Wednesday, August 29, 2018

The Return of the Russians

I've been watching a lot of media about the Russians lately, all of it pretty grim and unhappy. There's Francis Lawrence's "Red Sparrow," a thriller starring Jennifer Lawrence as a Bolshoi ballerina who is manipulated into becoming a sexy spy under the control of corrupt government officials. Armando Iannucci's "The Death of Stalin" gives us a nihilistic picture of sneaky power grabs and petty rivalries directing the course of Soviet history. Then there's the final season of "The Americans," presenting a more nuanced picture of Russia in the '80s, struggling with modernization and opening up. I still have a few episodes to go, but the Russian characters have all remained pretty miserable throughout the series, and there's clearly no happy ending waiting for any of them.

After being mostly phased out by the end of the Cold War, Russian baddies are back in vogue thanks to recent events, and I'm ever so glad. After the events of 9/11, we had years of swarthy Middle Eastern terrorist villains, occasionally played by actors who were not remotely Middle Eastern, and portrayed in consistently problematic if not outright racist ways. The Russians, though, are classic cinematic nogoodniks who have been synonymous with nefarious plots for so long that filmmakers don't have to worry so much about representation issues or giving the other side a fair shake. Put a couple of stone-faced Northern European actors in cold weather clothing, have them brush up on their Slavic and Baltic accents, and you're all set. They are a remarkably guilt-free choice of antagonist, especially for action films.

For me, the Russians bring back happy memories of Sean Connery aboard a stealth submarine, Famke Janssen asphyxiating people with her thighs, and Dolph Lundgren menacing his opponents in the boxing ring. It was a simpler time, when you could get away with broad stereotypes of America's major rivals. And like the Nazis, the Soviets are so wonderfully cinematic, easily caricatured into over-the-top villains and antiheroes. One of the only notable things about that last "Indiana Jones" movie was its stern Soviet villainess Irina Spalko, played by Cate Blanchett. And speaking of Dolph Lundgren, the upcoming "Creed" sequel is promising to deliver quite a few wallops of nostalgia as Donnie goes up against Drago Jr. If the movie turns out to be remotely as ridiculous as "Rocky IV," I will be overjoyed.

Of course, the evil Communist has become a pretty lazy stock character over the years, one that could do with some improvements and updates. The Boris and Natasha accents, the bulky overcoats, and the deadpan stoicism, that are somehow still being trotted out, feel positively prehistoric in the current era of sexy Putin memes, Adidas track suits, and an endless array of dashcam disasters. Speaking of the dashcam videos, those got their own documentary by Dmitrii Kalashnikov called "The Road Movie" that premiered earlier this year. I've heard very good things. And I expect that the inevitable dramatizations of the recent Russiagate scandals involving Russian troll farms, pop stars, and shady industrialists should help speed things up in that regard. The material is so juicy, Hollywood's going to be mining this for years, if not decades.

And who knows? Maybe the increased attention on Russia will actually help generate some positive interest too. The Russians may be guilt-free antagonists, but that doesn't mean they should be. I appreciate that Guillermo Del Toro's "The Shape of Water" made its Russian spy character one of the good guys, as part of the film's subversion of classic monster movie tropes. I loved that the Brian Cox's similar character in 2010's "RED" got the girl in the end. Russian filmmakers like Alexander Sokurov and Andrey Zvyagintsev have been doing fantastic work for years, but are mostly unknown to those outside of art house circles. Somebody has got to make that Putin biopic eventually, preferably with Matthias Schoenaerts as the lead. Seriously, did you see him in "Red Sparrow"?

I've been hoping that Marvel would take the plunge and make Black Widow movie for a while now, and it looks like it may finally happen in the near future. But even if that never pans out, there's going to be plenty of Russian themed media at the cineplexes for a long while to come.

And I'll have my full write-up on the end of "The Americans" up soon, with a Top Ten list to follow.


Friday, August 24, 2018

The James Gunn Situation

I've been putting off writing about this one, but now that Disney has decided not to rehire James Gunn for "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3," it's time to tackle the bear.  To recap, a few weeks ago an alt-right nogoodnik dug up some of James Gunn's old tweets from years ago, full of off-color shock humor including rape and pedophilia jokes. Disney fired him from "Guardians," and he's stayed fired, in spite of a vigorous campaign by many of the MCU luminaries for the Mouse House to reconsider.  The case has been made that Gunn showed poor judgment making those tweets, but he's considerably matured since then, to the point that he's become an important ally in the #Metoo movement. He's also been a vocal critic of Donald Trump.

And that's exactly why the alt-right targeted him.  His dismissal was meant to be a retaliatory shot back against the firing of Roseanne Barr over the Valerie Jarrett tweet.  Dan Harmon, who has also been a critic of the alt-right, was also targeted. In his case, an old comedy sketch involving pedophilia was unearthed.  It was distasteful, but clearly scripted humor, and Harmon apologized for it. Nonetheless, Harmon quit Twitter, and other prominent celebs like Rian Johnson have deleted years worth of social media activity.  Emboldened, the alt-right has since gone after reporters and other media figures, trying to provoke witch hunts or get them fired. There was that recent kerfuffle over the New York Times hiring Sarah Jeong, a tech writer who made controversial tweets disparaging white people - or was it disparaging white hegemony?  Meanwhile, notorious conspiracy theorist Alex Jones has been kicked off of several sites for hate speech - but notably not Twitter.

I shouldn't be surprised that Twitter continues to generate drama left and right, given how President Trump has been using it.  I've watched its gradual weaponization these past few months with dismay, and the continued fumblings of the Twitter management itself with annoyance.  All the major social networking sites like Facebook and Youtube have been struggling to keep their platforms from being abused by the trolls and propagandists.  Twitter's efforts, however, seem to have been the most ineffectual. I mean, I can understand their dilemma to some extent - it's hard to draw hard lines about content when the President is lying and threatening people through Twitter every day with total impunity.  However, it's also telling that celebrities are now regularly quitting Twitter over bullying by an endless flood of reprobates who seem to see no consequences for their bad behavior.

I've always been a little paranoid about the Internet, and recent events have mostly been proving me right.  Social media often feels like a private arena, where you can let down your guard and converse casually with people.  Of course it's not, and context often gets lost, and sarcasm and irony don't come across well. It's easy to read bad intentions into flippant, snarky communications.  I don't think that anything about those old shock tweets that James Gunn made were funny, but I don't believe for a minute that he actually believes or advocates for those things either.  I'm sure the alt-right doesn't believe it either - but the outrage sure is easy to feign. Remember when "fake news" was originally a criticism directed at conservative astroturfers?

