It’s hard to draw comparisons to the major commitment to long-form storytelling that the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has dabbled with over the course of ten record-shattering years of success. I can think of movie franchises that have been popular over long periods of time, like James Bond, but rarely do they keep to continuity. It’s been 18 movies and ten years since the caddish Robert Downey Jr. first stole our hearts in the original Iron Man, and its stable of heroes and villains has grown exponentially. Looking at the poster for Avengers: Infinity War, it’s hard to believe there’s even enough space just for all of the actors’ names. Infinity War feels like a massive, culminating years-in-the-making film event and it reminded me most of Peter Jackson’s concluding Lord of the Rings chapter, Return of the King. After so long, we’re privy to several separate story threads finally being braided as one and several dispirit characters finally coming together. This is a blockbuster a full decade in the making and it tends to feel overloaded and burdened with the responsibility of being everything to everyone. It’s an epic, entertaining, and enjoyable movie, but Infinity War can also leave you hanging.
Thanos (Josh Brolin) has finally come to collect the six infinity stones stashed around the universe. With their power, he will be able to achieve his ultimate goal of wiping out half of all life in the universe. Standing in his murderous way is a divided Avengers squad, with Tony Stark (Downey Jr.) still on the outs with a wanted-at-large Captain America (Chris Evans) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). One of the in-demand infinity stones resides in the head of the Vision (Paul Bettany), who is in hiding with his romantic partner, Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen). They know Thanos will be coming for Vision eventually. On the other side are the Guardians of the Galaxy who have a few personal scores to settle with Thanos, the adopted father of Gomora (Zoe Saldana) and Nebula (Karen Gillan). Elsewhere, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) strikes out looking for the key to defeating the big purple menace. Thanos’ loyal lieutenants attack Earth to gather the remaining infinity stones, drawing the attention and push-back of Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Peter Parker (Tom Holland). The various heroes of Earth and space unite to eliminate the greatest threat the universe has ever known.
Avengers: Infinity War serves not as much a series of payoffs as it is climaxes, with climactic event right after another, and this time it’s for keeps (more on that below). There are moments that feel like major payoffs and moments that feel like shrug-worthy Last Jedi-style payoffs. Infinity War is the longest MCU movie yet at 149 minutes but it has no downtime. That’s because it has to find room for dozens of heroes across the cosmos. With the exception of three super heroes, everyone is in this movie, and I mean everyone. This is an overstuffed buffet of comic book spectacle, and whether it feels like overindulgence will be determined by the viewer’s prior investment with this cinematic universe. If this is your first trip to the MCU, I’d advise holding off until later. Any newcomer will be very lost. I’ve deduced the seven MCU movies that are the most essential to see to successfully comprehend the totality of the Infinity War dramatics, and they are Iron Man, The Avengers, Captain America: Winter Soldier, Guardians of the Galaxy, Captain America: Civil War, Doctor Strange, and Thor: Ragnarok. Naturally, being intimately familiar with the previous 18 movies will be best, but if you don’t have thirty hours to spare then please follow my seven-film lineup and you’ll be solid.
As far as the stakes, the MCU has been notoriously reluctant about killing off its characters, but Infinity War is completely different. I won’t spoil circumstances or names, of course, but the march of death happens shockingly early and carries on throughout. There are significant losses that will make fans equally gasp and cry. This is a summer blockbuster that leaves behind an impressive body count across the known universe and ends in a downbeat manner that will naturally trigger reflexive Empire Strikes Back comparisons. It’s hard to feel the full impact of the drastic decisions, and the grief over their losses because I know there is a Part Two coming summer 2019, and with that comes the almost certainty that several important events will be diminished or straight-out reversed. After all, in comics, nobody is ever really dead, though with movies the heroes have the nagging habit of aging. With that said, you better believe I was holding my breath during some standoffs, tearing up at some sudden goodbyes, and reflecting upon journeys shared.
This is very much Thanos’ movie, which was one of the bigger surprises for me. Beforehand, our exposure to the big purple guy has been relatively minor, a brief moment here or a cameo there during a post-credit scene. Considering Thanos is supposed to be the universe’s biggest bad, it makes sense to finally give him his due, and that is what Infinity War does. Thanos gets the most screen time of any character and is given an honest-to-God character arc. He’s a villain who goes on an actual emotional journey as he follows a path that he feels compelled to even as it tests him personally. He finally opens up as a character rather than some malevolent force that is oft referred to in apocalyptic terms. We get his back-story and motivation, which is less a romantic appeal to Death like in the comics and more a prevention of the apocalypse reminiscent of the Reapers in the Mass Effect series. Thanos sees himself as a necessary corrective force and not as a villain. He’s never portrayed in a maniacal, gleeful sense of wickedness. Instead he seems to carry the heaviness of his mission and looks at the Avengers and other heroes sympathetically. He understands their struggle and defiance. Having an actor the caliber of Brolin (Deadpool 2) is a necessity to make this character work and effectively sell the emotions. Thanos is the most significant addition to the MCU appearing the latest, so there’s a lot of heavy lifting to do, and Infinity War fleshes him out as a worthy foe.
