Go Big Or Go (Spider-Man: Far From) Home

Related imageSpoilers for this film and Avengers: Endgame!

Spider-Man: Far From Home picks up shortly after Avengers: Endgame. Tony Stark is dead and the world is mourning his loss and is trying to move on after Thanos’s snap and then the reverse snap, which is being called “The Blip.” Eager to escape the mounting responsibilities being put on him by Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), Peter Parker (Tom Holland) joins his class for a summer trip to Europe, where his only concerns are enjoying himself and trying to tell MJ (Zendaya) that he likes her. 

Unsurprisingly, he is soon caught up again into superhero antics when a set of new threats called Elementals appear, but it seems Peter is not alone in fighting them this time. He meets a new hero named Quentin Beck, aka Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal), who may not be everything he seems. 

Far From Home is a mixed bag, but it is undeniably entertaining. The Spider-Man corner of the MCU continues to be at its best when it focuses on normalcy. The humor that comes from the class and vacation situations are by far the best parts of Far From Home. Martin Starr and J.B Smoove are particularly delightful as Peter’s teachers, and Marisa Tomei, Zendaya, and Jacob Batalon continue to be great as Peter’s inner circle who keep up the push-and-pull between Peter’s civilian identity and his role as Spider-Man. 

Beyond the humor, though, are some truly affecting dramatic moments. Similar to the tear-jerking part in Homecoming when Peter gets trapped under the rubble, or when Peter gets dusted in Infinity War, the scene where Mysterio first uses his illusions on Peter is startling because it emphasizes Peter’s youth, and it is truly disturbing to see him being manipulated and beaten down in such a brutal fashion. Holland has some solid dramatic chops, and he gets to use them again here. I applaud the film for not pulling any punches and letting this young hero get a true “dark night of the soul” moment. 

The film also lets Peter makes some terrible mistakes that make him look foolish at best and unworthy of being Spider-man at worst. It’s a touch of sophistication that is missing from many other MCU films that typically rely on the hero’s darkest hours coming from external forces and not from their own mistakes. In this regard, this second Marvel-Sony Spider-Man entry is quite ambitious. 

Far From Home falters, however, in part because of this ambition. It goes bigger, and it doesn’t hit the mark on everything. The multiple bombastic action sequences are bland because most of them are Peter against faceless entities of water or fire or drones, which result in no emotional connection to the audience and a CGI mess on the screen.

This ambition extends to the movie’s themes. The story seems relevant with its inclusion of fake news, drones, technological warfare, illusions, not being sure what is real and not, and an undercurrent of what I can only describe as Gen-Z Anxiety™. All of those things are relevant, but the movie never quite gets around to saying anything meaningful about those things. Peter defeats them through his superpowers, so what does that mean for those of us who don’t have superpowers? Ultimately, just because the movie has timely elements doesn’t make it so, because it fails to understand what makes these things timely in the first place. 

This brings us back to Mysterio, who, like Michael Keaton’s villain Vulture in Homecoming, is a regular man who feels like he was cast low by Tony Stark and decides to retaliate by becoming evil. But while the film, and the MCU at large, seems to want to give some commentary on Tony’s problematic aspects, by making his critics evil maniacs, the wind is taken out of any serious arguments against Tony and instead just affirms him. His critics are all evil, and he saved the world, so in the end, he must have been in the right. 

Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) does say late in the movie that Tony was a “mess” and “always doubted himself,” which is true and is in line with the character’s development in losing his self-assuredness and gaining humility. But then moments later Happy makes an explicit connection between Tony and Peter, and since Peter is our heroic protagonist, any legitimate criticism of Tony is once again undercut in favor of the MCU’s RDJ-worship. All of this renders Mysterio a promising character played well by an underused Gyllenhaal, who never quite gets to shine as he should.

In the end, Far From Home confirms what some other recent MCU films have been showing, which is that Marvel is getting bolder and riskier, but still doesn’t quite have it in them to either go all the way or have the proper execution. I’m glad they’re trying, but they’re still far from a home run.

-Madeleine D.

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The Gospel of Place: The Last Black Man in San Francisco

Image result for the last black man in san francisco

“In the Christian imagination, where you live gets equal billing with what you believe. Geography and theology are biblical bedfellows…Biblical religion has a low tolerance for ‘great ideas’ or ‘sublime truths’ or ‘inspirational thoughts’ apart from the places in which they occur. God’s great love and purposes for us are worked out in the messes in our kitchens and backyards, in storms and sins, blue skies, daily work, working with us…where we are…and not where we would like to be.” 

