Friday, June 7, 2019

The Ash Lad: In the Hall of the Mountain King

Spoiler-free!

In a fairytale kingdom, there is a legend: if the princess doesn't marry by her 18th birthday, a troll will steal her and make her marry him. Well, the headstrong princess, Kristin (Eili Harboe), doesn't want to marry. And no one believes the legend anyway. With a pompous idiot Prince Fredrik (Allan Hyde) as her only option, she runs away. In the forest, she runs into Espen (Vebjørn Enger) and he gives her food. When he goes home to his father and brothers Per (Mads Sjøgård Pettersen) and Pål (Elias Holmen Sørensen) with all the food eaten, we learn that he has a bad habit of being unable or unwilling to get anything done. His family leaves him home alone while they go hunting, and by morning the house has burned down. Oops.

About time I found another gem in the less-explored corners of Amazon Prime!

Then the pompous Prince Fredrik comes by asking if anyone's seen a beautiful girl. The king has offered a reward for her rescue: her hand, and half the kingdom to rule. Espen's father sends Per and Pål to search for her -- it's their only hope of saving their farm -- and he tells Espen to go and never come back. But Espen knows the girl he met was the princess. He thinks he can find her, and if he saves the farm, perhaps his father will forgive him for burning down the house; for being an Ash Lad. So, he sets off after his bothers, determined to do something for once, and determined not to mess it up. Grand and fantastic adventures ensue.

In a way it's very comparable with The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. And more the book than the film adaptation. Though there's no sailing, there's a similar fantasy flavor, and the adventures are done in little vignettes where the brothers get into a situation, get out, and then get into another. And they all have that exclusive fairytale quality -- helping an old woman whose long nose is stuck in the crack of a chopping block -- escaping enchantments -- finding a magical sword -- and map -- and of course dealing with Prince Fredrik. Eventually shifting into troll territory in the third act. Throughout, the brothers' relationship is explored as Per doubts Espen's ability. Slowly, he proves himself.

Turns out he's a pretty great adventurer!

That was the main highlight of the movie for me. Much of the traditionally styled plot you can see coming, but their dynamic propelled the whole story. Stories with that extra effort are great by themselves, and this movie couldn't have been the gem it is without that meaningful personal side. But in the end, if the surrounding world of production doesn't work, neither will the story, and it's the winning combination of those two sides that makes this flick worth its praise. The performances are entertaining and energetic, making the characters easy to love or hate (depending on intent), and the world is beautiful; saturated richly, and filmed on locations to give a sprawling sense of adventure.

The troll is kept hidden mostly but not in a blatant, we-don't-have-enough-money-to-show-it kind of way. The effects on it are noticeably CGI, but not any worse than, say, the giants in Jack the Giant Slayer, and the troll design has more personality, too, not looking like a mass of flat brown lumps. In short, this movie is made of good quality material. No, it's not a multi-million-dollar Disney project, but all that means is it doesn't look flat and dull or have its heart and soul green-screened out. Visually this movie is wonderful; bright and lovely, not flashy or overdone, just as real as possible. I love that. And ja, it's in Norwegian. I love that, too.

I found it in December but couldn't watch it until Amazon added an original, non-dubbed version. 

They just don't make satisfying fantasy films in America anymore. They're all scifi without the science, not magic and myths, or are too serious, or real-world, or trying to reinvent the genre. I've been feeling a horrible deficiency of highly adventurous fantasy -- the kind of fantasy that soars, and transports you, pure and clean and with a heartfelt message on the side -- and The Ash Lad fills that void to perfection. A grand, magical, and uplifting adventure.

And there's a sequel coming! I have no idea when it'll be available to me, but I anticipate the day with glee.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

Godzilla: King of the Monsters

Spoiler-free!

