Aisle of the Damned: 8/11/16- Suicide is Aimless

Mom, my crayons melted

Bryan and Kent take on a mission with little chance of survival; they’re bringing you their thoughts on Warner Bros.’ latest DC offerings, the controversial-for-all-of-five-minutes-because-of-an-R-rating Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (The Ultimate Cut) and David Ayer’s Suicide Squad.

After discussing the showy failures of Squad, they also discuss the tempered rewards of the 13th film in the Star Trek franchise, Star Trek Beyond.

Plus, Kent talks about Jason Bourne and Lights Out and the fellas give their recommendations for the week, one DC related and one decidedly not.

All this and less on Aisle of the Damned!

Music:

The Aquabats– Stuck in a Movie
Death Hymn Number 9– I Reckon You Gonna Die

Kent’s Damned Movie Reviews: Deadpool

Somehow, the highlight of Ryan Reynolds' career

Let’s take a moment to let this sink in: Rob Liefeld’s golden boy has a movie. Robbie has got to be the richest comic artist ever who won’t draw feet. Was getting this movie worth handing him enough of a wad to keep him hip-deep in Levis and hookers?

Yes.

While sure to be a divisive film, I spent the drive home reminiscing with my viewing companion about the best moments. I can’t recall the last time that happened. (Though to be honest the crushing solidarity of my usual trips to the movies could account for that.) For the majority of its runtime, it is a kick to the fun sack, with only some tonal issues and questionable character moments getting in the way. But it’s understandable. While there may be some of Matthew Vaughn’s Kick Ass in its recessive DNA, it’s largely a type of film that’s never been made before: a mid-level budget that all of the X-movies since the original would wipe their asses with, a fairly hard R-rating, a comedic overtone, a character who has only been around for a couple of decades, a tangential relationship to a major franchise and an anti-hero main character. We’ve seen some of these together here and there. But certainly not all at once. So to juggle this all successfully is actually pretty impressive and it doesn’t take the coward’s way out as it also plays with structure, mixing one broken up set piece with flashbacks for the majority of the runtime.

Here’s where the film falters: it’s great that the structure is fractured, but it still manages to sag in the middle as we go through the one tradition that the movie refuses to break with: the origin story.

And yet, their attempts to brighten up that part of the film isn’t deftly directed enough to present a really meaningful before and after for Deadpool himself, Wade Wilson. At least not personality-wise. Is it enough to derail the film? Not even close. But it is noticeable enough to make a dent that you won’t find in the slicker, mainstream Marvel factory. Should we be lucky enough to get the unprecedented Deadpool 2 (suggested tag-line: Dead Pooler), this most likely wouldn’t be an issue. It’s still pretty impressive for a first-time feature director and one gets the feeling he embraced the budgetary challenges presented due to his effects background.

The important thing is that I had an absolute blast with the majority of the movie from the very first moment. As in, it features possibly the best opening credits sequence in history. Then you have Ryan Reynolds showing that it was worth his remorseless guerilla campaign to acquire the role. On the flip side, Morena Baccarin somehow manages to meet his over the top performance head on and provide a great counterpoint to him. What is it about dudes from Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place that bring out the best in her?

Admittedly, I’m tuned to this film’s frequency. I was getting every in-joke about Reynolds’ career, superhero movie conventions and studio politics that it lobbed at the audience. While at times, there’s an almost This is the End level of self-scrutiny involved that will reward fans, its neither in your face enough or so reliant upon inside baseball to require knowing the troubled history of the film to enjoy it. Like a Zucker film, when the comedy is flowing, there’s often multiple gags being set up at once. Sometimes what seems like gratuitous violence actually sets up great payoffs further down the line.

Maximum effort, Fox.

(Three and a half damns given out of five)

Aisle of the Damned- 7/22/15: The Merry Marvel Marching Society

75% of the time, it works every time.

We’re still working on getting the audio better, but a ragged labor of love is just right for talking about Peyton Reed’s Ant-Man and where the MCU stands at the official end of Phase Two. STEPHANIE BROWN* ALERT: We remain fanboys of Feige’s Moviehouse of Ideas. We also start griping about DC Comics since the New 52 relaunch. As you do.

*She still remains Spoiler in our hearts.

Music:
The Aquabats: Stuck in a Movie
Phantogram: When I’m Small

Kent’s Damned Movie Reviews: John Wick

Whoooooah!

There’s this stigma that surrounds Keanu Reeves and I don’t think it’s warranted. No, the guy doesn’t have that much range. He’s basically got two modes he excels in: Ted and man of action.

