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: Wind River

28 05 2017

Sundance Film Festival

“You should move to a small town, somewhere the rule of law still exists,” stated Benicio del Toro’s Alejandro in the final lines of Taylor Sheridan’s “Sicario” script. “You will not survive here. You are not a wolf, and this is a land of wolves now.” As if picking up exactly where he left off, “Wind River” continues following the journey of a law-abiding law enforcement official into the heart of darkness.

It’s almost a little too eerie how many parallels exist between Emily Blunt’s Kate Macer in “Sicario” and Elizabeth Olsen’s Jane Banner in “Wind River.” Both are female FBI agents sent to perform their duties in a place outside their jurisdiction where previously all-encompassing authority means nothing. For Jane, that’s an Indian reservation in the remote regions of Wyoming. In order to survive, both agents must rely on a more experienced, world-weary male who can serve as her shaman to a more questionable legal territory.

Jane’s guide is Jeremy Renner’s Cory Lambert, who unlike Alejandro in “Sicario,” does not belong to the group with whom he liaises. He is a white man who has gained the trust of the Native American communities by taking the time to understand how they live, a marked contrast from Jane’s treatment of a murder case on their land like it’s just another Las Vegas or Ft. Lauderdale homicide. The film’s most poignant scenes show how Cory can code switch and compartmentalize the many facets of his life. Going from a hunter to a father to “Cap,” as he’s known, takes a toll on his psyche – even if his stoic expressions never reveal such turmoil.

Otherwise, “Wind River” plays like a “Sicario” spinoff with far fewer surprises. The tone, attitude and general plot progression are familiar now and remain mostly unchanged. While the United States’ relationship with the Native American reservations is one that definitely deserves more attention, it lacks the searing topicality of a story set on the Mexican border. Without that heft, Sheridan’s signature terse one-liners like “Luck is in the city” come across as more risible than bone-chilling. 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: I Saw the Light

1 04 2016

I Saw the LightIf the biopic of Hank Williams is to be believed, he saw the light when his first-born child entered the world. (We know this, of course, because he sang it.) Around this time in the film, I found myself wishing I saw a different kind of light – the one at the end of the tunnel, if that tunnel were the interminable film “I Saw the Light.”

Marc Abraham begins the film with a long take that circles around Tom Hiddleston as he introduces us to his take on Williams through music: an a capella rendition of “Cold, Cold Heart.” (Conspicuously, his voice lacks that deep Southern drawl that so defines the Williams sound.) He rest firmly in the spotlight, though the camera angle obscures his face until the very end of the song. Ironically, the introduction provides a perfect encapsulation of the film’s flaws.

“I Saw the Light” places its subject front and center, but Abraham never really finds a satisfying angle through which to analyze him. As a performer, his chief adversity is … convincing people to get over the fact that he holds onto notes for too long. As a person, he is guilty of … philandering, like far too many musicians depicted on screen. At one point, seemingly out of nowhere, it is revealed that Williams struggles with alcoholism to a point of self-endangerment. One aspect, isolated and explored with gusto, might have helped the film gain some footing. Without such focus, it flounders.

Often times, biopics lacking a strong directorial hand or a definitive angle can find salvation in a strong lead performance. Yet Hiddleston, charming as he can be, just never quite gets comfortable as Hank Williams. The film clearly values veracity as it awkwardly intersperses documentary-style interviews with Williams’ manager (Bradley Whitford), but the central performance never quite registers as an adequate facsimile for the real thing. C2stars





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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F.I.L.M. of the Week (January 22, 2015)

22 01 2015

The Sundance Film Festival arrives, like clockwork, at the beginning of each year to inject a fresh bit of hope into our outlook for the upcoming year in film.  While we tire of the year’s awards season crop, the system begins to harvest its plants to bloom over the months to come.  The festival is great at providing two specific kinds of films: discoveries of major new talents from completely out of the blue, and surprising indie turns from well-known stars.  (Without said talent, the films would never be able to receive any financing.)

“Kill Your Darlings” falls into the latter camp.  This 2013 film was a big step in Daniel Radcliffe’s career reinvention – or at least a full-fledged turn of the page – from only being recognized as Harry Potter.  He stars as a young Allen Ginsberg, far before “Howl” brought the beat poet into censorship as well as the national spotlight.

