Last Call

Even before Anthony and Joe Russo ran their first reel, Avengers: Infinity War had a lot of problems. Not only did the movie have to adapt one of the most mystical and visually-striking comic series in the Marvel canon, not only did it have to bring together all of the popular superheroes in the Marvel Cinematic Universe into one coherent and enjoyable narrative, not only did it have to payoff a seemingly-random post credit scene from six years ago with a giant purple alien wanting to slide into death’s DMs….but they had to tell people that it was going to be two movies. Due to the size and scale of the source material, not to mention cutting up screen time between over 20 main characters, the Russo brothers had to split the grand finale of the MCU’s first decade between two movies (with the next installment out next year). That would be enough of a challenge, but then Marvel Studios had to go ahead and tell everyone about it. So that’s the biggest rub: with everyone knowing that Infinity War is only Part 1 and that whatever happens is only the first half of the whole story, how do they give any weight or meaning to anything that happens in the movie?

 

In a word: Thanos. The intergalactic, purple-faced, multi-chinned, wannabe-god first introduced at the tail-end of The Avengers finally makes his presence known in the 19th feature film in the decade of dominance held by Marvel Studios. And six years later with endless teases, boy howdy does he make his presence known. Motion-captured and voiced by Josh Brolin, Thanos finds himself burdened with glorious purpose: to balance the entire universe by wiping out half of its inhabitants from existence. He plans to use his mighty Infinity Gauntlet and the six Infinity Stones to power his “mercy,” as he describes. He already has the purple Power Stone and now looks to collect the rest from a cavalcade of caped crusaders: the blue Space Stone from Loki (Tom Hiddleston), Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), the green Time Stone from Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Wong (Benedict Wong), the yellow Mind Stone from Vision (Paul Bettany) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), the red Reality Stone and the mysterious Soul Stone. Thanos’s malicious intent garners the attention of Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Spider-Man (Tom Holland), Captain America (Chris Evans) and his team of exiled Avengers, Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and the city of Wakanda, Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) and the Guardians of the Galaxy, especially Thanos’s jaded adopted daughters Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Nebula (Karen Gillan).

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Since Marvel was at least smart enough not to further damage the movie’s merit by putting a Part 1 at the end of the title, Infinity War’s greatest challenge is merely standing on its own two feet. A great control in this experiment is Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1, a pointless first installment in a two-part finale that mostly spins its wheels to get to the actual conclusion of the story. Thankfully, Infinity War is a solid standalone installment in the MCU that gives its audience an enjoyable and high-stakes adventure before saving its sequel-baiting for the final moments. Kudos to the Russo brothers for giving such a stacked cast of characters all something to do and a purpose for being in the movie outside of fan service. For such a huge movie with basically three climactic action scenes going on at the same time, the Russos shoot the blendings of CG and live-action surprisingly well without too much shaky cam and with a focus that doesn’t jerk the audience between perspectives. The movie’s art direction and production design also take full advantage of the movie’s cosmic settings in outer space and on Thanos’s spaceships, merging the universes of Thor and the Guardians of the Galaxy with Marvel’s Earthbound heroes. And even with all the cosmic lasers and monsters, many of the fight scenes here are surprisingly well-choreographed fistfights (seriously, Thanos looks like Manny Pacquiao in his prime going toe-to-toe against the Hulk). All of these elements make the 149-minute runtime fly by and don’t make the movie seem bloated or overdone.

 

Despite this movie’s advertising billing Infinity War as an epic event, it seems like the movie can’t commit to that promise. A problem with some of the recent Marvel movies is a stubbornness to let go of the laughs with certain emotional scenes being cut off by a quick or lame one-liner (see Thor: Ragnarok for example). Infinity War has that same problem, as many of the first-time interactions between the likes of Doctor Strange and Spider-Man or Thor and the Guardians of the Galaxy are used for jokes that can pull the audience right out of the movie. On top of that, the script by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (who wrote all three Captain America movies) can’t find the right pacing rhythm. The movie rarely takes time to slow down and have its characters recognize the weight of the scenario. It’s mostly just show up, suit up and throw hands, which leaves little room for great character development. The likes of Iron Man, Gamora, Star Lord and Thor get the best of the writing character-wise and while everyone else has a presence in the movie, they end up as bit players in the background when all is said and done.

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But with all the big names and big guns on display, Infinity War does have one essential main character: Thanos. His characterization and impact to the story could’ve broke the movie down before it even started but right from the get-go, as he walks across the corpses of fallen enemies, he stands as one of the MCU’s finest villains, let alone one of the finest comic-book movie villains. He’s incredibly imposing in his presence, Brolin’s deep growl matched with his lines is a good combination of intelligence and evil, and the movie doesn’t overstate how righteous he thinks he is. Thanos believes he is doing the universe a favor by committing genocide, but he’s not cackling like the Joker when he takes an entire planet and shoots it at Iron Man (a wonderful visual, by the way). Thanos is the best character in this movie, and it’s easy to see how much Brolin enjoys the subtleties of playing him. He may be in a motion-capture suit (also impressively done) but Brolin clearly envisioned the universe around him in all the green screen and really liked every second of being in it.

 

Not every member of the Avengers gets character development here, but it seems like the movie gives time to right ones. Zoe Saldana’s Gamora in particular play a pivotal role, being Thanos’s adopted daughter and all. She seems to give Thanos the most cause to reflect on his actions and Saldana gets very emotionally invested in it. Same with Chris Hemsworth’s Thor who, without spoiling anything, takes a great deal of loss in the movie and it’s clear his brutish armor is starting to rust away. Downey Jr., the flagship star of the MCU, also has great emotional weight on Tony Stark being that he took a great bulk of trauma from his first encounter with Thanos six years ago. It’s understandable as to why he’s more stressed and emphasizing the threat of the movie than his typical joking self. On the flip side of that, Chris Pratt can’t seem to turn off the goofy Han Solo-esque schtick and get into the events of the movie. Tom Hollland’s aggressively teenaged Spider-Man also does not belong in the events of Infinity War, while Sebastian Stan’s Winter Soldier, who’s been such a focal point of the MCU for the past four years, merely seems like an afterthought addition to the cast. There’s plenty of faceless monsters for the Avengers to fight, but not enough screen time for them to establish their investment in the movie.