Of course he hasn’t really reprised Ted-mode since the second of the underrated Bill and Ted films (unless you count his short cameo in Alex ‘Bill’ Winters’ Freaked) but the action man trope is something he’s visited many times with varying amounts of success. I would argue that a lot of his failures haven’t so much been because of Reeves’ abilities but instead largely on a pile of bad scripts and a lack of understanding in how to use him.

Much like other actors like, say, Jackie Chan or John Wayne, Reeves doesn’t have a ton of range, but he excels when he gets in the hands of a smart moviemaker that knows what to do with him. Speed and The Matrix are of course the most prominent examples. John Wick should also be added to that list, because David Leitch and Chad Stahelski’s John Wick is a very smart, taut and well rendered example of its genre that can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with other beloved entries. In fact, if I were to describe it in terms of mixing examples, it would be Payback mixed with Drive. In fact, it hit me the way Drive must have for a lot of people, given the way they described their experiences with it.

The basics are that Reeves plays the title character, a former hit man that left the mob awash in blood and death. After losing his wife, (his initial reason for getting out) he finds himself dragged back into the life in order to revenge himself against the very people he used to work for. His world is populated with fantastic character actors like Willem Dafoe and Adrianne Palicki doing great work as his colleagues and Michael Nyqvist doing a lot of heavy lifting as a Russian boss.

Part of the reason it is a success is because it doesn’t make Reeves do a lot of that heavy lifting, mostly being satisfied to let his actions speak for him as he bounces off the other characters in the film. Despite that, I would say it comes across as his most impressive performance. Does that make a ton of sense? Maybe not. Yet that’s how it felt watching the movie.

Also making an impression is the smart way that the filmmakers build an established mythology around Wick, but never take it too far. They spend a good deal of the run time building him up as a threat before unchaining him and when he does break loose, it lives up to the hype. The action sequences themselves manage to be both exciting and fluid without seeming too staged. They are expertly rendered.

They also do a good job of creating a mob-based society that functions under the surface of the regular world that stretches credulity without ever hitting the breaking point. Take the club where professional killers gather in the middle of the city with its own established rules and an entry cost of a gold coin. This could easily be taken to a ridiculous level and in many films today, it would be. Especially if there’s a chance at a sequel or a franchise. But in John Wick it mostly exists as an interesting aside that helps further the main plot. Leitch and Stahelski use it to spice up the film and create atmosphere, but they lose the focus on Wick and his quest for vengeance in their storytelling.

You might be getting tired of me listing things that work in the film, but I’d also be neglectful if I didn’t bring up the crackerjack script that is full of hard-boiled dialogue. Yet it offers a lot of opportunity to the actors to contribute, sometimes letting them create a huge laugh with a single word.

If there’s a downside to the film, it would probably be that if you are familiar with the genre, you aren’t going to see anything particularly new. But sometimes isn’t solid competence enough? Not every film has to reinvent the wheel or serve as deconstructionist meta-commentary. This movie is absolutely solid and I find myself liking it even more upon reflection. It makes lots of good decisions. It will hopefully serve as a precursor for even better things to come for this pair. I’m arguing with myself over how high to grade it and in the end I’m going to err on the high side. I hope people find this film because it will come as a very pleasant surprise to many.

(Four damns given out of five)

Kent’s Damned Movie Reviews: Edge of Tomorrow

A Blunt gets smoked

My first thoughts upon exiting Doug Liman’s Edge of Tomorrow was, regrettably, “Judging by these girls in the lobby who have just come out of The Fault in Our Stars, a lot of teenage boys are gonna use this movie to try and get laid.”

My SECOND thought was that, just as with the last two Mission: Impossible movies, Tom Cruise’s ability to work with the right director and story can trump his utter unlikability.

My third reaction, upon coming home, was the feeling of relief washing over my brain when I finally figured out the guy I knew and couldn’t place was Sparky from the Speed Racer movie.

Now I can finally get down to the business of a review.  Edge of Tomorrow is not spectacularly original. It shares DNA with several different movies. Though when you actually put down on paper that it is essentially a video game crossed with Harold Ramis’ Groundhog Day, it does sound a little bit more interesting. (If only they’d had Cruise waking up to the soothing sounds of “I Got You, Babe.”) The plot is based on a  novel named All You Need is Kill, thus ensuring I now have a need to read it. If they’d kept that bit of awesomeness instead of renaming it to sound like an exhibit at the 1942 World’s Fair, I think people would be a bit more interested in finding out what it’s about. What happens is essentially this: after a Starship Troopers-style opening that manages to eliminate a lot of exposition, Tom Cruise gets shanghaied into a dangerous assignment by a general (Brendon Gleeson) using what I am pretty sure is an illegal transfer from one army to another. But hey. FUTURE! So we’ll let it go. When he balks at it, the general basically sends him off to be murdered. One would think he would be regarded as kind of a creep about this, but since it’s Tom Cruise and he’s being weasely, we let it go.

