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Toy Story 4 (2019): A Powerful Exploration of Purpose and Relationship

Image result for toy story 4 poster

    “Toy Story 4” was a great film that I didn’t think was probable. This was a series that had ended pretty definitively at the end of “Toy Story 3” so I wasn’t sure what else they were going to do. I’m happy to say I was surprised. This is a film that is powerful and explores identity, mortality, purpose. The main cast are the heart of the show and at this point it is easily one of my favorite films of the year. If you are a fan of Pixar, definitely check this one out.

The film was directed by Josh Cooley and written by Stephany Folsom and Andrew Stanton.

The story follows Woody and his friends on a road trip after Bonnie has created a new toy name Forky who believes himself to be trash. Woody mentors him but soon finds himself questioning what he’s known when he runs into Bo Peep who is a now a living the life of a “lost toy.”

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros:

The Animation – Pixar does such a great job building off each of their latest films. This is simply a stunningly animated movie that has more realistic looking people, the detail of fur on animals and tons of different surfaces that make-up the many toys. I hope Pixar continues to thrive and brings us more of this amazing art. Every few films introduce something new worth exploring. After this my wife and I went to the Pixar exhibit and got to see the science behind it first hand. If it is ever in your area, check it out.

The Characters – The strongest part of most Pixar films are the characters. This film is no exception. The support characters have the least to do so it is hard to call their story good but it is still fun. This film is truly about the new characters, Bo Peep and Woody.

Gabby Gabby – Gabby Gabby is the antagonist of the film. She is a doll who wants to be loved but thinks because her voice box is broken she will never be loved. Because of this she kidnaps Forky to get Woody’s voicebox. They clash through the film with her eventually winning in her aims to get the voice box, only to be tossed aside. She is is a complex antagonist in that you can see where her drive is coming from and that she doesn’t destroy others the way Stinky Pete, Sid or Lotso does in the original Trilogy. She comes around to love and respect Woody because of what he does for her and becomes friends with Forky. Christina Hendricks gives so much depth to this role and she is easily the best antagonist in any “Toy Story” film, and that is because she shows that there is more a broken toy can become. Her final act is leaving Woody and Bo to care for a lost girl at the carnival.

Bo Peep – Bo is a toy who has found independence in the lost toy life and is loving it. She spends her time helping other toys found enjoyement from being played and though she misses her toy family from before she lives what she has become. She has a role beyond being there for a kid and it is in this role that Woody is given the choice for his own future.

Forky – Forky is the toy Bonnie creates when she is alone at Kindergarten. It is a powerful moment and Forky is born with an existential crisis. For much of the film he is trying to return to the trash, since that was what he was made from. Woody is the one who convinces him that he has a purpose to live (as well as Gabby Gabby) and from here he accepts his place as Bonnie’s favorite toy. The process is devastating and his arc is like a newborn learning to think and reason. We’ve never witnessed the birth of sentience in a toy until this film within the “Toy Story Franchise.”

Woody – Woody’s arc this film is learning to find purpose beyond devotion to a kid. The beginning of this is when Bonnie no longer cares to play with him, which kicks things off and ends with the finding of Bo Peep and joining her with the carnival, knowing that there they can help other toys find kids. His arc is a gut punch though as it is after Buzz comes back to rescue him that he says good-bye and passes on his sheriff star to Jessie who had become the Sheriff for Bonnie when she played. It was neat and a great releasing of his ego on Woody’s part. Tom Hanks once again adds so many layers to this wonderful character.

Identity and Purpose – The main theme running through the story is that of identity and purpose. What this is for most toy’s is the devotion of a kid. This is what helps make Forky no longer seek death and is what drives Woody through the story up to this point. It isn’t until he meets Po that he sees that she is bringing joy to those who are lost or don’t have toys. Woody finds purpose in this and in his love for her. It is powerful and over the course of the film is set up really well. We get the flashback of when she leaves, Woody being left in the closet and the birth of Forky who Woody than mentors. This exploration of identity and purpose is really the core of the story and what makes it so great.