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So for a studio-mandated, contextually-required first half of grand finale, there’s a great sense of relief knowing that Avengers: Infinity War is as good as it is. There’s a lot of moving parts and some of them stall, but the essential pieces keep the motor running smoothly. It’s action-packed and more grim than the previous installments, never boring or overbearing. A superhero orchestra playing the right notes for an entertaining night out. The biggest problem though is that it is obviously a “Part 1,” leaving whatever risks it takes stuck with an asterisk on it needing to be solved in the next movie. That next installment will prove whether or not the entire journey was worth the investment or not but if it’s the latter, at least we got one good ride out of it.

3/4

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Step Into the Spotlight

Blasted internet hype machine.

 

Ok, so the world has been building up the buzz for Black Panther ever since Chadwick Boseman stepped onto the screen in Captain America: Civil War two years ago (admittedly, I was one of them). I’d go so far as to say Black Panther was the best part of Civil War: great actor owning the role, exciting superhero debut and strong story arc. With the announcement of his own movie, the wheels started turning in the internet buzz contraption. And it’s amazing to see everyone get so excited for this, especially since people are slowly starting to not care about Marvel movies anymore (don’t deny it, it’s happening). So yes, writer/director Ryan Coogler getting his first real shot at breaking into big-budget Hollywood movie-making, Boseman assuredly getting the role that will make him as a bonafide star, Michael B. Jordan and Lupita Nyong’o and Danai Gurira and Daniel Kaluuya and Angela Bassett in the same movie (and a MARVEL movie no less!) and a superhero protagonist that isn’t a cocky milquetoast smiling guy are all the reasons to get excited for this event. But notice how I said the “event” of the movie and not the actual movie itself.

 

Speaking of the movie: is this the best Marvel production to date? Nope. Is it the best superhero movie made so far? Not really. Is it a good movie? Oh yeah, most definitely.

 

Boseman returns as T’Challa, prince of the isolated but technologically-advanced civilization of Wakanda. After his father was killed in Civil War, T’Challa inherits the throne and the responsibilities of protecting his people from the corrupted evils of the outside world. He also occasionally dons a black bulletproof suit and hops around the world to stop evil and protect the secret of his home as the Black Panther. His mother (Bassett), sister (Letitia Wright) and military commander (Gurira) all support his belief in the traditions of Wakanda, but his ex girlfriend (Nyong’o) and fellow tribe leader (Kaluuya) want the world to know the truth about Wakanda and how it can help others in need. Conflicted over how to represent his people and still grieving over the loss of his father, T’Challa then faces Erik Killmonger (Jordan), an ex-military stud turned gun-for-hire who has a dark secret that could undo T’Challa’s legacy.

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I’m surely not the one to discuss the accuracy of the movie’s representation of culture, though judging from the glowing response by critics and audiences it’s safe to say there aren’t too many complaints. So let’s stick with the movie: it’s good. Damn good, in fact. Despite the stocked cast, the star of this movie is undoubtedly Ryan Coogler and his journey from indie darling (Fruitvale Station) to box-office upstart (Creed) to bonafide Hollywood director coming full circle. Coogler knows exactly what he’s doing both as a director and a writer. He and co-writer Joe Robert Cole (American Crime Story) clearly understood they had to make another origins/introductory superhero movie and, stripped to its core, Black Panther follows that formula. What Coogler and Cole focus on and excel at in the final product are the details: the conflict inside of T’Challa, the debate over if Wakanda can save the world or be tainted by it, the questioning of loyalty and tradition and how to synchronize all that into another Marvel property. All of that works and is present throughout the movie, only taking a backseat into occasional misfires of comedic one-liners thrown in to keep the movie from being entirely serious.

 

That leaves Coogler’s directing talent, which is also solid if not leaving a lot to be desired. Maybe the size and scale of Black Panther, certainly the biggest movie Coogler has ever done, was a bit too much for Coogler to completely handle. Some of the early fight scenes in the movie are shot with too much shaky-cam, poor lighting and close-up shots, further leading to some choppy editing. There’s the sense that Coogler is as hyped about making the movie as he knows the audience will be, so he kept wanting to shoot the movie at the same brisk but fair pace the 134-minute final product is. But again, Coogler knows what he’s doing for most of the movie. He holds on his actors to let their chemistry with each other shine through or their presence alone hold scenes. And his action direction gets better as the movie goes on, especially in the grand climactic battle between the tribes of Wakanda. He also knows how to lead a movie team and create an awe-inspiring setting. Wakanda is one of the if not THE most striking and engrossing settings not just in a Marvel movie but in any kind of fantasy/action/adventure movie in a long time. The set designs, both practical and computer-generated, feel like they were made from the ground up and boom with color. Same goes for the costumes, hair and makeup that look as fantastical and unique as anything out of Star Wars or Lord of the Rings. And Coogler pulls everything together and lays it out just enough to make the audience want more but not distract from the main story.

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Especially not his fantastic cast. Boseman is OFFICIALLY a made man in Hollywood as he proves he can command a movie in the lead role. Stern but not stiff, focused but not overdoing it and compelling even when he’s victim to a “WHAT ARE THOOOOOSE” joke, Boseman is actually invested in the story and characters while also having the time of his life playing with swords and shields and wearing the Black Panther suit. He’s not distracted by the comic-book origins of the movie and seems legitimately passionate about this story of family and tradition. He’s not alone there as everyone from Kaluuya to Gurira to Andy Serkis to Wright to Winston Duke as a fellow tribe leader are all great in their own ways. Gurira, continuing her streak of ass-kicking lioness following The Walking Dead, is having an absolute blast with this big budget production swinging around a spear while Wright is arguably the most energetic and bubbly member of the cast. Jordan is a legitimately interesting character that just so happens to be a villain. If you thought Vulture was sympathetic in Spider-Man: Homecoming, you will be very conflicted over who to root for between his Killmonger and Boseman’s T’Challa. For all the challenges and questions that the audience could lob at Wakanda’s logic, Killmonger has them motivating his actions. Jordan is shakey with the character at first, but the more he builds his malice the more compelling he becomes.
So as an event, Black Panther is a monumental moment in culture that deserves every positive hashtag and packed screening it’s getting. Like Get Out and Coco did last year, hopefully Black Panther tells Hollywood that people are desperately wanting the next age of blockbusters to come forward and it doesn’t involve your average white male with little stubble and a crooked smile. With all of that said, all Black Panther had to be was a good movie and it is. It doesn’t match the incredible hype that’s been building, but how could it? No matter the context, this is still most definitely a Marvel product. It tries its hardest to make you forget that (sans the annoying end credits scene), but it is still a licensed item in the Disney/Marvel buffet and it follows that formula. But like I said, it’s about the detail that a strong creative mind like Coogler but into it. And for that, he and his team have earned their cultural zeitgeist.

