Category Archives: Film

Film: ARQ

arq-poster-smallNetflix original science fiction film ARQ (2016) lacks a novel premise and doesn’t have much of a budget, but it does have confidence, energy, and subtly integrated SF world-building. Warning: this review will “spoil” its very familiar structural premise, so for those of you who like to go in without expectation: ARQ is inessential but clever and pretty entertaining. For the rest of you, read on!

Ren (Robbie Amell) is an engineer who used to work for a massive worldwide corporation called Torus. He awakens one morning with old flame Hannah (Rachael Taylor) in bed beside him, but the calm tableau doesn’t last: a trio of violent thugs break into his safehouse searching for money and food. In the resulting struggle, Ren “dies” — only to wake up in bed, at the same time, with Hannah again beside him. That’s right, he’s caught in a time loop, and one that seems to be connected with the perpetual motion energy machine in his garage: the “ARQ,” which he developed during his Torus days before fleeing the conflicts of the wider world to his current hideout. Ren faces off against the intruders, cycling through multiple ill-fated iterations trying to outwit them and save himself. But as further layers of intrigue are revealed, the game board keeps changing, and the survival strategies become more fraught and desperate.

Written and directed by Orphan Black veteran Tony Elliott, ARQ feels recycled: it’s yet another variation on the Groundhog Day concept, slotting into the canon alongside Edge of Tomorrow, Time Lapse, the 12 Monkeys episode “Lullaby,” and probably more that I’m missing. Mashing that concept together with a Desperate Hours home invasion makes for a film that inspires more than its share of deja vu…which is fitting, when you think about it. That said, it’s a skillfully executed take on the idea, thanks to a well structured script, convincingly frenetic performances from Amell and Taylor, and best of all, immersive and thoughtful dystopian world-building. As ARQ hurdles through its expected structural obstacles, it also gradually layers in the details of a grim, skiffy backdrop, ultimately painting a vivid picture of a corporate-owned, ecologically collapsing future. It may not be the most original SF film you’ve ever seen, but it’s a diverting dystopian thriller that neatly ties its premise into a theme of hopeful persistence.

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Film: The American Side

the-american-side_poster_goldposter_com_1If you want to get me to watch a movie, just make it a neo-noir detective story set in Buffalo, New York. That was my initial take on the core elements of low-budget indie film The American Side (2016), and it delivers on them, but it also throws in some real surprises, like a world-altering retro-skiffy MacGuffin and an unexpected secret history feel, all surrounding famous inventor Nikola Tesla. What an odd concotion!

Scruffy gumshoe Charlie Paczynski (Greg Stuhr) is a PI working the back alleys of Buffalo. His unscrupulous collaboration with a stripper, who helps him set up marks in adultery schemes, backfires when his latest victim, Tom Soberin (Harris Yulin), dies in what may or may not be a suicide. Soberin’s death entwines Paczynski with Nicole Meeker (Alicja Bachleda), a young scientist connected to Soberin — and sitting on dangerous secrets. Soon Paczynski’s twisted up in intrigues involving corrupt businessmen, the Serbian mafia, and shady government agents, among other things. And at the heart of it all lies a schematic that could change the world.

The American Side makes an iffy first impression, with its low-rent soundtrack, budget-conscious look, and a hero that’s hard to love. But the Buffalo location work carried me past these flaws, and the film improves as Paczynski’s bull-headed pursuit of the truth leads him further and further into hot water. Is the script structurally coherent? Not really. But the scenes are peppered with catchy noir crime lingo, all classed up by a cast that includes Camilla Belle (the requisite femme fatale), Matthew Broderick, Robert Forster, Janeane Garofalo, and, remarkably, Robert Vaughn in a spirited cameo. Meanwhile, Stuhr (who cowrote the script with director Jenna Ricker) eventually grows on you, his stubborn, lowbrow detective conjuring an incongruous seventies vibe. And his throwback personality isn’t the only nod to the past, as historical references — involving Tesla, science in general, and the city of Buffalo — are scattered throughout the script.

The result is surprisingly fun, with a unique pulp genre flavor in a story that looks quirkily backwards at yesterday’s futurism. I suspect the western New York easter eggs were part of the attraction for me — everything from scenes set at Niagara Falls to the protagonist quoting the catch phrases of Sabres announcer Rick Jeanneret. But this one should also fill a niche for other viewers, particularly those with an interest in indie films, neo noir, and madcap takes on science history. A peculiar, enjoyable film.