John Krokidas’ debut feature is so much more than just a showcase for Radcliffe’s talent, though.  It is my pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week” because it tells a compelling, human story that just happens to be about a renowned poet.  His script, co-written with Austin Bunn, never veers into the realm of becoming a portrait gallery for the nascent counterculture movement.  Sure, there are appearances by William Burroughs (Ben Foster) and Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston), but the script never loses sight of who they are as people.

“Kill Your Darlings” does not feel the need for reverence to the towering legacy of a figure, an advantage the film is able to possess in part because it takes place before Ginsberg and his pals went supernova.  The plot begins with a young Ginsberg entering Columbia in 1943, where he quickly bristles with the established order and the canonized poets.  Radcliffe’s performance teems with self-discovery and fully realizes the awakening of an artist; perhaps there is a meta connection responsible for

Yet Radcliffe is not even the movie’s scene-stealing performer.  That honor goes to Dane DeHaan, star of “Chronicle” and “The Place Beyond the Pines,” who has really begun to build a formidable résumé.  He plays livewire Lucien Carr, an obstreperous rebel.  He takes Ginsberg from a student merely curious about the iconoclasm of Walt Whitman into a full bohemian beatnik.  Lucien also lures him into a love triangle with an older outsider, Michael C. Hall’s David Kammerer, that turns bloody and forces Ginsberg to make a tough ethical decision.

“Kill Your Darlings” is part biopic, part drama, part thriller, and part exploration of an artistic movement’s birth pangs.  All these elements cohere marvelously into one wholly satisfying film.  It is one heck of a debut for Krokidas, and it makes a great case for Radcliffe and DeHaan to receive some meaty roles in the feature.





REVIEW: Godzilla

8 06 2014

GodzillaIn 2010, Gareth Edwards unleashed the ultra-low budget flick “Monsters” on the world.  It was a striking debut, and it also wound up serving as an audition tape for the job of reenergizing the “Godzilla” franchise.  Indeed, if there was anyone to scoop up from the world of independent cinema for large-scale filmmaking, Edwards seemed like a natural due to the way he emphasized human relationships over flashy computer graphics.

Sadly, what ultimately hits the screen in “Godzilla” is something far more in the mold of Marvel than Edwards’ own “Monsters.”  The plot structure resembles the paradigm perpetuated by films like “The Avengers;” I’d like to call this formula “30-40-50.”  The first 30 minutes of the film introduce us briefly to the characters and cap off with an inciting event that sets up a climactic clash with an opposing villainous force.  The next 40 minutes vamp up to this giant conclusion, showing the various heroes and their preparations.  And it all caps off with 50 minutes of destructions, explosions, collapsing buildings … you know the drill.

The scariest part of “Godzilla” is not the monster; it’s realizing how quickly the art of screenwriting has transmuted into an engineered science.  It favors empty computer graphics over real suspense and rewarding characterization.  Edwards’ penchant for thrilling action goes woefully underutilized as he settles to provide a standard entry in the genre “Monsters” so ably defies.  He gets to be somewhat ironic on occasion but never subtle.

Actors can often rescue movies that sag under the weight of a bloated effects budget, but no such salvation is available for “Godzilla.”  Here, Bryan Cranston is forced to play a Walter White-lite variety and acclaimed actresses such as Elizabeth Olsen, Sally Hawkins, and Juliette Binoche are relegated to serve perfunctory roles on the sidelines.  But don’t worry, Aaron Taylor-Johnson fruitlessly channels Mark Wahlberg trying to save the day, an archetype he’s ill-equipped to play.

But hey, who needs actors when you can watch a giant lizard destroy the Golden Gate Bridge and the rest of San Francisco?  Not like we got to see it terrorized in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.”  Or the “Star Trek” movies.  (Heck, even the animated “Monsters vs. Aliens” got in on the action.)  Sure, it’s probably more extensive here in “Godzilla,” but it all just feels so familiar and generic.  No better way to sit through the threat of near-apocalyptic extinction than comfortably numb, right?  C+2stars