Avengers: Endgame (2019)

Avengers_Endgame_poster.jpgThe cultural event the whole world seems to have been waiting for has finally arrived. Avengers Endgame is finally open to the public. The secrecy can cease. The debates can begin. Disney can start raking in the billions. And I presume, on the whole, the general public can let out a collective sigh of relief. The studio hasn’t ruined the tightly shepherded franchise and for those with a share of skepticism, Avengers‘s “final chapter” does some things quite well. At the very least, it brings back the epics of old for one evening of entertainment. That in itself is enough of a compliment.

Certainly, at our most jaundice, one might contend Endgame needs to solely succeed in the area of wish fulfillment. Never has a franchise so effectively mobilized and harnessed the fervor of nerd culture around a film franchise (except maybe Star Wars and Disney owns that too).

Many of the same old grievances and world struggles are hashed out around tables and conference rooms led by the opposing ideals represented by Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) and Captain America (Chris Evans). It’s true the expositional scenes with sciency jargon have the usual clumsy clunkiness. Films have never been known for their seamlessly technical dialogue.

The Russo Brother’s camera (gotta love ’em) is swirling around as much as ever. The compositions of scenes are rarely something we have time to appreciate as the images fly by with typical rapid-fire cutting. The superpowers are bigger, better, more colorful, and continue to leave the realm of reality behind for CGI visions, all the easier to rectify when you’ve made a mess of the world. Putting Humpty Dumpty back together again is so much easier with computers.

The jokes are there and the cultural references to Back to the Future and others are easy wins without any risk. Likewise, resident superhuman fighter pilot, Carol Danvers (a steely Brie Larson) seems like a convenient enough deus ex machina to piece the narrative back together in the wake of Thanos (Josh Brolin).

Are there plot holes? We’re working in convoluted increments of time so events get dicey and yet the narrative comes out mostly intact leaning into emotion rather than mere systematic logic.

It’s right here where Endgame manages to satiate our desires for — not just closure — but a meaningful denouement to this storyline. I am one of those to decry this lumbering beast at times and still as the hypocrite and movie fan that I am, there’s no way to be totally immune to this cultural force.

In the days when going to the cinema palace for a roadshow and being subjected to an earth-shattering moment seem all but behind us, this epic is the closest thing we have to such an experience in the 21st century. Gone with the Wind, Ben Hur, Lawrence of Arabia, Star Wars it is not. Still, it means a great deal to this generation. It functions as its own entity — a cultural touchstone for this decade.

The story does well to tap into this zeitgeist. Here’s a forewarning for mild SPOILERS. Endgame takes the genre of a time travel heist to layer upon the world we already know. Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) has mostly functioned in the periphery but now he is an integral piece because it is the technology he brings, created by Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), giving the remnants leftover a chance to right the past — this is their one-in-a-million chance as indicated by Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch).

Marvel screenwriting vets Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely do well in essentially turning their latest story into a riff on a time travel heist film. It fits the context of how they might conceivably bring their friends back — not so much by changing the past — but creating an alternate reality of sorts where things can work out the way they were meant to.

Three task forces must go after the six infinity stones in the years before Thanos got a hold of them. We flashback to 2012 in New York with Tony Stark, Steve Rogers, Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), and Scott Lang. This self-reflexive nature serves the story but also an increasing sense of nostalgia. Because I remember sitting in that theater having barely seen a Marvel movie before.

There I was in the first row with my friend Mike. I remember playing ultimate frisbee the afternoon before. I had marathoned Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor the previous night. College was starting in a few months. And it was the epitome of a summer blockbuster. This twofold experience is not lost on me. Both the movie and my experiences intermingle. We cannot separate them.

Then, a sullen Thor (Chris Hemsworth) with a Rip Van Winkle beard and giant beer belly must return to Asgard, witnessing its previous glory and seeing his mother (Rene Russo) only hours before she would be killed. They share a poignant moment even as the retrieval of the Infinity Stone and the presence of Jane (Natalie Portman) takes secondary importance. I didn’t mind because all I could remember was sitting in those reclining seats with Adam and Kayt during the midnight showing back in 2013.

