Friday, September 24, 2021

The Incredible Hulk (a movie review post)


Marvel Movie #2

I have long been a Hulk supporter. That started with Ang Lee's Hulk, which I felt was unfairly maligned. [I intend to re-watch that one, too, now, because I realized when watching the MCU Hulk that I had rolled bits and pieces of that one into this one.] One reason is that a lot of the shade being thrown at both movies had to do with the animation. Generally speaking, people making movies are making them as technically proficiently as they can, and I am willing to overlook poor tech, especially when you're dealing with companies on the cutting edge. I mean, have you seen movies made before Star Wars? And no one then was complaining about things looking fake or not.

That said, there is a problem with the animation in The Incredible Hulk that has nothing to do with capability; it has to do with choice and design. Those things are fair game for slammingy. So here's the problem with Incredible: Every time Hulk was onscreen for any kind of "closeup" I felt like I was watching Lego Hulk. Of course, Lego Hulk is based on this Hulk, but Lego is intentionally cartoony, and this movie was trying to not, which I will get more into in a moment. Effectively, whoever was doing the animation for Hulk's face went with a poor design that made him look like a cartoon dog when they showed his expressions, and it just does not work.

It especially doesn't work with Edward Norton. Oh, god, he is so pretentious. No, I am not a Norton fan. As I said in my Iron Man review, casting is something that Marvel has proven to be very adept at, but this movie was a colossal fumble. I really have never been able to figure out what they were thinking with this whole deal because, to get Norton, they had to give him script control, and he re-wrote the initial script. What I will say here is that Incredible does not feel like a Marvel movie. At all. That was the thing that struck me most, the feel of the movie. Now, I don't know what the original script was like and whether it had the correct feel or not, but, in the end, that doesn't matter, because it was the Norton script that they used. And Norton who blocked the end-credits scene and made it into a pre-credits scene, also very un-Marvel-like.

The result of all of that is that Incredible feels like an ode to King Kong rather than a Marvel movie. There are two problems with that:
1. Peter Jackson had just made his horrible adaptation of Kong. Maybe Norton thought this would be better? I don't know. It was unnecessary, though, to do this so close on the heels of Jackson's.
2. Hulk is a Jekyll and Hyde story, not a King Kong story so, well, wrong movie Norton. Come on, man, you really could have dealt with the horror of turning into a monster you don't want to be -- and the opening of the movie looked in that direction with the whole "days since last incident" thing -- rather than the romantic Kong angle. The cave scene is so painful to watch.

Of course, all of this was being done vaguely in conjunction with Universal, so maybe they are the reason for all of the King Kong stuff? That, I do not know.

All of that, and I never buy Norton as being tortured by his predicament. Maybe frantic, but not tortured.

Speaking of Peter Jackson, though he has nothing to do with this, I like Liv Tyler. I do. She was great as Arwen. But she is not good as Betty Ross. She's too soft spoken. I think Jennifer Connelly was much better as Betty. Maybe I'll change my mind when I watch Lee's Hulk, but I don't think so. I'm going to go out on a limb, here, and say that Eric Bana was better as banner, too.
Of course, Ruffalo has turned out to be the correct choice, because Ruffalo has that tortured look that makes Hulk work.

And I'm not even going to start on the Abomination. Tim Roth was fine, but, again, whoever made the animation decision made the Abomination an abomination. His cameo in Shang-chi is so awesome, especially in comparison to this monstrosity. Pun clearly intended.

William Hurt is the best part of this movie. Or, maybe, the cameo by Lou Ferrigno. And the one by Martin Star. None of the things that should have been the best parts are the best parts. They are the worst.

Oh, and what's the deal with Stark going to Ross at the end of the movie? I don't think that is ever dealt with. Maybe I'm wrong or maybe Marvel was hoping we'd forget, which we probably did, considering I had forgotten all about that until I re-watched it.

Here's the final word:
The Incredible Hulk is the lowest grossing of the Marvel movies, and there is a reason for that. It's not a movie I will ever go back and watch again "just for fun."

