Saturday, December 9, 2017

The Disaster Artist (2017) - James Franco

As the calender turns to December the abysmal dreck that populates screens for the better part of the year turns into a hungry group of well made films hell bent on winning awards and glory.  Coincidentally this is also the time of year I emerge from my Netflix coma and actually leave my house to sit in a theater with strangers and try to stay up on what the cool kids are doing.  Tonight I saw The Disaster Artist, which certainly falls into the please give us awards category and seems to check every necessary box of a critical hit this time of year.

For the three people on earth who haven’t heard of this film, it is James Franco’s passion project to make a movie about the true story of Tommy Wiseau’s passion project The Room.  Plenty of people will say you don’t need to see The Room to enjoy this movie, and while that might be true, I’ve seen The Room so I can’t speak on that.  I would say knowledge is power so if you’re debating seeing this and haven’t yet seen Wiseau’s magnum opus of awful I would get on that.  It’s hard but not impossible to discuss this without mentioning Wiseau’s film, but I’m not finna do that.

Now there are a few ways to get into this particular movie and what works about it.  If you see it, you’ll get fully caught up in the plot so it’s a waste to give a play-by-play recap.  So I’ll just give the super cliff notes version and say it start’s in San Francisco when Greg (Dave Franco) and Tommy (James Franco) meet in an acting class.  Greg is terrified of failure and is drawn to Tommy’s utter fearlessness, while Tommy is just happy to have someone look up to him.  They become friends, decide to move to LA together because Tommy for some reason already has an apartment down there and they try to break into Hollywood.  Things work out about as well as you’d expect, then they decide to make their own film, so they make The Room and the rest of the story takes us up to that movie’s premiere.

So the things that work with this film are the things that often work with biopics.  Taking someone distinctive and well known with a story that is somewhat familiar gives us a built in audience.  It usually is a vehicle for whatever actor is trying to win an award.  James Franco has gotten nominated before by playing someone based on a real person (127 Hours), but that was not Wiseau.  This tactic does work, and did wonders for Jamie Foxx in Ray and Philip Seymour Hoffman in Capote, but depending on the rest of the crop for this year’s actor race I’d be surprised if Franco gets anything more than a nomination.  That doesn’t mean he isn’t great as Wiseau it’s just that biopics tread on the familiar so much that it can lead to boredom.  He has the mannerisms and the speech down perfect and the performance is truly trans-formative, it’s just exactly what you would expect.  Franco meets all the requirements for a great performance I’m just not sure he exceeds them.  This never feels like an original character and doesn’t evolve beyond mimicking the very distinct Wiseau.  Granted I said the same thing about Hoffman in Capote, so what do I know?

The other thing I would say holds this film back is that it doesn’t really answer any of the questions we had going into it.  We still have no idea what country or planet Wiseau is really from, where his money comes from, or how old he is, and the mystery of these questions keeps coming up.  Now I certainly don’t mind ambiguity in my movies but I can’t help feel like this story has already been told.  

Before this sounds too much like I’m shitting on it, I will say that this is a good movie.  Instantly more entertaining than The Room itself, in all it’s wacko charm.  The Room has moments of baffling brilliance surrounded by bad everything and sporadic pacing.  The Disaster Artist seems to make the case that the film would have been great if Wiseau wasn’t so Wiseau.  There were plenty of other things wrong with that movie, and trust me no one would remember it today if it were competently made.  The question is how will Franco’s version of events age?

There has been interest in the past in untalented auteurs making their would be masterpiece while everyone looks on laughing.  American Movie is probably the best example of this, but that is a documentary and it does hit hard.  There’s also Best Worst Movie which chronicles the ill-fated Troll 2 which again is a documentary.  The closest film might be Tim Burton’s Ed Wood, which helps to make art out of a legendary “bad” filmmaker.  Minus the artistic art design and black and white photography, it’s safe to say Burton’s film was an influence on this.  

Franco has done a damn good job at distilling what made The Room so memorable with this movie.  All those famous lines and baffling moments get explained sometimes almost to the point of being redundant.  I particularly loved the early scene of Greg and Tommy watching Rebel Without a Cause and hearing James Dean utter his very famous “You’re tearing me apart” line which would gain a second life in The Room. 

It is almost impossible to laugh with Wiseau rather than at him and there definitely is some pathos to be had in this movie.  Franco does a great job at showing his hurt and frustration at a world that doesn’t seem to understand him but the end result is eerily similar to the performance he gave in The Room.  I revisited The Room last week in preparation for this and I thought for a brief second if this could have been a great movie perhaps with a different director-star.  There are some moments in Wiseau’s film that could be at home in any serious picture, and the majority of the awfulness comes from his baffling attempt at being a normal earth human.

