Monday, September 15, 2014

Monday at the Movies - September 15, 2014

Welcome to another edition of “Monday at the Movies.”  Continuing our string of bizarre coincidences, tomorrow is screenwriter Justin Haythe’s birthday, he of the largely ill-conceived Lone Ranger reboot.

Revolutionary Road (2008) – If you want to remember the postwar era fondly, the door to Turner Classic Movies is that way.  Director Sam Mendes helms this adaptation of the eponymous novel by Richard Yates, and you’ll find it astounding to believe this is the same director behind both Skyfall and American Beauty.  Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet play Frank and April Wheeler, a couple for whom the sheen of marital bliss is quickly cracking; the two deliver reliably solid work, and the tension between the two is divinely palpable.  As unfaltering as these two performances are, they’re also relentlessly depressing.  They’re fantastic performers, and we enjoy them on-screen for it, but good Lord – it’s very trying to watch two of your most beloved thespians berate each other for two hours in a self-destructive, mutually abusive marriage.  The goal here is a warts-and-all exposé on the darker side of the late-40s American optimism, with a heavy dose of Peyton Place thrown in for those who still held the suburbs as idyllic.  On that count, Revolutionary Road is a bleak success, but feel good it ain’t.  To lighten the mood, though, Michael Shannon wanders into the frame every so often, and – as is usually the case with him – it’s as though he’s in an entirely different movie, one I can’t say I wouldn’t rather have watched.  His supporting role as the son of the Wheelers’ realtor neighbor (Kathy Bates) comes with equal parts mental derangement and frightening outburst, a fine and effective complement to the repressed Frank and April.  The real treat is in watching him act, with an occasional tic or bizarre vocal inflection making his the only real fun performance to be had in a film that is creatively successful but otherwise oppressing to watch.

That does it for this week’s edition of “Monday at the Movies.” We’ll see you here next week!

Monday, September 8, 2014

Monday at the Movies - September 8, 2014

Welcome to another edition of “Monday at the Movies.”  Tomorrow is Michelle Williams’s birthday, so we’re going to pretend that this next review isn’t a complete coincidence and act like we timed this perfectly.

The Station Agent (2003) – For those who weren’t already aware of Peter Dinklage’s star-making performance in Thomas McCarthy’s directorial debut, the rising star of Dinklage thanks to his household status in Game of Thrones will be inviting newcomers to what is a truly compelling feature, imperfect in the way that most debuts are but worth experiencing the remarkably brief runtime.  Dinklage delivers a phenomenally moving performance as Fin, the eponymous man who lives in an abandoned train depot, and it’s a remarkable role since the film never patronizes to the audience by demanding sympathy for a protagonist with dwarfism; instead, Dinklage’s quiet solemnity and the occasional condescension from a passer-by make the case eloquently for basic human dignity.  Patricia Clarkson and Bobby Cannavale costar as Fin’s friends, who break through the insulation he’s erected around himself, and the film is highly enjoyable in developing the relationship between this unlikely trio.  Fortunately, the film also treats its audience with respect by not forcing the clichéd “damaged people” love affair between Dinklage and Clarkson; that plotline goes to a young Michelle Williams, who’s less a broken soul and more charming librarian who bonds with Fin over his need for a library card.  Unfortunately, the film stumbles a bit when it gives equal time to Clarkson’s plotline about her separation from her husband; under the weight of two despondent protagonists, the film buckles, and there are a few beats where the depressing quality almost overwhelms.  I applaud the film for its anti-Hollywood ending, in which love doesn’t quite conquer all, for it makes a more affirming statement about friendship, and as the characters smile at the end, it’s a gift to the audience that we too feel that we’ve found a new batch of misfits with whom we can spend time.

That does it for this week’s edition of “Monday at the Movies.” We’ll see you here next week!

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Die Another Day (2002)

After forty years and half as many movies, the James Bond franchise has legs like few others (Godzilla comes to mind for longevity), and on the surface Die Another Day pays homage to a lot of great moments from the long history of the series.  The film itself, however, is the epitome of a trainwreck:  it starts strong and quickly derails, all the while remaining a ruin away from which you can’t tear your eyes.

