Scarlett Johansson

Avengers: Endgame (2019, Anthony Russo and Joe Russo)

Avengers: Endgame had the ending I was hoping for, but maybe not necessarily the right ending for the movie. And it’s only got one. If Endgame has any singular successes, it might be in its lack of false endings. It does a lot of establishing work, sometimes new to the film, sometimes refreshing it from previous Marvel movies. Endgame is the twenty-second “Marvel Cinematic Universe” movie; you probably can get away with watching thirteen of them and getting the story. And maybe not all the ones you’d expect. And not always for the best narrative reasons, not given where it takes some of its characters.

The film opens catching up with Jeremy Renner. Even before the company logo. He missed the last outing because of something in another one of the movies. Not one of the Avengers movies either. Anyway. Renner, despite being really effective in the first scene, is a red herring. He’s there immediately for texture and structurally for when he comes back later on. Because first things first, after all. Given the way the previous movie (Infinity War) ends, there’s some anticipation. There’s some big action in the prologue too, some big team-ups, some nice moments. But it’s really an epilogue to the previous film. In fact, there’s even a cliffhanger moment they could’ve used to split them. Only no, because then the movie jumps ahead an arbitrary amount of time. Arbitrary in how it effects the narrative, but so specific you’ve got to think there’s some reason. Maybe for the twenty-third Marvel movie. Or the thirty-third.

The movie uses the jump ahead to allow for a new ground situation. Sometimes it’s drastic, sometimes it’s not. Even when it’s a theoretically big change, it doesn’t necessarily do much to change how the character functions in the film. Maybe it gives them some angst or whatever, but everyone’s got angst after the last movie. It only affects behaviors in a few. The rest… well, they’re a little thin. Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely do an amazing job writing good scenes for the actors, but not good subplots for most of them. There are some disconnects between script and direction here, particularly with Chris Hemsworth. Markus and McFeely’s script gives him a lot of possibility and directors Russo have zero interest in pursuing it. Shame thing goes for Mark Ruffalo. He gets more to do than ever before, but never any good scenes to himself. Renner and Scarlett Johansson end up somewhere in between. They’ve got material, they get time for it… it still comes off a little too perfunctory.

In theory, Endgame’s two leads are Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans. Downey gets the most to do in the film and it’s a fantastic performance. It’s his movie, as much as it can be any actor’s movie. Meanwhile, the script doesn’t give Evans quite enough to do, even though it frequently has him around things to do. Markus and McFeely actually don’t give Evans an arc for the film. Him, first tier guest stars Brie Larson and Don Cheadle, Ruffalo, no actual character arcs. It’d be disappointing if it weren’t a movie about a bunch of superheroes time traveling to save the world.

The time travel goes back into the other movies, but doesn’t get too nostalgic about them. It’s nice Endgame can get traction out of the three locations, as they’re locations because of narrative detail not dramatic potential. There are a couple good action sequences in one of them, some wasted material for Hemsworth, some wasteful material Downey makes into gold, some old footage reused then CGI’ed to get another “name” guest star in the end credits, a major plot development for third act repercussion, and a too flat melodramatic moment. And a bunch of good acting, good directing, excellent CGI, and whatever else.

Endgame couldn’t get better, technically speaking. Everything directors Russo need to do, every shot, it all works. There’s a lot to keep moving. It gets kind of monotonous after a while, as the film’s ambitions are all about getting its story told, getting all its connections made, all its references echoed, all its characters in the right place for when the actors’ contracts run out. There’s no time to make wide filmmaking swings, but directors Russo don’t even seem interested in trying. They’re more than happy to leverage an old movie beat to get the job done.

Especially if it’s at Hemsworth’s expense. Especially Hemsworth’s.

There aren’t any bad performances. Downey’s the ace. Then Evans or Paul Rudd. Rudd’s better than anyone but Downey when he’s getting introduced; he’s momentarily the lead then he’s background. He ends up with even less to do than Renner. But Evans is in the whole movie. Ruffalo’s fine. There’s nothing for him to do. Hemsworth seems more than capable so it’s weird how little he gets to do. He’s fine. Johansson’d be better if she didn’t end up losing her arc once Renner’s back. There’s a moment where it seems like she’s going to give a really good performance. Instead, she’s fine. Good in comparison to others, when adjusting for all the film’s factors. Cheadle’s good with his stuff, which is mostly background noise. Karen Gillan gets a big arc, at least in terms of narrative importance, but loses it. She’s okay.

Gwyneth Paltrow is back for a bit. She’s good. It’s not a lot. But she and Downey get their magic going as needed.

Bradley Cooper’s great as the CGI raccoon’s voice.

As for Josh Brolin, whose villain was the whole show in the previous Infinity War? The CGI, motion-captured mean blue giant thing still works and Brolin’s fine, but… he’s got a thin part this time out. Technically lots to do, all of it really thin.

