Non-Fiction (2018)

Written and directed by: Olivier Assayas

Non-Fiction_(film)[1]Olivier Assay’s new film has two seemingly distinct titles in English and French. While perhaps there’s wordplay in the French title that I’m missing, my preference is for the more poetic English moniker of Non-Fiction. The English title veils the film with an appropriate degree of mystery. And the fact that the film’s rating is far lower on AlloCiné than on Rotten Tomatoes makes me think I may be on to something.

When Non-Fiction opens it feels far from mysterious. We’re introduced to a publisher named Alain (Guillaume Canet) and an author named Léonard (Vincent Macaigne). Alain and Léonard debate the future of publishing and reading, with Alain defending tweets as a form of artistic expression, and Léonard arguing that the downfall of the long-form, literary text is a greater negative. Needless to say, for fans of physical media (myself here at Take Me to the VIDEO STORE, included), at times this discussion feels distressing. The debate is not a solitary scene either. As we are introduced to other characters including Alain’s TV-star wife Selena (Juliette Binoche), Laure, his publishing house’s young head of digitization (Christa Théret), and digitization advocate Blaise (Antoine Reinartz) the debate goes on and on. Viewers are given the impression that Non-Fiction is a film from the broad, but still niche tradition that includes Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy, My Dinner with Andre and Twelve Angry Men of films that primarily depict the transmission of spoken ideas. But as the film’s French title gives away (perhaps too soon), Non-Fiction does not end up being such a work.

The film’s first vignette ends with Léonard asking Alain when his book will be published. Alain responds that he doesn’t want to publish the book, a point he thought he’d made plain in the midst of his and Léonard’s philosophical discussion. This interaction sets up a recurring idea in Non-Fiction. The film’s characters are well read, articulate people always primed to have important discussions, yet their discussion and their ideas seem to have relatively little to do with the dramas in their life which are far more ordinary. Léonard’s discussion with Alain may have been engaging, but its significance is dealt a real blow when we are shown that the material conclusion of the interaction was Léonard’s book getting rejected: a fact far more upsetting for him, than any ideological argument could be.

This point is also explored through Léonard’s wife Valérie (Nora Hamzawi) who works as an advisor for a left-wing political candidate. While somewhat secondary to the film’s other plot arcs, Valérie ’s struggle is shaped by the problem of presenting her candidate as a sincere idealist. The public, she believes, will think her candidate is running for office out of vanity and not idealism. This perception of politicians is a common one, bordering on cliché. We live in a society that, on the on hand valorizes ideas and debates, but on the other hand, encourages us to be cynical of people’s depth and motivation. Non-Fiction is not cynical about human idealism per se, as the two central couples are portrayed as three-dimensional, feeling people (Laure the digitalization coordinator, arguably, is not). But while the film does not deny the importance of its characters’ ideas it still presents those ideas as powerless when compared to the other social forces that influence those characters’ behaviors.

A related point made by the film is that ideas require assumptions about other human beings, assumptions we’re horribly bad at making.  In the case of Alain this idea is conveyed through his early pronouncements about the future of his industry. These pronouncements come across as logical and foolproof, but Alain’s belief in them only declines as the film precedes. Speaking confidently does not mean you have a grasp on the state of any one human, let alone the human race. For Léonard, meanwhile, we’re shown how his staying off the internet leaves him oblivious to major parts of public discourse. And in Selena’s case, we see how she manages to exist anonymously despite being the subject of a supposedly highly transparent text. Léonard is oblivious tothe world and the world is oblivious to Selena.

When it’s a movie about the discussion of ideas, Non-Fiction feels like it’s also a film about the future. But what is the future? Is it the result of an inevitable historical march towards profit? What about an inevitable march towards democracy? Or convenience? Non-Fiction shows that the future is not some neutral, automated inevitability, but the result of ideas and desires. And unlike technology, desires stay somewhat consistent through the ages. As a story that appears to be about publishing, Non-Fiction presents itself as a philosophically rigorous work for our era. But as a story that’s ultimately about two marriages, it ends up, despite abandoning its intellectual articulateness, being a tale for all epochs. It goes from being a purportedly non-fiction op-ed, to ending in a manner where (as Léonard argues is always the case)  the fiction non-fiction divide is rendered meaningless.


