Monday, August 17, 2015

The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.

** SPOILERS **
"America teaming up with Russia? That doesn't sound very friendly," quips Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander), a German mechanic who finds herself rescued from East Germany by dashing American super spy Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill)  in the opening gambit of Guy Ritchie's The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Indeed, it isn't, at least for a while. Napoleon and Teller find themselves immediately stalked by KGB operative Illya Kuraykin (Armie Hammer), who's practically the Soviet version of the Terminator, able to tear the trunk door of a car with his bare hands. Napoleon and Illya, two sides of the Cold War coin, soon find themselves on the same side, working together to prevent an Italian criminal organization from acquiring a nuclear warhead. With The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Ritchie returns the spy genre to its sexy, stylish heyday, the glamorous 1960s. Able to cut loose from being an earnest, square jawed Man of Steel, Cavill has a ball as Napoleon Solo, a former master criminal recruited for 15 years by the CIA as their finest and, frankly, most ridiculously handsome agent. The suave, unflappable Solo, who wears a three piece bespoke suit like there's no tomorrow, has a taste for womanizing and the finer things in life, and is the polar opposite of Hammer's Illya, a stern Russian soldier accustomed to submerging his feelings and humanity at the behest of his Soviet masters. Some of U.N.C.L.E.'s best moments involve the Cold War's best new frenemies, Napoleon and Illya, verbally jousting and taunting each other about one of their most basic similarities, that both super spies have "their balls tied by a short leash" by their respective masters. Vikander is a fetching, smoky-voiced mystery woman, keeping her cards close to her vest, but U.N.C.L.E.'s greatest scene stealer is Elizabeth Debicki as the villain of the piece. Debicki is smashing, giving us a glimpse of what it would have been like if Audrey Hepburn played a criminal mastermind ready to blackmail the world with nuclear weapons. The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is also a curious inferno of fake accents, with Englishmen Cavill and Jared Harris sporting American accents and Hammer rasping with a Russian tongue. Though playing an East German, Vikander sports her real Swedish accent, and Hugh Grant, as the British spymaster Waverly, couldn't abandon his British accent if he tried. Enjoyable action, swaggering secret agents, gorgeous women, stunning cars, jaunts through Berlin, Rome, and the Mediterranean, and a classic elegance not seen in a spy movie since Sean Connery was 007 marks The Man from U.N.C.L.E. as sexy, frothy, engaging entertainment.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Fantastic Four (2015)

FANTASTIC FOUR

** SPOILERS **

Fantastic Four is a Negative Zone, dropping dead on arrival on movie screens. Directed by Josh Trank, who has since become estranged from 20th Century FOX and disavowed the theatrical cut, Fantastic Four is a dour monster movie about supposedly smart teenagers doing something really stupid and causing havoc to themselves and to others. The ostensible hero of Fantastic Four is the brilliant Reed Richards (Miles Teller), whom we meet as a ten year old boy genius misunderstood by his parents and outwardly despised by his teacher (Dan Castellanetta, who, like Mr. Feeney on Boy Meets World, is somehow still Richards' teacher 7 years later). Richards' greatest invention is an inter-dimensional teleporation device. Reed created a functioning one in his parents' garage when he was 10. Seven years later, he's still perfecting that exact same device and somehow believes the proper showcase for such a potentially world-altering invention is a high school science fair. 

At that very science fair, Richards is recruited by the cast of House of Cards - Dr. Franklin Storm (Reg. E. Cathey) and his adopted daughter Sue (Kate Mara) - to join the Baxter Foundation, some sort of think tank in New York City that has a virtually identical device as Reed created, but lacking the ability to bring organic matter back from the other dimension (creatively dubbed "Planet Zero"). Franklin Storm has a bunch of crazy ideas about Planet Zero possessing the answers to the mysteries of the universe and questions about the origins of our own world, as if current science already hasn't sussed much of that out. Planet Zero is a gruesome, post-apocalyptic wasteland of craggy cliffs, nightmarish lightning skies, and yeah, let's go there, that place looks awesome. Franklin Storm pairs Richards and Sue (whose special science talent is pattern recognition) with the guy who created Baxter's teleportion machine, Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell), a moody, angry, pouty genius whose speeches about the world deserving to die raised red flags that got him kicked out of Baxter, but Dr. Storm brings him back anyway. Completing this fantastic foursome of science is Franklin Storm's biological son Johnny (Michael B. Jordan), a fast and furious street racer who wiped out his whip and is doing his dad and sister's science-y stuff to get his ride back. 

