Monthly Archives: May 2018

“Avengers: Infinity War” Movie Review

And there it is, ladies and gentlemen. The ultimate all-around culmination. The payoff of 10 years and 18 movies worth of franchise-building and superhero spectacle, all wrapped in one 2-and-a-half-hour movie. Will it really live up to the ridiculous hype or be crushed by fan expectations? This epic superhero ensemble film was released worldwide on April 27th, 2018, a week earlier than its previously announced date. One of the most expensive films ever made on a budget of $320 million, the 19th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe broke records for the highest-grossing opening of all time. Having already earned over $1.16 billion worldwide, it is expected to hit the $2 billion mark by the end of its theatrical run. Directed by Anthony and Joe Russo, the brothers behind the two previous Captain America movies, the film was originally announced as the first of two parts, the other one being released next year. Anticipation for this film was so incredibly high that the cast were all initially given fake scripts to avoid spoilers getting leaked. Inspired primarily by Jim Starlin’s Infinity Gauntlet from 1991, the sprawling story follows the all-powerful being Thanos, played by Josh Brolin, as he travels across the universe looking for items called Infinity Stones. Seeking them for his gauntlet, it would grant him the strength to wipe out half the universe with just the snap of a finger and restoring balance to the known universe. Grabbing wind of his intentions, space-friendly team the Guardians of the Galaxy and the fractured but earth-bound Avengers begin following his trail and start looking for ways to defeat him. With time running out and clues few and far-between our Marvel heroes hope to confront Thanos before its too late. To say that I and several other fans have been looking forward to Avengers: Infinity War would be quite an understatement. As someone who has continuously followed and written about the Marvel Cinematic Universe, being a particular fan of Iron Man, Guardians of the Galaxy, Black Panther and the first Avengers, the biggest crossover of all time wasn’t just another MCU film to me. This was a landmark cinematic event in the making, finally bringing together every little detail and strand that the franchise has built thus far. As a result, some of the individual films suffer in quality in favor of bringing in more Easter Eggs or hints. But it was all part of the lead-up to the endgame. I was actually scared that Infinity War wouldn’t be able to deliver the pay-off, but for the most part, it’s really satisfying. Indeed, the whole idea of wrangling almost every existing Marvel character into one major movie would prove daunting to anyone. And Joss Whedon, writer and director of the first two Avengers films, famously walked away from the MCU entirely a few years ago in anger. So it makes sense that Anthony and Joe Russo were brought on board as the two did a pretty great job at juggling and balancing multiple heroes in Captain America: Civil War. Make no mistake, there are a handful of characters who feel under-utilized and it often feels like the film is straining to carry all of the exposition present. But hopefully, they’ll all have a balance on everything for the sequel next year. At this point, the primary actors have become so comfortable with playing their heroes that they seem extremely natural. Big props