Pokémon: Detective Pikachu (2019)

Directed by: Rob Letterman

Written by: Letterman, Derek Connolly, Dan Hernandez and Benji Samit

Pokémon_Detective_Pikachu_teaser_poster            Detective Pikachu opens in a small grassy town. It’s a tad too real to be Pokémon TV series protagonist Ash Ketchum’s Pallet Town, but is a palpable adaptation. The scene introduces us to protagonist Tim Goodman, an awkward young-adult, as he is being encouraged by his friend Jack (Deadpool’s Karan Soni) to catch his first pokémon. This scene captures and builds on much of the charm of the established franchise. The Pokémon tv series tells of a world in which ten-year-olds are encouraged to live on their own walking from town-to-town training collecting, befriending and competing with creatures known as pokémon. It’s an enthralling premise despite its absurdity. By taking this logic and applying it to live-action actors, Detective Pikachu takes this absurdity to another level. On top of that, while it may be particularly ridiculous that the Pokemon television series treats ten-year-olds like adults, that Detective Pikachu stars a character who is actually old enough to function independently from his parents, makes it more absurd, not less. Tim it seems, is both genuinely in the world of Ash Ketchum, and a reluctant role player who absurdly acts as if he is in this world.

Detective Pikachu is based on a video game of the same name. The video game has a different, far more detailed story, but it’s still worth mentioning here. After years of live-action superhero movies, it felt like only a matter of time before Pokémon would get a similar treatment: a movie both like and unlike the original cartoon that people of all ages could unabashedly like. I realize it’s quite possible such a movie will eventually rise from the great Hollywood algorithm, but in this moment I can’t help but feel disappointed that the version of that movie we got was Detective Pikachu. I mentioned that the film was based on a video game to make clear that the writers did not pull this idea out of nowhere. Still, in an age where the Marvel Cinematic Universe convinced vast swathes of our population to become low-key comic-book nerds, its frustrating to see a Pokémon movie come out that will not awaken the world to the joys of Pokémon fandom. Detective Pikachu is not a Pokémon movie.

I would attribute my love for Pokémon to the fact that it brings together little bits of a range of enjoyable forms of entertainment. Firstly , as the tale of an ever-growing roster of creatures, Pokémon almost offers the appeal of being a nature show. Secondly, by regularly (at least through its first five seasons) starring the same six speaking characters, the show invests you in their journey while also building up their amusing eccentricities. By having three of those characters (Jessie, James and Meowth) be villains, the show ensures it always has drama, but by having those villains be likeable, comedic and incompetent it ensures that drama never comes at the expense of the show’s joyful demeanor. By having the three heroes (Ash, Misty and Brock), meanwhile, be kids, the show empowers viewers to dream of bonding with animals and seeking glory. Finally, through the pokémon characters, who are eccentric despite not being able to speak, the show adds a traditional-cartoon dimension to its plots.

Detective Pikachu, outside of its great first scene, is not a story that brings in those elements. Because Tim ends up being more a detective than a pokémon trainer, he relates to the pokémon not as a student of their ways and powers, but as obstacles and short-term allies in his bid to solve a very human mystery. But while Detective Pikachu’s Pokemon (with the partial exception of a Psyduck, and even that one lacks the presence of the Psyduck from the cartoon) lack both the nature-show and looney-tunes appeal of their tv-counterparts, it’s the human characters who really don’t match up to what the cartoon offered. While Detective Pikachu’s villain has an interesting, sympathetic motive, takes a zany route to get there, the character is not given the chance to endear in the way Jessie, James and Meowth from the cartoon do. The heroes of the movie are also no match for the hopelessly headstrong Ash, caring but hot-tempered Misty and fatherly-but-always-infatuated Brock. Both of Detective Pikachu’s human heroes are defined by single-motives: Tim’s behavior is shaped by his confused relationship with his always-working father, and secondary protagonist Lucy (Kathryn Newton) is driven by her desire to prove herself as a reporter.

