Tuesday, April 30, 2019

MARVEL MASTERPIECE: a review of "Avengers: Endgame"

Based upon Marvel Comics created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby
Screenplay Written by Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely
Directed by Anthony & Joe Russo
**** (four stars)

One year ago, the Marvel Cinematic Universe was blasted completely apart to a cataclysmic effect with the SNAP heard and seen around the world in Directors Anthony & Joe Russo's outstanding, devastating "Avengers: Infinity War" (2018).

Never in my lifetime of going to the movies had there been a conclusion to a film such as this one where the ending and ensuing cliffhanger had proven itself so grim and even traumatic. Face it, the worst and most wrenching escapist film cliffhanger in my past was the shocking depiction of seeing Han Solo, unable to be saved by his friends, captured and frozen in carbonite to be hauled away by a vengefully silent bounty hunter and framed in the lair of a grotesquely sinister intergalactic gangster. At least, he wasn't killed off, but still...

That sequence had absolutely nothing on the climax of "Avengers: Infinity War," which saw the relentless titan Thanos (so well performed by Josh Brolin) achieve his personal endgame, to destroy 50% of all existence in order to attain a newfound balance in the universe. It was a film ending of unprecedented apocalypse, especially for something so mainstream, as we witnessed so many characters we had grown to love over the years on screen literally reduced to ashes and scattered to the four winds.

And to take it further, the Russo brothers showcased the wider annihilation which was then countered by the film's haunting final image, an exhausted Thanos, seated and regarding the horizon with an expression of sated victory. It was chilling to say the least and I will never forget how the audience I saw the film with exited the theater in complete silence, perhaps because for a film series that we all attend in order to escape the brutalities of real life for a few short hours, the brutal real life reality of bad guys winning maybe cut too close to the bone. Clearly there had to be some uplift? Could this really be the end of our heroes?

Now, one year later, we are here! The Russo's brothers' "Avengers: Endgame," a sprawling, lushly ambitious, rapturous climactic three hour epic not only provides the payoff to last year's set up, it lavishly brings the now 22 episode film series to a close..that is, before moving onwards in a Marvel Cinematic Universe forever changed.

With an installment and accompanying expectations I would imagine most filmmakers would run away from rapidly, the Russo brothers' have embraced the challenge superbly as they have emerged with a miraculous display of dizzying, complex story-telling, special effects wizardry and palpable to even primal emotional heft and depth that assures that every single cheer and tear is unquestionably earned...and truth be told, tears flowed from my eyes several times throughout. Like the finest Marvel comics I read in my youth, the Russo brothers' "Avengers: Endgame" made me believe the wholly unbelievable as the characters I had loved from the page sprang to vivid, vibrant life with joy and awe, tragedy and triumph, making this film a veritable masterpiece.

Picking up shortly after the shattering events of "Avengers; Infinity War," the remaining members of Earth's Mightiest Heroes are all in various stages of dilapidation as they face the loss of friends and loved ones in a new decimated world and universe.

Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) has holed himself up inside of a spacecraft to drift away and die in space. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is succumbed with depression and guilt from not only the fallout from the battle with Thanos but also the previous loss of his home of Asgard. Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo), James Rhodes (Don Cheadle), Rocket the Raccoon (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and Steve Rogers a.k.a. Captain America himself (Chris Evans) continue to wrestle with comprehending the new reality while also attempting to determine if there is any way to reverse what Thanos has unleashed. And meanwhile, the diminutive Scott Lang a.k.a. Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) remains trapped within the microscopic Quantum Realm and the retired Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), has his own demons to chase down post Thanos' SNAP.

Beginning with the arrival of Captain Marvel (Brie Larson), our remaining Avengers begin their seemingly impossible quest to defeat Thanos once and for all and restore the universe to its proper state in the process.

While there is so much that I would love to discuss with all of you regarding this film, I will remain silent so as to not produce spoilers for those who have not been able to see the film yet. That said, what I will emphatically divulge is that Anthony & Joe Russo's "Avengers: Endgame" is a film of spectacular entertainment and superlative storytelling. It is an enormous testament to the birth and growth of this particular cinematic universe over these past 11 years, as it miraculously ties together all of the strands, characters, events and plot threads of the 21 previous films into a cohesive narrative and experience that is worthy of everything that has come before while also providing enormous rewards for everyone who have embraced this film series over the years.

