REVIEW: Avengers: Infinity War

1 08 2018

At some point during the seemingly interminable carousel of trailers prior to “Avengers: Infinity War,” a thought occurred to me: I should probably do a quick Google to see if there’s any information I need to know before the movie starts. I’d done the legwork of seeing the previous installments (“Thor: The Dark World” excepted because everyone tells me I didn’t miss much), but they linger in my system like a flat, lukewarm draft beer in a plastic cup. As Marvel click-chasing as the Internet is these days, there was plenty of service journalism on page one to fill me in.

The more I read, the more I saw information about infinity stones. What they were, who had them, what happened the last time we saw one. I’m not such a passive viewer that I had no concept of these whatsoever, but, to be honest, I had stopped giving them much thought a few years back. Infinity stones were like excess information from a high school history lecture – you have some vague sense that these tidbits might show up on the final but not enough to scare you into paying full attention.

Imagine showing up for the final and having it be only those bits of knowledge you considered superfluous. That’s “Avengers: Infinity War.”

The analogy actually doesn’t fully compute because it puts far too much responsibility on me, the audience member, for keeping up. Over the past five years, after correctly sensing the audience could sense Marvel’s formula, head honcho Kevin Feige implemented a new strategy to avoid brand complacency. He brought in accomplished directors with a real sense of style and personality – no offense to Favreau, Johnston and others who can clearly helm a solid studio action flick. A handful of rising talents got the chance to play with a massive toolbox to make largely personal films on nine-figure budgets. Better yet, they essentially got to treat these infinity stones like MacGuffins, items whose actual substance matters little since they serve to move the plot and provide a goal for the hero.

Think about these films from late phase two and early phase three, as the canonically-minded Marvel fans would say. James Gunn’s “Guardians of the Galaxy” films aren’t memorable because of their quest for Power Stone; they’ve endured because of the joyous rush of a stilted man-child who gets to live out his Han Solo fantasies to the tunes of his banging ’80s mix-tape. Ryan Coogler’s “Black Panther” has far more interesting things to say about black identity, heritage and responsibility than it does about the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Taika Waititi was still playing into the future of the studio’s master plan, yet he got to toss out much of what had been done with the God of Thunder in “Thor: Ragnarok” and cast him like the offbeat protagonists of his Kiwi comedies to find humor and heart where there had previously been little.

“Avengers: Infinity War” is a feature length “Well, actually…” from Marvel. The Russo Brothers are here to deliver the bad news that those infinity stones were actually the only thing that mattered the whole time. Silly you for thinking the studio cared about things like artistry and personality!

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REVIEW: Lean on Pete

29 07 2018

As I hit “publish” on this piece, “Lean on Pete,” one of 2018’s best releases, is available to stream on Amazon Prime. You should do so as soon as possible, provided your heart is open to being broken in the most artful and least sensational of ways.

The film stuck with me from the first time I saw it at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival. There, in my review for Slashfilm, I wrote:

Andrew Haigh’s Lean on Pete is a social realist drama of the highest order, combining the gentle pastoral touch of David Lynch’s The Straight Story with a probing sympathy for individuals on the edge of society recalling the best of the Dardenne brothers. There’s no armchair sociology here, just rich character observation steeped in a spirit of compassion. Haigh never veers into grandstanding “issues movie” territory or troubled youth drama. It’s just the story of an adolescent boy in need of the tiniest bit of permanence and security.

Without the slightest whiff of personification or anthropomorphism, a bond develops between Charley [the teenaged protagonist] and Lean on Pete [the titular horse], unlike the usual cinematic connection between boy and animal. The horse does not exist to teach Charley some lesson about himself or life. He’s an extension of Charley himself, an object onto which he can project some of the greatest aspirations he holds for an uncertain future. When he’s with Lean on Pete, Plummer’s smile is radiant enough to power all the stadium lights at the racetrack, which makes the slow disappearance of that grin even more devastating.”

