Category Archives: movies

Black Panther (2018)

I was pleased to see that last year’s Black Panther was nominated for Best Picture. I have no idea whether it is – I average about five a year, basically – but it is extremely entertaining, and unlike several of the Marvel movies, it holds up completely and totally the second time around. I think there’s only one genuine flaw in the script, and that’s the bit where T’Challa swears to W’Kabi that he will either kill or bring back their enemy Klaue. A lead character says something like that, he might as well just keep talking. “And I will fail in this, driving a wedge between us that will take the climax of the movie to resolve.”

I’ve got another complaint: we don’t see nearly enough of Wakanda, and that’s a credit to director Ryan Coogler and a team of amazing production designers who make the city look like the most amazing place on the planet. There’s a shot that lasts about one second of a street vendor grilling some meat. I want to taste it. Can you imagine Anthony Bourdain doing a Parts Unknown about Wakanda? Wouldn’t you want to live in this world?

Michael B. Jordan plays an amazing villain with frightening and very real motivations, and his great flaw is that he can only see Wakanda as a source of weapons and violence. He doesn’t pause to see how beautiful the land and its people are, and how remarkable their technology is. His character’s father once told him that the sunsets in Wakanda are the greatest in the world, and he doesn’t remember until his dying minute.

I think Black Panther is just a great film, full of backstory and love and it feels so real in every scene. I certainly think this is among the most entertaining of the Marvel movies, thanks in large part to the excellent cast and the terrific sense of design and wild tech. Chadwick Boseman and Lupita Nyong’o are wonderful as former lovers brought back together by duty. Letitia Wright is so fun as the scene-stealing genius Shuri, and if you don’t finish this movie wishing for a spinoff or a miniseries where Danai Gurira and Daniel Kaluuya argue about whose turn it is to walk the rhinoceros, I dunno what to tell you.

I haven’t read very many Black Panther comics. I mainly saw him in the pages of Fantastic Four and The Avengers, and the villain was invariably M’Baku, and thank heaven they reworked him for the movie. The comic Man-Ape was a clown, an embarrassment, and M’Baku and his separatist tribe are anything but. I like Winston Duke’s character a lot. In fact, the sooner they can get this sequel into production, the happier I’ll be. There won’t be room for Forest Whitaker or Michael B. Jordan’s characters outside of flashbacks, but it doesn’t even have to be an action-adventure superhero epic. Just give me weird tech stuff, the Dora Milaje hammering their spears into the ground, and Chadwick Boseman’s fabulous performance as a flawed king moving past his father’s mistakes. We’ll be back in Wakanda in seven days for the next Marvel movie, but they didn’t spend enough time there, and the body count is heartbreaking. I want two hours in this place.

Oh, and third quibble: and if we could have a little less of Atlanta pretending to be London next time, and the High Museum of Art pretending to be the Museum of Great Britain, that’d be great.

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The Great Race (1965)

This blog’s got a few years in it yet, but it’s not going to go on forever. Somebody asked me if I had a conclusion planned. I do, and there will be a couple of clues to readers that we’re almost there. First, we’ll catch up with Doctor Who. Although, if they insist on committing unforced errors like taking an entire year off right when the show becomes a mainstream popular hit again, that might be later than sooner. Another is that we’ll watch one of the last films on the agenda: 1963’s It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.

Two years after that classic was released, Blake Edwards directed a mammoth, 160-minute comedy that clearly has a lot of Mad World in its DNA, along with at least two actors. I saw it, or most of it, a million years ago on TV and forgot almost the entire thing, but remembered a few of the great gags. I think it’ll stick with our son a little better. He says it’s the funniest movie he’s ever watched.

The center of The Great Race is the rivalry between the nefarious, black-clad Professor Fate, played by Jack Lemmon and the practically perfect gentleman good guy The Great Leslie, played by Tony Curtis. They are daredevils, escape artists, and showmen, only the Great Leslie is incredibly competent and barely acknowledges Fate. You may know Fate from his later career in Hanna-Barbera cartoons. He’s the inspiration for Dick Dastardly from Wacky Races and later shows, with Peter Falk as the proto-Muttley. Things get off to a clear start in the opening scene, where the Great Leslie puts together a big stunt involving a hot air balloon, and Professor Fate intercedes by wheeling in a massive crossbow with an enormous red bolt. It’s so thunderously cartoonish that it tells the audience that some pretty epic slapstick is on its way.

