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Avengers: Infinity War

The summer blockbuster season arrives earlier every year and usually with a bang.  Avengers: Infinity War, looks to be the biggest of the summer behemoths, at least in terms of spectacle and epicness.  Solo: A Star Wars Story may give it a run for its money, but my guess is that Marvel will end up taking the crown.  It is, after all, the climax to all 18 previous films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.  Or at least the first part of that climax. That’s a huge build-up and an uncommonly good one.

Most of these films deal with a megalomaniacal villain intent on destroying all or a significant part of the world and needing one of the Infinity Stones to do it.  That’s not the case here.  Thanos, played by James Brolin, wants to destroy half the universe and he needs all six of the Infinity Stones to do it.

There’s a difference.

Okay, you’re not going to see this movie because of the subtle and meaningful plot.  You’re going for the spectacle of over twenty CGI-enhanced superheroes throwing down with…oh who cares who they throw down with as long as there are punches, explosions, flying and great special effects.  All delivered with Marvel’s light touch and melodramatic tone.  Give me some popcorn and save the nuance for Oscar season.

All the things that are consistent and good about MCU movies are present here.  The effects are seamless and incredible.  So much so in fact I would strongly encourage you to see this in 3D.

The performances are universally excellent.  All these actors are old hands at playing these roles by now.  Not everybody is given a lot of space for characterization but that’s not really necessary at this point.  I wonder, however, if this movie would stand on its own.  I suspect that it probably wouldn’t.  It doesn’t matter, as I’ve said many times before, the whole MCU is one large work and Avengers: Infinity War is merely a part of it.  To judge it or any other movie in the series as an individual film (although many of them hold up quite well) is to miss the point.

One performance that is worth mentioning is James Brolin as Thanos.  It is hard to imagine a more powerful or crueler villain, and yet Brolin makes you…if not like, at least respect him.  His plan is insane and genocidal but, if you understand his worldview, you can see how he thinks he’s the good guy making a hard choice.

My joking at the beginning of this review aside, this is a pretty good script by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely.  There are some funny one-liners sprinkled in with the heavy moments and imaginative fight scenes.  The interplay between the characters is entertaining, especially the relationship between Dr. Strange and Tony Stark, a classic confrontation between two men used to dominating the room.  There are callbacks to great moments in the other films but no exact repeats of circumstances or results, like you see in other series.

Summer is here and there is no better movie to kick it off with than Avengers: Infinity War.

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Ready Player One

I’m pretty plugged into much of pop culture.  Many TV shows and movies have played out in front of my eyes.  But one thing I’ve never been interested in is playing video games.  For some reason it never appealed to me.  It may be that they came into their own when I was too old to become obsessed with them.

So, there is probably a lot about Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of Ernest Cline’s novel Ready Player One that I’m missing.  References, allusions and Easter Eggs are probably all going right past without me noticing.  But, of course, the true test of a movie is if it can move you even if you don’t understand everything about the setting.  Ultimately all stories are about people.

Ready Player One takes place in a dystopian future where external reality is grim.  As the main character, Wade Watts, played by Tye Sheridan, says in the narration, it is a time when people have given up on solving the world’s problems and are simply trying to survive.  Or more accurately, escape.  Most people spend almost all of their time in a virtual reality called the Oasis.  This is an extrapolation of online gameplaying environments, adding in the element of virtual reality.  The Oasis is an immersive second world, limited only by the imagination of the people inhabiting it.  It’s not simply a game.

The Oasis was invented by James Halliday, played by Mark Rylance, who dies and leaves his immense fortune and control of the virtual world to whoever can solve three tasks he has designed into the fabric of the artificial reality.  The search for the solution to these puzzles has gone on for years.  People have formed clans, teams that share information about whatever progress they’ve made.  But after all that time, nobody has solved even the first puzzle, and interest in the challenge has faded.

Still intensely interested, however, is IOI, a corporation run by Nolan Sorrento, played by Ben Mendelsohn.  IOI wants to take over this powerful tool and monetize it to a maximal extent.  Sorrento figures he can cover 80% of people’s screens with advertising.  The Oasis can be used for social control if it falls into the wrong hands and there are fewer worse hands than IOI.  This is a company that runs debtor prisons for people that owe it money.

