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AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR (2018) – MOVIE REVIEW

AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR (2018) – MOVIE REVIEW

Directed by: Anthony Russo, Joe Russo

Produced by: Kevin Feige

Screenplay by: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely

Based on: The Avengers by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby

Starring:  Robert Downey Jr., Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Benedict Cumberbatch, Don Cheadle, Tom Holland, Chadwick Boseman, Paul Bettany, Elizabeth Olsen, Anthony Mackie, Sebastian Stan, Danai Gurira, Letitia Wright, Dave Bautista,  Zoe Saldana. Josh Brolin, Chris Pratt etc.

**SPOILER FREE**

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The reward for Marvel fans and cinemagoers committed to watching every single film – from Iron Man (2008) to Black Panther (2018) – is a gigantic, breath-taking, explosive, colourful, dark, epic, fantastical end-game blockbuster. Unless you have been stuck on a desert island or on a digital detox, Infinity War (2018) is the culmination of decades of comic-book and cinema storytelling coming to a head in one incredible feat of spectacle and super-hero conflict.

The film opens pretty much immediately after the end of Thor: Ragnarok (2017). The Titan Thanos (Josh Brolin) has hunted down Thor, Loki and the Hulk in order to obtain the Tesseract and the Infinity Stone within it. In fact, he is after all six Infinity Stones in order to gain twisted, yet in his mind, logical control over the Universe by killing half its inhabitants. Thanos’ characterization as a villain is given the most narrative power throughout and via him we get some nuance and subtext.

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While brilliantly rendered, in look, by the army of special effects, and performance by Brolin, I kind of felt we were missing an element of mania and a committed statement of intent. I knew why Thanos was doing what he was doing but aside from an opening speech about destiny his mission lacked the political or social context compared to say that of Hydra from The Winter Soldier (2014) or Erik Killmonger from Black Panther (2018).  Nonetheless, lack of political context is a mild gripe because spectacle in terms of power and storytelling is what Infinity War is all about.

Thanos’ quest for domination was still a pretty decent structure to hang the story beats on and the writers should be applauded for trying to create a rounded super-villain. Because, allied with the incredible set-pieces and locations across the various galaxies, a major strength of Infinity War’s screenplay was the pace, power and interplay between the multiverse of characters and plot strands which were fantastically juggled by the directorial and editorial teams. This was epic storytelling, not just in length, but in scope. As we cut between Dr Strange, Iron Man and Spiderman on their particularly deadly mission; we also cut between Thor, The Guardians of the Galaxy, Vision, Wanda the Scarlet Witch, Captain America and their respective advnetures. There are so many different elements at play there is little breathing space, yet with a whip-smart script full of one-liners any plot deficiencies are masked expertly with perpetual motion and punchlines.

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Visually, the film is also extremely strong with bright funky new suits for the Hulk, Tony Stark and Peter Parker. Moreover, the locations in space and on Earth from the dark lands of Vormir to the verdant pastures of Wakanda are rendered beautifully on the screen. All manner of magical weapons, space-ships and military hardware explode and destroy and whizz-bang throughout. There is SO much crammed into the film that it’s a major coup that it worked so well. At one point I felt like I was watching three films in one echoing the great ensemble films I grew up with such as The Great Escape (1963). While the now obligatory end-game battle sequence echoed the likes of: Spartacus (1960), Braveheart (1995), The Return of the Jedi (1985) and more recently HBO’s epic Game of Thrones (2011 – )

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In terms of performance it’s difficult to pick out any one stand-out as the ensemble cast were uniformly impressive. My particular favourites were Benedict Cumberbatch as Dr Strange, Chris Pratt as Peter Quill and Zoe Saldana as Gamora, all giving memorable performances. Saldana’s Gamora arguably had the most powerful moments of stillness and pathos especially in her tragic backstory. Drax (Dave Bautista) and Tom Holland’s Peter Parker nailed their comedic patter too; the former’s deadpan literalism raising many laughs throughout. I also thought the details in look and voice given to Thanos’ Black Order stood out; notably the wonderfully named Proxima Midnight (Carrie Coon) and Corvus Glaive (Michael John Shaw).

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In conclusion, Avengers: Infinity War (2018) overall was spectacular blockbuster filmmaking which entertained me thoroughly for over two-and-a-half-hours. It could be argued that the army of special effects technicians, plethora of Disney and Marvel executives, array of Hollywood acting and filmmaking talent and the obscene amount of money spent has churned out YET another soulless super-hero film but wow didn’t they do it in style!!

