Avengers: Infinity War Review

With Iron Man turning ten years old this year the Marvel Cinematic Universe it spawned has reached a massive milestone, and the minds behind it have chosen to celebrate the occasion in the most fitting of ways.  Avengers: Infinity War, the nineteenth entry in the mega-franchise, is one of the boldest blockbusters in recent memory, with genuinely affecting emotional development for its core heroes and humor that is both tonally appropriate and simply hysterical, perfectly balancing out an epic spectacle that features some of the most visually stunning and unique action set pieces ever filmed.  While very much the first half of a two-part story that will be concluded with next year’s as-yet-untitled fourth Avengers film, Infinity War clearly represents the start of both an ending and a new beginning as the MCU’s older characters are pushed to their limits as some of their stories likely near their ends and newer faces have their tales complicated to set their future narrative trajectories.

The film’s chillingly simple premise is also the most effective evidence of its place as the beginning of a massive event in the MCU’s history; Thanos (Josh Brolin) is here.  The Mad Titan behind such calamities as Loki’s (Tom Hiddleston) invasion of Earth in the original Avengers film, as well as the increased militancy of Ronan the Accuser in Guardians of the Galaxy is done sending underlings to try (and fail) to accomplish his will.  The strangely magnetic cosmic killer has finally set out to collect the Infinity Stones, the most powerful objects in the universe (many of which have already served as McGuffins in past MCU films), in order to “balance the universe”, his polite way of phrasing genocide.  Having already obtained the first stone offscreen, this quest next leads Thanos to head a devastating attack on the Asgardian refugees that have been in Thor’s (Chris Hemsworth) care since the end of Thor: Ragnarok.  The slaughter of many of these innocents serves both to introduce Brolin’s imposing menace as Thanos and to set Thor on a compelling quest for vengeance for the rest of the film.  Mixing both unfiltered grief and rage mixed with his usual knuckle-headed humor results in one of Hemsworth’s best performances as the character, making him a highlight among one of the most talent-filled casts in cinematic history.

After Thanos’s advance forces make their first strike against Earth the Avengers and their allies, still divided by the emotional and ideological splits introduced by Captain America: Civil War, ready a multi-front response. Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) teams with Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tom Holland) and Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) to attack Thanos directly while Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) and Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) lead a unit that unites with Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) and King T’Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), among others, to protect the Infinity Stone that powers android Vision (Paul Bettany). This mixing and matching of characters provides much of the crossover’s greatest appeal, with the all-star cast bouncing off each other brilliantly. Downey clashes with Cumberbatch in a tense battle of ego and methodology while also nailing Tony’s irritated yet amused reactions to the quirky antics of the Guardians of the Galaxy. Hemsowrth also shines alongside the outer-space heroes, with Thor and Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) forming a particularly interesting and funny bond. Steve’s essentially good nature is still as clear as ever, even as Evans subtly displays that the captain holds some anger towards Vision’s betrayal and failures in Civil War (and, by extension, Tony’s), even as he risks life and limb to protect the naieve A.I.

If roughly half of the film’s focus is devoted to the interactions between the wonderfully mismatched heroes, the other half turns its eyes directly to the villain.  Brolin is absolutely mesmerizing in a motion capture performance that would impress Andy Serkis.  Both Brolin’s efforts and those of screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely display Thanos as the complex, frightening enemy that the majority of MCU films lack, and one worthy of the ten-year wait for his full debut.  As violent and destructive as the Mad Titan is, the film is uniquely empathetic to him, and Brolin is gifted with a complex arc in which the character’s convictions to his genocidal intentions are tested by a dark sacrifice.  The character’s impact is furthered by his large amount of screen time. Indeed, it would not be hard to view this as a Thanos movie featuring the Avengers and Guardians as antagonists.  All this contributes to the creation of a screen villain that is perversely noble while still being our heroes’ most genuinely intimadting threat yet.

Brolin’s memorable character is rivaled for screen time and narrative focus only by Downey Jr.’s, a fitting reflection of Tony’s place as the original MCU hero. The arrival of the alien warlord is everything the always personally and morally conflicted Iron Man has feared since he glimpsed the dark outer reaches of space in The Avengers and Downey makes the most out of the especially personal stake Tony has in this fight. The reemergence of the cause of the character’s post-traumatic stress provides a narrative opportunity for the immensely popular actor to give one of the best of his body-language-driven performances in his career-defining role. Downey Jr. skillfully alternates between radiating fear and anxiety in the quiet moments and palpable rage and determination while in the heat of the fight. Cumberbatch and Holland both serve mostly as support to Downey Jr., though the former’s character does have a well-executed arc in which his gray morality is challenged by the more clearly heroic Iron Man and Spider-Man. Despite the supporting nature of their roles, however, both are highly enjoyable presences, with Holland giving what may be his best performance yet in the iconic part of Peter Parker. Among the Guardians, the greatest focus is given to the romantically-linked Peter Quill/Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) and Gamora (Zoe Saldana), which is unsurprising given the latter is Thanos’s favorite daughter, and both actors do good work at conveying the nature of the massive threat on an interpersonal level, with Pratt also providing a couple of the film’s stronger comedic beats. Despite Banner’s place as the prophet of the coming calamity, Ruffalo’s performance is, for the most part, an unexpected source of levity, producing more than a few laughs out of the sometimes-Hulk’s re-acclimation to Earth’s superhero community after the two years he spent in space between Avengers: Age of Ultron and Thor: Ragnarok. Bettany and Elizabeth Olsen (who plays Vision’s lover, Wanda/Scarlet Witch) receive more prominence than usual due to Vision’s key place in the narrative, and Olsen is particularly impressive, making the most of Wanda’s greater emotional vulnerability in comparison with her more world-weary friends. The final role of real thematic purpose goes to Captain America, despite Evans smaller-than-usual amount of screen time. Steve doesn’t make any great strides in his personal development here as he has in all past appearances, but this may very well be intentional.  Infinity War is very much Marvel’s Empire Strikes Back (or really a mix of that film and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows- Part 1 wrapped in a superhero coating) and the hopelessness of the situation is sold by Cap’s confused emotional state.  While Stark may be the backbone of the MCU, the Captain is very much it’s heart and if he’s lost it seems very believable that everything else is as well.  Beyond this group the rest of the extensive cast are relegated to supporting roles of  varying sizes, many of them there for little more than (impressive) actions scenes and jokes.  Johannson and Boseman make larger impressions than most but this is due more to the strength of their characters and their gravitas as performers than any special material given them.  Danai Gurira is also a stand-out as Okoye, T’challa’s right hand, with a series of meme-worthy reactions and facial expressions.

While the massive, star-studded cast is perhaps the most memorable individual piece of Infinity War, the massively satisfying experience the film is results from all its elements working together in concert perfectly.  This is one of the most visually vibrant MCU films yet, with shifts in color easing the transition between different corners of the Marvel Universe, such as Panther’s high-tech African home of Wakanda and the far reaches of space that Thor and the Guardians explore.  Perhaps even more importantly this is arguably the franchise’s highest achievement in tonal balance, providing just enough of the humor expected from characters like Spider-Man and the Guardians while maintaining the high-stakes sense of dread necessary in depicting the apocalyptic conflict.  The separate stories of the individual groups are united by a well-written exploration of sacrifice, strongly displayed through the actions of Thanos, Tony, Strange, Quill, Wanda, and Cap, among some others.  All this lends weight and investment to some truly stunning battles, with the Russo brothers continuing to display that they understand how to display super-human abilities (particularly strength and speed) better than perhaps any other filmmaker that has attempted to do so in live-action.  All things considered Avengers: Infinity War is an epic achievement that serves both as a loving tribute to everything Marvel Studios has achieved so far while also promising that there are more exciting adventures to come.

 

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Black Panther Review

I think its safe to say that I wasn’t the only movie-goer who, upon finishing my first viewing of Captain America: Civil War wanted Marvel Studios to drop everything else they were doing and release a solo film for new (to the movies) character T’Challa/Black Panther.  Chadwick Boseman’s exhilarating debut as the first cinematic interpretation of the first African superhero in comic books nearly stole the show in the Avengers-in-all-but name movie, no small feat considering the dynamic characters and performers that make up the rest of the Avengers ensemble.  But Marvel’s meticulously scheduled master plan had other ideas, with four other films, Doctor Strange, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Spider-Man: Homecoming, and Thor: Ragnarok (ok, great, good, and great films on their own terms) being released in the nearly two years since Civil War‘s release.  That being said, good things come to those who wait and Black Panther’s solo debut is finally here.  Even better it was worth every second of fans’ patience.  Director Ryan Coogler guides an all-star cast through one of the most emotional, exciting, and well-executed stories in the Marvel canon.

