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Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

It’s hard to draw comparisons to the major commitment to long-form storytelling that the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has dabbled with over the course of ten record-shattering years of success. I can think of movie franchises that have been popular over long periods of time, like James Bond, but rarely do they keep to continuity. It’s been 18 movies and ten years since the caddish Robert Downey Jr. first stole our hearts in the original Iron Man, and its stable of heroes and villains has grown exponentially. Looking at the poster for Avengers: Infinity War, it’s hard to believe there’s even enough space just for all of the actors’ names. Infinity War feels like a massive, culminating years-in-the-making film event and it reminded me most of Peter Jackson’s concluding Lord of the Rings chapter, Return of the King. After so long, we’re privy to several separate story threads finally being braided as one and several dispirit characters finally coming together. This is a blockbuster a full decade in the making and it tends to feel overloaded and burdened with the responsibility of being everything to everyone. It’s an epic, entertaining, and enjoyable movie, but Infinity War can also leave you hanging.

Thanos (Josh Brolin) has finally come to collect the six infinity stones stashed around the universe. With their power, he will be able to achieve his ultimate goal of wiping out half of all life in the universe. Standing in his murderous way is a divided Avengers squad, with Tony Stark (Downey Jr.) still on the outs with a wanted-at-large Captain America (Chris Evans) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson). One of the in-demand infinity stones resides in the head of the Vision (Paul Bettany), who is in hiding with his romantic partner, Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen). They know Thanos will be coming for Vision eventually. On the other side are the Guardians of the Galaxy who have a few personal scores to settle with Thanos, the adopted father of Gomora (Zoe Saldana) and Nebula (Karen Gillan). Elsewhere, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) strikes out looking for the key to defeating the big purple menace. Thanos’ loyal lieutenants attack Earth to gather the remaining infinity stones, drawing the attention and push-back of Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Peter Parker (Tom Holland). The various heroes of Earth and space unite to eliminate the greatest threat the universe has ever known.

Avengers: Infinity War serves not as much a series of payoffs as it is climaxes, with climactic event right after another, and this time it’s for keeps (more on that below). There are moments that feel like major payoffs and moments that feel like shrug-worthy Last Jedi-style payoffs. Infinity War is the longest MCU movie yet at 149 minutes but it has no downtime. That’s because it has to find room for dozens of heroes across the cosmos. With the exception of three super heroes, everyone is in this movie, and I mean everyone. This is an overstuffed buffet of comic book spectacle, and whether it feels like overindulgence will be determined by the viewer’s prior investment with this cinematic universe. If this is your first trip to the MCU, I’d advise holding off until later. Any newcomer will be very lost. I’ve deduced the seven MCU movies that are the most essential to see to successfully comprehend the totality of the Infinity War dramatics, and they are Iron Man, The Avengers, Captain America: Winter Soldier, Guardians of the Galaxy, Captain America: Civil War, Doctor Strange, and Thor: Ragnarok. Naturally, being intimately familiar with the previous 18 movies will be best, but if you don’t have thirty hours to spare then please follow my seven-film lineup and you’ll be solid.

As far as the stakes, the MCU has been notoriously reluctant about killing off its characters, but Infinity War is completely different. I won’t spoil circumstances or names, of course, but the march of death happens shockingly early and carries on throughout. There are significant losses that will make fans equally gasp and cry. This is a summer blockbuster that leaves behind an impressive body count across the known universe and ends in a downbeat manner that will naturally trigger reflexive Empire Strikes Back comparisons. It’s hard to feel the full impact of the drastic decisions, and the grief over their losses because I know there is a Part Two coming summer 2019, and with that comes the almost certainty that several important events will be diminished or straight-out reversed. After all, in comics, nobody is ever really dead, though with movies the heroes have the nagging habit of aging. With that said, you better believe I was holding my breath during some standoffs, tearing up at some sudden goodbyes, and reflecting upon journeys shared.

This is very much Thanos’ movie, which was one of the bigger surprises for me. Beforehand, our exposure to the big purple guy has been relatively minor, a brief moment here or a cameo there during a post-credit scene. Considering Thanos is supposed to be the universe’s biggest bad, it makes sense to finally give him his due, and that is what Infinity War does. Thanos gets the most screen time of any character and is given an honest-to-God character arc. He’s a villain who goes on an actual emotional journey as he follows a path that he feels compelled to even as it tests him personally. He finally opens up as a character rather than some malevolent force that is oft referred to in apocalyptic terms. We get his back-story and motivation, which is less a romantic appeal to Death like in the comics and more a prevention of the apocalypse reminiscent of the Reapers in the Mass Effect series. Thanos sees himself as a necessary corrective force and not as a villain. He’s never portrayed in a maniacal, gleeful sense of wickedness. Instead he seems to carry the heaviness of his mission and looks at the Avengers and other heroes sympathetically. He understands their struggle and defiance. Having an actor the caliber of Brolin (Deadpool 2) is a necessity to make this character work and effectively sell the emotions. Thanos is the most significant addition to the MCU appearing the latest, so there’s a lot of heavy lifting to do, and Infinity War fleshes him out as a worthy foe.

As an action spectacle, however, Infinity War is good but not great. The action sequences are interesting enough but there’s nothing special and little development. There’s nothing that rivals the delirious nerdgasm of the airport battle in Civil War pitting hero-against-hero to dizzying degree. The characters are separated into units with their own goals leading to a final confrontation that feels more climactic conceptually than in execution. That’s because this is an Avengers film that falls into some of the trappings of the glut of super hero cinema, namely the army of faceless foot soldiers for easy slaughtering, the over exaggerated sense of scale of battle, the apocalyptic stakes that can feel a bit like a bell rung too many times, and even minor things like the lackluster supporting villains. Thanos’ team of lieutenants are all the same kind of sneering heavy with the exception of one, a sort of alien cleric heralding the honor of death from Thanos. Carrie Coon (HBO’s The Leftovers) is generally wasted providing the mo-cap for the Lady Lieutenant That Sounds Like a Band Fronted by Jared Leto, a.k.a. Proxima Midnight. There are far too many scenes where characters reluctantly strike a deal to give up an infinity stone if Thanos will spare the life of a beloved comrade. The film’s greatest point of entertainment isn’t with its action but the character dynamics. The fun is watching years-in-the-making character interactions and seeing the sparks fly. There’s more joy in watching Downey Jr. and Cumberbatch try and out smarm one another than with any CGI collision of a faceless army of monsters. There are so many characters that few are given fully defined arcs. Most are given beginnings and stopping places. Though the eventual sequel will have fewer characters needing to share precious screen time.

The standouts on screen are Hemsworth (12 Strong) carrying a large portion of the movie and not missing a beat of his well-honed comic rhythms from Ragnarok, Bettany (Solo) brings a sad soulfulness to Vision as a man who knows fate is likely unavoidable, and Dave Bautista (Blade Runner 2049) is perfectly deadpan as Drax and has the funniest lines in the movie followed closely by the exuberant Holland (Lost City of Z). To even say which characters deal with more complex emotions might be a spoiler in itself but there are several actors showing an emotive level unseen so far in the bustling MCU.

Avengers: Infinity War marks a significant concluding chapter for one of cinema’s most popular series, until at least the next movie possibly makes it feel less conclusive. I pity Marvel because expectations are going to be astronomical for this climactic showdown. There are so many characters, so many crossovers, and so much to still establish, like Thanos as a character more than a spooky force of annihilation, that it feels rather breathless even at nearly two-and-a-half hours. You may be feeling a rush of exhilaration on your way out or an equally compelling sense of exhaustion. Infinity War doesn’t have the imaginative highs of a Dcotor Strange, the funky personality and style of a Guardians of the Galaxy, the wonderfully thought-out structure of a Spider-Man: Homecoming, the adroit weirdness of a Thor: Ragnarok, or even the hero-against-hero catharsis of a Civil War (still my favorite). What it does have is a sense of long-gestating finality, of real stakes and dire consequences. It’s not all pervading doom and gloom; this is still a fun movie, buoyed by crackling character team-ups and interactions. While, Infinity War won’t be all things to all people, myself included, it will please many fans, casual and diehard alike.