The fantastic foursome of science get the inter-dimensional teleporter up and running, successfully sending a brave chimpanzee to Planet Zero and back. (Sue pointedly tells Reed at one point that one of her jobs is to design the environmental suits to be worn by the people going to Planet Zero to protect them, but they send the poor chimp over sans any protective wear.) When Tim Blake Nelson, one of Baxter's big wigs, witnesses the successful demonstration and decides to contact NASA so they can send qualified astronauts, Reed, Johnny, and Victor get drunk off a tiny flask of booze and decide they need to be the Neil Armstrongs of this brave new World Zero. Reed then recruits his loyal-to-a-fault best friend since childhood, Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell), to join them on this fantastic voyage, and Grimm goes along unquestioningly. The sexist jerks left Sue at home, but she's naturally alerted to the teleporter machine suddenly going online, and when the inevitable disaster on Planet Zero occurs, Victor is seemingly killed and cascades of unexplained energy come through the dimensional rift, striking Reed, Johnny, Ben, and Sue and transforming them in different, ghastly ways.

We know how this turns out: Reed can stretch, Sue can turn invisible and project force fields, Johnny can burst into flame and fly, and Ben is bombarded by alien rocks and turned into a giant orange rock monster. Now under the supervision of the US Government, Reed runs away from the secret facility they're held in, while the other three find themselves in service to the military. Ben in particular becomes a valuable operative in the field, and Johnny is next up to join him, finding their abilities weaponized. A year later, Sue locates Reed living on the run in South America, trying to scrounge the materials to build yet another teleportation device. Super genius Reed Richards only knows how to invent one thing. Reed is reacquired to join his fantastic friends, just in time to watch a military team teleport to Planet Zero and meet... Dr. Doom, who somehow survived, encased in his containment suit, sporting vaguely defined psychokinetic powers, and has become completely insane. Hey Victor, how was Planet Zero? What'd you do for that year? Oh, it doesn't matter. Victor's plan is to open a wormhole that will suck Earth into Planet Zero and destroy it. Then Victor will be the only one left, and yeah. That sounds pretty great. So the Fantastic Four combine their fantastic powers and stop him and that's that. Bizarrely, Fantastic Four ends almost identically to Avengers: Age of Ultron, with the newly minted team looking over their new headquarters and the screen cutting to black before Reed can say their new team name out loud.

Fantastic Four is a drab, lurching bore. Taking place mostly in laboratories, cramped hallways, somber, dimly-lit rooms, with the occasional field trip to a horrible alternate world of death, Fantastic Four lacks any of the joie-de-vivre of Marvel's superhero movies or even the sly wit and self-awareness of  studio-mate FOX's X-Men franchise. As Reed Richards, our leading man, Teller has all the charisma of inert Flubber. Chemistry between Teller, Mara, Jordan, and Bell is sorely lacking, be it in their interpersonal relationships (Mara and Teller, destined to be married in comic book lore, ignite as many sparks as a mouth full of Pop Rocks) or as a collective unit. As brother and sister, Mara and Jordan barely even look at each other, much less project any familial bond. Also, Mara's Sue Storm was born in Kosovo, for reasons the movie has no idea what to do with. The storied rivalry between Reed Richards and Victor Von Doom is practically nonexistent; just a quick scene of jealousy over Reed flirting with Sue and a quickie exchange over who's "smarter." The pathos of Ben Grimm, transformed into the monstrous Thing, is reduced to him moping in a dark cell in between going on black ops where he gets to smash enemy tanks. More than half the movie expires before the Fantastic Four actually gain their powers, but as per usual with this franchise, Fantastic Four drops the ball once again in imagination, rushing into the final confrontation with Dr. Doom and resolving it with uninspired action and minimal drama. As for hoping Fantastic Four ignites a reinvigorated franchise for FOX, pffft. This reboot of Fantastic Four is one and done. Back to the old drawing board. 