Yes, it is as visually resplendent as you would now expect from a Marvel film but the Russo brothers wisely understand that a big, brash sound and light show is not going to satisfy audiences in the least. Taking grand cues from the high flying big budget films of the blockbuster heydey during the late 1970's through the 1980's plus their own inventive, creative work on past Marvel features "Captain America: The Winter Soldier" (2014), "Captain America: Civil War" (2016) and the aforementioned "Avengers: Infinity War," the Russo brothers have placed their emphasis with characters and story first and foremost, therefore making the experience of "Avengers: Endgame" emotionally worthwhile and undeniably thrilling.

Again, I am just amazed with the Russo's ability with having so many conceptual spinning plates revolving simultaneously and having the sheer confidence to plow full speed ahead, never fearing that even one would fall and crash to the ground. To have the ability and downright chutzpah to harness this many characters, locales and...ahem...additional elements, regardless of how big or small they fit into the Marvel lexicon, somehow, someway, the Russo brothers and their ace screenwriting team of Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely merged everything together like the finest team of magicians as they all sent our heroes on an adventure that makes Producer Tom Cruise's "Mission: Impossible" series as well as the escapades in Christopher Nolan's "Inception" (2010) all feel like child's play resulting in a climax that does indeed feel definitive while also passing the baton for whatever arrives in the future.

I am certain there might be some level of debate over the Marvel series and whether we actually needed to have 21 films to lead into this particular grand finale. Certainly there had to have been some installments that fell a tad short. For me, over these past 11 years, and despite how consistent the Marvel films have been overall, there have been a few that I have not been terribly enamored with  (you will have to scour the Savage Cinema archives yourselves to discover which ones to which I am referring as I am thinking by even mentioning titles, that could inadvertently produce spoilers) as I have wondered if every film truly carried a necessity to the larger, over-arching Marvel narrative.

With "Avengers: Endgame," one of the film's greatest achievements was how this film's narrative was able to wind itself through all that we have seen, therefore providing greater clarity to past films while simultaneously stretching further ahead in the narrative certainly but most importantly, in the evolution of the characters.

And it is here, within that pure and brilliant Marvel fashion, where the Russo brothers understand beautifully what it is about Marvel that makes it so beloved to generations of fans and artists and that is the overall humanity that pervades the entirety of this universe. The Russo brothers understand that even though we are being subjected to the most superhuman feats, abilities and odysseys, what makes these adventures resonate fully is the prevalence of human foibles, fears and failings alongside their virtues and virtuousness all on display, qualities that give the sheer fantasy some much needed weight and gravity.

The strength of the performances  with int his series and this concluding chapter in particular is paramount to the success of the entire proceedings. Not the special effects...which are eye-popping. Not the set pieces, even as great as they are throughout this film, which is copiously loaded with one dazzling sequence after another. What makes "Avengers: Endgame" soar so spectacularly high is how the Russo brothers' strict attention to the characters and their relationships and histories with each other provides every moment, no matter how operatic or intimate, with an emotional truth that cements even the most fantastical sequences and characters with a realism that ultimately made for a film that was often enormously moving.

Yes, the filmmakers absolutely nailed that classic Marvel Comics tone which always veers between bitter-sweetness, melancholy and tragedy. "Avengers: Endgame," despite its welcome and copious amounts of humor, is indeed quite a bleak and painful film, and rightfully so, as it is essentially dealing with the end of the universe (or half of it) with a conscious sense of wrenching grief and mourning. I appreciated this tactic and grim tonality greatly because the Russo brothers unapologetically took essentially two thirds of the film's three hour running time before finally addressing the results of the Avengers' plan to right Thanos' wrongs. In doing so, the gravity of the story continued to deepen, broaden and therefore, created the larger potential for thrills, for jump out of the seats cheering to a film that undeniably became awesome.

