WandaVision

STREAMING REVIEW: 

Disney+/Marvel;
Sci-Fi/Fantasy;
Not rated;
Stars Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany, Kathryn Hahn, Teyonah Parris, Randall Park, Kat Dennings, Josh Stamberg, Julian Hilliard, Jett Klyne, Evan Peters.

The way it plays out, WandaVision could leave viewers both glad to welcome the return of the Marvel Cinematic Universe after a year-and-a-half hiatus, and cautiously optimistic about its future following the events of Avengers: Endgame.

However, it’s definitely a fitting choice for Marvel Studios’ first direct foray into television with MCU content (previous shows such as Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. and the Netflix “Defenders” group were supposedly set in the MCU as well, but they were produced by a different studio division and their canon-status has fallen into doubt).

Due to the pandemic, the last MCU release before this was Spider-Man: Far From Home in July 2019. Since then, Marvel has been preparing a slate of Disney+ shows, but its schedule has been rearranged a bit, most notably the delay of the Black Widow movie for more than a year.

Thus it is that “Phase Four” of the MCU kicks off with WandaVision on the small screen.

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WandaVision embraces its television origins, as several episodes pay homage to classic sitcoms of the past. Right off the bat, viewers are treated to what sounds like a typical 1950s family sitcom theme song, revealing that Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) and The Vision (Paul Bettany) of the Avengers are now married and moving into a house in the suburbs. This of course raises many questions, as Vision died in Avengers: Infinity War.

In fact, the first three episodes are devoted to parodying the sitcom format, from the 1950s in episode one, to the 1960s in episode two, and the 1970s in episode three, complete with bespoke title tunes and elaborate credit sequences. There are hints of the outside world trying to break into whatever reality we’re watching before we finally get a sense of what’s happening in episode four. It’s a slow burn, but worth it. Heck, the stylings of classic TV should be enough of a draw, especially for viewers who enjoy identifying all the tropes on display and guessing where the show’s creators drew inspiration. My favorite is the 1980s-style in episode five, particularly the pitch-perfect ’80s-style theme song.

For the rest of the nine episodes, the limited series slips back and forth between TV parody and the outside world trying to figure out why an energy field has turned a small town in New Jersey into an evolving sitcom. The team trying to figure things out involves a number of established MCU characters, from Randall Park as FBI Agent Jimmy Woo from Ant-Man and The Wasp, to Kat Dennings as Darcy Lewis from the “Thor” movies, and Teyonah Parris as the grown up Monica Rambeau from Captain Marvel.

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The show will likely take a few rewatches for fans to truly appreciate it, especially when placed in the context of the future movies and TV shows it sets up. Some mixed reaction after its finale probably stems from the usual debate over releasing streaming shows for bingeing or week-to-week. As with all its shows, Disney+ released WandaVision as a weekly over the course of two months, allowing the mystery to build up and the audiences questions to mount as so many plot twists and revelations episode-to-episode fueled fan speculation about what was going on and who the new characters would turn out to be. Given the rabid expectations that had been built up for the ending, what turns out to be a low-key finale may not have sated the appetites of hardcore fans, and leaves a few questions hanging. Maybe they will be addressed when this story supposedly picks up in the next “Spider-Man” and “Doctor Strange” movies over the next couple of years. Maybe not. But there is no doubt that the show’s craftsmanship is impeccable.

I suspect those bingeing WandaVision going forward will not have the same issues with the slow buildup, since they won’t be waiting the whole week for answers, and the show will play more like a five-hour movie.

Still, the show is a trove of references to previous MCU movies involving Wanda and Vision, and the comics on which they are based. The performances are uniformly excellent, particularly Elizabeth Olsen as the heart of the series, both the sitcoms that seem built around her and WandaVision itself. She does a great job playing to each period while also bringing depth to her character at those times when the illusions are broken, as Wanda starts to learn the true limits of her powers, which may not have originated from where the audience has been led to believe. 

