Posts Tagged ‘Robert Downey Jr.’

Just when I thought the MCU might be getting somewhere —

About the only person more surprised by just how fucking much I loved Black Panther than a regular reader of this site was — well, me, but love it to pieces I did, and it’s an opinion I still stand behind 100% and then some. I’m not sure how much of the credit for its artistic success is down to the studio “suits” simply allowing Ryan Coogler to do something different, to break the mold, and how much was him actively wanting to while other directors remain content to serve up more of the same, but whatever the case may be, it was the first Marvel Studios flick that had a distinct look, feel, and personality all its own. It stood out, then, not just for its frankly profound cultural significance, but for its ambition and its quality. It wasn’t a two-and-a-half-hour episode of “Superhero TV,” it was something altogether more. Altogether different. Altogether better.

Say it with me in unison : ” but you knew it wouldn’t last.”

And maybe it couldn’t last. The strictures placed on an “event” film such as Joe and Anthony Russo’s Avengers : Infinity War are, after all, stifling at best, suffocating at worst. I mean, this is “The Big One,” right? The one they’ve all  been leading up to, and consequently (almost) all hands are on deck : Robert Downey, Jr’s Iron Man, Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk, Chris Pratt’s Star-Lord, Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow, Chris Evans’ Captain America, Chadwick Boseman’s King T’Challa, Chris Henworth’s Thor, Zoe Saldana’s Gamora, Don Cheadle’s War Machine, Paul Bettany’s Vision, Elizabeth Olsen’s Scarlet Witch, Tom Holland’s Spider-Man, Anthony Mackie’s Falcon, Robert Downey Jr. — sorry, Benedict Cumberbatch’s Doctor Strange (I get them mixed up because they’re the exact same goddamn character just with different powers), Karen Gillan’s Nebula, Sebastian Stan’s Bucky Barnes, Dave Bautista’s Drax, Pom Klementieff’s Mantis — they’re all present and accounted for, as are Bradley Cooper and Vin Diesel in their voice-over roles as Rocket Raccoon and Groot, respectively.

Even most of the “big-time” supporting cast members from prior films/franchises are here, albeit for pretty cursory “check-ins” : Gwyneth Paltrow’s Pepper Potts, Tom Hiddlesont’s Loki, Idris Elba’s Heimdall, Benicio Del Toro’s Collector, William Hurt’s Secretary of State Ross, Benedict Wong’s — uhhhmmm — Wong, Letitia Wright’s Shuri, Danai Gurira’s Okoye — hell, even Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury puts in an appearance if you hang around through the end of the credits. If you like ’em, chances are they’ll turn up just long enough to make you happy.

Which means, of course, that there’s little room for anybody new — the “Big Bad,” Thanos, has made some brief-ish some cameos in some of the lead-ups to this, but by and large this is the first time we’ve seen him take center stage (and Josh Brolin actually does some interesting things with the character, portraying him as more dispassionate and calculating than outright menacing), so I guess we can call him kinda “new,” but the only semi-major player we absolutely have never seen before is Peter Dinklage in the role of Eiti, and ya know? He’s pretty damn good. But then, he always is.

So the story goes something like this : Thanos is out to assemble the six all-powerful “Infinity Gems” so he can place them all inside this big, fancy gauntlet and wipe out half the living beings in the entire universe, thereby insuring that the half who survive can have it good what with less competition for resources and the like. But not so fat, the re-grouped Avengers, the Guardians of the Galaxy, the Wakandans, and the heroes who usually go it alone are all going to join forces to try and stop him, because that’s what they do. Big fights ensue. Big moments occur. Big conversations are had. And it all leads up to a big third act that changes everything forever. Really. The whole course of the MCU is altered. It’s momentous. It’s gargantuan. It’s the most hitherto-unimaginable thing to ever go down.

Unless, ya know, you’ve ever read a comic book at any point in your entire life. In which case you’ll know that nothing really happens that can’t, well, un-happen.

The reason Avengers : Infinity War might be said, in purely technical terms, to “work” — and why so many people are leaving theaters all over the world in a state of absolute shock — comes down not to anything in the film itself, but to a clever advance marketing ploy, and that’s it. Ya see, early on it was announced that this was the first of a two-part story. Then Marvel seemed to backtrack on that and say, no, it’s not, we’ve re-worked this a little bit and now it’s a stand-alone film. And if you go into the flick believing that, then yeah, this is the gut-punch to end all gut-punches. But it’s all bullshit.

Seriously. This is no more a “one-off” than any of these things are. The status quo has been re-set in a very big way, no doubt, but who are we kidding? It’s only temporary. There’s one major-ish development involving the demise of a character (and that’s all I’m gonna say) that occurs before the balls-out climactic finale, and in theory I suppose that could stick, but everything else? Like Stan Lee infamously once said, “how much do you charge for a quick hand —” sorry, “don’t give them change, give them the illusion of change.” And that, friends, is precisely what this is. An illusion. A big, bold, brash, jaw-dropping illusion, to be sure —but at the end of the day, an illusion nonetheless.

For my part, what can I say? This hustle stopped working on me when I was about 12 years old. I need something more. And that’s simply not on offer here. This is a film that exists for the sole purpose of hoodwinking you into thinking that nothing will ever be the same again — and when you turn around in, I dunno, two years’ time, guess what? It’s gonna be like it never even happened.  So enjoy the re-arranged interiors while you can, because everything, minor window dressings aside, is gonna end up right back where it’s always been — and always will be.

This is what audiences want, though, and while that’s perfectly fine and dandy on the most obvious and liminal level — different strokes for different folks and what have you — when you spend any time thinking about it, actually it’s kind of depressing. Like Trump, Avengers : Infinity War (and, really, the entire MCU in general) is one big con job, and it’s a con job that’s winning. Once the initial shock of this film’s ending wears off, there won’t be a soul left wondering “oh my God, what did they just do?,” but there will be legions of people wondering”oh my God, how are they going to reverse all of that?” And I really don’t care what the answer to that question is.