In this sequel to the 2014 Godzilla, the King is back -- here to protect the Earth yet again by fighting off even more Titans (giant monsters sleeping under the Earth). The human side is filled with the returning cast of Sally Hawkins and Ken Watanabe's scientists, and new faces in Bradley WhitfordCharles Dance, and Ziyi Zhang, and a new starring central family in Kyle Chandler, Vera Farmiga, and Millie Bobby Brown.

That roar = fingernails on a chalkboard x 1000. My ears are still ringing.

I would like to say that it doesn't matter what the humans are up to because we have epic monster battles to get to, but that isn't true. And I'd like to say that the apocalyptic rampaging is insignificant compared to the heart of the matter which is the human characters and their personal struggles -- but I can't say that either. This movie is a mixture, and both sides suffer for it. There's more of the monsters this time than in 2014, and that takes away from replicating the calculated character journeys, but they couldn't do away with the humans altogether, so their side is focused on often, though in a more going-through-the-motions, shorthanded style to allow for more destruction.

I always want to care more for the human characters in movies, and I did care for the central family here. They had a complex dynamic on page but the longer the film went on, the more plot holes opened up and began leaking soul everywhere. In the end they hang on but only just; and I liked the characters less in the end than in the beginning. I really wanted to like Kyle Chandler, doing his usual Distant Dad Who Cares bit, but so much of the significant actions are given to everyone else surrounding him. It makes sense when they're technically more capable, but if there was a human lead, he was it, and he got to be heroic in only one instance.

He was also in King Kong (2005) and this movie is in the same universe as Kong: Skull Island. Idk why I think that's cool.

Vera Farmiga got most of the character arcing, but her arc was too complicated for the movie to pull off in the time allotted, and it felt cheapened in the end. Millie's character wasn't much to speak of -- a normal brand of good -- but she brings so much natural energy to her every moment of screen time. She's a star. Or she would be, if they existed these days. She's the kind of person who doesn't need a unique character to disappear into -- she can carry a movie like a classic leading lady. Charles Dance is Charles Dance; excellent. Bradley Whitford is a scene-stealer, but when is her not? And Sally and Ken are given respectable focus but take too much away from others (like Kyle) and the film would've been improved without them.

Okay, the people are out of the way -- now for more monstrous things. High carnage has its thrilling moments but overall the result seems less than was promised. Four unique beasts is "better" than the last movie's three, but scaling back was necessary to prevent an incoherent mess. I saw this movie because I figured if I wanted to ever see it, a big screen would be ideal. But the epic visuals promised in the trailer were a let-down. Events take place disproportionately in the dark and rain, so the "epic" cinematography is monochromatic and distant, then the "in-the-battle" shots are hectic and grainy. And that gorgeous shot of Mothra under the waterfall? That's the extent of her looking beautiful. Elsewhere she glows so brightly it "over-exposes" the camera, or she doesn't glow at all and looks dull.

Shots of her glowing as she flies around are treated like the Second Coming, complete with hilarious angel choruses. Elsewhere in blatant yet confusing symbolism, we have this shot. 

The 2014 made everything dark and rainy too, but that movie was about ambiance, mystery, following the people as they follow the wake of the monsters, rarely having direct contact with them. I was bored by that film at times, but in retrospect I appreciate what it was trying to do. This movie attempts to course-correct -- they heard the 2014 was too slow-paced, so they speed things up, but they over-correct and fall into ridiculous territory too many times. Godzilla isn't some force of nature in creature form anymore, he's some kind of sentient being who does his noble duty of protecting the Earth because he's good and wise or something. He'll make expressions in this movie that make him almost humanoid. It weird and too much for me.

The coolest thing about the 2014 was the return to gritty realism. This movie keeps that in its physical aspects like the visuals and the dialogue and serious tone, but it's so over-the-top and silly in what happens, it all seems disingenuous. I have nothing against silly and over-blown monster madness (I loved Kong: Skull Island after all!) but this film doesn't embrace the silliness, it pretends that it's not. It's not the seriousness or the silliness that's a problem, but the dissonant combination that indicates this movie had no clear or determined vision for what it wanted to be.

