Review: ‘Thunder Road’ is an Intimate Character Study of the Common Man

Jim Cummings’ delivers on his Kickstarter promise with an Indie hit.

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Jim Cummings’ delivers on his Kickstarter promise with an Indie hit.

RATING: ★★★ (out of four stars)

Indie movies are a labor of love. They are low budget passion projects made with the blood, sweat, and tears of filmmakers who believe these stories are ones that need to be told. This is a risky move for filmmakers, but it’s a gamble that can lead to an incredibly rewarding endgame. Such is the story of Thunder Road, one of the sleeper hits from this year’s Nashville Film Festival.

Thunder Road was originally a 12-minute short film that circulated the film festival circuit in 2016. It garnered many accolades, including the Grand Jury Prize from Sundance. It ended up on many best shorts of 2016 and best short films ever made lists. As with most short films, they serve as a proof of concept to expand its story into a feature length film. After running a successful Kickstarter campaign, which more than tripled its goal, Thunder Road was turned in a 91-minute feature length film.

Written, directed, and performed by Jim Cummings, Thunder Road is an incredibly human story about the suffering of an everyday man. Cummings plays Officer Arnaud, who is eulogizing his late mother at the beginning of the film. The first scene of the film is a ten minute unbroken shot, with camera subtlety creeping its way towards Cummings as he unravels while delivering a painful eulogy. This scene sets up for the unflinching look the film takes at a broken man who continues to break.

Officer Arnaud is not a perfect man. He has split custody of his daughter, who would much rather be with her mother. The relationship with his ex-wife is strained, and that is putting it mildly. He has a good rapport with his partner, but sometimes his anger affects their working relationship. If Thunder Road is a character study, its biggest strength is the amount of empathy it places on a man who can’t take the right step no matter how hard he tries.

The film is drenched with the making of existentialist novels from centuries past. Its philosophies aren’t laid bare for an audience, but watching these characters operate through such strained relationships does pose the question of what it all really is about. This is the greatest strength of the film, being a simple story that evokes so much emotion from its complex character.

The film is not without its faults. The biggest issues being with such a short run time it the film does feel like an extended companion piece to the original short film. There are some scenes that hint at why Arnaud is how he is, and how his family influenced his behavior and defined his faults. Just a few more scenes would have flushed this character out to his full potential and elevate this film to being a true indie masterpiece.

Thunder Road is a delight with how surprisingly good it is. The film nails just how raw and uncomfortable it is to watch a grown man cry. This film deserves to be picked up and distributed for a wider audience. When the Kickstarter for the feature met its goal within 7 hours of the campaign being live, its clear that there is audience for the film. If you haven’t seen the original short film, you can check it out here.   When this film eventually gets a distribution plan, it is a must see for fans of indie sweetheart films.

Review: ‘First Reformed’ is a Chilling Cautionary Tale of a Radical Isolationist Mind

A chilling self examination of mankind and its influence on God’s creation.

A chilling self examination of mankind and its influence on God’s creation.

RATING: ★★★1/2 (out of four stars)

Every few years or so, a film comes around that shocks audiences to their core.  Taxi Driver pulled this off in 70s and launched itself into cultural landmark status.  Now the writer of Taxi Driver, Paul Schrader, is back with a spiritual film that puts humanity under the lens with razor sharp focus.

First Reformed tells the story of Reverend Toller (played by Ethan Hawke), who is the minister of small tourist church outside New York, and his congregation is all but non existent.  One of the few members of his flock, Mary (played by Amanda Seyfried), asks him to personally speak with her husband who is a former environmental activist and his radical actions landed him in prison.  This conversation sparks something inside Toller that ignites his frustrations with the world and calls his faith into question.

