Tag Archives: 5stars

Avengers: Endgame

[5 stars]

Who would have thought, watching that first tag at the end of Iron Man 11 years and 22 films ago, that today we’d be here? Talk about delayed gratification.

I didn’t rewatch all the films again, but I did rewatch all of Phase 3 in prep. Still an amazing trip. Thor is certainly the odd one out in flavor and Black Panther is still not my favorite (though its resonance has changed for me again in the last year with our own political mess), but as a whole the sequence continues the huge landscape and story. It has to be said, though he left after Age of Ultron, the success and structure of this audacious and incredible ride owes a huge amount to Joss Whedon’s grand vision of architecture.

And that is where this movie shines. Christopher Markus
and Stephen McFeely, writers of the entire Captain America sequence and Infinity War, landed this saga beautifully. It is a tight three acts loaded with humor and drama, and the biggest sequences since The Hobbit or Dunkirk in terms of battles. The Russos did a great job directing it all, never losing the pacing nor the sensibility of the characters. I can’t recall the last time an audience had so much spontaneous applause and tears.

Despite being over three hours, the movie doesn’t feel long at all. Every character gets their moments and resolutions and nothing is easy. And even the forced moments work because you want them to be there. Markus and McFeely also, almost, manage to get out of it all without a paradox, gap, or gaff. Just don’t pick at it too much, there was no way to avoid some of the issues they ran into. If there is any real ding on Endgame as a film, it is that it doesn’t and can’t stand on its own. Without the lead up (forgetting even the Infinity War cliffhanger) it would be obvious something is going on, but not what. That isn’t a bad thing for a finale, it just is being honest.

Anticipation couldn’t have been much higher for this movie, which concludes the emotional and character arc of Phase 3 of the MCU for so many characters and marks a change in direction for the stories. What that change will be remains to be seen in the official end to the Phase in Spider-Man: Far From Home. It has been floated that the overarching stories aren’t going to continue, though some characters are getting series on Disney+. I have to say, I am worried that they cannot sustain the franchise with that approach and thinking. It shows a lack of comprehension of what made the last 11 years one of the grandest adventures and experiments in movies.

I did see Endgame in IMAX 3D for this first go-round. It was worth it. The story is huge and gorgeously shot. The 3D is subtle rather than cheap most of the time. Most of the f/x are seamless, though some of the Hulk’s moments are a little threadbare. But definitely the way to go with this movie, at least once. Now, get yourself out there and see it before you get the story spoiled. You’ll only get to experience it once without knowledge, enjoy the surprises. And while there are video tags during the credits, there is an audio tag that is causing much discussion and little confirmation as to the meaning.

Captain Marvel

[4.5 stars]

Here we are at the penultimate breath bridging Infinity War and Endgame. A pause and some historical background to fill in missing pieces and characters before the final battle. And it is also our first peek at what a post Phase 3 MCU might be like with a whole new feel and rhythm, even if the journey is the same iconic trail. Collaborating directors and co-writers Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (It’s Kind of a Funny Story) built on the sense and structure of Guardians of the Galaxy, but made it their own giving us an action-packed and humor-filled romp.

DC may have beat the mouse house to the screen with Wonder Woman, but Marvel built a better character and story, not to mention put women in almost every major power role of consequence. Brie Larson (The Glass Castle) tops that bill, landing a solid super hero out of what comes perilously close to not working. But a little trust, earned by the directors, lets you ride any concerns to understanding and support for the choices.

Larson carries the story and film, but is joined by several other women in key roles. A staid and smart Annette Bening (The Seagull) has a wonderful dual role. Lashana Lynch (Still Star-Crossed) adds some heart and grit as her fighter-pilot buddy. Even Lynch’s on-screen daughter, Akira Akbar, is a female of consequence in the story. All of these women stand on their own and drive as well as participate in the tale.

The men in this film are pretty much all sidekicks for Larson. On Earth, that is Samuel L. Jackson (Glass), who gives a good look at the early days of Fury. There are also a few moments of Clark Gregg’s (Spinning Man) as a newbie Agent Coulson.  And, of course, there is Jude Law (Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald) in a mentor role guiding, but never quite controlling Larson’s actions.

