Stan Lee 22nd December 1922-12th November 2018

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The death has taken place of Stan Lee, the comic book creator whose Marvel universe has changed the culture and who himself has been the face of the industry. Rest in peace.

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Justice League (2017)

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I guess this means the band’s not getting back together. Fuelled by his restored faith in humanity, and inspired by Superman’s (Henry Cavill) selfless act, Bruce Wayne/Batman (Ben Affleck and his new face) enlists newfound ally Diana Prince/Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) to face an even greater threat from Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds) who’s wielding his terror on the island of Amazons led by Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen). Together, Batman and Wonder Woman work quickly to recruit a team of metahumans to stand against this newly-awakened enemy. Superman’s mom Martha (Diane Lane) confides in Lois Lane (Amy Adams) that the bank has foreclosed on the family farm. Despite the formation of an unprecedented league of gifted heroes including Aquaman aka Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa), Cyborg aka Victor Stone (Ray Fisher) and the Flash aka Barry Allen (Ezra Miller), it may be too late to save the planet from an assault of catastrophic proportions… You don’t want me to live. You don’t want me to die.  If I cared about this, I’d care about this, if you know what I mean. At the heart of it is Superman’s crisis – instead we are diverted full tilt boogie by a truly gobsmackingly dumb story about Steppenwolf and his three Mother Boxes (I ask you) screwing up those ladies who mothered Wonder Woman. The effects are horrible:  this is one visually awful film. The mentoring relationship between Batman and nerdy/autistic Barry/Flash has some moments of humour (especially with Affleck’s cosmetics denying his facial mobility, complementing his line delivery) and echoes the story’s underlying mentoring/parenting theme.  Lacking faith in the original story’s thrust we have to endure some foreign family’s suffering to, you know, pack in the contemporary emotion because the West and North of the planet are full of non-English speakers flooding onto our shores from the South and East, as if we all didn’t know.  Newsflash straight from Gotham! Crime is bad! People are awful! Vengeful gods are killer! A leaner, meaner narrative could have done wonders because – how ironic – it’s the action that lets this down. Oh! The metahumanity! The screenplay is credited to Chris Terrio & Joss Whedon from a story by Terrio & director Zack Snyder.

Incredibles 2 (2018)

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I am using technology to make people lose faith in technology. Helen Parr/Elastigirl (voice of Holly Hunter) is in the spotlight after being hired to re-popularise superheroes for the company DevTech run by Winston Deavor (voice of Bob Odenkirk) with techo savvy provided by his genius sister Evelyn (voice of Catherine Keener).  That leaves Bob (voice of Craig T. Nelson) at home with teenage Violet (voice of Sarah Vowell) who can turn invisible and little brother Dash (voice of Huck Milner) who can move like lightning to navigate the day-to-day heroics of normal life as a house husband. It’s a tough transition for everyone, made tougher by the fact that the family is still unaware of baby Jack-Jack’s (Eli Fucile) emerging superpowers which an unfortunate raccoon discovers first. When an anonymous villain hatches a brilliant and dangerous plot enslaving the planet to the will of the Screenslaver, the family and Lucius/Frozone (voice of Samuel L. Jackson) must find a way to work together again which is easier said than done with Mom being deviated from the original plan to fight crime by the villain whose authoritarian desires are worse than anyone can imagine … They may be retro-future styled (Dementia 13 is playing at the cinema) but the Incredible family are dealing with some twenty-first century issues particularly the use of entertainment devices to divert attention away from what’s really important. They’ve been away for a long time but their return to the summer blockbuster season is welcome even if like most animations it’s probably twenty minutes too long.  It arrives in an arena vastly overpopulated by superhero movies albeit it steers its own way through different issues than those driving the Marvel universe or the dark-hearted DC line. There are some highly amusing sequences especially with Jack-Jack who has such great abilities even designer Edna Mode (voice of writer/director Brad Bird) doesn’t mind doing some babysitting. The warning about technology comes in a package that is itself the product of huge cinematic developments on small screens since the first Pixar film came out 14 years ago – how ironic! The action scenes are a blast. Very entertaining and a lot funnier than the average animated sequel. I hate superheroes and I renounce them!