I don’t think it can completely be a coincidence that the film’s release coincides with the 70th anniversary of D-Day since it involves the wanton slaughter of troops on a French beach. This time the bad guys aren’t Nazis, however. They are Sentinels from the Matrix movies. …wait, wait, I’ve just been informed that they are, in fact, called Mimics. Sure they are. And they’re extraterrestrials from another planet that seem to exhibit an insect-like structure with different classes within their species, but are full of alien crazy DNA. When Cruise dies on that beach, he wakes up the previous day no worse for the wear, but understandably confused. And then he respawns again. And again.

I won’t go into the details from there as I’d like it to still have some surprises for folks. (I’m not sure how much the trailers gave away.) But Emily Blunt figures heavily into the plot and if there’s someone in the film that makes it work most, it’s probably her. Dubbed the “Full Metal Bitch,” she is practically a super-soldier against the Mimics and with her physicality in the film, it feels believable. She is sold as their post-modern Captain America and propped up as a propaganda figure that will sell the war effort. Hers is the most difficult role in the movie. She is able to portray her character as starting from scratch every time in terms of an emotional arc, but it feels like she also carries an emotional thruline over the course of the entire movie. Yet they don’t feel contradictory. I’m sure editing and a good script have a lot to do with this, but it really is a masterful job by the three elements to combine into one great performance.

The other major cog making things work is Liman. He’s had, let’s call it an interesting career path. He’s still got to be best known for The Bourne Identity where he ironically saved the Bond franchise without even knowing it. I am a fan of Swingers and the underrated Go as well. Since then he’s done movies that are basically middling though. This is definitely a return to form for him and his best film since he kicked off the Bourne franchise. The thing about Liman is that he’s a stylish director, but he’s never had a clear enough signature to make up for a lack of material at his fingertips. That’s not a problem here. One gets the feeling he really wanted to tear into this material. (And if not, he does a great job of faking it.)  His work on the combat scenes is extremely well done, proving to be adequately harrowing in a way that a lot of sci-fi combat does not prove to be. The cartoonish aspects where we see Cruise getting maimed over and over also work surprisingly well. The fact that they work together given that for most of the runtime there are little in the way of immediate consequences is a testament to how well it is put together.

Would I have liked to have seen a more hardcore version of the movie? Sure. But we get a surprisingly rough and tumble time as it is, considering who Warners is undoubtably selling it to. The violence level is somewhere along the line of the Matrix. I’m a little surprised to see it walking away with a PG-13, but I can’t blame them for going with it if they could get it. Must be the Tom and Jerry aspects of it that softened it for the MPAA. Just one cut away and everything is fine.

These elements are put together into an extremely solid package that, despite feeling cobbled together from various sources, comes across on the screen as something of an antidote to big, dumb tentpole films by offering both style AND substance. Despite some rather standard nonsensical sci-fi cliches, it does not feel like a stupid film where a viewer is forced to turn their brain off, at least as long as they are able to use the central concept as a springboard to get to the more meaty material. Sort of like, say, Back to the Future. If you actually try to figure out the physics of it, you may go mad. But the physics aren’t the point.

As I am sure it has already been made clear through my pointed commentary, I have a dislike of Tom Cruise’s personality that he displays in every movie he does that borders on being comical. So if I can see a film like Edge of Tomorrow and come out saying it is one of the best crowd-pleasers of the summer, I think it carries some weight. And that is exactly what I’m saying.

(Four damns given out of five)

Better Living Through Filmography Episode 1.1: Robocop

Robocop

A new feature for Aisle of the Damned! In Better Living Through Filmography, co-host Kent takes a look at classic films he is watching for the first time and looks at them through a lens of movies, pop culture and life.

In the first episode he views the 1987 movie RoboCop and discusses how his upbringing lead directly to him having not seen it before now in the essay, “RoboCopping a Feel.” (Sorry the audio quality is not the best. I’m new at this. It will get better.)