Okay:

The Support Characters – The support characters are alright. Woody’s friends get some good comedy, but we never see them grow. Buzz, who has the most screen time among them is the same character at the beginning as he is at the end. The same goes for Jessie. She is still the same Jessie the film began with as she was always a leader. Key and Peele play a comedic duo Ducky and Bunny. There are others as well who work on a comedic level, but it is hard to call what they have arcs. For this reason the supporting cast is only okay.

This is a film I highly recommend. I can’t wait to go back and watch the original “Toy Story Trilogy” again and see just how far Pixar has come in their animation and really storytelling too. If you are a fan of the other films, chances are you won’t be disappointed by this one. So far it is easily one of my favorite films of the year and I can’t wait to see what else Pixar creates and the future stories they tell.

Final Score: 9.6 / 10

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What We Left Behind – Looking Back on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (2019) – The Perfect “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” Documentary

  “Deep Space Nine” is my favorite of the “Star Trek Series.” This is a series that was willing to explore philosophy, religion war and give the minor characters full arcs. It is no wonder Ronald Moore created the rebooted “Battlestar Galactica” from this show, which is also one of my favorite sci. fi. shows. He was on the writing team while Ira Steven Behr was the showrunner. This is easily the best documentary I’ve ever watched. It has comedy, heart, philosophy, depth and explores the relationships and characters who made up the show. My bias being that “Deep Space Nine” is my favorite of the “Star Trek Franchise” and in Sci. fi. shows as a whole. It certainly has flaws and wasn’t perfect and this is a documentary that honestly explores that.

The documentary was directed by Ira Steven Behr and David Zappone, produced by 455 Films and released by Shout! Studios.

The documentary traces the origins of “Deep Space Nine’s” creation, the actors and their thoughts on the show, gives us a hypothetical new season with many of the original writing team and explores the legacy the show left behind.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros:

The Into and Ending – The Into and ending were so corny and perfect. “Deep Space Nine” had Vic Fontaine’s Jazz lounge as a major part of the show and the Documentary paid tribute to that by having Max Grodénchik (Rom) kick it off with a corny song about leaving his heart on “Deep Space Nine.” In the end he is joined by Jeffrey Combs (Grunt and Weyoun on Ds9), Casey Biggs (Damar) and Armin Shimermen (Quark) to finish the song. It had so much heart, even if the lyrics don’t always work. The four of them are also great singers.

The Reaction to the Show – Throughout the documentary the cast reads fans letters as Ira Steven Behr interviews them. These are glimpses of history that show just how much the show was hated by some in it’s initial release. People hated that the show was darker and that it wasn’t daily exploration on a ship. The reactions are nuanced (Ira on making sense of how people saw it as a dark show) to funny when Aron Eisenberg (Nog) reads a reaction from someone who hated it. This was one of the aspects that added character to the documentary.

The Making of the Show – Making the show an episodic story beyond single bottle episodes or two-parters was revolutionary. This was a major part of the film, and beyond that how when most fans talked about the show in interviews it was largely about the Dominion War arc. It was the arc that changed everything outside of the arcs of “Babylon 5.” We also got to see the Writers Room when Behr got together with Ronald Moore and some of the other writers from the show to draft a pilot for a new season. It was really neat seeing that as well as the relationship between the showrunner, directors, actors and crew. They also went into the Evolution of the Dominion and how they evolved into a collection of species versus a single one.

The Actors’ Stories – Part of what makes the story so compelling are getting the stories of the actors and the relationships formed over the course of the show. We learn about how Armin Shimerman (Quark) used to host the other actors who played Ferengi at his home to go over the scripts. “Deep Space Nine” was full of Ferengi episodes and seeing how friendships grew out of it was so wonderful. We also got to see that Alaimo (Dukat) had a crush on Nana Visitor (Kira), and Avery Brooks (Captain Sisko) and how to this day he is friends and mentor to his show son Cirroc Lofton. The actors also talked about their characters and created interludes. Andrew Robinson (Garak) appeared early on and later to talk about how when he first played the character he played him as wanting to have sex with Doctor Bashir and how the character relationships evolved into a deep friendship. It was awesome hearing that first hand as Robinson always played Garak as Bisexual and him voicing that made me happy.  They also touched on Terry Farrell (Jadzia Dax) leaving the show and the disrespect from the directors as well as when Nicole de Boar (Ezri) took over for the last season of the show. Even with all that happened there are still so many friendships among the cast.