However, as much as I detest the alt-right hooligans who spearheaded this witch hunt, and the sympathize with James Gunn, I think that Disney made the right call.  Their firing of Gunn is consistent with how they handled the Roseanne Barr situation, and minimizes collateral damage to the rest of their Marvel projects. And it should be emphasized that this is Disney we're talking about.  Their family-friendly brand is everything. Even though Gunn was joking, the tweets were heinous enough that Disney couldn't take the risk of being even peripherally associated with them. The rules about social media have changed since Gunn was initially hired for the first "Guardians of the Galaxy," and frankly so has his status as a public figure.  

In the end, James Gunn not getting to direct "Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3" isn't a great loss.  Gunn is a talented director who is already being courted for other projects. The "Guardians" franchise will be perfectly fine in other hands.  And if this is what it takes for people to realize that what they post on the internet is always going to be in the public for everyone to see, and Twitter is nobody's friend, that may end up being a small price to pay.  


Wednesday, August 22, 2018

My Top Ten "Teen Titans" Episodes

With the new "Titans" series incoming, and a new animated movie in theaters based on Cartoon Network's "Teen Titans Go!" I thought it was a good time to look back on the first "Teen Titans" animated series that aired back in 2003-2006. I wasn't watching many American cartoons by that point, being deep in my otaku phase, but I always enjoyed it. Below, find my Top Ten for the series Entries are unranked and ordered by air date. Spoilers will be kept to a minimum.

"Nevermore" - Raven is my favorite character, being the ultimate moody, introverted teenage girl who just wants to angst in peace. Her arc is all about letting people into her world, and it's a very strange one as Cyborg and Beast Boy discover here. I love the spooky imagery and the different versions of Raven that make an appearance. Alas, the series never really revisited most of these concepts, though Raven would get a lot of attention later on.

"Mad Mod" - The Malcolm McDowell voiced the British villain Mad Mod turns the Titans' world upside down with his reality-warping holograms and robots. The episode is one big homage to the psychedelic '60s and British animation, including Terry Gilliam's work on "Monty Python" and the Beatles' "Yellow Submarine." Of course, "Clockwork Orange" gets a reference too. Of the "Teen Titans'" sillier, wackier episodes, this one was easily my favorite.

"Apprentice Part II" - The first season culminates in a two-parter and Robin having his big showdown with Slade, who is the show's best villain. Voiced by Ron Perlman, Slade is a legitimately creepy and intimidating presence, but still appropriate for a kids' show. This episode also marks the occasion by throwing in the most blatant Batman references that would ever appear in "Teen Titans." Not that the show needs any of Batman's mojo by this point.

"How Long Is Forever?" - The second season starts off with a bang. Starfire is sent to the future to see what becomes of the Titans when they are no longer a team. I always like "darkest timeline" stories, and this is no exception, though things are kept very kid-friendly with a nice lesson and a happy ending to wrap things up. It's also a good showcase for Starfire, the lovable alien girl who one of the show's better creations. I just wish we could have seen her future too.

"Terra" - I always liked the Terra and Beast Boy relationship because these two act like real kids, have a lot of baggage, and make so many mistakes. Terra becoming one of the big players in the second season always felt a little toothless compared to how things played out in the comics, but I liked the earlier episodes of her with the Titans. There's enough ambiguity there to be interesting, without the full force of the teen melodrama erupting just yet.

"Birthmark" - Boy is this an eventful birthday for Raven, and we eventually find out the reasons why she's so loathe to celebrate. Her big arc in the fourth season is a metaphor for dealing with an abusive past, and this is the episode that kicks it all off. The nightmarish scenes with Raven and Trigon are really pushing the show's usual limits, but they're also very effective. And so is the ending with her friends still trying to be there for her when it counts.

"The End Part 3" - It's very satisfying to watch Raven stand up to her fears and to the villain Trigon. The whole three-part finale is a lot of fun with the temporary alliance with an old enemy, evil doppelgangers, and a lot of fancy magical fighting. However, Raven getting to let loose and power up was definitely my favorite bit. She never really got the spotlight in the same way after this, but that was fine with me. The fourth season gave her plenty.

"Lightspeed" - None of the regulars appeared in this episode, but it might be my favorite of the series. Jinx, a villain character who barely got any development in earlier episodes, finds herself at a moral crossroads. She can choose villainy and follow in the footsteps of her idol, Madame Rouge, or listen to the advice of the infuriating superhero Kid Flash, and walk away from the fight. It's a very sweet, very well executed little stand-alone story.

"Calling All Titans" and "Titans Together" - The big series finale is probably a little too much of a good thing, but I love that everyone gets to go out on a big brawl. The storyline with Beast Boy leading a team of the leftover hero kids is really appealing. Notably, this is not the end of the series, though. The last episode is the thoughtful epilogue "Things Change," which is a very brave story that I'm giving Honorable Mention status, but it's not as much fun as the episodes that preceded it.


Monday, August 20, 2018

An Update on Disney's 2019 and Beyond

Roughly a year ago, Disney's release schedule for 2019 looked like this:

“Captain Marvel” (3D) — Mar. 8, 2019
“Dumbo” (3D) — Mar. 29, 2019
Untitled Disneytoon Studios — April 12, 2019
Untitled “Avengers” (3D) — May 3, 2019
“Aladdin” (3D) — May 24, 2019
“Toy Story 4” — June 21, 2019
“The Lion King” (3D) — July 19, 2019
“Artemis Fowl” (3D) — Aug. 9, 2019
“Nicole” — Nov. 8, 2019
“Frozen 2” — Nov. 27, 2019
“Star Wars: Episode IX” (3D) — Dec. 20, 2019

There have only been a few changes.  Disneytoon Studios has been shut down and their project cancelled.  The Anna Kendrick Christmas movie "Nicole" is now "Noelle" and set to premiere on Disney's new streaming service along with "Magic Camp," which was pulled from the 2018 release slate and replaced with "Christopher Robin."  There's also been a notable addition. Last December, Sony announced the "Spider-man" sequel, "Far From Home," would be released July 5th. So now, the schedule looks like this:

“Captain Marvel” (3D) — Mar. 8, 2019
“Dumbo” (3D) — Mar. 29, 2019
“Avengers 4” (3D) — May 3, 2019
“Aladdin” (3D) — May 24, 2019
“Toy Story 4” — June 21, 2019
"Spider-Man: Far From Home" - July 5, 2019  
“The Lion King” (3D) — July 19, 2019
“Artemis Fowl” (3D) — Aug. 9, 2019
“Frozen 2” — Nov. 27, 2019
“Star Wars: Episode IX” (3D) — Dec. 20, 2019

Now the summer is even more crowded with big titles, none of which appear to be budging.  I'd assumed that the live action "Aladdin" or "The Lion King" might be delayed to space out the releases more, but there's no indication that this is happening.  I can still see "Avengers" being bumped up to April, though, to match the release pattern of the last installment.

