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Avengers: Endgame

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Avengers: Endgame is epic, grand, enthralling entertainment. It is a film painted on the grandest of canvasses, yet one that maintains a fine eye for detail. It combines planetary scale spectacle with intimate moments, mixes tragedy with comedy and provides a fitting climax to a staggering saga. Along the way, directors Joe and Anthony Russo perform the remarkable feat of paying fan service that also serves the story. Fan service is a much-maligned practice: seen as kowtowing to audiences, it smacks of not respecting the story and compromising the artistic vision. But is the purpose of the story and artistic vision, at least in the case of popular entertainment, not to serve the audience? The difficulty of paying fan service is that it is a shot in the dark, since it is hard to know what audiences actually want and attempting to predict this can end in an incoherent product. Arguably, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been performing this balancing act over the past eleven years and twenty-two films, nodding to comic book and movie fans along the way. For the most part, it has been successful, with a steady feed that develops the franchise into greater complexity, yet without becoming too clever and convoluted for its own good.

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With Endgame, the Russos marshal these potentially disparate elements, including a mass of familiar characters, a multitude of storylines that intersect, loop back, replay and turn in surprising directions, and a variety of tones. The managing of tone is especially impressive, as Endgame follows on from the tragic finale of Infinity War, one of the boldest ever conclusions of a blockbuster. The opening portion of the film depicts our surviving heroes – including Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) – living with the trauma of their devastating losses, each of them dealing with their particular trauma in a different way. From this melancholic position, a quest emerges possible redemption, the film echoing mythic quest narratives like The Lord of the Rings, before moving into multiple parallel narrative strands, and creative and at times overwhelming set pieces.

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No emotion is left untapped in this supreme super-powered saga. Laughs, tears, thrills, spills, affection, boo hiss villainy, punch the air moments of sheer joy – all are here in abundance. It is especially impressive that there are narrative elements that become more problematic the more you think about them, but during the film they are of little consequence because of the viewer’s emotional engagement. Those who have invested in the Marvel Cinematic Universe will find themselves amply rewarded, and those with a passing interest are still likely to find much to enthrall them. While there is more of the MCU to come, Endgame serves as a fitting finale to the previous eleven years, and one of the finest examples of its genre to date.

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Sicario 2: Soldado

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2015’s Sicario was a coming together of several brilliant talents. Screenwriter Taylor Sheridan, who also delivered great scripts with Hell Or High Water and Wind River; director of photography Roger Deakins, who drew closer to his elusive Oscar; the fine acting chops of Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro and Josh Brolin; the ever improving director Denis Villeneuve, whose subsequent films Arrival and Blade Runner 2049 cemented his standing as one of the finest directors working in Hollywood. 2018’s Sicario 2: Soldado reunites Sheridan’s writing with Del Toro’s enigmatic Alejandro and Brolin’s bullish yet principled Matt Graver, but minus the other prominent figures with Stefano Sollima behind the camera and Dariusz Wolski on lensing duties. New cast members include Isabela Moner, Matthew Modine, Catherine Keener and Elijah Rodriguez, their presence expanding the scope of this follow-up. Concerns over terrorism and pirating give the film a more global flavour, although these elements serve more as a distraction than contextualisation. The film’s subject matter feels ripped from the headlines as immigration is a prominent feature, much of the film involving Mexicans illegally entering the United States. While there is (currently) no wall, there are certainly obstacles as well as opportunities for those willing to exploit the desperate. Into this potent mix Matt sends Alejandro, with the goal of starting a war between drug cartels. The film is efficiently put together, with several gripping set pieces including a gruelling gun battle on a deserted desert road. Oddly, the film’s more affecting moments are quiet interchanges, especially between Alejandro and Isabel Reyes (Moner), daughter of a cartel head that Alejandro takes custody of. Their relationship is engaging, while Matt’s clashes with his government superior Cynthia Foards (Keener) and Secretary James Riley (Matthew Modine) highlight the political agenda. Unfortunately, these disparate elements are not cohered, while a subplot involving young Mexican-American Miguel Hernandez (Rodriguez) never convinces. Worse, the film lacks the nihilism of the original, and in its final act there are several moments that could be shockingly cruel, but instead the film loses its nerve and takes the narrative beyond its natural conclusion. The border has many interesting stories, but this is one of the lesser ones.

