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Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

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

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Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)

As I stated in my review of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, “The first mission for Episode VII is to reset the course, to wash away the bad taste of the prequels that haunt many.” Mission accomplished, mostly, though the biggest criticism for J.J. Abrams’ resurgent sequel was how all too closely it hewed to the original plot beats of its own past. It was an overcorrection, a swing too far in the other direction and turned a reboot into “a loving homage that approaches facsimile.” I enjoyed the new characters, the next generation of Star Wars heroes, and wanted to see what would happen to them next. I just hoped the franchise could steer a course of its own. Having a talent as unique as Rian Johnson (Brick, Looper) as the writer/director of Episode VIII certainly portends to that. The Last Jedi is a better movie, structurally and even emotionally than Force Awakens, but it’s flawed and definitely less fun and is driving so many fans to the dark side.

The First Order is crushing the last vestiges of the puny Resistance. General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) is chasing the last ships of General Leia (Carrie Fisher) through the galaxy. Finn (John Boyega) is looking for Rey (Daisy Ridley) who is missing. He is teamed up with Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), a plucky mechanic, to find a master code breaker to thwart the First Order’s tracking system so everyone can safely escape. Meanwhile, Rey has sought out the last Jedi, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamil), who agrees to train her just to teach her why the Jedi are wrong and he will not help the Resistance. She’s also been psychically linked to Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), who is still struggling with his own identity as a pupil of the dark side. Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) has lost his faith in Kylo, who he feels is too weak to embrace his darkest impulses. Kylo believes he can convince Rey to join him, and Rey believes that Kylo can be saved and turned into an ally. The Resistance is looking to survive another day and rebuild their rebellion in the hearts and minds of the downtrodden.

I was hopeful Johnson would be able to tread safely away from the undertow that is the pull of Star Wars nostalgia, and he did so, both to the movie’s great benefit and oddly to its peril at different points. Episode VIII is not a repeat of the plot beats of Empire Strikes Back, though there are some thematic similarities that go along with a middle chapter in a trilogy, like separating the heroes, experiencing losses, etc. Clearly, once Johnson received the handover from Abrams, there were certain Star Wars storylines setup in Force Awakens that he had no interest in continuing. I won’t specify what they are for the sake of spoilers but Johnson definitely undercuts the expectations of extraordinary developments with ordinary, mildly indifferent responses. Certain characters fans may have thought would be more important are gone. It’s as if Johnson is saying to the audience, “Did that thing really matter to you? Who cares?” It’s not Johnson’s fault the fanbase spun off intense theories. He undercuts your expectations throughout. The characters are allowed to fail. The reported saviors don’t want the responsibility. By upsetting the balance of the force, if you will, Johnson has injected a sense of uncertainty into the Star Wars mix, a badly missing element ever since the original trilogy. When a major character looks ready to sacrifice his or herself, you start to believe that this genuinely may happen. When the characters finally fulfill their mission and track down their special contact, they’re denied their goal. You can tell Johnson is having fun with misdirection and, as one character says, “letting the past die.”

However, that same sense can also get Johnson into trouble. From a narrative standpoint, we’re not much further by the end then where we began. From an emotional standpoint, I don’t know if we’re that much farther either. There are elements you can clearly tell that excited Johnson, namely the Rey/Luke/Kylo moments. That relationship, dynamic, and hidden history is easily the best part of The Last Jedi. The decision to psychically link Rey and Kylo seems cheesy at first but works out beautifully, synching up the two force wunderkinds forces them closer and each one looks at the other as a potential kindred spirit. They each think they can save the other, and so it becomes a far more concrete battle over the soul of our characters rather than just a philosophical exercise. It opens up more of a literal dialogue between these opposites and deepens their chemistry. Luke might be following a typical hero’s journey/acceptance of the call, but it’s still an interesting path because he’s bitter and lost his faith in the moral primacy of the Jedi.

