Friday, June 15, 2018

A Reel Review: INCREDIBLES 2

One of the many reasons the films of Pixar Animation Studios work so well is that the characters aren’t written like cartoons; they are instead written like human beings…complete with real-life emotions, feelings, desires, and reactions that everyone can relate to. Brad Bird’s family-driven superhero tale THE INCREDIBLES from 2004 was one of the shining examples of this approach, and it is taken a step further in the long-awaited sequel.

The Incredibles (Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Sarah Vowell, Huck Minder, and Eli Fucile), a family of superheroes, are recruited by the CEO of a giant corporation (Bob Odenkirk) and his sister (Catherine Keener) to resume superhero work in a massive public-relations mission to make superheroes legal again. And just in time, as a new super-villain named The Screenslaver has arrived to brainwash and control people through their TV screens.

It’s been 14 years since the first film, but on the screen only minutes have passed since we last saw this super-powered family. Things pick up right where the original film left off, so there’s very little catching up to do. Once the new story kicks in, it’s a real-life family dynamic that Bird plays with; Mr. Incredible is left at home to watch the kids and deal with their issues, while Elastigirl is off resuming hero work. It’s a close look at family dynamics, with both parents facing their toughest challenges.

The looming threat of the Screenslaver is a somewhat heavy-handed statement on today’s world being a slave to the screens; both big and small, but the threat works and it works well. In fact, the Incredibles family’s issues and storylines are so up front, that the super-villain threat nearly fades into the background. It’s a welcome, and refreshing way to approach a superhero story in today’s crowded cinema of crusaders with capes.

Once the fighting does start, there is a ton of fun to be had. The action sequences are an absolute thrill and rival any live-action film; a train-chase, battle at sea, and the out-of-control powers of baby Jack-Jack are a delight. The film looks gorgeous with Pixar’s trademark stunning animation coupled with some eye-popping lighting techniques; a fight-scene in the Screenslaver’s secret lair has to be seen to be believed. Brad Bird is having fun here, and the film has some dynamite LOL moments, but at the same he injects enough maturity to elevate it above a standard kids’ film. There are some scary sequences (including a cold-blooded murder by gunfire, and a ton of violence), along with some pleasant surprises…although the secret identity of the Screenslaver can be seen from miles away.

The cast feels right at home with their characters. Craig T. Nelson is once again great as Mr. Incredible, who goes loopy while babysitting to the point that we really would love to see what he must have looked like in the booth recording his lines. Holly Hunter is great as always. Samuel L. Jackson returns as the ice-throwing Frozone and is a blast, and Catherine Keener is a welcome addition to the Pixar family.

After all the action, fighting, and thrilling finale, INCREDIBLES 2 doesn’t land an emotional punch, which is a glaring omission considering the roller-coaster of fun that the film offers; it’s all laughs with no tears. It’s far from a dealbreaker, as INCREDIBLES 2 stands as a very worthy sequel; the characters and story go to their natural, and logical places, and it closes the door on hanging plotlines at the end of the first film. It may be all superheroes and colorful animation, but it is as human as the hands that made it.


Wednesday, June 13, 2018


The horror film genre has seen many phases in the last 30 years. After the splatter-fests of the 1970’s, we had the slashers of the 1980’s, which were followed by the found-footage crap and the torture-porn of the 90’s and the early 2000’s. The new millennium ushered in an era of remakes and cheap scares, and today…the genre is exploring its newest phase in psychological terror; taking a grounded approach which has movie-goers debating if they actually qualify as a horror film. Such a film is Ari Aster’s HEREDITARY.

After the death of her mother, Annie (Toni Collette), and her daughter Charlie (Milly Shapiro), and son Peter (Alex Wolff), begin having odd and terrifying experiences; ranging from nightmares, visions, and family tragedy.

HEREDITARY hangs its hat of horror on the hook of mind games. In this scary movie, there is no lumbering goon with a knife, no angry ghost, and no creature lurking in the walls. Instead, director Ari Aster goes for a slow burn with an undefined threat; as Annie and her family slowly unravel the mystery of what’s been happening to them since grandma died. There are several questions to be answered for the characters, each leading them to revelations of their own family with terrifying results.

