Tag Archives: 2018

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (2018) Film Review

At one point in Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, Newt Scamander, Leta Lestrange, and Porpentina Goldstein sneak around the French Ministry of Magic and are literally trapped in a moving labyrinth of family backstory. It’s almost too perfect a metaphor for an insular narrative obsessed with the storytelling primacy of lineage, and which flirts with impenetrability even for students of the franchise. Comprehension aside, however, the story being animated is dull. The film shows us all sorts of magic, but never the magic of a cohesive or engaging story.

Albus Dumbledore Mirror of Erised

After the arrest of would-be wizarding tyrant Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) in Fantastic Beasts and where to Find them, guess who escapes during a prisoner exchange. Now the hunt is on for both Grindelwald and the enigmatic young Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), who is seen as the key to Grindelwald’s plans. With British and American aurors on the trail, Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) sends Newt (Eddie Redmayne) to find Credence as well. But all the while, Grindelwald’s rhetoric of power fantasies and magical dominance over the muggle world seduces many.

Newt Scamander Kappa

It’s an easy-but-true, first-base criticism that this film is irrevocably torn between serving two storytelling impulses: the fantastic beasts, and the crimes of Grindelwald. From the title of the series to the tie-in toy line, there is an emphasis on empathetic magizoology. But this is constantly leavened by a dark streak that takes in baby death, and even worse, infanticide; “love potion” manipulation, and even worse, magical rape. Neither extreme of this wildly swinging pendulum amounts to anything satisfying.

Newt Scamander Zouwu

“Knock knock.” “Who’s there?” “Zouwu.” “Zouwu who?” “Zouwu made a bad Fantastic Beasts sequel?”

A mystery structure has served the Harry Potter films well in the past, but in place of a functional narrative J.K. Rowling gives us tangled family histories and skeletons in the closet, which come to a head in what feels like ten minutes of backstory infodump with red herrings (those herrings being un-fantastic beasts). It feels painfully novelistic, Rowling still unused to the screenplay format.

Gellert Grindelwald

The proliferation of characters is not particularly well handled by the screenplay. Newt is an intriguingly introverted lead, but only has the odd moment of charm or clarity. Tina (Katherine Waterston), the female lead of the last film, has next to nothing to do, and apparently can’t read a newspaper in a romantic subplot that wouldn’t sustain a sitcom subplot. Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), to be fair, is decent comic relief and has a couple good moments in the climax. Jude Law puts some of Richard Harris into his Dumbledore voice and the movie gains more of a pulse when he’s on screen. Grindelwald, looking like if Kenneth Branagh’s Hamlet was electrocuted, leaves a middling impression when he should be punching a hole through the screen. By far my favorite character thread here is Queenie Goldstein’s (Alison Sudol); the movie does interesting things with her character that I won’t spoil here.

Queenie Goldstein

The biggest miscalculation lies with Credence. He was a relatively effective character in the previous movie, as his foster mother’s repression of his magic led to him turning into a metaphorical and menacing monster. Now that the entire narrative revolves around him in a “who are my real parents?” plot, he’s ironically way less compelling. Rowling might as well have watched the Rey’s parents arc from Star Wars: The Last Jedi and said, “Let’s do that, but wrong.” Stripped of specificity and personality, Credence becomes a MacGuffin.

Credence Barebone

The film is most effective in moments of little magic, like when one man is heavily windblown on a sidewalk and everyone else is unaffected, or when Queenie’s telepathy becomes a problem, or seeing the mother of all English basements. However, these grace moments are suffocated by room temperature decisions. Director David Yates plays a lot with POV and extreme close-ups, with not much skill or point. The opening setpiece aims for spectacle but lands on muddiness. Where’s the man who gave us such amazing imagery in the latter four Harry Potters?

Gellert Grindelwald Prison Exchange Escape

Composer James Newton Howard’s main theme is appropriately elegant and haunting, but the rest of the score doesn’t stand out. He does pull out “Hedwig’s Theme” for one big moment of fanservice. Indeed, there’s a bunch of “call-forwards” to Harry Potter. My favorite is Leta Lestrange looking into the Hogwarts Great Hall that her descendent Bellatrix will later ransack. (And look out for the film being so apparently desperate for beast material that it reaches into the well to provide origins for a couple important Harry Potter beasts.)

Leta Lestrange Hogwarts Great Hall

This is a movie of grey cinematography, flat pacing, character-less characters, opaque incidents, and laborious reveals. It’s workmanlike when it should be wondrous, the product of a tired creative team. Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is a house of cards, not necessarily collapsing but with just as much of a thin foundation. It’s a lifeless, borderline incoherent movie that asks a lot of the audience and gives almost nothing in return. 3/10.

Inasmuch as this film uses delaying tactics in favor of a third installment, I would suggest: Get fresh blood behind the camera, maybe have another writer mold Rowling’s worldbuilding into a stable screenplay, and don’t gloss over the intensely personal stakes between Dumbledore and Grindelwald. But maybe by committing to both beast showcases and apocalyptic political stakes, this series is already stuck with a losing formula.

Advertisements

Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018) Film Review

For an actor, “business” in the scene gives the performer something physical to do to complement their acting, whether verbal or nonverbal. For most people, this is something like fiddling with a water bottle, or shuffling through papers. For Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible – Fallout, he has to act as Ethan Hunt while also… for real, solo flying a helicopter. As you do. It’s a fitting act for this lead character, as in the two latest Mission movies writer-director Christopher McQuarrie has weaponized Hunt’s “main character powers” as a key element of the story. Hunt’s success is textually and metatextually inevitable, but a great strength of Fallout is that it constantly generates incredible suspense for this impossible hero. Accomplishing this unlikely task, Fallout is another exceptional entry in perhaps our greatest modern action series.