On the flip side, there are also elements where you can clearly tell Johnson had less excitement. The middle section involves a side mission onto an alien casino, and it feels like filler, especially with where it eventually goes and what it opens up about the world. I think it’s meant to showcase the exploitation of the underclass, the rich getting richer off war profiteering and the subjugation of civilizations. It doesn’t land and detracts from the other, more interesting storylines. The cutsey comic relief characters inserted to sell toys are not overpowering but they clearly feel like a studio requirement. At least I’m giving Johnson the benefit of the doubt that he didn’t decide that his Star Wars movie needed winged, big-eyed guinea pig creatures. The concluding half hour also could have been eliminated considering the second act break feels like a more climactic ending. The premise of an elongated chase through space that exhausts fuel supplies and where an enemy ship can track light speed jumps is oddly reminiscent of the first episode in the Battlestar Galactica reboot series (maybe Johnson was a fan). There are things the Force is able to do that we’ve never seen before. It begs questions over what exactly are the parameters of this invisible made-up zen power. Also, if you just solve things by saying “new Force powers” then it becomes a Star Wars cheat. There are also nobodies that could have been, and should have been, replaced by other higher-profile characters. There’s a moment of pure unchecked badassery that should have been someone else taking the sacrifice. By cramming in all of this other material, Johnson is trying to find things for his various characters and storylines to do, and not everything is on the same plane. Finn and Poe (Oscar Isaac) recede into the background all too easily. This is the longest Star Wars movie in franchise history and it could have easily been cut down by 20 minutes.

Fortunately for us, Johnson’s eye for striking visuals and strong, punctuated character moments is still alive and well, and The Last Jedi has moments that left me awed. There are a handful of visuals that are burned into my memory. A multi-dimensional shot of action that pans over to a frantic eyeball. A blast of light that cuts through space like a razor, with the sound dropping out for that extra degree of awe. Speeding ships kicking up red plumes. A slow-motion team-up that all but dares you not to pump your fist. Johnson’s unique sense of visual composition is still present an accounted for. He also reveals a strong handle over the coordination of action sequences, an unknown quantity for him until he landed on this biggest stage. The opening sequence is a great showcase for Johnson with multiple points of action both macro and micro. The X-wing fights are snazzy but the simple struggle of pilot trying to reach a detonator is terrific tension. Abrams, and now Johnson, have brought the feel of Star Wars back, where the alien settings are real and not just a green screen warehouse like the prequels. The light saber battles (all two of them) are given personal stakes. The fights matter. Unlike the prequels, we have people that behave and fight like human beings and not cartoons that leap off walls, do thirty flips in the air, and take leaps off 100-foot canopies. The characters and their conflicts don’t get lost among all the special effects wizardry and explosions.

The characters with the best material are also the ones who give the best performances. Hamil (Sushi Girl) is fantastic as the old curmudgeon, the bitter man who’s lost his faith. There are later moments where all of his acting is performed through his eyes and little twitches over his face, and he communicates so many emotions. Ridley (Murder on the Orient Express) continues her flinty determination while being somebody who isn’t as instantly adept at every new challenge. Her one-on-one sessions with Luke and Kylo are made better from her charisma. She’s a star. Driver (Logan Lucky) is still compelling as a villain struggling with being a villain. I enjoy having a bad guy who is sloppy, tempestuous, and not fully immersed in the dark side. It makes scene-to-scene more interesting and it plays better to the film’s theme of trying to save one’s soul from the power of influence. Driver has less “woe is me” moments than Force Awakens and feels more committed to his character’s ultimate journey. Kelly Marie Tran (XOXO) is the newest edition and makes quite a favorable impression as the crafty, thoughtful Rose. She’s got some key emotional moments and Tran nails them. She’s also an eager fan of the heroes of the Resistance, namely Finn, and when the reality doesn’t quite match her fantasy, she mimics the Star Wars fandom in her dejection. While the movie doesn’t find the most useful places for her inclusion, I was happy to watch Rose make her case as a new and valuable addition to the franchise. The actor I felt worst for is Gleeson (Goodbye, Christopher Robin). His character is simply an officious weasel we’re not really meant to take seriously, and this is further accomplished by Gleeson’s screeching voice. I worried the man was going to give himself an aneurysm.

