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‘Avengers: Infinity War’ Is Too Busy for Its Own Good

‘Infinity War’ is weighed down by endless superheroes, most reduced to cameo status. They’ve stuffed this turkey to the point of bursting.

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Marvel Studios is lying to you, and they have been since you first saw the title of their newest film, Avengers: Infinity War. Anyone seeing that might assume it was a film starring roughly the same combination of superheroes as the last two Avengers films, give or take a few. In reality, the studio should have just called this The Marvel Movie, because its ambitions are to combine as many superheroes as possible (excepting the ones they don’t currently have the rights to). Not since the heyday of ‘70s disaster flicks has a film been so saturated with star power. Directed by Joe and Anthony Russo, Infinity War is weighed down by endless superheroes, most reduced to cameo status; they’ve stuffed this turkey to the point of bursting.

The broad strokes of Infinity War have been known for a surprisingly long time — its villain, Thanos (Josh Brolin), has had his hand in the pot at least since the first Avengers. His initial goal was to collect a series of “infinity stones,” little gems that grant their wielder power over the fabric of the universe. Once Thanos has all six stones (which he affixes on his bedazzled gauntlet), he plans to initiate a genocide reaching every corner of the universe.

Infinity War is the rare film that damages the legacies of the works that came before it.

One might think an Avengers movie would belong to Captain America (Chris Evans) or Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), but Infinity War is mostly Brolin’s film. Marvel movies spend so much time creating snarky, likeable heroes that they almost invariably run out of steam when it comes to the villains. Brolin’s Thanos is one of only a handful of compelling antagonists the studio has ever created. He’s the beneficiary of a back story that proves surprisingly emotional, one touched by loss and regret. It doesn’t hurt that there’s only one of him to contrast against a bajillion heroes crammed in. The character also benefits from better than usual CGI — despite some surprisingly clunky effects  — all the characters with robotic suits suffer from floating head syndrome whenever they take their helmets off — Thanos is surprisingly solid and textured.

Avengers: Infinity War

Still, a somewhat complicated villain isn’t enough to make it all work. Infinity War is the rare sequel that damages the legacies of the works that came before it. The central conflict between Captain America and Iron Man that animated Captain America: Civil War (2016) is largely glossed over, a casualty of a plot that doesn’t have enough time to devote to them — even at 2 hours and 29 minutes. The previous Avengers films and Civil War portrayed Steve Rogers as the heart and conscience of the superhero group, but he’s given an utterly thankless and minuscule part in Infinity War. Iron Man, Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), and Spider-Man (Tom Holland) fare better, but only ever so slightly. Despite a massive battle sequence that takes place in Wakanda, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) and the other Black Panther characters are barely there. Not exactly a sign of respect for what is currently the 10th-highest-grossing film of all time.

Infinity War devotes the most screen time to Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and the various Guardians of the Galaxy, who have collectively come to represent the comedy caucus of the Marvel Universe. Hemsworth isn’t quite as wisecracking as he was under Taika Waititi, but his character has still retained some of the humor of Thor: Ragnarok (2017). However, the bulk of the comic relief is delivered by the duo of Chris Pratt and Dave Bautista, who get a nice rhythm going, only to have the film yank the carpet from under them by switching to a much dourer mood. The Russo brothers along with screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely attempt to subtly modulate the tones, but their touch is too harsh. Even Peter Parker’s usual light-hearted banter rings false amidst the destruction wrought by Thanos.

Avengers: Infinity War

It shouldn’t be a spoiler (as it’s both meaningless and widely-reported) but people die in Infinity War, for different reasons, at different times, and in different ways. This could have been a positive development for Marvel and the Avengers — there are simply too many heroes, and some actors are nearing the end of their contracts, so culling the herd would be a smart move. Yet Infinity War makes the very concept of death even more meaningless than past Marvel films, which is saying something. We know just from the fact that they’re appearing in future movies that at least some of these characters didn’t really die, or at least not forever. If those departed can come back, what would stop Marvel from resurrecting every fallen hero? The studio has tried to make the largest superhero film ever with the greatest stakes imaginable, yet they’ve actually lowered the stakes more than any previous entry. Never again will viewers be justifiably anxious about the fate of their favorite Marvel characters — Infinity War throws that all out the window.

