Monday, May 23, 2016

The Nice Guys (2016)

After two Iron Man films, Jon Favreau retired to a more personal film with Chef, which seems to have rejuvenated his creative batteries while remaining an entertaining movie in its own right. Likewise, three years after Iron Man 3 it’s Shane Black’s turn to scale back for a smaller film – misplaced, perhaps, in the summer blockbuster season (I can’t help thinking it’d have performed better financially in, say, October), but right up there with Hail, Caesar! in terms of laughs per minute.

Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling star as errant private eyes whose paths cross on a missing persons case before the case turns into an apparent murder (or, as it turns out, murders) reaching as high as the head of the Department of Justice (Kim Basinger). It’s a 1970s extravaganza, from the music and locations to the politics and pornography; hat-tip to Angourie Rice as Gosling’s daughter, overeager and spirited despite her father’s protestations.

I’ve been a fan of Shane Black’s going as far back as my first viewing of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and his clever screenplay on The Monster Squad. Of course, the former had a lot to do with Robert Downey Jr. in a starring role, but that has a lot to do with the fact that RDJ is naturally adept at delivering the kind of lines that Black writers – quick-witted, dryly sarcastic, and unapologetically buffoonish when need be. Throw in the buddy cop element (lest we forget, Black screenwrote Lethal Weapon), and you’re well on your way to The Nice Guys.

Another way to put it would be to think of The Nice Guys as “Thomas Pynchon’s Big Lebowski,” juxtaposing the neo-noir aesthetics of the Coen Brothers with Pynchon’s penchant for the absurd, Inherent Vice if it starred a pair of detectives. Yet for all the twists and turns that analogy might lead you to expect, The Nice Guys is never less than straightforward, its mystery meandering but never straying while wrinkling in a nice bit of ambiguity just because the final reel (in brief, is someone lying about the truth of the case?).

Kiss Kiss Bang Bang was a success because of the unlikely chemistry between the extreme personalities of RDJ and Val Kilmer (the latter in an uproarious turn as Gay Perry), and The Nice Guys continues that pattern by joining Crowe and Gosling in a successful combination of thuggish straight man Crowe and waggish clown Gosling. While Crowe gets in his fair share of punchlines and confident one-liners, it’s Gosling who runs away with the film’s funniest moments (some playing off his daughter, in an entry for “World’s Nuttiest Approach to Parenting”).

Unfortunately, it seems that The Nice Guys is flying under the commercial radar, though critically it’s hovering around 90% on Rotten Tomatoes. Perhaps The Nice Guys will find its audience on DVD, and hopefully so because this is a film that is a guaranteed bad-mood-killer. Hail, Caesar! gave me an unending grin on my face, but The Nice Guys goes for the comedic jugular and left me wheezing with laughter throughout much of the picture.

The Nice Guys is rated R for “violence, sexuality, nudity, language and brief drug use.” Definitely a hard R between the violence (gunfights, fistfights, people getting hit with cars and falling off buildings), profanity (F-bombs aplenty), and nudity (topless and nude women in the opening scene and in an extended party scene).

Monday, May 16, 2016

The Top 10 Posts I Could Have Written (But Didn’t)

Lest you think it’s all fun and games here at The Cinema King, sometimes it’s pretty difficult to come up with a post every week. In honor of the latest difficulty in generating content (meaning I didn’t watch a movie this week), we proudly present “The Top 10 Posts I Could Have Written (But Didn’t)!”

10. Another lame, yet pun-filled excuse. Something like “Mid-May Malaise” or “We Were Killed Off on Game of Thrones Last Night.” (Spoilers: we weren’t.)

9. A revival of the old “Trailer Park” feature, in which I reviewed trailers from YouTube. (Any interest in that, by the way?)

8. “The Top 10 (More) Books On My Shelf That Ought to be Movies.” (Now including Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 and Colson Whitehead’s Apex Hides the Hurt.)

7. An in-depth thinkpiece about whether we’re at a place culturally where we need our heroes to be fallible, flawed, and addicted to substances. (I think we are, but why?)

6. A tribute to the late, great Darwyn Cooke. (Not quite cinematic, though I did review the adaptation of his Justice League: The New Frontier back in 2008, before I fully understood the potency in Cooke’s work.)

5. My review of Daredevil: Season Two. (It’s been a while since it came out; I liked it, and it didn’t do anything wrong, but it just didn’t hit it like the first season did.)

4. An update to my “Top 10 Marvel Cinematic Universe Films.” (Captain America: Civil War clocks in at #4, while Iron Man and The Avengers have now switched places.)

3. Playing with Blogger’s new “Featured Post” setting and airing a rerun today.

2. A “Monday at the Movies” comparing the different film version of Hamlet. (Someday!)

1. An announcement that I’m changing my name to The Cinema Doctor. (Receiving my PhD, though, hasn’t given me a swollen head.)

