Doctor Strange

Apologies for disappearing for the last few weeks. My life is a bit chaotic right now. But not as chaotic as this Marvel movie I’m about to review!

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Stephen Strange is a brilliant neurosurgeon with a pile of money,  a library of awards, and an ego the size of Texas. All that starts to change after he gets into a horrific car accident (texting while driving is BAD, kids!) that mangles his hands so badly he can’t even shave, let alone perform surgery. Desperate to try anything that could give him his old life back, he goes to Nepal to visit a mystical organisation called the Kamar-Taj, whose adherents are rumoured to have amazing healing abilities. Strange quickly finds out they do a heck of a lot more than heal injuries. Under the guidance of their leader, The Ancient One, he learns how to use magic to enter other dimensions, conjure powerful weapons, and do various other cool things, all of which he’ll soon need to use. Turns out the Kamar-Taj is at war with a rogue sorcerer who wants to unleash a malicious cosmic entity on the world, and Doctor Strange is getting swept into the conflict whether he likes it or not.

On the surface, this is way weirder than your average superhero movie, even considering some of the lesser-known heroes Marvel has brought to the screen recently. It’s got cities that fold themselves into kaleidoscopes, a dimension made entirely of hands, a sentient floating cape, and Benedict Cumberbatch trying to sound American. But despite the trippy visuals and out-of-the-box concept, it’s still a Marvel movie, which means there are certain rules it must follow. It’s got to have product placement (because even sorcerers need their iPads!), it’s got to have a Stan Lee cameo (no matter how jarring and out-of-place it feels), and it’s got to have characters who constantly make funny little quips at each other, even in serious life-or-death situations. And, sadly, it’s gotta have a bland, generic villain whose motives don’t make much sense.

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He also has a serious dry skin problem.

Then there are the more meta problems with this movie–particularly the fact that, even though about half of it takes place in Asia, there’s only one Asian character with any importance to the plot. And it’s not The Ancient One. Although I imagine it’s very hard to adapt a comic book from racist times in a way that doesn’t offend anyone, the people complaining about whitewashing in this movie do have something of a point.

But darn it, none of that is enough to keep me from loving Doctor Strange. It’s just too much fun. Did I mention there’s a scene where a city folds itself into a kaleidoscope? Well, there are also people fighting in that kaleidoscope and weaponising the shifting landscape against each other. It’s like Inception multiplied by 11. I usually avoid 3D when going to the movies, but I made an exception for this one, and did not regret it.

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Who needs drugs when you’ve got this?

Apart from the dodgy accent, Benedict Cumberbatch is perfectly cast as a superhero who fights with his mind as much as his fists. All the actors do a good job–yay for Chiwetel Ejiofor and his swordfighting!–but Cumberbatch is the one who really drives the movie. And man, can he pull off that cape and goatee combo.

As for the story itself–okay, so it’s a pretty typical origin story without a lot of big surprises. But it continues and expands upon a pleasing trend I’ve noticed in Marvel origin stories–the importance of humility in a hero’s journey. Tony Stark started out with all the resources he needed to be a hero, but he had to get knocked down a peg, via missile, before becoming Iron Man. Thor went through the same thing–only more dramatically, because he’s Thor. Steve Rogers already was a humble, selfless guy, which is the whole reason he was picked to become Captain America.

In Doctor Strange, the theme of humility is front and center from beginning to end. Strange, being a super smart scientist, starts out believing he knows everything there is to know about how the world works. Then The Ancient One literally punches that arrogance out of him in a mind-bending, dimension-hopping scene that forces him to recognise that reality is a lot bigger than he thought. But it still takes him most of the movie to truly let go of his pride and put others ahead of himself. And that ends up being exactly what he needs to save the day. (By the way, I won’t reveal just how he saves the day in the end, but it is arguably the coolest and cleverest way a Marvel hero has ever defeated a villain.)

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Of course, Sherlock looks cool and clever no matter what he’s doing.

In a time when much of our culture is about encouraging self-promotion and self-centredness,  it’s nice to see a big blockbuster where a hero has to learn that “it’s not about [him].” Let’s just hope that, unlike Iron Man, Doctor Strange remembers his lesson in the next movie.

If I were of a mind to over-analyse,  this movie also lends itself to a few symbolic interpretations. After all, the cosmic being the bad guys are trying to release is basically the Devil, and the scene where the good doctor is first introduced to magic could almost be seen as a jab at atheism. But…again, it’s a Marvel movie. Reading too much into a superhero story can lead to the dark side, as Batman vs. Superman showed us.

Anyhow, Doctor Strange is an excellent film that, in my opinion, beats Civil War for the title of Best 2016 Superhero Movie, even with all its faults. And it’s the rare 3D movie that is actually worth the price of 3D. Just be warned–the effects may cause eye watering and/or headaches. Watch responsibly.

