AVENGERS: ENDGAME

by Alan Yudman

It has been 11 years since IRON MAN first opened our eyes to what we now know as the MARVEL CINEMATIC UNIVERSE. That’s 22 movies, the final episode in this chapter of the MCU being AVENGERS: ENDGAME. So that’s characters from ANT-MAN to VALKYRIE. The potential for a bloated mess is absolutely there as Marvel brings this saga to a close. AVENGERS: ENDGAME is a near perfect example of how to button up a story.

What some fans may miss is the intimate storytelling in the first part of the movie. Well, maybe they won’t miss it but they may forget about it as the intensity grows and it returns to the expectations placed on Marvel movies. These are flawed people. No matter their extraordinary abilities they are dealing with failure, grief and loss. Those are not themes you come to expect in this genre. These heroes are supposed to be able to solve any problem by punching it, blowing it up or “superheroing” it into submission. The Avengers failed at the end of INFINITY WAR. They all feel the loss and guilt. None feels that failure more than Thor. Tony Stark is rescued, but his anger toward everything is overwhelming.

So when they find Thanos and decide to kill him, take back the Infinity Stones and snap the world back into existence it doesn’t seem like one of their normal, well thought out plans. It feels raw and not fully thought out and possibly doomed to failure. A second failure or an extension of the previous one is too much. We jump ahead 5 years and some have tried to move on, but Thor has turned depression into a kind of art form.

They all seem resigned to the existence they are living, until Ant-Man arrives with the greatest title for a plot device in Marvel history… a “Time Heist”. The scenes where they try to recruit Thor and Tony Stark to help out are great, especially when Tony figures out how it can work.

It’s challenging to write how great this all plays out without spoiling large chunks of the film. The “Time Heist” plan brings resolution to several threads, but also gets hijacked by Thanos with the help of Nebula. Again, you are just going to have to trust me here because I don’t want to spoil anything.

The plot takes turns that I didn’t see coming (and some that could be anticipated based on knowledge of projects that are already in the works). Once the Avengers begin their redemption arc it is an incredibly satisfying thrill ride. Every set piece works. The end of the line for certain characters works. It doesn’t feel like fan service and it is most certainly not forced or out of character. Each feels logical and earned.

There were moments in the theater when the entire audience cheered or screamed with joy. There were others where I could hear definite sobs (some may have come from me.. maybe..). You knew instinctively that characters would reappear, but that didn’t make it any less thrilling when they did. Everyone get their moment to shine. Not one character’s appearance felt forced or like the Russo brothers were merely fulfilling fan service. There were some corny bits but it was a kind of sweet cornball and given that they were few and far between in a 3 hour movie, well all is forgiven.

Joe and Anthony Russo should get some kind of award. To take characters from 21 previous movies, at least 21 arcs and expectations of millions of fans around the world and put it all together in a package like this is remarkable. Here’s the thing. This is not just a great genre movie. This is a great movie period. There are some great performances from Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Mark Ruffalo (you have to see what they did with Hulk.. it’s great!) and Josh Brolin. But Robert Downey, Jr. is unbelievable. I doubt they’ll talk about an Oscar nomination, but maybe they should. He has played Tony Stark now in 3 Iron Man movies, 4 Avengers movies, 1 Captain America movie and a brief appearance in the newest Spider-Man (I think that’s it, hard to keep track at this point). What new could an actor bring to such a familiar character. But Downey does it. There’s parts of Tony we’ve never seen before and Downey, who could have just phoned it in, goes deeper into the character than we’ve ever seen before.

The end of this chapter of the MCU is a turning point. We will go forward with Black Panther, Spider-Man, Captain Marvel, the Guardians of the Galaxy and Dr. Strange. There is nostalgia for what was, but not sadness. A perfect end to a great story is satisfying. And AVENGERS: ENDGAME may be the most satisfying end to a film series I have ever experienced.

SHAZAM!

shazam

by Alan Yudman

When I was kid, late on Saturday mornings there was a live-action series on CBS title SHAZAM! It featured a 17-year-old kid with long, late ’70’s hair and his mentor who would drive around the country in a Winnebago, helping those who had been wronged. Billy Batson was the kid and when the situation called for super powered help he’d yell SHAZAM! and he would transform into the red-suited Captain Marvel. It was corny, but I liked it. Now some 40 years later, he’s back!

