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Avengers: Infinity War

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Released: 26th April 2018

Directed By: Anthony and Joe Russo

Starring: Robert Downey Jr, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Elizabeth Olsen, Mark Ruffalo, Benedict Cumberbatch, Tom Holland

Reviewed By: Van Connor

After ten years, eighteen movies, eleven TV shows, and a half dozen shorts (or One-Shots), it’s unfathomable at this point that there could really be such a thing as a newcomer to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and, frankly, that’s just as well – for, while Infinity War is easily the biggest boldest superhero smash-up to date, it’s frankly impenetrable if you can’t tell your Star-Lords from your Heimdalls. But, y’know what? Who cares.

What stands out most of all about the film, luckily, is the sublime balancing act by writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely – legacy scribes within the MCU. It’s not flawless – Scarlett Johansson, Don Cheadle, and Anthony Mackie get noticeably short shrift, while a pair of regulars are sidelined off-screen with a single line of dialogue – but the manner in which Infinity War tackles the might of the numerous egos and personalities on display is outright spectacular. The weirdest character pairings you’ve ever seen really do come to life, and, for some – for instance, Paul Bettany and Elizabeth Olsen’s previously rather thinly sketched Vision and Scarlet Witch – there’s the opportunity to sparkle like never before. It’s bombastic, unapologetic, and it’s got the grit and gristle to put on the mother of all star-studded shows. It’s the superhero genre’s Woodstock, with Josh Brolin’s Thanos its Hendrix.

For spoiler reasons (#ThanosDemandsYourSilence – take goddamn note), the safest way to synopsise Infinity War’s plot is to simply detail its exploits as being the venture of intergalactic despot Thanos across the cosmos in search of the six Infinity Stones – the MacGuffins behind the entire MCU mythology to date – with the combination of all set to gift him sheer omnipotence and the ability to reshape the universe how he sees fit. Brolin’s a revelation in the part, still recognisable behind the CG facade and delivering a startlingly soulful performance that draws his mad titan in an impressively sympathetic manner. He’s no Killmonger, sure, but Thanos absolutely exceeds the previously rather phoned-in element of dread afforded him, his hulking physicality and admirably thought-out sense of philosophical devastation ranking him easily among the franchise’s best villains to date.

There are key notes on which Infinity War could so easily hang its hat and call it a day, yet it continues in an unrelenting manner not dissimilar to Thanos himself – running the gamut from sadism to desperation to such far flung extremes as a considered mediation on the frivolity of population control and natural resources. It’s bonkers through and through, but it works on the page and absolutely flies on the screen – with directors Joe and Anthony Russo throwing all their cards on the table and going for broke with nary a shake in their rock-solid confidence to be found.

It helps to have a cast as polished and well-honed as they do, and, after umpteen Thor, Cap, etc adventures, it’d be more shocking if they weren’t. There’s great chemistry on offer – Tony Stark and Doctor Strange make for an amusing pairing – even if the script drops the ball slightly as regards certain character dynamics (Stark’s explanation of what Cap’s been up to smacks of desperation to keep the characters apart). The buzzword, however, is “epic”, and it’s one Infinity War embraces every chance it gets. In her book, Superheroes! Capes and Crusaders in Comics and Films (which is a must read, as regards a pre-MCU landscape), Roz Kaveney frequently acknowledges a connection between both comic book lore and Greek mythology – a connection the Russos, Markus and McFeely clearly seek to indulge here. As haphazardly fun as Infinity War can be, it’s at its best when this is the case, with the MCU’s grand “third season finale” playing largely like an OTT mythological epic that just happens to belong to a universe that includes both Robert Redford and Jake Busey. Seriously. Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. smuggled a Busey into the MCU. Look it up and enjoy that.

It’s not without its quibbles – it’s borderline exhausting, for instance, to sit through as much content as there is to be found here, and the decision to break the story into four or five smaller simultaneous sub-adventures does, periodically, short-change some in favour of others (*cough* Thor *cough*), but it’s excusable considering they’re both unavoidable in a structural sense and build to what could easily be the most jaw-droppingly unbelievable third act the MCU canon has ever delivered. Undercut faintly by a post-credits sequence that’ll raise both eyebrows and questions about the nature of its already-filmed sequel, Infinity War hits the ground running, offers some bonafide shocks as it goes, and concludes with a solid ten minutes that will have its audience staring at the screen in utter disbelief.

