Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

gogDirector: James Gunn

Screenwriter: James Gunn

Cast: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Michael Rooker, Kurt Russell…Sylvester Stallone?

Well I feel both sorry and a little validated to report that on the topic of guardians who are of a said galaxy, I told you so. These films are bloated, overrated, and in the case of the second volume, boring.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, opens with our heroes banding together to protect the galaxy from some massive, disgusting, toothy intergalactic creature. It’s a battle. Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) strikes first and is quickly thwarted, Gamora (Zoe Saldana) is next, but her speed is no match. Rocket fires his blaster at will, but his blasts don’t penetrate the creature’s skin. Drax (Dave Bautista) determines, he will attack the creature from within and leaps down its throat. What follows is difficult to decipher. Not because of confusing filmmaking, but because the focus shifts to Baby Groot (Vin Diesel) dancing and narrowly avoiding blasts, shrapnel, and slimy tentacles whilst dancing to ELO’s “Mr. Blue Sky.” All of the fighting remains blurry background action. This is a funny, clever scene. This also marks the high-water mark of the film, and it’s downhill from here.

Spoiler alert (not really), the mighty foe is vanquished, and the guardians bask in the glory of victory, accepting possession of Gamora’s sister, Nebula (Karen Killan) as reward from a group of golden skinned beings known as the Sovereign race. That is until Rocket pockets a few valuable batteries from the Sovereigns, causing them to pursue the guardians in an epic space chase culminating in the fortuitous arrival of Quill’s father, Ego (Kurt Russell).

This sets the table for Volume 2 where Quill is forced to face and reconcile the deep-rooted feelings about his father’s seeming abandonment of him and his mother. There is much to discuss about Ego, but it would tread into spoiler territory, so I’ll simply say that Ego’s name is not misplaced.

As I mentioned in the opening of this review, this film does not improve on its already humdrum predecessor.  Like all the worst sequels, the filmmakers looked at what made the first film successful and just poured more of that on, with no regard for congruity. This time the soundtrack is no longer accompanying the film. In the first film, the soundtrack was a device to set a tone for the film. This time, it’s forcefully shoved into our face and ears to the point that the damn songs are actually plot devices. In one scene, Kurt Russell takes the time to give us a Master class on the lyrics of Looking Glass’s “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl).” Also, Gunn and company crowbar the romantic subplot in there in such a haphazard way, I almost thought it was an attempt at being Meta. Quill refers to the romantic tension between Gamora and himself as an “unspoken thing,” so I thought perhaps this self-reference to a “will they or won’t they?” thing might go somewhere interesting. Instead, it simply becomes demonstrative of the same thing that a Meta version would condemn. This is not satire. This is not irony. This is just soap opera scriptwriting.

My only concern before seeing this movie was Baby Groot. I was worried about the Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 Teaser
James Gunn (screen grab) CR: Marvelproblematic nature of this “cutesy”, silly, obvious merchandising stunt, but Baby Groot ended up being the strongest quality of the film in the same way that “Adult Groot” was the heart and strength of the first film.  Additionally, as with all Marvel movies, Dr. Strange included, there are other elements of this film that do work. The world is expanded with this film to include some new characters including Mantis (Pom Klementieff), the aforementioned Ego, and a bazaar turn from Sylvester Stallone as Ravager leader Stakar Ogord. These characters are introduced and developed to various degrees in effective ways. Michael Rooker also returns as Yondu to positive effect, and I do get a kick out of Bautista’s dry, honest portrayal of Drax.

Still this is a dimmer, starker Guardians film. Humor is downplayed, and Volume 2 comes off angrier than the first one. I am looking forward to these characters’ appearances in the Avengers: Infinity Wars films, as I think they will benefit from less screen time. Still, Volume 3 is already green lit and slated to be released in 2020 kicking off phase 4 of the MCU, so apparently my opinion of the greatness of this franchise is off the mark. C+

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 16 minutes. There are also several stinger scenes sprinkled throughout the credits and one after the credits as well.

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Logan

LoganDirector: James Mangold

Screenwriters: James Mangold, Scott Frank, and Michael Green

Cast: Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Dafne Keen, Boyd Holbrook, and Stephen Merchant

Seventeen years, appearances in nine separate X-Men related films (credited/uncredited), and about 27 different timelines – Hugh Jackman is finally hanging up his claws. Citing fatigue, age, and skin cancer as factors, Jackman has made it clear Logan will be his final film as the iconic Wolverine. But don’t worry, Wolverine will not go GENTLE into that good night.

We open in the year 2029, and time has not been kind to Logan. A glorified, Uber driver, Logan (Jackman) is a limo driver for hire scraping together cash in order to buy a boat where he and an ailing Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) can live out their days isolated, yet out of harm’s way. Logan also has some health concerns of his own. His healing abilities are nothing like they used to be, which was the only thing protecting him from adamantium poisoning; he’s also a little too friendly with the bottle.

