John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum(5/16/2019)

I really want to like these John Wick movies.  John Wick and John Wick: Chapter 2 were doing things with the action movie format that I’ve been waiting for Hollywood to do; they’re shot cleanly, their action is hardcore, they aren’t cracking stupid jokes every ten seconds. And yet despite everything they do right I wasn’t really able to fully get behind those first to movies because, at the end of the day there were things in those scripts that were just too stupid to ignore.  I can forgive a lot from the story in certain genre movies.  Comedies can overlook all sorts of logic and get away with it if they’re still funny, martial arts movies and be all kinds of simplistic as long as they’re solid showcases for the skills of their performers, and similarly these action movies like John Wick can get away with a lot simply because they very effectively accomplish the main thing they set out to do: make Keanu Reeves look really cool while killing a whole lot of people.  But there’s a difference between giving a movie a pass for having great action scenes and fulling embracing a movie as a great action movie: for that you need to have the full package and these John Wick movies just don’t.  But just the same I was looking forward to the next fix that the third installment would provide.

The film picks up immediately after John Wick: Chapter 2 with John Wick (Keanu Reeves) having less than an hour before he’s declared excommunicado and a fourteen million dollar hit is put out on him and he’s barred from all assistance from all branches of The Continental and any other organization affiliated with The High Table.  On top of that, The High Table has sent an Adjudicator (Asia Kate Dillon) to clean house and punish anyone who assisted Wick in the last movie including Winston (Ian McShane) and The Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne).  She even recruits an assassin named Zero (Mark Dacascos) to carry out her dirty work.  But first Wick needs to find a way out of New York and much of the film’s first half deals with this chase to find some degree of sanctuary.

Let’s start with the positive, which is largely the same positive that was there in the first two movies: the action scenes.  They’re still pretty good, especially in the first half.  As the movie opens Wick is essentially on an elaborate chase through New York and goes through several landmarks like the Public Library (which closes way earlier than that for the record) and the central part carriage ride stables.  Each of these are accompanied by some fairly creative action beats like a fight against a seven foot tall assassin and a fight through a hall of antique weapons and knives.  I will say though that the movie does kind of blow some of its wad early and some of the later scenes feel more generic like a mid-film gun fight which is well staged but seems to go on forever and a finale which in some ways just feels like more of the same of what we’ve seen before.  In some ways the film seems to be emphasizing unarmed combat more than the previous film, which would seem like a good way to mix things up but Keanu Reeves isn’t really a martial arts expert and that does show a bit in the film.

Of course the complaints I’ve had about these movies are also still here.  There are a lot of people who come to find the world building in these movies to be really charming but I’ve never really been a fan.  These movies take place in a rather strange world where there are so many assassins that it’s hard to imagine there being enough “contracts” to keep them all employed.  I also generally get the impression that they’re sort of making the rules of this world up as they go and it often goes back on some of its own premises.  For example, in the beginning Wick’s excommunicado status is set up as something so firmly set in stone that a doctor can’t even finish stitching up a wound once it goes into effect and yet later Wick seems to very cavalierly enter other Continental locations without even bothering to try to disguise himself in any way. Even worse than that though is that I’m not entirely clear on why we’re supposed to root for Wick in his war against The High Table.  Yes, they’re obviously an evil organization but Wick is himself a mass murderer and their various rules don’t necessarily seem that unreasonable when compared to his ethos of killing thousands in retaliation for the death of a damn dog.

So are the action scenes in John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum enough to save it from its shortcomings?  Yeah, probably, but I must say I feel like the franchise has been taken about as far as it can be.  That would be fine if this were a final film to cap off a trilogy but, and I don’t really think this is a spoiler, it isn’t.  The basic arc of the story has John Wick more or less ending right back where he started and the film’s ending is clearly a setup for a Chapter 4, and on top of that much of the film’s second act feels like a backdoor pilot for a spinoff series starring Halle Berry.  That’s a problem because this third installment frankly didn’t leave me wanting more and the fact that it was in many ways an exercise in treading water just left me kind of frustrated.