This version is decidedly different than that old show I enjoyed so much. Here Billy is a younger kid who has no one to guide him. He is a foster kid who has bounced from home to home since he got lost at a fair when he was very young. The name Captain Marvel is not spoken, for logical conflict of interests reasons with Marvel’s version. Instead the hero, played by Zachary Levi is SHAZAM!. The 1970’s show was played straight.. this one is played for laughs more often than not. It’s a refreshingly light touch for DC.

I had heard great things about the movie so I was looking forward to a 2 hour plus thrill ride. I walked out somewhat satisfied, but mostly disappointed. The tone of the movie is fine and Levi is great as the goofy super who is just learning his way around the hero game. Asher Angel is also more than good as Billy. I guess my problem is Levi’s goofiness overwhelmed Angel’s innocence. I needed more reason to believe Billy was worthy of this responsibility.

There was one plot hole you could drive a city bus through. The main problem is with the bad guy. Mark Strong is a great actor and he plays the “bad” better than just about anyone. He glowers, he has the menacing growl in his voice. I’m a fan. His origin story was fine, I got it. He didn’t get the power he was promised and obsessively pursued it for his entire life. But when he stole those powers we got no explanation about the 7 sins and who they were and why they existed. We’re just left to believe they are bad. And why were they sins? They demonstrated no sinful behavior. They simply destroyed and killed seemingly just because Strong’s Dr. Sivana wanted them to. It was a real head scratcher. Questioning the purpose of the villain leaves the audience wanting.

Also Dijimon Hounsou’s character is a wizard. He was part of the council of Wizards, but he is the only one left. We kind of got a story about what happened to the others. But why are they Wizards? Where did magic or wizardry come in? There is absolutely no evidence of it other than the Wizard telling us it is so.

Billy’s story worked. His realization about family motivated his heroism. The transition of his foster brothers and sisters was awesome. And the ending was satisfying.

Oh and the mid-credits scene was completely baffling. It seemed to set up the next movie but used a character you really had to think about to remember whether he was even in the movie (spoiler, he was).

I’ve made this point over and over. Origin stories are tough. You have to service the back story and the transition. It’s a lot to stuff into a movie. Each filmmaker feels it necessary. It does create an arc for the hero, but maybe there are better ways to execute it. It took nearly an hour before Billy finally got his powers. That was too long and it was very slow until that point.

I hope they iron out these issues before the next time Billy yells SHAZAM! to save the world. Because the bones of a good franchise are there and with some care this could be a great story going forward.

AQUAMAN

aquaman

by Alan Yudman

I’m always apprehensive when I sit down to watch a movie in the DC cinematic universe. They have been wildly inconsistent, tilting toward bad for the most part. Really, the best in the series was WONDER WOMAN. So, the mixed reviews for AQUAMAN activated that early warning system in my brain. Maybe it was those reduced expectations that enhanced my enjoyment, but I like AQUAMAN.

Sure there are some difficulties here. Origin stories by their nature go deep in the weeds (or sea weeds in this case). Sometimes it’s a little too much information. Viewers want to watch the hero be heroic, not learn about the political history of Atlantis. I get why, but there’s got to be a better way to serve that information. Maybe hand out viewer guides ahead of time, or suggest reading material to peruse before you walk into the theater.

I also had a Transformers-style problem with some of the climactic action sequences. They were hard to follow and not least because they took place in an unfamiliar environment— under water. Viewers need less frenetic action and more meaningful set pieces. Give us stuff that services the story not the endless list of computer technicians and software engineers that are listed in the credits.

But those were my only problems with the movie. I thought Jason Momoa was fantastic. He brings the right amount of badassery and balances it out with humor. I believe he is Aquaman. The other surprise was Amber Heard. She and Momoa had great chemistry. They played well off each other. They were in rhythm and I believed their relationship was real.

Other than the fighting scenes near the end, the underwater world created by director Ruben Fleischer and his team was spectacular and beautiful. The choice of Patrick Wilson as the big villain was odd, but he’s such a good actor it worked. It was great to see the Black Manta character show up and be portrayed with such clear motivation. Revenge is always a winner.

Overall I had fun with AQUAMAN. It didn’t drown in outsized expectations or in themes that were too dark (that note is once again for you Zach Snyder). It was what you want from a superhero movie and I look forward to seeing a more streamlined version next time.

ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD

Hard to tell how good or bad this is going to be. The trailer is great and feels period correct. It’s Tarantino so it’s likely to be bonkers, unwieldy, and probably bloody. I will definitely see it. A year in which we get a Tarantino movie, a Scorsese movie (featuring De Niro and Pacino) and a Star Wars movie can’t be all bad.

FREE SOLO

By Alan Yudman

To say that Alex Honnold is a complicated guy is an understatement as big as El Capitan is high. But that complication is what makes FREE SOLO an excellent movie, one that deserved the Best Documentary Feature Oscar.

Honnold is a roc k climber. That’s like saying Picasso is a painter or Mozart was a musician. Honnold breaks barriers and does things no sane person would or could do. The feature piece of the movie is Honnold’s quest to free climb the 3,000 foot monolith known as El Capitan in Yosemite. Free climbing is what it sounds like. The climber ascends the mountain by himself, with no ropes. So if you fall, you die. Crazy? Yes. Absolutely. Plenty of Honnold’s contemporaries and heroes have died free climbing. But Honnold seems different. He goes about this in a very scientific way. He’s not the wild man taking risks in every facet of his life. He is methodical. He plans every move, tries to take every possible scenario into account. He trains and trains, then trains some more. And if doesn’t feel it’s right he’s not afraid to stop. Honnold acknowledges the risk. He talks about it being scary and not wanting to die. But he also has a detachment from the risk. That is born out when he goes for an MRI and the technicians tell him his amygdala doesn’t fire. It’s not that it doesn’t work, it’s that his threshold for activating that flight or fight response is beyond their ability to test it.

FREE SOLO is also about relationships, or more precisely how Honnold doesn’t seem to feel they are necessary. He appreciates his girlfriend Sanni McCandless. I think he loves her, but emotions are more challenging for Alex than climbing a sheer face with no ropes. The movie does not shy away from these difficult relationships. When Sanni leaves right before he takes on El Cap (I wanna be hip just like these climbers), it’s heart breaking. She really believes Alex could die and it is tearing her up. The film crew that shot the movie are all Hannold’s friends. They know he is the most skilled free climber around and they want in on the adventure, but they also don’t want to see him die. Like Sanni, it tears them apart.

The movie also celebrates achievement and that spirit of adventure that used to be so common in the United States (a similar theme of APOLLO 11).

That’s the genius of FREE SOLO. It’s not just a portrait of a climber, that is also a beautiful postcard for Yosemite National Park. It’s an emotional story about a man who is not like anyone you will ever meet. It explores what drives him and how that impacts those that love him. Hannold may climb rocks by himself, but he is not alone.

CAPTAIN MARVEL

By Alan Yudman

The first Marvel Cinematic Universe film featuring a woman as the main character is released on International Woman’s Day. Coincidence? Nah, probably not.

CAPTAIN MARVEL is not about empowering women. It is about a woman showing how powerful she is and how she doesn’t care how that fits into your narrative. While most MCU origin stories are about the person finding strength then becoming a badass, Carol Danvers is already a badass. From the trailer, we already know she was a fighter pilot, and now she is a Kree.. an alien race described in the trailer as a group of “noble warrior heroes”. I stupidly assumed that was true, completely forgetting the role Ronan the Accuser (a Kree) had in the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie. I should have known something was up. The movie uses those expectations to provide a satisfying twist.

Here is where I’d normally offer a synopsis of the plot. As I started to try to explain what is going on, I realized it is too convoluted. Now, normally that is a terrible thing for a movie. But in this case, it works. You think the movie is going one way, when it turns on a dime and you wind up going, “whoa”! Danvers’ back story, who the real villains are, how this all ties into the greater MCU storyline. Those threads all tie together in the end and what could have been confusing becomes clear.

CAPTAIN MARVEL is full of satisfying performances. Brie Larson is great. She has the right attitude and brings just enough smart ass and humor to the role to make you love her. Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury is made younger through the use of digital effects, but it is barely noticeable and you can see how his attitude and swagger develop. Ben Mendelsohn as the leader of the Skrulls seems like a bad guy, but he is given more to do than in his other villain roles and it really shows off his talent. Lashana Lynch plays Danvers’ fellow Air Force pilot and best friend, Maria Rambeau. It is a necessary character and Lynch brings the goods to make her feel a part of the story, not just a character who helps with Danvers’ exposition. I guess they could have gotten any actress to play Dr. Wendy Lawson, but it was nice to see Annette Benning join the MCU. And Jude Law is serviceable as the Kree commander, but I didn’t think he brought much that was special.