Last time around, I thought that the schedule was massively overloaded and the movies were doomed to cannibalize each other.  Right now, I'm dead sure that this is going to happen, especially after how Disney's slate performed in 2018. They released four tentpoles over the summer, "Avengers: Infinity War," "Solo," "Incredibles 2," and "Ant-Man and the Wasp."  "Solo" significantly underperformed, for reasons that remain much debated, but part of the problem seems to be that it came out too soon after "The Last Jedi," and had a lot of bad press and bad buzz around it.

Now, if "Aladdin" and "The Lion King" can differentiate themselves enough from each other, maybe they can both make money.  I'm not counting on it though - I expect "Aladdin" will be the likeliest loser in the group, with few major stars and the highly hit-or-miss Guy Ritchie at the helm.  It's got essentially the same slot on the calendar as "Solo," which is not a good sign. There have also been a few rumblings of discontent related to the cultural sensitivity of the production - nothing major, but worth keeping an eye on.  From the bits of marketing released so far, this thing is going to live or die with Will Smith's ability to sell the Genie. Twenty years ago, no sweat, but today?

Now keep in mind that I want "Aladdin," "The Lion King," and 2020's "Mulan" to do well, because Disney is trying socially-conscious casting and some other interesting things here.  These aren't going to be carbon copies of the animated films the way that "Beauty and the Beast" unfortunately turned out. However, Disney is not doing themselves any favors jamming so many of these titles together into the same few months.  Tim Burton's live action "Dumbo" will also be coming out in March, remember. That's the one I'm actually the most skeptical about. (Why is this move written by schlockmeister Ehren Kruger and starring Colin Farrell?!)

And we might as well start prepping for Disney's equally crowded 2020 too, where we have to factor Fox's releases in.  Here's the slate so far:
Untitled Disney live-action film - February 14, 2020
Untitled Pixar film - March 6, 2020
"Mulan," - March 27, 2020
Untitled Marvel Studios film - May 1, 2020
"Maleficent II" - May 29, 2020
Untitled Pixar film - June 19, 2020
Untitled Marvel / Fox film - June 26, 2020
Untitled Marvel Studios film - July 31, 2020
Untitled Marvel / Fox film - October 2, 2020
Untitled Disney live-action film - October 9, 2020
Untitled Marvel Studios film - November 6, 2020
Untitled Disney animated film - November 25, 2020
Untitled Disney live-action film - December 23, 2020   

Hmmm…. They're being awfully tight-lipped compared to last year.  


Friday, August 17, 2018

What's Film Twitter?

Readers of the blog know that I quit Twitter a while back, after using my account to do little more than post updates for this blog. I never got the hang of using it to have real conversations with other people, though I found it a good way to keep up with various film critics and filmmakers. That was five years ago, which is practically ancient times the way the internet works. I think I may want to give Twitter another try sometime soon.

Over the past few years I've been hearing repeated references to "Film Twitter," which refers to the community of film critics, film academics, and various cinephiles who are active on Twitter. It's a big, shapeless, moveable feast of film discussion that you need to keep up with if you want to stay current on what's going on in film circles. This includes the discussion of films, film news, interviews, reviews, opinion and reaction pieces, and good, old fashioned gossip. I, not having time to read all the tweets generated by the handful of film critics I used to follow, let alone the dozens and dozens of film professionals that make up Film Twitter, have no hope of actually participating in any of these conversations. Still, it looks like it would be awfully fun to follow along.

Film Twitter is only one of many different Twitter communities. There's Politics Twitter, Music Twitter, Sports Twitter, and of course the endless amusement of Fast Food Twitter. When I hear mention of Film Twitter, it's usually through one of the participants, referencing prior or ongoing conversations. The concept of Film Twitter has been around since at least 2015, and has been steadily becoming more and more visible. First reactions to films are often gauged from tweets after early screenings, and major film festivals like Cannes are often accompanied by a flurry of increased activity. Last year there was a push to amplify more female voices. Some have tried to prognosticate box office returns and award season favorites based on Film Twitter trends - which are usually doomed to failure, of course, because the critics almost never reflect popular sentiment. Hype, however, can sometimes be generated or amplified there.

Lately I've started hearing Film Twitter referred to by some as a sort of monolithic entity, usually by those who are critical of the participants. There's a certain breed of film enthusiast who just loves writing off the perceived critical establishment as a bunch of pretentious phonies. Film Twitter provides a handy aggregate, so now it's regularly being accused of all sorts of things, like being smug, or being mean, or overreacting. This says more about the bellyachers than it does about the Film Twitter community, but I think it's also a sign of how Film Twitter is quietly growing in influence. For certain online critics, participation almost feels obligatory. And that's slightly worrisome, especially if you don't think that 140 character tweets are really the best format to be conveying nuanced opinions about cinema with.

Film Twitter remains fairly removed from the mainstream and has a certain degree of exclusivity because the major discussions often require that you have access to media at the time that it's released, or even earlier in the case of films playing the festival circuit or making the rounds via screeners. Right now, this definitely isn't the case for me and won't be for the foreseeable future. I watch nearly everything after it hits the second window viewing options - namely VOD and home media. By that point, everyone's moved on to other topics. I've gotten very used to catching up on film discussions months after they've happened, usually through articles and podcasts.

But even though I'm not a part of Film Twitter, I'm very, very comforted to know that it exists. After seeing so many of the old film discussion message boards on various sites shut down in recent years, and failing to find any good replacements, I'm happy to know that there is a forum for nerdy, critical film discussion out there on the internet. Nobody is going to shut down Twitter in a hurry. And that the film nerds are out there, somewhere, just waiting to geek out over the latest marvel blockbuster or Hirokazu Koreeda joint with.

Monday, August 13, 2018

My Top Ten Films of 1986

This is part of my continuing series looking back on films from the years before I began this blog. The ten films below are unranked and listed in no particular order. Enjoy.

The Fly - This is easily David Cronenberg's most commercial feature, but in many ways it is also the most pure distillation of his particular brand of body horror. There's a clarity and cohesion here that is often missing from his other, more cerebral films. At the same time, genre cinema rarely sese such measured treatment of guts and gore. The deterioration and transformation of our hero is executed via a spectacular combination of practical special effects, makeup, and Jeff Goldblum's performance. I also found the love story unusually affecting, giving the finale some real pathos.

Jean de Florette - The film is only the first half of a longer saga, concluded by "Manon of the Spring," However, "Jean" strikes me as the much stronger piece, not only because of the involvement of an excellent Gérard Depardieu, but because the themes in play are much more interesting. The struggle of Jean against the land and the elements, and the active deception being carried out by the villagers creates terrific tension and tragedy. It also gives the filmmakers the opportunity to really spotlight the gorgeous art direction and cinematography of the recreated Provence countryside.

