Starring: Gemma Arterton, Sam Claflin, Bill Nighy
Directed by: Lone Scherfig (“An Education”)
Written by: Gaby Chiape (debut)
Recent history has shown that the entertainment industry really loves making films about the entertainment industry. We have seen a propensity for filmmakers and storytellers to make films about the production of film, music, or other art forms, especially throughout moments of history. In “Their Finest,” a movie that is based on a novel rather than a true story, a spin on this idea is presented, with mostly strong results.
During World War II, the British military, in an effort to keep up morale and volunteers in an increasingly difficult war effort, is churning out propaganda films. In an effort to give the films a more “womanly” touch, Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin) must pair up with writer Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) to create a film about the the Dunkirk evacuation. As they struggle to find the balance between providing what the military wants in a propaganda film and making the film good, personal relationships are strained and tested as they must fight to make the movie they want in the midst of war.
By far, the most impressive element of “Their Finest” is its performances. Arterton and Claflin have strong chemistry (even though their trajectory can be spotted from a mile away), with Arterton having delivering on a showcase role. The MVP of the cast, though, is international treasure Bill Nighy. Struggling with admitting that his leading man status is quickly waning, Nighy plays pompous perfectly, while nailing the nuances of a far-too-serious actor who is protecting his craft.
But while the strength of the movie lies upon its actors, there are a few things that aren’t quite up to snuff. One of the biggest problems facing “Their Finest” is the urge to tell, not show. There’s a lot of characters speaking about how great or talented someone is, talking about problems or elements of screenplays or work, but very little of it is happening on screen. Without that context, it is really hard to dig into the story and buy what they are selling. It also misses the mark when the script explains the differences between men and women in the workplace. Slight comments are made about wages, but it only seems to scratch the surface of true issues of inequality.
There are also some pretty predictable story beats, which feel as if most viewers will be able to, at the very least, figure out where the story is headed and how it’s going to get there. That isn’t to say that the narrative isn’t effective when it needs to be, it just all feels a little derivative, though performed in satisfactory ways.
The film misses a few opportunities to really make a statement about the advancement of women in the entertainment industry, though the themes of war-time fear and stress are nicely constructed. Though “Their Finest” isn’t quite the strong female-empowerment movie it wants to be, it is a well-performed, and at times well-written and well-told story.
Starring: Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Liam Neeson
Directed by: Martin Scorsese (“Goodfellas”)
Written by: Jay Cocks (“Gangs of New York”) and Martin Scorsese (“Goodfellas”)
As a film almost 30 years in the making, from one of the most prolific, respected and decorated filmmakers of his time, it’s almost impossible for Martin Scorsese’s “Silence” to not have impossibly high expectations. Sprawling, beautifully bleak and yet quietly presented, the first trailers indicated that this wasn’t your average Scorsese. As we move into the final wave of awards season films, all eyes are on Scorsese to see what exactly he has been sitting on for decades.
After the disappearance of Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), a pair of Jesuit priests, Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Gariupe (Adam Driver), head to the dangerous land of Japan to track him down and to spread the word of Catholicism. As the two priests enter Japan, they see that being a Christian in Japan is a death sentence and they fight to keep the faith alive while trying find their mentor and keeping and their whereabouts a secret.
As an actor on the cusp for a while, “Silence” sees a fully realized Garfield. It’s a physical performance with a bit of weight loss, but also a sorrowful, charismatic, heartfelt and at times, humorous performance. It’s his film to carry with Neeson and Driver taking a bit of a backseat and he handles it well. Much of the rest of the cast is Japanese and very solid across the board. A lot is being made of the performance of Issey Ogata who plays the Inquisitor, and it’s valid. It’s almost strange as the performance seems hammy and cartooney yet completely works due to its commitment and darkly funny personality.
With a film this steeped in the story of priests and Catholicism, it is almost impossible to not say that what the audience takes from this film will largely depend on their own personal beliefs. At a minimum, however, the themes that can be extrapolated come down to “how far would one go to defend what they believe in?” As we watch our protagonists given time and time again to pull themselves, and those who follow them out of a situation at the expensive of selling out their believes, we see their struggle and their faiths tested. Scorsese deserves credit for not delving too far into forcing his beliefs on his audience, but the undertones are unmistakable. Is it meditative? Of course. Is it extremely religious in its themes? Absolutely.
