Thursday, April 25, 2019

'Avengers: Endgame': No Safety Or Surprise

This image may or may not contain a spoiler.

Last year, I walked out of Avengers: Infinity War equal parts despondent and irked. The grief I felt over the deaths of multiple beloved characters was tempered by my annoyance at Marvel's manipulation. Of course all those characters didn't really die. So what was I crying for? In a year we'd all have proof we had shed those tears for naught.

It's exactly one year later and indeed that proof has come with Avengers: Endgame, the ultimate culmination of ten years of juggernaut franchising that brought us 22 movies and Marvel/Disney almost 20 billions dollars. And in many ways, Endgame is even more about loss than Infinity War was, since it means the end of an era, and whether characters really die this time or not, the franchise will never be the same.

And in Endgame, the remaining Avengers are truly living up to their title, hoping to avenge and ultimately reverse the deaths of their friends (and oh also, millions of other people and beings across the universe, but whatever). You didn't think they'd just accept defeat and retire, did you?

Although, for the first 30 minutes or so, many are doing just that, and man, it's an emo spectacle. There's so much gloom, doom, and clinical depression among the remaining team you'd think you were watching a DC movie. If you thought those final moments in Infinity War were a bummer, just wait and see what survivors' guilt has done to the gang.

The only hero this age of depression has a remotely amusing affect on is Thor (Chris Hemsworth), as it turns him into a pot-bellied, perpetually drunk Norse god version of the Dude, drowning his despair in beer, pizza, and video games. He's the film's comedic soul. Considerably less funny are Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) who begins the movie painfully skinny and on the verge of death, and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) who is the only one truly trying to keep the Avengers team alive (after all, she's barren and has nothing else to live for, right?).

But, unlike a DC movie, it isn't ALL doom and gloom, and thankfully, the majority of its three-hour (THREE!) running time is devoted to the kind of banter, camaraderie, and action that has made this decade long franchise the crowd pleasing money maker it is. All the characters get emotional arcs and big moments (some more crowd pleasing than others); I cried (genuine, earned tears this time) more than once. And as much as I'd like to discuss the specifics of those moments, or even some more general plot points, I completely agree with the studio's request to keep the film's surprises under wraps. If you're a fan of the franchise, you deserve to see it as unsullied as possible. (And if you aren't a fan, uh, what are you even doing here?)

So, instead I'll end this with a selection of likes and dislikes, as spoiler-free as possible:
  • As a fan of any post-apocalyptic story (and destroying half of all life is nothing if not apocalyptic) I was disappointed that the film really doesn't show us what the new 50%-offed reality looks like around the world, or across the galaxy. What we do see is only within the Avengers' purview, and that's a pretty narrow purview.
  • One character gets such a satisfying ending--it was one of many tear-inducing moments--that I didn't even mind that it doesn't make a whole lot of sense if you think about it too hard. (Actually, a lot of the movie has that same problem, but at least they acknowledge several of those logical leaps, and even joke about it.)
  • The somewhat disappointing treatment of one female character is softened by the addition of one moment that will clearly piss off a certain segment of Marvel fans while making another segment burst into tears. (If you cried when Wonder Woman took to that battlefield, bring a whole box of Kleenex.)
  • Speaking of female characters, yes, Captain Marvel is in the movie. How you feel about just how much she's in the movie will likely depend on where you fall in the segments mentioned above. (I will tell you this though: she doesn't come back to Earth, fly super fast around the planet to make it spin backwards thus turning back time like I was hoping she would.)
  • Man, 2019 is a tough year to be a nerd, with the ends of Game of Thrones, The Avengers, and the Star Wars saga to contend with. But if each of them has taught us anything it's that nothing ever truly stays dead, does it?

Friday, April 12, 2019

'Little' Big Woman

How many schoolbooks can fit inside a Birkin?

I've often had the fantasy of going back in time to junior high or high school, with all the knowledge I have now, and then basically doing everything different. But what I never fantasy about is suddenly being 13 now, and having to traverse the modern world as a middle-aged woman in a teenager's body. That's a scenario likely to land someone in jail, not to mention I wouldn't last a week against today's social media-wielding mean girls.

It's that latter scenario which  is the premise of Little, a gender and age flipped version of Big, which, yes, means it's a comedy and not the nightmarish horror movie such a set-up brings to my mind.

Marsai Martin, who reportedly, at age 10, pitched the movie to her Black-ish boss Kenya Barris, stars as the movie's little heroine, and she also serves as an executive producer on the film (the youngest in Hollywood). Seeing the movie, its origins make perfect sense, as too often Little feels like a clever concept not fully realized.

When the film opens, Martin is Jordan Sanders, a smart and eager 13 year old in 1993 junior high. After suffering a humiliation (and frankly, an assault) at the hands of the school's mean girl, she vows to no longer be a victim, and grows up to be the very rich and very mean head of a tech company in Atlanta.

Regina Hall plays the big version of Jordan, and she is so convincing and entertaining as the boss from hell it's hard to believe that just a year ago she was the benevolent and almost angelic boss in the under-appreciated Support the Girls.

Issa Rae co-stars as April, Jordan's long suffering assistant, who must always be available to take Jordan's calls--which inevitably include screaming--and make sure everything in Jordan's life is to her meticulous liking, such as arranging slippers and coffee cups within very specific parameters. (Rulers are involved.)

