All posts by Teva Ilan

Doctor Strange Not So Strange

With 14 films and counting, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) now has more movies than the Star Trek franchise—and it shows no signs of stopping anytime soon. Doctor Strange, the latest chapter in what may be the longest story ever told in cinema, introduces yet another hero to the MCU’s ever growing pantheon and proves there are realms of comic lore yet unexplored. And despite its prolificacy, Marvel hasn’t produced any bad films, though the same cannot be said of other long-running franchises (cough-Star Trek-cough). Doctor Strange is no exception, proving a worthy addition to the MCU.

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In Civil War, Marvel Triumphs Once Again

“What would you call a group of US based, individuals who routinely ignore sovereign borders and inflict their will wherever they choose and who, frankly, seem unconcerned with what they leave behind?”

In real life, the answer to this question might be an entity like the US Congress, along with the executive branch, the Pentagon, or—in Eisenhower’s famous moniker the ‘Military–Industrial Complex.’ Perhaps in real life, but in this case the question is posed by the fictional Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt), and he is referring to the Avengers. Like the recently released Batman v. Superman, Captain America: Civil War questions the role of superheroes through the looking-glass of contemporary political debates; the question can be summed up as to whether the Avengers should use their powers as they see fit, or if their superpowers should be regulated by the world’s governments. However, and unlike its DC rival, Civil War really does deal with and probe this all-too-urgent question. The characters on both sides provide convincing arguments for their respective positions, and as such, it becomes difficult for viewers to simply root for the good guys . As if this dash of moral ambiguity wasn’t enough, the film also manages (seamlessly, for the most part) to introduce two major new characters into the Avengers’ cinematic universe: Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), and a young Spiderman (Tom Holland). Finally–and perhaps more importantly for Marvel Comics devotees–Civil War also features a number of brilliantly choreographed superhero combat scenes that are sure to make any die-hard fan exclaim: “What a time to be alive!”

In previous movies, The Avengers have saved the world from every conceivable threat: from invading aliens to megalomaniacal robots. But is isn’t all sunshine and Bifrosts. From the Battle of New York in The Avengers to the Battle of Sokovia in Age of Ultron many innocent civilians have perished. And while these heroes claim to protect humanity, several of the threats the Avengers have “saved” humankind from (such as Ultron) would never have existed if it weren’t for the Avengers’ own actions. When Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) bungles a mission resulting in half a skyscraper being blown to pieces, it’s the last straw. And so the Sokovia Accords are drafted. Supported by 117 countries, the accords would put superpower individuals, namely the Avengers, under the UN’s bureaucratic supervision. A faction of the heroes, led by Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), feel that if they “can’t accept limitations, [they]’re no better than the bad guys,” while others, led by Captain America (Chris Evans), believe the accords merely “shift the blame,” and argue that the best qualified people to watch over the Avengers are the Avengers themselves.

If you’re looking for some awesome superhero vs superhero combat, but felt underwhelmed by the five minute fight scene in Batman v Superman, then dear reader you’re in luck. The fight scenes in Civil War are way better. First of all, there are a lot more of them interspersed throughout the movie, and they all feel well motivated and believable, at least to the extent superhero movies can be believable. I’m not someone who enjoys watching characters just punch each other, but the battles in Civil War kept me excited and entertained throughout the length of the feature. And even when the action sags a bit, there’s certainly enough wit and killer lines to keep things from getting dull. We even get to see some characters use powers never before seen on the big screen. The airport battle in particular is best appreciated in IMAX 3D.

But there’s a lot more to Civil War than awesome fight scenes. There are real thought-provoking issues behind the conflict. This isn’t just a film about the role of superheroes in society, though that alone would be deeper than most films in this genre, in fact there are clear parallels to real-world questions. The Avengers’ interventions around the world, doing what they believe is right, “saving” people often without their permission and with civilian casualties could easily be compared to actions of the US Military-Industrial Complex. There is no obvious right or wrong side here. Some, like Captain America, feel that “We try to save as many people as we can. Sometimes that doesn’t mean everybody. But if we can’t find a way to live with that, next time… maybe nobody gets saved.” On the other hand, people like Vision point out that many of their enemies have only arisen in response to their efforts: “Our very strength incites challenge. Challenge incites conflict. And conflict… breeds catastrophe.” These are complex issues and Civil War addresses them in a complex manner. This isn’t yet another iteration of the classic conflict between good guys and bad guys. Because we aren’t the bad guys, and we’re not the good guys either. The world just isn’t that simple.

That said, Civil War’s not all serious superhero geopolitics. Humor is expertly weaved through the story and dialogue. Spiderman, in particular, brings a comical tone, and though he is certainly inessential to the film’s plot, Tom Holland delivers an unquestionably enjoyable performance as the well-liked Wall-crawler, and I for one ardently await his return in the upcoming 2017 Spiderman reboot.