“Silence” feels almost aggressively long, which isn’t helped by its slow pace. While much of the movie is compelling and ripe with strong performances, there are several false endings and a few check your watch moments. As a comprehensive piece, “Silence” probably falls around the middle or mid-to-lower range in Scorsese’s filmography. That isn’t to say it is a bad film on any level. It’s harrowing and challenging. It’s well performed and well written. There’s fantastic sound design and beautiful cinematography. But in the end, it remains a tough nut to crack and a little difficult to connect with on a level beyond its religiosity.
Starring: Casey Affleck, Lucas Hedges, Michelle Williams
Directed by: Kenneth Lonergan (“You Can Count On Me”)
Written by: Kenneth Lonergan (“Gangs of New York”)
Tragedy and grief are some of the universal occurrences that every human on the Earth experiences. It is where we, as people, often find ourselves at the lowest. It is also a test of strength. Many films this year will deal with how people, sometimes normal, sometimes in the spotlight, deal with that tragedy. “Jackie” for example, follows Jackie Kennedy in the hours and days following her husband’s assassination. But perhaps no film this year quite explores the wake of tragedy like “Manchester by the Sea,” a powerful ensemble character study of a devastated family.
After the death of his brother, Lee (Casey Affleck) must return to the Massachusetts fishing village that he left years ago to take care of his nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Reluctantly, Lee tries to deal with his current situation while simultaneously dealing with past experiences with his now estranged ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams). Through these experiences, Lee and Patrick try to bond and make the best of an unenviable situation.
Leading the way of the ensemble is Affleck, who is primed to nab his first Oscar nomination since 2008 and is likely the frontrunner to win. It’s a subtle and subdued performance, but also one that has nuance and depth. There’s a certain pain in Affleck’s face that is visible in almost every scene. His character has lost the ability to interact and function on a normal level and Affleck displays this perfectly with vacant eyes that stare off into the distance. Not to be outdone, Affleck’s performance is matched by newcomer Hedges who employs a fantastic Boston accent, and is at times reminiscent of a young Matt Damon. Hedges’ character is a bit rascally, but the way he is able to maintain a level of sweetness as well as display some serious acting chops make for a really empathetic character.
Credit should be given to screenwriter/director Kenneth Lonergan for refusing to pull any punches. Make no mistake: “Manchester by the Sea” is not an easy watch. There are some devastating revelations throughout and many characters face impossible situations. It would be easy for the film to teeter towards melodrama, but it’s a testament to the strength of the screenplay that Lonergan is able to balance these heavier moments with levity and humor, mostly between Affleck and Hedges who continually butt heads.
The film slowly reveals its details, and despite the enormity of the situations, consistently feels grounded and extremely realistic. Perhaps it’s the working class look of the picturesque landscapes of Manchester, or even Affleck’s blue collar job as a handyman, but “Manchester by the Sea” feels authentic and true. Some may find it slow, but those parts are important to show the depths of Affleck’s despair, which is the most important narrative factor of the film.
As Oscar season heats up, “Manchester by the Sea” is undoubtedly a player. Acting nominations will be aplenty and Lonergan’s absorbing script is sure to get some notice. It’s a pretty basic story, with some pretty dramatic turns and although the plot may seem slight, the film is certainly anything but.
Starring: Tom Cruise, Cobie Smulders, Aldis Hodge
Directed by: Edward Zwick (“Blood Diamond”)
Written by: Richard Wenk (“The Magnificent Seven”), Edward Zwick (“Love & Other Drugs”), Marshall Herskovitz (“Love & Other Drugs”)
In the movie landscape of constant sequels, it may not always make narrative sense to come back for more, but there’s almost always a monetary reason to do it. Original films (or films made to be tentpole franchises) perform so well at the box office that going back and making more of those films is, at worse, less of a financial risk and at best, studios practically printing their own money. It’s why there was a collective shrug and head scratch when it was announced that Paramount was going back for another installment of the Tom Cruise vehicle “Jack Reacher.” The reception for the first film was mixed, and it only grossed $80 million in North America, which is pretty modest for a film marketed as a potential blockbuster. Yet here we are, with an unwanted sequel in hand: the ironically titled “Jack Reacher: Never Go Back.”
