Clint Eastwood plays a real-life 90-year-old drug mule, though I must inform you dear reader that at no point does he hide his cargo in a very uncomfortable place. The Mule is an interesting story about the most unexpected mule. Eastwood plays a man broke and on the outs with the family he’s neglected their entire lives. He takes up an offer to simply drive albeit for a Mexican drug cartel. As with most life-of-crime movies, what starts off uneasily becomes second nature as our characters get in over their heads. Except that doesn’t really happen in The Mule. I would estimate twenty percent of the movie is watching Eastwood drive and sing along to the radio. There are some tense near misses where he’s almost caught, but these are confined to the first half. In the second half the cartel becomes the chief source of danger, all because he doesn’t go by their routes. If he’s their most successful mule, having never had a ticket in his life, then why micromanage? There are some other nitpicks that nagged at me, like the cartel knows the DEA agents (Bradley Cooper and Michael Pena) are pulling over a very specific color and kind of car, but at no point do they change out Eastwood’s car. Also, Eastwood is spending vast sums of money in public for a man who was losing his house, and yet no red flags there. Eventually Eastwood has to make a choice of family over angering the cartel and risking his life, and I think you’ll know where his character arc is destined. The dramatic shape of the movie feels a little too inert for the stakes involved, leading to an all too tidy conclusion. Eastwood delivers a fine performance, as does every other actor involved. The movie kind of coasts along, much like Eastwood in his truck, on the inherent interest of its premise and the star power of its lead/director. The Mule might have worked better as a documentary.
Nate’s Grade: B-
There have been four official renditions of A Star is Born. I say “official” because other storytellers have imitated the famous formula countless times (2011’s Best Picture-winner The Artist is essentially the same tale). The original 1937 version starred Janet Gaymor and Frederick March and was about a Hollywood acting starlet. The 1954 version starred Judy Garland and James Mason and was nearly three hours. The 1976 version swapped Hollywood for the music industry, starring Barbara Streisand and Kris Kristofferson (a generation asks, that guy from Blade?). Now Bradley Cooper has taken to reviving this old favorite, much like a singer re-imagining a classic song. As a character says in the film, there are only 12 notes within each octave, and it’s up to the individual artists to take those same 12 notes and spin them in meaningful ways; it’s the singer, not the song. Cooper and his company have refashioned A Star is Born for 2018 audiences, and it’s an emotionally satisfying showcase for its booming stars.
Jack (Cooper) is a popular singer-songwriter with a long career of hits stretching back decades. Ally (Lady Gaga a.k.a. Stefani Germanotta) is a waitress with big dreams of stardom. She writes her own songs but is afraid to perform them because of her looks. One night Jack stumbles onto her performance in a drag club, and from there he’s smitten. He invites her onstage at one of his concerts and the duo sing Ally’s song she wrote. From there they’re inseparable and Ally’s career explodes. She transitions to a solo pop act thanks to a thinly veiled villainous British manager (Rafi Gavron). Jack’s addictions and maladies seem to be getting worse as the relationship continues and Ally must choose between her blossoming career and being the caretaker for the self-destructive man she loves.
This is Bradley Cooper’s debut as a director, as well as a screenwriter, and he knows that the formula of A Star is Born is universal and requires little tinkering. The real draw will be in the characters and the performances, and that’s where A Star is Born 2018 shines. Cooper’s character is a talented mess and we’re introduced to both aspects early. The film opens with him playing onstage and it’s full of vigor, swagger, and all shot in a long take to keep the electric feeling alive, also highlighting Cooper doing his own strumming. This is a rock star that knows what he’s doing, we immediately sense. Then in the car ride as he desperately looks for a source of alcohol, we see how cavalier he is about his own addictions and self-destruction. He’s also suffering from tinnitus and refuses to wear hearing aids because he feels it will make it harder for him to be in the moment, thus taking away something from the authenticity of his performance. That’s a key word when it comes to Jack. He is obsessed with authenticity and using the spotlight to say something meaningful. This ethos will cause friction in his relationship with Ally as she gets molded into a pre-fabricated pop star with lyrics about butts in jeans. Jack knows deep down that his time in waning, both commercially and physically, and he is driven to make the most of it before the spotlight dissipates. In some ways, Ally is a reclamation project for his career and his person. It’s not manipulative. He genuinely wants to do right by her and give her the opportunities that he thinks she deserves. I never doubted Jack’s fidelity to Ally, especially as we learn piece-by-piece his troubled back-story with a troubled father. Jack has two significant relationships in his life, Ally and his older brother and tour manager, Bobby (Sam Elliot). He pushes them away while needing to draw them closer and that conflict drives the character more so than his musical legacy.
