WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR (2018): Comfort With Purpose

Mr. Rogers died on my eleventh birthday. Sorry to get a bit personal right off the bat, but it’s something I haven’t really dealt with until Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood came back into the consciousness with Won’t You Be My Neighbor, a documentary that examines the life and career of Fred Rogers. Plus, in reviewing a documentary about a figure so public, it’s hard not to tie it to some kind of personal perspective. After all, Rogers’ children’s show ran from 1968 to 2001, meaning I was part of the last generation to grow up with his soothing calm demeanor. In fact, the last really calm demeanor of any children’s show host out there. Mr. Rogers was a unique figure in terms of children’s television throughout his tenure. Back in the early days of children’s show hosts, clowns would throw pies at each other and introduce cartoons. As time went on, Rogers had to contend with shows about superheroes, transforming robots at war with each other and angry cartoon characters screaming at each other.

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I grew up with those shows as well and still have fond memories of them, but even at a young age I recognized that Mr. Rogers was unique. Director Morgan Neville examines that unique perspective in Won’t You Be My Neighbor from many varying perspectives. People who worked directly with Rogers, personal friends & family who knew of his backstage persona and people who grew up watching him. The recurring factor throughout all three groups in terms of comments about Rogers are that he truly deeply cared about what children consumed and how they were treated by media gatekeepers. While I still don’t necessarily regret any of my non-Rogers childhood media, that care clearly wasn’t present in the more violent or double entendre ladened programs I usually consumed in my youth. The fact that there isn’t such an alternative now – especially in the world we live in now – is a true tragedy. The last time I could even remember something remotely similar was the Disney Channel/Jim Henson Company production Bear in the Big Blue House, which set a calm demeanor and welcoming atmosphere as the titular Bear character brought kids into his home.

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Yet, few other kids shows also broke nearly as much ground as Fred Rogers did and in ways that I honestly was too young to remember. Won’t You Be My Neighbor explores how Rogers explained complex topics of racism, assassination, disability and many others to children without disguising it or hiding behind too convoluted a metaphor for them to parse out. Even a show as celebrated as fellow PBS program Sesame Street did such things on rare occasion. Meanwhile, Mr. Rogers is handling the cycle of pointless carnage that was the Vietnam War during his first week on the air. One can tell that his early years of being on far more traditional and stagnant kids shows like The Children’s Corner had pent up a desire to expand what the format could do and say. Neville displays this through showcasing surprisingly preserved archival footage that portray an intimate frustration coming from Rogers as well as some simple yet gorgeous animation that directly connects the puppet figure of Daniel Tiger to Rogers’ lower moments of his childhood. It says so much about Roger’s inner monologue without having the ability to interview him and with the same amount of simple effectiveness as Roger’s show.

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Won’t You Be My Neighbor is a more traditional documentary with talking heads that you’d expect. Yet, there are peaks that feel more personal and intimate than one would expect. Every person interviewed had some kind of connection to Rogers, whether it’s his wife Joanne, his sons or his co-workers. They all reveal a portrait of Rogers that closely resembled his onscreen persona but with a few glimpses into his troubled past, occasionally bawdy sense of humor and doubts about how things should be handled. Probably the best example is François Scarborough Clemmons who played Officer Clemmons on the show. Clemmons made history as the first black recurring character on a children’s show, but there were conflicts about his homosexuality that Rogers wasn’t keen to initially because he feared that current sponsors at the time wouldn’t be for this. It’s a rare moment where Mr. Rogers wasn’t on the right side of history and the ways in which Clemmons describes how that relationship turned are some of the most heart wrenching moments so far in a film this year.

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Won’t You Be My Neighbor is honestly full of so many tear jerker moments like this, but without being all that tragic a story. Fred Rogers lived the life he wanted and died happy with the work he had done, even if he wondered whether or not it had made a large difference in the world. The documentary itself shows off the countless ways that disprove his doubt, but the important thing that Mr Rogers’ Neighborhood imparted was allowing kids to embrace having feelings of doubt or regret or fear or sadness and being comfortable with the idea that we all feel that way. That we all live to have bad things happen and that confronting that unpleasantness of life and find something to positive to work out of it. Thinking back on my eleventh birthday and hearing that news, I remember not feeling sad. I wondered if it was because of a sense of ambivalence. Then thinking back on Won’t You Be My Neighbor, it dawned on me; I wasn’t sad because I knew Mr. Rogers had taught me about how death was a natural progression of life. Which is why his message will outlive many of the shows that were around him… or at least, it hopefully will.

Rating 4.5 out of 5 Gorgeously Simple Songs

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INCREDIBLES 2 (2018): Incredibly Doesn’t Mess Things Up

The Incredibles came out fourteen years ago. I know. Let it sink it. Accept the passage of time. However, it’s important to remember that time and place. Superhero cinema of the time had reached its first true peak with Spider-Man 2 that summer. Pixar was a still an independent company. Disney had yet to buy both Marvel and Star Wars as properties. Basically, times are different from when we last saw the Parr family come together and embrace their powers in what many – including myself – would argue is the best Pixar film. Where superhero submerging due to government interference breaths an antsy desire to go back in the field challenged by a grounding in domesticity. In a world of Marvel Cinematic Universes, one wonders how Incredibles 2 can live up to that legacy while getting with the times. Especially when it takes place immediately where the first film left off.

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Well, it’s safe to report that Incredibles 2 accomplishes the bare minimum; it earns an argument for its own existence. Other Pixar sequels like Finding Dory or the Cars films rarely give us any kind of reason to get behind them aside from “you recognize the first movie? Well here’s MORE of it!” While Incredibles 2 harkens back to moments in the first film, rarely does it feel we’re treading old ground without exploring new avenues. This is writer/director Brad Bird‘s first sequel and his return to animation after the disastrous live action Disney flop Tomorrowland that showed even the man behind The Iron Giant and Ratatouille could be fallible. Bird’s humbling didn’t hobble his usual talent for character based animation or heartfelt storytelling. If anything, there seems to be an underlining apology from Brad Bird for embracing his traits that some have accused his work of being objectivist with TomorrowlandIncredibles 2 directly takes on the idea of misrepresenting these characters as pillars of greatness to never be questioned. There’s so much subversion and human strength in the entire family, which Bird and the Pixar team display through so many delicate quiet moments and zany bits of character animation.

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Admittedly, there’s more of the latter than the former than the average prior Bird film, which goes to say that this is in the latter half of his filmography. Maybe his time away from animation has given him more of an instinct to go full hog with the creative fast pace zaniness he couldn’t quite achieve in Tomorrowland or Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol. Of course, this isn’t a consistently bad thing for Incredibles 2. Jack Jack Parr is easily the most creatively designed and executed character animation in any recent Pixar film because it takes advantage of the medium by allowing for his revelation of having an endless amount of superpowers pop up. He’ll multiply or turn into a monster or disappear into another dimension at the drop of the hat. Yet, Bird manages to reign this in by giving this infant actual character and motivation in every step. Jack Jack’s face indicates a being with a small yet developing brain being curious and excited about each new power or even having a motivation to use them. The scene involved Jack Jack attacking a raccoon he perceives as a threat is a classic example.

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In fact, much of the actions focuses around Bob “Mr. Incredible” Parr (Craig T. Nelson) getting used to the idea of being the caregiver of the children of the home manages to work surprisingly well. Bob – so used to his brute strength as a way of getting around his problems – now has to contend with being a caregiver. This is making Incredibles 2 sound like an animated remake of Mr. Mom, but it’s more of a perspective change for Bob that develops him as a character. While his wife Helen (Holly Hunter) is off being the superhero he secretly got to be in the first film, Bob has to stay behind and be a hero through the small deeds that have fulfilled Helen’s daily life while he’s been off at a day job. It’s less of “isn’t a man doing a woman’s job hilarious” scenario and more of a parent growing closer to his kids during their most crucial moments in their lives. Violet (Sarah Vowell) and Dash (Huck Milner) bounce off of this pretty well as Bob tries to desperately keep things together and progressively looks more haggard. Their family dynamic faces conflict in ways more traditional than super powered fights, leading to awkward family confrontation that faintly reminds those watching of Brad Bird’s early animation work helping to develop the look and feel of The Simpsons during its initial three seasons. Dysfunction isn’t just based in the none-supered.

