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AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR: The Best And Worst Of Marvel Movie Motifs All In One Place

Now playing at every multiplex in the MCU:

AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR

(Dirs. Anthony Russo & Joe Russo, 2018) 
This highly anticipated superhero epic begins with the familiar montage of imagery of iconic characters quickly blending into the logo for Marvel Studios. The “I” and “O” in the capital letters though are highlighted this time as a “10,” which seems to shout “10 years of kicking every other franchise’s ass!”

And it’s true, since IRON MAN came out in 2008, the studio, under the wing of Disney, has put out an interlocking series of nearly 20 blockbusters that have formed a business model that very other movie series, from DC to STAR WARS and beyond, has been trying to emulate. I.e. everybody wants to have a Cinematic Universe just like Marvel’s.

AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR has been teased throughout Marvel’s movies mostly in after credits stingers which have featured a big bad ass villain named Thanos (a CGI-ed Josh Brolin, who wonderfully chews through CGI setpiece after CGI setpiece), and the ongoing MacGuffin of the infinity stones – six powerful highly sought after different colored gems that can be used to destroy planets and conquer the universe.

So the Avengers join forces with the Guardians of the Galaxy, Dr. Strange, and Black Panther, among others, to stop Thanos from getting the Infinity Stones through another round of over-the-top battles that really wore me out in its crammed packed last third.

But large chunks of the movie are a lot of fun. Robert Downey Jr., whose ninth time this is in the role of Tony Stark/Iron Man, is again an enjoyably funny presence as he continues his mentorship to Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tom Holland), and snarkily sparring off with Benedict Cumberbatch as Dr. Strange, and an equally amusing Chris Pratt as Peter Quill/Starlord.

The Guardians of the Galaxy, who hit the screen to the Spinner’s “Rubberband Man” (an obvious nod to their ‘70s mixtape soundtrack trope), are granted with a lot of screen-time as Gamora (Zoe Saldana) is Thano’s daughter, something that I guess was revealed in a previous movie but I didn’t remember it, and Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and a now teengage Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) split with the others including Mantis (Pom Klementieff), and Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista) to accompany Thor (Chris Hemsworth) to some other realm to get some weapon to take Thanos down with.

The audience I was in cheered when the movie cut to the lavish, and, of course, fictional African nation of Wakanda, ruled by T’Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), obviously because his film, BLACK PANTHER, which just came out a few months ago was one of the biggest hits of the MCU (and of all-time), and considered a game changer for the franchise. Boseman’s T’Challa brings the goods, but his part despite that Thano’s army of crazy four-armed alien creatures invades Wakanda, is essentially a glorified cameo.

Same goes for Chris Evans returning as Steve Rogers, the retired Captain America, which is maybe because his last movie was basically an AVENGERS entry that he was the star of. Also on the side is Rogers’ buddy Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), along with Paul Bettany as Vision, and Elizabeth Olsen as Wanda Maximoff /Scarlet Witch, who figure in because Vision has one of the Infinity Stones embedded in his head, but, as committed as Bettany and Vision are in their parts, the characters have never really resonated for me.

What also didn’t do much for me was a lot of strained quasi-Shakespearean exposition between or during action sequences that came off like with the actors over emoting about gods, the cosmos, the universe and everything in order to elevate the proceedings (even Peter Dinklage, in his appearance as Eitri the Dwarf King, lays it on a bit thick). Like everything else in the last 45 minutes or so, this was a bit much.

I preferred the comical elements such as Mark Ruffalo’s exasperating and failing struggle to Hulk out throughout the film, the multitude of one-liners like Quill telling Stark, “Let’s talk about this plan of yours – I think it’s good, except it sucks, so let me do the plan, and that way, it might be really good,” and, no surprise here, the Stan Lee cameo.

So AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR is the best and worst of all of the Marvel movie motifs all in one place. It’s overstuffed, overlong, and at times overwrought, but a lot of it is immensely entertaining, and often hilarious. Most fans will love it – or most of it – while non fans will dismiss it as a bunch of nonsensical bombast. You know, like every other Marvel movie.

