Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

Avengers_Infinity_War_poster.jpgEntering into the latest Avengers blockbuster I felt like I was missing something thanks to a cold open that places us in an unfamiliar environment. That’s a feeling that has come upon me on multiple occasions previously.

Not only because as a mild enthusiast I’ve missed a stray entry here and there but I also easily forget interconnected events and after a certain point, why bother? We have come to accept that there will always be another Marvel movie.

Yes, this is the culmination of 10 years that began inauspiciously with Iron Man in 2008 only to balloon into a skyrocketing phenomenon that will not disappear any time in the near future. Superheroes like Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Hulk, and so many others have reemerged as integral parts of the public consciousness. And many fans have been waiting with baited breath for this day and they will wait again and again for future movies like it. That’s an established fact. Regardless, they can breathe a sigh of relief and thoroughly enjoy themselves with this realization of all their dreams up on the big screen. It will hardly disappoint.

To describe the plot of Infinity War is almost arbitrary as SPOILERS in this day and age are guarded against like the plague but here is a nibble anyway. Thanos (Josh Brolin), a being who has long been alluded to, is finally on the scene. The opening sequence is a microcosm of what he hopes to do on a cosmic scale, leveling half of the remnant left over from Asgard.

As a supervillain, he has a vision for the world that’s not too unbelievable. He seems to have been acquainted with Thomas Malthus’ work (even unwittingly so) while holding a contorted view of what empathy is. What others term mass genocide he deems an indiscriminate mission of mercy — killing half the universe’s population will mean resources are more widely available for everyone else left alive. He proves to be one of the most interesting characters within the narrative for the very fact that we have barely met him before.

Infinity Stones also become of utmost importance again as Thanos must add them to his collection so he can rise to the stature of a demigod and dictate the outcome of all life with the snap of his finger. That’s some kind of power! The stones themselves are exquisitely color coordinated. One is safeguarded by Dr. Steven Strange (Benedict Cumbertach), another is implanted in Vision (Paul Bettany) and fiercely protected by his girlfriend the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen). The Soul Gem brings Thanos back in contact with his two stepdaughters Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Nebula (Karen Gillan) with grave consequences.

Everyone else who makes an appearance (and at times a lightning-quick cameo) relies on a viewer’s running tabulation of everything up until this point in the MCU. And though you’ll probably enjoy seeing these characters that you have some familiarity with — and you even laugh throughout — there is a sense that they are only vague contours. There are too many of them for the resonance to run deep and personal. It really only works if audiences have bought into the machine and already have some background with these heroes in place. The scarier thought is if viewers do not. Infinity War would be void of any meaning. All flashes of imagery, destruction, and hyper-frenetic editing. Any other actual amount of personality would be absent.

Some people live and others die but to confess that I didn’t much care that any of these characters perished is one of the most unfortunate realities of the movie. It’s not that I know they are coming back necessarily or anything of the sort. I admit to being fickle. I can’t remember why I should care about these characters. Because for some so much time has passed since I had any connection with them. To watch them become collateral damage has little resonance with me. I’m numb to it.

I won’t make allusion to archetypal literature like Hamlet or film references like Star Wars or Harry Potter because in some ways that would denigrate that material. Am I being a bit harsh? Perhaps I am. In fact, it was Hary Potter and The Deathly Hallows (2010) that we have to thank for this current reality followed close behind by The Hunger Games and The Hobbit. Stories like these coincidentally begun the practice now popular in the industry.

It was no longer about simply having sequels but milking a movie for all it was worth — breaking them up into pieces — making films that were meant to be a part of a greater whole.  It’s not a film so much as a commodity. Differing from the earlier examples like The Godfather movies or even The original Star Wars trilogy — those were pictures that very much could stand on their own merit. Not that they were not enriched and more fully realized with their later installments but we could consider them alone.

Infinity War comes out of this philosophy where a film was never meant to be taken by itself. Everyone knows it. The producers, the directors, the actors, and the audience.  By now as a collective assemblage of viewers, it seems like we’ve been cowed into submission.

I for one watched the movie and never quite relished it — there was nothing all that new or novel — and yet I was never bored per se. However, even my newest favorite superhero Black Panther felt like he was now fit into the Marvel mold. Nothing surprised. Nothing ignited a deep-seated exhilaration inside me. A Stan Lee cameo comes and goes.

