‘Avengers: Infinity War’

Avengers Infinity War poster

You know how many advertisements for movies say how “everything has led to this” from time to time? Well, for once, this statement makes perfect sense with “Avengers: Infinity War” which is, thus far, the biggest Marvel Cinematic Universe movie yet as it gives us their most threatening foe yet in Thanos. This particular Marvel character, an intergalactic despot from the planet Titan, has been hinted at in post-credit sequences from Marvel movies past, and now he is here to take center stage in a never-ending franchise which typically sees its greatest heroes get the majority of attention.

Thanos longs to get his hands on the Infinity Stones, six incredibly powerful, not to mention beautiful, gems which will allow him to impose his will on all of reality. Clearly, this is a character determined to gain unlimited power at any cost, and he is determined to re-balance the universe in the process. Thanos is looking to create his own version of Year Zero, and this means many characters will die whether we want them to or not.

Not only does “Avengers: Infinity War” arrive with a wealth of anticipation and expectations, but we also come into it with a sense of dread as we know some of our favorite characters may not survive this particular adventure. Then again, these Marvel movies do exist within the science fiction genre, and you can never be sure if anyone can ever truly stay dead. Spock died in “Star Trek II,” but he did come back to life in “Star Trek III.” Knowing “Avengers: Infinity War” will get a sequel, I can’t help but believe we will see some of these superheroes again. Besides, many of them have sequels in pre-production, so their fate is not exactly sealed. Who will live and die for certain? Well, we will find this out in the summer of 2019.

Directors Anthony and Joe Russo, both responsible for the “Captain America” sequels which rank among the best of the MCU, have a near impossible task with this “Avengers” movie as it features dozens upon dozens of main characters we have been introduced to in the past. The fact these characters are not all equally represented here is not a surprise, but what surprised me was how well the Russos were able to balance things out to where it felt like everyone had a good dose of representation throughout. Perhaps certain characters get more screen time than others, but I was too wrapped up with what was going on to really analyze this movie all too closely.

It is also worth noting how while these characters all inhabit the same cinematic universe, they do exist on different tonal levels. Some Marvel movies like “Iron Man” and “Thor” have their moments of levity, but they are generally serious adventures as their heroes are faced with obstacles both physical and psychological. Then again, there is “Guardians of the Galaxy” which came out at a time where Marvel movies in general were threatening to become as deadly serious as anything coming out of the DC Comics Extended Universe. James Gunn’s film of Peter Quill and his merry band of Han Solo-like bandits proved to be a comedic blast from start to finish, and it proved to be much lighter than the average superhero/comic book movie.

I bring this up because “Avengers: Infinity War” could have ended up being a very uneven motion picture in terms of tone as John Krasinski’s “The Hollars” was (granted, Krasinski did score a rebound with “A Quiet Place,” but still). The Russos, however, make everything blend together in a satisfying way to where nothing felt completely off-balance, and this is very commendable.

The way I see it “Avengers: Infinity War” gets off to a good start, but things feel just a little bit off to where this movie threatens to be more episodic than its filmmakers intended. But as it goes on, things improve to where the Avengers are given a real depth which reminds us they are as vulnerable as anyone else. Sure, they may be endowed with tremendous powers, but when faced with their greatest foe, they become as mortal as anyone else, and this makes their latest adventure all the more perilous.

There are many performances worth noting here, and this Marvel movie is overflowing with strong ones which would take forever to point out. Robert Downey Jr. continues to revel in the evolution Tony Stark/Iron Man as he gives his most soulful performance yet as this iconic comic character which got the MCU off to such a strong start. Zoe Saldana gets to take Gamora to an even more epic level as her character has a much closer relationship to Thanos than she would like to admit. The same goes for Chris Pratt who, as Peter Quill/Star Lord, finds even more depth than in the previous “Guardians of the Galaxy” movies to where it makes me look forward to the third movie in that franchise more than ever before.

But the one performance worth singling out above all others is Josh Brolin’s as Thanos. This could have been the typical one-dimensional antagonist bent on obtaining the most power any individual could ever obtain, but the “No Country for Old Men” actor makes him into an almost tragic figure who has yet to discover what price he has to pay for his quest for power, and it is a heavier one than he could ever expected. As a result, Brolin forces this character into the center stage in a way audiences could not have easily expected, and the final scene he has is a frightening reminder of the prominence Thanos has in the realm of Marvel Comics. Seeing this makes me believe no other actor could have portrayed Thanos as effectively as Brolin does here.

