Friday, April 27, 2018

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

Well this is the big one.  The one we’ve all been waiting for, the film teased and hinted at, the payoff to a long, long ten year build up.  Infinity War is finally in theaters, and I’m here to talk about it.  Usually when I review these films I give little spoiler disclaimers.  The more I think about Infinity War the more I realize I can’t really say anything about the film without telling you far too much about the plot.  If you’re like me you’d like to know as little as possible, simply that Thanos is coming and every available super hero has to do what they can to stop him.

So I had to sleep on this movie, and thanks to a long discussion about it I’m more and more convinced that this is probably the best Marvel movie yet made.  That’s a statement I don’t like to make immediately after seeing a movie, considering there’s about 18 or so Marvel movies so far and I’ve seen about 15 of them more than once.  Ten years of these films has conditioned me to some degree.  I know more or less what to expect.  The formula is usually: 1. Opening fight scene establishing powers/bad-ass-ness. 2. Character building including at least one shirtless scene with our hero. 3. Oh wow (insert villain) is way more powerful than we thought. 4. Giant CGI fight with massive destruction of property which may or may not contain generic space bugs.

Infinity War sidesteps a few of these cliches mercifully.  We actually miss the opening fight scene.  The film opens with Thor’s ship carrying Asgardians already destroyed.  We get a little of Hulk vs. Thanos and Loki doing Loki things but the main battle happens off-screen.  I also counted zero scenes of shirtless super heroes showing off their god-like physiques.  That doesn’t mean there isn’t the character developing part of the film, but this is so brief for the most part.  We’re tying up loose ends and so much time is spent going back and forth between heroes that we’re left with mostly all killer and no filler.  The only character who is really developed in this film is Thanos.

I nearly pissed myself at the end of Avengers when Thanos appeared post-credits.  Guardians of the Galaxy has more Thanos but off camera and in shadows, but this is the payoff. To take ten years in a film plot and to have this character show up 6 years after his first post-credit tease is an exercise in patience.  When I saw CGI Josh Brolin in promo stills looking like a mix between a buff Grimace and a California Raisin I was a little worried.  Much to my delight about 2 minutes into the movie this bothered me not.  This was Thanos, sure slightly modified from his classic comic look, but the Thanos I grew up with and my favorite villain brought to life.

So much gold in this scene
It was hard to even personally describe my level of anticipation for this film.  Sure I’ve been dreaming of the day they made a movie where Thanos gets the Infinity Gauntlet and fights the entire universe since I was probably 9 or 10, but I know the hard lesson of tempering expectations.  Marvel movies in particular have been solid and enjoyable but seem incapable of going all out.  This film does go all out, in a way that shatters the cinematic universe without making us feel like they’re just endlessly setting up the next chapter.  Sure this film does leave you thinking more has to come, but there is a finality to it.  Also (SUPER SPOILER PLEASE STOP READING EVEN THOUGH I ALREADY WARNED YOU) Thanos wins.  He gets all the stones and he totally does wipe out half of the population of the universe.  

This alone is very new territory for the MCU and the one significant deviation from the formula.  The bad guy wins, not everybody bands together and defeats the evil doer through teamwork or believing in themselves or whatever.  Sure there is a second Infinity War film that should come out next year, but this is the first self contained film where the heroes most definitely lose.  Towards the end as half of our heroes started to disappear, I began passing my own judgement on each character.  It was somewhat morbid to look at each hero and think, how do I feel about them disintegrating?  

This does come with a grain of salt.  In comic books dead people rarely stay dead, and in the MCU it is probably no different.  I have no doubt that the second Infinity War movie will bring back our missing super heroes, but rarely has a Marvel movie ended with heroes staying dead.  There is precedent though in the last couple of releases.  *More spoilers for other Marvel movies if you aren’t caught up*  In Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 Yondu dies.  In Thor: Ragnarorok Sif, Odin, and a whole bunch of people die and stay dead.  In Black Panther Killmonger dies but it isn’t exactly too rare for a villain to die at the end of a movie.  We also had Quicksilver get the Joss Whedon treatment in Age of Ultron, but for the most part it's a bullshit cop-out like Nick Fury in Winter Soldier. 

