(On Cable TV, January 2018) Frankly, I expected the worst schmaltz from this family melodrama featuring a genius-level kid. Hollywood seldom deals well with genius, and the temptation to turn this into a syrupy rote “brain doesn’t matter at much as heart” Hollywood pap seemed irresistible from the plot synopsis. But Gifted actually works better than expected thanks to a few winning performances and generally well-executed conventions. Chris Evans is rather good as a smart-but-troubled ordinary guy trying to raise his genius niece despite significant challenges. McKenna Grace is fine as the genius kid, while Jenny Slate is immensely likable as a teacher trying to help. Octavia Spencer does her best with a limited role, while Lindsay Duncan is suitably hissable as the antagonist. Director Marc Webb returns to simpler drama after disappointingly overblown superhero films, and the genre suits him much better. Otherwise, Gifted is a straightforward family drama, not too syrupy and decently heart-warming when it needs to be. Some of the plot turns aren’t necessarily happy (and the conclusion is bittersweet enough). The details are interesting: there’s a cute Lego reference, and the look at mathematical academia is intriguing despite a bit of showboating with a celebrated “unsolvable” problem. Gifted doesn’t avoid the usual “heart> brain” stuff, but it does seem to come to its conclusion honestly. It could have been much worse, and the result is palatable enough.
(Video on Demand, October 2016) By this point in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, we should be used both to mere competency and the dangers of expecting too much. So it is that Captain America: Civil War is both a pretty good piece of pop entertainment, and one that probably won’t change all that much in the series despite its grandiose title. It does have the good sense of taking its dramatic motives in the past movies of the MCU, showcasing the death and destruction of previous instalments as excuse to contain the superheroes of the series. Conflict soon erupts when some of the superheroes rather arbitrarily divined themselves based on who thinks it’s a good idea and who doesn’t. It all leads to a fantastic airport fight, and then a not-so-fantastic fist-fight between Iron Man and Captain America. At least the action sequences are handled crisply by the Russo brothers, while the script is up to the usual Marvel standards—which is to say, competent but a good step short of impressive. Then again, Marvel hasn’t become a powerhouse studio without learning what makes for a decent blockbuster, and Civil War is another example of how the studio can give the illusion of change without necessarily threatening its cash cows. Performances are fine: Chris Evans continues to impress as Steve Rogers, while Robert Downey Jr. is his usual self as Tony Stark. A surprising number of characters, both old and new, turn up in this non-Avengers film, redefining expectations of scale when it comes to MCU mid-phase movies. The blend of comedy, character moments, thrills and visuals is up to the Marvel standard. Even Daniel Bruhl’s villain is a bit better than usual; well motivated, devious and arguably even successful in the end. It all leads to a conclusion that slightly changes the status quo, but leaves enough hints that it can be resolved rather quickly in time for the next instalment. After seeing the nonchalant way Hydra was built up and then destroyed in-between chapters, it’s best to keep expectations low and simply go along for the ride. Parallels with the contemporary Batman vs Superman (which shares quite a few plot points) are strongly in Marvel’s favour. Now let’s hope than it can keep this streak of competence going well into the future.
