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I knew when I read the synopsis of this film that it would be an emotional experience for me. What I did not anticipate was enjoying it as much as I did.

As the film played out, I could see Afleck’s character, Christian Wolff, exhibit some of the same characteristics I would expect of an individual who is on the Autism Spectrum, but I was encouraged by the fact that he seemed to be outwardly successful and independent, even as the unfolding story shows a man kept in check by unusual rituals that go back to childhood, and a father whose training compelled him to acclimate his son to the world, rather than insisting that the world create a bubble around his son.

The flashbacks are not evenly paced, and the shifts back to the present are sometimes jarring, but the picture that forms is that of a person who is instantly capable of grasping complicated information and using it to his advantage.  His condition allows him a great deal of focus on the tasks at hand which make him invaluable to his clients and deadly to those who violate his moral code.

Against this backdrop, we are introduced to a high-ranking bureaucrat at the Department of the Treasury who ruthlessly recruits a smart and talented analyst to figure out who this mysterious accountant who has been tied to some of the most evil people on the planet actually is, with the idea that he could be an informational gold mine.

The flashbacks reveal how Wolff cultivated his effortless brutality, but they also reveal that the bureaucrat, played by JK Simmons, owes his career and station to Wolff, and that their history is an odd symbiotic relationship, in which Simmons’ character had to decide what he was willing to compromise with in order to bring down infamous criminals. When this is revealed to his reluctant protegé, she has to face the expectation that she will replace him when he retires.

Meanwhile, Wolff has taken what he and his “agent” believed to be an “honest” job, only to find calculation and intrigue of a degree that only someone with his skill set could have uncovered, and in a manner that is contrary to his normal instincts, he feels a duty to protect the innocent who inadvertently discovered the financial chicanery at a robotics company. This puts him on a collision course with a mysterious enforcer, hired by the owner of the company to clean up the loose ends, including the lowly account clerk who discovered the missing money in the first place.

As the flashbacks progress, you see how Wolff changed from a boy who was very obviously autistic into a man who is very controlled, very precise, and very deadly. We see the conflict between his parents, a mother who is out of her depth and at her wit’s end…at one point making a very revealing remark that made me deeply, deeply dislike her, and a father who is an Army officer working in psy ops. The mother is eager to leave her oldest son with strangers, and let them raise him and teach him how to live in a controlled environment. The father refuses, because of a love for both of his sons that his career and training can never allow him to express in a “normal” way, but exists just the same, and because he wants his oldest son to be able to meet and interact in the world the way that it is, and not in a bubble created for him. These conflicts eventually take their toll, and the mother leaves, causing the oldest son to slip into an epic meltdown, and the younger son to express his resentment of his mother and her inability or unwillingness to give both boys what they need in a simple expression when she departs. As the father continues to travel the world, he takes the boys with him and subjects them to brutal training, while eventually revealing to them at a crucial moment that his purpose is to keep them from ever becoming victims.  He also instilled in the boys the same sense of loyalty, borne in love, that has caused him to soldier on as a solo parent. One of the final flashbacks completes the transition from past to present, while revealing to the audience just how much the father loved his oldest son.

This is a movie about decisions.  Decisions always matter, but I don’t think movies always focus on just how much decisions are fulcrums in people’s lives.  And while decisions drive every story, my biggest surprise in this one was the decision made by the Treasury Agent’s reluctant protegé, who made a decision about compromise, and whether or not the calculus she had to use had expanded beyond just herself.

Conversely, the final showdown between Wolff and the mysterious enforcer lead to a decision that couldn’t really be considered a difficult choice at all.  It was violent, bloody, loud, and shocking to the man who hired the enforcer, but ultimately, I found it to be one of the film’s most rewarding moments.

Ultimately, I can see why this movie is controversial for people. To some, it appears to paint a portrait of a high-functioning autistic as a soulless monster, but this is really far too facile a conclusion. Wolff doesn’t consider the right or wrong of what many of his clients do to make their money. For him, the payoff is the challenge of diving into their books and finding the cause of the issue that brought him there. His apparent lack of emotion puts the monsters he works for at ease…sometimes fatally, when they underestimate his ability to take care of himself.  It would be easy to believe that he doesn’t have emotions, but the reality is that he just cannot comprehend what to do with them, and he himself is quite surprised when he makes a decision based on emotion, against his training and instinct, for reasons he himself does not fully understand.