Mutants are all but extinct at this point, none having been born in over 25 years. Also, a catastrophe has basically wiped out the X-Men altogether. This event is but glossed over, but it clearly has to do with a seizure condition affecting Xavier. His mind being the most powerful the world has ever seen, as it deteriorates, the fallout can be alarming. In order to keep him safe, undetected and from doing harm, Logan, with the assistance of a mutant tracker named Caliban (Stephen Merchant), keeps Xavier medicated and contained in a large, empty water tank. This temporary measure is mostly effective, but as Xavier’s seizures get worse, it becomes clear Logan needs to speed up his plan. Things are complicated, however, with the arrival of a young girl named Laura (Dafne Keen), who possesses the same mutant ability as Logan and is being pursued by a powerful corporation, Transigen. If one were to connect the dots, it would imply that the DNA William Stryker used to “create” Wolverine has been stolen and repurposed by Transigen, which it has. More specifically, a mad scientist type by the name of Dr. Zander Rice (Richard E. Grant) is using the stolen mutant DNA to design, grow, and patent a militant mutant force who are now child aged, Laura being one.

Laura hopes to escape Transigen’s clutches by finding a safe haven called Eden across the Canadian border North of North Dakota, and she needs Logan’s help. Logan wants no part, but thankfully Professor Xavier sees Laura as someone who can begin to repair the damage that has annihilated his gifted youngsters. She can be the start of something new and someone who can teach Logan to love again.

What follows is your basic cat and mouse chase with Logan shepherding Professor Xavier and Laura while being pursued by an army of sinister figures, mutant and human alike.

The action is relentless, and now would probably be a good time to address the R rating. This is one brutal film both visually and emotionally. The violence is also off the charts. Director James Mangold always planned to make this film a darker, heavier Wolverine film, even before the success of Deadpool last year. The source material for the storylines came from some of the bleaker, more recent Wolverine graphic novels, including Old Man Logan (2008). This is truly a departure and another progression for the Marvel universe. While still under the 20th Century Fox studio and not officially a Marvel Production, Logan gets to be something different without too much disruption to other properties. With Logan, continuity is an afterthought, we have a more personal film, there is limited CGI, we get to spend time considering the value of aging heroes, and most of all the case is made that superheroes are not just for kids.

There’s a scene in Logan where Professor X and Laura are watching the movie Shane in a hotel room just as Alan Ladd says, “A man has to be what he is, Joey. Can’t break the mould. I tried it and it didn’t work for me.” There’s no finer epitaph for this movie or superior way to express it. Referencing a 1953 western to make your point is cinematic gold and a far more mature approach than in most “superhero” fare. I don’t think we are far from seeing the evolution of the superhero genre substantiating itself into cinematic art of the finest regard. Logan may not quite be that film, but it will likely be cited as the influence for that film. It’s important to take this film for what it is, and that is a character-driven action film. Logan does fine work with that, and while Logan may be Shane, Logan is not Shane. Still, this is certainly the finest of the Wolverine films, and its limited cast and mature perspective make it one of the most important comic book films yet. Furthermore, Jackman is outstanding as the tortured hero once again. This is the role he was born to play, and that is likely why he took it so seriously every time he played it. Unfortunately, nearly every role Jackman takes, he seems born to play, so it is fitting that he, like his character, is ready to move on to what’s next. A-

Logan is rated R and has a running time of 2 hours and 17 minutes. There is no after-credit scene with this film, but there is a humorous Deadpool 2 teaser before the film, so get there early.

The People’s Critic’s Top 10 Films of 2016

Interior of a Movie TheaterWell, movies came out this year, but I think we can all agree that we are looking at a rather bleak field of films this year. It’s not, “2011, The Artist wins Best Picture bad,” but it’s close. And here we are again: Less than a month before the Academy of Motion Pictures releases its list of nominees, less than a week before the Hollywood Foreign Press hands out the Golden Globes, and of the likely list of top films to be nominated for Oscars this year, only five have opened wide enough to see in a suburban city of a Midwestern state. It’s the election all over again!

Last year, films like Sicario, Creed, The Martian, Bridge of Spies, and the eventual Best Picture winner, Spotlight all opened wide well before the end of December. That’s not to say that Sully, Hacksaw Ridge, Manchester by the Sea, La La Land, and Arrival didn’t try to play fair and open wide already; they did. But other potential frontrunners  Moonlight, Silence, Hidden Figures, and Fences are all playing on this double standard of releasing a film in minimal markets so it can qualify for Oscar eligibility only to open wide on some obsequious and noncompetitive weekend after the new year.  This is still an improvement over the 2014 awards season, where basically nothing but The Grand Budapest Hotel really opened wide, but it is a step down from the host of great films released wide during the calendar year in 2015. And let’s be honest, competition for theatrically released films has never been greater. With Netflix, Amazon, HBO, and other streaming sites moving into original cinema, film studios should begin cooperating, making theatrically released films easy to see, and make going to the theater special, but not exclusive!

Oscar nominations will be announced Tuesday, January 24th, bright and early, and after a two years of directorial domination by Alejandro González Iñárritu and three years of Cinematography superiority by Emmanuel Lubezki, it seems these two have left the field wide open for someone else to step up and win something.  Anyway, Oscar nominations are a coveted announcement, but a far more important announcement is being made right now – my list of the top 10 films of 2016.  While no Top Ten List can ever satisfy everyone, great care has been taken to analyze each film on my own particular set of criteria ensuring reliability!  So without further ado, I present The People’s Critic’s Top 10 films (that I was actually able to see) of 2016.

