Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Avengers: Endgame and Short Takes on Little Woods

Reclamation Projects
Reviews by Ken Burke

                                         Avengers: Endgame 
                         (Anthony and Joe Russo)   rated PG-13

Executive Summary” (no spoilers): If you’ve been following the  preceding episodes of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU)—now gleefully owned by Disney—you know this is the 3-hour-culmination of those 21 past stories featuring various superheroes whose fate led them in Avengers: Infinity War to a confrontation with extremely-powerful alien Thanos, whose goal was to acquire all 6 Infinity Stones with which he could so anything; he chose to command the universe to divest itself (in swirling-ash-fashion) of 50% of all living things so as to (assumedly) stabilize the overtaxed-resources of all the various worlds. In the process, many of the Avengers or their companions disappeared with the remaining ones intent on attacking Thanos, but when they did (even killing him) they found he’d already destroyed those precious Stones to prevent any reversal of his earlier actions.  However, collectively our heroes (including Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, the Hulk, Ant-Man, Hawkeye, Black Widow, and a few others) journeyed into the past to acquire the individual Stones to reverse Thanos’ previous decree. Without going further into spoiler territory, I’ll just say the many individual adventures in … Endgame, along with the massive-battle-finale, justify this extended-running-time, yielding a massive box-office response even before a week in release for this culmination story, sure to be remembered for its success blending the narrative exploits of a huge cast in a reasonably-balanced-manner (although, depending on whom your favorites might be in this superhero-collective, some might be lacking in desired screen time), bringing the MCU into a sense of composure (as with Star Wars: Return of the Jedi [Richard Marquand, 1983]), at least until the studio accountants are rested from counting their box-office-haul, allowing the  filmmakers to decide what's next with the various characters from this franchise.

Here’s the trailer:  (Use the full screen button in the image’s lower right to enlarge it; activate that same button on the full screen’s lower right or your “esc” keyboard key to return to normal size.)

If you can abide plot spoilers read on, but as this blog’s intended for those who’ve seen the film—or want to save some bucks—to help any of you who want to learn more details yet avoid important plot-reveals I’ll identify any give-away sentences/sentence-clusters like this: 
⇒The first and last words will be noted with arrows and red.⇐ OK, now continue on if you prefer.

What Happens: (There's too much detail in ... Endgame to fully recap it all, so I’ll just focus on key events; after you read this you may think I haven’t left anything out, but there’s lots more.)  Hour 1, The Eventual Assembly: With an intentionally-slow-opening-pace we see how the direct antecedent to … Endgame (Avengers: Infinity War [Russos, 2018; review in our May 3, 2018 posting]) left a universe where half of all living things literally became dust in the wind due to the immense abilities of already-powerful-alien Thanos (voice of James Brolin) after he acquired the 6 Infinity Stones (they pop up at times in the preceding MCU tales, dating back to Iron Man [Jon Favreau, 2008—if you care to scan the Summary of Two Guys Film Reviews you can find commentary on many of them, but the list is too long to cite here]).  This drastic action wasn’t done with evil intent (despite the enormous misery it caused for those who survived) but rather to reduce the ecological burden on all existence; however, even Thanos didn’t calculate how despondent those left behind would be, with many Earthly governments barely functional when … Endgame’s plot shifts from that 2018 time of disappearance to many new main events set in 2023.  (In opening scenes from 2018, though, we witness Clint Barton/Hawkeye’s [Jeremy Renner] shock when his wife and children suddenly vanish; we shift to Tony Stark/Iron Man [Robert Downey Jr.] and Thanos’ estranged daughter, Nebula [Karen Gillan], in a disabled spaceship, almost out of oxygen, only to be saved before expiring by amazingly-endowed-Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel [Brie Larson], who rushed to Avengers HQ in response to a just-before-evaporation-signal from Nick Fury [Samuel L. Jackson] but after joining the remaining superheroes’ assault on Thanos she leaves to help other planets.  Nebula leads the few Avengers left to Thanos’ distant hideaway where he’s weakened from his use of the Infinity Gauntlet so he’s easy prey for Thor’s ax, but no reversal of his universal wipeout’s possible because he used the Stones’ powers to destroy themselves.)  Then, new hope emerges in 2023 (I’m emphasizing temporal “landmarks” because events in various past [and future] eras are crucial to this plot) when Scott Lang/Ant-Man’s (Paul Rudd) suddenly released from his quantum-level-“imprisonment” (see our August 2, 2018 review for details in Ant-Man and the Wasp [Peyton Reed, 2018]), comes to Avengers HQ where Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow’s (Scarlett Johansson) in charge but little heroic’s happening as Hawkeye’s now a vigilante killing various criminals; Bruce Banner’s (Mark Ruffalo) found a way to permanently merge his human/Hulk aspects so he’s a benign, bulked-up-celebrity; Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) is trying unsuccessfully to provide optimistic encouragement to despondent therapy groups; Thor’s (Chris Hemsworth) retreated to Norway’s New Asgard for daily indulgence in beer, TV, self-pity for not stopping Thanos 5 years ago; Stark has retired, living by an isolated lake with his wife and daughter.