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Ask your doctor if astral projection is right for you.

 

Grade: A

Luke Cage

Another show has been spawned from the marriage of Netflix and Marvel. Let the geeks rejoice!

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Those who are up-to-date on the growing family of heroes who will one day make up the Defenders will recognize the title character from his role as kinda-sorta-love-interest on Jessica Jones. After all the unfortunate things that went down on that show, he has moved back to his old neighborhood in Harlem and is laying low, working in a barbershop by day and a nightclub by…well, night. But he quickly learns that it’s hard to lie low when you have superpowers, an urge to help others, and a bunch of gangsters terrorising your hometown. It takes some prodding–and some especially evil actions by said gangsters–but Luke gradually comes to embrace his unwanted super strength and become the hero Harlem needs.

I can’t talk about this show without comparing it to Daredevil and Jessica Jones. As someone who is in love with the former and was disappointed by the latter, I rank Luke Cage somewhere between them.

Let’s start by looking on the bright side. This show has two big advantages over both its predecessors. One is the music. A good chunk of the action takes place in and around a nightclub, which gives the writers an excuse to bring in lots of great jazz, soul and hip-hop performances. DD and JJ don’t have super memorable soundtracks apart from their theme songs, but here the soundtrack is one of the best parts of the whole show.

Secondly, this show has SO MUCH CLAIRE TEMPLE. I have loved Claire from the moment she arrived in Daredevil, but she never got enough screen time on that show, and she only showed up for one episode of Jessica Jones. Here she finally gets the spotlight she deserves, as she joins Luke on his quest to clean up the city and embraces her own destiny as a superhero medic. The only down side is that she’s also presented as a love interest here, and as a die-hard Clairedevil shipper, I can’t condone that. Luke’s a nice guy and all, but Claire belongs with Matt Murdock. Why must you keep knocking holes in my ships, writers??

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Her superpower is talking sense into guys with superpowers. 

 

 

The show introduces lots of fun new characters as well. My favourites were Misty Knight, a super-smart detective who helps Luke uncover the injustice in his town, and Shades, a smug yet effective villain who I loved to hate.

Speaking of villains, though, they’re not one of this show’s greatest strengths. Instead of one Big Bad, like DD and JJ faced in their first seasons, Luke has a whole posse of them, with varying degrees of effectiveness. Cottonmouth, the first crime boss introduced on the show, indulges in his evil laugh a few too many times, but is otherwise a convincing threat with nicely complicated motives. His cousin/accomplice, Mariah Dillard, is pretty much your basic corrupt politician, and she gets increasingly annoying as the season goes on. The show’s other major crime boss, Diamondback, is just…utterly ridiculous. What with the random Bible verses and pop culture references he spouts at every turn, his stupid outfits, and his weird backstory with Luke that pops up out of nowhere, I couldn’t take him very seriously.

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Dude. What are you doing. Stop.

The biggest problem I had with this show, though, was the pacing. I think this first season would have been better if it were a couple episodes shorter, or if each episode was cut down to 30 minutes. The story is a lot simpler and more straightforward than JJ’s or (especially) DD’s, so it doesn’t quite fill out the 13-hour run time. As a result, everything moves veeerrryyyy slooowwwlly. Especially by superhero standards. There are relatively few action scenes and lots of boring speeches and conversations that seem only to serve as filler. And I think it’s these filler conversations that give rise to the second biggest problem with this show.

Let me preface this criticism by saying I applaud Luke Cage’s writers for being willing to take on some difficult issues surrounding race in America. And, you know, just for making a superhero show with an almost entirely non-white cast in the first place. I think this might be the first time that’s been done, and I sincerely hope it won’t be the last. With the current U.S. political climate being what it is, the arrival of a black street-level superhero feels incredibly timely.

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[rap music plays]
The thing is…I could have figured all that out on my own. But this show insists on spelling out for me, repeatedly, in every episode, just how awesomely symbolic it is to have a bulletproof black man in a hoodie fighting crime. There are so many speeches to that effect (one even comes in song form!) that it starts to feel like major overkill by the end of the season. And it’s a shame, because this is one superhero show that actually has a lot of important things to say. I just think it would be more effective if it tried to say them with a  bit of subtlety.

I don’t want to end on a negative note, because I did enjoy a lot of things about Luke Cage. So let’s talk about Luke himself. Unlike DD and JJ (I’m really liking those nicknames, can you tell?), he doesn’t have a lot of emotional and ethical baggage to carry around. Sure, he’s a little angsty about his powers, which is kind of understandable since he got them by way of an evil science experiment, but for the most part he’s a nice guy who genuinely wants to help his neighbors out. For that reason, this is easily the most light-hearted of the Defenders shows so far, even though it comes with its fair share of violence and gore. When Luke does get around to fighting crime (which doesn’t happen nearly often enough), it’s a lot of fun to watch. If he didn’t have those moments of self-doubt that seem to be built into every superhero’s contract these days, I almost think he could be Marvel’s version of the Flash–an upbeat, optimistic good guy to act as a foil to all the dark anti-heroes. It’ll be interesting to see how he works with Daredevil, that’s for sure.