Jordan's employees scatter and hide when she enters the building and require anti-anxiety meds to get through team meetings. April can't bring herself to share any of her ideas with her as she's seen what disappointing Jordan can get you. (Slapping; shoving; the tossing of your bagels into the trash).

Obviously, Jordan is in need of some lesson learning. Enter the magic wand wielding daughter of a local food truck owner, who wishes Jordan were little. And the next morning, she is.

Young Marsai Martin is preternaturally gifted, and scarily good on Black-ish, and there's no doubt she's got a movie career ahead of her. She's got the grown woman trapped in girl's body swagger down perfectly, mimicking Regina Hall's walk and mannerisms so well that it never feels like you're watching a teenager just pretending to be a woman.

Which is why it's so disappointing to see three such funny females in a movie that doesn't live up to their performances or talents. Little is afraid to go big, perhaps too beholden to its PG-13 rating and too reliant on its comedic premise to actually flesh out some solid humor.

And I'll admit I was a little nervous about how the movie would handle the whole "horny older woman trapped in a kid's body" thing in the scenes with her middle school teacher, played by Justin Hartley. It does manage to skirt the issue before it gets too far into ick territory, but that's also the problem with the movie as a whole; it skirts too much, never really pushing any boundaries, which results in a lot of awkward and flat jokes.

For instance, there's a scene where little Jordan and April are having dinner, and what Jordan wants more than anything is a glass of wine. April, obviously fearing both the optics and legal aspects of allowing Jordan a drink, refuses to give it to her...Awkward cut to Jordan singing along to a Mary J. Blige song while laying on top of the bar.

Wait a minute. Did she get that wine? Is she drunk? What's happening? The movie kills the joke with confusion by avoiding a shot of Jordan drinking that wine.

Issa Rae, so funny on HBO's Insecure, also feels stifled because the movie is torn between two protagonists. Is it April's story? Or Jordan's? But perhaps the film's biggest loss is that, because of its concept, Marsai Martin and Regina Hall never get to share any screen time together. That is something I know would be worth seeing. Someone get that movie rolling! Marsai, you're a producer now! Do it!

Friday, April 5, 2019

'Shazam!', Gaaahh-lee!

Drinking that famous "COLA" Beer.

For those excited for Shazam! because they think it's the long-awaited re-release of that genie movie starring Sinbad, you're going to be disappointed. And for those excited for the big-screen debut of the Whiz/DC superhero once known as Captain Marvel, well, I've got good news and bad news.

The good news: Shazam! is not another emo-filled, murkily filmed, depressing entry in the DC universe. It's light, both in its visuals and its story, includes a superhero that doesn't take himself too seriously, and at times it reminded me a bit of the 1977 Superman, back when comic book movies weren't a genre we were expected to revere.

The bad news: it's way, way too long, strives to be funnier than it actually is, and saddles an already lackluster villain with a gang of truly uninspired monsters.

Both hero and villain have an origin centered on a meeting with an aging wizard named Shazam (Djimon Hounsou), in set-ups that take way too long, and never truly make sense. This aging wizard, the last of a council of seven, is looking for his champion, someone "pure of heart" to take over his duties and protect the world from the Seven Deadly Sins, which are, for now,  safely frozen in stone in his chamber.  When a young Thaddeus Sivana  is chosen (for reasons never explained) but fails the test, he grows up pretty bitter about it, spending his life trying to track down that wizard (when he isn't dealing with his extreme daddy issues).

Enter orphaned Billy Batson (Asher Angel), a foster kid on the constant search for the mother who disappeared years before. He's street smart, and always on the run, but willing to try out a new foster home, headed up by the saintly Vasquezes (Cooper Andrews and Mart Milans) and filled with five other foster kids of varying ages and ethnicities, including Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer), a superhero aficionado. (He has a certified bullet that bounced off of Superman, who, don't forget, is real.)

The wizard Shazam, who after 40 years, still hasn't found a champion, summons Billy (just why Billy is chosen is, once again, never made clear) and decides to make him his heir, granting him the power to turn into an adult superhero (played by Zachary Levi) whenever he says the word "Shazam!" (And yes, Billy thinks that's pretty silly, too.)

What follows is a superhero version of Big, with Billy confiding in Freddy, and the duo teaming up to figure out just what powers Billy has, and just what they can do with them. Unsurprisingly, early choices include buying beer, going to a strip club, and busking for coin like a Times Square Elmo. The scenes between Levi and Grazer's Freddy owe an obvious debt to the aforementioned Big, though too often I just wished they were funnier. A lot of gags are tossed off like lightning bolts, but not many land.

But the movie's biggest sin is its Seven Deadly Sins. Why, why was the decision made to create completely generic "monsters" that look like rejects from a cheap 1990's film, and are completely indecipherable from each other? They're supposed to represent seven sins (which, why? If Shazam's power comes from Greek gods?), but I couldn't point out Sloth from Lust to save my life. They aren't interesting or scary; they're just loud and brown.

Shazam! is definitely better than the majority of DC's recent cinematic offerings, and I certainly wouldn't mind seeing the character teamed up with other DC characters in future films, but as a standalone movie, it had my inner 14-year-old dreaming of the ability to speed up time, or at least hit a magic fast forward button in the IMAX theater.