 Hour 2, The Quest for Stones: Lang explains to the other Avengers how what we know as reality (including the linear progression of time) is different within the quantum existence.  Thus, the 5 years everyone else experienced since the massive-elimination-event was only like 5 hours for him so he thinks there should be some way to harness the uncertainly-aspects of the quantum realm, allowing the Avengers to visit specific sites in the past in order to undo Thanos’ destructive-decimation; however, they need brilliant scientific minds to accomplish this last-hope-tactic.  Stark refuses to help, fearing that messing around in the quantum field could destroy whatever’s left of our universe; Banner attempts to find a way to control entry into, travel through, emergence from the quantum realm (where anyone attempting such a journey needs a small vial of Pym Particles [again, see that Ant-Man … review]), which Lang has only a limited supply of, so that’s another obstacle.  Finally, Stark gets curious, devises some sort of reverse-Mobius-strip-device to bring control of the quantum “time heist” process, agrees to share the technology so all the remaining Avengers are recruited (with some funny scenes involving beer-gut-Thor, who’s now grown his long blond hair back), given the needed Pym Particles for a trip to the past and back (each person with only enough “Pyms” for 1 round-trip), and they’re off, revising events of past MCU movies to gather the Stones from when they still existed to bring them to 2023, put them into a new gauntlet, reverse the Thanos chaos.  Trying to be inconspicuous so as not to be noticed by their 2012 selves (except for Banner who now always looks like Hulk, but with glasses), Banner, Rogers, Stark, and Lang go to 2012 NYC when the Avengers first assembled to stop the invasion of Thor’s brother, Loki (Tom Hiddleston), and his alien army, with Banner convincing the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton)—Dr. Strange hasn’t become a sorcerer yet—to give him the Time Stone (after vowing all these borrowed Stones will be returned to their exact chronological points so as to not allow alternative timelines to sprout, then become viable, once a Stone's taken from its original temporal flow, thereby undoing whatever good those Stones will have done in  following years, after the Avengers borrowed them).

 However, while Lang returns to the present with the Mind Stone (in Loki’s staff) Rogers and Stark (now moved beyond animosities from previous MCU episodes) lose the Space Stone to Loki (who disappears with it, but we never learn more [except, when the Space Stone’s returned to its original timeline later, can we assume events would just fall back into place as we first saw in The Avengers {Joss Whedon, 2012; review in our May 12, 2012 posting}?])—with a “marvel”ous scene where 2023 Captain America battles his 2012 self, leading to the earlier guy finally getting knocked out—so they use their return “Pyms” to go instead to 1970 S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters where they steal the Tesseract (containing the Space Stone) before Lang’s mentor, Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), can use it to create his needed technology as the original Ant-Man (Tony also talks with his father, Howard Stark [John Slattery], although Dad doesn’t know who this odd guy is).  Rogers grabs a batch of Pym Particles too, so more extensive time-travel will be possible for our collective heroes as this narrative continues.  Meanwhile, Thor and Rocket (voice of Bradley Cooper, computer-generated-alien-body looks like a tough-talking raccoon) go to 2013 Asgard (revisiting events from Thor: The Dark World [Alan Taylor, 2013; review in our November 14, 2013 posting]) where Rocket gets the Reality Stone from Thor’s ex, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), while our previous Thunder God/2023 King of Asgard (un-regal as he’s now become) has a heart-to-heart with his (dead in our present time) mother, Frigga (Rene Russo), before he leaves, also grabbing his powerful hammer weapon, Mjolnir (destroyed in Thor: Ragnarok [Taika Waititi, 2017; review in our November 15, 2017 posting]).  In 2014 events take on darker connotations, first on planet Morag as Nebula and James Rhodes/War Machine (Don Cheadle) knock out Peter Quill/Star Lord (Chris Pratt) to grab the Power Stone before Quill can do it as first seen in Guardians of the Galaxy (James Gunn, 2014; review in our August 7, 2014 posting), but only Rhodes leaps back to 2023 because 2014 Nebula—still very much in league with her father, Thanos—psychically gets a sense of her other self, so the 2023 Nebula’s held back, captured, forced by 2014 Thanos to mind-project all we’ve seen previously in … Endgame regarding his 2018 actions, then how the Avengers are out to reverse it all; Dad sends his 2014 daughter to 2023 where our heroes won’t know she’s a spy in their midst, keeping the later-version-Nebula with him (at least until she convinces step-sister Gamora [Zoe Saldana] to help her, convincing Gamora Dad will kill her  a few years later in order to acquire the Soul Stone for his mighty Gauntlet [as seen in … Infinity War], so they both return to the present time frame of this story).  Over on planet Vomir in 2014 we find Romanoff and Barton years ahead of Thanos in going after the Soul Stone but they face the same challenge he did, as the Stone can only be taken by someone who kills another he/she loves, seemingly done as a sacrifice to that mystic piece of rock.

