Avengers: Infinity War (Spoiler-Free Review)

In preparing for this review, I took a look at other reviews and think-pieces. One in particular drew my attention. “Are Movies like Avengers: Infinity War Worth Taking Seriously?” asks Alyssa Rosenberg of the Washington Post, which addresses critic A.O Scott’s “symphony… of resignation” in his New York Times review of the film that asks the titular question. Rosenberg comes to the conclusion in the article that yes, we should take Avengers: Infinity War seriously, although her reasoning is more that critics can teach the movie-going public how to be smarter and that critics are independent thinkers who can push and prod against “the Big Bad.” While I agree with a lot of Rosenberg’s article, the clear implication that she and other critics aren’t fans of this work can’t apply to me. I am a fan of Marvel and have invested in these movies. So when I approach these films, it’s with duality, because I want to embrace it. I’m not trying to push against the “Big Bad.” But I’m also trying to be a good reviewer. Can I do both? Or, like Thanos, who feels that destroying half of the world will make the other half better, do I have to destroy one of these sides of me to fully be the other?

This is a non-spoiler review, so here’s what I can tell you: Thanos, an intergalactic god, has to collect six infinity stone to have enough power to wipe out half of the universe. All of the Marvel superheroes you know and love and quite a few you probably forgot about form mini-teams and split off into different corners of the galaxy to prevent him from collecting them all.

Some critics have been comparing Avengers: Infinity War to The Empire Strikes Back. I would compare it more to The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. Both have the characters splitting off into their different quests (some that drag or seem unnecessary), a lot of mythology you have to know to understand anything, and great action scenes. Both are not as self-contained as Fellowship of the Ring, yet neither have the satisfactory feel of The Return of the King. But like The Two Towers, Infinity War is necessary for the future, and it has things to offer on its own.

However, like I would not recommend seeing The Two Towers without having seen Fellowship of the Ring, I would also not recommend seeing Infinity War if you, like my mom, asked before the film, “Is Wonder Woman going to be in this one?” If you are a casual movie-goer and can’t name at least 3/4ths of the heroes on the poster, I can imagine this two hours and forty minute esoteric season-finale of a 19-film melodrama series feeling… well maybe like 19 films.

If you are a fan, then you probably already have your ticket, and I suggest you use it. Infinity War is both everything you expect and none of it. It is the closest I’ve ever seen a movie embody an amusement park ride, and there are genuine delights for fans. But I don’t think your experience is going to be satisfactory.

There’s a scene at the end of the film that is a perfect representation of the Infinity War as a whole. I promise it’s not a spoiler. Thanos, our villain, has a vision of sorts. In his vision, he finds himself walking on top of water, surrounded by a red dusk. He approaches a vaguely Buddhist-inspired temple, where he sees a character we’ve learned he has a complicated relationship with. This character says a few cryptic words, end vision.

This scene made me feel something. First it’s visually striking with the color palette and the Jesus-imagery with Thanos walking on water. Then we see him talk with the character, and the heartstrings are pulled because I know the relationship between the two, the complexities and emotions behind it.

But when I take a step back and think about it, the scene rings a bit hollow. This vision accomplishes very little, and doesn’t tell us anything about Thanos that we didn’t already know. Did Thanos show any previous affinity to walking on water? No, there’s no reason to have him do that except that it’s cool and seems tantalizing because it’s a religious allusion, and makes the film seem smarter. The Buddhist temple? I think for a majority of American audiences, including me, the first reaction will be, “oooh, that’s mystical. This must mean this is spiritual and stuff.” But it means nothing other than that. It’s lazy, uninformed short-hand for, “this is a mystical scene.” And then for the character interaction itself? There’s no actual work put into the scene to make it emotional. It’s all shorthand that I have to know to infuse it with any meaning.

Infinity War is all of these things: visually striking, suggestive of deeper meaning but without actual invention, and completely made up of shorthand. This film actually brings very little to the MCU (Marvel Cinematic Universe) and there’s no character development. It only combines and uses what has been established before.

But… isn’t that also the point? Marvel has done something that has never been done before. Marvel created an interconnected cinematic universe, the equivalent of a television show with two to three two-hour long episodes a year, going on for ten years. As other reviews have pointed out, this is like the season finale. And it’s not bad to use a shorthand, that’s what all films do. Isn’t it then a narrative triumph that this movie has even been made, and audiences can understand and emotionally identify with it based on all the work done before? It’s indulgent, yes, but Marvel has certainly earned it with 10 years of consistent work.

