‘Avengers: Infinity War’ Justifies the MCU and Realizes the Bygone Blockbuster

Avengers: Infinity War
Rated: PG-13
Runtime: 2 hours 29 minutes
Directors: Anthony Russo and Joe Russo
Starring: Josh Brolin, Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Zoe Saldana, and Benedict Cumberbatch

There was a time when I believed The Avengers (2012) to be the single best comic book film of all time (yes, even better than The Dark Knight). Six years of good-to-great MCU films, as well as some honest attempts from the DCEU, came and went with none ever coming close to dethroning the original team-up. And while Avengers: Infinity War was at the top of most-anticipated films of 2018, I justifiably held my reservations about the film, especially after the disappointing missteps of Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015) and the more recent Justice League (2017). Having, as of now, seen Infinity War 3 times, I think it’s safe to say that this film is not only my new all-time favorite comic book film, but also the first proper blockbuster I’ve seen in some time.

Captain America: Winter Soldier and Civil War directors Anthony and Joe Russo helm Avengers: Infinity War, the third entry in the Avengers mega-saga and a spiritual culmination of everything that’s come before it in the gargantuan Marvel Cinematic Universe. This time around, The Mad Titan Thanos (Josh Brolin) makes good on his promise to assemble the 6 Infinity Stones to fulfill his life mission to bring ultimate balance to the universe by wiping out half of all intelligent life in it. Naturally, this does not sit well for our catalog of heroes, as they desperately fight to prevent Armageddon.

Very much like Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017), my new favorite Star Wars movie, Infinity War is a bold, refreshing departure from the entries before it. The MCU movies have a slanted reputation for being heavy on levity and light on dramatic stakes, but boy does Infinity War sing a different tune. Right off the bat, the film make a stern statement that this isn’t going to be your typical textbook franchise film; they’re going all in, and if that means beloved characters have to bite the dust, they most certainly will. The ominous cold open, picking up mere moments after the end of Thor: Ragnarok (2017), sets the brooding tone for the rest of the film with our first proper introduction to Thanos, played magnificently by Josh Brolin. We quickly see just how formidable he is, and how little of a threat the heroes pose to him. Before I get into the crux of why I rate this movie higher than most reviewers, I want to praise the surprisingly effective ensemble performances.

Infinity War goes to some genuinely dark places for a number of characters, specifically Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Loki (Tom Hiddleston), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), and Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.). Each of them have a unique relationship with Thanos that is made all the more resonant when taken in light of their respective franchises. Tony Stark is the only Earth-based hero with a personal connection to Thanos; he was the only Avenger to go through the wormhole in the first Avengers and witness the sheer scale of destruction that came very close to consuming the Earth. The filmmakers have made a conscious effort to show just how much that traumatic experience effected Tony with Iron Man 3 and Age of Ultron: how it has made him paranoid, anxious, and afraid. So when Tony is forced to come face-to-face with his worst nightmare, that anxiety and desperation becomes visceral as fan of the character. Thor and Loki have been two of my favorite MCU characters ever since the first Thor in 2011 and we’ve seen interesting growth from both of them over the years, especially in Ragnarok, where they lose almost everything while at the same time cultivating a restored faith in each other that ultimately reforms Loki as the hero his brother wants to see him as. And in Game of Thrones-style, Infinity War leverages the character development built in Ragnarok to **spoiler – begin** make Loki’s tragic (and gruesome) death in the opening sequence all the more disturbing **spoiler – end**.

Last but not least, the Gamora-Thanos arc is the emotional core of Infinity War, which is a testament to both Zoe Saldana’s and Josh Brolin’s genuine performances. Brolin could have very easily phoned in a textbook “menacing” performance, but instead brought layers of menace, empathy, and conviction to the big baddie. Likewise with Gamora, who could have simply continued on with her badass heroine act from the Guardians of the Galaxy films, but here she brings a complex dimensionality of emotions when she reunites with Thanos, who as we know from previous films is her “adopted” father. Less thoughtful filmmakers would have written Gamora’s attitude towards Thanos as stemming solely from a place pure hatred and resentment, and for a while we do presume that is the case, but this is where Infinity War subverts those tropes they’ve been training us with for the past decade. The film makes it clear that while Gamora does resent Thanos for being the villain he is, she still loves him because he is still her father, a father who almost loves her above all else.

