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Saving the Best for Last

After more than ten years and twenty-one movies, the Marvel Cinematic Universe reached a capstone with the release of Avengers: Endgame. While many movie franchises have met with varying levels of success over the years, none have been as successful as the MCU. Warner Bros. misstep with the Justice League is a perfect example. Even the 007 series pales by comparison to the storytelling and cinematics exhibited in the Marvel series of movies. Avengers: Endgame is a perfect knot tying together all the threads that had been woven by the preceding films. It is not to be missed.endgame

When last we saw our intrepid heroes, they were licking their wounds from their ignominious defeat at the hands of galactic bad guy Thanos, played by Josh Brolin. The dedicated viewer will remember that at the end of Avengers: Infinity War, Thanos had reduced half of all life in the universe to dust, including some of our favorite heroes. Endgame starts by showing us how that snap of the fingers affected the one avenger that did not take part in the Infinity War, Hawkeye, played by Jeremy Renner. We then get caught up on how life has marched on for the survivors, including newcomer, Captain Marvel, played by Brie Larson. Under the direction of Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), the surviving Avengers try to figure out a way to reverse the disaster but are unable to do so.

Meanwhile, in another Galaxy, Nebula (Karen Gillan) and Tony Stark (Robert Downy Jr.) are drifting lost in space in a damaged ship without power. Just as things look bleakest for the pair, fortune smiles on them.

Meanwhile, in another dimension, Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) drifts without direction in the tendrils of the Quantum Realm until a bizarre happenstance returns him to our dimension, where he finds himself alone and unaware of what happened in his absence.

Meanwhile, in another part of the Earth, Thor is dealing with his failure in typical Asgardian fashion.

Meanwhile…well, you get the idea.

There are a lot of plotlines going into this movie, and the filmmakers do their level best to stitch them all together into a cohesive continuity. They succeed. The pacing is just right to allow for proper character and plot development and the cuts are just enough to keep the viewers interest without leaving them confused by the many plotlines. This is no easy feat and was only achieved by the film’s 3-hour runtime.

Yes. That’s THREE HOURS.

It seems unlikely they film makers could have delivered a story that was as satisfying in less time. While some might say the film drags in some places, it is a nice respite from the insane level of action that is going on the rest of the time.

Avengers: Endgame is a perfect capstone for the franchise. The viewer will leave this film satisfied that, if they never made another MCU movie, it would be okay. This story is finished. Anything that follows this movie is a whole different story. Endgame will be met with gasps, laughs, tears, and cheers, plus one scene that leaves the entire theater in utter stunned silence. The typical Marvel humor is sprinkled liberally throughout the script and the performances are spot-on consistent with the characters that have become beloved by fans. Of course, the special effects are top notch, even the Hulk’s effects, while new, are quite realistic.

If there were a downside, it is that some of the characters don’t get as much screen time as might be preferred. But given that it took three hours to give them that much, any more would require breaking Endgame into two separate films. That would not have been as satisfying. That said, every character that has been introduced in the MCU in any film seems to make an appearance in this movie, even if it is just a few seconds of screen time. Still, any more and it might have been too much. No, Avengers: Endgame is just fine the way it is. Go see it.

 

 

 

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Not So Marvelous

Captain Marvel PosterDisney has officially kicked off Marvel’s phase 4 of the MCU with the release of Captain Marvel in cinemas Thursday. The much-hyped film, touted as the new standard bearer for the Marvel franchise, features Marvel’s first female super hero to get her own title. As such, many feminists have joined a chorus touting the film as a feminist anthem without the benefit of actually watching the movie. This follows the hype of Black Panther as offering the first black super hero to get his own movie. Even before Captain Marvel was released, the movie was being bashed online by one group while being vociferously defended by another. It is unfortunate that Captain Marvel does not fair well by the comparison.

The film tells the story of Carol Danvers, an air force pilot who rankles at being denied the opportunity to be a combat pilot because she is a woman, taking a female scientist (Annette Benning) on a flight in an experimental aircraft and encountering unexpected problems. The film starts with our heroine fighting along side a noble band of warrior heroes already introduced in the MCU as the Kree. Vers—as she is called by the Kree—has an aggressive, emotional fighting style that frustrates her mentor played by Jude Law. She also has powers and abilities that no other Kree seems to possess, and she has no memory beyond six years prior. Through the course of her adventures, she uncovers the secret of her prior life and how she came to the Kree and how she obtained her awesome powers.