Blue Velvet - One of the key works in David Lynch's strange, enthralling cinematic universe, where we first see him pair banal suburban melodrama with nightmarish horror. Much of the film's content remains shocking and upsetting, with Dennis Hopper's performance as deeply unnerving as ever. The imagery is indelible - the severed ear, the oxygen mask, and poor Isabella Rossellini in a scene of such graphic distress that it prompted outrage and criticism. The film has only grown more effective and fascinating with time, especially in the context of Lynch's later related output.

Sid and Nancy - Before Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen fall victim to their notorious folie a deux of substance addictions and self-harm, they have a bloody good time thumbing their noses at polite society in this quintessential punk rocker biopic. From Gary Oldman's scalding recreation of Vicious' version of "My Way" to the tender make-out session in a trash-strewn alley, Alex Cox tells the counter-culture love story of his generation in energetically subversive cinematic terms. And though Cox may maintain that the story is cautionary, it's hard not to root for the delinquents and the creeps.

Manhunter - Violent criminals are creatures of the night, and no one creates nighttime worlds on film better than Michael Mann. This remains the best adaptation of Thomas Harris's "Red Dragon," delving into the ins and outs of serial killers and forensic psychology. Tom Noonan delivers a memorable performance as our killer, simultaneously sympathetic and monstrous. However, the film is largely driven by its intense atmosphere of dread, colorful nocturnal mise-en-scene, and a relentless soundtrack. It's still rare to find such an effective, thrilling crime procedural to this day.

The Sacrifice - Tarkovsky left us with this "poetic parable" as his final film, the story of a man who bargains with God in an attempt to avoid impending disaster. The final scene, contained all in a lengthy single shot, is a real jawdropper. A house is burned to the ground in real time, our main character appears to succumb to madness (or experience a profound religious awakening), and the audience is left to decide whether they have just witnessed a tragedy or a miracle. It's possibly the culminating achievement of Tarkovsky's entire career, and a cinematic experience that's impossible to forget.

The Mission - Part religious epic, part historical fiction, and part heaving melodrama, there's plenty that's problematic about "The Mission" upon close inspection. However, the sheer daring of the spectacle and the earnestness of the spiritual and moral questioning is something I miss in later films, and appreciate seeing here. And there is simply no questioning the brilliance of the cinematography, the score, and the production design. There are some profoundly moving moments here, the product of an absolutely committed group of filmmakers and performers working at the height of their craft.

Ferris Bueller's Day Off - Sure, it's fun to watch the hijinks that the kids get themselves into, and marvel at the cool confidence and daring of the seemingly untouchable Ferris. However, after a couple of viewings I realized that the film was actually about Cameron and Jeannie, and their journeys to enlightenment and self-acceptance. The self-aware, utterly indulgent script may be the most delightful thing that John Hughes ever wrote. And it's remained a surprisingly smart, insightful, and touching watch, decades after nearly everything else in the 1980s teen comedy genre went out of date.

Mona Lisa - An unusually sentimental gangster film that pairs a small time ex-con with a high class prostitute, and sees them become unlikely friends. This was an important picture in advancing the careers of both director Neil Jordan and star Bob Hoskins, who elevate some pretty well-worn material to pleasurable heights by mixing several genres, tones, and moods. British neo-noir never looked better than it does here, absolutely dripping with stylish sleaze and atmospheric cool, while Hoskins never delivered a more wonderfully humane and touching performance.

Stand By Me - Four boys go off an adventure together, getting into trouble, telling disgusting stories, and sharing the kind of secrets that only boys of a certain age will truly appreciate. By turns funny, poignant, gross, insightful, and nostalgic, Rob Reiner's "Stand By Me" remains one of the most enjoyable coming-of-age films ever made. It's certainly one of the most influential in terms of portraying kids and how they actually interact with each other. The performances are also unusually strong, probably because the young actors are largely playing themselves.

Honorable Mention:

Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer

Saturday, August 11, 2018

My Favorite Miloš Forman Film

I think it's fair to call "Amadeus" one of the formative films of my moviegoing life, a film I've watched many, many times over the years, both as a child and as an adult. When I was younger, I loved seeing the stagecraft and the pageantry of Mozart's world, the ostentatious period costumes and the grandeur of the Habsburg court of Emperor Joseph II. As I grew older, I learned to appreciate the use of the music, the performances, and the filmmaking. And when I was in college, I saw it for the first time in theaters, a Special Edition cut that added several scenes of more adult material.

That's when I began to appreciate "Amadeus" as a subversive film, about a bawdy, bad boy musician who rebels against authority in order to make the music that he wants. He's vulgar and irresponsible with money, fond of parties and excess, and is eventually brought down by his own ego. I started watching Miloš Forman's other films, noting similar themes in the counterculture musical "Hair," the Larry Flynt biopic, and perhaps the ultimate story of a man rebelling against the system, "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." Note that nearly all of Forman's later films also end with the main character's self-destruction and untimely demise.

Forman had plenty of experience with rebellion and going to great lengths to make his art on his own terms. After distinguishing himself as a major talent in the Czechoslovakian New Wave in the '60s, and earning the ire of the government with the satirical "Fireman's Ball," Forman was ousted from the Czech film industry in the early '70s. A decade later, after finding success in Hollywood, he would return to shoot "Amadeus" in Prague. Like the madmen and creative geniuses who featured frequently in his films, Forman had a tendency to become obsessed with his projects, often unable to work on more than one at a time, and abandoning at least one major undertaking due to not being able to bear compromising his vision.

"Amadeus" isn't just about Mozart, but also his rival. Antonio Salieri (F. Murray Abraham) is one of my favorite characters in cinema, a successful composer who realizes that he's musically mediocre, and becomes increasingly jealous of the genius of Mozart (Tom Hulce), who he views as an obnoxious child. I'd have loved to see the celebrated Ian McKellan stage performance of Salieri brought to the screen, but Abraham's work here is unforgettable. The film widens the scope of the original play to show us a more complete and nuanced picture of Mozart, but it's still framed as Salieri's confession, and driven by his obsessions with God and music. His monologues have been transformed into conversations with his priest, allowing for more measured, more directed presentation of his observations as we watch Mozart's career progress.