I can see where people would feel justified in condemning the father, and his very hard way of raising his sons, but that would ignore the fact that he wasn’t the one who left them, despite a demanding career that required travel all over the world. Like his oldest son, he saw the world in a way very different from most, based on a reality that many are never exposed to, and because of that, he knew the best way to protect both of his sons was to teach them how to never be hurt by the world or caught flat-footed by it. I expect that I will catch heat for saying so, but I think the biggest villain in the film is the mother, and it wasn’t lost on me just how much pain she caused for her sons, even in death.

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Over the last few years, Hollywood has been slowly building a library of space disaster movies.  And I have ended up watching most of them.  While some tell the story through telemetry (Europa Report, Apollo 18), the others have used first person/third person  “as-it-happens” narratives (Last Days On Mars/Interstellar/Gravity).  I think that the telemetry story telling is more difficult, but I also think that it has a greater potential that the films using it haven’t quite managed to use to full effect.  However, I like the fact that some in Hollywood have decided to embrace exploration as a theme again, rather than simply using it as a vehicle for other messages, even if in most of these films, it comes down to traveling a long way to meet a sudden and horrible death.  While it is always a possibility, it isn’t the reason for making the trip.  We make the trip because we want to go somewhere where very few others, or no one has been before.  We make the trip because going is the challenge.  We make the trip because there is always something to learn, even if it is just about ourselves.  We make the trip because making the trip helps us to grow.

Apollo 18

I wanted to enjoy this movie.  I think NASA lost something when it stopped manned missions to other planets, and I think we are poorer as a society for them stopping.  The start of this movie made me feel a nostalgia for a time I never really knew, as I would have only been two when this mission was to have taken place in 1974.  But watching it, I could feel the cultural schism that still gripped the country.  It was a time when nerds with slide rules and pencils teamed up with clean-cut, square-jawed men who were much smarter than their outward all-american jock exteriors would lead a casual observer to believe, and braver than counter-cultural footsoldiers who preached a gospel of excess, self-gratification, and navel-gazing that birthed the whiny, entitled, self-serving attitude so prevalent in our society today, to actually DO something of consequence, and inspire those paying attention to achieve and do more themselves.

I watched, as the three-man crew trained for a mission that wasn’t going to get the glory and headlines of previous missions, due to the clandestine nature of the tasks they were being sent to perform, and I marveled at their willingness to strap themselves on to flying bombs, with large computers that have less power than what is contained in a modern car’s emissions control system, or a smart phone.

Of course, it soon becomes clear that the people who sent them failed to tell them everything, and that’s when the movie started to fall apart for me.  These men were career military officers.  And yet they let their emotions override their training, which was fatal for all of them.  It made what started as a solid B+ slide to a C.

Interstellar

I liked that this movie explored the wonder and curiosity implicit in the act of exploration.  I loved the fact that it examined humanity, with all its faults and blemishes, alongside of its best examples of courage, sacrifice, and resolve.

But throughout, I found myself wanting to know more about what happened to make it necessary to leave Earth in the first place.  The film offered some tantalizing clues, but never comes out and describes the events that changed everything.

In the end, it was a breakthrough not in science itself, but our understanding of forces and phenomena that we’ve been aware of forever that allowed humanity to find a new home among the stars.

My initial reaction to the ending was “That’s It?”, but the longer I thought about it, the more I thought it was actually correct.  That said, it isn’t a film I think I’ll be watching again anytime soon.

Gravity

Out of the three films reviewed in this article, I actually liked this one the best.  The visual elements were stunning and convincing.  And I enjoyed the transformation of a scientist who was dead inside into a human being who WANTED to live.

If you can only see one, and want to take in the best story of the three, get Gravity.

