Ad Astra(9/19/2019)

Last year when I went to see First Man and this year when I watched Apollo 11 I came to a slightly depressing revelation: the 60s space program has lost a lot of its luster, at least for me and I suspect with a lot of people of my generation.  I think that’s in large part because at the moment space exploration seems like a bit of a dead end.  Back in the 60s people just assumed that landing on the moon was a giant leap for mankind and that by the year 2001 we’d be regularly traveling to space bases and traveling through trippy alien wormholes to reach our next stage of evolution.  Instead we’ve mostly just learned that the moon and Mars are both barren wastelands and that if there is life (or even worthwhile natural resources) out there it’s so astronomically far away that it would be ridiculously hard to ever get there.  Hollywood for their part has kind of given up on space optimism; they usually just go the fantasy route and jump to distant futures of the Star Trek variety without even suggesting how we got there.  The only movie in recent years I can think of which tried to do science fiction in a way that was closer to our current technology was The Martian, but even that movie kind of marginalized the actual space travel part of getting to the red planet.  Joining that film is perhaps the new James Gray film Ad Astra (which is the Latin for “to the stars), a film which looks at a distant but not entirely distant future which seems at least a little bit plausible.

The film begins with an action scene where Major Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is working on a massive antenna which stands so high that its basically in space when it’s hit by some sort of power surge and he plummets to the surface before being saved by a parachute.  We soon learn that this is one of many such surges that are wreaking havoc across Earth and McBride is brought into a top secret briefing where he’s told that these surges are the result of a mission from years ago called the Lima Project.  This mission, an attempt to find intelligent life in the universe which required a voyage deep into the solar system, was led by McBride’s father Clifford (Tommy Lee Jones) who the public believes died heroically when that ship was lost sixteen years ago.  In the briefing its revealed that the government believes Clifford is actually alive and that these surges are somehow being caused by the Lima’s power sources.  As such Roy is being recruited to travel to Mars, via the Moon, in order to send out a personal plea to Clifford.  Roy accepts this mission and begins what is sure to be a fateful journey both for himself and for humanity.

What is immediately striking about the future depicted in Ad Astra is that, more so than in even the most grounded of science fiction, it manages to feel legitimately futuristic while also feeling like a fairly natural evolution of the modern world.  The space ships in it can apparently go to the outer-reaches of the solar system in a matter of a few months but they still resemble shuttles and need to use rockets to exit the atmosphere and the clothing and space suits everyone’s wearing are not wildly divergent from modern clothing trends.  They’ve apparently colonized the moon and Mars, but getting to them involves all the same mundanities we need to deal with at modern airports and parts of both are apparently unstable warzones.  All over the film you can tell that a great deal of thought and research was done to build all these futuristic things, but the film doesn’t feel obliged to stop and explain all of it.  Take that antenna thing at the beginning, what is that for?  I don’t know, and unless I missed something I don’t think the movie ever stops and explains it but it’s certainly a striking image and I do have a certain confidence that they thought it through.  The scientific things that don’t make so much sense to me are things that kind of seem like plot contrivances.  I’m not exactly sure why they would need to go to Mars just to send a signal to Neptune and it’s also a bit convenient that in the third act Pitt is able to travel a pretty vast distance in a relatively short span of time, which would seem to raise some plot questions.

Having said all that, the science fiction in Ad Astra is in many ways something of a background element more than the main focus.  This isn’t a movie that’s trying to be a headtrip in the lineage of 2001: A Space Odyssey so much as a human quest modeled after Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” with Pitt as Marlow and his father as Kurtz.  It certainly isn’t a one to one parallel and the overall thematic message is quite different but the basic structure is more or less there.  This also makes the film a rather inward piece of work that focuses almost entirely on Brad Pitt’s character to the exclusion of pretty much everyone else and as a result the film has to rest pretty heavily on a voice-over narration by Pitt that is a bit of a mixed bag.  I certainly wouldn’t want the voice-over taken out entirely because there are definitely sections of it that are needed but I do think it could have been reduced a little bit.  Pitt’s narration in and of itself is a bit monotone and was made to sound like it was recorded in an echoy spaceship, which may or may not have been the best call.  There are also some plot details that bug me in the film, especially a violent turn of events that leads into the third act which seemed avoidable and kind of undermined the film’s ending.

