Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Idiot Boxing: Stranger Things, season 2 (2017); Rick and Morty, season 1 (2013)

Who ya gonna call? The show wears its blatant love for
1980s pop culture nostalgia on its sleeve, without it ever
feeling purely gratuitous or exploitative.
Stranger Things, season 2 (2017)

I thoroughly enjoyed the first season of this great little TV show/love letter to 1980s Spielberg-esque, PG-13 adventure/horror shows. I found the sophomore season satisfying enough, but one that wasn't quite as dazzling or well-constructed as the first season.

At the end of the first season, Will was saved by his three faithful friends from a dark dimension which they had termed "The Upside-Down," a world where some strange type of plant monster seemed to be attempting to break into our own world. Although Will had been pulled out of The Upside-Down, he brought back some tadpole-looking lifeform, which escapes. The young girl, "Eleven" or "Elle," who had inadvertently been responsible for the rift, and Will's subsequent rescue, has gone missing.

In this new season, we fast forward just about ten months, nearing Halloween. The four main boys are mostly trying to live their lives normally, though Will occasionally is visited by strange episodes during which he feels that he is seeing back into The Upside-Down. Not only that, but he sees and feels the presence of a massive, shadowy creature looming over everything. We learn that he's been seeing doctors brought in by the military agency responsible for the troubles during the previous year. We also learn that Elle has been hiding out in Sheriff Jim Hopper's remote cabin in the woods near  town. As Elle fight the urge to leave the cabin, Mike, Will, and the other boys who had become her friends work to deal with another round of odd occurrences that spring up around Will's visions and a reptilian lifeform that Justin discovers rummaging through his trashcans. All of these elements come together as the shadow creature from the Upside-Down slowly tries to break into our world.

Between both seasons of the show, there hadn't been any
episode that felt out of place. That is, until episode 7 of this
second season. The writing, characters, pacing and plot were
oddly out of whack in this lone departure from Hawkins.
This second season was fun and entertaining, though maybe not quite as much as the first. The fantasy/adventure elements are still there and done very well, though there isn't a lot that is new. So much of the fun of the first season was discovering and learning about the world and the bizarre situations. This second season really just continues the same story, with a few flourishes, rather than offering much that will truly pique our curiosity. It doesn't help that a few elements smack just a bit of a lack of creativity, such as Will scribbling out his massive visions and having the drawings sprawled out all throughout his house. This little supernatural art project is a tad too similar to the iconic (and brilliant) "Christmas lights" communication system in season one. This is just one a few plot elements that perhaps drew a little too heavily from strengths of the first season.

The characters are still great, and I thought the show did a very nice job dealing with the boys' and girls' budding adolescence. We learn more about Dustin and Lucas, and their somewhat rivalry over the new girl at school, the tomboy Max. I did find Max's older brother, Billy, to be an over-the-top "bad boy" who bordered on caricature much of the time. But the adults are still solid, even if their personal story arcs don't show any particular amount of personal growth.

For the most part, the pacing of the tale was good. Oddly, though the seventh episode seemed highly unnecessary, and featured some rather poor dialogue and acting by Linnea Berthelsen, who plays Kali. I understand the point that Elle needed to rebel a bit and deal with her anger, but this episode seemed clunky and far less entertaining or compelling than those that take place back in Hawkins. It was an odd outlier in a show that had been very tight, and even added an episode to this season.

This was still a good show, and I'll likely tune in for the next season. However, the magic of watching that first season wasn't completely there this time.

We hardly know much about Rick or Morty before we have
Rick convincing his grandson to stuff a couple of alien plant
pods into his rectal cavity in an effort to sneak them past
intergalactic transportation security officers. This gives you
some idea of the tone and humor of the show.
Rick and Morty, season 1 (2013)

It's been quite some time since I found a show that made me laugh so hard, so consistently as Rick and Morty.

This was a show that had always been at the top of the "Recommended" list on my Hulu page, but I didn't give it a thought until a close friend with very similar tastes recently sang its praises to me. Roughly ten minutes into the pilot episode, I was completely hooked. By the end of the episode, I was literally in tears from laughing.

This animated show, which airs during the Cartoon Network's late-night Adult Swim hours follows the wild adventures of the title characters. Rick is an inconceivably brilliant scientist who is able to use his inventions to jump between galaxies, alternate dimensions, and other bizarre realms outside of the perception of most mortals. He often brings his none-too-bright, 14-year-old grandson on his far-flung and often extremely dangerous escapades. These might include shrinking Morty down to microscopic size and injecting him into a transient, in order to resolve problems in an amusement park inside the bum's body. Or it could involve the two working their way through a series of Matrix-like world simulations to evade an alien race seeking Rick's powerful technology. The plots are often extremely brisk, multi-layered, and place the odd pair in bizarre scenarios that only an LSD-addled sci-fi savant could dream up. The entire premise is a dream for any fan of science-fiction and fantasy action/adventure books, movies, and TV shows, and the writers are consistently razor sharp.

The episode with the Mr. Meeseekses (the blue guys) is a
perfect example of how one of Rick's genius inventions gets
horribly misused by his family. Things, of course, go completely
bonkers and those Meeseeks aren't smiling by episode's end.
Then there are the characters Rick and Morty themselves. Rick is clearly a misanthropic, borderline sociopath. He also happens to be a high-functioning alcoholic. Basically, he's what Doc Brown from the Back to Future movies would be if Brown had been a hundred times smarter, thoroughly unconcerned with humanity, and a complete booze bag. He makes the perfect comedy companion for Morty, his endearingly dim and frustrated grandson. There is something oddly sweet about Rick's dependence on Morty's presence on so many of his insane and highly dangerous forays into the far reaches of space and alternate realities.

The final episode of this first season was a great one, wherein Morty's teenage sister Summer and Rick decide to throw their own parties at the same time in the family house, when their parents are away. In the 24-minute episode, we're treated to a hilarious array of teen angst and back-biting happening right along with the gonzo gathering of Rick's various inter-dimensional associates, all of whom are looking to get drunk, high, or whatever it is that aliens and beings from other dimensions do to enter altered states of mind. It's a great representation of so much of what is great about the show: brilliant science-fiction gags, a boatload of events told at a somehow accessible pace, and a few sprinkles of heart here and there.

So I have now quickly become a major fan of this show. I've already dived right into season 2, a review of which is sure to be coming before too long. 

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Retro Duo: 1408 (2007); War of the Worlds (1953)

1408 (2007)

Director: Mikael Haefstrom

This was my first time seeing this one, which I gave a shot since I was in the mood for a horror flick and had kept seeing it pop up on various lists of "underrated" or "quality Stephen King adaptations." I found it to be compelling and fairly well done, if not as consistently novel or eerie as the creators might have been aiming for.

The story follows Mike Enslin (John Cusack), a cynical writer of travel guides to haunted hotels and motels around the United States. Though he does it for a modest living, Mike has no belief in the existence of ghosts or the supernatural. After receiving a mysterious postcard, Mike checks into a supposedly haunted room at the Dolphin Hotel in Manhattan, specifically room 1408. Despite highly stern warnings from the hotel manager, Enslin goes into the room, where before long reality is gradually turned on its side and Enslin is assaulted by all manner of physical and psychological torture. The room seems to have some sort of evil purpose of its own, hurling Enslin through all sort of trials, never really allowing him to escape, although suggesting that it could all end if he commits suicide. After it becomes clear to the worn down Enslin that no escape is truly possible, he decides to in fact commit suicide; however, he decides to do it by burning himself and the room along with him, so as to prevent the diabolical place from entrapping anyone else in the future. This act of altruism seems to absolve Enslin, and he is pulled from the burning room in time to save his life.