 Hour 3, Armageddon: (Sorry to cut you off here, but this is where all the crucial spoilers occur, so either continuing reading now or get thee to see … Endgame.) Desire for the Soul Stone’s what led to Thanos killing Gamora before; this time, it’s Black Widow who sacrifices herself in a deadly plunge off a cliff so Hawkeye can return to the present to help set things right, ultimately return to his family (Hawkeye did his best to prevent her leap, but she slipped away; in that both of them are among the least powerful of the Avengers—with no extraordinary status, just archery for him, martial arts for her—it’s clear such a fall would be deadly to either of them).  When Hawkeye transports to 2023 with the Soul Stone all’s ready to make the new gauntlet, yet the next challenge is who has the ability to withstand the intense current emanating from this glove in the process of bringing back all the previously-evaporated-beings.  Thor argues to take the risk, but in the end it’s Banner (given much of the Stones’ radiation consists of gamma rays, which he’s already saturated with).  The new Infinity Gauntlet almost overwhelms him, yet Bruce uses his mighty Hulk nature to withstand the pain, seemingly accomplishing the task; however, before any evidence can be verified Avengers HQ is suddenly attacked (practically demolished) by 2014 Thanos, arriving in 2023 via a quantum-time-leap powered by the Pym Particles 2014 Nebula took from present-day-Nebula, although this earlier version of the character will soon meet her end at the hands of Gamora (existing in 2023 despite dying in 2018 because this is her 2014 self now traveled into the future of that version of herself [Got it?  If not, we’ll return to the anomalies of time-travel in the next section of this review.], just like Thanos has done) and 2023 Nebula.  While there’s immediate, escalating warfare between the forces of Thanos (who knows about the new Gauntlet, seeks to confiscate it before decimating pesky-planet-Earth) and the few Avengers available to stand up to them, the focus is on Captain America, Iron Man, and Thor attempting to dispatch Thanos before he can achieve his second round of annihilation, although, as he tells them in the midst of their battles, this time he’s going to wipe out every being in the universe except himself, replacing them with new planetary residents who have no memory of “before the apocalypse” so it will all be peaceful in the new era.  Suddenly, the odds of heroic victory are greatly enhanced when the previously-lost-Avengers reappear, along with various sorcerers, the armies of Wakanda, etc., all battling the forces of Thanos whose weaponry is destroyed by the re-appearance of Captain Marvel, but even she ultimately proves to be no match for the warrior skills of Thanos who finally gets the Gauntlet yet has to repel a last-ditch-effort from Iron Man who somehow grabs the Stones, commands them to evaporate Thanos/his army/his technology, essentially restoring the universe to a healthier state.⇐

 Sadly, though, the surging energy needed to accomplish this tremendous task takes its toll on Iron Man, who dies, later is celebrated with a private funeral bringing back even more cast members from previous MCU outings, as the first celebrated Avenger (even if Captain America got his powers decades earlier, he lay in suspended animation in Arctic ice [probably wouldn’t last long today in such, given how it’s melting due to climate change], so the team was already getting pulled together by Nick Fury—with Iron Man a public figure before Cap was fully part of the team) is laid to rest.  As various individual conclusions come into place we find Thor turning over the throne of New Asgard to Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson) so he can join in with the reunited Guardians of the Galaxy as Star Lord’s on the hunt for the 2014 Gamora, to make up for lost time with his now-resuscitated-love (showing us that, at least in the MCU, you can travel from your present [our past] to our present [your future] and continue to live, even though that past version of yourself (as was the case with Gamora and Thanos) died back in 2018.  However, if that time-traveling-version of yourself should also die (as did Thanos due to Stark’s swift action against him) then that’s it for you (unless, I suppose, somehow someone with proper Pym navigation of the quantum realm goes back farther than 2014, then brings an even-older-version of Thanos to the present again, but let’s hope no one decides to beat that dead horse [or alien] for the cash-purposes of a not-yet-written MCU script).⇐