As an action spectacle, however, Infinity War is good but not great. The action sequences are interesting enough but there’s nothing special and little development. There’s nothing that rivals the delirious nerdgasm of the airport battle in Civil War pitting hero-against-hero to dizzying degree. The characters are separated into units with their own goals leading to a final confrontation that feels more climactic conceptually than in execution. That’s because this is an Avengers film that falls into some of the trappings of the glut of super hero cinema, namely the army of faceless foot soldiers for easy slaughtering, the over exaggerated sense of scale of battle, the apocalyptic stakes that can feel a bit like a bell rung too many times, and even minor things like the lackluster supporting villains. Thanos’ team of lieutenants are all the same kind of sneering heavy with the exception of one, a sort of alien cleric heralding the honor of death from Thanos. Carrie Coon (HBO’s The Leftovers) is generally wasted providing the mo-cap for the Lady Lieutenant That Sounds Like a Band Fronted by Jared Leto, a.k.a. Proxima Midnight. There are far too many scenes where characters reluctantly strike a deal to give up an infinity stone if Thanos will spare the life of a beloved comrade. The film’s greatest point of entertainment isn’t with its action but the character dynamics. The fun is watching years-in-the-making character interactions and seeing the sparks fly. There’s more joy in watching Downey Jr. and Cumberbatch try and out smarm one another than with any CGI collision of a faceless army of monsters. There are so many characters that few are given fully defined arcs. Most are given beginnings and stopping places. Though the eventual sequel will have fewer characters needing to share precious screen time.
The standouts on screen are Hemsworth (12 Strong) carrying a large portion of the movie and not missing a beat of his well-honed comic rhythms from Ragnarok, Bettany (Solo) brings a sad soulfulness to Vision as a man who knows fate is likely unavoidable, and Dave Bautista (Blade Runner 2049) is perfectly deadpan as Drax and has the funniest lines in the movie followed closely by the exuberant Holland (Lost City of Z). To even say which characters deal with more complex emotions might be a spoiler in itself but there are several actors showing an emotive level unseen so far in the bustling MCU.
Avengers: Infinity War marks a significant concluding chapter for one of cinema’s most popular series, until at least the next movie possibly makes it feel less conclusive. I pity Marvel because expectations are going to be astronomical for this climactic showdown. There are so many characters, so many crossovers, and so much to still establish, like Thanos as a character more than a spooky force of annihilation, that it feels rather breathless even at nearly two-and-a-half hours. You may be feeling a rush of exhilaration on your way out or an equally compelling sense of exhaustion. Infinity War doesn’t have the imaginative highs of a Dcotor Strange, the funky personality and style of a Guardians of the Galaxy, the wonderfully thought-out structure of a Spider-Man: Homecoming, the adroit weirdness of a Thor: Ragnarok, or even the hero-against-hero catharsis of a Civil War (still my favorite). What it does have is a sense of long-gestating finality, of real stakes and dire consequences. It’s not all pervading doom and gloom; this is still a fun movie, buoyed by crackling character team-ups and interactions. While, Infinity War won’t be all things to all people, myself included, it will please many fans, casual and diehard alike.
Nate’s Grade: B
With the continued runaway success of the box-office juggernaut that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), it becomes more and more preposterous just how strange and unique it can be. You would think a mega franchise this valuable would be more prone to playing it safe, hiring established visual stylists who can produce product. Instead, the MCU finds interesting creative voices that can succeed within their very big sandbox. Enter New Zealand actor and quirky director Taika Waititi (What We Do in the Shadows), one of the most surprising directorial hires in a decade of blockbusters. The Thor movies are generally considered some of the weakest films in the MCU, so there’s already plenty of room for improvement. With Waititi, Thor: Ragnarok is easily the best Thor movie and one of the funniest to date for the MCU. It’s finally a Thor movie that embraces its silly, campy, ridiculous world and finds space to cram in more eccentricity.
Thor (Chris Hemsworth) has returned to his home world of Asgard to find it in great peril. His brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) has been ruling in their father’s stead, and that’s not even the worst part. Thor’s heretofore-unannounced older sister Hera (Cate Blanchett) has been unleashed from her prison and is seeking the throne she feels is rightfully hers. She is the goddess of death and chafes at Asgard’s revisionist history, trying to paint over its history as conquerors for something kinder and gentler. Thor is banished to an outlying planet, Sakaar, that’s essentially a junkyard for the universe. He’s captured by Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) and sold to fight in the Grandmaster’s (Jeff Goldblum) arena. Thor is trained to fight in gladiatorial combat, and his opponent and reigning champion is none other than the Hulk a.k.a. Bruce Banner’s (Mark Ruffalo) alter ego. Thor must break free, convince the Hulk for help, get off this planet, and save Asgard before it’s too late.
Waititi has acclimated himself extremely well in the large-scaled world of blockbuster filmmaking, and yet his signature quirky sense of style and humor are still evident throughout, making Ragnarok the best Thor film. Let’s face it, the Thor films are completely ridiculous and trying to treat them as anything but is wasted effort. These movies involve alien Norse gods traveling by rainbow bridges and even though they can traverse the cosmos in spaceships they still sling giant broad swords. The more the films embrace the inherent silliness of the series the better. Ragnarok is the Thor movie that gets all the serious stuff out of the way in the first act, tying up loose ends from 2013’s Dark World, checking in with Anthony Hopkins’ Odin and the requisite MCU cameo (a superfluous Doctor Strange), and then introducing Thor’s long-lost twisted sister. From Blanchett’s intro, the movie becomes what it was set out to be, a lavish and consistently funny buddy comedy. Gone are all the Earthly constraints from the prior two films. It’s all aliens from here on out. Thor has everything stripped from him, his hammer, his family, his hair, and becomes an underdog once again. It’s a surefire way to make a living god more relatable. Fighting from the ground up, Thor makes all sorts of new friends and enemies, and it’s this evolution into an ensemble comedy where Waititi’s film shines. There’s a jovial touch to the world building that extends from the visuals to the variety of odd characters. Thor has never been more entertaining as Hemsworth (Ghostbusters) is able to stop being so serious and embrace his underutilized comedic chops. The man has a stunning sense of comedic delivery and a dry wit that’s right at home for Waititi. Hemsworth and his daffy sense of humor have never been better in the MCU.
