Red Dead Redemption 2: A Masterpiece

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If you’ve ever dipped your toe into anything game-related in 2018, then you just might have heard about Red Dead Redemption 2, a game developed by Rockstar Games that everyone has been raving about and that many have referred to as the best video game of 2018. What makes this game so special you might ask? I have to admit I was skeptical myself, but as soon as I decided to sit down and give the game a go, I was lured in by several factors. From the breathtaking visuals to the excellent exploration mechanics, to the variety of activities, to the powerhouse of a story, I cannot deny the hype and so I must say for myself that Red Dead Redemption 2 is, although not perfect, a masterpiece of a game and my favorite game of 2018.

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Red Dead Redemption 2 features an expansive and detailed open world to explore.

As I said, there are a myriad of things that contribute to the game’s success, and a few that detract from the experience, but the strongest element of the game comes from its open world depiction of the American heartland during the Wild West era. The game takes place in the year 1899 in a fictional state and has the player takes control of Arthur Morgan, a rough and gruff no-nonsense member of the Van Der Linde Gang. Throughout the game, the player has the freedom to explore an immersive open-world filled with side quests and in-game activities. You can do anything including riding horses, engaging in duels, starting bar fights, hunting and fishing, robbing trains, playing poker, herding cattle, cooking and crafting, and countless other activities. On top of that, this doesn’t take into account the things that you will be doing over the course of the game’s story missions.

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Golden rays, whistling winds, Red Dead Redemption 2 offers an incredibly immersive experience for the player. 

When I first dove into the game, what grabbed my attention was the game’s immersion. The way the snow fell on my character’s boots, to the footprints that were pounded into the ground, to the sleek glistening water reflected on my character’s coat. Everything from the wildlife to the trees to the particles in the air was materialized with immaculate detail and impeccable quality. This feature was only enhanced once I left the snowy mountain setting of the game’s opening and was allowed access to roam the entire massive world. The environments are truly diverse. There are grasslands with grazing buffalo, canyons with rattlesnakes, lowlands and mountains with dangerous cougars, swamplands filled with crocodiles, and industrialized cities filled with people. As you can see, the natural habitats are complemented by the creatures living within the world. Each region feels like an actual biome or ecosystem, filled with new and different kinds of wildlife that add to the immersion. As a result, the world doesn’t just feel open, it feels lived-in. In fact, the best part of the game is simply riding on your horse and trekking through the American Frontier on the way to your next waypoint or mission. This is because while on your way to said objective, there are an infinite number of side stories or incidents that will veer you off of your charted course and engage you in some other aspect of the world. To some, it may get distracting but simply based on the fact that wandering through the world gives you a new experience and activates a new mechanic or development in the game is a testament to how extensive the developers went in designing this world. There are a number of chance encounters that can happen while exploring such as attacks by rival gangs, getting robbed, or helping people in distress. Considering the rough time period, you will eventually have to get down to some good old-fashioned shootouts. This is where the game falters somewhat. While the game’s shooting mechanics are by no means terrible, they can be a bit clunky. Aiming is a little wonky especially with the hypersensitivity of the reticle display. It also takes enemies several hits to be taken down unless you aim directly for the head in which case they always go down with one shot. Still, I can’t count the number of times I kept aiming for the head and having shots graze by enemies due to the fidgeting reticle. One could argue that it adds to the immersion in not having your character able to aim perfectly with historical weapons that weren’t always accurate, but if that is the case then why would a mechanic like Dead Eye which slows down time allowing for the player to get in perfect shots exist? Regardless, the shooting mechanics are still serviceable, but not the most electrifying aspect of the gameplay. The choices that the player makes in the game also decide the story and the experience for the player. Unlike Rockstar’s other popular franchise, Grand Theft Auto, good behavior is incentivized through the game’s Honor System, which gives a scale between High Honor and Low Honor based on the player’s actions throughout the game. The honor system affects key gameplay and story decisions as well as higher or lower prices in stores based on high or low Honor. Causing too much trouble also leads to high bounties which means that a player with a very low honor system may end up being chased by the Lawmen in any region they visit.

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Though not perfect, the game’s fighting mechanics can still provide enjoyment. 

Moving on to the story, the element of the game that I thought would be the most lacking ended up being the most surprisingly brilliant. I was watching a game awards video recently and was astonished to see that Red Dead Redemption 2 had been crowned with the title of “Best Narrative Game” over games like God of War. Now after playing the game, I wonder how I could have ever thought differently. While God of War’s narrative is strong, the story in Red Dead Redemption 2 is so passionately constructed and filled with rich character development and philosophical themes that it rivals classic Spaghetti Westerns like A Fistful of Dollars. The story follows a gang of outlaws led by the prideful Dutch Van der Linde. You play as Arthur Morgan, one of Dutch’s earliest followers. All in all, there are several members of the gang, both men and women, and pretty much each member is given a distinctive personality and character trait that makes interacting with them a fun experience. There’s Hosea, the sagacious veteran with a diplomatic mindset and a tactful approach to situations, Micah, a loose cannon with a malevolent nature and an itchy trigger finger, Mrs. Grimshaw, the tough and uptight upholder of the rules within the camp, and many more. The game gives you the feeling that the gang is only a gang by name and actually operates more like a family, with each member looking out for the other. Despite the dire circumstances, there are several moments where the gang rallies together for a happy moment or shares a bond in an auspicious occasion that gives you hope that they can make it through as a unit. The plot follows the gang after an incident gone awry in the town of Blackwater. They make their way through the American heartland following Dutch’s plans for gaining money so that they can eventually have enough to settle in a tropical paradise. At first, you really root for the entire gang as they make their way through the harsh world and try to survive in an uncompromising environment. You really want to believe in Dutch’s views that civilization is not a place for everyone and that some people are just meant to live freely, able to roam the wild lands and settle within the elements of their own making. You want to see the gang succeed and eventually find greener pastures, however, this view is deeply contrasted in our main character of Arthur Morgan.  To put it short, Arthur Morgan is one of the most compelling and interesting video game protagonists of the decade. He initially comes off as an abrasive and grizzled frontiersman with a short tolerance for others and an untrusting nature, however, as the game goes on we learn more about Arthur’s sensitive nature and free spirit by playing in his shoes. Arthur, though initially a staunch supporter of Dutch and the gang’s values, admits to the idea that the time for outlaws has passed and that sooner or later, the idea of living free in nature in a world without the strict laws of civilization would not be possible with the turning of the century. As the game progresses and things get more desperate, so do Dutch’s half-laid schemes. Over the course of the game, Dutch slowly becomes more and more unhinged and resorts to increasingly harsh methods. This is where Arthur’s moral compass stands strong against Dutch’s unbridled vision of a free world. The story plays out like an epic and spans several years where Arthur’s philosophy contends with Dutch’s idealism. Throughout the game, the player witnesses Arthur’s character and softer nature not just through the story missions, but through the various side-quests. We learn that Arthur Morgan has a simple appreciation for the beauty of the country, and a poetic view of life as something that should be appreciated. His sense of loyalty is also deep; however, we see that he is only willing to go so far as to do what helps others the most without hurting innocent people. It’s clear that what Arthur wants the most is for a peaceful existence for him or the ones around him. He wants good people to be treated kindly in a society that often rejects that characteristic. The concept of redemption is embodied within Arthur Morgan, as he defies the savage nature of outlawry and follows his beliefs of morality in saving those who deserve better lives. At first, the player may be saddened by Arthur’s musings that their gang’s way of life is coming to an end, but by the end of the story, the player will most likely realize that the outlaw way of life needed to end and couldn’t have survived the developing world. The game comments on the nature of living outside the laws of society and how there is a fine line between idealism and the corruption of the idea itself. It also comments on the displacement of entire groups of people due to the rapidly changing and uncompromising beliefs of American exceptionalism and Manifest Destiny. This is heavily exhibited in a large section of the game dealing with the plight of a Native American tribe and its conflict with the U.S Army. Sometimes, getting through the story missions can be a bit of a slog, but the best solution is to pursue side quests for a while and come back to the story missions later. What’s interesting about the narrative in Red Dead Redemption 2 is that it feels less like a video game and more like a ten-episode long Netflix series that details the rise and fall of the Wild West outlaw in a spectacularly dramatic fashion.

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Subtle, restrained, and brimming with courage and spirit, Arthur Morgan is a relatable and extremely likeable protagonist. 

Unfortunately, as gripping as the story is, there are aspects of it that take away from the overall experience in regards to choice. Most of the story missions play out very linearly, with little room for players to play the game the way they want to. For example, you may want to approach a mission by going in guns blazing but instead will have to be stealthy. There are occasions where killing a character will start the mission over, or trying to stay and fight off enemies instead of running away with the gang will lead to mission failure. Considering how tightly woven the narrative is, it makes sense that the game wants you to follow it as closely as possible. However, given the variety of character choice and exploration with the other areas of the game, more player choice in the story missions would have only enhanced the game’s quality.