Larson’s initial team also includes some fun performances by Rune Temte (Eddie the Eagle), Djimon Hounsou (Same Kind of Different as Me) and, in one of the surprise performances in the movie for me, Gemma Chan (Crazy Rich Asians). Chan really stood out for me as trying on and delivering something new. We’re so used to seeing her quiet and controlled rather than as a kick-ass, warrior. I barely  recognized her even though I knew she was in the cast.

The movie isn’t perfect. Some of the plotting and character choices seemed convenient rather than real, though others really did work…eventually. But there were things that threw me. The beauty work on Jackson and Gregg was very disturbing at first. It got better as the movie went on, but it was a heck of a distraction initially. Ben Mendelsohn’s (Robin Hood) accent was a weird choice and felt a tad forced. And the inevitable return of Lee Pace (The Book of Henry) was interesting, but somehow felt a little off from the character we know, even though he appears on the same path. And the humor occasionally clunks or is too predictable to be as funny as they’d hoped. And the hand-to-hand fights aren’t filmed as cleanly as I’d have liked.

Like I said, it isn’t perfect, but overall it is damned fun and it holds together even when you think it won’t. It answers a lot of questions, raises more, and sets us up for the end of an historic 11-year cycle of movies. It even plays homage to Stan Lee in a couple of nice ways (starting with the opening). And for a couple of somewhat newish directors/writers, it is proof again that Marvel can find lesser known talent for those roles and give them the opportunity to run a successful blockbuster while giving us an new voice to enjoy.

Most importantly, Captain Marvel begins to build a path beyond the end of that huge arc, showing there are possibilities and stories still to go after some of our favorites have been primarily retired. And, of course, there are extra scenes, so stay till the very end.

Golem

[4.5 stars]

Not long ago, the 1927 Theatre Company recorded and aired their brilliant new take on the Golem tale. It is an astounding piece of stage craft that incorporates live talent and animation with a bit of music and movement thrown in. The story, in this conception, is about the control of media and commerce over humanity. The troop tell the story in a closed loop, spinning around the story of Robert, played  engagingly, and with spare irony, by Philippa Hambly.

Along with four other on-stage performers (Dunne Genevieve, Nathan Gregory, Rowena Lennon, and Felicity Sparks), the troop begin a story that you think you know, but which turns on you even as it makes your eyes and brain dance. The duality of what is happening on stage and how they are keeping you entranced is no accident. It is mesmerizing and pointed.

I have no idea if this will ever stream again or if it will be available on disc, but make time for it if you get the opportunity. Honestly, there are few stage productions that can really blow me away. This one had my jaw dropping constantly at the illusion, the humor, and the message. It’s not perfect, but it is darned close, and it is worth every minute you get to spend with it…and sadly that is ephemeral.

Roma

[4.5 stars]

This is one of the most affecting portrayals of real life I’ve seen. It is heartwarming and heartbreaking, occasionally terrifying and always engaging. It’s filmed with an ease and relaxed eye that provides a moving window on the action without ever letting you get too comfortable with that view. In some ways it evokes the Italian classic The Tree of Wooden Clogs, but with a more complete story to share. 

A lot of the success of the film is down to newcomer Yalitza Aparicio, who is the center of it all. It is a great entree into film for her. She is engaging and honest on screen, full of depths that are sometimes stirred, but often left to build up with sediment that we watch rain down on her. Our view of her life is uncompromising, but her openness is disturbingly inviting to us as voyeurs. 

Roma is unique in a lot of ways. As primarily a streaming movie from a major director it raised eyebrows (and a lot of awards). As a black & white presentation in a high-def-color world, it forces a sense of nostalgia and provides a gorgeous pallet. As a moment in history, regarding immigration and inequality, it is timely. And, as a piece of film, it is nearly the complete vision of a single man. Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity) was director, writer, cinematographer, and editor as well as producer on Roma. It makes this film a wonderfully personal and whole concept. It allowed Cuarón to take his time setting scenes and telling the story exactly as he intended without someone else’s filter being layered on. Of course, as a single vision, it is a tiny bit bloated and could probably have been trimmed ever so slightly. But it only shaves a tiny bit off the perfection of its final form. 