Aster weaves a story with a lot of misdirection and red herrings, which work very well. The film goes in one direction to make us think we know the answer, only to veer off and suddenly change direction and obliterate everything we thought we had figured out. There are clues scattered around the film to reveal it all, and by the time the credits roll it almost demands a second viewing to understand it all more. In fact, there may a little too much spread throughout the film, and to fully understand the finale requires a lot of attention and thinking. This is a thinking-man’s horror film, and there’s nothing cheap about it.

HEREDITARY doesn’t bother with the cheap jump-scares that the kids love these days, and instead builds a glorious and un-settling atmosphere of dread. The opening minutes alone will have audiences looking over their shoulders, and the film somehow gets under the skin; we’ll never look at those shadows in our bedrooms at night the same way ever again. The film is shot and edited beautifully, and a few camera tricks with miniature models are stunning.

Acting is very good, with Toni Collette leading the way. Her character goes through a lot; from terror to outright painful grief, and she is outstanding every minute. A lot of credit has to be given to the younger cast of Milly Shapiro and Alex Wolff who both have a lot of heavy lifting to do. Gabriel Byrne plays the husband of Annie and does very well as he always does, and Ann Dowd has a small, but very effective role.

Famed director Paul Thomas Anderson once said that it is better to confuse the audience for five minutes than to let them get ahead of you for 10 seconds, and Ari Aster seems to have listened. While HEREDITARY isn’t impenetrable, it does take work…and the last 20 minutes offer a glorious dose of what the holy hell is going on.  But in the end the film works and works well. It is a terror that sticks, and has the ability to spark discussion. If this new phase of horror films is to excel, HEREDITARY serves as one of the best examples.


Wednesday, June 6, 2018


Summer is the time for blockbusters, and this week Reel Speak pays tribute to the godfather of modern blockbuster films, Steven Spielberg, with two blogs covering a pair of his most iconic films. Read the first one HERE.

“I own an island…”

This month marks the 25th anniversary of Steven Spielberg’s JURASSIC PARK.

The year that was 1993 was a life-changing, one-two punch for director Steven Spielberg. Having already cemented his name in cinematic legend with hits such as JAWS (1975), CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND (1977), and E.T. THE EXTRA-TERRESTIAL (1982), he would deliver not one, but two films in 1993 which would make history. In November of that year he would release his WWII holocaust drama SCHINDLER’S LIST; a film which would earn him seven Oscars, including Best Director and Best Picture. But only five months before he sent audiences into a sobering reminder of the horrors of war, he would get those same audiences drunk with childhood glee with living, breathing dinosaurs in JURASSIC PARK.

Based on the popular novel by the late Michael Crichton, JURASSIC PARK told the story of a billionaire and his team of genetic scientists who brought dinosaurs back to life, and populated a theme park with them before things started going wrong. The challenge to resurrect dinosaurs in the film was a great one, and it appropriately was an equal challenge for Spielberg. Just like in the film, Spielberg grasped a new technology, called CGI, and suddenly it was possible to see, play with, run with, and run away from dinosaurs. By using a combination of new tech and classic animatronics, JURASSIC PARK immediately separated itself from the old, choppy dinosaurs that populated B-movies for decades. The usage of the tech would change filmmaking forever.

With an excellent cast of Jeff Goldblum, Sam Neill, Laura Dern, Richard Attenborough, Samuel L. Jackson, B.D. Wong, Wayne Knight, Bob Peck, Joseph Mazzello, and Ariana Richards, and a script which brought the thrills as much as thoughtfulness, JURASSIC PARK instantly captured imaginations in adults that had been long buried; perhaps extinct since they stopped playing with toy dinosaurs in the back yard. The results on screen were spectacular, and the world reacted. JURASSIC PARK became the highest grossing film of all time; a position it would hold until TITANIC arrived in 1997. To this day, it is the 24th highest-grossing film in North America, and the 27th highest worldwide; it is still Spielberg’s biggest money-maker, and a 3D re-release in 2013 would add more to its tally. The film was a hit with critics, and would win three Oscars for Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing, and Best Visual Effects. At that same ceremony, Spielberg, his editor Michael Kahn, and composer John Williams would win for SCHINDLER’S LIST. In the long run, the film would inspire several books, video games, and ongoing sequels.


