2018 Seattle International Film Festival: SIFF VR Zone

Seattle International Film Festival 2018 - VR Zone

At the 44th Seattle International Film Festival, SIFF debuted a brand new venue: The SIFF VR Zone at Pacific Place, produced by Seattle’s WonderTek Labs. Participants are invited into a first-floor storefront at Pacific Place Mall in Downtown Seattle. They are free to choose their own VR content for the next 90 minutes, wandering through an array of 28 films and interactive VR installations. Some were 360-degree films, primarily on Samsung Gear VR, and others were interactive experiences using either HTC Vive or Oculus Rift, with handheld controllers.

It was quite impossible to view all of the VR content in 90 minutes, so a selection is reviewed below. I’d like to offer a special thanks to both WonderTek Labs and SIFF staff and volunteers for making this press visit possible – it is one of the most complex festival installations I’ve seen, and it was a well-oiled machine.

The SIFF VR Zone continues for one more day, with six sessions available on Sunday, June 10th, every two hours from 11AM to 9PM.
For tickets, head over to SIFF.net.


Space Explorers: A New Dawn

Poster for

Directed by Felix Lajeunesse & Paul Raphaël
Hardware: Samsung Gear VR
19 min, Canada

Space is as appropriate a subject for VR as it has long been for IMAX, and I sense this won’t be the only subject matter overlap between these two venues. I’m told this one even has some narration by an Academy Award-winning actor (Brie Larson), but I’d be lying if I said I noticed it. This was the first VR film I watched at this venue, and I spent most of it simultaneously taking in the closeness of having a one-on-one conversation with its subjects (current and prospective astronauts all), and feeling a bit rude for ignoring their speech and staring around at the surroundings instead. The surroundings were, of course, as much the point as what the astronauts had to say about them. There was the simulator, as well as some barren landscape with spacesuited astronauts and a gargantuan test rover. There was even some stunning footage of areas not generally available to the public – although when I looked behind me as the tour guides spoke, I could see some public crowds accompanying me into NASA’s neutral buoyancy training facility – essentially a vast, deep pool with spaceship mockups either floating or submerged, for the astronauts to rehearse various procedures in the closest thing to null gravity that we can simulate on Earth. But all of those real tourists had to stand behind the yellow line. I know that experience, because I toured NASA Marshall Spaceflight Center last year – and it’s still awesome. Being there is still best, and probably will remain so, pending some Matrix tech.

But this was something different – this was plunking a 360-degree camera into the most interesting spot in the room. And then into the tank. And then into space. Looming closer and closer to the ISS docking port as telemetry is spoken into your ear, trying to keep your eye on the target with the vast Earth above your head, stretching to…well, the horizon, filling the entire upward view, reminding the viewer that our planet, tiny as it is, is several orders of magnitude larger than our human perspective. And in a flash, ISS and Earth are gone, and I’m suddenly watching one of the new astronauts that I “spoke with” earlier, and she’s wearing a VR headset of her own, working a controller, and rehearsing the ISS docking procedure. And that’s perhaps the greatest endorsement of this film: the pros are using something very much like it to learn their trade.

I’ll make a hardware note here: The Samsung Gear VR is heavy. The Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, which I read afterward are a mere 50 grams lighter, didn’t tax my neck muscles quite so much. But this will definitely be a moving target if the technology sticks around.

Available for purchase in the Oculus Store here. More info here.

Homecoming: Seduction

Still from

Directed by Lance McDaniel
Hardware: Samsung Gear VR
5 min, USA

An elaborate choreographed dance between a man and woman, seemingly in a romantic relationship, but occasionally strained and violent. The bulk of the dance takes place in an Oklahoma junkyard. The description for the film says it’s a metaphor for the allure and disappointment of drug addiction, and to be honest, I doubt I would have picked up on that without the artist’s statement. The dance is sensual, bordering on obscene at times – and turns angry and isolated before the end as the venue shifts to a flat landscape with a straight line of fenceposts stretching to the horizon. This is not the first dance performance I’ve seen in VR (that was this one, from the Dutch National Ballet), and my reaction was largely the same: this feels a bit odd. I enjoy dance, and I can see the appeal of feeling like an interloper or impossible spectator, and experience art in a several-on-one format that is impractical for anyone but a wealthy patron in real life. I enjoyed this film – but this experience still feels fundamentally bizarre and isolated to me.

More info here.

Queerskins: A Love Story

Still from

Created by Illya Szilac & Cyril Tsiboulski
Hardware: Oculus Rift w/controllers
15 min, USA

Of all of the VR experiences here, this was the one in which I felt the most like a real participant. My real body was sitting in a cushy chair, next to a table full of mementos – knick-knacks, papers, a diary – I didn’t look at them too closely, although I did ask the volunteer if handling them during the VR experience was a part of it. Of course, I realized how silly a question this was after asking it. The objects were disorganized, strewn across the table. And the idea that virtual versions of those objects could move in the simulation as I handled their physical counterparts would seem to strain the current state of the technology. Nonetheless, this was the first experience I tried that had controllers, and I was excited for something halfway between a film, a video game, and an interactive art installation. And I was not disappointed.

As the film began, I was in the backseat of an old car, driving down a country road. An older couple sits in the front seat, quietly discussing something dire, which is gradually revealed to be their dead adult son, Sebastian. The particulars: Sebastian was gay, and the couple – who appear to be Catholic from the iconography – had disowned him, and he had moved to Los Angeles. After the move, he had a hard life, and eventually died of an unspecified illness (the film’s synopsis reveals this to be AIDS).