-Eugene Peterson, in the forward to Sidewalks in the Kingdom by Eric O. Jacobsen 

“If we learn to see and even love these urban features, we will begin to cheer when our cities and neighborhoods are preserved, and we will begin to weep when they are destroyed” 

      -Jacobsen, 73 

The Last Black Man in San Francisco, despite its provocative and apocalyptic title, is a meandering and tender eulogy about a number of things. The film follows a man named Jimmie Fails (played by the man of the same name, on whose life story the film is based on) as he squats in the home he lived in as a kid and tries to find a way to buy it back for himself. Jimmie’s love for the house (and San Francisco at large) is of the purest form and is possibly only rivaled by the love of his friend Monty (Jonathan Majors), an aspiring playwright who supports Jimmie until he discovers the truth about the house. The film watches the characters navigate this increasingly strange and hostile city that they love but are being priced out of. The Last Black Man in San Francisco is a movie unlike any other movie that has come out this year, and I’d like to look at a few more reasons why.

In American filmmaking, time is treated like it is in our society- something to be hastened and exploited and used to its very last drop. Time efficiency is considered great storytelling, and sometimes it is. But sometimes it isn’t, and there becomes a point where efficiency in storytelling means the filmmaker may use her characters more as tools than as reflections of humans. In TLBMISF, the camera gazes upon human faces and human bodies in a way that aims to cut straight to the character’s humanity, and it does not hasten to do this or have an agenda. At one point Monty, after being berated by some men on the street, says to Jimmie, “I shouldn’t get to appreciate them because they’re mean to me? That’s silly.” This is the attitude the film takes. Some characters that seem to have no narrative function turn out to be of great importance. Some characters really do not have any greater plot function, but all are treated with care and dignity by the camera. I’ve talked a few times before about having an empathetic camera, but TLBMISF exemplifies the concept more fully than any other film I’ve seen. This is true visual storytelling and a better form of storytelling efficiency.  

An unexpected consequence of this narrative empathy was that this became a stressful viewing experience for me because there was no one to really root against, so there was no sense of, “Of course this bad guy will be defeated, good conquers evil!” I was constantly in suspense about what was going to happen, and the film continued to go in unexpected directions. I felt this anxiety early on because Jimmie and Monty are so dang likable, even when they’re not doing likable things. It’s impossible not to want them to succeed, and panic at all of the clear obstacles in their ways. 

Speaking of Monty and Jimmie, in films with friendship in the middle, one character often takes an extreme comedic relief role and the other plays the straight man. They have to be extremes to keep things interesting, and their quippy rapport is a shorthand to express their closeness. Monty and Jimmie don’t fit into these categories in any fashion. They have their differences, but the performances are so lived-in and organic, the chemistry between the leads so effortless, and the physical closeness they often share is so comfortable that there is no need to have any kind of shorthand or tropes to establish the relationship. And refreshingly, the film feels no need to “no homo” the character’s bond at any point, further exuding the confidence the film feels about its own presence. 

~

The quotes at the beginning of this review are from Sidewalks in the Kingdom, a book about Christianity and new urbanism. In it, author Eric O. Jacobsen argues what the Bible argues- that Christianity is not solely the realm of the head and heart, but has to be enacted on the streets of where we live, and increasingly, that place is a city. The Bible begins in the Garden of Eden but ends in the Kingdom of God, pointedly shown to be a city. 

TLBMISF sees the city, in this case, San Francisco, as the Bible sees cities. And as already discussed, it also sees people in the same way. As Jimmie tells some newcomers who already dislike San Francisco, “You can’t hate it unless you love it.” As Christians, we cannot recognize the problems in the world and in our cities until we at first truly, truly love it. 

I am writing this review and including these quotes because I encourage you to watch this film, and I think watching it in this framework will be helpful, thought-provoking, and hopefully, rewarding. It was impossible for me not to consider these things when I saw it. TLBMISF is not pointedly a spiritual film, but like all good movies, it illuminates truth. Christians are called to love the earth we are on, and work for its benefit and glory. If only we all saw the spaces we occupy and the communities we are a part of in the way Jimmie and Monty see San Francisco. If only we advocated for the restoration of the historical homes of our cities, called for walkable streets and sidewalks, for justice in our legal systems and in our economic policies, and for thoughtfulness and care put into the urban renewal that is not only gentrifying San Francisco but all of the United States. 

In other words, we can and should get to a point where we will begin to cheer when our cities and neighborhoods are preserved, and we will begin to weep when they are destroyed.

Brie Larson Trifecta: Short Term 12, Room, and Unicorn Store

Recently, I found myself with a to-watch list that contained three Brie Larson films. So, in a very late celebration of her film Captain Marvel reaching the billion dollar mark at the box office and Avengers: Endgame taking all the rest of the world’s money, let’s take a look at some of the highlights of Larson’s filmography. 

Short Term 12Image result for short term 12

Short Term 12 is about Grace (Brie Larson), a young counselor at a care unit for at-risk teens. Grace herself was once one of those teens, but now is a model for the kids as she cares for them in a calm, firm, and compassionate manner. The slice-of-life drama follows Grace and her boyfriend/ fellow counselor Mason (John Gallagher Jr.) as they face new challenges at the center and in their relationship. 