especially go to Paul Bettany as The Vision and Zoe Saldana as Gamora, who are given more substantial character arcs than almost anyone else in the film. Both of them separately contemplate the cosmic dangers impending and even show a little sadness at the possibilities. But the obvious scene-stealer here is Josh Brolin’s motion-capture performance as Thanos. With a menacing voice and huge physical presence, it becomes quite clear that this being will obliterate anything and everyone in his path with just gripping his fist. But he’s not completely detached from reality or intelligence, telling one Avenger, “You have my respect. When I’m done, half of humanity will still be alive. I hope they remember you.” The whole film is really his own hero’s journey, as we see his own motivations for why he’s doing what he’s doing. It’s changed from the comics, and while it attempts to provide an emotional arc for him, it doesn’t quite land as expected. As is always expected with Marvel, the technical aspects are (mostly) hit right out of the park. For better and for worse, the film is loaded with a seemingly endless amount of CGI that helps bring to life the various worlds our heroes and villains travel to. Each one is given distinct coloring styles, but overall feel somewhat muted to match the more somber tone of the story. the motion-capture work for Thanos and his Black Order were particularly impressive and realistic, so much so that they very nearly looked like regular makeup. There are a number of swooping camera shots by cinematographer Trent Opaloch, who also shot the two previous Captain America films. This is contrasted with shaky action moments, meant to feel more gritty and grounded. And while they were very much in the vein of grand epics, it felt somewhat hampered by the editing from Matthew Schmidt and Jeffrey Ford. Having cut together 6 MCU films prior, they put a number of impressive action sequences through multiple cuts and it’s almost disorienting. Fresh off his excellent work in Ready Player One, Alan Silvestri returns to compose and conduct his 4th feature for Marvel. While not as memorable as Spielberg’s film, it still works when compared to the soundtracks of several other MCU pictures. On a handful of occasions, Silvestri will reprise his theme song introduced in The Avengers as a way of getting the crowd riled up. A vast majority of the tracks consist of big rousing horns and sustained percussion, as is expected for superhero epics. Interestingly, however, he also includes samples from other characters’ films, such as buoyant African drums for when we arrive in Wakanda or synths for Thor and the Guardians. There’s a good number of tracks that also used mellow strings as a way to hit home the emotional devastation of the story. And for the most part, it worked; especially in regards to the ending. And that’s where I’m going to stop. I hate to be the jerk who spoils a highly anticipated to anyone looking forward to it. We could argue back and forth about the temperament of expectations, but I have a code and I plan on standing by it. Avengers: Infinity War is a messy yet supreme example of modern popcorn entertainment. While it fell just short of my lofty hopes, there was still enough here that I loved to count it among the better entries of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s been 10 years worth of hype and build-up and now the game has totally changed. And we’re all here to witness it.