The legacy of JURASSIC PARK is an ongoing one. The film would be the swan song to the early part of Spielberg’s career, as he would move away from blockbuster filmmaking into serious works for over 20 years.  And box office numbers, Oscar, sequels, and longevity from one generation to the next only begins to scratch the surface. It has that elusive power to awaken the dormant kid in all of us; the one that ran around the back yard chasing creatures and building worlds out of sofa cushions. JURASSIC PARK embraced that. Spielberg himself has been quoted as saying that he dreams for a living, and no other film in the last quarter-century as dropped us into a dream like JURASSIC PARK.

“Life found a way…”

Monday, June 4, 2018

A Reel Review: JAWS In Concert

Summer is the time for blockbusters, and this week Reel Speak pays tribute to the godfather of modern blockbuster films, Steven Spielberg, with two blogs covering a pair of his most iconic films.

Steven Spielberg’s JAWS from 1975 was the film that began the modern age of blockbusters. The iconic film, in which a shark terrorizes a summer resort town, was recently presented by the Mann Center of Philadelphia, with the score performed live by the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia…and this Blogger and his girlfriend were happier than a shark in a pond to attend.

This is what happens…

The outdoor, open-air venue of the Mann Center was the perfect setting for such an event. With seats undercover and lawn seating in the open, it provided a summer-like atmosphere for the film, which is most always associated with summer. Our first order of business upon arrival was catching the right beverage. In the film, the character of Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), says that if you’re looking for a shark, you’re not going to find him on the land. Well, we respectfully disagreed.

Our lawn seats provided us with an excellent view of two of the three large screens on which the film played. This Blogger was curious to hear just how audible the orchestra would be…and those concerns were gobbled up faster than a hungry shark. The opening of the film was a thrill, as the suspenseful score by John Williams opened the film. The deep rumble followed by the iconic, two-note foreboding music was crisp and clear and reached us all the way out into the lawn; almost better than watching it at home with cranked-up surround sound.

With a live orchestra, the performance must be right-on-cue, especially with a film like JAWS where the music is so often synced with the sequences of action, suspense, and jump-scares. The orchestra, conducted by Dirk Brosse, was synced up perfectly and hit every cue. The orchestra sounded magnificent, and often revealed pieces of the score that can’t be heard when watching the film.

In an open-air atmosphere, watching the film offers a different experience than viewing in a traditional theatre. It’s more of a communal experience and makes for a fun atmosphere. People cheered when Quint (Robert Shaw) makes his first appearance, and cheered even more when Chief Brody (Roy Scheider) fires his final shot. The best lines in the film were met with applause, and the old scares, now over 40 years old, still had people jumping.

JAWS is a horror and adventure story, but also has a classic man vs. nature element. Ironically, and perhaps appropriately, this event became just that. With about 20 minutes left in the film, the ugly head of the garbage that is spring arrived, as the skies opened and dropped heavy rain on us. Many people bailed out like they were on a sinking boat (it certainly felt that way), but many, including this Blogger and his girlfriend, made for cover and were able to enjoy the final reel of the film and performance in comfortable, under cover seating. It was a slight bump which added to a unique experience. This Blogger has been admirer of JAWS for decades (read Reel Speak’s blog on the 40th anniversary HERE), and has seen the film in many formats; cable, VHS, Blu-ray, big-screen…but the wonderful performance by the orchestra, combined with Spielberg’s equally wonderful film, made this an event that will stand out like a fin in the water.


Upcoming live-concert film performances by the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia includes STAR WARS: A NEW HOPE (July 20), and HARRY POTTER AND THE PRISONER OF AZKABAN (July 26). More information HERE.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

A Reel Preview: The Year in Film 2018 - Episode VI

Although the weather may not feel like it, the Summer Movie Season is officially underway. While this is usually a time for fun at the theatre, the first full month of the season for 2017 is giving us plenty of drama. Here are the notable films for June.

HOTEL ARTEMIS – In this sci-fi action film, Jodie Foster plays a woman who runs a secret hospital for criminals. The hefty cast includes Sterling K. Brown, Sofia Boutella, Jeff Goldblum, Jenny slate, Zachary Quinto, Charlie Day, and Dave Bautista (GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY). It is the directorial debut of Drew Pearce, who is mostly known for writing Marvel’s IRON MAN 3 (2013), and MISSION IMPOSSIBLE-ROUGUE NATION (2015).

HEREDITARY – This horror film follows a family who begins to be haunted after the death of their grandmother. Toni Colette (LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE) stars.