Endgame succeeds in being a well-acted, well-made, and well-written (enough) conclusion to the “world-building” done by the previous twenty-one movies. It just might have been nice if it tried to do anything else. Anything at all.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo; screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, based on the Marvel comics created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby; director of photography, Trent Opaloch; edited by Jeffrey Ford and Matthew Schmidt; music by Alan Silvestri; production designer, Charles Wood; produced by Kevin Feige; released by Walt Disney Pictures.

Starring Robert Downey Jr. (Iron Man), Chris Evans (Captain America), Mark Ruffalo (Hulk), Chris Hemsworth (Thor), Scarlett Johansson (Natasha Romanoff), Jeremy Renner (Clint Barton), Karen Gillan (Nebula), Bradley Cooper (Rocket), Paul Rudd (Scott Lang), Don Cheadle (James Rhodes), Gwyneth Paltrow (Pepper Potts), Brie Larson (Carol Danvers), and Josh Brolin (Thanos).


Avengers: Infinity War (2018, Anthony Russo and Joe Russo)

Avengers: Infinity War has quite a few significant achievements. Special effects, for example. But the two most salient ones are Josh Brolin’s performance (of a CG character, no less) and the pacing. Directors Russo and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely do an extraordinary job juggling the large cast and various storylines, which start splintered, then come together. But it’s the tension is the thing. The film opens with the introduction of a countdown clock, with the literal fate of the universe in the balance–the introduction’s both to the audience and the majority of the characters–and with that threat, the countdown is always present. There’s always more tension they can ratchet as things get more and more dire. It culminates in big finale, of course, with lots of moving pieces needing to sync up for that finale to work. But the most impressive thing is when, at around an hour and fifty minutes into the film (which runs two and a half hours, albeit with a questionable ten minute end credit sequence before the Marvel movie post-credits teaser), it becomes obvious they aren’t going to have time to wrap it up. The film’s so good at maintaining intensity, so good at latching on to the characters’ determined hopefulness, when defeat becomes visible and probable… it’s a shock. Even though there can’t be much other outcome, given the movie can’t really go on forever, can it?

Even if one of the big finale twists is a bit of a cheat since it relies entirely on something the audience (not to mention the characters) have any idea is possible.

Of course, what’s possible is what’s in question in Infinity War. Giant blue space alien (Brolin) is searching for six “infinity” stones, which–explained in a first act lecture to the audience (and Robert Downey Jr.)–will allow him to remake reality. Brolin starts the movie fighting with Chris Hemsworth out in space, but then goes off on his own storyline–arguably the film’s most successful, though it’s got limited competition and is the only consistent arc (thanks to Brolin’s shockingly good performance). How Brolin’s not just able to bring depth to the CG giant–which has far better CG than when Mark Ruffalo hulks out–also in terms of how he never gets caught up in the gooniness of the whole thing. Directors Russo play the whole thing straight–one of their greatest touches is treating Infinity War like an impromptu trip through the galaxy–but it wouldn’t work without Brolin. Everyone else who has to deal with the gooniness? Well, either it gets worked through like with Downey, Tom Holland, and Benedict Cumberbatch or utterly avoided like with Chris Evans and Scarlett Johansson. Hemsworth is somewhere in the middle. He spends most of the movie with Bradley Cooper’s CG wiseass mercenary raccoon and straightfaces it through the gooniness. Everyone else in his scenes is CG (they also bring along the talking tree “voiced”–or audio filtered–by Vin Diesel).

Anyway. With Brolin, there’s gravitas in the fantastical alien stuff. With Downey’s plot line or Evans’s, there’s not. Even with Downey on a space ship hurtling through hyperspace (presumably, otherwise the Marvel universe is real small), no one wants to get too bogged down with the logic. Hemsworth, hanging out with Cooper and the rest of the Guardians of the Galaxy crew, acknowledges the existence of the fantastical without wanting to deal with it. It’s a wise move from the filmmakers. The Russo Brothers get better performances out of Galaxy regulars Chris Pratt and (especially) Zoe Saldana than their feature movies ever suggested possible. Though Pratt’s still way out of his depth opposite Downey, which is made even more clear when Holland and Cumberbatch are able to keep up. With Holland even surpassing Downey, in no small part thanks to Downey’s acquiescence. They have a wonderful rapport.

The storylines follow the ostensible Avengers “big four”–Downey, Hemsworth, Evans, and Ruffalo. Though Ruffalo is just moving through where he’s playing second fiddle. First it’s to Hemsworth, then to Downey, then to Evans. Ruffalo’s fine and likable as ever, but… Infinity War goes far in showing, while Ed Norton might be regretting the profit sharing, he didn’t miss out on any great acting opportunities with the franchise.