Nate’s Grade: B

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Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2 (2017)

If Marvel was ever going to have a dud in its near historic run of blockbuster success, it should have been Guardians of the Galaxy, a movie that asked audiences to care about a talking raccoon and a tree creature who could only say three words. And yet that movie had me in tears by the end, and I was not alone. Writer/director James Gunn (Slither, Super) graduated from Troma to demented indie films to the Big Time with studio tentpoles. A sequel was fast-tracked and is definitely one of the most highly anticipated films of 2017 not named Star Wars. Can Gunn still deliver fans what they want without falling into the morass that is fan service, a sticky trap that can sap big-budget sequels of differentiation and make them feel more like product?

Set mere months after the events of the first film, the Guardians are enjoying their newfound celebrity and taking lucrative for-hire jobs. Star-Lord a.k.a. Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) and Gamora (Zoe Saldana) are still going through their will-they-won’t-they sexual tension. Gamora’s sister Nebula (Karen Gillan) is still looking to gain the upper hand. Baby Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) is growing up and still cute. Drax (Dave Bautista) is still mourning his family and trying to better fit in. And Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) is still making rebellious, self-destructive decisions, like stealing valuables from The Sovereign, a race of genetically bred golden snobs. The leader of the Sovereign, Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki, looking good in gold), declares a bounty on the Guardians for their disrespect. The Ravagers are hired to collect the Guardians, though Captain Yondu (Michael Rooker) is hesitant to go after his surrogate son, Peter. Complicating matters further is the arrival of Ego (Kurt Russell), a mystifying man who happens to also be a living planet and Peter’s biological father.

Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2 is highly enjoyable with great moments, great action, and great characters but I was left feeling like it was a step or two behind the original and I’ve been trying to articulate just why that is. I thought perhaps it was better to be upfront. I think it all stems from the fact that it’s not as fresh the second time, it doesn’t quite have the same blast of attitude and personality to disarm and take you by surprise, and I’ll admit part of this is just due to the fact that it’s a sequel to a hugely popular movie. However, also because of this there are now a set of expectations that Gunn is leaning towards because audiences now have acute demands.

We have an idea of what a Guardians of the Galaxy movie can provide, and from those demands spur creative decisions that don’t fully feel as integrated this go-round as they did in the first film. It feels like Gunn is trying to also work within a box he’s created for himself, and for the most part he succeeds admirably, but it still feels slightly lesser. The standout musical moment occurs during an opening credits that involve an action sequence from a Baby Groot-eyed point of view. As the Guardians are flying and falling to destroy a ferocious alien blob in the background, Groot is strutting and dancing to “Mr. Blue Sky” by ELO. It’s a moment of unrestrained pleasure and it also undercuts action movie conventions by having a majority of the events obscured or implied. It’s the moment that feels the most like that electric feeling of discovery from the first film. There are also 80s pop-culture references and cameos and some off-kilter comedy again. Much of it is fun, especially one cameo in particular as it relates to Peter’s father, but they also have the noticeable feel of boxes to be checked, expected items that now must be incorporated in what a Guardians of the Galaxy feature should be. Expectations can lead to fan service and then that leads to less chances and originality. Hey, I loved the 2014 original and consider it my favorite Marvel movie so I don’t want them to simply chuck out everything that worked just for something one hundred percent different. You want what you loved but you don’t want it exactly the same, which is the creative bind. Gunn leans into what the audience wants and I can’t fault him too hard. It’s still a really good film.

What Guardians vol. 2 does best is remind you why you love these characters. It even elevates a group of supporting players from the first movie into characters you genuinely care about, chiefly Nebula and Yondu. Both of these characters were slightly defanged antagonists in the first film, problems but problems you didn’t want to see go away. Yondu gets the biggest boost thanks to the thematic bridge of Peter’s search for his father. The notorious leader of the Ravagers has a definite soft spot for the scrappy human and it’s finally come to a head with his tempestuous crew. They mutiny on Yondu and declare him to be an unfit leader, unable to do what is necessary. This direction allows for a lot of introspection for a character that was essentially just Michael Rooker in blue paint. He has a history to him and he makes a moral deviation from his expected path, one that bears ongoing consequences. He’s Peter’s real surrogate father, and his acceptance of this reality brings a snarling secondary antagonist into the realm of a full-blown character that earns our empathy (a Mary Poppins joke also had me in stitches).

The same can be said for Nebula, who is working out some serious daddy issues. She is the stepsister to Gamora and holds quite a grudge against her green sibling. It seems that their father, Thanos, would constantly pit them against one another, and Nebula would always lose, and with each loss came a painful consequence. It’s the kind of back-story that’s given more time to breathe and develop. It opens up an antagonist into another person who is dealing with trauma and pain and who doesn’t play well with others, which seems as good a job description to join the Guardians as anything. Nebula has a fearsome sense of competition with her sister, and that parlays into some fun over-the-top action sequences. When the movie allows the two women to talk, as surviving sisters of rather than enemies, is where Nebula comes into her own.

Gunn makes sure there’s a grounded and emotional core to his characters, which makes these appealing underdogs and antiheroes ever easier to root for. Guardians vol. 2 doesn’t really move the overall plot forward too much but it does explore the relationships and their personal lives with greater depth and clarity. The characters are spread out into smaller pairings for a majority of the extended second act, which allows interesting connections and developments due to the personalities. Drax is paired with Ego’s assistant/pet Mantis (Pom Klementieff) and it’s an instantly winning couple, a man who only speaks literally and a woman who is able to channel the feelings of strangers through touch. They’re both relied upon for the greatest amount of comic relief and they routinely deliver. Klementieff (Old Boy) is a wide-eyed delight. Rocket and Yondu being stuck together allows for both to come to realizations that feel organic though also too fated by Gunn’s hand. Their general disregard for decorum leads to some great action sequences. Gamora and Nebula are working through their family issues and it makes both more interesting. When they come to a form of resolution it still feels awkward but earnest and right. But the biggest personal exploration is Peter and his own lingering space daddy issues.

Another fantastic addition to the movie was the character of Ego because of the wonderfully charming Russell (The Hateful Eight) and also because of what the character allows for. The very fact that Ego is a millions-year-old living planet is a clever curveball for the Peter Quill “who’s your daddy?” mystery sweepstakes. It also opens all sorts of intriguing questions that the second act wades through, like the exact mechanics of how Ego exists, projects a Russell-looking avatar, and what is his ultimate purpose. I’m going to steer away from spoilers but fans of the comic will already have suspicions where this whole father/son reconciliation may lead, and you won’t be disappointed. Russell radiates paternal warmth and it goes a ways to cover up the purposeful obfuscation of the character. Because Gunn has to hold back on certain revelations, some of them gasp-worthy, he can’t open up the father/son dynamic too fast or too unambiguous. As a result, the latent bonding relies upon more familiar touchstones, like throwing the ball out back with your pops or sharing a love of music. Russell makes even the most ridiculous thing sound reasonable, which is important considering we’re talking about a planet boning ladies.