Cooper the actor does a suitably good job losing himself in the character, alternating charm and warmth and rage and stubbornness. His singing vocals are pretty solid and add to the overall impression of Jack as a character rather than an acting vehicle for a director who wanted to show off. As a director, Cooper follows the instincts of his character and has a very practical, no-frills sense of style, sticking to longer takes and pinning the camera to his performers to get every nuance of emotion across their tear-stricken faces. His camera instincts are on verisimilitude and trust in his actors, and they deliver for him. I liked the little moments that Cooper finds to let his characters stretch and for his film to breathe. The initial courtship between Ally and Jack over the course of one long night sets the tone for the rest of the movie. We can tell early on there’s something special between these two. There’s also some fine moments between Cooper and Elliot (The Hero) expressing the hardships of two hard-headed brothers tired of dealing with the scars of their alcoholic father. It’s a delicate balance so the soapier elements don’t overwhelm the pivotal sense of realism that Cooper is after. The fact that he finds that right balance throughout a 135-minute movie is an accomplishment in and of itself, let alone for a novice director, although the pacing is a bit sluggish at points.
This is rightfully Gaga’s show and she dazzles on stage and on screen. It’s tailor-made to be a showcase for Gaga and her sensational singing, so she’s got many supports from Cooper and company to succeed. Cooper is good but she is unquestionably great. It’s her movie and just as Ally becomes a star so too does Gaga. It’s not just the musical performances too, which are uniformly outstanding while still being able to be done through the lens of her character. Her performance of “La vie en Rose” is slinky, brimming with assurance, and magnetic to watch, giving the audience a sense to what Ally is capable of. You can easily see why Jack would become enchanted with her immediately. Her big moment singing her original song to a stadium of thousands is the highlight of the film. Cooper’s camera stays trained on Ally on the sidelines as she goes through a myriad of emotions, working up the courage to saunter onstage at the right time to belt out her original tune. It’s a thrilling and emotionally rousing moment that feels literally star making. You see her nerves melt away as she lets go and immerses herself in the music. The dramatic moments are just as nicely delivered, though there are the occasional bump or two. Gaga has a feisty sense of self that pushes her to push back, but she can also be achingly vulnerable and lovesick as her character falls head over heels for a troubled man. She’s present in every scene and has a strong rapport with Cooper. I fully expect her to earn an Oscar nomination for her performance and likely one for an original song.
With all that being said, A Star is Born 2018 also strangely relegates Ally’s character. Walking away, I began thinking over the movie and its characterization and I realized that Cooper and his team of screenwriters have given the rising star the least amount of material. She’s got the most screen time and her character arc is evidently clear, the rags-to-riches ascent, the naiveté giving way to hard-won wisdom and heartache. She has big dreams and gets more confident as the film continues and her career comes alive. All of that is clear, but dig deeper and you’ll discover less than you remember. Ally doesn’t even follow the track where as her notoriety increases so does her ego. She’s pretty much the same caring, humble, ambitious human being as a waitress and as a Grammy award-winning musician. I suppose her static status says something about how solidified her own sense of self is even after her dreams come true. She’s not one for the temptations of the recording industry and grater fame and fortune. I don’t think she even has a flaw; perhaps a mild lack of confidence in her performance abilities thanks to shallow male executives that equate physical looks with commercial mass appeal (Gaga herself has spoken about the negative feedback she received for years because of her looks). But a lack of confidence is a pretty weak and easily resolved flaw in a narrative. I think her big character flaw is actually her devotion to her self-destructive relationship with Jack. In order to go into more detail, I’ll be spoiling portions of the movie (if you haven’t seen any of the other versions) so please skip the next paragraph to remain absolutely pure.
Inherent with every rendition of A Star is Born is one performer on the rise and one performer on the decline. This goes with the territory, as does the falling star having some kind of crippling addiction that only gets worse. Cooper is too devoted to bringing a sense of realism to his film to merely add a happy ending. The romantic relationship between Ally and Jack is the heart of this movie but I began questioning whether it was actually a good relationship, not good in a sense of the quality of writing but good in a sense of whether it was ultimately healthy for Ally. He’s an alcoholic, a pill-popper, and he’s pushing himself too hard in a race against his irreversible hearing loss. He’s spiraling and figuratively drowning (literally in the 1954 version) and looking for a lifeline, and that’s Ally. She becomes a primary caregiver for his benders. She’s willing to sacrifice her career for him, and that level of devotion alarms even Jack, pushing him into making a fatal decision in the guise of helping her. That’s right, it’s a movie that portrays suicide not just as a tragedy but also as a misplaced gift (2016’s Lights Out did something similar to resolve its supernatural dilemma). It’s hard to tell what Cooper’s view of this decision is, whether it’s romantic or wrong-headed and cruel. Their relationship is self-destructive and Ally’s insistence on sticking it out, with a man who doesn’t trust his own will power to stay sober, comes across as a questionable asset. Should I not be hoping that she leaves and finds happiness with someone who is healthier for her?
A fun thing I noticed was the ongoing appearance of alums from the TV series Alias. The show aired from 2001-2006 and was some of the best network TV, especially its first two rollicking seasons of spy hijinks. Cooper was a supporting character on that show and he does right to his co-stars by using his own increasing leverage in Hollywood (three Oscar nominations, repeated bankabaility) to give them high-profile work. Greg Grunberg, J.J. Abrams’ lucky charm, plays Jack’s understanding and put upon personal driver. Ron Rifkin plays an addiction counselor that offers hard wisdom to Jack. I was hoping that Victor Garber and Jennifer Garner might be around the corner but alas it was not to be.
