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Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

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by Steve Habrat

Just four short months ago, Marvel Studios broke away from their kid-friendly formula with Captain America: The Winter Solider, which found the star-spangled man with a plan punching, kicking, and stabbing his way through a shadowy political thriller. It was refreshingly gritty and darker than anything the pulpy Marvel had released before, and it turned out to be the comic book studio’s best Avengers movie yet. As the summer movie season winds down, audiences are still searching for that one blockbuster that leaves you floating on cloud nine. There have a handful of pleasing efforts (Godzilla, X-Men: Days of Future Past, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes) that passed the time nicely, but none have contained the zippiness of Marvel’s newest adventure, Guardians of the Galaxy. Fitted with a title that calls to mind serial space adventures of the 1950s, and playing out like an episode of The Jetsons crossed with the original Star Wars, director James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy is a cosmic daydream of a superhero movie—one that continuously delights as it zooms from one dazzling planet to the next. Even more exciting is the fact that Marvel studios—who has clung largely to four well-known protagonists—has taken a risk on a band of lovable misfit thugs who have always shied away from Marvel’s mainstream line of comics.

Guardians of the Galaxy picks up in 1988, with a young Peter Quill having to say goodbye to his terminally ill mother. After suddenly passing, Peter bolts from the hospital into the foggy night, where he is spotted by a UFO and beamed up into space. In present day, Peter Quill aka Star-Lord (played by Chris Pratt) is a wanted man across the galaxy. He earns a living by working for a space pirate by the name of Yondu (played by Michael Rooker), who is always flirting with taking the reckless Peter’s life. After stealing a mysterious metallic sphere from an abandoned planet, Peter finds himself being hunted down by a green-skinned assassin called Gamora (played by Zoe Saldana), a tough-talking furball named Rocket Racoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper), and Rocket’s simple-minded muscle and personal houseplant, Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel). After being rounded up for causing a ruckus in the streets of Xandar, Peter, Gamora, Rocket, and Groot are all arrested by Nova Corps and shipped off to a massive prison called Kyln. Upon their arrival, the group meets Drax (played by Dave Bautista), a hulking madman who is eager to kill Gamora for her affiliation with Ronan (played by Lee Pace), a Kree alien who wishes to get his hands on the sphere for his own destructive pleasures. After discovering the money that can be made by selling the orb, the group bands together to break out of the maximum-security prison, but hot on their tail is Ronan and his extremely deadly assassin Nebula (played by Karen Gillian), both of which know that the sphere houses more terrifying power than the misfit group could ever imagine.

Given the absurdity of some of the characters that make up the core team in Guardians of the Galaxy, Gunn gives the film a self-aware sense of humor that is downright infectious. Part of Marvel’s allure is that they don’t take themselves too seriously, and Guardians of the Galaxy doesn’t dare break this tradition. In fact, it’s even more cartoonish than The Avengers, and the humor is even more in your face than anything you have seen in the past. Part of the credit must go to the script, which was penned by Gunn and Nicole Perlman, which crackles with sparkling one liners that are simultaneously bad ass and hilarious. Gunn has already proven himself to have a handle on comedy, as he expertly blended it with horror in his underrated 2006 horror flick Slither and his 2010 indie superhero outing Super, but it’s nice to see him introducing his talent to the mainstream. While there is certainly a strong emphasis on comedy, Gunn never forget to bring the razzle-dazzle sci-fi action. The standout is easily the bonkers prison break that finds our heroes improvising their way out of an industrial prison housing a whole bunch of extraterrestrial crazies with faces only their mother’s could love. And we can’t forget the battle on Knowhere, where a drunken Drax attempts to put the smack down on an alarmingly calm Ronan, and the rest of our heroes jump into an aerial battle without the luxury of weapons bolted to their spaceships.

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While Guardians of the Galaxy certainly wins big with its balance of zinger jokes and fizzy action, the best part of the film is the five main characters that we glide through the stars with. Parks and Recreation funnyman Chris Pratt finally hits the big time with Peter Quill/Star-Lord, a bopping outlaw who dances his way to his prizes. He brings plenty of his man-child charm to the character, but what really surprises is his chops as an action star. He really holds his own in the rock-em-sock-em moments. The sexy Zoe Saldana is as fierce as ever as Gamora, a green-skinned assassin who would take out a whole room full of hulking extraterrestrials if one dares to look at her wrong. There is naturally a love story that begins to blossom between Quill and Gamora, and it unfolds with sweet patience and plenty of beating heart. Then we have Dave Bautista’s Drax the Destroyer, an extremely literal beefcake on a quest to exact revenge on those who are responsible for his family’s death. The WWE wrestler shows off serious talent as a comedian and nabs some of the film’s best one liners, specifically one about Quill’s sarcastic remarks going right over his head. The ever-popular Bradley Cooper lends his nearly unrecognizable voice to the CGI Rocket Racoon, a genetically engineered rodent who can’t resist massive machine guns and hocking a loogie right in captor’s direction. Perhaps the core team’s best member is Vin Diesel’s Groot, a tree-like creature capable of only saying three words: “I am Groot.” Groot gets some of the funniest moments of the film, and when he’s called upon to protect the group, he does so hair-raising fury.

As far as the supporting roles go—and trust me, there are plenty of them—nearly every single performance manages to sparkle. Lee Pace bulges his eyes and booms threats to the good and the evil as Ronan, a ruthless adversary that wishes to inflict some serious pain on the galaxy. Beninco del Toro’s flamboyant Taneleer Tivan/The Collector seems to be being groomed for the villainous role in future installments of the series. Del Toro injects a bit of edgy unpredictability into The Collector, which leaves you wanting more from his character. The Walking Dead’s Michael Rooker brings his tough guy act to Yondu, the leader of a band of space pirates called Ravagers. His bright blue skin and crooked teeth sure make him a visual marvel, but wait until he reveals a secret weapon that makes him a man you certainly don’t want to cross. Karen Gillian gets to bear her fangs as Nebula, Ronan’s loyal number to who slices and dices her way to her opponents. Djimon Hounsou gets wicked as fellow Ronan supporter Korath, Glenn Close dives into sci-fi as Nova Corps leader Nova Prime, and John C. Reilly largely keeps a straight face as Nova Corps soldier Rhomann Dey.