Honestly I do having a sinking suspicion that there are a lot of plot elements here which aren’t going to hold up overly well to strict scrutiny and I don’t look forward to the “everything wrong with” videos that are eventually going to be made because looking at the movie like that sort of misses the point.  At the same time, the film’s general straightforwardness does make it a bit more susceptible to that kind of criticism.  This isn’t the kind of brainy science fiction film that really forces you to untangle some crazy mind bending idea about aliens or time travel or something, it’s ultimately a character study and the journey at its center is about as literal as it is metaphorical.  While I was watching the movie, I really liked it.  It looks great and it has some very strong scenes, but it didn’t really leave me with the same level of food for thought that we’ve come to expect from this kind of science fiction.  It’s a movie that’s fairly straightforward in its messaging and there are plot elements which I just can’t completely overlook.  This is actually the feeling I get all too often when I leave James Gray movies, he’s a guy with clear talent but his movies always end up being a bit shallower than their trappings suggest.  Still, if the movie has failings they’re failings that are set up by high expectations, looked at in the wider world of commercial cinema this is definitely worth seeing especially for fans of hard science fiction.

***1/2 out of Five

Avengers: Endgame(4/26/2019)

Review contains spoilers

Last year when I sat down and tried to review Avengers: Infinity War I found that going through the usual motions of a mostly spoiler-free review aimed at introducing a film to someone unfamiliar with it just seemed like a bit of a waste.  No one was on the fence about whether they wanted to see that movie but they might want to look back on it and deconstruct what made it work.  And that is what I did in the form of a review of sorts that was more of an informal discussion about the movie than what I usually try to do.  Now it’s a year later and Marvel has put out what is essentially the second half of that movie and I find myself once again having to write about a movie that everyone is already planning to either see or to ignore whatever I have to say about it and I find that once again the best approach is to just write up my own feelings in a relatively unstructured format.

Let’s start by considering what worked so well about Avengers: Infinity War, which is a movie I liked a whole lot and have if anything grown to appreciate even more in the last year.  That was a movie that had two tasks it had to accomplish: first it needed to bring the infinity stones together to enable the film’s bold cliffhanger and secondly it needed to serve as a fun Avengers movie where all our favorite characters came together for one last romp, and it manages to accomplish both of those things beautifully, and I also thought it managed to bring a fairly fascinating villain to the screen and did some clever things in the way it used the actions of its heroes in order to refute his insane philosophy.  That movie’s follow up, by contrast, has to do a lot more.  It needs to reckon with the fallout of Thanos’ snap and the effect it has on the characters, it needs to go through the “time heist” in all its complexity, and it also needs to get through a final battle against Thanos that will set up whatever the MCU will be going forward all while trying to be an entertaining action movie.  Rather than tying these three things together the movie essentially has to divide itself into three acts with each one devoted to one of those three things.

At the center of Avengers: Endgame is something of a catch-22: do you acknowledge the devastation of “the snap” and make a movie tinged in melancholy rather than superhero fun or do you minimize that, which would be something of a cop-out.  To the film’s credit they do mostly go with the former option right through and to some extent including the part where everyone comes back from the dead.  I had mostly expected them to go through a pretty pure undoing of the snap that would leaving society to go on unaffected, but instead they do the five year jump after boldly killing off Thanos like a chump and they stick with that all the way through.  In theory I like this decision a lot and I certainly respect it but it also opens up a lot of questions about how a society would react to a calamity like that and the movie really does not have the time to get into that.  It’s also a move that could really have major implications for whatever the MCU looks like after this as it basically means that these movies will now be taking place in a futuristic world removed from modern culture as we know it.  It also puts the rest of the movie into this very serious place that does remove some of that trademark MCU joy from the proceedings.  Like, the idea of seeing Marvel characters go back into their old movies Back to the Future Part 2 style seems like a blast but it’s maybe less fun than it should be simply because everyone is so shell-shocked.