When Wade, in the form of his online avatar, Parzival, figures out the first puzzle, with help from his friends Aech, played by Lena Waithe, Art3mis, played by Oliva Cooke, Sho, played by Philip Zhao and Daito, played by Win Morisaki, they become celebrities and targets.  So not only must they attempt to solve the other two pieces of the puzzle, they must also dodge IOI’s agents both inside the Oasis and outside.  IOI is willing to do anything at any cost to win this.

Obviously Ready Player One is a visual treat and you need to see it in a theater.  Most of the story takes place in the Oasis, so there are computer generated marvels that are astounding.  The pace is lively, stopping for characterization only minimally.  In fact, it feels rushed in places especially where they are tying up loose ends at the end.  The performances are fine in what is really not a film you go to for great acting.  Although, the great Mark Rylance achieves it.

Ready Player One is Steven Spielberg in popcorn mode.  It is perhaps not his best but it’s far from his worst.

Oscar Picks 2017

When the nominations were announced, I was in great shape.  I’d seen every film I needed to see and this annual Oscar pick entry was ready to be written.  What’s more I had extra time since the Academy delayed the ceremony a few weeks because of the Olympics.  So, I’m watching the curling yesterday and a promo comes on announcing coverage of the closing ceremonies tonight.  A quick look at the calendar confirmed that the Oscars will be handed out next Sunday.

If procrastination were an Olympic event, I would win the gold every time, assuming I got around to entering.

I think I’ll tinker with my formula this year.  In the past few years, I haven’t said who I predicted would win, only who I thought should win.  My predictions would only be based on the thoughts of others who in most cases are entertainment reporters who interview Academy voters and have a good idea of which way the winds are blowing.  They are also more experienced in knowing what the results of the various critics’ awards and other awards leading up to the Oscars mean.  That felt like stealing.  It occurred to me, however, that if I just sited my source it would probably be OK.  I’d feel better, at least.

So, I’m going to tell you who the favorite is, according to Goldderby.com.  They give each nominated film betting odds.  Now I’ll tell you up front that I’ve never been into gambling so my understanding of betting odds is—shall we say—not intuitive.  I am quite capable of characterizing a race as being a runaway when it is in fact close.  If I make a blunder like that, feel free to laugh at me.

Looking at the list of nominees this year, I have to say that there are a lot of really good films there.  However, there isn’t one that stands head and shoulders over the rest, at least not for me.  Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri is probably going to win in half the acting categories and it could have a big night.  But The Shape of Water is in contention as well.  Those are worthy films but I don’t really feel strongly for them.

On to the picks:

 

Supporting Actress

Favorite is Allison Janney for I, Tonya at 2/7

My pick is Allison Janney

 

It’s the year of the difficult mother.  Janney’s transformative portrayal of Tonya Harding’s awful mother was amazing to watch.  For a long time, Laurie Metcalf led this category, playing the mother in Lady Bird and should would be a worthy winner as well.  In fact, I could live with any of the nominees in this category.

My pick, however, is Allison Janney.

 

Supporting Actor

Favorite is Sam Rockwell for Three Billboards at 2/11

My pick is Sam Rockwell

 

In this category I would eliminate Christopher Plummer for All the Money in the World and Woody Harrelson for Three Billboards.  Those are two decent performances by good actors but they are not roles that tested the abilities of those actors.  I wouldn’t mind if Richard Jenkins won for The Shape of Water or if Willem Dafoe won for The Florida Project.  But I feel that Rockwell captured the theme of redemption in Three Billboards perfectly.

 

Actress

Favorite is Frances McDormand for Three Billboards at 2/13

My pick is Meryl Streep for The Post

 

Because Meryl Streep is a legendary actress with many great performances in her past, she gets nominated every year.  Often it is not deserved but this year it is.  Her Katherine Graham perfectly captures a woman caught up in the backwash of changing times.

I would eliminate Saorise Ronan.  She failed to make her character likeable.  I could live with McDormand, who is such a heavy favorite at this point that her name is probably already etched on the base of the award, and Sally Hawkins for The Shape of Water.  Margot Robbie would be a close second for my choice of who should win.

 

Actor

Favorite is Gary Oldman for Darkest Hour at 1/10

My pick is Gary Oldman Darkest Hour

 

Is it wrong of me to punish Timothee Chalamet for being in Call Me by Your Name, the worst movie I saw last year?  Probably, but here we are.  He’s out!  I could live with Daniel Day-Lewis for The Phantom Thread, even though I didn’t like that movie either, Daniel Kaluuya for Get Out, and Denzel Washington for Roman J. Israel, Esq.  But Gary Oldman became Winston Churchill.  He also is a very heavy favorite.

