die-hard Marvel fan from my kid days but I feel I have invested too much time in this already.

Excuse me, The Flash is about to come on.

Oldboy is Almost Human

Almost Human, Oldboy (2013), Oldboy (2003), Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, and Lady Vengeance are all currently available on instant Netflix

Oldboy

 

Oldboy (2013) – Rated R

After being unaccountably held captive for years, Joe Doucett is suddenly released. Now, his only mission is to hunt down and punish his captors.”

One Line Review: Watch the original, not this lame remake

Wow, what a misfire. What went wrong?

Oldboy stars Josh Brolin. Brolin was nominated for an Oscar for his role as the angry Dan White in Milk. He was great playing an everyman in over his head in No Country for Old Men, albeit overshadowed by Javier Bardem. He did an uncanny impersonation of Tommy Lee Jones in Men in Black 3. Obviously, Brolin is an actor with a lot of talent and able to handle a variety of characters. Why is he so terrible in the first twenty minutes of this film?

Oldboy is directed by twice Oscar-nominated Spike Lee. Clearly, he can direct but in Oldboy, the direction is very by-the-numbers. There is plenty of graphic violence as well as a rape and a threatened rape. Some of this violence is quite comical though I am not sure that it was meant to be. The ending would have been great had the film built in power. Instead the ending is botched.

The original Oldboy is much better. If you don’t mind subtitles then you should go watch that. It is the middle part of Chan-wook Park’s Vengeance Trilogy though only the themes are related. Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (2002) is the starter and Lady Vengeance (2005) finishes up the trilogy. All are currently available on instant Netflix.

It is not that Lee’s Oldboy is bad, merely pointless. It says nothing new and everywhere it deviates from the original is a misstep. Elizabeth Olsen is just fine but Samuel L. Jackson is clearly collecting a paycheck (the golfing in the area must have been good) and Sharlto Copley overacts terribly.

Almost Human

Almost Human (2013) – Not rated

Two years after disappearing in a blinding flash of blue light, a young lumberjack returns to rural Maine and embarks on a murderous rampage.”

Almost Human borrows liberally from a large number of science fiction movies but boils down to “what if we filmed x as if it were an 80s slasher movie”. The x I will leave as a bit of a surprise though it is quickly obvious.

There is plenty wrong with Almost Human but for a low-budget film (with a larger advertising budget), it is entertaining. All of the many gore effects are practical, resulting in several nice setpieces. The acting ranges from okay to not so okay but if you want a low-budget horror movie, Almost Human is worth a look.

 

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

The same day I took off from work to see the dreadful Sabotage, I was able to catch a Captain America double feature. It really helped wash the taste of Sabotage out.

Captain America Winter Soldier

 

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) – Rated PG-13

Steve Rogers struggles to embrace his role in the modern world and battles a new threat from old history: the Soviet agent known as the Winter Soldier.

Wow. I was beginning to be disheartened. I enjoy all the Marvel movies but after The Avengers, Iron Man 3 was exciting but a bit of a letdown. Besides all the tomfoolery with one of my favorite villains, they seem to have written the script based on focus groups and added a cute kid sidekick.

Thor 2 was even more of a letdown. A movie about Norse gods should have just a bit less lasers and space ships. I like Christopher Eccleston but he didn’t make much of an impression as a villain. Even the humor was less.

They took Natalie Portman’s scientist Jane Foster and turned her into a pathetic god-stalker, someone who is only defined by her relationship to Thor. She was a strong character in the first movie and in the second, she just becomes a catalyst. Ah well enough whining – I honestly enjoy all of the Marvel films even if I nitpick them.

One Line Review: Superb storytelling allows all characters room to breathe.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier begins with a wonderful script. While the focus is obviously Captain America, the Black Widow, the Falcon, and Nick Fury receive ample time and a good fleshing out. Agents Jasper Sitwell and Maria Hill return from earlier movies. Robert Redford makes a rare appearance as Alexander Pierce, Nick Fury’s boss.

The scriptwriters, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely threw in a lot of callbacks and natural consequences. We find out what happened to Arnim Zola after the first movie and re-encounter the shadowy figures in charge of S.H.I.E.L.D. from The Avengers. Fans of the comic book will have a hard time spotting all of the references and in-jokes but there are some obvious ones clearly planned for the future such as Brock Rumlow and Agent 13.

The direction by brothers Anthony and Joe Russo keeps things moving at a brisk pace. There is a lot of nice humor and banter in the early going before paranoia sets in. I did enjoy how much smarter Black Widow seemed than Captain America.

The action scenes are fine but there aren’t any real showstoppers. This actually works as the directors keep the film grounded and focused on the paranoia. We do get to see plenty of Cap, The Falcon, Nick Fury, and Black Widow kicking butt but it seems more martial arts oriented than superhero focused.

Oh and stay through the credits for two extra scenes as seems to be the new Marvel norm (Thor The Dark World and The Avengers each had two extra scenes). The first is a very nice teaser but the second seemed an unnecessary coda.

RoboNono & Elite Squad – The Enemy Within

I had a FREE ticket (my favorite kind of ticket) to go see the Robocop remake/reboot.