In one of the most daring films in recent years, Schrader puts humanity on blast.  It is difficult to recall of a spiritual film that so adequately examines the minutia of the human condition.  We are a fickle species.  We have an innate desire to do what we think is right, but we also want to conform to the world in which we live.  Schrader has crafted characters that exemplify these traits.  Toller is a man who, through much pain and loss, understands what it means to be overcome with despair yet hope for me.  Mary understands what it means to want to a normal life for her family, even if it means sacrificing her passions.  The minister of the nearby megachurch (played by Cedric The Entertainer) understand what it means to be a part of the real world

The first two third of the film feel like a window in Anytown, USA.  Every scene feels like a conversation between real people.  The drama feels genuine and nothing feels too extraordinary for the sake of being a movie.  Everything is expertly paced to slowly draw out the tension till everything comes to a head in the final act.  Much like Taxi Driver, the final act is where things get a bit too grandiose for the tone of the rest of the film.  Not to say that is a bad thing, as viewers are drawn to the edge of their seat with each passing moment in anticipation for the final moments of the film.

The performances are what breathe live into the film.  Ethan Hawke gives a career defining performance, flawlessly transitioning from the everyday man to a man crippled by the despair of loneliness from scene to scene.  Cedric the Entertainer is a surprising delight, as he is typically not a dramatic actor.  He brings with him a likable air that is so quintessential for a minister, one that lets you know this is a man of god and you know you’re supposed to like him.

Schrader is a calculated filmmaker; everything is done with purpose.  The minimalist soundscape pulls the ever growing tension throughout the film.  The lack of over the shoulder shots during dialogue scenes forces viewers to damn near make eye contact with the actor in the claustrophobic 4:3 ratio.  Every subtle tick and mannerism an actor emotes is visible and serves Schrader’s vision.  First Reformed is one of the most carefully crafted films of the year, and its philosophies will linger with audiences for days after the credits finish rolling.

Cory’s 2018 Nashville Film Festival Diary: Part One

Cory recaps the first block of films he saw at this year’s NaFF.

Cory recaps the first block of films he saw at this year’s NaFF.

Film festivals are kind of like one of those stair machines at the gym you do to make yourself feel better about the rigor of your workout. They can be a continuous grind and pose no end in sight, and make your feet burn like a summertime campfire. Then again, film festivals are also not like stair machines, because they are also very enjoyable, and replace climbing M.C. Exercise’s never-ending staircases with a barrage of wonderful films. The feet-burning still applies, though, well, at least for me, I have flat feet, and Sperry’s, like the Honey Badger, don’t care.

I guess the two don’t really have all that much in common then. Oh, you stop. I’m tired. I’ve been at a film festival all week.

The 49th annual Nashville Film Festival concluded yesterday and I, your faithful and true 615 Film correspondent, trudged along the cinematic spectrum since last Friday, and as of this plastic letter-pecking, have seen 14 titles (also managed to sneak in a non-festival quick watch of the Gabrielle Union home invasion thriller Breaking In, which is like Home Alone, but serious, but still manages to pop in a bumbling Gerard Way-lookalike burglar who fumbles about his assignment like Don Knotts walking through a field of mouse traps. It’s not bad!).

Film festivals in the late spring mix together the buzzed-about indie darlings that first grace Sundance and SXSW, socially-urgent documentaries that demand attention and those weird little flicks that grace blocks like NaFF’s Graveyard Shift.

Out of Sundance, the fest gave this intrigued patron an early look at Bo Burnham’s charming, apt middle school dramedy Eighth Grade, which cuts deep into the pitfalls of having to be a kid in the worst possible time in life. The exact nature of the script and tone make you almost wonder if Burnham is actually just one of those 15-year-old kids that looks very old for his age. New kid on the block Elsie Fisher breathes an awkward command into her Kayla, a teen trying to tie together the closing moments of her eighth-grade year with regrets of not being who she wants to be then, and fears of not being who she wants to be when the first class of high school begins.

From A24’s “Eighth Grade”

Burnham’s observant, humane touch reminds you of a young Jason Reitman (Juno is a good comparison piece, though this film prefers keen quiet to rat-a-tat dialogue), and if that’s going to be the comedian’s niche, then we’re all better for it. Patience is a hard thing to find in a film like this, as is humility to let the era tell the story. Reitman’s great at that, and in Eighth Grade, so is Burnham. Here, the kids are alright, even if they aren’t quite all ready. Burnham challenges us to look back on our own pasts and give those meme-ready phone surfers a big break. And, hey, maybe even a hug and an encouraging word. After all, the future is in their Instagramming hands…but, thankfully, not, like, immediately. Staff writer Kevin Allen wrote a longer piece that echoes a lot of my feelings. Also, long live the great Josh Hamilton, who has given me the blunt vision of what I will look like when in a paternal role.