 

Director

Favorite is Guillermo Del Toro for The Shape of Water at 1/10

My pick is Guillermo Del Toro for The Shape of Water

 

There were severe problems with tone in The Phantom Thread so I’m eliminating Paul Thomas Anderson.  Christopher Nolan led this category for a long time but Del Toro passed him and is now the prohibitive favorite.  Nolan’s odds are currently 20/1.  He is in second place.  I could live with him, Greta Gerwig, even though I didn’t like Lady Bird, or with Jordan Peele for Get Out.  But Del Toro created an incredible world in The Shape of Water.  His command of the language of film is astonishing.

 

Picture

Favorites are Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri at 7/5 and The Shape of Water at 2/1.

My pick is Dunkirk

 

This is a two-picture race.  The Shape of Water is nominated in most of the technical categories, so if it starts winning those that momentum may carry it through to the evening’s climax.  Three Billboards is heavily favored in two of the four acting categories so my guess is that it will wind up with the big golden doorstop at the end of the night.  There are three films that don’t belong is this category.  Call Me by Your Name is an insufferable gab-fest.  Phantom Thread, I’ve already addressed and Lady Bird miscalculates the likeability of its main character.  I could live with Three Billboards, The Shape of Water, Get Out, The Darkest Hour, and The Post.  Dunkirk was a sensory experience that perfectly captured the fog of war.  It had performances by mostly unknown actors that evoked sympathy even though the script didn’t include any hint of characterization.  It was all surface but somehow managed to be deep.

 

And there you have it for what it’s worth.  As always, make some popcorn and enjoy the ceremony.

Black Panther

There are probably many reasons why most of our classic adventure fiction heroes are white males.  But of course, the most important reason, and probably the only one that fully explains it is prejudice.  The creators and distributors of this stuff have traditionally been white men and their perception of their audience has been that it is composed of the same.  If these creators thought about it at all, they probably would have concluded that as a whole minority groups didn’t have money to support heroes that looked like them.

This issue has been with us for years and there has been a lot of pressure for more diversity in the action/adventure genre.  Often this takes the form of casting a minority actor in a role that was originally a white male.  This can work if the conditions are right.  There is no reason that Dr. Who can’t be a woman, or black for that matter.  That possibility is built into the premise of regeneration.  (However, he/she must be English.)  Recently in comic books, Thor and Iron Man have been women.  Spider-Man has been a black Hispanic.  They found ways to make this work without violating the concepts of the original premise.

Adventure heroes last and are popular because they’re cool.  And part of that coolness is their identity.  Anybody can wear the Iron Man suit, but Tony Stark is irreplaceable.  Therefore, I think the best way to increase diversity is not to co-opt old heroes but to create new ones and infuse them with their own coolness.

Marvel actually tried to do this in 1966 when Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created the Black Panther.  This was the height of the Civil Rights movement and those two were never ones to let a trend go by unexploited.  Over the years T’Challa has persisted but he hasn’t really captured the coolness that adventure heroes need to become permanent fixtures in the culture.

Until now.

The MCU’s newest entry, Black Panther is a triumph of coolness.  The main credit for this goes to Chadwick Boseman who plays the role with thoughtful compassion and vulnerability.  When the character first showed up in Captain America: Civil War, I knew he could carry his own movie.  Boseman is a charismatic actor who has a big future ahead of him.

The rest of the cast is made up of a who’s who of current African-American stars.  They all do a fine job filling out the well written characters.  Even the main villain, Erik Killmonger, played by Michael B. Jordan, has a compelling motivation for his actions.

The excellent script was written by Ryan Coogler, who also directed, and Joe Robert Cole.  It deals with heavy themes that resonate with current events.  The Wakandans have all this power due to their good fortune to be in a country that has the only source for vibranium, the rarest and most powerful metal on Earth.  But for centuries they have isolated themselves, believing that the source of their strength would be taken from them if the world at large knew of it.  It is a technologically advanced nation that pretends to be a backward third world nation.  But there are some in Wakanda who are beginning to believe that it is their duty to use their great power to help oppressed Africans around the globe.  This is the theme that the plot revolves around.  What results is a pretty good tale of palace intrigue.