That’s not to say the film is humorless, it isn’t, though I almost wonder if they should have leaned even harder into the grim tone if they were going to “go there.”  I was particularly unimpressed with the way they handled the Thor character.  Making Thor into someone who’s completely “let himself go” and fallen into a drunken stupor over the course of five years is an interesting idea, but the movie mostly just treats it like a sight gag that outlives its welcome.  You wonder why he’s even invited to participate in the time heist given that he was clearly a liability.  Like a lot of things this was a damned if you do damned if you don’t; just magically making him shed a hundred pounds and overcome alcoholism when convenient would have been lame (and in some ways they do indeed do this at the end when he becomes battle ready out of nowhere) but seeing him stay in this state and not even bother to shave is also kind of a bummer.  Outside of that the film does a pretty decent job of finding interesting ways to have the trauma of the situation manifest in different ways for different characters.  Robert Downy Jr. certainly puts on a pretty good swan song and I like seeing Captain America try to put on a brave face for what is in many ways a hopeless situation.  The Guardians of the Galaxy fare a bit worse; Rocket feels like a pretty one dimensional character when removed from his “family” and while Nebula plays an important role in the plot she’s kind of a monotone presence.  Oddly enough the film seems to have gone out of its way to set that franchise up for a post-Gunn and possibly Taika Waititi helmed future that they’ve already backtracked on.

Another odd thing about the movie is that, up until that final battle scene this really doesn’t function as an action movie.  There are certainly special effects all over the screen thanks to talking raccoons and hulks and we get some sequences like the two New York infinity stone heists, but there really isn’t a full on fight or chase or anything in the first two hours of the movie.  That’s kind of a bold move rooted in confidence that audiences have connected enough to these characters that audiences will follow them with or without the exact spectacle people are used to.  I’m not exactly sure it was the right move though, in part because I’m actually not in love with that final battle, which I found to be a bit too dark, crowded, and chaotic to serve as the cathartic release that it was clearly intended to be.  I found the Battle of Wakanda from Avengers: Infinity War to be much more effective and I also found their choice to bring Thanos back when they did was a bit off.  Thanos derived much of his intimidation factor in the last film from the fact that he was wielding the infinity stones, without them I would think that he would just be a big purple guy with a sword who shouldn’t have posed as much of a threat to the combined efforts of three superheroes.

I feel a little weird criticizing this movie when for so long the big complaint about these MCU films is that they didn’t take enough risks and followed a rigid formula and yet a lot of what seems off about this movie is that it diverges from the usual formula.  Maybe that’s unfair, but in some ways they’ve brought this on themselves by giving audiences every reason to expect one particular thing from them.  Avengers: Infinity War delivered on that beautifully, it was like the bigger and more developed evolution of that first Avengers movie, and to me it was clearly the better half of this story.  Avengers: Endgame by contrast almost feels less like a movie and more like a very expensive series finale for a popular TV show like Lost or Game of Thrones.  One which has to try to give some degree of closure while also serving as a sendoff and sort of a celebration of everything that came before.  It sort of does that, but like a lot of series finales it maybe stumbles a bit under its own self-conscious sentimentality and maybe gets a little too clever for its own good in dreaming up a conceit to make that possible.  All in all I don’t want to complain too much or come off too negative.  The movie certainly kept me interested and entertained for three solid hours, that’s an accomplishment for sure and with how difficult this assignment was it could have gone so much worse.

***1/2 out of Five 

At Eternity’s Gate(11/25/2018)

It’s pretty widely agreed that 2007 was an amazing year for film.  It was a year that gave us such modern classics as No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood, and on a more personal level it was the year I began writing full movie reviews habitually.  One movie that gets lost in discussions of about Zodiac and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is a smaller movie called The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.  That film, about the internal life of a man suck unable to move any part of his body aside form one eyelid following a massive stroke was nonetheless one of the year’s best.  Though that movie was in the French language it was actually directed by an American.  Specifically it was directed by a guy named Julian Schnabel, who had directed two films previously but never to this much acclaim and it felt like with this movie a master had finally emerged.   And then nothing.  Schnabel made another movie three years later called Miral which was critically derided and then nothing for the next eight years.  This delay may have had more than a little to do with Schnabel’s other and perhaps primary career as a fine art painter who has by all accounts produced several museum quality paintings and works of physical art.  But now Schnabel has returned and he’s now made a film about the life of a painter from a different time and place with At Eternity’s Gate.