OCEAN’S 8 – The first spin-off of the long-dormant OCEAN’S 11 franchise features an all-female team of thieves plotting to rob the Met Gala. Sandra Bullock (GRAVITY), plays the brother of famed thief Danny Ocean, and she is joined by Cate Blanchett, Anne Hathaway, Mindy Kaling, Sarah Paulson, Rihanna, and Helena Bonham Carter. It is directed by Gary Ross (SEABISCUIT).

GOTTI – This biographical crime drama, in which John Travolta plays famed mob boss John Gotti, was originally supposed to be released in December of 2017, and finally arrives this month.

INCREDIBLES 2 – The sequel to one of Pixar’s best films finally arrives, 12 years after the original. This time, the family of superheroes struggle to maintain normal lives while battling a new super-villain. The entire cast returns; Craig T. Nelson, Holly Hunter, Sarah Vowell, and Samuel L. Jackson… along with director Brad Bird.

TAG – Based on the true story of a group of ex-classmates who have been playing the same game of tag for 20 years. It stars Ed Helms, Jon Hamm, Jake Johnson, Rashida Jones, and Jeremy Renner (THE AVENGERS).

LOVING PABLO – Based on the best-selling memoir which tells the story of the love affair between Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar with journalist Virginia Vallejo. Oscar-winning actors Javier Bardem (NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN), and Penelope Cruz (VOLVER) star.

JURASSIC WORLD: FALLEN KINGDOM – The fifth film in the dinosaur series which started way back in 1993 is the second film in the new trilogy, which launched in 2015 with JURASSIC WORLD. This time, a team returns to the abandoned island to rescue the dinos before an impending volcanic eruption. Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard return.

UNDER THE SILVER LAKE – Andrew Garfield (HACKSAW RIDGE), investigates the disappearance of his neighbor, with whom he has fallen in love. Riley Keough (TV’s THE GIRLFRIEND EXPERIENCE), co-stars. It is directed by David Robert Mitchell, who brought us the excellent horror-flick IT FOLLOWS in 2014.

THE CATCHER WAS A SPY – Based on the book of the same name, Paul Rudd (ANT-MAN), plays a former baseball player who joined the WWII effort in an espionage mission for the U.S. Government. It also stars Mark Strong, Sienna Miller, Jeff Daniels, Tom Wilkinson, Guy Pearce, Paul Giamatti, and Connie Nielson.

SICARIO: DAY OF THE SOLDADO – This sequel to the outstanding 2015 crime thriller does not bring back director Denis Villeneuve and star Emily Blunt, but it does have writer Taylor Sheridan back (HELL OR HIGH WATER, WIND RIVER). Also returning are Josh Brolin and Benicio del Toro, reprising their roles as a CIA operative and an assassin disrupting the cartel.


Next month, Reel Speak previews the month of July.

Friday, May 25, 2018


When STAR WARS arrived in 1977, the character of Han Solo upstaged every hero and villain in the galactic space opera. The gunslinging, reluctant hero who found himself tangled in a civil war appealed to the masses more than any other character; he was a rebel within a rebellion, and even when he did the right thing, he did it his own way. The character, as originally portrayed by Harrison Ford in STAR WARS and three sequels, became the face of the franchise, and after 41 years his hidden backstory and past comes to light in SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY.

Ten years before the first Death Star becomes fully operational, Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich) and his girlfriend Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke), are scratching out a living on their ruined home-world of Corellia. Han falls into league with thief and smuggler Beckett (Woody Harrelson), who takes him under his wing with the promise of a huge pay-out after a heist…overseen by gangster Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany). To pull the heist off, Solo and Beckett get muscle from the enslaved Wookie Chewbacca, and slick gambler Lando Carlissian (Donald Glover), who owns a fast ship.

SOLO begins as one of the most unique entries in the ongoing STAR WARS saga. The Empire is in full operation but in the background, the stakes are low and don’t involve saving the galaxy, familiar terms such as Jedi and Force are never uttered, and the opening sequence is done in a new way…different even for these new spin-off films. SOLO, directed by Ron Howard, offers a space adventure with elements of a Western and a heist-film, with more than enough familiar STAR WARS pieces and parts to remind us where in the galaxy we are. The story is simple for Han and his new friends; pull off the caper without getting killed or captured, and pay off the gangster before he sends a legion of bounty hunters and assassins after them. The plot is light and easy, but it works as the looming threat is hanging on the heads of the characters rather than the entire galaxy.