There’s not a single weak performer in the cast. While Larson got deserved praise for her performance, John Gallagher Jr. is equally perfect. He does most of the comedic lifting, but he has a number of small dramatic moments that make the film work so well, and he and Larson have perfect chemistry. The supporting cast, including rising stars Rami Malek and Lakeith Stanfield (go see Sorry to Bother You!), are equally great in their roles. 

The film is so authentic and realistic it feels like a documentary, but it never once lost my attention. It is, simply put, riveting. Short Term 12 never shies away from the flaws of its characters, but it also never forgets their dignity and beauty either. It is the kind of film that pulls you completely into the story, and makes you feel the pain of each character, yet also makes you feel stronger and more ready to take on life when you leave the theater. I believe it is a must-see. 

RoomImage result for room movie

Like Short Term 12, this is another realistic, serious film that is almost documentary-like in parts as it tells the story of Joy (Brie Larson) and her son Jack (Jacob Tremblay) as they escape their kidnapper and restart life in the real world.

I resisted seeing Room for a while, knowing it was going to be a hard watch. Thankfully, it’s not a shocking or gratuitous film, but it is still emotionally heavy. This story is about a crime but that’s not its focus; the focus is on the human soul. 

Every time Room could fall into a cliche about the inspiring strength of the human spirit or the resilience of kids, it sidesteps the cliche gracefully and tells a fuller story. It is a reminder of the strength of the human spirit and the resilience of kids, but the movie doesn’t end on a victorious or inspirational note. Instead, it embodies an honest view of the evils of the world but with a persistent attitude of hope. Another must-see, if only for Larson and Tremblay’s incredible work.

Unicorn StoreImage result for unicorn store

A lighthearted departure from her other films, Unicorn Store is Larson’s directorial debut. She stars as Kit, a young adult who refuses to grow up. She meets a man called The Salesman (Samuel L. Jackson), who promises to give her her heart’s desire- a unicorn- if she prepares a home for it. Kit accepts the challenge and must learn how to take care of the creature, and maybe along the way learn to care for herself. 

Kit as a character is very uneven, like the film, but I did like that she offers up a fresh breath of air as a heroine. A lot of female characters are getting the “strong” treatment, in which the description of “strong” ceases to have any actual meaning and instead becomes code for, “just like the ideal male hero,” which means completely competent and physically tough with a lack of or at least a comfortably low count of any feminine qualities. (Obviously, there is a discussion to be had if being “strong” should be thought of as a firstly masculine trope and narrative at all, but that’s a different discussion). Anyway, here Kit is not strong in any of the ways the word is used. She’s not physically strong, she’s not particularly mentally strong or tough, and is not someone to look up to. She is *gasp* flawed and must grow. 

Kit is silly and immature and unsure of herself, and yet that is never equated with her femininity, which itself is never taken from her, even as she matures. The problem with Kit is never presented that she likes glitter and unicorns and pink- an over-the-top feminine aesthetic- the problem is that she is resistant to change and unprepared for adult life. I found that refreshing and know the character of Kit will resonate with a lot of women. 

Unfortunately, Unicorn Store really wants to be quirky and unique, which is usually the mindset that makes a film fail to be either quirky or unique or good. The forced whimsy of the film, combined with an all-too-obvious metaphor, keeps it from being much of a meditation on the difference between being childish and being like a child. This is furthered by the uneven tone that fluctuates between child-like wonder and childishness, which might have been an interesting way to reflect Kit’s character but is clearly out of bad filmmaking instead. 

As for her directing, Larson is fine but is bettered by the cinematography by Brett Pawlak and is weakened by Samantha Montgomery McIntyre’s script. There’s still potential here for Larson’s next directorial effort- and I do hope she does another film- but I think it would be better for her to focus on a more minimalistic story.

Is there a common thread between these projects? I would say so. Both Room and Short Term 12 are about people in crisis that are trying to regain an identity outside of being in crisis. Unicorn Store is also about identity, but the crisis has much lower stakes and comes more from personal failure and dissatisfaction than the outward influences that plague the characters of Short Term 12 and Room

Unicorn Store relies on Larson to play a bold, quirky, and altogether more performative character, while her other work has her do the opposite in extremely subdued, naturalistic characterizations. Her performance in Unicorn Store is not bad, but it doesn’t play to her strengths, which makes it comparable to her work as Captain Marvel. Her uniqueness as an actress lies in how she makes each character feel lived in, to such a degree that I feel, watching them, that I could sit down with Joy of Room or Grace of Short Term 12 and ask them about their pasts and they could tell me all sorts of things. Both Carol Danvers aka Captain Marvel and Kit from Unicorn Store are big personalities that make it seems like Larson is impersonating other actors who would fit those roles better (although I truly think Larson will come more into her own as Captain Marvel by her next appearance and under better directors).