What concerns me most is that the Detective Pikachu storyline incorporates Mewtwo, a Pokemon who’s laboratory origins could set it up to be part of a great, bioethically-shaped storyline.  In Detective Pikachu it remained more of a mystical background figure, but its role was still resemblant enough of its part in the cartoon lore, that I worry it will never be given its live-action dues.

Perhaps I’m not entitled to say what is and isn’t a Pokémon movie. Again, The Pokemon Company came up with the idea of “Detective Pikachu,” so the filmmakers can’t be dismissed as not knowing their subject matter. Furthermore, the story’s conception of a city in which Pokémon and people live together as co-citizens is visually engaging, and the Ryan Reynolds-voiced Detective Pikachu is a reasonably enjoyable character. But I can only hope that the reason for this film coming out is not a belief inside The Pokemon Company, that it is story the world would want to see. Ash, Brock and Misty’s television adventure may be long and repetitive, but it is them along with their Pikachu, Psyduck etc., who really have the potential to make a Pokemon movie “the very best, like no one ever was.”

Tolkien (2019)

Directed by: Dome Karukoski

Written by: David Gleeson and Stephen Beresford

Tolkien_film_promotional_poster           I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. Biopics are often made based on the false presumption that the lives of interesting people make for interesting stories. A biopic without a premise beyond mere retelling will often disappoint. The writers of Tolkien at least had a sufficiently-developed premise in mind, but alas they weren’t bold enough in pursuing it.

Tolkien essentially follows the life of its protagonist (Lord of the Rings novelist J.R.R) from his young boyhood through to his first putting ink on paper to start a novel. As such, it does not follow the path of Bohemian Rhapsody and find climactic excitement through hyping up a high-energy moment of icon-fan engagement. Instead, Tolkien looks to various moments in the author’s life, showing how they foreshadowed the contents of his books. Due to his widowed-ill mother’s (Laura Donnelly) reliance on church support (Colm Meany), a young Tolkien (Harry Gilby/ Nicholas Hoult as an adult) is whisked away from his beloved rural home to an urban life. Through these shots of lost greenery, audiences are led to see how Tolkien envisioned the hobbit homeland of the shire. Later we see Tolkien become close to his high school friends, a comradery which inspired his vision for a “Fellowship of the Ring.” Finally, we see Tolkien join the army in WW1, a decision that no doubt inspired his trilogy’s war scenes.

Tolkien is not the first English author to get a biopic drawing connections between his work and his life. In The Man Who Invented Christmas Charles Dickens is seen imaging the characters of A Christmas Carol as he writes about them, and we are introduced to his own traumatic experience with Dickensian England and his own inner-Scrooge tendencies along the way. While informative and lively, The Man Who Invented Christmas has one key flaw: Dickens’ story ends up feeling like a watered down version of Scrooge’s. Tolkien, consciously or not, avoids this mistake, but it would be better off if it had made it. In drawing parallels between the lives of J.R.R. Tolkien and Frodo Baggins, Tolkien does not even reach the level of being a watered down version of Lord of the Rings. Instead, it is but a skeleton of the famed trilogy, or rather, a skeleton for the trilogy if the trilogy was not even a fantasy series.

There are a number of decisions Tolkien’s writers could have made to bring their skeleton to life. For one, they could have focused far more on the lives of the three boys who co-constituted Tolkien’s fellowship (even if this meant having scenes without the titular character). Towards the end of the film we are lead to believe Tolkien was particularly close to one of the members of the fellowship, Geoffrey Bache Smith (Anthony Boyle/ Adam Bregman as a kid). While Geoffrey is indeed the character who inducts Tolkien into the fellowship, the power of their best-friendship is never really sold before the film’s final moments.