Try to please everyone and you'll wind up being middling all-around. 

Another victim of catering to the common denominator of fans. If that's all it wanted, I certainly can't say anything against the plan. It's appealing enough to please those who want to be, and has enough moments of interest to keep those on the fence from frustration. The only problem is it may not make much of a profit at this rate, so perhaps cheap gratification on a big budget wasn't the best plan after all. Oh well, the Earth goes on turning. Fictionally, that may be all due to Godzilla, but in the real world, the King of the Monsters is just another passing blip -- to be enjoyed and forgotten.

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Slaughterhouse Rulez

Spoiler-free!

After careful consideration, I have decided that this movie would've been significantly improved by the inclusion of an exclamation mark in the title. Or, as others have pointed out, the words, "Edgar Wright" in the writing credits.

Not that I'd have minded his inclusion, but it's not THAT bad. It's just a British teen horror comedy... on the raunchy side.

It's easy to jump there since Edgar Wright's go-to comedy duo Simon Pegg and Nick Frost both appear in this horror comedy in supporting roles, but really, this movie didn't need him to be involved; all it needed was to put a little more effort into the writing on its own. In the first scene it starts off strong -- introducing its lead in Don (Finn Cole), a middle-class teen from the North of England whose mother convinces him to attend a supremely posh private school that's he's inexplicably been accepted into. There's a briskness to this scene that suggests an urgency to get to the good stuff -- all the crazy, humorous horror the title promises.

And that's why it's weird that the movie doesn't actually get going until about 45 minutes in. And at that point the thing is almost half over. There's a lot of introductions; introducing the massive school, Don's pent-up roommate Will (Asa Butterfield), the headmaster (Michael Sheen), teachers, the school bully (Tom Rhys Harries) and the girl (Hermione Corfield) and the idea that something sinister is going on. But each one of these basically take up a whole scene each to introduce, and they invariably end with some kind of ominous hint of what's to come. We really wish it would just arrive already, but not all the time is wasted; we do get a good sense of all the characters relationships and the hierarchy of the school.

It's good stuff, just over-explained and over-dwelt on when we're here for mysterious horror goods.

Finally you think the horror will get going along with the introduction of the plot -- that some greedy company is fracking near the school and accidentally opens up a giant sinkhole. This is paired with a fantasy-horror type legend of dragons or monsters living in a labyrinth under the school. Cool. Then the movie piddles around some more. Around then is when people as dense as I am will finally pick up on the truth -- this movie doesn't actually have much of an idea for the meat of its events. It spends all its time avoiding the monsters and chasing down dead-end side-plots until it just can't put it off any longer.

Then it gives the action its best shot and it's only marginally better than the piddling. Because the piddling is piddling, sure, but it's still funny, and it's nice seeing the lead make friends and chase an out-of-his-league romance. Once the action starts everything else essentially is done and all that's left is lots of running around from one okay set piece to another, losing one or two people along the way, until the movie finds the finish line and sprints over it like it was scared of the monsters. Overall a bewildering pace, but rarely not amusing. On the cheaply budgeted side, but not noticeably held back by that.

Unless of course the movie was scared of the action because it couldn't pay for too much of it.

I think this movie could've used an exclamation mark in the title to convey a more accurate and low-grade vibe. But the "Rulez" with a 'Z' does a decent enough job at that. Movies with exclamation marks also seem to possess an extra boost of boldness, and in the end that's what this movie needed to sell itself. It did what it wanted and did it decently; I applaud and enjoyed it for that. But it did what it wanted while constantly promising something else -- something it never fully delivered. Either follow your own rulez or throw them completely out, I say. This sloppy British horror romp is a low-expectations-only kind of deal.

Saturday, June 1, 2019

Upcoming Movie Roundup - June

Last month, all I saw was Detective Pikachu. It's was a good and fun time (review!). I haven't even gotten to my Netflix show The Rain yet, but I will. I skipped John Wick 3, Aladdin, and so far have skipped Godzilla too, but that just came out so we'll see.

