Bad Times at the El Royale (2018)

In just a few high-profile creative projects, Drew Goddard has built up such an impossible stockpile of anticipatory goodwill that it was inevitable his second feature as a director would suffer some kind of sophomore slump. After his work on Lost, The Good Place, and (his debut feature) The Cabin in the Woods in particular, Goddard has become synonymous with high-concept philosophical interpretations of Purgatory. Goddard sets his most distinct projects in artificial environments where the morally judgmental voyeurism of the audience becomes part of the text. He uses this metatextual remove to explore the psychological & philosophical implications of audiences’ desire to judge fictional characters as either Good or Bad, Moral or Evil. His second feature, Bad Times at the El Royale, has all the makings of a perfect Drew Goddard project in that way. It’s set in a complexly mapped-out artificial environment that encourages voyeurism & moral judgements. It’s populated by troubled, mysterious characters who unsubtly teeter between Good and Bad on a moral scale. It’s also intricately constructed on a narrative level, coming together onscreen like a temporal puzzle or a Rube Goldberg contraption. Yet, there’s something lacking about Bad Times at the El Royale that keeps its overall effect disappointingly pedestrian, recalling Goddard’s creatively muted credits on Netflix’s Daredevil series or Ridley Scott’s The Martian. It’s a handsomely staged, frequently entertaining picture – yet it’s inevitable to feel letdown by it because we know Goddard can deliver so much more than that.

Even if Bad Times at the El Royale is a little underwhelming, its titular locale is a wonder of sinister-kitsch production design. A Lake Tahoe novelty destination that lost its luster as 60s swank descended into hippie rot, the hotel represents American culture in decline at one of its most turbulent times. Nixon, Vietnam, Hoover, Manson, Civil Rights protests, hippies, and heroin swirl around in the cultural zeitgeist outside the hotel like an especially morbid verse in “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” A perfectly preserved novelty from before those political flashpoints sparked a Cultural Revolution, the El Royale pretends on the surface to be a World’s Fair attraction vision of an idealized American past – complete with automatic food dispensers and a sense of lawless Wild West hedonism. Undercover G-men, bugged rooms, and a secret hallway that exposes each hotel guest to being spied on via two-way mirrors compromise that outdated idealism to reveal that the swanky 60s America of the past was no less sinister than the hippie 70s of the near future (the film is set in ’68). This is of no surprise to four guests who all converge at the El Royale at the exact same time to kickstart the film’s multilayered conflicts: a soul singer (Cynthia Erivo), a hippie (Dakota Johnson), a priest (Jeff Bridges), and a vacuum salesman (John Hamm, back in Don Draper drag). Each conceal mysteriously guarded identities & motives until all is inevitably revealed in an ultraviolent climax (excluding what was prematurely revealed in the film’s trailer). It all comes together with the routine precision of clockwork, mirroring both the cultural ticking clock of the setting and the patience-tested audience’s urge to check our wristwatches.

It’s difficult to parse out exactly why Bad Times at the El Royale lands as good-not-great, despite the wonders of its production design, costuming, performances, and intricate plotting. It could be that, at 140 minutes, the film is too narratively unwieldy to support the weight of its runtime. The nonlinear structure of the story, broken up into chapters by hotel room, certainly doesn’t help there; it’s difficult to become too invested in any particular story before film switches tracks & resets. That structure’s similarities to the post-Tarantino 90s aesthetic, echoed by its 60s soul needle drops & humorously overwritten dialogue, feels a little too familiar to land with any genuine awe (especially since it isn’t observed with any of Goddard’s signature meta critique). My best guess for Bad Times at the El Royale’s shortcomings, however, is that the film doesn’t fully commit to the supernatural Purgatory elements of its script that feels so uniquely menacing in Goddard’s superior works. The film feels like such a blatantly coded, exaggerated depiction of the 1960s’s cultural catharsis, covering everything from religion to drugs to race to sex to war, that it’s almost a shame the artificial conflict of that philosophical stew wasn’t made literal in the text. The way all four of the El Royale’s guests arrive at the same time feels like a fresh batch of applicants being processed as a group at the Pearly Gates. Snippets of dialogue & signage like “See You Again Soon,” “How did you end up at the El Royale?,” “This is no place for a priest,” and (from the advertising) “All roads lead here,” suggest a supernatural tour of the Afterlife, or at least something more philosophically sinister than the sprawling dramatic thriller that’s delivered instead.

We’ve seen Goddard strike gold with those philosophical breaks from reality before, so it’s tempting to want more of the same here. Either way, he’s demonstrated he can do something far more interesting than this handsomely staged, but logically well-behaved popcorn movie. I hope whatever he works on next is just a structurally complex, but infinitely more preposterous. I don’t need him to ground his meta-philosophical contraptions within the bounds of reality. Reality is limiting, if not outright boring.