Then why doesn’t it feel whole? While I’m still trying to unpack the film, I think there are a few reasons. 

One, the ending. This film was originally conceived as a two-parter, and it certainly feels that way.

Second, we know the future roster of movies, and that keeps some characters completely safe and the stakes not as high. To the film’s credit though, I think it does all it can to make you feel like everyone is at risk, and some of the character’s fates are genuinely shocking.

Finally, all of the previous movies ended with saving the world, and hope. Sometimes it rang hollow and felt false, but it wasn’t until this film, which has very little hope, that I realized how comforting that is.

Now there’s no doubt that hope is coming in future films. So, on one hand, I would applaud this movie for ending on a hopeless note, unlike, say Batman V. Superman which couldn’t bring itself to do hopeless in an honest way. But, on the other hand, because this film doesn’t actually add anything to any characters, quickly patches over old conflicts and plot threads with a throw-away line, it is neither a celebration of this beloved universe, nor is it a complete reboot. It suspends everything in midair, without even hope to tide us over. And aren’t superheroes about hope?

Infinity War isn’t satisfying as a critic because this is a movie with very little actual substance, and needs not only knowledge, but emotional ties, to the previous films to work. It’s not satisfying as a fan because while it’s a thrill ride, it’s both a relentless beating to your fan-heart and its delights are quick and often feel more like a checklist. If you blink you might miss your favorite two characters meeting, interacting, and then departing.  

But I’m still not taking the bait. I’m not killing my fan side, nor my critic side. I still believe you can be both, and even if Avengers: Infinity War isn’t complete, that doesn’t mean it is empty.

-Madeleine D

Advertisements

It’s Certainly Wes Anderson: Isle of Dogs

isle of dogs

Isle of Dogs is Wes Anderson’s ninth film. If you’ve seen a Wes Anderson film, you know how particular, quirky, and Wes Anderson-y they are. And Isle of Dogs, the story of a young boy who travels to an island in Japan where his dog has been exiled, is no different. It features all of the director’s best and worst qualities.

So, positively, the film is full of good, clever, funny ideas. The story is interesting and a few subplots add more dynamics to explore. Too bad they aren’t explored.

On the negative, this film has been riddled with controversy, accusing Anderson of cultural appropriation. While I’m not an expert on the subject and the finer points of some people’s criticism of Anderson’s use of Japan here, there is an awkward tension at play. Most obviously, all of the Japanese human characters are not translated, so either they are translated by another character or their words are taken from their mouths and given to American Foreign exchange student Tracy (Greta Gerwig) so we can have an awkward case of a white person taking up the cause and becoming the spokesperson for another group. While there seems to be a respect for the culture (the highly selective version of Anderson’s imagination) and the language, the fact that only the American-voiced characters have agency defeats the whole purpose of telling a story in a different culture and appreciating it and its people. It’s not that a director should be prohibited from telling stories in countries and cultures that aren’t theirs, but sidelining the native people of those cultures/countries is not the best way to do it.

But does that really matter? Because the movie is about the dogs, not the humans. Maybe this is a way to bring focus to the dogs. After all, aren’t the dogs the ones with the all-star voice cast you’re excited about? Well get ready to hear maybe four lines from your favorite actor, because there are entire characters and scenes here that are thrown in just to add another name. Seriously, they serve no purpose, either in character development, plot, or worldbuilding.

This, of course, is not new to Wes Anderson. He’s a director characterized by his style, and often at the expense of concise, impactful storytelling. Every frame of this film is a masterpiece, and beauty and aesthetics are important, but why do we go to movies? The reason I watch movies, and then review them, is not because they are escapism. I believe films should strive, in some way, to communicate ideas and to reflect something about the world.

After Isle of Dogs, I had very little to say. Very little to think. Because while this movie is beautiful, it’s shallow in every sense of the word, and I would rather have an ugly film that makes me feel something, that feels intimate and loved, rather then something that feels cold and distant.

But if you love Wes Anderson and his work, you may really like this film. I’ve had a few people give me passionate arguments in defense of the film, bring up things I missed. So, if you see it and love it, you can write off this review because, I have to admit, I’m actually a cat person.

