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Review: Avenger’s Endgame

*WARNING* There will be SPOILERS in this review, you have been warned!

Written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely and directed by Joe and Anthony Russo, “Avengers: Endgame” is the culmination of Marvel’s ambitious 22 movie spanning Infinity Saga. A year after the Superhero grand slam that was “Infinity War”, Endgame picks up the pieces leftover from Thanos’ successful snap that rendered half of the life in the universe to dust. This film had to do the impossible, the insane, and the unimaginable after the events preceding it- and what we got was one of the most satisfying possibilities in the Multiverse! The first act wisely wades in the desperation and defeat that has rattled our surviving heroes. Each of the core six original Avengers process this in widely unique choices over the course of the five year time jump after the opening sequence. Black Widow organizes what remains of the Avengers Headquarters, getting reports from the cosmic and international heroes as time marches ever onward. She appears rattled and broken, focusing on what can be done in the wake of universal tragedy. Captain America leads a support group in New York City and is still an optimist at his core- even if he appears weary from his wars. Thor has created a “New Asgard” in Scotland with the remaining survivors of his people, though his own personal journey has turned into one of substance abuse and depression (also a beer-gut and fortnite with Korg and Meek). Hawkeye, whose family’s snap into dust opens the movie, has become a vigilante that mercilessly hunts down gangs and henchmen around the world. Without a family, Barton has turned full-on Frank Castle with a katana. Bruce Banner, ironically, has found peace by seeing the Hulk not as a problem he has to cure, but as the cure to his curse. Merging with the Hulk Banner has become “Professor Hulk”, combining brain and brawn to become a new, and subsequently more chill, being. Which leads me to the Avenger that started this whole damn thing, Tony Stark. After returning to Earth with a little help from Captain Marvel, Tony has a heated argument with Steve and abruptly leaves the Avengers battered and bitter. He ends up moving to a cabin on a lake with Pepper, together there they bore a daughter, Morgan Stark.

Above all else that these films have managed to accomplish, beyond the meshing of characters and stylistic flavors of genre-bending storytelling, is their masterful focus on characterization and development. Even when the plot hasn’t been as engaging (Thor 2: The Dark World) or when expectations didn’t exactly live up to the hype (Iron Man 3) the characters have always shined through the worst of it. Phase 1 was all about establishing the grand concept of what the MCU could be, and phases 2 and 3 only expanded upon the successes of the original six Avengers intermingling to save the Earth. Which is why both Infinity War and Endgame are so damn satisfying. The writers and directors knew that people have been putting emotional investment into these characters for a decade and they played into long standing character moments, emotional beats, and the humor of the MCU as a whole. Which is a feat in itself given how brooding the first act of Endgame is. It’s gratifying because we’ve been given scenes and beats that reward the audience for knowing all the winks and nods, but also because the filmmakers have given us a true end for several core characters, and evolved others to places we never could have imagined when we first met them.

Ant-Man is the key

The smallest avenger became the saving grace of the Marvel Universe after popping out of the quantum realm thanks to a San Francisco rat. While only spending five hours trapped in the quantum realm at the end of Ant-Man and the Wasp the world had moved five years in that time. When Scott Lang stumbled out of his tiny exile, he found a broken world. After this harsh realization he goes to Avengers HQ in New York and urges the remains of Earth’s mightiest heroes that there must be a way to reverse this outcome. They just need the will… and maybe a particular genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist…

Captain America and optimism

While most characters in the MCU are handled with great care to their respective personalities and motivations, I would argue that none have been as pitch perfect as Chris Evan’s portrayal of Steve Rogers (with the on-par exception of RDJ’s Tony Stark). From his world war two Nazi punching origins to fighting an alien horde on the plains of Africa alongside the Black Panther, Cap has always been the most reliable, resilient, and optimistic freedom fighter in the MCU. Some found his ending to be problematic for his core character traits, but I see it more as an influence from RDJ’s Stark. Both characters finally influenced each other to their cinematic outcomes. Rogers, ever the man to lay down his life for the sake of others, took Stark’s advice from Age of Ultron and went home in the end. This ending for Cap means more to me than anything else in the film, if he didn’t earn a life away from the fight- then who could?