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Film: Kubo and the Two Strings

kuboThe opening of Kubo and the Two Strings (2016) is so moving and magical, and the film so full of visual wonder throughout, that I was surprised by my overall impression: I was underwhelmed. An animated feature drawing heavily on Japanese mythology, the film revolves around Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson), a young boy who lives a simple, hardscrabble existence, caring for his ill mother and supporting them as the village storyteller. Kubo is a lively and imaginative boy who possesses a magical power: the ability to animate and control his origami creations. But he also has a troubled origin: he and his mother fled their mean-spirited extended family in the wake of violent conflict, which is about to be reignited. When Kubo’s evil aunts come to collect him, Kubo is forced to flee with Monkey (Charlize Theron), a statue come to life to serve as his guardian. Together they undertake a quest to recover three powerful artifacts that will protect Kubo from his horrible grandfather, the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes).

The first twenty minutes of Kubo and the Two Strings are utterly beautiful, bursting with powerful visual story-telling and splendorous imagery. And I was more or less onboard for the duration, enjoying its engaging action setpieces and amusing dialogue. In many ways it’s a refreshing change of pace from the increasingly familiar beats and tropes of big-budget animated cinema. But there’s something missing, or many somethings: a logical basis for the item-gathering plot, a coherent thematic focus, an assured handle on its messaging. There are many elements and ideas at play, but the script struggles to pick and choose how and when to deploy them, and they don’t work in perfect harmony. That doesn’t detract from the journey’s many great moments, but there are also distancing lulls, and a muddled climax.

In the end, I’m disappointed, largely because the film doesn’t deliver on its early promise. Those beautiful early passages create such an evocative, immersive mood, and it was a shame to watch that fall away. Even so, it’s a beautifully made and charmingly different film; I’m happy to have seen it, all the same.

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Film: Spy

spy_-_movie_-_2015Since I loved Bridesmaids and disliked Ghostbusters, I was curious about another Melissa McCarthy-starring, Paul Feig-directed film that was released in between: Spy (2015). (And let’s face it, I might just have a little interest in the subject matter.) The result falls somewhere in between those two comedies: more uneven than Bridesmaids, more assured than Ghostbusters, it’s an enjoyable send-up of the Bondian spy adventure, through a feminist lens.

McCarthy is Susan Cooper, a CIA intelligence analyst who serves as the headquarters support agent for superspy Bradley Fine (Jude Law), a handsome, cocky man of action completely oblivious to Susan’s worship of him. Their partnership meets its end at the hands of the treacherous Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne), who takes out Fine while Susan watches helplessly from his eyeball cameras. Boyanov makes it clear she knows all of the CIA’s top agents, so Susan — a trained field agent who, years ago, meekly allowed her operational ambitions to be diverted — convinces her boss Elaine Crocker (Allison Janney) that, with her spotless cover, she might be the best option to go after Boyanov. Crocker bites on the idea, sending Susan to Europe to track down the dangerous Boyanov and prevent her from auctioning off a nuclear bomb to terrorists.

Spy isn’t about to climb onto the Spy 100 list, but it’s pretty good comedy, thanks largely to McCarthy’s natural comedic presence, solid support, and a decent supply of funny dialogue and sight gags. The script does have some unfortunate tendencies, overly leaning on material that plays off McCarthy’s looks; some of this is hilarious (her tech briefing with a clearly misogynistic “Q” is classic, and her frumpy cover personas are great), while others grow tedious (her fashion sparring with Boyanov, the way cliched Italian men dismiss her on the streets of Rome). Another repeating joke that does work is Jason Statham’s furious tough-guy act as gruff, rogue agent Rick Ford; Statham has a great time taking the piss out of himself, becoming a great rival to Cooper. He’s also a solid source of material supporting one of Spy‘s greater missions: satirizing the absurd testosterone levels of the spy genre, which could certainly use a comedic feminist counterpoint. Spy, an entertaining romp, fits that bill reasonably well.

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Novel: A Hero of France by Alan Furst

Alan Furst’s more recent releases are less standalone novels than collected episodes from the greater metanovel that is his entire body of work since Night Soldiers: a sprawling, now 14-volume chronicle of World War II as seen through the eyes of its many secret soldiers. This seems especially true of A Hero of France (2016), the latest, slim novel in the series which, like its predecessors, is vividly realized, impressive in its historical detail, and in complex dialogue with its series-mates. Unfortunately, once again the author has fallen back on strict formula, and seems to be running light on fresh ideas; there are glimpses of the old magic, but this is undoubtedly a lesser entry, and probably the first of the series to truly disappoint me.