The film looks at the adult life of Vincent Van Gogh (Willem Dafoe) beginning when he had already assembled a fairly decent oeuvre of paintings but hasn’t gotten any real money or success for his trouble.  His mental problems are already apparent but he does have the undying devotion of his brother Theo Van Gogh (Rupert Friend) whose moral and financial support has allowed him to remain a professional artist.  Much of the movie concerns an extended trip he made to Arles, France in order to paint under a different kind of light than what he was seeing in Paris.  There he becomes something of a town pariah because of his occasionally anti-social behavior but does have a few friends like his landlord Madame Ginoux (Emmanuelle Seigner) and he’s also visited by a fellow artist Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac).  From there we see him continue to struggle with his mental problems while also continually making iconic paintings right up until the end.

Confession: I do not know that much about art history, at all.  Truthfully I can barely tell a Monet from a Renoir, but Van Gogh is a little bit of an exception, when I see one of his paintings I can tell, in part because of his technique of making the paint sort of stand out from the canvas.  I also knew some of the broad strokes of his life story from here and there, in part because there have actually been a number of movies made about him including Vincente Minnelli’s Lust for Life with Kirk Douglas in the central role and there was Robert Altman’s Vincent and Theo and just last year there was the animated film Loving Vincent which used his signature art style to look at his life story.  It’s probably not too hard to guess why so many filmmakers want to tell this story; presumably they see something of themselves in the struggling misunderstood artist even though all of these filmmakers are more mentally stable and successful in their time than Van Gogh ever was during his lifetime.  It’s also a meaty role for actors who get to both imitate a famous face and explore the depths of undiagnosed mental illness.

This time around Van Gogh is played by Willem Dafoe, which is a casting choice that makes sense given that he’s a red haired guy who looks a lot like Van Gogh’s self-portraits but also kind of doesn’t make sense given that Van Gogh died at 37 and Dafoe is almost twice that age at this point.  That age issue isn’t overly apparent while watching the movie and Dafoe is quite strong in the role.  Some of the best parts are the movie are the scenes where Van Gogh is relatively calm and starts talking about his various philosophies of art and life.  During these scenes Dafoe reminded me a bit of his scenes in The Last Temptation of Christ where he was struggling to explain his spiritual angst.  But maybe the fact that he sounds like Jesus is part of the problem.  Van Gogh was not a kind and cuddly man, in fact he was so off-putting to the people of Arles that they passed a petition to have him barred from the city.  His mental problems were severe and noticeable and the movie in many ways seems to be a little too in love with the guy to really look at the depths of them.

Really though whatever complaints I have about the movie have less to do with its take on Van Gogh and more to do with its pacing and general inconsistency.  In format the movie is basically a traditional biopic: it looks at the events of the artist’s last years more or less in chronological order and without any sort of gimmick or anything, on paper at least.  However the movie does play in some odd ways at times.  Occasionally it just sort of diverges from its plot to sort of watch Van Gogh sort of walk through nature and observe things.  It’s an arty touch, but I’m not sure it really works here and just sort of hurts the pacing. Other parts just kind of feel like boring and kind of stilted biopic fare.  But every time the movie was losing me it would do something to win me back.  It will include an interesting conversation or depict some key moment in Van Gogh’s life in an interesting way and I’ll be back on board.  Something like a third of the movie didn’t really work for me, a third of it worked quite well, and another third was neutral and that probably ultimately speaks to how episodic it is.  When I left the movie after seeing it I was pretty comfortable giving it a pass but it’s been a week since then and a lot of it has already kind of slipped from my mind.  It’s not a terrible or even particularly bad movie but it does seem to be a rather inessential one given how many other Van Gogh movies are out there and how little this really seems to be adding.  If you’re only going to see one recent Van Gogh I might even go so far as to say you’re better off going with that Loving Vincent thing, which at least had a cool visual style.