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Nevertheless, these few flaws are but a small chink on the wonderful suit of armor that is Red Dead Redemption 2. The game captures the spirit and essence of the time period. You will most definitely feel like an outlaw of the Wild West by playing this game. It offers an incredible, sometimes too immerse open world with endless hours of gameplay and variety. It follows one of gaming’s most memorable new protagonists and offers a reflection of the American way of life as well as a commentary on how our society treats entire groups of people with a less than appropriate amount of care and consideration. Quite simply, Red Dead Redemption 2 is a masterpiece. Despite its flaws, Red Dead Redemption 2 is primed to take its spot on the gaming pantheon in gaming Mount Olympus alongside games like Skyrim, The Last of Us, Dark Souls, and the original Red Dead Redemption. In fact, I can’t remember having a video game story resonate with me this much since 2007’s BioShock, which I consider to be my favorite video game of all time.

 

 

 

Us Review

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Jordan Peele’s directorial debut, Get Out, took the world by storm. It was lauded by audiences and critics alike for its social relevance, unique ideas, and thrilling twists. It even garnered Peele a Best Director nomination and Best Original Screenplay win at the Academy Awards. Naturally, his sophomore effort has caused collective anticipation from enthusiastic audiences. Us focuses on a family that is attacked by seemingly alternate malevolent versions of themselves. Lupita Nyong’o plays the lead role of Adelaide Wilson, a mother of two children, who is disturbed by the return of the doppelgangers since she once encountered her evil counterpart as a young girl. As the fight for survival between the original family and the counterparts continues, Adelaide must face the dark secrets of her past and uncover the truth behind why the doppelgangers are attacking.

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Lupita Nyong’o steals the show as Adelaide Wilson 

Us is an extremely well-directed, exciting, and suspenseful film that unfortunately has a confusing resolution that doesn’t give the satisfying final “oomph” moment that the rest of the film was building up to. I won’t be going into spoilers in this review until the very end. First, the good things in the movie start with the absolutely breathtaking performance of Lupita Nyong’o. She conveys vulnerability and then strength as Adelaide Wilson, and manages to elicit a steady dose of fear as her malicious doppelganger. There is already early Oscar buzz for her, and after seeing her incredibly compelling performance I am not one to argue. Winston Duke plays the part of the comical and blundering father of the family, with Shahadi Wright Joseph and Evan Alex as the two children. The interplay between the family, especially thanks to Winston Duke’s comedy, helps to build empathy for them and allows us to root for them when things go sideways. After an initial slow build that creates intrigue, the second act of the film is easily its best, as the family is confronted by their doppelgangers and have to frantically grapple with their counterparts. This is where the scares and horror stylings are their best. Peele litters this film with references to Jaws, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and The Shining. The directing is expertly executed, as Peele can go from expansive shots of devastation to small and claustrophobic moments dripping with suspense. There is a particularly important reason for cutaways in the film that leads up to the big revelation at the end. The music is also well done, with the sharp staccato notes of the violin as the film’s main theme creating terror with its shrill sound. There are quite a few twists and turns that are sure to surprise audiences. Some of them are welcome, however as I said, some of the twists at the end are a little head scratching. Specifically, the reason behind how the doppelgangers came to be and are doing what they are doing is disappointing and unfulfilled. It seems there was a lot more that could have been filled in and the end product creates a major suspension of disbelief that hampers the quality of the film slightly.Image result for Us jordan peele family

The build-up to the end is incredible, everything from the comedy to the drama, suspense, and horror, however, considering that the film is predicated upon the fact that the secrets of these doppelgangers would be a groundbreaking revelation that puts the story into perspective, there just isn’t enough to leave the kind of impact that I expected. The ending of the film isn’t bad or terrible per se, but the meaning of the narrative could have certainly felt much more powerful had the end not been so filled with needless exposition and inconsistencies that were created despite all of the exposition. For example, there is a scene between Lupita Nyong’o’s character and her doppelganger where the doppelganger is explaining certain things that she shouldn’t have been able to explain given the fact that she was a doppelganger. It seems that in order to sell the twist in the film, certain glaring inconsistencies were left open, especially when exposition is being given by characters that can’t be giving that exposition since they were never in the position that they are describing, as confusing as that all sounds. In the end, I enjoyed the film, but Peele is asking me to ignore too many inconstancies and plot points that don’t make sense in order to feel the weight of the narrative. Us delivers a powerful message that is unfortunately kept short of tying up a brilliant first two acts due to several irregularities with the film’s final act. It ends up being too contrived and focused on selling a big twist rather than finding a natural resolution to such an interesting premise.

Warning: The rest of this review contains spoilers so read no further unless you’ve already seen the movie or just don’t care.

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So, going into spoilers, it’s revealed in the end that Adelaide’s encounter with her doppelganger back when she was a child turned out quite differently than we were led to believe. It turns out that on that night, the doppelganger attacked her original, crushing her throat and dragging her back to the underground facility where the doppelganger trapped the original. Thus, the doppelganger Adelaide, known as Red, actually switched lives with Adelaide and lived her life on the surface world while the real original Adelaide was forced to live her entire life underground with the rest of the Tethered. This suggests that nurture reigns over nature, as with enough connection to society and family, the Tethered Red was able to develop into a fully functioning person with a family whereas the imprisoned Adelaide became a menacing psychopath. While this is certainly a good reveal, it doesn’t make sense why the real Adelaide who we thought was the doppelganger the whole time should be explaining what the Tethered are to Red, since Red already knew what was down there as she had grown up in it until she switched lives with the real Adelaide. It seems that the closer someone is to their tethered counterpart, the more likely they are of encountering each other, or at least that’s the case with Adelaide. So why didn’t any of the other Tethered wander up to the surface? How was Red able to go up there in the first place? And if Red was able to go up and escape, then why wasn’t Adelaide also able to go up the escalator and find the surface. Another confusing element is how the Tethered seem to mirror the movements of their surface world counterparts, so how come Red wasn’t controlled by Adelaide’s movements. The implication perhaps is that when Red went to the surface world the power struggle shifted in her favor, but that still doesn’t explain how Adelaide was able to just escape after all that time. Once the switch is revealed, it strengthens the beginning of the film since it makes sense that Red would be scared of going back to the place where she left Adelaide, but then why would she go at all and risk the chance of her counterpart resurfacing for revenge? There is also no explanation for how Adelaide was able to organize and communicate with millions of grunting vapid Tethered and convince them to organize the “Hands Across America” movement. The facility seemed to be one of many, so how was she able to get across to the millions of Tethered how to escape their facilities and link up? It’s also not explained why the Tethered exist in the first place. It’s simply stated that “The government started cloning people to try and control us but couldn’t replicate the spirit so they just let millions of zombies wander underneath the surface of America”. What exactly were they trying to control in people? Why couldn’t they replicate the spirit through education and nurture? There are so many leaps in logic and suspensions of disbelief that it is simply too much, in my opinion, to truly drive the film home. The answer to all of these questions seems to be, unfortunately, “because, it just works so that we can have a movie”, which doesn’t quite cut it for me. What I believe Peele is trying to do is force us to reflect on the nature of our situation, and the status and comforts that we have as a result of other people suffering and doing the difficult work that keeps our luxuries belonging to us. The Tethered making a statement is reminiscent of protests from unions and blue-collar workers. The underground facilities and scissors are potential mirroring’s to sweatshop labor and the mistreatment of sweatshop workers, especially children. It reminds the viewer that the clothes on their backs and the ground that they walk on have been shaped by people, some of whom do not have the prosperous lives that we have. Unfortunately, in regards to the film, there is too much left in the air, and too little explained for the dramatic effect of the ending to be truly resonant

The Punisher Season 2 Review

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People would probably consider a review of this kind of content to be a far cry from the content which I last reviewed, however, I like to consider myself omnivorous in taste. Also, there is more than meets the eye where it comes to this Marvel Netflix series. Frank Castle aka The Punisher, a Marvel Comics vigilante, first appeared in this Marvel Netflix Universe in the second season of Daredevil as a vengeful man looking to eradicate anyone involved in the death of his wife and children. After his success in Daredevil in large part due to the excellent writing of The Punisher episodes and the fantastic performance by Jon Bernthal, the character received his own Netflix show. Particularly known as a character that discriminately kills bad people with a wide arsenal of guns, the first season of The Punisher was surprisingly quiet and gradual in its storytelling. Rather than come off the bat with blazing action and over the top gore, the show took its time, building the story as a slow political thriller rather than an intense action series. More than that, the show was also unafraid to shy away from controversial content. It focused heavily on the treatment of veterans in our modern American society and the importance of overcoming traumatic experiences through support, and how neglecting to give that support means turning our backs on people. It also was able to have a real, rational discussion on gun laws and the different sides of the argument. In the end, it was still able to stay true to the character’s violent roots and deliver the rampage and fiery destruction that everyone wanted to see. To date, it is my favorite season of a Marvel show.

