Saturday, April 28, 2018

To Infinity and Beyond: The Mindbogglingly Ambitious “Avengers: Infinity War” Doesn't Disappoint

Ten years. It took ten years, but “Avengers: Infinity War” is everything Marvel fans have been waiting for. And it’s an altogether successful hodge-podge of the best things about the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Directors Anthony and Joe Russo took the daunting task of merging so many different characters and their worlds into one cohesive (for those who have been following along at least) saga and are pretty much completely successful. There’s not too much to offer viewers who are unfamiliar with the MCU; but that’s beside the point. “Avengers: Infinity War” works because of the decade-long foundation of great character building, creative storytelling, and compelling drama filtered through a geeky comic book sensibility. What we’re left with is a culmination of heart-pounding action, witty comedy, moving drama and, for the first time in the whole series, an actual feeling of consequence and finality for these characters we’ve come to love so much. Even 19 films in, there hasn’t been anything quite like it.

Recently in the last few years many of the Marvel movies have taken on their own specific identity. “Captain America: The Winter Soldier” was a political thriller; “Ant-Man” was a comedic heist film; “Spider-Man: Homecoming” was a John Hughes-inspired teen movie; “Thor:Ragnarok” was a campy, retro-styled gladiator epic; “Black Panther” was Shakespearean sci-fi drama. “Avengers: Infinity War” doesn’t quite have any specific distinction and that’s because it’s somewhat of a combination of multiple styles and genres. In fact, the entire film is essentially a setup to a disaster flick of galactic proportions. We’ve heard the name Thanos thrown around a lot for nearly ten years and even glimpsed him a few times here and there but finally he’s front and center and his mission is clear. Collect the six powerful “infinity stones,” that have driven the plots of many previous films, so that he can rule the entire galaxy.

Sure, the plot of the film is essentially watch big creature gather glowing CGI rocks, but it’s compelling stuff I promise. That’s because for the first time in the franchise’s history, it feels like there is some real weight and consequence to the actions of Thanos and his evil followers. It’s no surprise that not everyone will make it to the of the film alive; there are some truly heartbreaking moments here. Be prepared. But big character deaths are the only things driving the drama of “Infinity War.” Thanos who is the “father” of Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Nebula (Karen Gillan) is the real star here. A complete CGI creation brought to live with verve by Josh Brolin, the film follows this villain as he comes face to face with our favorite super heroes.

The film is like watching a fine balance act that just doesn’t quit. At one moment the film has the warmth and humor of the “Guardians of the Galaxy” and the next we’re back to the bizarre wizardry of “Doctor Strange.” The film puts Earthbound characters like Spider-Man (Tom Holland) and Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr) into space as they all work together to attempt to stop Thanos from completing his colorful rock collection. There is scene after scene of either rollicking action, balanced humor, and moments of shock and awe as our favorite heroes face the one villain that actually feels unstoppable.

Writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFreely wondrously weave together dozens of characters and never manage to shortchange of them. It truly is remarkable big budget filmmaking of the most refined kind. As refined as this sort of Hollywood filmmaking can be. “Avengers: Infinity War” is the magnum opus of the MCU; a real accomplishment from all involved. The film flies circles around the previous "Avengers" flicks; it's operating on a complete different plane that would make Doctor Strange proud. It’s a rewarding piece of pop culture entertainment that also functions as a sign of things to come.  "Infinity War" certainly is not all wrapped up in a perfect bow at the end; only the naïve would think so, but I sat wide-eyed (and teary-eyed) and I eagerly await the next ten years and beyond.  GRADE: A

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Silence is Golden: John Krasinski’s “A Quiet Place” is a Tension-Soaked Masterpiece

If you can learn anything from “A Quiet Place” it’s that getting pregnant in a monster-riddled, post-apocalyptic world is just a flat-out terrible idea. But I guess sometimes you just can’t help yourself. An attractive, but weathered young couple must protect themselves and their young kids from terrifying creatures that prey on anything that makes noise. The couple is played by real-life crouple John Krasinski and Emily Blunt. The gorgeous pair is a direct contrast to the ugly landscape their characters are now living in. And the monsters are extremely scary. In fact, “A Quiet Place” completely drips with dread from beginning to end, taking the viewer on a roller coaster thrill ride that includes scene after scene of almost unbearable tension. It’s a remarkable genre turn for director/star John Krasinski and a complete detour from his charming work on “The Office.” Michael Scott would absolutely love this flick.

“A Quiet Place” wisely doesn’t spend much time on exposition. Anything that’s important is told through the dialogue (most of which is spoken through sign language). The script from newcomers Bryan Woods & Scott Beck (and Krasinski) drops the viewer into a not-too-distant future in which giant creatures hunt by sound forcing people to live completely silently. Krasinski and Blunt are Lee and Evelyn and they’ve got a routine. They walk around barefoot, walk outside on trails of sand, use giant lettuce leafs for plates, and use felt pieces when playing Monopoly. They’ve got young children to look after including Marcus (Noah Jupe) and Regan (Millicent Simmonds) who is deaf. The family mostly communicates through sign language. Which means for a majority of the time, you’re essentially watching a silent film. But they’re human after all and accidents happen. And that’s when THEY show up. The nightmare-inducing monsters are brought to life through fantastic special effects.

