Venom (2018, Directed by Ruben Fleischer) English 6

Starring Tom Hardy, Michelle Williams, Riz Ahmed, Jenny Slate, Scott Haze

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(6-Good Film)

Campy. Silly. Fun.

Occasionally, not often, I’ll watch a film that makes me question my own cinematic taste. I’ll watch Blade Runner 2049 and be bored to tears, or, on the opposite end of the pole, I’ll thoroughly enjoy a film like Venom. Torched by critics, who, to be fair, only reaffirmed my belief that the Tom Hardy, superhero vehicle would be a massive waste of time, a box-office dud, and an embarrassing cash-grab by Sony, I was surprised five minutes in to find myself intrigued by what was going on, and shocked by the end to find I liked what Sony did with the movie. Does that make it a good film?  I decided to let some time pass. Maybe I was influenced by the natural high I sometimes achieve eating Walgreen’s candy at the movie theater. Best to keep my opinion to myself, I thought. But I couldn’t keep it to myself. I texted a dozen people that Venom was, against all odds, a good film, and now, two days later, I feel confident enough to put it in writing. Venom is a good film.

Eddie Brock leaps from the comic book pages onto the big screen in a solo film that not many people thought would ever happen, and even fewer felt he deserved. Played by Tom Hardy, in a bewildering performance best described as Nicholas Cage-esque (I’m leaning towards that being a compliment), Brock is a hot-headed, investigative reporter who runs afoul of corporate thug, Carlton Drake (Ahmed, an odd but entertaining choice), resulting in him losing his job and his fiancée, Anne (Williams). Drake has some kind of sinister, shady plan afoot involving symbiotes from outer space (more interesting to watch than to explain; the film, to its credit, recognizes this), and Brock ends up merging with one of them. The symbiote, named Venom (I don’t remember why the symbiotes speak English but they do) inhabits Brock and can communicate with him through thoughts. Venom has seemingly unlimited power, though we learn his weakness is fire and high-pitched noise. Brock, as he grows accustomed to the powers, goes after Drake who’s planning to take over the world-typical super villain stuff-and Venom’s motivation for helping him ends up being quite funny rather than perfunctory.

Sony and the filmmakers eschew the problems of most super hero origin stories. Venom is never boring. It’s not dark and brooding, which, I know a lot of people were upset that this isn’t R rated. Maybe a dark and reflective Venom could have worked (it worked so well for Ang Lee’s Hulk), but this Venom is funny (usually intentionally), fast, cheesy, over-the-top, fresh, silly, and fun. At its core, it’s a compelling bromance between Eddie Brock and his symbiote friend, Venom, and it took me by surprise.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

Batman and Robin: So Terrible, it’s Amazing (1998, Directed by Joel Schumaker) English 3

Starring George Clooney, Chris O’Donnell, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Uma Thurman, Alicia Silverstone, Michael Gough, Pat Hingle

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(3-Horrible Film)

Campy. Goofy. Idiotic.

1998’s Batman and Robin is, simply put, a joke. They notoriously gave Bruce Wayne’s suit nipples, they chose for their lead villain, Mr. Freeze, played by a blue painted Arnold Schwarzenegger, spouting one bad ice related pun after another (“let’s kick some ice”), and made Poison Ivy look like Divine from a John Waters movie (google it). I’d like to catalog for you, the film’s many shortcomings and harebrained moments, though it’s a Herculean task to try and catch all of them, but it’s also important to note and preface this with the truth, which is that I love this film. Definitely falls within the “so bad, it’s good” variety. I think it’s hilarious. I laughed out loud on more occasions during the length of this superhero flick than, let’s say, 95% of the straight-up comedies I’ve seen.