Professor Fate enters into the greatest automobile race ever conceived, from New York west to Paris via Siberia, in another attempt to steal Leslie’s thunder. Also in the race, suffragette Maggie DuBois, played by Natalie Wood. After browbeating the editor of The New York Sentinel into giving her a job, she has to arrange to report on the race from every step of the way, and be in Paris when the winner crosses the finish line. Along with a cast of great character actors like Marvin Kaplan, Larry Storch, and Keenan Wynn, and with music and a couple of songs by Henry Mancini, there are some ridiculous hijinx between the two cities.

And yes, it’s very, very funny. There’s a scene set in Professor Fate’s castle home which Maggie invades for an interview. It started with a few chuckles over Fate playing an organ with broken thumbs and escalated into pausing the film because we were laughing so hard. Fate’s home would demand pausing your DVD player even if the scene wasn’t a triumph, because it’s one of the most amazing sets ever. Imagine building a set as intricate and detailed as, say, the living room of the Addams Family for all of two minutes of screen time. Later, Larry Storch plays a gunslinger with three compadres, and their entrance into an old west saloon also had me in stitches. Storch and Curtis trade fisticuffs here. Six years later, Storch would play the only American guest star in Curtis and Roger Moore’s wonderful show The Persuaders!.

The Great Race starts to run out of steam in its final third, when the racers get to some Nosuchlandia in southeastern Europe and they get involved in a Prisoner of Zenda situation masterminded by Ross Martin as an evil baron. The only real flaw up to that point was abandoning all the other racers incredibly early on, but the Zenda subplot is long enough to feel like an entirely different film, and while Lemmon is amazingly funny as Fate, he’s far less so as the drunk heir to the throne.

On the other hand, Curtis and Martin enjoy one of the cinema’s all-time great swordfights. The minutes they spend with these two, starting with foils before moving to sabers, are completely amazing. Regular readers have probably caught that I love a great swordfight. This is one of the best. And on the other extreme, the Zenda sequence ends with a food fight involving hundreds of pies that is so over-the-top and so intricately choreographed that it took four days to film and had every member of the cast ready to shove the director in an oven and bake him in a pie.

So The Great Race is like a lot of Blake Edwards’ work: it’s flawed, but very, very funny. I read that in the mid-seventies, Edwards wanted to make one of those later, far-from-funny Pink Panther films into a three-hour calamity like this. I think that could possibly have been much better than the mess that he finished with (The Pink Panther Strikes Again), but then again, The Great Race could have been pruned by twenty minutes and I bet our kid would still say it was the funniest movie he’d ever seen.

Today’s feature was a gift from Matt Ceccato and his wife, writer Nan Monroe, and I invite you all to check out her webpage and buy some of her novels and collections of short stories! If you would like to support this blog, you can buy us a DVD of a movie that we’d like to watch one day. We’ll be happy to give you a shout-out and link to the site of your choice when we write about it. Here’s our wishlist!

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Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)

When I was a kid, there were a few elements of the Spider-Man world that aggravated me, in that little kid way, so much that I didn’t often buy Spider-Man’s comics. There was Aunt May, who somehow convinced herself that Peter was a sickly boy and was always in danger of getting the flu or something, and there was Flash Thompson, who seemed too stupid to be a believable irritant.

Part of me, today, thinks most of the comics had moved past them by the late seventies, when I might have been looking at the spinner rack in the drugstore for books to buy for 35 or 40 cents, but there were also so many Ditko and Romita reprints floating around that I never knew what I’d end up buying when I bought a Marvel comic. I was kind of a dumb kid in that regard. Well, in many regards. But it took me until middle school to realise that Batman and Batman’s Detective Comics were two separate books. Marvel was even more confusing to me at age eight.

And then there was the Vulture. Spider-Man seemed to have a rogues gallery full of the most pathetic menaces, and the Vulture was the dopiest of them all: an old guy with wings. In 1963, I understand now, Marvel didn’t have very many characters who could fly. But their universe grew, and this bozo, who should have been left behind as a one-off, somehow stuck around, pretending to be a threat.

So one of the reasons I enjoy Spider-Man: Homecoming so much, apart from it having such a beautifully crafted script that fits in so neatly to the existing Marvel Cinematic Universe and being so well cast, is that it effortlessly redeems all three of these characters. Flash Thompson is a jerk, but a smart guy who all Peter’s friends and classmates enjoy. The Vulture has motivation and alien technology to make him dangerous. And Marisa Tomei’s Aunt May is the perfect mom – or aunt – for the modern age. Her worry that Peter might have been on the Staten Island Ferry, when we have no reason to think that Peter has ever ventured anywhere outside Queens before he met Tony Stark, is totally believable and true. Why didn’t Peter check himself in as safe on Facebook? Doesn’t he know May would be worried sick?

