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!

Monday, April 11, 2016

Monday at the Movies - April 11, 2016

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

Remember (2015) – With this Atom Egoyan film starring Christopher Plummer as a Holocaust survivor hunting the Auschwitz guard who killed his family, I was expecting something close to Taken mixed with The Debt, a taut revenge thriller with an aging protagonist against Nazis in hiding. What I hadn’t expected was a liberal dose of Memento, with Plummer’s Zev Guttman suffering from an unreliable memory brought on by dementia. Guttman is spurred on by a letter from his nursing home neighbor Max Rosenbaum (Martin Landau), who instructs him on the whereabouts of four suspects, all named Rudy Kurlander. Remember has the atmosphere of a less fantastical episode of The Twilight Zone, with moral quandaries taking the place of spaceships and time travel. Plummer gives a compelling performance as the aging survivor, whose memories are compromised by his failing mind; he’s an engaging action hero of a sort, but his more successful moments are those mired in confusion. Hats off also to Dean Norris (late of Breaking Bad and Under the Dome), who delivers a particularly terrifying turn as a neo-Nazi sheriff whom Guttman encounters in a house loaded with Hiterlian memorabilia, and he gives Plummer a fantastic opportunity to act frightened within an inch of his life. Along the way, Egoyan delivers salient commentary on the value of vengeance, the unreliability of memory, and access to firearms, but it’s the pervading sense that something is not what it seems that makes the film an engaging exercise in controlled filmmaking.

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 antepenultimate installment in “The Grand Marvel Rewatch,” so check back then for 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy. Or subscribe above, and receive those missives right in your inbox. Nuff said!

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

The Grand Marvel Rewatch: Captain America: The Winter Soldier

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 Captain America: The Winter Soldier, maybe the most important film thematically in the run-up to Civil War.
  1. The fall of SHIELD. Thinking in terms of narrative developments in the unfolding MCU, SHIELD has been a constant presence, helping to assemble the Avengers, monitor and assist their respective endeavors, and police the world. With Winter Soldier, all that falls apart – SHIELD has always already been Hydra, and those ambitions of world protection have been revealed to be naught but hollow. It’s an exceedingly bold move, and it reorients the world of the Avengers to suggest to them that they might now be earth’s last line of defense. We’ll still see assists from Nick Fury here and there, but we don’t have a faceless government agency ostensibly serving good. 
  2. What about Agents of SHIELD? I remember being a little disappointed with the first season of Agents of SHIELD, in part because it felt divorced from the MCU and perhaps overly procedural, despite the mystery of Phil Coulson’s post-Avengers resurrection (long story short, alien DNA mixed with shady science). But I can recall the booster shot of enthusiasm for the show after seeing SHIELD fall in Winter Soldier and musing, “Well, how’s that going to affect Agents?” It’s transmedia storytelling at its finest that the show beats lined up perfectly with the film – Jasper Sitwell leaves Agents to board a boat on Tuesday, he’s in Winter Soldier on Friday, and next Tuesday’s episode hits the dead center of Winter Soldier. It makes me all the more excited for any possible tie-ins with Civil War. 
  3. Who the hell is Bucky? We all knew Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) didn’t die in The First Avenger, but I certainly didn’t expect him to resurface quite so soon. The film introduces this shadow narrative of Bucky’s cryogenic life as the Winter Soldier, reshaping the century for Hydra from behind the scenes. He’s been scooped and hollowed out, reprogrammed within an inch of his life. The conclusion to Winter Soldier suggests that he’s regaining his memory – but is he? How much of Bucky is still in there? And the question of Bucky’s allegiances will be front and center in Civil War. Who is this guy, really, and can he be trusted? (Trailers suggest Cap says yes, Iron Man nay.) 
  4. It’s Cap’s world; we all just tear it down. Major kudos to Chris Evans for nailing the part of Captain America to the wall – you really feel for Cap as a man out of time in this one, maybe more than we did in The Avengers, as he struggles to adjust to losing his generation but still have time to find a date (hat-tip to “neighbor” Sharon Carter [Emily VanCamp], returning for Civil War). But I’m much more heartbroken by the realization that Cap’s narrative arc has been a series of losing everything he has – first, his time and world at the end of The First Avenger, then his sense of the fabric of reality in The Avengers, and now losing his best friend a second time when he recognizes that Bucky might not be the kind of man you save. And with Civil War foreboding the loss of the friendship of at least half the Avengers, poor Steve Rogers just can’t catch a break. 
  5. Really, though, I just love this movie. I’ve made no bones about the fact that Winter Soldier is my #1 favorite MCU film, and it’s probably my #2 superhero film of all time (just behind Fant4stic). It’s airtight, clips along without a wasted moment, kills it on sound editing, and creates a wonderful trio between Cap, Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson at her most endearing), and fan-favorite newcomer Falcon (Anthony Mackie, who steals the film wholesale). The Russo brothers at the helm of this and Civil War portends magnificent things for the fate of the MCU, and I couldn’t be more excited that they’re at the helm of Avengers: Infinity War. If anyone can balance spectacle, narrative, character, and fun, Winter Soldier is the smoking gun for the Russos.
There’s so much more to be said about Captain America: The Winter Soldier, 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 2014’s Guardians of the Galaxy. Excelsior!