Taking Responsibility and Impact in Social Justice – This was a show that tackled the themes of poverty, race, war, philosophy and Behr took responsibility the fact that they didn’t explore gender and sexuality very well. They recognized the existence sexuality and LGTBTQ rights but didn’t advocate. Behr owned it and it made me respect him a lot. “Star Trek” has always been a progressive show and it has dropped the ball on LGBTQ justice all of this time until “Discovery” really.

The New Season Pilot – One of the arcs through the documentary getting what writers he could together to write a new season of the snow. The new season pilot is awesome. It starts with Captain Nog being attacked and a reunion of all the characters returning to “Deep Space Nine.” Kira is a priestess and the station is a religious site, Worf is in line to takeover after Martok to rule the Empire, Julian Bashir is a captain with Ezri serving together on a ship and O’Brien is a professor at Starfleet academy while Jake is a successful author. From here things unfold as it starts out with Nog being attacked by an unscene show before arriving at the station. From we learn of a Bajor / Jem’Hadar plot that Kira is tied to and the return of Sisko as he reaches out to his children. I would watch it and I wish it would get made. Sadly I doubt it will exist beyond the fandom of this documentary though.

What You’ll Get on the DVD – The documentary ended with Nana Visitor talking to Behr about everything that wasn’t covered. Whether it was her failed marriage to Alexander Siddig (Julian Bashir), her having a baby and how they wrote that into the show, “In the Pale Moonlight” and quite a few other things. Behr said they’d all be on the special features of the dvd and that it was cut for time. Hearing that lead me to pre-order the dvd. I can’t wait to see all of the things that didn’t make it and rewatch this perfect documentary again.

If it wasn’t obvious already, “Star Trek: Deep Space Nine” is one of my favorite shows of all time. This was the “Star Trek series” I felt was good to great all the way through and explored the themes I love in stories. It gave politics, philosophy, war, identity and history all in deep and respectful ways. If you are a sci. fi. fan I highly recommend this show. This show started so much and any time I have the chance to see these actors and writers if they end up in Portland at a Comic Con, you bet I’ll be there. This was a show funded by the fans and created for them and the time and love put into it made it the perfect documentary and film. I’ll be surprised if any film compares when this year is done.

10 / 10. “Deep Space Nine” is one of my favorite Science Fiction shows of all time and I can’t think of a better way to honor it. The actors in this cast are folks I’d go to comic con for if they make it over my way.

The Man Who Killed Don Quixote (2019): An Exploration of Art and Obsession

         Terry Gilliam is one of the Director’s who has a vision I really respect. He brings magical realism to all his work and brings a tragic undercurrent to every story. His characters are flawed and he gives us worlds without heroes that are relatable and broken. “Fisher King” and “Brazil” are some of my favorite films and this is a great film that deserves to be among them. This was also a film that was hell to make. It was in some form of development for 29 years. It is a success that it finally was made and turned out as great as it is. Before I get into spoilers this is a great film and one I’d recommend to any fan of Gilliam’s work. It has all of his visual strengths and flawed characters and also the flaws of his films as many of the women he writes are more ideas than characters.

Terry Gilliam directed and co-wrote the film with Tony Grisoni.

The story follows Toby (Adam Driver) an advertising director who has returned to Spain to film a commercial about Don Quixote. After stumbling onto his student film where he changed a life of a small town forever with his film. Toby returns to the town and finds that all those involved with the town have come upon misery or death…with the cobbler Javier (Jonathan Pryce) who played Don Quixote, now believing himself to be the figure from the books. From here Toby is pulled into Javier’s adventure as he must own up to his own selfishness and the man he has become.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros:

The Cinematography – Nicola Pecorini does a wonderful job bringing Gilliam’s vision to life. From the use of stark colors when they are filming the commercial in the desert, to the final showdown in an old Castle that has been turned into a costume show…his use of color presentation brings each scene to life. It is from this presentation that the dreamlike nature is brought to the film and shows how many of the characters blur the lines between fantasy and reality.

The Soundtrack – Roque Baños López handled the soundtrack well and blends his influences to give us classic Spanish guitar work combined with the more epic operatic feel of the core adventure. He also works tension into every scene with the way he weaves the soundtrack through the film. The final showdown is a great example of this as it emphasizes the nightmarish costume party taking place and the fall of our heroes.

