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Marriage Story (2019)

Noah Baumbach is a writer and director most known for acerbic dramas with a very dark, pessimistic viewpoint. That changed somewhat once he began a filmmaking partnership with actress Greta Gerwig that began with 2013’s Frances Ha. Gerwig has since gone on to become an accomplished filmmaker in her own right with 2017’s Lady Bird, which earned her Oscar nominations for writing and directing. The partnership seemed to bring out a softer side for Baumbach and they became a romantic couple who had a child earlier in 2019. Hell, Gerwig and Baumbach are even circling writing a Barbie movie together. This is a changed filmmaker and he brings that changed perspective to Marriage Story. It’s very different from Baumbach’s other movie about divorce, 2005’s The Squid and the Whale. I found that movie difficult, detached, and hard to emotionally engage with. Marriage Story, on the other hand, is a deeply felt, deeply observed, and deeply moving film experience that counts as one of the finest films of 2019.

Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) are heading for divorce. He’s a successful theater director. She was a successful movie actress who relocated to New York City and has gotten an offer to shoot a pilot in L.A. Both say they want what’s best for their young son Henry (Azhy Robertson) but this will be tested as Charlie and Nicole push one another for what they feel is their best version of their family.

The observational detail in Marriage Story is awe inspiring. I was floored by how involved I got and how quickly, and that’s because Baumbach has achieved what few filmmakers are able to, namely present a world of startling authenticity. There is a richness in the details, small and large, that makes the entire story feel like you’ve captured real life and thrown it onscreen. I wouldn’t pry but Baumbach himself went through divorce around the time he was writing this, and I have to think some of those feelings and details seeped into this screenplay. Baumbach’s direction favors clarity and giving his actors wide berths to unleash meaty monologues or dynamic dialogue exchanges. The writing is sensational and every character is given a point of view that feels well realized. Even the combative lawyers (Laura Dern, Ray Liotta) have perspectives you can see why they’re fighting for what they believe is right. But it’s watching Charlie and Nicole together that brings the most excitement. Watching the both of them onscreen allows for so much study of the little histories behind their words, their gestures, their impulses, and they feel like a great mystery to unpack. It feels like a real relationship you’ve been dropped into and left to pick up the histories and contradictions and all the rest that make people who they are.

It’s very easy and understandable for divorce dramas to essentially pick sides, to present a clearly defined protagonist and antagonist, like 1979’s Kramer vs. Kramer. It’s easier for an audience to have a clear side to root for and a clear villain to root against, someone who they can see is more responsible for this breakdown of the family unit or for the infliction of emotional pain. What Baumbach does is something rare and exceedingly compassionate; he makes us like these two people as a couple in the opening ten minutes so that we can see how they could have shared a loving relationship for so long. The opening is mirrored voice over where each spouse narrates what they love or admire about the other person, and by doing this it’s like we too get to see these people in this adoring light. It’s like a ten-minute love letter and then it gets ripped away. However, by starting with this foundation, Baumbach has invested the audience immediately. We care about both of these people because we’ve seen them at their best, and now as things get more acrimonious and harder, it hurts us too because of that emotional investment. Marriage Story does not adopt a side or ask its audience to choose. It presents both parties as essentially good people but with their flaws and combustibility that point to them being likely better apart. That doesn’t mean they don’t still care for one another or have essential elements of friendship. A simple shoelace tying at the very end of the movie nearly had me in tears because of its everyday act of kindness. These are complex human beings with needs, desires, egos, pressure points, and we watch both of them struggle through a stressful process where they’re trying to do right but that definition keeps morphing with every next step. If there are villains, it’s the lawyers, but even they are given degrees of explanation and perspectives to explain why they fight as hard as they do.

I have read several reviews that disagree with my “no sides” assessment, citing how the movie presents more of Charlie’s perspective during Act Two, and this is true. The extra time onscreen, however, doesn’t erase his faults as a husband. The transition to this handover is Nicole unburdening herself to her lawyer (Dern) in a gorgeous seven-minute monologue. It’s a thrilling moment for Johansson as the character begins guarded and afraid of saying anything too harsh, and then as she starts talking it’s like you watch layer after layer get pulled free, allowing this woman to open up about her untended wants and desires and to legitimately be heard in perhaps the first time in a decade, and it’s so powerful and sympathetic and natural. To then think that Baumbach intends to portray this same woman as a villain seems like a misreading. The second act does involve Charlie being more reactive to the new obstacles of divorce, like being forced to hire a lawyer to officially respond, to start a residence in L.A., and to eventually be observed by an evaluator of the court. He holds to the belief that he and Nicole don’t need the acrimony, don’t need the pain, and that they can be adults when it comes to deciding their end. Whether this is naivety will depend on your own worldview, but holding to this belief gets Charlie playing catch-up a lot and having to roll with changes for fear of being seen as an uncooperative parent, like when Nicole’s friends don’t want to go trick-or-treating with Charlie present so he’s forced into a second later more pathetic outing. We do get to see Charlie beset with challenges but that doesn’t erase Nicole’s challenges too.

For a movie as deeply human as this one, it’s also disarming just how funny it can be. The humor is never cheap or distracting but just another element that makes Marriage Story so adept. While the movie has its lows, it can also find delicate and absurd humor in the moment, reminding the audience that life isn’t always doom and gloom even when things are going poorly. The sequence where Nicole and her sister (Merritt Weaver, wonderful) are bickering over the exact steps to legally serve Charlie divorce papers reminded me of a screwball comedy, how the nerves and fumbles of the characters were elevating the experience into touching the absurd. Nicole’s entire family is a great comedic array of characters including her mother (Julie Hagerty) who says she has her own personal relationship with her daughter’s ex-husband that she wishes to maintain. They even have pet names for one another (this brought back memories for me as I’ve had mothers of ex-girlfriends still want to talk with me weeks after their daughter dumped me). The legal asides are also filled with absurdist moments of comedy about double-speak and the arcane or idiosyncratic rules of divorce and representation in the courts. The sequence of Charlie being watched by the deadpanned court evaluator (Martha Kelley, TV’s Baskets) is a terrific example of cringe comedy. He’s trying to impress her but she’s generally unflappable, to hilarious degree, and it only leads to more miscues that Charlie tries to ignore or downplay to win her favor.

Make no mistake, Marriage Story is also one of the hardest hitting dramas of the year. Because we like both participants, because there is something at stake, watching them tear each other apart is a painful and revelatory experience. There is one gigantic confrontation that, like Nicole’s first confession, begins small and cordial and builds and builds in intensity, to the point where walls are punched, threats are unleashed, and both parties end in tears. It’s a thrilling sequence that feels akin to watching the defusing of a bomb ready to explode. Baumbach never feels the need to artificially inflate his drama, so we stick with that observational and compassionate ethos that has guided the entire film, even during the ugly moments. These are two people with pain and frustrations who both feel they have been wronged and are in the right. They’re both entitled to their pain, they’re both at fault for letting things get to this precipice, and they can both acknowledge that as well. Because even at their worst, Nicole and Charlie are still portrayed as human beings and human beings worthy of our empathy. They aren’t heroes or villains, they’re simply real people trying to navigate a hard time with conflicting feelings and needs.