Another key problem in the film’s writing is its depiction of war. On the one hand, this depiction is the product of the film’s historical context. Going to war was such a universal expectation of young men that Tolkien and his wealthy friends quick decision to enlist is indeed believable. Nonetheless, the writers seemed to take this historical reality as an excuse to awkwardly cram the war plot into too little of the film. Because Tolkien and his friends don’t brood about giving up their artistic ways for the battle field, all we see are them flung into battle and the immediate material consequences.

Tolkien depicts a lot of details that might be the ingredients for an interesting work: Tolkien’s academic ambitions, his forbidden love (Lilly Collins), English class snobbery, and “fellowship.” In stringing these elements together, however, the filmmaker’s seem to have been driven too much by a commitment to realism, and not enough by their premise of finding a hobbit in the man.


Her Smell (2018)

Written and directed by: Alex Ross Perry

Hersmellposter[1]   Her Smell is at least the second recent-ish film depicting the life of a fictional woman music star. Like Vox Lux it depicts a supposedly culturally significant figure who has lost control. Like Vox Lux it is full of music but never quite calls in its audience to appreciate its individual songs. And like Vox Lux it is a film with two distinct parts.

The two films are not identical. Vox Lux takes the path of a biopic, showing the relationship between its fictional protagonist’s childhood and stardom. Her Smell is set within a significantly shorter time span. What the films share thanks to their two part structures, however, are halves (the first half of Her Smell, the second halfof Vox Lux) in which their protagonists are larger than life. For Her Smell, this is a major selling point of the film. Elisabeth Moss stars as Becky Something, a high on drugs and life front-woman who acts unreliably and strangely. These characteristics translate to her presence being very memorable. There is a downside to this character construction as well. Becky is surrounded by an interesting collection of characters, but unfortunately the nuance of these characters is not fully brought out, as their raison d’êtres all seem to be telling off Becky for her unsustainable way of being.

One’s exact experience of the first part of Her Smell can also depend on whether on interprets Becky as a realistic, if charismatic, representation of the bleak side of the rock and roll community, or as some sort of fictionally excessive being. One of the film’s strongest scenes comes when a band populated by young women with colored hair (Cara Delevigne, Ashley Benson, and Dylan Gelula) runs into Becky at a recording studio. Initially star-struck, they submit to Becky’s drug-fueled orders, only gradually realizing how far-gone their hero is. At this moment I wondered if Her Smell was going to morph into a horror film with a beware of rock-n-roll premise. While that may have been wishful thinking on my part, it speaks to Her Smell’s unique construction as a work particularly fixated on an over-the-top individual, but still committed to indie-realism. Becky’s portrayal is incredible and as such I was eager to see it factored into a character arc. But unfortunately, at least in part one of Her Smell, there is no arc just a slow-burning climax.

In both Vox Lux and Her Smell, drugs play a role in creating the larger-than-life elements of their protagonist’s personas. Both films also treat musician drug use as inevitable. In Vox Lux this inevitability comes out in protagonist Celete’s being introduced to the party life at a very young age as part of, what’s presented as, a bonding moment with her older sister. Disturbing as Vox Lux’s presentation of the inevitable musician life is, at least it presents a causal trajectory: a traumatized girl supervised and with the support of only a big sister she looks up to, escapes down a dark path. Her Smell provides less of a causal path, and as such, its sense of inevitability is darker. It tells us that Becky does drugs. It tells us that her compatriots in the music industry also do. While some limited backstory is offered in Becky’s case, the film overall provides the impression that “getting fucked up” is just a defacto part of the rock and roll lifestyle, and that’s that.