Following the murder of his father in Civil War, T’Challa must assume the title of king of Wakanda.  One of the most wonderous locales in comic book lore, Wakanda is a never-colonized African nation that prospers in secret due to a combination of futuristic technology and mysticism that is stunningly realized on screen, a cinematic world as aesthetically unique as anything in even one of the most visually daring Star Wars films and Coogler’s depiction perfectly taps into the sense of real-world awe and hope that comes from seeing such a setting occupied by a solely black population.  The new king is quick to discover how heavy a head wearing a crown really is as he is swarmed by threats to the unity of his nation and the safety of the world as a whole, the most dangerous of which is Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) a one-man black ops unit who has long desired to himself sit on Wakanda’s throne.

One of the most obvious strengths of Black Panther the wide variety of talented performances that make up T’Challa’s supporting cast.  Among them is the largest assortment of powerful women in a Marvel Studios film yet.  On the front lines protecting Wakanda with the king are Okoye, leader of the country’s all-female special forces, the Dora Milaje, brought to ferocious life by The Walking Dead‘s Danai Guirira and Nakia, a spy and T’Challa’s love interest to whom Lupita Nyong’o lends warmth and charm.  Angela Basset makes the most of a limited role as T’Challa’s mother Ramonda and Letita Wright is an absolute scene stealer as T’Challa’s little sister, Shuri, a tech genius who provides the film with some laugh out loud moments.  Forest Whitaker, Daniel Kaluuya, and Winston Duke bring authority, gravitas, and in the latter’s case suprsing humor, to supporting roles.  Martin Freeman and Andy Serkis round out the main cast with a quietly charming and delightfully hammy performance, respectively.  All that being said, the film reaches its highest points when focused on the feud between its central hero and villain.  The contrast between Boseman’s regal strength and emotional earnestness and Jordan’s swaggering rage makes for some truly electrifying confrontations made all the more affecting by the complexity the script lends their dynamic.  This isn’t a story of good versus evil but one of the affect Kilmonger’s powerful ideological challenge has on the rather restrained T’Challa.  Like many great screen villains Kilmonger makes several strong points (in this case regarding the treatment of black people around the world and the problems with Wakanda’s isolation).  It is only his methods that make him a threat.  The effects their battles have on T’Challa lends the film the type of firm, well-articulated ideological stance that many blockbusters, or often films in general, lack.

These strong performances and themes would not be nearly as successful if the package they came in wasn’t so well assembled, however.  Panther is a superbly paced film that benefits from a first act that is more gradually paced than most superhero adventures, giving Coogler and company the necessary breathing room to introduce the unique world of Wakanda.  Once the second act begins things smoothly shift to the brisk action-packed structure of a Bond film.  Coogler also brings an exhilarating energy to the action sequences.  While the choreography isn’t quite as creative as the Marvel combat artistry found in the Captain America sequels T’Challa’s straightforward powers and gadgets still allow for some wow moments.  A casino brawl that transforms into an elaborate car chase is one of the film’s high points.

All in all you won’t find many movie-going experiences better than Black Panther.  Coogler’s vision is the kind of film that is powerful enough to affect real change in the world, so long as moviegoers remember the problems and lessons it raises once they leave the theater.  Wakanda forever.

My Oscar Nominations, 2018 Edition

Much like last year I have some different opinions on what the Academy Awards Nominations should be than the actual Academy did and I’ll once again be detailing them here.  Just as I did last year I’ll be writing the films I believe should be nominated for Best Picture along with a short justification for each and a list of the other categories I believe each film should receive recognition in.  Lastly I’ll include a full list of all categories including nominees for categories not from one of my Best Picture nominees. (It’s worth noting, I suppose, that for practical reasons I haven’t seen every major film of the last year and these nominations are based only on those I have seen.  The films I have so far missed that seem to be getting the most attention are The Shape of Water and Call Me By Your Name.)

Best Picture Nominees:

Blade Runner 2049– Denis Villenuve’s choice to make a sequel to Blade Runner could have been a career-ender, even for the acclaimed filmmaker behind modern masterpieces like Sicario and Arrival.  Ridley Scott’s sci-fi classic about how artificial intelligence challenges humanity’s self-perception is so revered that anything short of genius from the follow-up would be seen as a greedy cash-grab and the filmmakers responsible would likely have become laughing stocks.  Fortunately, genius is what Villenuve delivered.  Blade Runner 2049 accomplishes everything a sequel should, honoring what came before while challenging it all while proving the point of its own existence by telling a unique story all its own.  The story of Officer K (Ryan Gosling) is a moving statement on what humanity is at its core that is a treat to watch thanks to filmmaking that is stunning on practically every technical level, from the perfectly futuristic and aptomaspheric score to the striking cinematography from the legendary Roger Deakins.  Villenuve perfectly blends sci-fi with film noir in a way that rivals even Scott’s own efforts, crafting a fascinating story that is bolstered by impeccable performances from Gosling, Ana de Armas, and Harrison Ford (reprising his iconic role of Rick Deckard from the original film).

Other Nominations Blade Runner 2049 should have received:

Best Director- Denis  Villenuve  

Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role- Ryan Gosling

Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role- Harrison Ford

Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role- Ana de Armas

Best Adapted Screenplay- Hampton Fancher and Michael Green

Best Cinematography- Roger Deakins

Best Original Score- Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch 

Detroit-  Given her recent work crafting military thrillers that are equally bold and controversial, its unsurprising that Kathryn Bigelow made one of the most provocative films of 2017.  Turning her journalistic filmmaking eye from the War on Terror to America’s history of racial violence, Bigelow gives a cinematic account of the infamous 12th Street Riot of 1967 in the titular city.  While the film’s opening sequences give an objective look at the wider events of the riot once Bigelow has her pieces in place she hones in on a specific incident of police brutality known as the Algiers Motel Incident.  The film’s second and most of its third act are a cinematic experience unmatched in 2017 or perhaps any other year for its mix of intensity and visceral horror.  But perhaps the most haunting element of Bigelow’s skin-crawling spectacle is that its events could easily have occurred in its year of release, not fifty years before, which, of course, is the master filmmaker’s point.

Other Nominations Detroit should have received:

Best Director- Kathryn Bigelow

Best Original Screenplay- Mark Boal 

Dunkirk- Having already provided his unconventional take on other blockbuster subgenres such as the superhero epic (with The Dark Knight Trilogy) and the space journey (Interstellar), with Dunkirk visionary director Christopher Nolan has now undertaken a journey into what is perhaps the most widely beloved of the many branches of action movie: the World War II film.  Largely abandoning the fascination with male companionship that is fairly essential to the war genre and the gradually building structure of most historical and action films as a whole writer-director Nolan instead focuses all his efforts on dropping his viewers into the chaos the underprepared British soldiers evacuated from the title location experienced.  A masterfully edited three pronged narrative both evenly distributes attention to the infantry soldiers waiting a week for salvation deep in enemy territory and the civilian sailors and Royal Air Force pilots that got them home while also providing a showcase for Nolan’s  gift for constructing unique cinematic timelines.  Perhaps 2017’s most visually striking film, Dunkirk is a nobly intentioned technical masterpiece through which Nolan both constructs what is perhaps the most immersive, nearly tactile onscreen representation of combat while also wisely recognizing that no cinematic vision can match the true horrors of war.

Other Nominations Dunkirk should have received:

Best Director- Christopher Nolan

Best Cinematography- Hoyte van Hoytema

Best Film Editing- Lee Smith 

Get Out- Jordan Peele made an explosive directorial last year with perhaps the most unique entry on this list, an expertly crafted horror film in which the most alarming frights come from biting social commentary.  Expecting at worst an uncomfortable weekend with his white girlfriend’s (Allison Williams) wealthy family, black photographer Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya) is instead exposed to a murderous scheme not based on any serial killing tendencies or supernatural interference but on the callous racism of the white upper middle class.  A star-making performance from Kaluuya, strong execution of classic horror film elements, and Peele’s talent for displaying the less overt prejudice from whites who claim to be progressive add up to the one of the most evocative, genuinely scary fright-fests in recent memory.