Luther Stickell Benji Dunn Ethan Hunt Ilsa Faust

When “the Apostles” of incarcerated anarchist Solomon Lane (Sean Harris) threaten the world with nuclear attack, Ethan Hunt and his IMF crew (Ving Rhames’ Luther Stickell and Simon Pegg’s Benji Dunn) must prevent catastrophe. But with the CIA insisting on the imposing agent August Walker’s (Henry Cavill) involvement, and Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) still in the spy game, the chessboard is harder than ever to master.

August Walker

To keep things fresh, Fallout trades in a variety of action scenes, from vehicular chases to foot chases to brawls. There’s a fantastic standout fight in a bathroom that has shades of The Raid, and features what others have referred to as Walker reloading his arms for a round of punches. But there are two stunning IMAX-format showstopper sequences that steal the spotlight: the HALO jump, and the helicopter chase.

Ethan Hunt HALO Jump

The HALO jump required Cruise to perform it nearly 100 times, reaching speeds of 200 mph. After scaling the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa in Ghost Protocol, Cruise here jumps out of a plane that’s over 100 times higher. (In the film the jump is above Paris, but it was filmed in Abu Dhabi; you can see the original ground-level location in the trailer.) The level of verisimilitude and pure human-in-the-void unease is only comparable to the space walk sequences from 2001: A Space Odyssey, but of course filmed with palpable realism. The helicopter sequence required Cruise to, you know, learn how to fly one, and to hairpin specifications. Visually, the scene resembles Go Pro footage; it’s that immersively real.

Ethan Hunt Helicopter

Even apart from these Buster-Keaton-on-a-mission accomplishments, Cruise gives a movie star performance. There are scenes where Ethan is acting, and Cruise’s intensity is enough to fool even the audience. There’s even a classic Jerry Maguire-esque moment of total befuddlement, plus an amusing showcase for the famous “Tom Cruise run”. And yes, the stunt that broke Cruise’s ankle is in the finished film.

Ethan Hunt Jump Buildings

“Ouch.”

Plot-wise, McQuarrie weaves a tangled web of standard spy movie material as a framework. But on a moment-to-moment basis, he and editor Eddie Hamilton generate a huge amount of tension. The buildup is just as precious to the movie as the relief of tension, whether it’s a flash of brutal violence or an aggressive kiss. The film delights in reversals. Not the expected espionage story double-crosses, but just smart cinematic storytelling. Scenes are set up a certain way, then subverted and flipped in a different direction (one early example really had me convinced it was steering the film in a certain direction then pulls the rug out). Moments from the trailer that you take at face value are given unexpected twists in the film. McQuarrie just knows the alchemy of movies; he speaks the language.

Ilsa Faust

A while back, when Tom Cruise was attached to The Man from U.N.C.L.E. as Napoleon Solo, Henry Cavill auditioned for Ilya Kuryakin and didn’t get the job because he looked too much like Cruise. Now, Cruise and Cavill are an electric double-act in Fallout, with Walker as a brick-muscled foil for Hunt. Ilsa Faust’s wild card status is preserved, while still respecting the character (though she’s maybe underused). Luther and Benji are excellent sidekicks, Solomon Lane works as a villain on the back foot, and Vanessa Kirby as “the White Widow” brings an amused-by-it-all quality to her scoundrel character, along with a connection going back to the first Mission: Impossible. The only real off moment for me comes in an emotional scene between Luther and Ilsa, which starts off great, but ends up slightly baffling.

Ethan Hunt Tom Cruise Run

The Tom Cruise Run™.

Fallout resoundingly closes another chapter in this storied action franchise. Through smart filmmaking that stokes both suspense and payoff, a likable ensemble, and another obstacle course for the human ragdoll Ethan Hunt, the sixth Mission: Impossible (M:I 6, which does factor in the agency MI6) chooses to accept its mission and delivers the goods. One wonders how long Thomas Cruise Mapother IV, now 56 years of ago, can continue topping himself. But for now, you will leave the theater exhilarated, exhausted, exquisitely tense, and extremely impressed. A strong 9/10.

Thoroughbreds (2018) Mini-Review

Thoroughbreds

Is a sociopath a showy role? Maybe if you’re Benedict Cumberbatch playing Sherlock Holmes it is, but on the other hand it implies the lack of emotion. In writer-director Cory Finley’s Thoroughbreds, Olivia Cooke gives an excellent sociopath performance, and shows that lack of emotion does not equate to lack of expressiveness or lack of engagement. Importantly, Finley’s screenplay never gives the character an off-key note. This tale of two affluent but alienated high school “friends” makes for a solid debut for first-time filmmaker Cory Finley.

The film concerns two young women who bring out unexpected things in each other. Lily Reynolds (Anya Taylor-Joy) is an uptight student who offers to tutor former childhood friend Amanda (Cooke) for the SAT, after certain acts have made Amanda a social pariah in addition to being a “weirdo”. Each character learns from the other’s worldview and a modest criminal proposal comes out of their partnership. So Thoroughbreds finds good company with female-friends-in-a-bubble movies (Heavenly Creatures) and teenage black comedies (Heathers) while skewing less comedic and methodically charting its own course.