*** out of Five

Home Video Round-Up: 5/22/2019

Glass (4/17/2019)

Review Contains Spoilers

I take M. Night Shyamalan’s failures, and he’s had many, personally because in the early days I saw a lot of potential in the guy and stood up for him longer than most.  Seeing him make nothing but ill-conceived crap for something like fifteen years has been pretty painful and I include his supposed comeback film Split in that.  I’m not sure why that movie managed to become a critically tolerated box office success but I thought it was mediocre when it was at its best and pretty lame when it was at its worst but I was excited by its final shot which revealed that it was actually part of the same “cinematic universe” as Shyamalan’s second film UnbreakableUnbreakable was one of the triumphs of the director’s all too brief run of clear success and I’d long wanted to see a sequel to it, but I wasn’t too excited about the Split guy being in the middle of it and at the end of the day the M. Night Shyamalan of 2019 is not the M. Night Shyamalan of 2000.  I was rooting for Glass however and I do think there are ways he could have pulled it off but I don’t think he really did.  For much of the movie I found myself thinking “this is stupid, it should be pretty easy for Bruce Willis to prove he’s bulletproof, why doesn’t he just do that and shut this psychologist up?”  So for most of the movie’s actual runtime I was kind of rolling my eyes, then the movie revealed its big twist which actually does reasonably respond to my earlier objections but also opens up new issues which probably make even less sense: namely that if this secret society is tracking down and killing powerful people and they’ve known about Mr. Glass this whole time why in the hell would they let Bruce Willis run wild for nearly twenty years, he shouldn’t have been that hard to track down.  Honestly I think this whole thing would have worked better if they hadn’t tried to tie it into that earlier film and had just created original characters that the audience wouldn’t know from the jump really are super powered and who wouldn’t have caused the previously outlined plot hole.  Also couldn’t that “game changing” security footage have just been dismissed as a CGI/trick photography hoax?  On the positive side, I do think this is one of the better crafted movies Shyamalan has made in a while.  It’s rarely boring to watch and has more of interest to it than Split does and the climactic battle was at least a moderately interesting set piece.

**1/2 out of Five 

Homecoming (4/19/2019)

I’ll say upfront: I’m not the world’s biggest Beyonce fan.  In fact I’d say that more often than not I’ve found her to be pretty massively over-rated (though with the way some people talk about her it would be impossible for her not to be over-rated).  But then she put out the Lemonade album, which was in many ways the first thing she did that really truly lived up to the hype, or at least came close to it.  The good will from that project appears to have led to the rapturous response to Beyonce’s headlining set at Coachella in 2018, which is documented in this concert film.  Judging from the movie that concert seems to have indeed been quite the spectacle.  A whole lot of techniques were employed on stage to keep things interesting and Beyonce certainly sounded pretty good.  The whole concert employed HBCU and black fraternity imagery as a theme, which is something that some people seem to view as being a slightly more profound idea than I do, but for the most part no complaints about the actual concert.  Of course the concert films that really rise above the level of being merely a direct to DVD document of a show are the ones that either really document the cultural context of the show (like Woodstock or Gimmie Shelter) or the ones that find some unique way of filming the performance at hand (like Stop Making Sense or The Last Waltz).  I’m not sure that this really does the former as the occasional “making of” interstitials prove to be fairly perfunctory and I’m not sure that it achieves the latter as the film struggles to really film the backing band and its occasional visual touches like randomly using retro filters mostly comes off as a distraction.  So yeah, these “best concert movie ever!” hosannas are mostly hype, but if you heard all the buzz about that Coachella set and want to see what it was like this is a perfectly acceptable documentation.

***1/2 out of Five

Escape Room (4/24/2019)

I didn’t have very high expectations for Escape Room (did anyone?) but I did think it had potential to be a fun thriller.  It is, after all basically a redo of the movie Cube but with more elaborate set design and that kind of high concept thing can work if done well.  Unfortunately this is not done well.  The characters in it are mostly dumb and unlikeable and aren’t being brought to life very well by the film’s mostly unremarkable cast.  I also don’t think the various rooms/puzzles are even very well-conceived, or at least I had a problem with most of them.  Like, the first person to die in this is killed completely arbitrarily rather than for any real failing in the game and I’m still not exactly sure ow that defibrillator challenge was supposed to work.  Say what you will about Jigsaw but at least when he built deathtraps for people he did it with internal logic and fairness.  So even in this film’s modest B-movie ambitions it didn’t really deliver.

