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: Sing

21 12 2016

When it comes to making movies for children, simplicity is your friend. In the case of Illumination Entertainment’s “Sing,” however, animators must have just decided to meet the times and deliver a scattered mess of characters in need of Adderall and concision. There’s genuine heart and sweetness in Garth Jenning’s film, but it gets choked out of the equation in favor of more songs, more gags, more scenes, more … everything.

There’s really no need to stuff in another animal, another backstory, another musical number. We already know what’s going on from the get-go because “Sing” is not a particularly complicated film. Koala bear Buster Moon (voice of Matthew McConaughey) is a man after many of our own hearts – inspired by art at a young age, he doggedly and even naively sets course to be a booster and patron in the community. When his theater falls on hard times, he holds auditions for a singing contest to spotlight the unsung stars of the town.

While he struggles to pay the rent and keep the lights on, his contestants engage in battles of their own. Yet among the handful of singers, each given about equal screen time, there are really only two issues – nerves and family expectations. Be it the dedicated domestic engineer Rosita (Reese Witherspoon’s plucky pig Rosita), the shy elephant Meena (Tori Kelly), or the bank robber-cum-closet crooner Johnny (Taron Egerton’s gorilla Johnny), the conflicts all bleed into each other. By their final numbers, there’s no surprise or jubilation because we know these animals as nothing more than familiar character dilemmas. With our attention spread so thin between them, there’s no connection built up, either.

If anything, “Sing” feels like an animated television series retrofitted into a feature-length film. Well, actually … maybe that’s the motivation after all. Even so, that doesn’t change the fact that this is an uninspiring pilot episode. C+2stars





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: The Jungle Book

17 04 2016

I do not have a strong attachment to the 1967 original Disney animated film “The Jungle Book.” I do not have strong feelings one way or the other about Jon Favreau’s 2016 live action Mowgli/CGI animal version of “The Jungle Book.” I remain, for the most part, fairly ambivalent, unable to summon strong words to praise or condemn any aspect of the film. And that makes for the hardest kind of review to write.

Might as well start with the good: Bill Murray as Baloo. The actor has become a cult figure over the past few years for his erratic and endearing off-screen behavior (as well as for his partnership with hipster darling Wes Anderson). When not acting inside one of Anderson’s dollhouses, Murray’s iconography can often overcome the project in which he participates. That film becomes “The Bill Murray Show,” for better or for worse. Favreau finds a happy balance of letting Murray entertain while also ensuring that he never distracts too much.

The CGI is quite good, I suppose, yet should we not be asking for photorealism from all movies these days? Call me a child of the digital age, but I only tend to notice computer animation when it goes horribly wrong. The graphics impress, though not to the extent that they truly wow.

“The Jungle Book” glides along on lots of charm and slickness, which gets it decently far. Mowgli (Neel Sethi) makes for a rather bland protagonist, one we mostly follow for the talking animals he encounters along his reluctant and perilous journey to rejoin his human companions. The episodic nature of the plot makes it hard for momentum to build, which is something that does not bother me in particular though seems an odd choice for a film pitched at youngsters. The message of cross-species cooperation to raise and protect someone who might be a predator is – timely, I guess? (“Zootopia” did it better.)

There is a lot going on, although there is simultaneously not enough going on. I could try to resolve or reconcile my feelings, but I would rather just leave them be. Other films just seem more worthy of that time. B2halfstars





REVIEW: Hail, Caesar!

8 02 2016

Hail CaesarThe kind of auteurism favored by most today places a high priority on repeated patterns and frameworks within a director’s body of work. I, however, tend to prefer filmmakers who can produce a consistency of mood, tone and experience without ever allowing themselves to be easily pinned down. There is perhaps no better example of this than Joel and Ethan Coen, the writing, directing and editing duo who can bounce across genres and budget sizes without skipping a beat.

Audiences most recognize the Coen Brothers for their trademark deadpan wit, with perhaps a little more emphasis on the “dead” part. They may well hold court as America’s greatest living ironists. In fact, their gifts in this realm are so well established that just seeing their names on a film imbues the proceedings with dramatic irony. Anyone who knows the Coens and their tendencies likely recognizes that the journey of the characters will not be determined by their own actions so much as it will be guided by their cosmic fate.

The brothers’ latest outing, “Hail, Caesar!,” bears many of their hallmarks. The dry humor begins with protagonist Edward Mannix (Josh Brolin) doing his best efforts at a confessional and scarcely lets up for an hour and 45 minutes. But underneath all the laughter, a very serious undercurrent of sacrifice, redemption and salvation runs resolutely. More than ever, the poker-faced Coen Brothers are tough to read. Mind you, these are the guys who got an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay in 2000 for turning Homer’s “The Odyssey” into “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” – and have claimed for 15 years now that they have not read the source text.

Where a gag ends and profundity begins provides the primary friction in “Hail, Caesar!” Their very interconnected nature seems to be the point of the film itself, and finding that point of intersection proves to be a joyous puzzle. It begins in each episodic scene as Mannix, studio head at Capitol Pictures, puts out fire after fire on the backlot for his pampered stars. This structure allows the Coens to dabble in the Golden Age of westerns, sword-and-sandals epics and musicals in both the Busby Berkley and Gene Kelly style. To call these a love letter to post-WWII Hollywood feels a little strong, but to declare it a satire or lampooning of the era’s excesses hardly feels appropriate either.

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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: Don Jon

28 01 2015

Don JonFor all those who might have found Steve McQueen’s sex addiction drama “Shame” too intense in either content or form, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s comedic “Don Jon” may provide the perfect vehicle for discussing the same issues.  The film acknowledges many of the ills facing men in the age of internet pornography, such as the objectification of women and the notion that sexual satisfactions is deliverable on demand at the leisure of a Google search.

“Don Jon” will prove enlightening for anyone who has never thought deeply about masturbatory pleasures, especially because Gordon-Levitt’s script telegraphs his social commentary through heavy-handed voiceovers from his lead character Jon.  Anyone who has ever taken anything more than psychology or sociology 101 is likely to find the film’s observations shallow and skin-deep.  But if it gets people talking and consciously reconsidering their habits, then the movie at least serves some purpose.

And in case someone tunes out during Jon’s long-winded (and perhaps somewhat implausibly aware) confessionals on his porn addiction, the plot also effectively echoes the simple yet important message.  Though the womanizing, GTL-exuding Jon lands a smoking hot girlfriend Barbara (Scarlett Johansson), she quickly flees once she discovers the extent of his dirty secret and leaves Jon a wreck.  Only when he heeds the learned wisdom of Julianne Moore’s middle-aged Esther, who reminds him that sex is about satisfying two people, can he regain the same pleasure in the orgasm.

Though “Don Jon” may not speak fluently on matters on sexuality, Gordon-Levitt certainly understands gender politics quite well.  The film really nails some of what needs to change in our current conception of masculinity, and he begins to tackle the way that females reinforce that.  At one point while shopping, Barbara insists that Jon cannot, as a man, clean his own house because it clashes with the performance of manliness that she expects.  That, unfortunately, proves the extent of glancing at the other side of the gender divide, yet there is always time to explore further.  Gordon-Levitt ought to make a “Don Joan” movie to examine femininity as well since a little too much was left on the table in “Don Jon.”  B2halfstars