The whole film is full of delightful punctuations that make the experience a complete joy the second time around. I loved Donald Glover’s character advising Spider-Man that he really needs to get better with interrogations. I loved Michael Keaton’s face as he figures out who’s in his back seat. I loved Zendaya just being a harmless pest for no good reason. I loved Bokeem Woodbine – who was one of the best elements of the marvelous second season of Fargo – slowly figuring out his new weapons. I didn’t mind the product placement from Lego about another Disney property (corporate synergy!!). And it has the best post-credits scene of any Marvel movie. It’s a delightful, joyful movie, and one of the best in the series.

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Doctor Strange (2016)

Another week, another Marvel movie, and I am really running out of things to say about them. This one stars Benedict Cumberbatch, and I really do need to see him in a role other than an arrogant, insufferable genius one of these days, with Mads Mikkelsen as the bad guy. The visuals are some of the most creative and imaginative in any of these films, and I liked the realization of the Dark Dimension, which is filled with the same spheres-with-nodes shapes that were found in the original comics, where Steve Ditko first created the strange, otherworldly realm of Dormammu and the Mindless Ones.

In fact, let’s pause a moment and not take the usual route of these silly posts, because I’d rather talk a little about Ditko, who died earlier this year at the age of 90. We lost Dr. Strange’s other co-creator, Stan Lee, as well, but everybody knows about him. Steve Ditko was one of those artists that I didn’t “get” as a kid. To my young eyes, his work seemed too simplistic and cartoony, and so I avoided many of the books he worked on in the late seventies, like Marvel’s Machine Man. Later, I fell in love with DC’s Legion of Super-Heroes and grumbled about the occasional fill-ins that Ditko provided during a long period where the book was looking for a cohesive writer-artist team.

But before these, there was a house ad that ran in DC’s books in the summer of 1978 that featured an outlandish character in a multi-colored suit and tie. I was thrilled by the look of that character and couldn’t wait to meet him. It took decades.

As I got older, I finally began to understand the thrill of Ditko’s artwork and his creativity. He worked best with a writer to give his plots a more solid script. Left on his own – he self-published dozens of titles – his prose could turn into solid walls of text, but with Stan Lee or Michael Fleisher or Denny O’Neil or Steve Skeates to ground him (comparatively, mind you, as comics from the 60s and 70s sure did make kids have to read a lot), he came up with some downright excellent comics, some of the very best that either of the “Big Two” publishers released in those decades.

Most of these books only lasted for a few years at most. Some of them only had a couple of issues or a very sporadic publication history in the companies’ anthology titles. Nevertheless, if you enjoy superhero fiction, you could do a lot worse than to track down Ditko’s work on both Doctor Strange and Spider-Man for Marvel, along with the Creeper, Hawk and Dove, Shade the Changing Man, and one of the more interesting versions of Starman for DC. Most of it’s available in nice hardback editions. He also worked for Charlton in the late 1960s, writing and drawing adventures of Blue Beetle, Killjoy, the Question, and Captain Atom, though I understand much of this material is currently out of print.

I had one issue of Shade the Changing Man as a kid and didn’t understand a word of it. It seemed to be set in the DC superhero universe, kind of, but it was a stand-alone science fiction serial that it took me until adulthood to figure out and appreciate. It’s about the weird culture of the planet Meta and a wrongly convicted criminal who is running amok on Earth with a stolen hallucination-inducing gadget called an M-Vest. That’s where the outlandish character I mentioned above was meant to appear. The Odd Man was intended to be the star of an every-other-month eight-page backup strip from Shade # 9 forward, but that comic was never published. DC cancelled almost half their line in 1978, and the completed Odd Man strip was dumped into an issue of Detective Comics months later. Took me years to even learn it existed. It was worth the wait.

Ditko never gave interviews, never attended cons, was probably not photographed by anybody in the last fifty years of his life, and was utterly disinterested in the money he could have made from toys and movies based on his characters. He lived to draw and let his work speak for itself. He was an incredible talent, and while time has dated the scripts and caption boxes that surround his art, nobody drew like him. If you enjoy Tom Holland and Benedict Cumberbatch’s performances as his characters, why not treat yourself to the original stories sometime?

(Click the images to visit Marvel and DC’s sites and look around at reprints, but better yet, visit a local comic shop and ask the staff to sell you some Ditko! If the hardcovers cost more than you’d like, Marvel has collected all of Ditko’s Spider-Man and Dr. Strange adventures in their low-priced black-and-white Essentials line. Stop by a funnybook store and tell ’em that yer pals at Fire-Breathing Dimetrodon Time sent you. They’ll be sure to say “Who?!”)