“Avengers: Infinity War” ends on a cliffhanger, and it feels like a bold move on the part of the Russo brothers and Marvel Studios to do so as it concludes on a note which truly left me breathless. We do get the typical post-credits sequence and the message of how so-and-so will return, but both these things take on a different meaning to where you almost wish this Marvel movie ended without them. In a year from now we will see the follow up to “Infinity War,” but until then we will be reminded of how our heroes will not always be there for us. Can they return for another round? We have yet to find out.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

‘The Imitation Game’ Presents Alan Turing to a New Generation

The Imitation Game poster

Movies “based on a true story” keep coming at us like Election Day fliers in the mail, but “The Imitation Game” is one of the few that actually deserves our full attention. It portrays the life and work of Alan Turing, one of Britain’s most extraordinary heroes, whose efforts and accomplishments remained unsung for far too long. At the same time, it is a movie about secrets; how we keep them, the importance of keeping them and of the damage they can do when uncovered by others. What starts off as a typical biopic becomes something much more as we watch how Turing and his crew of code breakers helped bring an end to World War II, and of how his life came to a tragic end through needless and unwarranted intolerance.

When it came to finding the right actor to portray Alan Turing, the filmmakers could not have found one better than Benedict Cumberbatch. While other actors would have made the mistake of portraying Turing as some kind of Dr. House clone, Cumberbatch turns him into a fascinatingly complex human being who is brilliant, socially awkward, and very vulnerable in a time where being vulnerable could be a huge liability.

For those who don’t know, Turing was a brilliant mathematician and cryptanalyst who worked at Bletchley Park, the top-secret Government Code and Cypher School during World War II, where he created a machine which succeeded in breaking Germany’s seemingly unbreakable Enigma machine. Cumberbatch makes it clear just how incredibly smart Turing is during his first meeting with naval commander Alastair Denniston (Charles Dance) as he turns a hopelessly bad job interview into an unforgettable demonstration of his deduction skills.

What I loved about Cumberbatch’s performance is how he makes Turing curt with people in a way which is arrogant but not necessarily mean. It’s no surprise his fellow co-workers have a tough time warming up to him as he is determined to do things his way and has little time for anybody who doesn’t think as fast as he does. But part of the fun is watching Cumberbatch take Turing from being an anti-social human being to one who is genuinely eager to involve the rest of his crew in breaking Enigma.

One of the colleagues who came to be a big help to Turing is Joan Clarke, a Cambridge mathematics graduate played by Keira Knightley. Her entrance in the movie is great as the other men consider her to be in town only to apply for secretarial work, but Knightley makes Clarke into a very confident character who is more than ready to prove her worth in a male dominated environment. She also becomes one of Turing’s best friends through thick and thin as she helps ease him into social gatherings and become one of the guys instead of such an isolated individual. Even as Turing’s life heads down the tubes, Clarke is still there for him as she understands him in a way few others do.

I figured “The Imitation Game” would climax with Turing’s machine breaking Enigma, and the sequence where Turing and the others succeed in doing so is intensely exciting. But in a sense, it marks the beginning of the end for this group as they come to discover how the secrets they have uncovered lead to other secrets being made and kept for the good of the people. There’s even a scene where Turing’s crew discovers when a cargo ship is going to be attacked, and they debate on whether or not they will stop it as doing so risks undoing all the work they have accomplished. I love it when dramatic movies provide characters with such difficult dilemmas to solve, and this film comes with some of the most agonizing.

Again, this is a movie about secrets, and it becomes fascinating to see how the keeping of these secrets comes to deeply affect each character. True identities are revealed and compromised, and while certain secrets are kept in the dark to give England an advantage in the war, others secrets come to destroy those who had the misfortune of living in a time where certain behaviors and orientations were criminalized. Turing is the one who suffers the most as his private life is revealed to the world which forces him to face an utterly cruel and unnecessary punishment.