Other Nominations Get Out deserved:

Best Director- Jordan Peele

Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role- Daniel Kaluuya

Best Original Screenplay- Jordan Peele

Logan- It was never going to be easy to say goodbye to Hugh Jackman’s take on Wolverine.  The musically gifted actor made his against-type debut in the role (which has been the defining one of his career so far) of the clawed, unstoppable superhero in the first X-Men film all the way back in 2000.  As the franchise’s and his own influences led to the revival and eventual cultural dominance of the superhero film, Jackman reprised the role again and again.  While the quality of the individual X-Men and solo Wolverine films has varied, Jackman has been a constant bright spot.  That being said, he recognized that all good things must come to an end and announced that the third Wolverine film would be his last.  Thankfully, the team behind Logan insured that the film would be a worthy send-off for the man playing the titular part.  Writer-director James Mangold has assembled an immaculate blend of the Western, superhero, and dystopian genres filled with exhilaratingly brutal action sequences (this is the first of the many films featuring Logan with the freedom afforded by an R-rating) and moving supporting turns by Sir Patrick Stewart (in what is also his last turn after an equally long tenure playing Professor X as Jackman’s) and Dafne Keen.  But its all centered around the man of the hour (as it should be).  Our final adventure with Logan is by far the most emotional we’ve ever had, a journey which forces the centuries old mutant solider to confront the guilt and pain brought on by lifetimes of constant violence both heroic and not.  Even as he battles his latest enemies (more representations of poisonous ideologies of racism and exploitation than average supervillains) Logan wrestles with universal problems of regret, loneliness, vengeance, and family and its all handled masterfully by Jackman, giving a performance for the ages.  A more worthy send-off is hard to imagine.

Other Nominations Logan Should Have Received:

Best Director- James Mangold

Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role- Hugh Jackman

Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role- Sir Patrick Stewart

Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role- Dafne Keen

Best Adapted Screenplay- Scott Frank, James Mangold, and Michael Green

Best Cinematography- John Mathieson

Best Original Score- Marco Beltrami

Best Film Editing- Michael McCusker and Dirk Westervelt

Star Wars: Episode VIII- The Last Jedi- With the eighth film in the main Star Wars saga and the ninth film in the overall franchise writer-director Rian Johnson brings a visionary touch that has been missing from the most recent entries.  While the second chapter in Rey’s (Daisy Ridley) Jedi journey certainly has its flaws (an odd pace being particularly problematic) and J.J. Abrams’s Episode VII may very well be more well-executed all around Johnson’s effort gains considerable credit for having the audacity to question what Star Wars means and move the revived franchise away from an over-reliance on nostalgia.  Strong performances by the likes of Oscar Isaac, John Boyega, the late Carrie Fisher, and Benicio del Toro (a newcomer to the galaxy far, far away) that enhance an inconsistent military plotline but the film brightest moments come when the focus is squarely on Rey as she attempts to learn the ways of the Force while also unraveling the violent history between her new master the long-missing Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and his traitorous nephew Ben Solo/Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), along with one of the franchise’s most stunning action sequences to date.  The interactions between Hamill, Driver, and Ridley are all golden but it is the latter’s portrayal of the scavenger-turned-Jedi apprentice from Jaaku that is especially captivating and it is the trajectory of her journey that makes it clear that the franchise is finally moving forward.

Other Nominations Star Wars: Episode VII- The Last Jedi Should Have Received:

Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role- Daisy Ridley

Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role- Mark Hamill

Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role- Adam Driver

Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role- Carrie Fisher

Best Original Score- John Williams

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri- Perhaps the film most topically relevant to a Hollywood reckoning with its own systematic problem of sexual abuse and violence, Martin McDonagh’s black comedy, slow-burn crime thriller is simultaneously a passionate call for social reform and a welcome dose of both consistently funny black comedy and old-fashioned drama.  The story of Mildred Hayes’s (Frances McDormand)quest for vengeance for the rape and murder of her daughter brings always needed attention to the sexual depravity and institutionalized sexism that is tragically widespread in America and a series of emotionally charged confrontations between Mildred and the local police, represented by the cancer stricken and immensely loveable Chief Bill Wilhoughby (Woody Harrelson) and racist idiot Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell).  The complex, conflicted repoir between McDormand and Harrelson’s characters and Rockwell’s navigation of Dixon’s reckoning with his own despicable past produce some of the most viscerally powerful performances of 2017.

Other Nominations Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri Deserved to Receive:

Best Director- Martin McDonagh

Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role- Frances McDormand

Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role- Sam Rockwell

Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role- Woody Harrelson

Best Original Screenplay- Martin McDonagh

Best Film Editing- Jon Gregory

Wind River- Taylor Sheridan continues his one-man mission to revive and modernize the Western with a tense snowbound thriller.  Determined but inexeperienced FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) must team with local hunter Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) to solve a rape/homicide on an isolated Wyoming Native American reservation.  Anyone familiar with Sheridan’s scripts should know tension abounds but the talented crime genre scribe makes a directorial debut that is full of both emotion and social awareness.  The chilling journey into a relatively new cinematic frontier is bolstered by  Renner’s most striking performance in years while calling attention the deplorable lack of attention paid to the well-being of the Native American community.

Other Nominations Wind River Should Have Received:

Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role- Jeremy Renner

Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role- Elizabeth Olsen

Best Original Screenplay- Taylor Sheridan

Best Editing- Gary D. Roach

Wonder Woman- In a year where the extent to which institutional sexism persists in America in general and Hollywood in particular has been more openly revealed the first feature film for the world’s greatest female superhero was sorely needed.  Director Patty Jenkins thankfully delivered on the lofty expectations that came with crafting the Amazonian heroine’s feature film debut.  Wonder Woman is a cinematic triumph, an inspiring tale that makes its feminist points in a matter-of-fact way while exploring universal themes such as love, heroism, and the quest for peace that features enchanting performances from Gal Gadot (who could not be more perfectly cast as the titular heroine) and Chris Pine.

Other Nominations Wonder Woman Should Have Received:

Best Director- Patty Jenkins

Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role- Gal Gadot

Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role- Chris Pine

Best Adapted Screenplay- Allan Heinberg

Best Cinematography- Matthew Jennsen

Best Editing- Martin Walsh

Full List of Nominations:

Best Picture-

Blade Runner 2049

Detroit

Dunkirk

Get Out

Logan

Star Wars: Episode VIII- The Last Jedi

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Wind River

Wonder Woman

  Best Director-

Denis Villenuve- Blade Runner 2049

Kathryn Bigelow- Detroit

Christopher Nolan- Dunkirk 

Jordan Peele- Get Out

James Mangold- Logan

Martin McDonagh- Three Billboard Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Patty Jenkins- Wonder Woman

Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role-

Ryan Gosling- Blade Runner 2049  

Daniel Kaluuya- Get Out

Hugh Jackman- Logan

Jeremy Renner- Wind River

Gary Oldman- Darkest Hour

Andy Serkis- War for the Planet of the Apes

Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role:

Daisy Ridley- Star Wars: Episode VIII- The Last Jedi 

Frances McDormand- Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri 

Gal Gadot- Wonder Woman 

Saoirse Ronan- Lady Bird 

Meryl Streep- The Post 

Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role: 

Harrison Ford- Blade Runner 2049 

Sir Patrick Stewart- Logan 

Mark Hamill- Star Wars: Episode VIII- The Last Jedi 

Adam Driver- Star Wars: Episode VIII- The Last Jedi 

Sam Rockwell- Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri 

Woody Harrelson- Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri 

Chris Pine- Wonder Woman

Michael Rooker- Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 

Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role- 

Ana de Armas- Blade Runner 2049 

Dafne Keen- Logan 

Carrie Fisher- Star Wars: Episode VIII- The Last Jedi

Elizabeth Olsen- Wind River

Laurie Metcalf- Lady Bird

Best Original Screenplay:

Detroit

Get Out

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Wind River

Best Adapted Screenplay:

Blade Runner 2049

Logan

Wonder Woman

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2  

Best Cinematography:

Blade Runner 2049

Dunkirk

Logan

Wonder Woman

Best Film Editing:

Dunkirk

Logan

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Wind River

Wonder Woman

Best Original Score:

Blade Runner 2049

Logan

Star Wars: Episode VIII- The Last Jedi

 

 

 

 

Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi Review

As widely beloved as it is, Star Wars: Episode VII- The Force Awakens has been criticized for how similar its plot and story elements are to George Lucas’ original Star Wars film, A New Hope.  Director J.J. Abrams clearly believed the best way to revive the franchise after the controversial prequels was to include many echoes and references to the original films in order to remind audiences why they loved Star Wars in the first place.  This was an understandable, safe, and mostly effective choice but it has led to the film rightfully being called unoriginal.  Rian Johnson, director of The Force Awakens‘ sequel, was clearly determined to avoid such criticisms and it shows in his own entry to the saga of the galaxy far, far away.  Star Wars: Episode VIII- The Last Jedi is easily the most ambitious film in the franchise since its famed second entry, The Empire Strikes Back.  Johnson is unafraid to challenge or outright ignore the unspoken laws and traditions of making a Star Wars movie and while The Last Jedi is far, far from perfect as a singular film it takes necessary steps to move the franchise into a more creative, less nostalgic future, even as it maintains a sometimes-self-contradicting relationship with the past.

Emphasizing how different The Last Jedi proves to be when all is said and done is how similar it seems at the beginning to its own counterpart in the original Star Wars trilogy, the aforementioned Empire Strikes Back.  Once again, a trilogy’s middle chapter finds the forces of good, in this case the Resistance, most recognizably represented by Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), Finn (John Boyega), and General Leia Organa (the late Carrie Fisher) being hunted to the point of near extinction by their evil counterparts, Supreme Leader Snoke’s (Andy Serkis) First Order, the most notable member of which is Leia’s traitorous son Ben Solo/Kylo Ren (Adam Driver).  Meanwhile, the heroes’ best hope for victory, Daisy Ridley’s Rey, who fills the role once inhabited by Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) has traveled to the outer reaches of the galaxy to master her supernatural Force abilities and learn the ways of the Jedi from an aged master, Luke himself, who now holds the wisdom once imparted to him by Yoda.  The first significant distinction The Last Jedi makes from its spiritual predecessor is in Luke’s plain refusal to train Rey in the Jedi arts.  Instead of focusing on exploring the importance of faith and inner peace in practicing the Force as the creators of Empire did Johnson uses the conflict between Luke and Rey to explore the minds and souls of the two broken characters.  Ridley’s performance is once again superb, with a rare level of emotional vulnerability and Rey again proves to be one of the most intriguing new characters in recent cinema.  Luke’s characterization and Hamill’s performance will prove to be much more controversial.  While in some moments Luke is 100% the character viewers first met 40 years ago, changed naturally by age and trauma, in others he seems off, with a crotchety, strange sense of Grinch-like humor that seems to more closely match Hamill’s real-life persona than it does Luke’s previously established character.

Like many past Star Wars directors, Johnson seems most excited by the core scenes dealing with the Skywalker family drama and the mythology of the Force and this can be both a blessing and a curse to the film.  The military confrontation Poe, Finn, and Leia find themselves in is a mixed bag in terms of filmmaking quality.  After a disastrous opening space battle the small remaining Resistance fleet is trapped in an unending barrage of enemy fire.  Finn goes on a secret mission with Rose (Kelly Marie-Tran), a plucky mechanic, to find a codebreaker who may be able to sabotage the First Order crafts while Poe, Leia, and Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) debate on the best, most moral strategy to use on the front lines.  Poe, Rose, and Finn all have well-written arcs (though Finn’s is so subtle that Boyega is left without much memorable dialogue) and the idea of a Star Wars film structured in the style of a thriller about an impossibly dire military disaster such as Argo or Lone Survivor is intriguing but Johnson rarely if ever delivers the pressure-cooker intensity such a structure demands.  The film’s pacing is too gradual to sell the constant danger that such a situation would cause.  It’s easy to forget these and the film’s other flaws however, when the focus returns to Rey’s Jedi journey.  As mixed as Luke’s characterization can be Johnson’s script tells a moving story as the original Star Wars hero must contend with his own culpability in his nephew’s fall to the Dark Side and placing Rey in the middle of this dark family fight gives her a unique challenge primarily based on emotional interactions rather than lightsaber fights (though there is a spectacularly choreographed one of those late in the film).  A mysterious, intriguing bond is established early-on between Rey and Ben and Ridley and Driver are captivating on screen together. Rey’s climactic confrontation with both the fallen son of Han Solo and his master, Snoke, is one of the highlights of the entire Star Wars saga to date.

While Johnson avoids retelling the story of The Empire Strikes Back, mainly through some truly shocking developments in the third act that leave the path of Episode IX delightfully unclear, he still has a fascination with examining the cultural meanings of Star Wars as a franchise similar to those shown by Abrams and Garth Evans, director of spin-off Rogue One, even if he does so in a different way.  While Abrams largely sought to replicate the original films’ most iconic elements and Evans’ film served to further detail the backstory of A New Hope, Johnson devotes himself to deconstructing the iconography and story elements that make Star Wars Star Wars.  Rey’s arc challenges some of the saga’s previously established ideas of destiny and the nature of the Force.  Poe’s constant clashes with Leia and other authority figures critique the type of roguish hero popularized by Han Solo whom are often completely incapable of following orders or working as part of a unit.  As interesting as this meditation on Star Wars as a genre is it does lead to some problems and these can largely be seen through Finn’s role in the movie.  Execution aside, the basis of Finn’s character was one of the more unique aspects of The Force Awakens but within The Last Jedi the lack of an established Star Wars archetype to tie Finn to leaves his role feeling somewhat random.  

Additionally, while examining the core elements of the most popular film franchise in history is intriguing, after three films of doing so the time has come to abandon the meta-commentary.  What really makes the original films so great was their singular focus on telling great stories.  Johnson’s work is largely necessary to set the saga on a less self-obsessed path, but it still has the problems that come with making a Star Wars movie that’s also a movie about Star Wars.  Conversely, some of his attempts to break with tradition seem more critical and angry than necessary.  The saga will be back to its full potential when the right balance is achieved between pure storytelling ambition and franchise tradition.  As Ben says in one of The Last Jedi‘s best scenes, “You have to let the past die,” as “that’s the only way you’ll become what you’re meant to be”.  Johnson’s boldness and focus on character development tied together through the theme of moving on largely accomplish those two goals well, but like his antagonist he also apparently believes that it’s okay to violently kill the past, without seeing the problems with that line of thinking.

 

Blade Runner 2049 Review

Hollywood’s recent trend of producing sequels to some of the most beloved films and series in its history is, if nothing else, bold.  For every genuinely brilliant continuation like Mad Max: Fury Road there’s an abomination like Terminator Genisys.  Fortunately the misfires have so far been new follow-ups to films or series that have less vocal fanbases (can you imagine if Star Wars Episode VII was objectively bad after the prequel debacle?) The announcement of a sequel to Blade Runner was both one of the most risky and interesting of these propositions.  While many less optimistic fans predicted the new entry would be nothing but a soulless cash-grab, it was always worth remembering that the first film was far from a smash hit at the box-office and only gained its critically acclaimed reputation years after its initial release (partly due to the plethora of different editions Ridley Scott and company kept releasing).  The appointment of talented director Denis Villeneuve further cemented the idea that Warner Brothers really might have something more on its mind than money.  After his recent string of dark and affecting films, Villeneuve seemed like the kind of filmmaker that just might be able to follow-up Scott’s classic in a fresh way.  Now that the fruit of his labor has arrived I can confirm those optimistic suspicions were right.  Blade Runner 2049 is an ambitious, emotional piece of sci-fi filmmaking that is bold enough to walk its own path but clever enough to honor its famed predecessor in intriguing ways.