-Madeleine D

Yell it out: A Quiet Place is great!

quiet-place

One of the best parts of watching a horror movie is asking yourself, “Would I survive this? And if not, at what point would I die?”

I decided I would have probably died in A Quiet Place about halfway through. Emily Blunt’s character Evelyn lives in a post-apocalyptic world overrun with blind monsters with super hearing. She and her family live on a farm in constant fear of making noise. And she’s pregnant.

One night, with her family out, she hears the monsters come into the house. Then her water breaks. She goes down the stairs to hide, and steps on a previously upturned nail. It is at that point, I would scream and gladly let the monsters eat me.

But this scene, which my description gives no justice to, is one of the reasons A Quiet Place might be one of the most well-written films of all time. It does everything from a screenwriting perspective right. The stakes are constantly raised, all of the character have some kind of guilt, every scene has a purpose, every plant has multiple payoffs, and of course, it’s the epitome of “show, don’t tell.” And credit should go to director John Krasinski and cinematographer Charlotte Bruus Christensen (Fences, The Hunt) for letting the script “speak” for itself with practical, purposeful, and restrained directing and cinematography.

I was afraid going in that my movie-going experience was going to be ruined by the audience. But A Quiet Place shows what film has the power to do as a medium. The audience I ended up in was one of the most well-behaved ones I’ve ever seen. A minute in and everyone was dead silent. I heard someone struggling to eat popcorn as quietly as possible. There was not a peep during the whole film. A Quiet Place immediately sucks you into its mindset and plays with your every emotion. Each action is deliberate and every facet of the film- the acting, direction, set design, score, and sound editing- is used to engage the audience and force you into the place of the characters. Sound becomes the enemy and a character of its own.

It’s hard to talk about A Quiet Place, not only because it’s best to go in without any big spoilers, but the film is prime material to be a metaphor for something. But determining what that something is is all the more difficult without dialogue. Krasinski and Blunt have said it’s a film about parenting, which is clear by the end. However, it could also be about childbearing, our obsession with sound, or how we adapt and function when disabled.

Or, it could simply be an excellent film that uses all of the horror-genre conventions to its advantage, and will take your breath away. But once you see it, don’t be afraid to exclaim how good it is.

-Madeleine D

Commu-NEED-ity

In a film, a protagonist must change in order to have a compelling character arc. This is most often presented through the transition from the protagonist chasing what they want, to discovering what they need. The wants are often superficial and materialistic, the needs more spiritual and virtuous, like love or humility. An example of this is the popular “workaholic dad who misses his child’s birthday and realizes his selfishness” storyline. It’s an easy character to write and an easy change to convey on screen. One minute he’s at his desk, then he’s brought to his senses by a magical being (Captain Hook, penguins, Buddy the elf, etc.) and he learns to treasure his family.

While there are many ways to show what a character wants and needs, one of the more subversive ways to do this is through the community the character inhabits. Taking the example above, if the protagonist is a workaholic, her workplace is the community she inhabits. But once the protagonist realizes she needs to be less selfish and love her family more, she can no longer inhabit that community. She has to find a new one that supports her new self.

This transition, from one community to another, is one way to show the change a character goes through. But what this community looks like varies, and can be found, I would argue, in any type of movie. To prove this versatility and examine the convention further, let’s look at three wildly different films.

First is Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing from 1989, a pulsing, unique, intimate look at race and anger in a Brooklyn neighborhood. Second, Billy Wilder’s 1961 Academy Awards Best Picture winner The Apartment, a dramedy that pushed the edge of the envelope in Hays Code Hollywood. Third, The Tree of Life, Terrence Malick’s magnum opus and 2012’s only Best Picture nominee with dinosaurs and a gratuitous amount of tree shots. Each film has the protagonist start out wanting something and identifying with one community, to finding out what he needs and identifying with another.

do-the-right-thing

One of Lee’s first films, Do the Right Thing follows a handful of citizens of a Brooklyn neighborhood during the hottest day of the year. It is a racially diverse area, with Sal (Danny Aiello) and his sons, Pino (John Turturro) and Vito (Richard Edson), the Italian owners of Sal’s pizzeria; a handful of black residents including Mookie (Spike Lee), Buggin’ Out (Giancarlo Esposito), Da Mayor (Ossie Davis), and Radio Raheem (Bill Nunn); Latinas like Tina (Rosie Perez); a Korean store owner named Sonny (Steve Park); and two white cops that patrol the area (Miguel Sandoval and Rick Aiello).