Even with the added comic refinery, Thor is still the most boring of the Avengers, so Ragnarok solves this by introducing a new bevy of side characters that steal the show. The wacky world of the Thor universe was always its best aspect, and each new film pushes the boundaries a little further out, revealing more weird and wild planets and creatures. It feels like a Star Wars where we spend our time with the weird, scuzzy part of the universe. Ragnarok pushes those boundaries the furthest yet and introduces an entire cadre of loveable supporting players that you want to spend more time with. Tessa Thompson has a wonderful and intimidating introduction as she swoops in on a spaceship, makes her badass claim of her prized bounty, and then trips and falls, as she is quite tipsy from drinking. She regains her literal footing and still seems a bit out of it, but the ensuring process she goes through to claim what is hers is thoroughly impressive. As a Valkyrie, this is one tough woman, and Thompson (Creed) has great fun playing bad. She really reminded me of a female Han Solo. Thompson has a wily screwball chemistry with Hemsworth, and both actors elevate the other with lively give-and-take. Thompson is a terrific new addition. She has an enticing, irascible appeal without overt sexualization that sometimes befalls the Marvel female sidekicks (Black Widow, Pepper Potts).
Another character you’ll fall in love with is Korg, a rock monster gladiator played in motion-capture and drolly voiced by director Waititi himself. My question: is it possible for a director to steal his own movie? This is a character that feels stripped from one of Waititi’s dry, absurdist comedies and placed into the MCU. Korg is a would-be revolutionary but really he’s a joke machine and just about every line is gold. By the end of the movie, I needed a Korg spin-off series to further explore this unusual character.
The requisite villains of the film definitely play their roles to full camp, enjoying every moment. Blanchett (Carol) is like a Gothic Joan Crawford, marching with a slinky step and a sneer. Her multi-antler helmet completes the operatic sweep of the character. You’ll forgive me for my above comment on recognizing female characters independent of their sexuality, but man oh man does Goth Blanchett make me happy (especially with her hair down). It’s a shame that the movie doesn’t really know what to do with Hela though. Every time we cut back to her I found myself getting somewhat impatient. I wanted to return back to the weird and wild world Thor was on. Blanchett is entertaining but her character can’t help but feel a bit shoehorned in (“Hey, you had a long-lost sister, and oh by the way, she’s basically Death itself, and she’s coming by to retake everything, so have fun with that and sorry for the short notice”). Goldblum (Independence Day: Resurgence) is left to his Goldblum devices and it’s everything you would want. His signature stuttering deadpan is just as potent in the MCU, and the film finds strange little asides for him to make him even more entertaining. Karl Urban (Star Trek Beyond) has a plum role as Hela’s second-in-command who doesn’t really want the job. They actually gave this guy a character arc. It’s simple, sure, but it was more than I was expecting.
Ragnarok is a swan dive into a stylized, candy-colored explosion of 80s album covers come alive. The visuals and action feel inspired as much from the art of Jack Kirby as they do the pages of Heavy Metal. The overwhelming feel is one of irresistible fun, something you lean back, soak up, and smile from ear to ear in between handfuls of popcorn. The final battle feels suitably climactic and revisits Led Zeppelin’s immortal “Immigrant Song” once the action peaks, coalescing into a crescendo of cool. The trinkly 80s synth score from Mark Mothersbaugh (The Lego Movie) is fantastic and helps to achieve an extra kitschy kick. This movie is just flat-out fun throughout. It finds fun things for the characters to do, like when Banner has to not Hulk out on an alien world filled with stressors to trigger such an occurrence. That sequence almost feels like the grown-up, polished version of Adam West desperately running around as TV’s Batman in need of trying to find a place to dispose of a lit bomb. There’s an archness to the action and character interactions that is playful without being obnoxiously glib. I also enjoyed a climax that involved more than just out-punching the villains. Some might even charitably read it as a commentary on the over reliance of apocalyptic grandeur.
Playing from behind because of its hero’s limitations, Thor: Ragnarok finally embraces the silliness of its franchise, opening up more comic channels and vastly improving its entertainment quotient. The weird word and its collection of odd and oddly compelling characters is the best feature, and though it takes Ragnarok a bit of time for house cleaning, it becomes a steadily amusing big-budget blockbuster that maintains a cracked and lively sense of humor. It’s allowed to be strange and silly and campy. Waititi’s imaginative voice is still very present throughout the film, pushing the movie into fun and funny directions while still delivering the sci-fi action spectacle we’ve come to expect from the MCU. Ragnarok isn’t as deep as Civil War, as perfectly structured as Homecoming, or as subversive and different as Guardians of the Galaxy, but with a droll creative mind like Waititi, it becomes about the best possible Thor movie it can be.
Nate’s Grade: B+
After eight years and over a dozen movies, the unstoppable box-office juggernaut that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) seems like it could successfully sell the public on any concept, no matter how undeniably bizarre. This is the same studio that made us weep over the death of a tree that said three words. At this point, I think I can argue that the MCU has a higher film-to-film consistent quality of excellence than Pixar, the other most trusted brand in cinema (Pixar’s creative/emotional highs are certainly higher but they’ve had their share of misses). Marvel has earned the benefit of the doubt. The common complaint is that their movies feel too formulaic and insubstantial. I would definitely argue against the latter and the former needs no real defense. Marvel has built an empire on a system that works because it delivers crowd-pleasing and character-oriented blockbusters that are packed with payoffs for fans and newcomers. The alternative, chiefly the dour bombast of the fledgling DC film universe, isn’t much more appealing, but then again I have been labeled a “Marvel shill” by those infuriated from my inconceivable pan of the very conceivably terrible Suicide Squad, so take my word with some skepticism. For any other brand, Doctor Strange could be too weird. With the MCU, it’s another comforting sign they really know what they’re doing.
Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a brilliant New York neurosurgeon who loses full control over his hands after a horrible car accident. He travels to Nepal to seek out holistic remedies to aid his recovery and instead finds the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), a powerful mystic. She takes a liking to Strange and invites him into their temple to train as a pupil of powerful sorcerers (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Benedict Wong). Former sorcerer, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen), has gone rogue and believes the only way to survive the oncoming cosmic giant Dormammu is to join him. Doctor Strange must summon all the skills of multiple dimensions in order to save the day.
Doctor Strange is at its core an origin tale and one that feels somewhat familiar at least for its first half. It’s likely not an accident that Stephen Strange bears more than a passing resemblance to Marvel’s other egotistical, arrogant charmer, Mr. Tony Stark. He’s a man who has to be humbled and learn the error of his ways and his outsized hubris, which makes for an effective character arc to structure an introductory movie around. It also makes fine work of Cumberbatch’s otherworldly sense of haughty superiority (I can’t wait to watch future Strange and Stark banter). The first half is essentially Training Montage: The Movie. Strange learns about the ancient mystic arts and, more importantly, super powers. The movie doesn’t follow Thor’s lead and argue that magic is another form of science. It declares magic as its own thing. Strange learns how to open portals, how to shift reality, how to astral project, and even how to stop time. Each new power is given proper attention and the learning curve adjusts as needed, allowing an audience to process the various rules and dramatic stakes. It’s a structurally smart assembly of mini-goals to keep an audience secure in what otherwise could be overwhelming for its New Age mumbo jumbo.
After the origin heavy lifting is taken care of that’s when Doctor Strange becomes everything I could hope for, namely a highly imaginative action movie with a breakneck pace and a boundless sense of imagination. This movie feels kinetically alive and unpredictable in ways that few Marvel movies even approach. Once Strange and Kaecilius meet at the halfway mark it becomes a gallop to the finish line with one highly entertaining action set piece after another, and even better they are wildly different. We don’t have battles about running and firing weapons or just punching bad guys extra hard; instead, it’s reality itself that bends to the will of the fighters. Characters walk on walls, shift the state of architecture, create teleportation portals to hop in and out of, shift the entire gravity of the world to force people away from said portals, and turn New York City into a kaleidoscopic playground. There’s an extended chase scene that literally feels like a series of M. C. Escher paintings come to starling life. The sequence is eye-popping in the best way and, shocking enough, it’s not even the climax of the movie. There are so many fun possibilities for crazy action sequences. There are other sequences that stand out, such as an out-of-body fight between two warring astral projection foes. The real climax of the movie is something I’ve never seen before, a battle that takes place as time resets. The smoldering ruins of a cataclysm are put together brick-by-brick and characters dodge the debris as it rapidly reforms. It’s visually thrilling to watch but it’s also a clever sequence because there are continuous opportunities for danger and in many ways that your brain cannot naturally suspect, like when a wall reforms and traps someone within. Whatever your feeling on the general MCU and its blockbuster formula calibrations, Doctor Strange is a great leap into something different, momentously exhilarating, and inventive.
Director Scott Derrickson (Sinister) was an intriguing choice considering his background in supernatural horror, but, as should be obvious, the MCU overlords score again with their foresight and risk-taking. Derrickson’s visual influences hew much closer to Christopher Nolan and the Wachowski Siblings than the greatest hits of the MCU, and that’s exactly what this world needed to stand out on its own. I cannot overstate just how enjoyable the last hour of the movie can be, though this isn’t meant as a backhanded slight against that first half. The action-packed hour only works because of the setup from before and laying a careful foundation for the characters, their dynamics, and the rules of this trippy universe that bends conventional physics. All the careful world-building and training montages set up the sprint through a fireworks factory of fun, and I had a smile plastered to my face the whole time, eagerly anticipating the next detour into crazy.
I’m even going to impart you, dear reader, with some advice I haven’t given since 2013: if possible, see this movie in 3D. The hypnotic visuals and elusively shifting reality demand to be seen with the added help of the third dimension. The movie will still obviously work in a non-3D format but why deny yourself the full impact of these incredible visual experiences? New York City contorting is worth the extra few bucks alone.
The acting is another highlight for such an enjoyable movie. Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game) easily makes for a terrific lead actor, someone who can bring a sense of gravitas or dry sarcasm when called upon. His sense of comedy is underrated and this Sorcery Supreme gets his fair share of punctuating the weird and wild with a perfectly delivered joke. A bit with a sentient cape allows for great physical comedy. His American accent is also much improved from earlier far spottier efforts in 2013’s August: Osage County and 2015’s Black Mass, which featured perhaps the worst “Baustun” accent in recent memory. Cumberbatch is the charming smartass, the know-it-all who realizes how much he still has yet to learn, and his final showdown with the Big Bad Evil sheds large-scale disaster for something much more personal (no giant portal in the sky or faceless army of monsters/aliens, hooray!). His character arc of learning that it’s not about himself culminates in a brilliantly conceived sequence that satisfies. The other standout is Swinton (Snowpiercer) who once again melds with her character, who happens to be a mysterious Celtic mystic who may not even be human. The early half is instantly elevated when Swinton is on screen. She presents a matter-of-fact sense of the preposterous that is downright serene. It’s also a role that is more than just a requisite mentor as The Ancient One has some secrets that will be revealed. I was also genuinely pleased with how much screen time Mikkelsen (TV’s Hannibal, Rogue One) gets for his villain, who has a wicked deadpan. I pity Rachel McAdams (Spotlight) who plays the underwritten love interest role we’ve seen similar to Natalie Portman prior performances. She at least gets a few good scenes before being forgotten.