After months of torture in a North Korean prison camp, James Bond (Pierce Brosnan) is released in a hostage trade orchestrated by M (Judi Dench) to root out a British conspirator.  Bond pursues Korean terrorist Zao (Rick Yune) to Cuba, where he learns that American spy Jinx Johnson (Halle Berry) is also on the case.  Together, the two follow the trail to British diamond baron Gustav Graves (Toby Stephens) and his orbital laser satellite.

From that plot synopsis, you already have a sense of the biggest problem with Die Another Day – its staggering unevenness.  The film sprints from setpiece to setpiece with little connective tissue between scenes other than someone coming in and expositing to Bond, “This is where you need to go next.”  The more dangerous message of these weak transitions is the intimation that Bond is rusty and doesn’t know his way around a secret mission anymore.  Consequently, the inorganic quality of the plot results in a film that is neither a triumph nor a catastrophe.  There are moments when Die Another Day is quite entertaining, but the moments when it isn’t prevent the whole from coalescing into a fulfilling moviegoing experience.

Case in point – at about the midpoint of the film, there’s a fantastic fencing match between Bond and Graves.  It’s energetic, fantastically choreographed and directed, and essential in developing the personalities of the two men.  The stuntwork is quite excellent, and the scene positively crackles.  Like any good setpiece, it’s easily divorced from the larger narrative, enjoyable on its own merits, but everything surrounding the duel is incomprehensibly disconnected; it’s anyone’s guess why the two men duel in the first place, nor does it make much sense for Graves to invite Bond to his secret lair after the duel.

And when the whole film proceeds in such a way, it’s just exhausting.  The fundamental flaw of the film is that in nearly every aspect of the narrative, Die Another Day is unable to commit to one direction.  In the character of Jinx, the filmmakers have an opportunity to give Bond an equal number, a female American agent every bit as skilled as he is; instead, Jinx is as often (if not more frequently) a damsel in distress.  Halle Berry is very good in the role, equally smart and sexy, but the role itself is somewhat thin.  After one particularly great fight sequence in the bowels of a plummeting airplane, Jinx dispatches her adversary and then quite literally sits down and waits for Bond to save her.

The Jinx of the first half of the film would never have done that, but it seems that halfway through Die Another Day everything in the film goes topsy-turvy and stops making sense.  The film’s opener, with hovercrafts and silly puns, is ludicrous enough but remains safely within the loose realism of the Bond films.  Once we get into the second half, with space lasers and ice palaces, the film surrenders entirely to poor CGI effects and absurd gadgetry far beyond what the boundaries of credulity can accommodate.  As if the invisible car weren’t preposterous enough, the film sees Bond surfing multiple times, and in the film’s climax Gustav Graves dons an electrified suit of armor for no apparent reason whatsoever; there’s a gag about making his suitcase device more ergonomic, but you won’t find this gizmo in an IKEA near you. 

It’s a real shame that Die Another Day goes so far off the rails, not only because it’s Brosnan’s final outing as 007, though it is tragic that the promise of Goldeneye was never fully met during Brosnan’s tenure.  The presence of story beats that actually work well – the motivation of the villain to live up to his father, the traitor within MI6 as an update on the classic henchman trope, and M’s unwavering faith in Bond – each make the film that much more excruciating because there are glimpses of a Bond film that could have been.  Instead, we get a movie with more explosions in the opening sequence than any other entire Bond film, turning up the volume instead of the intellect.

Perhaps the worst aesthetic offense is the moment when M tells Bond, “While you were gone, the world changed,” suggesting a post-9/11 self-awareness and a recognition of the new state of geopolitics.  Unfortunately, though, the film never really engages with that idea.  While positing a new paradigm for Bond, the film goes for broke in the direction of the worst excesses of the franchise; the space laser recalls Moonraker, while the hyper-technology seems like an unironic version of the exploding pen Never Say Never Again pulled off with a knowing wink.  With all the other callbacks to earlier films – Jinx’s bikinied exit from the ocean a la Dr. No, the Union Jack parachute ripped from The Spy Who Loved Me, and even more overt allusions like the Thunderball jetpack’s cameo, among others – the fortieth anniversary of the film franchise seems to attempt to argue implicitly that Bond doesn’t need to change.  The end result, however, tells an entirely different story; this is a Bond in desperate need of a new wind of change (so long as he doesn’t attempt to surf on it).