Friday, September 17, 2021

Iron Man (a movie review post)

Marvel is on the verge of being the largest movie franchise ever. James Bond is still one movie ahead but, by the end of the year, they will be tied. Of course, it's taken James Bond 60-ish years to get there and Marvel only 13. Still, after watching the latest release, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, my family decided it was time that we should re-visit the movies and refresh our memories as we go into this next phase of the MCU. Ironically, this decision had nothing to do with the connection between Iron Man and the Ten Rings but, rather, to do with what appears to be Marvel's foray into mysticism in this next phase. Doctor Strange seems as if he is going to be the next character to make the rounds of the Marvel movies as Iron Man did in the last phase.

Having said that, it was good timing to go back and watch Iron Man again after seeing Shang-Chi.

Iron Man is what I would call an excellent adaptation. It takes all of the basic origin of Iron Man and brings into the 21st century. It's current while also feeling like it's the same story from Tales of Suspense. Robert Downey, Jr. captures the character of Tony Stark perfectly. If you had to choose just one thing that Marvel has done really well (there are quite a few more than one, but this is one of the most important (and a thing that DC has, frankly, sucked at)), it's their casting. Not that they haven't made a few mistakes, one of them in this movie, but their casting has been nearly perfect. And Downey is perfect in this role. As he says at the end of the movie, "I am Iron Man." And he is.

Oh, yeah, spoilers. But the movie is 13 years old and, if you haven't seen it, that's on you.

I'm going to jump movies for a moment:
Shang-Chi, as the title says, is all about the legend of the Ten Rings. The movie sets out to differentiate these rings from the Ten Rings of the Mandarin in the comics. These are those rings, and they are not those rings. As I have mentioned here and there in these various reviews, Mandarin and the rings are a big deal in the Iron Man comic books.

But we had completely forgotten that the terrorist organization that kidnaps Tony at the beginning of the movie is the Ten Rings! So we're watching and they have Tony strapped to a chair to make this "ransom" video and, back behind Tony, there is a flag with the emblem of the Ten Rings! My son went nuts. We had to rewind and watch it again. There it was, right from the beginning, the Ten Rings. I had totally forgotten about that and, probably, didn't pay much attention to it to begin with anyway. But it's pretty amazing to be this far into the MCU and find that there are still connections going all the way back to the beginning. Because this is Marvel, and Marvel knows how to tell stories and how to build a universe.

I'm not much of a fan of Gwyneth Paltrow, but she's good as Pepper. She and Downey have good chemistry together, and it works.

Terrence Howard is... well, I don't know what to say about Howard. He was, really, the big-name star of this movie, in the same way that Alec Guinness and Peter Cushing were the big-name stars of Star Wars: A New Hope, which is strange to think of now but, at the time, no one knew who Harrison Ford was. Howard's pay for Iron Man was seven times more than Downey's. You have to remember that Downey was considered a washed up has-been. This was his comeback, and he was a risky move for Marvel. I'm not going to try to deconstruct what happened between Howard and Marvel after the success of the movie. Let's just say that Howard was no longer happy with the deal that he'd made, and he tried to force Marvel to change it... by threatening to walk. And Marvel let him walk, and, in my opinion, he was replaced by a better actor for the role of James Rhodes. But Howard was fine enough in this movie.

I had actually completely forgotten about Jeff Bridges being in this, so that was a surprise. Less of a surprise that he's in than that I had forgotten that he's in it. I love Jeff Bridges. Despite having some big successes, I feel like he mostly flies under the radar, especially for an actor of his talent. There aren't a lot of actors who can convincingly play both heroes and villains, but Bridges seem to fill the skin of whatever character he's in without bringing any of himself into the role. It was fun to be reminded of him and see him in this again.

And! And! This movie introduces Coulson.

So, yeah, the movie holds up. Completely. It may be better, now, even with the release of Shang-Chi. It gives the movie a bit more depth or reach or something. It was definitely worth revisiting.

Wednesday, September 15, 2021

The Distant Curve (pictures I like)


The curve of the Earth is painfully obvious to the camera. The only reason we can't see it with our eyes is that it makes our brains uncomfortable, so it... stomps it flat in our heads. I understand that our brains think they are doing us a favor, but we wouldn't have any flat-earthers if they could see reality.