As Jack Reacher (Cruise) returns back to his military base to visit a friend and colleague, Susan Turner (Cobie Smulders), he discovers that she has been arrested and charged with espionage. Suspecting something has ran afoul, Reacher works to break Turner out of prison and along the way, discovers a girl who just may be his biological daughter. From there, Turner, Reacher and his possible daughter fight to stay hidden and take down their enemies while keeping each other safe.
A better title of this film would have been “Jack Reacher: Military Dad” as the main narrative through-line is the idea of Reacher coping with possibly being a father. There are, of course, generic scenes of him being a hardass and acting like he doesn’t care about things. Or when he and Cobie Smulders’ character have super on-the-nose “parental” fights. It’s just such a lazy, ho-hum story that is sandwiched in between a lazy, ho-hum action film. There is some somewhat surprising brutality, but beyond that, nothing on screen feels meaningful and Cruise doesn’t seem particularly interested.
The last act of “Jack Reacher: Never Go Back” contain some of the most contrived, Hollywood-fake, lazy moments I’ve seen in any film this year. The only appropriate word to describe the way events plan out is “insulting.” Ever heard of the concept of “Chekov’s gun?” The idea that nothing is shown on screen unless it will play out somehow? This is basically Chekov’s everything. Every twist, turn and plot point can be seen from 400 miles away. Being unpredictable would be one thing, but it happens in such a hokey way that it is deprived of any emotion. It’s a truly awful sequence of events.
A look at Tom Cruise’s most recent film output shows that he is still mainly focused on being an action star. The problem is, the market desire for perennial kick ass action-star driving vehicles seems to be dwindling with the saturation of comic book films. It’s also a reality that Cruise is a man in his early to mid 50’s continuing to pursue his career as an action hero. There’s no question he’s got acting chops and a magnetic personality on screen. He can certainly keep making “Mission Impossible”’s 13 and 14 until he gets physically unable to hang off of jets and scale large buildings, but if the staleness if “Jack Reacher: Never Go Back” is any indication, it may be time for Cruise to re-consider the direction of his career.
Starring: Asa Butterfield, Eva Green, Samuel L. Jackson
Directed by: Tim Burton (“Big Eyes”)
Written by: Jane Goldman (“X-Men: First Class”)
Filmmaker Tim Burton has made an entire career out of being “peculiar.” Even when its putting his own spin on an established franchise, Burton’s gothic, eccentric stamp (at least stylistically) is an omnipresent factor in most of his films. Even when making poor films, Burton is hired to be Burton and is rarely a director for hire. Perhaps that’s why it is so surprising that his new film, “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” has zero identity.
After the loss of his grandfather, Jake (Asa Butterfield) decides to investigate a place that he has only heard about and seen in pictures. As a home for kids with certain “peculiarities,” Jake explores the vast land of special powered children and their leader, Miss Peregrine (Eva Green). He finds, however, that as special as these children are, danger within them also lies ahead.
For having a decent cast of well known actors, nobody other than Green really makes a mark. Butterfield looks and feels too old to be convincing as the age of the character he is playing, Samuel L. Jackson hams it up as the main villain and Ella Purnell, while certainly looking the part, is bland. It isn’t entirely the fault of the actors, as the script is generic and boring.
“Miss Peregrine’s” feels like an odd hodgepodge of popular young adult series, and sort of meanders for its way too long run time. It flirts with some interesting concepts, and “powers,” so to speak, but at the end of the day, nothing happening on screen is interesting in anyway. The dialogue is dull and stilted and, narratively, the film goes nowhere.