 For that matter, though, once the Infinity Stones are back in their proper places in those 2012, 2014 timelines what becomes of them in 2018 when Thanos (alive at the time … or not, due to 2023 events with his earlier self killed in that final battle?) destroyed them?  Will they now continue on in their various separate locations (including powering Dr. Strange’s abilities) given that, possibly, the events of … Infinity War shouldn’t have even happened, as there was no Thanos continuing on from 2014 to wreak such cosmic hell because he jumped directly to 2023 to meet his ultimate termination.  While Avengers fans continue to argue such ponderous scenarios (explored a bit in the upcoming So What? section of this review), one clear time-travel-conundrum occurs at the very end of … Endgame when Captain America goes back to the various past locations to return the individual Infinity Stones to where the Avengers took them because he doesn’t immediately return as he was intended to do.  But just as those working with Banner on this project are confused by this twist of events they see an old man sitting on a nearby bench: he’s an elderly Steve Rogers who tells them he diverted himself to 1945 so he could finally make his intended connection with Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), marrying her, living decades together (presumably until her death, even as his “other self” was still frozen during those years), then returning to 2023 to turn over his shield to the new Cap, Sam Wilson/Falcon (Anthony Mackie), whom we’ll likely see in future MCU movies where we can all question why Black Widow wasn’t revived with all the other previously-departed-Avengers, why certain people die in the past to stay gone while others are miraculously returned due to the power of the Infinity Stones.  Ponder that until we actually get to 2023, OK?⇐

So What? It must be acknowledged right off that being able to build a coherent structure (needing its full 3 hours to keep all the events worked into the context of something resonating with those 21 previous MCU narratives yet still finding a way for making ongoing sense of what this culmination-story has on its own) in Avengers: Endgame is a defining accomplishment in itself for this movie, working with the same successful infrastructure that allowed the initial configuration of these superheroes to work so well in the original union of such intentionally-conflicting-protagonists in The Avengers (sadly, our May 12, 2012 review features the usual overly-wordy, under-illustrated format of those earlier days of our blog; my apologies).  Just trying to keep up with the 10 Avengers who survived Thanos' purge in … Infinity War requires enough scripting-creativity when sending these characters back in time to revisit aspects of previous MCU stories to grab those precious Infinity Stones, but then to find a method of bringing all of the dust-to-the-wind-departee-heroes back at the end of … Endgame to battle the forces of Thanos while giving everyone from Dr. Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) to Spider-Man (Tom Holland) to Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) to sorcerer Wong (Benedict Wong) a quick-but-useful-cameo is an amazing feat.  There are too many other returnees to even begin to enumerate, although you can go here for this tally if you like, where you’ll find a listing of all those who’ve come back from previous MCU movies, including (just skimming the surface) “Happy” Hogan (Jon Favreau), “Pepper” Potts (Gwyneth Palthrow) from Iron Man stories; Bucky Barnes/Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan), Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford) from Captain America tales; Drax the Destroyer (Dave Bautista), the voice of Vin Diesel as tree-like-Groot from Guardians of the Galaxy movies; Janet van Dyne (Michelle Pfeiffer), Hope van Dyne/Wasp (Evangeline Lilly) from Ant-Man stories; Okoye (Danai Gurirra), M’Baku (Winston Duke), Ramonda (Angela Bassett) from Black Panther (Ryan Coogler, 2018; review in our February 22, 2018 posting [the only other MCU entry I’ve rated at 4 stars]); and, now confirmed-beyond-all-argument as appearing in the highest-grossing-movie-collection of all time (MCU and many others, including the Star Wars prequels), Samuel L. Jackson, as Nick Fury, former agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., responsible for bringing the Avengers together, giving them direction in many "MCUs."

 After those remarks, though, I’ll put the following speculations in spoiler mode because it’ll be too difficult to explore them without revealing important plot points for those who don’t yet want to know what happens in  … Endgame after roughly the first half of the story until they’ve had a chance to see it for themselves.  Given time travel, mostly into the past but also, in a key plot moment, into the future (from 2014 to 2023) is a crucial aspect here, how the screenwriters (Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely) approach this phenomenon seems at one level to be explained well enough to keep this complex plot moving; however, the more you think about it afterward the harder it is to understand—not in fully-defendable-physics-terms but even for within-the-plot-logic.  When Scott Lang first suggests the remaining Avengers undo the Thanos-caused-tragedy by going into the past to change present events he’s shot down for the strategy of simply killing baby Thanos (so he’ll never be able to cause any trouble) with a flat rejection from Bruce Banner the past is inviolate, you can’t change anything in it hoping to affect our present (what would ultimately be the future of that past era—you follow?).  Therefore, all our heroes can do is gather the Infinity Stones from various locations long ago, use them in the present to reverse Thanos’ previous-eradiation-command, then return them to those past places to prevent disruptions to the primary timeline we’ve always known by creating alternate realities (sometimes understood as parallel universes), as explained to Banner in 2012 by the Ancient One—although, to me, that indicates Banner was wrong about actions in the past not having an impact on the present, which according to him completely nullifies everything we’ve now assumed about time-travel as explored in myriad movies, possibly most well-known from Back to the Future and Terminator series (although aspects of those well-known-narratives appear in … Endgame [like in Back to the Future Part IIRobert Zemeckis, 1989] when present-day-characters encounter/battle past versions of themselves [Capt. America, Nebula] so it seems past alternations possibly can ripple into the future because in ... Endgame's revisited 2012 Loki isn’t captured as he was originally but now escapes with the powerful Tesseract [so does he shoot off into some alternative-timeline, even though the Space Stone within this mystical cube is acquired by that Avengers team in 1970?  Beats me!]).⇐

