Avengers: Infinity War

April 29, 2018 at 5:09 pm | Posted in 2018 | Leave a comment
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After a decade of teasing and flirting, “it” has finally arrived. And when I say “it,” I mean the culmination of 15 years of planning on the part of Marvel Comics to lift themselves out of bankruptcy and make their cadre of superheroes relevant again. And, relevant they have certainly become. “Avengers: Infinity War” has just had the highest grossing weekend of all time, at $250M. That is quite the turnaround for a company that was basically dead by the end of the 90s. The question, though, is, “can this film live up to a decade of hype?” You could certainly be forgiven for thinking that no film could, especially one of this scope. With over 30 named characters who have been central to previous films, there were a lot of moving parts this story had to manage. It’s a credit to the Russo brothers (who cut their teeth directing the “Captain America” films), that this story is as coherent as it is. There is not a single wasted minute in it’s 2:40 play time. From the first scene, it is up and running at full tilt. It can do that partly because no exposition is needed. They can assume that every audience member knows every character already. The biggest unknown was Thanos, and movies fail on poorly written villains. Fortunately, he is one of the best we have seen in the genre. He is incredibly powerful and complex. Though he wants to do monstrous things, it seems to genuinely come from a twisted sense of compassion. That makes him a fantastic character to watch. It can almost feel like a shame that he has to share screen time with so many others. Wisely, the Russos never bring all the characters together in the same scene; that would have been chaos. Instead, the film toggles between disparate scenes all over the galaxy, each with its own characters, goals, and story arc. This effectively allows each member of a huge cast to shine to some degree. The pace may be too much for some people. A legitimate criticism might be that the film is relentless. But, for a true fan, this will feel like payoff, especially in the final minutes of the film. It’s remarkable how tightly guarded the script has been. The internet abounded with theories as to what would happen; I am pleased to say that most were wrong. I was not expecting how the final 10-15 minutes played out. If I have one criticism, it is that I think they overplayed their hand a bit in the final scene. It might have been more impactful had it not been so extreme. When it started, I heard gasps in my audience. By the time it was done, we all knew the long-term implications would be more blunted than they initially appeared. Small quibbles aside, this was a fun ride that definitely left me ready for more. I can’t wait for Phase 2 of the MCU to unfold. If it is anywhere near as successful as Phase 1, we’ll be watching superheroes for decades more to come.