Gunn also takes several steps forward as a visual filmmaker with the sequel. He has a great feel for visual comedy and how to undercut the more boilerplate heroic moments in other superhero fair. He fills his screen with crazy, bight, psychedelic colors and has a Tarantino-esque instinct for marrying film with the right song. The sequel doesn’t have as many iconic moments set to music but it will play most agreeably. The special effects are pretty terrific all around but I appreciate that Gunn doesn’t allow the movie to feel overwhelmed by them, which is important considering there are fundamentally CGI-only characters. Gunn’s action sequences, chases, escapes, and breakouts are presented with plenty of dazzling style and witty attitude to spare without feeling obnoxious. The comedy is consistently funny and diverting. There’s a bit with the need for tape that just keeps going and actually becomes funnier the longer it goes, undercutting the end-of-the-universe stakes with the search for something as mundane as tape. My screening was presented in 3D and I was worried about the film being set in space and being too dark. This is not the case at all, and while the 3D isn’t a high selling point like it was for Doctor Strange, it is a nice experience that doesn’t dilute Gunn’s gonzo color scheme. The level of thought put into his novelties can be staggering, like an end credits series of dancing clips that also manages to play upon a character note for Drax. Gunn manages to further comment on characterization even during the freaking end credits. The final showdown goes on a bit longer than necessary and is the only section of the movie that feels consumed by CGI spectacle, but the fact that only the end feels this way can be considered another small triumph of Gunn fighting through a corporate system.

Marvel knows what it’s doing to a molecular level. Almost ten years into their system, they know what works in their criss-crossing franchises and how to calibrate them for maximum audience satisfaction. At this point after Guardians, Ant-Man, and Doctor Strange, they’ve more than earned the benefit of the doubt no matter the premise. However, entrenched success has a way of calcifying audience expectations. Guardians of the Galaxy was so funky, so different, so anarchic, and so wildly enjoyable. It should only be expected that the things that made it different would now be folded into audience expectations. The misfits can only be misfits for so long. It may not be as brash and fun or memorable as the first edition but it does benefit from the strong rapport of its cast and the deeper characterization, tackling some serious subjects while still slow motion stepping to a murder montage set to the golden oldies of the 1970s. The movie matters not because of the action, or the funny one-liners, or the adorableness of Baby Groot. It’s because we genuinely love these oddball characters. The first one introduced them and brought them together, and the second film deepens their bonds and widens their scope of family. Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2 is a sequel that provides just about everything that fans should want. If it feels slightly lesser it’s probably just because it can’t be fresh twice, but Guardians vol. 2 still dances to its own beat and it’s still a beautiful thing.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Live by Night (2016)

live_by_night_xlgWith only three films, Ben Affleck has successfully reinvented himself as one of Hollywood’s most talented directors when it comes to adult crime thrillers. It’s not just his superb directing chops; the man also serves as producer, lead actor on most films as well as a screenwriter, and Affleck’s ability to write flawed yet deeply human characters within genre parameters has accomplished actors flocking to work for him. Beyond his 2012 film Argo winning Best Picture, Affleck has gotten three different actors supporting Oscar nominations (Amy Ryan, Jeremy Renner, Alan Arkin). He’s an actor’s director and a man who knows how to satisfy an audience hungry for authentic genre thrills and interesting characters. His latest film is an adaptation of Dennis Lehane’s novel and is Affleck’s most ambitious film yet and it’s gorgeously brought to life. There’s still plenty to like and entertainment to be had with his Prohibition era gangster flick Live by Night, but it’s also unquestionably Affleck’s weakest film yet as a major director.

23livebynight1-master768Joe Coughlin (Affleck) is a hardened WWI veteran who says he came back to Boston as an “outlaw” (he seems to turn up his nose at being called a “gangster”). Joe settles into an easy life of crime with the local Irish gang lead by Albert White (Robert Glenister). Unfortunately, Joe’s lover, Emma Gould (Sienna Miller), happens to be White’s main squeeze. Joe and Emma sneak around and carry on their relationship without proper discretion. Their secret is found out, Emma is dealt with, and Joe escapes with his life, serving a prison sentence and then enlisting in the Italian mob under local boss Maso Pescatore (Remo Girone). Joe is sent to Tampa to manage the rum-running business, starting his life over. The area is ripe for expansion and it isn’t long before Joe is making friends and enemies over his exploits. He falls in love with Graciella (Zoe Saldana), a fellow criminal with a working operation of Hispanic bootleggers. Joe warms to a local police chief (Chris Cooper) and his daughter, Loretta (Elle Fanning) a girl who experiences the darker side of vice and becomes a troublesome born-again leader. All the while Albert White has relocated to Miami, and the specter of vengeance looms just within reach.

It’s a Prohibition gangster flick and Affleck makes sure to check as many boxes as he can when it comes to audience expectations for a pulpy hardboiled action drama. The production design is aces and the cinematography by Robert Richardson (The Hateful Eight) is beautifully composed with its use of light, shadow, and framing. There are shots of violence that are exquisitely rendered so as to be their own art, like a man falling down a stairwell with a Tommy gun blasting above bathed in light. The production details are a sumptuous aspect that Affleck and his team put supreme effort into to better make their movie transporting. The action sequences have a genuine delight as they pop. A shootout throughout the grounds of a mob-owned hotel is an exciting climax that finds fun ways to provide genre thrills. The rise-and-fall structure of the story, mingled with a simple revenge motivation, is a suitable story vehicle for the audience to plug into. There are fun characters, fun moments, and sizzling action, all decorated in handsome period appropriate details. While Live by Night has its share of flaws, a dearth of entertainment is not one of them.

Tone and coherency end up being Affleck’s biggest obstacles he cannot overcome. It’s somewhat of a surprise considering his other directorial efforts brilliantly melded several genres while telling invigorating stories. I think the main fault is a screenplay trying to do too much when more streamlining was optimal. The specific goal that sets Joe in motion is a bit hazy and fails to provide a larger sense of direction for the arc of the tale. Affleck’s previous films were rock-solid in crafting overarching yet specific goals that propel the scenes onto a natural narrative trajectory. With Gone Baby Gone, it’s finding the missing girl. With The Town, it’s getting closer to a bank employee without having that relationship discovered by his cohorts. With Argo, it was rescuing the hostages. With Live by Night, it’s mostly getting vengeance against Albert White, though we don’t know how. In the meantime, we have episodic incidents failing to register connective tissue or at least a cause/effect relationship where it feels like a natural order of organic conflicts. The opening act in Boston that sets up Joe’s tragic love, jail time, and enmity with White could be removed entirely. I’d miss the thrilling 1920s car chase, which is also unique in that it’s the first period car chase I can think of that utilizes the mechanical limitations of the vehicles for extra tension, but it’s at best a moment of flash. Having the story pick up with Joe putting his life back together in sunny Florida would have been a cleaner entrance into this world for an audience. Once Joe ingratiates himself into this new world, the audience has to play another game of character introductions and assessing relationships and the balance of power. It feels a bit redundant after having our previous act pushed aside to reboot Joe’s world.

LIVE BY NIGHTIt feels like Affleck is trying to corral so many historical elements that he loses sight of the bigger picture. Joe’s criminal path seems comically easy at times as he builds a fledgling empire along the Floridian west coast. First it’s the law and then it’s the KKK and then it’s religious revivals that need to be dealt with. Each incident feels like a small vignette that observes the historical setting with an angle that will be perfunctorily dropped in short order. The conflicts and antagonists don’t feel sufficiently challenging and that lessens the intended suspense. When Joe is dealing with the KKK, it feels like he’s restraining himself out of politeness rather than a series of organic restrictions. The elements and tones don’t really seem to inform one another except in the most general sense, which leads to the film lacking suitable cohesion. It’s easy then for Affleck to overly rely on stock genre elements to provide much of the story arrangements.

The characters have difficulty escaping from the pulp trappings to emerge as three-dimensional figures. Graciela gets the worst of it, proving to be a capable bootlegging criminal in her own right who loses all sense of personality, agency, and import once she becomes romantically entwined with our hero. It’s as if she erased herself to better heal his broken heart. How kind of her. The religious revival element is ripe for further examination but it’s kept at a basic level. We’re never questioning the validity of Loretta’s conversion and sudden celebrity. Chris Cooper’s pragmatic lawman has the most potential as a man trying to keep his morals amidst the immoral. The character isn’t utilized in enough interesting ways that can also flesh out his dimensions, and his conclusion suffers from that absent development. The characters serve their purpose in a larger mechanical sense but they don’t feel like more recognizable human beings.