-Brandon Ledet

Kingsman: The Golden Circle (2017)

I approached this sequel with a fair amount of trepidation. The first Kingsman was an anomaly in that it seemed to fly under most people’s radar (it was in its third week when I saw it, on a Thursday afternoon, and there was not another soul in the entire theater) but was successful enough via word of mouth (after all, there is a sequel now) that it became a bit of a cult film almost instantaneously. The press for the film has been overwhelmingly negative, and I had reservations about seeing how far a follow-up to one of my favorite films of 2015 could possibly stray into territory that garnered such negative feelings.

And frankly, I just don’t get it. This movie is awesome.

Around my office I’m known as the guy who likes the weird artsy shit (and, if you’re reading this site, you probably are that guy or gal or person of a nonbinary nature in your office too), but I also genuinely love a surprise, over-the-top, tongue-in-cheek roller coaster of an action film when one somehow stumbles out of the studio system to slouch toward either notoriety or be forgotten. I wasn’t at all interested in the first Kingsman after seeing an overlong preview for it on FX during American Horror Story until a friend promised me that there was more to it than met the eye. And there was! It’s an unapologetic spy film that cribs from My Fair Lady (explicitly), blows the heads off of hundreds of people in a colorful fireworks display, and twists the familiar elements of the gentleman spy and action genres so far around that they essentially break off. It’s not the greatest film ever made, but it was an exceedingly well-choreographed exercise in bubblegum brutality and Blofeldian pomp.

The new film, Kingsman: The Golden Circle is all of those things as well. It’s a little more bloated than its predecessor in length and that nudge-nudge-wink-wink factor (it’s a fine line that’s difficult to manage/navigate), while running a little leaner on some subtlety. Sure, there are no lines that lean so heavily on the fourth wall as the original’s clunky “This ain’t that kind of movie, bruv,” but there is a salon robot that files down and a fifties themed villainous lair buried in “technically undiscovered” ruins in a jungle, not to mention the best use of Sir Elton John in a movie since Almost Famous.

We pick up where we left off last time, with Eggsy (Taron Egerton), codename Galahad, still mourning the loss of his mentor Harry (Colin Firth), the previous Galahad. We learn that he’s still dating Princess Tilde (Hanna Alström), whom he rescued from Valentine’s base at the end of the previous film and that the apparently-killed Charlie (Edward Holcroft), a Kingsman recruit who failed to make the cut, was mangled at the end of the last film but is still alive. In fact, he’s working for Poppy (Julianne Moore), a drug empress who wipes out all of Kingsman but Eggsy and Merlin (Mark Strong), the agency’s surrogate for Bond’s Q. The Kingsman doomsday vault points them in the direction of a kind of sister organization known as Statesman, which uses a distillery as the front for their off-book missions. After some of that good old-fashioned Let’s You and Him Fight nonsense, the remnants of Kingsman team with the Statesman cowboy stereotypes to thwart Poppy’s plan to strongarm the U.S. government into decriminalizing all drugs by withholding the antidote to a virus of her own design. “Champ” Champagne (Jeff Bridges) is the leader of his group: wild card party animal Tequila (Channing Tatum), archetypal honorable gunslinger Whiskey (Pedro Pascal), and shrinking violet Merlin equivalent Ginger Ale (Halle Berry). Before they reach the finish line, there’s much discussion of John Denver, a tussle or two with a couple of killer robotic dogs, a man being forced to eat a hamburger made of his friend, and a painful looking identity-erasing makeover. Also, there’s a subplot about the evil unnamed PoTUS (Bruce Greenwood) cackling and lying. And a wedding.

A lot of people have taken issue with some of the more subversive elements of the film and the way that they turn our hero into a bit of an idiot, but I like that. It’s another way of subverting the Roger Moore Bond’s tropes, because Eggsy isn’t the perfect wish fulfillment hero that Bond is. His friends are uncouth, he’s careless with his lethal gadgetry, and he doesn’t see an obvious traitor in his midst until it’s almost too late.When Whiskey and the Galahads (band name!) visit a facility hidden within some kind of ski resort, you expect that it’s going to be a play on the fact that Roger Moore’s Bond skied all the time, in A View to a Kill, For Your Eyes Only, and The Spy Who Loved Me. But nope, there’s no overlong ski chase, just a giant skyway plummeting from the sky.

