“The Hundred-Foot Journey” Review!

Happy Bastille Day to all my French readers and viewers! I myself am not French nor of French descent (as far as I know, anyway), nor have I ever been to France, and I can’t even speak French.

Why, then, am I dedicating an entire blog post to the French holiday?

Simply because I have recently discovered a gem of a movie, a precious treasure that I have savored, and that must be shared with all of you. This film is The Hundred-Foot Journey, a beautiful film set in the wonderland of picturesque villages, open-air markets and sprawling vineyards and orchards that is rural France. And, parts of it also take place on Bastille Day, so that was all the connection I needed: I had to talk about this film eventually, so this seemed like the most natural place to do so. Allow me to explain why this film is necessary viewing – or, at least, why I feel that it is.

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The Hundred-Foot Journey is not a new film: it was released in 2014, had a small but comfortable box-office run, and received mixed reviews. We’ll discuss its problems, but first let’s talk about what makes the film so good, so juicy, so delectable. Let’s discuss why I’m using all these references to taste: the film is a love-letter to the culinary cultures of France and India; two very different cuisines wrapped up together in this bite-sized treat. It follows an Indian family emigrating to France, led by their stubborn patriarch, Papa Kadam (Om Puri), who is trying to set up a restaurant where his extraordinarily talented son Hassan (Manish Dayal) can start a career for himself. But when the family ends up, accidentally, in the small village of Saint-Antonin-Noble-Val, they discover that their presence is unwelcome in the closely-knit community: a rival restaurateur by the name of Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren) quickly makes it her business to make the village as hostile to the family as possible, in an attempt to save her own high-end dining establishment from competition. From there, the plot unfolds. There’s romance, drama, and a dash of light-hearted comedy, but it’s all just seasoning on the beautiful three-course meal that is this movie, or should I say – cinematic cookbook.

Technically, the third course is a little more sour than the first two, but we’ll get to that in a minute. Let’s expand on the metaphor for a moment, and revel in the delights of French and Indian cuisine. I recommend that, if you take my suggestion and watch this film ASAP, you should have a delicious meal of your own prepared. It will make you very hungry, I can assure you of that: a film that can make a sea-urchin look like a mouthwatering morsel has done its job well. So well, in fact, that Hassan Kadam is apparently the third-greatest chef in movie history. From his family’s box of heirloom spices to the beautiful cookbooks lent to Hassan by his on-and-off love interest Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon), the film is filled with constant reminders of more great meals to come, even when we’re not actually watching those meals being made – which is often. And each meal is different, depending on who’s making it and who’s eating it: we watch Papa and Hassan’s eyes fill with wonder as they are greeted by their first French dinner at Marguerite’s apartment, where the table is laden with some of the most beautiful cheeses you’ve ever seen; we witness the tension in Madame Mallory’s kitchen as she prepares a special meal for the President of France himself; we rejoice in Hassan’s naive first attempt to master the five basic sauces (which, if my sources are correct, are Béchamel, Velouté, Espagnole, Hollandaise and Sauce Tomat). The entire movie is centered around these quiet, intimate moments when the characters eat, with gusto and an almost holy reverence for what they are tasting. It’s the food that makes this movie so enjoyable – the idea that food is so important, so necessary, to people of all walks of life; to culture and community as well. It can bring people to tears as they recall the ghosts of flavors long forgotten, or it can spark passionate romance and thoughtful meditation. Wine, another staple of French cuisine, has a small part in igniting that romance, though it is largely absent from the hundred-foot journey that the Kadams travel.

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The journey is both physical and spiritual: a journey from one country to another, from one restaurant to another, from one lifestyle to another. Papa Kadam and Madame Mallory’s rival restaurants stand across the road from each other – a road exactly one-hundred feet in width (a fact that is sometimes hard to believe, considering how small the road looks at times). But the two bitter opponents have journeys of self-discovery to travel as well: obviously, I won’t spoil anything that happens in the movie, but there’s a good deal of change and inner turmoil. The rural village is not very accepting of the Indian newcomers, for one thing, and neither party savors the idea of uniting their distinctly separate culinary styles of art.

From a technical standpoint, the film has its fair share of good and bad, like any film. I mentioned that the first two acts of the film (or courses of the meal, if we’d like to extend the metaphor) are the best: the third act isn’t necessarily bad, but it feels very different from the first two – more mainstream, more distanced, more remote. Things are happening on the screen, but we, the audience, no longer feel quite as intimate with the cast (who are all outstanding). I personally think the last thirty minutes shouldn’t have tried to take the film on a completely different course than the one it had been following, up to that point, almost perfectly. Thankfully, the final scene rescues the ending and gives us one scrumptious aftertaste to hold onto, but there is definitely some difficulty getting to that point.

But the first two acts – lovely, sentimental, and enchanting, the very best appetizer and main course that you could ask for. The film also has an ever-so-slightly old-fashioned quality to it: until the final half-hour, it is softly lit and the dialogue is soft-spoken. It’s sometimes difficult to remember that this little indie dramedy was produced by Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey, two giants of the mainstream entertainment industry. Unfortunately, big-name producers don’t always inspire interest from general audiences – James Cameron learned that with Alita: Battle Angel, and Spielberg/Winfrey presumably learned that with The Hundred-Foot Journey, which is sadly neglected, almost completely forgotten, in fact. I don’t even know what inspired me to choose it, almost at random, from a wide selection of films on Netflix – but I am so glad that I did.

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Hopefully, this post will inspire you to check it out for yourself, whether today, on this French national holiday, or any day of the year. I urge you to at least try it. I truly believe your life will be a little better for it.

Movie Rating: 9.4/10

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“Toy Story 4” SPOILER Review!

Okay. Let me just preface this by reminding you that yesterday, when I discussed my overall feelings toward Toy Story 4, I had basically no clue what to say – my mind was still reeling from what I had just seen, and the emotions were still too near, too raw.

Now, I’ve had a chance to think over everything that happened in the movie, and I think I can put into words what I was attempting to explain yesterday – at the very least, I’ll try, and we’ll see how it goes. This is a SPOILER REVIEW, which will make it much easier for me to discuss certain things (obviously), but if you don’t want to know anything about Toy Story 4 I urge you to leave now.

And for those of you who have seen the film already (or simply don’t care about spoilers), then let’s hop on this merry-go-round – sorry, carousel – of emotions.

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First, let’s just discuss one of the overwhelmingly positive things about the movie: the story itself. Never has a Toy Story movie felt so deep and complex, with so much richness of detail – except maybe Toy Story 2, still my favorite of the franchise and the only one  that, in my opinion, perfectly balanced the arcs of our main characters, who were Woody, Buzz and Jessie at the time. Introducing Bo Peep to the story in Toy Story 4 adds a large complexity to this film, as the story has to work overtime to establish her as a character, since – well, she really wasn’t one in Toy Story or Toy Story 2, and she wasn’t even present in Toy Story 3. So this film does have an issue sometimes while juggling the stories of four main leads – but we’ll get to that. Leaving them aside, the plot itself is an intricate web, with a good balance of comedic and dramatic moments: it even turns into an elegant film-noir suspense thriller when our antagonist, Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), enters the picture. One thing I didn’t understand while watching the movie and still don’t understand now is Pixar president Jim Morris’ claim that Toy Story 4 is a “romantic comedy” – I mean, sure, the love story of Woody (Tom Hanks) and Bo Peep (Annie Potts) plays a large part, and tries hard to look like the defining factor in Woody’s eventual decision to leave behind his life as a toy – but it really isn’t. It was inevitable from the movie’s first few scenes that Woody had no reason to stay with his new child owner, Bonnie – he was constantly reminiscing about his better days with Andy, and some of the other toys, specifically Dolly (Bonnie Hunt), were treating him like worthless garbage. The romance only gives Woody additional motivation to leave. So, if anything, the movie feels most like a feel-good motivational film about learning self-value.

A really hilarious one, though: I have no qualms about admitting that Toy Story 4 is easily the funniest entry in the franchise, with a large assortment of brilliant one-liners and running gags – many of them packed into the last twenty minutes of the movie, as Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), Jessie (Joan Cusack), Trixie (Kristen Schaal), and Forky (Tony Hale) team up to try and stop Bonnie’s family from leaving in their RV: what starts out with Jessie merely puncturing the vehicle’s tires and Buzz causing a humorous distraction turns into hysterical comedy when Trixie sabotages the GPS and starts trying to lead the family back to the fairground where they left Woody – “Right! Another right! RIGHT!”, while Buttercup (Jeff Garlin) frantically tries to help by grabbing hold of the accelerator. Eventually cops start trailing the erratic RV, and Forky even locks Bonnie’s dad out of the car – and somehow Bonnie sleeps through all of this. I gotta say, I really felt for Bonnie’s parents in this movie: not only did they have to handle one very hyper and very forgetful child (literally, I lost count of how many times she misplaces her backpack in this movie), but their weekend vacation turned really stressful, really fast. No fault of their own, of course.

But I have to admit, I cracked up when the RV finally ground to a halt at its (a.k.a the toys’) destination, and Buttercup exclaimed “Dad’s totally going to jail now!”.

Just as funny, if not funnier, is the addition of Ducky (Keegan-Michael Key) and Bunny (Jordan Peele) to the Toy Story universe: two lovable plush toys with big egos and laser eyes (no, really!), their back-and-forth repertoire is one of the movie’s highlights – their best running joke is one that we glimpsed a part of in the final trailer, where they attack an elderly lady: as I suspected, this scenario is merely a hypothetical, but it’s actually just one in a long list of different ideas that the duo come up with in order to take an important key from the woman. The other battle-plans that they propose get funnier and funnier, until we culminate in the ultimate horror parody – where we watch the woman lock up shop for the night, drive home down lonely country lanes, eat dinner, take a bath, and settle into bed, all set to some quaint, foreboding music, only to have Ducky and Bunny rise above her pillow as she sleeps – which cuts away as we hear the woman scream in terror. “Yeah, we’re not doing that,” Buzz declares. In the end, they manage to get the key by pure luck, as the woman happens to set it down on the shelf right next to them, but the “ol’ plush rush”, as the fluffy toys call one of their more tame strategic maneuvers, is used twice more in the film: once to help a young child find her parents, and once during a mid-credits cut-scene where Ducky and Bunny imagine themselves terrorizing their human overlords and becoming gargantuan, unstoppable forces of apocalyptic power, equipped with laser eyes. All this is even funnier when you remember that Jordan Peele is a horror-film director himself, and these scenes act as gentle satire of his own preferred genre.

However, I did not expect the rest of the film to also adopt certain horror tropes – most notably with its host of absolutely terrifying ventriloquist dolls, and the scene where Woody wakes up after having his voice-box removed only to find one of these dolls staring down at him with a frightening smile. In fact, those dolls were everywhere – they were used for multiple jump-scare moments, including one in which an unsuspecting woman runs to grab an out-of-control baby-carriage, screaming when she discovers one of the puppets inside it. In fact, the humans of Toy Story were subjected to more unimaginable humiliations and nightmarish events than ever before in the franchise – even leaving aside the many times Ducky and Bunny wanted to burn them all, humans were manipulated, scared out of their minds and left heartbroken by toys in this movie. I felt devastated for one child, Harmony, when she took Woody with her to the park only to have him run away as soon as her back was turned – and then, of course, I hated Harmony when she threw away Gabby Gabby later in the film.