Robocop

 

Robocop (2014) – Rated PG-13

In 2028 Detroit, when Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) – a loving husband, father and good cop – is critically injured in the line of duty, the multinational conglomerate OmniCorp sees their chance for a part-man, part-robot police officer.

One Line Review: Ho hum Robo redo is a RoboNono.

In spite of its arrival in the February movie dumping grounds, I was looking forward to the Robocop reboot. The director, Jose Padilha, made two police movies, Elite Squad and Elite Squad: The Enemy Within in his home country of Brazil. Both were exciting thrillers that were also indictments of the Brazilian justice system and the inherent corruption in government.

Obviously the first telling sign is Robocop’s February release. Clearly the studio did not believe in the film. The second telling sign is the teen-friendly PG-13 rating. Not only were the original’s dark humor and brutal violence prime selling points but the bad Robocop movie was Robocop 3, the only one not rated R.

There are a number of nods to the original film. Basil Poledouris’ bombastic score from the original is utilized in a couple scenes but is very toned down. The ED-209s do put in an appearance. A few of the original one-liners are present but lack any punch.

Some of the things that made Jose Padilha’s earlier movies fascinating are ultimately what doom Robocop. The Elite Squad films are a cross between police thrillers and documentaries. The documentary nature of the films helps bring the differences between Brazilian and U.S. justice systems to light.

Unfortunately the same approach is applied to Robocop. There is waaaaaaay too much exposition. The film holds your hand and carefully explains everything that is happening. Every time the film starts to get moving, another clunky bit of exposition grinds momentum to a halt.

I have to lay the vast majority of the blame at the feet of first-time writer Joshua Zetumer. He took a wonderfully interconnected original script that was not only exciting but full of incredible dark, albeit sometimes juvenile, humor and stripped out the excitement and humor. In place of the humor, he tried to update Robocop to the current drone age. There are some interesting ideas but he forgot one of the first rules of screenwriting, never state something when you can show it. He also dropped one of the core ideas from the original: that politics, business, and organized crime are all interconnected.

Joel Kinnamon is just fine as Alex Murphy but isn’t given much to do. Samuel L. Jackson’s angry news commentator schtick grows old quickly and is much too on the nose to be funny. Jackie Earle Haley provides the film’s only bit of comic relief via a song. Michael Keaton and Gary Oldman are completely wasted.

Robocop is not awful. It is just drearily by-the-numbers by people who had no understanding of what made the first one a wonderful film. Don’t buy that for a dollar!

Elite Squad: The Enemy Within is currently available on instant Netflix. Go watch that instead (as long as you don’t mind subtitles).

Elite Squad Enemy Within

 

Elite Squad: The Enemy Within (2010) – Not rated

Tenente-Coronel Nascimento, a hardened vet of Rio de Janeiro’s drug wars, is now head of a special police unit. With his new title comes new responsibilities and dangers, which the captain navigates with brashness and resolve.

Django Unchained – Wife vs. Hubby

My wife and I went to see Django Unchained yesterday. This is part of an exchange deal where I take her to see Les Miserables on our next date.

My wife’s take on Django:

“This is Tarantino at his most self-indulgent.  Long, long-winded, poorly paced.  I went in knowing that it would be enormously offensive (it wasn’t nearly as offensive or difficult to watch at Killing Them Softly) and was surprised to find that it was instead mostly just … dull.  Any editor with sense could have cut at least an hour from this film and made it better.  Instead we have long, lingering shots of plantations, mountains, guns, snowmen, and more that don’t propel the story forward in anyway.  And then, two thirds of the way through the movie, it goes from buddy-flick (two wacky bounty hunters on the road to fame and fortune) to sadistic revenge flick (they enslaved him, and took his woman, now they’ll pay) without much transition.  And finally – this is the very first Tarantino flick I’ve ever watched and not thought I MUST GO BUY THE SOUNDTRACK RIGHT NOW.  There wasn’t a single song in this one that worked for the film (or for me).

So very disappointed.  I hope next week’s viewing of Les Mis is more satisfying.  If only I can keep people from spoiling it (further) for me between now and then…”

My take: Were we even watching the same film? Django was an utter delight. Tarantino has an amazing talent for mashing up and updating genres. To borrow from Kellogg, his dialogue snaps, crackles and pops. The violence was done in an amusingly over-the-top spaghetti western style and the cameo from the original Django, Franco Nero, was a hoot.

The acting ranged from good to amazing. Jaime Foxx carried the film quite well, channeling the quiet reserve of an early Eastwood. Christoph Waltz was fantastic as the bounty hunter as were Samuel L. Jackson and Leonardo DiCaprio. Less good but still a lot of fun were Walton Goggins, Dennis Christopher, and Don Johnson. In addition to Franco Nero, other cameos include Quentin Tarantino, Jonah Hill, Michael Parks, Russ Tamblyn, Amber Tamblyn, James Remar, James Russo, Zoe Bell, Tom Savini, and Robert Carradine.