3.5/4

Top Twenty Movies of 2016

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Like most years, the best movies of 2016 were the ones that didn’t have toy deals, product tie-ins, or “Extended Editions.” In fact, I’d go so far to say that 2016 may be one of the worst years for blockbuster studio movies (Batman v Superman, Suicide Squad, Ghostbusters, X-Men: Apocalypse, Warcraft) Fortunately, that means the rest of the world of movies was filled with interesting ideas, compelling characters, and unique filmmaking. We went everywhere from ancient Japan to 1970s Los Angeles, followed bankrupt cowboys and the First Lady of the United States, and faced a demonic goat and the equally scary dream of trying to make it as an actress. 2016 may have been a bit of a wash, but that made my top 20 picks all the more precious. In the words of the patron saint Wade W. Wilson, “Let’s count ‘em down.”

20. Moonlight

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Barry Jenkins doesn’t see life as a whole, more as moments that make us who we are. He boils that down with neon-lit artistic beauty in his three-act feature about a young black man living through struggle and a crisis of identity in Miami. Jenkins mixes art house cinematography and atmosphere with acting worthy of prime stage work. Leading that work is a prime cast including Mahershala Ali, Naomie Harris, Janelle Monae, and Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes playing the lead in three separate eras. Ambition meets reality and it’s never as it seems.

 

19. Eye in the Sky

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Drone warfare is one of the toughest questions to answer in modern warfare, but who would’ve thought its ethics would make for such great drama? Director Gavin Hood (X-Men Origins: Wolverine….no, seriously) plays out three scenarios surrounding a drone strike: one in an underground military base where a military officer (the immortal Helen Mirren) wants to drop the bomb, her supervising officer (the late great Alan Rickman) wants to wait to see who else could be in the blast, and the drone pilot (the still great Aaron Paul) doesn’t even want to pull the trigger. It’s a game of chicken with an international incident on the line, but Hood and writer Guy Hibbert let the actors play with the questions brilliantly. War is hell, even if it’s behind a computer screen.

 

18. Don’t Think Twice

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Yeah there are laughs, but a career in comedy can be borderline miserable. Take it from Mike Birbiglia, who starred, wrote, and directed the story of an improv comedy troupe in New York City with their theater on the verge of closing and their future prospects on the verge of evaporating. Rounded out by ace comic talent like Gillian Jacobs, Keegan-Michael Key, Kate Micucci, and Chris Gethard, Don’t Think Twice finds the meaning of friendship and finding yourself when your dreams don’t exactly work out. Life is improv, just go with the scenes you’re given.

 

17. Sing Street

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Writer/director John Carney goes three-for-three with musical movies after Once and Begin Again with this droll, yet incredibly bright teen comedy about a shy teen (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) who forms a synth rock band with his fellow nerdy schoolmates to impress a girl (Lucy Boynton). First off, very relatable (speaking from experience). Second, Carney captures the environment of grey, working-class Dublin in the 1980s along with the beautiful melancholy that the new wave sound of that era inspired amongst his characters. Even the film’s original songs are poppy earworms.

 

16. Zootopia

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Even if Pixar could only gives us a light farce of a sequel this year, Disney’s individual animation department still managed to turn out some quality entertainment while making billions of dollars (as is Disney’s business model). From the team behind the likes of Tangled and Wreck-It Ralph comes the story of spunky bunny police officer Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) taking a bite out of the metropolis of Zootopia. She relies on the wit of Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), a con artist as sly as a fox (because HE IS A FOX, GET IT? COMEDY!) to solve mysterious disappearances around the city. Zippy, gorgeous, and cute as a button (or a bunny? MORE COMEDY!), Zootopia is one of those great kid’s movies that has enough face value jokes up front for the young ones in the audience and little bits of hidden humor on repeat viewings (beep that Breaking Bad reference in the climax and thank me later). The detail in the animation of the world of Zootopia itself is another crowning achievement for Disney, proving that the right people don’t just have dollar signs on the brain (*cough*).

 

15. 10 Cloverfield Lane

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Oh J.J. Abrams, you sneaky little man. A mere month after he helmed the return of Star Wars, he pulled back Bad Robot Production’s curtain to reveal this spin-off of the 2008 found-footage/sci-fi hit Cloverfield made in secret. The biggest surprise of it all? It totally works! Abrams is only a producer on this project (as he was with the first Cloverfield), but director Dan Trachtenberg is no slouch by creating shivering tension and suspense in the underground bunker where three strangers try to survive throughout an alien invasion (or are they?). It’s a small film with solid twists and characters maneuvering through the mind games played by the sparse space around them, despite a rather weak climax. We also learned to never underestimate a terrifying John Goodman.

 

14. Captain America: Civil War

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Is it flawed? Incredibly. Does it contribute to the sameness of current Marvel movies? Absolutely. Do the stakes matter even in the slightest? Hell no. But Hollywood’s biggest breakup between Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and Captain America (Chris Evans) had so much action, humor, character, and heart that it’s still the best superhero movie of the year. Directed with frenetic pacing but thorough focus on character by the Russo brothers (Captain America: The Winter Solider), the governments of the world aren’t so keen on Earth’s Mightiest Heroes anymore and force them to become regulated. It splits The Avengers (sans Thor and Hulk because “reasons”) in half, with Iron Man wanting to rein in the gang but Cap still untrusting of modern politics as he tries to clear the name of ol’ buddy Bucky/The Winter Solider (Sebastian Stan). What makes Civil War so enjoyable, aside  from some of the best action scenes Marvel has put out to date (with one in particular), is the further development of the established people (not the heroes in the suits) we’ve come to know. Even if the reason Cap and Tony fight is motivated by Tony being an irrational moron, the emotion behind the fists they throw is felt through the screen. Also, Black Panther…..ALL of Black Panther.