Monday, April 4, 2016

The Top 10 Prequel Trilogy Musical Moments

It’s been a while since I did one of these (all the way back in October), but it’s finally time to revisit my Top 10 lists from the Star Wars soundtracks. This being the fourth installment in the series, you might logically expect this post to cover The Phantom Menace. Except, here’s the thing about the Prequel Trilogy – even though John Williams was doing some of his finest work, the films were surprisingly unfriendly to his score, editing it in a madcap and indigestible fashion, often using recycled takes of previous material.

In light of that, I’m mixing it all up together, and we’re taking the work of three films as one distinct corpus. We present, then, “The Top 10 Prequel Trilogy Musical Moments” in our ongoing tribute to the maestro himself, John Williams.

A note on sources:  we’re talking, of course, about the music composed by John Williams and performed by the London Symphony Orchestra. For source/cue division, I’m relying on the original soundtrack releases only, setting aside the “Ultimate Edition” Phantom Menace release, as it’s more of a straight film edit than an orchestral suite arrangement (put another way, it’s the same stuff, repackaged differently).

10. “The Immolation Scene”
 Regardless of your feelings about the Prequel Trilogy, whether or not it did justice to the story of Anakin Skywalker, the music of John Williams deftly carries that saga to the point where, as ever, you could mute the dialogue and it still works. Case in point – the moment when the dismembered Anakin slides into the volcanoes of Mustafar. Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) wails plaintively over the fate of his apprentice, but it’s Williams’s elegiac score that strikes the mood.

9. “Main Title/The Revenge of the Sith”
 The prequel trilogy has two very understated opening sequences, but Revenge of the Sith pulls out the stops for a CGI-laden space battle, replete with an action-packed track from Williams. Beginning with warlike taiko drums, Williams holds back after the opening fanfare until dropping us into the aerial combat. Weaving in General Grievous’s theme with the familiar Force theme, Williams accounts for the combatants while compelling us to feel for the characters.

7. TIE: “Panaka and the Queen’s Protectors”
7. TIE: “The Droid Invasion/The Droid Battle”
 This one’s a tie because they’re two distinct cuts on the score for The Phantom Menace, but they represent two different sides of the Battle of Naboo – on one hand, the noble palace guard and their struggle to retake the throne room, and on the other, the emotionless droid army marching toward the battlefield. Williams stakes out equally compelling motifs to represent these forces, weaving them together with a theme especially for the Naboo Starfighters and with an orchestral take of “Duel of the Fates” to create an epic soundscape for the sweeping battle sequences. (There’s even a nod to “The Imperial March” in there – a special No-Prize to those who hear it!)

6. “Anakin’s Betrayal”
 Anakin’s fall to the dark side ought to feel like a real punch in the gut, and Williams delivers the musical equivalent of said shot to the belly. The choral sounds on this track feel very much like a spectator falling to his knees, weeping at the doom of the Republic as the Jedi perish in Order 66. More effective than the on-the-nose funereal march Williams devised for the prequels, “Anakin’s Betrayal” feels properly solemn.