The word “prequel” may cause a groan among STAR WARS fans, and SOLO does have that task to fulfill. The film runs down a checklist of things for Han to acquire; his gun, his ship, and his faithful companion. They’re building a character block by block here, and by movie’s end the pieces come together nicely. Ron Howard and his screenwriting team of Lawrence and Jonathan Kasdan play it safe (although the bold choices they do take are really bold), and are simply focused on making Han familiar to us again; there’s enough to make the experience of watching the original films a bit richer, but it feels like there could have been more. The character itself doesn’t have much of an arc; he doesn’t seem to evolve much from the opening to the close, but a moral decision Han finds himself in towards the end goes a long way in making the Han Solo we know and love. Han also has an early trait which adds depth to the way the character reacts to future acquaintances in a wonderful and brilliant touch.

Ron Howard goes full-throttle for most of the film. Pacing is brisk and the editing has a great sense of energy; there aren’t a lot of quiet moments and the film has the zip and brevity of a STAR WARS film of old. The cinematography is a bit muddy and there’s a need for color in a lot of places, although it seems to match the seedy undergrounds and backwater planets the characters are in. The new planets and shady gambling establishments are awesome to see on the screen, although the design of some of the new alien species are way over the top; but to their credit, are done with some excellent practical-effects work. The action scenes are an absolute blast; full of tension and fun and edge-of-the-seat big-wow moments. Howard was having fun here, and it shows. The score by John Powell, with contributions from John Williams, is excellent. The film is also a gold mine of references and hints of old STAR WARS lore, including one whopper of a cameo that no one will see coming.

Alden Ehrenreich fills the mighty boots of Han Solo very well. He doesn’t try to mimic Harrison Ford’s performance (it is a younger version of the character), but he does capture the swagger and cockiness that makes Solo. Emilia Clarke is excellent as always, as is Paul Bettany and Woody Harrelson. The film is nearly upstaged (ironically) by Donald Glover’s young Lando, who is every bit as charming as we’d want.

There is a lot to enjoy in SOLO, and enough work is done in the early goings that by the time Han and Chewie take their seats at the controls of the Millennium Falcon, it is a satisfying and smile-generating moment because it is earned and earned well. Much like the character we first saw in 1977, SOLO has flaws, but the good inside overcomes that and does the right thing.


Wednesday, May 23, 2018

A Reel Preview - Everything You Need to Know About SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY

This week, all cinema talk returns to STAR WARS, as the franchise continues to expand and explore with its newest release, SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY. Here is everything you need to know about the latest chapter in the ongoing saga.

What is this about? – SOLO is the second spin-off film to be produced by parent company Disney and Lucasfilm, with the first being ROGUE ONE back in 2016. These stand-alones take place in different points of the timeline, and focus on stories and characters outside of the primary trilogies. ROGUE ONE explored the events leading into A NEW HOPE (1977), and SOLO takes place during the younger, and formative years of one of the franchise’s most popular characters, Han Solo. It’s the story of how the famed smuggler, destined to become a war hero and fall in love with a princess, earned his friendship with the wookie Chewbacca and acquired his famous ship, the Millennium Falcon.

Who is behind this? – The production of this film has hit more rocks than the Falcon in an asteroid field. The original directors, Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, the makers of THE LEGO MOVIE (2014), were dismissed due to creative differences and production problems. They were replaced by director Ron Howard, whose Oscar-winning directing credits include A BEAUTIFUL MIND (2001), APOLLO 13 (1995), BACKDRAFT (1991), and WILLOW (1988). The film is written by Lawrence Kasdan and his son Jonathan. The elder Kasdan is no stranger to STAR WARS, having written the best entry, THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980), along with THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015), and another popular Lucasfilm property, RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (1981).

Who is in this? – The role of young Han Solo, which was originated by Harrison Ford in 1977 and reprised in three sequels, is taken over by Alden Ehrenreich…whose most notable role came in the Coen Bros. comedy HAIL CAESAR! He also has credits in Woody Allen’s BLUE JASMINE (2013), and Chan-wook’s STOKER (2013). Another important re-cast is Donald Glover playing a young Lando Carlissian, who was originally played by Billy Dee Williams in the Original Trilogy. The rest of the impressive cast includes Woody Harrelson, Thandie Newton, Paul Bettany, and Emilia Clarke (TV’s GAME OF THRONES).