 

Ingrid Goes West (2017)

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Talk about something cool, like food or clothes or Joan Didion!  Ingrid Thorburn (Aubrey Plaza) goes nuts at her friend’s wedding to which she hasn’t been invited and pepper sprays her.  Thing is, the bride isn’t her friend, she’s someone Ingrid follows on Instagram.  It lands her in a mental hospital. She idolises social media star and Instagram ‘influencer’ Taylor Sloane  (Elizabeth Olsen) to the point that she reckons all those ‘likes’ constitute an invitation to her to ingratiate herself with the LA-based narcissist and moves there with money her late mom has bequeathed and promptly kidnaps the woman’s dog so she can claim the reward and ‘friend’ her in real life. Taylor’s husband Ezra (Wyatt Russell) is a technophobic artist whose work Taylor gushes over but he seems nice underneath all the boho-chic So-Cal lifestyle. Ingrid makes his only sale. Ingrid’s neighbour Dan Pinto (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) is a wannabe screenwriter obsessed with Batman whom she seduces in order to smooth her way socially with Taylor’s gang. Everything seems to go swimmingly until Taylor’s druggie brother Nicky (Billy Magnussen) turns up and figures out Ingrid’s game.  He blackmails her and she has to come up with a superhero-inspired solution to his threat to reveal her stalking to his sister  …  Co-written by David Branson Smith with director Matt Spicer, which makes me ponder once again why it is that sometimes men are better than women at exploiting the vagaries of female friendship (read:  rivalry) even if it winds up in a rather violent and cataclysmic denouement – with a twist. Well Ingrid is mentally ill, after all and Nicky knows she has Single White Femaled Taylor. This is smart and funny and topical and gets under your skin about what it is to be popular and the nature of contemporary life while retaining a caustic perspective. Performed with gusto by the principals and produced by the unstoppable Plaza who totally gets why reality is being subverted and image is everything. (Maybe that’s why she has 1.6 million followers on Instagram.) This is what happens when your followers actually follow you. Message:  don’t live on your phone, there’s more to life than avocado and, as we are all branding our lives now, society is experiencing an existential crisis. Sheesh …

Thor: Ragnarok (2017)

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I need to get off this planet.  Crown Prince of Asgard Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is imprisoned on the planet Sakaar and he has a race against time on his hands to return to Asgard and stop the destruction of the world (Ragnarok) by the evil goddess of death, Hela (Cate Blanchett) – who turns out to be his sister. It means teaming up with his awful brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) who is alive after all but can he be trusted?  Dad Odin (Anthony Hopkins) is on hand to guide him … Written by Eric Pearson and Craig Kyle & Christopher Yost, director Taika Waititi responds to the humour in the material and the cast are given their funniest outing yet, with a great joke cameo at the beginning. Jeff Goldblum turns up as a Grandmaster glorying in gladiatorial contests and Bruce Banner aka The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) arrives to join The Revengers – as they call themselves – to help them take on their vicious sister. Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) joins in on this mission as a whole society is at stake with Heimdall (Idris Elba) trying to lead them to safety. There’s a lot of intentionally odd 80s-style effects, self-deprecating humour (Thor’s masculinity is tested with a haircut) and a lot of nicely set up action sequences. Good-natured comic book fun in the second Thor sequel and the seventeenth episode of the Marvel series.

Logan (2017)

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You know, Logan… this is what life looks like. A home, people who love each other. Safe place. You should take a moment and feel it. It’s 2029 and a badly aged, heavy drinking and very weary Logan (Hugh Jackman) cares for an ailing Professor X (Patrick Stewart) at a remote outpost on the Mexican border. His plan to hide from the outside world gets upended when he meets Laura a young mutant (Dafne Keen) who is very much like him and was created in a lab by Alkali-Transigen who now want her back: their IVF-bred young mutants are not responding as expected and some of them have free will – and feelings. Logan must now protect the girl and battle the dark forces that want to capture her as they are hunted down by Donald Pierce (Boyd Holbrook) on behalf of mad scientist Zander Rice (Richard E. Grant) who fools Caliban (Stephen Merchant) into giving his friends away. What Logan hasn’t reckoned on is his seed having been used to make a copy – of him …  Adapted by Scott Frank and Michael Green and director James Mangold from the Wolverine comic books by Roy Thomas, Len Wein and John Romita Sr. This is elegant filmmaking – a strange claim perhaps to make about one of the most brutal and violent films you’ll ever see (heads actually roll) but it’s truer in spirit to adult-oriented comic books as per Frank Miller than anything else you’ve seen in this vein. It’s performed brilliantly by an almost perfect cast and the clips from Shane which X watches with Laura in their hotel room are a very fine metaphor for what happens, a kind of honourable suicide, for the future and the greater good. It really is the only decent superhero movie I’ve seen in years.

