Marvel Madness & Mediocrity: June ’16 in Film

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Throughout June, I decided to embark upon a bit of an unusual challenge, especially for me. With the exception of a few, I had never seen any of the major films from the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Throughout June and with the help of my partner, a life-long Marvel fanatic, I had given myself the task of completing them all in order. If you’re intrigued by this and assume that it’s not within my usual tastes, you’re absolutely correct – in fact, I’ve mostly been watching all of these out of necessity and not always because I want to. It’s no lie that the MCU has exploded to become one of the largest working franchises today, and I mainly wanted to explore the films just to see what all the fuss is about. Since I never really got into comics until fairly recently, this was also my introduction to a lot of the Marvel world in general, including various characters and their backstories. While it has not exactly been the most fulfilling journey and while there are still a few I need to get around to, it is pretty nice to finally be able to engage with a lot of conversations had amongst my peers. In other words, it’s just another baby-step closer to not feeling so out-of-touch with today’s popular culture!

That’s pretty much the main film-related thing that’s been going on. I’ve also been watching a lot of TV this past month, including both cartoons (mainly with watch-throughs of classic episodes of AnimaniacsRugratsSpeed RacerSouth Park, Adventure Time, and various anime) and live-action shows (I finally started Orange is the New Black! As well as EmpirePreacher, and Lady Dynamite). I’m still nowhere near caught-up with many more modern shows like Game of Thrones and… well, I guess just that one. To be fair, I have been boycotting the show since last season’s terrible rape plot device, but the general air of positivity over this past season seems promising enough to hop back on. Maybe July will also be the month I finally watch past season 4 of Community!

Finally, June was the month I actually got back into novels. While I initially made it a goal to read 100(!) books this month, an observation of my reading habits made me quickly realize that this may not be very realistic. Now, I’m more intent on going at my own pace to take in as much of whatever I’m reading as possible. In June, I read Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt, which, as my first Highsmith novel, made me immediately fall in love with her delicate, detail-obsessed prose. I also read J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, which I somehow went my entire life without ever getting around to. The truth is, I loved it a whole lot, particularly for the author’s interpretation of innocence lost and identity shifted through the lens of a painfully lonely child. I can’t wait to read more from both of these writers.

Without further ado, here is the full list of what I watched in June. As always, asterisks indicate rewatches.

  1. Captain America: The First Avenger (Johnston, 2011)
  2. The Incredible Hulk (Leterrier, 2008)
  3. Iron Man (Favreau, 2008)
  4. Thor (Branagh, 2011)
  5. Iron Man 2 (Favreau, 2010)
  6. Boogie Nights (Anderson, 1997)*
  7. The Watermelon Woman (Dunye, 1996)
  8. Drugstore Cowboy (Van Sant, 1989)
  9. Pacific Rim (Del Toro, 2013)*
  10. The Amazing Spider-Man (Webb, 2012)
  11. Safe (Haynes, 1995)
  12. Yentl (Streisand, 1983)
  13. The Puffy Chair (Duplass & Duplass, 2005)
  14. Still Alice (Glatzer & Westmoreland, 2014)
  15. Fallen (a.k.a. Fallen) (Albert, 2006)
  16. Love (Noé, 2015)
  17. A Fish Called Wanda (Crichton, 1988)*
  18. Yeopgijeogin geunyeo (My Sassy Girl) (Kwak, 2001)
  19. Mind Game (Yuasa, 2004)
  20. The Avengers (Whedon, 2012)*
  21. The Hitch-Hiker (Lupino, 1953)
  22. Valley of the Dolls (Robson, 1967)
  23. Thor: The Dark World (Taylor, 2013)
  24. Wake in Fright (Kotcheff, 1971)
  25. Rabid (Cronenberg, 1977)
  26. Fury (Ayer, 2014)
  27. Tickled (Farrier & Reeve, 2016)
  28. Iron Man 3 (Black, 2013)
  29. John Wick (Stahelski & Leitch, 2014)
  30. 3 Women (Altman, 1977)
  31. Stitches (McMahon, 2012)
  32. Keanu (Atencio, 2016)
  33. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (Russo & Russo, 2014)
  34. Nacho Libre (Hess, 2006)
  35. How to Be Single (Ditter, 2016)
  36. Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping (Schaffer & Taccone, 2016)

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If I had to choose a favorite origin story from the mindless mess of superheroes that is Marvel, Captain America’s would probably be it. I started this challenge by watching First Avenger, since it comes first chronologically. It was pretty cool seeing the origins of this character from the ground up, from his humble beginnings to his embarking into the Captain America persona. While I’m not feeling the humor and wasn’t as immersed in the plot as I would have liked, the film as a whole is well-paced and backed by a troupe of surprisingly sharp performances. It’s silly, yes, but I can’t say I was bored. I won’t be fanpersoning over this series (or any of them, for that matter) anytime soon, but it still makes for an enjoyable, fun start to the franchise.

Now, choosing a favorite of the lead characters is another story. I’ve never been a fan of the typical superhero narrative and, thus, don’t really find any of these super-beings very charming. Thor, Black Widow, and Star-Lord are especially boring. Yet, although I’m not really a fan of his origin story or really any of the driving plots of his films in general, Tony Stark/Iron Man is probably my go-to. This was made especially clear in Iron Man 3, where his character became the most well-rounded, his trauma-induced flaws really shining through and giving him a shockingly human edge. I give much credit for this to Shane Black’s writing and directing; although I’ve only ever seen The Nice Guys prior to this film, his biting comedic style works surprisingly well through this context. Still, this doesn’t size up to the love I have for Thor‘s Loki as a favorite character in the MCU as a whole. Even though those films are boring as sin, it’s always a treat to watch Tom Hiddleston brilliantly out-perform everyone else in his vicinity.