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Black Panther

February 17, 2018 at 12:20 pm | Posted in 2018 | Leave a comment
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Where to begin? With some films, there is so little I want to say, that I’m not sure I can squeeze a decent review out of them (whether I liked the film or not). For films like this one, I have so much to say, I don’t know how to fit it all in. To call Ryan Coogler’s new film brilliant seems to risk both overhyping it and underselling it; it cannot be categorized so easily with just one word. Coogler, whose other two movies include “Creed” and the stunning “Fruitvale Station,” has deliberately made a Black movie for a Black audience. What makes this film revolutionary is that he has done it within a genre that has been colonized entirely by the White perspective until now. The basic rules of a good superhero movie include: a lot of interesting action, great special effects, powerful (and emotionally complex) heroes, a daunting evil villain, and (more recently) plenty of quips and tie-ins to a larger superhero universe. To that end, this film checks most of those boxes and does so as well as, though not particularly better than, most of the best superhero movies. But evaluating it just on that criteria entirely misses what this film really does. For every other film in this genre, the race of the characters and the director was overwhelmingly White. As a result, the perspective of the entire film was a White one, and the implications of that remained unexamined by almost all of us, myself included. But, in “Black Panther,” the perspective is shifted, the lens turned back on itself, and the limitations within the genre thus far are left exposed. This is not a film made from the White perspective that happens to have an all Black cast; this is a Black film and we, as White viewers, are left on the outside looking in. It’s about time. This is a film whose bones are built on the thing that makes most White Americans uncomfortable with African Americans– their deep and abiding anger. That is why this film is so revolutionary. We have had plenty of films in the past that have explored the complex cultural issues around race, including fantastic Black films by Black artists. But those films have almost always been serious dramas or sly comedies. But superheroes are America’s epic heroes. As with other heroic tropes of the past (cowboys, knights, etc.), they serve as the representation of how we want to view ourselves: bold, noble, self-sacrificing, and the idealized representation of our truest values. When Coogler uses this genre to make us participants in the conversation about racial injustice and anger, he subverts expectations in a way we aren’t prepared for. I noticed my own discomfort when I watch Black people talking about White people behind our backs, so to speak. Typically, when we see this in film, White people remain the ones in power, even in those conversations, even when we aren’t present. Within the realm of comic book fantasy, Coogler is free to imagine a world where Black people are truly, entirely in power. In that world, we see Black people talking about White societies with the same “benign” condescension that we have historically used when discussing African societies; ie what is our responsibility toward the ignorant savages (only, in this case, the savages are the White societies). That that is such a revolutionary perspective, and that it makes me uncomfortable, exposes for me just how entrenched the colonizer’s gaze is. In “Black Panther,” we are shown a beautiful African society, as idealized as many movies have made American society. Coogler’s Wakanda manages to be both a technological supercity and also deeply African. The art, streets, clothing, architecture all have a profound African identity built into them. It is also a truly equitable city, where women serve in all roles of society (in fact, one could argue that this is also the most feminist superhero film made to date). Wakanda is a city built for the Black audience, as a representation of their idealized world. From that perspective, the final scenes of this film are particularly powerful. It feels as though this movie is having a conversation with Black America and, in the final moments, it is inviting the larger world to join that conversation. But (and here is the real revolution), they are not inviting us to a conversation about race on our terms; we are being invited to finally start having the conversation on their terms. I have said much about Coogler as the director and writer and nothing about the cast. It seems flippant to simply say that everyone was fantastic, but they truly were. This is a brilliant cast that includes some of the best of the rising young actors in Hollywood today. I will highlight one performance, though. I do think Michael B. Jordan should get an Oscar nomination for his character Killmonger. Everything about that performance is incendiary and his character is uncompromised from start to finish. His final scene with T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) was stunningly powerful; I cannot remember ever seeing that much honesty, rage, pride in a comic book film. And, all of that came from the villain. He is one of the best villains in any superhero movie to date; Heath Ledger’s may have been edgier, but Jordan’s is more moving and emotionally real. Now, I must confess my own discomfort reading back over this review. I am cognizant that I am speaking about a world that I’m not a apart of. Mine is not the best voice to interpret this film and its importance; I know that. I share here my perceptions and my desire to be apart of a broader conversation, that should happen on every level, including the arts. Film has a unique ability to reach so many people. That this one uses the framework of a genre we are so familiar with to speak a language that is so unfamiliar to most of us (and yet so comfortable to some), is why I think the only, best word for “Black Panther” is, in the end, simply brilliant.

 

Justice League

November 19, 2017 at 10:09 am | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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Admittedly, the bar was low for this one. “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice” was just a mess, with moments of visual wonder amongst the horrendous dialogue and muddled, overly-stuffed story line. I did not expect much as the curtain rose (I go to an old-timey theatre, where there actually still is two layers of curtains that do rise and a guy playing on the organ before the show starts). When the final credits rolled, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed this film. Director Zac Snyder (“Batman v. Superman,” “The 300,” “The Watchmen”) has toned down the moody visuals he is known for. They were really the only thing I like about the last film, but they aren’t missed here. In their place, we get a tighter and less grim story arc, with genuine humor and even some actual character development. DC has a long way to go to match the camaraderie and complexity of the Avengers’s relationships. That said, I think Joss Whedon, who wrote the screenplay, does a good job of getting us halfway there. Each of these characters had his/her own distinct personality and way of interacting with the others. Even a character like Cyborg, who I had worried would get lost against the larger and more iconic characters, was a vital member of the team, with his own unique personality and compelling story. Whedon and Snyder even managed to create an Aquaman who was not wholly ridiculous. Much of that credit also goes to Jason Momoa who gave the character a sly humor and gravitas that he desperately needed. Most of the laughs centered around the Flash, with Ezra Miller well cast in the part. Miller’s Flash is hyperactive, giddy, wide-eyed and a bit goofy. He’s far more interesting than the boy-scout TV version. At times, the humor around him felt a bit forced and fell flat for me. But, the funniest laughs also centered around his character. Overall, I think this film lacked the comfortable humor of “Wonder Woman” and the action scenes were not quite as fun. That said, I found the plot here to be much more interesting, the story arc more satisfying, and the ending avoided the silliness that crept into “Wonder Woman’s” final moments. This was a fun, high action romp with characters I would love to see more of. In the end, I think DC did exactly what it needed to.