Who’da thunk it — apparently all it takes to get the “Marvel Zombie” crowd to like Spider-Man flicks again is to bring ’em under the banner of the MCU. Or is it?

To be sure, director Jon Watts’ Spider-Man : Homecoming theoretically should give the fans that were pissed off about Sony still holding the cinematic rights to their favorite web-slinger everything they want : it’s fairly light-hearted, reasonably fun, well-cast, and directed in the sort of unimaginative, risk-averse “house style” first laid down by talentless hack Jon Favreau (who’s on hand here as Peter Parker’s Stark Industries “handler,” Happy Hogan) in Iron Man and since followed to a proverbial “T” by all Marvel movie product. Sure, plenty of liberties are taken with Spidey’s origin story — no mention of Uncle Ben, no talk of great power going hand-in-hand with great responsibility, Tony Stark (the by-now-perpetually-annoying Robert Downey Jr.) is shoved into the proceedings for, let’s be honest, superfluous at best reasons — but hey, them’s the breaks when you’re trying to shoehorn Marvel’s most famous character into their interconnected universe this late in the game. And besides, none of those changes seem seem to really bother the die-hards, because at this point it’s all about brand loyalty for them more than it is a franchise staying true to its roots.

A funny thing happened on the way to this flick taking in its inevitable billion dollars at the worldwide box office, though : a not-inconsiderable percentage of the very troglodytes Marvel Studios and Sony hoped to win back with their new co-production deal turned on the so-called “House Of Ideas” in a big way.

The reasons for this are as simple as they are simple-minded, and so pathetic I don’t wish to go into them in great detail — suffice to say a quick Google search for “SJW Marvel” will turn up any number of mouth-foaming rants, either of the written, spoken, or streaming variety, featuring emotionally and intellectually stunted middle-aged white guys bitching about the fact that their once-favorite entertainment conglomerate has become “too political,” “too liberal,” “too preachy,” “too PC,” etc. Yes, apparently the company that has for decades produced — and continues to produce — mind-numbingly stupid comics and films featuring reactionary bloodthirsty vigilantes such as The Punisher, Wolverine, Bullseye, Foolkiller, etc. just isn’t right-wing enough for the “Make Marvel Great Again” crowd.

Then again, making Marvel “great” isn’t what they’re concerned about in the least — the post-Kirby Marvel comics they grew up reading and now speak of in reverent whispers were anything but. In fact, by and large, they sucked. But, Captain America sidekick The Falcon aside, they were essentially all-white stories, and these days, with characters like a Muslim-American Ms. Marvel, a female Thor, an equally female Wolverine, a black and female Iron “Man,” etc. running around, things are getting a bit too diverse for the “Trump troll” segment of fandom.

So what’s any of this got to do with Spider-Man : Homecoming, you ask? I mean, didn’t we already establish that no one’s really complaining about the “updated” take on the character? Hell, aren’t some of these 40-year-old virgins downright thrilled about Aunt May being a good three decades years younger than she’s ever been and played by Marisa Tomei?

Well, yeah, they are — and they generally seem to be in agreement that the new tech-savvy version of the villainous Vulture, as portrayed by Michael Keaton (who’s punching way below his weight class in a second-fiddle role) is an A+ baddie and that Tom Holland hits the nail on the head in his infectiously likable turn as Peter Parker/Spidey (although for my money Pete should always be a little bit of a self-absorbed, self-pitying jerk, and Andrew Garfield got that part of the character exactly right) — what they don’t like is that he’s got a crush on a black girl (Laura Harrier’s Liz) and that another black girl (Zendaya’s Michelle/ M.J.) has a crush on him. They seem far less than thrilled that Pete’s best buddy, Ned (played by Jacob Batalon) and arch-rival Flash (Tony Revolori) are “insufficiently” Caucasian, as well, but that’s nowhere near as large and affront to these knuckle-dragging cretins than even largely- unrequited interracial romance is. Kinda makes you wonder if they’ve got got some issues they don’t wanna deal with, doesn’t it?

In point of fact, these supposed ” old-school purists” (or maybe that should just be racial purists) — who, again, voice little to no objection to any of the other, much more significant, alterations made to the franchise they claim to revere — have even taking to calling this film “SJW Spider-Man,” even though, in the chickenshit tradition of the MCU, nothing like an even remotely political statement is made by anyone in the movie at any point. Hell, in the overall scheme of things Mary Jane’s name being changed is probably a “bigger deal” than her race being changed given that Peter Parker lives and goes to school, as is customary for the character, in Queens, and there just plain is no such thing as an all-white, or even a majority-white, high school in Queens anymore. If you don’t like that fact, then don’t venture outside of Kentucky, or Alabama, or wherever the hell you’re broadcasting your racist YouTube screeds from, but don’t blame either Sony or Marvel (a phrase you’ll never hear me say again, I promise) for providing an entirely realistic 21st-century supporting cast for their newest star-in-the-making.

And while we’re at it, let’s acknowledge that Liz’s race goes some way toward helping the more-clever-than-these-things-usually-are script keep its massive third-act plot twist a secret. I’ll say no more for fear of offending the “spoiler police,” but for those of you who’ve seen this flick already, well — you know what I’m talking about. It’s a genuinely surprising twist that I sure as hell didn’t see coming, and neither did you.

Add in the aforementioned very-good-too-terrific acting, solid CGI work, some flawlessly-timed laughs (many coming our way courtesy of Chris Evans), and numerous well-shot-and-choreographed action scenes, and what you’ve got here — and I risk my “Marvel-hater” reputation by saying this, I know, but — is an enjoyable, if flawed, summertime popcorn flick. Sure, quality veteran performers like Tyne Daly and Bokeem Woodbine are utterly wasted in go-nowhere roles, and sure, there’s nothing happening here that breaks the MCU mold, and sure, the rank hypocrisy of those who praise this film to high heavens after bad-mouthing, and in some cases even boycotting, the frankly superior The Amazing Spider-Man (I’m only talking about the first one, mind you) is annoying as all get-out, but hey, who are we kidding? These things are what they are. And for what it is, Spider-Man : Homecoming isn’t too shabby at all.