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation

MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE - ROGUE NATION

** SPOILERS **

The Living Manifestation of Destiny

Nine years ago, I disavowed Mission: Impossible. Today, I believe in Ethan Hunt more than ever. Tom Cruise returns for his fifth Mission in 19 years as the ageless, indomitable secret agent Ethan Hunt in writer-director Christopher McQuarrie's Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation, a slam-bang, globe-trotting tour de force about friendship, loyalty, and the elevation of Ethan Hunt to mythical status. Like Roger Moore's James Bond in the 1970s, Ethan Hunt is the most famous secret agent in the world, a rock star among spies. "There are stories," a fetching young female agent says to the legend himself upon meeting him. Young lady, you wouldn't believe the half of it, Hunt's wry smile seems to say. By now, Ethan Hunt simply can't be stopped, and McQuarrie's Mission smartly weaves Hunt's forehead-slapping invincibility into the narrative. This is never more apparent when one of Hunt's greatest detractors, Alec Baldwin, the new head of the CIA who seeks to dismantle the Impossible Missions Force, is forced to sing Hunt's praises to the British Prime Minister whom Hunt is about to abduct: "He's a gambler... He can become anyone. He's immune to all counter measures. He is the living manifestation of Destiny." Even 007 can't claim such laurels.

Hunt, of course, doesn't quite see himself as others see him. Or if he does, he's simply too modest to say. There are times when it seems like he forces himself to be the superhero everyone believes him to be, in spite of himself. Once again, Ethan is reunited with his IMF besties, Simon Pegg, Ving Rhames, and Jeremy Renner, all of whom he gave Ethan's Special IMF Besties iPhones to at the conclusion of the previous Mission, Ghost Protocol. (Paula Patton, who received the fourth Bestie iPhone, is never mentioned.) All three of Ethan's besties spend much of Rogue Nation debating Ethan's motives and even his sanity at times - Ethan has never quite been so obsessed and occasionally unhinged as he is in Rogue Nation - but one thing they never question is Ethan's ability. Ethan can do anything; Pegg is so certain of it he doesn't for a moment believe Ethan can't hold his breath for over three minutes to perform an "impossible" mission inside a water tank. "Difficult, yeah, but not impossible." Ethan's closest allies see him as an action figure that can weather any abuse, to Ethan's chagrin. But he still does it all unquestioningly. After nearly drowning and being resuscitated, Ethan is never quite as endearing as he is all punch drunk but still not hesitating for a second to engage in a car chase and motorcycle chase. Unlike Bond or Jason Bourne, who primarily work solo, Ethan is reliant on his team, and looks out for them. When he recruits Pegg into his schemes and tries to give him an out after things go FUBAR, Pegg rejects the very idea of abandoning Ethan on the sole basis of his unwavering friendship. Ethan is genuinely touched. 

In Rogue Nation, Ethan and the IMF are once more disavowed and on the hunt (pun unintended) for the Syndicate, which was introduced in the closing seconds of Ghost Protocol. The Syndicate, led by thin-lipped British mastermind Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), are a covert black ops terrorist organization, "a rogue nation, an anti-IMF." (We get it. Easy on the sell job, fellas.)  The CIA believes the Syndicate are a figment of Ethan's imagination, but the IMF know better, because the IMF always knows better. Rogue Nation weaves in recent tragedies like missing Malaysian flights and nuclear meltdowns and lays the blame squarely at the feet of the Syndicate. They're always one step ahead of Ethan Hunt, which drives Ethan as crazy as we've ever seen him. A direct sequel to Ghost Protocol referencing the nuclear missile attack on San Francisco the IMF foiled, Rogue Nation also pleasantly calls back to previous Missions, with a blatant flaunting of a rabbit's foot and Baldwin referring to Ethan's theft of the NOC list in the original Mission as occurring in his first year in the CIA. Rogue Nation also introduces the most formidable and intriguing female character in franchise history, Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson), a show-stealing, ass-kicking disavowed British Secret Service agent who alternates from Syndicate operative to Ethan's ally. There's never really a question who's side she's ultimately on, and it takes a tremendous contortion of logic why the Syndicate never kills her considering how consistently she betrays them in favor of Ethan, but Ferguson is magnetic, more than a match for Ethan Hunt.