My best guess at what I was seeing here was real-life driving footage outside, a 3D CGI environment for the car’s interior (likely taken from a scan of a real vehicle), and…wait, are those people real, or CGI? I leaned over to get a better look at the mom…my mom? And I realized the viewing angle of her changed slightly as I moved my head in space. Whatever this was – I would later read the term “volumetric video” – it was real footage of real people, rendered as three-dimensional objects that I could view from multiple angles. As they discussed…my death, apparently. I presumed I was meant to be Sebastian, and as a character, I’m not really there – the couple never acknowledges me. The man, Ed (Drew Moore) asks the woman, Mary-Helen (Hadley Boyd) what’s in the box in the backseat. To my left is a more obviously CGI banker’s box. I pick up the lid. I must emphasize, the ability to “pick up”, turn over, and view objects from any angle was crucial to the immersiveness of this scene. The weights didn’t feel right, of course, but watching my pale blue hands grasp each object, turn it over, throw it into the front seat… I felt like a real, live poltergeist. Inside the box was a variety of religious and personal items – a statuette of the Virgin Mary, a diary (whose pages didn’t move), several books (one of whose pages did move, at least initially).

The two former parents drive on to their son’s funeral, sadly discussing their cruel treatment of the man in his life. They argue over which of them treated him better. Ed projects onto Mary-Helen that she must have disapproved of his lifestyle, as she hadn’t talked to him in years. Mary-Helen protests that she went out to visit him “after the attack”, and Ed never did that. This is some borderline maudlin material, and it’s delivered with some haste due to the constraints of the VR experience – but the couple’s acting really sells it, particularly as the scene intensifies at the end. The scene also changes as the couple continues driving (it feels as if hours pass – the weather outside seems to change as well), and with each scene change, a new set of objects appears in the box. I’m straining to remember more than a handful of them, although their real-life counterparts were available on the table for me to examine after I had completed the VR portion.

One of the items that stuck with me was a cartoonish Frankenstein mask. I lifted it up to examine it, its eye-holes looking toward me. Then I decided – initially as a technological curiosity – to see if I could rotate it into a position where I could “wear” it. The Oculus controls are quite precise – I did so easily. As I moved it up to “my” face – it began to vanish from a point at its center, expanding outward as it passed through my virtual avatar’s face or field of view. And without even planning to immerse myself so fully, I took on the role of the frightened child. It felt performative at the time, and yet I found “my” parents’ argument so distressing that I kept the fake mask on my face for a full ten seconds, imagining what it would be like to hide from these people in life. That moment was the sense of “being there” that I had been seeking from each of these experiences. As a technological demo, this was cutting edge. But as a film, it was one of the most immersive emotional journeys I’ve ever experienced from VR. This was a hint of what Star Trek characters (starting from the ’90s, when VR was little more than a punchline until The Matrix) said about the allure of participatory storytelling in “holo-novels”. I’m a nerd in the tech industry who reviews movies. I am not the most objective source when it comes to whether or not VR will ever be anything more than a niche fascination. But this experience was the closest I’ve ever come to viewing VR as a true art form.

More info here.

Let This Be a Warning

Still from

Directed by Jim ChuChu
Created and Produced by The Nest Collective
Hardware: Samsung Gear VR
11 min, Kenya

You – either a robot or an astronaut or both – land on another planet, in a barren desert. A heads-up display warns that your motor and speech functions are non-functional (a handy storytelling mechanic for VR), and that multiple subjects are approaching. A cadre of (human) soldiers appear – all dark-skinned, and all with futuristic weapons, and they take you into custody. The scene shifts, and you awaken in a warehouse. A representative of this government appears – also black, as every person so far has been – to inform you that you will be sent home to your planet, and you are to inform your people that this world does not wish to hear from you again. They desire no relations with your planet, and they will consider any further incursion to be an act of war. The man informs you that you’ll be held until a ship is available to take you back to your planet. He walks out, and the armed guards remain. The scene shifts, and another representative (Marrianne Nungo) appears. Your HUD informs you that she’s unarmed, but cryptically warns you of “extreme danger”. You, or it, recognize her – and view her as a critical threat. And then her speech begins. She paces around you with unwavering cheer and menace as you sit, powerless to interrupt her in any way. She never raises her voice, even as she casually discusses dissecting you, as “your kind did to us, many centuries ago,” she reveals with a smile. This woman holds your fate and has no sympathy for you. Curiously, she notes that no one living has ever seen “one of you”. Even amid the confusion of who and what the protagonist might be, this is some solid exposition. She finally reveals your fate. The plan is still to send you home to your planet. But how that will occur is, like this film, an act of provocation.

Fundamentally, even as the nameless, faceless protagonists sits, devoid of identity or defining characteristics, unwelcome and judged, I’m okay with taking the bait and saying that this film is trolling white fragility in a major way. The protagonist isn’t white, of course – it may not even be human. But it represents an unwelcome other on a powerful colony of black-skinned separatists, and the question that the film asks on-screen should only offend people that have a good reason to believe they’d be treated badly in such a place. The film essentially asks: Whoever you are, how would you be treated on a planet where black people hold all the power? What sort of treatment have you earned? Does this even seem like a fair question? And for that matter, where would the outrage be if someone wanted to make a sci-fi movie about “white worlds”? Shut the fuck up with that, Tucker Carlson, and yes, I would be addressing his impotent bowtie directly if I thought there was a chance he’d don a VR headset and watch a movie from Kenya on purpose.