Kathryn Hahn is a delight as Agnes, Wanda’s nosy neighbor who keeps popping up and opportune times and turns out to be more important to Wanda’s fake reality than it seems. And Evan Peters, who played the “X-Men” movies version of the speedster Quicksilver, Wanda’s brother (played by Aaron Taylor-Johnson in the MCU) provides what could have been Marvel’s most meta cameo ever had the show pushed the implications of it to their natural storytelling conclusions rather than walking it back a bit with subsequent revelations.

And then there’s Paul Bettany, the veteran character actor who took on a small voiceover role as Tony Stark’s computer system in the original Iron Man, which blossomed into one of the key characters on the Avengers, to the strange but satisfying offbeat superhero love story of WandaVision. It just goes to show you never know where the smallest decisions could lead when you’re making it up as you go along. But that’s the kind of thing the MCU excels at, constantly.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

BLU-RAY REVIEW: 

Street Date 3/19/19;
Sony Pictures;
Animated;
Box Office $189.87 million;
$30.99 DVD, $38.99 Blu-ray, $45.99 UHD BD;
Rated ‘PG’ for frenetic sequences of animated action violence, thematic elements, and mild language.
Voices of Shameik Moore, Jake Johnson, Hailee Steinfeld, Mahershala Ali, Brian Tyree Henry, Lily Tomlin, Luna Lauren Velez, Zoë Kravitz, John Mulaney, Kimiko Glenn, Nicolas Cage, Kathryn Hahn, Liev Schreiber, Chris Pine.

One of the Holy Grails of adapting a comic book to film is the idea of evoking the feeling of reading a comic while watching the story play out. Filmmakers have tried different techniques over the years to achieve this, such as brighter colors or hyper-stylized action, to varying effect, with the best results often focusing on just telling the story in a way that brings the spirit of the work into a different medium.

Animation would seem to be closer to the artistic foundations of comic books, but often present challenges of their own.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is probably the closest a movie has come to finding that sweet spot between telling a comic book story while immersing the viewer in the fantastic art that is often unique to the panel-to-panel format.

Its innovative animation style, layering hand-drawn animation over CGI, combined with a thrilling story of self-discovery are just a few of the reasons Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse won the Oscar for Best Animated Feature at the 91st Academy Awards.

The film is a deft blending of self-parody with an ambitious attempt by Sony Pictures to explore new aspects of the Spider-Man concept while the live-action version of the character is on loan to Marvel Studios.

In particular, the film is an adaptation of the Miles Morales version of the character, a mixed-race teenager who gains the powers of Spider-Man in an alternate reality in which Peter Parker is killed.

In the film, Miles (voiced by Shameik Moore), stumbles upon a plot by the villainous gangster Kingpin (Live Schreiber) to open a portal into alternate dimensions in search of replacement versions of his recently deceased wife and son. The plan goes awry when versions of Spider-Man from a variety of realities began to appear, and they team up to help Miles learn how to control his new powers and figure out how to return home before Kingpin’s machine damages the multiverse.

The alternate versions of Spider-Man really let the creative team shine with the parody aspects of the film by introducing characters in a variety of styles. There’s a late-30s Spider-Man (Jake Johnson) who has become depressed after years of being a hero has left his personal life in shambles; there’s Spider-Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld), a teenage girl version of Spidey; there’s Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage), a black-and-white private detective from the 1930s; there’s an anime version involving a little girl and her pet robot from the future; and there’s Spider-Ham (John Mulaney), essentially Porky Pig in a Spider-Man costume.

The combination of the various versions offers not only some of the best laughs ever to be had with a superhero movie, but make for a terrific tribute to what has made Spider-Man such an iconic character over the years. There’s also a post-credits sequence that really takes it up a notch in that regard.

It’s enough to thrill longtime fans of the character, particularly the Miles Morales version, while providing enough nods to the aspects of the mythology that most average viewers would already be familiar with so as not to need to be an avid comics reader to follow along.