Random Facts – Series creator George Lucas actually began developing a Han Solo stand-alone film as far back as 2012; well before he sold the entire franchise to Disney  * Ron Howard is no stranger to Lucasfilm; his fantasy WILLOW from 1988 was produced by Lucas. Howard also acted alongside Harrison Ford in Lucas’ first feature film, AMERICAN GRAFFITI (1973) * Woody Harrelson was picked over Christian Bale (THE DARK KNIGHT), as Han Solo’s mentor * This is the first time an Academy Award-winning director has made a STAR WARS film * The film takes place roughly 10 years before the events of A NEW HOPE * The film’s release date of May 25th, 2018 is exactly 41 years after the first STAR WARS film was released * Actor Warwick Davis, who has appeared in several STAR WARS films starting with RETURN OF THE JEDI (1983), also worked with Ron Howard in WILLOW and appears in SOLO * The score is composed by John Powell (HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON), with a contribution from long-time STAR WARS composer John Williams *

What to expect – When STAR WARS first exploded into our lives in 1977, the center of its galaxy was to be the character of Luke Skywalker, played by Mark Hamill. Spin-off stories in the form of comics and books pushed this idea, going as far as to tag The Adventures of Luke Skywalker after STAR WARS. But for many reasons, ranging from the cocky, anti-hero nature of the character to the charm of Harrison Ford, the character of Han Solo upstaged Luke and became the face of the franchise. The character is iconic, which means Alden Ehrenreich and Ron Howard have massive boots to fill. The production issues behind the scenes are a concern, but with Howard’s experience and Disney’s oversight, things should come together. On the screen, we should expect a technically proficient film, and Kasdan’s scripts always function very well. Howard has a great touch for directing action and building tension, and Ehrenreich, who upstaged everyone in HAIL CAESAR! (not an easy thing to do in a Coen Bros. ensemble piece), should do nicely. But unlike the hero that it’s based on, SOLO will unlikely take a lot of chances. After the bold decisions made by the most recent film THE LAST JEDI (2017), which caused a lot of division among STAR WARS fans, Disney is likely to play things safe with their most popular character. We can expect them to get from A to Z proficiently and quickly, with hopefully a few surprises.


SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY arrives May 25th, with limited showings on the 24th. It will be available in 2D, 3D, and IMAX formats. It is rated PG-13 and runs 135 minutes.

Monday, May 21, 2018

A Reel Question: Has the Spirit of THE LORD OF THE RINGS Endured?

From 2001 to 2003, there was no other film talk to be had other than Peter Jackson’s adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s THE LORD OF THE RINGS. The fantasy epic, which saw one film released every December for three years, was a box office monster, a critical darling, beloved by fans, and cleaned house on the awards circuit; including a record-breaking sweep at the Oscars for the 2003 season. It was the most significant entry into pop culture since STAR WARS, and made being geeky cool again.

In the 15 (!) years since THE LORD OF THE RINGS has left cinema, studios have capitalized on fantasy and sci-fi epics to the point that the genre dominates all film talk and release schedules. Comic-book and superhero properties from Marvel and DC arrive several times a year, STAR WARS continues to expand, and HARRY POTTER has also entered into new territories. Annual comic-cons held by Wizard World and other organizations have exploded into popularity as they grow from dusty comic book shops to pop culture expositions of film and TV; an explosion that THE LORD OF THE RINGS films was instrumental in igniting. After all these years, that fantasy world of hobbits, wizards, dragons, elves, dwarves, and sword-wielding horsemen and woodsmen seems like it has taken a back seat to superheroes and lightsabers, and ironically, THE LORD OF THE RINGS has quietly faded in the nerd kingdom that its responsible for.

Or has it?