Sundance standout Blindspotting (pictured at the top), birthed from the creative firework stand of Hamilton actor Daveed Diggs and his dramatic partner Rafael Casal, takes us into gentrified Oakland, where the weekend warriors of flannel and purveyors of edamame lunches (so, hipsters) are settling in to the long diversified city. One that stands home to great artists (i.e. N.W.A., Kendrick Lamar) and the legendary Raiders (well, for now), as well as a difficult history of racial discrimination and police misconduct. Diggs and Casal walk a tightrope of weaving in long stretches of fiery spoken poetry into the narrative of Diggs’ Collin, who is just days away from his prohibition ending. Things aren’t helped when on a late-night drive, Collin stands witness to the shooting of an unarmed black man by an Oakland cop. From there, Colin must navigate the perils of seeing such a horrendous act, and his own struggles to stay out of trouble’s way, particularly when best friend Miles (Casal) is such an unpredictable and emotional live wire. For a film dealing with such striking subject matter, it’s got a brisk sense of humor, with Diggs and particularly Casal doling out creative spoken word routines on their day, where their city is headed and other things good friends observe when they kick the can around. But, they also use this form to address the tougher themes as well — ones of racial identity, of a city in transition, of pent-up frustrations and fears — the ones that give the piece its foundation. Music video director Carlos López Estrada splices in visual flair and almost a surrealist sense of creativity in telling this story, which brings in the electricity, wit and narrative possibility of live theater with the emotion and presentation that’s unique to film.

It’s an explosive debut for all involved, with Diggs and Casal delivering layered, fleet-footed performances, and turning in an inflammatory script that makes sure to nail its central thesis home in the most lasting fashion. Diggs gets the grand charge at the end, and wallops with a left hook monologue that’ll leave you dizzy, but it’s Casal’s performance that will spark and haunt you. If take the dark energy and looming eyes of Al Pacino’s work in The Godfather Part II and Joe Pesci’s playful-yet-dangerous charm in Goodfellas, and add on a layer of Broadway-ready bravado, you get what Casal channels here. It’s the supporting performance of the year, and brushes shoulders with some of the greats to support a cast. I’m unsure I’ve seen a commanding acting debut like this since Christoph Waltz’s historic turn in Inglorious Bastards. If Casal isn’t least considered for an Oscar this fall, it’ll be a embarrassing omission for one of the year’s landmark feats of acting.

Circles
From the documentary “Circles.”

We stay in Oakland for our documentaries with Circles, a challenging-yet-uplifting look at restorative justice through the eyes of the man trying to bring it to the city’s youth. Director Cassidy Friedman does what all the best documentarians do – he stays out of the way of his compelling subject, Eric Butler, an ex-Colts practice squad member who, after being displaced from his home in Hurricane Katrina, found himself working to bring restorative justice to at-risk Oakland youths. There’s a common misconception with the principle Butler mounts his work on. Restorative justice is not just an encouraging word and a friendly hug – it’s a laborious, hard-as-concrete process that requires for a lot of patience and emotional truth to surface for the youth in question and those that care for them. Butler works with kids who are skipping class, are academically underachieving and are, in general, paving rough paths for themselves post-education. But, instead of trying to just slap the wrist and walk away, the work requires intensive bonding and circles of trust to help the youths in question realize the error of their ways and come to grips with the pain and turmoil that so often lies under the skin. And, go figure, correction with an eye toward empathy and change tends to work better than simple suspension.

