Monday, June 11, 2018

Movie Reviews: Avengers: Infinity War, Solo: A Star Wars Story, Loving, Disobedience, Every Day

Avengers: Infinity War: Whoopee, another Marvel movie comes to save humanity from other more important things that they could be doing.

Thanos is some Big Guy who is collecting the "infinity stones" in order to wipe out half the population of the universe, because they are overpopulating (I'm not sure why, if he can reshape the universe, he doesn't just plan to double the size of the universe, but apparently imagination and power don't always go together). Everyone else, except his unexplained minions, try to stop him.

Within the context of Marvel movies - in other words, if you like Marvel movies - this is a great Marvel movie. While ten thousand main characters stretch the continuity and focus of the film for too much of the time, especially the first, oh, nine tenths - and while you pretty much have to have seen most of the other movies and have read some of the comics to know what the hell is going on, following the plot is never the point of a Marvel movie. Neither is attaining insight, being captivated by character or emotion, or getting inspired or informed. Marvel movies are about snarky humor, cool effects and battle sequences, nonsense uninvolving conflicts, and wish fulfilling superpowers.

Somehow the whole thing mostly holds together. Some of the main characters don't act exactly as they used to, powers and characters, as usual, are conveniently forgotten except when they are needed for a special effect (um ... God of Thunder? If Dr Strange can chop things off with his portal, why not chop off Thanos' hand or continually send him to some other place in the universe?), but the movie occasionally takes you in some directions that you were not expecting. Everyone acts well enough. And there were lots of cool battles and superpowers. So ... cool?

There were some weird problems, other than forgotten powers and characters. Why does no one seem to live in Scotland? How does that new eye work? If these stones were "spread out around the universe", it seems rather convenient that all of them were in our galaxy, and several of them were close to or on Earth.

This movie had a number of scenes involving people having to decide whether to sacrifice themselves or others for the greater good; the potential positive effect of this was ruined by the fact that this "greater good" was "saving half the people in the universe from dying", so the choice was really not much of a choice. Still, it was slightly interesting how some people couldn't make the choice to sacrifice others, while some people could. Maybe I could think about that for a while and learn something.

Within the context of all movies, this movie occupies the same space as nearly all the rest of the Marvel films: inconsequential, untransforming entertainment. You watch them to keep up to speed with a trendy cultural conversation. While I admit that the universe Marvel has created is somewhat rich, and likely to have a lasting effect on the cultural consciousness of this generation, I don't think any of the movies will ever be studied in school outside of a special effects course. There is nothing interesting about any character relations, choices, symbols, or plots in these movies. All you can do is recount the battles, jokes, and powers, and say "cool".

Solo: A Star Wars Story: I expected that this would be the movie in which Star Wars went off the deep end, but, sadly, that already happened with The Last Jedi. Rogue One showed us that the SW formula could be changed and still make a pretty good movie, while The Last Jedi showed us that, no, it really could not. Solo, therefore, was a surprise to me, since it was better than I was expecting.

The story is Solo and a gal named Qi'ra who are born into a poor world and have to commit crimes to survive. They get separated, and Solo finds himself in the army, then in a caper heist, and then in another one. Meanwhile, Qi'ra meets him somewhere between heists and might now be playing for the wrong side. A rag-tag band of scoundrels appear on various different sides of various different conflicts. Cue the betrayals, sleight-of-hands, and counter-betrayals.

Reviewers have not been kind, calling it derivative for not giving us more to Solo's character than we already knew from the other movies. Honestly, I liked that. This was what we saw in Rogue One, and Revenge of the Sith, for that matter.

Other reviewers said the story wasn't particularly interesting. Admittedly, the action sequences were rushed and generic, too much like Marvel movies. On the other hand, the Kessel sequence, which takes up about half of the movie, felt really, really Star Wars, and therefore really, really good. Kudos for that part of the film. Alden Ehrenreich was sometimes so-so as Solo, but occasionally he nailed it. Donald Glover was fantastic as Lando. Emilia Clark was decent as "the woman person in the plot". Woody Harrelson was okay as chief scoundrel, but distracting, since he always acts like Woody Harrelson.

It lacks a light saber battle, which is one of the best things about SW movies. And it lacks the plot development, ease of pace, and mysticism that made the six main SW movies so expansive. But it is competent and enjoyable, it fits into the story, and it sets up a sequel.