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The Blu-ray is loaded with a ton of bonus material, including the new animated short “Spider-Ham: Caught in a Ham,” which serves as a prequel to the film in showing us a Spider-Ham adventure that was interrupted when he gets pulled into Miles’ reality.

In addition, there’s an “Alternate Universe Mode” for the movie in which some scenes are replaced with storyboards of earlier concepts, as a way for the filmmakers to ponder how the film could have turned out. It runs about 26 minutes longer than the theatrical cut (which comes in at 117 minutes) and even starts with the Spider-Ham short.

The regular version of the film includes a commentary with the filmmakers, which is a nice guide to how the various creative decisions evolved to get to the final movie, including casting decisions and the re-imagining of certain well-known characters.

Many of the topics are covered in specific featurettes as well.

The eight-minute “We Are Spider-Man” examines the key messages of the film, while the five-minute “Spider-Verse: A New Dimension” deals with the animation style and techniques for adapting the comics.

The 15-minute “The Ultimate Comics Cast” showcases the actors involved in the film and what makes them such a good fit for their characters. The two-part “Designing Cinematic Comics Characters” offers an eight-minute look at the design of the heroes, and five-minutes devoted to the creation of the villains.

“The Spider-Verse Super-Fan Easter Egg Challenge” is a five-minute video that points out some of the references hidden throughout the film, while inviting viewers to look for more.

There’s also the eight-and-a-half-minute “A Tribute to Stan Lee & Steve Ditko,” the co-creators of Spider-Man who both passed away in 2018. Stan Lee recorded one of his famous cameos for the film.

Finally, the disc includes music lyric videos for two songs, “Sunflower” and “Familia.”

There are also some digital-exclusive bonus featurettes. The three-minute “Another, Another Times Square” provides a primer on the concept of alternate realities, the minute-and-a-half “Meanwhile, in a Gassy Universe” is a juvenile montage of various clips from the film with dialogue replaced by fart sounds (no doubt the work of Spider-Ham).

Vudu has a minute-long “An All-Star Cast” promotional video, while Movies Anywhere provides videos for how to draw Miles and Gwen, about three minutes for each character.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Animated ‘Hotel Transylvania 3’ to Haunt Fans on Digital Sept. 25, Disc Oct. 9 From Sony

The animated Hotel Transylvania 3 will make its debut on Digital HD Sept. 25, and on Blu-ray Combo Pack and DVD Oct. 9 from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.

The family comedy has grossed more than $425 million in theaters worldwide.

In the third installment in the series, Mavis surprises Dracula with a family voyage on a luxury, haunted monster cruise ship. The unexpected happens when Drac falls for the ship’s human captain Ericka.

The voice cast includes Adam Sandler (Grown-Ups), Andy Samberg (TV’s “Brooklyn Nine-Nine”), Selena Gomez (Spring Breakers), Kevin James (Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2), David Spade (TV’s “Rules of Engagement”), Steve Buscemi (TV’s “Boardwalk Empire”), Keegan Michael Key (TV’s “Key and Peele”), Molly Shannon (TV’s “Saturday Night Live”), Fran Drescher (TV’s “The Nanny”), Kathryn Hahn (Bad Moms), Jim Gaffigan (Super Troopers 2) and Mel Brooks (Young Frankenstein).

Bonus materials include three sing alongs, “Dennis Had a Giant Dog,” sung by Dennis & Winnie, “Monsters Like to Party Down,” sung by Johnny, and “Oh These Wolf Pups,” sung by Wanda Werewolf; the featurette “Plan Your Own Spook-tacular Sleepover,” with details on snacks to crafts to games; a “Vampire Make Over: Mavis and Drac Tutorial,” about how to turn yourself into Hotel Transylvania 3 characters; “Behind the Screams – The Voices of Hotel Transylvania 3,” showing how the characters are brought to life in the recording booth; “Johnny’s Home Movies (Franchise Recap)”; “I See Love Monster Dance Party Dance Along”; “Drac’s Zing-tastic Read Along”; and two mini movies, “Puppy and “Goodnight Mr. Foot.”