The film takes a difficult turn when Butler’s son Tre gets caught in the belly of Oakland’s criminal justice system after an unbelievable misunderstanding sends him to jail. Here, Butler tries to juggle the work he’s doing at his school of employment – where the institution is working to help pull one particular young lady out of a difficult family and social situation – with his efforts to keep his own son from succumbing to the traps he works to keep school kids out of every day. It’s in this journey the film takes a new life. It was already an instructive look at how powerful restorative justice can be when implemented and maintained properly, but when systemic oppression hits home, the subject becomes not only a laudable public servant, but a portrait of firm grace in the face of adversity. There will be plenty of imaginary heroes that will grace movie screens this summer, but Circles shows us what a real hero looks like, and what real heroism takes. Films like this don’t leave you; nor should they.

Social justice is a common thread at the festival, and few stories spark the ire and demand for change that the ill-fated traffic stop of young black woman Sandra Bland did in 2015. Say Her Name: The Life of Death of Sandra Bland follows the real-time search for answers in Bland’s suspicious detainment and eventual death in a Texas holding cell. The situation was a defining moment in the Black Lives Matter movement, one where the lack of understanding and frustrations surrounding her treatment in custody sparked nationwide protests and particular unrest in the area of Texas where Bland died. Considering the horrid history of policing against minority groups, Bland’s story slots into a sickening history of police misconduct, racial profiling and systemic ineptitude. The documentarians keep the film at an even hand, offering the city’s sheriff and district attorney opportunities to explain their side of deliberations at the same wavelength with Bland’s family, friends and legal team. That’s vital for understanding from the state’s side of things for how they feel this process might’ve gone differently and comes with dispiriting admissions from the sheriff’s office in the case’s operational failures.

The film tries to dig to the truth of what might’ve happened with Bland’s situation, though, the answers aren’t as clear-cut as anyone would hope. Though, it’s apparent Bland is a victim of a system that failed her, and the film openly tries to advocate for changes to happen to prevent acts like this happen again. As a work of in-depth research into Bland’s story, and a testament to her character (the film is inter-spliced with personal vlogs on her social messages that offer glimpses into her personality – aspects often lost in the conversation), it’s an important watch. It slots in appropriately with HBO’s new series Wyatt Cenac’s Problem Areas, which is taking a season-long look at policing in America. Here, you begin to understand the dangers of racial profiling, systemic breakdowns in jailing work, and the maddening inability for de-escalation tactics to take a forefront in the conversation on police conduct. Look for it to reach the station later this year.

zerzura
From the film “Zerzura.”

Also screened:

  • Mickey Reese’s Alien, a B-movie sci-fi fever dream that looks at Elvis through the lens of his immense, almost, cough cough, otherworldy status. It’s an odd duck of a project and follows in the footsteps of those David Lynchian Adult Swim short films that the network stashes in its lineup at 2AM for unsuspecting night owls. It’s a film that doesn’t entirely work, which only increases the creepy charm, and enhances the parts that do (the last shot is bombastic). Elvis might’ve left the building many years ago, but it’s nice that weird little DIY ditties like this still can find a place in the grander spectrum of festival programming. Someone needs to get writer/director Mickey Reese on the phone with folks on Williams Street, stat.
  • Zerzura is the Sergio Leone homage no one was expecting. Best described as a Saharan acid fantasy western, the film is an electric curveball for independent cinema, and a must for anyone who misses the character-and-scope-driven westerns that Leone made his mark with. The western isn’t dying – it’s just gone international. Director Christopher Kirkley delved into Tuareg cinema before, and his understanding of the area and its visual strengths really make this a spectacle as much as an exact journey. Though, its strongest element has to be Ahmoudou Madassane, the star and composer. He carries the film with his cadence of screen presence and melodious soundscapes, plucking away at one of 2018’s best scores. No film will be a singularly fascinating as Zerzura this year, so seek it out if you can.
  • Triumph: The Untold Story of Perry Wallace tells a Nashville story that deserves national attention in the sports world – the one of former Vanderbilt star Perry Wallace, the first black collegiate athlete to fully integrate into the SEC. Wallace’s tale is indeed one of triumph, as he bravely stood against harassment from racist white southerners to make sporting history, but also one of collective shame for those that stayed silent during Wallace’s time on the team. He was voted a captain his senior year, but never got strong showings of support at the time from the very teammates he played with. It’s a delicate balance to tell a story like Wallace’s, one that aims to inspire but also condemn. It took Vanderbilt until the year 2004 to properly acknowledge Wallace for his accomplishments after a scorching-but-righteous interview Wallace gave post-graduation painted Vanderbilt as lacking in doing all they could to make someone like the basketball star feel welcome and supported. The school actually funded the documentary, a further step in trying to rectify its spotty past with one of its most important athletes and alumni. Wallace passed in 2017, and it’s a shame we’re just now beginning to see him get the attention he so richly deserves. But, director Rich Gentile does his story justice, delivering a full, compelling tribute to who Wallace was, what he did, what he endured and what he stood for.

