The Grinch

Cast: (voiced by) Benedict Cumberbatch, Rashida Jones, Keenan Thompson, Cameron Seely, Pharrell Williams, Angela Lansbury

Directors: Scott Mosier, Yarrow Cheney

Writers: Michael LeSieur, Tommy Swerdlow


The films by Pixar and Dreamworks, I like them a lot; but those of Illumination, I really do not. I hated The Grinch! I thought it great treason against Suess’ beloved ode to the Christmas season. Perhaps my head isn’t screwed on quite right or perhaps my standards are too rigid and tight but having sat through it, enduring it all, I feel all the more strongly that the film’s value is small. “We already have a Grinch film”, I snarled with a sneer, “by Karloff and Jones and it remains without peer”. This film is garish, unfunny and brain-numbing, it was everything that I had feared in the days upcoming. There is one redeeming feature, one saving grace, which is that Seuss’ creation is too great to be defaced. At the end of the day the message still comes through and the studio’s tedious releases are all set to continue.

The story is a classic, we all know it well; it’s about the mean Mr. Grinch, rotten in every cell. That actor who played Sherlock and Strange is the star despite his American accent sounding like Gruber’s in Die Hard. In a mountaintop cave he lives far, far away from those who should dare to try and brighten his day. He hates everyone and everything with gall, and as for Christmas, he hates that most of all. He hates the food, the decorations and toys and he absolutely detests the incessantly cheerful noise. It comes every year and it keeps getting worse, to the Grinch this wonderful time is nothing but a curse. So, as the Whos of Whoville makes their preparations and whatnot, the Grinch has an idea and hatches a fiendish plot. If the Whos will not stop with their goodwill and mayhem, then he’ll have to go into town and steal Christmas from them.

That’s the whole story and it took half an hour for Karloff and Jones to tell it with such wit and power. From where I stand a remake is just unnecessary (and don’t even get me started on the one with Jim Carrey). But this is a feature-length movie with a quota to meet, so it has to be longer and get more kids in the seats. Thus they pad the runtime with backstory and gags, but they don’t add anything except as tiresome lags. There’s also a sub-plot about Cindy-Lou Who whose mom has more on her plate than she knows what to do. She works a full-time job and cares for three kids by herself, so Cindy-Lou wants to capture Santa and ask for his help. The result is a movie that’s overlong and dull without a funny joke in sight or a new idea in its skull.

When it comes to kid’s movies, Illumination sets the bar low and aims mainly for toddlers whose parents have nowhere else to go. The colours are bright and the movement is fluid, but if you’re above a certain age you’ll see there’s little else to it. The jokes are all lame and made of the thinnest veneer, including those of the screaming goat and of the big, plump reindeer. The movie introduces both as if they’ll have major parts to play, but all they do is appear, perform their bits, then go away. The rest of the humour is made up of slapstick galore, and it certainly doesn’t help that the Grinch himself is a bore. Cumberbatch’s grump is a jerk but seldom is he nasty and there’s little pleasure in watching him be villainous and crafty. Instead of a monster destroying happiness where he sees it, all the Grinch wants is curl up quietly with a good book and read it. Gone is that entertainingly malevolent brute, but still I have to admit that his dog Max is quite cute.

While the cartoon had that song by Thurl Ravenscroft, a witty, animated tune still heard around Christmas oft, this movie opens with a droning rap by Tyler the Creator that contrasts with the energetic backdrop made by the animator. It’s pretty typical for a film that is so clearly calculated to make a profit today for a product that’ll soon be dated. This isn’t a movie that kids will return to again and again; this is simply the next car in Illumination’s money train. It has enough going on to keep little kids distracted and the moral is still there so at least it’s somewhat didactic. The Christmas Eve heist has a couple of highlights, what with all those gizmos and gadgets the Grinch uses that night. As cynical cashgrabs go, this one isn’t the worst even if its take on Seuss’ story has nothing on the first. Still it’s shallow, unwitty and lazy and, in my humble opinion, kids today deserve better than this from the studio that made Minions.