A Star is Born 2018 is a worthy and emotionally involving addition to the oft-repeated formula. It’s more emotionally grounded, eschewing sensational melodrama for something authentic and resonating after it’s long over. This is a familiar story but it’s been made relevant to a modern audience and given an emotional clarity that is richly affecting. It’s a big Old School sort of movie with big feelings but Cooper maintains a sense of integrity throughout, treating his characters as flesh-and-blood human beings. Gaga is the sensational standout but every actor does good to great work here. I wish the script gave her character more dimension and opportunity to flash even more complex impulses, but I’ll be happy with what I got. A Star is Born 2018 may be the best version yet, and that’s saying something for a story that’s been kicked around since FDR. It’s the singer, not the song, and this movie is sweet music to your ears.
Nate’s Grade: B+
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
If Marvel was ever going to have a dud in its near historic run of blockbuster success, it should have been Guardians of the Galaxy, a movie that asked audiences to care about a talking raccoon and a tree creature who could only say three words. And yet that movie had me in tears by the end, and I was not alone. Writer/director James Gunn (Slither, Super) graduated from Troma to demented indie films to the Big Time with studio tentpoles. A sequel was fast-tracked and is definitely one of the most highly anticipated films of 2017 not named Star Wars. Can Gunn still deliver fans what they want without falling into the morass that is fan service, a sticky trap that can sap big-budget sequels of differentiation and make them feel more like product?
Set mere months after the events of the first film, the Guardians are enjoying their newfound celebrity and taking lucrative for-hire jobs. Star-Lord a.k.a. Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) and Gamora (Zoe Saldana) are still going through their will-they-won’t-they sexual tension. Gamora’s sister Nebula (Karen Gillan) is still looking to gain the upper hand. Baby Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) is growing up and still cute. Drax (Dave Bautista) is still mourning his family and trying to better fit in. And Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) is still making rebellious, self-destructive decisions, like stealing valuables from The Sovereign, a race of genetically bred golden snobs. The leader of the Sovereign, Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki, looking good in gold), declares a bounty on the Guardians for their disrespect. The Ravagers are hired to collect the Guardians, though Captain Yondu (Michael Rooker) is hesitant to go after his surrogate son, Peter. Complicating matters further is the arrival of Ego (Kurt Russell), a mystifying man who happens to also be a living planet and Peter’s biological father.
Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2 is highly enjoyable with great moments, great action, and great characters but I was left feeling like it was a step or two behind the original and I’ve been trying to articulate just why that is. I thought perhaps it was better to be upfront. I think it all stems from the fact that it’s not as fresh the second time, it doesn’t quite have the same blast of attitude and personality to disarm and take you by surprise, and I’ll admit part of this is just due to the fact that it’s a sequel to a hugely popular movie. However, also because of this there are now a set of expectations that Gunn is leaning towards because audiences now have acute demands.
We have an idea of what a Guardians of the Galaxy movie can provide, and from those demands spur creative decisions that don’t fully feel as integrated this go-round as they did in the first film. It feels like Gunn is trying to also work within a box he’s created for himself, and for the most part he succeeds admirably, but it still feels slightly lesser. The standout musical moment occurs during an opening credits that involve an action sequence from a Baby Groot-eyed point of view. As the Guardians are flying and falling to destroy a ferocious alien blob in the background, Groot is strutting and dancing to “Mr. Blue Sky” by ELO. It’s a moment of unrestrained pleasure and it also undercuts action movie conventions by having a majority of the events obscured or implied. It’s the moment that feels the most like that electric feeling of discovery from the first film. There are also 80s pop-culture references and cameos and some off-kilter comedy again. Much of it is fun, especially one cameo in particular as it relates to Peter’s father, but they also have the noticeable feel of boxes to be checked, expected items that now must be incorporated in what a Guardians of the Galaxy feature should be. Expectations can lead to fan service and then that leads to less chances and originality. Hey, I loved the 2014 original and consider it my favorite Marvel movie so I don’t want them to simply chuck out everything that worked just for something one hundred percent different. You want what you loved but you don’t want it exactly the same, which is the creative bind. Gunn leans into what the audience wants and I can’t fault him too hard. It’s still a really good film.
What Guardians vol. 2 does best is remind you why you love these characters. It even elevates a group of supporting players from the first movie into characters you genuinely care about, chiefly Nebula and Yondu. Both of these characters were slightly defanged antagonists in the first film, problems but problems you didn’t want to see go away. Yondu gets the biggest boost thanks to the thematic bridge of Peter’s search for his father. The notorious leader of the Ravagers has a definite soft spot for the scrappy human and it’s finally come to a head with his tempestuous crew. They mutiny on Yondu and declare him to be an unfit leader, unable to do what is necessary. This direction allows for a lot of introspection for a character that was essentially just Michael Rooker in blue paint. He has a history to him and he makes a moral deviation from his expected path, one that bears ongoing consequences. He’s Peter’s real surrogate father, and his acceptance of this reality brings a snarling secondary antagonist into the realm of a full-blown character that earns our empathy (a Mary Poppins joke also had me in stitches).