This is also the last time we’ll see Carrie Fisher in the Star Wars universe, barring the misbegotten CGI version of her that resembled a chalky blow-up doll in Rogue One. Fisher died almost a year ago and that knowledge hangs over every one of her scenes. You wonder if there will be any sense of closure with her character in this universe. Johnson provides a scene between Luke and Leia that is so poignant and shot so tenderly that it feels like the perfect sendoff for Fisher. He even kisses her forehead before slowly departing, feeling the urge to stay, while a burst of light halos her face. If you were going to cry at any point in The Last Jedi it will probably be this moment to remind you of Fisher’s passing. Leia does have a couple other appearances after this moment but it’s really this scene that serves as her effective curtain call from this massive franchise.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi is an exciting transitional chapter, and this movement seems to be chaffing many fans, bringing forth the question of whether the fanbase will allow there to be a different Star Wars. This is a movie that discards storylines and characters with the wave of a hand, that subverts expectations and plays with misdirection. This is Rian Johnson’s response to nostalgia in place of genuine emotional responses. As Kylo Ren says, “Let the past die.” It’s not the movie’s fault that people devoted countess hours to speculating about possible film theories that were deemed relatively inconsequential. Johnson refocuses on the characters that matter most, Rey and Kylo, by pairing them up as twin forces. While The Force Awakens definitely has more of a brash sense of fun, I find Last Jedi to be the better movie. It’s not quite up to par with the original trilogy. Johnson gets a little overburdened by trying to add too many things, including a casino subplot that feels like a unsatisfactory side mission in a video game. The new Star Wars films have lacked the bold unpredictability of the original trilogy. There’s nothing quite as seismic as Darth Vader being revealed as Luke’s father or even Han Solo captured and locked in carbonite. Even the major deaths in the new films feel anticipated, like in Episode VII, or less momentous, like in Episode VIII. There are some fake-outs with major deaths that many will deem cheap gambits, and I won’t disagree. I was entertained throughout The Last Jedi. I enjoyed the new characters. I enjoyed the action sequences. I even enjoyed the porgs. This is a movie that is looking for balance between the light and dark, and Johnson establishes a Star Wars that resets the table in exciting and frustrating ways. With J.J. Abrams now onboard of Episode IX, we’ll see how he brings home the characters that he brought into the universe a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. I imagine the fans grousing this new direction might be more forgiving of nostalgia.

Nate’s Grade: B

Sicario (2015)

imagesThe word “sicario” is Spanish for hitman, we’re told in a helpful opening text. It’s a term that has greater meaning in the landscape of the war on drugs, a war that has ravaged Mexico and its citizens. Sicario, the film, is grim and gripping and director Denis Villeneuve doesn’t hold back from the brutality of its reality. Sicario is a flat-out tremendous film. It’s the most intense film I’ve sat through since 2012’s Zero Dark Thirty, so much so that for long stretches of the 121-minute film I was literally tearing my hair out with delicious anxiety.

Kate Mercer (Emily Blunt) is a Phoenix FBI Agent called in by her superiors with a very special offer. Matt (Josh Brolin), a government agent whose affiliation is classified, has a task force that he would like Kate to join. She’ll be taking it to the drug cartels by destabilizing their chain of power. Kate accepts the job. Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro) is a foreign agent in alliance with Matt, and he seems to be deeply knowledgeable of the cartel and their practices. As the chaos swirls and the team gets closer to the cartel bosses, Kate has to reckon with what she is part of.

Let Sicario be a blueprint for how to brilliantly develop suspense sequences in mainstream cinema. I’ve written about it before but the key to suspense and horror is simply characters we care about and the worry of what will happen next. Sicario places our characters in the middle of an ongoing battle and serves them up as the change agent, the proverbial stick rattling the hornet’s nest of deadly cartels. There’s a wonderful sequence when Kate joins up with the team for her first mission. She’s been told she’ll be based in El Paso but in reality she and a team of Army Rangers are venturing across the Mexican border into Juarez. They’re picking up a high-level cartel informant and transporting him back to American soil. The ride into the country sets the stage as the caravan of black SUVs tears through the streets of Jaurez, bracketed by Mexican state police vehicles. We’ve previously been told at what points a likely trap might be staged, and so we wait, taking in the terrain, the distance, the exits, the personnel. We’re already sizing up the Mexican state police cars; is that one on the take? It’s at the end that the scene coalesces into an even stronger whole, as we literally have a climax in traffic. The border entrance is backed up, and so Kate and our team wait, all the while identifying some suspicious armed men in traffic lanes parallel to their vehicles. They’re told they cannot fire until deadly force is used, and so they wait and we wait. It’s a top-notch sequence where you’re nervously waiting for the boil, waiting for the explosion.