Watching a selection of films from an actor’s filmography is a helpful way to not only understand the actor better but the craft of acting. And I think this experiment not only gave me two excellent films to enjoy but also should serve as a reminder that Brie Larson does not deserve all the online trolling and hate she is getting. So, if you’re a Marvel fan harassing Brie Larson online- quit it! I would say I will find you myself, but after seeing how ripped Larson got to play Captain Marvel, I think she can take care of herself. 

-Madeleine D. 

Toy Story 4 Video Review ft. Mark Branson Thurston

In honor of Toy Story 4, I wanted to do something special, so I recruited my friend Mark Branson Thurston, a filmmaker and fellow film-lover, to make madeleinelovesmovies.com’s first video review. Mark and I discuss various themes of the film, Woody’s character arc, and whether or not you will cry (I didn’t find it as emotional as the other Toy Story films, but Mark disagreed). I went into Toy Story 4 with low expectations, not believing the movie could live up to the ending of Toy Story 3. What I should have remembered is to never underestimate Pixar. 

Mark Branson Thurston currently resides in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He loves spending time with family and friends, staying connected with the local churches in the Tulsa Area and is working on scripts as well as treatments for the films as we speak. He is the creator of Notebook Chronicles Studio, where he has made four short films along with a multi-part youtube series, and make one-minute movie reviews.

Notebook Chronicles Website

Youtube

Thurston’s personal quote for film-making is: “Films making us think, cry, laugh, or strive are enjoyable. Creating a film that possesses all of those qualities is what makes it stand out from the rest.”

-Madeleine D.

The 10 Best Things of 2019 (So Far)

Around this time, people start making “best of” lists for the first half of 2019. Unfortunately, I have not seen 10 movies that have come out this year that are worth being on such a list. But if we expand past movies, I do have a few “best of” things I would recommend you check out.

Movies

How to Train Your Dragon 3

The best animated movie of the year so far (until maybe Toy Story 4), this gorgeous and mature final entry into the groundbreaking franchise finds Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) making difficult choices as the leader of his clan and transitioning from a boy to a man. The film is both laugh-out-loud funny and sensitive, truly a treat for all ages.

Everyone Knows

Iranian director Asghar Farhadi specializes in stories where a crisis quickly unravels to reveal long-kept secrets held by the characters, and nothing is solved until the truth is brought into the light. Everybody Knows beautifully executes this framework, telling the story of a woman whose daughter is kidnapped at a wedding, and the entire family becomes suspect. Despite the sensational stakes, the drama is highest in the intense, fiercely personal interactions between characters. Don’t let the subtitles scare you- it’s one of the best dramas of the year.

Music

“Old Town Road” [Remix] by Little Nas X ft. Billie Ray Cyrus

Yeehaw. I can’t wait for the emerging hick-hop genre to bring this divided country together.

Wasteland, Baby! album by Hozier

Hozier, best known for his runaway single “Take Me To Church,” follows up his self-titled debut album five years later with a moody, sometimes sultry, and always tortured reflection about wrestling between his desire for the pleasures of earth and the cautious hope of a spiritual dimension. He goes back and forth on the album between “the world is ending, nothing matters, but I love you so let’s just go with that,” and “things do matter and we have a responsibility to fight for them.” This tug-a-war, no matter how much you may agree or disagree with Hozier at any point in the album, never fails to be interesting and honest. He takes up Mumford and Son’s mantle of obscure and somewhat confusing mixes of biblical and literary references that make me miss Mumford and Sons, but alas, they died in 2013, and Hozier is a suitable heir.

I also had the fortune of seeing Hozier live in concert, and he was just as good there. He’s not a one-hit wonder, but hopefully here to stay. My favorite songs from the album are Dinner and Diatribes, Nina Cried Power, and Sunlight.

Podcasts

Cape Up with Jonathan Capehart, Voices of the Movement

Jonathan Capehart is a journalist and contributor to The Washington Post. A series within the podcast, “Voices of the Movement”, began earlier this year and tells the story of the Civil Rights movement. As of this writing, there are nine episodes, each about 20 to 30 minutes long. Each one focuses on different aspects of the movement, such as women of the movement, children in the movement, how Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “The Letter From Birmingham Jail” was snuck out of jail, and so on. It’s not only well-done but gets below the surface facts and stories you’ve already heard to bring out unsung heroes. Finally, Capehart ties it into today, asking listeners how the strategies used during the Civil Rights era can be applied today in other areas of injustice.

My favorite episodes are Episode 6, “How segregationist George Wallace became a model for racial reconciliation” and Episode 7, “How music propelled the civil rights movement.” You can download it wherever you get your podcasts.

