Avengers: Infinity War – Film Review

“The fate of the universe is at stake,” warns Doctor Strange, early on in Avengers: Infinity War. That’s no overstatement. The first of a two-part story – an untitled Avengers 4 is due next year – that’s widely pitched as the endgame for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, this latest superhero mashup promises to bring 10 years and 18 movies of unprecedented world-building to a close with planet-shattering consequences. That’s one hell of a mission statement. Yet Infinity War not only matches its gargantuan ambitions; it smashes through them, delivering Marvel’s most shocking, dramatically hefty movie so far.

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That Avengers prefix is a tad misleading, though. Infinity War might involve pretty much every major character in the MCU, but they’re all overshadowed by the giant, purple-skinned titan who’s finally decided to get off his space toilet and join the fight. A darkly operatic opening sequence immediately dispels any lingering doubts about Thanos’ (Josh Brolin) effectiveness as a villain, with a ruthless demonstration of power grimly kick starting a rampage across the cosmos as he makes a smash-and-grab for the remaining Infinity Stones.

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That he is such a frighteningly formidable foe owes a great deal to the emotional weight Brolin brings to Thanos’ pixelated heft. His plan to exterminate half the universe is completely mad, but it’s powered by traumatic experience and his victories come at great personal cost. He suffers for his cause and the unimaginable lengths he’s prepared to go to succeed in his mission make him a far more compelling villain than we’re used to seeing in the MCU.

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It’s this unflinching determination that sets Thanos apart from the splintered band of heroes who try to stop him. “We don’t trade lives,” Steve Rodger’s (Chris Evans) nobly claims at one point in the movie – Thanos spends most of the near-150 minute runtime testing that conviction. Time and again the Avengers are forced to chose between saving a life and doing what’s necessary to win, a constant turmoil that drags them into dark, challenging places as they confront their deepest demons. Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) comes face to face with the monster who has tormented him since the Chitauri invasion of New York. Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) has to consider how far he’s prepared to go to keep his promises. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) doubts how much more he can bear to lose. Is the price of being a hero one any of them are willing to pay?

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For all the bleak, existential quandaries, this is still a Marvel movie – so there’s plenty of levity shining through the darkness. The fractured, disparate nature of the heroes leads to several delightfully unusual combinations. The meeting of egos between Stark and Strange certainly doesn’t disappoint. Thor’s unexpected arrival aboard the Guardian’s ship is another hilarious highlight, as is his amusingly accurate retelling of his family history. And Tom Holland continues to prove he’s the best on-screen Spider-Man yet with his naive exuberance landing some of the film’s best lines.

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Naturally, not every thing works perfectly. With such a massive cast, it’s unsurprising that several characters struggle to make an impact – the Children of Thanos fail to register as anything more than surprisingly handy henchman – and it feels like directors Anthony and Joe Russo are pulling their punches with some of the bigger plot twists. These minor quibbles feel just that, though, when the rest of the film is such a bold, exciting spectacle. That’s especially true as the movie enters its thrilling endgame, culminating in perhaps the most strikingly inviting of cliffhangers since Han Solo was dipped in carbon. Think Infinity War is the end of the Marvel Universe? On this basis, it’s just getting started.

Runtime: 149 minutes (approx.)
Directors: Anthony and Joe Russo
Screenwriters: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely
Stars: Josh Brolin, Robert Downey Jr, Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth

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Rampage – film review

At one point in Rampage, Dwayne Johnson’s muscle-bound zoo keeper rides a crashed helicopter across a toppling skyscraper, pursued by a rabid, 30ft wolf… with wings. If that sentence doesn’t send you feet-stompingly giddy with delight, this probably isn’t the movie for you. Rampage is a patently preposterous, ludicrously illogical, stupendously stupid popcorn B movie. It’s also a whole lot of fun. Just not as much fun as it could have been.

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The first sign that director Brad Peyton (San Andreas) might be pulling his punches is his loosey goosey approach to the source material. The original Rampage was a 1986 arcade game that saw the player control a human who had been transformed into a super-sized wolf, gorilla or crocodile. Rampage the movie is slightly more grounded. Instead, normal animals are turned into enormous, city-shattering monsters when exposed to a serum created by a shady tech company. That’s not too much of a problem when scientists carry out their tests all the way out in space; but when a lab accident blows the space station to smithereens and sends three cans of monster juice hurtling to Earth, it spells big trouble for the sibling megalomaniacs (Malin Ackerman and Jake Lacy) responsible for the program. Especially when one of the canisters lands in San Diego Zoo, infecting George, the albino gorilla pal of Johnson’s special forces solider-turned-primatologist Davis Okoye.

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All this plot is purely functional, of course. And Peyton spends longer than necessary cobbling together what is essentially a barely coherent frame on which to unleash senses-shattering destruction on a CGI Chicago. But when it comes to the giant monster-mashing action, Peyton undoubtedly delivers. Cargo planes plummet through the clouds. Skyscrapers topple like half-mile tall dominoes. Fighter jets are snapped out of the sky and tossed at tanks. It’s all gripping and effective stuff, expertly wrangled with button-smashing abandon by Peyton.