On the technical end of Guardians of the Galaxy, Gunn and his crew think up frame after frame of sci-fi splendor that just looks fantastic. The make-up effects are ornate and unique, the CGI landscapes are clean and convincing, and the set work is vibrant and detailed. The final battle between Ronan’s forces and the Guardians hurls plenty of shimmering eye candy at the audience, and it captures a bit of the rollicking spirit of classic summer blockbusters we’ve all come to know and love. It’s retro feel and the sunny nostalgia for ‘80s summer blockbusters that ultimately makes Guardians of the Galaxy such a treat, and anyone who considers themselves a fan of Raiders of the Lost Ark will be tickled…uh…green by the not-so-subtle tribute in the opening moments. In addition, the film doesn’t shy away from the dramatics, as there are several emotional surges that hush the howling and cheering audience. Overall, Guardians of the Galaxy shakes the summer movie season out of its weary slump and dares to show you something you didn’t know you wanted to see. It’s an endearing and exciting miracle that invites you to cut loose and get lost in a blur of imagination for two hours. For those out there who believe that they have seen every oddity that outer space has to offer, you simply won’t believe what James Gunn and Marvel have in store for you.

Grade: A

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Iron Man 3 (2013)

Iron Man 3 #1

by Steve Habrat

Last May, Marvel kicked the summer movie season off with the hugely satisfying superhero spectacular The Avengers. Not only was The Avengers massively successful, but it also raised the bar for both Marvel and the superhero genre in general. When the lights came up in the theater, you knew that it would be extremely difficult for the comic book juggernaut to top themselves after the blast of awesome they had just delivered. Speed ahead one year and we have Iron Man 3, which lets us know that Marvel has absolutely no intentions of slowing down and giving their heroes a little bit of a breather (Thor is back for seconds this Thanksgiving and Captain America swoops in next spring). For the past few months, there has been quite a bit of hype surrounding the new entry in the Iron Man franchise and the film has already opened to staggering numbers overseas. So the question on everyone’s mind is, is it as good or better than The Avengers? Well, Iron Man 3 certainly isn’t better than The Avengers or the original Iron Man, for that matter. It is, however, a little bit better than the lackluster Iron Man 2, which is a huge relief. With a new director behind the camera and a script crammed with twist after twist, Iron Man 3 reassures us that there is still some life in a franchise that was starting to show signs of rust on its second run. This is a well-oiled superhero epic that finds ever-game star Robert Downey Jr. having the time of his life as he goes up against two of the ghastliest foes he has faced so far.

Picking up several months after the events of The Avengers, the brash industrialist Tony Stark (played by Robert Downey Jr.) is suffering severe anxiety attacks over what he witnessed in New York City. He is having a hard time getting a little shuteye and when he does manage to drift off, he suffers from horrible nightmares. In his spare time, Tony retreats to his workshop and builds new Iron Man suits that he proceeds to store away in an underground vault for a rainy day. Meanwhile, the United States has suffered a series of bombing attacks orchestrated by a mysterious cult-like terrorist known only as the Mandarin (played by Ben Kingsley). After one of the Mandarin’s attacks injures one of Tony’s closest friends, Tony decides to issue a televised threat to the mumbling terrorist. The Mandarin quickly responds by destroying Tony’s luxurious home and several of his Iron Man suits. To make matters worse, Stark Industries CEO Pepper Potts (played by Gwyneth Paltrow) finds herself approached by Aldrich Killian (played by Guy Pearce), a bitter but brilliant scientist from Tony’s past who appears to be working hand-in-hand with the Mandarin’s terrorist organization. With the Mandarin’s attacks growing deadlier by the day, Tony has to enlist the help of Colonel James Rhodes (played by Don Cheadle) to help him get back in the fight.

Perhaps the biggest problem that plagued Iron Man 2 was the fact that the film seemed to exist solely to prepare audiences for The Avengers. It spent so much time prepping the Iron Man character for the ultimate meeting of do-gooders that it almost seemed to forget that it was also supposed to be a stand-alone film. It never felt like a strictly solo outing for Tony Stark. Thankfully, Iron Man 3 boots all the S.H.I.E.L.D agents out on their butts and even shoos Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury and Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow away from the action. Granted, there are a number of references to The Avengers and the three other team members are mention throughout, but Iron Man 3 seems refreshed by the idea that it isn’t just a lavish set-up. Free of these ties, the wave of trailers sent out by Marvel seemed to promise a darker entry for Mr. Stark and while there is plenty of sinister activity going on in Iron Man 3, the edgier moments are always complimented by a scene of slapstick comedy. This is especially apparent in the earlier moments of the film, where Tony fumbles and bumbles around with a new suit of armor that attaches itself to him in pieces. Here and there he complains about his anxiety and insomnia, but it never fully ventures into Tony’s heart of darkness, which is incredibly frustrating. Director Shane Black pushes the darkness even harder when he introduces the Mandarin, who appears in terrifying televised appearances that disrupt your normally scheduled programs. They are absolutely spectacular and maybe a little too effective in playing on our current fears of terrorism. Bravo, Black!

IRON MAN 3

While the first forty minutes may be a mixed ball of emotions and tones, the second and third acts of Iron Man 3 boast breathtaking action sequences and showdowns. The Mandarin’s first attack on Tony’s home is appropriately disorienting and frenzied as our hero desperately tries to round up all the pieces of his armor to fight back against the advancing helicopters. The standout rescue of thirteen Air Force One passengers tumbling through the air will have every single audience member holding their breath and wondering if their hero will be able to pull off the rescue. It is by far the film’s coolest action set piece and quite possibly the best from any Marvel film yet (it would only be second to the battle for New York City in The Avengers). Things really get epic when the grand finale hits and I must say, this is the first Iron Man film that truly seems to have a satisfying and coherent climatic showdown. The previous two films seemed to wrap everything up a bit too hastily, at least in my humble opinion. I won’t say too much about this fiery clash, but it really puts our hero to the test and finds Stark actually breaking a sweat, something you didn’t really see when he was trading blows with Iron Monger and Whiplash.