‘The Romanoffs’ to Debut Oct. 12 on Amazon Prime

Amazon Prime Video announced the Oct. 12 premiere of “The Romanoffs” at the Television Critics Association Summer 2018 Press Tour over the weekend.

The SVOD service also released a new teaser revealing the line-up of guest stars featured in the series created, written, directed and executive produced by nine-time Emmy award winner Matthew Weiner (“Mad Men”).

“The Romanoffs” is a contemporary anthology series, set around the globe, featuring eight separate stories about people who believe themselves to be descendants of the Russian royal family. The series was shot on location on three continents and in seven countries collaborating with local productions and talent across Europe, the Americas, and the Far East, according to an Amazon release. Each story takes place in a new location with a new cast.

In addition to the previously announced cast, including Isabelle Huppert, Diane Lane, Christina Hendricks, Paul Reiser, Amanda Peet and John Slattery, Amazon announced guest stars, including Noah Wyle (“Falling Skies”), Kathryn Hahn (“Transparent”), Kerry Bishe (“Halt and Catch Fire”), Jay R. Ferguson (“Mad Men”), Ben Miles (“Collateral”), Mary Kay Place (“Big Love”), Griffin Dunne (“Imposters”), Cara Buono (“Mad Men”), Ron Livingston (The Conjuring), Clea DuVall (“Veep”), Radha Mitchell, (Silent Hill) and Hugh Skinner (Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again).

Lionsgate Releasing ‘Flower’ June 19

Lionsgate will release the coming-of-age comedy Flower on DVD June 19.

The film tells the story of an outspoken, rebellious teenage girl (Zoey Deutch) who conspires with her new stepbrother to expose the dark secret of a high school teacher (Adam Scott). Kathryn Hahn and Tim Heidecker also star.

The DVD will include an audio commentary with Deutch and director Max Winkler.

A Bad Moms Christmas

BLU-RAY REVIEW:

Street 2/6/18;
Universal;
Comedy;
Box Office $72.11 million;
$29.98 DVD, $34.98 Blu-ray;
Rated ‘R’ for crude sexual content and language throughout, and some drug use.
Stars Mila Kunis, Kristen Bell, Kathryn Hahn, Christine Baranski, Cheryl Hines, Susan Sarandon, Jay Hernandez, Justin Hartley, Peter Gallagher, Wanda Sykes.

With the popularity of 2016’s Bad Moms ($184 million worldwide box office against a $20 million budget) all but ensuring a sequel, the writer-director team of Jon Lucas and Scott Moore managed to have a follow-up produced and in theaters a bit over a year later. The quick turnaround is something of a throwback to the halcyon days of Hollywood, where quickie sequels were much easier to pull off.

Where the first film dealt with the rigors of balancing work, home and school, the sequel transplants the rowdy moms into a holiday setting, and cranks up the proverbial heat by bringing in their moms for a little added pressure.

I suppose the idea is to inform on what makes the core moms tick and possibly led them to snap in the first movie. While the story is driven by this newfound family angst, it often falls back on a string of sketches tied to family-related Christmas settings. The film offers a smattering of caricature and broad ruminations on the holiday season, with some gags that work better in concept than execution.

Christine Baranski in particular, as mom to Mila Kunis’ Amy, comes across like a less-intense version of Leonard’s mom from “The Big Bang Theory,” which may have been a primary reason they sought her out for this.

The best pairing is Susan Sarandon and Kathryn Hahn, if only because their characters are the ones with the fewest inhibitions — the apple not falling too far from the tree in that regard.

Fans of the raunchiness that set the original film apart need not worry, as the jokes are often as crude as they were in that one, if not more so.

Coincidentally, the same multigenerational premise was used for the guys in the Daddy’s Home sequel around the same time, with similar results.

The Blu-ray is rather sparse in its extras, offering a seven-minute gag reel, four minutes of alternate takes and a two-and-a-half-minute music video featuring the production crew dancing along to an R&B holiday song used in the film.