 

13. Green Room

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Jeremy Saulnier wants to make you uncomfortable. He will pull you to the edge of your seat in fear and anticipation, then pull the trigger and let everything bleed. Tension is Saulnier’s game, and he leveled up this year with Green Room. The set up is tense enough: a punk rock band gets a gig playing at a skinhead club in the woods of Oregon and, after playing a real crowd-pleasing opening number, see a dead body and become trapped in the  club’s green room. To avoid alerting the cops, the club’s owner (Patrick Stewart) orders his staffers to flush out the band, dead or alive. Once the band is trapped, the movie becomes a ticking time bomb as audience waits for the gruesome bursts of violence that propel the movie forward. But Saulnier sets up an unnerving atmosphere and lets that build as much suspense as the fight scenes do. It’s claustrophobic and filled with dread, but impossible to look away from. It’s also led by a solid young cast including Alia Shawkat, Imogen Poots, and the late great Anton Yelchin.

 

12. 20th Century Women

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It’s an odd thing to wonder about what truly made us who we are when we’re growing up: was it our parents? the times? the culture? Writer/director Mike Mills has already explored the impact his father left on him in 2010’s Beginners. This year he showed the impact his mother had on his life with 20th Century Women, with the ever-wonderful Annette Bening playing mother Mills. Not really of course, more a fictionalized version of his mother and his teenage years in 1979 Santa Barbara. Bening plays a chain-smoking, free spirited mother looking to connect with her teenaged son, enlisting the help of housemates and friends to make an impact on her son. Mills uses his typical flourishes of building character with flashbacks and flashes forward in time. He also writes great characters for actors to work with, with the likes of Bening, Elle Fanning, Billy Crudup, and especially Greta Gerwig.

 

11. A Bigger Splash

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First off, if this still of Ralph Fiennes dancing to “Emotional Rescue” doesn’t immediately sell you on this movie, be ashamed that you’re missing the best dance sequence of the year. However, don’t be fooled by the whimsy of Fiennes’ swaying of the hips: Luca Guadagnino (I Am Love) pulls a great bait-and-switch with this erotic love game between a rock superstar (Tilda Swinton), her photographer lover (Matthias Schoenaerts), her former  manager/former lover (Fiennes), and his daughter (Dakota Johnson). On top of some gorgeous cinematography of the Italian islands by Yorick Le Saux, the four leads play off of each other with their raw sexual chemistry. Fiennes unbeatable charisma and Johnson’s steaming sexuality (somehow lost in Fifty Shades of Grey) brings the movie to boiling temperatures of atmosphere. And then there’s Swinton who, even as she’s mute throughout the movie, remains one of the best actors alive.

 

Top Ten, ENGAGE!

10. Hunt for the Wilderpeople

From Taika Waititi, the man who made vampires funny again (2014’s What We Do in the Shadows) and will hopefully make Thor compelling again (2017’s Thor: Ragnarok), comes this silly and heartfelt adventure story in the mountains of New Zealand (without a single hobbit to be found). Waititi’s script brings out the best in the veteran Sam Neill as the grouchy father-figure to newcomer Julian Dennison’s plucky kid “gangsta” just looking for a home. The camera work and occasional left-field humor recall Wes Anderson, but Waititi’s own brand of droll comedy, sweeping direction and easily-observable love of filmmaking cement him as a man of his own talent. Don’t you hurt him, Marvel!

 

9. The Edge of Seventeen

It’s seems impossible for Hollywood movies to properly depict today’s American teenagers. Sometimes it can be done well (Moonlight) and other times it can be done disastrously (Yoga Hosers). The one that did it best, however, is Kelly Fremon Craig’s hilarious dark comedy about a suburban high schooler dealing with nearly everything in the world going against her. That may sound like another episode of Degrassi, but Craig’s writing is full of sharp digs that recall peak Woody Allen and a feature actors that don’t oversell their roles or rely on modern references to seem current. On top of that, Craig has a stellar lead in Oscar-nominee Hailee Steinfeld delivering one of the best performances of the year. Her comic timing and dramatic heft she brings is stellar and hopefully reminds Ms. Steinfeld to hold off on pulling a Jennifer Lopez and trading in a promising acting career to be a middling pop star.

 

8. Una

It’s a damn shame that no one else got to see this brilliant and risque adaptation of David Harrower’s acclaimed play Blackbird since no studio has picked it up for distribution yet. On the other hand, it’s not hard to see why studios are hesitant to put press behind a movie about young love with an older man. But Una, the play’s film adaptation with a screenplay by Harrower himself, doesn’t use its taboo subject matter for cheap drama. Instead, its story is on the aftermath as the title character, now a young woman (the excellent Rooney Mara), tracks down her first true love, an older man with a new name and new life (the equally excellent Ben Mendelsohn). From there, the movie plays out as it would onstage, with two actors going toe-to-toe laying out their emotions and seeing who cracks first. On top of that, director Benedict Andrews slowly dishes out the truth about what happened with the look of a gorgeous bad dream before cutting back to the cold harsh reality the two leads share. It shows that just having controversial subject matter for a movie is merely a springboard, but building on it makes it something impossible to look away from.

 

7. Manchester by the Sea

Whenever I tell people that Manchester by the Sea is one of the best movies of the year (because it is), I have to follow it with a warning: “This movie is a bummer.” Mind you, that’s not a detriment to Kenneth Lonergan’s new film about a sullen, closed-off handyman (Casey Affleck) who’s brother (Kyle Chandler) suddenly dies, leaving a son (Lucas Hedges) without a father and a brother even more aimless and lost than he once was. It’s hard to explain what exactly makes Lonergan’s film so outstanding because it’s for such simple reasons. The acting is so human and lived-in that the film feels like a well-made documentary. There’s nothing far-fetched or even a hint of forced Hollywood melodrama in the story. It’s not about dramatic expression of hard emotion, but the crippling fear of vulnerability after tragedy. Lonergan lets his cast do the heavy lifting, and most of it lies on Affleck’s very capable shoulders. He’s always been a very quiet actor lost in most movies, but this may be the role that finally fits his type of acting. He’s stellar, perhaps the best performances of his career, along with the likes of Chandler, Hedges, and a brief role by Michelle Williams. It’s not the happiest film of the year, but it feels pretty damn real.