The acting is outstanding. Driver (BlackkKlansman) is sensational and goes through an emotional wringer to portray Charlie, trying to stay above it all for so long and losing parts of himself along the way. His outbursts are raw and cut right through, but it’s also his smaller moments of ignorance, dismissiveness, or tenderness that linger, providing a fuller picture of who Charlie is, why one could fall in love with him and why one could fall out of love. I fully expect Driver to be the front-runner for the Best Actor Oscar. He even gets to sing a Sondheim tune and uses it as a reflection point. A late moment, when he’s reading a particular letter, drew tears and got me choked up. He’s always been such a visceral actor, a man with a magnetic charisma and animalistic sense of energy that draws your attention. He’s finally found a role that showcases how brilliant an actor Driver can be. This is also easily the best work of Johansson’s (Avengers: Endgame) career. Let there be no doubt – this woman can be a tremendous actress with the right material. She’s struggling with her sense of identity, being tied to Charlie for so long, and “wanting my own Earth” for so long that the dissolution process is both tumultuous but also exciting for what it promises. Nicole can take those chances, her Hollywood viability still alive, and strike out doing the things she’s wanted to do, like direct. Her character has felt like a supportive prisoner for so long and now she gets to make a jailbreak. Johansson is an equal partner onscreen to Driver, trading the tenderness and hostility moment-for-moment.

This is Noah Baumbach’s finest film to date, and I adored Frances Ha. I was expecting a degree of bitterness from the normally prickly filmmaker, and that’s to be had considering the subject matter of divorce. What I wasn’t expecting was the depth of feeling and compassion that flows from this movie’s very steady beating heart. It feels real and honest in a way that a movie simply about the horrors of divorce and breakups and custody battles could not. Baumbach’s characters aren’t just meant to suffer and inflict pain, they’re meant to come through the other side with something still intact. I’d argue that Marriage Story, even with its suffering, is ultimately a hopeful movie. It shows how two people can navigate the pain they’ve caused one another and still find an understanding on the other side. Driver and Johansson are fantastic and deliver two of the finest acting performances of this year. Baumbach’s incredible level of detail makes the movie feel instantly authentic, lived-in, and resonant. I was hooked early, pulling for both characters, and spellbound by the complexity and development. There isn’t a false note in the entire two-plus hours onscreen. It feels like you’re watching real people. Marriage Story is a wonderful movie and I hope people won’t be scared off by its subject matter. It’s funny, empathetic, and resoundingly humane, gifting audiences with a rich portrait. It should be arriving to Netflix streaming by December 6, so fire up your queue and have the tissues at the ready.

Nate’s Grade: A

Jojo Rabbit (2019)

Writer/director Taika Waititi has played a vampire, an intergalactic rock monster, and now perhaps the most challenging role of his career, Adolf Hitler. Coming off his meteoric success with the MCU, Waititi is using the time in between mega-budget Thor sequels to write/direct/produce/co-star in a smaller daring indie comedy. Jojo Rabbit follows a young German boy, Jojo (Roman Griffin Dais), during the last year of World War Two. He fantasizes about having an imaginary Hitler (Waititi) as the voice over his shoulder, reinforcing the teachings of adults and authority figures. His worldview is challenged when he discovers a teenager hiding in the family’s walls who just happens to be Jewish. Jojo doesn’t know what to make of Elsa (Thomasin McKenzie), nor does she know what to make of him, and Jojo decides to keep her presence a secret to spare his doting and put-upon mother (Scarlet Johansson). Jojo tries interrogating this wily girl but ends up learning more than he ever imagined.

Given the subject matter, setting, and overall tone, it’s a wonder how well Jojo Rabbit works. I was worried about what kind of tone the movie would be striving for given the delicacy of its subject matter, not that other filmmakers have shied away from incorporating comedy into Holocaust settings. I don’t mean this to be overly flippant but for portions of the movie I felt like I was watching “Wes Anderson’s Nazi Germany.” The entire Act One camp sequence feels like a warped deleted scene from Moonrise Kingdom. I was genuinely surprised how often I was laughing with Jojo Rabbit. Waititi can be hysterical as a bratty, temperamental version of the Fuhrer, but there are moments where he gets caught up in the oratory of his hateful rhetoric that serve as a reminder that even for Jojo, he realizes this man isn’t exactly best friend material. The Hitler imaginary friend goes away for long stretches in the second half as the film emphasizes more drama, which is the right choice as Jojo is coming to doubt what he has been taught from that imaginary friend. The portrayal of Hitler might be offensive to some viewers but I feel like Waititi walks a fine line to root it from the perspective of childhood fantasy. It’s taking the figure on TV and adapting it to suit the needs of a lonely kid wanting to belong. Of course he’d want Hitler to select him as the best little young Aryan that Germany has going. It’s not dismissing the evil of the man but instead serving him up through a specific prism that allows laughter not necessarily even at Hitler himself but at a youthful and immature understanding of something far more complex.

I was also worried that the comedy might dampen some of the more dramatic turns coming, and this was so not the case. There are dramatic moments hiding under the surface thanks to seeing them from Jojo’s naïve perspective, but then there also big obvious dramatic moments of suffering that hit. As much as the whimsy prevails early, the dramatic moments are delivered in tasteful ways that do not detract from the feelings being felt by the characters as well as the willing viewers. There are a few gut punches that remind you that even with the whimsy of childhood naivete, real people are dying in awful ways because of those complicit in racist genocidal policies. The relationship between Jojo and his mother is the second most significant one, after he and Elsa, but it’s this central focus where we see the starting point of his character arc. His mother tries to shield her child from the larger terrors of their society but that’s increasingly difficult when people are being hanged in the street for helping Jews. She’s hoping to simply play her part in public, get through this terrible time, and finally have the son back that she knows, hoping he will eventually shake free from the propaganda. It’s a role that requires Johansson to play like another cartoonish adult, all bubbling energy and quirky nonchalance, while burying her increasing concern. Part of me almost wishes that she was a co-equal protagonist so we could get an even richer perspective to contrast more fully.

There’s a sprightly whimsy to the proceedings that comes from being locked into the perspective of an imaginative child. It’s not that the world is 100 percent his vision, it’s more that we know that the representation of what we’re seeing might not be a completely objective reflection of the reality Jojo is encountering. This especially includes the portrayal of many adults involved in various levels of the Nazi party. They play out like cartoons and buffoons but are still dangerous cartoons and buffoons. When Jojo’s childhood friend Yorki is talking about fighting on the front and we see him handling a rocket launcher, this is clearly an exaggeration of the desperation of the moment and a young boy’s eagerness to be involved. This creative approach allows Waititi to dabble in the fantastic and keep his audience alert, allowing them to second-guess what we’re seeing on screen and look for the reality in hiding. I laughed pretty consistently at the intended humor and incredulous nature of the adults trying to pass off wrongheaded insights and suggestions as scientific fact or common sense. It’s a movie where you laugh at the ridiculous idiots while hoping that the idiots won’t get the people we care about killed.

