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: Doctor Strange

4 11 2016

There are so many movies of the VFX-driven variety, most of which have interchangeable and ultimately forgettable spectacles. Films that feel as if they want to try something new, or head into uncharted waters, are a rarity. Genuine surprise and awe is hard to come by.

Color me delighted to report that “Doctor Strange” actually does manage to achieve true visual astonishment in its action set pieces. The titular hero, his allies and his pursuers do not just duel in urban areas. They bend space and time in a manner that’s appropriately gobsmacking, recalling to some extent the wow factor of Christopher Nolan’s “Inception.”

Before you let your mind run away with you on that comparison, that’s primarily speaking of the feast for the eyes. “Doctor Strange” is a cut above the average Marvel Studios production, and I do not even mean that as damning with faint praise. The company has figured out a way to tell satisfying origin stories (“Iron Man,” “Ant-Man“) when the concern is establishing a character, not connecting to mythology or chronology.

Benedict Cumberbatch’s smug, silver-tongued surgeon turns into a dimension-hopping hero after seeking faith healing for his damaged hands. He’s appropriately equipped with smart-ass banter and lessons to learn while perfecting his manipulation of matter. Strange also has an exalted mentor in the Ancient One (a bald Tilda Swinton) and a menace to fight in her turncoat former mentee Kaecilius (a manbun-sporting Mads Mikkelsen). And maybe I was just reading too much into the score from Michael Giacchino, which sounded an awful lot like his work on “Star Trek,” but Strange also seems to have a Kirk-Spock dynamic with his straight-laced partner in crime Karl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor).

The action unfolds predictably, but also beautifully and humorously. For all those who thought it would take a maverick like Terrence Malick or Harmony Korine to get Tilda Swinton to narrate trippy shots of alternate universes, guess what? It happened in a Marvel movie. Note to whoever is preparing a career highlight reel for Swinton’s lifetime achievement awards in a decade or so: feel free to use this as the backbone of the montage. B+3stars





REVIEW: Zoolander 2

2 03 2016

Decades-delayed sequels from “Anchorman” to “Scream” and even “Monsters University” tend to fall into some trap of relying on nostalgia for or nodding towards the original film. To some extent, if the makers do not strike while the iron is hot, they have to remind people that the iron existed in the first place. And, not to overload the metaphor, but by employing a heavy hand with said iron, they can burn a hole through the cloth of the new creation.

Given the fashion origins of the “Zoolander” series, it would only make sense that the 15-years-in-the-making second installment would hew all too close to its predecessor. In many ways – and perhaps in the ones that count – it does. But multi-hyphenate Ben Stiller does have a few new tricks up the sleeves for his old character, and even more than just a new signature look to go alongside Blue Steel and Magnum.

In another delightfully absurd caper, the pretty, dumb Derek Zoolander once again gets caught up in a tale of international intrigue. This time, it involves a conspiracy to murder good-looking celebrities and bring the fashion elite of the world to the slaughter. And, once again, it sidetracks so Derek can resolve some familial issues as well as tension with fellow model Hansel (Owen Wilson). Oh, and there’s a music montage

All in all, however, “Zoolander 2” breaks enough from the original to make the team’s efforts worthwhile. Much of the fun comes from the new characters like Kyle Mooney’s Don Atari, a pitch-perfect parody of über-trendy hipsters, and Kristen Wiig’s Alexanya Atoz, an en vogue fashion designer with enough Botox in her face to rejuvenate an entire school’s worth of soccer moms. (It’s best not to mention Penelope Cruz’s Interpol agent Valentina Valencia or Benedict Cumberbatch’s transphobic punchline All.) The whole affair is predictably stupid, though anyone who remembers the first “Zoolander” ought to expect just that. Nostalgia sometimes makes people remember things as better than they really are, and “Zoolander 2” is essentially a chip off the old block. B2stars





REVIEW: Black Mass

15 09 2015

A movie like “Black Mass” is essentially the cinematic calendar whispering, “Winter is coming.”  It’s a gentle reminder that we are inching ever closer to a glut of prestige dramas filling screens across the country but that the best is still yet to come.  (Of course, if you read this in 2016, the last paragraph probably means nothing.)

