Thursday, 19 April 2018

Road to Infinity War - Phase 2 - Ant-Man (2015)

The greatest "What If?" in the history of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Out there in the Quantum Realm somewhere there is a version of the MCU that still features an Ant-Man that was directed by Edgar Wright.
Fans of the Cornetto Trilogy were feeling rather negative towards the film before it came out, saying that this was finally going to be Marvel's first genuine misstep and flop but...
Trust in Feige and the MCU because in spite of all the troubles and issues going into the production, the final result is actually a very fun and enjoyable Marvel film, albeit it on a smaller scale than Age of Ultron (pun intended) and the perfect palette cleanser.
Paul Rudd is a fantastic choice for Scott Lang, who is drawn into a scheme to stop the original Ant-Man Hank Pym's protege from recreating the technology. He perfectly captures the wide-eyed cynicism to the ridiculousness of the entire situation and it helps draw the audience into this world.
It certainly plays to Rudd's strengths, playing up the humour "Baskin Robbins always find out" and he is given a terrific sidekick to spark off in Michael Pena's Luis with his fantastic flashback explanations.
NB: Marvel, please release the Comic-Con video of Pena explaining the entire MCU history to Michelle Pfieffer before Infinity War comes out!
While Pym has handpicked Scott Lang to be the one to take on the mantle (or should that be Antle) of Ant-Man, this puts Scott at loggerheads with Hank's daughter Hope Van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) who believes she is the worthy successor but at odds with her father because of a past family tragedy that will drive the narrative forward in the sequel Ant-Man and the Wasp.
With Marvel keen to put a different spin on each of their movies, this one can definitely be described as a heist movie with a lot of time spent on Lang training for the job (including the contractual Marvel shot of Rudd with his top off to prove that he has worked out enough to have a six-pack) and putting the plan into action.
Peyton Reed does a good job of delivering the action but there are still moments in the film that still feel like Wright (he retained a screenplay credit) such as the train fight sequence at the end with a cameo from Thomas The Tank Engine.
However if there is one person who deserves a huge amount of credit for the success of Phase 2 and 3 in the MCU, it is the person responsible for the visual effects that de-aged Michael Douglas in the opening scene as the result is astonishing (and would be repeated in Civil War and Guardians Vol. 2). It is creepily realistic and they deserve a pay rise!

Also, it doesn't get mentioned a lot but one would argue that Ant-Man features that saddest death in the MCU outside of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2!

Infinity Stone counter = 4

Wednesday, 18 April 2018

Road to Infinity War - Phase 2 - Avengers: The Age Of Ultron (2015)

You know what? Avengers Age of Ultron gets a bit of an unfairly bad rep.
A lot of that comes from Joss Whedon's split from the Marvel Cinematic Universe following the release of the film where it was revealed that he had not enjoyed the process this time round, feeling that the wider needs of the Universe were getting in the way of telling the story. It also caused him to leave Twitter when fans started hating on him for certain character choices he made (*cough* Natasha and Bruce *cough*).
It is certainly not a perfect film. For one thing it is Avengers: Age of Product Placement with featured shots of Under Armour clothing, Beats headphones, Reebok trainers and, randomly, Gillette shaving cream!
What Ultron does do well is it captures the fun and excitement of having a group of superheroes working together and the wonderful chemistry established by the group of actors who have now been working together for a number of years.
It picks up where it left off, kickstarting the film with an action sequence that features Earth's mightiest heroes in a slow mo one shot again that says "we're hitting the ground running". It also contains the wonderful "language" moment.
There is the party scene where all the Avengers (except Black Widow) attempt to pick up Thor's hammer. The look on Hemsworth's face when Cap makes it wobble ever so slightly is priceless. It also has a wonderful pay off later in the film with Vision.
One of the major criticism's from fans was the middle section where they lay low at Hawkeye's family farm but it allows the movie a chance to breathe and it is a nice, welcome character development for Renner's Clint Barton who spent most of the first film under the mind control of Loki.
Given Whedon's history for killing off characters, it pulls the perfect bait-and-switch building up "one last job", "baby on the way" sacrifice for the hero that doesn't end the way you think.
It also gives him a wonderful moment with Elizabeth Olsen's Scarlet Witch where he delivers a pep talk about becoming an Avenger and how ridiculous it all is that he is just a guy with "a bow and arrow".
It is wonderful to finally see the MCU get another female superhero to add to the mix in the form of Wanda Maximoff aka Scarlet Witch (No, Maria Hill does not count!). Olsen is perfect in the role that will develop over the next phase as she struggles to deal with her enormous power and relationship to Vision, the child of Ultron.
Voiced perfectly by James Spader, Ultron is the dark mirror image of Tony Stark. Born out of a need to protect the Earth from attack but ultimately deciding the easiest way to do that is destroy humanity, he is the Monster to Stark's Doctor Frankenstein.
On reflection, now that Phase 3 is nearly complete, Age of Ultron actually fits in a lot better to the overall arching storyline. The final battle in Sokovia has huge repercussions for the group that leads into Civil War, Andy Serkis's delightfully wacky Ulysses Klaue as a plot device to introduce the notion of Wakanda (but worth it for his Cuttlefish speech) and Thor's subplot about going for a dream bath now makes a lot more sense given the events of Thor Ragnarok for example. Again it is about finding that balance between being a complete one shot film versus paving the road to Infinity War but if people were to talk a walk back down this path, they will find much more to enjoy second time around.

