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!

Read the rest of this entry »

Advertisements




REVIEW: Ghostbusters

12 07 2016

While watching Paul Feig’s take on “Ghostbusters” (splitting hairs over remake vs. reboot just doesn’t feel worth it), I often felt like I needed to keep a tally chart. In one column, the header would read “one for progress;” the other, “one for fan service.”

One for progress: women are scientific masterminds and ingenious problem solvers. Chris Hemsworth’s secretary Kevin fills the traditional role of the dumb blonde objectified by the protagonists (with aplomb, I might add). The human villain is a socially isolated white male with a bone to pick. Welcome to 2016.

One for fan service: these newfangled characters are locked into hitting most of the same plot beats as the original film. Better than today’s hackneyed franchise origin stories, I suppose. Welcome back to 1984.

One for progress: acknowledging the differences between 1984 and 2016. With the rise of the Internet, computer graphics and the larger conspiracy culture, the Ghostbusters and the paranormal apparitions they hunt would be all too easily laughed off today. Feig and co-writer Katie Dippold reimagine the team successfully in a world that is more incredulous than ever – yet also more terrified of the random and the unexplained.

One for fan service: just giving us the ghosts we already know anyways. Feig brings back all the most familiar ghosts from the Marshmallow Man to the green slime monster. The latter even gets a female companion. Neither the characters nor the effects used to bring them to life feel particularly new, exciting or terrifying. I cannot put myself in the shows of a 1984 moviegoer, but this 2016 viewer saw a whole lot of bright blue light beams that look a whole lot like the ones in basically every other action movie these days.

Quick break from the rhetorical device, in case you’re getting tired … One for I don’t know who: fart jokes and a lame “your mama” line. Really? Did they throw those in the mix just in case the “Ghostbusters” bros who made the film’s trailer the most disliked in YouTube history actually decided to show up?

Now back to your regularly scheduled programming!

Read the rest of this entry »





REVIEW: In the Heart of the Sea

1 05 2016

“Do the stories only exist to make us respect the seas?” This utterance from Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) kicks off “In the Heart of the Sea,” a two-hour riff on the inspiration of Moby Dick by Ron Howard.  The film shot in the fall of 2013, began test screening in the summer of 2014 for a planned release in spring of 2015 – only to be pushed back for a late winter 2015 opening. In those two years to tinker with the raw materials, apparently no one thought it was worth saving the project from playing like a book report run through an Instagram filter.

These kind of high intensity, high prestige dramas are normally prime territory for Ron Howard, whom I affectionately dubbed the king of the “Sunday afternoon on TNT movie” upon the release of “Rush” in 2013. He has dabbled in bringing other decades and centuries to life before, each time bringing a sense of specificity and thematic relevance. “In the Heart of the Sea,” on the other hand, feels synthetic through and through. The effect of shooting on a backlot or in front of a green-screen seeps into every frame of the film, constantly highlighting the artifice underlining this human survival drama.

As if that were not enough, the film suffers from many other predictable flaws that have become a common refrain. The nearly 30 minutes of exposition – a full quarter of the film – bog down “In the Heart of the Sea” from the get-go. When it finally does leave the port, screenwriter Charles Leavitt never commits to making the journey primarily a visual effects spectacle about the hunt for the whale or a survival drama. The two coexist unsteadily in the finished film.

Chris Hemsworth, too, proves ill-equipped to correct the course with his performance. His stardom essentially stems from the hammer with which Marvel equips him and the magazine headlines that followed. As of yet, Hemsworth has yet to really pass muster as a serious leading man. Hopefully audiences will soon see acting chops the size of his biceps. C / 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.

Read the rest of this entry »





REVIEW: Blackhat

7 03 2015

For a movie that features hackers who can access some scarily far reaches of the world’s computing system, in a time where cyberterrorists quite literally reached inside the American network and restricted our freedom of speech, the stakes in Michael Mann’s “Blackhat” feel remarkably low.  These unknown villains do not seem threatening so much as annoying, as if they were Clippy on Microsoft Word.

Some serialized dramas on basic cable networks possess more urgency in storytelling.  So the moral of the story is never send the year’s champion of World’s Sexiest Man to do Mariska Hargitay’s job, perhaps?

Hemsworth stars as Hathaway, the now-imprisoned programmer who served as the lead architect on the code that wreaks havoc on nuclear reactors and stock markets across the world.  (In spite of this brilliance, Hathaway still cannot manage to figure out how to button the top four buttons on his shirt.)  Since Mann sets the film on such a low simmer, it seems only fitting that their criminal adversary only seeks to hijack computers for the sake of making a quick buck off the manipulation of global trade.

To make matters worse, enduring “Blackhat” also involves tolerating Mann’s grimy, grainy digital aesthetic.  The movie looks like a crappy HDTV demo from a flat-screen at Sam’s Club, circa 2007.  It has no pretense of imitating the look of film stock (even if this sounds arcane and technical, this difference is obvious).  Not to mention, the camera feels about as loose as the buttons on Hemsworth’s wardrobe, and the entire thing looks cheaply re-lit in post-production.