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Now, with Helen’s subplot in Incredibles 2, the conflict that’s most authentic isn’t so much with the characters as much as it is an audience’s inner turmoil. On the one hand, it’s wonderful seeing Helen as Elastigirl in the field on her own. As Bob learns how she kept things together, she’s getting back into the swing of things with heroics. She’s tough, confident yet always trying to improve herself as she just misses her target and tries to plot out their next move. All of this showcases a woman giddy at her opportunity, but not wanting to rest on laurels. She’s a positive dimensional role model, which translates perfectly as even more superheroes are introduced into the universe after Elastigirl opens the door for more of them to come out of hiding like the nervous portal creating Voyd (Sophia Bush). It’s one of the more nuanced female roles in Pixar’s history and allows for the always reliable Holly Hunter to balance the fret of her motherhood responsibilities with the thrill of being the spotlight hero for once.

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Yet… so much of the stuff around her introduces the major underdeveloped elements of Incredibles 2. Namely, the plot catalyst of the Deavor siblings Winston (Bob Odenkirk) and Evelyn (Catherine Keener). The two of them are the business and tech brains behind the company that’s trying to resurrect superheroes respectively. It’s an intriguing conduit for Incredibles antics considering the rather quick resolve of the Superhero Relocation Program of Rick Dicker (Jonathan Banks). Yet, their exposition and dialogue comes off the most contrived and quickly put together. Winston’s nostalgic love of superheroes introduces some layer of potential parallel given the subversion of traditional family roles that the Parrs are going through… but that never takes shape. Same with Evelyn’s more independent knack for creating inventions that just sort of seems put upon, without ever taking full advantage of the “sisters doing it for themselves while under the thumb of the man” dynamic she and Helen go through all that well. This is especially eye glaring as our new villain Screenslaver (Bill Wise) comes to play and increasingly shows that his generic look is about all he – and any other possible constituents – could have. All of this jumbles much of the plot during the second half and never quite coalesces nearly as well as the inner personal conflicts of the titular family.

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Without going too much further into potential spoilers, this whole subplot manages to waste all the new superheroes as personalities for our leads to interact with after a certain point. Even Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson) has more screen time than in the original yet rarely has any kind of impact on what’s going on. The same for Voyd and all the other funny eye catching heroes that come into the fray before being hoisted for convenience’s sake. Still, Bird manages to take advantage of all the super beings during any of the elaborate action set pieces of Incredibles 2. Right from the opening fight between the family and The Underminer (John Ratzenberger), the flights of fancy in the fight choreography and gadgetry on hand to fight our superheroes is consistently wonderful, managing to have a rule of thumb that doesn’t break any uncanny valley like many CG assisted superhero fights of recent years. Each of the family has an internal consistency of some sort with how they are portrayed using their powers, even Jack Jack. Which makes any of the big action set pieces feel grounded in a sense of character around them. I only wish some of the other supers got the same treatment.

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Yet, Incredibles 2 doesn’t feel like it wants to build a cohesive Marvel Cinematic Universe as much as it wants to progress our titular characters while sneaking us a peek at the larger purview of this universe. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The first film worked because it was a domestic chemistry story first and an action superhero romp second. Bird knows this but also that the world needs to be opened up to allow our family to permeate and diverge in ways the original film didn’t. Still, if we ever get another entry in this franchise, it’s clear that we’d need to have some kind of time jump. We’ve exhausted most of what we can do with an infant superhero and mid-life crisis parents. Progression from here is the only thing that can effectively widen the scope while keeping the stakes rooted in the family interaction. For now though, Incredibles 2 complements the and expands upon original while keeping a toe in the slightly safer side of familiarity.

Rating: 4 out of 5 Jack Jack Powers

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HEREDITARY (2018): What The Family?!

Family can be pretty tough to deal with. Not just on holidays where the extended uncles and aunts arrive to annoy, but even within the immediate group of people who we live with it can become a rather horrific situation. In the case of Hereditary, things go from the most depressing lows a family can go through to the most horrific heights of unimaginable terror possible. In other words, it’s the feel good family film of the summer! But in all seriousness, Hereditary isn’t a fun horror movie to catch over the weekend. It’s a heavy, meditative look into the darkness that comes from kin baggage. From the small bitter looks from across the living room to the brutal parts we don’t want to discuss at the dinner table but may end up bursting forth to break the silent awkward tension.

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The main person who does this with a variety of set backs and baggage is the matriarch Annie Graham (Toni Collette), who desires control in her life she can never get. Collette is a master at playing the exhausted mother, having done similar portrayals in films like The Sixth Sense and About a Boy. There’s just so much regret and worry on her face that simmers with the passion of a woman who’s had a rough go at existence. In the case of Hereditary, Collette is from a line of women full of secrets and domineering senses of control, which has driven many of the men in her life to madness and tragedy. The inner horror for her is that she wants to be different from them yet still have control that she was missing. She wants her children Charlie (Milly Shapiro) and Peter (Alex Wolff) to have a good life, but under her terms. She even spends her days creating diorama models that mirror her own desire to take moments from her life and frame them from her own perspective for those to see on display at a gallery. Which gives us the perfect motivation to understand her for when things go horrific.

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Admittedly, Hereditary thrives just as much on the family around Collette as it does her. Gabriel Byrne as Steve the embittered husband for example is one of the more underrated players in most things and here he’s so confined in his own fashion. He like Toni seeks control, but he’s far more loose and contemplative about it. He wants the control to come through mutual peace, but he realizes slowly that this clan he’s helped continue the sewing of isn’t bound for clear waters. He’s designated himself the captain of a sinking ship and can’t help but mean mug the bow on his way down. There’s a few more quiet and disaffected faces who wander through the family, but they’re even more crucial, as Alex Wolff brings youthful bravado that creates his outward person as he barely struggles to hide the broken young man inside. One who was earnestly raised, but senses a brewing horror underneath that he can’t dare face, or risk facing his own terrifying weaknesses.

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Charlie is the most fascinating of this kindred unit. Shapiro gives off a true air of tragedy and lonely angst as a young girl without much of a social life who is clearly a victim of this family’s simultaneous coddling and cold indifference. Every scene showing her being distant from those around her and engaging in anti-social behavior shows a true understanding of being a loner at such a young age, but also gives us even more insight into her flesh and blood’s twisted self interests and underlying sinister motivations as the plot thickens. Her presence is felt throughout Hereditary, even when she’s not in the room as this family resigns themselves to guilt over treating her more like a burden or too much like an infant. It’s this fascinating blend that shows the undying presence of both Shapiro and Annie’s mother in images & the diorama models. Both are intertwined in what Shapiro feels was an understanding during the latter’s life, but reveals to be a terrifying manipulation as things unravel.

