Notes On A Film: Doctor Strange

Despite all the horrible things that are happening in the real world at the moment, there are some things that help – the fact that we live in a world where a Doctor Strange film is in cinemas and is an anticipated event is one of the nice things. The fact that it’s an entertaining and enjoyable film makes it even better. Although this is the Doctor Strange origin film according the formula laid down in the MCU (setting up the character, introducing the superhero element, fighting a done-in-one villain, links to the MCU and teases for future films), it’s done with visual panache, humour, a perfect cast and it’s a full-blown Doctor Strange movie, taken from the comic books and put on the big screen.

Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a brilliant but arrogant neurosurgeon (the ‘Doctor’ is because of the PhD he did simultaneously with his MD) who loses the use of his hands in a car accident. Trying to find anyone who can fix his hands, he ends up in Kathmandu where he meets the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), who reveals the infinite dimensions that exist and the world of magic that uses energy from these dimensions to power spells that alter reality. Strange agrees to be trained in the ways of sorcery, helped by another advanced student, Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), while a former pupil, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), is trying to destroy the magical protection around the Earth so that the powerful other-dimensional entity Dormammu can take over Earth …

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Notes On A Film – X-Men: Apocalypse

I meant to write about X-Men: Apocalypse when I saw it the week it came out, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I think it was mostly because I didn’t have anything to say about it – the film was the cinematic equivalent of the ‘meh’ shrug, just existing as a thing that wasn’t truly awful but wasn’t very good either. The fact that it was the follow-up to X-Men: Days of Future Past, a really good film (which I really enjoyed) that was entertaining and had a point for its 1970s setting and had something to say about the character, made this film feel even more inessential. The build-up of the film and the villain – Apocalypse sounds like a clear statement of intent – couldn’t live up to the reality: a dull villain with a bland world-ending agenda, set in the 1980s so that it could be a period piece without the X-Men at full power.

I include a vague plot summary but it’s barely worth it: Apocalypse is a bad guy who gets woken up in 1983 (primarily because it is 10 years since Days of Future Past, which is mostly ignored after a few period touches, because someone thought that the 10-year gap would be good for the prequels/sequels) and decides to get on with the day job – collecting four Horsemen (mutants he gives a level-up to, despite the fact that he has loads of powers himself) in order to destroy the world and start it again. Because reasons. The X-Men try to stop him because Apocalypse is thematically attuned to the concept of the genetic aspect of the X-Men, erm, I mean because he wants to destroy the world and he’s using Magneto to do it. That’s about it – not particularly complicated. There is a lot of altering of the world and massive destruction (the world-ending stuff in the climax is staggering – the global economy afterwards would be in tatters and the state of the history of this world changed for ever) but, spoiler alert, the good guys win.

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Notes On A Film: Suicide Squad

The US critics seem to have been particularly harsh towards Suicide Squad – I’m not sure what they were expecting, but it could have been anticipation that has built up over what seems like ages in a very clever marketing campaign to introduce mostly unknown comic book characters to the wider public. (And when writer/director David Ayer talks about making the film ‘for the fans’, exactly how many fans does he think the comic book has? Comics do not have a very large audience, and Suicide Squad is not a popular book, so unless they’ve been a big hit on the various DC television shows, he’s talking about a few hundred thousand, tops.) The film is not a disaster by any means – it’s perfectly serviceable entertainment, even if it has flaws and shows the joins where reshoots and studio edits have shuffled things around (based on previous Ayer films, the lightening of the tone was probably a good thing, because he tends towards dark and doesn’t have a great sense of humour).
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Notes On A Film – Captain America: Civil War

Captain America: Civil War still

Things have been hectic at Clandestine Critic Casa, with lots of decorating and gardening and associated stuff getting in the way of reading and reviewing comic books (I’ve got a stack of first issues to write about that’s piling up, so consider yourself warned). So it was nice to have an afternoon to view the latest film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the most reliable place for comic book films at the moment. This was especially true when the last comic book movie I bore witness to was Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice.

Captain America: Civil War was the perfect antidote to the Warner Bros/DC mess, covering a similar conceit (hero versus hero, governments working to control heroes) but doing it immeasurably better, highlighting the gulf that exists between the two superhero universes. Captain America: Civil War is packed with great action, great characterisation, great jokes, in service a good story which makes sense and which delivers emotional moments; it’s a near-perfect superhero movie.