Both actresses bring the sparring character dynamics vividly to life, but Cooke steals the whole movie. After setting up the incident that has made Amanda somewhat infamous, we get the scene where she lays out her perspective. It’s her Jaime Lannister moment, where the backstory is recontextualized. Because Cooke does not play the scene for sympathy, but rather with a matter-of-fact delivery, sympathy comes naturally. On top of navigating the dramatic side of things, she also has to deal with the actorly business of playing a passable oversized chess game against herself! As great as her scene partners are, it feels like they’re just feeding the beast that is Olivia Cooke.

While this performance is magnetic, the film hums along on a solid wavelength without achieving true flight. Finley’s dialogue is sharp, but the wider satirical point being made is only developed with vague brushstrokes. This is primarily an issue because it ties in directly with the in your face, suburban-crime-story driving force of the plot. The film has been compared with the aforementioned Heathers, but that Winona Ryder vehicle is operatic while Thoroughbreds is intimate. Slight qualms aside, it owns its space well.

Perhaps the film’s greatest success is the talent it showcases. In the past, Olivia Cooke has been the best thing about a bad movie (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl), impressed in a pixelated Spielberg flick (Ready Player One) and lit up the screen in The Limehouse Golem. This is her best showcase yet, and there’s more to come. Anya Taylor-Joy is similarly an actress at the start of what should be a standout career. Thoroughbreds is indeed the final screen appearance of Anton Yelchin. With his open face and shakey voice, he will be missed.

Finley’s assured debut is recommended for anyone who enjoys high school-age movies with bite, and look for it to likely be remembered for Best Actress come awards time (by this blog, not the Academy). In an early scene, Amanda teaches Lily “the Technique” for fake crying. I played along with the instructions, as you do, and by George, it works!

Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018) Film Review

Many action movie plots revolve around a McGuffin that everyone’s chasing after. It can be a hard drive (who can forget the NOC List?) or a precious stone. Peyton Reed’s Ant-Man and the Wasp gives the old trope an upgrade; everyone’s playing hot potato with Hank Pym’s (Michael Douglas) shrunken office building, conveniently wheeled like a suitcase. It’s one of many amusing sight gags in this heartfelt superhero romp starring Marvel’s most variably sized heroes.

McGuffin Lab

Between the events of Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War, Scott Lang/Ant-Man’s (Paul Rudd) successful sojourn to the subatomic Quantum Realm gives Hank and newly-Wasp-costumed daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly), well, hope that Janet van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer), mother of Hope, may be alive there. But as a rescue mission is prepped, working around Scott’s house arrest in the wake of Civil War, the “ghostly” Ava Starr (Hannah John-Kamen) has other designs on the Quantum Realm.

Hello Kitty Pez

Now that the shrinking and enlarging premise has been established, the filmmakers constantly play with scale, to delightful effect. This visual inventiveness carries Ant-Man and the Wasp a long way, and past its predecessor (which is solid but at least visually, more on the TV movie end of the MCU scale). Incongruous items are enlarged, vehicles are carried in pants pockets, and a buggy suit gives Scott some height issues (Deadpool 2 also has a bit that mines comedy out of the hero being the size of a toddler). The 3D is also excellent, right at home with the shrinking gimmick and Ava’s phasing abilities.

Ava Starr

All this flashiness is in service of a basic plot: Save Janet. A bunch of subplots and character arcs orbit around it, but that’s the spine of the story. So both Ant-Man movies are about reconstructing family units. Not saving the world, but building and rebuilding relationships. These are unique stakes for a superhero movie, which is not to say there isn’t room for plenty of antics and action. The film does a better job than most of “faction plotting”; a lot of groups with conflicting agendas crash and separate and dovetail well (Scott, Scott’s family, Luis’ (Michael Peña) X-CON security agency, Hope and Hank, Ava, Sonny Burch’s (Walton Goggins) criminals, Jimmy Woo (Randall Park) and the FBI). Even so, room to breathe is hard to come by. It’s very busy, but with the jokes flying, one doesn’t mind so much. In particular, there’s a killer payoff for a joke about part of a car.

Hope van Dyne Scott Lang

The film has you from the beginning. One of the opening scenes shows Scott and daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson) on a Marvel meets Michel Gondry DIY adventure, fueled by cardboard and imagination. This is the movie establishing a contract with the audience; we’re in safe hands. Scott and Cassie’s bond is immediately strong, the resourcefully tactile production design is pleasing, and the film will have a lot of fun with Scott’s house arrest. Warm, charming, and deftly entertaining.

Cassie Lang Scott Lang

The cast is a deep bench of talent, so much so that I wonder if Judy Greer and Bobby Cannavale shot their parts in one day (two tops). Rudd and Lilly hold the screen as likable leads, Hannah John-Kamen impresses in a tough part that calls for intimidation and desperation, Park is endearing, returning player David Dastmalchian gets unexpected laughs, and Goggins has fun with his slimy black market profiteer. But it’s Michael Peña who’s still the comedic MVP, and just wait for him to be let loose.

Luis

Composer Christophe Beck’s earworm fist-pumping Ant-Man theme is back, both in the movie and in my head. It’s the centerpiece of a retro jazzy caper score, now with new emotional cues, and a blunt-force Wasp theme. Perhaps his standout work in this sequel is the electrifying car chase music, which helps to make that already deliriously amusing sequence sing.