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There was a full week in June during which I came down with a debilitating episode of anxiety and intense depression. I cried all the time and it took a tremendous amount of energy to even leave bed during the worst of it. I called out sick from work most days and only worked about two shifts that week. It was an awful episode and it feels awful just reminiscing on it now. During that time, I did what I usually do to try to shake me out of these funks: watch copious amounts of movies and TV. While most of what I watched didn’t leave much of an impression on me, my viewing of Todd Hayne’s Safe was just what I needed during this time. Though an obvious allegory of the AIDS crisis, Julianne Moore’s descent into an environmental sickness – directed brilliantly by Haynes – felt way too real and I was completely enamored from beginning to end. The atmosphere is thickly coated in ennui and the claustrophobic feeling I got from the film’s sterilized cinematography mimicked the similar sense of suffocation that being mentally ill and trapped indoors gave me. It’s set up almost like a straight-up horror (bits of it felt dangerously close to early Cronenberg), yet I felt weirdly comforted with its languid pace and sumptuous imagery. I’m embarrassingly behind on catching up with Todd Haynes’ work, and this film just solidifies the fact that I should make this a priority.

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I faltered a bit on my 52 films by women goal this past month. Well, I did manage to watch four films by female directors, which keeps up with the movie-a-week pace I want to upkeep, but it’s saddled with the knowledge that I’d done much better in previous months. But I won’t beat myself up over it! At last, I got around to watching Cheryl Dunye’s lesbian classic The Watermelon Woman, which I had been holding off on due to complications with my library making it available. Nonetheless, it turned out to be one of the most straight-up fulfilling films I’d watched in a long time. I will admit though, I assumed the titular Watermelon Woman of the protagonist’s interest was a real person and that the film was a partial documentary instead of a completely narrative feature. It wasn’t until I read up about the movie afterwards did I realize that it was totally fictional. But this only makes me admire the film even more, with Dunye’s creative efforts to create her own kind of history for the community to which she belongs and which has been largely left in the dust for generations. It’s a truly marvelous film, made even more so with its DIY-style format and a general love and appreciation for queer women not normally seen in mainstream media.

I also watched Barbra Streisand’s directorial debut Yentl. As a musical, it didn’t do much for me, but I was mostly intrigued by Streisand’s attempt to examine gender roles and the privilege of traditional education. Barbara Albert’s film Falling/Fallen is also pretty neat; although I didn’t love it, the concept of estranged friends coming together for a funeral drew me in and the loving portrayal of female friendship and solidarity kept me watching. Finally, I watched my first film fro Ida Lupino, The Hitch-Hiker. While it hasn’t aged perfectly, it still is a very solid noir with sharp performances and I plan on checking out more of her stuff in the future.

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I don’t know why I keep putting myself through this crap. Begrudgingly, my curiosity got the very best of me and I watched Gaspar Noé’s latest controversy Love. Needless to say, it wasn’t for me. I’ve come to conclude that Noé really doesn’t have very much to say outside of his repetitive nihilism and he consistently covers up his teenage-boy-with-a-platform philosophies with overly stylistic, violently ugly, usual sexual imagery. With Love, the sex is piled on in an abundance. I’ve seen people say that Noé has succeeded in making porn a reputable art form again, but I personally find it all so reprehensible. Watching this film – all 130 minutes of it – was just such a tiresome experience and I’ve seen enough of Noé’s work to ensure that I won’t be finding anything of real value from this hack.

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In my attempt to discover popular media from other countries, I watched My Sassy Girl which is one of the highest-grossing Korean films of all time. It follows all the typical steps of the boy-meets-girl routine that we’ve all seen in so many other rom-coms. Frankly, if you’re going in expecting anything new and different, you’re only setting yourself up for disappointment. With that in mind, while there’s something that’s a bit off in its tone of humor, I never felt disinterested for one minute. By the final third, I was completely won over and really clung onto every emotional turn that the film takes – and there are a lot of those. There is an interesting twist at the end and while I’ve grown increasingly tired of gimmicky twist endings, this one is genuinely fulfilling. Not to mention the conclusion, which is just so sweet! I found this one charmingly adorable, if not perfect, and has made me interested in possibly checking out some Korean dramas in the future.

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I’ve put off Wake in Fright for many years for no particular reason, but I finally got to watch it in June. If there’s one word that could succinctly and accurately describe this film, “hellish” would be a fitting one. A schoolteacher with humble origins stumbles upon a rough town in the Australian outback, soon finds he cannot escape, and proceeds to embark further and further into his own personal realm of suffering. It’s relentless in its drunken intensity, facilitated by Brian West’s low-contrast cinematography, through which one could practically feel the oppressive summer heat. Unlike Noé’s nihilism, which is surface-level, Ted Kotcheff’s cynicism feels completely convincing and all too real, especially in scenes that depict alcohol as a numbing agent. This makes it a totally effective horror film, a trip through the madness that is the failed human condition.

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When I started watching Robert Altman’s 3 Women, I was immediately reminded of Safe. Although, the similarities probably just end at both of them being women-centered and having a remarkably similar color palette throughout. In any case, this has very quickly become a new favorite Altman of mine. Sissy Spacek and Shelley Duvall are excellent in their roles of two young women with a very tumultuous relationship. It’s a rather unusual bit of work for Altman, who tends to work best in sprawling, ensemble-driven narrative such as NashvilleMcMcabe & Mrs. Miller, and even The Player. Yet this film proves that he can also handle smaller, more delicate chamber dramas as well. I find it amazing how all three women, despite their differences and the numerous ways they tear each other down, manage to make peace and come together in the end through a sense of general understanding. It’s a lovely film and certainly deserving of a place amongst the best films of the 70s.

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