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.


Thor: Ragnarok

November 5, 2017 at 9:52 am | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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◊ ◊ ◊ ½

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.

Star Trek Beyond

July 23, 2016 at 2:53 pm | Posted in 2016 | Leave a comment
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For those of you familiar with the Star Trek canon, this film will be exactly what you expect it to be, for better and for worse. Though widely more popular than the last one (“Into Darkness”), I liked it less. Perhaps, I am experiencing sequel fatigue, but I recall having the same reaction to the latest James Bond film after really loving the previous one. I think I am just craving something new and I didn’t really find it here. Much has been said about director Justin Lin (the ” The Fast & The Furious” series) and his style and it was noticeable here in the pacing, which was faster and more unrelenting than previous Trek films. For me, that fast pace is entertaining but led to little plot development; the film was a series of rapidly presented problems that were almost as rapidly resolved. However, what I was most aware of was how this story line seemed like best-of clips from so many Star Trek films before it. We have the one maniacal leader who has an irrational/poorly justified hatred of The Federation (or Jim Kirk, in particular) and who is somehow capable of getting others to mindlessly die for his cause. Inevitably, after the rest of his group is defeated, he ends up mano-y-mano against Kirk (or, as in the last movie, against Spock). Throw in a good henchman, wisecracking banter and maybe crash the Enterprise into a planet while you are at it, and you pretty much have the components of most of the films (“Star Trek: The Motion Picture” and “The Voyage Home” being the two notable exceptions). If they want to stick to the formula, fair enough. But, if you are not going to engage me with a plot that surprises me, give me more depth. Slow the film down. Have less unrelenting action and more opportunity to get to know the characters (and introducing Sulu’s husband doesn’t really count as getting to know the characters) and to create tension. I can’t help but think of the great “Wrath of Khan” and the final battle scene in the nebula. The film had invested in all of those characters enough that there was real tension in that scene and, because it unfolded so slowly, that tension really built.  It’s true that they had an advantage because Khan was an established character but Trek has the Klingons or the Borg or many others they can draw on. “Wrath” was a very slow paced film by this today’s standards but the pacing allowed me to invest in the action in a way this film never did. This one was like a roller coaster. I just hung on and then it was done. I mean, I enjoyed the ride but it’ll never stay with me. That nebula scene still does, even 35 years later.

Finding Dory

June 19, 2016 at 5:57 pm | Posted in 2016 | Leave a comment
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I don’t know that much needs to be said about this film. If you have seen “Finding Nemo,” you have basically seen a version of this one. The story arc is roughly the same and the film has the same combination of humor, mild danger and pathos. Along the way, we learn something about relationships and not giving up, despite overwhelming obstacles and self-doubt. The animation is of the exact same quality as all Pixar films for the past 15 years (in fact, is looks indistinguishable from “Nemo”); Pixar have done little to improve the medium that they revolutionized 2 decades ago. Having said all of this, they remain the undisputed masters on the genre. Even their bad films are good and this is one of their better ones. The characters have depth and are genuinely touching and funny. Hank the octopus, voiced by Ed O’Neill (“Modern Family,” “Married with Children”), is a welcome addition who adds genuine humor. Most of the original voices have returned. Even the boy who voiced the original Nemo (Alexander Gould, now fully grown) has a cameo in the film. This is safe, comfortable stuff. If you liked the original, you will like this one. In fact, it seems almost impossible not to like, though I will say that it had a couple of caricatures of “crazy” that seemed to play with mental health for laughs. That quibble aside, the film has everything you will be looking for if you are looking for a film like this. Nothing will surprise you much, for good or for bad. It’s a fun, silly, sweet journey and one well worth the taking.

The Jungle Book

April 17, 2016 at 5:41 pm | Posted in 2016 | Leave a comment
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In preparation for seeing this film, I reread Rudyard Kipling’s “The Jungle Book” for the first time in probably 25 years this week (or at least the portion from which the movie is drawn). I also rewatched portions of the 1967 classic. All of which is to say that I felt prepared for what to expect; I was not. From the earliest moments, the audience knows it’s in for a visual treat. Much as I had heard about the special effects, I had steadfastly avoided any previews, so I was completely unprepared for how realistic those animals were. The way they walked, the way the wind moved through their fur, the way they reacted with anger or fear, was all so remarkably realistic. I found the wolves, in particular, to be mesmerizing but all of the creatures were truly stunning. And the vivid Indian jungle was just as beautiful and rich. I have no idea how much of what we saw was set and how much was CGI and it all blended seamlessly. Director Jon Favreau (“Chef,” “Swingers” and the bonanza that was the “Iron Man” series) has shown his skill at both big box office CGI and small, character driven stories. Both were on display here, with these animated animals showing a remarkable amount of personality. Beyond just the look of it, the film was very much a Jungle Book story, by which I mean it was no more or less like the original book than the first film. In fact, it drew some elements from the book that the original film did not (with nice nods to a porcupine, peacock and elephants, all of which has small roles in Kipling’s story). It also referenced the original film in some fun and loving ways; even at their corniest, these scenes worked, largely because of the nostalgia they engendered in the audience. That said, the story itself was largely a whole new creation; it started with elements of the book and then when in it’s own direction. With a stellar cast of stars, the voice-over work was excellent, though Idris Elba was a standout as the menacing Shere Khan. The young boy playing Mowgli, Neel Sethi (in his first full length film), did a passable job; his acting was sometimes a bit wooden but he also had a playfulness and snarkiness that worked well for the character. With the exception of the songs from the original film, the score was wholly uneventful and paint-by-numbers, though perhaps that is what you want in a children’s movie. Speaking of which, it is interesting to compare this one to the 1967 version, which was so much tamer and less intense. I don’t think this would have been considered a kids movie 25 years ago, much less 50 years ago. I’m not sure what that tells us but it is interesting to think about. Deeper philosophical questions aside, this was a genuinely fun film from start to finish.