Overall, Luke Cage is a good introduction to a likable character. It doesn’t come close to reaching the standard set by Daredevil, but at least it’s more fun than the despair-fest that was Jessica Jones. And I have hopes that Luke may still rise to his full potential in future instalments. I’m also hoping for even more Claire, because she is seriously the best.

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Isn’t it her turn to get her own show?

 

As everyone with a Netflix account should know by now, this is not the kind of Marvel show you watch with kids. There’s quite a bit of violence and swearing (including copious use of the n-word), and a couple NSFW scenes at the beginning. But for any adults who are interested in following the Defenders to their inevitable team-up, it’s a must-see.

Grade: B

Saving Private Ryan

So, yeah. I finally watched Saving Private Ryan.

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I can only watch about one war movie a year. I like them for their historical content, but they depress me. As they should–I mean, war is depressing. If a war movie doesn’t leave you thinking, “Man, war sucks,” then it hasn’t really done its job.

Saving Private Ryan does its job well. For anybody out there who doesn’t know the story (c’mon, there must a few), it’s about a squad of American soldiers in World War II, led by Tom Hanks, who make it through the invasion of Normandy only to be tasked with a dangerous mission to find one private who’s gone missing behind enemy lines. Ryan’s three brothers have all been killed in battle, and for PR reasons, the army wants to make sure at least one member of his family makes it home alive–even if a few more men have to die in the process.

A big part of what makes this movie so famous is the opening sequence, which shows D-Day in all its bloody, awful glory. As far as my knowledge goes, it’s quite historically accurate for Hollywood, but more importantly, it’s filmed so that it feels real. Some of the shots are taken from the protagonist’s point of view, and all of them have a gritty, news footage-style look that makes the viewers feel like we’re right there on Omaha Beach with the soldiers (and their severed limbs). Shaky cam and slow motion are usually my biggest pet peeves in action scenes, but this movie uses both to devastating effect. It’s truly a masterpiece of filmmaking. So…thanks for burning those images into my brain, Spielberg.

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“Gentlemen, this is gonna suck.”

But that scene isn’t even really an important part of the story. It’s just there to get the plot going. Afterwards, we’re introduced to a gang of battle-hardened misfits (and one very un-battle-hardened misfit) who have to deal with the ridiculousness of their mission: to risk their lives searching through Nazi-infested territory just so one guy can go home early. Naturally, there’s a lot of resentment. But as their search goes on, some of the soldiers start to view the mission as redemptive, a way to make something good–even a small thing–out of their horrible war experiences.

I think it’s okay to include spoilers in this review, since the movie’s been around a long time, and it’s famous enough that even if you haven’t seen it, you probably know how it ends. Having said that, if you don’t know how this movie ends and would like it to be a surprise, you might want to stop reading…..now.

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I leave you with…Surprise Nathan Fillion! In a brown coat, no less!

Yes, it’s very sad that most of Tom Hanks’ crew dies at the end, although I’ve almost come to expect that sort of thing in war movies. But the person I felt most sorry for at the end was Private Ryan himself. It’s one thing to watch a bunch of good men give their lives for you (while the slightly more cowardly one gets to live), but then Captain Miller has to top it off by telling Ryan to “earn this.” I can’t imagine living with that kind of guilt trip hanging over me. How could anyone ever “earn” a sacrifice like that? It’s clear at the end of the movie that Ryan doesn’t feel he has–even though his large, loving and respectful family seems to speak well of his character. Even at the end of his life, he’s still wondering if he’s a good enough man to justify his survival. Poor guy.

But in a way, the ending was sort of fitting, because by then I was starting to see this movie as a sort of allegory for World War II as a whole. Private Ryan is us–the American people (and, by extension, any other countries that would have been Nazi-fied if the Allies hadn’t won, but this movie’s focus is on the U.S.). Thousands upon thousands of soldiers died to secure our freedom, and what have we done with it in the decades since? Have we “earned it”? Have we made the world a better place?

Well, we’re nearing the end of a horrible, horrible election year, so right now the easy answer seems to be, “Nope!” But on a deeper level, that question kind of misses the point. There is no way to “earn” someone else’s sacrifice. That’s the whole point of a sacrifice–it’s voluntary, it’s undeserved, and it’s not fair. Life and freedom, however we received them, are gifts. Not debts to be repaid, but opportunities to pass on a little more light to the world. Private Ryan may not have cured cancer or invented a better light bulb, but by the glimpse we see of him at the end, it looks like he made a few people happy. And that’s not nothing.