We return to the dreary, despairing, futuristic Los Angeles Scott based off Phillip K. Dick’s novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, thirty years further down its path of decay, to follow the story of a new LAPD blade runner, K (Ryan Gosling).  The job is the same for K as it was for Harrison Ford’s Rick Deckard in the original film, hunting down and destroying rogue replicants, the bioengineered humans the new world uses as slaves.  The film opens with K “retiring” his latest target (or victim), Sapper Morton (a bespectacled, philosophical Dave Bautista).  The shocking secrets of bodily remains found on Morton’s property set K on the path to unraveling a mystery with profound implications for himself and the long-missing Deckard.  Before he is killed, Morton assures K the only reason he can participate in such a cruel occupation is because he’s “never seen a miracle” and the eerie beauty of this scene sets the tone for the entire film.  Villeneuve has crafted something sad and strange here, but its also something not devoid of hope, a kind of melancholy wonder.

One of Blade Runner 2049‘s greatest strengths is the way it devotes itself, even more so than its predecessor did, to its noir influences.  This may be a tale of complex, challenging sci-fi, but its all wrapped up in an engrossing, dark mystery that sucks the viewer into its shadowy world so effortlessly that they don’t realize for a long time that they’ve become much more invested in the characters and themes than the plot.  It’s the perfect way to draw viewer’s into K’s subtle, affecting story.  Of course there’s more to that story than just the thrill of the unknown.  Like the original film, 2049 is all about the meanings of humanity and what separates genuine life from its artificial counterpart and these contemplations make for mesmerizing viewing, especially since the story is approached from angles different enough to its predecessor’s to feel unique.  Gosling brings the perfect mix of detachment and existential pain for the material.  K’s character has his similarities to Deckard but where Ford played a tired, beaten down man, Gosling makes it clear K is just plain lost.  Ana de Armas is a scene stealer as K’s holographic girlfriend, Joi, and their peculiar romance provides a necessary sense of warmth to the otherwise very dark film.

Its worth emphasizing that this really is K’s story first and foremost.  Deckard is a supporting character in every sense of the term, which fans of the original film are probably best off knowing going in.  The mythology and continuing plots from the first film, including what links K’s investigation to Deckard, are established early on but 2049 is in no rush to reintroduce the original cinematic blade runner.  I’m not particularly good at estimating how much real time passes during a film, but I’m willing to bet Ford’s first scene isn’t until past the hour and a half mark.  None of which is an indication of the quality of Villeneuve’s use of Dick and Scott’s famed protagonist.  Deckard receives a well-developed, moving story that, much like the new film as a whole, is marginally more clear than its counterpart in the abstract original.  Deckard as a character reflects this greater clarity himself.  Ford turns in a completely different performance than he did in 1982, open-hearted and emotional where he once was weary and merciless.  You might say Deckard’s more human here, which is one of the sequel’s most subtle, significant points.  Regarding the one great question about the character that has haunted audiences for decades, Villeneuve is particularly graceful.  2049‘s plot more strongly suggests one answer but it never outright confirms or denies the true nature of Rick Deckard.

If there are any areas in which 2049 truly replicates its predecessor they are in the film’s look and sound.  Villeneuve and famed cinematographer Roger Deakins do excellent work visualizing what Scott’s famed cityscape would like thirty years further into the future and make some strong visual choices of their own when the story ventures outside Los Angeles, with an irradiated, ruined Las Vegas being particularly striking.  The work of composers Benjamin Wallfisch and Hanz Zimmer on 2049 would feel right at home among the haunting, iconic efforts Vangelis produced for the first film.  The one technical element that is suprsingly bland about 2049 is the direction of its action sequences.  In both films fight scenes come about more from plot necessity than anything else and neither director seems particularly interested in extensive choreography or exciting stunts.  That said, Scott was still able to make a point with his set pieces which had some effective displays of the enhanced strength of replicants, which in turn proved Deckard’s formidability in defeating them.  Villeneuve’s fisticuffs are simply slow and visually uninteresting, which is disappointing coming from the filmmaker who staged Sicario’s quick but memorable shootouts.

It has its flaws, but Blade Runner 2049 is a rare sequel in that it can truly stand as equal to, or perhaps even surpass (in at least some regards), its legendary predecessor.  While the themes and questions being dealt with are those already addressed by Dick and Scott, Villeneuve and company have their own unique answers and perspectives that are equally compelling.  This is everything good sci-fi films should aspire to, a unique story that uses outlandish concepts to dissect fundamental aspects of life, in this case, what it means to be human.

Arrow “Tribute” Review

Before their return I planned to do quick reviews of the season premieres of all four of the CW’s DC Comics-inspired superhero series. Unfortunately, Legends of Tomorrow’s return hour was the only one that inspired anything worth writing. The Flash has become exceedingly stale, with a stubborn devotion to elements that simply don’t work that is keeping it from returning to its first-season glory. I actually rather enjoyed Supergirl’s tale, which hinted at a season that will be a bit darker and more emotionally challenging than those that have come before. But while watching I realized my past viewing of the series has been so infrequent and casual that I wouldn’t be able to really pick apart the current state of the series’ characters and themes with any depth. Arrow’s premiere was sadly the greatest disappointment. The series that kick-started the appropriately named Arrowverse is coming off a frankly miraculous comeback year in which a return to its original gritty tone and rededication to exploring Stephen Amell’s endlessly interesting take on Oliver Queen/ Green Arrow revitalized a show that had become some strange near parody of itself that was devoted more to soap opera-like relationship drama than the superhero antics it was always supposed to feature. That history with mediocrity and preposterousness is what made Arrow’s sixth season premiere so alarming. Not only did “Fallout” follow up on the fifth season’s final, spectacular cliffhanger in the least satisfying way possible it was simply itself a poorly put together episode, one which jumped from scene to scene without giving any of them any weight and had technical elements indicating a lack of effort. Thankfully the second episode of the sixth season, “Tribute”, is a much more satisfying experience. It’s much more well-edited than its predecessor which hopefully paints the lack of flow that plagued “Fallout” as only a temporary hiccup, a result of trying to do too much in forty-two minutes. More importantly “Tribute” starts an interesting journey of its own that leaves the viewer enticed enough to spend a little more time with Oliver, even though his ten-year journey (those flashbacks may have been inconsistent in episode-to-episode quality, but they wound up telling a fairly unique story pretty well as a whole) from spoiled rich kid to genuine hero has ended.
If there’s one good thing “Fallout” accomplished, it was its own cliffhanger. While the follow up to the explosion on Lian Yu was disappointing to say the least the exposure of Oliver’s secret identity seems to be a more significant, better thought out status quo shift. Admittedly its far from uncharted territory for the show (as its smart enough to admit through some quick meta dialogue) which has flirted with exposing Oliver’s vigilante nightlife to the public at least twice before and he’s not even totally public yet this time. Indeed “Tribute” ends with Oliver yet again cleared of suspicion, at least officially. But FBI agent Samandra Watson’s (Sydelle Noel) promise to continue investigating Star City’s unqualified but surprisingly effective mayor along with the genuine sense of change that’s in the air throughout this hour make it seem like Arrow is finally going to pull the trigger on unmasking the Emerald Archer. If I had to bet on it, I’d say Ollie is a public hero by the end of this season’s fifteenth episode.
That feeling of change is also partially the result of the season’s other major dramatic subplot which is shown in a much more affecting light in “Tribute”. Oliver’s adjustment to fatherhood comes into much sharper focus this week and sets up what appears to be his major struggle for the season. Again, the show has wandered through similar territory before, but Oliver’s consideration of retirement is much more emotionally logical this year than it was in Season 3. William’s (Jack Moore) fear of losing the only parent he has left is an affecting enough issue to support such a crucial plot point and Amell predictably does a great job portraying Oliver’s conflicting emotions. Oliver cares a great deal about William and is genuinely trying to be the best father he can be, but he also does not want to abandon his crime-fighting archery (which itself shows a considerable amount of character development from the show’s middle seasons). While Oliver will surely be back in the hood before long and the prospect of Diggle (David Ramsay) filling in isn’t exactly thrilling (that character seriously needs some reworking) if this intimate examination of Oliver continues at this level of quality (or dare I say it a higher one?) Season 6 may have found its footing.
As has been the case since around the middle of Season 3 the weekly subplots and use of supporting characters on Arrow are a mixed bag. As I said earlier Diggle really has become a stale character and his own issues are hardly as interesting as how his imminent tenure as Green Arrow will affect Oliver. Felicity and Curtis were surprisingly tolerable for once but only because their silly bickering about finding side jobs is so purposeless and tonally different from everything else going on that one can pretend they’re watching a different show for a minute or two or just an extra commercial. Mayor Oliver’s escapades at City Hall continue to be the most consistently entertaining element of the show other than the vigilante missions. Amell, Rene/Wild Dog (Rick Gonzalez), and Quentin Lance (Paul Blackthorne) make a great trio, able to weave between the show’s more self-referential, superior humor and strong character development as the three bond over their odd fatherly experiences. However strong this season may wind up being on its own merits I can’t help but imagine that a superior version would have had only these three, William, Thea (Willa Holland), and some of the more useful guest characters like Slade Wilson (Manu Bennet) and Black Siren (Katie Cassidy) walk away from the island. But as fun as they are Rene and Lance can’t keep Anatoly Knyazev (David Nykl) from stealing the show. The brotherly bond between Oliver and his old Russian mob mentor was one of the most tragic casualties of Season 5 and seeing the two of them at each other’s throats provides the most heartfelt pathos of the season so far. Nykl has always been an under-appreciated performer on the series and this new meaner version of Anatoly gives him an opportunity to display a highly watchable sympathetic menace and seeing Oliver go up against an enemy he doesn’t at all want to fight is an intriguing way to create a new kind of conflict and ties into the season’s theme of family well. Ultimately “Tribute” is far from an Arrow great, but it at least shows that the show has found a new direction to go in, even if it seems like there will be some considerable bumps in the road.