The true beauty of the Iron Man films is that there seems to be a genuine and giddy enthusiasm from the performers, which is always infectious. Downey continues to wow us as the mile-a-millisecond industrialist with a weakness for booze and babes. He can be crude, charming, and hilarious, but he can also reveal a vulnerability buried deep inside all the clanking iron. He is also given the chance to jump into a few action scenes without the cover of a CGI suit of armor, which is a nice change of pace. Paltrow continues to glow as the mild mannered Pepper Potts, who is even given the chance to throw a couple of punches herself. By now I’m sure you’ve heard or seen that she dons one of Tony’s Iron Man suits. Cheadle is his usual tip-top self as the straight-laced Colonel Rhodes/Iron Patriot. He doesn’t do anything extraordinary but he has plenty of charming moments with Downey’s Stark. Perhaps the biggest surprise of Iron Man 3 is how good Ben Kingsley is as the mumbling teacher-terrorist Mandarin. I don’t want to spoil the Mandarin but believe me when I say that he will practically have you in a ball under your seat when you first meet him. Guy Pearce also shines as the crippled scientist Aldrich Killian, a bitter rival who slowly morphs into one seriously nasty piece of work. Rounding out the new players is the severely underused and virtually pointless Rebecca Hall as Maya Hansen, who is basically there to provide a bit of exposition and that’s it. What a waste!

While all the zippy action and adventure is fun, Iron Man 3 is not without its faults. In addition to the choppy commencement, I also found Tony’s little detour into rural Tennessee to be a bit dull. While there, Tony is forced to mingle with a local boy named Harley (played by Ty Simpkins), who I just couldn’t really bring myself to care about. Then there is the big twist at the middle of the film, which filled me with disappointment. Once again, I can’t go into much detail about it but I do think the film could have done without it. Overall, Iron Man 3 is a great way to kick off the summer movie season and it finds the series returning to form after a muddled second installment. It smartly plays on our current fears of terrorism and it wraps them up in one big, loud, and bold action sequence after another. It would have been nice to see the film venture deeper into the dark side and drop some of the childish humor, but I suppose they just have to appeal to the kiddies too. Oh, and do stay for a nifty little treat after the credits. You’ll be glad you did.

Grade: B+

Favorite Marvel Movie… GO!

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Ghost Rider (2007)

by Steve Habrat

When Marvel isn’t busy trying to force The Punisher on disinterested audiences, they are cramming Ghost Rider down our throats. This fiery badass on a bike just plays too nice in his disposable 2007 big screen debut, a film that only fans of the comic could love. Director Mark Steven Johnson’s Ghost Rider is a run-of-the-mill superhero film with the a whole bunch of superhero clichés we have seen countless times in other, better superhero movies. It doesn’t help that the film has no staying power once you have walked away from it. The culprit for all the mediocrity is the fact that the script, penned by Johnson, has holes big enough to drive a tricked out motorcycle from Hell through. Johnson seems like he is eager to deliver for Ghost Rider fans and I applaud him for that, but it would have been nice if he cleaned up his story a bit and, oh, I don’t know, thought outside the box. It would have also helped if he had filled his film with actors who actually care about the material they are working with. The only one who seems like he wants to be there is Nicolas Cage but he has such little talent to speak of that he doesn’t really come up with anything that will save this clunker of a film from a slow, fiery death.

Ghost Rider begins with introducing us to a young stunt motorcyclist Johnny Blaze (Played by Matt Long) and his father, Barton Blaze (Played by Brett Cullen). Barton, it turns out, has terminal cancer, which he tries to hide from young Johnny but the secret finally slips out. Devastated, Johnny slips off to work on his motorcycle when he finds himself approached by Mephistopheles (Played by Peter Fonda), a mysterious man who asks Johnny to ride for him. He goes on to mention Barton’s illness and adds that he could help. Johnny accepts the help but he accidentally sells his soul to the mysterious man. The next day Barton wakes up refreshed and feeling better than ever, something that stuns Johnny. Later that day, Barton is getting ready to perform a new stunt for a huge crowd of fans but the stunt goes wrong and Barton is killed. At the exact moment Barton is killed, Johnny sees Mephistopheles standing by and laughing. After the accident, Johnny sets out on his own but he once again finds himself approached by the mysterious man who says that he will come back for Johnny’s services one day. The film then speeds ahead to present day with Johnny (Played by Nicolas Cage) now a big name stunt motorcyclist who is always cheating death. As Johnny enjoys his fame, a sinister force is walking among us in the form of Blackheart (Played by Wes Bentley), a deadly demon who is searching for a contract that could allow him to unleash hell on earth. In order to stop Blackheart, Mephistopheles calls upon Johnny and turns him into a fiery superhero called Ghost Rider.

Ghost Rider leans heavily on the almost nonstop action at its charred heart. Very rarely does the film actually calm down enough to give us an intimate character moment. Perhaps this is good because the action actually allows Ghost Rider to be watchable for its two-hour runtime. The CGI is very well done, especially the effects on Cage when he morphs into the hissing demon. Things do turn goofy when Fonda and Bentley see their faces distorting into bluish ghouls with row after row of crooked fangs. They would be a dentist’s worst nightmare but they wouldn’t scare anyone else. The action basically sees Ghost Rider stomping around on the screen and battling one of Blackheart’s three grinning henchmen, all of which are dispatched with ease. The sad part to all of this is that Cage and Bentley allow the special effects to do all the work for them. Bentley ends up being guiltier of this than Cage, if you can believe that. Bentley’s Blackheart has to be the least convincing baddie to ever torment a superhero. At times, he seems like someone is standing off screen holding up a white poster board with his lines written on it. He doesn’t bring any menace to the role and in the end, he falls behind voice distortion and layers of CGI to make him an intimidating force. Still, he just seems too nice.

