Movie Review ~ Marriage Story


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A stage director and his actor wife struggle through a grueling, coast-to-coast divorce that pushes them to their personal and creative extremes.

Stars: Scarlett Johansson, Adam Driver, Laura Dern, Merritt Wever, Ray Liotta, Julie Hagerty, Martha Kelly

Director: Noah Baumbach

Rated: R

Running Length: 136 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: Relationships are hard.  We all know this because we’ve all been in one and understand the complexities that go into forming a bond with someone and the work necessary in keeping those home fires burning.  Even if you love the person deeply, there are times when you need to remember the reason why you got together in the first place.  These are internal feelings hard to express not just to an outside observer but to yourself.  Now add in a shared career, living space, and the livelihood of another human being and you have a little more of an idea how much a marriage ups those stakes.

Marriage Story isn’t the first movie to explore the crumbling of a union, nor will it be the last but it’s the first one I can remember that seems to have found a way to believably get inside the hearts, minds, and psyche of two people that have decided to call it quits.  The reasons aren’t cut and dry, they haven’t been given Hollywood-ized rationales for parting ways but instead are balancing carefully weighed and emotionally resonant choices that, for at least one of them, have been agonized over.  There’s no early dramatic spike where one announces to the other “I want a divorce”, when the movie opens we’re already in that space and that’s how writer/director Noah Baumbach invites us into the private lives of a family navigating an unknown space.

Successful New York theater director Charlie (Adam Driver, The Dead Don’t Die) and his wife Nicole (Scarlett Johansson, Under the Skin) have enjoyed building up their small theater company over the past decade.  She’s a former Hollywood actress that left the glitz for something more challenging and gritty, finding that in Charlie’s creative work environment.  They have a son, Henry (Azhy Robertson), and a seemingly pleasant life suggested by opening voice-overs by the two in which they extol what they like most about the other.  Turns out this is all an exercise used in mediation to facilitate an easy separation.  Charlie has hurt Nicole and she’s asked for a divorce.  She’s accepted an offer to film a pilot in L.A. and will be taking Henry with her while she films the show, Charlie will stay behind to bring their latest production to Broadway.

As the movie unfolds and a planned amicable separation turns ugly, the husband and wife become unlikely adversaries.  As parents, they become spiteful and their collaborative friendship sours.  Charlie leaned on Nicole more than he knew and when she withdraws that support he understands, slowly and too late, all that she sacrificed.  When Nicole hires a cutthroat lawyer (Laura Dern, The Fault in Our Stars), the gloves come off; small incidents become fodder for character assassinations and negotiations on living arrangements bring out the worst in everyone.  Charlie enlists the assistance of two lawyers, one (Alan Alda, The Longest Ride) is more pragmatic of the situation and the other (Ray Liotta, The Iceman) isn’t afraid to get down in the mud with Nicole’s attorney.  One guess who he winds up paying a hefty retainer to.

Many have compared the film (in small theatrical release now and streaming on Netflix) to 1979’s divorce drama Kramer vs. Kramer and they aren’t so off the mark.  That film is decidedly more focused on the man’s point of view and Marriage Story has a more even keel, never quite taking the side of either party but leaning every so slightly into the Nicole camp for the majority of the 136 minute running length.  Charlie is going to frustrate a lot of people (disagreeing, my partner and I had a long discussion about him after) because many of the problems with the marriage seem to stem from his lack of self-awareness regarding putting his own needs above others.  I don’t necessarily disagree with that call out, but there’s a difference between being knowingly self-centered and simply lacking the skills to separate what is important now from what is important in the long run.  Charlie falls into that latter category.

It’s not a huge secret Baumbauch (Mistress America) drew inspiration from his own shaky divorce from actress Jennifer Jason Leigh when composing this film.  I’m not sure how much she’d appreciate this movie or how much of Nicole is drawn with her in mind but Nicole is often shown as quietly harboring resentment that she later wields at her ex-husband in sometimes cruel ways.  True, it could be a justified way of exerting some power for the first time when she felt powerless for so long, but it doesn’t always make her look like the better party.  It helps innumerably that Johansson gives Nicole layers upon layers of nuance, peeling back each cover for us and showing a refreshed person underneath.  The wife in a divorce is often relegated to a cliche but Baumbach works with Johansson to make this wife more than just a woman breaking free from a joyless union or nobly taking back her hard-won freedom, this is a woman simply saying she wants a different life and having the confidence and courage to make it happen.

Speaking of Johansson, in the same year she was so great in Jojo Rabbit, this is arguably the best work she’s ever done and it’s a performance that doesn’t peak early.  Though a lengthy speech to Dern may feel like her big moment she has more surprising scenes throughout and it’s a wonder to watch her work.  She has believable chemistry with Driver and I bought the two had formed a family with Robertson and felt that twinge of guilt she experienced when she was breaking up that unit.  I struggle with the popularity of Driver, failing to truly understand why he’s as universally acclaimed as he is and for much of the movie I just wasn’t getting the sewn up Best Actor buzz that followed him with this movie.  The final thirty minutes, however, had some pretty powerful scenes for Driver to play and he works them, especially an emotionally on-the-nose Sondheim song, like a master.  I’m not sure it’s an Oscar slam-dunk as others do, but it’s certainly worthy of recognition.  What I am scratching my head on is the fiery buzz around Dern’s divorce attorney.  Now, you won’t find a bigger Dern supporter than myself and while I found her to be a strong supporting player along with Alda, Liotta, Julie Hagerty (as Nicole’s mom), Merritt Weaver (Welcome to Marwen, as Nicole’s sister), and Martha Kelly (Spider-Man: Homecoming, as a hilariously deadpan social worker), but is this an Oscar-winning role? No way.  Dern can do this kind of role in her sleep and I found it sadly lacking in the kind of levels that I normally would look to an Oscar-winning performance to showcase.