This past weekend, this Blogger and his girlfriend once again attended Wizard World Comic-Con in Philadelphia. The annual exposition, as always, put on a most-excellent exposition of pop culture including celebrity guests offering meet-and-greets and Q & A panels, countless vendors, games and activities, and a chance to mingle and meet fellow lovers of all things cool. This year featured an un-official reunion of several cast-members of THE LORD OF THE RINGS, including Karl Urban, Sean Bean, and three hobbits; Elijah Wood, Sean Astin, and Billy Boyd. Going into the weekend, this Blogger was curious to see how the stars of those magnificent films would be received nearly 15 years after the last LORD OF THE RINGS film ran in theatres. Would people still remember? Has the spirit and popularity of Middle-Earth endured?

In a word, yes.

Autograph lines to meet the actors were miles long, and the lines to meet them for a photo-op were even longer. The Q & A panels were packed (in one of the largest ballrooms available), and people lined up eagerly for a chance to ask a question of their beloved hobbits and one man from Gondor. The panels themselves were a blast; Sean Bean was funny and informative, and gladly took many questions concerning THE LORD OF THE RINGS, GOLDENEYE, TV’s GAME OF THRONES, and his old role from TV’s SHARPE. As fun as his panel was, nothing could compare to the jovial hobbit panel, when Elijah Wood, Sean Astin, and Billy Boyd took the stage. The three arrived nearly an hour late, as they were held up dealing with the insanely long lines for their photo-ops. Once the panel began, there was a lot of fun to be had. Wonderful stories were told from the filming of THE LORD OF THE RINGS; some so funny that even Elijah was sent out of his chair laughing. It was a treat to hear them banter back and forth, and it’s clear that they are maintaining their close friendships which were formed so many years ago in New Zealand during production. The Fellowship has endured, indeed. The extra-large audience loved it all, and the applause before, during, and after was louder than an army of Orcs. 

It was the last panel of the day and a delightful way to end a packed Saturday. As a heartful fan of THE LORD OF THE RINGS, this Blogger and his girlfriend left the venue on an incredibly happy note, as did thousands of other fans in the ballroom…proving that Tolkien’s creation, and Peter Jackson’s vision, has endured and will continue to endure. An old Tolkien theme was that all things that must pass from this world, but gladly, his creations will not.

Friday, May 18, 2018

A Reel Review: DEADPOOL 2

In 2016, the superhero film DEADPOOL, the origin story about the wise-cracking, self-healing mercenary, arrived as one of the most unique entries in the massive superhero film genre. With its foul-mouthed, juvenile-humored, blood-splattering, fourth wall-breaking (speaking to the audience), and constant self-awareness (the character is always aware that he’s in a movie based on a comic book), it was something new for the genre…but at the same time took a one-note joke and stretched it into an entire film. There was certainly room to grow, improve, and evolve…and that is the mission of DEADPOOL 2.

After a personal tragedy, Deadpool/Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds), crosses paths with a dangerous young mutant teen (Julian Dennison), who is being hunted by Cable (Josh Brolin), a time travelling cybernetic mutant soldier. With the odds against him, Deadpool recruits other mutants from the street, and from the famed X-MEN to form his own X-FORCE team.

In his comic origins, Deadpool is the one character who always knows that he is in a comic book. In a natural transition to the screen, the character is always aware that he in a film; drawing attention to the more cliched tropes in action films, and taking a timeout now and again to say hi to the audience. The first film put most of its weight on that unique angle, but this time around, director David Leitch gives the character a lot more to do by throwing in a personal tragedy and something for the character to strive for. The stakes are somewhat low, but for Deadpool they are high…making this sequel a personal story more than a typical super-shoot-em-up.

DEADPOOL 2 has all the characteristics of an Old Western. Our main character is on a path of revenge while being lost, and by finding a young mutant who is dangerous but still being hunted in the worst ways, he finds a path of redemption. Things get even better when Deadpool begins to assemble his team, and the character finds even more ways to grow.

The humor is still packed with 15-year-old boy moments, but it lands and lands well…although a few gags go on way too long. The references to other superhero films and clever cameos are a blast and clever, and never distract from the bigger goings-on. Visual effects for the most part are quite good, although a few still look rough. The action sequences are a thrill, and the score by Tyler Bates is excellent.

Ryan Reynolds is once again wonderful as Deadpool, and he gets more to do this time around than just quip and curse. Josh Brolin is gruff and mean, which he always does so well, but it works and his chemistry with Reynolds is fantastic. The film is packed with a lot of surprise cameos, and the rest of the supporting cast including Morena Baccarin, Julian Dennison, T.J. Miller, Karan Soni, Brianna Hildebrand, and most especially Zazie Beetz are all superb.