Evans also ends up supporting other storylines, like Paul Bettany and Elizabeth Olsen trying to figure out how they’re going to survive the movie. Bettany is an android superhero (though he’s a distressingly weak android superhero in Infinity War) who has one of the rocks Brolin wants in his head. Olsen’s the woman who loves him; she’s also a superhero and the only one who can destroy said stone to save the universe, if need be. Evans protects them? He brings along sidekicks–Johansson, Anthony Mackie, Don Cheadle, and eventually Sebastian Stan–to help, but even they get a little more to do. Johansson bonds with Danai Gurira (after Evans and company become second–or third–fiddle to the Black Panther cast), Mackie and Cheadle have some rapport. I guess Stan doesn’t really get anything. But then neither does Chadwick Boseman, who’s the actual Black Panther. He’s scenery.

And then they get Ruffalo lumped in too because… the movie doesn’t actually need him. It’s kind of shocking how good the CG works with Brolin’s character versus Ruffalo’s Hulk. I know I mentioned it already, but it’s really striking.

Anyway. Hemsworth teams up with Pratt, Saldana, and the other Guardians team members who get almost nothing to do in the film–especially not after their first scene confronting Brolin; an Infinity War needs cannon fodder, after all. He’s got his quest with the CG Guardians and some fun moments with Cooper; Peter Dinklage shows up at some point in there too.

Then there’s Downey, who’s got Holland and Cumberbatch with him as they hurtle through the galaxy for a showdown with Brolin. They think. They eventually team up with the Guardians cast, leading to those scenes where we have to pretend Pratt can hold his own opposite Downey. Oh, right. It’s after Pratt can’t hold his own opposite Hemsworth and every single character in the movie makes fun of him for it. Good scene, but whatever.

So a lot going on. Because then there’s also Brolin’s whole arc, which involves adoptive daughter Saldana (he took her in after killing her mother and half the population of her planet). Lots going on, all at once. When the movie gets to the third act and all the storylines are going fullsteam–Brolin can instantly teleport between them, which helps to streamline–it’s truly astounding what editors Jeffrey Ford and Matthew Schmidt manage with their cutting. The film has a rhythm to it already, but they’re able to rev it something spectacular for the finish. Infinity War is a technical marvel. No pun.

Alan Silvestri’s score even recovers from the first act, when it’s focusing on repeating franchise themes.

Performance wise… Brolin’s best. Then Downey. They get the most to do. Their showdown, for instance, hints at some great nemesis possibility. The movie’s just too big (and already too long when they get together) for it. Then Holland? Holland doesn’t get a lot to do after the first act, especially not once Pratt and company join his storyline, but he’s always great support for Downey and he’s got the film’s best single scene (for a non-CG actor, anyway). Then Hemsworth. Because after Hemsworth everyone is fine, but not particularly standout. Though Saldana, Bettany, and Olsen all have some rather good moments; Saldana because it’s opposite Brolin’s CG giant alien, Bettany and Olsen because they’re able to ooze chemistry even though Bettany’s caked in red body paint.

Evans, Boseman, Cumberbatch, whoever. They get their jobs done. The movie doesn’t task them with a lot and always implies if they got another scene or two, they’d be quite good. The rapport between Johansson and Gurira, Cheadle and Mackie, whoever. The film implies potential, but keeps it in check because the trains have to run on time.

Even Pratt’s fine. Karen Gillan’s still not good. And the movie doesn’t do poor Pom Klementieff any favors.

Just getting to the finish line with Infinity War is a win for directors Russo and the screenwriters. Getting it to the finish line with so much good stuff along the way… the film’s a lot more successful than should even be possible, given it’s so seeped in franchise continuity and bloated with characters. The filmmakers nimbly hop through it all. Because, frankly, they get to leverage it all with Brolin’s singular, phenomenal performance.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo; screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, based on the Marvel comics created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby; director of photography, Trent Opaloch; edited by Jeffrey Ford and Matthew Schmidt; music by Alan Silvestri; production designer, Charles Wood; produced by Kevin Feige; released by Walt Disney Pictures.

Starring Josh Brolin (Thanos), Zoe Saldana (Gamora), Robert Downey Jr. (Tony Stark / Iron Man), Chris Hemsworth (Thor), Benedict Cumberbatch (Doctor Strange), Chris Pratt (Peter Quill / Star-Lord), Paul Bettany (Vision), Elizabeth Olsen (Wanda Maximoff / Scarlet Witch), Mark Ruffalo (Bruce Banner / Hulk), Tom Holland (Peter Parker / Spider-Man), Chris Evans (Steve Rogers / Captain America), Bradley Cooper (Rocket), Scarlett Johansson (Natasha Romanoff / Black Widow), Dave Bautista (Drax), Pom Klementieff (Mantis), Tom Vaughan-Lawlor (Ebony Maw), Carrie Coon (Proxima Midnight), Terry Notary (Cull Obsidian), Michael James Shaw (Corvus Glaive), Chadwick Boseman (T’Challa / Black Panther), Karen Gillan (Nebula), Danai Gurira (Okoye), Tom Hiddleston (Loki), Don Cheadle (James Rhodes / War Machine), Peter Dinklage (Eitri), Benedict Wong (Wong), Anthony Mackie (Sam Wilson / Falcon), Sebastian Stan (Bucky Barnes / Winter Soldier), Letitia Wright (Shuri), Winston Duke (M’Baku), Idris Elba (Heimdall), Gwyneth Paltrow (Pepper Potts), Benicio Del Toro (The Collector), and William Hurt (Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross).