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Jon Bernthal as Frank Castle/The Punisher

The Punisher Season 2 continues the first season’s formula of having a reflective and steady build to the story. It starts with Frank lying low after brutally taking down his former friend Billy Russo, who betrayed Frank and was involved in the death of Frank’s family. An interesting start to the season occurs when Frank meets a woman named Beth, played by Alexa Davalos, and the two develop a relationship. It’s the first time that Frank can be seen as moving on from his vengeful motives, but unfortunately, trouble eventually rears its ugly head. This time, it comes in the form of a girl named Amy, who is on the run from a group of hired goons led by a chilling preacher-looking character named John Pilgrim. Meanwhile, Homeland Security agent, Dinah Madani, is still recovering from her manipulation at the hands of Billy Russo, when he escapes from a hospital. The season itself feels very bisected in that the first half involves Frank and Amy running from Pilgrim and the second half deals with Billy Russo more. However, both arcs in the season somehow don’t seem to intrude upon each other, and while they aren’t necessarily perfect at being complementary, they nevertheless seem to work well together. It’s inexplicable, but the narrative doesn’t feel like it’s all over the place even though it technically is all over the place. Part of it may have to do with the excellent acting and charisma by the leads. Amy, played by Giorgia Wigham, develops a strong rapport with Frank as the series progresses. I was initially skeptical about how well they would play off of each other, especially considering the character of Micro, played by Ebon Moss-Bachrach, had as good chemistry with Frank in the first season as you could find in any TV show. Another character that gets a bigger role in the second season is Curtis, one of Frank’s war buddies formerly in the Navy and now operating a PTSD counseling group. Though featured in the previous season, Curtis tags along with Frank this time around and through their actions and interactions, the dichotomy between the two characters is accentuated. Frank’s destructive, violent, uncompromising, kill-happy personality contrasts with Curtis’s generosity, willingness to see good in others, and belief in healing those that society has rejected. It’s clear that Curtis just wants to make it out alive and to help Frank move on from his vigilante ways.

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Giorgia Wigham plays the character of Amy Bendix
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Jason Moore as Curtis Hoyle

 

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Ben Barnes as Billy Russo/Jigsaw

Ben Barnes returns as Billy Russo, now with a somewhat scarred face after being brutally beaten by Frank. The character of Billy Russo aka Jigsaw is known in the comics for having a severely scarred and disfigured face. Fans of the comics might be disappointed, since the show decides to have a different take on the character, showing Russo as more psychologically scarred than he is physically. Again, despite all accounts suggesting that the decisions made by the showrunners shouldn’t work, it comes off as convincing and in line with the character that they had established in the first season. Josh Stewart delivers a cold and eerie performance as John Pilgrim. Pilgrim as a character walks a line that is closer to Frank’s, however, he is a conduit for more powerful forces that run abound in the background. Both the villains, Russo and Pilgrim, seem to be dark reflections of Frank Castle himself, and it causes Frank to reflect on his ways. However, this Frank, unlike in Season 1 and Daredevil, is done trying to find his identity. He is sure of who and what he is. Of course, what he is, is an unhinged and brutal killer who doesn’t give a second thought to taking a life yet he and everyone else around him knows that. The Punisher isn’t watered down or shown to secretly have a soft heart. It is clear that Frank is willing to cross the lines that others wouldn’t be willing to cross, and what separates him from his enemies in the end, is his compassion for innocent people and his ability to care about other people and put his life on the line for them. His biggest fight has been against a system that he believes is wrong, allowing powerful people to abuse their positions and create chaos that ripples across the city and negatively affects the innocent bystanders.

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Since this will most likely be the end of The Punisher Netflix series, I’d like to mention how unique the show was. It took a character that is a rampaging vigilante and added layers to his story and identity. It immersed viewers into a complex world where the lines are blurred and good people trying to do the right thing don’t always get the best results. It also continues to highlight the plight of veterans living in America, and the idea of being forgotten. The Punisher is bold in its stance. It acknowledges that there are parts of our infrastructure and society that are harsh and uncompromising; not simply in terms of crime and poverty, but more because of the people in power and the games that they play, power struggles for selfish gains with the lives of the powerless caught in the crossfire.

 

The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel Season 2 Review

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Really? Is that it? Surely there must be more right? These were the questions manifesting in my head after another stellar season of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, a show that provides far too much joy and entertainment in such small doses. The first season of this show was as close to a masterpiece as masterpieces go. We were introduced to the character of Mrs. Miriam “Midge” Maisel, a 1950’s Jewish woman in her 20’s with two supportive parents, a happy marriage and two children. Unfortunately, her world gets flipped upside down when her husband Joel admits to having an affair and leaves her. Fueled by the problems of her personal life, Midge discovers an outlet through stand-up comedy and meets the irreverent but hilarious Susie Myerson, a tomboyish club manager who decides to become Midge’s manager. What was magical about the first season of the show was how relatable of a character Midge was. Like any millennial today, she’s a true multitasker, trying to balance her family life, kids, a job, and of course, her passion for comedy. Her pursuit of her comedy career, however, is where we see the difficulty she has to go through in being not only a woman in a male-dominated society but also a woman in a male-dominated industry. Seeing how she overcame these challenges and struggles was a highlight of the show. Unfortunately for her, the challenges she faces especially in regards to her gender are only amplified in Season 2 alongside all of the family drama that is constantly surrounding her.

Season 2 picks up right where the first season left off and carries the same amount of charm and wit and style. One important thing to note is how lived in the world feels. 1950’s New York has never been replicated so well on television. From the fast-moving upper West Side to the lower streets of Greenwich Village, every setting is filled with activity. It’s truly effective in reminding the viewer of the living history of New York City. On top of the rich atmosphere, the characters themselves are perfectly embedded into this breathing world. Mrs. Maisel walks with the typical gate of women of that time period, and Joel Maisel quips in the fast-talking style typical of the 1950s. There isn’t a modern idiom or suggestion in sight. In fact, the entire show comes off more like an old movie or a stage play from the 50’s itself. In short, there could not be a more perfect period piece for this era.

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Combined with the perfect setting is some absolutely brilliant directing. This season also decided to become slightly more experimental with long takes, sweeping shots, extreme long shots where characters are spouting dialogue moving in and out of a house, and many more interesting and unique ways to convey the experience. The music is excellent as always, the soundtrack brings in many more key pieces appropriate to the time period. The score itself adds to the levity or intensity of each scene. I noticed a few musical references calling back to earlier tracks from the first season during scenes that were also harkening back to moments from the first season. The show also switches things up by changing locations and having part of the season take place in Paris as well as at a family getaway in the Catskills. The Catskills was actually a prominent vacation spot for Jewish Americans at the time and so, of course, that also had to be captured as a living and breathing locale by the show. It’s another example of how excellently this series integrates its fictional characters with real-life locations as well as some real-life characters as well (i.e. Lenny Bruce).

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Speaking of characters, now we get to the real heart of the show. Rachel Brosnahan delivers another phenomenal performance as Mrs. Maisel, and Alex Bornstein continues being awesome as Susie. Their chemistry together also continues in stride however this time around with a little more conflict. One character that stole the show in the first season and comes back again for a full course is Abe Weissman, Midge’s fastidious father. Some of the best humor from the first season resulted from Tony Shalhoub’s portrayal of Abe, and the same case applies for season 2. Joel continues to be a character of contention, garnering sympathy at times while also coming off as a bit of a loser. It’s clear that since the first season he has realized his mistake and is now afraid to let go of his love for Midge. Some new characters also grace the screen, Zachary Levi of Chuck fame is particularly noteworthy as a character with a major role.

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Despite the constant barrage of humor, there is an equally impressive display of drama. In fact, another feature of the show’s brilliance is how it manages to blend drama and comedy so deftly. There will be moments where you will cry, and moments where you will laugh. There will be moments where you immediately go from laughing to crying, from crying to laughing, and doing both at the same time. At times, it can start to feel like everything is too episodic in nature and that there is a stagnating of the narrative, however, the very moment that you might feel that is when the narrative hits the hardest. There is very little fault to be found in The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’s second season. If there were anything to nitpick about, it would be that the season concludes with another cliffhanger of an ending in a similar way to the first season. Still, the ending is understandable as a means to build anticipation for the already confirmed third season.

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There are a million more things to say about The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel but all of these things can’t convey what can be conveyed by simply watching the show. If you haven’t seen it yet and have Amazon Prime, watch it. It’s a magnificent period piece, a witty comedy, a socially aware drama, and a wonderful work of television.

 

 

Bohemian Rhapsody: My Favorite Movie of 2018

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I’m just gonna jump right out and say it- Queen is my favorite band of all time. I have yet to encounter a musical group with more perfect vocal harmony, energy, and versatility. No one song sounded the same with Queen, and each piece felt like an evolution of the band’s ideas. The centerpiece of all of this was Freddie Mercury, the iconic frontman with a voice so powerful it could shatter a glass building. Naturally, when I heard that a biopic was being developed based on the band and with a strong focus on Mercury himself, I was beyond excited. What I didn’t anticipate was 2018 being a somewhat slow and disappointing year for movies, at least in my opinion. Luckily, sitting down to watch Bohemian Rhapsody was the cinematic highlight of the year, as not only does the film do justice to the legacy of Freddie Mercury, but it also brings the brilliance of Queen back into the forefront and into the public conversation. It is without a doubt one of my favorite musical biopics of all time, and may even be my favorite if not for the genius of the 1985 Mozart biopic Amadeus.