Honestly, Gabby Gabby is probably the franchise’s best villain ever – except for maybe, just maybe, Emperor Zurg from Toy Story 2, because he terrified me as a kid. In general, the new characters are all fantastic: Keanu Reeves’ Duke Caboom does a lot even with limited screentime; Forky is wonderful and must be protected at all costs – and his new girlfriend Knifey, who gets revealed during a mid-credits scene, looks fun too; there are even cameos from Mel Brooks, Carol Burnett and Carl Reiner, though far too brief to make much of an impression; and even Bo Peep’s sheep get personalities.

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Unfortunately, the cast of characters has become so large that it would be impossible to give everyone the appreciation they deserve: Hamm, Rex, the Potato Heads, Slinky Dog and the iconic three-eyed aliens are all completely sidelined throughout the movie, given little or no dialogue (were the aliens even in the movie at all?), and any semblance of character arcs for them are nonexistent. I mean, I don’t know about you, but it makes me really angry that the aliens weren’t part of the film’s finale, as they were in Toy Story 3 – they’re iconic characters, unofficial mascots of the franchise.

I could even have forgiven that, though, if this hadn’t also happened to literally everyone not named Woody or Bo Peep. Buzz Lightyear and Jessie should have been crucial characters in this story’s plot – but the film only tries half-heartedly with Buzz, and it doesn’t even try at all with Jessie. Was I inordinately happy when Woody gave his Sheriff’s badge to Jessie at the end of the movie? Yes! But it felt like a poor attempt to make her seem important: in Toy Story 2, she was the heart and soul of the movie – but here, she was merely one face in an over-crowded ensemble that couldn’t even be bothered to give Buzz Lightyear a decent conclusion. Saying the oft-repeated catchphrase “To infinity and beyond” does not count, in my opinion. But Woody and Bo Peep, well, they got plenty of time to frolic around the fairground, chatting, laughing, and going to nightclubs – where Bo proceeded to treat Woody as her “accessory”.

If I may make a Marvel comparison here, I feel like Woody was both the Iron Man and the Captain America of Toy Story 4: Iron Man because he was constantly being treated poorly by everyone around him – and Captain America because, in the end, he chooses to go off and live the life he always wanted with Bo Peep, abandoning his own “no toy left behind” mantra,  after passing on his responsibilities to Jessie. In which case Buzz is his Bucky, and in both cases neither friendship got to end with any sort of satisfying conclusion to years of emotional, important storytelling.

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As you can probably guess, I’m a little conflicted about the ending: on the one hand, I knew it was coming and I appreciated its bravery. On the other hand, I expected Pixar to handle it a little less roughly and awkwardly than they did – maybe it’s because we did just see this sort of thing in Avengers: Endgame (stop cannibalizing your own movies, Disney!), or maybe it’s because I was dumbfounded while watching it, but it didn’t have the impact I expected it to; not because it didn’t make me cry (it did), but because it didn’t feel final to me. I don’t want this to be the ending – Jessie and Buzz didn’t even get proper character arcs! There were no aliens! There’s still so much story left to tell!

Even if it doesn’t involve Woody or Bo Peep, can’t we get a Toy Story 5 focused on the toys still living in Bonnie’s room? – but no, instead there’s a Bo Peep short film called “Lamp Life” on its way to Disney Plus, where we’ll probably learn more about her escape from the antique store and her acclimation to life as a lost toy. There is also apparently a series of short features about Forky (and presumably Knifey) arriving on the streaming platform as well, which, according to Tony Hale, should have room for tons of cameos from the original cast.

Forky and the Aliens, please?

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“Toy Story 4” Review!

I had a lot of trouble deciding what to say about this movie in a non-spoiler review – I was left completely speechless after the film ended, and for about twenty minutes I still had virtually no words to describe what I had just seen. I was tempted to say that the experience was surreal: watching a franchise that is a dearly beloved part of my childhood…come to an end. But, while it certainly felt surreal at times (how is this happening? This can’t be happening? I’m not actually watching this happen onscreen in front of my eyes? Those were some of the thoughts running through my head while watching), I’ve decided that what was actually most shocking was that this movie, the final chapter in more than twenty years of Toy Stories, didn’t feel entirely final.

Don’t get me wrong: the movie is a very satisfying conclusion to the stories of our protagonists, especially Sheriff Woody (Tom Hanks) and Bo Peep (Annie Potts), who are given the fullest character arcs – for an ornament attached to a lamp, Bo certainly manages to make up for lost time in this movie: somehow, despite the fact that she’s only gotten a handful of lines and a few minutes of screentime in all three previous Toy Story movies combined, she doesn’t feel like a new character; even though, when you think about it, she really ought to. Woody’s story is definitely concluded here as well – the movie’s ending is appropriately poignant and tear-jerking, but it’s fair. It allows you to cry while also reminding you why you should be happy: even if it is hard to feel at all happy.

But what I’m trying to say is that, even as we say goodbye to the individual toys, the Toy Story feels like it’s still going strong – a little more than halfway through the movie, the realization hit me hard: there are a billion topics and themes that could be explored through the eyes of any one of these characters. I can’t even explain exactly how or why this light-bulb went off inside my head, but it completely changed the way I was watching the film: it no longer felt like I was waiting for the inevitable sob-fest and emotional farewells at the end – it felt more like I was watching a new beginning. I think that feeling will wear off as the realization dawns that this is indeed the final chapter, but at least for these blissful moments it’s enough to keep me from crying my eyes out.

All this is not to say that Toy Story 4 feels inconclusive or unfinished: the movie, in fact, is probably one of my favorites in the franchise – still a little behind Toy Story 2. It’s definitely the saddest and funniest installment. There are gut-wrenching emotional scenes (as in, the very first scene of the movie), and there are hysterically funny jokes and running gags. I’m just having a very hard time explaining: and maybe it’s because these movies mean so much to me, on a personal level. I love all of them – except Toy Story 3 – and I love all the toys. All I really needed from this movie were real, satisfying endings to the stories of our main characters: namely Woody, Bo Peep, Jessie (Joan Cusack), and Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen).

I got half of that.

I would be lying if I didn’t admit that Jessie and Buzz don’t really get the endings I had in mind for them: their stories don’t end badly or anything, just not as well as I’d hoped. And I think that’s probably just my own opinion – but I feel like both characters could have gotten more screentime, more attention, than they received in this movie: Buzz was a huge onscreen presence in the first film, and Jessie’s character arc was a major focal point of the second. But Toy Story 4 really has no time for either of them. They have their funny moments, of course, and Buzz even has the beginnings of what looks like an entire subplot, but it just ends up leading right back to Woody and Bo Peep.

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My biggest fear going in, though, was that new characters like Forky (Tony Hale), Duke Caboom (Keanu Reeves), and the comedic plushy-duo Bunny and Ducky (Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key) would hog the spotlight and distract from our main cast of regulars. Having seen the film, I’m just sorry that all these new faces come in too late to be part of that main cast: all four are wonderful, creative and hilarious additions to the franchise. Peele and Key especially get some fantastic moments, when they parody Peele’s own horror movies in a family-friendly, laugh-out-loud manner. Reeves actually has surprisingly little screentime, but just enough to make his character feel worthwhile rather than obnoxious – compare and contrast that with Toy Story 3, in which all the new toys seemed to be constantly stealing valuable moments away from our actual heroes (looking at you, Ken). Sadly, the characters we knew from the first three movies were clearly never going to get that much screentime at all – Rex, Hamm, Slinky Dog, and the Potato Heads do basically nothing at all: I don’t think Mrs. Potato Head (Estelle Harris) even got a single line of dialogue. Even the new toys from the third movie only get a few good moments: specifically, Buttercup (Jeff Garlin) and Trixie (Kristen Schaal). One random character who turned out to be incredibly annoying was Dolly (Bonnie Hunt) who acts sweet on the surface, but is really bossy and not at all empathetic with Woody’s own metaphysical crisis.

As always with the Toy Story films, the villain is superb: Toy Story 4 showcases the series’ first female antagonist, defective antique doll Gabby Gabby (Christina Hendricks), who has made it her mission to kidnap Woody and steal his working voice-box for herself, so she can finally make it out of the dark, dusty store in which she lives. I could sympathize with her pain: the cobwebs in that place were horrifying, even if animated.

The animation is reason enough to see this movie on the big screen: there are times in the film when you think you’re watching a live-action film – especially in the first scene, when it’s raining, and a certain toy is stuck in a gutter, about to be washed away into oblivion; and also for one brief moment, glimpsed in the trailers, where the antique store owner’s cat is stretching in the sunlight – that cat looked eerily real.

That’s pretty much all that I feel comfortable discussing in a non-spoiler review. Obviously, a lot of stuff happens in this movie, and there were a couple of really exciting plot-twists that had me at the edge of my seat (there was also one shocking moment when Bo Peep’s sheep drop to the floor that I felt needed to be mentioned: if you don’t gasp out loud in the theater when you see it, you’re cruel and heartless). I think the movie is really a fantastic film, pushing the limits of what can be done with animation, and I’m pretty confident it will win Best Animated Feature at next year’s Oscars. I’m just not entirely sure how I feel about it as an ending to the franchise yet, because, as I said before, I’m satisfied but I’m not…well, I guess what I’m trying to say is that I’m still expecting something more, and I don’t know what. A Toy Story 5 isn’t happening. I know there will be a Bo Peep miniseries on the Disney Plus streaming platform, alongside a series focused on Forky, but those aren’t really piquing my interest yet: I feel like, if anyone was cheated in this movie, it was Jessie and Buzz. I want a Disney Plus series about them, not the spork! (No offense, Forky).

Well, that’s all for now, at least until I start writing my spoiler review: hopefully my feelings and emotions are clearer by then. But for now…so long, partner.

Movie Rating: 9/10

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“Tales Of The City” SPOILER Review!

I feel absurdly late to this party – the first Tales of the City series came out in 1993, and even this 2019 modernized reboot debuted weeks ago: but because it’s still Pride Month and I only just got around to watching the show, I’m going to trust my instincts, just as Anna Madrigal would say, and try to live by the “better late than never” mantra.

Obviously, SPOILERS AHEAD! If, like me, you haven’t watched Tales of the City yet (stop judging me), then beware! Back away! Avert your eyes!

And for those of you who finished the series ages ago, come on in! Let’s take a leisurely stroll up to 28 Barbary Lane and discuss what happened in a season full of twists, turns, surprises and shocking secrets. And, near the end of our little conversation here, allow me to explain why I think there should be a sequel.

