The Marvel Cinematic Universe began in earnest when Tony Stark proclaimed, “I am Iron Man.” Then Nick Fury stepped out of the shadows and assembled a team. The movie industry shook. It was the beginning of something new; an unchartered holistic approach to franchise filmmaking and the genesis of a box office monolith unlike any to have ever proceeded it. Over the course of 21 films, the MCU has become the equivalent of global Saturday morning cartoons; serialized superhero adventure stories that somehow most of the world has bought into. And all that comes to a head in Avengers: Endgame, a movie that is so momentous, it’s difficult to classify in and amongst other general releases. Empty out your pockets now folks, cuz you’re gonna need to strap into this ride a few times. Read More
Over the course of 18 films and 10 years, Kevin Feige and his army of Marvel men and women have laid a pretty nifty foundation upon which the Marvel Cinematic Universe rests. What started with humble beginnings with 2008’s Iron Man has since blown up into a cultural and financial supernova with no less than 30 recognizable characters and all that comes to a head with the Russo Brother’s astonishingly ambitious though perfunctorily flawed Avengers: Infinity War. Read More
Maestro of whimsy Wes Anderson returns to stop-motion animation nearly a decade after Fantastic Mr. Fox to tell a story of political corruption and grassroots rebellion starring a bunch of scruffy mutts and overzealous kiddos in the absolutely delightful Isle of Dogs. Draped in quirky Andersonisms, understated humor, and brassy real-world parallels, the auteur’s ninth film is an irreverent celebration of outsiders that’s steeped in Japanese culture and plopped within a dog-eat-dog political treatise on inclusion and the dangers of nationalism. Read More
Controversy has plagued Ghost in the Shell since the day Hollywood “It” girl Scarlett Johansson was cast in the pole position. Adapted from a serialized Japanese manga of the same name, Ghost in the Shell tells the story of Major, a Japanese cybernetic counter-terrorist agent. Before anyone starts yelling “Whitewashing!”, it’s easy enough to see the problem lurking. Even those without a ton of processing power may be thinking to themselves, “Hey, but Scarlett Johansson isn’t Japanese…what gives?” Indeed, what gives? Johansson being the most bankable actress in the world, teeing her up to lead an effects driven potential franchise starter makes perfect sense. From a financial perspective, the move is logical. But… Read More
Synopsis: “Political pressure mounts to install a system of accountability when the actions of the Avengers lead to collateral damage. The new status quo deeply divides members of the team. Captain America (Chris Evans) believes superheroes should remain free to defend humanity without government interference. Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) sharply disagrees and supports oversight. As the debate escalates into an all-out feud, Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Vision (Paul Bettany), War Machine (Don Cheadle), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), Winter Solider (Sebastian Stan), Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) and Spider-Man (Tom Holland) all must pick a side.” Read More
Ever since Samuel L. Jackson cropped up in an eye patch in Iron Man’s post-credits, Marvel films have had their eye firmly planted on the future. Setting up incoming installments has been a precarious process, resulting in such face-palmingly clunky sequences as the infamous “Thor in a Bath Tub” scene and the entirety of Iron Man 2. When not preoccupied with teasing the oncoming comic strata or hogtying in easter eggs for uber-nerds to dissect and debate, Marvel has admittedly done fine work developing their roster of heroes, taking careful stock in ensuring that its non-comic reading audience has at the bare minimum a working sense of what drives these supers to strap into spandex and save the world. With Captain America: Civil War, a direct sequel to the events of Captain America: Winter Solider that employs nearly the entirety of The Avengers, those characters turn to the rear view to take stock of what has been lost along the way. Read More
Have you ever wondered what Channing Tatum would look like in a little sailors outfit? Wonder no more. The trailer for Hail, Caesar!, the newest comedy from Joel and Ethan Coen, has arrived and it looks nothing short of glorious (and features Tatum dressed oh-so-preciously) . Hail, Caesar! tells the story of a tentpole movie production halted when its leading man (George Clooney) is kidnapped and held for ransom. The sure-to-be winning picture is brimming with talent; in addition to Tatum and Clooney, Josh Brolin, Tilda Swinton, Scarlett Johansson, Ralph Fiennes, Jonah Hill and Frances McDormand are set to star with cinematography provided by all-star DP Roger Deakins. Read More
What to say about The Avengers: Age of Ultron? It’s certainly a Marvel movie; a spectacle-heavy rationing of motormouthed zingers, busy with whip-pan, slo-mo action montages and done up like a prom queen with CG glitz. It’s the insatiable younger brother to Joss Whedon’s initial compulsory corporate softball tournament; a large and in charge super-conglomeration that rarely stops to make time to make sense, and though darker (emotionally), bigger (logistically) and meaner (spiritually), it’s not nearly as much fun as when space worms were involved. The Marvel brand has been defined by its sense of “fun” and Age of Ultron certainly houses the brand of larger-than-life, escapist entertainment that Marvel fans have emptied out their pockets for in the past but it misses the shock-and-awe boat that installment numero uno rode in on, instead serving up a welting reminder of the inconsequential, aggressively episodic nature of this whole shared universe business. By the end of Ultron’s short-lived age, tables have been set but little has actually changed. This is Lather, Rinse, Repeat: Age of Redundancy. Read More
“Under the Skin”
Directed by Jonathan Glazer
Starring Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy McWilliams, Adam Pearson
Of the many masters of cinema, Stanley Kubrick bulges out an esoteric monolith; an unbound vision of dystopian tomorrowland. Knowingly or no, he redefined cinema and still has a hulking influence over modern pictures. He started making movies in the age of Hays Code, a totalitarian, aggressively Calvinist model of censorship that restricted the depiction of such things as “pointed profanity”, “any licentious or suggestive nudity – in fact or in silhouette”, “illegal traffic in drugs”, and other horrors like “white slavery” (…). According to the master himself, these stringent policies ruined his 1962 adaptation of the controversial novel Lolita, a source riddled with sexual affront unsuitable for the likes of pre-Vietnam War gentleladies and gentlemen.