Written and directed by a man that went through a difficult divorce, Marriage Story could easily have been a way to exorcise some frustrations of that experience but instead Baumbach has brought forth a sensitive and at times understated exploration of separation.  Not just the legal pieces or the physical distance between the families but the emotional aspects of what happens when people are removed from the lives of others.  They say divorce is like a death and it’s the most telling in two moments from the movie.  One scene a character looks on a wall and sees family pictures in which they are well represented, later on after all is said and done they visit the same wall and they have completely disappeared, like they never existed at all.  It’s one of the saddest moments Baumbach captures.

The Silver Bullet ~ Black Widow (2020)

Synopsis: A prequel featuring Natasha Romanoff set between the events of Captain America: Civil War and Avengers: Infinity War.

Release Date:  May 1, 2020

Thoughts: If you have yet to see Avengers: Endgame, I’m going to drop a spoiler so you may want to just watch the new trailer for Black Widow after reading my thoughts in a nutshell: this looks fun, it’s about time, what took so long?

If you’re still with me, you’re aware that Natasha Romanoff aka Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson, Jojo Rabbit) sacrificed herself for the lives of her friends in Avengers: Endgame and could be wondering why she’s starring in her own movie.  Well, this long overdue movie focusing on her popular character is taken from an earlier adventure during less dire circumstances.  Fans have been wanting this movie for a while and it’s too bad we had to wait until Natasha was snuffed out to get a stand-alone film but perhaps the wait could be worth it.  Boasting fun names like Rachel Weisz (The Favourite), David Harbour (Hellboy), and rising star Florence Pugh (Midsommar), I’m hoping this is more than a tired superhero one-off.

Movie Review ~ Jojo Rabbit

1


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A young boy in Hitler’s army finds out his mother is hiding a Jewish girl in their home.

Stars: Roman Griffin Davis, Scarlett Johansson, Sam Rockwell, Rebel Wilson, Thomasin McKenzie, Alfie Allen, Taika Waititi, Stephen Merchant

Director: Taika Waititi

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 108 minutes

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review: As I was watching Jojo Rabbit a few weeks back one thought kept running through my mind and it was this: “Gosh, I hope people get this is satire when they see this.”  Now, I’m not saying our society has become overly sensitive and far be it from me to use a gross phrase like ‘cancel culture’ with any literal purpose in my review but let’s face it, in the past few years there’s been a strange urge to jump on seemingly innocuous thoughts, words, and deeds and make them into what they aren’t.  Plenty of ideas and texts are out there that were obviously meant to harm, so it takes a little restraint to step back and look at the big picture to separate the serious from the satire.

Jojo Rabbit is a clear satire of anti-hate rhetoric and it couldn’t be clearer of its intentions.  Yet I sat through the screening so worried that no one was going to get the joke and take the film literally.  There are some horrific jokes concerning Nazis, concentration camps, genocide, and misogyny (to name but a few) yet they are presented in such a way that if you aren’t in on the joke you might be squirming in your seat during the opening credits when young Jojo (Roman Griffin Davis) skips with carefree glee around his tiny German village “heil-ing” all his friends and neighbors.  I admit it took me a few introductory scenes to thoroughly settle into writer/director Taika Waititi’s sardonic structure before I gave over fully.  Once I did, I found a lot of heart in addition to the laughs.

A 10-year old member of the Hitler Youth, Jojo is off to his first training camp with his best friend Yorki (an adorably scene-stealing Archie Yates) and his imaginary best friend, Adolf Hitler (Waititi, Thor: Ragnarok).  With Hitler as his imaginary friend, you can imagine the kind of pep talks Jojo gets as he begins his service and in Waititi’s hands Hitler is presented as an easily excitable, petulant, man-child that provides Jojo some moral support but not always the best guidance.  Teased at camp for his sensitive nature in an arena of hate, he gets the nickname Jojo Rabbit from his fellow Nazi buds and makes a bold gesture as a way to show them he’s stronger than he looks.  When an injury sidelines Jojo, he’s put to work in the office of Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell, Vice) distributing propaganda while his single mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson, Under the Skin) works to make ends meet.

Often left at home alone, Jojo is surprised to discover his mother has hidden a young girl (Thomasin McKenzie, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies) in the walls…and she’s Jewish.  Having lost her parents and everyone else she cares about to the war, Elsa has no one to depend on but Rosie’s kindness and has developed a steely exterior that matches well with Jojo’s extreme indifference to a girl he feels he’s supposed to hate on sight.  With imaginary Hitler encouraging Jojo to study this girl so he can file a detailed report later on (in a manifesto with a title that becomes a running joke), Jojo gets closer to her and both find out they have more in common than they think…or what they’ve been taught to think.