Affleck’s innate talent with actors reappears in a few choice moments, just enough to tantalize you with the promise of what Live by Night could have been. The standout moment for me is a sit-down between Joe and Loretta where she unburdens her self-doubts. This is a woman who has been preyed upon by others, had her hopes dashed, and is trying to reinvent herself as a religious leader, but even she doesn’t know if she believes that there’s a God. The scene is emotional, honest without being trite, and delivered pitch-perfect by Fanning (The Neon Demon). It’s the kind of scene that reminded me of The Town and Gone Baby Gone, how Affleck was deftly able to provide shading for his characters that opened them up. Miller (American Sniper) has immediate electricity to her performance and reminds you how good Affleck is at drawing out the best from his actors. British TV vet Glenister is so good as a villain that seems to relish being one that you wish he were in the movie more. He has a menace to him that draws you in closer. Maher (The Finest Hours) is a memorable cretin who you’ll be happy to be dealt with extreme prejudice. There isn’t a poor casting choice in the film (hey Clark Gregg, hey Anthony Michael Hall, hey Max Casella) except possibly one, and that’s Affleck himself. I know part of the reason he selects his directing efforts is the possibility of also tackling juicy acting roles, but this time he may not have been the best fit. He’s a little too calm, a little too smooth, a little too out of place for the period, and his director doesn’t push him far enough.

maxresdefaultA strange thing happened midway through, namely how politically relevant and vicariously enjoyable Live by Night feels specifically for the year 2017. It’s a movie largely sent in the 1920s with characters on the fringes of society, and yet I was able to make pertinent connections to our troubled times of today. After a contentious presidential election where many feel that insidious and hateful extremist elements are being normalized and emboldened, there is something remarkably enjoyable about watching a murder montage of Klansmen. The Tampa chapter of the KKK takes aim with Joe’s business that profit from fornicators, Catholics, and especially black and brown people. They’re trying to shake Joe down for majority ownership but they’re too stupid, blinded by their racist and xenophobic ignorance, to accept Joe’s generous offers, and so they can’t help but bring righteous fury upon their lot. There is something innumerably enjoyable about watching abusive bigots brought down to size with bloody justice. I could have seen an entire movie of Joe and crew tearing through the Florida chapters of the KKK and just cleaning out the rabble. This sequence whets the appetite for what comes later. Without going into specific spoilers, the climax of the movie involves the put-upon minorities rising up against their bosses who, like the Klan, felt they were too powerful, too indispensable, and too clever to be seriously threatened. In its own way, it’s like a dark crime actualization of the American Dream. Unpack that if you will.

Live By Night is Affleck losing the depth of his world to its surface-level genre pleasures and they are indeed a pleasure. This isn’t a bad movie by any measure, only one of slight disappointment because it had the markings and abilities to be much more than the finished product. The tonal inconsistency and storylines provide episodic interludes and enticing moments, whether in action or acting, but they don’t blend together to form a more compelling and impressive whole. It’s a gangster movie that provides the gangster genre trappings but loses sight of what makes the characters in these movies so compelling, the moral complications, shifting loyalties, the impossible positions, and enclosing danger. I don’t think you’ll sweat too much over whether the main character will come out on top, which somewhat hinders the intensity of the action. When your movie is more predicated on those genre thrills than character or story, that’s an even bigger hindrance. It’s a fun world worth visiting but it doesn’t have the staying power of Affleck’s better efforts.

Nate’s Grade: B

Star Trek Beyond (2016)

star-trek-beyond-poster-internationalWith J. J. Abrams’ departure from the franchise for the greener space pastures of Star Wars, there was a creative void to fill, and in stepped director Justin Lin (Fast and Furious series) and co-writer/star Simon Pegg, acclimating to the established new movie universe and providing a Trek movie that proves to be the most “recognizably Trek” in the series thus far. The crew of the Enterprise is stranded on an alien world after being attacked by a hive-like armada of ships. It’s a somewhat familiar formula, a distress call that ends up being a trap, from an unknown entity that is harboring vengeance against the Federation. This allows for several dispirit storylines to explore the surroundings but also the enjoyable character dynamics of the crew; the casting department hit the jackpot with this franchise, and it’s just satisfying to watch the actors deliver solid, satisfying character moments. The new character Jaylah (Kingmen’s blade-legged Sofia Boutella) is interesting, kickass, and a source of deadpan comedy conflicts with others. There’s a genuine sense of discovery that’s patiently paced, not so much the set-piece-every-ten-minutes of the Abrams films. Idris Elba (The Jungle Book) makes for an intimidating villain and I’m happy to report he doesn’t get lost under gobs of makeup. He becomes more Elba as it goes, and he’s given a credible motivation and back-story to explain his actions. The action is a bit less exciting than I was hoping for from Lin, whose special blend of crazy has been somewhat dampened as he adopts the house visual style of the franchise. Pegg and co-writer Doug Jung have steered the franchise into safer territory but also put the focus on the crew and their bonds, which is the secret weapon of Trek. You sense that Pegg and Jung are fans, and they even provide greater context and justification for the new Trek elements that drew earlier complaints, like the use of the Beastie Boys song which now becomes a fun moment of fist-pumping triumph. Star Trek Beyond (no colons necessary, apparently) doesn’t quite hit the same highs as the previous two films, but it’s a solid movie overall and might be the best movie for the most ardent fans of classic Trek. My last piece of advice: go into space construction in the future. The way they go through starships, you’ll always have a job.

Nate’s Grade: B

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

imagesWho would have guessed that a movie that featured a talking tree and an anthropomorphic raccoon would be one of the best films of the year and one of the top grossing films of the summer? At this point for audiences, the Marvel name can do no wrong, but really it’s the degree of latitude given to Guardians of the Galaxy, an admittedly weird movie with strange characters, that allows this unique film to shine. Attaching offbeat director James Gunn (Super, Slither) to be writer and director was a risk that paid off tremendously, as Guardians is the Marvel film most entrenched with the particular personality of its creative director. This is a gleefully imaginative film that enjoys wading deep into weirdness, dancing to its adventurous Star Wars throwback beat, always with its focus set on comedy but not at the expense of quality drama or character development. Really, the characters are the focus of this entry into the franchise, and Gunn and his actors do a bang-up job of gathering the team and getting you to care about each and every one of them. Each one of these characters has a goal, several payoffs, and each is given their proper attention. In an ordinary superhero film, the archetypes would be ironclad. With Guardians, the tough guy made of muscle can also be a source of unexpected comedy with his literal-minded speech patterns. With Guardians, the talking raccoon can also be an emotionally disturbed victim of genetic experimentation who doesn’t know how to play well with others. These are damaged characters and their formation of an unconventional family unit is deeply satisfying and rather touching. I have seen the film twice and gotten teary-eyed both times. The real star of the film is Chris Pratt (TV’s Parks and Recreation), and what a breakout role he is afforded; he’s like Han Solo’s more juvenile nephew. But like the others, the part is surprising in its depth, with a well of sadness and displacement he still hasn’t processed while he scavenges the galaxy. The plot can be a bit unwieldy at times but pays off better for repeat viewings. This is a world I want to spend far more time exploring and with these characters as my merry prankster guides. With a movie this action-packed, thoroughly entertaining, and gratifying, why come back to Earth?

Nate’s Grade: A

Out of the Furnace (2013)

Out-of-the-Furnace-PosterThe last time writer/director Scott Cooper looked at a rural, low-income, hand-to-mouth existence, he helped lead Jeff Bridges to Oscar gold with Crazy Heart. It would make sense then for Cooper’s follow-up, Out of the Furnace, to populate those same hills. It also makes sense why actors would flock to Cooper’s next project. It’s a film that strives to be a little of everything, a slow burn and artful revenge thriller, but ultimately will please few, the actors wasted here included.

