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

Arrival (2016)

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Abbott and Costello can be placed with the most revered comic duos of the 20th century and their greatest skit revolved around a terrible miscommunication. The bit, of course, is “Who’s on First.” Whereas the “failure to communicate” found in Cool Hand Luke (1967) has more to do with our human tendency toward stubbornness and rebellion, it’s just as likely that we just don’t understand each other semantically speaking. The results can be comedic like Abbott and Costello demonstrated or they can be dire as exhibited in Arrival.

It was only later that I realized that far from being a pair of human, cultural pet names, bestowing the two aliens in this film these monikers came with a deeper resonance. There’s this recognition that hinges on the lack of an ability to communicate. What devolves is a thoroughly cognizant exploration of such dilemmas packed into a sci-fi thriller.

Imagine, there can actually be an intelligent sci-fi film about intelligent life. The themes that stood out to me concern themselves with our articulation of time and space which are also so thoroughly interlinked with language. When we actually look at the components that Denis Villeneuve has joined, we have a thoughtful effort that takes us through the minutiae of language and the mechanics of communicating with foreign life forms starting from scratch. The tension comes in not being able to decipher if they are friend or foe. Because any extraterrestrial life always delivers an element of surprise and a fear of the unknown.

Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is a linguistic expert and college professor who is quickly called upon by the U.S. government’s Colonel Webber (Forrest Whitaker) to examine an alien capsule that has landed in Montana. It is 1 of 12 such units discovered all over the earth. Banks is joined by physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) as they attempt to create a line of communication between the two heptapods they come in contact with. Ian is the one to nickname them Abbott and Costello.

What begins is a tedious process to form some sort of mutual understanding using the very building blocks of linguistics. It leads to an incremental understanding of creatures who compose their language not moment by moment but simultaneously front to back in a perfect cohesive composition that comes into being in a single moment. The goal is to get to a point where they can be asked what their purpose on earth is. Of course, that will take time and with time comes increased anxiety.

Far from being a singular endeavor, since 12 different pods have emerged, it’s an ongoing ordeal involving the entire world which adds a more complex dimension to it all. It’s not simply about navigating relations with these unidentified life forms but also coping with other countries with different ways of dealing with this tenuous situation. Not everyone is on the same page and as is often the case, fear drives action more than rationality.

Still, this paves the way for revelations and eureka moments that bend the ways we perceive the world through language and time whether linear or nonlinear. The implications are many. Because Film has often been a medium to manipulate, constrain, and contort time. But what if our very lives were defined by a different set of parameters as put in place by our very basic forms of communication? Life envisioned from start to finish. Palindromes endowed with a rich lode of meaning they never seemed to have before.

Arrival belongs to a hopeful strain of science fiction explorations that seems to look at the outer reaches of the galaxy with expectancy instead of trepidation. Instead of isolationism toward the universe at large, there’s an ardor to know what it might teach us. Instead of recoiling in fear, other life forms become helpers, not hinderers. The same could be said for the small-scale world. Progress is made when we hold onto altruistic intentions. Tools become far more vital than weapons. Everyone can thrive.

So often aliens and other lifeforms were forever depicted as horrible and dangerous beings that have come to decimate us. But rather like its forefather, Close Encounters of The Third Kind (1977), Arrival seems to be more sympathetic to any life that might be out there. Ironically, by making them more human we begin to see the flaws in our own society. We are very often fearful, petty people. But we can also be capable of great expressions of love with global impact.

The film’s cinematography is marked by a distinctive washed-out palette that cloaks everyone. It’s composed of a foggy haze that far from just defining a corner of the earth seems to be emblematic of the entire world. And yet such a dour world with obscured contours is surprisingly hopeful as discovery burgeons up through its core. Because if the world around us is murky that simply means that the light is put in sharper relief. Arrival proves to be satisfying to the very last iota.

4/5 Stars

Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation (2015)

Imission_impossible_rogue_nation_postern the last decade or so arguably the greatest action/spy/thriller franchises have been Jason Bourne, James Bond, and Mission Impossible. To their credit, each series has crafted several passable films fortified by a few real stalwarts of the spy thriller genre. Although many of these series thrive on gadgetry, set pieces, and a cynical tone more at home in the modern millennium, one thing that set some of the better films apart were interesting female characters.

James Bond is an icon. Jason Bourne is a modern icon. Tom Cruise as an action hero is an icon on his own merit. But we expect that to a certain degree. What the cinematic world has not had for as long are phenomenal female action heroes and the parameters seem far more complicated than simply being adequate at kicking butt. For instance, Casino Royale boasted Vesper Lynd (Eva Green) arguably the greatest of the Bond Girls because she was far from simple eye candy — a throwaway sidekick — she actually was witty and interesting and tragic. All those things.

