“Avengers: Infinity War I”

I review most movies after one viewing. I took two before reviewing “Avengers: Infinity War I”, because this is a movie that wants to be seen twice. An overstuffed, sprawling adventure ten years in the making, starring characters introduced at separate points through nineteen different movies, A:IWI seems like it was made without reference to a clock; it is two and a half hours long, and needs to be. Despite that, I’m ashamed to note that it took me those full two and a half hours to rumble what was up. The Russo brothers have accomplished the most difficult trick in the directorial book—to deliver exactly what is promised, and yet still surprise. I stumbled out of the theater feeling stunned and more than a little stupid: I had, after all, walked into the film knowing I was watching the first of a two-parter, and moreover a movie firmly in the “Empire Strikes Back” position of a larger three-part cycle, and yet I was still caught off-guard by the ending. This is a remarkable trick for a movie to pull off, and it’s worth exploring how it was done, at length, over beers with your friends afterwards.

The final thirty seconds are the film’s greatest triumph, but there are other, smaller wins along the way; every second spent with Tom Holland as Spiderman, for example. The wise choice to include the entire supporting cast of “Black Panther”, rather than just the star, and to ground the majority of the action in Wakanda, rather than the done-to-death battleground of New York City. And the movie makes tremendous use of small breakout characters with limited ranges of action: Mantis (Pom Klementieff), Groot (CGI/Vin Diesel), and the CGI cloak that acts as Dr. Strange’s protector and pet.

When it comes to larger characters, though, the movie has some stumbles: Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and Pepper Potts (Gwenyth Paltrow) have now broken up and gotten back together so many times that their once-buoyant romance now feels like a deathless slog; Vision (Paul Bettany) and Wanda Maximoff’s (Elizabeth Olsen) mopey relationship never got off the ground in the first place, but is now accorded central positioning and a baffling amount of screentime. (Other characters who fall into the Still Inexplicably Here category include the dessicated corpse of Don Cheadle as Rhodey and walking yawn Sebastian Stan as Bucky.)  Speaking of wasted time, delightful “Games of Thrones” star Peter Dinklage is buried in a MacGuffin-hunting sequence which goes on about ten minutes too long, and we spend a truly unforgivable amount of time dicking around in an empty train station in Scotland with Vision and Wanda (here, my companion reminds me that the sequence established some important power dynamics and allowed one character a memorable entrance, but I’m so bitter about potential Wakanda time going to these two mopes that I’m still calling the sequence useless).

None of these flaws end up mattering, though—the movie powers through on the strength of Josh Brolin’s incredible performance as Thanos, a villain now gearing up to star in “Avengers: Infinity War II” and an entire generation’s nightmares. Thirty years ago, Darth Vader’s horse-chuff breath and sparkling black mask traumatized everyone in grade school; now, a new crop of eight-year olds may learn to associate mortal terror not with a costume and a Death Star, but with a calm, reasonable tone and an earnestly presented plan that almost doesn’t sound like genocide. If Thanos were human, he’d have a large YouTube subscriber base and a rabid following on the lecture circuit. It’s only because he’s purple that we can’t see him when he’s right in front of our face, telling us exactly what he plans to do and how he plans to do it. It’s up to us to believe him.

Advertisements

Movie review: “Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2”

“Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” starts with a considerable handicap: the audience already knows what they’re in for. The first movie surprised because it wasn’t supposed to be good, and was; now, GOTG2 is supposed to be excellent, and mostly, is. The team is back, with the addition of a charmingly naïve empath named Mantis (Pom Klemantieff), who is stuck on a planet with only one inhabitant. That the inhabitant is named Ego should give you pause; that he is played by Kurt Russell, and appears not a jot over 50, should give you night terrors. I’ve seen bricks age worse. But Russell’s eerie youth is being leveraged for a purpose; he is immortal, and has the notches in his bedpost to prove it. One of them is Peter Quill’s mom. Chris Pratt once again brings an appealing, early-Ford-like insouciance to Peter—unfortunately, the movie gives him a fraction of the screen time he got in the first installment, and squanders half of that fraction on a forced romance with Gamora (Zoe Saldana) that seems to exist to service a “Cheers” reference. Thankfully, other relationships are sketched with a lighter hand: Mantis and Drax (Dave Bautista) develop a horrifying version of friendship based on their mutual lack of guile (and filters); Nebula (Karen Gillan, much improved from the first installment) gives her side of the troubled sibling relationship with Gamora, and develops a bit of sympathy along the way; Rocket (Bradley Cooper) pushes away the love of his found family in a way that feels 100% human, 0% CGI raccoon. But all these lively and delicate stories pale by comparison to the main event, which is a war of the father figures—in the left corner, Yondu (Michael Rooker, clearly aware that he is playing the game of a lifetime). In the right, Ego. Peter must choose between the father who kidnapped, bullied, threatened and manipulated him, and the father who wasn’t around to do any of that. The choice appears easy, until it’s not; Platt carefully treads the line between hope and wariness, and Saldana shows a careful tenderness that could easily have melted into romance in the third movie, if the filmmakers had been willing to wait that long. (Alas, it’s easier to talk about a slow burn than to take the time to actually build one. Maybe they should have gone back and watched “Cheers” again.) But who can begrudge anyone a hurried romance when the galaxy is, once again, at risk? It seems churlish to criticize the movie for not being note-perfect when so many of the notes are delightful: Baby Groot (Vin Diesel), tap-dancing his way through an epic space battle. A planet of self-regarding aliens who all resemble Paris Hilton, if she were spraypainted gold. An extended argument about Scotch tape, mid-climax. Exquisitely timed joke payoffs, coming to fruition a full two acts after their setup. A credit roll that will mercilessly test the limits of your bladder with multiple post-credit sequences, all worth waiting for. You will leave the theater bubbling over with glee and catchy pop songs and also pee; but as this movie so aptly demonstrates, two out of three ain’t bad.