So again you always have to wonder when someone dies if they’re really going to stay dead.  There is a great line when Thor is mourning the death of Loki and mentions it isn’t the first time he’s died.  Loki, Heimdall, Vision, and Gamora are the casualties who aren’t part of Thanos’s final solution half the population plan.  It will be interesting to see whether or not those characters wind up staying dead.  The fact that there is a third Guardians of the Galaxy film planned makes me think something has to change because that team was left a little depleted at the end of this film.

Now enough about death lets get into the film itself.  The Russo brothers handled this quite well, and they showed in Civil War that they are adept at incorporating multiple heroes together.  Whereas that film seemed to have questionable motivation with everybody just punching their disagreements away, they were much more united here.  There wasn’t any sitting it out nonsense that you often get in these films when some character decides it isn’t their fight only to show up last second like they were bailing out Jon Snow.  They did rather quickly explain why Hawkeye and Ant-Man didn’t sign on to appear in this film, but considering how little either character was missed it doesn’t really matter.  However their reference to Ant-Man made me feel like I missed something, which might explain why the upcoming Ant-Man and Wasp movie is supposed to take place before this film.

So this shot is totally not in the movie
I was trying to think of my minor complaints and other than massive faceless CGI space bugs, the only one I really had leaving the theater was the repetitive nature of Thanos acquiring the stones.  Basically he just tortured someone until someone else gave up their stone.  Loki hands his over pretty easily, the Collector didn’t or couldn’t put up much of a fight, Gamora gives him the location of the soul stone after he tortures Nebula, and the most perplexing at the time was Dr. Strange giving up the time stone to save Tony Stark.  The last one at the time angered me because it’s so unlike Dr. Strange and made no sense until I thought about it.  Earlier we saw Dr. Strange run through all the possible outcomes and said only one would work.  At first we’re lead to believe it is the plan that backfires when Quill loses his shit over Thanos killing Gamora.  The only way it makes sense that he would give up the stone so easily to spare Tony is because THAT is the one outcome where they win.  For some reason Thanos needs all the stones, Dr. Strange needs to die, and Tony Stark at least needs to survive.  I anticipate this is going to be a payoff in the next film and helped turn my only real complaint into a positive.

Often times when dealing with an ensemble cast you might find yourself waiting for them to hurry up and get back to a more interesting sub-plot.  It’s one of the things that can make the pacing in a show like Game of Thrones a little tedious.  Here however it felt like the opposite.  I didn’t seem to want them to cut away from anyone.  There were moments that surprised me just how much I liked them.  When Vision and Scarlet Witch are fighting in Scotland, the shot of Captain America behind the train gave me chills.  Didn’t think I’d give a shit if Captain America showed up, but damn was that effective.  Unlike The Last Jedi which felt like a chore full of unnecessary subplots designed to make the movie longer, this film flew by at 2 hours and 40 minutes.  

I’m not sure if this is a complaint or not, but I don’t know how this film works for people who haven’t seen the rest of the MCU.  It’s easy for me to get on board with this movie because of my investment in all of the characters.  If I was coming into this cold without any prior knowledge it might be a bit baffling and the running time would either seem grossly insignificant or far too long.  So it is interesting to think how I would react to the film particularly if I was coming at it from a comic standpoint.  I’ve read Infinity Guantlet several times as well as Thanos’ Quest and I’ve learned enough from these films to take them as a separate entity.  Again though I can’t really put myself in the shoes of someone who isn’t familiar with these films.  I can say this film is entertaining on it’s own merits but much more so if you are caught up with what’s going on.

For a bit of randomness I’d like to list some of my favorite scenes.
1. Star Lord lowering his voice to sound like Thor, and them comparing their complicated family situation.
2. Spider Man and Star Lord discussing Footloose and the Guardians thinking Kevin Bacon is a real super hero.
3. Spider Man assuming Dr. Strange was a made up name.
4. That aforementioned sweet Cap reveal, and the later scene where he and Thor compare beards.
5. Thanos messing with the reality stone.
6. Fucking Red Skull, how random and awesome?
7. The absence of Hawkeye
8. Thor showing up in Wakanda with Stormbringer
9. Star Lord's joke about serving Jesus.