Technically the fourth entry in the pre-Christopher Nolan series of Batman films- it’s amazing how silly all of the Batman movies before Bale and Nolan seem now that I’ve seen their grittier, more realistic take-Batman and Robin stars George Clooney as the billionaire playboy slash caped crusader. It’s incredible, and not enough is said about how Clooney was able to have a career after this film, let alone the Oscar winning, lifetime achievement award receiving career he has had. Bat nipples should have been career ending. I will say that among the cast, who should all feel embarrassed, Clooney comes off the least foolish. He gives the role some gravitas, granted, masked behind layers of inanity, bad dialogue, and bat nipples (I’m going to keep coming back to bat nipples; they color the entire film). I would even go as far as saying that Clooney could make a great Bruce Wayne in a much better, more competent picture. Now, if you think I’m being over dramatic about bat nipples being potentially career ending, take a look at the rest of the cast of then-stars. Chris O’Donnell returns as  Batman’s close ally, Robin. O’Donnell, who’d given a very strong performance six years earlier in Scent of a Woman (1992) with Al Pacino, never recovered from this dud. Neither did Alicia Silverstone, at the time of the film’s release, still riding the waves off of her early success in Clueless (1995). Here, she plays Barbara Wilson, grand-niece of Bruce Wayne’s butler, Alfred. She appears to be a nice, wholesome girl, but is later revealed to be a hardcore, action adventure heroine, and dons the ready made Batgirl suit Alfred leaves her. Together, Batman (having trouble trusting his young sidekicks), Batgirl, and Robin take on Mr. Freeze, Poison Ivy, and Bane (3 on 3) who team up, rather improbably, to take over the world (or at least Gotham) with a telescope Mr. Freeze turned into a freeze gun. The villains are where the film really reveals its suckage. I’m going to address them one by one.

I’ve already referenced Schwarzenegger’s Mr. Freeze, and you probably got the point, but not enough can be said about his puns:

Cop #1: Please show some mercy!

Mr. Freeze: Mercy? I’m afraid my condition has left me cold to your pleas of mercy.

See too, a scene where he sings along to the snow miser song from A Year Without Santa Claus (1974), while his henchman, who dress in fur coats and talk like they’re from the Bronx, provide backing vocals. Where does he get these guys? Honestly? He goes to New York and posts hiring notices? It’s insane. And they help him, why? Then again, Ted Bundy had followers. Perhaps, it’s one of those things that defies explanation. Like when Mr. Freeze zaps Robin with his freeze gun, and Robin’s cemented in a block of ice. The solution: Batman picks Robin up and puts him in hot water, and Robin’s perfectly fine. Science! What’s the point of Mr. Freeze’s gun if it doesn’t even kill anybody? It looks cool on an action figure?

Poison Ivy, as portrayed by Uma Thurman, is, against all odds, even worse. She escaped this travesty thanks to Tarantino casting her in his Kill Bill saga, otherwise, I’m certain this would have been career curtains. Let’s start with her “origin story.” The origin stories in the old Batman movies were the worst/most hilarious parts. She’s working in some kind of lab, minding her own business one minute. She opens a door, and all of a sudden, she’s in some weird underground cult room, complete with evil experiments. That’s it. All she did was open a door. The mad scientist in this new room goes, “how did you get in here? Now, I’ll have to kill you. You know too much.” What do you mean, “how did you get in here?” You didn’t even lock the door. His attempt to kill her somehow imbues her with the power to manipulate plants and toxins, and the sexy ability to kill men with a kiss. Almost lost amid Mr. Freeze’s bad puns are Poison Ivy’s equally lame lines: “They replaced my blood with aloe.” “Animal protectors of the status quo.” Worst of all: “My garden needs tending.” Smh. Uma’s performance is bad too. The dialogue is horrible and does her no favors, but her delivery only compounds the terribleness. She talks like a bad theater actress. And then there’s the striptease she does while wearing a gorilla costume. Has to be seen, to be believed. Yes, someone thought that was a good idea.

Bane, while equaling his compadres in stupidity, has far less screentime, thus leaves far less of an impression. Still, in his rare moments to shine, the filmmakers turn him into a Frankenstein figure; like a campy Frankenstein figure. He starts off as a scrawny child molester or something, and is then given serum that  makes him jacked. How to defeat him? Robin simply pulls the rather large tube from the back of Bane’s head and he disintegrates. So, so bad.

There isn’t much logic to Batman and Robin. Instead there are pointless cameos from Elle MacPherson and Coolio. I’m sure the fimmakers were convinced their target audience wouldn’t notice (their target audience being 8 year-olds), and they were right. There was a solid 3 year period when I legitimately thought it was the greatest film ever made. Now, I see clearly. It’s in my exclusive top ten worst movies ever made list. So many poor choices, lapses of logic, head shaking moments, and bat nipples. Never forget bat nipples.