Furst clearly loves Paris, so much so that he has contrived to set at least one scene per book there. This time he goes whole hog on this obsession, focusing his narrative on a Paris-based leader of the French Resistance, Mathieu (last name unknown). Mathieu is, unsurprisingly, a fortyish romantic with a fierce sense of a duty, an uncommon bravery, and a fine hand with the ladies. He’s also got a knack for staying one step ahead of the French and German authorities who want to shut down the escape lines he’s esablished across France to smuggle downed Allied airmen back to England. As the war rages and the challenges of the secret life intensify, Mathieu and his tight-knit network of colleagues feel the noose tightening in their defiance of the Third Reich, and face hard decisions along the way.

A Hero of France bears a superficial resemblance to Furst’s best work in its rolling, thoughtful prose, its effortless mastery of the era, and the exciting action setpieces. And there’s a certain intrigue to layering this volume down over Furst’s vaster mosaic, as characters from previous books flash into and out of the picture. One imagines a spectacular spreadsheet somewhere tracking fourteen novels’ worth of characters across time and space in Furst’s greater  metanarrative. By and large, it slots in adequately in the greater scheme of his achievement.

But there’s a certain something missing, and not just the disappointingly familiar protagonist and the clear reliance on the tried-and-true. As usual the book is broken up into episodes, but only one of them — “The Secret Agent,” in which Mathieu undertakes a mission to smuggle Allied saboteurs from a secret beach landing in Normandy back to Paris — truly stands out. Meanwhile, the closing segment, where the most jeopardy exists, is somehow the least suspenseful, and peters out in a sequence of summarized fates for Mathieu’s network. The result is a book that delivers the expected experience for the expected audience, without stretching at all from its comfort zone. In the past, this consistency never bothered me because it was so well done, but A Hero of France left me wondering if perhaps it’s time for Furst to finally try a new direction.

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Film: Ghostbusters

ghostbusters_ver6The Ghostbusters (2016) reboot has stirred plenty of controversy, but ultimately for me it raised one question: is it possible to make a movie starring Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Kate McKinnon, and Leslie Jones that isn’t funny? The answer, amazingly, is yes, you can…but also, it totally isn’t their fault.

Chock full of nods and winks to its 1984 source material, Ghostbusters introduces us to its world via Erin Gilbert (Wiig), a tenure-pursuing scientist whose past as a believer in the supernatural is revealed when her former partner Abby Yates (McCarthy) puts their co-authored book on Amazon. It costs Erin her job and reintroduces her to Abby, who is still pursuing ghost science with peculiar engineer Jillian Holtzmann (McKinnon). Soon Erin finds herself in business with them, and one of their first clients, Patty Tolan (Leslie Jones), leads them to evidence that spectral phenomena are real — and that someone is working to bring ghosts back to the material world, overrunning the city. In the face of an incompetent government cover-up, it’s up to the Ghostbusters to save the day.

While I have fond memories of the original Ghostbusters as a formative blockbuster moviegoing experience, I’m not particularly invested in the franchise, and frankly the misogynistic internet hate against it is deeply, deeply stupid. Indeed, I was enthusiastic about giving these female stars, Wiig and McCarthy in particular, a turn in the action-comedy spotlight. They’ve earned it, and it’s long past time. The stars make the most of it, or at least, the most of what they’re given. McKinnon and Jones, meanwhile, deliver breakout comedic performances that should put them on the Hollywood map.

But oh dear. This is not a very good movie. The primary reason, I think, is simple: the script. It fails to fully exploit the premise, and it fails to deliver funny dialogue consistently. When it does manage a good line, it steps on it, or mishandles it, or buries it in the action. More problematic for me is the annoying, elbow-in-the-ribs way it constantly reminds the viewer of the source material. It artlessly cribs catch-phrases and buzzwords and logos from the original, and clutters the plot with needless cameos; the overall effect is to remind the viewer that they’re watching a movie, instead of actually just being a movie. It’s all very calculated, but poorly so, trying so hard to be something else that it doesn’t end up being itself, whatever that might have been. (And indeed, it increased my appreciation for J.J. Abrams’ abilities to work in other universes — with him, those winking callbacks are still annoying, but at least they’re clever.)