lead_960Writer Taylor Sheridan (best known as Deputy Chief Hale on Sons of Anarchy) has taken what could have been an empty Michael Bay-styled drug war thriller and given it a soul. Sheridan’s structure is ingeniously tied into his larger message about the moral futility of the escalating war on drugs. As Kate becomes more immersed into the costs of her new role, of the mounting ethical compromises and legal loopholes, she becomes a background player and Alejandro takes center stage. Rather than simply harden up and sacrifice her ideals for the sake of her mission, Kate holds true to her principles, even if she might be the only one continuing to stick to the rules and a need for oversight. It makes her a far more interesting character and it all comes to a terrific climactic scene that hinges upon two characters at a forceful crossroads, each with diametrically opposed viewpoints. For all the action, Sheridan has found a great way for his story to have a character-based climax that hits harder than simply killing the Worst Bad Guy. As we learn more about the reasons Kate was selected, her literal marginalization in the story makes thematic sense, especially as she’s unwilling to become a “wolf” in a “country of wolves.” Alejandro is that wolf, and in the last act he becomes the film’s focus as the pieces of their destabilization plan fall into place. There’s a scene with Alejandro that is so cold-blooded yet badass that it made my audience gasp. As the bodies drop and blood is shed, Sicario doesn’t lose sight of its characters even to the very end.

Sheridan’s script tackles its subject with a propensity for acknowledging the messy reality. There are no easy solutions and perhaps the best solution is really one that is at odds with conventional legality. The United States is losing the war on drugs, and innocents are suffering in droves. Matt’s cavalier attitude is in response to the overwhelming evidence that the war on drugs has done little except to enshrine certain violent elements into power. He’s trying to clear a path for Alejandro, but for what aim afterward is ethically questionable. When you’ve got nothing but bad solutions, perhaps the best option is still one that’s a step too far. Sicario tackles the harsh realities of the war on drugs without ever dragging out a soapbox. The messages and debates are suffused in every frame, every taut sequence, even pained expression. It’s a message movie where the morality and the escalating action go hand-in-hand.

With Prisoners and now Sicario, Villeneuve has proven to be one of our finest directors when it comes to making adult movies that get your palms sweaty. The execution of these suspense sequences left me breathless. Villeneuve uses long takes of aerial photography hovering over the topography of Mexico and the American southwest. It has the effect of feeling like you’re surveying an alien planet. Added with the ominous score by Johann Johannsson (The Theory of Everything), the tension can feel overwhelming at times. The menacing and percussion-heavy score makes it feel like an army is approaching. The movie also looks absolutely beautiful thanks to the cinematography from Roger Deakens. There are several lovely shots lit with the dying rays of sunlight, which I would admire further if my heart weren’t in my throat while watching. Villeneuve also knows when to pump the brakes, letting his film breathe, and letting his actors take center stage. There are several moments of restraint that allow the actors to flourish. From top to bottom, Sicario is a technical marvel that impresses as it continues to horrify.

Blunt as a badass is nothing new after her killer turn in last year’s vastly underrated Edge of Tomorrow, but there’s way more to her than being a superhero with a gun. She’s the moral conscience of the movie and you may discover, as she does, how irrelevant such a stance may be in this underground world. She’s trying to make sense of it all, trying to go along with what she thinks is right, or at least making a difference, and swallowing her frustrations. She saves the best for last in a finale scene that pushes her character to the breaking point of her ethics, and Blunt floors you. While Blunt is our entry point into this world, and Brolin is amusing as a cavalier rogue agent, this is very much Del Toro’s movie. Alejandro could easily be the slick movie-cool hitman, a soulless killing-machine, but he’s a haunted man who knows he’s damned and goes about his business with steely resolve. Benicio Del Toro can often be confused with doing little acting because he so naturally underplays his characters, but keep watch and you’ll see a man who inherently knows his character. There are subtle shifts and small reveals that open up Alejandro, who is so hardened that this will be all you get.