 

eye10. Eye in the Sky 

This film gets more and more fascinating the more I think about it. In the new millennium, we have seen drastic changes to what we consider “warfare,” and Eye in the Sky captures the intensity and complexity of an ever changing definition of modern warfare. Helen Mirren plays Captain Katherine Powell in command of an operation to potentially eliminate some of the world’s most wanted terrorists, who have holed themselves up in a small house in Kenya. When the risks of capturing them become too great, Powell gives the command for a hellfire missile attack via military drone. What complicates things is that a young girl selling bread sets up her storefront directly in the kill zone of the missile’s target, raising one of the many philosophical questions in this film, the first of which is whether there is an obligation to eliminate a potential threat to many lives by inadvertently killing an innocent. I promise you, this film makes you feel the full gravity of every decision that is made, which makes it one of the most intense movies of the year. This film also includes the great Alan Rickman in one of his final performances.

beasts9. Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Speaking of Alan Rickman, Snape may be gone, but Rickman would likely be comforted to know that the world is not done with Potter and company just yet. J.K. Rowling does the near impossible by picking up her magic wand again and creating something moving, amazing, and magical yet again in her first effort as screenwriter with Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Everyone who fell in love with the eight Harry Potter films will be delighted by this expansion of the wizarding world. Eddie Redmayne plays it a bit clownish as Newt Scamander, a magizoologist whose search for magical creatures brings him to New York City 70 years before “The boy who lived” ever hopped aboard the Hogwarts Express. There is a visual and immersive quality that we have come to expect when entering the Harry Potter universe, and director David Yates delivers once again. The characters are delightful, realized, and fun, and the environments (including the aforementioned “fantastic beasts”) are dazzling and eye-catching.

sully28. Sully

Sully is not a biopic. It is based upon Chesley Sullenberger’s memoir Highest Duty: My Search for What Really Matters and focuses almost entirely on the events of January 15, 2009 and the subsequent investigation. Bits of ‘Sully’s’ past are sprinkled throughout, but the film’s main objective is to feature the tremendous fortune that results from having the right people performing the right jobs. Sully is a solid film delivering its message and entertainment as effectively as Sullenberger’s miraculous water landing on the Hudson. Like it’s protagonist, the film showcases a couple of the right men for the job (as well as the right woman for a job that wasn’t there). A testament to superlative acting and creative filmmaking that breathes freshness into a story so recently and so publicly told.

man7. Manchester by the Sea

Everyone you’ve talked to about this film is absolutely right; this is a miserably sad movie. However, what I think too few are saying about it is that it is also hilariously funny. Writer/Director Kenneth Lonergan’s third film in over 16 years is another masterpiece of familial ups and downs. He constructs a film unlike anyone else cutting to the bone with wit, nostalgia, and cold, hard truth. Casey Affleck carries an emotional load as Lee, a janitor who is made legal guardian of his teenage nephew when his brother suddenly dies of a heart attack. This is Affleck’s strongest performance in his budding career as an actor. Understated, but honest, Affleck’s performance has gotten a lot of buzz, but the real champion of this film is Lonergan who gets powerful performances from all of his actors and delivers a fascinating, funny, heartbreaking, powerful film about love, family, and what it takes to survive tragedy.

hack6. Hacksaw Ridge

Hacksaw Ridge is a film that I had trouble placing on this list. First, I wasn’t sure it was top ten material, then once I examined my criteria and determined that it was, I had trouble deciding if it was top five material! Ultimately it’s top six material. Hacksaw Ridge is decidedly two separate films. A coming of age story about a young man named Desmond Doss, played by Andrew Garfield, in Depression-era Virginia falling in love with a young nurse and hoping to find a way to serve his country in World War II as an army medic, even though he refuses to personally pick up a rifle. That story is then catapulted out the window for one depicting one of the most gruesome, gut-wrenching war stories ever set to screen as Doss’s unit is assigned to participate in the Battle of Okinawa, historically referred to as a “meat grinder” of a location for American troops. This is a true story and a remarkable one at that. The first hour is pleasant, sweet, and at times very funny. The second hour is an assault on your senses almost to a breaking point. Vince Vaughn surprises as Doss’s army drill sergeant and the rest of the supporting cast is fantastic including Sam Worthington, Hugo Weaving, Rachel Griffiths, and Teresa Palmer. Director Mel Gibson makes the most of a powerful story and while his depiction of Doss feels a little too similar to that of another suffering protagonist Gibson is known for, it all works. Gibson has been a bit of a pariah as of late, and his off-screen antics are hard to forgive, but if you are one who can separate the art from the artist, this film is one of the year’s best.

midnight5. Midnight Special

This is where I expect I’ll lose a few of you. What is Midnight Special? Why is it number 5? I am just as surprised as you! I stumbled upon this film on a flight. Jeff Nichols is a young writer/director who I am really starting to love. His last two films, Mud and Take Shelter were excellent, and believe it or not, he actually has another film that he released in 2016 called Loving that is getting far more attention than Midnight Special! Still, I am going to put all my chips in on Midnight Special. I don’t think any synopsis of this plot will entice you to see the movie, so just trust me and check it out (it’s running on HBO and HBO streaming currently). Michael Shannon plays a father whose son appears to have some strange abilities. The boy has recently become the worship center of a strange cult, and when Shannon steals his son away in the night, the cult is determined to get him back. The U.S. government has also caught wind of the boy’s abilities and send an NSA agent to track him down as well. This is a sleek, clever, special little movie, and while some will have qualms about the ending, I think it is exactly the right choice.