“The Imitation Game” was directed by Norwegian filmmaker Morten Tyldum whose previous works include “Headhunters,” “Fallen Angels” and “Buddy,” and he also directed “Passengers” starring Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt. Tyldum has done an excellent job in transporting us back to the days of World War II in a way which feels unique and not overly familiar. His emphasis is on the characters just as it should be, and he succeeds in making this not just another traditional biopic. He pays great respect to Turing throughout as this is a man who made a huge difference not just in World War II but also in the development of future technologies we have become far too dependent on these days.

Cumberbatch has long since proved how great an actor he is with his work on the London Stage and on “Sherlock,” and he was prominently featured in “The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug” and “Star Trek into Darkness.” In “The Imitation Game,” he takes us on quite the emotional ride as we see him triumph in what he does best and suffer horribly in a time where he doesn’t quite belong. He makes you feel Turing’s pain as it is reduced to a shell of what he once was, and the scene where he is unable to even start a crossword puzzle is devastating to witness.

But Cumberbatch isn’t the whole show here as he is surrounded by a wonderful group of actors who are every bit as good. Keira Knightley does some of her best work yet as Joan Clarke, the woman who comes to understand Turing the best. Matthew Goode, so unnerving a presence in “Stoker,” is the epitome of perfect casting as Hugh Alexander; the chess champion and man about town we would all like to be in our everyday lives. Mark Strong makes Major General Stewart Menzies a deeply enigmatic (no pun intended) character who knows far more than he ever lets on. And then there’s Rory Kinnear who portrays Detective Robert Nock, the man who investigates Turing and becomes very eager to keep his life from being ruined. Kinnear is very strong as he shows us the detective’s inner conflict in convicting a man who is truly responsible for saving many lives.

Turing ended up taking his own life at the young age of 43, and it is only in recent years that he has people have acknowledged the terrible treatment he received. In August 2009, John Graham-Cumming started a petition urging the British Government to apologize for Turing’s prosecution, and then Prime Minister Gordon Brown acknowledged and described Turing’s treatment as “appalling.” A few years later, Turing received a pardon from the Queen under the Royal Prerogative of Mercy, but many are still waiting for an apology over the way he was treated chemically. This man was responsible for helping to end the Second World War, and while he was alive he was treated with derision more than respect by many. Thanks to “The Imitation Game,” people will now see the kind of person Turing really was and why he deserves to be seen and celebrated as a hero. Believe it or not, his creation of his machine became the prototype for what we today call computers.

This is a terrific film.

* * * * out of * * * *

‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’ Has Gary Oldman Giving One of His Best Performances

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy movie poster

It’s interesting how the spy world in John le Carré’s novels differs sharply from the one in Ian Fleming’s. Whereas James Bond was a dashing playboy of a spy and the good and bad guys were easy to tell apart, the spies in Carré’s world exist in a morally gray area, and their lives prove to be anything but glamorous. No one is innocent, and everyone has something to hide from others or perhaps even themselves. Here, there are no gunfights or explosions but instead conflicts both internal and external. Even the people we look up to in Carré’s novels are deeply flawed, and you can quickly see why no one can truly trust one another.

No book in Carré’s vast library of work exemplifies this more than “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” which features his most famous fictional character, George Smiley. Originally turned into a brilliant BBC miniseries back in 1979 with Sir Alec Guinness as Smiley, it has now been made into a motion picture with Gary Oldman in the lead role. Whereas the miniseries had more time to develop the story and characters, this movie does an excellent job of doing the same in a shorter span of time. Granted, much has been left out from the novel, but those unfamiliar with the miniseries are unlikely to notice.

The movie hovers around the goings on in The Circus, the codename for British Intelligence. After one operation goes wrong and an agent is killed, the head of Intelligence, Control (John Hurt), is forced to resign along with his right-hand man, Smiley. Smiley, however, is brought back into service when it becomes apparent there is a mole in British Intelligence. Moreover, it’s a mole which has been in The Circus for a long time, and he is a senior member with access to all sorts of secret information. Smiley, in his own way, seeks out the mole before the British become completely compromised in world affairs, and what results is a game of chess more than a battle of wits.

Casting Oldman as George Smiley at first seems like a surprising choice. Oldman made his film debut as Sid Vicious in “Sid & Nancy,” and his performance as the doomed punk rocker reminds us of how over the top he can be as an actor, and I always looked forward to seeing him play the villain in movies like “The Professional” and “Air Force One.” We revel in his emotionally unhinged performances which have made him stand out prominently among other actors of his ilk, and he has rarely, if ever, let us down.