If you can see this on one of the rare big screen showings, make the time. It is beautiful visually. However, it still works on a reasonably sized television as well. But no matter how you see it, make time for this film. It will slowly enfold you in its arms before battering you around a bit; but it is full of hope as well as tragedy. It is, above all, human. 

Doctor Who: Resolution

[5 stars]

It took Chris Chibnall all season 11 to get there, but with this first ever New Year’s episode (rather than a Christmas one) he has finally nailed the rhythm and feel of the series, making it his. With Jamie Childs directing, it all came together with humor, adventure, and emotion galore. And it was a beautiful thing to see, not to mention boding well for the upcoming series 12.

I won’t spoil it here, just know it is a nice holiday gift to the fans and a solid, special to bridge the seasons building off what we’ve already seen. The only sad thing is having to wait till 2020 for the next sequence to begin.

 

Black Mirror: Bandersnatch

[5 stars]

For anyone who thought Netflix was just an aggregator or simple studio, think again. They just created a whole new set of goal posts for the competition and for mass entertainment.

OK, I’ll admit, my rating is high here, in part, because of the technology and novelty of the piece, but Avatar got that kind of reaction as well, and let’s face it, that script and story were appallingly bad.  But Bandersnatch has a good script, is very clever and fun…and I can’t wait to watch it again. My first time through, even with multiple loop-backs, I hit a 90min version, which is likely close to the happy path, even though that wasn’t my intention.

Fionn Whitehead (queers.) drives the movie with a bit more excess energy than is probably needed, but it is certainly consistent. As his father, BBC serial standard Craig Parkinson (Line of Duty) gets to ride a roller-coaster of a part, much depending on your selections moment to moment. Similarly, Alice Lowe (Sherlock) gets to have some fun as Whitehead’s therapist. But those two stabilizing beams in the story aside, a real special mention has to go to Will Poulter (The Little Stranger), who completely transformed himself for his role; he wears the accent and British intellectual toff rather well.

Of course this twisted piece of mental suspense came from the mind of the Charlie Brooker, creator and writer of the Black Mirror series. Brooker always puts technology at the center of his stories, though what makes them work is how the characters respond to that tech. Making tech part of the experience now is just a natural evolution of his approach. Director David Slade (HannibalAmerican Gods) took Brooker’s vision, and its many branches, to create a series of paths and endings that all feel right for the story at hand and Black Mirror generally. I found three endings on my first watch, looping back each time to try something else. Each was satisfying, though there is clearly an intended ending that is very much in Brooker’s vein.

You can’t even think about Bandersnatch without thinking about how it was made and delivered. And, of course, the technology is bloody amazing. Sure it watches sort of like a high-end video game. But it plays like a movie and the transitions are visually seamless. Angel Devoid tried to do this years ago, but hardware quirks and other weaknesses left it working only marginally well. Bandersnatch is the payout on the promise of branching movies, and manages to do it at scale. That achievement is pretty astounding when you think of the number of concurrent watchers, each making their own choices, and no one seeing a break in the action. There are some drawbacks to how it all works. For instance, you have to watch it on a supported device and you are forced to break the wall between you and screen by being involved. However, neither overwhelms the piece and the latter works into your watching experience interesting ways given the plot.

But, tech aside, it is an engaging and interesting story. The mystery is thick and the stakes are high from near the very beginning. There are some obvious aspects to it all, especially if you’re a Black Mirror fan, but not so many or much that it ruins the fun. The story is  highly rewatchable as well. I know there are huge chunks of info I’ve yet to unearth and I absolutely intend to go back and find them all. Once you see the movie, you’ll understand the delicious irony in that as well. I wouldn’t want a steady diet of this kind of entertainment, but an occasional, well-done piece would always be welcome.

Make time for Bandersnatch…it is history in the making, no matter how the eventual reception of it goes.

 

Welcome to Marwen

[4.5 stars]

It’s easy and obvious to go to the musicals, the comedies, and the action films over the holidays. But if you don’t make time for this most unique and wonderful of stories, you’re cheating yourself.

