Doctor Strange: Benedict Cumberbatch embodies the sorcerer supreme


So it took me a while to get to the theaters, but we finally saw Marvel’s newest offering, Doctor Strange. For those not in the know, the “sorcerer supreme” was first introduced in the early 1960s, and unlike the more “power fantasy” based superheroes who would punch and jump and kick their way to victory in a world based on our own, Dr. Strange was part of a far more colorful, trippy, psychedelic world of spells and inter dimensional beings and magic. I was looking forward to a movie that diverged from the now-familiar pattern of unworthy “diamond in the rough” hero finds his soul and punches his way to victory. And this movie didn’t disappoint.

Okay, Doctor Strange does sort of fall into that, in the beginning. Stephen Strange is a world renowned neurosurgeon who is vain, arrogant, and self-obsessed. And yes, after a debilitating injury that leaves his precious hands mangled, he goes on a quest that changes him. So far, we’re checking off the boxes of the “hero’s journey.” But it’s inward and psychedelic, with the visuals lending excitement, rather than huge tentpole battles. Strange is fighting the forces of darkness, yes, but his real battle is with himself.

High praise must go to Benedict Cumberbatch. It would be easy—safer, even—to introduce Stephen Strange as an impetuous but lovable snot with a heart of gold, but Cumberbatch never shies away from making him brutally unlikable, and keeping his self-discovery slow and profound. When he finally does pick up the mantle of hero—and he gets some fist waving hero moments—they feel earned, not arbitrary. And everything isn’t wrapped up neatly in the end, which is another point for this movie.

The rest of the cast does a spectacular job as well. Mads Mikkelsen plays a really excellent villain, one who seems both cruel and reasonable at the same time. Tilda Swinton is also great as the Ancient One, a part that is Asian in the comics (and there was a lot of controversy about the “whitewashing” of the part). Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong, none of them play a wrong note.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t note that this movie is a true visual feast. Since they can move reality, time, and space, think Inception but after drinking a case of energy drinks and dropping acid. These types of movies are always CGI heavy, but this one really takes you on one hell of a journey (and I saw it completely sober, if you’re wondering). Also, Marvel movies have become known for a sort of “sameness” in their musical themes, but Michael Giacchino’s score definitely stands out as one of the winners, too. All in all, if you like Doctor Strange, Marvel movies, fantasy, magic, you’ll love this one.

Suicide Squad lives to fight another day


Suicide Squad has been making waves for being as poorly reviewed as Batman v Superman, and for breaking box office records for August. But the thing is, Suicide Squad is a completely different kind of movie than BvS, and in my opinion, way more enjoyable.

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Star Trek Boldly Goes Above and Beyond

Left to right: Simon Pegg plays Scotty, Sofia Boutella plays Jaylah and Chris Pine plays Kirk in Star Trek Beyond from Paramount Pictures, Skydance, Bad Robot, Sneaky Shark and Perfect Storm Entertainment

We didn’t see Star Trek Beyond opening weekend because we were at Comic-Con. Trekkies that we are, however, there was no way we were going to let another weekend go by without seeing it. So while I won’t spoil the movie, I’ll jump to my conclusion first: we enjoyed it!

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Captain America: Civil War might be the best team superhero movie yet


This is how you do a superhero team up movie right. It starts by being a good movie, regardless of it’s fantasy content. Then it ticks all the superhero boxes, and does so in an organic way. And let’s be clear: even though this movie is called Captain America: Civil War this is really another Avengers movie; Thor and Hulk aren’t in it, but they introduce Black Panther and Spider-Man, as well as conscript Winter Soldier, War Machine, Falcon, and Ant-Man from previous Marvel movies to fill out the ranks.

First of all, this is just a great ensemble film. It’s core is a powerful tale about the repercussions of military action on a devastating scale. The external repercussions are that the world demands that the Avengers be accountable and report to a United Nations panel that will direct them.