This was typical of Forman's adaptations, which were faithful in spirit to the original works, but often drastically reworked in order to meet the more visual demands of cinematic storytelling. Forman certainly didn't skimp when it came to the visuals in "Amadeus," resurrecting the original opera house where "Don Giovanni" premiered, and rewriting a scene to make better use of the Archbishop's Palace locations. Mozart's operas are lavishly staged, and used in the film to mirror various aspects of Mozart's life and career. The climax of "Don Giovanni" providing the inspiration for Salieri's scheme is especially chilling. And then of course there is Mozart's music, heard constantly throughout the film, supervised and conducted by Neville Marriner. The famous Requiem Mass deathbed composition scene was created specifically for "Amadeus," a spectacular confluence of music, visuals, and the acting performances of Abraham and Hulce.

I grew up listening to classical music all of my life, but the experience of watching "Amadeus" was one of the few times that I felt I really had proper context for any of it. Though the particulars of the story and the relationship of Mozart and Salieri are almost totally invented, the humanization of Mozart gave me so much more appreciation for his work. And similarly the more I learn about Miloš Forman and what he undertook to bring "Amadeus" to the screen, the more I marvel at its successes.


Friday, August 10, 2018

The "Mowgli" Moment

When "The Cloverfield Paradox" was sold to Netflix earlier this year and made a surprise premiere after the Superbowl, I thought that it was a clever stunt, and might point to the studios coming around to doing business with Netflix again in certain circumstances.  And now along comes "Mowgli," the Warner Brothers adaptation of Rudyard Kipling's "The Jungle Book," that was supposed to have a theatrical release in October. It is by far the largest and most prominent title that Netflix has acquired from a major studio so far, with several celebrity names voicing the animal characters, including Christian Bale, Cate Blanchett, and Benedict Cumberbatch.  

Frankly, "Mowgli" was plagued from bad luck from the start.  It's one of several recent projects trying to hit on becoming the next big franchise by rebooting classic material with modern sensibilities.  After losing multiple directors, ultimately Andy Serkis was brought on to helm the project. Production delays meant that it would have to be released after Disney's adaptation of "The Jungle Book" in 2016, which was a massive hit.  The marketing initially tried to paint "Mowgli" as a darker and more serious film to try and distance it from the Disney feature. However, more recent trailers have done an about face to try and appeal to families. Apparently the response to Warner's efforts haven't been encouraging.  

The acquisition is being viewed as bad news for the film, an admission that Warner Bros. has no faith in a theatrical release for it.  However, what I find interesting here is that Warner Bros. decided it was in their best financial interests to go to Netflix with the title.  Ten years ago it would have gone straight to DVD, but the DVD market has dried up. Five years ago they might have spent millions retooling it, or simply let it crash and burn at the box office in the post-holiday winter months.  Now? Warners gets to recoup some of their costs, the film won't be stuck in limbo where audiences can't see it indefinitely, and Netflix has another shiny new piece of studio-produced content for their library. The fact that it may not be any good doesn't mean that viewers won't watch it.        

Netflix has continued spending vast sums on content, and plans to release over sixty feature films in 2018 alone.  Their Oscar slate is particularly strong this year, including films from Alfonso Cuaron, the Coen Brothers, and Paul Greengrass.  Next year will see the release of the long awaited Martin Scorsese project, "The Irishman." The rest of Hollywood may not take them seriously, but I think that if they keep this up, Netflix is  going to be the de facto sixth major studio, after Disney and FOX finish their merger. At this point they're simply too big and too influential to be ignored. Netflix is the default choice when it comes to online viewing.  

However, it's not likely to stay that way.  The streaming world has gotten much more crowded over the past few years.  The biggest new challenger is Disney, which is planning to pull most of its current catalogue from Netflix after their content deal expires, and launch a major streaming service in 2019.  This includes all the recent Disney, PIXAR, Marvel and "Star Wars" films, and a big slate of original films and series. Notably, a couple of projects that were originally announced to be theatrical releases, including the family comedy "Magic Camp" and the Anna Kendrick film "Noelle," will be premiering there instead.    

Now, Warners doesn't appear to be interested in launching its own streaming service at the moment, though it probably could.  They have a stake in Hulu, which currently has a good chunk of popular WB television shows and films available. However, Warners has also made deals to license their content to other services.  HBO Now has the more recent films. Older classic films are available through Filmstruck. Warners is launching a streaming service for their DC content, but this is a pretty niche operation, featuring the edgy live-action "Titans" and animated "Justice League: Outsiders" as initial offerings.  

In short, Warners making a deal with Netflix to get "Mowgli" off its hands makes sense for them.  I expect this won't be the last time we see it happen either. In the streaming age, Netflix essentially has replaced the direct-to-video option, and its pockets are deep enough that it can make attractive deals.  Someday Warners might go the Disney route, or another streaming service might offer a better option, but not today, in 2018.

I'm also a little worried about all these smaller films skipping theatrical runs and going straight to streaming.  It really doesn't bode well for theaters, especially since MoviePass has folded. It looks like the everyone's doubling down on the tentpoles more than ever.  We'd better keep an eye on that.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

No More Racebending?

I've been meaning to write about a particular trend that's emerged recently, related to the casting choices on various movies.  Specifically, we've seen a big shift in the way that certain roles are being handled. Ed Skrein deciding to leave the role of Ben Daimio in the "Hellboy" reboot last August seemed to be a major turning point.  The character is ethnically Japanese, but Skrein is Caucasian. After some outcry about the character being whitewashed, Skrein bowed out, specifically citing these concerns as the reason for his departure. The part was then quickly recast with Daniel Dae Kim, an Asian actor.

I found this very encouraging, as someone who's been rooting for more on-screen diversity for ages, but one incident doesn't really make a trend.  Then came the news that Scarlett Johansson was starring in and producing "Rub and Tug," a biopic about a transgender man, Dante "Tex" Gill. The trans community made their displeasure known, and a little over a week later Johansson announced she was leaving the project due to the response.  The film was cancelled shortly thereafter. Johansson was at the center of the whitewashing controversy about last year's "Ghost in the Shell," where she played the originally Japanese Major Kusanagi. I assume that she wanted to avoid a similar situation developing with "Rub and Tug."

So after years of escalating criticism, which has become more and more visible thanks to social media, I think we are in a moment where diverse casting is not only considered a positive, but a requirement.  Suddenly it's become a priority to make sure that a Middle Eastern or handicapped or LGBT or other minority-specific role goes to an actor that is authentic to that experience. It used to be that you cast the biggest name that you could get, but now you run the risk of subjecting that name to merciless online scrutiny if that actor is deemed as unsuitable for a particular role.  So no more trying to pass off Jake Gyllenhaal as Persian, or Johnny Depp as Native American. No more weak excuses about there not being suitable talent, especially as the actors themselves are now actively taking a stance against whitewashing practices.

