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Mistress America (2015)
Baumbach and Gerwig find a new way into the '20-something in New York' story
Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig are at it again, "it" being what it means to be a 20- something in New York City. In "Mistress America," however, the lens and perspective shifts away from the character you'd expect a movie like to this to intimately follow (Gerwig's interesting, ambitious, never-boring Brooke) and instead observes her from an outsider's perspective (Tracy, played by Lola Kirke).
Tracy is instead the main character, a Barnard freshman studying literature and writing, trying to make her way through that formidable (and familiar) landscape. Inspiration strikes, however, when she meets Brooke, her future step-sister. Brooke is around 30, and she's been through the grinder both personally and professionally. She is an innovator who always has big ideas, and Tracy uses her life as the basis of a short story that she hopes will get her into the school's prestigious lit magazine.
Things get particularly interesting when Brooke finds herself locked out of her apartment one day and learns that her boyfriend has pulled all his financial support out of a restaurant they were just about to open together and she seeks a psychic for advice on where to turn next.
Through this blossoming relationship between Tracy and Brooke we observe the typical indie film "portrait of a Millennial" in a way that both mythologizes it (evidenced by Tracy's story/perception of Brooke) and makes it hit home. Brooke is quirky and her life is a melodrama, but it also feels very real. Baumbach and Gerwig's previous collaboration, "Frances Ha," also struck this seemingly contradictory chord of authenticity and whimsy. When there is a dissonance, it's softened by the knowledge that there's such emotional truth at the core of what they're doing.
Another way of putting it is that Baumbach and Gerwig aren't so interested in plot points and what happens. At less than 90 minutes, this movie about a relationship between a younger and older 20-something is not trying to show you something you've never seen before. What they do care about is the trajectory of the relationships between characters. It's hard not to see a piece of yourself in the characters, especially if you're of a similar age, and that holds our attention enough that "Mistress America" doesn't fall apart, even when it's not especially compelling.
"Mistress America" also tends to be be philosophical and angsty. The level of intellectual conversation is to a degree that rarely happens in real life, let alone in these perfect scene-length snippets, but again, like other parts of the film that gravitate closer to being over-the-top, the creative choice to lean that way comes from a strong and earnest desire to explore very relevant themes and ideas.
Frankly, Baumbach and Gerwig could tell a hundred different stories about coming of age in your 20s or 30s in a big city and I'd watch (especially at such a reasonable runtime). But even if you don't think you could, the effort they make to explore a unique "relationship" between two women in "Mistress America" and cast light on this familiar film from a new angle makes this particularly story worthwhile.
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Don't Think Twice (2016)
Simple, heartfelt comedy that anyone with big dreams will understand
Actors, improvisers, comics or any kind of artist, really, shouldn't miss Mike Birbiglia's "Don't Think Twice." The comic-turned-actor/filmmaker journeys behind the curtain for his second film to put an honest lens on the inherent friction that occurs when artists need each other to succeed but also have their own dreams, egos and pursuits.
The film focuses on a modestly successful New York-based improv troupe called the Commune, whose supportive, team-first nature (as per the rules of improv) gets challenged when they learn their venue is closing and one of them has gotten his big break a spot on the cast of "Saturday Night Live" equivalent "Weekend Live."
In the group are Miles (Birbiglia), who at 36 has managed to make being in a troupe and teaching improv into an unglamorous but stable career; Sam (Gillian Jacobs) and Jack (Keegan-Michael Key), the groups biggest talents who are in a relationship together; Allison (Kate Miccuci), an aspiring graphic novelist; Bill (Chris Gethard), another longtime performer who just wants to prove he's accomplished something; and Lindsay (Tami Sagher), who is unemployed, unmotivated and still lives with her wealthy parents.
All these carefully crafted characters "get by" despite their mutual struggles, until Jack gets plucked by "Weekend Live," and the group dynamics get tested in the toughest way possible. There's resentment, group members who hope to use Jack to land a writing job on the show and a lot of grappling with reality and what each of them really wants out of life.