For all the comedic elements to Jojo Rabbit, there’s an even deeper emotional core running through the center of the movie and I was surprised as how moving the film becomes as it goes on.  With several unexpected twists (and one downright jaw-dropping one), Waititi keeps audiences involved with Jojo and Elsa’s story but never lets them get ahead of the action.  We all know how the war ended but I had no idea where their stories would wind up.  The outcome surprised me and was par for the course with the rest of the film which never followed the path I thought it would.

Walking the fine line of comedy are a strong roster of actors, some appearing only in brief cameos.  Stephan Merchant (Logan) and Rebel Wilson (Isn’t It Romantic) may pop in for a moment but they each get at least one hefty laugh; Wilson in particular gets one of the best jokes in the entire movie.  While I like Rockwell and feel he’s been on a nice roll the past few years, his role here skewed a bit too farcical compared to the other players.  On the other hand, I often struggle with Johansson but found her work as Jojo’s strong-willed but vulnerable mother to be incredibly moving.  The real stars are McKenzie and Griffin who carry the film with conviction – two young talents handling difficult subject matter but doing so with a mature sophistication.  Really stellar work.

Expected to be a major player at the Oscars, Jojo Rabbit won the People’s Choice Award at the 2019 Toronto Film Festival. In the last 11 years, 10 of the winners have received a Best Picture Oscar Nomination.  It will certainly divide people and that’s a good thing because even with the satire carefully identified it might not be the movie for you, but I’d hate to see the movie discounted solely for the fact that people didn’t get it’s sardonic tones.  Waititi adapted, produced, directed, and stars in this and deserves some credit for magically making something so audacious work so well.

Movie Review ~ Avengers: Endgame


The Facts
:

Synopsis: After the devastating events of Avengers: Infinity War, the universe is in ruins. With the help of remaining allies, the Avengers assemble once more in order to undo Thanos’ actions and restore order to the universe.

Stars: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson, Scarlett Johansson, Chris Hemsworth, Anthony Mackie, Paul Bettany, Elizabeth Olsen, Chadwick Boseman, Gwyneth Paltrow, Sebastian Stan

Director: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 181 minutes

TMMM Score: (9.5/10)

Review: My advice right off the bat for all of you planning on seeing Avengers: Endgame is not just to avoid spoilers but to avoid any liquids for several hours before the show. This will save you the hard decision on when is the best time to run to the bathroom and let you fully enjoy this grand finale from the creative minds at Marvel Studios. After 22 films and more than 10 years, the time has come to finally close the book on the Marvel Cinematic Univerise as we currently know it. Don’t get me wrong, there are certainly more stories to be told and countless movies to be made but there won’t ever be a time when all of the characters we have come to know and love (and maybe not care for at all) will be in the same film at the same time.

While this review will not contain any spoilers for Avengers: Endgame, it’s hard to discuss this movie without giving away key plot points from 2018’s Avengers: Infinity War. Read on with confidence that your enjoyment of Avengers: Endgame isn’t going to be spoiled in advance.

First, a refresher.

At the end of Avengers: Infinity War the big purple baddie Thanos (Josh Brolin, Oldboy) had achieved his goal of gathering the six infinity stones and used them to wipe out half of the population on earth. With a snap of his fingers, Thanos “dusted” some of our beloved characters who were part of the unlucky 50% that were collateral damage in a misguided attempt at population control. As seen in subsequent films Ant-Man and The Wasp and Captain Marvel, no one was spared with people either turning into particles carried away on the air or left behind to mourn their fallen loved ones.

Avengers: Endgame starts so casually (the Marvel Studios logo and title card appear at well-timed points later) that I wasn’t even sure the movie had begun. It’s like the days when you had a double-VHS to watch and just popped in the tape and things picked up right where you left off. Suddenly, you’re just back in it like a whole year hadn’t passed since the last movie ended. Picking up with a character we haven’t seen in some time, the movie quickly moves forward in establishing where our heroes are and takes its time in bringing them back together again.

Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely have wisely been given the time to really explore the lasting effects on all who remain and convey to us their feeling of loss. Just like audience members were left all torn up after the snap from Thanos, so too are these super men and women who don’t know how to move on from the tragedy. While much of the 181 minute run time is devoted to amazing action sequences and visual effects that represent the tippy top of quality yet seen in these films, there’s almost an equal amount of space given to continue to give these comic book characters a dramatic arc that feel completely earned at this point.

The film kicks into high gear when an Avenger feels like they’ve figured out the key to identifying what happened to the people that disappeared…and gathers the group together for a final mission that will take them to places, emotions, and alternate dimensions heretofore unexplored. Much the way the previous film found a creative method in pairing up the Avengers to divide and conquer, directors Anthony and Joe Russo juggle multiple storylines without ever letting things fall by the wayside or allowing audiences to get ahead of the action. Two hours into the movie and I still had no idea how it was all going to end.

End it does, though, and with the kind of rousing action and developments that feel just even if they sting.   Every fan has a theory of who will survive until the credits and who might emerge as a new leader but I would say that you shouldn’t go into the movie trying to figure out how things will wrap up. Stay present in the moment and leave it to the writers and directors because they have your ultimate best interest (and entertainment) at heart.