Director Scott Cooper’s film works fine as a tiding over of sorts.  Most 2015 films so far that have provided this level of drama were low budget indies, and anything with this amount of violent bloodshed must have been a giant franchise flick.  “Black Mass,” made from a well-structured script by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth, boasts a thrilling experience packaged in some remarkable production values.  It all just feels so Scorsese lite.

And for the most part, that made for an entirely satisfactory evening at the movies.  I got a film that was perfectly good.  It just never approached greatness.

The marketing of “Black Mass” makes the film look like The Johnny Depp Show, and to a certain extent, it is.  Anyone who slithers around a film with such amphibian-like eyes and a Donald Trump combover just naturally draws attention, even when not playing a notorious gangster like James “Whitey” Bulger.  But, at heart, Bulger is just a boy from South Boston (“Southie”) trying to rule its biggest business – organized crime – by any means necessary.

That involves cutting a strange deal with a former childhood acquaintance, FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton).  According to Connolly, Southie is the only place where kids go from playing cops and robbers in the schoolyards to playing it on the streets, and he gets into Bulger’s racket just like some sort of game.  As a part of their deal, Bulger goes on the Bureau’s books as an informant yet essentially gets carte blanche to take out his competition.

Depp might get the more ostensibly interesting character to play, and he certainly plays up just how intimidating and downright creepy a figure Bulger truly was.  But its Edgerton who steals the show, essentially playing a Beantown rendition of Bradley Cooper’s Richie DiMaso from “American Hustle.”  Connolly is the inside man who gets played like a harp by a key asset meant to bring him professional glory.  What motivates him to continue helping Bulger even when the jig seems up proves the heaviest and most complex part of “Black Mass,” and it certainly kept weighing on me after the film ended.  B2halfstars





REVIEW: The Fifth Estate

8 09 2015

Ripping the story from the headlines seems to be the most compelling action in “The Fifth Estate,” a fictionalization of WikiLeaks’ history from director Bill Condon and writer Josh Singer.   The film feels irrelevant in the wake of Alex Gibney’s documentary “We Steal Secrets,” a more thrilling and intelligent treatment of these people and ideas that does not even have to resort to fictionalization or melodrama.

The film begins modestly (ha!) with a brief history of worldwide communications, from hieroglyphs to Guttenberg’s printing press all the way to the iPad newsstand.  Then, it proceeds to cut between the WikiLeaks team led by anarchist Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and the U.S. government’s response to their destabilizing revelations.

It might have been better off just focusing on its titular estate rather than including subplots involving the second (government) and fourth (press) estates; the tension between the old guard of reporting at institutions like The Guardian and the WikiLeaks “hacktivist” style of citizen journalism feels like a topic for an entirely different film.  Sure, this is an excuse to bring in an ensemble of supporting characters portrayed by talented actors like Laura Linney, Stanley Tucci, Anthony Mackie, Peter Capaldi, and David Thewlis, these accomplished thespians are unable to do much to elevate the material.

As Assange and Daniel Domscheit-Berg take steps to increase worldwide transparency, their tendency to think more about the information and less about the people leads to conflict.  Plenty of innocent people are taken as collateral damage by WikiLeaks, and their servers offer flimsy protection for the whistleblowers who dare to release sensitive information.  Assange’s personality gets in the way of the story he pushes – a worry that seems to inspire caution in the next major leaker, Edward Snowden, as shown in Laura Poitras’ documentary “Citizenfour.”

Condon uneasily balances Singer’s script that cannot decide whether to focus on who they are or what they did.  For the former, at least Cumberbatch nails Assange’s vocal cadences.  For the latter, though, “The Fifth Estate” cannot even turn one of the most important events of the decade into compelling cinema. Even with one of the newest tricks in the book, adding an M83 song for dramatic impact, the action falls flat.

When the film awkwardly acknowledges its own shortcomings in its odd finale, it feels almost like the creative team saying sorry.  Apology accepted, I guess?  C2stars





REVIEW: Penguins of Madagascar

21 07 2015

As far as I can tell, 2016’s “Sausage Party” (written by the people who gave us “Superbad” and “This Is The End“) can lay claim to the title of the first computer animated movie for adults.  While that could stand up to truth in advertising claims, I would like to humbly float the suggestion that DreamWorks Animation designed their “Penguins of Madagascar” film to appeal primarily to older audiences, even as it targeted younger crowds with its marketing.