Eggsy is still the un-Bond, and while this film fails to have the same (relative) gravity as it managed to maintain via the character arcs of the first, there’s a development there that I think is being overlooked by those who are decrying this as a bombastic failure, either as a follow-up or a standalone film. One of the things that people seem to be most upset about is the fact that Eggsy chooses to call his girlfriend and get permission to sleep with another woman in pursuit of the mission. Yes, it’s dumb in that it’s poorly timed (he couldn’t have called her on the way to the rendezvous?), but it reflects another anti-Bond quality that makes Eggsy more likable and relatable. For all the power fantasies that he fulfills, James Bond is an aggressive womanizer and kind of an asshole. He always gets the job done, but you know that if his marriage to Tracy Bond had lasted more than eight minutes he would have given her the old Betsy Draper special every time he was in the field, whether it was beneficial to his mission or just because he was bored. The film goes out of its way to show you just how unlike Bond Eggsy is in this way, and it’s actually refreshingly original. Also, there’s a laser whip.

I’ve also seen some responses to the political commentary in the film, which is allegedly slanted left. I was surprised to read this interpretation of the film after my screening, as I actually thought the film was rather toothless in its reflection of the current American political climate (not that I expected any deep commentary at all in this one, but by making the PotUS a major character, you invite that criticism). After all, in the last one, it was made pretty explicit that President Obama (along with essentially every political leader save for Tilde and her father and perhaps a few other dissidents) was a willing participant in villainous mastermind’s evil scheme. I’ve seen dismissal of the Oval Office subplot as being “pandering” because the evil president’s moral victor is an older blonde woman, a way of giving liberals the world that they want to live in. I didn’t (and don’t) see it that way, however. All of the reporting that we see within the film comes straight from Fox News, and, in comparison to the complicit Obama of the first film, the evil President herein is given neither a name or an explicit political party, and doesn’t have the mannerisms or characteristics that would truly make him an analog of Trump: no combover, no dayglo skin, no broken or rambling sentences or rogue trains of thought. There’s no actual political commentary here, and that’s fine; this is just another generic evil president in a long line of fictional evil presidents. If you see Trump in this performance, well, that’s up to you.

Overall, this is a sequel that works. It’s a bit paler and a not quite as fun, but it’s stylish, witty, visceral, colorful, and a hell of a lot of fun. It’s a film that’s not to be taken seriously, and it delivers on the promise that the (spoilery!) trailer sets up. On a scale of sequels that copied the template of the first film verbatim from Men in Black II to 10 Cloverfied Lane, it errs on the “scenes from the last one, but with a twist!” side, but there’s still enough new to satisfy you, as long as you’re willing to get lost in a candy kingdom of headshots and people getting cut in half. And Elton John in fabulous feathery shackles.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

The Little Prince (2016)

three star

The recent animated feature The Little Prince has had an interesting path to reaching American audiences. After earning rave reviews abroad and being advertised at theaters in the States, the film was dropped from its release schedule and unceremoniously dumped on Netflix streaming following months of distribution limbo. I’m far from a connoisseur of modern CG animation. Pixar movies don’t quite excite me in the same way they do for most folks and I’m much likelier to seek out a hand-drawn or stop motion-animated film than a Wreck It Ralph or Big Hero 6 or what have you. I will say, though, that the way The Little Prince has been quietly swept aside baffles me a great deal. It’s by no means a contender for best animated feature of the year or anything (not with Kubo & Zootopia looming large), but it’s at the very least more thoughtful & well-constructed than what I assume (but hopefully will never find out) most people got out of this year’s lesser CG fare: Storks, Trolls, Angry Birds, oh my! And those all made huge profits at the theater. Anyone looking for Pixar-quality storytelling & emotional resonance is likely to enjoy this discarded dark horse on some level, even if it wasn’t my usual taste in entertainment, so it’s weird to see it dismissed so casually on the distribution end of the business.

There’s two dueling storylines in The Little Prince. One is told in a storybook fashion and is based on the popular children’s book of the film’s namesake (which I honestly know mostly from Tumblr posts & friends’ tattoos, not from growing up with it); the other is a coming of age tale in which a young girl befriends a lonely old man. The Little Prince is interesting in the way it never puts too fine of a point on the way the themes of its two halves communicate. Both stories are in some way about the value and difficulty in maintaining companionship, but overall the movie exists as a love letter to childhood imagination. In the film’s own words, “Growing up is not the problem, forgetting is.” The old man (voiced by Jeff Bridges), who spends most of his days working on model planes, listening to Dixieland jazz, and recounting the story of the Little Prince to his new school age friend, never forgot the value of play & imagination as he grew older. Every other adult seems to have lost that perspective. As the little girl protagonist faces a rigid summer schedule meant to prepare her for an intensely regimented educational institution, everyone from her own mother to her educational oppressors seem determined to dampen and homogenize her imagination. The old man and his story of the Little Prince offer a (literally) brighter, more exciting future, and a lot of the film’s conflict is generated in the clash of those two ideals.