Deadpool 2

Deadpool-2-Banner-Cable-Banned-Disneyland-PhotoOne of the interesting aspects about superhero cinema is the development of particular franchises, as subsequent instalments take the set-up of the origin stories to new places. When Deadpool was released in 2016, its irreverent, self-aware and achingly postmodern stance demonstrated there was still plenty of stretch left in the spandex. In the case of Deadpool 2, this same spandex gets stretched again, largely to the same places. As a result, David Leitch’s film, working from a script by Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick and star Ryan Reynolds, largely feels like a re-tread. Swear-tastic dialogue? Check. Fourth wall breaks? Check. Comically gruesome violence? Check. Anything that feels fresh? Not so much. This is disappointing because the first Deadpool felt fresh and vibrant, but Deadpool 2 is largely more of the same. Deadpool/Wade Wilson (Reynolds) continues his mercenary ways, Colossus (Stefan Kapicic) tries to make Wilson into a superhero while Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand) makes snarky comments, Dopinder (Karan Soni) idolises DP’s violent approach in disturbing ways. New arrivals Russell (Julian Dennison) and Cable (Josh Brolin, in his second Marvel appearance of 2018) add some additional concerns over destiny and consequence, but their arcs as well as those of the other characters feel stretched and almost redundant. The most interesting aspect of the film is frustratingly underdeveloped – a potentially disturbing aspect that does develop an ongoing conceit of the X-Men franchise as a whole. X-Men has repeatedly dramatised concerns over prejudice and intolerance, and in Deadpool 2 we see the DMC (presumably Department of Mutant Control/Containment) as well as a mutant ‘rehabilitation centre’, complete with creepy headmaster (Eddie Marsan). Annoyingly, these institutions and their draconian practices are largely relegated to the background. It may seem churlish to criticise a film for what it isn’t, but agencies such as these are ripe for satire and snubbing authority, exactly what Deadpool is famous for. Therefore, when the film resorts to the same flippancy towards dramatic stakes as its predecessor, there is little to get excited about. Deadpool 2 does succeed on the action front, including one bravura sequence featuring a long take centred on Domino (Zazie Beetz). In addition, the cast are all game and amusing, especially Reynolds whose charisma and devotion to the character ensure that Deadpool is still fun to spend time with. There are plenty of laughs too, but they probably won’t linger any longer than the injuries of our indestructible protagonist.

Everest

Everest is a mountain with two peaks, one of which is the highest point on Earth. Similarly, Baltasar Kormákur’s dramatization of a famous 1996 Everest expedition is a film of two halves, one of which is a gripping, moving and occasionally visceral experience, but the other is meandering and unfocused. The latter is the first half, in which the film becomes burdened with too many characters and fails to explore the motivations of those who risk life and limb to scale the mountain. The engaging half of the film is that concerned with the actual climb, as a motley crew of climbers, led by Rob Hall (Jason Clarke) experience extraordinary cold, sparse oxygen and treacherous ice and rock faces. There are vertiginous moments where the viewer gets a sense of the sheer drop below, as well as the scale of the mountain and the immense storms that assail them. But there are just as many moments where the film cuts between its range of rather bland characters, never spending enough time to really understand them or communicate their situation. This lack of focus or depth is most apparent in the first half of the film, as the climbing team assemble and acclimatise to the mountainous conditions. There is amiable bickering and brief discussions of overcrowding, but the paradox of overcrowding in one of the world’s most inhospitable places is not explored. At its best moments, Everest shows agony and anguish in equal measure, especially when Rob, now in dire straights, talks on the radio to his pregnant wife Jan (Keira Knightley). This moment wrung tears from me, but overall I found the film lacking in emotional engagement. One might see the film because it’s there, but you may come down wondering if that’s reason enough.