With each additional entry into the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe, the fan in me gets to reexamine and realign the pecking order of quality. In my own subjective rankings I would say that Doctor Strange is just below the top tier of the MCU (Guardians of the Galaxy, Civil War, Iron Man) and on par with Winter Soldier. This is a highly enjoyable and highly imaginative action movie teeming with eye-popping visuals. Many of the visual set pieces are stunning and demand to be witnessed on the largest screen possible. The movie never loses its sense of fun and wonder while still respecting the dramatic stakes of the cataclysmic events, and when it goes big it makes it matter. I have no previous attachment to this character and Doctor Strange was just about everything I wanted the film to be and then some. It’s another sign that Marvel can take any property and find the formula to make it a satisfying smash. I enjoyed Doctor Strange enough that I want to see it again, and this time even bigger to better soak up the strange.
Nate’s Grade: A-
For decades, James “Whitey” Bulger (Johnny Depp) was the most feared man in Boston. After being released from Alcatraz, he returned home to his Massachusetts roots and consolidated power with an iorn grip. He and his cronies ruled Boston’s criminal underworld and were given protection from none other than the FBI. Thanks to agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), a childhood pal of Bulger’s, his crimes were given an implicit blessing (as long as he didn’t go too far) as he served as an FBI informant. In reality he was just ratting out his competition and abusing his power. This charade lasted for decades until Bulger went on the run, not being caught until 2011.
Black Mass really suffers from its two core characters, Bulger and Connolly, who are just not that interesting, which is a great surprise for a true-story about corruption and murder. Crime drama have an allure to them and this is accentuated by their colorful and usually larger-than-life figures that we watch commit all those terrible yet cinematic acts of vicious violence. Being the inspiration for Jack Nicholson’s crime lord in The Departed, you’d assume that the real-life Bulger would have a menace and personality that fills up the big screen, leaving you asking for more. Shockingly, he doesn’t. He’s a mean guy and he has his moments of severe intimidation, but he’s also practically a 1990s action movie villain with a sneer and one-dimensional sense of posturing. He doesn’t come across as a character but more as a boogeyman. We see him help some old ladies in the neighborhood, but you never get a sense he has any care or loyalty for his old stomping grounds, especially as he pumps drugs into the impoverished community. We don’t get any sense about how his mind works or what motivates Bulger beyond unchecked greed. We don’t get a sense of any discernable personality. We don’t have any scene that feels tailored toward the character (even though I assume many are based on true events); instead, Bulger feels unmoored and generally unimportant to Black Mass because he could be replaced by any standard movie tough guy. How in the world has a movie about notorious criminal Whitey Bulger found a way to make him this boring?
Then there are the underdeveloped supporting characters of Connolly and Bulger’s brother, Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch). The guy responsible for Bulger’s misdeeds getting the green light should be a far more important person in this story but he’s mostly portrayed as a stooge. He wants to look out for Bulger but despite one “you’ve changed” speech from his beleaguered wife, you don’t truly get any sense that Connolly has changed. You don’t get a sense of his moral dilemma or even his desperation as new leadership in the FBI starts to see through his poor obfuscations. He’s a stooge from the beginning and we feel nothing when his self-serving alliance comes to an unceremonious end. There is even less when it comes to Billy, a character that seems to pretend his brother is a different person. Billy works as a state senator. His political position must have supplied more inherent drama than what they movie affords. Black Mass is doomed when its three central characters are this dull.
Another problem is that the movie makes Bulger too protected for too long to the point it becomes comical. The script follows a routine where an associate of Bulger’s knows too much or is going to confess to the police, and within usually the next scene that character is easily dispatched, sometimes in broad daylight and with scores of witnesses. There are several recognizable actors who must have filmed for a weekend. I understand Connolly was protecting his meal ticket here with the Bureau, but Bulger is so brazen that we as an audience need more justification for how Connolly could cover for so long. It feels like Bulger has free reign and that extends into the screenplay as well. Without a stronger sense of opposition, or at least watching Bulger rise through the mob ranks, we’re left with a collection of scenes of the status quo being repeatedly reconfirmed.
I’ve figured out the way to revise Black Mass and make it far more entertaining. As stated above, Bulger is just too much a one-note boogeyman to deserve the screen time he’s given, and his onscreen dominance hampers what should be the movie’s true focus, Agent Connolly. Here is where the movie’s focal point should be because this is the transformation of a person. Bulger is the same from start to finish, only shifting in degrees of power, but it’s Connolly who goes on the moral descent. His is the more interesting journey, as he tries to use his childhood connections to get ahead in the FBI, but he consistently has to make compromise after compromise, and after awhile he’s gone too deep. Now he has to worry about being caught or being too expendable to Bulger. This character arc, given its proper due, would make for a terrific thriller that’s also churning with an intense moral ambiguity of a man trying to justify the choices he has made to stay ahead. It’s a more tragic hero sort of focus but one that has far more potential to illuminate the inner anxiety and psychological torment of the human heart rather than constantly going back to Buger to watch him whack another person. It’s far more interesting to watch a man sink into the mire he has knowingly constructed, and that’s why the narrative needed to shift its focus to Connolly to really succeed.
Depp (Pirates of the Caribbean) takes a few steps back from his more eccentric oddballs to portray the unnerving ferocity of Bulger, and he’s quite good at playing a human being again, though Bulger strains the definition of human. He underplays several scenes and his eyes burrow into you with such animosity that it might make you shudder. He’s a thoroughly convincing cold-blooded killer, though I wonder if part of my praise is grading Depp on a curve since Bulger is so unlike his recent parts. Regardless, Depp is the most enjoyable aspect of Black Mass and a reconfirmation that he can be a peerless actor when he sinks his teeth into a role rather than a series of tics. He also handles the Boston accent far better than his peers. Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game) and Edgerton (The Gift) are more than capable actors but oh boy do both flounder with their speaking voices. They are greatly miscast as two native Massachusetts sons.