Firstly, let’s talk in-depth about our main leads, specifically Shawna Hawkins (Ellen Page), Brian Hawkins (Paul Gross), Mary Ann Singleton (Laura Linney) and Michael Tolliver (Murray Bartlett). All of them had some great moments, and some genuinely cringeworthy ones, but only Brian and Mary Ann got to fill out a complete character arc, in my opinion, and that’s why they’re my favorites of the show’s leads – excluding Anna, we’ll get to her later. Brian was honestly my least-favorite after the first episode, where he proved himself to be a hypocritical and jealous lowlife who still held a grudge against his ex-wife Mary Ann, after she left San Francisco twenty years prior to start a business. I could even have understood his point of view, had he not been as aggressive as he was, and so over-zealously protective of his and Mary Ann’s daughter, Shawna. Mary Ann, on the other hand, was sympathetic but incredibly irritating; naive, exuberant, ever optimistic (even when the wheels snapped off her luggage carrier), and perpetually unable to sympathize or even understand anyone else’s opinions. The two characters have romantic tension, but their meeting leads to constant bickering and relentless melodrama – which is only exacerbated when Mary Ann discovers that Shawna doesn’t know she’s adopted. One thing leads to another, and before you know it Brian and Mary Ann are back together. That would have been lame and annoying had not the writers and actors done such a good job of portraying the changes in their characters: somehow, by the last few episodes, I found myself waiting for Brian to make jokes rather than start fights (and make jokes he did, providing some of the best comic relief).

Michael Tolliver, the more-than-slightly stereotypical “gay best friend”, takes up a lot of screentime but does basically nothing to move the plot forward, making his story something of a chore to get through. The episodes around the midpoint of the show try especially hard to focus on him for no reason whatsoever, probably only because the last part of the show barely even touches on his subplot. The series’ focus was far too wide in scope, as I mentioned in my non-spoiler review: with two main plots already going on, the subplots generally suffered from a lack of purpose. Tolliver was the most notable example since his story, unlike that of Jake and Margot (more on them later), didn’t even really touch on any of the show’s themes.

Then we come to Shawna. Shawna is undeniably meant to be the series’ heroine, its protagonist, our eyes into this new and beautiful world of LGBTQ+ culture – she doesn’t fit the bill, unfortunately. While Ellen Page is a good actress, her subdued, low-energy approach to the character only served to make Shawna unlikable and, frankly, boring. There were rare moments of levity, usually when Shawna had brief, frantic reunions with her mother, and the two would team up to do something bizarre and hilarious. And then Shawna would randomly turn on her mother, storm off, and descend into a brooding mope. This problem only became worse when Claire Duncan (Zosia Mamet) entered the picture and the two started dating – why these two actresses felt it was necessary to make what should have been the show’s central relationship into slow, angsty staring contests, I have no idea. Every time Shawna and Claire ran into each other, all semblance of energy and liveliness drained away from their already pretty lifeless characters: they would stare at each other, mumble, shuffle around with their hands in their pockets, and then Claire would say something that was clearly meant to be philosophical in an artsy way, but only came off as absurd.

Which is why Anna Madrigal (Olympia Dukakis) became very quickly the heroine of the show, at least for me. She starts off as the centerpiece of the entire story: the other characters might hate each other, but they all love her. The main leads all live at her apartment complex, 28 Barbary Lane. They all come together to celebrate her 90th birthday, which causes the chaos and confusion that follows. She’s not exactly an active character, but then none of the leads are, except in their own subplots – Anna seems even passive at first, when she is blackmailed into selling Barbary Lane: an action which has major ramifications on the plot, sending the others into a frenzy to find new housing. When we learn the truth of Anna’s past, and how she took money stolen from the LGBTQ+ community and used it to pay for surgery, a house, her entire existence – even there, she’s the passive character, as the money was all but forced on her by her distraught partner, Tommy. As a transgender woman in the 1960s, Anna survived only by isolating herself from the people who needed her most, refusing to speak up and take action against violence and oppression. Her entire story is built on her passivity – and she’s not proud of it. She is shamed and consumed with guilt: her arc is all about finding forgiveness, and she is finally allowed that peace when the LGBTQ+ community of San Francisco rallies to save Barbary Lane from demolition in the most heartwarming and powerful scene of the series. Anna passes away in her sleep not long after that: “Anna didn’t believe in coincidence,” Mary Ann says after her death, “so neither shall we.” The emotional sentiment is also used to explain how this diverse, dissimilar cast of characters all ended up under Anna’s protection.

The diverse supporting cast are, without a doubt, the highlight of the entire show. The most relevant are Jake (Garcia) and Margot Park (May Hong), a young couple who live at Barbary Lane and deal with serious issues when the show begins – Jake was a lesbian woman who transitioned into a man, and is now realizing he is gay: Margot was Jake’s girlfriend before he transitioned but is still a lesbian, and doesn’t love Jake in his new body. Eventually, even though both Jake and Margot get forgotten for a good long while in the middle of the show, their storyline is sorted out: they break up peacefully, Margot finds a new girlfriend in DeDe Day (Barbara Garrick), and Jake decides to hold off on being in a relationship. The friendship between these two characters after they split is much more powerful than their romantic bond ever was, and it gives me hope that they’ll both be all right. Other highlights are Mateo (Dickie Hearts), DeDe’s exasperated butler; Ida (Caldwell Tidicue), the nightclub owner who shows up to help save Barbary Lane in the final episode; transgender actresses Jen Richards and Daniela Vega as a young Anna Madrigal and her nemesis Ysela, respectively; and Michelle Buteau as Brian’s sports-loving best friend Wrenita. These diverse characters have to work overtime to sell the premise and theme of the entire show, and each of them does it and, in the aforementioned instances, bring a little extra to the table too.

The show does have an issue with its plot, specifically towards the end when all the family-drama about Shawna’s parents and Michael’s relationship suddenly just goes away, allowing us to finally focus on the real story about Anna’s past and the person currently blackmailing and manipulating her: what started as a feel-good story about coming home to San Francisco takes an abrupt turn when Mary Ann and Shawna have to don disguises to follow a suspicious man, who turns out to be completely harmless and in fact helps the family on their hunt to find the real culprit: suspicion falls on Ysela, who’s still around and helping the homeless, but she proves innocent as well. Only after a bunch of misdirects involving a lot of random art do we finally reach the shocking conclusion that Claire Duncan, Shawna’s boring girlfriend, is actually the one behind all this. The grand finale, when Claire is wrestled into some pink feather-boa handcuffs after trying to demolish Barbary Lane and capture the event on film for her documentary about hypocrisy is…conflicting, to be sure. On the one hand, it’s a lot of fun, especially when Claire makes the mistake of telling the LGBTQ+ protesters that she’ll just edit them out of the footage, which provokes a chant of “We will not be erased!”. On the other hand, she’s like, what, a twenty-something year old living on the streets, and she somehow managed to convince an entire construction crew to help her demolish a building – and her motivation is…what, exactly? I also have to admit that, even though I loathed her character, I didn’t like the fact that she had to go back to her parents in the end, since they pretty obviously despised her with a passion. It’ll only lead to more trouble, is my guess.

Which leads us to our final topic: is there anything in the future for Tales of the City? Well, at the moment, no – with Anna Madrigal gone, the show has lost its most important character, and Barbary Lane has lost the one thing that really held all its occupants together. Without her, there’s not really a story to be told about Barbary Lane: but that doesn’t exclude other topics from being explored. Jake’s unresolved story, Michael and Ben’s on-and-off relationship, Shawna’s adventures beyond San Francisco, Claire’s future, DeDe’s butler, Twintertainment – there’s some stuff there that could be used to craft some pretty interesting stories, or even just a comedic miniseries or two. Garcia has already said he’d up for a spinoff about Jake and Margot.

What do you think? Would you like to see more Tales of the City, or do you think this is the definitive final chapter? Leave your thoughts in the comments below!

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“Murder Mystery” Review!

Where to start with this review? Well, how about this: the movie does not begin on a dark and stormy night – but that’s one of the very few mystery-story cliches it does not tackle in its surprisingly short, swiftly-paced runtime. And I mean, one of the very few: this is a movie that comes packed with all the requisite elements of a classic mystery; from the suave British host to the alluring city-streets of Monaco, illegitimate children of English nobility, enigmatic French detectives and lethal Indian daggers. Every overdone trope gets its moment of melodrama in the spotlight – before it is inevitably wrestled to the ground by hilarious, heartfelt satire.

"Murder Mystery" Review! 8
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But no, our story begins in New York City, with our protagonists: lazy NYPD detective Nick Spitz (Adam Sandler) and inquisitive, bookish hairdresser Audrey Spitz (Jennifer Aniston). The couple are bored and tired in their middle-class American lives, until their wedding anniversary, when Nick agrees to take his wife on a long-awaited European vacation – a honeymoon fifteen years in the making. On the plane, they run into the aforementioned suave British gentleman, Charles Cavendish; elegantly portrayed by Luke Evans, Cavendish is immediately suspect even before Audrey openly states that, with a name like his, he would be the bad guy in a mystery story. Nevertheless, he politely invites Mr. and Mrs. Spitz to be his guests on a private yacht rather than have to spend their honeymoon traveling on a crowded tour bus learning about aged Italian ham.

Naturally, the mystery begins there.

The usual suspects are all present. Aside from Charles, we are presented with prospective-heir-to-a-magnificent-fortune Tobias Quince (David Walliams), Charles’ ex-girlfriend Suzi Nakamura (Shioli Kutsuna), the Maharajah Vikram Govindan (Adeel Akhtar), grizzled war hero Colonel Ulenga (John Kani), the celebrity race-car driver Juan Carlos Rivera (Luis Gerardo Méndez), and the silent Russian bodyguard known as Sergei (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson), plus the film’s most lavish star aside from the three leads, Gemma Arterton, playing…well, the film’s most lavish star, actress Grace Ballard. The actors all get a chance to take themselves far too seriously, as their caricature characters clash (try saying that one three times fast) in a desperate attempt to win the love – and magnificent fortune – of the elderly, steely-eyed tycoon Malcolm Quince. Terence Stamp gives a brief, but almost Christopher Lee-like performance as Mr. Quince, before he is dramatically slain with, you guessed it, the Indian dagger. The scene immediately preceding his death, in which Mr. Quince realizes that he has two unexpected (and decidedly civilian) guests in Mr. and Mrs. Spitz, is absolutely hilarious – Aniston and Sandler are brilliant in their roles, and somehow sell the premise that they are, in fact, the odd ones out on this high-end French yacht full of celebrities and moviestar personalities.

After Quince’s sudden demise, just when the film should really take off, the movie suddenly jolts in the opposite direction – or maybe “jolt” is too strong a word. Our protagonists sort of just…idle, while the plot stands still around them, allowing for a handful of genuinely funny moments, most of them provided by our French detective, Inspector de la Croix (Dany Boon). But while he can blow an impressive smoke-ring, Hercule Poirot he is not. To make matters worse, Sandler’s characters suffers with sleepiness throughout the movie, but seems to get especially lackadaisical just when things get interesting. With a little less than an hour left, the movie suddenly remembers that it is, in fact, supposed to be entertaining: like a crimson Ferrari gunned into action (that metaphor will make sense later), the story gets fun, fast. We’re treated to another death, an obligatory escape-out-the-window scene in a luxury hotel, and hysterical humor. From that point on, except for some unnecessary marital drama, Murder Mystery gleams. Most of the film’s best material is packed into the last thirty minutes.

