I follow a lot of entertainment writers on social media. Usually, this is great as I enjoy reading all the discussions about new movies and television shows. It is also a bit of a minefield as there are often posts about things I’ve not yet seen and while most writers are careful to avoid big spoilers, it's still a possibility and so I must always tread carefully.
This has been especially true the last few weeks. The last season of HBO's hugely popular series Game of Thrones has been running this month and there was some other gigantic blockbuster that came out too. What was that one called? Oh yes, Avengers: Endgame.
I recently let my HBO-streaming subscription go in order to subscribe to something else and then the Criterion Channel launched and I subscribed to it. I had not planned on resubscribing to HBO for quite awhile having forgotten Game of Thrones was coming. I try not to subscribe to more than three streaming services at once, so I let Game of Thrones get a few episodes in and then subscribed. The idea being that I could binge watch a few episodes and then catch the remaining ones more or less in real time and then be able to cancel my subscription after only a month.
I had no intentions of watching Endgame in the first weekend as I knew the crowds would be insane and I’m just not the sort of fan to buy my tickets weeks or months in advance.
All of which means I had to pretty much ignore social media for a few weeks because over time I would log in as someone was saying something about these two behemoths and I didn’t want any kind of spoiler whatsoever.
It is really nice to have caught them both now and to be able to visit my Twitter feed once again.
Game of Thrones
When I finally resubscribed to HBO, it was relatively late into the evening and so I only watched one episode with plans to catch the next two (this was before the fourth one had aired) the following evening. Amazingly, I logged into Twitter that morning and nearly had it all spoiled for me in the most unexpected of ways.
Rachel Held Evans, a progressive Christian writer, died unexpectedly recently and my Twitter feed was filled with thoughts about her. I never thought to keep an eye out for Game of Thrones spoilers in those threads and yet there was one. Apparently, one of her last tweets jokingly mentioned that her sickness was going to keep her form seeing the series so some random person tweeted to her that a character had saved the day. It didn’t mention the character by name but it gave enough of a description that it was easy to know who it was. I immediately closed Twitter and tried to divert my mind to other things. I started singing a random song and thinking about Endgame. I found my wife and talked to her to get the spoiler thoughts out of my mind. All morning I kept doing this, diverting my thoughts to not think about it. Not fully successful on that front but I did manage to not dwell on the particulars for long. Finally found some time that afternoon to watch the next two episodes, I’ve now also seen the fourth episode and thus am completely caught up.
I’ve liked this series from the start, but it has always been problematic. It is terrific when it comes to scope and spectacle, but struggles with its smaller moments and character development. This has become more apparent over the last two seasons as the series has outpaced the books. One of the things that made the books (and the early seasons of the series) great is how main characters, even heroic ones, would often get killed in the most awful of ways. It was upending certain fantasy hero tropes, which made it really interesting and kept the audience off balance. Like real life, sometimes terrible people succeeded while the good and noble ones lost their heads.
These days though they seem to have dropped that completely. The third episode of Season 8 features the biggest battle they’ve ever had and yet hardly anyone whose name we know dies. Many of them were put into impossible-to-escape situations yet a moment later there they were alive as rain. That is the opposite of the feeling we got from the early seasons when anybody could die. I get that with fewer and fewer characters left some of our heroes simply can’t die or the series would end too bitterly, but then don’t put them all in situations where it is ludicrous that they survive.
I’m rambling. That battle was still mostly excellent spectacle. The fourth episode slowed things down again and is setting us for something big. My hope is that they will be able to pull it all off. I”m skeptical of that, but whether they stick the landing or not, Game of Thrones has surely been one of the biggest, boldest television series ever produced.
I’m a little late to this party, but as it is still raking in hundreds of millions of dollars, there seems to still be a party and therefore I’m talking about it. Avengers: Endgame puts the cap on an 11-year, 22-film cinematic universe. It…blah, blah, blah. You know what it is. The entertainment press has been talking about this movie for a year now. It is one of the most hyped films ever made. It has broken box-office records and will continue to do so for many more weeks. You don’t need that wrap up. You don’t really need my thoughts on it, but you are going to get them anyway.