It's a little breathtaking how quickly this has happened.  Scarlett Johansson originally responded to the criticisms of her playing Gill by invoking other cisgendered actors who had played trans characters, including Jeffrey Tambor, Felicity Huffman, and Jared Leto - who won an Oscar for "Dallas Buyers Club" in 2014.  That was before Laverne Cox on "Orange is the New Black," however. This was before "Tangerine" and "Pose" and "A Fantastic Woman." That was before it became abundantly clear that there were talented trans actors who could play those trans characters. Thanks in part to the content explosion happening with television and web series right now, suddenly the acting talent pool has massively diversified.  Now there's no excuse not to cast a deaf actress in "A Quiet Place" or a Middle Eastern actor as Freddie Mercury in "Bohemian Rhapsody."
Still, I don't think that this recent push for authenticity is going to mean the end of problematic casting in the future.  Creative and financial considerations will continue to affect casting choices, and the gains we've seen could easily disappear.  Right now this is a trend, one that has the possibility of becoming something more permanent, but we're not there yet. Also, I feel that it's important to reiterate that given a level playing field, there's nothing inherently wrong with a cis actor playing a trans actor, or even an actor of one ethnicity playing another, when they're doing it respectfully.  Back in the '80s, Caucasian actress Linda Hunt played an Asian male dwarf, and was brilliant. The problem is that the playing field isn't level right now, and onscreen representation continues to be something to strive for.

So for now, I'm going to keep cheering for each new bit of progress that I see being made.  And for those who fret about Skrein or Johansson losing out on roles, remember that they have plenty of other opportunities - the "Black Widow" movie is finally moving forward, and Skrein has five film credits this year alone.  On the other hand, there are only so many roles that Daniel Dae Kim or Laverne Cox are considered for, simply because they're not white hetero, cisgender actors. Until that changes, we gotta keep fighting the good fight.


Outstanding Achievement in Popular Film?!

What a day.  I knew that the declining ratings for the Oscar telecast were causing AMPAS some dismay, but the changes announced in the letter they sent out a few days ago point to full blown panic behind the scenes.  How else to explain these latest developments? Not only are they going to pre-tape some of the more obscure categories to help cut the ceremony down to three hours, but there's the sinister announcement of a new category aiming to recognize "outstanding achievement in popular film."  What the hell is that?!

Let's put aside the pre-taping of winners for now, which I'm not exactly happy about, but I think that everyone could live with it if corners have to be cut.  The Tonys already do something similar. The bulk of this post will be dissecting this "popular film" award, which has rightly drawn the most attention and ire.  The thinking behind the announcement is pretty clear. Oscar telecast ratings are higher when more popular box office hits are in contention, so AMPAS has an interest in seeing more blockbusters get more nominations.  That was a major reason why the number of Best Picture nominees was increased back in 2009. The trouble is that those extra nomination slots didn't go to the blockbusters, but often to more prestige films.

Most of the Best Picture winners and nominees over the past few years have been tiny, low budget movies like "Moonlight" and "Spotlight" that hardly anyone saw.  Sure, "Dunkirk" and "The Shape of Water" were legitimate hits, but they've been outnumbered by obscure movies like "Phantom Thread" and "Darkest Hour." Meanwhile, the real box office winners like "Avengers" and "Star Wars" never get more than a few technical nods.  The tastes of moviegoing audiences and the Academy have increasingly diverged. At this point we're decades away from the era where "Titanic" and "Lord of the Rings" were winners at both the box office and the Oscar podium.

Getting back to that point is difficult, however.  There's a legitimate argument that the Academy has biases against more populist films, especially genre fare and children's entertainment, that should be corrected.  However, it's also very clear that the composition of moviegoing audiences has changed drastically over the last twenty years. The box office is dominated by lightweight superhero and action franchises, nearly all of them aimed at young adults and children.  The more serious, artistically challenging fare favored by the Academy is still being made, but titles have to fight for the steadily declining pool of adult viewers.

It looks like the Academy chasing after the popular movies necessarily means lowering its standards, and pandering to the tastes of younger audiences.  Frankly, this not a new thing, as the Oscars are an industry award heavily influenced by popular sentiment. These are not a critical or artistic awards voted on by people trying to be impartial.  However, the Oscars have a reputation for honoring quality and have historically been much subtler about tilting the playing field one way or another. They generally do it through obscure rule changes, like who gets to vote on which categories, or the screening requirements for eligibility.

That's why this latest announcement is such a shock.  There is nothing subtle about a whole new category coming out of nowhere, especially one determined by an eligibility  metric that has never been used for Oscars before: box office numbers. Because really, how else do you measure a film's popularity except with box office numbers?  Compare this to the last time we got a new category back in 2001, for Best Animated Film. The stated reasoning was that there was a boom in the number of animated films being produced in the late '90s, creating real competition for an award.  But it sure didn't hurt that those films were suddenly making a lot of money.

It's also difficult to imagine how the category is going to work in practice.  The top five films at the box office in 2017 were "Star Wars: The Last Jedi," "Beauty and the Beast," "The Fate of the Furious," "Despicable Me 3," and "Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle."  Do they just automatically get nominations or is there a minimum level of quality they have to meet? Does a panel of voters choose nominees from the top fifty earners of the year as of December 31st?  Do we use domestic or worldwide totals? Do we factor in home media sales? My guess is that the winner will be determined by popular voting by the "Transformers" loving public, which opens up a whole new can of worms logistically.

What gets to me is that there are a lot of other steps that the Academy could have taken to honor and include the blockbusters.  They could have finally approved that outstanding stunt coordinator category. They could have created categories for outstanding visual characters and virtual performances.  They could have made that new category Outstanding Genre Feature, or Outstanding Children's Feature, or Outstanding Franchise Feature even. Instead, we get a mini-People's Choice Award segment mashed into the telecast.  Oh well. I am a little impressed that AMPAS didn't hide their intentions and just came right out and said they wanted more blockbusters in the ceremony.

The prospect of an Oscar going to the next "Minions" movie, however, just makes me die a little inside.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Missmediajunkie v. The Tsum Tsums

In a previous post about the Pokemon Go craze, I remarked that the game didn't have much appeal for me because I had never been all that attached to Pokemon. However, if there were ever a Disney branded version of the game, it would be a different story. Classic Disney animation has always been the epicenter of my childhood nostalgia, and it's always been a war between the stringently anti-clutter, anti-merchandise part of my personality, and the instant gratification enabling, media junkie part of me that loves cute stuff. I've always had an addictive personality, and can get carried away with any kind of collecting. I worry that with my completionist impulses, even the most innocuous collection can get out of hand, and I'll wind up spending all of my disposable income on branded junk. And I mean, it could happen pretty easily with Disney merchandise. The mouse doesn't fool around.