** out of Five

Knock Down the House (5/11/2019)

Knock Down the House was intended as a documentary that would follow four strongly progressive female candidates as they sought to challenge four moderate U.S. Congressman in primary elections.  I suspect the initial plan was to follow all four more or less equally, but to the film’s luck one of the women it followed was a young Bronx bartender named Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, meaning that the filmmakers managed to be there on the scene during the rise of one of this moments most influential political figures.  Obviously this was a coup for the filmmakers but it does mean they have to rather awkwardly reduce the screen time for the other three primary challengers (who, spoilers, all end up losing pretty badly).  So those three are short-changed, but, it’s kind of hard to complain too much about this as they are pretty clearly part of a less compelling story than Ocasio-Cortez’ campaign.  I almost wish they had just jettisoned them off into a separate film where they wouldn’t have been competing for attention.  On the other hand, I’m not sure that the Ocasio-Cortez part of the film would have been made better by adding additional footage, and if it had I maybe would have rather gotten more from Joe Crawley’s side of the campaign if that had been possible.

So as a rather straightforward on the ground documentary the film works pretty well.  As a broader political statement I take some issue with it, which likely has a lot to do with my own biases.  The film is essentially an attempt to cheerlead a group called the “Justice Democrats,” which is an organization focused on challenging the Democratic “establishment” rather than Republicans, which to my eyes seems to be a rather counterproductive move that distracts from the real enemy.  The film basically takes it as a given that the four candidates at the center are a genuine improvement over the people they’re challenging and largely overlooks the case to be made that the people they’re challenging are in place because they’re the ones best positioned to win in their respective districts.  They ultimately haven’t been that successful and this documentary somewhat unintentionally shows why: Ocasio-Cortez’s narrow victory required a big confluence of circumstances including a safer than safe district, a uniquely out of touch incumbent, and an incredibly media savy and charismatic candidate.  Without those things going right a lot of these people don’t have a chance and are likely to cause more damage than good.  Even with that being the case there wouldn’t be that much harm in these quixotic runs except that the media has hypnotized themselves into thinking that the Ocasio-Cortezes of the world are the rule rather than the exception and in doing so they put an inaccurate and to many voters less palatable face on the party.  Is any of that the fault of this movie?  No, and in some ways I don’t think I’m being entirely fair to it, but it would have been that much better and more useful if it had done a little more to draw attention to all of this than it does.

*** out of Five

Serenity (5/22/2019)

Well that was weird.  If ever there was a movie that seemed to be for nobody it was Serenity.  The first half of the movie feels like one of those “mid-budget adult targeted dramas” that everyone bitches about Hollywood not making anymore while also serving as a much needed reminder that a lot of the “mid-budget adult targeted dramas” that they were making back in the 80s and 90s kind of sucked.  The whole setup plays out like some sort of especially hokey erotic thriller about a Florida fisherman being hired by his ex-wife to kill her asshole rich second husband.  Everything about that first half makes this look like a total waste of time, but then there’s this crazy twist in the second half which has a Glass-like effect of making some of the stupid stuff from before seem a little less stupid while simultaneously introducing problems that are even more inexplicably stupid.  So you’ve got a movie that won’t even let you pick your poison.  Do you want something that’s uninspired and dull or something that’s sophomorically over-ambitious?  Well, you’re stuck with both kinds of awful here and each half will kind of cannibalize whatever meager audience the other half may have interested.