Infinity Stone counter = 4

Tuesday, 17 April 2018

Road to Infinity War - Phase 2 - Guardians Of The Galaxy (2014)

Let's admit it. This shouldn't have worked. A cosmic comedy adventure featuring D-list Marvel characters that included a talking raccoon and a walking tree that could only say three words?
And at a time when D.C. were struggling to put together a Batman vs Superman movie.
But Marvel Studios once again proved why they are the best in the business and knocked it out of the park with Guardians Of The Galaxy. Created a smash hit movie franchise. Turned Chris Pratt into a A-List superstar and got a compilation soundtrack to become one of the biggest selling albums of the year and nominated for a Grammy!
It might have seemed like a risk but GotG was actually an essential building block in the MCU as it was the first film to directly deal with the Infinity Stones which Thanos will ultimately look to finally add to his gauntlet after 6 years of sitting on his arse!
We get the Power Stone in the Orb as the "Ark of the Covenant, Maltese Falcon kinda vibe" MacGuffin for the movie and Benicio Del Toro's Collector to provide the back story to the gems.
The central plot is so-so, with the group moving from one planet to the next to retrieve the orb and stop the bland, generic bad guy's evil schemes which result in Phase 2's standard Act 3 of having very large things falling from the sky into over-populated urban areas (Helicarriers in Winter Soldier, Dark Elven ships in Thor The Dark World, Sokovia in Ultron).
What makes the film works in spite of any flaws is the casting, chemistry and "banter" of the Guardians.
Pratt *IS* Peter Quill from the moment he starts dancing around to Come And Get And Your Love in a giant space cave. It tells you everything you need to know about the character without him having to say a word but when he does he is hilarious. Confusing the likes of Gamora and Drax with his Eighties references to mighty heroes such as Kevin Bacon for example.
Despite initial misgivings over the casting of Bradley Cooper, he does an excellent job as Rocket Raccoon and Diesel (who has previous form as The Iron Giant) manages to do so much with just three words. Who knew there were so many different ways you could say "I am Groot"?
The biggest revelation here however was Dave Bautista as Drax the Destroyer. Best known for being from WWE, this was his first real film role and while there were the usual questions over whether he would be a Hulk Hogan or a Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, he actually steals the entire film with his remarkable comic timing.
Overall, there is a looseness and sense of fun and wonder about the film that simultaneously expands the MCU into the wider cosmic universe but also keeps it grounded and real thanks to the soundtrack that features well known (and soon to be well known) songs from the Seventies and Eighties, all of which are perfectly used.
Finally, on this rewatch, despite pouring over every frame, sadly no closer to discovering James Gunn's final hidden Easter Egg. Next time A'Holes!

Infinity Stone counter = 4 (Power Stone, Reality Stone, Space Stone, Mind Stone)

Monday, 16 April 2018

Road to Infinity War - Phase 2 - Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

For me, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is the MCU's The Dark Knight. This is the film that proved that Marvel can not only produce great comic book movies but a genuinely great movie that transcends the genre.
And all that from the two guys who directed You, Me & Dupree!
The film does a fantastic job of developing the character of Steve Rogers, who not only finds himself "out of time" but also at odds with the people who give him orders. Is he fighting for the good guys anymore?
It is an interesting storyline, particularly given the modern world in which we live where surveillance and data is such a huge issue, and Captain America is the perfect conduit in which to funnel the story through.
It is also the film that hinted that Kevin Feige was not a fan of the Marvel TV shows at that time and took a giant steaming dump on Agents of SHIELD, forcing them to change their entire direction, when it is revealed that HYDRA has been infiltrating SHIELD ever since the Second World War, giving rise to the incredible "Hail Hydra" memes whenever anyone was photographed hugging someone.

