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Mary Poppins Returns

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Hey gang,

It’s not exactly a secret that I don’t like musicals.  If they’re live, I find musicals almost unbearable. But there are a handful of movie musicals I do like.  The Wizard of Oz (and its gloriously bizarre companion, The Wiz), Singing in the Rain, The Sound of Music, Grease, Moulin Rouge and that’s about it. Oh, and Mary Poppins.  All of these have great music that sticks with you, and other than Grease, fairly layered stories with an interesting point of view conveyed by relatable and complex characters tied up in an engrossing plot.  Sorry, Grease, but you’re ridiculous. But the goddamn music is so good. And none of them, for the most part, sing their dialogue.  That particular conceit is an affront to good music, good storytelling and good taste.  And part of the reason I absolutely loathe Rent.

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Except this version…

Which makes Mary Poppins Returns so disappointing.  None of the musical numbers stick with you.  Music is often a subjective art-form, so maybe it was just me, but I found the songs to be bland parallels to the vastly superior music from the original.  If the music had been outstanding, I could have forgiven the fact that Mary Poppins Returns, much like The Force Awakens, went to great lengths to retain all the same elements that made its predecessor a success.  And in doing so in such a rigid manner, managed to produce a sequel that feels more like a remake than a continuation. I find it frustrating that the film’s production team didn’t have the courage and conviction to make a true sequel. But instead hedged their bets, making a film that ensures Mary Poppins fans engage with a familiar brand, to steal a bit of ad speak from the marketing world.  Added to which, new audiences will almost undoubtedly love it, since they’re cribbing all the major beats from the original, which is still hugely popular.  It’s a disservice to the author of the books and it’s a disservice to the fans who, for $15 deserve a movie that’s earned its spot in the film universe of Mary Poppins. And I feel certain there is to be a Mary Poppins film universe beyond this one.  Again, much like The Force Awakens, Mary Poppins Returns felt like a big toe dipping into a pool to test the temperature before the inevitable next film cannon-balls in and kicks the franchise off proper.  And in doing so, robbing the movie-going public of a good film, or at least a respectable sequel.  Which certainly is not impossible. Case in point:  The Color of Money, the sequel to The Hustler made and released 25 years after the original.

I’m dating myself a little bit, leaning on a 32 year old film that itself was a sequel to a 57 year old film.  But it is the best example I can think of of a long-gap sequel that was a true continuation of a story, taking it in a whole new direction, with confidence and total originality.  The Color of Money was directed by Martin Scorcese and brought together two of the biggest Hollywood stars of their respective generations in Paul Newman (reprising his role of “Fast Eddie” Felson from the first film) and a young Tom Cruise whose star was still on the rise. The great thing about The Color of Money is that it is totally self-contained.  You do not need to see The Hustler to understand and enjoy The Color of Money, but if you do, then The Color of Money takes on a whole new level of complexity that I found completely fascinating as a self-proclaimed movie geek, and card-carrying member of the human race.  The Color of Money won Paul Newman his first Best Actor Academy Award (on his 7th acting nomination – he would be nominated twice more for acting subsequent to TCOM) and was nominated for three others. I suppose one could argue that comparing a film directed by a film legend, Martin Scorcese and a film directed by Rob Marshall, the guy who made Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides isn’t entirely fair.  To that I would say, why not get a film legend to make a Mary Poppins sequel then?  Just because the guy was hugely successful in musical theater doesn’t mean he can make a good movie.

No, Memoirs of a Geisha does not count. It’s perhaps the single most expensive soap opera ever filmed.  Not a compliment.

Ok, so I didn’t like the music, story or director.  I did, however like Emily Blunt.  A lot. She’s pretty goddamn perfect.  I can think of zero fault of any kind in her performance. I’ve been trying to imagine who might have been a better choice for the role and I can think of nobody.  It’s inspired casting, a role she was practically born to play.  Which, again makes it all the more disappointing that the film played it so safe, to the point of boredom.  Yeah, I fell asleep for a little while in the middle.  Even Emily Blunt couldn’t keep me conscious through that utterly irrelevant and odd-ball (not in a good way) scene with Meryl Streep, who channels the voice/accent of her character in Sophie’s Choice, of all the films to call attention to when performing in a Disney musical ostensibly for kids. The rest of the cast were excellent.  I just wish they had a more interesting script to work with.  I will make one exception though… I really did not like Lin-Manuel Miranda. Full disclosure, Lin-Manuel Miranda is a performer I simply do not like.  Can’t put my finger on it… he just bugs me.  In Mary Poppins Returns he’s the obligatory Dick Van Dyke/Bert fill-in and honestly, he was never going to hold a candle to Dick Van Dyke.  The fact that they even tried is perplexing.  Added to which, Miranda is mostly of Puerto Rican descent.  It’s hard to forget that when watching him speak and sing in a cockney accent. It’s kinda like trying to suspend disbelief when watching Charlton Heston try to play a Mexican character in Touch of Evil.  Or perhaps a more relevant example, when Rob Marshall cast three Chinese actresses to play Japanese characters in Memoirs of a Geisha. There we go, full circle.

It would be cynical to write an entire review without admitting that I did smile a lot throughout the film.  It’s lighthearted throughout with small doses of heartfelt sentiment revolving around parenthood and the struggles of carrying on a family after the death of a spouse. I just wish it had been created with more ambition.  Retreading familiar territory is the cardinal failing of so many sequels these days.  I was really hoping they would take this one in a more interesting direction.  Maybe the next film in the inevitable series will.