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Peace Talks (a book review post)


What?!?! Two reviews in the same week? What the heck is going on here?

It's been a while since I've been in Dresden-land. A long while. It's possible I should go back and re-read the series at this point but, with 17 books now (this is number 16) in the series proper and a slew of related books with short stories and things, it's highly unlikely that I'll ever do that. Fortunately, Butcher is quite talented at reminding readers of details from earlier books when they are needed. 

Unfortunately, it's not enough for this book to be a good place to come into Dresden if you wanted to just jump in. Some of his books are self-contained enough that anyone could pick one of those up and read it on its own. Not this one. Not any of the last few, in fact. We are solidly into the area of the series where you need to have read pretty much all of the previous books. The memory prompts for readers are not enough to get you through if you haven't been reading. And there's nothing wrong with that; that's the nature of a long series. What I'm saying is that this is not the place to come in as a new reader but, also, Butcher is very good at helping his long-time readers along, which most authors are not good at.

But how is Peace Talks, I hear you asking. Peace Talks is good. It's a solid entry into the Dresden series. It has some good moments and interesting developments. It was a fun read and a welcome change of pace for me compared to the other things I've been reading lately. If you're a Dresden fan, you will, of course, be wanting to read this as big things are afoot, and this is the book that's going to lead you into Battle Ground.

However, upon reflection after finishing it, the book has a few... issues. Well, one big issue. It has too much going on it. Too many big things going on it, and it's difficult to get invested in anything because you're constantly being distracted by the next ultra important development which is super big. 
Let me sidestep a moment...

For at least several books now, Butcher has been developing this idea of a Black Council that's in existence operating from the shadows and have a particular hate-on for Harry. He's been building it up and up as the next Big Bad showdown, kind of like with the showdown against the Red Court which took several books of building. And while the Black Council is mentioned in this book, they are sort of shoved out of the way for an even bigger menace, one which kind of appears from nowhere. And, yeah, we could argue that point, but there was nothing prior to this book to indicate a villain of this level, so she's really from out of nowhere, and I don't really approve. It's like telling me that you make the best chocolate cake ever and telling me and telling me and, then, inviting me over and making me banana pudding. There's nothing wrong with the banana pudding; I like banana pudding; but it's not what you lead me to expect.

Also, there's this whole thing with Thomas, and you want to care about Thomas, right? We like Thomas. Thomas deserved the book to deal with this, especially since it involves revealing the information about Thomas to McCoy. Instead, after introducing the thing with Thomas and expecting the book to deal with that, it also gets shoved to the side to deal with the aforementioned uber-villain.

Sure, I get that life can be like that. Things come up and distract us from other things, and we have to decide which things to focus on. But that kind of thing makes a book messy, just like it makes life messy. I can't do anything necessarily about the messy in my life, but I would prefer a little less of it in my reading material. These threads could have, probably should have, been developed into separate books.

Then there is the issue of McCoy and his extreme uncharacteristic behavior at the end of Peace Talks. And you can try to no-prize your way out of what he did all you want, Butcher himself did by stating that McCoy was "out of control," but I'm not ever going to buy that Ebenezer did what he did for any other reason than the author poking his finger in McCoy's head and making him do something outside of his character. I understand that sometimes, as an author, you want or need certain things to happen for the plot to do what you want, but, as an author, I don't personally approve having your characters do things outside of the personalities that you've written for them.

Was all of that vague enough for you?
I am trying to do this without spoilers.

Having said all of that, I want to reiterate that Peace Talks is really good. I enjoyed it. It's not the best Dresden novel, but it's certainly not the worst (that would be Turn Coat, as far as I'm concerned). I've already ordered my copy of Battle Ground and am eagerly awaiting it. But what is a review for if not for pointing out the good and the bad?

Monday, September 13, 2021

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (a movie review post)


I suppose I can't get into this review without at least mentioning that this is the first movie I've seen in the theater since 2019. It was a weird experience, and I think I have lost my love of "going to the movies" over the last year and a half and not just because of the pandemic, but that's a completely separate topic.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is quite possibly Marvel's most complex movie yet, not so much as far as the movie itself goes but its process for coming into being. Shang-Chi, as a Marvel character, has his own complexities, not the least of which is having nothing to do with the "Ten Rings."