The movie slump seems to be continuing into June. There are a few that look interesting and a few that I feel mildly obliged to see, but there's only one that I'm really excited for. And it's summer now, so that's kind of sad. Does anything look better to y'all than it does to me?


Dark Phoenix
In theaters June 7th; PG-13
Any chance this movie doesn't turn out to be anticlimactic? And now that the characters are destined to be rebooted and recast by Marvel there seems even less reason to be interested. It's a good thing, really. Most of these young actors are very good and extremely wasted on these chopped-up half-roles where they barely even are allowed to act. Since I've seen all the X-Man movies so far, and since I do like the cast, I'll be seeing this, probably even in theaters, but my expectations will be set low.




Katie Says Goodbye
Limited release and streaming June 7th; NR
Very likely to be very heavy on the mature content (the trailer is not appropriate for all audiences, just a warning) but I can't help but be intrigued. The tone is different, the plot seems sincere, and the cast of Olivia Cooke and Christopher Abbott sounds great. So I will keep an eye on it.




Men in Black International
In theaters June 14th; PG-13
Ugh. The trailer looks bad, and I didn't even like Thor Ragnarok, so there's very little appeal to this paring for me. That's all I guess.




The Dead Don't Die
Limited release June 14th; R
The first and only movie this month that I'm extremely excited for, and the only one I'm determined to see ASAP. Adam Driver. BIll Murray. Low-key comedy. Zombies. Sold. Sold, sold, and sold! Some people have been saying it's underwhelming, so maybe I'll wind up disappointed, but it's a risk I just plain HAVE to take because there's no way I'm passing this up.




Being Frank
Limited release June 14th; NR
Logan Miller finds out his dad is leading a double life and has two families. Hijinks ensue. The trailer starts out interesting but the longer it plays and the more it gives away the less it seems to be advertising a good movie... but I still kinda want to find out. I liked Logan in Escape Room earlier this year anyway, and it's a teen comedy -- does it really need to be great to be worth watching? I dunno, maybe.




Toy Story 4
In theaters June 21st; G
This whole thing is such a big, giant, "No thank you" for me that I didn't even want to watch the trailer. Because I won't be seeing it, but who am I to pass my biased "I saw these movies when I was a kid and now they're made for today's kids and that's dumb" opinions on people inclined to enjoy it? So yeah, live and let live. Thanks but no thanks Pixar, I'll wait for Onward.




Anna
Limited release June 21st; R
A movie I'm more interested in because of who's involved than out of being convinced by a trailer. The trailer makes it look oddly cheap to me, but it's Luc Besson, so maybe it'll be better than it looks. I did like his last movie, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, and the lead girl here (Sasha Luss) is the same who played the alien princess in that movie via mo-cap. So that's cool. Helen Mirren, Luke Evans, and Cillian Murphy are also here and Cillian and Sasha appear to have a quiet competition going over whose eyes are bluer.




Yesterday
In theaters June 28th; PG-13
In this movie a Beatles fan hits his head and when he wakes up The Beatles don't exist anymore. But he still knows all their songs so he pretends to have written them himself and takes all the credit, throwing him into a classic rom-com trope of getting something good out of a giant lie that you know will eventually come crashing down but it'll be okay because he'll end up with the girl in the end -- and that girl is Lily James, so I'll watch the movie.




Ophelia
Limited release June 28th; PG-13
This is the most frustrating thing I've ever seen? Daisy Ridley as Opheilia. George MacKay as Hamlet. Tom Felton as Laertes. Clive Own as Claudius. Naomi Watts as Gertrude. I would watch this Hamlet adaptation in half a heartbeat. But it's not a Hamlet adaptation, it's a re-imagining. It's everything from Ophelia's perspective. Why? Beats me. I haven't seen all the actual Hamlet adaptations that I'd like to, so I don't want to bother with spin-off type material that likely doesn't include the lines Shakespeare wrote. But I probably will anyway at some point. And I'm sure I'll be disappointed.