McQuarrie delivers the awesome international spectacle Mission: Impossible demands, from a bravura opening airplane heist in Belarus, with Cruise seemingly hanging onto the outside of a cargo plane taking off by his fingertips, a virtuoso, acrobatic action set piece involving three assassins in an opera in Vienna, to a relentless, next-level motorcycle chase in Casablanca outdoing the tremendous car chase in McQuarrie and Cruise's previous collaboration, Jack Reacher. Surprisingly, instead of upping the ante by going balls-out in the London-based third act, McQuarrie takes the opposite tack, going smaller and making the resolution of Rogue Nation about the characters and the personal vendetta between Ethan Hunt and Solomon Lane, literally concluding in a glass box. Ethan doesn't even climb and jump off of any ridiculously tall buildings in this movie! On the line isn't so much the fate of the world as the fates of Pegg, Ethan's best friend, and Ferguson, a woman caught in an impossible situation. More than anything, loyalty and friendship drives Ethan Hunt in Rogue Nation. When it comes to his friends, Ethan Hunt admirably proves nothing is impossible.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Southpaw

SOUTHPAW

** SPOILERS **

"The Great White Dope" reads a headline about Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal), the former Light Heavyweight Champion of the World, who lost his fortune, his career, and the care of his young daughter when his wife (Rachel McAdams) was (accidentally?) murdered. That headline is on point. Southpaw is a grizzled rehash of the first five Rocky movies, centering around Gyllenhaal's fighter, a Hell's Kitchen, NY-born orphan who came up through the system and became a world champion, despite his general lack of intelligence and crippling anger management issues. Billy Hope even fights like Rocky Balboa, leading with his face until he gets mad and knocks out his opponents in the late rounds of his fights. In an incident similar to how Mr. T provoked the death of Mickey in Rocky III, a cocky challenger insults Gyllenhaal's manhood and implies carnal relations with his wife. In the ensuing melee that involves of both of their entourages, a gun goes off and McAdams is shot to death. Stricken with grief and wholly unprepared to meet his parental and financial obligations, Gyllenhaal behaves erratically and violently until child services interferes, taking custody of his daughter while Gyllenhaal loses all of his worldly possessions to auction. It couldn't have happened to a dumber guy.

The main thrust of Southpaw is Gyllenhaal's fumbling attempts to regain custody of his daughter who (rightly) blames him for the death of her mother. Going back to basics, Gyllenhaal gets a custodial job at a low rent gym owned by Forest Whitaker, who only trains amateur fighters, mainly disadvantaged kids, to keep them off the streets. Against his better judgment, Whitaker agrees to train Gyllenhaal for an eventual comeback, teaching him the revolutionary art of defense, i.e. not spending ten rounds getting punched in the face. Of course, the big redemption fight happens, thanks to fight promoter 50 Cent, playing a low key version of Don King. The movie can't decide if he's a villain or not. The movie doesn't even decide how Gyllenhaal lost his fortune; the script is unsure whether Gyllenhaal's accountant stole all his money. If the script doesn't know, then we certainly don't know. Speaking of the script, all conversation between Gyllenhaal and his family ends with them calling each other "baby," as if Final Draft just kept adding "baby" at the end of all the dialogue and the writer was too lazy to delete it, baby. Southpaw also seems to feel all the philosophical conversations about boxing between Rocky, Mickey, and Apollo Creed were too eloquent, because Southpaw careens in the opposite direction. When Whitaker tries to explain his boxing philosophy and life lessons to Gyllenhaal, "incoherent" doesn't quite cover it.