Guilty Pleasure / Noble Sin

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I have always found the concept of ‘guilty pleasure’ rather strange, because I find guilt and pleasure to be mutually exclusive feelings. If I feel guilty, there is no pleasure, so if I start to feel guilty about something pleasurable the pleasure is removed. That’s just me, because for plenty of others the two feelings are clearly compatible. As far as films are concerned (I write about those, in case you didn’t know), I used to refer to Last Man Standing as a guilty pleasure and then realised I felt no guilt about it (nor should I). In discussions, the following films have been described as guilty pleasures:

Sharknado

Mega-Shark VS Giant Octopus

Dinoshark

The Room

The Devil Wears Prada

The Hangover

Predator

Total Recall

Conan The Barbarian

Sleepless in Seattle

Legally Blonde and Legally Blonde 2

Cutie Honey

Commando (that came up a lot)

Battle: Los Angeles

Stardust

Love Actually

A Knight’s Tale

Frozen

Independence Day

Battleship

I Spit On Your Grave

The dictionary definition of ‘guilty pleasure’ is ‘something, such as a film, television programme, or piece of music, that one enjoys despite feeling that it is NOT generally held in high regard’. Therefore, if you regard something as a guilty pleasure then there is a belief (which you may or may not share) that there is something wrong or bad about the text in question, so you feel guilty about taking pleasure in it, and furthermore this guilt can itself be pleasurable. Exactly what makes these films guilty pleasures will vary, depending on one’s perception of what they ‘should’ like or admire.

Sin City (2005) and Sin City: A Dame To Kill For (2014) (hereafter referred to jointly as Sin City), is a franchise that could be considered a guilty pleasure because of its stylish design but (apparent) lack of substance. When Sin City premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2005, critics described it as stylish but empty, and one review endorsed the second film with the caveat that ‘the stories are still about as deep as a shallow grave’. However, Sin City also highlights pleasure directly associated with its sinful characters and actions. ‘Sin’ is obviously a key element in Sin City, demonstrated both by its title (a bastardisation of its setting, Basin City) and creator Frank Miller’s emphasis upon ‘sinful’ behaviour including sex, violence, corruption, gambling, drinking, smoking, etc. All the major characters throw themselves (in some cases, literally) into ‘sinful’ situations, and the reader/viewer is invited along for the ride. The invitation is apparent in the graphic novels through constant alignment with particular ‘sinful’ anti-heroes whose internal monologues pervade the panels and gutters of the book, allowing the reader direct access to the protagonists’ views. This monologue becomes voiceover in the film adaptations, with the authority and alignment between viewer and character that this particular device creates, even though the alignment is with characters that embrace violence and vice with gleeful abandon. Glee is key, as Sin City takes pleasure in its abandonment of ‘polite’, ‘proper’ behaviour. This pleasure is apparent in the text’s excessive violence and sexuality: practically every woman appears in a state of undress (inviting obvious charges of sexism, to which I shall return); injuries are extremely gory; characters perform superhuman violent feats, such as crashing through the windscreens of moving cars, leaping off tall buildings without harm and (literally) cutting people to pieces.

Violent entertainment has been pleasurable for centuries, not simply because we are bloodthirsty but also because it is safe. Much like a rollercoaster, thrills on the screen are exhilarating but there is no risk of us suffering physical injury. But the excessive ‘sin’ of Sin City goes further, inviting not only pleasure but also something noble about in the abandonment of social niceties. Crucially, these are contemporary social niceties, the niceties of modernity and western capitalism. Although the setting, stylistics, hard-boiled dialogue and constant voiceover owe much to film noir, there are more primitive yet classical themes running through the streets of Sin City. The character Marv (Mickey Rourke) espouses a desire for violent revenge that would not be out of place in Jacobean tragedy, even if the vocabulary and syntax are distant from Shakespeare or Webster:

I’ll stare the bastard in the face as he screams to God, and I’ll laugh harder when he whimpers like a baby. And when his eyes go dead, the hell I send him to will seem like heaven after what I’ve done to him.