1408 is essentially a redemption story, and a decent one at that. John Cusack does well playing the painfully cynical Mike Enslin, and the narration adequately reveals just how and why the jaded writer became so disaffected. The movie also does a great job building up the mystery around room 1408, thanks in no small part to Samuel L. Jackson's relatively minor turn as the Dolphin Hotel's manager. By the time Enslin is putting the key into the room door, I was itching to see just what might happen.

Of course, the real show is all about what does happen in the room. For the first fifteen minutes or so, I was riveted. In slow, eerie steps, things begin to go awry in pretty effective ways. As the torments grow more intense, though, I found that they started to become a bit more predictable and even slightly redundant. Early on, it is easy to assume that this is a "no escape" scenario for Enslin, so that all of his several attempts to flee the room have completely foreseeable outcomes. And while there are certainly some truly creepy moments to go with a handful of well-crafted jump scares, I found that the first half of the movie was more engaging than the second.

For me, horror movies do not often have a high rewatchability factor, and 1408 is no exception. It was enjoyable to finally see it, but I don't feel any need to ever go back to it.

War of the Worlds (1953)

Director: Byron Haskin

It's easy to see why this movie was a major hit in its day, and even why it became a science-fiction classic rather quickly. These days, though, it doesn't hold up terribly well.

H.G. Wells's original novel has understandably been adapted many times since its publication back in the late 19th century. The tale is one that captures the imagination well enough: beings from the planet Mars send an array of invasion ships to Earth and begin to systematically wipe out all of humanity. Because of their highly advanced technology, no form of weaponry devised by man can so much as damage the eerily silent flying crafts as they devastate human cities and populations with unstoppable heat rays.

This story brought a rather novel approach to the basic human fear of forces so powerful that we are helpless against them. This, combined with the enigma surrounding the actual nature of the Martians are what made Wells's novel so curious, and it is a part of any successful adaptation of the story. The problem with this 1953 film adaptation, however, is the exact same one that can found in the original story, as well as most other adaptations, such as Steven Speilberg's version in 2005 (which did reenact several of the exact same sequences as the 1953 version). The problem is the utterly anti-climactic resolution to the tale. Just as humanity is down to its last few days before annihilation, the alien invaders all simply drop dead due to infection from earthen bacteria. It's the reverse story of what laid low certain indigenous populations during incursions by invaders and conquistadors at various periods in human history. While this is a fairly interesting plot twist from a science perspective, the execution is thoroughly dull and smacks of the lame Deus ex machina cop out that became a tiresome trait way back when the Greek dramatists began to overuse it over two millenia ago.

Aside from that, the 1953 version does have its merit, as long as one keeps in mind the time when it was released. It's not difficult to see how the effects and even certain concepts were ahead of their time. Compared to other films using heavy special effects in the 1950s, War of the Worlds was about as good as one could get. It's also rather commendable that the story doesn't dally too much on extraneous melodrama or atonal, hokey jokes, something that other sci-fi classics like The Forbidden Planet couldn't completely avoid. War of the Worlds didn't hesitate from showing people getting atomized, including a well-meaning minister and other do-gooders. This creates a slightly darker tone than the Technicolor veneer might suggest.

For its time, the effects were cutting-edge for film. Today,
though, it can be hard not to smirk at the rudimentary nature
of the visuals and light effects.
But it is a movie from the early 1950s, and it does include a few of that era's trapping. Most obvious to me was the laughably helpless main female character, Sylvia. Like virtually every star of Hollywood movies from that time (and years afterward), Sylvia's primary purpose seems to be three-fold: (1) serve as a voice for viewers' fears by screaming a lot, (2) provide some sort of love interest for the male lead, and (3) look pretty. Nearly all other characters are equally one-dimensional and uninteresting. This film was clearly made back when science-fiction movies rested entirely on the wonder that the story's premise and special effects provided, not bothering to do anything novel or creative with characters or dialogue.

When one keeps in mind the time and context, it's not at all difficult to see why this movie was, and still is, considered a seminal sci-fi movie. When one simply judges it on its own merits, though, it just cannot stack up to more modern, sophisticated science-fiction movies.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Idiot Boxing: The Deuce, season 1 (2017); Daredevil, season 2 (2016) rewatch

The Deuce, season 1 (2017)

HBO gets really down an dirty with this one, deciding to do a series focused on the beginnings and growth of the modern pornography film industry in the early 1970s.

It took until a little ways into the second episode to fully grab me, but I'm now hooked. I suppose this should have surprised me, given that it took me about three or four episodes to completely fall in love with Simon and Pelecanos's earlier HBO project, The Wire. These guys know how to craft a tale with the long game in mind. They won't introduce or completely reveal all of the fascinating aspects of great characters in the initial episode. Rather, they spread them out as they slowly weave a larger story.

That story is not for the prudish. This first season follows several denizens of Manhattan's Times Square distrcit, which was nothing like the garish, Disneyfied, laser light show tourist trap of today. Back then, it was as seedy a place as they come, where the sex trade was there for the seeing and taking. Pimps and prostitutes roamed the streets. Stores peddling sex books, viewings or short, softcore pornography, and even short porn films (which was actually illegal then) were huddled next to movie theaters offering pornographic films. In The Deuce (the name refers to the "two" in 42nd Street, and the general area where it crosses between 7th and 8th Avenues in Manhattan), we follow several of the people who live and work in this shady area, including several prostitutes, a few cops, and a handful of people who work in or frequent some of the bars. The primary characters in this first season are the twin brothers Vincent and Frank, the individualist prostitute "Candy," and the bright, liberated NYU dropout Abby. Vincent opens a bar in The Deuce, backed by a mafia lieutenant who takes a liking to him. Abby, after trying and failing to forge her own way outside of the college setting, ends up working at Vincent's bar, and Candy is an aging but extremely savvy hooker who is exhausted by her occupation and seeking a way out of the trade. All of their lives begin to change when certain morality codes are loosened, allowing for the creation of massage parlors (which are actually bordellos) and pornographic films. This all leads to a sort of legitimacy for the sex trade that had not existed before, in turn altering the perceptions of nearly everyone involved.

Inside the Hi-Hat, the closest thing that we have to an anchor
in the sleazy surroundings of the pre-glitz Times Square of the
early 1970s. The Hi-Hat a bit of a dive, to be sure, but it
becomes cozy by the end of the 8-episode first season.
Similar to my experience watching The Wire, The Deuce took a couple of episodes to become fully engaging. When it did, though, it really did. Yes, it's on the very salacious topic of the early days of the modern porn industry. Still, there is nothing titillating about what we see in this show. Sure, there is nudity aplenty, as we see the various sex workers ply their trades, but it is all very businesslike, often very seedy, and sometimes even disturbing and dangerous. And it is fascinating. The truth is, whether one wants to admit it or not, that pornography is a massive industry, both in the U.S. and throughout the world. The Deuce offers some insight into the lives of people on the front lines of this commercial juggernaut, and how their sexuality is turned into a commodity - a commodity that is at first essentially illegal, but gradually becomes more and more legitimate and socially acceptable. Simply learning about the system of heirarchy at work, between the prostitutes, their pimps, the police, and even politicians and mafiosi, bears all of the intrigue of learning the inner-workings of any fringe or criminal trade. This is why stories about the rises and falls of drug runners and bootleggers have always been fascinating, and it's why the film Boogie Nights was so compelling. They offer us a view into worlds that most of us know exist, and which reflect our more secretive desires, even if we ouselves may not be driven to partake in the ways that the characters on screen do.

