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: Captain America: Civil War

4 05 2016

Presidential election years lend themselves to multiplex seat philosophy, perhaps another subtle confirmation of the fact that even escapism is neither complete nor absolute. Especially in years without an incumbent in the running, the culture of the present tense takes on the status of relic with stunning immediacy. As we see the contours of how future generations will remember the era, it gets easier to place a movie within its particular historical framework.

So what is the status of the superhero movie towards the end of the Age of Obama? Look no further than “Captain America: Civil War,” a film far more intriguing for its wide-ranging implications than anything on screen. (Ok, maybe those Spider-Man scenes got me interested in the character again.) It serves the same big budget movie of the moment role that 2008’s “The Dark Knight” played for the Bush era, both smashing the box office and setting the conversation.

Nearly four years ago, The New York Times’ critics A.O. Scott and Manohla Darghis described Marvel’s 2012 “The Avengers” as a tale about the triumph of community organizing in their piece “Movies in the Age of Obama.” Now, “Captain America: Civil War” feels like the response to four years of gridlock and bitter internal divides. Along with “Batman v Superman,” the big trend among 2016 tentpole features appears to be fighting the enemies within our gates as opposed to outside our borders.

At least this rupture among the Avengers crew was a plot development they adequately presaged in their recent plot build-up. (Yes, that was shade at DC. No, I am not being paid by Marvel to write good things.) After many a global escapade causing mass mayhem and destruction, the superheroes finally face accountability from an international governmental body. Roughly half the group believes submitting to authority is a worthy idea, while the others wish to retain autonomy even it means being called vigilantes by the public as a whole.

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REVIEW: Margin Call

17 03 2012

If anyone ever wanted to know about the problems facing rich white people, tell them to pop “Margin Call” into their DVD player.  When it’s not faintly allegorizing what “Inside Job” had the balls to hit dead on, it’s dealing with the pathetic plight of financial sector employees like 23-year-old Seth Bregman (Penn Badgley) who is only bringing home $250,000 per year at an entry level position.  Clearly he can related to little orphan Annie when she sang that it’s a hard knock life for us.

Writer/director J.C. Chandor, in his first feature, narrates the film much like a play, letting the principal characters guide the story.  Aside from maybe one line from a security guard, you won’t hear the voice of the people who will be most affected by the actions in this movie.  There’s one scene in an elevator where Demi Moore’s Sarah Robertson and Simon Baker’s Jared Cohen gravely discuss the implications of their conduct, and in between them is a cleaning lady.  In one of the few great touches of the film and with an almost macabre sense of dark humor, Chandor makes sure that she is totally oblivious to the grave implications of what’s happening in the building she cleans.

“Margin Call” was the beneficiary of chance when the Occupy movement began right around its October 2011 release date, and there are several lines which I feel could have been ripped straight off their cardboard signs.  His portrayal of the investment bankers are shallow, simply becoming more evil and out-of-touch with the more money they make.  The sweeping generalizations of the film are about as ill-conceived as his “magic formula” that predicts the coming of the 2008 financial crisis; I’m wondering if even he knew what on earth it was.  There’s no attempt to explain what a CDO is, or even what on earth these traders do.  There’s great complexity to the system beyond his adaptation of “Baby’s First Guide to Capitalism,” believe it or not.

There are some decent acting moments that make “Margin Call” a watchable movie, and the script has just above the requisite amount of intrigue to keep your attention.  But with all these “one percenter”s just talking about how to spend their millions in convertibles, you wouldn’t think that the world economy was about to collapse.  I know that exists, but if you want to demonize rich people, why not just make a movie only about CEOs of investment banks in September 2008.  C





Know Your Nominees: “The King’s Speech”

10 02 2011

The Oscars are a great cultural conversation for all to participate in, but it’s all too easy to only have surface knowledge of the nominees.  It’s all too easy to know “Black Swan” as the ballet movie, “The Fighter” as the boxing movie, and “The Social Network” as the Facebook movie.  But don’t you want to know more and stun your friends with your knowledge of the movies in the weeks leading up to the awards and ultimately during the broadcast itself?

That’s what my KNOW YOUR NOMINEES series hopes to do.  Every three days, I’ll feature ten interesting facts about the ten Best Picture nominees of 2010 that would be fascinating to pepper into any conversation.  My hope is that you will come away with an enhanced appreciation of the movies but also enjoy learning strange and interesting things about them.

So, as we proceed in alphabetical order, our next stop on the tour is “The King’s Speech.”

“The King’s Speech” should feel like a very personal movie for a number of reasons, but probably chief among them is screenwriter David Seidler.  As a boy growing up in England in the 1930s and ’40s, Seidler was a stammerer and idolized King George VI for his ability to overcome his problem.  He had to wait many years to secure the rights to write a movie about his hero, mainly due to being asked personally by the Queen Mother (played by Helena Bonham Carter in the film) to pass away.  Seidler then wrote it as a play, which director Tom Hooper saw and decided to make into a movie.

The director then added his own personal touch to the movie as well.  Hooper stated in an interview that “The King’s Speech” is really a movie about his family.  For example, the opening scene of the movie showing the preparations for the radio broadcast is an homage to his sister, a presenter for Radio 4.  But mainly the connection comes from the relationship between the British Bertie and Australian Logue as Hooper has an Australian mother and an English father. He talked greatly in interviews about the interesting relationship between the two countries and how he conveyed it in the movie.