Monday, May 13, 2019

Pokémon Detective Pikachu

Spoiler-free!

I am not educated in Pokémon, so forgive me for the following. That's the thing about this movie though -- it trusts its audience to know, or to be able to pick up with minimal exposition, and that opens up a ton of space for expansive storytelling. Also, wise-cracking one-liners and fuzzy yellow adorableness!

And old-fashioned mystery!

In a city where humans and Pokémon live in equality, Tim (Justice Smith) gets the news that his estranged detective dad has died. When he goes to clean out his apartment, he finds a deer-stalker-wearing Pikachu, and is surprised to find that he can understand what he's saying. (I suppose it wouldn't occur to him to be surprised that he sounds like Ryan Reynolds.) Pikachu claims to be Tim's dad's Pokémon partner, and though he has amnesia he's almost certain that Tim's dad is still alive. They join forces (reluctantly on Tim's part, who used to be obsessed with Pokémon but now wants nothing to do with them) to track down the trail of clues in search of him.

Instantly you get an old detective noir vibe which pairs perfectly with the cyberpunk world. They lean into it more than is required, and as a noir fan I appreciated that. It's mostly present visually, with the apartment buildings and Venetian blinds and neon cityscapes, but there's also a hardboiled interrogation (through mime for a good laugh), dramatic plot twists, a secret laboratory, and shady characters. And an intrepid, spunky reporter girl (Kathryn Newton) who knows something sinister is going on. The plot is easy to follow and if you were inclined to think ahead you might figure out the destination fairly quickly, but I was simply too swept up in the story and fun atmosphere to even try and predict anything.

Bill Nighy and Ken Watanabe are also there. And another Deadpool vet, Karan Soni has a cameo type role.

In cases like this it helps to be like a kid, oblivious to tropes and probable outcomes. It is a kid's movie after all. But it's also good nostalgia fodder for adults too, who grew up with the game. I didn't myself, and felt a warm welcome stepping into the Pokémon world for the first time. It's good nostalgia because it doesn't draw attention to that aspect. It doesn't even appear to be made with adults in mind, just age-appropriate at such a high quality that anyone can enjoy. It deserves to have fun with silly tropes and to not worry about a complex plot or trying to avoid cliches. Those things are naturally included, and it does justice to them instead of attempting to circumvent them out of fear or misunderstanding.

It's like a throwback to before tropes were taboo -- and to a time before the Great Franchise Push. This movie attempts no sequel-baiting, and leaves no ends loose. It's a complete, stand-alone story, and that may be my favorite thing about it of all. Fully rendered; leaves nothing off the table; explores as far as it can as fast as it can, knowing this is its one shot to satisfy. The world building is effortless because of how much ground is covered. It doesn't dawdle but is eager to move further, and forward, to the next cool place and the next fun and informative scene. Plentiful fun and plentiful content, existing together instead of distracting from the other.

As it should be for a no-holds-barred entertaining time!

For instance, there was one action sequence that I found incredibly boring, but they moved on from it so quickly that it barely made a dent in my enjoyment. And I know there were one or two jokes that I didn't find at all funny, but since none of the jokes are overplayed (hello, Marvel) I simply forgot them, and there was no ill effect. The whole movie seems to exist because of how funny Ryan Reynolds can be, so scene-stealing might be expected, but he doesn't. Certainly not from Justice Smith, even though I expect he could have without proper control. The characters are crafted to work together and play off each other, so there aren't distracting rabbit trails of one-upping humor.