Kent’s Damned Movie Reviews: The Amazing Spider-Man 2

ASM2

I’m sure this will be a common refrain in the reviews of Amazing Spider-Man 2, but this is a film with a severe bought of multiple personality disorder. The parts that are good are absolutely splendid. It reaches higher highs than the previous film. But it also has lower lows and where they go wrong, they go full-steam ahead into the muck. Like the previous installment, it is a film that echoes the worst parts of Marvel’s franchise-building in Iron Man 2 and magnifies them. What makes this so frustrating, so absolutely maddening, is that the makings of a good Spider-Man movie are here and they are so close that you can touch them.

I really want to like this movie and there are parts of it that I adore, but it is so schizophrenic that it feels like three different movies at once. Seeing it in a double feature with Captain America: The Winter Soldier playing second only magnified the issues with the film, showing how these types of films can be done right (while understanding that Spidey and Cap are two completely different characters.) The point is that In its fervor to create a “Spider-Man Universe” that it can milk year after year (they’ve announced a plan to toss out a movie annually featuring characters like the Sinister Six and Venom), Sony has tried to shortcut the Marvel plan that slowly, over many years, brought them to being the biggest movie franchise in history. It’s easy to see why other companies want to emulate them. But Sony and DC seem to have missed the point of how well planned and executed those films are and how long it took to do it right.

So let’s get down to what the best parts of the film are. The things that director Marc Webb does right deserve a high level of praise and I want to give him his due for what works. I don’t intend to simply drop a deuce on his front door and leave. There’s too much to like here for that.

First off, Emma Stone and Andrew Garfield feel as if they were made for their parts and dropped into Webb’s lap from on high with a choir of angels singing “Is he strong? Listen bud, he’s got radioactive blood.” Their chemistry is off the charts and it leads to a welcome expansion of the seeds that made the first film work on the level it did. (I’ve softened on the first film in subsequent viewings, but I would not say my rating has changed.) Stone especially is such a welcome presence that I would say she seems wasted here if they weren’t relying so heavily on her. Her Gwen Stacy is, overall for the complete arc of the film, the best written and best performed character in this franchise. She was already in an ascendency in Hollywood, mostly from her comedy work, and it’s easy to see why. She has an easy charm, a disarming intelligence and she looks fantastic. Hopefully this will lead to bigger and better things for her.

Andrew Garfield does a great job portraying the wise-cracking side of Spider-Man and displays his everyman qualities very well considering he’s a muscled teen heartthrob. He had a few of those moments in the original movie and this is yet another example of the film improving on what came before by giving him more to do as Spider-Man. Taking advantage of not being hampered by an origin story, Garfield seems to be more free to be playful when he’s out doing the hero-thing. I’m not sure how much is him and how much is a stuntman/CGI at any given time (though it does look like there is a LOT of computerized Spidey in the action sequences) but he simply looks like he’s having fun for a lot of the run time. And when things get really serious he makes a subtle but appropriate mood shift. Man do I wish I could plug these actors into the Raimi series. I may not dislike Tobey Maguire, but his Parker feels all wrong compared to Garfield’s.

To go along with that playful attitude, we are given action sequences that simply feel a lot more… well, Spider-Man-like. His opening gambit chasing a hijacked semi-truck is so much fun that one wishes it could stretch across the entire film. The way he involves every day New Yorkers and his environment into his battles feels much more organic than in the first film where things like the construction crane sequence made me groan audibly and with force. The film looks much more confident to be itself with Peter’s brighter template and not confine itself as being so dour, emulating Nolan to a degree. And not only are the action sequences filmed better, but they are written better. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t laugh out loud several times over Peter’s quippy banter that feels lifted directly from one of the better comics. Not every joke lands and sometimes it feels like they’re trying too hard, but then so does Spidey in general sometimes, so it makes complete sense.

Now on to what unfortunately doesn’t work. I’ve got two words for you: Jamie Foxx. I’ve praised Foxx in the past after his work in Django Unchained. Of course I have seen him around since his In Living Color days. But his version of Electro is just completely off in it’s own little suborbital space station. His origin and character arc (or lack thereof) feel like they’re lifted whole cloth from one of the Batman films. Everything about the character reeks of 90s camp. From the bizarre combover to the obvious mental illness played for comedic effect to the sudden and inexplicable character changes that don’t constitute an arc so much as a schism. (As part of his plot, there’s also a male version of a female character from the comics named Dr. Kafka who is played as such a broad German mad doctor caricature that he reminded me of Mel Brooks in The Muppet Movie.)  It is all straight out of Batman Forever. The real problem with that is simply the fact that this movie isn’t Batman Forever and it doesn’t fit at all. I am not sure who’s fault it is that he was portrayed this way. Foxx has a tendency to be big and brash so it’s certainly conceivable that he could have insisted on hamming things up, but in the end Webb is responsible for getting him to have a tone that matches the rest of the film.

