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Avengers: Endgame is the near perfect conclusion to the MCU

What else could we have wanted after 11 years? Avengers: Endgame is every bit a tribute to its fans and the desires of a movie-going audience as it is a conclusion to its story.

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It is hard to believe that it has been 11 years since we first saw Iron Man. The 2008 film did not feel as much of a beginning as it did an opportunity, a chance, and a belief that superhero films could someday be the biggest reason huge audiences made the trip to the cinema. Even those early iterations of this now connected universe showed that it was hard to shake some of the stigmas of the Avi Arad generation of cinematic superhero films. Arad’s films never quite shook off the “it’s a pretty good movie but it is just a superhero movie” sheen that was only occasionally taken seriously by critics and the public (most notably, Spider-Man 2). But as soon as Kevin Feige arrested control away from Arad, and the films became more focused on Feige’s new vision, we got to see the potential globe uniting qualities that have become the norm for most MCU films.

There were the unexpected highs of The Avengers, the trademark idiosyncrasies that became part of the MCU tradition (the humour, easter eggs, post-credit scenes), the critical acclaim that changed superhero movie perceptions (The First Avenger, Guardians of the Galaxy, Black Panther, Captain Marvel) and the interwoven social and cultural characteristics that solidified these Marvel movies as being in-tune with today’s world.

So how does a franchise that stretches across some 20+ films possibly reach an acceptable, conclusive end? It’s a question that has been asked since we first saw Thanos in The Avengers. That film was also the first time we got a glimpse at what Feige and Marvel had been dreaming of after the success of Iron Man. It was in part, the scale and the scope of a much grander plan that no one could have ever expected, a brand new standard of the comic book to celluloid translation. Enough momentum and success followed and what we’ve gotten this past decade or so is potentially an everlasting mark on film history- it has to be, nothing matches its scale and ambition. Comic book lore, once reserved for basement dwellers and societal outcasts, flourished and thrived in the mainstream.

Avengers: Endgame is then, the culmination of these 11 years, the exhaustive and complex world of characters, worlds, dimensions, and stories interweaved together with Feige-like precision. It hasn’t always been perfect of course, but like the MCU itself, the ambition and scale of Avengers: Endgame is ultimately part of its defining characteristic.

Avengers Assemble

One can argue that directors Joe Russo and Anthony Russo have been the most consistent at the helm of MCU films. Since Captain America: The Winter Soldier, they have been at the crux of this concluding story arc, and their films have a consistent vision and tone that most likely, closely matched Feige’s. Avengers: Endgame is then, part epic finale and part long epilogue to the MCU. Avengers: Infinity War was an Earth-shattering entry into the cannon, and Endgame does more to wrap the entirety of the story than it does to expand on Infinity War’s deep emotional blistering. It is not to say that Endgame doesn’t pull on the heartstrings, how can it not? It is in every respect, the end. And so it packs a lot into its 181 minutes, far too much to make it as riveting as The Winter Soldier or as culturally impactful as Black Panther, but honestly, it doesn’t need to be. Endgame needed to be the grand farewell, the exhale, the unburdening of all our collective movie-going shoulders of an 11-year emotional cinematic experience.

So Endgame is a little heavy on multiple plot lines, doesn’t quite give some of the characters we’ve fallen in love with over the last few films enough time, and its climax is a big, orchestral crashing of CGI and big battle scenes … but how else would the MCU have ended? What else could we have wanted after 11 years? Avengers: Endgame is every bit a tribute to its fans and the desires of a movie-going audience as it is a conclusion to its story. We are able to see these characters for the last time (some for the last, last time), get the sign off we’ve always wanted, and to close a glitteringly successful and captivating chapter in blockbuster cinema. You can critic the film for its flaws (most reviews have been positive, some negative, some just plain stupid), and you can say that Marvel and Disney are giant money printing monoliths who have turned profit into an art form. But so what? Marvel Studios have done more to keep people in cinemas than almost any other franchise save Star Wars, and well, guess who owns that too.