The high-points of the movie are the performances, and the finale: Aniston, Sandler and Evans are all exceptional – Evans does grow less so as the movie progresses, and his dashing elegance is, unfortunately, never shattered with comedic precision, but his charm is enough to make up for that. Many of the smaller roles are enjoyable to watch: Akhtar’s Maharajah is delightfully cool; Arterton is blessed with a large enough role in which to show off her range; and, as previously noted, Stamp gets one delectably funny scene, which he dominates. Only Ólafsson and Méndez are forgettable in their roles.

As for the finale – well, I did not actually guess the murderer’s identity correctly. But I loved the way that, even in its closing minutes, the movie had time to turn the tables on one more mystery cliche: and it’s a good one, too. There’s an excruciatingly funny car chase as well, involving one beautiful red Ferrari – I was not expecting goats, but I got goats, and I loved them. The film’s final scene can be read as either a tease of sequels down the line, or just a loving nod to the genre; an apology, of sorts, for all the mischief and madness committed in the name of mystery.

So, is Murder Mystery worth seeing? Well, if nothing else, it will definitely have you smiling and probably laughing out loud in its best moments – it’s not brilliant, and it’s not even the most brilliant use of satire, but it is heartfelt and heartwarming. Sandler and Aniston make a great duo, and have a fun supporting cast. So if you’re an insomniac on a dark and stormy night, why not check it out?

Movie Rating: 6.5/10

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“Aladdin” Movie Review!

"Aladdin" Movie Review! 9
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The 2019 live-action of Aladdin has been walking a fine line with critics the past few days, and continues to hover uncertainly – personally, my own review will be a little more positive than many, but I’m not going to let the film entirely off the hook. It had the chance to truly be “A Whole New World”, but it was too tentative to make the leap – Aladdin’s little pep-talk about “do you trust me?” and all that would have really come in handy when the screenwriters were handling this project.

The film starts out a little shaky, going from a visually-stunning glimpse of the nightlife of Agrabah and the various things that our characters are doing before their part in the story begins, to a somewhat-awkward dance number in the marketplace as Aladdin (Mena Massoud) and a disguised Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott) run from armed soldiers. The film then briefly tries to imitate the 2017 mega-hit Beauty And The Beast by having its protagonist sit in a window and talk about his deceased mother, and the melodies she would sing to him when he was a baby – and, of course, Jasmine’s mother used to sing the same lullabies…a lot of bonding over dead parents happens in this scene, and it felt very formulaic and dull.

Then, suddenly, things start moving, and the plot jumps into gear. There’s theft and a daring palace heist, and royal visitors from…Scotland? Aladdin is trying to survive on scraps, while Jasmine enjoys a life of splendor and majesty – but she yearns to go out onto the streets and help her starving people, who are seemingly oppressed by the Vizier, Jafar (Marwan Kenzari). Exactly why Jafar is oppressing the people is, unfortunately, never explained, nor do the starving people of Agrabah really play much of a part in the story, despite the fact that protecting them is Jasmine’s greatest motivation throughout the film. It would have been truly wonderful to see Jasmine’s connection with the citizens continue to develop as she is in turn disenfranchised and robbed of her own privileges. Sadly, it’s only the first of many things that the film suggests in subtext but never explores.

Aladdin himself is okay through the first act of the movie, decent in the second, and good in the third: Massoud is charming and endearing, and his humility and awkwardness makes him especially fun to watch – the movie does strip those traits away from him pretty abruptly at one point, but Massoud’s acting is just good enough that he can get away with it. He’s also undeniably helped by the fact that he is accompanied by the requisite Adorable Animal Sidekick, and the…Adorable Fabric Sidekick? I am, of course, referring to Aladdin’s pet monkey Abu and magical rug, Carpet: both of whom have numerous opportunities to show off their skills.

Massoud’s Aladdin, however, never comes close to approaching the true grandeur that is Naomi Scott’s Jasmine. An elegant and confident character, Jasmine is so unexpectedly fresh that she never actually felt like the original 1992 animated Jasmine…she was better. Scott, in fact, is so good that she could easily warrant an entire sequel or spin-off series about her character: she is a clear thinker and a strategist, with fierce determination; the type of Princess that needs to be – and can be – the new norm from Disney. Unfortunately, the limitations of film require that only a small part of Jasmine’s personality and backstory can be shown onscreen, but I would have gladly learned more about her mother’s native kingdom, the one that Jafar desperately wants to invade (for unexplained reasons), or her attempts to help the city’s inhabitants while disguised. The film wastes very little, but still too much, time on her prospective suitor Prince Anders (Billy Magnussen) of Scotland, an incredibly forced and unfunny character. Jasmine, however, does get to have relatively fleshed-out relationships with her father, The Sultan (Navid Negahban) and her handmaiden Dalia (Nasim Pedrad), both of which lend more facets to her already multi-faceted character and help to make her, without a doubt, the movie’s standout performance.

Naomi Scott is also blessed with a beautiful singing-voice: Jasmine’s new song “Speechless” is a powerful shout-out to all people who have been victimized, and whose stories have been silenced – but especially to women, in this age of #MeToo. This song is too good to be sung only once, and happily we get to see two renditions of it in the film (after which, it can be listened to on repeat for the rest of eternity). Scott also lends her vocals to “A Whole New World”, the film’s defining moment, but Massoud is actually a good singer on his own too.

The dance-numbers and songs are fantastic, and all feel very new and exciting – except, perhaps, “A Friend Like Me” and “Prince Ali”, both of which look and feel much like they did in the animated film. The music is a highlight – but how could it go wrong with Alan Menken composing? Costuming and production design are very much Hollywood quality, but with a beautiful and authentic Bollywood flair that lends the film something unique, something that Beauty And The Beast does not possess. But what else does Aladdin have, other than that and Naomi Scott?

It has Will Smith.

Yes, we laughed at his first appearance in the trailers, and we continued to laugh well after that. But hey, first impressions can be deceiving, and Will Smith proves that with his incredible performance as The Genie. To follow in the footsteps of an icon like Robin Williams is probably no small feat, and Smith clearly knows that – rather than trying to imitate Williams, he brings something new, something iconic of his own, to the character. Whether the critics and the general audiences will like that, remains to be seen – because despite the fact that the movie is named for the endearing street-rat Aladdin, and despite the fact that Naomi Scott steals the show with pride, Will Smith is the star. He’s also probably the most heavily-criticized part of the movie, whether people are merely joking about his CGI smoke-cloud, or getting fussy about his decision to add rap to his musical numbers (about that, that whole “issue” was completely overblown: if you’re worried about it, just leave before the credits roll).

Thankfully, the movie has Scott, Smith and the Bollywood vibes going on. Jafar is a bit of boring villain, even with new elements added to his backstory: again, there was a lot of opportunity to make him a sympathetic and relateable villain, but the film doesn’t take the extra step that’s needed to make this work. The script has some flaws, and a bit of the dialogue is cringey, especially in the first thirty minutes of the film. The end of the film might have needed a bit more buildup – I, for one, was completely confused as to how everything was going to work out, and not exactly in a good way.

All in all, Aladdin has all the ingredients to make a great film, but it only nervously tests the waters, trying to play it safe. With two great leads and one good one, plus fantastic songs, the movie manages to be very enjoyable (I can’t stress that enough; I enjoyed myself immensely) – but it’s not quite the Whole New World we were hoping for.

Movie Rating: 7.5/10

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“Wine Country” Movie Review!

Get ready to clear a space in your itinerary for this brilliantly funny day-in-the-life story. The premise of Wine Country is simple – a group of women come together in Napa Valley for a birthday party, but soon find themselves arguing bitterly and turning on each other, as their frantic schedule of wine-tasting, sightseeing and accidental art shows becomes too much for them to handle. Hysterical mayhem ensues.

The writing is what makes Wine Country so appealing: the dialogue is hilarious, but extremely real. All the subtle movements of conversation, the awkward pauses, the interruptions, the mumbled whispers: they’re all there. The situations in which the women find themselves are always real – whether they’re discovering the meaning of life in the eyes of a raccoon, or a stranger in the house wielding a dead cuttlefish. It was one particular scene, early in the film, when the group goes out to a restaurant, that confirmed to me that the writing was perfect – that scene was identical to many family reunions I’ve attended.

However, it’s not until the tarot-card reader arrives that the movie suddenly…has a plot. Up until that point, the story is episodic and uneventful, we have no clear grasp on the characters, and we don’t even really get the sense that they’re stressed out – well, except Catherine, but we’ll get to her in a moment. But after the cards have been read, leaving them all with a deep sense of dread and impending death, the women are suddenly at each others’ throats, and the plot suddenly jumps into action and doesn’t ever slow down again. This might have been jarring, if the tarot-card scene hadn’t been phenomenal. Lady Sunshine (Cherry Jones), their reader, is one of the standouts in Wine Country, with her deadpan delivery of depressing news and her chipper smile as she announces the price of the reading. This scene is one of the best in the movie, and really jump-starts everything that happens next – as the women inevitably take the message of the cards to heart.

As for the women themselves, they work best when they’re a team, but they’re worth talking about individually because a lot of them really are that good. Obviously, I have to mention Amy Poehler and Tina Fey first, but I’d really rather not. Fey is just fine as Tammy, the rough-and-tough cowgirl who acts as a mentor to the women, and she manages to get some impactful and funny material to work with, but her performance is, for the most part, uninspiring. Poehler is great to begin with, playing Abby, the group leader and party planner who makes it her responsibility to get her team moving frenetically around Napa – but then somewhere in the third act her character just seems to dry up, and Poehler’s acting became forced and cringey: she tries to have an emotional monologue about climate change and first-world-problems, but it sounds unnatural and scripted – a lot of the best acting in the movie is that which feels improvised, and Poehler’s often doesn’t.

Maya Rudolph and Paula Pell, however, have a lot more to offer: Rudolph’s character Naomi is irreverent and relateable – even as she struggles with personal issues. Each character has a moment in the spotlight, and Naomi’s is definitely her drunken birthday-speech where she manages to fall off a piano – or is it her third-act encounter with a poisonous snake? Or perhaps the scene where she confesses how terrified she is of death? She has a lot of great moments. Pell has almost as many, playing the confident, boisterous, and energetic Val, who falls in love with a modern artist and then has to deal with the fall-out.

Catherine and Rebecca, are the best characters on the team, memorably portrayed by Ana Gasteyer and Rachel Dratch, respectively. Gasteyer’s workaholic character is the outcast in the group, constantly leaving to take important calls or trying to convince her friends to do things none of them want to do. Dratch, on the other hand, plays the timid life-coach and birthday girl, whose attempts to keep her friends in check by offering them “feedback” only succeed in making her the target for all their pent-up anger and resentment.

Meanwhile, Emily Spivey portrays Jenny, the final member of the team, who has virtually nothing to do. For what it’s worth, she does a good job with what she’s got, but the role is so underwritten it’s hard to tell.