-Walter Tyrone Howard-

Teen Titans Go! to the Movies (2018, Directed by Peter Rida Michail and Aaron Horvath) English 6

Voices of Greg Cripes, Scott Menville, Khary Payton, Tara Strong, Hynden Walch, Kristen Bell, Will Arnett, Nicholas Cage

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Theatrical film given to the cast of the popular cartoon television series, Teen Titans Go! stars Robin, Raven, Beast Boy, Starfire, and Cyborg working desperately to be taken seriously and get their own film (like Wonder Woman, Superman, Green Lantern, and Batman). Although no more than an extended episode of the show, Teen Titans Go! to the Movies had the children in the theater in stitches, and I laughed out loud several times, myself. As much meta humor and sly references as a Deadpool movie. Fun. Colorful. Funny.

Spider-Man 2 (2004, Directed by Sam Raimi) English 8

Starring Tobey Maguire, Kirsten Dunst, James Franco, Alfred Molina, J.K Simmons, Donna Murphy, Rosemary Harris

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“A hundred cares, a tithe of troubles and is there one who understands me?” The first two Spider-Man films centered around Peter Parker’s burden. The idea that he has to sacrifice his personal desires in order to fulfill his duty as Spider-Man. In Spider-Man 2, everything’s a mess in Parker’s world. He (Maguire) loves M.J (Dunst), but feels that he can’t be with her without putting her life in danger, and spends most of the movie disappointing her in some way or other, as she settles for another man she doesn’t love. Parker’s best friend, Harry (Franco) wants Spider-Man dead for killing his father in the first film. On top of that, Parker can’t pay his rent. Director Sam Raimi gave the character compelling problems, and a sense of humor that didn’t take away from the drama. Actually, this film is largely a melodrama with misunderstandings, unrequited love, twists. Doctor Oc is the main villain in this picture, and there’s a fantastic scene of him and his robotic attachments Wreaking havoc in a hospital wing (a memorable homage to classic monster movies, I feel). The film starts out with one great scene after the other, and by the end, I was happy to find, that Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 remains one of the really good super hero movies. Engaging. Inspired. Fun.

Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018, Directed by Peyton Reed) English 6

Starring Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Walton Goggins, Michael Douglas, Michelle Pfeiffer, Randall Park, Laurence Fishburne, Michael Peña, Judy Greer, T.I, Bobby Cannavale, Hannah John-Kamen

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Scott Lang (Rudd) seems to have burnt his bridges with Hank Pym (Douglas) and Hope (Lilly) after going rogue with Captain America back in Civil War (2016). On top of that, he was sentenced to two years house arrest. As he closes in on his release date, Hank and Hope see a chance to rescue, Janet (Pfeiffer), the former’s wife and the latter’s mother, from the quantum realm she was lost to decades ago. Unfortunately for everyone, Scott appears to be the key, forcing a reunion and putting Scott in danger with his parole officer. Meanwhile, an enigmatic figure known as Ghost materializes at every turn. Fun film and a 180 from the heavy, substantial Avengers: Infinity War. Ant-Man and the Wasp is slightly better than the first one. Often funny, with some cool ideas involving shrinking and growing. It does, however, feel like a modest entry in a series of films that all run through the same machine in my opinion. The end result is always nice, but never extraordinary. Add to that, Ant-man, or, more specifically, Scott Lang, is a second-tier hero, largely dependent on Hank Pym.

The Incredibles 2 (2018, Directed by Brad Bird) English 7

Voices of Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Bob Odenkirk, Catherine Keener, Samuel L. Jackson, Isabella Rossellini, Sarah Vowell, John Ratzenberger, Jonathan Banks

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The Parr family, alias The Incredibles, are back. Fourteen years, four pretty undistinguished Pixar sequels later, and we finally get The Incredibles 2. There’s the father, Bob or Mr. Incredible(voiced by Nelson), with super strength. The mother, Helen or Elastigirl (voiced by Holly Hunter), can stretch to insane lengths, oldest child, Violet (voiced by Sarah Vowell) can turn invisible and create force fields, son, Dash (now voiced by Huck Milner), has extraordinary speed, and the infant, Jack-Jack, whose powers were only hinted at in the first film. The good thing about animation is that all that lapsed time isn’t a problem. Writer and director Brad Bird can pick up right where he left off, unburdened by the effects of time on his actors, able to capably portray the Parr family just as we remember them from the first film.