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“You Were Never Really Here” Movie Review

Never underestimate a film’s trailer when it stars Joaquin Phoenix. No matter how cool it looked it could have never prepared me for actually watching this film, just like you won’t be ready. Lynne Ramsay’s neo-noir crime thriller first premiered in the Official Competition at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival. Despite the fact that it was still a work in progress, it received an 8-minute standing ovation plus awards for Best Screenplay (Shared with The Killing of a Sacred Deer) and Best Actor. Strangely enough, Amazon Studios chose to skip awards season and instead released the film limited on April 6th, 2018. Thus far, aided by strong critical reviews, it has grossed over $3.4 million at the box office, becoming the director’s most commercially successful film to date. After dropping out of Gavin O’Connor’s Jane Got a Gun, Ramsay decided to lay low for a while until she came upon the source material. It is also her first full-length narrative feature in 7 years, her last one being the controversial We Need to Talk About Kevin. Based on the book of the same name by Jonathan Ames, Phoenix stars as Joe, a traumatized Gulf War veteran and former FBI agent now working as a contract killer. One day, New York state senator Albert Votto approaches him and begs Joe to save his teenage daughter Nina from prostitution. While Joe accepts it as a regular job, he uncovers a vast conspiracy web more complex and disturbing than he could have ever imagined. Just by giving that synopsis, the average reader might cast this film aside as yet another derivative crime thriller starring a big name actor. But if anyone has ever watched a film by Lynne Ramsay, then you should know that her films are not so easily pigeonholed. I have been looking forward to this movie ever since it premiered last year. Why Amazon Studios chose to forego a potential awards season run for the lead actor in the fall season and instead release in the spring is still something I’m trying to figure out. But please don’t let the familiar premise and all the “artsy-fartsy” festival buzz deter you; You Were Never Really Here is one of the finest crime thrillers I’ve seen in quite a while. And perhaps that has to do with its subversive take on a harsh topic such as child exploitation. Rather than create a semi-Romantic film that ironically glamorizes the profession of hitmen, Ramsay wisely makes the viewers observers. It’s arguably with this clinical, objective technique that she is able to fully explore the subject matter without fear of exploiting it. Imagine the most European arthouse version of Taken crossed with Martian Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, and that’s about where the tone and style are at. But it never feels self-indulgent or overly obsessed with itself. It is able to find a beautiful balance between empathy for the characters and dispassion in the brutal violence. Joaquin Phoenix is an incredible method actor but, without a doubt, Joe is his best role to date. Imbuing an immense amount of humanity and confusion into the performance, we see just enough of his deeply troubling past to understand his motives and when Votto asks him if really is violent he replies, “I can be.” I will honestly be shocked if he isn’t at least considered for Best Actor this year, even if the film missed out last year. Opposite him is the young Ekaterina Samsonov as Nina Votto, who does a lot without speaking a lot of dialogue. While she sometimes feels more like a symbol than an actual character, hers is truly a breakout role since we can see so much pain and loss of innocence in her small eyes. The two of them are also supported by character actors like Alex Manette as the upset senator wanting his daughter back, John Doman as the hardened handler for Joe’s work, Judith Roberts as Joe’s helpless mother, Alessandro Nivola as the Governor with mysterious ties to the case, and Frank Pandro as a concerned middle man. They’re all great in their own way, but never even come close to Phoenix’s work. As for the filmmaking aspects of it all, Lynne Ramsay shows complete control with her own voice in nearly every department. Shot by underrated British cameraman Thomas Townend, the cinematography captures a seedy griminess to the story rarely found in New York-set cinema. There’s a constant contrast between steady, distant full shots of the scenes and close-ups where the actor might be looking directly into the camera. Not a single frame goes wasted or feels unnecessary, which gives us an opportunity to get to know the characters better without so much exposition. Also, frequent Werner Herzog collaborator knows exactly when to move between these haunting shots. There are a number of smash cuts between either the past, the present, or possible scenarios. This, along with the impressionistic and wholesome sound design, immerse the audience in a narrative that feels fractured, much like Joe’s state of mind. While his work has included both Paul Thomas Anderson and the band Radiohead, multi-instrumentalist Jonny Greenwood has assembled his best work to date for the score. A highly dynamic soundtrack, the man often trades staccato strings and percussion with pieces on a dark-toned synthesizer. His side-job as a computer programmer and infrequent use of diegetic background noises in tracks helps to create a New York City that, much like Daniel Lopatin’s work on Good Time, feels so alien. There’s a beautiful scene near the climax of the film that combines all of the above mentioned techniques with an amazing piece composed by Greenwood. The mix of electric melodies and distant sounds create an emotional connection without trying to manipulate audiences. That being said, I feel like not a lot of people are going to watch this movie. The subject matter, and the manner in which the film deals with it, are so heavy that most mainstream audiences probably won’t even want to try it. Above all, it’s a sad film; these institutions do exist around the world and some of the most powerful men or women condone it. And while some of the characters here are truly despicable, the director rejects the want for them to get a real satisfying closure. Because of this, some may leave the theater wanting more in a bad way. However, I just grew to appreciate her restraint in this approach. You Were Never Really Here is a powerful sucker punch of intense brutality and emotions. One of the absolute best films of the year, I was totally riveted and glued to my seat for all 90 minutes of its runtime. It flies by, which for some may be a relief with its difficult and bold subject matter. This could be the future of action thrillers.

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“The Death of Stalin” Movie Review