There’s a scene at a boardwalk that is actually one of the very few, but very fleeting bright moments of the film. Bringing out some odd skeleton characters for a big battle, there is at least something intriguing happening on the screen that feels at least mildly entertaining. It is here, and only here, that the film actually feels like a Tim Burton movie.
When watching the film, Burton fans will be looking for his fingerprints, but will find nothing. In fact, it is the film that bares the least of his characteristics than any of his career. There is nothing special, let alone exceptional about any of it, and it truly feels like it could have been directed by anyone else. His artistic vision is unquestionably unique, but for Burton to be successful, his movies need to match his vision with a sense of whimsy. This film, however, is dead on arrival. The most peculiar thing about “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” is how soulless it really is.
Starring: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Shailene Woodley, Melissa Leo
Directed by: Oliver Stone (“Savages”)
Written by: Kieran Fitzgerald (“The Homesman”) and Oliver Stone (“Savages”)
As one of the best documentaries of the last several years, “Citizenfour” was an endlessly fascinating fly-on-the-wall account of former NSA contractor Edward Snowden blowing the whistle on surveillance that the government was doing. Regardless of the audience’s opinion, the footage was unassailably mesmerizing as history, agree with it or not, was being made. It’s a film that didn’t necessarily need a dramatizing, but as a person, Snowden could stand to be understood and explored. Unfortunately, that’s where the blunt hammer of director Oliver Stone comes in.
Rising through several government agencies, computer analyst Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) notices that the government is gathering information from its own citizens, with access to personal communication, webcams, and more. Torn about what to do, and with his relationship strained, Snowden makes a decision that could land him in jail for treason.
It will probably annoy some viewers, but Gordon-Levitt’s voice work is actually remarkably close to how the actual Snowden sounds. It’s a good performance, in a film of pretty solid performances all around. Shailene Woodley’s character being a strong personality is more of a testament to her capabilities than the way she is written, which can often seem to flip flop from scene to scene.
The most interesting stuff in the film is seeing Snowden slowly put the pieces of the puzzle together and feel drawn to let the public know what was actually going on. There’s a certain psychology behind the decision making and an awakening of a conscience that is touched on, though perhaps not explored enough. The parts of the film that are straight out of “Citizenfour” really seem to drag, however, as it is a re-enactment of something that is not only so recent, but not really adjusted for any type of dramatic effect.
As one might expect, a movie about Edward Snowden directed by Oliver Stone is not exactly an unbiased affair. Stone is very clear in his position about how he sees Snowden. While it is never quite preachy, one of the most fascinating parts about the story of Snowden is that there’s a real, honest debate and divide around the country about the appropriateness of his actions. Presenting the information and letting the public decide for themselves was the crux for the decision that Snowden made. Without that debate, the movie feels extremely one-sided and doesn’t allow audiences to make their own decision.
“Snowden” isn’t necessarily a bad film, but it is one that is riddled with problems. It is painfully boring in parts, and it is anything but neutral. The fact of the matter is, “Citizenfour” is such a compelling film, and a better representation of this story, that the dramatization falls way short of the goals. The decision to show Snowden’s actions through the lens of his personal relationships really hurts a film that could have been an exploration into why the biggest whistleblower in history did so. It’s a shame that the character of Snowden isn’t more interesting.
Starring: Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart, Laura Linney
Directed by: Clint Eastwood (“Mystic River”)
Written by: Todd Komarnicki (“Perfect Stranger”)
With the proliferation of 24-hour news cycles, few amazing stories in the modern era go “untold.” Most people know, at minimum, the basic details of what has come to be known as “The Miracle on the Hudson.” After hitting birds and encountering dual engine failure, Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger (Tom Hanks) pulled off an astonishing forced water landing in the Hudson River in New York in early 2009. It dominated headlines for weeks, and Sully became somewhat of a national hero. Since many details are known, a movie this soon after an event could easily seem superfluous and unnecessary. Given that, director Clint Eastwood (“Mystic River”) tries to provide more insight into the man, the event, and the investigation, with varying results.