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Writing reviews of these Marvel flicks really ought to be fairly easy at this point since they can more or less all be summed up with “if you like this sort of thing, then you’ll like this one, too” — and while that’s as true as ever in the case of the just-released Captain America : Civil War, there’s plenty on offer here worth commenting on in a bit more depth, much of which isn’t taking place on the screen at all. So let’s dive into that first, shall we?

Make no mistake — the latest entry into the so-called “MCU” had a big opening weekend and looks set to make its parent company plenty of money. But a number of box office websites projected it to do considerably more business right out of the gate, and keep in mind that those figures are usually adjusted downwards thanks to pressure from studio executives. As just one example, boxoffice.com was going with a projected figure of $214 million for opening weekend, and you can bet that means their initial, un-publicized projections were more in the neighborhood of $220 million. As receipts started to be tallied up, they revised that figure down to $185 million, then down to $181 million come Sunday evening. Final score once actuals were totaled up? $179 million, good enough for the fifth-best opening weekend of all time, but lower than both Avengers and Avengers : Age Of Ultron. This final figure is certainly nothing to sneeze at, of course, but frankly much more impressive is how the Disney PR machine immediately leapt into action, emphasizing that it was a 90% stronger opening than the previous entry in the series, Captain America : Winter Soldier (which opened on a Wednesday in fucking April), rather than comparing it to the opening numbers for the two Avengers films, which is what they were saying the first-weekend box office take for this one would be more in line with before it, ya know, actually opened.

So, the good news for Dis/Mar is that Captain America movies (although this is one in name only given that Cap is hardly anything like “THE” central character — he’s more “A” central character) keep on making more money every time — the bad news is that Avengers movies (which, they were right, is essentially what this is) keep on doing incrementally worse. To provide some recent context (that also shows the efficacy of Disney’s largely-unpaid internet “spin” legion): the March 25th weekend opening of Batman V. Superman took in only $13 million less than did Captain America : Civil War, and all the talk within X-amount of days was about how that “under-performed” compared to expectations — even though its $166 million take was well ahead of the $140 million-ish figure most of the box office sites were projecting. I know that six weeks is ancient history in today’s world, but the simple truth is that Batman V. Superman was considered a rousing success — for all of about a week. It wasn’t until it suffered a 71% decline in its second week thanks to negative word of mouth (some sincere, some orchestrated by Disney brass) that talk of what a “failure” it was began to be taken seriously. For the record, to date BvS has made almost $870 million worldwide, and while Civil War is currently sitting around $700 million after just two weeks of release (it opened in many European and Asian markets before the US/North America — go figure) and will almost certainly pass Zack Snyder’s blustery-but-stylish romp within a week or two given that its week-to-week dropoff will almost certainly be much smaller, chances still seem fairly good that it also may not make it to a billion during its theatrical run (in fact, I’m betting it tops out around $930-$940 million) — and given that BvS will probably squeak just past $900 million between the few weeks it’s got left at the first-run theaters and its inevitable follow-up stint at the discount houses, there’s a very real chance that less than $50 million will be all that separates the “amazingly successful” Civil War from the “disappointing” Batman V. Superman. Considering that both films had budgets reported to be in the $250 million range and that each studio is said to have shelled out somewhere around $200 million on publicity to hype their product, Disney is still going to come out ahead of Warners on their big-budget superhero mash-ups for 2016, but not by a whole lot. Still — it’s funny how the “spin game” works, is it not? Once again, a few free preview passes and a few empty promises about “potential future visits to the set of one of our movies!” aimed in the direction of the right “opinion-shapers” is all it takes to make one studio look like champs and the other look like chumps.

I’ll tell you what, though — I don’t care how they spin in, the $179 million opening weekend for Captain America : Civil War was a good $30-35 million less than the Disney “suits” had been both hoping for and expecting. They’re hedging their bets a bit by claiming that the Mother’s Day holiday put a little bit of a dent in their business, but funny — BvS opened the same weekend as a holiday, as well : it’s called Easter. Maybe you’ve heard of it. Not traditionally known for being a big day at the movies.

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Of course, Civil War‘s (weird as this may sound) “soft” opening shouldn’t be taken in any way as a reflection on the film itself. Plenty of great movies have absolutely tanked at the box office, while plenty of shit ones have made hundreds of millions — and in the final analysis (which I’m getting to, I promise), this one falls somewhere in between. Directors Anthony and Joe Russo seem to have a bit more free reign here, stylistically speaking, than previous MCU directors have been given, and the end result is a flick that doesn’t start to ape the “big-budget TV episode” look of, say, Joss Whedon’s Avengers flicks or Jon Favreau’s Iron Man flicks until — oh, I dunno — about halfway through its two-and-a-half-hour-plus runtime. Frankly — and hard-core Marvel fans are gonna slap me for saying this — given the keen eye they show for shot composition in the early going (and again during some parts of the movie’s purportedly “climactic” final battle), Civil War often looks more like a Zack Snyder film than it does a Marvel film, and that at least goes some way toward keeping a person’s eyes glued to the screen. The story, sadly, is somewhat less engaging, revolving as it does (in case you didn’t already know) around a bunch of heroes falling in line behind Captain America (played, as ever, with a reasonable amount square-jawed heart by Chris Evans) and another bunch falling in line behind Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) as they take opposite positions on a bill to sanction, approve, and essentially regulate all super-hero work being advanced by the US Secretary of State (portrayed by a gaunt and sickly-looking William Hurt). “Team Cap,” which is opposed to the new legislation,  consists of The Falcon (Anthony Mackie), The Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), while “Team Iron Man,” which is in favor of it, has The Vision (Paul Bettany), War Machine (Don Cheadle), Black Widow (the preposterously-un-Russian as ever Scarlett Johansson), and newcomers Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and Spider-Man (Tom Holland) in its ranks. The battle lines are drawn, one character will definitely get the worst of it, the MCU will supposedly change forever — you know the drill.