What’s great is that the Russo’s know just how to keep it engaging under the overly-ambitious weight being thrust upon it – action sequences remain as exciting and coherent as they were the first time they took the directorial reigns with Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and it’s a damn fine looking movie, courtesy of Winter Soldier and Civil War cinematographer Trent Opaloch. At times, Opaloch dangles the prospect of the Cannon Films-esque colour scheme gimmick of the Netflix Defenders team-up (by the way: no, they haven’t secretly included them – sorry) but instead crafts something suitably alien-feeling but familiar with what we’ve experienced of this universe to date.

Infinity War also sees the return of Avengers composer Alan Silvestri to the House of M, his gift for balancing individual themes amidst a wholly unique and captivating score as rock solid as it’s ever been, and standing in sharp contrast to Danny Elfman and Brian Tyler’s strangely forgettable efforts in Age of Ultron (be honest, you remember the closing credits theme and nothing else). Elsewhere, the frankly gargantuan level of CGI and digital effects feels light years above the oft-lamented counterpoint of the recent Black Panther (otherwise, still probably the MCU’s strongest entry to date) and there’s genuine thought put into just what piece fits where in the visual landscape, as with the narrative.

If there’s a sour note to be found in Infinity War, though, its in its most glaring and obvious weakness to begin with – those eighteen movies, eleven TV shows, and half dozen shorts have essentially become outright required reading in order to properly ingest just what’s going on. One single exchange of dialogue between Thor and the Guardians of the Galaxy, for example, references events in no less than seven movies in under sixty seconds – with nearly all punctuated by the MCU’s signature sense of bathos. It’s an issue you can’t escape at any point in the film, which romps along merrily, but would baffle any poor unfortunate hipster (“I’ve never seen a Marvel movie” has quickly become this century’s “I don’t even own a TV”, after all) with no pre-existing knowledge to begin with. That’s the rub, though – Infinity War is, after all, a season finale, and were that level of knowledge not the case, it’d likely draw umbrage for that too.

But you’ll love it, you’ll love every minute of it. There are things in here you thought you’d literally never see in a feature film, let alone a feature film with heft of The Return of the King, ten years of its own cinematic mythos, and the potential disaster before it that is sharing screen time between literally dozens of known commodities and fan favourites. Make no mistake, Infinity War ain’t f**king around, it establishes that from literally its opening second, before launching into the darkest, most bloodthirsty and unrelentingly grim comic book adventure (a word it never forgets is part of its remit) it could possibly be. It’s fortunate then that it has as much humour as it does to offset what could otherwise be one hell of an ordeal, resulting in a movie unlike any other you’ve ever seen.

Avengers: Infinity War delivers. And then some. It takes you to places you never thought you’d go, shows you sights you never imagined, and forces you to face up to the horrifying notion not only of what might happen should the forces of evil prevail, but also, what if those forces have a point? There’s a moment for nearly every contingent of its fanbase to bask in and enjoy, enough game-changing material to leave you truly breathless about just where in the hell we’re headed next (Ant-Man and the Wasp arrives in mere months), and Cap has a beard now, so the internet’s happy. Just as Kaveney’s book remains the sterling monument to a superhero landscape before the arrival of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Infinity War marks a new point in the evolution of this once-maligned (and still is by an elitist sub-set of cinemagoers whose furniture presumably points at nothing) genre that has allowed the Apple to its rival’s Microsoft to offer up a Zune to its iPod and changed the game entirely.

Here’s to ten more years. Wakanda Forever.

Movie Reviews

Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again ★★★★

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Released: 20th July 2018

Directed By: Ol Parker

Starring: Lily James, Meryl Streep, Cher, Christine Baranski, Amanda Seyfried, Julie Walters, Pierce Brosnan, Colin Firth, Stellan Skarsgard

Reviewed By: Darryl Griffiths

The iconic Swedish pop group said ‘Thank You For The Music!’. An overjoyed studio said ‘Thank You For The Box Office!’.

Sure. Pierce Brosnan singing ABBA’s SOS had a hint of the Borat (Sorry Sacha!) about it. But the summer of 2008 bared witness to a cinematic juggernaut in ‘Mamma Mia’, a jubilant jukebox musical whose sense of joy and fun proved irresistible for audiences. Considering life’s too short. Ten years on we return to the sumptuous setting of Kalokairi Greece with ‘Here We Go Again’, as the sequel fleshes out the timeline, remaining keen to create more cinematic memories.

