Comics Movies

Rest in Peace, Stan Lee

I think most of us know that Stan Lee’s legacy at Marvel for comics is fraught.  Who truly created what, who deserves credit.  That’s covered elsewhere, like the obituary/profile linked above.  I’d like to talk about Stan’s place in my life, as a budding geek who wasn’t sure of his place in the world.

Millenials, for the most part, only know Stan Lee as the kindly Grandpa who pops up in the movies to chew a bit of scenery.  For those of us around in the early 80s through the 90s, Stan was EVERYWHERE that Marvel characters were.  Stan Lee moved to California to hustle them into TV and movies, and he gave it his whole heart.  Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends?  Stan Lee opened every episode.  The Incredible Hulk?  He’s there too.  Every entertainment TV show, late night, daytime, game show, he was always putting Marvel out there.  The consummate showman.

Stan Lee always wore his heart on his sleeve, and his enthusiasm for comics as an art form was infectious.  You knew he was selling you, but he was so darn earnest about it you couldn’t help but grin along.  It helped that he seemed like a genuine good person, trying his best to push, in his own way, for civil rights and equality.  The world would be better than it is now if more people had gotten his message.  Excelsior, Stan.

Movies Review

Movie Review – Ghostbusters (2016)

I’m happy to report that I have seen the new Ghostbusters movie and did not, in fact, experience the death of my childhood.  We all enjoyed it quite a bit.  Sure, there’s a few bits that don’t land but that’s true of the original Ghostbusters if you can manage to view it without the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia.

The story focuses mostly on Melissa McCarthy’s Dr. Abby Yates and Kristen Wiig’s Dr. Erin Gilbert, who used to work together and wrote a book on the paranormal.  Gilbert distanced herself from it, while Yates continues to research ghosts.  They come back together when Yates puts the book up on Amazon, threatening her tenure at Columbia.  Of course, they DO end up both finding a ghost and losing their jobs which leads to the creation of the Ghostbusters.

Abby’s new partner, Dr. Jillian Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon), comes along with her as the engineer who builds the ghostbusting equipment, and Leslie Jones’s Patty Tolan joins up after she encounters a ghost in the subway, bringing her knowledge of New York City (and her uncle’s hearse) to the team.  Chris Hemsworth rounds out the main cast as Kevin, the extremely dim-witted but hunky secretary.  I thought all the leads were great, especially Kate McKinnon as you no doubt have heard by now.  Holtzmann is wonderfully weird, and my daughters both loved Abby.  I even saw my son, who was totally “Why did they remake it with GIRLS?” before smiling and laughing at multiple points.

The original Ghostbusters cast (those still with us, RIP Harold Ramis) all had fun cameos, especially Bill Murray as a James Randi-esque paranormal debunker. There’s a bit of off-color humor, though not nearly as much as the original, about on par with Guardians of the Galaxy.  There’s a lot of fun to be had here, so if you haven’t seen it yet, it’s worth a trip to check it out.

Movies Review

Lightning Movie Reviews – Ant-Man, Ultron, Minions

I have some catching up to do, so you get some quick thoughts on some recent flicks.

Avengers: Age of Ultron – The first movie was so successful, so it would’ve been difficult to meet expectations here. Ultron definitely was a half-step down but still had some great action and humor. Ultron himself could’ve used a bit more menace – something Spader would’ve been capable of, and in the end Ultron comes off a bit odd. I loved the Vision though, and for all the worry about Quicksilver and the comparison to the X-Men movie version, he and Wanda were great in their limited role. Special shout-out to Hawkeye who filled the ‘heart of the team’ role admirably, and was probably the funniest of the Avengers.

Ant-Man – Okay, I really enjoyed Ant-Man. Thought of as the riskiest project in the MCU after Guardians of the Galaxy, especially with all the turmoil surrounding Edgar Wright’s departure. It didn’t catch fire like Guardians but has performed solidly, tracking to match or exceed Captain America: The First Avenger. The visuals were a ton of fun and seemed to keep some of the Edgar Wright weirdness around. I wish Hope could’ve been Wasp here but I’ll deal as long as they get her in for future MCU movies. I also hope we get to see more Hank Pym – I’d love to see Michael Douglas as Hank going toe to toe with Tony Stark.

Minions – Minions is the classic example of something that is funny in small bursts but drags when expanded out to feature-length. Like how Pinky and the Brain were funny on Animaniacs but significantly less so with their own 30 minute show. There were a few chuckles and it certainly wasn’t so bad as to be painful, but it’s telling that the biggest smile for me came from when (spoiler alert) young Gru appeared at the end. Catch it when it’s on FX or whatever.

