Infinity Jest

I liked it. I’d be fine if I never saw it again.

The biggest problem with Avengers: Infinity War is its title. Sure, it makes sense given the plot, but I’m afraid Disney has rather put themselves in a corner. What can possibly top an infinity war? Unless the marketing department goes for broke next time with Double Dog Infinity War, it’s all downhill from here.

Let’s put the title aside. Hey, this movie really does work. I spent the last third of the film in humble admiration, not really for what I was watching on the screen but for the creativity and verve of those who put it there. This movie should have stunk and it does not. It should have been an incoherent mush of CGI and it is not. It should have been The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies, and praise the Lord, it is not. Infinity War is fun, exciting, and surprisingly emotional. I liked it. I’d be fine if I never saw it again.

The story concerns the…eh, what’s the point. There’s a really powerful Bad Dude, who is looking for magical gem stones that will make him Baddest Dude, and it’s the job of the Good Dudes and Dudettes to come together and Stop Him. I think that’s enough to know. I’d wager that those who go in knowing less than that will have a better time than anyone. Whoops, my mistake.

I came away from Infinity War impressed with three things above all.

First, the humor of this film is more restrained and less forced than in previous Marvel episodes. I find the typical Marvel shtick of interrupting what is supposed to be a dramatically intense moment with a sick burn or golly gee willikers incredibly annoying. If I craved dumb humor I would have stayed in middle school. Infinity War dials this back and I appreciated it.

Second, this might be the best edited superhero movie I’ve ever seen. As I mentioned above, the math of a film like Infinity War usually adds up to a mess. I was very impressed at the clean action scenes, the careful pacing, and the comparable screen time for all our heroes (except for Scarlett Johansson, who continues to look like she’d rather be doing anything else). There are so many ways to make “intense” films unwatchable—see: Jackson, Peter—but Infinity War manages to be inviting, as well as loud and fast.

Third, I liked the ending. I’m told fans of the comics do not. That makes sense to me, because this is an ending for movie lovers and not necessarily for Marvel mythology lovers. If you’re a film fan like me who’s disenchanted with the superhero genre, I think you’ll watch and know what I mean by that. There’s a bravura in the film’s denouement that you won’t find in many other superhero pictures. That was a risk, and it paid off.

But of course, some will not like it. The good news for them is that journalists are currently writing entire pieces about how many upcoming Marvel films there are. There’s an old saying I heard growing up in the unpredictable daily weather of the Ohio river valley: If you don’t like the weather, keep hanging around. If you don’t like the latest Marvel film, keep hanging around.

David Foster Wallace once imagined a movie that was so entertaining it killed its audiences. I’m slowly coming to terms with the realization that I’ll be taking my grandchildren to see Avengers 32 and the 20th reboot of Spider-Man, featuring an androgynous AI as Peter Parker. At the rate we’re going, there’s a good chance I’ll pass away watching a Marvel movie. Oh well.

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On “The Godfather Part II”

Netflix has recently added both The Godfather and The Godfather: Part II to its streaming library. Below is something I wrote in 2014 on what makes Part II so great.

“That’s my family, Kay. It’s not me.” Michael Corleone is not lying when he says these words in The Godfather. He means them. He means them so much he joined the military merely to prove them. We learn about that in the penultimate scene of The Godfather Part II, a flashback that surely ranks as one of the greatest filmmaking decisions of all time. Michael, sitting with his brothers awaiting their father and Corleone patriarch, casually announces his has joined the Marines. This angers and confuses them, since young Michael was given a draft deferment (this is WWII) and—as Tom says—“Pa had to pull a lot of strings.” His family interprets this as gross ingratitude, but we know better. Michael went to war to avoid becoming a gangster.

But the war ended, Michael (Al Pacino) returned home, and the rest is history told in the first movie. The dinner flashback at the end of Part II is crucial to the narrative of the Corleone family because it inserts the final missing piece of our understanding of its youngest son. Why, for example, does Vito tell Michael in the first film, “I never wanted this for you”? Why does Michael, years later, ask his mother if it is possible to lose a family? The answer is that Michael no longer knows himself.

It is important to see that famous final scene of The Godfather—in which the door to Michael’s world is literally shut on Kay (Diane Keaton)—as a beginning and not an end. It’s at that moment that Kay, who represents director Francis Ford Coppola’s audience, realizes that she will never really know her husband. In the terrifying and flawlessly acted scene in Part II in which Kay tells Michael that she aborted his unborn son, we understand she no longer wants to. “It was a son, and I had it killed because this must all end,” she thunders, right before Michael hits her (bringing to our remembrance the murder of Carlo, who married and then abused Connie Corleone so a rival family could assassinate Sonny). The “this” in that sentence is the first and only time Kay makes explicit reference to the Corleone family’s organized crime. The illusion of “It’s not me” has died. Michael has become a monster.