It’s tempting to heap all these complaints on the backs of the Russos and the screenwriters, but that wouldn’t be completely fair. After all, Marvel head Kevin Feige has shepherded this shared universe from the beginning; the directors work for him. There are some moving moments in the film that hearken to the Russos’ work on the Captain America films, still, some of the best Marvel movies, and Chris Pratt and Zoe Saldana’s chemistry has been steadily honed since their first Guardians film, to the point that it’s now a well-oiled machine. There’s also a poignant scene shared between Parker and Tony Stark that almost makes up for their otherwise shallow arcs, while nearly every scene with Thanos hints at how successful Infinity War might have been if some of the extraneous warriors had been culled.

Despite those strong points, Avengers: Infinity War is still a jumbled mess. If the film stumbled, or made a suboptimal amount of cash, Marvel might reevaluate its strategy, but that’s not likely to happen. Infinity War will make a heap of dough, and Marvel will continue to make their films bigger — but not necessarily better.

Avengers: Infinity War

Brian Marks is Sordid Cinema's Lead Film Critic. His writing has appeared in The Village Voice, LA Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, and Ampersand. He's a graduate of USC's master's program in Specialized Arts Journalism. You can find more of his writing at InPraiseofCinema.com. Best film experience: driving halfway across the the country for a screening of Jean-Luc Godard's "King Lear." Totally worth it.

5 Comments

5 Comments

  1. Ricky D Fernandes

    April 29, 2018 at 10:41 am

    I did not expect to love this movie as much as I do. I honestly think this is one of the best Marvel movies to date and the primary reason is that of Thanos. You mention how great his character is so we agree on this, but in all honesty, while I would normally prefer a movie that can stand on its own without needing to set up the next film, I thought this movie is incredibly well structured. I actually think they did a great job in shoving two dozen superheroes into one movie, because they never lost focus on the two most important characters to this chapter: Tony Stark and Thanos. I honestly can’t think of a better way for them to have made this movie with so many characters.

    • Ricky D Fernandes

      April 29, 2018 at 10:43 am

      Also, I have to admit, that I cried when Spidey (SPOILER) and was pretty amazed at how they managed to have many scenes mirror the comic book.

      • Ricky D Fernandes

        April 29, 2018 at 12:37 pm

        Also, what do you mean by:
        “Infinity War is the rare film that damages the legacies of the works that came before it.”

        Aren’t most sequels not as good, and often, bad?

        • Brian Marks

          April 29, 2018 at 4:31 pm

          Yeah, most sequels are worse, but I don’t think anyone views the first two Godfather films less positively because the third one isn’t very good. But these Marvel films are a different beast because they’re so interconnected. When they give Black Panther only a handful of lines or barely give the impact of Civil War any weight, it feels like they’re dismissing their own movies.

  2. John Cal McCormick

    May 2, 2018 at 6:17 am

    I don’t really understand the argument that this movie damages the legacy of previous movies because they weren’t mentioned enough, or delved into in enough detail. Like, we don’t need people chewing on about what happened in Civil War because we saw Civil War. We know how it panned out. We know the Avengers collapsed. And in this movie they’re disparate, and broken, and “not really on speaking terms.”

    We didn’t need somebody to pop up and say, “Hey, remember that time…” to pay it the proper respects. The odd comment was enough. Similarly, Black Panther’s legacy isn’t tarnished because he, and his side-kicks, didn’t get a bigger part. Black Panther isn’t a massively important character in this story, and he doesn’t have to be. That’s fine. Just because we like him doesn’t mean he has to be present at every team meeting. I’m sure he won’t feel left out. He seems emotionally strong enough to deal with it.

    The fact is, they had to tie together like twenty movies and fifty characters or something into one big plot that kinda works, and I’m amazed it worked as well as it did. They didn’t have time to be all, oh hey let’s see what’s happening in Wakanda. They had to get a bunch of characters who’d never met together in different parts of the universe in service of a huge overarching plot, and I think they did that very well.