As has been the case over the entire series of films, the impressive cast roster is what truly sets the Marvel films apart. Leading the pack is Robert Downey Jr. (The Judge) as Tony Stark/Iron Man. We’ve seen Tony grow from cocky businessman to cocky hero to cocky recruiter of future Avengers and his investment in this last film is right up there with his all-time best work. The character could easily have become abrasive and unlikable but Downey has always managed to keep him just ever so slightly on the tolerable edge as tough but lovable. There’s also good work from Chris Evans (The Iceman) who we’ve seen become a leading man before our eyes. Evans wasn’t always the most interesting actor in films but he’s shown such growth since he first took up Captain America’s shield that you know that whether he continues with the films or not (I’m not telling!) he’ll have another career in films where he isn’t always in battle with foes from space.

Continued good work from Chris Hemsworth (Rush) as Thor shows how the actor came back from having a character start off shaky until he finally found his rhythm and made the Norse god something memorable and unexpectedly funny. After two previous Hulks failed to make the role their own, I’m eternally grateful that Mark Ruffalo (Foxcatcher) was enlisted to take over way back in The Avengers. And if you can’t get enough of Scarlett Johansson’s (Under the Skin) Black Widow and her ever changing hairstyles you won’t have to wait too long as a standalone origin film centered on her and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner, Tag) is about to go into production.

As for the rest of the supporting players, you can’t throw a gummi bear at the screen without hitting another familiar face that pops up from an earlier film – most are expected sights to be seen but there are a few nice surprises along the way. I don’t want to mention any of them but will let you pick out your favorites along the way. Even from a filmmaking perspective, this is a great looking movie that has been composed with care featuring excellent performances. There’s a somber shot near the end of the movie that calls back to that first amazing camera work in The Avengers which managed to capture all our heroes in one long swoop of action.

Filled with rousing moments (I almost got out of my seat and started jumping up and down for joy in one goose-bump inducing scene) and peppered with gasp-inducing twists that will likely have you reaching for your Kleenex, the emotional payoff in the last 45 minutes is equal to anything I can recall from the last decade. Yeah, it’s easy to dismiss this as another superhero movie in a long-standing franchise that will make billions of dollars but this is something more robust, more special.  There’s no denying that everyone involved knows they have a responsibility and shows great respect for each loose end that is tied up. It may have taken over twenty films to wrap up those loose ends but the wait was ultimately worth it. I just look forward to see what happens next.

 

Marvel Cinematic Universe

Phase One
Iron Man (2008)
The Incredible Hulk (2008)
Iron Man 2 (2010)
Thor (2011)
Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
Marvel’s The Avengers (2012)

Phase Two
Iron Man 3 (2013)
Thor: The Dark World (2013)
Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
Ant-Man (2015)

Phase Three
Captain America: Civil War (2016)
Doctor Strange (2016)
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)
Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)
Thor: Ragnarok (2017)
Black Panther (2018)
Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
Ant-Man and The Wasp (2018)
Captain Marvel (2019)
Avengers; Endgame (2019)

Phase Four
Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019)

Movie Review ~ Avengers: Infinity War


The Facts
:

Synopsis: The Avengers and their allies must be willing to sacrifice all in an attempt to defeat the powerful Thanos before his blitz of devastation and ruin puts an end to the universe.

Stars: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson, Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Mackie, Paul Bettany, Elizabeth Olsen, Chadwick Boseman, Sebastian Stan, Don Cheadle, Chris Pratt, Dave Bautista, Zoe Saldana, Pom Klementieff, Benedict Cumberbatch, Benedict Wong, Sean Gunn, Tom Holland, Josh Brolin, Idris Elba, Letitia Wright, Danai Gurira, Benicio Del Toro, Karen Gillan, Gwyneth Paltrow, Peter Dinklage

Director: Anthony Russo & Joe Russo

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 156 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: The ultimate villain of Avengers: Infinity War is going to be anyone that spoils what happens in this all-star extravaganza, the culmination of 19 films over 10 years that have made up the Marvel Cinematic Universe. As a true believer in the power of a spoiler-free experience, I’m reluctant to even talk too much about the movie here, lest I give away even a whiff of the game-changing developments worked up by screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. However further you venture to read, know that Avengers: Infinity War may be the first toll of a bell signaling the end of an era but there’s still a few clangs yet to ring out.

With the action picking up two years after the events of Captain America: Civil War, the film wastes no time in diving into the action as big baddie Thanos (Josh Brolin, Inherent Vice) continues his quest to procure six Infinity Stones by any means necessary. With two stones in his possession by the time the title card is displayed, you get the distinct impression that Thanos isn’t going to be defeated easily no matter what brand of superhero gang sets about to stop him. Sending minions to Earth to gather stones protected by Vision (Paul Bettany, Transcendence) and Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch, August: Osage County), Thanos searches for the remaining gems in truly out of this world locations.

If Thanos secures all six stones in his gauntlet he’ll have power over the entire universe and be able to wipe out half the population with the snap of his very large and in charge fingers.   Never fear, though, because according to Marvel there are about 64 main characters featured and while not all of them get as much screen time as you’d think, there is often more than enough action to go around. Markus and McFeely concoct some believable ways to separate the various heroes as they unite to stop Thanos from achieving his goal. Even better, the combos of who is working with whom are surprising and often quite entertaining…but in an effort to maintain some suspense, you’ll have to see the movie to find out who teams up.

With the exception of two notable stars (again…not telling) the gang is all here, down to supporting players that haven’t been seen for a while. Even if A-listers like Gwyneth Paltrow (Thanks for Sharing) get limited screen time it’s nice to see these familiar faces along the way because their appearances act like mini Easter eggs, rewarding the actors as well as devoted audience members. Arriving a little over two months after Black Panther smashed all box office records, it would have been easy to do what Justice League did after the success of Wonder Woman and give a bit more attention to a breakout star like T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman, Get on Up) but the filmmakers wisely keep things level.