These kinds of movies often get slapped with the moniker of “kids’ movies,” which is partially a misnomer.  They are really “family movies,” at least when released theatrically, because children lack the physical or financial means to attend on their own.  They must drag along their parents or some other generous benefactor who holds the keys to the car and the strings to the wallet.

Many family films, particularly ones made by DreamWorks, acknowledge that oft-forgotten half of the audience with clever jokes designed to fly way over the heads of kids in the crowd.  They started in the “Shrek” series, started to push the boundaries with “Puss in Boots,” and have now reached a glorious nadir in “Penguins of Madagascar.”  The kids have the TV series on Nickelodeon and Netflix; the grown-ups have this movie.

Had I been seven years old and sitting in the crowd with my parents, I would probably feel a slight resentment towards “Penguins of Madagascar.”  After all, why should they get to laugh more than me?  Sure, the film has a fair share of child-appealing antics like slapstick comedy and general silliness.

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LISTFUL THINKING: 10 British Actors Who Would Have CRUSHED Harry Potter

12 05 2015

With Eddie Redmayne now in official talks for “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” a spinoff of the “Harry Potter” series, I figured now was as good a time as ever to turn a long-gestating list into a published post.  (This has been a note in my iPhone for almost four years now!)

It is easy to forget that the “Harry Potter” series, among its many accomplishments, offered fine roles to a number of talented British thespians.  Pooled together, the cast has amassed 31 Oscar nominations – a number that seems mightly low when you consider the names who graced the eight films.  Kenneth Branagh.  Julie Christie.  Gary Oldman.  Ralph Fiennes.  Maggie Smith.  Emma Thompson.  (Alan Rickman is not included because he has somehow never been nominated for an Oscar.)

Recently, a number of stars have expressed remorse that they were not a part of the series.  Martin Freeman got sad about it with Jimmy Fallon…

…while Eddie Redmayne briefly lamented it before launching into a hilarious story about bombing his audition for “The Hobbit” films.

Redmayne on HP

But just because it did not happen for Redmayne does not mean I cannot imagine a few recastings that incorporates some more talented British actors.  Maybe some roles will have to make cameos in the new trilogy, after all!  And, heaven forbid, Warner Bros. might actually reboot the original books one day.

So, as the title of the list suggests, here are 10 British actors overlooked by the “Harry Potter” casting directors and the roles they could have played brilliantly.

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TELLURIDE TALKS: Morten Tyldum, director of “The Imitation Game”

27 11 2014

Morten TyldumEarlier this year, I had the distinct pleasure to attend the Student Symposium at the Telluride Film Festival.  As a part of this program, I had the privilege to partake in small group discussions with filmmakers at the festival.  The “Telluride Talks” series is a way for me to share their thoughts, ideas, and insights with everyone.  First up, Morten Tyldum, director of “The Imitation Game.”

There was a Friday evening screening of “The Imitation Game” on our schedule.  This meant that, so long as we arrived in a timely manner, there should have been tickets blocked off for us.  Yet as I hopped off the gondola – required to get to the theater on the other side of the mountain – all I saw were my fellow students walking the other way.  We somehow got boxed out.

It is standard operating procedure that when talent is to talk to anyone about their film, those people need to have actually seen that film.  So, needless to say, it was suitably awkward when Morten Tyldum walked in the next day for a rousing discussion of his movie … and no one in the group had seen it.

All things considered, however, the conversation was still quite lively and informative.  Tyldum remained in good spirits and obliged our requests not to say too much about the content of “The Imitation Game.”  Most of the conversation centered around his filmmaking philosophy and career – an interesting topic given that he is now making the jump to American cinema.

Tyldum, 47, began making films in his native Norway about a decade ago.  He came to most people’s attention with the 2011 action-thriller “Headhunters,” which is available to stream through Netflix and definitely worth a watch.  The film garnered a BAFTA nomination for Tyldum, but it more importantly opened the door for him to make movies on a grander scale.

