Avengers: Infinity War (2018, Directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo) English 6

Starring Robert Downey Jr., Josh Brolin, Benedict Cumberbatch, Mark Ruffalo, Tom Holland, Chadwick Boseman, Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Don Cheadle, Sebastian Stan, Tom Hiddleston, Anthony Mackie, Idris Elba, Bradley Cooper, Carrie Coon, Chris Hemsworth, Peter Dinklage

Point of order right off the top: I’m not what you’d call a “Marvel fan.” I’ve seen every film they’ve churned out, generally in theaters, if able, opening weekend even. I enjoy the surrounding excitement when watching these films. During Infinity War, I sat next to a mom and three young boys. Seeing her cover their eyes for half of the movie gave me a heavy sense of nostalgia from when I was a boy watching PG-13 movies in the theater with my mother.  They’re event films, and it’s fun to hear the nerds clap when ————-happens, or $%#@ arrives on the scene, or  ~~~ says something witty (for people serious about avoiding spoilers). In fact, another point of order, I will not be completely able to avoid spoilers in this review. I will not go heavy into detail, but I also cannot complain thoroughly enough without calling out specific incidents from the film. There’s my warning. With both disclaimers out of the way, allow me to unleash, or really, more accurately, temper the avalanche of over-the-top praise Infinity War is receiving, not dissimilar to what surrounded Marvel’s last effort, Black Panther. This is a good film. It held my attention. The acting was solid across the board, but Marvel movies have always lacked in certain areas, and that doesn’t change here. I consider Marvel more of a factory than a film studio.

The film opens strong, with Thanos (Brolin) reveling in the ashes and the corpses of another land that he’s massacred. He is a madman, a zealot who believes his purpose is to reduce the population of every planet by 50%, in order to sustain their people. He was unable to achieve this ideal on his home planet of Titan, and the entire civilization was destroyed, adding fire to his fanaticism. Josh Brolin gives the character a brooding, rigged sensitivity that makes the character more interesting than past “ultra-powerful” villains. That’s one element of the film I really liked. Making Thanos three dimensional goes a long way to making him more daunting.  Thor and Bruce Banner find out first hand the power Thanos possesses, aided by powerful stones known as Infinity Stones. Of the six in creation, Thanos already possesses 2. If he gets to all six, he’s virtually unstoppable, and so the stakes are clear. Thor and Banner split up and attempt to, essentially, sound the alarm, reaching out to all Avengers, because this latest threat is their most severe. That brings in a large array of characters, characters Marvel has done a nice job of setting up throughout the last decade. There are still some black sheep among the cast, however. No one cares about the Scarlet Witch, Vision, War Machine, Falcon, or Heimdall. They’ve been undercooked since conception, and can go the way of the Dodo for my money. I, frankly, don’t care about Black Widow either. What are her powers? If the Avengers are bringing in mortals with nice moves, why not recruit Jackie Chan or Donnie Yen? Gina Carano would beat Black Widow. All of these D-list heroes are space eaters, and Infinity War’s first mistake is not having them bite the dust first scene. Their purpose in this film should never have gone beyond dying by Thanos’ hand to show how powerful he is. The rest of the good superheroes split time well enough for the most part. Black Panther is short changed, but everyone else has their moments, and the actors make the most of their screen time. The writing in Infinity War was impressive. Some good lines and well placed comic relief make sure the movie is never a drag, no matter how serious the action gets.

One of my core complaints about the Marvel Universe has always been the lack of consequences that accompany the immense and, at times, overwhelming action. I said of the last Avengers movie, which was poor in my view, that it reminded me of the Shakespeare quote, “It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Nobody important dies (don’t try to sell me Quicksilver), and it was just a bunch of flashing lights and deathless explosions. Infinity War seemed prime to change all this. Right off the back an important character dies. Later, down goes another. I was hooked into Thanos’ reign of terror, until the film ended on a lame string of fake deaths. Maybe this is premature, it’s hard to fairly evaluate two part films, so I’ll come back, but for now, I’m fairly confident what happens to end this part, will be mitigated in the second part. I hate when any work of fiction brings a character back from the dead. It’s the equivalent to ending on, “It was all a dream.” It undermines everything. Unlike the hardcore Marvel junkies, I’m not even going to waste a minute trying to figure out where the plot goes from here. I was basically tuned in the film’s entire running time, interested in who was going to die. What am I left with? No one knows. It was all a tease. I am anticipating the second one being devastating and strong, and if I’m right, I’ll recant this review, and give it a higher rating, but for now, a solid film/disappointment.