Arriv.jpg4. Arrival  

Speaking of alien movies with clever endings, here’s another one! Arrival is the latest Denis Villeneuve film, and if you sensed my budding love for Jeff Nichols’s movies, then you can multiply that by a million for Villeneuve. His track record speaks for itself: Incendies, Prisoners, Enemy, Sicario, Arrival, and this year Blade Runner 2049! In a different year, Arrival could easily be the best film of the year. Still, number four ain’t bad. Arrival finds Amy Adams putting out another excellent performance as a linguistics professor tapped by the U.S. military to help them interpret an alien language. What makes this alien film different is that 12 alien space crafts have touched down all over the world, and in a world of itchy trigger-fingers, Adams’s encounters and translations hold the fate of the world in the balance. Adams is accompanied by Jeremy Renner who plays a theoretical physicist, and the two of them have great chemistry making for a richly character-driven sci-fi film.

CW3. Captain America: Civil War

Surprise, surprise! The People’s Critic liked a Captain America movie, but this time I’m not alone. Everybody liked this movie. It’s hard not to. Civil War boasts three outstanding achievements that no Marvel film before it has managed thus far. First, it introduces two of the best new characters (Black Panther and Spider-Man, both slated to receive upcoming stand-alone films) and does it with panache! I’ll leave the details about these new characters out so not to spoil anything for the rare reader who has yet to see this film, but both are quite satisfying and Spider-Man especially receives a worthy reboot after some questionable recent attempts by Sony Pictures. Second, the “Civil War” battle is a remarkable scene. This scene replaces the “Battle of New York” from Marvel’s Avengers as the Infinity Stone in the Marvel crown. DC executives responsible for Batman v. Superman (See my five worst films of 2016 for my thoughts on this one!) should take notes on how Marvel succeeds at fighting internal conflict with external conflict! Third, Captain America: Civil War manages to give all of its cast members room to breathe and make a memorable and worthwhile contribution.  No character is squandered, and as I alluded to earlier, this film explores some emotional depth but uses just the right amount of levity and humor to maintain an even tone.

rogue2. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Surprise, surprise, surprise! The People’s Critic liked a Star Wars movie! Again, everybody liked this movie, or at least the last 20 minutes, which are perhaps the best 20 minutes in any Star Wars movie ever! Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is a strong, balanced, and entertaining film that plays how we wish the original prequels could have played. There’s a hint of nostalgia along with new and fresh perspectives, which make us forget that we all know where this is going and “forces” us to care and root for these new characters. Director Gareth Edwards designs and directs this film to feel connected but not tethered to the other films, and I think that is a delicate task to accomplish. There are also some major bombshells and any misgivings you have about the film are wiped clean away with the final 20 minutes. If you have any level of appreciation for Star Wars, you will leave the theater in high spirits!

la1. La La Land

I tried people. I tried not to toe the line. I tried not to be all “critic-y,” but goddamnit, my toes are still tap, tap, tapping to this beautiful, heartwarming, goosebump inducing, musical masterpiece. If Rogue One: A Star Wars Story had the best final 20 minutes of any Star Wars movie, La La Land has the best first and last five minutes of any movie in the last five years! What puts it at number one is that between those amazing first five minutes and outstanding final five minutes are 118 exhilarating, beautifully crafted, musical minutes. La La Land is a simple story of Jazz musician meets struggling actor, Jazz musician loses struggling actress, etc., but that’s ok. If the plot were any more dynamic, it would take away from the sensory experience of this film. Gosling and Stone are captivating as the leads and while their voices may not be meant for Broadway, they are perfect for a film that “dances” between worlds. Half nostalgic and half prognostic, La La Land shows us that writer/director Damien Chazelle is more than the real deal. He’s the next big thing! La La Land puts a nice bow on a tumultuous 2016 and is definitely the front-runner for best picture in my book.

The Five Worst Films of 2016

C25. The Conjuring 2  

I’m sad to start this list with a sequel to a film that made my top 10 in 2013. The Conjuring 2 doesn’t really advance the narrative of the original’s characters or reveal any depth to the uncertainty of its source material. In the same way that a television series might be developed for a network, but then the studio makes a deal to tie it to an already proven property in order to reap an existing audience, The Conjuring 2 feels like a Mad Libs horror movie script and the studio slapped The Conjuring 2 on top of it. This is a “been there, done that,” movie for the ages.