Although "Don't Think Twice" is steeped in the world of improv, and Birbiglia thematically asserts early on in the film that the rules of improv ("say yes," "don't think") are echoed off stage as much as on it, his approach to writing and directing is, ironically, much more carefully planned and controlled.
You can see a lot of the mechanisms at work in Birbiglia's writing play out on screen. The scenes in the film, on average, are probably a minute long each. Many are 30-second snapshots. So each scene, and in many cases each shot, have a specific objective in the arch of the story. This structure inherently reveals all of Birbiglia's cards, which is a big risk, but the film's premise is so effectively rooted in truth that it works.
Critical to this payoff are the performances. When an actor is given so many short scenes with clear objectives, there's not a lot of wiggle room in the performance. You have to take what you're given and bring the additional layers of complexity; you must be a believable person within somewhat rigid confines.
Jacobs does this the best, and will undoubtedly get her own big break soon unless she prefers the climate on planet indie. Her character has a somewhat atypical personal journey and Jacobs brings a lot range to it. We also see the full scope of what Key is capable of, namely that he doesn't have to be over-the-top and hilarious as he is on "Key and Peele" to be successful.
To be fair, acting isn't the lone ingredient that makes this tight ship of a 92-minute film work as a movie we can all identify with. Birbiglia makes a lot of it happen behind the camera too. Balancing planning and precision with rawness and authenticity is not easy and for the most part, he manages to do it. He's most successful when he counteracts the tight writing composition with more relaxed shot composition. There's mostly hand-held camera work in the film, and a nice touch is how the improvisation scenes are filmed from the stage, not the audience. This keeps things loose and also keeps us closer to the characters, the heart of the movie.
Heart is one thing Birbiglia isn't missing, but don't worry there's plenty to laugh at too. Lots of Birbiglia's great sneak-attack humor can be found throughout. Yet the comedy isn't the takeaway here so much as the carefully honed theme of how we chase our dreams while wrestling with our realities, something so universal that it would be hard to find someone who doesn't get it. It's such a true message that even when Birbiglia gets heavy-handed, it's hard not to appreciate the nobility of his purpose.
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Contradictory filmmaking approaches hold 'Batman v Superman' back
***This is a review based on the Ultimate Edition cut of the film***
Arguably the two biggest heroes in comics have come together for "the greatest gladiator match in the history of the world," a pretty tall order for DC Comics and Warner Bros., who have struggled to build the cache of their superhero universe over the years and watched in anguish as Marvel has become an unstoppable force of blockbuster hits that's changing the game for Hollywood.
2013's "Man of Steel," introducing Henry Cavill as Superman, was supposed to course-correct DC and Warner's ways, and while it was definitively better than, say, "Green Lantern," its inability to reach the bar set by Marvel and Christopher Nolan's "The Dark Knight" trilogy led to divisive opinions.
And "Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice" is experiencing a similar fate.
That shouldn't be a total surprise. DC Comics and Warner Bros. keep hitching their dreams of critical acclaim to director Zack Snyder and writer David S. Goyer, who both worked on "Man of Steel" and other comic book projects such as "300" and "Watchmen" (Snyder) and "The Dark Knight Trilogy" (Goyer) and have yet to truly follow through on the promise their names once held.
Yet neither Snyder nor Goyer can be entirely blamed for the negative reactions to "Man of Steel" and "Batman v Superman." The craftsmanship is just not adding up to a cohesive vision, and what makes it on screen simply isn't resonating with fans.
"Batman v Superman" begins on a compelling enough of a foot. After giving us a visually striking montage retelling Batman's origin story, we see Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) navigating the destruction of the final sequence in "Man of Steel." As he looks to the sky in horror, we immediately get a sense of how his ideology will put him at odds with Superman.
It also helps that this sequence meaningfully addresses a chief criticism of "Man of Steel" all the reckless destruction of Metropolis trying to pass for a riveting climax. We see the impact of the devastation, and it sets a tone for the issues we will grapple with throughout the movie, about whether Superman is a god and a hero or poses a continuous danger to the world.
Of course the ending of "Batman v Superman," ironically involves even more reckless destruction trying to pass as meaningful entertainment. So the film contradicts itself, and therein lies the biggest problem a crisis of tone and identity.