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It’s hard to talk extensively about some of these aspects of Hereditary without spoiling things, but one fascinating thing about how this is all unveiled is merely in the structure of the film. Hereditary spends the initial half of the film providing an intricate almost Who’s Afraid of Virgin Woolf style drama of unsaid tension and dread coming undone between all of our family members. Director/writer Ari Aster shows so much patience with detailing our characters and who they are despite this being his directorial debut. Some may find the slow burn drama of the first half a bit odd if they’re expecting a wall-to-wall horror film, but it’s really not a fair expectation to have. This is a deliberate way of immersing the audience in how these people interact and show off a subtle unflinching dread in their day to day lives. A wind up to the horrific factors that follow and delve into the more surreal and brutal imagery that takes place during the second half. Even when you think it’s going to go into more traditional almost Paranormal Activity style scares, Aster pulls the rug out from under you and drags your expectations on the ground like a caveman dragging his hunt on the ground to finish the kill. The nightmarish imagery that follows is truly surreal and unimaginable yet incredibly thematically appropriate and constantly terrifying on a more subconscious level that’ll leave people as flummoxed as they are entertained

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Every scare in Hereditary fits into the titular phrase. The darkness of the Grahams runs deep in their veins and will continue to until gore pours out of said veins. It’s a brutal and hard to watch experience at times, but one that can’t help but be captivating as every unnerving second unwinds. It’s the type of family story that speaks more volumes about the anxieties of  the familial than any number of throw away dramedies that come about every year. Family is just as much about the underlying bitterness as it is the affection. The Grahams – despite how miserable their lives sound – do at least show some grounded sense of affection for each other during the first act of Hereditary that tragically comes undone as we proceed into the more harrowing imagery to follow. This is what makes the horror truly stand out. Even in the most loving of families, there’s often an anxiety and regret that flares up especially as horrible things are done by individual members. Your family may not have this much baggage, but you may recognize a few more pieces of luggage than you’d care to. And that’s how it really burrows under your skin, resonating as only one of the best films of the year so far can, horror or otherwise.

Rating: 5 out of 5 Family Pictures In a Scarp Book

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UPGRADE (2018): Terms and Conditions Unchecked

When constructing a modern film about the progression of technology, there’s a true danger of coming off as preachy. The concept of making a techno thriller often veers into condemning the mechanisms for its own progression and limiting the hubris of man to a mere spark for danger, rather than a consistent motivator it should be. Just watch something like Untraceable about a decade ago for the type of thriller that gets fear of advancement incredibly wrong. This is something Upgrade dangerously comes close to doing and then subverts in a wonderful genre mash up fashion. Writer/director Leigh Whannell got his start writing for horror films for James Wan like Saw and Insidious, which shows with some of the more brutal moments on display. Yet, Upgrade is decidedly more of a sci-fi/actioner at its heart and a far more intelligent film than what one would expect on its face.

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The basic story would make one think this is a much more simplistic action film. You’ve got Grey (Logan Marshall-Green), a young man with old school values in the not-too-distant-future who prefers to keep his distance from advance technology like automated cars or  implants as he fixes antique cars for a living. Despite this, he’s in a rather loving relationship with his wife Asha (Melanie Vallejo) who embraces technological advancement and even playfully taunts him for his technophobic ways. Their love story is cut short one evening when their automatic car crashes and a group of thugs attack them, leaving Grey paralyzed and murdering Asha. The quadriplegic Grey is secretly offered by a former client and tech innovator Eron Keen (Harrison Gilbertson) to have an extremely advanced computer chip inserted into his spine that will allow him to walk again, which Grey uses to track down the men who murdered his wife, even if it’s against the wishes of Detective Cortez (Betty Gabriel).

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Now, the mistake from this point that most films would make is to make Grey seem completely in the right for his pursuit of revenge. After all, the film has already spent a fair amount of time seeing how much he and Asha were in love with each other & with how bitter and angry he’s become in his paralyzed state. The audience would naturally be behind him and his pursuit to avenge his wife’s death. Yet, Upgrade manages to take that inherent support the audience would have and turns Grey’s desires for justice into his downfall. It resembles more of what the original Death Wish story was aiming for before Charles Bronson’s own films turned it into a gun based power fantasy. Grey has all this power and he’s horrified by what’s going on. Yet, he willingly consents to the personification of the computer chip in his neck – known as STEM (voiced by Simon Maiden) – to take over his body and do what he wants. 

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This is where Upgrade steers into the insidiously genius satire of our time. STEM acts as a representation of our daily ambivalence to the implications of an agreement with technology. How many times do we agree to terms and conditions we don’t bother to read through? So many different apps ask for our consent and we give it without much of a thought. Sure, the first time Grey does this it’s in a dire situation where he has no other choice. Yet, the actions that occur off of it end up horrifying him… and he still allows STEM to use his body as an instrument because he has tunnel vision about his quest for vengeance. The violence in Upgrade is incredibly gory, but never in ways that appeal to the main characters or are meant to make audiences to cheer. It’s meant to elicit winces and terror at the capabilities of STEM and other cold computerized calculations. Much credit to Logan Marshall-Green for his ability to make his actions below the neck feel authentically out of his control, whether in his paralyzed state or under the influence of STEM. He delivers pathos in his compromised state just as well as he does being controlled by an outside force, channelling Bruce Campbell’s knack for similar cartoonish physics with his own body.

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It helps that Upgrade also manages to build a future from that shows the dependence on this technology. The advancements are all only there on a macro level as the grimy and underdeveloped elements on a micro level simmer underneath. We get the implication that this world has regressed in every other fashion, allowing for tech to serve as a crutch to lean on rather than a tool to progress with. This gives Grey’s dependence on STEM even more weight and shows the type of world building that Black Mirror often does at its best. Whannell even lights the entire film in a neon display that reflects a Blade Runner level dystopia of cold yet dazzling sort of fashion. The implications of this world also help to give more weight to other characters who hover around Grey’s story. Cortez for one doesn’t trust the drones that survey as much as she does her own intuition, mirroring Grey while also trying to hunt him down. There’s also the array of thugs with implants who have a higher esteem about themselves above humanity, particularly the effortlessly skeevy Benedict Hardie as the lead thug Fisk. Even STEM develops as a character over the course of Upgrade through Grey’s temptation of letting this soothing voice take over. It’s a temptation that even seeps into the audience thanks to Simon Maiden’s calm neutral voice.

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To go much further would potentially spoil the fun surprises of Upgrade, which would be a downright shame. Upgrade is honestly the closest we’ve had to a Robocop level modern satire that also blended various genre elements in theaters in quite a while, blowing lesser satiric attempts like Ready Player One out of the water. It’s surface level fun enough to work for the average filmgoer. Yet, there’s an insidious element of apathy toward allowing our innovations to take us over that sits at the cold heart of Upgrade. It’s the type of passive evil that really rings bitterly true in 2018, where the evil isn’t the tech itself as much as it is our complete trust & lack of question about it. The machines shown here could be used for good in the capable hands of someone who doesn’t forfeit their ability to question when the tools present a quick and graphic way to get what they want. When we don’t consider the larger implications of such trust, we allow the possibility of sneaking take over from our computerized overlords and an inability to see it until it sneaks right up and stabs us in the hand.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Computer Chips in the Spine

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Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018): One Scruffy Looking Nerf Herder

Prequels and Star Wars have a tension filled relationship. Which is understandable, considering the reception of the prequel trilogy. Still, say what you want about Episodes I, II & III – and plenty of people have – but they at least followed a story that had some potential. To see the rise and fall of Anakin Skywalker into Darth Vader sounds like an intriguing idea. There’s a clear structure one can see for how this would go down, though the execution of it has lead to plenty of enraged debate for nearly two decades. By contrast, Solo: A Star Wars Story doesn’t really have much of a progression it can take hold of for its titular character Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich). Knowing the progression he goes on during the original trilogy, Han Solo needs to stay a selfish smuggler in order for the later journey to make any narrative sense. He can’t learn to be a selfless individual here only to learn the same thing as he surprises the audience by helping Luke destroy the Death Star. Sorry for spoiling a 41 year old film, but the point still stands; a young Han Solo movie has no real right to exist. So, does Solo: A Star Wars Story end up beating this inherent critical stumbling block in concept or not?