One of the oddities of the musical drugscape of Her Smell is that the other characters seem to blame Becky for her behavior while under the influence. This invocation of individual responsibility seems strange given that Becky’s recklessness is not presented as that atypical: she simply handles herself less well than others once she has already lost control. Perhaps this hypocrisy in the other characters’ treatment of Becky is the film’s most interesting observation. It says we as a society treat drugs, not by eliminating them from our recreation, but by Darwinianly eliminating those who handle them poorly, while sparing those who have the “fitness” to “survive” their drug use from the same stigmatization.

Upon reflecting on Her Smell some more, I recalled something folksinger Billy Bragg said upon the passing of Amy Winehouse.

“But that whole…glamorization of people in my industry who do clearly have problems with substance abuse is…not something I’ve ever wanted to glorify…[Music] it’s a very strange job…you spend a lot of time on your own really, between gigs…away from the people you love …I’m very fortunate…I’m curious. I’ll just walk around the streets looking in shops…Not everybody’s like that. Some people want to dull the pain…Charlie Watts [of] the Rolling Stones….said it was five years of playing and 20 years of waiting hanging around to play drums…if you can’t find a way to take up the time between the shows, it can be quite destructive.”

         Bragg’s statement does a lot. On the one hand, he puts himself forward as an example, suggesting drug-party culture does not have to be an inevitable part of rock-and-roll identity. On the other hand, he empathetically explains why, for reasons perhaps not too intuitive to outsiders, musicians are so prone to mental health crises that lead to substance abuse. I think Her Smell‘s message, particularly its rhetoric about loneliness, is largely consistent with what Bragg says, though its subtlety as a movie (rather than an interview quotation) means the ideas don’t come out so directly. Her Smell is a slow, yet bombastic movie with straight-forward dialogue. As such it can be criticized on the one hand for being over-extended and under-analytical. Then again, its true subtleties may really be in its subtext.

Shazam (2019)

Directed by: David  F. Sandberg

Written by: Henry Gayden

Shazam!_theatrical_poster                 I was in third grade when the first Toby Maguire Spiderman movie came out. At the time, something didn’t seem right about it. My relationship to the superhero genre was then rooted largely in television cartoons. In these cartoons, heroes were super-powered beings who took on a roster of quirky and/or super-powered villains. Spiderman (the movie) I noticed, did not follow this formula. Instead of being light and episodic it treated superhero-supervillain clashes as major standalone, dramatic events. Most of the superhero movies I’ve seen since Spiderman have followed that drama formula too. Superhero cartoons are about powers; superhero movies are just about power.

Admittedly, 8-year-old me didn’t have the critical mind to consider that movies and cartoons are different mediums. One could argue that because movies do not come out with the frequency of television episodes, they are obliged to tell stories that are far more thorough. I would argue, however, that precisely because watching cartoons (or reading comics) is such a big commitment,  superhero movies have a unique responsibility: to cater to those of us who want the cartoon experience in small doses. Luckily, Shazam is one such movie.

Shazam is the tale of an unnamed superhero (in comic books he was known as Captain Marvel, but it seems either copyright or confusion concerns prevented him from being branded with that names). The character has an eccentric origin story and surprising secret identity. I will not detail them here, since for me, part of the movie’s appeal was its surprise factor. I will say, however, that the way the superhero comes to be is more animated than the typical “he’s secretly an alien” or “he was exposed to nuclear radiation.” A fellow viewer of mine commented that it felt like Shazam‘s story was conceived by a child (much like Sharkboy and Lavagirl), however this movie is indeed true to the details of its 1940s comic-book origins.

The hero (Zachary Levi) has an impressive array of powers and an a well thought out relationship to them. But as I said above, the appeal of cartoons is not just their heroes but their villains. While Shazam’s Dr. Sivana (Mark Strong) may not quite be the Joker (and his backstory isn’t quite eccentric as the King-of-Venus persona he had in the original Captain Marvel comics), he is nonetheless a strong embodiment of the cartoon supervillain type, that many superhero movies fail to produce. He has a somewhat distinct appearance, unique powers, a villainous if somewhat eccentric motive, and a never-give-up attitude. Sivana’s cartoonish traits, however, do not come at the expense of his being a three-dimensional character. Audiences are given great reason to care for him: in fact, when he first appeared in the movie, I was sure he was going to be a protagonist.