5. “The Chase Through Coruscant”
 I love a good action cue more than just about anything in the realm of Star Wars music (well, maybe not as much as a power-packed motif like “The Imperial March”), and this ten minute cue from Attack of the Clones is perfect for those late-night study binges, tense drives through traffic, or just a run-of-the-mill diversion from boredom. The frenetic pace of Williams’s drums here, coupled with an electric guitar (cut from the film) also popped up in the Quidditch scene in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets – hey, if it works, it works.

4. “Love Pledge/The Arena”
 After moving through the love theme from Attack of the Clones (about which, more in a bit), Williams turns in a musical piece that was butchered in the film edits but survives in majestically sinister form on the soundtrack album as a martial march fit for the Separatist forces and the great beasts to which they attempt to feed our protagonists. It echoes “The Droid Invasion” ever so slightly, but it becomes its own piece such that I wish we’d heard more of it. When I think Attack of the Clones, this is almost always the second thing I think of.

3. “Battle of the Heroes”
 It all had to come to this, the clash of two titans turning against each other, with only the fate of the galaxy hanging in the balance. Even when Williams isn’t weaving in bits of “The Imperial March” or consciously echoing “Duel of the Fates,” “Battle of the Heroes” comes to a place of horrorstruck necessity, with no less respect for the grandeur of the battle. One wonders if there’s an edit of the Obi-Wan/Vader duel from A New Hope with this cut in.

2. “Across the Stars”
 At the risk of this Top 10 turning into a Prequel Trilogy apologia – say what you want about the chemistry between Hayden Christensen and Natalie Portman, “Across the Stars” is a love theme that makes you believe in this relationship (even against all visual evidence). It’s a piece so beautiful it hurts, belonging more properly to the great screen romances like Gone With the Wind than to Attack of the Clones.

1. “Duel of the Fates”
 This can’t be a surprise to anyone, but here’s a piece of music that really became synonymous with Star Wars in a way that only the “Main Title” and “The Imperial March” had done before – it’s overall Top Three material, for sure. “Duel of the Fates” is astonishingly and instantly epic, dethroning “O Fortuna” for sure and governing the whole Prequel Trilogy with a sense of cosmic import married to cinematic spectacle. It’s among Williams’s best work, instantly recognizable from Note One, and it carried us back to a galaxy far, far away even before we bought our tickets.

Hit the comments section to tell me your favorite Prequel Trilogy musical moment! And be sure to subscribe up above to make sure you don’t miss future reviews or my “Top 10 Force Awakens Musical Moments”!

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 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Or subscribe above, and receive those missives right in your inbox. Nuff said!

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The Grand Marvel Rewatch: Thor: The Dark World