Having extolled Django’s virtues (and there are many delights to be had here), I have to agree with my wife on a few points. The music appears to have been haphazardly chosen. There wasn’t a single spot on tune. Can you hear “Stuck in the Middle with You” without imagining the ear scene in Reservoir Dogs? All of the songs in Pulp Fiction make me think of their individual scenes yet none of Django’s songs made an impression.

The editing is clearly the sore point. Django runs over two and a half hours. Sally Menke, who expertly edited all of Tarantino’s films passed away in 2010. Sally was nominated for Academy Awards for Pulp Fiction and Inglorious Basterds (losing to Forrest Gump and The Hurt Locker, sheesh). That loss is clearly felt here as almost every scene ran on too long. I love an epic but Django desperately needs to lose about an hour of running time. Some of the dialogue becomes repetitious and establishing shots linger past their expiration date.

Tone is all over the map. The first two-thirds of the film turn Django from a slave into a bounty hunter and then the movie screeches to a halt as we reach Candyland, the plantation DiCaprio reigns over. None of the women make a strong impression – not that the actresses aren’t good, the roles are simply underwritten.

Django is weak Tarantino but weak Tarantino is better than most filmmakers on their best day. It is a lot of fun but it could have been a lot better.

 

Captain America

Captain America just became available on instant Netflix.

One-Line Review: An earnest family-friendly superhero adventure that is a little long and a little slow but quite enjoyable.

Captain America (2011) – Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action.

“It is 1942, America has entered World War II, and sickly but determined Steve Rogers is frustrated at being rejected yet again for military service. Everything changes when Dr. Erskine recruits him for the secret Project Rebirth. Proving his extraordinary courage, wits and conscience, Rogers undergoes the experiment and his weak body is suddenly enhanced into the maximum human potential. When Dr. Erskine is then immediately assassinated by an agent of Nazi Germany’s head of its secret HYDRA research department, Johann Schmidt aka the Red Skull, Rogers is left as a unique man who is initially misused as a propaganda mascot. However, when his comrades need him, Rogers goes on a successful adventure that truly makes him Captain America and his war against Schmidt begins. “

I find Joe Johnston to be a very problematic director. His Jurassic Park III was a quick fun romp but it had very little of the majesty that infused the two Spielberg outings. Johnston’s The Wolfman had some very good scenes and actors but was ultimately a mess. On the other hand, way back in 1991, he directed the adorable pre-WWII saga, The Rocketeer and did a very good job of bringing the Dave Stevens graphic novel to the screen.

The Rocketeer would seem to make Johnston the ideal choice for Captain America as the stories are not all that different. A naive but earnest young man discovers a rocket pack/secret formula that allows him to fight Nazis as a masked superhero.

Chris Evans is great as Steve Rogers/ Captain America. I love the visual wizardry used to portray him as the proverbial 98-lb. weakling prior to his transformation. In the after shots, you will be wondering if those abs are real. Evans does a fine job of being earnest and brave and a little naive.

One of the biggest problems I had with Captain America was actually one of the things I had most been looking forward to. Hugo Weaving is a fantastic orator and his creations of Elrond (from the LOTR trilogy) and Mr. Smith (from The Matrix trilogy) are indelibly etched in my mind as is his voice in V for Vendetta. Unfortunately Hugo Weaving appears to have studied his German accent so hard here that his dramatic cadences are lost. His version of The Red Skull is good but just doesn’t quite gel.

Hydra is the villain organization and they have an army of Nazis with laser rifles. This also doesn’t gel well and comes across as silly in some of the scenes. Thankfully, Toby Jones is great as The Red Skull’s underling, Arnim Zola.

Stanley Tucci is excellent as always as the erstwhile Dr. Erskine but has very little screen time. Tommy Lee Jones is his usual fun craggy self as Colonel Chester Phillips. Hayley Atwell and Sebastian Stan are okay as Rogers’ best gal and pal respectively.

Pacing is a little uneven. I appreciate the logic behind using Captain America to sell war bonds but it sidelines him for too much of the movie and the battle montages will either make you shrug your shoulders or wish that they had included the actual battle. Corporate pressure from Marvel may have had an effect here as Captain America had to be ready and in the present for The Avengers this year – thus limiting his time in World War II.

Joe Johnston does a great job of conveying the feel of the time and characters (without the terrible Hollywood shorthand of sepia-toning everything). There is very little cursing and everyone is so earnest and not snarky.

Marvel fans will have plenty to umm marvel at. We get a look at Tony Stark’s father Howard (Dominic Cooper) in action as well as Dum-Dum Dugan (Neal McDonough) and the requisite appearance of Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). There is a great visual joke with Arnim Zola and the plot revolves around the cosmic cube/ tesseract. Don’t forget to stay for the post-credits sequence.

Future Watch: Although Joe Johnston will not be back for it, look for Captain America: Winter Soldier in theaters April 4th, 2014 (Chris Evans, Sebastian Stan and Samuel L. Jackson will be reprising their roles). Joe Johnston is rumored to be working on Jurassic Park IV. Hugo Weaving will once again be seen as Elrond in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey this Christmas.

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.