So that’s what Bird does. The Incredibles 2 starts where the first film ends. Dash finished his race, Violet asked out a boy, and a new super villain, calling himself the Underminer, showed up to spring the heroic family back into action. This ending seemed like a perfect setup for another installment, but as The Incredibles 2 plays out, the Underminer proves to be only a small part of the whole. The important part of the scene is that The Underminer gets away, the Parr family cause a lot of damage protecting people, and the mandate outlawing superheroes sees the protagonists relocated once again, this time to a shabby motel where Bob contemplates returning to his soul-deadening insurance job. Fortunately, their good deed in fighting The Underminer was not completely in vain as it caught the eye of billionaire, Winston Deaver (voiced by Bob Odenkirk), who has very personal reasons for wanting to bring superheroes back. He believes the Parr family are the key. The only thing is, he thinks Elastigirl is the better choice as the face of his plan, throwing Bob for a loop. This go-around, Helen is out fighting crime while Bob stays home with the kids. Dealing with Violet’s lovesick teen angst, Dash’s complicated homework, and Jack-Jack’s ever growing list of abilities, while a larger plot begins to form slowly involving a masked figure known as The Screenslaver.

The over-arching plot, due to the super villain of the piece, is good not great. It’s the one thing holding the film back from being in line with its predecessor. The villain’s secret identity with all of the red herrings have been done before, to the point that we can see the film’s third act coming a mile away. This ends up not being a major detractor since Incredibles was always best as the first film too is best remembered for its famil commentary, genre satire, and situational comedy. All of this remains intact. Jack-Jack steals the show with one of the film’s chief pleasures being  his expansive roster of powers slowly being revealed throughout the movie. I won’t spoil them here. The great scene stealer from the first Incredibles, Edna Mode (voiced by Brad Bird himself) returns and has a wonderful scene with the infant Parr.

The action sequences in The Incredibles 2 are stunning. We’re reminded that the possibilities in animation are endless, and Brad Bird pushes the envelope with every new film. Stunning is how I’d describe the animation and design of the film as well. Even without living up to the ridiculous heights of the first movies, The Incredibles 2 will, in all likelihood, be the best action comedy of the year, and the best blockbuster of the summer.

-Walter Howard-

 

The Dark Knight Rises (2012, Directed by Christopher Nolan) English 9

Starring Christian Bale, Anne Hathaway, Tom Hardy, Marion Cotillard, Ben Mendelsohn, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Liam Neeson, Cillian Murphy, Gary Oldman, Joseph Gordon-Levitt

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When relatively unknown, at least in mainstream circles, film maker Christopher Nolan took on the Batman reboot all those years ago, who could have predicted what came next? I don’t recall any significant anticipation for the first film, Batman Begins, leading up to its release, but, for those who saw it, we knew it signaled something different. The first part of Nolan’s epic trilogy went beyond just a, “darker take on the material,” as it is so often billed and as it was promoted then. It was an intelligent action picture, an ensemble character drama, a crime epic. I didn’t realize how incredibly ridiculous the previous four Batman films were until Christopher Nolan’s Batman; especially Batman Forever and Batman and Robin. Can you even explain the plot of Batman Forever? What is The Riddler’s (played hilariously, the film’s saving grace, by Jim Carrey) master plan? To put televisions on people’s heads? I love Michael Keaton’s take on the Batman, an almost unexplained, enigmatic man. Batman gets more screen time than Bruce Wayne it feels like in the first, 1989’s Batman, but even that picture with its Jack Nicholson dancing around to a not new Prince soundtrack, submerged into goofiness at times. Christopher Nolan grounded his take on the Batman in reality, or as close to as possible with the material. Gone are the half-human, half-penguin antagonists of yore, and in come the very human, philosophic villains of the Dark Knight Trilogy. Every villain in the series has a philosophy, a compelling one to boot, and one of the main struggles is for Batman, while being seduced by this philosophy, to stand up and prove it false. Each villain’s philosophy essentially came down to, “humans are inherently bad,” and Gotham is not worth saving. Watching these films, seeing the level of corruption and depravity the city is immersed in, I’d be inclined to agree, but Nolan’s Batman never does, and this is the foundation of the new Batman’s (now, the benchmark Batman) heroism. As played by Christian Bale, considered a strong actor with a cult following before the series made him an A-list movie star, Batman is the brooding, thoughtful hero we deserved.

So, anyways, Batman Begins hits theaters in 2005, and changed everything. The late-great Roger Ebert declared, “This is, at last, the Batman movie I’ve been waiting for. The character resonates more deeply with me than the other comic superheroes, perhaps because when I discovered him as a child, he seemed darker and more grown-up than the cheerful Superman. He has secrets.” Ebert gave the film four stars, an anomaly at the time for super hero movies, a genre of film that had not yet reached its prime. Batman Begins ushered in the new, now seemingly never-ending, wave of super hero flicks. It showed that super hero movies could be serious.