With censorship regulations lifted in 1968 (noticeably congruent to the proliferation of public access to the actual, and horrific, goings on in Nam), Kubrick led the charge into uncharted territory, stringing sex, violence, and gore like beads onto the necklace of cinema’s rebirth. Visually striking tableaus of the “dark side” came to define his conclusively arresting work as he quickly became a maestro of these newly unregulated waters. Only four years later, he released what is still considered one of the most disturbing and controversial films to ever hit the market, another adaptation: A Clockwork Orange. Heralded as a celebration of the nasty side of human nature, Clockwork was a whole new bag and met mixed response from the critical and filmgoing community. Even critic Godfather Roger Ebert dumped on it. Lasciviousness, sadism, and sexual perversion went on to define many themes that ebbed throughout the pantheon of Kubrick’s work and the many, many filmmakers who he influenced.
Jonathan Glazer‘s latest, Under the Skin, has drawn much early comparison to Kubrick’s work, most notably, 2001: A Space Odyssey. The similarities aren’t difficult to unearth as his work often feels like straight homage, if not strong stylistic replication. And when it’s not busy being magnificently inaccessible, Under the Skin‘s powerful visual topography and mundane scene work provide the audience an unnaturally vague stethoscope to cull their own meaning from Glazer’s work. His is a film that could be interpreted six ways to Sunday and still wouldn’t have one sound, “definitive” reading. It’s a tone poem for the sci-fi nutcase, a probing of what it to be human, ineradicably captured through the eyes of an alien.
Like Clockwork, Under the Skin unfolds in parabolic fashion with the rise and descent of our “heroine” – a mysterious seductress from another world. She’s not as uncouth as Alex but her victims are just as many. Glazer’s brazenly obscure opening sequence details our unnamed seductress in the belly of her inception. She’s pieced together with the wardrobe of casual victim the first, practicing newfound pronunciation, perfecting an English accent like Neo downloading Kung Fu. Wearing a Scarlett Johansson skin suit, the world is her oyster.
But Glazer refuses to walk on eggshells around his audience, nor does he yield to the straight-forward demands of the mass consumer. His work lives in a world where Kubrick is king, where pop sensibilities drown alongside the arbitrary family that surfaces in the film’s midst. It’s a film of coincidence and self-discovery, told through parabolic symbolism and vague iconography. We craft our own meaning around the uncertain infrastructure he’s presented. Reality is Inception limbo. We build, we destroy. Spin the top to make sure it’s all real.
Johansson is in increasingly common adroit form, an apt femme fatale that serves as protagonist and antagonist both. Knowingly dressed down so her natural beauty can shine through, she doesn’t quite put in the caliber of career-topping performance one would hope for in such a one-woman-show. As her character pulls a reverse “Shining”, becoming increasingly tapped into the meaning of the human struggle, Johansson is afforded more opportunities to perform a killing blow but never manages quite the venomous sting one would expect. She plays her character like a living Venus Fly Trap. Cloying helplessness flows into a dastardly come-hither dance. She snares us all.
What Glazer fails to capture of Kubrick’s cajolery is the subversive but populist appeal he purposefully built into the foundation of his work. No matter how out there Kubrick got, he maintained a semblance of mainstream magnetism. There’s a measure of esoteric relatability in Kubrick’s films that escape his many protege wannabes, Glazer included. Then again, Kubrick might be a master because of his unusual circumstance, his being a child of two eras of film. That he was forced to function within a box for so long, when he did broke out, he had all the tools and training to transcend generic storytelling tropes. In many ways, the cell of censorship made his blossoming that much more potent and purposeful. Glazer’s work is what happens when you start at Z and attempt to work your way forward.
No wonder then that In the Skin is a conflagration of human genitalia. Penises – flaccid and fully boned up – float towards the siren’s call of Johansson’s perpetually undressing figure. An explicit experiment on just how weird humans are in their natural state or a celebration of turn of the century carnal liberation, Glazer’s intentions are as masked as the occult figurines of Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut.
For all its lurid obscurity, Glazer’s film finds potency rejuvenating the strange in cinema. Obscurity is his landmark, blurry ideology his send off. Under the Skin is sure to be the talk of cinephile’s niche circles like Enemy was last month and for good reason: it’s engaging, seductive and totally fucked in the head. It’s just enough to temporarily numb your psyche and challenge your assumptions of what cinema ought to be.
