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: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

6 05 2017

The summer season means sequelitis with few exceptions. One of these outliers, to an extent, is James Gunn’s “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.” It appears that after the surprising smash success of his series opener, Kevin Feige and the powers that be at Marvel decided to loosen his leash to continue pushing his aesthetic. Though the enormous potential of the irreverent “Guardians” series seems self-evident from our vantage point in the era of “Deadpool,” it was far from a sure thing when the studio greenlit the film in the heat of “The Avengers” universe-building craze. “Kick-Ass” hardly served as a reliable indicator that audiences were ready to follow the superhero genre into a parodic cycle.

From the outset, Gunn shows that he was far from operating at full throttle in the first film – and that he still has plenty of tricks up his sleeve. The way he stages the opening battle sequence is pure subversive brilliance. Some mysterious octopus-like space creature drops out of the sky and onto a landing pad where Chris Pratt’s Star-Lord and the Guardians are waiting for it. We have no idea what it is or why it poses a threat, in typical Marvel fashion. Gunn capitalizes on that unfamiliarity, staging the fight out of focus in the background while an adorable Baby Groot dances to an Electric Light Orchestra jam in front of our eyes. He knows people operate on sensation and feeling more than linear plot development, and he crafts an ideal anti-action scene.

So it’s a little disappointing when, by the end, Gunn still has to direct in lockstep with the Marvel mold. We’ve still got to have the obligatory third act “blow everything up for 20 minutes” portion of the screenplay, unfortunately. “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” at least imbues an otherwise mindless spectacle with deeper stakes. Every aspect of the film harkens back to its central themes of family, from the gold-hued eugenicist Sovereigns to Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and her sister Nebula (Karen Gillan). And, of course, there’s the match made in intertextual heaven: Star-Lord reuniting with his long-lost father, Kurt Russell’s Ego.

It’s too bad that anything relating to blood dynamics sounds like the notes from a family psychologist’s notepad. The dialogue sounds far too on-the-nose for a film so fluent in 13-year-old boy humor. (That’s not to knock the jokes, which would have gone over gangbusters with me 10 years ago. Some still do, to my reluctant chagrin.) But thankfully, Gunn still give us plenty of the franchise’s ragtag family, the Guardians themselves, rocking out to another awesome mixtape. B





REVIEW: Live by Night

11 01 2017

A few years ago, some lawmakers courted controversy by hyping themselves up for a debt ceiling showdown with a scene from Ben Affleck’s “The Town.” In the clip shown, a character flatly states, “I need your help. I can’t tell you what it is. You can never ask me about it later. And we’re going to hurt some people.” When asked for comment, Affleck was easily able to brush it off as willful misreading; no one could accuse his film of making a pure glorification of criminal enterprise.

Yet if someone were to do a hype session with a scene from Affleck’s latest film “Live by Night” – using what scene, I have no idea – the same dodging maneuver would not be so easy. This Florida-set, Prohibition-era gangster tale feels like less of a movie and more of a fantasy realized with tens of millions of Warner Bros. dollars. Though a novel by Dennis Lehane may form its backbone, make no mistake that the only shape the film takes is the splattered vomit of its directors influences all over the screen.

One could invent an “Affleck Homage” Bingo game to liven up the experience of watching the jumbled mess. One scene might be a clear nod to Gordon Willis’ photography in “The Godfather” with heavy shadows and amber/sepia lighting. Another, a Steadicam journey through a hotel’s back corridors similar to the notorious “GoodFellas” tracking shot. But all the hat tips are masking Affleck’s true fascination in “Live by Night” – himself.

Don’t be fooled by the lack of a gratuitous shirtless shot that led to chuckles both in “The Town” and “Argo.” Affleck’s insistence on slow pushes of the camera in on his stoic face signal an obsession with the undeveloped interior life of deal-making gangster Joe Coughlin. The world around him, which involves a show of force by the KKK, proves far more interesting. Yet Affleck would rather dwell in a tormented state of displaced Boston accents, ethnic conflicts and a scenario where what we now consider to be “white people” could be victims of persecution and discrimination.

At least it’s not all bad – he pretty much gives Chris Messina, playing Coughlin’s portly henchman Dion Bartolo, free range to unleash the full range of his charm and humor. It doesn’t exactly work within the rest of “Live by Night,” but given that so little else works in the film … maybe the film should have been just all Chris Messina. C2stars





REVIEW: Star Trek

1 11 2016

Is there a 101 class in film schools yet on franchise filmmaking or reboots? Because if so, I sincerely hope that J.J. Abrams’ “Star Trek” is assigned viewing. With the exception of perhaps Nolan’s “Batman” trilogy, there is no movie that has better relaunched a dormant (or, at the very least, stagnant) series. In one fail swoop, Abrams as well as writers Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman find ample reason to excite long-time fans and create new acolytes, all while providing motivation for revival beyond just profit margins.