The story is Tim's, and Smith carries the movie more than you'd expect, and does it well. The best work I've seen him do. And Reynolds isn't solely for comedy though that's where he shines. Tim and Pikachu's developing friendship has all the ups and downs that a good story needs, and the movie doesn't shy away from drama. It pulls off a winning theme to hold together all the adventuring, detecting, action, and comedy with the glue of deeper meaning. And the structure is very solid. I feel silly being impressed that it didn't fall apart in the end, but that's just the standard of late I suppose. All my issues are in details and are less missteps than things that didn't work for me personally.

There was basically nothing that detracted from the movie objectively. Even the bits I didn't care for are hard to recall.

It's not going to turn me into a Pokémon fan or anything, but since I've always been a fan a solid and meaningful stories, with engaging characters populating vast and fantastic imaginative worlds with devotion and humor -- it did all it needed in order to leave me happy as a Pikachu getting his chin scratched!

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Upcoming Movie Roundup - May

Last month I saw Shazam! Unicorn Store! The Perfect Date! The Man Who Killed Don Quixote! And, Avengers: Endgame!

Unicorn Store (review) and The Perfect Date (review) were Netflix watches and also the worst of the bunch, but still enjoyable in their own ways. I loved the heart and soul of Shazam! (review) but there were a bothersome flaws from time to time too. Avengers: Endgame (review) was a mostly pleasant experience since I was ready to be pandered and fan-served to, but that doesn't mean I didn't take issue with anything either.

But the best of the bunch hands down was The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (review) which I rented and rewatched multiple times, and it only seemed to get better and more brilliant each time, going from overwhelming fever dream to intricately choreographed dance between reality and fantasy. It's still a film that won't appeal to all, but the only way to know for sure is to watch it.

I'm not super hyped for any movies this month, but there is a next season of a great Netflix show I liked, and a few flicks that I might get out to see too. What looks good to you this month?


The Intruder
In theaters May 3rd; PG-13
I wouldn't normally include a movie like this because they don't usually catch my attention, but the special circumstance here is that I keep hearing hype (or maybe call it anti-hype) that it's quite bad, but kind of in a good way -- or maybe really quite good but everyone will say it's bad. Something like that, haha. Anyway, seems like something I might enjoy watching with my brothers for so-bad-it's-good kicks. No theater trip though. Dennis Quaid does seem quite hammy!




Clara
Streaming May 3rd; no rating
Well this one caught my attention by being a scifi movie (I'm so easy) and then I was amused by recognizing the actors from oldish TV shows -- the guy was the lead in Suits and the girl was McGee's sister on NCIS -- and it gave me flashbacks to my cable days. Oh and the two are real-life married which is always cute. The movie looks more like a drama and then low-key scifi but that makes sense, and the trailer implies some kind of scifi development near the end too, so yeah, I'll keep an eye out.




Pokémon Detective Pikachu
In theaters May 10th; PG
I thought this was just called "Detective Pikachu." Huh. Anyway, boo to me because I never watched, or played, or did whatever it is people do with Pokémons. I think I get the premise though. It's the trailer that won me over really, with how odd yet funny Ryan Reynolds's voice sounds coming out of cute realistic Pikachu, and how they played Holding Out for a Hero without an ounce of apology -- it give me the impression of being a Deadpool movie but rated PG. (They even both have the initials DP!) And if that's what it ends up being like, I definitely want to see -- history with Pokémons or not!




The Rain - Season 2
On Netflix May 17th; MA
This is a Danish-language scifi series where the rain was infected with a deadly virus. The last season ended in a way that made me wonder how it could continue in an interesting way, and based on this trailer they figured it out. They closed off elements in season 1's storyline, and are now adding new connected elements -- like apparently Rasmus is super-powered or something. And going in new directions. I loved the tone and the characters, and the story was neat presenting familiar apocalypse tropes in a freshly compelling way. I will 100% be watching this!




John Wick: Chapter 3 - Parabellum
In theaters May 17th; R
I like John Wick because of the simple straightforward plot that doesn't need much exposition or conversation to drive it, so that the emotionally-driven stylish action can constantly be front and center. Chapter 2 muddied that formula too much for my taste, so I'm hoping Chapter 3 will be a return to full form. The plot is simple. But the trailer also shows a lot of dialogue scenes, so I guess we'll see.