Mann’s visuals are in service of a script from Morgan Davis Foehl, a writer getting his first screenplay credit.  His writing does not highlight relevant issues surrounding cybersecurity nor does it raise any intriguing ethical questions, a real bummer considering what just happened surrounding the release of “The Interview.”  In fact, the only question I left “Blackhat” asking was whether I found it tougher to follow the plot … or to care about what happened altogether?  C2stars





REVIEW: Rush

21 10 2013

Ron Howard is a pretty reliable director to deliver well-made movies that everyone in the family over the age of 11 can watch when it plays TNT on Sunday afternoons.  He really has come to hone the craft of making generally agreeable prestige pictures, from “Apollo 13” to “Cinderella Man” to “Frost/Nixon.”  At times, his movies can really hit the spot when I’m looking to be entertained somewhere in the range of mindfulness and mindlessness.

Rush,” though, fails to meet Howard’s normal lowest common denominator criterion.  While it’s thrillingly shot by Anthony Dod Mantle, the DP who brought you “Slumdog Millionaire” and “127 Hours,” the film hardly runs like a well-oiled machine.  It’s leaking oil all over the place.  Thankfully, no one was around to light the fatal match.

Most of its problems begin at the script, so deeply rooted that there was probably very little Howard could do to direct his way out of its flaws.  Peter Morgan’s screenplay for “Rush” crashes and burns from the moment it begins – with clunky, obvious narration that he could have easily worked into subtext.  It proceeds unevenly and never really developing the rivalry between its two protagonists, the lothario James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth of “Thor“) and the weaselly Type A Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl of “Inglourious Basterds“).

Both give decent performances, particularly Brühl, who has several moments where he flirts with tremendous power.  But neither can transcend the clichés that mire “Rush.”  Perhaps Howard could have stepped in to add more gravitas to their head-bashing where Morgan made them inane schoolyard boys with clashing egos.

Alas, he did not, and “Rush” delivers little of what its title promises.  There are well-executed racing sequences that at least keep our attention, which is actually a fair accomplishment since I am not very invested in or knowledgeable about Formula 1.  But in a movie about racing, isn’t that the expectation?  In “Rush,” these sequences are coherent and interesting on a most basic level.  Beyond that, however, there isn’t an interesting or daring visual choice in the entire movie.  I saw every wheel in the film turning just as I saw every turn coming.

You could say I’m an expert driver behind the wheel of film criticism.   But really, I just fancy myself as just a normal moviegoer armed with the knowledge that one gets from seeing too many films.  And I’ve come to the point where I’ve taken so many laps around the movie theater that I really don’t want Ron Howard taking me for a spin anymore unless he can recapture a spark of ingenuity and adventure.  It doesn’t have to be experimental or even all that daring.  It just needs to be fresh enough to be agreeable.  C+ 2stars





REVIEW: The Cabin in the Woods

29 11 2012

Shhh … don’t ruin Joss Whedon’s big year, but have you heard of this movie called “Scream?”  It’s a little vintage, I know.  In 1996, Wes Craven unleashed his film on audiences to massive acclaim and success.  He deftly sent up horror movie tropes with humor and a sharply philosophical slant – at the same time delivering a chilling horror movie!

Now Whedon, the fanboy favorite, has given us “The Cabin in the Woods,” a film he wrote along with director Drew Goddard.  The film took three years from shooting to release, although the satire feels relevant still as the climate of the horror genre remains roughly unchanged (with the exception of the found-footage epidemic that struck with “Paranormal Activity“).

And indeed, I really did enjoy some of the things it had to say and the clever way it presents them.  The deconstruction of the horror genre, particularly the onslaught of torture flicks, is done deftly and swiftly.  While “Scream” was Craven talking merely about the archetypes and trademarks, “The Cabin in the Woods” expands to include the audience.

What does it say about us that in our heads we are rooting for the directors, played to droll hilarity by Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford, to inflict the strangest and most unimaginable pain on people we don’t even know?

If we think it’s sick that there’s a betting pool on how long these characters will survive and how they will die, isn’t that essentially what we do when we gossip with the person in the seat next to us in the theater?

These questions were fun to ponder for a while, yet I found that “The Cabin in the Woods” quickly got on my nerves.  It reminded me of the feeling I get when a Hermione Granger-like student thinks they are the smartest person in the room and wants everyone to know it.  Whedon and Godard act like their film is the most ingenious thing to be dropped into cinema in ages.  Granted, anything that deviates from convention in this depraved artistic moment feels original.  Yet I couldn’t escape a sense of arrogance being radiated from the film.

And my only response was that I wanted to get on Amazon, order the Blu-Ray of “Scream,” and mail it to Whedon’s house.  The message: it’s been done before, and it’s been done better.  That doesn’t mean you can’t try, but you can’t gallivant around as if you are God’s gift to the genre.  You’ve made your contribution to the parodic state of horror, and you should be content with that.  B