Iron Man and protecting the universe

While this is an Avengers film, it’s still Tony Stark’s story at its core. Allowing Stark to live away from the fight for five years, raising a daughter with Pepper Potts, it worked perfectly as a closing arc for his MCU journey. He has come so unbelievably far from where he was during the events of the first Iron Man film. From weapons manufacturer and playboy magnate to one of Earth’s mightiest heroes living with his wife and child, it’s really staggering to watch the whole arc of Stark’s life since donning the iron suit of armor. Plus, he got to bookend the entire Infinity Saga with just four words.

Thor and failure

Thor’s had a devastating history in the MCU. By the time Infinity War’s events ensnare the Norse God he’s lost his mother, father, home of Asgard, and his brother Loki in that film’s opening scene. His whole story is about bringing a god to his knees and submerging him in humility and loss. So, when his friends come looking for him it’s no wonder that in that five years’ time Thor dove headfirst into some serious substance abuse in beer and food. Thor, the once and future King of Asgard, has fallen the furthest from his lofty nobility of power and regalia. His story in Endgame is about reclaiming his sense of self and rebuilding his shattered ego.

Professor Hulk

While the Hulk and Bruce Banner may have gotten less to do this time around, he’s had some serious development since Infinity War. Professor Hulk is internet famous now, he takes pictures with kids, and dabs like a dad out of touch with the cool kids in 2023. He’s generally mellow and tries to help his friends as much as he can. While he may not be credited with creating the time machine used in the movie, he is responsible for snapping everyone back to life- and for that, we thank you Professor Hulk! Proof that while he may be centered and at peace, he’s still the strongest Avenger!

Time Travel: revisiting 2012, 2013, & 2014 and the 1970’s

The time heist sequences were not only entertaining and clever, but they allowed the filmmakers to take the characters through their shared past, reliving a few of the films that came before. Obviously the first Avengers had to be referenced out of all the films in the saga, it was the one that proved that this whole Avengers thing could work in the first place. Captain America, Iron Man, Professor Hulk, and Ant-Man all arrive in the midst of the battle for New York where they must retrieve three of the six Infinity stones. Meanwhile Thor and Rocket travel to Asgard in 2013 during the events of The Dark World to retrieve the reality stone. Seeing Asgard in all its unbroken glory, and watching his mother from afar, Thor Odinson has his most human and heartbreaking scene yet, a panic attack followed by advice and encouragement from his Mother- on the day of her death no less. Good Stuff. On the other side of the galaxy, and one year later in the timeline, James “War Machine” Rhodes and Nebula land on planet Morag. All they have to do is snag the Power stone from Star Lord after he steals it during the opening sequence of the first Guardians of the Galaxy film. They leave the Benatar (Star Lord’s ship) to Black Widow and Hawkeye who travel to the planet Vormir to trade a soul for the Soul stone. Oh, and the first group that go to the battle of New York miss the mark while attempting to grab the Space stone. Professor Hulk and Ant-Man take the Time and Mind stones while Tony and Steve use the last of their Pym particles to go back to the one place where they could find both the Space stone AND more Pym particles for their return journey. This elegantly allowed not only for more cameos (and this film is full of surprise cameos!) like a younger Hank Pym, but it also gave Tony a chance to have a moment with his father. Tony’s relationship with his father is central to the core of the character, and it was fitting to give the two of them the time to have a candid conversation about fatherhood, with Tony giving his own father advice on the matter. Beautiful. Just the fact that the filmmakers took the time in one of the biggest films ever made to have touching character moments for a majority of the major players in these films, it’s just outstanding, and highly commendable in my opinion.

The end battle sequence

I’m not going to go into detail here, but just know that the final fight against Thanos and his alien army is the most comic-book thing I’ve ever seen and I loved every second of it. Have fun, and go watch this superhero masterpiece again- nerds.

As far as what the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe holds, only Kevin Feige knows, but I’m betting on a ramp up to Secret Wars. Possibly with the Beyonder from the first iteration of the comic event, but it’s more likely to be based off of the 2015 version, wherein Doctor Doom is the villain behind the mind bending comic book showdown. Now that the MCU can incorporate the Fantastic Four and The X-Men, the possibilities are infinite! What a strange and fascinating time we live in.

Final Score: 22 films!

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Review Catch-Up: Hail, Caesar!

Written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen, “Hail, Caesar!” is a love letter to postwar Hollywood in the early 1950’s when big budget epics, westerns, and musicals ruled the cinematic land. Josh Brolin leads this stunning cast of Coen Bros frequent collaborators and newcomers alike as Eddie Mannix, the head of “Physical Production” of Capitol Pictures. As the fixer of the studio’s many issues Mannix corrals wayward stars, abates the rumor mill of gossip columnists, and generally solves any and all problems that occur- sometimes with charm, other times with a bit of muscle when need be. Between all of this, Mannix is caught between an offer for the easy life at Lockheed Martin and whether or not he should stay and wrangle the many personalities and problems of Capitol Pictures.