Hit the Comments below to tell me which one of these you would have liked to see, or if there’s one I forgot to include in my list. (For those playing the home game, that’s a post I could have written, but neither wrote nor listed in the list above.)

Monday, May 9, 2016

Captain America: Civil War (2016)

It’s been a wild ride here at The Cinema King, getting amped up for Captain America: Civil War by engaging ourselves in a Grand Marvel Rewatch of the twelve-picture Marvel Cinematic Universe. Marvel’s latest (and longest) film, Captain America: Civil War is also its biggest in terms of stakes, cast, and moral complexity, and it’s a dazzling super-triumph.

After years of operating unchecked amid several major global events, The Avengers find their powers under scrutiny by a United Nations resolution that seeks to oversee their operations. Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), feeling guilt over his complicity in the creation of Ultron, signs on almost immediately, but Captain America (Chris Evans) has grave reservations about signing away his liberty. The rest of their teammates are forced to choose sides in the conflict when Cap’s childhood friend Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) comes out of hiding, further splitting the team as regards Bucky’s responsibility for his actions as the Winter Soldier.

Civil War manages to be both sweepingly epic and deeply personal, with far-reaching consequences stemming out of what is essentially a clash of personalities, a philosophical difference of opinion about the nature of individual power. And what’s really striking – shout-out here to directors Anthony & Joe Russo and screenwriters Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely, because they deserve it – is that the film never sacrifices one for the other. We get wonderful character beats and big-scale action sequences. One minute we’re in the kitchen with Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany) as hosts of an adorable impromptu cooking show, and the next we’re in Leipzig for the airport sequence which is even more awesome than the trailers let on. (Honestly, the airport scene might be Marvel’s best action sequence to date, worth the price of a DVD, and eerily reminiscent of Whedon’s two 360-degree shots of the Avengers collaborating.)

And yet, for as much as the film valorizes character development, delivering some of the least opaque motivations for superhero characters yet, I really must quibble with the title of this film. Captain America: Civil War is not quite a Captain America movie – at least, not in the way that Captain America: The Winter Soldier was. In some part, this is due to the inclusion of RDJ as Iron Man, because Downey steals the screen whenever he shows up, but it’s also because the script is uncannily fair to both sides of this conflict. Both Stark and Cap have lines that might convince a fair-minded viewer to change their own opinion, and the film has neither a cop-out “villain orchestrated it all” twist nor any out-of-character beats like the comics source material (in which Tony Stark put Daredevil in a space prison). Civil War is balanced, and it may be difficult to digest for that reason, and kudos to the filmmakers for never cheapening the weighty debate.

Indeed, a better title would have been, simply, Marvel’s Civil War, for the film is unmistakably a waypoint for the franchise as a whole. There are beats in here that pay off all the way back to 2008, bringing everyone from Ant-Man to Thunderbolt Ross into the fray, and Civil War introduces Spider-Man (Tom Holland) and Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) to the MCU in ways that make me incredibly excited for their standalone films. Holland in particular is the new definitive Peter Parker, capturing the webslinger’s inability to keep quiet without letting us forget that he’s perhaps too young for this. Civil War feels very much like a slice of a universe, but while Cap is undeniably a star it’s difficult to say he’s the star.

Ultimately, this is not actually a bad thing. It’s at worst a misnomer, but I’d rather have a film with a handful of fantastic characters than a film that limits its focus unnecessarily. I think we can all agree, for example, that The Force Awakens didn’t necessarily need more Luke Skywalker, especially if it cost us a few scenes with Poe Dameron. Whether it’s Captain America 3, Iron Man 4, or Avengers 2½, Civil War is too exciting, too much fun, and too engaging to write off on a technicality. It leaves you wanting more, a sage move for a ballooning franchise like this one. It sends you out of the theater debating over which scene was the coolest, to be sure, but it also sends you away with a moral question that’ll take up most of the car ride home.

Captain America: Civil War is rated PG-13 for “extended sequences of violence, action and mayhem.” There’s a lot of running/jumping/shooting/punching sequences, several extended; a few explosions and scatological profanities; and a few shots of bloody people. More of the same, really, from Marvel.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

The Grand Marvel Rewatch: Marvel One-Shots

Face front, true believers! Welcome to the final astonishing addition to “The Grand Marvel Rewatch,” designed to get us all sufficiently amped up for Captain America: Civil War, which comes out May 6, 2016. Each Wednesday, The Cinema King casts his eye back upon the twelve films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and offers five salient observations about the caliber of the films and the way they might play into Marvel’s latest installment in America’s favorite franchise.