I have often bemoaned my fatigue upon this site not with just the superhero film genre but with these big budget extravaganza films that always conclude with the now obligatory bombastic CGI drenched battle/war sequence, a trope so commonplace now that you can set your watch to it and be bored as you are being bludgeoned by the soulless sensory overload. It would not be a spoiler to say that "Avengers: Endgame" also possesses such a climax but unlike so many other films, the Russo brothers again fully earn their battle royale because they, their team and all of us in the audience have invested so much emotionally in these characters, making every special effects filled moment contain deep emotional resonance.

Character by character, and with all of the other films providing all the necessary backstory material, we are given human beings with extraordinary abilities and courage, motivated by human concerns, frailties, fears, and even hope in the face of unending darkness. Here is where the performances from the entire cast completely rise to the occasion and they are all uniformly excellent.

As Steve Rogers a.k.a. Captain America, Chris Evans took what could have eternally existed as a wholly bland character and injected within him a profound sense of what it means to fight and be willing to die, not only for one's belief system, but for the betterment of humanity itself. Evans not only conveyed the proper strength and steadfast qualities necessary for Captain America, he also demonstrated rich abilities with illustrating subtle levels of frustration and the pain with being a man constantly out of his time and without the one true love of his life. And through him, the film concludes on an absolutely exquisite grace note.

As Thor, Chris Hemsworth has gradually built and grown with the character who is an Asgardian God yet decidedly more human than he had ever realized. With "Avengers: Endgame," Hemsworth utilizes his charmingly light comedic skills to entertain greatly but also to shoulder an aching pathos and existential dilemma of a hero who has failed, who has lost and who is drowning in survivor's guilt and a seething sense of insignificance. It is a richly multi-layered performance that harbors both laughter and sorrow.

I also enjoyed the increased range both Jeremy Renner and Paul Rudd were given to display, also deepening the emotional range of the film as a whole. And special mention must be given to Karen Gillan as Thanos' daughter Nebula, as she is given a truly meaty amount to dig into and she graces the film with one of its most complex performances.

And then, there's Robert Downey Jr.

I am remembering the first adventure in 2008, the first film with Iron Man and feeling so perplexed that Downey Jr., an actor I had more than admired for many years and who had fallen on hard times with issues no need to recount here, had been cast in the leading role. And I remember how I felt the moment the film ended and just how proud I was for Downey Jr. as he completely rocked the part so brilliantly. Now, we are here, 11 years later, viewing this actor in what is now his signature role and still, he continued to amaze as he mined new depths, new angles, new approaches to Tony Stark that showcased him as the unshakable, irreplaceable anchor to the entire series to date. Just outstanding to regard him one more time and in a film this magnificent.
Anthony & Joe Russo's "Avengers: Endgame" is marvelous, mountainous, and monumental. And after all of this high praise, I think the best thing I can say about it is that it is the very film that took me back to my childhood as I read my Marvel comics and the images in my head looked, sounded and felt exactly like every solitary second of this magical film.

And furthermore, I wish to believe that somewhere our dearly departed Stan Lee is smiling broadly for these filmmakers have done his conceptual vision exceedingly proud.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

DARK MAGIC: a review of "Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes Of Grindelwald"

Screenplay Written by J.K. Rowling
Directed by David Yates
***1/2 (three and a half stars)

Now this was much more like it!

Over two years ago, when we were first introduced to the adventures of Newt Scamander via the film "Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them" (2016), itself the first installment of what is going to be a five part prequel series to the "Harry Potter" saga, all written entirely by J.K. Rowling and directed by David Yates, I was surprisingly underwhelmed. To be true, I was not exactly wringing my hands in anticipation over the prospect of a prequel series in the first place, but as Rowling who had more than earned my devotion through all of her writing to that point and had not let me down yet, I was willing to go with her anywhere she wished to take me.

And yet, that first film, which possessed all of the ingredients for greatness, never achieved any sense of greatness--and not for lack of trying-- as it was all due to a leading character that was uncharacteristically bland and even unknowable, repetitive sequences of all manner of fantastic beasts escaping then being captured and then, escaping all over again and all in the service of a meandering and seemingly over-stuffed plot.