 While Banner didn’t opine on probable impossibilities of traveling from the past to the future, thus also mucking around with the “established” timeline, we do get a clear indication of that in … Endgame when 2014 Thanos transports (with his army) to 2023 (when most of the “present” events of … Endgame occur), then is reduced to dust, which would possibly indicate his 2014 self wasn’t able to continue until 2018 when he created his universal-disappearing-act after acquiring all the Stones.  So (assuming I’m correct on this point), if that catastrophe never happened then nothing we see in … Infinity War or … Endgame would have happened either, implying (I think) the Stones would likely have just stayed wherever they were in 2014 (even if Capt. America didn’t have to travel to the past again to replace them from where the various Avengers took them), never to be put into action by Thanos.  (But, that means Thanos wouldn’t have destroyed them in 2018 either, so maybe someday someone else might gather them all up for a repeat-universal-crisis?  Or maybe because the most-contemporary-version of Thanos destroyed them in 2018 they’ll just turn to dust then?  If you can figure any of this out, you have my praise, although please explain it all in the Comments section at the very end of this posting.)  You can find plenty of speculation about … Endgame’s time-travel-procedures if you simply search “avengers time travel theory,” but the most intriguing one I've yet found is from, plus some videos that ponder these timelline questions, attempt to explain ... Endgame's ending, and offer the 5 Best and 5 Worst aspects of this movie.  Of course, all of these sites are filled with spoilers as well.⇐  All of these time-travel-speculations make for interesting post-screening-conversations, but—let’s face it—if we’re willing to take for granted people flying around in high-tech-suits-of-armor (Iron Man), transformed by radiation (Hulk, Spider-Man), endowed (or enhanced) with seemingly-godlike-powers just because of an alien heritage (Thor, Captain Marvel), transformed by scientific/chemical experiments/ processes (Captain America, Ant-Man, Black Panther), or suddenly-possessive of magical abilities (Dr. Strange), then why should we quibble over fictional-explanations of time travel when we’ve already had to swallow so much else on faith that what we’ve been following for a decade in the MCU was acceptable given the existing fantastic premises these stories depend on.  Still, time travel is a morass of possibilities even in real-world-physics so it does present challenges here in trying to keep this complicated narrative within the realm of its own parameters without getting too lost in the possibilities of alternative realities explored in some of the links above (and others easily found in searches), hoping to maintain some level of acceptance of the real-world vs. fictional-world zones of physics as presented in the fast-moving (yet lengthy) construction of Avengers: Endgame.

Bottom Line Final Comments: It’s not often you find this level of success for a pop-culture-movie, blending critical and audience embrace; Rotten Tomatoes (for whom I have some pithy remarks at the very end of the commentary text of this review, a bit farther below) offers 95% positive reviews of … Endgame while those surveyed by Metacritic come to a 78% average score (which is among the highest results they’ve offered this year for releases both they and I have chosen to review, in that their 87% score for Diane [Kent Jones; review in our April 17, 2019 posting] is the highest we’ve yet shared).  Then there’s the monetary success, which is beyond conventional concepts of outstanding with a massive $1.2 billion global opening weekend (including $350 million from domestic [U.S.-Canada] theaters [4,662 of them], the largest domestic and international openings of all-time, that total already at #2 so far for the 2019 domestic year [behind the $413.6 million for Captain Marvel {Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck; review in our March 14, 2019 posting}, both of which are now owned by Disney, so with subsidiaries Pixar’s Toy Story 4 {Josh Cooley; set for release on June 21, 2019} and Lucasfilm’s Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker {J.J. Abrams, set for release on December 20, 2019}, it looks to be another banner year for Walt’s legacy, including the opening this summer of the new Star Wars area at Disneyland]).  What comes next for the MCU?  There are definitely plans for continuations of established characters along with introducing some new ones (but we’ve presumably seen the last of Tony Stark and Steve Rogers, although Black Widow’s scheduled to return [from the dead?] so I guess we can’t count any of these folks out completely, as long as the box-office beckons, yet we’ll just have to evaluate whatever happens whenever whoever appears because—shock of all time!—... Endgame has no credits interruptions with hints of what’s coming next, although this article cites a new Dr. Strange movie so the Time Stone must continue on somehow)⇐ which I may visit from time to time, although my MCU interest is waning with more personal anticipation for follow-ups featuring DC’s Wonder Woman and/or Aquaman.  Until any of that happens, though, I’ll just bring this review to a close by noting the Russo brothers achieved a most-admirable-result with Avengers: Endgame, especially given how they were tasked with tying up storylines from 21 previous movies as well as having to find ways of incorporating a cast list so long you’d almost mistakenly think it was for the production crew until you realize by scrolling further the enormous number of people it took to bring this project to fruition.  Certainly many audience members may well be disappointed if their favorites get scant screen time (although some of the major players factored more into … Infinity War), but overall what’s here is pretty spectacular in how it’s all woven together, mixing suspense, comedy, action, and tragedy in a manner that focuses much more on developing personality traits of the major characters than dwelling on battle scenes (although that final conflict certainly delivers all the physical confrontation you could want from something fully in this Fantasy superhero genre).