(On DVD, October 2016) Slightly raunchier than the usual romantic comedy, What’s Your Number? works best as a showcase for the comic charm of Anna Faris and Chris Evans rather than anything worth pondering too deeply. Once again straddling the conflicted attitudes toward sex in mainstream American comedy, the titular number refers to the total number of sexual partners for any given person. Our protagonist tortures herself in implausible plot twists in an effort not to shamefully exceed a total of twenty—meanwhile, the male romantic lead is never questioned for whatever exponentially higher number he has. But delving under the hood of romantic comedies never works in their favour, so the point here is rather to see Faris and Evans develop an easy chemistry, waiting for the lies to catch up to the protagonists and seeing the amusing episodes in which the lead character reconnects (or doesn’t) with her ex-boyfriends. It ends pretty much as expected fifteen minutes in, which isn’t necessarily a compliment (even for someone with a high tolerance for romantic-comedy conventions) given the unbelievable contortions the third act has to undergo in order to prevent it from happening too quickly. The rest of What’s Your Number? is mildly amusing if you’re in the mood for such things. And if that sounds like faint praise, well…
(On Cable TV, March 2016) The small independent Los Angeles-based romantic comedy subgenre is interesting: By virtue of sticking close to Hollywood and going over intensely familiar ground, it can often become a showcase for new directors, established actors trying something different, stylistic experimentation and small-scale enjoyment. So it is with Playing It Cool, a somewhat average romantic comedy set in Los Angeles, starring no less than Chris Evans as his usually likable self, albeit in a far more comic and down-to-earth capacity than many of his starring roles so far. (Other smaller roles are filled by other people you’d recognize.) The film goes for a fair amount of insider meta-jokes by making its protagonist a screenwriter in search of inspiration as he’s trying to write a comedy. But the tone remains light throughout, and director Justin Reardon occasionally indulges in a number of small stylistically interesting touches (such as a “doorway” sequence zipping from one scene to another). Michelle Monaghan is just as likable as the romantic interest, and even though Playing It Cool tries to pretend that’s cooler than its own genre, it’s actually quite mannered in how it reverts to form and delivers exactly what’s expected. While the film does stink a bit too much of the male gaze in the way it approaches its female characters, Playing It Cool does the job as a gently amusing romantic comedy. It’s not meant to be more than a likable goof, and it succeeds modestly at that goal.
(In theaters, May 2015) Few movies exemplify the mid-2010s blockbuster movie trend as thoroughly as Avengers: Age of Ultron: It’s the apogee-so-far of the superhero movie, it’s practically designed to be the kind of film to save movie theaters from bankruptcy and/or irrelevance and it’s crammed with characters, action sequences and special effects. You don’t get any more “tent-pole film” than this sequel to 2012’s massively successful The Avengers, and the onslaught of commercial tie-ins on TV makes it look as if the film trailer is playing three times per hour. Interestingly enough, Avengers: Age of Ultron is even a competent movie: It juggles a dozen characters with some ease, meddles with current-zeitgeist issues of technology run amok, revolves around exceptionally dynamic action sequences, benefits from good banter and leaves viewers with a sense of upbeat progress. Robert Downey Jr is still a delight as Tony Stark, Chris Evans is still as good as Captain America, and Jeremy Renner gets a lot more to do here. Avengers: Age of Ultron is, in many ways, a better film than its predecessor. But there’s one thing it doesn’t have, and that’s the element of pleasantly exceeded expectations. Marvel Studios has defied tremendous odds in bringing its comic-book universe to the big screen, but as far as the whole “team of superheroes vanquish impossible threat” thing is concerned, it’s been done. So it is that while Avengers: Age of Ultron may be fun and fizzy, it does feel like a repeat, and a harbinger of things to come as something like thirty comic-book movies are scheduled to appear on-screen in the next five years: the melodramatic conventions that sustain comic-books only have a limited shelf life on-screen, and the lack of character development in those films can’t forever be papered over with reboots or fake promises of change (like the Hydra/SHIELD plotline, so promising at the end of Captain America: The Winter Soldier and yet so casually dismissed here). I did enjoy Avengers: Age of Ultron, but I’m wondering how long such movies can remain the flavor of the moment.