Our second part of Cory’s recap will be published soon, with opinions on films like Minding the Gap, First Reformed, Leave No Trace, Loud Krazy Love, Thunder Road, Hot Summer Nights, Dark Money, Crime + Punishment, hillbilly and more.

Nashville Film Festival Review: ‘Shelter’ Has an Identity Crisis

No one can be trusted in this Mossad Thriller. Or is it a Romantic Drama?

No one can be trusted in this Mossad Thriller. Or is it a Romantic Drama?

RATING: ★★ (out of four stars)

There is something about an isolation thriller that is so captivating. One or two people being stuck in a single place opens up the door for great character development and creative plot devices. With Shelter, the characters are strong and the performances are impressive, but unfortunately that’s all it has going for it as the movie repeatedly misfires and tries too hard.

The story follows Naomi (Neta Riskin), a Mossad Agent who is called back to work from sick leave to protect Mona (Golshifteh Farahani), a Lebanese informant. Mona is undergoing facial reconstruction surgery so she can safely live her life and Naomi has to “babysit” her for two weeks. Sounds simple enough, right? If only…

If there is one thing Shelter gets right, especially in the first act, it’s establishing the paranoia around every corner. At first, it starts off promising. But as the movie progresses, the plot moves so incredibly slow and the pacing is all over the place, which will lead you to checking your watch every 10 or 15 minutes (it it’s only an hour and a half long). And on top of that, it seems like the movie is over two hours long and it suffers from the classic case of when a movie doesn’t know how to end.

As flawed as Shelter is, there are some enjoyable parts. The bond between Naomi and Mona is very well-directed. Of course at first, they don’t particularly like each other. No grown woman wants to be babysat and Naomi tries to treat it as just another job. Of course, they eventually get close and it’s kind of sweet. Some of this downtime with their characters helps with the development and relationship, but it slows down the movie exponentially. It’s almost like Shelter has an identity crisis. Deciding whether it wants to be a thriller or a romantic drama, the end result does not make for a great mixture.

The biggest lacking aspect in Shelter though is genuine suspense. It could have been so much better if there were more tense-filled scenes where the viewer actually felt like the protagonist was in danger. But sadly, every time Shelter attempts suspense, it’s  simply disappointing.

Overall, Shelter falls flat. A simplistic story has the ability to be powerful and thought-provoking, but the director has to be able to evoke genuine suspense and keep his vision poised and clear. Maybe watch this one on a rainy day if it is on a streaming service.

 

Nashville Film Festival Review: ‘Eighth Grade’ Gets High Marks

Stand-up comedian Bo Burnham makes his film directing debut with A24’s latest coming-of-age story.

Stand-up comedian Bo Burnham makes his film directing debut with A24’s latest coming-of-age story. 

RATING: ★★★★ (out of four stars)

Ask any person to describe their youth, and one of the first things you’ll hear about is that eighth grade was the worst year of his or her life. This film critic can even attest to the fact that between insecurities, peer and parental pressures, personal strife and an uneasy introduction to the concept of dating, it was indeed a challenge to survive the final year of middle school. But when one looks back on that series of events several years later, it’s easy to wonder why they were worth the trouble in the first place. This year, A24 brings us standup comedian Bo Burnham’s directorial debut with Eighth Grade, a tremendous coming-of-age story about these very struggles, which are conveyed in not only a contemporary middle school setting, but also in a manner that’s hilarious, endearing and unflinchingly realistic. That’s in large part due to Burnham’s dedication to authenticity and a captivating breakout performance from Elsie Fisher.