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When I was much younger, my friends and I regularly spent a summer evening watching movies.  We all had jobs, and various places offered specials that made it possible to rent 3 VHS tapes for dirt cheap.  Our plan was simple:  We would rent one “good one” (usually a blockbuster or a vanity project for some well-known star), and two “bad ones”, which were films we’d either seen or read were terrible, or decided from the description, must be craptastic to some varying degree.  It was a fun way to pass an evening, and even as most memories of that time take on a more static and incomplete quality in my reflection, I can smile and reflect on four memories which I still carry and hold dear from that time:  The Blue Monkey quarantine, which is the worst in cinematic history; the Millennium paradox, about which one of my oldest friends and I still argue; The worst script ever, Interface, which I remain convinced to this day that they never finished filming (it was so awful we actually turned it OFF), and that you can sleep with a friend’s wife, and he’ll naturally try to kill you, but when he responds by killing your dog, it’s on like Donkey Kong (Revenge).  When I watched John Wick the other night, I recognized one of the bad guy’s errors for what it was: FATAL.  Never, ever kill a man’s dog, and expect mercy.

John Wick opens with a look at a man consumed by an incalculable grief.  He is obviously a man of means, living in an upscale, tidy home, who appears to be controlled, yet rudderless at the same time.  As the movie starts rolling, it is clear that his aimlessness is the result of his wife’s recent death.  The flashbacks tell us little about Wick himself, but make it clear that he adored his now dead wife, who looks to have passed away from cancer.  The only hint we get that there is something out of the ordinary about him is the exchange he has at the cemetery after the funeral, in which he and Marcus, played by Willem Dafoe, exchange emotionless pleasantries before Wick goes back to his home, which is filled with mourners.

As he picks up after they depart, the doorbell rings.  A delivery driver drops off a puppy, with a card from his wife, explaining that the puppy is there to give him something to love in her absence.  Never succumbing to any show of affection, Wick nonetheless makes the puppy his companion, and clearly carves out a place in his life for the small dog, who accompanies him everywhere.

It is on one of these outings where Wick crosses paths with flashy russian thugs at a local gas station, where one becomes attracted to Wick’s car, a ’69 Boss Mustang, and crudely offers to buy it from the circumspect Wick.  Wick informs him that it isn’t for sale, prompting the thug to fall back on his thuggishness, and attempt to intimidate Wick, only to learn that the quiet man speaks Russian quite well, and wasn’t intimidated at all.

The Russians are not deterred, and later break into Wick’s home, brutally beat him, kill his dog, and steal his car.  They take it to a chop shop, and tell the alarmed owner that they would like new vins and clean papers.  The owner, played by John Leguizamo, recognizes the car, and decides he would rather face the wrath of the thug leader’s father than the owner of the Mustang.  When word gets back to the father, he places a call to Leguizamo, who informs him that his son just beat up John Wick, killed his dog, and stole his car.  The father, realizing just what a grevious error this was, simply said “Oh.”, and hung up the phone.

Meanwhile, Wick is making preparations, and we start to get a sense that his aimlessness is gone, only to be replaced by a bloody and single-minded resolve.  Meanwhile, the father, accompanied by his consigliere, played by Dean Winters (Mayhem), confronts his son, and lets him know the gravity of his offense, and the inevitability of a permanent penalty.

That fucking nobody is John Wick. He once was an associate of ours. They call him Baba Yaga. Well John wasn’t exactly the Boogeyman, he was the one you send to kill the fucking Boogeyman. John is a man of focus, commitment and sheer will. I once saw him kill three men in a bar, with a pencil. With a fucking… pencil. Suddenly one day he asked to leave, over a woman of course. So I made a deal with him. I gave him an impossible task. A job no one could have pulled off. The bodies he buried that day lay the foundation of what we are now. And then my son, a few days after his wife died, you steal his car and kill his fucking dog. John will come for you and you will do nothing because you can do nothing.