One thing that gets asked about horrible movies is how did it get made?  How come no one spoke up and realized it was terrible?  Everyone on set seems to figure out this movie is terrible and they just wait for it to be buried and forgotten about while they collect their paychecks and get on with it.  I know that nearly every awful movie someone thought was great going in, or they didn’t understand it and hoped for the best.  It makes Wiseau far more pitiful in this movie and it isn’t hard to feel sorry for the guy, when everyone is pretty much openly against the movie.  I don’t doubt that Wiseau’s own misguided attempts at being a serious filmmaker involved minor torture on set.  

Hi doggie
At the end of the day we are supposed to laugh at this film and this man.  We might not always feel good about it but Franco was raised in the Apatow school of awkward comedy.  Apatow himself appears to give Wiseau the harsh criticism that leads to them making the movie in the first place.  There is definitely an attempt to take this film seriously that helps to elevate from some of the more outright silly Franco-Rogen vehicles of the past several years.  Franco is using Wiseau for his own professional evolution.  I can’t think of a movie since Raging Bull that depicted a still living person in a less flattering light.  

The film is certainly worth seeing and there are no shortage of highlights.  There are certainly no shortage of cringe-worthy scenes as well, but that’s almost to be expected with Franco.  The cast is also pretty damn good, and Franco got some serious help from a bunch of massively over qualified supporting players.  I particularly loved Bob Odenkirk as another acting coach, and felt Zac Efron made the most of his very small role.  At the end of the day films should transport us and be entertaining, and this checks both of those boxes.  I wouldn’t say this is the best film of the year, but it’s certainly worth checking out.

p.s. Stick around after the credits, which if Marvel taught you anything you should already be doing that.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Marvel Cinematic Universe Phase II

Hey did you read my Thor: Ragnarok review yet?  You should, scroll down and do that it’ll be fun, I’ll wait.  Ok are we good?  Welcome back, let’s dig into the glorious recent past.  It was my grand ambition to watch/re-watch all 16 movies from the Marvel Cinematic Universe before Ragnarok was released, only to fall a few films short.  We actually finished up Phase 2 a day after seeing Ragnarok but considering we already knew Guardians well and Ant Man has nothing whatsoever to do with Thor we were appropriately up to speed.

So getting through MCU films 7-12 led me to a few pleasant surprises, reinforced some initial reactions and connected a few more dots together.  So as before I would recommend seeing all of these films before reading these reviews, or at the very least just read about the ones you’ve already seen because major spoilers will abound.

Iron Man 3 (2013)

Welcome to the world of hindsight.  The third Iron Man film came out almost exactly a year after The Avengers and was something of a trial run for how the MCU would go after our individual characters went their separate ways.  Shane Black took over directing duties from Jon Favreau (who still played Happy Hogan), which signaled in more ways than one that this film would be a bit different.  

I was certainly excited about it when it came out.  I previously mentioned Iron Man was my favorite comic book character, and Marvel fatigue had not yet set in.  I was also very excited about Shane Black co-writing and directing.  In addition to being part of the greatest cast in action movie history (Predator) he also had his hand in writing some damn good action/comedies, most famously Lethal Weapon.  I knew this film could get dark but would also lean more towards intentional comedy or at the very least clever dialogue.  This film delivered on both fronts but somehow I left the theater in 2013 a bit disappointed.

Now a little more personal backstory for me.  I was trying to remember whether or not Mandarin was my favorite villain because he was Iron Man’s greatest nemesis or if Iron Man was my favorite super hero because Mandarin was my favorite villain.  This is something of a self-perpetuating cycle, and I know 6-7 year old me saw Mandarin in that Marvel Series 1 trading card and thought (yeah that guy is awesome).  The fact that Iron Man is basically Bruce Wayne with a drinking problem and a more powerful suit helped solidify Iron Man’s place in my adult years.  So after a tease at the end of the first Iron Man when the first mention of the ten rings is made I had been patiently awaiting Mandarin.  Hearing Sir Ben Kingsley was going to play Mandarin gave me mixed feelings.  Sure he won an Oscar and is part of a long line of ethnically ambiguous Hollywood actors that can play anyone, but I always pictured Mandarin as David Lo Pan (James Hong) from Big Trouble in Little China.

So much wasted potential
This brings me to my next point and the double edged sword of being a comic book fan.  If you are familiar with these characters and the film deviates from the source material it is usually something that angers the blood.  However if they stick too close to the source material it is predictable and boring and often doesn’t live up the first time you read those stories.  The continuity of Marvel comics is so head scratchingly insane that it’s entirely possible any given story ark is perfectly faithful to some story just not the one you’re most familiar with.  I’ve learned over the years, particularly after Guardians of the Galaxy to just accept these films as their own things.  Comic story lines are constantly being ret-conned to fit the times or new characters so I don’t doubt this film would be more enjoyable for someone with no knowledge of Iron Man except for the previous films.