Beyond the subject matter, the production values of the show are as good as it gets. This will probably come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the show creators' previous works, and The Deuce lives up to their reputations. The writing and acting are excellent, with Maggie Gylenhall (also a producer of the show) being a standout who is likely to be nominated for various awards. And lest one think that a show about the porn industry will have a strongly male slant, the creators took great care to have women involved as much as possible, with half of the episodes directed by top-shelf female directors. The balance shows, as we get plenty of well-balanced characters of both genders, and the subject of social views on homosexuality are an apparent theme.

The overall tone of the show is rather dark, not unlike The Wire. But also like that earlier masterpiece, is it liberally cut with moments of humor. Both intentionally and unintentionally, many of the characters here are funny people. In true New York City fashion, humor is a way to deal with bad situations, and there are plenty of them to be found in The Deuce.

I don't know if the subject matter of The Deuce will ever allow it to reach the heights of popularity of other gritty, big city series like The Wire, but I'll certainly be eager for future seasons.

Jon Bernthal's portrayal as the Punisher, and that character's
progression, are the strongest part of this season. His counter-
point to the slightly-better adjusted Matt Murdock is a solid
element in the first two-thirds of this season.
Daredevil, season 2 (2016) rewatch

Nothing leads one into a nice, solid binge of TV watching quite like getting a stomach infection that lays you up at home for a few days. Such was my situation recently. With the forthcoming Netflix series The Punisher set for imminent release, I had the urge to go back and give a second viewing to his introduction in the Marvel Cinematic Universe during the second season of Daredevil. You can find my original review here, if you're interested, so I'm going to keep this semi-review to a few revised thoughts and new observations.

Surprisingly, I actually enjoyed this second viewing more than the first. After re-reading my original review, I still feel the same about nearly every aspect, though the weak points didn't strike me as being quite so annoying this second time through:

The Punisher story is still just as good, and I actually didn't mind the slow pace of the courtroom drama as much this time, probably since I knew it was coming. It speaks to Jon Bernthal's presence that I still loved watching every scene he was in, as he portrayed this complex character. The relationship be forms with Karen Page is excellent, though I still wish the show had more overtly connected Karen's desire to find the good in Frank with her own guilt over killing a man, as shown in season one.

The Elektra storyline follows a pretty satisfying arc, in
general, but the hate/love relationship with Matt still feels
rather forced and begs a few too many questions for me. 
The Elektra storyline still didn't fully strike home for me, though it wasn't as frustrating this time. I did buy into their earlier relationship just a bit more, but I still found Matt's rekindled love for her rather forced. It's very clear that he knows that she is a sadistic murderer, to the point that he literally tells her how he saw the pleasure on her face when she killed people. And yet, he somehow still has some passion for her? I suppose that I could take this as a part of himself that wishes he could just kill people whom he found guilty and even perhaps enjoy it, rather than feel so much guilt. Yet the show doesn't lay out those dots to connect terribly well. I will also say that I wasn't as annoyed with Elodie Young this time through. I never had a problem with her acting, but that I didn't buy her as a world-class assassin and fighter. In doing some research, it turns out that Young has studied karate for many years; however, she has also studied dance equally as long. To me, she still moves more like a dancer than a combatant who can take out hordes of bigger, stronger thugs and ninja.

This second season probably suffered a little bit from being a bridge to future shows. While it is self-contained enough to mostly stand on its own, there is certainly a "Punisher 0.5" and even a bit of "Defenders 0.5" feel to it. When taken with The Defenders, it makes a nice piece. And it looks like The Punisher, due in the middle of November, should be solid. 

Monday, November 6, 2017

New, Spoiler-Free Release! Thor: Ragnarok (2017)

No Plot Spoilers! Have no Fear!!

In one of many entertaining twists, the god of thunder must
learn to cope without his legendary hammer, Mjolnir, as he
fights as a gladiator against a very formidable opponent.
Director: Taika Waititi

Far and away the best Thor movie, which may not be saying much. But I'll also say that this is now among my favorite Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) movies.

Those of us who follow the MCU last saw Thor (Chris Hemsworth) as he helped save earth from the destructive machinations of Ultron in 2015's Avengers: Age of Ultron. While the other Avengers regrouped and formed a new team, Thor and the Hulk/Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) disappeared without a trace. Thor: Ragnarok brings us up to speed fairly quickly, with Thor having been searching various realms around the universe for information about the cosmically powerful Infinity Stones. This search eventually puts him on the trail of his missing father, Odin (Anthony Hopkins). When he and his ever-treacherous brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), the god of mischief, eventually find Odin, the events that follow unleash Hela (Cate Blanchett), an immensely powerful force of destruction. Thor and Loki are inadvertently hurtled across the universe and land on a remote planet ruled by a barely sane overlord, Grandmaster, who runs a massive gladiator competition. Thor and Loki must figure out a way off the planet and get back to Asgard, which Hela means to take over as a first step towards dominating the universe.

Even more than the nearly uncut entertainment that is the Guardians of the Galaxy films, Thor: Ragnarok is unadulterated fun. Purists and fans of more intense superhero movies like the Dark Knight trilogy or even Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Civil War (all of which I love, by the way) may take some umbrage to the generally silly, even campy, tone of this latest MCU offering, but I loved it. Admittedly, I am a fan of New Zealand director Taika Waititi's goofy sensibilities. Even when I could see the gags coming, they were executed so well that I always got a chuckle out of them. And anyone who's enjoyed the odd, deadpan humor of Flight of the Conchords (several episodes of which Waititi either wrote and/or directed) or the vampire mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows will catch on and laugh heartily at the banter and comedy in Ragnarok.

My main concern going in was whether or not Waititi would be able to offer some worthy action sequences, given that he'd yet to tackle any sort of big-budget project of this sort. I was glad that he eased these worried by giving us several highly entertaining, well-executed fight and battle scenes. I won't put them on par with the best of what we saw in The Avengers or the Russo brothers' two Captain America movies, but there are more than a few spectacular displays of mythical might in the film. Many of us viewers in the theater were ooh-ing, ah-ing, and basically having fun with many of these sequences.

Cate Blanchett cuts a menacing enough figure as the blood-
thirsty Hela, even if the villain is yet another mostly one-
dimensional adversary in an MCU replete with them.
I can't say that the movie fully delivers in terms of any touching or emotional beats. Yes, there is a bit more exploration of the love/hate relationship between Thor and Loki, and the theme of vengeance and maintaining bonds with one's people. But these always take a rather distant backseat to the action and humor. Another aspect where I would say the movie falls a bit short is one that has been a blind spot for most MCU movies - not being able to conjure up a completely well-rounded, thoroughly compelling villain. Cate Blanchett plays the role of Hela just fine, and the character is certainly powerful. And her backstory does offer more than many other MCU villains, making her out to be a bit more than simply a massive force of inexplicable rage. The rage is there, but there is some explanation for it this time around. Still, she is ultimately just a baddie who wants to kill everything and everyone in her path who won't bow to her will. Far physically weaker villains like Adrian Toomes in Spider-Man: Homecoming or Helmut Zemo in Captain America: Civil War were better developed and more compelling.

A final note to those who may be wondering just how inundated with the MCU one has to be in order to enjoy this movie: you don't need to know a ton. Even if you haven't seen earlier MCU films, the key points are summarized within the movie fairly well, if briskly. While I can't call Ragnarok a complete stand-alone movie, it does quite well on its own merits. Of course, if one wants to do all of their homework, I would recommend watching the first two Thor movies, The first two Avengers movies, and maybe even Doctor Strange, which does have a minor connection here. If you've the time and inclination to take in those five films, you'll completely understand all of the main references and connections in the film.

