Under the Skin (2013, Directed by Jonathan Glazer) English 7

Starring Scarlett Johanssen, Paul Brannigan, Adam Pearson, Michael Moreland

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An unexlained alien figure posseses the form of an alluring woman (Johanssen) in order to seduce and consume men in modern Scotland. Provacative, engaging work that mixes spontaneous guerilla filmmaking with insane, and yet beautiful abstract sequences. Heavily thematic, I’m at odds to pin down just what the film was saying. I do think, like with its characters, it’s what’s underneath that counts. The soundtrack/score is an instant classic.

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-

Men in Black (1997, Directed by Barry Sonnenfeld) English 8

Starring Tommy Lee Jones, Will Smith, Rip Torn, Vincent D’Onofrio, Tony Shalhoub, Linda Fiorentino, David Cross

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MI6 is a top secret government agency formed to protect Earth and police all extraterrestrial activity. NYPD James Edwards (Smith) is MI6’s newest recruit, and an agent simply known as K’s (Jones) partner. They’re on the heels of a Bug, an insect-like alien, out to destroy the planet and start an intergalactic war. This is one of the strangest mainstream movies ever produced. Twenty years later, it remains as funny and inventive as when I first saw it. Smith and Jones are a odd couple made in heaven, and the first half of the film is one great scene after another. True, the second half becomes more of a generic action flick, but even that’s fine as the action is pretty exciting.

Deep Blue Sea (1999, Directed by Renny Harlin) English 6

Starring Saffron Burrows, Thomas Jane, LL Cool J, Samuel L. Jackson, Stellan Skarsgard, Michael Rapaport

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Manipulating sharks at a remote research facility in order to find a cure for Alzheimer’s disease, several members behind the project find themselves the victims of an experiment gone terribly wrong. The sharks escape, the facility floods, and the surviving members are being hunted by sharks with developed brains. The obvious flaws: supremely stupid material, horrendous CGI, and poor direction at times. Somehow, none of this offsets the fun that is to be had with this film. The characters and the actors behind them, though working with clichés and goofy punch lines, are surprisingly good, and the setting is used quite effectively. LL Cool J stands out as the preacher/ cook, and his ridiculous, corny, over-the-top but still very enjoyable performance perfectly embodies the film as a whole.

Ready Player One (2018, Directed by Steven Spielberg) English 6

Starring Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Ben Mendelsohn, Simon Pegg, Mark Rylance, T.j Miller, Lena Waithe

Set nearly thirty years in the future, Ready Player One imagines a world where virtual video games usurp reality, and a program, known as the OASIS, reigns. The OASIS’ creator, James Halliday, has died and left an Easter egg within one of the games worth trillions of dollars to the first person to find it. Wade Watts (Sheridan) is an ace at gaming and knows more about Halliday than just about anyone, but he’s no closer to find the treasure of sorts than anyone else. Then, he meets another gamer, Art3mis (Cooke), and falls in love with her. Together, they finally see break through in tracking down the Easter egg, but meanwhile the head of one of OASIS’ competitors, Nolan Sorrento (Mendelsohn), will stop at nothing to find the egg, and he’s got money and a small army at his disposal. Treasure hunts are always going to be a compelling narrative, so really the film’s success comes down to the appeal of the characters. The characters in Ready Player One are moderately interesting, and so the film is moderately successful. It’s basically an animated film, which does wonders for the visuals, as Spielberg establishes a nice kinetic energy throughout the flick, and some of the visuals are pure magic. The characters suffer for it though since everything is so superficial. The soundtrack finds a few nice surprises and is used well, I thought. Ultimately, it’s a fine piece of entertainment, but never special.

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

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

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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-