Friday, June 1, 2018

Worth Mentioning - What It's Like to Lose

We watch several movies a week. Every Friday, we'll talk a little about some of the movies we watched that we felt were Worth Mentioning.

Blockbusting superheroes and a space saga spin-off.


Ten years, eighteen films, it's all been building up to this: a massive crossover event that finds nearly every hero who has been introduced as part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe up to this point coming together to face a common foe - the "mad Titan" Thanos (brought to life through a motion capture performance delivered by Josh Brolin), who seeks to wipe out half the life in the universe. To Thanos, this will be a heroic act, as he'll be saving worlds from the dangers of overpopulation. Planets, Earth among them, will be better off when only half of their residents remain.

Wiping out half the life in the universe is a tall order, but there's a very simple way to do it. All Thanos has to do is gather together the six Infinity Stones, hugely powerful items that have played parts in various earlier MCU films, and slot them into place on the gauntlet he wears on his left hand. Once he has collected all six stones, all he'll have to do is snap his fingers and half of all life will turn to ash.

Thanos's quest for the stones and the MCU heroes' desperate fight to stop him from accomplishing his goal was brought to the screen by Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Captain America: Civil War directors Joe and Anthony Russo and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. It was a monumental, near impossible task that they somehow managed to pull off. Six years ago, we thought The Avengers (the movie where we first saw Thanos, in the mid-credits scene) was impressive for just bringing together Iron Man, Captain America, the Hulk, Thor, Hawkeye, and Black Widow. The Infinity War team had a hell of a lot more characters to mix together, and they made it work... And they did it by really making the film Thanos's story. He is the driving force in this film, he's the character we learn about, while the heroes are constantly in defense mode, trying to fight back the relentless assaults of his lackeys while they gather the stones one by one.

The villain is aided in his endeavor by an army of creatures and four of his alien "children"; Ebony Maw, Cull Obsidian, Proxima Midnight, and Corvus Glaive. Never have I detested a group of villains in a comic book movie more than I did those four, mainly because they were so powerful, such formidable opponents for our superpowered heroes. I just wanted to see them get their asses kicked. The worst of all was Ebony Maw, a smooth-talking weirdo who's as creepy as any horror movie monster and equipped with jaw-dropping telekinetic abilities. This guy made me very worried for the heroes.

With a running time of 149 minutes, many of those minutes taken up by fight scenes and action sequences, Avengers: Infinity War is an epic that becomes rather exhausting to experience as it follows multiple groups of heroes on separate missions. While Captain America, Black Widow, the Hulk (stuck in Bruce Banner form), Falcon, the Winter Soldier, War Machine, Scarlet Witch, Vision, Black Panther, and the warriors of Wakanda handle the fight on Earth, most of the Guardians of the Galaxy take the fight to Thanos's home world of Titan with Iron Man, Doctor Strange, and Spider-Man, and meanwhile Thor and the Guardians Rocket and Groot are off on their own side path. There was so much going on in the film, by the time it reached the massive battle I would usually be totally hyped for, I was almost feeling too tired for it. I had sensory overload. It's a good movie, but so much spectacle can really beat a viewer down.

It's also a hell of a bummer. I would say it's absolutely the darkest film in the MCU, with a heavy atmosphere of dread. There are a good amount of laughs to be had along the way, but that didn't lighten the overall mood.

Everything has been building up to this, I've been looking forward to this film ever since the Avengers credits, but once I got it I spent most of the running time afraid of what it was going to show me.

Now that I've seen what it had to offer, I'm anxiously awaiting the release of the next Avengers film next year.

DEADPOOL 2 (2018)

Two years ago, Fox took a risk by making the R-rated, relatively low budget (compared to other comic book movies), completely irreverent Marvel Comics adaptation Deadpool. They were testing the waters with that film, and they found that the waters were perfect. Deadpool turned out to be a huge hit.

Now star Ryan Reynolds has returned to the title role of the fourth wall-breaking "merc with the mouth", this time writing the screenplay alongside returning writers Rhett Resse and Paul Wernick - and displaying such a specific vision for the sequel during the crafting of it that Deadpool director Tim Miller, who received major accolades for making his feature debut on that film, ended up dropping out of the project over "creative differences". Thankfully, they got an awesome replacement for Miller; John Wick and Atomic Blonde's David Leitch.

Still, I found that Deadpool 2 got off to an awkward start. The heart of the first film had been the love story between Deadpool and his girlfriend Vanessa (Morena Baccarin). Unfortunately, when an action franchise puts its hero in a committed relationship, there's a very cliché way of handling such relationships when the time comes to find a way to continue that hero's story, and Deadpool 2 takes the cliché way out. This leads into the very odd decision to make the comedic star of the franchise depressed and suicidal for the first act of the sequel. Then there are scenes where Deadpool attempts to contact his lost love in the afterlife for the brief moments when his mutant healing factor will allow him to be dead. None of this stuff sat well with me.