So this one is plenty of fun. It might not be the tightest movie we'll ever get in the MCU, but it has a cheeky, high-spirited, and playful attitude that makes it a joy to watch. I already have my tickets to see it again in a few days. What other endorsement need I make?

Friday, November 3, 2017

Before I Die #619: L'Age d'Or (1930)

This is the 619th movie which I've now seen out of the 1,199 movies on the "Before You Die" list that I'm gradually working my way through. 

"The Man" and "The Woman" - the archetypes who are mostly
at the center of this surreal film. This abandoned sucking of
each other's fingers is one of their many odd  and oft-
thwarted attempts at  finding sexual pleasure with each other
English Title: The Golden Age

Director: Luis Bunuel

Not long ago, I watched and reviewed the short silent film Un Chien Andelou, which was the work of the dynamically surreal dual minds of Spanish artists Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali. It was every bit as challenging, bizarre, and unique as one would imagine. Well, a couple of years after that seminal piece of work, Dali and Bunuel collaborated again on L'Age d'Or, a longer film but one that still illustrates their hallucinogenic sensibilities.

Offering a summary of the movie is a tricky affair, given that it doesn't follow a traditional narrative structure. In general, though, it often follows a man and woman who are in love, or at least lust, and are constantly attempting to unite. To do so, they are often fighting against those who would keep them apart for various reasons - it may be a few police officers arresting one of them for unclear causes; it may be one's family and social circle placing demands upon their attentions; or it may be a government organization urging one of them to focus on a vague "mission" rather than individual desires. Details are never really given on any of these interactions, but the details are clearly not the point. In the end, the man is seen hurtling various objects out of a bedroom window, including pillow feathers, a burning tree, and religious icons. The entire story of the man and woman are bookended by first documentary footage on the behavior of scorpions, and in the end by an adapted depiction of the end of the Marquise de Saad's infamous novel 120 Days of Sodom.

I will admit that I wondered how well this film would be able to hold my attention for its 62-minute running time. Bunuel's and Dali's previous film, Un Chien Andelou, despite being only 28 minutes, was almost too mind-blowing and strange for me to maintain the intense focus it demands. In fact, L'Age d'Or is not quite as demanding, though it's certainly a challenging film. The fact that it does have a more accessible position as being anti-clerical and a reaction to right-wing, conservative values does make its through-line easier to follow. Of course, this is not to say that I was able to make heads or tails of every surreal image or sequence. Far from it. However, I was in the right state of mind to do some of the mental gymnastics required by such a movie.

An image early in the film of dead and decrepit leaders of the
Catholic church. This certainly implies the strong anti-Catholic
and anti-establishment message that Bunuel espoused. It also
got Catholics extremely angry, as one would imagine.
While the themes and strange narrative are obviously what set this movie apart, it is worth mentioning that the technical aspects of the movie are strong. Bunuel, who was barely 30 years old when he directed this film, already showed mastery of cinematic technique to convey his visions. As he had shown in Un Chien Andelou, he was completely at ease using overlap dissolve, an array of camera angles, fade outs, and all other sorts of film trickery to suggest narrative or thematic connections. Lovers of technique would likely enjoy the exercise of breaking down just what Bunuel was doing from scene to scene here.

For anyone considering this film, I would recommend taking the time for a second viewing with the audio commentary by Robert Short. Aside from an amusingly arrogant English accent, he offers some nice insight into the odder elements and unusual structure of the movie. He also offers some invaluable historical context about the time and place of the film's release, as well as its consequences for Bunuel. I don't often do audio commentaries, but for such an atypical movie, it can offer a nice education on the creators' visions and motivations.

That's 619 movies down. Only 580 to go before I can die. 

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Retro Trio, Halloween Trilogy: Halloween (1978); Halloween II (1981); Halloween III: The Season of the Witch (1982)

I usually don't go into "horror mode" during this time of year, but this autumn seemed to be an exception. Along with other horror flicks like The Babadook and 1408, I've been scratching an itch to watch some horror films, older and more modern, alike. This has included going back and watching the first three Halloween movies, all of which I had seen but not in many, many years.

The "Look out he's right there!!" tactic of suspenseful film
making can be effective for a little while, but I grow bored
with it extremely quickly.
Halloween (1978)

Director: John Carpenter

I'll likely catch some flak for this, but Halloween is just mediocre to me.

If you're unfamiliar with the story, it tracks the disturbing tale of Michael Myers, who brutally and for no apparent reason killed his older sister when he was a mere six years old. After being locked in a mental institution for fifteen years, Myers escapes and returns to his home town, where he begins to act out his dark fixation with his sister's death again, this time on the local high schoolers. In particular, he stalks Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis), a bright and kindly senior who has no idea of Myers's twisted interest in her or his relentless psychopathy. Trying to chase down Myers is Doctor Loomis (Donald Pleasance), Myers's psychiatrist, who feels that Myers in an inhuman monster, completely beyond any sort of rehabilitation.

In watching this movie again, I can't help but feel that time has worn down its effect considerably. In its day, it was a great example of how suspense and dread can be built around a simple idea and some competent direction, despite very limited financial constraints. John Carpenter and Debra Hill put together a screenplay based on the basic premise of a murderous, eerily silent psychopath on the loose in a quiet, tranquil suburban neighborhood. They also used sparing narration about Myers himself, keeping him a nearly complete enigma as to his twisted motivations and homicidal compulsions. The movie also does a nice job in creating the setting, with an authentic small town and fairly realistic, everyday kinds of characters acting the ways that they might in real life, even if the dialogue and acting can be a tad clunky at times. The general feeling, though, does help ratchet up the stakes fairly well.

The simple, non-descript look of the murderous Myers reflects
many of the movie's key components. A killer who is as blank
 a slate as any movie killer has ever been. It also speaks to the
straighforward style of the movie.
All the same, the very simplicity which Carpenter used so effectively also made the movie very easy to mimic in the years to come. By now, nearly forty years later, the concept of the "inhuman, mute psycho killer" has long since been played out. Even this original doesn't offer much by way of explanation of Myers's deeper psyche. Loomis is an effective character in building some sense of Myers's monstrous nature, but I feel that it could have gone even deeper and more disturbing, perhaps through just one or two anecdotes. For me, it's not enough for Loomis just to say, over and over, that Myers is "pure evil." I don't need a complete psychoanalysis of the guy, but at least one or two recollections of what Loomis has seen in his fifteen years working with the killer that made Loomis come to the conclusion that Myers is nto just a hopeless case but a complete abomination.

Then there is the scare factor. I suppose I've never much been one for jump scares, and Halloween relies on this element more than a few times. Admittedly, it does also have plenty of still, creepy imagery, with Myers simply standing in the middle of a street, wearing that iconic white mask, staring at future victims. Or even longer shots of him slowly stalking around the neighborhood. These sequences actually work quite well, though the effect wears of by movie's end. It also doesn't help that this is an approach that has been used, reused, and imitated countless times in the years since Halloween came out.

So the original quite simply doesn't do much for me. I know that this movie still has many loyal and dedicated fans, so there is clearly something still chilling and effective about it for those who keep going back to it again and again. It apparently just is not my kind of horror movie, though.