To his credit, Gyllenhaal physically transforms into a credible fighter, and he holds Southpaw together by sheer force of his talent, even as the movie stumbles around him like a punch drunk fighter on the ropes. Whitaker also does interesting stuff with his mentor character, trying to find and convey a depth that's lacking on the page. The most interesting moments of Southpaw are Gyllenhaal's fleeting relationship with a young black kid at the gym; their few scenes together are more compelling than all of Gyllenhaal's attempts to reconnect with his daughter. Director Antoine Fuqua brings his A-game to the fight scenes, which are as visceral, bloody, and rousing as boxing movies get. Southpaw wants us to believe, among other things, that light heavyweight boxing is the hottest ticket in sports, and that Gyllenhaal can lose his title, his wife, his fortune, his daughter, go into poverty, and mount a comeback where he regains his championship and his family in the span of a few weeks. It sure was a tough financial quarter for Billy "The Great" Hope, but he came through it all right. Until the next time he loses his shit and loses everything as a result, baby.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Justice League: Gods and Monsters

JUSTICE LEAGUE: GODS AND MONSTERS

** SPOILERS **

The DC Comics Multiverse more often than not allows for alternate realities that can be more interesting than the mainstream "core" DC Universe. Justice League: Gods and Monsters, a brand new tale created for DC Animation (with spin off comics based on this universe, naturally), introduces us to one such alternate reality, and it's got a lot of potential. In Gods and Monsters, the Justice League is boiled down to the so-called Trinity: Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, in a wholly original, violent, and fascinating take on the three icons unlike any we've seen before. Bruce Wayne, Clark Kent, Princess Diana, where for art thou? Apparently, in this reality, nowhere, that's where. It's not a bad thing at all.

Superman (voiced by Benjamin Bratt) is the son of Lara and General Zod(!), who imbued his DNA into the Kryptonian birthing matrix instead of Jor-El just before the Last Son of Krypton was rocketed to Earth. The baby Superman was found not by the Kents but by a Mexican migrant couple and was raised with the name Hernan Guerra. Dios mio! The Batman (voiced by Michael C. Hall) is Kirk Langstrom, who is a half-man/half-bat villain named Man-Bat (naturally) in the main DC Universe, but here, he is our Dark Knight -- and he's a vampire, to boot! Wonder Woman (voiced by Tamara Taylor) is a princess of sorts, but she's no Amazon. She is Bekka from New Genesis, a power sword-wielding granddaughter of Highfather of the New Gods (voiced by Richard Chamberlain!). Best of all, this Wonder Woman's history is a cracking good Game of Thrones-style spin on the New Gods: She was engaged to Darkseid's son Orion as a consummation of a peace treaty between Apokolips and New Genesis, but it was all a sinister plot by a surprisingly sinister Highfather to "Red Wedding" Darkseid and his forces -- and it worked! 

Gods and Monsters limits the superheroes to the Trinity and doesn't explain how they came together as the Justice League, but all three get plenty of exploration of their origins. We literally watch Superman born from a zygote into an infant child on his journey to Earth. Batman's origin plays an integral part in the main plot: Langstrom went to college with Will Magnus, the robotics genius who creates the Metal Men in the main DC Universe. In Gods and Monsters, Magnus is a nanotech expert (with deep seeded feelings of jealousy and inadequacy). Magnus' nanotech seemed to hold the key to Langstrom's life's work, but ingesting his own bat serum transformed Langstrom into a vampire. How this vampire became the crimefighting Batman is a tale for another day. 

If you're a DC nerd really into the various brilliant and mad scientists of the DC Universe (guilty), God and Monsters is a veritable Who's Who: Victor Fries, Ray Palmer, John Henry Irons, Thaddeus Sivana, Kimiyo Hoshi, T.O. Morrow, Michael Holt, Silas Stone, and more -- they're all here, but not in their superheroic or villainous guises. Something called "Project Fair Play" is the impetus for the main plot, in which the Justice League is framed for the systematic murders of these scientists by robot assassins, all of whom were proteges of the mysterious Lex Luthor (voiced by Jason Isaacs). There are greater issues at play as well: the ultra violent nature of the Justice League is constantly under public scrutiny in the media, mainly by fearless reporter Lois Lane (voiced by Paget Brewster), who is far from Superman's biggest fan. The League's official status as government operatives turns sour with these murders, and they become public enemies under orders from President Amanda Waller (Penny Johnson Jerald). 