James Cameron, who has multiple AVATAR sequels in the works, was recently quoted as saying that he hopes “we’ll start getting AVENGER fatigue here pretty soon.” Well, fatigue has set in before in the franchise (see IRON MAN 2, the first two THORs, DR. STRANGE, etc.) and did indeed set in towards the end of this, but its satisfyingly dark cliffhanger of a conclusion made my second (or third?) wind kick in. That helped to get me through the thousands of names of SFX Technicians, and Digital Artists to get to the post credits scene, which is something you’ll want to wait for too.


More later…

Branagh’s Misguided MURDER & More THOR

And now, catching up with a couple of movies currently playing at every multiplex:

MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS

(Dir. Kenneth Branagh, 2017)


Kenneth Branagh takes on the directing duties, and the starring role of Detective Hercule Poirot in this fourth adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1934 bestselling novel, which never leaves the shadow of Sydney Lumet’s 1974 version.

In that first adaptation, Albert Finney is initially unrecognizable as Poirot with his slicked-back black hair, outrageous mustache, and stodgy demeanor, but the blond Branagh just looks like himself, only with similarly exaggerated facial hair. His accent, an attempt at a thick Belgian brogue, even disappears a number of times.

Branagh’s Poirot fronts a cast comprised of A-listers Johnny Depp, Daisy Ridley, Josh Gad, Michelle Pfeiffer, Willem Dafoe, Penélope Cruz, and Judi Dench, alongside lesser known names such as Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom Jr., Olivia Colman, Lucy Boynton, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, and Tom Bateman.

Yeah, it’s a big ensemble, so, as can be guessed, most of these players gets a limited amount of screen-time so if you’re a Depp fan, be warned that his role is a glorified cameo at best.

Especially since Depp, as rich businessman Samuel Ratchett, is the murder victim so he’s a corpse throughout the bulk of the picture. As the well worn mystery trope goes, the rest of the cast all have dark connections to Rachett, which means tons of motives, and Poirot interrogates the suspects one by one for his investigation.

This all takes place while the train has been stranded on its route by an avalanche and they have to wait for help to arrive. Unlike MURDER ’74, Branagh takes the passengers off of the train for a lot of the second half, and even stages the big reveal in the exterior of the tunnel the train has been stalled in front of.

This movie is full of such visual choices – the camera swoops over snowy mountaintops, cranes from the bottom to the top of the frame while its subjects stay in the middle of the show, and, most annoyingly, films two entire scenes from directly overhead. As gorgeous as much of the scenery shot by cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos is, these show-off moves distract from the story and make what could’ve been a tense gritty remake into something that looks like a glossy magazine spread.

But the most frustrating thing about Branagh’s take on the 83-year old story is how he botches the conclusion so that it has precious little impact. The construction of the big reveal is as rickety as the CGI bridge the train is trapped on. Branagh, working from a screenplay by Michael Green (BLADE RUNNER 2049, LOGAN), has fashioned a self indulgent, yet pretty looking muddle out of Christie’s most famous whodunit.

It just doesn’t hold a candle to what Lumet did with this material in ’74. Consider the superiority of that film’s all-star cast – Finney’s Poirot is joined by Lauren Bacall, Anthony Perkins, Sean Connery, Ingrid Bergman, Vanessa Redgrave, Michael York, John Gielgud, and Jacqueline Bisset (if you younger readers don’t know these names – spend some time with movies made before STAR WARS) – the infinitely sharper script by Oscar winning screenwriter Paul Dehn, and its suitably claustrophobic interiors which are free of any visual trickery.

So obviously, my recommendation is to skip Branagh’s misguided MURDER ‘17, and seek out Lumet’s much classier ’74 version. I bet it’ll make for a more satisfying experience, and you will be spared about how this new one so cynically sets up a sequel – Poirot gets a message at the end from Egypt about being needed to investigate a death on the Nile (get it?).


THOR: RAGNARAK
(Dir. Taika Waititi, 2017)

We’re now halfway through Phrase Three of the Marvel Cinematic Universe movie franchise, so here’s the third installment of the THOR adventures, currently # 1 at the box office, which I enjoyed a lot more than the first two (the first one was directed by Branagh incidentally).

As I’ve written before, Thor is my least favorite of the Marvel movie characters, but this time around the guy, again played with gusto by Chris Hemsworth, has grown on me, and with Taika Waititi (who directed the hilarious 2014 vampire mockumentary WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS, and year’s winning comedy adventure HUNT OF THE WILDERBEAST) at the helm, the Norse God heads a smashingly funny film. One that stands beside ANT-MAN, both GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY entries, and DEADPOOL in the realm of Marvel movies that are really comedies at their core.

