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: Pain & Gain

20 06 2017

Michael Bay’s “Pain & Gain” features characters who misinterpret “The Godfather,” “Scarface” … and “Pretty Woman.” So is it any surprise that the film on the whole has no idea what it’s talking about when it comes to the American Dream? The concept gets so much lip service throughout that it becomes bludgeoning. Most high school juniors could write something more insightful from their American history classes alone.

Its idea of upward mobility is really just commodity fetishism and capitalistic greed masking itself as aspiration. With their synthetic, steroid-enhanced hardbodies, the would-be Robin Hoods of South Beach feel like Reaganite heroes washed up in the wrong era. Some elements of stealing from an undeserving, coddled elite have resonance in a post-Occupy world; as one gym rat puts it, “I don’t just want everything you have, I want you not to have it.” But the political considerations feel ancillary at best.

“Pain & Gain” is at its best when Bay just embraces the physical comedy of his bulky Goliaths. Some decent humor arises from their ignorance and impotence – as “swoll” as Mark Wahlberg’s Daniel Lugo and Dwayne Johnson’s Paul Doyle may be, their common sense as men is almost entirely absent. It’s too bad that screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, rather than standing outside and sizing them, choose to drop to their level and assume their intelligence level. C+





F.I.L.M. of the Week (February 23, 2017)

23 02 2017

I first saw Ryan Fleck’s “Half Nelson” a few years ago and, admittedly, was not impressed. Perhaps the film fell victim to high expectations. Critics and cinephiles put it on a pedestal for so long, citing Ryan Gosling’s Academy Award-nominated work as evidence that he amounted to more than just a Tumblr heartthrob. Yet I was unmoved.

For whatever reason, I decided to check it out again given Gosling’s recent Oscar nominated turn in “La La Land” – and a general reversal of fortune for his career altogether. Further inspection of “Half Nelson” reveals a remarkable two-sided performance that fully captures the actor’s versatility. From my early ’10s vantage point, I probably saw a reflection of what I consider Gosling’s worst tendencies: an exaggerated machismo where his smolder goes hand in hand with the stoicism. When contextualized within his films of that time – “Drive,” “The Ides of March,” “Gangster Squad,” “The Place Beyond the Pines,” “Only God Forgives” – the turn as a junior high history teacher who resolutely refuses intimacy and embraces drug needles feels like the genesis of a dour period.

But after the exuberance of “The Nice Guys” and “La La Land,” Gosling’s cheerier streak opened up another side of “Half Nelson” that now vaults into “F.I.L.M. of the Week” territory. His Dan Dunne has a streak of incorrigible impetuousness, particularly when digressing from the assigned curriculum to instruct with a more philosophical slant on the past. He projects such confidence when he dwells in his element, a fitting and necessary contrast to his moments of vulnerability to cocaine. Reconciling the highs with the lows presents a difficult task for any performer, and Gosling nailed it at just 26 years old. He’s also fortunate to create this character under the auspices of a thoughtful script from Fleck and Anna Boden, who avoid all the pratfalls of drug addict or other self-destructive protagonist narratives.





REVIEW: Captain America: Civil War

4 05 2016

Presidential election years lend themselves to multiplex seat philosophy, perhaps another subtle confirmation of the fact that even escapism is neither complete nor absolute. Especially in years without an incumbent in the running, the culture of the present tense takes on the status of relic with stunning immediacy. As we see the contours of how future generations will remember the era, it gets easier to place a movie within its particular historical framework.

So what is the status of the superhero movie towards the end of the Age of Obama? Look no further than “Captain America: Civil War,” a film far more intriguing for its wide-ranging implications than anything on screen. (Ok, maybe those Spider-Man scenes got me interested in the character again.) It serves the same big budget movie of the moment role that 2008’s “The Dark Knight” played for the Bush era, both smashing the box office and setting the conversation.

Nearly four years ago, The New York Times’ critics A.O. Scott and Manohla Darghis described Marvel’s 2012 “The Avengers” as a tale about the triumph of community organizing in their piece “Movies in the Age of Obama.” Now, “Captain America: Civil War” feels like the response to four years of gridlock and bitter internal divides. Along with “Batman v Superman,” the big trend among 2016 tentpole features appears to be fighting the enemies within our gates as opposed to outside our borders.