The rest of the movie is a tale of a father trying to save his son, while knowing it is an impossible task, and a man so focused on revenge that he steps back into a world he was fortunate enough to walk away from years before.  The body count was otherworldly, and the way in which Wick dispatched those between him and his objective was brutal, but it was done in a way that didn’t come across as gratuitous or pointless, which made watching the movie much easier than it could have been.  But the other thing that made this movie enjoyable was the fact that there was a code of conduct for the assassins, and when one of their number did not observe that code, and decided to “break the rules” to take the chance of getting the huge bounty placed on Wick’s head, the others didn’t remain on the sidelines, wagging their fingers.  They acted to enforce that code, because in the end, they too needed a place to take shelter, and have one place where they didn’t have to look over their shoulders.  In the end, the only time where Wick showed any emotion other than an appetite for revenge was in a scene where he answered the one question on everyone’s lips.  I won’t spoil that for you, but I will tell you that in the end, he walks off with another dog.  Maybe it is from dealing with autistic people, maybe it’s from having it myself to a degree, but in that scene, I thought he showed a glimmer of hope that he could still “get out”, and find a measure of peace.

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Black Sea

Captain Robinson has a problem.

The movie opens with the veteran submarine captain being informed by a desk jockey that his employment with the salvage company he works for has come to an end.  Robinson’s reaction is a mix of shock and anger, as he realizes that the career he has lost his family to has discarded him like so much refuse.

However, a conversation with other unemployed salvers in a pub offers the hope of a privately finance salvage job in the Black Sea…one that would allow him to retire richer than he could ever imagine, so he could attempt to rekindle his relationship with his 12 year-old son, who is being raised by his ex-wife and her new husband.  Soon he and his fellow conspirators hatch a plan to reach a Nazi U-boat, which supposedly disappeared in 1940 after taking on a cargo of gold paid to the Nazis by Stalin in a desperate attempt to buy peace with Germany at the outset of the Second World War.

He is soon introduced to a mysterious individual, who offers to provide the necessary financial backing in exchange for 40% of any gold found up to $40,000,000.00, and 20% of any gold above that amount the salvers recover.  From there, Robinson, and his friends hatch a plan to buy an old Soviet diesel submarine to use in their attempts to salvage the gold without either the Georgian or the Soviet navies learning of their efforts.  In order to keep the costs down, they decide on a half British, half Russian skeleton crew of misfits and psychopaths, and travel to Sevastopol to purchase a floating wreck which is no longer adequate to be repurposed into razor blades, and set to refitting and provisioning for the trip.

You can guess that this is a recipe for disaster, and you would be right, but Jude Law’s performance as the haggard captain convincingly portrays the kind of desperation that would push a man who should know better to seal himself in a tin can with a small crew of people who don’t like or trust their own countrymen, and mix them with an equal number of foreigners who they despise even more.  Once the predictable series of events and disasters start to unfold, the good captain becomes even more desperate, and ends up compounding the problem, returning to balance only when he discovers that he and his shrinking crew have been set up by their former employer, and weren’t ever going to be able to keep the tons of gold they sacrificed so much to retrieve, because the corporation and the Georgian government had already divided it among themselves.  At this point, the clichéd reimagining of “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” ended, as the captain ended up sacrificing himself to save the only two characters who weren’t modern-day pirates.

Black Sea

While there were some “liberties” taken with the script in terms of the science involved in undersea adventures, there was really only one that managed to pull my attention from the story to the gaff and make me say “oh, c’mon…”.   I was also put off a bit by the language, but it would be foolish to expect a movie about sailors to feature sailors who didn’t talk like sailors.

Overall, it was an ok story, and a decent diversion for a short time, but it isn’t one that I would be looking to purchase for my collection.

The Equalizer

When this movie first came out, I made some jokes about how Hollywood had to put some old white male actor out of work in this “reimagining” of the 80’s television character, and how disappointed I was that some social justice warrior wasn’t starting a hashtag campaign in protest.  I confess that while I did so as a joke, I do suffer from a certain annoyance with Hollywood’s proclivity to “reimagine” my childhood, and often cast it in a darker light, rather than simply telling a new story, and that is why I took so long to get around to watching this movie.

