Review: Avengers: Infinity War

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)
Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Don Cheadle, Tom Holland, Chadwick Boseman, Paul Bettany, Elizabeth Olsen, Anthony Mackie, Sebastian Stan, Danai Gurira, Letitia Wright, Dave Bautista, Zoe Saldana, Josh Brolin, Chris Pratt, Tom Hiddleston, Idris Elba, Peter Dinklage, Benedict Wong, Pom Lementieff, Karen Gillan, Vin Diesel, Bradley Cooper, Gwyneth Paltrow, Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin.  Written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely.  Directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo.

However you may feel about comic book adaptations, there is something admirable about the concept and execution of films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe leading to Avengers: Inifinity War, and ostensibly concluding with its sequel in 2019. This is the nineteenth film in the series, with at least three to go in this cycle. Unlike other interminable series, which (with rare exception) at most plan ahead for two sequels, simply adding to the body with movie after movie according to the market’s demand, the MCU films have been driving toward this film seemingly since the beginning.

Whether the next Avengers movie is meant to be a conclusion or not, this one certainly feels like a pulling together of all the threads toward a final something. Although of course I assume that’s just part of the pattern for most long-running comic books.

Followers of the series are already aware of the Infinity Stones, MacGuffin devices containing unearthly power. Individually, they give their bearers amazing power. Combined, their power is insurmountable.

Thanos is determined to bring them together so that he might alleviate the universe of its greatest ills. Overpopulation has led to all troubles everywhere, so Thanos hopes arbitrarily to wipe out half the living beings, a terrible solution, but a last resort where one is needed. And since it is the only cure for what ails the universe, Thanos of course must let nothing or nobody get in his way.

The Avengers, the Guardians of the Galaxy, the citizens of Wakanda, Doctor Strange, and Spiderman try to get in his way.

It’s a huge, far-flung plot involving a ridiculous number of important, charismatic characters with really only one villain, and it mostly works. It’s difficult to point to any one character and say, “That one didn’t get his or her fair share of screen time,” although at least three heroes are noticeably absent. I’m partial to Scarlet Witch and would have liked more of her, but everyone pretty much gets a nice, important part to play.

I really like the score, too.

I’ve heard criticism of the film’s pacing, but jumps in action from one set of heroes working on one part of the Infinity War to other sets of heroes working on their parts provide interesting scenery changes that pace the seemingly nonstop action rather well.  It’s a fun, engaging, cool (wait ‘til you see Thor’s weapon) movie, and much better than the first two Avengers films.

78/100
7/10

Review: Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo

Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo (1984)
Lucinda Dickey, Adolfo “Shabba Doo” Quiñones, Michael “Boogaloo Shrimp” Chambers, Ice-T. Directed by Sam Firstenberg.

“The evil developers are going to tear down our community youth center. We need a whole lot of money to buy the property, or this is going to become a mall!” “I know! Let’s put on a show to raise the funds!”

I try not to judge a movie for recycling this plot, not because it’s not tired and cliche, but because I have to admit I’ve enjoyed it from time to time. Of course, I was fourteen, and the movies starred young Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney, but whatever. Maybe Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo is someone else’s Babes on Broadway.

At first this film is exactly what I expected, a lot of bad dialogue constructed to tie the dance numbers together. Only it’s worse, because the dance numbers are boring. But then, beginning about midway through, they get creative and interesting, including a fun number with dancing on the walls and ceiling, and a hospital number with brooms or mops (my memory’s hazy and it was very late at night when I watched this).

shout-out to this actress who was in two films and is completely untraceable on the internet today. not that i’ve tried.

I found myself kind of liking most of the central characters, too, which I cannot explain, because they pretty much come right out of the stock characters assembly kit. Shout-out to Sabrina Garcia, who plays a Spanish-speaking love interest and is maybe the prettiest actress I’ve seen in any hip hop film, and I’ve seen Rae Dawn Chong in Beat Street. The music is unmemorable but after the first couple of numbers, it’s not bad.

This is supposed to be the good movie in the Breakin’ trilogy. Now I have to see how much worse the others could be.

Seriously, not a bad watch.

51/100
5/10

Review: Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean

Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (1982)
Sandy Dennis, Cher, Karen Black, Sudie Bond, Kathy Bates, Mark Patton. Written by Ed Graczyk. Directed by Robert Altman.

It’s September 30, 1975 in a small Texas town not far from where James Dean once filmed Giant, and it’s the twenty-year anniversary of Dean’s death in a car accident. The all-female James Dean fan club in this town reunites in the old Woolworth’s store where they used to meet. Some have been in regular contact, while others haven’t been seen in a very long time.

It’s a great setup, and the title all by itself demands at least one viewing, no matter what the film is about.

At first, it’s pretty impressive. The acting and actors are interesting, with Cher reminding you first that she’s far too talented for her smallish filmography, then Sandy Dennis and Kathy Bates sending you to IMDb to see what else they were in. Seriously, Altman does a really good job of framing the characters and actors in a way that really gets you involved.