BvS4. Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice

At the end of 2015, we were all gearing up to see what DC had to offer to combat the cinematic monopoly Marvel Studios has had over the superhero genre. Well, the results are in and two of their films make my worst of 2015 list; Batman v. Superman being the first. Yet another bloated set-up piece, these movies need to stop hinting at something and start showing us something. Warner Brothers needs to stop holding its cards too close to the vest and start revving this thing up before we lose interest entirely. Wonder Woman and Justice League are next up for 2017. Let’s hope I don’t have to reserve two more spots on the Worst list for 2017.

nerve3. Last third of Nerve 

I had other films in mind for this list, but I kept coming back to how disappointed I was with the ending of Nerve. Let me start by saying, Nerve as a whole has no business being on a worst of the year list. However, given that my top two movies of the year were given that status in no small part due to their phenomenal endings, I think Nerve stands as a wondrous example of how damaging a bad ending can be. I’ve never been more disappointed in an ending for a movie. Not because it was bad. It was fine. But if the ending was as principled and interesting as everything that came before it, we’d have a much better film. Director Henry Joost is a newbie, but if you’ve seen Paranormal Activity 3, Paranormal Activity 4, and the film Catfish, you’d see where I’m going with this. Endings are crucial and bad endings to good movies are exponentially more damaging.

Suicide.jpg2. Suicide Squad

DC is back again with the number two worst movie of 2016, Suicide Squad. Anticipation couldn’t have been higher for this one. What seemed like dream casting, mixed with a lighter, funnier tone lead many of us to believe this was the film that would right a sinking ship. Instead, it blew one more big, giant hole in the hull. Unfortunately, the box office total of my, Five Worst Films of 2016 list is nearly identical to my Top Ten Best Films of 2016 list. What does that tell you. People are paying for and going in droves to see these bad movies. Suicide Squad is hardly a movie. It’s disjointed, it’s annoying, it’s shallow, and worst of all, it’s boring. Viola Davis attempts to give some credibility and Margot Robbie will be iconic as Harley Quinn, but nothing can save this mess.

now1. Now You See Me 2

Lightening definitely didn’t strike twice for this fledgling attempt at building a franchise. Now You See Me was a perfectly fine, fun little movie, but not everything that is moderately successful needs a part 2 (or a reported part 3!). All the tricks are played out for this band of illusionists. The style was corny this time around, as original director Louis Leterrier was replaced by Jem and the Holograms director, Jon M. Chu. They couldn’t even get all of the original cast back for this thing as Isla Fisher would not sign on and also refuses to sign on for the third film. Red flags abound and poor Daniel Radcliffe never saw them coming as he looks utterly lost and confused in easily the year’s worst movie. Yuck.

Doctor Strange

dr_strangeDirector: Scott Derrickson

Screenwriters: Jon Spaihts, Scott Derrickson, and C. Robert Cargill

Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Tilda Swinton, Mads Mikkelsen, and Benedict Wong

If you’re like me, you watched 12 years a Slave in 2013 and during the scenes between Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup and Benedict Cumberbatch as plantation owner, William Ford, you thought – man these two guys would be great in a superhero film. Well, rejoice because just 3 years later, Doctor Strange is that film. But don’t rejoice too much because in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, this film ranks at the bottom of my list. It has also been 3 years since Thor: The Dark World, which is the last time I wrote a sub-par review of a Marvel film, coincidentally. I think it was Jimmy Stewart who said, “Every time a Cumberbatch/Ejiofor film opens, a Marvel film will suck.” Something like that. Well, now two worlds collide, creating a Cumberbatch-paradox the like of which has never been seen since Cumberbatch solved the enigma code!

Doctor Strange answers the question: What if Tony Stark was a surgeon? Stephen Strange (Cumberbatch) is a successful New York surgeon with an ego the size of Stark Tower. When distracted driving turns deadly, Strange is laid up in a hospital with irreparable damage to his hands essentially ending his medical career. Friend and fellow surgeon, Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams) attempts to comfort him, but she’s about as successful as Pepper Potts was at convincing a dejected Tony Stark to stop making robots. When Strange catches wind that a previously untreatable paralytic patient of his is suddenly miraculously recovered, he investigates leading him on a journey to Kamar-Taj in Kathmandu to find The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), in the hopes that he can be healed and resume his surgical supremacy.  The Ancient One sees more in Strange than a surgeon however and agrees to teach him despite his arrogance. Under the teachings of the Ancient One and another sorcerer named Mordo (Ejiofor), Strange learns that the Earth is protected from other dimensions by three mystical sanctums in three separate global locations, and it is the job of the sorcerers to protect these sanctums.  He also learns the ancient spells that allow him to access various panes and dimensions of existence permitting him to bend space and time to open portals of access throughout the planet (and maybe beyond based on the post-credit scenes).

tilda
Opening interdimensional portals with Kate McKinnon as The Ancient One on SNL
A technique also taught by Kate McKinnon as Tilda Swinton on Saturday Night Live during Cumberbatch’s monologue on the November 5th, 2016 episode. Much of this ancient knowledge is under the protection of the Librarian, whose name is Wong (Benedict Wong).

What did the Librarian say when he was asked if it was fun playing Sherlock Holmes on TV?  

-You have the Wong Benedict!
 A previous apprentice named Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) has recently gone rogue, slaying the previous Librarian and stealing an ancient spell that could destroy the sanctums and unlock the power of the Dark Dimension. Now Strange must battle Kaecilius to protect the Earth from what lies in the Dark Dimension.