What drew me into watching this film in the first place, despite it not being my typical thing, was the multimedia approach to its animation. The story of the old man & the young girl is an all-CG, Pixar-reminiscent proposition, one that looks a little like a cheaper version of the medium like Anna and the Moods due to its budgetary limitations. The film begins with a hand-drawn sequence with watercolor added for texture, though, and the titular Little Prince half of the story is told through stop motion animation, something I’m always a sucker for. If the entire film were as interesting to look at as the Little Prince’s claymation worlds, I might be praising it a little more emphatically. Unfortunately, I didn’t find the wraparound CG story quite as worthwhile as the storybook Little Prince vignettes it contains, as it both looked & felt less special in the context of its time, where a CG-animated tale about the value of imagination & individuality are not at all difficult to come by.

I wouldn’t say that The Little Prince would have been a more resounding success if it were all stop motion or hand-drawn. I had some problems with the story too, particularly when its two worlds collide in a third act attempt to transform what was at one time a character-driven familial drama into a cookie cutter action adventure. My main complaint with the film is that outside that last minute stretch, when the film feels least emotionally impactful, its two halves never really feel like a cohesive whole. The stop motion animation version of The Little Prince‘s source material is something very interesting and beautiful to behold; the CG framing device was fine, but not something I would seek out without the titular hook. There’s some clever visualization of the monotonous trudge of time & adult life that colors that half of the film and I’ll admit I teared up at the emotional climax of its story arc once the action adventure shenanigans were put to rest (not that it takes much for me to cry these days; a TV commercial can get me to do that in seconds). I just could never shake the feeling that The Little Prince didn’t fully belong tied to that Pixar-shaped story in the first place. Those more in tune with that genre might be inclined to disagree and I think it’s at least fair to say this film deserved a fairer shake than the one it got, as I’m sure there was an audience out there who would’ve been eager to see it at the theater.

-Brandon Ledet

Hell or High Water (2016)

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three star

I’m going to preface this review by saying that Hell or High Water is far outside my comfort zone in terms of genre. A story about a world-weary lawman attempting to chase down & outwit a pair of haphazard bankrobbers just days before his retirement, the film resembles an awful lot of ultra-macho neo-Westerns I’m often told are great, but usually leave me bored silly. The problem is fairly deep-seated too. Even the Coen Bros’ No Country for Old Men, which I’m sure is fantastic, has put me to sleep every single time I’ve tried to watch it, including twice in the theater. So, I totally believe people when they say Hell or High Water is their favorite movie of the year so far, but I suspect these folks are just more finely tuned to the intricacies of its genre & tone than I am. For me, the film is formally a little flat, playing like what I’d imagine a modern Showtime drama version of Walker, Texas Ranger would look like, right down to the wince-worthy music cues. However, even as an outsider I did find myself entertained, especially by the film’s showy dialogue & muted performances.

Outside being a fairly standard bankrobbing thriller, Hell or High Water mostly stands out as a screenwriter’s playground. Taylor Sheridan, who also penned last year’s Sicario, recognizes the rigid restraints of the film’s simple narrative & throws most of his weight into the its quietly humorous dialogue. When Jeff Bridges’s perpetually exhausted Texas Ranger asks a recently robbed bank teller whether her assailants were black or white, she retorts, “Their skin or their souls?” It’s these kinds of colorful turns of phrase that make him mutter to himself, “God, I love West Texas.” I can’t echo that sentiment, but I do appreciate the film’s ability to capture that terrain’s slow, desolate atmosphere by bringing the more action-packed aspects of the plot down to an occasional halt in favor of some porch sittin’ & beer drinkin’, a perfect stage for showy exchanges of phrase. Sheridan understands the glass beer bottles, vastly empty roads, grunts, football, and poverty that make up a large part of that state & he uses that terrain to stage a somewhat believable modern version of a Cowboys vs. Indians Western. One of those Native Americans just happens to be a cop (Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s Gil Birmingham) trying to hold his aging white partner together for a final ride. His cowboy opponents are two in-over-their-heads brothers living out a revenge plot similar to Jeff Nichols’s (far superior) Shotgun Stories, except their target is a predatory banking institution instead of a rival family. The only question is if the calm, collected half of the criminal duo (played by an admirably restrained Chris Pine) can hold together his wildcard brother (a grimy Ben Foster, who plays the part like Guy Fieri reimagined as a methed-out murderer), long enough to escape the cops’ wrath. The evenly-distributed amusement of the proficient dialogue leaves a lot of grey area of which side to root for here (although, I guess you’d have to be a monster to root for the banks), so the fun of Hell or High Water is mostly in watching the pieces fall into place in an inevitably satisfying way, whatever the result.