Wine Country manages to pack a delightfully entertaining punch, even with a few missteps in pacing and character development. Add it to your schedule if you’re looking for a hilarious comedy about friendship, loyalty, and female bonding, all set against the beautiful backdrop of Napa Valley’s rolling hills and vineyards.

Movie Rating: 8.5/10

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“Avengers: Endgame” Spoilers! Everything That Happened!

Well, this is going to be much easier to write than my non-spoiler review! Avengers: Endgame has so many twists, surprises, reveals and gasp-out-loud moments that it’s simply impossible not to talk about. So you, casual reader, have been warned! If you haven’t seen the movie yet – stop reading, leave, go see Avengers: Endgame and then come back.

So we’re just going to talk about the general plot, which has been, of course, a closely-guarded secret: I’ll probably have many other theories and interesting bits of news to share as more details about the movie come out, but for right now I think I should do my best just to explain everything that happened. It’s a very complex movie!

Endgame opens on the day of Thanos’ infamous Snap, with Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) forced to witness his entire family get turned to dust, along with half of the world’s population. Then, the movie leaves him there, heartbroken and confused, so it can return to the really important stuff.

Did that sound unnaturally harsh to Hawkeye? Yes, intentionally so. He wasn’t my favorite character in this film, I can tell you.

So anyway, then we continue on, shortly after the events of Avengers: Infinity War, with Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) and the murderous blue assassin Nebula (Karen Gillan) both stranded in space, getting along pretty well. Within a few minutes, they are rescued by Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) who carries their spaceship to earth, where Tony is reunited with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow). Together, the remaining Avengers put together their master plan to defeat Thanos and resurrect the Vanished. Everything goes smoothly: they quickly figure out where Thanos is hiding, on a planet called The Garden. Energy signatures suggest that Thanos has in fact used the Infinity Stones he collected in Infinity War again, but no one knows why. Therefore, the Avengers head off into outer space to find and defeat Thanos once and for all.

They find him on The Garden, an undefended paradise planet where the Mad Titan has taken up gardening and cooking as his chief hobbies. The Avengers blow up his house and hold him captive, demanding to know where the Infinity Stones are. The maimed and injured Thanos informs them that he destroyed the Stones not long ago, to prevent any chance of ever undoing the Snap. (This raises some important questions, such as: how does the universe survive without these apparently crucial elements of its existence?, but these questions aren’t answered).

Horrified by this answer, Thor (Chris Hemsworth) promptly beheads the Titan and leaves the house, striding away in silhouette.

This, of course, all happens in the first act of the movie, and then the screen fades to black, and the ominous words FIVE YEARS LATER slowly appear. That’s right, the rumors of a huge time gap between Infinity War and Endgame were correct: five years of grief and despair set in on the planet Earth, splitting up the Avengers once again and causing some bizarre stuff to happen. Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) rather randomly merges himself with the Hulk, combining his brains and the Hulk’s brawn to create Professor Hulk, a somewhat unusual character who might have needed just a little more CGI magic; Thor gains weight and becomes an alcoholic living in a fishing village in Norway with the last refugees of Asgard – including Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), who unfortunately has far too little to do in this movie, and Korg (voiced by Taika Waititi), who has even less to do. Conveniently, it’s never once explained how either of these characters got off the besieged spacecraft where we last saw them in Thor: Ragnarok, or how they got to Earth. Hawkeye gets a mohawk and tattoos, and decides to pursue a life of crime in the streets of Tokyo under the name of Ronin. This is honestly so irrelevant, but it’s worth mentioning because…scratch that, it’s just irrelevant. Captain Marvel heads off into space for unknown reasons. Tony Stark gets married to Pepper and has a daughter named Morgan, and the whole family settles down somewhere by a lake. Captain America (Chris Evans) joins a therapy group, which also happens to be attended by Joe Russo, Avengers: Endgame director, who makes a cameo here as a man struggling to find love in this bleak and hopeless world.

And at this moment, when all seems lost, Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) shows up, saved by a stray rat. Having been trapped in the Quantum Realm for five years, Ant-Man knows nothing about Thanos, the Infinity Stones, the Snap – or the fate of his own daughter, Cassie. She turns out to be alive, in fact, but she’s now a teenager, nothing like the chirpy child that Ant-Man last knew in Ant-Man And The Wasp. His reunion with Cassie is one of the movie’s first truly emotional scenes, and sets the stage for what’s about to go down. He arrives at Avengers HQ with a new hope for the future: time travel is possible, but only by using the power of the Quantum Realm. His message revitalizes the Avengers in their darkest hour, and Captain America and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) start rounding up all their friends, seeking to reverse the Snap by going into the past and getting each of the Infinity Stones before Thanos.

Naturally, things don’t go exactly as planned. Tony Stark and Captain America don’t ever fully forgive each other for the Civil War they caused, which is one of the great tragedies of Endgame: Stark is unwilling to go back and reverse the Snap because he doesn’t want to lose everything he has now; his wife and daughter. Black Widow goes to Tokyo to find Hawkeye (or Ronin, or Irrelevant, or whatever you want to call him), and enlists him, while Professor Hulk manages to stir Thor from his drunken stupor in Norway long enough to get him back to Avengers HQ.

At this point in the movie, things are looking pretty terrifying: literally, as well as figuratively – Hawkeye looks awful in a mohawk, and Thor is not exactly the tall and muscular Norse God he once was. Tony’s hair is graying, and Black Widow’s hair is so many colors I’ve lost count.

But finally, after much trial and error (and Ant-Man getting turned into a baby, and some brief discussion about murdering a baby), the plan is ready to go. It’s best to just ignore how the time travel in this movie works – something about how changing an event in the past doesn’t actually change the future, but instead causes an alternate reality, which is itself dangerous, but not as dangerous as, say, accidentally murdering yourself in the past (a real concern of Nebula’s, as it turns out).

Tony Stark, Captain America, Professor Hulk and Ant-Man travel back to the Battle of New York, a crucial event in the first Avengers movie, in search of the Space Stone, Mind Stone and Time Stone. War Machine and Nebula (a bizarre pair, but rather endearing) set off to the planet Morag, where, in Guardians of the Galaxy, the Power Stone was once located. Thor and Rocket Raccoon hunt for Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), who was possessed by the Reality Stone in Thor: The Dark World. And Hawkeye and Black Widow are sent by Nebula to the planet Vormir to find and win the Soul Stone.

I’ve already mentioned Portman, but it’s incredible how many actors and actresses have reprized roles from previous Marvel movies: Robert Redford shows up as the HYDRA operative Alexander Pierce from Captain America: The Winter Soldier; Frank Grillo is Crossbones once more, and has a truly fantastic encounter with his future enemy Captain America in an elevator very much like the one where, in Winter Soldier, he and his cronies beat up the Captain during the HYDRA takeover of S.H.I.E.L.D. This time, however, Cap is able to escape by whispering the password “Hail Hydra”, in a clever nod to the previous movies. Tilda Swinton puts on her saffron robes and bald-cap once more to play the Ancient One, who died in Doctor Strange, but is still keeper of the Time Stone during the Battle of New York, and has a great conversation with Bruce Banner before relinquishing the Stone, entrusting him with a promise to return all the Infinity Stones to the exact time and place they were taken from after they’re used to reverse the snap – didn’t I say, just ignore the time travel science? Rene Russo also appears as Thor’s dead mother Frigga, and is able to impart some wisdom to her misguided son (including, but not limited to, “eat a salad”). Their appearances here are brilliant nostalgic callbacks to the First and Second Phases of the MCU. And you never get the sense that they’re just replaying what they did in those prior films: each of them brings something new to the table. My personal favorite, though it was the briefest, was the mostly offscreen attack on Jane Foster by everybody’s favorite trash-panda, Rocket Raccoon, who runs off with the Reality Stone just in time.

Thor and Rocket are the luckiest of the team. Captain America ends up coming face to face with himself in the past; Tony Stark gives himself cardiac arrest; and Loki (Tom Hiddleston) escapes with the Space Stone, forcing Tony and Cap to go further back in time to 1970, where they have to infiltrate S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters: there, Tony runs into his own father, Howard Stark (John Slattery) and gives him parenting advice, and Captain America accidentally ends up in the office of his former girlfriend Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell) – plus, there’s an awesome Stan Lee cameo, and young Michael Douglas playing the original Ant-Man, Hank Pym.

Meanwhile, on the planet Vormir, Hawkeye and Black Widow’s story suddenly reaches the conclusion that nobody even knew was still coming – after all, Hawkeye and Black Widow haven’t been a couple for years, and there’s never been much of a concerted effort to get them back together, or even to hint at any shared romantic tension between them. Which is part of the reason that the following plot point falls rather flat – no pun intended, as you’ll soon see. Yes, because to get the Soul Stone, you must sacrifice that which you love – specifically, you must throw the person you love over a cliff. Hawkeye and Black Widow suddenly find themselves in an emotional mess, as both of them try desperately to commit suicide and prevent the other from also dying.

The fight that follows is actually really dramatic, and I was on the edge of my seat wondering how they were going to find a way out of the inescapable scenario. But I soon realized there was no happy ending – just as Hawkeye takes the leap, Black Widow jumps on him, and both accidentally fall off the cliff. Hawkeye just barely manages to get out his grappling hook, and they find themselves hanging in mid-air. Black Widow pleads with Hawkeye, telling him that he has a family that needs him, while she has nothing to live for. Finally, she lets go of his hand and falls to her death.

And, yeah, that’s how she dies. Black Widow, Natasha Romanoff, the first (and for a while, the only) female Avenger, dropped from a cliff so she can serve as a cheap tool to move the story along. Hawkeye gets the Soul Stone, and leaves Vormir, abandoning Natasha’s broken body on the rocks – a woman deprived of a character arc for years, now suddenly is forced back into an old romance so she can get killed off at the first possible opportunity, far from her home planet, somewhere in the desolation of space where no one will ever bury her bones. It’s not just sad and shocking, it’s a death that shouldn’t have happened, and it’s already become a topic of much controversy.

It’s hard to move on from something like that, but of course Black Widow’s death is not the most significant event here: that would be too much to ask for. Her death doesn’t move the plot except to deliver the Soul Stone into Hawkeye’s hands, and the Soul Stone is just another part of the Infinity Gauntlet, which now only requires one more Infinity Stone.

We left Nebula and War Machine on the planet Morag, and here we find them again. War Machine manages to escape with the Power Stone, but Nebula is unable to get away from the planet. Turns out, she’s not the only person looking for the Stone at this time – Thanos, Gamora (Zoe Saldana) and Nebula are here too. Yeah, Thanos: this is 2014, and the Mad Titan is still on his hunt for Infinity Stones. And this other Nebula is Nebula before she turned against her father. This Nebula (we’ll call her Evil Nebula) ends up revealing visions of her own future to Thanos, who thus sees everything from the Avengers’ plan to his own death. In an attempt to change his fate, Thanos abducts Good Nebula and holds her captive, while Evil Nebula disguises herself as Good Nebula (by attaching one strip of metal to her head), and travels forward in time to join the other Avengers. This time travel stuff is confusing, but it sure is exciting.