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Plus he goes on to become Jason Bourne, so there’s that.

Anywho, I find Saving Private Ryan far less depressing if I discount Miller’s last words. Even with all the bad that’s gone on in the world since the ’40s, and continues to go on, there are good people out there who might not be around today if it weren’t for guys like this movie’s soldier crew. If they could see that, I hope they’d think their mission was at least somewhat worthwhile.

To find out more about those real-life heroes, I’d highly recommend another Spielberg-influenced, documentary-style WWII project: HBO’s Band of Brothers series. It’s a lot like this movie, only with less fiction. I also highly recommend Saving Private Ryan, obviously–to those with strong stomachs and an interest in history, anyway.  I think I chose my annual war movie wisely. But there is another year coming up in just a couple months, and I seem to be running out of Spielberg flicks. Any suggestions for my next war movie?

Grade: A

Monthly Movie Rant: A letter to J.R.R. Tolkien

Dear Professor Tolkien,

First of all, you are amazing and brilliant and I love you. I just feel I should preface my comments with that.

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Pictured: genius.

Anyhow, I’m writing to let you know that since you’ve been gone, a man named Peter Jackson has made some live-action movies based on your Lord of the Rings. I know that, although you willingly sold the film rights to your book not long after publication (who wouldn’t want some extra money after decades of hard work?), the first script you saw, for a cartoon adaptation, was…less than satisfactory. I’m happy to say that the Lord of the Rings trilogy of my time is much better, and is in fact one of the most popular movie franchises ever. Whether the author would approve of it is another matter.

Based on what I know of you from your writings, your biography, your letters and your friends’ writings about you, I think you would probably like many things about Peter Jackson’s movie trilogy.  The look of everything, for example. There are no “fairy castles” like the ones you disliked in that (as far as I know, never produced) cartoon script. The fortresses of Men are properly medieval, at least aesthetically, while every Elven city is appropriately ethereal, while seeming very much to belong to Middle Earth. The special effects bring your battles, monsters and mountain landscapes to life in ways you could never have imagined in the 1950s era of film technology. They’re amazing even to the people of my generation. All your names of people and places are kept intact, your languages are spoken correctly and frequently (though probably not as frequently as you would like) and the music is as majestic as your story deserves.

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I’ll tell you one thing: you couldn’t put 6,000 horsemen on a movie screen in the ’50s.

But I’m afraid you would not like some of the changes the movies made to your story. They’re not as drastic as the ones in the cartoon version, but I still fear they might have made you hate the movies as much as your son Christopher does, were you alive to see them. For example, “The Scouring of the Shire,” your favourite chapter and the true climax of the book, is removed entirely. So is Tom Bombadil (although personally, given Hollywood’s habit of ruining subtlety and symbolism, I think that’s probably for the best.) Aragorn and Arwen’s romance is brought into the main story, but the movie’s version of Arwen is just a pale (literally and figuratively) imitation of her ancestor, Luthien. The battles are drawn out and added to, while quieter moments of character development are shortened.

And some of the characters are very different from how you wrote them. Frodo’s feats of bravery are downplayed while his corruption by the Ring is exaggerated (and his bulging blue eyes don’t help). Aragorn doesn’t want his throne at first and only claims his destiny because Arwen’s life supposedly depends on it, a weak and unnecessary addition to his character. Worst of all, Faramir, the powerful character who surprised you in the middle of the book and, out of all the cast, reminded you most of yourself, is not the wise and noble foil to Boromir that you wrote him to be. Instead, he’s a more passive version of Boromir who tries to claim the Ring for Gondor as soon as he finds out about it, a move that seems to exist only to extend the second movie’s run-time.

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AND he makes this face most of the time.

Christopher dislikes the movies, like I said, and since you refer to him as a true kindred spirit in your letters, I suppose I can assume you wouldn’t like them either. But consider this, Mr. Tolkien: thousands of people around the world might never have heard of The Lord of the Rings if the movies hadn’t been made. Nowadays, books don’t get as much publicity as movies do, period. And, sadly, people don’t read them as much as they used to. Most people I know say that your books (yes, even The Hobbit) are “too long” to read. But for some reason, they’re happy to sit through more than nine hours of extended movie trilogy. So, thanks to Peter Jackson, many people have heard at least a version of your story who might never have picked up your book.