 So, if the MCU has reached a conclusion, at least for now, I should do the same with my usual tactic of a Musical Metaphor that somehow speaks to what’s been previously explored in the review.  I must admit, though, I found it very difficult to come up with something that works appropriately with such a sprawling experience as Avengers: Endgame until I was looking at some random videos on YouTube when I came upon this version of Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire” (from his 1989 album Storm Front) at where at least some of the cast of the movie sings rewritten lyrics noting the previous MCU episodes as if … Endgame’s not something emerging from the mists as a new experience for our time but instead builds on what’s come before over the last decade just as Joel’s song is a rapid-fire-argument that the present chaos in our world (even though he was writing/singing this 30 years ago, the sense of ongoing instability continues today) isn’t some new, unexpected phenomenon because Earth-shaking-events (of various serious or frivolous natures) had easily been going on during the 40 years between Billy’s birth and the release of his tune.  To give this Metaphor’s choice a bit more context, you could start with Joel’s official music video for “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” beginning with newlyweds coming into their new home’s kitchen in the late 1940s, then how their lives change over the decades with some of these events in the lyrics illustrated in addition to ongoing kitchen changes, but if these references either rush by too fast or don’t immediately conjure up what the songwriter was referring to you might consult this list of his inclusions and/or this video which combines these 2 previous links by including the lyrics illustrated with what’s being referred to in them (except the chorus, where you just get the words with no accompanying imagery), with brief captions under each photo so you can pause anywhere you like for quick context on the person or event depicted.  Now, once you’ve had a chance to catch your breath from everything rushing at you from both … Endgame and “… Fire,” I’ll slow down the pace considerably with much briefer comments on an extremely different cinematic experience (although with one crossover in the cast).
SHORT TAKES (spoilers also appear here)
                   Little Woods (Nia DaCosta)   rated R

2 sisters in contemporary North Dakota face personal/economic difficulties because one's an ex-con about to finish parole but pressured to resume her former drug-dealing ways, the other already has a child she can barely afford but's pregnant with no means of paying for birth costs (even an abortion) unless they go into Canada with fake documents.

Here’s the trailer:

       Before reading any further, I’ll ask you to refer to the plot spoilers warning far above.

 Those of you who’ve read my review of High Life (in our April 24, 2019 posting) know I made a choice to see it rather than Little Woods because the topic of masturbation in outer space (Oh, so now you want to read that review?) sounded more interesting than watching hard-scrabble-lives in North Dakota.  Still, the extremely high critical consensus for Little Woods (RT 96%, MC 74% average score [supportive from them, trust me]) plus local-reviewing-praise for it kept nagging at me so my wife, Nina, and I found some time last weekend to see it (at the Shattuck Cinema in Berkeley, CA, 1 of only 29 domestic theaters where you can find this film even after 2 weeks in release [its puny $113.2 thousand in receipts isn't much encouragement for extending its reach]); ominously, the couple in front of us in the ticket line heard us talking about it, warned us against it as a dreary waste of time based on their experience.  Well, after watching it I’ll report it’s not as fantastic as claimed by the Collective Critics at Large (CCAL, a more positive rendering of my “fellow” [more on that just below] evaluators than what I call them when they skew low to my highs: the Often Cranky Critics Universe [OCCU]) nor is it as forgettable as felt by my (actual) fellow movie-patrons (wish I’d asked them what they were seeing last Saturday afternoon).  On the positive side (for those who’d like to consider this downbeat drama for future video viewing), to fully appreciate what’s going on in Little Woods all you need is a passing understanding from legitimate news sources about the opioids-crisis currently devastating much of working class/underemployed/ unemployed U.S.A. as well as the continuing lack of economic opportunities for said citizens of our severely-financially-imbalanced-country, rather than needing a near-encyclopedic-knowledge of past movies (ideally, their comic book sources also) to truly get all that’s either overt or buried in Avengers: Endgame.  By contrast, Little Woods (a rural town where our 2 protagonists grew up) is about sisters, Ollie (Tessa Thompson [the new ruler of New Asgard])—adopted but put more energy toward her ailing mother, smuggling painkillers in from Canada, along with selling some—now an ex-con for her drug-dealing (in her last 10 days of parole hoping to land a job out west to take her away from this barren oil-field-territory [surprisingly shot in my old home base of Austin and Taylor, TXnever knew it could be made to look so miserable]), and Deb (Lily James), unmarried but with young, sickly Johnny (Charlie Ray Reid) and another kid in progress, living in a mobile home illegally parked in a big-box-store’s lot, generally-estranged from ex-lover Ian (James Badge Dale) although occasionally succumbing to his “charms” (seemingly how she got herself pregnant again).

