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

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

Avengers_Infinity_War_poster.jpgEntering into the latest Avengers blockbuster I felt like I was missing something thanks to a cold open that places us in an unfamiliar environment. It’s a feeling that has come upon me on multiple occasions previously.

Not only because as a mild enthusiast I’ve missed a stray entry here and there but I also easily forget interconnected events and after a certain point, why bother? We have come to accept there will always be another Marvel movie.

Yes, this is the culmination of 10 years that began inauspiciously with Iron Man in 2008 only to balloon into a skyrocketing phenomenon that will not disappear any time in the near future. Superheroes like Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Hulk, and so many others have reemerged as integral parts of the public consciousness. And many fans have been waiting with bated breath for this day and they will wait again and again for future movies like it. That’s an established fact. Regardless, they can breathe a sigh of relief and thoroughly enjoy themselves with this realization of all their dreams up on the big screen. It will hardly disappoint.

To describe the plot of Infinity War is almost arbitrary as SPOILERS in this day and age are guarded against like the plague but here is a nibble anyway. Thanos (Josh Brolin), a being who has long been alluded to, is finally on the scene. The opening sequence is a microcosm of what he hopes to do on a cosmic scale, leveling half of the remnant left over from Asgard.

As a supervillain, he has a vision for the world that’s not too unbelievable. He seems to have been acquainted with Thomas Malthus’ work (even unwittingly so) while holding a contorted view of what empathy is. What others term mass genocide he deems an indiscriminate mission of mercy — killing half the universe’s population will mean resources are more widely available for everyone else left alive. He proves to be one of the most interesting characters within the narrative for the very fact we have barely met him before.

Infinity Stones also become of utmost importance again as Thanos must add them to his collection so he can rise to the stature of a demigod and dictate the outcome of all life with the snap of his finger. That’s some kind of power! The stones themselves are exquisitely color coordinated. One is safeguarded by Dr. Steven Strange (Benedict Cumbertach), another is implanted in Vision (Paul Bettany) and fiercely protected by his girlfriend the Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen). The Soul Gem brings Thanos back in contact with his two stepdaughters Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Nebula (Karen Gillan) with grave consequences.

Everyone else who makes an appearance (and at times a lightning-quick cameo) relies on a viewer’s running tabulation of everything up until this point in the MCU. And though you’ll probably enjoy seeing these characters that you have some familiarity with — and you even laugh throughout — there is a sense they are only vague contours. There are too many of them for the resonance to run deep and personal. It really only works if audiences have bought into the machine and already have some background with these heroes in place. The scarier thought is if viewers do not. Infinity War would be void of any meaning. All flashes of imagery, destruction, and hyper-frenetic editing. Any other actual amount of personality would be absent.

Some people live and others die but to confess I didn’t much care whether any of these characters perished is one of the most unfortunate realities of the movie. It’s not that I know they are coming back necessarily or anything of the sort. I admit to being fickle. I can’t remember why I should care about these characters. Because for some so much time has passed since I had any connection with them. To watch them become collateral damage has little resonance with me. I’m numb to it.

I won’t make allusion to archetypal literature like Hamlet or film references like Star Wars or Harry Potter because in some ways that would denigrate that material. Am I being a bit harsh? Perhaps I am. In fact, it was Hary Potter and The Deathly Hallows (2010) we have to thank for this current reality followed close behind by The Hunger Games and The Hobbit. Stories like these coincidentally begun the practice now popular in the industry.

It was no longer about simply having sequels but milking a movie for all it was worth — breaking them up into pieces — making films that were meant to be a part of a greater whole.  It’s not a film so much as a commodity. Differing from the earlier examples like The Godfather movies or even The original Star Wars trilogy — those were pictures that very much could stand on their own merit. Not that they were not enriched and more fully realized with their later installments but we could consider them alone.

Infinity War comes out of this philosophy where a film was never meant to be taken by itself. Everyone knows it. The producers, the directors, the actors, and the audience.  By now as a collective assemblage of viewers, it seems like we’ve been cowed into submission.

I for one watched the movie and never quite relished it — there was nothing all that new or novel — and yet I was never bored per se. However, even my newest favorite superhero Black Panther felt like he was now fit into the Marvel mold. Nothing surprised. Nothing ignited a deep-seated exhilaration inside me. A Stan Lee cameo comes and goes.

Though the picture does promise action and verbal sparring which it delivers handily. In fact, if you consider the screenplay by writing duo Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, they do an admirable job with both the monumental juggling act and crosscutting of multiple storylines. The same can be said for the other dynamic duo directing, brothers Joe and Anthony Russo who must perform the same type of orchestration that would have buried a single director in his grave.

Still, there is an uncanny feeling the picture is made up of two kinds of scenes. You have action sequences packaged nicely with all the trimmings and CGI to your heart’s content. Then you have in contrast many stagnant sequences with all these big names standing around in a single location talking it out usually over some point of conflict, sprinkled with a few jokes or exposition that feels all too familiar. The well-timed comic relief disguises how run-of-the-mill everything is.