Thor: Ragnarok

November 5, 2017 at 9:52 am | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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I liked this film so much more than either of its prequels (“Thor” and “Thor: The Dark World“), which is admittedly a pretty low bar.  Those were both dull and overly serious, relying entirely on special effects to replace any meaningful plot or dialogue. Come to think of it, this film is not so different. It is mostly a special effects spectacle with largely silly dialogue and a plot so full of holes that it is hard to decide which ones to highlight. How about the utter lack of explanation for how Hulk ended up on this planet, or how Bruce Banner’s ominous fear about himself is utterly ignored in the end, or how a creature vanquished so easily at the beginning of the movie becomes all powerful when it returns. The list could go on, but then you might be tempted to think that I didn’t like this film and I did. Why? Because there was one critical difference between it and its predecessors; it had a sense of humor. New Zealand born director Taika Waititi, who is most known for the tedious “What We Do in the Shadows” and the lovely “Hunt for the Wilderpeople,” is primarily a comedy writer/director. He has brought that aesthetic to the Thor franchise, where it is much needed. This film was, first and foremost, a superhero action movie. As such, it had its main villain, played with delicious glee by Cate Blanchett. It had its various lesser baddies, played with varying levels of silliness, from the relatively straight Karl Urban (as “Skurge”) to the always over-the-top Jeff Goldblum (“Grandmaster”). And it had several well-choreographed fight scenes, including the Hulk/Thor battle that we have all seen in all the previews, and the final battle scene, which was beautifully scored to Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song.” The best thing about these scenes was that the audience could actually follow the action, which has been a real problem in many CGI fight scenes in previous movies (think anything Michael Bay). But, as I mentioned, on top of all of this saving-the-universe-yet-again stuff, there was this nice layer of light comedy. At times it didn’t work, particularly when it was overly adolescent; I could have gotten through a Thor movie without ever hearing any masturbation, penis-size or anus jokes. But, what it did really well was to add dimension to two overly dramatic Marvel characters. Both Thor and The Hulk have suffered in overly serious films. Here, they suddenly became real people. These two characters were more alive in this film than in any film to date. Their buddy relationship was particularly fun to watch, as it allowed both actors to show a softer side to their characters, including warmth, humor, and self-doubt. I like this new Hulk a lot and I really like the new Thor who has evolved by the end of this story. I hope these are the two characters who show up in the “Infinity Wars” movies. I could definitely watch more of both of them.

Wonder Woman

June 4, 2017 at 10:28 am | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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I don’t think I need much from a movie in this genre. Mostly, it just needs to be fun. Some great visual effects, frequent and creative action sequences, and humor are really probably all I need. It’s an added bonus if there is a great story arc and compelling, multilayered characters. In DC’s newest superhero movie, and the first ever with a female lead, we get a lot of the first three things on my list but not much of the second two. Humor has mostly eluded DC until now. Their cadre of films (The “Dark Knight” series, “Man of Steel,” “Batman v. Superman,” “Watchmen”) have all been pretty grim affairs. Fortunately, under the direction of Patty Jenkins, they seem to have finally found their sense of humor. Jenkins, who has only directed one other feature film (2003’s brilliant “Monster”), knows how to develop strong female leads, as she did in that film and on the tv series “The Killing.” Here, she uses Gal Gadot to great effect, giving us strong doses of her emotional strength, physical strength and compassion. This film works largely because she works so well in the role. There is nothing campy or silly about this Wonder Woman, which then gives space for humor that feels more like laughing with, rather than laughing at, the characters. Jenkins’s visuals were also dazzling. I loved the choreography of her fight scenes and the way she continually slowed down the camera so that we could watch what was happening. Some might find that technique affected, especially with how frequently she used it, but I loved it. Far too often in CGI films, action happens too quickly for the audience to track it. Here, we were able to see all of the great dexterity and grace that Gadot and Jenkins instilled into this character’s fighting abilities. I found myself smiling over and over again at the creativity and fun of those scenes. More and more often, comic book films are able to look like the actual comic book panels that inspired them. The 12-year-old boy in me loves that. What I did not love quite as much was the silly gods-heavy plot line, which effectively minimized the travesty of war by laying the blame conveniently not at our feet. It also set up the very corny, saccharine ending that made me groan out loud at one point (actually, I think I said, “Oh, come on! Really?”). Fortunately, the worst of it comes in the last five or so minutes of an otherwise thoroughly entertaining and thoroughly fun adventure. I hope this film brings us a great deal more of all three of these women: Gal Gadot, Patty Jenkins and, of course, Wonder Woman.