Legends of Tomorrow “Aruba-Con” Review

Change is usually essential to keeping things fresh in superhero television.  Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D greatly benefits from its creators’ absolute refusal to stick to any status quo for more than a few episodes at a time.  Daredevil’s two, almost equally great, seasons are about as different structurally as possible.  But there was one show that, come the end of the last season of televised super-heroics, I was crossing my fingers would just keep chugging along the same way it had been.  That show is DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, and its third season premiere has answered my prayers.  “Aruba-Con” establishes just enough new details to keep things fresh before sending its titular time-traveling heroes on what looks to be another season of the insane shenanigans that made the last season so much fun.  

If there’s one major complaint I have about “Aruba-Con”, it’s how quickly it sweeps away the Season 2 finale’s cliffhanger.  To defeat the Legion of Doom, Sara Lance/White Canary (Caity Lotz) and the rest of our beloved knuckle-head time-cops had to break the one rule of time travel they usually follow; don’t return to an exact time period you’ve already visited.  While the surprisingly menacing Legion was, of course, disposed of, the Legends were shocked upon arriving in Los Angeles, 2017, which now counted a handful of tyrannosaurus-rexes, Big Ben, and other oddities among its inhabitants.  Repairing the broken timeline is now going to be the narrative backbone of Season 3 but Rip Hunter (Arthur Darvill) and his new-fangled Time Bureau (a hopefully less-corrupt version of the Time Masters, who the Legends destroyed in the first season) send all the “anachronisms” that don’t belong in modern-day L.A. back where they belong with no effort at all.  This show wasted an opportunity to have Mick Rory (Dominic Purcell) fight dinosaurs and I feel cheated.  

Rip, whose character has regressed somewhat to seeing the Legends (mostly) as screw-ups, announces that the Time Bureau’s more professional methods of protecting the timeline mean our heroes can take early retirements.  The Legends briefly return to their own versions of normal lives but all except Professor Stein (Victor Garber) are aching to get back to repairing, screwing up, and occasionally improving history.  This brief downtime period allows for some amusing vignettes of each Legend’s daily grind, the funniest of which are Sara fantasizing about slitting the throat of the manager of the Bed Bath and Beyond stand-in she finds herself working in, and Nate Heywood/Citizen Steel (Nick Zano) bemoaning the way Wally West/Kid Flash (The Flash‘s underused Keiynan Lonsdale, in a fun cameo) never leaves enough bad guys for him to beat up.  Once a new anachronism (namely a time-displaced Julius Caesar) interrupts Mick’s long-awaited Aruba holiday, the rest of the team jumps at the opportunity to steal their beloved Waverider back from the Time Bureau in hopes of showing Rip that they deserve to be included in the time protecting fun.  In typical Legends fashion they make things much, much worse before eventually solving the problem and it’s in this nearly counter-intuitive process that the show reminds us why it’s so endearing.  Its understandably not for everyone (one episode in and this season has already shown one of the particularly dumb plot elements that you can only ignore if you’re already invested) but if you’re the kind of viewer that likes what Legends is going for there’s nothing better than seeing Caity Lotz easily defeat one of the greatest military leaders in history with a few well-placed roundhouse kicks in the middle of an extremely convenient toga-party.  

As an individual episode, “Aruba-Con” is far from a Legends great (which really is more a compliment to the show than a criticism).  Introducing the Time Bureau takes too long and even with the excuse that this is actually the Rip from five years after the end of Season 2 having him lecture Sara on what a mess she’s made when he himself was involved in the fight against the Legion erodes some of the limited viewer affection the show worked hard to get him in the last run, and is especially hypocritical given his last words before departing the Waverider were of newfound approval for Sara’s unconventional leadership style.  The show also hasn’t firmly established what Sara’s key emotional struggle of the year will be.  Even with the intrigue of Mick Rory and Martin Stein and the characteristically brilliant performances of Purcell and Garber, Lotz is Legends‘ real star and the show is at its best when Sara has something more moving to deal with than simply sticking it to Rip.  But this is all more a matter of narrative real estate than anything else.  “Aruba-Con” is a set-up episode and what it sets up looks promising.  So long as the character work picks up in the coming weeks, as I imagine it will, and the mysterious threat Rip hints at late in the episode works close to as well as the Legion did, we’re in for another great year of time-jumping craziness.  It’s business as usual for Legends.  But business is booming.

 

The Defenders Season 1 Review

Spoilers for The Defenders and all proceeding Marvel Netflix series:

What the minds behind the Marvel Cinematic Universe accomplished with The Avengers was a minor miracle.  Bringing together the stars and storylines of four major blockbuster film franchises for one huge team-up film with only a few supporting characters and plot points existing as connective tissue was an idea that could’ve gone horribly wrong.  As pretty much anyone who sees movies knows, that wasn’t the case and the massive critical and financial success of The Avengers meant that an attempt at a similar phenomenon was inevitable.  While the Avengers saga has continued in many big screen efforts, the first Marvel project to actually replicate the build-up and hype towards that first magical meeting of heroic minds comes on TV.  Or streaming, to be more precise.  Four years ago, it was announced that Marvel and Netflix would partner up to bring viewers individual series focused on edgier heroes Daredevil, Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, and Iron Fist before teaming them up in The Defenders.  That fifth series is finally here and while not without its flaws, it’s well worth the wait, a television event that can’t be missed.

Despite kicking off to immense critical acclaim for Daredevil‘s brutally honest take on vigilante justice and Jessica Jones‘ dark depiction of the horrors of PTSD and sexual violence, Netflix’s Marvel slate has been stumbling as of late.  Strong senses of racial politics and musicality and a charming performance by Mike Colter as the titular character weren’t enough to save Luke Cage from problems in the story department, with character development and plot that were both too thin to fill thirteen episodes of television.  Iron Fist was a mess all around and completely tone deaf towards the problematic cultural, economic, and racial aspects of its lead character, as well as the fact that he was simply not likeable.  While it’s not the groundbreaking genius of the first two solo series, The Defenders tops its latter predecessors simply by virtue of the fact that it knows what it wants to be, and what it wants to be is an immensely fun, but still emotionally complex, tale of four damaged people coming together to fight a nearly unstoppable evil.

In terms of plot and mythology The Defenders is much more closely tied to Daredevil and Iron Fist than it is Jessica Jones or Luke Cage.  The Hand, that pesky dark magic ninja death cult that’s been bothering both Matt Murdock/Daredevil (Charlie Cox) and Danny Rand/Iron Fist (Finn Jones) throughout their respective series is back with a vengeance.  The shadow war Stick (the wonderful hardass Scott Glenn), Matt’s mentor and leader of more well-intentioned (though no less murderous) ninja outfit the Chaste, has been fighting his whole life is finally hitting a fever pitch and it doesn’t take long for it to attract the attention of our heroes.  Luke (Mike Colter) and Jessica (Krysten Ritter) are brought in fairly easily through their own vigilante activities.  Jessica finally takes a case at her private investigating job when curiosity about a missing husband who doesn’t seem to simply be cheating breaks through her careful act of apathy and Luke looks into the mysterious activities of the brother of an old (dead) ally.  It’s actually Matt who takes the longest to get sucked in.  The most experienced crime fighter of the bunch went through a meat grinder in the second season of his solo series as his personal and vigilante lives collided and it cost him loved ones and relationships on both sides.  We find him in the most interesting place, trying to put his civilian life back together by hanging up the horned helmet.  It’s a great way to continue the themes of Daredevil, which has as its thesis the idea that Matt’s super heroic night job is a compulsion that he just can’t shake, no matter how dangerous it is to his physical and mental health (and occasionally to the society he’s protecting).  Matt Murdock is a fighter who can’t really fit in normal society and Cox’s soulful performance makes these struggles and realizations fascinating to watch.

To believably sell the idea that all our heroes are really needed the threat they were facing had to have a real weight, much more so than the rather generically evil Hand members we’ve seen so far.  Thankfully, the main villain of the series comes in the form of Sigourney Weaver, who’s Alexandra is a much more complex and intriguing figure than most of her colleagues.  She’s understandable and at times sympathetic while remaining utterly devious throughout and is one of the most entertaining elements of the show, especially in the first two episodes as the pieces are moved into place for the titular team to finally come together at the end of the third hour.  Other reviewers have complained about this pacing decision, and while going almost halfway through the series before getting to its actual purpose, that being Matt, Luke, Danny, and Jessica both getting to know each other and taking down bad guys as a unit, is a bit odd, this slow build is (mostly) necessary to both establish where the characters’ heads (and hearts) are at.  Matt’s arc in particular needed a gradual start to show how different his life is without Daredevil.  Jessica and Luke also have intriguing struggles, her with her newfound local fame after killing vile super-powered rapist Kilgrave and the heroic calling she’s starting to realize she might not be able to ignore forever, and him with how to effectively help Harlem while still having a life of his own.  Its, predictably, only Danny who’s really boring to watch during this buildup period.  Finn Jones simply doesn’t handle heavy emotional material well, and the character’s trajectory isn’t established on as strong a basis as his team members’ are.

The slow burn of the series’ first half, as well as its other, smaller faults (most of which are hard to describe without veering into in-depth spoilers) are more than made up for when our four heroes finally do get together.  First uniting in a ginormous fight scene at the end of the third episode, the quartet of New York saviors is simply electric to watch and once that fight starts the series shifts into another gear and doesn’t ever let up, making it relatively unique among these Netflix and Marvel collaborations in how well it maintains momentum (with the exception of Daredevil‘s first season all the other shows have meandered a bit around their tenth episodes or so).  Giving the show with four main characters five less episodes than those with one sounds strange on paper but it works wonders.  Once one sees the whole picture they’ll see the need for those earlier small moments and it becomes clear how well constructed the whole eight-hour run is.  Pretty much every scene in the second half of the show provides either long awaited answers about the Hand (some more satisfying than others), delightful character interactions, or dynamic team-up fight scenes.

The cast and characters are by far the biggest selling points of The Defenders.  The dysfunctional group dynamic makes this by far the funniest of the Netflix Marvel series and the snarky quips are sure to delight both the general audience and fans of the comics of Brian Michael Bendis (who pretty much single handedly originated the idea of these four particular characters as a loosely organized but emotionally close crime fighting unit).  However, the real beauty comes when the show goes deeper than the typical team up shenanigans.  As fun as it is to see Jessica make fun of Matt’s superhero costume (“Nice ears”, “They’re horns…”) it’s even more satisfying to see them bond.  As curt as their first meeting is, it quickly becomes clear that the two really are the perfect friends for each other, both understanding one another and each challenging the other to be better people when all their other loved ones have only been able to do one or another so far.  Ritter and Cox are beyond even their talented co-stars throughout but when they’re together there’s genuine magic on screen.  The show’s other go to duo is no slouch either though.  The iconic Luke Cage/Iron Fist bromance is represented well here, in fact much better than many who watched Iron Fist the series probably believed possible.  Nearly all the complaints viewers had with the Danny Rand character are brought up in Luke’s tough love advice and Colter’s perfect blend of pathos and cheese brings out much stronger work from Jones, who is at his best playing up Danny’s youthful goofiness, leaving the angst to the more rightfully damaged characters and more reliable actors.  There’s still a significant amount of work to be done to really salvage this interpretation of the character (if we’re supposed to like Danny, watching Luke rip into him for his white privilege probably shouldn’t be quite so satisfying) but the potential is there.  While these are the most frequently used pairings of characters, the show knows to give viewers plenty of time with the Defenders as a foursome both for action and dialogue (the series absolute highlights along with the Jessica/Matt duo) and to make sure the other relationships among the team get enough time, with Jessica and Luke subtly realizing they still have feelings for each other after their screwed up romance in Jessica Jones and Danny idolizing Matt being other gems worth mentioning.  The group dynamic really is a marvel (no pun intended) of subtle and emotionally logical writing.  The show’s creators are smart enough to know that their new superhero buddies shouldn’t supplant say Trish Walker (Rachael Taylor) in Jessica’s heart or Foggy Nelson (Elden Henson) or Karen Page (Deborah Ann Wool) in Matt’s and they make this clear through the short but sweet use of such characters.  That being said, it is also clear that the four Defenders have a strong familial bond by the series’ end, with the actors nailing the kind of nearly tangible love that only comes from outsiders finding people who truly understand them.

As well as the show does spreading its focus to everyone, Matt is pretty much definitively the main character.  This is fairly logical as he was the first character most viewers were introduced to and the comic version has the most diverse and consistently impressive catalogue of stories (The Defenders being a very loose adaptation of the second half of Frank Miller’s famed first run on the Daredevil comic) but it’s worth noting for those audience members who are here primarily for Jessica, Luke, or Danny (that last breed of fan being particularly rare, I know).  However, the story the creators have crafted around Matt as he tries to salvage the soul of resurrected love Elektra (Elodie Yung) from the Hand while dealing with his three new compatriots is so engrossing I can’t imagine many people complaining of Daredevil fatigue.

The more specific details of the series are a bit of a mixed bag.  Yung and Glenn are joined in the main non-villain supporting cast (or not purely villainous in Yung’s case) by Jessica Henwick as Danny’s lover and partner Colleen Wing, Simone Missick as Detective Misty Knight, and Rosario Dawson as the nurse with a million super friends, Claire Temple (characters like Taylor’s and Henson’s put in more brief appearances).  Of these five the characters originating from Daredevil fare a lot better than the two who don’t.  Henwick gets to play out some decent sword fights but Colleen is a victim of inconsistent and repetitive writing that makes her emotional moments more of a chore than they should be.  The Defenders as a show, much like Luke Cage before it, seems to think Misty is some awesome butt-kicker when she remains an annoying bureaucrat.  Missick’s arrogant performance simply adds to the idea that the character thinks she’s a lot more clever and useful than she really is.  Thankfully, Glenn and Dawson are their reliable selves and prove the best sounding boards for the four main heroes.  Yung relishes playing an almost entirely new character most of the time before giving an affecting flash of the crazy warrior woman we know and love from Daredevil Season 2.  Other than some of the fights, the most obvious technical strength of the series is its lighting.  Throughout the series’ beginning the sections devoted to each individual hero can be identified by a distinct color palette (blues and the occasional menacing flash of purple for Jessica, green for Danny, a golden yellow for Luke, and a deep, haunting red for Matt).  As the four worlds slowly begin to fuse the colors begin to blend in a wonderful piece of visual storytelling.  The fourth episode, which spends almost its entire run time in a neon bathed Chinese restaurant as the Defenders have their first impromptu meeting, is the most visually spectacular hour of television the Marvel Cinematic Universe has ever produced. 

Ultimately The Defenders is far from perfect but gets by on how entertaining it is and its ability to deliver on the things that count.  The absence of the social commentary that made the best of Marvel and Netflix’s best collaborations is almost made up for by the fun of seeing the characters we’ve grown to know over sixty-five previous hours of television finally getting to know each other.  Especially dynamic performances from Cox, Ritter, and Yung tie things together into a dark and riveting superhero spectacle.