The Avengers are reassembled at their headquarters and start inserting the Stones into their new Infinity Gauntlet. I have to hand it to Mark Ruffalo here – for an entirely CGI construction, Professor Hulk manages to convey the most despairing reaction to the news of Black Widow’s death, and he is the one who picks up the Gauntlet and wields it: immediately, he is tortured with agony as he tries to snap his fingers. He just barely has the strength. While this is going on, Evil Nebula is busy messing with the controls of the time machine, which nobody notices. We hear a snap, something goes flying up from the time machine and smashes through the ceiling, and then all is silent.

Until Hawkeye’s phone starts ringing. For a fraction of a heartbeat, I thought it was somehow (impossibly) Black Widow on the line, but no, it was Hawkeye’s wife, Laura. Outside, birds start singing. But just as you thought you were out of the Soulworld –

The entire building explodes. That thing that Evil Nebula summoned through the time machine? That was Thanos’ spaceship, and he arrives in full glory, blowing up Avengers HQ and crushing everyone under rubble and debris. Far below the building, War Machine and Rocket Raccoon are frantically struggling to escape while Professor Hulk holds up the ceiling of a collapsed room. Hawkeye grabs the Infinity Gauntlet and runs, but quickly realizes he’s being chased by Thanos’ horde of alien monsters. He ends up running into Evil Nebula, who tries to take the Gauntlet from him, and there’s a confrontation in the tunnel with him, her, and also Good Nebula and Gamora herself, who has decided to betray Thanos. Evil Nebula gets shot, which (oddly) has absolutely no effect on Good Nebula, and they all get out of there safely.

Meanwhile, Tony Stark suits up as Iron Man and goes to find Thanos himself, followed by Captain America and Thor. There’s a lot I could say about the confrontation with Thanos, but I’ll keep it brief. They start fighting, obviously, and things starts going badly. Tony gets tossed aside, and Thanos grabs Thor’s own weapon, Stormbreaker, and drives it slowly but surely into Thor’s chest.

And then, suddenly, Captain America jumps in wielding – double take – the Hammer of Thor, Mjolnir, the hammer that can only be wielded by one who is worthy. Thor speaks for everyone when he yells excitedly “I knew it!”. The theater burst into applause at this moment. This is a moment that Marvel fans have been waiting for since it was teased in Avengers: Age of Ultron, and only now have we finally received the payoff. The next few moments are just a blur of lightning and thunder as Captain America goes up against the Mad Titan wielding Mjolnir and his vibranium shield – which soon gets broken to pieces by Thanos’ battle-ax. Thanos steps back and admires his handiwork, and then begins to monologue, as he always does in these types of situations, talking about how he once thought he could save the world. But, he realizes now, there is no chance of that anymore. The world – the entire universe, in fact – must be remade. Entire armies of alien monsters and the full force of the Black Order disembark from Thanos’ spaceship and march towards Captain America, who stands alone against them all.

No words can ever express my shocked, baffled joy when I heard the long-silenced voice of Falcon (Anthony Mackie) saying “On your left” to Cap, as a ring of glowing orange light suddenly opened in the air next to the lone hero. First on the battlefield are Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), Okoye (Danai Gurira) and Shuri (Letitia Wright) representing the country of Wakanda. The Vanished are returning. Falcon appears, and Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), and M’Baku (Winston Duke), and then another portal opens: and there’s Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), Mantis (Pom Klementieff), Drax (Dave Bautista), Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), and Spider-man (Tom Holland). Wong (Benedict Wong) is there, and Wasp (Evangeline Lilly), Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), Valkyrie, Korg, and Pepper Potts herself. Every Marvel superhero is gathered to fight alongside Captain America, Thor, and Iron Man. Ant-Man rescues the Avengers trapped under the building, and so he, War Machine, Rocket Raccoon, and Professor Hulk all join the battle as well. Hawkeye, Nebula and Gamora show up too.

The following fight is the greatest battle in a superhero movie, ever. Every character here has so much depth and so much development that’s been established over so many movies – you know each and every one of them as if they’re old friends, as they charge into the fray. The Infinity Gauntlet is the focal point of the battle, as one hero after another grabs the precious object and tries to get it away from Thanos: even Spider-man has it at one point! You’ve never seen a fight scene with this many characters, this many character arcs coming to a conclusion. There are some great moments here: an especially notable one, in my opinion, was the grand entrance of Captain Marvel herself, as she hurtled through the earth’s atmosphere and plowed through Thanos’ spaceship, before leading all of the Marvel heroines into the thick of the fight. Women were the standouts here: from Gamora’s fantastic reunion with Star-Lord (whom she doesn’t even remember), to Scarlet Witch’s encounter with Thanos, who mockingly tells her that he doesn’t even know who she is. “But you will,” she responds, as she tears away his armor and easily disarms him.

But, alas, these good things cannot last. Thanos gets the Infinity Gauntlet at last, and prepares to snap his fingers and destroy the earth. But Captain Marvel grabs his hand and holds his fingers apart with superhuman strength, as she absorbs power directly from the Gauntlet – so Thanos simply punches her with the Power Stone in his other hand, and sends her flying. The last duel is between him and Tony Stark, the rematch of their fight in Infinity War. Things seem hopeless, and Thanos isn’t oblivious to that fact: “I am inevitable,” he boasts.

Tony realizes he’s unable to get the Infinity Gauntlet off the Titan’s hand – so, using his wits, he simply grabs the Infinity Stones and fits them into his own armor. “And I am Iron Man,” he says, and snaps his fingers.

You know what happens next. You have to know. The Stones are too powerful for anybody to wield, much less a mortal. Tony lives just long enough to see that his sacrifice was not in vain, as Thanos and his minions fade away into dust and vanish. Surrounded by his friends, and with Pepper at his side, Tony Stark, who started these ten glorious years of Marvel history, slips away. The battle is won, but it cost us everything. The world has been saved, but not for Tony. The arc reactor implanted in his chest that has kept him alive all this time…goes dark.

After that, there’s really not much left to say. There’s a funeral, of course, for Tony, and all the Marvel characters are in attendance. Characters get fitting conclusions, for the most part. Thor passes on the rule of Asgard to Valkyrie, who looks particularly majestic and resplendent as she accepts his offer and becomes Queen. Thor then sets off with the Guardians of the Galaxy as they go to look for Gamora, who mysteriously disappeared during the battle. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 obviously has a lot of explaining to do. Spider-man goes back to school, which is presumably where Spider-man: Far From Home will pick up when it comes out a few months from now. Captain Marvel’s whereabouts are currently unknown. Ant-Man’s family is reunited. Hawkeye returns to his wife and children.

And as for Captain America, he gets the most bittersweet ending. He feels it’s his duty to go back in time and return all the Infinity Stones to their proper timelines, so as to avoid, you know, the destruction of the universe. He’s only gone for a few seconds, but it’s a few seconds too many. He returns as an old man, and informs his comrades, Falcon and Winter Soldier, that he was actually gone for years: he lived out the rest of his life with his old girlfriend Peggy Carter, and he finally got to dance with her – after ten years of waiting, it finally happened. Now, as an old man, he’s passing on the Captain America mantle to someone new: he chooses Falcon, Sam Wilson, to be the new Captain. And there the movie ends.

This is only a synopsis, of course, not a full review, but I hope it’s illuminated some aspects and made everything a bit clearer to understand. I’ll have more stuff to share about Avengers: Endgame probably in the coming days and weeks. The fates of each of the characters definitely deserves more attention, so I’ll be exploring that in greater detail very soon! Stay tuned!

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“Avengers: Endgame” Spoiler Free Review!

"Avengers: Endgame" Spoiler Free Review! 10
themarysue.com

Visionary directors Joe and Anthony Russo have done it again, but this time, they’ve really done it.

In my opinion, it would not be an overstatement to say that Avengers: Endgame raises the bar for what can be done with superhero movies – something that has become nearly impossible as films utilize more and more revolutionary storytelling techniques. But Endgame shows what can be done when ten years of story carried over twenty-two movies crash together in a brave, brilliant and fitting fashion – and unfortunately, so much of it is spoilery, this review is going to have some pretty major holes in it, which will only be filled in when you see this film.

And trust me, you should.

If you thought last year’s Avengers: Infinity War took every story strand of the MCU and tied them all neatly together, you’d be wrong. Avengers: Endgame does that, and, unlike Infinity War, gives us a very final, very conclusive way to end this phase of the Marvel Universe – an ending that will make you gasp out loud, it’s that good. Where Infinity War snubbed characters such as Captain America (Chris Evans) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Endgame gives all of the original Avengers enough time to shine in the spotlight. And as for the fate of the universe, well…you’ll just have to watch the movie and find out about that!

There’s a certain urgency about watching this film: spoilers are already drifting out there on the internet, waiting to ensnare the unwary traveler. Go as soon as possible, before you have any of the massive surprises spoiled for you – these are things that truly deserve to be seen for the first time on the big screen. Certain scenes, certain reveals, are mind-boggling only because I was able to go into this movie completely unspoiled, knowing nothing of what to expect.

Now a lot of people have been worried about the length of Endgame, which clocks in at three hours and two minutes. In my opinion, the movie positively flew by, and didn’t feel like it dragged or slowed down at any time. The pacing is fast and crisp. There are also conflicting reports about whether you should stay through the (very long) credits to see what’s at the end. I think that the credits themselves are quite beautifully done, and should not be missed, at least the first few minutes of them. As for the little surprise at the end – well, it’s possibly worth it, but it might not be as it seems, and it might not be what you’re expecting, either. So I won’t say too much.

What can I talk about, then? The plot premise, obviously, is a big spoiler, as the trailers and marketing have (rightly) kept it all pretty vague – don’t trust everything in those trailers, by the way. But let’s see: the music, of course, is quite good, composed by Alan Silvestri once again, and the cinematography is excellent and beautiful. The CGI is incredible, especially on certain characters who I’m not entirely allowed to talk about here.

Characters I am allowed to talk about here include Thor (Chris Hemsworth) who has an interesting new angle to his personality that you’ll either love or hate: Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), whose return is quite refreshing at first but, at least for me, quickly wears off: and the newest addition to the team, Captain Marvel, played by Academy-Award winner Brie Larson, who brings a lot of spunk and energy to the movie even in dark times, and has some very cool scenes. Everybody has something to do in this movie, and no one feels sidelined or thrown-in for the sake of it. Even War Machine (Don Cheadle) finally gets a decent showing. Endgame has great purpose, and knows it. Everything is leading up to one thing, and that thing is-

A spoiler. Sorry!

Do yourself a favor, though, and watch this movie. The surprises are real, the shocks are extraordinary, the gasp-out-loud moments are frequent. You will not be disappointed, whether you’re looking for a drama or a fun action-movie, tragedy or comedy. This movie literally has everything, and I don’t say that lightly. Avengers: Endgame has forever changed the game with superhero movies. In my opinion, this is the peak of Marvel’s success: if, someday, the MCU can replicate this awesome achievement with another movie, they will be the luckiest studio ever. Because this is not an easy movie to forget, and it’s also a movie that demands to be talked about in depth, with no boundaries. Which is why I hope you’ll join me for my Spoiler Discussion, which will hold nothing back! But before you do, go see the movie!