Loving: A quiet, moving film about the legal decision to forbid any laws that restrict marriage based on race. The case was Loving vs Virginia. The aptly named Richard Loving (played by Joel Edgerton, who is white) and Mildred Loving (played by Ruth Negga, who is black) got married in DC in the 1960s, but their home state of Virginia refused to recognize the marriage and said it was illegal to live together. They were thrown in jail, briefly, and then out of the state on pain of more jail. After too much time away from their family, Mildred writes a letter to Bobby Kennedy who passes it on to the ACLU, who takes up the case.

Richard is a white male Southerner, a construction worker who patiently and evenly lays bricks, loves his wife, their families, and friends, and wants to be left alone. He is protective of his privacy and balks at the publicity the case brings to them, but, although he briefly protests once in a while,, he wants his wife and kids to be happy. Quiet and unassuming Mildred is no more of a troublemaker than her husband, but, with the protective strength she gets from Richard is willing to fight - just a little - and talk to the media. Richard, from the strength and conviction he eventually learns from Mildred, allows his world to be shaken, just a bit.

The movie has some creepy moments, where you expect something dire to happen to them (as it might in another movie by some other director), but most of these come to no more than threats. It's not an action fest; it's a character study and a small history lesson. Very nice acting and directing, and not at all heavy handed,

Disobedience: Another quiet film, also moving, also nice. This one is set in the London ultra-Orthodox Jewish community, or some facsimile thereof. As usual when I know something about the community that is being portrayed on-screen, I had to grumble during a few scenes that just could not have happened the way they were shown; I'm guessing a few liberties were taken by the screenwriters when adapting the book.

Anyway ... photographer and secular (and apparently bisexual but primarily lesbian) Ronit (Rachel Weisz) returns after years of estrangement from her community for her father the Rav's funeral, after someone has the courtesy to let her know. She finds her not-too-happy to see her cousin Dovid (Alessandro Nivola), the Rav's most prominent student and essentially adopted child is now married to her friend Esti (Rachel McAdams). Esti was Ronit's "more than friend" when they were younger, which is how Ronit came to leave/be banished from the community. Ronit is surprised to find her married to a man, let a lone to Dovid. Is she really happy with him?

Like every other Hollywood film that has Jews in it, this is a "Shylock" film, which means it can't end without one or more of the Jews abandoning their faith, in total or in part, which is what makes for the "happy" part of the ending (a happy ending for a film with Christians in it is for them to resist the temptation and cling to their faith, unless the film is about an abusive authority figure). So I will spoil the movie a little and say, of course Esti and Ronit have a go around, and, even though there is no actual nudity when they do, the scene is hot as hell. This is in contrast to the lovemaking scene that Dovid and Esti share earlier in the film that, despite a little nudity, is incredibly not.

All the characters are played beautifully. Rachel is convincing as Ronit, Rachel shines as Esti (once in a while she doesn't quite sell herself as a woman who has been religious all of her life), and Alessandro does a fine job as Dovid, a job which the director/screenwriter nearly destroys at the end of the film. Bleah. Not a great amount happens in the movie other than in the interior world's of the characters, which is fine. The ending has a number of missteps which was a letdown, because it was quite lovely until then. It's not a terrible ending, just a fumble to squeeze in a few cliche scenes that I think the director thought we wanted to see, rather than the more natural scenes and conclusions that would have made a more satisfying experience. Still a beautifully shot, beautifully acted, nice little film.

Every Day: Another happy surprise, this was better than I was led to believe. It's the story about a ... something named "A" that wakes up every day in a different body. For plot's sake, one day A decides to spend the day with and fall in love with a girl named Rhiannon (Angourie Rice, who looks like the girl who finally gets to kill the serial killer in a horror movie). After a number of other run ins over the next few days (in other bodies, of course), A finally reveals itself to Rhiannon. Cue the skeptical, the attempt at a relationship, the obvious difficulties, and the final decision.

The movie doesn't explain how this is happening, which is fine, and it covers some of the questions and many of the difficulties that A and Rhiannon would face in this situation. Like any good science fiction film, the central element reflects and in reflected by other aspects of what it means to "change", to be constant, to be gender-fluid, to not know where and who someone is, to plan for an uncertain future, and to be yourself. This is reflected in Rhiannon's relationship with her family, her friends, her boyfriend, with A and with and herself.

This movie is little like The Time Traveler's Wife - it's not as good as that movie was, but it's solid, well acted, well plotted, and generally works. It's not a gripping movie: neither A nor Rhiannon are very engaging people; they're both pretty average, if polite and well-meaning. Some parts of A's past are unexplained and leave me wondering: was this body swapping happening while A was in the womb? If not, then who replaced A's original body when A swapped out for the very first time (since A never goes back to the same body)? But more important is the question about the fate of one of the main characters at the end. But I can let that go.

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