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There have been some complaints citing the film’s lack of perspective from the Mexican side of the border, which is fair but also overlooking Sicario’s complexity. With its fear of cartel war violence spilling over into American neighborhoods, it’s not hard to see this film becoming supposed evidence in a xenophobic political campaign. Surely Donald Trump will be talking about Sicario. There is a small degree of representation with a minor character involved in the drug trade. The movie flashes back to him and his family a few times, setting us up to expect he’ll return at a pivotal moment later. He’s a completely unremarkable character and the brief scenes we spend with him made me anxious to get back to Kate and the main story. I didn’t care, and then he did reappear and I was quite surprised to find myself actively caring for this minor character’s well being. In a scenario where it seems like there’s a lack of vulnerability, this character provides it. He’s not a bad person per se as just another cog in a corrupt machine trying to provide for his loved ones. It’s a window into the larger ramifications of Kate and Matt’s actions. The very last bittersweet image doesn’t feel like victory, more like a warning of impending consequences that will befall innocents, and they aren’t Americans.

It’s rare to get a Hollywood thriller that excels at what it does and exceeds lofty expectations, but Sicario is that movie. Here is a thriller that excites, unnerves, provokes thought as well as terrible anxiety that you sweat in buckets over. The general feeling while watching Sicario is one of disquieting dread. The challenging and disturbing reality of the war on drugs blends with the brilliantly executed suspense sequences. The characters don’t get lost midst the clatter of violence, the direction enhances the actors and allows them to better inhabit their engaging characters, and the overall orchestration of all the many moving parts is so polished, so in tune, so electric that Sicario often does more than just entertain, it forces you to react. Leaving my theater was akin to coming down off an adrenaline high and I wanted to tell everyone I knew to see this movie. That’s the power of great cinema and Villeneuve has created a compelling feature that deserves to be soaked up and studied. This is exhilarating moviemaking, folks.

Nate’s Grade: A

Inherent Vice (2014)

309431id1h_InherentVice_Teaser_27x40_1Sheet_6C.inddThis is one of the most difficult reviews I’ve ever had to write. It’s not because I’m torn over the film; no, it’s because this review will also serve as my break-up letter. Paul Thomas Anderson (PTA), we’re just moving in two different directions. We met when we were both young and headstrong. I enjoyed your early works Paul, but then somewhere around There Will be Blood, things changed. You didn’t seem like the PTA I had known to love. You became someone else, and your films represented this change, becoming plotless and laborious centerpieces on self-destructive men. Others raved to the heavens over Blood but it left me cold. Maybe I’m missing something, I thought. Maybe the problem is me. Maybe it’s just a phase. Then in 2012 came The Master, a pretentious and ultimately futile exercise anchored by the wrong choice for a main character. When I saw the early advertisements for Inherent Vice I got my hopes up. It looked like a weird and silly throwback, a crime caper that didn’t take itself so seriously. At last, I thought, my PTA has returned to me. After watching Inherent Vice, I can no longer deny the reality I have been ducking. My PTA is gone and he’s not coming back. We’ll always have Boogie Nights, Paul. It will still be one of my favorite films no matter what.

inherent-vice-reese-witherspoonIn the drug-fueled world of 1970 Los Angeles, stoner private eye Doc (Joaquin Phoenix) is visited by one of his ex-girlfriends, Shasta (Katherine Waterston). She’s in a bad place. The man she’s in love with, the wealthy real estate magnate Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts) is going to be conned. Mickey’s wife, and her boyfriend, is going to commit the guy to a mental hospital ward and take control of his empire. Then Shasta and Mickey go missing. Doc asks around, from his police detective contact named Bigfoot (Josh Brolin), to an ex (Reese Witherspoon) who happens to be in the L.A. justice department, to a junkie (Jena Malone) with a fancy set of fake teeth thanks to a coked-out dentist (Martin Short) who may be a front for an Asian heroin cartel. Or maybe not. As more and more strange characters come into orbit, Doc’s life is placed in danger, and all he really wants to find out is whether his dear Shasta is safe or not.