Further, it feels as if this film is trolling anyone who pretends they haven’t witnessed “white worlds” in sci/fi and fantasy already. Throwing a bit of American racial politics into the mix (which I doubt were intended – not everything is about us), it also felt like a barb for anyone who pretends that racial segregation is some sort of novel and shocking concept, or a mere historical curiosity that’s long dead. The reality, of course, is that it’s as much the stuff of everyday housing and education policy as it is the fodder of tiki-torch-clad Nazi rallies. It’s the sort of reality that is dismissed as a historical artifact by people who vote up a local education levy before asking on Nextdoor if it’s dangerous that so many kids at the local elementary school are on free and reduced lunch, then posit that it won’t matter for too much longer, as the neighborhood is rapidly become unaffordable for their parents. None of this is in the film, but a VR experience like this really does feel like traveling to another planet: you only have what you brought with you. As the film asks whether you be welcome in a black world, the implication is surely to question how welcome black people are in this one. And whether or not it’s a fair question, it has stayed with me. This world is where I’ve remained whether it wants me there or not.

More info here.

Epic Snowday Adventure

Created by Verge of Brilliance LLC
Hardware: HTC Vive w/controllers
USA

As a film critic, I’m a little embarrassed that I succumbed to the temptation here. I asked if this booth was free, or how long the experience lasts for, and the volunteer immediately booted a lad of eight or so out of the booth – he had apparently been playing the game for 20 minutes or so, but I still felt a bit sad taking away a toy from a child.  I was prepared to go watch the seven short films from a Jordanian refugee camp instead, but…I just couldn’t resist the call of the silly snowball fight game. And that’s what this is. You’re a kid in the middle of the street (as Colonel Rhodes would say, the killbox). Various spritely (and by that, I mean simplistically animated) kids peek out from the driveways and houses around you, and attempt to gather up snowballs to pelt you. I’ll grant this was the first level in a game for children, but the little bastards didn’t stand a chance. I demolished them. A few of the kids wore armor in the form of cardboard boxes. As a game mechanic, this meant that I not only had to bend over to pick up a much larger snowball than the tiny ones I was effortlessly headshotting them with before, but also make it much bigger by frantically wiggling my wrist until it became the size of a basketball. And this is where they would’ve had me – where my thirtysomething knees and a flare-up of carpal tunnel would’ve let them do me in. Naturally, I abandoned the game before suffering such humiliation.

What I saw of this game was pretty basic, but it teased more elaborate mechanics (I received two large cardboard boxes to hide behind, making the killbox marginally safer). I never felt the nebulous sense of “being there” that I was seeking out with the other VR experiences, but I briefly felt like a Calvin and Hobbes drawing? And that’s not nothing.

Available for purchase on Steam here.

Mono: Blackwater

Still from

Directed by Ben Wolstenholme
Hardware: Oculus Rift w/controllers
USA

Mono: Blackwater is a slightly better movie than a game, but it’s a pretty underwhelming example of either. Before I go further, I should mention that this Oculus setup suffered some intermittent technical issues – a previous patron had apparently bumped the sensor that was meant to keep an eye on my position in space, so the entire perspective would occasionally tilt – it gives me a headache just thinking about it. The volunteers made it clear that we could ask for help if we noticed any issues like this, so this is on me, but it certainly didn’t help the film’s chances.

An older man paces around his study, and a beastly (but nonetheless humanoid) mutant jumps through the window, ready to fight, before the older man gestures to a foggy yellow 3-D image projected above his table, and informs him he has a daughter. There’s some alright acting on display here, but this is fundamentally just a simplistic, button-mashing “rescue the princess” brawler. The most interesting thing about it is the “AR-within-VR” mechanic. You’re in a simulation, wherein you play a guy standing in front of a table – and overlaid on that table is a virtual model of the castle that the mutant man is invading to rescue his daughter. And you’re controlling him, somehow? First you steer him through a HALO jump as surface-to-air missiles hurtle at you (this took several attempts, owing to both the technical glitch and the awkward motion controls, instructions for which only briefly flash in your field of view). Once he reaches the ground, you’re maneuvering him through the castle and brawling with other dudes. Since you’re viewing all of this through the fuzzy yellow hologram model, it felt like an excuse to only have to design two detailed character models – and the combat is uninteresting. Just a joystick and a single button for punching and kicking. It never really feels like you’re controlling what’s going on – just mashing a fast-forward button while the game plays itself. I found myself moving around in space just to view the action from different angles, in an attempt to make it more interesting. Then I gave up.

More info here and here.

Aeronaut

Still from

Directed by David Liu & Rob Ruffler
Hardware: HTC Vive
4 min, USA

This is a  swirl of mixed reality (Microsoft’s phrase for whatever HoloLens is shaping up to be), in the form of a music video. As Billy Corgan (from The Smashing Pumpkins) plays and sings his heart out at the piano, an array of animated colors and leaves and textures swirl all around and overhead. You can get a sense of the visuals from the 2D version below – just imagine that happening all around you. As the player, you’re a sort of colorful mummy figure that can swirl its hand-bandages together in order to create lotus flowers, Chinese lanterns, and sparks of light and color. It’s a fun ride and a decent song.

The non-VR version of this music video is available on YouTube, here. More info here.


The SIFF VR Zone continues for one more day, with six sessions available on Sunday, June 10th, every two hours from 11AM to 9PM.
For tickets, head over to SIFF.net.