_TIG2664.NEFThere are many people who romanticize the European model of making films, and Tyldum is not one of them.  He admitted to favoring the honesty of Hollywood filmmaking over the pretentiousness of the Scandinavian system.  Tyldum also lamented the way it was suspicious to make a commercially successful film in his home country, so no wonder he wanted to get out – “Headhunters” is the highest grossing Norwegian film to date.

He was initially set to hop across the pond for his English language debut with “Bastille Day.”  At the time, Ben Affleck was attached, but the film fell through when “Argo” became such a smashing success.  (“Bastille Day” is now filming with Idris Elba as the lead and British director James Watkins at the helm.)  Tyldum quickly landed on his feet, though, by scoring the gig to direct “The Imitation Game.”

The project was a hotly coveted property from the Black List, a registry of the best unproduced screenplays, ranking #1 in their 2011.  “The Imitation Game” initially attracted attention from Warner Bros. to set up as a star vehicle for Leonardo DiCaprio, who wanted to play the leading role of brilliant yet troubled mathematician Alan Turing.  Ultimately, it fell to Tyldum and Internet sensation Benedict Cumberbatch.  (Which is quite an ironic role for him to play, considering that Turing essentially invented the computer.)

Turing’s tale is one of incredible highs, such as when he cracked the German cipher in World War II, as well as extreme lows, namely a chemical castration as a result of his homosexuality.  He definitely lived an eventful life, that much is for certain.  But like Bennett Miller and Jon Stewart, two other with films at Telluride about real-life subjects, Tyldum said it was more important to honor the spirit of the story than to get every factual detail correct.

Cumberbatch Turing Imitation GameAnd critics of “The Imitation Game” have been quick to take the filmmakers to task for whitewashing or downplaying Turing’s sexuality.  Seemingly in response to these criticisms, Tyldum highlighted the richness of the story and just how many distinct angles and interpretations that different filmmakers could extrapolate from it.  While some might see it as an opportunity for a LGBTQ message or a lesson on science and math, Tyldum stated that he saw the movie as “about how important it is to listen to people who are different.”

“I like shaded, flawed characters more,” as he put it, and Tyldum certainly dwells in the ambiguities of Turing’s character.  I can say so because, on the final day of the festival, I darted across Telluride on my bike to catch the final screening after a required event.  I was panting to catch my breath for the first thirty minutes, but at least I had the chance to see that “The Imitation Game” lived up to Tyldum’s expressed vision.

“The Imitation Game” opens in limited release on November 28 and will gradually expand throughout the month of December.





REVIEW: The Imitation Game

8 09 2014

Telluride Film Festival

As if the subject of “The Imitation Game” – a tender British soul misunderstood as an incompetent and bumbling fool – weren’t enough to draw comparisons to “The King’s Speech,” the film seemingly invites the parallel in its opening credits.  It’s only faintly discernible, but audio from none other than King George’s climactic speech at the dawn of World War II plays diegetically in the background.

To those who might recognize the snippet, it serves as a perfect barometer for the ambitions of “The Imitation Game.”  With maybe a dash of brash mathematical genius of “A Beautiful Mind,” Morten Tyldum’s film is very much this year’s “The King’s Speech.”  For those unaware of the construed meaning of 2010’s Academy Award winner for Best Picture, that means the film is an engaging and entertaining biopic made with high production values all around yet does not aspire to anything groundbreaking.

Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game

Maybe I can only give such an unabashed endorsement of the film from my privileged subject position of being one of the first audiences to see the film or because I saw it before the glut of prestige films later in the fall.  Indeed, I can already see myself holding truly great movies against “The Imitation Game” and wondering how on earth anyone could think so highly of it.  At least for the moment, however, I choose to see the film as it is: a quality piece of cinema that is not trying to reinvent the wheel.  It’s simply trying to turn some wheels in my head, and I thoroughly enjoyed it on those terms.

Certainly a film has some merit if it can collapse a two-hour act of viewing into feeling like an experience lasting half that duration.  “The Imitation Game” flew by, largely because of how engrossed in the story and the characters I became.  Benedict Cumberbatch turns in inspired work bringing the film’s subject, Alan Turing, to life.  His performance alone is worth the price of admission.