Eighth Grade follows socially awkward pre-teen Kayla Day (Fisher) over the course of her final week in middle school, beginning with her receiving the title of ‘Quietest Girl in the School’ by her peers. When she receives the time capsule that she made for her eighth-grade self at the beginning of middle school (topped with the title she gave herself in sixth grade: ‘The Coolest Girl In The World’), she strives to come out of her shell and live up to her self-imposed title as she attempts to impress everyone she comes in contact with.

They range from her first-crush Aiden (Luke Prael) to the most popular girl in school Kennedy (Catherine Olivere) in a myriad of scenarios its audience will all find familiar: going to a heavily-attended pool party, learning how her body will change in the coming years, touring the walls and classrooms of what will be her high school and trying to understand the mystery that is sexual intercourse. Kayla does all this while avoiding her well-meaning single father Mark (Josh Hamilton) in favor of immersing herself in her own little world, the apps of her smartphone and recording videos for her own self-help vlog on YouTube.

What makes Eighth Grade a standout in the coming-of-age genre is its authentic portrayal of contemporary middle school. The student body is filled with hilariously off-key performances and eye-rolling meme drops. We spend agonizing amount of time in an off-key marching band practice. Unsettling active shooter training rehearsals are led by John Wayne wannabes.

Eccentric faculty members (one sporting a particularly gnarly rattail braid) do the dab dance to try and connect with the student body. There’s something for everyone to relate to over the course of the film that will take all in attendance on a nostalgic trip down memory lane to the days of youth.

This extends to the way Eighth Grade depicts the social pressures and anxieties that go on inside the mind of a normal pre-teen. Kayla tries so hard to spark conversation with her peers and be popular by giving a fun card game as a birthday gift to a preppy girl, only to be matched by awkward common ground about phone chargers and for the gift to be received with disappointing indifference. Kayla stutters and stammers her way through every video she records because she’s trying to be something she’s not, going so far as to cover topics such as how to be confident, put yourself out there and be popular. Her desire to possess all those traits is conveyed through what should be a star-making lead performance from Fisher, who brings so much realism to the character of Kayla that makes her so endearing, she’s impossible not to root for, no matter how many times she says ‘like’ in between every three words.

Burnham’s assured direction also succeeds at putting the audience into her headspace by panning the camera in a way that mimics every turn she makes to keep up with the conversation going on in front of her, by superimposing the images on her Instagram feed over closeups of her wandering (and wondering) eyes and by using a pulsing electronic score and soundtrack to enforce that her insecurities aren’t as large in scale as she makes them out to be. Kayla’s quest for social acceptance takes a turn for the unnerving on its way to the third act with a certain moment that could make audience members squirm with discomfort, but the suspense is effectively built throughout the scene, and the content involved is more relevant than ever in today’s social climate.

Meanwhile, the only real element that’s lacking, albeit in a minor capacity, is more background on Kayla’s father. Mark longs to connect with his daughter like she longs to connect with her peers. Quite frankly, she’s the only thing he has as a constant in his life. This dynamic begins to reveal itself in a scene where Kayla storms away from a Friday dinner after an argument about nothing. You think you’re about to better understand the man left eating, but the film doesn’t shift to his perspective. Then and throughout, you’re left wanting a bit more from his side of the table. But, like any good father, he’s there for when his daughter needs him the most, and his words of encouragement renew Kayla’s hopes and dreams while bringing a smile to the face of everyone watching the film (unless you had already had one going from the opening credits).

Overall, Eighth Grade treats its subject matter with a dedication to realism. Burnham gets a breakthrough performance from Fisher and conveys the perspective of his endearing lead character with care and authenticity in what is a very funny and ultimately touching directorial debut. Very few directors debut with high marks in the way Burnham has with Eighth Grade. Believe it or not, his film will make you want to linger within the memories of a middle school day, the ones that go long past the final bell.

Review: ‘Avengers: Infinity War’ Plays It Smart and Delivers the Goods

“The end is near.”