Movie review: “Star Trek: Beyond”

The newest installment in Star Trek’s canon rolls off the assembly line this weekend, christened with a focus-grouped and forgettable title (“Star Trek: Beyond”). Like most of what rolls off the assembly lines these days, the third installment in the rebooted “alternate original series” is serviceable enough, even pretty from certain angles; it offers a polished and effortless ride, depositing you outside the theater two hours later and ten dollars lighter, wreathed in a thin cloud of distraction. It does not, however, possess much of a soul, and if it seems churlish to complain about the lack of “soul” in a multimillion-dollar spectacle featuring the wholesale destruction of a USS Enterprise (complete with the startling phrase “Detach the saucer”), I can only plead affection for simpler fare. Isn’t the concept of hull breach terrifying enough, without seeing the Enterprise literally drawn and quartered in space, then dropped in several large chunks onto the planet below? In a quest to outdo the previous installments’ many and varied crash landings, “Beyond” goes, well, beyond, turning the beloved ship into a piñata and multiplying her attackers until they become a terrifying CGI swarm of… well, what were they, exactly? A character calls the evil army “bees” at one point, but bees have purpose—the antagonists’ motivation remains unclear until the very end, in which the chief baddie (Idris Elba, encased in mysteriously shifting prostheses) explains his Evil Philosophy, which nudges the audience from mere uncertainty into complete confusion. We never truly understand who he is, why he’s become a murderous fanatic, and why he has near-unlimited numbers of kamikaze-style followers willing to die for him. Say what you will about Eric Baña’s scenery-chewing Nero in the first installment, at least he had a motive (I lost my planet—let’s see how you like it).

 

Motive is sorely lacking on the protagonists’ side, too: in a too-neat voiceover at the beginning, Kirk expresses a desire for meaning in a life become rote. This would work better if the movie hadn’t opened with a “never a dull moment” scene from Kirk’s challenging life as a diplomat, or if the movie had meaning to offer besides “Keep the bad guy from getting the MacGuffin to the place before it’s too late to reverse the things.” Spock, too, is having doubts—his alternate-universe-counterpart, the sheared-off version of himself played by Leonard Nimoy, has died, causing him to once again question his relationship with Uhura: while the tributes to Nimoy are effective (and, in one scene, startlingly beautiful), the threat to Spock and Uhura’s relationship is less so, because we’ve seen these stakes before. We’ve also seen “bombardment from the skies/civilians in peril” quite a few times recently—this trope looked cool in “The Avengers”, tolerable in “Guardians of the Galaxy”, tired in “The Avengers: Age of Ultron”, and exhausted in “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice”; now, the sight of a citywide evacuation reads as pure visual filler.

 

What the movie lacks in forward impetus, however, it makes up for in color: the characters are lovingly unpacked and given time to mingle, which is precisely as it should be—Star Trek at its best is a character drama, not an action franchise. McCoy and Spock are given an especially generous amount of development time, and even Scottie gets a bit of dimension beyond his comic relief role. Watching these classic characters interact is pleasure enough to balance out the dull bits, and the climax strikes the perfect note of giddy nostalgia: it’s common enough to note that actors “look like they’re having fun”, but how often do they visibly bounce with excitement? This is a summer blockbuster as indistinguishable from other blockbusters as one Honda from another, but there’s cheesy fun aplenty for those willing to turn up the music and put the pedal down.