If you’re a fan of crime thrillers steeped in true-life details of heinous men (it’s typically men) committing heinous acts, even you will likely be underwhelmed or marginally disappointed by Black Mass. There just isn’t enough going on here besides a series of bad events that don’t feel like they properly escalate, complicate, or alter our characters until the film’s very end when the plot requires it. The screenplay has propped up Bulger by his rep, told Depp to crank up his considerable glower, and called it a day. It’s a Boston mob story that needed more intensive attention to its characters to survive. Black Mass is a crime story that dissolves into its stock period details and genre trappings, becoming a good-looking but ultimately meaningless window into a hidden world.
Nate’s Grade: C+
With all respects to Ice Cube’s would-be family series, the subtitle of the third Hobbit film could have been “Are We Done Yet?” Originally planned as two films, the prequel series based upon J.R.R. Tolkien’s novel was expanded to three, and it’s clear what motivated this decision. Each Hobbit film has made at least $900 million dollars, but goodness has it padded an already bloated series beyond repair. The best part of the second film, which looking back is the best in the new trilogy, Smaug the dragon, is gone in the first ten minutes. What follows is a pointless and tedious series of events, mostly CGI armies crashing into other CGI armies. It’s hard to find much to care about after six plus hours especially when it amounts to squabbles over treasure. It’s also bothersome that the antagonist for a solid hour is Thorin who adopts… gold madness suddenly, and then loses it just as suddenly and as contrived. You can feel the weight of all this filler trying to stretch what amounts to a protracted resolution into a full-blown movie. The battles are relentlessly soulless and have lost any weight to reality. There’s one standout action sequence involving a crumbling tower acting as a makeshift bridge. Beyond that, get ready for overlong battles involving lots of fake soldiers and monsters. With no larger goal in motion, you’re just waiting for the bad guys to die so we can go home. While Battle of the Five Armies is the shortest film in the series, it’s still about 120 minutes longer than it needs to be. The business of the Hobbit has affected the artistry of The Hobbit, and only Tolkien apologists would lap up the extra time in Middle Earth.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Back to another three-hour trip to Middle Earth. While the second Hobbit film is an improvement in just about every way, it’s still a clear example of a franchise stretching to the breaking point. Peter Jackson gets the second installment moving a lot quicker, and there are several standout action sequences that are glorious on the big screen. Unfortunately it still takes almost two full hours to get to the dragon of the title, but when it does, oh does the movie become that much grander. Benedict Cumberbatch gives frightful life to Smaug (pronounced, for whatever reason, as “Smaa-oog”), and the special effects are top-notch. The last forty minutes of the movie are solid gold, as Bilbo and the dwarves work together to battle Smaug in a virtuoso development of imaginative action; it’s wonderful how many moving parts are involved in this action set piece. However, Hobbit 2 still feels needlessly padded to meet out a trilogy. Does Gandalf (Ian McKellen) need to just disappear on his own mission that accomplishes what? Do I care at all about the people of Lake Town let alone their populist revolts? Do I need a parallel storyline about an injured dwarf? And for that matter, do I need a budding lady elf-dwarf romance? J.R.R. Tolkien fans will be in heaven (though maybe just purgatory with all the changes) to gawk at the realm of Middle Earth, but I always feel antsy (“Get on with it already”). Still, The Desolation of Smaug is an entertaining and at times majestic fantasy epic, I just wish Jackson and company didn’t take so many pit stops. Well at least we won’t have to wait so long for the dragon in Hobbit 3.
Nate’s Grade: B
This holiday season, the movie with the most acting, by far, is likely to be August: Osage County, the adaptation of Tracy Letts’ Tony award-winning play. It’s a large dysfunctional family getting back together and opening old wounds, so, you know, the most relatable Christmas movie for some. It’s easy to see what attracted such A-list talent to this project because these characters are actor catnip; each is overflowing with drama, secrets, revelations, anger, and it’s all channeled through Letts’ barbed sense of humor and wickedly skillful dialogue. With Meryl Streep as the pill-popping matriarch, Julia Roberts as her resentful daughter, and a host of other inter-generational conflicts and secrets, you may feel exhausted by the end of its 130-minute running time (the stage play was 3.5 hours, respectively). The emotional confrontations feel like grueling pugilist matches, the melodrama kept at a fever pitch, but the film is never boring. Streep is her usual astonishing self and the deep ensemble gives each actor something to chew over. This is the best Roberts has been in years, and she’s not afraid to get nasty (“Eat your fish!”). Just when you think the story might soften, Letts unleashes another body blow, allowing no uncertainty that this is a family doomed. The story also provides insights into tracking the path of cruelty through the family tree, limb by limb. August: Osage County is stridently funny but also punishing in its no-holds-barred approach to family drama. If you’re looking for a movie that makes your family seem normal and even-tempered, this may be it.
Nate’s Grade: B
In 1841, free black man Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) lives in Saratoga Spring, New York, performing as a trained violinist. Some traveling performers offer him serious money if he’ll play with their circus act in Washington, D.C. Solomon bids goodbye to his family, never knowing he will not see them again for a dozen years. He’s kidnapped, imprisoned, and sold down South to a series of plantation owners. He insists he is a free man, but who will believe him? He’s a black man in chains, and frankly many people just do not care. He learns to adjust to the rules of his new life, finding some companionship with the fiery Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o), and looking for a trusted source to mail a letter to Solomon’s family. It’s a life of daily terror and Solomon could be killed at any moment if word got out that he knew how to read and write.