The original ending
Now seeing this in Oakland meant that there was quite the thunderous applause when they eventually make it to Wakanda.  Conversely there were some people who didn’t want to accept T’Challa being one of the super heroes to vanish.  In general though the crowd for this film was loud and kinda stupid so it was occasionally distracting.  There was a decent amount of laughter intentional or not, which makes me look forward to watching this again either in a much less crowded theater or in the comfort of my own home in a few months.  This definitely was a different experience than seeing Black Panther, which we watched at the same theater.  Black Panther worked partially because it stood on it’s own.  We didn’t really need to see Civil War to know about the character, and everything wrapped up somewhat nicely.  This film obviously lacks some of the cultural significance of BP, but as a well rounded overall film there is really no comparison.  This is the Marvel movie we’ve all been waiting for and god damn did it deliver.

Saturday, March 3, 2018

Oscar Preview 2018

By the time I finish writing this I will have seen Black Panther and hopefully have a sweet review to link right about here.  In the Bay Area Beer Week is taking it’s toll on my liver and if you can see through the hazy ipas, you’ll see The Academy Awards are almost upon us.  Some years I am in better shape than others when it comes to seeing the contenders, but for the first time in awhile I have seen all the nominees for picture, director, actor, actress, original screenplay, supporting actress, and a few others.  So allow this to serve as your official pre-Oscar blog post, not unlike damn near the first blog I ever wrote on this here site.  

In order to keep this from meandering rambling, I’ll discuss the major categories and the films/people nominated.  I’ll offer my own picks later for what it’s worth but keep in mind I’ll mostly be basing my picks on what I think is the best not necessarily what is going to win.  

Best Picture

Call Me By Your Name - Oooh, I honestly didn’t want to start with this film.  For the majority of people and many voters this film is touching some major nerves and affecting people in a truly remarkable and profound way.  With the exception of the person I watched this film with, I seem to be the only person who thinks this film is sentimental tripe.  This seems like the worst sepia toned coming of age story that was polluting screens in the early 90s (King of the Hill, Rambling Rose, etc) except this time one of them is gay, kinda.  This film so deliberately removes any sense of conflict or grounding in reality that it seems like a half baked idea that got turned into a movie and everyone is so blinded by how “brave” the performers are to realize that nothing is worth watching.  Other than objecting to the spelling of his name Timothee Chalamet delivers a fine performance for what it’s worth as does his co star Armie Hammer.  What bothered me about the film is that his character comes across more as a sexual deviant/horny adolescent than someone discovering himself and I didnt necessarily believe that his gay relationship meant any more than the girl he was with or the peach he fucked.  The fact that his family seems obliviously accepting in a time when the only thing people really understood about AIDS was that it was a disease that killed homosexuals.  The fact that all of this goes ignored just seemed to irritate me in lieu of some idyllic summer romp in the country.  I may catch flack for my thoughts, but frankly I don’t see what the deal is.

Darkest Hour - Along with the next film on this list Darkest Hour is a well made waste of time.  Gary Oldman deserves all the awards and he’ll likely get them here, but the film itself would have been damn near unwatchable without him.  For reasons I can’t fathom people are incapable of making a film set in WWII without muting all the colors until they look like some form of grey/brown/khaki puke.  Now this film is set in England so perhaps it just always seems drab.  Whereas Dunkirk was a waste of time for different reasons it at least attempted to tell a story in a unique way.  Darkest Hour just seems like one WWII film too many and a story that I’m not sure needs re-telling especially because it’s timeline is right in place with Dunkirk.

Dunkirk - I’ve discussed super hero movie fatigue as a real thing on this blog before, just as many people are going to be facing Star Wars fatigue either before or immediately after that Han Solo movie craps on our eyes, but WWII movie fatigue has been real for almost two decades.  I know the war is the defining moment of the 20th century and there never seem to be a shortage of stories to tell, but my god I can’t take another one.  Nolan for his sake did try to make this film a little different.  Operating with three unnecessary timelines that intersect, minimal dialogue, and an unrelenting score it does try and shake things up. The problem is that first of all that minimal dialogue helped me not care at all about anyone on screen, except for perhaps the civilian boat captain.  In order to make the huge stories resonate they need to focus on individuals otherwise it’s too easy to desensitize us to what’s happening.  I know Nolan might have thought, it’s been done before, but it’s been done because it works.  Academy voters still have a hard on for WWII movies, as last year’s Mel Gibson gore-fest can attest, but it’s hard to get excited about another one of these.