And this is where I really want to get out into the weeds and talk about The Mandarin and things which, ultimately, have nothing to do with this movie yet which I find fascinating. Maybe some other post. Let me skip through all of that by saying this:
As an adaptation, Shang-Chi is a poor one. Other than his skill in martial arts, there is nothing to connect the character from the movie to the character in the comics. And I don't care at all.
From me, that's significant, because I am always looking at how adaptations stray from the source material. So a few things here:
1. I never followed Shang-Chi. His series had been cancelled before I seriously got into comics, and I think I probably don't own a single issue of The Hands of Shang-Chi, Master of Kung Fu, a cumbersomely long title if there ever was one.
2. Shang-Chi's origins are... problematic, at best. On the one hand, Marvel was trying to be more diverse. On the other hand, they were trying to capitalize on the Kung Fu craze of the 70s. Also, Roy Thomas, then editor-in-chief of Marvel, insisted that Shang-Chi be half white, over the objections of the character's creators. 
3. The Shang-Chi of the comics had no connection to the Ten Rings, which was supposed to refer to the Ten Rings of the Mandarin, but The Mandarin, as a character, has become problematic, despite his long history in Iron Man, and this movie became a way for Marvel to address some of those issues.

Looks like I'm getting out into the weeds anyway, so let's just get back to the movie: It was fabulous. Sure, you might say, it's Marvel; of course, it's fabulous, but they took a lot of risks with this one, and it could have flopped entirely, just failed to work, but Marvel is proving to be adept at going in new directions while holding course to their vision. Despite cameo appearances from Banner and Captain Marvel, this is an Asian movie, almost entirely. The only white actor of any consequence is a henchman.

Simu Liu is great. This is my introduction to him as an actor, as I'm sure is the case for most viewers, and he was a good choice. I can't say how good he was as an actor since I have nothing to compare the performance to, but he was engaging. Awkwafina was fun and a savvy choice by Marvel. She has such a distinctive voice and she gave resonance to another recent Disney movie she was in, Raya and the Last Dragon.

Michelle Yeoh was absolutely perfect. Have you ever left the salt out of a recipe? I think not having her in this movie would have been akin to forgetting the salt. It made me want to go back and watching Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon again. Which, you know, was probably an intentional consequence. Not watching it again, just bringing up the feelings, the magical realism, of that movie, because Shang-Chi has its own share of that, and Yeoh just brings it back to earth. I hope her introduction in this movie is just a precursor to future Marvel involvement.

Then there is Ben Kingsley. I'm not going to try and pretend that I was much in favor of what Marvel did with Kingsley and The Mandarin back in Iron Man 3. At the time, I was very much WTF Marvel. But I don't want to get off on Iron Man 3 at the moment. That will come later. Anyway... Kingsley is such a serious actor, pretty much all the time. His role as Trevor is just not like that, and, honestly, it's really refreshing to see him playing this character. It shows he does actually have range as an actor other than being super serious or being the super serious villain. I enjoyed him immensely.

Clearly, this post-Infinity War material from Marvel is dealing with a lot of new stuff. Marvel is redefining the MCU after the loss of three of its central characters. I have hypotheses, but I'm not going to throw them out in a this review. That would be going into the weeds in a different direction.

The take away is this: Shang-Chi is excellent. If you're into martial arts, there's almost no way you can't enjoy this movie. If you're into the mystical, you should love this movie. If you love Marvel, you will love this movie. And, perhaps most importantly about Shang-Chi: It's an excellent stepping on point for the Marvel movies. Being 25 movies in, I think it can be daunting for newcomers to the franchise. That's a lot of movies, and they're being augmented, now, by the various series on Disney+. You don't need any of that to watch Shang-Chi. The story itself is self-contained. There's just enough flavor from the rest of the MCU to make you curious but not enough to be confusing or make you feel like you're missing something.

My problem right now? I want to see it again, but I don't want to go back to the theater to do it.