Car Chase

Ant-Man and the Wasp is a frothy and fun confection. Because of the density of incident, watching it is a bit like being enmeshed in cotton candy, but in a good way. The Ant-Man franchise continues to be a good place to visit after a world-shattering Avengers movie, with themes of family and whimsical visual jazz carrying our heroes to victory and the audience out of the movie on a high. Not to mention, this is the first MCU movie where a female superhero gets billing in the title. As Hope says, it’s about damn time. But next time, maybe give Michelle Pfeiffer more to do. A weak 8/10.

 

P.S.: *SPOILERS* The mid-credits scene is effectively shocking (Hope, Janet, and Hank are all snapped out of existence by Thanos), but it’s also undeniably deflating after watching a whole movie about saving Janet. The movie earns the construction of this family, but a three-minute scene doesn’t have time to earn its deconstruction. I guess it’s a case of everyone reacting differently. I think this scene requires specific compartmentalization from the audience, to see the movie they just watched, and this scene, as two separate entities.

P.P.S.: As Scott, Hope, and Hank decide to hide out at X-CON, how in the world did Luis hear about Ava stealing Hank’s lab before they told him?

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (2018) Film Review

In your typical Jurassic movie, the first sighting of a brachiosaurus is a moment of pure wonder. In Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, this moment is framed differently. On Isla Nublar, in the ruins of Jurassic World, Dr. Zia Rodriguez (Daniella Pineda) jumps out of a jeep to observe this majestic herbivore, and the whole moment is minor key, both in terms of Michael Giacchino’s score with its sorrowful motifs and the backdrop of an island in natural chaos; we’re then shooed along to the next scene by another character. The uncharitable reading of the scene is that it’s an obligatory reference to past films in the series, presented with a confused tone, trying to invoke a sense of wonder and subverting it at the same time, and rushed through anyways, so what’s the point? You don’t know which thread to hang onto. Fallen Kingdom is a movie that struggles to cohere its ideas together, even as it remains competently entertaining in the moment.

Brachiosaurus

When Isla Nublar’s now-active volcano threatens all dinosaur life on the island, Jurassic World executive turned committed dino preservationist Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) is recruited by Eli Mills (Rafe Spall, doing his best Ryan Reynolds impression) to help get the dinosaurs to a stable ecosystem. But darker plans, and GMOs (genetically modified organisms), are afoot.

Isla Nublar Eruption

Dinosaurs are great (and the film puts them through the wringer, to an extent that will make some viewers uncomfortable), but we need a connection to human characters to fully engage with these movies. The characters given to us from screenwriters Derek Connolly and Colin Trevorrow are difficult to invest in, both in this film and previous entry Jurassic World. The biggest problem for the returning players is that it seems like almost everyone’s character has been retconned.

In World, Claire sees the dinosaurs only as “assets”, then learns to respect them as animals. That’s a character arc. In Fallen Kingdom, Claire recalls the first time she ever saw a dinosaur, recalls it as a miracle, and says she “still believes that”. So the writers frame her as retroactively being a dinosaur lover from the beginning. Connolly and Trevorrow, you wrote this character. This isn’t going to fly. Owen Grady’s (Chris Pratt) personal connection with the velociraptors is key, and mined for emotion, but at the top of the movie, he acts like he couldn’t care less about the dinosaurs (seemingly for the sake of a half-baked tough-guy arc). The late John Hammond (the late Richard Attenborough) is quoted as saying, “these creatures need our absence”. This is consistent with his characterization in The Lost World, after seeing his theme park/glorified zoo turn disastrous. But according to corporate heir Simon Masrani in World, Hammond’s dying wish was that the park be finally open and thriving. So when Connolly and Trevorrow need Hammond to give imaginary weight to the idea of the theme park in full swing, it’s one thing. And when they need Hammond to give imaginary weight to the idea of dinosaur rights, it’s another.

Claire Dearing

Something I have to give the writers credit for is not forgetting that it’s Claire, not Owen, who is the lead of these movies. But then again, there’s so little character real estate for either of them, it’s almost arbitrary at this point. New supporting characters don’t improve the ensemble much either. Franklin Webb (Justice Smith) is tech support comic relief, grating more often than amusing. Zia fares better; but the whole scared man and cool, calm, collected woman in the wild double-act felt obvious even earlier this year when it showed up in Dwayne Johnson vehicle Rampage.

Owen Grady Franklin Hall Claire Dearing Zia Rodriguez

When the good guys are such ciphers, once again I gravitate to the scoundrel: Vincent D’Onofrio in World, now Ted Levine’s Ken Wheatley in Fallen Kingdom. Levine is a lot of fun to watch, albeit playing a supremely clichéd mercenary character, and doing a better job twirling his mustache than the other villains of the piece. But the writers have to spoil the fun of his villainy by giving him an obvious President You-Know-Who line. Now I can’t even enjoy him being bad! Character is not this movie’s strong suit.

Owen Grady Tyrannosaurus Rex Claire Dearing

If Fallen Kingdom has a strong suit, it lies in the visuals. I haven’t liked director Juan Antonio Bayona’s other films, but it’s not because they looked bad. World’s gunmetal blue visuals are blown out of the water here, and Bayona adds some flair to some of the money shots. Hands-down the best moment of the movie comes when the dinosaur evacuation is ending. From the dock, a lone brachiosaurus gazes at the retreating boat. The ravaging eruption at her back, smoke billows around her and takes on an orange tinge, suggesting the amber from which the dinosaur was created. Back to amber, dust to dust.