★★

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Avengers: Infinity War

Cast: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Scarlatt Johansson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Don Cheadle, Tom Holland, Chadwick Boseman, Paul Bettany, Elizabeth Olsen, Sebastian Stan, Danai Gurira, Letitia Wright, Dave Bautista, Zoe Saldana, Chris Pratt, Josh Brolin

Directors: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo

Writers: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely


There’s a certain narrative that studios like to spin when a high-profile movie, oftentimes a comic book blockbuster, underperforms. If the movie in question has taken a beating in the critical consensus, studios like to dismiss the validity of the criticism by claiming that they “made it for the fans”. This is a garbage argument; not only is it an attempt by Hollywood to fabricate a divide between critics and fans to ensure that they aren’t held accountable for making mediocre movies that fail to resonate with audiences, it makes no sense from a purely economic perspective. It falsely suggests that the studio has no interest in pulling a larger crowd from beyond the core fanbase and maximising their profits. This is one of the reasons why I find Infinity War to be such an interesting case in the evolution of the blockbuster, because I think it is the exception that proves the rule. After their ten year campaign to build as large and inclusive a fanbase as possible, the MCU have released a title that appeals directly to them and that only works if you’ve seen and enjoyed all (well… most) of the eighteen films that came before. This is truly a movie that was made for the fans.

Therefore, even though I’ve criticised some of the Marvel movies in the past for neglecting to tell entirely self-contained stories, I don’t think it’s fair to hold this film to the same standard. Infinity War is a crossover event of unprecedented proportions; it is the culmination of all that the Marvel Cinematic Universe has built in the last decade and it fuses all of their flagship characters into a single narrative. There is so much to bring together and so much happening in this movie that expecting it to slow down for those who have not watched the preceding titles in order to bring them up to speed on all the characters and their histories strikes me as ludicrous a notion as it would be for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows or Game of Thrones Season Eight. Eighteen movies is a big ask for anyone who isn’t a fan of the franchise and that’s why I don’t think the studio was under any illusion that they were making this movie for anybody outside of the fanbase, which by this point has grown large enough to justify an investment on this scale. For those non-fans who feel that they must see this film all the same, I honestly don’t know what they expect to get out of it. Infinity War is a film that knows exactly who it was made for and for them it’s going to work very well indeed.

The film is 160 minutes long and it hits the ground running. There is so much action condensed in the runtime and so many big moments throughout that pretty much every detail feels like a potential spoiler. On the broadest possible level, the plot is about the intergalactic tyrant Thanos (Josh Brolin) in his quest to collect the six Infinity Stones with his gauntlet. Only when he’s acquired all six will he be able to realise his goal of wiping out half of the universe’s populace, his solution to the problem of galactic depletion and imbalance. Standing in his way are the Avengers, led by Captain America (Chris Evans), Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). Helping them along the way are such previous allies and adversaries as Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), Loki (Tom Hiddleston) and Spider-Man (Tom Holland), and such newcomers as Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and the Guardians of the Galaxy as led by Star Lord (Chris Pratt) and Gamora (Zoe Saldana). What follows is an epic and devastating conflict, an earth-shattering spectacle on the scale of an opera or a Greek tragedy. Worlds are destroyed, lives are ruined, tears are shed, and heroes are killed.

The film wisely makes Thanos, the one major character who has not received any substantial character development in any of the previous films, its main focus. We follow him on his apocalyptic journey across the galaxy and, in large part due to Brolin’s remarkably forceful yet quiet performance, we learn to both fear and yet pity him in what he sees as a calling rather than a desire. Unlike the Joker and most other comic book villains who absolutely relish their evilness, Thanos is more like Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men. He isn’t evil because he wants to be or was made to be but because he feels like that he has to be, as if he cannot see any other way and has resigned himself. He has the devotion and conviction of a religious zealot but also the calm and solemnity of a disciplined military leader. He attends to his mission with ruthless single-mindedness; he has no interest in trying to convince or bargain with anyone, what he must do is simply what has to happen and he will destroy all who stand in his way without a second thought. You hate him because of how merciless and cruel he is but there’s an air of inconsolable loneliness and trepidation about him that Brolin conveys superbly without overplaying. His strength and powers are absolute and there is no doubting that he is the biblical reckoning that many of the characters have been dreading all this time.