I can’t say for sure if I would’ve enjoyed Hell or High Water more if it were staged in a different setting or if it didn’t feature gruff country songs with lines like, “I am lost in the dust of the chase my life brings” (an aspect of the film Nick Cave had some apparent involvement with, speaking of things I’m often told are great but I don’t really understand). My brain does usually shut all the way off when it comes to certain macho genres like Westerns or James Bond flicks or straightforward war movies, though, and I have to admit I didn’t have that problem here. This was far from my Film of the Year, but I was mostly on board with its Who’re the Real Thieves, Really? approach to predatory banking & its last legs lawman performance from Jeff Bridges (which brought me back to the novelty for Kurt Russell’s similar role in last year’s Bone Tomahawk). Like I said, though, it’s the film’s dialogue that really makes it distinct and I suspect that aspect is what’s going to have the moviegoing dads, uncles, and grandfathers of the world chuckling to themselves in delight. This movie was seemingly made with that specific crowd in mind & I’m not sure they’re going to appreciate its finer charms more than I was able to tap into myself.

-Brandon Ledet

Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X.: Iron Man (2008) & The Rise of the MCU

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Superhero Watching: Alternating Marvel Perspectives, Fresh and Longterm, Ignoring X-Men, or S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X., is a feature in which Boomer (who reads superhero comics & is well versed in the MCU) & Brandon (who reads alternative comics & has thus far seen less than 25% of the MCU’s output) revisit the films that make up the Marvel Cinematic Universe from the perspective of someone who knows what they’re talking about & someone who doesn’t have the slightest clue.

Boomer: It’s hard to believe now, but there was a time when superhero films were considered box office poison, and Marvel wasn’t even thinking about producing live­action adaptations of its material for the big screen. I won’t get into all the gritty details of the rise and fall of the House of Ideas here, but suffice it to say that political machinations behind the scenes and creative differences abounded, meaning that one of the most recognizable brands in the world nearly went bankrupt many, many times. If you’re looking to take the equivalent of a capstone class in the history of Marvel Comics, I recommend a viewing of Chuck Sonnenberg’s “Rise and Fall of the Comic Empire” video series on his website SFDebris, which offers a fair and concise outlining of Marvel’s corporate shenanigans and infighting over the past four decades, and that series still clocks in at thirteen segments ranging from ten to thirty minutes in length. I’ll try to be more succinct here.

Considering that Marvel consistently has the creative edge over the more staid DC Comics, it’s ironic that DC is usually the first to enter new realms of media. DC put two live action television series on air (the Adam West Batman in the 1960s and Wonder Woman in the 1970s) before Marvel ever got a TV show off the ground, and they beat Marvel to theatres by two solid decades (not counting the Republic Pictures Captain America serials of the 1940s and George Lucas’s 1986 Howard the Duck, which is best forgotten). Richard Donner’s Superman took the world by storm in 1978 and was followed by three sequels and an attempted spinoff. As a result of the increasingly diminished returns on the Superman film series, the general public largely fell out of love with film adaptations of comics, before the genre was briefly reinvigorated in 1989 following the success of Tim Burton’s Batman and that film’s first sequel. That franchise also devolved into garbage, with the DC’s box office domination effectively being murdered in 1997 by the dual death blows of the notoriously terrible Batman & Robin and the stunningly unimaginative Shaquille O’Neill vehicle Steel. Finally, it was Marvel’s turn.

Although the X-­Men were unquestionably Marvel’s most lucrative property in the eighties and nineties, and many people would credit the success of the X-­Men film series (alongside Sam Raimi’s Spider­-Man films) as creating the modern zeitgeist of superhero saturation, bringing Beast, Storm, and Nightcrawler to life in a film was considered prohibitively expensive at the time. The real catalyst for this revolution was the surprising success of 1998’s Blade (budgeted at $45 million but earning over $131 million worldwide). Blade proved that superhero movies didn’t necessarily have to be created by committee to appeal to a wide audience, and that a comic book adaptation could be financially successful even if it eliminated the merchandising potential of toy sales (which tied the hands of the creative teams involved; in order to prevent watchdog and advocacy groups from causing a stink about inappropriateness of toys, films had to be made not only safe for children, but to appeal to them as well). Blade was an R-­rated movie that brought in tons of new fans for Marvel, and kick­started the company’s interest in features. The problem was that, to save itself from going under following the Comic Speculator Bust of the Nineties, Marvel had sold off the film rights to its most noteworthy properties in order to get funding to keep the lights on and the presses printing. Japanese film company Toei produced a (notably ridiculous) live action Spider­Man series in the 1970s, and the character was the most popular Marvel property in that country; as a result, his film rights ended up in the hands of Sony. Twentieth Century Fox ended up with the rights to the X-­Men, the Fantastic Four, and Daredevil. Marvel pictures were making money, but the comic company itself was still struggling.