So after being on a role with the first phase, I watched this film knowing full well that they did not do one of my all time favorite villains justice.  Ben Kingsley does do a great job, but they decided his character would be ridiculous and that Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) would be the main bad guy.  The fact that there was an animated Iron Man Extremis series before this film was made led me to believe that would be the focal point of this film, despite how much I wanted The Mandarin and his 10 rings to finally show up.  They eventually made an apology film to let us know there might be a “real” Mandarin out there somewhere.

So lets get to the good part, I love this movie.  Hell I might even say this is my favorite Iron Man movie now.  The fact is Shane Black is a better filmmaker than Favreau and his script is actually damn good.  This isn’t just a showcase for jokes and various witticisms, which are things Tony Stark was always supposed to have, they just weren’t as well written before.  Robert Downey Jr. even gets a chance to act for once, instead of standing around smirking while CGI happens around him.  Black knew that if you just discovered there are gods from other worlds, and aliens who want to destroy your planet that you might be a little fucked up.  Superhero films aren’t usually a place for a serious depiction of anxiety, but it’s handled well, and shows a vulnerability that few random rogues could give Tony/Iron Man.

Now along with his recent cameo in Thor: Ragnarok, this previously held the title for favorite Stan Lee cameo, as he’s a judge in the Miss Chattanooga beauty pageant.  I’ll quietly forgive the fact that it wasn’t filmed in Chattanooga or probably anywhere close, but still got a kick out of it.  Perhaps another time I may get nerdy enough to rank Mr. Marvel’s cameos but that’s a subject for another blog.

As far as things I loved, I thought Guy Pearce was damn good, and I loved Happy’s mullet during the 1999 flashback.  The narrative structure worked well also.  The first two Thor movies begin with Odin narrating, but none of the Marvel films have first person narration, which is definitely something Black used in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang along with other films.  I did love the reveal that he was telling all this to a sleeping Bruce Banner who politely informs Stark that he isn’t that kind of doctor.  Minor Avengers cameos in these films are always welcome, even if they don’t come around until the very end.

Well just like the films themselves my reviews are getting formulaic, let’s talk about what I didn’t like.  In the four years since this film premiered I’ve come to terms with the injustice done to Mandarin, and can laugh at it now.  No, let’s talk about that stupid fucking ending where Tony blows up his Iron Man suits.  I have no idea whose idea that was, but it was dumb then and it’s really fucking stupid in hindsight.  Especially because the next time we see Iron Man it’s at the beginning of Age of Ultron, and there is zero reference to him rebuilding his suits or why the in the holy hell he destroyed them in the first place.  We have to wait over three years for even a half-assed explanation.

 I get that there was going to be some sort of finality to Iron Man, and contractually it was still up in the air if Downey would reprise his role going forward.  Him fucking off into the sunset is fine, and there is some nice little closure to this film particularly with his own open heart surgery.  I did like the scene where he repays the random kid who helped him in Tennessee, but those “toys” he got him definitely seemed geared more towards a full grown adult probably going through a mid-life crisis than a kid who still has to deal with bullies.

Not sure how I would rank it among the other Iron Man films as they’re all good in their own ways, but this is arguably the only film where Stark shows any growth.  These films are also very good at setting up the long payoff.  What seems as a natural reaction to alien invaders and the panic attacks Tony has feel real.  It wasn’t apparent in 2013 that it would lead Stark to help create Ultron and lead to his own paranoia in Civil War.  

Thor:  The Dark World (2013)

Alright everyone let out a subtle groan.  The Incredible Hulk was the bastard stepchild of the first phase of the MCU and the one that most people quickly forgot about.  I defended that film and think that even if it isn’t the strongest film from the first wave it is definitely worth another look.  Thor: The Dark World by default takes the title of weakest link in the phase 2 chain.  That doesn’t mean it’s a total bust or a waste of time, but every other film from phase 2 is easily better.

Now I’ll try and streamline this because like super hero movie fatigue, you and I might be feeling super hero movie review fatigue.  So Kat Dennings might be my favorite thing about this film.  She reprises her role as Darcy Lewis and is much needed comic relief especially considering how serious this movie takes itself.  I love the fact that she recruits her own unpaid intern, and also loved the fact that they eventually hook up.  She is the one holding down the fort while Jane Foster is off in Asgard recreating Attack of the Clones, and Professor Selvig is in the nut house.  Speaking of Selvig I did like some of his crazy moments, including running around Stonehenge nude and stealing Stan Lee’s shoe.

Ultimate good cop bad cop
Much of the early interaction with Loki is also quite good.  The fact that he gets to be the hero for a bit and that they even play off his penchant for treachery works quite well.  I do think that had Loki stayed dead it would have made the film itself probably better.  Unfortunately Iron Man 3 and the Agents of SHIELD show already demonstrated that death means nothing in the MCU.  You’re waiting the whole movie to see that Loki isn’t really dead and the only bit of surprise I can gather is that it took that long for the filmmakers to reveal he was tricking everyone somehow.

