REVIEW: Avengers: Infinity War

1 08 2018

At some point during the seemingly interminable carousel of trailers prior to “Avengers: Infinity War,” a thought occurred to me: I should probably do a quick Google to see if there’s any information I need to know before the movie starts. I’d done the legwork of seeing the previous installments (“Thor: The Dark World” excepted because everyone tells me I didn’t miss much), but they linger in my system like a flat, lukewarm draft beer in a plastic cup. As Marvel click-chasing as the Internet is these days, there was plenty of service journalism on page one to fill me in.

The more I read, the more I saw information about infinity stones. What they were, who had them, what happened the last time we saw one. I’m not such a passive viewer that I had no concept of these whatsoever, but, to be honest, I had stopped giving them much thought a few years back. Infinity stones were like excess information from a high school history lecture – you have some vague sense that these tidbits might show up on the final but not enough to scare you into paying full attention.

Imagine showing up for the final and having it be only those bits of knowledge you considered superfluous. That’s “Avengers: Infinity War.”

The analogy actually doesn’t fully compute because it puts far too much responsibility on me, the audience member, for keeping up. Over the past five years, after correctly sensing the audience could sense Marvel’s formula, head honcho Kevin Feige implemented a new strategy to avoid brand complacency. He brought in accomplished directors with a real sense of style and personality – no offense to Favreau, Johnston and others who can clearly helm a solid studio action flick. A handful of rising talents got the chance to play with a massive toolbox to make largely personal films on nine-figure budgets. Better yet, they essentially got to treat these infinity stones like MacGuffins, items whose actual substance matters little since they serve to move the plot and provide a goal for the hero.

Think about these films from late phase two and early phase three, as the canonically-minded Marvel fans would say. James Gunn’s “Guardians of the Galaxy” films aren’t memorable because of their quest for Power Stone; they’ve endured because of the joyous rush of a stilted man-child who gets to live out his Han Solo fantasies to the tunes of his banging ’80s mix-tape. Ryan Coogler’s “Black Panther” has far more interesting things to say about black identity, heritage and responsibility than it does about the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Taika Waititi was still playing into the future of the studio’s master plan, yet he got to toss out much of what had been done with the God of Thunder in “Thor: Ragnarok” and cast him like the offbeat protagonists of his Kiwi comedies to find humor and heart where there had previously been little.

“Avengers: Infinity War” is a feature length “Well, actually…” from Marvel. The Russo Brothers are here to deliver the bad news that those infinity stones were actually the only thing that mattered the whole time. Silly you for thinking the studio cared about things like artistry and personality!

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REVIEW: Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

6 05 2017

The summer season means sequelitis with few exceptions. One of these outliers, to an extent, is James Gunn’s “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.” It appears that after the surprising smash success of his series opener, Kevin Feige and the powers that be at Marvel decided to loosen his leash to continue pushing his aesthetic. Though the enormous potential of the irreverent “Guardians” series seems self-evident from our vantage point in the era of “Deadpool,” it was far from a sure thing when the studio greenlit the film in the heat of “The Avengers” universe-building craze. “Kick-Ass” hardly served as a reliable indicator that audiences were ready to follow the superhero genre into a parodic cycle.

From the outset, Gunn shows that he was far from operating at full throttle in the first film – and that he still has plenty of tricks up his sleeve. The way he stages the opening battle sequence is pure subversive brilliance. Some mysterious octopus-like space creature drops out of the sky and onto a landing pad where Chris Pratt’s Star-Lord and the Guardians are waiting for it. We have no idea what it is or why it poses a threat, in typical Marvel fashion. Gunn capitalizes on that unfamiliarity, staging the fight out of focus in the background while an adorable Baby Groot dances to an Electric Light Orchestra jam in front of our eyes. He knows people operate on sensation and feeling more than linear plot development, and he crafts an ideal anti-action scene.