(Mark: 9.5 out of 11)

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SPECT-ACULAR TIMES – SPECTRE (2015) A FILM REVIEW by PAUL LAIGHT

SPECT-ACULAR TIMES – SPECTRE (2015) A FILM REVIEW by PAUL LAIGHT

 We live in a spectacular society, that is, our whole life is surrounded by an immense accumulation of spectacles. Things that were once directly lived are now lived by proxy. Once an experience is taken out of the real world it becomes a commodity. .  . It becomes a substitute for experience.  (Larry Law, Images and Everyday Life)

**CONTAINS MASSIVE SPOILERS**

Life is all about managing expectations. I mean we don’t why we’re here on this planet and we don’t know why we’re alive. Is there a point to life? Perhaps there is no point? If that’s the case then why carry on living? Why not kill yourself or go berserk and do what the hell you want and be damned to the consequences. Well, it doesn’t really bear thinking about does it? Thus, generally, we block out such existential questions – well I do – by filling our life and times with things we enjoy doing, seeing, feeling, and eating, hearing and experiencing.

One of the major things I use to distract me from the inquisitions of life is going to the cinema. I am obsessed with films. I could perhaps, rather than watch films, raise a people’s army and seize control of the state?  But what system would I put into place instead of the necessary evil of capitalism? I could eschew society and live off the land growing my own vegetables; but whose land?  All land is now owned by some person, persons or shadowy corporations. I could become a criminal and finagle the law in order to avoid the punch-clock drudgery of life; but I’d like to sleep guilt-free at night and hurting others does not sit well with me. I could train a pack of ants to perform tricks for money in an Ant Circus; but that would just be silly. I could go on…

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What I am saying is films and television are helpful in drawing a big thick line between the sane and insane shit in life. They are a big deal for me. Not as bigger deal as my loved ones but pretty close. So, when a new series of a current show I love such as Doctor Who or South Park or It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia or Game of Thrones is released I am very happy. Life is good. That thing called hope rear its head and says, “Hi, it’s me again!” The same goes with film releases from my favourite directors or movie franchises or series. It happened at the fag-end of the 90s with the new Star Wars trilogy and also when the new Indiana Jones film was released; hope came a knocking and expectations were raised. Unfortunately the Lucas’ space opera prequels were pretty bad and least said about Indiana Clones and The Kingdom of Crystal Dulls the better!
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So, what I am saying is, AND I realise this is a sad thing to admit, A JAMES BOND FILM IS A BIG DEAL TO ME!  I know Karl Marx, Guy Debord and Edward Bernays are all correct in that the media is corrupting the proletariat, BUT WHO CARES – IT IS JAMES BOND and CHRISTOPH WALTZ IS THE BAD GUY!   I got my hopes up! I was really looking forward to it! It stopped me from thinking about reality! I failed to lower my expectations. So, what I am saying is I liked Daniel Craig’s fourth outing as Bond but not as much as I’d hoped. I shall explain why.

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I have seen Spectre twice now and it is very entertaining. Was it was good film?  Yes – it was fine. Was it a good Bond film though?  Yes and no I would say.  I should qualify this by saying I thought Skyfall (2012) was a cracking film in its own right; a fantastic action thriller with fine characterisation and a formidably nasty, yet playful, villain in Javier Bardem. Thematically it was very strong with Bond’s orphan background and relationship with M (other) providing a fulcrum to the narrative. Skyfall was also lusciously shot with fantastic set-pieces and direction but it wasn’t necessarily a great Bond espionage adventure like From Russia With Love (1963) or The Living Daylights (1987) or a combustible boy’s own adventure like Casino Royale (2006). It was an Oedipal soap opera with explosions and the past destroying the present. Spectre is very similar in fact although the destruction is much larger in scale.

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I would also compare Spectre to Quantum of Solace (2008) in the context that it is a kind of sequel to the previous outing and links back to Bond’s past. The main difference is Spectre is over fifty minutes longer than Quantum of Solace and certainly feels slow in places. I’m aware that Quantum of Solace is not rated highly in the Bond canon. However, I feel there are some incredible action sequences in there; notably the Opera shootout, great Plane chase and explosive desert hotel/hide-out denouement. While the villain was weak and it failed in terms of narrative, Quantum of Solace succeeded for me as a spectacle and by tying up the loose ends from Casino Royale.

Similarly, Spectre has some breathtakingly cinematic moments. Indeed, the first hour was sensational in terms of pace, action, mood and atmosphere. It’s a film about death and the past and opening at the massive Day of the Dead festival in Mexico City was a masterstroke in symbolism. Bond is an assassin; a hired killer used by the British government to take out the bad guys and where better to do it at a carnival celebrating those that have kicked the bucket. The opening chase, building demolition and helicopter fight is classic Bond and really kicks the film off in style. A spurious plot twist then gets Bond to Rome where he then meets – in the shadows – his nemesis, and the childhood ‘friend’ he thought dead, Franz Oberhauser played by Christoph Waltz. Waltz is one of my favourite actors but is criminally underused in Spectre. Aside from one particularly brilliant torture scene he is not allowed to express that wicked wit and devilish smile witnessed so adroitly in Django Unchained (2012) and Inglourious Basterds (2009).