Die Another Day is rated PG-13 for “action violence and sexuality.”  There’s a quick flash of blood in one scene of impalement and an occasional slash during a duel sequence; other characters die with no blood visible, while the film shows glimpses of Bond being tortured in North Korea.  As noted above, nearly everything explodes in this film.  Bond sleeps with two women (a low number for him), but all we see are bare backs.

James Bond and The Cinema King will return in a review of Casino Royale (2006) on October 7, 2014!

Monday, September 1, 2014

Monday at the Movies - September 1, 2014

Welcome to another edition of “Monday at the Movies.” Now that we’re back to our regularly scheduled programming, I can admit that I was in Disney World the past two weeks... so in recognition of that fact, let’s look at a movie covertly filmed in The Cinema King’s favorite vacation destination!

Escape from Tomorrow (2013) – More an experience than a movie, Escape from Tomorrow is on the one hand a David Lynch-esque narrative about family man Jim White (Roy Abramsohn) and his slow descent into madness after losing his job while on vacation with his family at Disney World.  This film is oddly compelling, a surreal journey through the Happiest Place on Earth as seen by a man with a detaching grasp on sanity.  It’s weird, in a puzzle-box kind of way, but the audience’s attempts to put the pieces together never really come to fruition; the more memorable miscellaneous pieces – like the mysterious cat flu, the shady scientist operating beneath Spaceship Earth, and the deranged princess-turned-abductor – never really coalesce into a unified statement.  Eraserhead it isn’t, though it’s trying very hard to be.  For me, the more interesting element of Escape from Tomorrow is not the bizarre (and often unintentionally funny) plot of the film; I’d recommend seeing the film more on the grounds of director Randy Moore’s somewhat remarkable achievement of surreptitious filming on Disney grounds.  Indeed, it’s more engaging to watch the film as a frequent tourist, pinpointing where shots were filmed (especially when the shooting location changes between Disneyland in Anaheim and Disney World in Orlando, while the narrative setting remains consistent).  It’s more fun to think about how Moore accomplished certain shots, where and when he had to assemble a clandestine cast and (I’m guessing minimal) crew, and where he had to cheat using mock-ups, both practical and computer-generated.  There are intriguingly strange setpieces, as when the family rides it’s a small world amid an array of demonic dolls and possessed children, but the film is ultimately more a technical curiosity than a narrative success, one of those films that is more fun to ponder and discuss than actually to watch.

That does it for this week’s edition of “Monday at the Movies.” We’ll see you here next week, and don’t forget that this Sunday is the Double-Oh-Seventh of the month, Brosnan’s final Bond!

Monday, August 25, 2014

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (2014)


Oh, you wanted a full review?  Okay, here goes:

When Oliver Twist asked, “Please, sir, I want some more,” he didn’t have to wait nine years for a second pot of food.  As I recall, he didn’t get any at all, so maybe we should be grateful that we even have Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, a pre/sequel to 2005’s Sin City.  “Gratitude” isn’t, however, the word I would use to describe Robert Rodriguez’s second adaptation of Frank Miller’s hardboiled comics; the proper word is somewhere between “bored” and “disappointed.”

As before, four interlocking narratives give us another look at Basin City, where the tough guys are tough and the women are all prostitutes of one kind or another.  Dwight McCarthy (Josh Brolin) is pulled back into a spiderweb woven by his femme fatale ex Ava Lord (Eva Green), while lucky gambler Johnny (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) finds himself across the poker table from the evil Senator Roark (Powers Boothe).  However, Nancy Callahan (Jessica Alba) also has her sights on Roark, while Marv (Mickey Rourke) lumbers around punching things.

Here’s the thing about this film:  you’ve already seen it.  Aside from the numerous films that have taken cues from the first Sin City, particularly vis-à-vis spot color and neo-hardboiled ethos, there is very little in the sequel that wasn’t already in the first film.  To name a few (veiled spoilers follow):  a cop’s suicide, shooting a woman mid-kiss, and Marv breaking into fortified compounds – which actually happens a couple of times in this movie alone.

