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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

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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-

Lucy (2014)

lucy-scarlett-johansson-posterIf you’re looking for one of the more fun summer movies that have no intention of taking itself seriously at all, might I suggest Lucy, which is one part superhero origin tale and one part wonky French existential drama. It starts off quickly, with the titular character being forced into a being a drug mule. The substance breaks in her bloodstream and the concoction transforms her from meek to a kickass vigilante of science. Lucy can now access far more of her brain’s potential, not just that meager 10 percent we plebs utilize, and who knew that we could all be superheroes if we really put our minds to it? Despite the presence of Morgan Freeman as really a talking head to let us know about the potential of the human brain, none of this really makes any sense, and thankfully the movie doesn’t pretend that it should. Lucy literally gains a new superpower every time we see her, from telekinesis to manipulating radio waves to eventual manipulation of matter and time travel. Yeah, it gets weird, but thankfully it’s also relatively entertaining, funny, fun, and short and sweet at a briskly efficient 90 minutes. The plot doesn’t exactly feel fully developed, more a gallop between events as we charge up the percentages from 10 to 20 to 30 percent, and so on. The criminals don’t seem like much of a threat despite their numbers. I’m shocked nobody assessed what happened to Lucy and said, “Hey, maybe I should ingest this drug into my bloodstream and become a super powerful being too.” While the action is well orchestrated, there is less of it than advertised, as Lucy spends a good amount of time adjusting to her new self-actualized human superiority, played by a detached yet amusing Johansson. I can’t even explain the bonkers ending except to note that maybe there’s a very good reason why human beings were not capable of using a maximum percentage of their brain’s capacity. It doesn’t make much sense but it’s pretty, entertaining with its messiness, and short enough not to waste your precious time.

Nate’s Grade: B

Chef (2014)

chef-posterChef must have been something of a needed break for its star, writer, and director, Jon Favreau. He’s directed three large-scale Hollywood sci-fi mega movies in a row, a long way from Favrieau’s first big break, Swingers, which he wrote for himself. It was time for something a little smaller, quieter, and more personal, and Chef is just the ticket, a familiar but still greatly satisfying slice-of-life movie about a frustrated chef finding his mojo. Favreau plays a famous chef who cracks under the pressure of delivering the same safe food day in and day out. He loses his job after an increasingly hostile Twitter war with a food critic who calls him out for his safety in blandness. This pushes Favreau out of his comfort zone; he starts an independent food truck, bonds with his son, and generally begins to embrace his new invigorating freedom. Don’t see this movie on an empty stomach because it will be torture. The food preparation shots are tantalizing as are the general discussions over the adoration of food, the heavenly feel of a good meal (an aspect that’s even utilized as foreplay in the film). The entire film is stoked by a laid back charm, an amiable camaraderie between Favreau and his cast, so much so that we don’t care when the film sort of stalls. It’s a far lengthier period between Favreau losing job and getting the food truck than necessary, and the ending is abrupt with an almost absurd amount of resolution tie-ups crammed together without additional progression. The characters are likeable enough, funny, and their passions have a way of enveloping the audience, so much so that a fairly predictable plot is excusable. Chef is a lovely little palate cleanser at the start of the summer movie season and an enjoyable excursion. Just fill up before seeing it or else.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

Capt2-Payoff-1-Sht-v8-Lg-c563dA welcome addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the second Captain America film brings the square superhero to our modern-day and presents a complicated national setting where the enemy is the U.S government. The challenge with a Captain America (played by Chris Evans) movie is just how outdated his whole sensibility seems, an irony-free nationalistic hero. Smartly, the filmmakers have pushed his loyalties to the test, and the movie transforms into something along the lines of a Jason Bourne thriller, where the government is hunting down a rogue fugitive. It’s certainly the most timely superhero film since 2008’s The Dark Knight, and the political commentary on the NSA spying and drones is a welcome big screen subversion. But the action is still what people come for and in that the Winter Soldier is quite an entertaining movie. Directed by the Russo brothers, known mostly for their comedy work in TV like Community, the movie packs quite a punch with a variety of action/thriller sequences, each well staged and well developed. My favorite might be Nick Fury under assault and desperate to escape in his car from overwhelming enemy forces. An opening sequence rescuing hostages on a boat serves as a great reminder why Captain America is indeed so super. The movie does have some issues but nothing so large as to derail the enjoyment. First off the villain is way too obvious, but also the movie lets the U.S. government off the hook, falling back on a select evil group that has been undercover perverting the government. Secondly, the Winter Soldier of the title is one plotline that doesn’t feel needed or well integrated. It’s another super soldier for Cap to combat and this guy has a mysterious link to our hero. It feels like one plotline too many, a story that deserves better attention on its own. Still, Captain America: The Winter Soldier is an engaging, thrilling, intelligent, and altogether entertaining addition into Marvel’s sprawling cinematic canvas.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Her (2013)

herIt’s been several years for Spike Jonze since he escaped the turmoil around Where the Wild Things Are, an ambitious adaptation that ran afoul with studio execs over the oppressively sad tone (I agreed with the execs). He’s one of the most stylish visual directors working today, but Her is something very different for the man. For starters, it’s a film Jonze wrote himself; no collaboration with Charlie Kaufman this time. It’s also a pared down love story, focusing heavily on two characters and their exciting and emerging union. There are no visual tricks, no gimmicks, no overt special effects, nothing to distract from the central relationship commanding the screen. It’s a different kind of film from Jonze but one that’s just as brilliantly well made as his best. Her is a beguiling winner.

Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) is a man struggling to get his life back together. He’s a star at his job where he writes other people’s personal letters for them, but he’s a sensitive soul still refusing to sign the divorce papers from his ex-wife, Catherine (Rooney Mara). He doesn’t want to lose that part of his life. After watching an ad, Theodore buys a new computer operating system (OS) that promises to be the most lifelike possible. He pops the software onto his computer and, voila, the voice of Samantha (Scarlett Johansson) emerges, chipper, helpful, and compassionate. Theodore is a new man with her assistance, and soon they grow even closer together on a romantic scale. Theodore and Samantha embark on the greta unknown together, but can a relationship work when it’s with a voice in your computer.

112189_galIt’s been weeks since I first watched Her and I keep thinking back upon it, turning it over in my mind, finding more and more to like about this captivating little movie. It’s a tenderhearted and poignant movie that also manages to have something to say about human connection. And this really is a love story, and an engrossing one at that, despite the fact that it’s man and machine. The romance between Samantha and Theodore is never looked down upon, marginalized, the setup to some punch line about how nerd can’t get dates with real women. You think the film might go there, and then Theodore’s co-workers just shrug when the truth comes out and treat his relationship like any other. I suppose you could make all sorts of analogues, but they are unnecessary because Samantha truly feels like another person. She’s given complexity, curiosity, impulses, and, yes, as voiced by the husky-voiced Johansson, an alluring edge. Because she’s a disembodied voice minus form, theirs is a relationship built upon intellect, conversation, personality, and a burgeoning connection, though they do cover the sex part as well. In fact, the climactic (pardon the pun) vocal exploration is simultaneously awkward, funny, heartfelt, and yes, even a little sexy, and the music crescendos to give it even more oomph. Samantha is learning just as much about herself as Theodore is. Their relationship is opening both of them up to the possibilities they might never have sought. In that respect, Jonze’s film falls under that sweet spell all engaging romances achieve where our spirits are lifted and we swoon along with the onscreen coupling.

I’ve found it tricky to talk about Her at least in describing the premise to other people; comparing Samantha to Siri has helped rather than just referring to her as an “operating system.” One concern I had was that Jonze was just going to deliver the premise in a very expected manner and Her would serve up more of the same. But he doesn’t. While this is a light science fiction film, it is extremely well developed and thought out. Jonze has taken remarkable care to flesh out his story and enrich the not too distant future world. It felt like a world that could reasonably exist. I enjoyed the fact that there were so-called surrogates for hire, people that would serve as the physical embodiments of the OS personalities, providing a different kind of encounter, one meant to converge intimacy with touch. I could see these people existing if this were the future. Even better, Jonze takes great care to develop the central relationship between his lovers, so that every unique complication is given some form of respectful coverage. They discuss the limitations but not just what you would assume. Yes Samantha has no body, but she can also be in many places at once, doing many things at once, and simply will outlive all her carbon-based life form companions. Can they make this last? Even with the technological component, old problems can rear their head, particularly jealousy, like when Samantha begins communicating with other OS personalities. Then there’s Theodore’s lingering divorce with his wife, a woman who can stir up old feelings and doubts. Without giving too much away, the end manages to be hopeful, melancholy, expected, and satisfying.

112187_galJonze also manages to slide in some subtle jabs about the state of communication and connection. There’s an early shot where Theodore is riding a train and everyone on board appears to be talking except that they’re all talking to their OS, each person an isolated unit. Theodore’s job also seems like a perfect social commentary as well as a clever conceit for a man who has unsurpassed skill with words but difficulty with the flesh-and-blood interaction. It works directly with the theme of the film. I also find it humorous, and a bit subversive, that Theodore has long-standing relationships with clients. He’s been writing letters for certain couples for years going all the way back to their first meeting. Think about that, this couple’s communication and courtship rest upon the words of an intermediary paid for his services. These people could go their entire lives thinking their partner is the author of such wonderful, heartfelt, observant words. That’s the dearth of honest communication plaguing human relationships, but it’s not a new problem. We’ve all ducked hard conversations. Many of us would love to have someone come in and do the dirty work while we sit back and reap the rewards. But a relationship built upon deceit or convenience will ultimately fall apart, or, in this new age of technological isolation and greater deception, will it?