Next, we moved on to our first meeting of The Guardians of the Galaxy. It was the summer of 2014 and I was back from college catching up with my buddy Nick. What a pleasant surprise we had watching a talking raccoon (Bradley Cooper) and a tree (Vin Diesel) jam out to Redbone. By this point, the plot feels almost unimportant. It can ride along on the dynamics of characters and my own nostalgia. In some weird way, it felt evocative of simpler times — even just fives years ago. It’s often how we manage to romanticize in hindsight, which works handsomely to the film’s advantage.

I bemoaned the fact in Infinity War, it felt like I didn’t care about these characters anymore — whether they lived or died. Endgame does its darndest to make us remember relationships, friendships, all the things making each one of these superhumans, gods, or otherwise sentient beings like us. The opening pre-credit hook is case and point. Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) is teaching his daughter to shoot. His wife (Linda Cardellini) is getting the food together for a family picnic. It’s the antithesis of epic. But it feels real. There is instant recognition of stakes.

There didn’t seem to be any finality to Thanos decimating the world because it was a cliffhanger. However, there is no such weakness here. It earns its ending. No after-credits tease. No drawing the story out or pulling punches to undermine the impact of the final scenes. In fact, I’ll rip off the band-aid now. Beloved characters do die and there is no turning back time for them. They’re gone. That’s okay. It feels real and their deaths have meaning. And those still living move forward with lingering sorrow but also the hope of the future. They have roots, they have family, and lives to lead beyond the confines of a film.

Tony Stark and Pepper (Gwenyth Paltrow) have a daughter now. He worries about giving up his family — his last fragment of happiness — in order to alter the earlier events. And yet if we remember the brilliant egomaniac circa 2008, Tony is radically different now. His arrogance gives way to sacrifice, even as meeting his old man makes him appreciate his own dad (John Slattery) and how similar they really are — young fathers trying to do the best for their families as imperfect human beings.

Cap changes too. His almost untouchable emblematic image of Americanism was laid to rest. Not in some anti-establishment, unpatriotic turn. Instead, he became even more human in order to romance the love of his life (and mine!) Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) and cherish the dance of life together.

Chris Hemsworth’s fatty Thor might be the finest comic relief in the movie but he manages an evolution of his own as a character, realizing his lifelong need to be lauded by others will no longer rule his own life. He gives up his kingship for a worthy successor, Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson).

Nebula (Karen Gillan) and Gamora’s (Zoe Saldana) sibling dynamic is of less importance but Nebula is an integral figure as she tries to reconcile her former self with what she knows she can become. Even as Thanos waits for his pursuers in the biblically inflected “Garden,” tilling the earth, his daughter must come to terms with where she falls along this gradient of good and evil.

But are you ready? For all those who’ve been waiting patiently, you will be rewarded. There is the long-awaited behemoth death match to help realize the childhood aspirations of any boy or girl who has ever dreamt themselves a superhero warding off the evils and saving the universe either vicariously through their action figures or in their own imaginations.

It’s messy, full of explosions, and spastic choreography. Why harp on the faults because if you cannot consider it with the imagination of a child, the movie probably isn’t meant for you anyway. If anything, the eye candy gives an obligatory “moment” to all the heavy hitters, big and small.

Fortuitously, the film allows the time and space to wrap up its character arcs and call back all the relationships built up over 10 years of film. In another movie, the climax would have peaked too early but this picture is making up for two movies, if not far more. There is a great deal riding on these final moments for the very reason we expect satisfaction as an audience.

What felt so exhilarating about Endgame, again, was the very finality. I know there are more projects ahead with Spider-Man, Guardians, etc. but even with characters like Cap and Iron Man, we are reminded that sometimes things cannot go back to the way they were before. Life changes as do peoples and societies.

Cap dancing in the arms of Peggy for one last time (or the first) with the melody of “It’s Been a Long, Long Time” drifting through the air is enough for me. It’s the love story I always seemed to care most about and always longed to be realized in some gratifying form. Am I wrong to say this taps into some innate fairytale-like inclination? To want not just the happy ending but the reunion, the realization of lasting love.

