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

 

 

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)

GotG_Vol2_poster.jpgI find that my own life was greatly influenced by my father during my most formative years, in particular in the realm of music. I grew up on the classics of the ‘60s. But there’s that juncture in time perhaps during middle school where you begin to branch out and you latch onto other sounds for some inexplicable reason. And it doesn’t have to be modern artists but even those who your parents never imparted to you. That is to say that “Brandy” by Looking Glass is such a song for me. I loved it the first time I heard it and not on any provocation of my parents. I consider it one of my own personal favorites.

Thus, when Guardians of the Galaxy opens in Michigan in 1980 “Brandy” blaring on the radio of a sleek convertible I resonate with the moment. The man and the woman are unknown to us but that familiar Dairy Queen Middle America matched with that paradoxically joyfully melancholy love song pulled me into Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 in an instant.

In this way, the film still plays to its strengths namely a retro vibe that’s in perfect cadence with the tongue in cheek tone and explosive sci-fi storyline. Writer-Director James Gunn is back in the driver’s seat delivering his expected riff off the Marvel blockbuster that at this point is both irreverent and violent with persistent zingers and mild touches of heart. It’s the kind of entertainment that will easily find a broad audience because once more he delivers the goods while simultaneously making light of them. We generally like him for not taking his subject matter too seriously, even if sometimes it, ironically, feels like the story dips too quickly into melodrama.

Still, at its core is a misfit hero that we love to cheer for in Peter Quill (Chris Pratt). This film examines in greater depth his own identity as a part human part spaceman. He’s still reeling in the shadow of his mother’s death many years ago and then he meets the man purported to be his father (Kurt Russell) the charismatic Ego.

Meanwhile, there are his other relationships to be parsed through and in many ways, they get pushed to the fringes. Baby Groot (Voiced by Vin Diesel) definitely ups the cute factor and Rocket (Voiced by Bradley Cooper), as well as Yondu (Michael Rooker), are there to play their crusty curmudgeon roles that nevertheless are given a bit of definition. We like them better by the film’s end as might be expected just as we are made to consider the dynamic between Gamora and her vengeful sister Nebula.

So Guardians is not only grounded by Walkman and classic tunes and a very human sense of humor but these relational moments. True, they’re not played out to the best degree as Quill tries to figure out his “Sam and Diane” thing with Gamora (Zoe Saldana) or reconcile his feelings for his father but that’s okay. 

My only qualms are the fact that sometimes Gunn seems to play too much into the jokes and tries to delve into the conflict too quickly so it comes off a little shoddy. The laughs are funny initially and the drama compels us at first but at times Guardians seems to stretch itself too far tonally. It was not meant to do that much.

But the characters are still an endearing ragtag band of misfits, the music is spot on (IE. Sam Cooke, Glenn Campbell, Electric Light Orchestra, Fleetwood Mac, etc.), and there are some purposeful references to Cheers, Mary Poppins, and Night Rider that come off wonderfully as nods to a bygone era and an earth that we know and love. Brandy’s place at the center of the film’s narrative helps in in the nostalgia department as well. Whereas, in a film like The Martian you get the sense that disco was considered a cool addition, in Guardians music is often so closely tied to the storyline and the tones created in each scene visually. It uses its soundtrack incredibly well. 

An interesting caveat is the fact that in the rather unexpected arena of a superhero film, spiritual issues are briefly touched on. Namely ideas of a god complex, this idea of paneverythingism as coined by Francis Schaeffer, and even the idea of duality of persons compared to a trinity. It’s all perfectly introduced to us as we enter Ego’s creation with the sounds of George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” wafting over the landscape.

Even if it only scratches the surface we are in some small ways asked to consider the true purpose of man, a being that while fallen is certainly meant to live in fellowship with others. What that’s supposed to look like is another issue altogether. If that’s a little too heady then there’s enough anarchy and joyous eye candy to fall back on. Enough said.

3.5/5 Stars

Silver Linings Playbook (2012)

silverlinings1There was something rather therapeutically soothing about coming back to Silver Linings Playbook. I must admit this time around I was not quite as drawn to the direction of David O. Russell, because in some scenes it felt like too much attention was brought to his camera. However, I loved Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, and Rober De Niro, since each one of them is screwed up in their own unique ways. Although their story takes place in Philadelphia and a lot of talk is made about the Eagles, what these characters really are is a cross-section of humanity.