The World – The world that the film takes place is compelling as it mixes the story of “Don Quixote” into the real narrative of a town controlled by a Russian Gangster, sociopathic Hollywood executives and a crew who exploit one another and the people around them. This is a terrible world in regards to most of the characters who make up it, which ends up making sense why Javier became Don Quixote because the cruelty of life where there isn’t justice was too much for him to bare. This world is a beautiful tragedy and I look forward to watching it again. There are so many sad and comedic moments that I found it impossible not to be drawn in.

The Leads – The leads are really what carry the film. Adam Driver’s Toby is an egomaniac who eventually learns to be good but goes mad in the process (becoming Don Quixote after he accidentally kills Javier). Jonathan Pryce’s Javier is a madman who is driven by idealism but by the end of the film finds himself in death and Joana Ribiero’s Angelica is wonderful in how she calls each of them out in different ways while seeking freedom from the Mob.

When Creation and Art Leads to Obsession – The major theme of the film is the creation of art and how it can lead to obsession. The Russian mob boss has everyone dress up so that they can all live in his illusion, Javier once he figures out how the play the role of Don Quixote becomes the character and Toby in his initial obsession is what consumes the town and later himself when he adopts the role of Don Quixote after accidentally killing Javier. Given Gilliam’s own obsession in making this film, this film is most likely true to his life in many ways.

The Cons:

Presentation of Women – The women in this film are not fully realized characters. You have the Producer’s wife who is presented as a sign of temptation and corruption and you have Angelica as the fair maiden to be saved. Thankfully Angelica is shown to be more than this caricature by the end of the film but the Producer’s wife is not so lucky. They are also the only actresses that have any major role in the film so the fact that they are put into these awful roles by the men stands out all the more. This was definitely what brought the film down the most for me. The objectification by the cruel men is never called out. They just end up experiencing a different form of objectification.

I’m grateful this film got made. Gilliam has such a unique vision as a director and I love his magical realism. It isn’t perfect but the magical realism of Gilliam is something that I’ve always enjoyed, it is one of my favorite genres of fiction. There is something to be said for an artist who can so beautifully mix fantasy and reality into his narrative and comment on the nature of that blending in the process. I can see why Gilliam had been trying to make this film for so long. What he created is beautiful and amazing and to any Terry Gilliam fan I highly recommend. I’m planning to check out the documentary “Lost in La Manche” as it goes into the failed attempts to make this film. If you are a fan of Gilliam or this genre too, check it out.

 

Final Score: 9.5 / 10

Shazam! (2019): A Beautiful Tale on What it Means to Have Family

New Shazam Poster Reminds You the Movie Is Fun | Collider

    “Shazam!” is easily the best film so far in the DC Cinematic Universe. I’m speaking as someone who thought “Wonder Woman” was great and enjoyed “Aquaman” and “Man of Steel.” This film is better than all of those and is the most fun I’ve had in a DC film since “The Dark Knight Rises.” I’m glad they got this win. “Shazam!” captures what makes super heroes and comics books so enjoyable and fun in the first place. This is a film that never stops being fun. For non-spoiler thoughts, it is worth seeing for that reason alone. This film is comedic, dark, adventurous and explores the concept of a family better than so many films that say that is their theme. Not only that, the film looks great and has a fantastic soundtrack.

The film was directed by David F. Sandberg with screenplay by Henry Gayden and produced by Peter Safran.

The story follows foster boy Billy Batson as he is given to the last foster family who will give him a chance, as he has ran away from all those prior. Left with the choice as he searches for his missing mother other threats are plot and act as Dr. Sivana (Mark Strong) is empowered by an evil and only the wizard Shazam can empower someone pure of heart who can stop him in his quest of destruction.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros:

The World – Finally the DCCU works. This film calls upon classic “Shazam!” villains who were part of his universe before Faucet Comics were bought out by DC and when he was Captain Marvel. The villain is Dr. Sivana who is a classic foe who DC brought into their universe. As someone who loves the rich lore of comics this was a movie that hit me on so many levels. There is more related to the lore that I’ll get into later in the review, but this is a world that doesn’t need the rest of the DC universe to be good but enriches it by existing.