That’s what’s Marvel has in many ways perfected. In this regard, there’s nothing lacking and if it’s what you signed on for now 10 years ago (without even realizing it) it takes little hesitation to say you will be satiated at least until the next Marel movie and the next installment of Infinity War in a year’s time.

However, I couldn’t help but leave the experience feeling slightly lackluster about the affair. Because in many ways Infinity War is the culmination of a generation of films and really the emblem of where Hollywood continues to head. Sure, we have yet to get the second half of our story but if this is any indication of what we have to look forward to in the future, it does look like a fairly blasé fate at that. Though the jokes and the pyrotechnics are present in full force, there is little magic — that certain amount of intangibility lifting entertainment above the mediocre and allowing it to capture our imaginations. My only question is — as someone unread in Marvel comic literature — what could the Deus ex Machina possibly be?

3.5/5 Stars

 

 

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017)

GotG_Vol2_poster.jpgI find that my own life was greatly influenced by my father during my most formative years, in particular in the realm of music. I grew up on the classics of the ‘60s. But there’s that juncture in time perhaps during middle school where you begin to branch out and you latch onto other sounds for some inexplicable reason. And it doesn’t have to be modern artists but even those who your parents never imparted to you. That is to say that “Brandy” by Looking Glass is such a song for me. I loved it the first time I heard it and not on any provocation of my parents. I consider it one of my own personal favorites.

Thus, when Guardians of the Galaxy opens in Michigan in 1980 “Brandy” blaring on the radio of a sleek convertible I resonate with the moment. The man and the woman are unknown to us but that familiar Dairy Queen Middle America matched with that paradoxically joyfully melancholy love song pulled me into Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 in an instant.

In this way, the film still plays to its strengths namely a retro vibe that’s in perfect cadence with the tongue in cheek tone and explosive sci-fi storyline. Writer-Director James Gunn is back in the driver’s seat delivering his expected riff off the Marvel blockbuster that at this point is both irreverent and violent with persistent zingers and mild touches of heart. It’s the kind of entertainment that will easily find a broad audience because once more he delivers the goods while simultaneously making light of them. We generally like him for not taking his subject matter too seriously, even if sometimes it, ironically, feels like the story dips too quickly into melodrama.

Still, at its core is a misfit hero that we love to cheer for in Peter Quill (Chris Pratt). This film examines in greater depth his own identity as a part human part spaceman. He’s still reeling in the shadow of his mother’s death many years ago and then he meets the man purported to be his father (Kurt Russell) the charismatic Ego.

Meanwhile, there are his other relationships to be parsed through and in many ways, they get pushed to the fringes. Baby Groot (Voiced by Vin Diesel) definitely ups the cute factor and Rocket (Voiced by Bradley Cooper), as well as Yondu (Michael Rooker), are there to play their crusty curmudgeon roles that nevertheless are given a bit of definition. We like them better by the film’s end as might be expected just as we are made to consider the dynamic between Gamora and her vengeful sister Nebula.

So Guardians is not only grounded by Walkman and classic tunes and a very human sense of humor but these relational moments. True, they’re not played out to the best degree as Quill tries to figure out his “Sam and Diane” thing with Gamora (Zoe Saldana) or reconcile his feelings for his father but that’s okay. 

My only qualms are the fact that sometimes Gunn seems to play too much into the jokes and tries to delve into the conflict too quickly so it comes off a little shoddy. The laughs are funny initially and the drama compels us at first but at times Guardians seems to stretch itself too far tonally. It was not meant to do that much.

But the characters are still an endearing ragtag band of misfits, the music is spot on (IE. Sam Cooke, Glenn Campbell, Electric Light Orchestra, Fleetwood Mac, etc.), and there are some purposeful references to Cheers, Mary Poppins, and Night Rider that come off wonderfully as nods to a bygone era and an earth that we know and love. Brandy’s place at the center of the film’s narrative helps in in the nostalgia department as well. Whereas, in a film like The Martian you get the sense that disco was considered a cool addition, in Guardians music is often so closely tied to the storyline and the tones created in each scene visually. It uses its soundtrack incredibly well. 

An interesting caveat is the fact that in the rather unexpected arena of a superhero film, spiritual issues are briefly touched on. Namely ideas of a god complex, this idea of paneverythingism as coined by Francis Schaeffer, and even the idea of duality of persons compared to a trinity. It’s all perfectly introduced to us as we enter Ego’s creation with the sounds of George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” wafting over the landscape.

Even if it only scratches the surface we are in some small ways asked to consider the true purpose of man, a being that while fallen is certainly meant to live in fellowship with others. What that’s supposed to look like is another issue altogether. If that’s a little too heady then there’s enough anarchy and joyous eye candy to fall back on. Enough said.