Snyder and Goyer opt for a grim and gritty film, presumably continuing in the mold of Christopher Nolan's "Dark Knight" trilogy (Nolan had a story credit on "Man of Steel"), but the seriousness doesn't gel with its other priority: being a flashy, digital effects-heavy blockbuster. There's a reason Nolan's films didn't feature excessive CGI grand finales. The story is actually rather thoughtfully constructed with some nice plot points that provide a handful of surprises for the audience. It's definitely more than a little messy having two main characters, arguably a third in Lois Lane (Amy Adams) and also wedging in Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) and the setup for the "Justice League" movie, but it's compelling and creates some thought-provoking moments (at least in the ultimate edition).
The other clash of tones comes in humor vs. seriousness. On one hand, you have a brooding Bruce Wayne and on the other, a theatrical Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg). Eisenberg's performance is good as a psychopath, but wrong for the movie and wrong for the character. The role attempts to emulate Heath Ledger's Joker but forgets that that was a man without a past dressed as a clown, not a famous billionaire in hipster garb. This Luthor would fit better in a more playful, Marvel-like movie.
You could pick apart "Batman v Superman" in any number of ways, but you could do the same of a lot of superhero movies, some that are well-praised, even. The difference is these conflicts in tone. The incongruence opens the film up to our scrutiny because it keeps us from getting lost in the story and reminds us we're watching a film that's trying so hard to make sense.
Because up until the very final moment in a big battle between our two heroes who greatly misunderstand each other, "Batman v Superman" gets the job done. Not in the smoothest of ways, but enough, much like "Man of Steel" did. The real sin is not learning from what held that film back.
DC and Warner Bros. have already launched into "Justice League" with Snyder at the helm, but they'll continue to make the same mistakes unless someone can step in with a guiding vision. If there was enough of a singular vision in "Batman v Superman," those mistakes wouldn't have happened. That's the difference between Marvel and DC's film universes let's just hope there's still time for DC to catch up. Now that "Justice League" is happening, it's now or never.
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Finding Dory (2016)
'Dory' makes up for a little sequel unoriginality with lots of heart and a great message
The talented storytellers and animators at Pixar are too creative to be devoting so much time to sequels like "Finding Dory," but money talks. At least they're clever and thoughtful enough to turn an easy payday into something entertaining and heartfelt.
Created 13 years after "Finding Nemo," at least filmmaker Andrew Stanton had some time and space to let his vibrant animated underwater world and colorful characters breathe, and find a story that needed telling. That story centers on sidekick character Dory (Ellen DeGeneres), the blue tang fish with short-term memory loss, who suddenly uncovers some long-term memories about her family and goes off in search of them.
One of the more lovable supporting characters in Pixar's short but storied history, Dory makes for a great subject, and her disability allows for a really powerful and uplifting message. "Inside Out" changed the everyday discussion about emotions last year; "Dory" continues the studio's impressive focus on social values and teaching utility that should inspire so many of its younger viewers or at least give adults the tools to discuss these challenges with the children in their lives.
"Dory" is also clever and entertaining, even if the story structure relies heavily on convention and repetition. Dory's search for mom and dad takes her to a California marine life park, where almost all the action takes place. It's a very Pixar move to put these characters in an environment we know with humans in the background oblivious to the story unfolding (think "Toy Story"), but it kind of takes away from the majesty of the open water that made "Finding Nemo" so epic. That film was truly an odyssey, a long and winding, exhaustive journey, whereas the "Dory" plot feels as though it is stuffed with predicaments and complications that prolong the end point that we know is just within reach (and inevitable).
Essentially, Dory and Nemo and Marlon, who are chasing after her find themselves in and out of dangerous situations (or in jeopardy of their plan failing) with minor breathing room in between and the help of more new supporting characters, most notably a camouflaging "septopus" named Hank (Ed O'Neill). Their escapes are preposterous, which is no shocker, but the filmmakers' ingenuity loses a bit of sparkle the more frequently it occurs.