Today’s fantastic feature film isn’t a feature film at all – we’ve got five “Marvel One-Shots,” short films released as special features on various Marvel DVDs. Where do these all fit in, and why haven’t we seen more than five? Read on for the answers!
  1. The Consultant. If you’ve wondered how Tony Stark got to his postcredits cameo for The Incredible Hulk, The Consultant has your answer – he’s a patsy, sent by Phil Coulson and Jasper Sitwell to sabotage the World Council’s attempt to get Abomination on the Avengers. So much clicks into place here – Stark’s recruitment, apparently too early, of the Hulk is here recast, and we know the World Council has been infiltrated by Hydra, so it makes sense to see them pushing this shadowy agenda. Plus it’s a real treat to see Coulson and Sitwell working together (even though we know the latter is Hydra) in a very mundane fashion, sipping coffee at a diner while guarding the sanctity of the free world. 
  2. A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Thor’s Hammer. Okay, this might be my favorite One-Shot, set between Iron Man 2 and Thor (as the title indicates). We get to see Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) in action, playing with the effortless charm and unassuming physical dexterity required to rescue a gas station from an everyday holdup, even without the help of his firearm. It’s the intrusion of the super on the quotidian, a recurring theme in the MCU, and it’s shouldered by Gregg’s endearing portrayal of a man who’d rather contemplate donuts than deadbeats, but he’ll happily work on both if the occasion calls for it. Did this short demonstrate the potential for Coulson to lead Agents of SHIELD on ABC? It wouldn’t be the only One-Shot to spin-off into the television realm. 
  3. Item 47. A worthy epilogue to The Avengers, Item 47 puts Jasper Sitwell on the tail of two civilians (Lizzy Caplan and Jesse Bradford) who’ve recommissioned an inert Chitauri weapon to aid them in a series of bank heists. It’s also the short that introduces us to Felix Blake (Titus Welliver), a recurring figure on Agents of SHIELD. But why we haven’t seen more of Marvel’s Bonnie & Clyde (here, Claire and Bennie – the initials can’t be an accident) is our loss. Depicted as entering SHIELD by the end of Item 47, Claire and Bennie’s fate remains to be revealed. Did they fall to Hydra, as Sitwell did? Or are they still among the angels? Heck, are they even still alive? 
  4. Agent Carter. Though Thor’s Hammer is a personal favorite, Agent Carter is ostensibly the greatest One-Shot, not least because it led to a television show of the same name. We get to see Hayley Atwell strut her stuff as Peggy Carter, stick it to the patriarchy, and save the day while sidelining postwar sexism. No wonder they greenlit this for two full seasons! It’s infectiously fun, too, with a compelling narrative that sees Peggy pick up a case. Its microcosmic nature, which sees Peggy promoted to the head of SHIELD in twelve minutes, doesn’t quite jive with the canon of the series, but no one says she has to accept right away. Bonus points for the post-credits shot of Dum Dum Dugan (Neal McDonough) appreciating the innovative swimwear known as “the bikini.” 
  5. All Hail the King. To those who, like me, were less than enthused about the decision to turn The Mandarin into a farting drug-addled Brit, you’re in luck – All Hail the King revisits Trevor Slattery (Ben Kingsley) in prison to reveal that there’s a real Mandarin out there who’s none too pleased about the (mis)use of his moniker. Now, it’s unlikely that this’ll ever really be followed up on in great detail, but it does draw a bit more connective tissue between Tony Stark’s abductors from Iron Man and the true Mandarin. But it’s always a treat to see Sir Ben in his element, and a nod to Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) confirms that maybe, just maybe, Marvel isn’t done with those Stark nemeses.
Well, folks, that’s it. Another stellar series from the Monarch of Movies, your Cinema King. Captain America: Civil War opens on Friday, so be sure to see it before coming back here on Monday for the full review of Marvel’s latest superhero flick. As always, there won’t be spoilers in the initial review, but if you want to join the conversation you’ve gotta get a ticket! Subscribe above to make sure you don’t miss a single review, Top 10 list, or our next special series. Excelsior!

Monday, May 2, 2016

Monday at the Movies - May 2, 2016

Welcome to another installment of “Monday at the Movies.”

Elvis & Nixon (2016) – Here’s a film that can best be described as rivetingly peculiar, as if the Coen Brothers turned their eyes on the most esoteric corners of American history to say, “Gee, wasn’t that strange?” It’s director Liza Johnson, though, who helms this look at the famous photograph of Elvis Presley (Michael Shannon) and Richard Nixon (Kevin Spacey), and how it came to pass that these two met to discuss drugs, popular culture, and the fate of the nation. Elvis & Nixon takes the strangeness of that sentence and runs with it from the word “go,” with even the supporting cast musing how curious all of this is and doubting its veracity. Whether the film is accurate – based on a conversation with my resident Elvis expert, it’s pretty close – isn’t of chief concern, so much as the film wants to give Shannon and Spacey a chance to revel in the weirdness of their roles. Spacey’s is something of an exaggerated caricature, maybe not the best Nixon impression we’ve seen, but he performs exasperated better than most. It’s Shannon, though, who steals the film with a bizarre portrayal of Elvis by way of Michael Jackson, surreal in his aloofness and his disconnect from the way the world works outside of Graceland. The film seems told through the eyes of his friend Jerry Schilling (Alex Pettyfer), who lets us see Elvis from outside the head of the King, but even scenes without Schilling allow Shannon to bring Elvis to life with all his quirks, eccentricities, and sequined outfits fully intact. Elvis & Nixon might be Amazon Studios’ second film, but it’s star power like Shannon that will make the studio a successful one.