Movies Review

Movie Review – Tomorrowland

We saw Tomorrowland, and quite enjoyed it.  It felt to me like a throwback to the 80s kid adventure movies, with a modern budget.  It isn’t perfect, but the visuals and the solid kid actors make it worthwhile.

The story centers around two people – Frank Walker, seen both as a 12 year old inventor at the World’s Fair and as an old sourpuss now, and Casey Newton, a teenage dreamer with a penchant for wrecking government property (to keep Cape Canaveral open and save her dad’s job, at least for a few more weeks).  A mysterious young girl (Athena) slips Casey the pin you see in the trailers, which begins the adventure.

If there’s one problem the movie has, it’s that it takes too long to get you TO Tomorrowland.  There’s a lot of time spent establishing how Casey is one of the few dreamers left, and her family life, but her family doesn’t factor in much until the very end.  It’s also criminal that the marketing didn’t feature more of Athena, as Raffey Cassidy is a scene-stealer, though I’m sure they wanted to keep the truth of her character a surprise.

The uneven pacing kept this from being a huge hit for me, but it was a good way to pass an afternoon.  It should be popping up in second-run theaters and will be on DVD/Blu-Ray/digital copy soon.

Movies Review

Movie Review – Big Hero 6

Took the kids to see this at an advanced screening, and had a blast.  It is technically a Marvel movie, though the book is not exactly well-known.  Consider this in the vein of How to Train Your Dragon, in that a lot of the same parts are there, but plenty was changed to work better in a movie.  Some light spoilers from here.

The movie focuses on Hiro Hamada, a 14 year old genius inventor living with his older brother and Aunt after the death of their parents (Disney, I know, right?).  He spends his time building fighting robots and hustling in the underground bot-fighting subculture in “San Fransokyo”.  That is, until he gets inspired by visiting his brother’s lab at college, where Tadashi and his nerdy friends are building all sorts of cool inventions.  He decides to finally stop brooding and go to college, and just needs to prove himself at a high-tech science fair.  However, tragedy strikes, and Hiro is again dealing with great loss.

That’s where Baymax (the soft, inflatable robot) comes in.  Tadashi built Baymax to be a healthcare bot (based on real-world research into making robots friendlier) and picking up on Hiro’s distress, Baymax does whatever he can to help Hiro.  He get’s Hiro and Tadashi’s school friends involved and allows the ‘upgrades’ so Hiro can look for the culprit behind the fire that killed his brother.

The movie is beautiful – the stylized San Francisco/Tokyo hybrid city is super-cool.  The bit where Hiro and Baymax fly for the first time takes me right back to the pure joy of Tony Stark’s first outing in the Mark II suit.  The movie slows down a bit in the middle but my kids had no problems staying with it.  There is one twist in the plot as far as who the villain is – genre savvy parents might figure it out, but the smaller ones will be surprised.  The movie definitely plays with the concept of a sympathetic villain.

We had a great time, and I’m looking forward to seeing it again (and if my kids have their way, again and again and again).  It won’t capture the world the way Frozen did, but that’s a tough act to follow.  Definitely on par with Wreck-It Ralph.  See it.

Movies Review

Movie Review – X-Men: Days of Future Past

The X-Men movie franchise has had it’s ups and downs.  The first two movies were very good despite the myriad changes and tweaks to the characters, while X-Men 3 and X-Men Origins: Wolverine were on the rough side.  First Class was good, but went a long way towards making the continuity issues worse (How much older is Havok than Cyclops?  Are they even related? Xavier knew Mystique as a child?).  The Wolverine went a little sideways for the ending but I freaking love Yukio.  A lot of eyebrows were raised when the next team movie was announced as Days of Future Past, with a cast of thousands.  I only exaggerate a little there.  DoFP (see my review of the comic) is a time travel story that covers both the younger First Class version of our favorite mutants, and the dystopic future that needs to be stopped.  I was very curious to see if a time travel story could be pulled off, and am happy to report that Singer and company probably did the best you could expect.

First things first – if you read the comics, you know that Kitty Pryde is supposed to be the one that goes back in time.  Unfortunately, they change that to Wolverine (who else?) mostly so they can keep both casts involved.  I really liked Kitty in those issues of the comics, and love Ellen Page, so it’s hard to see her basically stuck holding onto Wolverine’s brain for 2 hours instead of kicking ass herself.  We do get Storm and Blink with the future mutants, and with Blink in particular, I hope we see more of her.

The story hits the major comic beats as much as possible.  Mystique’s killing of Bolivar Trask (played ably by Peter Dinklage) sets their terrible future in motion, and Wolverine has to stop her.  We meet Quicksilver, who turned out to be a ton of fun.  Uneasy alliances form, and are crushed.