-Walter Howard-

A Quiet Place (2018, Directed by John Krasinski) English 6

Starring John Krasinski, Emily Blunt, Millicent Simmons, Noah Jupe

Image result for a quiet place

Set forward a few years in an agricultural town, the Abbot family led by dad, Lee (Krasinski), mom, Evelyn (Blunt), teenage daughter, Regan (Simmons), and two sons, Marcus and Beau, live in a post-apocalyptic state of sorts, as a swarm of sightless creatures have taken over the planet. These creatures have hypersonic hearing, and attack any and all sound, and so the Abbot family attempt to stick together without the luxury of noise. It’s an ultra tense premise for a film, and the result is a suitably strong monster flick. There’s one especially memorable scene in the middle of the film (if you’ve seen the trailer, you can guess which one I’m referring to), and the family dynamic makes for endearing drama. Hitchcock once explained suspense in terms of waiting for a bomb to go off. You have the explosion, which is one thing, but the anticipation of the explosion is the suspense.This is a solid movie, but where it falls short in my eyes is the explosion part. The suspense is done well, but the moments when the monsters hit pay dirt aren’t as satisfying as they could have been (remember Jaws devouring Robert Shaw?).

A Wrinkle in Time (2018, Directed by Ava Duvernay) English 4

Starring Storm Reid, Reese Witherspoon, Mindy Kaling, Oprah Winfrey, Zach Galifianakis, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Chris Pine, Levi Miller

Five minutes in to Ava Duvernay’s A Wrinkle in Time, and I knew, I hated this film. The tone was set, and that relentlessly earnest tone was never going to be compelling to me. From that point on, the movie Grinch in me took over (a demon I’m rarely obstructed by), and the scoffer of all sincerity reigned. Over the course of the film’s plodding 2 hour runtime, there were eye-rolls, heavy sighs, magnetized eyelids, and sneers a-plenty, and I accepted that I would have to block out the social importance of the film, the valuable themes it touches on, and the history it made when Ava Duvernay (a black woman) stepped into its directing chair, because as much I applaud those aspects of the film, A Wrinkle in Time is a bad movie.

It begins almost in montage form, a style that gets repeated all too often in the film. We meet Meg Murray (played by Storm Reid) and her closely knit family that includes her Physicist parents, Dr. Kate Murray (Mbatha-Raw) and Dr. Alexander Murray (Pine), and her newly adopted brother, Charles Wallace (played by Deric McCabe). Fast forward a bit, and now the Murray family lives without their father, who disappeared mysteriously and hasn’t been seen for 4 years. Meg thinks about him constantly. She gets bullied at school for being odd, her grades slip dramatically, and she feels disconnected from the world. She finds it difficult to trust anyone. Charles Wallace, a genius, is looked at as an oddball too. He worships Meg, but unlike her, he seems to trust too easily, which is why he lets the bizarre, otherworldly Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon) in the house, to both Meg and their mom’s dismay. Soon Meg and Charles Wallace meet the equally bizarre forms of Mrs. Which (Oprah) and Mrs. Who (Kaling), and the trio explain to the siblings about tesseracts (a type of instantaneous travel that their dad was studying when he disappeared). Joined by one of her kind classmates, Calvin (Miller), Meg sees an opportunity to find and rescue her father, and so the adventure begins. In order to save him, she’ll have to travel through space and time, and confront the IT (an evil, formless entity) as well as the insecurities that she harbors inside of her.

Duvernay, who directed the highly successful Selma, amongst other, smaller work, has proven she can direct a high profile film, but she’s taken on a novel that is said to be nearly unfilmable, and lost. Getting great performances from children is a tricky business. Add to that, material that’s operating on a several levels, hoping to be profound, and you’re asking a lot from a young, inexperienced cast. I found the acting awkward and the dialogue stilted. What little jokes are present fall-flat making the proceedings crawl by humorlessly. At several points, the film halts in order to provide us with a song and a collection of pretty images (the effect being that of an inserted music video), and regardless of the fact that some of the songs are very good (one being by Sade for instance), the film loses momentum. Whenever you have a film and a director reaching for big ideas, if they don’t resonate or they don’t land, the result is going to be a film like A Wrinkle in Time that simply feels pretentious.