The main stars that anchor the action are Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr., The Judge), Thor (Chris Hemsworth, Vacation), and Quill (Chris Pratt, Jurassic World) with some nice supporting turns from Captain America (Chris Evans, The Iceman), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson, Under the Skin) and Hulk (Mark Ruffalo, Foxcatcher). In hindsight, it feels like the popular Guardians of the Galaxy are favored in the action ever so slightly more than a few of the veteran Avengers but watching the movie in the moment there is a greater feeling of equity. There’s little room for new characters to be introduced and when they are, like Peter Dinklage’s (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri) painfully serious but ultimately silly turn, it feels like time is being taken away from the people we want to see.

Directors Anthony and Joe Russo have stuffed this prize package with an abundance of get-your-moneys-worth riches, from eye popping visual effects to spectacularly pitched action sequences. The finale is a showstopper, an all-out blitzkrieg assault that takes place in multiple places with numerous characters and still it’s never hard to follow what’s going on. It takes a special hand to guide these types of action set-pieces and their fourth film for Marvel has the Russo Brothers finding full scale power in their directing. That style in direction marries nicely with Trent Opaloch’s (Elysium) stunning cinematography that isn’t overrun by the dynamite visual effects. Alan Silvestri’s (The Croods) score is, as always, instantly recognizable and eternally heroic.

Do yourself a favor and get your bathroom breaks out before the film starts because at 156 minutes from start to finish it’s a commitment. You can’t afford to miss much, though, so even a well-timed pee break might set you back, especially in the last ten minutes. As with all Marvel movies, it goes without saying that you shouldn’t leave until the final credit has disappeared because there’s only one post-credit scene and it’s at the very end. Missing this one in particular would be a mistake.

The next Avengers movie is set for release in May 2019 and by that time two more Marvel films will have seen the light of day (Ant-Man and the Wasp in July and Captain Marvel in March 2019). Not every question is resolved by the end of Avengers: Infinity War and I’m more than interested to see what gets answered between now and next year…just do yourself a favor and see this one before anyone can spoil what happens. Don’t say I didn’t warn you…or that I let the cat out of the bag either.

 

Marvel Cinematic Universe

Phase One
Iron Man (2008)
The Incredible Hulk (2008)
Iron Man 2 (2010)
Thor (2011)
Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)
Marvel’s The Avengers (2012)

Phase Two
Iron Man 3 (2013)
Thor: The Dark World (2013)
Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)
Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)
Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
Ant-Man (2015)

Phase Three
Captain America: Civil War (2016)
Doctor Strange (2016)
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)
Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)
Thor: Ragnarok (2017)
Black Panther (2018)
Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

Movie Review ~ Captain America: Civil War

captain_america_civil_war_ver18
The Facts
:

Synopsis: Political interference in the Avengers’ activities causes a rift between former allies Captain America and Iron Man.

Stars: Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Emily VanCamp, Don Cheadle, Jeremy Renner, Chadwick Boseman, Paul Bettany, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Rudd, Frank Grillo, William Hurt, Daniel Brühl, Tom Holland, Marisa Tomei

Director: Anthony & Joe Russo

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 146 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review: With the release of Captain America: Civil War we’re now 13 movies deep into the Marvel Cinematic Universe and no one would blame you if you think all the Marvel films are starting to blend into one another.  Before taking in the screening of CA:CW I was chatting with a friend, mentally trying to put together what events happened in which film and who was introduced when. I’m not as devout a fanboy to pull the connections out of thin air so it took me a while and in all honesty to full enjoy the offerings in CA:CW you’ll want to go back and re-watch 2014’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier and 2015’s Avengers: Age of Ultron.  I made the mistake of not revisiting the earlier films and paid the price, too often playing catch-up.

So let’s just assume you’re up to speed with the goings on involving our superheroes, namely Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans, The Iceman), Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr., The Judge), & Black Widow/Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson, Her).  Opening with a boffo action/chase sequence that finds Captain America, Black Widow, Wanda/Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen, Godzilla), and Falcon/Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie, Pain & Gain) stopping the theft of an infectious disease, the group winds up inadvertently bringing about the deaths of innocent civilians.  The ramifications for their mission, compounded by the previous massive destruction seen at the end of Avengers: Age of Ultron is cause for the US Government (led by a mostly awake William Hurt, The Doctor) to step in, attempting to regulate the Avengers with the help of the United Nations.

While most of the team is willing to go along with being governed, Captain America is wary of signing his name for fear of being unable to help whomever and whenever he pleases (and interesting reversal for a man once used as wartime propaganda).  When his friend Bucky Barns (Sebastian Stan, Ricki and the Flash), aka the Winter Soldier, is possibly framed for a bombing at a peaceful meeting of foreign dignitaries, Captain America goes against his fellow Avengers and sets out to clear Bucky’s name while avoiding his former allies.  Add into that some secrets from the past that link Iron Man to the Winter Soldier and a mysterious man (Daniel Brühl, Rush) with a bone to  pick with our heroes,  and you have a globe-hopping film that alternates between vengeance and allegiance.