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Of those just-mentioned newcomers, Holland’s Spidey is getting all the hype, but it’s Boseman’s Black Panther who is far and away the more impressive. He’s sleek, silent, calculating, and even-keeled, and his forthcoming solo movie might just be interesting (as opposed to his newly-relaunched comic series, which is off to a truly risible start). Holland, by contrast, seems a bit too youthful and, to be brutally honest, wet behind the ears to be an effective Peter Parker/Spider-Man, and his origin story looks like it’s going to be a rather revisionist, or “retconned,” one, with a lot of Stark Industries influence, and constant references to how “hot” his Aunt May ( played by Marisa Tomei — who, I’m sorry to sound like a pig, has certainly looked a lot better in other films than she does here) is. We’ll see how that goes, but his role here essentially boils down to being the first bit of  comic relief in a film that frankly has none until he shows up just past the halfway point (if you really want some fun, though, add up the number of critics online and in print who have said that BvS was too “dark” and “joyless,” then turned right around and extolled the virtues of Civil War‘s  “serious” and “mature” tone). To Holland’s credit, his character’s comic relief shtick at least works, which is more than you can say for the flat, forced “humor” on offer from Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man — the less said about which the better.

You already know the two sides won’t stay at each other’s throats forever, of course, and that they’ll team up to fight a bigger threat (a cliched non-twist that BvS  was, again, panned for but that Civil War is, also again, being praised for) before all is said and done — the problem is that said “bigger” threat here is, in the end, just a guy. Daniel Bruhl’s Zemo character (who bears precisely no resemblance to the Baron Zemo created by Jack Kirby) is certainly manipulative and all, but on the whole he’s a decidedly un-menacing bad guy. Granted, previous MCU films have set the bar for “villain quality” amazingly low, but this clown is small potatoes compared even to the bog-standard CGI alien invaders of The Avengers or the laughably incompetent Loki from the Thor flicks. In all honesty, Sebastian Stan’s Bucky Barnes/Winter Soldier seems a more pressing danger than Zemo ever is, and we know from the outset that he’s being manipulated/impersonated and doesn’t really mean anyone any harm. I don’t know how an entire fucking commitee of screenwriters couldn’t manage to come up with a better “evil mastermind”-type character than the one we’re served up here — unless they weren’t really trying. The only thing that might be more lame than this is Cap’s wooden “romance” with Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp) — who just so happens to be the niece of his first love from back in the 1940s. Nothing creepy about that.

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If you’re getting the impression that I found Captain America : Civil War to be something of a mixed bag on the whole, hey, you’d be exactly right — the plot has a bit more thematic depth to it than most MCU fare and it’s a more appealing package visually (until it gets all “point-and-shoot” later on), but it suffers from all the usual flaws these things do, as well, the largest being that it exists more for the purpose of selling audiences on the next two or three films in this “universe” than it does for creating a truly memorable and “game-changing” viewing experience this time around. The Russo Brothers seem to be getting a more effective “hang” on this whole “blockbuster thing,” which is a good sign given that they’ll be heading up the next two films in the Avengers series, but if current patterns hold — and at this point there’s no reason to believe that they won’t — even those “tent-pole” releases will continue to promise that the best, biggest, baddest, and coolest thing ever is just around the corner. It would be nice if, for once, it actually arrived — but Disney studio execs (and I’m sure the same will be true for their counterparts at Warners as the so-called “DCEU” progresses) have no real reason to give audiences the “steak” rather than the “sizzle” as long as these two-and-a-half-hour “teaser reels” for future films continue to make money — even if they’re starting to make less money than they used to.

 

 

 

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Like many an armchair movie critic, once I decide that I’m gonna review a particular film, I browse the web for some pictures of said film to include within the body of my write-up/rant so that you, faithful reader, aren’t just confronted with a “wall of text” if I’m fortunate enough to have your attention long enough to read whatever shit I’ve decided to blather on about. I usually opt to include four or five images with a standard-length review — sometimes more, sometimes less, but generally I find that four or five spaces things out nicely and gives a review a good “look.”

What’s this boring “behind the scenes” info got to do with Avengers : Age Of Ultron? Simply this : when I did a Google image search for pics related to writer/director Joss Whedon’s latest Marvel Studios mega-blockbuster, it was virtually impossible to tell actual film stills (which I prefer to use) apart from  heavily-airbrushed, digitized promotional art issued by Dis/Mar and/or fan-made photoshop art. Seriously. Try this yourself and tell me I’m not wrong — go to Google image search, type in “Avengers Age Of Ultron” and see if you can tell the difference. Even if you’ve seen the movie, I’m tellin’ ya, in many cases you can’t. I know that all film — yes, even documentaries to some degree — is artifice, but seriously : when you can’t discern an “actual” movie still from a promo mock-up, it seems to me that we’ve silently crossed some sort of line and are in new and uncharted territory. How many actual “sets” were used in Whedon’s CGI “epic”  vs. how much was shot entirely in front of a blue-or green-screen I couldn’t say you with any certainty, but, as with last summer’s Guardian Of The Galaxy, which saw Vin Diesel credited as one of the flick’s “stars” simply for doing the equivalent of animation voice-over work, here James Spader is credited prominently for “starring” as the villainous Ultron despite never actually, ya know, appearing on screen at all.

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Now, if you’re at all familiar with my previous appraisals of so-called “MCU” movies, this is probably the point at which you expect me to launch into some diatribe about what a piece of shit this thing is. It’s no secret that, apart from Joe Johnston’s Captain America : The First Avenger, I really haven’t liked many of these at all. I find them to be dull, predictable, repetitious, uninvolving, way too heavy on spectacle at the expense of characterization, you name it. And while Avengers : Age Of Ultron is certainly guilty of all those things, let me let you in on a little secret even though it may threaten to completely ruin my reputation as a loud-mouthed cinematic contrarian — I really didn’t hate this flick as much as I did the last several Marvel offerings and, in fact, I may not have even hated it at all.