Now this movie is a bummer.  Malekith is a lame villain.  A weird dark elf who wants to return the nine realms to darkness for reasons, blah blah blah.  I’m not blaming Christopher Eccleston for the performance it’s just a really lame faceless bad guy to motivate the plot.  The whole final fight is just more CGI nonsense and unlike other films where the character development is more fun and enjoyable we’re left with a villain whose sole motivation seems to be, I’m evil and darkness for some reason is important to me.  

Wake me when you're interesting
 Considering the film is subtitled The Dark World it makes sense that these people would be dark, but after the cold sunless frost giant’s planet in the first film it seems too familiar and too drab.  All the filters make the film seem like it would be part of DC’s depressing chores they call movies.  I think this is somewhat of a tipping point for these movies.  Stick with me but I’m about to make a strange analogy.  Remember puberty, particularly if it was before high speed internet was in your home?  At a certain point in time if you saw naked boobies anywhere it was awesome.  Didn’t matter, you’d stay up way too late if you had HBO or Cinemax to try and catch a glimpse, or there was always that random mysterious Playboy that showed up somewhere.  Sure it was great if you knew who that sweet nakedness belonged to but any nudity would do.  

For a few years comic book movies were the same way.  I mentioned before about watching that god awful Captain America movie from 1990.  Seeing comic book characters on screen doing anything was enough.  After enough years, and internet access for that first point you need more to be interested.  Loki is a well known character so seeing him be an antagonist is awesome.  Malekith is just a random baddy.  If it was played by a better actor you could say “oh shit ____ is in a Marvel movie, bad ass”.  Instead we’re given random nudity with no emotional investment or notability.  By 2013 we needed more from our super hero movies and this film simply phoned it in.  Anyways next movie please.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

There is a tendency to feel a need to top yourself when it comes time to make sequels.  You can’t just remake the first film, it has to be bigger and better and with more explosions.  This is what made the original Batman movies progressively more ridiculous until they became full on self aware parodies.  Marvel had done a decent job of slowly amping up their films but still very much falling in line with the “bigger, badder, more CGI” mantra of sequels.  With the exception of Iron Man 3’s final silly fight, Winter Soldier is arguably the tipping point for this.

I want to start by saying that this is a good film and I very much enjoyed it, arguably more the second time I watched it.  I’m just also saying that shit gets absolutely ridiculous.  The story is somewhat well known among comic book fans and one that I predicted several years before the film was made, so yes I’m patting myself on the back for being so smart.  Quick recap, Bucky never died, Soviets discovered him, turned him into their own super soldier, brainwashed him and Cap tries to bring him back.

Like the last several MCU entries, this also shows once again death is a relative term in Marvel.  We find out Bucky never died, then Amin Zola is somehow alive inside a computer, so it surprises absolutely no one when Nick Fury doesn’t die.  Watching the film the first time you have to just keep saying “Oh yeah Nick fury is totally dead, sure guys I believe you”.  Now while I keep ripping on this film I will also say that whole fake death was handled in such a stupid way.  Oh he didn’t know who to trust, oh he has some magic Romeo and Juliet drug to slow his heart down and appear dead, oh and he also didn’t bother telling Cap or Romanov for reasons.  This could have worked slightly better had death not become completely meaningless with Pepper falling only to have her Extremis powers save her in Iron Man 3, Agent Colson somehow be alive in the Agents of SHIELD show, and Loki doing his own bamboozle in Dark World.  By this point it’s old hat and it would be more surprising if he actually stayed dead.

So I’m flipping my script and getting the crap out of the way first.  Now onto what I loved, because remember I did like this film a lot.  At this rate we’ll have to wait until 2030 for Black Widow to get her own film, and we’re still a year or two away from any female super hero being the lead in the MCU.  Here Scar Jo gets quite a bit of screen time and this is as much Black Widow as we’re likely to get as a featured player for awhile.  She’s gotten to show some of her skill set in previous films, but here she definitely seems to be a little more than just a sidekick.  Frankly Steve Rogers would be lost without her and it doesn’t go unnoticed.  

Pictured: Someone being needed
I do like how they show Captain America adjusting to life in the 21st century.  We basically go from him waking up at the end of The First Avenger, to him leading the team in Avengers.  His home life and awkward assimilation is done quite well and pleases most of the comic book nerds out there.  We get slowly introduced to Sam Wilson and Sharon Carter who will play larger roles later on.  Now I didn’t watch Agents of SHIELD, but I was told by those who did that a lot of it’s plot ties directly into Winter Soldier.  The culmination of a weekly show paying off in a movie is not unlike Wrestlemania featuring the long brewing title fight set up over weeks on Raw.  Although it might not have been as epic without all the TV backstory, it’s not like you’re lost watching the movie.