I could go on, about the overuse of Chris Hemsworth in a one-note joke, or the miserable, disbelief-shattering special effects, or the way the film fails to leverage its editing to comedic effect. Its problems are legion. But mostly I’m just disappointed that so much talent produced something so mediocre. I really wanted to like this.

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Film: Our Kind of Traitor

our-kind-of-traitor-poster1John le Carré’s Our Kind of Traitor is one of his later, perhaps lesser books, but it’s one that really spoke to me, so I was eager to see it adapted to the screen. The result is certainly compelling and attractive, but somehow off; it makes an odd decision here, takes an unfortunate liberty there, and never quite captures the novel’s heart, ultimately doing it partial justice.

Perry Makepeace (Ewan McGregor) is an English professor, on vacation in Marrakech with his lawyer girlfriend Gail (Naomie Harris), attempting to save their troubled relationship. The holiday takes an unexpected turn when Perry’s path crosses with Dima (Stellan Skarsgård), a boisterous Russian who cheerfully maneuvers himself into Perry and Gail’s holiday plans. In fact, it’s a recruitment: Dima is a money man for the Russian mafia, and he knows his superiors are getting ready to kill him off for knowing too much. In desperation, Dima asks Perry to take a message back to MI-6, hoping the British will help him and his family defect. Perry agrees to deliver the message, but this simple involvement evolves into something far more entangling, as both he and Gail become emotionally invested in the plight of their Russian acquaintance and his family.

Our Kind of Traitor, the novel, boasts all the furious political anger of le Carré’s later work, but mitigates the inherent darkness of its worldview by presenting an unlikely created family, which comes together in inspiring defiance of it. It’s perhaps the film’s biggest failure, to me, that director Susanna White and screenwriter Hossein Amini downplay this most winning aspect of the book, in favor of more a streamlined Hollywood structure and symbology. Our Kind of Traitor, the film, is very much Perry’s story, making this a Ewan MacGregor vehicle rather than the ensemble piece I was craving. Skarsgård’s turn as the blustering, profane Dima is award-worthy stuff, and Damian Lewis is entertainingly venomous as espiocrat Hector Meredith, but the supporting cast, many of them important viewpoint characters in the novel, is largely relegated to the sidelines. Most egregious is the wasting of Naomie Harris; I recall, in the source material, Gail being every bit an equally invested partner in the adventure, but her character is retooled to generate marital strife and her heroism is incidental to Perry’s manly coming-of-age journey. What makes this all the more disappointing is that le  Carré is an author not known for particularly well done female characters. He actually does better than usual  in Our Kind of Traitor, only to see the adaptation render the women nominal to the action, if not downright mute. Not exactly a feather in Hollywood’s cap.

Granted, much of my dissatisfaction is borne of my enthusiasm for the source material, so it likely won’t bother the casual viewer with a fondness for slick, spy fare. There’s plenty to enjoy in the film’s gripping plot and gorgeous international scenery. Skarsgård alone is worth the price of admission, and the Dima-Perry friendship is charming and exceptionally realized. I found some screenwriting choices problematic, but the structural bones are sound, and the changes to the ending introduce some hope to an otherwise bleak scenario. But ultimately I can’t help but feel a little bit let down: Our Kind of Traitor looks very much like the film I wanted it to be, but shaped by creatives with a much different take on the story and what makes it worth telling. In the end, for me, this make it diverting but inessential.

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Film: After the Dark

afterthedarkAs idea pieces go, After the Dark (2013) has more money and polish than the usual indie fare, and while ultimately it falls prey to similar flaws, it’s an interesting and attractive film. In Jakarta, a class full of exceptional students turns up for the last day of philosophy class, run by the dashing Mr. Zimit (James D’Arcy). Zimit has one last thought experiment to run past his class: an apocalypse scenario. The students are asked to imagine a world-ending cataclysm, during which they find a bunker that can sustain ten people long enough for the radiation to clear; given random professions, they must decide amongst themselves, using ruthless logic, who among them should be saved for the betterment of the human race. As the dark exercise progresses, however, Zimit’s methods and motives come into question, and the students — led by the class’s brightest light, Petra (Sophie Lowe) — begin to see through and subvert the experiment.

