Sunday, April 29, 2018

A Better Title Might've Been "Avengers: Infinity WOW!!!"

Yes, yes, I’m writing an essay about this one - because you just KNEW I would.  It might not really be terribly necessary, as every single human being on the North American continent will see it (at least once), as will large percentages of the human race on all the other continents… and possibly some of those Emperor penguins in the Antarctic as well.  This may not be a “review,” per se, as I loved it, and you knew I would, so you really didn’t come here wondering what my opinion would be. I suppose the only way to honestly convey my take on it is to not even attempt to summarize it in a way you non-nerd readers out there can follow, but instead just tell you how this two hour-thirty minute, seventy-something character visual explosion affected me.

All of that being said, I find writing this more difficult than you might imagine.  I first saw Avengers: Infinity War three days ago, then again the following day, and have struggled trying to start this piece.  “How can it be so hard???” you may ask. Well, I’ll tell you. The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU, for short) has been a dream-come-true for those such as myself who grew up having these stories and characters become as important to us as daytime soap operas were to our mothers.  It’s a shared continuity featuring a varied cast of fascinating and colourful characters played by excellent actors starring in stories that have been adapted by talented filmmakers who actually respect the material. It’s something from our formative years that society has allowed us geeks to continue to enjoy as we hit our Golden Years without having to feel ashamed of it.

There are other film franchises out there that have been around longer and produced more films that this one, but none that has been as effective at stringing together a connective narrative throughout ALL of its entries and building to a dramatic conclusion like this one.  It has steadily been growing over the years by adding different characters and elements organically to create more depth as it goes. Avengers: Infinity War is the culmination of all the work that went into building a universe by having it pay off in the biggest team-up movie ever made.

While this movie is one of those rare instances of a piece of incredibly over-publicized and over-hyped entertainment actually living up to said hype (and possibly even exceeding it), there’s never really been a film like it.  It’s not a standalone movie. It’s also not a direct sequel to anything. Do you need to have seen all eighteen of the other Marvel films to enjoy it? Will you be completely lost with so many characters flying/jumping about? Is more than two and half hours of all this going to feel like cinematic excess?  The answer to all of these questions is Yes… and No.

While I’m sure there are spoilers about the plot and its surprises out and about in mass media by now, I won’t be one to add to them.  Disney’s marketing people did a superb job of producing trailers and other TV/internet video spots that haven’t given away much of anything - and in some cases have even lied about certain elements.  The broadest stroke of plot-summary is that all these Infinity Stones that have been constantly popping up in the narrative of so many of these MCU flicks are finally being brought together to threaten the entire universe.  The Mad Monster from the planet Titan, Thanos (Josh Brolin, beneath a whole-heap of computer-generated imagery) is gathering them with the intent of killing trillions of beings, and all of our scattered, various heroes must unite to stop him.  Pretty simple.

One of the most surprising things to me about Avengers: Infinity War is that it is very much the villain’s story.  Thanos is one of the best villains the MCU has yet had. Sure, that’s not saying much (Mickey Rourke’s Whiplash from Iron Man 2… need I say more?), but I do think it accurate to say that we feel his motivation much more than we usually do from other Marvel movie villains.  Brolin’s often understated delivery is an excellent contrast to Thanos’ intimidating stature and immense strength (he did WHAT to the Hulk??? DAMN!!!). While those who have seen Guardians of the Galaxy are aware of his relationship with Gamora (Zoe Saldana), seeing how it began, and how important it actually was to him added an emotional weight to that part of the story that I didn’t really expect.  Thanos’ motivation is clear and simple, and makes sense from a certain point of view. There’s definite method to his madness, and time is taken to give him the depth required for a villain that has teased since 2012.

None of this comes at the expense of the heroes, though the film doesn’t spend any time introducing them to an audience that might be unfamiliar with them.  While no one hero has much of a chance to outshine any other (well, maybe Chris Hemsworth’s Thor has one or two more rays of light than the others…), this is a team-up, after all, so all of them are equally served by the screenplay, and all of them FEEL just like we’d expect them to after coming to know them in their own films.  It’s the characters that keep people coming back to this franchise, and this movie never loses sight of that. Directors Joe and Anthony Russo (the guys who also made the last two Captain America films) seem to assume audiences have at least a basic idea of who these people are, and can accept those characters' contributions to the story.  If audiences can meet those two expectations, then they will be tremendously entertained by the interplay between several vastly different characters whom we would never otherwise get to see interact and hear speak to each other in some pretty hilarious ways.