The inevitable downside of featuring an ensemble this large in a narrative that is somewhat constricted by the limitations of linear cause-and-effect storytelling is that there’s only so much screen time and dialogue it can dole out between the dozens of characters that it must juggle. Some of this is compensated by the fact that we’ve already seen these characters in their stories and can immediately identify them, so most of them can more or less get straight down to business. Homecoming has already established the mentor/trainee relationship between Tony Stark and Peter Parker, the Thor movies have already laid the groundwork for Thor’s PTSD, and Guardians of the Galaxy has already made clear to us Gamora’s and Nebula’s (Karen Gillan) history with Thanos. However there are other characters and plot threads that must take a backseat in order to make room for these stories. Steve Rogers gets a couple dozen lines, Natasha Romanoff and Bruce Banner, who had a romance in Age of Ultron, barely get a meaningful exchange, and there are some rather important characters such as Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), Mantis (Pom Klementieff), Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) and Shuri (Letitia Wright) who could almost be considered glorified extras.

One of the pleasures of the crossover though is that we do get to see some great mixing and matching between the characters without pre-existing relationships. The combination of the ultra masculine Thor and the insecure Peter Quill allows for an amusing back-and-forth and Thor also gets to bond with Rocket (Bradley Cooper) with whom he shares more in common than you might think. Stark and Strange are acquainted and find that their identically obnoxious personalities clash, there’s a surprise appearance by the villain of a previous film who makes for an interesting contrast with Thanos, and there are some brief exchanges during the climatic battle that make for some great laughs. However I do wish the Russo Brothers had made more of an effort to combine the heroes’ differing abilities and styles in the action scenes the way they did so well in Civil War. Apart from one moment where Natasha, Okoye (Danai Gurira) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) work together to take down a foe and another where a plan to subdue Thanos almost works, I can’t remember any other notable instances of a character combination leading to an action set-piece that would not be possible in any other MCU film. Instead it mostly comes to down to individual heroes doing their own solo stuff in turn.

On that note, the action doesn’t really feel all that distinctive from what we’ve seen in other movies, especially not after Thor: Ragnarok and Black Panther which were both made by directors with such distinct personalities and styles. Here it’s mostly shaky camerawork and quick-fire editing just like in any other blockbuster while the less action-packed scenes are framed rather generically with hardly any risky moves or striking flourishes to help the most impactful moments hit that little bit harder. There are some moments that stand out such as a wipe that cleverly reveals a scene to be an illusion conjured by Thanos and the use of slow motion during the climax to highlight the Avengers’ last-ditch desperation, but the filmmaking mostly feels routine and by-the-numbers. The most notable exception though is the ending which delivers a gut-punch with the exact right amount of shock and severity to catch you off guard even if you know intellectually in your head that what’s happening cannot possibly be permanent or irreversible (as tends to be the case with most cliffhangers). It’s a move that goes a step further than The Empire Strikes Back by not offering you that glimmer of hope at the end to leave you feeling elated and optimistic. Han is frozen in carbonite, Luke learns that the bad guy is his father and has his hand cut off, Vader is triumphant, cut to black. All you’re left with is that feeling of desolation and failure.

For most fans of Marvel, Infinity War is exactly what they want it to be. It brings together all the iconic characters they’ve grown to love (sans a couple whose absences are quickly explained in a throwaway sentence), pits them against the single greatest foe that any of them have ever faced, and delivers some good action, comedy, and surprises along the way. It’s not perfect and it’s not the most creative, clever, or compelling movie they’ve ever made, but it delivers. For me what really makes this film stand out among its predecessors is the combination of Thanos’ arc with Josh Brolin’s performance. He took a villain who has been built up big time despite his previous underwhelming appearances and added so much terror and humanity (aided by the best use of CGI on a character since Gollum) that you cannot help but be swept away by his crusade. Even though you can probably more or less predict how the story will progress, there’s still that agonising sense of dread gnawing away at you with each step that brings Thanos closer to bringing his plan to fruition. He’s the rare type of villain who is at his most intimidating when quiet and who demonstrates an unexpected capacity for respect and empathy when battling his enemies. He’s the one it’s all been leading to and he was worth the wait.

