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: 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.

Read the rest of this entry »





REVIEW: Miles Ahead

4 04 2016

Miles AheadNew York Film Festival, 2015

Biopics, particularly those chronicling musicians, tend to follow predictable patterns surrounding a rise from obscurity filled with pitfalls and setbacks. With judgments of quality momentarily tabled, Don Cheadle’s “Miles Ahead” deserves some credit for avoiding the traditional structure. The film, which captures the spirit of jazz great Miles Davis, does not resemble the jagged line of the normal genre piece. Instead, it feels like a series of jagged glass shards, presenting themselves for reassembly.

The form matches the subject quite nicely; Davis, in the film’s later timeline, appears wonked out from drugs and chronic pain. The shifting back and forth with little straightforward logic reflects his mental state. But the freeform flow of the film also mirrors Davis’ craft. “Miles Ahead” recalls the riffing and improvisation of jazz – or, as Davis himself was prone to call it, “social music.”

Content-wise, however, Cheadle’s film is not nearly as impressive. Davis says, “Change it up!” Ironically, “Miles Ahead” rarely heeds that advice and shows history repeating itself again and again. Per usual, the cross-cut stories do ultimately manifest their similarities. Yet along the way, the film somehow dabbles in a heist film-cum-buddy comedy as Davis and Rolling Stone reporter Dave Braden (Ewan McGregor) track down a stolen session tape together. The arrangement may not be familiar, but the notes played in the film certainly are. B2halfstars





REVIEW: Iron Man 3

18 06 2013

History will look back at the summer of 2013 and remember most of all the precipitous decline of the “Hangover” series.  However, there’s another franchise that has brought me disappointment this summer as well.

In the summer of 2008, I was over the moon for Jon Favreau’s “Iron Man,” so much so that I rushed out on opening night for the disappointing “Iron Man 2.”  By the time Tony Stark suited up for “The Avengers,” I really could have cared less.

Perhaps it’s most telling that the way I saw Shane Black’s “Iron Man 3” was on a Thursday afternoon when a combination of rain and wind knocked out my Wi-Fi.  Otherwise, I would have been content to sit in bed and watch a movie on Netflix.  But the big event film of the summer, the $175 million dollar opener that was second-best ever, to me was just another movie.

It was really just a box to check.  Since I’d invested 4 hours in Tony Stark’s story already (6 if you count “The Avengers”), I figured I probably ought to finish it.  And seeing a film out of misplaced obligation instead of real desire isn’t necessarily the most fulfilling feeling.

“Iron Man 3,” all in all, was entertaining.  It could have been a lot worse, and it was an improvement from its predecessor.  But it’s such a stark decline from the first installment that being more bad than good can hardly be considered a victory.

The visuals are good, although that ending sequence seemed to be more or less lifted from the lackluster summer 2010 bust “The A-Team” and Steven Spielberg’s “The Adventures of Tintin.”  The story manages to move along at a decent clip without ever boring too much, yet it lacks the effortless engagement encouraged by the original film.

The biggest difference, though, is Robert Downey Jr., who moved from being the series’ X-factor to its hidden liability.  His Tony Stark began as an endearingly sardonic character whose spiny personality could be accepted as just the inability to look at life seriously.  Over the course of the series, the scribes have tried to harden Stark to hide the fact that Downey Jr. had grown smugly complacent to the point of disdaining the other characters.  The darker, somber tone hasn’t worked because, well, Jon Favreau and Shane Black are not Christopher Nolan.

I’ve also felt that Downey Jr. has disdained the audience as well, as if every icy quip is played with the subtext of “I’m making millions of dollars for being the jerk you can’t be.”  While “Iron Man 3” seems to say goodbye to Tony Stark (or at least Robert Downey Jr. playing him), it’s not a good riddance.  But I’m certainly not choked up or even upset.  Not at this level of mediocrity.  B-2stars





REVIEW: Flight

24 11 2012

Denzel Washington has wowed audiences by playing both sides of the hero-villain spectrum.  Just look at the two performances that earned him Oscars.  1989’s “Glory” saw him as an almost angelic soldier fighting in the first all-black company in the United States Army, while 2001’s “Training Day” had him as a cop so devious and corrupt you wanted to jump through the screen and put a bullet through his head.

In “Flight,” Washington plays in the shades of grey of Whip Whitaker, an alcoholic pilot who becomes a hero after steering his malfunctioning plane to safety with his unconventional wisdom.  The catch is that Whitaker was high on cocaine and drunk as a skunk when he did so.  Of course, the public blindly adores him in a way reminiscent of Sully, the pilot who landed his vessel in the Hudson River and had a memoir in Barnes & Noble faster than you could say “American Airlines.”  But Whitaker has plenty of baggage that he can’t come to grips with and can’t compress into one of the overhead bins.  (Sorry, the puns with “Flight” are just endless.)

Because it’s a Denzel Washington performance, it’s fascinating to watch.  He owns the screen with a commanding presence rivaled by few in cinema these days.  But because Washington has such well-known and well-defined extremes, it’s fairly easy to tell what he thinks of Whitaker.