The same can be said for Nebula, who is working out some serious daddy issues. She is the stepsister to Gamora and holds quite a grudge against her green sibling. It seems that their father, Thanos, would constantly pit them against one another, and Nebula would always lose, and with each loss came a painful consequence. It’s the kind of back-story that’s given more time to breathe and develop. It opens up an antagonist into another person who is dealing with trauma and pain and who doesn’t play well with others, which seems as good a job description to join the Guardians as anything. Nebula has a fearsome sense of competition with her sister, and that parlays into some fun over-the-top action sequences. When the movie allows the two women to talk, as surviving sisters of rather than enemies, is where Nebula comes into her own.
Gunn makes sure there’s a grounded and emotional core to his characters, which makes these appealing underdogs and antiheroes ever easier to root for. Guardians vol. 2 doesn’t really move the overall plot forward too much but it does explore the relationships and their personal lives with greater depth and clarity. The characters are spread out into smaller pairings for a majority of the extended second act, which allows interesting connections and developments due to the personalities. Drax is paired with Ego’s assistant/pet Mantis (Pom Klementieff) and it’s an instantly winning couple, a man who only speaks literally and a woman who is able to channel the feelings of strangers through touch. They’re both relied upon for the greatest amount of comic relief and they routinely deliver. Klementieff (Old Boy) is a wide-eyed delight. Rocket and Yondu being stuck together allows for both to come to realizations that feel organic though also too fated by Gunn’s hand. Their general disregard for decorum leads to some great action sequences. Gamora and Nebula are working through their family issues and it makes both more interesting. When they come to a form of resolution it still feels awkward but earnest and right. But the biggest personal exploration is Peter and his own lingering space daddy issues.
Another fantastic addition to the movie was the character of Ego because of the wonderfully charming Russell (The Hateful Eight) and also because of what the character allows for. The very fact that Ego is a millions-year-old living planet is a clever curveball for the Peter Quill “who’s your daddy?” mystery sweepstakes. It also opens all sorts of intriguing questions that the second act wades through, like the exact mechanics of how Ego exists, projects a Russell-looking avatar, and what is his ultimate purpose. I’m going to steer away from spoilers but fans of the comic will already have suspicions where this whole father/son reconciliation may lead, and you won’t be disappointed. Russell radiates paternal warmth and it goes a ways to cover up the purposeful obfuscation of the character. Because Gunn has to hold back on certain revelations, some of them gasp-worthy, he can’t open up the father/son dynamic too fast or too unambiguous. As a result, the latent bonding relies upon more familiar touchstones, like throwing the ball out back with your pops or sharing a love of music. Russell makes even the most ridiculous thing sound reasonable, which is important considering we’re talking about a planet boning ladies.
Gunn also takes several steps forward as a visual filmmaker with the sequel. He has a great feel for visual comedy and how to undercut the more boilerplate heroic moments in other superhero fair. He fills his screen with crazy, bight, psychedelic colors and has a Tarantino-esque instinct for marrying film with the right song. The sequel doesn’t have as many iconic moments set to music but it will play most agreeably. The special effects are pretty terrific all around but I appreciate that Gunn doesn’t allow the movie to feel overwhelmed by them, which is important considering there are fundamentally CGI-only characters. Gunn’s action sequences, chases, escapes, and breakouts are presented with plenty of dazzling style and witty attitude to spare without feeling obnoxious. The comedy is consistently funny and diverting. There’s a bit with the need for tape that just keeps going and actually becomes funnier the longer it goes, undercutting the end-of-the-universe stakes with the search for something as mundane as tape. My screening was presented in 3D and I was worried about the film being set in space and being too dark. This is not the case at all, and while the 3D isn’t a high selling point like it was for Doctor Strange, it is a nice experience that doesn’t dilute Gunn’s gonzo color scheme. The level of thought put into his novelties can be staggering, like an end credits series of dancing clips that also manages to play upon a character note for Drax. Gunn manages to further comment on characterization even during the freaking end credits. The final showdown goes on a bit longer than necessary and is the only section of the movie that feels consumed by CGI spectacle, but the fact that only the end feels this way can be considered another small triumph of Gunn fighting through a corporate system.
Marvel knows what it’s doing to a molecular level. Almost ten years into their system, they know what works in their criss-crossing franchises and how to calibrate them for maximum audience satisfaction. At this point after Guardians, Ant-Man, and Doctor Strange, they’ve more than earned the benefit of the doubt no matter the premise. However, entrenched success has a way of calcifying audience expectations. Guardians of the Galaxy was so funky, so different, so anarchic, and so wildly enjoyable. It should only be expected that the things that made it different would now be folded into audience expectations. The misfits can only be misfits for so long. It may not be as brash and fun or memorable as the first edition but it does benefit from the strong rapport of its cast and the deeper characterization, tackling some serious subjects while still slow motion stepping to a murder montage set to the golden oldies of the 1970s. The movie matters not because of the action, or the funny one-liners, or the adorableness of Baby Groot. It’s because we genuinely love these oddball characters. The first one introduced them and brought them together, and the second film deepens their bonds and widens their scope of family. Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2 is a sequel that provides just about everything that fans should want. If it feels slightly lesser it’s probably just because it can’t be fresh twice, but Guardians vol. 2 still dances to its own beat and it’s still a beautiful thing.