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 2013 for Thor: The Dark World, pushing Phase Two to worlds beyond for a lot of stuff that probably won’t factor into Civil War much, if at all.
  1. Beaucoup Asgard. We get to see a lot more of Asgard than just the throne room this time around, and I think it’s a fantastic idea. Thor gave us the idea that there were only maybe seven Asgardians tops, with a few guards, but here we get to see that Asgard is a proper world – and if there’s one thing Marvel does well it’s world-building. The Dark World departs slightly from the rainbow bridge aesthetic and gives us something closer to the medieval ethos of Game of Thrones (no surprise, given director Alan Taylor’s TV background). It visually differentiates Asgard from Earth and leads me to want to see much, much more of it in Thor: Ragnarok.
  2. Keeping it Loki. After stealing the show in Thor and The Avengers, Tom Hiddleston becomes the unapologetic star of this film as the antiheroic Loki. Far more compelling than Thor and certainly more interesting than the rather one-note villain Malekith, Loki lies, tricks, and makes mischief all over this film, often with no clear agenda. By film’s end, though, Loki assumes the throne of Asgard, impersonating Odin in the process. Is he girding himself against the arrival of Thanos, who’s likely displeased Loki didn’t conquer earth? Or is this his petulant way of claiming a throne? Lady Sif nodded toward this change in Odin’s personality in her last guest-star appearance on Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., so I’m sure this will be a major plot point in Thor: Ragnarok. (Speaking of, can we get Lady Sif to join The Avengers?) 
  3. The humans get short shrift. With Asgard being way more fascinating this time around, perhaps it’s no surprise that the earthbound cast are a little less than inspiring. As the spunky intern Darcy, Kat Dennings is still a delight, leading me to wonder why we haven’t seen more of her in the MCU at large. But Natalie Portman is a bit of a bore, her genius scientist reduced to a pouting schoolgirl whenever Thor and his abs are around. And I feel a little bit sorry for Stellan Skarsgard, who as Erik Selvig is given a role that is frankly beneath his dignity. The idea that he’d be changed by his experience with Loki in The Avengers is a compelling one, but the execution here has a bit more doddering and nudity than necessary. (We’ll see him again, fully dressed, in Age of Ultron.) 
  4. Surprise cameos are the best. One of the greatest moments in this movie, if not the entire MCU, comes when Loki impersonates Captain America, with Chris Evans appearing in an unforgettable cameo alongside the patriot swell of Cap’s theme tune. The best part of this beat, aside from how funny it is to see Evans pretending to be Hiddleston pretending to be Evans, was the complete surprise of this moment in the movie theater opening weekend. We had no idea it was coming, but it’s the best of the best of a shared universe, something that contract disputes or press junkets might complicate or spoil. But we get it all the time in comics – why shouldn’t the films mirror this? 
  5. One down, five to go... Aha! Ironclad confirmation on some matters of the Infinity Stones – which, again, I’m not sure are going to play much of a role in Civil War, but we’ll certainly see more of them as we approach Infinity War (and, I suspect, at least Doctor Strange). A midcredits scene introduces Benicio del Toro as The Collector (two weeks ahead of Guardians of the Galaxy) and the notion that the Aether is one Infinity Stone, the Tesseract another. And we have to keep them separate for some reason... are they dangerous merely by proximity, or might they attract unwanted attention – say, from someone like Thanos?
There’s so much more to be said about Thor: The Dark World, 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 my personal favorite, 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Excelsior!

Monday, March 28, 2016

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)

The big story of the weekend ended up being that Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Zack Snyder’s sequel to Man of Steel, is critic-proof. Despite a Rotten Tomatoes score hovering in the neighborhood of 30%, the film took in about $170 million, on pace for more than $420 million worldwide. I’m one of the people who didn’t quite see what all the hullabaloo was surrounding Man of Steel – I rather enjoyed it as a more sobered first step in Superman’s hero’s journey.

Count me among those, then, who continue not to get it – I think Batman v Superman is a suitably epic next installment in the growing DC Comics cinematic universe, big and grand and contemplative.

The film begins with yet another retelling of the murder of the Waynes, but it can be said more properly to begin with Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) in Metropolis on the day of the city’s destruction in Man of Steel, witnessing firsthand the breathtaking new dangers facing earth. Eighteen months later, the world ponders the powers and intentions of Superman (Henry Cavill), who labors under the weight of his titanic responsibilities, while Batman considers taking the fight to the Man of Steel. Meanwhile, Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) attempts to manipulate the world for his own ends, which involve defaming – or destroying – Superman for good.

Critical opinion seems to agree on two things – Batman v Superman is operatic, and it is not a Marvel movie. Somehow, both of those have been received as negatives against the film’s favor, and yet I think those are among the film’s greater strengths. First, the grandiose scale of the film. I had the opportunity to rewatch Man of Steel the night before seeing Batman v Superman, and there’s a few shots in that film of mankind looking up at the Superman/Zod battle, in a way that’s very reminiscent of the old Jack Kirby Fantastic Four comics. Slack-jawed gaping is humanity’s proper response to the arrival of gods. And make no mistake: in the mythic vernacular, the DC pantheon are gods who aspire to be human (Marvel, meanwhile, features humans who aspire to be heroes).