Captain America: Civil War (2016, Anthony Russo and Joe Russo)

I wasn’t aware it was possible, but go-to Marvel superhero movie composer Henry Jackman is actually getting worse as he does more of these movies. His score for Captain America: Civil War is laughable, which is too bad, because if the film hit the thematic beats Jackman failed to achieve? Well, it wouldn’t fix the script, but it would definitely make the film flow a bit better.

The film is two and a half hours of action scenes every ten minutes or so. Unless the action scene goes on for longer than ten minutes, in which case it screws up the rhythm of subsequent scenes. But directors Russo keep it on schedule. Their job is getting this train ride to its conclusion and they do it. Their action direction is a bunch of sped-up fight scenes and they’re usually pretty boring. The opening one, with its strong performances from the way too big cast, could’ve been amazing with better direction. And the big superhero showdown is awesome for the most part, only… it doesn’t make much narrative sense as far as keeping the players in motion.

But there’s a lot quite good about Civil War. They blow the chance to give Robert Downey Jr. an actual character to play here, but they get pretty close on occasion. His scenes opposite Tom Holland are fantastic and Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely’s script does give Downey the opportunity for character development. The film just rejects it.

The real standout is Sebastian Stan, who never quite gets enough to do because there’s always another action scene for the Russo Brothers to get through–they have a really lame chase sequence, more is usually just more–but Stan is hypnotic. He also has great chemistry with ostensible lead Chris Evans (and Evans’s replacement sidekick, Anthony Mackie). Less action, more character; would’ve helped Civil War a lot. Especially since that way too big cast is often pretty good together.

Elizabeth Olsen is good, she and Paul Bettany are great together. Bettany’s got a bit of a crap part. So does Jeremy Renner, but Renner does get better material. Markus and McFeely–or maybe it was the Russo Brothers–seem to acknowledge they need to hit emotional beats and then they skip them. Paul Rudd’s fun, though his character’s pretty thinly written. William Hurt is embarrassing himself. Emily VanCamp gets the worst part in the movie. Seemingly intentionally.

As for the newcomers to the brand? Well, Holland’s great. He’s playing the Marvel Studios (sorry, Walt Disney) version of Spider-Man. Can’t wait for his movie. Chadwick Boseman’s fine as the Black Panther. It really ought to be his movie, but there’s so much pretending it’s Evan’s. Instead, Boseman’s basically Boba Fett. Sort of literally. Villain Daniel Brühl gets a terrible part (though still better than VanCamp) and not much opportunity to act.

Rather weak cinematography from Trent Opaloch, but otherwise Civil War is a completely competent outing.

There’s a lot of potential to this film and the filmmakers didn’t go for any of it. Instead, they went for a bunch of mediocre action scenes, one heck of a superhero battle (proving having ten superheroes fight on the big screen is an accomplishment in itself) and a really weak ending.

Evans and Downey both look exhausted throughout the film. Evans doesn’t get the material he (and the film) deserves, while Downey rejects the material. But until the denouement, it’s perfectly fine stuff.

And Sebastian Stan is truly phenomenal.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo; screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, based on the comic books by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby; director of photography, Trent Opaloch; edited by Jeffrey Ford and Matthew Schmidt; music by Henry Jackman; production designer, Owen Paterson; produced by Kevin Feige; released by Walt Disney Pictures.

Starring Chris Evans (Steve Rogers / Captain America), Robert Downey Jr. (Tony Stark / Iron Man), Sebastian Stan (Bucky Barnes), Daniel Brühl (Zemo), Chadwick Boseman (T’Challa), Anthony Mackie (Sam Wilson / Falcon), Scarlett Johansson (Natasha Romanoff / Black Widow), Elizabeth Olsen (Wanda Maximoff), Emily VanCamp (Sharon Carter), Don Cheadle (War Machine), Jeremy Renner (Clint Barton), Paul Bettany (Vision), Paul Rudd (Scott Lang) and Tom Holland (The Amazing Spider-Man).


Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015, Joss Whedon)

There are no leads in Avengers: Age of Ultron. It is a collection of poorly staged Bond movie action sequences featuring different people in costumes doing outrageous things but never having much consequence to their actions. There’s no time for consequence, not when director Whedon has to get to the next brand to showcase. Age of Ultron is a commercial for itself, for its various brands. Whedon happily turns everyone in the film into a caricature. I wonder if there are special Disney executive glasses to reveal the actors aren’t really saying their often lame dialogue, they’re really telling moms to buy two of the Falcon figure, one for Junior and one for your husband. Avengers: Obey Ultron is a better title anyway.