12 Years a Slave is, as expected, a hard movie to watch at times but it is an essential movie to be seen. A friend of mine literally had this conversation with a movie patron (I wish I was only making this up):
Customer: “Yeah, I don’t think I’ll end up seeing 12 Years.”
Friend: “Oh. Well it is a hard movie to watch.”
Customer: “It’s not that. I’m just waiting for a movie that finally shows all the good slave owners doing nice things. It wasn’t all bad.”
This brief conversation exemplifies for me why a searing drama like 12 Years of a Slave is still vital in 21st century America. This is a slice of history that cannot be forgotten, but just as sinister is the amelioration of its cruelty. As time passes, and those with direct personal experience are long gone, then the mitigation begins, and you have ignorance consuming people who want to whitewash America’s original sin, like the above movie patron. I’ve even read, simply on message boards for this very film, a dubious prospect I admit, people arguing, “Can’t we just move on already?” and posing false equivalences like, “Well the poor Southerners who worked as indentured servants had it just as bad.” I swear I am not deliberately setting up a straw man argument, these are actual gripes people have. It’s as if acknowledging the totality of the horror of slavery is, in itself, some kind of insult to people today. It’s history and vital history that need not ever be forgotten or mitigated, and we need more films dealing with this subject.
There is zero equivalency to treating people as subhuman property, stripping them of all human rights and dignity, separating them from their families, beating them, raping them, murdering them without consequence, being punished for defending yourself, and kept in a constant state of terror where anything horrible can happen to you at any time without reason. Sorry slavery apologists, but even the notion of a “kindly slaver,” which the movie actually showcases, is erroneous. Whether they don’t beat their slaves as often or addressed them as people, slave owners are still profiting from the institution of slavery, and as such the notion of a “good slave owner” is antithetical to the very insidious nature of plainly owning another human being.
With all that said, 12 Years a Slave is an unflinching look at the cruel reality of slavery but one that demands to be seen. Director Steve McQueen (Shame, Hunger) doesn’t pull his punches when it comes examining the unrelenting misery of slavery. There’s a whipping scene where he are in the safe position of focusing on the faces of those involved, studying their horror, but then McQueen has the camera turn around and you see, in graphic detail, the ravaged back of an innocent woman, the bloody result of every one of those whippings that we watched at a comfortable distance at first. This is a gory example, and the film is rather restrained when it comes to this aspect. This is not simply wallowing in sadism. Hollywood has yet to have a definitive film showcase the traumatic reality of slavery. 1997’s Amistad gave you glimpses, but most of Steven Spielberg’s movie was set in courtrooms arguing the philosophical nature of inherent rights. I wish they would remake the classic miniseries Roots; today’s TV landscape would be more permissible at showing the graphic terror of slavery than 1970s network television. With 12 Years a Slave, there are several uncomfortable moments that will make you gasp, but overall, while retrained on the gore, you feel the overall devastation of a slave’s predicament. Every moment of life was at the whims of another, and a victim could be trapped at every turn. Solomon is beaten soundly, and after he defends himself, he is rounded up to be lynched for his audacity. The aftermath is portrayed with stark tension, as Solomon is left hanging by a noose, his feet barely touching the muddied ground, trying to maintain his stance or else choke to death. And like the long takes in shame, McQueen’s camera just holds us there, trapping the audience in the same strenuous dilemma. The worst goes to Patsey, who is raped by her master and tormented by the master’s jealous wife. Both Solomon and Patsey are damned with every decision. By the end, Solomon is rescued and reunited with his family, but you can’t help but think about all those other unfortunate souls left to mire in slavery. For millions of them, there was no set limit to their desolation.
From a script standpoint, the movie flows more as a series of scenes rather than a traditional three-act arc. Writer John Ridley (Red Tails, Three Kings) works from Solomon’s own autobiography and does an incisive job of recreating the dimensions of mid-19th century America and the diseased mentality that accepted slavery. No more is this evident than in the frightening character of Edwin Epps, played with chilling absorption by Michael Fassbender, McQueen’s favorite collaborator. Epps is the kind of man who uses selective Scripture to justify his heinous actions. “A man can treat his property how he likes,” he quips with authority. Epps’ plantation is the worst along Solomon’s hellish odyssey. Fassbender (X-Men: First Class, Prometheus) spookily possesses Epps with great ardor, bringing out the snarling dangers of a man and his unsavory convictions. You’ll cringe over all the unwanted lascivious attention he gives to Patsey. He is a weak man through and through, but one who rages against others with his weaknesses. Fassbender is electric and keeps an audience extra alert when onscreen.
The acting is exceptional and infuriating. Ejiofor (Serenity, Salt) is commanding in a performance that stays with you. There is so much the man has to communicate with his eyes, those great orbs of his. Because of his circumstances he must hold back his ire, do what he can to make it another day, and his adjustment to the horrors of slavery are heartbreaking in itself. He must always be cautious, and when he dares to risk trusting a white man, we feel the same tremors of trepidation. There’s a great scene where Solomon, having been betrayed, has to come up with a credible alternative in the moment, with so much riding on his improvisation skills. It’s as suspenseful a moment as most Hollywood thrillers. The most heartbreaking performance, though, belong to Nyong’o, who is making her film debut in a major way. As Patsey, she symbolizes the mounting torment of unremitting victimization, a woman begging for death but too proud to make it happen. She has some intense monologues where not one word feels false. She is a broken woman struggling to find her footing, and watching her get abused in so many different ways is gut wrenching. She’s more than a martyr and Nyong’o shows you that.