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Directed by Bryan Singer, the film began with some production troubles. Actor and comedian Sacha Baron Cohen was originally slated to play Mercury however differences arose between what the surviving members of Queen wanted and what Cohen wanted and as a result, Cohen left the project. I’m not sure how Cohen would have done in the role, however actor Rami Malek does such a phenomenal job as Freddie Mercury that he may as well be a lock for the Best Actor award at the Oscars. Malek simply becomes Mercury in every way, from speech to facial expressions to mannerisms. Malek’s performance is not only the best performance by an actor this year but one of the best in the last decade. The film leads up to the 1985 Live Aid performance, and when comparing actual footage of the performance to the scenes in the film, it’s clear how dedicated the filmmakers were in nailing every aspect of Freddie and the band’s movements, and how well Malek mimics Freddie’s style. Surrounding Malek, however, is a strong supporting cast consisting of the other three members of Queen: guitarist Brian May played by Gwilym Lee, drummer Roger Taylor played by Ben Hardy, and bassist John Deacon played by Joe Mazzello. Mix in a few other good performances by Tom Hollander as the band’s lawyer and Lucy Boynton as Mary Austin, Freddie’s longtime friend, and former wife, and you end up with a not so star-studded cast giving absolutely star-worthy performances. Credit also has to be given for the make-up and costume departments for replicating Freddie’s iconic outfits and recreating the looks of all of the band members. Each actor in the movie looks like a mirror image of their real-life counterparts (Gwilym Lee is nearly indistinguishable from a young Brian May). The core band members themselves have infectious chemistry. There are great moments not only where the band interacts with Freddie, but also where the other band members are interacting with each other.

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Where Bohemian Rhapsody truly shines is in its focus on the most important aspect of Queen and Freddie Mercury, the music. Throughout the film are several scenes showing how some of Queen’s most famous songs came about and who was responsible for composing them. Whether it’s Brian May’s foot stomps for “We Will Rock You”, or John Deacon’s bassline for “Another One Bites the Dust” or the musical ponderings by Freddie that led to the song that inspired the title of the film, there was a lot of insight into the musical process of the band, how they kept innovating, how they worked as a unit, what inspired their music, and of course, how they went about creating the music. Most musical biopics play slight snippets of music but focus more on the personal lives of the musicians whereas, in Bohemian Rhapsody, entire songs of Queen are performed and to great effect. If there were ever a film about a band where the songs should feature heavily, Queen would be the band.

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Films based on true stories often exaggerate and embellish for dramatic effect, and that is still the case with Queen. Without going into what inaccuracies exist within the film, I will say that with whatever liberties were taken, the end result of added drama pays off with the exception of a few key events in the second act. Most of the drama surrounds Freddie’s personal life, and though many have criticized the way Freddie’s life was tackled, I think there was just enough of it that was explored without derailing the film and taking away the importance of the band. There were even some additions like Freddie’s family that helped to tie the film together including a powerful yet subtle moral lesson from Freddie’s father. The exploration of Freddie’s background also helped to give perspective on the struggles and poor influences that Freddie had while also not interfering with the mystique of Mercury. In fact, the entire journey of Freddie’s character in the film only enhances the larger than life persona of Freddie Mercury.

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By the end of this movie, there is a clear message to the audience about the powerful nature of Queen’s music, and the kinship of the four members of Queen that kept them together. This is all related through a beautiful climax that solidifies the legend of Queen and the legendary status of its members. Technically, Bohemian Rhapsody can be thought of as a two-hour advertisement for the band itself, but the subject matter of the film is more than worthy of a little more recognition. Based on the box office results of the film, it’s clear that there are more than a few people who have some love for Queen and their cornucopia of iconic and brilliant songs. So all in all, despite some muddled plot and lack of focus in certain parts of the film, Bohemian Rhapsody succeeds in paying homage to the legacy of Queen thanks in part to the brilliance of Rami Malek as Freddie Mercury, a talented supporting cast, and a dedication to concentrating on the music itself rather than other elements of a more tantalizing and provocative nature that is often explored in other biopics for shock value or intrigue.

Thoughts on the Oscars’ “Popular Film” Category

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The Academy Awards, also known as the Oscars, are an annual set of televised awards given out by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Each year, the esteemed voters of the Academy gather together a host of important Hollywood contributors in an event dedicated to recognizing the best in cinematic achievement. These awards include “Best Actor in a Major Motion Picture”, “Best Actress in a Major Motion Picture”, “Best Director”, “Best Cinematography”, Best Original and Adapted Screenplay, and of course, the coveted “Best Picture” award. To win an Academy Award is considered a prestigious honor that few in the film industry will ever have the opportunity to receive…or so it was thought. This week, the Academy announced that they would be adding “a brand new category for outstanding achievement in popular film” which has been dubbed the “Popular Film Category”. The official details as to the criteria for this category have yet to be announced. What is certain, however, is that this is a completely moronic idea that is insulting towards the majority of films.

I first saw this news on an Instagram post. My initial reaction was that this must be a meme poking fun at the Oscars, but then I noticed that the post was published by none other than Rotten Tomatoes. This prompted me to check the official statement by the Academy to confirm that this was a legitimate motion by them. Upon learning this, I went nearly blind with fury. The idea of a popular film category is terrible for a few reasons, but before I dig into that, I need to give a little context about the current state of the Academy Awards.

In 1992, the Disney animated film, Beauty and the Beast became the first ever animated feature to be nominated for Best Picture. The significance of its nomination was rooted in the fact that animated films had long been considered unsophisticated entertainment for kids. By earning the nomination, Beauty and the Beast showed the world that an animated movie could have the grace and subtlety in its storytelling to be recognized alongside other live-action drama films. Furthermore, it opened the door for other animated features in the future to be recognized. However, in 2001, the Academy decided to create a category for Best Animated Feature. From that point on, any critically acclaimed animated films would go into that category. Now, it is true that UP (2009) and Toy Story 3 (2010) received Best Picture nominations after the new animated category, but I’ll discuss that more in a moment.

The real historic and groundbreaking moment in the film industry took place in 2004 when The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) was nominated for and won 11 Academy Awards including Best Picture. It was the first time that a fantasy film had ever won Best Picture and the first time that a true genre film outside of drama and musical had won. This move showed that no matter what kind of film was made, as long as it was dedicated to the craft of filmmaking, it could be recognized for being the best among all films. Then, the moment that changed the film industry forever, making it what it is today; The Dark Knight (2008), Christopher Nolan’s critical and commercial hit masterpiece, was snubbed at the 2009 Academy Awards by not being nominated for Best Picture. As a response to the massive backlash for this decision, the Academy decided to expand its Best Picture category from five films to ten. This allowed for more films to be recognized in the category and is the major reason as to why Toy Story and Up were nominated as animated films. There is still debate as to whether this was a good decision since it gives more films the opportunity to be recognized but may also lead to the Academy recognizing more of the conventional drama films that fit their criteria even though they don’t deserve the nomination. Regardless, The Dark Knight’s impact paved the way for a growing superhero genre that has, for the most part, avoided any prestige from the Academy.

Still, the push for recognition from genre films increased in 2016 and 2017, with some success. Logan (2017), the emotional homage to Western films featuring a grizzled Wolverine, was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay at the 2018 Oscars. Get Out (2017), a popular horror/thriller was nominated for Best Picture. Both of these films took strides towards bringing in more recognition for their respective genres. It seemed like the film industry was making progress and moving towards opening its tight circle of smaller and more obscure films…. until this latest announcement.

Now, all the work that has been going towards genre recognition will be eradicated. The Popular Film Category will essentially take whatever is a big hit, regardless of quality or cinematic achievement, and give out empty, meaningless awards to these films. Rather than having the quality of comic book films increase to where they can be recognized as Best Picture candidates, they will just be assigned to the Popular Film Category. If this Popular Film Category were around in 2004, The Lord of the Rings would not have won Best Picture, let alone been nominated. It would have simply been a “popular film”, and all of its cinematic splendor would go unrecognized in the real category. It’s almost like an award for participation. These films wouldn’t be awarded for being good, but instead, for being “popular”. What’s next? A category for Best Film Featuring Product Placement? Best Vegetable in a Movie? In fact, why have a single category at all, just break up the genres now. Best Biopic, Best Comedy, Best Supernatural Thriller. Each of these ideas is equally as ridiculous as the popular film category. Instead of adding legitimate categories that many people have been asking for such as Best Stunt Coordination or Best Voice Acting Performance, we get this. The only explanation for this, outside of sheer stupidity, is that this is an attempt to increase viewership for the awards show by having more popular films feature.

Hopefully, the amount of backlash this receives will change the Academy’s mind, and from the looks of it, there does seem to be a lot of backlash. Just check the comments in the Rotten Tomatoes post or read an article about it. Industry disapproval has spread with actor Rob Lowe and director Adam McKay (The Big Short) being some of the many vocal opponents. This may sound one-dimensional, but as it stands, this move by the Academy feels like a last ditch effort from a bunch of tight-lipped arthouse film snobs to boost viewership while keeping only a neatly-defined criterion of film designated for any true recognition.