**1/2 out of Five

Ant-Man and The Wasp(7/9/2018)

2014 was not a good year for Marvel.  That was the year that Avengers: Age of Ultron came out and proved to be a rather unruly mess, and that was followed by a strange little movie called Ant-ManAnt-Man is to date the third lowest grossing Marvel film after The Incredible Hulk and the first Captain America and to those in the know the final film kind of lived in the shadow of the fact that Edgar Wright was once going to direct it.  I wasn’t a fan of that movie either.  Of course it was a Marvel Cinematic Universe movie so there was enough quality control going on that it certainly wasn’t “bad,” but there were a lot of elements that didn’t really work and it just seemed like kind of a lame exercise in the grand scheme of things.  I was especially put off by one aspect of Ant-Man’s powers, namely the way he could punch people while miniature and have them react as if they’d just been given an uppercut by a heavyweight fighter.  That doesn’t make sense.  Even if they did have incredible strength while miniature the fact that it’s channeled into a small space like that would make Ant-Man piece into the bad guys like a bullet not hit them with blunt force trauma.  It breaks the laws of physics dammit!  Still, in 2018 Marvel is on a roll and I suspected that they had enough momentum to improve on their last effort with the sequel Ant-Man and The Wasp.

The film is set two years after the events of Captain America: Civil War but before the events of Avengers: Infinity War.  After having been arrested for breaking the Sokovia Accords in Captain America: Civil War Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) has been on house arrest this whole time.  Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and his daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly) have apparently also been on the run this whole time because it was their technology that was used in Scott’s breach.  At the film’s start his sentence is only days away from being over but for some reason he suddenly finds himself having a strange dream about Hank and Hope and in a semi-delirious state calls them using a burner phone that he had hidden and tells them about it.  Something like a day later he’s suddenly tranquilized and moved to a secret lab that Hank and Hope have been building where they hope to enter sub-atomic space to rescue Hank’s lost wife.  But not long after they all find themselves in a run-in with a mobster named Sonny Burch (Walton Goggins) and then they’re accosted by a strange masked combatant that seems to phase in and out of reality and it becomes clear that they’re going to be in the fight of their life.

The title of Ant-Man and The Wasp gives equal billing to Hope but don’t be fooled, this is still very much a story told from the perspective of Ant-Man, which is perhaps to be expected given that he’s more of an audience surrogate than Hope.  Hope is given a costume this time around and gets to participate in the action sequences as The Wasp but narratively she more or less shares her storyline with her father, who could just as easily be considered a co-star with the other two.  That aside the movie generally has a clearer picture of its characters than the original film did and the fact that it has its origin story stuff out of the way gives it a lot more time to act as something of a romp.  Most of the comic relief cast from the previous movie like Michael Peña and T.I. are back and Randal Park has been added as a delightfully nerdy FBI Agent who’s meant to be overseeing Scott’s house arrest and just steals every scene he’s in.  People who are frustrated by the fact that so many superhero movies tend to end with fights against super-villains that are about to set loose some world ending calamity will likely enjoy the fact that this movie involves a fight against some rather low level thugs led by Walton Goggins (who’s very much in “Vice Principals” mode here) and even the more traditional superhero foil called Ghost proves to be less eeeevilll than most Marvel villains.