Finding out Hydra has compromised SHIELD and apparently always has leads to lots of blowing stuff up.  The scene of them switching out chips in the helicarriers seemed nearly shot for shot redone in Star Wars: Rogue One, but let us never speak of that film again.  At a certain point, and this film is definitely past that point, collateral damage just becomes ridiculous.  They destroy so much, and make Washington DC look like Berlin on May 8th, 1945.  Cap is definitely impulsive and we’re led to believe he implicitly knows the right thing to do.  Some of his decisions might seem rash and not really well thought out but they appear to be the right ones.

His costume needs more feathers
Part of me wishes there was more awkward Cap fitting in with modern society.  The awkward pda between him and Natasha is great at the mall, and I loved his random list of things to catch up on that includes Thai food.  Sequels can be a great place to build on characters, and we already know that Captain America will keep fighting and doing what he thinks is right.  Learning more about his personality and what makes him tick is more interesting, and this film definitely shows more of that side.  

The destruction of SHIELD does help set things up going forward though.  We learn Hydra never ended with Red Skull and has been running things secretly since forever.  Robert Redford is awesome here and I couldn’t help but feel like the man should get more work these days, not unlike Michael Douglas in Ant-Man.  As a main antagonist he breaks the let’s destroy the world mold of a lot of random bad guys.  He doesn’t have super powers so his power seems so much more frightening in a real world situation.  The nerd in me also appreciated the random reference to Dr. Stephen Strange as a potential threat for Hydra to eliminate.  

Even though the villain might not have been some alien bad guy, it doesn’t mean they don’t have a ludicrously over the top final showdown.  It’s hard not to feel sorry for Bucky here, and it’s fun to speculate on just when he might get it through his head who he really is.  I’d say overall it’s a fine sequel and what it does right it does really well.  A lot of seeds planted here are more developed in Civil War, but it’s a fine introduction to our modern day Captain America.  Also worth the price of admission to hear Gary Shandling say “Hail Hydra”.

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

…And now for something completely different.  After building up enough good will with mostly well known characters, there was a definite chance taken here.  A relatively unknown property, certainly when compared with Iron Man/Thor/Captain America it seemed like a leap of faith.  They also definitely took a gamble on a lead actor Hannibal Burress called “objectively the sixth most famous person on Parks and Recreation” with Chris Pratt.  Those gambles certainly paid off and for more than a few people Guardians proved to be the best Marvel movie yet.

Pictured:  Not the Avengers
For many people the cosmic side of Marvel comics is the far more interesting stuff.  Considering most super heroes in the Stan Lee era were some person with matching initials + radiation = super powers.  I’m not saying Lee phoned it in, and the lasting impact of his characters is proof that formula worked well.  The cosmic world was always a little more varied and interesting.  Many of it began with The Fantastic Four, who got their own bit of radiation from outer space, but really blossomed once John Byrne started regularly writing for Marvel’s first family.

Since for contractual reasons the Fantastic Four aren’t part of the MCU, we gotta get our cosmic shit from somewhere else.  The Guardians went through quite a few permutations before we settled on this version.  Being only moderately familiar with them from random crossovers I knew their leader was Cyclops’ father and that was about it.  Scrapping all of that, the Guardians got their own early millennium reboot.  The new group was random, disjointed, and broken making quite a contrast to the super group of the gods The Avengers represented cinematically.   

To me it really helped that this film was composed of characters relatively unknown. I didn’t go into this movie with any preconceived notions of what was going to happen, just secretly hoping Thanos showed up at some point.  So I will point out the obvious that this movie delivered on all fronts.  The cast was great, the story worked, the tone was perfect, and I’m legitimately racking my brain to come up with something I disliked about Guardians.

As often happens when a film is wildly successful, people try to figure out what that winning formula was.  Often people miss the point and try and replicate that success and miss the entire point.  The fact that Pratt has become an A-list Hollywood star tailor made for blockbusters is incorporating one of the things that worked here.  Using a soundtrack of bitching 70s songs seems to come in waves every few years.  Dazed and Confused and Wayne’s World were great movies not necessarily because of their soundtracks.  Using the music of Peter Quill’s mother here gave the film some grounding in our world so when we’re flying around in space ships and stealing infinity stones it’s still relatable.  Simply putting a Ramones song during a fighting montage doesn’t have the same effect.  This also marked a change in the MCU where films need to have some levity and be almost half comedies.  More on that later though.