Content with her unorthodox triple father situation in Harry (Colin Firth), Bill (Stellan Skarsgard) and Sam (Pierce Brosnan). Sophie’s (Amanda Seyfried) fierce determination to honour her mother Donna’s (Meryl Streep) dream of renovating her surroundings into a lavish hotel, coincides with the severe turbulence she’s enduring in her ongoing relationship with Sky (Dominic Cooper).

Increasingly doubtful of her own capabilities. The dynamo duo of Christine Baranski’s Tanya and Julie Walters’ Rosie look to bolster her confidence by delving into Donna’s past, as Lily James’ enthused younger incarnation of the character guides us through her eventful youth with the dungarees intact, reliving her initial encounters in 1979 with Sophie’s dads (Hugh Skinner/Jeremy Irvine/Josh Dylan).

Previously unapologetic in its ramshackle charm and high camp. Director Ol Parker to much relief resists applying restraint to its energetic, big-hearted song and dance numbers, whilst technically and narratively tightening up the deficiencies that perhaps plagued its 2008 counterpart for the purists, with a sharper focus on emotional engagement. As a result, it may not be as quick to overwhelm us with its blindingly sunny disposition like its predecessor, occasionally labouring in its first half with its time-hopping.

Yet when those glorious highs arrive like a new take on ‘Dancing Queen’ and Cher’s stellar firework-heavy rendition of ‘Fernando’, whose cameo evoked hearty cheers in the screening i was in. They are now armed with a poignant and reflective slant, reinforcing the ingenuity in how these timeless songs are integrated into the framework, in order to offer fresh interpretations.

Lighting up the screen as a young Donna Sheridan. Lily James captures the carefree spirit and mannerisms of the character superbly, proving a solid counterpart to Meryl Streep’s original performance and Amanda Seyfried’s Sophie in the singing stakes. Speaking of Streep, much has been made about her (lack of?) involvement in this follow-up. Without slipping into spoiler territory, her gorgeous screen moments this time around epitomise why many fans deemed her an instant hit in the first film. Elsewhere, Christine Baranski and Julie Walters continue to provide fantastic farce, stealing much of the script’s zingy dialogue whilst Andy Garcia’s enigmatic hotel manager is a disarming and dashing addition.

It may not have been a sequel we were warming up the vocal chords for. Yet in striking a killer balance between emotive and euphoric. ‘Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again’ is a truly wonderful follow-up that brims with sincerity and show-stopping splendour.

Dig out the spandex and unleash your inner ‘Super Trouper’…

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Featured Review

Hotel Artemis ★★★

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Released: 20th July 2018

Directed By: Drew Pearce

Starring: Jodie Foster, Charlie Day, Sofia Boutella

Reviewed By: Van Connor

Iron Man 3 alum Drew Pearce makes his feature directorial debut with this slick future-set actioner – evoking the neon-tinged hyperbolic aesthetic of John Wick and applying it to a more stripped-down set-up akin to Joe Carnahan’s strangely forgotten Smoking Aces. Hotel Artemis sees the eponymous underworld hospital of the future come under siege by forces both outside and in, with a who’s-who of “hey – it’s….!” figures to bring its gleefully vitriolic war well and truly to life.

On Pearce’s part, Hotel Artemis knows its own playbook pretty well – tense action beats are played with coherence but don’t skimp on imagination, and the staging of it all is first rate. Jodie Foster, meanwhile, leads an engaging cast that includes a wonderfully sleazy Charlie Day, the brilliantly deadpan Sterling K. Brown, and an amusingly in-her-comfort-zone Sofia Boutella. It’s best to keep as much of its casting a surprise as possible, but there’s tons of fun to be had via mere cast reveals to keep proceedings engaging.

On the action front, though, it is strange that Hotel Artemis feels as subdued as it does as regards its own sense of internal rage. Whilst far from a bloodless PG-13, Pearce’s film never quite embeds itself as much in the hyperviolence of its world as you’d expect, or, rather, hope. It’s certainly no John Wick in that sense, and, though there is a decent share of world-building to kick things off, it’s quickly evident that this element of restraint is self-imposed by Pearce’s writing, rather than a by-product of now requisite franchise-creation. Hotel Artemis, incidentally, could easily garner itself a cheap and cheerful sequel or two, were there somehow a demand.