It’s a film about race, escalating tensions, and what simmers beneath the surface. In the film, everyone thinks their community, the place they belong, is within their own race. People stick together and only cross lines in a friendly manner at intersections like the pizzeria. Every character wants to protect his own. That’s why Buggin’ Out wants “brothers on the wall.” That’s why the men on the corner want the Korean couple to be kicked out. That’s why the white guy in the neighborhood, representing gentrification, is harassed. That’s why Pino wants the pizzeria to move to an Italian part of town.

The only true exception to this is our protagonist Mookie, who does not live within his own racial lines. He’s a black man, fathering a child with Tina, a Puerto-Rican, and works at Sal’s. His own character embodies the diversity of the neighborhood as a whole. Sal to a lesser degree is similar, but he’s not our protagonist. Mookie is the only character who truly lives in a racial intersection.

What keeps everyone within their own race is what all of the characters want, which is to be heard. The core of every interaction in the film can be boiled down to each character feeling unheard by the other. Buggin’ Out wants Sal to listen and understand his reasoning for wanting black portraits in the pizzeria. When Sal doesn’t, Buggin’ Out tries to start a boycott. Pino wants his father to move out of the neighborhood, and in effect, understand his racism. Mookie wants to be paid. The three men on the corner want to express their anger at the Korean couple’s success, but they don’t listen to each other and instead cut each other’s ambitions down. Everyone’s desires keep them separated into their individual racial communities.

In the film’s fourth-wall breaking montage, everyone has something to say about another group. The characters don’t feel heard when they talk to one another in the film, so to be heard they have to talk directly to the camera, to the audience, to get their feelings across. Yet this does not produce the catharsis the characters desire. They still aren’t communicating with each other. So instead of dispelling the anger, it escalates it, spiraling the film towards the climax.

What the characters of Do the Right Thing need is to listen and to see where the other person is coming from. This is, in part, why Radio Raheem dies. Sal grows impatient and destroys Raheem’s radio in order to let his anger be heard, and the police don’t listen (or care to listen) to the people telling them they’re killing Raheem.

Mookie throwing the trash can is him finally being heard, as everyone reacts to what he has done by following suit, destroying Sal’s pizzeria. Everyone is listening to Mookie. This may not be the good kind of listening, as this is not a sustained solution and ultimately just hurts everyone involved. But the community does, for a few moments, come together (save for Sal) after hearing Mookie’s rallying cry. This is when the community unites and sees what it could be as a neighborhood, not as a collection of races.

Examining the riot scene only works when comparing it to the only other scene in the film where everyone in the neighborhood comes together, which is the earlier water-hydrant scene. This scene is not necessarily about the character’s wants and needs, but is a positive vision of the neighborhood coming together. These two scenes, that almost bookend the film, mirror each other sinisterly, with dramatically different tones but the same actions in both.

Both scenes start with a character destroying something- the two men opening the hydrant, Mookie throwing the trash can through Sal’s window. Then the movement of the scene is the same. Everyone joins in. There is yelling and frantic motion, a collage of bodies. Women are screaming as their sons and brothers push them into the water at the hydrant; women scream as the destruction rages. The two elements- water and fire- drench the scenes and backlight the faces of the characters. The water hydrant scene is overwhelmed with music, (“You Know You Can’t Stand It” by Steel Pulse), the destruction scene has a deafening void. Both scenes have the entire neighborhood come together, and the emotions in each one, while completely different (playfulness versus anger and fear) bind everyone together. That is where the real community is, not along racial lines, and it only occurs when everyone is listening to each other and having their desires aligned. Of course, in both of these scenes, there is a group not in on the action- the white man in the car during the water hydrant scene, and Sal and his sons during the riot. But I’m addressing the greater majority of characters, and it is a testament to Lee’s writing that this film cannot be described in absolutes.

In the last scene, Mookie goes to Sal and they, I would argue, cautiously reconcile. The reconciliation is not within racial lines, but outside of them. This reconciliation happens after Mookie is not only heard but listens and is listened to, the transition from want to need.

Do the Right Thing is a messy example of this convention because it isn’t obvious, nor is it particularly hopeful. The ending of Do the Right Thing, despite the characters getting a brief taste of getting what they need, is not magically optimistic. It’s a movie that sees race and racism with clear eyes. There are characters that are exceptions to a lot of the situations and conflicts I’ve outlined. But in broad strokes, Do the Right Thing still shows how a community in a film can change with the protagonist’s character arc.