The main driving force of the film is the abduction of infamous actor Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) from the set of “Hail, Caesar!” a religious epic in the vein of “The Ten Commandments” or “Ben-Hur”. Once informed of the actor’s disappearance Mannix goes on the hunt for the lost star, but gets bogged down in internal studio affairs. Once contacted by the kidnappers, self-titled The Future, Mannix collects ransom money from the petty cash allotted by the studio and follows their orders until he can find the solution. Meanwhile other directors and crews must handle the consequences of Mannix’s decisions, like taking cowboy western star Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) and putting him into the high-society drama “Merrily we dance” directed by Laurence Lorenz (Ralph Fiennes). What follows is easily the funniest scene of the film and a direct criticism of studios making huge moves like replacing stars just for favors to keep from worse studio secrets spilling out into the public. Hobie Doyle may be a world renowned movie star in westerns where he doesn’t have a whole lot of dialogue, but Laurence Lorenz is a stand in for the extremely precise thespian director that desires very specific line delivery. Pairing these two together, with Doyle’s thick southern accent and Lorenz soft speaking mannerisms that quickly boil over into confused agitation- was a genius comedic choice in my opinion.

In the midst of both the ‘Red Scare’ and the beginnings of the Cold War the real Hollywood of the early 1950’s was transitioning to meet the needs of this new era of paranoia and television. The Coen Brothers satirize this period with precise detail and pitch perfect comedic timing. The large studios still very much worked on the star system of the past and watching Capitol Pictures in the film work to garner attention by investing in as many westerns, musicals of synchronized swimming, and epics of religious nature is equally funny and fascinating. With the abundance of well known stars cast in the film, from Scarlett Johansson and Channing Tatum to Frances McDormand and Tilda Swinton (playing twin gossip columnists!) the film has a lot going for it simply on performances alone. The recreation of the early 1950’s pastel color palettes and huge set-pieces within the massive expanse of “studio city” is commendable in its own right as well! Roger Deakins again showcases his masterful use of lighting and camera movement as the frequent Coen cinematographer, and it’s easy to see why they collaborate as often as they have. The pairing between the three as writers, directors, and cinematographer is a cinematic dream team!

“Hail, Caesar!” was a lightweight affair when compared to other offerings from the Coens and everyone involved seems to have had a great deal of fun satirizing their industry’s golden age. As is often true with most Coen bros films, it may not be for everyone, but it is crafted by skilled people who are truly invested in the art form. Joel and Ethan Coen, and Roger Deakins, give a damn about the movies they choose to make, and this riff on the industry’s earlier era is full of winks, nods, and references to that time and the films that came out of the studio-orchestrated chaos. It is a pastiche of the gilded age of cinema crafted with great panache, and I definitely recommend giving it a watch!

Final Score: 10 Communist Writers and 1 Dolph Lundgren (seriously keep an eye out for him, easy to miss!)

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Review: Avengers 3 Infinity War

*WARNING* This review will be full of spoilers, you have been warned!

Written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely and directed by Anthony and Joe Russo, “Avengers: Infinity War” is the third superhero event film under the Marvel banner and the culmination of ten years of interconnected storytelling across all eighteen previous films. If you’ve been following these Marvel movies and are up to date then you will gleam the most out of the two and a half hour epic that is Infinity War. However if, by some chance, you’re just now considering a Marvel movie marathon and are curious as to which movies are most necessary for this latest Avengers movie, I believe about half of them are required viewing (Iron Man, Captain America: The First Avenger, Captain America: Civil War, The Avengers, Avengers 2: Age of Ultron, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 1, Dr. Strange, Thor: Ragnarok, and Black Panther). The rest help to build upon the structure, and character development, of the cinematic universe, but that list will get you mostly acquainted with what’s going on.