Nate’s Grade: B+
As I watched War Dogs, the darkly comic true-life story of war graft, gunrunning, and bro-tastic bravado, I kept wishing to copy and paste other characters into what was an interesting plot. A pair of neophytes was awarded military arms contracts from the Pentagon during the Iraq War, and their schemes to skirt U.S. laws to import guns across borders, illegal and faulty munitions, and uneasily work as a go-between with a client (Bradley Cooper) on the U.S. terrorism watch list are filled with perplexing yet juicy details. The biggest problem is that the two main characters, played by Miles Teller and Jonah Hill, are so powerfully archetypal to the point of unrelenting blandness. We have the naïve everyman pulled into a life of big bucks, big risk, and big power only to have it all come crashing down. Hill’s character is the loud, uncouth part we’ve come to expect from the Oscar-nominated actor, and I defy anyone to tell me anything about Teller’s character other than occupation and his relationship to other people. These parts are so thinly drawn that I didn’t care about them once they finally got into deep trouble. I believe that director/co-writer Todd Phillips, he of The Hangover series, has the right qualifications to make a flinty neo-noir thriller, but War Dogs is more his half-hearted version of a glib Scorsese movie, or a David O. Russell version of a Scorsese movie. The voice over narration is dull and doesn’t help illuminate Teller’s character at all, and the other stylistic flourishes, from pointless inter-titles to a non-linear plot, add up to very little. Half of the movie’s scant jokes are the ongoing sound of Hill’s off-putting wheeze of a laugh. I’m not kidding, after an hour the movie still treats his laugh like it’s a potent punchline. There is entertainment value to be gleaned from War Dogs chiefly from its larger-then-life story and the intriguing, shadowy world of war profiteers. It’s a movie that made me wish I had read the magazine article it’s based upon instead, which would have also been shorter.
Nate’s Grade: C
When killing is a man’s gift, what effect does that have on the man? American Sniper follows the real-life heroics of the most prolific sniper in United States history. With director Clint Eastwood attached and awards buzz building, you’d expect that the film would get at the heart of a complex man who placed himself back into danger by choice. For a biopic on Chris Kyle, the man seems to get lost in the fog of war (movies).
Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) enlisted in the military right before 9/11 and served four tours of duty in Iraq. He served as cover for many missions, protecting thousands of soldiers. The troops just felt better knowing that Kyle had their back. Kyle got married and had several kids with his wife (Sienna Miller) but he kept leaping back into the fight, the place he felt he belonged.
From the opening sequence on, American Sniper is often a gripping suspense piece. The opening moral dilemma sucks you right in. Should Chris shoot the mother and child? Are they a threat or is there just a misunderstanding? Will they change their minds and turn away? Is there time to debate all this with advancing U.S. troops? Eastwood does a great job of drawing out the tension with shot selections and the precise editing. The bulk of the movie hews closer to a conventional action movie, with Chris and his team clearing out Iraqi insurgents. We get to know a bit about the mechanics of sniper warfare. But Kyle gets restless being the guardian angel of death for the ground troops, and he goes down to their level and clears neighborhoods. This causes some conflict with his superiors because Kyle is far more valuable as a sniper. His reputation for killing is also getting him notoriety with his enemies. There is a price on Kyle’s head and skilled snipers are seeking him out for the prize. This is a natural way to build suspense as Kyle keeps returning back into Iraq with multiple tours, every tour increasing his personal danger. It allows for real consequences for the increasing prowess of our super sniper. There’s a sense of collateral damage to every kill, as every dead body creates more enemies and those enemies grow more incensed to take him out. Even if you know how exactly Kyle met his untimely end, there’s still plenty of suspense and well-orchestrated action sequences to please casual fans of the genre and true-life military thrillers.
It does feel like the complex story of Kyle, as well as the Iraq War, are being simplified into action movie fodder. There’s a steady supply of interchangeable supporting players, soldiers and spotters and the like, all of them without much to distinguish them as characters. They’re here to be sacrificed, to watch the splatter of red, and to increase the sense of loss because we know that Chris Kyle will not be taken down so we need other expendables. As expected, Miller gets rather short shrift as Kyle’s wife who gets to alternate between worry and unease. The screenplay by Jason Hall sets up some excellently harrowing suspense sequences but seems better engineered like its establishing video game stages of combat than complex people. As a result, when we lose characters it doesn’t feel like we’ve lost people we care about. It doesn’t have an impact beyond sudden shock, and even that is tempered in time with the sniper angle. You start expecting characters to get popped in mid-sentence.
Where the film leaves you lacking is at its center with the man who is supposed to be the focal point of American Sniper. At the start we’re told that Kyle is the deadliest sniper in U.S. history and by the end that’s about all we know about the guy. He’s an ace killer. The movie has some top-notch suspense sequences with Kyle killing people. The early scenes with Kyle’s family do the bare minimum to establish a sense of pride in not backing down from a fight. There’s a scene where his girlfriend explains to him and the audience exactly why he’s difficult. It’s pretty transparent exposition but it’s also the last bout of clear characterization you’ll get until the end. There’s a slight nod to the mounting PTSD that is transforming Kyle into a man who feels whole only on the battlefield, but these are notes of characterization that are only cursory. It’s only at the very end does the movie remember to flesh out Kyle as a person rather than as an action hero, and by then there’s only enough time to hint at elements we’ve seen explored better in other war movies, particularly The Hurt Locker. As an action film, the movie works and works quite ably, but as a biopic on Chris Kyle it forgets what makes him human, instead focusing on his superhuman killing ability.