★★★★

Doctor Strange

Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rachel McAdams, Benedict Wong, Michael Stulhbarg, Benjamin Bratt, Scott Adkins, Mads Mikkelsen, Tilda Swinton

Director: Scott Derrickson

Writers: Jon Spaihts, Scott Derrickson, C. Robert Cargill


2016 saw a continuation of the superhero trend that is dominating Hollywood right now with at least five major movies being released prior to Doctor Strange. In this kind of climate it’d be difficult for any one of these films to distinguish themselves from all the others. On one hand we did get Deadpool which won audiences over with its R-rated content and rule breaking but we also got X-Men: Apocalypse, a half-hearted, generic rehash of its previous instalments. Although Marvel is certainly guilty of following formulas that can get tiring at times, their films have mostly succeeded in this regard due to the different elements and genres they’ve been able to bring to their cinematic universe. Over the last couple of years for example they’ve made an espionage thriller in The Winter Soldier, a space opera in Guardians of the Galaxy and a heist movie in Ant-Man. In keeping with this tradition Doctor Strange depicts a genre unlike any other seen in the Marvel franchise: the mind-trip movie.

Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is a highly successful and arrogant surgeon who loses the use of his hands in a car accident. His former girlfriend Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams), also a surgeon, tries to help him move on but Strange is determined to restore his hands through risky and experimental procedures. His obsession soon leads him to Kamar-Taj in Nepal where he is taken in by the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), a Celtic sorceress. There Strange discovers the existence of astral planes and other dimensions and is taught the teachings of the mystic arts. However Strange is quickly forced into action when a rogue sorcerer called Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) threatens the Sanctums that the Ancient One’s order is sworn to protect. With the help of friend and mentor Karl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), Strange must master his abilities and defeat Kaecilius before he can complete a ritual that threatens their very existence.

When viewing Doctor Strange as a mind-trip action movie, the most obvious comparison to be drawn is Inception. Like the Nolan movie, Doctor Strange contains many action set pieces that bend and distort reality in spectacular ways. When the sorcerers enter the Sanctum, all bets are off as they freely defy the laws of nature in their mystic battles. Gravity becomes subjective, perception is skewed and time is not absolute. The film also undertakes a slightly more philosophical approach than the typical Marvel movie as Strange must learn to master his own failings before he can master the art of sorcery. He never does lose his arrogance, on the contrary he learns that arrogance is part of what makes him a great sorcerer, but rather learns to live and fight for a cause that is greater than himself. This arc is not unlike that of Tony Stark in the earlier Marvel films, but Strange has enough of its own identity both in its protagonist and as a film that it doesn’t feel like a simple retread.

Benedict Cumberbatch (in keeping with the law which holds that he must be in everything) plays the newest hero in the MCU canon proficiently with both humour and gravitas. As he portrays Strange in his narcissism, cockiness and resoluteness, it is near impossible to imagine any other actor in the role. The whitewashing that took place with the Ancient One is rather glaring (especially in a movie about a white man adopting and mastering an Eastern discipline and surpassing all of his ethnically variant peers in the process) but to Swinton’s credit nobody can play otherworldly quite like her. Although this film continues the Marvel tradition of underwriting its generic non-Loki antagonists, I found Mikkelsen’s Kaecilius to be one of the least generic ones to date. I cannot for the life of me remember what his motivation was but I do remember him being intimidating and clashing well with Strange in their scenes together. There’s also quite a fun character to be found in Strange’s cloak, very much in the vein of the magic carpet in Aladdin.

I can understand that someone with superhero fatigue might find the whole ‘origin story’ aspect of this film tiring, but for me Doctor Strange has a lot going for it. I like that the climax for instance did not boil down to a punching and kicking contest. Strange’s triumph is instead a result of his ingenuity and occurs in quite a clever and creative way. I also like Strange as a character, I liked the new dimension that this film added to the Marvel universe and, above all, I enjoyed the movie’s superb, psychedelic visuals (which pay off especially well when seen in 3D). Those who watch this film looking for weaknesses are certainly going to find them. The whitewashing is evident, McAdams’ role is little more than a token love interest and the typical Marvel formulas and tie-ins can be obtrusive. Still there is a lot to enjoy and a lot that is different from all the other blockbusters we’ve seen in recent years. Doctor Strange is a feast for the eyes that contains all the thrills and humour that Marvel is known for and was a relief to watch after a summer of disappointing blockbusters.

★★★★