The narrative switches between 1975 and 1955, with Altman using a mirror and some camera tricks to indicate the time segues. At first it’s a neat effect, but it becomes tiresome about midway through. The entire film does the same thing. What starts as a bunch of interesting characters and impressive acting becomes a your-turn-my-turn exchange of revelations and overwrought delivery that might have played well on stage but is exhausting on screen. After the first ninety minutes, I just wanted it to end already.

I’ll say one thing that surprised me was Mark Patton as Joe, a homosexual friend of the James Dean Disciples in 1955. Patton is the star of A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge, and the reason I was spurred to finally seeing this film. Patton is gay, and that second Freddy Krueger film has all kinds of homosexual subtext, and the actor’s career is a really interesting story. Turns out the guy’s a pretty good actor. At least in the first half of this movie.

While I admire Cher enough to see just about anything she’s in, this is not the best example of her work. Or anyone else’s.

48/100
4/10

Review: A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge

A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge (1985)
Mark Patton, Kim Myers, Robert Rusler, Clug Gulager, Hope Lange, Robert Englund. Written by David Caskin. Directed by Jack Sholder.

On a budget of three million dollars, A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge made just shy of thirty million dollars at the box office. While that’s far from blockbuster status, its investors probably didn’t complain about that kind of return, which explains the nine films in this series. They don’t have to be gigantic: they just have to be big enough.

And this sequel to Wes Craven’s A Nightmare on Elm Street is good enough. Good enough to sell an adequate number of tickets, good enough not to feel gypped, good enough to warrant a third film, and good enough for me to add the third film to my queue.

Except for Robert Englund in the title role, none of the actors returns for this one, which is set in the same house in the same town. Five years after Nancy Thompson defeated Freddy Krueger, Jesse Walsh and his family move into the Thompsons’ old house. Jesse has nightmares of being stalked, of course, and he discovers the diary where Nancy recorded her dreams.

Freddy possesses Jesse, so now real-world victims don’t have to dream about him in order for Freddy to do his damage. He takes control of Jesse’s wakeful body to kill Jesse’s gym teacher, schoolmates, and others, but he cannot kill Lisa, the girl Jesse has a crush on. Lisa realizes that Jesse’s fear gives Freddy his power.

About midway through the movie’s eighty-five minutes, I was struck with a weird sense that this movie was more thoughtful than it needed to be. I expected something slightly less than its predecessor, since that was written by Wes Craven, a person whose name I know, while this was written by David Caskin, whom I had never heard of.

Without Wikipedia’s breakdown, I don’t know that I would have identified the film’s homoerotic themes, but I definitely picked up the intimacy between Jesse and the other male characters in the film, especially his friend Ron and Freddy himself. I’m not saying A Nightmare on Elm Street 2 is The Great Gatsby for its deep explorations of the American identity or whatever, but even a little bit of thoughtfulness about subtext is more than I expected. It gives this movie a bit more to recommend it than just its slasher sensibilities.

I said a bit.

50/100
5/10

Review: The Glass Castle

The Glass Castle (2017)
Brie Larson, Woody Harrelson, Naomi Watts. Written by Destin Daniel Cretton, Andrew Lanham, and Marti Noxon (based on the memoir by Jeannete Walls). Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton.

I admired Destin Daniel Cretton’s Short Term 12, largely for its character-driven approach, realistic portrayal of life in a juvenile care home, and excellent acting by Brie Larson. Something about the director’s style appeals to me, and I’ve since become an even greater admirer of Larson, who won a Best Actress Oscar for her excellent performance in Room.

The Glass Castle reunites Larson with Cretton, and it’s a good pairing. Larson is very good as Jeannette Walls, a twenty-something society columnist for a New York magazine. Told in flashback, her story of growing up in extreme poverty with an artist mother and alcoholic father is heartbreaking and somewhat inspiring. Jeannette and her three siblings understand that they don’t have money, but while they’re still very young, they seem to appreciate that they’re blessed in other ways.

More than anything, Rex Walls (Woody Harrelson) cherishes his freedom. While he’s more than capable of earning an honest living, he and his wife Rose Mary (Naomi Watts) love being able to get into a car and go anywhere, whenever they want, and set up temporary homes wherever they can find some space. Sure, these moves are often spurred by mounting debts the family has no hope of repaying, but they do a good job of communicating to their kids that as long as they have the stars at night, each other all the time, and freedom from obligations, they’re pretty wealthy.

It might have worked out, if Rex weren’t an alcoholic and a dreamer of impossible dreams. He’s a good man in the complicated way that most good men are, and he has demons his children only become aware of as they grow old enough to understand them. For many reasons, they’re willing to write him a pass, sort of, but there comes a point at which negligence becomes malice, and malice against children is abuse.