In the meantime, you have Dane DeHaan as Harry Osborn. His performance is adequate but all over the place, starting out strong but degrading into hysterics. I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by saying that he ends up as Green Goblin. The advertising materials have made that quite clear. He is the most troublesome part of the film, not so much because they skip over Norman Osbourne’s tenure as the Goblin or how he turns himself into him (though those are part of a larger problem I’ll address in a second), but because the transformation feels so shoehorned into the film. It feels like Sony’s forced use of Venom all over again. You can practically hear the gears smoking in the writers’ heads trying to force certain elements into the story with a mallet simply to meet an expected plot-point and set up Sony’s required spin-offs. Like they’d done an Electro story and then were told they had to find a way to include Gobby. The reasons for Harry’s motivation are so undercooked that if you stuck a toothpick in there, there would be more batter than cake. It feels so much like Venom in Spider-Man 3 that you can practically hear Topher Grace.

(I’ll give it points for how it handles Rhino but it is difficult to explain that without going into spoiler territory.)

It’s good that Electro was used, even if I feel he was wasted. The use of The Lizard in the first film, for all I disliked about the story surrounding him, was one of the highlights. I’m glad they’re not trying to tell the exact same story the exact same way it was done in the Raimi films. But it feels like in their drive to distance themselves from that series (which, keep in mind, includes an installment which many people feel to be the best superhero film ever made) they are changing things for no other reason BUT to distance themselves and aren’t thinking things through long term. What is the big hurry when they’ve already committed themselves to being in the Spider-Man business for the foreseeable future? It’s not the change itself that’s the problem. At issue is the fact that these changes don’t make any logical sense and actually are imposing unnecessary restrictions on the films that they may not recover from and/or are wasting opportunities. Why in God’s name is this series so obsessed with tying every single thing that happens to Oscorp? I mean, we get it. Evil corporations are evil, blah blah blah. But the backstory involving Peter’s parents, which eats up a good portion of the film, has the same effect on Spider-Man as Burton’s grafting of Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey had on Alice in Wonderland. It misses the point entirely. Spider-Man is just some random guy that was in the wrong place at the right time. Building a complicated mythology in which everything from Peter’s powers to his family history to every villain he fights being involved in some huge conspiracy with Oscorp is extraordinarily limiting. Its effect on these films isn’t just stretching credibility (even for comic book logic) but making things repetitious for a character renowned for having a bench of well-defined and diverse bad guys that lags behind only Batman and maybe The Flash.

The way this film is put together makes me feel like it is far more concerned with seeding future entries than what’s going on right now. It’s the same issues that people had with Iron Man 2 and the way so much of it was given over to SHIELD, except that movie was simply better made. (Rourke and Rockwell are better actors and Favreau knew when to pull them back, for one thing.)

I don’t like saying these things. I want a good Spider-Man movie. There’s still a chance of getting a good one out of this crew. But something has to change, be it the writers or the brass at Sony because right now they’re too focused on churning out mediocre films with moments of brilliance. Amazing Spider-Man 2’s best moments are head and shoulders above the first film, but it’s problems are greater and make it a step-down overall. I still highly recommend it to people that enjoyed the first film because you’re going to get something out of it, but it’s far from what it could be.

(Two and a half damns given out of five)

Kent’s Damned Movie Reviews: The Raid 2

I don't think he ever actually wears this.

I’m pretty sure that in the span of a week, I saw the best two action movies of 2014, though they are completely different types of films. Like John Woo on methamphetamines, The Raid 2 is a film that pulls no punches and takes no prisoners. It is grimy. It is wincingly painful. But it is also a rocket-powered Falcon Punch to the groin. The closest thing I can think of to it is John Woo’s Hong Kong masterpieces like The Killer and Hard Boiled, which were undoubtedly inspirations for the series, but it reaches beyond the balletic “gun fu” that captured the heart of many a nerd in the 90s and sucked them into the Asian cinema appreciation society.