My original memories of the show are somewhat vague, as I was still fairly young, and it originally aired at 10 pm on Saturdays, a time when I was normally in bed.  I recently borrowed the first season from my local library, and found that the Joel Surnow produced show was fairly well written and acted.  It featured Edward Woodward as the “retired” spy who set up shop in New York City after an operation was botched badly by a jittery agent who prevented Robert McCall from keeping his word to the subject of the operation.  Because he still had some highly placed friends in the Agency, because he knew where the bodies were buried, and because he agreed to make himself available for certain ops that required his expertise and skill set, the Agency unofficially agreed to look the other way, and not bring him in from the cold.  As I watched the episodes in order, I found myself reasonably impressed by the tradecraft written into the series, although some of the technology seems horribly dated in this day and age.  However, I believe that one of the things that the original series got absolutely correct was that its main character carried himself like a successful operative would, which is anything but what we see James Bond do in film after film.  Woodward’s McCall is an older man, without any distinguishing features that would make him stick out in the average person’s memory.  Yes, he had an English accent.  Yes, he drove a Jaguar, which was much less common on the nation’s roadways at that time than today.  But he also knew how to blend into the crowd.  He could, and often did observe without drawing any attention to himself, and if you ran into him on the street, there was nothing about him that would raise your awareness or pique your curiosity unless he wanted it to.  That’s why the character worked for several seasons.  And that’s why I found it easier to believe he was who he was supposed to be than Denzel Washington’s Robert McCall.

The movie opens quietly, and it doesn’t take long to see that McCall is a man who is hiding, and it isn’t until fifteen minutes or so into the movie that you start to get a glimmer of what it is…who it is…he is hiding from.  But it is obvious from the  introduction that while he lives a quiet life, it is not who he is.  His apartment is spartan, and spotless.  Nothing is out-of-place.  His bed is made so tightly that quarter could bounce on it.  He’s clearly been up since well before dawn.  His morning routine shows a rigid discipline, and his own personal maintenance, appearance and demeanor is too focused, too ordered, too strack for him to be the quiet widower working for a home improvement warehouse that he appears to be.

It is his routine that guides him into the conflict, and the confrontation with himself that drives the story, however, as his middle-of-the-night trips to his local 24-hour diner draw him into a friendship with a much younger prostitute working for the local Russian mob.  When she makes the mistake of believing that she could be something more, the local mob boss puts her in her place with a brutal beating that sends her to the local ICU, and McCall finds himself, almost absent-mindedly using his formidable skills against the gangsters, and the local cops who are on their payroll.  This brings him into conflict with the crime family’s enforcer, “Teddy” (brilliantly portrayed by Marton Csokas), a former Spetznaz member who is unburdened by emotion or sentiment, and who shows a singular determination to find the party responsible for upsetting the enterprise’s apple cart, and make an example of him.

McCall and Friend
When McCall realizes that his own message has invited a much larger response, he makes a trip to visit his former boss, who still has connections with the Agency, to get intelligence about his new and lethal adversary.  She, and her husband are both pleasantly surprised (but not too surprised) to learn that McCall is still alive, after having apparently faked his death shortly after his wife passed away.  This lead to one of what I felt were the two most telling sequences in the film, where in a moment of candor, his former boss tells McCall that it is time for him to go be who he is.  After he left, her husband asked “Is everything alright? Were you able to help him?”, and she sagely responded “He didn’t come for help. He came for permission.”
This permission wasn’t just official sanction, it was permission to be the person who he promised his dead wife that he would never be again, because that was the person who the world needed him to be.  This was the part of the story that the movie got absolutely correct, and because of it, this was the story that I had vainly hoped to see when I watched Harry Brown.  Washington’s McCall was the man I expected from Caine’s Brown.  A man who could afford to be quiet, because everything about him screamed the motto “Be polite, be courteous, and have a plan to kill everyone you meet.”

The movie’s other telling moment came after Teddy, who is impersonating one of the dirty cops on his employer’s payroll, confronts McCall, because he doesn’t believe that the intelligence the police have gathered on McCall is correct.  While each knew who the other was, neither stepped away from the charade that they had decided to play.  McCall played the sort-of-informed citizen, who just happened to be at the restaurant where the mobsters were rapidly and efficiently dispatched, a bystander who wanted to help, but hadn’t seen a thing, and Teddy the detective, just trying to follow up with all potential witnesses.  However, McCall’s body language and actions didn’t match those of a harmless and ineffectual widower, and instead sent a very different message than his words.  The encounter ended on an awkward note, when McCall’s average citizen asked a provocative question, leaving Teddy to make a poor excuse as he retreated to the waiting SUV driven by one of the dirty cops, who had listened to the exchange without any idea of the conversation the two had physically carried on with each other, leaving Teddy to utter the one truth about Washington’s portrayal of the former spook that was obvious about him from the opening of the movie: “Everything about the man is wrong.”