Coogler, whose previous films were Creed and Fruitvale Station, keeps the pace moving and draws out those tremendous performances from his talented cast.  The effects are, of course, great and the costumes and sets are an exciting mixture of modern and traditional African.

Black Panther isn’t just a competent entry into the MCU, it is one of the best.  And I suspect that it will be wildly popular.  At the showing I saw, the audience applauded, not just at the end, but also as the film was starting.

The creators of the Black Panther, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, were Jewish, which means they knew what it was like to be a minority, but not specifically African-American.  Coogler, Cole and Boseman are black and intimately familiar with the African-American experience.  They make Black Panther real.

And most importantly, they make it cool.

 

Call Me by Your Name

In the summer of 1983 a young smart 17-year-old kid named Elio, played by Timothee Chalamet, lives with his parents in a villa in the north of Italy.  His father, Mr. Perlman, played by Michael Stulbarg is an academic, studying Greco-Roman culture and his mother Annella is a translator.  Elio spends his days transcribing music and engaging in other pursuits at which he is very accomplished.

His world is turned upside down, however, when Oliver, Mr. Perlman’s summer intern, played by Armie Hammer, arrives.  Oliver is 24 years old and extremely handsome.  This awakens something in Elio and the two spend the rest of the summer exploring it.

If that doesn’t sound like a particularly exciting premise, believe me, Call Me By Your Name is worse.  There is very little conflict.  Sure it’s 1983 and they are in a small town but society is well past the “Love that dare not speak its name” era.  Elio’s parents are extremely permissive and would not care if he were gay or even if they were carrying on under their roof.

The main obstacle to these two guys getting together is themselves, or mainly Elio who is experiencing these feelings for the first time.  The film is structured as a series of conversational snippets, which I guess are supposed to be profound.  They don’t really build dramatically and are exceptionally dull in and of themselves.

The result is a sit-com season’s worth of “will they or won’t they” packed into two hours and twelve minutes, and which wind up seeming like two season’s worth.

At least there’s some nice scenery to look at.

Phantom Thread

This is going to be a short review.  How can I review a film when I can’t really talk about the plot?  The trailers and other promotional materials for Phantom Thread lead us to believe that it is a conventional drama, almost a Merchant Ivory production, beautiful and sedate.  And it is those things.  The settings and especially the costumes portray a classier time and milieu.  The performances are underplayed and subtle.  But the beating heart of Phantom Thread is something much more dangerous and cynical.

Reynolds Woodcock, played by Daniel Day Lewis, in what is supposedly his last film (Personally, I don’t believe it.) is a high-end dress designer in 1950’s London.  His clients are rich society matrons and the daughters of royalty.  He’s built a reputation that is second to none and makes a comfortable if not lavish living.  With his sister, Cyril, played by Lesley Manville, he lives in a townhouse that is also where he designs and manufactures his creations.  They have a cottage in a small village somewhere on the coast too.  Reynolds is temperamental and even somewhat childish if his routine is broken in the slightest.  His emotions are extreme but predictable, rising and falling with the cycle of his work. From designing to making to completion, each phase has its accompanying mood.

Cyril understands this and knows how to deal with it, but the parade of beautiful models who inhabit his bed and serve as his temporary muses often don’t.  It’s Cyril’s job to move them out of the house when Reynolds tires of them and runs to his cottage.

And it’s there in a picturesque country inn that he meets Alma, played by Vicky Krieps, who waits on him at breakfast.  At first it seems like she is going to be another in the long line of ephemeral affairs but Alma is made of sterner stuff.  She adjusts to his moods, buttering her toast and pouring her tea quietly so as not to disturb the quiet that Reynolds demands at the breakfast table when he is designing.  Then she begins to assert herself.

And that’s really all I can tell you about the plot.

Do I have to mention that Daniel Day Lewis is absolutely brilliant in this film?  I didn’t think so.  He’s working with his native accent so he’s probably not going to get his usual accolades but there are a thousand subtle things about his performance that other actors just can’t be bothered to do.  It’s in the way the character interacts with a world that he sees differently than other people.  I’ve seen it in real life and it really comes across in this movie.

Vicky Krieps is a relative newcomer, at least to English language films, but she does a wonderful job of peeling off layers of her personality to reveal depths.  She starts as an ingenue and finishes as something very different.  And her performance almost matches Day Lewis’ for subtlety.  You only realize the foreshadowing when you think about it later.