That does it for this week’s edition of “Monday at the Movies.” We’ll see you next week!
BUT – face front, True Believers – we’ll continue to Make Yours Marvel this Wednesday with the final installment in “The Grand Marvel Rewatch,” so check back then for a look at all five Marvel One-Shots. Or subscribe above, and receive those missives right in your inbox. Nuff said!

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The Grand Marvel Rewatch: Ant-Man

Face front, true believers! Welcome to the next astonishing addition to “The Grand Marvel Rewatch,” designed to get us all sufficiently amped up for Captain America: Civil War, which comes out May 6, 2016. Each Wednesday, The Cinema King casts his eye back upon the twelve films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and offers five salient observations about the caliber of the films and the way they might play into Marvel’s latest installment in America’s favorite franchise.

Today’s fantastic feature film takes us to 2015 for Ant-Man, the finale proper for Phase Two and an unlikely tie-in to Civil War.
  1. “I think our first move should be calling The Avengers.” Ant-Man is a superhero movie that doesn’t take itself too seriously, and that manifests even as a response to its own existence within the franchise. We’ve been wondering all along, “Where’s Iron Man? Thor could settle this in a heartbeat. Why didn’t they call Hawkeye?” Ant-Man hangs a lantern on the difficulties of a shared universe, but surprisingly Hank Pym has a solid answer for this one – a disdain for the Stark family that goes way back (and, honestly, how is this the first time anyone’s had a real grudge against the Starks?). I wonder if that grudge gets passed down from Ant-Man to Ant-Man, and if we’ll see it in Civil War... 
  2. “How about the fact that I fought an Avenger and didn’t die?” But for all the pondering about where the Avengers are, Ant-Man manages to deliver by including Falcon (Anthony Mackie), the runaway breakout star of Phase Two. While a heavy-hitter like Black Widow might have dismantled Ant-Man in a heartbeat, pitting the miniature man against Falcon allows us to see how Falcon’s growing in his Avengers training while allowing Mackie some bonus screen time in the role he clearly loves to play. With both of them on Team Cap in Civil War, what are the odds that this scene gets referenced? 
  3. “They’re doing some interesting work.” Hang on, Hydra’s still kicking? After being decapitated in Winter Soldier, Age of Ultron, and several times on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Marvel’s long-running baddies get knocked down, but they get up again. (Well, you know what they say about two more heads.) Here it’s Mitchell Carson, played by veteran character actor Martin Donovan. If anyone can exude seediness with a glare, it’s Donovan. We’re almost certainly going to see him and his stolen Pym Particles again at some point, although perhaps not until Ant-Man and the Wasp (due 2018). And what do you know? Carson was once a SHIELD insider too. It’s all connected, forwards and back. 
  4. “It’s about damn time.” I didn’t mention this last week, but Age of Ultron only had a midcredits scene, the first Marvel movie not to go full postcredits since The Incredible Hulk. Consequently, it may have felt that Phase Two ended with Thanos donning his empty gauntlet. Nay, I say thee, nay – Ant-Man gestures toward its own sequel by giving Hope Van Dyne her own suit and by teasing us with a glimpse of the immediate future with a Bucky-centric snippet from Civil War. We know that, at some point, Falcon and Cap nab Bucky, fearing how Tony Stark might react. We’ll know how that scene plays out in a fortnight, folks. 
  5. “It’s the wrong details.” For as much as Ant-Man is a continuity hound’s delight, featuring cameos from an aging Peggy Carter and nodding in every direction to SHIELD, Hydra, Wasps of future past, and even a Spider-Man tease (“We got a guy who crawls up the walls”), it also adds a chock ton of new faces to the MCU. For one, I’m really hoping we see much more of Luis (Michael Peña) in the Marvel Universe; his nervous ramblings and tangential details make any story worth hearing – hey, could he do DVD commentaries for all the movies? And Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) is right at home as one of Marvel’s well-dressed insidious businessmen, essentially a clean-shaven Obadiah Stane.
There’s so much more to be said about Ant-Man, so be sure to check out my original review. We’ve reached the final film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but with one more Wednesday between us and the US premiere of Captain America: Civil War, we’ll take one last peek at the MCU with the underappreciated “One-Shot” short films. Excelsior!