So, what’s wrong with Doctor Strange? Not everything. I’d like to take a moment in this review to say I still rather enjoyed Doctor Strange. I also did like parts of Thor: The Dark World; I gave it a B-, but Marvel has set the bar so high, that films that sink to the bottom still have merit. Visually, this is the most ambitious and dazzling film in all 14 Marvel films. Clearly inspired by Christopher Nolan’s Inception, the sequences of inter-dimensional shifting and battles are breathtaking and outstanding, so kudos director Scott Derrickson who leaves his horror comfort zone behind for sci-fi/fantasy blockbuster territory. Still, like Barack Obama said, “You can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig.” Oddly enough, many of the same problems I had with Thor: The Dark World are present in Doctor Strange. The film plays with so many already established archetypes and story devices, for the first time I experienced the feeling that some of this is getting old. I enjoyed Cumberbatch as the title character and I can easily picture some incredible opportunities for his character and powers in other films. Still as far as his stand-alone film, it suffers from too much, “been there, done that.” Another male, egotistical genius battling his arrogance for enlightenment. Another intergalactic time and space mess characteristic of Thor: The Dark World and Guardians of the Galaxy, both of which share the bottom ranking in the Marvel Cinematic Universe with Doctor Strange. Another recycled hero cycle story-line. It remains clear that the most attention was spent on the digital effects this time around, as opposed to punching up the dialogue, plot, and placement in terms of the other films in the franchise. The climax, however was quite clever. Still, I’d be far more excited to see Stephen Strange become a Bruce Banner-type who is an endearing and forceful player in the overall universe, but not in his own films. Of course, here we are going into the film’s second weekend and it’s projected to cross the $400 million mark at the global box office, so Doctor Strange 2 is an inevitability.

So what grade does the #14 out of 14 MCU films get from The People’s Critic? The clever climax and impressive effects are bogged down by the slow-paced second half, recycled content, and flat characters. Therefore, for the first time, I have to dig through the Basement and award a Marvel film a C+

Doctor Strange is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 1 hour and 45 minutes. There are two post-film scenes: one mid-way through the credits, and another after the credits, both of which are marginally important enough to endure the 10 minute credits to see.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice

BvSDirector: Zack Snyder

Screenwriters:  Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer

Cast: Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Jesse Eisenberg, Laurence Fishburne, Jeremy Irons, Holly Hunter, Diane Lane, Gal Gadot, and a couple hometown heroes (Debbie Stabenow and Jay Towers)

There is a lot of bad press out there on this film, and while some of it is valid, there is a real piling on happening that surprises me having now seen the film.  Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice finally unites the Caped Crusader and the Man of Steel in visually spectacular fashion that while still on training wheels is in no way the disaster it’s being made out to be.

Picking up right on the heels of 2013’s Man of Steel, Batman v Superman opens with the greatest scene of either film!  The perspective of the destructive trail left by the battle of Superman (Henry Cavil) and General Zod (Michael Shannon) in Man of Steel is now shifted to the pedestrian view of Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) from the streets of Metropolis.  The carnage left behind is on full display as two aliens duke it out, and humans pay the price; thus setting the table for a fundamental conflict between the two heroes.  While this scene may be a reaction to some of the complaints on Man of Steel’s relentless final battle scene, it was a good choice.  Affleck literally hits the ground running in his first appearance as Batman, and he along with director Zack Snyder and writers Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer successfully qualm any residual worries of miscasting that circulated upon the revelation that Affleck would be next to don the cowl.  His dedication to the Dark Knight as well as his alter ego, Bruce Wayne puts him potentially as one of the best cinematic Batmen yet!

Unfortunately for Batman v Superman, the film does not build from here but rather desperately tries to keep its head above water.  As good as Affleck is in his role, Cavill is still pretty morose.  In fact, the entire film is.  Where Christopher Nolan’s Batman films were dark but edgy, Batman v Superman is mostly just dark.  The good news is we’re going someplace new this time.  Where Man of Steel basically retold the origin story that we’ve all known for 75 years, Batman v Superman does tread new territory for our heroes.  Snyder rightly glosses over Bruce Wayne’s dark past in the opening credits and gives us a distinguished, older, (wiser?) Batman who is trying to decide how he still fits into the world he’s now spent so many years trying to protect.  Not only do we not dwell on his past, we jump years into his future with just small glimpses at some of the events that have gotten him to where he is now, but not without his loyal butler, Alfred (played nicely by Jeremy Irons). Glimpses of things I can only imagine will play a role in future films.

The conflict over the destruction to Metropolis in the opening scene is not the only dividing line between Superman and Batman.  Alexander Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg), son of industrialist Lex Luthor has discovered the largest payload of the Kryptonian element ever found and has been given license to test it (on the remains of Zod) and perhaps weaponize it to protect against future alien invasions.  The problem is, Luthor is inexplicably off his rocker.  Unlike Gene Hackman’s portrayal of this character (or even Kevin Spacey’s from Superman Returns), Eisenberg has no business being powerful, no ingenuity, and no purpose other than to be evil.  This is fine, but then why not just make him the joker?  I heard that James Woods voices Lex Luthor in an animated series about Superman.  I kind of wish they tapped him for this version as well!

Eisenberg aside, this film clips along at a decent pace and offers plenty of excitement and showcases the title characters nicely.  The title “battle” may seem a bit overhyped, but at least it doesn’t last for the final third of the film! Gal Gadot’s appearance as Wonder Woman is also mostly successful.  Some confusion does set in regarding an influx of “dream sequences” that still has me scratching my head, but fanboys who are “in the know” claim there is some solid development in these scenes.  Unfortunately the casual viewer will be wondering what the hell just happened.