I’m not going to lie, there’s a whole lot going on here but directors Anthony Russo and Joe Russo (returning to the director’s chair after Captain America: The Winter Soldier and getting ready to direct the final two-part Avengers finale) and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely manage to juggle the characters, action, and multiple plotlines with striking ease.  Even Joss Whedon, who so memorably delivered The Avengers with nice complexity, couldn’t produce a follow-up that flowed as well as CA:CW does.

You may not remember every little Easter Egg that pops up and the action scenes may be slightly overwhelming but it’s never a chore to keep up with the pace.  Okay, it’s about 15 minutes too long (it’s the longest Marvel film to date) and the performances tend to be on the stoically self-aware side (especially from Downey Jr. who seems to be going after a special Oscar for eye acting) but it’s the kind of crowd-pleasing adventure that audiences went looking for in Avengers: Age of Ultron.

What’s nice to report here too is that some of the most exciting parts of the film haven’t been spoiled in trailers…in fact some sequences from the trailers have been edited to REMOVE spoiler characters and developments.  Marvel has a way with the element of giddy unexpected surprises and there are several neat-o secrets waiting for you.

Aside from the actors mentioned above, special shout-outs go to Chadwick Boseman (Get on Up) as Black Panther and Tom Holland (The Impossible) as Spider-Man.  A reboot of a reboot of Spider-Man was of little interest to me but Holland’s introduction gives my Spidey senses hope that another take on the web slinging hero isn’t the worst idea in the world. If the character feels like a late addition to the mix, it’s because the deal to bring Spider-Man over to Marvel from his home at Sony didn’t happen until the eleventh hour, necessitating some obvious Spidey shoe-horning to take place. Boseman, as an African prince seeking justice for a fallen family member, is a cool addition to the group and a post-credit scene (the first of two) gives us a small idea of where he may turn up next.  Jeremy Renner’s (The Bourne Legacy) Hawkeye, Don Cheadle’s (Flight) War Machine, Paul Bettany’s (Mortdecai) Vision, and Paul Rudd’s (Wanderlust) Scott Lang/Ant-Man all have their moment of glory though this is ultimately Captain America’s movie so enjoy them while they’re there (especially Rudd’s cameo which is better than a lot of Ant-Man).

With the uptick of comic book movies arriving in theaters, a small backlash is developing and I think it’s mostly out of overall fatigue.  With each new Marvel movie, it’s becoming almost a necessity to go back and review everything that came before…something that’s good for movie theaters and their marathon screenings but bad for audiences that don’t have the time to devote hours and hours to do their homework.  Recent failures like 2015’s Fantastic Four reboot and the critical disappointment in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (for the record, I liked it, get over it) might have given the Marvel studio heads a moment of fear.  Yet their output is just continually in another league than their competitors and their juggernaut franchise lives to fight another day with Doctor Strange arriving before 2016 is over.

Check out my reviews of these other Marvel movies: Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Iron Man 3, Thor, Thor: The Dark World, Captain America: The First Avenger, Captain America: The Winter Solider, Guardians of the Galaxy, Ant-Man, & Avengers: Age of Ultron.

Movie Review ~ Hail, Caesar!

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A Hollywood fixer in the 1950s works to keep the studio’s stars in line.

Stars: Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Alden Ehrenreich, Ralph Fiennes, Jonah Hill, Scarlett Johansson, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Channing Tatum

Director: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 100 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (6/10)

Review:  Films by the Brothers Coen have always been a mixed bag for me.  Like Woody Allen’s impressive roster of releases, I feel the Coens hit the bulls-eye every two movies or so.  They aren’t all winners and as much as movie gurus implore you to like even their most misguided affairs (hello Burn After Reading!) I’ve just gotten used to the fact that I’m just not going to follow that pack and say I enjoy all of their work.

Last represented (directorially) on screen in 2013 with the seriously underrated Inside Llewyn Davis, the Coens have gone Hollywood with their latest romp, a madcap paean to the golden age of cinema.  Like those classic films of the ‘50s, it’s chock full of recognizable stars and has the pristine period-perfect production values we’ve come to expect from the Coens.  Yet, like most mass-produced Hollywood fare produced during that era it’s curiously forgettable almost the instant you leave the theater.

I’ve come to believe that any Coen Brothers movie can be edited to look like a crowd-pleasing spectacle and the early ads for Hail, Caesar! have certainly gave the impression there’s a lot of hijinks to be had and for once it wasn’t totally off the mark.  Nicely lampooning the types of films and stars that came out of the studio system, cinephiles will rejoice at the Coens recreation of westerns, musicals, and historical epics.

On the set of the biblical drama Hail, Caesar!, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney, Tomorrowland) is a handsome dimbulb about to be kidnapped and held for ransom by a pack of disgruntled communist screenwriters attempting to get back at the studio that reaps the financial benefit of their artistic contributions.  It’s so very Coen Brothers to make this buttoned-up intelligent gang not the misunderstood members on the Hollywood blacklist but full-on Russian sympathizing commies.  Several months after the problematic Trumbo gained so much attention for rehashing the dark days of the McCarthy hearings and the lasting effect they had in Hollywood, I must say it’s kind of refreshing to see this fictionalized band of writers presented as the total opposite of how we’d expect, considering the time and place.