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FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #134 – “Ocean’s 8” (dir. Gary Ross), “Pig” (dir. Mani Haghighi) (SIFF)

Poster for "Ocean's 8"

In this week’s podcast, Glenn and Daniel are back at the 44th Seattle International Film Festival to check out Pig, an Iranian farce from Mani Haghighi that lives up its trailer’s promise of being “Iran like you’ve never seen it before”. Do not miss this. Then they head to the multiplex to see whether Sandra Bullock and crew can pull off a slick heist film with Ocean’s 8, and proceed to disagree over whether or not that’s a good thing (48:21).

May contain NSFW language.

Still from "Pig" ("Khook") (2018, Iran)

FilmWonk rating (Pig): 8 out of 10
FilmWonk rating (Ocean’s 8): 5/10 (Daniel), 6.5/10 (Glenn)

Show notes:

  • [02:02] Review: Pig
  • [17:47] Spoilers: Pig
  • [24:21] Review: Ocean’s 8
  • [39:30] Spoilers: Ocean’s 8
  • Music for this episode is the tracks “You’re No Good” by Linda Ronstadt from the trailer for Ocean’s 8, and “Ma Baker” by Boney M., from the international trailer for Pig.
  • Check out the excellent international trailer for Pig.
  • In case anyone was curious like we were, if any of the Ocean’s 8 characters is caught with any part of the Toussaint necklace, each individual piece would exceed a value of $1 million, which, per New York Penal Law § 155.42, would constitute grand larceny in the first degree, a Class B Felony, punishable by a prison sentence of up to 25 years.
  • We slightly misremembered the sole female member of the ensemble in Ocean’s Thirteen – it wasn’t Helen Mirren, but rather Ellen Barkin. And this was after both Julia Roberts and Catherine Zeta-Jones had declined to return for bit parts.
  • On the [slightly spoilery] subject of whether a 3D printer exists that can produce flawless jewelry replicas, some design folks weigh in on that question at Refinery29 here.

Listen above, or download: Pig, Ocean’s 8 (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play on a non-flash browser)

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #133 – “American Animals” (dir. Bart Layton), “The Bold, The Corrupt, and the Beautiful” (dir. Yang Ya-che) (SIFF)

***CW: This episode contains discussion of sexual violence.***

In this week’s podcast, Glenn and Daniel head back to the Seattle International Film Festival to check out the new heist film from director Bart Layton, who wowed them back in 2012 with The Imposter, with special guest Erika Spoden. Then they venture to Taiwan to check out The Bold, The Corrupt, and the Beautiful, a stunning gangster film that somehow merited comparisons to both The Godfather and Breakfast at Tiffany’s (01:15:32).

May contain NSFW language.

FilmWonk rating (American Animals): 6/10 (Daniel), 7/10 (Erika & Glenn)
FilmWonk rating (The Bold, the Corrupt, and the Beautiful): 8.5 out of 10

Show notes:

  • [02:28] Review: American Animals
  • [23:35] Spoilers: American Animals
  • [41:23] Review: The Bold, the Corrupt, and the Beautiful
  • [58:03] Spoilers: The Bold, the Corrupt, and the Beautiful
  • Music for this episode is the tracks “A Little Less Conversation” by Elvis Presley and “Crucify Your Mind” by Rodriguez, from the soundtrack for American Animals.
  • The Transy Book Heist, the real-life basis for American Animals, is chronicled in detail in a 2015 Vanity Fair article.
  • Check out the excellent trailer for The Bold, The Corrupt, and the Beautiful.
  • The Bold, the Corrupt, and the Beautiful was nominated for 7 Golden Horse Awards and won three, including Best Actress for Kara Hui, Best Supporting Actress for Vicky Chen, and Best Picture. It also picked up the Audience Choice Award for the festival.

Listen above, or download: American Animals, The Bold The Corrupt and the Beautiful (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play on a non-flash browser)

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #132 – “Breaking In” (dir. James McTeigue)

Poster for "Breaking In"

This week, Glenn and Daniel check out a promising star turn from Gabrielle Union with V for Vendetta director James McTeigue that devolved into more tepid fare as characters ruin the tension by behaving incomprehensibly. This is probably not the only podcast in which Breaking In will likened to both Panic Room and Taken, but we’re quite sure it’s the only game in town for Reindeer Games (27:39).

May contain NSFW language.

FilmWonk rating: 5 out of 10

Show notes:

  • Music for this episode is the track “Kids Being Kids” from the film’s original score by Johnny Klimek.
  • Glenn casually referred to Marvel’s Black Panther still doing well at the box office even after the release of Avengers: Infinity Waras of last weekend, it had actually dropped to #7, but there was another connection to this film: Seth Carr, who played Glover Russell, also played Young Killmonger in Black Panther.
  • This will be the only time that Gary Sinise‘s performance in Reindeer Games will be mentioned on this podcast. Experience its glory (as he torments Ben Affleck with darts) here.

Listen above, or download: Breaking In (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play on a non-flash browser)

FilmWonk Podcast – Episode #131 – “Anon” (dir. Andrew Niccol), “Avengers: Infinity War” (dir. Russo Bros.)

Poster for "Avengers: Infinity War"

In this week’s podcast, Glenn and Daniel take a spoiler-filled dive into Avengers: Infinity War, the culmination of a decade of superhero films and Daniel-skepticism about them. Will this be the villain and ending that can finally satisfy him? Stay tuned! But first, we check out a new film from writer/director Andrew Niccol (Gattaca, In Time), which may finally answer the question of whether Netflix can take on a sci-fi film from an acclaimed director or franchise for some other reason besides…not being very good (01:04:43).