Now, we arrive at Chapter Two, so to speak, and J.K.Rowling and David Yates' "Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes Of Grindelwald" has proven itself to being a dramatic improvement over the first installment. Arriving with a greater heft, zest and an emotional urgency that often surprised me in its stirring vibrancy, I am now beginning to see, and therefore, feel the purpose behind this return to Rowling's hidden world of magical beings and creatures in a story set long before the young heroes of Harry Potter had even been born. Where I was once unimpressed, I am now considerably involved, and most of all, invested, as this film has excitedly prepared me fr the three future installments while also making me anxious to view this one all over again.

Set in 1927, one year after the events of the previous film, "Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes Of Grindelwald," opens with the titular dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald's (played with chilling malevolence by Johnny Depp) blistering escape from imprisonment at the Magical Congress of the United States Of America and his return to building his movement for the societal dominance of pureblood wizards over all non-magical beings. As part of his fascistic plan, Grindewald is in pursuit of the disturbed, tormented Credence Barebone (Ezra Miller), thought to have been obliterated in the previous film and whose whereabouts are unknown.

Also in pursuit of Credence are American magical Auror Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), who herself is being pursued by her telepathic sister Queenie Goldstein (Alison Sudol) and American baker Jacob Kowalski (Dan Folger), Queenie's secretive, non-magical lover, whose previously evaporated memories of the events of the first film have been romantically restored.

And of course, we have our favorite magizoologist, the awkward, painfully shy and guarded Newt  Scamander (Eddie Redmayne), now based in London and under a travel ban ordered by the Ministry Of Magic due to the explosive events of the first film. Newt reluctantly enlists himself to aid the formidable Hogwarts Professor Albus Dumbledore (now played by Jude Law) in the pursuit of Credence, which itself will contribute to the fight against Grindelwald, with whom Dumbledore shares a difficult, complicated past.

In a story that stretches from America to London to Paris, and filled with labyrinthine family histories, deepening mysteries, mounting doom, simultaneously sobering and terrifying political allegory and a profoundly sweeping and longing sense of romance and growing destiny, David Yates' "Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald" is a more than worthy addition and extension of  J.K. Rowling's Wizarding World as this second installment not only informs the first film, I greatly appreciated how meticulously Rowling conceived of a history to her own invented universe--much like George Lucas' "Star Wars" prequel trilogy (1999/2002/2005)--and therefore, how handsomely David Yates visualized that history.

As with what we have all come to expect from this series of films, especially with each installment Yates has helmed, "Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes Of Grindelwald" is a gloriously mounted production, filled end to end with seamless special effects, splendid production and costume design, and elegantly Gothic Cinematography by Philippe Rousselot. Whether by greater intention or through the design of Rowling's narrative or even some combination of both, all of the problematic elements of the first film have been eradicated as Yates propels this second chapter with an intense verve that was instantly captivating, and only continued to keep me enormously involved, all the way to the film's startling conclusion/cliffhanger.

All of the film's performances are first rate and filled with a commitment   Mostly, and happily, I found myself greater attached to the character of Newt Scamander himself and therefore Eddie Redmayne's full performance, which I am now gathering is not necessarily a leading performance but one that is an essential piece of a larger ensemble and growing narrative. I struggled with this character the first time around yet this time, I firmly embraced him as I could now see him in a much clearer light as well as one that served a clearer purpose for the larger narrative as a whole.

Indeed, Newt Scamander is that eternal misfit, the one who wishes nothing more than to be left alone to care for his fantastic beasts, perhaps seeing himself more as one of them and less as one of the human wizards he feels to have very little in common with. Close interpersonal relationships for him are rare as he is often so misunderstood and from his own vantage point, humans and their foibles, desires, and faults mean little to him. But he is human, living in a society of humans and what does his reluctance to engage himself within the larger world mean when that very world, and everything inside of it--including the fantastic beasts he loves so dearly--is threatened by a rising fanaticism and fascism? Are the sidelines he craves to cling to a realistic venture in a world like this? 

This quandary is precisely the one Dumbledore has presented to him and over the course of this film Newt is indeed forced to take an active role in the world he wishes to live in, or to eventually be trapped in a world he never made. It is here where both Rowling and Yates have inserted a strong cultural critique and political allegory, as Grindelwald's gradual rise to power and indoctrination of pureblood magical humans into his regime for the purposes of wrestling societal control over all non-magical people through divisive, fear mongering rhetoric showcasing the non-magical as the "other" to be subjugated and ultimately, eradicated. Sound familiar?

