Friday, April 27, 2018

All Superheroes Go To Heaven: AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR


Of all the Marvel Cinematic Universe films so far, the latest, Avengers: Infinity War, is certainly the very loudest. I suppose it has a right to be. Billed as the Series Finale when anyone with a working brain knows it’s merely the biggest Season Finale yet, it’s the culmination of ten years of these things. Ever since Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury stepped out in the post-credits scene of 2008’s relatively compact, swift, and charming Iron Man, promising to introduce that hero to a few others, it’s been an endless string of formulaic origins and meetups. At least the formula – 90 minutes of exposition, banter, and fun with character actors, followed by a 30-minute CGI shooting gallery – remains sturdy enough, and the performances roped in charismatic enough – that it rarely feels too much. They vary in quality. I prefer the looser hangouts where the action has a zing of screwball B-movie appeal (Iron Man 2, Avengers 2, Thor 2, Spider-Man Homecoming) or earnestness (Captain America 1, Black Panther) to the ponderous self-important ones (Captain Americas 2 and 3) with the ones in between tolerable, too. But generally they are completely disposable diversions. I enjoy them, and then they evaporate, leaving only vague impressions and the sense they should bring back Sam Rockwell someday. Infinity War is what all 18 films have built towards, the culmination of many Infinity Gem MacGuffins and Thanos references, as the purple titan himself (voiced with a growl by Josh Brolin, whose likeness stares back at us from soulful computerized eyes) comes crashing down to Earth looking for ultimate power, and two dozen heroes assemble to beat him back. 

This results in apocalyptic sequences as the characters are genuinely frightened for once in the franchise. Their quips pale in comparison to a man wielding an enormous gold gauntlet slowly studded with the glowing powers needed to wipe out half of existence in the snap of his fingers. When a ginormous whirring oval spaceship hovers over New York City, there are ominous stakes as Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), and Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) mix worry into their determination. They all want to defeat Thanos – once they’re caught up on his plan, that is – but aren’t sure how to go about doing it. He’s already one of the galaxy’s most powerful beings, with an evil plot nigh incomprehensible in its universe-wide genocidal scope. What are a bunch of plucky knockabout do-gooders going to do in the face of that? Still, this is a Marvel movie, and the jokes fly fast and frequent, and, as directed by the Russo brothers and scripted by series’ regular writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, ably balances the tones. It also shuffles a massive cast in interesting ways, letting characters hitherto separated by time and space collide in fun exchanges and tenuous team-ups in bright, clear, IMAX cinematography.

Of course, it doesn’t hurt that it leans on its best features – letting Spider-Man (Tom Holland) earnestly tag along behind Stark and Strange, and ceding all of the film’s galactic plotting to the winning combination of the Guardians of the Galaxy (Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, et al) and Thor (Chris Hemsworth). (They are the funniest and, funnily enough, the most emotionally engaged, too.) It’s something of a screenwriting and editing marvel (oh, pun not intended, believe me, but now I’m sticking with it anyway) to keep something like 30 major speaking roles – all major players in their respective realms – and a couple different tonal modes balanced to such a successful extent. Part of it is the streamlined plot, subplots carried over mostly shunted to the side due to the enormity of the main dilemma, allowing the characters to focus on one goal. Part of it is giving different pieces of the goal to different smaller team-ups: a cosmic crew, an Earthbound squad (led by Captain America (Chris Evans), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and a stay with T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) in Wakanda), and one travelling between. It’s perfectly engineered to bounce between these groupings of heroes, giving each and every one a crowd-pleasing entrance and perfectly timed laugh line or action pose throughout.

These performers have a certain iconoclasm to their positioning in the roles by now, and it’s great fun watching them spar and quip and fight side by side. The action is largely satisfying, too. Not quite as deadening as usual, it has heft and design, some cleverness, and some big, booming consequences (that will inevitably be almost or entirely reversed next summer, but are still satisfying shock in the moment). Best of all are the applause-break splash panel moments – my favorite goes to a thrilling late-breaking electric return in the battle royale finale. It may be a big, dumb, violent cartoon, but improbably Marvel Cinematic Universe productions have accumulated affection and accrued pleasures that outweigh any individual film’s successes and flaws. It’s a high-budget, high-spirit corporate product. It’s blockbuster serialized filmmaking, a massive sporadic television production on the big screen. The only gamble is that we’ll want to see our favorite charming superhero buddies pummeled and bloodied and beaten down to their lowest point yet, and still clamor to see them bounce back again, and again, and again. As long as the movies are this passably satisfying, agreeably diverting, and leave the audience just curious enough to see what happens next, they will. Infinity War, indeed.