The Anthropocene Reviewed

John Green is best known as the author of The Fault in Our Stars and some other young adult novels, along with running a youtube channel and making educational content with his brother Hank Green. While I don’t love his books, I find him fascinating as a person and like a lot of his other content (thank you Crash Course for helping me in school!) His monthly podcast, The Anthropocene Reviewed, is a fairly straightforward concept, despite the title. In each episode, Green picks two things from the world and reviews them on a five-star scale. The items don’t have any clear correlation. He’s done things from Hawaiian pizza to Super Mario Kart, CNN to Viral Meningitis, and Diet Dr. Pepper to Canadian Geese.

What is not so straightforward is how he presents each topic. Green ties in deeply personal anecdotes from his life, with acute observations and quandaries about what the items in questions mean in relation to their spot in human history and to the current culture. The podcast, like Green himself, can be quite melancholy, but in a way that never ceases to express genuine wonder at the natural- and unnatural- world. If approached right, The Anthropocene Reviewed is not only a peaceful listen, but an exercise in gratefulness. I give it five out of five stars.

I recommend Episode 8, “Whispering and the Weather,” and Episode 10, “Tetris and the Seed Potatoes of Leningrad” (these are both episodes from 2018, which isn’t to say the ones from 2019 are lesser, these are just my favorites.) You can download it wherever you get your podcasts.

Youtube

Can You Judge Art Objectively?” from Just Write

Sage Hyden, a wonderful youtube essayist aimed at media criticism with an emphasis on application for writers, breaks down the theories of criticism by 18th-century thinkers David Hume and Immanuel Kant to argue why conversations about art and all art criticism is subjective, why we shouldn’t be afraid of looking at art through multiple lenses, and why “there are plotholes” is not a reason to give for disliking a movie. As someone who writes reviews, understanding the history of criticism and the role of critics and picking and choosing which schools of thought I subscribe to and how they inform my approach is important, but I also think it is important for everyone, whether you write your thoughts about art down or not. The way we, as people, discuss art not only can make a difference in what kind of art gets produced, but it affects (and reflects) our relationships with other people, ourselves, and how we perceive the world.

Sexual Assault of Men Played for Laugh” from Pop Culture Detective

Pop Culture Detective has done many thoughtful analyses of the intersection of masculinity and pop culture, but this extensive look at the way media portrays male sexual assault, from “don’t drop the soap” jokes in children’s media to the racist and homophobic undertones in prison rape narratives may be Jonathan McIntosh’s best work. It’s a difficult watch, and I would skip it altogether if you have experience with sexual assault or harassment. But if not, I strongly recommend everyone, particularly men, watch it to have your eyes open to the prevalence and seriousness of this topic.

Television

Season 3 of A Series of Unfortunate Events on Netflix

I’ve talked extensively about my love of this series, and the final season did not disappoint. “The Penultimate Peril: Part 2” and “The End” are the best episodes.

Articles

Avengers: Endgame is a Secular Meditation on Death, Resurrection, and a Cathartic Afterlife, by Leah Schnelbach

The Tor blog gives a lot of thoughtful writers a platform, and this essay by Leah Schnelback is one of her and the website’s best as she tackles a complicated topic and gives the reader a clearer insight into why both Endgame and Infinity War caught people’s attention so much, how the films speak to our cultural anxieties and questions and gives more evidence to why superhero movies can’t be dismissed as irrelevant or mindless.

-Madeleine D.

Not All Those Who Wander Are Lost, But This Movie Is: Tolkien

Image result for tolkien movie

Tolkien is a new biopic about the life of J.R.R. Tolkien, best known as the author of The Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Hobbit. Biopics are hard to do because they usually go one of two ways. The first is where they become about the lead actor trying to imitate a famous figure and thus they simplify and whitewash history so that the story can be inspirational. The second way is where the biopic is a reinvention of a personality that tries to imply certain things about the person, which also whitewashes and simplifies history, and makes the person an icon of a specific cause or identity. It is very hard to tell the story of a person that doesn’t play only into what people want that person to mean to them.

So, what about Tolkien? Tolkien the man (played here by Nicholas Hoult) isn’t a particularly well-known individual. His work lives on but, outside of academic circles, his life doesn’t have much influence on the common perception of his work. What is the purpose of telling his story?

During the film, one of Tolkien’s professors tells him, “People take a certain comfort in the past.” This is, unfortunately, the unintentional thesis of this biopic (and to be fair, of most biopics). Between all of the scenes of twentieth-century British boyhood, from dead mothers to boarding schools to uptight fathers to drinking tea with the chaps, gallivanting around the pastures, and reading old books under the guidance of professors, the antiquated anglophilia of the movie fails to do much beside remind me of better movies, particularly Dead Poet’s Society and The Imitation Game. The stories of men like Tolkien have been told many times before. That doesn’t mean Tolkien’s life is irrelevant by any means- he was a real person- but it means the film has to work harder to tell his story in a creative fashion, which it does not do. Therefore I feel like I’m watching a remix of other films, rather than a story personal to one man.