I’ve never seen a movie like The Raid 2, and that includes The Raid. One way to explain it would be to say that it is the most hard-edged film I’ve ever seen, with gore to rival any horror film that has crossed my path with the possible exception of Dead Alive. Frankly there are scenes in the film that made me surprised it was able to secure an R rating. And one particular bit at the end that I couldn’t believe hadn’t tied an NC-17 anchor around its neck. If the remake of Evil Dead broke the ratings system, as one reviewer suggested, The Raid 2 may have cremated it. Another way to say it would be JESUS H. [BLEEP]ING CHRIST PLAYING CENTER FOR THE CHICAGO BULLS, DID I JUST SEE THAT? I don’t think I’ve ever had quite the physical/visceral reaction to a film that I had with this one. Multiple times, I found myself cringing, swearing, laughing at the sheer audacity of Gareth Evans and, in many cases, staring ahead with eyes wide and maw agape.

The sequel to Evans’ calling card film, this is a very different animal. True, it shares the penchant for unflinching violence and incredibly well-choreographed fight scenes. However, Raid 2 has a very different MO. Technically there may be a ‘raid’ or two, but it is not at all structured like the very self-contained first movie. 99% of The Raid took place in one rundown tenement building over the span of a day and was largely a fight for survival.

The sequel picks up more or less where that film left off, but it removes all limitations. It takes place over years and expands its scope to cover a wide and varied urban landscape under the control of gangs and cartels. This time our hero Rama (Iko Uwais) is delving into an undercover operation under the manipulative thumbscrews of internal affairs to root out corrupt cops at great risk of life and limb. Eventually, he finds himself befriending what appears to be the Asian Patrick Wilson to get into a gang which has been procuring the services of many crooked officers.

In the midst of this are plenty of opportunities for bloodshed and Evans does not miss a one. By the time Order 66 is given*, the film abandons all pretexts and becomes a pure adrenaline hit. Trust me when I say, you are not ready for Hammer Girl and Bat Boy. You can’t handle them. They feel like they come from a completely different film. And they are glorious.

When I’ve heard people describe Evans as the best action filmmaker working today, I can’t help but feel it’s not just for the inventiveness that he displays in his set pieces. No, a large portion of it is due to simply how these beautifully choreographed blood-lettings are filmed. The editing and staging are off the charts good. Unlike many titles, ones from Hollywood especially, the film is not a random assortment of quick cuts meant to give the illusion of a fight while really showing a jumbled mess of punches and kicks. No, this film’s continuity during the kung-fu battles and shootouts is among the best I’ve ever seen. You always have a sense of where these characters are geographically and you can follow the action better than in almost any modern film involving martial arts I can think of. I’m sure a lot if it is a simple matter of confidence. The Raid 2 is an insanely confident film for Evans. His voice is crystal clear. It also shows a marked improvement in these arenas over the first film, already no slouch considering it had been called one of the best action films ever made by many people. The cinema verite style is still present, but it’s not wildly overdone this time. The urgency is still there, but not at the expense of the story and composition. Along with the new type of story being told, I’m wondering if the decision to go widescreen might have something to do with the changes in  the aesthetics. It simply feels more solid.

The Raid 2 is a superb film in a genre that deserves better than saggy stars picking up paychecks and lousy editing. It most definitely is not for everybody. There are a lot of viewers that this film is not for in any shape, matter or form. But for me and people like me who thrive on fantasy violence and bold moves in filmmaking, it is one of the best releases of the year.

(Five damns given out of five)

*Yes, I just made a Revenge of the Sith reference. Deal with it.

Kent’s Damned Movie Reviews: Thor: The Dark World

Come to daddy. The worst thing about Thor: The Dark World is the greasy hair. Apparently, despite their civilization lasting since the dawn of time, they haven’t figured out how to make shampoo because everyone looks like they haven’t washed their coifs in weeks.

That aside, the second follow-up to The Avengers succeeds in being probably my favorite sequel produced by Marvel so far. (We’ll have to see how the second Captain America comes out as the trailer is pretty freakin’ great.)

So first things first. I saw the new film in 3D so I could see the exclusive Cap preview. Is it necessary to see Thor 2 in 3D? Not at all. If I see it again (and I just may), I will be going with the standard option. The 3D does your standard mediocre conversion job, much like Iron Man 3. (Though this is certainly better than the awful job that was done on the first Thor.)

On to the most important things: how is the movie itself? I’m giving it the same grade as Iron Man 3, but I think I like this film a smidge better. The main differences are that while I had my problems with the last Iron Man film to be sure, Shane Black’s dialogue was fantastic. While there are some great moments of dialogue in Thor, it is certainly not at the same level. However, I enjoyed the story more (it didn’t seem like as much of a retread of the previous film as the pattern the Iron Man films have followed) and overall I liked the tone of the film more despite some puzzling, but not devastating, choices with the editing.

