Three Reviews

I added three movie reviews to the archives this week. The first, my review of 2018’s Avengers film, is timed for next month’s heavily-hyped new Avengers movie. In this article, posted elsewhere last year, I question making mass death and nihilism entertaining or ‘fun’, which is the 2018 film’s essence. I point out that these comics movies depict the superhero’s superpower in widening disproportion to the individual’s vanishing power, due to government control, over his life. I think it’s an interesting contrast.

Is it possible these preposterous movies are popular for this reason? Read my review of Avengers: Infinity War here.

Two analyses of movies by screenwriter and director Robert Benton, whom I interviewed last spring in Hollywood, also appear on the site archives. The movies had been selected by Turner Classic Movies for presentation during last year’s classic movies festival where I interviewed Mr. Benton. We discussed both movies in great detail during the interview. It was a rare opportunity to delve into the motion picture arts with a marvelous storyteller (I plan to make the interview available to a wider audience).

I wanted to see the two pictures again before conducting the interview, which took place at the site of the first Academy Awards. Fittingly, both films won prestigious Oscars. This is not my primary concern, however, and I think the movies’ merits stand apart from Oscar recognition, awards which are rapidly becoming less meaningful. That said, I wanted to write an extensive review analyzing both films before the interview was conducted and published. I’ve made them available here for the first time.

The first article takes a serious look at Robert Benton’s adaptation of Avery Corman’s novel, Kramer Vs. Kramer (1979). This is an outstanding motion picture and not just as a character study of the modern man. Incidentally, besides Robert Redford‘s adaptation of Judith Guest’s novel of Chicago’s suburban North Shore, Ordinary People, it’s probably one of the last heroic movies to win Oscar’s Best Picture award to depict a wholly fictional story with style, depth and artistry.

Forty years after its release, Kramer Vs. Kramer remains relevant and compelling. I’m still thinking about the movie as I write this. I saw it as a boy in the movie theater upon its release and I was astonished. Today, Kramer Vs. Kramer exists as a testament that movies can be great, large and wonderful about heroic beings without being loud, brash and sniveling like today’s onslaught of Marvel or death premise pictures. I doubt whether Kramer Vs. Kramer would get a hearing amid today’s Me, Too orthodoxy. I think it would be deemed too pro-man, too white or too male or not abiding today’s collectivism. Read my breakdown of Kramer Vs. Kramer.

Benton made Places in the Heart five years later. It’s a bleaker film than Kramer, though in a way it is more challenging, epic and universal. Gone are the parks, brownstones and hurry of New York City’s Upper East Side in Kramer. Here, come the fields, rooms and quiet of faraway Texas. Celebrating its 35th anniversary, the picture that won an Oscar for Sally Field shows real insight about a range of serious issues, including what it means to be marginalized or minimized by others, but especially what it means to make your own home, family and life without regard to blood, tribe and the irrational.

Robert Benton is religious. He comes from Texas. Places in the Heart reflects his faith and background, especially in its final frames. But it also depicts with serenity and clarity the hardship of being different in a world going bad and I think it offers a salve, a coolant and grace for forging one’s own way when nothing seems possible. I have seen and enjoyed most of Robert Benton’s movies, including those I’ve had the pleasure to interview him about, such as The Human Stain with its similar strains and Feast of Love with its blissful sense of life. Places in the Heart depicts that human strength begins with a commitment to care for yourself. This alone sets it far and above most movies now or upon its release. Read my review here.

Movies This Spring

Movies This Spring

Marvel’s movies dominated this spring at the box office again. This time, however, the plot and character glut maxes out to the point of fatigue. I was already dissuaded from further investing in Marvel’s comic book-based series, which I’ve favored, defended and enjoyed, by the overwrought, confused and overrated Black Panther. I’m apparently alone in that camp, which is fine with me.

Read the review

Unfortunately, this season’s Avengers: Infinity War is worse; my review explains why. I doubt I’ll look forward to seeing another Marvel movie. Even before I saw the most recent Star Wars picture, I was already starting to lose interest in that series, too, which I’ve never thought were comprised of great motion pictures.

Then, Lucasfilm named director Ron Howard to direct the new movie (an origin story) about the main major Star Wars character I find the least involving, Han Solo, titled Solo. The film debuts later this month. I’ve decided to see the movie, however, because I like some of Ron Howard’s work, especially Frost/Nixon, Cinderella Man and his TV series Parenthood for NBC. As always, I hope for the best.

The best is what I get every time I attend the TCM Classic Film Festival and this year’s events, screenings and movies do not disappoint. After previewing the literary-themed festival, I covered the red carpet affair on opening night. I met and interviewed honored guest Robert Benton, who wrote and directed two movies which screened this year, which I also reviewed.

