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: Gifted

10 04 2017

Movie dads are a dime a dozen, but we rarely get movies about the specific pressures of paternity. It’s tough to tell, then, whether the pleasures of Marc Webb’s “Gifted” are organic or simply a refreshingly different story in a crowded environment.

There’s plenty to enjoy and identify with in Chris Evans’ Frank Adler, an uncle-cum-surrogate dad who mills about working-class Florida in his dirt-stained undershirt and seemingly permanent bedhead. He’s raising his niece, the film’s titular savant Mary Adler (McKenna Grace), based on his hardscrabble and wisecracking instincts. Segregating the exceptional from the average, he jokes, only produces congressmen. His everyman parenting style gets a shock from the arrival of his ivory tower-minded mother, Lindsay Duncan’s Evelyn.

From there on out, “Gifted” plays out like the Florida Man edition of “Kramer vs. Kramer” with a little dash of “Good Will Hunting” to liven up the familiar settings of family court and therapy sessions. How much that affects each viewer probably depends on their individual tolerance for the well-executed cliché and the obvious emotional moment. When Frank and Mary spend some quality time watching new dads come out of delivery to the hospital waiting room, it’s possible to read the scene as hopelessly cloying or truly touching.

I found “Gifted” somewhere in between, affecting in fits and spurts while never truly melting my heart like a stick of butter in the sun. Evans clearly has a big heart that he pumps into the film, yet Tom Flynn’s script gives him remarkably little agency. Frank is defined primarily in relation to other characters, many of whom float in and out of the plot with whiplash-inducing speed. (And let’s not even brooch the serious ethical debate that Flynn completely sidesteps in the film’s big finale.) But don’t worry everyone, there’s a truly great movie about an uncle struggling to provide adequate guardianship for the orphaned child of his departed sibling – and it’s readily available to watch. B-





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: Avengers: Age of Ultron

28 08 2015

At this point, I am unsure how much good it does me to review “Avengers: Age of Ultron” as I would a movie.  I feel like it would be more useful to write up the experience of the film as a writer for Consumer Reports would describe a car – with matter-of-fact bullet-points and statistics.  What is the point of trying to capture the artistry of a film in the intricacies of prose when that film is little more than a top-of-the-line product?

The latest item off the “Avengers” conveyer belt amounts to little more than an 150 minute billboard for the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  Perhaps the one notable difference between “Age of Ultron” and its predecessor is that the events tend to sow discord that cleaves a wedge between the heroes as opposed to uniting them.  (I can only assume that was a decision that arose organically from the material and not as some kind of tie-in to the impending “Civil War.”)

Maestro Joss Whedon ensures that the film matches all the tech specs any fan looks for in a comic book movie.  It has action sequences the way cars have cupholders.  To top it all off, he assembles a climax that feels like it could (and maybe should) just exist as its own movie and is probably fetishized in the same way automotive aficionados value a powerful engine.  Maybe some of this would be exciting if it were not so painfully predictable.  Rather than inspiring me to marvel at the screen, it just made me feel numb.

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REVIEW: Snowpiercer

3 07 2014

SnowpiercerDirector Bong Joon Ho, like many cinephiles, is a big fan of Tilda Swinton.  And at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival, he tracked her down and professed his admiration at a brunch.  Afterwards, they mutually decided they would work together on something in the future.

Joon Ho was in the process of writing “Snowpiercer,” and he feared there would not be a part for Swinton in the script.  But then he had a stroke of genius: he would cast Swinton, no stranger to playing some rather gonzo roles, as the authoritative Minister Mason.  This part, however, was initially written for a man.

Swinton gets made-down quite amusingly by the hair and makeup department, pairing her with a drab wig and some nasty dentures.  She’s not her usually chic self, but Swinton isn’t identifiably masculine, either.  Joon Ho doesn’t change any of the personal pronouns in the script, so Mason is still referred to as a he.

Swinton’s performance, then, is not one that doesn’t choose a gender but seems to transcend our understanding of the binary altogether.  As a whole, “Snowpiercer” relishes in this spirit of breaking boundaries.  It can’t necessarily be tied down to one genre, constantly surprising us with each turn.

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REVIEW: The Iceman

20 04 2013

RiverRun International Film Festival

The Iceman” is everything you would expect from a period gangster film like  “GoodFellas,” only with none of the rush of excitement and energy you get from Scorsese’s classic.  Director Ariel Vromen’s color-by-numbers genre pic is the epitome of middling, average entertainment.  Its full-fledged adoption of tropes led me to think less about “The Iceman” itself and more about where I might have seen that scene play out before.

Usually gangster movies are propelled by strong characterization, particularly the protagonist.  “The Iceman” settles for lazy caricaturization where everyone just plays out the stereotypes, including Michael Shannon as the titular assassin Richard Kuklinski.  Over three decades in organized crime, he takes over 100 lives … all while his beautiful wife Deborah, played by Winona Ryder, doesn’t age a day!

Shannon is a magnetic performer, particularly playing troubled and unstable characters like John Givings in “Revolutionary Road” or Curtis LaForche in “Take Shelter.”  His work in “The Iceman” can’t hold a candle to these prior tour de forces, largely because Kuklinski is so poorly written that I doubt Jack Nicholson could make it work.

And Kuklinski is the best written character of the bunch, I might add.  It could also be bad casting, but cameo appearances by James Franco as a pornographer and Stephen Dorff as Kuklinski’s brother were truly bizarre and out of place.  Roy Demeo, Ray Liotta’s character, proves the actor is more than willing to become his own worst imitator.  And I can’t even go there with Chris Evans, Captain America himself, as Robert Pronge, the shaggy-haired and cold-blooded ice cream man, or David Schwimmer as moustache-laden hitman Josh Rosenthal.

Without a compelling character at its center, why even bother watching a movie?  Particularly one that is so largely based around relationships?  I’d recommend not watching “The Iceman” and instead popping in “GoodFellas” or “Pulp Fiction” again.  Moreover, the film’s ability to delude itself into believing its own importance made me yearn for another gangster movie, “Analyze This,” where the same types of characters mix and mingle.  Only instead of being played for drama as in “The Iceman,” it’s played for laughs.  C2stars