Antagonist, Thanos, is the Centre Piece of Avengers: Infinity War

I’m an outsider to the Avengers universe. Where have I been? I don’t know, somewhere else. Superheroes and lots of crashing, bashing and blowing things up in space aren’t really my thing. But there was a big build-up to Avengers: Infinity War so I felt I had to see it.

In this film Thanos, the baddie, is up against pretty much every other character that features. He spends his time going around from planet to planet wiping out populations so as to restore some balance to the overpopulated universe. And to make himself master of it of course. Thanos is not an all-out baddie. He’s complex. Despite his enormous, ugly size, he’s soft-spoken. And his soft-spoken arguments for genocide seem, well, nice: he simply longs for a return to peace and harmony. But sacrificing millions of living beings for that serenity is what sets up the tension with the goodies. Unlike Thanos, the goodies care about individuals. They’re the characters that I think Marvel fans have come to love. So they, and the people they strive to protect, matter. They’re Thor, Dr Strange, Iron Man, Spider Man, Black Panther, The Incredible Hulk, Captain America, Black Widow, the lovely Guardians of the Galaxy, and others I couldn’t identify.

But does Thanos really care for no-one? The answer to this question adds to Thanos’s complexity and is the catalyst for a devastating outcome that I’m not allowed to say anything about.

To help him in his quest to be master of the universe, Thanos sets about collecting the six infinity stones. With them ensconced in the special glove he wears on his left hand, Thanos will be unstoppable. (Much like Sauron in The Lord of the Rings would have been had he snatched the ring of power from Frodo Baggins). Seeking out and taking the infinity stones (named time, space, reality, power, mind and soul), through lots of battling, is what comprises the plot of Avengers: Infinity Wars.

I thought the mind-boggling array of important characters would detract from the movie, that they would fight for the limelight and that this would somehow dilute the story. But it doesn’t. Also, the humour in the film is a lovely touch and keeps it from becoming too dark, serious and – well – boring.

To the movies then! Avengers: Infinity War opens at South African cinemas on 27 April 2018 in 2D, 3D and IMAX.

If you need help understanding the lead-up to this latest film, watch this:

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Storytelling: Much (and Little) can be made of simple stories

Hampstead is a romance that relies on a lovely setting and well-known actors to make the film attractive. The final credits of the film also reveal that Hampstead is based on the true story of how tramp, Henry (Harry) Hallowes, squatted on a piece of land in the posh area of Hampstead in the UK, and was finally awarded squatters’ rights to his home. The granting of his rights wasn’t easy and his snooty neighbours were certainly not in favour of the ruling.

So, more than a visually appealing setting and good actors (Diane Keaton and Brendan Gleeson), Hampstead poses the interesting dilemma of homelessness versus property rights, living off the land versus taking from the land, living by the rules versus flouting the rules. It’s a dilemma because on the one hand we admire Hallowes for his simple existence that centuries ago would have been the norm. On the other hand we live in a world where expensive rates and taxes must be paid for high standards of living. So how do we reconcile the two living systems, if at all?

Unfortunately for Hampstead, the setting, acting and story are spoilt by poor scriptwriting and uneven story development, at times going too fast, at others too slow.

A beautiful South African film (which may already be off circuit) is Meerkat Maantuig. Meerkat Maantuig is a children’s story about death, fear, bravery, friendship and love. The setting is lovely, the characters quirky and the fantastical elements such that the exact location and time in history are unidentifiable and immaterial. Unlike Hampstead the storytelling here is deep, and the main character (played by Anchen du Plessis) well-developed. It’s an example of the depth that can be created by a very simple tale.

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool is a small story. It’s about an ageing actress, her VERY young boyfriend, Peter Turner, and Gloria’s final grasp at life before dying of cancer in 1981. Gloria (played by Annette Bening), was a real-life person, well-known as an actress in the 1950s. In the present day 1970s/1980s of Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, she visits her old flame Peter (played by Jamie Bell) and ‘plays’ out her last days in Peter’s family home in the UK, before being forced to return to the USA.

I say ‘plays’ because the film feels like a play. It opens with Gloria applying make-up, and refers several times to Tenessee Williams’s plays The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire. Similar to the feel of Williams’s plays, Gloria’s character is one of dreary self-absorption and histrionics. The viewer is drawn into this slow-moving, depressing atmosphere, and then buoyed up again as it becomes evident that Gloria’s behaviour masks a less selfish agenda. Even the flashbacks are presented theatrically with actors pausing at doorways before whooshing into past memories.