We Have Always Lived in the Castle
Limited release May 17th; not rated
I heard of this book but never read it. It's a mystery thriller, set in the 50's or 60's I suppose, and it being based on a book gives me more confidence that the story might be good than the trailer does. It's got an appealing cast too, with Taissa Farmiga, Alexandra Daddario, Sebastian Stan, and even Crispin Glover! Seems like the sort of flick that won't need to be particularly good in order to entertain me.




Aladdin
In theaters May 24th; PG
I was vaguely interested in this before, and I guess I'm not totally apposed to watching it ever, but since I was more interested in Dumbo and never got around to going to that I'm not even going to bother trying with this in the theater. I relatively liked the idea of a live action Aladdin but the tone and everything is so much an uninspired copy that I doubt it'll be what I wanted. My brother is a fan of the animated too, and thinks seeing this will taint it which is probably true, so we may not even see it for laughs. I expect it'll be good for a laugh, though, personally!




Brightburn
In theaters May 24th: R
The idea of a horror movie with a Superman-powered character is admittedly interesting, but I just can't see it being something I'd truly enjoy unless it had a great, meaningful twist in there somewhere. So I'll pay attention to what others think but it's a no thanks at the moment. I expect it'll be objectively good though.




Godzilla: King of the Monsters
In theaters May 31st; PG-13
Despite the aggravatingly slow pace of the 2014 Godzilla, I found the good parts of it good enough to have natural interest in this sequel. But then, based on the trailer it looks like an actual improvement over the first. Maybe the filmmakers heard the bored complaints. It looks like it better embraces the inherent cheese of its subject, and puts even more effort into appealing visually -- while not completely abandoning the subdued tone of the first. Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins are back, but no more Aaron Taylor-Johnson or Elizabeth Olsen. Added are Vera Farmiga, Millie Bobby Brown, Kyle Chandler, and the great Bradley Whitford. I bet I'll be in the theater for this one since I'm sure it'll be at it's best on a big screen!


Sunday, April 28, 2019

Avengers: Endgame

Spoilers.

The least spoilery thing I can say to sum it up is: It's the same basic fan-servicing Marvel that we've been seeing recently -- but something's different, because I enjoyed watching it this time! But yeah, I'm not even going to try, friends. There are definitely spoilers here!

Endgame: the big secret. The actors knew nothing; no information was released during marketing; and fans go to extreme lengths to avoid spoilers before release day. Even I did it the "right" way and achieved about 97% blindness. And still. Not one thing was legitimately surprising. Maybe if I'd gotten an out of context spoiler, sure; but within the narrative of the movie, there were no shocks, or plot twists, or anything that you'd expect to be kept secret -- save for the mere two deaths. The OG Avengers use time-travel to bring back the dusted, defeat Thanos, and pass their torches to the next wave. Pleasantly straightforward.

I should probably mention that this doesn't help me look at Infinity War in an any better light. I wondered for a year if it might, but no.

Yep. I had fun. The time travel aspect was super comic book-y and cheesy in a nice way. They must steal the Infinity Stones from their past selves in previous movies and the Back to the Future Part II vibe was solid fodder for superheroing. Sometimes not used to potential; other times smart, neat, and fulfilling to the characters' individual stories. And the final showdown battle finally took this series to the scale at which they've always wanted to exist. Like comics brought to life. And when the ultra-high stakes come in (Thanos planning to kill them all) you instantly know the heroes are in for a satisfying win, so it's easy to settle back and soak it all up.

Tony is the most focused-on character. Fitting, since he has an ultimate end -- and started it all. He gets to marry Pepper, have a little girl, live a briefly happy life, have a restoring man-to-man with his dad, and then die a hero's death saving the whole universe. Nice. Cap was my personal favorite. Since time travel now exists, he lives out a normal life with Peggy. Nothing could be more satisfying. And I realize this is fan-service, with no veil or pretense attempted. I was primed to be okay with that fact by the continuous pulling out of the rug from under my hopes of simple enjoyment, and don't care if it worked. These were thoughtful ends that the characters deserved. About time they received them.