The Action and Cinematography – The action is visceral, colorful and feels like it has been pulled from the pages of a comic. It isn’t the same beautiful the way “Spider-Verse” did it with it’s animation (blending anime, modern, noir, etc.) but it does it using the dark and light in the character’s abilities and where they choose to shoot the fights. For example, the final fight takes place in a carnival. This use of the dark and light contrast makes the fight sequences stand out and when they happen (because when they happen they matter) it adds to the narrative and is a brilliant use of storytelling.

The Characters – The characters and their relationships are what makes this movie work in this end. I would have rated this movie as at least very good if all I had to go on where performances and the character relationships, and this film delivers on those in spades. The relationships are a big reason I want to go back as I think I’ll notice more in the rewatch as far as how the characters see one another and what that means in the finale.

Billy Batson – Billy Batson / Shazam / Captain Marvel is the main character, who as the foster kid is seeking his mother. He is a kid who only looks out for himself and tells his foster family as much. He does grow more attached to them over the course of the film, which is part of his essential arc. When he becomes the Champion empowered by Wizard we see Billy’s arc go from selfish kid seeking his mother to hero who has found his true family. Both Zachary Levi as Shazam and Asher Angel as Billy give so much depth to the role.

Freddy – Freddy is one of Billy’s foster siblings and the closest thing he has to a friend. He’s also a huge comic book nerd and becomes Billy’s mentor on how to become a hero when he becomes the Champion / Shazam. At first they are both really selfish but Freddy figures out the bigger picture first and calls out Billy for how he has become a selfish bully with his abilities. Freddy does have his arc payoff though, but I’m not revealing what that is, since it is one of the best parts of the film.

Shazam Family – Billy’s adopted family becomes the Shazam Family at the end to fight the Seven Deadly Sins and it is awesome! Each of them is a hero as strong as Billy and together they face off against the Sins. How it happens is fascinating too as it Billy realizing that he needs to open his heart to find his true power and it is in sharing power, not taking it (like Dr. Sivana) where true power lies. Each of the family members has distinct personalities contrasted by their grown up identity and I can’t wait to see them further. I won’t describe more as the seeing their story payoff is one of the best parts of the film.

Dr. Sivana – Dr. Sivana was one of the people chosen by the wizard a long time ago to be the hero but failed because of the temptations from the Demons who are the Seven Deadly Sins. From that point on he seeks out the Sins and frees them before seeking out the hero who he envies for having the great power that is only capable of defeating him. We see why he is this way too as he comes from an abusive family and power was the only thing his dad and brother ever respected. What innocence and pure of heart that he needed to be the Champion was stamped out a long time ago.

Mr. Mind – This is a classic villain for the Fawcett comics who DC brought back when they revamped the character. He is this caterpillar looking worm who is a genius. He meets up with Dr. Sivana in prison and tells him there are more ways to power than simply magic. It is a great set-up for future films as Mr. Mind is a villain unlike anything we’ve seen so far in Marvel or DC.

Okay:

The Foster Parents – The Foster Parents are kind but kind of generic. We get glimpses of their past but never in relation to their kids, only in relation to one another. They both grew up in the Foster system so I’m not saying it is a negative but them opening up to any of their foster kids about their past would have added a layer of depth the story wasn’t able to do. Not entirely a con but definitely the weakest part of the film.

This is a great film. Shazam is such a fun hero and I can’t wait to see how Mr. Mind and Shazam and his foster family are used in later films. In both there is so much potential there to be explored. This was also a film that doesn’t need an expanded universe to work. Billy’s relationship to his foster family and his biological mother give this film more than enough heart to make this film wholly great on it’s own merits. If you are looking for a film that has a deeper point while still managing to be a hilarious comedy, you will probably love this film as much as I did. It is definitely one of my favorite films.

Final Score: 9.6 / 10

Sorry to Bother You (2018): A Surreal Exploration of Race, Class and Privilege

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (2018): The Dark Humor and Despair of the “Old West”

      I am a huge Coen Brothers fan. “Fargo,” “Blood Simple” and “The Big Lewbowski” are some of my favorite films of all time and I love the desolation and farcical nature that is brought to so many of their dramas. “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is certainly up there with those films, but doesn’t quite reach their level of perfection. Lately they’ve been doing more collaborations but this is wholly a Coen Brothers film as they wrote, produced and directed this film.