Despite how the film improves towards the end, the empty atmosphere created by Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool, together with its colourless setting, make the film drag. Being cut by half-an-hour would have improved what is essentially a small story drawn out over one hour and forty-seven minutes. Both Gloria’s and Peter’s character are sombre ones, with Gloria’s being particularly fragile, and Peter ‘s a little too sweet. The quirkiest character and best performance is carried by Julie Walters who plays Peter’s realistic, kind-hearted mum, Bella Turner.

Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool opens at Ster Kinekor theatres in South Africa on 23 March 2018.

Four things to do in New York

On a recent winter trip to New York I visited four tourist attractions that were super interesting for different reasons.

Inside the New York Public Library

One: The New York Public Library. Why should you visit? Because of the literary, historical, architectural and movie-like atmosphere. The NPL simply reeks of scenes from the film The Day After Tomorrow. As I walked up the steps, nosed about in quiet corridors and soaked up my surroundings in the Rose Main Reading Room, scenes from this – one of my favourite films – flooded my mind. (Although, according to the NPL website, all the scenes were virtually – not actually – created). Apart from admiring the many books and special collections I also enjoyed a free guided tour and information movie about the history, purpose and layout of the library. Interesting note: Most of the people sitting quietly at wooden desks with soft glowing lamps next to them, surrounded by books and more books, were staring at computer screens not book pages.

Two: Ellen’s Stardust Diner. Why should you visit? Because you get entertainment and food rolled into one.

Me at Ellen’s Stardust Diner with a singing waitron behind

Ellen’s Stardust Diner is a kind of training ground for performers trying to make it to Broadway (it’s situated on Broadway itself). And the performers all work as waitrons at the diner. So, while serving you your burger or mac n cheese, the waitrons will break into song, strut around on a platform behind your seat, or drape themselves over you while singing He had it coming from the musical Chicago. And you don’t have to book.

Three: The New York Historical Society. Why should you visit? Because of the interesting way the history of New York is portrayed. Probably aimed largely at children, the layout of the exhibits does your thinking for you. Which is nice if you’ve just flown 17 hours to get there and don’t know much of the history of this amazing city. But it still gets you questioning and pondering. In the Vietnam exhibition, for instance, my husband spent ages chatting to an old guy who had actually fought in Vietnam and was sad about what was NOT included in the display.

Four: See Come From Away on Broadway. Why should you go? Because of the character-driven, funny, warm and gripping story of how thousands of people were diverted to the small Canadian town of Gander during 9/11. It was brilliant. And now I want to visit Gander.

Times Square, on our way to Broadway

 

Superb acting in Call Me By Your Name

Call Me By Your Name is the beautifully acted story of a love affair that develops between a teenage boy, Elio (Timothée Chalamet), and his father’s student research assistant, Oliver (Armie Hammer). The story is one of emerging identity – hence the title. Set as it is in the 1980s, identifying oneself as gay then would not have been easy, and any ‘victories’ in this regard are swallowed up by societal norms. The setting is in Italy at Elio’s parents’ villa, a home the family occupies away from the USA during the summer. A mix of languages (English, French, Italian and German) and a background of academia in the form of literature and archaeology are layered onto the mellow Italian lifestyle setting. The mixture makes for an attractive exoticness. But it’s not enough to give Call Me By Your Name enough depth. The developing relationship is foregrounded and is dealt with sensitivity, yes. But at two-and-a-half hours in length the light treatment of the social and intellectual landscape leaves Call Me By Your Name lacking in oomph. The excellent acting – especially by Timothée Chalamet – is certainly a redeeming factor.

Call Me By Your Name opens at cinemas in South Africa on 23 February 2018. It carries an age restriction of 16 for DLNS.