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REVIEW: August: Osage County

22 01 2014

August OsageI’m a firm believer that there are some source texts that are absolutely impossible to botch, provided they keep the main narrative intact.  Tracy Letts’ play “August: Osage County” belongs in such a category.

Many in the theatrical community already assert that it will be in the American dramatic canon along with works by Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, and Tony Kushner.  Letts provides some of the most gripping familial tensions I’ve ever read, and it’s chock full of meaty characters in an ensemble for the ages.

John Wells’ film adaptation of “August: Osage County” brings that story to a larger audience than likely could ever be reached on one stage.  Moreover, the cast he assembles is like the kind of “one night only” extravaganza that fans can only dream about.  I’ve never seen the show live, so I can’t really speak to its theatrical power.

Letts’ words did, however, jump off the page and paint such a vivid picture in my mind that I feel as if I did.  While the film does a decent job translating the action to the realm of cinema, there still feels like a bit of raw intensity evaporated in the transfer.

That’s not to say, though, that Wells doesn’t effectively harness the power of the screen to bring a different dimension to Letts’ opus of intergenerational discord.  On a stage, you can’t key off the subtleties in an actor’s facial movements, which is one of his most clever editing tricks in “August: Osage County.”  Some theorists have labeled film a fascist form because it has the power to direct your attention towards only what it considers relevant, but the way Wells chooses to organize these massive scenes is actually quite freeing.  It ensures we do not miss crucial reactions that serve to define the arcs of the characters.

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REVIEW: Star Trek Into Darkness

19 08 2013

I’ve been wrestling over my angle on reviewing “Star Trek Into Darkness” for quite a while.  I really did like the movie, although not nearly to the extent as J.J. Abrams’ 2009 rebooting of the franchise.  Just because it is not as good does not mean it is not any good, and I certainly do not want to imply that.

It’s still a solid summer movie, full of impressive and fun action as well as a dastardly star-making villainous performance by Benedict Cumberbatch.  Once again written by the dream team of Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and Damon Lindelof, the story delivers in a big way.  No longer burdened with reintroducing the once-iconic characters to audiences, they can focus on weaving an allegorical tapestry of many moral issues facing the post-9/11 world.

I’m far from disappointed with the latest voyage of the USS Enterprise.  However, it never reached the levels of excitement that led me to declare it my second most anticipated film of 2013 back in January.  “Star Trek Into Darkness” is still a great movie, don’t get me wrong, but it’s definitely a notch below the giddily fun “Star Trek” from four years ago.  While that’s still light years ahead of summer blockbusters “Man of Steel,” J.J. Abrams heads into directing “Star Wars” on a bit of a down note.

He made a decently acceptable action film.  It just won’t be particularly remarkable in retrospect.  When I go back and think about summer 2013 a few years down the road, I suspect I might forget that “Star Trek Into Darkness” was even released (although writing that line in my review might change that).  B+3stars





REVIEW: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

19 03 2012

The impressive accomplishments in Tomas Alfredson’s “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” are manifold.  The first, and perhaps what will stick with me the most, is how immaculately crafted the movie is.  Every aspect below the line is crisp and precise, be it Alberto Iglesias’ subtle score, Hoyte van Hoytema’s swift camerawork, Maria Djurkovic’s richly detailed sets, or the unbelievably meticulous control over sound and silence.  “Hugo” may have been the Academy’s technical darling of 2011, but this movie can rival its excellence in all those categories (except maybe visual effects).

The second is Gary Oldman’s performance as George Smiley, one of his finest on-screen roles yet.  Much was made of how criminal it was that the lauded character actor had not received an Oscar nomination before “Tinker Tailor,” and thankfully now that has been corrected.  But there is much more to this work than merely endowing Oldman with the epithet “Academy Award nominee.”

Oldman shows his mastery of understatement playing Smiley, a man of few words.  When he’s not speaking, we never have a doubt that Oldman is totally within his character’s mind, never moving a pore without purpose.  When he is speaking, Oldman is forceful and commanding, owning the screen that includes one of the largest casts of acclaimed British actors outside the “Harry Potter” series.  It’s an acting master class from one of the industry’s best and brightest, definitely one Hollywood could learn a lesson or two from as well.

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