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Notes On A Film – Batman V Superman: Dawn Of Justice

Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice poster

I usually discuss my thoughts on superhero films because it’s in the centre of the Venn diagram of this blog, namely comic books and movies, and especially when I go to the cinema to see them. However, my reaction to seeing Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice was along the lines of, ‘Oh dear’, which doesn’t make for a fascinating or interesting insight. Several weeks after seeing it, I felt compelled to get the thoughts out of my head so I no longer had it ruminating in there.

I can’t tell what was more annoying while watching the film: the lack of thought put into the story, or the two kids behind me constantly talking through the action of the last third after their bored silence of the first two-thirds. At least they weren’t traumatised like the younger children sitting further down the aisle from me, asking their mum in tremulous voices about what was happening on screen …

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Notes On A Film: Deadpool

Deadpool movie poster

From the opening joke credits through to the knowing post-credit sting, Deadpool is hilariously, filthily, irreverently funny. Nobody is safe from ridicule: the producers are credited as ‘Ass-hats’, the director is ‘An overpaid tool’, Ryan Reynolds mocks himself and his career, the budgetary restrictions of the film are noted, the confusing timelines of the X-Men movies are referenced, the breaking of the fourth wall is mocked; even the ‘gratuitous cameo’ is hilarious and mocking. The Deadpool movie has perfectly captured the comedic sensibility of the Deadpool comics at their best and created something enjoyable in a cinematic format. I’m so glad that the film has had the highest opening of an R-rated movie of all time, because it means we will definitely get a sequel.

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Unsatisfactory Comic-Book Movie Sequels (Part 3)

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 poster

The Amazing Spider-Man 2

After Kick-Ass 2 and Sin City: A Dame To Kill For, it’s time for the last in my little series of disappointing comic-book movie sequels. I cared so little for The Amazing Spider-Man, I didn’t see it in the cinema and didn’t bother to compile my thoughts on it in its own post – I included it in a collection of reviews of DVDs, and I didn’t even give it the prominence its alphabetical status warrants. Obviously, I wasn’t first in line to see the sequel, or even rushing to watching it when available to view at home.

Although I enjoyed Andrew Garfield as Peter Parker, and particularly his chemistry with the always fantastic Emma Stone as Gwen Stacy, I didn’t need any more Spider-Man films by Sony; however, because Marvel has proved that there is money to be made from superhero franchises, Sony was going to give us a sequel whether we liked it or not. And like it we did not.

The film suffers from money-grabbing instincts – it spends more time setting up sequels and spin-offs (does anyone really want a film about the Sinister Six? Really?) than it does concentrating on the job in hand – namely, making an entertainment film that would engender in people a desire to see more films about the lead character and implausibly minor characters from the small collection of supporting villains because that’s all Sony has to try to milk money out of comic-book fans.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is a classic case of completely missing the point of the success it’s trying to emulate: Marvel built up the films slowly, drip-feeding the future and sneaking in Easter eggs (well, except for the heavy-handed tactics in the less-than-stellar Iron Man 2); Sony forces it down your throat in one go – it’s like they hadn’t learnt the lesson of Spider-Man 3, stuffing it with too many villains and making a film nobody liked (even if it made money). It’s sad to see the great Paul Giamatti slumming it here in the hope of something more in a spin-off that is never going to happen. It’s a shame to see Chris Cooper spending his limited time in bed, waiting for future promises of more screen time that are now dust in the wind. Don’t get me started on the ridiculous of the plotlines involving Richard and Mary Parker and the secret subway train nonsense. Having Electro develop the power levels the equivalent (and look) of Doctor Manhattan didn’t help matters, creating a truly bizarre finale in the electrical pylons. No wonder Sony had to face facts and work with Marvel from now on …

However, the worst crime in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is believing that because it happened in the comic books, it had to happen in the film. Spoiler alert if you haven’t seen the film (although you wouldn’t be reading this if you hadn’t), but Gwen Stacy dies in the film, and the only reason is because it happened in the comic book. I can’t begin to describe the disappointment I felt that a group of white men in control of a genre that is dominated by white males thought it was perfectly natural to kill off one of the few great female supporting characters, just to make Peter Parker even sadder.

When Gwen appeared in the first film, I hoped that this would be part of the Marvel trend of not being completely beholden to comic-book lore – Iron Man’s identity is not a secret, Thor is not pretending to be a doctor with a limp, Ultron isn’t created by Ant-Man, Captain America isn’t a humourless dullard – and using the comic books as basis not blueprint. Gwen, as portrayed by Emma Stone, is smart, resourceful, funny, independent, principled, believable – everything that comic-book movies are lacking apart from Black Widow (Mary Jane in the first trilogy wishes she had half the gumption of Gwen). Stone’s onscreen chemistry with Garfield is great, and it looked like there might be a female character in a comic-book movie that could be an inspiration, a role model, a woman who was more than accessory to the male superhero … until she was killed off in an updating of the famous scene from the comic book.

