Sunday, May 8, 2016

Captain America 3 / Iron Man 4 / Avengers 3 Review

Whether you are looking for big epic fights, lots of fanboy geek-out moments, exciting action, a tense thriller, Marvel's trademark humor, or a more serious examination of superheroes in a real world setting, Captain America: Civil War delivers on all counts.

That might sound like the movie was trying to be too many things at once, but the Russo brothers pull it off. Every element gels. I was entertained from beginning to end.

I can't gush to the extreme of Winter Soldier or Guardians of the Galaxy, though. I can't call it my new favorite Marvel movie. I loved it. I'll see it again. I'll own the Blu-ray. But it lacked... something that I couldn't put my finger on for a couple days.

I finally realized the problem was that unlike those best of the best Marvel installments, this one felt structured. It suffered a bit from having most of the story beats that audiences have come to expect from lesser films. You could feel Act 1 ending and Act 2 beginning and trace how it all comes together.

It's biggest sin was that it gave away what was supposed to be the huge plot twist at the end of the movie with Tony Stark's opening scene. That plot twist was not delivered very well either. It essentially pinned the villain's entire master plan to a major plot contrivance that was hard for me to get past. Like with Age of Ultron, the How It Should Have Ended writes itself.

But with so many awesome fights and great scenes that run the spectrum from funny to touching to gripping, it was hard to care about its shortcomings.

Black Panther walked off the page and came to life on the screen. The scenes with Vision and Wanda were both a treat for old school fans and an intriguing element that newer fans who only know about the movies might not have seen coming. Ant-Man's part in the big airport fight was one awesome cheer worthy moment after another.

All of the focus is naturally on the heroes fighting each other, but even the opening scenes surrounding the Avengers chasing down Crossbones grabbed the audience right out of the gate, and set the tone beautifully.

Woven through all that escapism, the drama behind why the rift in the team forms is compelling. Unlike the pitiful comic of the same name, this story is an incredible look at what it would really mean to be a super powered vigilante in a real world with real politics and real consequences. Everyone's motivations make sense and makes the audience think.

Yet it doesn't sacrifice any of the fantasy or fun that makes the superhero genre great. The plot is not just an excuse of make the characters duke it out just to see who would win. At no point do you stop liking any of the characters or forget why you are rooting for... well everyone.

Spider-Man was the stand out star of the big airport battle. He and Ant-Man were there to lighten the tone and they succeeded.

Peter Parker was in some ways a departure from past films, and even the comics to a degree. Tom Holland's portrayal focuses a bit more on the awkward kid angle than his predecessors. But that's not a bad thing. The spirit of the character was a spot on modern take of a shy nerd with a sense of humor and a big heart who suddenly gets awesome super powers.

Seriously, they could have sold advance tickets to Spider-Man's next solo movie in the lobby on the way out and it would have broken box office records.

Bottom line: It doesn't dethrone my top favorite Marvel movies, but it makes a fine addition to the top 5. Go see it. Especially if you are a producer for Warner Brothers. THIS is how you make a superhero movie that normal people outside of hardcore comics fanboys want to see.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

My Take On Star Wars Ep VII

As the hype for Star Wars grew, I couldn't help but think back to the final line of Fanboys. After our heroes' hilarious journey surrounding the release of Episode I, they finally arrive in the theater opening night and one of them dares to ask, "What if it sucks?"

Experience has taught me to always keep my expectations low with any big anticipated movie. Letting your inner geek get too excited only makes the letdown that much harder.

With Force Awakens, though, I just couldn't help myself. The property was free of that hack Lucas. It was being done by a company that understands action adventure, directed by a man who clearly loved the Star Wars universe as much as we did. Despite my best attempts, my hopes were high.

And I was not disappointed. I can't gush over it like I have been prone to do with some films of recent years, but unlike the haters on social media, I have no problem enjoying a fun movie even if it has a few warts.

The short version: 4 out of 5 stars.

