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.

★★★★

Advertisements

I, Tonya

Cast: Margot Robbie, Sebastian Stan, Allison Janney, Julianne Nicholson, Bobby Cannavale

Director: Craig Gillespie

Writer: Steven Rogers


I, Tonya has a well-chosen title. It evokes a phrase that one might hear in a court of law when a statement is given (“I, Tonya, do solemnly swear…”). It suggests a declaration that the testimony we are about to hear shall be given in the named party’s own words and will be the truth as they understand it. That right there is pretty much the premise of this movie. It is a construction of the major events in Tonya Harding’s life based on a series of contradictory, self-serving, irony-free interviews conducted with herself, her ex-husband, her mother, her trainer, and her bodyguard. Somewhere between their varying accounts, the film suggests, is the truth behind the ‘incident’ that ruined Harding’s career and reputation but the film is less interested in learning what that truth is than it is in giving each key player a chance to tell their version of the story and allowing the audience to draw its own conclusion.

We meet Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie) as a young girl (played by McKenna Grace) who is compelled to ice skate by her abusive mother LaVona (Allison Janney). As she grows, she is trained exclusively by her coach Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson) and is poised to pursue a career as a competitive figure skater. As a young woman she meets and falls in love with Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan) and, much to her mother’s disapproval, marries him. Tonya comes to regret her elopement as the marriage soon becomes abusive. It isn’t long before Tonya distinguishes herself as a professional skater, becoming the first American woman to complete the triple axel jump in competition, but finds that the judges disapprove of her ‘white-trash’ persona. After a humiliating loss at the 1992 Olympics, Tonya prepares to give it one more shot at the 1994 games. This leads to the so-called ‘incident’ where Tonya’s main rival, Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver) suffers an attack organised by Jeff and his friend, Tonya’s incompetent bodyguard Shawn Eckhart (Paul Walter Hauser).

Gillespie has managed to capture this very particular tone with I, Tonya that could very easily have backfired, one that is able to accommodate both dark comedy and profound earnestness without seeming inconsistent. He allows these characters to speak about what happened in their own words, cutting between dramatic re-enactments and footage of the interviews (albeit, recreated with the actors in their place) and manages to be funny and serious in all the right places. There is a lot of mocking, so much so the film almost borders on parody, as the movie takes shots at the ostentatious, superficial standards of competitive figure skating, the incompetence of those who take part in the ‘incident’, and the fashion and culture of the early 90s. Yet, when the film wants us to feel sympathetic for Tonya, for her difficult upbringing and the abuse she suffered at the hands of her husband, for the uphill battle she had to fight to be taken seriously as a professional sportswoman, and for the way the press and the world at large turned so antagonistically against her without knowing the full story behind the ‘incident’, it does so with complete sincerity.

Robbie is a force of nature as Tonya. She plays the role with the grit and attitude of a scrapper who has had to fight for everything in her life and has had obstacles thrown at her at every step of it. She has the confidence of a champion who is the best at what she does and is at the top of her game and the steeliness of someone who learnt at too young an age that she would need a thick skin to make it. Beneath all that is a buried layer of wretchedness and self-hatred that comes from the years of physical and emotional abuse she has suffered. Matching her blow for blow is Janney as Tonya’s curt, ruthless mother who decided long ago that her daughter would be a champion and is prepared to push her there even if it kills her. She is constantly insulting her daughter (as well as anyone foolish enough to cross her) and manipulating her to get her into the right competitive mindset. The character is a little one-note, but when that note is being played by a pro like Janney that’s alright by me. The comic highlight for me though was Hauser as Eckhart, a man so impossibly delusional that I refused to believe he was a real person until they showed his actual interview over the credits.

One of the interesting things the film reveals about the attack on Nancy Kerrigan is how little Nancy herself had to do with any of it. She barely features as a character in this story and, once the whole ‘incident’ starts to take shape, it becomes clear that she was neither the first, second, third, nor the twentieth reason why the attack actually happened. There were other factors at work, some spontaneous and some years in the making, that led up to this moment. There was the pressure that Tonya felt to become a champion in a sport that was biased against her. There’s the impulsive nature of her husband, his emotional hold over her, and his tendency to solve his problems through aggressive means. There’s the truly inspired stupidity of Eckhart and the goons he hires and their extraordinary ability to screw up their tasks to such a remarkable degree that even Mr. Bean would blush with shame. There’s the way that the press and public, hungry for a sensational story, tried to pit the working-class, uneducated, trailer park girl from Oregon against her pristine, princess-like adversary in a rivalry that neither competitor really felt. The movie does such a good job of bringing all of these different elements together, it is able to make the eventual result feel somehow unpredictable yet inevitable.

