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Review: Infinity War

As is often the case with my long-form movie reviews, I’m posting this months after the fact. Why? Well, some laziness. But also a desire to not get caught up in the hype and excitement. And perhaps no movie in 2018 came with as much hype and excitement as Infinity War, the blockbuster to end all blockbusters. So this review is less about “should I see it or not?” and more a collection of thoughts provoked by the film.

So after watching it again on DVD, I’m ready to write about it. Spoiler warning applies.

Just as a movie, Infinity War is very good, an easy 8 in my rating system, maybe a 9. It is epic in scope, has strong characters and dialogue and is packed with outstanding action set pieces. The directing is excellent, focusing on the characters but not losing track of the action. Silvestri’s score is powerful. While one might easily make complaints about the plot, few would argue that that the movie isn’t at least well-made.

Watching it a second time, what strikes me most is the pacing. Infinity War is long, bloated and stuffed with characters, dialogue and action. Watching it should feel like eating a big Italian meal. But the movie flies, moving swiftly through its dizzying array of settings and scenarios until it reaches the awful climax on the fields oF Wakanda.

But reviewing Infinity War as if it were just an ordinary film is a fool’s errand. It’s not just a film. It is a two-part series finale to a 20-episode 10-year saga. This is less like Return of the Jedi than it is like Returnof the King on steroids — a massive sprawling finale whose coherence and power relies heavily on what has come before. It should come apart at the seams from the sheer weight. But it doesn’t.

The key that holds this clinking, clattering cacophony of collagenous cogs and camshafts together is a thread that has gone throughout the series: a top-notch cast. The amount of acting talent in this movie, when you pause to think about it, is unbelievable. Downey, Ruffalo, Cumberbatch, Cooper and Cheadle are all Academy Award nominees (indeed, the number of Award nominated actors who have appeared throughout the series is impressive). Boseman, Bettany, Hidddleston and Johannson also come with A-list credentials. Evans, Pratt, Saldana and and Hemsworth may not be “great” actors, but they have star gravitas and have delivered outstanding performances in these roles.

Infinity War is where all the outstanding casting pays its greatest dividend. There are so many characters to balance that most only get a few lines. But because we have spent years with these actors building up the roles and because they can bring power to a single line of dialogue, it works. Our knowledge of the characters and the relationship we’ve built with them fills in the gaps. We don’t need fifteen lines for Scarlet Witch to explain why potentially killing Vision is such a dilemma; we know.

The trust that the movie has in its cast frees it to make the boldest and most successful gamble: centering its emotional and dramatic weight on Josh Brolin’s Thanos. Brolin — yet another Academy Award nominee — simply excels in the role. Thanos could easily have been a cackling monster. The silliness of his motivation could have blown the movie apart. But he underplays it perfectly, allowing the menace and evil of Thanos to insinuate itself more gradually, allowing the viewer to see that Thanos is not a villain in his own eyes … which makes him even worse.

So where does Infinity War 2 go? Well, like everyone else, I’m going to assume that a lot of what Thanos has done will be undone and we will get a satisfying, if perhaps bittersweet ending. The question isn’t whether, it’s how. One clue comes from Dr. Strange, who said he saw only one way to defeat Thanos and then surrendered the stone when he didn’t really have to. So it’s obvious that Thanos winning, at least at first, was necessary for Thanos to eventually lose. It’s also been noted that at least five of the original Avengers survive (Hawkeye does not appear). Six Avengers, six stones? Maybe.

But one thing I noticed in my first viewing and was even stronger on second was this: almost every stone Thanos acquires comes a result of turning people’s love and compassion against them. Consider:

  • The Space Stone is acquired by Thanos threatening to kill Thor, forcing Loki to choose between his brother and the stone. He chooses Thor.
  • After acquiring the Reality Stone, Thanos forces Quill to choose between Gamora and the Soul stone. Quill chooses to protect the stone but his hesitation enables Thanos. Later, Quill’s rage over Gamora’s death snatches defeat from the jaws of victory.
  • The Soul Stone is acquired when Thanos tortures Nebula to force Gamora to reveal its location. She chooses her sister over the stone. Then Thanos chooses the stone over Gamora.
  • The Time Stone is acquired when Strange gives it up in exchange for Tony’s life. Again, he chooses a person — a man he doesn’t even particularly like — over the stone.
  • The only reason the Mind Stone is still available is because Wanda was unwilling to kill Vision until it was too late. And they drew her into the battle in the first place by attacking her friends.