Cooper (American Hustle) bulked up a considerable amount of muscle to portray Kyle. He fits the part well and has the acting ability to communicate the troubled psychology of a man making sense of his old world after the trauma of war. It’s then a shame that he’s not given more opportunities to use those acting muscles. There is one phone call where Cooper wordlessly finally breaks down, allowing all the scar tissue to finally be seen on his haunted character, but it’s a moment rather than a culmination.
If you go into American Sniper hoping for an elevated thriller with some well-wrought suspense, then you’ll mostly be pleased with the film as a slice of entertainment. As a war commentary or a psychological study of the horrors of war, it comes up lacking, falling back on the action tropes of its genre and neglecting to properly build around its characters. The action is often biting, and a late sequence involving an oncoming sandstorm is an intense climax. However, it’s also emblematic of the shortfalls of the film. While it’s a sequence of action entertainment, it also reduces war into a video game and reminds you that the characters onscreen are not so much portrayed as people but holders of weapons. Kyle was a complex man who was more than his uncanny ability to kill, but you won’t get more in American Sniper. The nature of his death demands a more insightful exploration of the lasting effects of PTSD and what kind of treatment, or failure of treatment, many servicemen receive once they come home.
Nate’s Grade: C+
Who would have guessed that a movie that featured a talking tree and an anthropomorphic raccoon would be one of the best films of the year and one of the top grossing films of the summer? At this point for audiences, the Marvel name can do no wrong, but really it’s the degree of latitude given to Guardians of the Galaxy, an admittedly weird movie with strange characters, that allows this unique film to shine. Attaching offbeat director James Gunn (Super, Slither) to be writer and director was a risk that paid off tremendously, as Guardians is the Marvel film most entrenched with the particular personality of its creative director. This is a gleefully imaginative film that enjoys wading deep into weirdness, dancing to its adventurous Star Wars throwback beat, always with its focus set on comedy but not at the expense of quality drama or character development. Really, the characters are the focus of this entry into the franchise, and Gunn and his actors do a bang-up job of gathering the team and getting you to care about each and every one of them. Each one of these characters has a goal, several payoffs, and each is given their proper attention. In an ordinary superhero film, the archetypes would be ironclad. With Guardians, the tough guy made of muscle can also be a source of unexpected comedy with his literal-minded speech patterns. With Guardians, the talking raccoon can also be an emotionally disturbed victim of genetic experimentation who doesn’t know how to play well with others. These are damaged characters and their formation of an unconventional family unit is deeply satisfying and rather touching. I have seen the film twice and gotten teary-eyed both times. The real star of the film is Chris Pratt (TV’s Parks and Recreation), and what a breakout role he is afforded; he’s like Han Solo’s more juvenile nephew. But like the others, the part is surprising in its depth, with a well of sadness and displacement he still hasn’t processed while he scavenges the galaxy. The plot can be a bit unwieldy at times but pays off better for repeat viewings. This is a world I want to spend far more time exploring and with these characters as my merry prankster guides. With a movie this action-packed, thoroughly entertaining, and gratifying, why come back to Earth?
Nate’s Grade: A
With two movies, writer/director David O. Russell has vaulted to the top of Hollywood. Previously known for his own difficult behavior, Russell’s last two films, The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook, were both critical and commercial hits (Silver Linings made over $230 million worldwide). Both brought a bushel of Oscar nominations as well, making Russell one of the hottest directors for actors and producers. But a new side seems to have emerged over these last two movies, one less of Russell the domineering director and one of Russell the open collaborator. It feels like he’s just hitting his stride too. American Hustle is Russell’s latest and it’s sharply written, engrossing, lively, surprisingly comic, and readily entertaining.
In the late 1970s, the FBI set up an undercover sting to nail political corruption, ultimately nabbing several U.S. congressmen and one standing U.S. Senator. Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper) is an FBI agent who snags the perfect assistance. To catch a crook you have to think like a crook, and so Richie has strong-armed a pair of lucrative con artists into helping him. Irving Rosenfeld (Christian Bale) is a professional down to his elaborate hairpiece. He’s used to fleecing desperate people and selling phony artwork to the gullible, but he’s been too shy about making too much noise. If you stay small, you go unnoticed. Irving’s partner in crime is Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams), a kindred spirit who has reinvented her self. She and Irving are in love, and now they’re trapped by Richie to set up New Jersey mayor Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner). The one unpredictable element is Irving’s young wife, Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence), who could blow up the whole operation with her careless and self-involved tantrums.