My roundup of TCM’s 2018 Classic Film Festival, with a critique of what went wrong and an account of what was wonderfully right, is available on The New Romanticist. Among the classic movies screened and reviewed are Alfred Hitchcock’s 1945 murder mystery, Spellbound, Benton’s finely tuned Kramer vs. Kramer and my favorite film of all the pictures I saw, William Wellman’s original version of A Star is Born. They’re each reviewed and linked, with other films such as 1972’s Sounder and 1931’s I Take This Woman, in the roundup.

Movie Review: Avengers: Age of Ultron

Movie Review: Avengers: Age of Ultron

AAOUHollywood whiz kid and libertarian folk figure Joss Whedon (Firefly) finally grinds Marvel’s creative engine to a halt with the flat, overwrought Avengers 2 picture, Avengers: Age of Ultron. It sputters and spins.

With a generic, meaningless title as generic and meaningless as its Ready for Hillary arrow logo movie poster, this mediocrity exploits the past, flaps its lips and signifies nothing. After years of defending and enjoying these comics films, such as Thor, Iron Man and Captain America, including last year’s sequel, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which is among 2014’s best movies, I found Avengers 2 to be the amalgamation of every negative stereotype about geek-gamer-fanboy subculture; a hyperactive, meaningless mess. If you loved Whedon’s other overrated, overstuffed fare, from one cancelled TV series to another and every bloated thing in between, you’ll love this monster mash, too.

However, if, like me, you were drawn into his blank worlds of TV’s Dollhouse and whatever else and came away utterly unimpressed, this, too, will deflate the dollars and senses. I deliberately braced and lowered expectations before the show just to loosen up in case Marvel let Whedon have his way with this one. I was bored within five minutes.

It takes an effort to waste Robert Downey, Jr. (The Judge), Chris Evans (Snowpiercer), Chris Hemsworth (Thor) and secondary players such as Samuel L. Jackson (Pulp Fiction), Anthony Mackie (Black or White) and Jeremy Renner (The Hurt Locker). But writer and director Whedon makes them all look bad, though Evans fares best, with atrocious lines that are supposed to be snappy but instead come off as a half-formed Forties rehash. Everything is too fast, too forced and totally counterfeit. The plot never develops. The characters never develop. The theme involves some sort of indictment of German superman philosophy and propagates the Bush-Obama foreign policy directive to elevate not killing civilians to the highest moral purpose at the expense of letting madmen who’ll destroy everyone go. The Avengers sequel reduces the avenger—the hero—to a sacrificial soldier in a thankless drudgery of duty. More than once, someone shrugs that it’s been a long, bad day.

More than once, I felt this as a long, bad movie. Aside from nitpicks, including that Scarlett Johansson’s character has miraculously lost any trace of an accent that I could have sworn her Black Widow character once had or that James Spader sounds like the National Car Rental ad guy as the voice of evil biotech villain Ultron (not like James Spader), too many characters are shoved into too little plot with no real point.

The result is an arbitrary kitchen sink movie with some of the worst dialogue written for the screen.

“They scratch the surface and never think to look within,” a character says of human beings, for instance. This comes after multiple one-liners, smash-ups and explosions and no exposition. Characters change allegiances for no coherent reason. What usually makes Downey’s caustic Iron Man appealing falls flat without context. I never did figure out why Renner’s bow-and-arrow character was doing in a subplot as deep as a country music video. Throwing in derivations of Silver Streak (1976) or Spider-Man (2002) and a collapsing skyscraper, mega-earthquake and a subplot pairing Johansson (Her) and Mark Ruffalo’s Hulk, with the romantic chemistry that suggests, and any remaining action heroism is strung out in long-winded riddles, belabored contrivances and sight gags. Disney’s John Carter made more sense.

Add dream sequences, inner turmoil and an anti-climactic showdown in the air between the avengers and Ultron and Avengers: Age of Ultron is at best an action movie with psychobabble and badly written banter.

Three years ago, almost to the day, I wrote about a publicity piece in one of those promotional publications on The Avengers that gave me pause and made me wary of Joss Whedon’s anti-heroism. This weekend, Avengers: Age of Ultron, underestimating its cast, audience and studios and taking its fans for granted, adds nothing to Marvel’s universe and further detracts from the series. Disney’s Thor director, Kenneth Branagh, delivered what may be this year’s best picture, Cinderella. By contrast, Disney’s Avengers director, Joss Whedon, delivers a manic mixture of incomprehensible plot points that minimize Marvel’s iconic heroes in the worst new movie I’ve seen in some time.