Saturday, April 28, 2018

Avengers: Infinity War *** (2018)

So we now have the Nashville of superhero movies, a film with way too many characters taking part in a half baked allegory. The best of Infinity Wars is the sheer scale of its ambition, rarely seen since the heyday of Cecil B. Demille. Unfortunately there's little in the way of substance, costumed creators are simply thrown together in a strange brew of screwball comedy and baroque comic book movie era set pieces. The big reveal is that Infinity War is more about the super villain Thanos (Josh Brolin) who appears to be unstoppable. 

Watching the film I kept thinking of Patton Oswalt's rant from Parks and Recreation that went viral a few years ago, a story pitch that would involve the Star Wars and Marvel Universes, a fever dream of high geekdom (also see Ready Player One). That's Infinity War.

The first half features fun banter, but it devolves in the second half into endless fighting and ludicrous plot contrivance. Plot summary defies logic, all dealing deal with six "infinity" stones that contain all the forces of the universe. Thanos is after them. That's the movie.

Infinity War is all about the moment, the parts are way more than the sum. In music terms, consider Infinity War an epic triple album that's partly high entertainment cinema, middle of the road cinema, and throwaway cinema. 

Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man steals his scenes as usual, Captain America (Chris Evans) seems out of his depth, Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) is too cool for this movie, Black Widow (Scarlet Johansson) appears weary, Thanos (Josh Brolin) is a banal villain, Dr. Strange (Bendict Cumberbatch) conjures up impotent spells, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) are happy just to be there. The Guardians crew make a forced appearance. 

Every character is stretched so thin, proving why the solo Marvel movies tend to work best. As Black Panther proved, those stories allow for more depth and creativity. Sorry for the second music analogy, but it's as if there were way too many guitar heroes on the stage maneuvering for a solo. Where's Prince when you need him?

And then there's the last ten minutes, perhaps the most haunting conclusion ever in a superhero movie outside of Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy. For a fleeting moment It does appear the world as we know it is coming to an end, leaving you shaken and queasy. We know more movies are in production until 2099, but it's one of the great kiss offs in movie history. Some movies are worth watching for the off the wall ending - file Infinity War under that category. 

Monday, April 9, 2018

Game Night (2018) ***

Game Night is smart enough to be compelling for its 90 minute run time. Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams star as a good natured couple Max and Annie, who host weekly game nights, usually clean fun with traditional board games like Risk and Life. When Max's older and more successful older brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler) arrives for a visit, game night amps up a few levels. Through a night of misadventures, which may or may not be part of the game, some hilarity and occasionally gruesome humor goes down. As a comedy version of the 1997 David Fincher film The Game, Game Night's tone gets a bit wobbly at times. The shift into action movie parody comes off as ridiculous, but the cast is likable enough to make all the madness fun. A combined parody and celebration of the sheer boredom of life, Game Night is not a bad way to pass 90 minutes. 

The Death of Stalin **** (2017)

The Death of Stalin combines Seinfeld style hijinks, Godfather level intrigue, and soul crushing historical tragedy.

Josef Stalin died in 1953 and the film chronicles the power struggle among the Central Committee of the Soviet leadership. Steve Buscemi gives the performance of his life as Nikita Khrushchev, the Party member who eventually emerged as the Premier of the Soviet Union. The film begins with Khrushchev joking about a mass execution he once witnessed. He's neither the smartest, nor the most intimidating, yet finds the dexterity to triumph. 

Khrushchev's competitors are Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), basically Stalin's stooge, and Beria (Simon Russell Beale) who ran the Secret Police (NKVD) and committed many crimes against humanity.

When Stalin dies unceremoniously of a brain hemorrhage, his cronies struggle over what to do with the body in Marx Brother type shenanigans. They cannot find a doctor since all the good ones were executed for disloyalty! Then the intrigue begins. 

They all acknowledge Stalin was a tyrant, yet all were accomplices in his reign of terror. All realize the new leadership must emphasize reform and repairing all the damage left in his wake. They know getting the support of his children's important, who are brilliantly played by Rupert Friend and Andrea Riseborough. 

As the shaky transition of power begins, they plan the funeral (a task that falls to Khrushchev) which allows for endless gallows humor straight out of Duck Soup.

It's a comedy Voltaire would appreciate, power appears absurd and terrifying. The Death of Stalin ends with a horrifying execution as the schemers crack jokes and joyfully watch their nemesis suffer, daring the audience to laugh with them since the victim was an awful person in the first place. Few films outside of Dr. Strangelove can achieve such sublime moments. 

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

The Zen Diaries of Garry Shandling ***1/2 (2018)

Judd Apatow's five hour documentary about his mentor, groundbreaking comedian Garry Shandling who passed away in 2016, is based on Shandling's own journals he kept over several decades. The film is never boring nor an overly laudatory portrait. In contrast to many biographical docs, Apatow makes his subject enigmatic and compelling. 

Shandling was part of a new wave of comics that came up in the 1970s, shaped by the counterculture and the rebel comedians of the post-war era. His observational brand of humor was innovative and influential. A favorite of Johnny Carson, Shandling made a splash on The Tonight Show after years of struggle. A car accident early in his career led him down a spiritual path, a road that witnessed success, betrayal, and disappointment. 

By the late 1980s Shandling was next in line to replace Johnny Carson, while also producing a cult TV show It's The Garry Shandling Show (1986-1990), known for deconstructing the sitcom. The Larry Sanders Show (1992-98) was the ultimate post-modern look at television with Shandling playing a fictional (and narcissistic) late night talk show host. Afterwards, he struggled to find his footing with a stalled movie career and a failed relationship. In later years he took solace in mentoring young comedians and pursuing new challenges such as boxing.

The Zen Diaries asks the big questions about life, most importantly, how one should live? Should you simply find a niche and ride that wave? Or always seek out new challenges? Shandling never followed the same path and often paid the price for it. His comedy played on his various neuroses, much of it stemming from a childhood trauma, the loss of his older brother. 

Many comedians appear and offer their memories of Shandling, making The Zen Diaries a warm tribute to comedy. Scholars of comedy history will devour this film, and for those unfamiliar with Shandling's body of work, the documentary will make for an excellent introduction, a documentary handled with great care and chock full of laughs.