Time for the nitpicking stuff, and spending a few years and a revisit I’m no closer to having the answer to a few questions.  For starters, where the hell are Quill’s batteries coming from? I basically just assumed there was some “space battery” that never needed to be replaced, because anyone old enough to remember using a Walkman knew they didn’t last several decades.  My other random gripe is how the hell Quill has any idea who Jackson Pollock is.  Either this was a massively cultured 10 year old kid when his mom dies, or he’s keeping up on earth entertainment in his spare time.  I also have no idea why Baby Groot stops dancing whenever Drax looks his way.  Sure Drax isn’t one for dancing, but why would he care if an animated plant did?    

These are those things that if you think too much about can drive you nuts but they don’t really take anything away from the film.  Hell Glenn Close’s ridiculous hair was more distracting than the battery situation.  Everything pretty much works here.  I like the fact that we got some Thanos even if it was mostly behind the scenes.  Ronan is an awesome character and was menacingly evil.  I also appreciated how his vendetta was against one planet and group of people instead of some maniacal let me take over the universe and destroy shit for the sake of destroying it.  You could argue that once he had the infinity stone his ambitions became larger but the cosmic MCU in no small way made this Kree-Xandar war one of race.  Typically the racial undertones were much more up front in X-Men but that doesn’t mean intolerance isn’t prevalent throughout the galaxy.

Pictured: the most ridiculous thing in a movie with a talking Raccoon
Watching this in light of Vol. 2 being released helps add something to the mysteries here.  It’s cool to know who Quill’s real father is, why Yondu abducted him, etc.  As a standalone film in the MCU Guardians would probably get my vote as the best movie.  James Gunn seemed to have free reign, and it benefits from a unified vision, something that occasionally hampers some other entries with multiple writers and random continuity interference.  I was also somewhat surprised how dark the film is in terms of it’s color scheme.  A lot of the ads have stressed it as a bright colorful space adventure, and this was taken to extremes with it’s sequel and Thor:  Ragnaraok, but a lot of this film is rather dimly lit and dark.  It helps that the tone of the film is somewhat light, which helps balance the occasionally dark Ronan moments.

Picture of a satisfying villain
In many ways this follows the Star Wars blueprint to great success.  There’s some outsiders who have to work together to defeat a more powerful foe.  Our main protagonist is a human in a galaxy full of weird and colorful aliens who may or may not be the chosen one/gifted.  At least here we wisely avoid the Luke Skywalker young kid and just combine his destiny with Han Solo’s awesomeness.  There’s a giant sidekick with limited vocabulary (Groot), etc.  Star Wars and it’s numerous sequels and prequels seem to forget the things people actually enjoyed about these films, giving us way too much mythology and ideology when all we want is a fun space opera where shit blows up.  James Gunn delivered and this film still very much stands up.

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

Ah here we are back on earth.  After a very fun little diversion with Drax, Gamora, Rocket Racoon, Groot, and Star Lord we’re reunited with Cap, Thor, Iron Man, Hulk, and the others.  This film picks up more or less where Winter Soldier left off, with the Avengers looking for rogue Hydra things and blah blah blah let’s fight.  Like many sequels this begins with an action sequence and serves as a breezy re-introduction to our heroes.  Some of the humor is set up right away with Captain America’s “language” comment, and yes this film might not take itself too seriously.

The gang's all here
It does though, it very much takes itself seriously.  Age of Ultron though is a classic example of why it’s been so beneficial to revisit these films after some time.  Like Iron Man 3 I left the theater feeling a little let down.  As good as The Avengers was, I did feel like it left room for improvement, and in 2015 I wasn’t too convinced that this film delivered.  I once again found myself whining about things not being the way they were in the original comics, and we got way too much Hawkeye.  This film is considered a tipping point for many in the super hero movie fatigue, and at times it felt exhausting first time around.

A little time and perspective, and marathoning every other MCU entry helps change some things.  I’ll say it, this film is awesome, and easily better than the first Avengers movie.  There is a lot going on here, and when you accept it within the MCU and stop looking for a film that fits your preferred comic book timeline there’s so much that works here.  Now I’ll admit this film doesn’t really work as a solo entry.  What makes these sequels and crossovers successful is the fact that we’re invested in the characters.  We’ve seen them grow, I’ve constantly referenced the fact that big giant CGI battles are not what make these films work.  There are definitely some great character moments here and that’s the stuff I watch these movies for.

Watching this film immediately brings up one question, what the hell was that nonsense at the end of Iron Man 3?  I mentioned my large dislike of that finale, and not a word is spoken of it at the beginning of Age of Ultron.  I appreciated the explanation we get in Civil War from Tony, where he mentions Pepper Potts not being around because he wasn’t able to quit being Iron Man.  At the time it just seemed like Gwyneth Paltrow and Natalie Portman wanted too much money to appear in the party scene so they were just easily written out of the film.  This is obviously one problem of comics vs. films.  There are contractual reasons why someone can’t just stop by.