But these criticisms come with the high bar Pixar has set for itself. If the studio is going to go for the sequel cash-grab, it needs to justify the choice through creative, thoughtful storytelling. "Dory" does this better than "Cars 2" and "Monsters University," but there's just enough of a sense that it was produced by a sequel machine.
All this makes the film's heart and social welfare component all the more vital. In this area, Stanton and co. do not falter one iota. Leaning on a story formula is less of a sin than creating a family film that has nothing original to say and doesn't pull at the heartstrings. "Finding Dory" avoids this most important sequel pitfall and its emotional factor proves, in the end, to be the only justification Pixar needed to bring us Nemo, Marlon and Dory once more.
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The Hateful Eight (2015)
A melting pot of all things Tarantino
Quentin Tarantino's films continue to look more and more like the films that inspired him. His last film, "Django Unchained," brought the spaghetti western to the deep south. "The Hateful Eight" is a straight up western, albeit set in Wyoming during a blizzard with the legendary Ennio Morricone behind the score.
"The Hateful Eight" is a melting pot of all things Tarantino. The tactics that have long drawn praise are in full array, as are those that have long drawn some criticism. So in that respect, Tarantino's biggest fans will leave this very long film with smiles on their faces. Everyone else it's not so simple.
As someone who has both loved and been turned off by Tarantino, I was skeptical yet open-minded about his eighth feature film. Turns out the Western genre really does suit his pulpy style better than the backdrops of some of his other perhaps more experimental films. Somehow the Western frontier is one of few settings where Tarantino's rules can be argued to make any sense.
The first couple acts of "Hateful Eight" take place in a stage coach as John "The Hangman" Ruth (Kurt Russell) and his prized bounty, alleged murderer Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), travel toward the town of Red Rock (where the bounty is to be paid, and Daisy hung) with a blizzard nipping at their heels. On the way they pick up a couple stranded strangers: fellow bounty hunter and former Union soldier Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) and Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), son of an infamous southern marauder who claims to be the new sheriff of Red Rock. Despite having good reason not to trust either of them, Ruth lets them tag along to Minnie's Haberdashery, where they'll wait out the storm and the distrust only escalates.
At the haberdashery are Bob (Demian Bichir), professional hangman Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), old Confederate General Sandy Smithers and cowboy Joe Gage (Michael Madsen). Soon enough it becomes clear that one or more of these men is in not who they say they are and are likely fixing to foil Ruth's plan.
There's a strong thriller/mystery element to "Hateful Eight" that we haven't gotten from Tarantino in a long time. There are a couple unexpected, non-linear plot devices that add a greater layer of satisfaction to the way everything plays out beyond Tarantino's typical promise and delivery of carnage. The truth of what really happened and what everyone is really after hangs over the film from start to finish in a quite masterful way.
Surprisingly, there are a lot of similarities between "Hateful Eight" and Tarantino's first feature, "Reservoir Dogs." There's a large but tight ensemble cast (including Roth and Madsen), false identities, a confined setting and sadistic violence. "Eight" is just flashier, though much of that can be attributed to budget and the fact that Tarantino can do whatever he wants given his success since 1992.
But in terms of being brutal and uncomfortable, that's where the comparisons end. Taking place post-Civil War, "Hateful Eight" features abundant racial vulgarities and assault against women (Ruth keeps Daisy in line by regularly smashing her face in). Between "Django" and "Eight," Tarantino has easily surpassed any other filmmakers' use of the n- word in two films (or the use of that word in any two other films ever made, probably). He continues to become more and more provocative and debatably without any clear artistic justification except to rattle the viewer.
Let's steer clear of that argument for now, however, and focus on how "Hateful Eight" does seem to offer some other cogent thoughts. Whereas Tarantino mostly includes violence for the sake of violence in his films, his script offers some more deeper thoughts on justice than usual. Encapsulated quite well in a little speech given by Roth's Oswaldo about the difference between the law's justice and frontier justice, Tarantino points our attention to the different ways bad people get what they deserve, which puts a bit of a thematic framework around the film's proceedings and dare I say it provokes some thought.