I had a lot of fun in the movie, but there were a couple of oddities.  They explain Wolverine having to be the one sent back that far with his healing factor, that only his mind could handle it.  The serum that Beast and Xavier use is stupid.  Something that can suppress mutant powers?  Why would beast be surprised at the ‘cure’ when he was halfway to making one decades before?  And young Xavier being able to walk while using it is almost as bad as the 90s cartoon, which also had his legs working while his powers were suppressed in the Savage Land.  The framing of Mystique’s arc as the choice between two men was a head-scratcher.

Despite all of that, you can tell Singer was here instead of Ratner – he manages to get some real emotional moments from these characters.  The big reveals after they win are great, and the setup is there for Apocalypse to take the stage.  Definitely worth a watch, though fans of Kitty may have a tough time with it.

Movies Review

Movie Review – Godzilla

Japanese kaiju (or giant monster) movies have been part of my pop culture since I was a kid, and my older brothers watched the various Godzilla and King Kong movies. Though I probably got the most enjoyment from the Gamera movies as they appeared on Mystery Science Theater 3000.  Even without Pacific Rim appearing on the scene, you knew there’d be a ‘reboot’ of Godzilla for American audiences, the question is, would it be better than the deplorable 1998 version?  For me, it’s a qualified yes.

The story focuses on the family of Joe Brody, played by Bryan Cranston.  Joe and his wife work at a Japanese nuclear plant experiencing some odd, rhythmic seismic activity.  Joe sends Sandra (criminally underused Juliette Binoche) and a team to investigate the sensors giving the reports when disaster strikes.  Joe is forced to seal his wife and her team inside to protect everyone else from an explosion.  Cranston and Binoche sell the heck out of this, and it works.

Fast-forward 15 years, and the Brodys’ son Ford is making a life for himself as a Navy man, in Explosive Ordinance Disposal.  That won’t come in handy or anything!  Unfortunately, his dad hasn’t been able to let go of what happened, getting pinched trying to sneak in to the quarantined area.  Joe convinces Ford to go back one last time to secure data he recorded that will prove his crackpot theory of what happened right…and they both get caught.  This time, they are taken into a secret facility where scientists (including Ken Watanabe, who I could listen to read the phone book) are studying a massive chrysalis.  Being movie scientists, they accidentally hatch the thing and the first MUTO lays waste to the facility (and Joe).  MUTO is an acronym, mind you, and not just something that sounds like what you’d name a monster.

The survivors at the base get taken to an American aircraft carrier which is trying to follow the beast.  But never fear, Godzilla is here!  Dr. Serizawa (Ken Watanabe) has a theory that Godzilla is nature’s way of balancing things out.  He rises from the depths to smack up anything that might wreck Mother Nature, other than us, I guess.  Maybe we’re next.  Here is where things go sideways a bit for me.  There’s two ways a movie like this can go.  One, you go full on MONSTERS WOOO mode, or two, you focus on the people surviving the crazy stuff.  This movie never made a choice.  It didn’t focus on the fights – more than once it cut away early from a fight or showed it small on a TV people were watching.  On the other hand, we didn’t feel much for our stalwart hero other than “Gee, it’s really lucky that a bomb disposal guy is just hanging out right where he’s needed”.  It did lead to one scene where Godzilla falls to the ground, and our hero Ford shares a look with him like “Ain’t this something?  Shoulda stayed in bed!”, which had me laughing out loud.

Anyway, this review is late, but I did enjoy the movie.  It certainly is a solid take on the classic Japanese version of the monster, and does well to ignore the American Godzilla of the late 90s.  Should be at your second-run theaters soon.

Movies Review

Movie Review – The Amazing Spider-Man 2

I’ve been meaning to write this for a while – The Amazing Spider-Man 2 was a tough movie to get my head around.  It’s really two movies, a great Peter Parker movie, and a decent Spider-Man movie.  The personal moments between Peter and Gwen, and Peter and Harry, and Peter and Aunt May are all spot-on.  So much so that it feels like an odd shift when they go back to the heroes and villains side of the movie, with hammy over-the-top accents, weird characterizations (Dr. Kafka for instance), though the action was still great.  There was none of the feared villain overload, as it was really just Electro and the Green Goblin.  The Rhino is a barely-there reference at the end.  Justice is done to Gwen’s comic storyline.  The set-up for future villains is to be expected.

I enjoyed it quite a bit, though the shifts from the emotional bits to the action bits are jarring, thanks to the way the villains are characterized.