Peele's film just barely missed the mark for me
Get Out - So for reasons that escape me Jordan Peele’s debut feature film got nominated under the Comedy-Musical category at the Golden Globes.  They aren’t alone as HBO also had this film listed under comedy.  Perhaps Peele’s history as 1/2 of Key and Peele may have led to some misinterpretations but what some people are viewing as comedy I see as comedic relief in a horror film.  This was probably the earliest film released and one that many people are rooting for.  I liked the film but man is it hard to make an original and great horror film.  Certainly among the better films of the year I don’t seem to share the same extremely high praise others do, still I’ll take this over the previous three nominees.

Lady Bird - Another in the first time actor-turned-director camp, Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird got about as much praise as Peele’s film for very different reasons.  Although the film is uniquely personal and made me wonder how much of it was fiction it still draws comparisons to some of the other well liked films of the year.  Chalamet does appear in this film as well and to me this film gets right everything Call Me By Your Name dropped the ball on.  Here the characters don’t talk like Kevin Williamson fountains of articulation but they seem awkward and wonderfully authentic.  The film is painfully white and suburban but when that’s your life you gotta tell what you know.  It’s hard for me not to picture Gerwig’s character in Frances Ha as the adult version of Lady Bird.  Again this film was good but didn’t hit me in that best picture of the year sort of way.

Phantom Thread - Paul Thomas Anderson has proven himself one of the best filmmakers working today and unlike many of his peers each of his films seems destined to be dissected and analyzed ad infinitum.  The Master and Inherent Vice went largely ignored by the Academy, but Phantom Thread is definitely well represented this award season.  Perhaps it’s the rare appearance of the legendary Daniel Day Lewis, the fact that it’s a period picture, or perhaps most likely it’s the least weird Anderson film perhaps ever.  That doesn’t mean you won’t occasionally scratch your head at certain character’s actions or behavior, but there aren’t too many curve balls being thrown here.  The film is certainly well made but like every Anderson film except Magnolia I feel like I missed something here.  I tend to appreciate Anderson’s films over time and with another viewing or two, so it’s not entirely fair to judge Phantom Thread on my single viewing, especially considering the less than ideal seats I had for our screening.

The Post - Ever since the Academy bumped up the number of best picture nominees it seems a foregone conclusion that if Spielberg has a film that isn’t hated it will get a nomination.  Many of these films in hindsight weren’t good (War Horse and Lincoln come to mind) but most are simply decent to good.  The Post is a film that makes me really appreciate what a great film All the President’s Men is.  There are so many times where this film seems like it wants to pay homage to Pakula’s film but like how Spielberg completely missed Stanley Kubrick in A.I., he doesn’t have the recklessness to go all in the way Pakula’s film did.  This seems too safe, and even the central conflict never seems truly threatening.  This is overall a pretty bland film, and down to the casting seemed hell bent to take no chances.

Kind of like The Creature From the Black Lagoon in reverse
The Shape of Water - You might be thinking by now that I just hated every film nominated for best picture.  It’s true that the majority of this year’s nominees are forgettable and merely decent, they weren’t all so pedestrian.  Guillermo del Toro seems determined to deliver a masterpiece every few years and this film is easily his best since Pan’s Labyrinth.  There do seem to be some similarities, not just in the look and feel of the films but some plot points as well.  Sally Hawkins is fantastic here, but this is one of those truly unique visions being allowed to run wild.  Michael Shannon seems perfectly cast here and definitely brings back memories of his Boardwalk Empire days.  This was easily one of the best films of the year and although I don’t expect it to win best picture I wouldn’t be shocked if del Toro took home best director honors. I should also give a special shout out to Michael Stuhlbarg for pulling off the rare hat trick appearing in three best picture nominees in one year.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri - Alright, I’ll come out and admit it, this is probably the best film nominated this year.  Now I didn’t expect my personal favorite Lady Macbeth to get a lot of recognition, but Three Billboards is pretty damn excellent.  It does face the unusual hurdle of not having a best director nomination, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it won’t take best picture.  The fact that this film seems to be dominating other award shows had me pegging this as the front-runner, but considering what happened last year that can’t be too safe a pick.  Frances McDormand is brilliant and worth any award coming her way.  She’s like a less pretentious Daniel Day Lewis, quietly emerging every few years to let everyone know she’s better than them.  The remaining cast is all excellent and there’s no surprise Rockwell and Harrelson are both nominated for best supporting actor Oscars as well.  My money is on this and deservedly so.