To its credit, Tolkien isn’t concerned with making everything in Tolkien’s life have a direct 1-1 correspondence to something from his books (unlike, say, 2017’s The Man Who Invented Christmas). While there are some brief direct allusions to his work (“it shouldn’t take six hours to tell a story about a magic ring”), overall the film is more interested in creating an atmosphere where Tolkien could find his stories.

The problem with building this atmosphere, however, is that the movie wants to focus on Tolkien’s fellowship with his friends, yet the movie spans half of his life. This means there are long portions without his friends, and since the movie is much less interested in showing how those parts of his life influenced his work, those scenes feel like filler and lack any interest or urgency that the friendship scenes have. This is worsened by the fact that each section of his life is shown as utterly independent from the other. Take, for example, his relationship with his wife Edith (Lily Collins). Except for one scene where she meets his friends, the groups are kept completely separate. The “fellowship” part of his life, which ends up being the heart and theme of the movie, is established with these mates and is never connected to Edith, who from her first appearance is framed not as a friend but solely as a love interest.

And that’s fine, but it means the film, which is more interested in how fellowship influenced Tolkien’s works than how romance did, could have omitted all of Edith’s part and very little harm would have been done. This is not only poor storytelling but is a truly missed opportunity to explore how Edith became the inspiration for all of Tolkien’s iconic female characters.

This is only part of Tolkien’s focus problem. The movie has a framing device where Tolkien is in WWI going to the front lines to find his friend. He passes out and has rapid-fire flashbacks through his childhood, mother’s death, boarding school years, and courtship with Edith. The pace slows down significantly to show his college years, before jumping back to the war scenes and the framing device. He finishes out his mission, and suddenly the movie is back in chronological order with no flashbacks as we finish out on him as a family man, which means we miss out on other things about Tolkien, like his Catholicism, friendship with C.S Lewis, and his other group of artistic friends, The Inklings. If the movie was truly going to be about friendship, then wouldn’t it make more sense to have the timeframe of the film start with Tolkien’s school friends, their war experiences, and then Tolkien recovering from the trauma of war and losing some of his friends by creating The Inklings? I guess that would make too much thematic sense.

The focus problems come with a pacing problem, which is a result of a screenplay that makes confounding choices on which scenes should be brief and which ones should be long. Most of Tolkien’s childhood flashback scenes are annoyingly brief, which means none of the relationships get to marinate and build. Meanwhile, there are several very long scenes, but these scenes are mostly of Tolkien talking about other people, which confuses us on who this movie is about. Hoult’s (and his eyebrows’) performance is competent, but he is so easily overshadowed by the other actors that it is disappointing to remember that he is the lead. I’ve seen good movies about quiet introverts (2017’s Paterson) and mediocre/boring ones (2016’s Loving). It’s possible to have charisma and still be a soft-spoken, introspective type, but Hoult and this movie just simply aren’t up to the task.

If you want to make a theatrical release, especially now in the age of streaming, there is a degree to which you have to justify your movie being in a theater. People only have so much time and money to spend at the movies, and so it has to be a movie worth seeing on a big screen. Tolkien never justifies itself in being a big-screen movie. Frankly, I don’t think it justifies itself being a movie. It simply doesn’t have enough insight into Tolkien and what makes his work still so beloved and relevant.

So what is the purpose of telling Tolkien’s story? I think it is to make me wish I had spent my time rewatching The Fellowship of the Rings instead.

-Madeleine D.

Avengers: Endgame Spoiler Review

Avengers-Endgame

The culmination of 22 movies. A cinematic universe built over the course of eleven years. One of the biggest franchises of all time. Some of the greatest actors ever. Avengers: Endgame is upon us.

I’m supposing you’ve seen the movie, so I’m not going to go over the story. I care as much about the technicalities and logic of the time-traveling plot elements as the film does, which is to say, not that much! I’m here for seeing what happens to my favorite characters. And boy did I get… some happenings.

There’s a lot of fanservice here. While I think most of it is deserving, there is also some fanservice that feels a little too self-congratulatory (no, Marvel, you are not the patron of feminism). It’s a delicate balance, one I think Endgame barely passes through.

Alas, even with all the fanservice, I didn’t get much of what I wanted, which makes this film a little more difficult to review. I think it ultimately boils down to the fact that I love Joss Whedon’s vision of the Avengers. I think his films contain the best characterizations for most of the characters, have the most interesting themes, and are the most dedicated to creating small, intimate, human moments.