* out of Five

Long Day’s Journey Into Night(5/4/2019)

The first half of 2019 has proven to be something of a landmark year for Chinese arthouse films.  Earlier this year we got Jia Zhangke’s latest meditation on a modernizing China Ash is Purest White, Hu Bo’s An Elephant Standing Still played in very limited release (missed that one), and soon we’re going to see the release of Zhang Yimou’s latest film Shadow.  We’re also getting the release of the sophomore effort of a promising young filmmaker named Bi Gan called Long Day’s Journey Into Night.  For the record the film has nothing to do with the Eugene O’Neill play of the same name and I’m not exactly sure why Gan opted to jack that title other than the fact that the film is quite literally set over the course of a long day and it eventually journeys into the night.  The film generated a lot of buzz at last year’s Cannes film festival both for its cryptic nature and for the fact that it has a fifty five minute long unbroken shot which is, unlike the rest of the film, in 3D.  That was enough to peak my curiosity even though it was almost too arthouse for the arthouses and instead played at a local modern art museum.

The film is set in a city called Kaili, which is a somewhat remote city located in Southwestern China and follows a guy named Luo (Huang Jue) who has returned to this town after a long absence to attend his father’s funeral.  We get only the vaguest details of what his life was like back in the town.  We know he had a friend named Wildcat (played in flashbacks by Lee Hong-chi) who was killed over some criminal activity involving a gun in a wagon of apples.  We also know that there was a woman in his past named Wan Qiwen (Tang Wei).  And that’s about all we really get in the way of conventional plot as much of the movie simply follows Luo as he goes through the city seemingly searching for Wan Qiwen but doing so in ways that don’t always fit conventional logic.  We see certain things which are ostensibly flashbacks, but don’t necessarily announce themselves as such and weave into the film in ways you don’t suspect.

I don’t know much about Bi Gan but I can say with a reasonable amount of confidence that he’s really into David Lynch because this is definitely a movie trying to channel a similar kind of dream logic.  The film isn’t in exploring some of the darker depths and extreme imagery that Lynch occasionally dips into but he certainly shares his willingness to eschew conventional plot coherence in favor of mood. This certainly came as a surprise to the film’s opening weekend audience in China, who were actually drawn to the movie in large numbers because of an unconventional and wildly misleading marketing campaign that made the film seem like a romantic comedy that couples should see at one of several event screenings on New Year’s Eve.  It was a move that earned the movie $37 million during its opening weekend and also reportedly causing several walkouts and angry posts on Weibo.  I haven’t exactly seen those advtisements, but if they’re anything like as misleading as the stories in the trade publications make them sound I can see why people would be pissed.  It’s kind of like the people who went to see Drive expecting it to be like a Fast and Furious movie, but at least Drive did have some car stunts in it.  This movie, by contrast, is about as oblique and “arty” as a movie can be and isn’t much of a romance at all outside of the way it explores the depths of how much Lou misses Wan.

The part of the film that has gotten the most attention, by far, is the last fifty minutes which are a single continuous shot and unlike the rest of the film are in 3D.  Of course making a movie that’s only half in 3D is pretty strange and means that you find yourself sitting in a theater with a pair of 3D glasses sitting awkwardly on your lap essentially “burning a hole in your pocket” so to speak.  In some ways you can’t help but view the first 78 minutes as something of a prologue for whatever wild tone shift that last shot will presumably involve.  Indeed there is some truth to that as the 2D elements, while oblique and difficult in and off themselves do feel in some ways like they’re meant to give you the context for that final shot, which takes the film from being “dreamlike” to being what is almost certainly a literal dream sequence.  As a technical and logistical accomplishment this shot is certainly impressive and it manages to maintain a tone of melancholy reminiscent of the last episode of “Twin Peaks: The Return,” even when it occasionally stops to show off by indulging in 3D Ping Pong or Billiards.