The acting is very strong overall. Newcomer Roman Griffin Davis is exuberant and relatable without coming across as overly cloying or mannered, which can be a rarity for child actors. He has a very difficult role to play from a tone and perspective standpoint, and he succeeds. Another great child actor is Thomasin McKenzie (Leave No Trace) as Elsa, a young girl in an extremely vulnerable position who looks upon this new boy with equal amounts fear, disdain, and pity. She cannot be herself and must choose her words and responses carefully, so it’s a guarded performance of restraint but McKenzie is fabulous in quieter, subtler shifts. The adults are all enjoyable as broadly comical cartoons, with Stephen Merchant (Logan) earning considerable unease as an S.S. officer leading a team sweeping for Jews in hiding. Johansson (Avengers: Endgame) seems a little too eager, a little too antic, but this may pertain to her character’s nerves and desperation, trying to overcompensate her anxiety. Rockwell (Vice) gets the biggest adult role as a disenchanted military vet who sees the writing on the wall. At first his detached nihilism is a source of dark comedy and later he becomes an unexpected father figure for Jojo. I don’t quite know if his hero moments have the desired impact but he’s still an amusing presence.

However, there are also some drawbacks to being a fable, namely a lack of larger specific substance beyond general lessons and general characterization. Jojo Rabbit is being billed as an “anti-hate satire” and I definitely think that summary fits the intent, but “anti-hate” sounds like such a nebulous buzzword that seems more meaningful at first glance and less upon reflection. I would assume every responsible story set during the era of the Holocaust would adopt an “anti-hate” sensibility, because the alternative would be championing the foundations of Nazism. It’s hard for me to imagine any movie desiring a public release being anything other than “anti-hate.” Essentially, we have a character coming to see through the propaganda of the era, judging people as people rather than scary caricatures, and start to reject the teachings of manipulative authority figures. This isn’t a new formula for coming-of-age stories or tales set during times of great strife. It’s a lesson in empathy and rejecting dogma on its face. When it comes to Nazism, that should be the easy part, facilitated by any prolonged exposure to anyone previously deemed an undesirable.

My nagging issue with Jojo Rabbit is that for all its impish whimsy with such a serious historical subject, it ultimately plays things pretty safe. That’s fine, it doesn’t have to a revolutionary film, but it does dull the message a bit when the ultimate lasting takeaway is “hate is bad, Jews are people too.” It’s a bit pat, a bit simple, and a bit too easy. The characterization can also be hampered by this same ethos. The characters are pretty much exactly what you see at first blush. The only character who changes or has room to explore is Jojo. Even Elsie feels more like a stagnant person despite her unique circumstances. This may be because she’s more change agent than character, a figure for Jojo to be horrified by, then entranced with, and finally see as a friend. I still felt moments of genuine emotion for characters onscreen and for Jojo’s journey of self. The movie still works well with its stated goals and direction, it’s just a bit limited because of the simplicity of its message and the lack of greater substance for its many characters.

The Jojo Rabbit novel was written before the rise of Donald Trump but Waititi has said that when they were filming that America’s current political climate was on his mind, and it’s not hard to make a few adaptations to apply this for the modern era. Perhaps a young boy sees Donald Trump as his imaginary friend and together they’re both all-in on trying to “make America great again” by first and foremost reporting any immigrant they see as illegal. Then later in the story he discovers his family is willfully hiding an undocumented child from being deported after they were stripped from their parents who were then deported. Now our naïve protagonist must reconcile the harsh rhetoric he has been taught with the growing empathy of connecting with another human being who doesn’t seem as dangerous or as sub-human as others claim. If you wanted to even make this parallel, it’s there, though I think that diminishes the setting. We shouldn’t need to tell movies during the Holocaust as metaphors for our modern struggles. I suppose this is another scenario where if you want to Inuit more of a relevant modern message, you can.

Jojo Rabbit (a nickname that seems forgotten after its christening) is a coming-of-age fable with equal parts charm and horror. Waititi takes a serious subject and doesn’t mitigate the evils of Nazism with his portrayal of a daffy imaginary Hitler. The production has an admirable swagger to it as it charts its own course, tackling serious subjects and young whimsy to portray a poignant story about childhood, loss, and growing up. It’s an amusing and heartfelt enterprise that I can’t help but feel could have done more than settling for some pretty safe messages and limited characterization. There wasn’t a moment with Jojo Rabbit where I wasn’t entertained, but I do wish the movie had more on its mind that reminding everyone that hate is bad.

Nate’s Grade: B

Avengers: Endgame (2019)

This may prove to be the most difficult review I’ve ever written in my twenty years (!) of reviewing movies. How do I ever begin to describe the events of Marvel’s culminating blockbuster Avengers: Endgame without stepping too far into the dark and dangerous territory of the accursed spoilers? I thought it would be difficult talking about last year’s Infinity War considering the shocking plot events and general secrecy, but this concluding chapter to a 22-movie journey is even more secretive (the trailer accounts for only footage roughly from the first twenty minutes). I’ll do my best, dear reader, to give you the clearest impression I can of this unique experience while respecting your need to be un-spoiled. In short, Avengers: Endgame is unparalleled in our history of modern popular blockbusters because it needs to work as a clincher to a decade-plus of hugely popular blockbusters for the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), and boy do they ever stick the landing.

The film picks up with our surviving Avengers picking up the pieces following the events of Infinity War, namely Thanos (Josh Brolin) eliminating half of life throughout the universe. The original six Avengers are all suffering through guilt, depression, and degrees of PTSD following their failure to defeat Thanos. Scott Lang a.k.a. Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) arrives after having spent time in the quantum realm and has a potential solution that will involve traveling through time to correct the mistakes of the past and bring everyone who vanished back to life. The remaining teammates assemble at the behest of Steve Rogers a.k.a. Captain America (Chris Evans), including Bruce Banner a.k.a. Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Black Widow (Scarlet Johannson), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Rocket Racoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper), Nebula (Karen Gillan), and War Machine (Don Cheadle). However Tony Stark a.k.a. Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) needs the most convincing, as he is most afraid of making things even worse and losing more people he feels are too precious to be casualties to their failures once again.

The thing to know ahead of time is that Endgame is not for the casual fan. This is a long love letter to the fans that have pored over all 22 preceding films, not just a scant one or two. Infinity War was accessible to relative newcomers because of the structure and focus on Thanos as the main character, providing a self-contained arc that lead up to his finger-snapping triumph. It also benefited from the fun factor of simply watching a bunch of popular characters interact and team up for the first time in MCU history. Now that a majority of those characters have turned to dust, the emphasis falls back on the original core of the Avengers, bringing things full circle. In several ways, Endgame is about bringing to a close this mammoth project that began with Iron Man, this decade of storytelling ambition that has stretched out into multiple inter-connected franchises. If you love these characters, then Endgame is a movie made specifically for you. There is a long stretch in Act Two that relies upon a decent amount of fan service and sentimentality, but I don’t think either is an automatically negative attribute. Before we reach the finish line it’s important to take stock of how far we’ve come and this goes for the essential characters and their long arcs. There are several fun cameos strewn throughout and the filmmakers even take an interesting tack of trying to reclaim and re-contextualize the MCU movies that fewer people enjoyed. It makes for a filmgoing experience that is heavy in references, in-jokes, Easter eggs, and cozy nostalgia, which will confuse and frustrate those not well versed in this big world.