In rural Pennsylvania, Russell Baze (Christian Bale) is a diligent steelworker who always has to be on the lookout for his younger brother, Rodney (Casey Affleck). Prone to impulsive decisions, Rodney routinely finds himself in debt to bad people. The situation magnifies when Russell is sent to prison for a few years due to a fatal car accident he was responsible for. When he leaves the penitentiary, life has only gotten worse. Russell’s ailing father passed away while he was locked up. His girlfriend, Lena (Zoe Saldana), has moved on with police chief Wesley Barnes (Forest Whitaker). Most distressing, Rodney has gone through four tours of Iraq and is deeply troubled. He’s fallen into old habits and gotten involved in an underground bare-knuckle fighting ring run by the ferocious Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson). Rodney runs afoul of Harlan and disappears, and Russell goes on the warpath for vengeance.

104854_galThe problem is that Out of the Furnace doesn’t do enough to separate itself from the pack. We get little insight into the hard lives of these men. Both brothers are haunted by guilt and trauma, squeezed by few economic opportunities, and feeling like life itself is trapping them in corners. However, their path is already predetermined. Russell is destined to stay on the narrow path of responsibility, suffering slings and arrows, but striving to do the right thing. We see this time and again. And Rodney is destined to make poor decisions, desperately getting in over his head and reaching out to all the wrong people. We see this time and again. Each part is solidly locked in, and so we wait because we know their exact trajectory. We know something bad will happen to Rodney and we know Russell will be driven to seek justice his own way. Likewise, Harlan is a scary psycho without complexity. He’s just a drug-addled, violent, scary dude, but he’s so one-note. Lena, once she briefly reunites with Russell, is completely absent in the film, as if her unrequited position is all she serves for our purposes. Cooper displayed a terrific ear for lived-in characters with Crazy Heart, and the details of this world feel honest, it’s just that there aren’t enough of them. The storyline is engraved with little variation, and Cooper doesn’t take full advantage of his great cast, relying upon familiar scenes and elements to establish his loosely drawn characters. We’ve seen these burnouts and lowlifes and dignified blue-collar workers all before. This is a film that wants to be challenging but too often seems to take the easy road.

The very plot structure also seems amiss. As stated above, the journey seems set in stone, so then when something bad does happen to Rodney, it feels overdue. Rodney doesn’t meet his ultimate bind until halfway through Act II, and then when the plot shifts to vengeance, it becomes an uncomplicated straight line. And a streamlined plot with little variation or surprise, with characters that are customary, can get boring. Once Russell is on the warpath, there is little complications or obstacles, or even moments to contemplate the full extent of his actions. And then the movie is done. Because the final act plays out exactly as you anticipate, the movie leaves you feeling anticlimactic. The payoff is unsatisfying. Plot reorganization would have benefited the Russell vs. Harlan storyline. Rather than draw out Rodney’s ultimate screw-up, which everyone is just waiting for from minute one, why not have his screw-up be the Act I break, coming around the half-hour mark rather than more than an hour into the film? That sets the story forward and provides enough space for Russell to work upwards toward Harlan as well as examine what kind of man he is becoming. As it plays out, Harlan is crazy but also easy to access despite the threats of what the rural hill people will do to visitors. If a revenge story was the method that was going to test Russell’s character and redemption, then we needed to get to this crossroads sooner, especially since everyone is waiting for it to happen.

104852_galThe power of the acting goes a decent way to compensate for the film’s unresolved investment. Bale (The Dark Knight Rises) internalizes most of his character’s emotions, always trying to hold back a swell of anger and guilt, to just keep going one day at a time. He delivers another strong performance as a man struggling to do the right thing. In this day and age, even a passable Bale performance is going to be above average. Affleck (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints) is a go-to actor when you have a desperate character that is clearly outmatched. His volatile performance is laced with sadness, as you understand how cursed Rodney feels, how the universe hands him bad break after bad break. Affleck tinges his hopelessness with a resigned weariness, as if he’s just seeking a final release. Harrelson (Now You See Me) stews villainously, erupting with extreme violence. He’s a scary guide helped by Harrelson’s flicker of madness he imbues the character with. It’s too bad he doesn’t do anything memorable outside the opening minute. Whitaker (Lee Dainels’ The Butler) probably gets the worst of it, and I think he knows it, which is why the actor adopts a gravely speaking voice that sounds like he has a frog in his throat. Beyond the fact that he’s linked with Russell’s old flame, there isn’t anything important to mention about the character, nor is there anything for Whitaker to do other than make limp threats about letting the police focus on Harlan.

Out of the Furnace is one of those movies that gets details right but loses sense of the big picture. Its blue collar, working class characters are given the right clothes, posture, look, but they’re not given enough material to breathe as characters. The people in this movie end up becoming dispensable parts of the background, serving their strict plot purposes and then dissolving again, lacking complexity and personality. The characters aren’t strong enough for this to be character-driven; the plot isn’t given sufficient structure for this to be a searching moral exploration; the pacing and direction don’t provide enough thrills for the film to work as a revenge thriller. And so Out of the Furnace, while not being a bad film, falls short of truly working as a character study, as a moral examination, as a traditional pulpy revenge thriller. It’s got a great cast and some wonderful production values that convey the weight of low income America, but the movie just lacks an engaging story to justify the talent in use. A few more revisions would have helped, but Out of the Furnace ultimately comes up short because it lacks any sort of lasting heat.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)

J.J. Abrams’StarTrekIntoDarknessEnterprisePoster return to the final frontier had me extremely excited for what the sequel to 2009’s smash Star Trek would be. It’s a different sort of Trek, a more rough-and-tumble, popcorn entertainment with the recognizable flavor of that other famous space opera that Abrams is steering into theaters come 2015. Having seen Star Trek Into Darkness twice, certain things became very clear to me. First, this is about everything you could ask for in a summer popcorn action movie. The set pieces are thrilling (my fave may be a human bullet shoot through a field of debris), there’s something new and dangerous going on just about every fifteen minutes, the stakes are constantly changing, and there are a bevy of well plotted character arcs for a deep and well acted ensemble. It’s about everything you’d want in a Star Trek movie… if you were a big fan of the 2009 film. If you’re a lifelong fan, you may have some reservations, notably the inclusion of a famous villain that shouldn’t be too hard to guess. The second half references to Trek cannon, especially Star Trek 2, feel weird for a film that broke away into a parallel universe so that it could chart its own course rather than relive the old stories. There’s homage and then there’s just subservience. Still, there are plenty of resonant themes, like friendship, sacrifice, and family, that are given adequate attention, amidst all the big-budget escapist thrills. There are even some surprisingly poignant moments that the actors ace. Benedict Cumberbatch (TV’s Sherlock) is incredible as the villain, a terrorist with a menacing, velvety voice that I could listen to all day. The vast majority of Into Darkness is tremendously entertaining, with a great pulse and sense of scene construction. The Abrams team knows how to make blockbusters in the old Spielberg variety, spectacle with humanity and humor and sweep. If this is what he can do with the Trek universe, just wait until Episode VII people.

Nate’s Grade: A-

Columbiana (2011)

Apparently, Columbians and several academic professors of Columbian descent have taken offense with the implications of the new action film from the stewardship of producer/co-writer Luc Besson (name a French action movie from the last 20 years and he’s likely had some hand in its development). The criticism being drawn is that Columbiana paints an unflattering picture of life in the South American country of the, almost, same name. I suppose that could be one charge against the film, but why be so limiting? Columbiana doesn’t make anybody look good, except for its star Zoe Saldana (Avatar, Star Trek), who could even stand to eat a few more sandwiches if you ask me.