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As cartoonishly unhinged as the action is, though, it should be bigger and even sillier. Countless disaster movies have reduced cities to rubble, and Rampage rarely offers a set-piece we haven’t seen before. For a movie that features a mile-long mutated crocodile, that’s not a good look. It’s not just the action sequences that need more juice. Could it not have more gags poking fun at the absurdity of the conceit? The winged wolf is unexpectedly fun, so why can’t the other two monsters have outlandish mutations too? And is it wrong to ask that the supporting cast be hammier? After all, when you’re sharing the screen with a giant albino gorilla, the only way to stand out is to chomp kaiju-sized chunks out of the scenery. Why else would Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s government spook insist on swaggering around like a time-travelling cowboy?

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That, again, might be the fault of Peyton, who misguidedly tries to give his characters unnecessary depth and backstory. We don’t care about why Okoye prefers animals to humans. Or what happened to the brother of Naomie Harris’ arbitrary sciency person. We want to see colossal monsters punching buildings; and giant gorillas riding enormous crocodiles. We want to see The Rock attempting to outrun a flying wolf. And Rampage doesn’t deliver the goods often enough.

Runtime: 107 mins (approx.)
Director: Brad Peyton
Screenwriters: Ryan Engle, Carlton Cuse, Ryan J. Condal, Adam Sztykeil
Stars: Dwayne Johnson, Naomie Harris, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Jason Liles

Ready Player One

Move over Stranger Things. With its mind-boggling explosion of pop-culture eye-candy – an early sequence sees a DeLorean, the A-Team van, Akira’s futuristic motorcycle and about a hundred other icons of Geek surging through a New York City street race – Ready Player One is a relentlessly paced nostalgia rush like no other. And who better to orchestrate this 80s-tinged chaos than Steven Spielberg? Having made his name with precisely the type of blockbuster movie referenced in Ernest Cline’s best-seller, the director proves he’s lost none of his visual chutzpah, crafting an involving cinematic thrill ride that stands alongside the magic of his early movies.

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In 2045 the world has become the oft-predicted grim dystopia, with over-population and violent in-fighting driving many people to seek a means of escape. Most find it by plugging into the Oasis, a virtual reality universe where anything is possible. When the game’s timorous creator James Halliday (Mark Rylance) dies, his avatar launches a competition to find an easter egg hidden somewhere in the virtual world – the winner inheriting Halliday’s fortune and gaining sole control of the Oasis. Our Charlie Bucket in this digitised Chocolate Factory is Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), a poor teenager living in the Stacks – a perilous tower of rusty campervans – who dreams of playing his way to a better life. He’s not alone in his desire, though. If he wants to claim the prize, he’ll have to outsmart a vast squad of players, controlled by Ben Mendelsohn nefarious software CEO Nolan Sorrento.

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Visually, the Oasis is a stunning creation. Despite relying heavily on computer generated imagery, it deftly avoids feeling like an over-elaborate cut scene from a video game and its vibrant, jiggering landscape neatly contrasts the bleached surroundings of the real world. Lesser blockbusters might be overwhelmed by such a reliance on CGI (yes, we’re looking at you, Justice League), but by centring the action on a core group of characters, Spielberg manages to keep the set-pieces crisp and clean without sacrificing any of the gonzo gamer spirit that the source material inspires.

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And while Ready Player One is steeped in pop-culture iconography (even the most dedicated of Redditors will struggled to spot every reference hidden here), Spielberg is careful not to let all the nods to video games, books and movies overshadow the story. Crucially for a movie where the bulk of the action is set in a fictional world, it never looses sight of the real world stakes. In their thirst for escapism, many payers plow their life savings into their virtual lives, so while they might not perish along with their avatars in the game, loosing can mean financial ruin and imprisonment in online labour camps known as Loyalty Centres. Wade experiences these real consequences first hand when his quest to find Halliday’s easter egg makes him the centre of a real world manhunt that draws his loved ones into the crossfire. The resultant tragedy is perhaps too easily forgotten to have any impact, but it counts as a rare misstep in a movie that is otherwise excellent at layering its fantastical action with real peril.

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Crossing the finish line in a bum-numbing 140 minutes, it’s perhaps a shade too long and the third act noticeably drags in comparison to the ferocious velocity of the hours preceding it. For the most part, though, Ready Player One is an exhilarating watch. And even when you strip away the kinetic action, dazzling spectacle and waves of nostalgia, you’ll find a heart-warming story about the importance of taking the time to appreciate the things that make real life worth living. Simply put: it’s vintage Spielberg.

Runtime: 140 minutes (approx.)
Director: Steven Spielberg
Screenwriter: Zak Penn, Ernest Cline
Stars: Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Mark Rylance, Ben Mendelsohn