Cage, meanwhile, had to be breathing a sigh of relief that for once, he wasn’t the one ruining the movie. I was actually surprised in the amount of enthusiasm that Cage demonstrated even if he is hit or miss. The performance finds him speaking in a southern drawl that appears and then disappears without warning, something that you would think Johnson would have righted. The rest of the time, Cage just seems to be playing a giddier version of himself. Apparently, Cage is a huge fan of Ghost Rider (he even has him tattooed on his arm) and he really lobbied to nab the role. You would think he would have brought something special to this demon party, being a huge fan and all. Ghost Rider finds Cage’s Johnny Blaze striking up a relationship with forgettable reporter Roxanne Simpson (Played by Eva Mendes), a romance that has absolutely no spark to speak of. Mendes seems to just be going through the motions, very aware that she is only here to be saved by Cage’s CGI alter ego. The great Sam Elliot steps in as the mysterious Caretaker who finds himself the target of Bentley’s Blackheart. Elliot does a fine job with what he has to work with, even if there are more than a few holes in his character. Donal Logue shows up as Blaze’s wisecracking partner, Mack, who gets stuck with the typical one-liners for the kids. Rounding out the main players is Fonda’s Mephistopheles, who seems delighted to be playing the creeping puppet master.

There are aspects of Ghost Rider that are never fully explained to us, with things happening for no reason at all. Cage can apparently manipulate anything he touches, making them look like they were ripped out of the Devil’s imagination. There was also a twist with the Caretaker that drove me absolutely nuts, especially since Blackheart brutally terrorizes him while he does nothing about it. Another problem I had with the film was Blackheart’s evil plot to destroy earth. He gets the upper hand on Ghost Rider because he has no soul, something that Ghost Rider can target and destroy. Blackheart’s master plan fills him with hundreds of hellish souls, all of which can be burned up by Ghost Rider (Didn’t anyone catch this error while writing the film?). The film desperately wants to be a western but it seems that the western didn’t want to be associated with this crap so it spit it back into action territory. Overall, with wiser casting choices and a fully developed script, Ghost Rider could have turned out to be one of the more fun Marvel movies. It could have been a darker alternative to Marvel’s usually family friendly heroes. Instead, it just feels like watered down excuse to sell toys to kids and act as a quick cash grab for the money-hungry Marvel. A throwaway superhero vehicle that feels like it has been done before, and much better at that.

Grade: D+

Ghost Rider is available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Daredevil (2003)

by Steve Habrat

Since its release in 2003, Marvel’s big screen adaptation of the lesser-known Daredevil has gained the reputation of being a downright stinker of a movie with a cringe-inducing Ben Affleck as the blind crime fighter. Daredevil isn’t nearly as bad as it has been made out to be. It is merely a decent movie that does have its fair share of flaws. Reeking of Matrix-esque fight sequences with a hints of Spider-Man and Batman thrown in, Daredevil is a clunky film set to awful wannabe grunge rock that was all the rage in 2003, but there are still a number of aspects to admire. Affleck molds the blind lawyer Matt Murdock into a captivating character who is more interesting during the day when he is fighting crime in the courtroom than when he is prowling the streets as the teeth-gnashing vigilante dressed up in red leather. Capitalizing on the popularity of 2002’s Spider-Man, director Mark Steven Johnson works hard to make something that is faithful to the comic lore (many shots are taken directly from the comics) but he trims his origin story down to a brief hour and forty minutes, too in a rush to get to the action and leaving several major characters and a romance underdeveloped.

Daredevil begins by flashing back to the troubled childhood of Matt Murdock (Played by Scott Terra), a nerdy kid from New York City’s Hell’s Kitchen. Much like Spider-Man, Murdock is the target of neighborhood bullies who like to toss him around like a ragdoll. At home, his father is a washed-up boxer named Jack “The Devil” Murdock (Played by David Keith), who relives his glory days by guzzling countless bottles of beer and drunkenly rambling to Matt about fights he won and why it is important to get an education. Matt suspects his dad is working as an enforcer for a local mobster and his suspicions are confirmed when he bumps into his dad roughing up a local hood in an alley. Fleeing in horror, Matt stumbles into a construction yard and proceeds to be blinded by toxic waste in a freak accident. Matt’s father blames himself for the accident and the two make a silent promise to each other to never give up and better themselves. Shortly after the accident, Matt begins to discover that his other four senses are operating at superhuman strength and give him a radar-like sight, which he uses to stand up to neighborhood bullies. Matt’s father begins boxing again but he finds that he is unable to walk cleanly away from the mob. After Jack refuses to throw a fight, he is beaten to death in an alley by a towering enforcer who likes to leave roses on the bodies of his victims. The devastated Matt silently vows to find the people responsible for the death of his father and he assumes the identity of Daredevil, the man without fear.

Part Spider-Man and part Batman, Daredevil doesn’t really have any superpowers to speak of. He uses sound waves to create a radar sight to help him locate and knock out bad guys throwing punches his way. He leaps around the rooftops dressed in a goofy red getup that does have a slight DIY feel to it despite its silliness. Matt doesn’t stop fighting crime when the sun comes up. By day, he paces a courtroom as a lousy attorney who shouts, “Justice is blind!” When Affleck doesn’t have a mask pulled over his face, he is fascinating to watch as a blind man. We watch him perform daily rituals that help him get around the bustling New York City streets. He folds his money in different ways to help him figure out if he is reaching for a ten or a five and crams prescription painkillers into his mouth to help ease the pain of injuries that he suffers at night. You will genuinely like him as Matt Murdock and you will relish the moments he shares with Franklin “Foggy” Nelson (Played by Jon Favreau), his chatty partner who likes to get drunk with Matt and describe beautiful women they encounter on the street. Together they are the saviors of Daredevil with their chuckle-worthy conversations and pranks they pull on each other.

Naturally, Daredevil has a love interest by the name of Elektra Natchios (Played by Jennifer Garner), a stunning Greek beauty that can hold her own in a schoolyard brawl. Daredevil does hint at a substantial romance between Murdock and Elektra but it doesn’t hold together once Elektra’s father is slain by the Irish hitman Bullseye (Played by Colin Farrell). Bullseye is hired by the hulking mobster William Fisk/The Kingpin (Played by Michael Clarke Duncan), a ruthless gangster who oversees organized crime in New York City and may be responsible for Jack Murdock’s death. In a rage, Elektra almost instantly morphs into a superhero herself and then disappears from the film like she was never there to begin with. Bullseye is easily the coolest character in the film, a resourceful bad boy who likes Guinness, has a nasty brand on his forehead, and can turn anything he touches into a deadly weapon. Farrell’s enthusiasm for the role is contagious as he slinks around hissing at our horned hero. The Kingpin is supposed to be the main villain of Daredevil but we hear about him more than we actually see him. He is probably on the screen a total of twenty minutes, making him more of a gigantic disappointment.