It’s true that, in many ways, Civil War feels just like the other Marvel movies. But that doesn’t mean it’s predictable. The plot has several unexpected twists and rather than just serving to surprise the audience these twists develop the characters. At this point the narrative structure of the Marvel movies functions more like a TV series than typical film sequels. Thus, it’s not that surprising, nor necessarily bad, that Civil War feels like many of the other episodes. It even manages to introduce new, intriguing characters and shows us new aspects of the characters we’ve seen before. Crucially, more than any other Marvel movie it dissects real, complex issues in our fraught contemporary world. As the first film in Marvel’s Phase Three, it sets a high standard for the films planned by the studio up to 2019. But if the rest of Phase Three is comparable to Civil War, then at least this reviewer is not likely to experience superhero film fatigue anytime soon.

Grade: A-

Remember, this is a Marvel Movie, so stay until the end of the credits.

Batfleck v Snyder: Dawn of Just Okay

What would you do if you had to deal with a man powerful enough to destroy the world? A man who just laid waste to one of the largest cities on Earth while “defending” it from an alien; a man who claims to have our best interests at heart but—like so many of us—would do anything to protect the people he loves, regardless of the consequences? This is the central question posed by Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Unfortunately, the movie completely fails to really explore it, let alone deal with its ramifications. Snyder’s sequel to the controversial Man of Steel reaches for profundity but settles for melodrama. That said, it’s not terrible entertainment. Seeing Batman (Ben Affleck), Superman (Henry Cavill), and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) together on screen for the first time is exciting enough, and Affleck in particular delivers a laudable performance as Gotham’s Caped Crusader. While this installment is mediocre, it sets up for future promising DC films.

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Zootopia Packs a Pointed Punch

While most moviegoers tend to arrive a bit late because they don’t particularly mind missing the trailers, alas I’m too punctual to avoid arriving early enough to see every single preview. My jaunt to see Zootopia was no exception. But after the expected trailers for The Secret Life of Pets and Jungle Book (clearly if you’re seeing Zootopia you must also be interested in every other movie featuring talking computer-animated animals), the all too familiar Scrat from Ice Age appeared on the screen. My immediate reaction: “Oh no! Is this a joke? They aren’t making another one of those are they?” What was once a good kids’ movie has now been marred by increasingly hackneyed sequels, to the point where I am revolted by the mere thought of the franchise. I can only hope this will not be the fate of Zootopia, a fate which would be all the more tragic given that Zootopia is a far, far better film than even the first Ice Age.

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In Kung Fu Threequel, the Panda Has Become The Master

The Godfather Part III, X-Men: The Last Stand, Spider-Man 3 — cinematic history is rife with gratuitous third installments that make viewers wish the filmmakers had simply stopped after the first two outings. Not surprisingly, when I walked into the theater to see Kung Fu Panda 3, it was not with the highest of expectations. I must confess, however, that by the end of the movie I was pleasantly surprised. While it may not quite live up to its illustrious predecessors, it’s certainly entertaining enough to merit a trip to the theater, and perhaps—dare I say it—even additional sequels.

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The Suicide Squad Trailer is Insane

The fact that this trailer is for the same comic franchise that brought us the horrendous Batman v. Superman trailer a few months ago is frankly astonishing. Seriously, Warner Brothers, pay attention. This is how you do a trailer. It beautifully establishes the tone of the film while not giving away much of the plot. Tone is especially important with a movie like Suicide Squad. After all, there are a lot of directions a movie about murderous maniacs saving the world could take. But based on the use of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody (which is perfectly timed with the action on screen) and on the jokes interspersed throughout the trailer, it appears the film will have a Guardians-esque humorous quality but with a more gritty and intense bent, relatively similar to its comic book source material. As far as plot, the trailer really only tells us that a nebulous authority (maybe the government, maybe the police) puts together this team of homicidal and unlikely heroes to save society from some threat, possibly the Joker. Our glimpses of the Joker are tantalizingly brief. Jared Leto has pretty big shoes to fill — and not just because he’s playing a clown. Heath Ledger’s incarnation of the character is arguably the best portrayal, not just of the Joker, but of any superhero villain on the big screen (see the Buffer podcast tribute to the Joker by Kurt Thiemann). Since it’s unlikely Leto could live up to Ledger in a mere trailer, it’s for the best that we don’t see too much of him here. For those who have said DC is just trying to copy Marvel’s cinematic success but without putting in the work, this is the movie that could change your mind. Suicide Squad promises to be quite different from any of its predecessors in the superhero genre, primarily because it doesn’t have any heroes, at least not any good ones.

Grade: P

A movie with no heroes may save the DC cinematic universe.


Also check out Kurt’s podcast to learn more about Heath Ledger’s delightfully chaotic portrayal of the Joker.

The Joker’s Ordered Chaos

Star Wars: Return of the Original Trilogy

A long time ago, in 1977 to be exact, George Lucas transported millions of young Americans to a galaxy far, far away. Among them was an 11-year-old named Jeffrey Jacob Abrams, who was utterly blown away, calling it “an incredibly powerful experience”. Now, almost forty years later, it is Abrams’ turn to introduce a new generation of fans to that same far, far away galaxy, and to recreate the glory of the original Star Wars. And while The Force Awakens, simply by dint of being a sequel, isn’t nearly as earth-shattering as the original, it is certainly a worthy addition to the quintessential galactic epic.