While an improvement on its predecessor, I can only marginally recommend this film higher than the last.  Perhaps Warner Brothers should take some very copious notes as Marvel’s version of this storyline, Captain America: Civil War, is released in May.  Details on this film are very hush, hush, but Marvel’s track record speaks for itself.  It may be unfair to compare the Marvel films to the DC ones in terms of tone or mood, but it is fair to compare them in agenda.  These are all “comic book” based films, and the best comic books do not set off to only entertain; they attempt to hold up a mirror to reality and use the extraordinary to make observations on the ordinary.  Marvel Studios has been very good at this, and DC has not managed to pull it off since The Dark Knight Rises in 2012.  In my 2013 Man of Steel review I said, “Man of Steel feels like a bloated set-up piece to what promises to be a far more superior sequel.”  When Man of Steel was released, Warner Brothers immediately green lit a sequel that was supposed to be released in 2015 to usher in the Justice League film for 2016.  Those plans were dashed, and that sequel became this film – yet another bloated set-up piece to what promises to be a far more superior sequel (and one that is developing far too similarly to The Avengers).  While the money is pouring in (which I expect is their reason for stretching this franchise out), Warner Brothers needs to stop holding its cards too close to the vest and start revving this thing up before we lose interest entirely. Still there is enough to whet our appetite one more time to see if these characters can get the treatment they ultimately deserve. B

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 31 minutes. Kudos to director Zack Snyder’s shout-outs to principle filming location, Detroit Michigan!  Keep an eye out for many recognizable shots of the city (especially in that opening scene) as well as some familiar faces like Senator Debbie Stabenow and radio/TV personality Jay Towers.

Ant-Man

Ant ManDirector: Payton Reed

Screenwriters: Edgar Wright, Joe Cornish, Adam McKay, and Paul Rudd

Cast: Paul Rudd, Michael Douglas, Corey Stoll, Evangeline Lilly, and Bobby Cannavale

Na-na na-na na-na na-na… ANT-MAN?  You read that right.  Stan Lee’s 1962 comic book character, Ant-Man gets the Marvel cinematic treatment with Paul Rudd as the microscopic maverick.  This film concludes Marvel’s “Phase Two” that started with Iron Man 3 back in 2013.  Rumblings of an Ant-Man movie date back at least fifteen years when radio personality Howard Stern claimed that he tried to buy the rights to the character.  By 2003, British director Edgar Wright pitched an Ant-Man film to Marvel that was in perpetual development for eleven years before “creative differences” between Wright and Marvel’s parent company Disney eventually resulted in Wright’s departure.  Director Payton Reed would step in to finish the project, and while production was troubled and buzz was non-existent, Ant-Man, like its namesake, is stronger than it looks.

As I mentioned, Paul Rudd plays Ant-Man and his alter ego, Scott Lang.  Rudd also serves as a co-screenwriter on the film, making him the first star of a Marvel film to serve as both lead actor and screenwriter.  The film opens in 1989 where a furious Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) argues in front of S.H.I.E.L.D. (including Agent Peggy Carter, played by Hayley Atwell) that his breakthrough on reducing the distance between atoms, nicknamed the Pym Particle, is too dangerous to hand over to them.  Fast forward 26 years and Pym has been effectively voted out of control of his own company by his own apprentice, Darren Cross (Corey Stoll).  Cross has been working on recreating the Pym Particle and appears to be on the cusp of doing so, the consequences of which worry Pym.

Don't shrink me, Mr. Cross!
Don’t shrink me, Mr. Cross!
Cross is a bad dude, and if you weren’t sure…there’s a scene where he evaporates a cute, little lamb in his testing trials to shrink organic matter. But this film is not called Lamb Man, so I’ll move on.

It turns out Lang, an electrical engineer, caught the attention of Pym when he was arrested for “burgling” his employer, a cyber-security conglomerate, because they were overcharging their customers.  After serving three years in San Quentin, Lang was released and Pym, in a rather unorthodox[*] fashion, recruits Lang to wear a secret particle suit that would allow him to shrink to the size of an ant in a plot to overthrow Cross.

Lang’s place in the conflict between Pym and Cross does seem artificial at first.  Enter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson), Lang’s six-year-old daughter.  Lang’s main motivation is to be a man Cassie can be proud of, and Pym is offering him a chance to do just that.  It also doesn’t hurt that Pym’s beautiful daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly) is assigned to work closely with Lang in his training.

And there is a lot of training.  Not only does the Ant-Man suit allow Lang to shrink in size, but he retains human strength in his miniature form.  Pym also provides Lang with a neurotransmitter that allows him to communicate with actual ants making him the weirdest movie superhero to date, in my opinion.

However, weirdness works in the case of Ant-Man, mostly because of Paul RuddRudd has been slowly “breaking out” over the past 20 years.  His everyman approach and his bravado sense of humor make him impossible not to root for, which is precisely why he is effective as a superhero.  Like all of the best Marvel films, this one is not just a superhero film, but it is a genre film as well.  Ant-Man plays out like a “caper,” complete with safe cracking, data stealing, and elaborate breaking and entering schemes.  There’s even a sort of Ocean’s 11 vibe when Lang recruits has band of misfits including Michael Peña, David Dastmalchian, and T.I. to help with a big heist.