Most of Myers's many victims in the sequel are devoid of any
real personality to speak of. This keeps the stakes rather low
for much of the movie, with those slain being little more than
cardboard cutouts.
Halloween II (1981)

Director: Rick Rosenthal

Though I wasn't dazzled by my rewatching of the original, I was committed to watching all three of the first Halloween films, so I sallied forth into the first sequel.

Though made and released three years after the first film, the story picks up quite literally where the original stopped. Myers has vanished after being shot multiple times by Doctor Loomis, and Laurie is taken to the local hospital to recover from her injuries at the hands of Myers. While the police and Loomis frantically search for Myers, the killer makes his way to the hospital where Laurie is being kept. As Myers eventually breaks into the hospital and methodically slays the staff, on his way to Laurie, we eventually learn that Laurie is actually Myers's younger sister. She had been adopted after the young Michael had been institutionalized, but now her older brother is after her in an attempt to once again act out his killing of their elder sister fifteen years earlier.

For what it is, Halloween II does just fine. Personally, though, it only served to confirm what I felt after watching the original - that this brand of horror movie just isn't my favorite. I do appreciate that the story adds just a little bit more back story to Myers, without spoiling the enigma of his evil nature with too much information. And the change in setting to a silent hospital ward at night was a wise move, offering a change of pace to the suburban neighborhood.

On the whole, though, the sequel is a slightly paler continuation of the original. It doesn't help that star Jamie Lee Curtis is barely a presence. She's knocked out in a hospital bed for the first hour or so of the movie. When she does eventually become mobile, it is only barely so, making her a forgettable character in many ways. There is also the odd character Jimmy, the handsome young EMT who immediately takes a shine to Laurie, who for whatever reason, quickly returns his playful affections, despite the fact that she is completely traumatized and doesn't know the first thing about him. And Jimmy's reactions to discovering slashed corpses around the hospital is almost hilariously subdued. As if Jimmy weren't enough, we also get his sleazebag partner, Budd, the tactless, oversexed jerk who is all about sleeping with one of the nurses. True to the already-established trope of the genre, these two get killed by Myers the moment they decide to get naked. This was just one of the many "how will this one get killed?" marks that Halloween II uses as its basic formula. Again, this is a type of movie that I lost interest in decades ago, so this sequel did very little to hold my interest.

So on I went to the third of the trilogy. Third in name, though not at all in story continuity.

Halloween III: Season of the Witch (1982)

Director: Tommy Lee Wallace

In a highly risky and unprecedented move, the third Halloween movie broke completely from the story of the original two and presented its own thoroughly independent tale. It follows Doctor Daniel Challis as he slowly uncovers a hideous plot about to unfold on Halloween night. About a week before Halloween, a raving and injured patient is brought into Challis's hospital, where he is later killed by an immensely powerful assassin who then kills himself. Challis starts doing some detective work, with the help of the murdered man's daughter, and they trace the clues to the Silver Shamrock novelty company headquarters in Santa Mira, California. There, they discover that the town in completely dominated by the oversight of Silver Shamrock's founder, Conal Cochran. They also soon learn that Cochran, inspired by ancient pagan traditions of sacrifice on All Hallow's Eve, has imbued Silver Shamrock's millions of children's Halloween masks with occult magic. This spell will activate when children watch the company's commercial while watching the mask, thus killing them in grisly fashion, even turning their bodies into insects and reptiles. Challis manages to destroy the Silver Shamrock factory and seemingly the sinister Cochran. The film ends with Challis frantically calling the TV stations to get the commercial taken off the air; two of them pull the ad, but the third is still running when the movie ends.

This may be a bit odd, but despite this movie's many obvious flaws, I actually liked it more than the original two movies. The main reason is that I really enjoy the plot, which I find to be a rather creative one with a bit of sly social commentary. I also find the ending highly disturbing, just as a true horror tale should be. When I look at the main story arc, I think the mystery elements were done very well, with the strange deaths and gradual uncovering of clues not all coming together until the final act. Several of the deaths are also quite striking, with the most horrifying being the reveltaion about what the Silver Shamrock masks will do to the children, as we see happen to the young child Little Buddy, who is reduced to a pile of crawling roaches and snakes. I even like the notion of Cochran's button-down army and factory staff being composed of soulless androids. It may seem a bit too science-fiction for a horror tale, but it somehow had a logic that fit within the larger theme.

When we finally see exactly what the novelty masks are going
to do to the millions of children wearing them, it is a
genuinely horrifying scene. There aren't many overly gruesome
deaths in this movie, but a couple of them leave an impession.
I would be remiss if I didn't mention that John Carpenter's music score benefits this third movie as much, if not more than, any of the original trilogy of films. While his score for the first two quickly became iconic, I found his score for this third one just as evocative. Maybe even moreso, utilizing the synthesizer in more subdued ways than the sharp piano picking of the original theme.

The movie does have its obvious shortcomings. The dialogue is pretty awful in places. And the acting is shaky much of the time (although the key roles by Tom Atkins and Dan O'Herlihy are played extremely well). The romance between Dr. Challis and Ellie is completely forced and really had no place in the movie whatsoever, beyond an attempt to appeal to base sentimentality or sexual titilation. And there are a ton of little details, or lack thereof, that one could nitpick. But I didn't find that any of these oversights ever torpedo the main plot or the commentary on consumer culture.

This story probably would have been much stronger if two things had happened: one is that it hadn't presented itself as a "Halloween" movie. A little research shows that this was clearly why a large number of fans and critics back in 1982 had a problem with it - they came thinking they were getting the next chapter in the Michael Myers story, only to get a completely unrelated tale instead. The second is that it would have probably worked better as a 45-50-minute TV show, in the the vein of The Twilight Zone, Tales from the Darkside, Tales from the Crypt or some similar program. If they couldn't punch up the dialogue or iron out the many little plot oversights, then streamlining it would have done the story wonders.

I doubt that I'll be going back to watch any of these movies again, since I didn't find any of them to be spectacular horror films. Still, the third is the one that had always stayed with me since I first saw it nearly thirty years ago, and it is the one which I still enjoy the most.

An Outside Commentary

While doing a bit of research, I came across this little article, published on only about a week ago. It argues that, on the whole, the thing that weakened the Halloween series over time was the presence of Michael Myers himself. I actually agrees with much of what the author posits, especially how Myers's very nature was only going to make him interesting for one or two movies. The thing that makes him a bit compelling - the very mystery around his motivation and the utter lack of a personality - could only carry a tale so far. This is probably why I became rather bored with the movies, though I did so much more quickly than the original two films' ardent fans. 

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Marvel Cinematic Universe Villain Countdown

I just recently watched Spider-Man: Homecoming again, and Michael Keaton's memorable turn as the movie's villain got me thinking over the different adversaries which we've been offered in the many films and TV shows of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). It's hardly controversial to suggest that, as well as the MCU has handled certain elements of their shows, their villains haven't been one them.

When it comes to superhero tales, whether in comic books, TV, or movies, the villains have the potential to be just as interesting as the hero. Alternatively, they can also just be dull punching bags for the protagonists to unload their powers upon. When I consider how "interesting" a villain is, I'm not considering their raw power, so this ranking is not meant as my sense of which characters could defeat the others in a fight. Rather, I'm considering how compelling they are, based upon their back stories and how they are presented in these particular movies or TV shows. Of course, any superpowers they may have can be part of the equation, but to me this always takes a back seat to their motivations and other characteristics. Another part of my thinking here is also how much wit and cunning they may have, as I find those traits much more fascinating than sheer physical strength. This can depend upon the writers, to be sure, but that is part of what can make or break any character.