In the seven years since this new “Star Trek” hit theaters, there have been no shortage of brand extensions and series relaunches – most of which struggle to take off due to paying excessive fan service with nostalgic callbacks. Sure, Abrams gives plenty here. The trademark pings of the intergalactic communication, the strategic peripheral views of the starship and the reappearance of a favorite character played by the same beloved actor are all enough to sate the casual fans of the classic television or film series.

“Star Trek” takes flight, however, because Abrams uses the show’s legacy as a kickstart into a bold new future, not an albatross to keep trotting in previously grazed circles. Utilizing an ingenious narrative gambit that sidesteps the original show’s chronology without erasing or ignoring it, the series gained the ability to boldly go wherever themes could lead it. The standard passion-reason dialectic between Chris Pine’s Captain Kirk and Zachary Quinto’s Spock is introduced from the get-go, and they don’t waste a second exploring its consequences.

But it doesn’t take a mechanical analysis of how Abrams guides decades of mythology to work in his favor to show “Star Trek” works. The proof is in the pudding; the film succeeds because it is just plain well-made. The characters are fun and fully developed. The action is coherent and engaging. The story flows effortlessly while also requiring some of our brainpower. The stakes are high, giving appropriate weight to a topic like genocide. (That may seem like a no-brainer, but plenty of movies have made light of it.) And, perhaps most importantly, this “Star Trek” recreates that first introduction to this universe of diplomacy and conflict.  A4stars





REVIEW: Star Trek Beyond

31 07 2016

I took a bit of an unconventional route to “Star Trek” fandom: academia. Ok, fine, a high school mini-course. A history professor’s class, called “Making The World Safe for Democracy,” used the original Gene Roddenberry television series to illustrate the kinds of political tensions being played out in America during the ’60s … only on the small screen.

Perhaps more than any series, I have always approached “Star Trek” with tinted glasses. J.J. Abrams’ first two trips down an alternate timeline contained some faint elements of this social consciousness. But as both fans and malcontents of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” know, the director often spends more time paying fan service than charting bold new territory.

Abrams left the “Star Trek” series in entirely different hands when he departed for that galaxy far, far away. (Fear not, he retains a producer credit.) Director Justin Lin, along with writers Simon Pegg and Doug Jung, make a compelling case for the more frequent shuffling voices in franchise with their take expressed in “Star Trek Beyond.” While the film may lack the polish of the Abrams entries, it excitingly pushes the universe into both classic and unfamiliar territory.

Pegg’s influence most clearly rears its head in the startling humor of “Star Trek Beyond,” far more self-effacing and tongue-in-cheek than any portion of the canon I have experienced. Perhaps now that a new generation is more familiarized with Kirk, Spock and the Enterprise crew, more opportunities present themselves for character-driven humor. The gags are more developed than the plot, which often plays like a good outline still in need some additional finer details. The story often proves difficult to follow beyond generalities, a direct reversal of what made the last two scripts from Robert Orci and Alex Kurtzman glisten.

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REVIEW: Out of the Furnace

11 09 2015

Out of the FurnaceThe small town, blue-collar workers in Scott Cooper’s “Out of the Furnace” are disappearing both from America and from the silver screen.  They deserve better than what they get here, a gritty realism riddled with clichéd storytelling conventions.

Cooper covers a lot of that up with a great cast that turns in predictably solid, if not dazzling, performances.  The explosiveness of Christian Bale, Woody Harrelson, and Casey Affleck in one movie alone is a sight to see no matter what. But it should be a powder keg, not a few sparks flying.

The film should receive some credit for being one of few to tackle the home-front experiences of Iraq War veterans like Affleck’s Rodney Baze.  He’s completely volatile, a pugnacious time bomb who will detonate if he cannot pulverize someone with his fists.  But everyone else in the Pennsylvania Rust Belt town in “Out of the Furnace” who tries to either defuse him or encourage him just fails to light up the screen in any way, shape, or form.