While the film was tearing down SHIELD, it was building bonds and relationships for Rogers with the introduction of Sam Wilson (Falcon), his right hand woman Black Widow (Evans and Johansson are terrific together in this) and the return of Bucky Barnes as the Winter Soldier.
It also gives the MCU its most heartbreaking moment to date when Steve is finally reunited with Peggy Carter after all these years only to discover that she has Alzheimer's and must relive the joy and pain of seeing him again for the first time over and over, and Atwell is magnificent in that scene.
What elevates Winter Soldier over other MCU films at this stage are the action sequences which are the finest in the saga. The choreography, cinematography and storytelling are exceptional AND they are predominantly achieved through practical effects which is probably a first for the MCU.
It is not just one set piece either. From the opening tanker rescue mission to the final fist fight between Steve and Bucky, there are a number of action sequences that would easily make the overall top ten including the elevator fight, Fury's car chase and the freeway shootout.
The Avengers might still have the "Wow" factor and more geek friendly moments, but Winter Soldier is Marvel working at the peak of its collective abilities and was the beginning of the passing of the torch from Whedon to the Russos as the go-to-guys for Marvel Studios and based on this first effort, as Cap would say "I'm with you till the end of the line".

Infinity Stone counter = 3 (Reality Stone, Space Stone, Mind Stone)

Rampage - review

"Know your role"
This was one of the verbal smackdowns that The Rock would lay down on his opponents during his days as the most electrifying man in sports entertainment. Nowadays, it is a motto that Dwayne Johnson lives by in his career as one of the most successful box office stars of the last decade.
Now not only an actor, but a producer as well, he has an incredible knack of picking projects that entertain audiences. Even if the audience themselves don't even think they need them i.e. Jumanji Welcome To The Jungle which has just become Sony's highest grossing film EVER in the US.
Sure, there is the odd misfire (Doom, Baywatch) but for the most part, Johnson is able to deliver big, dumb action movies better than anyone else in the business.
And speaking of big and dumb, welcome to Rampage which features three supersized creatures attacking downtown Chicago following a genetic experiment gone wrong.
If the plot sounds familiar, then you were probably born in the Eighties and played the video game of the same name.
In the game, players were in control of the monsters and the aim was to destroy all the buildings before you were killed by military forces.
In the film, the story follows Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson's Primatologist (just go with it) David Okoye who attempts to save his friend George (a giant Albino gorilla), who has mutated to incredible size, from the army who are determined to take him down alongside a giant wolf and crocodile.
The film wisely spends the first 15-20 minutes building the relationship between Davis and George before the proverbial rampaging begins and the special effects and motion performance from Jason Liles (under the tutelage of Terry Notary) help to convince of the friendship between the two and buy into Davis's mission to protect George from harm and save others in his way.
Johnson's character, along with Naomie Harris's biologist Kate Caldwell, are given backstories to flesh out their characters but to be perfectly honest they are unnecessary because deep, thoughtful characterisation is not why the audiences have bought a ticket.
Out of the rest of the supporting cast, Jeffery Dean Morgan's shadowy government agent who is the guy that "when science shits the bed, I'm the one they call to clean the sheets" is great value and totally gets the tone of what the movie is going for.
Unlike the sequence where Joe Manganiello's special forces team track the wolf through a forest that, if one did not know any better, was Brad Peyton filming an audition sequence for a new Predator movie.
Now Peyton and Johnson's last collaboration San Andreas came in for some criticism for not featuring a scene of The Rock stopping an earthquake by punching it in the face.
Thankfully, no such criticism here as Johnson tools up to fight the creatures mano et monstero... albeit somehow doing all this having taken a bullet to the stomach! Sadly no third act twist where Dwayne is forced to take the same genetic serum to grow to supersize to fight them head on, instead working side by side with George to take them down.
Standing next to the curiously large George, Johnson must have finally realised how Kevin Hart feels every time they appear on screen together.
There is no monkeying around in the final sequence which features more destruction than a Transformers movie and Man of Steel combined as it commits to dialling up the ridiculousness of the situation all the way up to 11 but works thanks to Johnson's character saying exactly what the audience is thinking the whole time.
It would be difficult to say that this film wants to be aping the success of previous video game adaptations because the bar is set quite low but it what it delivers is Prim(ate) Friday night entertainment.