As a brief explanation, I count that there have, up to this point, 33 different "main" villains in the MCU. While some movies have a single, clear-cut, main adversary, there are a few of the shows in which there are two and even three foremost villains. I am dividing them into "films" and "TV shows," since by nature the TV shows have more time for character development, giving them a fairly significant advantage in this department. For the TV shows, I am only listing the main villains who were the primary adversaries for the heroes throughout most or all of a particular season. For example, I'm not including Mr. Hyde from season 2 of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. since he eventually broke good by season's end. In only one case is the "adversary" a somewhat nebulous group. So here they are, each with a little explanation:

TV Show Villains

The would-be Moon non-Inhuman, Inhuman conqueror,
Maximus. One of the vey few completely flubbed TV show
#17: Maximus: Inhumans, season 1

I know this show still has a couple of episodes to go, but I'm confident that my perception won't change. Like nearly everything about Inhumans, Maximus is lame. I don't even lay this one in any way at the feet of actor Iwan Rheon, who seems to be trying. This one, like everything about this series, was severely weakened by half-baked writing, which permeated everything about this show's plot, characters, and dialogue. There was actually a semi-compelling blueprint at work for Maximus, as the powerless member among an Inhuman royal family who all have extraordinary superpowers. Alas, a sloppy and unengaging narrative took any potential wind out of the sails that this character may have had.

#16: Harold Meachum - Iron Fist, season 1

I blame this one on sloppy and/or lazy writing. Over the course of the 13 episodes of the initial season of Iron Fist, Harold Meachum never hit any consistent stride for me. It didn't help that he was yet another "white businessman who wants to take control of things" when this had already been done several times. On top of that, though, he was ineffectual and showed little coherence from one episode, and sometimes from one scene, to the next. I wasn't much of a fan of Iron Fist in general, and Meachum being the primary adversary was a big part of it. His "finale" fight with Danny Rand in the final episode is easily the lamest and most nonsensical final showdown of any MCU product to date.

#15: Johann Fennhoff/Doctor Faustus - Agent Carter, season 1

A sinister manipulator, Fennhoff wasn't exactly well-rounded, evoking no sympathy from us viewers. However, as an unassuming old doctor, he was able to trick, con, and bend other strong characters to his will, making him a villain worthy of a certain respect and ire. It was satisfying seeing him taken down by Peggy and her colleagues at the SSR.

#14: Willis Stryker/Diamondback - Luke Cage, season 1

One of several villains whose potential was not reached. Stryker, a.k.a. Diamondback, was teased for much of the first season of Luke Cage, but was ultimately just an angry dude with some big guns and a powersuit. Being Luke Cage's half brother gave him a little more character, but when he emerges as Cage's main adversary, he's made a bit too crazy and even zany to take overly seriously. This was one whose buildup was far greater than the final product, and he wasn't helped by the fact that he was meant to be a bigger, badder, scarier villain than the guy for whom he took over, Cornell "Cottonmouth" Stokes, who was much more interesting.

Her tortured backstory gave her some weight and a dash of
sympathy, but Jiaying was never an overly compelling
villain during her run on Agents of SHIELD.
#13: Jiaying - Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., season 2

An immortal who kept herself alive by sucking the life force out of others, Jiaying was driven by pure revenge. After being tortured and experimented upon by HYDRA scientists, her rage was understandable, making her a more developed character. Still, once her backstory was revealed a bit, she became less compelling, and I could only see her as a vengeful character who had lost all connection to humanity. It became rather dull by the end, and she had no other curious powers to spark any further interest.

#12: The Hand & its "Fingers," Madame Gao, Nobu, etc. - Daredevil, seasons 1 & 2; The Defenders, season 1

This group of shadowy ninja and the sometimes-rotating leadership of its "Fingers" has had potential to be more compelling, but it hasn't quite gotten there for me. Through the first two seasons of Daredevil and the recent initial season of The Defenders, it was a long, slow build towards their nefarious plan to unearth a bunch of dragon bones in order to gain vast powers, even beyond those of immortality which many of its members already possess. Still, the army of ninja itself is rather dull, while its quintet of leaders have been somewhat underwhelming, despite showing some promise from time to time.

#11: Mariah Dillard - Luke Cage, season 1

Another villain with no super powers or gadgetry to convey physical prowess of any sort, Dillard was the political arm of the crime empire co-run by her half brother, Cornell Stokes. Mariah shared much of Stokes's difficult upbringing, which gives her a certain amount of sympathy as a character. She is also a hard-as-nails, clever survivor, making her formidable in her way, despite not being much of a physical threat.

#10: Hive - Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., season 3

Hive was one of the more interesting villains, given its power and the fact that it was using the corpse of Grant Ward as its husk on earth. The mystery building up to its true nature was well-executed, and its position as a would-be ruler over Inhumans was also a rather novel concept for the MCU. Its ability to take over and control any Inhuman made it truly frightening, though it was ultimately a purely villainous force. By evoking no real sympathy, it remained limited in just how interesting it could have been as a villain.

Whitney Frost, who I feel had the potential to actually be #1
on this list. With just a dash more imagination and some
tighter writing on season 2 of Agent Carter, she could have
been the most fascinating villain in the MCU TV shows.
#9: Whitney Frost - Agent Carter, season 2

Of the many underserved villains in the MCU, I feel that Whitney Frost was perhaps done the greatest disservice. There was a lot of untapped potential in this character, and the writers only scratched the surface with her. She was a brilliant scientist who, like many women in the Agent Carter world, was underestimated and ignored simply because of her gender. When she merges with the sinister Dark Matter, she becomes frighteningly powerful, even if she can't completely control it. Alas, I felt that her story came to a rather flat ending. With some slightly better writing and a little more imagination, Frost could have been one of, if not the, most interesting villain in the MCU TV shows.

#8: Wilson Fisk/The Kingpin - Daredevil, seasons 1 & 2

Wilson Fisk's story is still unfolding, but the Daredevil series has done him decent justice. I still think that they haven't done the greatest job filling in the gaps of how he went from seemingly-dull, impoverished Hell's Kitchen schlub to and immensely shrewd, dominating, and physically powerful crime lord. I've also never enjoyed the Mommy issues that reared their head in the first season of Daredevil. I expect Kingpin to be beyond such obvious sore spots and be a bit more of a force of sinister nature. I must also admit that I've never completely loved the casting of Vincent D'Onofrio, though this is based mostly on my feeling that he doesn't have the genuinely powerful physique which I hope for in the Kingpin.

#7: Cornell Stokes/Cottonmouth - Luke Cage, season 1

Probably the most surprising plot turn in any Netflix MCU show was seeing Cornell Stokes get killed. It had great impact since I never saw it coming when it did, and he had by then become a very well-developed, strong, and fairly deep character. Not to mention that he had been played so wonderfully by the brilliant Mahershala Ali. Stokes was a self-made made who came from a very rough background but had risen to local power in Harlem through his influence in the criminal and entertainment worlds. When Stokes was taken out, I saw it as a gutsy move by the writers, thinking that an even better villain would take his place. Unfortunately, I was wrong, with Willis "Diamondback" Stryker not being nearly as well-rounded as Stokes.

#6: Elektra Natchios - Daredevil, season 2; The Defenders, season 1

Elektra could be at the top of this list with some slightly tighter writing. She is compelling as an intrinsically homicidal killing machine, who has been trained as a world-class fighter and even brought back to life by the nefarious Hand. Elodie Yung plays the part well, even though I still don't totally buy her physical fighting prowess as a one-woman army. Her entire love/hate, redemption/damnation themes with Matt Murdock haven't completely gripped me the way that I think the writers would like, though the potential is still there.