However, for the past several years the Russo brothers have been in charge, and we’ve seen their vision come into view. There are some great things that they do; their action sequences are often excellent and they do an admirable job balancing the large casts they are given. But, as Richard Brody of The New Yorker put it, “The Russos have peculiarly little sense of visual pleasure, little sense of beauty, little sense of metaphor, little aptitude for texture or composition; their spectacular conceit is purely one of scale, which is why their finest moments are quiet and dramatic ones.” These weaknesses are particularly potent in Endgame. It struck me while watching just how ugly the film is visually. There are very few things happening under the surface for the characters. Everything they feel and think is shallow and plot-related, which strips the film of all the subtext and metaphorical layers the medium of film is so richly capable of. When it comes to the Russos’ vision, I can’t quite get on board.

Yet, as Cap says, we need to move on, and so I’m going to try to do so for the rest of this review. Because this is less of a movie and more of a ten-course meal where you keep getting things put on your plate that you aren’t sure you wanted but feel compelled to try, I’m going to list five of the things that worked, and five things that didn’t in Endgame.

The Good

  1. Tony

RDJ brought it home. A beautiful ending for a hero who has been growing and developing in complexity over the last ten years. Ever since Tony’s vision in Avengers: Age of Ultron, where he saw the threat of Thanos, he’s been trying to convince the other Avengers to believe him and to see the greater danger. It was beautiful to hear Pepper recognize that and tell Tony he could finally rest. He finally saved them, as he had always been trying to do.

  1. Avengers 2012

The first Avengers movie was a marvel. Despite that movie feeling small in comparison to these newer films, it still holds up and has a sweet place in my heart, so I loved the time traveling bits back to the Battle of New York. Everything in that scene could be interpreted as gratuitous, but I think it was a delightful and well-deserved recognition of just how much of a pop-culture milestone it was. And props to all of the actors who showed up to have miniscule cameos in these films. Thank you for recognizing the importance of this franchise and their impact, whether you ended on a bad note (Natalie Portman) or clearly have no clue what is going on (Robert Redford).

  1. Return of the King

This movie is not on the level of Return of the King, but when all the Avengers came into the final showdown with Thanos, I felt like I did when I first watched the Battle at the Black Gate of Mordor. And when Cap said, “Avengers, assemble,” I felt the same shiver go through the theater as when Aragorn said, “It is not this day.” The final battle, for all of its chaos, replicates reading a comic book perfectly.

  1. Sam Wilson as New Cap

Anthony Mackie has been grossly underused since his turn as Sam Wilson/Falcon in Winter Soldier, but I’m so glad he’s finally getting the attention he deserves. Sam has the bravery, leadership, and heart of Cap, but without the self-righteous hotheadedness and with a more nuanced sense of duty. And while I doubt the MCU will do too much with it, having a black man take up the mantle of Captain America does mean something (quite a lot, actually).

  1. Old Cap

I think Cap also got a nice ending. Poetic, sweet, a good sendoff.

What I Wish I Could Snap Away

  1. Natasha’s Ending

In Age of Ultron, there’s a scene near the end where Natasha is standing with Steve on the edge of the destroyed Sokovia. She says that if they were to die there, it wouldn’t be so bad, as “there are worse places to go.” This ties into Natasha’s overall development in the MCU. She has red in her ledger, a past full of sins and debts. Characters try to convince her to forgive herself. She herself encourages self-forgiveness in others. But she can never give it to herself. After being the only one to try and keep the Avengers together for so long, she sees the opportunity to die for the Soul Stone and takes it. Her death wish, her final sacrifice, her payment, is finally complete. It’s an active choice she makes after a life of being a pawn.

So unlike some of the hot takes out there saying this death was unjust, I actually think it was the logical conclusion to her arc. I wish she had gotten a more redemptive arc, but it makes sense from a storytelling perspective. My problem with all of this, though, is that 1) she died in the place of Hawkeye, the objectively worst Avenger, and 2) the death is barely acknowledged in the movie. She gets no funeral and only one scene of visible grief from the other Avengers. Excluding the Edward Norton Hulk movie, Black Widow was the second Avenger introduced into the MCU, yet she never gets that credit. It’s always Iron Man or Captain America. For all the crap Scarlett Johannson has had to put up with to pave the way for other female characters, her character deserved more of a recognized legacy.

  1. Use of a Biological Family as Shorthand for “Making It”

In the MCU, having a biological family is a sign of a character succeeding, being relatable, and having a greater purpose. It’s presented as an ideal life. This motif has been used to great effect when it is corrupted and shown as an idol that holds certain characters back from accepting themselves and their potential. But more often than not, it is used as a narrative shorthand that devalues the relationships between characters we actually know and care about.

This becomes clearly apparent in the choice to give Tony a child. Now sure, Morgan Stark is adorable. But we already know Pepper and Tony love each other- we don’t need offspring to confirm it. Second, Tony’s fatherhood arc has been happening through Peter Parker, and I would argue that arc is more compelling because he chooses Peter despite his fear that he may corrupt Peter and be like his own father. He looks at Peter as a younger version of himself and wants him to do better. This is active character growth. Having a young biological child takes away this arc because a non-superhero toddler doesn’t reflect Tony Stark like a superpowered young adult does. Having a biological child for Tony also shortchanges Peter’s return and his grief over Tony. This compelling relationship is cut short.