At its core, Daredevil is a gritty tale that is loaded with untapped potential. The opening flashback of the film is thrown off by lame acting from the child actors, removing us from the moment entirely. I am also bothered by the wiry action sequences, where the actors go spinning effortlessly through the air with no explanation at all. It is painfully obvious they are dangling from wires and it is sloppily executed. Daredevil could have also used more of The Kingpin, a mildly frightening villain who could have been even more menacing had we gotten to know him a little bit better. We have to take into consideration that Daredevil was made in a time where the superhero genre was experiencing some growing pains, many filmmakers viewing them as mere escapist thrill rides that were heavy with wild action scenes and perfect CGI. To be fair, Daredevil attempts to put more emphasis into the characters when they don’t have their masks on and I will give it credit for that but we still have to like the costumed hero and I can honestly say Affleck lost it for me when he was wearing the horns. Overall, it was a step in the dark direction for superhero films and it does feature some fine performances, but the skimpy runtime prevents Daredevil from having the depth it is so convinced it has.

Grade: C

The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)

by Steve Habrat

For a film that has been selling itself on the promise of telling us the untold story about Spider-Man’s origins, The Amazing Spider-Man feels suspiciously familiar. Replace the original actors with some fresh faces, toss out Mary Jane as the love interest, bring in new director Marc Webb, and scrub away pervious director Sam Raimi’s fresh-off-the-pulp-page style and you have Marvel’s good but not really amazing reboot of their ultimate cash cow. The debate still rages on about whether it was a smart move on Marvel’s part to reboot the Spider-Man franchise just five short years after Sam Raimi left a bitter taste in our mouths with the overly crowded Spider-Man 3. In my opinion, I believe that it was a bit early, especially since Webb’s reboot didn’t really take on much of a life of its own and Raimi’s series is still pretty fresh in my mind. Even though this is familiar territory, Marvel still understands what worked in the previous Spider-Man series and it refuses to let go of that formula. I guess it means a big payday so I can’t really say I blame them.

The Amazing Spider-Man re-introduces us to gangly but brilliant teenager Peter Parker (Played by Andrew Garfield), who is under the care of his warm hearted Uncle Ben (Played by Martin Sheen) and Aunt May (Played by Sally Field). Peter has been under their watchful eye since he was a young boy, his parents mysteriously dropping him off at Uncle Ben and Aunt May’s one night and then disappearing without another word. Peter attends Midtown Science High School, where he snaps photos for the school year book, is the target of bullies, and crushes on the equally brilliant Gwen Stacy (Played by Emma Stone). One day, Peter stumbles upon his father’s old brief case and in it, documents that link his father to the pharmaceutical company Oscorp. Peter goes on to discover that his father worked closely with a man named Dr. Curt Connors (Played by Rhys Ifans), who severed contact with the young Peter after his parents disappeared. After sneaking into Oscorp to meet Dr Connors, Peter stumbles upon a laboratory that is crawling with those iconic genetically modified spiders. One naturally finds its way into Peter’s clothing and gives him a painful bite on the neck. He quickly begins to notice some strange by powerful side effects taking effect. Meanwhile, Dr Connors is researching cross-species genetics, which would allow Dr. Connors to re-grow a missing limb. After being rushed into human testing, Dr. Connors tests a serum on himself, with devastating consequences.

Director Marc Webb (yes, that is his real name) and his team of screenwriters understand that what appealed to us in the original Spider-Man movies was indeed the boy behind the bug-eyed mask. Webb allows his camera to linger on Peter for quite some time before throwing him behind that famous mask and letting him loose on the rooftops of New York City. There was a lot to like in that story about the bullied nerd who seemed helpless in defending himself suddenly becoming more powerful than he could have ever imagined. The Amazing Spider-Man really lets us see Peter’s anguish, from the suppressed anger over his parent’s sudden disappearance to the cold-blooded murder of his Uncle Ben. Peter gets an up close and personal look at the ugly side of life and what that ugly side can dish out. While all of this isn’t really new, Webb still manages to wring out some easy emotion from it by shrouding it in shadows and tearstains. Garfield’s Peter isn’t afraid to let the tears of pain fall down his face and paired with the swelling score from James Horner, you’ll find yourself getting easily sucked in to that pain and really feeling it. Webb knows that we can’t resist weepy and he really has a blast hitting the sob button multiple times throughout The Amazing Spider-Man.

The best part of The Amazing Spider-Man is the casting choices, mostly Garfield as Peter Parker/Spider-Man and Emma Stone as Gwen Stacy. Garfield and Stone, who struck up an off screen romance while shooting the film, allow that real life spark to translate and boy, does it pay off. They capture and quickly bottle the giggly self-consciousness of first love and allow it to mature into a confident romance. The little moments between Parker and Stacy easily outshine any of the nail-biting action scenes. You will also find yourself falling for Sheen’s Uncle Ben and Field’s Aunt May, both who are game to play loving guardians to the awkward teen shut away in his bedroom upstairs. Sheen’s Uncle Ben is given endless amounts of fatherly wisdom to pour onto Peter but he does it with quite a bit of spirit. Field’s Aunt May is stuck with grieving throughout much of the film but she is in full command when in front of the camera. Then we have Ifans as Dr Curt Connors/The Lizard, who is a revelation as Peter’s mentor but unsure of himself as the deformed monster. In many respects, he is similar to Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin from the 2002 original, minus the hover board and firepower. For the dark and serious approach, he is at times a bit too fantastical and his destructive plot is unintentionally funny.

What would a Spider-Man film be without the swinging action sequences that are hell-bent on giving us vertigo? There are plenty of showdowns between The Lizard and Spidey to keep the adrenaline flowing but Webb never dares to construct an action scene that we haven’t seen before. He converts it all into 3D and then just sends webs flying our way along with various other debris, rubble, and dust. I found myself getting sucked out of some of the action sequences because Spidey is just too mordant. He does muster up a few good one-liners, especially one about his weakness being “small knives” and a critique of a car thief’s wardrobe (both which you have seen in the trailer).  There is a gun-snapping brawl with a SWAT team that pits Spidey against skeptical police Captain Stacy (Played by the underused Dennis Leary), who has vowed to get the friendly neighborhood Spider-Man off the streets. I won’t say much about the edge-of-your-seat finale except that Spider-Man is bruised, battered, and has his back against the wall, on the lookout for all the help he can get. It is all done up in a CGI confrontation that takes Spider-Man to the very top of the New York City skyscrapers.