And, when all is said and done, I think the movies stick pretty close to the spirit of your work, if not the letter. Almost everyone who worked on it knows and loves your books. Some of them even seem to share your love of trees. You may remember Christopher Lee? Well, he ended up playing Saruman. He read The Lord of the Rings once a year from the time it was published, and he fulfilled a lifelong dream by being in the movie. So many of the themes that were most dear to you are still present in the movies, in a faint way. Death, immortality and the preservation of memory still loom large whenever we take a break from the battle scenes. Even though “The Scouring of the Shire” was omitted, the movies are still very much about the ennobling of the small and ordinary. And personally, considering the way movies have gone since your time, I think it’s important that your “eucatastrophe” ending, in which Frodo fails but the Ring is still destroyed in spite of every character’s intentions, is left intact.

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Braving the horrors of Mordor is one thing; giving up an addiction is another. There’s a reason they called this quest “a fool’s hope.”

Here in my time, we have lots of stories about heroism but not many about grace. Heroes who go on quests generally defeat the villain and return home triumphant. We don’t have too many quest stories where the hero is truly brave and noble, and truly gives the quest his all, and still fails–only to be saved by something beyond his power or understanding. It’s difficult to convincingly end a story that way, but you did it. And I cannot thank you enough. Because to me, the “happy catastrophe,” which no one could predict because it comes from outside of human effort, is the only kind of happy ending that rings true to reality.

But I’m glad, for your sake, that you are not alive to see what Peter Jackson did to The Hobbit later on. There is no “eu” in that catastrophe.

Sincerely,
Your Devoted Admirer,
The Resident Wizard

P.S. Tell Bilbo and Frodo “Happy Birthday” from me.

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Happy Hobbit Day!

Batman vs. Superman and The Dark Knight Returns

Happy Batman day, folks!

I’ve decided to celebrate this, the 77th anniversary of my favourite hero’s first appearance in print, by giving you two movie reviews for the price of one! And after this, I promise I’ll calm down with the Batman posts.

As it happens, both of the Batman movies I saw most recently draw inspiration from the same comic, Frank Miller’s “The Dark Knight Returns,” which…I have not read. But I think it’s fairly obvious which one is more faithful to it.

The Dark Knight Returns, Parts 1 and 2

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This two-part animated movie starts out with Bruce Wayne in his 50s, having been retired from crimefighting for several years. When a violent gang called the Mutants threatens to take over Gotham, he decides it’s time to put on the cowl again. He even picks up a new Robin and puts the Batmobile back into action. But while his return ends up inspiring the people of Gotham to fight back against crime (again), it also inspires a few old enemies to get back into it.

There are many things I like about this movie, a few things I don’t like, and some things that are just plain odd. (Like, what’s the deal with Batman dressing up like an old lady at the beginning of Part 2? Not to mention the entire existence of “Bruno”…I mean, just…what was that?) I enjoyed the first part quite a bit more than the second part, but I won’t deny that the latter did have a pretty epic finale. The soundtrack is amazing, Peter Weller does a great job voicing Batman, and the fight scenes are on par with the very best live-action superhero movies I’ve seen. The movie also does a pretty good job of making an older Batman seem convincing (he’s a lot less agile than he used to be, he has to rely on his tech a little more, etc.) while still allowing him to be his usual intimidating, unstoppable self. No small feat. Oh, and I rather like the girl Robin.

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Especially compared to every other female in this movie…

One thing I didn’t like was that the plot requires pretty much everyone not wearing a costume to do very, very stupid things. The mayor allows himself to be alone in a cell with a huge, crazy gang leader who has already threatened to kill him. A psychiatrist and an entire talk show studio decide it’s a good idea to invite the Joker to appear on live television (because when has that ever gone wrong before?). Then there’s the whole subplot of the U.S. government using Superman as a weapon in a Cold War-like conflict…realistic on the government’s part, perhaps, but somewhat dumb and out-of-character for Supes.

Like many a superhero tale, this movie spends quite a bit of time discussing whether Gotham’s better off with or without its costumed vigilante. Is he the only one who can stop the colourful psychos that constantly terrorise the streets, or is he the only reason the colourful psychos exist in the first place? Although there’s some ambiguity around the issue, in the end, the movie seems to decide that the world needs Batman–someone not under the authority of the law or the government, but who still refuses to cross certain lines–in order to keep people safe. Of course, if the authorities in charge of upholding the law didn’t act brain-dead most of the time, one wonders if that point would still hold water. But to Batman’s credit, he doesn’t see himself as Gotham’s only hope–he works to teach other people to fight crime the non-lethal way, and to carry on the Bat-legacy after he’s gone.

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Can’t stop the signal.

Anyway, that fight with the Mutant leader at the end of Part 1? That was awesome. Also, Batman totally beats Superman in a fight in this movie. A good fight, not the kind that will be described in my next review. Sorry, but that’s not a spoiler. That’s how every fight between those two is destined to end.

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Batman on a horse. Your argument is invalid.