Monday, April 25, 2016

The Jungle Book (2016)

Why Disney is remaking their animated features as live-action films is, quite honestly, beyond me. Last year I had a “Why does this exist?” reaction to Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella, finding that it didn’t distinguish itself enough from the original. Now it’s Jon Favreau’s turn to adapt an animated film, The Jungle Book, and I have to say that the end result is much more successful for the tightrope act it performs between fidelity and innovation, to say nothing of the frankly fabulous special effects.

The Jungle Book introduces Neel Sethi as man-cub Mowgli, banished from his adopted wolf pack after his life is threatened by tiger Shere Khan (Idris Elba). With panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) at his side, Mowgli travels through the jungle in search of man’s village, encountering a menacing snake (Scarlett Johansson), gigantopithecus King Louie (Christopher Walken), and omnivorous bear Baloo (Bill Murray).

One of the real delights of Cinderella was getting to see Cate Blanchett chew the scenery as the wicked stepmother Lady Tremaine, and it’s as if Favreau decided to turn up the volume to eleven by selecting an all-star voice cast for his remake. The voiceover work is arguably the most compelling aspect of this Jungle Book; Elba is perfectly menacing as the mean-spirited tiger, and there’s something uncanny about recasting Kaa’s slithery speech for Johansson’s husky notes. And as much as I’ll always love Louis Prima and Phil Harris, in their respective roles Walken is sublime and Murray is freshly definitive.

Wisely, and strikingly, the film preserves many of the original songs from the 1967 cartoon, in a way that feels organic to the film. “The Bare Necessities” comes on the heels of Bill Murray’s recent Netflix Christmas special, which allowed the comic actor to flex his crooning muscles, and Murray’s natural charisma comes through clearly, even behind the CGI fur of Baloo. And let’s just say that there will be few moments of pure cinematic ecstasy this year to rival Walken’s recitation of “Ooby-doo, I wanna be like you-oo-oo.”

King Louie himself is a real treat, reimagined from a hepcat orangutan into a colossal ape straight out of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (like Kipling, wrestling with the legacy of imperialism in India). Behind the computer effects we can discern some of Walken’s own distinctive tics, facial gestures and hand movements as well as his non-pareil intonations. And here’s where Jungle Book really mesmerizes me – like Kaa’s hypnotic eyes, I’m captivated by the fact that all the animals are animated by computers, not by motion capture or animating only the mouths. This is really remarkable stuff that the Disney animators have managed to cook up, and the fact that it never looks phony is perhaps justification enough for updating the 1967 animated film into live action.

Quietly, Favreau has become one to watch, demonstrating an incredible versatility between this, Iron Man, and Chef (and, though it wasn’t as well received, Cowboys & Aliens). Jungle Book proves my hypothesis that Chef was good for Favreau in the sense that it gave him time to find his own voice again after working on blockbuster corporate products for several years in a row. There is something of the same personal vision from Chef balanced by the unabashed wonder that ought to belong to a Disney picture.

News spread like man’s red flower that Jungle Book 2 had already been greenlit. I can only imagine where the narrative will go – unlike the original film, this Jungle Book doesn’t end with a coquettish water girl at man’s village – but more like this will be a welcome addition to the Disney canon.

The Jungle Book is rated PG for “some sequences of scary action and peril.” There are growly animals that chase and menace our protagonists, and scenes in which fire ravages the jungle might intimidate younger viewers.

Heads up, True Believers – we’ll continue to Make Yours Marvel this Wednesday with another installment in “The Grand Marvel Rewatch,” so check back then for 2015’s Ant-Man. Or subscribe above, and receive those missives right in your inbox. Nuff said!

Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The Grand Marvel Rewatch: Avengers: Age of Ultron

Face front, true believers! Welcome to the next astonishing addition to “The Grand Marvel Rewatch,” designed to get us all sufficiently amped up for Captain America: Civil War, which comes out May 6, 2016. Each Wednesday, The Cinema King casts his eye back upon the twelve films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and offers five salient observations about the caliber of the films and the way they might play into Marvel’s latest installment in America’s favorite franchise.