If Marvel would have held off for a few more years before deciding to revisit the Spider-Man universe, I think they could have come up with something inventive and invigorating. Instead, they rushed into something that obviously could have used a bit more thought and it is apparent in more than a few scenes of The Amazing Spider-Man. Spot on casting wasn’t enough to blind us to the fact they didn’t really elaborate on the beloved superhero. Still, The Amazing Spider-Man does offer up plenty of escapist summer thrills to warrant a trip to the theater to check it out. There is tons of immersive 3D and tweaked special effects, the best scenes being the ones where Spidey is swinging in between buildings. Since Marvel has insisted upon Spider-Man swinging across the movie screen once again, I am curious to see where they take the Webhead in future installments and I can’t wait to see how Garfield develops the character. I guess that is all any good but not amazing origin story can do.

Grade: B+

Thor & Captain America: The First Avenger Reviews/Live Avengers Midnight Showing Coverage!

Hey readers,

In case you haven’t checked out my reviews of last summer’s Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger, you can check them out before you head out to see The Avengers by clicking the links below! Also, throughout the evening I will be posting some updates from the midnight showing. I may post some pictures, comments, and just general coverage of one of the biggest films of the year from one of the places it was shot: Cleveland, Ohio. The updates will be attached to this post, so just scroll down under the two attached reviews! Who knows what I may get and keep your eyes on the Anti-Film School Twitter (Follow us if you haven’t already!) for updates as well. So, let’s kick this summer off with a bang!

-(Theater Management) Steve

Click here to read the Anti-Film School review of THOR

Click here to read the Anti-Film School review of CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER

Iron Man 2 (2010)

by Steve Habrat

With 2008’s Iron Man, director Jon Favreau set the bar extremely high for the Iron Man franchise. While it left us all starving for more of the cocky hero, there was the feeling that if there is a sequel, it will most likely be unable to live up to the stellar first installment in the series. My fears were slightly confirmed in summer 2010 when I rushed out on my birthday to see Iron Man 2, which ended up being one notch below the original Iron Man. Sadly, Iron Man 2 was an even more expensive trailer for the upcoming Avengers film and not even really bothering to act as it’s own film. This is not to say that I didn’t enjoy Iron Man 2. It was clear that Favreau and Marvel Studios rushed the sequel into production and they simply drew up a loose story just so audiences wouldn’t have to wait until 2012 to see Iron Man rocket across the screen again. It was also apparent that nobody wanted to tinker with a good thing. Iron Man 2 tries desperately to capture the same clinking and clanging action, the sweet romance, and the clever laughs that made the original such a must-see, but there is too much interference from Marvel which takes some of the flesh and blood out of all the studio steel.

Iron Man 2 picks up with the world at peace in the wake of the Tony Stark (Played by Robert Downey, Jr.) revealing the Iron Man armor to the world. The U.S. government is harassing Stark to hand over his Iron Man armor over to authorities but Stark maintains that it is his own property and all the other foreign competitors are miles away from emulating his powerful weapon. Stark is also finds himself harassed by rival defense contractor Justin Hammer (Played by Sam Rockwell) who desperately wants to create his own line of armor of his own. While racing in the Circuit de Monaco, Stark is attacked by a mysterious man named Ivan Vanko (Played by Mickey Rourke), who has designed a powerful suit of armor of his own with lethal whip-like contraptions hanging from his arms. It turns out that Vanko’s father was an old partner of Stark’s father Howard, who was deported after he tried to profit from technology that he worked on with Howard Stark. Hammer takes notice of what Vanko has done and he recruits him to create a line of deadly drones that he can unleash on Stark. Stark, meanwhile, finds himself slowly being poisoned by the palladium core in the arc reactor that keeps him alive.

Iron Man 2 introduces us to two new characters including S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury (Played by Samuel L. Jackson, who showed up in a brief cameo in Iron Man) and secret agent Natalie Rushman/Natasha Romanoff (Played by Scarlett Johansson), who acts as Stark’s new personal assistant. Both Fury and Romanoff are present in Iron Man 2 to simply allow the film to set up Iron Man’s place in the Avengers film rather than actually enrich the whole experience. While it is a neat Easter egg for diehard Marvel Comics fans, at times Romanoff seems a bit irrelevant in all the action, as she posseses the bigger role in the film over Fury. This is the exact problem with Iron Man 2, it reeks of studio involvement and control. It is very clear that Marvel demanded Favreau work these characters in at any cost and it takes a minor amount of the enjoyment out of this film. I wish things had felt more natural, much like they did in the original Iron Man. The one character that is allowed to grow is Lieutenant Colonel James Rhodes (Played this time by Don Cheadle), who gets his wish to don the Mark II suit with some pretty hefty modifications and transforms into the scene stealing War Machine. Cheadle outshines all the forced characters that have been worked into Iron Man 2 and I loved it when Favreau would explore the destructive friendship between him and Stark.

Robert Downey, Jr. also gets the chance to build upon his raucous playboy Tony Stark, taking him down the darker routes that the first film slyly avoided. In Iron Man 2, Stark realizes that he is near death from the palladium core in his chest. He desperately searches for a new design but he also has accepted his death and he is determined to live out his last days in boozy style. In the comic books, Stark was a big drinker and it was nice to see Favreau and screenwriter Justin Theroux work that aspect into the film. I know many fans were upset that this aspect of Tony Stark was glossed over in the original film. At times, Stark’s one-liners seem a bit forced and frankly not as sharp as they were in the original film. Further troubling, Downey, Jr. seems like he is pushing the funnies out rather than allowing them to flow naturally. Nonetheless, he is still having a great time as Stark and his enjoyment is incredibly infectious.