This theme runs through the movie: the way Thanos relentlessly pursues his goal and the way others value human life, friendship and love over ruthlessly stopping him. Thanos thinks of himself as a great being because he sacrifices others; the heroes are great because they sacrifice themselves. I am convinced this will play a big role in the ultimate resolution. What price our characters pay for that — I fear we will see all of the original Avenger perish in victory — remains to be seen.

The bigger meta question though is this: where does Marvel go from here? Infinity War is the apotheosis of 20 films spanning a decade. It has built to this gaudy over-the-top crescendo like a Wagner Opera. So what now? How do you top this? What can they possibly do now that won’t feel anti-climatic?

I have no idea. But it will be interesting to find out.

2010 in Film

Yes, it’s almost 2012. But being only a year behind is an accomplishment for me. If you look up previous “best in film” entries, you’ll find that I’m usually more like 18 months behind. But the combination of Netflix streaming and a new iPad is helping me stay more up to date. A little.

But really, being a year behind is a good thing in some ways. I don’t get swept up in the hype. Some of the films I saw over a year and a half ago, so I’ve had time to grok them, to get over my initial reaction.

According to the critics, the best films of 2010 were: The Social Network, Winter’s Bone, Black Swan, Inception, Toy Story 3, Ghost Writer, the Kids Are All Right, the King’s Speech, Carlos and 127 Hours. Add The Fighter and True Grit and you’ve got the Best Picture nominees. Looking at IMDB’s ratings, we find a broad swath of good films. I’ll go by them in IMDB’s order. As a reminder, here is how I rate films.

Inception I’ve rated this 9/10 and it is probably my best film of 2010. That rating may be skewed a little by my love of sci-fi and movies with big ideas. But despite numerous plot holes, this was a thrilling film. The finale 45 minutes is gripping with wonderful action scenes, huge ideas and a powerful emotional climax. I’ve now watched it three or four times and still love it. All good films start as an 8 since I tend to be conservative but this has moved up to a 9. One of my best friends hates this movie and while I think she makes some good points, it still overwhelms them, in my opinion.

Toy Story 3. Here’s the sign of a good sequel: I have not seen Toy Stories 1 and 2. And I really liked this movie, which managed to pull on the heartstrings like an expert. 8/10

Black Swan: Now this would have been a bold choice for Best Picture. The King’s Speech was utterly safe Academy fare — a period piece with great acting. But Swan was far more daring, far bolder with a searing performance from Natalie Portman and, hopefully, a breakthrough for Mila Kunis. The ballet finale was as griping as the finale of an action film. 8/10 and possibly a 9 in the future as I continue to digest it.

The King’s Speech: It’s not that it’s not a good movie. It’s just that it’s so perfectly pitched to Hollywood’s wheelhouse, it’s massively over-rated. A star cast, a touching story, solid direction. It’s good and Firth is great. But I couldn’t help but be let down a little. It was not a great film. Months later, I’m having difficult remembering more than a couple of great scenes. 7/10.

How to Train Your Dragon: Word of mouth on this animated feature was spectacular. And while I enjoyed it — and it has some spectacular moments — it was just a little too hip, a little too easily aimed. My daughter, who loves animation, was not impressed. 7/10.

Shutter Island: The critics under-rated this one, I think, because (1) critics don’t like films that confuse their mediocre minds; (2) the twist ending was foreseeable. But I found it startlingly well-directed; a wonderful noir atmosphere that was a throwback to a better age of film. Dicaprio plays a nearly identical note to Inception, but again shows why he’s one of the best actors out there. Here’s the thing: combine this film with Scorsese’s recent apparent triumph with Hugo. Scorsese, having finally won his Oscar, is making movies like a man freed from expectations. His last two films show a man no longer aiming at an Oscar but just making the films he wats to make. He hasn’t been this good since the 70’s. And he was pretty damned good in the interim. I’m reminded of Spielberg, who spent years trying to win an award with Empire of the Sun, The Color Purple and Always and then moved to a much better phase of his career when he decided to ignore what anyone else thought. 8/10

The Social Network: I really liked this film. While I’m sure the accuracy is suspect, it was fun to have a film treat me like I wasn’t an idiot. The sharp dialogue was a true joy and the technical/legal aspects were explained without being dumbed down. More like this, please. 8/10

The Fighter: I initially rated this 8/10, but think I was swept up in the great acting by Christian Bale and Melissa Leo as well as the considerable charm of Amy Adams. I’m lowering it to 7/10 but it was a still a fine film.