"Avengers: Endgame" Spoiler Free Review! 11
forbes.com

Trust me, you won’t be disappointed. I’m adding Avengers: Endgame to my list of favorite movies today, and for good reason. This is the end of an era, the end of a beautiful story, but it manages to be even more than that – it’s just a fantastic movie overall!

Movie Rating: 10/10

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“Unicorn Store” Movie Review!

Last night, I had the opportunity to watch the Netflix movie Unicorn Store, which stars Brie Larson, Samuel L. Jackson, and Joan Cusack, as well as being Larson’s directorial debut. There’s a lot to say about it.

This movie’s trailers marketed it as a feel-good piece, and it is that – but not all the time. Unicorn Store seems, in fact, unable to decide what genre it wants to be, as it jumps from feel-good to drama to theater-of-the-absurd. It seems to always understand that its premise is wacky and bizarre, best-suited to a wacky and bizarre approach, but it never seems fully committed to being that abstract masterpiece that it wants to be. The tone, and thus the plot, shift awkwardly and uncertainly as the movie tries to be all three genres at once. When it’s absurd, you might have a lady walking around at night carrying a floor-lamp, talking about professional single women being murdered – when it tries to be dramatic, you’ve got emotional and very powerful dialogue between a mother and her daughter – then, when it wants to make you feel good, you’ve got Brie Larson’s character Kit doing an uplifting dance-number with her coworkers. But these shifts always feel peculiar. The delivery man who delivers a mysterious invitation to Kit in the first act seems like an enigmatic character himself – but then, we find out in the third act that he’s just misunderstood and looked down on, and, in fact, he likes to do crossword puzzles, and read. The film’s score takes the opposite journey, from a strangely ominous and eerie sound in the first act, to being light-hearted and cheerful in the third.

Brie Larson makes this movie shine, however, when she feels comfortable being absurd: when Samuel L. Jackson rides in on a scooter, or when Kit and her family sit down to a dinner of kale – these moments are the best, because they don’t try to be anything other than what they are, which is crazy good fun. The humor is brilliant: the troop-circle camping scene is my favorite part of the film, and features some incredible acting from Joan Cusack and Bradley Whitford, who plays Kit’s mother and father.

Cusack, in fact, is the stand-out performance in this movie, as she elevates every scene she appears in, and always has perfect comedic timing. Every time she wasn’t onscreen, I found myself wanting her to return. Unfortunately, she is used sparingly – as is, rather surprisingly, Samuel L. Jackson himself, who plays The Salesman, the man in charge of The Store. Jackson makes the movie crazier and wackier, but the script doesn’t seem to know what to do with him by the end.

This same problem is evident with many of the film’s subplots, of which there are far too many. There’s Kit’s boss, Gary (Hamish Linklater), who is both deadpan and cryptically creepy; there’s the Mystic Vacuums, which dominate so much of the film’s second act; there’s characters like Crystal and Sabrina (Martha MacIsaac), and the aforementioned delivery man, or Kevin, or the other kids on the Emotion Quest camping trip, all of whom look like they’re intended to be cartoonish caricatures, which would be fine and funny, until the movie suddenly decides it wants to do something with them – and then never does. Unicorn Store would definitely have worked a lot better without some of these subplots.

The only side character given enough screen-time is Virgil (Mamoudou Athie), the janitor at the hardware store who is at first suspicious of Kit, and begins to question her sanity. His journey with Kit is a good counterbalance to the craziness and bizarre stuff going on around them, as he tries to navigate the half-fantasy, half-reality environment in which he lives.

The fantasy elements of the movie, namely the Unicorn itself, are peculiar: mainly because the fantasy appears to be metaphorical at first, until it becomes apparent that, no, there really is a unicorn. The resolution to the Unicorn’s story is a spoiler, so I won’t go into detail save to say that it was something of a letdown for me. I can see where it made sense, but I was disappointed and wanted more. The whole reason that the Unicorn exists in the first place is never explained: we are told that Kit always wanted a Unicorn in her childhood, but we get just one montage of flashbacks in the opening scene, and it’s entirely focused on her art – not on Unicorns. And her art is another subplot that the movie drops along the way.

Overall, Unicorn Store manages to entertain, and is wickedly funny, when it feels comfortable being what it takes for granted that it already is. It’s worth watching for the humor, and for Larson and Cusack’s wonderful performances. But it’s odd that, for a movie ostensibly about accepting who you are, Unicorn Store somehow falls short of doing that, and instead tries to be too many genres, all at once.

Movie Rating: 6.5/10

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“The Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King” Throwback

Today is Tolkien Reading Day, the best time of year to go out and read up on the works of the great J.R.R Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. However, if you don’t have access to the books, why not take three hours out of your day to watch one of The Lord of the Rings movies? And since this day is intrinsically linked to things that happened in The Return of the King, Part 3 of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, we’re going to be talking about that film.

Spoilers Ahead!

So let’s start our discussion with a reminder that I am one of those people who read the books first, before seeing the films – but, I am not a book “purist”, someone who believes that everything in the text could have been adapted word-for-word onto the big screen, without any need for changes, additions, omissions, etc.

Now, having watched the film about six-thousand times, I have noticed a number of flaws – little things, for the most part, but we’ll discuss them here: I say “we” because I’m going to be writing this post in Gollum/Sméagol fashion, as an argument between my purist self and my revisionist self. We’ll also discuss a number of scenes that capture perfectly the spirit of the book, and even manage to almost elevate the material (which is so good to begin with).

But, we’ll also talk about the movie in its own right, because it’s just such a good movie. Even if you go into these films never having heard of The Lord of the Rings, or J.R.R Tolkien, you’ll still be swept up into this magical world, and, assuming you’re anything like me, you’ll never leave it again as long as you live. The joy and wonder is still there, every time I open the book or watch one of the movies.

Well, now we’re off at last!

Let’s begin with a breakdown of the plot: the film follows the journeys of a group of Men, Elves, Dwarves and Hobbits as they travel across Middle-earth. Our hobbit protagonist, Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood), carries with him the deadly but beautiful One Ring, an object of incredible power that contains the very soul of the Dark Lord Sauron. Only by destroying this Ring can Middle-earth be freed from the horrors of war and evil that have been relentlessly assaulting it. The film opens with Frodo and his loyal gardener Sam Gamgee (Sean Astin) being led through the dangerous country around the Dark Lord’s realm of Mordor. Their guide? A treacherous and utterly wretched creature named Gollum (Andy Serkis), who once possessed the One Ring and wants it back. Can he be trusted? Can Frodo be trusted? Can anyone be trusted around the Ring? – for the Ring wants to get back to Sauron, and it has the power to corrupt anyone who owns it. By the time we see Frodo here, in The Return of the King, the Ring has betrayed many masters: it was cut from Sauron’s hand long ago but quickly killed its new owner, a man named Isildur – it fell into the River Anduin, and was there picked up by a hobbit named Deagol, who was very soon murdered by his friend Sméagol. Sméagol took the Ring and fled with it into the mountains, and there, dwelling in dark caves and pits, he changed into Gollum – the Ring abandoned him too, though, and was found by another hobbit named Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm), but Bilbo was good enough that he was able to give up the Ring willingly – he gave it to Frodo. But the Ring betrayed one of Frodo’s friends as well, the noble man Boromir (Sean Bean), who tried to kill Frodo in an attempt to steal the Ring.

That is, of course, the main plot: the Ring must be destroyed, but destroying it takes great effort and great willpower. And the only place it can be unmade is in the fiery forges beneath an active volcano named Mount Doom, in the very heart of the realm of Mordor. Sauron dwells here, a giant flaming eye atop a horned tower.

Purist’s Note: in the books, Sauron is not a “giant flaming eye”. He has a physical form, but it is terrible and maimed, because he has been unable to take any shape fair to the eyes of Men ever since he fell into the ruin of Numenor in the Second Age. The Eye is merely a metaphor, in the books, for his piercing knowledge of all things that move on Middle-earth.

Thank you, Inner Purist, for making that clear.

Moving on. Many miles away from Frodo, his other friends are busy fighting Sauron’s vast armies of Orcs, Ringwraiths and Haradrim. Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) is the reluctant King of Gondor who must rally his people to stand in defiance of the shadow. Gandalf the White (Sir Ian McKellen) is the good wizard entrusted with helping all the Free Folk of Middle-earth. Arwen Evenstar (Liv Tyler) is the Elven princess in love with Aragorn, who must choose between an immortal existence with her family, or a mortal life with the man she loves.

But, the fight for victory will not be easy. Sauron has unleashed all of his forces, and they are heading straight for the greatest city in Middle-earth: Minas Tirith, the capital of Gondor. Will Gandalf be able to keep the city’s defenses firm against such reckless hate? Will Aragorn reach the city in time to save it? Will Arwen choose love over the promise of immortality? The stakes are so high, they’re incredible.

Purist’s Note: in the books, Arwen had already chosen love over immortality, many years before the events of The Lord of the Rings. She and Aragorn had been betrothed on the hill of Cerin Amroth, and they had rejected both the Shadow of Sauron and the Twilight of the West.

Yeah, well, that’s not the case here. Here, we have a cast of incredible characters – played by an extraordinary cast – who collide with each other in the most brilliant ways. When the hobbit Merry Brandybuck (Dominic Monaghan) meets Éowyn, shieldmaiden of Rohan (Miranda Otto), will they overcome prejudice to fight in the war for Middle-earth? When Pippin Took (Billy Boyd) swears loyalty to the Steward Denethor (John Noble) will this choice come with a terrible responsibility – to watch as the Steward goes mad and tries to burn his own son alive?

Purist’s Note: well, no, apparently not, because in the movies Denethor releases Pippin from his service – whereas, in the books, Pippin remains in allegiance to Gondor.

This purist is getting on my nerves. You know what, Inner Purist, how about that scene where the Riders of Rohan appear over the hills at dawn and ride down to meet the orcs of Mordor in battle on the Pelennor Fields? Hmm, how about that? Was that not exactly as in the books?

Purist’s Note: well…well, I mean, no, because…

And what about the scene where Gandalf and Pippin discuss the prospect of death, using words directly from the book?

Purist’s Note: okay, that was touching, but the scene itself wasn’t in the books…

How about the scene on Mount Doom? Where Frodo finally stands above the consuming fires, unable to throw the Ring to its destruction? How about when Gollum takes the Ring from him in their last desperate struggle, biting off Frodo’s finger to get the corrupting treasure, dancing madly for joy on the brink of the fire – and falling, to his death? How about that terrifying scene where the Ring sits, motionless, on the surface of the lava, unwilling to be destroyed? And Frodo hangs from the cliff far above, staring down at it, contemplating with himself in those final moments whether he should leap into the fires after the Ring, or if he should take Sam’s hand and be carried to safety? How about that scene?