I liked it. I loved some of it, didn’t love other parts, but overall, it is a heck of a way to wrap up this part of the MCU. What is surprising is how much time they spend on the aftermath of the Snap (or Snappening, if you prefer) when half of the population of the universe just disappeared. This is a film that takes its time. It allows these characters, many who we have known for over a decade, really spend time with what it means to lose, what it means to have lost so many who are close to them. Periodically, the MCU films have dealt a little bit with the aftermath of their big battles, but mostly it's moved quickly and lightly to the next thing to punch. Endgame wallows in grief and loss, and it is the better film for it.
I also really enjoyed the second act in which the Avengers are once again assembling to come up with a plan to bring all those who were lost back. It is hugely entertaining and very funny in parts. Bringing together these characters we have grown to love over so many years and so many films is a real joy. The original main characters (Thor, Iron Man, Captain America, Black Widow, and Hawkeye) all survived, which is absolutely not a coincidence as the film reminds us of what brought us to this universe in the first place. Seeing them interact without all the other characters who have come into this series is a real joy.
It is the last act which mostly involves a lot of CGI fighting where I started to tune out and that wasn't just because I was squirming after sitting for over two hours with a large soda starting to squich my bladder. The fight scenes were pretty epic but we've seen so many epic fight scenes in this series. Most of Infinity War was fight scenes so to get a bunch more of that after getting these really wonderful character beats in the first hafl of the film was a bit of a letdown. Obviously it wouldn't be an Avengers movie without big, explosive battles, but my love of this film comes in those slower, more thoughtful moments.
I have become a huge fan of Sally Wainwright. She is a British writer/director/show runner who created such series as Last Tango in Halifax, Happy Valley, and Scott & Bailey. I love those three shows. A Wainwright series inevitably stars women in the leads with men taking a back seat. These women aren’t superheroes or the traditional strong women type, but rather very real, very flawed, very interesting, very different women. If there is one trait her best characters share, it is empathy. Her characters care and that makes me care for them.
Her new series, Gentleman Jack, now running on HBO, stars Suranne Jones (a Wainwright regular) as Anne Lister, a real-life historical figure who is sometimes called the first modern lesbian. She was a landowner of some means which allowed her to live a life as she pleased. She travelled quite a bit, ran her house and affairs with authority (which was somewhat outrageous for the time as that was men’s work), and had numerous affairs with women (which of course was completely taboo at the time). All of this was meticulously detailed in her numerous diaries (she wrote over four million words in all). The more intimate parts discussing her sexuality were written in code - mixing algebra and Ancient Greek - which were not deciphered until decades later.
In the series, Anne wears her hair in tight curls pulled up around her ears, wears poofy but masculine-looking dresses, doffs a top hat, and struts everywhere she goes. She has comes back to her home after some traveling abroad and immediately begins whipping her affairs into order, driving the rest of her family mad. She is heartbroken when a former lover announces she is to marry a man, but quickly begins wooing a local woman.
Like all Wainwright series, it is both hysterically funny, heartwarming, and full of real drama. Only three episodes have aired so far but I am completely hooked.
Wings of Desire
Wings of Desire is in some ways a love letter to the city of Berlin. Filmed just a few months before the Wall fell, it depicts a divided, broken city. Eschewing most of the famous landmarks of the city, Wenders instead wanders through its dirty streets with a lens that uses a silk stocking as a filter, giving everything a slightly hazy, fuzzy look.
Whenever you visit a city, you stop by the famous landmarks, the cultural touchstones, the tourist hot spots. But when you live in it, those places become background, unnoticed. Instead, you start to notice the street where you live. You become fond of the local corner market, the small bakery near your flat, and the hole in the wall pub where you meet your friends every Monday night.
So it is with Wings of Desire. It is a love letter to the city, not for the places one goes when visiting, but for the off-map side spots, for the cafes and tramways. For the people who live their quiet lives in it.
