“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

“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!

“Avengers: Endgame” Spoiler Free Review!

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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!

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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

“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

“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