The internal repercussions are that half the team, lead by Tony Stark/Iron Man, feels that makes sense; oversight gives them both cover and legitimacy. The rest of the team, lead by Steve Rodgers/Captain America feels this will turn them into a political tool. They worry about being politicized, either by being asked to do the dirty work of a particular voting block or their hands being tied when the needs of the world citizens don’t match the desires of the ruling class.

This lends itself to a lot of both interpersonal tension and great action. Each side has honest, heart felt reasons for doing what they do, and while they respect and admire each other, they feel that to give in would only make things worse. You could make this about any real-world extra-national elite military team and have the same great set up.

Then it adds all the cool superhero goodness, the relationships we’ve come to know and respect, the introduction of new superheroes, the personal tragedies each has suffered that amplifies everything they feel and desire.

Since the last superhero movie I saw was Batman v Superman, I can’t help but say that this movie gets right everything that BvS gets wrong. Both movies are about the same length, but even though there are twists and asides and numerous scene and continent changes, Captain America feels fast (Michelle did feel it bogged down a bit in some of the talkier moments, however). During BvS, I looked at my watch, went to the bathroom, and basically contemplated my navel repeatedly.

Captain America introduces two new superheroes to the Marvel Cinematic Universe (Spider-Man and Black Panther) in a completely organic way. BvS tries to introduce four new “metas” but does it in what is likely the most awkward possible way that any writer could have come up with (at one point in BvS, the action stops entirely so that Wonder Woman can watch online video of the other superheroes. And these superheroes have nothing at all to do with the movie. Seriously. I wish I were kidding).

Captain America was definitely a tense, and “heavy” story. This is not a simple “good vs evil” tale. And yet, as dark as this story gets, there’s never a sense that all is bleak and grim and hopeless. The characters laugh, the sun comes out, and there will be dawn. BvS is a non-stop sludge fest of bleakness. Neither movie ends with a fairy tale happy-ever-after but with Captain America you’re left excited about what comes next; with BvS, you’re dreading it.

I would recommend Captain America to everyone who enjoys military/political thrillers that are well written, well acted, well directed, with lots of fantasy action and effects. I hope Warner Brothers learns something from the heart and soul that Marvel manages to pour into their movies that was devoid from BvS.  BvS had art direction with a very high production value, but that’s it.

Comic Con Batman v Superman Trailer reveals more plot

I may not be at San Diego Comic Con, but I can still ramble about what new coolness the companies are releasing. And Warner Brothers just released a new Batman v Superman trailer at the con:

My thoughts, in no particular order:

* This trailer feels like the most complete view we’ve seen of what the story will be, besides lots of people wondering about Superman’s motives and Batman asking him if he bleeds.

* If you read my review of Man of Steel, one thing I hoped was that the sequel would bring more lightness, optimism, humor. I think it’s clear from this trailer that they didn’t listen to me. Now, I like dark movies as much as the next geeky gothy type, but I also like my superhero stories to come with some hope. There’s mentions that Superman = hope, but it sure seems in short supply.

* I was glad to see they finally included Wonder Woman in the trailer. But don’t blink—you might miss her. Nor does she get to utter a single line of dialog.

* As I expected, Ben Affleck seems fine as both Bruce Wayne and Batman. He carries the weight of the world with him, and gives his older Batman power and rage.

* Jesse Eisenberg looks to be a very different and potentially interesting take on Lex Luthor.

* Still a big fan of the returning cast, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Laurence Fishbone, et al seem to really have their parts down.

I am still cautiously optimistic that this will be a good movie, it looks like there’s a lot of quality in the production, acting, special effects, and so on. I do worry that it will be a two-and-a-half hour darkness fest though. I guess we’ll see in 2016.