The points deducted for originality really sting because Sin City was, on its initial arrival, heralded for its innovative approach to adapting comics to the screen.  Nine years later, though, Rodriguez has changed nothing, and the result feels quite stale, almost dated beyond the way that film noir usually harks back to a previous era.  This, for my money, is among the worst sins a film can commit.  For those that own Sin City on DVD, it’ll be cheaper to go back to the original.

If you’re playing the home game and can remember Machete Kills, you’ll recall that Rodriguez is now oh-for-two on sequels, and I’m wondering if the director has lost his edge (or if, a decade later, I’ve perceptibly matured as a moviegoer).  As in Machete Kills, Dame is overfull of very good actors, Gordon-Levitt and Boothe among them.  Post-Deadwood, I’m especially glad to see Powers Boothe get an expanded role here, since his particular brand of scenery-chewing is always a delight.  But where Rodriguez seems to be phoning it in lately, the cast too aren’t at their best.  Alba is trying, you can tell, and so is Brolin; even Green, seemingly inspired casting as the vamping Ava Lord, seems to be overplaying the part – I suspect, though, based on her performance in Dark Shadows that that’s deliberate (Ava Lord is essentially Angelique Bouchard sans clothing), but I might be giving her the benefit of the doubt.  One wonders if all that green-screen filming is getting to them, because the visuals appear to be doing most of the heavy lifting.

For all the disappointment that A Dame to Kill For engenders, it’s never patently bad, which is almost worse.  Making a genuinely bad film is in some respects more of an achievement because it elicits a reaction; an uninspired outing like this one can be reviewed with an unenthusiastic shrug.  I wanted to be swept away by this one like I was with the first, but instead it seems like a relic.  The gender politics are horridly outdated despite the film’s attempt to “empower” its female characters, and the Day-Glo blood sprays are no longer visceral enough.  Instead, the whole film plods out blandly, the cinematic equivalent of Josh Brolin gritting his teeth for two hours.  When he says “Don’t let the monster out,” we’re shouting back, “Please let the monster out and do something creative!”

Instead, the film pulls its punches and plays it safe.  If you enjoyed the first film but wanted more of the same without that feeling of freshness, you’ll have a great time here, but I suspect that this sequel will not be well remembered, if indeed it is remembered at all.

Sin City: A Dame to Kill For is rated R for “strong brutal stylized violence throughout, sexual content, nudity, and brief drug use.”  Stylized is the key word with the violence, because a lot of the time it looks like someone pouring out white paint; a few severed limbs and heads are seen, and usually the blood there is more red.  The middle segment of the film features all of the nudity, a man’s bottom and a frequently topless woman with her lower regions obscured in shadow; other scenes show strippers and prostitutes who keep their skimpy clothes on.  Surprisingly, the language is pretty tidy, with only one F-bomb in the batch.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Top 10 Marvel Cinematic Universe Films - #2-1!

With Guardians of the Galaxy, the Marvel Cinematic Universe enters the double-digits club.  The job of a Top 10 list in this case is especially difficult because I knew precisely which would be #1 and which would be #10, but the rest I don’t have much complaint about.  The Marvel brand has been very reliable, so assigning ranks becomes a somewhat arbitrary game of quibbling and comparing.  That said, I feel fairly confident in assessing “The Top 10 Marvel Cinematic Universe Films!”  And now we've made it to the Top Two, so without further ado...

2.  The Avengers (2012)
“It works because the movie is so infectiously fun that it quickly sweeps the audience into its world and recruits us into the superteam. ... Honestly, I can’t sell short just how fun this movie is.”
From day one, we knew the Universe was building toward The Avengers, but I don’t think that any of us was quite ready for what we got.  Joss Whedon, nerd-king and archduke of seemingly effortless storytelling, writes and directs the hell out of what might have been a disastrous omnishambles of multiple storylines and vastly different characters.  Instead, all the moving parts coalesce into what might be a perfect film; no knowledge needed of the various franchises at work, because the film introduces them, gives them all something to do, and keeps all the plates spinning while sacrificing neither momentum nor entertainment value.  While some of the final action sequences may be derided as mere cannon fodder, note the way Whedon uses them to wrap up character beats and give closure to the impracticality of uniting so many disparate elements.  Perhaps best of all, The Avengers doesn’t feel like a lowly best-of cover band, but at the same time it doesn’t feel like Whedon is betraying the characters; their trajectories and behaviors fit perfectly with the earlier characterizations while moving them forward in exciting ways.  Dang, now I just want to go rewatch The Avengers – who’s with me?