10-year-old Cataleya (Amandla Stenberg, soon to breakout in a big way as Rue in next year’s Hunger Games) has the misfortune of watching her parents gunned down in front of her eyes. Her father ran afoul with the local drug lord, though we’re never told why. The drug lord’s main henchman, Marco (Jordi Molla), is looking for a microchip Cataleya’s father gave her. The girl stabs Marco in his hand and leaps out a window, darting through the streets of Bogotá with goons chasing after. She makes it into a U.S. embassy and offers up this microchip filled with significant data (what we’re never told) as her passport to America. She eventually finds her way to Chicago, where she lives with her Uncle Emilio (Cliff Curtis, doing an accent on loan from Scarface). She wants to be a killer to avenge her parents, and her uncle agrees to help. Flash forward 15 years, and the adult Cataleya (Saldana) is working as a hired assassin. Her calling card is painting the cataleya orchid on the chests of her victims. Why? To attract attention from the right parties. She’s playing a dangerous game, as they always do, romancing an artist (Alias’ Michael Vartan), staying a step ahead of the authorities, and working her way up the Colombian goon food chain to get back at Marco and his boss.

This is one of the dullest action movies I’ve had the privilege of sitting through. I was actively counting down the minutes until it would be over about halfway in. It’s not because Columbiana is particularly bad, it’s just so staggeringly routine, a French-styled action thriller cobbled together from the leftover bits of previous French-styled action thrillers (take one part La Femme Nikita, some faux Professional gravitas, add some District B13 parkour, how about a few outlandish Transporter getaways, and bake for 30-40 minutes). There are a few decent action sequences but lots of time in between, time that lets the film’s momentum lag and allows space to start contemplating all the questionable aspects of the picture. There are so many lazy, recognizable pieces onscreen, from the idiot FBI agents, who are always late on the trail, to the underwritten romantic love interest who is only there for booty calls and to accidentally be endangered, to the oblique bad guys who are just bad, and sometimes rather bad at being bad. These guys couldn’t outrun a 10-year-old girl in Columbia, what makes me think they’ll get their act together and take out the adult version? And I absolutely hate it when movies, set in other lands, have the characters speak one line in their native tongue and then transition immediately into English spiced with the occasional foreign phrase. Columbiana has the notoriety of making me yearn for the days where a female assassin picking off men twice her size was a novel concept/image.

Turn after turn, beat for beat, the plot has characters behaving in contrived ways because the story would not work without these contrivances. Cataleya says she’s an expert killer, but much of her expertise involves an insane number of coincidences and variables that are impossible to account for. We’re talking about the bathroom habits of guards, the amount of coffee consumption, the placement of specific prison cells, the precise number of guards and their own attention spans, the fact that every single person would not notice security cameras being messed with, and even nitty-gritty stuff like the amount of water in a plastic cup and the exact size of a hole that would allow the right amount of liquid to drip and pool into a spoon. Not to mention the fact that this also works on the assumption that police finding a plastic cup and a spoon inside a security panel would not find any of this suspicious. What the hell? That’s not rigorous planning and flawless execution? That’s divine intervention and/or good luck. At least in other hitman films that would study their prey to make it look like an accident. Not our Cataleya. She’s been taking out goons and leaving her calling card in an effort to attract attention from a certain Columbian cartel leader. The problem is that it takes her 15 years and over 22 murders before her skills attract media attention. That’s a frustration that the Son of Sam might identify with. But how would murders in Chicago attract attention in Columbia?

The only thing noteworthy for an enterprise that is so inherently generic is the weird moments that catch your attention. First, Saldana’s emaciated, wiry, potentially malnourished frame certainly draws your attention. Has there ever been a skinnier assassin on screen? There’s a reason that this woman is able to constantly squeeze inside air ducts and other cramped spaces; she’s practically a contortionist with her body. Now the actress has always been petite but her diminished physicality makes everything she does seem so much less believable. When she’s slinking around with a humongous assault rifle, you’d think the rifle weighs more than Saldana. And then when she engages in hand-to-hand combat, you keep waiting for some bad guy to grab her by the scruff of her neck and just hold her at arm’s length, a safe distance from potential kicks. Despite all her steely glares, Saldana just does not come across as a believable hitman. To top that off, the way director Olivier Megaton’s (Transporter 3) cameras seem to worship her lithe, leggy body gives an unsettling support for Saldana’s teeny tiny body. Now people can be just as discriminatory toward thin people as they can be with the overweight, but with Columbiana, Saldana’s skinny body negatively impacts the reality of a story already riddled with logic gaps.

Then there’s Cataleya’s uncle who himself is something of a criminal under lord. She wants to grow up and be a killer and he just sort of shrugs and says, “Okay,” in the same tone of voice as if she had said she wanted to be a cowboy. But this is Movie World, a place where Cataleya’s father tells his driver, “We’ve got maybe an hour at most before he kills my whole family,” and then spends that fateful hour in such a lackadaisical fashion. He stops and walks around his car, sits down his little girl to have one last talk, waits for his wife to pack; there’s no sense of urgency here. People, you got one hour to supposedly live, you don’t pack a suitcase you just get in the car and run! But getting back to Uncle Emilio in Chicago. After he enrolls her in school, she’s sulky because she doesn’t think there’s anything she can gain from American education. She just wants to learn the ways of a killer. Her uncle, in a misguided feat to teach her a lesson, pulls out a gun and shoots randomly into a street, causing a car to crash and dozens of witnesses to huddle. “What can I teach you if you don’t learn?” he says, somehow giving the least inspiring case for public education. Then, preposterously enough, he and Cataleya scamper off at a mid-trot, casually eluding the police and all the dozens of witnesses who have clearly been able to see them this whole time.

Columbiana is one of those cookie-cutter action movies that just coasts on the apathetic expectations the audience has when they knowingly plop down money for a generic genre picture. And generic is certainly Columbiana. It’s a fairly standard revenge picture with some fairly standard action, devoid of any discernible kinetic style that might make for memorable sequences. Columbiana would not exist if it weren’t for a wealth of clichés and contrivances; the whole enterprise is bursting at the seams thanks to all its shortcuts in story and character. What does the title even mean? Is the film Columbia-esque? Is the depiction of skinny assassins and preposterous, illogical action supposed to be reminiscent of life in the country of Columbia? I think the film paints a worse picture of Chicago than Columbia, but at any rate this is an action thriller that can’t be bothered to thrill. Columbiana is generic to the point of desperation, where even the sight of Saldana in a skintight cat suit can become underwhelming in time, a tragedy of international proportions.

Nate’s Grade: C

Avatar (2009)

Avatar cannot possibly meet expectations. Can it? The long-in-development pet project of director James Cameron has been dubbed as nothing short of a tectonic shift in moviemaking; it will “change movies forever.” Cameron had the idea for the movie 15 years ago but held on, waiting for the technology to catch up. After you’ve directed Titanic, the highest grossing movie in history, I suppose you have the luxury of waiting. The budget has been rumored to be wildly anywhere from $250 million to $500 million. Avatar was always planned as a 3-D experience and nothing short of the savior of modern movie and the theatrical experience. It would make going to the movies an event once again, something that could not be duplicated at home on puny TV screens. Given the reams of hype and anticipation, Avatar couldn’t possibly succeed, could it?

In the year 2154, mankind has posted a colonial base on the distant moon of Pandora. The planet orbits a gas giant and the atmosphere is deadly to humans after a few minutes exposure. The planet is inhabited by all walks of deadly, incredibly large life, including the indigenous Na’vi tribes, skinny, nine-feet tall blue aliens. The Na’vi also have connective tissues coming from their ponytails that allow them to connect with all nature by “jacking in,” so to speak. They are a relatively peaceful clan that makes sure to respectfully use every part of the space buffalo. It just so happens that they are also sitting on top of a huge enrichment of the mineral Unobtanium, which sells for a crapload of money back on Earth. A corporate exec (Giovani Ribisi) has hired a private army of mercenaries to forcefully move the natives. In the meantime, they are trying to reach a diplomatic solution. Dr. Grace Augustine (Sigourney Weaver) is the head of the Avatar program, where they biologically grow Na?vi bodies with some human DNA mixed in. People can then link their brains to the giant Na?vi bodies and walk and talk among the natives.

Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is an ex-Marine who is living the rest of his life in a wheelchair. His twin brother was apart of the Avatar program but was murdered, and he?s signed on to take his brother’s place (the avatars, naturally, are hugely expensive). Jake will plug into his avatar body and be able to feel like he can walk again. Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang, superb) likes the idea of having a former Marine on the inside. He makes a deal with Sully: provide useful Intel on the Na’vi, and he’ll get his “real” legs back. Jake and his fellow avatars ingratiate themselves with the Na’vi, and Jake is taught the ways of the tribe by Neytiri (Zoë Saldana). Their teacher-student relationship transforms into a love affair, and Jake begins having second thoughts about his mission.

To the heart of the matter, the special effects are transcendent. This is one of those pinnacle moments in the advancement of special effects technology. Avatar is now the new standard. The environments are so incredibly realistic that if I were told that Cameron and his crew filmed on location in some South American jungle, I would believe it without a moment’s hesitation. But everything in this movie was filmed on a giant sound stage. The visual detail is lushly intricate and altogether astounding. The planet of Pandora feels like a living, breathing world, with a complex environmental system. Every blades of grass, every speck of dust, every living creature feels real. Cameron and his technical team have crafted an intensely immersive, photo-realistic alien world. The level of depth is unparalleled. I found myself trying to soak up the artistry in every shot, admiring a tree canopy four dimensions back. The planet has an extensive night period, which has allowed the planet to evolve with an emphasis on bio-luminescence. Everything from moss that glows from being stepped on, to dragonflies that look like spinning flames, to glow-in-the-dark freckles on the Na’vi allows the movie, and Pandora, to feel like it has a rich evolutionary history. The ecosystem makes sense given the particulars of this world. Cameron isn’t just giving an extra leg or another eye to make the wildlife alien. The special effects are so good that you can easily take them for granted, like Jake’s atrophied legs. Those were special effects as well and yet they looked so real that I never stopped to consider them.

The Na’vi don’t necessarily have the same level of photo realism, however, this is by far the greatest motion capture accomplishment of all time. The creatures don?t appear rubbery or waxy, and there is honest to God life in those eyes, the same life that is absent in Robert Zemeckis’ motion capture movies. The CGI characters have believable facial expressions, capturing subtle movements and realistically capturing emotion. I’m still not a fan of motion capture, but at least Cameron makes effective use of the technique by recording actors movements and mannerisms and transforming them into nine-foot tall blue cat people. That seems like a better use of the technology than having Tom Hanks play a mystical hobo.

The 3-D is impressive as well but not the “game-changer” it was heralded to be. This is because Cameron doesn’t want to distract the audience and make them conscious of the 3-D gimmicks. There aren’t any moments where someone just hurls something at the screen randomly. There aren’t any clumsy swordsmen jutting forward. Because the 3-D glasses naturally dim the screen and make things darker, Cameron has smartly compensated by cranking up the natural light and vivid colors on screen. Nothing ever comes across as murky or hard to distinguish. Cameron has designed a 3-D environment that spaces out the different elements of the foreground and the background. There will be floating bits like ash or water that will seem right in front of your face. Short of that, you may find yourself forgetting about the 3-D because it’s not always utilized for a 160-minute action movie. It’s more just pushing the visual planes back with your depth of field. After all the praise about Avatar being the triumphant 3-D experience, I’m surprised that the best 3-D I’ve ever seen is still Zemeckis’ Beowulf. At least you still have that laurel, Zemeckis. For now.

From a narrative standpoint, Avatar has a lot of borrowed elements. It follows the exact same plot paces as Dances with Wolves. In fact, this story is exactly Dances with Wolves in space. Like Kevin Costner’s film, we follow an injured military man find acceptance and community with a native (Pandorian?) population. He falls in love, changes his world perspective, and realizes that these dignified people of the land deserve more than to be pushed aside for the greed of the Encroaching White Man. So he bands together and leads the natives against the superior military power of the White Man (It’s also the same plot formula for 2003’s The Last Samurai too). There?s even a young native that distrusts our hero at the start but eventually comes to call him “brother.” Add a few touches from Ferngully and The Matrix and there you have it. It’s the modern tale of colonialism where we, the people in power, are the enemy, though the villains of Avatar are corporations and private military contractors. That might not sit well with certain parts of the country; the same people that blithely think America can do no wrong simply because of its name. Cameron’s politics are pretty easy to identify on screen, and it’s probably too easy to dismiss the flick as “tree-hugging” eco-worshipping prattle. However, this is the same man that wrote and directed True Lies, which is nothing but the cool allure of the military industrial complex AND the villains were Arab terrorists.

Now, the characters aren’t too deep and the love story between Jake and his blue lady seems to be missing a couple reels worth of romantic development, but the movie follows its familiar beats with ease and the last act is terrific. It’s once again one of those all-out endings that gives way to a relentless series of explosions, but Cameron brings together all the creatures and characters he has established prior, which makes for a hugely satisfying and kick-ass payoff. Cameron is one of the greatest masters when it comes to constructing an invigorating action sequence, and he pulls out some great ones in Avatar. Geography is so key to staging a compelling action sequence, utilizing the particulars of the location and having an audience familiarized with the location. By he end, Cameron has fleshed out his world so well that we recall specific locations and remember their strategic value. The assault between the giant mechanical robot suits and the noble natives is great, with different points of action on the ground and in the air. Some have complained that the action sequences of Avatar are like a video game cut scene, and so what? My one complaint about the action is that we lose perspective by being with the Na’vi for so long. The audience becomes accustomed to seeing the world from the Na’vi proportional perspective, forgetting that these creatures are nine feet tall and even they look tiny on their flying dragon creature things, so how big must those things be?

The movie is not without some level of flaws, primarily in the storytelling department. The first 90 minutes of the movie feels really solid but then the next hour kind of simplifies everything in a rush to the climactic booms. The human villains become dastardly, the Na’vi become extra noble, and the romance with Jake and his blue lady gets consummated in a sequence begging for biological questioning (Do they “jack in” to each other? Is this somehow considered bestiality?). Jake could have benefited with some more back-story as well. The earnest “I see you” Na’vi greeting can get silly after a while. The whole avatar aspect doesn’t feel fully committed and could use more explanation. The Ribisi character is a shallow glimmer of the corporate weasel that Paul Reiser played so perfectly in Aliens. Cameron never says why the Unobtanium element is so valuable in the movie; apparently, Earth is out of energy resources. There are elements that border on the ridiculous, like the giant mech robot suit having a giant Bowie knife. The end leaves the distinct impression that the defeated human beings will just come back with bigger hardware and stronger nukes. If this Unobtanium element is so valuable to the energy resources of Earth, I doubt that one butt whipping is going to stop the exploitation of Na’vi resources. The sappy end credit love song by James Horner and Leona Lewis also might elicit more than a few guffaws.