Grade: A-

Speaking of Batman fighting Superman…

Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice

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It’s probably only fair to say that I did not set myself up to like this movie. I didn’t see it in theatres, because I was still bitter about having wasted money on Man of Steel. Instead, I read every review I could find online, including the spoiler-y ones, rented it when it came out on DVD, and watched it on my laptop at midnight, alcohol in hand, right after marathoning the Dark Knight trilogy. If I’d watched it under better circumstances, maybe I would have liked it a little better…but I kinda doubt it.

The plot is so convoluted it almost defies description. In a nutshell, Batman wants to murder Superman for causing tons of civilian deaths in Man of Steel and for being too powerful in general. Lex Luthor wants to murder him for more or less the same reasons, plus something about daddy issues. So he decides the best way to do this is to pit the two superheroes against each other, via an overly complicated plan that takes more than an hour to come to fruition.

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Laser his brain! Laser his brain, now! 

What can I say about this movie that hasn’t already been said by every critic ever? No, Luthor’s motives did not make any sense. Yes, the “Martha” scene (WHY DID YOU SAY THAT NAME?!) was unintentionally hilarious. No, none of this was Ben Affleck’s fault. I could talk about how spectacularly everyone at the Daily Planet sucks at their job, or how Jesse Eisenberg’s performance destroys everything I ever loved about Lex Luthor as a villain, or how utterly confusing and pointless Batman’s visions/dreams/whatever are. But I think my main problems with this movie can be boiled down to two.

First of all…*deep, cleansing breath*…BATMAN DOES NOT KILL PEOPLE!  Yes, I know previous live-action takes on him have bumped up against the line a few times, but this movie has him intentionally mow down an army of low-level criminals in one of his first action scenes, stab dudes in the chest, and turn to murder as his first solution in dealing with Superman (instead of, I dunno, talking to him, or even doing detective work to find out what his intentions are towards humanity). This take on Batman would kind of make sense if it was the third or fourth movie in the franchise, if his reputation as a principled hero had already been established, and if he was given a compelling motive for temporarily abandoning his principles. (In fact, BvS does attempt to explain it a little by establishing, in one easy-to-miss shot, that this story takes place after the death of Jason Todd. Not that any casual fans will get that.) But this is Batman’s first appearance in the Snyder-verse. Anyone who somehow came into this movie without any prior knowledge of Batman would get their first impression of him as a callous killer. And that makes me very sad inside.

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Even sadder than Sadfleck.

The worst thing about BvS, though, is that it takes itself so darn seriously. There’s hardly a moment of (intentional) humour in the entire three-hour runtime, while there are plenty of speeches about God and man, the Problem of Evil, what it means to be a hero, etc. I thought Man of Steel went a little bit overboard with the Superman-is-Jesus symbolism, but this movie takes it waaaayyy further. Which is vaguely offensive, considering this Superman’s main personality traits are sulking, self-doubt, and monumental stupidity. Not exactly the things Jesus is known for. But all of the grand philosophical talk amounts to nothing anyway. For one thing, I was unable to understand or care about any of the people doing the talking, and for another, the movie tends to answer complex questions like, “What does a being with god-like power truly owe to mankind?” with, “Time to punch a cave troll!” A lot of dialogue is there to make the characters sound “deep,” but it doesn’t really mean anything or have anything to do with the plot.

One day, I have hope that the DC cinematic universe will finally get its act together and make a good movie. It’s possible. Ben Affleck does a fine job as Batman in this movie, on the rare occasions when his script makes sense, and Wonder Woman is pretty cool during her five minutes of screen time. And a lot of it looks really nice. Money and special effects technology is clearly not the issue when it comes to DC. They just need to start spending a little more of that money on screenwriters and directors who actually know how to tell a story. And won’t make Batman kill people.

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I would like to point out, though, that Batman still beat Superman in this movie.

In the meantime, I prefer to celebrate Batman Day by watching something with “Dark Knight” in its title.

Grade: D

 

Kubo and the Two Strings

I have a new favourite movie of the year! It’s Kubo and the Two Strings, a pleasant surprise that I knew nothing about before going to see it.

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Kubo is a young boy with some pretty neat magical powers. He can bring paper (and anything paper-like) to life by playing his magical shamisen (a three-stringed lute, for my fellow ignorant Westerners), and he can fly. But everything else about his life sucks. He’s never known his father, he has to take care of his mother because she’s catatonic most of the time, and he’s missing an eye. To make things worse, the people responsible for all these problems, his monstrous grandfather and aunts, are still after him. When they finally find the village where he and his mom are hiding, Kubo has to go on a quest to find his father’s magic armour, his only hope of defeating  his evil relatives. He’s accompanied along the way by a fighting snow monkey and a forgetful giant beetle (plus his ever-present living origami creatures).