Shazam is not what I’d call an alt-superhero movie. The action sequence in its third act is relatively extended, and as such I’m not sure if it’s the kind of thing I would recommend to people who are convinced they do not enjoy superhero films. That said, much like Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse, Shazam is a film that brings playfulness back to a genre that had perhaps become too concerned with being cool and mighty. Perhaps you’re sceptical, but big screen magic is made for satisfying when its coupled with, rather than when it pulls away from words like “ka-pow” and “shazam.”


*For more on the topic of the two (+) Captain Marvel I suggest watching this video, but only after seeing Shazam since it contains what I consider to be spoilers:


Avengers: Endgame (2019)

As is my default approach, this review does not contain anything that most people would consider to be a spoiler 

Directed by: Anthony and Joe Russo

Written by: Christopher Markus and Stephe McFeeley


null               Last week I gave myself an exercise of sorts. Rather than allowing myself to write my typical, mood-in-the-moment driven review, I decided I wanted to set a standard in advance for how I would review Avengers: Endgame. While reviewing is no exact science, in this case, I worried my extremely dissonant relationship to superhero films would render my review inappropriate. As it turned out, I quite enjoyed Avengers: Endgame, and as such did not need a pre-set rubric to safeguard against irrational frustration. Nonetheless, I will stand by my word and use my pre-set evaluative categories. If nothing else, they give me a way of deciding what to say about this particularly long (181 minutes) and detail-rich work.

Does Every Character Feel Like They’re There for a Reason?

The very premise of Avengers: Infinity War was a battle between all-powerful villain Thanos, and virtually every superhero the Marvel Cinematic Universe had known to date. It was a combination I did not much care for, as it relied on audiences having pre-established investments in characters, rather than providing much character development on its own. Endgame by contrast, is set following Infinity War’s apocalyptic events and, as such, has a better economy of characters. For the most part its main cast are the original Avengers (Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). This decision allowed for further development of the friendly rivalry between the brooding and somewhat selfish Iron Man and the idealist, team-player Captain America. In fact, the film takes this dynamic to another level, by presenting an Iron Man with a more nuanced brand of selfishness (wanting to start a family). Thor’s role in the series, meanwhile, is improved. Thanks to the stylistic developments of Thor: Ragnorak, he is no longer a  quasi-Iron-Man-type, and instead, along with Hulk, fills a comic-relief niche in contrast to Iron Man and Cap’s leading-man personas.

Other important heroes in the film include Rocket (Bradley Cooper), War Machine (Don Cheadle), Nebula (Karen Gillan) and Ant Man (Paul Rudd) all of whom find their niches. There is a degree of fourth wall breaking in Ant Man’s writing. Marvel’s two Ant Man movies have been described as lower-stakes than other Marvel efforts, and as such, Ant Man (who was not in Infinity War) appropriately makes contributions to the movie by asking questions on behalf of confused audience members about what exactly is going on. Given my misgivings about the chaos of Infinity War, I appreciated this low-key act of self-deprecation on the writers’ part.

One issue that may have been a source of tension in the writer’s room was the role of Captain Marvel (Brie Larson), who seems to be introduced as a major character at the beginning of the film, but is subsequently removed since she has duties to protect the galaxy. It is understandable that she is not given a bigger role in the film, given that she has only just been introduced to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and as such, having her and her overwhelming power save the day would feel like a bit of a deus ex machina. Still, I can’t help but wonder then why her solo-film was released in the mist of what is now called Marvel’s “Infinity Saga” and her subsequent involvement in Endgame was promoted at all, when surely the Marvel writing-team must have realized Endgame would have to be a story about the core Avengers. All I can speculate is that, as members of comic-book-rooted-studio (and also as part of a big business), a lot of Marvel’s team is genuinely convinced that pumping out as many superheroes as fast as possible is better than having good narrative development.

