AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR (2018)

April 25, 2018

 Greetings again from the darkness. We are at the 10 year mark of the new Marvel cinematic universe that began with the revolutionary IRON MAN (2008). This 19th movie in the franchise is actually Part 1 of 2 films that will (supposedly) be the lasting legacy of The Avengers. The second “half”, much of which was filmed simultaneously with this one, is set for 2019. Co-directing brothers Anthony Russo and Joe Russo were responsible for the two most recent Captain America movies (and also one of my all-time least favorites: YOU, ME AND DUPREE), and have now taken on the biggest budget, biggest cast, and longest run time yet of any Marvel movie. In fact, it’s so big, it could only be named ‘Infinity’.

Being that the fan base for this movie is highly sensitive to anything resembling a hint, much less a spoiler, this review will tread very lightly, and instead function as an overview with very general observations. There are a few key points, most of which are quite obvious from either the trailers or the previous movies in the series. First thing to realize is that this is a Thanos movie. He’s the first big (I told you everything was big), bad, nearly omnipotent villain. It should be noted that Thanos sees himself as misunderstood, which leads to the second key point: melodrama abounds – moreso than any previous comic book movie. It seems to be reminding us that Superheroes are people too (but are they really?). The third point is that if every character with a speaking part simply said “I am Spartacus”, it would still likely be the longest ever comic book movie. There are at least 28 characters with “key” roles – and that’s not counting the end credit stinger, or the missing characters we thought we would see, or the one that gets a logo tease as a coming attraction for part 2.

Co-writers Stephen McFeely and Christopher Markus had their hands full in working to come up with a coherent story, while allowing so many familiar characters to have at least one moment in the spotlight, if not a few. The fact that AVENGERS: CIVIL WAR divided the group actually allows for multiple segments to play out concurrently. Though we never doubt these fragmented cliques and isolated individuals will fight to save the galaxy, that doesn’t necessarily mean they get the band back together. In fact, it’s the Guardians of the Galaxy who are a much more cohesive group than our beloved Avengers. But fear not … there is plenty of fighting and action to go around.

Thanos claims he is saving many interplanetary civilizations and restoring balance with his plan to eliminate half of all living beings. While there might be some scientific evidence to back up his plan, it doesn’t sit well with the good guys. More focus is given to his cravings for ultimate control and power provided by tracking down all six Infinity Stones (Tesseract/Space, Mind, Time, Power, Reality, and Soul) to complete his Infinity Gauntlet. Many of these stones are in quite inconvenient locations and require some ingenuity and brute force from Thanos.

Perhaps the travel agent had the biggest challenge as portions of the film take place in New York City, Knowhere, and Wakanda (good luck finding a brochure on those last two).  We also get a budding romance from Vision and Scarlet Witch, as well as annoying quasi-romantic banter between Tony Stark and Pepper Potts. And while we are on the “TMZ” portion of the review, it should be noted that both Black Widow and Captain America (introducing himself as Steve Rogers) both have new hair styles – though only one of them sports a beard.

In the realm of comic book movies, this would be considered an epic. It has stunning action sequences, remarkable special effects and some terrific comedy mixed in. Of course, you’ll have to accept the melodramatic emotions and fear that we haven’t been previously subjected, and know that the final finality doesn’t arrive for another year. It’s very long (more than 2 ½ hours) but it seems to go pretty quickly. The filmmakers have mostly succeeded in the monumental task of remaining true to the history in order to keep comic book fans satisfied, while also creating something that most should be entertained by. Despite lacking the upbeat, feel-good ending we’ve grown accustomed to, there is a welcome Stan Lee cameo, a post credit stinger (after about 10 minutes of rolling credits). And to top it off, we get “Rubberband Man” from The Spinners. Now that’s big!

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WIND RIVER (2017)

August 14, 2017

 Greetings again from the darkness. With his two most recent screenplays, Sicario (2015) and the Oscar nominated Hell or High Water (2016), Taylor Sheridan seemed acutely attuned to the fine line between right and wrong, and the twisted complexity of new age American values when contrasted with “old school”. This time out, he both writes and directs. The themes remain familiar while the landscape shifts to the frozen tundra of Wyoming.

We first meet Fish & Wildlife Service tracker/hunter Cory (Jeremy Renner) as he picks off (with a long range rifle) a pack of wolves that is methodically encircling goats on a ranch. A very similar type situation plays out later in the film … only with humans in place of wolves and sheep. Not long after dispensing with the wolves, Cory stumbles upon the barefoot corpse of a young girl he recognizes as the former best friend of his daughter. Her frost-bitten bare feet visible, face buried in the snow, bleeding from an apparent assault, and miles from the nearest house or dwelling, the girl’s corpse is telling a story that Cory knows requires the immediate attention of law enforcement.