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So, we’re finally here. After hearing about and seeing several of the infinity stones throughout these films, and with a couple cameos from the mad titan himself, does the film live up to the monumental expectations that Marvel Studios has built? Yes. I can answer that wholeheartedly with a resounding yes. Infinity War is a monumental feat of crossover film-making and it makes the once grandiose events of the first Avengers seem minuscule in comparison. The film follows the wake of destruction left by Thanos and his black order as they seek out the six infinity stones and crisscross the cosmos to implement the will of the mad titan. The opening scene perfectly showcases who Thanos is and why we should be afraid for the fate of our superheroes. After laying waste to Thor and the Asgardian refugees’ ship Thanos quickly bests the Hulk in a fistfight, takes the Tesseract from Loki before killing him, and completely destroys their ship leaving Thor to drift unconsciously through space. Heimdall was able to send the Hulk off to Earth before being murdered by the Black Order and as the incredible hero smashes through Dr. Strange’s staircase in New York City, Bruce Banner comes with a dire warning, “Thanos is coming..”

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Dr. Strange quickly grasps the magnitude of the problem at hand as he grabs Tony Stark from a morning run with Pepper Potts, but it isn’t long before Thanos Black Order arrive to make a power grab for the Time stone in the doctor’s possesion. Spider-Man also gets in the mix and we’re off to the races! The movie moves at break neck speeds jumping across space and back to service all of the various storylines in play but the Russo brothers have outdone themselves with this installment as everything flows naturally with the needs of the story. Now I won’t go beat by beat and describe the whole movie, but instead give a general sense of the scale and the threat that comes with Thanos seeking to wield his infinity gauntlet. Not to mention how the movie cleverly utilized it’s massive cast by breaking the characters off into various factions in different locations to best suit the needs of the story. For example, the Guardians of the Galaxy bump into Thor when responding to their distress signal and then separate into two teams, one consisting of Thor, Rocket, and Groot in order to seek out a “Thanos killing weapon” while the rest head to ‘Knowhere’ from their first movie as it’s the last known location of the reality stone. Iron Man and Spider-Man hitch a ride on the ship that the Black Order arrived in to save Dr. Strange from Ebony Maw on his way to Titan, while Captain America, Falcon, and Black Widow stave off an attack on Vision and the Scarlet Witch thanks to a heads up by Banner and eventually head to Wakanda as a last stand to keep Vision’s Mind stone in his head and not on the gauntlet of Thanos.

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The central theme of the movie is that, when pressed by Thanos and his cosmic conquering, will you trade one life for another? Several characters have this grueling predicament pushed on them, some make choices out of love, others for the fate of the universe, but ultimately they fail when crossing that line. The moral center of the MCU, Steve Rogers (aka Captain America), never falters in his moral code. Several times throughout the movie he reiterates to others that, “We don’t trade lives”. He discards the math of the scenario in giving a life to save millions, nay billions. He saves lives, he doesn’t play that game. That right there, might be the absolute best aspect of this film. All of the characters are true to their nature as established in the previous films. There is a palpable consistency to their actions and reasoning. The Guardians all feel like themselves, still making jokes and acting on impulse. Black Panther and Captain America leap into battle first and have unwavering foundations. Thor feels the most evolved since the ramifications of ‘Ragnarok’ changed the game for his films and overall nature, a kingly warrior burdened with grief, yet still able to convey humor as a fish-out-of-water situation with the Guardians. Consistency paired with well thought out plot-points and a very clever villain, possibly the best the MCU has seen yet, add up to one hell of a Marvel movie.

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With an ending as shocking as it is, I- and many other millions, cannot wait to see how these characters rebound and ultimately save the day. This is most definitely a part one, and with only two other films between now and (the still untitled) Avengers 4 that take place before the events of this movie, we’ll have to wait a year and see how this all unfolds. I cannot praise this movie enough, it was far more emotionally mature and full of dread than I expected. There were significant deaths, high stakes and excellent action, and on top of that the film still managed to be really funny at times. They did it. They really did it. The next challenge is to outdo themselves next year, which I have to say, is a tall order. I have faith in the Russo brothers though, their movies in the MCU have been some of the best entries in the superhero genre as a whole. Now all we have to do… is wait.

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Final Score: Infinite Avengers