(Video on Demand, October 2013) Marvel Studios sure has been on a roll lately; exception made of the dull Thor movies, their last few films haven’t merely played the superhero-blockbuster movie theme as well as it could, but they’ve started playing around with the formula in ways that could be considered risky. So it is that Captain America 2 goes well beyond its predecessor, taking on the style of a contemporary techno-thriller, destroying some of the foundations of the Marvel Cinematic Universe so far and piling up revelations about the entire Marvel series. It’s standard superhero stuff, but it’s so exceptionally well-made, and takes such unnecessary chances that a less confident studio would have avoided, that it can’t help but earn a lot of sympathy. Making fullest use of Chris Evans’ enduring charm, Captain America 2 also gives bigger roles to Scarlett Johansson’s Natasha Romanov and Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury: both prove equal to the greater scrutiny. (And that’s without mentioning the plum role given to Robert Redford, in a nod to his place in 1970s political thrillers, or Anthony Mackie once again making full use of his limited time in a supporting role.) (Oh, and George St-Pierre bring a welcome –if incongruous- French-Canadian accent to the film.) The title character adapts well to the current era, but the dilemmas of the contemporary surveillance/intelligence state aren’t a good match for someone forged in 1940s idealism, and it’s those themes, even cursorily tackled, that give interesting depths to Captain America 2 as more than just an action film. Still, even on a moment-to-moment basis, directors Anthony and Joe Russo show a really good eye for what makes great action sequences: fluid camera work, movement with weight, solid sound design and clever moments all contribute to making Captain America 2 one of the best-directed action movie in recent memory: the extended car chase is particularly good, as is the elevator fight sequence. (In-between the other Phase 2 films, let’s give credit to Marvel Studio for its choices as it picks lesser-known directors for major movies.) Other fascinating bits and pieces pepper the film, from a deliciously mainframe-punk Artificial Intelligence reprising a character from the first film, to the big and small details tying this film to the wider Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s an impressive piece of work, whether it’s considered on a moment-by-moment basis or as part of a series that now sports seven other entries. At a time where DC can’t manage to complete even one fully satisfying superhero movie, it’s a bit amazing to see Marvel so successfully achieve the insanely ambitious plan they forged years ago, at a time when even planning a trilogy was a bit crazy.
(Video on Demand, July 2013) Madness awaits those who try to interpret Snowpiercer as a completely realistic “vision of the future”: Its central premise (a train running into an infinite loop after a world-wide disaster, carrying what remains of humanity) is so deliriously impossible that a heap full of disbelief suspension salt is required before the film even begins. But moving on, since one big deviation from reality is what is required for nearly all SF movies… Snowpiercer‘s saving grace is that it’s well-directed and imaginatively justified: Director Joon-ho Bong brings visual inventiveness and slick action directing to the mix. It sort of helps, in this fable-like story, that the narrative structure looks so simple: An uprising of oppressed passengers starts at the back of the train, and makes its way forward –we know the story will reveal its final mysteries and conclude once the front has been reached. Chris Evans is solid as the protagonist, but an unrecognizable Tilda Swinton steals the show as an unhinged matron bureaucrat trying to perpetuate the train’s social order, with good supporting performances by Ed Harris, John Hurt, Ah-sung Ko and Kang-ho Song. Occasionally as visually warped as Terry Gilliam’s best films, Snowpiercer has a number of set-pieces that linger in mind: The darkened-tunnel action scene, the wildly impossible loop shoot-out, the demented classroom sequence… It almost doesn’t matter that the premise makes no sense (and that the ending, far from being triumphant, boils down to “and now their troubles really begin.”) when the rest of the film is so richly imagined and well-handled. Unlike a film like Elysium, which so clearly attempts to be realistic that it disappoints when it’s not entirely consistent, Snowpiercer carries with it an ember of madness (Swinton’s first big speech, for instance) that makes it easier to consider without perfect coherency. I’m not entirely convinced that it’s a great SF movie, but it’s enjoyable and original enough. (And if nothing else, it’s quite a bit more satisfying than the original French graphic novel, which purposefully seeks to end without satisfaction.)
(In theaters, July 2011) The inherent nationalism of the Captain America character makes it a tricky sell outside the United States. How best to translate a superhero originally developed to tap into pro-American anti-Nazi fever to an international audience that, to put it politely, may not believe as much in American exceptionalism? Nazis, unsurprisingly, are part of the answer: This Captain America not only takes places during World War 2 (albeit a dieselpunk-verging-on-atompunk fantasy version of WW2) and squares off against a supernatural Nazi opponent, but director Joe Johnston also adopts an un-ironic filming style reminiscent of classic adventure films. Fortunately, it all fits together, with a little surprise at the end: Trying something a bit different from other films superhero films proves to be a good idea, and Captain America turns into a refreshingly old-fashioned entertainment. A good chunk of the fun belongs to Chris Evans, who takes on the square-jawed heroics with unselfconscious honesty; good supporting roles also go to Hugo Weaving as the villainous Red Skull, Stanley Tucci as an eccentric mentor and Tommy Lee Jones, chewing on the kind of gruff military man role he’s so naturally suited for. The story plays itself out over a few years, with a few unexpected hooks and references to the real-world history of Captain America: keep your eyes out for a reproduction of the real Captain America #1 cover during the film’s amusing showbiz digression. Fans of the Marvelverse put on film will love the references to Thor and the Iron Man hooks with the importance given to Tony Stark’s father. Add to that a few good supporting characters, a decent romance with chronological room to grow, a nifty coda and some fascinating special effects and Captain America isn’t just good enough to become a high point of Summer 2011 in Hollywood, but a superb lead-in to 2012’s The Avengers.