Well played action sequences, music and scenery that made you feel part of a galaxy far away, engaging characters... and despite following the exact same plot outline as the original movie, the story was delivered with enough of a unique spin and cool twists that I can forgive them. For the most part it was solidly written and well acted. I didn't feel the need to dumb myself down to enjoy the ride. I am really looking forward to seeing how this new saga develops.

The Force was with JJ Abrams and crew. From the bottom of my inner child's heart, thank you.

Now for the long version, as seen through the lens of a writer who can't help but dwell on story structure and characterization. And as a lifelong fan.

Oh yeah... SPOILER WARNING, for what it's worth. Though I figure anyone who wants to see the movie has by now.

Lets get the problems out of the way first. I want to talk about the good stuff, but bear with me while I vent a little.

Apparently there is such a thing as too much nostalgia. My biggest gripe was that they had to follow the plot of A New Hope point for point. I get that Disney wanted to wipe the prequels from our collective conscience. I get the appeal of filming a love letter to the originals. But I was tugged out of the story a few too many times when they beat you over the head with deja vu.

Some of the callbacks were well done. Calling the Falcon garbage at first glance. Dropping the line "I have a bad feeling about this." C3PO interrupting Han and Leia just as they are having a moment. Han asking if the base had a trash compactor. Those were well timed tension breakers.

But come ON. It opens with a spy giving the film's MacGuffin to a cute little droid. The droid then wanders a desert full of scavengers in search of a reluctant hero with a destiny to bring him to the good guys by way of the criminal underworld, with the help of a man of questionable morality but a heart of gold who turns out to really just be in it for the girl. Said anti-hero tries to bail, but returns to save the day. The conflict builds to a battle with a huge superweapon that they have to destroy by flying through a trench before it wipes them all out.


I pray to the sci-fi entertainment gods that Disney got it out of their system with this film and run with a more original script in future installments.

Though not part of the carbon-copy plot syndrome, the biggest moment that I had trouble pushing myself past was when Finn and Rey were trying to escape Jakku, and the Millennium Falcon just happened to be right there.

Now, there was an underlying sense that Han knew exactly who Rey was, not the least of which was the fact that she knew everything about that antique ship like she'd grown up flying it.

So it's entirely possible that it will be revealed in the next movie that Han's whole claim about the Falcon being stolen was just a cover story, and that it was left there on purpose. I kind of hope that's the case because if not, it was just way too silly of a convenience. Or maybe it was Luke orchestrating events from afar. I'd buy that. Give me some attempt to justify it. The audience can only be expected to fall back on the Force as a plot device so much.

A few scenes later, another immersion breaking moment came when no one thought it might be a bad idea to bring the very distinctive BB-8 droid that the First Order was hellbent to capture into a literal den of thieves. Not very sound judgement coming from a career criminal. Granted, there was a throwaway line where Han figured they were being tracked anyway, but why increase your odds of the First Order finding you that much more? It was an awkward stretch of logic to buy.

Also during this part of the film, Finn suddenly changes his mind about wanting to not be one of the bad guys anymore and declares he's leaving. This was just one of the times that made me wonder if I liked Finn or not. He'd JUST given Rey a spiel about doing the right thing. But then much later in the story, he basically admits that he's only there because he has the hots for Rey. His motivations are too scattered at times, which I couldn't help but see as Hollywood Mentality mucking him up. I could just hear them in the writer's room. "No no no. He has to refuse the call of the hero's journey first!"

I am so damn torn on Kylo Ren.

First he freezes a blaster bolt in mid-air and casually waltzes around it. After several scenes establishing that Chewbacca's bowcaster packs the punch of a grenade launcher, Ren takes a shot to the chest and shrugs it off. He rips thoughts from people's minds with abandon. He's ruthless. He's savage. For 3/4 of the film, he's scary as hell.

Then he takes his mask off in front of Rey.

Instantly this insane mind crushingly powerful badass devolves into an emo kid. His whole monologue with Rey in the interrogation chamber came across way too weak. He had a lot of his grandfather in him, alright. Ugh.