Back to Amber Dust to Dust

The finale at the Lockwood Estate offers a variety of action (in contrast to the uninspiring disaster movie material beforehand). The pleasingly grotesque auction; the stygimoloch rampage (tragically, the name of that dinosaur is never spoken on screen. Throw us a bone!); the most elaborate one-on-one fistfights of the series. Bayona’s flourishes come most into play here, playing up the surreal “haunted house” quality of a raptor on the loose in a domestic setting.

Ankylosaurus Auction

But it’s the missteps that stand out. The T-Rex card is played in the first scene, a sequence in which the stakes aren’t clear. A token animal rights story is more-or-less shelved early on, and I don’t know what central point the movie is trying to make. The “it was all a lie” moment from the trailer doesn’t land with the proper context or motivation. There’s a very dumb twist late in the game; the worst part is that it’s there just to facilitate one inane, facepalm moment. The ending is attention grabbing, but poorly thought-out, an epithet that applies to most of the screenplay.

Indoraptor Lockwood Estate

For all its sins, Jurassic World hangs together more than its sequel. Fallen Kingdom offers some decent visual styling and two likable leads (as a consequence of being smoothed out with a rolling pin), but is also hamstrung by a confused screenplay. While passably entertaining, the film is also no more than the sum of its genetically hybridized parts. After the previous installment slashed a swathe through filmgoers’ wallets the whole (Jurassic) world over, Universal spared no expense here. It was in service of a movie that’s just okay. A weak 5/10.

Incredibles 2 (2018) Film Review

In the fourteen-year span between The Incredibles and its sequel, Pixar has revved up three Cars movies.

While you’re thinking on that, consider how CG animation has improved by leaps and bounds in those fourteen years. Incredibles 2 looks, how shall I put it, incredible. A Pixar action movie is a rare beast, and watching the kinetic quality of the animation is a pleasure. Tending to character first and foremost, writer-director Brad Bird delivers a more than worthy installment in his saga of a super-powered family coming into their own, together.

The Parrs

After the Parr family foils a bank robbery but not without some collateral property damage, Incredibles matriarch Helen Parr/Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) is recruited by a sibling-run corporation to be the face of superhero (or “super”) legalization. Meanwhile, her husband Bob/Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) faces the daunting challenge of domestic duties, juggling responsibilities toward three powered kids. And while Elastigirl stretches out and gets positive press, the mysterious “Screenslaver” is reaching out with a much more invasive type of PR.

Spy-Fi Aesthetic

This sequel to The Incredibles feels more like a “traditional” superhero movie, and maybe with all that’s happened since 2004, that was inevitable. This franchise resembles 1960s spy-fi more than anything else (see the production design aesthetic and Michael Giacchino’s jazzy score). Incredibles 2 retains that context, but also deals heavily with the politics of supers and accords being drawn up (familiar territory both from Captain America: Civil War and Holly Hunter’s own role in Batman v Superman). In the first movie, this was there, but more a backdrop for super-sneaking around a supervillain’s lair built into (of course) a volcano.

Dashiell Parr Portal

That’s really a key difference between the two films overall. The first movie starts from a place of sadness and eases gradually out of a greyscale world. The sequel is then free to be more of a colorful romp. As Tony Stark once said, “You’ve been tip-toeing, big man. You need to strut.” So Incredibles 2 runs on a more traditional engine – action scene, emotional drama, politics, comic relief, rinse and repeat. Once the film is done building momentum, its pace is an asset; however, the climax doesn’t match the imagination on offer elsewhere. Also, my audience was doling out applause, but the climax rather rushes through these applause moments. On the whole, the movie gets right to the business of being good without reaching the stratosphere of being great.

Elastigirl Elasticycle

Character-wise, the film is a fantastic showcase for Elastigirl. Putting her center stage brings the character into focus, both the idealist and the cynic. Plus her stretching powers continue to be a great showcase for the animation. Her son Dash (Huckleberry Milner) gets short shrift, but that leaves more room for Violet’s (Sarah Vowell) delightful romantic subplot. The Deavor siblings (Bob Odenkirk and Catherine Keener) are a welcome addition to the cast, Odenkirk in his typical huckster mode and Keener taking on a particularly dynamic role.

Violet Parr Romantic Subplot

Funniest subplot in the movie!

The villain this time around is the Screenslaver, and it’s pretty frightening for a family movie, laying down a lengthy manifesto monologue as everyone looking at a screen is hypnotized. A legitimately unsettling one-on-one fight between Elastigirl and an avatar of the Screenslaver puts our heroine on the back foot. The villain also weaponizes a criticism of Brad Bird’s movies. Dozens of thinkpieces have gone looking for Randian themes in Bird’s work, specifically relating to the superior entitlement of “special” people over the mediocre masses. Here, the Screenslaver argues that relying on superheroes makes the rest of humanity weak and complacent. If the Screenslaver saw Tomorrowland, we’d hear some choice words.

Screenslaver

“There’s nothing virtuous about selfishness. Is creativity at all human cost rational?”

The production design by Ralph Eggleston is outstanding, from the Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired Parr house to the sleek Elasticycle. Giacchino’s score is spicy, but perhaps could have made more triumphant use of the main Incredibles theme. For most of the running time, the film cuts between Elastigirl’s action/political story, and Mr. Incredible’s amusing domestic story, and both engage the audience equally, in different ways. The baby Jack-Jack’s powers take advantage of the wild abandon of animation (and get the iconic Edna Mode into the story), while his mother faces an insidious but intriguing threat. The joke is that it’s been fourteen years since these characters last lit up a cinema screen, but it’s been more like fourteen seconds for them. Incredibles 2 bears that out. Everything is in its proper place in as solid a continuation by Pixar’s cape-free First Family as could have been hoped for. A strong 7/10.