The Kree are engaged in a long-fought war with a race known as the Skrull; shape-changing aliens who can assume any identity down to the DNA. The war reaches Earth, where Vers encounters agents of SHIELD Fury and Coulson, who help Vers unravel the mystery of her origin and the secret behind the war.

The movie is full of CGI special effects, as all Disney movies seem to be these days. The age-regression on Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury and Clark Gregg’s Phil Coulson are superb. They don’t look a day over 35. The fight sequences are fantastic and visually stunning, as are the Skrull transformation effects.

The story is set in 1995 (Vers crashes into a Blockbuster Video store loaded with VHS tapes) and has a lot of popular cultural Easter eggs for those who like searching for them. There is no discussion of or reference to any other super heroes or mutants, though at the end of the film, we see Fury typing the first draft of his “Avengers Initiative.” It makes no reference to Thanos, but it does include Ronin, who we first met in Guardians of the Galaxy. The first post credits scene does tie back to the events in Infinity War as Captain America and Black Widow are trying to see who Fury was texting right before he disintegrated. This is the only tie in to the greater MCU story arc, which was a bit disappointing.

The film is somewhat long, running at 124 minutes, but seems longer. Despite the incredible, gratuitous action sequences, the film does drag in spots. The plot is straightforward, if somewhat predictable and offers no insight on the deeper motivations of the main characters. Why the villain does what he does is never discussed. What is the primary motivation for the Kree war? Why did the Kree keep Carol Danvers on Hala and more important, why conscript her into their army? These could have been great story arcs to explore and made a more compelling movie than the string of action sequences the film provides.

There are also some continuity errors.  In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, we learn that Fury lost his eye infiltrating a terrorist camp to save Alexander Pierce’s (Robert Redford )daughter.  In Captain Marvel, there is an alternative history.  Also, the Tesseract appears in this film, with no explanation of how it got there, when last we saw it (timeline-wise) it was lost in the arctic.

Brie Larson’s portrayal of Carol Danvers is problematic. Larson is a fine actress; her Oscar win for “The Room” is a testament to that. Carol Danvers is a great character in the comic books, full of heroism and faults like the pantheon of Marvel heroes before her. But we don’t see Larson really bringing Danvers to life. She isn’t given the opportunity to explore the frailties that drive Danvers to excel as a hero. Also, Captain Marvel is so powerful in the film that an even a space armada cannot slow her down. She never doubts herself or her role in what is happening to her and around her. There just isn’t any emotion from her at all. I don’t think it’s Larson’s fault. I think it is the staff of writers and directors that all had their fingers in this pie that was trying to please fan boys and feminists too much that they failed to satisfy either. This is why both groups are fighting online so much.

Hopefully, Endgame will give Captain Marvel more material to work with and allow the viewers to see more of the humanity of what is right now the most powerful hero in the MCU. Having said all that, Captain Marvel is an entertaining film. While not as funny as Guardians of the Galaxy or Thor: Ragnarok, it has the occasional chuckle. It plays out like a comic book, which, considering the source material, is a good thing. But it could have and should have been so much better. It falls in the middle of my ranking of MCU titles.

 

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Return of the Dragon

In another of Hollywood’s drive to avoid producing anything amounting to an original idea, Disney has rebooted yet another children’s classic into a CGI spectacle. This time, they went for one of the more heartwarming combinations of cell animation and live action in their vault by updating Pete’s Dragon. The original 1977 film starred Helen Reddy (then a noteworthy songstress trying to break into film) along with Mickey Rooney and introducing Sean Marshal as Pete, the young orphan who is befriended by a loveable dragon he calls Elliot. The film was a kid’s movie, to be sure. Flat performances of two-dimensional characters and hokey scripting of an all-too-predictable plot assured this film wouldn’t appeal to a sophisticated audience, but then, the target audience was 10 years old, so it was good enough and had enough humor for mom and dad to watch along. Its humor and sunny disposition along with its soundtrack made the original Pete’s Dragon a heartwarming movie. It is one of my favorite films in the Disney Vault.

The remake is more sophisticated. It is also less heartwarming.