I thought something like Pokemon Go would be a perfect solution to this dilemma, since the game is free and all the Pokemon you collect are digital, taking up no real space. So I was very excited to discover "LINE: Disney Tsum Tsum," a mobile video game where you can collect various Disney characters in their Tsum Tsum incarnations. The massively popular Tsum Tsum plushies first came out of Japan in 2013, and spawned their own animated webseries, a Marvel superhero spinoff, and tons of related merchandise. What I found especially attractive was that there were Tsum Tsums for so many of the more obscure Disney characters. There's a "Fantasia" Tsum Tsum set. There's a "Three Caballeros" Tsum Tsum set. There's even a "Pete's Dragon" Tsum Tsum of Elliot the dragon, who I don't ever remember seeing other merchandise for. What Disney nerd could resist?

So I downloaded the game and spent two days playing it. I collected a dozen digital Tsum Tsums and worked my way up to Level 10. And it became very clear to me that 1) I disliked playing the game, and 2) I disliked the Tsum Tsums too. The game is made for touchscreens, and each timed round requires playing connect the dots with your finger and a random assortment of Tsum Tsums as fast as possible. The gameplay was more action-oriented than puzzle-oriented, and gave me a headache from eyestrain after a few hours. There are the usual game mechanics like limited lives with timers, incentives to involve your social network, and in-app purchases, which I didn't much mind. I can see why the game is popular, with the steady stream of rewards opportunities, the spiffy animation, and various "missions" to unlock different achievements. However, I didn't find it fun to play on a fundamental level, and deleted it quickly.

Then there are the Tsum Tsums themselves. Each Tsum Tsum plush is shaped like a cylinder, with a super simplified chibi face on one end, reminiscent of Hello Kitty. These can look pretty cute when the original character is already sort of cylindrical or pillow shaped, like all the animal characters. However, anything remotely humanoid like Elsa from "Frozen" or Han Solo look terrible. Also, the chibi faces are so simplified, often with no mouths, that they often don't look much like the original characters. It was difficult to tell them apart in the digital game, where only the face is visible. The Tinkerbell Tsum Tsum, for instance, is simply a female face with a blonde bun. There's no visible green dress or fairy wings. And where you can see them on the plushie, they're warped by the cylindrical body shape. The iconic silhouette is totally gone. I have a relative who loves and collects Tinkerbell merchandise, but I'd hesitate buying her one of these toys. The Tsum Tsum Tink just doesn't look right to me.

And this is also the reason that I've been resistant to the popular Funko Pop! bobbleheads, which use a similar design aesthetic. And the more recent Disney Ufufy plushie line, where the characters are shaped like eggs instead of cylinders. I quite like some of the redesigns that Disney has done for its characters for other merchandise lines - the Disney Infinity figurines were amazing - but the trend seems to be toward these more Japanese influenced images that I'm not really onboard with. Oh well. If I really want to collect something, there are some Disney character keychains and cel-phone charms that I've been eyeing. Or maybe I'll give that Disney Emoji game a try.

It's just that the Tsum Tsums looked like they would have been perfect. They checked off so many of the boxes I wanted. I guess I'm more stuck on the idea of being a certain kind of fan than, well, actually being fan.

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Mind the Gap

As we all know, "Game of Thrones" is taking a year off before the final stretch of episodes next year. So is "American Gods" after some production troubles. "Westworld" took an eighteen month break between its first two seasons, and probably won't be seen again until 2020. And your guess is as good as mine as to when we'll see the next seasons of shows like "Black Mirror" or "Fargo."

As the age of Peak TV barrels on, the old network model of a show coming back every fall and running for twenty-odd episodes is no longer a given. Everyone has gotten used to shows premiering year round, running as few as five or six episodes for a full season, and Netflix introduced the concept of making an entire season available all at once. Now longer production cycles are becoming the norm. American television now looks much closer to British television, where multi-year hiatuses between series of shows like "Red Dwarf," "Sherlock," and "Luther" are commonplace. "Doctor Who" famously took a fifteen year break between 1989 and 2005. With the new popularity of revivals, it can be argued that shows like "Arrested Development" and "Roseanne" are simply finally being renewed for more episodes.

The benefits are obvious. Longer production times and limited episode counts mean higher quality and easier scheduling of all the talent involved, who don't have to commit the large amount of time tradition television demands. Now, instead of writing around cast absences and behind-the-scenes upheaval to meet broadcasting deadlines, it's feasible to simply wait a little longer before the next season goes into production. The audience has proven willing to wait for the better shows to return, and often have far too much to watch anyway. Back in the early 2000s, it was only the rare, oddball series like "Curb Your Enthusiasm" or "The Venture Bros." that dared to be off the airwaves for more than twelve months. Now, it's honestly a little surprising when more ambitious series like "Legion" and "The Handmaid's Tale" actually return within a single calendar year.

The nature of television has also changed over the last few cycles, and new seasons of certain television shows are increasingly being treated like events. In a crowded field, the genuine hits can be few and far between. Longer production times mean that the biggest shows like "Game of Thrones" can be kept on the schedules for a few extra seasons. A show that had an off year like "True Detective" can spend some time regrouping and retooling out of the limelight before they return to our screens. I wish more declining series like "The Walking Dead" or "Supernatural" would take a break, letting the creators recharge or at least have more time to generate better material. Longer absences can also help to pump up more audience interest and help the marketing efforts.

It's interesting that Hollywood's film and television production cycles are starting to look alike. Most of the big tentpole blockbusters like the "Fast and the Furious" movies go about two or three years between installments. It's also become more common to see the same talent operating in both worlds. Meryl Streep will be in the second season of "Big Little Lies" as the new villain. Emma Stone and Jonah Hill are headlining "Maniac" for Netflix. Millie Bobby Brown from "Stranger Things" is also starring in the next Legendary Pictures "Godzilla" movie, due next year. And as television becomes more and more ambitious, I expect we'll see the breaks go even longer.

I think about Amazon's upcoming Middle Earth series and Netflix's "Another Life," and HBO's "Watchman" series, and the push for more of these big, effects-heavy projects. And I'd be happy to wait a little longer if it meant that the creators involved could do these shows right. Sure, I'd love to see the next series of "Black Mirror" right now, but I'd rather wait five years for really, really good episodes than have a compromised, rushed handful of episodes on Netflix next month. As American television continues to grow and change, I'm pretty happy that it's starting to develop some patience.

After all, good things come to those who wait. Happy watching.

Friday, August 3, 2018

"Avengers: Infinity Wars" (With Spoilers)

All the spoilers ahead. All of them.

I have to hand it to the writers. They knew that the audience was anticipating the deaths of some of the bigger marquee characters, so they went ahead and killed off a big chunk of the cast, leaving most of the big names like Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor to anchor next year' "Avengers." Of course, we know there are Spider-man and Black Panther sequels coming, so it's hard to really feel bad about the whole massacre. Clearly, the deaths are only temporary. I wouldn't even count Gamora and Loki out at this point.