Lionel Logue, King George’s speech therapist played in the movie by Geoffrey Rush, kept a detailed set of diaries chronicling his work (although they don’t start until the coronation of the king).  However, the diaries were not made available to the filmmakers until nine weeks before the shoot.  Hooper has said that the only changes they made were for the sake of accuracy, and nothing was drastically altered.  He also stated in an interview that some of the best lines in the movie were taken directly from the diary.  For example, after the climactic speech, Logue jokingly says, “You still stammered on the w,” to which King George replies, “Well, I had to throw in a few so they knew that it was me.”

Colin Firth looks like a sure-fire winner for Best Actor, but this easily could have been someone else.  Firth was actually the third choice to play King George VI and only received the role after first Paul Bettany and then Hugh Grant passed.  Neither have Oscars at home on their mantle, so I’m pretty sure that both are regretting this decision.

So how did Firth nail down that stammer, which he executes so immaculately in “The King’s Speech?”  What might be surprising is that Firth did not work with a speech therapist.  He did, however, use a dialogue coach who helped him make the stammer come from a very personal place while also not affecting the pacing of the movie (imagine how dreadful the movie would be if it took him 20 minutes to utter each word).  A speech therapist did come to some of the rehearsals for the movie, and Firth’s sister is also a vocal therapist, which he claims was very helpful for consulting purposes.  He also talked a lot with screenwriter David Seidler, who compared stuttering to being “underwater.”

Does stammering come with side effects?  For Colin Firth, it did.  During the shoot, he claims to have suffered from some headaches and neck tension.  But the more debilitating toll was on his arm, which became numb, went to sleep and thus hard to use.  He went to the set doctor who had little to offer due to the lack of precedent.

Helena Bonham Carter received her second Academy Award nomination for her work in “The King’s Speech,” but just as the case was with many of this year’s nominees, she almost missed the chance.  Due to her commitment on the “Harry Potter” movies, Carter turned down the role numerous times despite director Tom Hooper’s insistence.  Yet she did star in “The King’s Speech” by making what she calls an “illegal” maneuver – shooting BOTH at the same time.  Carter would go off on the weekends and shoot her scenes for Tom Hooper while never being truly “released” from the “Harry Potter” sets.

How do you get a good actor – an Academy Award winning actor, for that matter – to play a convincing mediocre actor?  Tom Hooper got Geoffrey Rush to do some unconvincing Shakespeare by shooting the scene on the first day with English actors in the room who knew that Rush had some experience with Shakespeare. To quote Rush, “I was nervous and I was bad, and he just shot it.”

What of the royal reaction to the film? Queen Elizabeth II, George’s daughter portrayed in the movie as a young girl, gave “The King’s Speech” her seal of approval.  Cynics might ask how much Harvey Weinstein paid for it; others are probably just thrilled to see the royal family showing interest in popular culture.

Cynics might also say that “The King’s Speech” is a stuffy British royal family costume drama that’s totally designed to win over the Academy.  The last part seems to be somewhat true, but it’s hardly stuffy like most other movies about royal life.  Director Tom Hooper is largely responsible for that.  He stated in an interview that he purposefully set up the opening and closing shots of Bertie/George VI so that the movie would stand apart from others in the genre.  We first meet Bertie in normal clothes, not looking all snazzy in his royal get-up.  The movie closes reaffirming King George and Lionel Logue’s friendship, not with him cured of his stammer as if by magic or medicine.

Check back on February 13 as the KNOW YOUR NOMINEES series continues with “127 Hours.”





REVIEW: The Tourist

20 12 2010

There could be worse things to watch for an hour and 45 minutes than a cinematic worshipping and idolization of the physique of Angelina Jolie.  As if “Salt” wasn’t enough for 2010, Sony takes her out of action figure mode and gives us “The Tourist,” a whole movie of Jolie in red carpet mode.  She elegantly struts across the scene in beautiful gown after dazzling dress, all accentuating her best features: her eyes, her lips, and her figure.  If you aren’t floored by her beauty by the end of the movie, go get your eyes checked.

But as your mom taught you in middle school, looks aren’t all that matter; you have to have a good personality to be truly attractive.  Inspect anything other than Jolie in “The Tourist” and you will find one snooze of a movie.  Half-heartedly a romantic comedy and half-heartedly an action thriller, it fails to satisfy as anything more than eye candy.

As the lover of con man Alexander Pearce, Elise (Jolie) finds herself tracked heavily by the police and the mob.  He tells her to find a man of similar build to him and masquerade around Venice as if he were the elusive Pearce.  On a train, she nabs Frank Tupelo (Johnny Depp), a math teacher at a Wisconsin community college headed to Italy on vacation.  She entices him by a tease act and then manages to rope him into following her around by money and luxury.

From there, it’s a game of mismatched expectations as she sees him as expendable while he thinks she is romantically interested in him.  In his mind, the movie is a classic romance in Italy, and he proceeds as such.  Yet in her mind, it’s like a James Bond movie where he’s a pawn.  The two visions clumsily intermingle, resulting in one very uncomfortable blend to digest.  Jolie and Depp have zero chemistry, and even though it’s not necessarily required for the movie, neither have any sort of a game face for it.  The action sequences are slow and boring, failing to breath any sort of life into “The Tourist” which flails for its duration in desperate need of a respirator.

Director/writer Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck strangely follows up the sublime German thriller “The Lives of Others” with this confused, uninteresting popcorn flick.  Even with a few fairly predictable plot twists to keep us mildly engaged, nothing can save this awkwardly comedic and dully action-packed movie from being one of the least exciting movies to grace the silver screen this year.  Sure, thanks to Angelina Jolie, it’s easy to watch.  But as a movie, it’s hard to bear.  C