That's more than you'd expect from a film that from the onset clearly endeavors to kill off almost its entire cast over the course of three hours. Maybe the Morricone score dupes us into thinking what's on screen is more powerful and meaningful than it really is, or maybe Tarantino has struck up a little more genius than we thought a pulp Western could deliver.
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Disney stays hot with entertaining, very socially relevant "Zootopia"
For a studio that in modern times has taken a lot of flak for past racist cartoon depictions, Disney has come a long way with "Zootopia." It's as though someone at the Mouse House must have off-handedly said how great would it be if they could make a kids' movie about racism and classism and one if not all seven writers with story credits on "Zootopia" raised their hands and said "challenge accepted."
Indeed, the CGI-era non-Pixar team at Disney has done just that, hitting its stride big time after "Wreck-It Ralph" and "Frozen." (This critic has regrettably yet to see "Big Hero 6.") "Zootopia" has all the best trappings of an entertaining animated family film with ample wit and heart.
Yet while most animated films featuring talking animals simply for marketing purposes, the writing team (again, too many names to name here) offers an explanation of sorts. Much like 2012's "Wreck-It Ralph" built an entire film around video game characters existing beyond the screen, "Zooptopia" which borrows all four writers from "Ralph," including its director (Rich Moore) crafts a world in which animals have evolved beyond survival instincts (and humans don't exist) and try to live together in harmony. By turning species characteristics into stereotypes and creating a predator-prey distinction, Disney lays the groundwork for an incredibly socially relevant movie.
"Zootopia" follows Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin), a bunny who has aspired for her entire life to become a police officer in the mammal metropolis of Zootopia despite everyone telling her she's supposed to be a carrot farmer. But the story isn't so cliché that it results in some "anyone can be anything" tale. It goes well beyond, testing Judy's idealism and can-do spirit after she meets sly fox Nick (Jason Bateman) and starts to investigate a missing mammals case.
The references to race and class are not subtle, and they go beyond serving as accompanying themes to movie. While kids will certainly not pick up on all of them, the filmmakers' intent is clearly to draw on examples of racism and prejudice from our world and introduce them in ways that kids can grapple with. There are elements of mystery and themes of friendship and believing in yourself, but "Zootopia" stands out for making this concerted effort to highlight divisions and differences and how they do not define us.
The seriousness of this subject matter does not subvert the kid-friendly tone of the film, however. There's definitely a certain maturity to it (and even some scary moments), but the creative team has put together a colorful, vibrant world with various amusing characters and silly moments.
Yet it's heart that really elevates "Zootopia." The big issues and themes allow it to go into somewhat uncharted animated territory, but also the characters of Judy and Nick are thoughtfully constructed. Judy is perhaps the perfect heroine and her journey is so incredibly sincere; Nick has the potential to be a bit more of an archetype, but he has many complex shades that help convey this notion that no character can be put in a box. The story really goes out of its way to make that point too.
"Zootopia" isn't George Orwell's "Animal Farm," but it might be the most socially conscious and intelligent offering in the 20 years of this CGI era. The fact that kids and adults should enjoy it equally only makes it the more impressive. While Pixar has the clout, look at the last five years and Disney Animation's body of work is more impressive (and without any sequels). We should look forward to both with equal eagerness.
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The Lobster (2015)
Amusing and poignant satire about human companionship
So many great stories end with the message that life is meant to be shared with someone else. This statement, in all likelihood, is one a majority of people in the world would agree with. The latest film from Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos, however, will make you seriously consider if not refute this universally held belief.
As he did with his Oscar-nominated foreign film "Dogtooth," Lanthimos builds a concept- driven story in "The Lobster" that explores the possibilities of how humans would react to well-intentioned extremism. And like "Dogtooth," "The Lobster" puts its viewer in the most uncomfortable of situations through Lanthimos' patented blunt/deadpan sexual situations and violence.
"The Lobster" imagines a dystopian Europe in which romantic companionship is both required and strictly enforced. We experience the process of finding a partner through the eyes of David (Colin Farrell), a man whose wife has just left him, which means he must go back to The Hotel, where with the help and guidance of management, guests must find a partner and fall in love in 45 days or be turned into animals and sent into the woods.