Ever since Iron Man (2008) I’ve been a fully invested fan of the MCU. I’ve seen every MCU film in theaters and have thoroughly enjoyed all of them, at least to some significant degree. However, while I do like all these films, very few of them have ever felt like real movies. By real, I mean the MCU has been suffered from the TV-series effect where each part (each individual film) inherently works in service of a underlying sum (the crossover films). Infinity War is the sum that leverages the encompassing baggage of the separate films to create something refreshingly theatrical and truly epic, something that can’t be rushed, spawned, or forced (cough the DCEU cough). The film’s bold, foreboding tone, rousing orchestral score, and uniquely subversive emotional resonance, all mesh together so perfectly that even the aspects in which it falters (namely with the Captain America crew and with the Bruce Banner/Hulk running gag) can’t detract from its masterpiece.

Again, like with every movie, Avengers: Infinity War, and even the MCU as a whole, is not immune to the inherent subjectivity of film. So if the MCU has not been your cup of tea up to this point, I doubt that this film will change your mind. However with that being said, Avengers: Infinity War is for me, the new face of the MCU, and living proof that the MCU did not kill the epic blockbuster; it revived it.


‘A Quiet Place’ Is Rare Critics’ Darling that Delivers What Was Promised

A Quiet Place
Rated: PG-13
Runtime: 1 hour 30 minutes
Director: John Krasinki
Starring: Emily Blunt, John Krasinki, Millicent Simmonds, Noah Jupe, and Cade Woodward

If you’re a dedicated (or casual) horror fan like myself, odds are you’ve likely fallen victim to the “buzz phrase” marketing trend that’s become so prevalent in contemporary art-house horror, some recent examples being A24’s The Witch (2015) and It Comes at Night (2017). While these films are great by their own rights, there’s no doubt that efforts to market them to the general public resulted in a substantial rift between expectations and the reality in the audiences. As frustrating as films coming off of festival-circuit buzz can be, A Quiet Place is that rare, transparent case that delivers in spades what was promised by its bold early previews.

Evelyn (Emily Blunt) cautions her deaf daughter Regan (Millicent Simmonds) of the deadly creature closing in on them

A Quiet Place, directed by The Office alumni John Krasinki, is about the Abbott family’s struggle for survival in a post-apocalyptic world that has invaded by a species of extremely deadly alien predators that are attracted to sound. Over a period of roughly a year and a half, Lee (Krasinki) and Evelyn (Emily Blunt) do their best to protect their three children Beau (Cade Woodward), Marcus (Noah Jupe), and Regan (Millicent Simmonds), the last of whom is deaf, while still trying to provide them some semblance of a childhood. Things go from bad to worse when Evelyn, who becomes pregnant fairly early in the film, goes into labor while Lee and their eldest son are away on a supplies run, leading to an unfortunate chain of events that forces the family to have to deal with the creatures head on.

Clocking in at a lean 90 minutes, A Quiet Place wastes no time in establishing the hyper-effective tension and suspense, which is, ironically, amplified by the absence of noise in the film’s overall sound design. The Abbott family, in making sure they don’t attract the creatures, hardly make ever make any noise louder than an extremely faint whisper. Aside from a few circumstantial instances, they communicate with one another via sign language. The film pays a lot of attention to the details of how this family copes with their extreme circumstance, which is compelling in and of itself even when the creatures aren’t attacking them directly. The creatures are incredibly intimidating, and when we finally get a good look at them (which is about half-way to two-thirds through) none of the gravitas is lost like it often is other movies of the genre when the monster’s form is eventually (if at all) revealed. Of course, none of this would have been possible without Krasinki’s meticulous direction behind the camera. Krasinki does an excellent job of conveying exposition through contextual action rather than relying solely on a character having to literally spell everything out to the audience, which is so refreshing, especially in this genre. In terms of the acting, everyone brings their A-game, especially Emily Blunt, who gets put through the wringer in the second half of the film.

A Quiet Place is truly a masterwork of the genre; however despite all the things it does right, I couldn’t help but feel that something was missing. While films like The Witch or It Comes at Night, have little to no mass appeal (and understandably so), they were marketed as if they were because critics recognized them as being films with meaningful thematic depth, that also happened to occupy the horror genre. And depending on what the viewer looks for in movies in order for them to be “great”, thematic depth may or not even be a factor in coming to that verdict. But for me, for this kind of horror movie, that thematic depth is what boosts a very good film like A Quiet Place to the next level, like an It Comes at Night. All that aside though, A Quiet Place is easily one of the best mainstream horror flicks in years and is absolutely deserving of all its acclaim.

Horror Scale: 8.0/10

Heart, Spectacle, and Much-Needed Introspection Keeps ‘Ready Player One’ From Becoming Lazy Throwback Drab

Ready Player One
Rated: PG-13
Runtime: 2 hours 20 minutes
Director: Steven Spielberg
Starring: Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Ben Mendelsohn, Lena Waithe, and T.J. Miller

I’ll be upfront and admit that I am not a huge Steven Spielberg fan. Aside from his impeccable war films (i.e. Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, and Munich), Spielberg’s magic has never really enchanted me the way a Tarantino or a Chris Nolan has. And I have to say the initial trailers for his latest film did not particularly entice me. I’m as turned off by pop culture’s current nostalgia-craze as the next guy, and on the surface, Ready Player One looked to be the film industry’s most shameless nostalgia cash grab yet. But having now seen the film, I have to say, Spielberg does enough right with the film to outweigh any predisposed philosophical grievances going into it.