The other thing to know, especially if you’re a long-standing fan, is that there will be tears. Oh will there be tears. I lost count of the amount of times I was crying, which was pretty much on and off nonstop for the final twenty minutes. I was even tearing up for supporting characters that I didn’t know I had that kind of emotional attachment for. The film is done so well that the first third actually could play as the MCU equivalent of HBO’s The Leftovers, an undervalued and elegant series about the long-term recovery of those that remain in a post-rapture world. The opening scene involves a character having to go through the loss of loved ones via Thanos’ snap, and it’s brutal as we wait for what we know is coming, dread welling up in the pit of your stomach. The Russo brothers, the returning directing team from Infinity War, know what scenes to play for laughs (the line “That’s America’s ass” had me in stitches), what scenes to play for thrills, what scenes to play for fist-pumping cheers, and what scenes to play for gut-wrenching drama. They allow the movie to be an existential mood piece when it needs to be, actually dwelling on the repercussions of a life post-universe culling. There’s a character who frantically searches to see if a loved one was among the missing, and that eventual reunion had me in tears. With the three-hour running time, the Russos have the luxury of allowing scenes to naturally breathe. This might be the most human many of these characters have ever seemed, and it’s after recovery and grief. Needless to say, the conclusion feels very much fitting but also unabashedly emotional, unafraid of diving deep into its feelings. I sobbed.

I was worried once the film introduced the time travel plot device that everything was simply going to be erased and invalidate the struggles that came before. The worst use of time travel is when it eliminates any urgency or danger, allowing an endless series of do-overs to correct the past. Fortunately, returning screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (Civil War, Winter Soldier) realize that in order for there to be a reversal, a glint of a happy ending, there must be a cost or else it all meant little to nothing. There are finite events in the movie that cannot change (as of now) and losses that will be permanent (as of now, if they don’t want to cheapen the journey). People died with Infinity War but we all knew, at least when it came to its dreary conclusion, that it wasn’t going to be too long lasting, which allowed the communal grief to be short-lived. After all, there’s a new Spider-Man film coming down the pike two months from now, so it’s highly unlikely the teenage web-head will remain dead. However, with Endgame, the deaths serve as the cost for resurrecting the MCU, and they will be felt for years. The screenplay provides limitations to the time travel mechanics, though I don’t think the collective hand-wave to the nagging paradoxes was as successful as the movie thinks it was. The film barrels ahead, essentially telling you to forget about the paradoxes and enjoy the ride, focusing on the characters and remembering what is really important.

Suffice to say Downey Jr. is once again his charming, self-effacing, and enormously entertaining self. The MCU began with this man and his contributions cannot be overstated. He is the soul of this universe. Evans is compelling as the straight-laced inspirational figure who takes stock of what he’s sacrificed over the years, Hemsworth showcases a potent mixture of comedic and dramatic chops, Johannson is definitely the Avenger going through the “bargaining” phase to try and make things right and she has some subtle emotional moments that belie her desperation and guilt, and Renner makes a welcomed return in a way that made me appreciate Hawkeye like I never had before. Brie Larson does reappear as Captain Marvel but the movie smartly puts her back on the sidelines protecting the many other worlds in the universe needing assistance because of how overwhelmingly powerful she can become. Larson filmed her scenes for Endgame before her own solo movie, released a month prior, so forgive the different hair and makeup, Twitter nit-pickers. I will say there is one scene that is a bit convoluted how it gets there but is destined to make women in the audience cheer with excitement as the MCU says, “Hey, that whole ‘strong female character’ thing? Yeah, we’ve had all that for years, and here you go.”

How does one properly assess a movie like Avengers: Endgame, a conclusion not just to an Infinity War cliffhanger but to a twenty-two movie prelude over the course of eleven years? The emotional investment in these characters, their journeys, has to come to something to be ultimately meaningful when it’s time to close the chapter on one massively ambitious story before starting the next. And there will be a next chapter; the MCU’s unparalleled financial success assures the fanbase they’ll have plenty more high-flying and wild adventures to come in the years, and more than likely, decades to come. Marvel had the unenviable task of wrapping up a major narrative in a way that would prove satisfying without devaluing the individual films and overall time investment. Hollywood is filled with trilogies that messed up their conclusions. Nailing the ending is just as important as getting things going right, because without a satisfying conclusion it can feel like that level of emotional investment was all for naught. Endgame reminds you how much you’ve grown to love these characters, what fun you’ve had, and genuinely how much you’ll miss these characters when they depart for good. It’s hard not to reflect upon your own passage of time with the ensuing eleven years, how you’ve changed and grown from the MCU’s humble beginnings in the summer of 2008. These heroes and anti-heroes can begin to feel like an extended family for many, and so fans desperately need the ending to do them justice. Avengers: Endgame is the ultimate fan experience.

Nate’s Grade: A

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

Isle of Dogs (2018)

The quirky imagination of Wes Anderson and his stylized, symmetrical, painterly approach to filmmaking has always seemed like a natural fit for the world of animation. Stop-motion has a wonderfully tactile and woebegone appreciation that furthermore seems like a natural fit, and 2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox is one of Anderson’s best and most enjoyable films. If it were not for the considerable time it takes to make animated films, I’d be happy if Anderson stayed in this realm. Isle of Dogs is about a future where dogs are blamed for an infectious disease and as a result are banned and quarantined to a garbage island off the coast of Japan. One little boy dares to venture to this island to find his beloved missing dog. From there, he’s escorted by a pack of dogs, led by Chief (voiced by Bryan Cranston), across dangerous tracks of the island while avoiding the boy’s adopted family, the mayor of Nagasaki. This is a whimsical, beguiling, detail-rich world to absorb, but it also has splashes of unexpected darkness and violence to jolt (though the dark turns are consistently nullified). It’s a highly entertaining movie although the characters and story are rather thin. The different dogs are kept as stock roles, and the main boy, Atari, is pretty much a cipher for dog owners. However, the film can tap into an elemental emotional response when discussing the relationship between man and dog. If you’re a dog person, it’s hard not to feel a twinge of emotions when a dog is given a loving owner and sense of family. There is one element of the movie that feels notably off, and that’s the fact that the dogs speak English and the local Japanese characters speak their native tongue but without the aid of subtitles. it doesn’t exactly feel like Anderson is doing this as a source of humor, but I can’t figure out a good alternative reason for it. I’m sure Cranston’s distinctive growl would have sounded just as good speaking Japanese. Regardless, Isle of Dogs is a mid-pack Wes Anderson fantasia of inventive imagination and well worth getting lost within.