National treasure Hanks is, as always, solid, if not very, very understated in the lead role. Sully seems like a mechanical guy without a whole lot of personality. There’s still an art to playing a very quiet, monotone presence and Hanks, unsuprirsingly nails it. There’s not a whole lot for him to do, but when it calls for chops, he delivers. Aaron Eckhart also gives a solid performance as the first officer of the flight, Jeffrey Skiles.
One of the biggest faults of the film is its decision to vilify the National Transportation Safety Board, and specifically it’s leader Charles Porter (Mike O’Malley). There’s a lot of evil stares and mean mugging, as Eastwood heavy handedly tries to insinuate that the NTSB are out to get Sully. It’s a shame because the investigative part of the film is what keeps it interesting. There’s a legitimate chance that Sully may have made an unnessecarily dangerous and risky move which makes all of the scenes involving the investigation seem like something the general public may not know a lot about. Instead, Eastwood threatens to derail all of this good by making the NTSB be almost comically evil.
Eastwood makes the decision to show bits and pieces of the crash several times throughout the film. It’s a move that really takes away from what could have been a really hard hitting piece of filmmaking when he shows the entire recreation of Flight 1549 in real time. Instead, it ends up being a retread of a scene we’ve seen played over a half dozen times by that point. There’s no question that it’s harrowing and gripping, but it really starts to lose its luster.
There’s a very blatant overuse of post 9/11 imagery by Eastwood. It’s hard to know exactly what he was trying to evoke here, but there’s no question it was meant to be stirred in people’s minds. There’s a little too much hero-worship going on, and any look into Sully’s personal life, specifically scenes involving his wife played by Laura Linney are far too maudlin, complete with sappy piano music. Still, Sully just barely squeaks by as a well-performed, acceptable tale of American heroism, despite Eastwood’s complete lack of subtlety and questionable directorial choices.
Starring: Jeff Bridges, Chris Pine, Ben Foster
Directed by: David Mackenzie (“Starred Up”)
Written by: Taylor Sheridan (“Sicario”)
With the ever-increasing demand for complex narratives, there is something to be said for a film that expertly tells a basic story. It may be ground that has been treaded many times before, but very few things are better than simplistic storytelling with well written dialogue and pitch perfect performances. In “Hell or High Water,” director David Mackenzie takes a rudimentary bank robbing plotline and elevates it to truly special heights.
In order to save their family farm, brothers Toby (Chris Pine) and Tanner (Ben Foster) go on a series of increasingly dangerous bank robberies to get the money. The investigation to find their next location is led by veteran Texas Ranger Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) who uses every sense of knowhow and the input of his partner Alberto Parker (Gil Birmingham) to take down these amateur, and quickly-turning-professional criminals.
Every performance in “Hell or High Water” is exceptional, led by the always underrated Foster and Pine. Pine in particular is great at playing a level of reluctance bouncing off the loose cannon nature of his brother. It’s also a really great platform for Bridges, who in recent years seems to be playing the same marble-mouthed character over and over. As a grizzled veteran, the act really works in this film, and is made even better by the ball busting, buddy-cop relationship with Birmingham.
Story-wise, the plot for “Hell or High Water” truly can be summed up in a quick few sentences. It is, at times, almost too basic. There is still, however, something really intriguing about the desperation breeds necessity elements as well as the complexities family relationships can cause. It’s a story about brothers who don’t want to let anyone down, but it’s also about figuring out what to do when your back is against the wall.
It’s no surprise that “Hell or High Water” is well-crafted, given the pedigree of director Mackenzie, whose most recent film “Starred Up” was one of the hidden gems of 2013. It’s too funny to be a pure drama and too Western to be a straight up heist movie. Whatever you want to call it, one thing is for sure: it’s one of the best films of 2016 thus far.
Starring: Bryan Cranston, John Leguizamo, Diane Kruger
Directed by: Brad Furman (“The Lincoln Lawyer”)
Written by: Ellen Sue Brown (debut)
Colombian cartel kingpin Pablo Escobar has always been a source of great fascination. Even still, there seems to be a resurgence in the interest of him as a subject, as seen in recent projects like Netflix’s “Narcos,” “Escobar: Paradise Lost” and various other documentaries. As a look at a different perspective “The Infiltrator” tells the story about how a U.S. Customs agent took down the cartel’s money laundering system in America.
