Category Archives: Film

Doctor Strange Not So Strange

With 14 films and counting, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) now has more movies than the Star Trek franchise—and it shows no signs of stopping anytime soon. Doctor Strange, the latest chapter in what may be the longest story ever told in cinema, introduces yet another hero to the MCU’s ever growing pantheon and proves there are realms of comic lore yet unexplored. And despite its prolificacy, Marvel hasn’t produced any bad films, though the same cannot be said of other long-running franchises (cough-Star Trek-cough). Doctor Strange is no exception, proving a worthy addition to the MCU.

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In Civil War, Marvel Triumphs Once Again

“What would you call a group of US based, individuals who routinely ignore sovereign borders and inflict their will wherever they choose and who, frankly, seem unconcerned with what they leave behind?”

In real life, the answer to this question might be an entity like the US Congress, along with the executive branch, the Pentagon, or—in Eisenhower’s famous moniker the ‘Military–Industrial Complex.’ Perhaps in real life, but in this case the question is posed by the fictional Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt), and he is referring to the Avengers. Like the recently released Batman v. Superman, Captain America: Civil War questions the role of superheroes through the looking-glass of contemporary political debates; the question can be summed up as to whether the Avengers should use their powers as they see fit, or if their superpowers should be regulated by the world’s governments. However, and unlike its DC rival, Civil War really does deal with and probe this all-too-urgent question. The characters on both sides provide convincing arguments for their respective positions, and as such, it becomes difficult for viewers to simply root for the good guys . As if this dash of moral ambiguity wasn’t enough, the film also manages (seamlessly, for the most part) to introduce two major new characters into the Avengers’ cinematic universe: Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), and a young Spiderman (Tom Holland). Finally–and perhaps more importantly for Marvel Comics devotees–Civil War also features a number of brilliantly choreographed superhero combat scenes that are sure to make any die-hard fan exclaim: “What a time to be alive!”

In previous movies, The Avengers have saved the world from every conceivable threat: from invading aliens to megalomaniacal robots. But is isn’t all sunshine and Bifrosts. From the Battle of New York in The Avengers to the Battle of Sokovia in Age of Ultron many innocent civilians have perished. And while these heroes claim to protect humanity, several of the threats the Avengers have “saved” humankind from (such as Ultron) would never have existed if it weren’t for the Avengers’ own actions. When Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) bungles a mission resulting in half a skyscraper being blown to pieces, it’s the last straw. And so the Sokovia Accords are drafted. Supported by 117 countries, the accords would put superpower individuals, namely the Avengers, under the UN’s bureaucratic supervision. A faction of the heroes, led by Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), feel that if they “can’t accept limitations, [they]’re no better than the bad guys,” while others, led by Captain America (Chris Evans), believe the accords merely “shift the blame,” and argue that the best qualified people to watch over the Avengers are the Avengers themselves.

If you’re looking for some awesome superhero vs superhero combat, but felt underwhelmed by the five minute fight scene in Batman v Superman, then dear reader you’re in luck. The fight scenes in Civil War are way better. First of all, there are a lot more of them interspersed throughout the movie, and they all feel well motivated and believable, at least to the extent superhero movies can be believable. I’m not someone who enjoys watching characters just punch each other, but the battles in Civil War kept me excited and entertained throughout the length of the feature. And even when the action sags a bit, there’s certainly enough wit and killer lines to keep things from getting dull. We even get to see some characters use powers never before seen on the big screen. The airport battle in particular is best appreciated in IMAX 3D.

But there’s a lot more to Civil War than awesome fight scenes. There are real thought-provoking issues behind the conflict. This isn’t just a film about the role of superheroes in society, though that alone would be deeper than most films in this genre, in fact there are clear parallels to real-world questions. The Avengers’ interventions around the world, doing what they believe is right, “saving” people often without their permission and with civilian casualties could easily be compared to actions of the US Military-Industrial Complex. There is no obvious right or wrong side here. Some, like Captain America, feel that “We try to save as many people as we can. Sometimes that doesn’t mean everybody. But if we can’t find a way to live with that, next time… maybe nobody gets saved.” On the other hand, people like Vision point out that many of their enemies have only arisen in response to their efforts: “Our very strength incites challenge. Challenge incites conflict. And conflict… breeds catastrophe.” These are complex issues and Civil War addresses them in a complex manner. This isn’t yet another iteration of the classic conflict between good guys and bad guys. Because we aren’t the bad guys, and we’re not the good guys either. The world just isn’t that simple.