True, having a child does create high stakes. But in the case of Tony, the stakes are already incredibly high, and we know Tony acts out of a desire to protect everyone, not just his own family. So, really, introducing Morgan was intended to give the sense that Tony had finally “made it,” achieved peace, and had all he needed. This is a blow to the found-family dynamic the Avengers have always had. The whole situation also feels extra awkward when you consider that the other Avenger who died but didn’t have a funeral and is constantly taken for granted is…. a childless Natasha.

Besides Scott Lang’s family, the other main biological family is Hawkeye’s family. We know next to nothing about them, but when they are snapped away that is supposed to be an emotional moment, because they’re a family, and he’s teaching his daughter to shoot a bow and arrow, and his wife is making lunch. It’s the American dream! Maybe I’m just heartless, but this barely registers. The audience has to fill in the emotions. Why not use the relationships Hawkeye already has with other established characters to make his turn to depressed vigilante more compelling? Oh, wait, except for Black Widow he doesn’t have any other established relationships with any of the other characters. Which leads me to…

  1. Hawkeye Continues to Be a Drag on All Possible Levels

Hawkeye as a character continues to make less and less sense in this franchise. He has no ties with any of the other Avengers. He never quite proves why his skillset is needed; in fact, the film works hard to avoid showing him in the final battle because his abilities are useless. In the first Avengers, maybe the everyman character was endearing and there were only six other heroes so an archer could make sense. But now, when we have seemingly hundreds of heroes on screen in a battle, and several everyman characters and all much more unique? #ShouldHaveBeenClint

  1. Thor

Thor has been through a lot in these past few films. While I didn’t think his PTSD and trauma would be given a lot of heft, I did think the MCU was past making it into an unbearable fat joke. Thor’s depression weight gain/alcoholism being treated the way it was is distasteful, unfunny, and lame. This article by Sylas K. Barrett is an excellent look at the way the movie frames these symptoms.

And yes, I know it was also poking fun at Chris Hemsworth’s sex appeal and Marvel using it. But while I don’t think reverse-objectification is progress, the Thor movies (for several reasons) have been the most female-friendly corner of the MCU until Black Panther. So making fun of that just didn’t sit right with me. Thor has been getting more comedic as of late, but you can be comedic and still have your dignity, which this movie takes from Thor. And speaking of stripping a character of dignity…

  1. Professor Hulk

One of the most devastating moments for the MCU was when Taika Waiti (who I have a lot of respect for in all other areas) looked at three-time Oscar-nominated dramatic actor Mark Ruffalo and said, “Hey mate, do you want to do some comedic improv?” And Mark, not wanting to get fired and probably distracted by his various bromances with the other actors, said: “Sure why not?” Thus the downturn of a great character and performance.

In theory, bringing in Professor Hulk could have been a nice way to bring Bruce’s character arc full circle. We start in The Avengers with Bruce thinking he controls Hulk (“I’m always angry”). It is quickly revealed that no, Hulk still has a mind of his own and is making choices without Bruce (like flying away at the end of Ultron). The two are in conflict throughout Thor: Ragnarok and Infinity War, and finally, here the two are in sync in a way that embraces Bruce’s true superpower, which is his brain and heart.

The problem is then like Natasha’s: poor execution. Hulk looks so much like Ruffalo that it creates an uncanny valley effect, the movie continues with making him the comic relief without any of the character’s core melancholy, and it gives him no conclusion. Another example of so many missed opportunities.

If you are invested in the MCU, then you probably can view these movies as a timeline of milestones. I remember my intro being when I saw Captain America: The Winter Soldier on a whim with my dad, never having seen any other Marvel movie. I was instantly intrigued. I got caught up on all of the other movies, and by May of 2015, I remember lying in bed and praying to God that whatever he ordains is good but please just don’t let me die before I see Avengers 2. Suffice it to say he accepted my proposal and I got to see the film with some new friends, which was a triumphant way to end a lonely and difficult school year.

I have reviewed all of the Marvel movies on this blog since 2016 with Civil War. With an average of two MCU films a year, a few months apart, these reviews can give me insights into my own growth as a writer. These are also where I have battled out my own inner struggle of figuring out how to be a critic and a fan. I may never find peace between these two, as I will never find complete peace with this movie or the MCU’s legacy as a whole. And that’s okay. I can reevaluate the past, but as Cap says, I have to move forward. And all in all, despite some disappointments, I think Endgame is the best conclusion we could have realistically gotten (without Joss Whedon’s and my creative input).

-Madeleine D