After the conclusion of Avengers: Endgame I was left with a tinge of sadness. Sure, some of it because of the film’s content, but mostly because this journey has come to an end. For the last 11 years, I have been part of this global audience who with much anticipation enjoyed almost every film, reveled in the connectivity of a shared universe, and have had a blast escaping into Stan Lee’s expanse. The next Spider-Man film is said to be the final movie in Phase 3 of the MCU, but it is hard to figure out how the story could possibly progress from here. We’re getting a Loki television series, a Hawkeye television series, and most likely Black Panther 2 and Guardians of the Galaxy 3. But in reality, the best we will ever get ended with Avengers: Endgame. Not that the future can’t be as bright, but for now at least, this was everything we ever wanted.

Film Reviews

Film Review: It Chapter Two

The sweet spot between Stephen King fans, horror fans and (believe it or not) comedy fans

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The final installment in the It saga is a clever, scary, probably-too-long allegory about the power of friendship — complete with a 20-foot clown spider. Sure, it’s probably a half-hour longer than it really needs to be — but It Chapter Two is still a fantastic film that hits the sweet spot between Stephen King fans, horror fans and (believe it or not) comedy fans.

It’s a story about friendship, and just like the first film, it’s those relationships that make this story so compelling and keep it woven together in a way that you really care about what’s happening to all the folks Pennywise has been menacing across these two films. Sure, Bill Skarsgård’s absolutely terrifying performance as Pennywise is what puts butts in the seats, but at its heart, this is a story about the power of friendship to win out over pretty much anything. If we work together, we can overcome fear, loneliness, doubt, depression — and yeah — even a supernaturally godlike killer clown. Thankfully, all the blood keeps that message from getting too sappy along the way.

The first It in 2017 was a surprise, monster hit — but for good reason. The Stephen King adaptation by director Andy Muschietti is pretty much a horror masterpiece wrapped in a compelling coming of age story. Think Goonies meets a face-eating monster flick with jump scares galore to keep the blood pumping. But, despite a decently-closed ending to the first chapter, the story was always conceived as a two-part film run, which is pretty much the only way one could hope to possibly wrap up King’s massive tome (the studio actually briefly considered splitting Chapter Two into two films, because there’s just so much material). 

It Chapter Two makes a wise decision to keep the stellar younger cast from the first film involved via ample flashbacks, while still providing space for the adult Losers to live and breathe (and, ahem, die) while bridging the gap between who they were and who they all grew up to be. It also embraces the inherent silliness and insanity of its premise to laugh, now seen through the lens of middle-aged adults as opposed to middle school minds. It’s a hard tone to hit, and it arguably might come off with more laughs than scares, but it’s true to the inherent madness of Pennywise.

The adult cast is also a home run by and large. James McAvoy makes for a capable adult Bill; Jessica Chastain is the embodiment of adult Bev; James Ransome nails grown-up Eddie; and Isaiah Mustafa does a capable job providing the necessary info-dumps as adult Mike. But the real breakout is Saturday Night Live alum Bill Hader as grown-up Richie. There’s scattered buzz that Hader could be worthy of an Oscar nomination for his performance, and he deserves every bit of it. We knew Hader had comedy chops, and he uses them plenty to keep this dark tale from getting too dark, but he really taps into the emotion of what it’d be like to go through something so traumatizing. And the moments that break Richie will almost certainly break you, too.

As for the changes to King’s original novel, sure, they’ll certainly be noticeable for fans. That said, the book itself — especially the ending — is absolutely wild and arguably impossible to adapt in a way that could work on the screen. The ending on-screen largely stays true to King’s themes built into the novel, and for the story that’s been told across these two films, it really does work. Hell, even King himself shows up in a cameo to make a joke about just how hard it can be to get an ending right.