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REVIEW: Ant-Man and the Wasp

9 07 2018

There’s been a recent trend in the last five years or so in superhero filmmaking where directors feel the need to say their movie is cut from a different cloth. It’s not only a blockbuster, it’s just dressed up like one. Whether it was “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” as a ’70s-style paranoid thriller or (my personal favorite) James Mangold’s “Logan” as “an Ozu film with mutants,” the implication is that being a superhero movie on its face is shameful – or not enough.

This long-winded intro is just a set up to say that Peyton Reed’s “Ant-Man and the Wasp” finds success by being something besides a Marvel, only that something is a type of film that actually meshes quite well with a super suit. It’s a Paul Rudd movie! The star, who also shares a co-writing credit on the film, infuses his charming, witty energy into all facets of the project. Before the self-aware smugness of “Deadpool” and the commercially-motivated universe building of “The Avengers,” comic book movies could be like this. (You know, eons ago … like 2008 with the first “Iron Man.”)

“Ant-Man and the Wasp” is wonderfully self-contained, driven less by the need to connect to some grand five-picture arc and more by the immediate concerns of the story. Rudd’s Scott Lang wants to be cleared from his house arrest following the events of “Captain America: Civil War,” yet the urgent call of duty with Michael Douglas’ Hank Pym and Evangeline Lilly’s Wasp threatens to undo years of his patience in exile. As with many of these films, the real joy is in their group banter – especially whenever Scott lacks the knowledge or information that his counterparts possess.

Reed ditches some of the “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids”-style cheekiness about size and scale that dominated the first “Ant-Man,” which might have been a holdover from Edgar Wright’s involvement with the series. The film compensates for the loss of that humor with more Rudd being Rudd, a welcome thing be it a Marvel movie or a David Wain romp. While it might not be enough to completely overcome a lackluster villain, relatively generic fight scenes, and total underuse of Michelle Pfeiffer, it’s still better than watching Marvel’s carousel of white guys named Chris play tough and moody. B





REVIEW: Leave No Trace

5 07 2018

There’s an overarching gentleness in Debra Granik’s “Leave No Trace,” one that’s commendable alone for being practically unrecognizable in today’s culture. The titular phrase does not quite encapsulate the writer/director’s approach to the film, but if her style took on human form, it would not audibly rustle any leaves in the sylvan setting. Even compared to Kelly Reichardt, another restrained humanist director working heavily in the Pacific Northwest, Granik’s naturalism pierces our senses by treading ever so lightly on them.

I knew little about this project or its origins before viewing it – always a wonderful luxury – was surprised to learn in the closing credits that Granik, along with her fellow Oscar-nominated co-writer of “Winter’s Bone,” Anne Rosellini, adapted the film from a novel. While “Leave No Trace” peers deeply into the souls of the two central characters, the film contains scarcely any of the psychological underpinnings necessary to keep a story alive on the page.

Ben Foster’s Will, a homeless veteran living with his daughter Tom (Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie) off the grid in Oregon, clearly carries some baggage to inspire such a drastic break with social norms. Yet Granik refuses to turn his internal anguish into fuel for the narrative. Will is not a mystery for us to solve. He simply is.

Granik seems to view her role as not to film these characters, stand off to the side, and ask why they do what they do. “Leave No Trace” is unobtrusive almost to the point of fault, letting the world of the film breathe, unfurling and concealing itself in equal measure. She relishes in the unhurried moments and languorous journeys without resorting to Slow Cinema tactics of deliberate, self-conscious audience alienation.