THE CAST:
Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark/Iron Man

Chris Hemsworth as Thor

Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner/Hulk

Chris Evans as Steve Rogers/Captain America

Scarlett Johansson as Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow

Don Cheadle as James Rhodes/War Machine

Benedict Cumberbatch as Doctor Strange

Tom Holland (II) as Peter Parker/Spider-Man

Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa/Black Panther

Zoe Saldana as Gamora

Karen Gillan as Nebula

Tom Hiddleston as Loki

Paul Bettany as Vision

Elizabeth Olsen as Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch

Anthony Mackie as Sam Wilson/Falcon

Sebastian Stan as Bucky Barnes/Winter Soldier

Idris Elba as Heimdall

Danai Gurira as Okoye

Benedict Wong as Wong

Pom Klementieff as Mantis

Dave Bautista as Drax

Vin Diesel as Groot

Bradley Cooper as Rocket

Gwyneth Paltrow as Pepper Potts

Benicio Del Toro as The Collector

Josh Brolin as Thanos

Chris Pratt as Peter Quill/Star-Lord

William Hurt as Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross

Letitia Wright as Shuri

Peter Dinklage as Eitri

Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury

Cobie Smulders as Maria Hill

and Ross Marquand as Red Skull

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Review: Isle of Dogs

Written and directed by Wes Anderson, “Isle of Dogs” is a stop-motion animated film set in Megasaki City, a fictional Japanese city in the not so distant future, where a virus known as ‘Dog Flu‘ has devastated the pet populace and threatens to transfer to humans soon. In the face of this threat Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura) declares an emergency order, exile all dogs to trash island. He begins with the public exile of his young nephew Atari’s (Koyu Rankin) dog/bodyguard Spots (Liev Schreiber). Six months later the decrepit isle is populated by every dog from Megasaki City and we focus on five particular pooches looking for food amongst the scraps, Chief (Bryan Cranston), Rex (Edward Norton), Duke (Jeff Goldblum), Boss (Bill Murray), and King (Bob Balaban). After a quick scrap over the available morsels with another gang of roving dogs they spot an incoming small plane that’s about to crash land. After they drag Atari from the wreckage and dub him, the little pilot, they figure out that he’s looking for his lost dog, Spots.

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This little film was a joy to watch. I already have a proclivity towards stop-motion animation, so the film had already piqued my interest- but I really did enjoy the story of “Isle of Dogs” as well. At the heart of the film the story is about friendship and doing the right thing, but there were darker shades of conspiracy and a more realized threat for all of the four-legged companions than I was expecting. I won’t get into spoiler territory, but the film was more clever than I had expected and that was a nice surprise. The stellar voice cast cannot be ignored either as each dog had a major name behind their voice and their stylized performances, written for each celebrity, fit their larger than life personas which only added depth to their characterization. There’s also the visual treat of the film as a whole, the blocking and movement was tight and tactile while maintaining Anderson’s well worn Symmetry (with a capital S!) in all frames. This film might fall more on the niche side of his works than say “The Grand Budapest Hotel” but it won me over and I’ll definitely be adding it to my collection once the physical copy is released.

 

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Now, to discuss the elephant in the room; the fact that Wes Anderson made a creative choice to have all human characters speak in their native tongues and deciding against subtitles. There are also translations through interpreters at events or machines that perform the same function. The untranslated Japanese speakers didn’t bother me in this film’s context, it felt more like a quirky choice that was an example of the difficulties with translation as a whole as used in the dogs versus humans, but yes this was clearly made for an English speaking audience. Personally, I’m of the mind that ‘cultural appropriation’ and those who like to throw the term about wildly, aren’t nearly as bad or mean-spirited as people might immediately assume. Obviously context matters here, ‘blackface‘ for example was not okay and we all understand that. However, today’s outrage culture seems poised to sniff out any little tidbit of possible offense and use it to lambaste those who might simply be fascinated by other cultures and their traditions. Just so long as the Japanese voice actors’ speech wasn’t derogatory or insensitive to the culture, which after doing some mild research- it seems to be a fairly innocent tactic, the filmmaker seemed invested in playing with a motif of Japanese culture while also attempting to do so respectfully.

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I just don’t understand the effort that goes into being that upset consistently. I don’t want to get too far into the weeds about this here as this is just a review for “Isle of Dogs”, but its relevant to the film. Injustice is important to seek and stamp out in society if possible, but if you’re so narrowly focused that you’re actively protesting a Wes Anderson film- well, there are more productive ways you could be helping society as it relates to injustice. As an example, I don’t get that incensed when I see a white person wearing dreads, however, I am upset by government agencies destroying the environment and further ruining the last patches of land and water left to our Native American peoples. Anyway, that’s the end of my miniature lecture.

Final Score: 5 guide dogs and 1 determined boy

*Below are two articles that further discuss the translations, and lack thereof in “Isle of Dogs”, and I encourage you to give them a read if you’re invested in the topic.

https://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/what-isle-of-dogs-gets-right-about-japan

https://slate.com/culture/2018/04/what-its-like-to-watchisle-of-dogsas-a-japanese-speaker.html