 Deb’s ongoing crisis is the upcoming birth will cost her $8,000-$12,000 (no insurance, of course—as is the case with Ollie’s former clients who fared better with her illegal-prescription-products than missing work while spending hours at an ER waiting room attempting to deal with various injury-based-pains) while an abortion (difficult enough to get in this part of the U.S.) would be at least half of that, with her measly waitress wages nowhere near those needs.  Ollie has a more-immediate-problem because she’s living in their deceased-mother’s-house which has just gotten a foreclosure notice.  She’s able to talk them down to half of the $5,682 owed for a down payment (in 1 week) but that means getting back to her clandestine business (after digging up her stash in the woods) while trying to keep parole office Carter (Lance Reddick) from knowing about it here in this small-town, gossipy community.  Even worse, she’s under pressure from another local dealer, Dale (Brandon Potter), to hand over 30% of what she makes (because she wouldn’t accept his partnership offer) or else get a big payout from him if she sneaks into nearby-Canada to bolster his supply because she’s got past connections there (apparently, an ask-no-questions-doctor); in return for $8,000 from Dale, Ollie and Deb slip over the border (after Deb attempts to pay for a fake Canadian I.D., then has to just grab one from a table, run away, when the pushy thugs try to extort more cash from her). Deb manages to get her desperately-needed-state-run-medical-care-abortion-appointment after some nervous moments (possibly helped by a sympathetic receptionist [Rochelle Robinson]), followed by the successful procedure, while Ollie’s stocking up on a trove of new drugs for Dale; she also gets a phone call that she’s been hired for the Spokane job, so she’ll soon be off to a new life with some of the loot from Dale enough to keep Mom’s house in the family (with further payments from Ollie's new income) for Deb and son to inhabit (unless she cares to retrieve her finally-impounded-trailer, where Ollie had hidden her previous drugs and cash before the tow-job, with that box of goodies gone when Ollie climbed the fence into the impound lot, making it essential she’d have to accept Bill’s Canada-drug-trip-offer).⇐  You might find these harsh depictions as depressing (although Nina found refreshing-uplift in both sisters getting new leases on life relative to their previous struggles, even if they had to break some laws to get relief from their situations), but Little Woods is well-acted throughout (especially by Thompson), the images are engaging even in their bleakness, the plot events shine a necessary light on real hardships suffered by those who don’t deserve such misery as they fall further into poverty, so I recommend you consider searching for this mostly-tense-but-effective-film, which I’ll close out on with the Musical Metaphor of Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” (from her self-titled 1988 debut album) at (a 1988 live performance at my local Oakland Coliseum Arena [now renamed Oracle Arena]) because while it’ll take more than a “fast car” for Ollie to geta ticket to anywhere [when you’re] Starting from zero got nothing to lose […] I, I had a feeling I could be someone, be someone, be someone [… so I'll] Leave tonight or live and die this way.”  At least Ollie finally got to “fly away.”