    They made sure that the important characters got time – Tony Stark, Thor, Star-Lord & Gamora, Strange, Vision, and Thanos – in service of the story, while the other heroes were there for backup, with some of those that were short changed in this movie presumably getting more time in the next. And I do think that Thanos was a strong enough villain (and character) to carry the movie and hold together the many disparate elements. He was the common thread throughout all of the stories, and had he not been a compelling villain it would have collapsed. But he really owned the screen every time he was on, and I actually wound up caring about his story.

    There are certainly issues with Infinity War, but these don’t seem like problems to me.

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Girl Power? The ‘Black Christmas’ Remake is About as Subtle as a Sledgehammer to the Face

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Black Christmas 2019 Review

1974’s Black Christmas is not one that is regularly referenced on Best Horror Movie lists, as it’s a standard foray into the sub-genre of slasher movies. Having already been remade in 2006 to a terrible response, it’s the kind of film ready to be re-visited — a not-so-classic in need of a boost. Directed by Sophia Takal, it’s unfortunate that 2019’s version does nothing to make the premise something worth watching, and instead falls very short of its mark.

During the Christmas break at Hawthorne College, sorority sisters Riley (Imogen Poots), Kris (Aleyse Shannon), Marty (Lily Donoghue), and Jesse (Brittany O’Grady) prepare to host an “orphan dinner” for those left at the college over the holidays, only to be harassed and eventually attacked by a group of masked, hooded men.

Black Christmas 2019

In order to make the premise more relevant for today’s crowd, writers Takal and April Wolfe update the nuts-and-bolts slasher with a feminist twist, including on-trend topics of toxic masculinity, rape culture, and female empowerment. Whilst its heart is in the right place, its execution is sloppy and comes across as condescending. Conversations about missing DivaCups and dildos are just as commonplace as those on white supremacy and the patriarchy, making it an often embarrassing watch and feeling like a cynical cash-grab.

The characters we’re supposed to be rooting for are likeable enough, but so paper-thin; a small breeze could knock them over. With one-trait personalities (PTSD-ridden, activist, loved-up, and comic relief), the film fails to create a truly well-developed female character, or one of any gender; men fall into one of two categories: chauvinist or sensitive love-interest, both to the extreme.

Black Christmas 2019 REview

Horror is a difficult genre to make work, but the fundamentals are to scare. Unfortunately, Black Christmas also lacks in the basic necessity of frightening its audience. Most supposed chilling moments come in the safe-bet form of a jump-scare, a lazy device that considers making a film-goer bolt in their seat as a result of a loud noise a win in their efforts to unsettle — and that’s if they work. Quiet for long stretches of time before the inevitable jump, the scares here will only work if this is the first horror film you’ve ever seen.

There is something to be commended in the fact that director and co-writers have attempted to differentiate from the original by adding a supernatural element to the proceedings, but by the third act, this ploy is so absurd as to be laughable (protagonists receiving text messages from a supposed ghost should never be a thing), and does nothing to enhance the story.

Black Christmas 2019 Review

It’s a shame for lead Poots, who has shown in the likes of Green Room that she is a talented actor, and worth more than the sum of this movie’s parts. Doing her best with what she’s given, Poots is a light in an otherwise dim proceeding, along with Shannon as sorority sister Kris, and the two have decent chemistry when on screen together. None of the rest of the cast stands out — most likely due to their lack of character — but the performances for a horror film of this ilk are par for the course, passable.

With good intentions, Black Christmas is a frustrating watch, with its overt dialogue and occasionally patronizing tone. It’s disappointing that a film with feminism at its core, directed by and co-written by women, misses its target by such a large distance.

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‘Richard Jewell’ is Both For and Against Character Assassination

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Sam Rockwell and Paul Walter Hauser in Richard Jewell (Warner Bros.)

With Richard Jewell, director Clint Eastwood does two things at once: tell a compelling story of something that was all over the news about 25 years ago, and seek to make an incendiary political point meant to play to very specific modern-day resentments. Let’s just say the former objective is much more defensible than the latter. 

The film tells the story of a security guard (Paul Walter Hauser) in the Atlanta area who was working in Centennial Olympic Park during the 1996 Olympics when a bomb went off in the park. Jewell was first treated as a hero who rescued people during the bombing, but was later considered a suspect in the bombing by the FBI and named as such in the media. But Jewell, it turned out, was innocent, with domestic terrorist Eric Rudolph confessing to the crime years later. 

