Captain America: Civil War (B+). Wouldn’t you know: every time I start to wonder if the superhero genre is played out, the next superhero movie I see turns out to be entertaining and enjoyable. The plot of CACW was reasonably clear, and the fight scenes were exciting without being too ridiculous. Most of the Avengers seemed to show up for this one, including Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr., Iron Man), Ant-Man (Paul Rudd, Ant-Man), and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson, Vicky Cristina Barcelona). There were also a couple of people I didn’t recognize: Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen, Liberal Arts) and Vision (Paul Bettany, Dogville). They must have joined the club in a movie I missed. Vision was a little troubling to me; he seemed so powerful as to kind of upset the balance of power. I mean, he can shoot lasers and dematerialize at will? But I still enjoyed it, and it didn’t really feel like two and half hours. Martin Freeman (The Hobbit) and Marisa Tomei (The Big Short) pop up in small parts, which was kind of fun. The same directors (Anthony and Joe Russo, of Community fame) also directed Captain America: Winter Soldier, which left me cold, so I’m glad to see they’ve upped their game.
Hail, Caesar! (B-). With the glaring and painful exception of Barton Fink, I have yet to see a Coen brothers movie I didn’t like. (Granted, I haven’t seen them all.) True Grit, The Big Lebowski, and O Brother Where Art Thou? are all classics in my book. Their current release has its pleasures, but I think it is definitely a lesser entry in the Coen canon. It’s a pure comedy and a tribute to the movies of the 1940s and 1950s. (Apparently there are a gazillion references to movies and Hollywood scandals of that era. They went over my head, but I think I did catch an homage to Fargo.) Josh Brolin (Sicario) stars as Eddie Mannix, a honcho for Capital Studios who is pulled in a million directions at once as he tries to keep his movies and his movie stars out of trouble. George Clooney (Intolerable Cruelty) costars as Baird Whitlock, a matinee idol who is supposed to be starring in a big Ben Hur-like production but who has been kidnaped by a mysterious group called The Future. And there are scads of other stars on hand, including Ralph Fiennes (The Grand Budapest Hotel) as a fey director of costume dramas, Scarlett Johansson (Lost in Translation) as a pregnant movie star in a mermaid suit, and Channing Tatum (She’s the Man) as the star of a South Pacific-like musical. I enjoyed the energy of the picture, but it didn’t really seem to add up to much—except maybe to say gee, isn’t show biz crazy?
Avengers: Age of Ultron. (B+). This film is a fun, entertaining Summer action blockbuster film. It’s got all the usual characters—Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Iron Man (Robert Downy Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). And of course, there’s even some screentime for Nick Fury (Samuel Jackson). With all the characters, you almost wonder how writer Joss Whedon has time to develop the characters and the story. But Whedon is no newcomer to this. There’s time to develop a little backstory—particularly for Hawkeye and even time enough for a little budding romance. And there’s time to develop an action packed story arch with the unintended creation of Ultron—a super android (James Spader). By the end of the film we are introduced to a new superhero—Vision (Paul Bettany), who teams up with the good guys to help defeat Ultron and his army of super-being androids. There’s plenty of action in this film but I have to say that after a while some of the fight scenes in this film began to seem a little too similar to the fight scenes in the last Avengers film. I just hope that’s not a sign that the franchise is wearing thin. Certainly, there will be more to come. And you will want to stay for the credits so that you’ll get a glimpse of the next villain to do battle with the Avengers.
Chef (C+). This movie has been playing in Dallas theaters since the beginning of the summer, so I thought I’d better see what could justify such a lengthy run. It was pleasant enough, but nothing to write home about. Jon Favreau (Couples Retreat) writes, directs, and stars as Carl Casper, a well-known Los Angeles chef in a swanky restaurant. A Twitter feud with a snarky food critic gets Casper fired, and he decides to reconnect with his love for cooking—and with his 10-year-old son, whom he hasn’t had much time for since a divorce—by starting up a food truck. It’s a perfectly decent movie, but it felt a little slight for the big screen. And occasional brief appearances by big stars—Robert Downey, Jr.! Dustin Hoffman! A tatted-up Scarlett Johansson!—are more distracting than anything else.
Under the Skin (D). Director Jonathan Glazer’s last movie was the 2004 release Birth, which I thoroughly disliked but saw anyway because it starred Nicole Kidman. Now Glazer is back with this creepy sci-fi movie starring Scarlett Johansson (Vicky Cristina Barcelona) as . . . well, it’s hard to say exactly. My best guess is that she is an alien in human form, kind of like Jeff Bridges in Starman, but she is definitely not just trying to get home. Basically, she drives a van around Scotland, looking for men who are unattached and won’t be missed. When she finds one, she lures him back to her lair (not difficult, since he is invariably lonely, and she looks like Scarlett Johansson with short dark hair) where something decidedly unpleasant happens to him. But that makes the movie sounds more straightforward than it is. It is extremely slow and arty and vague, and it sort of reminded me of another arty sci-fi film I really disliked, Upstream Color. But if you’re in the mood for a slow, creepy, unsettling, confusing movie, this is the film for you. Rated R for graphic nudity, sexual content, some violence, and language. In short, not recommended.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier (C). I enjoyed the first Captain America story, but this one was just sort of meh. Dislocated in time, square-jawed Steve Rogers (Chris Evans, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World) is not sure he’s really fitting into the shadowy ranks of the intelligence organization known as SHIELD. For one, he doesn’t trust Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson, Deep Blue Sea), probably because he wears a sinister eye-patch. For another, a bunch of SHIELD guys seem to want to kill him for some reason. On top of all that, there’s this hot girl he maybe sort of likes, but she’s always trying to get him to ask other girls out–plus she’s a former KGB agent nicknamed the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson, The Other Boleyn Girl). But enough kidding around. This movie is 2 hours and 15 minutes of earnest and dull. There are lots of fights and explosions, of course, but nothing ever really seems to happen. Robert Redford (Indecent Proposal) seems to have a good time slumming as a top SHIELD guy, and Cobie Smulders (The Avengers) effectively pulls off her tiny recurring role as Agent Intense Brunette Sidekick Of Nick Fury. A few TV actors unexpectedly pop up in small parts, which was kind of fun. But on the whole, the movie left me unfulfilled.
her (B). This is an interesting movie that sort of revisits issues raised in the 2001 flick A.I. Suppose we do manage to create true artificial intelligence. How will we relate to sentient mechanical beings? Will we be able to love them? Will they be able to love us back? Her is set in the near future, in a gleaming but rather sterile version of Los Angeles. Joaquin Phoenix (Walk the Line) plays Theodore Twombly, a lonely sad sack of a guy who’s about to get divorced from Catherine (Rooney Mara, Side Effects). After hearing an advertisement he decides to get a copy of OS1, the world’s first intelligent computer operating system, and in two shakes he’s talking to and falling in love with “Samantha” (voice of Scarlett Johansson, We Bought a Zoo). And why not? Samantha is smart, lively (if that’s the right word), solicitous, sympathetic, and sounds like Scarlett Johansson. She seems much easier to deal with than real women, like the nameless blind date (Olivia Wilde, Drinking Buddies) Theodore meets early in the movie. On the other hand, as one might expect, there are certain downsides to “dating” an entity with no physical body and a godlike IQ. Director Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich) gets some laughs from the weird situations that inevitably arise, but he generally plays it as a straight drama. I enjoyed it. It didn’t hurt that Amy Adams (American Hustle) co-stars as Theodore’s friend and neighbor Amy.