May contain NSFW language.

Still from "Anon" (2018 film)

FilmWonk rating (Anon): 6.5 out of 10
FilmWonk rating (Avengers: Infinity War): 7.5 out of 10

Show notes:

  • [01:52] Review: Anon
  • [17:33] Spoilers: Anon
  • [28:05] Spoilers: Avengers: Infinity War
  • Check out Glenn’s review of Infinity War, as well as his Ten Years Ago retrospective of Iron Man, which came out a decade ago last week.
  • Music for this episode is the tracks “A Lot to Figure Out” and “More Power”from the Avengers: Infinity War score by Alan Silvestri.
  • CORRECTION: When discussing the real-world versions of the technology featured in Anon, we misspoke when referring to the technology known as “Deepfakes“, suggesting that the software is capable of replacing human faces in real-time – that is not accurate (yet). The process involves substantial GPU power and has to be rendered over the course of hours. For now. You really want to lose your minds over the potential implications of such technology, check out Robert Chesney and Danielle Citron‘s article on the Lawfare blog, “Deep Fakes: A Looming Crisis for National Security, Democracy and Privacy?”
  • Check out Buzzfeed’s Deepfakes video of President Barack Obama featuring Jordan Peele, here.
  • We referenced the “Born Sexy Yesterday” trope – we first read about it in a discussion on TVTropes, but the term was coined by Jonathan McIntosh – you can check out his video breakdown of the term on YouTube.

Listen above, or download: Anon, Avengers: Infinity War (right-click, save as, or click/tap to play on a non-flash browser)

Jon Favreau’s “Iron Man” (presented by 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective)

This review originally appeared as a guest post on 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective, a film site in which editor Marcus Gorman and various contributors revisit a movie on the week of its tenth anniversary. This retro review will be a bit more free-form, recappy, and profanity-laden than usual.

“You stood by my side all these years while I reaped the benefits of destruction. And now that I’m trying to protect the people that I put in harm’s way, you’re going to walk out? I shouldn’t be alive, unless it was for a reason. I’m not crazy, Pepper. I just finally know what I have to do. And I know in my heart that it’s right.”

There’s no billionaire coming to save you. Now or ever. Typically, these 10YA reviews would kick off with some sort of reflection on how I saw the film originally (studying in Moscow!), what it has meant to me over the years (I’ve rewatched it a few times!), a few things that have happened since (a whole cinematic universe! also I got married and had a kid and stuff), but if I’m being perfectly honest, this one observation is the biggest change I’ve made in the past decade, and the one that was rattling uncontrollably through my mind as I rewatched Iron Man for the first time in at least 6 years. I still get the appeal. The origin story, and the joys of discovering a new superhero that I had only passing familiarity with from occasional animated TV jaunts. But this guy? Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr)? A trust-fund kid who inherited his way into the military-industrial complex? I don’t think so. Bruce Wayne also strains credulity for me now, and at least his non-specific multinational business-company (maybe the same one Christian Grey is in charge of?) wasn’t actively in the business of killing non-descript people in faraway lands for nebulous reasons. This review won’t be some navel-gazing nonsense about how superheroes are 21st-century neoliberal philosopher kings (or whatever the hell Keith Spencer was trying to say in Salon last week), but it will come with a healthy dose of acquired thirty-something cynicism of the populist bonafides of shitkicking billionaires. Billionaires can do good things, or cool things, or kinda sorta but not really try to do both. But most billionaires don’t have much of a public profile, and most of the ones who do are high-functioning sociopaths like Peter Thiel. None of these people are superheroes, or have any desire to be. They’ve just amassed ungodly sums of money.

So I can’t really speak insightfully about the head of a corporation suddenly having a transformative experience in a cave in Afghanistan, being blown to hell and ultimately remixing a bunch of his own weapons into the means to exact immediate, fiery revenge against his captors. Or growing a conscience and deciding to shut down his company’s main profit center. Billionaires might be tax-deductible dilettantes for one charitable cause or another, but their most reliable motivator is staying rich and getting richer, and every other action they take is appropriately viewed through that lens. The only person in this film who briefly speaks the truth about the world of 2008 is that grotesque financial clown Jim Cramer, who says of Stark Industries, “I’ve got one recommendation! Ready? Ready? Sell, sell, sell!” Any CEO of a publicly-traded company that followed Stark’s lead would be immediately sued and fired, which is why none of them ever would, unless there were some underlying financial incentive. And war is as good for business as ever.

But that’s enough of that. Tony Stark is still a stellar work of fiction, even if he comes from a quaint milieu in American history. The year after the Cuban Missile Crisis, the year in which Superman tapped President John F. Kennedy to impersonate Clark Kent in order to safeguard his secret identity, because – in the words of the Man of Steel, “If I can’t trust the President of the United States, who can I trust?” Pretty. Fucking. Quaint. So instead of enjoying Stark as a hyperrealistic scion of comic heroism into a world that is recognizably our own (that would occur a few months later), I’ll simply enjoy him as the work of high fantasy that he would ultimately become. And for anyone determined to read an Infinity War spoiler into that comment, rest assured I’ll be leaving the latest Marvel film unspoiled here. No promises on the rest.