Though the picture does promise action and verbal sparring which it delivers handily. In fact, if you consider the screenplay by writing duo Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, they do an admirable job with both the monumental juggling act and crosscutting of multiple storylines. The same can be said for the other dynamic duo directing, brothers Joe and Anthony Russo who must perform the same type of orchestration that would have buried a single director in his grave.

Still, there is an uncanny feeling that the picture is made up of two kinds of scenes. You have action sequences packaged nicely with all the trimmings and CGI to your heart’s content. Then you have in contrast many stagnant sequences with all these big names standing around in a single location talking it out usually over some point of conflict, sprinkled with a few jokes or exposition that feels all too familiar. The well-timed comic relief disguises how run-of-the-mill everything is.

That’s what’s Marvel has in many ways perfected. In that regard, there’s nothing lacking and if that’s what you signed on for now 10 years ago (without even realizing it) it takes little hesitation to say that you will be satiated at least until the next Marel movie and the next installment of Infinity War in a year’s time.

However, I couldn’t help but leave the experience feeling slightly lackluster about the affair. Because in many ways Infinity War is the culmination of a generation of films and really the emblem of where Hollywood continues to head. Sure, we have yet to get the second half of our story but if this is any indication of what we have to look forward to in the future, it does look like a fairly blasé fate at that. Though the jokes and the pyrotechnics are present in full force, there is little magic — that certain amount of intangibility that lifts entertainment above the mediocre and allows it to capture our imaginations. My only question is — as someone unread in Marvel comic literature — what could the Deux ex Machina possibly be?

3.5/5 Stars

 

 

Thor Ragnarok (2017)

Thor_Ragnarok_posterMy heart lept in my chest when I heard that Taika Watiti (What We Do in The Shadows) was going to be helming the latest Thor movie. Because it’s hardly a well-kept secret that Thor has essentially been the weakest of all the Marvel threads (Hulk’s individual film excluded).

So once more Marvel has done an impeccable job of keeping lukewarm bandwagoners such as myself mildly interested. Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange. Brie Larson in the upcoming Captain Marvel movie — another personal favorite. Then, we have Ryan Coogler directing Black Panther with one of the most glorious casts in recent memory. They make their product so alluring despite my general lack of interest in the perennial juggernaut.

But back to Thor Ragnarok which goes far beyond the quip-filled, light-hearted humor that Marvel has often boasted, to great success, I might add. Even with its darker moments and strains of drama, there’s little doubting that Watiti’s brand of near insouciant humor is alive and well. Exhibit A is the very fact that we are reintroduced to Thor (Chris Hemsworth) as he swings precariously from a rocky prison encased in chains about to be executed by a fiery conflagration of a villain.

In case you haven’t realized it already what we are about to be served up is a comedy about an apocalypse. Oxymoronic as it may sound, the film all but pulls it off. Still, more explanation is in order.

Thor returns to Asgard only to begin quibbling with his black sheep of a brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) just like old times. They call on their father (Anthony Hopkins) whose imminent death is less an ending and more a god-like dispersal. There are other asides involving Dr. Strange (Cumberbatch) and yes, we even found out a little bit more about the Hulk and what Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) has been doing the last couple years.

Being the weasel that he is, Loki’s always betraying his brother and Thor winds up getting captured by a former Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) who has taken on the life of a slave trader, bringing in fighters for the Contest of Champions. Thor is destined to be the newest attraction on center stage.

Watiti most obviously makes his general tone felt in the film through his own character Korg, a giant rock monster who is more like the Michelin Man than The Thing. Watiti’s understated voice coming through so clearly as he matter-of-factly talks about the not uncertain death that awaits nearly everyone. But he’s also handy for a few rock, paper, scissor jokes as well.

Jeff Goldblum is probably the film’s other finest creation for his own brand of oddly perturbing flippancy with gladiatorial violence and hedonistic relish of death matches. But in the same breath, The Grandmaster also happens to be probably the funniest addition to the cast for those very same reasons.

In fact, it’s these themes touched on briefly that are most crucial to drawing conclusions about Ragnarok. It’s deeply entrenched in issues of death and mortality, violence and warfare. By no small coincidence, the main villain brought to the fore is Hela (Cate Blanchett) who helped Odin build his kingdom and has come back to rule it as her own. It’s not a particularly inspired creation but what did we expect? It is what it is.