This bizarre and intriguing premise is sure to capture the attention of just about any imaginative movie fan, but only so many will be able to handle Lanthimos' bold, often unsettling and especially provocative style, which induces squirms as much as intellectual stimulation.
The world and satirical analogy that Lanthimos has constructed with writing partner Efthymis Filippou is elaborate, which becomes extremely apparent when you learn that there are "loners" out in the woods, those who fled The Hotel, are trying to live on their own and diametrically oppose the values of civilization to the same strict degree. Hotel guests and encouraged to hunt these people down, and they earn extra time at The Hotel in exchange for captures.
Bolstered by an excellent cast that includes Rachel Weisz, Ben Whishaw, John C. Reilly, Lea Seydoux and Olivia Colman, "The Lobster" examines Western society's romantic standards and structures through these exaggerations in hopes of uncovering some greater truths about love and the lengths people will go to to find it (and in some cases, fake it).
Lanthimos is not shy about shocking the audience, but "The Lobster" demonstrates some growth in this arena; he dials back some of the explicit imagery (particularly the nudity) as if recognizing that suggested sexual situations can be just as if not more powerful than depicted ones. He has no shortage of opportunities in the film to show nudity or sex and opts for none, letting the audience's imagination do the work and elicit its own potent reaction. Violence, on the other hand, the film is not shy about, though Lanthimos opts for disturbing and awkward rather than gory and gratuitous.
The impact of these choices tremendously benefits "The Lobster." Although there's no denying the brusque, uncomfortable nature of the film, these tactics aren't as big of a distraction as they were in "Dogtooth." As a result, what we do see doesn't rattle us beyond any possible comprehension of themes and ideas, but provokes them. And there's plenty of breathing room to let it all sink in.
"The Lobster" provides incredibly fresh perspective on and sharp insight into love and relationships, something that will undoubtedly resonate with those viewers intrigued enough by the premise and not repelled by its explicit situations. Its ambiguous ending will annoy some and multiply the adoration of others, but regardless, it succeeds at pushing the viewer to really consider all of its many facets and ideas. As long as Lanthimos can continue to strike the balance between challenging ideas and images and thoughtful ones, he'll continue to make great films for a long time.
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Hail, Caesar! (2016)
The Coens are still sharp and smart, but 'Hail, Caesar!' isn't quite engaging enough
In tackling Hollywood's Golden Age, the Coen Brothers have made their glitziest film to date in "Hail, Caesar!," but a couple musical numbers featuring Channing Tatum and Scarlett Johansson are just the commercial selling points of what is actually another off- beat yet deeply philosophical film from the duo.
As such, it's easy to see why "Hail, Caesar!" could be viewed as misleading when it turns out not to be the uproarious comedy suggested by the premise of a Hollywood studio fixer whose big movie star is kidnapped by a group called "The Future." The first clue of this marketing misdirection is the film's stark opening shot on a sculpture of Christ on the crucifix, followed by our discovery that the big Capitol Pictures epic feature film at the center of this movie is actual called "Hail, Casear!" with the subtitle "A Tale of the Christ."
The religious imagery makes for an interesting contrast with the film's plot. Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) is the man who makes Capitol Pictures' problems go away. A last-minute star is needed for a high society Broadway adaptation? He ropes in Western star Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) and makes it work. Johansson's DeeAnna Moran is pregnant out of wedlock? He has a plan to make the child legitimate. "Hail, Caesar!" star Baird Whitlock's (George Clooney) disappearance, however, calls for more desperate measures.
This story plays out as more of a "week in the life" portrait of Mannix with some diversions into these other films, like a hilarious scene in which Doyle, a southern boy lacking sophistication, works with director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) on his lines, or a musical number with sailors with not so subtle homo-erotic undertones. Yet this gives the story (and consequently the viewer) problems staying focused. The narrative thread just isn't as tight or compelling as in other Coen films. Even the ending comes as a surprise, in terms of timing, because we never get a sense of the story's arc.