I won’t say the Marvel franchise has always been a cutting-edge statement on the state of our world but it has been in many lives for a very long time — as an extension of our experience — sometimes it’s good and right to bring things to an end. How can you appreciate the times and memories you’ve had and really cherish them without closure? I thank Marvel for respecting its characters enough to give them this — to allow them to rest in peace — at least for the time being. It’s true that after the 22nd film we rested, briefly. Better late than never.

4/5 Stars

Room (2015)

Room_PosterBrie Larson has been on my radar for a while, ever since The Spectacular Now and Short Term 12. But she’s also a personal favorite who deserves to be in the company of other such shooting stars as Jennifer Lawrence, Shailene Woodley, Miles Teller, and Michael B. Jordan just to name a few.

Some of us already knew Larson had great performances on tap, but Room was just the ticket to get more people to finally prick up their ears and take notice.

From the annals of contemporary literature comes a story that asks us to buy into a premise that constantly unravels and unfolds until we are opened up to entirely new worlds. Ironically enough, it comes from shedding all falseness, getting outside of the box, and getting back to the old world — the real world.

Jack (Jacob Trombley) has spent his entire existence in Room with Ma (Brie Larson). Television has become his main educator and he believes in magic realms beyond Room that exist within the world of T.V. In truth, he has an utterly false sense of reality, but how could he not? All he knows are the dimensions of Room with a little skylight to peer out of and a tiny closet where he keeps his bed. His hair is overgrown like a little Samson and Ma tries to keep him fit and healthy the best way she knows how.

But Jack cannot quite comprehend what is happening around him, after all, he’s only 4. After his birthday, Ma decides it’s time to try and explain it to him. They are being held in Room against their will. A man name Old Nick kidnapped Ma, continually abuses her, and keeps her locked up. She doesn’t give Jack all this, but all he needs to know is that Nick is bad and they must try to escape. That is enough.

In essence, Ma fabricated this reality to keep him out of harm’s way. This bubble, known as Room, is all Jack has ever considered to be real. The rigidity and the regiment are what his life runs on. Now it’s time to leave the rabbit hole behind and relearn how the world ticks.

The initial conceit brings to mind Bunuel’s Exterminating Angel whereby the main characters are simply unable to leave a room — but the reason is arbitrary. Here Ma and Jack are able to get help and reacquire their freedom. But being outside of the confines of that space does not make life any easier.

Jack is an inquisitive, skeptical little boy, who even has moments of belligerence. However, when getting to the outside he clings to Ma like never before, because she is the only human form he has ever known besides Dora the Explorer and his imaginary dog.

Although the camera work feels rather shoddy at times and unextraordinary at best, the film nevertheless evolves into a human drama and its true substance dwells therein.

There’s a matter-of-factness to Trombley’s voice-overs that deliver his honest observations of all that exists around him.  The aftermath of abuse is volatile. Director Lenny Abrahamson’s film removes any notions that life can simply be normal again in a normal world with normal relationships because that’s just not true. It cannot be. The mundane is never as simple as all that. There are complications and confusions. Room‘s latter moments are quieter, more tender, and even more heart-wrenching. But there’s also searing pain and red-hot altercations. They’re about survival in the wake of something so horrible like abuse, but it’s also about surviving all the repercussions that follow.

For Jack, that means making discoveries with a fresh, innocent pair of eyes. There is absolute sensory overload with new and novel stimuli flooding his senses constantly. He’s subjected to new sights, sounds, words, and the entire world that he hardly ever knew. He even needs to learn how to play like a little boy.

For Joy it involves dealing with what’s going on in her head and coping with pain that has been festering for years, causing her to lash out at her family.  Even interviews cause her to question her own choices that are now fully solidified with the passing years. Could she have reacted differently? Did she have Jack’s best interests in mind?

The relationships of father, mother, and daughter, mother and son, dredge up pain and hurt. However, a suicide attempt and a stay in the hospital for Ma, reveal Jack’s child-like faith in what it means to live. They are two wounded individuals. One who has entered into a world that he has never known, and the other trying to settle into a life that now feels so distant and foreign.