The-Apartment

Now for contrast, let’s look at how a protagonist can completely change what community they are a part of as they change personally. The Apartment was written (with help by I.A.L. Diamond) and directed by the legendary Billy Wilder. It follows C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon), a “company man” of an insurance corporation, who rents out his apartment to his bosses and their mistresses, in exchange for promotions he doesn’t deserve.

The corporation is a hierarchy that rewards loyalty and silence. The men that fill the higher ranks operate with a Harvey Weinstein-level of assurance of their impalpable positions. This is best characterized by their extramarital affairs and the casualness in which they manipulate their women and wives. The environment of sleaze and privilege is alluring, and the drive for distinctly male success(and his wishy-washy personality) forces Baxter to continue renting out his apartment even when he no longer wishes to.

While Baxter is the protagonist, this environment even affects the actions of Fran (Shirley MacLaine). There’s clear misogyny in the workplace (the first scene with Fran includes Kirkeby slapping her behind) and a glass ceiling for women. She sees her future as a rejected lover in Sheldrake’s secretary, Miss Olsen, who rattles off a list of other lovers Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray) has had. If Fran broke off the relationship, it’s clear she would be the one to suffer, both personally and career reputation-wise. It is ingrained in the office to have an attitude of easy love and common heartbreak, particularly for women.

Baxter wants the job, and Fran wants the man, both goals of which manifest in Sheldrake, who himself represents the company. This is what Baxter and Fran think they need, and the environment they think they want to be a part of.
It is only after their romantic suicide-watch date night, isolated from the corporation, that both characters are able to come to terms with what has been holding them back. Once detoxed from Sheldrake and the environment, it can be seen how the community was coaxing them into making the harmful decisions that led them to this situation.

They discover what they really need is each other, and to be free of their relationships with Sheldrake. Baxter has to lose his ambition, and Fran her self-destructive relationship.

After tasting this freedom, Baxter quits and decides to move out. He has to leave the community to assert his own autonomy and make the decision that feels right. Fran is able to finally make the choice to leave Sheldrake. While the ending is not clear about what will become of Fran and Baxter, their decision to leave a toxic environment is their final decision, and a good one at that. They are able to go from finding their wants in one community, to finding their needs within another one, the community they build together. Unlike the characters of Do the Right Thing, the characters in The Apartment are able to fully experience what it is like to leave a bad environment and join a new one.

tree of life

Finally, let’s look at The Tree of Life, an experimental, metaphysical film that strives to look like how a prayer feels, and you’ll probably interpret the film like you interpret that statement. Rest assured, though, there is a coherent narrative within the close-ups of Jessica Chastain and flowers.

It starts with a man named Jack O’Brien (Sean Penn), who is disconnected in his life as an architect. His world is full of sleek and modern lines that imprison him. The voices of people around him fade in and out, their words meaning nothing. Everything is in direct contrast to his childhood in Texas, full of warm, natural colors and the soulful presence of his gentle mother (Jessica Chastain). However, haunting those memories of wonder is the presence of his abusive father (Brad Pitt) and the death of his brother. But Jack has to come to terms with his past to move on, so he dives deep into his memories.

In the film, there is a recurring theme of the “way of nature” and the “way of grace,” embodied by the father and mother, respectively. Jack as an adult is following the way of nature, the one he inherited from his father. But as he travels metaphorically through his life and grief, he comes to desire the way of grace, the way of his mother. With that change from want to need, comes the change of community. To be on the way of grace, he has to forgive his father and come to terms with his brother’s death, like his mother does.

The film ends with Jack on a beach with his family in their adolescent years and his childhood friends. This is his new community, most likely an image of heaven, but still an embodiment of Jack’s new priorities and community values. It comes through a rejection of the materialistic life he thought he wanted, and reconciliation, which is what he needs.

In each of these stories, Do the Right Thing, The Apartment, and The Tree of Life, the protagonist’s idea of community and where he belongs changes as part of his character arc. If this theme can be found in such uniquely different films, then it is ubiquitous. It can be sought out in any genre, in any type of story. There is a universal quality in the experience that filmmakers and audiences search to portray and describe.

-Madeleine D