Welcome to Marwen is entertaining, challenging, and hopeful. And a lot of the reason for that success is Steve Carell (Battle of the Sexes), who continues to prove his mettle as a serious actor. In this incarnation he is as vulnerable and powerful as ever; his performance will rip out your heart and hand it back to you reinforced.

Along with Carell are several women, some of whom barely, if ever, show up as anything other than dolls. Merritt Wever (Nurse Jackie) and Leslie Mann (Rio 2) are chief among those in his real life that need be mentioned. Both have engaging stories of their own that intersect with Carell’s Hogancamp, but it is their way of dealing with him that makes them stand out. Though Gwendoline Christie (The Darkest Minds) has a wonderful cameo that really pops as well.

The rest of the cast, particularly those that appear mostly or only as dolls are good, but they are very much there to move the plot along more than anything else. Even Diane Kruger’s (In the Fade) Deja is more impetus than real. That doesn’t diminish the work of any of the men or women, such as Janelle Monáe (Moonlight), it simply acknowledges where they live in the story.

Robert Zemeckis (The Walk) has finally found the perfect story for his motion capture tech. The odd flatness of the rendering is perfect for dolls. The effect feeds into the experience rather than fighting it as has often been the case in his previous movies like Polar Express or Beowulf. The story itself is also a nice match for his emotional sensibility. Zemeckis unfolds the story at its own pace, bringing us to a cathartic and bittersweet end that is both unavoidable and wonderful. The fact that it is also a true story only makes it more magical and inspiring.

The only reason I couldn’t give this 5 stars was that there are some dropped threads in the otherwise brilliant script. It takes it just a tad off perfect, but doesn’t diminish the story. This isn’t like anything else you’re likely to see this season, or any season. Make time for Marwen. Let it open your mind and your heart.

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

[4.5 stars]

Talk about an unexpected treat. This film has so much going for it: action-packed, visually inventive, well acted, clever story. Amusingly, some of these are also to its detriment, especially the visually inventive aspect. But the sum total is that it is a sure-fire hit and a near lock for the Best Animation Oscar this year, with all due respect to Incredibles 2.

The cast is loaded with talent; a list too long to completely discuss. But none really stand out either. The film is a wonderfully balanced ensemble, not a collection of star voices covered by ink. That said, Shameik Moore (Dope), as Miles Morales, in the lead keeps the story pumping along with his naivete and strength. Through him we get to experience Spidey’s origin story again (and again, and again) but without it feeling like a cheap reboot. And that’s saying something for the most rebooted storyline in current cinema (though Batman and/or Superman may exceed Spidey, now that I consider the statement).

It isn’t giving anything away to say there are other Spider people. Jake Johnson (The Mummy) and Hailee Steinfeld (The Edge of Seventeen) stand out in that crowded and entertaining field . And Morales’s extended family is top-lined by Mahershala Ali (Green Book) and Lily Tomlin (Grandma). And that’s just the beginning of the talent list. On the other side of the plot, Kathryn Hahn (Hotel Transylvania 3) and Liev Schreiber (Everything is Illuminated) bring some humor and darkness to the evil side of Spidey’s world. The rest should just be a surprise.

Phil Lord, half the team behind the unexpected hit The Lego Movie, clearly loves the material and the world of comics generally. It is in every aspect of the film. And that, in part, is what I meant by it is both a strength and a weakness. The movie literally looks like a comic, with overlayed shading dots on the surface of everything, word bubbles at times, framed action panels, and even turning pages. While visually engaging, it also kept knocking me out of the movie and the action. It was too self-conscious and never really quite allowed it to just be a movie. It was a movie-comic. That isn’t necessarily bad. Lord has succeeded in doing something directors and writers have been trying to do for decades: He’s manifested the comic book experience on the screen beautifully. Only a true lover of graphic novels could have done that. Lord borrowed and expanded his lessons on The Lego Movie very nicely.