But it’s not a bad commercial. I mean, it’s not good, but it’s exceptional photography from Ben Davis. Davis saves this movie. He’s the only reason it’s tolerable. Whedon’s not good at the film. He tries a different, generic, accessible style for every set piece. He can’t do any of them, but Davis makes it work. Even when it’s outrageously stupid, Davis makes it work. Most of that outrageously stupid stuff comes in the middle section; it’s also when Age of Ultron gets better. Its cast can survive it being dumb. They’re already being poorly directed. Whedon does know what they should be doing though–the banter between Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans is initially lame, but they do build a chemistry, they do build a rapport. Age of Ultron is about a “team” but its actors are incredibly distant from one another. Whedon tries to stage group shots, but they’re painfully bad. No one has anything to say to one another.

Except for the two love stories. The very strange case of Mark Ruffalo, who has given up and doesn’t care who knows it, and Scarlett Johansson, who is bad in the film’s worst written role. And then Linda Cardellini as Jeremy Renner’s hidden bride. He didn’t tell the team! There’s a lot of team talk! Team, team, team! I even love typing the word team! Whedon’s got a very standard action story with the Ultron thing (an evil robot voiced by James Spader, who is awful in the film’s second worst written role), but then there’s the problem with the team! What problem with the team? The incredibly sketchily established problem with the team, because the team never really spends any real time together. Whedon’s got an idiotic present action for the film–a couple weeks at most, probably far less (no one ever sleeps in Age of Ultron because Toons don’t have to sleep)–and no time for actual character development. Instead, he tries to start straight at the second act of the subplots.

And, guess what, it’s bad. Just like the beginning and, unfortunately, end of the movie. Because, secretly, I really wanted to like this one. I thought it’d be funny. But this movie has a little kid living because a superhero died. Set to awful music from Brian Tyler and Danny Elfman. It’s laughable. It’s not effective because you can’t have effective with Toons. You sacrifice it for the spectacle.

Ultron has some spectacle. It’s kind of goofy and dumb, but it’s spectacle. It’s also terribly edited. Jeffrey Ford and Lisa Lassek don’t appear to have many choices (actors often are strangely not available for two shots), but it’s still terrible editing. So it has terribly edited, goofy, dumb spectacle. It’s also got Paul Bettany playing a riff on Superman, channeling Christopher Reeve. It’s weird, it’s out of place, but it’s something actually special in the midst of all the goofy stuff.

Same goes for Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen. Sort of. Olsen turns out to be really good in a lame part. She has most of her scenes with Taylor-Johnson and basically carries him up to her level. Sure, she’s playing a caricature, but really dang well and they do get a better story line than most in the film.

Of the four leads, Chris Hemsworth is the most impressive. He has the worst part, the lamest subplot, yet it’s a movie star performance. You pay attention. Even when he gets the lamest action sequences too. Ultron is a bad commercial for Thor movies, except Hemsworth changes your mind. Least impressive is Ruffalo, who I mentioned had given up. His performance is silly, partially because Whedon plays the Hulk for laughs and cuteness (really), partially because it’s just a goofy part, and partially because Ruffalo is barely conscious. You fall asleep watching him.

The problem with the movie, besides being forty minutes too long because it’s all some nonsense about the safety of civilians, which is less about distinguishing itself from the superhero competition, and more about Disney declaring its concern for everyone. Because everyone can visit Disney World someday. You gotta stay bland.

There’s some really lazy acting from Robert Downey Jr. He does get better for long stretches, but he’s real lazy. Sam Jackson has more energy than him, because Jackson just does Julius. He does Disney Julius. And for a moment, Age of Ultron feels like something. It feels like the team has come together. Not the A Team, this team.

Team.

Only Whedon screws it all up. It’s hard to blame anyone else, but it’s a little strange because he does bring some passion to the film. It just isn’t any of the action set pieces. It’s none of the character stuff. It’s the iconic stuff. He really wants to be able to do the iconic stuff and it just doesn’t come off.

And James Spader is awful. He’s awful. So awful.

I think I’m going to go for a thousand words on Age of Ultron just because of Spader. Whedon wrote Spader’s part for David Spade and then cast Spader. It’s weird, but it should be true. It’s a goofy, comic part.

Anyway, Ultron’s occasionally enjoyable, but more often lame.

Bettany rules!

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Joss Whedon; screenplay by Whedon, based on the Marvel comics created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby; director of photography, Ben Davis; edited by Jeffrey Ford and Lisa Lassek; music by Brian Tyler and Danny Elfman; production designer, Charles Wood; produced by Kevin Feige; released by Walt Disney Pictures.