 

Sleight

May 7, 2017 at 4:59 pm | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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Fandango called this film a combination of “Chronicle” and “Iron Man,” but I don’t think that’s quite right. To my mind, it is more closely aligned with urban black films from 1991’s “Straight Out of Brooklyn” to 2015’s “Dope.” The young guy, simply wanting to get out of poverty and take care of his family, gets involved with drug dealers and things go awry. The tropes are all too common and well-tread. J.D. Dillard, making his full-length directing debut, certainly gives the genre a twist by adding in superhero/sci-fi elements, but this film never strays far from its genre. That’s a shame because it is as its most interesting when it is at its most fantastic. If Dillard had more fully embraced the fantasy elements, he may have made a more interesting film. That’s not to say this was a bad film, but it never felt like it lifted too far above the cliché. The story went exactly where you might expect but never got as gritty or as scary as most films in the genre and it felt like nothing real was ever at stake. In the end, that’s the film’s biggest problem; it’s just lite. Dillard made a gangsta-lite film and a sci-fi-lite film. The result is that it isn’t very satisfying in either genre. The one way that I would compare it to “Chronicle” is in its intentions. I don’t think anyone made this film believing it would make a ton of money or win any awards or make them famous. I think they hoped it would serve as a resume to Hollywood, getting their names out there, building some buzz and generating other, bigger work for them. Tiny as “Chronicle” was, it launched the careers of Josh Trank, Dean DeHaan and Micheal B. Jordan. “Sleight”‘s lead actor, Jacob Latimore, does a fine job and probably deserves more exposure. The rest of the mostly unknown cast do fine but nobody stands out as a superstar. Of course, neither did Jordan in “Chronicle,” so perhaps they just need the right material. This film just doesn’t seem to have the buzz that “Chronicle” generated, even though I actually liked it slightly better. I hope to see Latimore and Dillard in the future; they both deserve more exposure. I’m just not sure this film is going to give it to them.

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

May 7, 2017 at 9:55 am | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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Vol. 2 is the right signifier for this film, not only because it cleverly hearkens back to 80s mixed tapes but also because this really is just a retread of the first film. It is exactly as entertaining as that one but not an ounce more. James Gunn is the right director/writer for these films. His sense of timing, humor and pacing are well-fitted for this series. But he has found his formula and doesn’t seem the least bit interested in breaking out of it. Given the films’ success, I can’t really blame him. He has gathered the same crew of actors (Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Bradley Cooper, Vin Diesel, Michael Rooker and Karen Gillan) and essentially put them through 2 ½ hours of more of the same. It is a fast-paced fun ride, full of good laughs, but it isn’t anything different from the last one. We are treated to a dazzling special effects overload (I was particularly impressed by the CGI used to make Kurt Russell look younger– it’s the best I’ve ever seen) and an over burdened plot that is equal parts silly and irrelevant. Marvel has dug deep to introduce us to some pretty obscure characters here (most of whom had a brief moment of notoriety in the 70s), including Ego, Mantis, the Watchers, Howard the Duck, the Grandmaster, and what appears to be a reference to Adam Warlock. In addition to obscure comic book characters, we are treated to a variety of random actors playing them (sometimes just as voice overs), including Sylvester Stallone, Michelle Yeoh, Seth Greene, Ving Rhames, Rob Zombie, David Hasselhoff, Miley Cyrus, Jeff Goldblum, Stan Lee of course, and the entirety of James Gunn’s family. And, like all Marvel movies, this one has post-credit scenes. In fact, it has 5 of them. So, if you are interested in that sort of thing (some of them are very funny), you will want to stay until lights up in the theater. It may all seem like a bit much, but that is part of the fun. The absurdity of it all just adds to the experience. The first film was a great, fun way to spend a couple of hours and this one is also. It isn’t anything new but, then, I guess it doesn’t really have to be. Especially when what it is works so well.