Soon after, when he faced his father in the most pivotal moment of the film, I didn't know whether to hope for his redemption, root for him to complete his turn to the Dark Side, or push him off the damn bridge.

My opinion of him hinges on what they do with him in the rest of the trilogy. He BETTER NOT be turned back to the Light. If he does not develop into a full-on unabashed, unapologetic, unsympathetic evil villain, then he'll be remembered as nothing but a pussy.

And don't try to write him like Vader either. Kylo Ren needs to become the Joffrey Baratheon of the Star Wars universe.

If killing his father gives him permission to put on big boy pants, then even his whining and tantrums in this first movie has a chance to be remembered as solid characterization. So long as they don't ever try to sell him as stoic.

See, that was the biggest problem with the portrayal of Anakin Skywalker. I just could not see that whiny bitchface being seen as a war hero, or turning into this paragon of fear that we met in the original trilogy. It was too inconsistent.

Captain Phasma was kind of disappointing, though that was more a failure of marketing than of the movie itself. She was billed as one of the big villains, but ended up being kind of a joke. I really hope they redeem her in the next movie. I demand a vibroblade throwdown between her and Finn at some point.

Anyway, that's it. Too much fan service, and a couple scenes of iffy writing. And Kylo Ren, but with a big asterisk on him because I still liked him. There were a few other moments of plot contrivance that were so easy to ignore I have trouble recalling them. It was not a perfect film. But neither were any of the original films.

And just like the original films, there was SO much to love.

Like Rey! If I am ever blessed with an opportunity to write a novel in the Star Wars universe, I am going to have so much fun with her. I loved the way they unfolded the mystery surrounding her origins. Her vision, the way she knew the Falcon inside and out, the way her powers and training slowly came back to her.

She clearly has her own issues with how to channel her powers, too. She radiated frustration that bordered on anger almost every time she showed her Jedi side. Big warning bell, and great material for her training arc in the sequel.

The reigning theory is that she'll turn out to be Luke's daughter. That's actually pretty likely, but I don't just assume it. If you look only at what was said and shown on screen, you don't know the full story. She is easily the most intriguing character.

While a little torn on Finn, I lean toward liking him, too. There's a lot of unfair hate out there on the interwebs surrounding him that I just don't get. Here's a kid who was taken from his family and psychologically reprogrammed to be a drone. But when faced with an order to kill innocent civilians, he breaks his programming and defects. How is that not compelling?

Despite being just a grunt, we see him pick up and wield a lightsaber, which is a bit mind blowing if you think about it. Sure he loses to Kylo Ren, but the fact that he could beat that other stormtrooper in melee combat with a weapon so dangerous that only Jedi dare to wield it was enough to establish the kid's battlefield cred.

The revelation that he was assigned to sanitation at one point in his career was kind of unfortunate. While it was funny, and set up the trash compactor joke, it also made haters go "OMG he was a janitor LOLZ." Well that janitor went toe to toe with a trained Dark Jedi so there's clearly more to him than comic relief.

And who can complain about a movie where Han Solo had such a HUGE part? Even after seeing it countless times in commercials, the line "Chewie, we're home" gave me chills. Harrison Ford slipped into that character as easily as if he'd just played him last year, not three decades ago. His presence on the screen was what really made fans feel nostalgic. And he finally got to give the character the ending he always wanted. Can't get more poetic than that.

Chewie's scenes were gold. Leia had some very poignant moments. Even Luke's thirty seconds with no dialogue made for an epic ending.

What I loved most was that Abrams presented a story about a very large and diverse galaxy. Jedi were just one aspect of it. The core aspect, but only a part of a larger story. One huge failing of the prequels was how much the Jedi dominated the plot to the point of suffocating it. In role playing terms, every archetype had a part to play in this adventure. It was a relatable story that focused on  regular people fighting for their place in a very real universe where the Force was the stuff of myth and legend. A true space opera fantasy.

Don't let the haters get you down. Go see it (again)!