Russell has once again given audiences one of the most entertaining films of the year, this time allowing them to participate vicariously in a con game, trying to anticipate the twists and turns and assessing everyone’s personal angle. This is a fictionalized rendition of the Abscam case (the opening text drolly says, “Some of this actually happened”) and it gives us a slew of meaty characters that have something going on. The central point elaborated in this pop crime caper is that we’re all cons, we’re all pretending, on some level, to be different people; Russell’s film just takes this notion to the extreme. Irving and Sydney are trying to escape lives of ordinary malaise, of being victims, of the more powerful dictating their options for them. With Sydney, she’s pretending to fall for Richie, but we don’t fully know which side she may choose to end up on. Richie is trying to also escape his dull life of desk jobs and lower middle-class dinners. His ambitions get hold of him, and with Irving’s aid, he catapults himself toward achieving those oversized dreams of his, never mind the ethical lapses in nabbing the bad guys. For Carmine, he’s so fiercely devoted to his community that you don’t doubt his loyalty for a second. He’s a man who sincerely wants to help others and is knowledgeable enough about how the world works, knowing he may have to grease some wheels to get the progress started. He is the most moral figure of the five main players and you may find yourself rooting for him to escape the snare closing in on him. Then there’s Rosalyn who has her hooks in Irving, looking for a sense of stability for her and her child. She’s a volatile cocktail of emotion but she knows what she needs to do to keep Irving anchored to her needs, though she’s also cognizant enough to latch onto a better provider if one materializes. Mixing and matching those characters, you have an eclectic mix of personalities clashing, many at odds with one another as far as goals, and the conflict stirred up is delicious.
Russell also attaches on his Martin Scorsese filter, delivering a freewheeling film about criminals from their wizened point of view, explaining the ins and outs of their hustle with flamboyance, style, and vigor. While the opening is a tad slow, including an opening minute watching Irving work his almost breathtaking comb over hairstyle, we plow right along into this world of hustlers and con men, learning tricks of their trade (hint: desperate people are desperate) and the tools to stay ahead of detection. We’re awash in multiple perspectives, each with voice over, a frenetic camera, and emboldened editing. It’s the Scorsese approach given studious application to the Abscam affair. It’s a great thing that Scorsese is the finest living filmmaker and devoting a two-hour-plus homage to the man’s most stylized crime pictures is a plus. Russell’s movie feels alive but also hungry, like many of his characters, restlessly searching for something. The scenes land but they don’t feel like they’re standing still; everything is propulsive in this movie. The small operation of Irving and Sydney is taken to the big leagues thanks to Richie’s ego, and the FBI’s desire for splashy headline busts, but wider exposure also exponentially multiplies the danger. Once the gambling scheme attracts the investment of the Mob, that’s when everyone has gone too far. I was clenching my fists in suspense toward the end, worried that our fictional cons may be too far in to survive.
Russell hasn’t lost his magic touch with actors. His last two films have netted seven acting Oscar nominations and three wins, and the cast of American Hustle meets that same level of excellence. Perhaps even more so than The Fighter, the characters are given a very broadly comic brush, easily and routinely stepping into a carnival row of over-the-top behavior. It provides plenty of entertainment of the mishap and absurd variety, but there are also lone piercing moments of great empathy with these messy people. Mostly, the various actors all seem to be in a great syncopation, each one contributing where the other left off, building a great and compelling picture. When this ensemble is firing, it’s hard to beat. Special mention to comedian Louis C.K. (TV’s Louie) making the most of every scene he’s in as an FBI party pooper. His running gag involving a personal ice-fishing story is one of the film’s best jokes.
Bale (Out of the Furnace) is our guiding voice in this world, a flimflam man of the first order who fools maybe even himself. He’s got his own code of ethics and a heart behind that pot belly (another physical transformative performance by Bale the chameleon). He’s briskly entertaining but my only complaint is that, by being so suave and slick, he seems a tad too low-key at points given the risk involved. I know it’s part of the act, but from an audience standpoint, it makes him seem a tad too modulated. His equal is Renner (The Bourne Legacy) who is so earnest that it practically breaks your heart when he oversteps into morally murky territory.
However, Bale’s performance is compensated by the sheer craziness of the Silver Linings co-stars, Cooper and Lawrence. Cooper (The Place Beyond the Pines) is a lawman but also the film’s biggest antagonist. He gets drunk with power and the credit he’s receiving at the FBI. He’s also a deeply insecure man who is trying to style himself like Irving and Sydney as a posh reinvention. Cooper gives him a manic energy and taps back into his reservoir of eager-to-please egotism. Lawrence (Catching Fire) is the most unpredictable character. She acts on impulse, flirts with sabotage, and soaks up the spotlight she’s so rarely afforded. Lawrence is having the time of her life playing a loud, shrewish, vampy housewife who has a noticeable habit of starting house fires.
Beforehand, I would have thought that Lawrence and Adams should have swapped roles (still an interesting experiment), but having now seen the film, each suits them well. Adams (Man of Steel) is the saddest character of them all to me because she’s the bruised dreamer anxious to be anyone but who she really was. She relishes the con, more so than Irving, and ties much of her self-identity to her shyster skills. But two aspects of Adams’ performance especially surprised me: 1) she speaks with a fake British accent for nearly the whole movie, and 2) the copious amount of side boob on display. As per the 1970s fashions, Adams takes full advantage of the plunging necklines, giving her fans a lot to observe from scene to scene, and not just her formidable acting talent on display.