The universe is under no obligation to make any sense to us, no matter how ludicrous something may seem. This philosophy allows me to better comprehend politics, whether it be in the Kremlin, the White House, or elsewhere. This dark political satire was initially screened at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival before finally releasing in theaters on March 9th, 2018. While it has grossed over $14 million at the worldwide box office, the film caused significant controversy and was officially banned from Russia, Kyrgyzstan, and Kazakhstan. (No surprise here) Directed and co-written by Armando Iannucci, the man behind the HBO comedy Veep, the film was apparently born out of a visit the filmmaker made to a hotel in Moscow. He was particularly fascinated by how former Soviet leaders still had portraits up on walls while someone like Hitler was trying to be forgotten by history. He’s also made clear that he had to tone down a lot of real-life facts because they were just too unbelievable to put in a movie. Beginning in 1953 Moscow, the film mostly focuses on the political machinations within the Soviet Union. At the height of the U.S.S.R.’s powers, their revolutionary leader Joseph Stalin unexpectedly suffers a cerebral hemorrhage and dies. Soon after, it primarily becomes a power battle between Minister of Internal Affairs Lavrentiy Beria and Communist Party Head Nikita Khrushchev. The well-being of Russia is caught up in the fight and soon both the military and the NKVD secret police clash heads as well. Although I haven’t watched Veep in its entirety, the handful of random episodes I have seen made me burst out laughing. Armando Iannucci had no fears about heightening the ridiculousness of American partisanship for both ends of the spectrum, creating some pretty hilarious moments. So the prospect of that show’s creator making a feature-length satire about Russian politics being released in theaters? That could be more appealing to someone like me. Especially with the ongoing controversy about their alleged interference in the 2016 presidential elections, it felt like we needed something to give us a little better insight. Thankfully, The Death of Stalin delivers that in spades. However, I feel the need to let you know that this film isn’t just line after line of nonstop, suffocation-inducing laughter. The trailers may make it look like a slapstick farce, but it’s actually a lot more serious than I anticipated. Iannucci holds absolutely nothing back here, allowing the audience to become awed by the utter lunacy of Communism. Yes, this does produce some pretty big laughs, some of which you’ll probably end up hating yourself for. But as far as the true context of the story goes, it’s surprisingly grim, nihilistic even. Obviously, there are a number of historical inaccuracies due to the satirical nature but is smart enough on its own to justify certain creative licenses. The funniest (And most absurd) license taken is that the whole cast speaks in English with their natural accents. This ultimately becomes a gold mine, especially when it comes to Khrushchev and Beria. Portrayed by Steve Buscemi and Simon Russell Beale, respectively, the two feel completely natural in their roles and manage to deliver some hysterical dialogue effortlessly. For the most part, we’re meant to be rooting for Khrushchev in the film, who actually draws a lot of similarities to another Buscemi role as Nucky Thompson on the HBO drama Boardwalk Empire. Other standouts include Monty Python alum Michael Palin as a staunch supporter of Stalinism, Rupert Friend and Andrea Riseborough as Joseph’s two volatile children, and Olga Kurylenko as a disgruntled concert pianist. My favorite one is Jason Isaacs as Field Marshal Georgy Zhukov, a key military player in the game. He’s heavily accented and looks like he’s having a blast playing an over-the-top general. And, continuing a trend started this year by Game Night, Iannucci is able to keep the audience’s interest and attention thanks to unique filmmaking. Zac Nicholson’s dynamic cinematography is much in the same style as Iannucci’s work on Veep, which frequently uses handheld cameras or sudden close-ups. This kind of vérité perspective does a great job of always keeping the audience involved in what’s happening, almost as if they’re a fly on the wall watching these events play out. A handful of scenes, such as mass soldier movement or the introduction of new characters, are shown on steady, fluid full shots. This makes a great pairing with the editing job by Peter Lambert, which knows just when to cut a shot. Rather than just doing a jump cut for every comedic punchline in the movie, we follow the subject and get great context at the horrors of the Soviet Union, such as citizens who are killed just off-screen in the background. The musical score is composed by Christopher Willis, whose previous work includes Veep and, strangely enough, the Disney Mickey Mouse House Shorts. His score is a fitting one for its era because it combines huge classical orchestras with deep vocals. Willis’ specialty with 18th-century music shows off in the big arrangements of strings and bellowing horns. Often, the tracks either match the grim imagery of the Communist regime or starkly contrasts it for hilarity. Although it’s early in the year, I am already willing to put this forth as a frontrunner for Best Original Score come next January. My predictions can often be wrong this early, but this soundtrack truly is that great. With ingenious direction, period-accurate costumes and sets, a fantastic cast, and a director that’s unafraid to hold back, The Death of Stalin is an uncomfortably relevant satire that spares no one. Even though it was undoubtedly hilarious, the fact that it dove into dark territory with its subject matter made me love it all the more. In case you ever doubted how ridiculous politics are, just watch this film.

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