Bryce Dallas Howard (one of my favorite actresses) plays the female lead named Grace. I cannot say that she plays Helen Reddy’s character, because all of the characters are different except for Pete and Elliot. Grace is engaged to a logging foreman who’s brother, Gavin, is hell bent on chopping down as much forest as he can. In these woods lives young orphan Pete who is being taken care of by his friend Elliot, the dragon. The film goes down a dark path in telling poor Pete’s back story while communicating a message of the errors of deforestation and the loss of the magic of nature. While dark, it is not bleak, however, so don’t think it is a tear jerker, although my granddaughter did cry at one point. The actors’ performances were a highlight. Karl Urban gave a depth to Gavin’s antagonist character that made you feel sorry for him and Howard’s Grace was the performance that drove the story. Robert Redford plays her father, the only other person to have encountered a dragon before the events in the movie.

The story is more sophisticated, to be sure. Hollywood moved away from pure flights of fancy long ago in favor of gritty realism. Grace, a forest ranger, discovers Pete living on his own in the woods and brings him back to town. She is engaged to a single father with a daughter not too much older than Pete. Pete, initially distrustful of people and city life, yearns to return to Elliot and the forest. The dynamics of that family relationship are complex and compelling.

In keeping with the attempt at more realism, Elliot was updated too. The 1977 Elliot was hand drawn and goofy looking. Large, fat green body with impossibly small wings and purple hair made Elliot that much more appealing to kids. This computer generated Elliot is large, but more dog-like in shape and appearance with larger wings. Imagine Clifford the Big Red Dog turn green and sprouted wings. He is quite well rendered, each hair moves with realistic physics, but because of the realism, his dog-like face cannot express emotion as well and as such is not as loveable as was the hand-drawn dragon.

Over all, I enjoyed Pete’s Dragon. It tells a compelling tale and has a positive message for the audience. It is not as heartwarming as the original, but the performances are better and the characters have more depth. I would have preferred it if the story more mirrored the original, rather than delve into some of the plot points it took, but it is still worth watching.

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That’s Funny Right There…

It is not often that a movie sequel shifts focus and puts a supporting character as the protagonist, but that is what Disney and Pixar did with Cars2, opening in theaters this weekend. The dashing race car Lightning McQueen, voiced by Owen Wilson, who won the Piston Cup and learned about relying on friends in the first Cars rides shotgun to his bumbling friend Tow Mater, voiced by Larry the Cable Guy in the sequel. The film takes the group from Radiator Springs and has them jet-setting around the globe racing in a grand prix and saving world from an evil villain bent on world domination. The film is a side-splitting hoot from start to finish and had laughs for all ages, but it has a dark underbelly. There is more violence and some scenes may be a bit strong for younger viewers.

Mater steps up to the center stage as he inadvertently gets his best friend, McQueen involved in a world-wide race. McQueen takes his pit crew from Radiator Springs—including Mater—along with him. Unbeknownst to them, Master spy Finn McMissile, voice by Michael Caine, has been hot on the trail of an international oil villain and mistakes Mater for an American spy sent to help. Hilarity ensues.

The movie is a mastery of CGI, demonstrating again that Pixar is at the top of the technology. This film is released in 3D, which I did not see, but from the camera angles and the digital mastering, I can imagine it was pretty effectual. I have long maintained that CGI is the only way to truly enjoy 3D. The color depth and textures add a photorealism to what is clearly a cartoon. The detail of the mechanics of how these cars work is still impressive.

It is also long. At 113 minutes, it is just under two hours, which for a cartoon is epic. Green Lantern wasn’t this long (though it should have been). The good news is that it doesn’t drag. The pacing and the action keep attention glued to the screen.

The only problem is that with the spy story comes more violence than one might expect from a Disney/Pixar film. There are guns shooting, missiles firing and explosions galore. Some of the characters meet fiery ends. The kids in the theater we were in didn’t seem to mind, but parents will need to consider this and make their own decisions.

Overall, I loved it. I thought it was funnier than the first, had just as keen of a message and introduced new characters without sacrificing the ones we’ve come to know from the first. This is a must-see for Pixar fans and anyone who loved the first Cars. And anyone who loves Larry the Cable Guy. I don’t care who you are, that’s funny right there.

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