On a surprising note, I was underwhelmed by how mediocre the effects seemed in this film.  I saw Ant-Man in the traditional 2-D format, and some of the scenes where a shrunken Ant-Man navigates his miniature world echoed far too closely to Honey I Shrunk the Kids than should be the case in this post-Avatar day of computer effects.  Most of these effects were clearly staged and shot for 3-D, but they do seem clunky in the 2-D form.  Fortunately for Ant-Man, the script is fun with plenty of action and enjoyable dialogue.  The film is also woven nicely into the Marvel Cinematic Universe thanks to a fun scene between Ant-Man and a special Avenger cameo (On your left!). The crown for the goofiest Marvel movie that once sat on the head of Thor: The Dark World only to be claimed by Guardians of the Galaxy now firmly sits atop Ant-Man, but that continues to not be a bad thing!  B+

Ant-Man is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 1 hour and 57 minutes.  Unlike Avengers: Age of Ultron, this film does have additional scenes after the film.  There is one about a minute into the credits and another after the credits.

[*] I sat and pondered how to write a plot summary for this film for over twenty minutes.  I considered adding the detail about how Lang can’t find a job because of his criminal record, so he and his friend Luis (Michael Peña) plan another robbery, which turns out to be Pym’s house, which is how Lang first comes in contact with the Ant Man suit, which wouldn’t be that strange except that Pym had orchestrated the robbery anyway from the start!  But I decided to just call Pym and Lang’s meeting “unorthodox.”

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

ImageJust as Spidey is swinging back into theaters for, doubtless, another big opening at the box office, The People’s Critic is just getting a chance to write up the Spring’s first big blockbuster. That’s right, Cap is back, and in a big, big way! Remember when Sam Raimi’s Spiderman came out, and everyone was saying, “Now that is how you make a comic book movie!”? But then The Dark Knight came out and everyone said, “No wait, now that is how you make a comic book movie!” Taking nothing away from Spiderman, The Dark Knight, or the other entries in the Marvel franchise, I would like to formally invite Captain America: The Winter Soldier into the conversation because this is how you make a comic book movie!

To begin with, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a terrific political conspiracy thriller in the style of Three Days of the Condor or The Parallax View except with superheroes and a bigger budget. I can honestly say that anyone can enjoy this film even without previous knowledge of other Marvel franchise films. I can say this because I took my mother to the film and she loved it. For those of you who know my mother’s skepticism to all things “comic,” that should send you to the theater immediately.

For those of you who don’t know my mother or need even more motivation, now I’m speaking to you. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is the follow-up to Joe Johnston’s 2011 film, Captain America: The First Avenger. The sequel, exquisitely directed by Anthony and Joe Russo, finds “Cap” Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) finally adjusting to life in the 21st century. Still an active member of S.H.I.E.L.D, Rogers continues to take missions but is finding modern ethics a bit distasteful compared to those he lived by in the 1940s.  

When S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), reveals a new initiative called Project Insight, Rogers has major doubts. Spearheaded by the World Security Council, Project Insight would use triangulated helicarriers that track bio-levels in all humans to determine future threats and then eliminate them before they can ever strike. Similar to the conflicts in the film Minority Report, this form of “pre-crime” judgment is a tough pill for Rogers to swallow. After Fury requests that Secretary of Defense Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford) delay Project Insight, Fury is suddenly attacked in one of the finest action sequences put to film in recent memory.

Now Rogers along with new pal, Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) and Agent Natasha Romanoff (Scarlet Johansson), must search to find who it is that is attacking S.H.I.E.L.D. and preserve the safety of America and the world. His efforts are complicated with the arrival of The Winter Soldier, a mysterious super soldier with talents and abilities rivaling those of Rogers’s. The cat’s mostly out of the bag regarding what the Winter Soldier’s identity truly is, but I will not reveal it here.

Back to my original statement about why this film belongs in the conversation of finest comic book movies. While many films of this genre are born into intergalactic conflicts and absurdly fantastic plotlines, the best of them are grounded, at least partially, in reality. The motive for Captain America has always been protecting his homeland from threats, and it is a credit to the Russo brothers and writers Christopher Marcus and Stephen McFeely to put him in an environment where he is doing that very thing.  Additionally, the performances are pitch perfect.  Evans brings the perfect balance of charm, bravado, and idealism to the role of Captain America, and Robert Redford puts forth a very real and noteworthy performance as Pierce, no doubt inspired by how Tommy Lee Jones treated his role as Colonel Phillips in Captain America: The First Avenger. 

The film, while capable of standing alone, is also so well woven in to the Marvel universe. References and Easter eggs abound including one small homage to actor, Samuel L. Jackson that is sure to delight fans of his films. Captain America: The Winter Soldier is yet another fantastic entry into this still unrivaled and unprecedented series of associated franchises. However, this film sets a new bar but one that I have no doubts will be surpassed again. A

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 15 minutes. Marvel continues its trend of providing stingers after the credits, so stay comfortable and enjoy two scenes – one midway through the credits and one afterwards.