Meanwhile, in the adjacent studios we meet a cadre of classic Coen crazies like Scarlett Johansson (Under the Skin) as a beautiful Esther Williams-esque starlet, a mermaid on screen with a hard edge once her tail comes off. Then there’s Ralph Fiennes (Skyfall) as a frustrated serious film director forced to work with a yokel rising star (a hilariously spot-on Alden Ehrenreich, Beautiful Creatures) plucked from the set of a cowboy film to play the lead in a high society musical.  Channing Tatum (The Hateful Eight) sings and tap-dances in an On the Town style musical nicely choreographed to be a little dirty and showcasing yet another undiscovered Tatum talent.  Appearing all too briefly is Tilda Swinton (Only Lovers Left Alive) as twin gossip columnists seeking a scoop for their next column.  Like her appearance in Trainwreck, Swinton dives headfirst into the character(s), leaving you wanting more in the best way possible.  Frances McDormand (Promised Land), Jonah Hill (The Wolf of Wall Street), and even Wayne Knight (Jurassic Park), pop up for the briefest of cameos (why McDormand and Hill are above the title is beyond me) as various denizens involved with either the studio, the kidnapping, or both.

Tying this all together is Josh Brolin’s (Oldboy) Eddie Mannix, employed by the studio to make sure their stars stay in line, their movies stay within budget, and all problems are kept under the rug.  Loosely based on the notorious real-life Eddie Mannix from MGM, who some say was involved with Tinsel Towns most infamous unsolved crimes, Brolin’s Mannix is recast as the neutral core of the studio/film, the one people come to when they need help or advice.

Oscar nominated this year for their script of Bridge of Spies, Joel and Ethan Coen (who also adapted Unbroken in 2014) have several moments in Hail, Caesar! that fire on all cylinders.  A discussion between four holy men and Mannix about the religious sensitivity of the biblical epic being filmed is a highlight and a perfect example of the dynamic wordplay that have defined much of the Coens careers.  Then there are the frequent stretches that philosophize past their welcome and make the wait between the lighter moments seem that much longer.  Frustratingly, I’m sure these are the passages of Hail, Caesar! that Coen aficionados will recreate in their living rooms while watching Intolerable Cruelty in their Big Lebowski slippers.

Performances are on par with what we’ve come to expect from an off-killer Coen production, zany, unpredictable, and sometimes directly out of left field.  McDormand’s small role as a chain-smoking film editor feels like a Bugs Bunny character come to life while Swinton’s rapid-fire reporter seems to have emerged directly from a Howard Hawks film.  Clooney is charming in his ego-less way and while Tatum overshoots his pretty boy hunk role by a mile (even with precious little dialogue), he somehow fits perfectly into this world.  Brolin has the toughest role, the straight man, and he’s more than capable of holding it all together.

Hail, Caesar! isn’t up there with the Coen’s best but it’s a nice reminder that when they want to goof off they still know how to let loose and have fun with their friends.

 

A quick note about the ever  popular topic of diversity…recently the Cohens caused a bit of a dust-up when asked about diversity by a reporter.  Brushing off the question and never really answering the reporter, it’s interesting to consider that there are but three minority characters in the film (a Carmen Miranda like starlet and two employees at a Chinese restaurant, with maybe 8 lines of dialogue between them)…and over the course of their 17 movies, only three minorities have ever played leading/supporting roles in a Cohen film. 

The Silver Bullet ~ Captain America: Civil War

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Synopsis: An incident leads to the Avengers developing a schism over how to deal with situations, which escalates into an open fight between allies Iron Man and Captain America.

Release Date:  May 6, 2016

Thoughts: It’s the beginning of the end of the latest phase of the Avengers Marvel Universe.  After two movies where he was clearly top dog, Captain America (Chris Evans, The Iceman) has to contend with the larger than life  presence of Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr, The Judge) and some familiar Marvel faces from movies past.  While I’m a fan of Captain America: The First Avenger and Captain America: The Winter Soldier, I must admit that I’m getting a little fatigued with these films.  With so many other studios jumping on the bandwagon and an oversaturation of Avengers-related entries slated for release over the next several years everything is just starting blur together for me.  Focusing on a battle between allies, Captain America: Civil War has a lot riding on it, and hopefully by next summer I’ll be ready for a dose of superhero adventures.

The Silver Bullet ~ The Jungle Book (2016)

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Synopsis: An orphan boy is raised in the jungle with the help of a pack of wolves, a bear, and a black panther.

Release Date: April 15, 2016

Thoughts: You’ve got to hand it to Disney, while other studios are remaking/rebooting their films (sometimes cannibalizing them along the way), the House of Mouse is taking an interesting approach and remaking their classic animated endeavors as larger than life live-action spectacles. With the success of the rides turned movies like Pirates of the Caribbean franchise (let’s forget The Haunted Mansion and The Country Bears happened, shall we?) and a splendid live-action of Cinderella, it’s looking like it is going to become a yearly event to see cartoons come to life. First up is The Jungle Book and it’s a challenging property I wouldn’t have thought Disney would take on so early but the first look presented here feels like an exciting take on the much loved story of a Mowgli and his jungle friends. Directed by Jon Favreau (Iron Man) and featuring the voices of Bill Murray (Aloha), Scarlett Johansson (Under the Skin), Idris Elba (Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom), Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave), Ben Kingsley (Iron Man 3), and Christopher Walken (Jersey Boys), it’s a wild gamble that I’m sure Disney is hoping will pay off…especially with a live-action Beauty and the Beast being prepped for 2017.