Grindelwald's Nuremberg styled rally, depicted late in the film, is clearly designed to evoke responses and comparisons to the fascistic demonstrations of the past and present day, as are other plot points on this wizarding world of the 1920's including the illegality of having magical and non-magical people being able to wed (thus giving the relationship of Jacob and Queenie a more turbulent urgency) and Rowling and Yates also include something that is akin to elements of a slave narrative regarding the complex, intertwined blood lines that exist within the Lestrange family, as represented by Leta Lestrange (Zoe Kravitz) and the French-Senegalese wizard Yusuf Kama (William Nadylam), who is also on the hunt for Credence and may possess a familial connection to both Credence and Leta.

For Newt, "Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes Of Grindelwald" represents a moral line in the sand, and for that matter, also for Jacob, Queenie, and Leta, as they each reconcile themselves as to which side of history do they wish to align themselves; the side of fear, hatred, racism and totalitarianism or the side who fought, potentially to the death, against everything Grindelwald is and represents.

Even with the precarious state of the world within this film, I was honestly surprised and therefore, greatly pleased that Rowling and Yates were committed to making time for love--albeit an aching sense of romantic longing that allowed "Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes Of Grindelwald" to possess an often painfully melancholic heart, much like what Rowling beautifully executed in the guise of her literary pseudonym Robert Galbraith in the current "Cormoran Strike" novel, Lethal White (2018). 

In addition to Jacob and Queenie, whose own relationship is severely tested during this film, we are also given Newt himself, torn by the memories of his past (and possibly lingering) love for Leta Lestrange, who is now engaged to wed Newt's older brother, the British Ministry of Magic Auror Theseus Scamander (Callum Turner). Additionally, there exist Newt's new romantic feelings for Tina Goldstein, who also quietly harbors romantic intentions for him in turn.

We have the shadowy past relationship between Dumbledore and Grindelwald, fully explained within the Harry Potter novels but I would not dare spoil here, of course and yet will undoubtedly have to play a larger role over the next three film installments. And then, there is the story of Credence himself, a figure desperately attempting to understand his own lineage and therefore why he was abandoned in the first place. Credence's search for what is his place in the universe, the existential journey of all of the film's characters, and therefore, for all of us as well. 

Enormously entertaining and strongly substantive, J.K. Rowling and David Yates' "Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes Of Grindelwald" is the installment where this series begins to find its footing, suggesting (hopefully) greatness to arrive over the following three films while also creating a complete, and first rate, cinematic experience in this singular chapter.

J.K., I knew you wouldn't let me down!

Monday, April 1, 2019


The main event is almost here!

While we can easily discuss and even debate the artistic legitimacy of having no less than 21 Marvel Comics films all  now existing as lead-ups, Directors Anthony & Joe Russo's "Avengers: Endgame" is unquestionably the one we have all been salivating to see, especially since the unpredictably devastating conclusion of "Avengers: Infinity War" (2017). 
With a reported running time of more than three hours, "Avengers: Endgame" has been promised by the filmmakers to be the proverbial "line in the sand" for the Marvel Cinematic Universe as this feature will draw to a close certain aspects and characters while setting the stage for what could follow from this point. Whatever the Russo Brothers have planned, it already feels that it will be one to remember as well as experience again and again.

Surprisingly, and since this film will not arrive until nearly the very end of the month, I really have no other films planned to screen in my personal pipeline as the ones I know about have not sparked much of an interest.

Although, there is one...
I stumbled upon a trailer for a new independent film entitled "The Public," Written and Directed by Emilio Estevez, which tackles the American homelessness crisis and the necessities of maintaining our public libraries...and after watching this trailer, I was very intrigued.

Due to the relative "small-ness" of the film compared to something like "Avengers: Endgame" as well as the lack of arthouse cinemas, I am curious if this film will even make the theatrical rounds. But, if it does, and if it indeed makes it to my city, I would love the opportunity to check it out.

With that, this is all I have planned but if something else should arrive, I'll try my best to patch it into this month's activities. So, as always, wish me luck and I'll see you when the house lights go down!