 

Classic Film Review: Jaws (1975)

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The sound of waves crash against a small fishing boat floating on the waters of the ocean. The character of Quint, played by Robert Shaw, bites down on a biscuit. He is seated next to a giant fishing reel. The splashes of the ocean and the creaking of the boat are interrupted by slow, low notes from a string section of an orchestra. The reel begins slowly ticking, coming into focus and catching the attention of Quint. Martin Brody, played by Roy Scheider, sits at the edge of the boat, trying to tie a bowline knot. Quint slowly grabs the rod as the camera focuses on the large reel. Suddenly, Brody shouts “Hey, I’ve got it!” as he finishes the knot. This break in tension segues into a frenzy as the line begins rapidly pulling forward, propelling the film towards its next thrilling sequence. This brilliant moment is one of many that exemplify the brilliance of Steven Spielberg’s 1975 classic, Jaws. I’d never seen the movie until now, but a classic is a classic for a reason. Jaws is a tightly-wound masterpiece. Its narrative and characters feel as if they leaped off the page of an intricately-woven literary novel. If that isn’t enough, its cinematography, music, acting, and production cement the film as one of the greatest examples of cinema in history. It is also, in my opinion, one of the best-directed films ever made. Though this is only Spielberg’s second directing gig, he manages to rival Hitchcock in his ability to build suspense and keep the audience’s attention on what he wants. Jaws is also commonly accepted as one of the most influential films in history. The anticipation, release, and success of the film made it essentially the first major summer blockbuster. The sheer amount of accomplishments that this film was able to garner is astounding when considering its troubled production, filming drama, and costly budget for the time. Spielberg insisted on filming at sea, and the entire second half of the film was shot completely on a small boat. The amalgamation of production and budget restrictions that hindered Spielberg’s vision for the film ended up benefitting the film, as Spielberg was forced to think out of the box and employ new and revolutionary tactics in filmmaking and direction.

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Jaws, as most people know, is the story of a giant killer shark that terrorizes a small beach town and is pursued by the chief of police, Martin Brody. Brody is an honest man with a wife and two kids. The brilliance of Roy Scheider’s performance as Brody is that despite having the outward appearance of a stern and hardened man, his demeanor is actually soft and reflective. It really feels like he’s just an ordinary guy trying to do his best to protect the people of the town. When casting for the film, Spielberg didn’t want to have big name actors appear in the movie since he wanted the events of the film to “believe this was happening to people like you and me”. In fact, Charlton Heston was originally interested in the role but Spielberg felt his grand image would detract from the ordinary every-day setting and the terror and connection that the audience would feel for Brody. As much of a thriller as Jaws is, the first half of the film is actually dedicated to building the character of Brody, and in analyzing the fear and paranoia of the townspeople in response to the shark attacks. A difference in ideologies takes place early in the film between Brody and Mayor Larry Vaughn, one of the many colorful characters in the movie. The mayor has his eyes set on continuing the beach tourism that drives the town’s economy while Brody is more concerned with the safety of its citizens. Brody’s anxiety is depicted through close up shots of Roy Scheider’s concerned expressions. In a particularly memorable scene, Brody sits on the beach, and as other people cross the screen, the camera cuts in closer to Brody’s face. Even during the shark attack sequences, the camera focuses on the movements and reactions of the people as a brilliant depiction of fear and panic. It’s as if the conflict doesn’t come from the shark itself, but rather the people’s fear of it, and how it causes them to act.

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But to cite the fear of the shark as the main conflict in the film would do an extreme disservice to the shark itself. Even without actually being on screen, the shark’s presence is always felt. Originally, Spielberg had designed several mechanical sharks, but they all constantly malfunctioned. To film around this issue, Spielberg showed only portions of the shark at a time. In some scenes, its tail or fin could be seen, and in others, it would be shown as a prop shark head. Aside from the practical effects, the shark’s terror came from its unseen presence more so than what was actually seen. Spielberg would have a large barrel, or a log slowly move towards the characters to represent the shark’s movement. The greatest fear comes from the imagination of the audience, and so by hiding the shark, it’s appearance could be hyped by the audience as more terrifying than what could be shown in a practical prop. Of course, none of the terror would be possible without John William’s excellent score. The simplicity of two alternating notes in a minor 2nd interval proves to be so impactful in its ability to indicate the presence of lurking dread. The increasing speed and volume of the notes as they crescendo into a symphony of cacophonous sound only further builds the suspense. Aside from the ominous main theme, Williams’s score is quite upbeat, with a sense of adventure created by animated and energetic violins.

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As the film progresses, more and more interesting characters get featured, such as oceanographer Matt Hooper, played by Richard Dreyfuss. Hooper adds some levity to the film with his slightly more buoyant personality. He provides just the right amount of quirk and humor to not distract from the film’s serious tone. Robert Shaw’s Quint, the shark hunter, is another character that is rich with personality. His pursuit of the shark comes off as very Melvillian, often harkening to the literary obsessiveness of Captain Ahab in Moby Dick.  The second half of the film relies on the strength of the character interactions between Brody, Hooper, and Quint. Jaws can actually be considered two movies with two separate environments. The first hour introduces the shark and focuses on the town, whereas the second hour is a shark hunt on a fishing boat that takes place entirely out in the ocean. This is where the acting really shines. The scientifically inclined Hooper comes into conflict with the hardened Quint while Brody acts as a straight man to both. Eventually, they feel and function like a unit and bond as they try and hunt down the shark. Scenes between the three involving Quint and Hooper comparing injuries, followed by the three characters singing chanteys are some examples of the excellent character moments in the film. The action and adventure also heighten in the second half as more of the shark is seen and as the fishing boat becomes more and more damaged after each run-in with the creature (even some live footage of actual sharks was integrated into the filming). These scenes, with the combination of brilliant acting, character development, music, and directing are some of the greatest examples of movie magic that you will be hard-pressed to find replicated in most movies today.

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When I finished watching Jaws, I had this great feeling, as if I had just come back from a big adventure. There are not one, but several scenes that can be considered some of the best scenes in film history. The camera and the music felt like characters just as much as the actors did. The selective views of the shark along with the initial point-of-view shots from the shark’s perspective cement it as one of the most iconic creatures in horror. There’s no point in reiterating how impactful this film was to Hollywood, but what I can say is that it more than earns its status. It’s a carefully constructed and thoughtful yet wild adventure that builds to an epic encounter between a terrifying force of nature. It’s an inward look at human psychology and response to fear. It balances its narrative in just the right ways and rewards and punishes characters in a way that consistently aligns with their actions and choices. At the end of the day, Jaws is one of the greatest movies ever made.

 

 

 

Solo: A Star Wars Story Review

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So, if you’ve read one of my earlier blogs on Star Wars, you’ll know how I feel about the new Star Wars movies. I haven’t experienced what I would call a real Star Wars movie since Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith. I mean, obviously the prequels were terrible for the most part. Revenge of the Sith had its fair share of awful moments too, but it made it up for it with some awesome moments (Anakin vs. Obi-Wan). However, I would still prefer some creativity and new direction rather than the corporatization of the new movies including the carbon copy of A New Hope that is Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, and the blandness that was Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. I didn’t have very high expectations going into Solo: A Star Wars Story, especially when I heard about all of the behind-the-scenes mess that was going on. Directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, who previously worked on films like 21 Jump Street and The Lego Movie, were both fired and replaced with veteran director Ron Howard. Both Lord and Miller, were great directors in my opinion, whereas I have not been a big fan of Ron Howard. I loved one of his films called Rush, but his other projects including Angels and Demons, The Da Vinci Code, Inferno, and Cowboys and Aliens were all atrocious and even worse…boring. To me, Ron Howard is a director with a lot more stinkers than good films, and most of his films are very, very (I’ll say it again) boring, I’m talking full on snooze fest (I’ve tried to watch The Da Vinci Code 3 times and fell asleep each time). Boring, is unfortunately what I got with Solo: A Star Wars Story. As I said, I wasn’t very excited for this film, and wasn’t impressed by any of the trailers. In fact, no one wanted to see this movie. I remember that when it was announced, the internet was full of discussions on how unnecessary a film this was. The early buzz around the film’s reception also wasn’t too good, so I really didn’t expect much going in, but, it is a Star Wars movie. Though I was skeptical about Rogue One after The Force Awakens (Episode VII), I entertained the possibility that it would be good, that it would be the film that would do something different. Unfortunately, I was let down, and I went into The Last Jedi the same way, not excited by the trailers but hopeful that it would bring about the change in Star Wars that I wanted to see. Right before the opening of Solo, I still kept a lingering notion that this would be the one that I would truly enjoy, that wouldn’t feel contrived or like a forced Star Wars nostalgia-fest. But alas, I was wrong again.