Not even when Deadpool decided to try to get through his grief by accepting the offer to join the X-Men (again represented by Stefan Kapičić's motion capture character Colossus and Brianna Hildebrand as Negasonic Teenage Warhead, who is severely underused this time) and play by their rules did this movie start to win me over. It wasn't until around 35 minutes in, by which time this had already been deemed a "lesser sequel" in my mind, that it really seemed to get on the right path.

Oddly, it gets more fun when the time travelling mutant Cable (Josh Brolin), a character so intense and dark that it makes Deadpool wonder if he's actually crossing over from the DC universe, shows up from the future on a mission to execute a teenager. That concept isn't exactly a barrel of laughs, but it shifts the film into adventure gear, and Leitch certainly delivers when it's time to bring action to the screen.

Cable wants to kill a kid named Russell Collins (Julian Dennison), a young mutant whose pyrokinetic abilities have earned him the nickname Firefist. Russell has been stuck in an orphanage run by a headmaster (Eddie Marsan) who preaches that mutants are an abomination, and the abuse Russell has suffered at the hands of the headmaster and his staff have made him a very bitter, angry kid. Cable knows that Russell's rage is going to cause him to go on a killing spree, which he intends to stop before it starts. Deadpool sees hope in the kid, though. He thinks the killing spree can be averted. So we have a Deadpool vs. Cable scenario with Russell in the middle and other characters getting pulled into the mix.

In his effort to keep Russell alive, Deadpool even forms his own team called X-Force, recruiting other mutants  (most of them obscure picks from the Marvel archives, and not all of them given their comic book abilities) like Bedlam, Shatterstar, Vanisher, Zeitgeist, and a dude named Peter. Also on X-Force is Domino (Zazie Beetz), the standout of the group, whose special ability is incredible good luck, and that ability is shown in some fun, amusing ways.

Meanwhile, Russell is falling in with the bad influence of a popular comic book character who was previously brought to the screen in an underwhelming manner back in X-Men: The Last Stand - Juggernaut. But this time, instead of Vinnie Jones wearing prosthetic muscles, we got a much more comic-accurate version of the character, realized through motion capture and CG like Colossus. Sure, it does seem like it's Juggernaut's on-screen destiny to just be the butt of the joke, but at least he looks right this time.

I found those first 35 minutes to be underwhelming, but the film drew me in after that. Once the bigger action sequences kick in, Deadpool 2 also manages to achieve the same level of charm and humor the previous movie had, and it's a fun ride from that point on.


Before selling off the Star Wars property to Disney, franchise creator George Lucas started developing a spin-off prequel that would center on the popular character Han Solo, who had been so memorably brought to life in the original Star Wars trilogy (and, after Disney got the property, Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens) by Harrison Ford. Disney chose to make a different prequel spin-off first, Rogue One, but they stuck with Lucas's plan to give Solo his own movie, and stuck with the writer Lucas hired to script the prequel spin-off, Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back / Episode VI - Return of the Jedi / The Force Awakens co-writer Lawrence Kasdan, who wrote this one with his son Jonathan.

Even though Lucas got the ball rolling and the film was written by someone who has plenty of experience writing Han Solo, this prequel was a tough sell with a troubled production. It was big news that originally hired directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller were fired from production over creative differences, the shocking thing about the news being how late in the process it happened - Lord and Miller had already been filming Solo for five months and were just a few weeks from finishing it when they were shown the door. They were quickly replaced by Ron Howard, who reshot 70% of the film and earned sole directing credit.

Whatever the issue was with Lord and Miller's version of the movie, it doesn't come through in whatever scenes make up their 30% of the finished product. The movie flows just fine, there are no jarring tonal or visual shifts, it's not clear which scenes might be leftover from the other directors. I don't know what Lord and Miller were doing with the film, but Howard has delivered a fun adventure / heist movie that has an old school feel mixed in with modern special effects.

But the tone and style Howard captured won't matter much if you can't get past the "hard sell" aspect. That is, if you can't accept that Han Solo is no longer played by Harrison Ford. Sure, maybe Solo should have been made in the early '80s, when Ford might have been able to pass as a younger version of the character, but now Ford is in his mid-70s, his Han Solo is dead, and the young Han Solo is played by Alden Ehrenreich. I loved Ehrenreich's performance in the Coen brothers' Hail, Caesar!, so I was rooting for him on this one. Having seen his Solo in action, I'll say he's no Harrison Ford, but I thought he did a fine job in the role, especially since the Kasdans know how to write the character. It also seems fitting that Ehrenreich ended up in the Star Wars world, since he was discovered by Lucas's pal Steven Spielberg and has worked with their pal Francis Ford Coppola.

Set ten years or so before the events of Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope, Solo is built on the idea of showing us what the character was talking about when he said his ship "made the Kessel run in less than twelve parsecs"... A line that truly means nothing in that film, since we don't know what the Kessel run or twelve parsecs are. The Kessel run is in here, but I never cared about any of that. I was, however, interested in the story the film told of how Solo became a swashbuckling outlaw and the glimpses it provided of his past.