Hasta La Vista…Summer (May)

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Hasta

We did it! We made it through another summer and while the outdoor heat wasn’t too bad (in Minnesota, at least) the box office was on fire.

I’ll admit that I indulged in summer fun a bit more than I should, distracting me from reviewing some key movies over the last three months so I wanted to take this opportunity to relive the summer of 2015, mentioning my thoughts on the movies that got away and analyzing the winners and losers by month and overall.

So sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride read.

May

Though the summer movie season has traditionally been thought of as Memorial Day through Labor Day, in the past several years studios have marked early May as the start of the summer movie wars and 2015 was no different.

Kicking things off on May 1 was Avengers: Age of Ultron and, as expected, it was a boffo blockbuster that gave fans more Marvel fantasy fun. While it wasn’t as inventive as its predecessor and relied too much on jokey bits, the movie was everything a chartbuster should be: big, loud, worth another look.

Acting as a bit of counter-programming, the next week saw the release of two very different comedies, neither of which made much of a dent in the box office take of The Avengers. Critics gnashed their teeth at the Reese Witherspoon/Sofia Vergara crime comedy Hot Pursuit but I didn’t mind it nearly as much as I thought I would. True, it set smart girl power flicks back a few years but it played well to the strengths of its leads and overall was fairly harmless. I hadn’t heard of The D Train before a screening but was pleasantly surprised how good it turned out to be, considering I’m no fan of Jack Black. The movie has several interesting twists that I didn’t see coming, proving that Black and co-star James Marsden will travel out of their comfort zones for a laugh.

Blythe Danner proved she was more than Gwyneth Paltrow’s mom in the lovely, if slight, I’ll See You in My Dreams. It may be too small a picture to land Danner on the end of the year awards list she deserves but the drama was a welcome change of pace so early in the summer.

Another early May drama was a wonderful adaptation of a classic novel…and one I forgot to review when I had the chance…here’s my brief take on it now…

                                         Movie Review ~ Far From the Madding Crowd
far_from_the_madding_crowd_ver2The Facts
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Synopsis: In Victorian England, the independent and headstrong Bathsheba Everdene attracts three very different suitors: Gabriel Oak, a sheep farmer; Frank Troy, a reckless Sergeant; and William Boldwood, a prosperous and mature bachelor.
Stars: Carey Mulligan, Matthias Schoenaerts, Michael Sheen, Juno Temple, Tom Sturridge
Director: Thomas Vinterberg
Rated: PG-13
Running Length: 119 minutes
TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: This adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s celebrated novel was a moving drama brimming with quietly powerful performances and lush cinematography. It’s a story that has been duplicated quite a lot over the years so one could be forgiven for feeling like we’ve seen this all before. Still, in the hands of director Thomas Vinterberg (The Hunt) and led by stars Carey Mulligan (Inside Llewyn Davis), Matthias Schoenaerts (Rust & Bone), & Michael Sheen (Admission) it stirred deep emotions that felt fresh. Special mention must be made to Craig Armstrong (The Great Gatsby) for his gorgeous score and Charlotte Bruus Christensen for her aforementioned picturesque cinematography. You missed this in the theater, I know you did…it’s out to rent/buy now and you should check it out pronto.

Around mid-May the summer bar of greatness was set with the arrival of Mad Max: Fury Road. The long in development fourth outing (and semi-reboot) of director George Miller’s apocalyptic hero was a movie lovers dream…pushing the boundaries of cinema and filmmaking into new places. A vicious, visceral experience, I can still feel the vibration in my bones from the robust film…a real winner.

The same week that Mad Max came back into our lives, a so-so sequel found its way to the top of the box office. Pitch Perfect 2 was a lazy film that’s as close to a standard cash grab as you could get without outright playing the original film and calling it a sequel. Uninspired and lacking the authenticity that made the first film so fun, it nevertheless made a song in receipts and a third film will be released in the next few years.

Tomorrowland and Poltergeist were the next two films to see the light of day and neither inspired moviegoers enough to gain any traction. Tomorrowland was actually the first film of the summer I saw twice…admittedly because I was curious about a new movie theater with reclining seats that I wanted to try out. As for the movie, the first half was an exciting adventure while the final act was a real mess.

I thought I’d hate the Poltergeist remake way more than I did…but I ended up just feeling bad for everyone involved because the whole thing was so inconsequential that I wished all of that energy had been directed into something of lasting value. While Sam Worthington made for a surprisingly sympathetic lead, the entire tone of the film was off and not even a few neat 3D effects could save it from being a waste.

May went out with a boom thanks to two wildly different films. If you asked me what I thought the prospects were for San Andreas before the screening I would have replied that Sia’s cover of California Dreamin’ would be the only good thing to come out of the action picture starring everyone’s favorite muscle with eyes, Dwayne Johnson. I still feel like Sia came out on top but the movie itself was a more than decent disaster epic, a little too long but made up for it with grand sequences of mayhem and destruction. Can’t imagine it will play nearly as well on a small screen but I wasn’t hating the film when the credits rolled.

A film I wasn’t too thrilled with at all was Aloha, Cameron Crowe’s own personal disaster flick. I still don’t know quite what to say about the movie because it was so dreadful that I’ve attempted to clear it from my memory. What I do remember was that it wasted its strong cast and exotic locale, as well as our time. Truly terrible.

STAY TUNED FOR JUNE, JULY, and AUGUST!