In general Ant-Man and The Wasp is a clear improvement over its predecessor, it seems to have a bigger budget, it more clearly knows what it wants to be, and its cast has gelled considerably.  That said I still think this is one of Marvel’s weaker franchises, some people might like the film’s lighter tone, but I think Marvel movies are already plenty light to begin with and the Ant-Man movies bring that lightness to the point of feeling downright disposable.  This one in particular seems to really think that its tone can excuse away some pretty obvious plot-holes like the FBI’s incredible inability to keep tabs on Scotts home.  This all feels particularly inconsequential given the ending of Avengers: Infinity War, which only really comes up here during Marvel’s patented post-credits sequence, but the film otherwise does not feel terribly important to the greater MCU storyline.  The decision to release this a mere two months after Infinity War seems particularly curious given that there are no Marvel movies lined up at all for the fall and I’m guessing that there would have been a much bigger shortage of escapist entertainment like this during that season.  Having said all that, I don’t want to leave anyone with the impression that this isn’t worth seeing because it probably is at least if you’re an MCU fan.  These movies are basically never bad and this one isn’t either.  It’s a neat action movie and most audience members will get what they came for.

***1/2 out of Five   

Avengers: Infinity War(4/28/2018)

Warning: Review contains spoilers

Shortly after I went to a Saturday afternoon screening of Avengers: Infinity War I went onto Twitter and tweeted the following: “#AvengersInfinityWar All I’m going to say is, if you’re invested in the MCU you’re going to want to see this and do so before the spoilers get to you” and I’d say that’s still more or less what I have to say about the movie for anyone who hasn’t seen it yet.  Truth be told I’ve found writing reviews for MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) as if anyone is looking for advice as to whether or not they should see them is pretty delusional.  That isn’t to say that these movies are “critic-proof” as I do think truly negative reviews of them could take their toll if the movies suddenly took a real dip in quality, but while they continue to live up to expectations the people who are interested are simply going to keep going and this notion that anyone is waiting for little old me to weigh in before they put down their money would be even more egotistical than it would be for most of my reviews.  So, after this paragraph (and the perfunctory summery after it) this review is going to just dive in and talk about everything that happens in this movie and what it means to this whole enterprise and things will probably be a little more informal than usual.

The film picks up right where Thor: Ragnarok left off with the Asgardian refugees spaceship running into Thanos’ giant space base.  The Asgardian ship is quickly boarded and Thanos (Josh Brolin), who appears to have gotten a hold of the Power Stone from Guardians of the Galaxy, makes quick work of Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Loki (Tom Hiddleson), and even The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo).  Thanos then takes the Tesseract, which had been at the center of The Avengers and was re-stolen by Loki in Thor: Ragnarok, and proceeds to kill Loki on the spot and take the space stone from the Tesseract.  Heimdall (Idris Elba) is also killed but as he’s dying he manages to use the bifrost to teleport Bruce Banner back to Earth.  The Asgardian ship is destroyed but Thor, being a god, survives in the vacuum of space and is rescued by The Guardians of the Galaxy, who are chasing down the distress signal that the Asgardian ship was sending out.  From there He, Groot (Vin Diesal), and Rocket (Bradley Cooper) decide to seek out a weapons forge while Quill (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), and Mantis (Pom Klementieff) go to The Collector (Benicio del Toro) to try to find the Reality Stone from Thor: The Dark World.  Meanwhile, Banner finds himself having been teleported back to earth, where the Mind Stone is in the hands of Vision (Paul Bettany) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) after the events of Avengers: Age of Ultron and the Time Stone is in the hands of Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) after the events of his film.  Banner immediately seeks out Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and shortly after warning him and Dr. Strange about Thanos finds New York under attack by Thanos’ minions.

That above summery is a good example of why this is a hard write a normal review of this movie.  It’s a paragraph that will make very little sense to anyone who hasn’t already seen eighteen movies that preceded this one, and if anyone has already seen eighteen Marvel movies why the hell would they skip this one?  There are other Marvel movies that you can go to and more or less enjoy without worrying about how they fit into the overall story, but this certainly isn’t one of them.  This also isn’t a Marvel movie that’s trying to be some kind of Marvel infused take on some other genre.  It isn’t trying to be a blockbuster take on the high school movie like Spider-Man: Homecoming, it isn’t trying to be a comedic space opera that so happens to fit into the universe like Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 was, and it isn’t trying to be a politically charged science fiction film like Black Panther.  This is, at its heart, purely and simply a Marvel movie.  Of course it does need to bring in disparate elements from all those other movies and at times while watching the movie I was almost reminded of the early episodes of Marvel’s Netflix crossover series “The Defenders,” which gave the audience the impression that they were flipping between four different TV series.  Certain sacrifices are of course going to be made.  For instance The Guardians of the Galaxy are generally not accompanied by the 70s music they’re associated with and the trippy visuals associated with Dr. Strange are a lot more restrained here but for the most part the Russo Brothers do a pretty good job of bringing all these characters together efficiently while still providing all the action and witty banter that people expect from these movies.