So it’s a little disappointing when, by the end, Gunn still has to direct in lockstep with the Marvel mold. We’ve still got to have the obligatory third act “blow everything up for 20 minutes” portion of the screenplay, unfortunately. “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” at least imbues an otherwise mindless spectacle with deeper stakes. Every aspect of the film harkens back to its central themes of family, from the gold-hued eugenicist Sovereigns to Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and her sister Nebula (Karen Gillan). And, of course, there’s the match made in intertextual heaven: Star-Lord reuniting with his long-lost father, Kurt Russell’s Ego.

It’s too bad that anything relating to blood dynamics sounds like the notes from a family psychologist’s notepad. The dialogue sounds far too on-the-nose for a film so fluent in 13-year-old boy humor. (That’s not to knock the jokes, which would have gone over gangbusters with me 10 years ago. Some still do, to my reluctant chagrin.) But thankfully, Gunn still give us plenty of the franchise’s ragtag family, the Guardians themselves, rocking out to another awesome mixtape. B





REVIEW: Spectre

15 11 2015

Sam Mendes made a great Bond film with writers John Logan, Neal Purvis, and Robert Wade in “Skyfall” because they embraced a tricky opposition between the past and the future.  Could the unabashedly old-fashioned spy James Bond survive in a more gritty, grey world without sacrificing his core identity? They found that the answer was yes by striking a balance between these two forces vying for the soul of 007.

The band gets back together for “Spectre” (plus an additional writer in Jez Butterworth, architect of many a frustrating script in the past two years) and finds themselves preoccupied by the same kind of debate. This time, instead of the fear of age leading to obsolescence, the anxiety stems from post-Snowden malaise.

When a government has the ability to do its dirty work with drones and collect information on all its citizens through their devices, who needs human intelligence likes James Bond? This question is being seriously debated outside the world of the movie, and kudos to “Spectre” for not ignoring the elephant in the room. But the way Mendes and the writers choose to resolve the tension feels rather disappointing.

They use this threat as an excuse to retreat to some of the most outdated aspects of the character. Womanizing abounds as Bond pity romances a grieving widow to extract a key plot point. And Bond’s reward for neutralizing a key opponent? The “Bond girl,” Lea Seydoux’s Madeleine Swann, immediately feels the need to let him take her to bed. Simply put, there is a way to let James Bond be the ultimate man that does not require denying women agency. “Spectre” does not care to find that way as “Casino Royale” did, justifying lazy misogyny because of a rather facile challenge to Bond’s relevancy.

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REVIEW: Guardians of the Galaxy

3 08 2014

When I sat down and thought about it, most of the praises I could lavish on James Gunn’s “Guardians of the Galaxy” are really backhanded compliments that slap the Marvel universe in the process.

For example, I don’t really think Kevin Feige and the Marvel brain trust really deserve a great deal of lauding for creating a film that can stand on its own with a self-contained narrative.  The majority of movies already just do that anyways.  Those movies also just have well-developed characters with internal lives given as an assumption, not as a point of commendation.

But if you want to grade James Gunn’s take on a lesser-known Marvel property against their hopelessly generic and shamelessly commercial films of better known characters like Captain America, it’s going to look like a masterstroke.  “Guardians of the Galaxy” has two attributes that probably make executives at Marvel cower in fear: a unique creative vision and a good sense of humor.  It’s a playful film that often feels like fan fiction uncovered from a child of the ’80s raised on a steady diet of Lucas and Spielberg.

To achieve this adolescent fantasy of a film, Gunn assembles a very game group that becomes akin to Marvel’s version of the “Not Ready for Prime Time Players.”  The film stars Chris Pratt as Peter Quill (or Star-Lord, as he’d have you call him), a profit-motivated intergalactic thief who might be the most morally ambiguous blockbuster hero since Jack Sparrow.  On an average commission to retrieve an orb, Quill gets pulled into a gigantic power struggle that endangers both he and his precious Walkman.

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