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Quite frankly… no. Writers LawrenceJonathan Kasdan along with director Ron Howard – well, final director Ron Howard – constantly struggle to walk the line between keeping Han a rogue and the hero the film ultimately needs, but never quite settle on how to do so. Solo: A Star Wars Story gives us so much of his back story, a child slave on the planet Corellia who ended up joining the Empire’s military as a young lad and teaming up with Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) to become a smuggler. All very early in the film. Yet, none of it really earns much of a right to exist or add on what we already knew beyond filling unnecessary gaps. “Oh, that’s why Chewie owes Han a life debt!” “Oh that’s how he got that last name!” “Oh that’s how he became so good with using a blaster!” Great… but did any of this make Han Solo a more complete version of what he already was; a scoundrel with charm? No. It’s just there to give us context for what we didn’t need.

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If anything, it deflates what used to be a mysterious background one could project for themselves based on Harrison Ford’s actions and George Lucas/several other people’s words. It all turns Han into a misunderstood loner hero rather than a plucky and selfish charmer we met at the Cantina on Tatooine. We’re front loaded with answering questions and tying up loose ends really early into Solo to the point where when we finally get the halfway decent heist film that lifts up the second half, it’s too late. We’ve been inundated with a barrage of underwhelming revelations that seem to take a face value sensibility to moments that feel like they should be charming nods and winks. If Solo was far more self contained an adventure that didn’t aim to expose Han’s past, it would probably be a far more engaging character. The onset snafus that occurred with original directors/current executive producers Phil Lord and Chris Miller shouldn’t have much weight on the film overall, but one can tell during any of the larger comedic set pieces fall flat and awkward in that first half. Not really helped by the way cinematographer Bradford Young puts an a grey filter to disguise the shiny surfaces in order to vaguely remind people of the rich grime aesthetic of the original trilogy.

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None of this is really the fault of Alden Ehrenreich. A talented young actor who is capable of delivering his own infectious charms in films like Hail Caesar, Ehrenreich is really trying hard to avoid doing a flat out Ford impression while still sprinkling in some of the delivery that made Han one of the more iconic cinematic characters of the 20th century. It’s an impossible task to be asked to replicate an iconic persona at his absolute prime as an actor in a prequel film and Alden handles it about as well as he can. Yet, that leash still looms high with how much the script for Solo desires to make us remember the Han we knew and loved even if Alden wants to make his own. A constant tug and pull that damns an earnest if doomed task from the start. There are effective moments for Han here and there. As unnecessary as it is, the meet up with Chewie made watchable thanks to a physical chemistry that Ehrenreich and Suotamo have as the space duo. Yet, Chewie’s own struggles with trying to get his people out of slavery and earn a score bring to light the major downturn of Solo. One flaw so crucially fatal that it turns the lead into an albatross around the film’s neck; Han is the sun this universe revolves around, yet the planets and asteroids that sweep into its path are far more interesting than he ever can be.

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One of these characters is Han’s mentor of sorts Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson), a thief who has seen plenty of action. You can see why he would be curious to the initial spark of spunk in Han’s eyes, but with the history clearly shown through his actions in the world of smuggling and some pretty big moments with his significant other Val (Thandie Newton), one slowly starts to lose the actual thread of connection between him and Han as things roll along, especially when a heist film of sorts like this hinges on ambiguity rather than a lack of believability in either trust or distrust rather than what feels like ambivalence between the two. Same goes for Han’s Corellian gal Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke). Clarke is given the task of attempting to be a galactic femme fatale for Han to seek back after an escape gone awry, who later has gone through some changes and being under the thumb of a generic space gangster Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany) that makes one pine for the authentic weirdness of Jabba the Hutt as he acts like far more of a modern hot trigger gangster than anything authentically of the Star Wars galaxy. Qi’ra could have been far more of a damsel love interest and even has worrying shades of this early on. Yet, when her loyalties become more murky and her ability prowess as a femme fatale come to play, there are shades of a far more interesting character. One who’s journey could have made for a great Star Wars story all its own. Yet, we mostly see her as an accomplice and source of will-they-won’t-they tension to tease for more Solo films as Han sashays into a room.

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Such sashays are irrelevant once Han meets Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover), a fellow smuggler who exudes far more charisma and has enough intriguing characteristics that ooze out of corners during his scenes to make everyone in the theater internally scream “Why wasn’t this a Lando film?!” The real difference between Lando and Solo is simply that while we do know the ultimate big turn of Lando, he’s far more of a blank slate to add things onto. This includes fun details like a closet full of elaborate capes or his sly attempts to cheat at cards with smooth nonchalance. Glover gives the unbridled confidence needed for Lando without feeling too much like an overt impression as much as a general sly mood from which anyone would be mulled over by. Similar credit deserves to go to Phoebe Waller-Bridge as L3, a droid with fierce aims at spreading independence for her kind. She’s feisty, intuitive and spunky in ways no other droid character has ever been in this series. The two have far more of a believable rapport than anyone else in the film that makes us quiver even further in demand for a Lando spin off movie involving these two. But don’t worry. Han is there to… be Han. So you don’t have to worry about all that pesky “potential” off to the sides being squandered.

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It may seem like I hate Solo, but the frustration really lies with the fact that there are wonderful bursts of energy and creativity on occasion. Most of these characters do get moments to spotlight their potential. Mainly in a scene involving a rather famous moment from Han’s past that surprisingly packs a lot of character beats, elaborate fight choreography and more than a few bits of heist staging into a chaotic but highly entertaining sequence of events. It’s the one time where all the people in this ensemble truly bounce off each other incredibly well and give the illusion that this will continue to the remaining runtime. Yet, by the time that sequence ends, the spectacle of Solo A Star Wars Story really begins to wear thin. There’s some shenanigans in the third act that elicits minor thrills, but nothing even really culminates that well. Set pieces like the big train heist are fine on their own, but the lack any kind of weight not just because we know where the characters will ultimately go, but because we’re centered around a character who constantly meanders between referencing what we know and teasing a progression that can’t take place given who the character is makes this a rather forgettable effort. Something even a few Rebellion teases and a curious surprise cameo couldn’t fix.

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It’s a tough spot to be in. Almost as if Disney and Lucasfilm shouldn’t have put themselves in that place to begin with. Solo A Star Wars Story obviously wants to be a romp through the galactic underworld of the Star Wars galaxy. One that is teased with some rather impressive creature effects and a few hints to other potential spin offs. Yet, even for being something more light, there’s isn’t too much new going on. There’s a bit of an upgrade in terms of the tech of the original trilogy, but not much of an expansion on details about the criminal underworld or some of these new characters to make itself stand out. These are similar problems that effected the previous Star Wars spin off feature Rogue One. Then again, Rogue One actually dared to focus on new characters who weren’t what we traditionally saw in this galaxy far far away. Some are better than others, but at least it tried to build more focus on people we weren’t familiar with. Which is a far more noble effort than Solo, a film that has the potential to explore new avenues and fun side tracks in this universe yet leans on the familiarity of its titular character revealing more about his past like Tiny Tim on a crutch. Keep in mind that I’m not against referencing moments from the original trilogy or exposing more about the people we knew and loved from this series. However, if those references don’t do much to shed intriguing new light on that subject, what’s the point in going back? Why are we peeling back a layer of Han’s past? It turns out… for very little.

Rating: 2 out of 5 Dice Rear View Mirror Hangers

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Deadpool 2 (2018): Maximum Effort Sequel

Warning: This review for Deadpool 2 features a major spoiler that happens during the first act. Otherwise it is spoiler free, but if you want to go in completely blind, you have been warned.

The first Deadpool film really took people by surprise. Mainly for somehow actually happening at all, given a comedic hard R superhero film would come from a major studio. Then for it to make nearly $800 million off a $58 million budget only confused us in the best way possible. Admittedly, upon rewatch the first film doesn’t hold up as well, given the really bland aesthetics of an over budgeted straight to video action film and a relationship that comes off more and more as lame male geek wish fulfillment where the love interest is without any discernible humanity or drive beyond loving our lead with a look back. Yet, it still manages to be watchable thanks to the absolute commitment and charms of Ryan Reynolds as the titular superhuman healer. Now, we have Deadpool 2 to lather us with a much larger budget and bonkers level action comedy set pieces. Does it succeed at upping the ante?