Undeniably a good movie, there are still enough filmmaking choices that hold it back for me, and it all comes down to Solomon as the protagonist. The movie’s center was not as strong as it needed to be, and that is chiefly because our focal point, Solomon, is not well developed as a character. I feel pings of something approaching shame just bringing up the subject, but I must profess that Solomon is just not given much to do beyond suffer. As a free man, his adjustment to the absurd cruelty of the institution of slavery is meant to serve as an entry point for a modern audience, to have the safety of our lives suddenly stripped away. But if I had to describe Solomon as a character, I could say that he mostly vacillates between two modes: shock and solemn dignity (“I don’t want to survive. I want to live.”). Strange that Patsey and Epps and even Epps’ wife are shown more dimension than the lead character. I’m not asking for Solomon to suddenly become a more active character and to rise up, Django Unchained-style; the context of slavery limits his opportunities to express himself. I just wanted more to this guy to separate him from the others suffering onscreen. And maybe, ultimately, that’s the point, that Solomon is, at heart, no different than any other slave. I can agree with that in philosophy, however, this approach also nullifies my ultimate investment in the protagonist. I feel for him because he suffers, I feel for him because I want him to find some semblance of justice (an impossible scenario given the circumstances, I know), and I feel for him because he is a good, honorable man. But I do not feel for him because I have an insight into the character of Solomon Northup. Fortunately, Ejiofor does a superb job of communicating as much as he can non-verbally. It just wasn’t enough for me.
To criticize 12 Years a Slave makes me feel awkward due to the seriousness of its subject matter, but hey, plenty of people make mediocre movies exploring Holocaust atrocities too (does anyone ever dare say, “Get over it,” to Holocaust survivors?). A horrifying historical subject does not give filmmakers cart blanche to slack when it comes to the important elements of storytelling, like story and characterization. 12 Years a Slave, by extension, is an exceptionally made movie with moments to make you wince and cry, gifted with powerful acting and sensitive direction. It is a searing recreation of the many facets of slavery, not just the sheer brutality of the beatings. You will understand on multiple levels the terrorism that was the institution of slavery, a vicious reality that should never be forgotten by a complacent citizenry. I can applaud 12 Years a Slave for its technical excellence, depth of performance, and historical accuracy; however, my personal investment in the protagonist was somewhat limited because Solomon Northup was not developed sufficiently enough. I certainly empathized with the man, but too often I felt like I was watching Solomon as a suffering symbol rather than a character. He’s obviously an interesting figure and I wanted more dimension. While not exactly rising to the level of a Schindler’s List for the institution of slavery (as some have dubbed), 12 Years a Slave is an enthralling movie in so many ways. It’s just a shame that an underdeveloped protagonist would hobble a film so otherwise worthy.
Nate’s Grade: B+
J.J. Abrams’ return to the final frontier had me extremely excited for what the sequel to 2009’s smash Star Trek would be. It’s a different sort of Trek, a more rough-and-tumble, popcorn entertainment with the recognizable flavor of that other famous space opera that Abrams is steering into theaters come 2015. Having seen Star Trek Into Darkness twice, certain things became very clear to me. First, this is about everything you could ask for in a summer popcorn action movie. The set pieces are thrilling (my fave may be a human bullet shoot through a field of debris), there’s something new and dangerous going on just about every fifteen minutes, the stakes are constantly changing, and there are a bevy of well plotted character arcs for a deep and well acted ensemble. It’s about everything you’d want in a Star Trek movie… if you were a big fan of the 2009 film. If you’re a lifelong fan, you may have some reservations, notably the inclusion of a famous villain that shouldn’t be too hard to guess. The second half references to Trek cannon, especially Star Trek 2, feel weird for a film that broke away into a parallel universe so that it could chart its own course rather than relive the old stories. There’s homage and then there’s just subservience. Still, there are plenty of resonant themes, like friendship, sacrifice, and family, that are given adequate attention, amidst all the big-budget escapist thrills. There are even some surprisingly poignant moments that the actors ace. Benedict Cumberbatch (TV’s Sherlock) is incredible as the villain, a terrorist with a menacing, velvety voice that I could listen to all day. The vast majority of Into Darkness is tremendously entertaining, with a great pulse and sense of scene construction. The Abrams team knows how to make blockbusters in the old Spielberg variety, spectacle with humanity and humor and sweep. If this is what he can do with the Trek universe, just wait until Episode VII people.
Nate’s Grade: A-
Billed as one of the most dense films of the holiday season, I was startled to discover that Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is not nearly as puzzling as people have protested. The adaptation of John le Carre’s famous novel follows retired British spy George Smiley (Gary Oldman) performing a clandestine investigation to flesh out a mole in the highest level of the agency. Directed by Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In), condensed form a 7-hour BBC miniseries, and stuffed with a wealth of terrific Brits, the movie is tricky, clever, and rather brainy, ultimately coming to the conclusion that these little communities of intelligence knew little. The movie has a rich array of characters and teases out back-story in flashbacks, meaning the film hops around time wise and will also take turns with different perspectives. It demands your attention but, honestly, I found it easy enough to follow. But in the end, what does all that narrative trickery and obfuscation get you? It’s a fairly dispassionate film about dispassionate people played out in a dispassionate manner. For some this will be hailed as a virtue, communicating the duty-first sacrifices and compartmentalization of these secret spies. For me, that just sounds like a cop out. Beyond the mystery, it’s hard to get involved in the movie. The reveal of the mole is anti-climactic, though the resolution, set to the tones of Julio Iglesias, is aces. The meticulous production design is stellar, including an agency meeting room that looks like it was wallpapered with checkerboards. The details of the ins and outs of the agency are absorbing. I’m debating whether I should watch the movie again, looking for nuance I must have missed. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is an espionage thriller with a bit too many stiff upper lips.
Nate’s Grade: B