Throwback to when these two were the GOAT.

Even Natasha's death felt earned and meaningful. Her and Clint's friendship was one of the first things I fell in love with in these movies, and that scene they had together made it all conclude in a way that felt natural and right. The scene mirrors Gamora's Infinity War death, even with the same music, yet inverts aspects in profound ways. They fight each other out of love, which has never happened in the MCU before. The sad tone was uplifting, and the emotion unforced. Long-established and consistent characters dealt with respectfully. Strange to think that after using movie after movie to point forward to the next with relentless ferocity -- actual, final ends are given here.

But it's not all satisfying lovey-dovey goodbyes. There's Beer-Belly Thor, which is by far the worst iteration of Thor even conceived. The weight (unintended) of the abject failure he feels could have been so powerful were he not turned into a joke. The scene with his mother was nearly good even with that looming over it. On top of that, the "joke" isn't funny. I'd like to say nonsensical too, but I have no proof, so I'll just say it annoyed me -- especially after Thor was the greatest redeeming factor of Infinity War. I've always liked original Thor Thor best, so I wasn't expecting much... but that was just insulting.

Animated humanoids like Hulk and Thanos are impressive, but still fail to draw me in -- even in the way cyborgs and small CGI creatures do. 

I could devote a similar paragraph to Star-Lord, but I'll limit it to this: I hate, loathe, and despise what these films have turned Quill into. It makes me angry in a way that fictional things shouldn't, and this movie was the worst offender. The only mercy is his limited screen time. On the flip side, Nebula has never been more complex and involving. She continues to earn her spot on the team. Scott had the highest ups and the lowest downs: His reunion with Cassie had some of the most genuine MCU acting I've ever seen; and the time travel test was the "joke" that would never end. Yes indeed, the Marvel-brand jokes are still here, and bland as ever. It's impressive how deftly they skirted around Paul Rudd's comic abilities.

It's like the outline of the story had effort, with a nice and plain three act structure that kept the pace going, and thought-out building on past scenes -- but then the details were filled in by an MCU bot. Every tidbit and third line were a callback, and the rest stuffing. The dramatic scenes work by sheer force of will from the actors as they push real emotion through dialogue lacking any written personality. The Marvel-brand green screen and overly-CGI'd pastiness is at large too. The initial swell of the battle did have nice imagery with the portals though, and Vormir appeals, green-screened as it is. I genuinely liked one shot: the last one of Clint sitting in the water with the soul stone.

I thought it was nice how the movie was more or less bookended by farewell speeches from Tony. There is muddling around, but ultimately there's a simple, solid structure.

This movie exists because of past successes, like a greatest hit episode; no legs of its own to stand on, but enjoyable, nevertheless. Exactly what we expect from Marvel -- packaged as a tribute to those who got it started. The effort is nearly derailed by cringe jokes and mountains of CGI: There's lots of filler, lots of worthlessness, and lots that's recycled from the deep, deep, rut that Marvel has dug for itself. Sadly creative ruts aren't a factor for Marvel anymore. Their oodles of cash isn't earned due to quality craft, but to calculated marketing; and with these loyal fans, and the ability to fabricate and promote empty secrets, any kind of slop could've played on that screen and made the same amount of money.

Fortunate, then, that the slop they played for us was a relatively good time, made for pure, widespread enjoyment, and was relatively respectful; serving founding characters with one last dose of genuine progress and a hearty farewell. Almost not slop at all, at heart. Despite shortcomings and extended lapses into stupidity, at least there's a story here, used for the satisfying completion of the journeys of long-beloved characters. Despite everything, I'm glad I got to see the Avengers assemble for one last hurrah.