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Well, it definitely shoves everything at the screen, that’s for damn sure. Deadpool 2 takes the “everything but the kitchen sink” route to comedy and action, but without hesitating to throw porcelain in the audience’s face. We start with a pretty blatant reference to Logan and a full on statement of death and regret as a major theme for this sequel as Wade “Deadpool” Wilson as he deals with the loss of his fiancee Vanessa (Morena Baccarin). Vanessa was very much a shallow dream girlfriend archetype that always served as underwhelming motivation for Wade to do what he is want to do, only being saved by Boccarin’s chemistry with Reynolds. With Deadpool 2, there is far more actual weight attempted with this relationship, but it never feels that genuine. It’s all to set up Deadpool having a progression, but it feels like trying to progress a slapstick comedy character like Bugs Bunny. Deadpool exists in some sort of middle ground between our world and this continuity fragmented X-Men universe Fox has created, so this seemingly genuine attempt at an arc isn’t given much a subversive twist that serves as commentary for superhero tropes as much as it is just a way of motivating Wade to go on his family based journey and decisions here.

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This is a shame because once this weird underwhelming way of kicking off the plot goes underway, Deadpool 2 manages to have some solid weird ideas at play that make it more ambitious and brazen than its predecessor. Every single frame is filled with either a quick quip, reference or visual joke to try and make the audience laugh. With that many attempts, it doesn’t always work. Deadpool 2 has a tendency to lean on references and overlong gags that can get quite tiresome, especially when it merely requires Deadpool himself to blast off multiple ones in a row at a random straight man that any of the supporting cast who reacts with a mere confused stare. Director David Leitch applies his skills from John Wick to the action scenes in terms of pace and brutal hits, but also takes full advantage of Deadpool’s powers of healing to display some clever action beats that defy the laws of physics. A favorite involves Deadpool using his broken dangling arm to choke Cable (Josh Brolin), who receives the brunt of many of Deadpool’s snipes. Brolin handles the straight man role well, though it isn’t really until the third act that the satiric edge against his rather obvious 90s era generic badass demeanor.

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The best gags really involve characters actually bouncing off of Deadpool with their own personalities. Personalities like Julian Dennison as Russell “Firefist” Collins, an angry confused young mutant who aims to destroy an abusive schoolmaster (Eddie Marsan) who hates mutants. Dennison’s cocksure attempts to appear tough play into his insecurities which parallel Wade’s own. The two make for a fun duo whose separation believably turns and etch out the few genuine emotional moments needed to ground Deadpool 2 in something other than jokes without spilling over into more maudlin territory that other aspects do. Zazie Beetz as the luck based super heroine Domino makes her charm look effortless as she brushes off Reynolds’ snark with her nonchalant ability to walk through a scene and make it all go her way. There’s a feistiness to Zazie that makes her light up every action scene and make even the worst bits of luck turn for the better. It’s such a hard superpower to realize cinematically, but Zazie’s bottomless charisma and Leitch’s knack for visual language do a far better job than expected at bringing it to life.

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This sort of visual language does falter at points, though. Mainly with the editing. On a pure scene-to-scene progression level, there are many points where we just jump from location to location without as much as a suddenly ADRed line to indicate some joking reason why someone has jumped from one location to the next. Even some characters, like Black Tom (Jack Kesy) seem to have far more importance to the characters despite the implied amount of screen time. Part of this may be seeming laziness, but another seems to be editing around the film’s elephant in the room T.J. Miller. Miller reprises his role as Weasel here, which unfortunately put Deadpool 2 in the middle of controversy given Miller’s recent actions in real life. In short, Miller’s role isn’t very substantial, though you can tell that in the editing process that Deadpool 2 tried to cut the part as close to the bone as possible. There’s even a ramp up to a big team moment involving Miller that proceeds… to a scene where Miller is absent and nothing is said of it. It doesn’t make much logical sense, but if it means we get more of over excited cab driver and wanna-be contract killer Dopinder (Karan Soni) stealing scenes as he awkwardly tries to work himself up to being a contract killer to hysterical degrees.

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Ultimately, the general swinging for the fences attitude of Deadpool 2 makes it both a sloppier film than the original and at the same time a funnier one. It revels in the absurd and pulls some more subversive twists and turns than the original ever even attempted. The elements involving building the X-Force in particular build up and pull the rug out from under the audience at every possible turn. It shows that for as unbalanced and underwhelming as X-Men has been as an overall franchise, the two Deadpool films have shown that taking weird chances and doing something different can pay off. The small roles for X-Men characters Colossus (Stefan Kapicic) and Nega Sonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand) have shown far progression in two films than most non-Wolverine/Magneto/Professor X mutants have in a single film, largely thanks to far more defined character work from their actors and even a bit of progressive momentum with Warhead’s sexuality casually displayed here. Let’s just hope this keeps if Disney’s Fox deal gets confirmed we see more risks like this are taken. Or at least we don’t get more of whatever the hell is going on with that main X-Men series.

Rating 3.5 out of 5 Chimichangas

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You Were Never Really Here (2018): Taken Aback

Action thrillers rarely give us room to breathe. Liam Neeson doesn’t do much sitting in between taking down henchmen in those Taken films. It’s exhilarating and even fun to watch Neeson or other stars kick ass as former agents that go underground to stop criminals. The sort of fantasy that many men would like to prove they could live under the right circumstances, especially those who would be in someone like Neeson’s relative age range who would have something to prove. “Oh, I could do that and show these young bucks what’s what,” they’d roughly say as they watch an older man kick ass. It’s a principle that’s been in effect since Charles Bronson became the hero with a titular Death Wish in the mid-1970s. Yet, being someone with such a background can take a horrific toll films like these don’t design themselves to focus on. So, the genius of writer/director Lynne Ramsay‘s new film You Were Never Really Here is that it takes such a hyper masculine concept and buries it in the amount of remorse and inescapable terror it deserves to be drenched in.

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The character of Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) is a shadow of a man. The title You Were Never Really Here reflects both Joe’s literal ability to disappear from any situation and metaphoric desire to not make a dent. The reasonings behind this aren’t revealed in full detail. It’s mostly through visual stream of consciousness flashes that show Joe has a pretty grim past and he can’t escape it. One that haunts him if he merely looks at people on the street having a good time. The horror of his former life as some sort of soldier or agent isn’t given much detail. If anything, we only see the crucial details that stick out in Joe’s memory. These details are crucial to saying so much with millisecond long shots. Ramsay used similar techniques to get us in the eyes of the main character from We Need To Talk About Kevin. She has such a touch with POV, immersing us in a perspective that makes us understand if not totally empathize with her leads.

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Joe is the perfect example of this. It’s very clear that Joe has seen and done terrible things in his life. His flashbacks reveal the type of man who lives with his mistakes and his scars on a 24/7 cycle. That haunted nature is perfectly embodied by Joaquin Phoenix. His vacant stare and repetitive ticks show off a man who only keeps himself from committing suicide by having a sense of routine and responsibility that he can attach himself to. His relationship with his elderly mother (Judith Roberts) is one that keeps him grounded in a human way, mainly because he has a love that is equally mired by a lack of privacy. Yet, there’s a clear respect for his mother. In fact, she seems to be the only person he does respect, which seems to connect to his rough childhood flashbacks and why he has a knack for rescuing those who are illegally trafficked. It’s obviously partially for money, but he’s also working some personal stuff out and through gory as all get out methods.