While he may have the moments of tough, firm leadership that Coach Herman Boone exhibits, Whitaker is clearly more in the model of a Frank Lucas or an Alonzo Harris.  It’s impressive that Washington can convey meaning through the mere iconography of his stature; however, in a movie like “Flight” that depends on our shifting judgements of the protagonist, that strength becomes a liability.

Read the rest of this entry »





F.I.L.M. of the Week (July 30, 2010)

30 07 2010

I had always been interested in seeing “Boogie Nights.”  And for those of you who happen to know the film’s subject matter, no, it’s not because I wanted to see certain things.  Released in 1997, the movie features plenty of today’s stars long before they had the luster and prestige their names bear now.  Five members of the ensemble have since been nominated for Oscars, and an actor who wasn’t even given top billing has even won an Oscar.

In an effort to see some of Julianne Moore’s finest roles, I decided it was time to watch Paul Thomas Anderson’s Academy Award-nominated second feature.  The movie was her breakout, earning her notices from everyone, including the first of her four Oscar nominations.  But it’s not just to feature her that “Boogie Nights” is my “F.I.L.M. of the Week;” the entire ensemble shines in a true work of artistry by Anderson.

I can’t dance around the topic any longer – this is a movie about the adult entertainment industry, in Los Angeles during the ’70s and ’80s.  Director Jack Horner is looking for an actor to build an empire around, someone who can do more than just look good.  He finds just that in Eddie Adams, a young nightclub employee with talents that Horner seeks.  Changing his name to Dirk Diggler, Horner’s discovery becomes the star he always dreamed of.

But the bigger Diggler’s star becomes, the closer he moves towards becoming a supernova.  His fame has made him violently angry and cocky.  He has also spiraled into severe drug abuse and addiction.  Soon enough, he finds that his greatest asset for his job doesn’t function the way he wants.  Diggler slowly drops towards rock bottom, and thanks to a strong performance by Mark Wahlberg, it’s a gripping journey to watch.  See, the stories of fame in the adult film industry are no different than any other entertainment industry.

As I said earlier, there is quite the ensemble at work here, including John C. Reilly, Don Cheadle, and William H. Macy as members of Diggler’s posse.  It’s quite fun to see them in their younger years, just getting started in Hollywood.  He was leagues away from stardom at the time, but a definite standout is Philip Seymour Hoffman as a crew member infatuated with Diggler.  He plays an unsettling character, and it’s nailed with the precision we now regularly associate with Hoffman.

The women are great, too.  Heather Graham, who most people don’t take seriously, is seriously brilliant as Rollergirl, an actress who does all her movies wearing rollerskates.  Anderson wrote the character with great depth, exploring her insecurities and weaknesses.  Graham goes there with him, truly shocking us not only by how good she is but how far she is willing to take her character.  And then there’s Julianne Moore, who entered mainstream consciousness for her portrayal of Amber Waves.  She acts as a mother figure to Diggler, yet at the same time, she finds herself very attracted to him.  Moore can play both objectives well, but she’s at her best when they clash.

In only his second movie, Paul Thomas Anderson handles “Boogie Nights” with the precision of a Martin Scorsese or Quentin Tarantino, sharing the former’s knack for great camerawork and the latter’s ability to select great music.  Now that I’ve seen this, I have to wonder why I like his later movies so much less.





REVIEW: Iron Man 2

10 05 2010

Iron Man 2” may not have all that much to offer us as a movie, but it provides significant fodder for conversation about what it means to cinema in general.  In my mind, it marks the first comic book movie of the post-“Dark Knight” era.  Filmmakers have seen what made Christopher Nolan’s film such a hit on multiple fronts, and they are trying to strike gold using the same tools: namely, character development and strong plot over explosions and action.  Jon Favreau and the other minds behind “Iron Man 2” had time to adapt their series in an attempt to replicate that success.

One thing this sequel gives us is confirmation of a theory that many have been advocating for almost two years: “The Dark Knight” really does mark a revolution in the way we watch movies and the way they are made.  As soon as we saw it, we knew that we would never watch comic book or action movies the same way.  We instantly scorned “Transformers 2” and other movies that only emphasized the visuals.  But now, similar movies are trying to shift the focus to plot.  That’s a really good thing for the average moviegoer because it means that studios are recognizing our intelligence!

But “Iron Man 2” also reminds us of an unfortunate reality: some revolutions are only revolutionary once.  Some are meant to repeated; the American Revolution, for example, inspired similar uprisings in France, Haiti, and all over Latin America.  “Iron Man 2” incorporates many elements used in “The Dark Knight,” hoping to continue the pattern of success.

But its inability to recreate what made Nolan’s film so incredible signals the dawning of an era in comic book movies not favorable to anyone.  From now on, there will be “The Dark Knight” and every other movie who wishes they were “The Dark Knight.”  These movies cannot simply try to concoct their own version as if there is some sort of a formula.  Nolan’s movie worked for so many reasons.  Now, filmmakers have to find their own way if they want to make a movie that doesn’t play like a cheap ripoff of “The Dark Knight.”  A key factor to the success of Nolan’s film was originality.  Any movie that tries to use that originality will end up creating banality.

Read the rest of this entry »