Most monsters become what they do to protect something truly valuable. In Michael’s case, it was his wife and children. His downward spiral is precipitated by a botched assassination attempt in his home. It has to be an inside job. “Keep them alive,” Michael instructs his men as they hunt the gunmen. Later on, impatient with a relative who doesn’t seem to understand What’s At Stake Here, he indignantly screams, “In my home! Where my wife sleeps and my children play!” Whatever happened to “it’s not personal, just business”?

But that’s the point, isn’t it? It was always personal. Murder is never strictly business. The parallel story line in Part II shows us the ascendancy of Vito Corleone and his empire. We watch as his mother is shot right in front of him by a local mobster. He escapes Italy and emigrates to New York, where he works hard and loves his family. When another mobster tries to extort him, he kills him, and thus begins a life of violence that is business and very personal, a point driven home when he returns to Italy as a prosperous adult to stab the old man who killed his mother.

The difference between father and son seems to be that Vito knew this kind of power is ultimately meaningless, and Michael doesn’t. When Michael senses his empire slipping away, he doubles down. He violates the dictum that he gave to young Fredo in Part I (“Never take sides with anyone against the family—ever”) and aligns himself with Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg), believing that the Jewish bankroller can finance him into a position of unassailable power. “We’re bigger than US Steel,” Roth intones, one of The Godfather Part II’s most recognizable lines. By the third act, Michael is no longer thinking about his family, but about his empire and revenge. Right after the assassination attempt, Michael departs for Miami to meet Roth. An odd choice; did he not question the wisdom of leaving his family at such a time? There’s a haunting scene after Michael returns home that shows him arriving at an eerily silent house and creeping his way to the bedroom where Kay is knitting. Rather than embrace his wife, he retreats into the shadows, perhaps ashamed, perhaps unsure. Nina Rota’s score plays sad, somber notes, music for a love gone cold.

All of this makes the film’s most important moment—Michael’s execution of his brother Fredo—comprehensible. The word “family” no longer means what it used to for Michael. There are only friends and enemies. Fredo’s assistance to the assassins (never fully explained in the film) makes him an enemy. The key scene is Michael’s confrontation of Fredo, which becomes a familial airing of grievances for two fatherless boys (“I’m your older brother, Mike, and I was stepped over!”). Cinematographer Gordon Willis made a masterful decision to put the two characters on either side of the shot and in shadow, emphasizing the beautiful but lonely snowfall of the exterior. The brothers are strangers to one another now, joined only by the kingdom which winter is now burying.

John Cazale plays Fredo perfectly. He’s weak and sexually unconfident, and resents the opinion, shared by Michael, that he is too dumb and soft to be of much use to the family. Cazale died of cancer at only 42 years old, and those who knew him said he also was fragile and sensitive. Notice the way he trembles when explaining how he feels disrespected, and then recall how he fumbled his gun in while gangsters shot his father in Part I. He feels things deeply, and in the Corelone world, that’s a liability.

The Godfather Part II is, in any functional sense of the word, perfect. There are no needless scenes or busy characters. The screenplay by Coppola and Mario Puzo is so confident in its narrative that we get scenes of contemplation and atmosphere, and nothing for the sake of merely keeping our attention. Nina Rota’s music is iconic and the film’s famous “Immigrant” theme is bold and anthemic without ever becoming distracting. Every element of the movie ties into the stories. That’s the definition of great art.

Both De Niro and Pacino were nominated for Oscars. De Niro won, not undeservingly, but The Godfather Part II really belongs to Pacino. He is asked to transform before our very eyes in a way that De Niro wasn’t asked to do (since the latter’s character is split into two actors playing a boy and a man). Coppola said years later that the decision to cast Pacino in Part I was largely due to the way Pacino “communicated” with his eyes. Watch the penultimate scene between Kay and Michael and you’ll see what he means.

The film’s last shot gives me chills. It’s one of the boldest and most unnerving close ups I can remember. An aging Michael is seen on a park bench, staring out into space. We watch his tired eyes and ask if the entire film was simply a replay of his memories as he sits here. He is alone and knows why he is alone. As Rota’s famous theme plays, I find myself torn: Do I want to know what he’s thinking?

My 16 Top Movies of the 21st Century

Short story short: The New York Times released a list of the best movies of the 21st century. The list is wrong, but it’s fun and interesting and, more to the point, inspired some friends of mine to come up with their own lists.

You can guess where this post is going.

So here’s my list, but I’ve made a change: I’m going to list 16 movies instead of 25, for no better reason than that I can more speedily come up with 16 titles rather than 25. I’ll also include year 2000 in my list, even though, as my friend Hal explained, that year technically doesn’t belong to this century. I, like Hal, do not care.

Pan’s Labyrinth dir. Guillermo del Toro

The best film of the 21st century: A brutal fantasy that joins together wonder and terror in an unforgettable story.