That makes it very difficult to care about the stakes of the cliffhanger, especially as few of the characters give us much reason to be invested in their fates. This is where "Infinity Wars" leans very heavily on the audience's familiarity with the past movies. Why else would we be bothered by the deaths of Bucky and Sam? Or even Black Panther? Actually, looking at the characters who are remaining, it's pretty clear that the Russo brothers are clearing the board of the newer heroes to allow a final hurrah for the original Avengers team before the next phase of the Marvel universe. There probably will be a meaningful death or two next year, but I wouldn't' be surprised if there weren't, and we just end on Tony's wedding extravaganza.

But, assuming that you're a kid in the audience who isn't privy to the meta stuff, "Infinity Wars" looks pretty daring. It's hard to think of another major superhero film that's ended on such a downer since "The Empire Strikes Back." And unlike the recent "The Last Jedi," you really get the impact of the heroes failing over and over again because the narrative is so simple and laid out so clearly. I was predicting the movie to end with Thanos with a completed Infinity Gauntlet snapping his fingers, but seeing the actual aftermath leaves more to chew on until next season - I mean, next year. I really have to hand it to the Russo brothers for juggling so many characters, places, and plot points, keeping the whole works moving along briskly for the entire 160 minute run time.

The downside, of course, is that the whole movie feels very slick and superficial, even though there are some hugely emotional scenes that play out. There is easily enough material here for three full features, or a season of a television show. While some characters like Gamora and Bruce Banner have arcs, and Thanos is pointedly the most humanized of the whole lot, it's frustrating to see so many characters who have so little to do here. It's the little interpersonal moments, like Starlord feeling insecure next to Thor, and Tony Stark in full parent mode with Peter Parker, that are the most entertaining and that I would have loved to see more of. The fun of having a big crossover is seeing all these different characters interact and intermingle in new combinations. That doesn't happen here nearly as much as it should.

I imagine that a miniseries or extended edition format would be necessary to really do this story justice. Maybe then there would be room to really get into how Wanda and Vision's relationship works, or the full trauma of Thanos's past. Because while all the spectacle is well and good, and the scope of the big battles and CGI destruction is suitably epic, it feels like the movie dropped the ball a bit when it came to telling its characters' stories, and it didn't have to. Of course, the big caveat is that the stories aren't finished. There are several things set up, like Banner's difficulties with Hulk, that haven't paid off yet. And with nearly all the Guardians on ice, the focus will be shifting to different characters for the next movie.

Part of the problem, of course, comes down to the nature of the Marvel universe films. They're never really going to be finished, the interesting character stuff will largely happen offscreen, and the next "Avengers" installment is going to be used as a jumping off point for more movies. I suppose it's best to just enjoy the films for the shallow, familiar, noisy pleasures they provide, and appreciate the occasional fun bits of dialogue, and memorable characters. Robert Downey Jr. continues to be incredibly charismatic and interesting to watch, Thor has been greatly improving with each appearance, Elizabeth Olsen sells a lot of heartache, Josh Brolin brought a lot of menace to Thanos, and Tom Holland remains the best Spider-man.

Oh well. I'll definitely be watching the next one to see how it all turns out. I suppose that's really all you need to know.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

"Avengers: Infinity Wars" (Without Spoilers)

So here we are at last. The super, mega crossover of all the different Marvel films, from "Iron Man" to "Black Panther" is finally upon us, tying together all those little after-credits scenes that have been building up to this movie over the past several years. With dozens of major characters to juggle, and the weight of sky-high expectations and hype, how could "Infinity Wars" possibly be any good? Well, that's the beauty of the whole Marvel franchise. It doesn't really have to be.

So, the big purple alien Thanos (Josh Brolin) has come to Earth, on his quest to collect the six Infinity Stones that will allow him to wipe out half of the life in the universe, because he's fanatically devoted to the cause of curbing overpopulation. One stone is currently with Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), another is with Vision (Paul Bettany), and the opening scenes see Thanos taking one from Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Loki (Tom Hiddleston). Our heroes are divided into three distinct groups at the outset: Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), Peter Parker (Tom Holland), and Strange protecting one stone, Thor and the Guardians of the Galaxy trying to stop Thanos more directly, and Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) and pretty much everyone left over keeping Vision away from Thanos's minions. These minions have names, apparently, but I didn't manage to catch any.

"Infinity War" is relentlessly plot-driven and tightly paced, so even if you have no idea who a particular character is, you understand what they want and what they're doing. The bad guys want all the shiny rocks, and the good guys are trying to stop them. There is almost no time devoted to developing any of the characters, with the exception of Thanos and his estranged foster daughter Gamora (Zoe Saldana), to try and give the audience some insight on why the big bad is on his insane quest, and to try and paint him as something of a tragic figure. It's more than most of the Marvel movies have done for their villains, so I give them points for that. However, it means that most of the other character interactions are reduced to one-liners and quipping. This works in some cases, like the overgrown badboy collective of Stark, Strange, and Starlord (Chris Pratt) butting heads, but not in others. And naturally, the involvement of some characters like Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan) feel pointless because they barely get enough screen time to register.

The material with the Guardians comes off the most satisfying because there are more personal stakes, and we really only have Thor as a newcomer to the existing dynamic. The humor works the best, and I found the story more interesting than what we got in "Guardians of the Galaxy 2." It's all very rushed, but at least we're actually seeing some progression in the relationships and I've wanted more Gamora backstory from the beginning. The other two storylines have some nice moments, but they suffer from not having the breathing space to actually let people talk to each other or build camaraderie. The Vision and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) romance, for instance, is important here, but we only get a single quick scene in the beginning to establish the two are together before the rubble starts to fly. By contrast, Black Widow and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) reuniting gets a quick acknowledgement, but nothing else.

And of course, there's the biggest elephant in the room. "Infinity Wars" is only the first half of this particular "Avengers" story, to be concluded in next year's installment. Therefore, it feels premature to judge the dramatic merits of the film, especially in a comic book movie where it's possible to rewind time and resurrect dead characters with hardly any fuss. There are some big stakes rolled out, but it's difficult to take them at face value, which I'll get into more detail about in my spoiler post, coming in a day or two.

I can't find much to find fault with in "Infinity Wars" as far as the actual filmmaking goes, but after so many years of seeing the Infinity Stones and Thanos elbow their way into other Marvel movies, mostly I'm just relieved to see the end is in sight. Sure, some of the fights are fun, the quips are funny, and the CGI spectacle has rarely been more impressive. However, I have never been more aware that I was watching a comic book movie, with so much devoted solely to convincing me to buy the next issue.