Based on a true story, “The Infiltrator” tells the story of how U.S. Customs agent Robert Mazur (Bryan Cranston) assumed the role of Bob Musella and infiltrated the deadly Escobar-led Medillin cartel. Posing as an accountant of sorts, Musella offers to help launder cocaine money while getting close to higher ups of the organization. As Mazur goes deeper and deeper, his relationships become more complex and the danger grows.
It is no secret that Cranston is one of the most lauded television actors of all time. Since the end of “Breaking Bad,” where Cranston won four Emmys (including a record tying three in a row) playing chemistry teacher turned drug lord Walter White, Cranston has had mixed results in film projects. Last year’s “Trumbo,” a role which found Cranston nominated for an Oscar, may have been the turning point, however. His performance in “The Infiltrator” is no different. Cranston is easily the best thing on screen, as he begins to blur his way into his new role as Musella. Cranston has always played vulnerable well, and to watch him sink into the role while using his expressive face to show the difficult of taking down people you’ve grown close to is something to behold. The supporting cast is OK, with John Leguizamo getting the brunt of the work. It’s a slightly hammy performance. As a comedian, it’s almost as if Leguizamo couldn’t help but throw in jokes in times where they don’t work as well.
The best thing “The Infiltrator” has working for it is its sense of tension. Musella is constantly put in situations where he’s given pressure to break, as he works his way into the cartel. It’s a bloody and scary business and watching even the most seasoned pro like Musella be so deeply affected by the brutality of the industry is a credit to Cranston’s performance and good tension building.
When the film is tense and unpredictable, it’s edge-of-your-seat stuff. When it isn’t, however, it becomes a little dull and plodding. Tension between Leguizamo and Cranston feels a little forced and ineffective, while elements of Mazur/Musella’s home life are nothing special.
There’s a bit of cartel fatigue going around, especially with the Escobar story being told so many times. “The Infiltrator” does a good enough job of telling another side of the story that makes it a worthwhile endeavor. It’s a touch generic and retreaded ground (if you’ve seen any cartel movie, you should be able to figure out where the plot is going), but when it dials up the tension, Cranston’s sheer power takes over and elevates the material exponentially.
Starring: Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone, Akiva Schaffer
Directed by: Jorma Taccone (“MacGruber”) and Akiva Schaffer (“The Watch”)
Written by: Andy Samberg (“Extreme Movie”), Jorma Taccone (“MacGruber”), Akiva Schaffer (“Extreme Movie”)
Since the mid-2000’s, the comedy trio of Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer, also known as “The Lonely Island,” have been slowly building their comedy empire. With their music video for “Lazy Sunday,” their SNL digital shorts single-handedly ushered “Saturday Night Live” into the digital age. From there, their musical prowess only grew stronger, capitalizing on the success with the Justin Timberlake-featured “Dick in a Box,” which blew up on the internet and led to a rap album. Several Grammy nominations later, The Lonely Island have produced several respectable albums, and Samberg has gone on to star in several movies and TV shows, with Schaffer and Taccone having writing/directing careers of their own. Though the three collaborated on the film “Hot Rod,” “Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping” marks their first time the comedy trio has had full creative control of a film project.
Taking the mockumentary format, “Popstar” tells the story of Conner4Real (Samberg), a solo pop-artist who gained fame with a group called The Style Boyz. After a tumultuous break-up, Conner and fellow Style Boy Owen (Taccone) branch off for Conner’s solo career, which has the potential to become massive. After his follow-up album is a universally hated, however, Conner must go on tour to try to save his career.
As the first full-fledged Lonely Island film, it was to be expected that music would be a major component. While the music of The Lonely Island has been consistently hilarious, the music in “Popstar” is extremely hit or miss. The best of the bunch is a gay rights activism song, a tune that somewhat mocks Mackelmore’s “Same Love” by showing support for gay rights while making it 100 percent abundantly clear that the artist himself is not gay. Other songs, however, rely to heavily on the mish mashing and smashing together of random, unconnected words and fail to register as truly funny.