The “OASIS” is a fully immersive virtual reality universe that has all but replaced physical reality

Ready Player One centers around Wade Watts/Parzival (Tye Sheridan), an average-joe-in-the-real-world, prodigal gamer in a fully immersive virtual reality game called “The OASIS.” The film takes off when Wade makes the first breakthrough in the in-game hunt for a special “easter egg” that will grant the player who finds it the vast inheritance of deceased Oasis-creator James Halliday (Mark Rylance), including his ownership of the OASIS itself, and by extension, control of the real world that has become socioeconomic dystopia. Along the way, Wade is accompanied by his (virtual) best friend and fellow “gunter” (presumably short for easter egg hunter) Aech (Lena Waithe), and famous OASIS gunter/political activist by the name of Art3mis (Olivia Cooke). Together, they race to solve Halliday’s three riddles to find the three keys to unlock the three gates to the coveted egg. However, their biggest threat, aside from each other, is Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), the CEO of Innovative Online Industries, who has dedicated all of his massive corporation’s resources to claim the egg so that he can monetize the OASIS for financial exploitation.

Perhaps my favorite aspect of Ready Player One is how quickly it justifies all the nostalgia porn on display. A lot of people’s complaints with the idea of this film stems from the film’s seemingly using the viewer’s recognition of familiar IPs as its main selling point. Contrary to what the trailers would lead you to think, the overabundance of pop culture references in the form of recognizable characters are merely the logical consequence of their historical popularity with the players themselves, who have chosen and customized their own in-game avatars to be like, if not exactly like, their favorite pop culture characters.

The Iron Giant is just one of many pop culture icons that makes an appearance in Ready Player One

The film makes a subtle, but meaningful distinction between reverence for pop culture and nostalgic longing, primarily through role of the OASIS in the film world. The socioeconomic importance of the OASIS within the confines of the film is made all the more prevalent when considering the film’s dystopian setting, which as stated by Wade himself is a direct result of “people [having stopped] trying to solve real world problems.” Halliday’s creation, what is in spirit a manifestation of nostalgia itself, has long surpassed its recreational purposes. The OASIS is Halliday’s self-proclaimed escape from his real-world’s difficulties and complexities, an escape so complete and so immersive that the world has essentially abandoned the reality for this virtual substitute, effectively creating the Black Mirror-esque dystopia the characters are now forced to endure.

Nostalgia is a bittersweet phenomenon. On one hand, it’s completely understandable to want to relive a time in your life when maybe things weren’t quite so stressful or complicated. But on the other hand, the consequences of excessive nostalgic indulgence, at the mass cultural scale we see in the film and in part in the real world today, leads to sociopolitical regression and ethical complicity. We may not have a real-life OASIS, but the social/mass media echo-chambers that make up the modern Internet, aren’t too far off in effect.

In the end, Ready Player One is no cinematic masterpiece, but its action is impressive, its heart is big, and most importantly, its got its politics right.


‘Annihilation’ is a Beautiful Nightmare with an Acute Perspective on the Interconnectedness of Life’s Recurring Patterns

Rated: R
Runtime: 1 hours 55 minutes
Director: Alex Garland
Starring: Natalie Portman, Oscar Isaac, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Tessa Thompson

We all watch films for our own reasons. What seems like a masterpiece to one may just as clearly seem like a disaster to another. The inherent subjectivity of film is founded in the multitude of ways we the viewers determine value in the art form. For me, the best films are like dreams – they vividly articulate a compelling vision by means of rich narrative, prevailing tone, and effective execution. My particular criteria for great cinema is why my favorite film of 2017 was Darren Aronofsky’s extremely polarizing mother! and it’s why Annihilation is likely to be my favorite film of this year.

Jennifer Jason Leigh, Natalie Portman, Tuva Novotny, Tessa Thompson, and Gina Rodriguez (pictured left-to-right) prepare to enter “the shimmer”

Annihilation, directed by secret sci-fi auteur Alex Garland, takes after the common genre trope of specialized-team-confronts-a-mysterious-event-horizon, with the “team” here headed by Lena (Natalie Portman), a former US soldier turned college professor seeking answers as to the circumstances of her husband Kane’s (Oscar Isaac) peculiar return from a covert expedition into “the shimmer,” an other-worldly energy mass that’s slowly enveloping the planet. Rather than Kane’s return being a miracle due to the fact that no one has ever entered and returned from the shimmer, his unexplained escape from the quarantined zone raises more questions than answers, compelling Lena to tag along on the next expedition inside to discover what happened to her husband. Lena is joined by Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), Cass Shepard (Tuva Novotny), Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson), and Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez), each with their own personal motives as to why they’ve volunteered for this suicide mission. When Lena and company finally enter the shimmer, they soon learn the fates of prior expeditions’ and the nature of the shimmer itself.