Which isn’t to say that I really liked it either — I’m still getting all that sorted out in my head, but this is by no stretch of the imagination a good movie. Maybe I’ve just given up (finally), accepted these things for what they are, and am willing to make some kind of peace with the fact that the public at large seems to really dig the hell out something that I don’t. It wouldn’t be the first time, and it won’t be the last. But who knows?  Maybe — just maybe — this movie is, in fact, marginally better than the rest of its brain-dead ilk. It’s a possibility I’m willing to at least consider.

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Detailed plot recaps of these things aren’t really necessary, of course, because Marvel movies don’t have detailed plots, but if you must know the basics here they are : Robert Downey, Jr.’s Iron Man, Chris Evans’ Captain America, Scarlett Johannsson’s Black Widow, Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye, Chris Hemsworth’s Thor, and  Murk Ruffalo’s Hulk all return as “Earth’s Mightiest Heroes!” to battle a problem of Tony Stark and Bruce Banner’s own creation, a power-mad artificial intelligence “virus” called Ultron that inhabits a bunch of robotic bodies and wants to save the world by — yawn! — destroying it. Newcomers Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and her twin brother, Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) — who can officially appear in Marvel Studios product now that it’s been revealed that they’re not Magneto’s kids and therefore don’t fall under the umbrella of the X-Men properties owned, cinematically speaking, by Fox —switch sides about halfway through the action and join the team, Don Cheadle’s War Machine, Anthony Mackie’s Falcon, and Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury all pop up later to varying degrees when the obviously lily-white (okay, and green) makeup of the main team becomes so obvious that even Marvel can’t ignore it anymore, and Paul Bettany gets to graduate from a disembodied voice to an actual character when a variation of the Jarvis A.I. program he’s been dubbing in lines for takes on  physical (albeit android) form as the MCU’s version of The Vision.

The final outcome of the decidedly non-dramatic “drama” here is never, of course, in doubt — one way or another The Avengers are bound to win — but what I at least found somewhat noteworthy is that between the film’s frankly stupid-as-shit first act and predictably bombastic third, Whedon manages to squeeze in a second act that almost threatens to be actually interesting at times.

From what I gather, it’s this second act that a lot of hard-core Marvel fans have problems with, given that The Vision’s origin is basically nothing like its printed-page progenitor, Hawkeye is given a completely different backstory to the one that’s been established for him in the comics, and the Black Widow/Hulk romance that’s introduced here is a wholecloth invention on Whedon’s part. For my part, I felt most of this was rather plausible enough — okay, apart from the origin for The Vision, which is just plain staggeringly dumb — and certainly found this section of the film to be of far more interest than the CGI extravaganza that both precedes and usurps it, but is it enough to make Age Of Ultron something I’d actually watch a second time? I gotta admit, probably not — but at least it kept me from completely tuning it out the first time I saw it.

Of course, in addition to over-reliance on special effects, many of the same problems from the first Avengers flick are still on glaring display here — Johansson is the least-convincing Russian spy ever and exudes a kind of “negative charisma” as The Black Widow that literally sucks out whatever scant traces of life most of the scenes she appears in might have; we get way too many shots of Downey inside his Iron Man helmet; Ruffalo’s facial expressions run the shortest gamut you can possibly imagine (his looks can best be described as “concerned as shit” and “self-pitying plus concerned as shit”); and at the end of the day the only remotely sympathetic character (Tony Stark, incidentally, graduates from “more or less and asshole” to “complete asshole” as events unfold here) of the bunch is Renner’s Hawkeye. But whatever. As far as two-dimensional ciphers go, Hemsworth and Evans at least appear to be having fun as Thor and Captain America, respectively, and I’ll give Spader some credit for sounding suitably menacing and nuts in his “turn” as Ultron.

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In the end, though, Avengers : Age Of Ultron‘s greatest success in an entirely inadvertent one : the Ultron character him/itself is, you see, a pretty effective metaphor for the Marvel Cinematic Universe as a whole. Think about it — like the robotic bad guy here, these movies exist not so much to be themselves, but to replicate themselves. An astonishing amount of time in this flick is devoted to foreshadowing/set-up for the forthcoming (and apparently two-part) next Avengers extravaganza, which will finally see them  fighting Jim Starlin’s Thanos character for control of the so-called “Infinity Gems.” And you can bet that once that conflagration takes place, it will be loaded with “hints” about the next big Avengers “spectacular” slated to follow it. And whatever that ends up being will probably be weighed down with “spoilers” for the next. And the next. And the next —

And so it goes. Look, I’m not a sucker (at least, I don’t like to think that I am).  I might have found Avengers : Age Of Ultron to be marginally more to my liking than both its predecessor and most of its “sister” films — and it was nice to see Jack Kirby’s name displayed prominently in the credits this time (even if Stan Lee’s, as always, comes first) — but the creative bankruptcy of Marvel Studios as a whole, as well as the overtly cynical nature of their cash-grabbing ways, are as plain to see as ever here. These aren’t movies that even give a shit about being good, they’re movies that are designed to get you to keep on coming back for more. Fans might argue that “well, if they weren’t so good in the first place, people wouldn’t be coming back for more, so you’re negating your own point, asshole!,” but I don’t buy it. All the public really wants from these films is a sort of easily-digestible, not-too-taxing status quo. Marvel has been succeeding at giving them just that in the pages of their comics ever since true visionaries like the aforementioned Mr. Kirby, Steve Ditko, Wally Wood, and (a little bit later) Steve Gerber left the fold and succeeding generations of “fan creators” with no greater ambition than to tell bigger, noisier versions of the same stories they loved as a kid took over. Now the same thing is happening on celluloid, with bigger bucks behind it and bigger audiences consuming it, but the basic hustle remains the same. As “Stan the Man” himself might put it in that nauseating faux-Shakespearian way of his that people insist is “charming” and “fun” : ’twas ever thus, and so it shall remain.

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Let’s be honest about something right off the bat : this whole “foodie” thing? It’s gone just too damn far.