Saturday, April 21, 2018

Brute Force: YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE


So often revenge movies pretend to deal with its subject’s immoral consequences while dutifully revealing pleasure in action, action, action. It’s often self-defeating, albeit with a sick gratification as a kick of gore or a squib of blood acts as catharsis the movie might later have us question, however feebly. In the case of Lynne Ramsey’s You Were Never Really Here, though, it’s all consequences. She presents a typically grim and determined tale of a sad man of violence trudging his depressed mind, wounded soul, and lumbering body into an act of righteous chaos – saving a Senator’s daughter from a sex trafficking ring. However, we are spared the gory details, the explicit nastiness, the violence perpetrated to and on behalf of victims. It all happens off screen. The dripping wounds are seen only after the damage has been done. The centerpiece is the man (Joaquin Phoenix), a blunt force instrument whose shaggy beard, deliberate gait, and shlubby dress indicates a more normcore than hardcore action hero, proceeding through the villain’s lair room by room, hammer in hand. The camera cuts, fracturing the diegetic soundtrack as the view changes from one security camera-style angle to another, the bludgeoning already in progress if not finished. An anonymous threatening man is mostly or completely crumpled on the floor and out of the corner of the eye you can spy our protagonist slumping his way to the next obstacle.

Ramsey’s project of subjective interiority – voiced earlier with the child’s eye miserabilist whimsy in Ratcatcher and sorrowful red jolts of maternal nostalgia blending into trauma in We Need to Talk About Kevin – finds perhaps its finest expression here. Her loose adaptation of Jonathan Ames’ slim novel of the same name is a story about hurt people hurting people, as a haunted and wounded soul finds what little meaning he can in his off-the-books thuggish private investigator jobs. He can break skulls better than he can repair hearts, or his own mind. Ramsey sticks closely to his perspective, pinning him into precise frames of methodical routines, and intuitive flash frames of flashbacks jangling sparse evocative backstory of an abusive childhood (his elderly, ailing mother (Judith Roberts), similarly abused, lingers with him still) and vague military deployment overseas. Jonny Greenwood’s droning score filtering through the impressionistic, swirling sound design matches Thomas Townend’s cinematography of grainy glossy surfaces chopped into slices and fragments by Joe Bini’s deliberate, artful edits. At the center of it all is Phoenix’s taciturn bear of a performance, a grit-the-teeth determination with sunken, distant gaze and pained expression. He wears the burdens of his life’s trauma on his slumped shoulders. Even if and when the rescue of the angelically delicate lost girl (Ekaterina Samsonov) is within his reach, his sadness isn’t lifting any time soon. He moves through noir-ish developments as if underwater, the film's style treating him like Lee Marvin in Point Blank if he were a scraggly depressive. The picture as a whole casts this spell, a sort of artful pulp burned down to its bones that threatens to feel slight, but instead lingers like a hazy cold.

Friday, March 30, 2018

Game the System: READY PLAYER ONE


Leave it to Steven Spielberg, once the wunderkind of exceptional blockbusters, now the grand master of elegant Hollywood craft (two sides of the same coin, naturally), to make a gleaming, watchable, propulsive, largely entertaining movie out of a screenplay that’s charitably a pile of schlock. Plus, he’s too good a storyteller to avoid uncovering some small complexity where a lesser filmmaker would find none. This is Ready Player One, loosely adapted from Ernest Cline’s junk sci-fi novel by Cline himself and Zak Penn, a movie set in a future overcrowded with people and problems. In mostly off-hand and off-screen ways, it imagines we stopped caring about everything wrong with our society – the climate, the class struggles, the over-commercialized corporate surveillance state, the shallowness – and just wallowed in a late-capitalist decay. That’s frightening enough, but it also sees the entire populace plugged into and swallowed up by a Virtual Reality world called The OASIS. Bouncing between a heightened reality and this over-the-top imaginarium, Spielberg finds his typically expressive mise en scene, energetically filmic camera, and crisp editing patter letting the screen overflow with digital mayhem while almost entirely avoiding the senseless repetitiveness of his knockoff sub-Marvel competition. Only he would think to stage a second act set piece inside a recreation of a famous 1980 horror movie (a fine extra-textual tip-of-the-hat to a fellow auteur) and not only get the set perfectly realized, but to get the grain right, too.