    “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is a Western anthology that follows the tales of the gunslinger, the thief, the conman, the prospector, the cowboy and the bounty hunter. Each story is haunted with tales of death and destruction as all are faced with choices told in a storybook fashion. The name of the anthology also is the name of the first story within the anthology itself.

I’m judging each story individually before an overall take on the whole, since though they are each connected in theme, it is still an anthology film.

SPOILERS ahead

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is one of the happiest of the tales, as even though death and destruction happen, Buster Scruggs always has a song on his lips and his sheer joy rubs off on the events throughout the story. The story follows Buster Scruggs (Tim Blake Nelson) the Gunslinger as he goes about from town to town, taking out people who challenge him. It finally all comes to a head when the Man in Black finds him and it is the duel he finally loses, that brings his story to an end. This one was great as a musical and I love Tim Blake Nelson’s energy as Buster Scruggs. He is fun and funny and even though is willing to kill always treats people as a good person first and always has a song on his lips. This is what makes his death tragic, but he does get to go to Heaven and gets angel wings, so his story isn’t entirely tragic…especially compared to the stories that come up later.

Score: 9.4 / 10. The cinematography is beautiful, the music is great and if we’d had more time with characters it could have been a perfect Musical Western.

Near Algodones

This story is comparable to “The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” in how absurd it is, though it differs in that it doesn’t have the joy of that story. This is a story of desperation and lack of luck where every situation leads to a worse one. The story follows a young cowboy (James Franco) who is attempting to rob an isolated bank. He fails and is about to be hung by local law enforcement, when some Native Americans attack and leave him to die. Another band of thieves takes him and and they are caught and brought to town to be hung. This is the young cowboy’s second hanging and the one where he finally dies. This was the story that made me wish we’d gotten the Native story in these tales. They are all from the perspective of the privileged old west, which does have intriguing stories, but the Natives are only ever antagonists or in the case of this story, indifferent. Some of that tribe’s story could have been explored in this but instead Franco’s character just takes the long way around to finally getting hung.

Score: 7.5 / 10

Meal Ticket

This story was by far the most haunting and probably my most favorite. There are two characters, the Impresario (Liam Neeson) and his actor Harrison (Harry Melling). Harrison doesn’t have arms or legs and performs speeches and Shakespeare as the Impresario travels through towns to make money. We don’t know how they came about together but we soon see how little the Impresario doesn’t care about Harrison at all leading into a tragic ending, where the Impresario buys a chicken who can do basic math and it is implied he drops Harrison into the river. This is after Harrison has stopped bringing in the money he once did. Liam Neeson plays the Impresario and is wonderfully creepy. He reminds me of a much worse version of Fagin from Dickens’ “Oliver” and seeing just how much he disregards Harrison is powerful as well as Harrison’s fear as Harrison only acts through his eyes and the acting he puts into the shows. This story is all about exploration and despair and how powerless the only good person (Harrison) is in a world that sees him as a burden or something to be exploited. It is a tragedy and easily the best story of the bunch.

Score: 10 / 10.

All Gold Canyon

“All Gold Canyon” is a film focused on the beauty of nature and the ravings of an old prospector (Tom Waits) searching for gold in the wilderness. I really enjoyed this story as so much of it is Man v Nature as the prospector goes through the process of finding gold flakes and eventually hitting the gold but finding himself attacked by a young man who was watching him as he is no longer facing the wilderness but facing the selfishness of humanity. He ends up killing the man after he outsmarts him and buries him in the small hole he created in his search for the gold. It is a really great story with the only problem being how distracting the CGI deer is. There was no reason not to use a real deer given how beautiful the landscape is and the owl looked real at least. If there hadn’t been the deer and bad CGI this story would have been perfect for what it was. I was rooting for the muttering prospector who talks to himself, I wanted him to find the gold and I was happy when he did and survived.