I appreciate the fact that there’s a tremendous level of artistry and creativity involved in crafting a fine meal, absolutely, and that those who can do so possess a set of skills that often takes years to develop. And I’m also aware of the fact that many chefs are promoting a “farm to table” philosophy that eschews mass-manufactured “frankenfoods” in favor of providing their customers with fresh, healthy, locally-grown produce and the like. Good for them. But at the end of the day these guys  aren’t fucking rock stars, they’re cooks,  and eating out isn’t the grandest experience in the universe — nor should it be. Our relationship with food is entirely out of whack. If you pick up the free local “arts and entertainment” newspaper in your town — here in Minneapolis it’s City Pages, but pretty much every metro area of 75,000 people or more is cursed with one — you could, of course, be forgiven for thinking that there was nothing more important than your local culinary “scene,” but in truth it’s pretty damn tough for the average family of four (or more) to be able to afford to eat out at any of the places these rags spend countless pages gushing over even once a year, so by dint of sheer economic necessity the simple fact is that the “foodie” crowd in any given American city or suburb is much smaller than the people who have nothing else and/or better to do with their time would care to believe. In other words — this shit just ain’t all that important to everyday working people.

Oh, and while we’re on the subject of cold, hard, economic reality, let me mention two other things that the culinary establishment and its largely-unpaid sycophants would prefer not to mention : the overwhelming majority of the restaurants they’re talking about in any given review, blog post, or what have you will go out of business in less than a year, leaving a good number of “local celebrity” chefs, as well as their entire front -of-house and kitchen staffs (you know, the folks who do all the real work) scrambling to find employment in an industry that’s never going to be stable ; and most restaurant work doesn’t offer health insurance or 401 (k) pensions or anything of the sort, so good luck growing old in the food biz. I sincerely hope that all the “fresh, edgy” flavor-of-the-month chefs out there enjoy their 15 minutes of semi-fame whenever they happen, because most of them are going to end up with nothing (except for maybe a pile of debt if they’ve financed any of their business ventures out of their own wallets) when the ride is over, and those critics and bloggers who once sang their praises? There will always be some “new, exciting” place popping up to command their attention, while all those guys (and, to some extent, gals, but let’s be honest — the restaurant business, particularly in the kitchen, is still by and large a testosterone-dominated work environment) they used to talk about? They’re so yesterday’s news. Your long-term options as a chef are pretty narrow : either land a show on the Food Network (good luck with that), or find something else to do by the time you’re 45 or 50 — a point at which, by the  way, you’ll still be paying off your student loan debt from Cordon Bleu or whatever other ridiculously overpriced for-profit cooking school you attended.

On the one hand, this is kinda tragic on a purely human scale — the absolute implosion of the “food truck craze,” for instance, has probably had devastating consequences on a lot of families; but on the other hand, part of me thinks that the whole “foodie” thing can’t die out soon enough because there’s seriously something flat-out sick and wrong about the fact that  we even  have the nerve to critique our meals for being “over-seasoned” or “less adventurous than we were hoping for” or whatever nit-picky little things the food critics focus in on. But more on that in just a minute.

Since I’m on the subject of  critics — shit, don’t even get me started. That local freebie fishwrap I mentioned a couple paragraphs back? I have it on reasonably good authority that they pay their food “journalist” 40 bucks per review and don’t even reimburse their meal expenses anymore, which means that whoever is dumb enough to be writing restaurant reviews for them at this point (most seem to last about six months, tops, at the job) is actually coming out behind on the whole deal, given that you’ve gotta visit any given establishment 3 or 4 times in order to be in a position to have sampled enough dishes to critique the joynt. At least the food bloggers out there — who, rest assured, I will be savaging in the very next paragraph — that are doing the same thing most likely have other jobs, and are just whiling away at this shit in their spare time, because it fits their warped definition of “fun.”

Hmmmmm — that sounds kinda familiar, come to think of it. In fact, if somebody wants to point a finger at me and call me hypocrite at this stage because “they’re just like you, only you talk movies and they talk food” they’d sorta have a point, but there’s a key distinction that needs to be made : a bad review from me ain’t gonna put Warner Brothers or 20th Century Fox out of business. The simple truth is that I just don’t fucking matter that much, but if one of these pretentious armchair culinary “experts” gives a new start-up eating establishment a negative write-up, it can have devastating consequences. It’s really no wonder so many of  these people have almost hilariously inflated opinions of themselves, because their opinions actually are sort of important. A local restaurant blog that gets the same sort of traffic my movie and comics blog gets — say, somewhere in the neighborhood of four or five hundred “hits” per day — can actually have an impact, even if it’s author is a fucking accountant who couldn’t find his ass with two hands the minute he got into a kitchen. These days, it’s true, everyone’s a critic — whether it be of movies, books, plays, comics, restaurants, you name it — but I operate by a very simple rule of thumb, and I know other movie bloggers who do the same thing : anything the “big guys,” or even modestly-distributed indies,  do is fair game, but when it comes to small, self-financed, shoestring-budget filmmakers — the kind of people who invest all their hopes and dreams and life savings into a project — I’ll tread a bit more carefully. I’m not suggesting that I muzzle my opinions, much less deliberately write a good review for a bad movie. No way. I may not be getting paid for this, but my conscience isn’t for sale at any price. Here’s how I (and others that I know of) operate : if you send me a “screener” of your low-budget, no-distribution-deal-to-speak-of,  independent feature and I like it, I’ll say so. If I don’t, chances are that I probably won’t even review it — unless it’s so obviously  and utterly without merit that somebody needs to tell you to find a new line of work. I’ve received numerous movies from numerous independent filmmakers over my 4 or 5 years of doing this, and I try to offer constructive criticism to them privately if I didn’t care for their efforts, provided their film meets the “absolutely starting from nothing” criteria I’ve just outlined. But I’m not gonna trash ’em in public for something they have so much sheer hope riding on. I just don’t have it in me.