That said, while Captain Marvel’s presence in the film may show that pure narrative coherence was not all Endgame’s writing team had in mind, the presence of her and other semi-relevant characters does not interrupt Endgame’s overall flow in any meaningful way. Furthermore, given the film’s lack of gender parity (Black Widow and Nebula do, luckily, play memorable parts) its hard to fault the studio too much for being eager to bring Captain Marvel into the picture.


How Good is the Humor and is it There for its Own Sake?

As I noted above, Thor Ragnorak (which I did not appreciate at the time of its release, but have since warmed up to), made a major change to the structure of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It confirmed that Mark Ruffalo’s version of the Hulk was a comic figure (in contrast to the quiet, brooding soles portrayed by Eric Bana and Edward Norton) while also establishing Thor in a similar niche. Endgame’s depiction of new Asgaard ranks amongst its best scenes thanks to the presence of Thor, as well as the return of his New Zealand-accented comrade from Ragnorak. This segment, alongside the film’s unique take on the Hulk (a character whose awkwardly polar persona is one filmmakers have struggled to convincingly represent), suggests that Endgame’s writers agreed with me as to where Marvel’s humor had previously been lacking. Humor in fight scenes (common practice in the M.C.U.) just feels like another weapon. Humor in dialogue is charming and memorable.


How Intimate is the Action? Is there a Disproportionate Amount of Action?

I previously wrote that rather than having a general aversion to action sequences, I (and perhaps many who “don’t like action movies”) can find action scenes to be entertaining so long as they focus on the characters and not just the explosions involved. While the fighting in Endgame is admittedly consistent with the non-intimate style employed in most other M.C.U. movies, at very least its context gives it special emotional weight.

I should clarify that there is in fact one “intimate fight” in Endgame. I can’t say too much about it without revealing a major spoiler, but I will say that it is a higher-stakes continuation of a conflict first seen in Captain America: Civil War.


 How Good is the Film as a Standalone Movie?   Does the Film have a Memorable Villain? Does it Make an Interesting Philosophical Point?

Avengers Endgame was not designed to be a standalone movie, and as such this point of criteria was always a bit unfair. I will say though that there is a real cost to this film bringing in numerous heroes in minor roles as these appearances likely make the film feel too chaotic (despite a main plot that might otherwise be enjoyable) for first-time Marvel viewers. On the flip-side, the film’s dearth of guest appearances and cameos are certainly satisfying (we even get a few seconds of Thor’s ex-love interest Jane Foster (Natalie Portman)), as are its throwbacks to past movie sets and one character’s iconic deployment of a catchphrase.

As for the question of its villain, Endgame both memorably builds on and fails to meet the standards set by Infinity War. While I can’t say much more on this contradiction without spoiling the movie, I think this problem has its roots in the contradictory writing of Thanos (Josh Brolin) over different M.C.U. films. While Thanos’ twisted idealism was the strength of Infinity War, he also appeared in The Guardians of the Galaxy saga as a more conventional villain.

The questions of Endgame functioning as a standalone movie and having a memorable villain both in turn point to the bigger question of whether the movie makes an interesting philosophical point. The Avengers’ first confrontation with Thanos in the film is indeed shocking. It’s a moment where notions of justice and purpose are brought into question. The effect of this scene, however, is ultimately not political. What the scene does do is introduce an element of despair into the Avengers’ world, and that despair in turn is what gives the film its unique character.

In short, Endgame lacks the overall character to be the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s “greatest film,” but it nonetheless may be its most enjoyable. It resolves character arcs, assembles a range of characters and uses (by Marvel standards) a range of storytelling techniques. While viewers should be warned that its probably worth doing theirhomework (ie watching 2/3 of the previous M.C.U movies at least) before giving Endgame a try, at very least, for this superhero-movie skeptic, the effort was worth it.

A final note: The film does not have an end-credits scene save for a subtle sound some fans might appreciate. The first part of the credits, however, is worth staying for.