 In closing, all of you current 30,317 readers of Film Reviews from Two Guys in the Dark might be a bit annoyed (along with myself and Pat Craig [the mystery man of our operation]) that my application several months ago for our reviews to be included among those tallied by critics-accumulator-Rotten Tomatoes was finally denied by them because Unfortunately, we are unable to offer you Tomatometer approval at this time. Your work has demonstrated effort, but we have not found evidence of your reviews reaching/engaging with a significant audience through either your primary platform or social media. Additionally, while it is not required, we look for review platforms that appear contemporary and are easy for our users to navigate.   While I could apply again after March 1, 2020, I can see no reason to consider doing so because little will change in terms of what’s here or who’s interested in it (just as I was turned down 5 times by my local San Francisco Film Critics Circle, with the same form letter each time—the last one being merely a recycle from the previous year where the unchanged notation of dates from 2015 made no sense to the actual circumstances of 2016, after which I just gave up).  So, Rotten Tomatoes can continue to exalt itself all it likes (along with the SFFCC), but I’ll continue a skeptical attitude toward both of them, especially because I know I often have a larger readership than many of the SFFCC bloggers while being “certified fresh” from RT usually depends on some staffer’s interpretation of what constitutes a “positive” comment, even when much of the text of the review is not supportive.  Consequently, I’ll remain out here on the periphery of critical commentary, thankful for anyone who reads these reviews from Two Guys in the Dark even if our collective several thousands of hits don’t constitute a “significant audience.”  To me, you’re still quite significant; I thank you again (here and at the very end of every posting with a graphic of where our Two Guys readership most recently comes from) for checking in with us, no matter how frequently your curiosity brings you into the Two Guys realm.
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Here’s more information about Avengers: Endgame: (25:25 video, quickly racing through items about the movie’s enormous cluster of Easter Eggs [containing many spoilers])

Here’s more information about Little Woods: (this will have to do for an official website because I can’t find anything else; this film's not being promoted very well) (2:38 interview with debut-feature-film-director Nia DaCosta) and (an odd 8:45 video that’s all text with some info about the film’s story plus extensive statements from DaCosta and lead actor Tessa Thompson, so it’s informative but distracting with zooms out and in on the same photo the entire time [the text is taken from a magazine article, with indications where ads should be inserted]); there’s also this 16:22 interview at with DaCosta, actors Thompson and Lily James, plus others associated with the film if you have some sort of additional amplification on your computer in order to hear what they're saying; for me, the audio’s too low to understand much of anything [I also tried the auto-generated-captions option, to no avail—more of the poor level of promotion for a film deserving much better due to its content])

Please note that to Post a Comment below about our reviews you need to have either a Google account (which you can easily get at if you need to sign up) or other sign-in identification from the pull-down menu below before you preview or post.  You can also leave comments at our Facebook page, although you may have to somehow connect with us at that site in order to do it (most FB procedures are still a bit of a mystery to us old farts).

If you’d rather contact Ken directly rather than leaving a comment here please use my email address of if you truly have too much time on your hands you might want to explore some even-longer-and-more-obtuse-than-my-film-reviews—if that even seems possible—academic articles about various cinematic topics at my website,, which could really give you something to talk to me about.)

By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile. Ken

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.  But wherever the rest of my body may be my heart’s always with my longtime-companion, lover, and wife, Nina Kindblad, so here’s our favorite shared song—Neil Young’s "Harvest Moon"
—from the performance we saw at the Desert Trip concerts in Indio, CA on October 15, 2016 (as a full moon was rising over the stadium) because “I’m still in love with you,” my dearest, a never-changing-reality even as the moon waxes and wanes over the months/years to come.
Finally, for the data-oriented among you, Google stats say over the past month (which they seem to measure from right now back 30 days) the total unique hits at this site were 30,317 (as always, we thank all of you for your support with our hopes you’ll continue to be regular readers); below is a snapshot of where and by what means those responses have come from within the previous week:


  1. I went into Avengers thinking "as long as Robert Downey Jr and Scarlett Johansson are in it" there must be some redeeming value. Not sure that motivation will remain in the future.

    Avengers was a well produced state of the art special effects movie and shows what Disney's Industrial Light and Magic can do. For the most part, they did not resort to blurred motion or dark scene solutions. Long drawn out battle scenes were thankfully minimized.

    The film's pacing was reasonable and some characterizations were well crafted. But not many. We can't call many of these escapes from reality science fiction anymore because logic has become a minor player.

    Clearly these films make money and as a result, we do not get many conventional dramas from Hollywood. An elegant time travel fantasy can be a serious look into human interaction and societal norms but not this time. I for one will be happy when the pendulum swings again and fantasies are left to Cinderella.

    1. Hi rj, Thanks as always for your comments which in general I'm in agreement with (hence my likely apprehension in trying to keep up with all of whatever the future MCU movies might be), although for what these filmmakers had to work with in this dead-center superhero tale within the Fantasy genre (certainly not sci-fi, I concur) I think it works well enough to be the finale of the Avengers as they've been established on screen. I just hope that now Disney also owns all the X-Men (via purchasing the 20th Century Fox movie holdings) there won't be some attempt to merge all of these characters into something where you'd truly need a scorecard to keep up with the lineup (I feel that way about X-Men tales already, not interested in pursuing them any further). Ken