REVIEW: “Avengers: Endgame”

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It’s hard to image a 2019 movie with more buzz, more hype, more expectations than the 22nd film from Marvel Studios. While I still lean towards “Star Wars: Episode IX” as my most anticipated franchise event of the year, right behind it is “Avengers: Endgame”. It seems I say this with every “Avengers” picture, but this is another wildly ambitious undertaking and the culmination of eleven years worth of storytelling across the Marvel Cinematic Universe under the guidance of producer Kevin Feige.

Last year’s “Infinity War” left things hanging in a pretty precarious place. Despite the efforts of the Avengers, Thanos (Josh Brolin) successfully acquired the six Infinity Stones and in a snap altered reality causing half of the universe’s population to disintegrate including many of the MCU heroes. Thanos teleports away and sits down to soak in his handiwork. Meanwhile the Avengers are left in utter disarray and shock. It was a bold and stunning ending even though we knew the effects were only temporary.

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“Infinity War” did a great job raising the stakes and “Endgame” begins by sorting through the aftermath. Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) remain the leaders of what’s left of the Avengers but failed attempts to reverse the effects of “Infinity War” has left them with no hope. Jump ahead five years into the post-Thanos future and each are trying to find their own way.

Returning co-directors Anthony and Joe Russo and returning co-writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely give a lot of screen time to the effects of grief and loss. Even when the heroes inevitably get back together to work out a new plan, there are still moments that remind us of the heavy toll. But throughout the film’s first half rarely are we given time to sit with the drama and emotion. It’s often undercut by the double-edged sword of humor.

It may surprise some, but “Endgame” leans heavy on humor. The MCU has always had a lighthearted element to their movies but few have embraced it as much as this one. At times it’s welcomed and keeps things from getting too dark and dour. And in many instances it’s genuinely funny. But at the same time the steady wave of one-liners can be a bit weird considering the dire circumstances. And when it fundamentally changes a key character it moves from weird to frustrating.

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I’m talking about Thor (Chris Hemsworth) who goes from angry and burdened with guilt to a clownish buffoon within the first 15 minutes or so. I won’t spoil his storyline but he’s essentially comic relief for the duration and a dramatically different character from who we saw in “Infinity War”. Clearly they’re taking the “Ragnarok” formula and running wild with it (You know it’s true when Thor pairs with Rocket Raccoon and Rocket plays the straight man). He’s given plenty of gags but never that big action moment fitting of his character. By the end it’s almost impossible to take him seriously.

You see more of the “Ragnarok” effect with Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). No spoilers but once again we get a dramatically different version of the character. Gone is the brute force replaced with what is essentially a carbon copy of Beast from the X-Men. Even Thanos loses some of the nuance that made him such an effective villain in “Infinity War”. And a handful of other characters simply fall through the cracks despite the film having a three-hour running time.

The second half takes on a more serious tone and that’s where we get the bulk of the action. It’s also where we finally get some of those huge crowd-pleasing moments and the packed audience at my screening were ready to let loose. It’s a truly spectacular final hour filled with some big character moments that brought enthusiastic cheers and more than a few fist pumps across the theater.

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It’s also an emotional rollercoaster sure to touch everyone who has invested themselves into this decade-long motion picture journey. “Endgame” has been touted as the final chapter in this particular MCU saga so sticking the landing was imperative. “Endgame” most definitely sticks its landing. It’s a poignant and satisfying ending so incredibly well done and fitting of a movie event of this magnitude.

From the very beginning “Avengers: Endgame” feels like something special, something unique, something unlike anything we’ve seen before. And even in its missteps it never loses that sense of spectacle and grandeur. It works best if you gaze at it through a wide lens because if you start looking too close you’re sure to find a few holes. Instead embrace it for what it is – the closing chapter to a truly remarkable cinematic accomplishment. Sure, there will be more MCU movies. But “Endgame” marks the end of an era that deserves to be celebrated.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

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REVIEW: “Arctic” (2019)

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To cut down on any potential confusion, Mads Mikkelsen has two 2019 movies with single-word titles related to the cold. The first is the trashy and rather repugnant “Polar” (don’t waste your time). The latest is “Arctic”, a much more tolerable and considerably better movie (most definitely see it).

“Arctic” is an Icelandic survival thriller with a Danish star and a Brazilian director/co-writer. The film marks YouTuber Joe Penna’s feature film directorial debut and let’s just say it’s quite the start. There’s certainly no shortage of man-versus-nature movies and I’ve always been a sucker for a good survival story. While “Arctic” very much fits into that mold, within the first fifteen minutes I could see the film carving out its own path.

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The movie leans heavily on its star, Mads Mikkelsen who plays the lone survivor of a small plane crash deep in the Arctic Circle. We know nothing about this man other than he has been stranded for a while. What we do learn comes only from what we can observe. He’s a resourceful man who has turned the plane hull into a cabin of sorts. He has chiseled holes in the thick ice and ran fishing lines for catching trout. And like clockwork he hikes to higher ground where he churns on a hand-cranked device that emits a distress signal.

The movie seems fascinated with the how-to’s of survival and early on a lot of focus is put on his daily routine. But his situation changes dramatically after a helicopter picks up his signal. The chopper tries to land in a windstorm but violently crashes in the process. The pilot is killed but the co-pilot, a young woman played by Maria Thelma SmáradĂłttir, survives although with serious injuries.

The man gets the unconscious young woman back to his plane and begins treating her wounds. The equation has changed and he knows he can’t keep them both alive. A map in the helicopter wreckage points him to a seasonal shelter which he estimates to be about a two-day journey. The film’s second half sees him heading out across the frozen tundra pulling the young woman on a makeshift sled and with only a few supplies in tow.

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“Arctic” is very much about the fight to survive against the most extreme elements and even nature itself. It’s just as much an exploration of the psychological toll. The man’s almost businesslike approach to staying alive changes when the young women arrives. She reinvigorates him and you see a new urgency. Penna shows a subtle hand in how he unearths the new emotions in the man, emotions that surpass simple sympathy.

It’s hard to think of anyone better equipped to lead this movie than Mads Mikkelsen. His tough exterior and rugged disposition is only outdone by his innate ability to speak volumes with so few words. And this is a movie of little dialogue which plays well to that particular strength of his.

“Arctic” was filmed in a remote section of Iceland over a 19 day span. Mikkelsen has called it the toughest shoot of his career, but the cinematic benefits make it worthwhile. The treacherous location makes for an often harrowing and utterly convincing experience. That’s key to what makes “Arctic” such a strong film. It’s a survival movie that does what the best ones do – immerses you in its setting and in the plight of its characters.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “At Eternity’s Gate”

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There is no denying that within the troubled man that was Vincent van Gogh resided the heart of an artist. He was a man intensely dependent on painting. For him it was as vital as air or food. At the same time van Gogh’s struggles with mental health are almost as legendary as the timeless art he left behind. “At Eternity’s Gate” seeks to bring this immensely talented but deeply troubled man to life.

Director and co-writer Julian Schnabel, a painter himself, focuses his film on the last few years of van Gogh’s life. His intention is to capture the spirit of the artist more so than provide an authentically detailed historical account. It’s an approach that allows for him to use his film as a canvas and his camera as his brush. Much like the thick, heavy stroke of van Gogh’s brush, Schnabel and cinematographer BenoĂ®t Delhomme lean heavily on visual technique to emote and inform.

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Van Gogh is played by 63-year-old Willem Dafoe and some have pointed out the age discrepancy between actor and character (Van Gogh died at age 37). But mere seconds into his first scene it’s clear that Dafoe is the perfect choice. Always the immersive actor, Dafoe prepared for the role by learning to paint, scouring over van Gogh’s many letters, and visited the French countryside, gazing upon many of the same landscapes that found there way onto the artist’s canvases.

Schnabel paints us an intimate portrait that seeks to get in the painter’s headspace and show us things from his perspective (at times even using his camera in first-person). This proves to have a duel effect. First it gives us a riveting look at the creative impulses that drove him to paint and the near therapeutic joy he took from it. We see it in these entrancing sequences where van Gogh takes off walking, loaded with painting gear, searching for inspiration and nature’s perfect image. The gorgeous locales, Dafoe’s impassioned and affecting portrayal, the exquisite piano chords from Tatiana Lisovskaya score all work together to help us see things as Vincent sees them.

Second, we experience the cracks in his sanity from his point of view. Simple anxieties slowly give way to voices and visions which haunt the artist but tragically inspire some of his best work. The deeper the dive into his tormented psyche the more Schnabel blurs the lines between Vincent’s visions and reality. Not only does he begin questioning what he sees, but so do we. Through it all the film smartly makes no judgements nor does it try and diagnose his madness.

Along the way we get some fabulous supporting work, mostly in small parts but each equally good. Oscar Isaac is a nice fit as fellow post-Impressionist (and short-time friend) Paul Gauguin. Rupert Friend is really good as Vincent’s supportive brother Theo. And Mads Mikkelsen has a short but brilliant scene playing a priest tasked with determining Vincent’s mental fitness.

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Sometimes my mind goes out on me.” It’s a heartbreaking line from a tortured soul trying to make some sense of his mental decline. These laments of introspection and self-examination are countered with touching creative moments where Vincent, with a child-like wonder, loses himself in his art and the natural beauty that inspired it. And it’s all conveyed without leaning on sentimentality or needless melodrama.

Vincent van Gogh’s death in 1890 has long been attributed to suicide but that belief has since come up for debate. Schnabel’s film sides with biographers Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith who in 2011 presented a much different and arguably more rational theory. Their idea definitely feels right for this particular portrait which I quite loved. And among the many cinematic turns taken at depicting van Gogh’s life (and there have been some good ones), “At Eternity’s Gate” is my new favorite.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

 

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REVIEW: “Aquaman”

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You have to wonder if the Aquaman appearances in the earlier DC Universe films partially served as a taste test for Warner Bros. How would audiences respond to this version of the classic DC Comics character? Could they make a solo film in a way that avoided being as cheesy as a stick of Velveeta? Would Jason Momoa’s beefy, burly charm win over comics fanboys and general DCU skeptics?

Here’s the thing, if you’re already dug in against DC’s refusal to mirror Marvel by doing superhero movies their own way, “Aquaman” probably won’t change your mindset. If you’re a fan of the DCU or if you come at this without a particular bend, then “Aquaman” offers up enough offbeat humor, deep-sea action, and overall craziness to keep you locked in and entertained.

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An Aquaman movie has been in various stages of production for nearly 10 years before director James Wan took the helm. Wan’s specialty is horror having made the original “Saw”, two “Insidious” movies, and “The Conjuring” series. But this isn’t the first time he has stepped outside of the genre. In 2015 he directed the seventh “Fast and Furious” installment. “Aquaman” posed a bigger challenge considering the very nature of the character, where’s he’s from, etc. And that’s not counting the $200 million price tag. No pressure.

Wan’s “Aquaman” is incredibly ambitious and he’s juggling a ton of moving parts. Perhaps his best decision was in not making this a traditional superhero origin movie. The backstory of Momoa’s Arthur Curry is told in a few small chunks scattered throughout the film. It’s a sweet and heartfelt tale of a lonely human lighthouse keeper (Temuera Morrison) who rescues and then falls in love with an exiled princess from the underwater city of Atlantis (played by a very good Nicole Kidman). It was a forbidden love resulting in the birth of a child, Arthur, but doomed by Atlantean tradition and intolerance.

Arthur grew up an outcast among the surface people and shunned as a “half-breed” by the Atlanteans. Along the way we learn of other things that has long fueled his disdain for his ocean-dwelling kin. This makes the appearance of Mera (Amber Heard) hard for him swallow. She tells Arthur of his power hungry half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson) who works to persuade the seven underwater tribes to wage war against the surface. The only way to stop him? For a reluctant Arthur to return to Atlantis and claim the throne from Orm.

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From there the enormous scope of the film is mind-blowing. Is it too big? Yes, probably so. Should it have been trimmed down with a tighter focus? I honestly don’t know. That’s because part of what I liked about “Aquaman” is the sheer audacity of the whole thing. Wan’s story spans the coasts of Maine, the Sicilian seaside (where we get a thrilling and wonderfully shot action sequence – the film’s best), and even the Sahara desert.

And of course there is Atlantis itself, a pulsating world of the ancient and modern; filled with underwater societies, mythical creatures, saddled sea horses and armored sharks, talking crustaceans, and even Dolph Lundgren as a tribal King. It’s so preposterous yet bizarrely remarkable. Wan goes for it full throttle with an unrestrained imagination and a fantastical point of view. He ends up giving us a trademark of good fantasy – a fresh movie landscape, rich with its own history and filled with locations for (potential) future films to explore.

And of course there is the intensely committed cast starting with Momoa. There couldn’t be a better fit for the surly beefcake Arthur – a pain in the butt yet an infectiously enjoyable one. Momoa shines both in personality and physicality. He’s clearly having a good time whether twirling a trident or winking at his sex appeal. Heard, Wilson, and Kidman all manage their characters well. We even get a fun Willem Dafoe as Arthur’s secret Atlantean mentor. Also Yahya Abdul-Mateen II is intriguing as Black Manta, a character I wanted to see more of.

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“Aquaman” walks the delicate line between poking fun at itself and treating its story seriously. It’s not an easy thing to do, but when done well it makes for a fun and satisfying genre piece. It’s still very much a superhero movie. You’ll see it hitting several familiar story beats and it doesn’t deviate far from the general structure these films use. But it’s Wan’s attention to his characters and imaginative world-building that makes it work. But those who by nature dismiss or rebel against ‘too much’ CGI, I can see them pushing back against “Aquaman” as well.

The publicity tour for “Aquaman” has been a hoot and no one can say Momoa isn’t comfortable in his own skin. His interviews and appearances have all been fun and lively. The same can be said for his movie. “Aquaman” is an oddly satisfying blast. It’s nothing groundbreaking or highly original, but it is a movie that embraces its weirdness in a way I really appreciated. And while it’s stuffed to gills with action (including what may be my favorite action sequence of the year), it has a little more to say than some will give it credit for. Ultimately “Aquaman” is a sea-worthy DCU installment; the most unlikely superhero to pull off, yet James Wan does just that.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

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REVIEW: “Apostle” (2018)

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Exploring the world of Netflix Originals can be a fascinating experience. You never quite know what you’re going to get. That especially holds true for their forays into the horror genre. Their new film “Apostle” definitely lands among the stronger titles in their Originals spectrum. Not only that, but it offers up something the horror genre has been in desperate need of – originality.

“Apostle” is written and directed by Gareth Evans best known for his Indonesian martial arts film “The Raid” and its sequel. “Apostle” is a much different venture, not just in terms of genre but with its setting and narrative style. Evans builds his story slowly while constantly giving us small bites of revelation. When the veil is finally dropped and the dots begin to connect, Evans lets loose his Victorian-era horror which is both gruesome and unpredictable.

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The film opens with one of the most striking shots I’ve seen all year as a train curls around a large body of water. The camera moves across the surface before resting at the edge of the tracks just as the train speeds by. Aboard is Thomas Richardson (Dan Stevens), a disillusioned and tortured ex-missionary whose opium addiction is all that keeps his sanity intact.

Through a troubling letter Thomas gets word that his sister has been kidnapped by a mysterious cult demanding a ransom. He secretly infiltrates the cult’s ranks to discover his sister’s whereabouts. Even before he sets foot in the isolated island commune led by the charismatic ‘prophet’ Malcolm (Michael Sheen) we get the sense that something is not quite right. This dark and unsettling cloud looms over the entire film.

Stevens’ signature intensity and perpetual razor-sharp focus makes him a good fit for both phases of this story. The first being his arrival on the island and his subsequent investigation. The second which sends things plummeting into the macabre. Stevens gives an uneasy and off-kilter portrayal of a nervously determined man facing darkness both inside and out. It’s a role with a physical and psychological edge to it.

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The film’s visual composition is rich with indelible imagery ranging from beautiful to bleak. Evans and cinematographer Matt Flannery use the camera to accentuate the wickedly tense tone while carefully capturing a good sense of period and place. And rarely has a camera better captured a sense of terror. It is only enhanced when teamed up with Fajar Yusekemal and Aria Prayogi’s nerve-shredding score (perhaps the most evocative I’ve heard this year).

“Apostle” is an enthralling and imaginative slice of folk horror that exchanges cheap jump scares for an unrelenting dread. It should be said that this is not a film for the squeamish. The deeper we get into Evans’ fascinating mythology the more brutal and gory things become. The blood-soaked and metaphorically charged second half is sure to leave some squirming in their seats. But it’s fitting in this examination of oppression under the guise of religion and the costs of misguided faith. It also reveals that it is man who often shows himself to be the cruelest among all creatures.

VERDICT – 4.5 STARS

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REVIEW: “A Star is Born” (2018)

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There is nothing glaringly new about Bradley Cooper’s “A Star is Born” aside from some fresh new faces and a weird affection for F-bombs. It’s a movie that has been done three previous times – in 1937, 1954, and 1976. Collectively those three earlier versions earned a total of 17 Oscar nominations. So Cooper picked a story with a history of Awards attention and by the sounds of it that trend is continuing. Many have already christened Cooper’s directorial debut the greatest thing since sliced bread.

First things first, Cooper shows himself to be a more than capable director. His pacing is good even at 135 minutes. He shows off an undeniably keen eye when shooting the musical numbers. He wastes no time putting together the central relationship and he smartly keeps his focus in the right places. Although you could question the decision to shift that focus in the final third of the movie.

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It takes less than 15 minutes for the two lead characters to meet. Cooper’s Jackson Maine is a bonafide star selling out venues across the country. Packed in with his years of stardom is his unshakable alcohol and drug abuse. After a big show and fresh out of booze, Jackson stumbles into a bar on drag night looking for a drink. Singing that evening is Ally (Lady Gaga), a waitress and aspiring yet insecure singer/songwriter. After one verse of “La Vie en rose” Jackson is hooked and as the title suggests a star is born.

It doesn’t take long to recognize the sharp chemistry between Cooper and Gaga. The movie’s first half is its strongest as their relationship begins to take form and Ally’s star begins its meteoric rise. Cooper and his co-writers Eric Roth and Will Fetters rightly make Gaga the highlight, giving her plenty of chances to show off some surprisingly good acting chops and of course a brilliant singing voice. There is nothing particularly mind-blowing about her handling of dialogue. Her real strength is in her ability to express whether it be specific looks or a pinpoint gesture. Cooper seems to know this. His camera will often sit on her, many times in closeup. It’s a smart move.

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While Gaga is getting most of the attention Cooper’s performance is equally impressive, a bit mannered but more often instinctive. His disheveled look and gravelly voice speak to a character worn down by his personal excesses and painful past. Most of that past is revealed through scenes with his older brother/manager/chaperone Bobby. He’s played by the wonderfully rugged and always good Sam Elliott. And in the final act when Jack takes centerstage (for better or worse), Cooper’s performance maintains a steady authenticity. He’s also no slouch when it comes to singing.

And of course that leads to the musical numbers, a central component sure to sell a ton of soundtracks and dominate its category come awards season. Many are shot with such energy and emotion, none better than the signature song “Shallow”. Not only is it the film’s best sequence, it’s one of the year’s very best scenes. From the exciting buildup to the powerful heart-melting crescendo, it’s impossible to watch without a tear running down your cheek. Even the final song (a bit on the nose but sure to tug at the heartstrings of its target audience) is full of heart and leans on Gaga’s dynamic and soulful voice.

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Ally connects with an agent (Rafi Gavron) who packages her and launches her career. At the same time Jack watches his career crumble under the weight of his personal demons. But their relationship remains front and center. Unfortunately there are a few too many gaps in Jack and Ally’s romance. There is also some unresolved and pretty significant business the end of the movie fails to address. I wouldn’t call it an essential plot piece but it deserved a resolution. Still, it’s hard to deny what Cooper and Gaga bring to the screen. And stellar supporting work from Elliott, Andrew Dice Clay, and Dave Chappelle doesn’t hurt.

While the story of “A Star is Born” may be familiar, there are enough good choices from Bradley Cooper to make his version of this ‘oft told tale’ feel fresh. Perhaps the smartest decision is not making this telling about bitter jealousy. One star still launches while the other plummets, but here we see deeper and more personal poisons working against them. It’s the more personal angle which makes this imperfect but rousing crowd-pleaser stand out from its three predecessors.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

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