Far from the most physically imposing,
Kilgrave was the most frightening and
depraved villain we've yet seen.
#5: Kevin Thompson/Kilgrave - Jessica Jones, season 1

Kilgrave was easily one of, if not the, scariest and creepiest of MCU villains, TV show or film. His power to convince anyone to do anything simply by telling them to do so it scary enough, but when added to his complete lack of morals and thoroughly depraved self-absorption, it made for a terrifying adversary. The only thing that keeps him a bit lower on this list for me is that he was almost too completely villainous. Yes, we get some backstory about how he was tortured by his parents, probably leading to his warped view of the world. Still, he remains thoroughly repugnant, and there is never much question as to what Jessica Jones needs to do to put Kilgrave's terror spree to an end.

#4: Brad Garrett - Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., season 1

This guy was just plain fun. One of the higher-ranking HYDRA sleeper agents posing in SHIELD, Garrett helped really screw over Agent Coulson and the gang. And he had a great time doing it. Played to a perfectly mischievous tee by the legendary Bill Paxton (R.I.P.), Garrett smirked and wise-cracked his way through stabbing a ton of people in the back, and it was immense fun watching him do it. He was only in about a half dozen episodes, but he made an indelible impression.

#3: Grant Ward - Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., seasons 1, 2, & 3

Grant Ward had a really interesting arc. From trusted SHIELD agent to traitor, his story was a surprising and compelling aspect of the show's first season. And while it becomes clear by that first season's end that Ward was a thoroughly warped individual, the writers often suggested that there just might have been some slim chance at redemption within him. Such was not the case, but the possibility made Ward more fascinating, along with his immense skill as a secret agent and combatant.

#2: AIDA/Ophelia - Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., season 4

One of the stronger, more unique villains, AIDA was a life model decoy which attained self-awareness and really have the SHIELD agents a run for their money. Initially designed as a prototype android to house a brilliant scientist's visionary artificial intelligence, AIDA came into contact with the occult book The Darkhold, imbuing her with not only a vastly new perspective of the universe but also a sense of self. This origin story alone makes her a curious figure, but the way that she puts the entire SHIELD team through the wringer was pretty epic. And she/it actually becomes a bit sympathetic in a few ways, as cold and brutal as she can be much of the time.

Who would guess that this be-
sweatered sweetheart is one of the
toughest, most ruthless and lethal
assassins in the MCU?
#1: Dottie Underwood - Agent Carter, seasons 1 & 2

Dottie is another character who, while not a heavy hitter, had more character and novelty than most villains in the MCU. Like her heroic counterpart, Peggy Carter, Dottie is in many ways a product of the rampant chauvinism and misogyny that thoroughly dominated the world around them in the post-World War II era. While Peggy fought against this as much as possible, the lethal Underwood used it to her distinct advantage, and she was a really fun villain to watch go to work. I enjoyed that we can see her as what Natasha Romanov/Black Widow would have been if she had remained a ruthless assassin.

Movie Villains

Note: I'm not including "The Mandarin," Trevor Slattery, even though he is initially put forth as a villain in Iron Man 3. Since he is revealed as a fraud, I don't count him (though I loved that plot twist and Ben Kingsley's hilarious portrayal of the drugged-out, washed up actor). 

#18: Justin Hammer - Iron Man 2

What makes me angry about this one is that the phenomenal actor Sam Rockwell played the role. And as good an all-around actor as he is, the Justin Hammer character defies explanation. Hammer is supposed to be a weapons designer and manufacturer somewhere on the same level as the brilliant Tony Stark. And yet he doesn't do a single thing right in Iron Man 2 and is purely a buffoon. They could have done far better with him than relegate him to purely comic relief.

The Destroyer. Fairly cool in terms of destructive power, but
there was absolutely nothing beyond that.
#17: The Destroyer - Thor

Even though it was really Loki pulling its strings, I'm including The Destroyer since it did square off against Thor and his companions in the final act of the original movie. It had a cool look and a few interesting abilities, but it was basically just a mute, Gort-like killing machine. Not much to sink your teeth into there.

#16: Ronan the Accuser - Guardians of the Galaxy, vol. 1

This guy was as dull as they come. Just an angry, super powerful figure who simply wants to destroy things. The movie does allude to a potentially interesting motivation for his anger, but it never delves into it in any way that makes Ronan more interesting.

#15: Malekith - Thor: The Dark World

Similar to Ronan, Malekith is a one-note character who is basically out to destroy the world. We do get a touch more backstory than with Ronan, in how his race of dark elves was nearly eradicated by Odin, but Malekith himself never becomes more than another angry, would-be world-destroyer.

#14: Emil Blonsky/The Abomination - The Incredible Hulk

There was potential for more with this soldier-turned-rage monster, given his decorated military history, but it was mostly fumbled or ignored. What we got was basically just the "bad" version of the Hulk here - a huge, gnarly creature with immense physical strength that could have a huge wrestling match with the Hulk in downtown New York City.

"I know this plan completely failed for Obadiah Stane, but I
think I can make it work!"
#13: Darren Cross/Yellowjacket - Ant-Man

By the time Ant-Man hit the screens, the Darren Cross character blueprint had been stale for a while: a smart, calculating, white guy with a sharp wardrobe and an ax to grind. He really is basically just another clone of Obadiah Stane from the very first MCU film, Iron Man. He uses a suit similar to the hero, in an effort to take over a large corporation. He's also portrayed as overly sleazy and petulant right from the start, making him less compelling.

#12: Obadiah Stane/The Iron Monger - Iron Man

Thanks to some decent writing and a typically solid performance by Jeff Bridges, Stane becomes slightly more interesting than some villains in the MCU, but he was still never totally fleshed out. His motivation for usurping the Stark Company never goes beyond base greed, and just why he thought the final solution was using a giant metal suit to kill Tony is an insult to a character who, up until the final act, was supposed to be extremely intelligent.

#11: Ivan Vanko/Whiplash - Iron Man 2

While Mickey Rourke perhaps didn't do this character too many favors with his odd portrayal of him, Vanko was at least a bit more curious than several other MCU villains. He actually had a clear motivation beyond mere power acquisition, and he was quite intelligent and even physically imposing, even without his arc-reactor whips. Having a shadowy background from grimy back alleys in Russia, he made a curious counterpoint to the born-into-wealth Tony Stark. The writers could have done more with him, but opted to shoehorn in the goofy Justin Hammer character, unfortunately.

Dormammu is likely the most powerful adversary we've seen
in the MCU, even if there's not much else to it as a character.
#10: Dormammu - Doctor Strange

Something of a force of cosmic nature, Dormammu isn't much different from would-be world-destroyers like Ronan or Malekith. The only thing that elevates him is that his nature is on such a massive scale and of such a bizarre, supernatural bent that it becomes a bit more novel. To this point, we haven't seen an adversary with as much raw destructive power as Dormammu, even though there doesn't seem to be anything more to it.

#9: Kaecilius - Doctor Strange

Another villain who had more potential than was actually tapped in the movie. He was the first "occult" villain to really emerge in the MCU, and seemed to be a decent adversary for Doctor Stephen Strange. He was clearly a highly skilled practitioner of the mystic arts, and there is some semblance of a motivation springing from some sort of loss in Kaecilius's background. Ultimately, though, he is just a fantatic. And fanatics, just like Ronan the Accuser, are generally pretty boring. Another semi-waste of a great actor in Mads Mikkelson.