Doctor Strange (2016)

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At last. A superhero film I can get behind even if Robert Downey Jr isn’t in it. There is actual dialogue – as opposed to a (c)rap soundtrack substitute for the Asian market. There is humour, much of it deriving from the ubiquitous character’s name. There is – shock – even a vaguely comprehensible story and a sense of its own ridiculousness. And also – and this is crucial – it’s under two hours.(Knowing when to leave is a biggie in my book.) This episode from the Marvel multiverse is about gifted arrogant neurosurgeon  Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) who loses the use of his hands in a car crash. His career is over. When conventional medical procedures don’t help he resorts to a spiritual odyssey in Nepal (Tibet won’t work for the sensitive Chinese, sadly) where he encounters The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton in kung fu monk mode) and learns to subsume his ego to permit him access to mystic powers. Right there you have ingredients mashed up from James Bond, The Lost Horizon and Doctor Kildare. Cumberbatch is fantastic even when his own clothes are hitting him. (And you’ve got to admit that a man with that watch collection has oodles of style – particularly when he chooses to wear Jaeger-LeCoultre! Even the product placement is stylish.) Except you also have the crazed Master Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen, still seeking a sibilant replacement app) who wants to use dark powers to end the world and engage on some seriously impressive building-bending and folding in Greenwich Village and Hong Kong, the likes of which we haven’t seen since architectural origami exercise Inception. The effects are so good you’re left wondering why they couldn’t do something about that unsightly mole on Dr Christine Palmer’s face – Rachel McAdams is otherwise funny in a role that requires some very good real world reactions. Strange’s mission becomes that of intermediary between the world as we know it and the forces beyond. His self-discovery has global implications and reconciling what the Ancient One is really made of is central to what he becomes. It’s not just time that’s relative here – mor(t)ality too. Sidekick librarian Wong (Benedict Wong) enjoys a very humorous relationship with the new mandala master in his cloak of levitation. Steve Ditko’s comic book hero gets a fast and furious makeover from writer/director Scott Derrickson with Jon Spaihts and C. Robert Cargill. Physician heal thyself ! And then some. Pretty great. With a neat cameo from Stan Lee himself reading The Doors of Perception to drop an implicit joke about hippies and drugs… Ho ho ho! Make sure you sit out half the credits for a preview of coming attractions …

Suicide Squad (2016)

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I’m the first to admit I’m not the target audience for this episode in what is the DC Extended Universe … extended to a third episode. A bunch of irredeemable villains are assembled by a secret government task force led by Amanda Waller (Viola Davis)  to take on the  Enchantress (Cara Delevingne doing a Zoolander) who possesses archaeologist Dr June Moone with whom Colonel Rick Flagg (Joel Kinnaman) has fallen in love… and there are so many of them, so many interracial, interspecies, horrible villains. At least with The Dirty Dozen you know what you’re in for:  twelve. And using that construction, recruiting, training (a trial run) and then conflict, you have your brain sucked out through your eye sockets and you remember you have a grocery list to write. If you can stand to sit it out you’ll think Margot Robbie as Harley Quinn the former psychiatrist is the best thing in it.  Jared Leto is doing the Joker and it’s more like a cameo and in a new context so you won’t really remember Heath Ledger (different class). Will Smith is back in a moneymaker as Deadshot with the cute daughter to guilt trip him. There are  … loads of them, and there’s a sequel to come, apparently, with the same writer/director, David Ayer. I wouldn’t have thought this was written so much as smeared.

Birdman (2014)

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How rare is it that a Best Picture Academy Award winner can actually be watched more than once? I give you Crash, The King’s Speech and 12 Years a Slave, to name an intolerable few. Would you willingly sit through one of those again?!  This audacious, formal take on the unadulterated insecure narcissistic exhibitionistic actor (is there any other kind…) Riggan Thomson is an exception. His attempt to stage a Raymond Carver play on Broadway to try to recalibrate his career and be more than ‘one of those people awarding each other for cartoons and pornography’ (as hatchet woman theatre critic Lindsay Duncan snarls) is beset with difficulty. He tries to escape his populist reputation as the titular superhero but the grand irony is of course that cinema offers a far more fertile illusion than does the stage of realism trading as fantasy and to paraphrase R. Kelly, you will believe you can fly. Keaton is wonderful in a screenplay that trades on his definitive performance as Batman way back when, and it is a work that is replete with sharp references and allusions, written by director Alejandro G. Inarritu, Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris and Armando Bo. This is a far greater film about heroism than those streamlined cookie cutter comic strip types Hollywood is now throwing up at us every time May rolls around:  this is a real flight of fancy, proceeding from earthbound and complex emotions and reality to actuated existence, expressed by a roving camera (that of Emmanuel Lubezki) that must have been a nightmare to act around by a game ensemble. Yes, this appealed to the Oscar voters’ vanity, but they got it right. And how fantastic was it to see Keaton mouth the words, ‘F’in A!’ at this years Oscars when his latest movie, Spotlight, also won the top award?! Hell yeah!