It isn’t often when there is such an obvious disconnect in a film, and I end up liking it anyway, but this is the case with “The Equalizer”.   This might only be because I concluded that Washington’s McCall was never a spy so much as he was a fixer.  He wasn’t a man who could be inconspicuous unless he chose to be very conspicuous.  He was a man who would be sent to deal with problems in a very permanent fashion, and that would be what would allow him to be the Equalizer in today’s society, in which reason is much discussed, but rarely practiced, and in which the veneer of civilization is polished much more brightly in order to hide just how thin it has come to be.

This is a film I would watch again, because it reflects the world we live in.

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*******SPOILER ALERT********

Avengers  Age of Ultron

Today my oldest son took me to see the latest Avengers movie as my belated Father’s Day gift. I enjoyed it tremendously. I have a bone to pick with one of the central plot points, but for other reasons, the film redeemed itself spectacularly. Let’s start with the “bad” first.

Like so many other people, I grew up reading comic books, and the Avengers were one of my favorite titles. And in the world of Marvel Silver and Bronze Age and the 80s, Ultron was Hank Pym’s cross to bear. I realize that many of you may be saying “C’mon, you’re being silly. It was a great story!”, and you’d be absolutely right. I freely admit that the hang up about this is my own, and as stupid as it sounds, it is because these characters were as much my friends growing up as any flesh-and-blood people actually were. And because I actually give a damn, part of me was wondering all the way through “Is it too much?” Ultron was, and is, an extinction-level baddie, who was one of the many bad pennies that The Avengers had to deal with time and again. Because of this, I couldn’t help feeling that putting his creation on to the consciences of Tony Stark and Bruce Banner was a manifestly unfair act in story-telling. Tony is a man whose entire life has been shaped by his self-doubt and failure, a man who is divided between constantly running from his demons, and trying to make up for them. No matter how tormented be may be privately, at least he gets to hide behind the image of success, and a million-dollar smile, even if the music he hears when he closes his eyes is a thundering rendition of “Eminence Front”. Bruce Banner can only dream of that kind of peace. Instead, the best he can hope for is a life of anonymity in the shadows, where he can hide from EVERYONE, especially himself, and the monster that is freed by rage and anger. He lives a life in which he can’t close his eyes, because all he’ll hear are the screams of the hundreds of thousands the beast within has killed or maimed since being freed in an accident of science. This is why I questioned the retcon of the old familiar story. These two have enough on their plate without throwing Ultron into the mix. But that said, “It is done”, and so the cinematic universe continues.

Moving on to the “good”, first and foremost, the team has completed its metamorphosis from a group of unique individuals, into an actual “team”, with even a haunted Bruce Banner willingly freeing The Hulk when the team gets in over their heads with Hydra forces at the beginning of the movie and Hawkeye is injured. The team calls in a “Code Green”, bringing the gamma beast into the fray, and tipping the balance into the team’s favor.

Even so, there is still room for surprises, and we get to see Natasha let her guard down, and admit her attraction to Bruce Banner, which in a fun scene, she herself admits is improbable. We also got to see them all having fun in moments where nothing of consequence was at stake, and it very much felt like we got to enjoy it with them. But the part that hit it out of the park for me was the fact that Hawkeye got his due in this film.

In a world where so many spend so much time and effort attacking symbols for what they want to see in them and spend so little addressing the actual issues, because doing so might offend someone, or laud men in dresses for their “courage” while vilifying those who patiently ask “How is that courageous?”, Hawkeye reminded us what real heroism looks like. I know, I know, he’s a fictional character on a team of super heroes. How can that possibly represent real heroism?

The answer was plain as day in the story. Hawkeye and the Black Widow aren’t like the rest of the team. They aren’t invulnerable. They don’t have super powers, or a special suit to help keep them safe. They can be injured…severely…or even killed. And yet, they suit up. They play their parts on a team as members of a team. They are unafraid to put their lives on the line to save a teammate, or anyone else. When other people are running from danger, they run toward it. And they don’t have to.