The film borrows heavily from Walt Simonson’s run on the character for its main plot involving a race of dark elves from before our universe began. They sought to return the universe to the darkness that they knew and were put down by Bor, father of Odin. If there’s a flaw in the film’s storytelling it is this bit; while the motivations of the elves in many ways mimic those of General Zod from this summer’s Man of Steel in destroying what is to try to bring back a facsimile of what was, less attention is paid to giving the elves or their leader, Malekith, much exposition as to their motivation. It’s forgivable to me because in classic myth there is rarely clear-cut motivation. Characters of these archetypes are usually simply good or evil. Creators/keepers of the status quo or destroyers. And that’s the case with comics as well. I adore Simonson’s run as possibly the best use of the character in his long and storied history, but I don’t remember Malekith being particularly deep on the page either. I just remember his looking like a black and blue version of Frank Gorshin on Star Trek. What’s clear is that they’re bad guys, just like other one-dimensional villains that have run the gamut from the great Star Wars stormtroopers to the hilarious drug-peddling ninjas in Miami Connection. Faceless lackies meant to be menacing.

Marvel adapts the plot to fit with the more cosmic-oriented Asgard of the film universe. This is just fine with me because I have always found the myth-based and cosmic lines of Marvel to be in largely similar in their use of confusing, logic-challenged wonkiness in service of big ideas and cool concepts. The elves are going to use a floating liquid called the “Aether” to remake the universe. How does that work? Hell if I know. But I don’t particularly care because the fact is, it does. Let’s take the maguffin at face value.
And the film delves far more into the myth and history of this particular version of Asgard than the first film which was largely an Earth-based origin story. It does a pretty good job balancing the action of the marauding elves with the family drama of the Asgardian royals and the subplots involving Jane Foster and her superscience pals from the first film.

Unsurprisingly Loki gets a pretty major role following his previous popular turns and his relationship with Thor remains prickly and emotional. Most of the actors and characters that I enjoyed from the original film return intact with Anthony Hopkins and Rene Russo both in fine form as Thor’s parents. I’m one of the few defenders of Natalie Portman as Foster, feeling there’s a detectable chemistry between her and Thor. (Odd how some people seem to see it and some people don’t.) I’m also one of the people that actually really enjoyed Kat Dennings and Stellan Skarsgård and I, for one, loved how they were used in the film. I hate to drag other people’s opinions into my review, but I’ve seen complaining about the amount of ‘comic relief’ in the film. Some of it from the same people complaining about Man of Steel being too serious. All I can say is that the comedy worked great for me and I laughed throughout the film, never finding it to be too much for the heft of the story to bear. With the “wibbly wobbly timey wimpy” stuff in play, I don’t have any problem with being tongue in cheek. That was a big part of what I thought made The Avengers work so well. This isn’t on the same level, but it works. It doesn’t surprise me that Whedon came in to help on a few scenes.

The only characters that really get short changed are the Warriors Three. They do get their moments, but mostly they are fleeting. Here’s hoping they get further exposure in the next film.

I would have welcomed the return of Kenneth Branagh as director, but for a first feature, Dark World is a hell of a ‘debut’ for TV vet Alan Taylor. The film ends on a bit of a cliffhanger, true to its comic book roots. I can’t wait for the third chapter in the franchise and look forward to the big lunk’s return in Avengers: Age of Ultron.

(Four damns given out of five)

Kent’s Damned Movie Reviews: Kick Ass 2

Hi-it Girl, Hi-it Girl, jumpin' round like a rabid squirrel...

“Well, that was better than the comic, anyway.”

So said my friend Nate as we left Kick Ass 2. At this point I’m pretty sure Mark Millar’s business card should say, “Comics that make decent movies in the hands of people with better story sense.”

Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate his Superman Adventures run as much as anyone, but looked at against their comic counterparts, his original ideas adapted to film (Wanted and Kick Ass, at least) have been improvements over their source material.

Kick Ass 2 picks up a few years after the original film and, aside from a couple of unsatisfyingly thrown aside threads left over from the first movie, it provides a comparable experience. It could also test my ability to continue to write PG-13 reviews given what exists within its frames.