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Joaquin’s performance and the use of violence in You Were Never Really Here clearly show a reverence for films like Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. We follow a lonely brutal man with horrific tendencies that’s been abandoned by society and show off the seedy underbelly of a city and saving a young girl. Joe often wanders the streets in a haze of street lights and his constantly dilapidating mental state to Jonny Greenwood’s ethereal and elegant score. The key difference is that unlike the self righteous and delusional Travis Bickle, Joe isn’t thinking he’s really right at any step of the process beyond his ability to apply blunt force. He’s honestly desperate to find something to cling onto as his world crashes. It’s a human idea that connects him to several of the smaller characters that pop up. There’s one scene Joe shares with a man who’s also sent out to kill that shows how oddly beautiful and tragic the mere idea of comforting someone as they let loose the mortal coil can be. It’s one of the year’s best sequences that’ll stick in memory for ages to come.

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For Joe, the young girl he’s trying to save Nina (Ekaterina Samsonov) is more of a surrogate for the childhood he lost than an example for him to show he truly is the only sane man in an insane world from his warped perspective. Samsonov is a cipher that pops up here and there, but not in a detrimental fashion. By design, she is a sort of weird holy grail for Joe, but only because he is the only thing he can still grasp at. He finds the idea of saving this girl to be a mere oasis as he wanders the desert of life with no goal in sight. He doesn’t feel he deserves it. If anything, You Were Never Really Here is about a man who acts on a case-by-case basis for every situation he’s in. Sometimes it gets him money, other times he crumbles what little he has left. These decisions often come when his methods fall apart and balance between being naturalistically brutal and otherworldly in beauty thanks to Thomas Townend‘s gorgeous cinematography. It’s a destination that could turn to dirt quickly, but the journey there is fascinating to see unfold because we’re so in Joe’s headspace that we kind of have to find out the end result.

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All of this is to say that Joe isn’t a hero nor does he pretend to be. Joe is merely a man finding a reason to live in a world that has cast him aside. You Were Never Really Here is a wispy ghost of a film, where the gory horror that happens is often presented as honest and ugly yet lingers far more than deaths of henchmen in general. Ramsay uses moments that would be throwaway kills in a Taken film as brutal necessities for the lead in a situation he’s sucked himself into. Joe is in a rut of a personal hell he can’t get out of until he finds a small beacon of light in the form of Nina. Yet, the murky waters Ramsay, Phoenix and the entire crew of You Were Never Really Here takes is to note that… none of this could turn out well. None of this could end up being something that gives Joe or us closure. It’s presented as a small window into a key point in his life. It closes many doors and may leave one slightly ajar with a sliver of light coming through. The light could be hope or just the flashlight on the end of a shotgun. Either way, one can bask in the beauty of that light for at least one gorgeous moment.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Ball Point Hammers

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Avengers: Infinity War (2018): Of Course You Realize This Means War

The narrative around the Marvel Cinematic Universe tends to focus on risk. When this experiment started a decade ago with the first Iron Man, Marvel Entertainment Group Inc put out a pretty costly loan in pursuit of creative control over a cohesive vision for a franchise. This obviously paid off as recent history – and cinematic present – has shown off. Of course, plenty have taken similar risks. Taking that plunge isn’t the hard part. See Universal’s hysterically misguided flop attempt at a large universe known as Dark Universe” for an idea of how such a risk can fail. The key ingredient missing there that’s present in the MCU is a clear trust in the material and the creatives. MCU guru and producer Kevin Feige knows that the key to the consistency of this universe is mainly kept alive is finding the right chef for the recipe on file.  Sure, he may have had a few bumps along the way. A forgettable Incredible Hulk film there. An Edgar Wright leaving a production there. After all, gotta break some eggs to make an omelet, right? Well, if Avengers Infinity War proves anything, it’s that such an omelet can be stuffed with more eggs, bacon, peppers, cheese, tomatoes, onions, garlic, ham, chicken, parsley, potatoes and whatever the hell else than most audiences can handle.

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Seriously, Avengers Infinity War has a pretty stacked cast of superheroes. There’s Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), Vision (Paul Bettany) and Star Lord (Chris Pratt) just to name a few. And that’s not even counting all the supporting characters and surprise guests who show up from prior films. All of those talented faces vying for the spotlight in this two hour and forty minute package seems daunting. Of course, directors Anthony and Joe Russo would arguably be the most equipped to do so given their superb work at juggling so many characters for Captain America: Civil War as well as their history with ensemble TV like Arrested Development and Community.

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To their credit, the character interaction is what really shines in Avengers Infinity War, mainly in scenes between people who have never met before like Black Panther and Captain America or Thor and the Guardians of the Galaxy. The banter back and forth between most of them gives us the type of comedy and pathos that’s made these movies connect so well with audiences. I say most because certain pairings definitely did seem to expose some familiarity in terms of certain characters. Namely, Tony Stark and Doctor Strange, which was an inherent problem with the latter’s original movie that becomes strikingly obvious here. Their egotistical charisma just feels like a rather boring game of tennis. Perfect in terms of timing, but lacking much of any individuality. Still, Cumberbatch and the rest of the individuals portraying these characters are incredibly committed to their parts. Even if Benedict’s American accent still leave a lot to be desired.

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The actors who have appeared in more movies clearly show how well they’ve embodied the characters and have grown since their original appearances. Avengers Infinity War feels less like a sequel and more like a season finale as it gives crescendings to firmly established characters. Chris Evans’ Captain America gives off so much war torn regret that’s made him a believably embittered version of the bright eyed kid from Brooklyn we first saw in Captain America The First Avenger. Mark Ruffalo’s slipping of control over his Hulk form shows the degradation of power yet change of motivation for his version of the character since The Avengers. Robert Downey Jr. culminates the most impressive arc of the MCU as Tony Stark tries to settle himself to his more conventional desires yet can’t help but be a hero when Earth truly needs him. Still, there isn’t a huge amount of progression for any of them here, mainly because we have sort of hit a plato point for them. Which isn’t terrible, but it also isn’t that impressive. This is mostly a showcase for how the actors and previous films have progressed these characters rather than progressing them. Some even repeat their threads from previous films, particularly Star Lord with his emotional stuntedness that seemed to be retreading what Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2 already seemed to make him grow out of.

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This isn’t to shut out some of the other heroes who have only popped up a few times prior to Avengers Infinity War. Peter Parker (Tom Holland) gears up for his first official Avengers mission with the type of gumption and heart that makes him a fantastic Spider-Man. T’Challa cements his status as King of Wakanda with a generosity of spirit and command that’s shown his rise to power. Still, there’s a clear amount of people who sort of seem lost in the shuffle with little to do that isn’t plot threads. Vision and Scarlet Witch even manage to give their love story started in Civil War genuine weight. Some of the secondary Guardians characters like Drax (Dave Bautista) or Mantis (Pom Klementieff) very much fall into this category as they bumble along with the crowd to either hold someone down or freeze people in time. Same for someone like Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) as mere muscle for Cap’s crew or Wong (Benedict Wong) who ultimately is just assistant Doctor Strange. Obviously for them to get real spotlight character development is a tough task to fit in, but it’s less so for someone like Strange himself who is mostly there to carry the burden of one of the Infinity stones from Thanos and snark in the same way Stark essentially does.

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Speak of those Stones, the true highlight of Avengers Infinity War is someone who has been in multiple Marvel films but never really gotten much of a chance to do anything; Thanos (Josh Brolin). Since the character’s initial appearance in the post credit scene of the first Avengers, the big purple dude has been the main source of building dread for the MCU. A menace that hides in the shadows for mysterious reasons that weren’t really explored. He’d just pop up to introduce some angst for characters here or put on his big old glove there. For someone like myself who wasn’t a huge comics person, it seemed like Thanos would be some sort of letdown, especially with how many times MCU villains have fallen flat on their faces in comparison to the heroes. Yet, Thanos proves to be an exception that’s worthy of previous great villains like Loki or Killmonger who stood out as the better elements of some of their entries. Thanos’ central motivation is one that makes you understand his position. Not sympathize, but grasp why is doing such a thing. He’s out to kill so many beings, but in the pursuit of saving others. What we consider cruel he considers humane. It’s a form of population control that could be manically evil in the wrong hands, but instead comes off as the type of horrific behavior that could only come from someone who has developed a thought process that makes sense from their experience, no matter how awful it honestly is to contemplate.