Avengers: Age of Ultron—Epic fun not quite up to the original


With no stops scheduled today for The Dawning of Firebird Alex blog tour, this seemed a perfect time to offer my thoughts on something different. Last night, Michelle and I saw the Saturday night opening weekend showing of Avengers: Age of Ultron (in glorious 2D; regular readers know my distaste for 3D). There’s a lot of full reviews, and I hate to give spoilers, so here you’ll just get my impressions. And my impressions are precisely what I wrote in the title—I very much enjoyed the movie, but not quite as much as the first Avengers film.

Let’s get to the good stuff first. All the acting is excellent—the returning cast absolutely inhabits their roles, and the newcomers Elizabeth Olsen and Aaron Taylor-Johnson playing the new Avengers Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver also sold their characters well. Paul Bettany isn’t a newcomer to the series, having done the voice of JARVIS since the original Iron Man, but his first on-camera role as the otherworldly Vision was great.

Director Joss Whedon has the ability to write stories that are global in scope, comic book wacky, and yet still leave room for quieter character moments and lots of sharp, quippy banter. He tears the team down, separates them, and builds them back up again, while creating an army of robots, an evil AI with anger issues, and a story that truly spans the globe. He makes the stakes both epic and personal. And not every thread gets wrapped up neatly with a bow.

On the other hand, so many characters means that there’s many themes brought up and left hanging, conversations never completed, some disjointedness. Marvel has said that there will be a release of a director’s cut with more than an hour of extra material, even an alternate ending, so clearly there’s a lot we’re missing. And yet despite feeling that we needed more, I felt that some of the action scenes went on too long. Some of that may have been my personal distaste for slow motion in action scenes. I prefer fast, kinetic action. I don’t think the original Avengers had much slo-mo action at all. But this one, we had a lot of slow-mo, hero-worship moments. There had to be some, of course, whenever you have a speedster like Quicksilver, but there was, in my personal opinion, more than was necessary. I’m sure a lot of people love that, but to me it just stops the energy, and if anything draws attention to how heavily the movie relies on CG. But my point is, I think the movie might have been better served if the action scenes were trimmed, and some of the character moments left in.

Something also needs to be said about the big bad. James Spader does a great job of giving Ultron character. But ultimately, he’s not the just-shy-of-unhinged-but-almost-relatable villain that Hiddleston’s Loki was. One of this movie’s big themes is should heroes be pre-emptive vs. reactive. Ultron lends himself to that, as the ultimate perversion of pre-emptive security. But being the vessel for a philosophical argument, even when brought to life so well by Spader, isn’t nearly as gripping as Loki, a wounded step-brother driven to usurp what he feels fate has unfairly stripped away from him.

Joss Whedon juggles a lot of balls in the air for this movie, and mostly keeps them in the air. That is one hell of an achievement, and makes for a very entertaining film. This isn’t the ultimate superhero film, but it’s certainly worth seeing. I think we might be reaching the point where we’re beginning to see the disadvantages of the Marvel Cinematic Universe being so connected. Maybe superhero stores really are best when told in long-form serials like Daredevil, 13-episode “mini-movies” that allow for decompressed storytelling. And for my personal taste, a bit less slo-mo, please.

New Avengers: Age of Ultron Trailer

Now that we’re in 2015, it’s time to get excited about 2015 comic book movies! And perhaps the most anticipated is Marvel’s Avengers: Age of Ultron. They have just released a second trailer:

It certainly doubles down on the epic world-hangs-in-the-balance soul-crushing. The trailer shows us some scenes we haven’t seen before, and raises the stakes, but still holds its cards close. For example, we know that Vision and Quicksilver are in the movie, but we’ve still not really had good looks at them on any trailer. We see Tony Stark suited up in the Hulkbuster armor but we don’t know why he and the Hulk are fighting. And we get the idea that Tony Stark created Ultron, but we don’t know the why, or what went wrong.

I’m not complaining, BTW. I don’t like trailers that basically lay out the entire film for you. I like trailers that show enough to engage me while at the same time, not leaving me feeling like I saw so much I don’t need to see the movie anymore. And I’ll say this for the trailer above: I’m engaged.