Thankfully, despite a few bumps, It Chapter Two pretty much nails the landing. In a world filled more and more with King adaptations, this two-film run will stand as one of the best.

It Chapter Two is in cinemas now

IT CHAPTER TWO
Directed by: Andy Muschietti
Written by: Gary Dauberman
Cast: James McAvoy, Jessica Chastain, Bill Hader, Isaiah Mustafa, Bill Skarsgård
Distributed by: Warner Bros. Pictures
Run time: 169 minutes

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Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Fight Club, and the Quest For Authenticity

An exploration of the struggles in constructing an authentic self

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As with any of Quentin Tarantino’s films, his ninth is a fountain of hot-takes. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood has something for everybody with an opinion about just about anything. The film has touched off conversations about #MeToo, nostalgia, Christianity, and foot fetishism. In short, I fully understand that the last thing anybody needs is yet another angle on this movie. 

Nonetheless, I would like to propose that Tarantino’s latest is not only the sweetest, most optimistic film of his career, it’s also a rather profound exploration of the struggles in constructing an authentic self. By looking at this film’s use of doubling, and by contrasting it with how doubling functions in David Fincher’s Fight Club, I want to argue that Once Upon a Time in Hollywood offers unexpected wisdom about the possibility of finding authenticity in a world of artifice, even as it creates an artificial past.

The film is utterly unique in Tarantino’s catalog, lacking (until the ending) the gruesome violence that characterizes so many of his films. The specter of that violence still hangs over this film and adds a lot of juicy tension to scenes like Cliff’s visit to Spahn Ranch. One has come to expect carnage in scenes like this in the past, and Tarantino masterfully uses that expectation to create a scene that is a masterclass in suspense. 

Once Upon a Time‘s directorial craftsmanship is joined by absolutely stellar performances across the board. Leonardo DiCaprio’s lead performance as Rick Dalton is a complex web of rage, vulnerability, and desperation and should earn the actor an Oscar nomination if there is any justice. Likewise, Margot Robbie is simply dazzling as Sharon Tate and, like the film itself, she makes the viewer long for a world in which Tate survived Charles Manson’s impotent rage. 

It is Brad Pitt as Rick’s stunt-double, Cliff Booth, that I want to focus this analysis on, however. Pitt’s performance pairs nicely with DiCaprio’s and his characterization of Cliff is a kind of negative to DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton. For all Dalton’s frantic, nervous desperation, Pitt’s Cliff is a rock of bemused stoicism, and the two performances feed seamlessly off one another. So seamlessly that they function as two parts of a single whole, which is of primary concern to the film, I argue.

The doubling of Cliff and Rick offers substantial food for thought about the nature of identity in this film, and I want to suggest that Once Upon a Time says something important about personal redemption. Some viewers have dismissed Tarantino’s latest as mere wish-fulfillment, but others, such as David Bentley Hart, see a sincere moral imagination in the film’s re-imagination of the Manson tragedy, and its attempt at crafting an alternative narrative that redeems the broken past through art. Hart’s reading of the film seems right to me and I think that central to the film’s power is Rick Dalton’s process of reconciliation with himself. He struggles with being two people at once, the biological Rick Dalton, and the Hollywood creation “Rick Dalton.”

DiCaprio’s Dalton is an amalgam of an old-Hollywood system actor. He is part Clint Eastwood, part James Arness, and part John Wayne. He is meant to be taken as an archetype of an actor who is a product of a star-driven system. Whatever role Dalton was playing, he was, for his audience, “Rick Dalton,” and his strength was in delivering on the expectations that system created. The problem with that for Dalton is that he became a fictional version of himself in the process. His individual identity, as an artist and as a man, was lost, replaced with the product “Rick Dalton” that was crafted and sold by the entertainment industry. And as Hollywood began transitioning away from the system in which this was successful, Dalton experienced a profound identity crisis.