As Smiley, however, Oldman is forced to dial back on the manic energy he became famous for. George Smiley is a character who never loses his cool and conveys so much even through the simplest of gestures. With even an ever so slight movement, we can see Smiley’s thought process at work and are never in doubt of how powerful a character he is. Each movement Oldman takes as Smiley is one which has been deliberately thought out, and even he knows he doesn’t have to bounce off the wall as this famous spy because this one goes into the room knowing all he needs to know.

In recent years, Oldman has gotten to stretch a bit with roles like Sirius Black in the “Harry Potter” movie franchise. While Black is first seen as a bad guy, it turns out he is a good one who cares deeply about Harry’s well-being. Then there is his role as James Gordon in Christopher Nolan’s “Batman” movies where he makes the good guy seem very cool without being such a square. What makes George Smiley an especially interesting character is he is neither a good or bad guy, but instead someone who is forced to navigate the dirty waters which he cannot help but get submerged in from time to time.

This is one of those roles which drive most actors crazy because it can become ever so easy to become utterly self-conscious about every single scene they are in. Being an actor myself, I often wonder if I am doing enough or perhaps too much in one performance to the next. While acting on the stage makes this easier to answer, acting in a movie or television is not only different but far more intimate. In the latter, you have to be more natural to where the camera never catches you emoting, and this can be difficult to say the least. But it’s those subtleties which can provide amazing results with the right director watching over you.

“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” also has a cast of brilliant British actors like John Hurt, Colin Firth, and Toby Jones, all of whom do their best in playing characters who have long since accepted the fact that they are morally compromised. You also have Tom Hardy, who succeeded in doing so much with just his eyes as Bane in “The Dark Knight Rises,” as a British agent who is only beginning to become morally compromised. None of these intelligence officers are easy to decipher on the surface, and a lot of this is thanks to their excellent performances.

Directing this adaptation is Tomas Alfredson who directed the great film “Let the Right One In.” Alfredson handles the intricacies of a story which could easily have become convoluted in terrific fashion, and he keeps us enthralled throughout. Even if we can’t follow the story, he succeeds in keeping us on the edge of our seat all the way to the end. Furthermore, he generates an intense and exciting climax without the use of gunplay or explosions, and there is something to be said about that.

Describing all which goes on in “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” is not easy, but it is not an impossible story to follow. Watching this movie for a second time will help give you a chance to examine the subplots more closely. While the spy world of Carré may seem nowhere as exciting as the one Fleming created for 007, it deals with the real world more directly as the line between right and wrong is forever blurred. What’s fascinating is how these people survive in it even as they continue losing pieces of themselves in a world and time which is prepared to beat them down on a regular basis. Everyone involved deserves a lot of credit for making what might seem ordinary and unglamorous seem so relentlessly thrilling.

* * * * out of * * * *

 

Star Trek Into Darkness

Star Trek Into Darkness movie poster

J.J. Abrams has done it again; he’s made another incredibly entertaining “Star Trek” movie. “Star Trek Into Darkness” proves to be just as much fun as the reboot he helmed in 2009, and I found myself with a big grin on my face as the end credits came up on the silver screen. In a summer season that has gotten off to a somewhat tepid start, Abrams manages to thrill us with a combination of spectacular action pieces and characters we come to care deeply about. He also takes this movie to where no “Star Trek” movie has ever gone before: a place where roman numerals and colons are not needed in the title.

One year has passed since the events of the last movie, and this one starts off with the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise accidentally catching the attention of a primitive civilization that is not yet ready to discover the existence of things like starships. This leads the crew, and James T. Kirk in particular, to violate the Prime Directive which dictates that there will be no interference in the development of an alien civilization, to attempt to save one of their fellow crew members from certain death. Back on Earth, none of this sits well with Admiral Christopher Pike (Bruce Greenwood) who berates Kirk (Chris Pine) for acting as if the rules don’t apply to him.

But things change quickly when a vicious domestic terrorist named John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) lays waste to certain parts of Earth, and Kirk becomes consumed with vengeance and determined to bring him down at any cost. But in their pursuit of Harrison, the crew of the Enterprise find themselves in conflict as to what course of action is the best one to pursue. While Kirk feels justified in killing Harrison, this action could lead to an all-out war that the Federation of Planets cannot afford.