Justice League: Gods and Monsters takes DC Animation's "not necessarily, if at all, for kids" style and pushes it even further. With the League basically remorseless killing machines, the violence level is higher than ever. Wholesale slaughter is the League's M.O., but their mysterious enemies are even worse. Gods and Monsters doesn't shy away from depicting animals and even children gruesomely massacred. And yet, when all is said and done, Gods and Monsters takes on a surprisingly hopeful tone as Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, the most powerful and feared beings on Earth, choose to take up a position against killing in the future. It turns out gods and monsters can learn, grow, and change in Gods and Monsters. Maybe that S on Superman's belt buckle does mean "hope" after all.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Ant-Man

ANT-MAN

** SPOILERS **

Leave it to Marvel to mix one of their least well-known C-list superheroes with a heist film in the vein of Ocean's Eleven and the Thomas Crown Affair and knock it out of the park. Ant-Man continues Marvel Studios' incredible track record. Ant-Man is a jolly superhero tome about an underdog who gains the use of some of the strangest superpowers in the Marvel Universe. The Ant-Man is Scott Lang (Paul Rudd, getting full use of his real life superpower: likeability), a down on his luck cat burglar who spent three years in prison for stealing from an evil corporation stomping on the little guy. Despite his Masters degree in electrical engineering, there's not much of a future for an ex-con, not even at Baskin-Robbins. Lang yearns to be reunited with his young daughter, and the chance to be all that he could be falls into his lap when he burgles the San Francisco home of an eccentric old billionaire scientist. Inside the scientist's vault, Lang finds not money or jewels but an "old motorcycle suit" and helmet from the 1970s. Donning the suit in the bathroom of his flophouse hotel room, Lang experiences probably the best kind of shrinkage a guy could hope for.

The billionaire owner of the Ant-Man suit is Henry Pym (Michael Douglas), a brilliant inventor who once worked for S.H.I.E.L.D. decades ago but quit when he saw S.H.I.E.L.D. looking to exploit his greatest creation, the Pym Particles, which can breach the space between atoms and allow people to shrink, even to a subatomic level. S.H.I.E.L.D., and later his protege the devious Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), intend to weaponize the Pym Particles to create an army of shrinking super soldiers. Pym engineers the events of Lang burgling his home as a test; he intends Lang to become the new Ant-Man and "break into [Cross' company] and steal a bunch of shit." Ant-Man does a hell of a job convincing the viewer that this seemingly silly shrinking tech is indeed incredibly dangerous and that an army of tiny soldiers and saboteurs you can't see coming could destabilize world peace if it falls into the wrong hands. When wearing the Ant-Man suit, Pym in the 1970s and Lang today actually has awesome power: the super strength of an ant where a 200 lb man even in ant-size can strike a normal sized human with the impact of a bullet. Plus, the Ant-Man has the means to communicate with ants, making these industrious, loyal creatures do his bidding. Ant-Man manages to convince that ants are actually kind of cool. 

Along with being a fun heist film, Ant-Man is about fathers and daughters. Mirroring Lang's quest to earn his daughter's love, Pym must reconnect with his estranged daughter Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly), who spies on Cross for him while nursing a lifelong resentment over the death of her mother Janet Van Dyne. Hope takes a withering view of Lang as her father's new protege, and it naturally takes the characters a lot longer than it takes the audience to realize that Hope and Lang are meant for each other. Some of the biggest laughs in the movie come from Lang interjecting himself in the Pym-Van Dyne father daughter drama, especially when he ruins their big moment of tearful reconciliation. For his part, Lang is a quick learner, be it learning how to take a punch from Hope or mirroring her cool flying head scissors takedown moves when he's in battle as the Ant-Man. Darren Cross harbors his own deep seeded anger at Pym for years of lying to him about the existence of the Ant-Man tech. Cross developed his own imperfect shrinking suit, the Yellowjacket, but use of the tech without Pym's special helmet can cause the wearer to go insane. Go insane Cross does; he's quick to murder by zapping enemies into a tiny pile of goo with his shrink ray, and he can't wait to try to kill Lang's daughter when Lang foils his scheme to sell the Yellowjacket tech to Hydra.