The only real groundbreaking part of Avatar is the visuals but a familiar story doesn’t stop Cameron’s technical achievement. The plot is entirely predictable, and wholly borrowed, with a crazy different environment and a fresh coat of CGI. But can a highly derivative story kill a project built upon visual wonders? Not for me. Star Wars itself was derivative of many other stories, from samurai tales like Akira Kirosawa’s The Hidden Fortress, to Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon, to Westerns like The Searchers, and war movies like The Guns of Navarone and The Dam Busters. Has that hindered the lasting impact of George Lucas’s quintessential space opera? I’d doubt you?d find too many folk with nagging complaints about Star Wars being too derivative. That’s because the characters were interesting and we cared about them, the story was satisfying, and the visual techniques pushed the medium forward. I could repeat that exact same sentence, word-for-word, about Avatar. It might not change movies forever as we know it, but Avatar is a singular artistic achievement that demands to be seen at least a few times, if, for nothing else, to stare at lifelike trees some more.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Star Trek (2009)

Star Trek has a hold on geek culture like no other franchise. It’s lasted over forty years, sustained five television series, and ten feature films (about four of them good), and let’s not forget the plethora of fanatical merchandise that includes everything from Trek cologne to Trek coffins. Star Wars has all the box office clout, but Trek has followers so devoted that they will create and learn a separate language, Klingon, that almost assuredly will never be spoken by anyone else outside of the festival circuit (you will never see a written Klingon exam that asks you “Where the library is?”). The Star Trek fans have been a foundation of geek culture for over four decades. People take this stuff very seriously. Trek has always been a headier brand of sci-fi, more devoted to ideas and moral dilemmas than shoot-outs and space chases, though Captain Kirk did teach the universe how to love, one green-skinned buxom alien babe at a time. 2002’s abominable Star Trek: Nemesis was meant to open up the franchise to a wider audience, but the film was the low-point for a franchise that also included William Shatner writing and directing the fifth flick (Nemesis also broke the odd/even movie curse).

When director J.J. Abrams approached Star Trek with the purpose of reinvigorating the flagging film series, you would think the man would wade into such a storied franchise with trepidation. Nope. He openly said he was making a “Star Trek movie for people who weren’t fans of Star Trek.” He was even going to change Trek canon. I imagine Trekkies (and no, I will never use the preferred nomenclature “Trekkers”) were nervous about an outsider, the author of the cinematic classic Gone Fishin’, meddling with hallowed ground. As I suspected, these fears were unfounded. The newest Star Trek does more than put a new coat of paint on an old franchise. This movie boldly goes where none of the Trek movies have gone before — turning reverent geek culture into a grand populist entertainment smash.

This new incarnation looks backwards, explaining how the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise came together. The movie shows the path of Jim Kirk (Chris Pine), from troubled youth to eventual starship captain. Kirk’s father captained a starship for about 10 minutes, but he managed to save 800 lives under attack, including the birth of his son. Captain Pike (Bruce Greenwood) recruits Kirk to Starfleet Academy with the promise of doing something more with life. We also witness the boyhood of Spock (Zachary Quinto), who is teased for being half-Vulcan and half-human. His human mother (Winona Ryder) encouraged Spock to embrace his human emotions instead of cutting them off, Vulcan-style. Kirk and Spock clash at the Academy, and then an emergency requires all the recruits to saddle up for their first mission in space. Nero (Eric Bana) is a dastardly Romulan who has traveled back in time. In the future, he blames an older Spock (Leonard Nimoy) for the destruction of his home planet and the deaths of billions of Romulans. To ensure this does not happen, Nero is going to eradicate Starfleet home planets, starting with Vulcan and then Earth.

J.J. Abrams is a geek’s best friend. He understands geek culture, and yet the man is able to take genre concepts and make them easily accessible to the unconverted while still making a finished product that is respectful, playful, and awesome. Abrams is an expert on the pop culture catalogue, and he knows how to make genuinely entertaining productions that succeed on brains as well as brawn. He brought tired spy conventions into the twenty-first century with the cool, twisty Alias and Mission: Impossible III, which was really an extravagant two-hour episode of Alias, and I mean this in the best way. He has an innate understanding of action sequences and knows well enough that an audience needs to be engaged emotionally, so he makes the action as character-based as much as possible. Abrams has a terrific imagination behind the camera, and he reminds me of a young Steven Spielberg in his ability to marry artistic integrity with big-budget crowd pleasers. Abrams and his screenwriters Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci (Transformers, TV’s Fringe) have crafted a stellar Trek that will appeal to die-hards and those who couldn’t tell a Romulan from a Vulcan (I fall somewhere in between).

The time travel storyline could have used more juice, however, it serves its purpose by establishing a parallel Trek universe to work with. Beforehand, Trek had established so many previous stories that it hamstrung writing new stories because they had to be extensively researched to make sure they did not conflict with 40 years of canon. Abrams and company wrestled free from the grip of the established history and can now play around unencumbered to a degree. I mean, fans don’t want to see something radically inauthentic, but Uhura and Spock as a couple? Sure, why not? The fan favorite character catch-phrases (“She’s givin’ it all she’s got,” “Dammit Jim, I’m a doctor?,” etc.) are organically worked into the story so that they don’t become falling anvils.

Star Trek‘s pacing can be whiplash inducing. It speeds through two hours of action and setup while still maintaining an emotional connection to the characters involved. The movie has a boyish enthusiasm for adventure and it’s fun watching well-known characters assemble and amble into new and interesting directions. The action is routinely thrilling and I enjoyed Abram’s small touches, like watching a crew member get sucked out into space and cutting all sound to illustrate the cold, empty vacuum. The amount of humor injected into the movie can be distracting at times, not because it isn’t funny but because of the brisk tone breaking. One second it’s a life-or-death scenario and the next Kirk is running around with giant goofy hands. Still, it’s good to see some humor in the Trek universe that isn’t related to alien culture clashes.

The young ensemble is amazingly well cast. I didn’t think a younger generation of actors would be able to step right in and play such lived-in characters, but they pull it off. The hardest shoes to fill are unquestionably Kirk’s, and Pine (Smokin’ Aces, Just My Luck) carries that same cocksure bravado without stooping to a stilted Shatner impersonation. His performance feels at times like Han Solo and Luke Skywalker rolled into one, and he’s an appealing presence that captures the essence of a dashing and rebellious scrapper. This Kirk is still an adventure-seeking, skirt-chasing 1960s kid at play. Quinto (TV’s Heroes) is blessed to look remarkably similar to Nimoy, but the actor also gets to explore the human side of Spock. He feels compelled to harness emotion, like all Vulcans, yet it’s intriguing when certain emotions slip out and build a bigger picture about what’s going inside the mind of a being dominated by logic. Quinto has less to work with by design and yet the man finds interesting ways to ensure Spock can be recognizable. Each of the supporting actors has their moment, but my biggest surprise was Karl Urban as Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy. Urban has mostly been confined to lame action movies as of late, like Doom and Pathfinder. But he’s really funny and his performance captures DeForest Kelly’s mannerisms down without turning into a caricature.

If there is a main weakness to Abrams’ Trek outing it’s that it feels far more like the opening act of a larger movie. Nero is a fairly weak villain, though Bana gives him a nicely polished glower. The villain is really just a tie-in for the time travel storyline, which is also a narrative quirk to secure an open field for further stories. Meaning, that much of the movie can be seen as assembling the pieces to simply move forward on their own. It’s an expensive set-up movie, and Abrams makes sure that the audience sees every dollar of the splashy visuals onscreen. Personally, I was also getting tired of the cinematography decision to fill the screen with as many light flares as possible. It seemed like every other moment had a blast of light beam in from some direction. After a while it sort of felt like an eye exam where the optometrist shines a flashlight back and forth. And it takes far too long for Scotty (Simon Pegg) to appear in the movie.

J.J. Abrams does more than hit the restart button. He has made a Star Trek that manages to be respectfully reverent but at the same time plays along to the mainstream visual sensibilities of modern cinema. It’s fun without being campy, reverent without being slavish, and this Trek never forgets to entertain from the opening assault on a starship to the Michale Giacchino’s closing credits score. This is an enjoyable rush of sci-fi escapism. The Star Trek series was always deeply hopeful and humanistic, believing in the best for humanity and that man, in cooperation, could achieve greatness. I think further escapades with this cast and Abrams at the helm could reach greatness. For now, I’ll be happy with this rollicking first entry into a franchise that seemed adrift in space. Bring on more of the green-skinned women.

Nate’s Grade: A-

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