So I don’t understand the complaint that the film is too operatic. Does this mean that the film means more than it ought to, that it assumes a mythic significance unbecoming of itself? I vehemently disagree. I will note as a matter of personal taste that there are fewer jokes in the film than I might have liked, that the tone is a little darker than I might have gone, but there is a powerful difference between a film’s ambitions and one’s own personal expectations. Batman v Superman is very much of a piece with Man of Steel in terms of tone and scale, and to me this is a compelling distinction between the DC and Marvel cinematic universes. Believe me, as someone who’s rewatched nearly all of the MCU films in the past three months, I don’t want a “Marvel’s Superman.” I want something different.

The nature of characters like this is that they endure, no matter how a creator riffs on them. If you want a Superman who refuses to kill, you’ve got comics and films that do that. If your Superman can take a life – indeed, can see the necessity in taking Zod’s – you’ve got comics and films for that. You can find a Batman who frighteningly devastates criminals, as he does here, or you can go seek out a Batman who fights a mustachioed Joker. Point being, the complaint that Batman v Superman misses the point about these characters, frankly, misses the point about these characters. Batman v Superman takes the claim that superheroes are modern mythology to its logical extension – this is comics mythology writ large, in which men and women stand shoulder to shoulder with gods, do battle, and discover something about both god and man.

All of this is to say nothing by way of actual review – just a cursory rebuttal of some of the more prominent critiques of the film. It’s got less humor than some might like, and it is ponderous in a way that the action movie crowd might not expect, but I don’t think any of that is a disservice to the film. If anything, Batman v Superman’s operatic quality is augmented by the script’s approach to subtext – namely, that it inscribes subtext as literal text, as when the film quite literally puts Superman on trial for the events of the preceding film, asking, “Must there be a Superman?”, invoking the Elliot S! Maggin classic story of the same name. Additionally, Batman’s devotion to his unique brand of justice and vengeance is literalized when he’s given an opportunity to prevent history from repeating itself.

I was an early doubter of Affleck’s ability to do Batman justice, but I think he’s an excellent choice, particularly as Bruce Wayne, where he’s able to toggle between playboy billionaire and dark knight sans cowl. His Batman is very much what you’d expect, marked by an exceptionally bulky physique. I have only kind things to say about Jeremy Irons as Alfred, here more militarily inclined but with much more of the incisive snark that Michael Caine’s Alfred lacked (Caine’s was kinder, gentler, more inclined to good-natured ribbing).

The real surprises here are Gal Gadot’s smirking Wonder Woman, who almost entirely steals the film’s third act, and Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor. Of all the shoutouts to upcoming DC films – and there are quite a few, some delivered with more subtlety than others (but what does one expect, in this era of franchises?) – Wonder Woman is the most promising; the tastes we get of her in this film, nuanced with mystery and exceptional combat skills, portend a wonderful solo film next June. Eisenberg’s Luthor, meanwhile, telegraphs his Zuckerberg-esque eccentricity, but it conceals a darker psychology, a twisted mind which reveals itself in a pitch-perfect Luthor soliloquy.

Batman v Superman proves, as Man of Steel forewarned, that DC’s slate is not necessarily going to be quintessential popcorn fare – and I say that as an unabashed devotee of popcorn movies. These are movies that require a bit of digesting, that are unafraid to confront their viewers with heady thematic content, symbolic registers, and a careful bit of thought. If it’s straight fun you’re wanting, the line for Guardians of the Galaxy 2 starts over there. Batman v Superman is fun in a different way, with the feeling of fulfillment that comes from sighing as the credits roll, “Now that’s a show.” It’s spectacle in a self-assured way, bombast with an emphasis on “bomb,” a 21st century epic that isn’t afraid to go full Greek chorus and literalize its own subtext. It may not to be everyone’s liking, and that’s fine – but there are also those of us who like this sort of thing, and I’m one of them.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is rated PG-13 for “intense sequences of violence and action throughout, and some sensuality.” There are shootings and lots of punching, but most of it is bloodless. A few characters are branded, one receives a long cut down his face, while a few characters are stabbed with some graphic content shown. Superman and Lois kiss passionately a few times during the film, and another woman wears dresses that predominantly show off her back. Overall, the grim tone may unsettle 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 2013’s Thor: The Dark World. Or subscribe above, and receive those missives right in your inbox. Nuff said!