The thematic threads, however, are as sharp and intriguing as ever. In addition the lens of faith being applied to the film from the get- go, the Coens bring in a Communist element in the form of Whitlock's captors, who criticize the old Hollywood studio hierarchy, which of course has a lot of modern-day relevance in both the movie industry and in greater society. The Coens suggest that big movie studios are a microcosm of other hierarchies (including religious ones) and highlight the complex relationship between the large entity that makes everything possible, and the talents of the individuals that it comprises.
That makes "Hail, Caesar!" another great Coen film to use in teaching a film class, but doesn't make it among their best films, at least not when you consider all the trappings (i.e. big-name stars and musical numbers) that would lead you to believe it should be among their most entertaining works.
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Captain America: Civil War (2016)
Lots of smaller, thoughtful moments and a focused plot make "Civil War" the hero-heavy blockbuster "Avengers 2" should've been
Welcome to Phase III of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, where the solo superhero films get an "Avengers"-sized cast and even Spider-Man can swing out of the clutches of Sony Pictures and into a Marvel Studios movie. In other words, you'd need a lot of action figures to recreate "Captain America: Civil War," but you'd also need to do more than just smack them into each other; Marvel's latest is ambitious, but it makes sense and succeeds in ways beyond pure spectacle.
The same couldn't be said of "Avengers: Age of Ultron," a film that "Civil War" kind of pardons by virtue of coming out just a year later and being better. Although both films demonstrate what made 2012's "The Avengers" a success an understanding of the importance of humor and character-driven moments in between giant action sequences "Civil War" has a more intriguing premise and more cohesive plot, even if you need to have seen both "Avengers" films and "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" to truly get behind it.
"Civil War" has the potential to be a beautiful disaster. Captain America (Chris Evans) and Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) are at the core of this disagreement over whether the Avengers should be held accountable to the United Nations after all the destruction their "avenging" has caused, but Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), War Machine (Don Cheadle), Vision (Paul Bettany), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) and even newcomers Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and Spider-Man (Tom Holland) all take sides for various reasons. That's a dozen superheroes to manage in one film but who's counting?
Directors Joe and Anthony Russo do a pretty incredible job considering all the super- stallions in their stable. They devote the time needed to make it clear where each character is coming from, albeit some better than others. Credit also to writing duo Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, who have been with the "Captain America" films since the beginning, each of them completely different than the other but all very good.
The key is that "Civil War" never loses sight of what drives these characters, even when that motivation is spotty. If we're going to believe these heroes will fight each other, the reason better be very good, and the reason it's good is actually kind of surprising.
After years of superhero films in which the aftermath of the destruction caused by these big building-demolishing grand finales has been overlooked, "Civil War" gets personal and looks at the loss of innocent life caused by this devastation. It adds a powerful human touch to this massive-scale story. Yes, the heroes duke it out at a German airport way longer than they should, quipping back and forth way longer than they should, but there's a lot of one-on-one scenes that don't involve throwing punches that balance it all out.
And that's not to take away from the action. Although some of the sequences toward the beginning feel a bit blurry (and that's in standard definition, not 3D), the Russos make every moment of action count and really think about the characters involved in each action shot. The creativity, staging and thrill factor are extremely strong as they were in "Winter Soldier," plus the violence is grittier and more palpable for a PG-13. It's clear that the future "Avenger" films, which they will direct, are in capable hands.
While the novelty of seeing several superheroes in one film has worn off a bit, even this time with them fighting each other, characters like Black Panther and Spider-Man make a difference in giving some of that novelty back. Marvel has done well introducing characters in smaller films before bringing them together, but here we see the value in doing the opposite. The fresh dynamic between Downey Jr. and Holland, for example, turns out to be a highlight of the film and will get even the most exhausted Spider-Man fans excited to see what Sony and Marvel Studios do with this younger Peter Parker next. And Black Panther gets a surprisingly effective story arch in this movie that bodes well for his upcoming solo adventure.
Reining in the chaos is the crowning achievement of "Civil War," and the secret proves to be finding the small moments to put in check the gigantic stature of the film. It also helps that these smaller moments all connect to the core moral conflict of the film; we aren't following disparate story lines. Everything serves or can be tied back to the core concept of how autonomous superheroes should be allowed to be, which really ties into why these heroes do what they do, a hugely important question that gives so much credence to this movie and, in a way, the entire Marvel Studios mission.