There Will Be Blood  dir. Paul Thomas Anderson

Daniel Day-Lewis, the greatest screen actor of the century, gives his best performance.

No Country For Old Men dir Joel & Ethan Coen

Cited by many as THE best movie of the century, a flawless masterpiece of crime and punishment.

Cast Away dir Robert Zemeckis

Tom Hanks is the best movie star of the New Hollywood era, and this, his best performance, is a criminally underappreciated metaphor for existence and dignity.

The Prestige dir Christopher Nolan

Not Nolan’s most ambitious movie (Interstellar) or his most important (The Dark Knight), but certainly his most compulsively watchable, and rewarding.

The Lord of the Rings films dir Peter Jackson

The most important movies made in the 21st century so far. An era-defining trilogy.

The Incredibles dir Brad Bird

Best animated film of the century, and Pixar’s best product not named Toy Story.

Calvary dir. John Michael McDonagh

In a just world, both Calvary and Pan’s Labyrinth would have been Best Picture winners. Here is the most profound religious film of the century, a parable of forgiveness and frailty.

The Passion of the Christ dir Mel Gibson

There’s simply no other film quite like it.

The Social Network dir. David Fincher

David Fincher tells the story of Facebook as an utterly absorbing tale of dorm room betrayal and east coast elitism. Perhaps the most rewatchable movie ever to not win the Oscar.

Grizzly Man dir Werner Herzog

Far and away the greatest documentary of the century, following the life and psychosis of grizzly bear-friend Timothy Treadwell.

Arrival dir. Dennis Villeneuve

A science fiction masterpiece.

Moneyball dir. Bennett Miller

A sports movie that utterly transcends every border of its genre.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind dir. Michael Gondry

I admire this film more than I like it. Like “The Passion,” it’s a film that defies comparison. A one-of-a-kind achievement.

Pride and Prejudice (2005) dir. Joe Wright.

Perhaps the most gorgeously photographed romantic drama of the 21st century. Its delicious performances and intelligent script spawned years of imitators.

Spider-Man 2 dir. Sam Raimi

I agree with the late Roger Ebert–this is the best superhero film of the pre-Dark Knight era, and in some ways, it passes Nolan’s movie.

Review: “Beauty and the Beast” (2017)

When the history of Hollywood’s current creative stagnation is written, we very well might regard the new live action version of Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” as the quintessential movie of the era. It is a remarkably efficient summation both of nostalgia’s culture’s strengths and its weaknesses. Like a newly illustrated edition of your favorite novel, “Beauty and the Beast” brings color and movement to a classic story, and that’s about it. I found myself enjoying it, and then convinced afterwards that what I had been enjoying wasn’t the film itself, but the ghost that inhabited it. “Tale as old as time,” indeed.

Like many movies I see nowadays, rehashing the plot is pointless. You either know it or else decided several sentences ago to stop reading this review. Let me say instead that those who love the 1991 film will be satisfied with what they see here. Bill Condon’s version is faithful to the animated movie, almost to the point of doggedness. Entire shots are precisely recreated, and a majority of the dialogue remains unchanged. Whether you think that’s good or bad depends almost entirely on what you want from a film like this. Will seeing exactly what you’ve seen before cause you to cheer? An entire generation of film studio CEOs are banking on it.

But, as I said above, nostalgia culture has its strengths. A film that’s as deeply embedded into our cultural memory as “Beauty and the Beast” is a prime candidate for some delightful interpretation. In this version, much of that delight comes from the casting and the visuals. All of the cast are well chosen (with one crucial exception; more on that in a second), but the great Emma Thompson and Ian McKellen stand above all others. Thompson’s rendition of the film’s title song is a perfect update of Angela Lansbury’s famous performance. McKellen has a lot of fun as the valet-cum-clock Cogsworth, and Ewan McGregor suprised me with his funny, silky (if a little obviously derivative) Lumiere. Visually, the film is breathtaking, as lush and vivid and flawless as probably any live action version of this story will ever be. Everything is in order.

Everything, that is, except for Emma Watson. Watson has been sadly and egregiously miscast as Belle. This isn’t for lack of trying, mind you; Watson is a beautiful, gifted actress and she tries hard here, but she never connects with the material, and the script demands so little from her that her talents never have a chance. The problem, I suspect, is that Watson has been chosen for her physical resemblance to the animated Belle, and her role was conceived as a flesh-and-blood stand in for a character the producers had no intention of reimagining. This is a major disappointment in a category the film shouldn’t have disappointed in.

What else can I say? You know what you’re getting here. The point of fast food is that you don’t have to wonder what you’re going to get. It may not be great, but you’ve had it before, and we don’t always have time to take risks. There’s nothing wrong with some occasional fast food filmmaking. But, if the reboot era has you stressed, it’s fine dining I suggest.