1.  Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
Winter Soldier’s willingness to tackle pressing issues in current events might mark a sea change toward greater cultural relevance beyond merely making a literal ton of money.” 
As incredible as The Avengers was, I always had a nagging thought in the back of my mind that it was too big to fail – there was no way we’d get a disappointing Avengers film, not after how good the lead-up had been.  With Captain America, though, we’ve got a “Most Improved” winner on our hands.  The older I get, the more I find myself seeing films more than once in a movie theater; though this is often a casual decision, in the case of Winter Soldier it was a compulsion – I needed to see this film more than once.  While this is, in a sense, Avengers 1.5, Winter Soldier is a perfectly contained unit with an impressive amount of risk-taking and innovating.  The former I won’t spoil because it’s one of those fantastic slack-jawed moments, feeding into the film’s intensely relevant message about surveillance and oversight, but the latter comes in the form of a contagiously compelling performance by Anthony Mackie as The Falcon, a veritable scene-stealer in a film littered with scenes worth stealing.  It moves from character beat to action beat without stalling the plot, a relentless espionage piece that you’d be excused for forgetting was a superhero film to begin with.  This isn’t a “comic book movie” in the derisive sense of the word – this is a proper film.  Plus it has the best Stan Lee cameo to date – ’nuff said!

What do you think, true believers?  Excelsior or excrement?  Sound off in the Comments with your picks for the Top Marvel Cinematic Universe film!  As for next Monday?  Well, we wouldn’t spoil the surprise just yet – in the best Stan Lee tradition, to be continued!

PS - This is the 400th post here at The Cinema King - thanks for reading!  Here's to 400 more, eh?

Monday, August 18, 2014

Top 10 Marvel Cinematic Universe Films - #4-3

With Guardians of the Galaxy, the Marvel Cinematic Universe enters the double-digits club.  The job of a Top 10 list in this case is especially difficult because I knew precisely which would be #1 and which would be #10, but the rest I don’t have much complaint about.  The Marvel brand has been very reliable, so assigning ranks becomes a somewhat arbitrary game of quibbling and comparing.  That said, I feel fairly confident in assessing “The Top 10 Marvel Cinematic Universe Films!”

4.  Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
Guardians proves that Marvel is unstoppable, taking everything that worked about their earth-bound adventures and applying that to space.” 
It’s the Cinderella success story of this summer blockbuster season, and for good reason.  Guardians, like Iron Man 3 before it, demonstrates Marvel’s unique ability to blend distinctive directorial voice with the studio’s unique house style.  More importantly, though, Guardians is an accomplishment for presenting a veritable cast of unknown characters to an audience for the very first time and succeeding wildly.  Granted, it’s tough to resist the lure of a talking, gun-toting raccoon, but how many filmgoers (diehards aside) knew a Groot from a Gamora?  They sure do now; box office numbers rightly made this one a winner.  Under the capable hand of James Gunn, C-list characters get the A-list treatment – compelling narrative arcs, infectiously fun personalities, and an impressive sense of scope without overwhelming the audience.  To boot, it’s impossible to undersell just how fun the film is, leaving me with a wide grin in the face of such improbabilities as an opening credits sequence scored to Redbone’s “Come and Get Your Love.”  More of this, please.

3.  Iron Man (2008)
“This is a phenomenal picture, at once an accomplishment on celluloid and an exhilarating breeze of a picture - in total, the perfect summer blockbuster.” 
Iron Man earns its place on the countdown for many reasons, but one of the big ones is innovation.  This is the fun uncle of the modern comic book superhero film, and without it you wouldn’t have something as zany, original, and enjoyable as the aforementioned GuardiansIron Man presents an astoundingly deft origin story for Tony Stark, brought quite literally to life by Robert Downey, Jr.  A two-hour montage of RDJ’s in-character riffing and improvisation would have been just fine, but director Jon Favreau also gives us an immensely engaging character arc, from weaponer to weapon, from war-monger to penitent man.  It follows the classic format established by the Christopher Reeve Superman – origin, adventures, character development, big showdown – but in bringing the genre back to its heretofore finest hour, Iron Man reinvents the wheel but makes it lightyears better by creating a breezy and seemingly effortless expert work.  It’s no wonder that the mere post-credits mention of “The Avengers Initiative” had audiences salivating – the promise of more to come never tasted sweeter than at the end of Iron Man.