Hotel Artemis (2018) Mini-Review

Hotel Artemis

“No water in L.A., but it’s raining assholes in here.” So says the Nurse (played by a whirlwind of Jodie Foster), head of the Artemis, an exclusive hospital for contract criminals. The film Hotel Artemis follows the Nurse, her earnest orderly (an on-point Dave Bautista), and her colorful clients, on one fateful 2028 night marked by blazing water riots on the streets of Los Angeles.

A members-only hotel for killers governed by a strict set of rules – so far, so (John) Wickensian. But Hotel Artemis carves its own identity (occasionally on a human neck). Writer-director Drew Pearce keeps things contained within the evocatively designed Hotel, making the movie a chamber piece that unfolds like a finely tuned play. In a play you need characters it’s a pleasure to watch bounce off of each other, and the film delivers. Sterling K. Brown is a likable, solid-as-a-rock heist mastermind, offering a humane bedrock among the clients. As an effortlessly magnetic French assassin, Sofia Boutella finds maybe her best role yet (and she has pretty good taste). Best of all is the Nurse, animated by a bravura performance from Foster. She injects world-weary humor into this ideal protagonist, forever shambolically running to fix up the next patient, put out the next fire.

Pearce’s screenplay overflows with punchy neo-noir dialogue, enhancing the feeling of Hotel Artemis as a writerly movie. (Another sort of stagey conceit is that all the characters are referred to by codenames; for instance, Bautista’s hulking health care professional is Everest.) Pearce’s near-future world-building is nicely on the fringes; lived-in technology at the Hotel, breadcrumbs of backstory, and the not-so-subtle setup of an L.A. heading for dystopia.

If there’s a hang-up with the film, it’s that the screenplay is a little too eager to call back to itself and pay off previous moments and lines of dialogue. (This is a weird complaint, like the movie… fits together too well?) Also, there sure are a lot of life-changing things coincidentally happening on this one night. In the end, it’s safe to call these nitpicks.

Hotel Artemis is a rare beast in that it’s one of those movies that simply radiates “cool”, but it’s also got a lot of storytelling meat on the bones as well as humanity. It’s hard to overstate how marvelous Jodie Foster is in the movie, and Drew Pearce’s script is sharp enough to draw blood. In Pearce’s career prior to checking into the Artemis, he’s been paired with marquee writing talent on excellent blockbusters (with Shane Black on Iron Man Three, with Christopher McQuarrie on Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation), and now his directorial debut establishes him as a significant talent in his own right. I highly recommend this hotel on Expedia, Yelp, or your booking site of choice.

Deadpool 2 (2018) Mini-Review

Deadpool 2

At one point in Deadpool 2, Ryan Reynolds’ titular fourth-wall-breaking superantihero jokes about the first film’s box office figures relative to The Passion of the Christ. Delightful! After Deadpool gets ripped in half by his favorite comic book character, his lower half’s, shall we say, juvenile development becomes the object of much disgust from the other characters. Also delightful. Deadpool 2’s brand of humor can be a virtue, but the film also desperately wants to move the audience to great depths of feeling, and these conflicting impulses don’t mesh in this case, resulting in an emotionally disorienting experience.

Deadpool’s ability to make meta jokes about movies and particularly the one he stars in is a license for great fun, but it’s a double-edged sword. When one particular cliché is deployed with lengthy, sobering ramifications, you keep waiting for Deadpool of all people to skewer it. But Deadpool plays it almost entirely straight, and he’s led along on an inelegant emotional arc with heart forced in, reverse Temple of Doom-style. Such moments of emotion feel schematic – “this is the scene with earnest character development”, “this is the scene with heart”, etc. The first Deadpool, for all its foibles, has a blessedly straightforward narrative thrust and a much more successfully beating heart. By framing itself as a Valentine’s Day movie, the preceding film uses its central romance as its spine, even as it invents wonderful new profane phrases like “shit-spackled muppet fart.”

Deadpool 2 is also visually unappealing, all chrome and greasy grey. The hiring of director David Leitch was a hopeful sign, because I love Atomic Blonde, but the action is unengaging. The exception is where it involves Zazie Beetz’ Domino. After her luck powers are called out as “not very cinematic”, they prove to be the most cinematic thing in the film. Though to be fair, the X-Force parachuting sequence directly prior is an undeniable highlight. Deadpool’s “hit it”, timed with the perfectly synced warning lights and AC/DC needle drop, gives the feeling of a theme park thrill ride.

Amongst the chaos, my favorite running gag is Deadpool repeatedly accusing Cable (Josh Brolin) of being racist. Of course it’s delightful when Deadpool jokes about MCU superheroes, the DC universe, and Brolin’s other role as Thanos (my audience cheered at that). The James Bond title sequence is good, but a little passé. The mid-credits scenes are hysterical (but where’s my Blade Trinity shout-out as a movie where Ryan Reynolds’ character might be just as horny and quippy as Deadpool?). However, a major development occurs with wide-ranging implications not only for future movies but the one you’ve just watched, and casual viewers who leave at the top of the credits will miss some mighty fine dessert, because that’s what we call having our cake and eating it too.