This diaspora of character rights didn’t leave Marvel many characters or franchises to choose from, and the company made the logically sound but ultimately detrimental choice to make its first foray into film production with Marvel icon The Incredible Hulk. The television series based on the character had run for five successful seasons in the seventies and the gamma­-irradiated antihero had long been a mascot for Marvel as an instantly recognizable figure and a representative of Marvel’s introspective approach to storytelling in contrast to DC’s implacable supermen; investing in a film adaptation seemed obvious. Unfortunately, Ang Lee’s 2003 film Hulk was a mess, and it would take years before Marvel started co-­producing films in a meaningful way again. With the further failures of forgettable fare like 2004’s The Punisher and 2007’s Ghost Rider, it became apparent that a new approach was needed.

Kevin Feige was a Marvel exec who actually cared about the stories and characters, and he came up with a plan of creating a movie franchise that would function in much the same ways as the books did, allowing characters to cross over, team up, and occasionally come to blows. Since Hulk had been such a disaster, the newly founded Marvel Studios (with Feige at the helm) decided to move forward with an adaptation of Iron Man first, hitching the fledgling production company’s wagon to Robert Downey Jr.’s unpredictable star. And the rest, as they say, is history. In the seven years since that film’s release, the studio has moved from co­-producing features with Paramount to releasing directly through Disney (Marvel’s decades of questionable solvency having ended with the decision to allow the media demigod to buy them out) and churned out two “phases” of films, with Phase II having concluded with Ant­-Man, which was my first review for this site. With Phase III set to take off in a few months with the release of Captain America: Civil War, and with Brandon’s Russ Meyer project and my Dario Argento project winding down, we’ve decided to go through all twelve official Marvel Cinematic Universe films in order and review them, from the perspective of an old hand (me) and a newcomer (him). We’re calling it Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X..

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threehalfstar

Boomer: I’ll be as upfront about this as I possibly can: I never really cared much for Iron Man as a character. I didn’t dislike him, I simply remained utterly apathetic to him for most of my life. Of all the Marvel cartoons that aired during the nineties, his was the most forgettable and (to my memory) the most cheaply animated. On the Marvel side of the comic aisle, I loved the X­-Men most of all, but I also liked the titular Thor beginning with J. Michael Straczynski’s run, the recently popular (and I love it) Jessica Jones, and Captain America, who represented, to me at least, the purest ideals of true ethical and upright citizenship. Then, in 2006, along came Marvel’s Civil War crossover event, which pitted Steve “Captain America” Rogers against Tony “Iron Man” Stark. To keep it simple, the narrative of Civil War was instigated by a deadly event that led Iron Man and Cap to fall on opposite sides of a political issue, the Superhuman Registration Act; the SRA would be a government mandate requiring all superpowered individuals (which in the comics is a huge but socially vulnerable minority) to reveal themselves to the government and be registered (and basically submit to the superhero version of the selective service, if the selective service had a 100% drafting rate, but I digress). Marvel’s editorial mandate was that Iron Man’s weirdly conservative Pro­Registration side be depicted as being “right,” with Cap’s more individualistic and liberal Anti­Reg side being shortsighted and “wrong.” This was despite the fact that a proposed Mutant Registration Act had been a topic of plots in the X-­Men comics for literally decades, with such a missive being treated (and rightfully so) as a gross civil rights violation. (The trailer for Captain America: Civil War that was released last week seems to show that the film version will have a more balanced approach.) I won’t discuss how that comic arc played out for fear of potentially spoiling the viewing experience for Brandon, but I will say that I found Iron Man’s choices to be unconscionable and eventually came to hate Tony Stark the way that the blogosphere hates Gwyneth Paltrow. Of course, I was super pissed a year later when I read a copy of Wizard Magazine and learned that a character responsible for so much that I hated would be the face of Marvel’s new cinematic initiative.

I still watched it, though. Eventually.

I saw the first fifteen minutes or so of the film while hooked up to a centrifuge at a plasma “donation” center, literally selling part of my blood for an extra $40 a week because I suffered from the distinct but common misfortune of coming of age in Bush’s America and the accompanying recession. The center had a small collection of DVDs they would play in the donor area to pass the time, and someone must have rented Iron Man since it was screened only once (as opposed to the dozens of times I watched their copy of Miss Congeniality, a movie I can recite backwards and forwards, much to my own embarrassment). I have to admit, Iron Man didn’t leave much of an impression on me at the time, but after nearly a decade to get over my sophomoric and hormone­-addled (if well­-founded and still totally justified) feelings about Civil War, I found this viewing to be much more enjoyable, even if it errs on the side of disbelief a bit too often.