As a send up of the music industry, “Popstar” is at its best when it is making specific, pointed jokes at the expense of its ridiculousness. A recurring plot line of Conner’s songs being released through all appliances is a really funny take on Apple causing an internet firestorm by putting the latest U2 album on everyone’s devices without permission. The rest of the film, however, feels a bit aimless and far too reliant on cameos, to the point where it feels slapped together and discombobulated.
That isn’t to say that “Popstar” doesn’t have its moments of hilarity. Moreso than the silliness of Conner’s lifestyle, the funniest moments of the film come at the expense of off-hand comments or throwaway lines. Schaffer, in particular, steals virtually every scene he is in, while people like Tim Meadows get in a handful of really funny lines.
The Lonely Island have always been known for their absurdity, but the film could have used a bit more subtlety as it serves as a quasi-parody of the music industry. These guys have musical chops, and are unquestionably super funny. The fact remains, however, that despite some decent laughs, “Popstar” never fully comes together.
Starring: Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson
Directed by: Anthony and Joe Russo (“Captain America: The Winter Soldier”)
Written by: Christopher Markus (“Captain America: The Winter Soldier”) and Stephen McFeely (“Captain America: The Winter Soldier”)
When the cast list was announced for “Captain America: Civil War,” it was hard to not be afraid that it would be an overcrowded mess. After all, “Avengers: Age of Ultron” tried to replicate the success of the first “Avengers” with limited amounts of success. But leave it to brother directorial duo Joe and Anthony Russo to pull off something truly “Whedon-esque.” They take something that, on paper, should not work at all, and turning it into a rousing, action-packed, spirited film.
For being a Captain America film, “Civil War” goes a long way in its development of other characters. In a huge anticipatory move, Tom Holland is introduced as Peter Parker (Spider-Man). While the initial introduction is a bit clunky, fans may be surprised by how much Spidey they get. It is also the first appearance of Chadwick Boseman as Black Panther. It’s impressive how streamlined his introduction becomes, quickly establishing his place in the franchise while not seeming rushed. Of course, at the heart of “Civil War” is the battle between Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) and Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) as well as the friendship with Rogers and Bucky, also known as The Winter Soldier. To that extent, it is a Captain America movie. To every other extent, this is basically a third installment of “The Avengers.”
For featuring nearly every Marvel character other than The Hulk, Thor and the Guardians of the Galaxy, the Russo Brothers did an astonishing job of not letting the film feel overstuffed. “Avengers: Age of Ultron” was a complete mess that had no discernible structure. On the other side of things, “Civil War” has nary a wasted frame, feeling lean and mean considering its two and a half-hour run time.
A major problem throughout most of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is the inability to develop a good villain. Sure, Loki was fun, but the threat in all of these movies is always a vaguely evil and impending world domination by an under-developed and uninteresting big bad. One of the biggest reasons that “The Avengers” was so successful as a film was that it pitted these characters against each other. Strife within the group proved to be the most interesting conflict the team has had to face throughout the course of these movies. “Civil War” follows suit, literally dividing The Avengers into teams. It is, once again, the most interesting aspect of the film. It’s much more satisfying and exciting to see Iron Man and Captain America violently beating each other up than it is to see entire city blocks be destroyed by fighting some random otherworldly species.
This all culminates in a scene that has been dubbed as the “airport scene.” In what is one of the most memorable scenes of the Marvel franchise, the teams have a battle royale in a giant setpiece. Not only is this scene immense, break-neck speed fun, but nearly every character gets at least one moment of sheer awesomeness and humor. It’s where Marvel gets to show off that they know what to do with Spider-Man, really Holland being a true motor mouth. It’s also where Paul Rudd actually gets to be himself, stealing every second of screentime and being the version of Ant-Man that should have been in his own previous film.