Nate’s Grade: B

Rough Night (2017)

As the girl power counterpart to Very Bad Things, the rowdy comedy Rough Night follows a group of broadly characterized friends through a night of mishaps, but the strangest development is that the funniest moments all center around the men. Jess (Scarlett Johansson) and her gal pals (Jillian Bell, Kate McKinnon, Ilana Glazer, Zoe Kravitz) are celebrating her bachelorette party when they accidentally kill a stripper. From there the ladies have to try and dispose of the body while not getting caught. The movie is rather slow to get started, establishing broad character types for each of the bachelorette partiers. It’s once things get criminal that the movie enters more solid comedic ground. The acting ensemble is rife with terrific comedy stars that know how to hit their material in stride, in particular the boorish Bell and the goofy McKinnon. And yet it’s the asides with Jess’s fiancé Peter (Paul W. Downs, co-writer) where the movie hits its highest marks and delivers inspired comedy. At first the wild atmosphere of the girls’ night out is contrasted with the quaintly tame boy’s night out. Soon after Peter is worried something troubling has happened and is determined to travel nonstop to reach Jess. His traveling moments produce the most unexpected comedy, like a badass montage about something very uncharacteristically badass. It just kept going, trying to maintain the same demeanor, and I was almost in tears from laughing so hard. There’s a sequence at a gas station that could be taught in comedy classes for how well structured and developed it plays out, tying together characters and conflicts and even ending on a sweetly jocular moment. It got to the point where I wanted to check back more often with Peter. I chuckled throughout Rough Night and the energy level of the actors keeps things eminently watchable but it plays it too safe for something so apparently transgressive. The sentimental moments don’t feel earned and the dark comedy doesn’t feel dark enough. Still, when it gets to be weird and unpredictable, Rough Night can be a delight.

Nate’s Grade: B

Ghost in the Shell (2017)

When news broke that Hollywood was going to make a live-action version of the much-beloved 1995 anime Ghost in the Shell, fans were understandably nervous and excited. The original movie was a major hit that crossed over into the mainstream much like Akira, another movie Hollywood has long been trying to bring to life (run away, Jordan Peele!). People got extra worried when they heard that Scarlett Johansson was going to play the main character and cries of “whitewashing” were hurled across the chasm of the Interwebs. The “white washing” charge, which in context is possibly misapplied, might have been the smaller worry. The 2017 Ghost in the Shell remake is missing just about everything that made the original a standout. It’s a ghost, if you will, of its former, superior self.

In a cyberpunk future, Major (Scarlett Johansson) is an android fighter working for a special operations group tasked with taking down cyber criminals. The Major was injured in a terrorist attack and her brain was placed in a robotic shell (looking like ScarJo is one of the upgrade features). Every so often she gets hallucinations of events she cannot recall. After an encounter with the hacker criminal Kuze (Michael Pitt), a fellow android, she begins to doubt the true intentions of her superiors and what they have told her.

If you’re a fan of the original Ghost in the Shell, you might be depressed from what the live-action Hollywood adaptation does to its noteworthy source material. If you’ve never seen the anime, then you might find some scraps of entertainment to be had in what is essentially a drizzly cyberpunk product dumbed down for the largest mass audience that would be adrift with any minor hint of ambiguity. The 2017 Ghost in the Shell is not a good movie and it’s an even worse Ghost in the Shell movie. First off, we don’t need live-action versions of superior animated films just to have them, and this same statement goes for the equally underwhelming Beauty and the Beast remake. Just because a film lacks “real people” does not mean it is missing some crucial element, and I bristle at the notion that animated films are somehow inherently inferior or not “real movies.” With that being said, Ghost in the Shell will invariably disappoint fans of the original anime. There are visual signifiers and shots that it mimics with fealty; it’s just the overall story, characters, narrative complexity and mystery, and everything else that lacks that same level of fealty. Who cares if the main character is a shell of herself because, hey, they recreated this one shot fairly accurately, and that’s why we go to the movies, right?

Whereas the original was thoughtful and trusted the intelligence of an audience, the 2017 Ghost in the Shell resorts to explaining everything all the time, and even that it does badly. This is a muddled and frequently incoherent plotline, and the magnitude of its ineptitude is even higher considering how stupidly obvious the screenwriters make every twist and turn. This is the most obvious, simplistic conspiracy you could possible write. When Major wakes up in the opening scene and is being told what happened, the audience should already be alert with suspicion. This secret conspiracy goes in the most obvious direction (the good guys might not be the good guys after all) in a manner that should be transparently obvious to anyone except those unfortunate souls who have never seen another movie before in their lifetimes. So much of the plot is the untangling of this mystery, the Major’s real back-story, who the true villains are. To make it as obvious as possible and still devote so much time is not a good decision. The movie is constantly tagging characters to explain all exposition, leaving no subtleties to chance. The sadder part is that the plot is still muddled for long stretches even with all this handholding to straighten things out for the neediest.

The world building and themes are kept at a distance, further denying the movie depth and substance. With any science fiction world, let alone one borrowed from other famous cinematic influences, it’s important for the viewer to get a sense of how the world operates. This can be done with small moments and larger moments, enough to properly contextualize this brave new world. With Ghost in the Shell, we’re told that mankind has become increasingly intertwined with machines and that cybernetic enhancements are en vogue. Except we never see this in the outside. We see loads of floating hologram advertisements, an overblown visual motif, but outside of our three main characters, this aspect that they felt merited inclusion in text before the movie gets underway is weirdly absent. It makes the characters feel less like they belong in an environment that makes sense. The larger themes of self-identity, the nature of humanity, and the questions over body autonomy are glossed over with the faintest of observations. Major is discovering her identity, but it leads her to what may be the most tired of conclusions. You would think having a robotic body would create some sort of existential reflection. You would be mistaken. Sure, Major feels unsure of herself and out of place, though why should she since we’re told man-robot hybrids are all the rage in this vague future landscape. I’m surprised someone didn’t just start explaining what the title meant at any given point.

The movie feels entirely surface-level and that’s where it has one redeeming value — its visual presentation. Director Rupert Sanders (Snow White and the Huntsman) is an above average visual stylist who benefits from strong production design and cinematography. At least the visual aesthetics could keep my attention, even if part of that attention was occupied in playing a compare-and-contrast game with certain scenes. The special effects are suitable and stylish enough, borrowing more than a few elements from the original. The action sequences are relatively muted, occurring in bursts but never really developing further. There’s an initial attack, then a response, and sometimes a chase, but that’s about it. The tech also doesn’t seem to factor in the combat. The strike team has the ability to communicate telepathically, but if they can do this why would they ever turn off this secret channel? It’s also lazy as it means we can just focus on filming scenes and record whatever dialogue we need later, as if the screenplay was incomplete.