I will say, however, that the whole promise of a 55 minute single take 3D shot had kind of led me to expect a movie that was a bit more visually adventurous otherwise.  Instead the movie actually has fairly drab digital cinematography that never quite captures the noir vibe that Gan is going for.  There are actually a lot of little things like that which hold me at a bit of a distance from this movie and truth be told I don’t feel ready to make a final judgement on it on a first viewing.  It’s a movie that is attempting to capture a certain state of mind and dream more than it’s trying to tell a story or make any kind of real statement about anything, so as an exercise I suppose it succeeds but as a viewing experience it can be frustrating.  It feels like it’s almost impossible to really “get” the movie after a single viewing, and yet its 3D gimmick almost discourages attempts at repeated viewings outside of theaters.  Maybe this is the Last Year at Marienbad of the 2010s or maybe the Emperor has no clothes.  Honestly I’d probably be more inclined to give it the benefit of the doubt if it had been made by an old master rather than a 29 year old who frankly comes off as being a bit pretentious in interviews.  It’s not a movie I’m terribly comfortable about giving a traditional “verdict” on with a star rating.  I’m not prepared to declare the movie some kind of profound accomplishment today and it’s certainly not a movie I’d casually recommend to the average viewer, but it certainly intrigued me and for the dedicated film enthusiast it deserves a viewing.

***1/2 out of Five

April 2019 Round-Up

Pet Sematary(4/5/2019)

Warning: Review Contains Spoilers

After the wild success of the It movie two years ago it seemed logical that Hollywood would take another wack at some other Stephen King films that had gotten lesser adaptations over the years, but I was surprised to see that the first one out the gate was one whose first adaptation is actually fairly well remembered.  There are certainly aspects of Mary Lambert’s 1989 take on the novel “Pet Sematary” that haven’t aged perfectly but it works in the parts that matter and it follows the original novel quite effectively.  Nonetheless there are certainly things about this update that do feel like an improvement, specifically the casting of the central couple and also the decision to bring John Lithgow in as their neighbor (Fred Gwynne’s performance in the original film is certainly memorable as camp but… yeah, Lithgow is plainly better) and seeing the film play out with modern visual effects and cinematography is not unwelcome.  What was surprising about the movie (or at least would have been surprising if it hadn’t been spoiled by the film’s absolutely wretched final trailer) is that it actually does make some changes to the book and original film and I don’t think they’re entirely for the better.  The increased emphasis on the evil draw of the “sematary” helps explain some of the character motivations, but it also reduces the primal power of someone being driven to madness through grief and all too often is simply used to make the film feel more like a run of the mill haunting movie than the intense tribute to the tale of the monkey’s paw that it was intended as.  Honestly I kind of wish they had just stuck to basics, a more straightforward remake done with this extra craftsmanship probably would have made this the definitive version, instead it’s a flawed effort unto itself.

*** out of Five

The Wild Pear Tree(4/20/2019)

Back in 2014 I came out pretty strongly in favor of Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s Winter Sleep, which would seem to be a fairly uncontroversial opinion given that film’s Palm d’Or win, but that movie wasn’t very widely watched even among people who are inclined towards weighty foreign cinema.  I guess the 196 minute runtime scared people off, and of those who did see it there was certainly a contingent who liked it but weren’t as into it as they were into some of Ceylan’s previous films like Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, but from where I sat the movie was a clear triumph.  Then at last year’s Cannes his newest film, The Wild Pear Tree, premiered and mostly got good reviews but didn’t win any awards and I’m not sure it’s even going to get a proper theatrical release (I saw it at the Minneapolis/St. Paul Film Festival).  That’s unfortunate because it is a movie that deserves to be seen but I must admit I get why it’s gotten a bit of a cooler reception as I have fairly mixed feelings about it myself.

The film follows a young man named Sinan (Aydın Doğu Demirkol) who has just come home from college and is going through something of a quarter-life crisis.  He wants to be a writer but doesn’t have the funds to get his first book published (it’s unclear to the audience if this book is supposed to be any good, I’m guessing “no”) and is ambivalent about following any other path in life.  Sinan is not a likable character and the movie knows it.  He’s whiny and self-centered in a way that many twenty year olds are and the film is in some ways meant to be his coming to terms with the fact that he may not get everything he wants out of life.  In this sense the film is not unlike Winter Sleep, which was about an older man coming to realize that he’s a bit of an asshole, but that guy came to his shortcomings in ways there were more unique and you could better understand why he might be blind to them, this kid by contrast is just kind of grating.  I would say that the film is also a lot less visually striking than Winter Sleep, which was set in a more scenic location and did more with it.  That’s not to suggest that The Wild Pear Tree is a complete failure by any means.  There are individual scenes and extended conversations within the film that are really compelling, a scene between Sinan and a local author that goes on for almost a half hour is a clear highlight, but I’m not sure they all congeal into a full movie that serves as a worthy follow-up to Winter Sleep.