Kick-Ass: I have this rated 7/10 and that’s probably my ego insisting that I can’t like it as much as I do. This was just so much fun to watch. I know Roger Ebert and others were appalled by a young girl spewing profanities and murdering roomfuls of bad guys. And if I took it seriously, I would be too. But the movie is so ridiculously over the top, so obviously satirical, I was able to enjoy it on its own terms. I hope we see a lot more of Chloe Moretz, who is utterly charming. 7/10

True Grit: The Coen brothers are two more film-makers who seem liberated by having finally won an Academy Award and are back to making the great films they want to make. Jeff Bridges and Hailee Steinfeld make this movie, which is more compelling, if less iconic, than the Wayne version. 8/10

127 Hours: I found this to be a bit gimmicky. It was watchable, which is more than I expected. Wonderfully filmed and directed. But a little bit grisly and harsh for my tastes. 7/10

Tangled: My daughter’s favorite movie. Maximus the Horse it the biggest reason to watch this one, although it is also a visual delight. 7/10

Harry Potter 7a: I rate this a point higher than I should at 9/10 because I’m a fan. I will probably lower that rating to 8/10 once I’ve watched it again. There are some dazzling scenes in this one, such as the destruction of the first Horcrux. And the sense of of glowering menace throughout the film is palpable.

Despicable Me: This was simple fun. Cute, funny and a little bit touching. I put this in my queue, forgot about it, got in the mail and enjoyed it. What elevates it to a good movie are the minions. I could watch shorts about them all day. 8/10

Winter’s Bone: This movie continues to haunt me. It’s lack of flash is its strength. No fancy editing, no big stunts, no big actors, no speechifying. It just is what it is: a film that has compelling characters in a believable situation and follows them to their conclusion. Probably one of the best-plotted movies of 2010. Jennifer Lawrence’s understated performance is a gem. And the scene with the Army recruiter is oddly compelling. 8/10

The Kids are All Right: Easily the most over-rated movie of the year. This is an example of what I call the Hollywood Cafe Klatsch film. An insider writer write something semi-autobiographical, a bunch of big-name actors are in it, the critics rave and the audience says … “OK”. The Squid and the Whale was like this too. It’s not that it’s bad; it’s just that it’s not that great. I’ll watch almost anything with Julianne Moore in it but this strained my patience. I kept asking why I should care. A movie centered around a lesbian couple can be fine; but not when that’s pretty much all it’s about. 6/10

Easy A: It kind of falls apart plot-wise. But Emma Stone is so watchable and is so easily funny, I liked this film anyway. Please, please let her become the star that Lindsey Lohan should have been. 7/10

Not Seen by Me: The Town, Four Lions, Ghost Writer

Overall, 2010 was not a bad year for film. I doubt that many of my listees are destined to be classics, but there was plenty of good fare to be had. If I had to list my best films, they would probably be, in order, Inception, Black Swan, Winter’s Bone, The Social Network, Shutter Island, True Grit, Toy Story 3, Harry Potter 7a, Despicable Me, Kick-ass. Looking at the DVD test — a test becoming increasingly irrelevant in the days of streaming video — I own Inception and HP7a. And, if money were not an issue, I would probably own all the rest.

That’s not a bad year.

The Bond Films: Connery

(To clarify a point from the last post on this: I watch these when I’m on the treadmill, but that watching is spread over multiple nights. I’m getting better, but a half hour is about my limit on the hamster wheel.)

I’m about to commit an act of blasphemy. Sean Connery was not the ideal embodiment of James Bond, even if such a thing could be said to exist.

Connery was, however, perfect for the movies that the Bond Films became. Watching them in a short time span really drives home that point. The movies evolved to better suit Connery’s performance: his dry wit, his confidence, his skill in making the most ridiculous action scenes believable. The man and the movies became inseparable, which is why they struggled to find a voice once he was gone.

The Connery years simply had style. That’s all there is to it. The rhythms of the movies — jazzy score, solid action, beautiful girls, sexual politics, gadgets — were a rhythm the series would lose after Connery left and never recover. The recent films quit trying and went with a different aesthetic, which is probably wise. The Connery films simply wouldn’t work today. When you watch them, you instantly know when they were made: the inventive 60’s when the Hayes Code was collapsing and film-makers were stretching their wings.

Going film by film:

Dr. No, which I rate 8/10 and IMBD rates as the fourth best of the series is probably the most true to the Bond of the novels. I like it because it is built around a spy adventure, rather than action sequences. Bond kills in cold blood and is focused tightly on the mission. The sex and drinking are a manifestation of his nature, not a distraction from it.