Infinity War uses every minute of its two and a half hour run time, and I can’t for the life of me think of anything that didn’t need to be there.  I was prepared for one of those struggles that only we middle-aged men with ever-smaller bladders have to face, but that didn’t happen. Despite large segments of dialogue, the action seemingly never stops until the abrupt, cliffhanger ending.  Screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (all three Captain America flicks, among other things) have managed to craft a film story effectively utilizes more characters that normally appear in several movies, and given them all useful actions and witty things to say, a feat that may be studied in screenwriting classes for years to come.  Sure, it’s not Shakespeare, but the Bard never had to write a play for seventy-five characters.

The only disappointment from Avengers: Infinity War is knowing that you’ll have to wait until next year’s Avengers 4 (yet-to-be subtitled) to find out how it all ends.  If you can forgive that, and you dig superhero movies in general, then you may find Infinity War to be the perfect movie. Well, not Citizen Kane or Lawrence of Arabia kind of perfection, but you get my drift…

Monday, February 26, 2018

"Annihilation" Struggles To Be Something More Than Trippy S**t

Alex Garland makes it very difficult for me to review his movies.  Of course, he doesn’t care, nor should he (of course, perhaps you don’t, either, for that matter, nor should you).  The noted screenwriter of flicks like 28 Days Later, Dredd and Never Let Me Go has now directed two features himself, both of which have challenged me to like them despite my personal taste.  2014’s Ex Machina was hailed as a new-generation sci-fi masterpiece, and while I agreed with that label in general (see my own review for more detail), it was hard for me to totally love the film because I found its premise slightly offensive morally.  Well, Garland has gotten another muddled emotional/intellectual reaction out of me with his latest directorial effort, this month’s Annihilation, but for entirely different reasons.  

Based (somewhat loosely) on a novel by Jeff VanderMeer, Annihilation tells a story of a meteorite crashing into an idyllic scene—a lighthouse situated on the coast of a swampy national park.  Two years later, a strange, ethereal barrier has spread across that part of the land, looking like a floating but structured mixture of oil and water, shimmering in purple, blue, and yellow, standing like a wall between our own reality and the unknown.  We’re told that teams of mostly military personnel have been going through the barrier, called the “Shimmer," for at least a year, but the expeditions have been unsuccessful in returning any information, as they all disappear without a trace.

The character upon whom we focus is Lena (Natalie Portman), a biology professor and Army veteran, whose husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) was part of the last military team to enter the Shimmer.  She hasn't heard from him, or anything about him, for a year, and given the secretive nature of his mission, assumes that he is dead.  Just about the time she seems on the verge of accepting his apparent death, Kane reappears inside the house.  He seems something of a blank slate, though, as he doesn't remember how he got there, what or where his mission was, or what happened while he was on it.

Events take them to a secret base called Area X, just outside the Shimmer’s boundaries, where Lena learns about the Shimmer, the meteorite, and the purpose of her husband's mission.  Lena decides that the only chance to learn what happened to her husband is to go into the Shimmer with the next team of explorers and find the source of its creation.  What she and the rest of the team find therein will be beyond anything they expect, and may change life on this planet beyond their ability to comprehend.

I really want to like this movie, and I actually do like all of its individual parts - it’s the collected whole that leaves me feeling unsatisfied.  Garland has, much like he did in Ex Machina, crafted a visually stimulating sci-fi experience, and told a story that will provoke lots of thought and discussion.  His choice of cast and locations, along with visual effects that do not overwhelm any of the scenes that use them, are all excellent (the sight of plants growing in the shape of human beings, for example, was both beautiful and inherently unsettling).  All of the actors/actresses deliver fine performances, and Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury’s haunting, minimalist score greatly enhances the feeling of mystery inside the Shimmer.  

What frustrates me is how despite intentionally abandoning the notion of directly adapting the source novel, and merely telling a story based on how he “remembered feeling after reading it” (his words, not mine), he hasn’t come up with a story any more enjoyable to follow than VanderMeer did in the novel.  That's not to say that the story, the science, or the final point of the film doesn't make sense - quite the contrary, the concept of DNA alteration, and different forms of life possibly modifying our world to become a better fit for it is fascinating.  After all, if there is life beyond our planet, couldn't we also assume that such life would be beyond our understanding of life?  Does an extraterrestrial entity even need a goal or a reason to do what it does?  What if it just does those things because it’s supposed to?