Speaking of Hydra, Ant-Man is steeped in Marvel Universe lore, but elegantly juggles its connections to previous Marvel films while still barreling full speed ahead as a tidy superhero adventure. When we first meet Hank Pym, it's in 1989, and we gasp in astonishment at a de-aged Michael Douglas meeting with Howard Stark (John Slattery) and Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) at the under-construction Triskelion, the S.H.I.E.L.D. fortress we saw destroyed in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Pym couldn't have known, but perhaps suspected, that one of S.H.I.E.L.D.'s big wigs (Martin Donovan) was secretly a member of Hydra, as we learn many S.H.I.E.L.D. agents were. The big secret Pym kept from Hope all these years was that her mother was his partner in shrinkage, the Wasp, who saved the world from a nuclear missile by shrinking to the sub-atomic level and becoming lost forever in "the quantum field." And of course, the Avengers loom large over Ant-Man, with Lang not only outright suggesting calling the Avengers but actually winning a patented Marvel superhero brawl with an Avenger, the Falcon (Anthony Mackie), and "not dying." We learn during the closing credits that the Avengers will come calling for the Ant-Man's help in the upcoming Civil War sooner than later.

More than anything, Ant-Man is just entertainingly weird and fun. Director Peyton Reed, helming a screenplay by former director Edgar Wright and Joe Cornish and rewritten by Rudd and Adam McKay, keeps the action energetic and the goofy laughs coming. Lang's heists are accompanied by his three scene stealing goofball partners, Michael Pena (who kills in every moment he opens his mouth), David Dastmalcian, and T.I. Ant-Man manages to make Lang's flying ant, who he named "Anthony," the most lovable pet in the Marvel Universe. In Ant-Man, superhero vs. super villain battles taking place inside a briefcase inside a plummeting helicopter while an iPhone 6 plays "Plainsong" by The Cure or a climactic showdown on a Thomas The Tank Engine train set are perfectly normal. Ant-Man inherits the wit and zip of the very first Iron Man movie, melding the more bizarre aspects of last summer's Guardians of the Galaxy, and brings it all down to Earth, in a teeny, tiny fashion. As the finale of Marvel's cinematic Phase 2, it's a definitive statement of the successful Marvel formula, that Marvel can take one of the strangest things in their comics and make a crowd-pleasing superhero movie. Things can only get bigger for Ant-Man in Phase 3 if and when he assembles with the Avengers.

Friday, July 17, 2015

The Death of Superman Lives: What Happened?

THE DEATH OF SUPERMAN LIVES: WHAT HAPPENED?

** SPOILERS **

In 1998, no one at Warner Brothers Pictures really believed a man could fly. Writer-director Jon Schnepp's documentary The Death of Superman Lives: What Happened? investigates the events that lead to the kiboshing of one of superhero cinema's most intriguing and legendary movies that was never made: Superman Lives, which was to be directed by Tim Burton and star Nicolas Cage as the Man of Steel. On a personal note, as someone who dreaded an idiosyncratic Tim Burton interpretation of Superman and was always glad Superman Lives never got off the ground, I went into watching The Death of Superman Lives under the impression this would be a mockumentary celebrating the folly of the creative types who were en route to making a Super debacle that ultimately was foiled by the wise executives at Warner Bros. This was the impression I held of this failed project for over a decade. Instead, Schnepp's documentary earnestly explores the creative vision behind Superman Lives (Schnepp announces on the outset he'd been honestly intrigued by Superman Lives from the minute he'd heard about it) and argues effectively that Superman Lives' demise, however the movie might have turned out, was ultimately everyone's loss.