Starring Chris Evans (Captain America), Robert Downey Jr. (Iron Man), Chris Hemsworth (Thor), Mark Ruffalo (Hulk), Scarlett Johansson (Black Widow), Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Quicksilver), Elizabeth Olsen (Scarlet Witch), Paul Bettany (The Vision), Jeremy Renner (Hawkeye), James Spader (Ultron), Linda Cardellini (Laura Barton) and Samuel L. Jackson (Nick Fury).


Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014, Anthony Russo and Joe Russo)

Captain America: The Winter Soldier has a bunch of great, thoughtful scenes and many excellent–and some just better than normal–performances but it doesn’t add up to much. Those fine scenes don’t have enough separation from the very hurried plot to resonate on their own. What should be subplots turn out to be nothing but texture scenes or, more cynically, ones to tie into later big plot developments.

Directors Anthony Russo and Joe Russo do an adequate job with the film. Some of the action, particularly in the first half, is good. The big finale goes from way too hurried for the scenes with sidekicks Scarlett Johansson and Anthony Mackie to way too protracted with Chris Evans’s second big fight opposite Sebastian Stan. These scenes take place amid the film’s only enormous CGI sequence, which the directors don’t really know what to do with.

The acting is all good; even the weaker performances like Johansson’s are mostly all right. Evans and Mackie are fantastic. Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely don’t have an honest relationship between any of the characters–Evans and Johansson, Evans and Mackie, Samuel L. Jackson and Robert Redford–but the actors make it all work.

Though Redford does look a little lost. He doesn’t chew the scenery as much as the role requires.

Nice supporting work from Frank Grillo too.

The Winter Soldier stays engaging throughout–even during the bloated third act. The film’s already got the viewers invested in the characters.

It’s too bad though, it should’ve been better.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Anthony Russo and Joe Russo; screenplay by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, based on characters created by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby; director of photography, Trent Opaloch; edited by Jeffrey Ford; music by Henry Jackman; production designer, Peter Wenham; produced by Kevin Fiege; released by Walt Disney Pictures.

Starring Chris Evans (Steve Rogers/Captain America), Scarlett Johansson (Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow), Sebastian Stan (The Winter Soldier), Anthony Mackie (Sam Wilson/Falcon), Cobie Smulders (Agent Maria Hill), Frank Grillo (Brock Rumlow), Hayley Atwell (Peggy Carter), Toby Jones (Dr. Arnim Zola), Georges St-Pierre (Batroc), Robert Redford (Alexander Pierce) and Samuel L. Jackson (Nick Fury).


The Avengers (2012, Joss Whedon)

For some inexplicable reason, partway through The Avengers, director Whedon and his cinematographer, Seamus McGarvey, decide to switch over to really bad DV. The entire movie might be DV, but the middle section is painfully obvious. With Tom Hiddleston’s British machinations, it feels like the biggest, strangest (and possibly worst) “Masterpiece Theatre” ever.

While Whedon’s responsible for a lot of the film’s problems–the lousy first act, the utter absence of character development, some of the least ambitious direction in motion picture history–some of the problems came with the project. Sam Jackson isn’t just ludicrous, he’s bad. Scarlett Johansson as a Russian? And a super spy? It’s absurd.

But Whedon doesn’t give his better actors much to do either. Both Chris Evans and Robert Downey Jr. meander for the first half, though Evans is a little better (Downey recovers in the second half). Mark Ruffalo does better. Chris Hemsworth barely makes an impression; his appearance feels contractually obligated more than anyone else’s.

The movie does come together eventually though and Whedon does come up with some really funny scenes. He starts the movie incompetently small and then brings in the spectacle. The spectacle works, regardless of his direction, it’s just too bad The Avengers isn’t a cohesive work.

Hiddleston’s pretty good as the only non-CG villain and Clark Gregg does great supporting work. Jeremy Renner’s minuscule presence is inconsequential; Cobie Smulders is terrible.

Alan Silvestri’s score is dreadful.

But, as I said, The Avengers spectacle does entertain. Eventually.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by Joss Whedon; screenplay by Whedon, based on a story by Zak Penn and Whedon and comic books by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby; director of photography, Seamus McGarvey; edited by Jeffrey Ford and Lisa Lassek; music by Alan Silvestri; production designer, James Chinlund; produced by Kevin Feige; released by Walt Disney Studios.

Starring Robert Downey Jr. (Tony Stark / Iron Man), Chris Evans (Steve Rogers / Captain America), Chris Hemsworth (Thor), Mark Ruffalo (Bruce Banner / The Hulk), Scarlett Johansson (Natasha Romanoff / Black Widow), Jeremy Renner (Clint Barton / Hawkeye), Tom Hiddleston (Loki), Clark Gregg (Agent Phil Coulson), Cobie Smulders (Agent Maria Hill), Stellan Skarsgård (Selvig), Samuel L. Jackson (Nick Fury) and Gwyneth Paltrow (Pepper Potts).