Today’s fantastic feature film takes us to 2015 for Avengers: Age of Ultron, to which Civil War is almost certainly a direct sequel.
  1. Shots fired! We saw some personality clashes on display in The Avengers, but here those tensions boil over into physical conflict regarding the Avengers’ methods. Perhaps not surprisingly, the battle lines look pretty similar to those we’ve seen teased for Civil War – Team Cap vs. Team Iron Man. This isn’t just Thor fighting The Avengers for custody of Loki; these are deep-rooted frictions in the team playing out over a question of whether superheroes are going too far. Interesting, though, that it’s Cap who argues for restraint while Iron Man constructs another robotic weapon... 
  2. Movie magic. Age of Ultron throws the MCU into a world where magic exists. Previously, everything “super” was explainable by science (either Asgardian or earth-based) – super-soldier serum, iron suits, flying hammers, gamma radiation. With Scarlet Witch, Quicksilver, and the Vision, though, the Infinity Stones walk us into an age of “miracles,” in which honest-to-goodness superpowers stand side-by-side with the technologically upgraded folks we’ve come to love. And to Joss Whedon’s credit, it never feels like a step too far – in fact, it took me until this latest rewatch to notice that Scarlet Witch’s magical red energies were something brand new in the MCU. 
  3. Whedon’s got Vision. If you took everything about Age of Ultron and boiled it into one character, it’d be Vision (Paul Bettany). He’s a comics character adapted for the film’s needs, powered by the Infinity Stones, and something wholly unique yet of a piece with the rest of his team. In the same way, Age of Ultron bears a passing resemblance to the Brian Michael Bendis comic of the same name, it foregrounds the Infinity Stones as the narrative thread holding the MCU together, and it’s both different and familiar (see #2). Plus, Vision/Age is vibrantly colored, powerful yet sensitive, funny but packs a punch. And it’s hard to believe they’re barely a year old. 
  4. And speaking of the Stones... We’re up to four of six stones discovered thus far, with Vision powered by the yellow Mind Stone (confirmed, now, to have been previously in Loki’s scepter). The Space Stone is on Asgard, the Reality Stone is (probably) still with The Collector, and the Power Stone is in the hands of the Nova Corps. In terms of the comic book line-up, that leaves Time and Soul Stones yet to be accounted for, and dollars to donuts says that at least one is destined to show up in Doctor Strange. Plus we finally get confirmation that Thanos is looking to collect all six to bind in an Infinity Gauntlet. Writing sentences like that last one just reminds me that this is truly the best time to be alive. 
  5. (New) Avengers a-- At any given time in the comics, there are numerous flavors of Avengers teams running around – New, Secret, All-New All-Different, Uncanny, Dark, Mighty, Giant-Size, West Coast, Pet, Young, or just plain The. After the PR crisis caused by Hulk... well, hulking out, it looks like Cap is in charge of the first franchised Avengers team, the New Avengers (only some of whom will take his side in Civil War). But it seems we’ll have to wait a little longer to hear the battle cry “Avengers Assemble!” – Whedon cruelly cuts to black before Chris Evans can enunciate those final syllables. Speaking of franchises, Hydra’s been branching out, too – Baron Von Strucker’s group doesn’t seem in cooperation with the two Hydra heads we’ve seen on Agents of SHIELD (led by Daniel Whitehall and Gideon Malick). Cut off one head on film, it seems two more rise on television.
There’s so much more to be said about Avengers: Age of Ultron, so be sure to check out my original review. Join me in the Grand Marvel Rewatch over the coming weeks, and hit the comments to share your thoughts about the MCU. And don’t forget to tune in next Wednesday for the next installment, in which we take a closer look at 2015’s Ant-Man. Excelsior!

Monday, April 18, 2016

The Top 10 Force Awakens Musical Moments

Two weeks after looking at the Prequel Trilogy scores composed by the maestro, John Williams, The Cinema King is happy to present a consideration of Williams’s latest opus for the Star Wars saga. We present, then, “The Top 10 Force Awakens Musical Moments” in our ongoing tribute to the maestro himself, John Williams. (Spoilers throughout, folks, so if you are one of the last dozen people who hasn’t seen The Force Awakens... I just don’t know what to say.)

A note on sources:  we’re talking, of course, about the music composed by John Williams and performed by a freelance orchestra (the first time the London Symphony hasn’t scored a Star Wars film). For source/cue division, I’m relying on the original soundtrack release, though it’s worth noting that some of the cues are cut a little differently on the “For Your Consideration” album distributed on the Disney Studios Awards website. (One, my #3 choice, appears there but not on the official soundtrack release.)

10. “Snoke”
 Strange though it may seem, “Snoke” lands on our Top 10 list not exactly for what Williams did with the piece but for the rabid fan speculation it inspired. We know very little about the First Order’s Supreme Leader Snoke (as Han asks in a deleted scene, “What makes him supreme?”), but Williams might be giving us a tantalizing clue. “Snoke” sounds an awful lot like “Palpatine’s Teachings” from Revenge of the Sith, with a low, rumbling men’s chorus that seems to imply that Snoke is actually Darth Plagueis – Palpatine’s Sith Master, thought to be deceased. Or perhaps Williams is actually devising a motif for the Dark Side itself. Either way, we know Snoke is not to be taken lightly, and Williams has given us something worth debating until Episode VIII.