Solo: A Star Wars Story is a film that explores the story of legendary Star Wars character Han Solo. To the film’s credit, it starts off well enough. We are introduced to Han in a great action scene, and the opening moments begin to establish some dramatic conflict and stakes within the story. The first third of the movie shows promise, with a handful of neat action set pieces and some new insights into the Star Wars world that hadn’t been seen before on film. However, once all of the pieces are on the board, the film doesn’t know where to go. Yes, it is a smaller story and so there doesn’t have to be a larger overarching epic storyline with a compelling villain, but even smaller scale stories have to be told the right way and have to be paced correctly. The pacing in this movie is off-putting, since there is a considerable amount of time dedicated to one particular event in the second act, and that’s where the film’s dullness begins to show through. Though the actors are charismatic enough, the writing and interactions don’t give them the proper development to shine. Alden Ehrenreich actually does a good job as Han Solo, and the film’s inadequacies don’t in any way fall on his shoulders. Woody Harrelson is Woody Harrelson, Donald Glover as Lando Calrissian is charming as expected, and Emilia Clarke is acceptable. No particular cast member steals the show, aside from Paul Bettany who displays a real tenacity for playing a more villainous role in the few scenes that he is in. The droid L3 is initially shown to be fierce and fiery, but most of, if not nearly all of her lines were pushing a “free the droids” agenda which was unnecessary and felt very forced. It’s definitely an area that Star Wars could explore, but it would need a much heavier spotlight instead of being used for a couple jokes and then getting tossed aside. Furthermore, since L3’s dialogue primarily consisted of these lines, her character essentially became a conduit for the agenda, leading many viewers to call her the “SJW bot”. There is certainly nothing wrong with identifying agendas in film, because what is art if not agenda-setting, but the way it was done was actually insulting since the character of L3 was less of a character and more of a talking punchline for an agenda, effectively displaying tokenism. Only Woody Harrelson and Alden Ehrenreich had truly memorable chemistry. Han and Chewbacca’s interactions were fine, but they could have been a lot better. In fact, the buddy comedy movie that was pitched by Lord and Miller seems like it could have been a better prospect in terms of creativity and interaction between Han and Chewbacca. Alden and Emilia also had acceptable chemistry but there wasn’t any really great connection between the cast members. The film’s few attempts at humor severely miss the mark. I laughed maybe once the entire movie, and the theatre audience I was with was silent throughout the movie. Again, I keep thinking what the proven comedic geniuses of Lord and Miller would have done with the movie (then again it may not have worked either but you never know, I think they at least would have done something bold). The cinematography was another disappointing aspect of the film. There were a lot of muted colors and dull backgrounds. The beginning of the movie has a few scenes that are filmed through a blue filter, and the result is a very hazy quality to many of the shots. The music is completely unmemorable aside from the nods to John William’s original score. The third act may seem like it has good twists, but really the twists are redundant and can be summed up as “this person double-crossed this person and this person double-crossed this person and this person double-crossed this person”. The film just kind of ends without any true character growth for Han. The Han Solo we see in A New Hope is narcissistic, distrusting, snarky, and has shades of a very negative attitude. The Han Solo in this movie is consistently a little too happy-go-lucky and it doesn’t seem like he learned too much or developed his personality to align with the Han we see in the original trilogy. All of these lackluster elements point to what the film really is, painfully generic. The character interactions are generic, the plot is generic, the dialogue is generic and downright terrible at times. It’s a safe, marketable film that is hollow. There are so many elements of fan service that I’m almost convinced that fanservice is all the movie has to truly offer. There are constant in-your-face references to older movies that come off as “See! Look at this! This was in the original movies!”. It seems that Disney opted to tell a story that nobody asked for because they thought the same nostalgia goggled fans would keep coming back to said same story and characters every time. Part of this falls upon members of the Star Wars community that continuously demanded something like this. Members of fan bases like Star Wars and Call of Duty are divided to where half the fans want to see something new, and the other fans are completely averse to change and just want the same thing over and over again to keep their nostalgia hunger fulfilled. These change-resistant fans make a massive fuss over any innovations made by studios to the point where these studios are afraid to alter anything that fans would deem sacred. The onus nevertheless falls upon Disney and LucasFilm for ignoring the warning signs and pushing forward with unoriginal and uninspired content.

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To sum up, I honestly must ask was this necessary? Solo: A Star Wars Story doesn’t even depict a young Han Solo, but rather a Han Solo as he is set to appear in A New Hope. It features the same Imperial environment that we have seen for the past 40 years in Star Wars, and provides a subpar story and direction that will numb the senses. It’s all downhill from the first act, and it didn’t seem like the studio knew where they wanted to take this story. It’s also a sign of franchise fatigue for me, since it is incontestably clear at this point that these movies are not going in any new and creative directions, and are instead opting for the same tired, corporatized, rinse and repeat, cost-effective, risk-averse methods that have become the model for so many franchises. I’d say that this is more of a video game problem with companies like Activision and EA, but it seems that the LucasFilm under Disney is falling prey to the same issues. When I first heard they were making Star Wars spinoff movies, I was excited at the prospect for new stories that we’ve never seen before, but this is all the same. We’ve seen Han Solo and Chewbacca before; we’ve seen the Millennium Falcon far too many times in the new movies to the point where it might be called the flagship for nostalgia. I keep thinking about all the amazing things in the Star Wars universe that aren’t being told. Instead of pursuing stories that many fans want, like Mandalorians, The Old Republic, Obi-Wan Kenobi (Yes we’ve seen it before but Ewan McGregor deserves a second shot at playing the character without the weight of the prequels), Disney is confining itself to the nostalgia prison of the Empire saga. Look, I do love Star Wars, and I did see flashes of what I loved from the franchise, but it cannot go on like this. I think that Star Wars needs to go back to the pre-Empire era. That includes the new trilogy, which I think needs to DIE. The new trilogy in my opinion has been nothing but an unoriginal massive cash grab by Disney to tell the same stories disguised as different ones. It’s all the same, the First Order is the same as the Empire, etc. The episodic trilogy should finish up and end, but the Star Wars stories movies can be good if done right. The early results are already coming in that Solo will not do as well as expected at the box office. If Star Wars doesn’t innovate and do something truly groundbreaking next, it will grow stale with everyone. I know a Boba Fett film has already been greenlit, which I think will be more of the same, and there has been little more than rumors of anything else. I know this may be contentious, but Star Wars needs to explore more of the world introduced in the prequels. The only successful moment of fan service in this film, the only moment that had the rather unreactive audience collectively gasp in my theatre, was a nod to the prequels. I myself, got chills hearing the Duel of Fates music slowly stir in the background. I’ll finish this off by saying Solo was an exercise in corporate blandness, and I could not be less excited for a Star Wars movie then I was for this, but I may prove myself wrong when Episode 9 arrives. Please skip this and contribute to the box office of the excellent and hilarious Deadpool 2.

 

2.5/5 Stars

Avengers: Infinity War Spoiler Discussion

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I’m going to break this discussion down by moving chronologically through the events of the film and addressing each noteworthy moment when I get to it.

I’d like to first point out that the film really is from Thanos’s perspective. He has the most development, depth, and screen time. The film begins immediately after the Thor: Ragnorak end credits scene, where a mysterious ship has assailed the Asgardian refugee vessel. By the way, if you haven’t seen any of the previous Marvel movies, odds are you’ll be pretty lost in Infinity War since it builds heavily off of the previous films. It depends on the audience knowing who these characters are since they don’t really get any introductions here. As I said, the film is Thanos’s story, so all of the other Avengers characters are really just supporting cast that are the instruments upon which our protagonist (Thanos in this case) must act upon. The first shot of the film is the wreckage of the assailed ship. The first character we see is actually Ebony Maw, one of Thanos’s servants. We first hear his voice, then watch as the camera pans up from his feet and to his full grotesque features. We then see the rest of Thanos’s Black Order. They serve as “hype-men” as they introduce the audience to Thanos who is finally revealed to us in a full body shot. Thanos’s first words aren’t, in fact, evil villain clichés, but rather statements of empathy and inevitably. He states that he understands “what it’s like to lose”. He talks about desperation, failure, the inability to escape from destiny. What’s effective here is that when Thanos compares himself to destiny, it establishes his viewpoint. He is not doing this out of a quest for power and dominance over the universe (so he thinks at this moment). He sees himself as an agent of the universe, sent to balance the scales and do the necessary evil that only he can do (or so he thinks). It’s a great way to introduce a powerful, unflinchingly rational villain with shades of empathy (or so we think…never mind).

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The battle in New York is pretty neat. We get reintroduced to Dr. Strange, Spider-Man, Iron-Man, etc. The banter between some of the characters that have never met, like Strange and Tony Stark is pretty good. Dr. Strange and Tony have a somewhat antagonistic relationship and its funny to see the verbal jousts of two characters that are so similar (both were arrogant rich guys who after a traumatic incident became superheroes with new perspectives and new priorities of protecting something). The opening action scenes are pretty entertaining. The Black Order, led by Ebony Maw confront our characters and try to take the Time Stone. The Black Order, though not developed in any way (though they don’t need to), serve their purpose as intimidating henchmen of Thanos. They look great and match their comic book counterparts especially well. Ebony Maw is a formidable second-in-command. His Lovecraftian features, slender frame, upright posture, and telekinetic powers conducted by the wave of his bony fingers all create a unique sense of might and terror that poses a serious threat to the superheroes. The New York set piece ends with Dr. Strange captured and Spider-Man and Iron Man stowing away on the Black Order ship to save Strange.