The film follows two angels who have been watching over the city since before it was a city, since the beginning of time. The angels are passive observers. They sometimes stand high above the city on top of buildings or the Victory Column. Or they walk the streets, always watching the people as they pass by. They can sometimes be seen by children but to adults they are invisible. They can hear the thoughts of humans - their hopes, their dreams, their pain - but rarely interfere. Sometimes, they will stand close to someone, lay a hand on a shoulder, and whisper in their ear. They provide comfort. We see one angel touch a man in despair, contemplating suicide, and the touch gives him hope. Another man's mind is racing after an accident and the angel provides thoughts of mundane things that give him pleasure.
For a good third of the film’s running time, we watch the angels as they wander about the city observing. We get snippets of conversation and thoughts, but no real sense of plot or action. Sometimes, they come together to talk about what they’ve seen. But mostly it is a loose collection of tiny moments.
Eventually, the angels start to follow a few people. There is Peter Falk playing himself, in town to shoot a World War II movie. And there is a trapeze artist, performing for a small, grubby circus. We hear her doubts and complaints. We hear her contemplate why she is here in this life.
One of the angels decides to give up his power. To live a life as a human with all its foibles, with its sickness and death. Suddenly, the drab black and white becomes color. As a human, he cuts his head. When he touches it and sees the blood on his hand, he licks it and is amazed it has a taste. He asks a stranger passing by if it is red and is delighted by color. He finds the trapeze artist for he has fallen in love.
It is a mostly plotless film that unfolds slowly. In that way, it is a difficult film, but one of great beauty and wonder. It relies on emotion to tells its story. It made me think of life. It made me appreciate that I am here. That I am breathing. That I am alive.
Based upon the true story of an undercover black cop who became a member of the KKK and close to David Duke in the process, this Spike Lee film is a wonderfully acted and directed drama that is a life-is-stranger-than-fiction slice of awesome.
It stars John David Washington (Denzel’s son) as the first black man to become a cop in Colorado Springs. He eventually convinces the chief to let him go undercover. While looking through the local newspaper, he finds a classified ad for the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. On a whim, he calls the number and leaves a message. When he’s called back, he fakes a white person's accent and spews a tirade of hate which naturally gets him elected to the Klan. Being an African American, he can’t exactly show up as himself so he talks Adam Driver (well, the character Adam Driver is playing) into being him when he has to talk to the Klan in person.
It sounds completely ridiculous but apparently it stays relatively close to the truth - with a few large exceptions. Lee plays it pretty straight (except for a title card that explains it is based on some “fo’ real sh*t”). Lee as a director, and real-life human, often goes large, and I expected him to aim more for farce with this film, but he keeps it reeled in. That isn’t to say it isn’t funny. It is often hilarious, especially when dealing with the Klansmen who are collectively about as intelligent as the period at the end of this sentence. But stylistically, he keeps it pretty simple.
It is a fascinating story told really well with some excellent performances. As is his wont, Lee uses this story, which takes place in the late 1970s, to comment on both the past and modern times. It starts with the famous tracking shot from Gone With the Wind and it ends with a coda using real-life footage from the hate crimes that took place Charlottesville in 2017. What lies between those two bookends is hugely entertaining.
It: Chapter Two
Though it feels like I've been saying it forever, I'm in the middle of Stephen King's massive novel IT. I'm liking it very much but I'm constantly picking up other things to read, and it is ridiculously long. Maybe, just maybe I'll put everything else down and get it finished before part two of this Andy Muschietti adaptation. I really liked the first chapter of this two-part series. It wasn't a perfect film, but it was scary as hell with lots of jump scares and just an overall creepy vibe.
Unlike the book, which moves back and forth between telling the story from a group of kids perspective and their older selves, the first film was only about the chidren and Chapter Two will apparently focus on them as adults. It has a great cast featuring Jessica Chastain, James McAvoy, and Bill Hader. The trailer features Chastain playing the grown-up Beverly as she visits her childhood home and finds it occuppied by a mild-mannered elderly woman who, well, just watch it and be terrified.