At first After the Dark looks like it’s going to be a dialogue-based bottle show in the vein of Twelve Angry Men or, more on point, the thematically similar Circle. But while conversation drives the plot, the film soon strays from the classroom setting to strikingly dramatize the class’s imaginings. Solid effects, stunning Indonesian scenery, and a polished cinematic style, not to mention an absurdly attractive and diverse cast, make the film a visual feast. But it succeeds on the strength of its ideas, which are somewhat pretentious, but also clever and at times movingly realized. Alas, the mystique is dispelled by some glaring imperfections. The ultimate message is telegraphed, and Lowe’s dreamy expressions and flat affect don’t entirely sell her as the smartest person in the room. But worse are the final scenes, a pair of ill-conceived codas that step rather clumsily on the film’s carefully engineered mood and tone — first with incongruous comedy, then with over-explicated and unnecessary character motivation. It’s unfortunate, because up until then the film casts an agreeable spell, and more satisfying closure was merely a grace note away.

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Film: Captain America: Civil War

Civil_War_Final_PosterBoasting the same creative team as its outstanding predecessor, Captain America: Civil War (2016) once again centers on a perfectly realized hero, but this time surrounds him with an army of major characters from every corner of the MCU, pitching them into memorable conflict. Even with sky-high expectations, this movie totally delivers, a wildly entertaining romp that further strengthens Cap’s legacy as Marvel’s most accomplished and consistent franchise.

In the wake of the roster shakeup at the end of Avengers: Age of Ultron, Captain America (Chris Evans) now leads a new team, and Civil War opens with them on assignment, tracking the nefarious Rumlow (Frank Grillo) in Lagos, Nigeria. Alas, the operation results in another highly public case of tragic, collateral damage — and for the United Nations, it’s a tragedy too far. Thus the Sokovia Accords, an international agreement to bring the Avengers under stricter government control, since their track record of costly catastrophes has called their very efficacy into question. Cap strongly disagrees with the Accords, but they’re just as strenuously supported by Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.), whose fraught superhero career as Iron Man has led him to see the Avengers’ exploits in a negative light. With Cap and Tony rallying the factions, a polarizing rift forms in the Avengers, which grows more serious when Cap gets wind of a criminal conspiracy the Accords may prevent him from pursuing. He forms a team of like-minded Avengers to secretly pursue the case — only to come up against Tony’s opposing team, who are just as determined to sideline Cap and his rogue allies.

With an absurdly large cast to cram into the proceedings and so many moving parts to the plot, Captain America: Civil War could have been a flailing kludge, but instead it’s an impressive Rube Goldberg contraption, layering coherent plot and interesting themes atop its kinetic, eye-popping spectacle. When it comes to vision, theme, and execution, I still believe Winter Soldier is the superior film, but Civil War is a worthy extension of those ideas, and also finally examines a heretofore unspoken elephant in the MCU’s room: collateral damage. It’s a gripping debate the audience should be (and has been) asking, not to mention a timely reflection of the state of the union, and the script handles it intelligently. Mercifully the opposing sides don’t square off arbitrarily; thoughtful arguments and character motives inform the touchy debate, and the film remains true to the characters’ histories and personalities. It makes for legitimate, organic conflict, and the fact that we’re invested in characters on both sides lends emotional weight to the resulting clash. Which isn’t to say this isn’t a fun film — it’s chock full of humor, both verbal and visual. But, again like Winter Soldier, serious themes bubble along under the wisecracks and flying fists.

Of course, for me the true joy of the MCU has always been the characters. These icons are lodged in my brain from many, many years of comic fandom, and it’s been terrific to see them brought to live-action life, at times more effectively than the source material. Civil War is particularly satisfying on this score. Chris Evans, of course, is the key, and I’m still impressed with how he’s perfected what could easily have been two-dimensional patriot, turning him into arguably the MCU’s most important presence. Downey Jr.’s snarky, silver-tongued Tony Stark is as effective as ever, and while sometimes the story seems overly heavy with his tedious manpain, his inner conflict — guilty conscience warring with massive ego — makes him the perfect and necessary foil to Cap’s earnest selflessness. Black Widow’s role in the proceedings feels somewhat reduced this time, but Scarlett Johansson once again proves herself the ensemble’s unsung hero, serving here as a middle-ground voice between two stubborn positions. Her superstar presence seems effortless, and Black Widow’s shifty perspective and wicked-cool fighting style has never been rendered so effectively. (Where the hell is her solo movie?)