This is really the story of how Jeannette—clearly her father’s favorite, at least as this story is told—grows through stages of relating to and understanding her father. I find it a satisfying arc, although whether you will find it satisfying probably depends on how strongly you condemn Rex. Many critics seem to believe that Rex’s offenses are too great for any kind of redemption, let alone the weakly granted redemption he’s given. Since the film is told through Jeannette’s eyes, I say there’s a place where maybe we don’t feel at all satisfied for Jeannette and her siblings but can accept that they’re satisfied themselves. This is their father, and what good will it do any of them not to forgive?

This is not a great film, but the acting is solid. In addition to the leads, the two actresses who play eight-year-old Jeannette and eleven-year-old Jeannette (Chandler Head and Ella Anderson, respectively) are pretty wonderful. Larson and Harrelson do a very nice job of developing the daughter-father relationship so that the end feels like the right end, whether it’s what we wish for or not.

This may be something of a spoiler, but viewers sensitive to themes of sexual abuse should probably stay away.

73/100
7/10

Review: Nim’s Island

Nim’s Island (2008)
Abigail Breslin, Jodie Foster, Gerard Butler. Written by Mark Levin and Jennifer Flackett, based on the novel by Wendy Orr. Directed by Mark Levin and Jennifer Flackett.

Nim is an eleven-year-old girl living alone with her father on a tiny, remote island in the Pacific. Her father Jack is a marine biologist searching for a new species of protozoa. Jack’s boat is hit by a huge storm while on a short expedition, and Nim is left to wonder what’s happened to him. With help from her pets on the island (a bearded dragon and a sea lion), she fends off an Australian tour company looking to turn her island into a resort, but when things get rough, she reaches out to her favorite author, an adventurer named Alex Rover, for help.

What nobody knows except Rover’s publisher and assistant is that Alex Rover is actually Alexandra Rover (played wonderfully by Jodie Foster), a germophobic agoraphobe who hasn’t ventured outside her house in San Francisco for years. But heck: Nim is a little girl all alone on an island, so Alexandra screws her courage to the sticking place and ventures out to save her.

This kids movie is too cutesy by about half, but this can be forgiven because of the filmmakers’ creativity and conscience in telling an interesting story about a tweener who’s neither a helpless baby nor a grownup in a kid’s body. Yes, she’s smart because she has been raised by a smart father, and yes she’s tough because she’s lived her whole life doing things for herself. But she’s also scared, not because she can’t take care of herself, but because where the heck is her father?

Parents are unlikely to love the story as much as their kids love it, but they may (as I) find the storytelling creative and thoughtful. Gerard Butler as Jack plays two roles in a way that’s far from gimmicky. Rather, this casting decision holds the entire film together for each of its three principal characters. Other technical decisions, such as the way Nim immerses herself in the stories she reads, and a considered but fairly indistinguishable reliance on CGI make this almost a great movie.

Where it falls short for me are where Levin and Flackett go to moviemaking shorthand in places where it’s senseless and unnecessary. I’m no vulcanologist, but I suspect the volcano on Nim’s island behaves in a decidely unrealistic way, which perhaps I wouldn’t mind so much if it weren’t a movie about a girl whose parents are scientists. And there is a scene at what is supposed to be the airport on Rarotonga that is straight out of movies from a less enlightened time, including chickens in bamboo cages and a gate attendant with a heavy Asian accent.

I wouldn’t mind the Asian woman with the Asian accent, because if the gate attendants in Honolulu can be accented Asian women, why not the attendants in Rarotonga? By itself it doesn’t bother me, but combined with the other silly (and frankly uneducational and unhelpful) stereotype-preserving decisions in this section of the film, it feels like nothing more than a device to give the illusion of being somewhere foreign. Writers like Levin and Flackett are smart enough to have thought of a better way, and it’s the kind of thing they generally avoid in their films. In the directors’ commentary on the DVD, they even say right up front at the beginning of the scene, “This is not what the airport in Rarotonga looks like! It’s actually lovely.” A huge disappointment.

One neat trick the directors employ is to let us see what the world looks and feels like to Alexandra, then to show us what it’s like to everyone else. Why not frame the silly exaggerated primitiveness of the Rarotonga airport as Alexandra’s perception, then show us what it really looks like?

If it seems I’m going on at excessive length about one semi-insignificant portion of the film, it’s because it’s the most representative of a few craw-sticking flaws. I expect this from lesser artist. Levin and Flackett have already demonstrated that they are not lesser artists.

Still, this is a film I would gladly watch with my kids, if they weren’t as imaginary as Alex Rover. Butler, Foster, and Breslin are perfectly cast, and there’s a commentary track on the DVD by Foster and Breslin that’s actually aimed at a young audience, with the actors talking about how much fun it was to make a movie, and some of the amazing things they learned about animals and islands during the film’s production. Another great idea.

71/100 but could have been a lot higher.
7/10