 

6. Jackie

Biopic syndrome is a very real thing in Hollywood. No matter who is profiled, it’s easy to map out the origins, the rise to prominence, the second act fall from grace, and the finale of redemption. No matter how interesting the subject or how good the actor portraying the subject, most biopics are very similar. But there are always exceptions to the rule, like Pablo Larraín’s stirring depiction of former First Lady Jackie Kennedy before, during, and after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Thanks to some gorgeous cinematography from Stéphane Fontaine, sweeping shots of JFK’s funeral procession and close ups of Jackie tearfully wiping her husband’s blood off of her face help paint the shimmering dream of her life in the White House and the faded nightmare she experienced as she was forced to leave. The likes of John Hurt, Peter Sarsgaard, Greta Gerwig, and Billy Crudup fill out an exceptional supporting cast that make Jackie consistently question the situation surrounding her. But it’s the fearless, fragile, and feisty lead performance by Natalie Portman that’s worth the price of admission. Portman juggles the many sides of Jackie that one wouldn’t expect: the fiercely protective torch-bearer of the Kennedy legacy, the jaded public figure cursing the American public for her JFK’s death, the broken debutante questioning if all the glamorous dresses in her closet was ever worth a damn, and the heartbroken wife who’s lost the love of her life. It’s as multifaceted as a Dungeons and Dragons dice, but Portman pulls it off beautifully. She’s currently on the verge of welcoming her second child, but don’t be surprised if she welcomes another Oscar to her brood as well.

 

5. Kubo and the Two Strings

If you claim to be a big fan of animated movies and have yet to see anything made by Laika Studios, you’re a liar and should be ashamed. The stop-motion animation wizards at Laika have created three films since 2009 (Coraline, ParaNorman, The Boxtrolls) and all three have given Disney and Pixar a reason to sweat (well at least their creative team, their financial department are too busy lounging in their chairs made of dollars). Now on film four, Laika have made their most expansive world, exciting action, and heartfelt story to date…and yet The Secret Life of Pets made over $800 million, shameful. Anywho, Kubo and the Two Strings takes audiences to ancient Japan where the title character, a one-eyed young boy with magic paper and a three-stringed guitar, must traverse the lands and find three magical items to fight his grandfather, Raiden the moon god (Ralph Fiennes) and his evil twin daughters (Rooney Mara). Fortunately, Kubo is accompanied by a stern fighting monkey (Charlize Theron) and a giant beetle samurai warrior (Matthew McConaughey). Laika’s excellent handling of stop-motion animation merges extremely well with the Japanese style and art direction of the film’s story. The tiniest details are given proper attention making each set piece almost a living element to the film, breathing and moving with the characters themselves. Mix that with a gorgeous score by Dario Marianelli and some great vocal talent by the A-list cast (especially McConaughey in one of his funniest performances to date) and you’ve got something beyond a kid’s adventure: a sweeping, beautiful journey for the whole family without one obnoxious product tie-in (take that, Sing).

 

4. The Nice Guys

The world has had a lot of disappointments in the action film genre this year. The combined power of Batman and Superman turned out into a dud, X-Men fighting Apocalypse was a snoozefest, the first live action Joker in eight years was straight-up embarrassing, even Jason Bourne gave us all a headache. And yet Shane Black made a brand new movie this year and BARELY ANYONE SAW IT! IT WAS RIGHT THERE YOU GUYS!!!! Mr. Black’s latest film (his first since 2013’s surprisingly good Iron Man 3) takes place in 1977 Los Angeles and follows brutish enforcer-for-hire Jackson Healy (Russell Crowe) on his search for a missing girl. He soon joins boozy private investigator Holland March (Ryan Gosling), and the pair embark on shenanigans riddled with bullets, boobs, and secrecy. Very few in Hollywood today do action movies as good as Shane Black, specifically it’s his understanding of when and how often to do action scenes. Instead of desperate ploys to hold the audience’s attention, Black cruises at his own pace and lets his acute sense of style and atmosphere entertain viewers. He expertly paces out the gunplay and pulpy elements of the movie, with even the most casual dialogue better than any exposition in other movies. Speaking of his characters, Black scored two actors on their absolute A-game: Crowe is the growling straight man with excellent comic timing and the real soul of the film, but Gosling steals the show. The man known for his sullen intensity and the occasional meme, Gosling gives the funniest performance of his career (maybe of the year, as well) as he makes “bumbling” look like the coolest thing to do in a movie. Even when he’s been chasing tail that turns out to be a double-cross, he holds his stupidity by still thinking he has a shot at getting laid. It’s like if Van Wilder was in Lethal Weapon, brilliant!

 