So before I get into what I liked about the film, because remember I did love this movie, I’ll get the rest of my bitching out of the way.  Hawkeye is lame, I can’t help it.  I feel like they took all his character traits from the comics and said “Hear us out, what if we just took that all away and replaced it with nothing?”  Sure in the early Avengers his sole job is to bitch about how old Captain America is and whine about not being the leader, but some of that would have been great here.  His character is so completely devoid of humor or any distinguishing characteristics that it’s really hard to root for him.  I can’t imagine any kids thinking Hawkeye is their favorite Avenger.  The scene with him at home is definitely in response to the fact that he was the most under developed character, but all it does is reinforce his boringness.  That said he does get to redeem himself near the end when he gives Scarlet Witch a little pep talk, and toys with the idea of shooting Quicksilver.  The attempt to make him compelling seems a little forced, but he definitely has his moments.  I also had to love him being the only Avenger to avoid Scarlet Witches hex, referencing the first Avengers movie when his mind was manipulated.

The final Ultron battle on Sokovia is just silly.  Ultron is an amazing villain, and his quest of destroying the Avengers is actually well written and worked out.  He’s not fulfilling some prophecy of destruction or just vengeful, his misguided logic is leading him to bring peace to earth by eliminating mankind for all of it’s violent tendencies.  However, if he made his army of Ultron bots out of vibranium, the same stuff that made Captain America’s shield, why the hell can every avenger tear them apart like tissue paper?  Having an army of murder robots made with the strongest element on earth (because they couldn’t get the rights to use adamentium for some reason) would be menacing but there is absolutely zero tension when they show up.  This is similar to Iron Man’s many, many, many suits at the end of Iron Man 3.  It makes it seem like cheap junk when they’re so disposable.  Now perhaps Ultron cut corners and saved all the vibranium for himself, but that never gets explained.

So let’s talk about what this film did well.  The MCU is definitely handling Dr. Hank Pym differently than the comics, so it makes sense that Tony Stark is the mad scientist that winds up creating Ultron.  Him and Banner have their own little sub-group of nerds that go behind everyone’s back but it works.  In the larger scheme it ties in themes from the first Avengers movie and Iron Man 3 which helps show just what could lead Tony to creating Ultron in the first place.  We know his mental weakness and his own anxiety and fears could lead him to something that might inadvertently create his own destruction.  

The party scene is mostly a good time.  We get to see Rhodes and Sam Wilson interacting, and it helps tie all the films together.  I still get a kick out of everyone trying to lift Thor’s hammer, and Cap being the only one who got to budge ever so slightly.  The look on Thor’s face in that scene is priceless.  As random as the Banner/Natasha romance might seem, I do like it.  Both of them are just fucked up enough to work together and it helps explain how she can say a lullaby to get Hulk to change back to Banner.  

Probably the best shot of the movie
Now a few movies have shows infinity stones, but often as some mysterious power.  This is the first time we actually learn what stone is powering Vision.  Vision is a great character and I like how he is introduced here.  He’s part child of Tony Stark and Ultron, with immense power.  I love how he picks up Mjolnir effortlessly and that’s pretty much all Thor and the Avengers need to convince them he’s on their side.  Vision is a complicated character in the comics and we don’t get a ton of time to really get into that, but every scene with him is great.  How he so effortlessly dispenses with Ultron at the end is just a brief glimpse into how powerful this Avenger could be.  I’m also forever hoping they can establish his attraction towards Wanda/Scarlet Witch for my own Avengers West Coast nerdiness.

Speaking of Avengers West Coast, why is Hawkeye’s wife not Bobbi Barton aka Mockingbird?  Having some random pioneer woman out on the farm raising a litter of Bartons is as unexpected as it is clumsy, but I’ve already gotten into that.  The scenes on the Barton farm aren’t entirely wasted though, I enjoyed the subtle joke of Captain America’s massive pile of chopped wood next to Tony’s more moderate collection.  As you might be able to tell I’m all in favor of characters hooking up in these movies, and had this movie gotten a different rating we might have gotten a Banner/Natasha shower scene, oh well.

One thing that somewhat bogged down this film on the first viewing which looks better in retrospect is how connected Age of Ultron is to the rest of the MCU.  We get our first references to Wakanda, even though we’re still a couple films away from Black Panther showing up.  The arms dealer who will become Klaw does show up, and even has his arm forcibly removed by Ultron setting up his super villain alter ego.  The scene with Thor in the cave makes no sense, and even seeing Ragnarok it doesn’t seem like it was necessary.  However Tony’s guilt about collateral damage becomes a huge issue in Civil War and essentially sets all the action in motion here.  It also helps to find out just where Hulk flew off to after disappearing.