Story aside, this is easily one of the best looking animated movies I’ve ever seen. It’s so gorgeous that the sound could have been turned off and I would still feel like I’d gotten my money’s worth. And it gets even more incredible when you realise that it’s almost all stop-motion. Epic mountain landscapes, terrifying monsters, flocks of paper birds, stormy seas, characters with the full range of human expression–all stop-motion puppetry.  The giant skeleton Kubo and Co. fight halfway through the movie? Yeah, that’s an 18-foot-tall puppet. I can’t believe I’m saying this, but it puts Pixar to shame.

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Puppets. All puppets.

Oh, and the soundtrack’s lovely, too.

Story-wise, Kubo himself is my favourite thing about the movie. He’s an expert storyteller himself (therefore automatically awesome), and boy, is he good at surviving adversity. I haven’t seen a child protagonist put through the wringer like he is since Oliver Twist. But no matter how much emotional trauma the movie heaps on him, he hangs on to his positive view of the world and never gives up fighting for what he loves. Plus, his magic paper powers are really cool, and he gets to use a sweet samurai sword.

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This is the face of a kid who’s had a few too many bad days in his life.

Kubo deals with some pretty heavy stuff for a kids’ movie–which is one of my criteria for a good kids’ movie. Death, and what happens after, is a major theme, as is the power of stories and the importance of honoring one’s true family, even after they’re gone. Even though it’s made by a bunch of Americans, Kubo‘s Eastern philosophical influences are pretty obvious (and, as far as my very limited knowledge goes, pretty accurate).

But its loudest message is one that’s often found in fantasy movies, kid-friendly or not: “Humans are awesome!” The villains are god-like beings that live in “the heavens” (specifically the moon, if Grandfather’s official title, the Moon King, is any indication), and look down on humans for their imperfections and mortality. But all the human and human-like characters are shown to be heroic and brave, while Grandfather’s definition of “perfection” seems to amount to “being a joyless psycho.” So it’s no surprise that Kubo doesn’t fall for the Moon King’s attempts to convince him to come live in the stars. In real life, of course, there are as many “Grandfathers” here on earth as there are Kubos and Monkeys, and from a Christian perspective, the Heavens are our only reliable source of heroism. But as long as we’re telling stories, it’s nice to focus on the positive side of humanity once in a while.

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And the positive side of monkey-kind, and beetle-kind, I suppose…

Kubo isn’t perfect. A couple of “twists” near the end were so obvious that it was hard for me to take their “reveals” seriously, and the jokes didn’t all quite land for me. But this has been a terrible summer for movies, so I’m not inclined to complain a lot about the one film that actually tried to be a creative, thought-provoking piece of art.

A note of caution: this movie might be a little too scary for some kids. Kubo’s aunts, the Sisters, are extremely creepy, and like I said, there’s a giant skeleton.  And some main characters die in rather upsetting ways. I am personally very much in favour of putting actual danger into kids’ movies, because they’re going to encounter scary stuff sometime, and what better way to get introduced than through an exciting, fictional story where the good guy wins? One can go overboard with the scariness, but I don’t think this movie did. But it all depends on the kid.

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Nightmare-prone children should probably stay away.

And one final note: I think it’s hilarious that this movie cast George Takei (and gave him top billing!) just so he could say “Oh, my” in the trademark tone. ‘Cause that’s pretty much all he does. 🙂

Grade: A

DC Animation

I’ve always been on Marvel’s side in the Great Cinematic War between Marvel and DC. To a non-comics reader like me, it seems like a no-brainer. Ever since superhero movies became cool again, Marvel has consistently put out movies that range from decently entertaining to completely awesome, while, with the exception of the Dark Knight Saga, DC has put out movies that range from brain-meltingly horrible to ploddingly dull.

But when I express this opinion to one of my many DC-loving friends, their reply is almost always along the lines of, “Stop judging DC by its live-action!”

So I’ve taken their advice and dived into the world of DC’s animated creations. And so far, I am pleased with what I’ve found. DC cartoons are as diverse and creative as its live-action films are boring and colorless. They’ve got something for all ages (a general rule seems to be that the TV shows are for kids and the feature-length movies are for adults) and just about every taste (I mean, as long as you like superheroes).

Here’s what I think of the DC cartoons I’ve discovered so far:

Young Justice

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My precious, adorable children, who could all kill me in a heartbeat.

A bunch of teenage sidekicks (starting with Robin, Kid Flash, Aqualad, Miss Martian, Superboy, and Artemis) form their own super-team to work alongside the Justice League–complete with their own shadowy evil conspiracy to fight. This show has one of the most complicated plots, and largest casts, that I’ve ever seen crammed into two seasons, but it’s so well-paced that nothing ever feels rushed and every character gets a chance to shine. The first season is significantly better than the second, but the second season is still well worth watching. Alas, it was cancelled too soon. This is the show that made me realize Robin can be awesome. It also made me really conflicted about which version of the Flash I like best.