Meanwhile, Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” is the film’s favorite hard-hitting tune to conjure up for perfect trailer sound bytes to crosscut with the action at hand. Whether it serves any other purpose aside from just being a bit of retro-cool is probably beside the point.

There’s a line that seems apt for such a film that I couldn’t help recalling. It goes like something like this, “We laugh at death because we know that death will have the last laugh at us.” It’s one thing to make light of death as a coping mechanism and as an outlet to grapple with something we don’t completely understand, quite another to completely dismiss it. Because the far easier road is to try and evade dealing with it altogether.

The usual CGI extravaganzas and spectacle aside, there is something still to relish in this movie. What I’m trying to say is that Thor Ragnarok is a deathly funny superhero film. In spite of the usual tiresome amount of pyrotechnics, random cameos, and overzealous action sequences, there is an ephemeral and still a delightful enjoyment to be found in this picture. It no doubt bears the imprint of Watiti while still wearing some of the tiresome Marvel tropes.

The one theme it does suggest most overtly is that “Asgard” was built on past indiscretions, bloodshed, and violence. But moreover, the mythical nation is not simply a place. It’s the people that make it up. And in the wake of an apocalypse, it’s some amount of solace. That and Jeff Goldblum giving the commoners a pat on the back. It’s always good to undercut solemnity with another punchline following the credits.

3.5/5 Stars

4 Star Double Feature – Coming of Age Flicks

Starter for 10 (2006)

The cast boasts the likes of James McAvoy, Benedict Cumberbatch, Rebecca Hall, Alice Eve, and even James Corden all in one film together! The year is 1985 and Brian is off to his first year at university which turns into a formative moment in his life of new experiences, romantic entanglements, and, yes, even trivia. He’s really good at trivia. But sometimes being good at trivia still cannot prepare you for the things that life throws at you. That’s what makes life, life and not a game show as he finds out.

Sing Street (2016)

Also set in 1985 but in this case in Dublin, Sing Street is a high school coming of age story about a boy who forms a band to get a girl. It’s a simple premise but John Carney’s film explores much of the turbulence as well as the glories of that time in life. It’s about love and music and personal exploration. It also happens to be a darn good musical with a steady stream of catchy 80s tunes both real and fictional.

Starter for 10 (2006)

215px-Starter_for_tenOftentimes I get my greatest excitement not simply from the masterpieces I get to discover, but also hidden gems that get unearthed along the way. This one just happens to have some of Britain’s best talent. Starter for 10 is a coming-of-age film which immediately sets off a number of ideas in one’s head, and it has most of what you expect in that department. However, it also has an astounding plethora of young British talent. The list of names is as follows: James McAvoy, Alice Eve, Rebecca Hall, Benedict Cumberbatch, Dominic Cooper, and even James Corden.

The heart of this film is Brian Jackson a college-aged kid, who grows up wanting to be clever and he has a passion for trivia because he always wants to learn more and he spent some formative moments in front of the telly with his now deceased dad. Now in 1985, he gets ready to leave his mother (Catherine Tate) and head off for new experiences at Bristol University. But she’s not the only one he leaves behind. His friends Tone and Spencer are not as ambitious as him, but he promises not to forget them.

Still, when he gets to college, he’s excited for the new challenges ahead and although his first acquaintances are rather odd, he does meet the winsome girl Rebecca Epstein (Rebecca Hall), who has an affinity for political protests. Soon he’s quick to join the University Challenge quiz team anchored by a very stuffy post-grad (Benedict Cumberbatch) but that’s not all. He also gets his first encounter with the posh girl with a gorgeous figure (Alice Eve). He’s immediately smitten with this new quiz kid and for good reason.

But what follows is all the drama that one would expect. The pitter-patter of his beating fragile heart as he dreams of days with the beautiful Alice. It even manifests itself in a dinner date and a rather awkward New Years with her parents. But then there’s Rebecca too. She’s brilliant as well and he has to figure out what he’s doing. Mixing up names on New Year’s Eve is not the best plan, but of course, that’s what happens.