Ben, the Native American Reservation Police Chief (Graham Greene) has jurisdiction unless the Medical Examiner rules it a homicide. In the meantime, FBI Agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) shows up dressed more for winter in her native Florida than the brutally cold Wyoming plains. Jane quickly proves she is no ordinary “fish out of water” (even if she lacks experience for such a case), and commissions Cory to help her out with the local people and land.

The film has many ties to the fine TV series “Longmire”, and though Mr. Renner and Ms. Olsen are well known in the Marvel Universe as Hawkeye and Scarlet Witch, there are no superheroes present here – just a convoluted society within a seemingly forgotten (or at least) ignored part of the country. It’s a police procedural blanketed in the always-falling snow, an underground drug culture, and the quiet animosity between the outside world and the Reservation (where many have given up hope).

These aren’t people that talk much, although they say plenty. Sometimes the dialogue is a bit too obvious in Mr. Sheridan’s goal of leaving no viewer behind, especially when combined with overly detailed flashback that will have the amateur sleuths in the audience feeling a bit letdown in receiving a full explanation. However, when cinematographer Ben Richardson (Beasts of the Southern Wild, The Fault in Our Stars) loses the shaky-cam from indoors, and beautifully lays out the vastness of the snow vistas, forest and mountains, the remoteness and stunning landscape becomes a character as important as any other.

The supporting cast is stellar and features Julia Jones, Gil Birmingham (Jeff Bridges’ partner in Hell or High Water), Jon Bernthal, Kelsey Asbille, and a crazed James Jordan. Mr. Greene adds a touch of deadpan humor and resignation to his plight, while Ms. Olsen is effective as the ‘green’ agent dealing with an unfamiliar white-out. Mr. Renner truly excels as the throwback cowboy carrying out his duties while bearing a burden exacerbated by this case. The crunching snow, predatory lions, and high-speed snowmobiling never cause us (or Cory) to lose sight of how important it is to know the land and the people … and walk that line between right and wrong.

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I SAW THE LIGHT (2016)

March 31, 2016

I saw the light Greetings again from the darkness. Most Hollywood musical biopics follow a similar and predictable structure, which is why Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story was so easily able to parody the genre. Of course, the legendary singer/songwriter Hank Williams deserves more than predictable storytelling … but unfortunately, that’s exactly what he gets here.

Tom Hiddleston delivers a spot on physical impersonation of Hank – right down to the slightly hunched over (due to Spina Bifida Occulta) posture and bouncy onstage waggle. Yes, the very British Tom Hiddleston, who plays Loki in The Avengers and Thor movies, has managed to capture the presence of one of the all-time great Country and Western icons. Mr. Hiddleston worked on the beloved songs with Rodney Crowell and delivers some very nice singing – so nice in fact that the singing is distracting and misleading. Hank Williams sang his songs in angst … a tortured soul seemingly without choice in his need to share his art. No one could be expected to perform with that emotion, and the void is obvious.

As source material, director Marc Abraham (Flash of Genius, 2008) utilizes “Hank Williams: The Biography” co-written by George Merritt, Colin Escott, and William MacEwen. It may be the least creative title possible for a biography, and the movie correlates perfectly. We track Hank’s early days as a struggling singer whose dream is to someday perform on the hallowed stage of The Grand Ole Opry, to his gas station marriage to Audrey May (Elizabeth Olsen), through his alcoholism, drug use, womanizing, superstardom, fall from grace, and ultimately tragic death at the age of 29.

Despite the nature of Williams’ short life, the film only skims the surface and rarely digs too deeply. The steady stream of women/wives is difficult to track … perhaps that’s the point. Audrey is the only one who gets much screen time and Ms. Olsen plays her as an ambitious shrew who comes across as impossible to like and as unwilling to work at the relationship. A staggering number of Hank Williams songs are embedded as merely interludes separating scenes of misery for all involved … especially Hank, who seems to find little joy in life.

We’ve all seen the destruction that fame often leads to, and when combined with Hank’s painful back disorder and relentless alcoholism, it’s little wonder his body simply surrendered at such an early age. The movie just seems a bit too high-gloss for such a tortured soul, and despite the best efforts of Tom Hiddleston, the film is not worthy of someone who left the musical legacy of Hank Williams.