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We’re then reacquainted with the Guardians of the Galaxy as they run into a space-stranded Thor. The good thing about so many characters being integrated from so many different films is that the aesthetics of these films are somewhat translated here, as I’ve said in my spoiler-free review. Anyway, since the Guardians are characters played with more comedy within their respective films, this is where the comedy really starts to amp up. Some of the humor hits, like Drax calling Thor a “handsome, muscular man”, until it devolves into several fat jokes about Starlord aka actor Chris Pratt. Regardless, Thor wakes up and goes with Rocket and Groot to forge a new hammer while Drax, Mantis, and Gamora head to the Collector’s domain to stop Thanos from getting the Reality Stone. We then cut to the next storyline, which starts with Vision and Scarlett Witch hiding out in Scotland. It’s shown here that they’ve been in a romantic relationship for at least two years. We’ve never really seen this relationship develop in the rest of the busy Marvel movies, but we’re supposed to just go with it now. This wouldn’t be so much of an issue if later on in their film the emotional weight of their relationship is supposed to impact the audience but obviously can’t if we never saw the relationship develop. What we do feel the impact of is Captain America arriving to save them from the Black Order. It’s a great moment too, seeing a silhouette between the gaps of a speeding train, Alan Silvestri’s epic score kicking in as the familiar face of Steve Rodgers enters the light. It’s also good to know that Captain America has been secretly operating with a small group of Avengers for the past two years. Unfortunately, Cap doesn’t get too much screen time or character development in this movie. It is hard to fit in so many characters in such a big movie in such little time, but I could have used a few more Cap scenes to flesh out his convictions. Nonetheless, it’s great seeing my favorite Avenger and I look forward to seeing his development in the next movie. Also, we have two stellar Captain America movies that have already fleshed out his awesome character. His awesomeness only heightens when he refuses to give up Vision’s life for the Mind Stone, stating that “we don’t trade lives”. This statement ultimately becomes the film’s main message and counterargument to Thanos’s utilitarian perspective but we’ll get more into that later. What it does is further cement Captain America’s position as the ultimate moral center and voice of reason within the Marvel Universe.

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Meanwhile, the Guardians try and sneak up on Thanos as he visits the Collector. Gamora attempts to kill him but is tricked by the Reality Stone. Thanos kidnaps Gamora, and in a nice nod to the Infinity Gauntlet comic, uses the Reality Stone to dispatch Mantis and Drax in clever ways (Drax is diced into cubes, Mantis is turned into paper cutouts). While all of this is happening, Spider-Man and Iron Man are able to save Dr. Strange and kill Ebony Maw, which it’s sad to see him go so soon. They then head over to Thanos’s homeworld, Titan, to confront him. The only real character development that we get to see during this time is between Thanos and Gamora, and with Thor. Despite there never having been a time where Thanos and Gamora are on screen together, the time they share in this movie is well spent. We do get to see Thanos’s love for Gamora, his admiration of her fierce spirit, and his hope that she can maybe understand that what he is doing will save the Universe. On the opposite end, we also see Gamora’s conflicted feelings. She hates Thanos but still considers him family, and her breakdown into tears when she thought she had killed him earlier signifies that she too still harbors love for her adopted father. Thanos’s feelings of love, however, only extend to one daughter, as he tortures his other daughter, Nebula, so that Gamora can reveal the location of the Soul Stone.

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Thor gets development too, as this movie effectively builds upon the character revamping that he got in Thor: Ragnorak but focuses on the tragic aspect of his character rather than the comedic. In a brilliant scene with Rocket, Thor recounts to his “rabbit” friend all the loved ones he’s lost (mother, father, brother, best friend). It also shows that Thor tries to use humor to counter and mask his sorrows. We realize that Thor’s overly boisterous and heroic personality compensates for the tragedy he’s suffered in his long life. His grief-masking doesn’t work so well at this moment, however, and he tries to give Rocket a trembling smile while he fights back tears. It’s a sad moment, and it strengthens Thor’s motivations for going after Thanos. Chris Hemsworth is also fantastic as Thor, capturing his conviction and his rage. He owns the character. So, Thor, Rocket, and Groot travel to the dying star that forged Thor’s original hammer in order to forge a new hammer. One Game of Thrones cameo later (Peter Dinklage as Eitri), Stormbreaker is made.

The drama continues to hype up as Thanos and Gamora travel to Vormir, the planet where the Soul Stone is located. Upon arrival, they are greeted by the Stonekeeper who is in fact, surprise surprise…. Red Skull! It’s revealed that Red Skull survived the events of Captain America: The First Avenger and was transported to Vormir to guard the Soul Stone. In a shocking moment, Thanos must give a soul in order to have the soul stone. The moment when Thanos drags a screaming Gamora and throws her off a cliff really earns its drama. The music kicks up, symbols clash and an adagio of strings play over a wide-eyed Thanos. His expression appears to show disbelief at his own actions, yet because of his actions, he now has the Soul Stone.

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Cap and the rest of the Avengers head over to Wakanda to meet up with Black Panther and mount a defense against the Black Order. We see Cap reunite with Bucky, some of our favorite Black Panthers like Okoye and M’Baku, and Bruce Banner get outsmarted by Shuri. The battle of Wakanda begins and the Avengers fight off against an army of faceless, nameless alien beasts. My main gripe about this battle is the lack of build-up to it. It doesn’t feel like something from Lord of the Rings or Star Wars because it just kind of happens all of a sudden without fully establishing both sides. The Black Order kind of just shows up with an army of disposable creatures to fight the Avengers, it doesn’t feel as weighty as what is going on elsewhere. At the other end of the solar system, the rest of the Guardians excluding Groot and Rocket meet up with Iron Man’s group and come up with a plan to take out Thanos. Dr. Strange runs through millions of possibilities and determines that there is only one in which they can win. Thanos arrives and relays his strategy of dealing with overpopulation through random genocide. Again I’ll get more into that at the end. He engages Iron Man’s group and is surprisingly overpowered for a brief period of time, allowing Spider-Man and Iron Man to try and pry the Infinity Gauntlet off of him. This is where the controversial moment happens when Starlord, angered after discovering Gamora’s death, aggressively attacks Thanos in the middle of his incapacitation at the hands of Mantis, causing Thanos to regain control and keep the Gauntlet. I have to say, the entire time Starlord felt somewhat inconsistent with his character. He was either too humorous or too aggressive. I get it, he’s displayed these characteristics in the past, and his girlfriend was kidnapped and later killed. Nevertheless, I feel like it discredits him as a character since he definitely has been more level-headed than this. It definitely could have been better handled, and I feel like Starlord would have been able to bounce back from these events and respond to that situation much better than he did. I know technically this is the way things are supposed to happen because Dr. Strange predicted the timeline but does it really excuse Star Lord from being an overly confrontational douche? His actions lead to Thanos dispatching the rest of the team before only Iron Man is left to battle Thanos. The fight between them is another great moment and it ends with Tony at Thanos’s mercy. Thanos gives his respect to Stark but spares his life when Dr. Strange offers up the Time Stone.

On Wakanda, Caps forces are being overwhelmed by the generic alien monsters, so it’s a great time for Thor to show up with his epic new hammer. Again, the Avengers theme is awesome, and Thor arriving and absolutely obliterating the enemies to Silvestri’s score is my favorite moment in the movie. It also shows that Thor really is one of the most powerful characters in the MCU. It’s especially true since Hulk has been refusing to come out all this time in a neat character moment since it’s the first time we’ve seen Hulk afraid. The battle ends with the Avengers victorious, but unluckily for them, Thanos arrives with one stone left to obtain. In a slow-motion moment, we see Thanos easily overpower the other Avengers while Vision appeals to Scarlett Witch to destroy the stone. This moment didn’t hit as much for me since as I’ve said before, I didn’t really get to see the relationship between these two characters develop so I wasn’t as emotionally invested in Vision’s destruction at the hands of Scarlett Witch. It matters even less when Thanos rewinds time to reconstruct Vision and take the stone. With the Infinity Gauntlet complete, Thanos snaps his fingers and wipes out half the life in the Universe. Having read the Infinity Gauntlet story before seeing the movie, I was giddy with excitement when he snapped his fingers. We first see Bucky fade away in front of Cap. At this point, I was surprised, but once Black Panther faded away, I knew this wasn’t permanent. The other characters to fade include Falcon, Scarlett Witch, Starlord, Mantis, Drax, Spider-Man, Dr. Strange, and several Wakandan soldiers. Spider-Man’s farewell does pull at the heartstrings, and it is a shocking moment to see some fan-favorites fade away, but I was more intrigued than disheartened. I’m interested to see how these characters return, and what happens to Thanos in the sequel. I’m also looking forward to Tony’s decisions moving forward, as the deaths of everyone around him will surely leave him devastated. I did love the way the film ended, with Thanos looking over a beautiful landscape with a half-smile half-smirk on his face. We also get treated to an end credit scene of Nick Fury contacting Captain Marvel before fading away.