Deadpool 2’s uneasy balance of slobbering silliness and big swings for deep pathos ends up undercutting them both. I love the idea of these Deadpool movies more than the movies themselves, which don’t stick the “superhero landing” for me. But maybe the greatest Deadpool movie of all is an experiential one that happens all around us. The marketing campaigns are better than the films themselves.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018) Film Review

We are creating the language necessary to react to Avengers: Infinity War. This is a film without precedent, ironically because it pays off eighteen preceding superhero stories. In the ten years between 2008’s Iron Man and 2018’s Infinity War, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has expanded by leaps and bounds, but now enters the Titan Thanos (Josh Brolin), whose goal is to contract it. Thanos seeks the six Infinity Stones, which together give him the power to instantaneously blink half the life in the universe out of existence, eliminating scarcity in one genocidal swoop. Opposing him: just about every superhero in the MCU. So this is a crowded movie where the villain’s plan is literally to de-clutter it.

Thanos

Like a season finale on TV, Infinity War requires a certain buy-in. In that light, the controlled chaos of the movie becomes impressive. It’s not the most perfectly balanced ensemble, but the fact that it’s elegant as it is counts as some minor miracle. (Some serious screenwriting heavy lifting from Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely.) While certain favorite characters (Chris Evans’ Steve Rogers, Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanoff, Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa) don’t get a whole lot to do, the writers know it’s their time to be a paragon, and that’s fine. Why not just soak in the applause when these characters merely show up and act? In top-heavy blockbusters, small details matter more, not less, and so it goes for screen time-challenged characters. Observe Steve running ahead of the vanguard of Wakandan warriors to the place of a true selfless soldier, and T’Challa’s warm greeting of M’Baku (Winston Duke), which carries the weight of a whole other movie behind it.

M'Baku T'Challa Bucky Barnes Steve Rogers

There is one fascinating detail about this ensemble. With the exception of the new children of Thanos (of which only the delightful Ebony Maw is given a personality) and Peter Dinklage’s character, every last speaking role is filled by a character returning from a previous movie. So the solution for accommodating a luxury liner’s worth of cast is to skip the usual authority figures, incidental professionals, and bit parts that populate any other movie. This is a payoff for MCU viewers in itself; for virtually the whole film, you will only be listening to people you already know.

Peter Quill Tony Stark

So, much of the joy of Infinity War is in seeing new combinations of characters bouncing off each other, and some of the interactions are perfect. Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) bickering with Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) is leavened by Peters Parker (Tom Holland) and Quill (Chris Pratt) talking movies. One of the best scenes of this movie is a quiet one between Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper/Sean Gunn), where Thor tries to put a brave face on his pain.

Thor Emotional Wringer

As rewarding as such moments are, there is no central figure among the heroes; screen time is democratized. The most time goes instead to Thanos. The tragedy and menace of the character are anchored by an exceptional motion capture performance by Brolin, making the six-year build-up to this villain worth the wait. It also helps to no end that existing characters we care about like Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Nebula (Karen Gillan) already have a personal stake with him, so when all involved are put through the emotional wringer, it all clicks into place. In particular, there’s one pivotal scene of high drama involving the Soul Stone, a big swing that all but crumbles the movie if it misses. *Click* It’s pure storytelling, giving all the quips and extended action beats around it a foundation to stand on.

Gamora

Last time the directing Russo brothers and writers Markus and McFeely collaborated in the MCU, they were in Captain America mode, in a world of espionage and statecraft. Now, the canvas is the universe, and that scope is taken advantage of. A fight with Thanos on the planet Titan is pure comic book gold. The finale in Wakanda balances brutality with applause moments. The tone turns on a dime from comic to heavy; it feels efficient rather than strained. And with so many beloved characters colliding in the film, there are countless wonderful moments and grace notes. Dave Bautista the funniest he has ever been as Drax; three big heroic moments from Elizabeth Olsen’s Wanda Maximoff; Shuri (Letitia Wright) upstaging Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo); Ebony Maw’s (Tom Vaughan-Lawlor) dismissiveness toward Stark and Strange, and so on it goes.

Wanda Maximoff

Juggling this many story threads takes a village. One member of that village is composer Alan Silvestri, whose score is at its best when focusing on Thanos’ pathos. As Thanos receives the Space Stone, a violin reminiscent of The Lord of the Rings One Ring theme elevates the moment. Just as the Soul Stone sacrifice is the centerpiece of the film, it’s also the centerpiece of the score, all bombastic pain and purpose. Early in the filmmaking process, the idea of using the whole range of character leitmotifs was vetoed, and I wonder if something was lost there. How cool would it have been to hear Brian Tyler’s Iron Man theme when Tony first activates the suit, Michael Giacchino’s Doctor Strange theme during particularly mystical action beats, or Silvestri’s own Captain America theme when Steve emerges from the shadows of a Scottish train station? At least part of Ludwig Göransson’s Black Panther theme is used to score the first glimpse of Wakanda, and of course, Silvestri’s own Avengers theme gets a few airings, eight notes that even casual fans can get stuck in their head.

Steve Rogers

Avengers: Infinity War is a roller coaster, funny as hell when clashing familiar personalities, but also showing a constant willingness to put them through the emotional wringer. Just as Thanos runs the gauntlet, reactions to this movie from casual viewers will run the gamut. Maybe the biggest stumbling block here is coming to terms with the new type of movie this is. While given a structure of its own, Infinity War is all third act, all a climax for the MCU at large. This film can’t stand up terribly well on its own, but in no way should it. For defying the odds and delivering thrills, chills, and coherence, the third Avengers movie is a unique accomplishment. 9/10.