Dozens of films and almost a decade in, it's incredible to watch Marvel continually deliver. If they use the blueprint of "Civil War" as a model for building this third phase of movies, there's no reason they won't continue to make film after satisfying film.
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Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
Messier, for sure, but still plenty of "Avengers" fun
The task of bringing together Earth's mightiest heroes took Joss Whedon into uncharted territory with 2012's "The Avengers," and, despite the weight of the Marvel Cinematic Universe on his shoulders, the results were staggeringly entertaining. The task of making a sequel to that ground-breaking, monumental event film, however, and being expected to deliver on par or better results, is an entirely different beast.
"Avengers: Age of Ultron" was definitely built on the bullet point takeaways of "The Avengers," which are: Make time and space for wit, banter and humor for the sake of humor to prevent the film from taking itself too seriously; give each character a story arch and independent moments; choreography clever action sequences with well-timed glory shots. These components are in full force in "Ultron" and make enjoying the blockbuster as easy as shoving a lollipop in your mouth.
Yet "Ultron" is infinitely more complex than its predecessor. The number of heroes featured barely fits into a single action figure play case, meaning more subplots and back story, in addition to creating an arch of the creation and life of Ultron itself. With a plot that takes the Avengers from the eastern European country of "Sokovia" to New York to the African nation of "Wakanda" to Seoul, South Korea to Sokovia again, much of "Age of Ultron" is a non-stop blur.
The film opens with the Avengers leading an assault on a secret HYDRA facility where they have located the staff that Loki used to lead the Chitauri invasion in "The Avengers." When they secure it and bring it back to New York, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) discover that its power source contains a blueprint for artificial intelligence, which would allow Stark to proceed with his Ultron project, an initiative to create peace-keeping robots that could defend the world in place of the Avengers should another alien invasion occur. When Ultron (voiced by James Spader) becomes conscious, however, he interprets his peace-keeping instructions as an imperative to wipe out humankind.
Added to the mix are the Maximoff twins, Pietro (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) also known as Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch who decide to serve Ultron, with the latter using her powers to give each of the Avengers dangerous visions that could tear them apart.
The fight scenes and action sequences are in such abundance in "Ultron" that it's impossible to remember them all, and the ones that are most distinct, such as Iron Man chasing down and taming a rampant Hulk using his Hulkbuster armor, are ancillary to the narrative of finding what Ultron is up to and stopping it. In other words it's all for show. The creativity of the fight choreography also gets lost in the whirlwind of action. Captain America (Chris Evans) probably does 12 different awesome things with his shield, but they happen so fast you'll be hard pressed to recall any one of them in detail. Really clever sequences are only as fun as the build-up and payoff and those pieces are given no time to breathe.
Whedon does allow for pauses in the chaos, such as the swanky Avengers Tower party featuring the film's best scene, when each Avenger tries his hand at lifting Thor's hammer, or a quiet retreat to an unexpected safe house in the countryside, but it's simply a trade- off: instead of busy action sequences, we get character relationship dynamics and back story.
"Ultron" is inundating, to be frank, but for the everything-but-the-sink mentality, it's carried by its sense of humor and a cast whose members have each proved themselves time and again to be magnetic both on their own and as part of this team. Some of the novelty has worn off, but seeing all these characters together remains a treat that even the most convoluted of stories cannot entirely dismantle. Marvel Studios truly proves with "Ultron" the credibility that it has built with fans, to the point that even when it gets a little ambitious and mettles a bit more (you can easily see Whedon at odds with them in this final cut), its reputation remains intact and the fans placated.
As "Phase III" begins, adding even more characters to Marvel's cinematic universe (and even sliding Spider-Man into the mix) en route to the two-part "Avengers: Infinity War" slated for 2018 and 2019, it will be interesting to see if Marvel Studios barrels along into more unwieldy but delicious chaos, or reins it in a touch. Either way, should be fun.
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