My money is on this winning a lot of awards
Best Director

Rather than go over each individual nominee I’d rather examine the other major categories as one group.  There are definitely some well known names in this race including first timers Peele and Gerwig.  I know the Academy won’t stop patting itself on the back any time soon to remind people they nominated a black person and a woman in the same year.  Nolan and Anderson are two worthy nominees but I can’t help but feel like if they won it would be reparations from being snubbed earlier for better films.  Del Toro seems like a strong candidate to win it this year.  He has definitely earned a reputation as one of the better and more imaginative filmmakers working today and this film is definitely stronger than Nolan’s or Anderson’s.  I might be projecting a bit, but my money is on del Toro.

Best Actor

Now we get to the most boringest category this year.  I really couldn’t begin to care who wins here.  That said I do have a passive rooting interest in Gary Oldman taking it home.  Oldman’s win would be more of a career appreciation because really this man has quietly been one of the best actors of all time over the past thirty or so years.  I can think of no other actor that so thoroughly transforms himself into whatever role he plays, and that certainly applies in Darkest Hour.  My girlfriend would not believe that was the same man as Sirius Black.  He is certainly good in Darkest Hour but in the same boring way other actors were who played real recognizable people (Ray, Walk the Line, Capote).  I’ve already spoken a bit about Chalamet and my problems there even if my complaints with his performance are minimal.  Daniel Kuluuya stole James Franco’s nomination after recent allegations were made public just before the nominees were announced.  Perhaps the Academy thought, if we nominated Franco we’ll have to allow Tommy Wiseau in the building.  Kuluuya is damn good in the film, but maybe it was his disloyalty in Black Panther that have me rooting against him.  Denzel Washington is fine enough in Robert J. Israel Esq. but that film itself was terrible.  Daniel Day Lewis is another boring safe choice.  That doesn’t mean he isn’t up to his usual excellent standards but after three best actor Oscars his greatness is almost taken for granted.

Best Actress

This genuinely was a fantastic year for women in movies.  I feel most years there is a struggle to find more than two great films with best actress nominees.  This year four of the five nominees were excellent and the other was Meryl Streep.  Although she has little chance of winning I do want to acknowledge Margot Robbie in I, Tonya.  Not only is she fantastic but the film itself mercifully transcends what could have been a very pedestrian bio-pic.  Honestly I’d prefer I, Tonya to over half the best picture nominees but I wasn’t a voter.  This definitely seems like Frances McDormand’s award to lose but she did win one for Fargo so maybe voters go with a first timer.  Both Hawkins and Ronan would definitely be excellent choices but I feel it’s unlikely we’ll see someone other than McDormand on stage.

The Rest

Sam Rockwell is amazing in Three Billboards and his performance looks to join the long list of no doubter best supporting actor winners (J.K. Simmons, Heath Ledger, Christof Waltz).  In a perfect world Willem Dafoe would finally get the hardware he deserves for The Florida Project.  As great as Dafoe is The Florida Project was probably one of my top three favorite films this past year and was wrongfully snubbed in the best picture race even if it wasn’t too surprising.  

The supporting actress category is perhaps an even bigger foregone conclusion.  In the race of overbearing mothers Allison Janney edges out Laurie Metcalf this year.  Once again the foreign film category is full of shit no one ever heard of.  Both Mary J. Blige and Kobe Bryant could become Oscar winners this year, who saw that coming?  Holy shit Logan is up for best adapted screenplay, no chance of winning but still comic book movies making a big step forward.  As for the rest of the categories I can’t say I’m too worried who wins or doesn’t.

So I’ll be watching tomorrow and will probably have my own ballet torn to shreds as I guess everything wrong, but that’s part of the fun.