Foster tempers his usual wild man tendencies to vibrate along Granik’s wavelength here, and the contrast with something like “Hell or High Water” proves striking. But the film belongs to relative newcomer McKenzie, who captures the pains of maturation with an added layer of confusion stemming from years of social isolation. Granik never sensationalizes Tom watching peers take an endless stream of selfies or listening to girls at a foster home deride her previous lifestyle in the woods as being homeless. She doesn’t have to because McKenzie can express that wild rush of contradictory emotions in her wide, wondrous eyes and such searingly authentic gestures as the quivering of a chin. B





REVIEWS: RBG and Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

4 07 2018

For someone who struggled to get friends jazzed for documentaries a few years ago, it’s been nice to see two non-fiction features doing blockbuster numbers. Two biographical docs, Julie Cohen and Betsy West’s “RBG” along with Morgan Neville’s “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,” will gross whopping eight-figure sums. Netflix has certainly helped grease the skids by investing heavily in documentary content of many lengths and formats, but there seems to be something bigger at play here beyond just a small-screen effect.

Subjects Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Fred Rogers are, in many senses, miles apart. Ginsburg is a dyed-in-the-wool liberal who’s used her power to secure major victories for women’s rights, while Rogers was a social conservative and fairly prototypical Reagan Republican. Yet in their respective adulations this summer, I don’t see a blue state-red state divide – in fact, quite the opposite. Granted that one figure is significantly more political than the other, but both stand for something larger than party in a time where seemingly everything is partisan.

These members of the so-called Silent Generation were both crucial in giving voice to the concerns of groups ignored and dismissed by society. Because RBG fought for herself to have a seat at the table in a chauvinistic legal world, both in academia and in practice, she was able to use her power as a litigator and later Supreme Court Justice to fight vigorously for all women to receive an equal opportunity. Mr. Rogers, meanwhile, eschewed the priesthood to evangelize through the medium of television, then a pure entertainment delivery service which no one thought could work as a tool for education. By listening to children and telling them their thoughts and feelings mattered, Rogers inspired a generation of children (including me, who will tear up a little bit every time I hear the jingle).

Ginsburg and Rogers are both inspiring humanists who told women and children, respectively, that they were granted certain rights and dignities just by being themselves. Both believed so fervently in their causes and were so unwavering in their convictions that they inspired loyalty and friendship from unlikely corners. RBG was a traveling buddy with her ideological opposite on the court, Antonin Scalia, while Mr. Rogers maintained fond relationships with members of the cast and crew whose lifestyles were anathema to his own beliefs.

It’s interesting to consider, however, that while both were ascendant for most of their careers, their respective apexes never seemed to overlap. “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” was a perfect program for America in the twentieth century, when a surge in post-war optimism and affluence allowed the country to consider the needs and desires of children. While the show never shied away from tragedy, be it the RFK assassination or the Challenger explosion, the strength of America to stick together and overcome the sadness never felt in doubt.

The violent imagery of the attack on 9/11 shattered that patina of invincibility, and it wore on Mr. Rogers. The most heartbreaking moment of “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” comes towards the close when Neville shows behind-the-scenes footage of Rogers shooting PSAs for PBS in the wake of the tragedy. He offers touching, inspiring words, yet the reassurance present in four decades of his show feels totally absent. Had “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” continued into the new millennium, it seems unlikely that the jolly, comforting host would have felt honest.

Ginsburg, on the other hand, hit her stride in the past decade or so as her scathing dissents from the bench went viral. Her refusal to mince words in an era rife with prevarication and equivocation struck a chord with a younger generation. If society already places little value on the opinions of women, it places even less on the opinions of older women. RBG’s refusal to go quietly when she still has so much to say has made her an icon for the social media era. Funny enough, as Cohen and West point out, her outsized persona is at odds with her relatively quiet personality. (In other words, that Kate McKinnon impersonation – which the documentary shows RBG watching for the first time – is not accurate.)

While both “RBG” and “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” follow standard biographical documentary formats, they manage to overcome staleness by focusing as much on the ideas and virtues animating their subject. We see not just them but who they inspired – and how they did it. These films are both worthy and inspiring testaments to two great Americans.