Movies Review

Movie Review – 300: Rise of an Empire

I got in to see 300: Rise of an Empire at an advanced screening (thanks,!) and I left shaking my head.  It’s basically the ‘rest of the story’ about what’s happening in Greece while the Spartans are kicking messengers into pits and defending gates.  Themistokles is a Greek general known for his cunning, trying to unite the various city-states to defend against the Persians.  Lena Headey returns as Queen Gorgo in a framing story of her retaliation against the Persians for killing her husband, I imagine so they could put her on a poster.  Gotta make sure to grab those Game of Thrones fans.  Sullivan Stapleton has all the presence of a tree stump, and his underlings don’t fare much better.  There’s an eye-rolling father and son playing out the tired “You’re too young to fight!”/”I’ll sneak away and fight anyway!” trope (I was taking bets on which one would die as soon as they appeared on screen).

If you go to this for any reason, it’s to see Eva Green having a blast as Artemesia, a Greek general who was taken in by a Persian man (apparently the dude Leonidas kicked down the pit) after she was betrayed.  She trains and becomes their fiercest and most blood-thirsty warrior, gleefully presenting the severed heads of her enemies to King Darius.  When Darius gets killed (by an arrow from Themistokles, because OF COURSE) she manipulates the dumber-than-a-bag-of-hammers Xerxes into undergoing the transformation that makes him 10ft tall.  Doesn’t make him any smarter though.

On the positive side, the final battle scene is good.  Some of the earlier ones are a little hokey (oh, we see a body falling on the camera and splashing blood?  never seen that before).  There are some humorous moments, though not all of them were intended.  The sex scene is ridiculous.  I did like that they didn’t try to make Themistokles and the other Greeks the equal of the Spartans in a fight – their wins against the Persians came from outsmarting Xerxes and Artemisia’s lieutenants.

If you think you might want to see 300: Rise of an Empire, I’d suggest waiting for the Rifftrax after it’s on DVD.  This is VERY riffable, I couldn’t resist a few comments while we were watching it.

Movies Review

Movie Review – The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug

Many people were nervous when Peter Jackson wanted to make two movies out of The Hobbit, and it only deepened when three were discussed.  The first movie was pretty divisive – Tolkien purists disliked the changes, and the added parts with the council and the Necromancer bothered some folks.  Others felt that if they got the ‘Riddles in the Dark’ part right, much could be forgiven.  Well, there’s plenty more for the purists to grind their teeth over, but in the end, The Desolation of Smaug has a lot going for it.

Things that work for me:

  • The elves.  Tauriel is gorgeous and tough.  The surprising flirtation (no spoilers) actually works.  As for Legolas, maybe it’s different makeup, or Orlando Bloom being that much older, but he seems a bit tougher himself.  And Lee Pace as Thranduil has me dying to see him as Ronan the Accuser.  Just great.
  • Smaug.  His look is definitely based on some of the illustrations out there, and the Cumberbatch voice works as you’d expect.
  • Bilbo.  As usual, Martin Freeman’s mannerisms are perfect, though he’s still a bit too good with Sting and fighting in general.  (Annalee Newitz has an interesting take on that at io9)  And yes, you do see how the weapon gets named.
  • Bard.  Despite the changes to him as far as his role in Laketown, I think Luke Evans makes an excellent Bard, who will be able to play off well against Thorin and Thranduil in the future.

Things that bothered me:

  • Thorin.  He’s a bit too friendly.  I realize there may be a marketing reason to make him more likable, but it’s going to make the third movie turns for the character harder to swallow.
  • The Necromancer.  Look, I love Gandalf to pieces, and I liked Sylvester McCoy’s Radagast, but every time the movie cuts away to this plot, it feels like a delay.  We’re here for Bilbo, right?  It’s in the title.
  • The Action.  While some of the fights had some interesting shots or ‘ooooooh’ moments, they all overstayed their welcome.  I’m still scratching my head at the final set piece.

Did I enjoy The Desolation of Smaug?  Yep.  It’s a shade better than the first one, but still has the same problems to varying degrees.  Your ability to look past those problems for an enjoyable time should be the decider on whether or not you check this out.  It was worth it to see for me.  I really like Martin Freeman, and I’m curious to see how they handle the Battle of the Five Armies in the next movie.

Movies Review

Movie Review – Thor: The Dark World

The first Thor movie (am I the only one who feels like THOR should be all-caps?  or maybe in that ‘Asgardian’ font they use in the comics?) was a solid effort despite some cornball moments.  The real star turn from that was for Tom Hiddleston’s Loki however, and the fact he got to villain it up in The Avengers shows that.  So yeah, this was always destined to be a Thor/Loki team up.  What’s surprising is how well both characters come out in the end.