“The end is near.”

RATING: ★★★ (out of four stars)

In 2008, Nick Fury announced to the world “…you’ve become part of a much bigger universe, you just don’t know it yet.” Ten years later, we know just how true that is. Avengers: Infinity War is the endgame for everything we’ve come to know and love about the Marvel Cinematic Universe over the course of 18 (count ‘em) films. Sure enough, it delivers the goods in spectacular fashion thanks in large part to MVP Josh Brolin, as the Mad Titan Thanos, who brings a surprising element of calm focus to this otherwise gargantuan, universe-spanning, reality-shifting affair.

Opening where Thor: Ragnorok left us, Infinity War begins with Thanos’ destruction of the Asgardian refugee vessel with Thor, Loki, Heimdall and even Hulk on their knees; all powerless against the might of Thanos and his minions. Unlike previous villains, Thanos is not here to showboat. He is not here to prove himself worthy by defeating his enemies or rule over the conquered; He is here to bring balance to the universe by dealing death. Life, when unchecked, leads to suffering and overconsumption of resources. Thanos is the only one with the will to reset the scales by cutting civilizations in half at random. Uniting all six Infinity Stones will give him the power to reset the entire universe with the snap of his fingers.

This singular focus is what propels a two and a half hour long movie like a freight train heading for the end of the line. Without missing a beat, the Russo’s deftly blend each unique element of the MCU in such a smooth manner that is positively astounding how well it works in spite of itself. Layering in the humor of the Guardians with Chris Hemsworth’s now self-referential take on Thor; merging quippy one-liners from Tony Stark with Doctor Strange’s deadpan delivery of hope in the form of a 1-in-14 million chance of survival. From cosmic metallurgy to jungle warfare, we jump from location to location and one colorful character to another almost seamlessly. This movie knows full well the weight it bears and it’s signature MCU humor serves simply to help us carry on throughout because honestly, none of us could probably take a self-serious version of this particular tale. One standout scene between the God of Thunder and a Guardian of the Galaxy (I won’t name who) reminds us our favorite characters have lost so much along the way that perhaps we shouldn’t linger on the loss too long but use it to carry on the fight.

The biggest complaint most have regarding Marvel movies is the villain. Villains should reflect the hero’s flaws, point out their failings and contradictions. In this case, Thanos is not so much a villain, but a man on a suicide mission that the entire MCU must stop at all costs or face annihilation. It is this fundamental difference that makes Thanos more compelling than the vast majority of enemies faced so far. Brolin commands every moment on screen with silent assurance knowing that his actions speak far louder than any monologue or one-liner (And boy do they). For Infinity War to work in the slightest, Thanos has to work as a character separate from the Avengers and by Odin’s beard, mission accomplished.

Avengers: Infinity War is not just the culmination of Kevin Feige’s master plan to dominate the box office and fan-boy and fan-girl minds for years to come. Infinity War is the ultimate synthesis of a Marvel movie with their signature pop culture humor, mind-numbing action on an epic scale, with a slightly episodic structure overall that connects all the worlds they’ve been building. This is not the greatest superhero movie ever made; perhaps a tighter focus story-wise, singularly on Thanos, or even more inventiveness in the visual approach overall, would have propelled this film to such heights. Nevertheless, it’s a pretty damn good movie and it’s an absolute blast in the theater.

PS: Stay for a scene after the credits.

Review: On the ‘Isle of Dogs,’ Wes Anderson Howls for Empathy

Wes Anderson’s latest stop-motion spectacle wags its tail with urgency and heart.

Wes Anderson’s latest stop-motion spectacle wags its tail with urgency and heart.

RATING: ★★★★ (out of four stars)

Whether we’re slumming with the Tenenbaums, under the sea with Steve Zizzou or spending time with the Fantastic Mr. Fox, we’ve never struggled to know what Wes Anderson wants us to get out of his work.