Purist’s Note: ooh, and how about that tortured look that Frodo gives to Sam as he makes his choice – but then, he reaches for Sam’s hand! And Sam pulls him up! And…uh, I mean, yeah, that scene is fine.

What about the final scene, at the Grey Havens, where Frodo goes off with the Elves to sail across the seas into the West? That emotional goodbye to his friends that has me in tears every time I watch it? That smile he gives as he boards the boat, and you know in your heart that he’s finally going to be healed of all his pain and hurt.

Purist’s Note: and when Sam says “well, I’m back” as he returns to his home, just like in the book…

Well, not just like in the book. If it had been just like in the book, he would have gone home to Bag-end, since in the book he inherited it from Frodo. Also, he should have only had one child at that time, but he had, like, five.

Purist’s Note: well, yeah, but, come on, the emotional heart of Tolkien’s work was all there. Director Peter Jackson could easily have gone for a more traditional route and had them all live happily ever after, but he didn’t. He showed the incredible pain that Frodo went through, and how it could never be healed – unless he left Middle-earth.

Yeah, I know, but Peter Jackson got a lot of things incorrect too. Let’s not forget the infamous scene where Frodo tells Sam to “go home”, which goes against everything in the books. That scene is painful to watch, it’s just so annoying.

Purist’s Note: okay, sure, but don’t forget that that scene was shot really early on, before the actors had any clear idea of the emotional journeys their characters were going on – before Andy Serkis had been cast as Gollum, in fact.

Good point. But how do you explain that scene with the skull avalanche in the Paths of the Dead?

Purist’s Note: wait, I thought you liked that!

I do! But…wait, aren’t you the purist? I feel like things got switched around here. I’m not supposed to be grilling you, it should be the other way round!

Purist’s Note: well, this is pretty normal when dealing with the movies. They’re conflicting, but in the end…they are pretty good movies, even when they’re not great adaptations. And, for the most part, they are great adaptations. Except for…a handful of things.

More than a handful. But, you’re right. No matter how many things might be wrong with the movies, I’m always going to love them. I’m always going to cry when Frodo sets sail into the West, or when Annie Lennox’s beautiful song starts playing over the credits…I’m always going to cheer when Sauron is cast down, and the Eagles rescue Frodo and Sam. I’m always going to feel completely heartbroken after the credits roll, when I realize that the story has finally come to its end. It’s the magic of this movie that makes that possible: you can overlook or even ignore every minor change to a character’s appearance, every faulty line of dialogue, every blunder or misstep. Because the magic is still there.

Purist’s Note: you’re going to tell me what the magic is now, aren’t you?

Yes, I am! It’s the magic of Frodo struggling through pain and torture to do the job that needs doing. It’s the magic of Sam carrying Frodo up Mount Doom, even when all seems lost. It’s the magic of Aragorn going to what seems like certain death so that he can buy Frodo just a little time. It’s the magic of Merry and Éowyn standing up against the Witch-King. It’s the magic of Pippin leaping into the flames to rescue Faramir. It’s the-

Purist’s Note: you’ve gone on long enough. I get it. It’s magic.

It is, and it’s the sort of magic that doesn’t go away, even after multiple viewings.

 

So there you have it: my thoughts on The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. No movie quite compares to it, honestly. It is everything I love about cinema, all rolled into one beautiful movie. From the opening sequence to the moment the screen fades to black, I am entranced, brought into another world, a world that I know and love from the books: not everything from those books made it onto the screen, but that’s okay. This sort of magic is rare. Enjoy it as it is.

Movie Rating: 10/10

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Captain Marvel Review (SPOILERS!)

It’s time to talk about everything that happens in Captain Marvel, so if you’ve not seen the film yet – don’t go any further!

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denofgeek.com

Still here? Good. Let’s dive right in.

So there are several surprises in the movie, obviously: Carol’s backstory was completely unknown to us, so piecing it together is not only an incredible journey but also uncovers a lot of interesting stuff; the truth of the Kree-Skrull War; the history of the Tesseract; a surprise villain; and a very shocking end-credits scene. Not to mention some hints as to what might come next. Let’s break it all down.

For anyone who was confused during the movie, here’s what happened, in chronological order:

Carol Danvers (Brie Larson) was a USAF pilot in 1989 when she and her friend Maria Rambeau (Lashana Lynch) found work testing new aircraft designed by a member of Project PEGASUS: Dr. Wendy Lawson (Annette Bening). Lawson had created a lightspeed engine core for her aircraft which harnessed the power of the Tesseract, the Space Stone – it seems she worked for S.H.I.E.L.D and thus was able to get her hands on the powerful artifact, which allowed her aircraft to fly at seemingly impossible speeds, and even into space. What no one knew, however, was that Dr. Wendy Lawson was a rogue Kree agent, who had discovered that her people were fighting an unjust war against the Skrull shapeshifters: the lightspeed aircraft were designed to be powerful enough to end the war. The Kree found her, however, and intercepted Danvers when she and Lawson were flying one of the test-crafts. Forced to make a crash landing, Danvers and Lawson were injured, but Lawson attempted to destroy the lightspeed core before it could be taken by the Kree. Before she was able, Yon-Rogg (Jude Law) the Kree pilot who had downed their plane, shot and killed Lawson. Carol Danvers, however, was able to destroy the core – but not fully. She absorbed the power of the Space Stone when she blew it up, and was then knocked unconscious. Yon-Rogg, seeing this, took her back to the Kree planet of Hala to try and harness the power she now possessed. By the time we see her in Captain Marvel, Carol has no memories of her past life, and has been completely brainwashed by the Kree.

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The obvious shocker here is that Carol Danvers received her powers from the Space Stone, which could mean that, like Vision and the Mind Stone, she is inextricably linked to that Stone’s power. How will her own powers be affected by the fact that the Space Stone now resides in Thanos’ Infinity Gauntlet? There are differences between this and the situation with Vision: Vision was created by the Mind Stone, given life by it, and when it was taken from him, he died. Carol, however, only got her powers from the Space Stone, and seems to retain them without needing the Space Stone at all. However, this does not rule out the possibility of a link between Carol and the Space Stone in Avengers: Endgame. She should be capable of wielding the Stone, for instance, and that would be quite an interesting possibility.

On a side-note, it’s cool to learn just a little bit more about the Tesseract, between its appearances in Captain America: The First Avenger, and The Avengers. Before Captain Marvel, we all thought it had just been in S.H.I.E.L.D hands up until the time Loki stole it. Little did we know it had started an intergalactic war, created the most powerful entity in the MCU, and been carried around in an orbiting laboratory, a lunchbox, and the insides of a Flerken, in between those two movies.

Speaking of the Flerken, that was one surprise I saw coming: it had been all but spoiled for me months ago, when toys were revealed that showed a muzzled Goose the Cat. Considering that there is only one species of alien in the MCU that takes the form of cats and has tentacles that explode from its mouth, it was pretty easy to guess that cat was a Flerken, especially when early reactions said that Goose stole the show.

The next surprise has to do with the Skrulls: throughout the first half of the film, we think we should be siding with the Kree, even if they are a bit warlike, and their leader, the Supreme Intelligence, is downright creepy. At any rate, it’s quite easy to see that the Skrulls are the bad guys: they’re green aliens who can shape-shift, and they take Carol captive in an ambush. They strap her into a device that makes all of her memories visible to the Skrull leader, Talos the Tamer (Ben Mendelsohn). Like, seriously, with a name like Talos the Tamer, how can you not be a villain?

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But they’re not. Turns out, the Skrulls are the victims of brutal oppression at the hands of the Kree, and they have been scattered far and wide across the universe. Talos himself is looking through Carol’s memories because he’s trying to find Dr. Wendy Lawson’s laboratory, where she was keeping Skrull refugees safe from the Kree. Not only that, but the Skrulls are also incredibly funny, and Talos himself is just hilarious. The Skrulls become instantly likable, especially after we see Talos reunite with his wife and daughter, who have been waiting for him for years.

At the end of the movie, when Carol has defeated the Kree, she promises to help the Skrulls find a new home: we see them vanish into the darkness of outer space, but their destination after that is still unknown.  Where will the Skrulls go? Will the Kree find them? And what about Secret Invasion, the comic-book storyline that everyone and their mother thought was going to be started in this movie: the story where Skrulls infiltrate the Avengers for evil purposes? Well, there are definitely still opportunities for that to happen, even with the Skrulls on the good side for now. It’s possible that other Skrulls could challenge Talos’ peaceful goals, and want to continue their war. It’s also possible, as Grace Randolph of Beyond The Trailer speculated, that Talos’ daughter, who was featured prominently in the film, could turn down a dark path and initiate the Secret Invasion.

Now let’s talk about some other things that I found noteworthy in the film: at the end, when Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace) has been foiled in his attempt to blow up most of the western side of the United States, Captain Marvel hovers above the earth, daring him to try again. This immediately brought to mind the Alpha Flight storyline, in which Captain Marvel and a team of other superheroes act as Earth’s first line of defense against extraterrestrial threats. Whether this will be expanded upon in a Captain Marvel sequel remains to be seen, but I would be here for it.

There’s also two things relating to Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) in this movie that are worth talking about: well, three, really, if you count the fact that we learn here that Fury cannot bring himself to eat toast that is cut diagonally. But we see how he lost his left eye, and how he came up with the name “The Avengers Initiative”. The answer to the first question is simple – perhaps too simple: his left eye was scratched out by that angry Flerken cat Goose. The answer to the second question – well, to call it a question is misleading, since I’m not sure anyone was really asking for an answer, but we got one anyway and I like it – is that Fury was inspired by the name of Carol Danvers’ plane, “Avenger”. It was a very cool scene, right at the end, when the Avengers theme started playing. A great way to finish a great movie.

However…it wasn’t technically the end. There’s a mid-credits scene and a post-credits scene, which we’ll talk about now: the mid-credits scene is actually from Avengers: Endgame. So firstly, you remember that in the post-credits scene for Avengers: Infinity War, we saw Nick Fury desperately trying to page Captain Marvel, before he was dusted. Turns out that pager was found by the remaining Avengers and brought back to the base, where we see it still beeping. Captain America (Chris Evans), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), War Machine (Don Cheadle), and Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) are all gathered together when the pager suddenly stops sending out its signal: but as Black Widow tells them to charge it up again, she turns around to find…CAPTAIN MARVEL! Yes, Carol Danvers, standing right behind her, looking very serious and no-nonsense. It’s a scarily good scene, and really sets us up well for Avengers: Endgame, where we know we’ll see Captain Marvel and the Avengers face off against Thanos.

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theverge.com

Oh yeah, and the post-credits scene? Typical Marvel prank: it’s simply Goose throwing up the Tesseract, which he had been carrying around in his stomach during the final act of Captain Marvel. We know from that scene that Nick Fury will thus be able to recover the Tesseract and put it into the secret base where Loki, years later in The Avengers, would steal it, setting off a chain reaction of events. It’s amazing how much the Space Stone has caused in the MCU, and I am curious to see if there’s a reason for that. Could the Space Stone – and, by extension, Captain Marvel – be the key to defeating Thanos? Only time will tell.

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