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AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON (2015)

May 17, 2015

Avengers Ultron Greetings again from the darkness. Joss Whedon returns as writer/director for the sequel to his 2012 blockbuster The Avengers, and this time he juggles an exceptionally large, diverse and talented group of characters and actors who are not only involved in good versus evil, but also in the battle for screen time.

There is no shortage of write-ups from film critics and fanboys who have analyzed every aspect of the movie from every possible angle, and while I admit to taking that same approach to most movies, there is something about the Marvel franchise that cause me to flip off the film critic part of my brain and just sit back and enjoy. And enjoy I do. The characters are fun and interesting and the action is at times breath-taking.

Since there are, by my count, at least 23 actors who deserve mention, it makes little sense for me to list them here. It is worth noting that the key actors all reprise their roles as Avengers, and many of those in supporting roles are back as well. This time there are also many significant newcomers, and those include “The Twins” – Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch. Other newbies include Linda Cardellini (“Mad Men”,” Bloodline”) as Hawkeye’s wife, Claudia Kim as Dr Helen Cho, Thomas Kretschmann as Strucker, and Andy Serkis as Ulysses Klaue. Though each is a nice addition, it’s the stellar voice work of James Spader as Ultron that really makes this movie click. Somehow Mr. Spader manages to convey a powerful presence despite maintaining a (mostly) even keel throughout. It’s masterful voice acting.

Missing this time out are Pepper Potts and Loki, though we hardly notice thanks to the first look at Vision (Paul Bettany) and Thanos (Josh Brolin) … plus the unveiling of Iron Man’s Hulkbuster armor. If you thought the first Avengers movie made it difficult to keep up with the characters, this one will have your head spinning. It’s probably the only quibble I have with it … character overload at the expense of character development. The Hawkeye family farm represents a meager attempt to have this group of superheroes set in a “normal” environment, but it just doesn’t quite work. The Avengers are at their best while snipping at each other or saving the planet … fortunately the movie offers plenty of the latter.

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GODZILLA (2014)

May 18, 2014

godzilla Greetings again from the darkness. Sixty years after Godzilla made his initial screen appearance, we get a full blown Hollywood special effects blockbuster version that will eclipse the $100 million mark in its first weekend. This is director Gareth Edwards’ second feature film (Monsters, 2010) and he juggles the modern day re-imagining with the Japanese roots and a hand full of other tributes throughout.

The cast seems impressive: Bryan Cranston, Juliette Binoche, Elizabeth Olsen, Sally Hawkins, Ken Watanabe and David Strathairn. Unfortunately, most of these fine actors have little to do, and instead the dominant human presence (most every scene) is Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Kick-Ass) who somehow keeps getting gigs despite lacking even a dollop of screen presence or acting ability. Of course, this movie is supposed to belong to Godzilla, and even he is usurped on screen time by two nuclear-feasting praying mantis creatures that share some attributes with the classic “Alien”. These screen hogs are called MUTO’s (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organisms) and are quite substantial … crushing skyscrapers by landing.

The 1954 original film was an anti-nuclear statement, though the re-edited U.S. version replaced the political statement with Raymond Burr. Mr. Burr also appeared in the 1984 sequel which included a storyline of feeding off a nuclear plant (borrowed in this year’s version). This film’s prologue featuring Bryan Cranston working at a 1999 nuclear plant is an unmistakable nod to the recent Fukushima disaster, and sets the stage for the collision of science (Watanabe) and military (Strathairn). Director Edwards clearly enjoys his Jaws-like teasing of Godzilla, who finally shows up after almost an hour. And despite the Jurassic Park roar by our titular monster, this doesn’t hold a candle to Spielberg’s 1993 classic. We do get the quite familiar shots of bystanders running down the street, glancing back in fear – a must for any monster movie, and it should be noted that Godzilla films have a legacy of multiple creatures, as well as the man versus nature theme.

Having seen this one in 3D, I’ll mention again that the enhanced effects offered by this technology do not offset the darkened, dulled look. Add that to the almost total lack of color – it’s borderline Black and White – and there are simply too few breathtaking visual moments to consider this a monster classic.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you are a monster movie fan or a follower of the Godzilla legacy OR you need proof that a lead actor can be less engaging than Matthew Broderick was in the 1998 Godzilla film.

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you believe technological advances should produce a more visually stunning film than Jurassic Park from 21 years ago OR you happen to be a huge Juliette Binoche fan and expect to see her in a lead role.

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SILENT HOUSE

March 11, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. On my never ending trek to find quality horror movies, this one had a couple of interesting things going for it. First, it stars Elizabeth Olsen (sister of the twins) who was so impressive in last year’s Martha Marcy May Marlene. Secondly, the film was reported to have been shot in one continuous take/shot. From a technical aspect, this is one of the more curious claims and brazen filmmaking attempts one can imagine.