Bottom-line is that this is an amazingly fun and funny movie. Unexpected in almost every way, even while cleaving to the tropes and stories we know, love, and expect. In Dolby Cinema it was glorious and bone-rattling (despite two rather important moments being marred by loss of sound during my showing–shame on you, AMC). Whether or not you think you like animation, this isn’t what you expect or assume. I admit, I didn’t expect this to be more than a cheap cash-grab at more of the Spidey universe, but it really is something new and wonderful for audiences of pretty much all ages above age 9.

The Wife

[5 stars]

It is rare to find a near-perfect movie, from the acting to the writing to the directing. The Wife is in that category and you need to see it.

First and foremost, it is brilliantly acted by Glenn Close (Crooked House). Close dominates this film but for a single scene where, by design, Elizabeth McGovern (The Commuter) takes over. Jonathan Pryce (Breaking Glass, Game of Thrones) manages the tricky job of being at the center of the on-screen action, but ceding the focus to Closes’s title character. All around the couple are a host of well cast supporting players. Even the petulant portrayal of the son by Max Irons (Terminal) slots in wonderfully.

And while the performance alone are worth taking the time to see The Wife, that is only part of its worth and power.

Björn  Runge directed this drama wonderfully. He reminds us of what an art form the media really is. For, while Jane Anderson’s (Olive Kitteridge) script is very natural, believable, and subtle, it is Björn Runge’s direction  and choices that make it work. While the dialogue unrolls on screen, it is the small looks, the action in the background, and the slowly building tension that drive the tale, rarely the words themselves. This is a movie of almost pure subtext, delivered through visual cues and great acting. I do, however, give Anderson credit for her adaptation of a book that must have been loaded with internal dialogue and making that work on screen.

And then there is the ephemeral aspect of timing of this move that helps set it apart. Not to confuse things, this film would have been good at any time it was released. However, the themes are also pitch-perfect for the current times in ways that would have been hard to predict and which resonate in wonderful and uncomfortable ways.

Make time for The Wife so you know why you’re going to hear so much about it during awards season. Close is brilliant, a study in subtlety and determination. The movie gripping and inexorable. The results powerful. It approaches cinematic perfection in terms of craft and will leave you breathless through its inexorable and accelerating pace that picks you up and carries you along to the final punch. Now, forget all the hyperbole and just go let it do its thing on screen for you while it is out there to see.

Green Book

[5 stars]

I know it is tempting to just head to the big tentpole movies this time of year. We all need and want distraction, not to mention transportation to something that is just fun. But you need to make time for this small but wonderful gem of a flick.

You may be worried that this is just another biopic about race relations, and it is to a degree. Or that is is manipulative or preachy; it isn’t, though it certainly exposes uncomfortable truths. But what this film is really about is the friendship of two men who know little about each other, but assume a great deal. It is full of humor as well as pathos.

In fact, if you had told me that Peter Farrelly, the director of Three Stooges and Dumb and Dumber To could be responsible for such an affecting and effective piece of humor and history, I’d have guffawed. And not in an ironic way. But Farraelly did a brilliant job directing the subject, writing the script (along with Nick Vallelonga and Brian Currie), and in casting the actors.

Mahershala Ali (Moonlight)  and Viggo Mortensen (Captain Fantastic)  both turn in brilliant and effortless performances. Along with Linda Cardellini (A Simple Favor), Iqbal Theba, and a host of smaller performances, the era, cultures, and story come into sharp relief. And, yes, it is predictable at times, but in a satisfying way; more like delayed gratification than cliché.

Green Book has already started to accrue awards, and I can guarantee you’ll be hearing about it come Oscar time. It is beautifully crafted, balanced, and just honest enough to make its points. More importantly, it stays focused on the relationships rather than the politics (though those come through clearly too).

This is a must see film for its entertainment…the reminder of how little time has passed, and how much still needs to change is just a bonus.

Addendum:  Watching Ali play piano (or fake-play it, as the case is) is a wonder. You honestly can’t tell he isn’t playing. Not just because he spent hours learning the movements with the composer so he could get it right, but because he also nailed the posture and movements both on and off the bench. Unlike Moore’s Bel Canto, Ali’s performance is utterly complete in this respect. That he didn’t pull a La La Land like Gosling doesn’t detract from the performance because it is seamless in every respect.