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It helps that his adopted Gamora (Zoe Saldana) is a crucial part of this contemplation for Thanos, as her resentment of him not only feeds into her own arcs from the two Guardians films but also gives Thanos a realization about the one thing that kept his evil in balance. A person he could love and hold amongst the chaos he was creating who grew to loathe him. Gamora’s loathing of him translates to her own doubts and worries that make her both a very strong warrior and a closed off individual who doesn’t play nice with many others. This ripples onto people like Star Lord or Nebula (Karen Gillan) in ways that support story points, but I wish carried over into developing those characters further. Still, Gamora’s growth here feeds into the larger arc of her character, which is more than any of the other characters from Guardians here who mostly spew jokes. Funny jokes, but without the pathos that Guardians writer/director James Gunn consistently strewn through the humor.

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Of course, Avengers Infinity War is still very much an action sci-fi adventure so the spectacle is all over the place. It’s clear that every cent of the budget is on the screen as the action here shows off some impressive scope and tight editing. Admittedly, there are definite points where the budget slightly strains to show off all the characters with a sense of consistency. The CG does slightly wain at awkward moments. The big climactic set pieces occasionally show the limits of compositing real faces onto CG worlds. Money can only go so far when rendering is as complex as this surely was. Yet, it still allows for weird things like Peter Dinklage appearing as  giant being out of an 80s fantasy film where the compositing and force perspective is more charming than obvious. The all CG  characters are far more consistent than expected, as Thanos or his minions blend pretty well in most environments and alongside living counterparts. Especially during the action sequences that are kinetic yet edited well enough to get a sense of where everything is. Of course, some of these all CG characters are various copies of the same creature design that attack our heroes en masse, which can get repetitive in ways that remind one of the lesser Chatri fight scenes from the first Avengers.

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Now, this all leads into some of the large problem with Avengers Infinity War. One that may just expose how much of a comic book person I really am. Or rather how much I’m not one. See, even with all the ambition that goes into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. All the hours we’ve spent seeing these people fight and win… the consequences haven’t been felt. On a smaller more human level, sure. Civil War opened the door for how the interpersonal character stakes could really be shaken quite aggressively between the Avengers as individuals. Yet, when it comes to really feeling the weight of the battles that happen, there never seemed to be much permanence in major characters being affected. The lack sticking to deaths has always been a factor, what with Loki (Tom Hiddleston) resurrecting himself multiple times in previous Thor films or Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) being alive midway through Captain America The Winter Soldier. It’s a trope known as Disney Death, which is pretty appropriate given the parent company for these Marvel films. Thor even jokes about this at one point during the course of Avengers Infinity War.

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Now, Avengers Infinity War tries very hard to avert this. Without spoiling things, this entry does everything it can to convince you these stakes are permanent and will totally carry over to great ramifications with the universe. And… I want to believe it. I really want to believe that some of these big heart string pulls will mean something because these characters have go through some seriously traumatizing events here that’s pretty hard to deal with and that the actors wonderfully show off the heft of. If many of these moments stick, it would challenge the MCU audience way that would change the dynamic of the entire MCU for the better. As much as I enjoy these characters, I want to see some of them bite it. Not because they deserve it or it’s a move that always works, but when executed right it allows a fan to remember and grieve for with complex emotions. Something a long lasting franchise rarely can achieve. But… I just don’t trust this universe to stick to many of them. The MCU has yet to prove themselves as willing to step over such a line unless it’s with a character who matters little or is clearly designed to die from the start. One moment in particular involving both Iron Man and Doctor Strange during is really where that realization took hold. And even more than any outside announcement of upcoming Marvel films, a decision like that shows a true lack of commitment to keeping all bets off and always keeping a back door open that could undo a lot of the gravity of lasting stakes, which is something comic book fanatic friends of mine have told me they’re used to. Characters who die often come back to fight in their tights again. It’s accepted as common fact for the serialized comic fan.

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However, while I do understand that is common in the original source medium, moves like this can only be done so often in cinematic form before one loses faith in the stakes of two beings fighting each other. Before it becomes clear what the outcome is doesn’t matter as long as the fight looks cool. And if the fight is dazzling that’s nice. I enjoy seeing Black Widow and Okoye (Danai Gurira) kicking random alien drone ass as much as the next person. But knowing there’s not even the slimest chance of real danger at this point just makes things feel sort of robotic. It worked for the first Avengers because the experience of seeing these people was novel and more important than grounded stakes. Now, the Marvel Cinematic Universe formula is something we’re all aware of. Avengers Infinity War wants to have its cake and eat it too with those recurring tropes and sometimes it succeeds. Other times it kind of shows that – while superhero fatigue may be a bit far fetched – Cinematic Universe fatigue may be brewing. Of course, Avengers Infinity War is really the first part of a two part film. The as-of-yet untitled sequel will close these threads and likely put Avengers Infinity War in its ultimate light, which could go either way. It’ll likely still remain a consistently fun piece of spectacle, but it may or may not keep its attempted high mark of being a risky gravity by that point. And the ending here honestly makes me more excited for a smaller scale Marvel film like Captain Marvel more than the big crossover event. Only time will tell.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Infinity Stones On A Gauntlet

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Isle of Dogs (2018): Woofs and Yips Abound

Wes Anderson has always been a director I wanted to see stretch out his wings into genre. The type of symmetrical and striking character based wit he exhibits works wonderfully for his character based dramedies like Royal Tenenbaums or Rushmore. All of which – I should mention – I’m a big fan of. Yet, I could also see him crafting a wonderfully tense horror film or a vibrant fantasy world. Really, his closest forays into genre have been his steps into the world of stop motion animation. 2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox had many of the familiar traits of Anderson (ie father issues, teen rebellion, animal death), but within a world that presented scale on a variety of levels and allowed for even more creative freedom for visual joke construction.

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Now, he takes a further step into genre with Isle of Dogs, a grounded sci-fi film that takes place in the not-too-distant future. Well, as grounded as a movie focused around talking dogs can ultimately be. Yet, the sort of dystopian sci-fi world where dogs are banned to a trash island after an outbreak of dog related diseases brought on by a tyrannical rule doesn’t seem too far off from some modern governments of our own. Making outlandish decisions rooted in spreading fear and doubt about something as innocent as dogs. These sort of influences are implied to be represented by the presence of cats as an ominous force out to destroy these dogs, which isn’t necessarily a terrible metaphor. It gives a direct causality that fits into both the ancient story that bookends Isle of Dogs and the general influence of animals over humans in this world.

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And given how much personality the titular dogs have, it’s easy to see why. Most of these dogs we follow are incredibly vibrant and fun characters. Standing out most prominently is the stray dog Chief (Bryan Cranston), who wanders the wastelands with an attitude that represents himself as a lone wolf… until young Atari Kobayashi (Koyu Rankin) arrives on a small plane determined to find his dog. All the dog characters are at the very list consistently entertaining. Even with singular, but funny or engaging traits that made this solid Anderson style fun. This is obviously helped by the massive talent pool of voice actors, many of which have experience with Anderson (Bill Murray, Jeff GoldblumEdward Norton, etc) and others who are totally new and slip in without missing a beat (Liev Schreiber, Scarlett Johansson, etc) though some are less well utilized than others. Dogs as a species have often been featured in Anderson films to varying rates of survival. Yet, their quiet disposition and moments of sudden massive energy make them perfect for the Wes Anderson type to emerge out of it. More so than most of the human characters.