True believers know what's left on the list, but come back on Wednesday for the final two, in an order that may surprise you...!

Friday, August 15, 2014

Top 10 Marvel Cinematic Universe Films - #6-5

With Guardians of the Galaxy, the Marvel Cinematic Universe enters the double-digits club.  The job of a Top 10 list in this case is especially difficult because I knew precisely which would be #1 and which would be #10, but the rest I don’t have much complaint about.  The Marvel brand has been very reliable, so assigning ranks becomes a somewhat arbitrary game of quibbling and comparing.  That said, I feel fairly confident in assessing “The Top 10 Marvel Cinematic Universe Films!”

6 (tie).  Thor (2011)
“Branagh brings his background in Shakespeare to bear in Thor, which blends perfectly the high theology and overwhelming pride of Asgard and the Norse deities with the restrained and comic scenes on planet Earth.” 
Released the same year as Captain America, Thor is a fantastic example of how effortlessly Marvel can render the incredible, thanks largely to Kenneth Branagh’s directorial hand, which deftly juggles gods and mortals in a film that never feels unbalanced.  The sweeping Shakespearean quality of Asgard is so impressively crafted that we could spend a whole movie there, but the fish-out-of-water plotline which finds Thor exiled to earth is correspondingly mesmerizing, heavier on the humor but no less aware of the mythic quality of the narrative.  As noted earlier in the countdown, Tom Hiddleston delivers a star-making performance as the trickster Loki, but Chris Hemsworth is no slouch as the swaggeringly confident God of Thunder.  It edges out Captain America only ever so slightly, solely by virtue of remaining self-contained, but the entertainment value between the two movies is almost indistinguishable; filmgoers will have an equally fantastic time with either. 

As we enter the Top Five, not to disparage the preceding five films too much, we’re headed into a higher caliber of film.  The earlier five films are fun enough, diverting enough, but the five films to follow are truly remarkable – not just as Marvel films, not even just as superhero films, but as films in their own right.  It’s especially true of the #1 choice on this list, but we’ll get there in due time... on with the show!

5.  Iron Man 3 (2013)
“It evolves the character of Tony Stark in a number of intriguing ways, and the promise that “Tony Stark will return” (shades of James Bond?) was never more fascinating.”
Tony Stark famously remarked in the second film in the trilogy, “Oh, it’s good to be back!”  But it’s not until the third film that the Iron Man franchise really lives up to its inaugural installment.  RDJ is joined by writer-director Shane Black, who had collaborated with him on the downright fabulous sleuth/caper flick Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, and the result is everything that worked about KKBB with a heavy dose of everything that works about a Marvel movie.  The Christmas setting is inspired, and I particularly love the way the story takes Tony Stark to rock bottom, builds him back up, only to reveal that (no spoilers) the only reason he was able to become Iron Man in the first place was because he has always been Iron Man.  If this is RDJ’s final solo outing as Tony Stark, it’s a fitting farewell, but here’s hoping (Avengers aside) we haven’t seen the last of this iteration of Iron Man.

Come back on Monday, true believers, as the countdown continues into the Final Four!

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Top 10 Marvel Cinematic Universe Films: #8-6

With Guardians of the Galaxy, the Marvel Cinematic Universe enters the double-digits club.  The job of a Top 10 list in this case is especially difficult because I knew precisely which would be #1 and which would be #10, but the rest I don’t have much complaint about.  The Marvel brand has been very reliable, so assigning ranks becomes a somewhat arbitrary game of quibbling and comparing.  That said, I feel fairly confident in assessing “The Top 10 Marvel Cinematic Universe Films!”