For a film whose title refers to an object capable of generating high temperatures, “Out of the Furnace” packs remarkably little heat.  C / 2stars





REVIEW: Infinitely Polar Bear

3 07 2015

Infinitely Polar BearMaya Forbes’ “Infinitely Polar Bear” is undoubtedly a drama, yet I was on the edge of my seat practically the entire movie.  That’s not because the movie also doubles as a thriller, though.  The film makes for a nerve-wracking experience because it follows manic depressive father, Mark Ruffalo’s Cameron, whose fragile stability of mind gets a real test when he has to assume sole parenting duties for his two daughters.

The decision is not one that he comes to lightly, but he takes on the responsibility to impress his estranged wife, Zoe Saldana’s Maggie, who impulsively married him in the ’60s when everyone was somewhat crazy.  But as the manic energy of that decade gave way to the headache of the late ’70s, Maggie discovers she needs an MBA to provide for her family.  She gets a generous scholarship from Columbia University, which is great … except that she cannot afford to relocate her two daughters from Boston to New York City.

Cameron appears to be on the mend, but nothing seems certain for him.  One of the first scenes in “Infinitely Polar Bear” shows him suffering a mental breakdown, a sight Forbes makes us desperately afraid of seeing again.  The stakes are high for Cameron as caretaker since another episode means more than self-destruction; it could directly harm two innocent young girls.

Ruffalo plays his character with a fierce commitment, never overzealously veering into exaggeration or stereotype.  Cameron really does mean well, and it proves extremely frustrating to watch him get in the way of his own good intentions.  He slowly learns how to parent Faith and Amelia, but thankfully, Forbes never tries to peddle the “love cures mental illness” message proffered by “Silver Linings Playbook.”  All progress here is hard-fought and earned.

“Infinitely Polar Bear” also looks beyond Cameron’s struggles and shines a light on those that Maggie must face.  As a mother and wife, she makes tough choices and tremendous sacrifices – only to have powerful men make sexist assumptions that she selfishly abdicated her duties.  Where pain abounds, love must rush in to soothe the hurt, and Forbes powerfully and movingly demonstrates the many different forms that love can assume.  B+ / 3stars





REVIEW: Guardians of the Galaxy

3 08 2014

When I sat down and thought about it, most of the praises I could lavish on James Gunn’s “Guardians of the Galaxy” are really backhanded compliments that slap the Marvel universe in the process.

For example, I don’t really think Kevin Feige and the Marvel brain trust really deserve a great deal of lauding for creating a film that can stand on its own with a self-contained narrative.  The majority of movies already just do that anyways.  Those movies also just have well-developed characters with internal lives given as an assumption, not as a point of commendation.

But if you want to grade James Gunn’s take on a lesser-known Marvel property against their hopelessly generic and shamelessly commercial films of better known characters like Captain America, it’s going to look like a masterstroke.  “Guardians of the Galaxy” has two attributes that probably make executives at Marvel cower in fear: a unique creative vision and a good sense of humor.  It’s a playful film that often feels like fan fiction uncovered from a child of the ’80s raised on a steady diet of Lucas and Spielberg.

To achieve this adolescent fantasy of a film, Gunn assembles a very game group that becomes akin to Marvel’s version of the “Not Ready for Prime Time Players.”  The film stars Chris Pratt as Peter Quill (or Star-Lord, as he’d have you call him), a profit-motivated intergalactic thief who might be the most morally ambiguous blockbuster hero since Jack Sparrow.  On an average commission to retrieve an orb, Quill gets pulled into a gigantic power struggle that endangers both he and his precious Walkman.

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REVIEW: Blood Ties

22 06 2014

Blood TiesCannes Film Festival – Out of Competition, 2013

It’s clear from the beginning of “Blood Ties” that Guillaume Canet’s English-language feature debut is a Scorsese-lite New York ensemble drama.  Still, to so successfully channel a modern master right out of the gate is pretty impressive.  While Canet’s direction is hardly novel, he always keeps the film fun and compelling.

His ’70s saga follows the exploits of the two Pierzynski brothers squaring off on opposite sides of the law, Chris (Clive Owen) the criminal and Frank (Billy Crudup) the cop.  If the premise sounds familiar, well, it is.  In fact, the film is co-written by Canet with the help of James Gray, who himself wrote/directed a very similar tale of fraternal opposition called “We Own the Night” back in 2007.

Yet even though it felt like I knew these characters from other movies, they still thrilled me.  Gray, a consummate crafter of familial tension, completely nails the tricky dynamics between Chris and Frank.  They have always been pitted against each other, so a natural rivalry has been fostered between them.  Yet underneath it all, there’s the undeniable pull of – wait for it – blood ties that every so often overpowers all else.