As depicted in Eastwood’s film, Richard Jewell bears more than a passing resemblance to Shawn Eckhardt, the character Hauser played two years ago in I, Tonya — a real-life creature of a sensational mid-’90s true crime case who hadn’t done much with his life, but has aspirations of something greater. In Jewell’s case, it’s thwarted dreams of becoming a cop, which haven’t kept him from worshiping and idealizing law enforcement. He’s also depicted as a man so simple-minded that he keeps doing things that made him look super-guilty, even though he isn’t.

Richard Jewell reporters

Richard Jewell takes us into how exactly the man came to be accused. The FBI, in the person of agent Jon Hamm, applied its vaunted profiling tactics — the ones you’ve seen lionized on such shows as Criminal Minds and Mindhunter — to the case, and came up with the wrong guy. 

Filmmaking-wise, what we have here is similar to most other late-period Eastwood films, and the pacing and storytelling aren’t the problem. The sequence right before the bombing, in particular, is especially harrowing and suspenseful.

While in the works for many years (Jonah Hill was at one point set to star as Jewell, and remains a producer), Richard Jewell itself was produced and completed uncommonly quickly, with production beginning in June, just six months before its release. Nevertheless, it creates a reasonable approximation of 1996 — The Macarena included! — and while seemingly the majority of studio movies these days are shot in Georgia, this one at least is actually set there.

The problem, however, is another decision the film makes. We see Hamm’s FBI agent leaking the existence of the investigation to media, specifically reporter Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde), after what’s essentially a seduction on her part. This is the film’s biggest misstep, which is in fact an act of pure character assassination against Scruggs, a real-life journalist (deceased) who is accused of horrible ethical breaches that she almost certainly never committed, including offering to sleep with sources in exchange for information. Beyond that, the character is played by Wilde as something resembling a cartoon witch. There are a lot of unique characters who exist in newsrooms, but this character isn’t one of them.

And despite what you may have read, the Richard Jewell makes the FBI look even worse than the media. It also shows Jewell, who spent his whole life wanting to be a cop, defending and making excuses for these unscrupulous agents who are falsely accusing him. The script also doesn’t really get the dynamic that takes place between media and the police/FBI quite right; in 95 percent of high-profile crime stories, the only major source is law enforcement, and media outlets just go with whatever the cops tell them. 

What the Atlanta Journal-Constitution did was report — accurately, at the time — that the FBI was looking at Jewell as a suspect. Yes, they should have done more due diligence, but they also didn’t make things up. Had Scruggs behaved the way she did in the film in real life, that would be worthy of condemnation. But she didn’t. 

Furthermore, yes, what happened to Richard Jewell was pretty terrible. But on the other hand, he was never arrested, he never did a day in jail or prison, and was cleared after about three months. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone, but…other wrongfully accused people have gone away for years and decades. Multiple movies this year, including Brian Banks and Just Mercy, have told the stories of such cases. 

Hauser is very good, and getting to be expert at this sort of role, although the performance ends with him delivering a long, articulate speech in which Jewell turns into essentially a different person.  Sam Rockwell, on something of a roll with Jojo Rabbit and Fosse/Verdon, is just fine as his lawyer. There’s also a performance by Kathy Bates, as Jewell’s mother, that’s been getting inexplicable praise — it’s more a regional affectation than a great performance. 

While Eastwood — the Obama invisible chair speech notwithstanding — is far from a down-the-line right-winger, the timing of this particular release is somewhat cynical. It’s clearly pitched right now in a way to exploit discontent with media misconduct and “fake news,” while also directly in line with that weird cultural tic in which cops are seen as beyond reproach, while the FBI is evil. 

Richard Jewell isn’t bad as a character study, but its agenda is a whole other story. 

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‘Apollo 11’ Leads the Best Documentaries of 2019

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Best Documentaries of 2019

2019 was a generally strong year for documentaries, with many of the best ones sharing one or more of several elements: a focus on music, a resonance with the current moment, and the word “Apollo” in the title.