*** out of Five

Peterloo(4/28/2019)

The new film from Mike Leigh is probably the largest scale project he’s ever attempted to mount and this has been greeted with much less excitement than you might expect.  It was rejected by Cannes and ignored by the BAFTAs and it’s critical reception has been mixed at best, which is strange coming from a filmmaker who has almost never made an outright failure.  I’m not sure I’d call this one an outright failure either and I’m generally more enthusiastic than a lot of critics but I can see why this thing might not be for everyone.  The film is a chronicle of the titular Peterloo massacre, an 1819 event where local aristocrats ordered the army to perform a cavalry charge on a group of reformers who were peacefully assembling in a town square in Manchester.  That is the last half hour or so, the rest of the film chronicles the events leading up to this rally and the movement that was trying to increase representation in parliament and repeal the Corn Laws.  This is probably where the movie lost some people given that, well, not everyone is going to find extended conversations about 200 year old British politics to be as entertaining as others.   I also wonder if the film’s reception in the UK was a bit more muted simply because they’ve already heard a lot about this event and the film caused flashbacks to some of the more tedious days of their high school history classes.  However, a lot of this was new to me and I found a lot of the details of how this was organized at the grassroots level to be kind of interesting and I was also interested in the scenes with the aristocrats positively freaking out about what seem like fairly mundane reforms and the way their sheer out-of-touchness led to some very bad decision making.  Of course the film is not even remotely “even-handed” and in some ways it feels more like the kind of thing Leigh’s more outspoken pier Ken Loach would have made.  I also would have liked more of a focus on the aftermath of the massacre what why it did or didn’t inspire change.

***1/2 out of Five

Avengers: Endgame(4/26/2019)

Review contains spoilers

Last year when I sat down and tried to review Avengers: Infinity War I found that going through the usual motions of a mostly spoiler-free review aimed at introducing a film to someone unfamiliar with it just seemed like a bit of a waste.  No one was on the fence about whether they wanted to see that movie but they might want to look back on it and deconstruct what made it work.  And that is what I did in the form of a review of sorts that was more of an informal discussion about the movie than what I usually try to do.  Now it’s a year later and Marvel has put out what is essentially the second half of that movie and I find myself once again having to write about a movie that everyone is already planning to either see or to ignore whatever I have to say about it and I find that once again the best approach is to just write up my own feelings in a relatively unstructured format.

Let’s start by considering what worked so well about Avengers: Infinity War, which is a movie I liked a whole lot and have if anything grown to appreciate even more in the last year.  That was a movie that had two tasks it had to accomplish: first it needed to bring the infinity stones together to enable the film’s bold cliffhanger and secondly it needed to serve as a fun Avengers movie where all our favorite characters came together for one last romp, and it manages to accomplish both of those things beautifully, and I also thought it managed to bring a fairly fascinating villain to the screen and did some clever things in the way it used the actions of its heroes in order to refute his insane philosophy.  That movie’s follow up, by contrast, has to do a lot more.  It needs to reckon with the fallout of Thanos’ snap and the effect it has on the characters, it needs to go through the “time heist” in all its complexity, and it also needs to get through a final battle against Thanos that will set up whatever the MCU will be going forward all while trying to be an entertaining action movie.  Rather than tying these three things together the movie essentially has to divide itself into three acts with each one devoted to one of those three things.