On the back of this pretty solid ninety minute actioner, that’s absolutely a consideration. The world it builds is fleshed out enough to intrigue, the cast are game for an intriguing balance of quirk and creepiness, and Pearce steps up to the director’s chair with unbroken confidence and a comic book sensibility that takes him deftly to the finish line. Stoker cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung astonishes as ever, and, while not his showiest work to date, Cliff Martinez’s score fleshes out the bonkers world of Hotel Artemis nicely.

Best aimed at those looking for another round of Smoking Aces-grade action – though, without quite the same singular ferocity – Hotel Artemis is a nice bit of bullet-laden fun with a lively cast and some slick visuals. It’ll never be one of the iconic points on the timeline of action cinema, but it’s a worthy stop-off on the way between the ones that are.

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Movie Reviews

Skyscraper ★★★★

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Released: 12th July 2018

Directed By: Rawson Marshall Thurber

Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Neve Campbell

Reviewed By: Van Connor

Be honest. Sooner or later, you knew The Rock was going to make Die Hard. It was inevitable. As he ascends higher and higher thought the upper echelons of the – increasingly spartan – Hollywood star system, this was always going to be coming. The only question really, was going to be whether or not it was going to be either any good, or even welcome in a world in which even a bonafide Die Hardsequel now typically ranks among the worst of whichever year it’s released in.

Alas, Dwayne Johnson is no Bruce Willis, and that quality control barrier could not be any clearer as Die Hard meets The Towering Inferno – with a dash of The Fugitive – for Skyscraper. Rawson Marshall Thurber’s adrenaline-fuelled ride takes DJ to China as amputee and former FBI tactical agent Will Sawyer, an American tasked with signing off on the security of The Pearl – the tallest building in the world. When terrorists seize The Pearl, however, Sawyer finds himself the subject of a Chinese manhunt and forced to find a way back into the building in order to save his wife and children from not only the terrorists seeking to fulfil their own agenda, but also to the out-of-control blaze that threatens to consume them all.

Johnson’s played in the sort of arena on more than a few occasions now, with Skyscraper arguably skewing closest to San Andreas as regards the sort of tone and polished spectacle you’re in for. There are some offhand nods to more classical genre archetypes – hell, it makes more Die Hard references than Jake Peralta – and there’s the requisite degree of fistbumping and utilisation of the term “brother”, but those still unsure of what to expect can rest easy on the promise of what’s essentially an Irwin Allen movie with a Neal Moritz sensibility. It ain’t clever, it doesn’t want to be, it just wants you to sit on the edge of your seat and then cheer afterwards. Which you will. A lot.

Neve Campbell brings an impressive amount to what’s an already impressively sketched out female supporting character in Sawyer’s wife (take notes, Bedelia – that’s how you handle hostage takers), and Pablo Schreiber (Orange is the New Black) continues to make for an engaging added value element. Roland Møller, meanwhile, makes for a decent enough villain, but lacks the charisma needed to really sell the ludicrously named Kores Botha as much of an evil mastermind. Sure, he was never going to rival Hans Gruber on the scale of action movie villains, but Botha’s so thinly devised as a villain that he’s not up to the grade of Tommy Lee Jones’ Under Siege villain either. And that’s a real detriment when your action hero lead is someone as genuinely charismatic as Dwayne Johnson. Both Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Joe Manganiello took the wrong Rock movie, would be a decent takeaway.

In lieu of a captivating villain, Thurber nonetheless ensures value for money is had with a barrage of spectacle-fuelled set-pieces the likes of which will have you squirming in your seat biting your fist for dear life – IMAX could well inspire a sense of vertigo with this one. It’s a glossy-looking actioner – thanks to some smooth production design and slick visuals from cinematographer and Mission: Impossible alum Robert Elswit – and fight choreographer Allan Poppleton goes above and beyond to stage Johnson’s antics not as the all-powerful action commando, but a credible fighter dwarfed by the spectacle of what’s up against him.

It’s a good time for all. Sure, it’s in no way destined to become an enduring classic of the action genre – though, the spoilerific marketing campaign does well and truly show off what will become one of this summer’s more memorable movie moments – but it’s Die Hard on fire. With The Rock. In 2018. And if there’s an easier sell for a good time at the movies than that, it just means Dwayne Johnson has another movie out. In which case, still see Skyscraper first.

 

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