It’s mind-boggling to witness the decisions of white men who have ignored the concept of Women In Refrigerators while retaining a sensibility from 1980s action films (that women exist only to be captured or be killed to motivate the male hero) and who completely believe that Gwen’s death MUST occur only because it happens in the comic book and adds a layer of tragedy to Peter Parker. A character who constantly carries with him the guilt of responsibility for his beloved uncle’s death, so he is clearly in desperate need of even more guilty and tragedy … This level of misery porn is one reason why I’ve never been a big fan of Spider-Man, and I naively hoped that it wouldn’t make the transition to a film made in the 21st century. I was wrong. We’ll see what Marvel can do to help, but I’m not holding my breath.

And that’s everything off my chest about those three films. I hope I don’t have to do this again, film studios.

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Unsatisfactory Comic-Book Movie Sequels (Part 2)

Sin City: A Dame To Kill For movie poster

Sin City: A Dame To Kill For

Yesterday’s Unsatisfactory Comic-Book Movie sequel was Kick-Ass 2. The next comic-book movie sequel that was a disappointment was Sin City: A Dame To Kill For – I can understand why it ended up on Netflix, like Kick-Ass 2 (Netflix UK does not get the best choice of films).

Unlike Kick-Ass 2, Sin City 2 has the same writer/director team as the first film; like Kick-Ass 2, it uses comic books as the source material, additional Sin City storylines from Frank Miller’s catalogue (plus two original stories he wrote for the film) as the basis of the film; another similarity is that Sin City 2 includes most of the original cast (including interesting new faces such as Christopher Lloyd and Ray Liotta). Yet another similarity is that I enjoyed the first film (see my thoughts on Sin City), which is another reason why the sequel felt even worse. Like Kick-Ass 2, Sin City 2 is not a good film in its own right and not a good sequel to the first film made nine years previously.

The first Sin City film was ridiculously violent, highly stylised, with a colour palette derived from the comic books and (at the time) a unique look, and it had a freshness, a vitality, a distinctive tone; the sequel is leaden, scattershot, pedestrian, a faded copy, the stories coming across as footnotes to the stories in the first film. I couldn’t believe that the sequel was made by the same creative team, who seemed to be genuinely making a proper Sin City film instead of some sort of parody film. As I said in my tweet, the last line of the film summed up the viewing experience: ‘It soils everybody.’

The first film managed a balance between the ‘realism’ of the setting with over-the top action, the verging-on-pastiche dialogue, the rather bleak view of women, and some clichéd aspects of hard-boiled fiction. The sequel decided to forget to bother with that and just go balls-out for unbelievable action – a young girl slicing off the heads of disposable gangsters while jumping impossibly high in the air; people standing across a courtyard from each other and firing machine guns and somehow surviving – and force terrible parodying dialogue in the mouths of good actors. It made me feel sad for people I like when they appeared in the film – poor returning Rosario Dawson, poor newcomer Joseph Gordon Levitt; the only person who comes out of it with dignity is Eva Green, a terrific actor who manages to generate the right insane intensity for the role within the movie so you can’t take your eyes off her.

Frank Miller’s comic-book work was entering into self-parody by the time he was only doing Sin City work (which was around the time I stopped buying any Miller comics), and it has a been a long time since he was a vital contributor to the form (the Dark Knight Returns sequel was hideous, and I’m not looking for the upcoming third instalment), so it’s unsurprising that this sequel feels uninspired. The film also suffers because Miller’s own directorial debut, the dire film adaptation of The Spirit (or, rather, Frank Miller does The Spirit as Sin City, completely missing the point), which destroyed a lot of affection for the Sin City film style by using the Sin City style inappropriately and making a truly horrible film (as I tried to encapsulate in my blog post about it).

Another thing: Robert Rodriguez hasn’t made a film as good as Sin City since, seemingly regressing to making films that are cinematic releases but look and feel as if they should have been released straight to video (and yes, I deliberately used the word ‘video’ because that’s how archaic they feel); this leads to a lack of strong directorial vision in charge of this sequel that nobody was clamouring for anymore. The only positive is that the film did not do well theatrically, so at least it brought us the possibility of no more Sin City films and, even better, no more films by Frank Miller.