Inherent Vice is a shaggy dog detective tale that is too long, too convoluted, too slow, too mumbly, too confusing, and not nearly funny or engaging enough. If it weren’t for the enduring pain that was The Master, this would qualify as Anderson’s worst picture.

One of my main complaints of Anderson’s last two movies has been the paucity of a strong narrative, especially with the plodding Master. It almost felt like Anderson was, subconsciously or consciously, evening the scales from his plot-heavy early works. Being plotless is not a charge one can levy against Inherent Vice. There is a story here with plenty of subplots and intrigue. The problem is that it’s almost never coherent, as if the audience is lost in the same pot haze as its loopy protagonist. The mystery barely develops before the movie starts heaping subplot upon subplot, each introducing more and more characters, before the audience has a chance to process. It’s difficult to keep all the characters and their relationships straight, and then just when you think you have everything settled, the film provides even more work. The characters just feel like they’re playing out in different movies (some I would prefer to be watching), with the occasional crossover. I literally gave up 45 minutes into the movie and accepted the fact that I’m not going to be able to follow it, so I might as well just watch and cope. This defeatist attitude did not enhance my viewing pleasure. The narrative is too cluttered with side characters and superfluous digressions.

The plot is overstuffed with characters, many of which will only appear for one sequence or even one scene, thus polluting a narrative already crammed to the seams with characters to keep track of. Did all of these characters need to be here and visited in such frequency? Doc makes for a fairly frustrating protagonist. He’s got little personality to him and few opportunities to flesh him out. Not having read Thomas Pynchon’s novel, I cannot say how complex the original character was that Anderson had to work with. Doc just seems like a placeholder for a character, a guy who bumbles about with a microphone, asking others questions and slowly unraveling a convoluted conspiracy. He’s more a figure to open other characters up than a character himself. The obvious comparison to the film and the protagonist is The Big Lebowski, a Coen brothers film I’m not even that fond over. However, with Lebowski, the Coens gave us memorable characters that separated themselves from the pack. The main character had a definite personality even if he was drunk or stoned for most of the film. Except for Short’s wonderfully debased and wily five minutes onscreen, every character just kind of washes in and out of your memory, only registering because of a famous face portraying him or her. Even in the closing minutes, the film is still introducing vital characters. The unnecessary narration by musician Joanna Newsome is also dripping with pretense.

-1Another key factor that limits coherency is the fact that every damn character mumbles almost entirely through the entirety of the movie. And that entirety, by the way, is almost two and a half hours, a running time too long by at least 30 minutes, especially when Doc’s central mystery of what happened to Shasta is over before the two-hour mark. For whatever reason, it seems that Anderson has given an edict that no actor on set can talk above a certain decibel level or enunciate that clearly. This is a film that almost requires a subtitle feature. There are so many hushed or mumbled conversations, making it even harder to keep up with the convoluted narrative. Anderson’s camerawork can complicate the matter as well. Throughout the film, he’ll position his characters speaking and slowly, always so slowly, zoom in on them, as if we’re eavesdropping. David Fincher did something similar with his sound design on Social Network, amping up the ambient noise to force the audience to tune their ears and pay closer attention. However, he had Aaron Sorkin’s words to work with, which were quite worth our attention. With Inherent Vice, the characters talk in circles, tangents, and limp jokes. After a protracted setup, and listening to one superficially kooky character after another, you come to terms with the fact that while difficult to follow and hear, you’re probably not missing much.