3. La La Land

Speaking of brilliant things with Ryan Gosling in them, hurray for movie musicals! And no, writer/director Damien Chazelle (Whiplash) is not talking about the modern era of movie musicals like Les Misérables, Chicago, and Sweeney Todd. Instead, Chazelle crafted a love letter to the likes of Singing’ in the Rain, A Star is Born, and other films of the golden age of movie musicals. While it would be easy to just make a highlight reel of classic moments from that era, Chazelle had the good sense to put a story in there and make the brightest film in grim dumpster fire of 2016. La La Land follows two down-on-their-luck dreamers: jazz pianist Sebastian (Gosling) desperate to open his own hip club, and aspiring actress Mia (Emma Stone) who’s only gotten as close to Hollywood as the coffee shop on a studio lot will let her. The two meet, exchange witty banter, and of course fall in love. They inspire each other to give one last big run at their dreams and face the adversity that follows. Now the pessimistic cynic inside my soul could easily label this as another installment of “White People Problems: Part 75” and scoff at a movie so sweet and sunny that it could give cavities. But it’s impossible not to applaud the care and craftsmanship Chazelle puts into the production. After the small, contained burst of madness that was Whiplash, it’s astonishing to see Chazelle execute such a big production with the same precision as a veteran director (mind you, La La Land is only Chazelle’s third feature film). The sweeping musical numbers (like the Planetarium scene) are shot with such focus and buoyancy that it feels like a group of intelligent robots organized the sequence to perfection, but there’s still a sense of warmth that could only come from a human behind the camera. Justin Hurwitz also returns to provide the film’s score, consisting of a solid combination of quiet jazz numbers shared between the two leads and the big ensemble numbers. But then there’s the heart of the movie, brought by its star-crossed lovers. Gosling is a natural with song and dance numbers while still being a handsome Woody Allen-wannabe obsessed with the passion with jazz. It took the charisma of Gosling to make Sebastian more than just your average jazz hipster. But there is one star of this movie, and she’s Emma Stone. Someone who’s proven that she’s a jack of all trades with drama, comedy, and music, this was the role tailor-made for Stone’s talents and she owns every scene she’s in. Her effortless comedic banter and chemistry with Gosling, her solid singing voice, and the heartbreak in her struggle to make in Hollywood (something she’s certainly no stranger to) is so natural. Stone’s been a major Hollywood star for a while now, but La La Land is surely the one to send her star power into supernova. The same should apply to Chazelle, a true craftsman proving himself to be one of Hollywood’s next great talents.

 

2. Hell or High Water

Throw all the glitz and glamour you want in a movie, but I’m a man of simple tastes. An old-fashioned, stripped-down drama with believable human characters is something that feels rare in movies today and really shouldn’t. Which is why when something like it comes along, seemingly out of nowhere, it’s such a welcome relief and not a stretch to call a new American classic. David Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water feels like a long-lost American classic from the late 60s/early 70s, a crime drama mixed with Western elements and character drama worthy of a great stage play. Dirty, sobering, and especially timely, it’s amazing how the movie feels like such a gem in 2016. It’s a story of brothers, by blood and by occupation. The blood brothers are ex-con Tanner (Ben Foster) and somber divorcee Toby (Chris Pine), who try to save their family farm in West Texas by robbing banks of their petty cash and speeding off into the dusty sunset. The brothers by occupation are two Texas Rangers, one on the verge of retirement (Jeff Bridges) and the other his longtime partner (Gil Birmingham), who are on the trail of the robbers and hope to get one last big bust before they part ways. Mackenzie manages to make Hell or High Water both very singular and yet something that fits right in with 2016. Even with the escapism of film, Mackenzie puts audiences right back into terrible 2016 Americana with endless dried out farms, broken homes, and jobless cowboys feeling abandoned by the world around them. It’s such a vivid depiction of the desolate range that was once promised to be prosperous. On top of that, Mackenzie also knows how to pace the action between the character development. The robberies are quick bursts of kinetic action, building up to the climax that rivals Michael Mann’s Heat robbery. Adding to that expert direction is an engrossing story and tight dialogue by Taylor Sheridan (Sicario), who also crafted the four fantastic lead characters that are also performed by four actors all giving peak performances. Birmingham and Foster are the weaker of the leads, but they still give great performances. Foster provides his typical quiet intensity with a bit more heart to add to the brother aspect, while Birmingham acts as a fitting foil for Bridges character. Speaking of Bridges, this is his finest performance since the last time he did a western (that would be 2010’s True Grit). Bridges has been one of the most heartfelt and human actors of his generation, and Hell or High Water gives him the right character and enough room to let him relax into his character and make him immediately interesting. But then there’s Captain Kirk himself, Chris Pine, giving the finest performance of his career. To see him play a character so mature, burnt out, and yet intimidating and compelling is almost shocking to see. Hopefully it opens new doors for the actor once his Star Trek role turns over or before his career goes as south as the original Kirk. I hope that Hell or High Water doesn’t get lost in the sea of other big films to come out, or perhaps it’ll be a hidden treasure future generations will discover in bargain bins. Regardless, seeing the movie will show how undeniably lasting it feels. Something old, something new, and something to be seen again.

 

And now…..

 

1. The Witch

 

Horror movies are a dime a dozen, you get one diamond for every 10 or 20 duds. But what makes movies like A Nightmare on Elm Street, Psycho, The Exorcist, The Shining and others more memorable than the likes of The Conjuring, Ouija, As Above So Below, Paranormal Activity, Unfriended, Hostel and other forgettable marks in the horror genre? In today’s market, especially with the rise of found footage films, horror movies seem to rely on their jump scares, the brief moments of sudden bursts of sound and surprise imagery to count as scares. While it lets audiences jump in their seats to break up monotony, it doesn’t leave a lasting impression after the movie’s over. Horror films are less about quick moments of spooks and more about terrifying imagery that stays on screen, not too long to lose impact but not too short to be missed. Something that stays on just long enough to stick with audience and haunt their nightmares for weeks, months, or a lifetime. Not many films do that anymore, fortunately one did this year, and everyone who ever wants to make a horror movie (or any movie) should’ve taken notes. In his first feature film no less, writer/director Robert Eggers presented The Witch, “A New England Folktale” that acts as both everything a filmmaker needs to make something compelling and one of the best horror films of all time. Eggers’ film takes place in 17th century New England when a Puritan family is exiled from their village and they are forced to live in the outlier woods with nothing but their farming and their faith to hold on to. One day, their infant is taken into the woods by something unseen, unheard, and unthinkable. The family becomes closer in need of salvation, but the darkness keeps creeping in and all of their prayers aren’t helping. Eggers is a master of not only creating atmosphere but building it into a fuller form. It’s emphasized in a visual work throughout the film: at night, the family’s farmhouse is lit by candles that form a type of box around the family. As the film goes on, the box of light gets smaller and smaller, practically crushing the family as the nights go by and the more they lose understanding of the situation. That’s Eggers game, a time bomb whose fuse is getting smaller and smaller with the victims quickly running out of options. He starts with gloom and keeps building to full-on gothic doom, using lighting and sparse sound design (plus the score by Mark Korven) to build a believably hopeless situation. Despite the title, Eggers even plays with the idea of there even being a witch at the start, having the family use their religion as a security blanket and questioning if this is a part of some type of God-driven insanity. In fact, The Witch herself is such a minor part of the film, with the center of it being the true horror of family values and the madness of religion. It’s all played out without shaky cameras, jump scares, cheap special effects, or excessive gore. The imagery is legitimately unsettling and stays on screen just long enough to last and linger in the mind. The icing on the cake is the exceptional performances by Kate Dickie as the unstable mother and Anya Taylor-Joy as the daughter bearing the most of the psychological torture. The Witch stands for everything that is right in moviemaking: patience, craft, and actual innovation in film.