I understand that we as an audience are meant to interpret the story how we each see fit and discuss the various interpretations amongst ourselves, and I have no problem with that.  I suppose how I’m left feeling is that, much like I did with the novel, we don’t learn enough about any of the people involved in the story to really care what happens to them.  The team that accompanies Lena into the Shimmer is made up of four other women who, like her, are as one character puts it, "damaged goods," but none of them are explored in any depth, so their ultimate fates really don’t carry any emotional payoff when those points in the film are reached.  Sure, the lack of emotional investment may have been a conscious choice of Garland’s, as a means of keeping the narrative an intellectual one, but I can only speak for my own reaction, and I was left feeling somewhat empty.

Given the opportunity to provide an explanation for what has happened or what has been learned over the course of Annihilation, one character offers what is perhaps the only rational response: "I don't know."  This is something of a rarity for a mainstream science-fiction film, and while I admire a film that wholly embraces the Unknown and the Uncertain, and certainly admire Garland’s filmmaking skill in crafting this one, I do wish he’d made me give more of darn about it.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

"Black Panther" is more Marvel gold...

Yay!  A new Marvel movie!  Two or three times a year over the last decade, we comic-book nerds get to rejoice in the evidence that our once-sneered-upon culture has taken over the zeitgeist of the early 21st century.  This year begins with Marvel giving the Black Panther character introduced in 2016’s Captain America: Civil War his own film, and what a great addition to Marvel Studios’ ongoing series of movies it is. 

As Marvel tends to do, this particular movie fills something of a sub-genre - sure, it’s a “superhero” film, but much like Ant-Man was the “heist” film and Captain America: The Winter Soldier was the “political thriller,” Black Panther is a James Bond film with spandex.  We learned in Captain America: Civil War of the (fictional) African nation of Wakanda, and how T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) assumed the mantle of king of that nation when his father was killed.  We also learned that wearing the crown of Wakanda also means wearing the spandex of the Black Panther, but it is in this film that we learn what makes Wakanda so special and how the rest of the world knows next to nothing about it. 

Director/co-writer Ryan Coogler, who revived the Rocky franchise with Creed, (a flick that I promise I’ll get around to seeing one of these days) works movie magic with a cinematic blend of super sci-fi, Bond-ian type gadgetry and villains bent on societal anarchy.  He and his cinematographer and design team have set up a rich culture filled with wondrous locations and several distinctly different tribes, details that help make the characters become individuals, and not merely place-holders.  Even better, the screenplay amazingly does not waste any of the characters.  

All of the warriors, both men - W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya) and M’Baku (Winston Duke), and women – Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), Okoye (Danai Gurira), and the still-insanely beautiful Angela Bassett (who plays Ramonda, T’Challa’s mother) serve a purpose in driving the film’s story.  Heck, T’Challa’s sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) effectively serves as this movie’s “Q” to T’Challa’s Bond.  The script fleshes out the royal family’s in-house drama wonderfully, and crafts a villain, “Killmonger” (Michael B. Jordan), that is perhaps the Marvel movie universe’s second-best villain ever, after Loki.  

It is nice to have a stand-alone film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe every few times out, one that is not a TOTAL continuation of the ongoing narrative running throughout all eighteen movies of the series.  Ant-Man was like that, as was the first Guardians of the Galaxy.  This isn't really an origin tale, as T'Challa is already the Black Panther at the film's start, but his beginnings are touched upon.  Sure, Black Panther contains mentions of things that happen in other movies, and has characters that have been seen in other movies, but none of those items require you to have seen any of the previous titles in the franchise.

Of course, no movie is perfect (well, maybe Lawrence of Arabia was perfect, but that’s another discussion for another time…), and Black Panther is not without minor grumbles.  There are a few hints of story elements never followed through (Okoye and W’Kabi, for instance, are mentioned fleetingly as being lovers in what feels like might have been an excised sub-plot), and some of the CGI action shots were less than convincing, but if such things are the worst that can be found in the film, then I don’t have any problem calling it one of Marvel Studios’ best efforts to date.