The 2017 Ghost in the Shell live-action version is a disappointing cyberpunk thriller that pays lip service to its source material, copying the movements but losing sense of the substance and soul. I’d advise people to merely watch the 1995 anime instead or the TV series that followed. It all feels like an expensive, slick, yet peculiarly ramshackle production that loses sight of the bigger picture by worrying at every turn whether a mainstream audience is going to need help understanding the most obvious. Johansson can be a great actress, which is important to remind yourself because she goes on kickass heroine autopilot with this movie. The action is short and inadequate, the visuals are impressive albeit derivative to the source material and its myriad influences, and the story has nuance, ambiguity, philosophy, reflection, and general substance replaced with a generic conspiracy structure that renders much uninteresting. The 2017 Ghost in the Shell doesn’t quite go to the insulting derisive lows of the Dragonball Z live-action remake, but it’s certainly not a good use of anyone’s time, and that includes you, the audience.

Nate’s Grade: C

Hail, Caesar! (2016)

hailcaesarposterThe biggest enemy of the celebrated Coen brothers always seems to be expectations. I count only two misfires during their storied filmmaking careers, but sometimes their larks are pilloried for not quite measuring up to their masterpieces. Hail, Caesar! is on par with Burn After Reading and O Brother, Where Art Thou? It’s still a fun, fizzy, and entertaining film and a celebration of Old Hollywood and its movie magic. Loosely centered on an embittered studio head (Josh Brolin), the film is a series of vignettes highlighting different 1940/50s pastiches, including the realms of Esther Williams, Carmen Miranda, Gene Kelly, and John Wayne. If you’re a fan of the old Hollywood pictures and their stars, the indulgences will play better; you can certainly feel the warmth the Coens have for the films of yesteryear. The plot kicks off with a major star (George Clooney) kidnapped, but it’s really the small side stories and moments that are most memorable, and the Coens are still unbeatable when it comes to being silly and clever. I loved a scene where Brolin asks religious advisors for approval over the script of his biblical epic and they offer legitimate notes over flawed story logic. There’s also a delightful song and dance numbers with a group of sailors lamenting the lack of ladies (“But mermaids ain’t got no gams”). The real star of the movie is Alden Ehrenreich (soon to be young Han Solo) as singing cowboy-turned-actor-turned-studio-sleuth. The sequence where his character tries to rapidly adapt into a “serious actor” on the set of some British melodrama makes for great fish-out-of-water comedy, gamely matched by an increasingly exasperated Ralph Fiennes as the director. The ending doesn’t exactly tie everything together but Hail, Caesar! is more a movie of distractions, of spinning plates, or bumbling bosses trying to hide bad behavior from the press and keep hold of their sanity. If you’re a fan of old Hollywood, there should be just enough to make you smile. If you’re not a fan, then you’ll shrug off the Coens and their latest film lark.

Nate’s Grade: B

Captain America: Civil War (2016)

captain-america-civil-war-15Think you were disappointed by last summer’s Avengers: Age of Ultron? The pressure-packed experience broke writer/director Joss Whedon who swore off being the creative shepherd of the Marvel cinematic Universe (MCU). Enter the Russo brothers, a pair who were widely known for their work in eclectic TV comedies like Community and Arrested Development before blowing away all modest expectations with 2014’s Captain America: Winter Soldier. I can say that the Russos are more than capable for the challenge. My simplistic blurb for Captain America: Civil War is thus: everything Batman vs. Superman did wrong this movie does right.

After the cataclysmic events of multiple movie climaxes, the world governments are wary of the power wielded by the Avengers. Secretary Ross (William Hurt, the lone returning element from 2008’s Incredible Hulk) is pushing the superheroes to sign the Sokovia Accords, which would put them under the control of a U.N. joint panel. This panel would decide when and where to deploy the Avengers. Captain America, a.k.a. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), is worried about a group of people taking away their choice. Iron Man, a.k.a. Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), believes that they need to accept limitations and that agreeing to these terms staves off something worse later. This division becomes even more pronounced when Rogers’ old friend the Winter Soldier, a.k.a. Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), reappears as the chief suspect in a U.N. bombing. Black Panther, a.k.a. T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), swears vengeance against Barnes for the bombing. As the assembly of heroes squares off over the fate of the Winter Soldier, Baron Zemo (Daniel Bruhl) is tracking down classified Hydra documents to uncover pertinent information that will topple an empire.

Captain-America-Civil-War-Team-Cap-attackingWhile I don’t want to turn every new film review as an opportunity to beat a dead horse, I cannot help but draw immediate and stark comparisons between Civil War and the earlier titanic superhero slugfest, Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice. Let’s take this case point by point so there is no reasonable doubt left for the jury of ticket-buyers.

Batman vs. Superman doesn’t set up its conflicts with enough time to develop them and it lacks real emotional stakes.”

With BvS (I’m saving my fingertips some drudgery), we hadn’t known these characters for more than one movie at best, and in the case of Bruce Wayne less than one. When they fought there wasn’t any real stakes despite the apoplectic marketing because we hadn’t built relationships with these characters. In the case of Henry Cavill’s Superman, many were turned off entirely by the guy (not necessarily by Cavill’s physique, though). Did anyone really care who won? The filmmakers relied on the audience to supply their pop-culture good will for the characters instead of proper characterization and development. In the case of Civil War, we’re dealing with the cumulative effect of having twelve movies to build up storylines and character relationships. We’re invested in these characters and their friendships, so when they fight it actually does matter. You feel for both sides and multiple characters and the movie does a good job of providing each side a credible motivation. It’s a political thorny issue but it’s kept very streamlined, focusing more on the characters. If the MCU has had one nagging problem throughout its history it has been a dearth of good villains. There’s Loki and… Loki. One solution is to just pit the heroes against each other and this produces as many fist-bumps as winces. My audience was gasping at reveals and twists and turns. They weren’t doing that with BvS. And wouldn’t you know Civil War actually has a climax that’s more than just an increasing series of punches and kicks (though plenty of those are featured); the climax is an emotionally grounded confrontation that cuts to the core of the group. The events of this movie matter and while obviously it can’t follow its divisions to an irrevocable end, I appreciated that not everything is resolved. These storylines and the conflicts between characters will carry onward when we pick up the pieces in 2018.

Batman vs. Superman is too burdened with setting up an array of other film franchises that it loses badly needed focus and momentum.”