Marvel’s Collision Course

So……Captain America: Civil War may be both the best Marvel film to date and yet the dumbest. Sure, it has some of the best action and acting in Marvel Studios’ canon, but the motivation behind this epic showdown is just dimwitted enough to not have it be entirely erased from one’s conscious. The parts of a great Avengers-like spectacle are mostly there (hell, it’s easier to call this whole thing Avengers 3), but it has trouble coming together. It’s like trying to smash an Ferrari and a Lamborghini together to make a super car: you’re only getting a car wreck.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Captain America: Civil War is the 13th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the kickoff to the MCU’s Phase Three of flicks. Meant as a follow-up to the events of Avengers: Age of Ultron and Captain America: The Winter Solider, the movie sees Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) and his fellow Avengers (sans Thor and Hulk) dealing with their greatest enemy to date: The United Nations! After realizing that the Avengers’ world-saving battles are causing too much collateral damage for comfort, the U.N. drafts a bill that requires the Avengers to go public and be monitored by the governments of the world. Some, like War Machine (Don Cheadle), Black Widow (Scarlett Johannsson) and Vision (Paul Bettany) think the bill is necessary. Others, like Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Scarlett Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Steve think it’s too extreme. The one really pushing everyone to sign is Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), still riddled with guilt over the events in Sokovia and trying to compensate for his increasing lack of control over what happens to the Earth. Things get even more complicated when Cap’s buddy Bucky Barnes/Winter Solider (Sebastian Stan) is held responsible for a bombing at the U.N. meeting signing the bill into law. Steve believes his friend is innocent, but Tony is ordered to bring Barnes in. With that, the two Avengers and co. collide.

 

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Robert Downey Jr. in “Captain America: Civil War” Photo Credit: Marvel Studios

 

Said company brings their A-game as Civil War may be the most emotionally driven Marvel movie to date. Downey Jr. in particular brings Stark to his most interesting arc in the films because he clearly doesn’t have it all together. Stark is dour, stressed and desperate to keep the Avengers together because he’s well aware that the danger has increased while he only knows how to make fancier Iron Man suits. The consequences of his actions are hitting him now more than ever and Downey makes it show. It makes Stark look incredibly flawed and all the more interesting. However, the MVP of the stacked line-up is one of the newcomers: Chadwick Boseman (Get On Up, 42) as Black Panther. Boseman proves himself worthy of the cast with a stern charisma and the unaltered morals of his character. There’s a real heart and passion to the way Boseman portrays the noble son of Wakanda trying to keep himself removed from the egos of the other heroes. It just adds to the anticipation of Panther’s upcoming solo movie and further establishes Boseman as a born movie star. The other ace is the film’s actual villain: Daniel Brühl (Inglourious BasterdsRush) as Zemo, a reserved and welcome break from giant robots and aliens to fight. And of course there’s the debut of Marvel Studios’ Spider-Man, played with a pitch-perfect amount of teenaged geekiness by newcomer Tom Holland (The Impossible). Despite looking like Jamie Bell if he drank youth formula, Holland may be the most faithful interpretation of Spider-Man to date despite being in only ten minutes of the film. For those complaining that Holland comes off as too awkward or wimpy, guess what: that’s actually who Spider-Man is supposed to be (not a twenty-something Abercrombie model). It’s clear Holland’s presence is to tease a future Spider-Man movie, but the filmmakers wisely keep his appearance brief since he contributes nothing to the actual plot.

 

The rest of the cast all remember how to play their roles right and manage to fit into the picture just the right amount. Everyone else know they’re in a supporting role and they all manage to compliment the story. War Machine reminds Tony of the casualties of superhero war, Vision and Scarlett Witch are the overpowered outsiders trying to find their place on the team, and Black Panther and Hawkeye are the removed characters sticking to their own morals during the big fight. Strangely enough, the weakest element of the movie is the one that kicks the movie into gear. Without the political conspiracy story from The Winter Soldier, the Winter Solider/Captain America relationship is very uninteresting. The main story is the divide between the Avengers, but the movie gets in motion after Winter Solider comes into the movie and it feels mostly unnecessary. More so, Evans and Stan don’t show a lot of chemistry or connection together until the end of the film. Winter Solider kicks off a lot of the action in the movie, but every character besides Winter Solider are what make the scenes stand out. Martin Freeman stands out more despite him being in the movie almost the same length as Stan Lee’s obligatory cameo.

 

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(Left to right) Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen, Chris Evans and Sebastian Stan in “Captain America: Civil War.” Photo Credit: Marvel Studios

 

Civil War is a darker affair than most Marvel movies, but not by much. Unlike that OTHER superhero showdown, Civil War doesn’t overdo the gloom and doom. There’s the overarching atmosphere of seriousness that occasionally gets broken by quips of comedy (some of it lands, some of it doesn’t). The thing is that Civil War looks more realized and alive. In fact, Civil War appears much more realistic and affective than Zack Snyder’s depressing vision. Under the direction of The Winter Solider directors Anthony and Joe Russo, the action set pieces combine fist-fights and effect-driven power play very well. There are some moments of shaky-cam and rapid editing, but the Russo brothers know when to make the audience pay attention. The final showdown between Iron Man, Winter Soldier and Captain America is surprisingly brutal with Iron Man using blinding rage as motivation and Cap just trying to protect his friend despite bleeding profusely from the mouth. The real main event is the advertised showdown at the airport between Team Iron Man and Team Cap. It’s gigantic, ridiculous, stupid yet incredibly pleasing to see everyone show off their powers against one another. Every time you’ve smashed action figures together and made sound effects to it as a kid has manifested onscreen. Whereas Marvel’s Daredevil had the most grounded and realistic fight scene, Civil War is at the opposite end of the spectrum with its over-the-top nature, but both represent the best Marvel has to offer. It might even be worth the price of admission alone.