The Death of Superman Lives takes us on the Way Back Machine to the go-go '90's: following the failure of the final Christopher Reeve Superman movie in 1987 and the blockbuster successes of Tim Burton's 1989 Batman and the best-selling 1992 DC Comics series "The Death of Superman," Warner Bros. sought to use the comics' story to revitalize the Superman movie franchise. Enter controversial Batman producer Jon Peters, who rather brilliantly acquired the rights to produce a Superman movie, and writer-director-fanboy Kevin Smith. Smith would go on to a very successful public speaking career reiterating the stories of his involvement in Superman Lives: how he crafted a comic geek's dream "fan fiction"-like screenplay with cameos from Batman and the appearance of a "Thanagarian snare beast" (nee a giant spider) to appease the creative demands of Peters. When director Burton came on board to helm the project, Smith and his screenplay were the first to go, as Burton brought in his own people, including writer Wesley Strick and later writer Dan Gilroy, to execute his uniquely personal vision for Superman: that the Man of Steel was an alien outsider riddled by anxiety and questions about his abilities and his place in the world. All the creatives involved seemed to be excited that Nicolas Cage, then a recent Best Actor Oscar-winner for Leaving Las Vegas, was the unlikely choice cast as Superman, citing that the controversial casting of Michael Keaton as Batman in 1988 worked wonders, hence lightning would strike twice again with weary audiences. (All are also glad that the Internet and today's culture of instant online hating was nascent or non-existent at the time.)

Schnepp manages to interview all the major players involved with Superman Lives, save Cage, who appears in archival interviews and fascinating footage of costume fittings where he wears the various Super suits as he and Burton verbally work out their takes on the Superman and Clark Kent characters. Schnepp secured plenty of quality time interviewing producer Peters and director Burton, who are both eccentric in their own unique ways. Whatever fault one finds with their visions for Superman, Burton and Peters, however, were both passionate champions of this project and both were ultimately hurt and terribly disappointed when the movie didn't go forward after millions were spent on pre-production. Talks of casting lead to some interesting discrepancies: Chris Rock was a unanimous choice to play Jimmy Olsen, Burton favored Christopher Walken over Jim Carrey as Brainiac, and Burton openly scoffed at Peters' preference of Sandra Bullock as Lois Lane. Some terrific animation gives us the sense of what key scenes might have looked like, including a Lois and Clark date and a confrontation between Superman and the villain Brainiac's rather cool-looking Skull Ship in space. 

With no actors to interview, Schnepp instead spends a great deal of time speaking to the visual effects artists and wizards who came on board early in the process to design the look, props, and costumes of Superman Lives. The running time of the documentary is padded with a terrific amount of detail regarding how the various Superman suits were designed and constructed, what Krypton would have looked like visually, and an intriguing character called "K," which would have served as a major character in the movie: a guardian of sorts for Cage's Superman that would become his new, very 90's-style, sleek black Superman suit after Superman is resurrected. Late in the documentary come the money visuals: concept art of Superman battling Doomsday. It's fascinating to see the multiple versions of Doomsday and also Brainiac the various artists designed, taking their cues from Burton's "crude," in his own words, early drawings. For some reason, spiders were simply vitally, vitally important in Superman Lives. (Later, to Kevin Smith's chagrin, Peters would indeed get his giant spider in the box office failure Wild Wild West.) 

What killed Superman Lives? Ultimately, the conclusion reached, it was money and fear. Warner Bros. was mired in a disastrous slate of bombs at that point in the late 90s (including expensive stinkers like Sphere). Tim Burton's Superman Lives, with its way, way out there visual aesthetics and a ballooning $300-million price tag, was a frightening proposition to the executives at Warner Bros. To their credit, Burton and Peters seemed to have fought hard to keep their green light. (This dispels another personal belief I held for some reason, that Burton didn't really want to make Superman Lives. Turns out he still, to this day, desires to see his Superman vision on the big screen, even if he never has quite figured Superman out.) One could argue that the team Peters and Burton assembled didn't really understand Superman; unlike today, where verisimilitude to the comic book source material has proven to reap dividends of money and public acclaim, in the late 1990's, it was a source of pride to not be associated with comic books and to try to "reinvent" comic book superheroes for the big screen. However, by spending quality time with the talented and ultimately well-meaning filmmakers who spent months designing Superman Lives, The Death of Superman Lives' greatest superpower turns out to be changing the mind of someone like me, who was long glad Superman Lives never saw the light of day. Now, I wish Superman Lives got made. As many in the documentary said, it might have been an epic failure, but it could have been an interesting failure. It could also have been a Superman for all seasons.

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