Let’s start with the fantastic Ms. Olsen. With very few lines of dialogue and being on screen for 95% of the film, she doesn’t disappoint. The camera loves her face … even when that camera is mere inches away and the lighting is provided by a kerosene lamp or flashlight. She proves very expressive in fear and isn’t afraid of quiet; and more rare these days, she isn’t afraid to look less than glamorous. Ms. Olsen’s future is much brighter than the lighting in this bleak house in which she is stuck.

 The basic story has Sarah (Olsen), her dad (Adam Trese) and her uncle (Eric Sheffer Stevens) returning to the family lake house for some simple rehab and packing, with the goal of putting the place up for sale. Next thing you know, strange noises, a lost key, and dad lay bloodied on the floor. The house itself is a maze of doors, floors and staircases, and because the windows are boarded up and the electricity is dead, the limited lighting will have you straining your eyes to make out location and shapes.

 Directed by the husband and wife team of Chris Kentis and Laura Lau (Open Water), the first 30 minutes of this movie captured my interest and had me on edge. Unfortunately, it kind of unravels and ultimately ends with a disappointing and rather cheap explanation. It’s a remake of a 2010 Uruguay film, which was based on a true story from the 1940’s. I am not sure if the ending to this one follows the “true” ending. As for the single take, I call BS. There were changes to the blood spatters on Olsen, not to mention numerous times where a “blackout” proved convenient to shift camera location. Still, the real time feel is a nice touch, as is the minimal use of music … a rarity in a genre known for blasting crescendos to cue our screams.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to follow the evolution of Elizabeth Olsen on her way to stardom OR you have a “Rainman” fetish for doors

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer your horror films to have a satisfying ending OR you want to believe the filmmaker claim that it was shot in a single take

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MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE

August 27, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. This one has been on my radar since the Sundance Festival and all the raves about Elizabeth Olsen‘s performance. After attending a screening last evening, I find myself at a loss to adequately describe not just her stunning turn, but also this unusual film from writer/director Sean Durkin.

On the surface, this sounds like just another movie peeking inside a dreadful cult that brainwashes, and psychologically and physically abuses women, and is led by a charismatic and creepy religious style figure-head. There are many similarities to the Manson-family story of which much has been published, but Mr. Durkin takes the film in a much different and very creative direction by focusing on what happens to Martha (Olsen) AFTER she escapes the cult.

 In the Q&A, Durkin stated he did much research and found the most fascinating story to be that of a cult escapee and what she went through during her first three weeks of freedom. Martha sneaks out early one morning and places a panic call to her older sister, whom she hasn’t communicated with in two years. Settling in to the lake house with big sis and new brother-in-law, it becomes quite obvious that Martha doesn’t know how to fit in society, and has absolutely no interest in discussing her recent past.

The sister is played very well by Sarah Paulson, and her husband is Hugh Dancy (so very good in Adam). This seemingly normal yuppie couple is trying to do right by Martha, but the fits of paranoia, outbursts of anger, and societal goofs are just too much for them.

 The genius of this film is in the story telling. The cinematic toggling between today and moments of time at the cult farm house leads the viewer right into the confused mind of Martha. We don’t get much back story but it’s obvious she was “ripe” for cult world when she was chosen. We see how Patrick, the quietly charismatic leader, sings her a song and steals her heart … she wants so much to belong. We also see how she bonds with the other women at the farm house, and ends up in a frightening situation that seems to snap her out just enough to find the strength to leave. The editing of scenes between these two worlds is outstanding and serves to keep the viewer glued to the screen.

 Last year I raved about an independent film called Winter’s Bone. I chose it as one of the year’s best and it ended with some industry award recognition. I am not willing to say this film is quite at that level, but I will say that the younger sister of the Olsen twins, Elizabeth, delivers an incredible first feature film performance, and Sean Durkin deserves an audience for his first feature film as writer/director. Another bond between the two indies is that John Hawkes plays the cult leader Patrick, and Hawkes is once again captivating, just as he was in Winter’s Bone.

There will undoubtedly be some debate about whether this is cutting edge independent filmmaking or just another snooty art-house mind-messer. All I can say is, I hope the film grabs enough audience for the debate to matter … it deserves it.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you liked Winter’s Bone OR you want to see a breakout performance by Elizabeth Olsen (the most talented of the sisters).

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you struggle with methodically paced films that are designed around specific moments of insight OR your motto is “enough with the films on cults”.

watch the trailer: