Avengers: Infinity War

Posted on April 25, 2018 at 1:10 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi violence and action throughout, language and some crude references
Profanity: About a dozen bad words
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Extended and intense action-style peril and violence, chases, explosions, supervillains, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: April 27, 2018
Copyright Marvel 2018

A two hour and forty minute movie can still feel too short when there are so many of our favorite characters, and that is the good news and the bad news about the much-anticipated “Avengers: Infinity War.”

The good news is that we get the ultimate mash-up of the Avengers and the Guardians of the Galaxy. That means a whole lot of quippy action scenes. My greatest fear was that with so many characters most of them would not have enough time to do much on screen either by way of action or by way of drama, and the pretty good news is that screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely and directors Joe and Anthony Russo do a good job of giving everyone his or her own space — literally, by sending them off in different directions to keep the interactions manageable, and figuratively, by giving most of them individual character arcs, or, perhaps we should say arc-lettes as they are sketched in just enough to add a little substance sauce to the main course of the action.

The less great news is that the storyline is something of a let-down following the exceptional depth and complexity of “The Black Panther.” As I have said many, many times before, superhero movies depend entirely on the quality of the supervillain, and Erik Killmonger was the top of the line as bad guys go, nuanced, sympathetic, human, and utterly magnetic. Any movie, but especially a fantasy movie, has to be completely clear about the stakes, meaning that in a superhero movie we have to know exactly what the relative strengths and weaknesses of the opposing forces are and what they are fighting over. We don’t need a lot of detail; there’s a reason Alfred Hitchcock used to speak so dismissively about the “McGuffin,” whatever it was everyone in the story wants so badly. All we need to know is why it matters, how to get it, and how keep it from the wrong person.

The bad guy here is Thanos (Josh Brolin) a CGI-d Titan of enormous power who is seeing the ultimate power, which he can achieve via the six Infinity Stones. He has a handy glove with spaces for each stone, and once he has them all he can achieve his goal of wiping out half of the life forms in the universe with the snap of his gigantic fingers. Much of the movie consists of him beating up all of the superheroes, a couple of whom are quickly dispatched in the first scene. We hear a lot about how important it is that he be stopped but we do not get many specifics about how his powers work or what, if any, vulnerabilities can be used against him. And that makes the battles more set-pieces, exceptionally well-staged set-pieces than drama. And then, in the middle, almost quiet next to the supernova intensity of the star power, the dazzle to the saturation point of the action scenes, and the Hulk-level heavy lifting of the realignment of the movie MCU to accommodate some thoughtful and even subtle variations on whether it is right to sacrifice one life to save many others.

But mostly, there’s a lot of action. Remember that refugee spaceship at the end of “Thor: Ragnarok?” And the feud between Iron Man/Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) and Captain America/Steve Rogers (Chris Evans, no longer the clean-cut WWII poster boy)? We pick up both as Thanos, the most powerful creature on the planet and the adoptive father of Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Nebula (Karen Gillan) arrives in search of the five remaining Infinity Stones he needs to complete the set and wipe out half the universe. It’s time to get the band back together, with some of the team who have been missing in action, like Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), having a bit of trouble getting his Hulk on. And the team now includes a high school intern, Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tom Holland), who is so new and so in awe that he still calls Iron Man “Mr. Stark.”

Thanos has some nasty henchmen and henchwomen and hench-creatures who show up to help him find the stones. And the Guardians of the Galaxy, including Gamora, join on, with a sulky, now-adolescent Groot who can’t be pried away from his hand-held game device.

There are some very funny moments as the group gets to know each other, a few cheeky pop culture references, and an extended section in Wakanda gives us a chance to spend some more time with some characters who are already fan favorites (How about giving Shuri her own movie, Kevin Feige? And the Dora Milaje?) A few non-Avengers make a strong impression in their brief screen time, especially Peter Dinklage as a giant weapons-maker. But after nearly three hours (and only one after-credits scene?), with some savagely painful losses, it is unsatisfying to leave on the biggest cliffhanger since they freeze-dried Han Solo. There’s a point past which you stop topping yourself and just run out of breath — and that point is when you inform us several times that Thanos has ultimate power and then take us to a planet where there is a weapon that can stop him. There’s an infinite regression/irresistible force-immovable object paradox issue.

This movie is so big it has three superheroes played by superstars named Chris, and I haven’t even gotten to Benedict Cumberbatch as Dr. Strange, Winston Duke as M’Baku, Paul Bettany as Vision, Don Cheadle as War Machine, Sebastian Stan as Bucky, and Anthony Mackie as Falcon, all of whom get a chance to make an impression that leaves us wanting more. At times it feels like the Fellowship of the Infinity Stones, even approaching the grandeur of the Tolkien trilogy in its scope and the depth of its world-building. Or, I should say, worlds-building. There’s even time for some very sweet romance, and we see how those romantic complications present complicated challenges in the midst of battle. Also, dog monsters.

I trust the Russos to bring it all together with the next chapter. I hope it’s soon.

Parents should know that this film features extended comic-book action-style violence with many characters injured and killed, brief crude humor, and about a dozen strong words.

Family discussion: How many times did someone in the film have to decide whether it was worth sacrificing one life to save many others? Which superheroes were better at cooperating and why? Why does Thanos think he is right?

If you like this, try: the other Marvel movies, especially “Iron Man,” “The Avengers,” “Thor: Ragnarok,” and “The Black Panther”

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Modern Life is Rubbish

Posted on April 25, 2018 at 12:46 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Not rated
Profanity: Strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: None
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: April 27, 2018

Copyright 2018 Serotonin Films
“Modern Life is Rubbish,” named for the song by Blur, is a slight but sweet update to the classic boy meets girl story. What it lacks in originality it almost makes up for with its exceptionally appealing actors and a soundtrack featuring Radiohead, Stereophonics, the 1975, The Vaccines, Warpaint, The Libertines, and Mt Wolf, all very suitable for a story about a couple brought together by music. It’s like a lower grade “High Fidelity” with a touch of “When Harry Met Sally.”

Liam (Josh Whitehouse, who does play music in real life) meets Natalie (Freya Mavor) in a record store, where he tries to talk her out of buying Blur’s “Best of” album: “It’s cheating. It’s like a shortcut to enlightenment.” “Do you work here?” she asks, before telling him that she already has all the other albums he is urging on her and is buying this one because it is the only way to get the special live acoustic version of “On Your Own.” In other words, she is his dream girl. But she leaves the store without his getting her number.

But we know there is a romantic falling-in-love montage ahead with an impeccably curated musical score as they fall in indie music love and are just plain heart-meltingly adorable. Until life intervenes, Liam’s promises that he will be a big rock star seem increasingly implausible, and someone, probably the member of the couple who is not in the band, has to get a regular old job to pay the rent. In other words, it is time to grow up.

But Liam is, as we saw in the record store, a purist, and cannot sully himself by working for The Man or buying any of The Man’s enlightenment-preventing products, like, for example, an iPod. Music should be on albums you can hold in your hand, with artistic statements in their cover designs and meaningful liner notes. Natalie, who once dreamed of creating album covers (Michael Beck’s job in “Xanadu,” as I recall), goes to work for The Man-iest of The Man jobs — advertising. Each begins to resent the other. They break up and have to go through all the stuff they have accumulated together, each one bringing back memories of better times.

Director Daniel Jerome Gill relies too much on the music to do the work, and the secondary characters are not as colorful as he hopes they are. But Whitehouse and Mavor have great chemistry and give their thinly written characters charm and energy, which keeps us on their side through very predictable ups and downs.

Parents should know that this film includes some strong language and explicit sexual situations (no nudity).

Family discussion: Why was Liam so opposed to new technology? What does it mean to sell out?

If you like this, try: “High Fidelity” and “Bandslam”

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They

Posted on April 23, 2018 at 6:57 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Not rated
Profanity: Mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Issues of non-gender-conforming adolescence
Diversity Issues: A theme of the movie (gender and ethnicity)
Date Released to Theaters: April 23, 2018
Copyright 2018 Mass Ornament Films

Trans kids generally know who they are, even when they are very young. They don’t tell their families they want to be a gender different from their body parts. They say they are that gender, and it is usually their families who have to reframe their understanding of the boy or girl they thought they had. Even the most certain of children and the most understanding and supportive of families face a wrenching challenge as the child approaches adolescence. Do you block puberty with medication to preserve the child’s choices about gender until age 18? Secondary sex characteristics for the wrong gender can be intensely traumatic. But the medication can have side effects.

“They” and “their” are the preferred pronouns for the lead character, known just as J, and played by a trans actor named Rhys Fehrenbacher. J is a young teenager who is having an adverse reaction to the puberty blockers and has to decide what to do. J’s parents are away caring for another family member, their return home delayed, and J’s brisk but not uncaring sister Lauren (Nicole Coffineau) and her Iranian boyfriend, Araz (Koohyar Hosseini) have come to stay with J until their parents return.

Writer/director Anahita Ghazvinizadeh gives the film a lyrical, meditative quality. J’s parents, sister, Araz, and doctor are all understanding and supportive, if distracted. They are all so accepting that no one seems to think J might need to talk about the momentous decisions they are confronting.

We see J reciting Elizabeth Bishop’s poem, The Mountain:

I do not mean to complain.
They say it is my fault.
Nobody tells me anything.
Tell me how old I am.

The deepest demarcations
can slowly spread and fade
like any blue tattoo.
I do not know my age.

We see many moments in nature, as though to locate J’s transitions within the context of the natural world. Lauren and Araz are both preoccupied with their own personal and professional liminal challenges as well. There is also a long, seemingly improvised section that takes place in the home of one of Araz’s relatives, with Lauren and J at a large family party. Throughout, it almost seems as though we are eavesdropping on bits and pieces of the J’s world.

That is not always successful, and some of the choices are heavy-handed. But thankfully, it is not didactic or preachy. J may not know what they want, but Ghazvinizadeh has confidence that they will make the right choice, and trusts us to root for them.

Parents should know that this movie deals obliquely but frankly with issues of non-binary gender.

Family discussion: How do the boys with the bicycle feel about J? What should J do?

If you like this, try: the “I am Jazz” series on television

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I Feel Pretty

Posted on April 19, 2018 at 5:17 pm

B +
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
Profanity: Some strong and crude language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Alcohol
Violence/ Scariness: Comic peril and accidents, some graphic images
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: April 20, 2018
copyright 2018 STX Entertainment

Amy Schumer shines in an adorable fantasy that both draws from and slyly subverts the classic Cinderella story.

I’ve written before about the “makeover movie.” From the original Cinderella fairy tale to movies that range from “The Breakfast Club” to “Gigi” to “Clueless,” “Princess Diaries,” and “Now, Voyager.” There is something thrilling and akin to superheroic about the idea that a klutzy doof in glasses can be transformed into a capital B Beauty. And beauty has often been depicted as the primary power that a female character has, with an almost magical ability to control others, particularly men.

“I Feel Pretty” is the story of Renee (Schumer), who wishes she could be “undeniably pretty.” She works for a cosmetic company, where most of the employees look like — or are — supermodels. 1960’s real-life supermodel-turned-actress Lauren Hutton plays the company’s founder, and it is now run by her granddaughter, Avery (Michelle Williams). Renee is convinced that if she could just be conventionally beautiful she would have all of the love, attention, and fun she dreams of. When she meets a model (Emily Ratajkowski) she asks whether just walking off a plane in another country leads to an invitation to a fabulous trip on a yacht with beautiful and wealthy people, and the answer is, well, pretty much yes.

And then one day, Renee has a SoulCycle accident and hits her head badly. When she regains consciousness, somehow she sees herself as the beauty she always dreamed of being. She is immediately and irrepressibly confident, which leads her to apply for a more visible job as the company’s receptionist and to flirt with the guy in line behind her at the dry cleaner shop. Both are very successful. But she is less successful with those who knew and loved her as the “old” Renee, her best friends (Busy Phillips, married to the film’s co-writer/director, and Aidy Bryant).

I’m a bit mystified that this film has had some blowback from viewers who see it as exactly what it is opposing — a body-shaming underscoring of rigid standards of beauty.  On the contrary, this is the opposite of the makeover movie (including those listed above and many many others like “The Mirror Has Two Sides,” “Ash Wednesday,” “She’s All That,” and “Strictly Ballroom”), those films where a female character has to pretty up to be worthy of male attention.  Makeovers are to girl movies what origin stories are to boy movies — they reveal a transformational source of power.

This movie makes it clear that everyone — from the beauty industry itself to the standards of guys who use online dating sites to screen romantic prospects on the basis of looks to the snooty attendants at the gym who seem to think you have to have a perfect body to work out — is trying to meet standards that are (1) superficial and (2) impossible.  Some online commenters criticized the trailer for making fun of Schumer’s character for participating in the bikini contest.  But like her date and the guy who runs the bar, the movie expects us to be charmed by Renee’s pure pleasure in participating and feeling good about herself, and we are.