8.  Thor: The Dark World (2013)
Thor: The Dark World is so full of top performers giving their all ... that it almost doesn’t matter that the story doesn’t break much ground.” 
The difference between Iron Man 2 and this sequel to Thor?  Tonal consistency.  As insubstantial as some critics said Thor: The Dark World was, it never felt like parts were grafted on.  Instead of attempt to pull closer to the larger franchise, this sequel takes the Norse god of thunder in his own thematic direction, closer to the action-comedy genre like Indiana Jones or Pirates of the Caribbean.  Fresh off The Avengers, Tom Hiddleston is still killing it as Loki, and his upgrade from pure villain to compelling antihero with mysterious motives is compelling enough to be its own movie.  It’s a good thing, because the primary antagonist is a little undercooked, and Thor’s own character arc leaves something to be desired.  What the film does have is a smashing score, an abundance of confidence, and a dexterity with fun action sequences that advance the plot without feeling like a narrative pause for a set-piece.

6 (tie).  Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
“I was always a fan of Joe Johnston’s other superhero flick, The Rocketeer, and Johnston channels his WWII nostalgia here, creating a perfectly retro atmosphere without feeling less than modern.” 
I will acknowledge the possibility of rose-tinted glasses in this case; as the quotation above attests, I grew up on The Rocketeer, and the idea of a version of that movie starring Captain America is positively dazzling to the child at heart.   This is such a feel-good movie, though, that it’s hard to imagine filmgoers not feeling those pangs of nostalgia that are so intrinsic to the character.  A man punching Nazis while literally clothed in the American flag will never get old, and Chris Evans shoulders the role of Steve Rogers perfectly, playing his patriotism in earnest.  The film is littered with great supporting players – Stanley Tucci, Hugo Weaving, Hayley Atwell – in very memorable roles, but what keeps this film out of the Top Five is the same complaint I’ve had about a few of the Marvel Cinematic Universe entries:  a lack of a cohesive ending, largely because this film leads directly into The Avengers.

Come back Friday to see what tied for sixth place with Captain America as the controversial countdown continues apace!

Monday, August 11, 2014

Top 10 Marvel Cinematic Universe Films - #10-9

With Guardians of the Galaxy, the Marvel Cinematic Universe enters the double-digits club.  The job of a Top 10 list in this case is especially difficult because I knew precisely which would be #1 and which would be #10, but the rest I don’t have much complaint about.  The Marvel brand has been very reliable, so assigning ranks becomes a somewhat arbitrary game of quibbling and comparing.  That said, I feel fairly confident in assessing “The Top 10 Marvel Cinematic Universe Films!”

10.  The Incredible Hulk (2008)
“All that said, there's something... off about this movie. I'm not sure what it is.”
It’s only the second entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, so perhaps we can excuse The Incredible Hulk for not finding its feet very well.  It’s not a bad film by most stretches of the imagination, but it isn’t very engaging; the supporting cast is rather unmemorable (though I wouldn’t mind seeing William Hurt’s Thunderbolt Ross show up somewhere else in the MCU), but the biggest disappointment is Edward Norton’s turn as Bruce Banner, a tepid and wiry character who pales in comparison to Mark Ruffalo’s more intriguing portrayal.  There’s a disjunct between Norton and his gamma-sized alter ego, one that makes Hulk and Banner feel more like separate characters.  Perhaps it’s the story, focused around eliminating the Hulk persona – but only insofar as he’s not needed for an obligatory action sequences.  The special effects are gee-whiz, a step up from the Ang Lee film five years earlier, but even with an RDJ cameo this Hulk is not quite incredible.

9.  Iron Man 2 (2010)
The film thrives because of Downey's personality; he's impeccably cast here in a character who's larger than life.” 
Loyal readers may be surprised by how low on the countdown Iron Man 2 lands, and in spite of how much I’m enamored of Robert Downey Jr. I put Iron Man 2 just above Incredible Hulk mostly on the grounds of narrative unity.  As engaging as RDJ is as Tony Stark, as fun as the movie can be, it feels very much like a friend with an ulterior motive.  As much as I admit to being a Marvel shill, there’s a degree to which I resent how much of Iron Man 2 is devoted to teasing The Avengers.  I love Samuel L. Jackson as much as the next guy, but I can’t help but wonder if an Iron Man 2 sans tie-ins might have been as strong as the first; the glimpses we get of that film – in which Tony Stark wrestles with his legacy while facing a competitor – is fantastically fun, but it feels put on hold whenever the S.H.I.E.L.D. crew stroll in.

Come back Wednesday for the next installment of this sure-to-be-controversial Top 10 list!