Something that sets “Civil War” apart from most comic book films in recent memory is that it actually addresses the issue of superheroes destroying cities and killing random folks without consequence. It’s an idea that is somewhat meta, considering that being an actual criticism of the genre, but also an idea that was terribly flubbed by something like “Batman v Superman.” To this degree, “Civil War” actually gives our heroes a real reason to be against one another. While the stakes may never feel quite high enough, the disputes are earned.
The end of the film is a bit of a let-down, but “Captain America: Civil War” is solidly exhilarating, engaging, and entertaining. It’s a truly astonishing feat that the Russo Brothers were able to introduce new characters, stuff nearly every Avenger into a single scene, and somehow make this film feel like a stand-alone rather than a table setter, one of the biggest criticisms of the Marvel franchise. Without question, “Civil War” is easily among the top three films Marvel has produced, and the franchise seems to be in capable hands with the Russo’s.
Starring: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Goodman, John Gallagher Jr.
Directed by: Dan Trachtenberg (debut)
Written by: Damien Chazelle (“Whiplash”) Josh Campbell (“4 Minute Mile”), Matthew Stuecken (debut),
Back in 2007, a trailer was attached to the first “Transformers” movie that caught the attention and curiosity of moviegoers everywhere. It featured a party filmed handheld style that was violently interrupted with giant explosions and terror. It ended with the head of the statue of liberty rolling down a New York street. It also ended with no title card, and only a release date for when it would come to theaters. It became one of the top searched trends on the internet and eventually, more details would come to light on the JJ Abrams-produced “Cloverfield,” an inventive found-footage monster movie that helped kickstart a style that has, for better or worse, become a major trend in Hollywood.
Abrams, being a lover of all things mysterious, pulled another trick when another Michael Bay movie (“13 Hours”) had a mysterious trailer attached to it. This time, it had a title: “10 Cloverfield Lane.” Absent from anyone’s radar, the movie was set to come out in mere months. With few plot details known, the time has finally come to see if first, the movie has anything to do with its name sake and second, if its any good.
After being involved in a car crash, Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) wakes up chained in an underground bunker. Brought back by doomsday prepper Howard (John Goodman), she is told that the air is contaminated and nobody above is alive. As she becomes closer to another person in the bunker, Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.), they begin to realize that Howard may be more dangerous and crazy than they think. As they band together to try to find a way out, Howard does whatever necessary to keep them there.
The biggest draw to “10 Cloverfield Lane” is the performance of Goodman. It’s a little hammy and on the nose at times, but it’s still an unsettling and weird performance. Winstead is good for her part, getting to show some physical prowess as well as acting chops. The screenplay, however, does not allow for any meaty character moments to happen. We find Winstead’s Michelle on the run, but we don’t know and never find out why. We see Howard has a checkered family past but we don’t know and never find out why.
In fact, as the proceedings move along, it becomes abundantly clear that direct Dan Trachtenberg and company have no intention of answering any of the questions that they posed. Beyond the narrative, it becomes really difficult for any character study to be done when the audience is only aware of very surface level things. The film flirts with taking its most interesting character in Howard and shedding some light on his truth. It pulls the rug, however, and nothing becomes resolved. The result feels like a complete bait and switch, and perhaps worse, the creation of tension only for the sake of tone and not serving any narrative purpose.
That doesn’t mean the film is totally devoid of tension. There’s actually a lot of intense scenes of near escape or trying to figure out one another. It’s almost a prolonged chess game, only, at times, slow moving and filled with annoying red herrings. Without divulging spoilers, the plot takes a twist in its final act that is completely inexplicable. It feels pasted on, as if we are watching the beginning of an entirely new movie. It’s a shame that instead of exploring characters further and adding nuance to the story, the film decides to go in an even bigger “wtf” direction than what we have seen so far.
Fans of “Cloverfield” may find themselves let down that “10 Cloverfield Lane” has virtually nothing to do with the 2008 film. But after you crack through the potential disappointment of expectations vs. reality, “10 Cloverfield Lane” boils down to a lot of manufactured mood, repetitive MacGyver’ing from Winstead’s character, and an unsatisfying narrative.