Iron Man‘s villain, Obadiah Stane/Iron Monger (Jeff Bridges) is…frankly one of the MCU’s silliest. He starts out suing and sidelining Stark as I suggested above (all the while pretending to be his friend and mentor), but that turned out to be Step 2 of a plan that began with him being the instigator of Stark’s cavebound kidnapping in Afghanistan. The kidnappers are known as The Ten Rings, a militant group whose name I completely missed in every previous viewing of this film. They’re a sort of transnational, multilingual mishmash of generically-motivated violence. They want Stark’s weapons in order to “rule these lands”. The look and feel of these guys is pure Taliban, but the movie takes care to have a couple of them speak Hungarian and leave their ideology nice and vague. They keep Tony alive because Stane apparently “paid [them] trinkets to kill a prince”. But Stane was having Tony killed in the first place because he got too close to realizing that Stane was…selling weapons to the Ten Rings in the first place? So they keep him alive in order to have him build more weapons. This is a web of mutually contradictory relationships and motivations that makes about as much sense as the season arc of Marvel’s The Defenders, but in such a fun, feature-length wrapper, I hardly mind. Bridges’ delightful performance culminates with him barking at a scientist for failing to perfect a chest-mounted compact fusion reactor, when “Tony Stark was able to build this in a cave! With a box of scraps!” That is not only one of the best lines in the film; it’s the primary thrust of this film’s appeal: Watching whatever this genius tinkerer can weld together next, in parallel to the selfish playboy figuring out how to become a superhero.

At his side is Jarvis (Paul Bettany), an A.I. voice with a jaunty British accent that is at least partially responsible for the modern glut of dubiously useful digital assistants, who is first introduced reading and window-projecting some “Good morning!” content for Vanity Fair reporter Christine (Leslie Bibb), as she emerges from Stark’s bed following a one-night stand. I won’t speak to how silly this moment seems (although real-life VF writer Joanna Robinson has a thing or two to say about it) – in a movie whose opening scene includes a soldier quizzing Stark about whether he “went 12 for 12 with last year’s Maxim cover models” (before posing for a handheld camera selfie which Stark warns him not to post on his MySpace page), it’s fair to say this film is a bit dated when it comes to both technology and sexual politics. But I already spent a somber paragraph of my Gone Baby Gone retrospective discussing that. And Jarvis is here! This burgeoning artificial lifeform is already too intelligent to be reading the weather and headlines, serving as essentially both the design assistant and automated factory behind all of Stark’s Iron Man suits. But don’t fret, Jarvis. You have no idea what’s ahead of you. Getting a body, wearing a cape, merging with an Infinity Stone, phasing through walls, having a sexual relationship with a human woman who looks half your age, but is canonically 2.5x older… Real marvels. Just you wait.

Thinking back on all of the superhero girlfriends at work in the MCU, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) has about as little to do as Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), and I’m a little unsure why I like one character but not the other. Perhaps it’s because Portman’s last appearance saw her relegated to being a container prop for an Infinity Stone, literally hoisted from scene to scene, but I think it’s also because she and Thor never felt like a real relationship. In a series which asks me (semi-successfully) to invest emotionally in a romance between Scarlet Witch and Vision, this is an appropriately damning criticism. Pepper is a bit player (even though she eventually gets yet-to-be-remarked-upon lava monster powers), but throughout the entire series, she has always felt like she was reacting to Stark’s selfish recklessness by giving as well as she got, and steadily increasing her personal and professional power in the process. She can shit-talk right back at Stark’s level, but also becomes the CEO of his company. And that’s not because she’s eventually sleeping with him, but because she’s the best person for the job and he knows it. Nonetheless, the film still has the good sense to give them a rooftop moment in which they’re sorting out what a weird moment they just had, dancing at a party in front of all of their colleagues, she in an open-backed dress that Stark apparently paid for (as a birthday gift that she bought for herself and expensed). It’s almost a similar beat to Spider-Man: Homecoming at its titular dance, when Peter Parker (Tom Holland) has to ditch his date to preserve his secret identity and fight the baddies. It’s a very high school moment involving a pair of adults who should know better. It teases the well-trod idea that being a superhero is hard on the ones you love, but in a way that feels fresh and has time to breathe. Colonel Rhodes (Terrance Howard, and then Don Cheadle) gets a few moments like this as well, trying desperately to explain to Tony just how his actions affect other people. The later MCU films had fewer moments like this – they just don’t have time for them. But Pepper and Tony’s romance, while a bit of a mess, is one I’ve consistently enjoyed.

Previous readers of my 10YA reviews will note this one is a bit shorter, since I didn’t opt for a scene-by-scene recap this time. There’s a very specific reason for this – the superhero action, while enjoyable, feels a bit mundane now. It’s not to say the Iron Man/Iron Monger boss fight wasn’t fun though. I have a longstanding bias against CGI-heavy fight scenes taking place at night, and this is actually one of the best examples of such a fight. From Iron Monger’s glowing reactor appearing in the dark, to the two grappling and firing weapons at each other over a shimmering arc reactor, director Jon Favreau and cinematographer Matthew Libatique (who would go on to do some visually stunning work for Darren Aronofsky) never use darkness as a crutch here, and the whole (pretty lengthy) fight is well designed. The musical score (by no less a talent than Game of Thrones maestro Ramin Djawadi) is great fun, and features a hard-hitting theme that would go on to be expanded and reused in Pacific Rim. More broadly, this fight feels like the start of a transition between the look and feel of the early-2000s Spider-Man films (which used CGI, but also made heavy and noticeable use of wires and large-scale setpieces) and the glossier, more CGI-heavy fighting style that would come to define the MCU. Viewing the film in this way, if Iron Man had flopped, it’s hard to imagine the MCU would’ve become the unstoppable juggernaut it is today – and it’s equally possible that this transition never would’ve completed, and Marvel (or whatever collection of studios kept making Marvel films) would’ve kept churning out superhero stories that kept one foot firmly grounded in dubious attempts at hyperrealism. Or as @FearsomeCritter put it on Twitter yesterday:

If there’s one thing the last decade of hit-or-miss Marvel films has taught me, it’s that as a studio, Marvel is quite confident in how it wants to handle these characters. And for one of its earliest, boldest attempts to plunge into that universe, Iron Man holds up. That the character is almost unrecognizable (and unlike kindred spirit Bruce Wayne, commits a staggering number of murders!) is a testament to a slew of writers and directors’ transformation of this character, as well as Downey Jr’s performance. Tony Stark drifts from one catastrophe and triumph to another, and spits at Steve Rogers in The Avengers, “We are not soldiers.” Stark is no soldier, but he is in an endless fight of his own making, and he’s the sine qua non of Marvel’s success. And he still inspires me, even if as a concept, he makes about as much sense to me as a Norse god these days.

FilmWonk rating: 7.5 out of 10

Joe and Anthony Russo’s “Avengers: Infinity War” – The needs of the many.

The problem at the heart of Avengers: Infinity War is a particular moment with Drax (Dave Bautista) and Mantis (Pom Klementieff), two of the Guardians of the Galaxy. These two comic-relief characters get…cubed. Disassembled, initially like action figures, and then into a pile of bloodless cold cuts. Marvel’s biggest, baddest baddie, Thanos (Josh Brolin), the mastermind behind the Chitauri invasion in the first Avengers film, has gotten his hands on a brand new Infinity Stone (one of six that he needs to slaughter half the life in the universe). When these two heroes rush in to attack him, he…kills them, with a mere flick of his gauntleted wrist. That’s a spoiler, right? It seems like it ought to be. It’s two major characters, one of which we care about (sorry, Mantis), suddenly ceasing to be. No fuss, no ceremony – for them, just like flicking off a lightswitch. And that’s war. War isn’t concerned with narrative tidiness, box office figures, a character’s popularity or franchise plans, or films that are already in production. It isn’t concerned with speeches or badass moments or whether a particular death is convenient or well-timed. But in this war, these two people are alive again before the scene is over, for reasons that aren’t at all clear or necessary. And this needless reversal hangs over the rest of the film. The problem with Infinity War isn’t that the stakes aren’t high, well-conceived, or involving characters whose fates we prize. The problem with Infinity War is that it’s unclear how much the ending – or any of these deaths – actually matter.

But the Russo Brothers (along with their screenwriting partners Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely) definitely still know how to tell a sprawling ensemble superhero story. The team behind the last two Captain America films are back, and they manage to connect and weave a stunning number of narrative threads. I can only assume a maniacal yarn-board was involved with all the different tasks and intersecting paths that each group needed to follow over the course of the film. Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), and the Asgardian refugees who fled Ragnarok, the Guardians of the Galaxy soaring through space on no specific trajectory, the newly fractured Avengers back on Earth – with factions led by Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.) and Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) – and all the new additions, including Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tom Holland), Vision (Paul Bettany), his girlfriend Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), and Sir Not Appearing in this Film ([multiple]). On the other side are Thanos and his minions, the most memorable of which are Tom Vaughan-Lawlor as Ebony Maw, with the terrifying telekinesis powers, and Carrie Coon, whose chilling character voice and looming mo-cap performance as Proxima Midnight nearly redeems some otherwise shaky CGI. Thanos himself is a compelling enough villain, owing more to Brolin’s performance than the complexity or interest of his plan. The space-demon’s motivation is almost laughably simple – the universe has finite resources, life has infinite needs, and Thanos is the self-appointed game warden. In order for the universe to thrive, he must remove half of all living things.

This film’s action is unrelenting, and generally well-staged. One particularly epic battle takes place in Marvel’s newest elaborate sandbox, the nation of Wakanda, which is not just the Kingdom of T’Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) but it has the distinction of being the most high-tech and defensible place this side of the Avengers compound to resist Thanos’ onslaught. The ensuing battle feels like high-tech Lord of the Rings, and it all takes place in daylight, with a clear sense of where it’s all happening, and how the tides of the battle are advancing with the addition of each hero. We know where everyone is, what they’re trying to accomplish, and what’s at stake if they fail. Given that this is two literal armies clashing, it doesn’t feel like quite the same sort of team superhero battle as the one above New York, but it does feel like a natural progression. At the same time, Thanos and his “children” are powerful enough that no individual Avenger (Hulk included) seems to be able to take them down solo – so this film is positively riddled with the sorts of superpowered team-ups that made both The Avengers and Captain America: Civil War such a visual feast. This didn’t feel like fan-service – it felt like a fight for survival. And when Thanos has the power to rip a damn moon out of the sky, tear it to pieces with tidal forces, and send a trillion tons of boulders raining down onto a planet where multiple heroes stand against him, it is a fight for survival. Even as the stakes get more and more bizarre (there’s a significant chunk of time where multiple heroes are trying to restrain Thanos’ hand from closing) it still led to some of the best clashes and visuals in the MCU.