Does that make me fundamentally dishonest? I have no idea. But almost anybody with an HD camcorder thinks they can be a director these days, and I have no desire to rip their dreams to shreds unless they absolutely have it coming. I’d rather have some kid right out of college who sent me his shot-on-the-weekends homemade horror flick think I’m an asshole for not reviewing his movie that he gave me a free copy of than to have him think I’m an asshole for tearing it apart in a review that’s going to sit on the internet forever. Likewise, a small, locally-owned, start-up restaurant usually has more than enough to worry about in terms of just keeping the lights on and making sure the paychecks they cut that week clear the bank — and now they have to sweat some douchebag lawyer or real estate agent publicly trashing their place on their food blog or in a yelp! review? Please.

Wait, though! I’m not quite done alienating every single person that’s ever written a restaurant review online. I have one more thought to leave any and/or all of you with before I clumsily segue into our actual business at hand here — next time you, Mr. or Ms. wanna-be restaurant critic, look in the mirror, please consider the following : a good half of the world is starving as we speak. They’d run a mile through sweltering desert heat just for a  handful of dried beans and a cup of water. And you have the nerve to critique food based on its “presentation” or “originality” or “flavor profile” or “balance”? I think a good, solid “fuck you” from the entire continent or three full of people who wonder where their next meal is even going to come from, never mind what the hell it looks like, is in order at this point, don’t you? And make no mistake, the two circumstances are inextricably linked — they are going hungry because we have too damn much.

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How, then, to make the “foodie” trend even more nauseating, over-exposed, and frankly out of control than it already is? Why, make a movie about it, of course — all of which brings us (finally!) to 2014’s Chef,  which just landed in the instant streaming queue on Netflix (it’s also available on Blu-ray and DVD), and which purports to bring  Hollywood wunderkind Jon Favreau back to his “indie roots” or somesuch. Now, we all know that when it comes to pretentious, self-absorbed asshole-ism, that even  the “foodie” community still has a long way to go before it catches up to Tinseltown (although it’s rapidly doings its best to narrow the gap) — but this, we’re told, is a “personal” effort, and represents Favreau’s attempt to “back away” from blockbusters like Iron Man and “get back in touch with his inner storyteller,” or words to that effect.

Bullshit. If Cowboys Vs. Aliens hadn’t flopped so spectacularly, he’d still be churning out big-budget garbage — instead of, ya know, more modestly-budgeted garbage like this. In any fair and just universe, this yarn about a chef (Favreau) who finds himself “creatively stifled” by his boss (Dustin Hoffman) and quits to start up a food truck, then drives it all the way across country to bond with his son (Emjay Anthony) and sidekick/single employee (John Leguizamo), and accidentally learns along the way that said son’s mom (Sofia Vergara), with whom he’s had a rocky relationship in the past, is actually the love of his life, would immediately be dismissed as Lifetime Movie of the Week garbage. Throw in the fact that the asshole food critic (Oliver Platt) who helped precipitate his “getting back in touch with why he loved cooking in the first place”ends up bankrolling him to open his dream restaurant at the end (after Mr. Critic sells his blog for $10 million or something — a plot “twist” that should make even those unpaid “foodies” I was just foaming at the mouth about scoff at it for its utter ridiculousness,  unless they’re so breathtakingly narcissistic that they think shit like that really can happen to them) and, ya know what? The whole thing would probably seem so cliched that even Lifetime would take a pass on it after all.

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Guess what, though?  Even with all that naked heartstring-tugging (gosh, why is the kid shooting one-second video clips with his phone once a day? Why, so chef daddy can sit down and watch them all,  spliced together,  at the end, of course) and glaringly obvious forced parallels between his character’s “arc” and his own “journey as a filmmaker,”  Favreau still isn’t finished offending our sensibilities in his duties as writer and director, because he’s thrown in a healthy dose of racism and sexism, to boot! On the sexist front,  Scarlett Johansson is utterly wasted (and speaking of wasted, Robery Downey Jr. pops up just long enough for you to say “hey, look! It’s Robert Downey Jr.!”) in a role that relegates her to being a piece of fuckmeat to occupy Favreau’s time until he gets back together with Vergara, while Vergara herself is saddled with playing the same “sexy Latin lady with a sassy attitude” that every single director seems to assume assume  is all the more she can handle; and on the racist front, we’ve got Leguizamo as the loyal (he quit along with his “master” while a turncoat — played by Bobby Cannavale — stayed behind at the restaurant) Hispanic sidekick who’s just so happy to be working for his boss that he’s more than willing to let him take the credit — and the cash — for a Cuban sandwich food truck  (the very same  truck that “revitalizes” the boss-man’s career, family, love life, and fortunes) that is, for all intents and purposes, his idea. Yup, everyone knows their place in this flick, alright.

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Seriously, friends (assuming I have any left) — Chef is, if anything, even worse than the brief synopsis I’ve just provided you with would lead you to conclude. It’s two hours of the most focus-group-tested litany of tropes slapped together in such a way as to give off a vibe of faux-“indie credibility” that it in no way actually earns. It’s the kind of film that thinks it’s being “edgy” when it peppers its soundtrack with reggae and a capella versions of worn-out R&B standards. It’s a desperate — and frankly pathetic — attempt by a guy who’s afraid that he may have worn out his welcome at the big studios  to reassert that he’s still “relevant” after all, and only succeeds in demonstrating that he probably never was. It’s a movie about gourmet food, sure, but all Favreau is really serving audiences here is a big ole’ shit sandwich.

 

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Are you a big fan of David Fincher? I tend to have a “love it or hate it” attitude toward his work myself, with the flicks I love being ones I really love and those I hate being ones I really hate. The funny thing is, the films of his that I don’t like seem to be the ones everybody else likes (Se7en, the ridiculously over-rated Fight Club), and those I like tend to be the ones everybody else doesn’t like (Alien 3The Game). One area of agreement I do seem to have with the grizzled, hard-core Fincher-fans, though, is that while movies like The Social Network and The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button are the ones that have gotten him the most critical acclaim, his best work is — far and away — Zodiac, which isn’t just the finest entry into the director’s ouevre, but one one of the most tense, provocative, deeply-affecting, and flat-out awesome crime flicks ever made by anyone.