9. “Scherzo for X-Wings”
 This one almost didn’t make the cut, albeit solely on principle – it’s a concert suite arrangement found on the soundtrack but not in the film proper. But it’s such a great piece that I threw it on here anyway, a fast-paced cut perfect for an aerial dogfight that captures the rapid energy of Poe Dameron as the greatest pilot in the Resistance. Poe has his own musical flourish, sure, but “Scherzo” belongs not just to one pilot but to the entire Black Squadron. Heck, if we could retroactively feature it in some of the Red/Rogue Squadron scenes in the Original Trilogy, the more the better.

8. “Han and Leia”
 Kudos to director JJ Abrams for holding back General Leia’s on-screen debut to coincide with her reunion with Han Solo, and equal points go to John Williams for reviving “Han Solo and the Princess” to tug at our heartstrings all the more. The scene could have worked with just the looks exchanged by Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford – punctuated by the applause-worthy interruption of C-3PO – but it’s that musical reminder of their romance that really turns on the waterworks.

7. “Kylo Ren Arrives at the Battle”
 Things go from bad to worse whenever Kylo Ren shows up, imbued as he is with an ungodly amount of power and an ill temper to match. But it’s the descending five notes that let us know just how much bantha poodoo has hit the proverbial fan, and it accompanies the visuals to perfection as we see Kylo Ren survey the destruction of Maz Kanata’s watering hole in pursuit of his prize – which quickly becomes a chase through the forest as Rey captures his attention just as he takes her hostage. It’s a solid blend of action score and character-driven motifs, and Williams nails it, as per usual.

6. “The Falcon”
 I’ve long lamented that Han Solo never got his own theme tune (apart, perhaps, from “The Asteroid Field” from The Empire Strikes Back), but with The Force Awakens we got the next best thing – a motif for the Millennium Falcon. Situated somewhere between Roland Barrett’s “Of Dark Lords and Ancient Kings” and Dave Brubeck’s “Blue Rondo à la Turk,” “The Falcon” motif might also be a theme for Finn, since he appears in both action scenes where the track is featured, but it’s more likely that one of the saga’s unsung heroes finally got, well, sung.

5. “The Starkiller”
 Whether you thought that Starkiller Base was the next logical step in the franchise or just a Death Star turned up to eleven, Williams gave us a surprisingly mournful melody – a far cry from the suspenseful countdown heard in “Destruction of Alderaan” from Star Wars. It’s mildly reminiscent of the middle section of “Across the Stars” out of Attack of the Clones, and the suggestion that it’s as much an elegy for the soul of Kylo Ren as for those killed by the Starkiller weapon makes its deployment in the film a somber affair, inducing goosebumps and perhaps even a tear of sorrow.

4. “The Ways of the Force”
 Throughout The Force Awakens, Williams is judicious in his invocation of classic motifs, but in “The Ways of the Force” he goes fro broke by reusing the “Burning Homestead” cut from Star Wars at the moment that the lightsaber flies into the hand of Rey, choosing her over Kylo Ren. Blending the Force theme, Rey’s motif, and Kylo Ren’s fanfare, Williams crafts a charged and frenetic action cue that is as frantic as it is meaningful. If this is Rey’s “burning homestead” moment, what does that portend for her hero’s journey? And if this is her first glimpse at what the ways of the Force can teach her, how much more powerful will she be after a few rounds of Jedi training?

3. “The Resistance”
 While some might lament that the Resistance is just another iteration of the Rebel Alliance, a small band of dissenters against a monopolistic force of evil, they have something the Rebels never had – a unified musical motif (unless you count the fleeting “Rebel Fanfare” heard throughout the Original Trilogy). And I’ve chosen this particular cue as my #3 moment because it encapsulates the first big Resistance action scene in the new films as Poe Dameron gets to show off his skills as Finn and Han continue the fight at ground level. It’s not much more than a minute of music, but it’s immediately unforgettable and sends the audience cheering just as Finn does.

2. “The Jedi Steps”
 Leave it to Williams to come up with two minutes of original music that dwarfs nearly everything else on the soundtrack (hey, it ain’t #1, is it?). The ascending scales as Rey takes her steps up the mystical island retreat of – SPOILERS – a self-exiled Luke Skywalker lead the viewer/listener up those same steps toward enlightenment, promising us that the true adventure is only just beginning. It’s a promise that I hope will be fulfilled in the as-yet-untitled Episode VIII, provided we see Williams return, but I think “The Jedi Steps” prove that the Maestro still has a few tricks up his sleeve. (And the flirtatious blend of “Rey’s Theme” with the Force theme during the end credits is just icing on the cake.)