DEADPOOL 2 is packed with laughs, but the last 20 minutes are guaranteed to generate some tears. For an R-rated superhero film with toilet humor and blood splatter, it has a surprising amount of heart and story, and that elevates it well over its predecessor. This is a superior sequel and the type of entry that proves the superhero film genre is a long way from growing old and stale.


Wednesday, May 16, 2018

A Reel 10: IRON MAN

“I am Iron Man.”

This month marks the 10th anniversary of Jon Favreau’s IRON MAN.

The first film in Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, their connected series of films, IRON MAN was not only the launching pad for Marvel’s unprecedented universe-building, long-form storytelling, and box office-smashing movies…but it would become ground zero for the way the industry would do business.

In the mid-2000’s, superhero films had a very spotty record with critics and fans. Christopher Nolan was in the middle of his excellent Batman trilogy for Warner Bros., while rival studios Fox and Sony were putting out just as many bad movies as they were good ones with their respective X-MEN and SPIDER-MAN franchises. IRON MAN arrived in May of that year with a sonic boom; it was beloved by fans and critics, and its clever touches in hinting at bigger things on the horizon, without derailing the immediate story at hand, made us all eager for more. It was Marvel’s first step towards their domination of the box office and ongoing entries into pop culture, and right away rival studios began to copy the new template of success; from 2008 on, franchise-building became a priority for nearly every major studio in the blockbuster business. 

The success of IRON MAN began way back in 1990, when Universal Studios acquired the rights to the character. By 1996 the rights changed hands to Fox, and by 1997 there were plans for actor Nicolas Cage to play the lead role of Tony Stark. After several starts and restarts, by 2004 no production had begun, although names such as Joss Whedon and Quentin Tarantino were attached.

By 2005, the newly formed Marvel Studios with producer Kevin Feige worked to start all over, and announced IRON MAN as its first independent feature. Jon Favreau was hired to direct in 2006, and cited inspiration from the works of Tom Clancy, along with James Bond and ROBOCOP (1987). The story’s setting would be changed from the comic origin of Vietnam to present day, and the brilliant decision to make the primary villain hidden in the background…much like Sauron in LORD OF THE RINGS or the Emperor in STAR WARS, gave the film a hanging mystery which was very intriguing.

The role of billionaire and weapons dealer Tony Stark would go to a rejuvenated Robert Downey Jr., who was slowly making a comeback after years of addiction. Taking inspiration from the real-life aviator and eccentric billionaire Howard Hughes, Downey would make the role his own, and likely the character he will now be most remembered for. The rest of the cast-list read like an Oscar nominee ballot…because it was; Jeff Bridges, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Terrence Howard were on board. Favreau took on a small role himself, and Faran Tahir appeared as the leader of a terrorist cell which would kidnap Stark and set him on his new life journey. The rest of the cast included Paul Bettany, Leslie Bibb, Clark Gregg, and in a special surprise cameo in a post-credit scene…Samuel L. Jackson.

The film would be a smash; earning box office gold and high praise from critics and fans. Its technical achievements would earn two Oscar nominations (Visual Effects and Sound Editing), and at the Saturn Awards,  Favreau would win Best Director and Downey Best Actor. Producer Kevin Feige would go on to become the overlord of the new, ongoing Marvel Cinematic Universe.


As a wee-lad, the character of Iron Man wasn’t quite this Blogger’s favorite superhero, but he was definitely one of the coolest; a high-tech flying suit of armor which fired missiles and lasers…what kid wouldn’t love that? But in the overall public eye, the character was nearly obscure, and never seemed to get the attention and love that was horded by Hulk, Spidey, Batman, and Superman. But Marvel’s new knack for getting the right people for the right job, a skill they display to this day, would elevate Iron Man right to the top of the list of popular heroes…and suddenly make Tony Stark a household name. IRON MAN today stands as a perfect superhero film; a likeable character, stunning visual effects, some clever surprises, and a whole lotta cool. It set Marvel Studios on its ongoing trajectory, and reset the thinking of their rivals. We didn’t know it at the time, but this little film about a man in a can opened up something larger for us all.

“You think you’re the only superhero in the world? Mr. Stark, you’ve become part of a bigger universe, you just don’t know it yet.”