Iron Man 2 (2010, Jon Favreau)

Even with its problems, Iron Man 2 is leagues better than the original.

There’s some awkward plotting to catch the viewer up with the characters and it all makes for a wonderfully boring superhero movie.

That open’s a showcase for Downey’s acting abilities, given he’s on a slow burn as everything around him explodes–for the first half, there’s not much Iron Man, but lots of villain stuff with Mickey Rourke and Sam Rockwell, plus the introduction of Scarlett Johansson and “return” of Don Cheadle.

And when it does finally catch fire–even with the more ludicrous plot elements–it’s fantastic. It’s a shame it ends when it does, since it introduces so much great material for the actors to work with.

As far as actors… Downey’s great, Rourke’s great… Rockwell’s a little toned down–he’s been a lot more dynamic in other stuff–and, finally, someone realized Downey and Gwyneth Paltrow do a great Nick and Nora together and let them.

Unfortunately, there are other actors. Cheadle’s okay. It’s never believable he and Downey are friends though (it wasn’t in the first one with Terrence Howard, so no biggie). Johansson’s infinitely bland, which is better than her normal awful (regardless of her acting, her fight scene has some great choreography). Samuel L. Jackson is a joke, one the filmmakers don’t seem to be in on.

It’s a lot of fun and it’s got some actual content, which really surprised me.

It’s a shame about John Debney’s laughable score though.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by Jon Favreau; screenplay by Justin Theroux, based on the Marvel Comics character created by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, Don Heck and Jack Kirby; director of photography, Matthew Libatique; edited by Richard Pearson and Dan Lebental; music by John Debney; production designer, J. Michael Riva; produced by Kevin Feige; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Robert Downey Jr. (Tony Stark), Gwyneth Paltrow (Pepper Potts), Mickey Rourke (Ivan Vanko), Don Cheadle (Rhodey), Scarlett Johansson (Natalie), Sam Rockwell (Justin Hammer), Samuel L. Jackson (Nick Fury), Clark Gregg (Agent Coulson), Garry Shandling (Senator Stern), Jon Favreau (Happy) and John Slattery (Howard Stark).


The Prestige (2006, Christopher Nolan)

Oh, good grief. The Prestige is in IMDb’s top 250 movies? It’s so bad, I’m actually going to say something nice about Christopher Nolan in a second here. I’ve never heard of source novelist Christopher Priest and no one I know has ever mentioned him to me, so I’m guessing he’s pretty godawful, which probably means the atrocious, idiotic plotting of The Prestige isn’t Nolan’s fault. The terrible writing of the scenes, well, that defect is surely Nolan & Co.’s, since it’s a stable of all his cinematic endeavors, but the asinine, illogical plotting… maybe not his fault.

The best performances in the film are from Rebecca Hall (big shock), David Bowie (ok, a little surprising), Andy Serkis (again, surprising) and Hugh Jackman–well, Hugh Jackman with a caveat. With The Prestige being Nolan and Nolan apparently being the twist ending zeitgeist with M. Night Shyamalan falling on hard times, the twist ending makes it impossible for Jackman, in his role as the protagonist, to actually give a good performance (imagine Jack knowing he was Tyler the whole time), but there’s a little bit where Jackman gets to do this humorous impersonation (with a fake nose) of himself and he’s hilarious. Unfortunately, it doesn’t last long.

Christian Bale’s terrible (he’s not supposed to be a psychopath in every movie, is he?), Scarlett Johansson’s atrocious, Michael Caine’s not as bad as I figured. Johansson’s English accent is occasionally hilarious.

Nolan’s composition isn’t bad but the fragmented narrative is, as always, pinheaded.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Christopher Nolan; screenplay by Christopher Nolan and Jonathan Nolan, based on the novel by Christopher Priest; director of photography, Wally Pfister; edited by Lee Smith; music by David Julyan; production designer, Nathan Crowley; produced by Christopher Nolan, Emma Thomas and Aaron Ryder; released by Warner Bros. and Touchstone Pictures.

Starring Hugh Jackman (Robert Angier), Christian Bale (Alfred Borden), Michael Caine (Cutter), Scarlett Johansson (Olivia), Piper Perabo (Julia McCullough), Rebecca Hall (Sarah Borden), David Bowie (Tesla) and Andy Serkis (Alley).


The Island (2005, Michael Bay)

I know The Island bombed but I can’t believe anyone thought it wouldn’t. It’s incredible such a large budget was given essentially to a future movie–it takes place in 2015 or something, it’s never clear, but there’s a lot of future stuff–and I had no idea it was a future movie. Bay’s got future cars and future trains and future motorcycles and he’s the worst person to do a future movie, because he’s incapable of wonderment. The Island plays out like Freejack on overdrive.