His films are quaint, dry and proper, tied-string parcels with plaid wrapping paper, and not a dab of excess in the folding and cutting. Every square inch is planned out ahead of time with the rigorous dedication of mounting a tiny sailboat in a cut glass bottle. He’s a mad scientist for the meticulous, and his latest creation, the stop-motion Isle of Dogs, finds him at his most comfortable, his most adventurous and his most pensive.

In a “wait, this sounds familiar” plotline, a fictional Japanese bustle named Megasaki City has outlawed all dogs after a dangerous virus breaks out amongst the canine population. Once trusted friends by the fireplace, dogs have been vilified by the populous as “bad boys” with the same kind of mass hysteria that plagues any group that’s unfairly aligned with a crime or convolution linked back to one of its members. The city’s mayor, Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura), has a bad family history with man’s best friend, and is more than happy to propagate “anti-pup” messages to the people so he can rid his town of those dastardly tail-wagers once and for all.

So, the pooch population is exiled to Trash Island just outside of the city’s skyline, and Kobayashi rallies the fever pitch to best his opponent in re-election, a doctor and member of the “science party.” Hounding hysteria over reason in a campaign season? You can see the themes crawling around here like fleas on a poodle.

Enter Atari (Koyu Rankin), the mayor’s adopted nephew, a spry lad on the warpath to save his bodyguard dog Spots, who the mayor exiled first in his puppy purge. Atari has not fallen sway to the bark-based brainwashing and takes a small plane to Trash Island to save his trusted companion from whatever harm could befall him on a place called “Trash Island.” Once there, he finds Chief (a gruff, then touching Bryan Cranston), a human-averse stray, and his companions Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balabin), Boss (Bill Murray) and Duke (Jeff Goldblum). The latter four are no strangers to Anderson’s twee tales and accompany their pups with the same dry candor and earnest yearns that mark any character in one of the director’s works.

The other dogs are taken by the boy’s worry and drive for his friend, something they’ve not seen from their previous owners, and feel obliged to help him across Trash Island’s tainted vista to save Spots. Chief’s less sure, but as time goes on, he, of course, finds that, as Scarlett Johansson’s elegant, exiled show dog Nutmeg says, “he’s a 12-year-old-boy. Dogs love those.” But, of course, Kobayashi is on the hunt for his lost ward, a wrench in his grand plan to rid the city of a pooch presence once and for all.

The director’s crafted sets are vibrant and exact. Stop-motion is a heck of a medium for realism and careful planning, and Anderson has the patience and the creativity to make the form sing. It’s the best of its kind since 2016’s Kubo and the Two Strings, also rooted in a respect for Asian culture and its visual storytelling, but therein also lies the film’s core issue.

Anderson’s last sprawling effort, The Grand Budapest Hotel, saw him excavate every nook and cranny of western Europe’s mountainous regions without drawing a lot of ire for the way he handled the culture. He was less-successful in that arena with The Darjeeling Limited, and in Isle, he once again finds himself a tourist in another culture’s story, one he felt compelled to tell himself. It’s not for lack of trying – Anderson sees the film as a love letter to Japanese cinema and its heritage – but when one of the film’s central heroes is a white foreign exchange student from Cincinnati, and a few of its villains unfortunate caricatures from film’s past, you can see the need for, at the very least, more of a advisory role for the culture its trying to respect to better understand what does and doesn’t fly in the rendering.

But, congruently, the film tries to hold a mirror up to what the world is becoming – one where a society getting rid of dogs over misinformed propaganda and homegrown hate isn’t all that unrealistic. We create “scapedogs” every day out of anything we’re scared of or hold a grudge against, and Anderson isn’t going to let the audience out of the doghouse on it. Atari’s compassion for his beloved pup glows like a lantern in the fog, as does the softening of Chief’s gruff exterior. The film hammers in time after time, in brief, delicate moments, the need for empathy for those who are in need, and how vile it is to slap empathy down for achievement or cruelty. All of Anderson’s films have some level of warmth, but few have this fierce of a bite.

If Anderson can better learn to lean on the cultures he’s visiting to guide where he takes the story and how he designs the characters, he’ll be far better off. But, even so, Isle of Dogs is one of his best movies, one that puts his best strengths on display, and amplifies one of his angriest, most desperate messages.