The Oberhauser backstory does offer an interesting subplot to the main action and a very fun Bond revelation; however, it is similar to the Skyfall revenge-plot with touches of Cain and Abel thrown in.  Arguably too it doesn’t quite gel alongside other aspects of the script such as the global “Big Brother” programme to connect ALL the security and CCTV systems across the world which would make the 007 programme obsolete. So, with Bond under threat physically, emotionally AND politically we have an ambitious story with a thin plot that gets soggy at times.  Thematically Spectre is strong but Bond feels very reactive in some respects and not always making the decisions. Indeed, there is a scene where a RAT assists him; not torture or cunning or sheer violence but an actual rodent.  This moment and the anorexic characterisation of Madeline Swann (Lea Seydoux) were very much weaknesses in the script.

Sam Mendes and his production team have produced much for Bond fans to revel in. The opening credit sequence is stunning and I loved the Octopus imagery and motifs throughout. It also manages to mask the soporific non-entity which is Sam Smith’s theme song Writing on the Wall. Hinx (Dave Bautista) is a brute of a henchmen and his Rome car chase, Austrian snow pursuit and train punch-up were all brilliant action set-plays. Q (Ben Wishaw), M (Ralph Fiennes) and Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) all brought fine dramatic and comedic qualities to the film although, again, with SO many characters involved it took away screen time from Christoph Waltz. Finally, the “ticking-time” bomb denouement was well-executed but the film had run out of steam a bit by then.

Spectre is a technical tour-de-force and in Daniel Craig we have an actor who absolutely nails the role. He rocks the action, driving, shooting, running, falling, crashing with a coolness, toughness and insouciance which will be a hard act to follow. Indeed, the way they tied in the strands from previous films tells me this is probably his final Bond. Overall, the first hour-and-a-half of Spectre writes a spectacular cheque the final act cannot quite cash.  The big-bad-wolf reveal is not as surprising as I would have hoped and the Orwellian supporting story didn’t feel that deadly to me. And while our villain’s revenge on James was believable I didn’t quite buy the fact that Oberhauser was the architect of ALL Bond’s woes in the previous three films.

I realise it is a very big responsibility to maintain quality in a big movie franchise and Spectre does so but the long running time does it no favours. Paradoxically too by trying to give it more depth in respect of the familial backstory it again lost the espionage stuff I love.  We do indeed live in the Society of the Spectacle and this film offered up some solace away from the daily grind. But I must learn to manage expectations and perhaps stop living my life by proxy through fictitious cinematic spies and face the spectre of existence a bit more realistically.   (Mark: 008 out of 11)

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THE GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY (2014) – FILM REVIEW BY PAUL LAIGHT

THE GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY (2014)

FILM REVIEW BY PAUL LAIGHT

**THERE BE SPOILERS AHEAD**

“Hence, once again, pastiche: in which stylistic innovation is no longer possible, all that is left is to imitate dead styles, to speak through the masks and with the voices of the styles… means that one of its essential messages is… the failure of the new, the imprisonment in the past.”

Frederic Jameson – POSTMODERNISM & CONSUMER SOCIETY (1983)

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I loved this film for so many reasons.  It’s a nostalgic rush and push of music, action, fantastical creatures, space operatics, zinging one-liners, knowing humour, spectacular effects and in Chris Pratt — a new cinema star (lord) for the millennium is born.  Let’s be honest there isn’t an original bone in its body but the fleshy pastiche and meaty cultural references Guardians of the Galaxy wears proudly on its sleeves take the audience on one hell of a journey.

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Marxist and cultural theorist Frederic Jameson spoke of the rise of the “Nostalgia” film and postmodernist movies such as Star Wars (1977) and American Graffiti (1973) in his seminal essay aforementioned above.  The Nostalgia film harks back and references the past drawing influences not from reality but rather cultural artefacts such as films, comics, radio, TV and music etc.  Guardians of the Galaxy involves an orphaned hero — with mysterious father — who must do battle against an evil empire, save a “damsel” in distress, all the while accompanied by a motley crue of intergalactic misfits.  Sound at all familiar?  Yes, finally the kids of today have their Star Wars. They have a new hope, kind of; a pastiche of a pastiche of a pastiche based solely on the cultural fossils of yesteryear.

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Watching this film on IMAX 3D at Wimbledon Odeon Screen 4 (my favourite cinema screen by the way) made me feel nostalgic in so many ways. It felt more like the comic books I read as a child than any film I’ve seen recently. Further, I felt a surge of history as the film opened taking me back to 1977 when my Dad took me to see Star Wars (1977).  I recall the massive queues waiting to go see Lucas’ classic and the giddiness and excitement I felt as a youth rushed through me; even more so when the film started and my consciousness was treated to one impressive set-piece after another.  I felt young again and all because of a movie!