Obviously, Inherent Vice is one detective mystery where the answers matter less than the journey and the various characters that emerge, but I just didn’t care, period. It started too slow, building a hazy atmosphere that just couldn’t sustain this amount of prolonged bloat and an overload of characters. Anderson needed to prune Pynchon’s novel further. What appears onscreen is just too difficult to follow along, and, more importantly, not engaging enough to justify the effort. The characters fall into this nether region between realism and broadly comic, which just makes them sort of unrealistic yet not funny enough. The story rambles and rambles, set to twee narration that feels like Newsome is just reading from the book, like Anderson could just not part with a handful of prose passages in his translation. Much like The Master, I know there will be champions of this movie, but I won’t be able to understand them. This isn’t a zany Chinatown meets Lewboswki. This isn’t some grand throwback to 1970s cinema. This isn’t even much in the way of a comedy, so be forewarned. Inherent Vice is the realization for me that the Paul Thomas Anderson I fell in love with is not coming back. And that’s okay. He’s allowed to peruse other movies just as I’m allowed to see other directors. I wish him well.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Savages (2012)

Savages has been described as a “return to form” from prolific director Oliver Stone, who has spent the last decade making straight biopics (W., Alexander) and safe feel-good movies (World Trade Center). The less said about Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps the better. You never thought one of the world’s edgiest filmmakers would follow such a square path. I can’t fault people for getting excited by Savages, hoping this drug-addled crime thriller can revive the gonzo sensibilities of the man. Well, Savages isn’t going to satisfy most people, especially those looking for a cohesive story, characters that grab your interest, and an ending that manages to stay true thematically with the rest of the movie. In short, Savages is a savage mess of a movie but not even an entertaining mess. It’s just a boring mess, and that is the film’s biggest sin.

Best friends Chon (Taylor Kitsch) and Ben (Aaron Johnson) are living the American dream. They began farming their own marijuana plants, using the best seeds form Afghanistan while Chon was on tour with the military. Together, the guys have produced a product high in THC that blows away the competition. They have flourished in California. Now a Mexican cartel, lead by Elena (Salma Hayek), wants in on their business, and they won’t take no for an answer. The cartel kidnaps the boys’ shared girlfriend, O (Blake Lively), and promises to hold her ransom for one year unless the boys agree to their terms. Chon and Ben decide to use their considerable resources to put the squeeze on Elena and her team of scumbags, all the while looking for a way to rescue their shared love of their life.

It’s a lurid movie all right. Plenty of sex, drugs, and violence, but man oh man is it all just empty diversions because the movie cannot survive its trio of unlikable, uninteresting, and painfully dull characters. O, Chon, and Ben have a dearth of charisma; light cannot escape their black hole of charisma. What sinks Savages is the realization that it’s just a shoddy movie filled with a lot of skuzzy characters but hardly anyone that merits genuine interest. We’ve got skuzzy good guys, skuzzy bad guys, but where are the personalities? Where are the quirks or the hooks to drive our interest? Just having Benicio del Toro (The Wolfman) act weird and mumbly is not enough to cover the shortcomings of his character. I’ve read reviews where critics cite del Toro as “hypnotic.” I have no idea what they’re talking about. He’s just your average skuzzy bad guy you’d find in any mediocre crime picture; he just so happens to be played by Benicio del Toro. The DEA Agent John Travolta (From Paris with Love) plays is your typical skuzzy desk weasel; he just so happens to be played by John Travolta. And that’s where the movie falters. We have all these characters on all sides of the law but we couldn’t give a damn for any of them. O comes across like an annoying, privileged, faux intellectual. Chon is a meathead. Ben is an amorphous do-gooder. I don’t care about their problems and I especially don’t care about them retrieving O so they can return to their vague polyamorous lifestyle. She wasn’t worth all the effort, nor where these men worth dying over. At any point in the film, I wanted these characters to hastily die so that I might, just out of chance, come across a more interesting figure. I received no salvation.

Our trio of bland characters is made flesh by a trio of bad performances. First off, people have got to be realizing that the kind of lived-in, edgy, and compelling performance Lively pulled off in 2010’s The Town is more the exception than the rule. Stop casting her in gritty parts unless they are directed by Ben Affleck. As O, our zombie narrator, she does little to make us sympathize with her dumb plight. Then there’s Kitsch (Battleship) who is just having a record year of high-profile flops. He’s done fine acting work before, but as Chon he’s just another ramped-up hothead with little else on his mind. Johnson (Kick-Ass) has the most “flavor” of the trio, acting granola-y and with philanthropic ambitions, but he’s still just another meathead just in different clothes. All three of these characters are idiots and the young actors don’t find any way to redeem them.