Two upcoming titles I like the look of:

Romeo & Juliet – Ballet in cinema – exclusively at Cinema Nouveau theatres from 3 March 2018. Watch a snippet of the magic here: WATCH THE OFFICIAL TRAILER OF BOLSHOI BALLET IN CINEMA – SEASON 2017-18 SEASON HERE

Game Night – an action comedy – in Ster Kinekor theatres from 2 March. Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams star in New Line Cinema’s action comedy about a board games night with six highly competitive gamers. The evening becomes mysterious and rather ‘real’…

I, Tonya: The Making of an Image

Tonya Harding was an American figure skater who qualified for the Olympics in her sport in the 1980s and 1990s. Tonya was – by admission in the film – an uneducated ‘redneck’ from a poor family. She was a brash, foul-mouthed girl who had neither the cash, the style nor the inclination to conform to the ‘good American girl’ image her status as a champion skater demanded. An ‘incident’ in which a rival skater was attacked and seriously injured, added to Tonya’s infamy and led to severe consequences for Tonya’s career.

I, Tonya is Tonya’s story. And that of her husband’s. Her mother’s. And her coach’s. All these ‘versions of the truth’ are presented in a documentary style with mock interviews of the characters interspersing the action. The aim of the film may have been to create a more sympathetic image for Tonya. She was a brilliant skater – the only one of very, very few women who could do a move called the triple axel. And she did this despite a background that worked against her: a relentlessly hard mother, a low-class husband who hit her, and no education.

But what the film also does, importantly, is mock the press and the public’s acceptance of what is dished up to it. It highlights – and therefore questions – the unfairness of American society and what/who is deemed acceptable. Tonya is portrayed to some extent as a victim of her circumstances. The interviewees – including a self-proclaimed bodyguard and and secret agent – speak with irony, creating a sort of black comedy effect. The result is that the viewer is left wondering, not so much what the truth really is, but how society forms opinions and unfairly demands conformity.

Australian actress Margot Robbie is excellent in her role. She pulls off the hick, tough and graceless (only off the ice) Tonya really well. She even does a lot of the skating scenes herself. Alison Janney is likewise very good as LaVona Golden, Tonya’s harsh mother.

I, Tonya is really worthwhile viewing. It opens at Ster Kinekor cinemas in South Africa on 16 February 2018 and carries an age restriction of 16 for DLSV.

Reels and Real Life

The thrill of my recent trip to New York began on the flight there when I watched the film Goodbye Christopher Robin. Already

Winnie-the-Pooh and friends at the New York Public Library January 2018

screening on international circuits, the film only releases in South Africa on 16 March 2018. I enjoyed this depiction of how author Alan Milne came to create the Winnie-the-Pooh stories and was delighted, therefore, to come across a brand-new exhibit of the original Winnie-the-Pooh toys when visiting the New York Public Library the day we arrived. There in a glass cabinet, in the children’s book section of this vast and beautiful library, sat Winnie, Piglet, Eeyore, Tigger and Kanga – all recently restuffed and nicely spruced up.

Goodbye Christopher Robin shows the developing relationship between playwright A. A. Milne (known as Blue to his son) and his son Christopher Robin (nicknamed Billy Moon and acted by the very cute Will Tilston). Further, the film depicts how, during an enforced time together in their ‘hundred-acre-wood’ estate, Blue and Billy Moon come up with the Winnie-the-Pooh characters’ names and the imaginative story millions of people know so well today. The unexpected fame and fortune that followed publication unfortunately came at the expense of the ‘real’ Christopher Robin. As a result Milne refused to write any more Pooh stories – in an effort to repair the father-son relationship. Despite this sobering biographical account the movie didn’t take away for me the magic of encountering gentle Pooh and his pals.

Me and Pooh

Another film I saw onboard (it’s a long flight to New York from South Africa) was the documentary We Will Rise. The film shows former-first lady of the USA, Michelle Obama, together with actress Meryl Streep, journeying to Morocco and Liberia where they meet girls from disadvantaged backgrounds. Obama’s mission was to encourage these young ladies in their efforts to overcome enormous obstacles to be educated. The documentary wasn’t comprehensive and seemed to err more on the side of publicity than practicality. But it did serve to underline Obama’s (and Streep’s) concern for women, for education, and for Africa. With the present US president’s recent utterances on Africa as ‘sh*thole countr(ies)’ (see http://bit.ly/2D4Pks5 for further reading on this subject), I was struck by the contrast between the two presidencies. Trump’s remarks took on a further bigoted, hypocritical and inexcusable tone for me when, a day after arriving in New York, I visited the New-York Historical Society. This museum explores the history of New York and includes a 20-minute film of the process. In virtually the opening lines of the film the narrator states that New York was built on three pillars – one of which was slavery.

The confluence of (movie) reels and real life really makes you think sometimes…

Michelle Obama and the We Will Rise programme