The OASIS is an entire digital hellscape traveled via vision-enveloping goggles, omni-directional treadmills with bungee straps, and gloves and suits for sensory input. The thing is a combination social media and video game. There are casinos, branded game worlds, VR vacations, battles royale, sports, arcades, zero-G dance clubs, libraries, chat bots, and avatars representing several dozen Brand Name Intellectual Properties meant to be greeted with grinning recognition. It’s a chaos – like an entire universe made up of a Facebook that was also endless-Las Vegas inside a Grand Theft Auto Disney World – presented at once na├»ve and ugly (with just one winking nod toward the world’s digital Love Hotel pointing to how dirty the corners of such a place would inevitably become). I often found it flatly horrific, but the screenplay seems to find it praise-worthy. The structure of the story rests on a quest for three Easter eggs hidden by the late game’s creator (Mark Rylance). These special, well-hidden prizes, once obtained, will give the winner ownership of The OASIS, and thus, considering how many manhours and economic activity take place in the fictional space, the future itself. Spielberg splits the difference between my cynicism and the source material’s slobbering, following a team of scrappy underdogs fighting to beat cold-hearted corporate goons to the Eggs, while still fleetingly recognizing that maybe they should just unplug and chill out, at least for a couple days a week.

So perhaps it’s a shade too acquiescent to its society – and, by extension, ours – taking a bland, gamified approach to pop culture. It's as visually clear as any Spielberg, but undoubtedly his most thematically incoherent. Our heroes – orphan Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) and his online friends (Olivia Cooke, Lena Waithe, Win Morisaki, and Philip Zhao) who don’t know they all live in the same towering future-Ohio slums – view art and pop culture as trivia to be acquired, points to be won, hardly ever interacting with them as experiences or creations unto themselves. The kids mine the taste of the game’s creator – a child of the 80’s obsessed with Atari, John Hughes, Back to the Future, Van Halen and so on – for clues on how to win the game. It echoes the hollow nostalgia listicles and empty snark of some of the worst contemporary discourse from people who want points for catching references instead of experiencing and interpreting. But, though Spielberg serves it up, he can also see this problem. For all his rah-rah bombast about the underdog protagonists – and cheery hissing at the corporate baddies, including a boardroom tech company shark (Ben Mendelsohn) who is all-too chipper announcing they’ve been able to pinpoint exactly how many ads can be in one’s field of vision without “inducing seizures” – he watches as all their checklist skill pales in comparison to fleeting moments of real-world connection. OASIS may find them fantasy heroes, but the real world is where you can meet eye to eye, shuck off artifice, really know someone, and maybe even kiss. Only sometimes does the movie see this as the better option.

The point, ultimately, is that the game’s creator, given a quiet, recessive affect by Rylance’s charmingly soft performance, was terrified of the real world. He hated his inability to connect with others and therefore built a digital simulacrum of his fantasy life and cultural diet to share, yes, but in which he could have complete control. All he wanted was to make people happy, but watched as people loved it so much it slipped out of his control, even as he was made into a tech god. (A slyly stupid faux-archival headline reads: “Bigger Than Jobs?”) His genuine, eccentric fanboy love and isolation is lost inside too much muchness. What to do with this tension in the larger context? Spielberg, similarly deified by many who see his creations as shallow entertainments and miss the real humanity in every frame, builds a film that’s a dazzling modern sci-fi construct (climaxing in a CG characters swarming a computerized battlefield) uninterested in the bigger picture. How does this world operate? What are its technological practicalities? What is its economic outlook? The movie doesn’t know or care. (This is no A.I. or Minority Report.) It’s simply attuned to the rhythms of the action bopping through eye-popping Janusz Kaminski frames – the washed-out reality intercut with a vivid, colorful, almost-real animated space. The performers are charming, the world is a constantly shifting fantasy of the creative and the derivative, and the spirited pace is zippy. Its vision of a fight to save a massive VR world is simultaneously Pollyannaish and cynical, twinkling Spielbergian touches over a yawning void. It’s exuberant celebration of shallow pop culture love, and a melancholy vision of the creator’s need to let go. It’s a busy visual explosion of an anything-is-possible tech-dystopia, and a recognition that no matter how fun a virtual world may be, it’s healthy to take a break. In the end, it’s perhaps the most excessive argument for moderation ever mounted.