By the way, has this review seemed a little overly political to you? That’s intentional. Iron Man is a strange movie in the way that it is paradoxically both steeped in and independent of the politics of 2008, especially with regards to the othered “foreign” antagonists. White businessman Obadiah Stane and his vaguely country accent have a clear narrative arc: Stane likes money, and he wants to keep making money, and if he has to play both sides to keep raking in the dough, he has no moral or ethical qualms about doing so. The motivations of the vaguely Middle Eastern group (who are obviously modeled after Al Qaeda but have an English language group name and live in an unnamed desert country) are never explained and implicitly irrelevant. The script takes great pains to dance around the word “terrorist” when discussing the Ten Rings, instead opting for “warlord,” but it clearly utilizes visual rhetorical strategies to evoke that image. But to what end? Why are they rounding people up? Is Stane complicit in an ethnic genocide? A bloody border dispute? The film expects you not to think too hard about it, or anything else, for that matter, especially not matters of narrative convenience.

For instance, Stane confronts the leader of the terrori—I mean, the Ten Rings, and obtains the suit Tony built “in a cave(!) with a box of scraps(!)”; in the next, Pepper visits Tony and he asks her to go to Stark Industries and steal files using his magic flash drive; in the very next scene, Pepper finds plans for a finalized Iron Monger suit on the desktop before Stane walks in. Everything that happens off-­screen happens instantly. It’s so ridiculous that it would be insulting if the film didn’t make up for its inadequacies by being so much fun. The intermix of horror tropes that seem to come out of nowhere (in the scene of Tony’s escape at the end of Act I, and when Pepper is startled by Stane in the Monger suit, for instance) somehow don’t feel tonally inconsistent, and there are scenes that are, frankly, exhilarating; in fact, I think the fighter jet set piece is probably one of the best sequences that Marvel has done to date, and easily out-paces the finale. A lot of that fun comes from the tightness and polish to the script, which reads like an exemplary if basic lesson in successful planting­-and­-payoff, with regards to things like high-­altitude freezing points, magic nuclear pacemakers, and the sonic paralyzer (I have no idea if that device has an actual name). It’s easy to go along for the ride if you can accept it for what it is: a comic book movie.

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onehalfstar­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­

Brandon: Full disclosure: A large part of the reason I’ve been avoiding catching up with the dozen or so MCU movies & TV shows I haven’t bothered with is my distaste for Robert Downey Jr.’s Iron Man. The four hours I’ve spent with the character in the two Avengers films has been more than I would’ve ever asked for. He just hits this annoying little anti-hero sweet spot that always gets on my nerves: the “lovable” jerk. The philosophical opposite of characters like Kenny Powers & BoJack Horseman, who ruin everything they touch, the lovable jerk is a character you’re supposed to celebrate for their asshole tendencies. If you want a concrete example just look to just about any character Vince Vaughn has played since Old School. Or, better yet, look to Tony Stark, a womanizing drunk whose reformed bad boy act is never quite as convincing as his grotesquely egotistical beginnings.

I’m admitting to all of this prejudice early because it was highly unlikely that I was ever going to be able to get on Jon Favreau’s Iron Man‘s wavelength. As soon as the dad rock licks of AC/DC play Tony Stark into the frame so he can crack smarmy, chauvinistic jokes in the back of a limousine in the film’s opening scene my worst fears about Iron Man were confirmed  & the next two hours left me with the distinct feeling of taking my medicine so that I can enjoy better MCU titles down the line. Everything from the stewardess-banging to the US-Iraq War context to the throwaway transphobic joke in the airplane hangar to Stark’s horrific Guy Fieri sunglasses & facial hair combo were huge turn-offs for me. By the time our hero suffers the irony of being attacked with the very weapons he pushed as an arms dealer & gets the liberal bug, all of a sudden super stoked about renewable energy sources instead of getting laid, it registers as too little too late. Too much of the film reads as a being-a-rich-dick fantasy fulfillment for me to focus on anything else.

Speaking of which, I’ve  been so wrapped up in ranting about Iron Man’s Lifestyles of the Rich & Douchey aspects that I forgot to mention that it’s also a superhero movie. The few elements of Iron Man I appreciated were distinctly non-Tony Stark related. Jeff Bridges was deliciously evil & barely recognizable in his role as the film’s Big Bad, who was giving off an unignorable daddy bear vibe (especially in a bedtime Skype session). Gwenyth Paltrow had a gloriously uncomfortable surgery scene that has inspired a new fetish in me: chest-fisting. I also liked a good deal of the film’s gadgetry, especially J.A.R.V.I.S. the sassy robot, the car battery heart Stark carries around like a lunch box, and the crude Iron Man suit prototype he builds in a terrorist cave to take advantage of the gullibility of his unintelligent brown people captors (ugh). And, you know, there’s always plenty of mindles surface pleasures to be found in watching two dudes in mech suits fighting it out. By the end of the film, even the flying-through-the-air superhero antics were exhausting to me, though, especially in the relentless suiting up montages & the empty spectacle of the climactic battle.