-c

Featured

The Tomb Raider Origin Story Nobody Asked For

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Tomb Raider, starring Bojack Horseman

Hey guys,

Caught Tomb Raider on demand a couple weeks ago and after having done so, I’m quite thankful I didn’t waste 15 bucks on this turkey in the theater.  My god, it’s just so goddamn bland. I had to look it up on Wikipedia to remind myself whatever the hell the plot was about.  I couldn’t remember, and it’s been like a week and a half.  It’s pretty clear Hollywood still hasn’t learned its lesson from garbage like Rob Zombie’s Halloween remake/origin story, or The Amazing Spider-man reboot that came out a mere 5 years after Raimi’s Spider-man 3 and revisits the very same well-worn radioactive spider material everyone on the planet is already 100% aware of, not to mention the king mother of stupid and unnecessary origin stories (that even has the word in the title), X-Men Origins: Wolverine (with specific reference to one Wade Wilson, aka, Deadpool).  This entry on the endless Hollywood reboot train finds Laura Croft a bicycle messenger mostly oblivious to the shenanigans of her rich, globe-trotting adventurer father (I should mention she is unaware of his latest exploits because she thinks he’s dead – spoiler alert: he’s not).  This is the somewhat naive version of her pre-dating the video game and film versions audiences are already well familiar with.  We see her fight training, for no other reason than we know Laura Croft should know how to fight (even though she’s a bicycle messenger).  We see that’s she’s handy with a bow and arrow because we know Laura Croft should be handy with a bow and arrow (even though she’s a bicycle messenger… in a city… where a bow and arrow are pretty goddamn moot).  You see where I’m going with this?  Tomb Raider has got to be the laziest origin story I’ve ever seen.  We are not shown how she acquired all these various skills, because one would assume she had acquired all these skills through the experiences of being the Laura Croft we all know, the tomb raiding ass-kicking Laura Croft.  Instead we’re merely shown she has all these skills… before becoming the Laura Croft we all know.  If it sounds stupid, it’s because it is stupid.  It’s really really stupid.  It’s so stupid that I’m going to spare you further ruminations on the topic of Laura Croft becoming a tomb raider.  Nobody cares.  Trust me.  Instead, let’s have a brief discussion regarding Dominic West.

Dominic West is such an extraordinarily odd actor.  He kinda came out of nowhere in The Wire, having had mostly tiny roles in a slew of little-seen films, most notably as a slimy shitbag Spartan statesman in 300, which wasn’t really a notable role at all.  And then, The Wire.  In which, he is absolutely fantastic.  A career-making performance in a career-making role.  And then nothing but garbage after.  And not just garbage, but garbage he’s terrible in.  See exhibit A:  Punisher: War Zone.  Jesus Christ, I haven’t heard a New York accent that bad since Steven Seagal’s cartoonish Brooklyn accent in Out For Justice. Seriously, just sit back and take in this fucking malarky.  My god.  I mean, seriously, WTF? (I will admit, I love Out for Justice.  It’s like a a bunch of film students in  Canada made a movie that takes place in Brooklyn after watching My Cousin Vinny). But back to Dominic West. Post The Wire: Centurion, From Time to Time, Johnny English Reborn, The Forgotten, Words of the Blitz, John Carter, Pride, Testament to Youth, and of course, Tomb Raider (in which he plays Laura Croft’s father, the ridiculously named, Lord Richard James Croft, Ph.D).  ‘Nuff said.

Tomb Raider is terrible.  In case there was any ambiguity in the above paragraphs.  The only interesting thing about this inert turd is the colossal Photoshop fail when designing the movie poster that made Alicia Vikander look like a giraffe (or Bojack Horseman).  I am reminded of the Netflix banner poster for The Babysitter.

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While some people have two left feet… this woman has two right hands. Literally.

-cohan

p.s.  The Affair?  Never heard of it.

Featured

Jurassic Blender

 

Film Title: Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom
Awww, what an adorable man-eating monster.

Hey guys,

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom looks great.  If taken as a series of still images, some of which have an almost classical painting quality to them, it’s great.  To look at anyway.

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See what I mean?

But ultimately, it’s a hollow film.  There are no new ideas, but rather a mish-mash of previously covered material across the 4 previous films.  It’s like someone took all these varying concepts explored in the earlier movies, dumped them in a blender and turned it on. What came out was Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom. It also suffers from poor character motivations, clashing with established characterizations from Jurassic World before it.  Everything feels retconned and awkwardly forced to fit with whatever it is they have planned for the inevitable next film.  In fact, the one new idea they do introduce in Fallen Kingdom is totally out of left field and utterly ludicrous within the context of a film franchise about dinosaurs.  The filmmakers suffer from the same issues they’re forcing into the films… the idea that basic dinosaurs are not good enough.  They have to keep inventing new, crossbred never-before-seen dinosaurs who are bigger, meaner and even more blood-thirsty than the humdrum T-Rex and, yawwwwwn, Velociraptor (because these two fucking monsters aren’t impressive enough?).

SPOILER ALERT

And so the filmmakers introduce the idea of human cloning at the end of Fallen Kingdom.  It’s a random question whose answer is two simple words:

Who. Cares?

This idea has no place in Fallen Kingdom, but plays like a post-credits sequence to tease the next film in the series.

The plot of Fallen Kingdom continues elements from the last film and goes all in.  Bad guys steals dinosaurs, bad guys sells dinosaurs to more bad guys.  Dinosaurs get loose. A common theme that has been run through the ringer at this point.  But hey, at least in this movie, the dinosaurs only eat bad guys, so that’s a plus.  For the good guys anyway.  For the audience, it’s a total cheat and undercuts the dread and menace inherent in a story about giant wild animals free from empathy who are turned loose on their food supply. The cast is great, again, but mostly wasted.  Jeff Goldblum returns as Ian Malcolm, but is relegated to the role of Chorus in a Greek tragedy.  His scenes occur solely in a courtroom as he testifies before some official body whose point I’ve already forgotten.  His lines are all thematic commentary the audience doesn’t really need.  We get it.  Bryce Dallas Howard and Chris Pratt have pretty good chemistry, but the filmmakers have decided to waste that fact by completely underwriting their relationship, which at the time of the film has devolved into ex’s.  Also, in a broader sense, why even cast Chris Pratt in this film if you’re not going to take advantage of his talents?  He has little to do in Fallen Kingdom, other than to run around and look ruggedly handsome.  He has exactly one good line in the whole film. Such an odd choice to cast someone with great comedic timing and then hamstring that talent with stilted and sparse dialogue.

The only way I would have any interest in the next Jurassic film is if they go full-bore Planet of the Apes.  Fast forward several years to a planet overrun by free-roaming dinosaurs, with humans an endangered species.  I’d pay to see that.  Otherwise, probably not.

I left Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom comparing it to the most recent Godzilla movie that came out in 2014.  It was exquisitely shot, but to what end?  There was far too much focus on bland human characters and whatever the hell they’re up to and not nearly enough on the giant goddamn monster wreaking havoc across the planet.

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I mean, holy shit, look at this imagery… in such a tragically dull film.

I hope the filmmakers behind the next film,  Jurassic Planet (or whatever they decide to call it) wake up to the fact that dinosaurs are fucking awesome all on their own.  Lots and lots and lots of dinosaurs… is even better. You do not need more dinosaur-y dinosaurs. And don’t let a bunch of boring humans doing stupid bullshit get in the way.

-cohan

p.s. We could have seen The Incredibles 2 or Hereditary instead of Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom.  Balls.

Featured

The Unexpected Hilarity of Game Night

 

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Funniest “man gets sucked into jet engine” since the first Incredibles.

Hey guys,

Caught Game Night on demand recently. I had forgotten how funny Rachel McAdams can be.  Near as I can tell, she hasn’t done a straight up comedy since Wedding Crashers. And even so, in that movie she plays a straight woman to all the hijinks going on around her.  She doesn’t get a lot of laughs. You really have to go back 14 years to Mean Girls to see her being funny.  It’s almost as if The Notebook‘s success pigeonholed her in more serious fare, keeping her out of the sort of broad comedic movies that are really Jason Bateman’s bread and butter. He’s been on a bit of a losing streak with his film output lately… Office Christmas Party, Bad Words, Identity Thief, The Switch, Couples Retreat, not one but two horrible Horrible Bosses movies… I mean, holy shit… despite that mountain of dreck, together with Rachel McAdams (and the rest of an excellent cast), Jason Bateman manages to make Game Night a shockingly funny little film.  It helps that they’re surrounded by an extremely talented cast not necessarily known for comedies.  Kyle Chandler plays a pivotal role as Bateman’s older brother, for which he actually smiles.  Quite a bit actually.  I seem to recall one of episode of Friday Night Lights where he let one corner of his mouth curl upward ever-so-slightly after his daughter said something particularly nice to him, but it was fleeting, quickly replaced with his standard furrowed brow.  Speaking of Friday Night Lights, Jesse Plemons shows up in Game Night as a divorced ex-friend, a creepy police officer who lives next door to Bateman and McAdams and wants nothing more than to participate in game nights the way he used to when he was married to the woman who was actually their friend. Sharon Horgan, from Amazon’s Catastrophe, steals scene after scene as a stranger to the group, there on a date with a doofus who usually brings young vapid girls to game night to try and impress his friends with his dating prowess. Kylie Bunbury and Lamorne Morris round out the cast as game night regulars, a couple arguing over the fact that one of them slept with a celebrity while they were on a break.  The payoff for that subplot is pretty damn funny.  Throw in a handful of more traditionally serious actors like Billy Magnassun, Michael C. Hall, and Danny Houston and Game Night really defies expectations given its somewhat silly plot.

Game Night, as the title suggests, is about a group of adults who meet weekly to compete in some friendly board game competition at Max and Annie’s (Bateman and McAdams) home. For the latest shenanigans, Max’s somewhat estranged and extremely successful brother, Brooks has invited them all to his place for a special night of fun.  Unbeknownst to everyone, Brooks has arranged for a kidnapping/detective mystery type scenario not too dissimilar a Murder Mystery Dinner, were it crossed with a scavenger hunt.  Things go awry, of course, when Brooks is actually kidnapped. It would ruin the fun if I went into it any further. Bad shit goes down and its damn funny. I’m still surprised how much I laughed. Usually film comedies disappoint me.  Films like The House, Girls Night and Masterminds always have a great cast, but the films end up falling flat, wasting their few funny moments on the trailer, getting your ass in the seat only to find out those were the only funny moments in the film.  Broad comedies are having a rough go of it in Hollywood right now.  So much talent being wasted on dog shit scripts. It’s unfortunate that I’d rather watch Ghostbusters for the hundredth time than sit through ten minutes of Baywatch.

The best thing about Game Night is how low my expectations were. It’s nice when a film surprises you, in any way at all.  Whether it’s scarier than you thought it would be, or more thrilling, darker, weirder, more thoughtful, or funnier. Too many times a movie is exactly what you were afraid it would be. Game Night bucks that trend.  Next time you got 5 bucks & 90 minutes to spare and feel like chuckling, give Game Night a whirl.

If you feel less like laughing and more like poking an exposed nerve, check out Ozark on Netflix.  While Jason Bateman’s films aren’t exactly breaking box office records, he’s killing it on the small screen.  I cannot recommend Ozark enough. A dark, deeply intimate crime drama about a Mexican cartel money launderer from Chicago trying to stay one step ahead of those very same international cartels plus local crime lords, small town thugs, and the FBI as he tries to keep his family alive in rural Missouri. Give it a shot. I’ll leave you with a quote:

The satisfying sound of your lover hitting the pavement is the only thing that gets me to sleep.

-cohan

 

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Solo: A Star Wars Miscasting

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TIE Swatter

Hey guys,

Solo: A Star Wars Story is not the disaster some media outlets would have you believe. On the contrary, Solo is a good film.  I enjoyed it a lot.  It’s not only a hell of a lot of fun, it’s also a fitting origin story for one of the most beloved space pirates in cinema history.  Its use of clever and extremely subtle easter eggs weaved throughout the film enmeshing it in the fabric of the Star Wars extended universe was…

Solo, at its core, is a story of how Han Solo made the Kessel Run in under 12 parsecs.  It also shows how he met Chewbacca and provides backstory on his history with Lando Calrissian.  And all 3 were handled with great care and thought, with many visual flourishes (such as the gif above) and nods to the character as we know him from the original trilogy. Although I will admit I wish they hadn’t softened the character’s edges quite so much.  I suppose one could argue this version of Han Solo has yet to grow into the scoundrel we all know and love.

So why is Solo merely a good film and not a great one?  I would say that it’s because Alden Ehrenreich was miscast as Han Solo.  To paraphrase Han Solo himself, he’s fine.  Everything about him is fine.  Alden Ehrenreich is fine as Han Solo.  But that’s it.  He’s merely serviceable and I don’t mind saying that when you’re casting a younger version of Han Solo, your casting has to be inspired.  It has to be perfect.  You have to make the audience forget that you’re not watching Harrison Ford.  Nothing less will do.  And sadly, Alden Ehrenreich isn’t that.  Okay now, I’m about to get up on my soapbox… so bear with me…

Consider Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.  The third entry in the Indiana Jones series opens on a flashback to 1912 as we’re introduced to Henry Jones, Jr. as a teenager.  In this case, River Phoenix plays a young Indiana Jones.  I think most people would agree that River Phoenix, before his untimely death at 23 was a fairly phenomenal actor and inspired casting for the part.  You may remember he had played Harrison Ford’s son 3 years earlier in The Mosquito Coast, a criminally forgotten entry in Ford’s filmography.  Serendipity, it would seem.  Go ahead and watch that opening, I’ll wait.

Done? Okay, good.

From Phoenix’s first shhhh at 30 seconds in, with his eyes darting back and forth, to the way he snatches the snake, to the moment he grabs the other scout’s neckerchief shortly after, culminating with, “I don’t know I’ll think of something” and a smirk, everything about his performance screams Harrison Ford. Without being an impression.  He is Indiana Jones and it’s glorious.  Just watch the way he runs down the side of the cave entrance at 1:38 and tell me he doesn’t look just like Harrison Ford running for the seaplane in the beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark, arms flailing, his wobbly knees threatening to dump him on his ass with every step.  Now that is how you play a young Harrison Ford character.  River Phoenix nails it at every turn.  When you’re watching him, you forget that you’re not watching Harrison Ford, but you never stop believing you are watching Indiana Jones. River Phoenix truly was something special. Much like his younger brother.   So if you’re thinking, Yeah but there’s only one River Phoenix, or something to that effect, I would say, YES, of course.  That’s the point.  When you’re casting a young version of a beloved character played previously by Harrison Ford, then you absolutely have to find that 1 in a million actor who can pull it off.  And, apologies to Alden Ehrenreich, but he just ain’t it.  Like I said, he’s fine.

What makes Ehrenreich’s casting even more frustrating is how goddamn perfect Donald Glover is as a young Lando Calrissian.  Jesus Christ, now that is inspired casting.  That is a truly memorable performance. It’s hard to overstate just how good Glover is as Lando. He literally steals every scene he’s in, which makes it all the more tragic the role of Solo didn’t go to someone as dynamic as Glover.  With the right actor as Han Solo, the scenes between he and Calrissian would have been movie magic.  Those scenes would have helped elevate Solo: A Star Wars Story to something special.  As it is, Glover’s performance merely elevated his character.  Disney would be fools not to be fast-tracking a Star Wars Story film centered on Glover as Lando Calrissian.  I’d love to find out how he ended up the administrator of Cloud City, seeing as how according to Lando himself, “Mining colonies are the worst.”

There’s a lot to like about Solo.  Woody Harrelson is reliable as ever.  The heist storyline resonates.  Everything looks great, gritty as Rogue One before it. And what’s a Star Wars movie without a memorable droid, which we get in L3-37. The pieces of a great film are all there, all except one.  The most important one.  Like they say, 90% of directing is casting.

Speaking of directors.  I’m sure you’re aware that Chris Miller and Phil Lord were the original directors hired to make Solo: A Star Wars Story.  They were fired by Lucasfilm and replaced with Ron Howard.  Now, I don’t like Ron Howard.  He’s a middle-of-the-road director who rarely, if ever, takes risks in his filmmaking.  He has a handful of excellent films under his belt.  Parenthood and Apollo 13 come to mind, but one could argue those films were going to be great with any director given how well-written they are. To me, Ron Howard is the guy you put in the baseball game to throw strikes, and let the defense do all the work.  If you have A Beautiful Mind or Cinderella Man on the tip of your tongue as some sort of defense of Ron Howard, just stop.  What a bunch of overrated hokum, both films.  A series of heavy-handed false moments strung together with over-obvious sentiment, hitting the audience over the head with all the subtlety of any given moment in Forrest-fucking-Gump, another movie I hate.  I guess my point is, Ron Howard is exactly the sort of director you bring in to right a listing ship.  When you fire your director(s) and need someone to come in and just not fuck it up, I can think of nobody better than Ron Howard. And while I never thought Chris Miller and Phil Lord were the right guys for the job,

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Yeah, let’s hire these guys for a Han Solo movie…

I’d be lying if I wasn’t dying to see their Solo film for comparison.  Sort of like the clusterfuck that was the dueling Exorcist prequels.  Sadly they were fired before they completed filming so we’ll never get a Lord & Miller cut of Solo.

My problems with Alden Ehrenreich’s casting are only exacerbated by the fact that we just saw Harrison Ford as Solo in The Force Awakens. Perhaps if Return of the Jedi were the last time we had seen Ford in the role, my point of view would be different.  But I doubt it.

-cohan

p.s. I almost forgot to mention an interesting subplot prevalent throughout Solo, but not really paid off until the end.  Which is, the literal birth of the Rebel Alliance.  That was pretty cool.

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SPOILER ALERT

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p.p.s. I also didn’t mention that big ole bastard of a cameo at the end. After the film was over I said, “Was that Darth Maul? Or was it another member of whatever the hell race he is? And if it is him, what in the hell is going on with this timeline?” A friend of mine filled me in on the continuing story of Darth Maul after Obi-wan cuts him in half at the end of The Phantom Menace. If you watch the animated Clone Wars tv show, you know he survives that bit of bisecting, somehow. And ends up with mechanical legs, which you can apparently see in Solo (I missed it). Don’t know about his dingus.

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Avengers: Infinity War… finally.

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Spoiler alert: this scene isn’t in the movie.

Hey guys,

I’ve finally gotten around to putting down my thoughts on Avengers: Infinity War. Without further adieu…

It’s almost impossible to discuss Avengers: Infinity War in depth without spoilers.  One of the most talked about aspects of the movie is the ending. So, if you haven’t seen the movie, my apologies for the spoiler-ish caption above.  Now go away and return after you’ve seen the film.  And see it you should.  It’s not without its flaws, but it’s certainly worth seeing on the big screen.

Okay, now…

Say what you will about the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it’s undeniable they’ve created something both extraordinary and unique in its execution. Avengers: Infinity War is the 19th film in a shared film universe. Think about that for a second, 19 films (Stanley Kubrick only directed 11 feature films in his lifetime) all with overlapping storylines, heroes and villains, but with different writers, different directors, and an impressively long list of some of the best actors you could ask for across the board. What’s even more remarkable is how entertaining all these movies are.  Even the turkeys are, at the very least, diverting.  I didn’t like Avengers: Age of Ultron or either of the first two Thor movies, but I didn’t think they were boring.  And although it’s a shitty metric to judge a film by, they all made a hell of a lot of money.  And when you then expand into the network tv shows and series on Netflix, I mean, holy shit.  The fact that it works at all is a minor miracle.  And Avengers: Infinity War is the ultimate culmination of all that storytelling, all that character development, all that world-building.

So how is it?  Well, it’s pretty good.  I didn’t like it as much as the first Avengers, but I liked it better than Age of Ultron. 

Everything before the 3rd act finale in Wakanda works best. The whole time I was watching the first half, I kept thinking, “Holy shit, they’re pulling it off.” It was so well-balanced, the storytelling constructed in such a way that warranted all these different characters reacting to unfolding events in different locations, in different ways. I’m a sucker for a great character entrance. Obviously, Harrison Ford stepping out of the shadows after bull-whipping the gun out of the guide’s hand in Raiders of the Lost Ark is a cinema classic. Michael Keaton’s, “I’m Batman.” The first appearance of the chest-buster xenomorph popping his way out of John Hurt’s chest in Alien. And yet when I think of great character entrances, I find myself returning to Danny McBride’s character introduction in This is the End. Within the context of the film, it’s note perfect and hilarious. My favorite moment in Avengers: Infinity War occurs in the first act, when Rubberband Man by the Spinners kicks in, we see a shot of distant stars and a large bold title pops on screen that reads simply, SPACE.  And we’re introduced to The Guardians of the Galaxy as they sing along to Rubberband Man on their mission to investigate a distress call coming from, what turns out to be the Asgardian ship featured at the end of Thor: Ragnarok. It’s a great character reveal and it put a huge smile on my face.

[Side note: listen closely and see if you can’t hear the beginning of Flash, by Queen in the opening of Rubberband Man.]

I going to assume if you’ve read this far then you’ve already seen the movie, so I won’t bore you with a beat by beat breakdown of the entire plot.  I’ll just say that everything was working great for me right up until the main action moves to Wakanda. I enjoyed the crosscut scene on Thanos’ homeworld as Iron Man, Spider-man, Dr. Strange and most of the Guardians of the Galaxy fight a small scale battle against Thanos as they attempt to separate the Infinity Guantlet from Thanos’ hand.  It’s a nice set-piece almost ruined by the single most bone-headed act by any movie character, ever, when Peter Quill inadvertently sabotages the entire endeavor. I hated his reaction to learning of Gamora’s death at the hands of Thanos. He huffs and puffs and then punches Thanos in the face. While Mantis is desperately trying to control one of the most powerful characters in the entire MCU and Spider-man and Ironman nearly have the glove off, Starlord punches him in the face. Ugh. Nobody is that stupid, not even Peter Quill. If I had never seen a Guardians of the Galaxy movie, that moment would have instantly cemented Starlord as my least favorite Marvel character.  Otherwise, it’s a great scene, all these heroes working together, each employing their specific talents in concert to take down an adversary greater than any one of them.  It’s why we watch Avengers movies in the first place.  But, back in Wakanda, stupidity abounds I’m afraid.

There’s so much about the Wakanda scenes that just don’t work, it’s hard to decide where to start.  First, the obvious.  Both Captain America and Black Panther are criminally underused in this film.  After a pretty kickass character entrance in his own right, the rest of Steve Rogers’ scenes are all in Wakanda, as are all of Black Panther’s.  And neither has more than a couple lines of dialogue, none of which contribute significantly to the story.  Nothing they do in Wakanda has any impact on the plot.  The worst part is that Black Panther spent an entire film telling the audience that Wakanda is far more technologically advanced than the rest of the world, and yet when an alien horde attacks, they’re out there with spears, punching the invaders.  Punching them.  Captain America, Black Panther, Black Widow are out there engaging in hand to hand combat, virtually weapon-free.  Imagine if allied forces stormed the beaches in Normandy on D-Day with baseball bats, punching Nazis in the face. I have a sneaking suspicion World War II would have ended quite differently. It’s like the action movie adage that goes, “isn’t it convenient how all the evil henchmen attack the hero one at a time.” Only 100 times worse. I know, I know, Bucky, Rhodes and the Falcon are all out there shooting up the joint, but my point is, how about some frickin’ lazer beams? They have an energy shield that was working pretty well, then what? Nothing. A pretty odd choice for the most technologically advanced country on the planet.

By the time Thanos shows up in Wakanda for the Time Stone, the legs had been totally cut off the film for me.  We already bore witness to a pretty good battle on Thanos’ homeworld.  Now there’s another fight with Thanos? Captain America holds his own, punching up a storm with the best of them, but by then Thanos has all but one of the Infinity Stones.  The tension and excitement, unfortunately, gets split in half along with the two separate Thanos battles.  One bright spot, speaking of excellent character entrances, is when Thor returns with Stormbreaker and almost kills Thanos. After an entire film taking a back seat, we are reminded why Thor is considered a God.  It was a pretty bad ass moment.  That being said, the title of the film is Infinity War.  But really they should have called it Avengers: Infinity Skirmishes.  We saw a series of smaller battles, but we never had a climactic, all hands on deck showdown with Thanos.  I don’t mind admitting I was disappointed as hell.

Which brings us to the much talked about ending in which half the universe, and therefore half the Avengers “die” at the snap of Thanos’ fingers.  I put die in quotes because we all know most, if not all will be coming back.  It’s an unfortunate fact of life that movies no longer occur as isolated experiences in a theater.  The internet, in large part, has ruined that aspect for the movie going audience.  We already know a Tom Holland Spider-man sequel is in the works.  We know Black Panther is getting a sequel.  We know Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 3 is on the horizon.  That knowledge makes the ending of Infinity War feel dishonest and as a result, cheap.  Other than Spider-man’s emotional plea to a helpless Ironman as he disintegrates, the impact of their deaths carries little weight. Incidentally, Tom Holland is a goddamn perfect Peter Parker and a goddamn perfect Spider-man.  Such great casting.

Speaking of Thanos, my only problem with him as an antagonist is that his goal is pretty stupid. The movie spends a surprising amount of time developing him as a well-rounded, nearly sympathetic character who approaches his villainous obligation with an air of reticence. The problem is that that goal doesn’t make any sense.  In a nutshell, Thanos believes the universe cannot sustain the spread of life and the wasteful consumption of resources that comes with it. He seeks balance, as he puts it.  Apparently the only way to balance the universe is to murder half of the population of it.  But with the power of a god can’t he just make more resources, more planets, more of whatever is needed? How about a moratorium on procreation for a few years allowing the death rate to exceed the birth rate for awhile? Not great, but also not genocide.  His whole “balance” theory of the universe is reductive to such a ridiculous degree nobody could possibly take it seriously.  It’s just silly and not in a Lex Luthor’s evil plot from Donner’s Superman kinda way, which is, I have to admit, gleefully bananas. One of my favorite super-villain plans of all time. I just wish the filmmakers would have addressed the fact that Thanos’ plan is ludicrous. Ego’s plan in Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2 was ludicrous and also murderous on a universal scale, but I bought it.  I bought it because at every turn James Gunn was reminding us how goddamn insane a plan it was.  In Avengers: Infinity War everyone just seems to shrug, yeah okay, we better get on that. It bothered me a great deal.

[Side note: Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2 is not particularly good.  Akin to Age of Ultron and Thor 1 & 2. First Guardians is a much much better film.]

I had a few other, more minor quibbles with the film.  I didn’t like that the Hulk refused to come out to play, as it were. I get what they were going for, that perhaps this enormous rage machine was frightened by Thanos, thereby cementing Thanos’ place as the more powerful character in the MCU, but I didn’t buy it.  Remember the caption under the pic above? Yeah, fuck you too, Marvel. I don’t like trailers that lie to you. And then showing the Hulkbuster armor in the trailers was another red herring I didn’t care for. You already know, I’m sure, but that’s a Hulk-free Bruce Banner in there, not Tony Stark.

One other detail kept pestering me early on, during the scene in Scotland when Midnight and Glaive attack Scarlet Witch and Vision.  They’re fighting, duking it out, Vision is down and Wanda seems keenly aware she is unequipped to handle these two adversaries on her own.  And yet, Vision and Scarlet Witch can both fly.  So why didn’t they? When trouble rears its ugly head and the fight begins to go sideways, why didn’t they just fly away? Kinda like Neo in The Matrix Reloaded. What the hell was he waiting for? YOU CAN FLY! One saving grace of the scene – when Steve Rogers shows up and catches that thrown spear (man, what’s with all the spears in this movie?) like a boss, the look on Wanda’s face, the look of utter relief that Captain America is there to save the day, is totally priceless. With a single look, we’re reminded that Elizabeth Olsen is, in fact, a fine actress.

Post credits scene. For those of you who aren’t booger-eating nerds or haven’t looked up its meaning yet, the logo that appeared on Nick Fury’s communicator device was for Captain Marvel.  Carol Danvers, played by Brie Larson, has her own movie coming out soon.  I’m sure it’s safe to assume that Captain Marvel will have a significant role in Avengers 4. Similarly, I suspect Ant-man and Hawkeye were both kept out of Avengers: Infinity War because they will be front and center in Avengers 4.  If I had to guess I’d say Ant-man and Hawkeye (or maybe just Ant-man) somehow travel back in time to try and undo the events of Avengers: Infinity War. Will we get a Back to the Future 2 type situation? I’d be lying if I said the idea doesn’t intrigue the hell out of me.  And you know that at some point someone other than Thanos is going to wield the Infinity Gauntlet and it probably isn’t going to end well for them.  My money is on Ironman.

The Russo Brothers have teased that Avengers 4 will introduce some pretty drastic changes to the MCU. I hope they’re not blowing smoke up our ass. So far, Avengers: Infinity War feels more like the first act of a 6 hour movie. I hope the next one delivers on the promise set forth by the Infinity War title because I don’t really feel like this one did. That being said, I will admit I’m looking forward to finding out how this all plays out.

-cohan

p.s. Stay tuned for a Solo review.  Seeing it tomorrow.

 

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Ready Player One

READY PLAYER ONE

Hey guys,

Looks like I’m avoiding an Avengers: Infinity War review again. Oh well. Moving on…

Steven Spielberg has a handful of book adaptations under his belt where his movie surpassed its source material.  Three come to mind.  Jurassic Park, Minority Report and JawsJurassic Park was an okay-fine book by Michael Crichton that couldn’t possibly match the awe and glee with which movie audiences were treated to some of the best meld of CGI and practical effects the world had ever seen. Holy shit, dinosaurs! Minority Report was an insightful, thematically rich, not to mention fun as hell, glimpse into the not-too-distant future. Say what you will about Tom Cruise, but he doesn’t phone it in, ever.  Minority Report was an adaptation of a Phillip K. Dick short story of the same name whose plotting was a bit convoluted, as PKD stories tend to be, with a big bummer of an ending.  Spielberg’s film streamlines the primary story elements to create a slick, fast moving crime drama in a sci fi environment.  And then, of course there’s Jaws.  The original blockbuster.  The movie that launched Spielberg’s career.  And it’s based on a pretty shitty book.  Jaws by Peter Benchley is a dull, clunky book.  So much so, that I never read another book by Benchley after it.  Plenty of books have been written about Jaws, so I’m not going to waste your time getting into here. It’s great, we all know it.

So, where does that leave Ready Player One?

Ready Player One is not a particularly well written book. Ernest Cline wrote a somewhat awkward story with very little focus on character development and only the scantest interest in exploring the ramifications of a life lived almost entirely in a virtual world.  But it is one great big love letter to the popular culture of the 1980’s and I am a child of the 80’s. As such, I loved reading Ready Player One. I couldn’t help myself.  For all its flaws, I couldn’t resist the nostalgic pull of its central premise: a programmer in love with the 1980’s creates a virtual world based entirely on the popular culture of that decade.  Slap a kid at the center of an adventure to save that world and I’m happier ‘n a mangeek at a Goonies convention.

My experience with the film was similar, but for different reasons.  Spielberg has crafted a lightning-paced adventure filled with action and excitement and just enough character development to keep us emotionally invested (but absolutely no more than that).  It gets off to a bit of a rocky start, as the main character’s narration explains the background behind the OASIS as we, the viewer are whisked through the OASIS as if flying through a never-ending CGI spiderweb that just keeps going and going.  It’s a bit much and almost turned me off from the movie entirely right at the start.  But after that somewhat frenetic intro and an over-the-top vehicular race in a digital New York City, the story kicks in and the rest of the film, for the most part is executed with a bit more restraint. But only a bit. One thing Ready Player One has going for it is that the OASIS isn’t supposed to be a photo-realistic environment, so whenever the CGI gets a bit cartoony, it’s okay. It doesn’t matter.  The audience is in the middle of a video game, for lack of a better word. Normally I would think of that as a bad thing. But here, somehow Spielberg makes it work.  He’s a smart enough filmmaker to know a constant onslaught of CGI is going to turn off even the most forgiving movie-going audience.  So he wisely cross-cuts between the OASIS and the real world, in which there are additional sub-plots going on.  Added to which, within the OASIS itself, he finds moments and scenes to slow down the action and either develop the character relationships or progress the plot more cerebrally.  One particular scene comes to mind, when the players suddenly find themselves in an entirely real-world looking Overlook Hotel.  It’s a great scene, particularly when one character who hates horror movies and hasn’t seen The Shining starts wandering naively through the hotel, curious as to why these two little twin girls are beckoning him onward. It’s a fun scene, marred only by an idea that keeps nagging at me.  Or rather a question, which is why did they choose The Shining? It’s the only time in the movie they focus so long on a specific bit of 80’s pop culture (other than an old Atari game, Adventure) and yet, how many of us think of The Shining as a quintessential 80’s movie? Sure, it qualifies having been released in 1980, but within our collective zeitgeist (that’s right, I just used that word) I can think of a dozen other movies that seem far more representative of that particular decade.  What’s that, you want me to list a few? Okay.  How about Ghostbusters?  Or The Breakfast Club, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Gremlins, Beetlejuice, The Karate Kid, Aliens, The Princess Bride, Back to the Future (the main character already drives a DeLorean throughout the film) or how about Spielberg’s own E.T.? Poltergeist? Or how about one of the greatest adventure films of all time, also a Spielberg joint: Raiders of the Lost Ark? In the book, Blade Runner plays a significant role and I’ve read that Spielberg couldn’t use it because Blade Runner 2049 was in production at the same time.  But choosing The Shining seems more like professional nepotism than serving the story.

Which brings me to my chief complaint about Ready Player One the movie vs. Ready Player One the book.  As I’ve already written above, the book is a 385 page tribute to the 1980’s.  But the movie reels that aspect in a great deal, instead conveying that idea through seemingly random imagery and Easter Eggs.  The movie never really comes out and says that James Halliday, the creator of the OASIS, based his entire creation on his obsession with 80’s pop culture (at least to my recollection).  Instead, that concept is more or less alluded to by its design and usage by the characters.  In the movie, the main character who calls himself, Parzival (an Arthurian hero on a never-ending quest for the Holy Grail) succeeds where others have failed because of his encyclopedic knowledge of the life and times of James Halliday.  In the book, Parzival is triumphant because he too is obsessed with the 1980’s.  His character knows more about that decade’s pop culture than any other character save Halliday himself. The main plot, which I’ve been remiss in omitting until now, revolves around a contest to find three keys hidden within the OASIS by James Halliday before his death.  Find the three keys and gain control of the OASIS. He also left behind a series of clues, all cloaked in 80’s nostalgia. Parzival discovers the first key, bands together with a small group of like-minded Gunters (egg hunters) and sets about discovering the other two keys before the big bad Innovative Online Industries (IOI) corporation gets them first and turns the OASIS into a nightmare of capitalist excess. In the book, the hunt for the keys is needlessly complicated. Finding a key unlocks a path to a challenge that you must then overcome to receive a clue to the next key.  Spielberg was wise in streamlining the concept for the film, having each key a prize unto itself.  Find a key, receive a clue to the next key.  Had they made Ready Player One a limited run series on HBO or Netflix, the books conceit could’ve worked, but for a feature film, trimming the fat makes sense.

So, is Ready Player One the movie better than Ready Player One the book?  I think i’m going to say no.  Only because they’re different.  Each is successful in different ways, much like how The Shining, actually, is successful both as a Kubrick film and as Stephen King originally wrote it.  Both are very different in their approaches and both work wonderfully.  And no, I’m not saying Ready Player One is as good as The Shining. Come on now, let’s be real.  Ready Player One is a popcorn film.  So is the book, if that makes any sense.  I enjoyed them both.  Now…

Let’s all enjoy a truffle shuffle together.

-cohan

p.s. Steven Spielberg has a long history of adapting books of various quality into excellent films.  Schindler’s List, War of the Worlds, The Color Purple, Empire of the Sun and Amistad all come to mind.  War Horse, Lincoln, Catch Me if You Can and Munich are all adaptations of books.  And one could argue all day long about which version of each story is better.  But my point was that he has three distinct examples where an excellent movie is a clear improvement over a lackluster book (or short story). Somewhere in there, is Ready Player One.

p.p.s. It is neither here nor there, but I’m going to mention anyway that there are only two Spielberg movies I actively hate.  1941 and Hook.  Regarding Hook, Spielberg was once quoted as saying, “I wanna see Hook again because I so don’t like that movie, and I’m hoping someday I’ll see it again and perhaps like some of it.” But still, two turds in a sea of goddamn masterpieces is a pretty impressive track record.