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Batman v Superman v Doomsday v Jesse Eisenberg, Oh & Wonder Woman

Arguably the greatest challenge in making a trailer is treading the fine line between piquing the audience’s interest and spoiling the movie. But this trailer doesn’t even try. It opens with some nice banter between Bruce Wayne and Clark Kent as each of them argues why the other’s Superhero isn’t so super. Their critical comments regarding the darker side of superheroes taking the law into their own hands fit nicely with Snyder’s grittier tone. But as the trailer moves on, you gradually realize that this isn’t a trailer, it’s the whole freaking movie. The trailer essentially reveals the entire plot. Batman and Superman’s verbal disagreements escalate into fist fights, okay no surprise there. But then Jesse Eisenberg (allegedly playing Lex Luthor but really just playing the same character he plays in every movie) gets bored watching them not kill each other fast enough, so he uses the corpse of General Zod to create what appears to be a hybrid of a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle and a Lord of the Rings Cave Troll (though it’s probably actually based on the comic villain Doomsday). Then Batman and Superman resolve their differences to take on this greater threat. Oh yeah, Wonder Woman’s there too, but given her utter lack of dialogue, it doesn’t look like she’s the strong, interesting female superhero we’ve been waiting for. A trailer for a movie with such well known characters as Batman and Superman doesn’t need to explain the entire plot. It just needs to show us that there are well motivated reasons behind the conflict between these two heroes. This trailer was made by people at Warner Bros. who didn’t actually work on the film, and it shows. It feels far more clumsy than previous trailers and reveals far too much. To paraphrase Superman, Warner Bros. “What have you done?”

Grade: F

Warner Bros. needs to learn from J.J. Abrams: When it comes to trailers, less is more

Here is the trailer itself. Watch at your own risk.

Paul McGuigan’s Monster

Since the Edison film short Frankenstein back in 1910, Mary Shelley’s masterpiece has been adapted for the big screen countless times (most recently I, Frankenstein in 2014). Every time, the question is the same: how will this film distinguish itself from the ever-growing plethora of Frankenstein movies? Victor Frankenstein, directed by Paul McGuigan, wisely approaches the story from a fresh angle, presenting the life of Victor Frankenstein (James McAvoy) through the eyes of his assistant Igor (Daniel Radcliffe), a character who doesn’t even exist in the original novel. While Victor’s and Igor’s characters are well developed, Radcliffe’s problematic voiceover, McAvoy’s shockingly inconsistent performance, and the film’s genre identity crisis make it unlikely to stand out from the crowd.

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Watch No More

When a show has been running for over 52 years, it’s not necessarily a bad idea to make an episode that shakes up the format once in a while. Breaking with the traditional format prevents a series from becoming stale. That’s what writer Mark Gatiss tries to do with “Sleep No More,”an episode that takes the form of found footage put together by Gagan Rasmussen (Reece Shearsmith), inventor of Morpheus and sole surviving crewmember on the Le Verrier lab in orbit around Neptune. Morpheus is a device that replaces a month’s worth of sleep with just five minutes spent inside the Morpheus machine, invented primarily to allow laborers to work longer shifts. The Doctor’s response to Rasmussen’s Morpheus machine is characteristically flamboyant: “Congratulations, Professor! You’ve revolutionized the labor market! You’ve conquered nature! You’ve also created an abomination.” Our response to “Sleep No More” parallels the Doctor’s response to Morpheus. Congratulations, Gatiss! You’ve revolutionized the episode format! You’ve conquered repetition! You’ve also created an abomination.

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War! What is it good for?

What would you do if any of your friends or family could be a shapeshifting alien who wants to kill you and your species? What would you do if you were a shapeshifter whose homeworld was destroyed and who just wanted to blend into an alien society and live peacefully, but you knew if your true identity was ever revealed to the xenophobic inhabitants of that alien world you would surely be shunned, persecuted, and likely killed? These questions drive the conflict in Doctor Who’s “The Zygon Invasion” and its sequel “The Zygon Inversion.” This brilliant two-part episode explores such contemporary (and in some ways timeless) issues as terrorism, immigration, xenophobia, and war. It features witty writing, breathtaking acting, and a villain whose plan and motivations actually make sense (something a bit too rare in Doctor Who). This two-parter is the highlight of an above average season, which has yet to have a bad episode but also has yet to have a standout one. “The Zygon Inversion” in particular is the best episode of Capaldi’s Doctor thus far and undoubtedly one of the top ten episodes of Nu Who. Continue reading War! What is it good for?

The Lion’s in the Cradle and the Sonic Spoon

What could be bad about living forever? Most of us mortals don’t even get to contemplate immortality in the first place. But in the latest season of Doctor Who, two back to back episodes—“The Girl Who Died” and “The Woman Who Lived”—grapple with this question. Naturally, we assume it would be better not to die. In “The Woman Who Lived,” however, we get a less than rosy picture of what an eternal life might hold; of what it might drive any reasonable person to do. As the Doctor eloquently puts it, “Immortality isn’t living forever. That’s not what it feels like. Immortality is everybody else dying.”

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