Room is about two people making their way in the world. It succeeds not simply because of its anchoring performances, but due to the fact that it is willing to dwell in the difficult, heart-wrenching, and even mundane places. In those areas it speaks of love and strength that allows even the smallest most damaged goods among us to shed any shackles that inhibit our joy in life. Love knows no boundaries. That doesn’t make it easier. It’s just the truth.  Ma and Jack are able to give up their baggage — reconciling the old with a new way of life.

4.5/5 Stars

Review: Short Term 12 (2013)

shortterm1In recent years Hollywood has been the land of superhero films, special effects extravaganzas, and star-studded drama. It all fits into the mold of this industry personified by sun-soaked beaches joined with excessive glitz and glam.Go down the California coast to San Diego and you find a slightly more humble, but still highly prevalent affluent beach culture. Look no further than La Jolla and that reality is extremely evident. That’s part of what makes Daniel Destin Cretton’s film so credible. It’s not like that. But it’s important to start from the beginning to understand why that is.

Cretton, who is originally from Hawaii, came to San Diego in order to attend Point Loma Nazarene, one of these pristine waterfront getaways that also doubles as a school. Afterwards, he went through film school at San Diego State. However, in between his two stints in school, he spent some time working as staff for a short-term home for teens. It proved to be a formative experience and the jumping off point for Short Term 12.

It began as a short film for Cretton’s Master’s thesis, but with the proper funding, he turned his modest work into a full-fledged feature project. However, this is far from your typical Hollywood production and it undercuts the typical San Diego persona. Instead, this story literally bleeds with humanity flooding out of its veins like no other.  In other words, it’s not your high-brow epic. It’s truthful, gritty, and inherently real. The facility pictured here feels like a more typical San Diego, depressed, humble, and full of people fighting against the currents of life.

shortterm4These characters are not caricatures, but reflections of people who could very easily be real. Headlining the modest cast is Brie Larson, who is on the rise with a few more mainstream roles on the horizon. With Grace, she channels a spirit that is so affecting in a raw, visceral way. She is the catalyst of the workers who are meant to be a stabilizing force on the kids in their care. Day in and day out they must deal with angry outbursts, insubordination, and sometimes worse. It’s a difficult job, to put it lightly, and yet Grace does the work dutifully with an unfaltering mix of tough love and compassion.

These kids often come from the worst of family background including abuse. Grace was one of those kids herself and now she helps others with a group of staff including her partner and best friend Mason. In essence, she is their friend and champion, but behind this facade lies a girl — timid and scared. Not ready to let others in after she so readily enters into the lives of others.

The kids are a big part of this story as they deal with their baggage, but first and foremost Short Term 12 is the story of Grace. The story of how she finally learns to open up her life, to confront the pain, and allow herself to be vulnerable with the one she loves.

In so many of these characters, there are a multitude of emotions that brew in isolation. So much is pent up inside and so much goes unspoken. It’s barely hidden under the surface but always written on faces and in averted gazes. This is not a pretty film and it should not be because life rarely is the perfect portrait that movies often seem to paint. Drama is not dazzling theatricality; it’s dirty and low, besmirching all that it touches.  There’s so much loneliness to be parsed through, in the adults and adolescents alike, before problems can be resolved. They are never made perfect, but the film leaves these people better than when they started.  Life goes on much as it had before, and a great deal of hope is unearthed beneath all the debris. So though it might not be pretty, it is unmistakably beautiful.

shortterm2The director’s unsteady handheld camera feels a little abrasive at times, but also brutally honest, spending a great deal of time on close-ups. Cretton’s script is relatively simple, still, it continually brims with harsh realities and little moments that feel terribly human. It might be Grace sitting solemnly in an abortion clinic, the brooding Marcus throwing down a heartfelt rap, or Jayden illustrating her pain through the story of an armless octopus. The minutiae work marvelously, collectively making these into people who we can truly feel for.