The plot, which has something to do with Thor trying to save his home city of Asgard from being destroyed by his sister Hela (Cate Blanchett) with help of his brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston), and Bruce Banner/The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), really doesn’t matter as the narrative zips through one action set piece to another racking up a lot of big laughs in the process.

Tony Stark is brought up enough times (Ruffalo even wears his clothes) that I was expecting Robert Downey Jr. to pop up, but instead we’ve got Benedict Cumberbatch’s Dr. Strange to do that duty. But the cast member that appears to be having the most fun here is Jeff Goldblum as the unctuous Grandmaster of a planet on which Thor winds up getting pitted against the Hulk in an arena gladiator fight.

It’s a fun yet disposable entertainment as I laughed quite a bit, but now can’t think of any notable quotes – oh, wait, there was Thor saying “A creepy old man cut my hair off!” which totally sums up the obligatory Stan Lee cameo.

THOR: RAGNAROK may be an overly formulaic (Thormulaic?), and maybe not a really essential entry in the Marvel canon, but it’s sprinkled with so many gags that land that it really doesn’t matter.


More later…

SPOTLIGHT: A Journalism Procedural That Really Crushes It


Now playing at both multiplexes and indie art houses:

SPOTLIGHT (Dir. Tom McCarthy, 2015)

Tom McCarthy’s SPOTLIGHT is everything that James Vanderbilt’s Rathergate drama TRUTH wanted to be – a vital journalism procedural that actually has the facts to back up its case.

The film focuses on the 2002 Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation by the Boston Globe’s “Spotlight” team into the scandal of child molestation and systematic cover-up within the Catholic Church.

The investigation is spearheaded by editor Martin Baron (Liev Schreiber), who has just joined the paper after a buyout. Baron tasks the team – made up of editor Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton), and reporters Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James) – to dig into the case against Father John Geoghan, a Catholic priest charged with sexual abuse of over 80 children.

The staff reports to assistant managing editor Ben Bradlee Jr., son of legendary Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee of Watergate fame (see ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN) sharply played by John Slattery of Mad Men fame.

To prove that Cardinal Law found out about Geoghan 15 years earlier and did nothing, the Globe sues the church to obtain access to incriminating documents, something that may alienate the paper’s readership, 53% of which are Catholic.

With the help of lawyers Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci), and Eric MacLeish (Billy Crudup), it doesn’t take long for the team to uncover that close to 90 priests in the Boston area have been accused of sexual misconduct.

McCarthy certainly atones for his previous film, the atrocious Adam Sandler vehicle THE COBBLER, with his passionately meticulous work here. The camerawork, shot by cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi, is straightforward as is the editing, as no flashiness is required to enhance the swift, compelling storytelling on display.

Many films have great casts, but SPOTLIGHT is my vote for best ensemble of 2015. Keaton, who was wrongly passed over by the academy for his performance in BIRDMAN last year, could be back in the Oscar race for his stellar turn here. Ruffalo, whose reaction to the enormity of the scandal is the most emotional, also stands out, and McAdams puts in her second solid performance of the year (SOUTHPAW was the first one). Schreiber, Slattery, James, Tucci, and Crudup crush it as well – man, this film is really a boy’s club! – and a few non-names such as Neal Huff and Michael Cyril Creighton shine in roles as outspoken victims.

I bet that, much like its classic newspaper drama predecessors ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN and ZODIAC, this is a film that will reward repeat viewings. Its pace and construction is tightly wound, but still takes time for some interesting moments in-between the unveiling of events – i.e. a shot of Scrieber looking for the publisher’s office, a beautifully framed shot of Ruffalo, James, and McAdams working at their desks with Keaton in his office behind them (see above).

SPOTLIGHT will definitely make my top 10 films of 2015 list, and I’ll be pulling for it come Oscar time. The acting, screenplay, editing, direction, Howard Shore’s stirring score, etc. should all be acknowledged in the upcoming awards season.

More importantly, it should be seen. It has a lot of competition and isn’t playing on a huge amount of screens so folks should really seek it out. Too many great films slip through the cracks and are largely overlooked. Don’t let that happen to the brilliant, intelligent, and über insightful SPOTLIGHT.


More later…