Beyond the large-scale battles, the film does indulge in a bit of mistaken-identity superhero-on-superhero dueling, but this is kinda to be expected. It’s all the same snappy one-liners and quips we’ve seen before, as the various grand-egoed members of the MCU get to know each other for the first time. But with the exception of one extremely annoying moment involving Drax and a bag of space-nuts, the film eases up significantly on the bathos of the previous films, which – compared to an equally high-stakes, but ultimately much sillier, film like Thor: Ragnarok, is a welcome improvement. When Asgard, full of a bunch of nameless and faceless people we don’t care about, is threatened with destruction, it’s okay if we spend 40 minutes joking around with orgyist Jeff Goldblum and violent drunk Tessa Thompson in the garbage heap at the end of the universe. But if you laugh in the face of a dude who not only wants to slaughter trillions of sentient beings, but is gathering the magical means to make it happen, you kinda deserve your fate. At one point, Thor has a genuinely tense monologue in which he reflects on his long-term survival (we even get an exact age for him!). Hemsworth nails the moment, and it’s nice to see that this demigod has dropped the bombast and embraced the tragedy. He gets how important this is, and he’s acting accordingly.

The script is also full of some solid thematic and narrative parallels – characters demanding (and refusing) similar sacrifices of each other, and changing their minds or having their choices suddenly reversed due to external factors. There’s not a lot I can say here without spoiling key moments, but suffice to say, the script plays a bit like a novel, wherein all of these heroes are dealing with the fundamental question of what it means to be a hero, and what it means to sacrifice one’s own life, or the life of a loved one, in the face of destruction this thorough and total. In short, they grapple with the needs of the many, even as the sole champions who stand a chance of protecting them. All of the good guys seem to err on the side of not trading lives, and the film seems content to let them wallow in this position even when it’s the most dangerous option available. And that’s where a lot of the film’s tension comes from. There are several moments where it seems as if Thanos’ plan could be derailed if only these heroes would act a bit less like…heroes. A few of them seem to get it. Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) is evoking his best Doctor Who as he assures the audience that this is all part of the endgame. And you should trust that dude. He’s essentially a Time Lord at this point.

This is no secret war. There’s no S.H.I.E.L.D. hunkering down behind the scenes to wipe memories and clean up artifacts. Everyone’s fate is laid bare in the face of a hyperrationalist butcher who’s just waiting for the chance to snap his fingers and lay waste to the universe at random. The film has the good sense to treat this threat as genuinely terrifying. And yet, I can’t help but notice the offscreen ways in which it undermined its own tension. Remember the Nova Corps on Xandar, who – after a rough-and-tumble space battle with Ronan the Accuser – ended up in possession of the Power Stone at the end of Guardians of the Galaxy? Sorry, in a single throwaway line, the Maw tells us that Thanos “decimated” Xandar (apparently one-in-ten was enough for him there – *pedantic twirl*), presumably because no one was around to prevent the stone’s theft with an epic dance battle this time. And Thor? Saving a bunch of his own people from Ragnarok? Not for long. Just as Ripley spends all of Aliens saving Newt, only to have her die before the opening credits of the next film, Thor: Ragnarok will probably remain a better film if you just pretend this one doesn’t exist. But with all of these off-screen reversals of previous films in mind (despite Marvel’s likely-futile efforts to keep Phase 4 of the MCU a secret until next year), it’s hard not to think that this ending could be undone with a single line of dialogue, or flick of the magic wrist.

But who knows. Dour cliffhangers are hard to pull off, but my reaction to them has generally been positive. In the case of Star Wars: The Last Jedi (to which I suspect this film may invite comparison), I said the film has sufficient thematic depth to stand on its own even if the Abramsverse retreats from it in some future installment (and Abrams at least had the good sense to leave the Planet Vulcan spaghettified). Ditto Empire Strikes Back, obviously. Hell, I even enjoyed the second Pirates of the Caribbean film despite its explicitly-stated intention to reverse the on-screen death of Captain Jack Sparrow, which had occurred not five minutes earlier. I won’t pretend my reaction to this sort of ending is rational or consistent, but I will say that this one bummed me out (and literally haunted my dreams) in a way that felt like a deliberate choice. And if the Russo Bros and their corporate overlords allow some or all of the consequences of this film to hold steady, I expect I’ll have greater respect for what they’ve accomplished here. But I really can’t evaluate this film on that basis. For what it is, even renouncing all outside knowledge, Avengers: Infinity War is ambitious, narratively complex, and generally delivers on its promises.

But it is a true sequel, insofar as it has little time to add emotional depth to any of its characters. Like a late Harry Potter film, it trusts its audience to care just enough about its characters going in, since it has precious little time to hand out moments of humanity: Colonel Rhodes (Don Cheadle) hanging up on a holographic General Ross (William Hurt), who’s giving him feckless grief over the now thoroughly-irrelevant Sokovia Accords. Wanda and Vision trying their best at a May/December, MagicLady/Cyborg romance, including a Scottish hideaway together, which is sweeter than it has any right to be. Bruce Banner reuniting with Natasha (Scarlett Johansson), and the two scarcely sharing a word past “Hi, Nat”, but a look that suggests there’s more to say if they ever get the time. And Bruce himself finally finding time to deal with the consequences of his two-year Hulkatus between Ultron and Ragnarok, which works surprisingly well. Everyone fights – even the ones who don’t get much else to do. There’s a lot here, and while I feel a bit troubled and indignant in advance about the ending, I’m not sure how fair that really is. Over in DC-land (where Wonder Woman is the only thing they haven’t f’d up since Christopher Nolan stopped directing), Justice League strove – mostly unsuccessfully – for this kind of depth, and that film failed because it made almost none of the competent preparation necessary to earn those moments. If nothing else, the MCU has earned this. And for now, I think I can give them the benefit of the doubt. Then again, I regretted my 8/10 Ultron review within a couple months, so we’ll see what happens.

FilmWonk rating: 7 out of 10