Logan

March 6, 2017 at 7:00 pm | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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I said in my last review that “Get Out” was actually a comedy/parody disguised as a horror film. Well, “Logan” is a horror film disguised as a superhero movie. In particular, it belongs among the goriest of slasher flicks. This dark tale must be based on a story from the comics, though it is not one I was familiar with. That was probably best. I have only been disappointed by the truly terrible adaptations that have been made of classic X-Men stories (“Days of Future Past” and the brilliant Wolverine miniseries, just to name two). In general, the entire X-Men series of films has been one boring misstep after another. This was the first one to have any depth of character, any real sense of peril and that required any actual acting. Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart were terrific as the two aged and broken heroes. Their banter, bickering and pain were such a nice relief from the typical superhero fare. This is 2029 and its a grim world where both men have lost faith in themselves, each other and everything else. Grittier and far far more violent than any other X-Men film, I found myself drawn into the story, even while I was occasionally distracted by the violence. Somber from start to finish, this was unlike anything I might have expected and I was delighted. I hope we see more filmmakers willing to take this genre into the world of adult emotions and complexity. There are so many heroes that I think could flourish under that treatment.

The Lego Batman Movie

February 26, 2017 at 3:02 pm | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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After the heavier, more pensive films I was seeing toward the end of last year’s list, I thought I might start my 2017 films with something a bit lighter. Well, you can’t get much lighter than this. After the success of 2014’s “The Lego Movie,” clearly Lego and D.C. are planning on doubling down on the concept. This is just the second in what is planned to be a series of Lego movies; in fact, there is another one coming out in just a few months. Well, I suspect this one will be enough for me. I don’t know what I expected. Something light, silly and funny, I guess. And, I guess, it was those things. Still, I was left only partly satisfied. I’m not sure I can even put my finger on why. It was humorous but never elicited much more than a chuckle in me, despite the fact that it was chock full of every type of humor– slapstick, innuendo, parody, sarcasm, irony, social commentary, cultural references (like crazy) and on and on. Somehow, few of them managed to land with me. The novelty of the Lego-style visuals had worn off halfway through the last movie and there was little that was original here. That said, the music was much less annoying this time around, so that’s something. As with the last one, there was a ton of actors lending their voices, everyone from Ralph Fiennes to Mariah Carey, some of whom seemed happy to have just a single line (like Jonah Hill). In the end, the film was fine. I just wish I had as much fun as the actors all seemed to.

Doctor Strange

November 5, 2016 at 10:30 am | Posted in 2016 | Leave a comment
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The Marvel Cinematic Universe has been so successful for everyone, not least of all Marvel Comics, who was on the verge of bankruptcy 15 years ago, that they must have a full time employee at Marvel whose only job is to dig through every remaining character in their pantheon, looking for their next gold mine. The current list of Marvel characters that have been featured in recent film or television include Captain America, the X-Men, Iron Man, Thor, Spider-man, Ant-Man, The Black Widow, The Black Panther, The Falcon, The Fantastic Four, The Hulk, Hawkeye, Daredevil, The Vision, Scarlet Witch, Quicksilver, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones, Nick Fury and the list goes on. At this point, they have to dig deep into their archives to find new material. Fortunately for them, they have more than 50 years of it. Doctor Strange is what you might call one of their B- List characters. He was created in the 1960s and languished in obscurity until he was rescued in the 80s by artist Marshall Rogers. Briefly, he had a cult following before slipping into the background again. Well, Marvel has now revived him for a film series of his own, inspired heavily by Rogers’s art and the visuals of films like “Inception.” The end result is a better-than-it-should-be romp through a lighter, funnier, campier film than either “Inception” or the comic book ever were. There is certainly plenty of magical action (I wish the magic from “Harry Potter” had looked half this good) and the final battle was a visual delight that must have been murder to film but was sheer fun to watch. There was also room for back story, pensive introspection and life lessons without slowing the plot down. In the end, the lighthearted tone eases the audience through the sillier aspects of the story and keeps things going at a jaunty pace. Doctor Strange will never be much more than a bit player among superheroes but this film shows Marvel’s genius at lifting him up enough to at least get a trilogy out of him. He may not be cinematic gold but he’ll be worth a few silver.

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