Captain-America-Civil-War-images-previewTo be fair, this charge can also be laid at the feet of Age of Ultron, which buckled under the heavy weight of setting up multiple other future movies rather than telling a completely satisfying movie in its own right. Once the franchises gave birth to mega-franchises, the wheels-within-wheels of moneymaking, now the studios require a lot of heavy lifting from our entertainment. They’re investments in futures and if done improperly can easily crumble under the failed execution like the Amazing Spider-Man series (R.I.P. 2012-2014). Miraculously, Civil War finds ways to involve every member of a large ensemble cast into the story in ways that matter. The movie finds small character moments that make them feel better rounded, like Vision (Paul Bettany) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), and it introduces featured supporting players with great care. Black Panther is a terrific addition and brings a quieter intensity that contrasts nicely with the more colorful characters. Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) introduces himself and Black Panther curtly says, “I don’t care” and goes back to fighting. Boseman (ageless I tell you!) is smooth and magnetic. Then there’s everyone’s favorite neighborhood Spider-Man (Tom Holland), or whom I’m already referring to my pals as “best Spider-Man.” It’s another incarnation of Peter Parker but the first that feels like an actual teenager, a bundle of adolescent energy and excitement. He’s the voice of the fans and during the big battle he can’t help but gush that he gets to be involved alongside the big names. Spidey’s a fanboy too. He also has a few choice meta one-liners that had me cackling. Holland (The Impossible) makes an immediate impact and, unlike BvS, finds new ways to make us care. I’m genuinely excited for solo Black Panther and Spider-Man adventures with these characters. Even the more traditional villain of Civil War, Baron Zemo, is handled in a way that provides an emotional motivation for his character that is sincere rather than mustache-twirling villainy. In a lot of ways this feels like a third Avengers film just with the size and scope alone. The dozen characters are juggled skillfully but the emphasis is always on Rogers and Stark and their significant personal conflicts.

Batman vs. Superman’s action sequences are repetitive, joyless, and dank.”

I challenge some enterprising soul to even try and decipher what is happening during the climactic three-on-one monster battle in BvS. I was sitting in the theater and just gave up. I wasn’t having any fun and I couldn’t even literally tell what was happening onscreen with all the confusing CGI obfuscation. The action droned on and on with little variation and was at pains to include certain members and storylines (Lois, maybe don’t get so hasty with that kryptonite spear). It was all just one big overwrought mess that made you question whether anybody on that film production actually liked these superheroes. With Civil War, the action sequences are smartly conceived and choreographed, making excellent use of geography and adding organic complications. The standout is the 20-minute superhero-on-superhero brawl at the Leipzig airport. It is nothing short of nerd nirvana. The characters use their powers together in exciting ways and it further helps them feel like an actual team taking proper advantage of their resources. It’s the culmination of a child’s imagination at play, the living embodiment of smashing action figures against one another and flying around the room. I was thrilled that the Russo brothers found ways to incorporate all the heroes into the action. The specific powers are taken advantage of in fun and surprising ways. The action changes as the stakes keep getting more complicated as more heroes enter the fray. It’s a set piece that will become legendary within film geek circles and it provides payoff after glorious payoff.

Batman vs. Superman is devoid of all fun and takes itself far too seriously. You feel beaten down, exhausted, and punished by film’s end.”

captain-america-civil-war-spider-manThe Marvel movies have earned a reputation for their brisk and breezy nature, which has unfairly been labeled as “weightless” and “silly.” I challenge someone to watch Civil War and tell me just how weightless and silly it is. The Russo brothers and the screenwriters take these characters seriously and their care shows. While there can be plenty of rapid-fire quips and one-liners, the movie’s sense of humor does not detract from the emotional weight of its dramatic shifts. There are political and thematic overtones, mostly the costs of vengeance and culpability, that provide extra depth to the onscreen derring-do. However, Civil War understands that an audience wants to be entertained as well with their heavy-handed messianic imagery. There are payoffs galore in this movie. Some are several movies deep from set up. It all comes together to make a thrilling and highly enjoyable movie experience that plays to its audience in the best way possible. It’s an expert summer blockbuster that packs its own punch. There’s a reason I have already seen Civil War three times already. There is so much to enjoy and it’s so tightly packed and structured that you can jump right in and go for the ride. This is the movie fans were hoping for. This is the movie that washes out the bad taste of the dreadful BvS. If one of my lasting disappointments with BvS was how it made me lose hope for future DC movies, Civil War has cemented my anticipation. The future creative direction of the MCU is in good hands with the Russo brothers. This is the movie that reminds you just how damn good superhero movies can be when they’re at the top of their game. I’d place Civil War right up there at the top of the MCU, though at this time I’m still holding Guardians of the Galaxy as the apex. They’re still achieving this high level of quality after a dozen movies, people. I would not have thought that Captain America would become the gold standard of the MCU but there it is. I felt beaten down by the merciless end of BvS. I felt the elation of an adrenaline-rush from Civil War.

I’ll conclude this unorthodox film review with my in-summary blurb: everything Batman vs. Superman did wrong Captain America: Civil War does right. Do yourself a favor and start the healing process from BvS and enjoy Marvel’s latest cinematic gift to its fans.

Nate’s Grade: A

Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

10869325_591589580977275_2778898650041679518_oThe Avengers wasn’t just a blockbuster it was a mega-blockbuster and rewrote the Hollywood playbook in the summer of 2012. It wasn’t just about powerful franchises anymore. Now it was about franchises that would link into a super franchise. Sony got anxious to expand their Spider-Man universe in a similar fashion as Marvel had done in buildup to The Avengers. After one poor movie, that plan was scuttled and now Spider-Man is being rebooted for the second time in five years, this time with active help from Marvel itself (look for Spidey to appear in Captain America 3). Writer/director Joss Whedon (TV’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer) was the mastermind behind the jaunty smash-em-up fun of The Avengers and was quickly signed on for a sequel after the billion-dollar mark was crossed. With great success comes great risk of upsetting that continued success. It feels like Whedon’s hands were tied to the greater forces at work. As a result, I shouldn’t be surprised but I’m still disappointed with how muddled and overstuffed as Age of Ultron comes across.

The Avengers are cleaning up the last remnants of HYDRA, taking them to a castle in a fictional Eastern European country. The HYDRA doctor has been genetically experimenting on volunteers, birthing Wanda “Scarlet Witch” (Elizabeth Olsen) and Pietro “Quicksilver” Maximoff (Aaron Taylor-Johnson). She can tap into people’s minds and he can run super fast. They’ve got a grudge against the Avengers, particularly industrialist Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.). Stark takes a piece of alien technology and plugs it into his home system to build a super fleet of automated robots to patrol the world. In no time, the A.I. has taken form in the shape of an insane robot named Ultron (James Spader) whose mission is to save the planet by eliminating mankind. He builds an army of robotic soldiers with the assistance of the Maximoff twins. Tony, along with Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and Bruce “The Hulk” Banner (Mark Ruffalo), must stop Ultron while not destroying much of the world themselves with their collateral damage.

avengers-age-of-ultron-trailer-hulkbusterEleven movies into the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), a movie of the size of an Avengers sequel cannot simply be a movie. It’s too important to the overall vision of the MCU, and so it has to set up and establish other characters, franchises, and the many monetary tributaries that keep the world of superheroes going. It’s already got a slew of superheroes and it adds even more new faces into the mix (I guess we needed an Avengers B-Team). The development of Ultron is also far too rushed; it’s literally minutes from being plugged in that he’s already settled into kill-all-Avengers mode. The movie barely has any time to even contemplate the perils of artificial intelligence before Ultron is already proving their fears correct. While Ultron is a fun villain (more on that later) his plan feels quite haphazard. His biggest strategic advantage is his duplication, the fact that he can exist without a physical body and can inhabit many bodies at once. Except for a hasty escape via the Internet and a climax stuffed with CGI robot mayhem, this advantage isn’t really explored. Why does a self-replicating creature beyond the bounds of physicality need or even desire a physical body? If you’re made from a nigh indestructible metal and can control numerous beings at once with a hive-mind intelligence link, why would you want to be turned into flesh thanks to what amounts to a 3D printer? The introduction of The Vision (Paul Bettany, this time in the flesh) is quite muddled and confusing. The incorporation of the Maximoff twins is awkward and they feel more like accessories than needed additions. This Quicksilver doesn’t come anywhere close to the memorable prankish Quicksilver from Days of Future Past. The pacing of the film is so ramped that it feels like the movie is falling over itself to get to the next large-scale action set piece. At 140 minutes, they could have removed one or two action pieces and devoted more time to streamlining and cleaning up the narrative.