It’s also no surprise that writer-director Christopher McQuarrie teamed up with Tom Cruise yet again to follow up the surprising success of Edge of Tomorrow which showcased another strong female lead in Emily Blunt.

Thus,  in some ways, it makes sense that Rebecca Ferguson steals the show in Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation. But it’s not any less surprising. There are numerous other major names. Obviously, Cruise first and foremost then Jeremy Renner, Simon Pegg, Alec Baldwin, and Ving Rhames. But they’re all playing the parts that we’ve seen before. Computer geniuses. CIA Operatives. Rogue agents. Program Directors. There’s a shadowy villain played by Sean Harris and yet another organization with vague but nevertheless ominous intentions called “The Syndicate.” You get the picture.

But for the simple fact that female action stars are often few and far between on the big screen, Rebecca Ferguson is a true scene stealer. And she starts off quickly by subverting our expectations as an audience. She’s very pretty indeed but her role is not necessarily about her looks which is terribly refreshing. She’s smart, clever, enigmatic, and she seemingly has the most complicated trajectory in the entire film. As an audience, we don’t know where her loyalties lie although we have our suspicions. But more powerfully, she does not quite know herself. Best of all there are no overtly provocative scenes crammed into the story line with the sole objective to sell tickets.

Tom Cruise proves he can still carry a great action movie yet again and that’s because he’s playing it smart — surrounding himself with great talent — and benefiting from his supporting cast. Rogue Nation is not groundbreaking by any means but it’s wonderfully diverting with all the impossible missions, double crosses, and intrigue that we could want. What it sets out to do it does quite well and keeps us entertained in the process.

As a caveat, the fact that our main heroine is named Ilsa and because the film found its way to Casablanca amid its jet-setting, it made me eager for a little bit of Bogart & Bergman. Also, I wouldn’t mind catching a few reruns of Peter Graves. But that’s not to take away from this film. Enjoy it unabashedly. It really is a great deal of fun.

3.5/5 Stars

The Hurt Locker (2008)

220px-HLposterUSA2Being ignorant of the term “Hurt Locker,” I did a reasonable thing and looked it up. According to IMDb:

To put someone in a “hurt locker” is to physically mess someone up, badly. It is roughly synonymous with causing someone “a world of pain.” According to the movie’s official website, “In Iraq it is soldier vernacular to speak of explosions, as sending you to the hurt locker.”

Well, that about sums it up, and it does so, beautifully by getting to the core energy that pulses through this film. It gets dicey and intense when these highly trained individuals are put into the most volatile of situations. It doesn’t get more volatile than bomb detail, and how they maintain composure in such circumstances is a miracle, a testament to grit and willpower. That’s not to say they don’t go through their own moments of turmoil. How could you not, at least at some juncture?

It struck me that this film does not feel like a political statement, even less so than Bigelow’s other war epic Zero Dark Thirty. In a sense, that would be a major disservice to the men who fight, by taking all the attention off of them and instead placing it on agendas and politics. However, all of that is left to the politicians, and we simply are given a very small taste of what those fighting the War on Terror experience. Can we fully comprehend it? No, but at least now we have a better idea of how post-traumatic stress disorder can develop. The constant strain that these people are going through takes its toll physically and emotionally. Yet they still push through their tours in order to do the job that has been handed to them. They brave a world of suicide bombers and ambiguity that could quickly send you into the hurt locker. In that way, it reminds me of a modern take on Battle of Algiers, because not everything is as clear-cut as we would like it to be.

The Hurt Locker follows Bravo Company during the tour of duty. Their first disposal expert (Guy Pearce) meets with tragedy and his buddies are forced to welcome a new member to their team, Sergeant William James (Jeremy Renner). He hasn’t disarmed 873 bombs for nothing, but he maintains such a streak by being very cavalier in his conduct. He’s a maverick, a man who will unflinchingly ditch all communication in order to focus on the task at hand. He’s a bit of a loose cannon and that’s not always the best type of personality for such a tightly knit group. They have to be if they want to survive since such behavior can be the difference between life and death. There’s a camaraderie and a rapport that builds over time, but before that he causes his compatriots to squirm more than once, and when they squirm we’re positively crawling out of our skin.

Shot in Jordan, quite close to the real-life locales, there is a gritty and raw quality to how Kathryn Bigelow frames the world with the help of cinematographer Barry Ackroyd. It manages to be personal and unsettling all at once. In comparison, it’s invariably striking how stagnant American life is when James returns home.That’s potentially a good thing, but does it mean that we’re taking life for granted, or living eternally thankful for each day that we still have breath in our lungs? That’s what The Hurt Locker does. It gives us a deeper respect for these men and a deeper appreciation for life.

4.5/5 Stars