3.5/5 Stars

The LEGO Movie (2014)

 adada-the_lego_movie_posterKudos to the minds behind The Lego Movie, because it is unlike any animated movie I have seen before and it is due to remixing, so to speak. For one thing, their story satirizes the ever popular action-adventure trope complete with an evil mastermind who is bent on controlling the world, and an every man who ultimately becomes the chosen one to save the…Lego race.

The world that Chris Miller & Phil Lord created is filled with annoyingly popular music, a superficial television program, overpriced coffee, and of course cities full of Lego people living in Lego places. They’ve taken the pieces and people that every little boy knows and spliced it into their own little unique universe.

In their world, Emmett (Chris Pratt) is a simpleton construction worker who is suspected to be the chosen one by the fugitive master builder Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks). They track down the prophetic Vitruvious (Morgan Freeman) and after gathering support, they enact a plan to take down the evil Lord Business (Will Ferrell) who wants to subject the world to the Kragle super weapon. I might as well stop the synopsis here because for one I do not want to spoil the film, and for another, it probably sounds like I am speaking complete gibberish.

That is the beauty of this film because it takes a previous concept like Legos and builds on it. After all, that is what you are supposed to do with Legos. Build things! In many ways, I could easily see a version of myself making a movie like this when I was younger. In the Lego world, everything collides into a wonderfully beautiful collage. You have cities, Cowboys, Pirates, Superheroes, Basketball players and  Star Wars all tossed together in a giant melting pot. Thus, the Lego movie I would have made would have been a lot different than this one, but that is absolutely okay. Legos are meant to stimulate the mind and allow the bricklayer to build and tell any story they might want to. The minds behind this film certainly did that to great effect with a story that is clever, witty, and even touching.

Furthermore, it is necessary to give a shout out to the voice actors. The two leads in Christ Pratt and Elizabeth Banks did well with their roles. However, they were also surrounded by the likes of Morgan Freeman, Will Ferrell, Will Arnett, Liam Neeson, Nick Offerman, and Alison Brie. Parks and Rec, Arrested Development, and Community were all represented here.

You cannot leave out cameos by Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum, Cobie Smulders, Anthony Daniels, Billy Dee Williams, and Shaq. There are undoubtedly others that I left out. Hopefully, they forgive me.

By the end of the film you will probably be convinced that everything is AWESOME and that each one of us is, in fact, a chosen one, we just have to truly believe it.

4/5 Stars

Her (2013)

e69ce-her2013posterHer is a film that examines hyper-technological culture through a lens that has been around for centuries: romance.  In a not so distant future Los Angeles, Theodore Twombly is a craftsman of greeting cards. The only difference is he dictates personal messages, which are then transcribed by computers to be given to loved ones. He himself is going through a rough patch in life after a breakup with his wife and it has left him taciturn and distant.
Then one day he purchases the new OS or Operating System. Samantha, as she is called, is a very high level of artificial intelligence (Siri on steroids), who is able to openly communicate, do tasks, and even show emotion to some extent. Even though she does not actually have a tangible body (unless you count Theodore’s phone), he still finds a way to become enchanted by her. Not only can she check his emails, but Samantha also has access to vast amounts of data that allow her to evolve with Theodore, and she soon becomes his closest confidant and companion. Her desire to constantly discover the world invigorates Theodore, who is constantly used to the same technological, yet monotonous existence. Ironically, he develops his deepest relationship with Samantha, because she reflects how lonely technology has made him. 
Real human interaction seems foreign and awkward, whether it is with his estranged wife, work friends, or a blind date. For that matter sexual relations have also been perverted and, in a sense, trivialized by technology. Theodore’s complicated relationship with Samantha brings these and many other realities to light. 
Samantha can never truly be Reality. She can never have physical contact. This causes Theodore to put greater focus on the other aspects about her. Yes, she is not a normal human, but her knowledge on everything and her curiosity opens up numerous beautiful avenues for them to explore together. It could be love letters, the music she is composing, or even the sensation of ambling down a street. 
Ultimately, there is a downside to technology because despite being in an advanced future it cannot fully emulate the human experience and as Theodore painfully discovers there are terrible complications in relation to Samantha. 
This can be a difficult film, a strange film, and at times even a crass film, but for the most part Spike Jonze gives us a very thought-provoking piece that is pertinent to this social media and technologically saturated culture that is also our everyday reality. The world shown to us is washed out in its pastel shades, and yet it does not seem too far removed from us. 
It certainly brings up some interesting dilemmas about Her, whoever she may be. How do you reconcile technology whether computers, phones, video games, etc. with the human interactions that still make up (or should make up) most of our existence? For Theodore, Samantha leaves him with wonderment for life and an inquisitiveness which allows him to unplug a little and truly live in the present. 
Joaquin Phoenix gives a wonderfully nuanced performance, but everyone really wants to see, or rather, hear Scarlett Johansson as Samantha. Others who take on smaller but crucial roles are Amy Adams, Rooney Mara, Chris Pratt, and Olivia Wilde. Her is invariably melancholic but undoubtedly powerful stuff all the same.
 
4.5/5 Stars