(In theatres, April 2010) Ensemble action movies are making a minor comeback in 2010, but sneaking in before The A-Team and The Expendables is this cheap, fast and grandly entertaining comic book adaptation. The Losers isn’t that good a movie: The limited budget sometimes shows (especially for those who remember the source material’s hyperactive globe-trotting), coincidences abound and the action set pieces seldom make sense. But those flaws are arguably what enables this film to be a fun throwback to the unapologetic Bruckheimeresque action movies of the late nineties. The set-pieces make up in eye-popping originality what they lack in coherence, while the quips fly fast and sarcastic. Thankfully for an ensemble picture, it’s the characters that bring The Losers above its B-grade material: Each one has a few things to do, and while Chris Evans and Zoe Saldana generally steal the focus away from Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s role as the leader of the bunch, Jason Patric has a surprisingly odd turn as the overwritten villain of the picture. Sylvain White’s direction is hit-and-miss, but there are a few new tricks here and while the picture moves quickly, it doesn’t lose viewers in a flurry of incoherent cuts –which is another thing that The Losers does better than the rest of its recent action movie brethren. Fans of the original comic book series will be disappointed to see that Andy Diggle’s geopolitical set-pieces have been toned down, pleased to note that the evil plot is completely different and generally amused to see dialogue bits, action moments and characterization details moved around: Most of what’s in this film follows the first two of the series’ five volumes, while the ending sets up at least another film in the series. Box-office results may not guarantee that (it’s the kind of picture that generally appeals to a very specific audience), but I would certainly welcome a bit more time with the characters and their globe-trotting vengeance.
(In theaters, February 2009) I wasn’t expecting much from this teen action thriller: Psychic powers are a bit lame in the SF field, and the first few minutes are so clumsy that it’s a wonder when the film does improve later on. But thanks to a few good characters, plot twists and clever sequences, Push manages to end up on an up note. No, the plot doesn’t make sense when you consider the knowledge that a non-precog character should or should not have had when writing a certain set of letters. But it hardly matters when the film rushes straight-ahead into the suspense and action sequences. It could have been considerably better, mind you: The direction is harsh and chaotic, the script is a bit too bloodthirsty and the art direction sees the Hong Kong location as an excuse to be as garish as it can be. But the same Hong Kong location makes up for spectacular backdrops, exotic location and an interesting Asian cast. In some ways, this is this year’s Jumper, what with young psychic people fighting against shadowy organizations in exotic locales. But in other ways it’s quite a bit better as long as you get past the film’s various annoyances and flawed direction. The ending blatantly leads to a follow-up: maybe, if there’s a sequel, it will be a bit better.
(Second Viewing, on DVD, May 2011) I think I like the movie a bit more upon a re-view: The script has moments of invention, Paul McGuigan’s direction is energetic, the actors bring something extra to the film (with special mentions of Dakota Fanning, Chris Evans and Djimon Hounsou’s work) and Hong Kong makes for a great location. Too bad the DVD isn’t anything special: The commentary (featuring McGuigan, Fanning and Evans) is about shooting experiences and them trying to understand the script. Of the handful of deleted scenes, one one actually brings something new. Finally, the only special feature is an obnoxious “Science behind the fiction” piece that relies on a single biased talking head to try to make viewers believe in psi powers. It’s disappointing when perfectly good unpretentious SF is ruined by those who take it too seriously.