When everyone on the team is paralyzed by the visions of their fears, the juxtaposition couldn’t have been more jarring to me. Captain America, in looking to those dreams, had to confront the truth that he fought for something he never got; the right to come home, and enjoy the peace he gave so much for and do it with that special someone. And now, he fights to give others that opportunity. And yet Hawkeye opened a home that only two others knew he had when they needed a safe place, and when the team had to leave, maybe for the last time, in order to settle accounts with Ultron, he left that oasis, a pregnant wife, and two small children, in the hope that whatever sacrifice he made, and whatever price he paid, other people would get that chance to go home, to be surrounded by their loved ones, to live.

His wife didn’t hesitate to support his decision to do so, and she clearly understood that even if he wasn’t super-human, he was still central to the team being a team, and only asked that he made sure that they were worth the sacrifices he was chancing. But the finest moment came when he put himself in harm’s way to save the Scarlet Witch, who he had been fighting only a short time earlier, and gave her the game-winning pep talk when he could no longer ignore that there was still much work to be done if they were to carry the day.

Doesn’t matter what you did, or what you were. If you go out there, you fight, and you fight to kill. Stay in here, you’re good, I’ll send your brother to come find you. But if you step out that door, you are an Avenger.

And then he pulled an arrow from his quiver, kicked open a door, and went back outside.

The men and women who run toward the danger.

They are the heroes.

The ones who will STAND when the odds are against them, because the fight matters.

They are the heroes.

And although Joss Whedon can be the world’s biggest knucklehead when he gets in front of a microphone, he understands how to tell stories that inspire. And for that, I can forgive him.

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***SPOILER ALERT***

For some people, having to relive the worst day of their life, over and over and over again would seem like a private hell.  And Major Bill Cage finds out the hard way that he doesn’t much like it either.

Cage, played by Tom Cruise, is an advertising exec who finds himself in uniform after an alien invasion and a years long conflict with the invaders puts him out of business.  He’s still in sales, as the smiling face of the United States Army, selling enrollment in the United Defense Force, which is trying to reclaim continental Europe from the aliens (call “mimics”).  His job is made a little easier by the UDF’s recent victory over the mimics at Verdun, when he is seconded to the leading general at the UDF headquarters in London, who informs an incredulous Cage that the UDF was about to mount a D-Day like offensive, and that Cage would be hitting the beach with the troops to tell the story.

Cage is a coward, and is not afraid to say so, and attempts to refuse the assignment, unsubtlely implying that he would have no trouble convincing the public after the coming bloodbath that the General should be to blame.  The General, not one to be cowed by a smart-alec yank, has Cage arrested, and tased.  Cage wakes up the next day at the UDF staging area at Heathrow, stripped of rank, and in the care of a master sergeant who has been told that Cage is a deserter.

Cage is reluctantly taken in by J squad, who take an immediate dislike to Cage, and refuse to give him even the basic knowledge of how to operate the battle exo-suit that he will wear in the invasion of the mainland on the next morning.  The invasion is a disaster, and Cage is predictably killed, but in so doing, takes a larger mimic (an Alpha) with him…and he wakes up the previous morning, again in handcuffs, being yelled at by a sergeant before the master sergeant steps in and starts working on his reluctant charge all over again.

EDGE OF TOMORROW

Each time he dies, he gets a little farther, before coming face to face with the hero of the Battle of Verdun, played by Emily Blunt, who seems to understand the unique predicament that he is describing to her.  Working with her, he repeats the two days over and over, until he learns enough to actually be a stone killer, the same as her, and the two embark on a plan to bring an end to the war.

I’ll admit to not being Cruise’s biggest fan, but I enjoyed this movie.  I became completely engrossed in Cage’s predicament, and the way that Blunt’s Sergeant Vrataski brutally trains him to become the selfless (and suicidal) killing machine that they will both have to be to win the ultimate victory, and how they make the ultimate sacrifice to save all of humanity…or do they?