His best friend Spencer (Dominic Cooper) comes to visit and that fosters more turmoil than Bri would like with the old world intersecting with the new. He’s confused and apathetic about the University Challenge by now. Everything goes wrong before the big day of the final competition and to top it all off Brian messes things up in a big way that leaves him dejected. He cannot even face his team now. Early on Brian latched onto the idea that knowledge is the key to being happy, not a job that you might hate. Although that can be true, it seems he slowly realizes that there’s even more to happiness than knowledge. If that’s all you have, you’re probably not going to be all that content. You see, he’s certainly clever, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t do some stupid things and make some big mistakes. Don’t we all, and otherwise, this could not be a coming-of-age story full of discovery, confusion, and love.

It’s a bad metaphor, I know, but do you want the Marilyn Monroe blond bombshell or the sweet Audrey Hepburn brunette? Everyone has their proclivity, but Brian seems to make the right choice because he doesn’t go with the outward appearance, he goes with the one with a depth of character and the ability to forgive. That’s big.

There’s a formula being followed certainly, but it’s easy to look past that and enjoy Starters for 10 for its heartfelt performances and simply the good fun it brings to the table. The names attached to the picture were slowly on the rise and it’s impressive to see how far their careers have taken them.

3.5/5 Stars

The Imitation Game (2014)

09cf1-the_imitation_game_posterWhen you think of decisive moments in WWII the conversation leads often to D-Day, The Battle of Midway, The Russian Front and The Battle for the Atlantic. If Britain had been cut off from U.S. supplies the case could be made that The Allies would have undoubtedly lost the war. That’s where the Enigma cipher comes into play and along with it Alan Turing.

Alan Turing is one of the unsung heroes of WWII and in many ways the father of modern computers. He’s a big deal and it’s hard to make that point enough. That’s what makes it exciting that he finally got the biopic treatment and with a portrayal by Benedict Cumberbatch no less. It does not get much better than that!

As far as biopics go The Imitation Game is a polished period piece set in War-torn Britain spanning the years of WWII into the early 1950s. Visually beautiful, scored nicely, and generally uplifting, it feels as wonderfully English as a cup of tea and the English countryside. Although the film at times may trod the typical path of other troubled-genius type films,  it often rises above the usual based-on-a-true-story fray. A primary reason for this is Benedict Cumberbatch who plays Turing not with dramatic outbursts, bravado, and bluster, but quite the opposite.
In the year 1939 Turing, a professor at the time, attempted to join the top secret project at Bletchley Park to crack the German’s Enigma code. He seems like an odd candidate for the job since he has only an affinity for puzzles and no knowledge of the German language, but that proves to be unimportant.
He has the right amount of vision paired with the obsession to come at the problem like no one before him. He does not just want to crack one of the tedious strings, he wishes to crack them all using a machine. It was absolutely unheard of and his colleagues discount him, understandably, because he is not much of a team player and far from a social butterfly. However, he discovers a worthy ally in Susan Clarke (Keira Knightley) who proves to be indispensable in his work as well as repairing his rapport with the team.
With the prospect of all his work with the machine being wasted and terminated, his colleagues back him up in front of his superiors. Turing has one last chance to succeed and someway, somehow he does. But success does not come without great responsibility. Once they have the weapon to counter the Germans they must use it cautiously only taking the most necessary steps. It becomes clear that there is a fine line between playing God with human lives and winning a war.
The war is won in the end, however, and the top secret endeavor is disbanded. Alan Turing is far from a war hero because few know what he did. His only label is indecency and he is given the option of imprisonment or hormones in response to his charges of same-sex attraction. A year later he committed suicide at the age of 41.
Cumberbatch is seemingly the perfect Turing with all the quirks you would expect. Except there are also traces of sensitivity and he so adeptly shows subtle emotions on his face. He was an oft-tortured man inside and out, spanning from his boarding school years to his post-war existence. Keira Knightley on her part is enjoyable as a counterpoint, remaining true to Turing no matter the circumstances.
Obviously you can always call into question the accuracy of these types of films and no doubt artistic liberties were taken, but all in all The Imitation Game did a commendable job of painting a picture of a man’s life in a very different age. Alan Turing finally got the credit he was due, and it was done with a great deal of sensitivity, heart, and even humor which mostly overshadowed any saccharine moments.
4/5 Stars

Star Trek: Into Darkness (2013)

afa29-startrekintodarknessEvery film franchise needs an installment where the stakes get higher and the outlook gets a lot bleaker, dropping lower into the darkness. Star Wars has Empire Strikes Back, The Hunger Games has Catching Fire and the new Star Trek series has this film. The opening gambit exhibits all the problems that normally arise with the enterprise crew. Kirk acts rashly not following protocol, Spock is far too logical for his own good and the native population sees far more than they should. All in a day’s work except their exploits get Kirk relieved of his command and Spock transferred. It’s not a good situation by any means.