The plot is ripe for all sorts of metaphors–this island paradise, whatever–and the film ignores all of them. Instead it’s a wholly competent, completely unexciting summer action movie. Scarlett Johansson plays a twit well and Ewan McGregor’s a solid lead in a vapid role–it’d have been really funny if the pair had been cloned from their actors, who they then had to duke it out with.

Djimon Hounsou is wasted, as he always is, cast as the tough black guy with the accent. Sean Bean’s good as the villain, even if his dialogue is crappy. Steve Buscemi’s awesome in a small role; he really has fun, maybe more than anyone else, just because he’s not pretending about what kind of movie he’s making.

It’s really cool looking–the future designs and all–and Bay does a decent job. But when the music (a good score from Steve Jablonsky) comes up, it doesn’t matter what the movie is–Bay’s directing another commercial.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Michael Bay; screenplay by Caspian Tredwell-Owen, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci, based on a story by Tredwell-Owen; director of photography, Mauro Fiore; edited by Paul Rubell and Christian Wagner; music by Steve Jablonsky; production designer, Nigel Phelps; produced by Walter F. Parkes, Bay and Ian Bryce; released by DreamWorks Pictures.

Starring Ewan McGregor (Lincoln Six Echo), Scarlett Johansson (Jordan Two Delta), Djimon Hounsou (Albert Laurent), Sean Bean (Merrick), Steve Buscemi (McCord), Michael Clarke Duncan (Starkweather) and Ethan Phillips (Jones Echo Three).


The Spirit (2008, Frank Miller)

The Spirit is a disaster. It’s a complete disaster. But sometimes, it’s a wonderful one.

Frank Miller can’t write a movie, he can’t plot a movie–arguably, with the exception of his straight-on shots, he can sort of direct one–but it doesn’t matter. There’s no good reason anyone should have given Miller any kind of budget or creative control over a movie and Lionsgate, being Lionsgate, did and he created this mess.

There are good things about The Spirit. Actors. Two of them. Gabriel Macht and Sarah Paulson. Some of the very supporting supporting cast is all right. The majority of the performances are awful. They’re incompetent, but Miller can’t direct actors and he can’t cast them. He found two of the worst female actors he could and cast them in a movie together–who’s worse, Eva Mendes or Scarlett Johansson. I actually think it has to be Johansson, just because her scenes with Samuel L. Jackson make it look like he’s giving a decent performance (by comparison).

Miller apparently thought Jackson was a good choice for the outlandish villain, but Jackson gives the same performance–big shock–he’s been giving since Pulp Fiction. He does not, however, mention being black, which might be the reason he’s a little bit better than usual. With Johansson around–or Paz Vega or Stana Kelic–it’s impossible for Jackson to really seem all too terrible. There’s so much garbage acting, just the basic ability to deliver ones lines puts Jackson leagues ahead.

Dan Lauria is also terrible. Miller’s choices, however stupid, all make sense except Lauria. He should have chemistry with Paulson. He doesn’t. He should have chemistry with Macht. He doesn’t. Instead, he goes around being awful.

Miller’s style for the film occasionally betrays real storytelling sensibility. Not often, but occasionally; enough to keep the interest level up. But the thrill of The Saint is feeling Miller’s vibe–his idiotic vibe. I think he thinks he did a good job presenting Will Eisner’s character to modern audiences, but what he’s created is this amalgam fans won’t like and new audiences can’t connect with. By updating the original, he’s somehow dated it.

He did the whole green screen thing (like Sin City) and it frequently works. Letting Miller be stupid is at least interesting, whether it’s his composition or the way he utilizes color.

It’s too bad it’s not a particularly original film. It seems like a retread of Batman Forever, but with the Danny Elfman Batman music blaring. There are Pulp Fiction references, Superman references… all sorts of references. And they don’t work because Miller doesn’t understand he isn’t connecting with the audience. He probably even thought the audience was going to care about the characters.

Only Macht and Paulson make real people. Paulson because she can’t help acting well and Macht by accident (his frequent voice overs do him no favors). But their scenes together are fantastic, right from the start.

I suppose the movie moves pretty well too. It’s going to be one of the last vanity projects unproven filmmakers get, so it’s definitely worth looking at just from the historical perspective. Plus, it’s nowhere near as bad as I expected.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Frank Miller; screenplay by Miller, based on the comic book series by Will Eisner; director of photography, Bill Pope; edited by Gregory Nussbaum; music by David Newman; produced by Deborah Del Prete, Gigi Pritzker and Michael E. Uslan; released by Lionsgate.

Starring Gabriel Macht (The Spirit), Eva Mendes (Sand Saref), Sarah Paulson (Ellen), Dan Lauria (Dolan), Paz Vega (Plaster of Paris), Eric Balfour (Mahmoud), Jaime King (Lorelei), Scarlett Johansson (Silken Floss), Samuel L. Jackson (The Octopus) and Louis Lombardi (Phobos).


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