#8: Johann Schmidt/The Red Skull - Captain America: The First Avenger

The Red Skull was basically another fanatic, but at least he was an intelligent and capable one. I found it interesting that he was not only a powerful leader but one who embraced the occult to a point that it led him to the Terreract. He was also the original recipient of the Super Soldier Serum which gave Steve Rogers his considerable physical abilities. Schmidt didn't really have too many dimensions to him, but I found him a worthy adversary for Captain America.

#7: Alexander Pierce: Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Pierce has a curious place on this list, being one of the very few villains who has no superpowers, physical prowess, or advanced personal weaponry. He was purely a political figure, but one whose political power and allegiance to HYDRA put him at the center of one of the biggest shakeups in MCU history. Pierce was obviously extremely intelligent and deceptive, and he even made a few compelling arguments for his worldview. As far as comic book villains go, he was imposing in his own way, though not nearly as frightening as certain others on the list.

Though not much of a "front and center" villain,
I appreciated Killian's intellectual and physical
abilities, along with his cunning.
#6: Aldridge Killian - Iron Man 3

The third Iron Man is maybe the most divisive MCU film, due in no small part to the "Mandarin" bait-and-switch plot twist (I loved it, by the way). The man really pulling the strings, though, Aldridge Killian, was actually a fairly interesting villain. Spurred on by a combination of revenge and spite, Killian transforms himself from a smart but frail scientist with almost no confidence into a bio-engineering mogul who, secretly, has imbued himself with considerable powers of strength, regeneration, and even fire breath. He is, unfortunately, yet another villain who lacks much sympathy, but the combination of attributes and his backstory elevate him above many other similar MCU villains.

#5: Ego, the Living Planet - Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2

Next to Dormammu, Ego is the most powerful villain we've seen in the MCU. But he also had a rather fun and curious backstory, with its connections to Peter "Starlord" Quill. Yes, the plot to basically homogenize the entire galaxy into versions of himself is yet another tale of a world-devouring cosmic entity, but there was something of a human touch brought to the character, thanks to some decent writing and a great performance by the legendary Kurt Russell.

#4: Helmut Zemo - Captain America: Civil War

One of my more controversial picks, perhaps, but I thought Helmut Zemo one of the most impressive villains in the MCU. As one of the few adversaries without any sort of superpower or even any high-tech gadgetry, this former Sokovian black operative single-handedly drove a massive wedge between nearly all of "Earth's Mightiest Heroes" through surgical planning and immense patience. While his motivation was basically one of revenge for losing his entire family during the Avengers' fight against Ultron, there's actually a bit of pathos to the man. It helped that he was played wonderfully by Daniel Bruhl, and I hope that the character is utilized in the future.

#3: Adrian Toomes/The Vulture - Spider-Man: Homecoming

Many may disagree with my high placement of The Vulture on this list, but I think he's one of the most well-rounded villains in the entire MCU, and arguably the most well-rounded of all of the movie villains. Unlike nearly all others, Toomes is a street-level guy with cunning, guts, and a perfect sense of exactly who he is and where his place is in the MCU world - a lower-tier guy who can stay under the radar with his criminal dealings and support his beloved family. The character was well-conceived, executed, and played brilliantly by Michael Keaton.

#2: Ultron - The Avengers: Age of Ultron

The movie in which he is introduced has its flaws, but I still think Ultron is one of the most imposing, creative villains in the MCU. His origin as an amalgam of alien artificial intelligence and Tony Stark's JARVIS A.I. was certainly creative. The first time I watched the movie, I found Ultron's weird sarcasm and personality quirks confusing and off-putting, but once I realized that they were a warped version of Tony Stark's personality, it made more sense and made the character more intriguing. Add in his physical strength, ability to send his consciousness nearly anywhere on earth, and his unhinged plan to wipe out much of humanity, and you had a villain to be reckoned with.

Loki's MCU incarnation has lived up
to the legend better than any other
villain in the universe.
#1: Loki - Thor; The Avengers

The very best we've yet seen. Loki is exceptionally cunning, strong, and is one of the most well-rounded and charismatic of all MCU villains, thanks in no small part to consistently entertaining performances by Tom Hiddleston. With his background as second-fiddle, adopted brother to the more glamorous Thor, Loki has a long-burning jealousy and hatred of his more beloved adoptive sibling. His dynamic with his family is downright Shakespeareian, and Hiddleston conveys Loki's scheming and charisma brilliantly, which is probably why he's been brought back again and again. To this point, he is really the only true "wild card" among MCU villains, who could switch to either side in a blink, and whom we can root for or against with equal enthusiasm. That's no mean feat.

So there they are - my thoughts on MCU villainy. One observation I had while putting this list together is how much more diverse the villains have been in the TV shows. Out of the 17 main villains, six have been women and three have been African-American (with Mariah Dillard being both). That's opposed to the films, where there hasn't been one single human (or even humanoid) villain out of the 15 possibilities who wasn't a white guy. That's about to change in the next few MCU flicks Thor: Ragnarok, Black Panther, and 2019's Captain Marvel. It's long overdue, to be sure, and it'll be nice to see more variety.

All told, there have been a few solid baddies in MCU, but this is probably the one main area that Marvel can step up its game. They've pretty well nailed the superhero fantasy aesthetic, fun tone, and heroic characters with impressive consistency. If they can only get deeper and more imaginative with their villains, then we fans of the movies and shows will have some real classics to feast upon.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Before You Die #618: A Throw of Dice (1930)

This is the 618th film that I've now seen out of the 1,199 movies on the "Before You Die" list that I'm gradually working my way through.much 

Original Hindi Title: Prapancha Pash

Director: Franz Osten

A rather fun, relatively light drama with a distinctively mythic feel. It doesn't break new narrative or acting ground, but the visual merits are noteworthy.

A Throw of Dice tells the story of two cousin kings living during an unspecified medieval period in India. The elder cousin, the greedy King Sohat, attempts to take over the kingdom of his younger, more handsome cousin, King Ranjit. Through assassinations and other underhanded tricks, Sohat very nearly manages to make a pauper out of Ranjit, as well as taking his beloved Sunita. In the end though, Sohat's various deceptions are revealed, he is defeated by Ranjit's supporters, and Ranjit takes back his kingdom.

The movie has plenty of plot swings, and they come off very much like a condensed soap opera. The pace is fun and brisk, and Sohat makes for a despicabble enough villain to make his demise rather satisfying. The characters are rather one-dimensional, though, with the only real complexity coming from the fact that the otherwise-amiable King Ranjit has a compulsion for gambling. This is what brings him to the very brink of total ruin, although everything does work out in the end. In this way, the movie comes off as a standard cautionary tale that one might tell children, making its appeal a bit more limited than a more nuanced story might hold.

Compared to contemporary films, A Throw of Dice feels rather lavish and exotic, not unlike The Thief of Baghdad. It isn't going to dazzle modern viewers used to much more advanced visuals, but for its time, this movie stood out. I have to think that it had a certain allure to those interested in foreign regions, as such places and customs were simply not seen in moving pictures much at the time. In fact, there are even a few documentary-style sequences which have nothing to do with plot and are presumably put into the film to simply amaze viewers who hadn't seen such footage of elephant riders, snake charmers, and other bizarre figures whom they had only read about or seen still photos of.

A Throw of Dice is a breezy, easily accessible affair from the silent era. It like a silent, black and white version of an extended parable. It won't challenge your values, and it won't expand your views of the world or humanity, but it can entertain your for its concise 75-minute run time.

That's 618 movies down. Only 581 to go before I can die.