RBG – B+ / 3stars
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? – A-





REVIEW: Custody

3 07 2018

“Custody” is a film I’ve spilled much virtual ink on, first on Vague Visages in a capsule review for its appearance in the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Rendez-Vous with French Cinema:

Xavier Legrand is not wasting a second of his time behind the camera. His first directorial outing, the short film “Just Before Losing Everything,” earned him an Oscar nomination. His second (and first feature), “Custody,” won the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival last fall. In an hour and a half, he packs a concentrated gut punch of tension and trauma as he chronicles the fallout of a divorce that has turned from bitter to septic. Though the first 15 minutes details a court proceeding between the dissolved couple, the rest of “Custody” puts the emphasis on how the separation affects their two children. Particularly when it comes to young Julien, Legrand exposes how kids can become just another pawn in the power games that exes play.

I also had the chance to sit down with Legrand himself in an interview for Slant. Our chat revealed a lot of intentionality behind what I recognized as a thoughtful take on domestic violence. “Custody” is more than just a violent man and a helpless woman, the image many works of pop culture conjure up when depicting the subject. The exchange below shows some of that:

The film does such a great job of showing how this divorce and relationship takes a toll on their children, particularly Julien, whose perspective is really explored in the middle of the film. Was that always going to be a focus—and if not, how did you decide to dig into that point of view?

The film is about domestic violence, but I think the real subject is how do children experience and move through this kind of situation. I don’t think it would work to make a film on domestic violence where we only try to understand the violence between partners. Doing that would allow us to forget that kids are also victims. In France, the expression we use is violence conjugal, which means “violence against partners.” In the United States, you use domestic violence, which I think is a more accurate term. It’s an error to differentiate between the partner and the parent. You have to include both.

Legrand also described the film as beginning like a courtroom drama in the mold of “Kramer vs. Kramer” only to end up as a terrifying thriller like “The Shining.” It’s an audacious and bold tonal swing, one that he completely earns and pulls off with no genre whiplash. See it, experience it, and consider it for yourself. B+





REVIEW: First Reformed

2 07 2018

I don’t have much to say about Paul Schrader’s “First Reformed” that I didn’t say in my rave review for Slashfilm out of TIFF last year. It’s currently sitting atop my best of the year list at the midway point of 2018, and it will take a mighty potent film to dethrone it by December. This is a film with an urgent, powerful message that resonates deeply with a world going mad that is also perfectly wedded to an austere visual style and overall aesthetic. It will be a long time before I shake this movie.

For more of my poetic language about the film, I’ll refer you to the aforementioned article. Here’s a sampling of what I wrote:

We’ve quietly entered a renaissance of master American filmmakers tackling religious subjects with the gravity, dignity and seriousness they deserve. Add Paul Schrader’s latest movie “First Reformed” to a growing list of modern masterpieces on faith through hardship that includes Martin Scorsese’s “Silence,” Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life,” the Coen Brothers’ “A Serious Man” and James Gray’s “The Immigrant.”

Schrader’s work stands out in this group, however, as the only one to take place in the present day. “First Reformed” is an essential parable for the Trump era about the role of the church in the most pressing moral and political issues facing our world. Through the tortured consciousness of Ethan Hawke’s Reverend Ernst Toller, a former military chaplain turned custodian of a historical Calvinist church, Schrader explores a country’s moral malaise and the seeming inability of mainline Christianity to mobilize against it.

[…]

“First Reformed” charts Toller’s turbulent internal journey, which heads to dark and disturbing corners of his mind, with an emotional reserve as chilly as the film’s wintry weather. None of this is surprising given Schrader’s well-documented affinity for directors such as Bresson and Dreyer, but the steadiness of this aesthetic rigor helps balance a film daring to ask some thorny questions about how actively religion should participate in the public square – as well as how much they should bring those issues into their churches. And Hawke, both deeply expressive and internal as Toller, adds a human spin on the issues to really drive them home.

Their combined efforts form a powerful challenge to Christians, without derision or condescension, to live up to their stated values and honor their sacred text. At the very least, apathy in the face of flagrant immoral and unjust deeds in the world should be taken off the table for any who take the time to thoughtfully engage with “First Reformed.”

A