April 3, 2016 at 7:17 pm | Posted in 2016 | Leave a comment
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In the current world of animated movies, this one strikes me as sub-par for the course. Admittedly, following on the heels of “Inside Out” would be a difficult task, and this one tries admirably to have something more going on beneath its amiable surface. Following the tale (sorry) of an intrepid bunny police officer as she solves a series of missing mammal cases, the story seems to be trying to say something about race relations and various ways of being different in general. But, the analogy is not a perfect fit and could lead to some uncomfortable messages, if you try to apply it too strictly. The “predators are people too” take-away sits uneasily within our real-world cultural issues, which makes me wonder how much of that message is meant to be implied at all. What is clearer are the film’s many references to pop culture, be it film (“The Godfather,” “48 Hours”), television (“Breaking Bad”), music (Shakira) or anything Disney (“Frozen,” ad nauseam). These are clearly the little Easter eggs planted to keep adults amused but none of them felt as clever as I have seen before (with the exception of the “Breaking Bad” one, which did make me chuckle). This is not to say the film is bad. In fact, it’s good enough. The characters are all likable and the story-line is mildly compelling and it did genuinely make me laugh a few times. I just think the bar has been raised by Pixar and, while this is a pretty decent kids film, it’s not a great film, overall.

Beasts of No Nation

October 28, 2015 at 11:51 am | Posted in 2015 | Leave a comment
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Americans are probably most familiar with director/producer Cary Joji Fukunaga through his work on season 1 of “True Detective.” The first work of his that I saw was his full-length directorial debut, the independent 2009 film, “Sin Nombre.”  In both of those examples, Fukunaga showed a penchant for brooding themes and a cynical view of humanity, as well as a keen ability to create mood and evocative visuals. All of this is on display in his new film, released last week in theaters and on Netflix simultaneously. Idris Elba (“Prometheus,” “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom,” the various “Thor” films and the tv series, “Luther”) plays an unnamed African warlord of the Joseph Kony ilk. But the story’s primary focus is 12 year-old Agu (Abraham Attah in his film debut). The film begins with Agu describing himself as “a good boy.” That is not how he describes himself by the end. That journey from innocence to horror is a difficult one to watch. Fukunaga pulls no punches here and the audience will witness Agu face (and participate in) almost every imaginable evil. It could feel exploitative if we didn’t know that the facts behind this fictional account are true; there is no exaggeration here on what boy soldiers are being forced to face. But, while it is full of disturbing images, it contains real beauty. Fukunaga is a very visual film maker and he uses the gorgeous African landscape to full effect. The film is a wash with deep green vegetation and stunning orange soil. Those recurrent colors were beautiful and created an ironic backdrop for the scenes that unfolded within them. The film was also grounded by the touching relationship between Agu and Strika; it breathed humanity into the story and reminded us that these are, in the end, just children. While all of the acting was strong, both Elba and Attah were brilliant in their roles. Elba played the charismatic but insecure commander perfectly. In a fair world, Attah would be nominated for a Best Actor Oscar for his performance. It was remarkable to see a young first-time actor display such range of complex emotions. The film hinges on the relationship between these two and it is worth seeing just for their performances alone.  Now, I feel the need to comment on the fact that I’ve read some reviews that have accused the film of racism because it displays Africans doing horrible things to each other. However, that seems entirely wrong-headed to me. Shining a light on monstrosities is a valid role that cinema can play and we shouldn’t shy away from that because of the race of the participants. I didn’t see any accusations of racism leveled against Angelina Jolie for her film on the atrocities committed by Serbs against Bosnians. To suggest that we can be critical of the evil done by some Europeans but not by some Africans seems to imply that Africans are more delicate and less capable of handling criticism. When that commentary comes from a White American journalist, I can’t help but wonder where the real damaging assumptions lie.

Pacific Rim

December 26, 2013 at 8:51 am | Posted in 2013 | Leave a comment
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◊ ◊ ½

DVD.  All I can really say about this film is that I enjoyed the hell out of watching it, which isn’t quite the same it’s a great film. I never bothered to see it in the theater because it looked like another dumb action film in the “The Transformers” vein. However, unlike that insufferable series, this film does not take itself seriously. Gone is the heavy handed moral dialogue and deeper message. Instead, we have simple, over-the-top fun. Director Guillermo del Torro (“Pan’s Labyrinth”) knows how to play up the absurdity so that the audience is laughing with the movie and not at it.  Likewise, the actors don’t take themselves too seriously here (fortunately, we have no Shia LaBeouf or Megan Fox in the cast). Don’t expect great acting range, even from solid performers like Idris Elba (star of “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom”) and Charlie Hunnam (“Sons of Anarchy”). These guys are not being paid to show complex emotions; they’re being paid to show us a good time and, for the most part, they do. The action scenes are ridiculously fun and the dialogue is laugh-out-loud heavy handed. The same line that made me groan in the previews (“We are cancelling the Apocalypse!”) became hysterical within the context of the rest of the film’s silliness. I’m glad I didn’t see it in the theater; I don’t think it’s worth $12 and I don’t know that I would have had the same experience in a theater full of strangers.  But, sitting on the coach, surrounded by friends or family, with a few drinks in you… how could you not have a good time?

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