I, Tonya is also a wonderfully structured film that is constantly jumping between timelines, changing perspectives, and cutting to talking head pieces without slowing down. There are quirky transitions, fourth-wall breaks, and narrative-stopping digressions, kind of like The Big Short, but the movie never feels like it’s being gimmicky for the sake of being gimmicky. All of these devices play into the idea that this a story being told in the words of those who were involved. In one scene Jeff is describing an incident where Tonya chased him out of their house with a shotgun, an incident that plays out in front of us only for Tonya to pause halfway and say to the camera that this never actually happened. In another the movie takes a moment to take explain to us exactly how the triple axel jump works and why it’s such a big deal, then it allows us to appreciate the moment that Tonya actually performs it in slow-motion. The ice-skating scenes are quite riveting to watch, largely due to the film’s decision to cast a professional skater to perform the challenging routines and pasting Robbie’s face over hers. This means the movie never has to resort to distracting editing or camera tricks in order to compensate for the actress’ limited skills. We get to see these feats performed in clear, unbroken shots.

You wouldn’t think that a movie like this could be that emotionally effective, but by hearing Harding out and depicting her story in her own words without irony, without judgement, and without hostility, the movie was able to bring everything together into a sympathetic portrait of a woman who has suffered her own share of injustices. What we see may or may not be the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, but that’s not really the point. The movie is really about things like competition, class, abuse, sensationalism, and scandal. It’s about a woman who had the odds stacked against her because she came from the wrong background and was unfairly maligned and cast as the villain in the story that unfolded, not because she was guilty or culpable it what happened, but because that’s what the people wanted her to be. Here you see what the whole affair was like from Tonya’s perspective and in the end when she bursts into tears upon being banned from professional skating, it’s as heartbreaking a moment as you’ll see in any other sports movie.

★★★★

Logan Lucky

Cast: Channing Tatum, Adam Driver, Seth MacFarlane, Riley Keough, Katie Holmes, Katherine Waterston, Dwight Yoakam, Sebastian Stan, Hilary Swank, Daniel Craig

Director: Steven Soderbergh

Writer: Rebecca Blunt


Steven Soderbergh is no stranger to heist movies. In fact he’s probably the one who sets the standard for other filmmakers. His most notable contribution is, of course, the Ocean’s trilogy, a series of slick, stylish movies that brought together an ensemble of colourful characters to pull off a string of increasingly impossible capers. These movies, while far from Soderbergh’s best work, were suspenseful, entertaining flicks that rose above the regular standard by virtue of his expert direction. One of the staples of the heist movie is the big reveal, the practice of keeping the audience in the dark about what’s really going on before (surprise!) revealing that the shootout between Paul Newman and Robert Redford was actually part of the plan. Soderbergh did this by playing around with perception, showing some, but not all, of what was happening and then revealing that there was a bigger plan all along. Soderbergh brings that same direction here to create what one character describes as “Ocean’s 7-Eleven”.

Logan Lucky is set far away from the classy, sophisticated city of Las Vegas in the rural, southern land of North Carolina. Here lives Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum), a blue-collar worker who is fired from his construction job due to a leg injury he sustained in high school. His daughter Sadie (Farrah Mackenzie) lives with his ex-wife Bobbie (Katie Holmes), but they’re planning on moving to Lynchburg soon which will make visitations harder for Jimmy. He concocts a plan with his wounded veteran brother Clyde (Adam Driver) and their rough and tough sister Mellie (Riley Keough) to rob the Charlotte Motor Speedaway where Jimmy was laid off. To pull this off they need the assistance of Joe Bang (Daniel Craig), an explosives expert currently serving time behind bars, and his two redneck brothers, one of whom is apparently a computer expert who knows “all the Twitters”. Thus a plan goes underway to break Joe out of prison for a day and steal the money from the stadium vault during one of NASCAR’s biggest and most profitable races.

The genius of setting the movie in this rustic backdrop with these unpolished characters is that we never really know how smart or dumb they really are, which plays right into Soderbergh’s perception game with us. There are enough silly, comedic moments with these unruly characters for us to think that their plan will end up going wrong in a million different ways, but that just makes us all the more curious to see how their elaborate plan with its several moving parts will actually work out. The Logans and their comrades are a far cry away from the cool, suave likes of Danny Ocean and his gang; in fact they would not be at all out of place among the dim-witted misfits you often get from the Coen Brothers’ films like O Brother, Where Art Thou? Watching them execute a convoluted heist in the Soderbergh tradition is as fascinating as it is entertaining.

Logan Lucky is so-titled because of what Clyde refers to as the Logan Family Curse. Much like those hapless Coen Brothers characters whose prospects are thwarted time and time again by events beyond their control, misfortune seems to haunt the Logan family at every turn (or so Clyde believes). Between himself and his brother they have six working limbs and they are descended from a line of Logans whose lives have never gone the ways they’d hoped. Thus there is some additional suspense there as we wait to see whether the family curse will strike while their heist is underway. The screenplay as penned by Rebecca Blunt (who many suspect is a pseudonym for Soderbergh’s wife Jules Asner) does a very good job of keeping this idea present in the audience’s mind without banging them over the heads with it. Everything that transpires does so with the sufficient motivation and fluidity for the whole story to feel organic. Everything we see happens for a reason and, in the end when the carpet is inevitably pulled out from under us, all the missing pieces that get revealed fit in just right.