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The Judge

Hank Palmer (Robert Downey Jr.) is a Chicago trial lawyer at the top of his game. Prosecutors hate him, and the guilty who can pay his fees love him, because he helps them go free.  He has money, and the trappings of success, but a cynicism that cannot be disguised.  You realize very early on that he is a damaged person, and I found myself wanting to know why.

As the movie opens, he’s about to do it again, when he answers his cell phone as the Judge comes to the bench and calls the court to order. He asks the Judge for a continuance, as he has just learned that his mother passed away.

As he prepares to go back home, we learn that while he is talented and obviously wealthy, his marriage to the trophy wife with “the ass of a high school volleyball player” is on the rocks because she is sleeping with an old boyfriend, and while he blithely discusses their inevitable divorce, he tells her that he will be getting custody of their daughter.

Home, as it turns out, is Indiana, and as we begin to learn, he is less than welcome there. His father, Joseph Palmer (Robert Duvall) is the local judge, and dispenses justice as only a small town judge can, as we see when Hank visits the court on his arrival in town. Their grief is shared by Hank’s older brother, Glen (Vincent D’Onofrio), and their retarded little brother, Dale (Jeremy Strong). There is no love lost between the Judge and his middle son, yet Judge Palmer manages to muster a modicum of civility when addressing the son who left, and didn’t speak to him for years. Having witnessed the Judge’s performance in the courtroom, however, Hank suspects that his father is drinking. On the evening after the funeral, the Judge leaves after thanking Hank for coming to the funeral, claiming he needs to buy eggs. The Palmer boys, however, go to the local watering hole, and stay to close it down. The next morning, Hank happens to discover that there is significant damage to the front of the Judge’s car, and the local Sheriffs want to question him regarding the death of a man he had sentenced to prison years earlier who had coincidentally been run down on the previous night.

As the story unfolds, so does Hank’s history. Downey is the right person to play the character, not because he does brash and confident well, but because he has such a deft touch playing the brash and confident ace attorney who is brought back to confront a past that he has spent decades running from. His little brother’s film hobby ends up causing him to confront both the good parts of his past, which include happier days when the Palmer boys were still boys, images of fishing with the Judge, and his older brother throwing the winning pitch at the state high school championships, and the car accident which ruined forever his big league dreams because Hank was high while driving. But it is a stray image captured by his little brother’s movie camera which provides the clue to a secret that his father has kept from everyone, and which would exculpate him from the first degree murder charge that his father was making it nearly impossible for Hank to defend against.

It clearly is a trying time for Hank, whether it was hosting his daughter, who was meeting her Grandpa for the first time, running into an old girlfriend, and trying to remain on an even keel when presented with the opportunities that the encounter offered, or dealing with the most difficult client he has ever had, with the weight of his brothers’ expectations being as heavy as can be, along with his own realization that, perhaps for the first time in his career, he actually is feeling the responsibility of having his client’s life in his hands.

Anyone who has lived more than a handful of years can tell you that family can be hard…probably because you don’t get to pick them. I enjoyed this movie because it didn’t sugar coat the difficult events between the members of the family, or how they struggled to remain family in spite of them. D’Onofrio’s older brother seems resigned to a life much different from the one he’d expected. He seems to be at peace with Hank’s role in making him the town’s tire shop owner rather than big league pitcher that he was on track to be, and while he does harbor some resentment when it becomes clear that he is going to have to take in his little brother  soon, he still appears to be duty bound to do so.  In a very revealing scene toward the end, Hank’s ex girlfriend sums up why it is that she still loves him, and in a way, it’s why I could watch the movie, and like him too. The screenplay doesn’t leave him any outs. He has to confront his past, and make peace with it, and along the way, he makes peace with the Judge, too, as an anecdote in an unguarded moment explains all the hopes and dreams he’d had for his middle son, and a gut-wrenching testimony on the witness stand in his own trial explained why he had become so distant from the son he loved at one time. Duvall doesn’t disappoint, as he plays a man of duty and conviction who in the twilight of his career, and the twilight of his life becomes reconciled with his prodigal son, while that son learns that while redemption doesn’t make everything alright, it does free you to move forward without the weight of the past forcing you to run away, or dictating your next action.

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