At the center of Avengers: Endgame is something of a catch-22: do you acknowledge the devastation of “the snap” and make a movie tinged in melancholy rather than superhero fun or do you minimize that, which would be something of a cop-out.  To the film’s credit they do mostly go with the former option right through and to some extent including the part where everyone comes back from the dead.  I had mostly expected them to go through a pretty pure undoing of the snap that would leaving society to go on unaffected, but instead they do the five year jump after boldly killing off Thanos like a chump and they stick with that all the way through.  In theory I like this decision a lot and I certainly respect it but it also opens up a lot of questions about how a society would react to a calamity like that and the movie really does not have the time to get into that.  It’s also a move that could really have major implications for whatever the MCU looks like after this as it basically means that these movies will now be taking place in a futuristic world removed from modern culture as we know it.  It also puts the rest of the movie into this very serious place that does remove some of that trademark MCU joy from the proceedings.  Like, the idea of seeing Marvel characters go back into their old movies Back to the Future Part 2 style seems like a blast but it’s maybe less fun than it should be simply because everyone is so shell-shocked.

That’s not to say the film is humorless, it isn’t, though I almost wonder if they should have leaned even harder into the grim tone if they were going to “go there.”  I was particularly unimpressed with the way they handled the Thor character.  Making Thor into someone who’s completely “let himself go” and fallen into a drunken stupor over the course of five years is an interesting idea, but the movie mostly just treats it like a sight gag that outlives its welcome.  You wonder why he’s even invited to participate in the time heist given that he was clearly a liability.  Like a lot of things this was a damned if you do damned if you don’t; just magically making him shed a hundred pounds and overcome alcoholism when convenient would have been lame (and in some ways they do indeed do this at the end when he becomes battle ready out of nowhere) but seeing him stay in this state and not even bother to shave is also kind of a bummer.  Outside of that the film does a pretty decent job of finding interesting ways to have the trauma of the situation manifest in different ways for different characters.  Robert Downy Jr. certainly puts on a pretty good swan song and I like seeing Captain America try to put on a brave face for what is in many ways a hopeless situation.  The Guardians of the Galaxy fare a bit worse; Rocket feels like a pretty one dimensional character when removed from his “family” and while Nebula plays an important role in the plot she’s kind of a monotone presence.  Oddly enough the film seems to have gone out of its way to set that franchise up for a post-Gunn and possibly Taika Waititi helmed future that they’ve already backtracked on.

Another odd thing about the movie is that, up until that final battle scene this really doesn’t function as an action movie.  There are certainly special effects all over the screen thanks to talking raccoons and hulks and we get some sequences like the two New York infinity stone heists, but there really isn’t a full on fight or chase or anything in the first two hours of the movie.  That’s kind of a bold move rooted in confidence that audiences have connected enough to these characters that audiences will follow them with or without the exact spectacle people are used to.  I’m not exactly sure it was the right move though, in part because I’m actually not in love with that final battle, which I found to be a bit too dark, crowded, and chaotic to serve as the cathartic release that it was clearly intended to be.  I found the Battle of Wakanda from Avengers: Infinity War to be much more effective and I also found their choice to bring Thanos back when they did was a bit off.  Thanos derived much of his intimidation factor in the last film from the fact that he was wielding the infinity stones, without them I would think that he would just be a big purple guy with a sword who shouldn’t have posed as much of a threat to the combined efforts of three superheroes.

I feel a little weird criticizing this movie when for so long the big complaint about these MCU films is that they didn’t take enough risks and followed a rigid formula and yet a lot of what seems off about this movie is that it diverges from the usual formula.  Maybe that’s unfair, but in some ways they’ve brought this on themselves by giving audiences every reason to expect one particular thing from them.  Avengers: Infinity War delivered on that beautifully, it was like the bigger and more developed evolution of that first Avengers movie, and to me it was clearly the better half of this story.  Avengers: Endgame by contrast almost feels less like a movie and more like a very expensive series finale for a popular TV show like Lost or Game of Thrones.  One which has to try to give some degree of closure while also serving as a sendoff and sort of a celebration of everything that came before.  It sort of does that, but like a lot of series finales it maybe stumbles a bit under its own self-conscious sentimentality and maybe gets a little too clever for its own good in dreaming up a conceit to make that possible.  All in all I don’t want to complain too much or come off too negative.  The movie certainly kept me interested and entertained for three solid hours, that’s an accomplishment for sure and with how difficult this assignment was it could have gone so much worse.

***1/2 out of Five