Iron Man 2 ends up getting a handful of juiced up bad guys to terrorize Tony Stark. Mickey Rourke shines as the vengeful Ivan Vanko/Whiplash, a frankly much neater villain than Iron Monger (I did enjoy Bridges!). The electrifying showdown between him and Stark at Circuit de Monaco steals the entire movie and had me on the edge of my seat when I first saw it. Equally cool is the snide Justin Hammer, who desperately wants to upstage Stark and humiliate him. Rockwell is basically filling the businessman villain role that was left open from the first film and he does it with just as much enthusiasm as Bridges did. Paltrow also returns in a stronger role than she had in Iron Man, finding herself promoted to CEO as Stark Industries and courted by the stumbling Stark. Favreau and Theroux still can’t help themselves and once again find it necessary to toss her in harm’s way, making her character flirt with the typical superhero girlfriend in distress.

Iron Man 2 attempts to be bigger than the original film, with bigger showdowns, more armored brawlers, extended action, and spiced up special effects. I wish that Iron Man 2 would have taken on a personality of its own and Marvel would have backed off the project. I feel that if Favreau wouldn’t have had Marvel breathing down his back, there may have been a different outcome. Yet there is still fun to be found in Iron Man 2, especially the final battle with Iron Man and War Machine battling a group of deadly drones created Hammer and Whiplash. Thankfully, Iron Man 2 did not feel the need to convert itself into 3D, which I think was a wise decision since 3D was all the rage (and still is) at the time. Overall, there is a bit of magic missing in Iron Man 2 and that is mostly because the film goes through the same song and dance that the first film did, just building slightly on its character which I suppose is a positive. It’s no Spider-Man 2 or The Dark Knight but Iron Man 2 is still a spirited follow-up to its predecessor.

Grade: B+

Iron Man 2 is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.

Iron Man (2008)

by Steve Habrat

There is no question that Jon Favreau’s 2008 Iron Man is one of the best Marvel Studios films out there. It’s a rollicking good time with an incredibly poised and charismatic hero carrying the whole project to dizzying heights that I never thought possible. Iron Man, which clocks in at a speedy hour and fifty-five minutes, remains light and breezy for much of its runtime, never wandering into any overly dark territory or dealing with subject matter that will whiz over the heads of younger viewers, which is who this is all clearly aimed at. Yet Favreau and his army of screenwriters ground Iron Man in the modern world where terrorism is very much alive and deadly, giving the film a level of relevance that makes things interesting for the older viewers. What makes Iron Man such a great film is that is manages to strike a perfect balance of hearty belly laughs, steamy love story, and heavy metal action that will please every man, woman, or child out there. To make things even better, Favreau populates his film with a remarkably strong supporting cast, all who make sure that Iron Man never has a monotonous moment. Iron Man also happens to be the comeback vehicle for Robert Downey, Jr., who cheerfully embraces clanking around in a red and yellow iron suit, zipping around destroying weapons of mass destruction and trading punches with the dreaded Obadiah Stane.

Iron Man introduces us to wealthy playboy and genius Tony Stark (Played by Robert Downey, Jr.), head of Stark Industries, a weapons defense company that he inherited from his father. Stark loves a strong drink, a beautiful woman on his arm, and to vocalize how great he really is. Stark travels to Afghanistan to show off his menacing new weapon called the “Jericho” missile and while there, Stark and his military bodyguards are ambushed. Party boy Stark is kidnapped by a terrorist organization called the Ten Rings, who demand that Stark build them their own “Jericho” missile and in return that will free him. Instead, Stark builds a heavily armed iron suit that allows him to barely escape with his life. Upon returning the United States, Stark attempts to regain control of his company from Obadiah Stane (Played by Jeff Bridges), his father’s old business partner and company manager. Stark declares that Stark Industries will no longer produce weapons, which upsets Stane and sends the media into a frenzy. Stark also reunites with his pretty and uptight secretary assistant Pepper Pots (Played by Gwyneth Paltrow) and his close friend and military liaison Lieutenant Colonel James Rhodes (Played by Terrence Howard). After Stark learns that weapons made by Stark Industries were provided to the Ten Rings, Stark begins building a modified suit of armor to set out and destroy the weapons that were provided to the terrorists. Soon, Stark realizes that there may be a traitor close to him who is upset with Stark’s decision to change the course of the company and is working on a deadly suit of armor of his own.

Iron Man never shies away from what it truly is, a sleek summer blockbuster meant to slap a big smile across your face. It succeeds in doing just that, even on repeat viewings. You’ll still chuckle during the first disastrous tests of the Iron Man suit or when Stark throws a witty one liner your way. My personal favorite is when Stark would interact with his robot helpers, who are all fond of blasting him with fire extinguishers. The action sequences are finely tuned with wondrous CGI and rock ‘em-sock ‘em force, leaving you clamoring to see the next action packed situation Iron Man finds himself in. Iron Man isn’t all razzle-dazzle, as the film does offer up a true original in the character of Tony Stark, who has to go form uncaring playboy to embracing what he was destined to become. The fact that Downey, Jr. makes Stark come alive is what makes Iron Man the titan that it is. You begin to feel like you actually know this guy, which makes it even easier to root for him. His transformation is rocky at first, but that is part of what makes Tony so human and win our hearts. He has trouble adjusting from nonstop party boy to a man heavy with responsibility.

While this is Downey Jr.’s show, the background players make sure that you walk away from Iron Man remembering their presence too. Paltrow is smoking as Stark’s assistant Pepper Potts, who at times I feel isn’t really given that much to do by Favreau and his screenwriters (Mark Fergus, Hawk Ostby, Art Marcum, and Matt Holloway). She is basically asked to just chase Stark around and shake her head at his childish actions but she does it well. I enjoyed her awkward love story with Stark, another aspect that adds a little flesh and blood to Iron Man. Terrence Howard is his usually top notch self as Rhodes, who tries to be the voice of reason and authority to the free-spirited Stark. The die hard fans will also get a money moment when Rhodes checks out one of the prototype Iron Man suits and makes a comment that hints that War Machine may show up in latter installments. The most surprising turn here is Jeff Bridges as the baddie Obadiah Stane, who whips up an iron suit of his own and becomes Iron Monger. It was great to see Bridges, who shaved his head and grew a beard for the role, get to play antagonist for a change. At times his role seems a bit familiar (a sinister business man), but Bridges seems to be having a grand time in all the superhero chaos and he does such a memorable job, you’ll forgive if some aspects of his character slightly derivative.