Director Alex Garland has openly professed his interpretation of the film’s source material, the first book in the “Southern Reach Trilogy” by Jeff VanderMeer, as being like a dream, and that’s exactly how he made his film. Every frame of Annihilation feels like a fleeting memory of the dream you had the night before. Every detail of the production is hypnotically surreal, from the imaginative visual effects to the earthy cinematography to the unsettling film score. The shimmer itself is radiant and lush with life and beautiful scenery, but the haphazard nature of the mutations to the environment and the living creatures (and humans) within it, gives the alien habitat a nightmarish aesthetic that can only be described as such.

“The shimmer” is equal parts terrifying and stunningly beautiful

Like all good science fiction, Annihilation is about a lot more than just its high-level premise. Garland uses the original source material, as a guide to explore what makes humans succumb to their self-destructive ways. But what I find most interesting about the film’s allegory is its presumptions of self-destruction as a biological inevitability. In other words, what if our tendency to sabotage ourselves is not merely a consequence of worldly circumstances, but instead an outer manifestation of cellular, biological mortality. Early on in the film, Lena (Portman’s character) defines the eventual death of the living cell, the moment mitosis stops, as a universal flaw – a flaw that if corrected, would render death obsolete. And that’s what “the shimmer” ultimately does: it addresses that flaw, albeit with unpredictable and often times deadly results.

Annihilation is the genre at its best: mixing a compelling mystery, unique visuals, and genuinely insightful themes. Like last year’s mother!, some may not be as impressed by the film as I was, and that’s perfectly fine, but if you’re a serious fan of science fiction, it would be criminal to pass this film up.


The ‘Fifty Shades’ Experiment Accomplishes What Set out To

Fifty Shades Freed
Rated: R
Runtime: 1 hours 45 minutes
Director: James Foley
Starring: Dakota Johnson, Jamie Dornan, Eric Johnson, and Marcia Gay Harden

The Fifty Shade of Grey films have been consistently dragged through the mud in both critic and fan circles for the past 3 years when the first book adaptation was realized in 2015. And after those 3 short (or long depending on who you ask) years, the controversial trilogy has come to an end with Fifty Shades Freed, an objectively dreadful film. However, while the film and its predecessors are truly awful, the franchise has its redeeming qualities when considered from a different perspective – one that sees the absurd frivolity not as your typical film, but as the hyper-realistic fantasy it is.

Newly weds Christian and Anastasia Grey continue to swoon over each other

The Fifty Shades saga follows the “carnal” relationship between a shy, aspiring writer Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) and sexual deviant Billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan). The most recent and final film, Fifty Shades Freed opens with Anastasia and Christian’s wedding, and is about their new marriage, Anastasia coping with her newfound riches and responsibilities, and the impending confrontation with Jack Hyde (Eric Johnson), Anastasia’s predatory boss whom she had fired who also happens to share an unexpected past with Christian. If any of that sounded genuinely exciting in any way, I can assure you, it isn’t.

The plot of this film (and really the whole series in general), if you can call it that, is nothing more than forgettable filler in-between sporadic moments of contrived drama, pop songs, and repetitive sex scenes, which is bad for an edgy romance that’s main selling point is the promise of hardcore BDSM. Yet despite all of that, I found myself enjoying the experience, if not only due to the sheer hilarity of the film’s badness. But even more surprisingly, I came to appreciate, and kind of respect, what the film trilogy tried to be: a mindless, female fantasy.

Please don’t interpret that as patronizing or condescending. By female fantasy, I mean a made-for-women fiction grounded in a version of reality where a random woman can escape her boring, conventional life to fall into a sex-crazed fling with a young, attractive billionaire. There are countless films catering to common male fantasizes from getting in orgies with 30 hot chicks to saving the world from alien invasions; while the films intended for female viewing (i.e. romantic comedies) are almost always confined to the familiar reality with which women are unable to escape from even in the movie theater.

It’s fitting that the Fifty Shades novels, from which the films are adapted, originate from a Twilight fan-fiction because, while the films and novels are indisputably terrible, the franchise and what it represents is well intentioned, and entertaining enough to earn its spot in the pop culture canon.

Objective Score: 2/10
Qualified Score: 7.5/10