All in all the movie plays out exactly as most audiences are expecting it to play out in grand entertaining fashion… and then everybody dies.  Now this is an ending that’s going to play out very differently to different audiences.  Personally I kind of saw it coming.  I had vague memories of hearing that something like that happening in the comic books and leading up to my screening I saw a lot of headlines in the early reviews talking about the “shocking ending” in ways that probably seemed vague to the people writing them but which were pretty easy for someone who pays to much attention to this stuff to put two and two together.  It’s also going to be less shocking to the over-informed simply because it’s a lot easier to be cynical about how permanent any of these deaths are likely to be if you know too much about who has what contracts.  We already know that there’s going to be a third Guardians of the Galaxy so there’s no way those characters are really dead and that Sony is trying to build a Spider-Man cinematic universe which ensures that that character is coming back and that there’s no way in hell that Disney is going to let the Black Panther money train movie end here.  However, it is maybe worth taking a couple steps back and considering how that played to the vast majority of the millions of people who are going to see this thing.  While I’m sure a lot of them will also have a hunch that some of these characters are coming back they probably didn’t see this cliffhanger coming and Marvel has done a pretty good job of downplaying the fact that another Avengers movie is coming next year with the general public.  In particular I wonder how the children in the audience would react to seeing the bad guy win and kill a bunch of their heroes.  Is that going to be traumatic to them?  I certainly hope so.

Anyway, the other thing about the movie I want to talk about has less to do with the ending itself so much as what led up to it.  Thanos was really only able to enact his insane plan because a lot of the heroes make a lot of selfish decisions.  Thanos only learns the location of the Soul Stone because Quill fails to follow Gamora’s instructions to shoot her rather than let her be captured and interrogated by Thanos, Gamora makes the same mistake herself by giving Thanos the location rather than see her sister tortured, Dr. Strange ostensibly only gives up the time stone to save Iron Man, Quill screws up yet again by losing his cool when the other heroes are about to take the gauntlet, and of course the possibility of that unhappy ending easily could have been cut of right from the beginning if Scarlett Witch had just yanked the mind stone from Vision’s head and wrecked it.  Absolutely none of these decisions can be justified on any logical level.  The whole damn movie is like a precession of so-called heroes making wildly selfish choices where they put the lives of their friends and family above the lives of literally trillions of other people and in doing so.  It’s like the anti-Casablanca, no one seems to realize that the lives of a couple little people does not amount to a hill of beans in a crazy universe where a madman wants to wipe out half of the universe’s population with the snap of the fingers… and yet thematically this series of events is not an accident.  The emotional and arguably selfish actions of all these characters stands in stark contrast to Thanos’ philosophy, which takes the notion of “the ends justify the means” to a deranged extreme.  Thanos is willing to kill trillions “for the greater good” and the heroes often can’t even kill one person “for the greater good,” presumably there’s a middle ground somewhere to be found and we’ll have to see if they address this in the as of yet untitled next Avengers movie.

So I guess the last question is why this movie works so well despite theoretically having all the same problems that Avengers: Age of Ultron had.  I called that movie an over-stuffed mess and on paper this movie is even more “stuffed” than that movie was, but it still manages to flow a lot better.  It also manages to find a lot more time to develop its villain than that earlier movie did.  In fact I was kind of shocked at how much effort they put into giving Thanos, a character I expected to have something of a Dr. Evil quality, some real motivations and personality.  Above all I think what makes this work so much better than Avengers: Age of Ultron is just that it has a purpose.  The surrounding solo Marvel films simply hadn’t been building towards Age of Ultron, it was a movie that largely just existed because they needed an Avengers movie in “phase two,” the movie those solo movies had been building towards pretty much since the beginning had been Infinity War and the fact that they actually managed to deliver on that promise and deliver on it this well is quite the achievement.  Now granted, a lot of this movie’s overall legacy is going to depend on whether they stick the landing in the follow-up and that remains to be seen, but if the goal for now was to make us excited for the finale then mission accomplished.