That said, Civil War’s not all serious superhero geopolitics. Humor is expertly weaved through the story and dialogue. Spiderman, in particular, brings a comical tone, and though he is certainly inessential to the film’s plot, Tom Holland delivers an unquestionably enjoyable performance as the well-liked Wall-crawler, and I for one ardently await his return in the upcoming 2017 Spiderman reboot.

It’s true that, in many ways, Civil War feels just like the other Marvel movies. But that doesn’t mean it’s predictable. The plot has several unexpected twists and rather than just serving to surprise the audience these twists develop the characters. At this point the narrative structure of the Marvel movies functions more like a TV series than typical film sequels. Thus, it’s not that surprising, nor necessarily bad, that Civil War feels like many of the other episodes. It even manages to introduce new, intriguing characters and shows us new aspects of the characters we’ve seen before. Crucially, more than any other Marvel movie it dissects real, complex issues in our fraught contemporary world. As the first film in Marvel’s Phase Three, it sets a high standard for the films planned by the studio up to 2019. But if the rest of Phase Three is comparable to Civil War, then at least this reviewer is not likely to experience superhero film fatigue anytime soon.

Grade: A-

Remember, this is a Marvel Movie, so stay until the end of the credits.

Observing the Future of Princeton Film

Swarms of tour groups descend upon campus each week, cameras and guidebooks in hand, hoping to catch a glimpse of the picturesque campus that has been the location and subject of countless films. Wading through the Holder Courtyard cloisters, an unmistakable glimmer of recognition connects the tourists to movies old and new: A Beautiful Mind, Across the Universe, Princess Diaries 2, and Admission, to name a few. In the newest addition to this list, Princeton supplies not only the location and content, but also the actors, producers, screenwriter, director, equipment, and funding. The Observer Effect, written and directed by Eric Hayes ’18, premiered on Friday to a nearly full house at The Garden Theater.

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Batfleck v Snyder: Dawn of Just Okay

What would you do if you had to deal with a man powerful enough to destroy the world? A man who just laid waste to one of the largest cities on Earth while “defending” it from an alien; a man who claims to have our best interests at heart but—like so many of us—would do anything to protect the people he loves, regardless of the consequences? This is the central question posed by Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Unfortunately, the movie completely fails to really explore it, let alone deal with its ramifications. Snyder’s sequel to the controversial Man of Steel reaches for profundity but settles for melodrama. That said, it’s not terrible entertainment. Seeing Batman (Ben Affleck), Superman (Henry Cavill), and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) together on screen for the first time is exciting enough, and Affleck in particular delivers a laudable performance as Gotham’s Caped Crusader. While this installment is mediocre, it sets up for future promising DC films.

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Son of Saul, Silent Hope

I can’t relay the intensity of Son of Saul accurately; you can only know by watching it, but, for the sake of the review, suffice it to say you witness hell. The film, by Hungarian director László Nemes, and winner of this year’s Oscar for a Foreign Language Film, follows Saul Ausländer (Géza Röhrig), a sonderkommando at Auschwitz. The sonderkommandos, a group of concentration camp workers, directed other prisoners into the gas chambers, removed the dead bodies, rummaged the remains, and burnt them. While piling the prisoners’ bodies, the kommandos find a boy who survived the gas chamber. The Nazis take the boy and smother him. Saul watches. Saul decides then that he must bury the boy with full Hebrew rites. Saul moves like a specter through Auschwitz to find a rabbi for a proper burial, caring not for survival, only for the honor of this dead boy. Continue reading Son of Saul, Silent Hope