Clive Owen is once again dastardly convincing in a brutish role, recalling his gripping performance in “Inside Man.”  However, it’s Billy Crudup who really carries the movie with a quiet strength.  He never really got a role to showcase all the talent he showed in “Almost Famous,” and now, 14 years later, Crudup arrives again with a bang. Read the rest of this entry »





REVIEW: Star Trek Into Darkness

19 08 2013

I’ve been wrestling over my angle on reviewing “Star Trek Into Darkness” for quite a while.  I really did like the movie, although not nearly to the extent as J.J. Abrams’ 2009 rebooting of the franchise.  Just because it is not as good does not mean it is not any good, and I certainly do not want to imply that.

It’s still a solid summer movie, full of impressive and fun action as well as a dastardly star-making villainous performance by Benedict Cumberbatch.  Once again written by the dream team of Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, and Damon Lindelof, the story delivers in a big way.  No longer burdened with reintroducing the once-iconic characters to audiences, they can focus on weaving an allegorical tapestry of many moral issues facing the post-9/11 world.

I’m far from disappointed with the latest voyage of the USS Enterprise.  However, it never reached the levels of excitement that led me to declare it my second most anticipated film of 2013 back in January.  “Star Trek Into Darkness” is still a great movie, don’t get me wrong, but it’s definitely a notch below the giddily fun “Star Trek” from four years ago.  While that’s still light years ahead of summer blockbusters “Man of Steel,” J.J. Abrams heads into directing “Star Wars” on a bit of a down note.

He made a decently acceptable action film.  It just won’t be particularly remarkable in retrospect.  When I go back and think about summer 2013 a few years down the road, I suspect I might forget that “Star Trek Into Darkness” was even released (although writing that line in my review might change that).  B+3stars





REVIEW: Avatar

23 12 2009

It takes more than just gumption and chutzpa to get up on one of the world’s biggest stages and declare yourself king of the world; it takes conviction.  When James Cameron did just this at the Academy Awards in 1997 after “Titanic,” it was shocking to some and bombastic to others (I’m too young to remember the occasion).  What had he really done to gain the title “king of the world?”  What separates him from the dozens of directors who stood in the exact same place as he had?  What is the legacy of “Titanic” other than a firm position in the highest echelon of box office performance and a hefty loot on Oscar night?  According to IMDb, it is now the lowest rated of the five Best Picture nominees that year.  From what I understand, the movie electrified the people and was simply too popular to ignore.

Fast forward 12 years to today where James Cameron has just released “Avatar.”  If he got up on national television and screamed, “I’M KING OF THE WORLD,” I just might buy it.  His latest project is one fifteen years in the making, and he may have just sparked a revolution in cinema.  “Avatar” is breathtaking moviemaking at its finest, with astonishing visuals that are designed to do more than just floor you.  They engulf you and transport you to Pandora, a land of untold beauty complete with its own indigenous people, language, and wildlife, for an exhilarating ride and fascinating experience.

I knew the effects would be a slam dunk victory for Cameron, but I had my doubts about his ability to craft a story after “Titanic,” whose melodramatic plot I can usually summarize in one sentence (Leo and Kate have a lot of fun and the boat sinks).  Much to my surprise, Cameron actually constructs a very engaging story with undertones about the dangers of imperialism.  Cynics might call it the Smurf County production of “Pocahontas,” but the story still feels fresh even though it is a bit recycled.  Jake Sully (Sam Worthington of “Terminator Salvation” fame) is a paraplegic Marine who is torn between the two competing human forces on Pandora after he develops a special bond with the native Na’vi.  The scientists, led by the sassy cigarette-smoking Grace (Sigourney Weaver), want to discover how the Na’vi think in order to live in harmony with them.  The military operation, commanded by the hulking Colonel Quatritch (Stephen Lang), works in tandem with the financial side of the project, run by a thundering businessman doing his best Ari Gold impersonation (Giovanni Ribisi), to figure out the best way to get their hands on the bonanza underneath the sacred tree of the Na’vi.  They would prefer relocation but are not afraid to resort to subjugation if the natives prove to be a handful.  While Jake tries to serve two distinctly different agendas, he becomes quite taken by the Na’vi and the way they live in cooperation with nature – and not to mention quite smitten by the Amazonian Neytiri (Zoë Saldana).  Soon, the two forces tugging for Jake becomes not scientists vs. military but Na’vi vs. humans. Read the rest of this entry »