Jonze’s direction seems invisible, like we’re dropping in on these characters and peaking on their lives. The overall technical aesthetic of Her is a clean, simplified look and feel for a love story that manages to be new and familiar. The production design has an eye-catching degree of colors, which bathe the film in a consistently dreamy, gauzy aura, echoing the screenplay’s warm heart. The score by the Canadian alternative band Arcade Fire is low-key but just as vulnerable, resonant, and special as the characters in the film. It’s mostly pared down piano trinkles but the reoccurring motifs stick in your head, elevating Jonze’s film. When Samantha takes up composing songs to express her sum total feelings of a moment, capturing a snapshot of a particular time as she refers, it’s nice to have talented musicians able to bring this to life.

Phoneix (The Master) gives such a tender, vulnerable performance that you worry that he’s going to be crushed by life. He has this remarkable way of making you want to hug Theodore, like he’s this sad puppy that just needs a good home. There are moments in the film where just one perfectly executed crinkly-eyed crooked smile tells me everything about this character. Phoenix plays his character as a good-hearted, amiable, and deeply romantic individual, and the sheer strength of his performance will knock you back. Theodore has such great pools of empathy, and a poet’s soul, which allows him to excel at his job but it also makes relationships hard. A relationship takes work, and Theodore may have not been up to the labor, as his ex-wife argues. Personally, I found a lot of striking points of similarity with the character and I think others will as well. Who hasn’t, in a moment of dark-clouded funk, wondered if they’ve reached the apex of their emotional experiences, that everything will somehow be lesser variations? Who hasn’t feared that they somehow tapped out on their ability to love as powerfully as before? As Theodore is picking up the pieces of his life, trying to determine his new sense of self, we’re learning alongside him exactly how Samantha is changing him.

112182_galBefore this movie, I would have said a Johansson (Don Jon) performance minus her body would be a travesty, but damn if she doesn’t give a performance that is worthy of the Oscar buzz. It’s easy to understand why Theodore falls for Samantha, and you will too. Johansson has never been this winsome and loveable but she’s far more than some idealized Super Girlfriend to be placed precariously on a pedestal. She’s learning too, making choices, some of them bad, and exploring the consequences. The depth of emotion she’s able to convey with a character only heard audibly is impressive. Samantha is a fully formed character that wants to be treated as such, and Johansson give her all the shadings of a living being. She’s inquisitive, funny, curious, but also eerily human in her mannerisms, like when she uses short breaths when feeling awkward even though she has no use for breath, obviously. Johansson is so easily sultry, voice included, but Samantha is not relegated to some high-tech toy, some quirky sexual fantasy. She feels real, which is why their relationship feels genuine and so moving and charming.

Who knew the most affecting love story of 2013 would involve a man and his computer? Her is an insightful, touching, and rewarding movie that hits you on many levels, satisfying all of them. It’s a smart film that explores the various complications of its premise while widening its scope further, it’s heartfelt and humble as it approaches relatable matters of love and loss and feeling adrift, it’s sweetly romantic while at the same time being tethered to reality, finding a perfect balance, and at its core it’s the tale of two people, one human and one mechanical, that find happiness in one another. People will likely pick the movie apart to search for personal messages from Jonze about his own divorce from filmmaker Sofia Coppola in 2003. Maybe that stuff is buried in there, but Jonze has crafted something far more applicable and enjoyable. Her is an openly romantic film that doesn’t shortchange heartache, and it posits that love is love no matter whom it’s directed at. Her is an extraordinary sort of movie and one I plan on revisiting again. Give this unconventional romance a chance and you may be delightfully surprised.

Nate’s Grade: A

Don Jon (2013)

don_jonJoseph Gordon-Levitt, one of the most talented and, yeah I’ll say it, dreamy young actors working today is proving to be more than a pretty face. Don Jon is his assured writing and directing debut, and it shows that every man has one more reason to feel insecure compared to Gordon-Levitt. The titular Jon (Gordon-Levitt) is a New Jersey lothario who sleeps with lots of women but the real thing just can’t measure up to his porn. The schism between reality and sexual fantasy is too much. Jon tries to reform his porn-addiction ways when he meets a hot lady (Scarlett Johansson) but old habits are hard to break, especially when he has to wait before sleeping with a woman. The narrative isn’t terribly deep or that developed but remains entertaining throughout, buoyed by feisty performances and stylish direction. The editing, sound design choices, and smooth camerawork made me feel like I was watching a promising Scorsese student. I found Don Jon to be a far more successful look at sex addiction than the recent sex addict drama, Thanks for Sharing. The parallel between porn and Hollywood rom-coms, both an inflated fantasy of relationships, doesn’t really stick, and Jon’s family is a bunch of loud Italian stereotypes, but the lead guy is a self-possessed lunkhead anyway, so it makes sense for his family to follow suit. Don Jon is funny, sexy, and an enjoyable diversion at the movies. What it really does, though, is provide the first notch in what may prove to be an exciting directorial career for its star.

Nate’s Grade: B

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