I saw the movie in 3D and it was a great use of the effect. It really brings you into the movie and adds dimension to battle scenes.

We have to talk about the soundtrack and costume design. CAPTAIN MARVEL takes place in 1995. The music is a combination of grunge, R & B and rap. It mostly works. Mostly, not all. The costume design is great. They outfit Danvers in jeans, Nine Inch Nails T-shirt and flannel tied around her waist. Come as you are, indeed.

Oh, and yes.. it perfectly sets up AVENGERS: ENDGAME which hits theaters in about 6 weeks.

It is Danvers’ journey from human to Kree and back again that is the heart of the movie. She is fighting herself and her own power throughout. She finally realizes her full potential as CAPTAIN MARVEL when she embraces her humanity. That inner battle is also what places this film in the upper third of MCU movies. It’s not BLACK PANTHER, but it is great in its own way. And comparisons should be left at the movie theater door.

2019 OSCAR PICKS

by Alan Yudman

One day away.

It’s time for the Academy Awards and since I’m a movie blogger it is my responsibility and right to offer my less than expert predictions.

My pick is who I want to win.

Predicted winners are just that, who I think will actually win.

So (fanfare, drum roll, raspberry.. you chose) here they are:

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Couple of thoughts.

Anything but Green Book or Bohemian Rhapsody for Best Picture.

The Best Actor category is missing two outstanding performances: Ethan Hawke in FIRST REFORMED and Ben Foster in LEAVE NO TRACE. Either of those performances are better than any of the nominated performances.

Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress are filled with great performances and will be hghly competitive. Glenn Close will win. She deserves it. Her performance is masterful. But, I have loved Melissa McCarthy since I saw CAN YOU EVER FORGIVE ME and thought since then she should win.

I have not seen any of the shorts nor have I heard anything about them so I don’t know enough to make a prediction.

I have not seen any of the Documentary Features, but have read a bunch about them and heard enough informed discussions to make an educated guess.

“Shallow” will win. “All the Stars”: is a better song. “When a Cowboy Gets His Wings” is quirky good.

THE FAVOURITE will win Original Screenplay. It is bonkers good. But the not nominated EIGHTH GRADE is the Best Original Screenplay of 2018, as the Writers Guild proved when they awarded it with the top prize.

Enjoy the awards. Will try to recap early next week

 

THE WIFE

by Alan Yudman

This is one of those, “whoa, how did I miss this?!?” movies. I thought it was about a long-suffering wife who had had enough of her husband. Guess I should read the descriptions and/or reviews more closely. THE WIFE is a very good movie that has lots of twists, drama and an Oscar nominated performance by Glenn Close.

The long-suffering wife part is kind of correct. But, it is a much deeper problem than that. Jonathan Pryce is a novelist in the mold of Phillip Roth. A New Yorker who writes about the American experience from a Jewish perspective. Spoiler alert… he’s not Phillip Roth. The movie opens with Joseph Castleman (Pryce) and his wife Joan (Close) waiting for a phone call from the Nobel Committee. The call comes. He’s won the Literature Prize and the two celebrate by jumping up and down on their bed.

The movie takes off from there. They travel to Stockholm with their son, David, who is a budding author who doesn’t get the recognition or love from his father he feels he deserves. He does get that support from his Mom. While jetting across the Atlantic on the Concorde, we are introduced to Nathaniel Bone (Christian Slater) who is campaigning to write Joseph’s biography.

There is a tension between the couple that you really cannot put your finger on. Then we get the drip, drip, drip of a stunning reveal. Screenwriter Jane Anderson and Director Bjorn Runge go back in time to show us how young Joe (Harry Lloyd) and Joan (Close’s daughter Annie Starke) first met and developed their relationship. He was married.. Joan was the other woman who stole him away. The reason may have been love, but there is also another reason which is hinted at and not confirmed until late in the film.