3 stars

Sunday, 15 April 2018

Road to Infinity War - Phase 2 - Thor: The Dark World (2013)

Thor The Dark World. The darkest moment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Not in terms of plot or backstage drama (that would come with Ant-Man) but in terms of colour palette and reviews.
The sequel to Thor is widely regarded as the least popular film in the MCU.
Following on from the excitement of Shane Black's Iron Man 3 straying from the convention and of Phase 1 Marvel movies, this feels disappointingly formulaic.
Following Patty Jenkins' departure (she would get her own back by directing Wonder Woman four years later), Alan Taylor was hired. Best known for Game Of Thrones, he brings a workman-like quality to the production but never threatens to bring the same level of wit or inventiveness to proceedings like Joss Whedon or Shane Black
The problem lies in the villain Malekith and the Dark Elves. Underneath the make up and auto tuned voice, you wouldn't be able to tell that Malekith is played by Christopher Eccleston (something he wants to forget as well).
There is a Macguffin about planetary convergences, eternal darkness and dark matter but really this is all there to introduce the third Infinity Stone... even if it is not currently in the form of a stone.
The real story is Thor's relationships. With Jane (who is moving on with a date with Chris O'Dowd), his father Odin and incarcerated brother (adopted) Loki.
There is double and triple crossing as the battle against the Elves and for the throne reaches its climax in... Greenwich, London of all places. I think this was during the two year period where every US blockbuster was contractually obligated to destroy Central London (G.I. Joe - Retaliation, Fast & Furious 6, London Has Fallen, Independence Day Resurgence, etc, etc).
Now there are continuity errors and goofs in every film. It's part and parcel of film making that things will go wrong.
This leads us to the single moment in the MCU that will wind up every Londoner or person from the UK who is familiar with the London Underground where Thor gets on a tube train at Charing Cross and asks how far to Greenwich and a woman tells him two stops. TWO STOPS! More like "two stops to Waterloo then change for the Jubilee line and then take it six stops to North Greenwich and walk to the Naval College mate"!
Still, it was nice to see Kat Dennings back as Darcy just for the moment she can shout "Meow Meow" at Mjolnir as the hammer goes flying by.

Infinity Stone counter = 3 (Reality Stone [Aether], Space Stone, Mind Stone)

Saturday, 14 April 2018

Road to Infinity War - Phase 2 - Iron Man 3

The Avengers had opened to $200 million in its first weekend. It would go on to make over $1.5 billion worldwide.
It would be safe to say that Marvel Studios were feeling pretty pleased with themselves at this point. Yet instead of resting on their laurels and sticking to a tried and tested formula, they very riskily and daringly threw out the rule book with Iron Man 3 and hired Shane Black to write and direct.
Shane Black was best known for being a screenwriter in the Eighties, cranking out the screenplays for such hits as Lethal Weapon, The Last Boy Scout and The Long Kiss Goodnight, but it was Kiss Kiss Bang Bang that landed him the job with Marvel.
His hilarious neo-noir directorial debut in 2005 based on his own script was the film that offered Robert Downey Jr a way back into the Hollywood elite and it was his performance in this film that persuaded Feige et all to give him a chance as Tony Stark. One he has seized with both hands and never looked back.
For any fans of Shane Black, it is clear that this has his fingerprints all over it; flashbacks, voiceover narration, whipsmart dialogue and it is set at Christmas!
It felt fresh, daring and dangerous compared to everything that Marvel had produced before. This took Tony Stark out of the Iron Man suit and forced him to show that he could be a hero in his own right.
Of course, the most controversial, and divisive, moment comes at the start of the third act when it is revealed that the villainous terrorist The Mandarin is actually a drunken, out of work British actor called Trevor Slattery, portraying a character created to take the blame for Guy Pearce's experiments gone wrong.
The twist works because The Mandarin is a racist stereotype from the Sixties and it would have been met with controversy if they had gone down that route, and it works because of Ben Kingsley, sorry Sir Ben Kingsley's performance. He is suitably menacing as the face of the Ten Rings and also hilarious as Trevor Slattery.
It sets the bar high for Phase 2 in that anything can happen. Well except the death of Iron Man that is. I mean, you have him making this potentially huge sacrifice play at the end of The Avengers but it lacked the emotional weight due to the fact that Iron Man 3 had already been announced.
Looking back at the Marvel Cinematic Universe now during Phase 2, there is so much happening within a tight time frame that this leads to some odd story choices which impact repeat viewings of some of the films. Iron Man 3 in particular.
At the end of this film, Tony Stark essentially retires as Iron Man, even going so far as to remove the arc reactor from his chest. Yet, a couple of years later, there he is back as Iron Man in Age of Ultron where Whedon seems to have ignored most of what happened to him thematically.
Still, it is difficult to be that negative about a film being narrated by Tony that you discover in the post-credit sting that is actually being told to Bruce Banner who has fallen asleep, because he is not that kind of doctor.

Infinity Stone Counter = 2