Wind River Review

Despite the significant impact of films like George Miller’s Mad Max: Fury Road and James Mangold’s Logan, if the minor resurgence the Western is enjoying can be attributed to any one filmmaker it’s Taylor Sheridan.  The former Sons of Anarchy actor has been flexing his screenwriting muscles for a while now, scripting one absolutely brilliant film in each of the last three years.  2015 and 2016 saw the releases of Sicario and Hell or High Water respectively.  This year Sheridan took on the additional responsibility of sitting in the director’s chair, helming his first major picture.  Anyone who assumes such an inexperienced director may not be able to handle material as delicate as that which Sheridan himself writes will be proven wrong by the fruit of his latest labor.  Wind River is a pristine movie, one that both exposes societal problems and entertains by modernizing that aforementioned quintessential American genre.

The key to Sheridan’s success in revitalizing a genre many believed to be dead and dated is his awareness of the fact that at it’s core, a Western (particularly a modern one) is really just a crime story with a remote setting.  His films make this abundantly clear by leaning into other crime subgenres in order to be more palatable to modern audiences.  Sicario was a morality play about the drug war, Hell or High Water was a heist movie, and Wind River is a murder mystery.  We start with a barefoot, barely dressed girl running through the thick Wyoming snow, accompanied by a vague, darkly poetic voiceover (which will be explained later).  The girl’s body is found at the Wind River Indian Reservation by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service hunter Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner), who was there to deal with some mountain lions.  Since the body was found on federal land the FBI is called in to assist the severely understaffed local authorities.  The Bureau’s response would be comical if it wasn’t such a scathing indictment of the lack of respect or priority given to the lives and affairs of Native Americans.  A single agent is sent, the inexeperienced but passionate Jane Banner (Elisabeth Olsen), who was chosen simply because her Vegas station made her the only Bureau employee even remotely close to Wind River.  The film is full of small but effective moments of social commentary like this, powerfully criticizing how little the people who rule this country care about those who should rightfully own it.

Jane herself is far from useless, becoming especially invested when she sees the victim was raped, and proves her capabilities when the stakes start rising later into the film, but she simply isn’t enough.  No, the key to this manhunt is Cory.  Drawn into the action by personal connections to the victim as well as the similarity of her death to his own late daughter’s, the animal hunter proves himself an invaluable asset in the search for this particularly depraved murderer.  While the film occasionally stretches believability in terms of how little evidentiary options other than the tracks Cory can follow Jane and the tribal police have access to, any plot conveniences are more than made up for by just  how captivating a character Cory is.  Sheridan’s crafted a new kind of cowboy here, groundbreaking in terms of both his sociopolitical significance and his emotional makeup.  Unlike his cinematic ancestors, Cory respects and cares for his Native American neighbors and family, protecting and avenging them as best he can without swerving into white savior territory.  Furthermore, Cory deals with his pain in rather unique ways for this kind of movie.  He aches in quiet moments but he isn’t a burnt out shell of a man like many other big screen vigilantes, who only seem to come alive when the fighting starts.  This is partly due to Sheridan’s quietly revolutionary move to actually give him another, living kid to be responsible to.  Renner is absolutely fantastic in the role, expertly conveying both the broken warrior and the quiet but still functional man just trying to make his way in the world following his own, uniquely honorable code.  It’s his best performance since The Town and he’s easily worthy of a third Academy Award nomination.

While utterly devoted to its star and main character above anything else, Wind River is still a very well balanced film, with all the other pieces fitting into place fairly well.  Olsen, Graham Greene, and Gil Birmingham have arguably the most important supporting parts and they each play their piece strongly.  Olsen has by far the most screen time after Renner and while a decent amount of it features her only really as a sounding board for her Avengers co-star to bounce off of, she gives off a quiet strength well and shines particularly brightly in the film’s sparse moments of dry humor, playing off Greene.  Birmingham imbues the film with extra pathos as the victim’s father, a friend of Cory’s.  Sheridan’s direction isn’t quite as bold as say, Denis Villeneuve’s was for Sicario, but it suits the material well and is ultimately a strong debut, with his best moments coming in the film’s brutally violent, yet electric action scenes, few as they may be.  The only real flaw comes with the score.  Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ work is appropriately eerie and atmospheric throughout most of the film but becomes oddly distracting in a few choice moments where whispered, supposedly frightening lyrics can be heard.  It’s an odd, unnecessary choice that makes the film feel like its trying too hard to be edgy when that effect has already been achieved long ago.

Wind River is ultimately pretty much what one expects from a Taylor Sheridan movie, but given that one expects greatness from him after his last two efforts, that’s no bad thing.  It’s a gripping movie that continues its director’s quest to rescue the Western from an early grave all while still dabbling in other genres (simple as it may be, the explanation of what caused that poor girl to run six miles in the snow barefoot before her death is more realistically terrifying than anything you’ll see in a half dozen horror movies these days) and is further bolstered by an awesome lead performance from Jeremy Renner.

Detroit Review

There are not many filmmakers today who understand the provocative potential of their medium to the same extent that Kathryn Bigelow does.  After directing The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty, modern masterpieces which depict the moral confusion of 21st century warfare in harrowing ways, one could understand if Bigelow maybe spent some time working on a lighter project or two or if there was a drop in quality if her next film was indeed another politically charged work.  Detroit, Bigelow’s latest directorial effort, proves all these predictions and assumptions wrong, standing as both a testament to the technical skill of its director and her collaborators and, more importantly, a statement on perhaps the greatest evil to ever infect America, an evil which is tragically still alive and well.

As most who are attending the film will likely know, Detroit is set during the infamous 12th Street Riot the titular city underwent in the summer of 1967.  While the police raid of an unlicensed club that nominally started the riot is depicted in the opening the majority of the film zeroes in on a specific instance of police brutality at a motel called the Algiers (indeed the film’s title does feel a bit off since the rioting throughout the rest of the city doesn’t receive too much focus, but this is relatively inconsequential).  The viewer is led to the tragic night at the motel by the individual stories of Larry Reed (Algee Smith), lead singer for struggling R&B group The Dramatics, racist Detroit police officer Phillip Kraus (Will Poulter), and security guard Melvin Dismukes (John Boyega), who is hired to protect a grocery store near the Algiers from the city-wide looting.  After a black Algiers guest fires a starter pistol in order to frighten police in a bout of righteous anger the motel is besieged by police and national guardsmen (accompanied by Dismukes) who supposedly mistook the sounds of the starter pistol for those of a sniper attack.  After killing one motel resident in the initial breach of the building, Krauss, who is already facing murder charges for an earlier instance of brutality, takes command of the situation.  The remaining guests, including Reed, his friend, two flirtatious white girls, and a Vietnam veteran named Greene (Anthony Mackie), among others, are rounded up and subjected to a night of horrendous violence and violation that Krauss orders in search of the gun he supposedly believes is hidden somewhere in the building.  Bigelow stages this “interrogation” in a brutally effective manner, crafting the most terrifying spectacle I have seen on screen in a long time that is made all the more horrifying when one realizes that these could very easily be events of today not fifty years ago.

For Detroit Bigelow (and screenwriter and frequent collaborator Mark Boal) employ a journalistic style of filmmaking, even more so than they did with The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty.  Much like Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk the idea is to completely immerse the viewer so they feel as if they are genuinely experiencing the horrific events on screen and I would argue that Bigelow succeeds at this even more so than Nolan does.  There’s no embellishment to make the story more cinematic here.  Characters simply move from disturbing Point A to even more disturbing Point B and it’s only Smith who is  given a narrative arc in the traditional sense of the word with the depiction of the shattering effect that horrible night in the motel has on Reed’s musical passion.  While this strictly factual approach doesn’t create a perfect movie (the first act often feels sort of jumbled in its efforts to set everything up for the horrific second and third acts) it’s the most powerful way to make the intended statement.  No thematic additions by Bigelow could make this story any more disturbing than the events themselves do and she should be commended for realizing this.

While Detroit might not be the best movie of the year (though if it isn’t it’s pretty close) it’s certainly the most important that I’ve seen so far.  Bigelow is a crusading filmmaker and is perhaps more equipped than any of her peers to address the darkest corners of American history.  Especially those that are still relevant, as the 12th Street Riot, Algiers Motel incident, and all other stories of racism sadly still are, today.