The Year’s Best Documentaries

Best Documentaries 2019

1. Apollo 11. Directed by Todd Douglas Miller, this documentary made masterful use of archival footage — much of it on 70mm film long not available to the public — to tell the story of the Apollo 11 mission on its 50th anniversary. It’s one of those films that’s nerve-wracking, even as everyone watching knows exactly how it all happened. The film opened in theaters, then showed on CNN, and then returned to theaters this month. 

Best Documentaries 2019

2. The Kingmaker. The Queen of Versailles director Lauren Greenfield takes another look at the ridiculously wealthy, this time catching up with Imelda Marcos, the 90-year-old former first lady of The Philippines. For its first half hour, the film hints that it’s going to be a soft-focused look at a newsmaker of the past, before it takes a sudden turn into showing its subject as a monster who looted her own people of billions and was almost certainly complicit in horrific war crimes. The film played in theaters this fall and will debut on Showtime in early 2020. 

Best Documentaries 2019

3. Love, Antosha. The life of the beloved late actor Anton Yelchin, which ended in a freak accident in 2017, is celebrated with home movie footage, clips of his movies, and interviews with a star-studded array of his co-stars. It’s a sweet remembrance of a talent gone far too soon — while also telling the story, through both letters and interviews, of his relationship with the loving Russian immigrant parents he left behind. Now streaming from on-demand providers. 

Best Documentaries 2019

4. City of Joel. Director Jesse Sweet’s film is an astonishing work of anthropological filmmaking, as he looks at the tension and land disputes between a group of ultra-Orthodox Jews who arrived in an upstate New York town, and their secular neighbors. The film, which played the Jewish film festival circuit and is now available on demand, is uncommonly evenhanded, letting both sides of the dispute have their say. 

Best Documentaries 2019

5. David Crosby: Remember My Name. There were many very strong music documentaries this year, but this film, directed by A.J. Eaton and produced and narrated by Cameron Crowe, was the best of them all. Crosby, knowing he’s in poor health and unlikely to live many more years, is uncommonly candid about his regrets, especially his many feuds with his famous musical collaborators. Now available on demand, it’s also the best film Crowe has been associated with in almost two decades.

Best Documentaries 2019

6. Cold Case Hammarskjöld. Mads Brügger’s documentary starts off by looking at the mysterious 1961 plane crash death of U.N. Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld, and then goes off in all sorts of crazy directions, including a supposed plot by South Africa’s apartheid government in the 1980s to infect people with AIDS. Not everything asserted here is true (most likely), but it’s all wildly intriguing. Now available on demand. 

Best Documentaries 2019

7. The Apollo. The year’s “other” Apollo documentary takes a look back at the history of Harlem’s famed Apollo Theater, a mecca of African-American culture for nearly a century. The film looks at how the theater has waxed and waned in importance over the years, while using a staged reading of Ta’Nehesi Coates’ “Between the World and Me” as a framing device. This one played at festivals and then debuted on HBO; it’s currently available on HBO’s streaming platform. 

Best Documentaries 2019

8. Horror Noire. Director Xavier Burgin’s documentary takes a look at the history of black horror films, using 2017’s Get Out as an inflection point to look back on decades of African-American representation — as well as ugly tropes — in the horror genre. The film had some big-screen showings before streaming on Shudder. 

Best Documentaries 2019
Tell Me Who I Am CR: Netflix

9. Tell Me Who I Am. Director Ed Perkins’ documentary about a pair of twins, and the family secrets one must tell the other, is very creepy and unsettling, but still essential. It debuted on Netflix, where it’s a perfect fit, and is still streaming there now. 

Best documentaries 2019

10. Diego Maradona. This look at the 1980s soccer star, directed by Amy filmmaker Asif Kapadia, makes masterful use of archival footage to depict the rise of this one-of-a-kind athlete. The doc, which played on HBO this fall and is still streaming there now, is a must for the many Americans who have gotten into soccer for the first time in the last decade, and are unfamiliar with the stars and stories of the past. 

****

Honorable mention: Black Mother, The Human Factor, Fiddler: A Miracle of Miracles, Carmine Street Guitars, Mike Wallace is Here, Varda by Agnes, Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese, Screwball, American Factory, Homecoming: A Film by Beyonce,

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