Short takes: Avengers: Infinity War & You Were Never Really Here

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Avengers: Infinity War — My distaste for the third Avengers film is due in part to my overall fatigue with the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Since 2008’s Iron Man, the MCU has become an ubiquitous presence at the movies. Over the last decade, we’ve seen at least one, and often more, of these movies almost every year. They built toward 2012’s The Avengers, uniting the core characters of the previous movies (if you’re not familiar with them at this point, congratulations) for a city-destroying epic. Then they continued building (and destroying), with individual installments culminating in another Avengers film in 2015.

These movies are often exhausting in their mediocrity; generically constructed, often interchangeable battle sequences are peppered throughout blandly sinister attempts to destroy the world. The best movies in the MCU (Ant-Man, Black Panther, the second installments of Captain America and Guardians of the Galaxy) are often the ones that have narratives that hone in on building a specific cinematic world rather than a universe. Directorial personality doesn’t hurt, either.

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REVIEW: Call Me by Your Name

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Call Me by Your Name
Directed by: Luca Guadagnino
Written by: James Ivory (screenplay), André Aciman (novel)
Starring: Timothée Chalamet, Armie Hammer, Michael Stuhlbarg and Amira Casar

Not everyone gets a young summer romance. Sometimes you look back a month, a year, a decade later and realize that you had one, and it was perfect, or as perfect as it could have been. When it’s over you might wonder why you wasted so much time fumbling around, doing an awkward dance around what you wanted to say or do. That dance is part of the beauty of it, though. If you’d been more practiced, more put together and guarded, it might not have happened at all.

It happens for Elio (Timothée Chalamet), a 17-year-old boy living with his parents at a sun-drenched villa “somewhere in Northern Italy” in 1983. It’s the kind of place where people come and go as they please; his parents always have different guests for dinner. Elio spends his days transcribing music, reading and flirting with girls. He’s a mass of contradictions, as teenagers tend to be; polite but sometimes condescending, hesitant with bursts of confidence. Chalamet imbues him with a lanky restlessness. It comes out when he plays the piano, or stalks the edges of the many different social gatherings.

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REVIEW: Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi
Directed by: Rian Johnson
Written by: Rian Johnson (screenplay), George Lucas (characters)
Starring: Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, Mark Hamill and John Boyega

Rian Johnson takes giant, often messy leaps in The Last Jedi, the eighth episode of Star Wars and the second in the (first) post-Disney trilogy. His take feels much more sporadic than the cautious nostalgia trip J.J. Abrams rendered in 2015’s The Force Awakens. It has higher highs and lower lows, hopping from its disparate plot lines with an often jarring inconsistency. While it has some of the series’ strongest set pieces, its clumsy narrative rhythm doesn’t allow it to breathe. As a result, its moments of visual splendor are sometimes lessened or cut short by sloppy pacing.

(No major spoilers, but the basic plot set-up is discussed ahead)

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Short takes: Blade Runner 2049, Happy Death Day & Brawl in Cell Block 99

Blade Runner 2049 —  It would have been interesting to see what Ridley Scott did with Blade Runner 2049. He has had mixed results with expanding the mythology of the Alien films, though having them stacked up against his near-perfect original almost seems unfair. The way he has deepened the mythology, though, by focusing on the android characters, would make his updated take on the world of Blade Runner fascinating. Comparisons between Blade Runner 2049 and the original don’t hurt the quality of either movie, though that could be because I don’t hold the 1982 film in as high regard as some of Scott’s others.

The Blade Runner universe, which focuses on the “retiring” (killing) of human-made androids called replicants, is also a good fit for Denis Villeneuve. His 35-year-later sequel focuses on Los Angeles Police Officer K (Ryan Gosling), who is tasked with hunting down older model replicants, the ones who can disobey their programming and grow to have independent thoughts. His initial retirement of a replicant who has been hiding out on a farm for 20 years leads him down a rabbit hole that challenges his perceptions of what he does and blows open much of the debate that fueled the original movie. How human are the replicants? And how much do humans ignore that to get rid of the ones labeled as rogue?

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REVIEW: mother!

mother!
Directed by: Darren Aronofsky
Written by: Darren Aronofsky
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer

It’s best to go into mother! knowing nothing about it, though if someone spoils it for you you might not believe them. (I’ll do my best not to spoil any major plot points from here on out, but you might want to stop until after you see the movie). Darren Aronofsky’s psychodrama plums the self-lacerating depths of being married to a hopeless narcissist, a popular one at that. His portrait of marriage is ruthlessly calculated, pinpointing the tremors in a woman’s face with every small betrayal by her husband. A series of disruptions to their everyday lives begins as a nervous twitch before careening over the edge of sanity into an abyss of blood and fire.

The couple at the center of the movie (played by Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem), live in an isolated mansion, one too far removed from society for cell phone service but not for a landline. The woman (none of the characters are named) spends the days remodeling the house after it was nearly destroyed in a fire. Her husband is a writer supposedly crippled by writer’s block.  He often fills his time tucked away in a study gazing at odd knick knacks, like a mysterious gem he keeps on a pedestal and protects like he’s Gollum.  Sometimes he appears to just wonder off into the neighboring woods. I got the sense when the movie started that she wakes up almost every morning to an empty bed and plays a slightly sad game of hide and seek.

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Short takes: Detroit, Girls Trip, Atomic Blonde & A Ghost Story

Detroit— Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit is harrowing and infuriating, a claustrophobic tale of police brutality set against the 1967 riots in the Motor City. The movie is centered around the murder of three black men by the police at the Algiers Motel; more specifically it’s about the violent lead up to those deaths. State and city police and the National Guard swarm the complex after a man at the motel tauntingly pops off a few rounds from a starter pistol. That man is shot in the back while trying to flee, and a Detroit cop places a pocket knife next to his dying body so he can justify the killing. The rest of the people at the motel are detained and brutalized.

This is all told in squirm-inducing proximity to the carnage; Bigelow makes you feel every punch, shove and gunshot. The blunt physicality that has come to define her recent work often lends itself to unnerving suspense, especially in her 2008 film The Hurt Locker.  However, though I could feel this movie’s violence in my bones, it’s not instilled with enough historical context to elevate it much beyond that. The horror at the Algiers is bookended by sloppy segments that try and fail to broaden the movie’s focus.

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Short takes: Dunkirk & War for the Planet of the Apes

Dunkirk — Christopher Nolan’s World War II drama is an intense, often thrilling triptych.  Structured around British efforts to escape the beach at Dunkirk, France as the Germans inch closer and closer, the movie oscillates between characters on land, air and sea.  There are the troops stuck on the shore, desperate to get away as Nazi planes pick them off with gunfire and bombing runs. A small number of Allied planes counter the Germans, trying to minimize casualties on the ground until help arrives. The third segment revolves around a man (Mark Rylance, casually excellent) whose boat is among a fleet of British citizens commissioned by the navy to take their private vessels to go and rescue the stranded soldiers.

Each of these segments unfolds over a different timeframe, so things that happen in one of them are sometimes viewed from a different perspective later on in the movie.  Nolan skips between them liberally, and this rapid fire structure nearly always pays off.  However, there are moments that cut away too soon, dicing up scenes that would have worked better if they’d been allowed to play out a bit longer.  Dunkirk’s expansive, visceral view of war is also sometimes lessened by an overbearing score that distracts rather than enhances.

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