Characters in the film include a cosmetics executive who could be a supermodel who is insecure about her ability and her childlike voice and an actual model played by an actual supermodel (Emily Ratajkowski) who has her own reasons for low self-esteem.  It also makes it clear that confidence is itself an extremely attractive quality, as is consideration for and interest in others and competence on the job.  And when Renee herself briefly is almost swept away over a man’s good looks (and his confidence), she realizes that it is character that matters.  She learns that confidence in her looks can get her noticed, but being good at her job gets her respect.  She also has to learn that too much confidence can be a problem when her joy in her new persona makes her inconsiderate to her friends. 

There are elements in this story of Tom Hanks’ “Big” (which Renee watches) and “Never Been Kissed” (by the same screenwriter), and of the traditional cautionary fairy tale that wishes never turn out the way you hope.

It is fresh, funny, and heartwarming, with a genuinely beautiful performance by Schumer, ably supported by Williams, Bryant, Phillips, and Scovel, with some real insights about confidence, class, and empathy and a sparkle of romantic comedy magic.

Parents should know that this film includes some comic peril and violence including accidents with some graphic images, some strong language, and sexual references and a non-explicit situation.

Family discussion: Where is the line between being confident and being obnoxious? Why did strangers appreciate Renee’s new attitude while her friends did not? What did Renee see when she looked in the mirror?

If you like this, try: “Shallow Hal” and “Pitch Perfect”

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Aardvark

Posted on April 12, 2018 at 5:27 pm

B
Lowest Recommended Age: Mature High Schooler
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for mature thematic issues, language, some sexuality and violence
Profanity: Some strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Some drinking, references to psychotropic medication
Violence/ Scariness: Some violence, character injured, references to sad deaths
Diversity Issues: None
Date Released to Theaters: April 13, 2018

Copyright 2018 Great Point Media
“Aardvark” has three thoughtful performances and a couple of intriguing interactions, but is ultimately undermined by an underwritten script. The parts are greater than the whole.

Zachary Quinto, who also produced, plays Josh, and we meet him on his first visit to a new therapist, which conveniently gives us a chance to learn very quickly that (1) he is underemployed in a coffee shop but sees it as progress so he must have been pretty badly off, (2) he has plenty of money, but keeps it crumpled up in his pocket so does not seem too on top of things, and (3) he has a brother who — he says — is a successful and very talented actor named Craig, and who is back in their home town for the first time in many years.

Josh is clearly fragile, but is he an unreliable narrator? Should we believe him? The new therapist, Emily (Jenny Slate) is not sure, and neither are well. Josh emphasizes that his brother is such a gifted actor that he can appear as anyone. In a couple of exceptional scenes, Josh speaks to an older homeless white woman and a black cop, who — are we seeing into his mind? — turn out to be Craig.

Is there a Craig? Is he anything like Josh’s description? We probably have concluded it is unlikely as perhaps Emily has, too, until he does, in fact, show up at Emily’s door, played by Jon Hamm. And this is where the movie starts to run out of ideas.

Slate gives an underwritten character as much depth as possible, and two intriguing encounters suggest that perhaps there were other versions of the story that provided more background (or should have). It is disappointing that writer/director Brian Shoaf could not come up with a less well-worn set of conflicts for her. Hamm continues to be one of today’s most thoughtful and adept performers. Especially in his early scenes, Hamm is able to show us the personality distortion of Craig’s years of semi-stardom (as the lead in a popular television series) and distance from his home and his brother. And Quinto is perceptive as he portrays Josh in different stages of his illness, with and without medication.

It is very good to see a movie about someone with mental illness who is not portrayed as cute or a savant, and especially good to see one that grapples with the survivor guilt and exhaustion of family members. Shoaf shows some promise as a writer and director and we look forward to what he comes next.

Parents should know that this movie’s themes include severe mental illness and psychotropic medications, references to sad loss of family members, some violence, strong language, sexual references and situation

Family discussion: Why didn’t Craig want to see Josh? What did Josh miss when he was taking his medication?

If you like this, try; “Entanglement,” “It’s Kind of a Funny Story” and “The Perks of Being a Wallflower”

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