I’m promising myself & anyone else who’s interested that I’ll be more open-minded about future MCU outings, especially since the select few I’ve already seen (the two Avengers films, Ant-Man, and Guardians of the Galaxy) were all very enjoyable, Tony Stark content notwithstanding. I just couldn’t commit to what Iron Man was selling me & I expect that it’ll probably stand as one of my least favorite entries in the MCU franchise. I also suspect that it’s probably a crowd favorite among George W Bush & his supporters, since it feels distinctly tied to the tail end of their era of American thinking.

Lagniappe

Boomer: As to where Iron Man fits into the rest of the MCU, I have to say it’s a pretty good place to launch, and it was probably a smart decision to focus the first Marvel pic on an entirely human character whose gimmick is combining wealth and mechanical genius, rather than going straight for the Norse gods, sentient robots, and super soldiers. Regarding plots left to unfold, I think the fact that this film was only responsible for sowing a few seeds of the larger universe contributed to the movie’s more laid­back feeling. As someone who spent his childhood obsessing over Star Trek and his adolescence reading comics and Kurt Vonnegut books, I’m used to the idea of maintaining an elaborate, intersectional fictional universe in my head; I don’t generally think too much about accessibility, but, looking back, Iron Man is refreshing in its simplicity in this regard. S.H.I.E.L.D. is present throughout but only tangentially, with the first appearances of fan favorite Phil Coulson and Nick Fury’s post­-credits scene comprising the organization’s entire role in the plot. It actually made me a little nostalgic for the early days of the MCU, when things were less complicated and not all villainy had to link back to Hydra somehow. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Brandon: When I was watching Jessica Jones last month I found nearly every element of the series enjoyable except for its gestures to tie itself into the MCU at large. Fans already tuned into the MCU were likely tickled by offhand references to the Hulk & the loose ends of Luke Cage’s storyline, but I found they were mostly wasted efforts, weakening some of the the series’ strengths as a self-contained property. Iron Man’s Nick Fury & S.H.I.E.L.D. nods work sort of in the same way. I get the feeling that the MCU’s formula is going to play out the same way as pro wrestling or soap operas or, hell, comic books: always promising to deliver on the next spectacle instead of focusing all efforts on the task at hand. I’m not entirely opposed to letting the story arcs build toward a larger goal, but as a moviegoer unfamiliar with the comic book source material, it can be a little frustrating to not know where this whole thing is going or if it even has a final destination to begin with.

Combined S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. Rating for Iron Man (2008)

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twohalfstar

-Agents of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X.

Seventh Son (2015)

witch

three star

campstamp

Okay, here’s the thing: Seventh Son is a bad movie. It’s just awful. It’s already been called “staggeringly bad” “a creative miscarriage”, “a quickly forgotten pile of junk”, and maybe “the worst movie of the year”. I’m not arguing with any of those assessments. They’re true enough. I’ll even back up the complaints that the bland, medieval fantasy epic is even politically regressive. Indeed, its main plot involves two white men beating up & setting fire to the movie’s only female & POC-cast characters, who are all invariably evil. So, yeah. Seventh Son is a bad movie in almost all ways you can mean that phrase.

That doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy it. It’s a mind-numbingly dumb & old-fashioned attempt at establishing a franchise (à la I, Frankenstein & Dracula Untold), but I honestly found the blatantly simple-minded picture kinda low-key entertaining. Watching a drunken, wizardly Jeff Bridges battle a half Dragon/half Disney villain Julianne Moore was lizard-brain cool enough to forgive almost any cliché plot points or b.s. franchise ambitions for me. This is the kind of fantasy realm nonsense that is overstuffed with dragons, blood moons, witches, ghosts, evil queens, ogres, and haunted forests. Better yet, it’s overstuffed with laughable scenery-chewing from two actually-great actors redefining what slumming it truly means. Jeff Bridges mumbling wizardly nonsense and a metal-clawed Julianne Moore cooing commands like, “Help yourself to the blood cakes, little one” were enough to make me glad that I gave the movie a shot despite it’s (well-deserved) awful reputation.

I’m not saying that you should support Seventh Son with your hard-earned dollars or even give it a chance when it’s streaming for free. I’d just be lying if I said I hated it. It’s a laughable failure of a film that won me over by laughter more than it lost me with its failure, especially in the final minutes when it promises (threatens?) a sequel that most certainly ain’t coming. Thankfully.

-Brandon Ledet