Vision Smash!!
Age of Ultron works because it is greater than the sum of it’s parts.  It succeeds with the help of the films before and after it.  James Spader is perfect as the voice of Ultron, and Elizabeth Olsen is an excellent Scarlet Witch.  Her powers are kind of hard to explain to people and even Maria Hill has a difficult time telling the Avengers just what she can do, but she is awesome.  Olsen does a great job in the role and it’s nice to finally see some mutants in the MCU, even if they won’t ever be referred to as that.  Aaron Taylor-Johnson does fine work as Pietro/Quicksilver and offers a contrast to the one that shows up in Days of Future Past.  I would also have to applaud Whedon for actually letting a character die and stay dead.  

So I’ll wrap this up before I start repeating myself.  I wouldn’t necessarily put this above Guardians of the Galaxy, but Age of Ultron might very well be my new second favorite Marvel movie.  Like many of these films you might have forgotten about since they were in theaters, it’s worth watching again.  I didn’t even get to mention how awesome it was to see the Hulkbuster armor in action.

Ant-Man (2015)

Marvel’s first phase went out with a bang when the Avengers had assembled.  Phase 2 leaves us with what can politely be referred to as a whimper.  Ant-Man has always been a very minor character in Marvel comics and his solo film seemed to be in that “for fans only” camp.  After Guardians of the Galaxy exceeded all expectations the mantra “In Marvel we trust” carried a lot of people to the theaters for this.  The involvement of Edgar Wright was enough to get me interested, even if it took me two years to get around to watching it.

I have nothing clever to say
Now it remains to be seen what type of film we could have gotten from Edgar Wright had studio interference made him leave the film.  It is telling why so many of these Marvel movies are handled by relative unknowns when films with this box office potential could easily have their pick of top directors.  Watching the final product though there are tons of Edgar Wright-isms here, which unfortunately includes poorly developed female characters.  Hope Pym (Evangeline Lilly) is little more than a nag who of course knows martial arts and has a very stupid haircut.  Maggie Lang (Judy Greer) is even more of a cardboard cut out of disapproving mother.  It’s a shame, I would have liked to see more of Fattie Magoo, and she seems just wasted here.

Where Edgar Wright’s stamp shows up all over this film is that this is basically a heist movie.  After catching his latest film Baby Driver in theaters there are a ton of similarities here.  Explaining the plan on how to get in and steal the whatever is important to the plot are set up and shot almost identically.  In this way, Wright is great at setting up these details, and he comes across as a man who has spent way too much time thinking of perfect heists not to be on some Interpol watch list somewhere.  Peyton Reed seemed like an odd choice to replace him as director, considering he is best known for Bring it On, Down With Love, and The Break-Up.  Either way he is experienced and competent enough to deliver a solid studio product.

What results on screen is kind of a mixed bag.  After years of seeing the continuing adventures of our established heroes with the occasional new supporting player thrown into the mix, we get full on origin story here.  There are countless scenes of Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) learning his new suit and powers.  To let us know we’re still very much in the MCU though the film begins with Michael Douglas complete with anti-aging CGI wizardry telling a much older Howard Stark, Peggy Carter, and other SHIELD big wigs they won’t have his secret formula.  

The rest of the MCU connection is a little weak here.  Ant-Man does get a chance to fight Falcon, which is as C-list as an Avenger as you can find.  Then we find out that Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) is selling his replicated Pym particle to Hydra because of course he is.  The small (no pun intended) stature of this character makes it seem like it might be better suited to the Netflix world than as a $100 million budget summer blockbuster.  It’s a risk that doesn’t exactly pay off.

Seriously who signed off on that haircut?
Ant-Man does have some funny moments but if any MCU entry could have gotten away with going full comedy it’s probably this one.  The fact that they still try to play it straight and serious at times doesn’t quite work for me.  This has to be a very compelling film with some great characters to pull off what is definitely a minor character.  Even Scott Lang seems a little underdeveloped here.  Michael Douglas is fantastic as Hank Pym, and to me was easily the best thing about the film.  I would also argue that he seems to be the only developed and interesting character here.  

I do somewhat like Ant-Man’s inclusion with the Avengers, and I did like his appearance in Civil War quite a bit.  This is a character who should be a supporting player, and I can’t say I’m overly enthusiastic about the upcoming Ant-Man and Wasp movie.  The heist plot gives this a different structure than the typical video game boss battle climax, but even this film goes in that route later.  I’d say the final fight was much funnier this time around and it mercifully didn’t take itself too seriously.  It’s a good thing we established Scott’s daughter likes weird ugly things, otherwise that giant ant would be quite terrifying at the end.  For the record most of the CGI ants looked ridiculously fake and it was occasionally distracting.  

It’s hard not to look at this film as the weakest link in a chain.  I would probably rank it slightly above The Dark World but I’m apprehensive to recommend it to anyone who isn’t planning on watching every entry in the MCU.  The fact that I missed this in theaters does mean I’m writing this on my first impression, and if this post has demonstrated anything it’s that my first reactions aren’t always the right ones.  

See you in Phase III true believers