There are further waves of terrific support, familiar from earlier movies. Falcon (Anthony Mackie) was one of the best things about Winter Soldier, and Civil War continues to deploy him winningly, as well as adding some neat bells and whistles to his armory. His humorous rivalry with Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) — pitting Cap’s oldest best friend against his newest one — is a riot. I’ve never been much of a Bucky Barnes fan, but Winter Soldier serves an important story function and Stan more or less hits the right notes, considering his character is written as a haunted cipher. The film also imports War Machine (Don Cheadle), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), and the Vision (Paul Bettany), to varying effect. Best are perhaps Scarlet Witch and the Vision, fleshed out nicely by Olsen and Bettany after their rushed Age of Ultron intros; here they begin to develop a quirky, awkward rapport, as befits their unlikely history in the books. Alas, Cheadle is woefully underutilized, while Renner merely makes for a passable Hawkeye, whose presence felt forced. I’m still disappointed that Joss Whedon imported the Ultimates version of Hawkeye instead of the more fun original Hawkeye; it will always feel like we have a slightly broken version of my favorite character. That said, I’d rather have this Hawkeye than no Hawkeye at all, and there’s at least a nice, spirited argument between Hawkeye and Stark that made me nostalgic for the old hothead archer in the goofy purple suit. Finally, there’s motherfucking Ant-Man (Paul Rudd), fresh from his breezy solo film. Rudd is again hilarious, easily the funniest presence in a film full of tough competition. Ant-Man is turning out to be a wonderfully cinematic hero, his outlandish powers and chaotic fighting style bringing consistent laughs and brilliant action setpieces to the table. I wasn’t expecting to like him so much in this context, but he turned out to be a major highlight.

Two new characters, however, truly transform the landscape of the film, and look to do the same for the MCU moving forward. One of them is brilliantly introduced and integrated: Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), who looks to be a breakout star. His emergence is true to the classic character while also organically growing out of the plot. Boseman has gravitas to spare, and the film’s depiction of his fierce fighting style and thoughtful heart is perfect. I’m less enamored of the second new face: Spider-Man (Tom Holland), or his latest incarnation anyway. Civil War‘s Spider-Man is…well, he’s like a gourmet cupcake…on a pizza. Don’t get me wrong, Holland is wicked fun as a geeky teenager fumbling his way into the superhero world, but his presence here makes zero sense. Not only is he untraditional Avengers material, but (spoiler alert) the fact that he’s recruited by Stark seems utterly at odds with Stark’s tortured conscience. Inviting a teenager into a war zone, in the context of this story? I’ve heard Spider-Man is important to the source material, but he seems incidental here, his drive-by participation leaving an aftertaste of product placement.

With so many big personality heroes on screen, it’s easy to overlook the understated villain of the piece: Baron Zemo (Daniel Brühl). But I think he deserves special mention as a uniquely nuanced antagonist, and a different kind of villain — quietly motived, deadly focused, with an agenda that’s far from earth-shaking but that ties cleverly into all the broader goings-on. It’s a smartly conceived and executed character, and Brühl brings him expertly to life.

All in all, then, it’s another rousing success of a Marvel movie, a thoroughly satisfying assemblage of eyeballs kicks and snappy dialogue and colorful action. Yes, Spider-Man is incongruous, and for crying out loud, surely Marvel can stir up a few more female superheroes to make this less of a dudefest? But aside from those caveats, this one’s a Marvel geek’s delight, slotting in nicely behind Winter Soldier as the MCU’s second-best movie.

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Film: Phoenix

PhoenixChristian Petzold’s Phoenix (2014) is slow, deliberate, and energyless, but oddly effective for all that. In the aftermath of World War II, Nelly Lenz (Nina Hoss) returns to Berlin after being liberated from Auschwitz. Disfigured in the war, Nelly’s face is reconstructed, making her unrecognizable. This vastly complicates her primary goal: reconnecting with her husband Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld). Their reunion leads to a thoroughly uncomfortable and unexpected new turn in their relationship.

The atmosphere and production values of Phoenix are first-rate, bringing the bleak post-war years of Germany vividly to life, and Hoss is mesmerizing as the traumatized, unreadable protagonist. But the film is also static, protracting the tragic scenario’s infrequent story beats; it felt like a short film dragged out to feature length. This made for tiresome viewing…and yet, in the end, the patient narrative strategy pays off in a rather elegant and powerful final moment. An unimpressive resolution might have left me regretting the watch, but Petzold nails it, rescuing the difficult build-up with an ending that is perfect. This one’s probably not for a wide audience, but it’s liable to resonate with certain afficionados of understated international cinema.

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