Many might vehemently disagree, but Short Term 12 seems to prove that all a film needs is a grain of truth mixed with some authentic humanity to be engaging. That is far more gratifying than any amount of special effects or explosions that Hollywood can manage to throw up on to the screen.  Unfortunately this is a criminally underseen film and hopefully, Netflix might help change that.  But if not it will take individuals championing lost clauses just like the workers in this story. They never gave up on these kids and they were willing to go the whole nine yards when everyone else had forgotten. Please do yourself a favor and do not forget Short Term 12. I certainly won’t be forgetting it anytime soon.

4/5 Stars

Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World (2010)

Scott_Pilgrim_vs._the_World_teaserScott Pilgrim plays out like a live-action video game with sound effects, tokens, pee bar and all. It’s a great riff off the all too typical teen comedy. It has angst, attitude and quirkiness thanks to Edgar Wright and it still finds time to be utterly hilarious. Michael Cera plays his typical awkward young man which is no surprise. However,  Anna Kendrick, Kieran Culkin, Aubrey Plaza, Chris Evans, Brandon Routh, Brie Larson and Jason Schwartzman among others bring a lot of wit. So much sass to go around; it’s quite entertaining.

I will say it again that this film is an extremely absurd journey as we watch Scott battle Ramona’s (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) seven evil exes. He has a complicated former relationship of his own with Knives Chau (Ellen Wong) who never stopped loving him. Then there’s his doting younger sister Stacey (Kendrick) and his roommate Wallace (Culkin), who is always ready with some tough love or advice.

The destination seems obvious. Scott has to defeat the exes to get Ramona for his own, but it is not quite that easy. It never is and this film becomes about the path that these characters take. It’s not your typical formatted film, so leave your reservations outside. During its most enjoyable moments it becomes an utterly entertaining live-action-cartoon, musical mash-up adventure set in Canada. Don’t ask questions, just watch it for yourself. It’s certainly one of the more unique films in recent memory.

4/5 Stars

Short Term 12 (2013)

f2b58-short_term_12This is an extremely powerful film having to do with a short term living home for abandoned and troubled kids. Brie Larson, who is one of my new favorites, gives a wonderful performance that should get her more coverage in the upcoming years. Unfortunately this is a little known gem.

This film had a gritty and realistic aspect that I could relate to, because its director and writer Destin Daniel Cretton hails from San Diego, a place that I have seen quite a bit. Furthermore, he does not shy away from the tough issues, but he also shows  a moving and beautiful flip side to this story. Short Term 12 can be hard to watch at times but it seems that what it really depicts is reality for many young people.

Like The Spectacular Now, this film seems to represent a desire of filmmakers with more humble means to make realistic stories full of hard hitting drama and in many ways truth. In my mind, it was well worth it!

4/5 Stars

Review: The Spectacular Now (2013)

Looking back a year later…

The moment Aimee Finicky appears onscreen is perhaps the most remarkable instant out of many great moments in this film. The light must have been exactly perfect and everything seems calm and serene. The only thing we focus on is the initial meeting between two individuals, and that’s all that matters. That anxious face obscured by the light. That voice tinged with worry and relief. As an audience, we have our first encounter with the girl that the same Sutter who is sprawled on the ground, will fall for over the course of the film. However, right now he can’t remember who she is. There could not have been a better meet cute.

Fast forward to the ending of The Spectacular Now. So much has taken place in a short span of 90 minutes, it’s hard to keep track of it all. Just like much of the high school experience. Aimee and Sutter have been on an emotional roller coaster which Sutter has succeeded in derailing, but he has a new resolve and he will not waste this opportunity in the now.

There she is walking down the steps of her new college. Pleasant looking as always, undoubtedly with thoughts of academia swirling around pushing her past memories into the back of her mind. Then, all of a sudden they’re all right in front of her again in the form of Sutter.

There is a look on her face that is almost indescribable and it seems apparent that words are about to form on her lips, and the film cuts away. It is absolutely maddening as an audience who has become so invested in the story of these two high schoolers.