Actually, I found Salma Hayerk’s character the most interesting and would have enjoyed a movie based around her dilemma. Elena’s husband was the head of a drug cartel. He was assassinated, so the duties would have fallen to her son, but in order to protect him she assumed power. She has an estranged relationship with her youngest daughter, Magda (Sandra Echeverria), who is ashamed of her mother. This, Elena tells us, makes her produ; she is proud that her daughter is ashamed. Now just look at all those contradictions and complexities inherent with this character. She’s assumed a duty she did not want, something she knows is morally wrong, but she does so in the interest of protecting her children, even if it means pushing them away and having them despise her. And because she’s a woman, any wrong move and her competitors would be ready to pounce. Plus you add the day-to-day anxieties of a life of crime, the threat of betrayal or some upstart wanting to make a name for himself, and you have the makings of a great character drama. But do we get even a little of this? No. Instead, Elena’s just portrayed as another colorful villain. The supporting cast is peopled with what should be seen as “colorful” characters, but really these people are just as skuzzy and boring and personality-free as our loser ménage a trois.

I suppose there is a certain pleasure seeing Stone return to his blood-soaked, violent, gonzo self. The man has a certain enviable madness when it comes to composing a movie, a mad fever of images and sensations. From that standpoint, Savages is at least watchable even though you would rather see most of the characters get hit by a car. I just wish if Stone was going to go nuts that he committed and went all the way, bathing this movie in his lurid predilections as we tumbled down the rabbit hole of the underground world of organized crime. If you’re going to assault my senses with excess then at least have the gall to be excessive. How can you make a lurid movie but EVERY woman onscreen engaging in sex is clothed? That seems unrealistic even for a movie this stupid. Stone seems to have no problem dragging out uncomfortable rape scenes, so who knows what the further implications of that are. There are several grisly torture scenes and some random brutality, so you’ll at least be kept awake in spurts by people screaming.

Too much of this supposed crime picture is caught up in the oppressively irritating soap opera between O, Chon, and Ben (a little part of my soul dies every time I have to type “Chon” as a main character name). The script, based upon Dan Winslow’s novel, adapted by Shane Salerno, Stone and Winslow as well, is a mess but not even an enjoyable mess. Some of this dialogue is just laugh-out-loud bad. O opens the movie saying she has orgasms but Chon, you see, has… “wargasms.” Oh ye God, that one hurt. Every time we’re subjected to O’s protracted, monotone narration the movie loses whatever momentum it may have had.

She keeps saying, “Just because I’m telling this story, doesn’t mean I’m alive at the end.” Can you promise me that? Then there’s the very stupid ending, where the movie tries to have it both ways. It gets its bloody, operatic, tragic lovers ending…. and then in the next breath a happy ending as well, a ridiculously inappropriate happy ending. At least bloody and dead would have been satisfying. It’s a cop-out, a cheat, and a mystifying way to end a movie.

I wanted Savages to be a wild thrill ride. I never expected to be bored. Even when things go off the rails, the movie struggles to keep your interest. Blame the inane screenplay that eventually resorts to a cheap, cop-out of an ending, one that barely rises above the “it was all a dream” blunder. Blame the pathetic character and their lack of personality. Blame the strange feeling that Stone is holding back. Blame the bad performances. Blame the lack of fun. Blame the overwrought nature of the title the movie twists into knots trying to give some philosophical meaning. And finally, you might want to blame yourself for thinking that this movie would be any good in the first place. When movies are this mediocre, this lacking in intrigue, you almost wish they had tipped over completely into irredeemable garbage just so you’d at least have something worth watching. Savages is a strange crime thriller that manages to assemble all sorts of exploitation elements and then fumbles them all. If this is Stone in a “return to form,” I weep for what that entails.

Nate’s Grade: C

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