 

P.S.: SPOILERS FOLLOW. No pretty end title design for this film, no curtain calls for the cast. Just plain and dignified white text and the Avengers: Infinity War title crumbling to dust. This is a Serious Film™. At movie’s end, Thanos has succeeded in wiping out half the life in the universe, including many of the Avengers; the heroes have utterly lost. (Unlike Rogue One, where everyone dies but the heroes still “win”.) Steve Rogers is reduced to a defeated “Oh god…”, delivered beautifully by Chris Evans. Ironically, maybe everyone should be more worried about those who are left behind than those who are dust.

Peter Parker School Bus

Fun fact: Peter’s dying pleas were improvised by Tom Holland.

P.P.S.: Peter Quill must kill Gamora. Thanos must kill Gamora. Wanda must kill Vision. The way things are going, must Pepper Potts kill Tony?

Tony Stark Emotional Wringer

One of the signature images of this movie.

P.P.P.S.: I’m making my way through the “Infinity Gauntlet” comic miniseries by Jim Starlin, and can confirm that at least one line of dialogue made it in. “My humble personage bows before your grandeur” was Mephisto in the comic, Ebony Maw in the film. Speaking of Ebony: When characterizing Thanos, the writers drew inspiration from Darth Vader, another iconic, tragic villain. Thanos’ line “You killed the Maw… This day extracts a heavy toll” works as an inversion of Vader’s line “This will be a day long remembered… It has seen the end of Kenobi, and will soon see the end of the Rebellion.” Thanos also positions himself as a viewer of the MCU himself, who takes decisive action to curb its growth. He knows of Tony and describes himself as being also “burdened with knowledge”, and upon killing Loki, declares, “No resurrections this time”, as if he saw Thor: The Dark World. This isn’t even a new idea; observe the mid-credits scene of Avengers: Age of Ultron, where Thanos sees Ultron’s failure to destroy the Avengers and says, “Fine – I’ll do it myself”.

Ebony Maw

“Your powers are insignificant next to mine.”

P.P.P.P.S.: After Wong gracefully ducked out of the action, did he order a metaphysical ham-on-rye?

The Death of Stalin (2018) Mini-Review

The Death of Stalin

The Death of Stalin is an inspired farce of political backstabbing, the manipulation of language, and Steve Buscemi’s failed attempts to hug Andrea Riseborough. Set while a (laugh-out-loud) power vacuum left by dictator Joseph Stalin’s death rocks the highest levels of Russia’s government, the film depicts a Central Committee who can’t agree on which of Stalin’s policies to reform, can barely decide who’s in charge, and upon finding their leader barely alive, not even whether to call a doctor.

The Russian politburo is a viper’s nest, a literal murderer’s row played by a figurative murderer’s row of talent (Buscemi, Michael Palin, Jason Isaacs…). The standouts of the cast are Simon Russell Beale as chief of the Soviet secret police Lavrentiy Beria (if anyone’s the villain in this roomful of monsters, it’s him) and Riseborough as Stalin’s grieving daughter Svetlana. Little parts are filled by recognizable British character actors, and in fact the cast is mostly British, using their own native accents rather than “playing Russian”. This decision helps the performances, while also making the events of the film oddly universal.

In case it’s not clear, The Death of Stalin is an extremely funny movie and a very successful comedy. But just by nature of its subject matter it is thematically fascinating too. Buscemi’s Nikita Khrushchev pointedly remarks that Beria is “bending and breaking the truth like it’s a human body”. There’s a comic runner that goes from the idea of photographing the new Secretary with a girl who was pictured with Stalin for a sense of continuity; to maybe using a fake one because they can’t find the real one; to finding the real one but deciding on a whim to go with the fake one anyways; and the beat goes on. It’s a microcosm of how these people grasp for integrity or authenticity but upon finding it, they edit it and twist it within an inch of its life. It’s easy to reduce this to the fake news thing, but this is so much more interesting.

There’s such an air of paranoia in the air that the wrong word to the wrong person, the wrong inflection, can get you arrested or shot. It makes the characters great verbal gymnasts, sometimes in a split second, which becomes endlessly entertaining to watch. The satirical tone is remarkably true to reality as well, with many of these weird incidents having actually happened. It’s a well-researched carnival show.

Armando Iannucci (director of the excellent In the Loop) shoots in a documentary style with disorienting elements, such as breaking the normal cinematographic rule of shooting conversations from one side. There’s one scene in particular where Jeffrey Tambor seems right on the edge of breaking character and laughing at the absurdity of it all. It’s easy to understand why; Iannucci and three co-writers (David Schneider, Ian Martin, and Peter Fellows) have crafted a hilarious screenplay, littered with funny barbs. Given the balance of comedy and darkness, the tone is an extended tightrope walk that lands as a rousing success.

The Death of Stalin, one of my favorite movies based on a true story, is also adapted from a French comic book, making it, incredibly, the best comic book movie of the year. As opposed to other reviews I’ve written, for great movies everyone knows, or bad movies a lot of people avoid, this is review as promotion. If fast-talking dark political satire is a mode you enjoy, watch a diamond example of the craft.

 

P.S.: As aforementioned, Simon Russell Beale is excellent as Beria, the nominal villain of the movie. That means my entire Supporting Actor field so far this year is villains – see also Michael B. Jordan in Black Panther and Hugh Grant in Paddington 2. Good job being bad.