Solo grew up an orphaned thief on the planet Corellia, where he fell in love with fellow orphan Qi'ra (Emilia Clarke). He escaped from that planet, Qi'ra didn't, and he dedicates the next few years of his life trying to find a way to get back there and rescue her. This information that Solo had a great love long before he met Princess Leia got me hooked, because there was never any mention of a Qi'ra in the trilogies. What became of this character?

As it turns out, Qi'ra found her own way off of Corellia, joining a criminal organization with a mysterious, dangerous leader. The next time Solo sees her, she's a gangster's moll, hanging out with a fellow named Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany). By this time, Solo has fallen in with a group of outlaws led by Woody Harrelson as Tobias Beckett and has befriended the Wookiee Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo). To keep the gangsters off their backs, Solo and his associates have to pull off a heist, and they're joined in this endeavor by Qi'ra.

Of course, they're going to need a fast ship for this heist. Enter the Millennium Falcon and its smooth criminal of an owner, Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover).

For me, Solo was 135 minutes of solid entertainment. I loved how the established characters were presented and how they interacted with each other, I liked the additions of Qi'ra and Beckett, and I really enjoyed that this was a smaller story inside the Star Wars universe. There is the backdrop of war, but this isn't a war movie. It's a theft that occurs during wartime. I felt so relieved that the climax wasn't an overblown battle. Rather, things are wrapped up with just a couple personal confrontations.

If you feel inclined to give Solo and Ehrenreich a chance, I would recommend doing so, because I thought this was a teriffic entry in the franchise. And I still don't know what parsecs are, but I know that twelve of them take up about twelve minutes of movie.


I was introduced to the works of author Joe R. Lansdale with the 2002 adaptation of his short story Bubba Ho-Tep, but it still took another decade for me to realize that, in addition to his many novels, Lansdale has written comic books for DC and even wrote episodes of Batman and Superman cartoons. Lansdale also wrote the screenplay for the 2014 direct-to-video animated feature Son of Batman, working from a story by James Robinson, based on four issues of the Batman comic book that were written by Grant Morrison and published in 2006.

Directed by Ethan Spaulding, this film puts forth the idea that Batman / Bruce Wayne (voiced by Jason O'Mara) has a young son named Damian (Stuart Allan), conceived with villainess Talia al Ghul (Morena Baccarin) after she slipped a roofie in his drink some years ago. Damian is raised in secret by his mother and her father Ra's al Ghul (Giancarlo Esposito), trained in the ways of their organization the League of Assassins.

We only see 80 seconds of young Damian's life at the League's headquarters before an army of mercenaries led by Slade Wilson / Deathstroke (Thomas Gibson) raids the place with an aim to take it over. Featuring helicopters, explosions, machine guns, ninjas, swordfights, and rapid fire arrows, this was a pretty spectacular, bloody action sequence that I would have loved to have seen brought to the screen in live action. Obviously Damian has taken his training well, because he manages to send Deathstroke fleeing when they have a confrontation... but that doesn't come until after his grandfather has been killed by the man.

Talia takes Damian off to Gotham City to meet his father, interrupting a fight between Batman and Killer Croc when she gets there. Bruce is meant to take care of Damian while Talia and her assassins are off getting revenge on Deathstroke, but that doesn't work out for them, and Damian isn't interested in just sitting around in Wayne Manor and waiting for his mom. He's plotting his own revenge, and he doesn't share his father's anti-killing stance. He was being raised as an assassin, after all.

A story in which Batman gets saddled with the young son he never knew he had isn't appealing to me when broken down to that description, so I wasn't that interested in Son of Batman at first. I only decided to watch it because Lansdale wrote it. It turned out to be a nice surprise, though. It may be about a kid, but it's not a childish movie, and it earns its PG-13 rating. There was so much bloodshed during the opening action sequence, for a moment I thought this might have been rated R, and later we see an associate of Deathstroke's settling in with a couple prostitutes. When a sword-wielding Damian bursts in, he tells the prostitutes, "Leave, harlots." This kid is actually a pint-sized badass.

As odd as it is, child sidekicks are no new thing for Batman, and Damian is a respectable new sidekick for him to have. The son of Batman is not an embarrassment. One of Batman's former sidekicks, Dick Grayson (Sean Maher), who went from being Robin to going by the name Nightwing, also gets involved in the story along the way and helps as Batman tries to figure out what Deathstroke had planned for the League of Assassins. It was some kind of scheme that led to the creation of a bunch of monstrous man-bat hybrid creatures.

I wasn't expecting much from Son of Batman, but I ended up thoroughly enjoying it. Well written and fast paced, it took questionable concepts and executed them in a cool, interesting way. Proving that Lansdale can really spin a yarn, whether it's about Batman fighting mutants with his son or Elvis taking on a mummy in a nursing home.

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