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: Spider-Man: Homecoming

5 07 2017

The “Spider-Man” series, in both its prior cinematic incarnations this millennium, have dealt with the consequences of giving extraordinary power to ordinary men. The web-slinger’s modern persona is the product of an individualistic Bush-era America where heroes were lone actors grappling with authority and treading near the line of vigilantism. He’s a symbol of the power of the one, overcoming self-made obstacles, vanquishing doubts and conquering evil menace.

But by the time that the lifeless 2014 iteration of the character, “The Amazing Spider-Man 2,” arrived in theaters, actor Andrew Garfield even acknowledged the hollowness of this interpretation. “The danger of these superhero films is that they maybe propagate a lie that what’s going to change the world is one man, or one woman, just being the beacon of light,” he told The Daily Beast. “That’s not the way that it’s ever happened and it’s not going to be the way that it ever happens — I think it’s going to take every single person doing their small, massive bit to create a world, to create a society and a culture, that if we can imagine it we can do it.”

While Tom Holland’s Peter Parker in “Spider-Man: Homecoming” is far from the cooperative hero of “The Avengers,” he’s a step in the correct, more honest direction. Holland actually looks like the high school-aged kid that Spider-Man is; Garfield, by contrast, was 31 when his Peter Parker accepted a high school diploma. And from that starting point, director Jon Watts and a stable of six writers craft a superhero narrative around a lesson that resonates for adolescences both radioactive and regular. (We need not discuss the ending point, yet another reminder of the endemic inability for comic book adaptations to wrap up in anything other than a mind-numbing CGI pyrotechnics demo.)

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REVIEW: The Lost City of Z

17 10 2016

New York Film Festival

In 2014, while still in the thralls of my passionate obsession with James Gray’s “The Immigrant,” I attended the Telluride Film Festival where, lo and behold, Gray himself was attending to present a screening of Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now.” (I won’t go into too much detail about how I choked on approach to chat with him outside a screening.) He also penned an essay for the festival’s program lavishing praise on Coppola’s masterpiece, writing, “The film poses questions without any attempt to provide definitive answers, and its profound ambiguities are integral to its enduring magic.”

Of course, this only popped into my mind about an hour of the way through Gray’s latest work, “The Lost City of Z.” The film’s jungle trek in search of a mythic destination, of course, bears many surface similarities to “Apocalypse Now.” Going deeper, however, little else in the Amazonian journey of Charlie Hunnam’s Percy Fawcett corresponds to the descent into madness of Martin Sheen’s Captain Willard. Fawcett’s quest is one for pride, not shame. In his attempts to discover a lost civilization among the South Americans derided as “savages” by the Brits, he hopes to provide both a cultural corrective and a reputation restoration to his tarnished family name.

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There’s an earnestness to Fawcett’s trips (yes, plural, because it takes a trio of them) that feels entirely from before the moral malaise of “Apocalypse Now,” due in large part to Gray’s unabashed classicism. He’s even got his own match cut to pay winking homage to David Lean’s “Lawrence of Arabia.” Yet “The Lost City of Z” feels caught between two periods, the old-fashioned spectacle of the Hollywood cinematic epic and the more self-conscious, interrogative New Hollywood style. To return briefly to Gray’s own terminology, the film lacks some magic because its ambiguity exists within a structure that prefers resolution and triumph.

Gray always has a firm command of what’s happening on screen, and director of photography Darius Khondji captures it in luscious hues and sweeping movement. What exactly is meant by Fawcett’s multiple journeys, each of which test his commitment to his fellow explorers, country and family, is not always clear. Removed from the personal authenticity of Gray’s early work and the radical sincerity of “The Immigrant,” narrative resonance is somewhat lacking.

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Even so, “The Lost City of Z” is still a sumptuous delight of visual splendor. Thirty minutes could probably be trimmed to help sustain more momentum, though such cuts might sacrifice some of the delicate character arcs. As the film progresses, Fawcett’s right-hand man Henry Costin (Robert Pattinson, playing his supporting role with the humility of a great character actor) gradually grows uncertain that their mission to locate their missing city can bear any fruit. At the same time, however, Fawcett’s son Jack (Tom Holland, recalling his superb turn in “The Impossible“) moves from disenchantment with his father to full allegiance and companionship. Witnessing one rise as the other falls makes for a more unexpected journey within the film – and one of its few facets that’s not entirely straightforward. B2halfstars





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: 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: How I Live Now

19 02 2016

How I Live NowPlot-wise, not a lot separates Kevin MacDonald’s “How I Live Now” from prestige film “Atonement.” (And yes, going beyond the fact that both feature Saoirse Ronan.) The two films feature the discovery of young, passionate love that gets torn asunder by global warfare. Rather than follow the male into battle, both choose to focus primarily on the female experience on the outskirts of the conflict, where they pine for the restoration of a harmonious world.

But execution and tone set them apart. “How I Live Now” takes place in a nondescript, undeveloped dystopian present-day that erupts into World War III, and it feels more like a bad plot device than any meaningful social commentary. The film is based on a YA novel by Meg Rosoff, and MacDonald struggles to transcend those origins – try as he might to make it more adult with a more tense R-rating.

Ronan gives it her all, too, as protagonist Daisy, a constantly put-out teen who finds meaning in romance with George MacKay’s Eddie after being unceremoniously shipped across the sea to the U.K. But even acting the heck out of her character does not change the fact that Daisy is a whiny, angst-ridden adolescent whose idea of real love is fantasizing about Eddie’s shirtless torso. It may be tough for her to be a young person in a world forcing her to grow up and face the ugliness of humanity. However, it is probably tougher for “How I Live Now” being a teen movie and trying to parade around as a tale for adults. B-2stars





REVIEW: The Impossible

16 01 2013

The ImpossibleI can never imagine the pain and the agony of being put through nature’s crucible, but I can gain an ever so slight taste of it from movies that can bottle up their terror.  The latest of such is “The Impossible,” which ripped a hole in my stomach in a way no movie has since “127 Hours.”  Juan Antonio Bayona’s gut-punch of a movie takes us through the incredible journey of one separated family during the 2004 Southeast Asian tsunami, and boy, does it pack on the pain.

The film begins with an uneasy exposition, introducing us to the Bennett family that has come to Thailand for Christmas to release some steam from their hectic lives.  Just like in any movie headed towards disaster, you grit your teeth waiting for the inevitable to arrive.  With the dramatic irony escalating as they idyllically enjoy the calmness of their resort, the nervous waiting for these people to be thrown into hell on earth builds up.

And then when the tsunami hits, our first sign of devastation is a primordial wail from Maria, Naomi Watts’ benevolent matriarch, as she hangs onto a tree for dear life.  It’s a moment of paralyzing hopelessness that reverberates strongly and affectingly, setting the tone for what is to be a movie with a new agony at every turn.

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