**** out of Five

Annihilation(2/21/2018)


He’s taken an odd route to Hollywood success but the English novelist Alex Garland has somehow managed to work in movies for over fifteen years and doesn’t really have a bad movie on his resume.  Beginning with the sale of his novel “The Beach” Garland began a working relationship with Danny Boyle which led to Garland writing screenplays for the Boyle films 28 Days Later and Sunshine, which both had their flaws but which were nonetheless very solid movies and then he went out on his own and wrote the screenplays for the under-rated Never Let Me Go and Dredd but he really became a force of his own in 2015 when he stepped into the director role and made the small scale science fiction film Ex Machina.  That was a movie I was kind of lukewarm on when I saw it but which in retrospect I think I was a bit too hard on.  That was an original science fiction movie made on a mid-budget, which is a kind of movie critics get really excited for but are also often disappointed by and Ex Machina managed to deliver and even somehow managed to get a visual effects Academy award despite being made on a relatively small budget.  He’s now been allowed to make another science fiction film and this time with a bigger budget and despite being made in a major studio his new film Annihilation is just as uncompromising as Ex Machina.

Annihilation begins with the sight of some kind of object crashing to Earth and hitting some kind of lighthouse.  From there we flash forward and meet a woman named Lena (Natalie Portman), a biologist and military veteran whose husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) has been missing since going on a classified special forces mission a year prior.  That ends one day when he suddenly shows up at her door and begins behaving strangely and can’t explain where he’s been and shows signs of deteriorating health.  Later that day they’re both stopped and arrested by government agents and brought to a secret facility that sits outside a national park that has been taken over by a strange phenomenon called “The Shimmer” which has encompassed the park (which has been evacuated under pretext of a chemical spill) and seems to be expanding outward.  Kane is apparently the only person so far to have returned from The Shimmer and as such Lena convinces a lady named Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to let her join the next team to enter The Shimmer in hopes of finding answers.

One of the reasons I was a little cool on Ex Machina originally was simply that I was a little tired of the whole “how human are robots” question that science fiction has been batting around for the last hundred years.  With Annihilation avoids this problem, in part because it’s a lot less cut and dry about what it’s trying to say or even what questions it’s asking in the first place.  In broad strokes it’s pretty clear what “the shimmer” is insomuch as it appears to be some sort of alien terraforming effort but the exact reasons for its creation and the full extent of what happens there is less defined.  The area is plainly reminiscent of “The Zone” from Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker in that it’s this seemingly earthly area where few people opt to venture because of the strange things that happen there.  Also like Tarkovsky’s film the mission that Lena and her compatriots go on seems less like an adventure and more like a grim inevitability they’re driven to by various personal demons.  Unlike Stalker though Annihilation has some more conventional genre thrills along the way.  I don’t want to give away too much of what goes on inside of “the shimmer” but the is a horror element to it including some creature effects that are somewhat reminiscent of John Carpenter’s The Thing and some of the group dynamics as the trip into “the shimmer” reminded me a bit of The Blair Witch Project.

In short, Annihilation is quite a trip.  It’s a thoughtful science fiction movie but one with imagery and structure that make it an entertaining viewing.  The most obvious recent touchstone for the movie would likely be the 2016 film Arrival, which was probably the last intelligent science fiction movie to really catch on with the public.  Both films are about women tasked with making contact with aliens who have appeared on Earth for mysterious reasons, but Annihilation is a little more visually adventurous and a little less generous in doling out its meaning.  This is a movie that’s going to keep people guessing and theorizing for a while, maybe not as long as one of Tarkovsky’s science fiction films, but certainly longer than most of the movies that Hollywood gives us.

****1/2 out of Five