Six movies between us and the release of Captain Marvel. Can we do it in time to see the film in a theater? Stay tuned!

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Captain America: Civil War (2016)

When I started this blog a couple of years ago, I had this silly idea to tag actors and continue tagging them into every appearance they make in anything we watch. Then we get to 2016’s Captain America: Civil War, which would have something like two dozen tags if I named everybody. So never mind.

A couple of months before the movie was released, I got a little petulantly annoyed with the Marvel PR team for revealing that Tom Holland would make his debut as Spider-Man in it. I still think that would have been the greatest wha-huh?! in the movies to have the audience slowly realize that Tony Stark was visiting Peter Parker and his Aunt May, but I forgave them immediately when Scott Lang debuted his Giant-Man shtick. That’s probably been the most agreeable surprise any of these movies have hit me with.

Our kid still tunes out a little when people are talking – unless they’re like Holland’s Spider-Man and they just flat out steal the middle of the movie with their constant banter – but I think we helped him focus a little more this time. When Cap, Falcon, and Sharon Carter are figuring out that they’ve been set up, it’s a truly great little moment. I do love the way realization slowly makes its way across Emily VanCamp’s face. That’s terrific acting.

The other thing I really love is the introduction of Black Panther’s universe, including the very low-key first appearance of Florence Kasumba as Ayo. She’s a minor character among the people of Wakanda, and isn’t even named in this movie, but her instruction to Black Widow to move is just about my favorite threat in a movie full of people giving each other strong warnings. The Panther had always been one of those characters that other people enjoyed more than me until Chadwick Boseman took the part. In Boseman’s hands, he is one of my favorite Marvel heroes.

But in the end, the movie is about the awful end to Tony and Steve’s friendship, their truce shattered when we learn that Bucky had, twenty-five years earlier, murdered Tony’s parents while under Hydra’s control. The fight at the airport is wonderful and hilarious, but the climax, with Tony, Steve, and Bucky beating each other with more blood and pain and bruises than these movies typically give us, is horrible and heartbreaking. It’s a terrific end to a really excellent movie, but it kind of demands that the next few stories are a little different and more lighthearted…

Seven movies between us and the release of Captain Marvel. Can we do it in time to see the film in a theater? Stay tuned!

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Mary Poppins Returns (2018)

How nice, it seemed, in a world of dreary and utterly unnecessary remakes, for Disney to actually make a sequel to an old film. Except this isn’t a sequel. Mary Poppins Returns is actually a remake of the original, every plot beat completely familiar and done with modern gloss. It follows the template and order of the original’s moments so precisely that the only thing that’s different is the casting and subtle changes to professions. Here we meet the oddball relative who was played by Ed Wynn last time and by Meryl Streep this time, and then we’ll visit the bank, and then we’ll have the great showstopping dance routine that was performed by chimney sweeps last time and by lamplighters this time. Even the mother figure is the same. Last time, she was a suffragette and this time, she’s organizing labor.

That said, while I wished desperately for some moments that would veer wildly away from the original’s format, it certainly succeeded with our favorite seven year-old critic, who remembers the original, but not particularly well. And if I hadn’t seen the original eight or nine times previously, I suppose the only real complaint I’d have is that the villain has no reason whatever to be a villain. Seriously, why is Colin Firth being villainous in this movie? Why does he compound his villainy by pretending to be sympathetic? Is there buried treasure under the Banks house or something and the movie just forgot to tell us?

But in its favor, Emily Blunt and Lin-Manuel Miranda are practically magical, if not quite perfect, and the songs are nice, and the cameos by Nackvid Keyd and Angela Lansbury, so many years since the last time these actors danced with cartoon animals, certainly made me smile. David Warner takes over as a character from the original movie, and he’s always fun to watch as he bellows and shouts.

And in the category of really big wins for this movie, I have to say that the fantastic musical hall scene built around “The Cover is Not the Book” should go down as one of the absolute best musical numbers in any Disney film, ever. Also, if this film doesn’t win an Oscar for best costumes, something is downright wrong with the world, because the strange pastel-on-porcelain garb that the characters wear on their trip into the cartoon world is like nothing I’ve ever seen before.

In other words, all the elements were in place for a truly fine movie. Everything but an original story. Should Mary Poppins one day return to assist the next generation of Banks children, I hope that family is having a completely different problem for Mary to tackle in a completely different way.