The first was a pretty clear case of the trappings of exploitation cinema being grafted onto an existing genre template, in this case the superhero film. Slapping the excesses of violence and other “extremes” onto a storyline that was clearly inspired by the highly familiar Spider-Man films resulted in a movie that was a fun counterpoint to the family-friendly violence of the Marvel films. What the name for it is, I don’t know, but since everything has to end in “-sploitation” (nazploitation, nunsploitation, blaxploitation) I think I’ll go with capesploitation. Admittedly I haven’t seen too many other American films outside this series that would fit into the subgenre except for James Gunn’s schizophrenically toned Taxi-driver meditation, Super. I’m sure some other folks could throw further examples at me.

With the original, it was really Hit Girl that made the movie. The purple-clad, uber-violent Mindy Macready has got to be my pick for one of the absolute most iconic, touchtone characters in film from the last ten years. (There’s a reason I have a British poster from the original release featuring her on my wall.) To some it was the sticking point that kept them from enjoying the movie. To me, Chloe Grace Moretz’s performance lifted the film to something special. Her relationship with Nic Cage’s “Big Daddy” (in full Adam West mode) basically stole the film right out from under the eponymous character who was, thankfully, more likable than Tobey Maguire and his glassy-eyed stare.

The sequel is smart enough to give equal time to Kick Ass and Hit Girl, following both of them as Dave (Aaron Johnson) tries to get back into the superhero game while Mindy does her best to leave it behind. Frankly, this film does a better job of explaining someone with a damaged psyche going into retirement than Dark Knight Rises. And make no mistake, while Hit Girl is shown as heroic, it makes no bones about the fact that she is damaged. Her attempts to integrate herself into high school society show that there’s little difference between the halls and the streets. It’s no wonder she wants no part of the “ordinary” experience as she goes from one extreme role model in Big Daddy to the another in the popular girls of her school. Compared to that clique, drug dealers are easy to figure out. I have to think it was purposeful that, while Grace actually looks to be the age of the character she’s playing, many of her classmates are cast to be the 20-somethings that regularly populate shows and movies set in high school and it just provides more contrast for this relationship. Is it going to be as shocking to see a 15-year old girl killing and maiming as it was when she was younger? No. Joss Whedon and all the “girl power” acolytes that have been slinging out the now well-established teen girl-as-badass archetype have taken care of that. But she continues to take the movie on her shoulders and for those that actually liked the character and didn’t simply like the first movie on the basis of shock value, it shouldn’t be an issue.

As it is, there’s still plenty of violence to be had, some dished out by Hit Girl and some of it from new characters.

Most of the new additions to the cast work well. For all his post-production whining, Jim Carrey’s Col. Stars and Stripes does a good job recreating some of the weird energy that Nic Cage brought to the first film, even if he doesn’t manage to be his equal. The new heroes and villains are all ridiculous and fun with varying degrees of success. Chritopher Mintz-Plasse is back as Chris D’Amico, making good on his threat at the end of the first film to come back, declaring himself the world’s first supervillain. The name he chooses is part of what threatens my family-friendly rating. Early on he abandons his Red Mist moniker and declares himself The Mother****er. I’m sure you can fill in the blanks. Surprisingly, John Leguizamo has a fairly major part in the film, grounding it in the early stages. This is somewhat important given the way it can’t seem to decide if it’s supposed to be taking place in the primary-colored comic book world or the “real world” that the characters talk about so much in the film.

And if there’s one problem I did have with Kick Ass 2 it is this. Sometimes it simply can’t decide what it is. It’s a blender full of ultraviolence, capes and teen comedy, but they also seem to be giving a half-assed effort to elevate the material with a message that can’t seem to quite get out; the old “violence begets violence” chestnut. This is at odds with how they present the other message of the film about regular people making a difference, however. As such, it’s confused about what the underlying theme is.

While I loved how the look of the first film seemed a direct response/send-up of Raimi’s Spider-Man (especially the original film) the second, while certainly striving to create a visual dynamic that matches the first, seems less interested in capturing that specific stylistic choice. I suppose that’s really what’s been lost with Matthew Vaughn being only a producer instead of coming back to direct this chapter. Vaughn simply was more interesting visually. One thing I can’t believe I haven’t seen before given how well it works is the use of word balloons as subtitles. On the plus side, the actions scenes, as they are, seem to be slightly improved and in terms of quality and inventiveness there are a couple of them that whooped the heck out of most stuff seen in this summer’s more expensive Wolverine film. I definitely found myself audibly expressing pain at how some of the characters meet their makers.

On this end the film is absolutely entertaining and I recommend that people who enjoyed the first one check it out. For those that found the first film repugnant or offensive, I can’t think of a single reason they would find the second redeeming. For me, it was well worth the trip.

(Three and a half damns given out of five.)