Krasinski directs with an assured hand. It’s not his first time at the rodeo, having directed a couple other small features and a few episodes of “The Office” but he’s never made anything quite like “A Quiet Place.” Sure it shares similarities with other films in the genre (it’s sort of feels like “The Road” meets “Jurassic Park”) but the film doesn’t feel like anything you’ve seen before. The film is a masterclass in genre filmmaking. The sound design is impeccable. Just try snacking on popcorn or nachos while watching this flick, I dare you. The silence is practically deafening until the roars of vicious creatures fill the auditorium. And the music. Marco Beltrami’s monster mash score is brilliantly used and creates excruciating tension. The family has all relatively smart, resourceful people, but at one point all hell breaks loose as they must battle obstacle after obstacle as their home becomes a target of the menacing monsters. Don’t forget to breathe.

“A Quiet Place” is easily a new masterclass in horror filmmaking. It’s a tense thriller that hits all the right notes and has fun playing with your senses. The small cast is uniformly excellent, with impressive child performances and two truly likable lead actors; Krasinski’s direction is impressive, especially the way he's able to build tension with silence and little dialogue. And as if that isn’t enough, there is a strong emotional undercurrent which resonates in a strong way. It’s a film that easily stands among the best of the genre including classics like “Alien,” “The Descent,” and “Jurassic Park.” You heard it here first.  GRADE: A

Sunday, April 01, 2018

Game On: Steven Spielberg’s “Ready Player One” is a Wild Ride Down Memory Lane

I was a whirlwind of emotions while watching “Ready Player One” but the main one I felt was relief. I was relieved Steven Spielberg, one of the most successful and entertaining directors in movie history, hasn’t lost his touch. I was beginning to worry. He’s made some very fine films in the past few years. But none of them were overwhelmingly fun. Even though I don’t hate his fourth attempt at an Indiana Jones movie, I’d say his last truly great action or adventure film is easily “War of the Worlds” and before that “Minority Report.” But that’s only two great, flat-out entertaining adventures in fifteen years. That’s not quite an impressive recent track record for one of the best directors in town. I’m ecstatic to report that “Ready Player One” is Spielberg’s most entertaining movie in over a decade and still shows that the brilliant septuagenarian hasn’t lost his magic touch for creating charming worlds, heart-stopping set pieces, and a fascinating sense of wonder. It’s Spielberg at his most Spielbergian.

Let’s be honest. Did anyone actually think that it was possible to get so emotionally invested in characters who spend a majority of a movie’s runtime in a virtual reality world? I mean what are the stakes of a video game really? The film does a tremendous job setting up the story and why I felt so connected to a world that was so obviously disconnected from each other. In “Ready Player One” it is 2045 and the world is a desolate place with slum-like major cities. Most people “escape” their harsh reality by slipping into the OASIS, a crazy powerful virtual reality world created by an eccentric Steve Jobs/Bill Gates guy named James Halliday (Mark Rylance). The guy has passed away and in true Willy Wonka form has hidden an “Easter egg” and the player who finds it will win complete control of the OASIS. If that plotline sounds sort of Goonies-ish you’re not crazy.

Our protagonist is teenager Wade Watts (Tye Sheriden). He lives in the slums of Columbus, Ohio and teams up with a few others to help find the hidden egg. It turns out that Halliday programmed three challenges in the OASIS and which would in turn lead the winners closer to the hidden egg. Watts, spending most of his time controlling his OASIS avatar Parzival, meets Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) whose also trying to find the egg. They team up with a few others to find the egg before the evil Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) CEO of the Innovate Online Industries corporation and his enslaved minions can find it. Sure the plot is somewhat deceptively simple: good guys must find the treasure before the bad guys do, but it’s an incredibly tense and fun adventure.

Steven Spielberg has tried the CGI animation world with “The Adventures of Tintin” with mixed results. It just never felt like Spielberg adventure and the film was bogged down in the ‘uncanny valley’ where everything seems real but looks super fake at the same time. Spielberg sort of takes an “Avatar” approach with “Ready Player One.” Literally. The live action actors appear in animated form in the completely CGI virtual reality world and it really works. This world is colorful and hyper-kinetic. It contrasts perfectly with the dull harshness of the “real world.” Janusz Kaminski gives the film the look and feel of Spielberg’s other futuristic films like “AI” and “Minority Report.”

But really, I’m burying the lead. You know what’s so great about “Ready Player One?” It’s a love letter to all things nostalgia. We’re talking pop culture overload here. Movies, video games, you name it. Wade drives around in the OASIS in a DeLorean time machine for crying out loud. The first challenge involves a driving race and you could go cross-eyed trying to identify all the different recognizable vehicles. There’s even an entire scene that takes place inside an entirely different movie. It’s a jaw-dropping sequence and a major treat for cinema nerds. Sure the film caters to those of us who grew up in the 70s, 80s, and 90s, but I’m pretty sure 95% of anyone excited for a Spielberg film is someone who lived through those decades. It’s not so much a movie about the love of nostalgia itself, it’s a movie about the love art and entertainment.

All this nerdy stuff is great and is a strength of the film, even if nostalgia seems to be on overload as of late, but the film is genuinely great from beginning to end. Composer Alan Silvestri, filling in for Spielberg’s faithful music man John Williams, adds another memorable score and even a few musical nods to “Back to the Future.” Even if half the movie is taking place in a reality that doesn’t really exist Spielberg found a way to make it emotionally engaging. The film has a tight script from Zak Penn and Ernest Cline (who wrote the book). And all the actors are fine in their roles. The film is a visual wonder with fantastic special effects, imaginative production design, and a sense of wonder that has been missing from the director’s recent oeuvre. Spielberg is back and better than ever.  GRADE: A