Loki, you magnificent bastard.

What always causes problems for potential Thor movies is the plot – being the most cosmic and mystical of any current MCU property, it’s not hard to see why.  In this, a power called the Aether is released inadvertantly by Jane Foster, in her efforts to find a way reach Thor.  Oops.  Lucky for her, Thor and the Asgardians have reforged the Bifrost and he can take Jane to be looked at by their healers.  Odin is having NONE OF THIS as Thor should be with Sif, man.  Sif herself is certainly on board with this, though it never develops into a real love triangle – Thor is all about Jane.  Frigga (Rene Russo gets to do stuff this time!) is more open to Jane.  The awakening of the Aether also brings the villain of the movie out of a sort of suspended animation – Malekith the Accursed.  In a flashback we are shown just HOW VILLAINOUS he is when he lets the majority of his people, the Dark Elves, get slaughtered by Asgard when the Aether is kept from him.  Christopher Eccleston does it well enough, but it has to suck to be second fiddle to the Thor and Loki show.  By the way, I want to single out Idris Elba’s Heimdall as well.  He’s by far the coolest looking character, and like Frigga, has more to do.

Like the first Thor movie, there’s some genuinely funny moments, some solid father/son, mother/son angst, good battles, and the twist and the end…well, if I say more, it’ll be spoiled, and you will NOT want that.  Better than the first, and really, stay through the credits.  You should know that by now, right?  I got a real kick out of this, and you will too.

Movies Review

Movie Review – Ender’s Game

Note:  my love of the book predates any knowledge of OSC’s deplorable politics and views on gays.  Not discussing that here.

I have a long history with the book Ender’s Game.  My brother gave it to me to read after he read it and loved it, I couldn’t have been more than 10 years old.  It blew my mind, and it, along with my family’s love of Star Trek, kicked off my life-long love of science fiction.  So yeah, my brother and I have been waiting for a decent big-screen adaptation for 25 years.  Is this it?  Let’s take a look.

The first thing you have to remember is, no book or TV show or whatever survives it’s trip to the Hollywood blockbuster zone unscathed.  There are several aspects of the book that would make a movie unfilmable – especially the fact that the main character would have to age from 6 to 12.  The timeline is changed, so kid actors that can actually act can be used.  Sub-plots are minimized or left out.  It’s Ender’s story, so the Locke/Demosthenes stuff is left out.  It wouldn’t be very exciting, to be honest, though it leaves Peter as a common bully and not a flawed genius, like his brother and sister.

Visually, the thing that has to work is Battle School.  I love what they did with it here, having the Battle room glassed in looks fantastic, and the suits are sweet.  It’s telling that the main complaint many people have with the movie is that it moved too quickly.  But it’s already 2 hours, and more time would’ve been a lot to ask of a YA movie.

I was impressed when the casting announcements were made, and for the most part, it’s great.  Harrison Ford as Graff is great, especially the scenes where he’s bouncing off Viola Davis’s Major Anderson.  Asa Butterfield does Ender right, somehow making you believe in this kid and root for him, despite his obvious capability for violence and war.  Abigail Breslin’s Valentine doesn’t get much to do, again, her main plot wasn’t in the movie.  Hailee Steinfeld as Petra did a solid job, I loved the scene where she’s teaching him to shoot.  Gavin Hood et al resisted the love interest angle with just a few lingering looks that were suitably understated.  The rest of the kids were fine, with a mix of ex-Disney channel alums and other young stars.  Moises Arias had it tough as Bonzo, though.  He’s pretty short, and I remember the book having that as a fairly even matchup between he and Ender.  There wasn’t enough development for Bonzo to give him any hints of a Napoleon complex, or to establish him as some hand to hand master, so the fight in the shower just seemed like a mis-match.

Other problems?  Other than rushing a lot of things, we don’t get much of Command school.  I know montages get made fun of, but one or two would’ve served this movie.  They mis-use “The enemy’s gate is down” at the end, but the aftermath of that battle works pretty well, so I’ve forgiven them.  It’s also odd to think that the cocoon was sitting walking distance from them this whole time, exacerbated by the fact of a LIVE FORMIC QUEEN just hanging out in there.  The queen is able to speak into Ender’s mind in the books, even when in the cocoon, so while the live queen makes sense for non-fans, it’s tough to believe here.

On the whole, I really enjoyed the movie.  I kind of wish they could’ve made two movies, or a mini-series with this budget though, so everything could be juuuust right, but after 25 years, it wasn’t happening.  It’s better than I hoped.  Fans of the book probably already saw it, non-fans, it’s worth a matinee showing for you.