Director Favreau smartly gives Iron Man a human heart, which helps to win ours over. While it is obviously a set up for the future Avengers movie, this installment of Iron Man does seem to have a life of its own outside of being an overly expensive trailer for what is to come. Iron Man does come with a few scuffs in the armor, mostly the final battle between Iron Man and Iron Monger, which seems suspiciously short for all of the build up. I have to suspect that Marvel may have held back a bit and viewed Iron Man as sort of a test run to see how audiences would react. It turned out that they had a new Spider-Man on their hands and that they had something that we didn’t know we wanted to see. The main reason to see Iron Man is for Downey Jr.’s comeback. This is the role that placed him back on the A-list and put him in high demand for countless other projects. A superhero classic and one of the best that you will see, Iron Man is a feisty and playful escape that you won’t mind returning to time and time again.

Grade: A-

Iron Man is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.

The Incredible Hulk (2008)

by Steve Habrat

After Ang Lee’s weighty Hulk, Marvel Studios wanted to cut out some of lengthy character development and restart the Hulk franchise to fit with their upcoming superhero mash-up The Avengers. The result was 2008’s The Incredible Hulk, a faster paced and action packed thrill ride that covers the Hulk’s origin in the opening credits and then jumps right into earth shaking battle sequences that aim to give both Hulk fans and average audience members exactly what they are looking for in a summer blockbuster. The Incredible Hulk is a major improvement over Lee’s slower character study in the action department, climaxing in a car-lobbing final showdown in the streets of New York City, but the film is hollow, never asking us to really use our brains in any way. With Lee’s Hulk, Marvel gave us too much of the big green guy and with director Louis Leterrier’s The Incredible Hulk, it feels like not enough. What gives Leterrier’s film the upper hand is the strong presence of a much more effective and present villain to torment the Hulk.

The Incredible Hulk begins with a green tinted opening credit sequence where we see Bruce Banner (Played by Edward Norton) get exposed to the dreaded gamma radiation that causes him to turn into the Hulk. Banner ends up injuring the love of his life Betty Ross (Played by Liv Tyler), who is present during the accident. Banner flees the lab after the accident and Betty’s father General Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross (Played by William Hurt) sets out to arrest Banner for what he has done to Betty. The film then jets to Rocinha, Rio de Janeiro, where Banner hides out while he searches for a way to cure himself. Banner also works on ways to control his anger through breathing techniques that keep him without incident. Banner keeps in contact with a mysterious scientist that he calls Mr. Blue and communicates with him via the Internet. Mr. Blue claims to have a way to cure Banner but he needs information that would require Banner to return to the United States and risk being taken into custody by General Ross. After an accident in the bottling factory where Banner works, General Ross discovers Banner’s location and sends the deadly British Royal Marine Emil Blonsky (Played by Tim Roth) after Banner, who quickly flees and finds himself on a journey back home to meet the mysterious Mr. Blue. Blonsky, on the other hand, finds himself fascinated by Banner and his condition. General Ross agrees to “level the playing field” and inject Blonsky with a serum that can allow him to battle the Hulk but there are horrific side effects.

The Incredible Hulk tosses out Lee’s comic book panel aesthetic for a typical polished summer blockbuster look. We also don’t have to wait until about forty minutes in to catch a glimpse of the big green guy in action. Leterrier is just dying to unleash his new and improved Hulk on us and I must say he is impressive. Gone is the purple compression shorts wearing Hulk and present is a Hulk in tattered jeans with leathery looking skin. The action is also a bit grittier and in your face, just about everything in the Hulk’s way getting tossed, kicked, punched, or used as shields or, (awesomely) boxing gloves. The downside of all the teeth rattling action is that Leterrier focuses a little too much on it and not enough on developing a meaty story. I’ve heard talk that screenwriters Zak Penn and Edward Norton had a longer version with a bit more character development but Marvel rejected it in favor of a faster pace. It’s a shame because I would have liked to get to know a little bit more about Norton’s Banner.

In addition to beefed up action, The Incredible Hulk features a slightly stronger cast than Hulk did. Edward Norton doesn’t spend a good majority of the film moping over daddy issues from his past. Norton possesses a natural gangly and bird-like look to him than Bana’s Banner, which makes his transformation into the Hulk all the more shocking. Bana sort of looked like he could have held his own in a scuffle without transforming into a giant green muscle. Much like Jennifer Connelly, Liv Tyler isn’t given much to do as Betty Ross aside from run around from location to location with Banner. Tyler also happens to speak in a breathier tone than Connelly did. William Hurt as General Ross adds a bit more attitude than Sam Elliot did and when he unleashes his temper, you will want to run for cover. The real star here is Roth, who has a blast flashing a sinister grin as Blonsky, the deadly super soldier who becomes addicted to a serum that turns him into the slimy Abomination. Roth is clearly on top of the world in the role, his excitement level growing as he evolves into a truly formidable villain for the Hulk. With Abomination, Leterrier single handedly lays waste to Lee’s Hulk, just the mere presence of a clear-cut villain a huge bonus.

The Incredible Hulk is a shameless thrill ride that is more enamored with eye-popping CGI monsters and fiery destruction rather than the psychological study that its predecessor was so stuck on. It’s so obviously sugary summer fun but it does its job and you can’t fault it for it. If it boiled down to it, I would probably choose The Incredible Hulk for a Friday night movie if I ever had to make the decision. Norton is clearly the better choice for Bruce Banner and Roth is a devilish delight as the Abomination. You’ll thrill when they begin trading blows in the final stretch of the film. In a way, I wish that The Incredible Hulk had tacked on another fifteen minutes to develop this new Hulk universe and to allow me to warm up to these new interpretations of the characters that Lee introduced us to.  The Incredible Hulk also gets a surprise visit from a certain Armored Avenger, which teases us for the epic upcoming mash-up and will drive Marvel fanatics wild. Even if moments of it are lopsided and a bulk of the story gets lost in all the rumble, The Incredible Hulk still manages to get your to be mindless, smashing fun for everyone.

Grade: B+

The Incredible Hulk is available on Blu-ray and DVD.