Hope v. Nihilism, or, Finding the Soul of the Superhero

Written by David Ting ’17

In short, this movie is about two super-people who hate each other because they misunderstand each other. I urge viewers to look beyond the city ruins, the black sky that unleashes sheets of rain, and that abominable monster reborn from the corpse of Superman’s nemesis from Man of Steel, General Zod (Michael Shannon). At the heart of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, you’ll find a message of hope. A few frames near the end of the film are the keys: thousands of citizens crowd around a monument to Superman, which consists simply of his iconic “S” chiseled in the pavement. But the dedicatory statue is absent. Below the “S,” a message is chalked: “If you look for his monument, just look around you.” I can’t explain this anecdote better than by quoting the Bowie song “Heroes”: “We can be heroes, just for one day / We can be us, just for one day.” Continue reading Hope v. Nihilism, or, Finding the Soul of the Superhero

Zootopia Packs a Pointed Punch

While most moviegoers tend to arrive a bit late because they don’t particularly mind missing the trailers, alas I’m too punctual to avoid arriving early enough to see every single preview. My jaunt to see Zootopia was no exception. But after the expected trailers for The Secret Life of Pets and Jungle Book (clearly if you’re seeing Zootopia you must also be interested in every other movie featuring talking computer-animated animals), the all too familiar Scrat from Ice Age appeared on the screen. My immediate reaction: “Oh no! Is this a joke? They aren’t making another one of those are they?” What was once a good kids’ movie has now been marred by increasingly hackneyed sequels, to the point where I am revolted by the mere thought of the franchise. I can only hope this will not be the fate of Zootopia, a fate which would be all the more tragic given that Zootopia is a far, far better film than even the first Ice Age.

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In Kung Fu Threequel, the Panda Has Become The Master

The Godfather Part III, X-Men: The Last Stand, Spider-Man 3 — cinematic history is rife with gratuitous third installments that make viewers wish the filmmakers had simply stopped after the first two outings. Not surprisingly, when I walked into the theater to see Kung Fu Panda 3, it was not with the highest of expectations. I must confess, however, that by the end of the movie I was pleasantly surprised. While it may not quite live up to its illustrious predecessors, it’s certainly entertaining enough to merit a trip to the theater, and perhaps—dare I say it—even additional sequels.

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Of Aliens and Ethics, the Quandaries of Childhood’s End

Can an externally enforced definition of morality really lead to a lasting utopia?  And is that truly the end goal?  These are the questions that the new SyFy miniseries endeavors to explore in a thoughtfully updated adaptation of Arthur Clarke’s 1950s novel Childhood’s End.  Although Clarke’s novel has been the target of film adaptation before (Stanley Kubrick was interested, but eventually settled with collaborating with Clarke on 2001: A Space Odyssey), this is the first time that we see it realized on the screen.  The three-part novel now exists as three two-hour episodes – six hours of television that you won’t want to miss.

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Anomalisa

Generally, I title my reviews with what I think of as clever word play on the movie’s title: “The Distasteful Eight” or “Nothing Grows From The Martian Surface.” But in the case of Charlie Kaufman’s newest film, the delightful, stop-motion, animated Anomalisa, I can think of nothing more clever than the film’s own title, nor more succinct or revelatory. But I’ll try not to give much more away here; the reason will become apparent quickly.

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The Distasteful Eight

At what point does violence in a movie become violence for its own sake? When does it become an ill-advised occasion to show off special effects, rather than a lens into the darkness of the characters’ souls and, by extension, humanity’s? I don’t think there are any definitive answers for these admittedly abstract questions; I think too much violence is something we recognize when we see it. I saw it in the first hour of The Hateful Eight, and that was the relatively tame part.

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Seventy Thousand Blows to the Head. All Denied.

“God did not want us to play football,” says Bennet Omalu as played by Will Smith in the new film Concussion. The problem of concussions in American football clearly deserves more attention and this film about the doctor who discovered chronic traumatic encephalopathy (C.T.E.) aims to provide it. Although a forensic pathologist discovering brain damage in former football players doesn’t make for the most riveting plot, Concussion keeps the viewer engaged with this important issue through the telling of Dr. Omalu’s compelling life story.

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