I was just thinking recently how I dislike the term “escapism” referring to watching movies and going to theaters to get away. I do not often consider that I go to movies to escape my life. Maybe I do sometimes, but I am fascinated by movies because they can tell us more about ourselves. More about what it is to be human and coping with all that is messed up — all that is broken.

Tiffany (Lawrence) and Patrick (Cooper), are both screwed up. There’s no getting past it. She’s a widow who got fired from her job for sleeping around and now she does dance as a sort of therapy. He just spent an 8-month stretch in a Psych ward after he caught his wife in the shower with one of her coworkers. Now whenever he hears his wedding song, he goes into an enraged fit. He tries to look for the silver lining in everything, but that does not stop him from hurting the ones he loves.

Tiffany and Patrick are made for each other, even if Patrick refuses to believe it. They both know what it is to be put through therapy, drugs, and the like after personal trauma. They both lack the common filter or etiquette that humanity usually requires. We love them anyway, in spite of these reasons or more likely because of these reasons.

De Niro is Patrick’s father and a man so invested in betting on Eagles football games that it drives his life. Superstitions run rampant in his household, but he refuses to acknowledge them, just like his son refuses to accept his own problems. It makes for some familial fireworks and interesting altercations, but at the end of the day, they are still family.

The whole film culminates in a dance competition that Tiffany and Patrick have been working up to for a long time. It has the big stakes that you would expect for a climatic event, but most importantly it is this moment in time where Patrick finally realizes Tiff is the girl for him. He finally sees what most of the audience saw all along. They are made for each other, and they can accept each other with all their idiosyncrasies. He continues living his life by The Silver Linings Playbook and it makes both Tiffany and him very happy.

4.5/5 Stars

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

84784-gotg-posterMy first thought about this film without any prior knowledge was, “How can they have a superhero movie with a talking raccoon and a walking tree? That’s so stupid!” Well, they proved me wrong or maybe they proved me right in a sense.

Guardians of the Galaxy is stupid in numerous ways, yes, but it’s the kind of dopiness that is fun, endearing, and often hilarious. It succumbs to some of the normal superhero/blockbuster cliches, but it also finds time to make fun of itself, and it benefits from that. It does not take itself too seriously and it begins with Chris Pratt aka Peter Quill aka Star Lord (not Andy Dwyer for all those Parks and Rec fans). He is an unlikely superhero, even the actor himself, and so it makes his character work all the better for this film.
After a childhood, tragedy Peter is abducted by a group of Ravagers, and thus begins his life in the far reaches of the galaxy retrieving artifacts for his employers by any means possible. He comes across a highly sought after orb, and he himself has a price on his head. That’s how he crosses paths with deadly female assassin Gamora (Zoe Saldana), and bounty hunting partners Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and Groot (Vin Diesel). Gamora was sent by a power hungry villain bent on revenge. Rocket is a highly intelligent raccoon with an attitude, and Groot is a walking tree of few words who teams with him. They all end up in prison, and it is there where they finally begin to gel as unlikely as it sounds.
The crew is joined  by fellow inmate Drax, and they head out to deliver the mysterious orb to their contact. However, it falls into the hands of the enemy, and the gang must now protect Xandar from destruction. We have seen it all before, an epic space battle with ships zooming by, pyrotechnics everywhere and unexpected twists and turns. It is moments like these where it seems Guardians falls into the usual mold of explosions, image overload, and corny drama.
Quickly it finds itself again with Peter being goofy (ie. a dance off) or Rocket giving us one of his many wry comments in an extra epic moment (Well now I’m standing. Happy? We’re all standing now). It is these sorts of moments that make this film. Groot only knows three words, “I am Groot,” and yet Rocket has spent so much time with him that he understands every iteration. That’s how a summer blockbuster about a talking raccoon and a walking tree ends up working. It sidesteps some of the usual tropes, and when it does fall into one it willfully makes light of itself. We can forgive and forget because these “lovable misfits” are a barrel of laughs and they have a heart. It does not hurt that this film has an Awesome Mix for a soundtrack. At times I was not sure if I was watching a space opera or a rock opera — the music was so often the highlight. Then, when “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” started playing I was sold.
3.5/5 Stars

American Hustle (2013)

f88cd-american_hustle_2013_posterFrom the get-go, this film sets the tone when we are cheekily told that “some of this actually happened.” Not that it’s based on a true story or based on actual events, but some of this might be true and other parts might be livened up a bit. Then we are thrown into a story we do not quite understand as of yet. All we know is that it’s the 1970s, the hair is crazy, the clothes are tacky by today’s standards, and America’s “Horse With No Name” still sounds good even after all these years.