At least this rupture among the Avengers crew was a plot development they adequately presaged in their recent plot build-up. (Yes, that was shade at DC. No, I am not being paid by Marvel to write good things.) After many a global escapade causing mass mayhem and destruction, the superheroes finally face accountability from an international governmental body. Roughly half the group believes submitting to authority is a worthy idea, while the others wish to retain autonomy even it means being called vigilantes by the public as a whole.

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REVIEW: Captain America: The Winter Soldier

2 05 2016

At its core, “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is very much a political thriller. The film concluded production around the time of the Edward Snowden leaks, so any correlation between the two would have been primarily atmospheric in the editing bay. But the nods of screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely to the kind of political unrest and institutional mistrust of the 1970s feels totally applicable to the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s SHIELD and Hydra, themselves proxies for the present day surveillance state.

The good news for audiences is that this kind of smart throwback is attached to a Marvel movie. The bad news, though, is that the movie still has to be a “Marvel movie.”

Every time the film starts developing its ideas or delving into the ramifications, it has to start hitting the predictable comic book movie beats. The need to have a big action set piece every 25-30 minutes ultimately becomes oppressive and counterproductive to the film’s intelligent ambitions. Though the sequel bears the subtitle “Civil War,” the name seems as applicable to that film’s content as it does to the form of “The Winter Soldier.”

Directors Anthony and Joe Russo struggle against the Marvel formula to interesting and more thoroughly entertaining effects. They fail to break the mold, however. The real auteur of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is Kevin Feige, the company’s president. What is commercial will likely continue to prevail over what is artistic or iconoclastic. Looking at the numbers, sadly, can anyone blame him? B-2stars





REVIEW: Triple 9

7 03 2016

John Hillcoat’s “Triple 9” makes for quintessential tough cinema – and in more ways than one. It’s hard-edged in content as a brutal crime plot breaks out in the Atlanta underworld but also somewhat tough in form; Matt Cook’s screenplay proves challenging to follow as more than broad strokes on many occasions. The sprawling tale of interwoven cops, criminals and robbers weaves a complicated web of characters.

Yet while the lack of numerous balls juggled during “Triple 9” are somewhat of a liability, they also become a strength when events take a brutally ironic turn in the second half. The film becomes almost like a classic piece of Russian literature with its cruel reversals of fate, though Cook somewhat overloads the dramatic irony by having characters mull over the impossible “coincidence” time and again. With lightly sketched characters, they become less like people and more akin to pieces to form an allegory about humanity as a whole.

Even without much in the way of characterization, the actors still shine through, namely Casey Affleck as the film’s de facto moral center, officer Chris Allen. (Others, like Aaron Paul and Kate Winslet, play up glorified caricatures.) Meanwhile, editor Dylan Tichenor, the man who cut masterpieces as varied as “Boogie Nights” and “Zero Dark Thirty,” provides excellent tension as Allen falls into the crosshairs of cops who serve the local Russian mafia bosses. The two of them almost manage to turn the film into a Coen-esque spin on a tale like “The Departed.” But even a watered-down version of that idyllic fantasy film would be worth watching – as “Triple 9” is, too. B2halfstars





REVIEW: Our Brand Is Crisis

21 02 2016

Admittedly, the circumstances under which I saw David Gordon Green’s “Our Brand Is Crisis” might have exerted a particularly strong influence on my reaction. Had I gone to see it in theaters back in October, I could have done so with the luxury of writing off the candidacy of Donald Trump as a political sideshow. But now, watching at home in mid-February, that farce has become a force in American democracy with undeniable ramifications for our country.

“Our Brand Is Crisis” was conceptualized, shot and likely finished before the Trump phenomenon came about, so I do not wish to imply in any way that the film paved the way for such a demagogue. But given how few people saw it theatrically, most viewers will encounter the film with the presence or specter of the Donald firmly planted in the public consciousness. Cultural products may not substantially shape our society, but they can reflect its values in intentional or unexpected ways. “Our Brand Is Crisis” feels like a film in the latter camp.

Sandra Bullock stars as as political strategist “Calamity” Jane Bodine, a character who is the polar opposite of Trump in many ways. She is a for-hire, behind-the-scenes operative, obsessively focused on the minutiae of getting her candidates into first place. Mixing intellectual prowess with practical problem-solving, Jane in her zone is truly a force to be reckoned with. For that precise reason, the campaign for a struggling Bolivian presidential contender brings her off the sidelines and out of retirement.

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