Then out of the woodwork comes John Harrison a former Star Fleet weapons expert who has gone rogue and induced a man to blow up a seemingly insignificance archives building, but its all a ploy to get at the command. The aftermath leaves Kirk’s mentor dead and Kirk himself reinstated bent on revenge. The Enterprise heads after Harrison who fled to Kronos, part of the airspace of the dreaded Klingon. In a heated confrontation the unstoppable fugitive mows down the Klingons and allows himself to be taken in, but obviously something is not right.
Now Admiral Marcus is on their tale bent on finishing off Harrison and doing it by any means necessary even going so far as shooting down the Enterprise. The balance of right and wrong is completely off kilter by now. Once again Kirk chooses to ally with Harrison to take down Marcus, a risky proposition to be sure. Little does he know who Harrison actually is and what his mission entails. Ultimately Kirk is left with a few options with a ship without little power and a crew that are sitting ducks. In a fitting role reversal, he does the only logical thing he can and Spock takes over the bridge using Kirkian-like tactics. But the mission is far from over with danger still afoot. It takes a little ingenuity from all hands on deck including Spock, Uhura and Dr. McCoy. They cannot be expected to stop there however because their true mission is to go where no man has gone before. Gear up for another 5 years in space or possibly 5 years until the next movie.
I must admit I am not a true Trekkie but I did appreciate a few of the nods in this film including the appearance of Leonard Nimoy and the resurfacing of Khan. Now I really want to go back and see the classic Wrath of Khan too. However, I found this film to have nice pacing some good about-faces and a generally good story line. There are times when I get sick of the drama and picture perfect special effects but Star Trek Into Darkness is undoubtedly good blockbuster fodder. For Trekkies, it certainly is worth it and the cast is endearing. I must say I miss Deforrest Kelly especially, though. Bones is just too overdramatic in this film for his own good. But what do I know? Since villains are always so important Benedict Cumberbatch did a wonderful job raising the stakes by playing the audience beautifully. Well done.
4/5 Stars

Amazing Grace (2006)

e09ee-amazinggraceposterBased on the life of Christian activist and British parliament member William Wilberforce, Amazing Grace is a very important and powerful film. Wilberforce is a unique and remarkably extraordinary man, to say the least.

The story opens as a dreadfully sick Wilberforce (Ioan Gruffud) takes a holiday at the home of some close friends. They introduce him to his future wife Barbara Spooner (Romola Garai), however, to begin with, they resist any romantic involvement and remain friends. He relates his story to her about how he became an Evangelical Christian while also a popular member of the British Parliament.

He had considered leaving politics for theological studies, however, he is persuaded by friends, including William Pitt (Benedict Cumberbatch), to continue in parliament. He is asked to tackle the highly unpopular issue of slavery, and after a visit to his aging mentor John Newton (Albert Finney), Wilberforce’ fervor increases. Due to his own regrets about formerly being a slave trader, Newton is hounded by guilt and urges Wilberforce to end the trade.

Soon William Pitt becomes prime minister, and Wilberforce gets ready to bring a bill outlawing slavery to the house. He gets some unexpected support, but his popularity dwindles, and he is strongly opposed by a coalition with a large stake in the trade. His bill is ultimately beaten outright, but William continues the cause for numerous years still to no avail.

Now back in the present, Wilberforce is sickly and dejected, but Barbara encourages him to push on. They get married soon after and the fight continues without much progress. However, finally William devises a clever plan to cripple the slave trade, and he gains some new allies. His colleague and friend Pitt is slowly dying, but he supports Wilberforce. After many years of tireless struggle, a bill is passed in parliament that effectively ends the slave trade in 1807.

Wilberforce is one of those often unsung heroes who truly did something amazing. Pun intended. With the release of Lincoln more recently, there are definite connections that could be made between the films. Like Lincoln, Wilberforce worked for more than political clout, because he knew what was good and right, and so he fought for those principles. That is the sign of a truly great man just like Abraham Lincoln. Much like Wilberforce himself, this film is less heralded than Lincoln, but I would wager that it is no less important as a historical drama.

4/5 Stars