Photo credit: Time.com

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Ant-Man (2015)

For anybody following this tag, we didn’t skip a movie. We watched Avengers: Age of Ultron earlier this month, but I’m finding it much, much harder to find anything new to say about the Marvel movies, and that one’s particularly uninspiring. That doesn’t mean I think it’s a bad film; in fact it’s perfectly entertaining for what it set out to do.

Ant-Man, on the other hand, is a pure pleasure from start to finish. It’s still a pain in the neck coming up with anything new to say about it, so I’ll turn to our favorite seven year-old critic and his own observations.

Naturally, he liked the fights the best, or at least he claims he does. When we were watching the movie, the thing that made him exclaim and start babbling over the dialogue was seeing Michael Peña and “the gang” reenter the story. Luis might be his favorite supporting character from any of these dozen movies. And he loved seeing Evangeline Lilly’s character of Hope Van Dyne train our hero and give him a basement full of bruises.

Of course, since the fights include helicopters, lasers, explosions, and Thomas the Tank Engine, that’s all he wanted to talk about afterward. I liked those as well, but I really liked Lilly’s chemistry with Michael Douglas and Paul Rudd, and loved the casual start-of-the-film revelation – with guest cameos by Hayley Atwell and John Slattery – that the original Ant-Man was an active superhero agent for SHIELD in the 1980s. There’s probably a Marvel Cinematic Universe timeline somewhere that I’d enjoy reading. I should probably track that down.

Eight movies between us and the release of Captain Marvel. Can we do it in time to see the film in a theater? Stay tuned!

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Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)

When I wrote about Raiders of the Lost Ark a few months ago, I retold the circumstances behind my first trip to see the movie, because I remember it very well. I also remember going to see 1984’s Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom very well. We missed about the first half of the movie.

This time, it was the mom of one of my younger brother’s friends who arranged the trip to the theater with her two boys. She was a well-meaning woman, but kind of a hopeless dingbat. Three years previously, she’d taken the four kids to see the 3-D western Comin’ at Ya!. I’ve never seen a frame of that film since. All I remember was a topless woman jiggling in 3-D mere minutes into the movie and being dragged out with the other three kids. I don’t remember what we ended up seeing instead. Possibly Raiders.

So anyway, Atlanta once had a theater across the road from what used to be called Crawford Long Hospital. It was built in the 1920s and was renamed the Columbia in its final decade. It boasted the largest screen in the city, an 80mm screen larger than the Fox’s. (Astonishingly, Skips Hot Dogs, now in Avondale Estates, used to have a location on the same block!) I don’t know why Mrs. P wanted to take us downtown instead of one of the many theaters in our li’l suburb, but I’m glad she did, because it was my only trip to this piece of Atlanta history. And I didn’t mind walking in so late that the first thing we saw were the heads of monkeys being placed in front of the guests at some banquet or other. Suddenly there were chilled monkey brains and the same four kids who got shoved to the exit of that one theater were jumping up and down over the grotesque but awesomely cool spectacle of nasty food before we even got to our seats.

Mrs. P talked to somebody in charge and we got to see the movie in full after finishing the half we saw. We got to see the chilled monkey brains twice and were still talking about them when school started and they served us jello.

The gross-out factor of Temple of Doom remains its greatest calling card. Hours later, our kid was still wondering what animal gave up the eyeballs in the soup, and when he let out a typical “blech” when Indy and Willie embrace in the catacombs, he quickly clarified “I don’t think it’s gross because they’re smooching, I think it’s gross because of all those bugs!”

However, if you read the story about Raiders, you’ll recall that my Concerned Dad gene activated at the end of that movie. I couldn’t ignore it this time. When Mola Ram pulled that victim’s heart out of his chest, my hand was clamped over my son’s eyes.

Convention has it that Doom was the weakest of the first three Indiana Jones films. I absolutely agree. In fact, apart from the terrific opening scene in Shanghai (that diamond, by the way, is the Peacock’s Eye), Indy and Willie’s “five minutes” flirting, and the fantastic scene on the bridge, I don’t care for this one. It’s too long and too brutal. There’s too much glee in the torture, and no glee anywhere else. Kate Capshaw is wonderful and Harrison Ford gets to be memorable in a few places, but if I was in the government of India, I wouldn’t have wanted this patronizing, ugly, violent movie made in my country either.

But that bridge scene… I could suffer through a worse movie than this for that bridge scene. I was looking forward to the bridge scene a couple of days ago and it didn’t disappoint, which is more than I can say for the rest of the film.

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