And the action sequences start off with a bang but they invariably fizzle out. The opening sequence begins with a Birdman-styled tracking shot to connect all our fighters, and it’s a fun way to kick things off while visually tying together the team. The Hulk vs. Iron Man brawl is fun for a while, partly because it harkens back to the pleasures of the first film, namely watching our heroes battle each other as much as the villains. After a while, the CGI onslaught becomes overwhelming and just dulls the senses. You’re watching CGI smash into other CGI and then keep smashing, with little variation. The disappointment with the action is that it too often feels weightless and hollow. It has glimmers of fun but it can’t hold onto these glimmers because the action doesn’t change. It gets bigger and more chaotic, yes, but it doesn’t develop with organic complications and real attention to setting. These big battles could happen anywhere because they almost all descend into simply fighting amidst rubble. Even Iron Man 3 found ways to spice up its action set pieces through complications, limitations, and clear differentiation. Perhaps this is a larger outcry of fatigue with the overall state of CGI overkill in effects-driven films. The concluding fight versus Ultron and his many copies just feels like the same scene on repeat but in slightly different locations. Whedon has shown an affinity to coordinate exciting and satisfying action sequences, but you just feel like the pressure and demands get the better of him.

However, every moment with Ultron onscreen is a highpoint because of the malicious cattiness of Spader (TV’s The Blacklist). He’s a perfect fit for a character who is at turns childish and petty, bonkers, and condescending. In some ways he’s like a giant robotic teenager who thinks he’s just above the rest of these so-called adults. It’s such an enjoyable villain, an area of real need in most MCU films (Loki can’t be everywhere for every movie), that I wanted more and more of him. My friend and critical colleague Ben Bailey describes Ultron as the villainous alternative Tony Stark, and Whedon does a fine job of laying out the parallels, especially with regards to ego. It’s a weird reunion for the stars of 1987’s Less Than Zero.

The most boring characters, i.e. the humans, are the ones that get the biggest expansion for character development, with mixed results. Let’s face it, Hawkeye is never going to be anyone’s favorite Avenger. I think even he acknowledges this in a moment that almost breaks down the fourth wall (“None of this makes sense. I’m fighting with a bow and arrow.”). Hawkeye’s personal life is given a spotlight and it sets up an obvious worry that he’s going to bite it by film’s end. If there was an expendable member of this team, it would have to be Hawkeye. The added attention and personal attachments seem like a dead giveaway that he’s going to be dead. I don’t think I was any more invested in his character knowing about his hidden life outside the Avengers, but I certainly played a game of, “Is this gonna be it?” as the film continued. Black Widow started as an interesting character, a spy trying to make amends for her bloody past, or the “red in [her] ledger,” as they referred in the previous film. Her budding romance with Banner makes some sense but it still feels like the character is being forced into Romantic mode not because of her character but mostly because she has a vagina. Any romance with a guy who turns green and monstrous seems like it might be best as unrequited. She’s also defined by a past trauma that, while upsetting and cruel, is also a bit too tied into her identity as Woman/Mother. It’s an unfortunate positioning for what is an inherently interesting character (the slut shaming of the character in promotional interviews by certain Avengers cast members is also highly unfortunate). Can’t we get a Black Widow movie yet, Marvel?

The-Avengers-Age-of-Ultron-645x370An aspect of Age of Ultron I did enjoy was how conscious the heroes are about mitigating collateral damage and especially human casualties. At every turn, the Avengers are thinking about saving those caught in the cross-hairs first. They go out of their way to save those left behind. I think, and I’m not alone in this conclusion, that Whedon is directly responding to the disaster porn that was Zack Snyder’s miserly Man of Steel. The latest Superman movie bothered me with how callous it was with human life, treating devastating city-wide 9/11-style destruction as mere entertainment. As Superman and Zod were colliding through every damn building in Metropolis, you knew thousands if not millions of unseen people were perishing in this rather pointless melee. Whedon’s band of heroes places a priority on human life regardless of region.

It would be disingenuous of me to say Age of Ultron is not entertaining. Whedon is still a terrific storyteller and that still shines through the troubled areas and spotty plotting. The action makes good use of the various heroes and their abilities, providing fun combos like Cap hurling his super shield so Thor can redirect it further with his hammer. The use of humor was one of the bigger enjoyments of the first Avengers, and while it’s still abundant and enjoyable here as well I’d say it’s overdone. When every character is cracking quips every fourth line of dialogue, it pulls you out of the movie and the stakes feel lesser. The running joke where the Avengers make fun of Captain America for his prudish sensibilities on profanity is a joke that works at first but then loses all sense of fun as it’s pounded into the ground on repetition. The larger set pieces each have their moments to delight, especially the opening and the Hulk vs. Iron Man battle. Age of Ultron isn’t a bad movie and it has some truly great moments and great character moments and payoffs, but it’s only moments. The plot meant to connect the dots is too labored with the burden of setting up several Marvel franchises. In the MCU pecking order, I’d place Age of Ultron right around Iron Man 2 quality (another movie compromised by the extra burden of setting up other movies, namely The Avengers).

It’s sure to set box-office records and I imagine fans of the original will happily lap up another super team-up, but Avengers: Age of Ultron is something of a disappointment for me. The more I think about it the fun parts become a little duller and I find more areas of criticism. It’s just not as fun a movie experience, and that’s due to the rushed and muddled story and too many characters. After the critical and commercial success of the first film, I doubt that Whedon could have produced a film that would live up to the sky-high expectations, but that doesn’t excuse the finished product. It feels like Whedon had to struggle to pull this one off, especially with the added demands, and I can’t blame him for wanting a break from the MCU. The Russo brothers who so dazzled audiences with their direction of Captain America: The Winter Soldier will be stepping in to direct the next Avengers sequel(s). I hope they’re up to the task because the burden of carrying a billion-dollar franchise with its tendrils connected to other franchises appears to have been overwhelming for one of the greatest storytellers of a generation. Enjoy Age of Ultron but be wary of what the future holds for the larger MCU.

Nate’s Grade: B-

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