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Thus is the inconsistency that is something of an albatross for Isle of Dogs. Much has been made about accusations of cultural appropriation for the Japanese aspects of the film by Anderson. Now, I’ll admit ignorance to how much this is offensively appropriates the culture on a more wide ranging level. There’s certain Japanese cinematic illusions I noticed – the theme from Seven Samurai plays throughout – and obvious general details that allude to Japanese art and historical events. Anderson seeks to make this a symmetrical collage of this country, one that’s elegantly designed and laid out. Yet, most of the human characters that speak Japanese aren’t given subtitles. This speaks to Anderson’s talent as visual filmmaker, given we do really get the gist of the plot through action. Sometimes this even works as an ability to build his characters. Young Atari in particular gets to have many moments with Chief that translate as a charming turn on the boy and his dog trope while demonstrating Atari’s assertiveness and gumption.

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Unfortunately, this doesn’t translate well to other characters. Our villains of Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura) and Major Domo (Akira Takayamaaren’t given much personal perspective with their actions. They constantly feel like figures for the plot, which would be fine if they themselves didn’t have a few twist and turns to them. Especially when white characters like the interpreter (Frances McDormand) or young Tracy (Greta Gerwig) translating or speaking for these characters in a way that robs them of individual identity. Even the translator characters are largely robbed of this as a result. Some may disagree if it’s culturally insensitive, but it’s hard to argue that it doesn’t make them seem less involved characters than the people who are mainly saying their dialogue in a way that feels more in common with the majority of the English speaking characters. There’s a distance there that makes some moments in the climax especially fall flat, even for Atari. I’d argue this tries harder to do so than The Darjeeling Limited did in terms of given the native characters of this foreign land more voice, but the same problems are still rooted in Isle of Dogs.

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Of course, the more consistent element of Isle of Dogs has to be the animation. Anderson’s own talents as a filmmaker play into the composition, but the stop motion animators are the ones who give these characters so much feeling and depth. There are incredibly intricate moments of mechanics and small subtle moments of personality that turn these hunks of plastic into living breathing beings. Nothing impresses me more than seeing these puppets tear up in real time. It’s a true feat of cinematic magic that never fails to amaze when it is showcased. The detail work on the sets is remarkable as well, especially all the different environments on trash island. The scene where the dogs are inside a cave made of recycled glass bottles is one of the best lit I’ve seen in a long time. It immerses the audience into this world without ever questioning why or how this world operates. Even the stylistic choice of using more traditional animation for the screens shows the world being presented by the media and government is very different from the one these characters live in, strengthening the world building.

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With all of that said, Isle of Dogs is still lesser Wes Anderson fare. The enjoyment of watching most Wes Anderson films isn’t just how he shoots everything or in how he uses the kitchy soundtrack choices. It’s also just in how emotive and touching these characters can become even as he recycles certain themes. Even without the controversy put upon it, the human characters want to mean more than they ultimately do. Even some of the dogs run into onenote joke territory. Goldblum’s dog loves to talk gossip all the time and spread rumors, which is often a funny joke, but it’s not much of a character trait either. Isle of Dogs isn’t worth dismissing entirely for how it builds a curious world and story from Anderson’s perspective and the gorgeous animation. But it can be fairly disappointing to see this turn out to be lacking a bit of the interpersonal touch that makes Anderson so distinct in the process.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 Pieces of Rotting Garbage

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Horror News Radio Episode 262: A Quiet Place

A Quiet Place (2018): Strong Silent Cinema

A Quiet Place isn’t a silent film. Yes. You heard me right. A Quiet Place doesn’t turn the evolutionary wheel of film back to the early ages. Despite the gimmick that centers around this family trying to survive by staying silent, sound plays a crucial role that’s more than terror inducing. A Quiet Place uses sound the way a great composer uses the various types of instruments at their disposal. The loud bangs aren’t just there to create jump scares. They escalate tension and a sense of desperation through the limited yet powerful use of sound. It also helps to build the world without much dialogue and allows our performers to express so much in body language. Yet, sound is ever present, if just a bit faint for the most part.

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The phrase “you can hear a pin drop” is one that A Quiet Place lives and breathes on right from the opening sequence. Right from the start, we see that Lee (John Krasinski) and his wife Evelyn (Emily Blunt) have created a language and system with their children to keep them alive. Immediately you get the sacrifice from something as simple as noticing they have no shoes. How much pain and horrific callouses can build up on one’s feet from a lack of protective footwear especially when seeing this family walk through the woods. Yet, in an instant it’s also gives the audience a complete realization of how this world operates and how dire the idea for such a minimal such a sound we take for granted would be.

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Keep in mind, this is just ONE minor detail in a sea of wonderful bits and pieces. That’s not even addressing stuff like the various ways the family communicates, the incredibly detailed basement John Krasinski has or the production design on the abandoned parts of town from this post-alien apocalypse. These are the details that Krasinski builds as a director, writer and actor to get us immersed in this situation. In all honesty, the weakest use of sound really came from the score from Marco Beltrami. It’s not a bad score, mind you. Like many a Beltrami score, it serves a purpose, but it’s one that honestly doesn’t feel as warranted in context of the more subtle moments.

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A Quiet Place is the smart kind of horror film that leans heavily on the audience figuring things out on their own. It’s a visual film that can be overt when needed but subtle when it matters most. Many horror fans will outright dismiss this merely on the basis of it being PG-13. Yes, there’s a lack of gore and overt mauling that could turn off more hardcore fans. Then again, true fans of horror would know that ratings don’t determine what makes the genre great. It’s building atmosphere and characters we care about before horrific things happen that can reign absolute. If A Quiet Place was filled to the brim with gore, it may be more visceral yet most likely not as impactful.

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As mentioned, A Quiet Place aims to be character focused horror and these people we are following are incredibly engrossing to follow. We don’t get a full character profile on any of them necessarily, but we still get how they operate and why they interact the way they do. Through people like the son Marcus (Noah Jupe), we understand the trepidation and worry of a child raised in the middle of this apocalypse. While on the flip side we have daughter Reagan (Millicent Simmonds) who is deaf and seeks to prove herself given not only her disability that makes her father protective but also her regret over the actions that caused her younger brother Beau (Cade Woodward) to be taken by these creatures years prior. These kids and their smaller interactions with their parents give them far more depth of character than most scenes with dialogue would. Even the few dialogue scenes that happen don’t give us as much information vocally as much as they do visually. Millicent’s actual deafness also makes her use of sign all the more authentic and determined.

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There’s a great example when Krasinski takes Jupe out to a waterfall. They get to howl out because of the noise surrounding them. A freeing moment for Jupe to be a kid that can yell as loud as he wants while his father beams proudly that his frightened child gets an oasis of freedom. It’s a wonderful small moment that gives us everything we need about the characters to set up tension for later. A Quiet Place truly understands the power of neat economic storytelling especially within this family unit. Even stuff that one may think back on and question once you’ve left the theater about the overall logic of the world – what the kids call Fridge Logic – it really doesn’t matter that much when the characters are considered. The lesser actions feel warranted when the characters are put in context of their situations and the tension that builds because of these actions.

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Krasinski has claimed he wasn’t as familiar with the horror genre prior to making A Quiet Place, but it’s honestly astonishing to think given how many times A Quiet Place terrifies on a variety of levels. The tension that builds is honestly incredible on such a limited budget. The alien monsters are always a constant danger despite rarely being seen in the overall film because of just how investing the characters are, allowing for the scares to be palpable. It’s the type of character investment that one can normally dismiss the horror genre of not being capable of, but Krasinski manages to elicit a powerful sense of suspense out of every moment. Something as small as a loose nail becomes like a Hitckcockian-bomb waiting to explode. All because the world and characters are so well built up. Even with the small quibbles, this is still further proof that effort and patience can make up for a smaller scale and budget. And PG-13 isn’t a deal breaker either. More gore doesn’t always mean a better horror film.

Rating: 4 out of 5 Nails On Stairways

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