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In a major ironic twist I too felt nostalgic for my University days and my discovery of postmodern theorists such as Jameson, Baudrillard and Foucault while studying. While it served no purpose in the real world my academic life was a great time for me.  The knowledge of postmodernism I gained enhanced further this funky fusion of comic-book anti-heroes blowing stuff up to a 70s soundtrack. Indeed, I was at peace with the world.  A bomb could have hit the cinema and I would not have cared.  It was cinematic heroin. I was happy.

Guardians is the 10th Marvel Universe movie to be produced and is based on a lesser known product from the uber-comic overlords’ oeuvre. Young Peter Quill is not having the best day. At the beginning he suffers the loss of his mother. As he runs away from the hospital he is then kidnapped by a gigantic spaceship which airlifts him to a life with the Ravagers; a group of space cowboys and outlaws – led by Michael Rooker’s Yondu.  Flash forward some many years to a galaxy far, far far away and an older Quill (effortlessly charismatic Chris Pratt) is on the hunt for a mysterious orb in order to make a few intergalactic dollars.  Quill proves himself a decent dancer and well as fighter as he uses hi-tech weapons to outfox his foes.

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The opening action sequence is a sheer joy and essentially riffs on the opening of Raiders of The Lost Ark (1981) while using Blue Swede’s funky classic Hooked on a Feeling  also used in Reservoir Dogs (1992). Let’s be honest it is all very silly but I am not watching this as a fortysomething man but rather a young boy living in the warmth of the past bathing in the nostalgia of recalling Star Wars, Raiders, Reservoir Dogs and MIXTAPES!!   I used to do mixtapes and it was such fun before the devilish digital age took over.  Anyway, the orb Quill has stolen turns out to be one of those END OF THE WORLD plot McGuffin thingy’s and a whole host of benign and nefarious characters are after it notably evil Titan Thanos (Josh Brolin), Kree mentalist Ronan (Lee Pace) and the Collector (Benicio Del Toro) etc.

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So, Quill consequently finds himself pursued and caught and thrown in prison by the Nova Corps (basically humans with funny hair.) He then unwittingly becomes part of a bunch of misfits including: Rocket (Bradley Cooper) – a feisty raccoon and weapons expert; Groot (Vin Diesel) – a tree-like humanoid; Gamora (Zoe Saldana) – Thanos’s adopted assassin daughter; and finally Drax (Dave Bautista) – a giant blue alien muscle guy. Together these unusual suspects form an uneasy but at times hilarious alliance as they fight and argue and bicker and eventually accept each other and combine to overcome the villains before them.

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If The Avengers (2012) was a remake of The Magnificent Seven (1964) then this is a remake of the Dirty Dozen (1967) (minus seven). Moreover, the film follows the successful Marvel template of superheroes (or in this case anti-heroes) saving a very Earth-like world from destruction from said poisoned destructive orb (see Tesseract).  But what makes this Space-Western such fun is the oddball off-centre characters which director James Gunn and his fellow writers clearly gave a lot of time developing. While special effects reign over the production the likes of Quill, Rocket and Groot are given a humanity and humour which adds heart to story.  Indeed the script is full of empathetic backstories and themes including: fatherless, motherless and adopted children, genocide, slaves, nature v. technology, medical experimentation, grief, tyranny of dictatorship; all of which add some depth to the otherwise fluffy frivolity of the script.

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Gunn was an interesting choice of director as he had written some mildly successful screenplays and directed two low-budget movies: the hilarious horror Slither (2006) and anti-super-hero oddity Super (2010).  But he marshals the army of cast and crew with a great sense of timing and while Guardians is generic in structure, the delight is in the incredible visuals and action, character detail and witty dialogue splashed throughout. The tone almost tipped over into farce in a dance off scene near the end and Del Toro is disappointing underused as The Collector. Plus Zoe Saldana’s character Gamora is gutsy and kick-ass until she turns to type and is saved by Quill. Although I forgave this stereotype because the scene was so memorably rendered and realised in a kind of space version of Jean Vigo’s poetic classic L’Atalante (1934).

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The film finishes with a lovely post-credit kick in the nuts with an appearance of another comic-book-anti-hero. Marvel once again has delivered the goods and their standard template will continue to be a success if they choose off-centre directors such as Gunn, Whedon and the Russo Brothers. These are young (ish) guns like Lucas and Spielberg who while they wear their cultural influences proudly on their sleeves, jackets and underwear they paradoxically retain some originality amidst the pastiche and intertextuality. Thus, Frederic Jameson’s theories seem even more valid today. He himself argued that postmodernist culture was linked to the rise of late capitalism from the 1960s onwards and as the Marvel money-making monopoly marches on who can disagree with him.