Now some complain that ever since Abrams became part of the “Star Trek” franchise that the movies have become more about action than ideas, but that’s pretty much been the case since “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan.” What Abrams gets right though is his attention to the characters, and in the end this franchise is really more about the characters than special effects. While we love the action with all those starships firing their torpedoes at one another, it’s the characters and what they go through which keeps us endlessly riveted.

I love the complicated relationships these people have with one another. Admiral Pike continues to be the father figure Kirk needs in his life, and Greenwood is perfect in the role as he dishes out some hard love to the strong but arrogant captain of the Enterprise. You never really catch Greenwood acting in the role, and his moments opposite Pine are filled with a lot of genuine emotion that never feels faked.

But the key relationship in this particular “Star Trek” movie is the one between Kirk and Spock which remains as complicated as ever. While Kirk is willing to fudge the facts in order to justify his course of action, Spock has no choice to be 100% honest about everything because he’s a Vulcan, and Vulcans don’t lie (but they do exaggerate). You wonder how these two can stand to be on a starship together for even a brief period of time, but the fact is that these two need one another in order to survive from one galaxy to the next. This becomes all the more apparent as “Star Trek Into Darkness” reaches its relentless conclusion.

Pine gives another excellent performance here as the iconic character James T. Kirk, and it’s fun to watch him take Kirk from being a cocky individual to one who ends up making selfless decisions in order to save the only family he has left: his crew. Quinto remains riveting as ever as Spock as we watch his half-human and half-Vulcan sides battling with one another for supremacy. Spock has always been a very complex character, and there are many reasons why he was the only one to survive the pilot episode of the original “Star Trek” television series.

Zoe Saldana really gets to kick ass as Uhura, and there’s something thrilling about her not just being relegated to her communications station on the bridge. Simon Pegg remains a delight as Scotty who finds out more about starships than he’s supposed to in this one. John Cho really does get his moment in the sun as Sulu when he is required to take the Captain’s chair and makes it clear he is not to be messed with. And then there’s Karl Urban who remain as pitch perfect as ever as Dr. McCoy, and he delivers some of the character’s most iconic lines with a freshness which reminds us how much we loved this character in the first place.

As for Anton Yelchin, his character of Pavel Chekov is kind of underused in this “Star Trek” movie. Yelchin gives a good performance, but Chekov is relegated to engineering a little too much this time around, and he comes off looking like he’s not a necessary part of the Enterprise crew.

There are also some new additions to “Star Trek” family in this sequel that prove to be very welcome. Peter Weller, the original “Robocop,” co-stars as Starfleet Admiral Marcus, and he brings to his role the same relentless hard ass intensity he brought to the fifth season of “24.” Alice Eve portrays the very alluring Science Officer Carol Wallace who knows more about weapons than anyone is comfortable with, and she hides secrets which may jeopardize her relationship with the crew.

But the one actor everyone will be paying the most attention to is Benedict Cumberbatch. Long before this sequel was released, it was believed that he would give us one of the most unforgettable villains of the summer 2013 movie season, and he doesn’t disappoint. John Harrison is not your typical one-dimensional bad guy, and that makes Cumberbatch’s portrayal of him all the more mesmerizing to watch. He also gives the role a strong depth you don’t expect it to have as we discover his true nature and why he is wreaking all this havoc.

To say anything more would risk spoiling the movie for you, and I am not about to do that. Abrams makes a very welcome return to the director’s chair for this “Star Trek” adventure, and his success here bodes well for that “Star Wars” movie we are waiting for him to make. While some directors get caught up in visuals, battles and explosions, Abrams is one of the few who gives an equal amount of attention to the actors and the characters they play. That makes his films all the more thrilling and emotionally involving to witness.

 

It’s hard to say where “Star Trek Into Darkness” ranks among the other movies in this franchise that continues to live long and prosper, but it’s safe to say that it won’t be sharing company with “Star Trek V: The Final Frontier” anytime soon. This film entertained me from beginning to end and it never sacrificed character for the sake of action. It has me looking forward to the next film which should have the Enterprise crew finally starting their five-year mission to explore strange new worlds. Whether or not Abrams will be in the director’s chair, it’s bound to be a very entertaining journey.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

Copyright Ben Kenber 2013.