Marv is a recurring character across the various stories of Sin City, both on page and screen, and the narrative’s alignment with him encourages audience identification with his murderous intentions and deeds.

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Similar alignment is made with Dwight McCarthy (Clive Owen), who takes significant pleasure in ‘The Big Fat Kill’ along with Gail (Rosario Dawson) and the rest of the girls (prostitutes) of Old Town, while in ‘A Dame To Kill For’ Dwight (now played by Josh Brolin) has no qualms about murdering Damien Lord (Martin Csokas) in order to save Damien’s wife Ava (Eva Green). Similarly, John Hartigan (Bruce Willis) murders several gangsters in defence of Nancy Callaghan (Jessica Alba), including Roark Jnr (Nick Stahl), the titular ‘That Yellow Bastard’. The anti-heroes of Sin City lack restraint but not honour or compassion, and their attitudes towards women reinforce this. One review describes Sin City as ‘an unreconstructed, man’s man’s world where the guys are either sickly or borderline sicko and the girls are classic noir femme fatales – – both in distress and deadly. Getting sniffy about sexism in Sin City would be like complaining about spaceships in Star Wars. The sexism is not just (un)dressing but integral to the old-fashioned milieu of the protagonists and their fictional world – anti-heroes driven by antiquated chivalry in a world without honour. Hartigan, Dwight and Marv are knights out-of-time – Dwight pronounces Marv as being ‘born in the wrong century’ while Marv describes his quest of vengeance for Goldie’s death as ‘the bad old days’. A scene in which Marv learns that his adversary is Cardinal Roark (Rutger Hauer) features a giant statue of Roark, reminiscent of towering effigies in The Lord of the Rings (2001-03) and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989). This iconography echoes epics, as does the casting of Clive Owen, who previously starred as the eponymous knight/monarch in King Arthur (2004). This is the noble sin of Sin City – the anti-heroes are modern day knights who defy law and convention in pursuit of their own sense of what is right. Furthermore, their adversaries are far worse – child molesters, cannibals and corrupt politicians who use murder and intimidation to maintain their power. But although Sin City takes glee in this medieval nobility, it does not simply valorise it.

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Dwight’s devotion to Ava in ‘A Dame To Kill For’ is foolish and ultimately misguided, but he demonstrates similar devotion when he pursues Jackie Boy (Benicio Del Toro) and his gang so as to stop them hurting anyone. As it turns out, the ladies of Old Town don’t need his help, because they are more than capable of handling a carload of drunken louts. Although Dwight proves helpful later on, the prostitutes clearly do not need male protection, which highlights the antiquated nature of the men’s attitude. Similarly, Nancy only gets into danger when Hartigan comes to save her – had he stayed in prison Roark would never have found her. In order to protect her, Hartigan ultimately kills himself, and the subsequent story features Nancy going steadily mad, disfiguring herself and risking life and limb to take revenge on Senator Roark (Powers Boothe). As fun as ‘sinful’ behaviour may be, the cost is also on display, emphasised by the gory injuries and eventual deaths of Hartigan and Marv. Nor are these deaths resisted – Hartigan describes his death for Nancy’s life as a ‘fair trade’, while at his execution Marv says ‘it’s about damn time’. While these deaths are heroic sacrifices and pyrrhic victories, the demise of the anti-heroes reinforces the sense that they are out of time and their endeavours absurd. But that is part of the fun – in an era with no place for chivalry, what is sinful is also noble, demonstrating the lack of distinction between the two. The tagline for the second film is THERE IS NO JUSTICE WITHOUT SIN, and how true this is. The ‘sinful’ activities of Frank Miller’s characters are also acts of justice, highlighting the guilty pleasure of noble sin.

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