But what keeps Civil War from matching the miracle that was 2012’s Avengers? Well for one, Marvel has a hard time keeping a straight face. They’re clearly going for a more serious tone but there are moments with serious dramatic heft that get interrupted with witty quips or Vision cooking in a pullover sweater (no, seriously). Sure it’s funny, but takes the audience out of the entire experience and creates near-tonal whiplash. The real problem is the entire main plot (or plots) of the movie. As mentioned, the entire involvement of Winter Solider in the movie feels shoehorned in and merely acts as a greater catalyst for Captain America’s involvement. He’s conflicted enough on the bill after the events of the opening action scene, so having Bucky be thrown in seems more like a distraction from the more interesting conflict between Tony and Steve. On top of that, it’s actually easy to pick a side on this battle. The main reason Tony backs the bill so heavily is a rather blunt scene where a woman blames her son’s death in Sokovia on Tony. Sure there have been many forms of collateral damage throughout the Avengers’ world-saving fights, but the alternative of keeping Earth’s Mightiest Heroes waiting for political red tape to let them save the world seems incredibly dumb. Tony’s motivations seems to be out of desperation rather than thought out logic, the same goes for those supporting the bill. It’s certainly something that political debate can be featured in a superhero movie where Paul Rudd laughs it up for yucks, but it’s not much of a debate to get invested in. If the choice is to let the Avengers do what they do and learn from their mistakes or tighten the leash on them in the hopes of possibly lessening the damage, I say AVENGERS ASSEMBLE! You know who doesn’t care about collateral damage? Thanos, Hydra and Zemo. You know who’s been proven to be hopelessly unprepared to fight these enemies? The entire human race. You’d think there’d be a thoughtful conversation about these issues, but the only way superheroes can solve problems is through punching, and that’s mostly what Civil War has to offer.

 

 

Taken as big, dumb blockbuster spectacle, Civil War comes so damn close to reaching the scale and emotional heft of The Avengers and that should be more than enough to recommend this movie. But it’s just too hard to ignore the fact that Marvel isn’t willing to pull the trigger on the Watchmen-like question of “who should superheroes answer to?”In fact the more I think about it, that big question is almost entirely tossed aside for Tony’s emotional breakdown and Steve’s buddy rescue, not to mention more Winter Soldier backstory that isn’t worthy of a subplot let alone a feature film. So like I said, Civil War is like a sports car demolition derby: it’s awesome to see these impeccably crafted works collide with each other, but the final product is a mess the more you look at it.

 

3 out of 4 stars

Winter is Here for Captain America

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Iron Man can fight giant robots lead by a guy who can spit fire. Thor can fight gods and dark elves of the many realms in the universe. Hulk can basically smash anything he wants without rhyme or reason. With all of that said, what exactly makes Captain America’s life so exciting? Sure, he fought Red Skull and the Nazi side project Hydra during World War II and America is all the more grateful. However, he isn’t in the 1940s anymore: It’s 2014 and he has a lot of catching up to do. Steve Rodgers is a man out of time, meaning he’s not up to date America’s new government policy of red, white, and corruption. Yes, paranoia and bad politics round out the fast, fun, and stellar return of Marvel’s American hero in “Captain America: The Winter Soldier.”

Chris Evans, the man formerly known as The Human Torch, is back playing Steve Rodgers as S.H.I.E.L.D’s star employee, Captain America. Despite the encouragement of fellow agent Natasha Romanov (Scarlett Johansson) to get out in the world, Rodgers feels alone and out of place in the 21st century. He’s trying to learn about Thai food and Nirvana while completing the various vague missions issued by S.H.I.E.L.D director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). Fury is in the midst of issuing a worldwide police force through 3 massive flying warships, which Fury describes as stopping the threat before it happens but Captain America calls fear through firearms. Cap doesn’t trust Fury, but he’s going to have to considering a mysterious assassin named The Winter Soldier attacks Fury. Accused of being involved with the plot by S.H.I.E.L.D executive Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford), Captain America is labeled a fugitive by the organization that saved his life. More paranoid than ever, Captain America must work with the sly Romanov and a former military pilot named Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) to discover what’s really going on behind the closed doors of his own employers.

This is a plot with many moving parts, which is a big step for Marvel Studios. Thankfully, most of it locks into place and works nicely. The action is very impressive with a healthy balance of stealth, bare-knuckle brawls, and spectacular special effect-driven aerial attacks. Anthony and Joe Russo, the directors of the film, carefully balance the “politicians are evil” spy movie with the typical summer popcorn movie.

Captain America only has half of the charm of Iron Man, a quarter of the emotional struggle of Hulk, and 1/100 of the power of Thor (possibly less). Fortunately, he’s played by an impressive actor in Chris Evans, who plays Cap like a conflicted man with strong morals that are constantly being dated. The dimensions that Evans added to Cap in “The Avengers” are brought up front here, and it builds great character development. Evans also has great support from Johansson, Jackson, Mackie, and Redford. Basically everyone is here to help push Captain America into the public conscience and they succeed.

Granted, this movie isn’t flawless: It suffers from vertigo-inducing camera movement at times, a pretty obvious villain, and a mostly by the books ending. Redford, as great as he was in last year’s “All Is Lost,” seems to be phoning his performance in. The Winter Soldier himself is given very little character development (although his true identity is not that hard to figure out if one saw the first movie), along with Mackie’s Sam Wilson. It’s a bit frustrating because there is plenty of potential in some of these small characters.

While “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” is not as smart or grown up as it would like to be, it’s still a great piece of pre-summer popcorn movie fun. It’s definitely better than its predecessor (and “Thor: The Dark World”) and also better put together by “Iron Man 3.” It’s action and plot is smarter than the average Marvel movie, though a little more wit and humor could’ve helped. The important thing is that this could’ve been worse (look what happened to the Thor sequel). Hopefully the cannon of humor will be filled by “Guardians of the Galaxy” come August, but the bar for summer movies has been set high by the man in stars and stripes.

Final Verdict: 3 out of 4 stars