For some reason, this final shot of Aimee reminds me of The Tramp’s final reaction in City Lights. It might be a stretch but in both situations, there is a tinge of hope, but there is still this uncomfortable feeling of the unknown. And yet if we had known the resolution both these films would have lost some of their allure and City Lights is Chaplin’s masterpiece. As of right now The Spectacular Now is a little blimp on the radar in 2013. Shailene Woodley and Miles Teller might change that with the rate they are going. They certainly do not have the weight of the one and only Charlie Chaplin, but I am sure both of them are destined for numerous other great performances.

4.5/5 Stars

The Spectacular Now (2013)

1ae0b-the_spectacular_now_filmFeaturing two rising stars in Miles Teller (Rabbit Hole) and Shailene Woodley (The Descendants), this film nicely melds a rough exterior with a heartfelt core to great effect.
Sutter (Teller) is a guy who parties hard, drinks incessantly, and has a long-term relationship with a beautiful girl named Cassidy (Brie Larson). He is the self-proclaimed life of the party and people like him, but no one takes him too seriously. At home, he lives with his mom, has no idea where his dad is, and hardly ever talks with his older sister. School, much less Geometry, is of little importance to him.
Matters take a turn for the worse when he and his girlfriend have a fight. He drives home plastered one night, only to wake up the next morning on a front lawn with a girl standing over him. And that is how he meets the quiet, studious, Aimee Finicky (Woodley). They strike up a friendship instantly as he helps her with a paper route, and she soon begins helping him with math. Although he convinces himself that he is doing it just because she is nice, he genuinely begins to like her. He invites her to a party and there their relationship deepens. It comes out that she is planning to stand up to her mom so she can go to university in Philadelphia. She wants Sutter to ask his mom about his estranged father. Together the two of them go to visit his dad, and Sutter is devastated to find out the truth about his father, which he never wanted to believe. On the drive home, half intoxicated by alcohol, half by his anguish, Sutter rejects Aimee’s love and tells her to leave, with dire consequences.

High school winds down and so does Sutter’s job. The night Aimee leaves for Philadelphia, however, he gets inebriated in a bar not wanting to hurt her anymore. He returns home in a stupor and confronts his mom, but he breaks down believing that he is exactly like his father. Despite all the annoyance that had been there before, she comforts him and proves Sutter otherwise.
Finally, Sutter is able to realize that his limitation is himself because even though he might veil his fears with jokes and alcohol, he has always been afraid. He takes another trip in his car, this time to Philadelphia to see Aimee again. The film ends on the steps of the university as their gazes meet and Aimee is just about to react. Who knows how it ends, but much like “Say Anything…” we can believe what we want. Needless to say, though he wasted so many of the previous “Nows,” Sutter seems destined to make the best of his tomorrow. 
This film is engrossing because although we have seen the story before no doubt, it is made fresh by the leads. A lot of people know someone like Sutter Keely. He is a person who is rough around the edges because of family, divorce, and alcohol. He often makes the stupidest of decisions. But there is still something about him that is likable and it creates empathy. Aimee on her part could be a real individual as well. She can be shy, but she is sweet and beautiful in her own unique way. However, because they are messy and have faults, it makes these two all the more believable. Neither of them can be labeled as a one-dimensional cliché because they have a genuine human quality. As Aimee would say they are not just defined by one thing, there’s more to them than that.

Some of the best moments in the film have to be when the two leads are talking with each other. It seems so real, even commonplace, the way they go through conversations. It is wonderful to watch. First, it begins awkwardly, builds into a friendship, and finally, evolves into a full-fledged relationship. These chats that they share not only cause them to grow closer, but it causes the audience to grow closer to them. I will admit I was in shock during the climax of the film, and I also dreaded the times Sutter drove home obviously drunk. That shows an actual attachment to the characters, something that is not always present in this type of film or any film for that matter. 
For a split instant I was disappointed that the film ended where it did, but then I quickly realized that’s how it had to be and it is better for it. Already I cannot wait for more from Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley especially. She is one of the most promising actresses of today along with Jennifer Lawrence. 
4.5/5 Stars