Fuck. Sorry about all the italics in that paragraph, I’ll try to chill on that from here on out. Here’s the “point” (to the extent I have one) that I’m getting to here, though — I bet Fincher himself isn’t much of a fan of director Tom Hanson’s 1971 non-thriller The Zodiac Killer (also released under the titles of The Zodiak Killer  and, you guessed it — Zodiac), simply because it’s hard to imagine any two films that are (ostensibly, at any rate) about the same subject being as diametrically opposite to each other as Fincher’s smart, psychologically-probing one and Hanson’s throwaway piece of trash.

Not that we have anything against throwaway pieces of trash around here, mind you — and truth be told, I don’t even have that much against The Zodiac Killer. Sure, it’s tasteless in the extreme to try to wring a few bucks out of actual crimes that left a lot of friends and family members of the victims grieving in their wake, and it’s  probably even more tasteless to release such a film while said events are still taking place in order to capitalize on the public’s then-current paranoia and unease, but in a way isn’t that, if not more ethical, at least more honest than covering your work in some veneer of “respectability” while still actively playing to the ticket-buyer’s innate fear of mass murderers and serial killers?

Sure, Zodiac  is a classier and better production in every respect than The Zodiac Killer could ever dream of being, but at its core, it’s still exploiting human tragedy for the sake of box-office dollars just like its cheap, sleazy predecessor did four decades earlier, isn’t it? Anybody wanna take that one? Bueller?

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Meet Jerry (played by Hal Reed, pictured above), a shy, reclusive mailman who’s awkward and stand-offish around women (even though he’s not above scoring some tail while going about his daily rounds), keeps bunny rabbit as pets, and lives a quiet, solitary life. He also has a thing for wearing black robes, worshiping at a half-assed occult altar he keeps hidden behind a curtain, and oh yeah — he’s the Zodiac killer. Don’t worry, I’m not giving much away here — the film tips its hand at about the halfway point after dropping a “red herring” storyline that tries, lamely, to convince us that Jerry’s buddy, an uber-misogynistic truck driver named Grover (Bob Jones), just might be America’s most famous-at-the-time serial psycho himself. Where, how, and why Jerry got his deep-seated misanthropy is never really explained until it’s way too late and we see him sobbing to his dementia-addled father about how mommy died young and daddy never showed him “any expression of feeling,” but shit — motivations really don’t matter much here, anyway.

Nor, apparently, does factual accuracy — while a couple of the murders shown are generally in line with those we know the Zodiac committed (one of which, the infamous multiple-stab-wounds knife attack on a couple of young lovers by a lake,  is probably the only one in the film that could be described as being effectively staged), most are pulled right out of the filmmaker’s asses, such as a broad-daylight attack on a teenage girl in the middle of the street that sees Zodiac “disguised” in one of those stupid Groucho Marx-nosed masks (I half expected him to jump out from behind the bushes and say “alright stop what you’re doin’, ‘cuz I’m about to ruin, the image and the style that you’re used to”) and an unbelievable murder at a senior citizens’ home that sees our “perp” pushing a an old timer’s wheeled lawn chair down a hill, through a busy intersection, and finally down a flight of stairs. This is a Zodiac killer who apparently just offs anybody who’s handy by whatever means available.

I know, I know — a few minutes ago I opined that The Zodiac Killer was, after a fashion at any rate, more honest than Fincher’s (justly) much-more-celebrated work, but I was only talking about its intentions, not its content, because the simple fact here is that, despite boasting the apparently-active participation of the San Francisco Chronicle reporter known as “Mr. Zodiac” himself, Paul Avery (portrayed in Fincher’s film by Robert Downey, Jr.),  this flick is complete and utter bullshit.

But is that such a bad thing? I mean, we know what the Zodiac killer did in real life, but we have no fucking clue what he might do next here. And that “don’t give a shit” attitude is, I’m happy to say, readily apparent throughout this movie. Hanson and his screenwriters quite clearly don’t give a shit about women, which isn’t cool, but they also don’t give a shit about cops, which in my admittedly juvenile worldview is, and every single character here is quick to ooze resentment  toward the bullies in blue at the drop of a hat — even nice, mild-mannered guys (when he’s not, ya know, killing people for no reason at all) like Jerry. Plus, the detectives investigating the case are portrayed as officious, bungling, incompetent imbeciles, which is always fun to see.

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Still, there’s an incongruity to this flick’s attitude toward crime and those who supposedly “protect” us from it that’s positively dizzying. After spending its entire runtime telling us what a bunch of good-for-nothing buffoons the cops are, Jerry’s interior monologue at the end, as he roams the streets scott-free, is right out of the right-wing authoritarian douchebag’s playbook, as he “tells” us that the “system” is designed to protect his rights, doesn’t really care about helping the victims, the pigs’ll never get him because they need pesky things like search warrants, and shit, even if they do eventually put him away, he’ll probably just get out in a few years, anyway. According to The Zodiac Killer,  then, the police are stupid assholes who can’t do anything right — but who, nevertheless,  shouldn’t have to read us our Miranda rights and should have the power to search our homes, cars, and persons on a  whim.  Go figure that one out.

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Obviously, this isn’t a flick that’s bothered to think anything through very much, both in terms of its relationship to actual, documented reality or its general philosophical outlook, and at the end of the day that’s probably the most interesting thing about it. It’s available on DVD from Something Weird Video (where it’s presented in a reasonably good-looking full-frame transfer with mono sound) as part of a triple-bill that also includes The Sex Killer (great first-date viewing) and Zero In And Scream (extras are sparse on this one compared to other SWV offerings and are pretty much limited to a smattering of trailers, but what the hell, you’re getting three movies, right?) so you can judge its relative “merits” — or complete lack thereof — for yourself, and I’d urge you to do so. It’s about as far-removed from an exploitation “classic” as you can get, but it’s at least as schizophrenic as the killer whose crimes it supposedly “documents,” and  that’s enough right there to make for an interesting time in my book.