The forging of that artificial identity required the pairing of Rick with Cliff, his confidant, and stunt double. “Rick Dalton” could not very well be an action hero if he could not fall off a horse. However, to do so would eventually bear a heavy toll upon Rick Dalton. Cliff, the rugged stunt man, could bear the physical burdens that made the on-screen persona possible. 

The resulting partnership was a two-sided coin for Dalton. Sure it made the creation of “Rick Dalton” possible, but it stunted the human development of Rick Dalton, and in the midst of epochal changes in the industry threatened his very existence. Cliff made Rick look powerful on-screen, but off-screen, Dalton’s life became similarly dependent upon Cliff, who could not fix his own TV antenna or even drive his own car. To create the heroic, powerful “Rick Dalton,” Rick Dalton became nothing but a spider-web of powerlessness and anxiety. 

“Rick Dalton’s” power resided fully in Cliff’s preternaturally capable hands. He may or may not have killed his wife, but he is a master stuntman nonetheless, an expert driver, a skilled handyman, and he even beat Bruce Lee in a fight. This is all before his near single-handed massacre of the Manson family at the film’s climax. In short, the power he brings to the creation of “Rick Dalton” is dangerous, with a mystical violence lying just below the grinning, calm surface he presents. He is the id to Dalton’s superego and together, they form a precarious ego.

Here a comparison to Fight Club is in order.

David Fincher’s 1999 adaptation of Chuck Palahniuk’s novel also dealt with a character split into two halves. The crafted persona of “The Narrator” (Edward Norton) comes to depend on the unbridled violence of his other half, Tyler Durden (performed by, coincidently or not, our own Brad Pitt). Durden is the id to The Narrator’s out-of-control superego, and he frees the depressed white-collar worker from the constraints put on him by consumer society, supposedly connecting him back to his state as a “natural man.” 

Like Rick Dalton, The Narrator lives a life curated for success in the machinery of his industry. The demands of this effort eventually replaces any authenticity his life might contain with a manicured performance. His is a kind of simulacrum rather than a man. 

Here is precisely where Once Upon a Time in Hollywood diverges from Fight Club, however, and the change helps make Tarantino’s film far more optimistic than Fincher’s. 

For Fight Club’s Narrator, Pitt’s Tyler Durden is a hammer used to destroy the carefully curated image. Trapped in a consumer nightmare existence, Norton’s character invents a psychic projection of himself that frees him from the shackles of his inauthentic lifestyle. What many viewers of the film miss, however, is that, despite the apparent ethical move toward authenticity, what this actually results in is a kind of fascist movement (today we might call the Fight Club an Alt-Right group) based on a mythology of the past. In short, The Narrator and Durden replace one form of inauthenticity with another. 

Once Upon a Time inverts the relationship between Pitt and his double. Here, the free and violent Cliff is not the solution to Rick’s problem of inauthenticity, he helps facilitate it in the first place. (One other major difference is, of course, that here Pitt’s character literally exists and is not a psychic manifestation of The Narrator’s subconscious). When, at the film’s end, Rick and Cliff amicably part, both are given the new opportunity to exist without dependency upon the other in this optimistic fantasy world in which Old Hollywood and New Hollywood come together without the violent fracture of the Manson murders.

The difference is significant. Because Cliff is not leading Rick from one artificial life to another, Rick is free from his codependency upon his stunt man and free to create a whole version of himself. 

And as it turns out, Rick is a good actor. In the film’s third act, while separated from Cliff, he blossoms in his craft. Hired by a director who breaks with practices of the system that created “Rick Dalton,” Rick is forced to act, not merely perform “Rick Dalton.” DiCaprio’s performance in these scenes are the moral centerpiece of the film and we see a transformation in Dalton. Freed of the constructed identity that created “Rick Dalton,” including his id, Cliff, he sheds the confines of the old system and metamorphoses into an actor that may one day star in Roman Polanski films of an imagined New Hollywood. 

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