How to Train Your Dragon 3: The Hidden World (2019)

Written and directed by: Dean DeBlois

How_to_Train_Your_Dragon_3_poster                 I went into How to Train Your Dragon 3 prepared for a range of possible viewing experiences. On the one hand, I remembered liking the previous films in the series, but on the other hand I could not say I remembered much about them. Luckily, on this occasion, my enjoyment of the series held up, and my foggy memory of the characters more-than held up too.

In a way, my non-memory of the series was a gift. I had forgotten how fantastic the character’s colourful Viking-and-dragon community of Berk looks. In its early world-building moments, How to Train Your Dragon 3 inducts viewers into a comfortingly-chaotic paradise. This moment, it should be said, is no mere visual showcase, but also plays into the film’s well thought out plot arc, foreshadowing a dilemma its protagonists ultimately face, however.

How To Train Your Dragon 3 is not simply a visual feat, but is well constructed as a script. Though I half recognized all-of-them, Berk’s roster of supporting characters is substantial, and many of these characters have an associated quirk. What is striking, however, is that, unlike in more run of the film animated-family films, many of these characters manage to be more than their quirks. The character of Tuffnut (Justin Rupple) for example, combines a unique, sometimes zoned-out demeanor, an obsession with having a beard and a stereotype-defying fixation on giving marital advise in a way that comes across as memorably quirky, and also, surprisingly believable.

How To Train Your Dragon 3’s story meanwhile, is somewhat simple. It pits Hiccup (Jay Baruchel), Berk’s young chief and lover of dragons, against Grimmel (F. Murray Abraham), a fairly typical looking villain with a fixation on killing dragons. Grimmel is undeniably charismatic, but like many cinematic supervillains, is left a tad underdeveloped. In one scene, he monologues to a detained Hiccup about his murderous ways, but ultimately offers a fairly underwhelming origin story. Part of me wonders whether How To Train Your Dragon 3 would have been an even stronger movie, if more scenes explored the relationship between Grimmel and his minions, as such interactions would perhaps have given him a chance to reveal more about his personality. Then again, perhaps Grimmel’s genericness was an intentional choice. One of the film’s key ideas is that Berk is an exceptional community: one whose way of life has subject it to scorn and threats from greater society. In a film where society is the villain, perhaps it makes sense for individual baddies to seem unremarkable.

On that note, I think another positive quality of How to Train Your Dragon 3, is that unlike run-of-the mill preachy children films, it is ambiguous in its messaging. For example in one scene Valka (Cate Blanchett) tells Astrid (America Ferrera) that Hiccup does not believe in himself when he is temporarily separated from his dragon, Toothless. In many children’s films, this moment of messaging would be the film’s defining development. Astrid, despite seemingly agree with Valka, however, responds to her instruction with nuance. Unlike Valka, she recognizes Hiccup’s particular affection for Toothless, and as such, does not tell him to “believe in himself,” but instead takes him on a quest to find his friend.

How to Train Your Dragon 3 is absolutely the kind of sequel that deserved to be made on its narrative merits. Its ending provides a neat arc for the entire How to Train Your Dragon series. While the ending is thus satisfying, parents should know this sequel resembles Toy Story 3 in its bittersweet character and as such may prove more enjoyable for fans of children’s film than for children themselves. I must admit that I felt conflicted about the film’s ending. Yes it was an appropriate resolution to some of the issues raised in the film, and to the series as a whole. That the film ended as it did when another (albeit far-less conventional) resolution to the plot was possible, however, makes me wonder whether writer-director Dean DeBlois subscribed to a vague ideology of pessimism and conformity: a way of thinking that prevents filmmakers from realizing out-of-the-box happy endings, and everyday people from envisioning hope for their futures.

Visually and narratively imaginative, How to Train Your Dragon 3 is an excellent piece of filmmaking. My only doubt is as to whether its bittersweetness is unequivocally a good thing.