1. “Rey’s Theme”
 In terms of reintroducing the Star Wars saga to a new audience, Williams outdid himself with an instant classic, instantly recognizable as a reference point for its title character and for the Sequel Trilogy (is that what we’re calling it?) as a whole. With orchestral bells straight out of his Harry Potter work and a musical thirst for adventure and for one’s place in the universe, “Rey’s Theme” awakened something in us all – a reminder of what it is to live in that galaxy far, far away and the possibilities therein. The entire score is permeated by “Rey’s Theme,” proving how deft Williams has always been with motifs and how versatile his work can be, repurposed for tragedy, action, and mystery.

Hit the comments section to tell me your favorite musical moment from The Force Awakens! And be sure to subscribe up above to make sure you don’t miss future reviews, or...

Heads up, True Believers – we’ll continue to Make Yours Marvel this Wednesday with another installment in “The Grand Marvel Rewatch,” so check back then for 2015’s Avengers: Age of Ultron. Or subscribe above, and receive those missives right in your inbox. Nuff said!

Wednesday, April 13, 2016

The Grand Marvel Rewatch: Guardians of the Galaxy

Face front, true believers! Welcome to the next astonishing addition to “The Grand Marvel Rewatch,” designed to get us all sufficiently amped up for Captain America: Civil War, which comes out May 6, 2016. Each Wednesday, The Cinema King casts his eye back upon the twelve films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and offers five salient observations about the caliber of the films and the way they might play into Marvel’s latest installment in America’s favorite franchise.

Today’s fantastic feature film takes us to 2014 for Guardians of the Galaxy, at once exterior to the MCU and yet somehow vitally integral.
  1. Guardians of this galaxy? Director James Gunn has been pretty unambiguous in saying that tying Guardians to the larger MCU is very low on his list of priorities. But at the same time, we know #ItsAllConnected, and this week saw confirmation that at least Star-Lord will appear in Infinity War. It’ll almost certainly be Thanos that brings the Guardians and the Avengers together, but it’s going to feel like a collision of worlds if handled improperly because Guardians has a quirky aesthetic – can you imagine Drax standing side-by-side with Pepper Potts? At any rate, going from space to earth and back to space without losing that in-universe feeling is a tough act to pull off.
  2. A few hypotheticals. Watching Guardians with a keener eye on points of connection, I have a weird feeling that the Guardians are going to get along best with Captain America. Cap and Star-Lord are both men out of time, disoriented by the ways earth has changed in their absence. Falcon will probably recommend a bunch of new music for the next Awesome Mix. Black Widow and Gamora can roll their eyes at the antics of the lads before promptly thrashing their enemies. And Rocket Raccoon is certainly going to scheme to get Bucky’s robotic arm. (Drax, meanwhile, will have too much in common with Thor to notice.) And at this point, Cap’s seen way too much to be fazed by a talking tree.
  3. Thanos, the family man. The greatest point of contact for Guardians to the MCU proper is, of course, Thanos himself. Josh Brolin imbues him with a wonderful sense of menace – “I will bathe the starways with your blood” – even if he doesn’t do much beyond sitting and standing. What is intriguing, though, is the notion that Thanos has two (adopted) daughters, Gamora and Nebula, neither of whom seems particularly fond of him. With both confirmed for Guardians 2 (though Thanos, apparently, will not to appear), we’ll have time to understand this curious bond a little more before one – or both – take part in Infinity War. One wonders, though, how they fit into Thanos’s endgame of collecting the Infinity Stones.
  4. Speaking of Stones... We get a major infodump on the Infinity Stones in an monologue of exposition courtesy of The Collector (last seen midcredits in Thor: The Dark World), who we know is also hoarding the Stones. The Collector informs us that the six Stones possess great power molded by ancient beings, that the Orb in this film holds the Power Stone, and that these things are incredibly dangerous in the wrong hands (e.g. The Collector’s destroyed base – speaking of, does that mean the Aether is loose?). If one Stone could level The Collector’s home and unleash Howard the Duck on the galaxy, how much more might six do?
  5. Mysteries aplenty. As much as Guardians feels like a foray away from the MCU, it raises some big questions about the future, even setting aside the whole Infinity Stone business. Now that we know there’s a Nova Corps out there, will one make his way to earth? Is alien abductee Peter Quill a famous ‘missing persons’ case on our planet? And what about the mystery of his father, described as “an angel . . . a being of pure light”? James Gunn has said it’s not J’son of Spartax, as in the comics, and we know Kurt Russell is playing him. But if he’s something the Nova Corps have never seen before, might he be more important to the MCU than just to answer a question of paternity?
There’s so much more to be said about Guardians of the Galaxy, so be sure to check out my original review. Join me in the Grand Marvel Rewatch over the coming weeks, and hit the comments to share your thoughts about the MCU. And don’t forget to tune in next Wednesday for the next installment, in which we take a closer look at 2015’s Avengers: Age of Ultron. Excelsior!