So I’ve said it multiple times and I’ll say it again, Avengers: Infinity War delivers. It feels like the Empire Strikes back of the MCU, and the MCU feels like the Star Wars of this generation, even more than the actual Star Wars of this generation. Whereas the Star Wars movies today are repeating the same stories over again, the Marvel universe is managing to keep me excited for new stories. The Marvel comics are rich in creativity and storytelling, and the heads at Marvel are masterfully drawing from and adapting the cavalcade of source materials. The Russo Brothers dedicated time to crafting Thanos’s motivations and ideology. From a grand scheme, universal utilitarian view of how the universe should work, there are elements of Thanos’s ideology that make sense. Overpopulation is a thing, and lots of people suffer from the tragedy of the commons. It’s an identifiable perspective for a villain, but like Killmonger, Thanos takes it too far and his willingness to stomp out life makes him more of a monster than a savior. The film doesn’t qualify Thanos’s perspective, there is a clear line. When Thanos completes his quest, he says to a vision of a young Gamora that the crusade cost him “everything”. Thanos’s tears for Gamora are an outlier to his emotional detachment from killing the rest of the Universe. He fails to understand the sanctity of life. The decisions that our heroes make, including Scarlett Witch and Starlord’s decisions to try and kill their respective partners at their requests, were made out of love. Thanos’s love for Gamora wasn’t enough to sway him from his beliefs of what he thinks is the right thing. However, as Captain America said, “we don’t trade lives”. No matter the suffering, what makes life special is that everything has the opportunity grow, to become something important, something vital. If we go along with Thanos’s plan and wiped out half the life in the Universe randomly, what if the next Albert Einstein, Gandhi, or Martin Luther King Jr. was killed? What if people who were or will make major contributions to existence are wiped out? The Avengers understand this idea of all life being sacred. It is possible that Thanos may too. Perhaps in the next movie, Thanos will ponder on his decision, and realize that the value of life is far too important. He may come to miss Gamora, understand that the cost of his vision of peace would be too dear, regret his decision, and try and turn back time. I’m just speculating at this point, but the fact that the film has provided me the opportunity to speculate is a triumph of its own.

There’s lots of setup for the next film, so I see this as a part one of a two-parter. I’m glad that Marvel left us in this moment of despair and anguish, because obviously, in these kinds of stories, good triumphs over evil, but being able to have that darkness, let us sit and dwell in it for a little bit, consider its implications, and think it might actually be there to stay, only then for the good guys to triumph is how these kinds of stories should be told. Much like Lord of the Rings, Avatar: The Last Airbender, or Halo, everything seems hopeless at a certain point. We wonder how possibly the overwhelming odds can tip in the good guys’ favor and when they do, we feel relief and satisfaction.

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In conclusion, I did in fact love this movie. It’s in my top five favorite Marvel movies and definitely one of the coolest superhero movies ever made. I don’t think it transcends the genre like The Dark Knight or Logan, but it does represent the best that the genre has to offer. It isn’t perfect. There are so many different arcs and no moments where all the characters come together. Characters like Black Panther, Black Widow, Falcon, and Captain America are underutilized. Still, the film is wildly entertaining, pushes the MCU in an even more promising direction, and finally gives the MCU the stakes it needs. I’m very excited for Avengers 4 and I can’t wait to see what the MCU does next.

 

 

Avengers: Infinity War Review

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Avengers: Infinity War, directed by Joe and Anthony Russo, is the latest installment in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Before I go into the review, I’d like to give a little background.

In the comic book industry, there is something called a “comic book crossover event”. This began in 1984 with Marvel Comics’ Secret Wars which featured an assortment of characters from the Marvel Universe coming together for 12 issues. After this, DC responded with its own major crossover, Crisis on Infinite Earths, which also spanned several issues and significantly affected the continuity of the DC Universe. Since the 1980’s, there have been countless event comics from “Infinite Crisis” to “Civil War” to “Infinity War”. And although 2012’s The Avengers was a significant landmark in the comic book to film medium, Avengers: Infinity War is the first time that a major comic book crossover event is being adapted for the big screen. Now I’m much more of a DC fan when it comes to the comics (I can tell you about literally every major story event in the DC Universe going all the way back to its inception in 1939), but I did manage to read the 1991 Infinity Gauntlet story by Jim Starlin which is what this movie is based off of. For me, the opportunity to experience a massive event like Infinity War on the big screen is something I never could have imagined as a child. That being said, I went into this film with tempered expectations. There has been an unreal amount of hype leading up to the release of the movie, and the fact remained that there was a lot that was being promised or at least expected.

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Avengers: Infinity War took inspiration from The Infinity Gauntlet, written by Jim Starlin and illustrated by George Pérez and Ron Lim

Well, I can certainly say that Avengers: Infinity War delivered on its expectations. The Russo Brothers were able to give the fans what they had promised, a big event where the entire Marvel Cinematic Universe fights off an overwhelming threat. If you are expecting an entertaining action film with some big moments, this is the movie for you. It is quintessential blockbuster popcorn fanfare with a little something more for those who are big fans or want to dig deeper into the story’s implications. It’s also a film that takes itself more seriously but still has a nice blend of humor. At times, the humor can be weird and overstay its welcome, but it largely didn’t detract from the drama.

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Thanos, played by Josh Brolin, is the centerpiece of the film.

The important thing to know is that this is not a story where the Avengers are the main characters. Thanos is actually the main character of this tale, and he means business. It seems like the Russo Brothers really took a delicate approach to how they wanted to represent Thanos. He is a nuanced and emotional character, with a lot of screen time, and a unique motivation. It’s admirable that this character with no prior development that has been hyped for 13 films was developed so well. His relationships with other characters within the MCU also felt well-established.  Josh Brolin did an excellent job with the motion work and managed to capture the myriad of emotions Thanos exhibits. a villain for the film, Thanos fits the part and does it strides. He truly feels like the big threat to the Avengers that the studio was hyping up, and it represents the comic book storyline well since it seemed nearly impossible for the Avengers to even stand a chance against him. The fact that his actions in the movie act out a crusade rather than a conquest, and the fact that you really understand where he is coming from, makes Thanos a good villain. He is not the emotional roller coaster that is Killmonger or the malice that is The Joker, but he serves his purpose within the story.

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The action is also excellent. There are a lot of great fight scenes and epic struggles with some great “wow” moments. One thing I didn’t expect was the number of twists, thrills, and shocks in the movie. It’s all a lot to take in, and the end result is a heavier, more genuine film than most of the recent quirky comedy style MCU films like Spider-Man: Homecoming and Thor: Ragnorak. Speaking of Thor, he can be considered almost a secondary main character within the narrative. He gets the second most development and screen time after Thanos. The approach to Thor does take a step back from the tone of Ragnorak and opts for a more grounded view of his character. He still makes a few jokes here in there in the typical Thor way, however, there is a bigger focus on how much he has lost. It’s reminded how much of a tragic character he really is and also how powerful he really is. Due to the serious approach, there are moments in the film that come across as very dark, and even haunting at times. There is this sense of finality like everything has been culminating towards the confrontation with Thanos. 18 years of build-up has all lead to this.

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Infinity War features a large cast of classic Marvel Comics characters.

Considering the fact that there has been so much development and new additions to the Avengers ensemble after 18 movies, there are a lot of characters to balance. For the most part, the characters work off of each other very well, especially many of the new combinations of characters who had previously never interacted with each other. The styles and aesthetics of the other films in the franchise were also well-incorporated within the movie. When the Guardians of the Galaxy showed up, classic rock began playing and bright streaks of colors filled the screen. When Wakanda was featured, the drums started kicking in and the Black Panther theme came on. As good of a job as the film does in balancing the characters, some of the characters are underdeveloped or underused, and some are even inconsistent with how they were in previous films. I can’t really get into who these characters were until my spoiler review which I’ll post later. The main drawback to the overall experience is that there’s so much going on that at times it can feel very disconnected and the stories start feeling separate. A group of characters will be off doing one thing while another group of characters will be doing something somewhere else. There are multiple storylines going on at the same time and featuring different characters, and the story jumps around from place to place and at different times which can be quite discombobulating. We may spend a lot of time in one particular point with one group of characters before jumping back to a different group of characters at a different point. In some of these jumps, I would completely forget the previous arc and would have to reorient myself towards the current point. It’s understandably hard to juggle all of these characters, and the Russo Brothers did a good job, however, the jumping around from vignette to vignette made the experience less absorbing and harder to get engrossed in.

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Overall, Avengers: Infinity War is a solid addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It delivers on its promises, offers exciting and novel action sequences, and presents an awe-inspiring and multifaceted villain the likes of which the comic book movie genre hasn’t seen before. As a major DC fan, I can’t help but feel a little jealousy that the DC universe hasn’t been able to replicate this level of universe-building and massive scale. Infinity War felt exactly like the event comics I loved reading with the way everything came together and how many characters appeared on-screen. It’s a wonderfully constructed adaptation of the Marvel Universe depicted in the comic books and is put together fairly well especially considering the sheer magnitude of the film in terms of characters, themes, and the overall universe.

Yet, I can’t help but feel there is something more that could have been. I enjoyed the film, but I can’t put it up there with some of the most epic sagas of all time like Star Wars, Halo, or Lord of the Rings. What I think is missing is consistency of tone in regards to this film and the rest of the universe. This is an issue more with the direction the entire MCU has taken. The fact that so much had to be done in this film to establish a new tone, new villain, new characters, and create an epic spectacle indicates that the previous films before it weren’t successful in establishing the right tone and emotional stakes. The Marvel formula has always been fun, comedic, and low stakes for the most part. Infinity War is epic, but there’s a disconnect. The overly comedic tone of the franchise so far has hurt the movie. The emotions not running as high for these characters in their respective films is what might have caused the emotional disconnect in this film. This would have been truly legendary if the previous films were different and had established this more serious tone. The films could have been darker and had more stakes to begin with, set up Thanos and the Black Order much earlier, and hyped up more of the Infinity War itself. If Marvel had done all of these things much earlier and set up elements of Infinity War in other films, it would have been unbelievable to witness. However, I think the Russo Brothers still did an excellent job, and quite possibly the best they could have done given the situation they were in.

4/5 Stars