Come back tomorrow for the final Unsatisfying Comic-Book Movie Sequel.

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Unsatisfactory Comic-Book Movie Sequels (Part 1)

Kick-Ass 2 movie poster

It used to be that, as a rule of thumb, sequels weren’t as good as the first film. The exceptions to this were so small that you could easily list them (The Godfather Part II, Terminator 2: Judgement Day, Aliens) and stay confident in the generalisation. However, there was a slow turnaround in the fortunes of sequels so that it was no longer a small list, and the rule of thumb was no longer a rule. In comic-book movies, this trend had significant outliers – Blade II was better than Blade, X-Men 2 was better than X-Men, and Captain America: Winter Soldier was exponentially better than Captain America: The First Avenger – but, unfortunately, there were still examples that seem determined to adhere to the original maxim. I wanted to use to talk about three of them.

I love comic books and I love films, so I love the combination of both (see my ‘comic book movie’ tag for evidence); I tend to see them mostly in the cinema and then blog about them. However, there have been comic-book films that I haven’t had the desire to watch on the big screen, and, when I’ve watched them at home, I didn’t have any desire to talk about them on the blog. Three comic-book movies that fit in this category all happen to be sequels, so it seemed sensible to jump on a theme and collectively bash them instead of doing ‘proper’ reviews (I use the sneer quotes to denote that what I do aren’t proper reviews).

Kick-Ass 2
I recently watched Kick-Ass 2 and Sin City 2: A Dame To Kill For on Netflix, and I’m glad I didn’t see them in the cinema or pay money specifically to see them. Both films suffer from seeming like parodies of their originators, almost as if they are knock-offs instead of direct follow-ons (and I enjoyed Kick-Ass). In Kick-Ass 2, blame can be laid at the feet of writer/director Jeff Wadlow – instead of recapturing the specific tone of the first film, which mixed ultra-violence with style and a tongue firmly in its cheek, Wadlow thinks that lots of violence and Hit-Girl spouting clichés when she dispatches gangsters in action scenes scored to bizarre musical choices are all that is needed to repeat the success of Kick-Ass.

Jim Carrey, who actually gives a good performance, notably came out against the violence of the film before it came out, but it’s possible he’d seen an early cut and was using any excuse. The sequel also uses the casting decision of the first film of using British actors as Americans (Iain Glen pops up as a mafia boss, Steven Mackintosh and Monica Dolan as bereaved parents, Andy Nyman as a psychotic gangster, Daniel Kaluuya as an MMA fighter turned villain, and Benedict Wong as a Chinatown boss), and I still can’t work out why John Leguizamo decided to be in this.

The film suffers from the contradiction of pretending that it’s a film about superheroes in the real world but still having comic-book action that defies the laws of physics (the bit at the end where Hit-Girl gets an adrenalin shot and practically becomes Jesse Quick) and a plot that doesn’t make any sense. The only good decision made in the film is that it doesn’t opt for the horrific rape scene of the Mark Millar–John Romita Jr comic book, and the only bit I genuinely enjoyed was Hit-Girl using a shock baton to cause a bullying teenage girl to (digitally) vomit and shit her guts out. I may have a strange sense of humour …

Even though Matthew Vaughan was a producer, he seems to have taken a hands-off approach, and the film feels like a sequel for the sake of money, instead of being an adaptation of a comic book. This is something that connects the three films – come back tomorrow for the next Unsatisfying Comic-Book Movie Sequel.

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Notes On A Film: Ant-Man

Ant-Man movie poster

If you are even slightly pop-culture literate, you’ll know that Ant-Man was going to be directed by Edgar Wright, from a script by him and Joe Cornish; it was a project that Wright had been developing for several years, only to leave at almost the last minute due to ‘creative differences’, to be replaced by the less stylistic Peyton Reed, and with a script polish by star Paul Rudd and Adam McKay (who has written and directed many funny films with Will Ferrell). The question of ‘What if Edgar Wright had directed Ant-Man?’ hovers over the film – like a winged ant, perhaps? – but it doesn’t detract from the solidly entertaining product that has been made in his absence (he and Cornish still get a writing credit, suggesting the bulk of the film was based on their original script).