Everyone talks about Ursula Andress as the ultimate Bond Girl. Well, fair enough. But I always preferred Zena Marshall as the beautiful traitorous Miss Taro. And she is at the center of one of the most interesting sequences in the film. A remarkable thing about the 60’s Bond movies was just how coldly Bond and his opponents used sex as a weapon. There is a sequence where Taro invites Bond to her house for a liason so that No’s gangsters can kill him on the way. Once he gets there, they have sex twice — her to delay him long enough for another attempt on his life; him … well just to have some fun before he turns her in. It’s almost jarring. You would almost never see this today.

From Russia with Love, which I rate a 9 and IMDB rates as the third best Bond, is what every Bond film should be. It has a great spy story, a gorgeous Bond girl in Daniela Bianchi and not one, but two awesome villans in Robert Shaw and Lotte Lenya. It adheres close to the novel, has dynamite action scenes and more tension than the entire Moore years combined. The final fights between Bond and Grant and Bond and Klebb are visceral in a way later films would try and fail to reproduce. If I ever took over the Bond series, I would tell everyone to watch From Russia with Love for inspiration.

Russia also continues the theme of using sex as a weapon. SPECTRE tries to use Romanova as bait for Bond and he cooperates because … well mainly because Daniela Bianchi is so beautiful.

By the end of Russia, all the pieces of the next decade are in place. Lois Maxwell and Bernard Lee show up i No. Desmond Llewelyn first appears here. SPECTRE is an established villain. The great music and action rhythms and glamorous Bond girls are ready to become a staple. It would all come together the next time out.

Goldfinger, which rates as the second best Bond movie and which Ebert included in his great movies is a step down, I think, even though it’s the film were all the elements finally came together. I rate it a 8/10. I’m not dissing it; it’s great. And I won’t argue with people who think this, rather than Russia was the pinnacle of the Connery era if not the entire series. It has a great score, an iconic villan, great action scenes, even a dazzling theme song from Shirley Bassey. It has the style I referenced above, which is something the later films lacked. Honor Blackman was never one of my favorite Bond Girls, even if she was the most infamous. And again, we see he naked sexual politics of the early films — Bond saves the world by seducing Goldfinger’s henchwoman.

So why do I rate it below Russia? Well, it’s praising with faint damnation. It’s not that I dislike Goldfinger, I just like Russia more.

Thunderball: IMDB ranks this as the 7th best Bond film and I gave it an 8. A step down from Goldfinger, it still has its pleasures. SPECTRE is in full flower, not as faceless enemy but as a fully realized organization. The underwater battle scene is still thrilling after four decades and Claudine Auger and Luciana Paluzzi are two of my all-time favorite Bond girls.

As before, the use of sex as a weapon is front and center in the tryst between the villainous Volpe and Bond. As with No, she’s delaying him for the bad guys to arrive; he’s having fun and maybe hoping to flip her against SPECTRE. He clearly knows who she is and doesn’t care because she’s hot.

One last thing. There’s is apparently some debate over whether Bond deliberately turned Volpe into the path of the bullet when her henchman try to shoot him. To me, this isn’t even a question. He spots the gun, turns her into it, then casually lays her dead body in a chair. There’s no shock or sadness from him at all. It’s obvious it was deliberate. And utterly consistent with his character.

You Only Live Twice: IMDB ranks this as the 8th best Bond, I give it an 8. What amuses me is that the plot of the film — which is the first to basically ignore the book — is utterly absurd. The idea that SPECTRE could put together its own space program AND keep it quiet is pure silliness. But the movie forges ahead with such confidence and style in its ridiculous plot that I don’t mind at all. It remains one of my favorites, even if it doomed future films by raising the bar on silly plots.

(Ignoring Fleming’s novel would create problems down the road for The Man With The Golden Gun. But I’ll address that when the time comes.)

Diamonds are Forever: IMDB ranks this 13th, I give it a 7.0. I like it more than it deserves, probably because I like Lana Wood and Jill St. John more than I should. But it has other highlights as well, notably Mr. Kidd and Mr. Wint. I read some review that described them as terrible villains, but I found them wonderfully menacing.

Interesting point about Kidd and Wint. In the novel, they are explicitly gay. This is hinted at in the movie, but even those hints were excised on TV. Back then, people objected to the portrayal of homosexuality. If it aired now, people would object to the portrayal of homosexuals as villains.

As a sendoff to Connery, it’s serviceable. And the ridiculous moon buggy chase demonstrates perfectly why Connery was so well-suited to the movies. Put any other actor in that scene and we’d be laughing. Put Connery in it and … it works.