-Walter Howard-

Black Panther (2018, Directed by Ryan Coogler) English 7

Starring Chadwick Boseman, Lupita Nyong’o, Michael B. Jordan, Daniel Kaluuya, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Andy Serkis, Letitia Wright, Forrest Whitaker, Angela Bassett, Winston Duke

T’Chaka is dead, T’Challa (Boseman) is now king. As any film, novel, or comic book will tell you, with being king, comes heavy responsibilities, and T’Challa is king of Wakanda, a country in the heart of Africa abundant in resources, surrounded by suffering countries. As he struggles with setting the course Wakanda will take, Erik “Killmonger” Stevens (Jordan), an outsider, schemes to take over his rule and implement his own violent ideas. With the help of his former flame, Nakia (Nyong’o), his little sister Shuri (Wright), and Okoye, leader of Wakandan special forces (Gurira), T’Challa fights to preserve his people’s way of life, while deciding what to do to help the world around them.

More than just the story it tells on screen, Black Panther is truly an event, and what I can only hope is a turning point movie. You cannot talk about Marvel’s latest without considering how important it is culturally, how unprecedented it is, and how bizarre it is that something like this has never once happened before. A big budget film with a predominantly black cast. The closest equivalent would be Coming to America (1988) made for $39 million about thirty years ago with the biggest star at the time in Eddie Murphy. Not wanting to belittle how big that film was, I do, however feel it necessary to point out the difference between a comedy vehicle for the biggest star in the world and a $200 million epic produced by a studio in Marvel that dominates global box-office and influences youth to a degree I’m not sure could be measured. There was a time-feels like just yesterday- that studio execs didn’t believe black people could sell a movie. Will Smith, I’ve read, talks about execs not wanting him to have a black love interest in Hitch because they didn’t think it’d sell. With Black Panther set to five-peat as box-office champ, and with over a billion dollars earned, I think they know now how absurd their thinking was, because a billion dollars shows that it’s not just black people flocking to see it. A billion dollars means that everyone is going to see it. Preface aside though, my obligation in reviewing it remains to answer the question, is it good? I answer unhesitatingly, yes. Is it as good as its 97% on Rotten Tomatoes, 4 stars from reliable critic Peter Travers, 88% on Metacritic indicate? Cultural phenomenon aside, watershed moment aside, I say no. Black Panther is a strong film of ambition and intelligence, but isn’t the transcendent superhero flick I’ve been waiting on from Marvel since their reign started with Iron Man (2008). Directed by the young and talented Ryan Coogler (Creed and Fruitvale Station), digs deeper than most superhero fare, but not enough to be great.

What do I mean by transcendent? The superhero subgenre is in my eyes, supremely limited. Low on thoughtfulness, light on romance, often devoid of consequences, and pandering to a set crowd. I don’t consider myself the target audience for any superhero adventure. So I always go to these films hoping that this one would transcend my prejudices and have a strong appeal to me. That happened with Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, happened early on with the first two Spider-Man entries, happened with a few of the X-Men films, especially Logan (2017). Hasn’t happened with a Marvel studios film yet. They streamline their films, as if out of a factory at times, but I’ll enthusiastically declare that Black Panther avoids that fate. While not a great film in my book, it is an original, with a terrific cast and an outstanding villain. Chadwick Boseman makes a worthy hero, and he’s supported by women who threaten to steal the show. My problem with Marvel movies in the past has been their one dimensional villains. Michael B. Jordan’s Killmonger is a fully formed character. One who is empathetic even. That the film succeeds in being intelligent and thoughtful is due to its making both the hero and villain into intelligent and thoughtful characters. Their fight is more about ideology than some boring motive like, I don’t know, money. My main indictment of the film revolves around the lack of exciting action sequences. The tribal fighting is a fresh diversion from the usual mind-numbing explosions we’re given, but beyond that, there isn’t any memorable thrills. The ending is anti-climactic and a real let down as protagonist and antagonist go toe-to-toe. The visuals are colorful, at times imaginative, but for the next installment, I’d like to see the Coogler up the ante on his action scenes. So I repeat good movie, like Doctor Strange was a good movie, like Spider-Man: Homecoming was a good movie. You can pretty much count on Marvel’s two other releases this year (Avengers: Infinity War; Ant-man and the Wasp) to be good, but when is one of these films going to be great?

-Walter Howard-