Less than 5 months…

Warner Bros announce superhero films through 2020

It’s all over the Interwebs now: Warner Brothers, in a shareholder meeting, listed their release schedule for future superhero movies. You can find them all over the net, in pages such as this one, but the bottom line is that the schedule includes 10 films (see the large graphic at the bottom of the post), as well as standalone Batman and Superman films not yet in the schedule.

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Guardians Of The Galaxy fires on all thrusters


Guardians of the Galaxy is hands down one of the most entertaining comics-sourced movies in a long time. It balances comedy and drama, action and character, sweeping space opera CGI with quiet personal moments. And as other-worldly as the settings and characters may be, Peter Quill’s attachment to the 60s and 70s music of his late mother’s youth grounds both the character and the entire movie in a very relatable way. In fact, that’s one of the real victories of this movie—it’s five protagonists are all completely relatable—even the talking cybernetics-enhanced raccoon.

Props must go to a mostly spectacular cast for pulling it off. Chris Pratt is note-perfect as the half-human roguish hero. Zoe Saldana also does a fantastic job as Gamora, the cybernetic-enhanced assassin with a heart of gold. I’d never heard of David Batista before, but he was just right for Dax. The supporting cast was (mostly) excellent. And Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel as the voices of Rocket Racoon and Groot absolutely sell their characters. Diesel rings so much emotion out of Groot’s extremely limited vocabulary that he can make you laugh, cheer, and even cry with only a few words.

Yes, I said cry. As much humor as this movie has—and it truly doesn’t take itself too seriously—there are still some moments of authentic emotional connection that grab your heart. And because they’re not melodramatically overblown, that makes them all the more satisfying.

James Gunn can take a bow for the tightrope he walked in getting the tone just right. Clearly, trying to go “dark and moody” when you have a talking raccoon firing a machine gun atop a sentient tree won’t work, but embrace the cheese too much and you throw your audience out of the movie. Gunn nailed it, and in so doing delivered a movie that despite the drama and action is as hopeful as Man Of Steel or The Dark Knight Trilogy was bleak (I enjoyed all those movies…but they were WAY bleak).

The movie wasn’t perfect. The action didn’t feel as kinetic as Man of Steel or Avengers. Benicio Del Toro did a fine portrayal of The Collector, but it was a nothing character (as was Karen Gillan’s character, Nebula. All of her lines and scenes could have been given to Djimon Hounsou’s character with hardly any change in the film). But it’s definitely one of the most entertaining movies I’ve seen in a while, and I can’t wait to see it again!

Captain America: The Winter Soldier Is A Winner


We recently saw Captain America: The Winter Soldier (in glorious 2D; we generally avoid 3D). Marvel Studios has been firing on all cylinders when it comes to their movies for a while now, and this one is no exception. It moves at a frenetic, exciting pace, has snappy dialog, really well choreographed action sequences, and for a film that uses as many effects as this, it doesn’t feel “digital” if that makes sense.

I think the really tight direction/editing has a lot to do with it, as does the really excellent cast. Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L. Jackson, and newcomer to the franchise Anthony Mackie (as Sam Wilson/Falcon) are all completely believable and invested in their parts. The movie looks and sounds great, but it’s the performances that keep you involved in the story.

Marvel bills this movie as a “70s political thriller, with superheroes” but I’d consider it more a superhero action movie with political overtones. Yes, the consternation over the social and political implications of the actions of S.H.I.E.L.D. are absolutely part of the movie, as is an internal conspiracy. But unlike political thrillers that keep the identity of the conspirators secret as part of the “thrill,” Captain America telegraphs the plot pretty early on—and honestly, in some rather heavy handed info-dump scenes. But that isn’t enough to make the movie less enjoyable, unless you walk in expecting deep mysteries.

I’d definitely recommend this movie to fans of Marvel movies, superhero movies, and action movies in general.