Final Score: 9.6 / 10

The Gal Who Got Rattled

“The Gal Who Got Rattled” is the weakest of the stories and brings everything else down. There are far too many characters, none of them are really likable or interesting and it has nothing profound to say and lacks a coherent point. The story follows Alice (Zoe Kazan) who is traveling west with her brother to marry. Her brother dies along the way and we learn she’s been conned and now doesn’t have any money. One of the cowboys falls in love with her and that goes nowhere, and later she is with her brother’s dog when they are attacked by Natives and she ends up killing herself when the leader of the caravan says she should do it cause it is a better fate than getting captured. This one has the same problems as “Near Algodones” in how the Native Americans only exist as a threat and also in that we never get to really know any of the characters. They are doing things but I couldn’t really tell you who they are. This story is cinematically beautiful, but when that is the only thing I’m saying as a pro, you kind of failed.

Final Score: 6 / 10

The Mortal Remains

“The Mortal Remains,” is also one of the best stories of the bunch. This is a story that has an element of magical surrealism to it as for a good portion of the film I thought all the characters might be dead. The story follows 5 characters in a carriage on their way to Fort Morgan in a stagecoach. The conversation unfolds as we learn about our characters and their relationships. From an old religious lady who is coming to see her husband, the Frenchman who says that her professor husband was probably cheating on her, a trapper who has no internal editor and is looked down on by the lady for how unclean he physically is and the Irishman and Englishman who we learn at the end are Bounty Hunters. There is an heir of foreboding through the entire conversation and outside it is dark and covered and mist, this made me think of the afterlife and if they were all being transported their. The fact that the carriage doesn’t stop until they reach Fort Morgan played into this. We see this theme in the hotel they stop at has a stairway of light leading up that the bounty hunters carry the dead body up and in the carriage driver whose face we never see and is always moving. My favorite characters were the bounty hunters as the others with them were a bit bland. We learn their backstory but they are more interesting in how they reacted to their situation and the bounty hunters. Their fear and not knowing what to do made them more compelling than the backstories they shared, which made the story work.

Final Score: 9 / 10. Solidly great. Would have been better with more interesting characters outside of the bounty hunters.

“The Ballad of Buster Scruggs” is well worth your time if you are a Coen Brothers or western fan. This film captures so much of what works and doesn’t work about westerns and I loved the absurdity, detachment and sorrow that the Coens bring to their films. This is a beautiful anthology and I would have watched more stories if it had been longer. When it is great it is perfect and when it is flawed it is still enjoyable. Not many anthology films can claim that, as average is easy. This was an amazing film and definitely one of my favorites, though it might not make my Top 5 at the end of the year. This year is a year of steep competition and the things that bring the anthology down are enough to keep it from landing higher up on the list of greats this year. Still, this is a film I highly recommend. Check it out.

Final Score: 9.6 / 10 The bad stories bring it down, though the great stories make this score still very high.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018) – The Power of a Compelling Villain

“Infinity War” is easily in my Top 5 MCU films. This is a film I saw a second time before writing this review, and the only other Superhero films that have been that lucky were “The Dark Knight” and “The Dark Knight Rises.” As you can tell from those and this film, I enjoy my superhero films depressing or bittersweet. This is a film that hits you over the head with loss, and doesn’t stop until the end. Thanos is the villain, but also the protagonist, as his actions drive the film and force our heroes to make choices that define them before the loss comes. I’ll get into spoilers deeper into the review, but for now, this is a film I highly recommend.

This film was directed by the Russo Brothers, written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, while being produced by Kevin Feige.

The story involves the Avengers trying to stop Thanos from getting all the Infinity Stones (cosmically powerful stones born at the Big Bang, and scattered through the Universe), as when he does, he plans to wipe out half the universe.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros:

The Universe – It is the Marvel Cinematic Universe… a universe full of aliens, cultures, clashing personalities, heroes, villains and in the end consequences. There is a reason I’ve become so drawn into the comic books. What Marvel and Disney have done is to interpret so much of that beautifully on the screen, and each new film I like returning to this enjoyable and fascinating world.

The Superhero Teams – The driving action of the film is the team-ups between different heroes. Characters clash and have to work out their conflicts in order to take on Thanos to keep him from destroying half the population of the Universe. I’ll cover what I liked about the teams below.