I’ve been dragging my feet writing my review and I’ve been trying to determine why, beyond, obviously, holiday-related sloth. American Hustle is readily a good movie that provides plenty of entertainment, meaty characters, and fun, but why do I keep feeling like it’s missing one undetermined ingredient? I can’t even articulate what at the moment but after having seen the film two times now, I feel like perhaps my emotional involvement was stunted. It’s a finely tuned script that delivers big performances for big-time actors, with a dandy ending that manages to dish out satisfying conclusions to its bevy of wheeler-dealers. But why didn’t I care more, why didn’t I feel more resonance by the time the end credits landed? The best theory I can surmise at this time is that we’re caught up in the con game, where everyone is pretending to be somebody else out of necessity or desire, that when it’s all over, we reflect on what a fun ride it’s been with fun characters but do we feel like we’ve gotten anywhere? I feel like I was more interested in the characters than attached to them. Again, American Hustle is still a sensationally entertaining movie and this paragraph is but a quibble, but it’s enough to thwart me from fully embracing and celebrating Russell’s film (confession: having already seen Scorsese’s brilliant Wolf of Wall Street, this could be coloring things for me with Russell’s Scorsese homage).
American Hustle is a fun ride with arresting performances, oodles of style, energy, and comedy. It’s a crime caper of the first order, easing you into this world and watching people play all sides. Even better, we’re given a volatile mix of personalities that clash, forming new and lasting conflicts, some of which could endanger the entire operation. These are interesting people to spend time with and so we can excuse the indulgences of a 140-minute movie that offers even more with this fantastic cast. Russell with a Scorsese filter is an even more improbably entertaining filmmaker. This is a crowd-pleasing sort of movie, much like Silver Linings, that doles out punchlines and payoffs with aplomb. It’s easy to go along for the ride, laugh uproariously, and then by the end sort of wonder whether it was all worth it. The emotional detachment to the characters may be a minor complaint for a film this largely satisfying, but since we’re spending so much time on our characters, I think I would have preferred something a tad more substantive by the end. It’s a great ride, with great characters and great humor, but there is a nagging concern that it may have been a better ride than a story. Regardless, American Hustle is an enjoyably alluring con that mines the absurdist fashions, personalities, and political overreach of the 1970s, painting a tale of criminals who may be the real heroes of the American dream.
Nate’s Grade: A-
Ambitious filmmaking is welcome, but usually ambition leads somewhere, which is the main problem with co-writer and director Derek Cianfrance’s unwieldy 140-minute multi-generational crime drama, The Place Beyond the Pines. First we watch Luke (Ryan Gosling) as a traveling motorcyclist enter a life of crime to support his infant son. Next the focus shifts to Avery (Bradley Cooper) as a cop with a conscience running into corruption on the force. Last, we jump ahead into the future and watch the dramatic irony unfold as the children of Avery and Luke interact, waiting for them to learn their paternal connection. I believe Cianfrance (Blue Valentine) and his team was attempting to tell a meditative, searching drama about children paying for the sins of their fathers, the lingering fallout of bad decisions and moral compromises. Except that’s not this film. By the end of the movie, while some secrets have been laid bare, there really aren’t any significant consequences. The film does an excellent job of maintaining a sense of dread, but it doesn’t come to anything larger or thought provoking. The entire structure of this film is geared toward a tragic accumulation, but it just doesn’t materialize. That’s a shame because it’s got great acting through and through, though I have grown weary of Gosling’s taciturn antihero routine that seems like a rut now. Avery’s portion of the plot was the most interesting and anxiety-inducing, but I found the movie interesting at every turn. The characters are given pockets of nuance and ambiguity as they traverse similar paths of desperation and conciliation. The Place Beyond the Pines is a perfectly good movie, albeit disjointed, that cannot amount to the larger thematic impact it yearns for.
Nate’s Grade: B-
I was no huge fan of the first Hangover movie and I cited its 2011 sequel, a carbon copy of the original, as one of the worst films of the year. The supposed final chapter ditches the blackout formula, which on its face seems like a step in the right direction, but now we have a Hangover movie with no titular hangover and at heart this is a movie for no one, even hardcore Hangover fans. I became quite cognizant how little I was laughing, not just because the jokes were badly misfiring, which they were, but also because there were so few jokes. You’d be hard-pressed to label this a comedy. It’s really more of an action thriller. What humor does arise is usually mean-spirited, curdled, or just off-putting, particular the reoccurring theme of animal cruelty (maybe opening your film with a decapitated giraffe is not the best idea). The other major hurdle is that annoying supporting characters played by Ken Jeong and Zach Galifianakis are elevated to co-leads. Both of these characters are best when reacting to others rather than being the main actors in the story. This movie is so abysmal as a comedy that you start to think director Todd Phillips should try his hand at a straight action thriller; the guy has a strong eye for visual composition. The actors all look extremely bored. Could Justin Bartha, the character who always gets sidelined, just get murdered and they have to hide his body? Oh no, I think I just came up with The Hangover 4. I apologize already.
Nate’s Grade: D