Lesley Manville turns in her usual great performance as Cyril, a loyal sister and business manager who is also the only person who can nag Reynolds when he needs it.

Writer director Paul Thomas Anderson is talented with many terrific movies under his belt.  Phantom Thread is probably not among his best.  It has pacing problems and the dissonance between the tone of the film and the plot is problematic.  I really can’t put my issues with it in words without spoilers and I’m not sure I can articulate it anyway.  It may very well have been a choice.  In any case the first half of the film feels like set up and most of the action happens in the second half.

I guess my advice is to go into Phantom Thread, knowing that you are not going to see the movie that has been advertised.  It’s a bait and switch.  Some people may like that.

The Post

In 1971, I was too engaged in the serious business of being an eleven-year-old to pay much attention to politics or the news in general.  I vaguely remember hearing about the Pentagon Papers but I was not much interested in such things.  There were too many TV shows to watch.

So, I have to look up what happened just like most everybody else.  Daniel Ellsberg, played by Matthew Rhys, was a military contractor who had been involved with several operations in Vietnam back in the sixties as an observer for Secretary of State Robert McNamera.  The Secretary commissioned a top-secret study of the United States’ involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967.  The study proved that multiple administrations had been consistently lying not only to the public but to congress.  Perhaps more damning was the fact that McNamara knew that the war was unwinnable as early as 1965 and yet did everything he could to continue the county’s involvement.  Ellsberg leaked the study to the New York Times but the Nixon administration found out about it and got an injunction forbidding them from publishing the papers.

Ben Bradlee, played by Tom Hanks, is the editor of the Washington Post.  He gets word of the leaked documents and manages to get his hands on them.  Bradlee is a chain-smoking newspaper man from the old school.  He believes in the function of newspapers to be a watchdog over the government.  He knows first hand how important the First Amendment is to this function and he’s not intimidated by the bullying tactics of the Nixon administration.

The Post is owned by Katherine Graham, played by Meryl Streep, the daughter of the long-time owner and publisher of the paper.  Her husband had run it after her father but committed suicide, leaving the responsibility to her.  Newspapers are very much the domain of men at this time and Graham is unsure of herself.  She is trying to raise capital by taking the corporation public while at the same time leaving control of it in her family.  There is a clause in the contract to go public that stipulates that the banks financing the deal can pull out if there is a catastrophic occurrence.  An injunction from the government over the Pentagon Papers might qualify.

So, when the inevitable happens and the administration tries to block the Post from publishing the papers, Graham must decide whether to fight it or acquiesce.  She is being preached at and bullied by the men on both sides of the issue.  Even Bradlee isn’t above this.  It’s a serious issue because the question will go all the way to the Supreme Court and if they loose Bradlee and Graham could go to jail and Graham could lose the paper.

Newspaper dramas are a staple of Hollywood.  One could even argue that Citizen Kane is in this category.  I think The Post will go down as one of the best.  The script by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer is tight with almost every word advancing the plot.  The film runs almost two hours but the time passes unnoticed.  Spielberg’s direction is also impeccable.  He directs his high-powered cast perfectly and the look of the film is dark but plush as befits the settings of the seats of power.

The acting is the film’s strength, however.  Hanks delivers a great performance as a man who is both pragmatic and idealistic.  You can see his faults even if he can’t.  At the beginning of the film he regards Graham lightly, mostly because she’s a woman.  His casual sexism is a tough thing to play but he does it brilliantly.  You also believe it when he realizes that he’s been wrong.

The real treat, as almost always, is Meryl Streep.  Katherine Graham is a smart capable woman, but nobody realizes it, not even her.  This is a woman brought up in a time when roles for women were limited.  In one of the best speeches I’ve ever seen Streep deliver she describes how she was brought up to never expect to run the paper; how she was so happy when her father appointed her husband to run it.  She was content, even happy to host parties and run charities.  But then life thrust her into the world of men.  It is inspiring to see how intimidated she is but she doesn’t give in and she never lets go of the fact that she knows she’s right.  The Post is really about Katherine Graham.

1971 was a long time ago but we are still dealing with the issues brought up in The Post.  There is an administration staffed by bullies and hardliners that want to squash the press and go about their business uninterrupted in the shadows.  According to The Post, in 1971 the First Amendment was saved only by a Supreme Court decision.  At eleven I was too young to be scared by this.  Now it’s different.


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