The most impressive aspect of this film is that it demonstrates the ability of the Marvel studio to consistently create entertaining films starring properties from the comic books that jump between genres and provide a satisfying movie. Ant-Man has never been a successful character – despite being one of the original Marvel heroes from the 1960’s Kirby-and-Lee explosion (there’s a nice nod towards Ant-Man’s original book, Tales To Astonish, incorporated into dialogue early on in the film) and one of the original Avengers, Ant-Man never had his own series, and his main attribute (Hank Pym created Ultron) has been passed off to Tony Stark in the MCU (thankfully, the MCU has ignored the other main attribute, the spousal abuse, because that would have been terrible and it’s not something the comic books should continue with). These factors mean that the cinematic Ant-Man has a clean slate, but it also means that there is no (urgh) franchise awareness, beyond that of Marvel studios itself.

The success of this film is that it does what other successful Marvel films have done: take an established film genre and put a superhero twist on it. Captan America: Winter Soldier was a conspiracy thriller; Guardians of the Galaxy was a space opera; Ant-Man is a heist caper. After a brief flashback to 1989, when an airbrushed Michael Douglas (as Hank Pym) quits SHIELD (cameos for Hayley Atwell as Peggy Carter and John Slattery as Howard Stark) because of the misappropriation of his Pym particles, the story returns to the present. Scott Lang (Rudd) is released from prison for his burglary (not theft – he didn’t use force) of money from corporations and giving it back to the people the corporations stole from. He can’t get a permanent job because of his prison record, and he needs a regular income so that he can pay alimony to his ex-wife so he can see his daughter Cassie on a regular basis again. Therefore, he turns to his former cellmate, Luis (an hilarious turn from Michael Peña, who steals scenes with his fast-talking shtick, particularly where he’s relating a story and the camera flashes to a montage of the events, with all the other characters in the montages speaking in the same voice-over as Peña provides), who has a tip for a simple breaking and entering job.

Meanwhile, Pym has been invited to his company’s headquarters, where his former protégé, Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), announces that he has discovered Pym’s old research and successfully recreated the shrinking formula, which he will sell in the form of a suit, the Yellowjacket, to the highest bidder who wants a tiny army. His daughter, Hope (Evangeline Lilly), still works at the company – despite a rift between her and her father due to the death of her mother (the real story for which isn’t revealed until later in the film), she knows that Pym particles in the hands of a dangerous man will be catastrophic, and is trying to help her father. Hank wants to steal the formula and destroy the Yellowjacket – what he needs is a certain kind of thief …

Promotional image from Ant-Man

What follows is a fun initiation into a crazy world, as Lang steals the suit (because Pym wanted him to), then Pym and Hope train him to fight as the Ant-Man, learn to use the size-changing powers he’ll need, control the ants as his helpers, and discover the hero within by infiltrating the heavily guarded corporate headquarters and stopping Cross. The shrinking scenes might have been more dazzling in the hands of Wright, but Reed does a good job of making them visually entertaining – having the ability to shrink and revert in an instant is a dynamic visual, used for wonder at the small scale and for laughs at the reversion. Rudd is perfect as the everyman trying to do his best for his daughter, with some lines that sound so Rudd-like, you can’t imagine anyone else saying them (it helps being a co-writer). With McKay on board, the film is very funny – I’m sure it was funny in Wright and Cornish’s script, but I think McKay’s time on Saturday Night Live and with Ferrell are responsible for a lot of the big laughs. There is emotional content as well, with the parallels between fathers and daughters.

The casting, another area Marvel excels in, is perfect across the board – Douglas is in fine form as Pym, spouting scientific gobbledegook one minute and one-liners the next, and seems to be having a grand time in the role; Lilly is good as his daughter who can take care of herself; even Abby Ryder Fortson as Cassie is a delight. Stoll is suitably threatening as the use-and-dispose villain (another part of the Marvel approach), but proceedings are softened by Rudd’s grounded charm and Peña’s scene stealing. Add to this the connections to the Marvel universe (a cameo from a new Avenger that I’m guessing wasn’t part of Wright and Cornish’s script), a mention of the Avengers’ destructive antics, the obligatory Stan Lee appearance, a throwaway line about a ‘guy who can climb on walls’, and two scenes after the film has ended, one a coda to the movie (with Hope saying, ‘About damn time’) and the other a teaser for the next Marvel movie, and you have another polished package from the studio that can’t do wrong at the moment. Fun, funny, entertaining, exciting, occasionally dramatic, visually spectacular – when a finale involves a cut between the shrinking world and the real world where the size doesn’t have the impact you think it would, and you laugh out loud at the sight of a massive Thomas the Tank Engine, you know you’ve been Marvelled.

Rating: DAVE

[Explanation of my updated film rating system]

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