Like Ocean’s Eleven, Logan Lucky is neither the deepest nor the most innovative movie Soderbergh has ever made. There are some moments that are genuinely affective and impactful, the most notable of which takes place during Sadie’s child beauty pageant (of all places!), but otherwise the movie is simply good fun. Most of the performances are enormously entertaining, especially Daniel Craig’s who seems like such a grump in his role as Bond that it’s quite refreshing to see him having a genuinely good time. There are some characters like Hilary Swank’s FBI Agent and Katherine Waterston’s medical worker who don’t get enough time to make an impression and Seth MacFarlane can be pretty distracting (silly, fake English accents seem to be a thing with Soderbergh), but they don’t really drag the movie down. Logan Lucky is the kind of engaging, suspenseful movie that Soderbergh knows how to do well and is well worth a watch.

★★★★

Captain America: Civil War

Cast: Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Anthony Mackie, Don Cheadle, Jeremy Renner, Chadwick Boseman, Paul Bettany, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Rudd, Emily VanCamp, Tom Holland, Frank Grillo, William Hurt, Daniel Brühl

Directors: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo

Writers: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely


In order to talk about Civil War, I feel like I first need to talk briefly about Batman v Superman as both films have virtually the same concept. Although I enjoyed Dawn of Justice I felt that the movie suffered from a lack of focus and direction. Snyder, being the great visual director that he is, delivered spectacularly on the action but where he fell short was in the characters’ motivations and the thematic conflict. These elements might have been allowed to flourish had the movie not been so cluttered with subplots, tie-ins and cameos that were immaterial to the central conflict but, alas, it wasn’t the case. This is something that the Russo Brothers clearly understood when they directed Civil War. They understood that character is more important than spectacle; that conflict depends more on motivation than it does on combat; and that a movie can be cluttered with subplots, tie-ins and cameos as long as they exist to serve the central conflict. This is why it is not an exaggeration to say that Civil War is Dawn of Justice done right.

After a mission in Lagos goes badly and results in civilian casualties the government decides to push for a Hero Registration Act to keep the Avengers in check. Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), feeling guilty for the part he played in Ultron’s creation and Sokovia’s destruction, supports this bill. Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) however believes that government supervision would hinder or even compromise his ability to save lives. This disagreement causes a rift between Captain America and Iron Man that is made all the worse when Bucky (Sebastian Stan) resurfaces and commits a terrorist act in Vienna. Determined to bring Bucky in himself and to protect him, Captain America has to work against the government and enlists Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) and Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) to his cause. It is up to Iron Man to stop him with the help of Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Rhodey (Don Cheadle), Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) and Vision (Paul Bettany). This conflict escalates into an all-out war between the two sides with the mysterious Helmut Zemo (Daniel Brühl) at the centre of it all.

As the summary has probably shown there are a lot of characters in this movie, something that I found to be an issue with Age of Ultron. What makes it work however is that the Russo Brothers, drawing from their experience with such shows as Community, approach this film as an ensemble piece. As the film builds up to its climatic battle between the opposing sides, it masterfully shifts enough of the focus onto each character so that they all have a reason to actually be there. It helps that many of these characters are already familiar to us from the previous films and therefore don’t need any introduction, but still each one is given a motivation that is made clear to us without drawing the focus away from the central conflict. And yet this is a Captain America movie and not an Avengers movie. Although the film makes terrific work of the ensemble at its disposal, the movie belongs to Cap above all others and allows his part in the story to take precedence above all others without making it all about him. The film demonstrates a superb balance in its focus that should make movies like Dawn of Justice blush with shame.

While Civil War is a movie that is very much built on conflict and character, it also boasts of some of the best action that Marvel has ever put on screen. The tunnel chase scene alone is a stunning sequence of intense running, flying, driving, punching, kicking and clawing but it is the airport fight where the film truly shines. Bringing all of these heroes (including Spider-man) together into a single arena and pitting them against each other is epic enough, but the way the film played their different abilities against each other and allowed each character their own moment in the spotlight raised it to a whole new level. The film is full jam-packed with strong action and compelling conflicts but, being a Marvel movie, it also makes room for much humour and light-heartedness. Even when the conflict between Cap and Iron Man escalates in seriousness, watching them fight each other never ceases to be fun.

As far as superhero blockbusters go there is very little to fault. I suppose I could have used a little more focus on the villainous Zemo and perhaps a slightly stronger motivation from him but that’s just a nit-pick. This is as magnificent as a superhero movie can get. When Civil War is compared with Dawn of Justice the contrasts between them are incredibly revealing. Dawn of Justice is what you get when your movie contains little more than impressive action. Civil War succeeds where the Batman v Superman failed by placing its emphases on its characters and employing them to serve the central conflict above all else. Civil War is captivating, immersive, hilarious, action-packed, thrilling, emotional and fun. It is the pinnacle of everything that Marvel does well and is without question one of their finest cinematic offering to date.

★★★★★