While plenty of other writers, reviewers and commentators have waxed ad nauseum about the political, philosophical and “social justice” implications of this movie, I refuse to go down that rabbit hole.  This particular white Anglo-Saxon Protestant conservative heterosexual male is merely a comic-book nerd, and doesn’t apply labels or checkboxes to the factors that make up his entertainment.  That said, I can assure you with a broad smile that Black Panther is tremendously entertaining.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

"All the Money in the World" is a buck or two short

A Ridley Scott movie always presents us with a stylized make-believe world or period of actual history, almost always perfect in detail and beautifully filmed, and his latest is no exception.  In All the Money in the World, he gives us the true story (well, a very movie-ized version of the story) of the kidnapping of John Paul Getty, III, the grandson of billionaire oil magnate Jean Paul Getty, who was not only the richest man in the world, but at the time was the wealthiest individual in all of recorded history.  Accounts of Getty’s uber-miserly ways are so extraordinary that it doesn’t require much imagination to believe that the $17 million demanded for his “favorite” grandson’s safe return was simply out of the question.  

The movie’s plot centers on Gail Harris-Getty (Michelle Williams), Paul's devoted, strong-willed mother, who unlike the elder Getty (Christopher Plummer), has consistently chosen her children over his fortune.  Getty does assign his “fixer,” former CIA man Fletcher Chace (Mark Wahlberg) to do what he can to negotiate better terms for Paul’s release, and Fletcher and Gail find themselves in a tense, sometimes even hostile, partnership.  These three personalities have as much conflict between them as they as a trio have with the kidnappers, and the situation drags on so long that the original kidnappers actually “sell” their hostage to the local Mafia when they tire of the process. It makes me wonder if Rome in 1973 must’ve been something like the old Wild West, but with a lot more Vespas, fine wine and Communists around.

I am constantly amazed by Ridley Scott as a filmmaker.  Of course, he doesn’t hit home runs every time he makes a film, but it’s his skill as actually MAKING the things, even more so now that he’s breached the 80-years-of-age milestone, is almost beyond my ability to describe.  I defy anyone to point to any of his films and say it wasn’t at least a visual pleasure.  He is an underrated master of world-building, something essential when creating such historical epics as Gladiator and Kingdom of Heaven, or the sci-fi environs of Blade Runner and his Alien films.

It seems the only thing the general public knows about this movie is how Scott decided, on his own accord, to completely remove Kevin Spacey’s performance as the elder Getty from the film after it was already finished and ready for its world premiere last November.  In less than four weeks, he rebuilt sets, reassembled the entire cast and crew, wooed Christopher Plummer to take on the role of Getty, reshot twenty-two scenes (IN JUST NINE DAYS!!!) and ran all that footage through post-production and editing, in time for a Christmas Day release.

While the feat of movie-making skill Sir Ridley managed in re-tooling this film just blows my mind and increases my admiration for him, the resulting film as a whole is far from his best, and not even as good as some other, more pedestrian thrillers.  As I did after such films of his as The Counselor and Body of Lies, I wonder about Scott’s ability to truly judge a screenplay, as despite never being bored by the plot, I didn’t think David Scarpa’s screenplay provided enough highs and lows in the tension level to generate any great emotional payoff.  

Michelle Williams as Gail Harris carries the film, and is very good in becoming a strange mixture of “nouveau riche” and “poor-but-proud,” all with a Long Island/Kennedy-esque accent and composure that keeps her character from coming across as a stereotypical panicked mother.  She is perfectly aware of how she is perceived to be so intrinsically linked to the Getty empire, but in a world in which money talks, the only hope she has of getting her son back alive is to enter into the Faustian schemes and plans Getty’s army of lawyers practice.

Christopher Plummer assuming the role of the elder Getty also probably made the movie even better than it would’ve been without him, as despite his callous, dead-on-the-inside actions, he relates a few things to us that show he was once actually a human being.   A performance that is all the more amazing knowing how little time he had to prepare for it, Plummer depicts Getty throughout the years, and there are some glimpses of a doting grandfather, but they’re all consumed by a lust for wealth that all too often comes at the expense of family.  Plummer elicits both disgust and pity from the audience in near-equal measure.

Mark Wahlberg, however, is woefully mis-cast in a part that demands an older, more grizzled man to properly convey the world-wise savvy and street-smarts his character supposedly possesses.  I’m sure the film’s financiers demanded a more bankable star like Wahlberg in the role to help ensure ticket sales, but I wonder if someone more everyday-Joe-ish like Paul Giamatti or Alfred Molina would’ve been more effective.

All the Money in the World won’t ever be mentioned in the ranks of great thrillers, but it does have a slow-burn type of dramatic intensity, all held together by at least two excellent pieces of film acting. It’s most impressive achievement to my mind, though, is to make me wonder if, given how Ridley Scott so quickly and effectively retooled his own movie at the last minute, wouldn’t it have been great if somebody had asked him to try and save Justice League…?