The film plays out like a mystery. There are clues to the “crime” dropped throughout the film. Bone’s talk with Joan over drinks in a bar where he reveals he knows she’s a great writer. Joe doesn’t remember the name of one of his characters when it is dropped at a Nobel event. The allusion to Joe’s many affairs. The way he dismisses his son’s talent, yet Joan believes he has “it”. Joe seems to be running from or dismissing the truth. And we find that is exactly what is happening.

The cast is wonderful, but none more wonderful than Close. She exhibits a control that makes you believe she is the doting wife, but you can see she knows something and that is bubbling under the surface. Then when it finally comes to a head at the Nobel dinner, she doesn’t say a word, but you can see it in her eyes, her face, her manner. It is a perfect performance and it would not surprise me if she finally wins her first Oscar.

Pryce is solid as usual. Max Irons as the aggrieved son is equally good. Slater’s performance surprised me. He is a sleazy biographer who is worming his way into the good graces of Joan and David using fake empathy. He’s slimy and terrific.

THE WIFE came and went and is now only getting a second look because of Close’s nomination and wins at The Golden Globes and the SAG awards. But that undersells how good the wife really is. Maybe Close elevates it, but who cares? A good movie is a good movie. And THE WIFE is worth your time.

LEAVE NO TRACE

by Alan Yudman

I first became aware of Debra Granik with the remarkable WINTER’S BONE. It put Jennifer Lawrence on my radar, and gave her the cred she would use to become one of the best actresses in the world. She was nominated for a best actress Oscar in 2011 based on her remarkable performance. I, like many others, became enthralled with Lawrence almost to the exclusion of Granik. Looking back now, it’s hard to believe Granik’s dark, yet inspiring story about a teenager trying to track down her father while keeping her family together didn’t win more awards (THE KING’S SPEECH won best picture, Natalie Portman won best actress for BLACK SWAN, and Aaron Sorkin won for adapted screenplay for THE SOCIAL NETWORK). Then Granik all but disappeared.

This year she is back with another incredible movie, LEAVE NO TRACE. It is another moving story about being an outsider and trying to live life on your own terms. Ben Foster is Will, the father of a 13-year-old daughter. They are living off the grid in an urban forest just outside of Portland, Oregon. It is the only way he can keep his head together. Will is a veteran with PTSD, who wants little to do with society. He believes he can give his daughter, Tom (Thomasin McKenzie) a better life off the grid. They are happy until a chance encounter with jogger alerts authorities to their presence and suddenly they two are thrown into the system.

The film deals with how the two of them adapt. Will tries to fit in, but he cannot do it. Tom on the other hand is making a more serious effort. She starts to make a friend. She seems to be adapting at a slow pace. Then, Will decides they must leave. They are already too integrated into society for his liking, and for his sanity. They leave again in the middle of the night. This time something is different. Tom doesn’t seem to understand it. They wind up in southern Washington.. in a cold and rainy forest that almost kills both of them.

Will is constantly running from his illness. He has episodes in the middle of the night. He is in denial that his lifestyle can save him and he is dragging his daughter along for the bleak ride. But, Tom loves her father too much to abandon him until she realizes that she cannot live his life. She cannot survive. Despite their love, she must let him follow his own path. Even their love cannot fix him. That all plays out in a heart wrenching final scene.

Granik’s story is quiet and powerful. It speaks to love and desperation. It acknowledges that love may not be enough to solve every problem. Granik’s screenplay and direction along with cinematography by Michael McDonough are perfect. It is a postcard for the beauty and danger of the Pacific Northwest. Granik’s camera spends a lot of time on Tom’s reactions and Will’s pain. It is gorgeous and effective. But, it wouldn’t work without two outstanding performances. Foster deserves an Oscar nomination that he may miss out on because of the timing of LEAVE NO TRACE’s release. Out of sight, out of mind. This is the first major American role for Thomasin McKenzie, a young actress from New Zealand. She is incredible. Maybe Granik is the “young actress whisperer”. She has identified a young talent (McKenzie is 18), who definitely has a bright future.

Granik has made only 2 other fictional movies (DOWN TO THE BONE and WINTER’S BONE) before this. So when she decides to grace us with another example of her amazing storytelling ability, Hollywood should stand up and take notice. I wish she would give us more. But maybe we should just be thankful for the gifts she delivers every so often. Because, LEAVE NO TRACE is definitely one of the best films of 2018.