But even when you’re inevitably scratching your head as the credits roll, the repeated vignette of Johansson’s stripping down the runway will prove burned in your mind’s eye, captivating and near medicinal purpose enough to warrant the indie theater ticket price.
“Captain America: The Winter Soldier”
Directed by Anthony Russo, Joe Russo
Starring Chris Evans, Samuel L. Jackson, Scarlett Johansson, Robert Redford, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Cobie Smulders, Frank Grillo, Emily VanCamp, Toby Jones
Adventure, Action, Sci-Fi
Growing up in the 1940s gives Steve Rogers an excuse to not understand the mechanics of speed dial. But when neo-Nazi’s threaten the freedom of the entire world, you have to wonder why he’s not more focused on contacting his nuclear suit-wearing chum, Tony Stark, or the bad Shakespeare in the park actor/Norse God, Thor. Unless he’s gone on some spirit journey to be explained away in extra Blu-Ray bonus material, Tony’s probably just shambling around Stark Towers in his drawers. His billionaire skyline must be literally cast in shadow by the helicarriers of doom that Captain America’s trying to take down with the only weapons at his disposal: record-breaking sprinting skills and a shield. The fate of the entire world is at stake and here’s good hearted Steve clearly taking a hell of an ass-whopping and he still doesn’t see fit to call up his Avengers pals? Or at least try? I’m sorry but you lost me there.
The one thing that Kevin Fiege and his Marvel Movie Universe croonies tend to get right is they suit the adventure to the adventurer. The threats Iron Man faced in his third outing were largely personal. A wronged colleague becomes a viable villain, he’s forced to deal with PDST from a near death experience and his personal arsenal of humanoid WMDs transforms him from a private citizen into national defense mascot numero uno. There were larger implications at play had he not gotten his guy but Stark at least felt well equipped to handle the charge. Thor’s arc in The Dark World involves intergalactic worm holes, gigantic frost monsters and 8-foot tall Dark Elves. But Thor wields a hammer forged in a dying star that gives him the ability to fly around like a blonde, bearded Superman. Being, you know, a god, Thor was the Avenger best equipped to handle such a mark. Sure, having other Supers alongside wouldn’t have hurt but this was a mission that suited Thor’s pedigree. Equipped only with a hunky body, a pure heart and strips of pure sinew for legs (made for putting fellow long distance runners to shame), Captain America (Chris Evans) just seems out of his depths.
Look at him in The Winter Soldier. His big mission involves a retread task (one we already saw a version of in The Avengers) that he’s simply unfit to handle because, well, his superpowers aren’t really that super. His third act heroics necessitate a flying wingman because he’s simply not equipped to handle the mission solo. Joining him is snarky sidekick Anthony Mackie as Falcon, an ex-Marine with a winged exoskeleton, because calling up Tony Stark or Thor was just… out of the question?
Part and parcel of enjoying these Marvel movies is digesting them with a spoonful of salt, especially when we’re looking at them from a logical standpoint and not a logistical one. Omissions are necessary from a budgetary standpoint and we have to be willing to overlook that… to some degree. But rather than make these shortcomings apparent, smart screenwriting would try to mask the need for the whole gang. This is where Captain America: The Winter Soldier fails hardest; an especially sad reality when contrasted to the contained spy thriller that it’s established as.
Since the events of The Avengers, Cap and his shield shield S.H.I.E.L.D. Before this, Iron Man 2 was the first MMU film to tackle the build towards The Avengers head on and got far too bogged down in the goings on at that shadowy organization to stand as a film itself. The Winter Soldier has becomes it’s Phase 2 predecessor. Like Iron Man 2, it suffers from a fatal diagnosis of teaser syndrome. It’s all about what’s to come, not what’s happening in the now. By the end of the film, the chapter isn’t closed, it’s just beginning. Even it’s titular character, that mysterious Winter Soldier (played by a hollowed out Sebastian Stan), is relegated to a minor role with only an inkling of character.
If only Marvel would realize that not ever venture needed a third-act calamity, that millions must not be dumped on visual effects and that telling a self-contained story is a virtue in itself, then this could have been a rousing triumph. As it is, Cap 2 works so much better when its sights are centered on the smaller scale, when Steve and Scar Jo‘s Black Widow are traipsing around hunting for clues, trying to put a name to faceless villainy.
Give me more super-noir, less hapless explosions. Give me the humor and tragedy of Cap being a man lost in time. Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely show savvy sneaking in some current political hot buttons as subtext but fail to tell the more personal story of a lost man adapting to a whole damn new century. But this is bane of the Russo Bros’ film; it takes one step forward, two steps back. Every cheer is followed up with a few jeers. With character resolution left dealt with in post-credit stingers and a third act that may as well have been helidropped in from some other movie, the modest enjoyment one gets from Captain America: The Winter Soldier just doesn’t justify the $170 million dollars spent. It’s too busy shoulder tapping you to go see The Avengers 2.