Every episode moves the story along or develops characters in some important way, so I can’t recommend skipping any of them, but some of my very favourite ones include: “Bereft,” “Homefront,” “Failsafe,” “Coldhearted,” “Bloodlines,” and “Satisfaction.”

Grade: A

Justice League

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Batman’s standing off to the side so no one notices he’s in charge.

Note: This is listed as two different shows on Netflix–Justice League and Justice League Unlimited–but they follow the same continuity, are made by the same people, etc. (JL comes first). They do have different theme songs, though. Anyway, this is the story of the Justice League proper, starting with the original group of Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, Martian Manhunter, Green Lantern, and Hawkgirl, and later expanding to include a slew of other heroes. (But secretly it’s all about Batman. Seriously, he saves the rest of the League’s butts in like half the episodes.) There are some multi-episode story arcs, especially in Unlimited, but for the most part these are all self-contained episodes about heroes saving the world from the threat of the week. They can be silly or serious, but they’re almost always a lot of fun.

My favourite episodes include: “Legends,” “The Savage Time,” “Only a Dream,” “A Better World,” “Hereafter,” “For the Man Who Has Everything,” “Question Authority,” “Divided We Fall”…basically, any episode that prominently features Batman, the Flash, and/or the Question is going to be amazing. Even if it also includes a witch who turns people into pigs.

Grade: A

Batman: Under the Red Hood

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Get it? He’s literally under the Red Hood!

This was the first DC Animated Original Movie I watched, and I’m afraid I watched it first because it has Jensen Ackles’ voice in it. (Yes, I’m a Supernatural fan.) But it really is quite good. It mostly takes place a few years after Jason Todd, the second Robin, is killed by the Joker. Batman’s still struggling with the guilt he feels from that incident, but he also has another problem: a vigilante called the Red Hood is terrorizing Gotham’s criminal underworld, and he absolutely does not have a no-kill code. What he does seem to have is a grudge against Batman. While there’s a decent amount of humour in the movie (mostly provided by Nightwing and the delightfully hammy minor villain Black Mask), it ends up being a real tear-jerker. Like, I wanted to watch The Dark Knight after this to cheer myself up. That’s how depressing it was. Doesn’t stop it from being a thoughtful character study on several people in the Bat-verse, and providing the best answer I’ve heard to the age-old question, “Why doesn’t Batman just kill the Joker?”

Grade: A

Justice League: War

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Guy on the right? He’s voiced by Sam Gamgee. Guy on the far left? Wash from Firefly. You’d think this movie would’ve turned out better…

Another version of the Justice League’s origin story, this one pulls together the same seven characters mentioned above–except with Cyborg and Captain Mar…er, “Shazam” instead of Martian Manhunter and Hawkgirl, and with a different version of Green Lantern. They’re all just starting out as heroes, and are happily working alone, when an invasion by the world-conquering Darkseid forces them to form a team. The story is fun, and pretty light-hearted by DC animated movie standards, but I don’t think it shows all of the Justice League at their best. Superman in particular comes across as a huge jerk, and Wonder Woman’s gung-ho fighter attitude, combined with a really shocking amount of naivete, gets annoying fast. And of course this is the movie that finally supports my Superman/Wonder Woman ship. *sigh* Batman’s still amazing, though, so it’s not all bad. The TV show just did it better.

Grade: B

Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox

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“He ran so fast he broke reality! And now he has to fix reality…by running faster!” –a lot of Flash stories 

One day Barry Allen, a.k.a. the Flash, wakes up to find that his whole world is different. On the bright side, his mom’s alive! On the other hand, he has no powers, his wife is married to someone else, Batman is a gun-toting alcoholic with no qualms about killing people, no one has ever heard of Superman, and Aquaman and Wonder Woman are locked in a war that could destroy the Earth. Clearly, there’s a timeline here that needs fixing. I am not a fan of the animation in this one–it makes the more muscular characters look ridiculous, and a lot of others have weird lips– but the story makes up for it. It puts a really interesting twist on several familiar characters, while teaching Flash the most difficult lesson of his life. But I can’t stress enough how much it is NOT FOR KIDS–or sensitive adults, for that matter. I’m pretty sure the only reason it isn’t rated R is because it’s a cartoon. Hard to imagine a live-action movie getting away with a PG-13 after showing a close-up of a gaping head wound, or stabbing a 10-year-old onscreen. If you can make it through the gore, though, the ending is a tear-jerker in the best way possible.

Grade: A-

I think it’s time Marvel and DC fans shook hands and admitted that their franchises are just good at different things. Any suggestions as to which superhero cartoon I should watch next?