Bruce Banner and the Secret Avengers – The film kicks off with Thanos killing Loki and knocking out the Hulk. The Hulk is saved by Heimdall and sent to Earth where Hulk retreats into Bruce Banner. From here we see Banner reunite with the Avengers, and have to depend on his brains to take on the Black Order, as Hulk is afraid to come out after losing to Thanos. It is wonderful seeing this dynamic in action, with those in Wakanda, as he fights in Tony’s Hulkbuster armor against the alien swarm. Banner has always been the outcast in the Avengers, and now that he’s back he can’t even depend on his power as the Hulk. This forces him to adapt to thinking things through as Banner, as he realizes he has deeper issues to explore with the Hulk. I can’t wait to see where his arc goes with the Hulk and the Avengers in “Avengers 4.”

Spider-Man, Doctor Strange and Iron Man – This dynamic is fun. To kick things off, Doctor Strange is the one who doesn’t care about people (he tells Tony and Peter that he will let them die before he gives Thanos the Time Stone). Spidey is full of pop culture references that annoy Tony, and Tony Stark is always trying to take control, which leads to conflict with Doctor Strange because of it. They succeed in taking out a member of the Black Order, but face deadly fallout when they reach Titan, Thanos’ homeworld, to battle the Mad Titan himself.

Star-Lord, Gamora, Drax and Mantis – 3 of this group eventually team up with Spidey, Strange, and Stark against Thanos… which happens after Gamora is kidnapped by Thanos, as she knows the destination of the Soul Stone. She has some powerful scenes with Star-Lord, and some funny scenes with Drax.

Rocket, Groot and Thor – This was my favorite team up, it happens after the Guardians of the Galaxy rescue Thor from his destroyed refugee ship. Thor’s ship was destroyed by Thanos when he picked up the Space Stone from Loki, before Thanos kills Loki. It is the death of Heimdall and Loki, and half of Asgard that have Thor full of anger and broken. This leads to Rocket stepping up to be the Captain and helping Thor through the process of healing, as they head to the legendary location of Nidavellir, so that Thor can create a god killing weapon. Groot is a teenager and full of attitude, but steps up to the plate when he contributes part of himself to making Thor’s new weapon.

The Story Arc of Thanos – Thanos is the protagonist of this film. It is desire for balance in the universe (which he believes can only come about through genocide after his planet is destroyed from running out of resources and overpopulation) that drives his desire for the Infinity Stones. Each stone costs him, as the members of the Black Order are all eventually killed by the Avengers. To get the Soul Stone he has to sacrifice the only one he ever loved (Gamora), and getting the Mind Stone out of Vision nearly costs him his life, when Thor attacks him with the God killing weapon. In the end he wins and wipes out half the universe. Where his story goes from here remains to be seen, as he achieved his goal, and as far as he knows… he is the monster who brought balance to the universe. Josh Brolin truly did a masterful job and is easily one of the best villains in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Okay:

The Black Order – These 4 look really cool but weren’t as effective as they could have been. I would have liked at least one of them to kill one of the good guys. They might be back now that Thanos has all the Infinity Stones, so they could get more development later on… we’ll just have to wait and see.

The Battle in Wakanda – The Battle in Wakanda is pretty generic compared to most of the other fights in the film. Most of the other fights involve use of the environment and powers to try and stop the Mad Titan, where here it is a bunch of expendable aliens against a group of superheroes and soldiers all lined up. It is like every other “big battle.” It still looked good, but the genericness of it all kept it from being a truly memorable part of the film. It was the kind of action we see in every other MCU film.

Pacing – The first time I saw this film I didn’t notice any pacing issues. The second time I watched I thought the beginning could have been cut down and happened faster, the Battle of Wakanda is too long, and Thanos needed more scenes with people. Each film develops him further, and with better pacing we could have gotten more of that, or least more exploration of his faction, the Black Order.

The team ups, the comedy, the action, the characters and their arcs… there is so much I have to recommend about this film. This is a film that could have been a gigantic mess, given how large the cast was, and all the different parts that are in play. The Russo Brothers managed to pull it off. Once again, showing why they are the ones shaping the story of the MCU. If you haven’t seen this movie yet, do it. This is a film that is well worth your time and shows just how powerful stories can be.

Final Score: 9.8 / 10

 

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