For me, if this film was all about the story it would be okay, but the reason to watch it is really for the characters. Each one is a caricature who we can hardly take seriously, and yet in many respects, they are going through some very serious stuff. Christian Bale is a con man with an epic comb-over, a pot belly to match, and a Bronx accident, wearing his ever-present shades. He is one of the smartest con men around, but he also has a family life since he married a widowed woman and adopted her young son.

Amy Adams is the stylishly smart dame he meets at a party, and the two of them start a lucrative partnership upping the profitability of his conning enterprise.  Adams character hustles everyone with her fake English accent and identity, that over time it seems like she even seems to believe it herself until it is too late.

They are flying high and the two of them are drawn to the confidence and smarts they see in each other. However, in one instance they are not quite careful enough, and they have the Feds giving them heat. Namely, Bradley Cooper’s character who is out to make a name for himself. He is a man will a lot of attitude and a primped hairstyle, yet he seemingly knows very little. He forces Bale and Adams to work under him in order to trap others and of course they do.

But his plan becomes so big that the con becomes extremely volatile. It involves an Atlantic City mayor played by Jeremy Renner, the Mob, some congressmen, and even a senator, who have all unwittingly gotten themselves into something illegal.

Bale and Adams are trapped living lies that they must stop at some point because he has formed a bond with Renner and she is still masquerading as Lady Edith Greensley.

The final act ends with one final con, and I must admit that I was satisfied with the ending because as a member of the audience I expected a twist to come and, sure enough, it came. But I would have never have guessed it. It ultimately lived up to its name American Hustle.

I think what makes the performances good in this film are not the fact that they are lifelike or even realistic, but they are, in fact, larger than life. Sure, people like Irving, Richie Dimaso, Sydney Prosser, and Rosalyn probably did walk this earth, but the film highlights all their quirks and idiosyncrasies. Whether it is how they talk, dress, or even how they do their hair. Furthermore, they have even messier and crazier personal lives than their hair, and that’s saying a lot. These are not the kind of folks that you would want for friends, and yet could it be possible that there is a little bit of these characters in each one of us? Do we still live in a world where the Carmines are the victims and the real perpetrators get away scot-free? It’s something to ask ourselves.

I’m not sure why people compare this film to Scorsese, perhaps because it is a crime film, it takes place in the 1970s, it features the Mob, or it shows off one of Scorsese’s acting icons in Robert de Niro. No matter the reason, American Hustle is a separate entity that seems completely different from Scorsese. That does not make it bad, just unique. And that it is. You have to give David O. Russell credit for teaming his two previous casts (The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook) in this one for an acting extravaganza. It will be difficult to top this one as far as acting power goes. I must admit I was a sucker for the music too.

4.5/5 Stars

Silver Linings Playbook (2012)

154c0-silver_linings_playbook_posterStarring Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence with Robert De Niro, this film opens with a man named Pat who is being released from a mental health facility in Philadelphia. As he tries to recover from a tragic event in his marriage, he moves back in with his parents, goes to therapy sessions, and improves himself while struggling to keep his emotions in check. His traumatic past and bipolar disorder make life difficult but then he meets a young, straightforward widow named Tiffany. Because of their unique situations, they form an odd type of friendship. Eventually Tiffany agrees to give a letter to Pat’s wife if in return he trains as her partner for a dance competition. At the same time Pat’s superstitious father makes a giant bet on an Eagles football game as well as their contest which are both happening on the same day.

It finally arrives and they get ready to show off what they practiced only to have the unexpected occur. In the end, a new Pat realizes how he really feels and chooses to live his life the way he wants.

This film had a lot of coarse language and it was depressing at times. Despite this, the acting was great and it ultimately gave off a positive outlook that focused on the silver linings in life. The direction was solid and I also appreciated the soundtrack. Furthermore, this film tackled the difficult topic of mental illness head on with a good result.

4/5 Stars