Next came, The Dark Knight, and it was as if the world shifted on its axis. I can recall some of my feelings leading up to that film. Heath Ledger as the Joker? Really? Yes, I remember questioning the casting of Heath Ledger as the Joker, as incredible as that seems now. He died before the film’s release, but as soon as we saw the first trailer, excitement was at a boiling point. It released to rave reviews, another four star review from Ebert, and became the second highest grossing film domestically of all time. When it failed to receive an Oscar nomination for Best Picture, complaints were made, and many feel its snub is the reason the Academy switched from five nominations for Best Picture to ten.

Finally, four years later, Christopher Nolan is now the biggest director in the world, and The Dark Knight Rises releases. After the colossal heights of The Dark Knight, still considered the best of all super hero films, how could The Dark Knight Rises not be anti-climactic? For some, that is, because I consider The Dark Knight Rises the best of the trilogy, despite its conspicuous flaws (Marion Cotillard’s unconvincing death, the mystery of how Bruce gets from the weird prison back to Gotham). The Dark Knight Rises is the best film about Batman. It’s his movie. The Dark Knight, while an excellent film, saw its title character dwarfed by Heath Ledger’s greatness. The Joker is one of film’s greatest villains and he owned that movie. The Dark Knight Rises introduces a new villain, Bane, played by Tom Hardy, but his character is more like a foil meant to enrich Bruce Wayne’s mythology. He’s stronger than Batman. He’s faster than Batman. He wants to destroy everything Bruce Wayne loves.

When the film starts out, we get a spectacular sequence showing off impressive stunt work in the air as Bane and his cronies demolish a plane and set their mysterious plot in motion. Cut to Gotham, and we learn while on the surface this once chaotic city is now at peace, that peace is rather tenuous and comes at the expense of truth. Batman and Commissioner Gordon (Oldman) have propagated the idea that Harvey Dent was a hero who died for the city at the hands of Batman, which somehow is responsible for the current state of the city. It’s been eight years since the events of the Dark Knight. No one has seen or heard from Batman or Bruce Wayne in that time (or put two and two together apparently). It’s no longer young Batman as it was in Batman Begins. He’s older now, physically old. We see the toll Batman’s taken on Bruce Wayne. We’re introduced to Catwoman (played by Anne Hathaway) as she steals from Bruce, and flirts a little. She later warns him that something huge is coming, something bad. She knows about Bane. Bane has taken over leadership of the League of Shadows, picking up where Ra’s al Ghul left off in his determination to destroy Gotham, or really to purge the city. In essence, playing Old Testament God, wiping out civilization, to start over again anew.

To stop him, Batman is physically tested beyond anything he’s ever experienced before. In the best scene of the film, around the middle point of this 3 hour epic, Batman runs into Bane for the first time. It’s a trap, setup by a desperate Catwoman. Batman and Bane begin a brutal fist fight in the leaky sewers which ends in the latter breaking the back (and the mask) of our hero. Batman destroyed, a broken Bruce Wayne begs to be killed. Bane responds diabolically, “You can watch me torture an entire city and when you have truly understood the depth of your failure, we will fulfill Ra’s al Ghul’s destiny… We will destroy Gotham and then, when it is done and Gotham is ashes, then you have my permission to.”

This sets up another great sequence. Broken Bruce Wayne is held in a bizarre underground prison where escape is nearly impossible. Again, where The Joker tested the people of Gotham, Bane tests Bruce Wayne. The best scenes in the film are between Bane and Batman. Their two boxing matches framing the arc of Bruce’s story. This is a long film with much else to fill its running time, but I mainly cared about Bruce. Like previous entries, this is an ensemble drama with plenty of characters getting their moments. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays a new character named John Blake (later becoming Robin), Bruce has two love interests in Miranda Tate (Cotillard) and Selina Kyle or Catwoman, and old stalwarts Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman return in their roles helping Bruce.

The film ends echoing another great epic, the classic A Tale of Two Cities, with Bruce making the ultimate sacrifice like Sydney Carton in Dickens’ tale, who was, himself, a sort of Christ figure. I found it to be a fitting end, and though you could make a case for the penultimate scene being ambiguous or part of a character’s imagination, I’m fine with the happy ending. A great end for a great film in a great trilogy.